Paul watched his nephew sleep. The scarlet band of flesh around his throat took from the tranquil disappointment of the moment but it gave him time to read the young man’s face, to see what time and circumstance had done to him. He had the man brought to his chamber, a small room bare of everything but books and a bed, a small table set by the side. For years, he had escaped his injuries by journeying inward and they required no material possessions.
Paul hoped it had been worth it.
There were no days without pain but he sought to give them meaning. A kingdom demanded every ounce of his intelligence and stamina, the latter being less available to him as the years had worn him away.
He told himself he was a good man.
Eilhu stirred, a hand going to his throat as he rolled onto his side. Peter narrowed his eyes against the glare of light on Eilhu’s hair.
‘I apologise, Eilhu.’ he said.
Eilhu swallowed, grimacing against the harsh rake of pain which followed. His throat throbbed with a dark, red pressure which slipped into the pit of his stomach.
‘Where am I?’ he said.
Paul bit back a sigh of disappointment. The raw material of youth forged on a different anvil but he trusted to his insights, despite the roads it had taken him down.
‘You’re home.’ he said.
Eilhu sat up, peered through his hair at the man. He had a shaved head, a dusting of white beard which did not hide the faded scar which ran down his left cheek, joined by another along the line of his jaw. He was spare, all excess flesh burned away by discipline and time. He wore a black, padded jerkin and leggings. His eyes glittered with a chill determination.
‘Stop saying my name like that.’ Eilhu said.
Paul smiled and pressed his lips together.
‘I never thought I would have the chance.’
Eilhu brushed his hair away from his face and swallowed. Peter asked him if he would like water and he nodded towards the flagon on the table.
Eilhu poured water into the small cup and drank, wincing with relief before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Peter smiled as Eilhu set the cup down.
‘How did you come by the hair?’ he said.
Without a cap to tuck it into, Eilhu brushed his hair from his face and fixed Paul with a questioning look.
‘I disobeyed a request.’ Eilhu said.
Paul sniggered and covered his mouth with a pale, emaciated hand.
‘What a childhood you’ve had.’ he said.
Eilhu grimaced and looked away. Paul noted the fleeting discomfort on his nephew’s face and stored it for later use.
‘I learned a great deal.’ Eilhu said.
Paul sighed and sat back in his chair.
‘We all have.’ Paul said.
His voice did not match Eilhu’s memories. Paul had been, despite his injuries and intellect, a doting uncle with an amused burr which lent itself well when explaining matters of court to his brother. Now he looked like a martyr, thin and pale with only his eyes speaking to the passion and intellect which burned within him.
‘ I went with him.’ Eilhu said.
Paul got to his feet, an act of great effort which made him tremble and sweat until he was upright.
‘You never thought to come home?’ Paul said.
Eilhu could not meet his gaze.
Paul coughed into a fist and smiled at him.
‘You should rest. We have much to talk about.’ he said.
Eilhu swung his feet off the side of the bed but Paul shook his head.
‘Eilhu, I will not keep you from leaving but indulge me. I’m all the family you have left.’ he said.
He agreed to remain in his uncle’s chambers and laid back against the bed, closing his eyes until the door shut. He got up and went over to the chamber window, looking out on the courtyard where it all began. An unease coiled around his bones, leaching his strength as he recalled the path of the golden ball, the bright jolt of fear when it rolled between the bars of The Wild Man’s cage and his terror at being discovered.
It had been his home. The simple thought had the weight of desolation behind it, enough to make him shut his eyes and hang his head. He rubbed the stones with his palms and wondered if she missed him.
He was a king in waiting here, and there?
Eilhu did not know.
Paul walked from the chamber, down into the bowels of the castle altered to his specifications. He had fitted cold iron to each door frame and set lengths of it into the walls, poured alongside the concrete.
The air was cooler here. He reached the door, unlocking it with a key he kept on a length of chain beneath his tunic and walked inside. The light from outside illuminated the chalk symbols on the floor and rested on the congealed puddle of blood which sat in the middle of the room. He closed the door behind him, lost to the darkness.
He felt them as a nervous prickling at the nape of his neck, whispers which reverberated around the chamber but never made themselves legible. He moved onto his knees, shuddering as his injuries resisted his will but with effort, he presented himself to the darkness and closed his eyes.
The whispers grew, changing into the scratching of nails down chalk. Paul’s tongue grew dry and fat in his mouth and his head ached with degradation.
‘Is it him?’
Paul nodded. A horrible pressure grew as they searched through his thoughts and memories, a hot, oiled invasion which left him violated and sluggish each time.
‘Does he know you have his mentor?’
Paul shook his head and felt a thick, damp clot splash against his upper lip. He let it trickle over his lips and tasted copper.
They chuckled and it took every ounce of will not to vomit down himself with terror and disgust.
‘I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain.’ Paul said.
His voice came out as a choked whisper but they heard him.
‘Now we can begin.’