Once upon a time, Eilhu enjoyed the warm give of the soil beneath his trowel. The incense of teeming, fertile life revived him with each breath as he dug up weeds by the root, tossing them over his shoulder as he worked in the garden. The rhythm of the work lulled him away from the present, to a cool, green place within his mind.
His education came to him in daydream and abstract memory. Time had been inconstant in the forest, but the lessons stayed like meat between his teeth, lodged deep inside to emerge in times of utility.
They sat on a bank of moss, the stream babbling and bubbling between the stones and roots at their feet. The Wild Man chewed on a root he had plucked from the ground.
‘What is your name?’ Eilhu said.
The Wild Man grinned, small nubs of green, masticated matter between his large white teeth.
‘Some know me as Iron Hans, some as The Wild Man or Forest’s Shadow. A name is a dangerous thing.’ he said.
Eilhu frowned, shaking his head.
‘It tells people who you are. Mother says a name is a gift.’ Eilhu said.
The mention of her stabbed pain through him. The Wild Man watched him hide his expression with a placid acceptance.
‘It is and not given without care.’ he said.
Eilhu shuddered and wrapped his arms around his chest, finding comfort and anguish in the memory and his separation.
‘You may call me Iron Hans, Eilhu.’
He smiled. Eilhu shuddered again. Hans offered a root to him, told him it would help him sleep and Eilhu took it. The first bite was acrid, earth and bark in his mouth before a cloud of sweetness erupted upon his tongue and he chewed the root to pulp.
When sleep came, Eilhu welcomed it. His dreams bore the mark of his recent adventures, and within the kingdom of his child’s mind, there were lessons being taught.
A shimmering net of lights dragged from the ground, shown as an example of how plants spoke through the soil to each other.
The language of birds, its distinct variations and meanings. In his dreams, Eilhu learned secrets from sparrows and poetry from eagles which evaded his lips during waking hours.
He spoke to ghosts, men and women who had starved or died from thirst, a single mistaken berry hastening a painful and embarrassing ending.
None of this was magic. In waking hours, Hans explained the difference.
‘What you learn here is knowledge and experience. A library of the senses, unspoken wisdom made pragmatic by need and circumstance.’
Hans taught him to make nets from lengths of bark and ivy, to spear a fish and prepare it for eating, and to make small traps for rodents and animals.
‘Why do I need these things? I am a prince.’ Eilhu said.
Hans shook his head.
‘A title is not a definition. Here, we all wear crowns and swear fealty to one another. Here, all men and animals are king and kin to each other.’ Hans said.
Eilhu blushed and turned from Hans, kicked the water and huffed loud enough to make a squirrel stop and stare from an overlapping branch of willow.
‘I am not a prince any more though, am I?’ Eilhu said.
Hans laughed and slapped him between the shoulder blades.
‘Yes you are, Eilhu, but your coronation will be hard and of great duration.’ he said.
Eilhu raised his eyebrows before his net tugged with unexpected bounty and he pulled it free of the water, a silvered and muscular trout flapping within. His laughter rose in the air, and it made them both drunk with the sound of it.
Such memories taunted him after he failed to guard the springs from his own curious nature when his belly cracked with hunger and his clothes were stiff with sweat and dirt.
‘I am a prince amongst men.’ he said.
His echo mocked him and he huddled against the trees for shelter from the storms which met him at each mile of his random journey. Education gained two faces, one carved into a mask of implacable cruelty and another of vague, delighted dream. An ongoing trade of roles and emotions marked his days in exile. His limbs lengthened despite the sparse diet and sleep came where his need made him fall to the ground. Exile proved a harsh but informed teacher. Each day, it offered him a simple test:
Do not die.
When he twisted his ankle and made a crutch to support his weight, he remembered the terms of his test and gritted his teeth against the terrible flare of pain.
A still pool of water gave him a sour belly, turning the contents of his stomach into burning brown drool and he lived in a cloud of his own foulness until one morning he awoke and felt able to move again.
He threw pebbles at wolves and bears, wrenched a rabbit’s spine with his bare hands and skinned it until his fingers were slick with blood and sweat.
Much like the animals he called kin, he hid himself from fellow travellers, waiting until they passed him by. A child alone was a terrible gift to some, and Eilhu despite his hardiness, knew he could not best an ill-intended opponent in single combat. Deprivation became the melody of his grief and he learned how a man drags his guts behind him with every step.
The self imposed ending came when he saw the castle on the horizon, and his empty stomach whined with need. His legs shook, the muscles cramped and hot, burning with each step and his thoughts were dying, listless hopes which drove him onwards.
The kitchen was hard work and he ate ashes, drank the salt soup of his own perspiration but he did not face death with the same frequency as before. Eilhu knew no comfort but his own survival.
Dismissal from the kitchens stung, but he had developed a capacity for pain beyond his expectations. Gordon had shown him kindness in arranging his employment with the garden without knowing Eilhu’s aptitude for it.
Eilhu worked with gratitude and relief, distracted from everything but the soft push of soil and the spiked kiss of root and stem. He saw the moment before him, the work and the purpose of it, invisible to all else. The pain became companion and counsel as he worked the soil without distraction or disturbance.
She walked through the gate, her auburn hair falling away from her face in loose, round curls which bounced with each step. Dimpled cheeks and cerulean eyes, a smile which came with the smooth grace of her tears and an impish predilection for mischief and adventure. She stood and watched him before stepping and calling him.