The Firefarer – Part Three: Chapter One – Artemisia’s Studio

firefarer cover

As I’ve had some problems posting this chapter on Wattpad today, I decided to stick it here for the time being.

Muna’s arms screamed from the exertion of rowing. She leant back into the stern of the coracle, allowing the tiny craft to drift, bobbing over waves which seemed gentle and playful after the terrifying crash and fall of the open sea. Hori huddled in the prow, pensive, his arms wrapped around his knees, looking old beyond his years.

She had told him nothing of his uncontained, destructive fury, of the incineration of Taua and her warriors, or of their father’s death. He had slept for an entire day until she had dragged the boat up onto the shingle of the Source Isles. Then he had stirred as she wrapped him in seal furs and raised his head, trickling sweet water into his mouth. When he finally came round they were once again out to sea. And yet he seemed watchful, sealed within his own thoughts, as if he were aware somehow of what had passed and now sought to reconcile himself with their fate.

High above, the bleat and caw of seagulls grew intense, and she turned to look as the birds swarmed above the deck of a small fishing vessel which now sailed alongside them. She was aware of being watched. A boy of the Paga leant on the rail of the boat peering down at her, his skin wind-tanned, his eyes a liquid brown. He blew her a kiss and she looked away, her face hot with embarrassment and confusion. Picking up the oars once again, she twisted around to note a small harbour, busy with boats, colourful squat dwellings lining its quays. Drawing on her last dregs of strength, she rowed to shore.

Muna steered the coracle through the medley of four-masted carracks and small barques, avoiding the curious gazes of fishermen and sailors, aware of men shouting and speaking a fluid, melodic tongue which was not her own. She brought the coracle up beside a sea-battered flight of stairs, slimy with sea-weed and plastered with barnacles, which led from the water to the quay above. Hopping out, she uncoiled a tattered stretch of rope and secured the boat to an iron ring. Hori stood stiffly, eyes wide with uncertainty, and she offered him her hand, lifting him onto dry land before gathering their few belongings into a rough, hessian sack – a leather skin containing fresh water, a pair of seal skins and some fish hooks. Then she climbed the steps, Hori in tow, unsure as to where they ought to go or what they were to do now. At least she could catch some fish, and perhaps a stream would provide fresh water. Other than that, her one hope was to get far enough in land to hide from the Ahi.

And so it was with shock and near despair that she caught the gruff tones of men and women speaking in words she recognised as she neared the top of the steps. “Keep down!” she whispered to Hori, who shrank below the wall, pale and fearful.

Muna risked a single glance at the quayside and saw all she needed to. There were as many as ten of them, grouped in a loose circle clutching axes, nets and broadswords, their faces and upper chests bearing dark swirling tattoos, their lower bodies swathed in fur and seal skins. They appeared to be arguing amongst themselves, pointing in different directions, shouting, yelling, ignoring the sailors and ships’ clerks who passed them on the quay. Two burly Pagese fishermen lumbered over to them, gesturing back towards an Ahi long ship which, Muna now saw to her horror, was anchored just beyond the harbour entrance. The fishermen were greeted with rough shoves and slaps, and eventually they shrank away, too intimidated to risk a public brawl.

Muna crouched back down out of sight, taking in the chaotic traffic of fishing vessels and sailing boats below her. One old sailor, she realised, was watching her, his watery, sky-blue eyes set deep in a weather-tanned, wrinkled face. He continued to stare, slowly coiling a length of rope around one arm before transferring his gaze to the Ahi above her. She shook her head, raising a finger to her lips. The man grinned, revealing a mouth bereft of teeth, and then nodded. After a while, he laid down the coil and tiptoed his fingers along the rail of his ship in an imitation of walking. Muna turned, peering once more up onto the quayside. There was no sign of the Ahi.

She smiled at the old man who winked back in return, and then, hauling Hori to his feet, they made their way up the steps. Sea folk thronged the wharf: fishwives crying out their wares, young boys crossing barefoot – rods and nets slung over their shoulders – mariners and merchants bartered and bragged. More people were gathered in one place than she had ever seen in her life. Instinctively, she threaded an arm around Hori’s shoulders, drawing him close. Here, she was certain, there would also be cutpurses and thieves, men who might seek to harm for pleasure, and of course there were her own people, the Ahi whose intent she could only guess at. But no one seemed to take any notice of either her or her brother as they wound their way amongst the rippling pools of people. Perhaps, she thought with some relief, the best place to become lost was amongst crowds such as these.

A narrow alley led them away from the quays, snaking amongst houses which seemed to press together, their upper floors jutting out over the road. The confused rush of conversations, the reek of rotting fish, the mad bustle of the harbour, it all faded away as they passed into the darker, quieter back streets of the town.

“Where are we going, Muna?”

She squeezed Hori’s hand. “I don’t know yet. The Ahi are here already, Hori. We need to find somewhere to hide.”

“Why didn’t Da come with us?”

Her heart plummeted like a sunk stone. “He’s dead, Hori.”

His face crumpled and he halted suddenly. “Did I do it?”

Bending over him, she stroked his hair. “No, Hori. You didn’t. You tried to protect him. You were very brave, but now…now we have to find somewhere safe. So try not to think about it. Be brave again for me. Please?”

He nodded glumly, sniffing back tears. “We need Da.”

“We’ll manage. We have to. Come on.” She succeeded in dragging him a little further down the alley and then stopped, froze, felt the hair on her arms and neck rise, for as they turned a corner she saw the Ahi warriors up ahead. She made to turn, their shouts and calls ringing in her ears – “They’re here!” “It’s the Firefarer and his sister!” “Catch them!”

Hori was already running, his bare feet pumping down over the cobbles as he shot away from her and she followed him, her heart racing, her breath shortening, houses and shops reduced to a blur as she fled past them. The Ahi were gaining on them – she heard her own name yelled out, caught the muttered threats and pleas for them to stop, but she would not. She could not. And as she followed her brother back out onto the sunlit quays, she pushed away anyone who crossed her path, ignoring their angry complaints, aware of Hori disappearing amongst the crowds.

“Hori!” Desperation now almost overwhelming her, she fought against the tide of people. He had gone, was nowhere to be seen, and behind her she heard the furious, menacing growls of the Ahi.

“Hori!” Again she called his name, but he had disappeared without trace. Sensing a loss which pained beyond measure she pushed on, now frantic, her thoughts tipping over into madness. A hand shot out from the crowd, gripped her upper arm and began tugging at her, pulling her towards a low, half-opened doorway. Muna struggled, desperate to tear herself away from this new, unseen threat. Half yanked off her feet, she twisted and turned but was dragged inside a dark, smoky interior and the door slammed shut behind her. Whoever had taken her let go of her arm. The noises of the street faded away, distant and muted. Lips pressed to her ear hissed and spoke in strangely accented Ahi – “Keep quiet, child!”

Muna shook with unrepressed terror. Wildly, she gazed around the hazy room, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. Stacks of paintings lay piled in corners, some resting against pieces of furniture, others hanging crookedly on smoke-singed plaster walls. Nestling amongst the mess of canvases and parchments were statues hewn from wood and stone – some of men, women and children, others representing animals: dogs, cats, horses, even some exotic creatures that she did not recognise, almost human in aspect save for their long, curling tails.

Standing amongst them all was a strange old woman, so frail and bent with age that Muna could not believe she had strength enough to haul in strangers from the street. A tattered piece of cloth encased her wizened, time-worn face, and she wore a simple, shapeless smock plastered with paint stains. “You look for boy?”

Muna nodded, surprised to hear her own tongue spoken by a Paga. “Yes. He’s my brother.”

“Your brother?” The old woman eyed her curiously, without malice. “Why they seek you – your people? What you do?”

“Nothing. They just – we ran away.”

“You run? From home? Why?”

A half-told story might save her from further questions, Muna realised. “They killed our father. Where’s my brother?”

The old woman’s face softened. She raised a gnarled old hand and stroked it down Muna’s face. “Poor children. Fatherless. Motherless too?”

Muna nodded.

“Your brother – he upstairs. In studio. Come. Come. You hide here while they pass. The father killers. They not know you’re here.”

“You’re sure?” Muna hesitated. It was all too strange – this ancient artist, her dark little hovel of a house. She had heard her parents speak of the Paga and their enchantments – how they could breathe life into words, to music, to art, how they could pull phantoms from the air itself and seal them in their craft. But outside in the town her enemies lurked, waiting to ensnare Hori, to make him bend to their violent will. They would kill her for a traitor too, she realised, if they caught her. And so, what choice did she have?

The old woman hovered at the base of a rickety ladder, apparently sensing her doubts. “I sure. They pass by. But you must wait. Come.” She beckoned. “Your brother frightened. Want to see you.”

She hitched up her smock and then set on up the slim wooden rungs which creaked and groaned under foot. Muna followed, passing through a loft trap into an attic space which was as light and airy as the room below had been dark. The ceiling sloped at a steep angle down to the floor itself and she caught a glimpse of rooftops and clouds through a wide sky light. Here too, the room was littered with half-finished canvases and sculptures, an easel set amongst them. Muna spied movement amongst a stack of frames and Hori wormed his way out from underneath them and flung his arms around her.

“You’re safe!” she gasped. Relief flooded her very being. She turned to the old woman. “Thank you!”

“You are beautiful children.” Again, she laid a time-twisted set of fingers to Muna’s cheek. “Hair like midnight. Skin like fired earth. I love beautiful things. I paint them. I draw them. I remake them. In this way, I keep the beauty. It not go.” She narrowed her eyes, as if preparing a mental sketch of Muna. “I save you. Now, I paint you. Yes?”

A spark of fear prickled its way up Muna’s spine, but she dismissed it. The old woman had offered them sanctuary of a sort. What harm could a portrait serve? Besides, she thought, no one had ever called her beautiful before. The Ahi, they found her freakish. Sixteen summers and still no tattoos to show it? A face bare and unornamented – she should cover it in shame. And yet here amongst the Pagi such things did not matter. She need not wish herself brave enough to have earned her ink. And so she found herself nodding.

“Is good then.” The painter extended a hand, and Muna took it. “My name, Artemisia. And you?”

“Muna. This is my brother, Hori.”

“So, Muna, Hori. Sit, please, while I sketch. Will take a little time. And then, you may go, your enemies pass by.”

She drew up two wooden chairs and set them before the easel. Muna sat down and gestured to Hori to take the other, but he turned away.

“It’s alright, Hori. Artemisia is just going to draw us. She saved us from the Ahi. We should do as she asked.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Hori, please.”


Muna sighed. “He’s a stubborn boy. And sometimes, he’s very stupid.”

Hori stuck his tongue out at her and folded his arms. Muna laughed, and then realised that was the first time in many days that she had felt anything approaching happiness.

“Is no problem,” Artemisia said, dipping a quill in a large pot of ink. “He change his mind, I think. First, I sketch. Then, I paint. Please, sit straight, fold your hands before you – yes that’s right. Try not move. I be quick.”

Artemisia raised the quill and put it to a swathe of canvas stretched across the easel. As she did so, Muna shivered. It were as if she had been touched, as if an invisible hand had run its fingers through her hair. Surely this was her imagination taunting her, the stories of the Pagi plaguing her thoughts? “How did you learn to speak Ahi?” she asked, seeking to push her fears aside.

“They come here, your people. Sometimes I paint them. In turn, they teach me their words. See?” She pointed to a painting of an Ahi warrior, his fierce face peering out at Muna from the canvas, his eyes burning with an intense fury, his lips open as if in mid-speech.

“Please,” Artemisia continued. “Sit still.”

Her stomach now knotted into a ball, Muna did as she was bid. Again, that peculiar frisson, the sensation one might have at the onset of a sea storm when the very rocks and trees seemed to sing. It were as if the air around her was being etched, inscribed with an invisible power. She found that she could not turn her head. She stared at Artemisia, panic stricken, but the old woman continued to paint, her tongue hovering on the corner of her lips as her quill scratched at the canvas.

“Artemisia?” Muna tried to speak, but found her lips would not move. She could manage no more than a faint mumbling.

Hori had risen, was pointing to her, his eyes wide with fear. “Muna, where are you going? Don’t leave me, Muna!”

She didn’t understand him. But she felt that she had somehow grown lighter, was less herself, unable to move, sealed within a strange element, an element no kin to fire or water, to air or earth, but rather to something illusive, not borne of reality, and she realised then that Artemisia was sealing her within magic.

She saw the scattered paintings and sculptures in a different light now, understood the anger in the Ahi warrior’s eyes, recalled the twisted, tortured poses of those portrayed in the room below. Artemisia was smiling, and with every stroke of the quill, Muna felt herself grow lighter, less solid, bound within the canvas.

“I keep your beauty, Muna,” Artemisia whispered. “I keep it all for myself.”

Muna felt herself fade as the life drained from her, ink running in its place. And she had just time enough to hear Hori scream, to feel the air grow hot, and to recall her father’s dying words: “You see what this is, Muna. Control it.”


Hal News

Just a quickie – Hal will be on promotion on Amazon between 15th and 19th June for the bargain price of 99c!

As if that wasn’t enough, I’m planning to have a few printed copies of Hal and Hannac for sale in the near future. There will also be the possibility of winning a copy as part of the Firebound Books giveaway.
Will have more information on that very soon.

Find Hal on Amazon:

Review – The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a book which just works on so many levels. Fundamentally, it’s quasi-fantasy, set in a post-Arthurian dark age in which ogres, pixies and dragons terrorise the local Saxon and Briton communities. Indeed in that respect, Ishiguro’s lean, poignant prose lends the novel the quality of old Saxon or Norse epic.

However, once you start pulling apart the base narrative of the story, the effects are quite shattering. Britain has been cast under a spell, a she-dragon’s breath having plunged the country into an amnesic fog. It is a fog which is both curse and blessing – denying characters the right to their own memories, and at the same time saving them from the pain of the past. For, as readers we discover that this is a country blighted by atrocities committed by both Saxons and Britons, in which no one is spared guilt.

The immediate conclusion to be drawn, then, is that the story works as an allegory of contemporary British life, in which crimes – whether of 19th century imperialism or of its twentieth century fall out in terms of world wars, conflicts in former colonies and the diasporic, dispossessed communities that it produced – are deliberately ignored or forgotten. It reveals a country ill at ease with itself, which harbours hatreds that simmer beneath the surface and which abandons itself to a myth of a glorious past while failing to address the bloodshed upon which that myth was founded.

In this respect, I don’t see any obvious break between The Buried Giant and Ishiguro’s earlier works, in the sense that for me, his writing has always been about our repressed histories, about the legacy of guilt and the inability to face up to the past. His work pivots around the unsaid rather than the openly expressed. An almost casually delivered piece of dialogue or gesture is often enough to reveal the heart-rending suffering that lies beneath it.

I found the story devastating to read at times, particularly in its portrayal of elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice who do everything to stay together, in spite of their realisation that the release of certain memories has the potential to break them apart. Their struggle against what are ultimately fated odds is heartrending to the point that I found myself in tears at the end of the story.

This is a simply narrated and yet profound masterpiece, a bitter and insightful reflection on the  state of contemporary Britain, a compelling piece of fantasy fiction, and one of the most beautiful tales of love and devotion I have ever read. Strongly recommended.


Interview with Desiree Stinson – author of Talon


Desiree Stinson @RainAaren is the author of Talon, a beautiful new work of lesbian fantasy fiction on Wattpad. Desiree agreed to an interview and offered some very frank and very inspiring answers to my questions. She is also a fantastic artist and you can find examples of her work on DeviantArt at

What inspired you to write Talon?

Uncertainty and curiosity, frankly. Becoming an adult is no easy ride. I’m hoping I find some guidance in Diana. I also knew I wanted to write something in the fantasy world I’ve created, and usually I take Rain’s point of view, but I already know her story. I wanted to discover Diana’s.

To what extent is your writing influenced by your own experience?

Usually I don’t base the plots of my stories on my experiences, rather on my curiosity. I have such a thirst for adventure and right now in my life I don’t get much – at all. I write to give myself experiences, how about that?

Do you have any favourite works of lesbian or LGBT literature?

Well of course, Kate there’s Hal! I loved it. Another one was Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which I found myself reading addictively. Right now I’m reading an old one called The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and just finished Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit which was a bit too religious for me.  Most of the lesbian fiction I read is unpublished works online, like on Wattpad, however. Seriously not enough published books have lesbian fantasy or science fiction protagonists. I need more, therefore I breed more.

What is the best writing advice that you have ever received?

I haven’t been able to get much actually. There is no one in my life who could act as a mentor for writing. I’ll show my stories to friends and family and get, “It’s so good I love it!! (:” which is nice and all but provides no learning. So I have to be my own teacher. But what I hear a lot is, “Don’t think about it too much, just write.”

Do you find it easy to make time for writing and do you have some kind of writing routine?

Between my busy family life, school, responsibilities and women, no. Sometimes I go into lapses where I’ll hardly write for months and then return to it after. Luckily those painful college essays have had the benefit of getting me back in touch with my words. I find I write best between 1 and 10 am. Which is also when I’m usually asleep. Sometimes I have to choose between one and the other. I don’t really like routine but I like to listen to music while I do it.

Is there anything of yourself in the characters of Rain and Diana?

This is a big one. I’m going to start with Rain, since up until recently she had the biggest effect on me. Rain started as a self-insert character (sigh I know). I came up with her when I was 15, and my best friend and I became obsessed with the Bioware game Dragon Age 2. We invented our self-inserts to act as the leading protagonists in the 200 page fan fiction that followed. I still have it. When I read it, I’m conflicted between feeling warm and proud of it, as silly as it was, and cringing. Anyway, once we moved away from that I kept Rain and my friend kept her character Lunalyn and we constructed our own world for them to play in. We talked about it day and night, developing characters and the story and setting. Hence Estare and the world in which Talon takes place was born. Now during this time in my life I was battling with my sexuality. I had a serious boyfriend, which made it worse. I knew I desired women but I didn’t have the courage to act on it, felt guilty for it even. And then I started having dreams in which a girl with fiery red hair would visit me. She always kissed me before she left, and never spoke. I named her Diana. And so I began to write about the fervent love affair between Rain and Diana. I can’t tell you how many pages it went on. When I was in class at school it was all I’d do, just pull out that binder and a pencil and continue where I left off. I loved writing about them, and thinking about them, and considering the potential of me being like them. Like Rain, who is always courageous and sure of herself. I desired to be like her. Through Rain I discovered myself as a lesbian. I wrote about her until she realized, and I realized. The fight that spawned the break up with my boyfriend was a girl, one I’d met and been instantly infatuated with. But I never got to pursue that girl I met in the hall with the green eyes. I was pregnant. I told my mother, and once sophomore year was over (within the next two weeks) I was not to return to high school. After a whole mess of pregnancy, struggling with depression and desire of girls I could never have, I am here. With my high school equivalency,  beautiful daughter and going to college at 17. Now I’ve had the chance to pursue women and love, and I am secure in being a lesbian. But in three weeks about I’ll be turning 18, crossing that divide of adulthood and I realized – Holy shit, I am terrified. I knew I needed a different kind of courage than Rain’s, hers is so rash and unthinking. I needed courage that was slow and steady, that could also be there to nurture my daughter. So I thought of Diana again. Entering into a strange world, with only a vague idea of what she’s doing, but doing all she can for the best. Didn’t mean to give you my whole life story there but there it is. There is definitely parts of me in Rain and Diana.

What kind of writers do you read for pleasure?

Usually I read the stories people post on Wattpad for light reading. Generally something simple so I can follow along easily. Anything I find intriguing really.

How does the process of creating art differ from the process of creating stories?

Art is more immediate. You can see the figure take shape, the vibrance of the colors or the stark black and white, the  development. It doesn’t need much forethought besides a general idea. Writing requires more of a solid layout and a clear plan of action for me. Ironically I’m not good at all with following the rules or commitment so this “blueprint” I always have to construct hardly ever actually comes into being. A lot of times my plot veers off into the opposite direction and doesn’t get finished. This can actually apply to a lot in my life so long story short, I squander too much time on forethought rather than execution. So, if I’m feeling creative, usually I’ll just draw. It is simply less to think about.

Just like to say a huge thanks once again to Desiree for being so frank and open about her life and the inspirations behind her writing. Talon is a great book so I urge you to go and read it 🙂