Where was that gods-forgotten game set?
Watch Sergeant Wissian Vott tossed a box of whetstones aside as he rummaged through the watchhouse storage room. The box tipped to the floor, the cacophony of stones upon concrete assaulting his ears and his patience. Of course, it did. But he’d deal with that later.
Taking a few, calming breaths, Vott’s eyes settled on what he had been seeking: a faded wooden game case.
“Any man with even a slight measure of wits should know this game,” Vott shouted to Iric. The rookie was dutifully awaiting his sergeant’s grand return. Grand it would be, Vott thought, as he cradled the old wooded case in both hands.
Returning to his young companion, Vott set the box gently on the large meal table that took up most of the space in the break-room. He undid the latches and swung it open, revealing a shiny set of copper play pieces. The game board was on the inside of the box, protected from the elements that had ravaged the outside. The squares were made from a thin cut of serpent stone, with black and white trails weaving through it. The space between the squares was white bone.
Foxes and Larks. One of the most time-tested games of strategy in the East.
“This game set looks expensive,” Iric said.
“It was a gift to the watchhouse. Many years ago,” Vott said, feeling a worm of emotion trying to break free. He squashed it back down. “Nobody else here plays, so it never gets used.”
“Not even Captain Steele?”
Iric’s eyes followed as Vott’s big, calloused hands lifted each piece with visible deference and placed them the board. It was a show for the boy as much as it was a practiced ritual. There was a hidden truth in how Vott handled each of the copper foxes, lifting them from their velvet lined storage spaces, slow and gentle, wiping the board with his free hand before setting them down. The sergeant was sure Iric would soon be demanding another heroic tale. Too bad this one was nothing but trouble and ghosts.
“Who gave it to you?” Iric asked, quicker than expected.
“Digging for a story again, kid?”
“If there’s a story, I’d like to hear it.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you…but with one condition. Afterwards you have to play me. Deal?”
Vott wondered if he could still play as well as in those old days with Jari. He wondered if he could handle the memories. Running a hand across his stubbled chin, he considered where to start the tale.
“It was a long time back,” he began. “Maybe eight or nine years ago. Soon after The Skirmishes, when I left the regiment and joined the Watch… I was still a bit rough around the edges then, and new to the job. Captain Steele, then Lieutenant Steele, had found out about a gambling ring doing some bad things to the people who owed them money. Steele had roped up some guy who was in deep with the gang, convinced him to turn informant. But before we knew it, things spiraled out of control… Hey, can you grab me a glass of water?”
Vott’s throat was already dry, anticipating the words to come. He didn’t want to seem overly emotional in front of the kid. A little lubricant should do the trick.
Iric stood and walked over the bar that occupied most of the wall on one side of the room. Grabbing a wooden pitcher and a pair of drinking glasses, the kid shuffled back to the table and poured drinks for two of them.
Vott gulped the water down without taking a breath.
“So, what did you do about the gang?” Iric asked.
“Like I said, Steele had a guy in the middle of it. His name was Jari. He’d also been in the regiment during The Skirmishes. But a Kingston pikeman put a hole in his leg, which never fully healed. After we came back, Jari was one of those men that couldn’t find their place. He fell into gambling, hoping he’d get lucky and make enough for a new start. Instead, he dug his own grave and was about to be dropped in it for good. Steele stepped in, part of him wanting to help an old veteran like himself, the other part already fully invested in the mission of the Watch. Cleaning up the streets and all that mess. At the time, those gangs were a big nuisance. Took advantage of the city being off balance.”
“I hadn’t realized The Skirmishes were that bad. All I ever heard was about a few fights over a bit of land by the river…”
Of course, the kid hadn’t learned about The Skirmishes growing up. Everyone Vott’s age tried their best to forget that time. If they had the luxury of forgetting.
“Fighting always leaves scars,” Vott said. “Sometimes the ones on the inside are worse than the ones on the skin.”
“So, Jari helped you take down the gang?”
“Yeah. He somehow managed to weasel his way into a high-stakes card game. Once he got word of where it was being held, he led us to the area. We stumbled right into an enforcer beating some poor bloke half to death. Took him down and let the bloodied man go. Hadn’t guessed he’d run right back to the gang and let them know we were coming.”
“Why would he do that?”
“When you’ve been beat like a dog for so long, you get to thinking every moment about just avoiding the next beating. You lose that long-term focus required to even consider escape.”
Vott grabbed the pitcher. Iric tried to take it from him, to pour the water himself, but he shook the kid off. Taking a sip, the big man continued his story.
“We were expecting to have surprise on our side. But that was lost. There were only four of us—myself, Lieutenant Steele, and two others. Once things started going wrong, Jari grabbed the dead enforcer’s sword and joined us. Steele tried to talk him out of it, but it was no use. Jari had decided to cut his chains to the gang, whatever that led to.
“So we hit the house hard on one front. We faced a lot of resistance, arrows and knives and all sorts of jagged objects flying through the air. It got worse once we made it inside. Cramped halls and messy rooms made the fighting difficult, treacherous. Our sergeant, an old-timer named Halvor, tripped on some junk on the floor and never got back up.
“When it was all done, we found two more corpses—the guy we had saved from the thug in the alley, and another poor fellow who was dressed in little more than rags. A couple others survived…physically at least…but they never really got their minds right again. Some of the things that gang did were unmentionable. All this, just after coming back from the brink of war, after losing too many good men in some dirty fights about some border out there somewhere…”
“It’s what made you decide to stay in the Watch, right?”
Vott was surprised by the boy’s insight. “Yeah,” he replied.
“None of that explains where the expensive game set came from.”
“Well, Jari had been an avid Foxes player before getting into cards. Before The Skirmishes, he had even been a local champion, almost famous. This set was a prize he’d won at some tournament. After the mess with the gang was finally sorted, he didn’t want to touch another game, any game. He gave his old prized set to us, as a repayment of sorts for pulling him out of the tomb he had fallen in.”
“Why haven’t I ever heard of this gang?”
“Because after we broke up their gambling ring, their rivals the Southtown Gang finished the job. In a not insignificant way, we actually helped the Baron raise himself up to where he is now. By accident, but helped nonetheless. At least the Baron doesn’t prey on hopeless vets like that other gang did.”
“Ever think to ask Jari to come over for a game?”
“No. Not once. I respect the man’s decision. He gave up his past joys in order to keep his life on track.”
Vott finished setting up the game. The copper pieces shimmered in the faint sunlight that beamed in through narrow windows. The scars on the old sergeant’s hands seem to twitch in anticipation. He was about to demand the kid fulfill his part of the deal and play, when the watchhouse doors swung open. Vott recognized the shadow silhouetted by the sunlight.
“Well if Raza isn’t my grumpy uncle…” Vott mumbled.
“Wissian,” Jari said, hands shaking, “the ring is back. They’re back and worse than ever.”
The only sound which filled the ominous silence was that of a copper fox hitting the floor.