The Firefarer – Links, Maps and an Extract

It’s been a while in the works, but it’s finally available on Amazon!

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Firefarer-Kate-Cudahy-ebook/dp/B01KN439A0

Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Firefarer-Kate-Cudahy-ebook/dp/B01KN439A0

The Firefarer cover

The new version of The Firefarer now also includes maps by Firebound author Rob May :

FF map

 

And just to whet the appetite, here’s the first chapter:

***

PROLOGUE: MUNA

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 fin 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 made 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 squealed.

“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.”

“Never.”

She caught 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 head as he dragged up the timber bar and hurled it to the floor. The door swung open and he reeled away from the sea-bronzed bodies of five Ahi warriors who now 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 seal-skin 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 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 Hori, but the boy 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 reduced 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 – we’ve heard enough rumours of his power to believe them true. 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, his 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 pain, 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, he lay in a rising pool of his own blood. “Not me, Muna,” he gasped. “Hori!”

Raising her head, the room still aswim, 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. But 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. The boy’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 the heat consumed sight, sound and sense. 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.

“Da?”

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 their 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.

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The Firefarer – Background, Acknowledgements and Future Plans

 

The Firefarer cover

As The Firefarer is finally finished, I thought I’d just post a few words in the way of acknowledgements, as well as providing a bit of background for – what I admit – is something of a weird book.

First off, I’d like to thank everyone who’s read, voted and critiqued on Wattpad, as that kind of support encourages me more than you can imagine. I’m especially grateful to Rob May of Firebound Books for designing the tremendous cover. The Firefarer will remain free to read on Wattpad until July, as I’m currently editing it for publication on Amazon.

As as far as background is concerned, here goes. What I’ve discovered in my limited experience of novel writing is that a completed story never quite resembles the book I set out to create in the first place. This was particularly the case with The Firefarer. I had some kind of grand idea about writing a postmodern fantasy. Obviously, if you’ve read it, you’ll know that didn’t happen.

The problem is that, quite frankly, postmodernism and fantasy are not an easy fit. Postmodernism is all about pastiche, it’s all surface and self-reference. And when we read a work of fantasy fiction, we don’t want to be reminded that what we’re reading is an illusion. We don’t want to immerse ourselves in realms of magic or in alternative realities, only to be jerked out of them by some smug literary conceit. And so, while I still wanted to mess about with the idea of art and the way it shapes our awareness, I didn’t want to risk getting mired in some kind of meta-narrative. It just wouldn’t have been satisfying to write, and I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have been much of a satisfying read, either.

On the other hand, I did want to challenge myself in terms of world building, in terms of character development and in terms of experimenting with narrative structure. While Hal and Hannac were great fun to write, it was pretty much one long sprint to the finish. With The Firefarer, I decided that I wanted the novel to function laterally rather than linearly, with stories spinning off from each other.

In fact, some of the scenes in the book started life as ideas for stand alone short stories. These included the opening chapter on Erland’s island, and the living maze. What made me decide to link them together was Andre. Once I’d come up with her character, I knew I had the potential for a novel.

The idea of art as something which can shape not merely our perceptions but reality itself, is a concept I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. I think I probably first encountered it as an undergrad studying literature over twenty years ago. – God, I feel old now! One issue which cropped up repeatedly back then concerned the extent to which books reflect reality, the flipside of that question being of course, to what extent is our reality informed by the books we read. So that was the underlying premise for the way all art works in The Firefarer, whether visual, literary, musical or even culinary, as Vito and Andre discover in the House of Clay.

I could say more about the story itself – in terms of how I got my ideas for the different cultures or characters,  for example. But I think I’ve learnt my lesson. Once you start showing your workings as a writer, the spell is broken. And besides, I kind of trust my readers to figure things out for themselves. The Firefarer is what it is – it has its weaknesses, and hopefully it’s got one or two strengths too. Either way, I’ve decided that it’s a project I personally want to continue, probably in the form of a sequel or even a quartet of books designed to represent fire, water, earth and air. In the meantime, I’ll be getting a Hal short out, followed by the third part in The Duellist series. And I’ve got plans for a work of historical fiction, linking the lives of three different women across time. I can’t wait!

 

Writing Updates

Wishing everyone a happy New Year!

I’m afraid I won’t be able to get the next chapter of the Firefarer out on Wattpad until the  end of the month. It’s the end of the semester here, and I’m gradually drowning beneath piles of tests. However, once all of that is out of the way, I’ll have a lot more time to devote to writing and the story should be completed by the beginning of spring. Just three parts left so it really is reaching its conclusion.

After that, I’m planning to edit with a view to publishing the entire book through Amazon. And then I’ll be starting Hal Three, the working title for which is currently ‘medieval fantasy fiction meets lesbian midlife crisis’. Catchy, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Kate X

The Firefarer – Part Two Chapter Three – The Golach

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.”

“Me?”

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.”

The Firefarer – Part Two Chapter Two – Spirits

Another chapter of my latest work, The Firefarer. The story is available in a more advanced version on Wattpad.


Dawn was rising by the time they broke camp and set off in land. The sky remained dark and pitched with menace over the sea, but a thin finger of red graced the mountain peaks of the Harars up ahead. Carin strode in front, trident strapped between her shoulder blades, her bare feet disappearing amongst the tall, fine grass blades of the plains.

“Come on, Moran!” She turned, her face wrapped in a scowl. “I’d have us out of Paga territory before the light rises.”

Perhaps, Moran thought wearily, she was still lost at sea: half dreaming, half drowning. But then her sister handed her a flask and she tasted sweet water, not brine. A light breeze picked up, whisking her hair, casting it into her eyes. It was all too real.

“Where is the Golach now?”

“In the caves at Mearah.”

Moran stopped and stared at Carin. “In the Harars?”

“Where else would he be? It’s his last refuge.”

Moran craned her neck back, taking in the wild, bleak summits which towered over the plains: dull stretches of grass and scree clinging to their sides. Even now in mid-summer, dirty patches of snow still lay in gullies or the low troughs of cols. It was as desolate and unforgiving a place as she could imagine, but it remained a last refuge for the Ruach. Up there amongst the mountain wastes were old friends and neighbours – many who had survived the days of terror. And, of course, amongst them reigned her king in exile: the Golach.

“Moran for the last time! I don’t want to be climbing when night falls.”

Biting her lip, she hitched up the tattered remains of her dress and ran. “So tell me,” she panted, catching up with Carin, “which one of your spirits told you where I was?”

“They’re not my spirits. They speak to us all. Well, all of us except you.” She turned to Moran with a gaze which fell just short of pitying. “Perhaps you don’t know how to listen.”

“I’ve listened for them every day, sister. It’s they who have abandoned me, not I them. Perhaps I’m simply not a Ruach. Perhaps I’m some…some changeling. Perhaps our mother…”

“Enough!” Carin snapped, her jaw set, her pace quickening as she pushed on across the plain. “I’ll not hear that kind of talk, Moran, and you know it. You’re enough of a Ruach to know where your duty ought to lie.”

“Well apparently on that score I fail too.”

Carin lapsed into stony silence, chewing on her lips as if she were biting back words.

“Do you see our parents amongst them?” Moran asked. “Amongst the spirits?”

There was a long pause. Her sister appeared to be labouring beneath a weight, a deep, pressing burden. “No,” she said at last.

“And so who do you speak to, then? What are they like?” She took in the raw emptiness of the plains with their long, slender grasses dancing on the dawn breeze and shivered. “Are they here?”

“They come and they go. I hear them on the wind. Sometimes I see them.” They approached a shallow brook which filtered down from higher ground, its waters sluicing around rocks and over pebbles. Carin knelt on the bank and lowered her leather flask into the stream to refill it.

Crouching beside her, Moran dipped her hand, keeping it beneath the icy flow. “Which ones brought you to me?”

Carin shrugged. “The Golach made the storm. It was he who brought you back. I merely listened. Voices whispered to me – some I recognised. I’ve heard them before. Some babbled in Ahi or Pagese. Those I ignored. There was one…” she squinted, her gaze fixed on the middle distance as she screwed on the cork of the flask. “One I had not seen nor heard before.”

“What was it like?” Moran asked, eager to catch a glimpse into a world she had never entered, a world denied her from childhood.

“Female, I think. She speaks in a tongue I’ve never heard – nothing even you would recognise. And she carries with her a strange, glowing box upon which she taps and produces shapes, images, some system of language I suppose. She looks unlike any of us – Ruach, Paga, even Ahi.”

Moran shuddered. “You make me almost glad I can’t see them, Carin.”

“That’s blasphemy. And besides, they saved your life.”

“Yes, but as you said, the Golach had more of a hand in that. And for what dismal purpose I cannot begin to imagine.”

Carin gazed at her for a moment, her hard, dark eyes softening, betraying a brief lapse into compassion. But then it was gone like a sudden glimpse of the sun through storm clouds and they pressed on, the ground steepening, their breath shortening.

Before them, the grass and plains gave way to treacherous slopes of scree and boulders, an occasional rowan or patch of broom hanging precariously on dried, withered roots. Hardened as Moran’s feet were after a lifetime spent barefoot, she avoided the sharp edges of loose stones where possible, scrambling instead amongst the clusters of boulders, feeling for hand and footholds. It was exhausting. Her lungs fried, her arms and legs ached until they were numb, sharp slabs of slate grazed and cut her fingers, dirt congealing beneath her nails. She gazed upwards to observe Carin perched on an outcrop above her, eyes closed, lips parted as if in conversation. Dragging herself up to meet her, she sank down beside her sister amongst clumps of yellowing, withered grass and seized the flask, almost crying out in relief as water hit her parched throat.

“They were here,” Carin said.

Sweat ran into Moran’s eyes, soaking through the plaid of her dress. But body heat soon surrendered to the cold, biting wind which seemed to weave its way beneath her very skin, whistling about her ears. She strained to catch the voices she knew had just ridden upon it but heard nothing. Just a phantom-like howl as air rushed between crevices and cracks in the mountainside.

“They told me it isn’t far now, Moran. They will guide our way. The Golach fears … he fears discovery and so he moves from cave to cave.”

“He thinks the Paga would find him up here?”

“The Paga would go to the ends of the earth to catch him, sister. And it is only their own ignorance which has kept them from hunting him down so far. If they had ears to the spirits as we do – I mean as I do – he would not be so lucky.”

“The spirits would betray him?”

“They are not our spirits, Moran. Though it pains me to say so, they belong to all of us – Paga, Ahi, and Ruach alike. Even their church, which claims that one cannot know the spirits, even they are amongst them – the wraiths of their prefects, their monks and sisters. Imagine that! How deaf they are. How blind…” She snorted in derision. “The spirits are the essence of those we have lost, regardless of race or nation. And one cannot take a good spirit from an evil man. Just as they were in life, so they are in death.” She took the flask from Moran’s hands and corked it. “Save it,” she warned. “There is no water now until we reach the caves.” “

Moran thought of this, as the dumb, wild wind whipped up her hair and shook her to her very core. Her sister was wrong. Andre had told her that the church believed in the spirits. But they would not give a name to them, refused to define them. Once again Andre floated before her, now also grown spirit-like, her wit, curious beauty and warmth hardened to an essence in Moran’s imagination. She opened her mouth to speak but Carin was already rising and offered her a hand, hauling her upright. Frozen muscles screamed into action and she found herself standing, sore and stiff, the vast plains stretched out below her and the straits now lying calm and placid, sunlight glinting on their waves.

It took another two hours before Moran spied a jagged gash amongst the rocks, signalling one of the entrances to the Mearahn caves. They clambered over boulders and rubble and slipped inside, the solid walls of slate offering some shelter from the wind’s bite.

“Where now?” She peered into the depths of the tunnel which trailed away into absolute darkness.

“We pray that we don’t get lost,” Carin replied grimly, already stalking away. Moran released a soft growl of irritation and then followed in her wake. Her sister’s terse, tactless manner had always grated, and sometimes that irritation spilled over into pure fury. But this was not a time for arguments. Here amongst the labyrinthine knot of shafts and channels which ran deep within the mountain, conflict would only sap their strength and increase their chances of getting lost. And the thought of staggering, half-starved and desperate along long, unlit corridors of slate and basalt chilled her to the core.

At first, light filtered down through chinks and cracks above her head where the caves opened out onto the mountainside. But as they moved further in, the darkness seemed almost solid in its intensity and she could hear nothing but the persistent thud of blood within her own ears. Aware of the weight of rock above her head she speeded up, almost crashing into Carin who let out an angry hiss. “Take care, can’t you? There could be shafts beneath our feet for all I know.”

She heeded the warning and slowed down, trailing her hand along the dry, crumbling wall, aware of the tap tap tap of Carin’s trident as she checked for fault lines and breaks in the floor before her.

Moran did her best to quell a rising sense of dread as they continued for what seemed like hours. The caves sucked out all sense of time, all memory of light or fresh air, and when she spied at last a tiny pinprick of torchlight burning up ahead, she could have wept.

They approached the brand which burned in its bracket on a distant wall and even Carin seemed to sag with relief, the flames painful in their brightness, illuminating the craggy outline of tunnels which led off to right and left. Bracketed torches beamed away in both directions, fading into the void, and Moran thought she heard the distant murmur of conversation, but could not be sure as to where it came from. “Which way?” she whispered.

“Neither,” Carin replied. “These routes are red herrings set up by the Ruach to send unwelcome guests astray. Our path leads down.”

“Down?” Try as she might, Moran could not see any other path. The rock was solid, the passages twisting away as far as she could see. Carin tapped once more upon the floor with the tips of her trident, the bronze ringing out against the rock. But then it gave out a different sound – a dull, hollow thud. Dropping into a crouch, Carin scrabbled on the floor, pulling away a few loose rocks. To Moran’s surprise she tugged at a swathe of netting, pushing it to one side before levering up a pair of dry, dusty planks of wood.

A dank rush of air fed up from the caverns below and Moran’s stomach lurched. A hempen ladder swung down beneath them, hanging on bolts fixed into the stone of the floor. She peered over the edge – what appeared to be stars nestled in the darkness, thousands of tiny lights winking back up at them.

“What’s that?” she whispered, awed.

“The earth’s core glowing.” Carin smirked. “Candles. Want to go first?”

Moran shook her head, now almost sick with exhaustion, hunger and fear. “You go.”

“As you wish.”

Her sister swung a leg over the edge, grabbed the sides of the ladder and disappeared down through the hole. Moran observed her, wrestling with a growing sense of dread. Carin revelled in such dangers, where she shunned them. The world was full of terrors enough without seeking more.

“Moran…” Carin’s voice echoed up from the cavern below.

“Yes?”

“Pull the planks back over the hole when you come down.”

Perfect. Not only was she to risk her life dangling from a manky old bit of string, she would also have to seal herself back into darkness. “Alright,” she yelled down.

Moran placed one tentative foot on the ladder. It seemed solid enough and so, her stomach now threatening to spill, she lowered herself onto the next rung. The bolts creaked and groaned, but they held. Gripping the rope with one hand, she hunted around for the planks with her other, knuckles clenched and paling as she clung on in desperation. Her hands now slippery with sweat, she dragged one heavy piece of wood over her head, reached for the other and then stopped. Something didn’t seem right. There had been a noise, a faint hint of tearing.

Panicking, she peered downwards but could not see Carin. Below her, the candles appeared to float in the darkness, and she realised she had no idea how far above them she was. She took one last, desperate look up towards the surface. No one would notice that plank out of place, surely? Her grip was failing and if she held on for much longer, she ran the risk of plummeting from the ladder altogether. And so she carried on down.

“Moran, what are you doing up there?” Carin’s voice seemed to emanate from the very air itself.

“Nothing. I’m coming.” Perhaps she had imagined that light, ripping sound. Her nerves were on edge, that was for sure. She pressed on downwards, refusing to succumb to her fears, cursing herself for a coward. And that was when she heard it – it happened so fast she had no time even to scream, as the hemp coiled in on itself above her, lashing her in the face as she fell. She was weightless suddenly, her legs and hands grabbing pointlessly at the air as if she might catch hold of it. The world rushed up to meet her and then all was silence.

The Firefarer – Part Two Chapter One: Moran

firefarer cover

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.”

“Spirits?”

“Amongst others.”

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.”

“Ravenous.”

“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.

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…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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“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.

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.

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.


P1040179

Muna

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.”

“Never.”

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.

“Da?”

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.

The Firefarer – Part Three: Chapter One – Artemisia’s Studio

firefarer cover

As I’ve had some problems posting this chapter on Wattpad today, I decided to stick it here for the time being.

Muna’s arms screamed from the exertion of rowing. She leant back into the stern of the coracle, allowing the tiny craft to drift, bobbing over waves which seemed gentle and playful after the terrifying crash and fall of the open sea. Hori huddled in the prow, pensive, his arms wrapped around his knees, looking old beyond his years.

She had told him nothing of his uncontained, destructive fury, of the incineration of Taua and her warriors, or of their father’s death. He had slept for an entire day until she had dragged the boat up onto the shingle of the Source Isles. Then he had stirred as she wrapped him in seal furs and raised his head, trickling sweet water into his mouth. When he finally came round they were once again out to sea. And yet he seemed watchful, sealed within his own thoughts, as if he were aware somehow of what had passed and now sought to reconcile himself with their fate.

High above, the bleat and caw of seagulls grew intense, and she turned to look as the birds swarmed above the deck of a small fishing vessel which now sailed alongside them. She was aware of being watched. A boy of the Paga leant on the rail of the boat peering down at her, his skin wind-tanned, his eyes a liquid brown. He blew her a kiss and she looked away, her face hot with embarrassment and confusion. Picking up the oars once again, she twisted around to note a small harbour, busy with boats, colourful squat dwellings lining its quays. Drawing on her last dregs of strength, she rowed to shore.

Muna steered the coracle through the medley of four-masted carracks and small barques, avoiding the curious gazes of fishermen and sailors, aware of men shouting and speaking a fluid, melodic tongue which was not her own. She brought the coracle up beside a sea-battered flight of stairs, slimy with sea-weed and plastered with barnacles, which led from the water to the quay above. Hopping out, she uncoiled a tattered stretch of rope and secured the boat to an iron ring. Hori stood stiffly, eyes wide with uncertainty, and she offered him her hand, lifting him onto dry land before gathering their few belongings into a rough, hessian sack – a leather skin containing fresh water, a pair of seal skins and some fish hooks. Then she climbed the steps, Hori in tow, unsure as to where they ought to go or what they were to do now. At least she could catch some fish, and perhaps a stream would provide fresh water. Other than that, her one hope was to get far enough in land to hide from the Ahi.

And so it was with shock and near despair that she caught the gruff tones of men and women speaking in words she recognised as she neared the top of the steps. “Keep down!” she whispered to Hori, who shrank below the wall, pale and fearful.

Muna risked a single glance at the quayside and saw all she needed to. There were as many as ten of them, grouped in a loose circle clutching axes, nets and broadswords, their faces and upper chests bearing dark swirling tattoos, their lower bodies swathed in fur and seal skins. They appeared to be arguing amongst themselves, pointing in different directions, shouting, yelling, ignoring the sailors and ships’ clerks who passed them on the quay. Two burly Pagese fishermen lumbered over to them, gesturing back towards an Ahi long ship which, Muna now saw to her horror, was anchored just beyond the harbour entrance. The fishermen were greeted with rough shoves and slaps, and eventually they shrank away, too intimidated to risk a public brawl.

Muna crouched back down out of sight, taking in the chaotic traffic of fishing vessels and sailing boats below her. One old sailor, she realised, was watching her, his watery, sky-blue eyes set deep in a weather-tanned, wrinkled face. He continued to stare, slowly coiling a length of rope around one arm before transferring his gaze to the Ahi above her. She shook her head, raising a finger to her lips. The man grinned, revealing a mouth bereft of teeth, and then nodded. After a while, he laid down the coil and tiptoed his fingers along the rail of his ship in an imitation of walking. Muna turned, peering once more up onto the quayside. There was no sign of the Ahi.

She smiled at the old man who winked back in return, and then, hauling Hori to his feet, they made their way up the steps. Sea folk thronged the wharf: fishwives crying out their wares, young boys crossing barefoot – rods and nets slung over their shoulders – mariners and merchants bartered and bragged. More people were gathered in one place than she had ever seen in her life. Instinctively, she threaded an arm around Hori’s shoulders, drawing him close. Here, she was certain, there would also be cutpurses and thieves, men who might seek to harm for pleasure, and of course there were her own people, the Ahi whose intent she could only guess at. But no one seemed to take any notice of either her or her brother as they wound their way amongst the rippling pools of people. Perhaps, she thought with some relief, the best place to become lost was amongst crowds such as these.

A narrow alley led them away from the quays, snaking amongst houses which seemed to press together, their upper floors jutting out over the road. The confused rush of conversations, the reek of rotting fish, the mad bustle of the harbour, it all faded away as they passed into the darker, quieter back streets of the town.

“Where are we going, Muna?”

She squeezed Hori’s hand. “I don’t know yet. The Ahi are here already, Hori. We need to find somewhere to hide.”

“Why didn’t Da come with us?”

Her heart plummeted like a sunk stone. “He’s dead, Hori.”

His face crumpled and he halted suddenly. “Did I do it?”

Bending over him, she stroked his hair. “No, Hori. You didn’t. You tried to protect him. You were very brave, but now…now we have to find somewhere safe. So try not to think about it. Be brave again for me. Please?”

He nodded glumly, sniffing back tears. “We need Da.”

“We’ll manage. We have to. Come on.” She succeeded in dragging him a little further down the alley and then stopped, froze, felt the hair on her arms and neck rise, for as they turned a corner she saw the Ahi warriors up ahead. She made to turn, their shouts and calls ringing in her ears – “They’re here!” “It’s the Firefarer and his sister!” “Catch them!”

Hori was already running, his bare feet pumping down over the cobbles as he shot away from her and she followed him, her heart racing, her breath shortening, houses and shops reduced to a blur as she fled past them. The Ahi were gaining on them – she heard her own name yelled out, caught the muttered threats and pleas for them to stop, but she would not. She could not. And as she followed her brother back out onto the sunlit quays, she pushed away anyone who crossed her path, ignoring their angry complaints, aware of Hori disappearing amongst the crowds.

“Hori!” Desperation now almost overwhelming her, she fought against the tide of people. He had gone, was nowhere to be seen, and behind her she heard the furious, menacing growls of the Ahi.

“Hori!” Again she called his name, but he had disappeared without trace. Sensing a loss which pained beyond measure she pushed on, now frantic, her thoughts tipping over into madness. A hand shot out from the crowd, gripped her upper arm and began tugging at her, pulling her towards a low, half-opened doorway. Muna struggled, desperate to tear herself away from this new, unseen threat. Half yanked off her feet, she twisted and turned but was dragged inside a dark, smoky interior and the door slammed shut behind her. Whoever had taken her let go of her arm. The noises of the street faded away, distant and muted. Lips pressed to her ear hissed and spoke in strangely accented Ahi – “Keep quiet, child!”

Muna shook with unrepressed terror. Wildly, she gazed around the hazy room, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. Stacks of paintings lay piled in corners, some resting against pieces of furniture, others hanging crookedly on smoke-singed plaster walls. Nestling amongst the mess of canvases and parchments were statues hewn from wood and stone – some of men, women and children, others representing animals: dogs, cats, horses, even some exotic creatures that she did not recognise, almost human in aspect save for their long, curling tails.

Standing amongst them all was a strange old woman, so frail and bent with age that Muna could not believe she had strength enough to haul in strangers from the street. A tattered piece of cloth encased her wizened, time-worn face, and she wore a simple, shapeless smock plastered with paint stains. “You look for boy?”

Muna nodded, surprised to hear her own tongue spoken by a Paga. “Yes. He’s my brother.”

“Your brother?” The old woman eyed her curiously, without malice. “Why they seek you – your people? What you do?”

“Nothing. They just – we ran away.”

“You run? From home? Why?”

A half-told story might save her from further questions, Muna realised. “They killed our father. Where’s my brother?”

The old woman’s face softened. She raised a gnarled old hand and stroked it down Muna’s face. “Poor children. Fatherless. Motherless too?”

Muna nodded.

“Your brother – he upstairs. In studio. Come. Come. You hide here while they pass. The father killers. They not know you’re here.”

“You’re sure?” Muna hesitated. It was all too strange – this ancient artist, her dark little hovel of a house. She had heard her parents speak of the Paga and their enchantments – how they could breathe life into words, to music, to art, how they could pull phantoms from the air itself and seal them in their craft. But outside in the town her enemies lurked, waiting to ensnare Hori, to make him bend to their violent will. They would kill her for a traitor too, she realised, if they caught her. And so, what choice did she have?

The old woman hovered at the base of a rickety ladder, apparently sensing her doubts. “I sure. They pass by. But you must wait. Come.” She beckoned. “Your brother frightened. Want to see you.”

She hitched up her smock and then set on up the slim wooden rungs which creaked and groaned under foot. Muna followed, passing through a loft trap into an attic space which was as light and airy as the room below had been dark. The ceiling sloped at a steep angle down to the floor itself and she caught a glimpse of rooftops and clouds through a wide sky light. Here too, the room was littered with half-finished canvases and sculptures, an easel set amongst them. Muna spied movement amongst a stack of frames and Hori wormed his way out from underneath them and flung his arms around her.

“You’re safe!” she gasped. Relief flooded her very being. She turned to the old woman. “Thank you!”

“You are beautiful children.” Again, she laid a time-twisted set of fingers to Muna’s cheek. “Hair like midnight. Skin like fired earth. I love beautiful things. I paint them. I draw them. I remake them. In this way, I keep the beauty. It not go.” She narrowed her eyes, as if preparing a mental sketch of Muna. “I save you. Now, I paint you. Yes?”

A spark of fear prickled its way up Muna’s spine, but she dismissed it. The old woman had offered them sanctuary of a sort. What harm could a portrait serve? Besides, she thought, no one had ever called her beautiful before. The Ahi, they found her freakish. Sixteen summers and still no tattoos to show it? A face bare and unornamented – she should cover it in shame. And yet here amongst the Pagi such things did not matter. She need not wish herself brave enough to have earned her ink. And so she found herself nodding.

“Is good then.” The painter extended a hand, and Muna took it. “My name, Artemisia. And you?”

“Muna. This is my brother, Hori.”

“So, Muna, Hori. Sit, please, while I sketch. Will take a little time. And then, you may go, your enemies pass by.”

She drew up two wooden chairs and set them before the easel. Muna sat down and gestured to Hori to take the other, but he turned away.

“It’s alright, Hori. Artemisia is just going to draw us. She saved us from the Ahi. We should do as she asked.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Hori, please.”

“No.”

Muna sighed. “He’s a stubborn boy. And sometimes, he’s very stupid.”

Hori stuck his tongue out at her and folded his arms. Muna laughed, and then realised that was the first time in many days that she had felt anything approaching happiness.

“Is no problem,” Artemisia said, dipping a quill in a large pot of ink. “He change his mind, I think. First, I sketch. Then, I paint. Please, sit straight, fold your hands before you – yes that’s right. Try not move. I be quick.”

Artemisia raised the quill and put it to a swathe of canvas stretched across the easel. As she did so, Muna shivered. It were as if she had been touched, as if an invisible hand had run its fingers through her hair. Surely this was her imagination taunting her, the stories of the Pagi plaguing her thoughts? “How did you learn to speak Ahi?” she asked, seeking to push her fears aside.

“They come here, your people. Sometimes I paint them. In turn, they teach me their words. See?” She pointed to a painting of an Ahi warrior, his fierce face peering out at Muna from the canvas, his eyes burning with an intense fury, his lips open as if in mid-speech.

“Please,” Artemisia continued. “Sit still.”

Her stomach now knotted into a ball, Muna did as she was bid. Again, that peculiar frisson, the sensation one might have at the onset of a sea storm when the very rocks and trees seemed to sing. It were as if the air around her was being etched, inscribed with an invisible power. She found that she could not turn her head. She stared at Artemisia, panic stricken, but the old woman continued to paint, her tongue hovering on the corner of her lips as her quill scratched at the canvas.

“Artemisia?” Muna tried to speak, but found her lips would not move. She could manage no more than a faint mumbling.

Hori had risen, was pointing to her, his eyes wide with fear. “Muna, where are you going? Don’t leave me, Muna!”

She didn’t understand him. But she felt that she had somehow grown lighter, was less herself, unable to move, sealed within a strange element, an element no kin to fire or water, to air or earth, but rather to something illusive, not borne of reality, and she realised then that Artemisia was sealing her within magic.

She saw the scattered paintings and sculptures in a different light now, understood the anger in the Ahi warrior’s eyes, recalled the twisted, tortured poses of those portrayed in the room below. Artemisia was smiling, and with every stroke of the quill, Muna felt herself grow lighter, less solid, bound within the canvas.

“I keep your beauty, Muna,” Artemisia whispered. “I keep it all for myself.”

Muna felt herself fade as the life drained from her, ink running in its place. And she had just time enough to hear Hori scream, to feel the air grow hot, and to recall her father’s dying words: “You see what this is, Muna. Control it.”