My markings itch. You'd think I'd be used to it by now. Yet I'm not. They itch like they're trying to leave me, like they're ready to be free from my body. Well, I'm ready to be free of you, too.
* * *
She walked into town like a specter, quiet and unassuming, and I was smitten from the moment I saw her. I was only ten, old enough to be bored by everyday life. A visitor, any visitor, would have been welcome in my small town on the border of the Sahel, but she was more than I could have ever asked for. I stared as she passed the town walls along with everyone else. She was tall and thin, obviously a foreigner, out of place among farmers. Her hair was cut close to her scalp; her hair the color of rich, wet earth. On her back was a spear and a large, round shield. She looked like some kind of strange turtle. Even her skin seemed like it was covered in scales.
I stood up to get a better look. No, it wasn't scales but marks, like a tiny bird had walked all over her body. Not even her face had been spared. I stepped out of the shade of my parents' house and into the main street. My grandmother always said that I was far too bold for a child. She was absolutely right. I felt no fear as I walked up to this strange woman. My smile couldn't have been any brighter. She gifted me with a small, patient smile and my heart grew three sizes. "Are you a traveler? Where’d you come from?"
"Are you the town guard?" she asked. Her voice was polished wood.
"My name's Ogisou," I replied, the giggle spilling out of me.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ogisou."
Now that I was closer, I was mesmerized by the markings on her face. They weren't as random as I thought they'd be; they were arranged almost artfully, in a crude pattern. "Are you a warrior from the king?"
"No. I'm merely a wanderer."
I saw her eyes move at the same time that I felt my mother's protective arms around me. "Welcome, guest," my mother said from just above my head. If I hadn't been so caught up in the stranger, I would have heard the caution in her voice. "What brings you here?"
The woman - my woman I'd unknowingly decided- nodded. "I am only looking for a place to rest my head and a humble meal for my belly. I'll happily be on my way in the morning."
I looked up to my mother, hopeful. I wished with all my might that she would let the warrior woman stay with us. I'd never wanted anything so much in my short life. My mother's lips pulled into a tight line as the silence stretched. "My uncle has an extra room," I interjected before my mother could make her final decision.
My mother jerked me sharply. "Ogisou," she chided.
But I was undaunted. "He lets travelers stay there sometimes. And my aunt's a really great cook." I burst forth from my mother's protective embrace and grabbed the woman's hand. "Here, I'll take you to him." I rushed through town right past my mother, dragging the warrior behind me. I was oblivious to the stares of the other villagers. My people were suspicious of travelers and when you lived where we did, you had good reason. But this traveler was different, my young heart decided. She was special.
I glanced behind me. “What’s your name?”
“It’s not important.”
I smiled again. “Everyone has a name.”
She chuckled at me, one of the most glorious sounds in the world. “Some have called me Blade and many have called me the Lioness. For some I was Sleeping Leopard. You may call me what you wish.”
“I like Sleeping Leopard.” She made a sound. I’m still not sure if it was disapproving or if she was merely amused at my curiosity. My eyes traveled up the marks on her long, muscled arms. “You have a lot of marks.”
“I do,” she said hesitantly.
“What are they for?”
I remember that she didn’t answer me at first. She slowed down slightly reining in my break-neck pace. “When you do evil things, sometimes you’re punished.”
I was old enough to recognize the tone in her voice. That was the end of the conversation. I followed her lead and was quiet until we reached my uncle’s home. The mood may have been subdued, yet my excitement remained. I had a warrior to look after and learn all I could from her. She was a gift just for me and an omen of excitement yet to come. I had no idea the sort of excitement I was in for.
* * *
The child is too trusting, like all children. One day in his village and he hangs on my every word, watches my every movement. He hasn’t been jaded, broken by the weight of this world or crushed by life’s many disappointments. How nice it must be to still have dreams unbroken, to still have a full hopeful future ahead of you. How I envy youth.
But wait. What is that noise?
* * *
I was still asleep when the damned ones came. Slumber only left me once I heard the low noises outside my family’s house. It was an odd sound, half growling, half laughing interjected with scratches at the mud-brick walls. I sat up on my mat on the floor, my mind still under a haze. The growl/laughing grew closer. I leaned down to peer through the small crack underneath our door. Shadows passed in front of it, blocking the pale moonlight seeping through. Terror didn’t grip me then. I didn’t realize at that time the horror that waited for me outside.
I froze with the first shove against the door. I only had time to take the breath to yell out when the monsters burst into our home, spilling in like living shadows. They were on me before I could scream. Moonlight reflected from every sharp tooth. One clamped a filthy hand over my mouth and my nostrils were filled with their sour, rotting stench. They dragged me out kicking and punching to no avail. Each time I wrenched a limb free from one of their grasps, another latched onto me. My village didn’t even stir as they carried me away.
I cried. I tried not to. I tried to be the little man my father urged me to be even while my ears were filled with the sounds of the monsters’ growling laughter. I cried as I was carried out into the Sahel over hills and shallow valleys, deep into the wilderness where I was sure I’d never leave. The moon hid behind passing clouds, casting the whole world into darkness. I was glad that no one, not even these damned monsters, could see my tears now.
I was jerked downward. I looked up just in time to see the moon emerge just to be blocked from view by the cave walls. The monsters were taking me deep underground. The air grew hotter around me, thick with their stench which I’ve yet to forget. The memory of it makes me want to wretch even now. We twisted and turned through their lair, through what seemed like a lifetime of tunnels. Despair weighed down on my small shoulders. They were going to eat me, or just murder me for the sport of it. I was going to die; a prospect to child should ever have to contemplate. Yet, when you’re in the midst of creatures from your worst nightmares, what else can you think of?
A small, warm light grew as we hurried down a tunnel. Our group burst into a large room that had a fire pit in the center. Only then did I get a true look at my captors. I was finally able to scream. They looked like demons in the skins of hyenas. The size and shape of men but stretched out to the point that their muscles seemed to be straining to hold onto their bodies. All beady, gold eyes were on me as I was passed over head, each of them wanting to get a chance to hold their prize. Unearthly chants erupted filling the room with a maelstrom of noise. Only when each had taken their turn, did they toss me into a corner.
There was no hope of escape. Two of the damned ones stood nearby as guards. There were several ways out, but none of them near me. I was sure that this was the end.
* * *
Does evil never rest?! Why do they never concern themselves with true battle, only seeking to plague common folk? Why can they not find satisfaction in fighting warriors? Why must they inundate my path of redemption with their filth? I’ve grown weary of them. All of them. The Jebaris, the Hatounas, the Keverii, and especially the changelings. I am sick of the changlelings.
But I can’t leave the boy to his doom. My markings itch, urging me on. I agree. I have to move quickly.
* * *
I remember being sleepy, yet there was no possible way I could have slept. The hyena monsters had begun dancing around their firepit, some striking up a strange song in their language. The rhythm was steadily building along with the energy in the room. Goosebumps rose on my skin despite the heat and the hairs on the back of my neck lifted. They beat on walls, on gourds, on anything that could make a sound. Laughs echoed off the walls making the room seem fuller than it actually was. One could taste the excitement in the air. It was a maddening scene.
Every so often one of their number would dance his way close to growl and taunt me. I knew that they could smell my fear for it had trickled down my legs and pooled on the floor beneath me. They laughed in my face, fetid breath choking me. Then they would return to the mad dance twirling and jumping in the fire light.
The song and dance grew louder, more insistent. I watched the fire turn from a flickering orange to yellow and finally to a ghostly white. Suddenly, the dancing stopped, the monsters surrounding the pit still singing their beastly song. The crowd parted and I could clearly see one of their kind, an elder, standing near the flames. He held his arm up then bit it savagely. He held a small cup beneath his arm, collecting the thick, black looking blood. Hoots and howls started, mixed in with the song. The old one thrust the cup into the fire, not a sound of pain escaping him as his hand was engulfed in flame. His eyes then fixed on me and he began to approach.
I screamed, trying to run, but strong hands clamped down on either arm. The two demons held me fast as their elder came close. He dipped his long, leathery fingers into the cup which was glowing with the same eerie light as the fire. I tried to pull away in vain, half out of my young mind with panic. The old demon raised his blood covered fingers to my forehead and I could feel him writing. He marked my cheeks next, the glowing blood painfully cold against my skin. There was satisfaction in his eyes as he took a moment to inspect his work.
Then there was a scream at the back of the room. All heads turned to see the source of it. I looked too, but couldn’t see past the crowd. I could hear; however, and my heart jumped at what I heard next.
“Let the boy go.”
It was the warrior, my warrior. She’d come to save me. The demons began to growl now, not a hint of laughter in any of them. The two holding me let go to join the fight. I scrambled backwards, pressing myself against the wall. The room was filled with growls and the howls of the dying. I could see blood flying this way and that and soon I could see her. I know I must have held my breath for to watch her fight is mesmerizing.
She moved through them like water, flowing without effort from one opponent to the next. She used both spear and shield as her weapons. Her spear would find its way through one demon’s belly just as the edge of her shield shattered the throat of another. They tried to claw her, to punch, kick, and bite her but few attacks made their mark. The few that did, she scarcely seemed to notice. She was fury incarnate. She was a goddess of battle. Truly, she lived up to all the names she’d earned and even more.
Nearly half of the monsters had been cleared out when she laid eyes on the elder. The old demon turned and ran toward me but he never made it. In an instant, my warrior’s spear was sticking out from the front of his bony chest, dark blood dripping down. He was dead before he crashed to the floor, coming to a stop right before my feet. The other hyena monsters paused in their fighting, fear and anger playing across their faces. Some took this as their moment to run. But there would be no escape for them. My warrior flipped back placing herself firmly in front of the exit. She may have only been armed with her shield, but there wasn’t a hint of apprehension in her eyes. Despite my fear, I knew that she would finish this.
The monsters descended on her. I could barely see her in the low light, but I could tell from the way the demons were steadily falling dead that she was a blur of movement. Soon, enough of them had died to give me a better view of my warrior. The last three tried to rush past her, but in one motion she whipped her shield around, striking them against the side of the head so fiercely their necks snapped.
The room was suddenly quiet, snapping me from my awe and jolting me back into the present. The entire horrifying night seemed to suddenly weigh down on me and I sunk to my knees. I grew weak at the smells of death, blood, and filth surrounding me. To my shame, I voided my stomach just as she touched my shoulder. I cried and watched my sickness slide into the blood pooling on the floor. After a moment it proved too much for me and I fell into her arms.
* * *
I awoke to the blessed scent of fresh air and the warmth of the afternoon sun. I felt weak, ill, and still acutely aware of the almost burning cold writing on my face.
“You need to wake,” came my warrior’s smooth voice from somewhere nearby.
I reluctantly opened my eyes. We were in the shade of a large boulder, but the bright day stung. Squinting, I looked over to my warrior, my Sleeping Leopard. She stooped in front of a puny fire. I could smell cooking meat and my stomach turned uncomfortably.
“Here,” she said quietly, handing over a small, slightly charred morsel. “It tastes horrible, but you need to eat.”
I did as she bid me to, nearly gagging on it. “It is horrible,” I croaked.
She chuckled. “It’s good to see you still have life in you.” Her expression sombered as she watched me eat. I followed her eyes as she studied my face and knew she was looking to the writing the old demon had scribed on me the night before. It still felt as cold as when he first placed the blood on my skin and now it sat on me like some kind of slime that refused to slide away. I reached up to rub it off. With the speed of a snake, she caught my wrist and shook her head.
I could feel tears starting to form again. “What’s going to happen to me?” I asked, trying with all my might to keep the tears at bay.
My warrior sighed heavily, sitting down beside me. “I hope and pray that nothing will come of this.” She paused and looked out to the landscape. “They were going to make you into one of them. I arrived in time to stop the ceremony, but not soon enough.”
“Am… am I going to turn into a monster?” I asked, panic starting rise again.
To my relief, she answered with a firm, “No.” A frown formed. “But you’ve been marked. You won’t ever be the same again. People may fear you, what you might become.”
“Is that how you were marked? By monsters?”
She didn’t answer at first and I was afraid, even after all that had happened to me, that I’d offended her. I waited.
“No. I was given these marks as punishment.” She paused again. “I’ve killed many people, not all of them evil. My only care was to follow the orders of the ones paying my fee. One day, a witch cursed me. I would wear a mark for each life I’ve taken and they will not disappear until I’ve saved as many as I’ve killed.” She turned her deep eyes to me. “Since then, my life and my skills as a warrior have been dedicated to helping as many as I can.”
I looked aside, taking in all she’d said. “Then I will help people, too. Whatever happens to me because of these . . . these marks don’t matter. I want to help people, just like you.”
Her expression was unreadable. She slowly turned away from me, putting out the fire.
She helped me to my feet passing me another piece of the foul meat she’d cooked. I realize now that it was to keep me quiet. “It is good that you want to help people, Ogisou,” she said as we set out. “Very good. But don’t try to be like me.”
I nodded even though I had every intention of emulating her. Our trek back to my village was not as long as I thought it would be and we were walking through the gate by sundown. My parents wept at my arrival and the whole town rejoiced. Many thought me long dead, eaten by monsters in the night. I was overjoyed to see them and eager to tell them of my rescue. I looked back through the crowd for my warrior, but she was already on the road out of the village. I called out, but my voice was drowned out by the cries of jubilation.
* * *
People did treat me differently after that. My markings never faded and there began whispers that I was half-demon now. Not that I didn’t give them reason to suspect it. I laughed more often, even at things no one else found funny. I started more fights with the other boys and could be heard growling in the midst of it. I grew tall and thin with taut muscles.
Yet, I also grew stronger and faster than any of the others. And when I had the chance, I left my tiny village to keep my word and help all those that I could find. I’m still on the road now following my Lioness, my Sleeping Leopard, my warrior. I hope that one day I find her and by that time, she’s free of each and every one of her marks.
Sarah Macklin is an author and artist from Columbia, SC. Marked was originally published in Griots: Sisters of the Spear. Her Sword and Soul novel, The Royal Heretic, will be published by MVmedia, LLC July 1, 2020