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:

Hal and The Firefarer on sale!

Both Hal and The Firefarer are free to download until Thursday 27th September. Hal now includes the bonus story ‘Orla’ – a steamy short about Hal’s first love.

Hal

A stubborn, strong-willed, disinherited aristocrat, Hal leaves the imperial court at an early age to make her living with her sword. Finally, she seems to have found all she needs in life – that is until she meets Meracad, the daughter of a rich businessman. The two girls are about to find out that true love comes at a price. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves …

The Firefarer

Ash covers the homes of the Ahi, flames consume their lands. Their hopes rest in Hori, a young boy who seems able to channel the mountain’s destructive powers. Through him, they hope to carve out a new life across the sea, enslaving the artist enchanters of the Pagi and taking their land. But the Ahi are not the only people to covet the Firefarer and his powers …

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.

 

 

Hal and The Firefarer Free on Amazon!

Both Hal and The Firefarer will be free to download between Sunday 23rd  and Thursday 27th September. Hal now includes the bonus story ‘Orla’ – a steamy short about Hal’s first love.

Hal

A stubborn, strong-willed, disinherited aristocrat, Hal leaves the imperial court at an early age to make her living with her sword. Finally, she seems to have found all she needs in life – that is until she meets Meracad, the daughter of a rich businessman. The two girls are about to find out that true love comes at a price. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves …

 

 

The Firefarer

Ash covers the homes of the Ahi, flames consume their lands. Their hopes rest in Hori, a young boy who seems able to channel the mountain’s destructive powers. Through him, they hope to carve out a new life across the sea, enslaving the artist enchanters of the Pagi and taking their land. But the Ahi are not the only people to covet the Firefarer and his powers …

Interview: Lesfic Reading Group, Facebook

One of the great things about social media is the way it has brought authors and readers together like never before. I experienced this first hand on Saturday when I got the chance to participate in an online author interview hosted by K’Anne Meinel of the lesfic reading group on Facebook. You can find the group here at: 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/lesficbooks/.

As this is a closed group only members were able to participate, but K’Anne very kindly agreed to my posting some of the questions and my responses on my blog.

I should point out that this was not a typical interview. Over a two hour period, other members of the group asked me questions about my books, writing and related subjects. My responses were therefore sometimes a bit rushed and there may be a few typos here and there. I have slightly altered one or two responses for purposes of clarification.

The experience was great – in spite of being anxious to begin with, it became a really fun Q&A session. The group is a friendly, safe space to discuss lesfic and I  really recommend it. 

How did the genesis for The Duelist Trilogy come about?

Aw I knew this question was going to come up…so you’re all probably going to think I’m a bit freaky – which is true – but I seemed to have been carrying the idea for the main character, Hal, around in my head for ever. And I had no idea that she was going to turn into a book. But one day, just to almost exorcise her, I sat down and started writing her story and an entire book came out of it. The problem with Hal is that the more I write, the more she seems to come back. I keep thinking, that’s it. I’ve reached peak Hal, but no…another story pops out at me

No outline? Just sat in front of your computer and wrote the book?

Kind of. It surprised me to be honest! It is a bit of a patchy way to write because you forget things as you’re going and then you’re like damn! I need to go back and change things now. But for some reason it just worked and I can’t explain it to this day.

After working with Hal and your Duelist Trilogy, how weird was it to go to The Firefarer and start another? Will this too be a trilogy?

Yeah really weird. I decided that I had to do something different because I didn’t want to be a kind of one trick pony. I felt that I wanted to challenge myself by writing something that was more complicated in terms of narrative structure, world building, characterisation etc. So I forced myself and this time I had to do some real planning and…it hurt! But I’m glad I went for it and yes, this will be another trilogy. I’m writing part two – The Fresco and the Fountain at the moment.

What made you decide to go with Firebound instead of self-publishing or a bigger publisher?

So I knew this one would come up too, and it’s quite a long story. But basically, I wrote Hal or most of it and then stuffed it in a drawer and tried to forget about it. I wasn’t that bothered about publishing it – I just wanted it out of my system and I really didn’t want to go down the route of trad publishing because…well you know. All the rejection letters etc. But then I decided that I might as well share it online, so I posted it on the online writing platform Wattpad and it got quite a lot of views and was eventually featured. That was when fellow Wattpad author Rob May stepped in – we were critiquing each other’s work and he already had the idea of starting the imprint Firebound on Amazon so he asked me if I’d like to try publishing too. I thought, what the hell. Might as well. Now I’m pretty glad I did.

Why lesbian fiction? Mainstream fiction makes a lot more money…

that is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The story was just…lesfic. I never thought about money. I just had a story to tell and I wanted to get it out there. Really, writing lesfic gives me the opportunity to think about my own sexuality. To explore it. It’s perhaps self-indulgent but I can’t imagine writing anything else.

Who is your favorite lesfic author? Who do you read? Who is your favorite ‘mainstream’ author? What do you read? What’s in YOUR Kindle/e-reader?

So I got into lesfic by reading Sarah Waters who is both mainstream and a fantastic writer of lesbian historical fiction – and I think that, having read a lot of comments from group members in the past, Waters was also one of many people’s first encounters with lesfic. I mean she is amazing – in terms of the complexity of her work, the twists she throws in, the compassion she has for her characters. Absolutely love it.

I’ve discovered loads of new authors from this group and the lesbian review website, however – people like Jae and Heather Rose Jones who I might not have come across otherwise. Love their work, also Jen Silver and Riley LaShea. There is so much out there and so little time!

As for general reading – I’m very into contemporary British lit. So people like Hilary Mantel, Jessie Burton, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan. Love that. And I love all writers who push at the boundaries of their genre – I just read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. This is so what science fiction should be – a young, African female protagonist. We need more of those kinds of characters in speculative fiction

What is your greatest fear as an author?

hard disk crash lol – I really am bad at backing up my files. But apart from that – I don’t have any real fears. If people didn’t buy my books, I’d still write because I can’t not write. Which might be a weird thing to say, but it’s how I feel. For a while I thought it must be normal to write – that everyone was up to it, until a close friend disabused me of that idea. So I honestly can’t say where it comes from but I’m never going to stop.

How do you choose the names for your characters?

So I’m a bit of a Shakespeare fan – which is where Hal came from. But what I tried to do with the Duellist trilogy was to mix up various languages – some old English sounding names with more French styles. My fear however, is that I’m inadvertently going to name a character after a cleaning product or something like that. Hal’s lover is called Meracad, for example, and I’m convinced one day I’ll find out that’s actually a brand of toothpaste.

Where in the world are you?

Well it might surprise you to hear that I’m in sunny Poland. I say sunny because I understand you’ve been having a little trouble with your weather in the mid west recently and I thought I’d just rub that in  😉

I’ve been here in Poland for about 15 years now. I came for a few months to teach English…and just somehow kind of stayed. And for all the country’s problems – and it has more than its fair share – I love it here, and I absolutely love teaching English. I applied for a teaching position – a short term contract and got it. The accommodation was thrown in so I didn’t have to worry about it. Poland is a great country, really. I felt at home here straight away.

As a teacher, how old are the students are you teaching English to?

That’s the great thing – they’re every age! I mostly teach undergradates, who are fun – really. But I have a lot of private students who range from tiny kids to lawyers and doctors. It’s just the best way of meeting so many different people .

Do you plan to ever move back to England or are you staying in Poland?

Really can’t see it happening. For various reasons, I decided to put a bit of distance between myself and England. And while I love the country – especially north Derbyshire which is where I’m from, I have everything I want here in Poland. I started writing properly here, I’ve got a job I love and a partner. The only thing that makes me anxious is bloody Brexit. But let’s not go there…

How supportive was your family when you started writing? Do they know? Have they read you?

So my family know that I do it but they just think it contributes to my general weirdness. But anyway, as I may have observed elsewhere, I believe you should never write stuff safe enough for your parents to read. The thought of my mum reading Hal…

Pseudonym or not, what was your rationale?

I’m going to come across as a real coward now. Pseudonym yes. While I love Poland it’s not the most forgiving of places so I write under a pen name. I really don’t want my students reading my work. Having said that, one of them cunningly tracked me down and said she enjoyed it so I guess perhaps I’m worrying unnecessarily. But paranoia has always been my default position 😉

What are you working on right now?

So I’m working on part Two of The Artist Enchanters series ‘The Fresco and the Fountain.’ It’s proving to be a bit of a hard write though, which is why I got distracted by a short story which I’m planning to post on my blog and on Wattpad. This will be a kind of prequel to Hal. (First Chapter of this will be on my blog on Thursday) 

How much of your book is written in long-hand until you start typing it out?

Loads. I have like reams and reams of notebooks and I can’t bring myself to throw them away. The only problem is that my handwriting is appalling so it takes me a while to decipher it myself before I can actually type stuff up 😉

What is your story? Are you a lesbian? Have you ever come out?

So this is a complex one. I define as bisexual. I fell in love for the first time with another girl, and that was hard. Unrequited, you know? So rather than contemplating my sexuality at the time, all I could do was obsess about the fact that she didn’t love me back (story of my life). Anyway, after I left home I had relationships with men and women and I figured that sexuality kind of works along a spectrum. And that’s why – as I noted elsewhere – one of the best ways for me to think about my sexuality is through writing.

What is your biggest distraction when you write?

I am so easily distracted. Obviously the internet. That is the main thing, which is why I try to write by hand first so that I focus. But once I’m typing up, if I see amusing cat photos, I’m out for the rest of the day 😉

What would you like to see happen with your writing in say five years?

I would really like to be a better writer in terms of the way I deal with structure, with just being generally better at handling twists. I’ve also got plans for writing a work of historical fiction which would require a lot of serious research so that’s where I’m headed.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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!

 

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.”