Excerpt – Immutable

Art by Maria Fanning

Chapter 1

The wind was cold that morning I found him. I remember. I’d come down to the beach when the sky was barely light. Fine rain misted my hair and clothes as I scrambled down the cliff path onto the sand.

I carried a basket on my back and began filling it with driftwood as I walked. Driftwood burns with a strange blue flame, but there were so few trees on the island it was the only type of wood we ever had to burn. Those who could afford it bought coal shipped over from the mainland. Me, I pick up the sea coal that washes ashore from the coal seams exposed under the water. I always pounced on a piece of that when I saw it, as if it were a diamond. Winter wasn’t far away. Ma wouldn’t make it through the winter if I didn’t keep the cottage warm enough.

I threw those thoughts off and continued along the beach, shoving driftwood in the basket, watching among the seaweed and pebbles for the precious sea coal. With my gaze glued to the sand, I didn’t spot the body until I was close enough to see instantly that it was a man. He lay on the wet sand, pale, almost gray in the morning light.

I ran, hoping—praying—not to find him dead. He was naked, but that didn’t surprise me. The sea can strip a body bare. I dropped the basket off my shoulders as I fell to my knees beside him. It toppled, spilling out its load.

The man lay facedown, his legs still in the surf, the waves breaking over them and ebbing as if trying to pull him back into the sea. He had skin as pale as ivory—not the skin of a sailor or fisherman exposed to the sun on deck all day. His exposed back was smooth and unmarked, without the tattoos or scars from the lash sailors often had. Hair as black as anthracite lay across his shoulders, a few strands of seaweed caught in it.

I laid a hand on him, fearing I’d find him cold and dead. But he was warm. I turned him onto his back. Nobody I knew. My island, Sula Skerry, was so small I knew the face and name of everyone who lived here. This face I’d never seen. This face… I’d never seen a face like it. Not even in schoolbooks about the legends of changelings and fair folk. For he was fair, God forgive me. I’d never seen a man so fair.

He lay against my arm, eyes closed, thick black lashes brushing cheeks marred only with wet sand. I touched his chest to feel if he still breathed. He did. I left my hand there, on that warm skin, as pale as the rest of him, one dark nipple under my palm.

“Cold….”

I gasped at the sound of a voice and stared down at his face. He’d opened his large and dark eyes. So dark I couldn’t say they were any color at all, like I can say mine are blue. They weren’t merely dark brown; they were black. He’d spoken, and his mouth, his well-shaped lips, moved again. “I’m cold.”

The wind on his wet, naked skin must have been sucking the heat from him. I had to get him somewhere warm. I pulled off my jacket and wrapped it around him. But his long legs were still naked, and his…. I tried hard not to look at his member, for that’s a sin.

“Can you stand?” I asked him, grateful we understood each other. Sailors had been washed ashore here before, who spoke languages none among the islanders understood. I helped him up, but he sagged against me and I had to catch him in my arms to keep him from falling. I’d never get him up the cliff path to the cottage in this state. If I ran for help, he’d be dead of cold before I got back. I had a better idea.

“Hold on to me.” I hauled him toward the cliff face, a hundred feet or so along the beach, dragging my basket behind me. Good thing I’d been coming down here since I was a boy, when Ma was the one collecting the driftwood, and I’d followed behind her, barefoot, searching for shells or stones with holes in them—those were lucky—and always the precious sea coals.

With him lolling against my side and leaning heavily on me, I reached the mouth of a small cave. I’d first found it when I was eight years old. I’d hidden in it, listening to Ma calling me. “Callum! Callum!” A game to me, frightening to her the first time, fear in her voice that I didn’t understand. The cave seemed huge then, like a cavern. Fifteen years later I had to stoop over as I went into it, and I could reach the back in only a few steps.

It lay well above the high tide mark and only the worst storms ever reached into it, so there was little on the floor but dry sand. Some lichen grew on the walls. Nothing else lived here since it got sunshine only at dawn, as the sun rose over to the east and lit this cave low in the cliff for little more than an hour.

I lowered the man to the floor of the cave and he lay there shivering, despite having my jacket wrapped around him. What should I do? Go to the cottage and fetch him some clothes? Go to the village and fetch the constable or the doctor? I felt a strange reluctance to bring anyone else. I wanted him to myself.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

“Breen,” he said, voice shaking as he spoke. “B… Breen.”

Breen? Where was that from? For all he spoke our language, he had a foreign look to him, with that coal black hair. Some of the shipwrecked sailors who washed up on the island before had skin browner than the most tanned and leathered of the shepherds and fishermen. This man had skin as pale as a highborn lady who’d never ventured out without a shady hat or parasol.

A fire. Yes. I could make a fire for him to warm himself by. I emptied my basket and built a fire at the mouth of the cave. Dried seaweed served for kindling, and I made a spark with the flint I had in my pocket. I blew softly on it until it caught and flames licked up. The wood ignited and the fire began to crackle. I hauled Breen closer to the mouth of the cave. A little smoke came in, but the wind was blowing from the north, down the beach, not from the sea, so most of the smoke blew away from us.

Breen sat up after a few minutes warming by the fire, pressed close against my shoulder. I didn’t know if the touch warmed him, but it sent a flush through me. Heat pooled low in my belly. I tried to ignore it. Mustn’t think on it. I could have left him then, gone up to fetch him some clothes from the cottage. He was out of the wind and had the fire and my jacket. He wouldn’t freeze in the time it took me to get there and back. But I didn’t want to go. I had a strange fear that if I let him out of my sight for even a minute he’d disappear.

“What’s your name?” he asked me suddenly, rousing me from a daydream, my mind full of… sin.

“Callum. Are you a sailor, Breen? Were you wrecked?”

“Wrecked?” He asked it as if he didn’t know what the word meant. He had an accent, not local, not even like the men who sometimes came from the mainland.

“Were you on a ship? Did it sink?”

“No. No ship.”

No ship? So how’d he come here? For he’d surely come out of the sea.

“A fishing boat?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I am here for you, Callum.”

“What?” I turned to him, thinking I’d misheard, or he’d misspoke, not knowing our language so well after all. His eyes were huge and so beautiful. Looking into them felt like falling into a tarn, or looking up into the night sky, at the velvet blackness.

“I have heard you call me,” he said, voice low, a dark, throbbing edge to it. He reached for me, his long fingers touching my face. Shock made me want to pull away. But the thrill down my spine at his touch—fingers still cold despite the fire—kept me riveted. I could no more stop him than I could fly. He leaned close. I thought he was speaking. His lips formed words, or perhaps my name, but my ears were full of the crashing of the waves and the crackle of the fire. His lips touched my mouth.


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