The line outside of the “Blood Pen” was shorter than Elloise had expected but twice as grim. The Crafter had only arrived in town yesterday with the sign that now hung over the shop slung on his back. Mayor Dyal set him up immediately in the abandoned building reserved for such a tradesman. Their town had not seen a Crafter in over five years. They did not have much to pay one with. The Scarmen took their toll on Elloise’s town. It was close to the capitol, high in population, and did not provide necessary goods to the kingdom like the farming and mining towns did. No, her fishing village was the perfect target for the King’s tax collectors.
Elloise took her place in line behind four others as a woman emerged from the shop. She recognized Lankaa and knew she had an ailing son, sick with a sea disease that had claimed many lives in the past few months. She carried a little bundle tight to her chest and fell multiple times on shaking legs that looked like twigs ready to snap. All muscle had been drained from them. After her fifth fall in as many steps and with a scream of pain as something snapped, a man took pity on her and scooped Lankaa into his arms to carry her home. Lankaa had been lucky. She would recover within a year or two with proper treatment.
The man in front of her was also familiar. Two thin, glossy pink scars stretched over his eyes. She could not read the symbol etched into his face. They were words in a language few knew. A cruelly exacted tax taken from the old man by Scarmen last year. Two payments in one visit. A fitting penalty they said, for a peasant who evaded paying his share for so long. Her town made ten payments each time the Scarmen came. The men were not supposed to dictate who paid the tax, but the one time it was suggested she pay the price one of the Scarmen had protected her. Her mother said it was because of her fair skin, and the tax collectors wandering eye.
“Good-morrow Master Calan.” She said gently, brushing her feet on the ground first to alert him of her present.
“Elloise? Oh Elloise! I should ‘ave known someone from your family would… Elloise,” His voice fell off in a sigh. The old man reached up, somehow knowing where her cheek was and brushing it. “Why you? How could they send you to make the purchase.”
“Because I must. Mama paid the last tax visit.”
“But you have cousins and aunts! How can they ask this of you.”
“No one knows that I am here.”
Calan straightened, his frail back going board straight. You cannot do this Elloise. It is not worth the risk.
He lifted his wrinkled hand again, another symbol stretched down his forearm, ending where two fingers were missing. He stroked the unmarred skin on her own arms and then grasped her delicate hand that was free of callouses thanks to her mothers care.
“You should not even be out of your home. Not with this, creature in town.” His grizzled voice was a low whisper, wary not to be overheard. “You have never dealt with a Crafter. Go now. Call your cousin on your mother’s side. He will be here in a fort night and bargain on your families behalf.”
“The Crafter could be gone by then. I can do this Calan. I…”
Elloise trailed off as a wail rose out of the shop. It rang loud and long as a seafarers horn; carrying out over the crowd, over the shore, and eventually being swallowed by the sea. Elloise felt all of the warmth leave her body. Her skin felt to soft now and she wished for armor instead of the slip of a dress she wore. She’d chosen the shear fabric strategically. No guards exacted a tax on her flesh or soul when she looked like she’d stepped out of their dreams. Surely she could reason with the Crafter.
Calan’s hand was hard on her arm. She jerked it away before he could bruise her pink skin. He did not even look at her as a young man was dragged by two soldiers from the tent. The customer could not have been much older than Elloise. She resisted the urge to cover her ears and block out his screams, and the chilling scrapping of the sword in the mans hand against the stone path. As the soldiers repositioned, she saw why he screamed. The man’s boots had been removed and both feet had markings drawn into them. The feet had gone black and limp, as if he wore dark socks at the ends of his legs. He would never walk again.
“Worse than a blinding isn’t it.” Calan said. Elloise described the sword and what it cost the man. Calan huffed harsh whispers. “Bah! Foolish, foolish children. Another would be warrior wanting to fight the world.” The screaming man fell silent. Likely unconscious from the pain if he’d not died.
“Is it so foolish? To wish to spend our bodies and souls on things we desire? Things we need?”
Calan hit her leg with his cane and she yelped, once again fearing a bruise.
“You contain your foolishness,” he said harshly, then saddened again. “Go home Elloise.”
“Listen to the old man Elloise.” The voice behind them made her jump.
“Wha…who was that!” Calan spluttered. “ Who’s there Elloise.”
Elloise brushed blonde hair neatly back and turned her pale face fully to the man behind them. He was tall and straw thin but muscled, with slick black hair that seemed wet and a black jacket that seemed too stiff. Over his left breast was a ruby pendent shaped into a reed pen inside a perfect circle.
“Sir Mark.” She stated plainly, and prayed Calan wouldn’t spit the word Scarmen. None of the tax collectors condoned the slur, but she knew Mark took particular offense. He had spared Elloise more than once from his companions’ tax collections. Mark thought himself benevolent.
“Elloise,” he sighed, “what are you doing here? The Crafter cannot offer anything worth marring yourself.”
He talked to her like she was a child and she straightened her spine. Though, it got her no closer to meeting his eyes.
“Sir Mark. I appreciate your concern, but I have business with the Crafter.”
“NEXT CUSTOMER.” Barked a soldier from the door, eager to leave his duty guarding the shop. The line did not move and the Scarman stepped closer.
“I believe it is your turn old man.” He said to Calan. “Go give whatever you have left and allow me to talk the Lady Elloise out of this nonsense. I hope you are not tricked out of what you seek.”
He dismissed the man so easily to what could be his death. She could not stand it. If she listened to him for one more minute she’d explode and enrage the Scarman who’d kept her safe for so long.
“NEXT CUSTOMER!” The soldier yelled again. The man ahead of Calan looked at the shop door, and his pants darkened and became wet.
Sir Mark scoffed, but Elloise felt her resolve waiver. She could not allow it to waiver. She nearly pushed Calan out of the way and she lifted her thin sheath and ran for the shop door. Mark called after her and she heard boots close behind, but within a few strides she slid on sandaled feet into the entrance. She stopped so fast he bumped into her back. When his smooth hands grabbed her bared shoulders to pull her away, Elloise shook them off and stepped forward into the room.
“Shoes. Off.” Came a croaked voice in the dark. The door behind Elloise shut, and her vision was dulled by the sudden lack of sunlight. She bent to remove her sandals.
“Do not let it trick you!” Sir Mark yelled from behind her. “For the Lord’s sake Elloise don’t do this! Don’t waste what I saved!”
The Crafter chuckled deep, and Elloise paused. Her sandals removed, Elloise stood on a woven rug that looked more and more red as her eyes adjusted to the lantern light. She prayed it was died with traditional means. Blinking the rest of the room into clarity, she noticed the Crafter could not have brought all the rooms content with him. Or could he? Bottles lined the wall to her right, filled with liquids of varying colors. On her left, items ranging from swords and daggers to pots and ladles hung from shelves.
“Sit young lady. Sit pretty, pretty young lady.”
Elloise snapped her eyes to the center of the room, and saw the Crafter clearly for the first time. The Crafter was indeed a woman. Crouched like an animal behind a low table, she swirled her finger inside a wide bowl creating a low droning sound that filled the room. Brown hair streaked with grey swirled around the Crafter’s head in what must have been a thousand curly strands. Her golden, slender finger pulled away from the bowl allowing the drone to dissipate into nothing. She looked up, and dark brown eyes stared over a hooked nose as the woman licked her lips. She shifted her eyes to the cushion on the other side of the low table. Elloise sat.
“What is it you seek with those pretty eyes. Such pretty eyes pretty lady.”
“I need, I need the great gift Lady Crafter.”
“Crafter please just Crafter. That is what I am, a Crafter is me. The great gift you ask. Great indeed.”
The woman’s voice had a sing-song quality that lightened every word. Elloise had expected the Crafter to scoff or scold her for asking such a thing. Instead. Instead she just stared at Elloise with eyes that flicked over her shift again and again analyzing each stitch on Elloise’s curves. She squirmed under the feeling that the Crafter was looking for a piece of flesh to carve.
“It is my brother.”
“The time. The time!” The Crafter said hands flailing. “Time is what I need. Time of loss, timed rebirth, time for me to do my work!”
“He…he died two nights ago.” A tear leaked from Elloise’s eye for the first time. She’d had no choice but to shut it out or she’d fall apart. Her little brother was only six. The last man of her family. The only one that could carry on her father’s name. She had been blessed for so long with her beauty,. It was time to sacrifice it as all poor ladies did. At least now, it was on her terms. The Crafter looked thoughtful.
“Two nights, just two, two nights that will do. You give, he gets, regrets regrets. What shall I extract, beauty gold and red, beauty from you, scar the flesh.” Her hand reached out as if to mark Elloise with her long, curved yellow nail before snatching it back.
“You may scar my flesh,” Elloise said. “Take away my beauty in exchange for my brother’s life. Name your price great Crafter. Name what you’d take from my virgin skin.” Crafters and Scarmen always made the first mark a harsh one. Elloise sucked in air, her thin shift suddenly making her feel far to exposed. She’d dressed that way for a man. Now she felt foolish as well as afraid. The Crafter smiled like a hyena approaching a corpse.
“Mmmm, price price, the great gifts price. Beauty blood both red and gold. Beauty of the price taking its toll. Life to give life that flows. Birth rebirth death you’re told. Bring him back. Pay the toll.”
The Crafter began tracing her finger round the bowl again, droning her talk of tolls along with the sound from the bowl. Elloise’s hands bunched up her thin shift.
“Please! Great Crafter.” Her voice shook. “Tell me the price!”
The Crafter gripped the bowl bringing all sound to a sharp stop. Staring with flat eyes at Elloise, she reached under the table and drew out a reed pen that was not reed. It was red, and made of something not of this earth. Elloise shook all over, bumps rose on her arm, and the Crafter smiled.
“Pay you will, pay the price. Three pretty marks on pretty flesh. Tear out life to put it back.”
Elloise did not have time to acknowledge broken lines. The Crafter lept over the table and lunged at her, falling on top of Elloise. Flattened against the ground she was at the Crafter’s mercy. The woman’s wild hair swirled around them as she lifted the red pen and pressed it to Elloise’s forehead.
“Rip the soul and all the flesh to give a soul back it’s breath”
Elloise screamed as the pen scraped her skin open and blood spilled warmly down her temples. Two strokes there. Elloise gripped her head as the feral woman got off and ripped open her shift dress. The Crafter poised the pen over her heart and pressed, tearing more of Elloise’s pale skin.
“Blood is life, blood is death, blood rebirth. Rip the flesh.”
Two more long, painful strokes and blood pooled from her onto the floor in a puddle. Someone banged on the Crafter’s door rattling it behind her as she screamed, but her torturer was not done. The crazed woman got up and moved to one of the walls filled with items. She returned and ripped more of the shift down to Elloise’s navel. She tried to see what the Crafter had grabbed, but blood was in her eyes.
“Hold and nurture, rip the flesh, grow till merger makes new breath.”
Three long curving and intertwining lines carved like red ribbons into her abdomen. Then the Crafter pushed something against the bloody cuts. Elloise felt dizzy and noticed her screams had turned to whimpers. The door flew open on rattling, bent hinges and Sir Mark rushed to kneel beside Elloise’s ruined face. The crafter stood and lifted her creation up to the lantern light. A stuffed doll soaked in Elloise’s blood. It did not drip, but the deep red color absorbed and spread until the little figure turned crimson. The Crafter smiled.
“Three marks!” The Scarman bellowed at the Crafter. “What could she have demanded that cost her all this! You took her beauty with the first! Why did you destroy all of her?”
Elloise wiped blood from her eyes and the Scarman looked at her as if she were already dead. The Crafter knelt beside her and stroked her cheek. She wanted to flow away from them both. Flow away as her blood now flowed across the floor, all the way to the sea.
The Crafter waggled her finger and said to Mark, “Beauty is nothing but a pretty face, beauty is something to be replaced. A lovely face can’t pay the price, the great gift demands greater sacrifice.” She shoved the blood doll into Elloise’s hand. Then the woman’s face went cold and her back straightened. The Crafter spoke with the voice of a fine lady. “You’ve taken to much of my time and spooked my customers, now leave my shop. Go. Scarman.”
Mark scooped Elloise into her arms. She clutched tighter to what she had purchased with the marks on her body and she was blinded by daylight as he carried her from the shop. Her scar marks stung and her abdomen ached and ached worse then her head. She felt it swell with the pain, and maybe blood. The Scarman ran. Ran all the way to her mother’s home only to find her mother leaving with tears in her eyes.
“No! Elloise no! It was my responsibility me not you!”
She heard her mothers cries, but it was too late for that. She’d done what was right but Mark was there and spoke first.
“Then go woman! Go beg that witch to return your daughter’s purity! Beg for the removal these scars!”
Sit Mark was angry, but she did not care. The little doll was still nestled next to her stomach. Her rapidly swelling stomach that dripped blood.
“Take me to Ellet. Now.”
She cut off Mark’s protests softly, but firmly. One hand grasped her purchase the other her price paid. Before she realized the Scarman had listened, they were in the house and he laid her on the floor by her brother. The six year old was wrapped in blankets so she could not even see his face. She did not want to see it until light was back in his eyes. Her stomach ached, swollen and bleeding from the stroke marks and Mark yelled at her mother behind her. Elloise lifted the corner of the blanket baring Ellet’s hand. She took the little doll, and wrapped his limp fingers around it.
The room behind her fell silent as she was sure the two behind her watched to see if her purchased had been worth it. Her head pulsed against crusted blood. Her chest ached fitfully. But it was the pain in her swollen belly that set her screaming again until darkness took her vision.
It could have only been a moment before she blinked awake again. Pain was gone, but it was still dark. They must have laid her in bed. Elloise threw a blanket from her head, sat up, and looked down at her own body bleeding but skinny and paler then ever curled on the bed beside her. Her mother rushed toward her. In a final odd sensation, Elloise felt her little brother. She did not see him, but felt his consciousness as it thanked her, and absorbed her own. Her mother rushed forward and hugged her little brother as Elloise faded away like a wave receding back into the infinite sea.