Once upon a time, Ernst sat in an inn, drinking an ale of horn. He did not taste a single drop, but the lassitude it inspired kept his feelings inside.
The question he faced was a matter of position.
Paul had been a generous and protective lord, able to play the games of court without forgetting the men who enforced his will. His reputation, made visible by the injuries he endured, leavened the excesses of his brother and when the king and queen succumbed to grief, he stepped into the fold without ceremony. In return, Paul knew he gave a word and action followed, inevitable as the change of seasons. Ernst was the last thing enemies of Paul saw. He sat in the corner of the inn, drinking and scowling at anyone who met his gaze. It was a look borne once, then the other patrons found themselves occupied with food, drink or conversation. He kept the blade on his hip in its sheath, resting the meat of his palm on the hilt as a comforting gesture.
Ernst suffered resentment. Paul had sent him out to deal with a small band of thieves who were picking at supply caravans. He returned with a scar on his left forearm and a broken index finger on his right hand, along with the safety of the supply route.
The news of The Wild Man’s capture had unnerved him.
Pride made him sullen and incommunicative. He had captured The Wild Man, dragged him from his mud bed and put him into a cage.
The key had passed to the Queen.
The ball had rolled into the cage.
Ernst slugged down the ale, spiced and brewed until it stung his gums like salted meat. He drank to wash the feelings down, urinating or sweating them into a sharp, trembling scent.
He had asked Paul how The Wild Man had fallen into his capture, but Paul narrowed his eyes, smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, reassuring him of his station and reputation.
It was a hollow gesture. He served his lord with everything but it was no longer the same for him. Age, he told himself, took the shine off things. He laid there with a bellyful of ale and a woman asleep on his arm, hearing a rough, grinding sound in the air and realising it was his teeth working over one another.
Ernst loved the hunt, but he hated rejection. Ernst contemplated death with more pleasure than the unknown.
He ran his tongue over his lips and raised his empty horn. She poured a foaming portion of brown ale into his horn then moved onto another patron. Ernst reached into his tunic for a gold coin and tossed it in a lilting arc for her to catch without missing a step.
The man sat down next to him. The creak of his worn leathers drew Ernst’s attention.
‘Do I look like I want company?’ Ernst said.
The man chuckled and set a gold coin on the table.
‘Do I look like I want to drink alone?’ he said.
Ernst sighed, too awash with bleak thoughts to refuse the man. He noted the lack of dirt and blood beneath the beds of his nails and how the sour stink of unwashed nights did not feel embedded within the man. He shrugged his shoulders and held his empty horn up for a refill. The maid brought him a refill and a fresh tankard for the other man.
‘So, if you’re to talk, make it quick. Otherwise, drink.’ Ernst said.
The man smiled and raised his flagon to Ernst.
‘A toast to your health.’ He said.
Ernst returned the toast without a sliver of cheer embedded within it.
‘And you.’ He said.
The man grinned and took a deep draught of his ale before settling it on the table.
‘So, you look like someone’s dumped on your day before it began.’ He said.
Ernst scowled and drank from his horn.
‘I don’t share with strangers, no matter how well-meaning.’ He said.
The man extended his hand towards Ernst.
‘Carrey.’ He said.
Ernst took the hand and shook it, measuring the man with a weighted glare before letting go of his hand and picking up his ale.
‘You’re from the West.’ Ernst said.
Carrey smiled and nodded.
‘Yes and looking to get far from the interesting times it’s going through.’ He said.
Ernst grunted and shrugged his shoulders. The drift in conversation had too much in common with his own thoughts.
‘A smart man would move towards them.’ Ernst said.
Carrey shook his head and drank more of the ale.
‘Who said I’m smart?’ he said.
Ernst furrowed his forehead and returned to his ale.
‘I ask myself.’
Carrey heard of the assassination, but passed on rumours Ernst knew. The answers hung before him like fruit from branches, but they eluded his grasp. His world had shifted, and his comfort with the ambiguous had lessened. Ernst was a simple man, used to simple tasks and his focus was immutable. Carrey’s cheer was abrasive to him but a strange comfort passed over them.
‘Kings die like flies.’ Ernst said.
Carrey frowned and finished the last of the ale.
‘Good and bad alike.’ Carrey said.
Ernst spoke about Samuel, his grief and his dissolution at the loss of his son. Carreyblanched and asked for another ale.
‘They died from grief? Is such a thing possible?’ Carrey said.
Ernst nodded but stopped and ran his tongue over his lips.
‘It must be.’ He said.
Carrey got up, wobbling and flushed from the ale and clapped Ernst on the shoulder.
‘Such a thing, for simple men like us to outlive kings. And their sons.’ He said.
Ernst smirked and shook his head.
‘No, not the son. Kidnapped by something in the woods, a fey creature and bound in cold iron.’ Ernst said.
Carrey held his demeanour until he went outside. He clamped his mouth to his face, trembling with shock at the turn of events and walking to the stables, working out what to tell Mirabelle.
Would she go to war for this man? Carrey had taken part in great battles started over lesser insults but he feared their arrival. Age and wisdom had tempered his thirst for blood, but not service and duty.
He stopped as the edge of the blade rested against his throat. The blast of wheat and hop-stained breath warm against his cheek.
‘Now, you can tell me who you are.’ Ernst said.