The Traveller

The little wooden boat, storm-tossed and tired, drifted across the still, blue sea to the island. The traveller was slumped exhausted in the bows. She was very young, this traveller, and she had travelled a long way alone, from the waste land.

The little boat nudged gently against the shore and the traveller hauled herself out and pulled the boat above the water-line. She was hungry, she was thirsty.

She was standing on a shingle beach, which sloped up the jagged, tawny boulders and dusty, barren soil. A few gnarled, dead pine trees, huge and silent, clung to the rocks. Rising above them was a mountain, tree-less, un-peopled, burned by the Sun. The traveller scrambled over the rocks, looking for a spring where she could drink, for her thirst clawed at her throat worse with every passing minute. She searched in vain: there was no spring, there were no fruit bushes. Was she to die of thirst?

Then, round a corner, lying in the open Sun among the rocks, she saw a huge wooden table, as fine and polished as any which stood in a king's hall. It was laden with the most fabulous fruit the traveller had ever seen.

Plums, soft peaches, piles of huge gleaming grapes, strawberries, raspberries, cherries like jewels, blackberries, melons, piles of brown figs, pink pears, nuts, oranges, blueberries, currents, blackberries, lychees, elderberries, exotic fruit the likes of which she had never seen. There were jellies, too, and trifles and little candied rose petals and lilac flowers and flagons of blood-red wine. All ripe, and pure, and fresh, untouched by the Sun or by wild, scurrying creatures.

The traveller decided to wait until whoever owned the table arrived. Then she would ask them permission to share their feast. After all, she would hate to steal. But the hours passed. The Sun rose high in the sky, noon came and went. And still the traveller grew hungrier and thirstier. Around mid-afternoon she could bear it no longer.

She sat down at the table, seized a bunch of grapes and stuffed one into her mouth. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever tasted. Sweet and fresh. Heaven. She ate more, she devoured the bunch. Then she reached for the raspberries, the pears, the plums. Everything she tasted was more delicious than the thing before. Just as she thought she could not taste more luscious fruit she did.

She ate her way through plate-fulls, she never seemed to get full. She supposed she must be very hungry. By the time evening fell, she had cleared the whole table.

She lay down among the rocks, exhausted, and slept deeply and dreamlessly. To-morrow she would get up to look for more water.

But to-morrow, when she woke up with hunger like a gaping pit inside her, the feast was back. Stunned, she sat down at the table again. Again she ate, again she cleared the table. And again she was still hungry when she lay down to sleep that night.

She woke the next morning weak with hunger and parched with thirst. Somehow, she dragged herself to the table, her limbs weak and shaking. She sat down. She ate. Every peach, every berry, every currant, felt like the first fruit she had ever tasted, the first fruit known to human-kind. She ate and ate, but grew no fuller. That night, she slept thin and shivering on the rocks, whipped by the cold night wind and with the life ebbing from her.

In the morning, when the Sun rose in a blaze of colour above the weak, trembling girl, she found, standing before her, a splendid stag. She reached for her knife to kill it, but the stag spoke.

"Are you thirsty?"

"Yes, terribly thirsty. And hungry."

"What have you had to eat and drink?"

The traveller looked at the feast, which spread as it always did on its magnificent wooden table. "That."

"That," said the beautiful stag, his face wise and kind, "is the Daemon King's feast".

"But if I ate it, why am I still hungry?"

"Because the Daemon King's feast is not good for humans. The food tastes good, you agree?"

"Very good."

"But that is all it does. It tastes good. It lures the hungry traveller back for more. But it cannot fill you up, cannot nourish you, it is not true food, and if you waste away before the Daemon King's table, then you will die of hunger and thirst."

"Am I going to die?"

"There is only one thing that can save you now. Climb to the top of mountain. There you will find a spring, of good, pure water. It will give you life and strength."

The traveller looked up at the towering, steep mountain. "I have to go up there?"
"It's your only hope."

And then the stag bounded away behind the pine trees.

The traveller picked herself up, panting and dizzy with thirst. She turned her back on the Daemon King's feast with every ounce of will-power she possessed. She began to climb the narrow, rocky path. Higher and higher she climbed. The rocks and thorns tore at her bare feet and they bled. She limped over the boulders, dizzyingly high, trying not to look down. Her legs burned like fire and shook so much she could barely stand.

Huge, poisonous-green, evil-eyed serpents slithered across the path. The traveller climbed the boulders to avoid them and their wicked glittering fangs.

When at last her head was spinning and she could barely stand, she reached the top of the mountain.

The bare rocks baked in the Sun. There was no spring. There was only heat and dust and desolation.

The traveller fell down on the boulders on the mountain-top under the searing blue sky and died. And there she lay until the eagles came down and tore out her eyes.