Tattoos once were an act of rebellion.
Now they decide your destiny the moment the magical Ink settles under your skin.
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Chapter 1: Three Days, Three Bells
My thin leather shoes slapped softly against the dirt leading away from grandmother’s cottage as I made my way across our stretch of farmland located at the edge of Frosthaven. With a gentle breeze tickling my skin, I passed through the brambles and bushes full of berries, then to the wide array of fruit-bearing trees in the orchards at the edge of the land. I couldn’t help but be aware of the plumes of hazy brown dust as they floated about my feet, wisps circling my ankles as my weight shifted the soil, leaving a trail of dusty clouds in my wake.
I was running away.
The weather was perfect, with the comforting smell of the cool dry air still lingering in the breeze, the wind pushing me forward. I stopped and watched the ribbons of dirt around my feet wither away. I took a deep breath and buried my face in my hands.
It was the smell of autumn, a season that any other year I’d welcome with open arms. It was still warm enough to explore the wilderness, venture outside into the fresh sharp air, but cold enough that few did the same, leaving me to my own devices, alone in the woods with the rushing freezing streams hidden beyond them. There were plenty of other upsides too though, in addition to the vibrant color of the forest. There was the warmth of the hearth in my grandmother’s kitchen on frigid evenings, and the joy of picking and tasting the final harvest before the Glacialis. These were the things I looked forward to the most, and I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy any of them.
Not with my Inking looming.
There was no time for good-byes. I didn’t care if I was about to come of age or not. I didn’t want to be Inked. To have some magic tattoos telling everyone who I was, what I was, what my future would hold. I packed some supplies, and set off. Inside the medium-sized leather satchel, I carried a bundle of necessities for the road. Dried food from my grandmother’s cellar, enough dehydrated berries, jerky, and seeds to last me over a week, but not so much to cause trouble with the stores come the winter. Other necessities included a few tunics crammed into the bottom of the bag, a leather canteen, and a couple of trinkets to remind me of home.
Just because I had to go didn’t mean I wanted to leave.
I grabbed my father’s broken pocket watch from deep within the dresser in my bedroom, the gears and springs resting silently inside their shimmering bronze case. I also took one of my grandmother’s scarves, a fraying, trailing bit of fabric, the bright shades of berry dye long since faded into pinks and violets.
I walked to the edge of the farm, stepping over the roots of the enormous, ancient trees that jutted out of the earth; the woods were thick, old, and intimidating. There was no gradual rise in foliage, changing from farmland to small shrubs, little trees, and then to wild forest.
Instead it was as if one of the Gods had hurled thousands of million-year-old oaks at the ground from the sky, hammering them into the soil like thick stakes at the edges of Frosthaven. At the border, I looked up at the tall trees, beams of sunlight slicing through the canopy, the light glimmering through the fading leaves like ripples on water. Then I peered into the woods where Dreya and I spent much of our childhood, running, and exploring.
Would she understand? Would I ever be able to come back?
The idea of striking out on my own, venturing somewhere new, didn’t bother me all that much. But disappearing without Dreya, and without saying farewell to my grandmother, that gave me pause.
I’d at least left Dreya a letter.
I jumped back and tripped over a broken branch, then went tumbling to the ground.
Dreyalla jumped out of nowhere from within the woods, a bundle of flowers packed into a basket slung over her arm. Her tangle of long hair danced madly around her shoulders as she charged toward me while I did my best to scramble away.
“Well, well, look who was about to get lost in the woods,” Dreya said, smirking while arching an eyebrow.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. I stood up and brushed the dirt off my pants.
“What are you doing here?” she insisted, eyes curious, hands on her hips. “Did you forget what today was?” The Ink tattooed on her arms reacted to her question, the petals and vines twisting upward, as if the flowers wanted to listen.
Her Ink was beautiful that season, with white honeysuckle petals dripping with dew, multicolored nasturtiums that made their way down her forearms, all of which rustled when a breeze licked at her sun-kissed skin. In nature, ivy doesn’t really inspire awe as it creeps along forest floors or climbs up trees . . . but on Dreya, it demanded attention. The red and purple veins twisted up her arm toward the sunlight, stretching up her neck and tucking gracefully behind her ears.
Even then, with Dreya standing there, looking at me curiously, her vines and ivy moving and rustling, I couldn’t help but wonder what flowers and greenery would bloom on her next year, or the year after that. Oftentimes, whatever began to bud was the best choice for her family’s greenhouse that season.
Ink was like that. Always suggesting and nudging, always spot on.
Which is exactly why it scared me.
I wanted to know myself first.
And as she stood in front of me, glaring at me with that look of playful accusation, I felt the smile vanish from my face.
“Seriously, what is it?” she asked, taking a step toward me.
“It’s nothing,” I grumbled, “I was just heading out to get some more kindling for grandmother.”
“Caenum, I know you,” she said, taking another step. “You can’t lie to me.”
“No really,” I said, trying my best to maintain an honest tone in my voice, whatever that might be, “it’s nothing. Just you know, out for a walk, clearing my thoughts . . .”
“Clearing your thoughts?” She took another step, and I moved back, almost tripping over a root growing out of the dirt path. “First it was getting kindling, now it’s clearing your thoughts?”
“What is this?” I asked. “Are you the Citadel Guard all of a sudden, come to interrogate me? Oh, please, Captain of the Guard, I don’t know anything; please don’t throw me into the fights . . .”
“Fights!” she exclaimed. “Now that—”
“Oh, please—” I started.
“Is a great . . .” she continued, her voice trailing off, hands outstretched, fingers out like claws. There was a look of playful menace in her eyes, one that I’d seen way too many times. The ivy on her forearms inched up her wrists, eager to decorate her fingers, as if it were going to shoot out and ensnare me.
“Dreya seriously, don’t.”
With a roar she lunged at me. I reached out and grasped her shoulders as she leaped onto me, and we wrestled down onto the soft dirt road, as the dust kicked up into the air. The vines on her arms even seemed to jump in the battle, twisting and curling around on her skin, as if they were trying to grapple with me as well.
I made some attempts to push her off me, but there was something . . . something about having her pressed against me on the ground.
“All right, that’s enough!” I said, trying to push her off me, my heart racing. Dreya pushed my hands off her shoulders and pressed me down to the ground, her full weight on top of me, straddling my waist. With her knees planted firmly into the dirt, she slid her hands to grip my forearms, pressing them to the earth.
“Do you yield?” Dreya asked through gritted teeth, a faux anger in her voice, as if we were soldiers on the field of battle, each of her furious fingers a dagger or a sword. Her thick locks of hair hung over her face, and I sputtered to keep the thick strands out of my mouth as clouds of dirt stung my eyes.
“Never!” I said, attempting a playful snarl while thrashing about, trying to avoid her piercing amber eyes. I looked off to the side, toward the rolling fields and farmland, and tried to will my heart to beat slower. She let go of my arms and pushed down on my shoulders.
“Do you yield, sir?” she shouted. I turned and looked up at her, and met her gaze, her dark yellow eyes looking intently into my dull brown ones. These kind of moments had become all too frequent. Especially lately.
“I yield!” I yelled, breathless. I made my move and grabbed her waist, ready to throw her off me.
And then, I stopped.