I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks so I thought I’d post another chapter of The Firefarer before I go.
“Vito! Vito, wake up!”
Vito stirred, groaned, coughed. Something heavy weighed upon his lungs. It hurt to breathe in and it was an agony to breathe out. Above him the world whirled into view, and a face loomed above his own, long plaits tickling the raw, burnt skin of his cheeks.
From somewhere deep within, he conjured up a name – a strange name he had only learnt that day. Or had he always known it? “Andre?”
“Why did you run back in there, Vito? You nearly died!”
“I’m not dead, then?” He twisted his head from side to side, taking in the ravaged green of the pastures, flames still devouring the monastery to his right.
“No. Of course not. I pulled you out.”
“You?” Someone had been in the chapel, but it was not Andre. He recalled the Ahi’s wild, wolfish eyes, his skin imprinted, it had seemed, with flames as he raised his spear above his shoulder. With a gasp, Vito sat up, the ground swaying as he rose.
Andre’s hair was singed at its ends, her face smudged black with soot, her clothing inexplicably wet.
“I soaked my clothes in the well.” She tugged at her sodden jacket. “Then I came inside. You were lying on the floor. The fire had nearly reached you.”
“And there was no one else?” He dragged a shaking hand down his face and beard. A sticky paste, the residue of sweat and soot, coated his palm.
“Vito, if the Ahi had been there, they would have killed you.” Her voice was patient, tired.
“But I saw one of them. He held his spear above me.”
“Vito, you were half-crazed. Delirious. Perhaps you imagined it.”
He shuddered. The man had been there. He had lain beneath him, waiting for the end, praying for death. Of course he could not explain why he was now alive to tell her so. He may have been maddened by fire, by the slaughter of his brothers. But he had not imagined the Ahi.
“Perhaps he wanted me to see him.”
“Vito, he wasn’t there!”
“You seem to know a lot about these people.” A dark suspicion wormed its way inside his head. “Perhaps you’re one of them…perhaps you led them to us.”
Her pale face twisted with anger, and she jumped to her feet. “So that’s all the thanks I get for saving your life is it? Do I look like I make a habit of rescuing idiot monks from buildings?” Seizing her satchel, she dragged the strap on over her head. “You need to warn your high prefects, Vito and believe me it’s a long way to Animum. I was going to offer to accompany you there, but somehow I don’t feel like it now.”
And with that she stalked, lank and loose of leg across the grass, disappearing as the pasture rolled down towards the dusty track on its southern flank – the road to Animum.
Vito watched her go, gripped by a strange, hopeless fear. He was alone now, for the first time in his life. Yes, he knew the way to Animum, and yes he understood his duty to warn those high prefects that nothing, not even the ancient monastery of Fons was sacred to the Ahi. But to venture out into that world by himself, a monk who had never strayed beyond the village, who knew nothing other than how to pray and care for birds and sing the praises of the Divine?
He saw Andre and her theft of those two doves in a different light now. A Paga she might be, but she could at least fend for herself. And, in his heart, he knew that he could not. And so, dragging himself to his feet, he picked up the end of his robe and yelled: “Stop! I’m sorry. Stop!”
Andre was already loping down the lane when he caught up with her.
“So now I’m to be trusted am I?” She did not turn around, did not break her stride, forcing him to pant and wheeze as he ran to keep up with her, his lungs still choked with smoke.
“I’m sorry. Please, stop, it’s just…” collapsing amongst the high grasses of the verge, he crumpled in a series of barking, air-starved coughs. He drew breath at last, relieved to see her still standing in the middle of the road, her arms crossed, concerned eyes belying the stern, fixed cast of her lips.
“Here. Take this.” She pulled a leather flask from her satchel and handed it to him. Vito raised the bottle to his lips, offering up a prayer to the Mystery itself for such relief.
“Alright, I’m a Paga,” she said briskly. “If that offends your tender, religious sensibilities, then we should part now. If, however, you wish for company on the road to Animum, then we can walk together. My cousin is a Prefect. I can gain you an audience with him.”
“Your cousin?” One day and his entire life had been thrown upon his head. “Paga cannot even live within the city of shrines!”
She raised a lean eyebrow. “And Ahi know no mercy. And yet here you are.” She extended her hand. “Come on, Vito. I’ll not save you a second time.”
Even as they headed down the dusty, sunbaked track and out into the surrounding meadows, the fire seemed to remain with Vito, as if it had seared its way inside him. He had always loved the lush countryside which lay beyond the monastery, studded with cypress and olive trees, the river winding its lazy route amongst them. Now, however, he saw nothing but flames, smelt ash, the sweet air seemed choked with fumes. And a slick sense of dread unfurled within his very stomach as they approached the monastery’s neighbouring village, Acita. Rounding a bend in the lane, he observed a fresh band of smoke drifting up from the fields below. And he knew that there was no hope for the villagers either.
Andre stopped, looked at him, her face white beneath the smudges of soot. “Let’s not go down there, Vito. We’ve seen enough horrors for one day. You can do nothing for them.”
He stared down at the village. It was just one more tragedy to add to the litany. He felt himself turn hard and dry within: a thing that had shrivelled in the heat.
“There was no one there you…”
“No,” he said quickly. “Well, there was once. My brother – my real brother. But he left when I was still a baby. Handed me in at the monastery. My parents had died in the plague.”
He felt her gaze on him once more: cool, perhaps seeing more than she would admit. He nodded in the direction of open fields: “Down there.”
They crossed meadows bright with lavender, poppies and cornflower, their petals rustled by a breeze which still bore scraps of burnt parchment or thatch from the monastery. Vito tried to ignore that, focussing instead on the silver line of the river below them as it fed through fields, forest and eventually a shallow gorge. The sun now at its height, grime and dust still plastered to his face, he craved its cleansing, coursing waters. But as they approached a narrow cleft in rocks which split the gorge from the fields and trees, Andre held up her hand and gestured for him to stop. For the sound of human voices, of horses’ high whinnies and muted laughter carried above the splash of the waterfall below them.
The river narrowed as it passed between rocks and Andre hopped over it, crouched down and peered around a boulder into the small canyon below. Nervous and exhausted, Vito hunkered down on the opposite bank, clutching the slimy, mossy stone before him for support before swivelling so that he could see around it. His stomach spasmed and he almost fell into the stream, regaining his balance just in time. Ahi warriors bathed in the plunge pool below them, ducking beneath the surface, pouring water from leather skins over their hair and faces, their horses tethered to the surrounding tree stumps and branches.
With a sharp intake of breath, Vito span back round, flattening himself against the rock. Had they seen him? He glanced across at Andre whose eyes had rounded in surprise, whose thin fingers now gripped the limestone before her as if it were all that kept her upright. “Look!” she mouthed at him.
Trembling, he crawled on hands and knees to stare back into the gorge. And what he saw there had him gasping for breath, his already dazed mind now reeling as he struggled to register the sight before him. For as the Ahi bathed, away came the ash and blood. But away also came the tattoos, the honey-toned skin, even the long, matted locks of hair which were pulled off to reveal shorn heads and pale faces. And the voices which rose above the flow of the waterfall spoke not in harsh, guttural barks, but in words that he recognised, that he himself used: in the lilting melody of Pagese.
He strained to catch snatches of conversation over the burble and rush of water: “monks’ blood,” “village women,” and a name tossed back and forth as if it were a ball: “Ol Terenzo.” “Lino.” “Lino Ampelio.” “Lino Al Terenzo.” Thick laughter, shouts and harsh cheers accompanied the words. And then at last, the final traces of Ahi warriors shed, they climbed from the pool and pulled jerkins, caps, trousers and boots from panniers, dressed on the river bank and leapt into the saddles of their horses, transformed into Pagi.
Vito wanted to shout, to scream, to weep, to jump from his hiding place and curse them for the traitorous, murderous scum they were. How he had witnessed their treachery, how they had massacred his brothers, how he would not rest until the world knew of what had taken place at Fons and in Acita, but Andre pulled him back. “They’ll cut you down, Vito,” she whispered. “You can do know good when you’re dead.”
Biting back sobs, he nodded and watched as they rode away, the dull thud of hooves echoing to silence just as it had ushered in the horrors of that morning.
“Come on.” Andre held her hand out to him. “We should rest. They’ll not be back, I expect. They’ve gone to inform their master that his dirty work is done.”
“You heard them. Ol Terenzo!”
He stared at her, his mind a blank.
“Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo? The elector of Venanum.”
“Never heard of him.”
“gods above, you lived a sheltered life in that monastery.”
“There’s no such thing as gods…”
“Don’t go splitting religious hairs with me now, Vito. We need to reach Animum and tell my cousin what we’ve seen. And you need to eat and rest, and…and you need to bathe.”
He looked downwards at his robe, peppered with singes, realised how black and filthy his face must be. Anyone they encountered on the road to Animum would scream in fright. And so, with a weary nod, he allowed her to lead him down a gnarly path around the rocks to the base of the gorge, where she proceeded to gather firewood.
Vito began to tug at his clothes and then turned around, ashamed. “Don’t, don’t look…will you?”
She smirked and turned away. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” In spite of all that had happened, Andre still had the power to hum as she slipped amongst the trees, gathering twigs and light branches. His face still glowing with embarrassment, Vito edged as far as he could behind the shelter of some boulders before stripping and then launching himself into the pool.
The water was freezing. He rose up for air, the breath catching and shaking in his lungs, before diving once more and rising beneath the rush and flow of the waterfall. And there he stood, its liquid force coursing over his body, the grime and ash flushed into the plunge pool.
The juice of walnuts, he realised, could have darkened the skin of the Pagi, their faces tattooed with quills, matted strands of horse hair fixed to their scalps. And yet why take such elaborate precautions? If some bastard of an Elector wanted the monks dead, why not just send out men to do so? But then his mind journeyed back to those few seconds in the chapel. The ‘warrior’ had not killed him. He had left him alive. Why? Clearly somebody wanted the world to know that this was the work of the Ahi.
His fingers and toes now numb, he swam to the edge of the pool and clambered out, pulling his robe on over dripping skin. Andre, he observed, had already lit a small fire and was busy plucking feathers from the doves. All that remained of his former life, and he was about to eat it.
He sank down next to her, the coarse wool of his habit sticking to his wet limbs. With tender, delicate gestures, Andre fed a couple of thin twigs through the gutted carcasses of the birds and proceeded to roast them over the fire.
“So what were you doing near the monastery?” he asked, his mouth watering as the scent of roasting meat wafted towards him.
“I told you. I’m a treasure hunter.”
“A treasure hunter? And what kind of treasure do you seek?”
Her eyes seemed to harden, flecked with an intense unease, perhaps even, he thought, a hint of sadness or regret. She blinked and the moment passed. “The best kind. The most precious,” she said.
He stared at her again, but her lips were tight, pressed together as if forbidding any further words from escaping. Vito decided to change tack. “So what is so important about that book you’re carrying then?”
“Oh, that.” Smiling, she reached inside her satchel and pulled out a tome so thick and weighty Vito could hardly believe she was carrying it.
“I don’t know,” she continued. “My father always forbade me to look at it, so I assumed it must be worth reading.”
“Your father? Who’s he?”
Her brow furrowed, and again her eyes seemed cast with concern. “A Paga,” she said.
“Does he know you’re out here?”
“Who is he?”
She threw him a long, level look. “Perhaps you would like to hear something from my book?” she asked. “It’s full of surprises.”
Vito held her gaze and then turned away, focussing on the dark, churning waters of the river. It was clear that she did not wish to tell him anything. Well, she could keep her secrets. Once they had reached the city of shrines he would be rid of her. No doubt Animum would welcome his services – he could chant plainsong, read, write, tend to birds and animals. Bitterness bled through him like ink blotting on parchment. “I have no use of Pagi magic,” he said.
“Suit yourself.” With her back to a tree she drew her knees up, rested the book against her legs and began to read, occasionally reaching forward to turn the roasting doves on their makeshift spits. Vito lay down amongst the long tufts of grass, picking at them in irritation, for Andre let out little murmurs of interest or agreement as she read, until finally he sat up and said: “What?”
She had freed her hair from its long plaits. It spilled over her face and down her shoulders in long, wavy tendrils and when he saw that, something worked inside him – something which he could never have expressed: a ripple of nerves, a prickly warmth which caught him by surprise.
“Whenever I pick up the book, it tells me a different story,” she explained.
“Impossible as Ahi who become Pagi?”
“That was different. They were in disguise.” And yet his curiosity was now piqued, and in spite of himself he asked her, “so what story does it tell you now?”
“Well, normally the stories concern the Pagi. The title of the book, as you see is People of the Pagi.” She raised the spine so that he could examine it. “But this story was about two children of the Ahi – a girl and a boy. They escaped to the Pagi, because the boy was hunted by his own people. He was a Firefarer.”
“What’s a Firefarer?”
“The Ahi believe that in every generation one child is born who can harness the powers of the fire mountain. He or she may wreak terrible destruction.”
Vito shuddered. “Men may wreak destruction without such powers. I have seen it today.”
“Yes, but the Firefarer could plunge a whole country into chaos. He could wreck cities, displace peoples. And that is why the Ahi wanted this child. But the brother and sister escaped to the Pagi in a coracle, and were washed up on our shores. The Ahi followed them but the children were offered shelter by a Pagi enchanter – a painter.”
“And? What happened next?” Vito asked. The children’s story seemed to parallel his own: destruction, exile, the help of a mysterious Paga.
“It doesn’t say.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t say? All stories have an ending. That’s the whole point!”
“Well this one doesn’t. Yet. But as I said, the book is full of surprises. If I read from it tomorrow, there may be an end to this story.”
Vito sank back down again upon the grass, his mind spinning. He had heard of Pagi magic, of how dangerous it was and how easily it could trick you, reel you in like a fish on a line and then ensnare you. “I don’t want to hear any more of your stupid stories, Andre,” he muttered. “What good is a story without an end?”
“Fine.” She slammed the cover down. “And I suppose you don’t want to eat, either?”
With a groan he sat up. “They’re still my doves, remember?”
“Who cooked them?”
They ate in sullen silence, picking the delicate meat from the bird bones, wiping their greasy lips upon their fingers and then washing their hands in the river. And at last, Vito lay down in the shelter of boulders and trees, a warm breeze fanning his face and slept. The horrors of the day wormed their way into his dreams, and he was back once again in the chapel, lying beneath a fire in human form, screams and cries ringing in his ears. But he also dreamt of lithe, pale limbs lifting him from the flames, and he felt the sweep of someone’s hair across his face. He reached forward, but his fingers grasped nothing but air.