Dargon was less crowded these days. The normally packed streets were now only sparsely populated with the few who had not joined the Baranur armies and the few who had returned from the fighting. G’veldi, a server for Belisandra’s, was one of the few who had remained in Dargon. Unlike the less established taverns in Dargon, Belisandra’s had only experienced a change in clientele instead of a decline in business. G’veldi left the tavern at the approach of evening; the gratuities of her regular customers weighed down her belt pouch, and jingled with every step. Without Byrne to walk her home and deter malicious eyes, the empty streets played on her insecurities.
She began to think of her customers — maybe one of her regulars would be willing to escort her home. They all seemed to eye her with a male’s want in their eyes, but she wondered if any could be trusted to walk her home without further expectations. Barkel Smith came to mind, a blacksmith and a family man. He had remained in Dargon to profit from the countless orders he was receiving due to the war. He was a respected man that a thief would be unlikely to hold a knife to. Then there was Nicholas Greuber; a scribe, he was a scholar who sold his services to the merchants of the city. She smiled as she remembered him standing outside her window, reciting a poem he had written for her. He had been unaware of her relationship with Byrne at the time, but his recital had forced an introduction. Nicholas was not the size of Byrne nor Barkel, but any male presence was better than none and she was not intimidated by his.
She came to her door, still turning the possibilities over in her head. Deciding finally that she could protect herself if need be, she fumbled to retrieve her key. As she dug inside her pouch, she felt a shift in the wind and heard a soft footstep behind her. She turned to face the street, only to find herself shadowed by a broad set man in a weathered cloak. Her heart skipped a beat. Her breath shortened. But before she could react, a familiar voice came from beneath the hood.
“G’veldi, it’s me, Sven,” said the man, pulling the hood back to reveal his face.
“Sven! You’re alive! I’d thought you dead!” exclaimed G’veldi, clasping her arms about him and hugging tightly. She relaxed her grip after a shared moment of reunion and looked questioningly into his eyes.
“Why is Byrne not with you?” she asked, dreading the reason, but needing the answer.
Sven stood silently, allowing his eyes to reveal the truth.
G’veldi swallowed hard, and asked, “How did he die?”
“We were attacked by a Beinison scouting party, sent to find us in retaliation for the death of a noble,” he explained. “We were on the trail of treasure. We had lost Tristan and Pavo and were determined to see the trail to its end. The map that we were following was written in Beinisonian, but we must have followed the wrong path, for we found nothing. We camped for several days at the location of the markings. It was then that the scouts found us.”
“He wanted you to have this,” Sven said, presenting a scroll case to G’veldi as she stood speechless. “It contains the map. He said you would know what to do with it. It is worthless to me now, for I cannot afford the cost of the translation, and I vowed not to return to Beinison. But if you uncover its meaning, let me know.”
Nicholas watched the alluring motions of the barmaid’s figure as she jigged her way between the tables of the tavern. Her name was G’veldi and he had admired her ever since she had begun working for Belisandra’s, one of Dargon’s more reputable establishments. While the other patrons hunched over the bar, staring despondently into their tankards, Nicholas sat upright, transfixed by her every motion. Every day after toiling over a desk piled with scrolls, he would relax at the tavern and revel in the brief time spent in her presence. Every day he spent the two Bits for a meal, a stout ale and a chance to hear her voice.
“Good day, G’veldi,” said Nicholas, beginning the transaction in same manner as always.
“I’m assuming you want the usual?” she asked with a smile, as she filled his goblet with a dark ale.
“What I want will never change,” he replied dreamily, sipping from the goblet.
“Of course, Nicholas,” she answered, breaking the lock between their eyes and turning towards the kitchen.
He motionlessly waited for her return. The next few moments blended into one as his gaze remained locked on the point of her departure. As he stared vacantly at the kitchen door, his mind recalled life before the war. It had been several months since Byrne had left Dargon. He left on what would have been an ordinary evening. The usual crowd of patrons had all gathered at Belisandra’s to relax at the end of a long day. One of the men at the bar mentioned the recent atrocities against Baranur, commenting on the tyrannical ways of the Beinison empire. The words forced a change in Byrne. He stood from the bar, raised to his full height, and stated in a loud voice, “I will take the war to their homeland! They will know the suffering that we have felt, and more. I will take from them what is ours by right! Enough wealth to rebuild the ruin they have laid upon us.” As he took an awkward step back to catch his balance, he must have seen the hopeful looks in the eyes that were upon him, for he continued his speech, and strengthened the vision he had manifested. “A toast,” he said, raising his tankard to the rafters. “For every man that leaves with me tomorrow, I can assure them each a king’s ransom colored with Beinison blood.” All their arms raised in unison to the toast, and the tavern broke into cheers. The kegs of mead had flowed freely, for that night was the last that many of them would spend in Dargon.
Nicholas’ reflective trance was abruptly broken by a movement near the kitchen door. G’veldi returned to the tavern floor, replacing his thoughts of the past with those more promising. Unconsciously, his face returned to a lost expression of hope and love.
“Your meal, my dear,” said G’veldi, placing the platter of ample portions in front of him. “Don’t let me forget, I’ve got a scroll for you to translate.”
Nicholas’ face did nothing to hide his shock. “Forget?!” he exclaimed. “This is the first time I’ll have the pleasure of working for a maiden instead of an overweight noble. I will not forget,” he finished, allowing G’veldi to return to her work about the tables.
Nicholas had always wanted to be needed by G’veldi. Her daily life did not necessitate calligraphy or a knowledge of foreign tongues, and her dismissal of his skills tore away at his confidence. He had previously given up all hope of impressing her with his talents with a quill, preferring instead to avoid rejection and hold his tongue in silence. The scroll marked Nicholas’ first chance to prove his worth to her, and she had come to him. The only other work he had done for her had been a scroll she had never seen and it had led to his introduction to Byrne.
It had been shortly after he first met G’veldi, when Nicholas still had confidence in his manhood. He had produced a symbol of his love for her; the act came naturally to him. It had come in the form of a scroll, complete with illustrated dragons bordering a poetic verse. He had waited for her to leave Belisandra’s and followed her home. When he was sure that she had settled for the night, he began to read the verse from below her bedroom window. The words rolled from his tongue, as naturally as waves in the ocean. His vision of her glowing face, framed by auburn locks, appearing through the open window was abruptly shattered by the black bearded, scowling face of Byrne that appeared instead. In that instant, Nicholas’ aspirations of lasting companionship were shattered by the man’s threatening voice. “If you’re looking for attention, you’ve just found it!” he boomed in a low, vibrating voice. Nicholas watched the head draw back into the window, followed by a stir, and then G’veldi appeared. When she recognized Nicholas from Belisandra’s, a sweet smile appeared on her face. A frantic turn and a desperate wave quickly replaced it, though, as if she was trying to shoo him away. From the cacophony of noises travelling through the house, it sounded as if Byrne was breaking through the walls to get to the door. Wasting not a moment more, he blew her a kiss and retreated down the street. That was the closest he had ever come to being a part of G’veldi’s life, and ever since, he had felt the threaded bond between them.
That had been before Byrne left Dargon, and since then, the tavern had become more relaxing. Without the possible chance of confronting Byrne, Nicholas could dine in peace. He enjoyed eating his meal slowly, savoring the atmosphere of Belisandra’s and allowing his thoughts to shift from past to present with the coming and going of the patronage. He looked forward to his evening meal — anything to delay the inevitable return to a cold, lonely bed. While he ate, he would always keep an eye on the alluring jigging of G’veldi. If he ever missed the chance to catch one fleeting glance from the barmaid, he would never forgive himself, and so his gaze was fixed. He sat silently as he ate, gleefully waiting for her to entrust him with her scroll. When the servers began to depart, G’veldi approached without her tray. With the scroll in her hand, she came to his table and sat beside him.
“I need you to translate this for me,” she said in a hushed voice, speckled with urgency.
“Let me take a look,” Nicholas said, prompting her to roll out the scroll on the table.
“Not here. Others may be watching,” she warned.
“Nonsense. Everyone here is a regular customer, I can place a name to every face,” he countered.
“I know, Nicholas,” she said, “Be careful.”
Seeing that he understood, G’veldi left the scroll in his care and returned to the kitchen. He sat there looking at it tightly rolled upon the table. He tipped his goblet back to finish the last drop of ale and scanned the room. There was only a handful of other men in the tavern, but a sideways glance from Barkel Smith sent a shiver up his spine.
“Nonsense,” he thought, reassuring himself that it was a preposterous situation. Nonetheless, he quickly bundled up the scroll with the rest of his books and left Belisandra’s for his home, where no wandering eyes could peek at his work.
During the walk back, the scroll burned incessantly at his curiosity. It drew him to consider the possibilities of its contents. Evidence to incriminate Lord Clifton Dargon himself, or possibly a powerful under-lord? Navigational charts to a new world laden with gold? The recipe for an elixir of youth? His pace quickened in step to each new possibility that entered his head.
When at last he reached the door to his shop, he abandoned the bundle at his desk and searched for suitable light. He dug out a candle, lit it, placed it on the edge of his work space, and unbound the scroll. It was about the width of his forearm and, once unrolled, it covered twice that length across his desk. He recognized what lay before him. G’veldi had given him a map of the land near the Beinison borderlands.
The first thing that caught his eye was a darkly marked cross, pointed to by a downward arrow, along with a prominent grove of firs and a familiar roadway that connected the two empires. A lengthy inscription circled the border of the map twice and half again, beginning from the upper left corner and ending along the bottom, so that Nicholas was forced to rotate the scroll as he read it. He could make out the Beinison words for ‘king’, and ‘wealth’, yet many of the words were unfamiliar to him. His heart quickened its beat, matching the pace that his mind had set. He understood G’veldi’s need for secrecy and he eagerly pulled his collection of notes on Beinisonian from a stack of scrolls near his desk. He worked around the border of the map, writing the translation in chalk on a piece of slate.
The translation was tedious, yet it consumed the interest of his mind. He worked on it until it was complete, lighting new candles periodically. When he had finished, he selected a blank scroll and began transcribing the map, careful to catch every twist and burr of the lines. As the candles burned lower, his thoughts inevitably drifted towards his bed above. Leaving the transcription half completed on his desk, he retired to his quarters above his shop. He was exhausted from the concentration and excitement, and he welcomed the sleep.
It took a while for Nicholas’ mind to focus. His conception of the day had been distorted by the work of the night before. Someone was knocking, but his need for sleep overpowered him. He rationalized to himself that a couple more moments in bed couldn’t hurt. He heard the pounding again. “Who is it?” he thought, dreamily expecting the knocker to answer his thoughts. Groggily, he rolled to one side, allowed his vision to focus, and recalled his work on the map. The promise of a king’s wealth and the persistent knocking forced Nicholas awake.
Once standing, it took only moments for him to robe and return downstairs. The knocking increased in volume, pounding at his head. Hurriedly, he covered the map and translation, with his notes on Beinison. G’veldi’s words kept repeating in his head, “I know, Nicholas. Be careful.” Once he covered the map, he rummaged through his desk drawer to retrieve a dagger. He slipped it into his belt, behind his back, and moved towards the door. Taking a deep breath and smoothing his unkempt hair, he cautiously approached. To his relief, he recognized the familiar face of Yarrick Wilcolm’s messenger, Matthew Ronnic, through the small opening centered in the door. Yarrick was a merchant that frequently sought his services to transcribe navigational charts for his trade routes, and his business was always welcome. He exhaled, opened the door, and greeted the lad with authority.
“Good morning Matthew, how can I be of service?” Nicholas asked, in his most polite and charismatic voice, letting his hand fall to his side, away from the dagger’s hilt.
“One of my master’s vessels will be departing for Miass tomorrow and he needs a copy of each of these,” he said, handing Nicholas a stack of scrolls.
“That will not be a problem. As you know, my fee is a four Bits per scroll,” said Nicholas, thumbing through the stack. “So, tell Yarrick that I will require two Sovereigns on hand when the transcriptions are retrieved.”
“Of course, of course,” Matthew said, in agreement. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning then.”
Nicholas eyed the scrolls in his hands and decided that it would be worth his professional interest to put the lure of buried treasure on hold. He laid the scrolls upon his desk, and began his work. The charts were familiar to Nicholas; he had transcribed them for other merchants before, and copying them again would not prove difficult. As he etched the northern coast of Baranur, he was continually distracted by the lure of G’veldi’s map. Every other bell, he would take a break from Yarrick’s charts and translate a few more of the place names etched onto the map or copy a bit more of the transcription. When he finally placed the last of Yarrick’s scrolls to the side, he reclined and rubbed his aching wrist. His evening meal at Belisandra’s would serve him well. Besides, he was anticipating sitting close to G’veldi when he revealed the translation. Eagerly, he gathered the map and translation together with his notes on Beinisonian, and left for Belisandra’s.
Upon entering the tavern, he was quickly greeted by G’veldi. “Nicholas, I’ve been waiting for you. Take a seat over there, and I’ll be over in a mene,” she said, motioning to one of the tables in the back.
He took his place at the table with his back to the wall. It was a familiar location for him and he fell immediately into his old routine. He became transfixed by G’veldi’s sweet dance about the tables and chairs of Belisandra’s with a serving tray in one hand and a pitcher in the other. He let himself become so mesmerized with her work that he didn’t notice the well-traveled man that sat down across from him at the table.
“Hey! Scribe!” the man said, in a loud whisper.
Nicholas immediately snapped out his trance, unaccustomed to having company at Belisandra’s. “Sven?” he asked, vaguely recognizing his face. “Did you find the wealth that you sought in Beinison?”
“Don’t play games with me. I know G’veldi gave you the map,” Sven said, motioning towards the bundle of scrolls. “Show me your progress.”
“These are only for a project that I’m currently working on for Yarrick Wilcolm. You would not find them interesting,” explained Nicholas.
Sven paused, considering his statement. After a moment, he turned, and looked about for G’veldi. Summoning her over, he spoke into her ear, and explained the situation. She turned towards Nicholas and said, “Be a dear and show him your work.”
“I’ve already explained to him that I do not have it with me,” he said, initiating G’veldi to pull a chair beside him and drape her arm across his shoulders.
“Please show us the map, Nicholas,” she said, suggestively.
Feeling G’veldi’s warmth at his side, he could not resist her request and unbound the scroll from the bundle. Unrolling it and the translation, he explained the meaning to them. “You see, this writing around the borders is in Beinisonian, as well as the writing above the geographic features,” he began.
“Geographic?” Sven asked.
“Yes, the forests, rivers, roadways — they are all named in Beinisonian. The inscription around the borders reads: ‘My name is Giranti Escalde, I’ve traveled the lands of far and wide, from Beinison strongholds to the eastern coasts, and this map points to what I have found. I have gained wealth that kings can only dream of. To find it you need not stray fruitlessly into forbidden marshes or risk the desert heat. There is only one place to find what you seek and it is marked by the downward arrow on this map, here.’”
“You can see that there is only one arrow on the map and it points to the cross marked below it. If Giranti has a treasure, it is there. From the names and the positioning of these features I would say that the mark lies just within Beinison lands,” informed Nicholas.
“Yes, that is where I returned from. We spent days upon days roaming the hills near the mark on that map. Byrne refused to return to Dargon without a mountain of gold in tow and we did not question him. We had already lost two men, Tristan and Pavo, gaining the map from the clutches of a Beinison noble. It cost us dearly, but the rumors that had been spread about the riches that the map led to would have been worth the loss if true. Things were going smoothly until we ran into a scouting party in the borderlands. I turned and fled the ensuing battle, thinking only of my wife, Katherine, before the others were overcome.
“The Beinison scouts I encountered later paid no notice to a lone traveler on the road and I returned unhindered. On my return journey I heard tales of a maddened giant with a blackened beard and eyes of death, clad in blessed mail, that cut down a dozen men before falling to a well placed arrow. The tales were exaggerated, but they brought back visions of Byrne, as I remembered seeing him when I ran. They could only be of him. Forgive me G’veldi, but it is the truth. I was prepared to leave it in the past, but Byrne must have known of your scribe friend and directed me to give you the map.”
Sven’s mention of Byrne’s fall returned a flash of buried emotion to G’veldi, and she gripped Nicholas’ hand tightly beneath the table. Nicholas’ attention had been distracted by something else, though, as Sven told his story. With the map facing Sven, he could read only the last few words of the inscription ‘… the downward arrow on this map, here.’ It had seemed odd when he had translated it, but now it made sense. From its present angle the arrow pointing at the spot marked by the cross was pointing up.
“I think I have the answer that you seek,” said Nicholas, turning the map so that he could show Sven what he had just seen.
“The last word, ‘here’ ends at the base of this large fir tree. I had originally taken the tree to be only a marker for the ‘Knotted Woods’, but it is much more. Notice that the shape of the fir makes an arrow and from this view it is pointing downward. Notice also that it points directly to this word,” he continued, pointing at a word placed at the tip of the tree.
“Well, what is it?! Tell me, so I may avenge Byrne’s death!” exclaimed Sven.
“The word is …” Nicholas began, gripping G’veldi’s hand tighter. “… love.”
“So five great men died for nothing!” growled Sven. “A curse upon Escalde’s map!” he shouted, slamming his fist upon the table, standing erratically and storming out the door.
“When he returns home to Katherine, his rage should subside,” said Nicholas.
G’veldi loosened his grip on her hand, reached up to hold his other shoulder, and focused his attention. Looking into his eyes, she saw what she had seen the first time they had met, and had been there ever since.
She leaned closer and kissed him. Nicholas tensed in shock; a dream not meant for reality had come true, and he was not prepared for it.
“I … I …” he stuttered.
She put her finger to his lips and said, “Escort me home tonight, Nicholas.”
“But …” he began, thinking of his contract with Yarrick that he needed to fulfill in the morning. Yarrick was a faithful customer, and any broken contracts could reflect poorly on Nicholas’ reputation, and two Sovereigns could cover his expenses for more than a month.
“Please don’t question me. Just walk me home.” she said.
Nicholas did not question her. Yarrick could wait till mid-day, he reasoned, maybe later. Escalde’s treasure was within his reach and nothing could keep him from it.