The Wild Man walked through the deepest parts of the forest, far from the light of day or the scrutiny of determined men. Eilhu sat on his shoulders, staring at the twisted branches and clinging for dear life as they moved far from the kingdom he had known all his life.
‘Where are we going?’ he said.
The Wild Man stopped and reached up to clasp the child in his hands and brought him so their eyes met.
‘I have taken you with me as you asked. Why does it matter where I take you?’ he said
Eilhu looked away to hide the shame of his tears and the Wild Man set him down on the earth.
‘They would have beaten me but I miss them.’ Eilhu said.
The air tasted of moist, teeming leaf and turned, rich soil to Eilhu. The moss banks beneath him were thick like the fur from a hunting trophy and he sat down, lowered his chin and folded his hands in his lap.
‘You will not see them again.’ The Wild Man said.
Eilhu gazed upwards and The Wild Man tilted his head to one side, smiled with all his large, white teeth and stroked his beard in amused contemplation. Never seeing his parents again was too large an idea for his child’s heart and mind, but the Wild Man sat with him and the idea.
‘I have compassion for you. I have much to teach and possess treasures beyond silver and gold.’ he said.
His hand rested upon Eilhu’s head, the palm as large as the moon and he ruffled the boy’s hair.
‘We will start tomorrow.’ he said.
He set the boy on his shoulders again and carried on his journey.
These parts of the forest had no claim upon them. Creatures and plants of all colours and creeds welcomed his presence. A large pair of amber eyes peered from the leaves at Eilhu then disappeared with a thin hiss.
Eilhu’s hands tightened on The Wild Man’s fur which made him laugh and reach up to pat him on the head for reassurance.
They slept on moss beneath a canopy of branches which blotted out the starlight. Eilhu curled up next to the Wild Man, lulled into sleep by the beautiful, perfect silence of the forest.
The next morning, Eilhu ate a salad of bitter leaves with a haunch of good venison cooked over a spit, all gathered and prepared by The Wild Man without waking him.
‘There is much nourishment in the low and dark places. Your first lesson.’ he said.
Eilhu nodded as his stomach roared with hunger. He chewed and swallowed with glee. After their bellies were full, The Wild Man led him to his first lesson.
A spring sat in the earth, shimmering and tranquil, wreathed in bright flowers as insects danced over the surface. The Wild Man bade Eilhu kneel before it.
‘We care for the sacred places in the earth here. Such a task will teach you things of use, Eilhu.’
Eilhu stared upwards, frowning with confusion.
‘What must I do?’ he said.
The Wild Man gestured towards the water.
‘You must ensure nothing contaminates this water. Its purity is the source of great magic, and to befoul it is a terrible thing.’
He would return each evening to check and strode into the shadows without a trace of his presence beyond his instructions.
The boy sat down at the edge of the spring. A golden fish and sometimes a golden snake appeared from within, and he took care that nothing fell into it. As he was thus sitting there, his finger hurt him, pinched by the iron key and he dipped it into the water. He pulled it out again, but it was gold. However hard he tried to wipe the gold off again, it was to no avail.
In the evening The Wild Man returned and looked at Eilhu.
‘What has happened to the spring?’
Eilhu held his finger behind his back.
‘Nothing, nothing,’ he said.
The Wild Man reached and pointed to Eilhu’s hand without a hint of surprise or recrimination.
‘You have dipped your finger into the water. This time I will let it go, but be careful that you do not again let anything else fall in.’
the next morning the boy was sitting by the spring and keeping watch. His finger hurt him again, and he rubbed it across his head. A hair fell down into the spring. He pulled it out, but it shimmered, covered with gold.
Iron Hans came and already knew what had happened.
‘You have let a hair fall into the spring,’ he said.
‘I will overlook this once more, but if it happens a third time, then the spring will corrupt, and you can no longer stay with me.’
On the third day the boy sat by the spring and did not move his finger, however much it hurt him. But time passed slow for him, and he looked at his reflection in the water. While doing this he bent down lower and lower, wanting to look straight into his eyes, when his long hair fell from his shoulders down into the water. He straightened himself up, but all the hair on his head was golden, and glistened like the sun. He took his handkerchief and tied it around his head.
When the man came, he knew everything, and pointed towards Eilhu.
‘Untie the handkerchief.’
The golden hair streamed forth, and no excuse that the boy could offer was of use.
“You have failed the test, and you can stay here no longer. Go out into the world. There you will learn what poverty is. But because you are not bad at heart, and because I mean well by you, I will grant you one thing: If you are ever in need, go into the woods and cry out, ‘Wild Man,’ and then I will come and help you. My power is great, greater than you think, and I have more than enough gold and silver.”
Eilhu got to his feet, weeping until his insides burned like hot coals and walked away, tying the handkerchief around his head. He looked over his shoulder, saw the Wild Man stood there, eyes shining with compassion but unmoving and unwilling to call him back.
He walked through the forest, slept beneath trees and drank from rivers and springs, but even those meals grew sparse until he found himself in open ground, stinking and frightened, looking at the massive castle on the hill.
Eilhu stood before the castle gates, wiped the dirt from the back of his neck and ran his tongue over his teeth. The battlements reached high into the sky and he stared upwards. Desperation and hunger made him brave beyond his years, and despite his exile, the lessons of the Wild Man sat in his bones.
‘Why did you not teach me a bloody trade?’ he said.
The wind brought the gentle mocking laughter of The Wild Man to him, imagined over being heard and he scowled with frustration.
‘Why didn’t your father?’ The Wild Man said.
Eilhu was a prince once upon a time, but now he was a ragged, dirty beggar with golden hair he hid beneath a battered hat and a fingertip wrapped in a soiled length of rag. The answer did not come in word but memory, a strained indifference to the needs of a son in favour of spectacle and selfishness. A good king, but not a good father.
He knocked on the door and waited for an answer.