Kip gazed up at the iron gates in front of her. The entrance to the Magicka was forbidding, but deceptively so: the metal was twisted into an intricate design that left many holes large enough for a man to climb through. Upon closer inspection, however, Kip noticed that the air in the space between the bars faintly glowed blue, and her heart beat a little quicker when she imagined what might happen to the fool attempting to breach the gates.
“State your name and business,” a low voice called out. Kip looked around, but she saw no guard house or window in the smooth walls. In fact, from what she could see through the gates, the courtyard itself was deserted.
Summoning her courage, she stepped forward and squared her shoulders. “My name is Kip. They sent me here from Olstrick.”
“We don’t have room for every orphan to come begging for shelter. If Olstrick is full up, they shouldn’t be sending you here. Move along, boy!”
Kip frowned and crossed her arms over her flat chest. “Beg pardon, but I’m a girl.” Sister Kay said in a few months I’d be bleeding, and then I’ll be a woman. “I was sent here because…they don’t want…someone…like me.” She raised her left hand to show a large, dark circle on her palm.
Kip lowered her hand slowly and bit her lip. Her palm still itched something fierce, with the new skin having just begun to grow back after the elders at Olstrick had branded her as a witch, and their voices still echoed in her mind: Mark her before she marks the rest of us. She’ll grow up to be a monster, just like her mother.
Still no response from inside the keep. If the Magicka didn’t let her in, she had no idea where she would go. “Hello?” She called.
The blue glow between the iron bars grew brighter, and with a click, the gates swung open. A broad-shouldered man with dark eyes and an even darker beard stood behind the gates. He wore black leather armor with a silver crescent moon emblazoned on the chest, but his thick-as-logs arms were bare, save a ring of symbols and animals tattooed around each of his biceps. Kip’s jaw dropped.
“Well, I’m not going to wait all day,” the man said.
She didn’t need to be asked twice. She was inside the gates before they could change their mind about her.
Once inside the courtyard, she saw that it was not at all deserted as she first thought; in fact, there were so many tents and tables set up that she realized there was a full bazaar in the middle of this castle keep. She looked back at the gates and wondered why she couldn’t see it from the outside.
The man followed her gaze. “It’s enchanted, boy,” he growled. “Lots of things in this place are. You’ll get used to it.”
Kip craned her neck up at him and frowned again. “I’m not a boy,” she insisted, but he was already walking through the marketplace stalls, and she had to race to keep up with him.
The marketplace was a maze of vendors and wares, and Kip lost her bearings after the first few turns. Every once in a while, the large man would stop and point out different vendors in the stalls. As he mentioned each person and what they did, the tattoos on his arms began to shift and turn as if in response. Kip began to get dizzy watching the tattoos, but they were so fascinating and intricate, she couldn’t look away.
The man stopped walking abruptly and turned to face Kip, who nearly collided into him. He bent over to look her straight in the face.
“Listen, boy,” he warned, “I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, but whatever is, quit it. My spirits haven’t been this talkative since I got my first mark, and it’s driving me nuts.” His inky eyes were angry.
She shifted her gaze back to his tattoos. They had all stopped moving, but the creatures had shifted so that they were looking directly at her. She reached out to touch them. “What are they?”
In the blink of an eye, he grabbed her wrist. “First rule of the Magicka, boy: never touch another wizard’s mark. Not without permission.”
His hold tightened. Her palm began to burn, as if the fiery brand was pushing into her flesh all over again. Tears came to her eyes, but she refused to cry out.
“Rory!” A woman’s voice rang out sharply from the crowd. The man released Kip’s hand, and the burning immediately ceased. He dropped to one knee in a reverent bow.
Kip looked up and saw the most beautiful woman in the world standing before them. The woman’s long auburn hair was pulled into a loose braid, and she wore a flowing azure tunic with vertical slits all the way up the side, and as she moved, Kip caught glimpses of a large, ornate tattoo of roses on the woman’s ivory skin. As she looked into the woman’s deep blue eyes, Kip was overcome with awe, and she, too, dropped to her knees.
“Rise, child,” the woman said, with a gentle voice. Kip stood up, but kept her gaze to the ground. “Has Rory here been bothering you?”
Kip glanced sidelong at Rory, still kneeling before the woman, his gaze also averted. “No, ma’am. I shouldn’t have tried to touch his mark. It’s the first rule of the Magicka.”
The woman laughed. Were those bells tinkling, or was that just her voice? “A quick learner, this one.” She placed her hands on Rory’s broad shoulders and leaned forward to kiss the top of his head. “Be at ease, my champion. Arise, and accompany us. We shall both take the child where she needs to go.”
Rory rose, and Kip could see that all the anger in his face had disappeared. He grunted and walked ahead of them through the crowd.
The woman turned to Kip and held out her hand. “I’m Lady Rose.”
“Kip,” she responded as she shook the lady’s hand tentatively. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Ask away,” said Lady Rose, her eyes scanning the crowd as they navigated around the stalls.
“These tattoos — the marks — what are they?”
Lady Rose smiled. “It’s the mark of the Magicka. We all have them inside us. When you embrace your own abilities and follow our ways, the marks rise to the surface and show themselves to the world.”
Kip looked at the circle burned into her palm. “But…why would you want to reveal that?” Tears came to her eyes as she remembered the angry faces of the men who wielded that brand.
“It’s true that there are many in the world who fear us,” Lady Rose said gently as she took Kip’s dirty, scarred hand into her own. “But there are also those who love us, for we provide great services. We use our abilities to help the crops grow, to solve problems…and to heal.” She opened Kip’s hand, revealing new, smooth skin, with no sign of any scar.
Rory turned around in time to see Kip’s eyes grow large in amazement. He chuckled, and for the first time, Kip felt like Rory was beginning to acknowledge her as a human being. “Folks around here are grateful for what we do, and these marks show them who we are.” With a wink, he pointed to a small building at the edge of the courtyard with several scantily clad women draped around the entrance. “The tattoo means I get all their services for free.”
Lady Rose loudly cleared her throat, and Rory quickly shut his mouth and turned back around, leading them at last to the tower entrance. At the doors, he bowed to them both. “Welcome to the Magicka, boy,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll see you tomorrow, for your first lesson.” And with that, he wandered back towards the front gates.
Kip noticed that the roses on the lady’s side were undulating, growing all the way up her back and entwining her arms. They were so realistic, Kip thought she might prick herself on one of the thorns. She grew dizzy watching the roses bloom and fade in rapid succession.
Lady Rose turned to Kip and cupped her face with both hands. “You haven’t even learned what magic is and already you’re tapping into some of the strongest sources of energy. With the right guidance and enough training, you could easily become one of the most powerful mages in four worlds.” She leaned over and kissed Kip on the forehead. “But for now, Kip,” she murmured, “Go inside. Find your room. We will start your training tomorrow.”
The tattoo means I always get their services for free.
If you’ve been reading along, you know that I decided to put a little twist on this challenge and create a challenge of my own! I wasn’t flooded with responses, but the ones I did get were really great! Much thanks to alyssagoesbang, enderFP, and Tara Roberts (whose tattoo unfortunately didn’t make it into the story, but was awesome nonetheless). They are really beautiful, and I loved the stories that went with each one.