The rain had not stopped for several hours and Astrid could no longer remember what it felt like to wear dry clothes. Every single item was heavy with rain, especially her wolf skin, which weighed down on her like a dead body. The black veil around her face stuck to her like a second skin. Still she carried on, her hammer axe in one hand and her eyes on the wet ground. If the route had once been a road, it had long since been claimed by nature. Thick patches of wild grass knotted with brambles were interrupted only by enormous puddles of muddy sludge. Her boots were covered in the heavy brown mud all the way up to her knees.
The journey from the sand seas had been long, hot and dreary, the same as it was every year. The change from the desert was always gradual. First the sand dunes gave way to grassland, with one or two hardened and stunted trees every twenty miles or so. The temperature also changed, the wind always the first to cool before the intensity of the sun cooled with it. The clouds followed, and within two weeks the terrain had changed from warm grassland to the cold and damp forests which surrounded Einn. Still, it was a nice change not to have sand stuck in her hair and boots. Erin could never bring herself to hate the rain, especially after so many years in the human lands where, in many parts, water was as precious as gold, if not more so.
Her stomach grumbled loudly again, and she struck it as hard as she could, despite the bruises which already covered it. For a moment, she thought about her last meal over five days ago of some wild berries, a few nuts and some of the edible weeds which grew along the route to Einn, but she pushed them out of her mind. It would do no good to think of food. She had gone far longer without it, and the pain helped. It was a distraction.
In front of her a rabbit leapt out from behind a bush and froze in fear when it saw her outline against the dark grey sky. It had not heard her approach, few animals did, her steps were so light on the ground. Astrid in turn stopped and studied the creature’s large black eyes and completely upright ears as it crouched, unsure of itself and of the small woman in front of it.
Her stomach growled yet again, but Astrid did not move. She would not kill it. She couldn’t. Instead she dropped her hammer axe to the ground to startle it into action and watched it dart away into the undergrowth.
“Go on, run.”
She felt a fleeting small smile at the corner of her mouth. Then, appalled at herself she picked her hammer axe back up and continued to march ahead. Her hand gripped the handle of the hammer axe as though it was a bone she could snap. It was not right, smiling. It had barely been a month since Nedwin’s death and she had no right to smile. First, she needed to atone for her failure.
Bit by bit the dirt path began to widen. The wet mud was littered with loose fragments of what had once been a paved road and with each step she sank a little less into the mud. When she caught the hint of woodsmoke in the air, she knew that Einn would not be far away now, perhaps another hour or two, but instead of walking faster Astrid stopped in her tracks.
It would be warm once she reached the town, and she had no doubt Aaren would have some kind of food readily available for her to eat. The idea of that sickened her. She did not deserve it. A human child had died on her watch. Another failure that she would have to carry every day on her mind, had been stamped on her soul and would eventually be engraved into her skin too. She looked down at her right hand and examined the black rose tattoo etched there.
Each rose was different. The first one had lines drawn around it so finely that the petals appeared as if they were charring around the edges and would burst into flames at any moment. The black tattoos had hurt at first, but not as much as the thorn patterns which connected each of them. Unlike the roses, these had not been created with ink. Instead, the upper skin had been removed with small sharp blade, the pattern of vine thorns cut into her skin and then burned with a small metal coil to scar it.
The first time Aaren’s father had attempted to scar the skin he had only used a heated coil of copper, and they started to heal within a day. The second time, at Astrid’s request, he had carved the skin away before scarring it. Since then the scars had stayed although the older ink tattoos had begun to fade. Neither Aaren nor his father had not been surprised by this. Humans only lived, at best, until they were fifty years old, perhaps seventy if they were rich and lucky. Few of them carried tattoos which were older than thirty years. Astrid wondered silently how many generations of the ink-smith’s family she would live to see buried in the ground before she joined them.
* * *
Aaren stumbled down the steps, irritated. He held his hands against the wall as he did so, in half a mind to greet whatever stranger thought it was acceptable to wake him before dawn with the contents of his chamber pot.
“You’d better have a damned good reason for waking me!”
Astrid looked up at him, completely soaked, her veil loose around her neck and her bag on the ground by her feet.
Astrid stood up onto her tiptoes as he pulled her into a bear hug, her head barely at the height of his elbow and half smothered against the thick woollen clothing he wore. It did not perturb him when Astrid did not wrap her arms back around him and her hands remained tightly pressed against her chest. He had learned not to take it personally any more. That was just her way.
“It’s good to see you, Erin.”
“And you,” she smiled.
He motioned for her to enter the stone house and closed the door behind her.
“It’s nice not to be greeted the same as last time.” Astrid smiled and crouched down in front of the dim glow of the dark red embers in the hearth.
“It took a while to get the smell out of my clothes.”
Aaren winced, embarrassed.
Astrid laughed, and Aaren held his finger to his lips and pointed to the floor above.
“Lai is asleep.”
Astrid’s face lit up with an enormous smile. “Married? When?” She whispered excitedly. Aaren nodded proudly and for the first time Astrid noticed the twinned marriage tattoo around his wrist. “Who?”
“Lai, she’s from Sese.”
“Can I meet her?”
“Not now, the baby only just stopped kicking.”
Aaren grinned sheepishly, barely able to hide the pride on his face.
“Three months left now.”
Astrid abandoned her usual reserve and walked over to Aaren to hug him again. “I’m so happy for you!” Aaren was stunned.
“Aaren? Who’s there?” A voice called softly from the stairway and Astrid looked up to see a woman doing her best not to waddle down the steps. Her belly was so large that Astrid wondered how she managed to stand at all without toppling over. A long shawl was wrapped around her shoulders and her long tightly ringed bronze coloured hair hung loose like a mane around her face. Astrid was surprised by how beautiful she was. Aaren was far from being an ugly man, but from her experience beautiful woman rarely married men who lived simple lives. As an ink-smith he was hardly the most desirable catch in all of Einn. The black smith or the clothiers were the kind of professions she could imagine attracting a woman like Lai. Inksmiths were not afforded the same respect in Einn as they were further south.
Lai, in turn, was quite surprised by Astrid. For the most part she appeared as she expected any dwarf to look, but she had always assumed that Aaren’s description of her was an exaggeration, especially where it concerned her eyes. Even in the low light she could see how each was a completely different colour, her left eye stone grey and the right a vivid grass green. The scars on her face were not an exaggeration either. Lai wondered what kind of dog or wolf had made the rows of deep scars down the side of her face underneath Astrid’s green eye. The mark was so deep that she barely even noticed the faint scar that traced diagonally over her brow, across the bridge of her nose, to finish on her cheek, under the grey eye. Yet it was the scar down the center of her lips which fascinated and horrified Lai the most. It was not as recent as the other marks, but it was far deeper, so deep in fact, that each time Astrid smiled it looked as though the skin would tear and her lips would rip apart.
“Lai, this is Erin, the outsider I told you about.”
For a brief moment the smile on Astrid’s face faltered, but she hid it well. She had never told Aaren or his father how much she hated the name outsider, and now it seemed too late to ask for them to stop. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
“A little, but at least this time Aaren didn’t throw the chamber pot on you.”
“Oh, he told you about that did he?” Astrid laughed at Aaren who looked as though he didn’t know if he should be concerned for Lai or irritated with her.
“Yes, he’s told me a lot about you.” Lai laughed and then winced. Her hand pressed to her belly as the baby inside kicked, annoyed that it’s comfortable slumber had been disturbed. “I don’t want to seem rude, but I need to sleep. Will you still be here in the morning?”
“Yes, yes I will. That is, if you and Aaren don’t mind?”
“No, of course not,” they replied in unison.
Lai nodded and began to make her way slowly back up the stairs. Aaren waited till they heard her reach the bed and lie down heavily before he walked over to the kitchen shelves by the fireplace, pulled down a pot and wrestled the tightly sealed cork lid open.
“Thank you,” Astrid nodded and picked out a small handful of the dried fruits that he offered her.
“Is that all?”
With her mouth half full Astrid nodded and unwrapped her damp veil from around her neck and waist. “I just want to get warm for the moment.”
“Have a bit more.”
“No, not now.”
Aaren lifted the pot back onto the shelf and watched her as she ate. In the low light it frightened him how gaunt she looked. Her fingers had less flesh on them than a spider’s legs.
“What happened, Erin?” He asked quietly.
Astrid’s head snapped around to stare at him, and before she could stop herself she felt tears blur her vision.
“Who was it this time?”
Astrid stared back into the fire, her head bowed so that her hair fell in front of her face. “Is it always that obvious?”
“When you’re barely more than skin on bones, yes.”
Aaren sighed and walked over to his work table at the other end of the room. He picked up a slate, a few sticks of chalk strewn across it and pulled a stool back across the room to sit down next to Astrid.
“Eight years, I think. He didn’t even have hair on his chin yet,” Astrid whispered.
“No, Gold Coast. Briin I think, his family were traveling to stay with an uncle in the Azure Oasis. They thought it would be a better life for them.”
With each new question, the drawing on Aaren’s slate took on the form of a rose bud with eight small thorns along its stem. Astrid endured the interrogation and tried not to flinch each time he scraped the chalk against the coarse slate in small quick motions. She had forgotten just how much she hated that sound. It sounded like failure.
Aaren paused, the chalk poised over the drawing, ready for the final detail.
“Wyvern. Stabbed in the heart. It was quick.”
With a quick swipe across the slate with his finger Aren rubbed a clear puncture through the rose. “There,” he whispered and turned the slate towards her. “Is that him?”
Astrid looked at the drawing. It was exquisite, with a few petals on the verge of opening, each line thin and delicate compared to the more boldly drawn roses which covered her arm and part of her shoulder.
“Where do you want it? I don’t think there’s much space left on your arm now,” Aaren tried to joke. Astrid did not smile back.
“On my shoulder. Next to the others, I don’t want him to be alone.”
“That’ll hurt,” Aaren warned as Astrid began to undo the buttons on her over tunic. “I’ll have to add more thorns to make it work with the rest of it.”
“I don’t mind,” Astrid replied as she pulled off her tunic and let it drop into a wet bundle on the floor. Underneath her tunic the sleeveless black vest exposed both her arms. Her right arm was covered in ink and scar tattoos. “Here,” she pointed at a small space beside a much larger rose which had been drawn to look as though it had shattered. “Right next to the others.”
She watched in anticipation as Aaren began to collect his tools: the black inks with the thin bone needles he used to pierce the skin, the small curved knives he used to lift away the upper layer of the skin, and finally the thin branding tools with their small metal tips. Astrid remembered how afraid she had been the first time she had asked Aaren’s father to ink her first loss onto her skin. None of it held any fear for her now, quite the opposite. In a twisted kind of way, she enjoyed it, and the feeling of atonement the pain brought.
Aaren scooped up some of the embers from the fire and placed them in a small stone trough beside the hearth before he took the small branding tools and pressed their tips into the hot embers. Astrid sat back in the chair Aaren had set behind her, her right arm on the arm rest. Aaren reached for one of the small gouge knives and held her arm firmly with his free hand.
With a nod from Astrid, Aaren pressed the blade to her shoulder and slowly began to carve away small pieces of her skin to create another coil of rose thorns. Every few slices, he would reach for one of the branding tools and cauterize the exposed flesh before the bleeding became too severe. As the ink smith worked, Astrid relaxed. Her eyes were closed, and her head leaned back against the chair as though she was sat enjoying the sunlight at high noon.
“Have you seen Dag since last time?”
“No. I went back to Bienra instead and spent the winter there instead.”
“Has it gotten that bad?”
Astrid nodded, her jaw clenched. “Do you know what he said to me last time? He told me what I did was a waste, pointless is what he said. There is no good, no evil. Just life and death, there’s no point to it all, he said. To him what I’ve been doing for the past twenty-nine years was worthless.”
“He used that word? Worthless?” Aaren paused for a moment, shocked.
“No, he used an Axi word which means worthless, but much worse than just worthless. I didn’t want to stay there any more, I don’t think I ever want to go back now.”
“But he could still teach you how to use magic?”
Astrid laughed dryly and looked down at her hands. “He’ll never teach me how to use magic,” she muttered. “He just says that so that I’ll return each winter, and each time I do he says he’ll train me next winter, and the next, and the next. He’s a liar.”
Aaren cleared his throat nervously. “I wouldn’t want to anger a warlock, that doesn’t seem like a good plan for a long life.”
Astrid snorted loudly, distain written all over her face. “The only way Dag the book burner, would ever leave the Red Mountains was if there was a chance to burn more books.”
“I thought that name was just a rumour? I didn’t think he actually burned books.”
“No, it’s not. One time he found me looking at one of his books. I couldn’t even read it, I just liked the pictures inside. The next day he burned all of them.”
“But I thought you said he had hundreds of books?”
“He did. Every wall in the house was stacked high with them. Even the table sometimes.”
“And he burned all of them? Some of those books must have been—”
“Priceless? Yes, they were. I think some of them were older than the Rojóða.”
“What I would do to read some of those,” Aaren muttered.
For a second Astrid winced as Aaren pressed the freshly heated tool onto her skin.
“That’s a relief, you can still feel,” Aaren laughed.
“Of course I can feel.”
“Just making sure,” Aaren grinned until Astrid could no longer maintain her annoyed expression. “So if you won’t be going back to the mountain, what will you do for the winter?”
“I was hoping I could stay here for the rest of the summer, then maybe going back to Bienra for the winter.”
“Of course you can stay here. I’ll have to ask Lai if she minds, but I don’t think she will.”
“Do you know your whole face lights up when you talk about her?” Astrid smiled.
“Yes. Everyone keeps telling me that I just have to wait a few years and that we’ll get bored of each other. I think they just married badly.”
“The ink smith with a heart of clouds,” Astrid laughed. “Who would have thought it?”
“I’d rather have a heart of clouds than be all cold and wrinkled inside. How can I be when I write people’s stories onto their skin for a living.”
“I never thought of it like that.”
“That’s the way father always thought of it.”
“I miss him,” Astrid said quietly.
“He wouldn’t want you to miss him. He’d want you to be happy. He would probably tell you to go and make peace with Dag.”
Astrid’s face changed from a sad nostalgic smile to an angry glare instantly.
“He raised you Erin, surely that has to mean something.”
“No, Ragi raised me, not Dag. Dag couldn’t keep a sand plant alive. Ragi was the one who talked to me, played with me. Took care of me when I was sick. Dag just did what he always does, observes and does nothing.”
“Please don’t burn my house down.”
Astrid looked at him, confused, and suddenly noticed the blue radiance which illuminated his face and their surroundings. From her fingertips a blue glow had begun to coil around Astrid’s fingertips hands and slowly edged its way up her wrists. Aaren sat back nervously as she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. The magic glimmer slowly receded back under her skin.
“Sorry, it’s been hard not to let it escape these last few weeks.”
The ink-smith did not even try to hide his nerves as he continued on the last small details on the thorns. Every few seconds he would look down at Astrid’s hands to make sure that the magic flames had not returned.
“What if you went to the Narcissus Isles?”
“Why in hell would I want to go there?”
“I’ve heard storied about a great enchantress from there, Raka. Some people say that she’s the daughter of a sea shade. Maybe she could teach you if you want to learn magic.”
Astrid snorted loudly. “Thank you Aaren, but I’ve searched all of the human lands for someone who could teach me magic. At best they dabble, at worst they made a deal for Velnias magic.”
“There must be someone.”
“I met one woman once in the Gold Coast. She claimed to be a direct heir to the last enchantress, but her magic was…I have no other word for it, pathetic. Trust me Aaren, if there had been anyone in the human lands, I would have found them by now.”
Aaren put down the scalding tool before he asked his next question and shuffled his chair back slight incase the flames around her hands should return. “And the elves?”
“What about them?”
“Couldn’t you find an elf who would teach you? There must be some elves, somewhere that wouldn’t—”
Astrid turned to look at him, both eyebrows raised, and pointed at her severed right ear. “Wouldn’t what?” Astrid snapped at him. “Cut off my other ear? Well, I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t want to take that chance Aaren!”
“All the elves can’t be like that,” Aaren replied, his eyes still on her hands which, thankfully, had not yet burst into flame.
“Yes they are, and the dwarfs. Brojóta burðr, Mewa, they all have different words for me, but they all hate me just as much. I want nothing to do with them!”
Astrid glared into the flames for a moment before she took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Aaren, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“It’s alright, you’re tired.”
“That’s not an excuse. I’m sorry.”
Aaren leant a comforting hand on her arm.
“I’ll start the rose tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Astrid nodded and stood up. “I’ll sleep here if you don’t mind.”
“I do have blankets,” Aaren said quickly as Astrid sat down in front of the fireplace and laid out the damp wolf skin on the ground to lie on.
“I’ll be alright, I like it here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I don’t like beds. They’re too…soft.”
“That’s a complaint I never thought I’d hear,” Aaren laughed and made his way up the stairs.
Astrid waited until she heard him reach his bed and lie down before running her fingers over the new silver mark on her shoulder. For the moment the skin around it was red and irritated, but the pattern he had carved and burned was flawless. It always amazed her how perfectly he was able to copy the drawing on his drafting slate onto her skin, without so much as a mark out of place. She looked at the empty space where the new small rose was going to be added. The new silver thorn tendril wrapped around the unmarked skin like a protective arm.
Or a wyvern’s tail, a voice in her head muttered.
“Get out! Get out!” Astrid hissed and struck her head as hard as she could until the pain blocked out the whispers. “It’s not my fault! There was nothing I could do!”
Nothing you could do? A cruel harsh voice whispered in her head. Of course there was something you could do. You could have died rather than let anything happen to him. Isn’t that your rule? Keep them safe or die trying? You failed! You failed again, just like you always do.
Astrid lay down on the ground curled up into a tight ball and pressed her head into the wolf skin, her hands pressed tightly over her ears.
“Go away, go away,” she whispered to herself over and over again, afraid that Aaren might hear her. As quietly as she could, she began to hum the only lullaby that she could remember from her childhood, the words long since forgotten. Slowly the harsh voice was drowned out, but each time she reached the end of the lullaby Astrid would hum it again and again until at last she drifted into an uneasy sleep.