The Drowned Scroll
by D. A. Madigan
part 1 of 2
It is sometimes unwise to trust overmuch in the words of wizards, this is true.
But only a fool disregards them entirely.
— Gavedor, Court Recorder, reign of King Jerrane of Aquilia
* * *
Somewhere it sits, loosely rolled, all but forgotten within a dry and dusty drawer in some nameless scholar’s cluttered study. He found it in an odd little shop, full of shadows and cobwebs, gloomy corners rustling with dingy relics of half-forgotten yesteryears, casually thrown down on a table full of bric-a-brac, like everything else there priced at a coin or two.
Liking the way the parchment felt between fingers and thumb as he unrolled it, and enjoying the neat pen strokes that delineated the details of some sunken, secretive valley holding an unknown, exotic city nestled at its narrow end, an intricate network of winding, narrow streets and scrabbling alleyways, lavishly illustrated with wonderfully sketched miniature buildings, fountains, walls and gateways, and the beautifully drawn compass rose superimposed over a strangely serpentine, triple-sailed ship, and the deft copperplate of the hand lettered labels — “Street of the Seafloor Grotto,” “Temple of Drowned Skulls,” “Sea Urchin’s Venom Fountain,” and “Looted Hulk Tavern,” among many others — he purchased it, took it home, showed it to a few friends, who nodded and agreed that it was indeed a beautifully drawn thing, and a lovely curio, and a fine work of art..
And, eventually, he tossed it absently into a desk drawer already three-quarters full of other oddments and curios, and gave it not a further thought in the world.
And there it has rested, ever since.
Someday something he reads or that someone else says to him may remind him of the scroll’s existence, and he may go seeking it again, and after a few minutes or few hour’s rummaging, if he doesn’t give up first, or become distracted, he may unearth it from the depths of its drawer and unroll it once more, holding it up to the light of a flickering lamp or torch, and the scroll with its finely etched depiction of a distant, danger-filled, perhaps imaginary metropolis may once more feel the movement of air and avid eyes across its finely crafted vellum. But for now, it simply sits there, loosely rolled, within a dry and dusty drawer in a nameless scholar’s cluttered study.
* * *
The heat was like a gut-punch hitting every square inch of the human body all at once — not one impact and over, no, but something constant, unending, smothering a person like a wet blanket on a cook fire, sucking the very breath from the lungs, even in the deep gloom beneath the hellish poison green of the overhead foliage. The air was sodden as a steam room towel; the effort of moving it in and out of one’s chest was all but exhausting.
Had Markior’s mother’s mother not been a decadent southerner (a source of shame Markior’s family disliked speaking of) he would have died of the heat long ago. As it was, as long as he kept mainly to the shady areas, he survived, but he suffered.
“Ye’re a decoration, y’know,” the old lady sweeping out the street gutter gnashed at Markior through toothless gums, cackling with obscure delight at the pronouncement. “A gold button, a bit o’ fancy braid. ’E don’t need no bodyguard; everyone in Yat-Latan is so a’feared o’ ’is spells they’d never dare draw steel on ’im.”
She paused to draw breath; Markior earnestly but unfortunately vainly hoped she would choke on it. “Not ’is spells so much,” she nattered on, after a second, “but that map o’ ’is.”
Markior had heard this all before from many different sources, but it was displeasing to have the wrinkled old thrall who swept out the gutters on Seafloor Grotto Street — no doubt in exchange for a few coppers every ten-day from the shop owners there, and the right to sleep in one or another of their basement entryways after nightfall — state it so plainly.
“You never know,” Markior said, his young, well favored face flushing. “There could be a danger his spells won’t cope with. Pirates, or zuthang, or perhaps another wizard... something not afraid of this famous map of his.”
The old woman spat in the dust at Markior’s feet. “Fleh,” she retorted. “Pirates come here to sell, not steal; wizards have better things to do than haunt the Isthmus... Well, all the wizards besides ’imself, I mean... and as to the zuthang, well, if a race o’ magic resistant lizards that walks on they hind legs and carries odd curved blades and spits poison as far as a street thief can throw a knife really exists, they certainly don’t waste they time ’ere at the bottom o’ the world.”
She fixed Markior with her one eye that seemed to have grown to three times normal size, perhaps to compensate for the ruined socket where her other had once sat. “And it’s not ’s if the likes of ye could deal with any o’em if they did appear in quest o’ y’r master’s head. Pretty northern sword or no pretty northern sword. Ye’d foul y’r trews and run off screamin’, if ye didn’t die instantly o’ a heart seizure.” She nodded wisely and spat again, this time with the edges of her gob sprattling Markior’s fur and leather boots.
Markior took his anger in hand; there was nothing to be gained from arguing with this harping hag, and while he doubted anyone would miss her much if he ran her through, the Seafloor Grotto Street merchants would complain to his master and demand compensation, and then master would most likely take it out of his hide.
He couldn’t take it out of Markior’s wages, because Markior had none. Food and lodging for the next three cycles were Markior’s due... that, and the ‘pretty northern sword’ Markior wore at his side, that had been the price of his hire to this southern dirt hole.
Two seasons and another cycle — then Markior’s bond debt would be paid, and he and his fine Aquilian steel sword could get on a serpent ship and sail north. A ten-day or so sleeping on deck and working the rigging or, if necessary, the oars, for his passage, and he would be in Lesser Ra Tanis.
Caravans left Lesser Ra Tanis going northward every cursed day of the thrice-accursed southern cycle. He would hire on as a guard and, eventually, one fine season not too far forward of that, he would be back in Aquilia, a seasoned warrior armed with a sword finer than any that most knights or lords could boast.
Branelle might well be married by then, or at least, sworn to someone else, but that was for the gods to say. And even if it were so, well, she’d had younger sisters...
Markior was snapped forcibly out of his pleasant daydream by a small but weighty leather bag bouncing off his sleeveless fur vest, causing the two finger-length wide brass buttons set on either side of its chest thongs to jangle discordantly.
“Pick that up and come along,” Markior’s master, the mage Aphaltholios said flatly. “And at least try to look like you’re paying attention.”
Flushing again, Markior bent and snatched up the fist-sized wash leather bag. It would contain material components for whatever spells Aphaltholios had been commissioned to cast over the last ten days or so; today was Kemtos Noi, “Sacrifice Day,” the one day in out of each ten when metaphysical powers were strongest in the world.
In Aquilia people would gather in family shrines and pass the day praying together for protection from roaming shades and malefic spirits; in the decadent south, though, folks made a single sacrifice at whichever temple they favored, or that they passed first when out and about their business... and here in the far southernmost pest hole that was the Isthmus, in its only city of Yat-Latan, they did no more than wear an extra protective amulet or two. Only Aphaltholios cared much for Kemtos Noi at all.
He did all his spell casting on this day, which made it a day Markior generally looked forward to. After the morning market run, they would return to Aphaltholios’ richly appointed manor — a three-room dwelling built of expensive imported stone with a thatched roof that an Aquilian serf would have sneered at, but, well, there you were — and Aphaltholios would lock himself inside and Markior would have the whole day to idle away in the courtyard without.
He could practice with his sword, or train in footwork, or, if a vendor happened to wander by, purchase a few honeyed dates, assuming the overweight wife of the merchant who lived down the street was willing to give him a few coppers, which she usually was...
“I realize this isn’t at all what you expected when you accepted my offer in Lesser Ra Tanis,” Aphaltholios said as he began to walk towards Dragonscale Circle. “It isn’t what I expected, either. But you chose to accompany me here, and you’ve chosen to remain in my service, and I expect you to at least make an effort to pay some attention to your surroundings.”
Markior knew better than to respond. Certainly, this wasn’t what he’d expected — in Lesser Ra Tanis, he’d been one of two dozen applicants for the position of Aphaltholios’ bodyguard, and had felt honored when Aphaltholios had chosen him. And he’d been more gratified than otherwise when he’d learned that the station was all for show; Aphaltholios had been wooing a highborn lady, and a highborn gentleman simply was not seen in society, or even in public, without an armed retainer.
Markior had looked forward to an easy three cycles of being an ornament to his master’s social status, although he had found Lesser Ra Tanis terribly hot and humid compared with his native north.
But then things had gone spectacularly pear-shaped — Markior was still dim on the actual details. All he really knew was that Aphaltholios had fallen out of favor with astonishing swiftness, and if the mage hadn’t been able to cast a fast teleport spell, the two of them would most likely have ended up burnt at a common stake by the howling mob that had condensed like dew outside Aphaltholios’ lovely mansion.
As Aphaltholios had explained, there must have been more than just a mob at work, as a powerful spell to block teleportation had been put in place all around his mansion as well. But one place any mage could always teleport to was the place of his birth, and so, Aphaltholios had returned here... And when Markior had been forced to quickly choose between accompanying his master or returning the sword he’d already invested nearly a season of his life in, well, he’d found himself here, as well.
He’d never in his life imagined there could be any place on the mortal plane hotter and more humid than Lesser Ra Tanis, and now, he didn’t have to.
“And there you are, daydreaming again,” Aphaltholios commented dryly as Markior tripped on a low curbstone and nearly went sprawling in the muck. “I should trade you to Zarthane for his draft mule, I really should. I’d get more use out of the draft mule, and you’d get to learn to do something useful.”
Markior paled at that. Zarthane was a boy lover, the sort of loathsome deviant that would be hounded out of any Aquilian village by a stone throwing mob, but whose perversions were tolerated or, often, even encouraged in the decadent south.
And he’d seen how Zarthane looked at him, even though, at the age of sixteen, Markior was a man grown by any civilized standard. Zarthane made his living training prettyboys to serve in brothels, or as concubines to rich masters in Lesser Ra Tanis, and he enjoyed his work enormously.
If Markior somehow wound up as Zarthane’s bond servant, Markior would have to kill the worthless wretch... which would inevitably end with Markior tied to a millstone and tossed from Executioner’s Rock into the deeps of the Gulf of Tanis, perhaps with a judicious slash or two across the back of his legs, to attract the kreelok.
“I’m sorry, Master,” Markior said, quite sincerely. “I’ll pay more attention, I swear it.”
Aphaltholios merely grunted. They had reached his house. “Stay out here, useless,” Aphaltholios said flatly. “Turn all visitors away until the morrow.”
“Aye, master,” Markior said, bobbing his head. He knew the Kemtos Noi routine very well.
* * *
Inside, Belrok the Black was stuffing a leather sack with gold and jewels. Belrok knew well that all wizards were rich; for some reason he neither knew nor much cared about, wizards preferred gold above all other metals (well, who didn’t?) and always kept a large supply of well cut gems about, too.
Of course, few thieves were brave enough to beard a sorcerer in his own lair, and Belrok was no exception. But he’d carefully scrutinized his chosen target the last four days, and knew the mage’s routine well. Up with the dawn, a few hours chanting muffled by the stone walls of his keep, then off to the Looted Hulk to drink for the rest of the day while studying some volume of lore he’d have his tame Aquilian prettyboy tote along for him. Not much of a life for a wizard, but he seemed to have the local populace thoroughly cowed, judging from the ridiculous stories they all told of the mage’s prowess...
Belrok froze as he heard a key in the lock of the front door, which was at the foot of a flight of stone stairs he himself was barely five feet down an upstairs hall from. Today of all days the gods-damned magus chose to come back from the inn early...
Well, in Belrok’s native Votaria there was a saying about wizards — their sorcerous powers diminished in proportion to the size of the blade you sank through their black hearts. Belrok hadn’t intended to test that this day, but the gods sent men trials, and a warrior could only do his best with them. Belrok reached for the much-used, well-honed shortsword hanging at his belt...
Copyright © 2009 by D. A. Madigan