Once Upon a Time Eilhu sat in the garden, mute and aching with loss. He had refused the barber’s blade against his cheek and the wound in his thigh throbbed without ceasing. A musk seeped through his pores, leather and warm skin as he would spend hours, still as a statute. His golden hair hung in his face, uncombed and tangled. Paul asked the gardener, Merritt to inform him of Eilhu’s movements but Merritt’s reports were uniform.
Eilhu sat amongst the flowers.
Eilhu sat under a tree, watched the flowers blooming and wiped his eyes when he thought no one was looking.
He did not speak above the words necessary to acknowledge others. Merritt tried to engage in conversation but Eilhu exuded a cold, raw blast of grief, harsh as the north wind which made Merritt flinch and turn away. It reminded him of his own losses.
It was a little before dusk when Merritt came to the garden, to lock the gates for the evening when he found Eilhu asleep, curled at the foot of a birch tree. Petals had fallen into the gold stream of his hair. Merritt stared at him, fighting the chill of melancholy which arose in sympathy with the young man. Despite his silences, Merritt liked Eilhu, he carried none of the airs and graces inherent to nobility but he could not let the man sleep in the garden. He tapped Eilhu on the shoulder and stepped back.
‘Sire, it’s getting dark.’ He said.
Eilhu made a sad noise in the back of his throat.
‘It’s been dark for a while now.’ He said.
He sat up, raked his hair from his face and managed a broken smile.
‘Sorry, I’m not myself these days.’ He said.
Merritt smiled and offered his hand. Eilhu took it, enjoyed the firm, callused grip of Merrit’s hand in his and got up. They stood together and appraised one another. Eilhu recognised the wan light of loss in Merritt’s eyes, and how it reflected his own.
‘Who is?’ Merritt said.
Eilhu turned his head and sighed.
‘I grieve, Merritt, and there is more to come. My parents are dead, and my–‘ he said.
He choked and put his hand over his mouth, closed his eyes as a breath, scorching in its intensity ravaged him from the inside. Merritt went to put an arm around him but stopped, reminded of the disparities in their station. Eilhu ignored the prohibition and brought his lean arms around the elder man’s waist. Merritt held him, fighting his discomfort but possessed of a gratitude to bless the young man with comfort. They drew apart, Merritt asked if Eilhu intended to remain in the garden. Eilhu glanced around him, with eyes welling up with tears.
‘It’s where I feel closest to her.’ He said.
Merritt knew Eilhu had come from somewhere else, the golden hair was a mark of his differences from other men.
‘I will leave you to it.’ He said.
Eilhu thanked him in a dry whisper and Merritt left him.
Grief is the love you never got to spend on another person. Eilhu had a few scraps of memories left to him, and he clung onto them with fervour. He watched Merritt leave and sat back under the tree.
The breeze stirred the branches overhead as he stared up at the evening sky, wondering if she could feel him, wherever she had gone to.
Ernst walked into the council chamber, discomforted by the grandeur of the room. The blood on his blade was wet from a good morning’s hunting. Deer, not men this time. Paul sat in the chair, a goblet of steaming wine held to his mouth and nose.
‘What do we know?’ Paul said.
Ernst cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders.
‘They’ve appointed a regent. No announcements on the funeral, but I doubt you’ll let the boy go, will you?’ he said.
Paul glanced up, the flesh taut to the point of tearing across his thin cheekbones and bruised crescent moons underneath his eyes.
Ernst grunted and shook his head.
‘I’ve always followed you, your highness.’ He said.
Paul gave a rictus grin, pain and amusement following one another, like siblings lost in a deep, dark forest.
‘I’m sensing a but here, Ernst.’ Paul said.
Ernst frowned and folded his hands over one another.
‘You had the sense of a man who knew how the game, but of late, your highness, I worry.’ Ernst said.
Paul swallowed, the Adams apple in his throat bobbing, tendons visible against his pale, thin skin.
‘Worry about what?’ Paul said.
Ernst inhaled through his nose and gritted his teeth.
‘The rules of the game have changed. Without you or I being made aware.’ He said.
Paul chuckled, a grating, wheezing sound which raised the hairs on Ernst’s neck. He asked Ernst to accompany him downstairs.
The tunnel took them into the bowels of the castle. Paul knew the way and negotiated the journey without a light to guide him. Ernst kept pace with him, fighting the crawling urge to retreat towards the light. He did terrible things in darkness, but his soul was sunlight and good earth.
‘Ernst, I should have brought you in sooner. It was not a lack of trust, but you were right.’ Paul said.
He withdrew the key from around his neck and opened the door. Ernst knew the smell of dried blood, but beneath it there was a mineral, cold scent and a drop in temperature which bit into his lungs. Paul gestured for Ernst to follow him.
Ernst, in his peripheral vision saw something coalesce and thicken. He rested his hand on the hilt of his knife and drew back towards the door.
Paul closed it with a brush of his hand and Ernst swallowed, his throat tight with concern.
‘The game has changed. But I hold all the cards.’ Paul said.
Ernst did not have time to draw his dagger before the darkness reached out and grabbed him. He had time to cry out but nothing more, and The Dust was upon him. His cry fed the thick stones of the castle, another voice added to the terrible choir being conducted by Paul’s actions.
The Dust did not grant him death.
It did something far worse.
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