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?”
“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.”
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.”