Cartographer

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story that involves a flashback.... view prompt

30 comments

Fantasy Fiction Thriller

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

What is the sky, but dying stars?

One step and the next—Valianne moved her feet, keeping in line with the others. A hundred prisoners of war. She breathed heavily as she worked, the hot sun weighing her down. Until nightfall, it’d be labour until exhaustion. Stone after stone until collapse. The fort would be paved on top of corpses.

And do burdens not sleep best in their graves?

A hand tapped her shoulder. Scrawny fingers and a desperate touch. Valianne ignored it. She continued the work of laying stone, bare feet burning against the sands, throat as dry as dust. The fingers tapped her once more. With hesitation, she turned her head.

“I know you…” a man spoke. A gaunt face and a raspy voice—his arms could barely hold the stone laid out for them. “You’re our cartographer.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “What went wrong? Why did you lead us astray?”

Ambush, she would’ve whispered.

Not that she could. A soldier shouted for them to keep working. Valianne laid out the next stone, coating it with paste, again and again until she could no longer feel her arms. Then, she dropped. Blurred eyes and a weak pulse. A soldier walked up and prodded her ribs with his sandal.

“Water,” Valianne mumbled.

He laughed. The soldier unhooked his canteen, undid the cap, and poured the water out to the ground—soaked up by the desert in seconds. Valianne grabbed a handful of sand. She stood, struggling to keep balance, and threw the sand at the soldier’s face.

He recoiled and unsheathed his scimitar with a metallic ring. The prisoners around them came to a stop. Valianne braced herself as the scimitar rose, sunlight reflecting off its steel—and she mumbled a rushed prayer to the goddess she’d see her sister in the afterlife.

The blade didn’t come.

Instead, the blunt handle hit her hard in the nose, and knocked her out.


- - -


Valianne awoke to torchlight crackling. Shadows loomed on the walls, figures watching from outside—separated by iron bars. One spoke rapidly in Solan tongue as Valianne came to her senses. Another got to their feet and unlocked the cell. A man entered with his scimitar drawn and a cup in hand, and handed her the latter.

“Drink,” he said.

She grasped the cup and tipped it back. The liquid tasted of acid. As thick as mud and as sour as rot—she coughed, then spat. The men sitting outside the cell shouted.  

“Drink all.” The soldier pointed his scimitar to her neck. He reached with his other hand and forced the cup to her lips. The vile drink burned her throat. She gagged as she finished, but couldn’t vomit. The soldier left the cell and locked it.

Those on the other side dipped their quills in ink and watched her.

“What did you give to me?” Valianne asked.

A translator repeated the words. No reply came. The minutes passed, and nausea clouded her thoughts. The room tilted to the left, then to the right. She squeezed her eyes shut against the shift in motion. Quills scratched against paper as the torch continued to crackle.

Her shoulder started to itch. It itched with a crawling feeling.

Valianne opened her eyes. Red ants swarmed over her arm.

She breathed in, filling her lungs, and looked up.

A giant ant crawled down from the ceiling. Maroon and porcelain stripes, pincers chittering. It came to a stop in front of her. Valianne stared it dead in its beady eyes—her breaths drew short.

“You’re not real,” she whispered.

“And peace of mind is but a mirage,” the ant spoke. “Do you miss your sister, cartographer?”

“You…you’re in my head. They’re taking notes on me-”

“It was you,” the ant said, “that led her to her death, was it not?”

Valianne shut her eyes. Her heart pounded in her chest. A tentacle wrapped around her arm, the suckers tightening their grip, and then the air turned to water. Bubbles escaped her mouth as she spoke.

“How was I supposed to know?” Tears dripped from her eyes and fell upward. “None of us could tell…” She bit her tongue. “All in my mind. Breathe easy.”

The octopus grew larger until it took up the entire room—she could see it through her eyelids. Its organs glowed through its see-through skin, a transparent blue, while orange salmon swam around in its bulbed head.

“Some spirits are fated to burn, cartographer,” the octopus said. Its tentacles pulled her to the depths. “She was afraid of the sea, was she not? Hated the thought of drowning. Drowning is a bit different from being slaughtered for sport-”

“Quiet!” Valianne cried. “Quiet…” She got to her feet and walked through the octopus. It disappeared like watercolours trickling down a canvas. She stumbled, knocking her head against the bars of the cell. Each turned into trees with dead branches.

Behind her, a spectral deer formed from the air—Valianne turned to face it. It stood twice as tall as her, with its rib cage exposed, rotting moss growing off the bones. Dying flora on its antlers wilted down.

“Errant words may fell an empire, cartographer,” it said. “Do you recall when she brought you flowers? She sure loved you. Why did you forsake her?”

Valianne screamed.

‘Vali!’ a voice called. Her sister stood across from her, features a swirling mess of dripping oil. “I made it into the army! I’m going to run supplies-”

the 

wheel 

never

stops 

turning

“You’re not stepping foot on the field?”

“Well...I’ll be riding a horse, and I should be in your command. I’ll never be in combat, if that’s what you’re thinking. You don’t look too happy, Vali! I thought we could work together for the kingdom.”

Stay home You’re too young to volunteer Put these foolish ambitions to rest

“I’d be glad to have your help.” Valianne smiled. “And I’ll keep you far on the back line.” 

it

is

never 

ending

Valianne stared down at a map. The desert sand hit the sides of her tent.

“If we’re set on taking the capital, we’ll route them through smaller villages and force their hand. We’ll move through the mesas.” She drew a path southeast. A tactician nodded at her words. “Split into smaller forces. None of these will be heavily defended. I want the supply runner, Ophelia, in my care. Got it?”

The cell turned white. Pearl walls and a blank ceiling.

Where angels fear to tread. The clashing of steel echoed further off.

A voice spoke, loud and clear, far different from any she’d heard.

Hello, Valianne. Still sane, are we?

“Are you-”

One of them, the voice spoke. There are not many deities left. It is what they search for, the Solan people. A gateway. And few come out with their minds intact. Let us talk for a moment.

Valianne ambled forward. Minutes passed. She hit no boundaries, nothing but white for miles. In its depths, horses whinnied and soldiers cried out.

Why do you fight in this war, Valianne? What purpose does it serve?

“My people. Middknight and every person in it needs us.”

No, they don’t. The voice laughed. This war, to my liking, has gone on the offensive. You once defended your lands with honour. Now you butcher your prey with pride. To think you could’ve left a year ago and saved Ophelia.

“It was an ambush! The roads were safe. The scouts even said so.”

Face your mistake.

“They must have been bribed. I’ve never made such an error with my maps.”

Face your mistake, the voice roared, child. Let yourself learn—give in and let your ego die. Silence. Valianne sat in the room of nothing. A chamber of reflection, one thought looping into the next. The hours passed like days. Our time draws to a close, the voice said. By chance, we may speak again. Until then, cartographer.

Somewhere, eons away, a hand shook her shoulder.

Urgently. Finger and nail pressed against her skin.

“Hey, hey! Breathe, you’re okay.” Valianne opened her eyes and stared at the blurry outline of a Middknight uniform—the crest of a lion in mid-roar on the chest plate. “The cavalry made it. You’re saved. All the sand-rats are weeping or dead.”

Valianne opened her mouth to speak, and fainted.


- - -


As the days passed, the drug gradually loosened its hold. Valianne slept away the sunlight—surgeons kept her bedridden, tending to her health. When she could stand again, she climbed and sat at the top of a mesa. The night’s cool breeze dishevelled her hair. Far below, soldiers readied for the next attack.

Valianne refused to join them. 

Could the King name a single one? 

She doubted it. All pawns in a war of conquest. At the first chance presented, she’d ride back to Middknight, and abandon her position as a cartographer. Maybe open a shop. Something calm, without the clash of steel. A simpler life.

For now, she stared up at the clear sky, 

and saw nothing but dying stars.

April 05, 2022 15:24

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30 comments

Mike Panasitti
15:27 Apr 22, 2022

Alex, Although fantasy is not my go-to section at the bookstore, I read through the entire story. Had some nitpicking comments. 1). I know it's a hallucination, but salmon don't generally swim with octopi. 2). Watercolors don't always drip down canvases, unless the canvas is sealed with gesso, and gesso seems incongruent in a fantasy world. 3). I get why you used the crossed out the line of dialogue, but it's not stylistically consistent with the rest of the narrative. 4). The administration of the hallucinogen by Vali's captors coul...

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Alex Sultan
21:46 Apr 22, 2022

Thank you for reading, Mike! I appreciate the comment. To be honest with you, I did not know that detail about salmon, or the one on watercolours. I think it's cool you pointed it out - small details like that do add to a story. I've noted your feedback for the next fantasy story I write 🙂

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Emmanuel Bakare
16:31 Apr 12, 2022

Going through the comments here, I can, in all honesty, understand the bias of your Introduction. It was captivating. And the story was very vivid in descriptions and creatively so.

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Alex Sultan
01:33 Apr 13, 2022

Thank you, friend. I'm glad you liked the story! I appreciate the read and comment - I like the introduction a lot, too.

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K. Antonio
13:31 Apr 08, 2022

I, who haven't read your other story about this character, still found this read quite enjoyable. - The first sentence was very appealing and really does pull the reader in, and how it corelated to the end was also a nice touch. - The first scene was really well established and dramatic. It sets this mood, it brings up certain aspects of this world you've built. I liked it a lot. - The second scene where the MC speaks to the ant and has a flashback is interesting, I really enjoyed the creative approach you took with it. What I will say ...

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Alex Sultan
18:56 Apr 08, 2022

Thank you, friend - I really appreciate the read on this. Vali is one of my favourites, and I enjoyed writing this story a lot. On reading your comment, I do agree with you. While I like to keep my stories on the shorter side(1500~) I can see how the ending can be abrupt. I may change it up a bit before the contest ends. It is kind of you to comment, and I hope you're well!

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Annalisa D.
14:54 Apr 21, 2022

Another very well written story. You have some wonderful descriptions and word choices in this piece. It is an interesting story that pulls the reader right in. You convey the emotions really well.

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Alex Sultan
05:54 Apr 22, 2022

Thank you for reading this one! I plan to write so much more for Vali - many novels - and it was nice to get her backstory down on paper. I'm glad you enjoyed reading through.

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Courtney Renee
17:21 Apr 14, 2022

I can see it’s been said quite a bit, but you’re a fantastic writer! The imagery is just *chef’s kiss* I hope to one day be as talented as you. Nice job!

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Alex Sultan
07:23 Apr 17, 2022

Thank you, Courtney! Your comment is very kind, and I appreciate you taking the time to read through this one.

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Zelda C. Thorne
08:22 Apr 14, 2022

First line drew me in straight away. You're particularly good at those. I'm behind on reading your stories, which just means I've got lots to look forward to. Beautiful imagery. The whole thing had an epic feel to me.

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Alex Sultan
07:23 Apr 17, 2022

Thank you for the comment! I'm glad you liked the first line - it is one of my favourites. I prepared so much more imagery, too, but I could only use so much of it. I appreciate you taking to read this one - I have a lot of stories of yours to catch up on as well! 🙂

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Elizabeth Napier
15:29 Apr 11, 2022

You always have such fantastic world building in such a short time! The first line is beautiful and I loved how you connected it with the final line too. I also liked the slightly more stylistic choices in terms of how you laid out "the wheel never stops turning" etc - I'm always a sucker for things like that! As someone who usually likes more sci-fi orientated things, I found it really intriguing how you mixed that kind of vibe with a historical/fantasy setting (and by that I mean the concept of her taking a drug and clearly being monito...

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Alex Sultan
01:32 Apr 13, 2022

Thank you, Elizabeth - you're always so kind with your comments. The "the wheel never stops turning" line is one of my favourites too. I had fun writing this one out. Valianne has always been one of my most thought-out characters, and it was nice to get it down to words. At some point, I'd like to write a novel for her - there's only so much of her character I can get across in a short story. It's up there in my list of fantasy book ideas. Thanks again for the kind words! I'm glad 'buried in saipan' did well, and that you liked it. It's my ...

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Elizabeth Napier
10:44 Apr 13, 2022

Haha, just make sure you leave some wins for the rest of us!

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16:11 Apr 10, 2022

"What is the sky, but dying stars?" C'mon, Alex. At this point, I'm going to start a cult following. We'll call you Sultan Sultan, just to make it easier for the Canadian God of Words. It's time to write these characters into your first novel, one among an entire series. It's past time. I'll be happy to proofread the whole thing. :)

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Alex Sultan
14:48 Apr 11, 2022

Thank you for reading - I'm glad you did. I know you've read the others with Naomi/Vali. If I could write about them every week, I would, and I'm 100% sure they'll both have their time in a novel at some point. There's still so much more to both of them 🙂

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15:01 Apr 11, 2022

Agreed. That's how I felt about the Medicine Girl. I wrote 3 stories and felt she had such a bigger story to tell. She did. The first novel is 85000 words. I just started the sequel, The Medicine Woman :) Consider taking Naomi/Vali off road. I basically wrote each chapter in an episodic form, nestled into an overarching quest tale. Now it's been through two editors and getting ready for self-publishing in the summer. It's doable, and your writing is so polished. Maybe time to get that 1st novel of yours in order?

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Alex Sultan
01:18 Apr 13, 2022

Oh, the three short stories of 'Medicine Girl' were the first of yours I read on this site! It's cool to hear you expanded on it - I wish you the best of luck. It may be about the right time I start on a novel. I do have so much in mind(A lot more than just Naomi/Vali, although they are my favourites) Finding editors/proofreaders/etc seems like it'd be the biggest challenge, but that's a bridge to burn once I get there 😄

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Felice Noelle
21:27 Apr 09, 2022

Alex: I. JUST.LOVE.your writing. I wish I could write like that...all the rich, imaginative details, the unusual situations, exotic sites...This is another in a long list of fascinating flights of the imagination. Great, interesting read. Thanks. Maureen

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Alex Sultan
14:45 Apr 11, 2022

Thank you for reading! I was looking forward to writing this one and tried to be as creative as possible with the imagery. I'm glad you liked it.

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Dorsa S.
19:20 Apr 07, 2022

hey alex! i really enjoyed this story - the imagery in this piece stands out in an elegant and keen form. some lines are more sharply delivered than others, which i find compliments the tone of the story. regarding that, here are some of my favorite lines: "It disappeared like watercolours trickling down a canvas." "The fort would be paved on top of corpses." well done again! glad to see a backstory of vali; she's a very interesting character.

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Alex Sultan
13:13 Apr 08, 2022

Thank you for reading - this is one of my favourites I've written so far. There's so much to Vali. I drafted out so many sharp/poetic lines to use before I started writing this, and could only add in so many to reflect her character. I'm glad you liked it, and I appreciate the kind words 🙂

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Sharon Hancock
02:11 Apr 07, 2022

Ooo I am intrigued and can’t wait to read more. I love her name and that she’s female and a cartographer…a greatly overlooked and underestimated profession, in my opinion. I enjoyed this and look forward to reading more!

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Alex Sultan
13:16 Apr 08, 2022

Thank you, Sharon. I could write a whole novel on Vali - she's one of the first characters I've ever come up with. I'm glad you liked the story, and I appreciate the read.

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J.C. Lovero
00:39 Apr 06, 2022

Hi Alex, Another great story from you. I always enjoy an origin story, especially now that I've had a chance to spend more time with Valianne from your other works here on Reedsy. I really liked how to brought the story together in a cohesive way with a strong first and last line, the stars symbolic of those dead soldiers Vali couldn't save. Well done, friend!

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Alex Sultan
13:08 Apr 08, 2022

Thank you, friend. I was really looking forward to posting this one - I had a lot of fun writing it. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Vali has always been one of my favourites, and one of the first characters I've come up with.

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21:34 Apr 05, 2022

Hi Alex, Lovely opening and closing in this story, and all the stuff in between is great too! Not much in the way of line edits. I really enjoyed this one. It has some very cool imagery. Nice writing! Valianne awoke to (the sound of) torchlight crackling. - cut the filter. Valianne opened her eyes. Red ants swarmed (over) her arm. Maroon and porcelain (coloured) striped, pincers chittering. It disappeared like watercolours coming apart. - I don't understand this simile. Can you clarify it? I'm not sure how watercolours "come apart". ...

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Alex Sultan
13:07 Apr 08, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read this one! I was looking forward to posting it. I made the changes suggested - I didn't realize all the filter lines I had. I appreciate the comment, friend. I hope you are well.

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Alex Sultan
15:48 Apr 05, 2022

Backstory for one of my favourite characters I’ve come up with. I hope it all came across clear. For anyone who has read my other stories with Valianne, know that this one comes years before she meets Naomi. All feedback appreciated - I do still plan to make some changes to this one. Thank you for reading.

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