This Week’s Prompt: 126. Castaways on island eat unknown vegetation and become strangely transformed
The Prior Research:Fruit of the Sea
The Sea Dane would tell this sailor’s tale, both in the humble halls he washed ashore in, and in the ruby lit halls of Dahut. He had heard it himself at a port of call in Iberia, from a sailor named Baqi. Baqi had traveled many seas, from the city of Caesars to the west coast of Africa to the seas about Arabia. He had many tales of strange ports and stranger things he had seen—but this story was the strangest.
Baqi and his crew were sailing towards the Pillars of Hercules, the great white cliffs that rose into the heavens. They had brought a fine hall from the coasts, to markets in the Mediterranean. Spices and ivory and gold from the coast of Africa—but as they sailed, a terrible storm rose from the great sea in the west. The ship was sturdy, but the darkness and wind overcame them, unseen stones cutting the hull to pieces, and casting them into the waves.
They awoke on an island with shores of golden sand and emerald trees. Of the crew, maybe a dozen survived. The wreckage that floated ashore was naught but drift wood and some rations for their journey. Baqi and his men gave thanks for surviving the storm—they prepared to burn the driftwood for warmth at night, and salvage what they could, bury those who had perished. And Baqi took his first mate, Alaric, to see what life might persist on this island.
They traveled sometime, before they found the center of the island. A lake, clear and placid, surrounded by large trees. And upon the trees grew a strange fruit, like an olive perhaps but as big as a man’s head.
“Do you think we can eat those?” Alaric said, scratch is head. Baqi frowned and considered.
“Who’s to say? It might be a dreadful poison.” He said turning to the lake and looking down at the fish that swam in it’s depths. “We have fish, though, and some supplies. We have wood a plenty.” He gestured around him. “We’ll wait to eat the strange plants until we have no better option.”
And so the crew set up shelter on the shores of that lake—the water pure and fresh and sweet, and the driftwood burned easy. The wind was calming and soothing in the night, as the moon came over head—except when it shifted direction. Then it made a terrible rustling, like a great cloud of locusts was going to rise from the branches and consume them all. It made it hard to sleep.
They ran out of provisions before they finished cutting trees for their ship. The great fire they lit on the shore lured none to harbor—although perhaps it was simply not seen. Only once did the nightwatchmen spy a ship passing over the horizon, and even that was from a great distance—and the sounds at night made many question his health.
The crew split in two on the matter—one group went out, armed with what weapons they had to repel pirates to hunt boar or other animals of the island. The others would draw lots, and see who would try the new fruit. Boar or berry might claim one or two, but might sustain them longer.
Thus, Alaric climbed a great tree and cut free one of the sweet fruits and Baqui went out into the forest with spear in hand. It was on this venture, moving far from the lake, that Baqui found strange sights. He found piles of stones, aligned as if great walls—but within their borders, he found naught but more trees. Before he lingered long on that outcropping, he and his men spotted a small deer—and the chase resumed.
When they returned, they found the rest of the crew seated in a circle, observing the young man who drew the shortest lot. There was a fruit in front of him, with a sliver cut from it by his knife—the flesh of the fruit seemed to be a shinning white like an apple’s interior.
“It’s sweet…savory too. Like cattle made of honey.” He said, cutting another slice and eating it. Alaric looked over at the arriving hunters, with their own catch—a pair of small deer they had found. Baqi chuckled.
“Well, if it tastes better and is easier to find…how much has he eaten?” He asked his first mate.
“This is the second fruit—nothing strange has come over him yet.” Alaric said. “We’ve watched closely—not even the slightest sign…”
“Then it seems safe enough for now.” Baqi said—although later he regrated his eagerness. “We can hunt and build, but this will make good reserves. Plant some of the seeds, and perhaps we will be rich from them when we return to friendly and familiar shores.”
They did find, in time, that there was good timber for building boats—but there was little eagerness to leave the quaint island. For the lake and fruit kept them fulfilled, and each found their own entertainment. It was like a paradise, and they told themselves surely the wind was still foul and the waves still treacherous. They had best give it a season or so before trying the waters.
Alas, Baqi mourned that time—when the gates were open for any to leave. And he recalled to the Sea Dane, the night they were closed forever. For one night, not even two weeks past when the first fruit was eaten, a man woke the whole camp. He had seen a shape moving past the fire. It looked much like a man, but without a head and with long limbs. The sailor was convinced that they were not alone on the island—that this was the source of the rustling sounds at night and other strange things.
Now, it is no secret that sailors are superstitious folk. Any who rely on the vagaries of wind and wave are prone to beliefs in all manner of fortunes. So they made plans that night—they stayed together, and appointed their bravest, including Baqi, to keep an eye out for the strange shape the next day.
That night, the wind rattled the leaves worse than before, filling the night with hoarse laughter. Baqi, days staying on the island, was still unused to the sounds of the nightly winds. He stood about with his fire, watching the darkness for any strange sights or shadows. Any wild dogs or deer, as he privately thought the shapes must have been.
And then the arm darted across the tree line.
He and the men instantly rose up, and moved quickly, silently as they could—the shape was large, like a bear but walking on all fours. It fled from them, quick as a deer—but they were used to hunting deer. At last, they chased it to the shore of the sea. AS they drew close it turned—two golden eyes like a great lions shown in the moon light. Baqi felt a primal terror come over him as those eyes stayed fix as the head rotated away—and the beast leapt into the sea.
They built walls of wood to keep the beast at bay. They made wind chimes and trap wires—for they did not know what the beast desired, but it seemed fearsome and ill tempered. They sharpened spears for their defense, and laid pointed sticks around the places they planted new fruit trees, hoping to keep the creatures away from their prized plants.
They did this in vain.
They did not wait until night to descend upon the camp of the sailors—oily scaled skin and eyes like a lion. They came with a roar that sounded of death and put fear into every man’s heart, sending them fleeing from the walls they crudely made—carrying only a dozen or so of the golden fruits. They came and a mist of darkness swallowed the land behind them, as if the sea rose up.
The sailors fled up the island, behind the stone walls Baqi found long ago—where it seemed the strange beasts were loathe to go. They lit torches, and as night fell they stationed guards to see that the strange beasts did not overwhelm them.
“We cannot hold for long.” Baqi said as he walked in front of the flames. “At any moment, they might come upon us—and they are far more numerous then us. Still—we have trees in these walls, ones that might be of use. We can build a raft in the night, and flee before they come upon us stronger.”
“Flee? While they hold our gold?” Alaric said, standing up. “No, no, they cannot be allowed to keep it. We have arms—stones and slings we can make, and strike them down from this fortress, recoup our losses, and take back that grove!”
His response was met with cheers of the others among the grovesmen, although the hunters remained unsure.
“We have tools for hunting deer, Alaric, not for killing beasts bigger than a man.” Baqi countered. “We have a few spears and knives—”
“We have courage and will—and fire!” He said, gesturing at the bonfire. “And those can more than startle and scare away monsters of the night! If we aim true and with care, we can do so without our gold igniting!”
“Who cares for the fruit, our lives are on the line!” Baqi shouted. And when Alaric looked at him with rage, Baqi saw his eyes had taken on a gold shine. He did not remember what Alaric said, with those leonid eyes. But he felt them call to his blood—to the fruit he had consumed.
And then he knew he must flee in the night, or he too would be consumed.
“Do what you will.” Baqi said, stepping back, cutting through the haze of Alaric’s speech. “And I do what I.”
Baqi confessed he didn’t stay for the fight—he gathered those who were sane, and as the others heated spears and stones to make tools of war, they built something like a ship. Some drifted away from their work—eyes taking on a bronze or gold hue whenever they left.
As Baqi set the raft to shore, he turned to his fellows.
“If any of us are gripped by that madness, we must tie him to the raft and hope for the best.” He said solemnly. And then he inhaled sharply and sighed, and confided to the Sea Dane—he was the first to lose himself to that golden sound. It was like a great bell resonating in his ears. It was a thirst that couldn’t be slaked, a fire in his stomach that threatened to boil through his skin. His comrades restrained him, bound him to the crude mast.
At last, they came to friendly shores. And there, he told the Sea Dane, he began to recover—but the fire never really ended, and still he dreams of those stone walls and strange beasts.
I decided to tie this story in with the prior one (here) slightly, as a framing device. The story concept I think could be fleshed out much more, and I probably took on a longer narrative then needed. Next time! We return to the birds!