He stared into the water and hacked at his hair with a knife. He grunted when the blade cut too close to his scalp. The Wild Man plucked leaves and put them into his hand. Eilhu felt the warm sting of the cut on his head as he grimaced.
‘I remember the taste of these.’ he said.
The Wild Man grinned but his eyes were dull with fatigue. There was silver in his fur which caught the glimmering light of the afternoon and glowed like white hot embers.
‘You rub it into your head and they won’t get infected. Makes the blade easier to bear.’
Eilhu sighed and put a leaf to his lips. He closed his eyes and wrinkled his nose at the bitter, dark scent of the leaf. He popped it into his mouth and chewed with a shudder which went deep into the pit of his stomach. Once he had chewed it to a fine paste, he spat into his palm and rubbed it into his scalp.
He finished before dark and rinsed his head then ran his fingers over his scalp and shaved his cheeks and chin. He had not eaten, and the thought made his stomach rumble with hunger.
‘I look like a baby’s ass.’ he said.
The Wild Man chuckled and shook his head.
‘ I have an idea on where you can go.’ he said.
Eilhu stood up, put his hand on his stomach and narrowed his eyes against the last of the light.
‘You’re not coming with me, are you?’ he said.
The Wild Man’s mouth went down at the corners as he shook his head.
‘Your uncle brought something terrible into the world.’ he said.
Eilhu folded his arms and strode towards The Wild Man.
‘You’re abandoning me.’ he said.
The Wild Man leaned forwards and stared into Eilhu’s eyes. The fatigue was there, at war with the determination and all of set into a mind as infinite and expansive as the sky.
‘No. I trust you will follow my instructions but I must gather allies.’ he said.
Eilhu raised his eyebrows and was about to speak when he turned his head.
The Wild Man growled from deep within his throat, alarm flaring in an instant as he reared back and glared around him.
‘North. The caravan which goes to The Black River, get on and find Benevolence. Tell her I remember the taste of sheep’s face and stay with her until I get word to you.’
Eilhu’s heart thumped against his ribs. There were wet growls coming from the woods and the sound of scratching, rapid pattering.
‘I didn’t think it would end this way.’ he said.
The Wild Man lowered his chin and blessed Eilhu with a flicker of a smile before he pushed his chest out and pushed Eilhu behind him.
‘No one does.’ The Wild Man.
Eilhu saw the gleam of something wet in the darkness before he touched The Wild Man’s forearm.
‘I will see you soon, my friend.’ he said.
The Wild Man reached out and pulled a birch from the ground, showering the twilight air with clods of dirt as he clasped it between both hands and swung it before him. Eilhu backed against a tree and searched for a weapon.
It came out of the trees at speed, leaping with a shriek like a boiling child as it reached out for the Wild Man with long, clawed fingers and a mouth open to show its needle teeth. The Wild Man struck the creature with the branches and sent it flying. Eilhu heard the moist splatter of the creature breaking against the trunk of the tree and watched it kick and mewl before falling silent. Another had scaled a tree and leapt between the branches, coming at The Wild Man and screaming its hate for him.
Eilhu found a rock in the dirt and picked it up. It held a good weight and he tossed it into the air before catching it in his palm and bringing his arm back to throw it. He took a deep breath and flicked the stone forwards, putting his entire body behind the action.
The stone caught the creature in the bridge of its nose and sent it falling through the trees.
‘I’ll send word.’ he said.
Eilhu looked for another rock but The Wild Man bellowed as another pair of the creatures leapt towards him.
The dirt offered no solution, so he turned and ran north.
Nothing followed him, good or bad.
He limped into the path of the caravan, carrying goods and travellers from the West on a series of connected platforms, lashed together with rope ladders and led by a pack of horses which were twenty hands at the shoulder, swollen with muscle and breathing thick plumes of air into the night. They had stopped for the night.
Eilhu got directions from a guard and found the platform where Benevolence stayed. He reached for the knocker, a heavy iron thing in the shape of an open hand and slapped it against the door.
The door opened and a pair of clear blue eyes peered out from the darkness.
‘May I help you?’
A woman’s voice, amused but even.
‘He said he remembers the taste of sheep’s face.’ Eilhu said.
She opened the door. Her white blonde hair fell around her shoulders, she had a sharp nose and full lips with golden skin. She wore a woollen robe and her hands were dark with scar tissue across the backs of her hands, across the knuckles. She had the beauty of a winter sunrise, hard and glorious.
‘That’s the most romantic thing a stranger’s said in a long time.’ she said.
Eilhu blinked and staggered against the door as exhaustion overwhelmed him.
‘He sent me to you, Benevolence. I’m running from something terrible.’ he said.
Benevolence glanced to each side before she pulled him into the caravan.