Posted by: lordkyler | April 14, 2016

The Game – Short Story Week 2016

The old Wayfarer’s tavern was filled to bursting. The night was stormy, driving travelers to the warm comforts of the indoors, and the harvest had been halted by the deluge, freeing the villagers to come share a drink and a spot of gossip. Many dour predictions about the weather would be made before the night was through.

However, the primary reason for the tavern’s crowded state were the young men and women in the crimson and white of the Queen’s garb, the emblems of Tree and Tower standing out like teeth biting into a crisp apple. They were a little too drunk for the hour, and kept close to each other, but it was the closeness of a sheepfold rather than a wolf pack.

A keen ear might have noticed that their laughter was a little too loud, a little too strained. A keen eye might have noticed the way their swords hung conspicuously at their sides, bright as new pennies. On this night, free drinks flowed as freely as any others, and unspoken words hung as heavy in the air as the storm-clouds outside.

A sober and inquisitive mind might have detected an anomaly in the packed and raucous tavern; a pocket of solitude in the far back corner, well away from blazing hearth and boisterous patrons, seemingly untouched by either. There at a small table sat an elderly couple. They had been here long before the first farmers and would stay here long after the most determined drinkers had staggered home. If you had asked the tavern-master about them – a man who knew every vintage in his cellar and every secret in the town – he would have been surprised to realize he could not recall their names, and would have been hard-pressed to say what he’d served them. No matter. They kept to themselves and caused no trouble, why not leave well enough alone?

A truly sensitive soul paying close attention might even have sensed a curious presence about their persons, a subtle feeling of serenity thick with portent, like the air before a summer storm. There were no such discerning souls in the tavern this evening, but those who came close to the couple soon found themselves elsewhere without knowing why.

Between the two lay a game of grid and stones. It was a game as old as song, simple enough for children and deep enough for scholars, played by peasants and princes alike. Every age and people had their own variation and their own name, but this version was the simplest and deepest of all of them, ageless, nameless, and unchanging.

The players of the game were man and woman, both old, each fixated on the game board. Even a drunk man could have felt the taut-wire tension between them, and such a man might have mused on the curious contrast the pair made. Their posture made it clear that there was an intimate connection there, and yet it was just as clear that they were opposites in every way imaginable. However, such thoughts slipped from idle minds like sifting sand, and so the couple was undisturbed.

The man took a sip of sour wine from his cup and leaned forward, expression eager. He seemed to be composed of little more than sticks, aged skin stretched taut over a gaunt skeleton. Notwithstanding his emaciated appearance, he moved with a smooth, languid grace, and his eyes…

His eyes were black, dark through and through, without white or iris. It was the black of pitch, devouring and ensnaring. It was the black of the storm, relentless and implacable. It was the black of the midnight sea, an abyss men might only dream at, the empty void of a sky with no stars.

The man grinned, and every soul in the tavern took a small gasp without noticing.

“A curious gambit, my friend,” he rasped soundlessly. “But I will not complain. How could I resist such a great sacrifice on your behalf? Why, the aftermath of this conflict alone will score me countless victories.”

The woman toyed with one of her pieces, caressing the small stone Ike a precious thing before removing it from the board. Worry bowed her head, but resolution squared her shoulders. Her skin was like tough leather, tanned by countless days under the sun and wrinkled by untold ages of labor. For all this, she sat strong and sturdy as a stone, with a crown of white hair as thick and wild as any sheep.

Her eyes were pure white, without iris or pupil; not milky with blindness or blanked by some deformity that left the eyeball an empty globe, but flashing like lightning, burning like fire, and glittering like the sun on bright waters.

She hummed thoughtfully, and every soul in the tavern relaxed just a bit. “Must boldness so often keep company with short-sightedness? You never were one for the long game.”

“And yet the long game is so often thrown into ruin by the vagaries of ill fortune and small matters,” the black-eyed man said. “Or have you forgotten our game at the Widow’s Crypt?”

The woman scowled slightly, and the man leered. Reaching down with infinite care, he moved one of his pieces across the board. When the woman raised an eyebrow, he flipped it over.

The woman hesitated only a moment before pouncing, placing one of her own pieces atop the flipped one to claim it.

“I know you have some scheme in mind,” she said, “but I’m willing to wager that will cost you more than it gains in the long run.”

The man shrugged carelessly. “You have provided me with enough pieces in the past. Why not return the favor?”

“You’ve never been the generous type in the past,” the woman said, sliding the newly-claimed piece to a sheltered spot.

“Now now,” tutted the man. “That’s unfair. I’ve spared many a piece in my time, although I will concede I always claim them eventually.”

“You toy with them, you mean.”

He scoffed, and the room fell silent for a heartbeat. “I take your pieces early and you claim unfairness. I let them linger and you claim cruelty. You cannot have it both ways.” As if to make his point, he claimed a new piece and an old one with one deft stroke.

“Even when it is not tragic, it is a nuisance,” the woman scowled, strengthening her lines.

“But necessary,” the man said, with the air of a person repeating an argument for the thousandth time. “If you had your way, the board would become cluttered and unplayable with all the pretty pieces, choked in its profusion.” Three stragglers were picked off in short succession, only to be replaced by four new tokens.

“And if you had yours, the board would be empty,” the woman sighed.

The man grinned. “And so we must play the game. Maybe I will win, in the end, or perhaps you will prove victorious. Or it may continue forever. Who can tell?” He stole a quick glance at the board and carefully maneuvered a piece into the center. “But you’d best be careful, my lady. The game could last forever… or it could be ended tomorrow. Consider carefully.”

For the first time, the old woman showed a flicker of doubt, carefully studying the layout of the board. The board wasn’t real, in a way, but the game was, real in a way that few things were, and she had learned long ago that the game belonged to the bold. She pushed her captured piece into position, arranging all the other pieces to follow it, striking for the heart of the board.

A sudden torrent of rain and wind burst into the tavern as a messenger barged through the door, dripping wet but brimming with excitement. Every eye in the place turned toward him, save two pairs, one black and one white.

The man shut the door and threw his hands into the air. “The archduke has turned!” he proclaimed. “The sorcerer has joined our ranks, and now rides to battle against the vile King Hyndrag, who slew General Lynder and his infant daughter while they slept. Come! The call has been sounded! Every soul to the fray, while the dark King is weakened! Come! Come!”

Soldier and farmer alike leapt into action, reaching for coats and hats, scrambling to secure weapons. They rushed past the old couple with nary a glance, shouting battle cries for Queen and country, vowing vengeance against the hated enemy. Before long, the only occupant in the room was the tavern’s cat, which sat primly in front of the hearth, watching the two strangers with cool green eyes.

The wizened man smiled widely, and pulled out another box filled with pieces, placing dozens on the board, until they drastically outnumbered those of his opponent. “Well then, shall we play?”

The woman drew out a box of her own, placing her new pieces carefully. She looked up and sighed as two fathomless eyes met. “Yes. Now, as always, we shall play.”

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