Three days had passed since The Pig bid The Island of the Dead a fond farewell and put back to sea, heading west, toward Sankta, ‘The Sacred Isle.’
‘A storm is on its way,’ declared Alvez studying the leaden grey, mid-afternoon sky overhead and the towering black clouds blowing in menacingly from the east, ‘and it looks like it is going to be a big one,’ he added grimly.
‘What do you want to do?’ asked Pukunati peering up anxiously at the skies which seemed to be getting darker by the moment. It was in situations like this that he wished there were more than just the two of them crewing the boat. In reality, three or four were probably needed but whenever he carefully picked his time and raised the subject Alvez always said that he had yet to meet one person, let alone four, that he would want to share his boat with. Quite where this left him, the boy had never asked; he liked to think he was exempt from the observation but was never entirely sure.
‘We need to seek shelter,’ replied Alvez in the calmest tone of voice he could muster, ‘let us keep heading west, with this wind at our backs, and see what we can find.’ But even as they talked the swell was beginning to grow alarmingly and over the course of the next hour the winds continued to stiffen and with them brought a cold, driving rain which chilled to the bone and rolling waves which threw The Pig and her occupants to and fro at will. For the umpteenth time Alvez surveyed the skies in the vain hope the worst of the storm might somehow pass them by.
‘There,’ shouted Pukunati pointing to the south, struggling to make himself heard over the howling wind, ‘is that something?’
Alvez looked through his spyglass, wiped the rain and sea spray from the lens and looked again, ‘yes,’ he exclaimed in relief, ‘land.’ For once luck is on our side he thought as the winds suddenly changed and pushed them south toward what, at first sight, appeared to be little more than a bleak, rocky outcrop stuck in the middle of the ocean.
Relief soon turned to alarm however as The Pig careered wildly out of control and at the mercy of the storm toward the bleak cliffs of what had now shown itself to be a small island. ‘There has got to be somewhere,’ Alvez repeated to himself, over and over again, as he clung to the side of the boat, soaked to the skin, staring out at the jagged rocks which now loomed before them; desperately looking for some sort of sanctuary.
‘There,’ exclaimed the boy, pointing unsteadily at a gap in the rocks.
Hauling on the tiller for all they were worth the pair managed to direct The Pig toward a narrow rocky inlet, all the while fighting the fierce pull of the ocean which seemed intent on smashing them against the rocky shoreline. ‘Keep going, keep going, not much further,’ urged Alvez. All of a sudden, without warning, the howling wind fell away and they were left bobbing around on calm waters as the channel opened up into a small bay, protected on all sides by high cliffs. ‘This should do nicely,’ said Alvez taking a relieved breath. ‘I say we drop anchor here and sit out this tempest on shore, I can see what looks like a cave if I am not mistaken.’
‘The sand, it’s black,’ observed Pukunati in surprise as they dragged the rowing boat up the beach.
‘A volcanic isle if I am not mistaken,’ replied Alvez, ‘dormant I am sure,’ he added hastily for the boy's benefit. Although if it is going to erupt any time in the near future it is bound to do so while we are here, he thought to himself wryly.
Ahead of them, eroded into the dark ominous cliffs, which stood imposingly at the head of the beach, was the entrance to a large cave. Once inside, the pair quickly shed their sodden clothes and laid them out over a collection of large boulders in the hope that they might dry before morning. Then, they set about lighting a fire to give some much-needed light, warmth and cheer.
Suddenly Pukunati stopped and cocked his head to one side. ‘What is it?’ demanded Alvez, looking around warily.
‘I thought I heard something,’ replied the boy still listening intently.
‘What kind of something?’
‘A sort of scratching and sniffing noise, like an animal, probably looking for food I suppose,’ the boy answered quietly, squinting his eyes to try and peer into the gloomy recesses of the cave.
‘Rats,’ declared Alvez with visceral disdain, suddenly feeling very naked and very vulnerable.
‘No, I think it sounds bigger than that.’
‘Big rats. Wonderful,’ grumbled Alvez reaching for his wet britches.
‘The noise is coming from outside and it’s getting closer,’ whispered Pukunati anxiously.
Alvez too could now hear the snuffling, scraping sound approaching the mouth of the cave and a quick decision had to be made - britches or axe? On balance he decided that an axe was likely to be of more use against whatever was out there than a pair of soggy pants. Readying the weapon, he slowly edged toward the mouth of the cave as the noises got louder and more guttural; this was a fearsome beast indeed.
A moment later, a small, hunched figure appeared at the entrance to the cave. The new arrival was clad in what appeared to be layer upon layer of dirty, ragged clothes topped off with a cloak and a large hood which completely hid the wearer’s face. In silence Alvez lowered his axe and he and Pukunati watched as the mysterious figure, seemingly oblivious to their presence, shuffled in to the cave, sniffed loudly, and set about removing a pack that was slung across their back. As they did so they did not seem to notice the man and the boy hurriedly struggling back into their cold, wet clothes to cover their nakedness: as a general rule Alvez always felt that first meetings and introductions were more properly conducted with pants on.
Once dressed, Alvez laid his axe on a rock, within arm’s reach, and cleared his throat in the hope of gaining the stranger’s attention but without startling them too much. But, after a few failed attempts, it appeared his approach much too subtle as the new arrival began to empty their pack, seemingly oblivious to Alvez and Pukunati’s presence. Alvez coughed more loudly, ‘hello.’
‘Visitors, eh?’ replied the new arrival in surprise, their voice faltering and croaky as if of disuse, ‘a long time since Griselda’s had visitors its is,’ said the figure as they slowly turned and removed their hood to reveal an old woman bearing a dirty, wizened, weather-beaten face heavily lined with age and topped by long, straggly grey hair. ‘Pleased to meet your acquaintances,’ she rasped with a largely toothless grin.
‘Err, yes, quite,’ replied Alvez disconcerted, ‘I am Alvez and this is the…. and this is Pukunati,’ he replied gesturing to what he now realised was only a half-dressed boy. ‘Why did you not put you pants on first,’ he barked. Sometimes I despair of that boy.
‘Them are nice names,’ replied the old woman, seemingly oblivious to Pukunati’s undress, ‘I’m Griselda,’ she continued, before unleashing an explosive sneeze and wiping her sleeve across her nose then breaking into a convulsive coughing fit which concluded in her spitting the product of her endeavours violently onto a nearby rock. Having thoroughly inspected the thick, green phlegm and seemingly satisfied she then turned away and busied herself, continuing to empty her pack all over the floor of the cave.
‘We came here to shelter from the rain,’ Alvez continued, trying to keep the visceral disdain he felt for this dirty, repulsive little woman from his voice.
‘You live here, on this island?’ asked Alvez.
‘You live on the island,’ exclaimed Griselda, ‘well I never, so does I.’
‘No, no. We do not live here, we arrived by boat. We are just sheltering from the storm. How long have you lived here?’ Alvez asked slowly and precisely, as if talking to a small child.
The old woman looked puzzled, ‘how would I know how long you has lived here? I’m not your keeper.’
Alvez sighed in frustration and looked over at Pukunati who was now, finally, fully dressed. Tapping his temple, he nodded toward the old woman who was once again engrossed in the contents of her pack.
‘Come and sit by Griselda’s fire and get warm; though I can’t remember making it,’ she muttered, ‘and tell me all about yourselfs.’
‘Thank you,’ Alvez replied through gritted teeth, watching the old woman back herself on her hands and knees, in a most unladylike manner, into what he had envisaged would be his spot by the fire, ‘most generous of you.’
‘Would you like some of our food?’ asked Pukunati fishing in his pack.
‘You would like some food, would you?’ Griselda huffed and puffed struggling to her feet, ‘a bit forward is the young gentleman me thinks.’
‘No, no, would you like some of our food?’ Pukunati repeated holding up some dry biscuits but the old woman seemed oblivious to the offer. Alvez shrugged in defeat as Griselda set about heaving a large cauldron from behind a nearby rock.
‘You live here? In this cave?’ asked Alvez in surprise as the old woman began producing various utensils from behind a series of nearby rocks.
‘Live all over the island,’ replied the woman, as she carelessly filled the cauldron with water from a leather bladder, hung the pot over the fire and began adding vegetables and what appeared to be a variety of different herbs to the water, ‘sometimes live here, sometimes live there.’
‘Where did you get these things?’ asked Alvez gesturing to the contents of the pot.
‘Grow them myself,’ declared the old woman proudly.
Alvez and Pukunati watched and waited as Griselda continued preparing what seemed to be a vegetable stew, stirring the pot intently, adding pinches of this and that from various pouches as she went. ‘Ready,’ she announced a short while later, slopping the contents of the pot clumsily into two grubby bowls and adding a sprinkle of a reddish-brown powder, as a finishing touch, before passing them to the pair.
‘Are you not having any?’ asked Alvez proffering his bowl to the old woman.
The old woman shook her head, pulled a face and wrinkled her nose, ‘me not like,’ she replied.
‘A fine endorsement,’ muttered Alvez under his breath as he lifted the bowl to his mouth; the pungent aroma reminded him of wood smoke and rotting vegetation.
‘Eat, eat,’ encouraged Griselda flashing them her best gap-toothed smile.
Gathering himself Alvez took a spoonful of the hot, bitter brew. ‘An…. an…. an interesting flavour,’ he observed with a forced smile. Absolutely foul.
The old woman left them to eat as she busied herself somewhere at the back of the cave and Alvez took the opportunity to tip the contents of his bowl behind a large rock. ‘That’s really rude,’ hissed Pukunati, wincing as he consumed another mouthful, ‘it’s not that bad.’
‘It was most unpleasant,’ Alvez replied in a low voice. Although quite why he felt the need to drop his voice he was not sure as the old woman was quite obviously as deaf as a post.
Griselda picked up the empty bowls and nodded appreciatively, ‘I like a man with a good appetites. Young, strong and handsome men as well,’ she cackled loudly pointing at the pair. ‘I is going to bed now,’ she added, breaking wind loudly before shuffling off toward the darkest recesses of the cave. On her way she crouched down right in front of Pukunati’s face, ‘your friend’s a bit of a grumpy one, isn’t he?’
Pukunati laughed and nodded his head.
‘What did she say?’ demanded Alvez.
‘That she likes you,’ replied Pukunati with a mischievous grin, ‘thinks you is very good-looking, would make a good husband.’
‘As soon as this storm has passed, we get off this island as quickly as we can,’ replied Alvez brusquely, ‘and leave this toothless old crone to her spells.’
Pukunati laughed, ‘I like her, reminds me of my grandmother she does.’
Alvez replied with a weak smile.