Here’s part of Muna’s story from the novel I’m working on at the moment: The Fresco and the Fountain is the sequel to The Firefarer, which you can obtain here:
Just a warning that if you’ve not read the book, this chapter contains some spoilers.
The Firefarer wandered distant shores in search of herself; her skin dusted with sand, her dress worn to its weave and the brackish taste of brine on her lips. And now the night was setting in; the sun a line of red draining into the ocean’s distant horizon. She watched it fade and sink. A few stars pierced the haze of dusk and a night wind plucked at her hair, whisking it before her eyes. The exertion of rowing had soaked her clothes in sweat, but now her muscles cooled and cramped and she shuddered, wrapping her arms around her waist and worming her toes into the grainy wetness of the beach.
She was back amongst her people at last; the lands of the Pagi a fading nightmare in which illusion had chased illusion. She thought of Simone: so young, so beautiful and beguiling. Yet on the point of a knife he’d revealed himself to be a broken husk of a man, his body twisted and deformed with age. She thought too of the artist Artemisia who had sealed flesh and blood into canvas. And then she thought of her brother Hori, too weak to withstand their magic: burning himself to pieces on distant plains. She stifled the moan rising in her throat. If only she’d understood her own power. If only she’d acknowledged it; if she’d not blinded herself to it, then she might have saved him.
The dunes bristled with long grass and scrub, the wind sculpting the sand into deep hollows and steep rises. She longed to rest amongst them: to sit with her face buried in her arms and weep until the dawn. But to do so was to invite death, and Muna was not yet of a mind to die.
“Return to your source,” Moran had told her after the battle. “And once you’ve found it, return to us.”
She would do that for Hori’s sake. She would learn of her power, and of how she might control it. And when she was ready, she would take revenge for her brother’s death: first upon those Ahi warriors who still dreamed of war, and then upon the Pagi themselves. She thought of vengeance, of their screams, their panic and suffering, and raised a hand before her eyes. It pulsed. It glowed with light and heat, with rippling fire.
She allowed the image to slide away, her skin cooling as she forced herself to focus on the white swell of the waves, on the hissing of wind through the long grass, the air infused with the scent of salt and seaweed. This was not the time to waste her energy. She had to find food and shelter before the night sunk its claws into the land for good.
Muna pushed on upwards through the dunes, tiny avalanches of sand breaking beneath her bare feet until at last she could look across to wide, barren plains shielded on both sides by the shadowy mass of mountains. Dark patches littering the valley floor suggested villages or settlements: places where she might rest. But she knew her people built for the season not the year; ready to leave their homes any moment in search of food or safety. Those huts and hovels she spied might well be occupied by hunters, by warriors, by anyone who’d chanced upon them. Or they could just as easily be empty. She stepped onwards into the vastness of the gathering night.
That great, wild, open space beyond promised peace: a place to lie down, perhaps some dried meat or an abandoned skin of water. But it was too late to risk setting foot on the plains now, alone as she was and travel-weary. And to her right, a dull bark of laughter split the night. Startled, she turned and crouched back down beneath the line of the dunes, moving crabwise until she was level with the source of the sound. A flickering line of smoke payed out into the evening sky, carrying with it a hint of charred fish. Another coarse hack of a laugh was followed by muffled conversation and then a baby’s wail. Muna sucked on her lower lip. Just a family then, gathered around their fire to eat and talk, so heedless of the threat lurking in the dunes. For she was a threat: she was the fire to end all fires. But while hunger and thirst scratched at her belly, she could not remain in silence, hidden by the fading light. And so she forced herself to her feet, striding over the top of the dunes and down towards them, her hair and the bare threads of her clothes scrolling out on the wind.
At first they didn’t see her, absorbed as they were with the baby and their conversation. Their supper, she now saw, consisted of a few limp fish skewered on wooden staves and left to cook and spit over the flames. But her stomach grumbled at the sight and she pressed on until she was standing on the opposite side of their fire pit. Two men, one woman, their faces cast in shadow and light sat outside a roughly timbered hut. A small child peered out from behind his mother’s back, his eyes rounding with fear while she nursed the screaming infant, rocking it in her arms and glancing up at Muna. Naked to the waist one man rose, his chest and face dark with tattoos.
“What is it? What do you want?”
She fixed a shaking finger on the fire. “Warmth,” she said. “Food.”
He shook his head. “That’s for us. Those fish are for us – and there’s not enough. Go!”
She stood, staring, queasy with hunger. Desperation welled within like bile. She swallowed it down, knowing now where it might lead. “Please!”
The other man was on his feet now, older than his comrades, his thinning hair greying at the tips and his face lost entirely to ink. “You heard him. We’ve not enough for ourselves, never mind you. Be gone before my axe hears my anger.” He indicated the weapon propped against the beams of their hut, its twin blades gleaming in the firelight.
It was beginning: a tight kernel of heat unfurling within. Their refusal to allow her even a seat at their hearth, to feed her just a meagre mouthful of their fish. This was who they were: her famed people, the Ahi. Unwilling to help their own, to offer protection to a single, starving woman. Did they know who she was? If they did, they gave no sign. No sign, that was, until her skin wavered, translucent and light; the ochre and amber of flames flickering beneath it. The woman rose, backing away, clutching the baby in one arm and dragging the child behind her who still kept round eyes fixed on Muna. And then the men rose, the elder reaching for his axe.
The heat spread. She could feel it welling up, rising like a tidal wave in search of shore. She was spinning, wheeling upwards away from herself, and looked down at her own body: a blazing light against the darkness of the dunes. The woman was running from the hut, her child stumbling out onto the plains behind her while the warriors wielded axe and blade, circling her warily. Run! She told herself. Run, before it touches them: before the flames lick at their flesh. Before the skin melts from their bodies. Before fire kisses the grasslands and the dunes and wraps itself around the woman’s legs. Run!
She was running. Back in her body, exhausted, famished, the heat ebbing even as she drove herself forwards, stumbling, rising, falling again. She passed the woman and the children and continued into the night. Somehow, the flames had not consumed her this time: she had found her way back into her body before it was too late. But the thought of what might have been: of children lost to the heat of her rage, it caused her to gasp: to cry out in terror.
She sank again, turned around and peered back in the direction of the hut and the coast. They were not chasing her at least; they had been wise enough to stay where they were. But soon word would spread that the Firefarer had returned. And what then? What if they sought her, as they had sought her brother: to use her, to turn against their enemies? Or, more likely if news of the battle had reached their ears, perhaps they would hunt her down and destroy her. Sobbing, she scrabbled to her feet again and ran: stones, thorns and the sharp blades of grass biting into the bare soles of her feet. And up ahead, in the darkness, shapes were massing.
She paused, frozen. Out here on the plains was nothing but space, emptiness, wind and silence. She felt the mountains’ mass and might, looming on either side of the valley. There were no trees to shelter behind, no boulders beneath which she might crouch, and no way of knowing how close the nearest settlement lay. For a brief moment, she longed for the green forests and meadows of the Pagi, but they were far across the sea now and as treacherous as a night in the barren lands of the Ahi. And so she stood, and waited.
A horse snorted, there was a steady thud of hooves and then the shapes coalesced into the figures of five riders, all of them helmed and armed with spears, with tridents and swords, axes, bows and blades. They halted before her, stopped and stared. One man leaned over in his saddle and spat into the grass.
“And where might you be going?” A woman spoke, eyes set deep, glittering and hawkish behind her visor.
“I…” Muna’s voice had grown hoarse through lack of use. “I seek a bed for the night. And food. That is all.”
One man smirked. “She’s welcome to mine.”
“No!” The woman shook her head and jabbed at Muna’s chest with the butt end of her spear. “Look at her. No ink – some outcast or freak. How old are you, girl?”
“I…I don’t know. I’ve seen seventeen summers, I believe. Just let me pass. I’ll be on my way.” Again her fear was burying deep, transforming itself, turning into something vital, something dangerous. And this time she knew she would not contain it. “Let me…”
“Seventeen and no ink? No tattoos?” The woman’s words were an open challenge.
“No. I never…I was always too weak to fight.”
“You don’t look that weak to me, girl. In need of food, true enough.” The warrior’s voice was a needle pricking, burying its point beneath her skin. “Perhaps just kept at home too much? Daddy’s darling? Perhaps your family were protecting you?”
Protecting you, more like. “Look, just let me go. I’ll be on my way.”
“No. I don’t think so.” The woman straightened in her saddle. “I say we take her with us to the Pagi. Teach her to know her enemy; to earn her ink.”
“To…the Pagi? You can’t!”
“We can’t what?” One of the men rode behind her, preventing any flight back to the shore. The cold steel tip of a sword pressed between her shoulder blades. Fire licked at her veins, creeping with slow intensity through her body.
“We can’t what?” he repeated. “Avenge those men and women we lost out there? Who sought adventure and never returned? Take land from the Pagi which they are neither fit for nor worthy of?” He twisted the point of his blade, nicking her skin. Blood seeped into the seam of her dress. “You, an inkless brat would tell us what is and is not possible?”
“Yes. I would. I’ve been to the lands of the Pagi…”
The woman’s snort was indignant. “A stripling like you? Don’t lie, girl. If there’s one thing I hate more than a spoilt brat, it’s a liar.”
“I saw…” her mind was wheeling. Just a few more heart beats and she would lose control. Why would they not leave her be? “I saw the battle between the Pagi and our army.”
One of the men scratched at his jaw with casual contempt. “She’s lost her wits. She’s clearly mad…we should have seen it. Stumbling out here alone.” Bending low in his saddle, he spoke to her as if to a tiny child. “No one lived who was there. All that our people found were piles of ash. The Firefarer destroyed them all.” And then he froze. She noticed how his hands shook where they clutched the horse’s reins, how he straightened up and his lips moved around voiceless words. He understood: she saw it in his eyes. But his companions remained blind. And now she was above herself once more, staring down at them: at her own body which had acquired a sheen of light. She saw her assailants from above, the plumes of their helmets streaming out on the wind. And the grasslands stretching for league after monotonous league, leading west and towards the fire mountain.
“I said I saw the battle. I was there.”
“She’s…the Firefarer!” The words came out, a strangled whisper; the rider had reeled his horse around, was galloping away towards the coast, his fellow Ahi creased over in their saddles with laughter.
“Unta!” the woman called out, “The Firefarer was a boy. Don’t worry, we won’t let her hurt you.” And then the words dried on her lips, for she had seen the flames coursing beneath Muna’s skin: the way her body fractured as if it were a mere shell to reveal the liquid heat running beneath it.
The sword was gone from Muna’s back, they were readying themselves to charge, perhaps to ride her down. The fools. They were lost. She was lost. She couldn’t control it now: it was too late. And as the Ahi horses screamed with fear she watched, helpless as her own body betrayed her. As heat rose, as the animals sank to their knees, as flames engulfed the grass and scrub, and the skin of humans; the flesh of their mounts slid, viscous as resin from their faces, their limbs. As the stink of charred flesh became the cloying, acrid stench of ash. And she was back once more on the earth, staggering away in her weakened body, her tears transformed to steam even as her skin hardened and cooled. This curse had killed Hori: would it destroy her too? Would it eat her away until she herself was no more than flames and ash? She would never know, she realised, sinking to her knees in despair, unable to walk any further, hunger and exhaustion crashing down upon her, felling her until she was sobbing on the ground, surrounded by nothing but the wind, the mountains; not even a drop of water to quench the burning thirst which gripped her throat. It was over. The plains would take her. Muna closed her eyes. The world was a dark place. But the void into which she now fell was even darker.
Picture credit: Josh Sorenson