I’ve been serialising my latest novel The Firefarer here on my blog – it’s available in a more advanced form on Wattpad.
Moran felt the pinch of someone’s hands beneath her armpits. They were holding her upright, and she was moving, gliding, weightless. She also felt cold – freezing, as if her blood itself had congealed into ice. She shivered, shaking herself awake, aware of sounds condensed around her, the ripple and drip of water.
“For the spirits’ own sake, Moran. Half-drowned twice in two days. Even by your standards of carelessness that’s quite a feat!”
Was that her sister’s voice which now echoed off the walls around them? Moran turned her head and received an earful of water. She coughed, spluttered and then spoke. “What happened?”
“What do you think happened? You fell and hit the pool below. Just be thankful they say it’s deep.”
She felt her sister’s legs kicking away beneath her, frog-like as she ferried Moran across the surface. A light drifted past, its tiny flame flickering on the subterranean breeze. The candles had been floating she realised. Not on air, but on water! Surrounded by tiny pinpricks of light, she gazed up at the vaulted roof of the cave high above, stalactites looming into view and then fading into the darkness as if the rocks themselves oozed blood or tears.
Moran felt Carin slow in pace and shift as she planted her legs on the pool’s floor where it shelved up to meet dry rock. Pulling Moran through the last stretch of water, she hauled her onto the side. They both lay like fish washed up on a tide, panting and shivering, mouths open as they sucked on the musty air of the cave.
“The ladder gave out,” Moran gasped at last.
“You don’t say. Come on.” With a groan, Carin rose. “I’m so cold I can hardly feel my toes. If I lose any of them, I’ll be taking some of yours.” “Charming.” Moran allowed Carin to pull her to her feet and then they trudged on, clinging to each other for warmth, stumbling over the uneven surface of the cavern before turning down yet another long, torch-lit corridor which fed away from the pool. A warmer draft of air drifted towards them, carrying with it fragments of conversation, the homely scents of wine and roasting meat. Moran’s heart kicked with sudden relief.
The tunnel fanned out into an arc at its far end and, as they approached, two figures emerged from the shadows, clad in plaid kirtles and tunics, bearing tridents, spears and wheel-shaped wooden shields.
“Well if it isn’t the wayward daughters of Arioch.”
Moran felt Carin stiffen beside her. “We’re here to see the Golach, Keles. Let us past.”
But the guard to whom she had spoken took a step forward, standing before Moran, his lips a tight sneer. Now half faint with cold, weariness and hunger, Moran took in the tall, muscular frame, the shaved head and scorn-filled eyes of her father’s former friend. He stared back at her, his two companion guards flanking him on either side, waiting, watching. Drawing back his head, he hawked, spitting out a long gob of phlegm which whistled through the air and hit the ground at her feet. She backed away in disgust and he laughed.
“Pagi lover. The Golach ought to have drowned you like a rat.”
“The Golach has his reasons for bringing my sister back to us, Keles.” Carin positioned herself before Moran, her hand twisting behind her back, fingers pressing around her trident. “He has his purpose, and who are we to question that?”
“Your sister is a traitor. You’re a true warrior of the Ruach, Carin. Loyal. Strong. Don’t risk that fine reputation of yours for her worthless sake.”
In spite of her weakness, fury and frustration uncoiled like a vicious pair of vipers within Moran’s heart. “It is you who shame our parents’ memory, Keles. You were their friend, you swore to protect us. And you too had acquaintances, lovers even amongst the Pagi before Ol Terenzo spread his poison amongst them.”
“That was then, before the fall, you ignorant bitch. Those days are gone.” He took another step closer, but Carin remained between them, drawing her trident.
“Keles…” his companion placed a hand upon his shoulder. Drawing level with him, she tugged away her bronze helmet. Long, loose brown hair tumbled down about her shoulders, eyes the colour of amber catching Moran’s gaze and holding it. “As Carin says, the Golach has summoned Arioch’s daughters. And who are we to question his orders?”
“Ida?” Recognising her childhood friend, Moran stretched out a hand in greeting, but received only a brief shake of the head, a folding of arms in response.
“That doesn’t mean I can accept what you’ve done, Moran. You as good as spat on the grave of your parents.”
“They would have understood. And forgiven me if need be.”
“Believe that if you will. Come, let’s face his Greatness – and, if need be, his wrath.”
Moran was grateful then for the arm that Carin slid around her waist, for the sisterhood that still remained between them when all else had failed. Who were these people – Keles, Ida – to judge her? Of course they would claim that loyalty for one’s people overran and outweighed all other types of love. That the fall – as they called it – the unleashing of Pagi hatred against the Ruach had created a rift between their two peoples that could never be healed. Hope lay only in the reclaiming of land that had been stolen from them – that they had shared with the Pagi for millennia. And yet who amongst them, she wondered, had ever experienced anything like the passion she had shared with Andre? An emotion so intense as to have proved painful. An awareness that, now the war had finally caught up with her, now she had been ripped from her lover’s side, she no longer cared for her own safety, for her own life or, she admitted with a glowing sense of shame, for her own people. The only crime she acknowledged was to have run when she did, to have left her lover and fled to the coast. But not to have done so could have endangered Andre herself.
Keles released a snort of contempt and then set off down a stone-hewn flight of stairs which plunged into the lower systems of caverns and caves.
“Follow him,” Ida said, her tone chill and flat. For a fleeting moment, Moran recalled a kiss she had shared with Ida: an earlier passion which had flared for just a few months, so intense as to have burnt itself to dust. They had been young, on the cusp of adulthood: two, maybe three years before the fall. It had been an awakening of emotions as yet untried, untested – a faulting, fumbling exploration of each other’s bodies which had left them both breathless, surprised, as if they had crossed a border into a hidden world. That was before Ida’s colt-like limbs and supple grace had attracted the attention of the village boys – Paga and Ruach – leaving Moran confused and stunned. That was when she had first seen Andre.
Carin was already disappearing down the torch-lined staircase still gripping her trident in one hand, her broad shoulders and arms swinging as she moved. She disappeared amongst the shadows and then Moran followed, aware of Ida trailing close behind her. As if she could turn back now, swim across the pool, clamber the walls of the cavern, haul herself through the cavity above it and then make her way back, alone and half famished down the mountainside!
The drop to her right plummeted to unseen depths. To her left, smaller caves and tunnels punctured the rocks. Many of these were occupied by Ruach families, their few belongings scattered in untidy heaps, the wreckage of past lives and hopes. She saw pots and pans, children’s toys, books, candlesticks – objects gathered up in frantic, fear-fuelled panic, shoved hastily into bags or clutched to chests, the Ruach having run with whatever came to hand as they escaped the knives, the spears and swords of their Pagi neighbours.
There were also items of more esoteric or ornamental value, once the pride of place in a study or library, now dumped carelessly on the stone floor of the caves – astrolabes and clocks, telescopes, globes which span on tilted axes, lutes, spectacles, richly woven rugs and even, she noted with a pang of sadness, sundials – so useless down here in the Mearahn depths. It all seemed a mockery of home, a desperate attempt to recreate a life which was now so utterly lost: annulled by time, by the inhuman world of the caves, and by Pagi violence.
Occasionally, she was aware of people watching as she passed, of eyes peering at her through the darkness. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of children: matted, straggling hair snaking around a dirt stained face, their eyes an open question. The few old men and women who had struggled up the mountainside now sat on the steps, some smoking pipes, others simply leaning, heads against the rock, their brows twisted into furrows as if desperate to recall why they were here, underground – what had brought them to this place. From somewhere amongst the shadows, a woman’s voice screamed: “Traitor!”
Moran shuddered and hurried on, catching up with Carin as she reached the base of the stairs.
“Stop!” Carin said, her voice hushed in sudden awe. “Look!”
They had reached what appeared to be a natural amphitheatre, the size of a Pagi palazzo or market square. At first, it seemed as if they were standing amongst the stars themselves, for every surface – the walls, the floors, winked and glittered with light. Moran observed, however, torches which had been cleverly hidden amongst folds and clefts in the rock, spilling light over the natural gems which lay clustered like so many galaxies, embedded in the stone.
“Seams of gold and diamonds,” Carin whispered. “Beautiful.” She turned to Moran. “But useless to us now. If only we’d known of it before the fall.”
“Who would want to prize them out of here anyway? It would be a crime to strip this place of its treasure.”
Carin gazed at her, one eyebrow raised and then shook her head. “You’re such a dreamer, Moran.”
Ida stepped down to join them. “You see, Moran, if you’d not been away playing with the Pagi you’d have seen all this long ago.”
Moran opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again. There was little point in provoking Ida – especially now, when she was about to face the judgement of The Golach himself. And so she allowed the gibe to pass and waited, and waited. There was no sign of Keles – he had disappeared off somewhere in the darkness – and so she stood there, her mind at swim, her thoughts restless and frantic as she weighed up the all possible conclusions of her meeting with the spirit master.
She was aware, after some time, of the padding of feet, the murmur of voices, and realised that Ruach families had joined them, settling down around the fringes of the cavern. In the semi-light of torches and gemstones she picked out some familiar faces – old neighbours and friends. She bit her lip and focussed her attention on the floor, avoiding the interrogative stares, the anger, worst of all the confused, questioning expressions of those she had once known, and loved.
She caught sight of the Golach’s shadow before she saw the man himself. Clutching a burning brand, Keles had re-entered the makeshift courtroom behind the spirit master, and the old man’s tall, stooping frame was cast into relief, lengthened across the stone floor of the cave. He still bore the ceremonial robes which she recalled from childhood visits to the temple – before it had been smashed and plundered by the Pagi. Loose, flowing swathes of red silk enveloped his frail body, while a crimson cap covered thin, greying wisps of hair. His eyes, haunted and myopic, peered from a face wrinkled beyond repair.
“They’re here, your Greatness.” Waving the brand before him, Keles indicated Moran and Carin. The Golach peered forwards and then edged towards them.
“Daughters of Arioch?”
Moran shuddered. His voice was always so resonant – a chord rather than a plucked melody, as if he were speaking with more than one tongue.
“We’re here, Master of Spirits.”
“Ah.” Again that harmonic cluster of sounds, receding to a whisper. “Come closer.”
She was before him now, peering down into those fading blue eyes, aware of Carin hovering to her right. Instinctively, she knelt.
“Do you know how we once dealt with those who fraternised with our enemies?”
Trembling, she shook her head. “No, Sire.”
“They would be staked out on a mountainside. Fodder for the eagles.” He placed a twisted hand upon her shoulder. “But rise. We are here to offer redemption, not to punish.”
Shaking with sudden relief, she got to her feet, but then recalled Carin’s earlier words: for there to be redemption, there must first be sacrifice.
“You seem to have lost your way, child.”
“I fell in love, Spirit Master.”
She caught the snorts of derision, the quiet hisses of contempt and chose to stand proud. What had been done could not be undone. Nor would she ever wish to change it.
“And was not the love of your own people enough?”
“It was love of a different sort, your Greatness. Love the like of which I have never known.” She caught Ida’s eye but the soldier turned away, her lips curled into a sneer.
“It was the semblance of love you experienced, Moran. A mere glimpse of sunlight upon a cloudy day, no more. The Pagi have long held us in contempt. You are a fool to believe otherwise. What they seem to give us with one hand, they always take with the other. Ol Terenzo’s purges are but one episode in a sorry history of crimes against our people. ” He shook his head. “But you knew, I think, where your true love lay. You returned to us.”
She threw Carin a glance of surprise. “I believed it was you who conjured the storm which brought me back here, Sire.”
He shook his head. “Perhaps. But you could have given yourself up to the waves. Instead, you swam for shore. You saved yourself, as the spirits told me you must.”
“The spirits?” She quelled the rising strain of doubt in her voice.
“Yes. They have brought me hope, Moran. And you are a part of that hope.”
His eyes seemed to lose their haze, now burning with an impossible brightness. “Yes, Moran. They offer me a chance, a belief that we might be restored to our land, that we might claim it for our own, that we may even live without the Pagi and their persecution.”
She could not have said why it then was that a sudden chill laid claim to her heart, as if a fist of ice had wrapped itself around the organ and was squeezing it tight. She found herself out of breath, shaking. “What do they intend for me, your Greatness?” she whispered.
“They tell me that the Ahi have arrived in these lands in search of someone – someone so precious to them that they will do anything to get him back.”
He took a step towards her and his breath flickered across her face when he spoke, musty and dry with age. “The one they call the Firefarer is here. A living vessel of destruction. And you, with your eloquent tongue and your gift for languages, you will find this child and persuade him to join us. You will go back amongst the Pagi – as you love them so well – you will search for him and you will bring him to us.”
“Your Greatness, this is no redemption. You are commanding her to her death!” Carin had pushed before her now, standing between her and the Golach. “Alone amongst the enemy? Moran will not survive such a mission.”
The smile he threw them was no longer that of a benign conjuror of spirits, but the tight-lipped grimace of a sly old man. “Which is why you will accompany her, Carin. Her sin has stained you both, after all. Yes. The two of you will venture out amongst the Pagi. You will root out this child, and you will bring him back to us. And our enemies will answer for their crimes. With fire.”