by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 15: Stranger from the Sea
Finally, I hear the sound I have been waiting for. The door opens and Jarmil comes in. He is alone. I stand to greet him and incline my head in greeting. Manners cost me nothing.
‘Come with me.’ His tone is curt, and I follow as he ushers me out of the room and into a corridor. There are guards there but they let us pass, and I follow Jarmil as he leads me up and up a spiral staircase that finally comes out on a balcony.
I’m out of breath and he seizes my arm and pulls me forward. I stand looking down the sheer face of a mountain to the volcanic landscape below and the sea far away across the plain.
‘We are in the volcano itself?’ I speak before I can help myself. I’m stunned by the grandeur of the view and the height to the plain though, coming from Castle Crag, I should not be startled.
‘Kyran, do you know where this is?’
Some memory stirs, lessons learned long ago, tomes unfurled in the temple, legends of other lands. ‘The Fire Palace? Kingdom of Flame on the Fortunate Isles.’
He smiles wryly. ‘I hadn’t thought you’d be so apt a scholar.’
‘Isn’t it dangerous? The volcano — the heat — can it not destroy you?’
He laughs a little at that. ‘The fire does not burn us. We are as rock: adamantine, and we endure. This is the place where we bring the outcasts. They fall and leave their bones to bleach on the rocks. But you Kyran, if I throw you off this balcony, will you spread wings and fly away?’
I shake my head. ‘My Lord, I should fall to my death. Whatever you may have heard of me, that power is gone.’
‘What makes you think that I will have heard of you?’
There’s no answer to that. I go over and sit on the stone parapet. It would take one push, or I could let go myself. He watches and after a while he comes and sits beside me, and we both stare out over the plain.
‘Tell me of this land, Jarmil. You are king?’
‘We have no king. We are a community of hunters. My sister serves the stones and has reverence among us. She is a priestess and must not be defiled. You understand me. It is death to touch her.’
Defiled, that is a curious word. I don’t say this but I suppose the thought shows in my face.
He places his hands on my shoulders and instinct makes me grasp his wrists. If we fall, we fall together.
‘Kyran, promise me that you will leave her alone. Do not seek her out. Do not call her to you again. Your survival depends on this.
I look at the rocks below. Do I have a choice in this?
I saw the fear in Karishma’s face, and she was a friend to me. Finally, I nod my head, thinking that I’ve no right to bring any further sorrow on her.
Jarmil releases me. ‘You tell me you can’t fly and, even if you could find your way out of the palace of flames, you would perish on the plains. Do I have your word that you will not seek to escape?’
I hesitate. ‘Am I then your captive? You spoke of flogging.’
He passes his hand over his face. ‘I am sorry for that. You will forgive my anger. Karishma has told me how she found you, how you called to her and she helped you. She said you did not mean to hurt her. She has begged for your life. What kind of brother would I be if I did not respect her wish? She is all I have left.’
I pause to consider. ‘I will give you my word that I will not try to escape if, when I ask you, you will let me go freely of my own will. In as far as I can serve you, I will, but not as your slave.’
His eyes widen. ‘How could you serve me?’
I place my hand on the parapet, maybe hewn from the rocks by the gods for how could men build such a sanctuary, and smile at him.
‘That is for you to say, My Lord. I have skills, languages; I can write and heal wounds.’
He throws a dagger to me. I catch it by the haft. My reflexes are better than I thought. ‘Try to hurt me.’
‘My Lord, I have taken a vow against violence.’ Then as he raises his eyebrows, no doubt remembering my dirty tactics in our fight, I say, ‘Since you spared my life.’
He confronts me. ‘Even if I choose to take it now?’ If he comes any closer, I will fall. ‘Defend yourself.’
‘Damn you, Kyran.’ He turns away, turning his back on me. I slip down from the wall and make to hand the knife to him. He shakes his head. He seizes my wrist, forcing the dagger into my hand so I can’t let go and slashes the blade down towards his arm. It is like striking rock. The blade deflects off him, striking a shock up my arm. He releases me, and the knife spins from my hand. I grasp my wrist. It feels like it is broken.
‘You can’t hurt us. We are of the stones, and to the stones we will return. We are not of your world, merely banished here from our own. We allow no one to know of our stronghold. We have no wish to fight a war we couldn’t lose. Now do you see why you can never be released?’
Then, before I can say anything, he goes on. ‘You will be my guest, Kyran and my friend, I hope. Can’t you accept that? It is rare that we have news of the outside world. If you can tell us tales, sing to us, you will be welcome.’
‘Like a bard then, earning his fee?’ My voice is bitter.
‘Kyran, you will have wealth, gold and silver, precious jewels. You will live like a prince. You will have honour and respect. We have many slaves here. They will serve you.’
‘You think you can buy me with jewels and gold?’
His face darkens. ‘I do not seek to buy you, Kyran. Remember what I ask you to give, I can take.’
I turn my back on him. ‘I’m not a bird in a golden cage to sing for you. If you don’t trust me not to betray your secrets, if you will not give me my freedom to leave when I choose, then you had better forge stronger bonds to hold me.’
His voice is very soft. ‘I’m disappointed, Kyran. I offer you a place of honour. Love, even, if you know what that means.’
I think I know what that means all too well. As a prince I took many lovers but I never confused desire and power with love.
I stay looking out at the plain and hear him turn and leave. After a while I grow cold and go back into the corridor. A page is waiting for me. He lights a torch and leads me back down the passageways to my room. I listen to hear if he turns the key on me.
Lights glow in my room, and there is wine and fruit, books, quills and some cakes. There is also a harp left there. I pick it up and run my hands over the strings releasing a low cadence of music. My thoughts are in a tumult. Where else can I go? Do I even want to escape from this land?
Later the lights dim, and I sleep for a while and then later still, as I knew it would, the door slides open on oiled hinges and there is the sound of breathing in the dark.
So far beneath the ground there is no glimmer of light, I can’t see my hand before my face. I hear footsteps and then there is the sound of clothing slipping to the ground. I lie still waiting and then someone slides into my bed with me, laying naked flesh to mine, hair spilling across my bare arms and laying their mouth on mine - a soft warm body and I put my arms around the girl, Karishma and draw her closer.
Jarmil’s warning is fresh in my mind but Karishma is here and I have neither the will nor desire to turn her away. In a murmur I ask her for light. ‘I would look upon you, My Lady,’ and there is a dim glow from the walls that reveals her beauty to me.
She laughs gently then kisses me and twines her limbs around me and I hold her close and later, much later, she kisses me in farewell, slips from my bed and glides away. The door closes like a whisper behind her.
Time passes and I’m caught in a waking dream. Servants attend me by day, bringing meals and paper and ink when I ask for them, and I write this chronicle.
At night, a ghost of flesh and blood visits me and from midnight until dawn. I am hers. There is an intensity and sweetness in our lovemaking and wildness too. She leaves red marks on my shoulders, and my back is scoured with her nails. I’m careful not to mark her, though I smile when she leaves me, her face flushed with pleasure.
I grow lazy and lie abed well into the mornings and read the curious histories they bring me and drink wine. No one seems to care what I do, let alone rebuke me for idleness.
At first I pay no attention to my lassitude, thinking it reaction after all the stress and the rigours of my journey. But there are times when, passionate as our lovemaking is, I find, when she slips from my bed like a shadow, that I am almost too weary to open my eyes.
I lie still like one dead to the world, and the servants have to shout to rouse me. They bring water for my bath, but I dismiss them and bathe alone. It is only on the next day that I notice the marks of her teeth on my throat and arm. Then I grow afraid, for it seems to me that, dazed by pleasure as I was, I remember little or nothing of the night before.
That night when she comes, I am awake and waiting for her and I ask her to kindle a fire. I hold her in my arms and I see that she is shivering. I fetch a blanket from the bed and wrap it around her on the hearth rug and feed her wine and sweetmeats but she is still cold to my touch.
Then she strips my clothes from me and wraps her arms around me and first she kisses me and then she places her lips to my throat. I see how she softens and grows warm to my touch and, even as I move inside her, she maintains her grip on my throat so that when I come and our bodies shift apart, her teeth slip and tear the skin.
I gaze at her, half-drugged with love and the ecstasy she makes me feel though I’m weak and the room sways around me. She brings me wine and wraps the blanket around me, and I sit shivering by the fire. She is warm and vital and smiles at me.
Later she leaves me and I wake in the morning, sprawled on the hearthrug where I’ve fallen from my chair. There is a thin truckle of blood oozing from my arm. I lick it away and crawl like a wounded animal into my bed where I drowse the day away.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts