The First Fight Chapter Two: Excerpt

Sooner or later, Halanya, you’ll fall so far that my spies will make no difference. The city itself will turn against you. 

As mentioned last week, I started posting my short story “Hal: The First Fight” in full on Wattpad as it will – eventually – have some steamier scenes in it which probably wouldn’t be appropriate on my blog. Here’s an excerpt from today’s chapter and a link following it if you’d like to read the whole thing:

the first fight

Heat now baked the streets of Colvé and the city stirred like a restless, angry dog, ready to snap at her heels as she plunged down the hill from the palace and back towards the duelling academy, aware that she’d promised Beric to be back by noon. But the main square was a heaving, confused mass of people and passing amongst them was like swimming against a tide. Hal squeezed through the crowds, her hand to her belt, aware now more than ever before of the hidden threats of cutpurses and thieves.

“Hal?”

Her blood quickened at the call of her own name, and she turned in surprise. “Orla!”

The soldier was sitting by the fountains which looped and cascaded at the heart of the square. Hal bent to drink, splashing her face with cool water, ridding the palace from her skin and hair. She rose, aware of Orla’s gaze, and of Cara’s words which still reverberated through her head. Unnatural. Freakish. Was that how others saw her?

“You look tired duellist,” Orla said at last.

Hal bit her lip. “I’m alright.”

There was no trace of that arrogant air which Orla had carried at The Emperor, but her eyes betrayed a bitter, desperate hunger which stirred something in Hal: a curious fusion of desire and fear. The soldier put an arm to Hal’s shoulder. “Perhaps you’d care to continue your exploration of Riverside?”

Orla’s touch was like the first heavy fall of rain in a summer storm. Hal sucked in her breath. “I have to practice, Orla. I promised my duelling master…”

The hunger vanished and Orla’s lips sealed into a hard sneer. “Well if you must, you must.”

“It’s not…it’s not that I don’t want to.”

“Run along, now Hal. Back to the academy. Back to the Circle. Or perhaps the palace?” Orla’s voice cut like a blade. “Anywhere you feel safe.”

She recalled her encounter with they spy. “Nowhere is safe, Orla.”

Hal tore away from the fountains, pushing on again through the crowds back to Beric’s insults, back to the hard, bare boards of the academy and the ring of steel. She would close the door, she would pick up her sword and fight. And Colvé would vanish from sight for a few more hours.  

Full Chapter: https://www.wattpad.com/565995741-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-two

 

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Hal: The First Fight

the first fight

Hal is young, naive and hungry for adventure: a former ward of the imperial court who has exchanged aristocratic privilege for the life of a professional duellist. A chance encounter with a thief leads her into the dangerous underworld of Riverside, and to Orla – a battle-weary soldier. Passions flare as summer heat bakes the city streets. But Orla is fierce and possessive in her love. Will Hal survive it? Find out in The First Fight, a short story…

OK so slight alteration to my plans with regard to The First Fight: I am publishing the first chapter on Wattpad, and you can now read that here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

However, I decided – for the time being – against publishing it on my blog. This is because WordPress require that mature content be reported as such, which would then severely curtail what I could do with my blog in terms of appearing on reader lists etc. As I’m aware of the sensitivity surrounding this issue, I decided to make it exclusive to Wattpad – for the time being. I expect to publish it elsewhere and in other forms in the future.

The story will be somewhat darker and will have  more erotic content than anything else I’ve ever written. This is not a direction I’m taking in general with my writing – it just seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

If you’d like to get an idea of what it’s like – and the first two chapters will be pretty mild – then I’ve posted a sample below.

***

“Duellist, eh?” Orla stretched her arms along the backrest of the bench, and folded her right boot over her left knee. The languid drawl of her voice, the way she took up space as if it were owed to her – it all came across as a kind of challenge. “On the Circle? With the men?” her eyes hinted at contempt.

Hal swallowed, unsure of how much care she should take: of whether to answer the implied insult with her own, or to bite back her words. “Yes,” she said, steadying her voice. “Accounted one of the best.” Unaccustomed to self-praise, she downed a hurried mouthful of ale.

“Ha!” Orla barked. “Duellists. Players. Actors. Entertainers.” And the look she threw at Hal was a clear challenge.

This time, Hal struggled to hold back the irritation which pressed against her sides, struggling for release. “What do you mean?”

She caught the anxious glance which passed between Jools and Kris but ignored it, transfixed by Orla’s cool, contemptuous gaze.

“I mean that’s what it is. A show. If you want to prove your mettle, duellist…if you want to show me you can really fight, come down to the barracks. I’ll give you a duel which will have you running back to your duelling master in tears.”

So she was a soldier. “Why would I want to prove anything to you?” She leaned forward, her heart racing. Something about this whole exchange had shifted or altered: she felt the change but couldn’t place it. And in the slight gestures that Orla now made: in the way her shoulders shifted and the fine muscles of her cheeks flexed…in the way her eyes hinted almost at a kind of hunger, she knew that the soldier sensed it too.

“You’re right.” Orla pulled out a slim clay pipe, dangling it from her lips as she hit strike to flint and lit it. She closed her eyes, drawing down a mouthful of smoke which she exhaled directly at Hal. “You don’t need to prove anything to me. But to yourself? Now that’s another matter.”

Silence balanced between them as Orla smiled, waiting for her words to hit home, and Hal fought against the urge to lunge: to seize the soldier by her shoulders and shake her. They’d only just met and here she was goading, pressing, prying: with no true knowledge of who Hal was or the decisions she’d made, the risks she’d taken.

 

Leda is now complete!

Leda Dryad Fantasy Kindle Cover

It’s been quite a journey, but Leda is now finished at last! It’ll remain on Wattpad while I’m editing it, and will be available on Amazon in the new year.
So…if you like any of the following: lesbian characters, duelling, windswept fortresses, tyrannical emperors, swashbuckling adventure, high jinks on the high seas, moorland, bisexual princes, hairy highlanders, more moorland, battle scenes, devious thieves, political coups, mystery, excitement, anguish and triumph…then there might just be something in it for you!

Read it for free here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

Extract from Leda – Book 3 of The Duellist Series

I was just writing this scene and realised it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Basically it’s a monologue told from the perspective of Castor, chief villain of the story as he is crowned Emperor. But I think it also reveals some of the major tensions in ‘Leda’. I’m serialising the novel over on Wattpad at the moment. The first parts are available on Amazon.

 http://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

Around him went the priests, swinging thuribles of incense on long brass chains. On the verge of choking, Castor squeezed his lips together, refusing to submit to weakness at this most symbolic of moments. His eyes watered, he held his breath…it was no good. Air starved, he glared up at the temple guardian who circled the throne once more, his beard coiling to his waist, a long, brown swathe of plaited hair snaking down his back. The man’s eyes were sharp with zeal, his voice reverent and low as he muttered incantations, prayers to the spirits, Diodiné now seated amongst their highest ranks. But it was no good appealing to a fanatic like the guardian, Castor realised. Without the incense and invocations, without the vigils, the holy water and oil, Castor could not be Emperor. All of it mattered – every last detail of this painful process. For there could be no question – no single doubt in the people’s minds that he was their ruler.

This was the moment which would end all the gossip, the slander and the lies. For he, and only he was the rightful heir to Colvé, the North, the eastern seaboard, Brennac and the vales and mountains of the West. Even Yegdan and those barbarians would come to understand that soon. He, Castor, third of…it was no good. He had to breathe. He couldn’t stand it any longer. If only that idiot would give up his droning for a moment, would put his stinking incense aside…but it was too late.

Castor coughed into the back of his gloved hand, and found he could not stop. Tears ran down his face, coursing a path through the white powder on his cheeks. When he sealed his lips, his lungs seemed to spasm and flare, birthing yet another cough, until he was crumpled and wheezing, the wide eyes of the court turned upon him, and the temple guardian apparently oblivious to the torture he was inducing in his Emperor.

At last the droning stopped, the incense was set aside and the air began to clear, revealing Castor bent double, shaking and gasping for breath. Once his coughing fit had subsided, he managed at last to sit upright. Was somebody laughing? He listened hard. The priest droned on, his words echoing out into the temple’s stillness. Castor was almost certain now that his future subjects were smirking at him. But who? Who amongst this throng of people could he trust? Who could he not?

To the fore sat his immediate family – his mother, too mad to even care if he were emperor or ironmonger now. She stared lifelessly ahead, her eyes a pale, blank blue, her lips curled up into their habitual smile as she whispered to herself in half remembered words. And his aunt Evelia, fat and sweaty in her black mourning garb. An old traitress who’d hung on her dead husband’s every word and had whispered against Castor in the corridors of the palace with the old court cronies she called her friends. Soon to join Diodiné, if there were any justice. No wonder her private guard accompanied her everywhere – that Brighthair woman – freakishly tall and powerful of build, with cropped auburn hair and a sword swinging from her belt. A former duellist, he’d heard, now retired into court livery and a handsome salary drawn right out of the palace coffers. Well, she’d be losing both once the old bitch had gone the way of her husband.
And beside them, Josen. Could he trust his brother? Did he trust his brother? Castor prickled with unease. Of course he didn’t. Trust a man who befriended scoundrels like Degaré of Dal Reniac and his two thieving accomplices? Who spent his nights amongst the dregs of Riverside stirring up who knew what trouble, and his days fraternising with Senators who ought to know their place? And of course, loved by every woman from the palace to the city walls for his lazy good looks: that head of thick golden hair and those sky blue eyes which spoke charm but hinted deceit. But Josen would know that even a Prince’s neck would fit a noose given enough time.

The guardian was returning, this time with a casket of holy oil. Castor closed his eyes. Just one more ritual; one step closer to confirmation of his absolute power, a power invested in him by the ancestors themselves. He felt the guardian’s thumb slide down his forehead, slick and warm, leaving a trail of the precious substance which dripped down onto the tip of his nose. That added to his discomfort. He wanted to wipe it away, but knew that to do so would be to annul the entire ceremony. And there could be no risk of that – no risk of uncertainty. Not when so many of those now gathered in the temple today had once questioned Castor’s right to the throne.

He opened his eyes, picking them out one by one. There, for example, half hidden behind that column was the Senator, Tobiac Treniac, who had championed the senate’s rule in the absence of a direct imperial heir. Half his thin, rat-like face was shielded by stone, the other watchful – nervous. And with good reason.  And then towards the rear of the temple was the Westerner, Lord Roc, who had declared that his own son had a greater claim to the throne than Castor – some nonsense about imperial forebears. Surely, Castor thought with a grim, inward laugh, a headless son lacks all legitimacy? And then…

His eyes fell upon a strange group, also huddled like conspirators at the back. He made out the frail frame of Senator Marc Remigius, his gnarled old hands wrapped around an intricately carved walking stick. Remigius had been Castellan of Dal Reniac for some time, until the city could be handed over to…Castor started. That must be her. He hadn’t laid eyes on her for, perhaps twelve years. She had been a child then. Now, she was a woman grown – weather tanned like other northerners, but slim and lithe as a young colt or cat. A mass of dark curls tumbled down her back, and her grey eyes were sharp and intelligent. Well, her father had been Bruno Nérac after all: a true descendant of emperors, not like Roc’s jumped up little pretender. Was it possible that her grandfather had been a mere merchant? For there was nothing workaday or vulgar about Leda Nérac. She was an aristocrat – a thoroughbred. Blue of blood and … his pulse quickening, his gaze fell on the two other members of her little entourage. That must be the mother – a good looking woman too. Waifish in build, she wore a simple dress of green satin, her hair threaded through an intricate series of loops and plaits. His attention slid from Meracad to Leda and back again. Wife? Mother-in-law? would it…could it work? Had Josen been right after all? In one brilliant move to control the North, to bring it to heel without the need or expense of war and to suppress all those doubts? For surely no one, not even Roc would dare question his own claim to the throne when it was tied to the Nérac dynasty. No one except…

She was there too. For that must be her. What other woman would have the arrogance to attend her coronation in such attire? He clenched and flexed his fingers. Bastard born and dressed like a man in a great coat and trousers, her hair tied back to reveal a gaunt, almost hawkish face.

The descendant of a rebel and a known whore. A woman who would certainly corrupt Leda Nérac if she had not done so already, who might even seek, through Nérac, her own influence and power. Diodiné had sought to marry Leda to Castor when she came of age, but Hannac and her ‘wife’ had opposed it. How dare they! And how could his Uncle have backed down? Another example of his weakness.

The plaited fool was back again, this time bearing the crown. Once again, Castor closed his eyes. This time, no one would force him to remove that golden circlet from his head, no one could take this honour from him. He rose, the court rising with him, cheering and applauding. He looked over their heads and caught Hannac’s eye. With arms folded and insolent eyes, she stared back. No one.

 

Hal is back on Wattpad!

As I’m currently writing Leda, I decided to repost Hal on Wattpad so that readers have a chance to catch up with the original book. Both Hal and Hannac are, of course, still available on Amazon. But if you fancy a FREE read, then check this out:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/4265211-hal

Hal cover

Leda – A Short Extract

A short extract from Leda, book three in The Duellist series. Hal is haunted by a series of terrifying dreams and discovers that the real enemy lies within, not without.

2309

That dream again. This time, Hal found herself buried beneath the streets of Colvé, a crowd of people thundering over the cobbles above her head. The ground shook to the thump of their feet, the earth above her head muted the chaos of their voices. And, of course, she could not move. She twisted, squirmed, moaned, her mouth filling with dirt. She was choking: every breath desperate, painful and exhausting.

“Hal!” From somewhere above her came Meracad’s faint, muffled voice. Struggling, Hal realised she could no longer open her mouth, that her arms were pinioned to her sides.

“Hal!” Meracad’s voice was louder now, but still too far away for help. They had lost each other. Perhaps, Hal thought, she had died already – that Meracad was calling to her from beyond the grave. That made her weep.

“Hal!”

She woke with a gasp, a sudden rush of damp night air filling her lungs, the room swinging and swaying around her head. Hal sucked in every breath with hunger, her body drenched in a cold film of sweat and every muscle and tendon, every last fibre of her being shaking. She sat, drew her knees up to her chest, and buried her face in her hands.

“Hal, what is it…what do you dream of?” Meracad slipped her arms around Hal’s shoulders and drew her close. Her skin smelt warm and carried a light, honeyed fragrance. Hal surrendered to her embrace.

“I dream…” but how could she explain the thud of feet above her head, the weight of earth as it crushed and paralysed, starving her of breath? For in truth, that was never the worst part of the dream at all. “I dream that you’ve gone,” she whispered at last.

 

Hannac – Acknowledgements and Background

Wattpad has been the home for my stories for the past couple of years. However, as I’m now participating in the KDP author program on Amazon, I’ve had to strip them down to sample chapters. Hannac will be coming down tomorrow (Tuesday 5th May) so I thought I’d just take this opportunity to thank all the great writers and readers on Wattpad who helped me with advice, critique and encouragement.

Acknowledgements
I see publishing on Wattpad as a collaborative effort. This is because whenever people comment, critique or make suggestions it gives writers the opportunity to introduce plot changes, to test out new ideas and to improve their story-writing skills. Hal and Hannac would have been completely different books if it hadn’t been for all the contributions made by other people on Wattpad. So I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me. If I miss anyone out, please forgive me! And let me know.
Massive thanks to @RobMay and @VictorBruneski. Both of you guys started reading Hal when I first posted it on Wattpad in spring 2013 and it was your encouragement which persuaded me to continue here. You’re always positive about the aspects of the story that you like and you never hold back if something doesn’t work. And I firmly believe that it’s books like Dragon Killer and McConnell House which really raise the bar for other writers on Wattpad.
I’d also like to thank the queen of critique herself, @WyldPatienz. I always feel ashamed about my own half-assed comments on other people’s work because you put so much time and effort into critiquing. The ideas and dialogue you’ve shared with me have been invaluable. And I have to admit the gritty realism of your own writing has definitely rubbed off on my own. Of course, there’s not quite so much blood-letting, gore, vomit and angst in Hal as in The TwiceBorn. But it’s getting there 😉
On the critiquing front, I also have to say huge thanks to @marchmccarron. It was one of her suggestions which totally transformed the final chapters of Hannac. And I think she’s finally persuaded me that those POV switches are really not working. So I’ll be going back through both books and fixing those + cutting out the large sections of exposition in the first chapters of Hal. I have to recommend March’s book Division of the Marked – it’s high-calibre fantasy writing.
So many people have offered me great insights, suggestions and encouragement:
@Aecnboo, @AgnesdeOcampo, @amandakherron, @amyryde1, @AndiMartinez3, @Aradarian4, @ArtIsMe, @ashonion, @Avylinn, @Avengingnerd, @booksxbooks, @becam24, @bkaur2186, @chacehuffman, @charleshaywood33, @cashmanga, @DallasCabiad, @DeanCMoore (for some fantastic critique and for sharing his own work), @DebbieRenzi, @dolly_gem (for the kind words and encouragement), @EeNz04, @EliSmith9, @ElizabethSumner (for reading the first draft and then looking at me as if I were mad), @Emanon_01, @Essibua, @EyeBags12, @FlashReader, @Frazzer (for making sure Apolle’s side of the story isn’t missed out), @frogonwheels, @9496222gaby, @Galabitorix, @gqfromme, @graeme11, @greendrake1, @gummiebearsyo, @halloweennights (for wonderful words of encouragement), @HarryMcAdam (for such  kind comments), @h0n3y5un5h1n3, @horseloverperson, @hey-its-bat-girl, @idobelieveinfairies1, @iiitiii, @IJustGotPaid, @IllusionistsFolly, @imdbadass, @InfiniteSkies, @jainpiscean, @JayVictor, @JoannaSweet, @joeyzach (for involvement and encouragement. Hope you’re still around, Joey), @JohnGunningham (for such extensive critique), @JWPThackray (for the advice on duelling and for sharing your own wonderful stories), @karimdar, @KatieRhodes3, @kaylaes52, @kazaluv, @kissnthel, @Kystra, @Lazarus, @leftybeme, @lilchicken11, @littlebudveisser, @Lookatthat, @maddyXP, @madeleine_smith,  @MaxLambon, @MaryanneVivian, @MeaganHarris, @MegHuxley, @Melanctha,  @MidsummerCrimson, @Mighty658, @MiriThompson, @Modestnotamouse19, @mooniva, @Narelon, @NatashaPutter, @NellyHernandez,  @NickHanson3, @OfficialCriticReview, @OriginalAubrey, @outaprintwriter (for the interview opportunity and for sharing your own beautiful stories), @Pantuteros (for the no-holds-barred critique), @p-dop12,  @potato_lover_YA, @PrincessKyrissaen, @radar67, @ramior0221, @reconis, @RedWritingHood09,  @Revi11, @rmpalmer, @RobinFinesilver (for enduring my endless self-promo tweets), @Romantic26, @SallySlater (for encouraging and for the recs), @sandyboy2412, @SarahBatt, @sasa_lee, @scintillator (for giving me great encouragement at the start), @SentofOsiris (for the amazing pics), @SHACIA, @Shadowskill, @ShadowWalker4, @ShockedSunglow,  @SilverStonexx, @smaoineamh, @SMC_Scookie (for a fantastic critique of chapter one), @SoldierofSodom (for great music tips and the enthusiasm), @stacy_sheen, @tahilah, @TessPimsner (for reminding me of my age ;)) , @TheAlias, @thekels, @TheMaskedCritique, @TheOrangutan (for great support and help with the featuring), @thewolfandthemoon (for some truly encouraging comments), @tjgarrett (for helping with the hook), @UnknownPoet, @valdave123, @VengefulAkiri (for so much enthusiasm and excitement), @Viperbigdog,  @waraiseirei, @WarriorPrincess1000, @williew, @Willow105, @WinnipegWhiskers, @Words_are_Weapons (for great critique and for Scottish independence ;)),  @Yisabis,  @YzabelGinsberg (for great dialogue on all things literary) @LukeFranceMontgomery for the kind comments 🙂
Background
I’m not too sure where the ideas for Hal came from. I suspect they were just lurking around in the murky depths of my subconscious and I decided to get rid of them by inflicting them on other people. But some elements of the story have a very clear link with things I’ve read or with places I’ve been to. If I could, I would rather have written this story as historical fiction. And in fact, there is a precedent for female duellists – particularly in French history. In particular, the 17th century opera singer Julie d’Aubigny had a reputation for being a real wild child – duelling, drinking and hopping into bed with men and women. The problem was that even that historical context didn’t quite fit the story I wanted to tell, which is why I decided in the end to work with a fantasy world made up of a range of different historical periods. So there’s a bit of 17th century France in there, but there’s also a bit of Norman feudalism, Ancient Rome, Anglo-Saxon England – it’s basically a mix of eras and epochs.
Because Hal is so unpredictable, I needed to fix her up with a lover who is a bit calmer, cooler and at the end of the day more sophisticated – hence Meracad. But very often characters were just a means to an end – so it’s not that I wanted to create a character with a particular personality, more that they had to fulfil a specific purpose in the plot and their personality came afterwards.
As for places, I felt like Colvé had to have more of a French/Italian feel to it and the North (Hannac/Dal Reniac) had to feel more like the northern parts of the British Isles. I set Hannac on a moor-swept plateau as this reminded me of the part of England that I’m originally from – the Peak District. However, the idea for the Eagles’ Nests came from a defensive chain of forts in southern Poland which are called Orle Gniazdo – The Eagles Nests – and are a series of castles built of limestone. Some other Polish elements in the story are of course people’s names – Magda, Marta and Marec are all Slavic in origin and Pæga’s guards, who I based on the Polish-Hungarian hussars.

The Firefarer – preview

firefarer cover

I’ll be posting chapters of my new story The Firefarer on Wattpad from the beginning of May. The Firefarer will follow the adventures of three separate groups of travellers whose fates are ultimately connected. It will have an LGBT focus as Hal did, but I’d like to introduce a broader range of characters. And I’m hoping to play around with some of the tropes of fantasy fiction so expect the unexpected!

The Firefarer

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 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.