|Tentacles, by nitro ouzzz|
Cian awoke from nightmares of drowning to the sweetness of air on his lips and cheek. A welcome warmth and the smell of burning wood let him know he had a fire to thank. He began to whisper the air to moisture on his parched lips when he remembered he should be dead, and his eyes flew open.
He was under a roof, within stone walls. A brazier sat nearby. The man seated beside his bed and illuminated by those coals had black hair and the remote face of a king such as Cian had served and fled. He might even have been handsome once. Now, however, the most striking thing about his appearance was a pattern of ridged, circular scars upon his forehead and left cheek, continuing in a puckered line to his neck. A beard somewhat concealed those on his jaw. The scars, while startling, had been with him long enough to have paled. One scar over the left eye had healed badly and sealed the lid partly closed, but the orb within, as black and penetrating as its twin, peered at him alertly.
“There you are,” the man said. “Well worth the effort.” He had a rough voice, perhaps from disuse.
“Where am I?” Cian prompted. Simple questions were the best to start.
Well-shaped lips pulled tight. “You’re on my island; you’re in my house, in fact. The real question is, who are you? No one comes to this island unsummoned, because no one not of this island knows it exists or has the skill to find out that it exists. Yet here you are.”
“My name is Cian. My boat was swept into these waters.”
“The winds and currents usually carry boats away.”
To that Cian said nothing. From what he knew of the island, it was true. He had commanded a change in the wind to get here.
His host turned to a table and lifted a bowl, stirring its contents with a bone spoon. “Soup? I eat plainly, but will share what I have for a day or two.”
Though his body hurt all over, the rich aroma wafting toward him persuaded him to sit. “Many thanks,” he said, accepting the bowl. He had been stripped of his garments—no surprise there, as they’d been soaked and ruined—but had been given a blanket. It slid to his hips and he noticed that the scarred man perused his torso for a long moment before looking back to his face. “I don’t suppose you get many guests.”
“No, not many at all. I prefer people stay away.”
“Why? Aren’t you lonely?”
“Often. I address that on occasion. You ask a lot of questions.”
He had one more. “I told you my name. Will you tell me yours?”
“Muir.” The sorcerer rose and walked away, tall and straight, his long robe displaying a stride that was limber, almost youthful. Cian knew him to fifty years old at least and had expected a more decrepit man.
He finished his soup and the sorcerer took away the bowl, then left him alone while his battered body pulled him back toward sleep. He dreamed of the cold deep, of sinking ships and beaked, ravenous things that moved through the water on boneless limbs.
* * * *
When Cian woke, he glimpsed sunlight through chinks in a shuttered window and heard the sounds of breakers, telling him he was near the sea. Rising, he found his clothes dried and folded on a chair beside the tiny room’s only other piece of furniture, an open chest holding men’s clothing. Guessing he was welcome to take what he could use, he rummaged until he found a pair of boots and a jacket that did not fit too badly, to replace the items he’d lost.
After dressing, he exited to find Muir standing in the next room. The house around him was modest but well-made, with floors of planked silver wood and a hearth of black stone. Light filtered through two windows. A shelf on one wall held an assortment of glazed plates, bowls, and cups. A book with yellowed pages lay open on the table beside which Muir stood, still dressed in black.
The sorcerer’s dark gaze weighed him, awaiting something.
It was too soon to attempt to seize Muir’s magic. The sorcerer’s guard was up, his suspicions not yet set to rest. Cian had planned the moment he would do it. He would make his move when he and Muir lay with limbs entwined, fluids spent, bodies glutted with sex. During his journey to the frigid north, he’d talked to brindled seals who told him of ships pulled onto the island’s rocks, of sailors washed safely to shore—young, beautiful sailors, all of whom were returned to the sea soon after, lifeless and broken. He’d spoken to sea birds who told him young men sang with pleasure when the sorcerer pierced them, though the birds had never seen one die. Death, then, did not visit during sex but at some point after.
His cock twitched at the challenge. He had always been excited by power and enjoyed fucking over men who hoarded it. Muir would not be as easy to lure as his ancient masters, who had openly used the beautiful youths at their disposal, or the kings he had seduced as his looks grew into their early promise. Muir took men he wanted, when he wanted. So far he had shown no sign he wanted to take Cian.
“I owe you my life,” he said. “Let me repay my debt by serving you.”
“Serve me?” Muir sounded amused.
“In whatever way you require.”
“I don’t have many requirements. However, you look strong. Work would mean fetching water, splitting wood, repairing the house and taking long walks. In return I would provide a place to sleep.”
“Long walks?” Cian understood the other tasks.
“To the neighbors or perhaps the village, to collect items I need.”
It surprised him to hear there were neighbors, much less a village. He had thought the island uninhabited. Men living on the windswept headland believed the island consisted of nothing but rock.
“I can walk far if needed.”
“Good. I dislike traveling inland.”
Traveling inland took him away from the sea. Cian nodded his agreement to the terms. He could hardly ask for a better situation than living in the same house as his elusive quarry.
Muir spooned porridge from a pot on the grate into a brown bowl. “You can start today. The cistern needs filling. You’ll find the pail hanging beside it. And one of the shutters is loose.” Before Cian could say another word, the sorcerer was out the door, his long strides carrying him away from the house. Abandoning his porridge, Cian sought to follow but lost sight of Muir when the path turned and descended steeply.
He looked around him. The tiny house perched upon a sheer cliff overlooking the sea. Only by standing at the very edge could he glimpse a rocky strand at the bottom, which was pounded by waves. Upon the cliff and around the house itself, nothing grew. To every side was rock or sea, though the land dipped somewhat to the west before rising again to meet the horned peak seen from the mainland. He soon discovered that at the bottom of the gully was a marshy area where some grasses grew to form a meadow visited by a few wary goats. A well, bored deep into solid rock, stood halfway to the goats.
Magic always cost something, but magic was less painful than work would be. Rather than haul heavy pails from the well and carry them all the way to the house, Cian summoned enough water from air and earth to fill the nearly dry cistern. The spells exhausted him, but spared him blisters. Afterward, though bone-tired, he found and repaired the loose shutter by cutting a new board and nailing it with the two nails he found.
He saw Muir again just as the sun sank to touch the rim of the peak.
“I see you fixed the shutter.”
“And filled the cistern.”
“Then you can cease working. I have goat meat hanging in the cold cellar, and some turnips also. Fetch those and we will have something to eat.”
Most sorcerers had little aptitude for cookery. Muir was no exception. His food was simply that: an uninspired stew of meat and roots flavored with a small pinch of salt and another pinch from a box of spice that had long since given up its essence. A small loaf of very good bread, just shy of stale but still soft, made up for it, though.
“You haven’t asked about leaving,” Muir observed, sopping up the last of his broth.
“I will work off my debt first. After that, maybe one of the folk here will take me back to the mainland.” Doing so would be less taxing than conjuring another boat.
“I don’t see how. Not a boat to be had on the island.”
“That doesn’t make sense. They’re surrounded by sea! Don’t they fish?”
“Actually, no.” Muir rose and moved to the other end of the table, where the book still lay open. Cian had looked at it while Muir was out. It was a book on bee-keeping. Judging from its condition and stained pages, it had been salvaged from the sea.
“But if there are no boats—”
“There’s no leaving. Now good night. I want to read.”
Cian dragged himself to his little room and barely knew anything after his head hit the pillow. The next morning when he sat at the table, Muir gave him no porridge. He had made only enough for himself.
“But I worked!” Cian protested. “I worked hard!”
“For a bed. I said that in exchange for work, I would let you sleep here. I said nothing about meals.”
Muir wasn’t a farmer. No crops grew near the tiny house, and the man kept no herd beasts or fowl. How he had any food at all was a mystery. Small wonder he grudged sharing.
“Are you suggesting I go out and catch a goat?”
“You could. There are easier ways. I want you to walk to my neighbor, a woman named Scaith. As you walk west, keep the Horn on your right and you will find the path. Tell her I sent you. She’ll have something for me.” The sorcerer flung on his long black cloak before setting out into the chill morning. “If she takes kindly to you, she might feed you as well.”
Giving the sorcerer a short lead, Cian tried again to follow him. The cliff path was narrow but in good repair, the stone carved or shaped into a serpentine stair that clung, sometimes miraculously, to the cliff face. At the bottom, crashing waves broke against a few yards of black rocks fallen from above. There was no beach, no sand, and no footprints or any other sign of Muir, though Cian knew him to have gone that way. All around him reared cliffs blacker than night, jagged and crumbling into the sea. Cursing, he made his way back to the top and set out to find Scaith.