Richter was five the first time he saw the tattoo on his grandfather’s shoulder. He didn’t know the symbol, but it looked to his child’s eyes like a bull, snorting and fierce. He’d seen such animals in storybooks, ones his parents and grandfather told him never to mention to anyone, and so when he saw it he hadn’t mentioned what it looked like, only asked what it was.
“Nothing to be concerned about,” his grandfather had said. “Only a remnant of the past.” Then he’d pulled on his fresh shirt and proceeded to act as though the tattoo did not exist and Richter had not seen it.
He was eleven the next time he saw that symbol, in a book this time, one he was allowed to admit he was reading. A book that talked about the rebellion now fifty years in the past, where those who stood against the Golden King were crushed, and the Gods they worshiped forced from the world by the Light of the Molten One. For the first time, he understood why he needed to forget the tattoo, why he could not admit to anyone he had grown up on stories of those other Gods, why he must never say he knew they had not gone after all.
The Golden King rules all, with the might of the Molten One behind him. The symbol of the Ram, that beast of the mountains, was on all things, always with the heart of the forge blazing from its forehead. All other symbols, the Bull, the Deer, the Gazelle, and the Moose, had been removed from every surface when the rebellion was defeats. Books and tapestries, livery and robes, had all been burnt in the centres of every town, and those who had followed the defeated Gods had been forced to swear their allegiance to the Molten One and the Golden King, or be thrown into the forge themselves.
His history book, when he was all but eleven, detailed those executions in excruciating detail, and for the first time in his life, he feared what would happen if anyone discovered the books in his home, the tattoo on his grandfather’s shoulder. It should have, he learned, been burned from his grandfather’s skin, should have felt the press of heated iron and been removed by the touch of the Molten One. He did not dare ask how his grandfather had kept it, hidden it, for so long.
He is fifteen when his grandfather dies. Before the undertaker comes to claim the body, he checks his grandfather’s shoulder, just in case, and finds the tattoo already burned off. His mother finds him as he replaces his grandfather’s shirt, places a hand on his shoulder, and says nothing. His grandfather is burnt with all honours, the Molten One’s praises raised in song and the town asks that his grandfather be accepted into the Halls of Crafting. Even as he sings the words, Richter hopes, with everything he is, that his grandfather will instead be taken into the Sparing Ring, where the Warrior of Old tests and trains all his faithful. He hopes the Ring still exists, that the Warrior of Old, symbolized by the bull, is still there waiting, as his parents and grandparents have always said he is.