Once upon a time, Eilhu awoke from a thin, restless sleep. Beloved had pointed to a stack of cushions and told him he could sleep there. Her tone was light, but authoritative as she peered through the open door, cautious of more visitors. Her braids fell from her skull like vines as she shook her head and shut the door to the caravan.
‘He sends his troubles as single spies, but they arrive as battalions.’ She said.
Eilhu stooped within the caravan but Beloved negotiated the small space with a graceful ease, aware and cogent as she took a stoppered bottle and offered it to him. He took it and uncorked the bottle. It smelled of liniment and honeycomb, turning his stomach as he shook his head and passed it back. Beloved took a deep draught and swallowed with a deep grunt before she shivered with the bitterness.
‘Breakfast.’ She said.
Eilhu glanced around the caravan, hopeful she would produce a good haunch of meat or a crust of bread as a punch line to the general strangeness of the situation.
‘I’ve drunk my share of breakfasts but it smells potent.’
She smirked and shook her head.
‘It speaks to the second heart within you. We drink it every day.’ She said.
He took the bottle back and poured it into his mouth. It was thick, fermented with the pang of brine underneath the herbs and honey, coating the roof of his mouth as he swallowed it. He bent forward at the waist, struggled not to gag and kept it down. He shuddered before the warmth in his stomach smoothed out, turned the churning affront into a smooth, slow balm which made him glow from within. He stood up, banged the crown of his head against the roof of the caravan and winced. Beloved chuckled and opened the door, letting in the harsh curtain of sunshine as she stepped outside.
Eilhu followed her. The air hung with the matted warmth of worked horses, the smell of campfires and cooking meat but the sun hung high overhead and Eilhu appreciated the clean beauty of the morning as Beloved performed a series of stretches as other travellers and merchants acknowledged her with greetings in a variety of languages. Eilhu took a deep breath and glanced up at the mountains shrouded in mist.
‘We travelled far last night.’ He said.
Beloved kept her back to him as she dropped into a horse stance and sucked in the clear air, raising her chin to the sky and extended her arms to either side.
‘There’s no money in resting out here, Eilhu. The Wild Man has no use for commerce but us humans need a coin kept aside for food and shelter.’ She said.
Eilhu recalled the pale, fanged children who chased him through the woods. They had no use for commerce either. Beloved turned her shoulders and looked at him.
‘He sent you. I will train you and offer safe passage until we reach the harbour, but there are things you must offer.’ She said.
Beloved’s smile fell away.
‘Your truth. If you are to develop, then I must insist on your truth. Much of our training starts from here.’
She tapped her index finger over her breastbone with a controlled expression.
‘My breath?’ Eilhu said.
Eilhu glanced away and made fists of his hands.
‘There’s no point.’ He said.
Beloved laughed and shook her head.
‘Have you seen a heart?’ she said.
Eilhu recalled Paul’s knife, flashing in the afternoon light as it hacked into the Wild Man’s chest, how he had plunged his hands into the wet cavern of his open anatomy and pulled out a thick knot of muscle, dripping with blood. He grimaced and Beloved closed the distance between them and struck him. The blow was too fast to avoid and he staggered back, his sinuses sung with pain as he cried out.
‘What are you doing?’ he said.
She stood and appraised him with care, her hands by her sides.
‘Have you seen a heart?’ she said.
‘Can it break?’ she said.
Eilhu fought the threatened thump of his heart, the urge to retaliate charging through his muscles, compelling him to action.
‘You have faced greater odds than grief, Eilhu. The Wild Man raises no fools and I recognise my kin in you.’ She said.
Eilhu frowned as he rubbed his cheek.
‘And hitting me helps?’ he said.
‘Would she want you to devolve into a mewling worm in her absence?’ she said.
He shook his head as an enormous grief weighed on his insides, like a slab dropped onto him from a great height.
‘ You slapping me changes nothing.’ He said.
She raised an eyebrow and stepped backwards.
‘Unless you try hitting me back?’ she said.
He shifted, uncomfortable with the invitation and appraised her with concern. He sighed and brought his left hand up, jabbing at her with a speed which surprised him.
Her hands clamped on either side of his wrist and her fingertips found channels of agony which blazed down his arm. His head filled up with white agony and he fought the urge to cry out as he collapsed onto his knees. His left arm flopped down as Beloved relinquished her grip and stepped back.
‘Did you grieve in the moment, Eilhu?’ she said.
He grunted no and massaged his arm as he struggled to his feet.
‘No, can’t say I did. You said we were kin, what do you mean?’
‘The Wild Man does not restrict his rescue efforts to princes, Eilhu.’
Eilhu flexed his left hand and put his hands up to defend himself.
‘Then show me what you’ve learned.’ He said.
She smiled and began his training.