The Firebound – Part One: Chapter Three – People of the Pagi

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.


“No…no Ahi?”

“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.”

“I see.”

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.”

“Their master?”

“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.

Hal/Firebound News

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The Firefarer: Part One – Chapter Two – Andre

Author’s Note:

One of my reasons for writing The Firefarer was to challenge myself when it came to world building – something I felt I was rather weak at in general. There are effectively three major cultures in the story – The Pagi, the Ruach and the Ahi, and one subculture – the Church. With the Ahi, I decided to blend certain elements of Maori culture – the warrior ethos, the concept of ancestor worship – with elements of Norse history. One of the reasons historians give, for example, for the Norse invasion of the British Isles was a desperate search for land due to over population.


Vito hitched up his robe, his sandals slipping comically on the tree’s bark as he pushed against its trunk and levered his way upwards. A few gristly splinters caught in the exposed skin of his legs, and he almost lost his balance, rocking belly down on the branch before dragging himself into a sitting position. This time, the girl did not smile. Her grey eyes had grown wide with terror, her lips white and strained. Vito followed her gaze, the extra height now gaining him some vantage, and he peered down directly into the pasture below.

The horsemen reeled in wild, careering circles: whooping, screaming, calling to one another in guttural cries and shouts. With a sudden thwack, an axe was planted into the dove cote, sending it crashing to the ground, the birds escaping with a frantic flapping of wings. Vito almost cried out in dismay, but the girl stopped him, her cool hand resting on his shoulder.

“The Ahi,” she whispered. “Be thankful I stole your doves.”

“The Ahi? Who are they?”


His thoughts spinning now, his mind in chaos, he peered back down at the pasture, its grass already churned to pulp by hundreds of restless, stamping hooves.

The cloister gates were flung open. He craned his neck, desperate to see which of the brothers had courage enough to face these barbarians. No, not even barbarians. Demons, evil spirits that the Ruach might conjure to scare their children.

Flanked by novices, one brother stepped forward to greet the horsemen, pushing back his cowl to reveal a short shock of curly red hair: a pale, freckled face. Of course. Rasmus always spoke for the brothers at their meetings with the villagers. He represented the monastery on the common council. Who better to treat with these savages?

Clutching the hands of both novices, Rasmus took a step forward. The boys flinched, pulling back, but the monk urged them on, calmly stepping across the grass towards the Ahi. The dull thud of hooves died away, silence falling once more upon the pasture: heavier than the humid summer air with its buzz of insect wings, its scents of flowers and cornfields. The horsemen had formed a circle around the three monks now, lowering their axes, spears and arrows. For one hope-fuelled moment, Vito was sure that they would speak to Rasmus – that in whatever coarse, harsh tongue they spoke, some understanding could be reached. Perhaps, he thought with sudden zeal, Rasmus would persuade them to shed whatever barbarous beliefs they held, to join with the brothers in celebration of the great wisdom, the unnameable, the power which fed through all living things. He stole a glance at the girl but she was clinging to the branch, her knuckles white, the breath caught in her throat.

Brother Rasmus uttered a few words, but a sudden breeze rippled through the forest, muffling the sound. The monk threw wide his arms in greeting, gesturing in the direction of the cloister gates which were now lined with monks, their eyes inked with fear. He turned back to the Ahi, awaiting their response, a patient smile drawn across his lips. An Ahi drew his axe, its steel flashing against the sun’s rays, the light momentarily blinding Vito. He blinked, his eyes watering from the brightness, and when he opened them again, Rasmus’s headless body sank to the ground, his head a trophy in the hands of an Ahi who swung it by its copper curls, the monk’s lips opening and closing as if still welcoming his murderer.

Vito felt his own jaw drop, his hands shake and he almost plunged from the tree, the girl flinging her arms around him just in time.

“Don’t look!” she breathed into his ear. “Just sit here. Stop your ears. If you love your life, don’t look!”

He burrowed his face into the soft material of her jacket, shuddering as she passed her arms around him and held him close. With hands pressed to his ears, he tried to block out the shrieks and screams as his brothers were hacked down, the clatter of horses’ hooves as the Ahi entered the cloisters, crushing men against walls or slaughtering them where they stood. And it would not stop. He told himself that he was still in bed, that this was a nightmare from which at any moment he would awaken, look around his cell, find himself late for morning prayers and race down to the chancel. But he did not wake up. Instead, he clung to the girl like a drowning, desperate man might cling to driftwood as the din, the roar of carnage rose up from the monastery below.

Vito did not know how long he sat there. He could not have said exactly when the screams, the pleas for mercy, the savage butchery came to an end. When he raised his head from the girl’s shoulder it was quiet, save for the summer’s hum of insects and birdsong. He sniffed the air, which was now thick with the reek of burning timber, and peering through the trees he made out pockets of fire bursting through the thatch and slate of roofs, stained windows of the church exploding as the heat licked at the glass. He turned to the girl, and noticed the sleeve of her jacket, sodden with his tears.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“It doesn’t matter.”

He noticed her own eyes glistening, although with fear or grief he couldn’t tell.

“What’s your name?” she asked him, her voice still quiet and low.


“Well, Vito, I think we ought to leave this place. Now.”

“But my brothers…”

“Forget them. Look, I’m sorry…” she must have noticed the way his face crumpled, how he choked back sobs, a hole in his chest where his heart had once been.

“I’m sorry, Vito but there will be nothing left down there. The Ahi – they are warriors from across the sea. They have already attacked the coast, although I never heard of them reaching so far in land before. They leave nothing in their wake. Nothing. They kill, they burn, it is said, to warn us…”

“To warn us of what? To warn you, you mean, the Pagi. What have we done? Nothing.”

“It was enough that you were in their way. They don’t care who you are, Vito. They are warning us that one day, when they have weakened us sufficiently, then many of them will come. They are people of fire.”

Vito considered this for a moment. He had never heard of these Ahi, these fire people. Although, he realised, nothing much ever reached the monastery from the outside world. And they were happy that it should be that way. Worshipping the Great Mystery was best done in isolation, with no worldly distractions to tempt or lead astray.

His legs now tingling with cramp, he lowered himself down from the branch, half-falling before grabbing the tree’s trunk to straighten himself. The girl swung herself down, landing softly beside him, seized her satchel and swung it over her head. “Ready?”

He nodded glumly, allowing her to draw him back down the bank, stumbling and tripping, his robe catching around his legs. They had neared the tree line when he realised his stomach would no longer hold out. “Wait!” he gasped.

With one violent heave, he vomited and then rested with his back to a sycamore until, racked by another bout, he gave up what was left. The girl looked on, impassive. When it was over he slunk down to the ground, panting. She passed him a handkerchief. “Alright?”

“No. I can’t say I am.”

“We have to move on, Vito. They might come back.”

“Oh really?” he gasped. “For what?”

Receiving no answer, he stared up at her again. How could she be so calm, so controlled? Well, they were not her brothers who lay slain, their throats sliced, their life bled out by savages who were worse than animals. He ran a hand through wayward curls now rinsed with sweat. “So what’s your name? Who are you anyway?”

“My name is Andretta Ermetena Ol Adama.”

“What?” The names washed over his fear-numbed mind like water over glass.

She sighed. “Andre. My family call me Andre. Come on.”

His stomach still quavering, Vito staggered to his feet, grasping her hand as she led him back down towards the meadow. He blinked, the sunlight blinding after the humid darkness of the forest. Then he whirled around, taking in the corpse-strewn pasture, the church, refectory, tower and cloisters now engulfed in fire, charred timbers splintering as they crashed to the ground.

Andre was already across the pasture and she yelled to him, her hands cupped around her mouth: “Vito! Come on!”

But he couldn’t. He looked back at the burning remains of his home: the only home he’d ever known. What if someone were still alive? He had been saved, he realised, only through his own cowardice, hiding in a tree with a Paga of all people! He owed it now to his brothers to risk his life, to try to bring some of them out of there. And so, in spite of Andre’s frantic screams, he ran towards the cloisters, covering his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his robe as he leapt over the bodies lying across its stone flags, the floor sticky with their blood.

The heat was unbearable. It singed his hair and beard. His lungs grew tight, and he threw open the chapel doors to be met by near solid palls of smoke. Vito dropped to his knees, tears leaking from the corners of his stinging eyes. Bent double, the coarse linen of his habit still pressed pointlessly to his lips, he surrendered to a series of harsh, racking coughs. When the wheezing and spluttering had subsided, he found himself staring down at a pair of sandalled feet sticking out from beneath a bench, one ankle clearly snapped and twisted.

Vito stared at the feet and for some reason he wanted to laugh. The horrors of this day, the wild horsemen, Rasmus’s severed head, the slaughter that had followed, it was all reduced to this one moment: a pair of feet peeking out from beneath a bench. A high, nervous wail escaped his lips and he dropped to the floor snorting and giggling, slack-jawed, spit welling and dripping from his open mouth.

It was perhaps only seconds, a minute at most that insanity rioted along his nerves and laid claim to his mind. For, behind him, heavy feet crunched over smouldering, brittle fragments of glass and burnt wood. He clawed his way back round on hands and knees, inhaling another acrid mouthful of smoke as he stared up through rising dust into the wild eyes of an Ahi. And now he could not distinguish between flames and tattoos, the man had merged with the fire itself as he raised his spear above Vito’s chest, ready to plunge.

From somewhere in the roof came a terrible ripping, a groaning as the skeleton of beams and joists collapsed, caving in on itself, spitting chunks of timber and masonry down onto the floor. Vito tilted back his head to observe a blue scrap of sky outlined against the fumes and debris of the ruined building. And then there was nothing but light and heat and smoke as he sank down and dreamed of death.

The Firefarer – Part One – Chapter One: Vito

So here is the next chapter of the Firefarer. Will be updating every Monday.


When Vito checked the dovecote that morning, he was astonished to find two birds missing. Blinking, he counted again, searching for telltale feathers on the ground, the grisly remains of fox-kill. Nothing. Still wet with dew, the unstained grass beneath the cote told no secrets. Except…except…his eyes narrowed, following a flattened trail of grass blades which stretched past the well, veered away from the monastery and ended at the edge of the forest. Clearly, whatever had taken the doves had two legs, not four.

Sighing, he pulled a bag of grain from the deep pockets of his robe. If he pursued the thief up the bank, he wouldn’t make it back in time for morning prayers. And the loss of two birds was nothing compared with brother Achill’s sharp tongue and harsh sarcasm. So as he trudged around the cote sprinkling grain, he prayed for divine justice, envisaging the poacher choking to death on the wrong end of a dove bone, or plagued by a bad attack of the guts.

He had scattered all the grain and was heading for the cloister gates when a sudden flash of colour caught his eye somewhere amongst the trees. Vito stopped, turned and peered up through the glossy greens and muddy browns of the forest. For it had been a streak of blue that caught his eye – the shade of a kingfisher’s wings when it plunges from sight into a stream.

Behind him, the spring morning seemed to drop away, its melodies of birdsong and crickets’ hiss drained out by the thudding of blood inside his own ears. Holding his breath, he stared up at the forest. Nothing. No movement other than the soft swish of oak and sycamore against the morning air. And cutting through that stiff, painful silence the bells rang out for morning prayers – three long, resonant booms.

Vito bit his lip and shook his head. Must be seeing things, he told himself. The forest had always seemed a place steeped in shadow and illusion, marking as it did the boundary between church and Pagi. Perhaps his imagination, as yet untrained by years of prayer and meditation had led him astray. He turned again, trudging toward the high arched gates of the cloisters, glancing nervously behind him. And that was when he saw her.

It had not been the blue of a bird’s wing that he had seen, or a fleeting glimpse of sky against the treetops. Vito now realised it had been a flash of someone’s sleeve. For, picking her way up through the forest, two doves slung over her shoulder on a string, was a girl.

“Hey!” His voice echoed around the pasture: a roar, hoarse shout. Still with her back to him the girl halted, cocking her head on one side. Then she whirled around.

She did not run. She simply stood watching him, her pale, heart-shaped face bracketed between two long brown plaits which stretched down to her waist. His temper now rising, Vito ran through the deep, wet grass, the hem of his robe already sodden with dew by the time he’d reached the treeline. He looked up to see her still standing, watching. Now furious, he pushed on upwards, the soles of his sandals slipping on mossy roots and rocks as he gained ground. And at last he reached her, too exhausted even to speak. He bent over, drawing in great gulps of air, sweat racing down his face and through his beard and hair.

“They’re…my…birds,” he gasped at last.

“What? These?” Her grey eyes flecked with amusement, she dangled the doves before him. He reached out but she pulled her arm away, stuffing the two small carcasses into a leather satchel which hung at her side. “Finders keepers.”

“You didn’t find them, you stole them. You’re a thief.”

A smile flickered across the thin edges of her lips. She was young, he judged, perhaps his age – a score of years, no more. A pair of close-fitting trousers hugged her legs, striped in blue and white. She wore, as a man might, a shirt and belt and a brocade jacket, the colour of a kingfisher’s wings. Rich, then. No villager. Perhaps a Paga. Whoever she was, she had no business stealing his birds.

“I’m no thief.” Her gaze was calm, clear, steady. “I’m a treasure-hunter. And a scholar. Look.” She opened the satchel to reveal a massive, leather-bound book, its title inlaid in gold leaf.

Vito snorted. “One book doesn’t make you a scholar.”

She snatched away the bag before he could reach once more for the birds. “And a habit doesn’t make you a monk. Besides, that’s hardly good, monkish behaviour on your part. I thought your tenets exhort you to divide and share.”

“Not with corrupt Pagi.”

“So I’m a Paga now? And why not a travelling tinker? Or a pilgrim? Or an acrobat? I could be any of those.”

With barely a glance behind her, she slung the satchel upwards, its strap catching around the broad branch of an oak. Then, in one lithe movement, she raised her hands to catch the branch and swung herself upwards, landing astride it, legs dangling above him.

Vito saw himself outplayed. Climb after her and she would no doubt spring from reach like a squirrel. Wait for her to come down and he would miss two rounds of prayers. He envisaged Achill scanning the chancel with his long face and irritable blue eyes, weighing up Vito’s absence and devising suitable penalties – a night-long vigil, or an entire day spent in prayer and solitude. Vito shuddered.

“Keep them then.” Flushed with shame, he turned to go. “And I hope you choke.”

“Wait!” A slender set of fingers clutched his shoulder. He shrugged them off.

“Didn’t you hear that?” The girl whispered.

“What?” In spite of himself he halted. Her eyes had rounded in genuine alarm. She pressed her hand to his mouth, urging his silence.

Frowning, the shame still clawing at him, gnawing at his pride, he listened. At first, he caught no more than the breaking of branches, the light thudding of hooves. A herd of deer, perhaps, spooked by a woodsman’s step, a poacher’s arrow? But now it were as if the entire forest were shaking, the ground itself seemed to rumble and moan. Vito dropped down, crouching beneath the shelter of the oak, peering through the dense thickness of undergrowth, straining to catch a glimpse of whoever or whatever had, on this fresh, god-sent morning chosen to break the stillness, the silence. Below in the pasture, he spied a stallion’s coal-black legs, followed by others that were chestnut, piebald, ivory. He parted the twin saplings which obscured his view. There were many horses now, too many to count, and sitting astride them were riders, the like of whom he had never seen. Half naked, their bodies were tanned to a golden, honeyed brown, long matted hair snaking down their backs, and their faces – were they even human? He blinked, horror mingling with fascination. For tattoos laced their cheeks, their chins and brows: black, swirling curlicues, patterns bearing no apparent order, thick streaks of ink which rippled across their skin as they shouted and laughed.

A light ruffling of leaves pulled him back into the moment. He twisted around to observe the girl, who was now hanging upside down by her knees from the branch, her long plaits brushing the ground. “Climb up here,” she whispered.

“But I need to get back to the monastery. I need to warn my brothers.”

She shook her head, her face now glowing as the blood rushed downwards. “Your brothers are already dead.”

She extended a hand, and instinctively he took it.

Review – Riley LaShea “Club Storyville”


I recently came to the conclusion that we must be living through a golden age of lesbian literature, and it’s books like Riley LaShea’s Club Storyville that convince me this is the case. It’s a novel which tackles issues of sexuality and race head on, and which claims the reader’s attention from beginning to end. Above all, it’s a beautifully exercised and compassionate narration of the sacrifices people are prepared to make in order to live and love freely.

I knew I was in for the long haul when….

I knew I was in for the long haul from the opening pages. There is something about Riley LaShea’s style of writing which is both compelling and absorbing. I felt immediately drawn into 1940s America, and in particular to a south traumatised by the effects of the war, divided along racial lines by Jim Crow legislation, a society desperate to maintain appearances while tensions brew beneath its surface. Above all, I absolutely loved the way LaShea skilfully meshes her tale of forbidden love between two young women into this complex, historical background.

What surprised me…

What surprised me about the book is the fact that much of it takes the form of a journey – both literal and emotional – for the main character Elizabeth. I assumed that her burgeoning relationship with her grandmother’s nurse, Ariel, would develop through chance meetings and whispered conversations. Instead, Elizabeth and Ariel find themselves flung together on a journey to New Orleans, in order to fulfil her grandmother’s final request. This theme of travelling works beautifully – it really racks up the tension as Elizabeth finds herself in potentially intimate situations with Ariel, yet uncertain as to whether or not she can reveal her passion. It also forces her to open her eyes to the true nature of racial oppression, forcing her to mature very quickly, to shed her innocence, and to come to terms with her sexuality.

My favourite character…

Actually, I think my favourite character was probably Nan – Elizabeth’s grandmother. She’s a very old lady with a very wild past, with secrets of her own – a woman who knows her own mind and who refuses to compromise for the sake of appearances. She has a wicked sense of humour, abundant reserves of courage, and she delights in provoking Elizabeth’s prim and proper parents. In spite of her age and apparent frailty, Nan is larger than life, a character who emerges as the catalyst for the events in the novel.

Club Storyville is quite simply a wonderful novel which works on so many levels – as a tale of self-discovery, as a skilfully-realised piece of historical fiction, and as a romantic love story. It’s a book which forces you to think about just how much people were prepared to risk in order to be with the person they love. In that respect, I’d say it’s a very important book, and I highly recommend it.

The Firefarer – Prologue – Muna

firefarer cover

Last week Wattpad was glitching somewhat, and so I published the chapter that I had been intending to post there on my blog. As it attracted quite a lot of attention, I decided to serialise the whole book simultaneously, so I’ll be posting a chapter of The Firefarer every week here. I’ll also add a few extras, such as pictures of places that have inspired the story, maps and articles connected with the work. So the first picture was taken by my partner in North Wales and it’s that kind of rugged, rocky coastline which provides the backdrop for Muna’s island.



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.