Catrix knelt on the floor, shirtless. It should have been his parents painting the lines across his back and chest, but they weren’t in good enough health for the ceremony at their age. Instead Tarla, his sister, and his lover Arpill performed the rite.
“You will protect the city on your scar walk.” Tarla’s voice was cool and distant. She cradled her newborn in one arm and with her other hand painted the first line across Catrix’s shoulders.
“My body will accept the marks of the thorns,” he recited solemnly.
Arpill bent close to paint a line across his chest, but she couldn’t get the words out. Her hair fell over her face, hiding her eyes.
Tarla said the next part of the ceremony for her. “You will return with those marks so the priests may read the future.”
“They will read my scars,” he intoned, “and know how to protect the city.” It wasn’t part of the rite, but he blurted out, “And I myself will protect you from the danger that is coming.” He tried to catch Arpill’s eyes behind her hair.
“Protect yourself first,” Arpill whispered, which wasn’t part of the ritual either. “What good is the city, apart from you, us, people?”
Tarla brought them back to the ceremonial language, holding her baby out as if to remind them who this was for. “And the city will be strong for your scars, protected by the thorns and the readings of the priests.”
After each of the women had painted additional lines, Tarla added, in a more conversational tone, “But don’t try to go too far. I know you, how you get. This is your first walk. Save the deeper walks for later walks, when you are old.”
Would he ever be old? Catrix looked again at Arpill and knew he would do whatever he could to protect her. And if, as the priests claimed, the scars from deeper inside the ring of thorns were more valuable for their prophesying, then was it weak to turn back sooner?
The lines of paint would soon be lines of blood, and each of those lines must serve to protect Arpill and the rest of them.
It wasn’t the scars themselves that stood out in Catrix’s earliest memory, but the smell of the temple. Warm wax on cold stone and the sage that the priests used to scent the candles. The thick odor of dust in the shadows that was somehow on the verge of coming alive.
He’d been young, two or three, so maybe he’d been too small to see the scars. No, that wasn’t right. He could remember those as well, if he tried.
Three elderly people had lined up before the priests, kneeling so their bare, curved backs could be read. He could still see them in a row—one, two three. The scars on their backs had healed enough that no new blood seeped out, but the flesh was red with infection. He hadn’t understood that then, but he must have seen it, because he could picture it years later.
Even then, he’d known about the scars, about the knowledge they gave the priests. Adults went out among the thorns surrounding the city, once when they were first declared grown-ups and again later, maybe twice more if they were strong. They came back with lines on their bodies for the priests to study. Scars for knowledge, scars for protection, scars to predict the future. The grown-ups made it into a nursery rhyme they used to recite. Eventually he would learn to call it cicatromancy and trust the mysterious ways the scars could be interpreted. But that knowledge would come much later.
What he knew as a child was that it had to do with a monster. Or something like that. Some beast was coming for them. Or at least that was how he imagined it, when he heard the grown-ups talking in hushed whispers, when he heard the priests speaking about the scars they were reading.
The smell of the temple had been closer than the events up front, though, more immediate. Candles dripped wax into the shadows. Catrix had edged away from his family toward that darkness. Toddled away, no doubt still carefully watched, but still it had felt like he was escaping.
The next thing he knew, he’d been crying, scooped up by familiar arms, comforted. But why?
“Hush. Listen to the priests, Catch. We must stay silent.”
The priest had been in the process of reading the scars on one of the elders, a woman who pulled her long gray hair forward, over her shoulder, so the priest could see all the lines across her back. The full understanding of how the people got their scars, in pain, and how the priests used them to read the future—those were things he would learn much later. But he knew to stay quiet when told to do so.
“…means that to survive we should plant early this spring, with an extra tithe of thorn seeds. And this scar, ahh…” He made some motion that drew out a gasp from the grown-ups there. Fear. Grown-ups could know fear too, then. But did they know the dread of the dark things in the dust, the smell of wax and fright?
As much as he tried to remember more, that thought was the end of the memory.
Catrix stood at the gate of the city, the writhing vines reaching out as if to wrap themselves around him. The vines that guarded the City of Thorns lusted after fresh blood.
And here Catrix came, to give them exactly that.
For the moment, a thick, black cloak protected his skin. It would have to come off once he was deep within the wall of thorns. Then he could give himself to the scars and carry their knowledge of the future back to the priests. He turned for a last look at the city before he gave himself to the thorns. The towers of the city looked half ruined from this side. Even the gates, wrapped in their thorny vines, looked to be crumbling with age. But the vines themselves held them up and kept the city safe and strong, regardless of the years.
The vines were all that mattered, kept strong by the blood they drew from the cityfolk. Blood for vines and vines for protecting the city and its people. The scars the vines gave in return granted the priests their power, and let the city cling to life. The city was in danger. He had never forgotten the threat the priests had seen in so many scarred bodies. Even now he pictured a hulking monster coming toward the city. The thorns had to be strong enough to stop its approach, or at least to weaken it. Then the priests could lead the people to stop it from destroying their city and way of life.
But sometimes he thought it wasn’t a real monster that was coming. Maybe a fire would burn through the wall of thorns. Or an earthquake would shake the aging walls down. Maybe invaders would come and destroy their way of life. The threat that the priests read in the scars was death and change and the ending of all things that were good.
Catrix pulled the cloak more tightly around his shoulders. Must he go through with this? Must he give his flesh to serve the city’s future? It was the question every adult of the city faced. When it was their time to walk the thorns, they must force themselves to take that next step forward or return in shame, to be shunned until they made another attempt. No matter their doubts. No matter the questions that remained unanswered.
The whole city loomed behind him as if waiting for his answer. As if needing his blood for its survival.
Yes, he would give his own flesh for the lives of the people of his home, for his sister, for her baby, for Arpill.
The ancient, gnarled vines nearest the city strained toward him. “You do not need my blood,” he told them. “I will give it to the younger vines, farther out.” Even if he wasn’t supposed to go all the way through the ring of vines on his first walk, he could at least go farther than the gate, to a point where the scars would give the priests something valuable to read. Still wearing his cloak, he descended into the thorns and steeled himself for the pain to come.
Catrix and Tarla giggled as they traced the scars on their dad’s arms.
“This one means we should paint the house a new color,” Tarla said, running her finger across a shallow scar on his forearm. “Yellow, like the flowers.”
“Why yellow? The scar is white. And kind of pink.”
“You’re too literal, Catch. When you’re ten you learn not to be so literal.” Tarla was a whole year older than him and never let a chance pass to remind him. “Scars mean things, so you have to read them.”
Catrix touched the deepest scar, across the back of their dad’s neck. “Then I think this scar means we should change our street name.” No, even better. “Wait, we should change your name. To, umm, Stinky Feet.”
Their father cut off Tarla’s squeal of outrage with a single, gruff sound in the back of his throat. Then he brushed away Catrix’s fingers from his neck. “Don’t touch that one. Tickles.”
“What about these on your arm? Do they tickle?” When he shook his head, Tarla added to Catrix, “See this long one, Catch? Says you’ll marry Arpill. And probably have like five kids. No, ten.”
“Not a chance. The scar that says about me is the shorter one. Never married. I don’t want to get married. You’ll be the one with twenty kids someday.”
Catrix touched a tiny scar that probably didn’t even come from their dad’s journeys into the thorns. “I think that one says we’ll eat rabbit stew tonight.”
“No we won’t. We’d be able to smell it if we were.”
“Oh.” But rabbit stew was his favorite. He frowned.
Before he could answer beyond the pout on his lips, their dad stood. “Enough of that now. I have work to do, and you two were supposed to be cleaning the rabbit hutch. Now get moving!”
Disappointment chased them to their chores, but pride as well. Their father had surely helped to save their home. Everyone must be impressed with his scars and the sacrifices he’d made for the city.
Crawling through a wall of thorns, on his first scar walk a decade later, an irrational fear gripped Catrix. What if his own prophecy of never marrying proved all too accurate? How often did people fail to return from their scar walks? How much blood was too much, before a person couldn’t crawl back to the city? He would have heard of that happening if it ever did, surely? The city wasn’t so big that he wouldn’t at least hear rumors. But rational answers didn’t completely ease his fear.
He hadn’t lost any blood yet. These vines were still too near the gate for him to offer his bare flesh. The scars they might leave would tell of nothing beyond the next day or so. To learn of anything farther in the future, anything of real value to the priests and the survival of the city, he had to go farther, earn his scars from more distant vines.
The fear of the outsider had grown worse since he was a child, the threat of destruction increasingly prominent in the priests’ cicatromantic readings. Everyone made ready to do what they could for the city—training with weapons, watering the thorns outside the city walls, preparing to endure their own scar walks. Each of them was convinced that they were important, that their actions on behalf of the city were vital. The City of Thorns must be protected.
Catrix must protect it.
He remembered the scars on his dad’s back, the lines on his mother’s arms. He thought of his sister’s baby and other children, playing in the streets or yet to be born. He was determined to return a hero, to prove his worth to the city, to the priests, to his loved ones. To do so, he needed scars that the priests would value, scars from deep into the thickets that surrounded the city. Maybe even deeper than he was encouraged to go on his first walk.
These thorns tugged at his cloak, beginning the process of tearing it apart. So that the farther thorns could tear him apart in turn.
By the time he made it past the first wall of thorns, his cloak was in shreds. The forest opened up before him, though even the groundcover had prickers and tiny thorns. He dropped the remains of his cloak and walked as far as the forest of vines and thorns allowed. A tree stood out in front of him, a massive trunk, a space carved into the forest where little sunlight could penetrate. The thorns looked more spread out there, so he made for it.
The first scratch was on his bare leg, a jagged line. He jerked his leg away out of instinct. The thorn pulled against him, leaving a deeper gash at the end of the scratch. As if intentionally making sure its cut went deep.
No, surely it hadn’t tried to hang on. The vines had no consciousness, did they? No mind to either want or not want to wound him? No matter how it had seemed. And yet… To be certain, he leaned down close to the vine. The thorn was red with his blood. The barbed tip of the thorn, as much as he could see under that blood, looked ready to gash him again.
He pulled back. Behind him, another thorn slashed at his bare neck. They were moving, reaching for him.
Dashing forward, he made for the gap beneath the tree. Other thorns ripped at his ankles. No doubt those scars would tell the priests much about the next few days. If he managed to return before it was already the past.
He leaned against the trunk of the tree to catch his breath. His first scars. What would they tell the priests? Did they foretell danger? Someone’s death?
When something in the corner of his vision moved, he threw himself away from the tree, landing in a thick patch of thorns. A cat-like creature, nearly as big as he was, was slinking down the tree’s trunk, hissing.
Catrix plunged his hands into the thorns, looking for anything to defend himself. A branch lay under the vines, but when he tried to pull it out, most of it crumbled away into rot. His hand stung from the scratches.
The creature grinned. That smile made it look more like a weasel than a cat, but much bigger. It stalked down the trunk with a feline grace. The teeth that showed when it smiled resembled the barbed thorns.
The priests had never mentioned a creature like this. Maybe there were things about the thorns even they didn’t know.
Was it the threat to the city? He’d pictured something bigger than this, of course. But a pack of such things might sneak past their wall of thorns. And once inside the city, it didn’t take much to imagine what kind of threat these things might be.
Catrix scrambled backwards as it leaped to the ground. There must be something he could find to protect him.
The thorns didn’t touch the creature. Its lithe movements let it avoid the vines as it stalked toward him. Even its fur resembled the thorn vines, as if it would also give him fresh scars as the creature bit and scratched and killed him.
He gave up looking for a weapon and ran, plunging headlong through the thorns and vines.
If the creature followed, it made no noise.
Catrix lay with Arpill on the couch in her rooms, eating prickly pear fruit with their fingers. She traced her hand lightly over the unscarred skin of his chest, leaving a thin line of juice.
“I like your skin like this. Pretty soon it won’t look the same.”
He shook his head. “Next month.” Could it really be so soon? He dreaded it, but another part of him was ready. It would be the last step before the city accepted him as a full citizen. “You too. Well, not so soon, but someday.”
Arpill wrapped a sheet around her and walked to the window. “Many years. I’ll keep having babies so I don’t have to go.” The men of the City of Thorns had to take their first scar walk before their twentieth birthday. Women could as well, but if they chose to bear children, they could put off their walk until the last one was weaned. Or in theory the last. His own mother had borne both him and his sister after her first scar walk, after weaning three older children, siblings who’d already moved from the house by the time he was aware they were his siblings. He’d never known his mother except scarred.
“It won’t be so bad, though, right?” he said. “A few scratches, then you come back and let the priests read the lines on your back. Then back to whatever your life was, only with a few more scars.”
“Life?” Arpill said under her breath and gave a tiny shake of her head. “Not always. Not everyone.”
Catrix stood and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “Don’t worry. I’ll come back, and I’ll be the same, except for my skin, and well, that’s just skin.”
When she didn’t answer, he said, “And until then, you can just admire my perfect skin, and maybe even—”
She turned around and put a finger on his lips. “Don’t even say it.” But she said it with a laugh and wrapped her arms around him as well.
His shoes long since gone, the thorns now tore his feet as well as his legs. The gashes made every step agony. He stumbled, and vines tore at his knees. Even walking upright, he couldn’t avoid the briars that hung from the branches, the spiny bark of the trees that cut their own marks into his flesh. The deep ones on his shoulders would be the best for the priests to read. When they healed. If they healed.
He could return now, if he chose to. It was his first walk, and he’d surely done his duty for the city. Wandering for that first day, sleeping among the vines, and more wandering since then.
The walk hadn’t matched what he’d heard from others—the land wilder and difficult to wrap his thoughts around. Maybe he’d turned aside into parts of the thorn forest the others avoided. Certainly he’d seen no paths or signs of others passing through before. The thorns were a strange world, just outside the one he’d known. He had expected something different on his walk. From the city the thorns looked like a severe sort of protection, but something rigid and controlled, something he could understand—not the strange sights and mind-twisting labyrinths of these interweaving walls of thorns. Catrix felt like he’d learned more than enough to make him a man. But it didn’t feel like enough to protect the city.
A rabbit jumped out of the shrubs almost right at his feet. It stared at him, and Catrix imagined it roasting in the kitchen at home. Now he was in its home, and would it roast him? The hiss of the thorn creature’s fur brushing against vines alerted them both to its arrival. Catrix froze, and the creature chased the rabbit off into the tangle of thorns.
Seeing it clearly again, he knew it couldn’t be the threat that the priests worried over. It was a creature of these thorns, as native to the place as they were themselves. A real threat would not come from within the encircling thorns but beyond them. In whatever lay on the other side.
The sound of running water drew Catrix to one side. He hadn’t felt thirsty a moment before, but suddenly his throat was parched. He veered off toward the sound. Not that there was a trail to follow, anyway. He simply needed to get as far as his body and the thorns allowed. And then return, if the creature of the thorns let him.
Its appearance chasing the rabbit hadn’t been the only time he’d seen it in his wandering, though the other times had been glimpses and fleeting impressions from the shadows. It felt like it had been herding him, sending him toward the thorns that would mark him. It was as if it chose the places where he would earn his scars, as if it decided what message the scars would leave in his flesh. Maybe the creature itself was the source of the prophecies, the true master of the priests. Or maybe it was their rival.
If so, did it follow every person on their scar walks? Then everyone must know and swear to keep it secret. Perhaps the priests held too many secrets. Already his scar walk had gone very differently from what he’d imagined. The priests could have warned him about the thorn creature, about the difficulties of finding a way through the underbrush. About the lack of drinking water. The people might have known more about the ways of the thorns before their walks without it compromising the cicatromancy. Whether the thorn creature was one of those secrets or not, he was growing convinced that there was too much he and the rest of the people of the city just didn’t know. Knowledge about the thorns and scars and places beyond their city should be for everyone. Else how to protect it?
The undergrowth dragged at his legs. But water. Blessed, pure water. He forced his way forward, dropped to a crawl to get under the snake-like vines. The crawl turned into a slither. He spat out the dirt that came into his mouth, but the taste of dust and rotten vegetation remained. The smell of old dust, long left undisturbed.
The vines nearer the stream were soft, as if they had absorbed a measure of the stream’s refreshing essence. He crawled without tearing his flesh and dropped his head down to the water.
The stream slashed at his lips.
Jerking away, he ran his hands over his face and cried out. Leeches dangled around his mouth, cutting into his lips. He scratched and tore frantically, ripping them off and throwing them down on all sides. They splashed into water and struck the woody vines without a sound, some still whole and some torn in half by the violence of his desperation.
When all the leeches were gone, as far as he could feel, he stood and stumbled over to another part of the stream. He didn’t dare put his mouth close. Instead he scooped up water and gulped it only after checking for leeches in his cupped hands.
By the time he finished drinking, the backs of his hands dangled with dozens of leeches. Unable to find the energy to pull them away, Catrix stretched out on the water-softened thorns and fell asleep.
When their father returned from his second thorn walk, Tarla and Catrix stood at the gate waiting. Father made it past the last of the massive vines before collapsing.
Catrix ran forward, right into Tarla’s outstretched arm. “We aren’t supposed to. We’re too young to leave the gate. And anyway, he has to make it back himself.”
“Who cares? That’s not even a real rule. We can’t just leave him there.” Catrix ducked, but his sister grabbed him by the neck of his shirt.
“He’ll make it back. Just wait.” Her words had all the certainty of her years—and all the doubts as well, a brittle sense of right and wrong.
Catrix struggled, but she was twelve, older and stronger than he was.
Their father pushed himself onto his elbows and crawled forward. Slightly. Then he fell again, with a weak cry of pain.
Catrix swiveled to unloose his sister’s grip, but she’d already let him go and was running to their father’s side, casting aside the rule she’d tried to enforce. Her whimpering cry turned into an echo of their father’s. What were rules when their father was in such pain?
“Dad?” Her voice was a ragged, thorn-torn cry. Catrix stumbled forward to the side opposite her, and together they pulled him forward, through the gate, into the city.
If anyone saw them breaking the taboo, nothing was ever said about it. Whatever his scars would tell the priests was no doubt more important than being strict about such a matter. Once through the gate, their father levered himself up onto their shoulders, and they supported him as they walked to the temple. The smell of untended wounds surrounded them, of rot and fevered flesh.
Out of the corner of his eye, Catrix studied the new lines on his father’s arms and sides, the angry red flesh on either side of every fresh cut, the ribs that showed beneath as if drawn to the surface by the vines and thorns. What future did they prophesy?
The priest scowled at the entrance to the temple, and their father took his arms off his children’s shoulders. He took three halting steps toward the priest and collapsed in the temple doorway.
The priest bent down to examine their father’s back. “Well done, true man of the city. Your scars will be healed enough to read in three days. Return then.”
Catrix and Tarla gathered their father up, helped him to his feet. They nursed him to health, even as the three days stretched to seven and a raging fever before he was able to return to the temple.
Every scar, Catrix was convinced, prophesied his father’s death. And Tarla’s, his own, even the whole city’s death. As far as the priests were concerned, his scars were valuable for the city’s future, but said nothing of his own life. Individual lives were meaningless to the thorns.
Their father survived in the end. Catrix wasn’t sure he was ever the same. His voice was often distant, and his eyes would wander, seeing thorns in the walls and impenetrable vines across open doorways. Or they would focus into violence. There could surely be no additional scar walk for him in his old age.
The thorns opened up ahead of Catrix, letting in more light. His back was awash in pain from the thorns, and feet ached with both injury and exertion. Oh, let the priests learn something valuable from this pain! Something to make life in the city better, for his family, for his lover. Yet what had his father’s walks done to make life better for their family? What had anyone’s scar walks done for the city, in truth? He couldn’t stand to think all this might be worthless. But what if it was? The pain of the deep wounds he bore spoke to a meaninglessness, a cruel truth he didn’t want to face directly.
He pressed on toward the opening ahead. Was he finally coming back to the city? But no, its towers were visible behind him, far above the tallest of the vine-draped trees. This must be the far side of the encircling forest of thorns. Tarla had told him not to go that far, not on his first scar walk. Only those on their second or third walks usually went anywhere near the outer edge.
But what was beyond, anyway? Probably more things he wouldn’t understand, more signs of how limited the priests’ teachings were. He crawled forward for a better view.
The thorns at the edge were impenetrable. He approached as near as he dared and looked through at a wasteland. Rocks, red like blood, and scrubland of the palest green were all he could make out through the screen of branching vines.
A rustle in the bushes made Catrix turn. The thorn creature came through on the path he’d taken to get this far. Its muzzle had a stain of recent blood. Was it from the rabbit, or some other prey? That had been an earlier day, surely? He couldn’t keep track of time anymore. Catrix dropped wearily into a fighting crouch, for all the good it would serve to protect him. Soon his own blood would cover that snout.
The creature didn’t attack. Catrix circled away as it approached the edge of the vines. It pressed against the last wall of brambles and whimpered. Even it could make no headway against the interweaving branches. Like the people of the city themselves, it was trapped within the wall of thorns. Not the threat from beyond, and not the master of the thorns. Just another creature stuck, with no place to go.
When Catrix edged away, hoping to strike back toward the city, the creature gave one last whimper and then followed.
Six-year-old Catrix stared in awe at the deep scars on the old woman’s forehead and shoulders. She must have been over eighty years old and had returned from her third scar walk, an old age to be going again into the city’s wall of thorns. But eighty or sixty or any other age wasn’t what impressed him. It was the awe in people’s voices as they discussed her.
“What’s it mean that she went to the outer edge?” he asked Tarla.
Annoyed at having to answer her little brother’s questions—even Catrix was aware that his question annoyed her—Tarla flipped her hair over her shoulder before answering. “Everyone’s supposed to go close to the far edge on their last scar walk. That’s not the point.”
“What is on the other edge?” He tried to picture the thorns outside the wall ending. Did they stop suddenly, at the wall of another city? Did they just dwindle off into…some empty place? Or into nothing? He imagined the ground dropping away, an endless abyss full of threats to the people of the City of Thorns.
“I said that doesn’t really matter. Dad will go there someday, too. And you will. And me too, if I live to be a hundred like her.”
A hundred? Wow. He had known she was old, but had never heard of anyone that old. Catrix had to take a closer look at the woman’s wrinkled face. But who could say where a wrinkle became a scar or the opposite?
“What matters is she got to the edge and then went all the way around. So the priests have the best prophecy they can get.”
Farther out was better for the scar reading. Even he knew that. So it made sense that the priests would be excited to read her scars, now that they were healed. He’d never listened closely to the priests’ words when they came here to listen, but this time he would.
They had to wait forever. People shifting, moving, rearranging who was where and who could see what. The smell of so many bodies close together grew overpowering. The city’s thousands had gathered to hear this reading.
Then the priests took it in turns to read the scars without saying a thing. One would approach, trace the lines, frown or chew his lip thoughtfully, then go away again. Catrix had almost forgotten his decision to listen when an ancient priest began to speak. He looked like he might be a hundred years old, and deeply scarred with prophecies that had probably already come true.
Catrix shook the wool from his ears to listen.
“A time of danger approaches,” the priest said. People behind Catrix relayed the words to those even farther away. They had heard this before, knew that something threatened them. But hearing it in this place, learning of it from the old woman’s scars, it seemed to take on a new urgency. “A place of danger lies beyond our wall of thorns, a land that is changing and raising up the menace that could destroy us. We cannot read exactly what that danger is, but it approaches.”
Some people began to cry out, and the priest raised his hands to comfort them. “The danger lies many years off. These scars come from the farthest thorns and give us many years of warning.”
“What should we do?” a voice cried out from the crowd.
Voices and crying faded away into a nervous quiet.
“We have known this was coming. Now we understand more. We know that we have a generation to prepare for this danger. It is a threat that could cut through our thorns, a menace that might destroy the vines that protect us. So, in the time we have, we must strengthen our protections. We must sow the seeds to add more vines. We must tend the thorns to make them strong. And we must continue to send out more of our citizens to learn the ways of the future. Let no one shrink from their duty to walk among the thorns and return with foreknowledge.
“Blood and knowledge make us strong, but our own weakness may be our undoing. We must not grow lazy. Must not grow complacent. Our work remains, more vital than ever, and every effort must go toward our city’s survival against that threat.
“Let everyone who thought to make only a single scar walk prepare to endure a second. Let those who have taken two prepare for a third, as this woman before us has shown by her example. Let us all equip ourselves and our city to survive.”
Within a month, the old woman had died and was laid to rest with great honor within the thorn-choked cemetery that stood at one side of the city’s wall of protection. Already the number of scar walks had increased as the priests sought to learn all they could of the future.
Thorns had lodged themselves in the corners of Catrix’s eyes, scratching at his eyeballs when he blinked. Briars pulled back the skin around them so he could no longer fully close his eyelids.
The backs of his hands still had a few leeches he’d been unable to remove. They were swelling with his blood, turning the skin around them white. He brushed half-heartedly at them and tried again to pull them off, but their teeth were anchored well in his flesh.
Between his fingers were more briars, embedded in the soft webbing that stretched when he opened and clenched his hands.
Blood streaked down his arms.
Blood clotted on his torso, down his legs.
His feet swelled with injuries, the skin turning purple and black.
When he touched the hair on his head, he felt the caking mixture of grime and blood, twigs and leaves and thorns braided into a tangled mass with his hair. Surely his skin must be full of useful prophecies. His thoughts stumbled on that. Could anything worthwhile come from this kind of mindless blood and pain? But it must be true. The priests wouldn’t keep sending them out if the scars didn’t serve the good of the city. Surely the priests would celebrate him, so young and so scarred. Surely he would impress Arpill and Tarla and everyone else with his efforts.
When he made it back.
If he did.
No matter where he looked through his bloodshot eyes, he could find no sign of the city, the wall, the massive vines that led up the rise toward the gate he’d come through. It was as if the city and everything he knew had vanished. There were only the brambles, wall leading to impenetrable wall no matter which way he turned.
The thorn creature shadowed his every move, giving no heed to his injuries. He thought of it now as his guide through the thorns, but if so it was a poor one, following more often than leading. Giving him no insight, showing him no hidden paths.
“I wish I could leave.” Arpill held her hand over her navel, sitting up on her couch. The night breeze blew the curtain on the open window of her room.
“Leave?” Catrix leaned his head against her back. “And go where?”
She continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “What good is a wall of thorns, anyway? Protects us so we can live without really living.”
“What do you mean? We live, here in the city.” It was why he was leaving tomorrow to face the thorns, after all. So that they could all live there in the city, so he could do his part to earn its protection. He ran his hand down her arm and then turned her to face him. The low lamplight made her face impossible to read. “We live, don’t we?”
Finally, she dropped her head, letting her hair spill over her face. “No,” she said, her voice mumbled. “I’m not sure we do.”
Catrix didn’t know how to answer that. Maybe if he were an older man, a wiser man with the scars of two journeys through the thorns, he would know what to say. Instead he put his unblemished arms around her and let her cry.
When her tears seemed to ease up, he asked, “Will you still love me when I come back all scarred?” He tried to make it a joking question, but she didn’t laugh.
“Oh, Catch. Do I love you now?” Wiping the tears from her face, she didn’t let him answer, but added only, “Let’s sleep now. You need to be well rested for tomorrow.”
The thorn creature found a way through the labyrinth of brambles. Night had come, and another day, and his thoughts were muddled. Had it been two nights sleeping among the thorns? He remembered only flashes of time. When he tried to recall, he remembered events that seemed to go together at first, but thinking of them again he was sure they were separated by hours of wandering, by scars over scars. By nights he’d lost count of.
Catrix stumbled after the creature into the gap in the vegetation, eager to finally make it back to the city. No more worrying about what was right or wrong, only about recovering. At last, he could climb back up toward the gate, show his scars to the priests, let Arpill nurse him back to health.
If she would tend his wounds. What had she meant by her question—that of course she’d love him when he came back scarred, just like, of course, she had loved him before? Or had she been asking herself the question and unable to answer either one, the before or the after? His thoughts were muddled, and he didn’t know which it could be.
When he looked around for the way to climb up to the gate, he thought he must be even more muddled than he realized. Where was the wall? Where the towers of the city? Before him were only red rocks and light green brush. He breathed in the smell of sage.
The scent woke up his mind. Once, that scent had mingled with wax and dust, but there was no wax out here. He wasn’t looking toward the city, but the other way. He’d come through the forest of thorns to this other side, an empty land of threats and terrors.
Not entirely empty, though. He stared for a long time as the sun beat on his bleeding body and finally discerned a line of darker green across the arid land. Trees, perhaps. Whether they had vines and thorns he couldn’t say. But they appeared to mark the path of a stream or river. And on that water, or perhaps on a road that ran beside it, there were people moving.
People, strangers, not from the City of Thorns.
And a chance to learn what life might be like away from the city’s priests and taboos and protections.
Catrix’s breath came shallowly. He crouched down on his heels and spoke to the thorn creature. It leaned back on its haunches as if listening, as if judging everything he said.
“I was planning to go back.” He petted the creature, and its thistly fur didn’t even bother his numbed hands. “That was the reason for this, after all. To earn my scars, to help the city. But maybe Arpill is right, and it’s a broken place where no one really lives.”
He was silent for a time, watching the blur of movement by the line of trees across the land. He scraped at the backs of his hands and managed to dislodge one of the gorged leeches. It squirmed in the dusty earth.
“She’s expecting our child, you know. She won’t admit it, not quite yet. But I’m sure she is. Does that mean she loves me, or that she isn’t sure?”
Not that the creature would know such things. “Do you have a mate?” He closed his eyes as much as the thorns let him and sank to his knees.
“At least it means no one will make her take a scar walk. Not now, and when the baby is born, not for another few years. That gives me time.”
The thorn creature snuffled at him, pushing its prickly muzzle at his belly, then turning to look toward the river.
“You wanted to leave, too. Didn’t you?” He held his hand in front of the creature’s snout, like he’d seen people do with dogs. The animal ignored it. “You’re not the threat against the city and not the source of the prophecies or anything like that. When it seemed like you were herding me, that was my imagination. You’re just another animal that’s trapped here and realizing that you need to get out. That staying inside the thorns isn’t life, just like Arpill said.”
It cocked its head to listen. Maybe if he knew how to read scars he could have read the lines in its fur too, could have known the things he was only fumblingly guessing about.
But he knew something, knew that he was actually contemplating leaving, something that would never have occurred to him before this walk. Would never have occurred to him if the thorn creature hadn’t nudged him this way.
If he left, would he ever come back, though? Catrix thought of all the prophecies he’d ever heard the priests utter, all the women and men who had come back from their walks. No one had ever left entirely, to return months or years later. The old woman who had circled the entire city might have been gone for a dozen days, and that had been a point of wonder. Anything longer he’d have surely known.
They all came back from their scar walks to the life, such as it was, that they’d already known. Strengthening the grip that the priests had on the city. Offering their blood for that familiarity. No one had ever gone farther away and learned what life might be beyond the thorns and the control of the priests.
The thought of the old woman and the priests’ interpretation of her scars came back to him and made him stop to catch his breath. The threat, the fear, the danger that the thorns might be razed by some beast. He’d known it for so long, had breathed that truth with his first gasping cry, had sipped the knowledge as an infant with his milk. The portents had grown more pressing, more urgent. The priests needed their help, their blood, their everything. They’d focused their lives—hardly living—to address it. A danger was coming, a menace, a peril to the city and its wall of protection.
But maybe that wall of protection deserved to be torn down.
Maybe the threat was no danger but a freeing, a necessary change to tear down thorns and priests both.
And maybe…maybe he knew just what to do after all.
“I will return,” he told the creature. “Only not right away.” Placing one hand on its sinuous back, he pushed himself up to his feet. The creature squirmed but then stood firm, and its fur didn’t pierce his skin. This was what he had to do, for his own sake and for everyone else’s. To leave. And then to come back with a new purpose in mind.
“I will be the beast. I will return with a sword to cut a path through the vines, back to the city. A sword to bring me back to Arpill and our baby.” He lifted his head and let the sage smell fill his nose. “After all this, I am the danger to the city.”
Was this a betrayal, a failure to live up to the ideals of his home?
He thought of Arpill crying about the emptiness of life in the city. No, if it was a failure to want something better, then so be it. He addressed the thorn creature again. “You, I think, are just like me. Wanting out, wanting more. If not for ourselves, then for the others. And together we’ll be the ones who bring that change back, no matter the danger the priests think it will cause.”
Arpill might not take him back as her lover. The thought was a new kind of thorn piercing his mind, but he couldn’t ignore the possibility. A broken and scarred creature like he had become, who would want to? But it didn’t matter. If he could free her from the City of Thorns, then she could choose which way to go and where their child could grow. Could choose to live for real. And the child would not have to take a scar walk—ever.
A dozen paces from the vines he turned and looked back. The city’s highest towers showed just over the top of the bramble wall.
He spoke, shouting so the words would echo as far as they might, even if the vines swallowed the sound before it could reach the city. Maybe some hint of sound would make it to Arpill. “I will return!” The words caught in his throat as if trapped by thorns inside his own body. Let them stay half-spoken, unheard. The scars of the old woman and others already said all that needed to be said, in the only ways the people within, half-living, could understand.
He limped away, the thorn creature loping beside him. And whatever scars the world could give him, it would be something new, dangerous to the city, but touched with a promise of a different kind of life.