Illustration - Jacob Rosby
The Thief, the Sorcerer, and the Goat
By James Aron
The thieves peeked over the ragged protrusion of rock. Ahead, perched amid the twisted peaks and yawning maws of the Heights, stood that for which they had made the arduous trek here: Greystone Tower, home to the fabled sorcerer Amrak. And fabled he was. He had not been so much as glimpsed in ten full cycles of the seasons. Rumours abounded that he had finally passed on. Sped upon the crest of those rumours, the thieves Ash and Brill had journeyed here in the hope the sorcerer had indeed perished and that the wonders reputedly housed within this fastness were now there for the taking.
Brill, the eldest of the pair, adjusted the leather skullcap he customarily wore and observed, “No sign of that thrice-accursed sorcerer. No torches burning without. No lanterns burning within. Looks like the tales were true: Amrak’s carked it.”
His companion, Ash, a newcomer to the business of thieving, was unconvinced. “The sorcerer was a hermit, wasn’t he? He wouldn’t need more than a single candle to go by. And it’s light enough out yet. He mightn’t light his lanterns till sundown.” With a quaver in his voice, he added, “Could be a trap. Making the place look abandoned might be how he lures his victims in, so’s can experiment on ’em – turn ’em into frogs and newts and such.”
“You’re a coward and a fool, Ash. Your eyes are better than mine, and I can see from here that the place is as much cobwebs as it’s stone and mortar. It’s deserted, I tells ya. You’ll see that better when you get to it.”
Ash shot Brill a sidelong glance. “When I get to it?”
“There’s no one else here, is there?”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to keep lookout. It wouldn’t do for both of us to be stuck inside if it turns out the rumours were codswallop and Amrak comes strolling up that there path.”
“But you said the place’s deserted, so he must be dead. Why keep lookout?”
“Well…” Brill stammered, “he’s not the only one who might come waltzing up looking for trouble. The story of Amrak’s demise would’ve made it far and wide by now. What happens when another crew decides to come poke their heads in? No, best someone keeps a weather eye out. And that someone’s me.”
“Why not me? You said I’d the better eyes.”
The fear Brill‘s bluster had concealed at last got the better of him, driving him to wrath. "Because I hired you, boy, not the other way ‘round. Sister‘s son or not, you‘re in my employ. Now, get your mangy carcass up to that tower, you misbegotten troll-spawn. If I sees someone‘s coming, I‘ll hoot twice like an owl."
Ash‘s brow furrowed. "I didn‘t know you could make that noise."
"I‘ll have figured out how by the time I need it. Off with you!"
Browbeaten, Ash arose and left cover. He furtively navigated the path that wound to the tower, his gaze often straying to its shuttered windows. But he met no challenge as he approached and soon stood before broad oaken doors. Hand shaking, he rapped on the wood, then listened intently for a response. He heard no reply.
He glanced over his shoulder, back toward Brill. The old thief was gesturing frantically for him to go in. Ash hesitated an interminable moment, as terrified of the thought of coming across the sorcerer’s mummified remains as he was of discovery by the living. Then, he drew a deep breath to steel himself and applied his weight to the doors.
They were not barred and swung inward almost soundlessly. Beyond was a foyer immersed in shadow. Ash entered warily. For a fleeting moment, he considering hollering in enquiry, but dismissed the notion. The tower’s watchful silence would suffer no intrusion. Even his careful footfalls as he crossed the foyer seemed to clash against the stillness.
A winding stair brought him to the next floor. From chamber to chamber he crept with comical caution, searching amid the gloom for trinkets of worth and artefacts magical in nature. From floor to floor his search carried him till he reached the topmost. There, he came to realise two facts. Firstly, that the tower was indeed deserted – and that his fear that he might discover Amrak’s skeleton had been groundless - and secondly, that the rumoured treasures were no more than that: rumours.
Crestfallen, he approached the writing desk set beneath the south-facing window. A thick fall of dust coated its top, which was cluttered with inkpots and quills, and rolled parchments whose seal he dared not break, lest he inadvertently trigger some enchantment. Here, he spied a curiosity. At first, he thought that a slender branch lay horizontal across the desk. However, upon close inspection, he noted that the wood had been ornately carved rather than fashioned by nature and that its length had been engraved with runes in a mode he did not recognise.
The sorcerer’s wand!
Here lay an artefact of inestimable worth. Beyond its value as a historical relic, wands were said to boast magical properties in and of themselves, rather than being mere conduits for a sorcerer’s powers. Ash had heard tales of wars being fought over such tools, which were usually the property of the wise and mighty. And now it was Ash’s! He was wise, certainly. Perhaps with the aid of the wand, he could be mighty as well! In the very least, Brill would owe him a little respect.
So thinking, he swept up the wand and dashed from the tower.
Brill ventured out from behind his rock as Ash rushed through its portal. “What did you find?” he asked, salivating.
“You were right!” Ash beamed. “Amrak must be dead. The place was abandoned, cleared out.”
Brill’s lower lip dropped. “What do you mean ‘cleared out’?”
“I mean, the place was empty. Barely any furniture, let alone gold and jewels and crystal balls. But I did find this.” He reached inside his cloak, drew forth the wand, and showed it to Brill.
Eyes alight, Brill snatched the wand. “This’ll fetch a pretty penny, no mistake,” he intoned softly.
“It sure will. Can I have it back now?”
Brill shook his head and swiftly stowed the wand in his pack. “I’m older and wiser. Best I keep it. Safer that way. Sorcerer’s wands aren’t to be trifled with, you know.”
Ash grudgingly acquiesced. He was loath to part with the precious thing, but the older thief’s surly demeanour brooked no argument.
Brill glanced at the westering sun. “We need to move. The night-wind in the Heights will steal the warmth from a man’s bones. Let’s get back down while we’ve got the light.” Ash nodded enthusiastically. Fear of the elements aside, he had no desire to spend a night subject to the tower’s brooding regard.
They reached the broken hardpan of the Deadlands beneath the wrathful palette of sunset, but Brill insisted they press on. A two-week journey back to town awaited, and he was anxious to see their treasure sold. They hiked till dusk before unrolling their beddings and making a cold camp in the lee of a tall finger of stone, a few paces removed from the road that led to the tower.
As the adrenaline of their hijinks subsided, Ash was overtaken by weariness. He slipped into a dreamless slumber.
He awoke bleary and aching from his earthen bed. He rubbed his eyes with balled fists to clear them and saw that he lay beneath an azure sky, marred only by fleeting streaks of cloud. He yawned, stretched, and scratched himself, while considering the lingering threads of his waking dream. He remembered the noise of an animal bleating, a sheep perhaps. He wondered if he had been dreaming of his home? His parents’ farm? In any case, the dream had awoken him, and by the shadows he judged he had slept late. Curious, for it was Brill’s habit to wake him with the sunrise.
He rolled to look at Brill. Curiosity turned to surprise, then to shock, then to horror. Brill was gone. All that remained of him were the clothes he had been wearing as they had bedded down for the night. They were scattered across Brill’s rumpled bedding. Atop that bedding stood a goat, a goat that was watching Ash intently. And the goat was wearing Brill’s leather skullcap!
Realisation struck. Ash threw off his own bedding, rushed to the goat, and flung his arms around its neck. “Oh, Brill,” he wailed, “what wizard’s curse have we called down upon you? I knew we shouldn’t have gone to the tower. And now the shade of Amrak has risen from the grave to turn you into this!” But as his gaze fell upon Brill’s bedding, he spied the sorcerer’s wand there, and another potential explanation occurred to him. He looked the goat in the eye. “You weren’t meddling with things that ought not to be meddled with, were you Brill? Oh, but you must have! You must’ve been playing with the vile thing and done yourself a mischief. What a cruel accident.”
He wept then for a time, arms still clinging to Brill-goat’s neck while the sun climbed its languid arc, the wind troubled bare branches, and birds gathered inquisitively to observe the curious scene.
After a time, Ash stood and wiped his eyes and nose upon his cuff. Slapping himself across the face, he implored, “Come on, Ash, think! No good’ll come of standing here blubbing. But what to do?” He surveyed his barren surrounds. “I’ve got to get Brill back to town. I mightn’t know how to help ’im, but there’re book-learned people about who might’ve an inkling. I’ve got the wand, after all. If Brill can turn himself into a goat, who’s to say there’s no way to turn him back?"
Brill, however, had been the hunter and trapper of their duo. As a farm boy, the nearest Ash had come to hunting and trapping had been leading animals to the abattoir. The snares he set were always empty come morning. He tried to take down a bird at perch with Brill’s sling, but only succeeded in slapping himself in the face when his slick fingers slipped from its taut string.
Moreover, Brill-goat was not a compliant travelling companion. Whatever intelligence Brill had possessed had been shed when he had been transfigured, for he could not be commanded nor reasoned with. He had become wholly goat-like. Often, he would refuse to be led, or attempt to bolt. It sapped Ash’s spirit to wrestle with his partner so. And so, with time making the lack of provender an ever more pressing issue, Ash trod doggedly on.
The days passed in wretched travel. Throughout, Ash’s shrinking belly grumbled its protest. He found water in plenty, for rainwater and dew pooled amid the Deadlands’ volcanic rock, but there were no streams in which he might fish. His pace slowed. Brill-goat too was showing the effects, his skin now drawn tightly across his ribs. Often, he would bleat his displeasure.
Ash awoke from a horrific nightmare. In it, he had seen Brill-goat roasted and dripping with mint sauce. Then, he had envisioned him upon a spit, the fire beneath hissing from the methodical drip of fat. After, he had beheld him broiled and served with steamed vegetables. And he had salivated before tucking into each of these ghastly dishes, devouring Brill-goat down to the bones with slow, finger-licking relish.
He looked at Brill-goat now. Brill-goat lay nearby, watching Ash in turn with his dull brown eyes. He too looked too worn to press on, for the Deadlands had offered nothing so much as bitter moss for him to gorge upon.
“There’s nothing for it, Brill,” Ash declared. ‘We’ve got to keep on.”
Yet, he managed only a few staggering steps before equilibrium failed him, and he swooned. He fell to his knees but retained consciousness. For a time, he crawled along the road, the weight of sunlight upon his back, carrion fowl gathering in anticipation. It was not long before exhaustion put an end to Ash’s pitiful plight. He slid onto his belly.
For a time, he hovered in that lethargic state between sleep and wakefulness till he was roused by Brill-goat’s presence at his side. He opened a reluctant eye and said to Brill-goat, “I’m sorry, my friend, it looks like we’ve got to the end of our journey - and a cursed one it was. Now, I guess it all comes down to an evil choice: do we both starve out here, or does one of us go on alone? It’s a hard decision and not one I want to make. But really, I don’t think it’s a choice at all. And I know how you’d choose if you was me.”
So saying, he climbed once more to his knees and began to gather the deadwood that lay in plenty roadside. Once he had piled enough wood and tinder for his purposes, he shuffled back to his abandoned gear and produced flint and steel. He soon had a burgeoning fire. Next came the hard part. He hoped he had strength left for what was to follow, both the physical exertion and the terrible toll that would be exacted upon his soul.
And so it was that Ash drew near to town with a full belly but no companion. Already he had concocted a story to explain Brill’s demise. He had no doubt he would be believed. After all, they had gone to pilfer from a sorcerer’s tower. Many had warned them of the peril. That one of them might have fallen to the sorcerer’s wiles was not only plausible, it was expected. Once Ash had told his tale, the legend of Amrak the Sorcerer would live on, continuing to be a name of mystery, dread, and awe. Ash’s name too would become one of legend, for he had been the one to wrest Amrak’s wand from him, saving his own life. Alas that he had not been able to also save Brill’s!
However, as Ash drew in sight of the rise in the road on the edge of town, every notion of claiming heroism slipped from his mind. Terror drove him to his knees, where he pawed the dust in despair. He mouthed pleas for mercy but found he could utter no sound. Guilt and fear had struck him dumb.
Ahead, upon the crest of the rise, stood Amrak the Sorcerer. He was a majestic sight: a towering figure swathed in robes of purple fabric that shifted with the wind as though a thing alive. His craggy, bearded features were stern. He pinned Ash beneath the most withering of gazes and commanded, “To me!”
Ash arose, swaying as though inebriated. Despite his impulse to turn and run in the direction he had come from, he found himself staggering toward the magician, as though compelled by outside forces. At last, he threw himself down at the sorcerer’s feet, whimpering his apologies and begging for clemency.
The sorcerer was unmoved. He stated in low tones, “I believe you have something that belongs to me.”
Ash nodded and rummaged through his pack. From amid the dried goat he had stashed there he produced the cloth in which he had swaddled the wand. He lay it across his palms and offered it to the sorcerer, who snapped it up peevishly and slipped it into the folds of his robes.
“I trust,” said Amrak, “that you’ve learned your lesson.”
“Oh yes,” Ash sobbed. “The cruellest lesson, to be sure. Poor Brill! I swear upon everything I have or will ever have that I’ll never again take so much as a sip of water that don’t belong to me!”
Amrak ceased bristling somewhat. “Good. Then I shall consider your transgression a thing of the past and your debt to me almost forgiven.”
“ ‘Almost’?” Ash trembled. It was considered a fell thing to be indebted to a sorcerer.
“Yes, Ash, almost. I command you to return to your town. Go to the tavern there. Inside, I have left instruction as to how I might be repaid for your deeds. Go now!”
Ash needed no further prompting. He arose, dashed past the sorcerer, and sprinted down the dusty road that led into town, anxious to put as much distance between himself and Amrak as he could. He felt relieved he had been offered a reprieve, but also apprehensive, for his mind had conjured all manner of terrible deeds he might be tasked with to repay his debt.
The tavern stood on the edge of town. Ash burst through the batwing doors, then lingered a moment upon the threshold, panting. As his eyes belatedly adjusted to the light, he saw that the tavern was near to empty. Only the tavern-keeper, Dee, and a lone patron abided within. Dee regarded Ash quizzically, perhaps not recognising him beneath the layers of trail-dust. The lone patron turned to face Ash.
For an interminable moment, Ash wondered if this was some glamour fashioned by the sorcerer, for this person should not, could not be here. But if this was but a cruel apparition, then it was a good one, for it spoke to him. “Ash?”
Ash scurried the length of the tavern to embrace the man, touching his face to ensure he was real. “Brill? But how can this be?” He paused, realising that, although Brill was wrapped in a blanket, he was otherwise naked. “And why’re you naked?”
Brill answered, “Amrak ordered me to strip off when he snatched me – cap and all. Then, he marched me back to town naked as a newborn. I froze at night and, in the daytime, the sun baked me something awful.” He held up a blistered forearm to demonstrate. “He gave me food and water as we went, but barely enough to keep me on my feet. Said it was punishment for intruding on his demesne. And let me tell you, it’s a lesson I won’t soon be forgetting. He’s terrifying, he is. Barely said a word the whole journey. Just watched me the whole time with them accusing eyes of his.”
“I’m just glad to see you alive. I…” Ash hesitated, “I’d thought you dead.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet, boy. Amrak said we’re indebted to him.”
Ash paled. “He said something to me about that, too. But he didn’t say how much we owed him, or how we’d repay it.’
‘Well, he told me how much we owe him.” Puzzlement furrowed Brill’s brow. “He told me that the two of us owed him the price of a goat?”