::Acquired Taste

The Website of Tim Stretton

::The Storm and the Cave Facts

The story is a companion piece to "The Betrayal".  Its primary purpose was to fulfil a course requirement for my management development training. 


The Zael Inheritance


The Dog of the North

The Storm and the Cave

The Betrayal

Granny Gaes Car Booting

Setting the Standard




About Acquired Taste

::The Storm and the Cave (2003)

In 2002 I began a management development programme at work.  Creativity was encouraged, and "The Storm and the Cave" formed part of my 'personal development plan'.  In this context it may or may not have been successful, but as a stand-alone piece of fiction it has worn better than I expected.

The strengths of the story lie in the unforced reflective mood, and the gentle narrative reversal at the end. More work would not make it a better story, so I leave it as it is.



The storm had passed; small consolation to Mirko as he lay on the beach. The waves which had dashed him from the observation platform of Serendipity seemed an unimaginably distant memory. But he was alive, and sooner or later, Catzendralle, with her remarkable gifts, would work out where he was and bring the galley back for him.
He raised himself unsteadily to his feet and looked around. Several substantial pieces of wood lay on the beach; Mirko recognised them as galley wreckage. Serendipity had managed to escape the storm, but it looked as if at least one galley had been less lucky. The storms on the Aylissian coast were notorious; and Mirko wondered if this cove wasn’t the infamous ‘Galleys’ Graveyard’.
    Looking up the beach he saw to his left a thickly-clustered wood or orchard stretching away, and to his right a gently-sloping series of hills leading by imperceptible degrees to the mountains blotting the horizon. The topography was familiar by reputation to every mariner: this really was Galleys’ Graveyard, where the combination of frequent storms and the prevailing wind inevitably forced galleys rash enough to chance the weather.
Mirko wandered over to the orchard and plucked a mangri-fruit. At the very least he would not starve, although for a fact his diet might soon become monotonous.
    After eating his fill an idea occurred to him. By popular repute Galleys’ Graveyard was also the residence of the Augurant, a wise-woman with the gift of prophecy. Mirko would normally have scoffed at such a notion, but his recent experience with Catzendralle’s unusual abilities had diluted his scepticism somewhat. In any event, he had nothing better to do; he suspected it would be several days, at best, before Serendipity could return.
    The sunlight was beginning to fade by the time Mirko’s keen eyes picked out the entrance to the cave almost concealed behind a screen of foliage. Could there really be anyone inside? Regardless, it looked it sheltered place to spend the night, and the air already hinted at the sun-bereft chill to come.
    Walking quietly, his heart pounding – after all, the cave might be the lair not of some toothless crone but a wild beast – he gently lifted the branches aside.  In front of him he saw neither crone nor beast, but a young woman with a cap of short dark curls, large blue eyes and a composure no-one that age trapped in a cave had any right to. Mirko took his hand away from his sword-hilt to indicate his peaceable intentions. The woman smiled, beckoned him to sit down on a rough seat carved from the rock.
    Mirko gathered himself and asked: “Are you – the Augurant?”
    The woman inclined her head with a half-smile. “Does that surprise you?”
    Mirko’s preconceptions of the Augurant had been conditioned by the idea of an elderly woman of few personal charms, a point he felt unequal to introducing into the conversation at such an early stage of acquaintance.
    “In no way,” he said. “You are the sole occupant of the Augurant’s cave: it does not stretch my credulity to believe you hold the post.”
    The Augurant smiled again. “Since you are here, you may ask such questions as you choose. I know you have been shipwrecked.”
    Mirko was impressed. “Remarkable!”
    “Not really: your state of attire – and the seaweed in your hair -- leads to no other conclusion. I need no supernatural powers here.”
    The interview was not going the way Mirko had expected. Oracles were meant to be wizened, cryptic, ineffable. The woman in front of him manifested none of these qualities – especially the ‘wizened’.
    “Before we begin the consultation, may I ask your name; and how many questions I can ask?”
    “My name is Jalen,” she said with a smile, “and I am not some cheap fairground fortune-teller. We have all night; ask as many questions as you choose.”
    Mirko paused for a moment. “With such a broad canvas I hardly know where to begin.”
    Jalen leant back against the wall of the cave, negligently casting another stick on the fire she had set against the chill. “Let’s make it easy for me,” she said. “You tell me about yourself; we’ll take it from there.”
    “Don’t you already know? You’re the Augurant.”
    Jalen frowned. “There’s a difference between an oracle and a bloody mind-reader,” she said. “The more you tell me, the more I can help you. Why don’t you tell me how you got here?”
    Mirko stood up and began to pace the cave. “There’s not a lot to tell,” he said. “My name is Mirko Ascalon. I started out as galley-captain in Garganet; a small vessel but I was good at it. My galley was involved in a naval engagement in the Northern Reaches: my manoeuvres were unorthodox and I was court-martialled and exiled. I can’t go back to Garganet, and I can’t say I really want to.”
    Jalen nodded. “How did you feel about that? Having to leave your home and your profession?”
    “At the time,” said Mirko, “I felt angry and hurt. But if it hadn’t happened, everything that’s followed wouldn’t have happened either; so I would have been a different person, and since I’m happy with who I am now…well, maybe it was for the best.”
    Jalen stretched in cat-like motion. “So where did you end up?”
    “I went to Paladria,” said Mirko, checking a grin at some of the images that came back to him. “In Paladria there are only two things they care about: galley-racing and political intrigue. I was involved in both: I skippered a galley for the biggest political intriguer of all. My galley won when it mattered; and my paymaster won the Election. I had no reason at all to be dissatisfied.”
    Jalen walked over to the fire, began to toast a mangri-fruit on the end of a stick. “Why do I get the impression you were dissatisfied?”
    Mirko smiled ruefully. “I came to realise there was more to life than galley-racing: indeed, that it was essentially trivial. My paymaster, Bartazan, was noticeably warped and corrupt in a city where those qualities rarely stand out. And by winning with his galley I effectively won him the election. The same night he tried to kill me, which tells you the kind of man he is. I began to find my values at variance with my conduct.”
    Mirko forbore to mention that he had not been entirely guiltless in the affair, having been involved in several levels of duplicity himself.
    “So you ended up here?” asked Jalen, passing across half of the toasted mangri-fruit.
Mirko nodded. “And I’d come to realise that galley-racing was not that important. I’d spent twenty years becoming very good at it – and you’ll have to take my word for it, I really am good – and I wasn’t sure how I’d got there. I had spent my time in Garganet moving up through the ranks until I commanded my own galley, like a hundred other officers; and then in Paladria I fell straight into galley-racing. What I was doing was determined by other people’s expectations of me.”
    Jalen looked off into space. “That’s how things tend to work. We show an aptitude for something, people notice it, push us in that direction. How do you think I got where I am?”
    Mirko frowned. He had hardly imagined the idea of an Augurant having a career path. Augurants just were, surely? But perhaps she was right. Whatever people ended up doing was the result of the choices they made, although sometimes those choices were passive ones.
    “What are you thinking?” asked Jalen.
    Mirko smiled. “Nothing. When I was in Paladria I found there were other things I was good at. Nothing is what it seems there, you can never know who to trust or what to believe. I became adept at navigating my way through that, knowing when to run, fight, bluff. I can do more than just race galleys – but everything I seem to do pushes me further into it. What else could I do if I only let myself?”
    “It doesn’t have to be that difficult,” said Jalen. “You can always do something else. Walk away from the galleys if you like. No-one’s stopping you.”
    Mirko smiled. “I need to live. One of the perquisites of the galley-master’s life is a sizeable retainer and a share of prize money.”
    “The Garganets always have a reputation for a certain mercenary quality…”
    “It isn’t quite that simple,” said Mirko with a hint of asperity. “It would be marvellous to say ‘I’m not going to worry about money, I’ll just live in a cave off toasted fruit and be Augurant.’ But my family has estates in Garganet which are heavily encumbered. It’s my responsibility to one day have enough money to redeem those estates. The only way I can make that sort of money is on the galleys.”
    “Only you can decide what you want to do,” said Jalen. “If commanding a certain level of income is important to you, then you need to stay involved with the galleys. That doesn’t mean you can’t try other things too. If they work out and prove more lucrative than you expect, you can do them instead: if not, you can keep them as interests. There isn’t a simple, straightforward answer which allows you to have everything.”
    Mirko smiled dryly. “I never really thought there was. Can you hear something?” A rustling sound outside was becoming distinctly more audible.
    “Anyone in there?” came a rough call from outside. Mirko’s hand went to his sword. Jalen shook her head.
    “Who is it?” she called.
    A man in light black armour covered with a rich red cloak swept back the branches to block the exit to the cave. Behind him stood at least three more in like attire. Mirko knew if it came to fighting they didn’t stand a chance. Perhaps, he thought with wild irony, they had come for counsel from the Augurant.
    But the first man dropped to one knee and offered his sword to Jalen.
    “My lady!” he said. “I am yours to command!”
    “Charistes!” she exclaimed. “You have come from my father?”
    Charistes rose to his feet. “I have my lady, with a galley to take you home.”
    “He has won, then?”
    Breaking into a grin, Charistes said: “Indeed he has, my lady. Once again he is Prince of South Estria, and Falto hangs high over the town, stretched to a length of nine feet.”
Jalen shrugged. “He brought about his own fate; not to mention marooning me here. But I knew you’d be back for me.”
    Mirko scratched his chin. “Your progression to Augurant appears to have come via an unorthodox route.”
    Jalen laughed. “Augurant! I never claimed to be Augurant…you made the assumption because I was in the cave – but no-one’s lived here for centuries. I was dumped here by my cousin Duke Falto, who had usurped my father. Order is now restored, as it always is; and my father’s men have come to take me home. You are welcome to come with us.”
Mirko looked around at Charistes and his men, still smirking at the idea that he had thought Duchess Jalen to be the Augurant. If he went with them, he’d end up skippering an Estrian galley; and after his consultation with ‘the Augurant’ he wasn’t sure that was what he wanted to do. Besides, Catzendralle would never find him if he decamped to Estria.
    With a slight bow he said: “No thank you, my lady. I have my own rescue to await; and my own destiny to follow.”
    Jalen stepped towards him and kissed him gently on the cheek. Looking into his eyes she said: “Goodbye, Captain. I can’t tell you what to do, and I wouldn’t if I could – but you know in your heart the way forward.”
    “Thank you for your advice tonight,” he said with a smile. “You would have made a good Augurant if Duke Falto had prospered.”
    “I didn’t give you any advice,” she said. “I just listened. The conclusions were your own.” And she stepped gracefully from the cave with her retainers in tow.

    Two days later Serendipity beached on the shore. Catzendralle and Damiano vaulted to the sand, looked around. Mirko called out and with a wave of his arm and slowly walked towards them.
    “I knew you’d find me,” he said, embracing Catzendralle. “But you were faster than I expected.”
    “What’s the point of being a clairvoyant if you don’t use it?” she asked. “I hope you’ve spent your time wisely.”
    “Do you know,” said Mirko, “I rather think I have. Things are going to be somewhat different from now on.”



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