Work in Progress: The Fresco and the Fountain

hunt_in_the_forest_by_paolo_uccello

Work in progress: The Fresco and the Fountain

So my work in progress is Part Two of The Artist Enchanters Series – The Fresco and the Fountain. This book picks up the story a few months after the devastation and destruction wreaked at the end of The Firefarer, and is told from the perspectives of the three main characters as well as arch villain Lino Ampelio Ol Terenzo. I’m hoping that The Fresco and the Fountain will be ready for release by April this year.

Below is part of a sample chapter from the new book, in which Vito is trying to put the past behind him and learn something of Pagi arts.

***

“You will observe how the artist draws our attention to the hunters’ chase.” Avala Ol Hauriro circled the central motif of the painting with a jewelled finger.

Vito craned forward. “Yes. I see.”

The artwork was small in scale, framed in dark, resinous walnut and balanced on an easel in the centre of his study. To its fore, a tight knot of Pagi hunters pursued a wounded hart through dense woodland. The forest itself resembled an exercise in geometry rather than a depiction of nature, its trees a sprouting series of matchsticks.

“Look carefully, Vito. The artist was cunning. The hunters themselves are a mere distraction.”

“They are?” He peered into the painting once more. Nothing changed. One grand Pagi Lord charged, suspended in paint, his spear raised high above his shoulder. Behind him rode his band of followers pointing, crying out as the deer sprang away into the distance. Vito shook his head, frustrated. “What am I looking for?”

“Vito…” Avala’s eyes were grave and grey. It was hard to guess her age. And the Pagi were nothing if not arch dissemblers. But she seemed of middle years; a cascade of thick, chestnut curls framing the sharp, even contours of her face. “Vito,” she sighed, “as I have already explained, the painting itself is an assembly of ochre and lead, of malachite, copper and carmine. Its enchantment is released when you truly see it, Vito. It all depends on your act of sight. Look at it again. Look beyond the hunters and into the forest. Look at it and see what the painter is really telling you.”

He shifted his gaze from hunters to trees as instructed: at the mustard brown of their bark and the emerald shreds of their leaves. At the quaint parakeets and owls which nestled in their branches. The lightest breath of wind brushed his cheek, like a woman’s kiss. Vito shivered. This was unwise; he should tear himself from the painting now. He was too old to learn of Pagi art without falling into its net. It would ensnare him: a poor, lapsed monk who knew nothing of its dangers. But without this knowledge, he would never hope to prove a match for his brother. And so he forced himself to look.

The forest parted. Boughs bent to his sight, the wind sifting the leaves. The hart bounded past, having evaded the Pagi. And there, lying amid a grove of fir trees lay a naked man and woman, their clothes strewn across the grass. They clung to each other, rising together in their love making. And then the woman raised her head and looked directly at Vito, her grey eyes meeting his over her lover’s shoulder. Her hair was a wild shock of brown curls.

Sucking in his breath, sweating, his heart dancing wildly, Vito stepped away…and back into the studio, into the waning light of an autumn afternoon. He stared at Avala. “You!”

“So you saw us.” She played idly with a ring of sapphire set upon her right index finger.

“And he…he was…”

“Vito!” Her eyes betrayed amusement. “He was the artist. And the Pagi Lord…”

“Your husband!”

“Yes. My husband. Philo Ol Hauriro. But we’re not here to talk about my infidelity, are we? We’re here to talk about art.”

“Does he know?” Vito gasped, breathless.

“He would do if he’d looked at that painting in the way you just had, Vito. The irony is that it hangs on my bedroom wall and yet he’s never really seen it. Vito,” she grasped his wrist, shaking him out of shock. “You invited me here to teach you about art. For what purposes I neither know nor care. But let this be our first lesson. Every Pagi painting is a lock. And your eyes are the key to that lock.”

A lock and its key. The words threaded through his memory, stirring and disturbing. “And all art acts in this way…music, sculpture, architecture…they are all locks to which my eyes…my mind is a key?”

Avala nodded. “Without your sight, your way of perceiving them or hearing them, they are nothing. Imagination is alchemy, Vito.”

“And what…what about words. Could my own thoughts work upon them in the same way…as a key?”

“Indubitably.”

“Wait here.” He held up a hand and dashed from the study, tearing down corridor after winding corridor until he’d reached his own chamber. Breathless, he crouched beside the bed and dragged a battered old satchel out from under it. The leather of the bag was faded, scratched and in places pocked with scorch marks. Vito slung it across his shoulder and raced back to the study where Avala stood with her back to him, gazing out of the window. He felt inside the satchel for the book, tracing his fingers over its torn cover; over the title engraved across its spine. Then, without further hesitation he tipped it out onto the desk, embarrassed when two tawny plaits of hair fell out beside it. Hastily, he brushed them back into the bag and opened the book, flicking through its pages, trying to ignore the stories it had weaved all that hot summer as he had wandered grief-ridden along the parched paths of the Pagi and into an arena of mass slaughter.

The words were still there, written by an unknown hand, scrawled across the base of the final page. Death is but a locked door. And I am the key. And now he was certain that Avala, with all her knowledge of Pagi ways, with her insights into magic and art, would help him to unlock that door. A strange coldness pricked the hairs on the back of his neck. She was behind him, he realised: peering over his shoulder at the book. He sensed her fear.

“Where did you get that?” she whispered.

“Is it true, Avala?” He turned to her. Her lips had thinned to pale lines; her eyes worked with fear.

“Is it true?” he repeated. “If I read these words in the right way; if I set my imagination to work on them, will I unlock the door of death?”

“Vito,” her voice seemed to echo up from cavernous depths. “Vito, I am going to leave now.”

“But you said…you said you could teach me all there was to know about art!”

“Vito, I have given my life to art. But I won’t give up my soul for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Burn that book, Vito. For all our sakes. Don’t let it tempt you. Don’t read it, don’t look at it. I’m…I must go. I can’t stay here.” She was gathering up the painting, wrapping it in a swathe of linen.

“Avala, please!”

“I’m sorry, Vito.”

She didn’t look back. She was gone, out the door, her footsteps echoing to light clips as she fled from the palace. He sank down in his chair, brooding on the book. It was all he had…that, the seal and the hair. Avala didn’t understand; how could she? She hadn’t seen the things he’d seen, and for all her knowledge of art, she wouldn’t ever come close to the powers, the forces which had laid waste to entire armies, which had wrought such suffering, pain and death. Avala, he decided, was a novice. And so, for that matter, was his brother. If he unlocked the door of death itself, if he could right the wrongs of the past, then he would be greater than all of them. And Andre would come back, fleet of foot, tearing through the fabric of time with brightness and grace. Immortal.

***

Part One of The Artist Enchanters Series, The Firefarer is available here:

Sample Chapter – The Firefarer

Three exiles, one destiny.

When Vito’s monastery is destroyed, he is thrust into the dangerous world of deceit and enchantment which lies beyond its walls. 

Moran, lost scion of a lost people, embarks on a quest from which she may never return. 

And Muna, descendant of warriors, will stop at nothing to protect her brother the Firefarer: hunted for his fabled powers of destruction.

Three strangers, one fate.

The Firefarer: the deadliest secrets lie in the heart.

 

PART TWO: CHAPTER ONE

SPIRITS

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 Pagi 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 mined beneath her skin, burying deep within her body until she could no longer feel her fingers or toes. If she stayed here, 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 the 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 dark hair, her eyes two gleaming slivers of jet. “Too bad I lack the skill, 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. It slithered 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 liquor. 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 brother ˗ he warned me. He was 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 finally told me to leave. They could no longer protect us, he said. At night the town’s people would surround the palace with torches 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, search 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 Ol Adama.”

“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 parents, our friends…I told you once before ˗ bed 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 fire’s light 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, vermin. 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, 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, 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 Firefarer is free on Amazon until Thursday 27th September.

 

 

The Fresco and the Fountain: Sample Chapter

 

coast-horizon-landscape-59937

Here’s part of Muna’s story from the novel I’m working on at the moment: The Fresco and the Fountain is the sequel to The Firefarer, which you can obtain here:

Just a warning that if you’ve not read the book, this chapter contains some spoilers.

Muna

The Firefarer wandered distant shores in search of herself; her skin dusted with sand, her dress worn to its weave and the brackish taste of brine on her lips. And now the night was setting in; the sun a line of red draining into the ocean’s distant horizon. She watched it fade and sink. A few stars pierced the haze of dusk and a night wind plucked at her hair, whisking it before her eyes. The exertion of rowing had soaked her clothes in sweat, but now her muscles cooled and cramped and she shuddered, wrapping her arms around her waist and worming her toes into the grainy wetness of the beach.

She was back amongst her people at last; the lands of the Pagi a fading nightmare in which illusion had chased illusion.  She thought of Simone: so young, so beautiful and beguiling. Yet on the point of a knife he’d revealed himself to be a broken husk of a man, his body twisted and deformed with age. She thought too of the artist Artemisia who had sealed flesh and blood into canvas. And then she thought of her brother Hori, too weak to withstand their magic: burning himself to pieces on distant plains. She stifled the moan rising in her throat. If only she’d understood her own power. If only she’d acknowledged it; if she’d not blinded herself to it, then she might have saved him.

The dunes bristled with long grass and scrub, the wind sculpting the sand into deep hollows and steep rises. She longed to rest amongst them: to sit with her face buried in her arms and weep until the dawn. But to do so was to invite death, and Muna was not yet of a mind to die.

“Return to your source,” Moran had told her after the battle. “And once you’ve found it, return to us.”

She would do that for Hori’s sake. She would learn of her power, and of how she might control it. And when she was ready, she would take revenge for her brother’s death: first upon those Ahi warriors who still dreamed of war, and then upon the Pagi themselves. She thought of vengeance, of their screams, their panic and suffering, and raised a hand before her eyes. It pulsed. It glowed with light and heat, with rippling fire.

She allowed the image to slide away, her skin cooling as she forced herself to focus on the white swell of the waves, on the hissing of wind through the long grass, the air infused with the scent of salt and seaweed. This was not the time to waste her energy. She had to find food and shelter before the night sunk its claws into the land for good.

Muna pushed on upwards through the dunes, tiny avalanches of sand breaking beneath her bare feet until at last she could look across to wide, barren plains shielded on both sides by the shadowy mass of mountains. Dark patches littering the valley floor suggested villages or settlements: places where she might rest. But she knew her people built for the season not the year; ready to leave their homes any moment in search of food or safety. Those huts and hovels she spied might well be occupied by hunters, by warriors, by anyone who’d chanced upon them. Or they could just as easily be empty. She stepped onwards into the vastness of the gathering night.

That great, wild, open space beyond promised peace: a place to lie down, perhaps some dried meat or an abandoned skin of water. But it was too late to risk setting foot on the plains now, alone as she was and travel-weary. And to her right, a dull bark of laughter split the night. Startled, she turned and crouched back down beneath the line of the dunes, moving crabwise until she was level with the source of the sound. A flickering line of smoke payed out into the evening sky, carrying with it a hint of charred fish. Another coarse hack of a laugh was followed by muffled conversation and then a baby’s wail. Muna sucked on her lower lip. Just a family then, gathered around their fire to eat and talk, so heedless of the threat lurking in the dunes. For she was a threat: she was the fire to end all fires. But while hunger and thirst scratched at her belly, she could not remain in silence, hidden by the fading light. And so she forced herself to her feet, striding over the top of the dunes and down towards them, her hair and the bare threads of her clothes scrolling out on the wind.

At first they didn’t see her, absorbed as they were with the baby and their conversation. Their supper, she now saw, consisted of a few limp fish skewered on wooden staves and left to cook and spit over the flames. But her stomach grumbled at the sight and she pressed on until she was standing on the opposite side of their fire pit. Two men, one woman, their faces cast in shadow and light sat outside a roughly timbered hut. A small child peered out from behind his mother’s back, his eyes rounding with fear while she nursed the screaming infant, rocking it in her arms and glancing up at Muna. Naked to the waist one man rose, his chest and face dark with tattoos.

“What is it? What do you want?”

She fixed a shaking finger on the fire. “Warmth,” she said. “Food.”

He shook his head. “That’s for us. Those fish are for us – and there’s not enough. Go!”

She stood, staring, queasy with hunger. Desperation welled within like bile. She swallowed it down, knowing now where it might lead. “Please!”

The other man was on his feet now, older than his comrades, his thinning hair greying at the tips and his face lost entirely to ink. “You heard him. We’ve not enough for ourselves, never mind you. Be gone before my axe hears my anger.” He indicated the weapon propped against the beams of their hut, its twin blades gleaming in the firelight.

It was beginning: a tight kernel of heat unfurling within. Their refusal to allow her even a seat at their hearth, to feed her just a meagre mouthful of their fish. This was who they were: her famed people, the Ahi. Unwilling to help their own, to offer protection to a single, starving woman. Did they know who she was? If they did, they gave no sign. No sign, that was, until her skin wavered, translucent and light; the ochre and amber of flames flickering beneath it. The woman rose, backing away, clutching the baby in one arm and dragging the child behind her who still kept round eyes fixed on Muna. And then the men rose, the elder reaching for his axe.

The heat spread. She could feel it welling up, rising like a tidal wave in search of shore. She was spinning, wheeling upwards away from herself, and looked down at her own body: a blazing light against the darkness of the dunes. The woman was running from the hut, her child stumbling out onto the plains behind her while the warriors wielded axe and blade, circling her warily. Run! She told herself. Run, before it touches them: before the flames lick at their flesh. Before the skin melts from their bodies. Before fire kisses the grasslands and the dunes and wraps itself around the woman’s legs. Run!

She was running. Back in her body, exhausted, famished, the heat ebbing even as she drove herself forwards, stumbling, rising, falling again. She passed the woman and the children and continued into the night. Somehow, the flames had not consumed her this time: she had found her way back into her body before it was too late. But the thought of what might have been: of children lost to the heat of her rage, it caused her to gasp: to cry out in terror.

She sank again, turned around and peered back in the direction of the hut and the coast. They were not chasing her at least; they had been wise enough to stay where they were. But soon word would spread that the Firefarer had returned. And what then? What if they sought her, as they had sought her brother: to use her, to turn against their enemies? Or, more likely if news of the battle had reached their ears, perhaps they would hunt her down and destroy her. Sobbing, she scrabbled to her feet again and ran: stones, thorns and the sharp blades of grass biting into the bare soles of her feet. And up ahead, in the darkness, shapes were massing.

She paused, frozen. Out here on the plains was nothing but space, emptiness, wind and silence. She felt the mountains’ mass and might, looming on either side of the valley. There were no trees to shelter behind, no boulders beneath which she might crouch, and no way of knowing how close the nearest settlement lay. For a brief moment, she longed for the green forests and meadows of the Pagi, but they were far across the sea now and as treacherous as a night in the barren lands of the Ahi. And so she stood, and waited.

A horse snorted, there was a steady thud of hooves and then the shapes coalesced into the figures of five riders, all of them helmed and armed with spears, with tridents and swords, axes, bows and blades. They halted before her, stopped and stared. One man leaned over in his saddle and spat into the grass.

“And where might you be going?” A woman spoke, eyes set deep, glittering and hawkish behind her visor.

“I…” Muna’s voice had grown hoarse through lack of use. “I seek a bed for the night. And food. That is all.”

One man smirked. “She’s welcome to mine.”

“No!” The woman shook her head and jabbed at Muna’s chest with the butt end of her spear. “Look at her. No ink – some outcast or freak. How old are you, girl?”

“I…I don’t know. I’ve seen seventeen summers, I believe. Just let me pass. I’ll be on my way.” Again her fear was burying deep, transforming itself, turning into something vital, something dangerous. And this time she knew she would not contain it. “Let me…”

“Seventeen and no ink? No tattoos?” The woman’s words were an open challenge.

“No. I never…I was always too weak to fight.”

“You don’t look that weak to me, girl. In need of food, true enough.” The warrior’s voice was a needle pricking, burying its point beneath her skin. “Perhaps just kept at home too much? Daddy’s darling? Perhaps your family were protecting you?”

Protecting you, more like. “Look, just let me go. I’ll be on my way.”

“No. I don’t think so.” The woman straightened in her saddle. “I say we take her with us to the Pagi. Teach her to know her enemy; to earn her ink.”

“To…the Pagi? You can’t!”

“We can’t what?” One of the men rode behind her, preventing any flight back to the shore. The cold steel tip of a sword pressed between her shoulder blades. Fire licked at her veins, creeping with slow intensity through her body.

“We can’t what?” he repeated. “Avenge those men and women we lost out there? Who sought adventure and never returned? Take land from the Pagi which they are neither fit for nor worthy of?” He twisted the point of his blade, nicking her skin. Blood seeped into the seam of her dress. “You, an inkless brat would tell us what is and is not possible?”

“Yes. I would. I’ve been to the lands of the Pagi…”

The woman’s snort was indignant. “A stripling like you? Don’t lie, girl. If there’s one thing I hate more than a spoilt brat, it’s a liar.”

“I saw…” her mind was wheeling. Just a few more heart beats and she would lose control. Why would they not leave her be? “I saw the battle between the Pagi and our army.”

One of the men scratched at his jaw with casual contempt. “She’s lost her wits. She’s clearly mad…we should have seen it. Stumbling out here alone.” Bending low in his saddle, he spoke to her as if to a tiny child. “No one lived who was there. All that our people found were piles of ash. The Firefarer destroyed them all.” And then he froze. She noticed how his hands shook where they clutched the horse’s reins, how he straightened up and his lips moved around voiceless words. He understood: she saw it in his eyes. But his companions remained blind. And now she was above herself once more, staring down at them: at her own body which had acquired a sheen of light. She saw her assailants from above, the plumes of their helmets streaming out on the wind. And the grasslands stretching for league after monotonous league, leading west and towards the fire mountain.

“I said I saw the battle. I was there.”

“She’s…the Firefarer!” The words came out, a strangled whisper; the rider had reeled his horse around, was galloping away towards the coast, his fellow Ahi creased over in their saddles with laughter.

“Unta!” the woman called out, “The Firefarer was a boy. Don’t worry, we won’t let her hurt you.” And then the words dried on her lips, for she had seen the flames coursing beneath Muna’s skin: the way her body fractured as if it were a mere shell to reveal the liquid heat running beneath it.

“Spirits! Ride!”

The sword was gone from Muna’s back, they were readying themselves to charge, perhaps to ride her down. The fools. They were lost. She was lost. She couldn’t control it now: it was too late. And as the Ahi horses screamed with fear she watched, helpless as her own body betrayed her. As heat rose, as the animals sank to their knees, as flames engulfed the grass and scrub, and the skin of humans; the flesh of their mounts slid, viscous as resin from their faces, their limbs. As the stink of charred flesh became the cloying, acrid stench of ash. And she was back once more on the earth, staggering away in her weakened body, her tears transformed to steam even as her skin hardened and cooled. This curse had killed Hori: would it destroy her too? Would it eat her away until she herself was no more than flames and ash? She would never know, she realised, sinking to her knees in despair, unable to walk any further, hunger and exhaustion crashing down upon her, felling her until she was sobbing on the ground, surrounded by nothing but the wind, the mountains; not even a drop of water to quench the burning thirst which gripped her throat. It was over. The plains would take her. Muna closed her eyes. The world was a dark place. But the void into which she now fell was even darker.

 

Picture credit: Josh Sorenson

 

 

 

The Fresco and the Fountain

I’ve now started work on the next book in the Artist Enchanters series, The Fresco and the Fountain. This is a series which follows the journeys of three exiles as they travel through a land in which art really is magic and the greatest dangers often lie within their own hearts. Part One of the series, The Firefarer, is now available on Amazon. I’ve decided to write part two away from Wattpad, as I hope it will give me greater freedom to play around with the development of the narrative and the characters.

However, here is a sneek preview of chapter one in which former monk Vito begins to learn the arts of the Pagi. Warning – if you’ve not read The Firefarer, look away now as it contains spoilers!

Chapter One: Adama

“Now that,” Vito said, wiping a crumb from his cheek, “was delicious. What did you say your name was?”

“Nico. Nico Ol Arcano, my Lord.”

Vito winced. “I’m not a Lord, Nico.”

“Oh. I thought…” the young man’s face flushed, embarrassment clouding the pale blue of his eyes. He was lean and light in build with soft, almost feminine features and long, copperish hair.

“I mean…look at me. Do I resemble a Lord?” Vito squeezed a grape between his teeth, revelling in its sweetness.

“No, Master Vito. I mean…you have Lordly bearing. I should have thought…under different circumstances…”

“Please!” Vito shook his head. “I’m a corrupted monk, Nico. I’m at best a caretaker in this house, at worst…”his fingers settled on the seal in his pocket. “…at worst a cuckoo. I’m merely looking after it until the Duchess of Libarum returns.”

“The Duchess? I thought…”

“Or some  distant family member,” Vito added with haste. “But they tolerate me here because of this.” He plucked the seal from his pocket, turning it over in his hands so that Nico might see the scroll engraved on one side, the image of the Libarum palace on the other. “At present, I am the only acknowledged bearer of such a seal. And it bestows certain…rights.”

“I see.” But Nico’s frown suggested that he didn’t. “And might I ask, Master Vito…”

“Just Vito, please.”

“Might I ask how you came by this?”

“Ah.” Vito’s mind retraced its steps to the carnage of a battle field; to a woman’s groans, to searing heat and pain. “That,” he faltered, “is a story for another time.” He slipped the seal back into his pocket. “For now, my dear Nico, I would like to employ your services as a cook.”

Weak autumn sunlight strayed through the windows of the study. Had she once looked out at that same view? At the burnished gold of distant vineyards and woodland; at the terraces of the palace spilling down into orchards and fountains?

“Tell me…” Vito leant across the remains of his supper. “Is cooking…cuisine…is it as valued an art as all the others?”

“More so.” Nico moved to the hearth, rubbing his hands before its warmth. “A well prepared feast feeds all our senses.”

“Even our ears?”

“Have you never listened to the harmonies of a well-tuned kitchen, Vito?”

“No. I can’t say I have. Well…” he rose and shook hands with Nico. “I hope that you will introduce me to this…most mystical of arts. Many thanks for this…” his hand hovered once more over the remains of his supper. For some reason his mind failed to grasp what it was he had just eaten. “…inexpressible…delicious…well, I have to study now.”

Nico raised an eyebrow. “To study?”

“Yes. I have much to learn about all the arts.”

“I thought monks shunned such knowledge.”

With a smile Vito whisked open the door, waiting for Nico to pass through. “A corrupted monk, my friend. Corrupted.”

***

“You will observe how the artist draws our attention to the hunters’ chase.” Avala Ol Hauriro circled the central motif of the painting with a jewelled finger.

Vito craned forward. “Yes. I see.”

The artwork was small in scale, framed in dark, resinous walnut and balanced on an easel in the centre of his study. To its fore, a tight knot of Pagi hunters pursued a wounded hart through dense woodland. The forest itself resembled an exercise in geometry rather than a depiction of nature, its trees a sprouting series of matchsticks.

“Look carefully, Vito. The artist was cunning. The hunters themselves are a mere distraction.”

“They are?” He peered into the painting once more. Nothing changed. One grand Pagi Lord charged, suspended in paint, his spear raised high above his shoulder. Behind him rode his band of followers pointing, crying out as the deer sprang away into the distance. Vito shook his head, frustrated. “What am I looking for?”

“Vito…” Avala eyed him with grave, grey eyes. It was hard to guess her age. And the Pagi were nothing if not arch dissemblers. But she seemed of middle years; a cascade of thick, chestnut curls framing the sharp, even contours of her face. “Vito, as I have already explained, the painting itself is an assembly of ochre and lead, of malachite, copper and carmine. Its enchantment is released when you truly see it, Vito. It all depends on your act of sight. Look at it again. Look beyond the hunters and into the forest. Look at it and see what the painter is really telling you.”

He shifted his gaze from hunters to trees as instructed: at the mustard brown of their bark and the emerald shreds of their leaves. At the quaint parakeets and owls which nestled in their branches. The lightest breath of wind brushed his cheek, like a woman’s kiss. Vito shivered. This was unwise; he should tear himself from the painting now. He was too old to learn of Pagi art without falling into its net. It would ensnare him: a poor, lapsed monk who knew nothing of its dangers. But without this knowledge, he would never match his brother. And so he forced himself to look.

The forest parted. Boughs bent to his sight, the wind sifting the leaves. The hart bounded past, having evaded the Pagi. And there, lying amid a grove of fir trees lay a naked man and woman, their clothes strewn across the grass. They clung to each other, rising together in their love making. And then the woman raised her head and looked directly at Vito, her grey eyes meeting his over her lover’s shoulder. Her hair was a wild shock of brown curls.

Sucking in his breath, sweating, his heart dancing wildly, Vito stepped away…and back into the studio, into the waning light of an autumn afternoon. He stared at Avala. “You!”

“So you saw us.” She played idly with a ring of sapphire set upon her right index finger.

“And he…he was…”

“Vito,” her eyes betrayed amusement. “He was the artist. And the Pagi Lord…”

“Your husband!”

“Yes. My husband. Philo Ol Hauriro. But we’re not here to talk about my infidelity, are we? We’re here to talk about art.”

“Does he know?” Vito gasped, breathless.

“He would do if he’d looked at that painting in the way you just had, Vito. The irony is that it hangs on my bedroom wall and yet he’s never really seen it. Vito,” she grasped his wrist, shaking him out of shock. “You invited me here to teach you about art. For what purposes I neither know nor care. But let this be our first lesson. Every Pagi painting is a lock. And your eyes are the key to that lock.”

A lock and its key. The words threaded through his memory, stirring and disturbing. “And all art acts in this way…music, sculpture, architecture…they are all locks to which my eyes…my mind is a key?”

Avala nodded. “Without your sight, your way of perceiving them or hearing them, they are nothing. Imagination is alchemy, Vito.”

“And what…what about words. Could my own thoughts work upon them in the same way…as a key?”

“Indubitably.”

“Wait here.” He held up a hand and dashed from the study, tearing down corridor after winding corridor until he’d reached his own chamber. Breathless, he crouched beside the bed and dragged a battered old satchel out from under it. The leather of the bag was faded, scratched and in places pocked with scorch marks. Vito slung it across his shoulder and raced back to the study where Avala stood with her back to him gazing out of the window. He felt inside the satchel for the book, tracing his fingers over its torn cover; over the title engraved across its spine. Then, without further hesitation he tipped it out onto the desk, embarrassed when two tawny plaits of hair fell out beside it. Hastily, he brushed them back into the bag and opened the book, flicking through its pages, trying to ignore the stories it had weaved all that hot summer as he had wandered grief ridden along the parched paths of the Pagi and into an arena of mass slaughter.

The words were still there, written by an unknown hand, scrawled across the base of the final page. Death is but a locked door. And I am the key. And now he was certain that Avala, with all her knowledge of Pagi ways, with her insights into magic and art, would help him to unlock that door. A strange coldness pricked the hairs on the back of his neck. She was behind him, he realised: peering over his shoulder at the book. He sensed her fear.

“Where did you get that?” she whispered.

“Is it true, Avala?” He turned to her. Her lips had thinned to pale lines; her eyes worked with strain. “Is it true?” he repeated. “If I read these words in the right way; if I set my imagination to work on them, will I unlock the door of death?”

“Vito,” her voice seemed to echo up from cavernous depths. “Vito, I am going to leave now.”

“But you said…you said you could teach me all there was to know about art!”

“Vito, I have given my life to art. But I won’t give up my soul for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Burn that book, Vito. For all our sakes. Don’t let it tempt you. Don’t read it, don’t look at it. I’m…I must go. I can’t stay here.” She was gathering up the painting, wrapping it in a swathe of linen.

“Avala, please!”

“I’m sorry, Vito.”

She didn’t look back. She was gone, out the door, her footsteps echoing to light clips as she fled from the palace. He sank down in his chair, brooding on the book. It was all he had…that, the seal and the hair. Avala didn’t understand; how could she? She hadn’t seen the things he’d seen, and for all her knowledge of art, she wouldn’t ever come close to the powers, the forces which had laid waste to entire armies, which had wrought such suffering, pain and death. Avala, he decided, was a novice. And so, for that matter, was his brother. If he unlocked the door of death itself, if he could right the wrongs of the past, then he would be greater than all of them. And Andre would come back, fleet of foot, tearing through the fabric of time with brightness and grace. Immortal.