Previous episodes are here.
Once upon a time, the kingdom of Hearst celebrated the birth of Prince Roderick by declaring a war of expansion upon its neighbours. King Doran set out to expand his territory as a christening gift for his son.
Eilhu avoided Mirabelle but caught the whispers of war on the wind. He worked the garden when he knew she was away from her chamber and went out into the woods when she was there. His heart learned to shudder in the shadow of her absence. He grew tall and broad through the garden work, and he could sit with the older men, feel their blessing over their disdain.
Three days after the rumours of war became fact, Mirabelle stood with her father, Peter who addressed the court from his throne. He was a stout man, kind and generous in manner and he trembled with emotion as he spoke.
‘Doran has gathered a great host who gather on the borders of my kingdom.’ he said.
Eilhu stood at the back of the crowd. Peter’s voice carried, and he stood in shadow but his eyes returned to the princess. He tugged the brim of his cap lower and raised his chin.
‘My army is gathering. I call upon each able man to fight in its defence.’ he said.
The crowd fell into a deep, shocked silence. Eilhu’s heart pounded against his ribs. He stepped forward, raised his hand and shouted.
‘I’ll fight for you if you give me a horse.’ he said.
A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd.
The king frowned and turned to a lieutenant, whispered to him.
Eilhu’s gesture prompted volunteers. They would raise an army but it would not be enough.
He stood at the stables for three days. It was dusk on the third day before the stable hand went inside. His armour was whatever he could find, a motley of materials in different sizes but he stood tall and true.
The horse was a chestnut stallion, it limped forwards and regarded Eilhu with sad, hopeful eyes. Eilhu fitted a saddle and rode it out with pride. The stable hand laughed, but it faded with each hitching step away.
At the edge of the woods, he called The Wild Man.
The Wild Man walked out of the woods.
‘What do you need?’ he said.
Eilhu gestured to the horse.
‘They gave me this to ride to war upon.’
The Wild Man laughed, a rich ringing sound which shook the branches above his head. He turned and walked back into the woods. Eilhu felt the rumble of fast approach and watched the trees shaking as something moved towards him and the lame horse.
It snorted, lowering its thick head as it emerged from the trees. A violent light glowed in its eyes, and the black skin gleamed like black water. The Wild Man had a suit of black armour slung over his broad, furred shoulder. Eilhu took it, shocked by how light it was.
The Wild Man tapped it with a finger.
‘Crafted by dwarves, it is light but hard.’
He handed Eilhu a sword, its edges gleaming as Eilhu took the hilt. Its balance was perfect, and he swung the blade in smooth arcs before he stuck it into the ground and changed.
The rumbling intensified as men clad in iron marched in perfect columns, swords flashing in the twilight.
The horse came to Eilhu and lowered itself. He stroked the lame horse and thanked it before taking the saddle off and mounting the war horse. His heels struck the horse and he galloped to war, the columns of men moving to match his pace.
Doran had forced Peter’s army to the brink of defeat. Broken bodies laid in mud churned into frozen brown waves of earth, small groups of Peter’s men struck at the bristling tide of soldiers. Eilhu rose in his saddle, drew his sword and yelled for the men to attack.
The Wild Man’s armies charged as one. Blades rose and fell in perfect rhythm as Doran’s armies broke apart. Eilhu charged, swinging his sword against anyone in range as Peter gazed upon the turn of events with disbelief. Eilhu struck a soldier across the bridge of his nose with his sword, saw the spray of blood and bone chips as he rode past. Peter yelled for his men to attack, seized with a savage joy as they ran towards the retreating enemy.
Eilhu circled the field of battle and heard the horns of Peter’s army declaring victory. His body throbbed with exultation, perspiration dripping down the inside of his helmet as he saw Doran’s soldiers running. He grabbed the reins and took the war horse back to the woods.
The Wild Man petted the lame horse with a delighted focus. He smiled at Eilhu.
‘What do you need?’ he said.
Eilhu told him.
Mirabelle ran to meet her father. His face, streaked with blood and dirt and eyes wide with disbelief but he sat up in his saddle.
‘Father, congratulations on your victory.’ she said.
She wept with relief as he got down from his horse. He shook his head.
‘The victory was not mine.’ he said.
She clutched at her father as he kissed her on the cheek.
‘Another army came to our aid, led by a strange knight. They drove Doran’s armies away and then -‘ Peter sighed and shook his head.
‘What?’ Mirabelle said.
Her father lowered his chin.
‘I did not see him or his army.’ he said.
Intuition flared in Mirabelle’s heart, a candle lit against the darkness of mystery. She kissed her father again and ran to the garden.
The head gardener stood, grafting a bud of apricot to an apple tree when she asked him where his boy was. He bowed and fought the urge to laugh.
‘He’s just come back on that lame horse of his. Wearing his patchwork armour.The lads have been taking the…I mean, they’ve mocked him for cowardice, your highness.’ he said.
Mirabelle’s cheeks burned with heat.
‘And what did he say?’ she said.
He scratched his chin and chuckled.
‘He looked each of them in the eye and said he helped turn the tide. Boy’s got a way about him, I’ll give him that.’ he said.
Mirabelle thanked him. She went to the stables, heard the laughter ringing out as she approached. The sight of her killed it and when she asked to see the lame horse, the boys exchanged nervous glances before obeying her.
She stroked along its neck and sent the boys away. She put her mouth to the horse’s ear and whispered.
‘Where did he take you?’ she said.
Within her thoughts, she wondered who she was asking.