The challenge comes from Chuck Wendig’s blog: terribleminds.com
The random numbers got me “Cartographer’s Champion” and yes, I’ll admit I had to look up cartographer. I went a smidgen over the work count, but only by a few hundred. I hope that’s acceptable Sir Wendig! *winces and offers cheesy, hopeful smile*
The Cartographer’s Champion
He couldn’t believe his bad luck. Protection duty for a sniveling whippet of a man who made maps for a living was about the worst assignment Correk could think of, and half a day on patrol had confirmed his sense of dread.
At first Correk ignored all insipid protests uttered from behind him but after three hours trekking through cold rain with the little man whining, he wheeled and stabbed his boot heel into the mud.
“Are you aware my purpose is to protect you from anyone or anything with even a thought of causing you harm? Given that I may end up your personal messiah, you could try complaining less.”
Using the back of his hand to clear a drip of snot from the end of his nose, the Cartographer lifted his chin, his watery eyes meeting Correk’s.
“And are you aware what even a single poor review from someone of my standing could do to your future prospects?”
Correk went to speak, to impress upon this minute man his new reality and the dangers of travel in the Open Territories, but he could see the man’s shoulders shaking with cold, and his chin trembling, gods help him, and found he no longer wanted to put the Cartographer in his place.
“Nevermind. Forget it.” Correk pulled his own soaking hood close to his face. “At mid-day we’ll break for food. If we’re lucky I’ll find wood dry enough to burn and maybe we can warm our bones some.”
He turned from the obvious relief on the map-maker’s face and walked, wondering how the fool planned to survive the day, much less the month he’d been given to document Territory III. And the Territory better bear fruit, thought Correk, for the only thing capable of making his current assignment tolerable would be his percentage of whatever untamed treasures they discovered.
Ragged land it was, with strenuous hills falling away to slick stone or flat, flaky rock that slid against its brethren in an onslaught of sound and instability. Plants proliferated, their colors varied, and Correk suspected their moist layer at the base of tall trees to be full of poisons. Leading was his calling however, and despite bearing a sack heavy with the possessions of two men, and the burden of his charge’s ineptitude, Correk found peace in taking on the strength of nature, especially when he could hear only the slick smack of rain on leaves as he did now.
He paused as his leg cleared a fallen tree and registered the silence of the map-maker. “You alright back there?” he called.
“Fine, yes, yes. Or rather I will be. In a moment,” came the reply from some distance, and when Correk turned he saw only the top of the Cartographer’s wet head, grey hair gone near as dark as the rest from the rain. As he neared Correk noticed the man had his foot stuck in a hole filled with pulpy mud, and was ineffectual at all attempts to wrest it loose.
“Here. Hold on while I…” Correk bent low and twisted the man’s toes to the right and with a sucking sound the appendage came free, though Correk further filthied his hands grappling for the Cartogpaher’s swallowed shoe. Straightening, he extended his hand and its mound of glob because by the grace of all gods, he did still have dignity, and refusing to put on the footwear of others seemed a solid stance to take toward maintaining it.
“Much appreciation, thank you,” said the Cartographer with several quick bobs of his head. Correk felt the man’s hand on his arm as he worked at emptying his shoe and resisted the urge to shake it off.
“You’re lucky that hole’s not home to some creature or you’d be lamenting more than a grimy shoe right now.”
The map-maker’s face went pale so fast Correk had to look away, into the woods, his habit of horrifying the horrified losing appeal faster than he was losing patience. He waited until they were on their way again before he spoke.
“Is this your first taste of the Territories?” Correk figured he might as well know something of the man who was to be his sole companion for good deal of time.
“Oh no. This is one of many. A great many,” the wee man replied, his voice right at Carrek’s back. “Though they have been lucrative almost all have been in the south, and the land there is far…gentler.”
He was right about that. Correk’s experience with southern Open Territory was that it lacked challenge, and the endless ocean vistas, sand dunes, and palms brought him no joy.
“What made the Ancients think you were the right man for the job, then? Or did they not know what they were getting you into?” Correk felt the sneer on his face and the scorn in his voice and thus the map-maker’s reply came as a surprise.
“The Ancients know I am right because I am the best cartographer in all of the Realms.”
Correk pivoted without warning and the Cartographer slammed into his chest, rheumy eyes peering up at the guardian through the hair plastered to his forehead.
“Pardon me. I didn’t see–”
“That’s a lot of ego for a very small man.” Correk took a step back and folded his arms. He was beginning to wonder of he’d been saddled with a heretic, and a vain one at that.
“Well, yes. I suppose it might seem that way.” The Cartographer smoothed down his sodden wool tunic as he spoke. “But I speak truth.” His gaze cast to the side. “May I show you?”
Correk’s first inclination was to tell the pint-sized purveyor to shut his mouth for the rest of the day but he did in fact have a kernel of interest in the man’s claim. He began to shrug the heavy sack from his back.
“I suppose we can rest now.” A bit of looking and Correk found some respite from the rain under the dense foliage of a spotted bush and stood watching as the map-maker tucked his back well within the cover of leaves. From his tunic the Cartographer pulled both a sheaf of pale bark and a slender column of charcoal and neither of them spoke as the Cartographer’s nimble fingers moved with great speed.
“Understand my big friend, I am the best at what I do because of how I see things.” And the map-maker lifted the bark to show Correk a list of plants, rock formations, and trees, each with its own tiny numerical notation. “This is only the beginning of a good map, of course,” he said with a grin. “But all the rest is up here.” He tapped his temple. “Everything I see.”
“Surely not everything,” Correk objected and before the Cartographer could log a response he was crying out, his slight body bent over to avoid Correk’s lunge. The guardian drew back from the bush and threw to the ground a snake, lithe yet no longer lethal with a broken neck.
“You saved me.” The Cartographer stared at the lifeless serpent. And then Correk was on his knees in the mud, one hand clutching his arm as the Cartographer scrambled up to see the twin circles already darkening the guardian’s wrist. Fear filled Correk’s eyes.
“No, no. Don’t lose hope just yet,” coaxed the map-maker. He placed Correk’s thumb on the vein turning purple with poison and showed him how to press down. “I remember thirty meters back there was a tree on the right, one with great astringent properties to its bark.” He gave Correk a small smile. “We will draw the venom out, my friend, and when you live another day, we will both remember what we’ve learned. That no matter who we are, there is a little savior in all of us.”