LAST REDOUBT

Birds stood in serried ranks upon dark, storm-tossed rocks frosted with generations of milky excrement. Despite useless wings and clumsy manner upon shore, with their black-and-white plumage and airy waving of heads, they had a certain formal dignity about them. Once, not so very long ago, they claimed the whole of the northern ocean as their home: from the forbidding islets of the Hebrides, all the way west to the bloated fisheries of Newfoundland, they had thrived. They had no need of flight, for they moved with sure swiftness and grace in a different medium: racing and tumbling through water as effectively as swallows dance in air. But then the men had found them. They were hunted first for their meat and eggs, then later for their feathers – hunted with industrial efficiency, cut down as implacably as the harvesting of wheat. Inexorably they disappeared from their ranges in the west, then in the east, until finally they were reduced to but a single colony on a lonely Atlantic island – a last redoubt.

Now they huddled in silent terror as a tide unlike any before surged in toward them. A tide of boiling water and sickly ebon bubbles of molten lava vomiting up from the depths: a tide of doom. There was a terrible hissing and roaring; the air was filled with scalding steam and flying, red-hot debris. The island shook, immovable stone flexing like putty, and was sundered. Shattered like discarded crockery into a thousand pieces, it disappeared beneath the seething, frothing waves, taking them with it. Mere hours later, it was as if the island had never existed, and birds had never nested upon its crags: all that remained was the empty, eternal sea.

Iceland, 1844

“That was the last anyone saw of the Garefowl,” said Gerda, with a faint shrug, “and that was fourteen years ago. I fear you are too late.”

Ansel drew thoughtfully on his pipe, watching flames dance in the guesthouse grate.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But Geirfuglasker is hardly the only outcropping offshore: there have been persistent rumours of birds on Eldey Island in the past decade - I hold out hopes of finding them. Oh, and incidentally, Miss Gerda, in Denmark we prefer to call them Great Auks.”

Again the shrug: Gerda was a stooped, white-haired woman, but her eyes were bright as sovereigns in a wishing well.

“You are no longer in Denmark, Sir – we may make obeisance to your monarchy, but we are our own people. I advise, if you wish the locals to assist your project, do not attempt to lord it over them.”

As a man of learning, it was novel for Ansel to be put down by an aged peasant. Nonplussed, he floundered for a riposte, but at that moment into the room stepped a young girl of quite uncommon beauty. Her free flowing hair was of a brown so deep and glossy it was almost ebon: she had a broad, generous face with the most perfect cheekbones, permanently etched with glowing pink. Her slender nose had a near aristocratic definition, while her thin lips were deceptively curvaceous. But above all it was her wide eyes, of vivid, searing blue, that caught attention. They put one in mind of the most exquisite stained glass, and if it were true that eyes were windows upon the soul, then these admitted only the purest of daylight. Beneath her largely shapeless peasant smock there was a hint of a generous, but not excessive figure. Though he would, of course, never entertain the notion of cavorting with a native, Ansel had at least taken enough note of this fine creature to already know she was Cariad Peterssen – Gerda’s niece.

“The gentleman’s room is ready, Auntie,” she announced with a curtsey.

“Thank you, Little One,” Gerda replied airily. Then, with a knowing smirk she added, “You’d better get going now – and don’t come back until you’ve gotten at least a kiss.”

The girl’s face lit up and blushed simultaneously as she sprinted eagerly for the Guesthouse’s front door. Ansel shot a quizzical look to his hostess.

“Sweethearts since childhood,” she said, again with that disarming shrug. “Except I’m not sure the other one yet realises.”

Ansel nodded sagely. “A shy one, I understand. Local lad?”

“Not exactly,” was the oblique response.

*

High summer in the Land of Ice: night and day merged into a continuum of ethereal azure, the air clear and crisp as meltwater. In her sturdy boots Cariad picked her way across mossy, thawed tundra – to the visitor, a desolate, treeless vista fenced by forbidding mountains jealously clasping their garlands of snow; but it was all she had ever known, or wanted. Her heart pounded with anticipation: this was the day, as decreed by herself and sanctioned by her all-wise aunt; the day she confessed her true feelings, and a lifelong friendship finally blossomed into the romance it was always meant to be.

And there, by the farm gate, pony tethered and grazing peacefully nearby, the object of all her affections. Garbed head-to-toe in subtly patterned cream, lush waves of pewter blonde projecting under a dainty bonnet; pale violet eyes aglow beneath sensuously arched brows; sinuous lips curled into a perfect smile: Cariad’s heart and stomach flipped like netted fish at the sight of her beloved. She could barely speak, but speak she must.

“Hello, Kristabel,” she said.

*

There was a banging on the door, and Ansel thought nothing of answering it. He found himself face-to-face with a handsome, blond, callow looking young man.

“Who the hell are you?” the youth snarled.

“I am the Guest,” replied Ansel patiently. “I am also a Dane, and I would appreciate being shown due respect.”

The boy shrugged awkwardly, bowing his head by way of apology.

“Sorry, Sir. Is Cariad in?”

“No,” Ansel answered genially. “I understand she is out seeing her boyfriend.”

The boy’s head snapped up; his eyes were venomous.

“I’m her boyfriend,” he said quietly.

Utterly thrown, Ansel could only stare. His confusion was compounded as Gerda arrived at her door like a particularly powerful gust of wind.

“What are you hanging around here for, Ivan Elkesson?”

“I want to see Cariad,” the boy countered, standing his ground.

“Well she doesn’t want to see you. Now, disappear before I take a broom to your arse.”

The youth had barely turned away before the door slammed behind him like a thunderclap. Ansel regarded Gerda’s ruddy face with bewilderment.

“He claims he’s your niece’s beau. I thought…”

“That halfwit claims many things, not least that he’ll be a fisherman one day, like his father. Forget him, your supper’s ready.”

Ansel hated ambiguity above all else, and he could feel a headache coming on. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“But does Cariad have a boyfriend, or not?” he asked feebly.

“No, of course she doesn’t,” was the stern response - and that was that.

*

Hand in hand, they walked to a favoured spot, on rising ground where black rocks protruded from the earth like the casts of leviathan worms, and the wind whistled elusive, atonal harmonies. Spread below them was the village, its patchwork fields and tiny houses huddled together for protection; and beyond the great Atlantic, roiling and foaming, eternally restless even such a beatific day. But for Cariad no vista could compare with the unalloyed beauty of her intended – Kristabel Elkesson.

The soft fullness of her face, cheeks like a full moon seen through a thin veil of cloud; the unexpectedly strong projecting curve of her chin; the dainty curl of her pixie nose; the flawless escarpment of her ivory brow. The dream of that face filled Cariad’s nights and her working day – its reality was almost more than she could bear.

“Kristabel…” she began, hesitantly. Those speedwell eyes turned towards her, brows looped quizzically; lips set in expectant half-smile. “How long have we been friends?”

“Fifteen years, silly – you know that. I was eight when Mother took on the farm, after – well, you know. You were only eleven, but you seemed so grown-up to me then. It wasn’t long after that Geirfugl Island fell into the sea – remember I cried because all the birds had drowned, and you comforted me?”

“I remember,” Cariad nodded. She squeezed Kristabel’s hand feebly, then slapped her own free hand against her cheek. “Oh God, I’m making such a hash of this – Gerda would cringe. Kristabel, what I’m trying to say is…”

“That you’re in love with me,” came the simple response. “You’ve been in love with me for years, but you’ve never had the heart to say it, in case I was scared off.”

Cariad’s eyes bulged blue to challenge the skies; her mouth fell open.

“Your Aunt leaves nothing to chance,” said Kristabel, a sly smile ripening on her caterpillar mouth.

“Every time I visit your house, she has a ‘quiet word’ – keeps telling me I have a secret admirer. She knows I’m not stupid.”

“So…” said Cariad, with a mighty exhalation, “are you scared off?”

“I’m here, aren’t I? So why don’t you just ask what you intended to ask, and see what happens?”

Cariad drew breath: “May I kiss you?”

Kristabel stepped forward, sweeping her soft arms around Cariad’s shoulders, and their lips met forcefully. Cariad found it vaguely disappointing - no thunderclap, no aurora lights, just the softness of a girl’s lips, as expected. Nonetheless her heart was rolling like a drum, her hands gripping Kristabel’s waist as if her life depended upon it. Their kisses were delicate as raindrops, but one upon the other they were a vibrant stream. Fumbling awkwardly, they didn’t know where to start, or stop. Kristabel’s bonnet slipped from her head, freeing streamers of purest platinum, and almost blew away. They giggled as girls do, as friends do, as lovers do.

“Does this mean we’re courting?” asked Cariad, a trifle breathless.

Kristabel nodded, her smile a shy crescent of pearl. Then her face fell abruptly into abject seriousness.

“Oh my God, I just thought – Ivan. How on earth do I explain this to my baby brother?”

*

After supper, Ansel decided to take a walk. Without hiking boots, and with the absence of roads in this primitive land, his options were reduced to village or shore – he chose the shore. Passing the tumbledown timber quay where rickety fishing boats moored in schools like pilot whales, he stepped onto a dark, rocky, forbidding tideline. He had not gone far when he spotted a seated figure, staring out to sea and smoking contemplatively – it was ‘Ivan’, the young man that had called at Gerda’s. Settling beside the boy, Ansel cadged a light for his pipe, as prelude to striking up a conversation.

“So – you carry a torch for the lovely Cariad, eh?”

The youth grunted. “She’s the fairest maid in this region, ‘cept perhaps for my own sister. But I can’t get near her ‘cause of that dragon of an aunt.”

“Oh, Gerda’s not so bad. I could put in a word for you, if you like.”

The boy looked sidelong at him. “What good would that do?”

“Don’t forget, lad, I am a Dane – your superior, and Gerda’s. My word carries great weight in this little backwater, as does my wealth.”

Ivan shrugged. “S’pose. I just wish I could do something, to make Cariad notice me.”

“Perhaps you can,” replied Ansel indulgently. “You could help me get over to Eldey.”

The boy stared at him a moment, then broke into raucous laughter.

“You’re crazy. Everybody knows Eldey’s a deathtrap – sheer rock on all sides. Why would anyone want to go there?”

“I am on a mission sanctioned by the Danish Scientific Committee,” Ansel explained, patiently. “My purpose is to investigate rumours of the survival of Great Auks – what you refer to as Garefowl – and, if confirmed, to secure specimens. Anyone who assists me will not only demonstrate great bravery, but also be handsomely rewarded: there are few maidens that could resist such a potent combination.”

Ivan drew thoughtfully on his pipe.

“You’d need a boat – a good one, strong enough to take a surge.”

“And where might I get such a vessel?”

“Talk to Gunnar Olafsson,” said Ivan, nodding in the direction of the quay. “If he says it’s possible, then perhaps we can cut a deal.”

*

Gerda did not require any of her fabled instincts to guess how the assignation had gone: Cariad’s cheeks had a glow to challenge the fire, constantly accentuated by an ivory smile she could not suppress.

“Success, I take it?”

“Oh Gerda, it was wonderful,” Cariad gushed. “We kissed and we kissed, and I held her, and she was so soft and warm and lovely, just as I’d always dreamed. And now I feel so strange, like my feet aren’t touching the ground and I keep wanting to laugh and sing.” She did a dainty twirl in the middle of the floor. “Our guest will think I’ve gone mad.”

“Don’t worry about him – he’s out. So: are you going to pop the question?”

Cariad stopped twirling, face abruptly serious. “D’you think I should? So soon?”

“Why not? You’ve loved her for ten years, and now you know she loves you, so what’s the use in waiting? Lives are short, my Precious – both of you know that better than most.”

“Kristabel’s worried about what her brother will think.”

“That dunderhead?” Gerda tutted. “I’d be more worried about her mother – she’s bound to object, at first: Marni would object to the stars shining at night.”

“But then what would we do? Where could we go?”

“I’ve told you a thousand times, child – you could live here. I have rooms going to waste as it is, and what’s one more place at the dinner table?”

Cariad knelt beside her aunt, burying her head in the old woman’s lap.

“Oh Auntie, you make things so easy for me – I don’t deserve it.”

“Nonsense: you are my brother’s child, and you have all his qualities and more. How could anyone deny you happiness?”

Cariad nestled awhile, basking in the combined warmth of her aunt and the welcoming fire. Gerda knew there was something else on her mind, and waited with the infinite patience of the elderly.

“Gerda?”

“Hmm?”

“When we – well, you know. What will it be like?”

Gerda gently stroked the top of her head.

“If you are compatible, and God smiles upon the union, then it will be the sweetest, most sublime thing you can experience. The bonding of hearts leads to the bonding of bodies; and the bonding of bodies can lead to a bonding of souls – I believe you and Kristabel were meant to be, my child.”

Cariad smiled, safe in the old woman’s enveloping, sturdy warmth. Without realising, she drifted into a contented sleep.

*

Olafsson was a big man, grizzled beyond his likely years. He was not happy.

“What do you mean, calling at such an ungodly hour?” he barked.

“So long as there is light in the sky, it cannot be late,” Ansel countered. “I am a Dane, sir, of considerable wealth: I wish to hire a boat tomorrow.”

Huge, spidery eyebrows curled quizzically. “What for?”

“I intend to make a landing on Eldey Island.”

Ansel had braced himself for a mirthful response, but he was unprepared for the intensity of Olafsson’s guffaws, roaring like rocks grinding together. And once the man divined he was utterly serious, and that he intended to employ young Elkesson, well that merely set him off again.

“You are indeed a Dane, my friend – only a Dane could hatch such a madcap scheme.”

Ansel bridled, but he knew he needed that boat.

“I undertake the expedition at my own risk,” he said firmly. “Name your price for the hire.”

“There is nothing you could offer me, Man of Denmark.”

Ansel stood his ground. “Nothing at all?”

A slow leer spread across the big man’s face. “Well now, if you could deliver me young Ivan’s luscious sister, then maybe. Otherwise….”

Whereupon, Ansel found himself staring at a door slammed in his face.

*

Her guest was so morbidly brooding when he finally returned to his lodgings, that Gerda almost took pity on him. She insisted he share a tot of her finest before retiring, and as near neat alcohol permeated his veins, Ansel’s world took on an altogether more pleasant aspect.

“So how come you never married, Gerda?” he asked amiably.

The trademark shrug. “I s’pose I was never really tempted. Well, once, a long time ago, but that didn’t work out. Then there always seemed other things to do: my brother’s wife died bringing Cariad into the world, so I raised the child and kept his house. Then, when he too passed on, it was just Cariad, this place, and me.”

“What happened to him?”

“He drowned, trying to save a fellow fisherman – Jan Elkesson.”

Mildly inebriated as he was, Ansel did not make the connection immediately.

“So much tragedy in one family,” he mused. “How could you bear it?”

“Tragedy is one of the threads that binds our people together,” Gerda answered firmly. “We depend upon the sea for food, for wealth – but we know the sea extracts its own price down the years.”

Ansel nodded, and as he did so the vague thoughts in his muzzy brain finally coalesced.

“Elkesson, you said – young Ivan’s father? So why are you opposed to a match with Cariad, given the link between your families?”

“You understand nothing, my good Dane,” said Gerda, a touch patronising. “Ivan is not worthy.”

Ansel sagged deep into his chair. “Well then, the one who is worthy must be special indeed. I hope to meet him one day.”

“Oh, you will,” Gerda grinned slyly. “Depend upon it.”

The rest of that night was a blur. Somehow, Ansel made his way to bed, falling into deep slumber while only half undressed. He found himself dreaming in vivid black-and-white: he was walking on a fogbound shore, towards a shadowy figure holding a basket. That figure was Cariad, her hair wet, coiled and clinging with the heavy mist. She held the basket towards him – it contained eels, freshly caught and still writhing spastically. He tried to grab one, but it slithered through his hand. The more frantically he grabbed, the more they eluded him. He laughed; Cariad laughed. Then an eel shot up through his fingers, over the basket’s edge, and disappeared down the front of the girl’s dress. Without thinking he reached in after it…

Ansel awoke suddenly, a vague feeling of warm wet bliss still clinging. The sky was light, but that meant little. He became aware of something sticky trickling coldly down his leg, and slowly realised what it was. After all these years: a wet dream.

*

“No, no, no! I absolutely forbid it!”

The Widow Elkesson was in full fury, and Kristabel cowered over her breakfast. Fortunately, the anger was not being directed at her - yet.

“But Momma,” Ivan countered feebly, “I’m full-grown now, and I know how to handle a skiff…”

“You know nothing!” his mother screeched. “Just like your father, thinking you’re immortal, that somehow you can tame the oceans. Well he died for his hubris, and you’ll die too. You are not going to sea – not now, not ever.”

Ivan’s face darkened, but he did not respond. Instead he stole quietly out of the kitchen. Marni took a deep breath, forcing back the tears that misted her eyes. She looked at Kristabel.

“And what are you looking so guilty about?”

Nervously, Kristabel got up from her chair.

“I’ve got something to tell you, Momma.”

*

Ivan ran, hard and fierce, down to the shore. It didn’t take long to find Ansel, in his fancy clothes, deep in negotiation with a boat owner.

“Olafsson turned me down,” he said sourly. “But this man’s lending me a dinghy, for a good price.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ivan snapped. “I’m ready – let’s go.”

“Right now?” Ansel was taken aback. “But the tide is barely…”

“I said, let’s go,” Ivan barked. Involuntarily Ansel rubbed his temple – these Icelanders were even stranger than he’d been led to believe.

*

Kristabel waited at the usual spot, tear tracks dried across her face like furrows in old mud. Fishing boats like tiny flotsam bobbed tentatively on the waves below. She watched as Cariad came gaily swaying along the path – her smile, even at distance, brighter than a winter moon. But as she neared, Cariad’s face crumbled into deep concern, and she ran the last few yards whereupon Kristabel fell sobbing into her arms.

“Kristabel, darling, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, Cariad, it was awful. I told mama, right after breakfast, and… and she threw me out. She said it was a disgusting idea – there was no way we could be lovers.”

“We’ll see about that,” Cariad spat, drawing herself up stiffly. “I’m going to have a word with your mother, right now.”

“No, no,” Kristabel snatched at her arm. “You’ll only make it worse. It was my fault – Ivan had already wound her up, and I just compounded things. But she’s right isn’t she – two girls can’t really be a couple, can they?”

“Is that what you think?” Cariad’s eyes were piercing bolts of blue.

“No, of course not, but – how do we prove our love? How can we demonstrate it to the world?”

“With this,” said Cariad simply, fishing in her pocket. She produced an exquisite copper ring, set with a delicate swirling pattern of amber and jet. Kristabel stared, awestruck.

“Where did you get such a thing?”

“It was my mother’s. Aunt Gerda has been keeping it safe for an occasion such as this.” She deposited the ring into Kristabel’s trembling palm.

“Marry me,” she said.

*

Ansel fancied he saw the girl, a fluttering speck of white climbing up the high ground, before matters at hand subsumed his attention. He pushed the thought of her to the back of his mind, not wanting to dwell upon the dream or its meaning.

The sea had lulled them into a false sense of security. Essentially beatific when they left, as they neared the forbidding escarpment of Eldey it began to froth and bellow, pitching their tiny craft back and forth like a coin walked across a barfly’s knuckles. They tacked in close, delicately poised between the wind and the shoving of the waves, seeking a weakness in the walls of rock. Spindrift, stinging and venomous, lashed into their eyes.

Ansel blinked through glutinous tears of salt while Ivan wrestled with sail and rudder. It had dawned on Ansel – too late – that his young companion’s seamanship was almost entirely theoretical in nature.

“For Christ’s sake, keep her steady,” he bawled, trying to stand. Ivan muttered something under his breath and continued struggling. Ansel braced himself against the mast, carefully coiling a mooring rope around his arm, then tying a constricting loop like a hangman’s noose on one end. As the boat lurched perilously close to the dark rock he studied its contours, seeking a likely anchor point. At the last possible moment he hurled the loop up and away – it draped itself around a projecting outcrop, and stuck. Quickly, fighting vicious yawing, Ansel tugged on the rope: the noose slipped a fraction before tightening and holding fast. With sharp pulls he tested its security, while Ivan looked on impressed.

“I’m going up there,” he shouted. “Keep her in as close as you dare.”

“You’re crazy,” Ivan barked in response.

“I am a Dane,” Ansel growled, grasping the rope with both hands and committing his full weight. It tautened instantly, frighteningly, almost smashing him against the sheer face with the sudden recoil. Ansel cursed and managed to bring up his legs so his feet cushioned the impact – nonetheless it jarred, and hurt. The height of the cliff seemed negligible – barely ten feet – but as he climbed tentatively the rope fought him, flexing violently with the constant motion below, burning his hands and threatening to snatch him clean off the rock. Halfway through, a sudden vortex of water came barreling up, crashing over him like breaking glass: from the corner of his eye he glimpsed something popping out of the surge like a cork from a bottle, the merest flash of piebald. It was almost too fleeting to be real, but it spurred him on to scrabble the last few inches. Putting his head above the stony parapet, he gazed upon the most elusive of treasures.

The Great Auk that had just effortlessly emerged from the tide (he assumed it was a male) shook its head and fluffed its feathers, dispelling clinging droplets. Its smooth, glossy back was a deep sable, clearly delineated from the dazzling snow white of the massive breast. Straddling this line, the atrophied, pathetically small wings flapped comically, tiny black wedges fringed with ivory. The feet were huge, the tail a mere nub, like an afterthought. The long head boasted a fearsome, silver-grey serrated bill; tiny orbits were all but invisible behind white patches showing vivid against shades of darkest night. Away from the water, the creature was reduced to feeble lumbering – it hopped awkwardly away from him, and as it did so he realised thrillingly that it had a mate. They rubbed bills and necks in a gesture of affection, and it was then that Ansel glimpsed the greatest treasure of all. At the feet of what he took to be the female nestled a tapering, pale yellow egg; spattered with wildly spiraling lines of dark brown like drips upon an artist’s palette. Ansel could scarce contain his excitement, and he was about to call down to Ivan when he felt the rope slacken unexpectedly. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the dinghy listing at a strange angle, half capsized - Ivan floundering in the surf close by. Cursing, Ansel released his grip on the rocks, sliding rapidly and painfully down the rope. He caromed off the side of the boat and hit the water with a violent splash. Flailing, he clung desperately to the rope with one hand, and with the other he grasped Ivan, hauling his head above water. Strength fuelled and magnified by adrenaline and desperation, he managed to drag himself and the boy over the side of the boat, and their combined mass righted it a fraction. With frantic bailing they were able to set it on an even keel, albeit uncomfortably low in the water. Ansel gritted his teeth, straightening the sail with trembling arms, then set a course for the mainland while Ivan continued bailing dolefully. Not until they were absolutely certain of safety did further words pass between them.

“You were right,” Ansel shouted above the relentless pounding of the tide. “We need a stronger boat. I bet with Olafsson’s help we could make a landing.”

Ivan looked aghast. “You mean, you still want me along? Even though you know I can’t sail?”

“You sail well enough,” said Ansel with a grin. “But more important, you’re brave – that’s a Danish quality, Boy.”

Breathless and bedraggled, they beached the dinghy, then trudged in squelching, waterlogged footsteps to the guesthouse. Their pathetic state temporarily overwhelmed Gerda’s antipathy towards young Ivan, and she fetched them dry clothes and warming blankets, plus a ‘medicinal’ tot or two. Much as Ansel appreciated the TLC, he felt it would be far more pleasurable coming from Cariad, and he knew his young companion felt exactly the same.

“And where is your niece just now?” he asked, with exaggerated casualness.

“Out,” replied Gerda distractedly. “She’s making arrangements for her intended to move in here.”

“Her intended?” A flare of sudden anger seemed to warm Ivan from within. Gerda looked at him strangely.

“You don’t know? Marni hasn’t told you?” She chuckled, then shrugged. “Oh well – I expect them back any minute, so soon the whole world will know.”

As if on cue, the front door was opened with a babble of excited voices. There was the sound of bags being flung down, before Cariad and Kristabel strolled ebulliently into the crowded parlour. They stopped dead, blinking.

“Ivan?” Kristabel queried. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Your baby brother tried to drown himself and my only paying guest, fool that he is,” Gerda snorted. She glanced meaningfully at Cariad. “Well, Child, you have an audience – is there something you want to say?”

Cariad fluttered her eyelids shyly, blushing, and a helpless smile lit up her face like a lantern.

“I asked Kristabel to be my wife,” she blurted in a rush. “And she said, ‘yes’

*

Cariad smiled shyly, brushing dark locks back from her eyes. Slowly, teasingly, she slipped the bow of her nightgown, and it fell away to reveal sumptuous nudity. She glanced at Ansel’s penis, huge and hard, as it throbbed between them, before turning away and sprawling across the bed. Her magnificent backside loomed before him like mountains. He put his hands on her buttocks, spreading them, stretching her anus preternaturally wide and inviting. He slipped inside her easily, completely, and it was the most sublime feeling he had ever experienced. Without effort, he climaxed. He woke up.

Another one: Ansel shuffled in shameful sticky misery to the window, the huddled buildings of this strange little place blurring in the surrealistic half-light of non-night. He lit his pipe, smoking slowly and silently, trying to still the thoughts tumbling through his mind like laundry in a washerwoman’s pot.

He was falling in love with Cariad – he knew it, and there was nothing his intellect or innate Danish prejudice could do to prevent it. When this insane and perverse liaison with the vacuous blonde Kristabel had been revealed, he had been more jealous than properly shocked, which disturbed him. And when young Ivan had taken personal umbrage, storming from the guesthouse like an angry firecracker, Ansel had felt less righteous sympathy than a vague satisfaction that a rival had been eliminated. It was madness, utter and complete, and he wondered if the peculiarities of this place were beginning to seep into his mind.

The sound of low voices, suppressed laughter in the room next to his, jerked him from reverie. He sat bolt upright, heart palpitating with a dizzying admixture of horror and eroticism. Even now, he could scarce believe what was about to happen, or indeed that Gerda should have not only condoned but actively encouraged its occurrence. One heard stories of such things, on the gleaming streets of Copenhagen and other cities, but nothing quite so brazen as in this culturally retarded hovel.

More murmurs from the room next door: the wall seemed to have become suddenly paper-thin. Feeling like a schoolboy criminal, Ansel crept soundlessly over to it. He pressed his ear to the daub, and held his breath…

The cold blue of the windowpane was softened by the dancing glow of a candle. They had lain beside each other on the bed, there being nowhere else, still clothed and talking in furtive whispers about everything and nothing. But eventually words ran dry as a dammed river, replaced by long silences, awkward fumbling with lacings and hair, feigned intimations of unsought sleep. It was their first night together, as the lovers they purported to be, and a palpable sense of a thing not done had descended upon them.

Cariad reached across, gently squeezing Kristabel’s hand as she snuggled her cheek against strands of glowing gold.

“Are you frightened?” she whispered.

“A little. It’s just – I’m afraid of being a disappointment.”

“You could never disappoint, my love,” Cariad squeezed the hand harder.

“Did Gerda… tell you anything?”

“She’s dropped hints, but that’s all. She says finding out is all part of the pleasure.”

“Well,” said Kristabel, reaching up to stroke her beloved’s cheek, “I guess it’s time we started finding out.”

They kissed: a slow, soft, sustained kiss that bonded them the way wet fingers bond to ice. Cariad closed her eyes, aware of nothing but warm sweetness filling her mouth, the rushing of blood through her temples, and their breathing as it accelerated imperceptibly. They parted, retreating to opposite sides of the bed, and started to disrobe: trying not to look, but unable to stop themselves. And in between the blushes, the giggles and coy smiles, Cariad became aware of something new – a simmering, tingling hum that danced upon her lips, across her heart, below her waist and in her fingers. Darkly tactile, it crept upon her like hunger, and suddenly she didn’t feel like laughing anymore.

Kristabel, nude in candlelight: her hands wrapped shyly about her waist, head demurely tilted so the hair curled away from one flawless cheek, violet eyes lowering. The soft hang of her breasts, their curve below her sternum subtly concave before they swelled and parted, to bubble voluptuously upon stout flesh shielding the framework of her ribs. The nipples were broad, tawny cones, curled provocatively out and up, innately swelling: Kristabel trembled faintly, and in a foolish moment Cariad wondered if her intended was cold. But she herself was all a-quiver, her own breasts feeling unaccustomedly full, the nipples tight and sensitive – and she was anything but cold.

Hesitantly, they lack back down on the bed, facing each other. Kristabel relished the way Cariad’s hair pooled like shiny black water on the pillow – her lips pursed, blue eyes expectantly aglow. Kristabel’s own mouth was dry, but elsewhere there was an unmistakable, tingling moistness: a sensation previously unknown, yet innately comprehended. Very lightly she ran her fingertips over Cariad’s shoulder, down to the crook of her elbow, then on along her forearm – soft static crackled from downy, silvery hairs. She took Cariad’s hand, and with great deliberation guided it between her legs, one of which she drew up slightly to facilitate. She tried to brace herself for the sensation, but could not stop herself gasping and shuddering at the unalloyed intimacy of it. It was shocking, like stepping into a freezing sea, but that shock soon evaporated to a fleeting, vague memory. Instead came bubbling excitement, and more, an aching sense of openness and accommodation: for the first time, it dawned on her just how wet she was, and she longed for Cariad to discover the fact.

For her part, Cariad could scarce believe this was happening. Crisp curls, the colour of dark sand, brushed her fingers; and their tips knew the outline of a silky chasm, pulsing with the promise of concealed depths of heat and damp. When Kristabel released her wrist, she could do nothing for a seeming age, not even breathe: then at last she began to timidly stroke and probe, flesh softening to her touch like soft wax to a flame. The effect on Kristabel was immediate, astonishing: a sudden stab of tension ebbing swiftly to a tidewater sigh of blissful relaxation. Kristabel’s eyes closed, her throat lifted; her lips drew back to a circle of suspended ecstasy, and her beautiful bosom rose and fell like pale taut-crested waves. Beneath Cariad’s fingertips the pliant flesh yielded, seeming to draw back; exposing sticky slickness, hot to the touch and faintly unsettling. Kristabel moaned, hips rising – she seemed distant, lost in a world of her own, and Cariad wanted to bring her back. She leaned across, fastening her lips upon her beloved’s: dry friction blurred quickly into warm, frothing fluidity; their tongues merged, quivering and massive as droplets on a spider’s thread. As they did, Kristabel opened to her lover’s touch, fully and decisively as a shell in water. All at once there was no flesh, no resistance – Cariad’s fingers slid in a conduit of moist elasticity that pulsed rhythmically, enfolding her intruding digits. Cariad could feel sweat beading on her forehead; her hair felt heavy and lank; her heart pounded and her body trembled. Without realising it she was echoing the soft mewling in her darling’s throat, and heavy breath flared their nostrils as the kiss became perpetual. Not wanting to break the spell she’d created, unsure even of what she was doing or why; Cariad probed, trying to match the curl of her fingers to the constant flex and reconfigure of Kristabel’s inner softness – it didn’t work. There was a sudden catch in her darling’s throat, and the perfect faced creased in discomfort. Cariad removed her fingers instantly – they had gone numb from the effort.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Kristabel looked up at her with moist, glittering eyes.

“It’s alright. It’s just… there’s no need to rush, my darling. We have all night: we have a lifetime, if need be.”

A massive sense of longing and inadequacy dragged at Cariad’s heart. She had imagined this night, pictured it in her most secret fantasies, but now it was here she seemed unable to make it happen. She gazed at the body beside her, so vibrant and so enticing, and felt helpless. Perhaps Gerda was wrong – what pleasure could be gained from awkward fumbling? Kristabel seemed to sense her despondency, for she raised herself suddenly, strong arms enfolding Cariad, as kissed her with a passion that was like raking a fire. Spittle like honeydew filled Cariad’s mouth; she breathed in soft pale skin and wild blonde waves, and fell in love all over again.

Kristabel, unaccustomedly forceful, rolled her onto her back, kisses smothering whatever protests or questions she might frame. Golden hair like spun sugar splashed across her breasts, making them ache monstrously. Kristabel lowered her head, soft lips nuzzling the dark fringe of one areola; the tip of her tongue skittered over the straining teat. Cariad could not stop herself crying out, eyelashes fluttering wildly. She put her hands to her head, unsure what to do with them, as Kristabel gently but ruthlessly suckled her yearning breasts. Then Kristabel shifted lower, kissing her way down Cariad’s sumptuously fleshy torso: Cariad’s ache surged ahead of her, plunging down from her bosom to erupt in a slash of sodden fire below her belly. She was wet now; wetter than Kristabel, wetter than she could have imagined: and the thought of what her lover was about to do only added to her inner flow. She raised her pelvis slightly, letting her knees part: Kristabel paused nervously, one hand upon Cariad’s stomach, her cheek pressed against the tawny satin of a thigh; gazing upon the abundant thicket of silver-black curls, and the scarlet seam that glistened through them. She breathed deeply.

“The sea,” she whispered, voice awestruck: “it’s just like the sea.”

She dipped her head decisively, and raw sensation flared out from Cariad’s loins, making her cry out in an involuntary gasp. It was so strong that Cariad’s immediate urge was to squirm away – she grit her teeth and braced herself as though fighting some great silent gale. Kristabel’s tongue, around and in her vulva, felt massive, a flaming torch probing her vitals: each delicate lick transmuted into a voluptuous tremor of nigh unbearable feeling. Cariad tried to stop herself moaning incoherently; when that failed, she tried to come up with words, but all that flickered across her diminishing consciousness were vague, unformed obscenities. Her arms flailed stupidly, wrists thumping the headboard and pillows, fingers tangled in the damp tendrils of her own hair. The back of one hand trailed idly across a swollen breast, and the sensation was so acutely harmonised she could not resist pursuing it. She ran her fingertips across her distended nipples, and found herself shivering uncontrollably. She couldn’t tell if what she was experiencing was pleasurable or not: it was consuming her, and it had to be indulged. Before long she was openly playing with her breasts, almost revelling in the feeling of bloated massiveness.

The change was so fast and subtle she barely noted it: a delicate switching, like a musical key. The aching fire in which she burned seemed to change direction, flowing out instead of in, accelerating like a loose boulder tumbles down a cliff. Without realising, she had lifted her whole body clear of the mattress, pushing up against Kristabel’s relentlessly intruding tongue. It was almost upon her before she could appreciate what was happening, and somewhere in a dim corner of her mind she knew that Gerda had been right, as ever: it was more fun to find out. The event – how else to describe it? – was beyond her articulation; but not its adored authoress.

“Kristabel,” she cried, and felt she should say more in the seconds left to her. But only one word could speak of the utter decisiveness that filled her: “Yes.”

“Yes”. She moaned it, panted it, screamed it: uncaring of who might listen, oblivious to all but the silent thunder of release and the utter love it symbolised and expressed. The peak was fleeting gossamer, unable to be truly savoured – that would surely come later. Cariad lay sweating, gasping for breath, yet somehow she was completely at peace. Kristabel – how brave, how giving she was! – snuggled up into her embrace, warm skin like a healing balm. A soft kiss upon her cheek, faintly sticky with her spent passion, and Cariad slept.

In his cold, silent corner, Ansel heard it all: into the small, dismal hours he listened as the one who filled his ragged thoughts surrendered herself to the unnatural caresses of another woman. He drifted into doleful sleep with cries of perverse passion ringing in his ears, and his last conscious thoughts were of retribution.

*