Read an Excerpt
By John Coyne
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1981 Coyne, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Barbara Gardiner swung the family station wagon off the avenue and into the cul-de-sac. As always, she immediately felt safe. She was home.
It had snowed earlier in the day and a few inches of heavy wet snow clung to the bare branches and wooden fences. A perfect Connecticut Christmas card, she thought, with the houses laced in colored lights and children building snowmen on their front lawns.
Barbara slowed, drove carefully on the icy street. The children were everywhere, dark figures slipping out from behind parked cars, running from lot to lot. They were like characters from Scott's fantasy game, she thought, all elves and goblins.
"You find yourself in an enchanted forest, Brian Ború, lost somewhere in time." The Dealer paused to shuffle the deck of blue Hobgoblin cards. Scott glanced quickly at the other four players circled around the dormitory rec-room table, and then down at the Battleboard where the miniature figure of Brian Ború waited for the next round.
Scott had painted the one-inch-tall lead figure himself. Whenever he played Hobgoblin Brian Ború was his character, a twenty-fifth-level paladin whom Scott had kept alive through dozens of adventures in the ancient land of Erin.
"Pick a card, Brian," the Dealer instructed, spreading the blue deck out on the table.
Scott tensed. The start of a new Hobgoblin game always made him nervous. So much depended on the card selected, so much of Brian Ború's fate depended on chance.
"Hurry up, Gardiner, for chrissake," one of the other boys demanded. "We have less than an hour to play."
Scott glanced up at the wall clock at the end of the lounge. Twenty to five. At five-thirty they had PE and then dinner. They wouldn't be able to play again until eight o'clock, after study hall.
There were other activities in progress around the rec-room; students playing Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller and Runequest fantasy war games, but most of the boys had Hobgoblin cards on the table and were running an Adventure.
Scott smiled. It made him feel good knowing that he had introduced Hobgoblin to Spencertown Academy, knowing too that his classmates at the prep school considered him the best player and his Brian Ború unbeatable.
Barbara had a moment of concern thinking of Scott. He would be home within the week and she still hadn't found him the right Christmas present. Perhaps, she thought, she should go into the city on Friday and find him something at the hobby shop. A new game perhaps. Something more realistic than Hobgoblin, she thought, less megalomaniacal, less devoted to vicarious slaughter.
Then she saw her husband's MGB parked in their driveway and she swung in behind it, wondering why he was home from work so early, and she forgot about her son.
"All right, Brian, draw the first card," Mr. Speier, the Dealer, instructed. Scott inhaled deeply. On the exhale, he reached out and impulsively pulled a blue card from the deck.
He did not look down at the card. It was a superstition with Scott. He thought it would bring bad luck to Brian Ború. He waited until Mr.
Speier dealt the other players their game cards. McNulty's monk/dwarf, Saint Finn, was entrapped in a "labyrinth in the land south of the mountains of Connaught." Rob Evans's banshee, Boobach, had been sent on a fool's errand to the Isle of Skye, and Rick Wenzel's troll, Billy Blind, still guarded the pot of gold at the bottom of the lake called Lough Neagh.
"Here," explained Mr. Speier, reading from the Hobgoblin Dealer's Manual, "at Lough Neagh can be seen — if you have the gift of fairy vision to see under water — columns and walls of a beautiful palace where once inhabited a fairy race that some called the gods of earth.
"Now below these waters when the full moon is shining, it is said that boatmen, coming home late at night, can hear music rising from beneath the waves, hear laughter, and see glimmering lights far down under the sea.
"Your Adventure," the Dealer said, glancing at Scott, Evans and McNulty, "is to find your own way out of your present situations, then rendezvous on the marshy shores of Lough Neagh and locate Billy Blind in the underwater palace. If you can free him from this fairy race of gods, you may divide their gold among you." Mr. Speier closed the Hobgoblin guide and added carefully, "Should any of you happen to survive."
Scott edged forward in the chair, eager to begin. He loved the way Mr. Speier dealt the game, built up the story. Of all the teachers at Spencertown Academy who played Hobgoblin, Mr. Speier was the best Dealer. He was always able to create another world, to help Scott let his imagination roam.
"Everyone ready?" Mr. Speier asked. He glanced at the four teenagers circling the table. "All right, let's begin."
"Warren?" Barbara Gardiner unlocked the front door and stepped into the foyer. In her arms she carried several Christmas packages which she dropped on the sofa as she quickly crossed the room. Where was he? What was wrong?
"Barbara ...?" His loud voice carried clearly through the house. "I'm out here."
Barbara sighed. "Thank God," she whispered, and followed his voice into the kitchen.
"Why are you home, honey? It's not even five o'clock."
He was sitting at the breakfast table drinking coffee with the morning Times spread before him. He seemed the same as when he had left for work, except that he had taken off his jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves, but in the bright fluorescent light of the breakfast nook he looked grayish.
He glanced up from the paper and smiled.
She saw the fatigue in his eyes, the sadness on his face. He was working too hard, she had told him. If owning his own business was going to drive him into the ground, then the business wasn't worth it.
"Are you all right, Warren?"
"I'm fine." He pushed the sports page away and leaned back in the chair. "I just wasn't feeling so hot and decided not to go back to the office. Where have you been, shopping?" He kept smiling.
She went over and touched his forehead. "You have some fever," she said, and her tension began to subside. "You may be coming down with the flu. It's around. Do you want anything? An aspirin?" She wanted to do something for him, something to ease his discomfort. She hated it when he or Scotty was ill. She felt so helpless.
"No, I'm fine." He stood up, dismissing her concern, and went to the stove to pour another cup of coffee. She followed after him, as if she were afraid to let him get beyond her reach.
For the last few weeks he had not been sleeping well and several times she had awakened to find him reading downstairs, saying he was too uncomfortable to sleep.
"Warren, I think you should see a doctor about this. You haven't been getting any rest. You're not eating at all. Just look at yourself. You're losing weight."
She stopped to appraise her husband. He was a big man with the thick neck and forearms of someone who made his living from manual labor, although nowadays he did not. In college he had been a football player and it was his brute strength that had first attracted her.
"I did call the doctor. I'm seeing him tomorrow." Warren stepped away from the stove and turned toward her.
The coffee cup was trembling in his hand. Oh, God, she thought, he really was sick.
"It's all right, Ba. Everything is all right. I'm fine." He kept talking, watching as her face filled with fear.
Scott flipped the blue card, laid it face down on the table. In capsule form it described the giant which Brian Ború had to defeat in battle before he could reach Lough Neagh.
Frequency: Very rare
Armour Class: 10
Moves: 10 feet
Size: 52 feet and staunch
Alignment: Chaotic evil
Magic Resistance: Standard
Special Attack: Poison sting within 20 feet
Special Defense: Amphibian
Scott sighed. It was worse than he had feared. The Brobdingnag was a new card in the Hobgoblin game and Brian Ború had never faced one before. Scott sat back in the chair, trembling with nervousness, realizing that it might happen today. Brian Ború might be killed.
"Well," Barbara said, turning to the positive side of the problem as she always did when troubled, "let's first see what the doctor says. There's no need to get too excited. After all, you had a physical two years ago."
"Three years ago."
"Three, then, and everything was fine." She had taken off her coat and boots and begun to straighten the kitchen, to wash the few dishes in the sink, to keep herself busy. "But, darling," she went on, "you just have to think about cutting back."
"Ba, you know I can't just work nine to five. When the factory is in operation, I have to be at the plant."
"Sell the plant! I'd rather have you do that than die on me at forty." She began to cry, leaning against the sink, looking out at the backyard and terrace, all under a smooth blanket of pure white snow.
"Ba, come on, please," Warren whispered. He was behind her, his arms around her tightly. Sometimes he hugged her so hard it hurt. He was careless with his strength, she knew. He thought it would last forever. "I'm not feeling well, honey — that's all. I've had a few restless nights and naturally I'm exhausted. Who wouldn't be? But I'm not selling the plant. Granddad started printing in this town. We employ eighty people now and by the time Scotty takes over there's going to be a lot more."
"Scotty is only sixteen, honey, and he's told you he's not interested in the printing business."
"Oh, he'll feel different when he gets older." Warren released her, as if he didn't like her disagreeing with him.
"He's not like you, Warren — or like me, either, for that matter," Barbara continued. "He's not interested in sports, as you are, or art, as I am. He's really a missing link in our gene pool. Some days I don't even think he's ours." She turned and smiled wryly at her husband, but he had gone back to the table and sat there looking pensive.
"I suspect he'll stay in academics," she went on, "become a teacher. You see how he is on vacations. He'd rather stay up in his room reading The Chronicles of Amber. He's just not gregarious the way you are. I can't imagine his going to the country club, making contacts, getting business for Gardiner & Sons."
She had never confronted Warren this way about their son and her directness surprised even her. It was not her way. She had always lived in her husband's shadow. He was so forceful, so sure of himself that she had just been carried along on the quick tide of his energy.
Warren did not respond. He was thinking of when he had driven Scott back to school after the Thanksgiving vacation, and what a good time they had had, the two of them off together. Scott had wanted to know what it had been like in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, and he had talked for nearly the entire two-hour drive, describing how they had fought from street to street, flushing out the Vietcong.
The boy had been mesmerized, Warren recalled, and he smiled thinking how much pleasure it had given him, bragging to his son as if he'd been some kind of war hero. It was a story he would never have told Scott if Barbara had been around. Scott had a brave, tough side that his mother never saw, or didn't understand when she did see it. But Warren understood it, saw it in Scott's love of science fiction adventure books and that war game he was always playing — Hobgoblin. Scott was his father's boy, and the two of them knew it, even if Barbara didn't.
"Well, we can't worry about that," he said. "Let's just wait a year or so, then we'll know what will become of Scotty." Warren planted his huge hands on the kitchen table and stood. "I'm going outside and shovel off that front walk."
"No, Warren, don't!"
"Honey, at least two inches have fallen since I got home, and the Beavens will be here in a couple of hours. They'll be up to their ankles in it by then."
"I'll shovel it!"
"Ba, don't be silly." He laughed at her concern as he took his parka and boots from the hall closet. "It's ten minutes' work. My God, I carried a ton of paper this morning and didn't even lose my breath. You're talking to the old nose guard, honey, twenty-eight games without an injury." He sat down again at the table and began to put on his heavy boots, breathing hard as he leaned over, struggling with the laces. It was twenty years since he'd played football, and his bulky body was no longer in condition. It wasn't that he was fat, Barbara thought, just huge. Whatever room he sat in, he filled the space like a monolith.
"There!" He sat up. He was smiling, satisfied. His face was on fire.
"Darling, look at yourself." She laid her cool palms on his cheeks and was frightened by the heat.
"Ba, it's ten minutes. Besides, the house is stuffy." As he passed, he leaned down and kissed her lightly on the cheek, as one might a child. There was always that element in their marriage. Often Barbara felt as if she and Scotty were both his children.
"You're just being reckless with yourself, Warren," she called after him.
"If I'm going to have a heart attack over a few inches of snow, honey, there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to sit around worrying where my next breath is coming from." Then he was gone, out of the kitchen and down the hallway. She could only see his huge back, lumbering along, as she sat in the kitchen chair, filled with the sense that she would never see Warren alive again.
He had been the same in college. He was never happier than after a game when he had been bruised and cut up from playing. She hadn't worried either, back then. She had found him daring, this wonderful, battling knight of hers.
"Brian Ború, what is your wish?" the Dealer asked.
Scott had moved his lead miniature one square on the Battleboard, placing Brian next to the Brobdingnagian. Mr. Speier had built an enchanted forest at one edge of the table, carving styrofoam packaging into trees, ruins and small mountains. These he had painted in somber colors, and Scott could almost feel this enchanted forest, smell the vegetation, see the heavy mist surround the valleys beyond Lough Neagh.
"The dice," Scott announced.
"The dice? Oh, God, Gardiner, no!" Rob Evans protested. "It's too risky."
"The dice," Scott demanded. "Brian Ború is ready to attack."
Evans leaned across the Battleboard, gesturing with both hands as he talked. "Brian Ború is our only hope, Scott. Christ, Boobach is off in the Isle of Skye, and McNulty's dumb monk is all the way south of Connaught." He gestured at their positions on the Battleboard.
"We're spread out all over the fuckin' landscape!"
"Rob, will you control your language?" Mr. Speier asked quietly. Already their table had attracted the attention of the other students who were leaving their own games to circle this Hobgoblin round.
"Mr. Speier, you tell him!" Evans appealed to their teacher.
"I'm merely the Dealer, Rob, the referee. It's Scott's decision. What will Brian Ború do ...? Take on the Brobdingnagian?"
"If Brian Ború is killed, Scott, we're finished," Evans warned. "There is no way Boobach or Saint Finn can get Billy Blind out of Lough Neagh." He was angry, challenging.
"Well, what am I going to do, Rob? I'm within range of the poisonous sting. If I turn my back he can kill me before I even have a chance to retreat. Besides —" he looked back at the Battleboard, at his finely decorated paladin — "Brian Ború never loses."
Around the tables shouts of encouragement went up from the other students, urging him on.
"Brian Ború, what is your decision? Dice or an evasion card?"
Excerpted from Hobgoblin by John Coyne. Copyright © 1981 Coyne, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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