Thursday, January 16, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: The Cartographer's Potion

We're back at last to the Wendig Challenges. This was another random-title generator, and had a great set of words to select from. My offering, at 997 words including title.

The Cartographer’s Potion

The Cartographer gazed at the parchments on the worktable. A frown further creased his age-furrowed forehead. There was something missing, something that would make the maps live. He wanted to make them more than just bits of parchment with lines on them.

“It wouldn’t hurt if they could stand up to being rolled and folded and stuffed into a saddlebag in the rain, and take no hurt,” Lord Alfus suggested.

“You don’t want much,” the Cartographer replied.

“You’re the mage.”

“I am a cartographer.” He rubbed a shaking hand across his aching forehead.

“A cartographer. Yes.” Lord Alfus shifted in his chair, the mail shirt he never removed clinking slightly. “But you were a mage first.”

The Cartographer said nothing. His life was in this man’s hands, and it would be worth little if he did not produce results soon. He smiled grimly, though only in his mind where the lord could not see. His life was worth little in any case. Had the task he’d been set been one less to his taste, he’d have refused and died with a smile.

But to be ordered to produce the best maps ever made! To be given whatever help and resources and time he needed to gather the data and interview travelers and compare every map he could find to expand the limits of knowledge! Only one thing he had not been given. The Cartographer could not himself travel the world and gather that information firsthand. That right, however, was something Lord Alfus could neither grant nor withhold. He glanced down at his legs, withered and useless from a disease no magic could cure. He hadn’t long now. He could feel it.

The Cartographer reopened the long-running debate within himself. Lord Alfus had stolen his freedom for these last years of his life, and set him to serve the very ruler who had conquered and destroyed the Cartographer’s people. For that, he must be hated. The loss of home and freedom could not be forgiven.

And yet.

At home, the Cartographer had had nothing. Crippled by disease, he had been left a beggar. Lord Alfus had somehow learned what he was, learned what his own people had not known or understood, and had brought him here and made him a scholar once again. A captive scholar.

He looked across the room at a small cabinet in the corner. As a scholar, he had done more than make maps, though cartography was his first love. The cabinet held the product of years of study and experimentation. He could make the maps live, but someone must die to do it. Who should die was a decision the Cartographer could not yet make.

Who should die first, he reminded himself. Whatever he did, he would die, and soon. And the maps would live, and the world would know what he had done.

As bargains with demons went, it wasn’t bad.


Lord Alfus mingled with the lords and ladies of his realm, goblet in hand. Such parties bored him, but they allowed the nobles to show off to one another, and to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. That was important.

If the smile he wore could be called supercilious, most saw it as the condescension of great man to his people, and were flattered by his attentions. He made a point of speaking to each person in attendance.

The Cartographer was not present. The strange little man was nearing death, and no doubt did not care to spend what little strength he had left at a party. Alfus could not have said how he knew the man was dying, but he felt it. He thought it, and put the thought aside. It was of little moment, now that he, Lord Alfus, ruled all the civilized lands.

He smiled again, and turned to the man next to him. “And have you repaired the damages to your roads from the spring flooding, Sir Garreg?”


In his chambers in a distant part of the castle, the Cartographer laid a shaking hand on the pile of maps. He could do no more. His fingers would not hold the quill. He could barely raise a goblet to his lips without spilling the contents.

Two goblets stood on his table. One held watered wine, laced with something he had concocted to ease his pain. From time to time he took a sip, though never enough to prevent clear thought. He gripped the goblet with both hands to quell the shaking. Between drinks, he sat as though sleeping.

He did not sleep.


In the immense Royal Gallery, Lord Alfus patted his stammering noble on the shoulder. “Well done, Sir Garreg. Your tenants must be grateful to have such a lord.”

As you must also be, he had no need of saying.

The knight moved hastily away, dismissed and relieved to so be. Lord Alfus looked about to see who else needed his attention. His eye fell on the one man who failed to fear him, and he frowned. That must change, and soon.

Thinking of his plans, he raised the goblet to his lips and drank deeply.


The Cartographer felt the change, and reached for his own goblet. Not the wine this time, but the plain stone cup that smoked a bit as it stood, though the contents were not hot. By force of will he brought it to his lips with his left hand, the right still resting on the maps. He felt the changes begin, and drank deeply.

A surge of power burned the last life from the Cartographer at the same moment that Lord Alfus collapsed. Under the now lifeless right hand, the maps shifted and changed.

When, two days later, someone remembered the Cartographer in the chaos of a realm without a ruler, they found his lifeless body lying beside a set of maps. Maps which crawled with the movements of every living creature in the realm.


©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014


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