It wasn’t the hunger that had threatened to kill Telbarisk. Nor was it the cold or the wild animals on his island. It had been the isolation.
Four months had passed since he had been exiled to Ouayid Island. Being uninhabited, he hadn’t spoken to anyone since then. No laughter, no touch, no tales around the fire. He had made friends with some of the creatures, but it wasn’t the same. His heart ached for those he had left.
His food stores were plentiful. That wasn’t a strange thing for a man new to exile, since he had been provided with an ample amount of food and the tools to sustain himself for a long period of time. What was strange was how far advanced his gardens were for springtime in a cold environment. Even though the killing frosts had stopped only a few weeks prior, he had fields of vegetables and legumes planted, bushes of fruits and berries in bloom. It had taken from dawn to dusk for weeks to complete. Working with nothing, he had dug and plotted out the fields, which were scattered across the island. (Telbarisk had refused to clear forest for his selfish needs and planted where there were natural glens.) Each day he had found the right area, with the right soil type and amount of sunlight. The berry bushes, blue, black, red, ton-, straw-, rasp-, and wax, surrounded his cave. A path cut through and led to the legumes, including the li-ish plants that were a staple protein crop for grivvens. Beyond that, the island was checkered in squashes, carrots, beets, quist, rhubarb, onions, leeks, and so many other vegetables. He’d even planted a few fruiting trees.
When all his preparations were done, he’d had a lot of time to think about things, about home and his friends and family. Mostly he thought about his punishment and why he had been exiled. It was what was meant to be. He’d come to that peaceful understanding with kouriya very early into his sentence, but there was a difference between understanding and laying down for the wild dogs. He had remembered and re-evalutated the situation many times. He had his theories. The one that made the most sense was the one that brought him the most sadness.
Free or not, Telbarisk had embraced his exile with as much grace and humility as he could. That was a hard thing to stay true to when actually faced with it. He pained. He so desperately wanted to speak to someone, to watch them react and interact. To laugh and sing. He wanted it so badly that he had thought he might have summoned the thing on the horizon.
He looked at it curiously for some time. He thought it was clouds for a good portion of an hour, then realized they were not moving and had no silver to them. For some time he ignored it, thinking it was so bizarre that he found it was easier to forget it was there than to understand the thing.
It stayed there for a few days, inconspicuous in its dormancy. He glanced at it occasionally, but paid it no more attention than he did the large turtle that had spent two weeks on the island in April. For three days the thing hovered above the horizon, some strange monstrosity awaiting something. He worried it was a dead sea creature that would wash ashore soon, filling the island with noxious, rotting fumes. He worried more that it was alive.
Then, on its fourth morning off of Ouayid, Telbarisk saw that the thing had splintered and the pieces were sliding towards the island. He climbed to the top of the hill behind his cave and shimmied along a tree branch that held his weight. The dots in the water were like bugs, their arms reaching out and pulling their bodies to the land. Tel watched for some time, the bugs turning into water beasts, then finally to boats with men. Little men.
They landed not far from Telbarisk’s vantage point, helping each other out of the boats and stowing them on the rocky shore. They missed his cave, but didn’t have to scout far to find his crops. The men fell on them, ripping handfuls of fruit with their grubby little hands, shoving the food in their mouths. They groaned in delight, their mouths and chins stained with the juices.
He followed them, quietly. Once satiated, the dozen or so men began harvesting anything they could find. They pulled off their shirts and tied one end to create a bag to fill it with all that they could find.
One man, the one who appeared to be leading the group, began to look around with concern. “This doesn’t look natural,” he spoke to one of the men.
“I don’t care,” the man replied, “it’s food and we’re starving.”
“We’re not starving.”
“We will be.”
“Hello?” the leader called out several times.
Telbarisk emerged from his spot, startling the men even though he had been slow and quiet. The men dropped their sacks and raised their knives and swords to protect themselves.
The leader stepped forward. He was young, with blue eyes and light hair cut short. He was not the tallest or heaviest of the men, but they showed him deference through protection. Several men moved to flank him, a strong front against an unknown giant. The leader put his arms out and lowered them slowly, looking to his left and right to make sure the men lowered their weapons.
Telbarisk would later know him as Jormé Mayard, first mate of the Gueylard. “Do you understand us?” he asked slowly.
“Yes,” Telbarisk said, his throat thick with disuse.
The men relaxed a little. “Is this your home and is this your food?”
“Yes,” he said again.
“We’re sorry. We didn’t know anyone lived here. Is it okay if we take some?”
Grivvens were hospitable people. Some may even say they were hospitable to a fault. They extended charity and generosity to any grivven wandering the lands. They knew that if in turn they ever needed the same, there would be someone who would feed them and shelter them. The elves, too, shared their sense of conviviality. Telbarisk had never known anyone who would take and never give in return.
He knew no other way. “You may help yourself to as much as you need.”
A few of the men even smiled. They returned to foraging while the first mate kept conversation with him. “I apologize again. Our ship is becalmed off-shore. We’re running low on supplies and made the call to see if the island had any food we could harvest. We didn’t mean to steal anything of yours.”
“I do not feel slighted. Take as much as you need. There is fresh water not too far away and more food for you in that direction,” he said, pointing east.
“Thank you. Thank you so very much. You’ve saved our lives, sir.”
Telbarisk nodded once, then sat on a rock nearby. He kept track of which plants the men decimated and which ones would only need minor care over the next few weeks. In an odd way, Tel was grateful to the men for taking his supplies. He’d have to replace all his food by the time the snows fell in mid autumn. It would give him a challenge, something to take his mind off of everything he didn’t want to think of while he was here.
As if the first mate picked up on it, he asked, “May I ask what you’re doing here? Do you live alone? Have you always lived here? Do you mind if I sit down?”
Telbarisk fanned his hand, gesturing that the nearby rock was open. “I am an exile. I started my punishment during the winter of this year.”
“What were you exiled for?”
Tel took a deep breath. “A man died.”
The first mate looked at him with alarm. “You killed him?”
“A man died,” he repeated.
“Are you…repentant of his death?”
“Repentant? Do you mean do I ask for forgiveness for the crime or do I regret it happened?”
“I don’t think I’d be the one to give you forgiveness, even if you asked me for it. I am curious about the second, though. It would answer many things about your character.”
Firmly, Telbarisk said, “Yes, I regret it. It was a waste of life. He was a good man. But some things cannot be helped. I live here as my penance and I hope that when my time is served, I can return to my people in peace and with no ill-will.”
“How long must you serve?”
The first mate let out a pained breath. “My friend, that is a long time to be away from everyone.”
If anyone knew that, it was Telbarisk. If anyone would know that, it was Telbarisk.
“If I might ask,” the first mate started, “do you need to stay here or could you, perhaps, leave?”
“My sentence is to leave the mainland of Ervaskin and have no contact with the Grivven. I do not have to stay here, but since this island has everything I need, I will.” He sighed. “Also, I feel this is where I need to be, to pay the price that needs to be paid. A punishment isn’t a punishment if there is no suffering in it.”
The first mate studied the grivven silently for a few minutes, then turned to check on his men. Most had moved beyond the borders of vision and were in the fields, uprooting vegetables. “Is this okay? My men are taking a lot of provisions from you. I don’t know you well at all, but I have a general concern for your well-being. To be more blunt, I will worry about you and would have a heavy conscience if I found out you had starved here due to your generosity.”
“I’m not concerned about it.”
“To pry away the scales, so to speak, I suspect you of having a fatalistic mindset. Ten years is a long sentence. Some men would have tested their mortality by now. I do not know how your people feel about the taking of ones own life, but where I’m from it is considered taboo. If your ilk are the same as mine, then perhaps you live in your punishment wishing you didn’t have to, but having no course of action you can take. If a group of men arrive and fix that for you, then you have your excuse. You’ve done your duty, planted your crops and built your home, but it wasn’t your fault you were robbed of your needs. We could be like one poorly timed act of nature that destroys your food, leaving you with the excuse to give up your will to live. I don’t wish to be your blizzard, your hurricane, or your tsunami.”
Telbarisk thought on the man’s words and responded with care. “I will admit that rising each morning is not an easy task. I am left empty save for my instincts. I have a great many people whom I miss and who miss me. But when I said that I wasn’t concerned about my food, it was because I am confident in my skill to replace anything you take. It is early in the growing season, with plenty of time to regain my stores. Many plants have only just produced, with many weeks of flowering to go. Your men cannot pick the fruits of the future.”
“Well said,” the first mate said. “Thank you. You’ve eased my mind. I believe I know your answer but I will extend the invitation anyway: please join my crew and journey with us. You can still serve your sentence in the company of people.”
Tel closed his eye and breathed in. Things felt the same. There was no tug of kouriya, nothing to give him any indication that he needed to leave Ouyid. “I thank you graciously, but no. My duty is to stay here, as close to my home is allowed.”
“I understand.” The first mate nodded and left to round up his men. He signaled back to the ship with a piece of flat rock that reflected light. The first mate clasped hands with Telbarisk and thanked him yet again for his generosity, wishing him warmth and good luck. Telbarisk returned the farewell with similar cheer.
The men in the first boat began to row away and Telbarisk watched. He felt the loneliness creep in as the men for the second boat filed past, tossing their tied off shirts into the boat. “You speak Ghenian?” asked one, a shorter man with a bushy beard and almost no hair on the top of this head.
“Yes,” Telbarisk replied, thinking they would say goodbye as well.
“Good,” he said as Tel felt something cold and sharp against his back. “The captain lost three men to a storm in the passing. I’m sure he’d reward us if we could fill one of those positions with a strong, able bodied monster like you. You’re coming with us.”
Should he fight? He was confident he could knock these four out with little effort. But what if there was a mistake? What if one of them died? He’d hate to take another life again.
He closed his eyes and listened. It was hard to hear the song, especially when death was so close. It was much easier to sense the movement when everything else was still. What it came down to was letting them end it all or joining them, and he wasn’t ready to give up. He wanted to return to his people one day, even if they accepted him back only as a stranger.
Sometimes kouriya was a flitting as a soft breeze and other times as strong as a cold knife in the back.
“Did you hear me, straw man?” the man asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I will go with you.”