The Illustrated Woman
My body is a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours, an endless jigsaw puzzle, a patchwork quilt pieced together out of strokes of ink, bold and fine, light and dark, wavy and angular. Good thing that wielding dual blades (not always daggers; sometimes I pick up two swords as well, or even two barely wieldable war hammers), I can use both my left and my right hand with equal ease, which means that no inch of flesh on either side of me (on the front, at least) is going to be left uncovered.
I began tattooing myself back when I lived in Orzammar - in secret, at first, adding neat little rectangles and zigzags and dots where my clothes would conceal them, because I was not sure how my father’s law-abiding merchant side of the family would react to such a hobby. Tattoos are the hallmark of the casteless, after all, of my mother’s people: they are forced to walk with a brand of shame all their lives, shadows of dust, untouchable by respectable dwarves (unless, like my father, you are desperate for an heir and will turn to a pretty noble hunter ‘for help’); but some of them take pride in the lines etched into their skin, and expand them on purpose, adding new colours and geometrical forms till their whole body becomes a statement. 'Yes, I am casteless; you sodding sons of nugs have been trying to trample me down, to mix me into dust, but I am still standing, so eat it!’
I, on the other hand, was not really trying to make a statement. Not… Not like that. I wish I was, actually; I wish I was as bold as the casteless; I wish I stood up earlier, and gave a good, long glare to my father, with all the expectations he had for his precious 'heir’, and said, loud and clear,
'I am a woman, duster. Eat it’.
But I did not. Through most of my youth, I left those words unsaid, tucked away under my tongue, at the back of my throat like a lump that sometimes would not let me breathe. I was too afraid of how my family, the people around me would react: my father would probably just refuse too listen, absorbed as he was by listening to his own voice retell the plans he had flr my future; his merchant relatives, not too thrilled by him having taken in a noble hunter, would probably have thought me crazy, my head muddled by 'that damn brand’s foul blood’; and my mother’s kin, who were elevated in caste after I was born, would be angry and terrified, as caste is passed down from father to son and mother to daughter, and me being a daughter would have meant exile back to Dust Town for all of us.
So down my throat I pushed those words, choking on them in silence, and in the quiet of my room, I decorated my body with tattoos - which felt like the only way I could shape myself the way I wanted to. The only way I could have control over what I looked like, and actually smile when I touched my own skin.
But then, in my late twenties, a day finally came when the words that had so long burned at me from within burst out, loud and resounding, just like the bang of the door when I burst out of my father’s house in the Diamond Quarter and, dodging the guards with some secret tricks taught to me by a perpetually tipsy ex-casteless uncle, made it straight towards the surface.
Once out in the open, my head floating away into emptiness, I have mustered enough courage (once the initial wobbly feeling passed, that is, and I settled down in a human city) to begin inking the parts of me that everyone can see. My face. My neck. My forearms. And not just with abstract shapes, either: I have turned my skin into a chronicle of my adventures (and, since I stumbled my way into this Inquisition business, there have been many); a collection of Memories to rival the Shaperate’s, honouring the friends I have made and the journey we have all travelled together.
There is a swirly flame tongue curling round my right bicep, rising out of a twisting stream of water - a symbol of that line they say in the human Chant, about a woman who is made strong by her faith, so strong that, when she walks through fire, it touches her softly and gently, like water would. Or, well, at least that’s what I assume it means; I have felt too awkward about asking, being a supposedly heathen dwarf and all; I suspect that if I did, the Chantry ladies would have just clucked at me angrily instead of explaining. Either way, the fire and the water stand for Cassandra, while next to them, there is a picture of a rose, with blood-like droplets oozing off its curling petals.
I found the picture of the rose in one of those botany books Dorian and Vivienne dig up for me (at odds as they often are, they both call my fascination with surface plant life 'endearing’) - and I was very proud when I managed to copy it onto my skin. It symbolises Leliana, and I guess it would have been more logical to tattoo it on my other bicep, because Left and Right Hand of the Divine and all - but the spot on my left arm has already been taken by a swarm of bees, shaped like a pair of hands giving the middle finger. This one is for Sera; I added this design to my collection of tattoos in her presence, to amuse her when she grew restless and aggressive after our blood-curdling trek through the Raw Fade (apparently, this much walking upside down and wading through jiggly-bellied black spiders was too much even for most of the people who have dreams every night). The middle fingers stretch out when I flex, and this never fails to make Sera howl with laughter.
And now that I have mentioned Dorian and Vivienne, my flesh Memories also include a tattoo for each of them. The latter gets a string of diamonds, trailing along the veins of my left arm, with many facets and tiny sparkles floating around them; I was very meticulous when tracing their outlines, as Madame de Fer only deserves the very best. The former is symbolised by… no, not a snake; that would have been too predictable. His Memory is the image of the mouth of a cave, as seen from within, with stalactites and stalagmites framing it, a little bit of crosshatching showing the floor, and tiny clouds and rainbow just barely visible outside. This tattoo is personal for both of us: we have lived our youths inside a dark cave, Dorian and I (both figuratively and literally, in my case), stumbling in the dark, and stifled by always screaming on the inside - and then, we found our exit. I think that Dorian teared up a little when I showed the recently inked picture to him; though that might have just been the spicy food Bull was whipping up for us.
Bull’s tattoo, in turn, shows a literal bull racing across my calf (pun… probably intended), wrecking some vague dark squares and rectangles, with a tiny cream-puff on his back (that little thing has stick-figure-like limbs, spread out gleefully, and a broad grin on its face). I do not quite remember how that thing appeared on my leg; I think I may still have been drunk after celebrating our very first successful dragon hunt. But, ridiculous as it is, I cherish it as much as the others; Bull crouched down next to me when the dreadnought burned, the gaze of his only eye travelling to where he knew that charging beast was drawn and, nodding in silent understanding, I kicked off my muddy boot and let him take the night of it in, until a small smile touched his lips.
Josephine’s tattoo is an intricate lace-like pattern round my ankle, retouched with golden ink, based on the Antivan leg jewellery she showed me when we decided to distract ourselves from the finale of that House of Repose business by going shopping in Val Royeaux. Whereas Varric’s encircles my other ankle: the words 'Well, shit’ written on a serpentine papyrus scroll in the most over-the-top calligraphic font I could think of. He loves it to bits, by his own admission, and has made me promise that if I ever trip up my enemies in combat, I use only this foot.
Cole, who often watches me work on the canvas of my skin, making those jumbled comments of his, the more creepily accurate the more you think of them, has asked for a rabbit - because 'everything is better with rabbits’. So now there is a chubby long-eared fuzzball nestled about over my shoulder blade, 'little paws hopping, hurrying, hearing the whispers of the stories that live in your skin’. While I made the design, I had to ask Solas to help ink it, since I read somewhere that tattooing people is a huge part of elven culture, which he knows so much about - but for some reason, he seemed disgusted, if not outright horrified by my request, almost slamming his door in my face with a sharp, slightly hoarse 'No!’. But after, startled by such an abrupt change in my usually reserved and courteous elven companion’s behaviour, I explained what my tattoos were for, he mellowed a little and gave me an apology (a bit stiff one, but an apology nonetheless), and we spend the afternoon occupied by a very interesting conversation about the memories of the dwarves Solas had seen in the Fade (I especially loved the one about the casteless rising up to defend their city from the darkspawn when no-one else would), while I lay on his couch and he etched a rabbit into my back.
He proved surprisingly good at it (though he might have cheated with a spell or something; you never know with that magicky folk), so, since my other shoulder blade still had a blank spot left, I offered Solas to add a tattoo of his own, one that he thought would best represent himself, but he shook his head softly and evaded the subject, offering to draw me a lion for Cullen’s strength and courage, instead. I agreed, especially since I had recently had to comfort the Commander in his struggle to break free from lyrium addiction, and an image like that seemed encouraging - and quite a fine lion it has turned out to be, too, with many curls in his mane, like frothing sea waves, with snatches of shattered chains flying off him in all directions. As for Solas’ tattoo, I still do not have one - because body art seems like a bit of sensitive subject for him, and I would rather not hurt his feelings. He is my friend, after all.
And finally, right over my heart, there is an image of a shield, which I began working on late at night, when still caught up in the feverish flush of the kiss I shared with Blackwall - that is why the wings adorning it on either side stand not only for the griffins, the ancient and noble companions of the Grey Wardens, but also for this soaring feeling that spreads inside my chest whenever I catch his gaze and he calls me the thing that a younger me would never have dreamed of being called. 'My Lady’.
That feeling is still there, even after that life-changing step he took forward on the gallows, with such a look on his face that you might have thought there was a bottomless black abyss at his feet. That feeling is still there - perhaps even stronger for it, because I know what it is like, living among people who are convinced that you are someone else. And luckily enough, when I first tattooed myself with the shield, I never really added any emblem to it - this has allowed me to fill it in after Blackwall’s judgement. With the picture of one of my absolute favourites among the weird things that happen in this vast and wondrous sky: rain clouds drawing apart, a single ray of sunlight shining through.