Concerning Tattoos among the Sharhay and Their Neighbors

Here’s a little scene from The Healer’s Curse, narrated from the point of view of Jennis, the camp follower who was drafted to wait on the Kel Nira in The Healer’s Choice.

The Lady’s arms . . . they looked like they had turned into . . . trees, or something, during the night. Covered in leaves and branches and vines and shadows, they were.

And now Jennis saw that the water in the basin was pinkish, and there were bloody spots on the cloth the Kel Sharha had dried herself with. Jennis stepped forward and reached out tentatively. “Does it hurt much?”

Before the Kel Sharha could answer, Fidden burst out, “What have you done, Lady?”

“I have”—she gave Fidden a strange little smile—“created an earth amulet that cannot be lost or taken.”

“Huh,” he said after a moment. “How ’bout that.” There was a kind of grudging admiration in his voice. But then he shook his head, his mouth twisting into a wry frown. “What Lord Corvalen will have to say about them tattoos, though, I don’t know.”

“Will he be angry?” Jennis asked. Will he blame me?

“Dunno. But he’ll be bound to think the Lady looks like a Cheskari woman, and I doubt he’ll like that.”

Despite her worries, Jennis’s curiosity stirred. “So it’s true the Cheskari decorate their skin with pictures all over?”

“No.” It was the Kel Sharha who answered. “Pictures, yes. But not for”—she hesitated a moment over the word—“decoration.”

Fidden nodded. “My gran told me a story once. . . .”

“Perhaps it is the same we tell in Sharhaya. The Cheskari did not always live on the backs of their horses as they do now. They had houses and fields—beautiful lands, almost rich as Sharhaya. But they were driven from those lands.”

“By the men from Oversea.”

“Our story says it was—forgive me—the Brintorans who drove out the Cheskari. But they did this because they had lost their own lands to the ancestors of the Forsteners.”

Fidden nodded. “The men from Oversea. And when the Cheskari fled before them, the men were so ashamed that they took their knives and slashed at themselves. Then the women rubbed magical plants and red ocher into the wounds, that healed them but left permanent lines of red behind as a reminder of their shame.”

“That is like our story, yes. But we tell also how the wisewomen of the Cheskari made marks of remembrance upon themselves, pricking their skin and rubbing into it the soot of their hearths, the soil from their gardens, and other dyes from the plants and trees, to carry the power of the land with them.”

“And that’s why magic is mostly gone out of Forstene, my gran says—the Cheskari took so much of it with them.”

“‘Magic,’” repeated the Kel Sharha. “I once told your Lord Corvalen that there is no magic. But if you mean power . . . yes, the land has power—all lands. We may carry a piece, a remembrance, of our land’s power. But to remove the power from the land? No one can do that. If the Forsteners think their land is without power, it is only because they do not know how to find it.”

Here’s a bit from the sequel to The Healer’s Choice

She stilled, and listened. A little way across the stream was a laurel bush. Its branches twisted arcanely; its stiff, leathery leaves slid against one another, whispering.

She rubbed her arms, conscious of the scratches left by the Watcher of the Beeches. Was it here, the Watcher?

She felt an immensity in the forest behind her and a rumbling of barky voices, more vibration than sound. And there was movement, too—not wind, but just as real and just as invisible. The Watcher was not here; they all were, all the Watchers of all the trees. All the Watchers of Sharhaya.

She closed her eyes and felt the Watchers pluck at her sleeves, push at her back. She let them pull her to her feet and lead her. Distantly, she heard a soft splash, and then another, as she stepped into the water; it was only shin deep here. The cold was more intense than before, penetratingly so, but it did not so much chill her as jar some inner part of her fully awake.

The Watchers were leading her upstream, toward the Asha’s source, a spring that birthed from a fold in the rocks on a wooded plateau just above the pass. Would they take her all the way there? It was a place claimed by the Forsteners; one of their first acts upon invading Sharhaya had been to destroy the Ma’Sharha house that offered shelter and assistance to pilgrims to the spring. Presumably the Forsteners now had a guardtower or some such thing at the site.

The Watcher of the Beeches scratched at her arm and brought her focus back to feeling her way up the streambed. It was mostly smooth limestone underfoot here, but occasionally her heel came down on a rolling pebble or she stubbed her toe; once her foot grazed the sharp edge of a broken tree branch that had stuck in the stream. She kept her silence, attuning her senses to anything the Watchers or the waters might communicate, hoping to hear the tree voices and sense the currents.

Then it struck her that she was moving against the current—metaphorically as well as literally?

No, whispered the Watchers; or was it the waters? No, not against. Into.

            How better to get to the source?

            The nearer to the source, the clearer you will see.