Softly, She Treads Ch. 02byXyJonah©
It was dark again when he awoke, but the modest fire still held glowing embers that cast a soft light about the small hut. At first, he thought he was alone again, and set to mentally checking himself over; whatever she had done, she had done it well for he felt much better and the pain had lessened considerably. He moved his hand over his shoulder; it felt odd. His fingers soon discovered that a layer of loamy mud had been applied (some time since, for it had started to dry and form a crust around its edges), with a poultice of some description over the top. The swelling was not as bad as he had feared, and he did not feel much fire when he gently shrugged his shoulder to his neck.
As he continued to explore his body and the treatments he had received, a small mound by the fire stirred. A pile of blankets and pelts tumbled to the floor, and the girl straightened up, rubbed her eyes and looked around.
Hester's breath caught in his throat; this feral girl, with her hair unbound and her skin flickering and pale in the soft glow of the dying fire seemed suddenly like a vision. Hastily, he called images of his wife to his mind, ignoring the untamed, ethereal temptation before him.
"You're awake," she observed quietly, rising to her feet and stabbing at the fire with a length of iron that served as a poker. With the fire before her, her outline was drawn with perfect clarity, lithe and muscular, pale and silken. She paused mid-stretch to look him over. She was entirely naked and seemed cast in porcelain, produced in glorious experiment by a renegade craftsman. His eyes lit upon her breasts; pert and softly rounded. He coughed and forced his wife into his mind in an effort to pry his attention away from her rose-bud nipples, sharp in the cold air.
"A moment ago," replied Hester, his voice steadier than it had been the last time he had used it, yet this time threatening to shake for different reasons than injury and exhaustion.
"How do you feel?" she asked, dropping a log onto the embers with a practised casualness and turning to look at him. The embers sparked around the new wood, and a moment later, flames were licking it hungrily, crackling with glee and throwing a generous light about the cabin.
"Better," said Hester, unwilling to look at the girl in her nakedness, but unable to avert his eyes anywhere else. He finally forced his eyes from her as he noticed he could see the fingers of the fire seemingly licking between her legs.
"Good." She nodded, as if this only confirmed what she expected, unaware of her nakedness and the erotic movement of the fire as she stood before it. She moved to a table to collect a small pot, and hung it over the fire. "Hungry?"
Hester realised abruptly that he was ravenous, and nodded.
"Will be a minute. Rabbit, potato and rosemary stew. Made it earlier."
"Uh-huh," she replied with a wry smirk. "Small and furry, big ears, good at jumping."
"I know what a rabbit is," replied Hester testily. "How did you come to catch it?"
"With magic," she declared before cracking a generous grin. "The dogs helped. I set the traps, the dogs tell me when they're sprung; we normally share the spoils."
"You cook for the dogs?"
"No..." she replied patiently, crossing the room to perch on the edge of his bed, a mug of water in her hand. She offered it to him with a smile, apparently unaware of the discomfort her nakedness so close to him was causing. "I cook for me; the dogs get the scraps. There's plenty, and even with the herbs, it won't keep but a day. Someone may as well eat it."
"Someone?" he said with scorn, sipping form the cup; the water was sweet and pure; he felt its cool touch slide down his throat. "They're dogs."
"They saved your life," she said by means of reprimand. "You'd do best to remember that. They will." She tossed her river of hair over her shoulder, cocked her head to one side and examined him for a moment, a sad, wistful look in her eyes. After a long moment she roused herself from her thoughts and fetched him a bowl of stew. It was surprisingly tasty; a thick broth of sweet, pungent sauce with generous lumps of meat and potatoes hidden within. He ate hungrily; within moments, the bowl was empty.
"You should eat slower; your stomach is empty, and won't appreciate being suddenly so full."
"You should wear clothes," he replied, "I am married and don't appreciate your exposure."
She laughed, but did not blush. "Why should you be embarrassed at my flesh? Foolish men, I give you my bed and my food, and you scorn me for seeking comfort where I can. I slept on the floor for you last night." She gave a melodramatic sigh and shook her head, but her eyes yet held humour. "Very well, Richard Hester. I will dress if you will chew more of those seeds I gave you before. You need to rest well, for tonight I reclaim my bed."
He accepted the bargain silently, distracting his gaze from drifting further over her by examining the seeds she slipped into his hand and placing them, with great care, into his mouth one at a time.
She returned to his bedside with a large, plain-dyed cloth draped clumsily over her. "Happy?" she asked as she reached forward to feel his brow. "You have yet escaped fever. One more day, and I'd say you'd be unlikely to catch one. You will yet recover, Mr Richard Hester, fear not."
"What makes you so sure?"
She gave a short laugh and shrugged. "Done this before?"
"More castaways upon your shores?"
At his question, that sad look returned to her eyes and she nodded, but remained silent. Her hand smoothed his brow, and she pressed gently upon his shoulder, bidding him to lie back and close his eyes. "You will understand, soon," she whispered as he settled into the crude bed.
"How often do ships pass?" he asked as he relaxed. She shook her head.
"Only when the wind brings them. It is the way things are drawn here," she replied. "Sleep now. Questions tomorrow."
He did not resist her advice, feeling as he was already too sleepy to question her further. The last glance he saw of her was her rising from the bed, heedless of the cloth that dropped from her body as she curled up once more before the crackling fire.
The following morning, Hester woke from his soft slumber, stretched, yawned and had swung his legs out of the bed before he remembered anything of the last few days. When his memory returned to him, it did so with a sickening lurch of panic that rolled into a hard ball in his belly and remained there, quivering. He glanced around the hut; his strange companion was nowhere to be seen, but, judging by the plate of unleavened bread, berries and some sort of hard cheese, and mug of sparkling water in the centre of the small table, she had anticipated his awakening. He realised that he was as hungry as he could ever remember being. But, more pressing than that was the immediate need to urinate. He pulled one of the larger blankets from the bed, wound it loosely around him, and stepped outside.
The view from the entrance of the hut was astonishing. Hester moved to the side of the hut and found a patch of tufted grass to empty himself over while he gazed out toward the sea.
The sun was half-risen in the sky; he judged it to be mid-morning. The air was crisp and cool, warmed by the sun that shone brightly, though its warmth was weak. A brisk wind shuffled past him, scuffing over the long grass in great, weaving patterns, and whisking small waves into a froth as they approached the land to break. The sea was a great sapphire, and the island a speck of emerald upon it; Hester could barely believe that the same calm, blue water could have abused him so a few days before.
To his left, the ground rose a little, and scrub and undergrowth grew thick until they met the scattered trees that marked the edge of a wood. Discarded leaves lay drifted in piles of russet, gold and amber, their colour vivid in the sunshine. To his right and the front, the land yielded to rocks that scattered themselves over the top of the cliff he had scaled with the strange woman the day she had discovered him. The view was wild, dangerous and unknown. Yet Hester found a wave of passion surging through him as he eyes lingered upon the scene.
And where was his odd saviour? A natural platform of rocks had been raised and left alone by the elements, and she sat cross-legged atop it. Grateful that she was, at least, clothed today, Hester was tempted to approach her but was stopped by a powerful spasm of hunger. He took another sweeping glance at the scape and returned inside to break his fast and prepare for the day.
By the time he had eaten every scrap and morsel left for him, the woman had still not returned. Hester cast about for some better clothing but found none. So, securing his blanket more firmly about him, he wandered out to find the woman.
She still sat atop her pile of rocks, her dark, long hair blowing lazily in the wind. Her eyes were closed, and she slumped a little so that her elbows rested upon her folded knees. Hester guessed that she was engaged in some primitive, heathen meditation and considered leaving her be for the moment. But the sun was already peaking in the sky, and he had things he needed to get started if he were to return to England and his family.
"Are you praying?" he asked her when he was some three feet from her side. She cocked an eye, glanced at him and giggled.
"To the gods of sunshine and fair weather, perhaps."
"There is only one God, and he is Lord of all," replied Hester.
"Perhaps," she replied without commitment. "Do you wish to pray?"
"I should give thanks for my recovery, yes."
She shot him a dry and suddenly angry look. "Perhaps you should thank him, also, for sending you a woman who knew how to look after you. Or, better yet, for sinking your vessel in the first place." She unfolded her legs and stood up, hands upon her hips. "Do as you please. I am glad you are better today."
She strode past him, and he turned to walk alongside her. "If not praying, what were you doing?" he asked, careful to keep his tone neutral.
"It's the first sunshine I've seen in days. I was enjoying it," came the curt reply.
"I am sorry to interrupt you."
"No, you're not," she said, shaking her head.
Hester sighed and struggled with his frustration at her. "I am trying to be civil-"
"Maybe honest would be a more noble trait?" she cut in, her tone even.
Hester found he was suddenly infuriated. "Honest? I'm barely awake an hour and you doubt my character already? I am a doctor of fine repute! I have done nothing save find myself cast upon this accursed island before being forced to prevail myself upon the mercies of a woman who barely knows how to clothe herself! Have I sought to take advantage of you? Have I taken anything of worth or value to you? I merely wished to ask some questions so that I can rid myself of you and this savage, Godless land!"
She waited while he caught his temper and then said, quietly and patiently, "Are you finished?" He nodded mutely and she continued. "Mr Richard Hester, all I meant was that you had every intention of interrupting me, no matter what I was doing, and that you would have been better admitting it than veiling your intentions with the guise of civility. I do, however, apologise for the wind and the sea and the island that you found yourself washed up on. Just as I apologise for wishing to aid you when I discovered you sick and injured and living in a cave with dogs." She bowed deeply and continued walking with a chuckle. Hester hung back for a moment, trying to understand this obnoxious creature before following her into the hut some moments later.
Inside the small dwelling, the woman was hanging herbs in bunches that had appeared upon the table. She tied sprigs carefully together with lengths of coarse grass and then secured them to hooks arranged above the fireplace. When Hester entered, she offered him a friendly smile and continued her work.
"I mean to leave this island," said Hester, sitting upon the bed. "To do that, I need your help."
"There's nothing I can do," she replied as she hung another two bunches. "This is where you're meant to be."
"I have a family, a wife and two daughters. They need me."
She glanced at him, that sadness back in her eyes. There was no criticism in her voice when she spoke, though her words were harsh. "Did they not need you when you stepped aboard your ship?"
"A man must make a living."
"Indeed, he must," she said sadly. "They'll be fine. but you can't leave the island. Not now, not ever."
She gave a low, whispered laugh and shook her head. "You'll understand eventually. In the meantime, you have a choice to make."
Hester looked at her, fearing some succubus invention; clearly she was a godless witch whose dealings in the supernatural had ensnared him here. "What choice is that?" he asked.
She hung her final bunch and turned to look squarely at him. "To choose to be happy or to be sad. It's very simple. You are here, and you are staying here. You can let this destroy you with regret and thoughts of what you leave behind, or you can let this enrich you and explore the new place with an open mind and heart. It is up to you, Richard Hester; this is nothing I can help you with."
Hester nodded and stared at his hands for a moment. Thoughts wheeled through his head; frustration; anger; helplessness. This godless she-bitch and her naked flesh was deliberately standing in his path to escaping this merciless, harsh place. Hester choked with fury; it was clear to him now -- this Devil-girl had wrought some witchery that had drawn the storm and wrecked his ship. She had known how to find him and had ensnared him while he lay sick and injured. Where was God now? Hester felt his heart reaching for his faith as a blind man feels along unfamiliar passageways. It was all her; this demon; this illusion of loveliness that cloak peril and temptation within. He choked back bile but was unable to stem the tide of ire that rose steadily within him.
When he looked up at her, his eyes betrayed the fury that gripped him. "You witch," he said in a low voice that grew rapidly to a powerful, commanding shout, "You demon! You servant of Satan himself!" He shook, is voice growing rapidly to a powerful, booming cry. "You drew me here and now, like a siren, you intend to keep me! To be happy or sad? What choice is that when either way I shall be your slave? I will tarry no more with you, harridan!" He rose to his feet and rushed toward her.
Caught now in his fury, days of fear and frustration manifest as he lost himself in another raging storm, he lunged toward her, seeking to mindlessly act upon the violence that careered senseless through his mind. She did not move or flinch as his hands closed about her throat. He lifted her inches above the ground and shook her violently before throwing her onto the bed where she lay panting, neither shaking nor struggling, that sad look of examination back in her eyes.
"Fiend!" he shouted, pointing accusingly at her, "You are as the Damned! I do not doubt you are trapped forever in this desolation! But release me, for I am righteous with the Lord on my side! I do not fear you! I renounce you!"
She sat up and maintained her melancholy, oddly knowing gaze upon him. Then, even while he was still shouting his accusations, she got up, pulled a shawl from the back of a chair and walked out of the door.
Left alone with his fury, Hester shook with unspent rage. But as the rush of adrenaline left him, guilt consumed him, and even when he closed his eyes tightly, he could not erase the image of her, hanging by her throat as he gripped her in his hands, that sad, quiet look in her eyes as he raged and accused and blamed her.
He gave a scream of frustration, unable to forget the power that surged through him as he threw her onto the bed, unable to move on from the guilt that came with knowing that the first violent act he had ever committed was against the woman who had saved his life. Succubus or saviour? Hester no longer knew the difference. He sat upon the bed, cradled his head in his hands and wept.