Well it’s been a long while, for which I apologise. I have been publishing earlier chapters of my latest story, The Firefarer here on my blog. It is in a more advanced state on Wattpad. However, various things got in the way and I haven’t posted a chapter for a while. So this one picks up part two and introduces another major character, Moran.
Consciousness crept up on Moran – stealthy, remorseless. She opened her eyes to catch a blur of waves and sky, her face pressed into the wet grittiness of the beach, surf breaking over her bare feet. Her stomach pulsed and she brought up a mouthful of brine before rolling onto her back, her skin now almost blue with cold. High above, clouds scudded across a raw swathe of sky, chased by the biting wind which blew down from the north.
With a long, low groan she pushed herself upright, resting with her hands flat on the sand, her legs crossed before her. The sea was grey, crested with foam, whipped up by the storm which had driven her back onto the mainland and away from the Source Isles for which she had so desperately aimed. It were almost as if the spirits themselves had conspired against her.
Moran dug her hand around a small clutch of pebbles – polished smooth as glass – and turned them over in her palms before carefully throwing each one back into the sea. At least, she decided, her appearance ought to be enough to scare away any Paga who might happen to stroll across the beach. The thick plaid of her dress was now ripped at the shoulder: loose, sodden and misshapen. Wind tugged at wet locks of hair, and she shook and trembled as the cold seemed to mine beneath her skin, burying deep within her body until she could no longer feel her fingers or toes. If she stayed here, she realised, she would die ─ her body washed out once more to sea, drifting beyond sight or memory. And so with an effort which seemed to wrench her limbs from their sockets, she rose, turned and dragged herself up towards dunes which fluted off the beach above her and offered some hope of shelter.
A hollow amongst the sands staved off the worst of the wind. She fished around for driftwood, finding a few bare pieces on the beach and then concentrated on lighting a fire, splitting a piece of wood and stuffing the groove with dry, matted grass before working over it with a slim stick. The process seemed to take hours. The light was fading, and with it went the dregs of her strength. When a spark finally caught in the tinder, she could have wept. She transferred the precious flames to the driftwood and, as the fire caught hold, she stripped and laid her tattered dress before it to dry.
There would be no chance of catching anything to eat, she realised. The evening was drawing in and the sea was too wild. And so, lying naked on the sands as close to the fire as she dared, she drew an arm up beneath her head and fell into fitful sleep, with the break of waves and the crackling of flames for company.
She could not say what had woken her. Soft footfalls on the sand, perhaps, the sense of another presence. Moran stirred, moaned and rose, trembling. The fire had long since died away to red embers, and the wind had picked up. Shivering, she tugged on her dress.
“You’d make the spirits blush, sister, lying there without a stitch on.”
“Carin?” She craned into the shadows, picking out her sister’s dark, sinuous outline. “How did you know I’m here?”
Carin leant forward and prodded at the cinders with a piece of wood. A few fine wisps and sparks spiralled upwards into the night air. She tapped her temple with a dirt-encrusted nail. “You know how.”
Moran experienced a sudden surge of relief. At least she wasn’t alone to face the perils of the mainland. Carin rose, and Moran stared up into her sister’s face, into the sharp, angular features, the closely cropped hair, her eyes two dark, gleaming slivers of jet. “Too bad I don’t have your skills, Carin.” She drew her knees up in front of her and rested her head on them. “In fact, I’ve nothing left now.”
“Self-pity doesn’t become you, sister. Besides, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.”
Carin reached above her shoulder, drawing out the trident she kept strapped to her back. A small eel dangled limply from one of its prongs. “I imagine you’re hungry.”
“Best get that fire started again, then.”
They stoked up the charred fragments of driftwood, flames lapping around fresh tinder. Carin crouched down, her dress tucked about her thighs, and twisted the trident over the rising heat, the eel hanging from one of its prongs. When it was cooked, she ripped it in two, passing half to Moran, who sank her teeth straight into its salty, smoky juice. She felt it slither down her throat; warmth spread through her body, restoring energy and strength. Carin handed her a leather flask and she sipped from it, gasping as the sharp, fruity tang of alcohol burst across her tongue.
“Where…where did you get that?” she choked.
Carin shrugged. “Some old woman by the road – too blind to see me for a Ruach. She called it best summer liqueur. I call it rancid bilberries. But it goes down all the same. So…” she leant forward, her chin cupped between rough, strong hands, her face half lit, half in shadow. “What happened?”
Moran sucked in a deep breath, releasing it in a long sigh. It was all too fresh, too painful to put into words. And yet find words she must, if she were to restore her sister’s love.
“I ran.” She shook her head, the shame rising within her like a sickness.
“She made you go?”
“No. I never even said goodbye. I…I left without a word.” Tears caught in her throat. She swallowed them down, masking her grief with a bitter little laugh. “Her brothers – they warned me. They were always good to me. Her whole family was. They’re good people, Carin – the Pagi are not all animals.”
Carin shook her head, stoking the fire with the butt end of her trident, provoking an angry blast of sparks. “You’re blind, sister. They kill us. They maim, torture and persecute us. Enslave our children, humiliate our old men. They hate us.”
“It’s not true!” Fury entered Moran’s voice. “You’re as bad as they are if you can’t see that – if you think they’re all the same. That’s how they think of us – that we’re savage, barbaric, primitive, dangerous.” Her voice shook under the strain of emotion. She’d gone too far, and she saw it, registered the flash of indignation in Carin’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered then. “You’re not like that.”
“Go on.” Carin’s tone was stony, unmoved. “Tell me your story.”
Moran remained silent for a few moments, gathering her thoughts, listening to the crash and suck of waves as they hit the beach, the hissing of burning driftwood. “I saw what was happening, but I closed my eyes to it,” she said at last. “Everyday brought new tales of executions, lynchings and hardships. Her family sheltered me as best they could. I taught languages well, they claimed, and above all else they valued knowledge. They left me the keys to their library, time to be with her. They saw our friendship blossom, saw no harm in it. I taught her Ruach, Ahi, even the antique languages – old Pagese, ur-Ruach. She was…she is a good student, ready to listen, to learn, all heart and ears.”
Her words faltered, her memory straying to a time before the fall. Andre lying naked in her bed, a shaft of sunlight rendering her skin golden, her hair snaking over her shoulders as she recited love poetry in old Pagese. The sudden sense of loss felled Moran like a blow.
“It was her brother, Estachien, who told me to leave. They could no longer protect us, he said. At night the town’s people would surround the mansion with torch light in one hand, unsheathed blades in the other. They would demand the expulsion of any Ruach. And so, like an adulterer or traitor, I slipped away. I saved my own skin. I ran for the coast, sleeping by day in hedgerows, hidden, dirt smudged across my face for camouflage. At night I ran like a hunted beast, avoiding the lights and laughter of their villages until at last I smelt salt on the air. A line of rafts and coracles rested on the beach. I stole one out in the pale dawn light. I thought, if I could only make it to the Source Isles, hide amongst their rocks and forest, then perhaps word would reach me of new times, of better times. And then I would come back, look for her once more, beg her for forgiveness…”
“But the storm.”
“Yes. The storm. I clung to the broken hull of my little boat until, all my energy sapped, I let go and gave myself up to the waves.”
“The Golach commanded the storm.”
“What?” Almost feverish with grief, she seized Carin’s flask, gulping down a sour mouthful of liquor.
“The winds told him of your fall, sister. But he wants to hear it from your lips, as you have told me now. He offers you redemption.”
“Redemption?” Moran snorted. “Nothing can repair my mistakes.”
Carin shifted stiffly. “He considers your offence to have been against the Ruach, not Andre.”
“Against the Ruach? An offence? What business is it of his who I love?”
“It’s his business if you bed the enemy, sister – the scum who killed our brother, our parents, our friends…I told you before – fuck them and forget them. It’s a hollow victory but it’s better than none. We shared this land with them once, we lived beside them as neighbours.” Carin’s dark eyes seemed to capture the light from the fire and hold it. She rose, her back to Moran as she continued to speak. “It was their arrogance, their blindness, their magic, the filthy corruption of their arts which made them think they had the right to mistreat and kill us, to see in us animals, parasites. The spirits weep, sister.” She turned around, her face streaked with tears, her lips quivering with rage. “And you claim to love one of them?” Her fingers folded around the polished bronze of her trident. “I will spear her on this, as if she were an eel, if I ever set eyes on her.”
“You will not, you ignorant, heartless bitch!”
The fury welled within, a hot, harsh seam of violence which she knew had lain, hidden but not dormant, for months. Rising, her fists clenched into balls, she ran at her sister, knocking her off her feet. They landed amongst the dunes, punching, kicking, scratching blindly in the darkness, just as they had as children. Back then, their mother would settle such arguments with a few keen blows of her belt. But now there was no mother to punish her wild daughters, no father to shake his head in despair when they traipsed inside, all ripped clothes and split lips. Now there was only the night air, the breaking waves and the spirits who, Moran knew, were not on her side. Nor had they ever been. For, unlike every other Ruach, she lacked the gift to conjure them.
And so, her strength once more at an ebb, she surrendered at last to her sister’s brute power, Carin’s sheer size and hardened muscle overwhelming her until she lay, stretched out upon the sands, blood issuing from her nose and the air forced from her lungs. And at that, she laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Carin growled, slumped against a dune, the fight now gone from her.
“Us. We never grow up, Carin. Do you think we’ll still be doing this when we’re a pair of old hags?”
“We’ll not live that long, sister.” Rising, she towered over Moran, blocking out the moon’s pale rays. She extended a hand and Moran took it, seizing Carin in an embrace, squeezing her, clinging to her, tears leaking from her eyes, mingling with the blood which streaked her face.
“What does the Golach want of me?” she whispered.
“I don’t know, sister,” Carin replied. “He told me only this – for there to be redemption, there must first be sacrifice.”
Moran buried her face in Carin’s shoulder, still weeping like a child. “Take me to him,” she said at last.