Little Marked One

Her footsteps were nightmares and she was only eleven. Only eleven with dark hair and eyes somewhere between purple dawn and orange sunset. They shone in the moonlight, but only if you weren’t looking, and this girl was going to save the world. At least, she was supposed to, but for the moment he was stalking through the orchard after a tabby cat. Apples unpicked lay mealy on the grass and the first bronze leaves had fallen already, despite the sun still riding high and golden in a cloudless sky.The earth beneath her bare feet was hot, but that was not why the soil smoked in her wake. Those thin tendrils dissipated almost as soon as they appeared but seen from the right angle they could last for three steps or more. No one could follow her. One foot placed where hers had been would be enough to drive the strongest warrior mad with fear. Her footsteps were nightmares.She laughed as the tabby spotted her and ran between the trees. Her laughter rang out like bells over a battlefield. She chased the cat, the ground smoking as she passed, and grabbed at silver-barked trees with ink-marked hands. Triskeles adorned the back of her small hands, flowing into vines that crept up her bare arms, disappearing under her white linen tunic. Her whole body, more or less, except for her face, was marked with the black ink that only the Priors knew how to make. It was nearly inking time again; her vines and swirls were fading in time with the green of the trees. She did not like inking time.

The cat came to a halt at the base of a large sycamore that marked the orchard’s edge. She stood a few feet from it, feet placed just so and knees bent, ready to give chase again. The vines on her legs spread out thorns across her shins, tapering across her ankles, and then bursting three trefoils across her feet. These were the most faded of all her inkings, because her feet were always bare. Shoes had a tendency to burn.

The cat regarded her with a cool eye and then blinked at her.

“What’s the matter, Tamara?” she said, frowning.

“Why do you always ask me?” the cat replied, fixing her with an imperious stare that was bordered by fatigue, “You know my thoughts always.”

“People ask.”

“You are not people.”

She sat down on the ground and fiddled with blades of grass. Her eyes transitioned to a pale yellow, like dawn in early summer over the mountains. She flexed her shoulders and scratched her arm.

“They will come in time,” Tamara said, slinking over to her, paws silent in the grass. Tamara’s tail flicked back and forth, tickling against her cheek.

“You’re lying to make me feel better,” she said, “You don’t know when my wings will come or if and it worries you that they haven’t yet.”

“At least you listen to my thoughts sometimes,” Tamara said, sitting down beside her and twitching an ear, “They must come. It was foretold.”

She ran a finger along her inkings.

“Foretellings aren’t whole truth. They are glimpses of what will be.”

“What will be, will be. You will have wings.”

“I will. But maybe not my own. Inking is only a few weeks away.”

Tamara crawled into her lap, but had no other words of comfort. She could hear the worried thoughts in Tamara’s mind, buzzing back and forth like bees. Each one had a different feel and each its own shape. She liked the cat’s thoughts. They were light and fast and blue as the sky, or silver sometimes. She stroked Tamara’s head and neck and started to sing a song she’d heard in the valley.

It went dark. The sun had not set, she knew it was still there in the sky, but she couldn’t see anything. Tamara sat up in her lap, thoughts spiky and sharp, flashing between silver and blue. She knew Tamara’s tail would be on end, her hair standing up. The cat was alert and angry. But also, afraid.

She put her hands on the ground and felt it trembling. Each blade of grass whispered wordlessly. The trees creaked around her and leaves fluttered to the ground in rhythm with her heart. A spider crawled across her fingers, eight legs racing. Its thoughts were small and of small things, triangular and a deep red. She couldn’t feel any other thoughts nearby that made sense to her. Most insects, worms, and other things like that barely registered except for moths and dragonflies. But there were no birds, no small mammals scurrying about their business. Apart from the spider and Tamara, she was alone.

A hand took her shoulder and she screamed. Tamara leapt from her lap, thinking of her claws bursting out to tear at flesh and eyes, hissing as she moved. There was a snapping like a dried twig underfoot in the forgotten grove and then silence. She reached for Tamara’s thoughts, heard the word “always” in silver-blue waves, and then there was nothing.

Tears came to her eyes, ran down her face, but she let them fall like any other useless thing and concentrated her strength on pulling the hand from her shoulder. It would not let go, gripping her like iron. Her eyes flashed amber and she kicked from the ground, pushing her bare feet back towards whatever held her. Her footsteps were nightmares.

She connected with something cold and leathery and hard as stone. It didn’t move, not even flinch. Her ankles ached and she couldn’t smell the smoke that usually accompanied her feet. She tried for thoughts, to hear what this thing was and what it wanted, but all she could hear was the spider hurrying away from Tamara’s broken body. Through the spider’s seven eyes she saw Tamara’s head twisted towards the sky, mouth open and lifeless eyes like glass orbs. She reached further, higher, towards the thing that held her, but found nothing. Then there was a pain like a lance of lightning in her head.

“Come, little marked one. It is your time.”

The thought was in her mind, not in her ears, but she heard it all the same and felt it like a knife point, black and white all at once, accompanied by fire. Her head hurt like it would burst and the trail of vines inked on her skin screamed at her in pain. She was lifted from the ground, too weak to protest, her face buried in her hands trying to shut out the pain, block out her own thoughts.

The world swayed beneath her. Her inkings screamed on. Her eyes flashed from purple dawn to orange sunset. A nightmare stole her footsteps and she was sure the world would end.

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