A Risky Game
“—May –need to wake up, Noddie May.”
Her name registered in her mind and Noddie dragged her eyes open. Her blurry vision cleared, to reveal Jethrow and Liels leaning over her with concern.
Liel’s smiled, “Ah, what I tell you? She pulled through.”
Dazed Noddie blinked a few times and shook her head to clear it. Where she had felt nothing before, now she was feeling too much. Her fingertips stung and the layers of warm blankets she was wrapped in made her skin burn. There was a foul taste in her mouth; like burnt cabbage and vinegar. “What happened?”
“You got too cold.” Jethrow said, sitting on the edge of the bed she was lying in. He was back in his fur-lined coat and held a steaming mug that smelled like last year’s compost.
Noddie struggled against the blankets to sit up. They were in a small window-less room that was dirty with a dilapidated feel, despite the strong walls and rafters. Everyone was dry and sporting warm clothing, sitting next to a roaring fireplace and surrounded by dishes of mostly grilled foods.
“Where are we?”
“Torben. it was the closest city.”
“We’re in the back room of an old saloon,” Vince grumbled. “We didn’t have time to be picky. Your hat, Sir.” He held the furry cap out to Jethrow who placed the cap on his head without comment.
“It is a fine hat, if you don’t mind me saying so.” He gathered two more steaming mugs from a side table and handed one to Lorance. “Drink this, your highness, we do not want you catching ill.”
“Eeeeuugh, that’s nasty!”
“Hold your nose,” said Mesha, drinking from his own without complaint.
Sarah brought a plate over to the bed. “Here, Noddie May, darling, eat something. Torben is famous for their salted meats and roasted pickles, but be careful of their Sesma soup. It is far too spicy for my liking.”
“I like spicy foods,” Lorance commented. “But Mesha cannot stand the stuff.”
Noddie took the offered dinner. “But what about the battle?”
Vince cleared his throat. “Thanks to the recruits from the cities of Irestead, we were victorious. Most of the robbers were killed and many have been captured and are now being held to face trial for their crimes. However, a handful of robbers escaped, including Mordekah. Until Mordekah is stopped, I’m afraid this war against the robbers will go on.
Jethrow scowled as he inspected a new dagger. “It is unfortunate, but not unexpected.”
“All the same, we earned a great victory today.” Mesha pointed out. “We reduced the band’s numbers drastically.”
As Noddie started eating the door was cracked open and Tanta sidled into the room. As soon as the door was firmly shut again Vince turned to Liels and Sarah. “We thank you for your help and services. If you wish, we will assemble a team to escort you back across the border.”
Liel’s mustache twitched. “Nothin’ doin’. Our friends need help here and a McCarthy never runs out on a friend. We will accompany you to Bolzenar if we can be of any assistance. I owe you for looking after my daughter and bustin’ me out of the scoundrel’s brig.” He set down his mug and folded his hands under his chin. “So what’s the plan?”
“We need to get into Bolzenar and we need to get there fast,” Jethrow said. Mordekah is more dangerous when angry and both he and Lazren are planning to make it into the city tonight.
“How do they expect to get beyond the wall? I thought the place was closed up?”
Jethrow scowled. “If I know anything about them, they’ll find a way.”
“We can take you,” Lorance said. “It is about time we returned anyway, isn’t that so Vince?”
“Yes,” Vince answered, staring at his boots. “I think you may be right. And a prince does not use the can in such a way. It’s, we will or we could take you,” he instructed.
“I knew that.”
“It is against Hemlin’s royal decree for anyone to enter or exit Bolzenar without the steward’s consent. The only way in will be by Endeavor, Hemlin’s secret supply train.”
“The train comes through here?” Jethrow asked.
“Torben is Irestead’s biggest industrial city. They thrive on mechanics and steam work, and have the longest, most intricate railway system in the world.” Vince ran a hand through his hair. “It won’t be easy. The conductor works for Hemlin, as well as many of the guards at the station. We can’t afford Hemlin getting a forwarded message that we are on our way. We need to sneak on board without them knowing.”
“The place will be crawling with guards and workmen.” Mesha pointed out. “We will never get all of us on board and hidden without being caught.”
Lorance leaned back on his hands. “Who would have thought we would need to break the law to get into our own home?”
“We could bribe the workers,” Tanta said.
Vince balked. “You expect me to take the princes into the back alleys of Torben to deal with crooks and swindlers?”
“Why not? They’ve already been dealing with Jethrow,” Sarah said, earning a sideways glare from the man in question. “Just sayin’.”
“We may not have a choice, sir.” Tanta responded.
Lorance leaned over to place a hand on Vince’s shoulder. “It will be all right, Vince. It will be a great learning experience.”
The man dropped his head into his hands.
“I’ve been eavesdropping at the bar,” Tanta went on. She cracked the door so Vince, Jethrow and Liels could peek out. “See the three men in the far back corner? They work in the train yard loading the cars. They’ve been scheming for the last fifteen minutes about how best to smuggle false remedy solutions into Bolzenar. If we can give them a good enough offer, they may sneak us in as well.”
Vince placed a hand over his eyes. “Then let us get this over with.”
Jethrow placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let me do the talking. You’re too formal. You’ll make them suspicious. If they’re too wary, they won’t bargain with us.”
The three men all had wide shoulders and broad chests. Any one of them could knock Vince senseless with one strong swing of a meaty fist. They were seated at a small round table with a single lantern hanging above them.
As Noddie’s group approached, they stopped talking and watched through bagged narrow eyes.
“Evening.” Jethrow used the voice he used when addressing fellow Mordekah robbers, stern and serious. He carried himself with a confidence that warned that he was not a man to be messed with. “You lot work in the train yard?”
“What of it?” asked a bearded man.
“I know you have been engaged in some small business on the side. I wish to enlist your services.
“I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but we’ve done nothing wrong.”
A man with hanging cheeks like a bulldog leaned over the table, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“I wish to strike a deal with you.” Jethrow answered, ignoring the first question. “You’ve been smuggling illegal merchandise into Bolzenar. Have you ever considered smuggling people?”
The man’s cagey eyes traveled onto each of them in turn. “You wish to enter Bolzenar? Why would you want to go there?”
“Let us keep our business and you keep yours.”
A man with a birthmark on the side of his head spoke, “Assisting a stranger in entering the forbidden capitol is a much more serious crime these days then striking deals with those already inside. It is not worth the penalty.”
“Name your price.”
“Determined are you?” The man circled his mouth with a stubby finger. “That is a fine trinket you have there. I’ve never seen the like of it.”
Noddie followed his eyes to Jethrow’s front. The top buttons of his coat were open and the amulet had slipped from behind his shirt and was laying against his chest in clear display.
“Those symbols indicate it is both ancient and powerful. I would be willing to make a trade.”
Jethrow grasped the amulet, “You do not want this. It’s a bad omen that only brings death.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot part with it.”
“Then you are wasting our time.”
Jethrow leaned closer, placing his palms on the table between them, “You don’t know what you are asking. This item is dangerous; I could not part with it even if I wanted to. Ask for anything else.”
“You will give us that trinket or there will be no deal.” The bulldog said stubbornly crossing his arms.
Jethrow backed off with a snarl.
The men exchanged meaningful looks. Then the shortest of the four, a man with a large nose and coarse hair said, “Uncertain huh? Then what would you say to a game of chance?”
“Pendesha. Winner take all.”
“You want us to play for your aid?”
“No, we want you to play for the deal. If you win, we will get you lot onto the only train that can travel beyond the iron wall without notice. If you lose, you will hand over your trinket and not bother us again. So what will it be? How good is your luck, Scruffy?”
“Jethrow,” Mesha whispered, “We can’t lose the amulet.”
Jovon bent his head to whisper as well, “But we need to make it to Bolzenar before Mordekah does. Their game will be as risky as trying to sneak aboard the Endeavor without aid.”
Vince turned his back to the men so they couldn’t read his lips, “I don’t like this. To risk so much on a game of chance?”
“There is some skill involved,” Lorance reminded them.
Sarah looked back over her shoulder. “Can we trust them not to cheat?”
Liels fingered his mustache, “We could win. I suppose it would be worth a try.”
Vince shook his head again. “I still don’t like it.”
The man with the birthmark leaned an elbow against the table. “Tell you what, you throw in that hat,” he pointed to Jethrow’s furry cap. “And we’ll give you a ten point head start.”
Jethrow put a hand to his cap. “No way!”
“Jethrow!” Liels said exasperated.
Jethrow gave an annoyed growl and reluctantly took off his hat and passed it over the table to the man.
The bearded man rolled his shoulders causing the chair supporting him to creak, “You can call me Gard. Perkins and I -he gestured to the man with the birth mark- will be your opponents. So which of you will be representing your group?”
Noddie shared glances with the others. The McCarthies didn’t know how to play and Noddie was not skilled. Vince was scratching the back of his neck in nerves and Tanta didn’t look any more confident.
“I’ll play you.” Lorance stepped boldly forward.
Gard gave an insulting chuckle. “This is your best player is it? Who’s your other hand?”
Lorance looked over at Mesha, who shook his head. “You know I’m hopeless at this.”
“I’ll do it,” said Jethrow.”
Gard gave an evil grin and gestured to the chairs opposite them. “Have a seat.”
The surface of the circular table between them was covered in shallow carvings, which Noddie realized was a Pendesha board. Except this one was much more elaborate and contained far more symbols than the one Mesha had drawn.
Lorance and Jethrow took a seat at the table across from the men as Lorance asked, “What rules are we playing by? Tine?”
Gard shook his head with a grunt. “Tun.”
Perkins took out a set of pendesha pawnds and set them at the center of the table.
Bulldog-face pulled a coin from his pocket and they flipped to determine who would take the first roll.
“We’re first, but you start with a ten point lead,” Gard clarified.
Perkins threw the pawnds.
They landed in a high point position on a low point spot, which averaged out.
Lorance took the pawnds in hand next. His roll landed in a weaker position than Perkins’, but on a symbol that gave his score an extra boost.
Gard earned ten points that canceled out due to their landing spot.
Then Jethrow took his turn, adding five points to their score.
And so it continued in the same rotation turn after turn.
Noddie watched awestruck. She never knew the game could be played like this. There were spaces on the board that, if landed on, would take away all the points earned thus far, while a few blank spaces did nothing at all. From time to time one of the players would say “Omen Ta” which, when said before the roll, doubled the outcome for better or worse. If points were gained, the said points would be doubled, but if lost, the player would give up a lot more.
Bulldog counted off the rounds in the northern tongue. His low voice rumbling.
Lorance turned out to be an incredible player. There was a crease of concentration by his brow and his eyes never left the board. Jethrow was a skilled player in his own right. Although losing points from time to time, he always made up for what he lost. The workmen were an equal match. The pawnds landed one high point after another, the player’s hands so fast and sure, they made the game look easy.
Noddie’s palms were sweaty. This game was too close. Far too close. To think that everything from her uncle’s life to the outcome of the plague was now relying on a simple game!
Lorance took a bad roll and lost twenty points giving the other two men the round.
Jethrow earned some of it back by landing both pawnds on their shortest sides before Gard pulled their team ahead further.
When it was Lorance’s turn again he landed enough points to keep them in the round. The two teams continued to build upon one another until the points reached over eighty.
“This is the last round. Roll well,” Bulldog rumbled, fingering his multiple chins.
Both teams were tied with four rounds each. This last round would determine the winner.
Lorance rolled a decent score, as did Perkins. Gard scored less and Jethrow’s balanced out with a low position on a high symbol, giving them the advantage.
Then Perkins rolled again.
Noddie’s jaw dropped. The pawnds landed on a clear space, one sitting on top of the other in a tower formation. Mesha had told her of this position. He said it was called Quen, but she was never able to do it. It was the most difficult position to get in pendesha.
Judging by the pale, wide-eyed looks on Jethrow and Lorance, it was not something done easily or often.
“Your roll boy.”
Lorance gripped the pawnds in his fist and put his knuckles to his lips. Quen gifted the roller with fifty points and Lorance would need to earn at least thirty-two to win. Everything would depend on this single roll.
Please! Please! Please! Noddie prayed silently.
The pawnds seemed to fall to the board in slow motion. No one dared to breathe into the pressing silence. The pieces bounced once. Twice. Then rolled to a stop.
They landed on a space bearing a minor point-adding symbol, the two pawnds leaning against each other to form a point. A set up that was not as impressive as Quen, but a high-point position nonetheless.
The world paused as Noddie added up the points in her mind. Thirty-five. They had thirty-five points! They had won!
The men didn’t react right away. Then Gard leaned back. “I admit defeat. I’m man enough to accept a fair game. Well played, my friend. The next train leaves tomorrow afternoon. We will hide you in the engine room until then.”
The other two men rose and lumbering off in foul moods.
Jethrow let out a long exhale and Lorance melted into his chair with a smile, leaning his head back.
“That was a smart play. The both of you,” Liels complimented.
“Yes, you did very well,” Vince agreed. His nerves were stretched to the limit during the match and now he looked about to collapse in relief.
“That was the most intense game I’ve ever seen,” said Noddie.
Mesha leaned against Lorance’s chair, “The Tun rules are the most strict and complicated. Well done, my brother.”
Gard beckoned them toward the back door. “The patrol hasn’t arrived yet and most of the guards are on break. The station isn’t far from here.”
They followed him out into a filthy back alley. Barrels were stacked to one side and murky puddles nestled midst the worn cobblestones. Rats scurried for cover as they approached causing Jethrow to flinch.
“Try not to touch anything,” Vince whispered to them, his breath a light mist. “They say the plague runs rapid through the back alleys. And don’t make eye contact with anyone we meet, there are some shady characters here.”
Jethrow fingered his good luck charm. The brick walls contained cracked windows and lines of dirty laundry. They passed a disheveled man sleeping against the base of a wall and a woman with sunken cheeks standing in a doorway.
They came to a wider street and Noddie was able to get a better view of the city. Torben was comprised of tall, brick buildings with iron railings and lamp fixtures bolted to the sides of apartments. Each door was preceded by at least three front steps and a forest of chimneys rose above the skyline. The sooty air smelled of smoke and newspaper. Thin, frosty snow piled up against street curbs and the tightly packed houses. Every so often they saw a red cloth hung in a window indicating the plague was or had been present there.
The streets were mostly empty save for a few somber-faced citizens, cooking on fire pits outside their back doors or standing under streetlamps holding conversation.
“The station is up this road. Keep up and—”
His words were cut off by a nightmarish scream. A man stumbled into the middle of the street and fell to his knees rubbing at his skin, which bore dark, red-rimmed stripes. Pots were overturned and doors slammed as people stumbled to retreat from the obvious plague victim.
A whistle blew and four men in uniform came running up the street wearing tall boots, gloves, flat-topped hats and cloth masks covering their mouths and noses. Officers, trained to handle situations concerning the Scorenza.
Gard urged Noddie’s group toward a side alley.
Their movement caught the infected man’s attention and with an insane cry he leapt forward, gripping the front of Noddie’s coat in an iron grip, trapping her against the wall. His stale breath brushed her face as his wild, bloodshot eyes widened with fear and pain. Noddie got a gruesome, close look at the stripes of infested skin. He tried to speak, but only a rasping gurgle escaped his throat.
Several pairs of gloved hands grabbed the man and pulled him off of her. An officer wearing a golden sash ordered, “Get him locked up away from the public! Find out who he is and see if you can locate any family.”
Noddie slid down the wall to sit on the cold ground. The officer’s tall boots appeared in front of her.
“He didn’t touch skin did he?”
Noddie looked from one fearful face to another. They were all standing above her, holding their breath.
Drowning in dread Noddie pulled her shirt collar down to reveal three red scratches near her collarbone, where the man’s fingernails scraped her.