Excerpt from chapter 2 of my fantasy/steampunk/WWI mashup, now titled The Fallen Veil.
Morwyn examined the flat rock that she’d pulled from the edge of the river bank and had placed near her fire. She decided it would be sufficient for her need. Now all that remained would be to get on with it. She placed the brass needle on the rock so that the tip pushed into the hot coals beneath the flames, and rested the pot of flower ink beside it.
Though it were June, the night was chill, and she fed fresh twigs and small, broken branches onto the flames to keep it hot, keep the sparks rising. She watched them, flickering upward, bright little coals of heat that flashed towards the starry sky before winking out, her voice chanting low in the back of her throat.
She’d taken off her cloak of dark warder green, patched and travel worn, and it rested beneath her knees now, keeping her body off the chilly dirt between the river and the woods to the east. She’d removed her top as well, leaving her breasts covered only by the cloth bindings that held them tight when she ran. She would have cut the damned things off if would not have been an insult to the sisters of day and night, for whom all things belonged. But a warder had no children to suckle at her chest. They only served to get in her way when she needed flexibility and mobility. Still and all, they were her, a part of herself, and she was loathe to lose any bit of her that remained. Enough had been lost already.
The Veil had fallen. The shock still rippled through the world, a jeweled note that rang endlessly even as it faded. Now, barely a week since, Amsroth had died. The warders were left without a leader, at the moment when their greatest fears had been realized. The Veiled lands were exposed, visible to those who had long been denied access by the mists that surrounded them for a thousand years. What would they do? Would they open their arms like long lost brothers and embrace the lands of myth and legend? Or would they invade and take by force that which had been denied them for so many centuries? How would their people have changed? And what would Francia and Britannia do? What would the magicians who lived in the citadel do?
What would Iseuda, who led the magicians, do?
She pulled the hollow brass tube from the stones next to the fire, her right hand gloved in heavy ox leather, and examined the slender tip. The end was colored like the rainbow, the vibrant colors dimming as it cooled. But it was well heated by the licking flames and ready for her. She gave it a wave to cool it more quickly, then carefully poured a measure of the flower ink into the open end, setting the ceramic pot down carefully when she’d finished.
The chant faded to a whisper in her throat as she held the warm brass out to the woman who knelt beside her, resting on her own cloak of green, though she retained her top. “I am ready.”
Warder Leenane took the brass from her with gnarled fingers and waited until Morwyn rested her arm on the flat stone. She scooted closer, reaching out with her left hand to trace the lines marked on Morwyn’s neck and shoulder. “It is a good pattern,” she said. “Strong with magic.”
“He would have liked it,” Morwyn said, her mind dwelling on Amsroth. She glanced upstream, where the ground swelled until it was above the stage where floods rose, her eyes picking out the shape of the carefully piled stones where they’d lain his body. His cairn had a good view of the river north and south on a slight prominence that rose above the tree line. It gave him a clear view to the mountains that were outlined to the west by the night sky. She’d made sure he could see things coming. He always liked to know when things were coming. But you didn’t see this coming, she thought to herself, sadly. Not the Veil disappearing like smoke rising from a dead fire. Not his own death, the rocks crumbling beneath his fingers as he scaled the same rock wall he’d climbed a hundred times before without fail.
Not whatever would come next.
The brass needle bit into her flesh, and she sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and gently bit it to distract herself. Leenane worked fast and worked well, her skill with needle the reason the warders turned to her for the work. She engraved patterns on all their skins, in accordance with their desires and the magic they wished to achieve, with the guidance of auguries and visions, and their innate abilities. For the younger warders, it was often great speed, power, the ability to hunt tireless for days at a time. For others, their tattoos might give them the gift of the hawk, their vision acute and all seeing, or the wisdom of the two sisters, able to discern patterns from random facts a thousand times deeper than any other.
She had some of these things already. She chose remembrance this time. A knowing of things, and a reflection of the truth of the world. She’d already been graced with keen sight, and powerful legs. She could speak to the little creatures, though the greater ones sometimes eluded her with their dogged determination to remain inscrutable. Why did the bear always seem so eager to talk about berries and fish and never wish to converse upon other topics? It was a mystery, that was for certain. Now she wanted to know things, understand them. Maybe then she could end the ceaseless restlessness of her mind, which questioned all things.
Leenane did not blink for long minutes as she drove the tip of the needle into Morwyn’s flesh and dripped ink beneath her skin. Leenane’s own body was one great tattoo from below her chin to the tops of her feet, though now that pattern was covered by clothing. The earliest of the tattoos had faded with time and age, though it had not lost its power. She was the warder’s library, the keeper of all their knowledge. Her own acolyte, a delicate young girl with mousy features and a name far too big for her size – seriously, who names a newborn Pádraigin, after the great but terrible queen who ruled the island for two centuries – had already begun her tattooing sessions so that one day she would be able to replace Leenane. Hopefully a day long hence in the future, if Morwyn had her wishes. The warders could ill afford the loss of another leader so soon.
It hurt most at her neck. Blood dripped down her brown skin, and Leenane wiped it away with a cloth she kept on the edge of her cloak. Now it was Leenane who chanted as she worked, weaving threads of the world into the inky stain that grew upon Morwyn’s body, tying power into the mix of drying color and blood. Of all magic, blood was the most powerful, and it made the tattoos a symbol of the might of the warders. They might be the smallest of the orders, given to long absences from the citadel and the source of Britannia’s magical influence, but they were the ones the people relied on most when they had need. They were the visible hand of the magic. If your village was suffering from drought, or hunger, or disease, it was a warder you would go into the woods to find for assistance.
Leenane worked for hours, pausing only to light two loges, hanging the lamps on crooked branches she’d driven into the ground nearby to light her work. The light of the magical fires within the lamps was orange and red, dancing like real flames, but steadier. It mottled the hue of Morwyn’s flesh, but the ink was black and the color didn’t matter in this case. She eschewed the flashy tattoos that some of the younger magicians found appealing, with their bright reds and yellows and purples.
The work was not completed until long after midnight, the fingernail of the waning night sister rising in the east to stand above the treeline. Leenane sucked her breath through her gums and wiped the stinging mark with her bloody rag, twisting her head to examine it. “A fair work,” she said.
Morwyn chanted again, dipping her fingers in a pot of unguent that she’d prepared the day before. She spread the salve upon the reaches of the tattoo, not allowing herself to grimace at the sting of it. She felt the bumps of raised flesh, swollen and red around the thousand of tiny needle marks. Then Leenane covered it with a cloth of green wool that had been steamed, and sealed the edges with more of the salve, which would dry and hold the bandage in place loosely.
“Take it off at least once a day and wash the mark, then cover it with salve again,” Leenane said.
“I know how to care for a tattoo,” Morwyn said, chiding the older woman. “I do have others you know.”
“Oh you do, do you?” Leenane said, grinning a toothless grin. “I can remember when you couldn’t tell a stout from a marten.”
“Nor a pixie from a brownie,” Morwyn said, nodding. “But that was nearly thirty summers ago. I’d like to think I’ve learned a bit more since then.”
“Oh of course you have. But that doesn’t mean I will simply stop giving advice to those in my charge. If I started with you, I’d forget for one of the young ones when they got their first tattoo, and then it would become infected and suppurate and I’d be the one who was to blame. You don’t change the habits of a lifetime simply because a girl has grown up.”
There was a truth to that, Morwyn knew. Skills were as much patterns as they were reactions to events. You followed those patterns over and over again, like grooves worn in the forest by passing wagons over many years, until the pattern became as much a part of the route as the destination. You could try to avoid the ruts, but they’d been worn there because it was the safest way for the wagons to travel. Avoid them, and you might get tangled in brush, or hit a rock that broke an axle. She thought about this as she pulled her shirt on, working it carefully over the new bandage. “Did you always want to be the library? Was that your goal when you became a warder?”
Leenane slipped down to the stream and washed her hands in the cold, clear water. “No,” she said after a pause. “I wanted to be marry and become a mother.” She dried her fingers on the trousers of her pants. Then she stood, pressing her hands against her knees to push herself up, looking like a bent twig that slowly sprang back after the passing of some creature had pressed it down into the dirt. “We don’t always get what we want. You won’t get what you want.”
Morwyn gave her a sharp look and felt her eyes narrow. “And what is it I want, old woman?”
“You want to be left alone in these woods and spend your life with the beasts, little girl,” Leenane said, grinning again. She knew Morwyn well enough that neither were offended by the slights. “But someone is coming.”
Morwyn tipped her head and listened. The water churled against the stones, insects thrummed in the trees, and far in the distance she heard the voice of an owl sounding a mournful note. “I hear nothing.”
“How often do you hear a warder when they do not wish to be heard?”
She would have shaken her head and replied, but a figure strode up the river bank from the south. They weren’t trying to sneak or blend with the dark night, but their soft boots were as silent as a grave and left only faint marks in the wet soil. He was tall and slender, with a shock of wild, brown hair that straggled into his eyes and would have seemed to Morwyn to blind the man if he didn’t from time to time sweep his fingers across his brow to clear his vision.
“Ah, there you are,” he said. He bowed at the waist until he nearly doubled over, his arm sweeping out as though it held a hat that he doffed for them. “You’re almost as difficult to find as a pebble in the ocean. If not for your lamps, I would have been wandering these woods until the gates of all nine hells fell and the hordes of the dead had decayed into ashes.”
Leenan gave a laugh of pleasure almost girlish in its tones. “It is good to see you again, young Colyn.”
He pressed his hand to his heart. “And it does my heart good to be called young by such a handsome woman, warder Leenane.” He stepped forward and took her hand, kissing the palm once before pressing it to his forehead.
Morwyn made a snorting noise. “You never giggle at me like that,” she said, reaching for her cloak.
“That’s because you’re not funny,” Leenane said, still grinning at the young man.
“I’m funny,” Morwyn said, frowning. “Aren’t I?”
“No, not really,” Leenane said. “You’re a bit too serious, if I must be honest.”
“Oh please, be honest,” Morwyn said, her temper rapidly descending from contemplative to mock outrage. “I would expect no less of the library.”
“See,” Leenane said, nudging Colyn with an elbow. “Not funny.”
“As you say,” he said. His grin faded and he took on a serious expression, his face smooth with youth.
Morwyn could see that one day he would be as deeply tanned as she, the lines on his face deeper and weathered. It would be a much more interesting face. Now, though, he looked young, and for some reason that annoyed her. “Why are you here?” she asked, and felt guilty at the anger in her own voice.
“I’m to deliver a summons,” he said, bowing again, though not as deeply this time.
“Who is asking for me?” Leenane asked. It was not uncommon for her presence to be requested by any number of warders at the same time, from the youngest member seeking their first tattoo, to the council of high magicians itself. She’d been to the citadel more times than any other warder, and even more often than most village magicians.
“Not you, warder Leenane,” Colyn said, holding his bow. “Warder Morwyn.”
“Me?” Morwyn was startled. Why would they summon her? She had enough to do already. Amsroth’s demesne needed assistance until a suitable replacement could be found, and she’d taken a portion of it for patrol to go along with her own. There was an outbreak of the red spots in two of the villages that required her attention, and reports of a band of raiding goblins in the north of the aisle that would require several warders to join forces and track them down. That all on top of the rest of her duties. She had no time now to be running off to the citadel and rubbing elbows with the educated magicians, the ones who stuck their noses in books all day long and looked down upon the potion makers, and hedge wizards, and the warders who cared for the wilderness. She would as soon stuck her hand in a bee’s hive as gone there willingly. “Who summoned me?”
“The archmage Iseuda,” Colyn said. All traces of a smile were gone now, and he looked as serious as she’d ever seen the boy. “Your sister.”