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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 14: Fire Can Burn

part 2

‘Isn’t it better to dream and eat and be warm?’ The voice is very persuasive. I turn to see a slim figure bearing a jug and a plate.

It’s getting dark outside. I must have slept through the day. Now I know I’m dreaming, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m impatient for the girl to step into the light so I can see her face, the face I traced in the shadows.

She sits down beside me and pours me a cup from the jug. It is wine scented with honey. Then she breaks off a piece of bread and hands it to me.

I tear into it before I say anything. The bread is soft and delicious with the warm fresh smell of the bakery in it.

‘Who are you? Why did you come here? Where am I?’ I trip over my questions, clumsy as any colt, while she shows me a delicate smile.

‘You should know. Did you not call me?’

I know I raved in my fever. ‘I called you?’

‘From the shape of the rock, and so I came.’

I turn my face away from her at that, but she takes my chin in her hand.

‘You are angry. Why?’

‘I’m shipwrecked on this barren isle and likely to die. I’m grateful for your help, but it’s not kind to mock me.’

‘I had no intention to mock you.’ Her voice is low and serious. ‘I came to help you. If you believe nothing else, believe that I am your friend.’

It has been a while since any of my own kind has called me that. ‘I see you know nothing about me.’

‘I know your name, Kyran Shade.’’

‘Then you have the advantage of me.’

She smiles. ‘My name is Karishma.’

‘Then, Lady Karishma, perhaps you will answer my question?’ I give her the title as a courtesy, some lingering instinct of court diplomacy. She wears the simple garb of a servant, but there is much here I don’t understand.

She pauses, perhaps to consider her reply. ‘These are the Isles of Fire that border the eastern kingdom of the heavenly gods. Surely, you know why you came here? My name, as I have told you, is Karishma.’

‘Then whom do you serve, Karishma, and what do you want of me?’

‘I serve no one.’ She is binding clean rags around the gashes on my arms and legs. ‘You are the suppliant here. You called me.’

Her courtesy confuses me. ‘Lady, I thank you for the food and wine and fire. Thank you for tending my hurts. How can I serve you?’

She laughs at that. ‘You summoned me, My Lord.’

‘I summoned, as you put it, a vision glimpsed in a dream, a memory.’

‘Naturally, I chose the guise I thought would please you. Do you not know this lore?’

It seems I know little or nothing. I take her by one slender wrist, fearing she will dissolve like smoke and slip through my hands. Her flesh feels warm to the touch and all in all entrancing. I let go hastily.

‘My ship is lost to me. Have you heard news of any wreck?’

She looks puzzled. ‘I know little beyond this cave. If you wish, I can find out for you. I will return by sundown.’

I don’t want her to go, but she has saved me already. ‘Promise you will come back?’

‘I give you my word as I gave you my name.’

Is this some courtly ritual then? I watch as she leaves. She must have turned to ascend the cliff, for I don’t see her shadow cross the cave. I’m concerned for her, the tide is high and there is only a narrow girdle of sand between the cave and the sea. Still, she is gone. I can only hope that she may return.

I half expect the wine will have vanished with the girl, but it is still there. I refill my cup and drink. This time it is like meadows: the scent of hay and summers. I feel a slow blush as for some moments I allow myself to luxuriate in the images these scents and memories evoke. I must be recovering from my ordeals if I can indulge in fantasies here at the world’s end. There is little other recourse left to me, and the girl — wherever she came from — has the perfection of the kindest dream.

Time passes. I watch the tide recede to expose a rocky shore. No wonder I’m scarred with cuts and grazes, scoured by the coarse sand. I was lucky to make it to the shore without broken bones or worse. Maybe there is a god watching over me, or maybe I have to expiate the curse. Either way, I’m alive. Even if the girl is nothing more than a vision, she has comforted me

When she does not return, I pull myself to my feet and venture, like an old man, out of the cave. My head spins; too much wine on an empty stomach. I make it out onto the foreshore and find a rock to sit on. I wrap my arms around me to keep warm and stare out at the blank horizon. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. A ship maybe; other islands, anything.

For a while I’m content to watch the waves as they curl harmlessly on the strand, their fury spent now.

Eventually the wind changes, growing stronger and blowing spray in my face. The tide has turned. I’m chilled to the bone; I leave the rock and make my way back towards the cave, puzzled by the soft glow of light that spills from it. Then I think, this is a dying vision and I can accept anything and not be amazed.

When I reach the cave, it is transformed. There is a deep fire pit where the carcass of something savoury is roasting, lamps kindled in sconces and furs, blankets and cushions spread to welcome me. I collapse on the blankets, pulling them around me, shaking as I am with cold. The girl, Karishma, glides from the shadows to greet me.

‘You’ve been gone all day.’ This is an ungracious complaint. Quickly I change my tune. ‘My lady, I thought you gone.’ I gesture to the comforts of the cave. ‘You’ve been busy.’

She smiles a little at that and brings a cloak of fur to drape around my shoulders.

Later she brings me broth in a bowl and more of the soft white bread and cheese, crumbly and flaking with a strong flavour, goats’ cheese. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was.

Later, as we sit by the fire, I have to ask again, ‘My Lady, is there any news of my ship?’

She shakes her head at that. ‘I am sorry, Kyran.’

So it seems that time in my life is past. The Winter Ship has sailed on without me. I hope that my act of foolishness at least served to save my friends, if friends I can call them. There is much I don’t understand. Part of me still thinks this illusion can’t be real, that I’m alone, dying, shovelling sand into my mouth thinking I eat, and the cold is a slow death.

I have to know and I shove my hand into the flames. Then I scream, blisters begin to form on my skin and the girl plunges my hand into a bucket of seawater. She takes oil from a bowl and smears it on my hand. Then she tears strips from her sleeves for bandages.

All the time I’m mumbling apologies, incoherent with shock. The pain is real. I felt the flames scorch my flesh. The girl turns to me and says, ‘Are you always this stupid?’

There is no answer to that. ‘Surely even a child in your world learns that fire can burn?’

‘I’m sorry!’

My mind is racing: In your world? There is a flush on her face — anger — fear of saying too much. I grab her wrist hard, twisting it, ashamed of myself but I have to know. ‘What is this place? Who are you? What do you want from me?’

With that she wrenches herself free. The fire is extinguished and all the lights go out. I feel something like a wind as she rushes past me and out into the night.

‘I’m sorry!’ My cry trails away into silence. I am left alone in a cold and darkened cave, cursing myself. The fur cloak is gone. I call her name, but she does not answer.

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Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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