Marcus watched as the thief pulled a cylinder from her pack that was the size of her forearm. He wondered if that was it. She uncapped the cylinder and pulled out a roll of parchment. Marcus held his breath. But when the thief, Lily, glanced up at him and saw his expression, she smirked.
“This isn’t it,” she said. Then she sighed. Her hand flicked to her collar and suddenly there was something in her hand. It was only the size of her longest finger. A fine bit of parchment, it seemed. Nothing special. But that was it. She was the one, the Only Honorable Thief. And that bit of parchment was it.
The Protean Scroll.
“I want people to think I’m a charlatan. That I get the job done by other means. That way no one will steal it. And also people will think I’m far cleverer than I actually am,” Lily said, putting the scroll away.
Marcus had learned much about the scroll. Like many, he had believed it might be a trick, a slight of hand, until he actually used the scroll himself. He transformed the scroll into a teardrop for ten heartbeats.
The Protean Scroll was said to be able to transform into whatever was written on it. There were rules. But within the bounds of those rules, the scroll was a powerful asset. If one was trapped in the middle of a storm with no shelter, one could write on the scroll and it would turn into a warm and sturdy cave.
The scroll could not turn into a living creature. If a timespan was not specified in the writing, the effects lasted for only one day and one night, after which, the scroll turned back into itself. If a timespan or specific details were written down, the scroll would follow them. So if a lady needed a pair of white gloves embroidered with yellow flowers, the scroll would become so. Once the scroll had transformed into one object, it could not be that same object again. But if the details could be changed, one could get around that rule. So a lady could next ask for a white pair of gloves with no embroidery.
The scroll could not transform into anything perishable, like food. That is, it could, but the effects vanished when it turned back into a scroll. So if someone turned it into soap and cleaned themselves, they would be dirty again when the soap turned back into the scroll. If someone turned it into food and ate it, the hunger would return when the food turned back into the scroll. Such transformations also did not follow the day-and-night cycle, but reversed almost immediately. The scroll could not force love or death. If the bearer attempted it, not only would the scroll not work, but it would vanish and reappear elsewhere, and the bearer would lose the scroll. The scroll could not bend the will of another, and for that reason, it could not be used to wish for peace and good will between all.
But there were many things that the scroll could become. And among them were other magical items, like doorways, or flying shoes.
“No one else can help my village,” Marcus said as he and the thief shared a pot of hot tea against a frozen night. The inn was the finest in town. If the thief accepted his offer, he would only have enough riches to enjoy one night in the place.
“How’s that?” Lily asked. She took a sip and sat back, comfortable but poised. Her eyes were a dark shade of green such as he had never seen, and they twinkled in the light of the lantern set on the heavy wooden table they shared.
Marcus hesitated. Though he liked her as soon as they met, he did not trust the thief, but he did trust his own knowledge. He had learned much about the scroll, and just as much about its current bearer. His knowledge told him she was honorable when it came to the keeping of secrets. Even if she told his secret, it would do her no good. He took a breath and leaned toward her to tell his tale.
Marcus warmed his hands against the mug. “The village is protected by a charm that was cast upon it many generations ago to protect it when the lands surrounding it were…rougher than they are now. Many suppose the charm is no longer needed, but the village thrived without worry of invasion. You see, no one can find the village. Even those who once lived there cannot find it from outside. So those who leave can never come back.”
Lily nodded knowingly. She held up her mug and before she could speak, Marcus knew what she would say. He covered a smile behind another sip of tea as she began to reminisce about the time she stumbled upon a strange land full of things and people that seemed familiar and unfamiliar, apples that were colored blue, and people who spoke a language she had never heard and yet understood perfectly. They had many enchanted scrolls of many sizes. They were as common as pebbles in that land, and she was given one as a souvenir, along with a grander gift that she somehow lost along the way. She never found her way back to that land, and suspected it was enchanted to stay hidden.
That was one of many stories she was known to have told about how she obtained the Protean Scroll. Sometimes she wouldn’t say how she came upon it and how she knew anything about it, only that she earned it. Sometimes she would say she was once a warrior for a minor lord and he gave it to her as a reward, not knowing its value. Sometimes she claimed that it was a lover who gave it to her as a gift when she was very young and naïve after he confessed to her that he was a god and could not stay with her, for he was in fact married and feared his heavenly wife would rage.
Marcus knew of these varied stories, because he looked into the thief—as he had looked into many others—before going to her. He did not trust her to tell the truth. But in all the stories he’d heard, one thing remained common, she only accepted payment if she delivered what was asked for. That was the one point of honor she seemed to hold to. And being that thieves had no honor, she earned the reputation of being the Only Honorable Thief.
“You left of your own will,” she said, frowning, “knowing you might never be able to return. That was foolish.”
“I have been traveling all the realm,” Marcus said. “And I think you may be the one who can help me, and help my village.” He shook his head. “Whatever the cost…we will pay it.”
Lily’s eyes seemed to stop twinkling for a moment. She leaned toward him and gazed into his own eyes as if she were trying to read the truth of his story. At last, she leaned back and spoke. “We can discuss that later. I don’t collect a reward unless I fulfill my assigned task.” She pointed a finger at him. “And I don’t kill or harm people, well, I’ve harmed in the way of defending myself. But I’ve never killed.”
“I need you to steal something for me. And then I need for you to use your scroll to open a door back into my village.”
The twinkle returned to her eye. “Ah, that’s why you need me. Here I thought I was charming you with hot food and drink and good company. And all you wanted was my scroll.”
Marcus frowned in confusion. He had been honest that was what he wanted from her. But then he realized she was jesting. He had been so focused on his single purpose, his thoughts and feelings mired in his quest for so many months, that he had forgotten how to be at ease.
“What is it that you want me to steal?”
“A tin box, simply adorned. I will tell you more once you accept my offer.”
“What’s inside the box?”
“That is none of your concern.”
“I just want to assure that it won’t be a danger to me.”
“It will not. I just need for you to steal the box.” Marcus now pointed to her. “I will not pay if you look inside the box. And I will know if you are lying.”
Lily chuckled. “I doubt that you could tell if I’m lying.” She stopped and looked at him seriously. “Then again, I will not take you lightly, for you may be more than what you seem, and then I would be the fool, wouldn’t I?” She slapped him on the shoulder. “It’s not a danger to anyone else either, is it, what’s in the box?”
Marcus smiled. “You may refuse my offer, if you wish.”
“If I do, how will you get back home?”
Marcus’s smile faded just a bit before he shored it up again. “I won’t.”
“You’ll just give up on your grand quest, whatever that is?”
Marcus took a breath and sighed. He felt the ache in his back of the long hours of wandering, sitting before books and scrolls in archives, of carrying the burden of an entire village full of souls.
“Marcus, old man, you look as if you have the cares of a kingdom on your head. What is this quest of yours? Are you out to rescue your lady love from some wicked rival?” She leaned back and crossed her arms. “If it’s something like that, I wouldn’t mind joining the adventure. I don’t like bullies.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes. “You don’t think thieves are bullies?”
He was teasing, but Lily dropped her gaze. “Sometimes,” she said. “When they steal from those who don’t deserve to be robbed.”
“And who is it that deserves to be robbed?”
Lily shrugged. “Those who have more than they need.”
“How did you come to be the judge of that measure?” Marcus asked, raising a brow.
He had expected the look of flustered anger that the thief threw him when she realized who he wanted her to steal from. She had thrown him many such looks, and each one sent a wave of fear through his gut, fear that she would refuse the task. But she did not. She merely glared.
They were perched atop the high wall that surrounded the courtyard and towers where there dwelled a great wizard. In Marcus’s researches, there were a few folk in the realm who had what he needed, but of those, the wizard’s towers had seemed the easiest to breach, especially for one bearing a magical scroll.
Indeed, the thief had gotten them up to the top of the tower by turning the scroll into a plank of enchanted wood that floated. Marcus was pleasantly surprised by how easy this part of his quest was turning out to be. But then Lily told him the dangers of transforming the scroll into a magical object. The longer the transformation lasted, the less control the bearer of the scroll would have over the object. So she would go the rest of the way alone, and she would have to act quickly.
Lily had written a failsafe into her request in case the floating plank began to give her trouble. If she said a certain word, the plank would transform back into a scroll, even if the timespan she had written upon the scroll had not yet passed. It would be dangerous for her, if she lost control of the plank while she floated to the tower where the box was held.
Feeling guilty, Marcus offered to go, but the thief smirked. “You just want to get your hands on my scroll. Well, never mind that. I’ll handle this. It’s what you’re paying me for.”
With that, she floated up and toward the tower where, according to Marcus’s reading, the box was held. He hoped the wizard was not the type to change his mind often about where he kept his things.
Marcus waited, pacing atop the tower. He waited and he worried. The box did not contain anything of particular value to the wizard. Surely there would be no guards, or spells of protection. And if there were, the thief would handle them. It was her job. She had stolen from wizards and witches and like folk before.
Hours passed. Marcus worried about his quest, to be sure, but he also feared for the thief and dreaded some awful fate for her. The day had already been dimming when she floated away from him. Soon it was the dead of dark and Marcus shivered in blackness, not daring to light even a small candle.
He fell asleep. He thought he had only grown drowsy for a moment, but when he opened his eyes, the dark had faded somewhat. He had only woken because someone had dropped down beside him.
Lily handed him the tin box carved with crude runes that he could not read. But he recognized their shapes.
“Tell me it’s the right one,” she said in a low voice.
As they went on their way, the thief told the tale—and some of it must have been true—of how she indeed lost control of the floating plank, just before she reached the window of the tower she aimed for. She had no choice but to set down at the base of the tower and transform the plank back into the scroll. There were guards all about and they seemed to be moving freely, so she transformed the scroll into one of the guards’ uniforms and marched right into the tower. But the upper levels of the tower were forbidden even to the guards. Only apprentices of the wizard were allowed up there. All the apprentices knew each other. Lily could not have fooled them. She was forced to use the scroll in a way she had not wanted to unless she was one day in dire trouble. She transformed it into a cloak of invisibility. She walked up and past all the apprentices, found the box, and walked back out.
She could not transform the scroll into a floating plank a second time. And she did not want to risk transforming it into any kind of magical object too many times in a row. So she had transformed the scroll into a ladder of rope that was hung from the wall. It took her many hours and many stops for rest, before she made it over the top. She wanted rest after a night of climbing, but not so close to the wizard’s tower. She felt the box would be missed, even if it were a trinket. There would be a price to pay. But Marcus had promised her he would help her pay it, and he would keep that promise.
Marcus wondered, however, if she had indeed gotten through the window on the plank, obtained the box without much trouble, and simply found someplace to sleep for the night, just to give him a fright in vengeance for making her steal from a great wizard. Her eyes seemed bright, her hands not red enough, and her step a bit too springy for one who had spent the night climbing a wall.
Knowing what was to come next, Marcus regretted that she must come with him. She seemed a lively and cheerful sort, for all that her profession was a dishonest one. But she would not believe him if he told her to wait outside the village for the payment he had promised her.
As they traveled away from the wizard’s towers and toward where his village was, she told him many a tale of her adventures with the scroll and of all the objects she had transformed it into. One time, she needed to escape from a warlord whose prize flail she had stolen on behalf of a rival. She ran toward a river and jumped into the rapids. The warlord’s minions thought her mad, until a boat appeared in the water. Then there was the time she transformed the scroll into a flute that could play any tune that was demanded of it, so she could prove herself a lady of great talent and gain entry into the court of a suspicious monarch to steal a few royal gems. Lily kept a log of all the objects she had transformed the scroll into and read it often, so she would not try to transform the scroll into the same object twice. She spoke of settling down someday and passing the scroll on to her daughter, for its magic would be restored when it was passed to a new bearer.
At last, they reached the borders of his realm, and Marcus saw that the thief grew quiet and curious. She had never been in those lands before.
The forests were lush but silent. And while the rivers they passed did rush, they did so quietly. It was as if all the realm were subdued.
“Your land is too quiet for my taste, old Marcus,” the thief said. “Is your village the same?”
Marcus did not answer, but trudged on.
Then came the leaching of color. It was subtle and not at all unnatural, if the world were covered in gray clouds. But the desolate blue-gray of the land seemed odd against a bright blue sky. The sky at least was still true.
Marcus noted that the spring had gone from the thief’s step. They encountered few fellow travelers and those shuffled away quickly. He expected a quip or two from Lily about how friendly his land was, but she must have felt pity for him and perhaps for herself, for she said nothing. Her step may have lost its spring, but it carried her steadily forward. She had not finished her task yet, and she had not yet collected her reward. Marcus had chosen right when he chose her. After being away so long, he had forgotten how bleak the realm had become. Another may not have persevered as Lily did. Another may have just made do with the sack of coins that Marcus offered for the theft of the tin box.
The land must have seemed haunted to someone who came from a typical realm. But Lily had not yet seen the worst. Marcus hoped that her honor only extended to finishing her job. He would have brought out the treasure with him, if he could have. But he had been in haste. He would have to lead her to it. Then he would complete his quest. He would have to leave her to fend for herself, but if he succeeded, she would be all right. His village would be all right. All would be well at last.
After many days of traveling, Marcus came upon his village. Or he came upon where he thought it to be. It was invisible to him now that he had left.
“It’s here,” he said.
Lily looked at him. “Are you certain? If you’re wrong, I won’t be able to transform the scroll into the same gate again.”
“I’m certain.” Marcus returned her gaze. “Please, go ahead.”
Lily nodded. She pulled out the little scroll from whatever hidden pocket in her collar she kept it in. She pulled out the little quill she used to write upon the scroll. The quill too must have been enchanted, for it needed no inkwell. She wrote upon the scroll and it transformed into a simple wooden gate that stood, it seemed, in the middle of the clearing, moored to nothing.
The gate worked. On its other side was Marcus’s village. He walked through the gate and turned around. Before he could open his mouth to speak and tell Lily that she could wait by the gate and he would send her reward to her, she stepped through. She whispered a word to the gate and it transformed back into the scroll. Now that they were in the village, they did not need the gate. It was dark, like the dark of evening, in the village, though it was not yet evening. The sunlight could not reach down through the dismal mantle of dark over the village.
There were people milling about. Marcus watched from the corner of his eye as the thief glanced about.
“These people are miserable.”
“Yes, but not for long.”
“Something is strange here,” Lily said. Marcus sensed it too, but he thought it was because he knew what was wrong.
“Our village is protected from without but not from within,” Marcus said.
“Well, since I’m here with you, what can I do to help?”
Marcus paced along faster. “I’m obliged and grateful, but you’ve done your part.”
“I won’t charge extra if that’s what you’re worried about,” Lily said, jogging along beside him. There was an edge of cheer in her small jest, and even that much was enough to brighten that dark place.
A dart of doubt pierced Marcus’s heart and his pace slowed a bit. But he shook off the effects and kept going. The village wasn’t small, but nor was it large. It did not take long for them to reach the castle.
There were guards and there were servants. They knew Marcus and they let him through. He led Lily to the very bowels of the castle. Long ago, a lord had brought riches beyond reckoning to the village. He had no heirs. His wealth lay idle, for none could use it in the wide world. None were even sure of its worth. Marcus had taken only a few sacks of gold coins, not knowing he could have lived a comfortable life elsewhere if he had never returned.
But he was always going to return.
Lily seemed nervous when they were met again by guards, armored guards this time. But again, they knew Marcus. They let him through. Lily and Marcus entered a hallway, richly adorned with tapestries and treasures. At the end of the hall was a door, and when they passed through that door, Lily gasped.
The room beyond was filled with trunks of gold and jewels, antiquities, paintings and portraits, chandeliers, more tapestries, bracelets of jade, statues of marble, and more sacks of coins.
“Take whatever part of this you will. Take it all if you wish. I’m afraid I can’t help you carry it away.”
Lily turned to him, gaping. “This is not what we agreed upon!”
Marcus winced. “I’m afraid it’s all we have.”
“No, you don’t understand. It’s too much. It’s far beyond what was promised.”
“It’s well-deserved. I would give you more if I had it.”
She laughed. “Spirits love you, you generous fool. I’ll take more than my share, but I’m leaving some of it for you and your village,” she said, resting her hands on her hips and shaking her head.
Marcus gave a small bow and turned to leave.
“Going off to battle the enemy?”
“I’m no warrior,” Marcus said, turning back to her.
“A bargain then? Like you made with me? You’re good at bargaining.”
Marcus smiled as he looked at the thief among the treasure—her treasure now. In his heart, he wished her well. He wished her a long and happy life.
“Yes, I suppose so. Thank you, Lily. Enjoy your reward and be well.”
Marcus turned and walked back down the hallway.
They were all dead, the people of the village. Marcus knew the bodies shuffling about were without their souls, but the thief had sensed it too. She, with her living soul within her, had somehow sensed it. She would be safe enough from them as she made her way out of the village with her treasure. And the enemy that Marcus faced cared nothing for treasure and would never see her.
He would certainly never see her if Marcus succeeded in ending his life.
The Warlock in White they had called him when first he found their village. Why he came, they never knew. Marcus still did not know. The warlock settled in the long-abandoned castle. He set to restoring it and at first, the villagers began to think it a good thing that the warlock had somehow found them, though underneath such hopeful thoughts were dark doubts and cold fears. Then people began to vanish, only to reappear days, sometimes weeks, later in perfect health, but somehow different. The Warlock in White was stealing their souls, keeping them perhaps within his own body. Why he did so, no one knew. But many had seen it done. The warlock kept it secret in the beginning, but he soon began to hunt the villagers in the open. None could stop him. There were no warriors in the village. Those whose souls were lost also lost their knowledge and their will. The warlock took some to be his servants in the castle. But he also took some who still had souls. Marcus was one such servant.
The warlock set some of his servants to reading and if they did not find what he asked them to find, he would take their souls. Marcus, who had never much liked reading and studying his lessons in school, became the greatest scholar he knew, studying all he could from the village and castle archives. In the midst of terror, he found haven in his studies. And he also found hope.
He found the knowledge that would help him escape and help him seek the way to free his people in the world beyond the village. He escaped the castle. He left the village to search for a way to kill the warlock and free the souls of his people. He saw then that the warlock’s poison presence had spread beyond the village. Marcus found a spell that could link the fates of two people if they were close enough. It was contained in the tin box that the thief had stolen for him. It was the key to his plan.
Marcus stopped in a hidden corner and opened the tin box. From his coat, he pulled out a dagger, its blade sharp, its handle solid. His father had given him the dagger. He cast the spell on the dagger. He was no warrior. He could not fight the Warlock in White. He would plunge the dagger into his own heart as he stood eye-to-eye before the warlock. The warlock would share that fate, and being as mortal as Marcus was, the warlock too would die. All the souls of the villagers would be released. If they weren’t restored to life, their souls would be freed to move beyond life.
The warlock would not suspect. The ones whose souls he had chosen not to take, he believed they would bend to his will anyway, because they were weak or cowardly or too young. Many times had the warlock confronted Marcus. Many times had Marcus lowered his head. He could never meet the warlock’s gaze. He wondered if the warlock had even noticed that Marcus had been gone. Such was the advantage of being considered an insignificant insect.
The Warlock in White was in his study. As Marcus stood in the doorway, he was struck by how harmless the warlock seemed. How like an elegant noble. He was dressed all in white, even his shoes. And there was not a speck of dirt or dust on him.
Marcus approached and the warlock rose from his seat. He was engrossed in a shard of stone that he had in his hand.
“Approach,” the warlock said.
Marcus knew he would succeed then, unless the warlock had gained the power to read minds. Still his heart pounded as he stepped into the study. The dagger, now enchanted with the spell and tucked into the inside pocket of his coat, lay heavy over his heart.
The warlock turned as Marcus approached. Marcus was just a bit taller. For the first time, he met the warlock’s eyes. He slipped his hand into his coat and pulled the dagger out. He raised the dagger, the tip facing his chest, his gaze still on the warlock, who frowned just slightly.
Marcus plunged the dagger down into his heart.
Marcus felt a sudden heaviness on his chest. The dagger stopped. He broke his gaze with the warlock and glanced down. There was a breast plate strapped to his chest.
Suddenly, Marcus was pushed backward with such force, he slammed against the wall behind him. He was pinned to the wall. He glanced down and the breast plate melted away. He glanced up and the Warlock in White approached him. The warlock’s eyes weren’t angry. They were cold and curious. He had his arm outstretched, his magic holding Marcus pinned to the wall from across the room.
Marcus tried to push himself away from the wall with his hands and realized his hands were both free. That meant he had lost the dagger. He looked down at the floor, but it wasn’t there. He hadn’t dropped it after hitting the wall. The warlock came no closer. His expression went blank. His dark eyes turned all white. Terror struck Marcus. He knew what was to come. He had seen it happen. He felt a tearing at this throat. He could not cry out. The pain was sharp, rough. He could not close his eyes. He would see it happen. He would see his soul being torn out of him.
Blinking, he watched the warlock stand still and straight. He watched as a tiny stain appeared on the warlock’s crisp white shirt. A red stain, blooming, spreading.
Marcus felt a snap and the pain vanished. He crumpled to the ground. He glanced up and watched the warlock drop to the ground, his white shirt soaked red, a pool of red forming under him.
Marcus rose. He scanned the study and saw the figure lying a few feet behind the warlock. The warlock still lived. He reached out his arm to Marcus, but nothing happened.
Marcus went to the other, the one who had saved him, the one who had plunged the enchanted dagger into her heart as she stood just behind the still and defenseless warlock.
“Fool! I could have used the scroll to help you,” the thief said through her teeth.
Marcus understood now. He hadn’t seen her, but Lily had followed him. She had figured out what the dagger was about. She had transformed her scroll into that breastplate to save him. Even now he could see in her eyes that she didn’t want to die.
Marcus dropped to the ground. He lifted her into his lap and cradled her. He shook his head. “You are no killer. You are the Only Honorable Thief.”
She smiled. “Tried to stab him…shielded.”
Tears welled up in Marcus’s eyes. He cursed and blinked them away. In that desperate moment, he had an idea.
“The scroll,” he said. But Lily had shut her eyes and gone still. “Where is it?” If he could find it, he could write upon it. He searched her collar. It wasn’t there. He found the quill in her pocket. If he could find the scroll, he could write upon it that Lily be healed. He could write upon it that she be resurrected, given a second life.
Her left hand was clenched, and as he wept, he uncurled her fingers and found the scroll there.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” he said. “I will see you soon.”
He unfolded the crumpled scroll, but there was already something written upon it. Under the smudges of blood and ink, Marcus read the command.
A long and happy life for Marcus and the people he loves.
In that moment, something bloomed in Marcus’s heart for the thief who lay dying in his arms.
The scroll began to vanish. The scroll began to transform.
Marcus laughed and wished the mason a good evening as he passed the smithy on his way to the inn. A bright day was becoming a starlit night, and while he loved to sleep in the open sky, it had been too many days since he’d been home.
He was a few days early. He may yet be able to surprise the children by hiding their gifts before he went to go surprise their mother by jumping out of a shadow in the stables or some other trick. She did so hate surprises.
The inn was his wife’s pride. The inn’s library was his, and he had brought home some more additions. It was summer, so he wasn’t surprised that the common room was still buzzing with carousing patrons, though it seemed more cheerful than usual that night. The moon was full and bright. Perhaps that was reason enough.
Marcus was greeted with shouts and pats on the back as he made his way to the bar. There was someone telling tales again. He nodded to the bartender, who set a tumbler down before him.
“Says she had a magic quill, or some such. It can write the best stories—and the funniest,” the bartender said.
Marcus laughed. “Perhaps she’s just a great talent.” He glanced at the tale-teller, who was told he was the proprietor. She raised a glass to him and smirked.
There were some people in his life, like his wife, whom Marcus had taken to from the moment he first locked eyes with her. When he locked gazes with the green-eyed girl with the magic quill, he felt a sudden wave of fondness. He was home. He was happy. And here perhaps was a new friend among old ones. He raised his glass to her and smiled.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel