His Mirabelle was dead.
Paul found him pliable, easy to manipulate from one location to another. Eilhu retreated into himself and no one cared to follow him inside. He breathed and moved, but they were reflexes over acts of will. Paul found him in the walled garden, sat beneath the large birch tree, a canopy of flowers sending drifts of petals downwards. The guards stood at the gate, their backs to the garden as Paul limped over and smiled with sympathy at his nephew.
‘Oh my boy, your suffering reaches out to me.’ He said.
Eilhu looked up. He had grown a beard, and Paul stopped, struck by the resemblance to his parents. The resemblance was not in the line of his jaw or the colour of his eyes, but the invisible scars of grief and loss. Paul swallowed down a slick bolus of guilt, willed himself to choke it down and play the regent again. Eilhu stared at him like the north wind blew in his direction, his full lips were pale and cracked and his skin was taut over the bones of his face. Loss was a disease without hope of a cure. Paul separated his involvement, hid it in the cold, dark spaces of his heart where even he feared to look. Eilhu did not speak, instead turning his head as petals landed in his beard and hair, to hide the tears which came.
‘Leave me alone.’ He said.
His voice was a cutting whisper, and Paul gritted his teeth together as he forced himself to kneel before his nephew.
‘I cannot watch you waste away, Eilhu. You’re my nephew, and gods be willing, someday heir to this kingdom.’ He said.
Eilhu shook his head as though roused from a disturbing dream.
‘I don’t want it. Any of it.’ He said.
Paul’s injuries made this act of kindness painful to perform but he reached out and touched his nephew’s face with pale, trembling fingers.
‘No one does, Eilhu.’ He said.
Eilhu tucked his chin into his chest, folded his arms over his face and sobbed. Paul stood up and gasped, damp with sweat and suffused with an ugly, barbed guilt which dragged down his insides.
‘I will leave you to grieve. If you wish to speak of it, you know where to find me.’ He said.
Paul limped away, left Eilhu to his grief. Pretending to sympathy would prove a valuable tactic in gaining his trust. Paul looked at his hands, believed them clean and then signalled to the guards to clear his path back to the castle.
When sleep washed over Eilhu, he accepted its gift without question.
His dreams taunted him, glimpses of her face, bright bursts of her voice which pierced his soul like an arrow punching through his flesh. He would awake gasping and tearful.
Eilhu was in the forest where the branches overhead grew so thick they blocked out the light. It was a damp, cool evening and he stood by the golden pond where his finger and hair had turned to gold. He got to his feet, leaned over and saw the shimmer of his reflection in the pond’s surface, shifting and warping as a breeze caressed everything in its path. The silence was a living thing, pressing upon Eilhu like a restless, damp lover as he looked around him. The years had not touched this place, but he felt apart from it, guided by the raw pull of his loss towards the poison balm of perpetual darkness. He wanted to bring her here, and the denied opportunity punched him low in the stomach.
‘You brought your torment with you.’ The Wild Man said.
Eilhu looked around, hearing the voice but unable to trace the origin.
‘Where are you?’ he said.
Eilhu paced the edge of the pond, searching for him.
‘I can’t be here, but I come to your aid, Eilhu as I always have.’ He said.
Eilhu hissed and clenched his fists.
‘Did you have anything to do with her death? Or her father?’ Eilhu said.
The Wild Man fell silent.
‘Never.’ He said.
Eilhu stopped, his eyes sore and wet from grief, as he wiped his face.
‘How do I escape this? I walked into a perfect cage and there’s no child to steal the key for me.’ Eilhu said.
The breeze caressed his scalp and the heavy scent of blossoms filled his nostrils, tart and sweet on the tongue.
The Wild Man sent him not words, but feelings.
‘A part of you is within me, and you must reach into it. See the action, not the statement and follow it through. I shall meet you there.’ He said.
Eilhu awoke, spat petals from between his lips and sat up. His pain continued, and part of him wondered if it would ever leave him, but he could act. He smiled, a grin which would have given Paul pause, alive as it was with wildness and determination.