Tap. Tap. Tap. A withered hand forced the ink into Key's skin. The stylus pierced and then moved; pierced and then moved. The discomfort in his arm was nothing compared to the pain in his chest. He gazed down to watch the sky-colored ink bleed into his flesh. It formed a thick band around his right upper arm.
"How many have you placed, witch?"
"How many?" The old crone, Betta, chortled and spittle flew from her dry lips. "One cannot count the marriage binds I have placed. These crimped hands have sealed more unions than you can imagine, young one."
Key ruminated. He pictured the decrepit woman hammering ink into thousands of arms. Male with female. Female with male. Tonight, the blue band would be paired with the black scroll of his bond-mate's family name, marking his status forever. Tonight, he would lay with Kaya and seal the union. Tonight, a piece of his being would wither and die, lost forever to the mandates of convention.
"How did Kaya take it?"
Key felt a drop of perspiration roll slowly down the valley between his shoulder blades. It was sweltering, due to a fire blazing in the center of the tent. Blue-black smoke coiled up and out of the opening at the top of the structure and the flames cast shadow specters that writhed against the animal-skin walls.
The tattooing stung, but the continuous piercing of flesh was made more torturous by his feelings of uncertainty about this union. Perhaps Kaya felt similarly.
Of course, with the placement of the woad, it did not matter. With the first perforation of skin, the bond was made. It was too late to ask her.
"Your mate took it bravely. She said she wants a child for each letter on her arm."
Key flinched as the crone hammered in a fat, black droplet. His future wife's name was nearly finished; written with a bold scroll atop the azure cuff.
The old woman cackled at his movement. "Old Betta hopes you'll not disappoint the lass tonight." She grinned, showing a mouth absent of teeth.
"In all your years making the bond, has it always been men matched with women?" He bit his tongue as the last word passed his lips and tasted blood and bile at once.
Don't question. Don't stray from the norm. The code was drilled into all of them. What was he thinking? This intimate situation did not suddenly make the tribe witch his confessor. Why did he feel the need to open a jar of thunder on his wedding night? Plenty of men married without sexual desire. He was far from the first, if town gossip was to be believed.
But, his gut had been twisted with misgiving since his match with Kaya had been finalized. Close friends though they were, he could not shake this sense of wrongness.
In a spacious cabin nearby, Kaya awaited him. Their new home had been commissioned by her father, the celebrated and feared ruler of their tribe. Key's parents were overjoyed to see him married into Chief Rainblade's prestigious family. It was one of the many reasons why Key had agreed to the match.
And now, he couldn't help but ask the niggling question. He loved Kaya as one life-friend loves another. Was that enough?
"You know..." She trailed off as she swiped a greasy substance against the tattoo that declared him a bound man. "That is all there is... here." The old woman looked over her shoulder into the shadows of the tent. They were alone.
"Here?" He prodded. "There is another way elsewhere?"
"Some say there is an island."
"What kind of island?"
"One where members of the same sex can be bonded." She spoke quietly, stabbing another peek over her opposite shoulder.
"The All-World? That is a myth." Key did not care to relearn childhood stories whispered in the dead of night. The All-World was a fairy tale, no more real than flying horses or gigantic water serpents.
"Do not say so to me!" Her voice was a commanding whisper, harsh and hurt. "My boy is out there," she hissed. "He cannot be the only one."
"Your boy?" Key gazed wonderingly; his eyes swam with pain as she continued to briskly rub the salve into his sore arm. A drop of sweat trickled down his temple and he swiped at it with the back of his free hand.
"My grandson the only kin I have left. He was meant to take my place, bestowing the sacred marks. I trained him. And he fled."
The ink-witch did not speak any more, only shook her head. Her wrinkled lips pursed stubbornly as she waved him toward the door. Key walked out into the darkness.