Gift of the Goddess

It hurt like hell! He'd thought he was prepared for anything, but this was like a shower of molten iron on his skin. Garvin clapped his hands over his eyes, pressing hard until he saw flashes of light. He froze in that position, unwilling to move. It was as though his body was being scorched and charred, up both arms and across his chest, but there was no sound and no smell of burning flesh. He didn't dare look at himself. He'd begged for help, implored Rima for guidance, something, anything, without really expecting his prayer to be answered. Clearly, he'd gotten attention from the goddess herself. But by all the gods, it hurt!

Somehow, he forced his lips to complete the ritual blessing. "All thanks, Rima Who Made the Stars, for answering my prayer. All hail, Rima Who Made the Earth, to your power. All praise, Rima Who Bore the First Man, for your love toward your creations."

As he spoke the final word, he felt a touch like a cool hand on his burning forehead. After a moment, the sensation faded and was gone. There was only silence and the near-unbearable fire that spread across his skin.

Garvin drew in a ragged breath. He'd never dared approach Rima before. He wasn't one to petition the gods for anything. He preferred to live his life, do his work, keep to himself, and take the arrows of fortune as they came. But this had been for Nyle. For Nyle, he would storm the very gates of the heavens.

Slowly, Garvin became accustomed enough to the pain to notice other sensations returning. Crickets chirped in the grass, and summer leaves rustled softly in the evening breeze. He could smell leather and horse and candle-smoke on his own palms. He was sticky with sweat, exhausted, and shaking, close to collapse. Not that he'd been in good shape when he'd ridden into the clearing, half-crazy with fear and desperate for any kind of guidance. A plea to the goddess had been all he had left to try.

How could disaster have happened so fast? One minute they were home, happy, just another day. He'd had his duties with the house, livestock, and garden; Nyle had his work at the forge. A moment later, Nyle was a gone, a prisoner, and Garvin found himself in fast and unprepared pursuit. In hells-be-damned unskilled pursuit, too—he'd lost the trail on a stretch of dry and rocky ground miles back. None of his casting around had served to pick up the hoofmarks again.

In desperation, he'd dismounted here, aware that every minute he lagged behind increased the chance that he'd never see Nyle again. He'd dug into his snatched-up saddle bags in a futile search for some kind of help, and the first thing he'd touched had been the candle. A ceremonial candle, something Nyle must have packed whenever he'd used the bags last. Garvin's faith had never been strong enough to bother with such things, but he took it as a sign now. He'd gathered the dregs of his wavering belief in the gods and goddesses, lit the candle, and called on Rima.

Rima, because she was strongest and mother of all. Rima, because she made mankind and loved her creations and had no association with soldiers or death. If he was going to do this, he would go right to the top. It had been hubris of the worst sort, for a man who'd never paid more than lip service, to beg a favor of the goddess. But he'd done it. And out of all expectation, he'd been given an answer. He didn't know if the pain was the answer or just the price, but he'd been given something. Undoubtedly, she would expect him to figure out what to do with it.

He lowered his hands and forced his eyes open, blinking hard to clear his sight. The glade where he'd set up his makeshift altar was dim. The blanket-draped stump was an irregular dark mass. The flame of the ceremonial candle had gone out, even though half the candle remained. A thin crescent moon overhead gave a wan, pale light. And, to his dismay, Garvin realized that an unnatural bright blue light now emanated from his own skin.

He gasped, turning his hands over to look at them, and then sucked in air as the sudden motion pulled his severely sensitized skin. Fuck, that hurt! Moving very gradually, he extended his arms. On the back of each hand, a tracery of random-seeming blue lines shimmered under his skin, like glowing ink set deep in his flesh. Very carefully, he pressed the tip of one shaking finger over an azure curve on his opposite wrist. Touching it didn't make it hurt more; although, given the burn that still seared him where the strange color lay, he wasn't sure more was possible. The brush of his fingertip also didn't smudge or change or dim that line.

Gift of the goddess. He stared at the shapes on his skin. They had to mean something. The azure began at his fingertips and wandered up both bare forearms until it vanished under the sleeves of his shirt. From the skin-tightening pain as he moved, he guessed that the concealed pattern continued up his biceps and across his chest. He held out his arms with teeth-gritted effort, peering at them.

As he stared, the line on his left hand began to fade. He watched the blue leach slowly from the tip of his index finger, fading across his middle finger, and up to his wrist. In the wake of the disappearing color, his skin rose and tightened, forming a thick, fleshy ridge of scar where the light had been. What in all the hells?

There was something vaguely familiar about the path that scar took, developing across his hand as he watched. A slow, roughened curve replaced the glow over his fingers, ran around the small blue circle on his wrist, fast and tight, paused for a moment, and then took a rapid hard drive up his forearm. Ahead of the developing scar, the blue extinguished as if chased up his arm by the rise of dull skin.

He held back a shudder as he watched his body being used to the goddess's will. He wasn't sure if the unearthly pattern of light or the transformation to scars bothered him more. He hadn't expected his prayer's answer to be carved into his flesh! Garvin bit his lip to hold back a protest. Bring it on, Goddess. His skin was nothing, his flesh was nothing, if this would somehow lead him to Nyle.

The dimming slowed down again where another series of big arcs had formed below his elbow. Gradually, the scarring rose, consuming the blue around the last arc, returned to the center, and stopped. The unnatural, bright lines were left pulsing above his elbow and down his right arm. After long minutes with no more change, Garvin began tracing the pattern over and over with an aching fingertip. Why, in all the gods' holy names, had just this section of his eldritch tattoo turned to scars? If it was a message, his dullard brain wasn't seeing the point. It did spark some sense of familiarity, though. Small arc, dot, small circle, fast straight run... the word "run" suddenly made him look at it anew. Crap!

No wonder it was familiar. That line perfectly matched his path today, from the moment he'd heard sharp, angry voices and a clang of steel as he knelt picking wild asparagus in a clearing. He'd run back to the house by the path, which curved around the boggy spot, just like the curve that now lay graven across his fingers. The house was silent and empty by the time he arrived. Nyle's forge had been hot, his tools dropped randomly beside the anvil, but Nyle was gone.

Garvin traced his finger around little scarred circle on his hand, which matched his first anxious search of the house and yard. Those shouts might have just been disgruntled customers. He'd told himself it would be stupid to panic if Nyle was fetching water, or had gone to the outhouse, but his search came up empty. On the muddy lane leading to the forge, Garvin had made out the traces of men and quite a few iron-shod horses, arriving at a walk. On the lane beyond, the same traces left at a canter. Nyle was gone, along with all three of their good horses, in the company of strangers. Garvin remembered the gut-dropping shock with which that certainty hit him as he stood in the dusty lane. If Nyle had left, without a word, it wasn't by choice.

Garvin had walked blankly back to the anvil and knelt, touching the abandoned hammer. He could imagine the handle was still warm from Nyle's big hand, the same hand that had cupped Garvin's head last night and pulled him in for an open-mouthed kiss. Garvin had been tempted to let his mind linger on that memory and all the ones after it, to lose himself in the previous night when Nyle had been warm against him and not vanished against his will down a dusty road. He'd wasted valuable moments frozen in denial.

They'd heard rumors that soldiers were around, combing the villages and hamlets for livestock, supplies, and sometimes strong, able-bodied men who might be bought, coerced, or kidnapped into the king's service. But he and Nyle had thought they were safe. No army would want Garvin. Barely woman-sized, pale and thin despite all of the work he did, Garvin was no kind of soldier. And smiths were servants of the gods and vital to the community. Nyle should have been off limits.

Kneeling now in the dark forest glade, Garvin dragged his mind back from should-have-beens. What counted was catching up to Nyle. He was so far behind already. If the line on his left hand really was a map of today's frantic pursuit, then it stood to reason that the rest of the tracery was the remainder of his journey to come. His gift from the Goddess seemed to be some form of an arcane treasure map with Nyle at its end.