Each movement of the black stallion connected Eilhu to the wound in his thigh, a sharp stab of pain which established itself atop the last movement. His nerves were an orchestra, playing a symphony of anguish, conducted by a single well-aimed stab of a sword. His hair laid atop his head, damp and listless as he sagged in his saddle, fighting the urge to drift away into the merciful embrace of unconsciousness.
He called for The Wild Man but the forest absorbed his call in its blanket of silence. There was the wind through the trees, the scratching of life at play but nothing else. Eilhu’s head swam with exhaustion and pain as the three days of trial and the final, terrible chase caught up with him.
Eilhu sagged forwards in his saddle, and unconsciousness claimed him in a terrible consummation.
Inside the blackness, Eilhu’s senses asserted themselves. He could not see, but he could feel and the wound in his thigh blazed like the sun, drawing him towards it with an inexorable gravity.
‘Wild Man, where are you?’ Eilhu said.
NOTHING IS COMING, EILHU.
The voice, paranoia given volume and timbre.
‘He came when I called before. Who are you?’ he said.
IT DOES NOT MATTER, EILHU. YOU AND I ARE AS ONE.
Eilhu fought the first twist of panic and it inflamed his sensitivity towards the wound. His senses registered the pull of the wound as though he had leapt in the air, or climbed a tree and forgotten the trick of landing. Upwards, he flew, ever upwards, into the world of his wound.
His sense of self evaporated and renewed in the same instant. A crude dis corporation which made him nauseous and weak.
‘I cannot die like this, I have too much to do.’ he said.
Laughter then silence ran through his soul.
THIS IS ALL YOU CAN DO.
Eilhu fought for his identity, his flesh with a force of will which would uproot the mightiest oaks from their roots and all of it for nothing.
‘What is it?’ he said.
YOU SUFFER, AS ALL MEN DO.
Eilhu shook his head and tried to pull backwards from his descent.
‘I know my wounds.’ Eilhu said.
THE TEETH OF THE KEY AGAINST YOUR FINGER, I WAS THERE.
He recalled the pinch of the metal against his fingers. It had faded in his memory, but his recollection lent it a renewed power and it punched into him with the force of a hurricane.
THE HUNGER AND FEAR YOU KNEW WHEN THE WILD MAN CAST YOU OUT
It returned, larger and bolder than the pinch of the key, the nights shivering under open skies, nursing a belly cracked in two with hunger and so much fear he wondered if a boy could die from such a thing.
In response, the tip of his finger, forever golden, hummed with a pleasant melody, more felt than seen. His scalp prickled and itched but he could not move to ease the sensation.
YOU KEEP THESE THINGS HIDDEN
‘I know my wounds, who would want to know them?’
The image of Mirabelle floated before him, his heart turned in his chest, wrenching with a speed which took his breath.
YOU LIE TO HER
Eilhu wanted to cry, but he swallowed the urge down.
YOU LIE TO HER
‘She saw my golden hair and it amused her.’ he said.
YOU LIE TO YOURSELF.
Eilhu’s words were inconstant, fragile things. Blunt and toothless beasts outpaced by the speed of events.
He felt fingers tugging at his thoughts, pulling them apart in the way bones cracked open for their marrow. Eilhu recalled the crunch of sparrow bones beneath his teeth, the needle length of bone which had split his gum and turned his saliva pink for days.
‘She is a princess, what could she want from a simple man like me?’ he said.
Eilhu was silent, wrestling with the import of the conversation.
‘I worked in the kitchens, then the gardens.’ he said.
FOR A KING. YOU SCURRIED AROUND HIDING THE THINGS WHICH MAKE YOU STAND OUT.
‘They gave me shelter and work. Nothing more.’ Eilhu said.
YOUR GOLD IS PART OF YOU. SO AM I
Eilhu bristled with frustration. Emotions moved within him, leviathans and monsters which resisted his inward gaze.
‘I was -‘ he said.
The words stuck in his throat, no matter how much he pushed them upwards, like vomiting in reverse.
COME EILHU. YOU MUST TELL ME THE TRUTH IF YOU WISH TO PASS THROUGH ME.
Eilhu stared within himself and forced the truth to the surface of his soul.
‘I was afraid.’ he said.
AFRAID OF WHAT?
He swore beneath his breath.
‘She would see the gold and not the man beneath it.’ he said.
IS IT FAIR OF YOU TO PRESUME IT?
Eilhu shook his head and closed his eyes.
‘No, it is not but all these feelings within me, they were worse than hunger or pain, or fear.’ he said.
LOVE IS TERRIBLE TO THOSE WHO ARE BEFORE OR AFTER IT.
He shuddered and cried out as a violent wave of grief and desire smashed him beneath its fists. The want had been there from the start, the amused prettiness, the delighted play between him and all of it met with a mask and a cap to hide his glory.
FACE YOUR LOVE, IF SHE IS TOO FRAGILE TO BEAR IT, YOU WILL BOTH KNOW.
Eilhu glanced upwards, tears in his eyes, tender and open to the music of the universe.
‘And if she is?’ Eilhu said.
YOU WILL BOTH KNOW.
Eilhu wept with relief. Love held a terrible burden, requited or otherwise. He enjoyed the savage certainty of battle, the lassitude of kitchen work and the taste of ashes for their lack of ambiguity. Love, as he understood it, was to read the skies for changes in the weather or to follow the tracks of prey through shifting sands.
It took courage, persistence and grandeur of spirit. He did not lack such qualities, but the strength he drew from his scars was something he feared would disgust the likes of Mirabelle.
IS IT NOT HER DECISION? A WOMAN IS CHANGE AND SHE NEEDS STRENGTH TO ANCHOR HERSELF UPON.
Eilhu looked up, stared into the darkness and dared it to strike at him.
‘If only I could return to tell her.’ he said.
The darkness shifted, breathed Eilhu into itself and made him welcome.
He felt sunlight upon his face, the breeze ruffled his hair and his stallion snuffled with consternation before he sat upright in the saddle. His thigh blazed with pain but he was alive.
Eilhu called the Wild Man and he came.
‘You’re late.’ Eilhu said.
The Wild Man chuckled until he saw Eilhu’s discomfort but did nothing to address them.
‘No, I arrived when I meant to.’ The WIld Man.
The air was damp, like after a summer rain and The Wild Man helped Eilhu down from the stallion, then removed his armour and dressed him in his humble, gardener’s robes. Eilhu reached for his cap but the Wild Man shook his head and tore it into rags. He dressed the wound in Eilhu’s thigh with the rags, tight enough to allow him to limp without too much pain.
‘You went somewhere, Eilhu, didn’t you?’ he said.
Eilhu nodded and tested his weight on the wounded leg.
‘I hoped you might tell me.’ Eilhu said.
The Wild Man sniffed his fingers, dabbed the tip of his tongue against a fingertip and smiled to himself.
‘We will add it to the list. You took something from the journey, yes?’ he said.
Eilhu smiled and stood up, looked his friend in the eye and both men knew the truth of it.
Some things between men are better dressed in silence. This was one of them, and Eilhu limped back towards the castle. The Wild Man called his name and walked over to them, slipped three golden apples into the pockets of his tunic.
Eilhu laughed and embraced his mentor with his strength.
The bandage held but the long days, the scouring confession and his inward journey took their toll.
He made it to the garden, intending to give the apples to the children but his strength failed him and he collapsed, with the sounds of alarm faint as birds.