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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 14: Fire Can Burn

part 3

It is a long night alone in the cave.

When the first pale light rises over the sea, I see the remains of the fire pit, broken fragments of the clay cup and the strips of her sleeve are still around my hand.

Some of this was real then, and I wander out on the shore calling her name: Karishma. I stand on the shore for a while, but the peace of the previous day has shattered. I resolve to explore the island. I can’t skulk in the cave forever.

Climbing the path leading up the side of the cliff, I force myself to think. If there are goats on this island, that means milk and meat and wool. There must be something for them to graze on, even if this is a volcanic isle. Maybe the volcano is dormant. Maybe the isle was inhabited once. There could be shelters; there might even be people like the girl.

I know she will have small sympathy for me now, but there may be others of her people who will take me in? On a barren rock where there is barely enough food to go round? Even if my lot is to be slavery or death, I would rather go looking for it than have the girl’s vengeful father and brothers hunt me down. I remember my idle fantasies. I should know better than to use people. I should learn humility, too.

The path is a struggle but it proves that these isles are inhabited.

My clothes are in rags but, against all odds, I still have the flint knife and arrow heads bound in a leather bag around my neck. I can hunt; maybe make a sling and bring down small game.

There is some comfort in the thought that I might survive. Landing on this bleak island at the world’s end may be what the gods had in mind for me all along. They say they veil their faces from mortal man so we may not guess their purposes. Perhaps here I can live out my life — short or long as it may be — and expiate the curse. At least I can bring no harm to others who cross my path.

No harm? My hand is throbbing. When the blisters burst, it may get infected. I have herb lore enough, but this barren isle will be short of supplies. I’m also ashamed of the way I treated the girl. I needn’t have been so rough.

Surely she will be angry and, if she tells her story, her people will come looking for me. So be it: I will seek shelter on the crags, try to find some vantage point to survey this isle so I can see what I might have to face.

Reaching the top of the cliff, I look out on a deserted landscape. I search for the telltale sign of smoke, any sign of cultivation or a settlement, but there is none. In the distance, the plain rises to a range of mountains.

My heart sinks at the thought of crossing this barren plain and scaling the mountains to gain some view of the land. How can I live in this? There’s no cover. I can only hope that my sea-stained clothes will blend in with the grey landscape and, if any are watching, they might miss one solitary figure.

I remember the days when, with a lift of my wings, I could coast the thermals, see this isle at a glance and the seas that surround it, spy my prey from a mile above the plain and claim it. I look up at the crags ahead and shiver. Are they watching me? Guilt casts a long shadow, but no one here will know my story.

The girl knew who you were.

Best not to dwell on that. There must be water somewhere in this land. Where did the girl come from? The sun is hot. I rip the tattered sleeve from my tunic and bind it around my head, and then I set out on foot across the plain. My feet are torn and bleeding from the stones. There is a haze on the land between me and the mountains. It makes it very hard to see where I am going, to tell how far away they truly are.

I trek on, pausing every now and again to look up at the empty skies. I tread carefully, thinking of snakes and lizards, but the landscape is deserted. As I tire, my thirst increases. I could be the last thing left alive on this island. Maybe the girl was only an illusion brought on by fever and delirium after all.

The sun is high overhead, but there’s no shelter; I must go on. Hours pass. The sun is setting behind the mountains when finally I come to a tumbledown ruin. The buildings are so broken, their stones so scattered, that at first I see them only as rocks. Either way, they provide shade and respite from the sun. I check for snakes and insects then collapse in the shade.

Night gathers and I would light a fire to defend myself. Now if I could call water and food out of the stones... The thought is idle but I find myself running my hand over the stones and calling out a name. Karishma!

My voice echoes in the gully, the rocks throw it back and there is a hint of laughter in it. So I think but I’m light-headed now. I call the name again more quietly but the echoes magnify it. Then the rocks are alive around me. Hunters surround me, clad in furs, with flint-tipped spears that they level at me.

‘Who calls the stone people?’

I take a deep breath. There is a blade grazing my throat, and the hunter eases the pressure just enough to let me speak. I know that he’s also shortened his arm for the thrust and if I make the slightest slip, I’m dead.There is something in the hunter’s look that makes me think my fate is sealed.

‘I am Kyran.’

The blade is back at my throat. There’s a hurried conversation. I don’t catch the words. They’re using the common language, but their speech is different. Then their leader, dark-haired, wearing a silver torc with a pale gemstone that glimmers in the half-light, approaches. He gestures to the hunter to lower his spear, and two of them grab me by the arms. They lean me against the wall of one of the ruined dwellings.

The hunters form a line facing me, spears raised. It’s a clean form of execution, not unbefitting a prince. I place my hands on the wall and make myself stand as straight as I can. Then with their eyes on me, I untie the bag of flints. One of the hunters snatches it from my hand, then throws it back at my feet.

The death offering is sacred among my people. ‘For the gods,’ I say and hold out my arms. I meant to keep my eyes open but I find I’ve closed them despite myself. I have to look my death in the face. This is the tradition of our people or I will be blind in death.

Is this all sport to them? A spear flashes towards me, blade glinting in the last of the sun, and pins my ragged sleeve to the wall. Another catches the cloth at my side. Such skill they have not to draw blood yet.

The young leader raises his spear, and I know this time the blade will strike true. There is determination and courage in his face. He paces toward me, and I ready myself. Then he stabs the spear into the ground, draws a knife from his belt and offers the haft to me.

It seems he’s giving me a chance to defend myself. He draws another knife from his belt and stands back, and I slash through the fabric that pins me to the wall and advance to meet him, knife held low. I’m overmatched, and know it.

Then something changes in my head. I see myself ragged and bleeding and, suddenly, I’m tired of waiting to die. I was always quick with a knife. With nothing left to lose, I throw myself towards him, blade snaking up, going for a low blow, a gash across the stomach. It’s a street-fighting tactic, but he is taller and stronger and a lot faster than I. He blocks my lunge easily, slashing me across the hand. I fall back as he stalks me and then I make another dash, going this time for his throat. Again he is much faster and throws me back against the wall. I’m winded, and he twists the knife from my hand and holds it against my throat.

So the fight is over, and I’m back where I started. This time I lean into the blade and smile.

Then I spit in his face.

He pulls back his arm, and I dive under the knife and roll, snatching for my flints and hurl them into his face. At that range I can’t miss. He turns on me, his face running with blood, grabs me and wrestles me to the ground. Still I keep fighting, gouging for his eyes but he overpowers me and holds me in a wrestler’s grip.

‘Tell me again who you are.’

‘My name is Kyran.’

I see his eyes widen and then, deliberately, he lets his knife fall and turns his back on me while his followers close in, as I think for the kill, but instead one of them plunges a dart into my arm and everything goes dark.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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