I’ll be posting chapters of my new story The Firefarer on Wattpad from the beginning of May. The Firefarer will follow the adventures of three separate groups of travellers whose fates are ultimately connected. It will have an LGBT focus as Hal did, but I’d like to introduce a broader range of characters. And I’m hoping to play around with some of the tropes of fantasy fiction so expect the unexpected!
Muna lay belly-down on the cliff-top, peering over the edge. Far below, the sea slammed against rocks, a few desperate gulls clinging to the surge. Wind whipped her hair across her eyes and cheeks and stung her face with sea-spray.
She sucked in the salt air and imagined herself riding the waves: her body reaching each crest before plunging down and rolling to the ocean floor. Then up again, a snatch of breath and down once more.
Thrilled, she shivered and raised her head, scanning the horizon, the mainland obscured by dark skies. A real storm must be brewing, gathering force; clouds stirred and swelled as if pregnant with rage. And between all that power ─ between the dark sky and the brooding water, she made out a single, dark speck.
Muna narrowed her eyes, tucking stray locks of hair behind her ears. The shape carried long and low in the water, foam breaking against its sides. At first she thought it must be a whale, but no giant tail broke the surface, no jet of spray soared above it like a geyser. She curled frozen fingers across her mouth, stifling a gasp. A boat! Now she could make out men heaving against oars, the prow skimming the peak of a wave before crashing back down into the water.
Pushing herself to her feet, Muna dusted dirt and slivers of shale from her dress, glanced once more out to sea and then ran. Bare foot, she leapt over clumps of grass, across sharp-toothed naked rocks, between stunted, gnarly roots of gorse.
A slim flake of slate cracked beneath her and she fell, her ankle twisting as she hit the ground. Cursing, Muna scrabbled to her feet, limping towards the squat stone walls and turf roof of home. Hurling herself against the door she landed, panting, on her knees, her eyes struggling to adjust to the dim interior. Outside, the wind continued its assault on the cottage, tearing at the shutters and moaning through cracks and chinks in the stonework. She slammed the door shut, barring it with a heavy chunk of sea-worn timber.
“Da? Hori?” Muna groped her way forwards, tracing her fingers around the rough edge of the table. No fire glowed in the pit: they must still be sleeping.
“Muna, is that you?” Hori piped rather than spoke, his voice a thin reed.
“Yes. It’s me. Hori get up. Is Da awake?”
She felt along the wall, aiming for the furthest, darkest end of the cottage, aware of a wet, acrid smell rising up from the floor. Da must have been so far into his cups last night he’d not made it outside. Stalling a wave of nausea, she stretched outwards, sensing the rising heat of his sleeping body buried beneath a pile of furs and seal skins.
“Da! We’ve got to leave!” She clamped his shoulder between half-frozen fingers, sensing the solid muscle of his arm tense and then relax as she shook him awake.
“What is it?” His voice was low, gritty and slurred.
“Da, they’re coming. From the mainland. A boat ─ I saw it!” She plucked at the furs and skins, catching a brief glimpse of his matted hair and weathered, tattooed face. He rolled away, hugging the bedclothes to his chest, his back rising and falling like the great waves outside. Hori now stood beside her, tugging at her tunic. He peered up, his face pinched and frightened, his dark hair sleep-tousled.
“Muna are they coming for me?”
She froze inwardly, as if a skein of ice had coated the underside of her skin. “We won’t let them, Hori.”
Sinking down beside the bed, Hori began to sob in light, throaty sighs. A huge hand slid out from beneath the furs and skins to pat the boy’s head. Sniffing, Hori clambered up, tunnelling through the pile of pelts to cling to his father.
“Da! We have to leave!” Muna shook him harder this time. “The coracle’s on the south shore. We could aim for the Source Isles. Or even for the Pagi.”
“We’re not leaving.” Da’s grainy voice was muffled by the furs. “And if your mother heard you now, she’d weep.”
“She’d want us to live.”
Da sprang up, Hori still clinging to his side like a limpet. Shocked, Muna stepped backwards as her father swung unsteadily out of bed, shaking himself free of his son. He clumsily wrapped an old seal skin around his waist before clutching at the wall for support, his chest and face camouflaged by a maze of tattoos. Then, without another word, he lurched past her towards the table, seized a leather skin of water and tipped the contents over his head.
He stood, shaking, water dripping from his wild black curls, his eyes two glittering slivers of jet set within a swirl of tattoos. “Your mother’d fight to save her home and her family. Even if she were one against a thousand.”
“I’m not my mother.”
“That’s clear enough.”
Hori was now behind her, his thin arms threaded around her waist, his head buried in the small of her back. Dumbstruck with shame and fury she stared at her father. Outside, the wind picked up again, the cottage door rattling and shaking as if it had a life of its own. Da looked away, wiping the water from his face with a trembling hand. He turned back, his eyes tired and haunted.
“I’m sorry.” Slumping down on a bench, he dragged a plate of dried fish and stale bread across the table, stuffing the contents into his mouth. Muna watched, a hot spring of frustration welling within.
“If you’ll not help him, Da, I’ll take him myself.”
Da slammed a palm down on the table. “You’re going nowhere. Neither of you.”
Anger overcame her fear. “If you were so brave Da, we’d still be living on the mainland, not on this wet rock.”
He rose again and she edged backwards, stepping on Hori’s feet. The boy released a squeal.
“This is the home of your mother’s ancestor’s, girl!” He punctured the air with a thick, dirt-stained finger as he spoke. “And I’ll not hear you defile them.”
“Don’t lie!” She heard her own voice rise to a thin shriek and hated herself for it. “We’re here because you hate the Ahi.”
With a sudden roar, Da slammed a fist into the underside of the table, sending knives, hooks, nets and bottles crashing to the floor. “Liar? You’re calling me a liar?” Clay and fishbone snapped beneath his feet as he staggered towards them.
“Yes. A liar!” Muna no longer feared. The Ahi were coming anyway. She felt strangely distanced from her father’s rage, her brother’s weeping, as if all this were happening to someone else in a different time and place.
Da had almost reached them, his hand drawn back to swipe at her cheek. She felt Hori’s shivers through the coarse wool of her tunic and reached behind her back, taking his arms in her hands. “Mother’d weep to hear you now, Da,” she whispered.
His hand lowered, his shoulders sagging in sudden grief. He stumbled backwards, his massive weight crashing down amongst the tangled mess of nets and hooks. Sitting on the floor of his cottage, Erland Hyr buried his face in huge, hair dusted hands and wept.
Hori slid out from behind Muna and jumped down into Da’s lap, flinging his arms around his father’s thick neck.
“I’ll not let them take you, Hori.” Da was whispering, rocking the boy in his arms. He looked up at Muna then, eyes wet with remorse. “They’ll not take either of you.”
“So run. Now! Before it’s too late.”
She darted around the cottage, gathering supplies for the voyage: seal skins for warmth, a net, some smoked fish. Piling them on the table, she poured the dregs of their fresh water into a single skin. Just enough, she thought, to see them safe to the Source Isles. Erland remained sobbing on the floor, his face pressed into Hori’s shoulder. Hissing in frustration she ignored him and concentrated on the task in hand.
The door shook violently ─ battered again, she thought, by the wind. Tired hinges creaked and groaned, light creeping in around the edges of the frame. But then, as if carried on the air itself came the rise and fall of voices. She froze, staring at her father, whose eyes registered danger for the first time.
“Erland? Open the door!”
That was Taua’s voice. Muna recognised the sharp, insistent tone of her mother’s former friend. “Leave us alone!” She screamed.
“Muna? We want to talk. Open up.”
She heard Hori’s thin wail and then watched, horror stricken, as the blade of an axe splintered the weathered oak of the door. Erland was finally clawing his way back onto his feet, Hori still clinging pathetically to his leg.
“Alright, Taua. You’re frightening the children.” Prising himself free of Hori, he padded across the room, ignoring the falling blows of the axe as he dragged up the timber bar and hurled it to the floor. The door swung open and he reeled away as the sea-bronzed bodies of five Ahi warriors plunged into the cottage.
Taua’s heavy features curled into a sneer of contempt as she laid eyes on Erland. Squat and powerfully built, the image of a hawk tattooed across her face, she stood in dripping tunic and leggings, threw back her head and laughed.
“Erland Hyr. You insult your wife’s memory, hiding away on this miserable island.”
Da no longer sobbed or shook. Drawing to his full height, fists clenched into balls, he glared down at Taua. “This is the island of my wife’s ancestors. She’s amongst them now, because of you.”
The sneer dropped from Taua’s face, her black eyes now stormy. “She died as she would have wished. In battle, an axe in her hands.”
“You know nothing of how she would have died!” Erland’s voice was thick, grief-stricken. “She would have died at home, in her bed with her children grown and strong. That’s what she told me as she bled out amongst those barbarians, a knife piercing her guts. If you hadn’t fled, you would have heard her.”
Another warrior of the Ahi now crossed the threshold: taller, more powerful even than Da. Silhouetted against the stormy light, he reminded Muna of one of their ancestral statues: solid, impassive and solemn as hewn rock. His head almost scraping the ceiling, he entered to stand alongside Taua.
“Koka knew well what dangers she faced when she led our warriors into that cursed valley.” His voice rolled and sang like the surge of the sea. “And neither you, Erland, nor I, nor Taua could persuade her otherwise. Now she’s gone. But she left us this…gift.”
He knelt on the floor, arms outstretched, preparing to embrace the boy, but Hori flinched and slunk out of reach. With the swift reflexes of a man half his size, the warrior lashed out, seizing Hori by the arm. Screaming, Muna dived for her brother, only to find herself overpowered: her arms seized and gripped from behind.
“Muna Hyr. Your mother had earned her tattoos long before she was your age, girl. You ought to be ashamed.” Taua’s voice was a low growl, hot breath flickering across her ear. Muna struggled.
“She never wanted me to fight.”
“You’re fighting now, girl.”
“You made me.”
Teeth chattering with fear, she stared in despair at her father who bore the look of a man who had just woken from a dream.
“Let the children go. You’ll take me instead ─ a gift, to our ancestors if you will, but leave them.”
“We’ve left you for long enough, Erland.” Taua’s muscular forearm pressed into Muna’s throat as she spoke, causing the girl to splutter and gasp. “While you’ve hidden away on this ghost forsaken island, the fire mountain eats at our land. We’ve seen fields and forests turned to ash. We need to find new homes for our people. Koka understood that. She sacrificed her own life to help us.”
“My family’s sacrificed enough.”
“Not yet. Not nearly enough.” The Ahi warrior lifted Hori up, turning him for the others to see, the boy’s scrawny legs kicking and thrashing against the air. “The boy’s a firefarer – Koka told us that before she died. We’ll take him to the Pagi, we’ll set him against them. And when he’s reduced their barbaric, heathen cities to rubble, we’ll sit him on a throne, place a crown on his head and set an axe between his hands. What father would deny his son such honour?”
Erland paled, his lips tight and white as ice. “One who loves his child.”
He took a step towards Hori, but the Ahi surrounded him, the tips of their knives and axes pressed towards his chest. In spite of the pressure of Taua’s arm a long, plaintive wail of despair rose in Muna’s throat. She wrestled against her captor’s sinuous power, clawing at the warrior’s arm, her strength ebbing as she fought for breath.
“Hori! No!” Da’s voice was a distant echo, blending with the pulsing inside her ears and the strange rustling, surging pressures which now filled her head. Her father charged against the Ahi, arms flailing as their knives drove home and pierced his chest, the black spirals of his tattoos obscured with blood.
Erland hit the floor, eyes still trained on his son.”Da!” Even her own hoarse scream seemed far away. She bit down on Taua’s arm, tasting brine, then sweat, then the salt tang of blood. The warrior shrieked in agony, and at the loosening of her grip Muna slid down onto the floor, crawling, air-starved towards her father. With labouring breaths, his teeth clenched against the pain, he lay in a rising pool of his own blood. “Not me, Muna,” he gasped. “Hori!”
Raising her head, the room still at swim, Muna stared at her brother who now swung lifelessly between the Ahi’s hands, his head lolling against his shoulder, a thin string of drool sliding down his cheek. She pulled herself across the stone flags of the cottage towards him, forcing herself up onto her knees, fighting against the dizzying swirl of the room as she dragged herself to her feet. And then Hori’s eyes flickered open, and she knew she was too late.
First came a strange rushing sound, like the sucking of currents into a sea-cove. As it gained in force and volume, the Ahi dropped their weapons, clamping their hands over their ears, their faces charged with horror. Hori’s captor howled in pain, dropping the boy to reveal fresh burn marks staining his palms. Hori’s limp frame unfurled at his feet, jerking in a series of spasms, his dark irises rolling upwards, lids peeled away from the whites of his eyes.
“Muna! Cover your face. Come here, girl.”
She flung herself onto the floor, huddling against Da’s dying form, sensing the life leaking from him. The room was growing hot, a heat so intense that beads of sweat formed upon her cheeks and forehead. The Ahi must be scrabbling to get out: Taua screamed at them to stand firm, but her words were lost against the thunderous, maddening roar which now filled the entire room ─ the violence of the fire mountain channelled through Hori’s tiny body and released upon the Ahi.
Muna rocked and moaned, eyes screwed shut, palms flat against her face, the air now thick with the sickening reek of smouldering flesh. The Ahi were screaming now, and she knew why. There was no need to look, she had seen it before: their skin would blister, crack and then melt, leaking like wax onto the floor. Desperate but weak, they would claw their way to the door, the light misting in their eyes as sight, sound and senses were consumed by the heat. She lived this scene at night in her dreams. She saw it when she rose in the morning, lighting the fire in the hearth. It was the reason they had left their home on the mainland to live on this storm-soaked, grim little island. Yes, she had lied to her father. She knew why they lived alone.
It may have been hours before she opened her eyes. But then again, it may have just been minutes: she couldn’t tell. The room had grown silent. It was the wind itself, the real wind which now set the shutters flapping and the door madly slapping against its frame. Beside her, Da moaned and shuddered. He was growing cold against her, his breathing stilted and forced. Her tunic clung to her skin, clammy and thick with his blood. She pushed herself into a sitting position and opened her eyes.
There was little left of the Ahi. Here and there lay a few rags of frayed, singed material, some charred bones, the blackened remnants of axe heads and blades. All the rest had gone, taken by the force of her brother’s fear and rage. And lying amongst the smoking remains of his victims, head resting upon his arms, Hori slept, his eyelashes still wet with tears.
Stiff, fearful, she reached for him, tapping him on the shoulder. “Hori, we have to go.”
He did not wake. He wouldn’t wake for hours. He never did. She scooped him up in her arms, his head lolling against her neck. A sudden gust of wind knocked the door clean open, light flooding the cottage to reveal the cliff tops and sea beyond.
“Take him. There’ll be more of them. Take him far away.” Her father’s voice was the ghost of itself. She turned to see his eyes grow sharp, earnest. “You see what this is, Muna. Control it.”
His mouth leaked blood. He slumped onto his back. Air escaped his lips in a long, forced rattle.
Hori shifted in his sleep, his arms curling around her neck as she crouched beside her father, stretched out a hand and held it over his lips. She drew away, flinching at his coldness.
“Goodbye, Da.” She rose, swaying slightly as she headed for the open door, for the crashing of the waves and the raw air, Hori’s warm weight against her shoulder. There was still a day’s worth of light left, she told herself. Enough time to reach the Source isles ─ if the storm didn’t catch her first.