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They came from different places and different backgrounds.
Now they're summoned together by some magical force…to a land that mirrors the games they used to play.
Can they band together to ...
They came from different places and different backgrounds.
Now they're summoned together by some magical force…to a land that mirrors the games they used to play.
Can they band together to unlock the secret of their summoning--and rescue from the legendary Quag Keep the person who may be able to return them home?
"The grande dame of science fiction."—Life magazine on Andre Norton
Eckstern produced the package with an exaggerated flour-ish and lifted the lid of the box to pluck out shredded packing with as much care as if he were about to display the crown jewels of some long-forgotten kingdom. His showmanship brought the others all closer. Eckstern liked such chances to focus attention, and tonight, as the referee chosen to set up the war game, his actions were backed with special authority.
He unwrapped a length of cotton and set out on the table, between the waiting game sheets, a two-inch figure, larger than any they habitually played with. It was, indeed, a treasure. A swordsman—complete with shield on which a nearly microscopic heraldic design blazed forth in brilliant enamel paints. The tiny face of the figure was sternly set above the rim of the shield, shadowed by a helmet with a small twist of spike rising from it. There was an indication of mail on the body which had been modeled as if the figure were advancing a step in grim determination. The sword in the hand was a length of glittering metal, more like well-polished steel than lead which was the usual material for playing figures.
Martin stared at it in fascination. He had seen many expertly painted and well-positioned war-game figures but this—this gave him a queer feeling, as if it had not been turned out of a mold, but rather had been designed by a sculptor in the form of a man who once had lived.
"Where—where did you get that?" Harry Conden's slight hesitation of speech was more pronounced than usual.
"A beauty, isn't it?" Eckstern purred. "A new company—Q K Productions—and you wouldn't believe the price either. They sent a letter and a list—want to introduce their pieces to 'well-known' players. After we won those two games at the last convention, I guess they had us near the top of their list . . ."
To Martin, Eckstern's explanation was only a meaningless babble. His hand had gone out without his conscious willing, to touch fingertip on that shield, make sure it did exist. It was true that the makers of playing pieces for the fantasy war games were starting to try to outdo each other in the production of unusual monsters, noble fighters, astute elves, powerful dwarves, and all the other characters a player might call for, identify with while playing, even keep on display like some fabulous antique chessmen between games. Martin had envied those able to equip themselves with the more ornate and detailed figures. But the best he had seen in displays could not compare to this. Within him came a sudden compulsion: he must have this one. It was beyond any doubt meant for him.
Eckstern was still talking as he unwrapped other figures, set them out, his elbow firmly planted meanwhile on the referee notes for the coming game. But Martin's attention never wavered from the swordsman. This was his! He grasped it lovingly.
There were good smells and stale ones fighting for dominance in a room lit only by baskets of fire wasps, one of which was close enough so that he could see every old stain on the table at which he sat. By his right hand stood a drinking horn mounted on a base of dull metal. His right hand . . .
He stared at both hands, the fists lightly clenched and lying on the scored board. This was (it seemed that his mind had skipped something of importance as a heart might skip a beat), this was, of course, the Sign of Harvel's Axe, a dubious inn on the edge of the Thieves' Quarter in the city of Greyhawk. He frowned, troubled. But there had been something else—something of importance—of which only a hint slithered so swiftly through his brain that he could not fasten on it quickly enough.
His name was Milo Jagon, a swordsman of some experience, now unemployed. That much was clear. And the hands before him were bare below sleeves of very supple, dark-colored mail which had a hint of copper in it, yet was darker brown. Turned back against his wrists were mitts fastened to the sleeves. And about each of his thumbs was the wide band of a ring. The one to the right was set with an oblong stone of dull green, across which, in no discernible pattern, wandered tiny red veins and dots. The setting on the left was even more extraordinary—an oval crystal of gray, clouded and filmed.
On the right wrist there was a glint of something else; again that faintest hint of other memory—even of alarm—touched Milo's mind. He jerked down the right mitt and saw, banded over the mail itself, a wide bracelet of a metal as richly bright as newly polished copper. It was made of two bands between which, swung on hardly visible gimbals, were a series of dice—three-sided, four-sided, eight-sided, six-sided. They were of the same bright metal as the bracelet that supported them. But the numbers on them were wrought in glistening bits of gem-stones, so tiny he did not see how any gem smith could have set them in so accurately.
This—with his left hand he touched that bracelet, finding the metal warm to his fingertips—this was important! His scowl grew deeper. But why and how?
And he could not remember having come here. Also—he raised his head to stare about uneasily—he sensed that he was watched. Yet there were none in that murky room he was quick enough to catch eyeing him.
The nearest table to his own was also occupied by a single man. He had the bulk, the wide shoulders and thick, mail-covered forearms, of a man who would be formidable in a fight. Milo assessed him, only half-consciously, with the experienced eye of one who had needed many times in the past to know the nature of an enemy, and that quickly.
The cloak the other man had tossed to the bench beside him was of hide covered with horny bristles. And his helmet was surmounted with a realistic and daunting representation of a snarling boar brought dangerously to bay. Beneath the edge of it, his face was wide of the cheekbone and square of jaw, and he was staring, as Milo had been, at his hands on the tabletop before him. Between them crouched a bright, green-blue pseudo-dragon, its small wings fluttering, its arrow-pointed tongue darting in and out.
And on his right wrist—Milo drew a deep breath—this stranger wore a bracelet twin to his own, as far as the swordsman could see without truly examining it.
Boar helm, boar cloak—memories and knowledge Milo did not consciously search for arose. This other was a berserker, and one with skill enough to turn were-boar if he so desired. Such were chancy companions at the best, and the swordsman did not wonder now that their two tables, so close together, were theirs alone, that the rest of the patrons, eating and drinking, had sought the other side of the long room. Nor was he surprised that the stranger should have the pseudo-dragon as a traveling companion or pet, whichever their relationship might be. For the weres, like the elves and some others, could communicate with animals at will.
Once more Milo gave a searching, very steady survey of the others in the room. There were several thieves, he guessed, and one or two foreigners, who, he hoped for their own sakes, were tough enough to defend themselves if they had wandered into Harvel's Axe without due warning. A cloaked man who, he thought, might be a druid (of low rank) was spooning up stew with such avidity that spattering drops formed gobbets of grease on his clothing. Milo was paying particular attention to right wrists. Those he could see were certainly innocently bare of any such banding as he and the berserker wore. At the same time, the impression that he was being watched (and not with any kindness) grew in him. He dropped hand to sword hilt and, for the first time, noted that a shield leaned against the table. On it was emblazoned an intricate pattern which, though dented in places and plainly weatherworn, had once been skillfully done. And he had seen that . . . where?
The vagrant curl of memory grew no stronger for his trying to grasp it. He grinned sourly. Of course he had seen it many times over—the thing was his, wasn't it? And he had callouses from its weight along his arm to prove that.
At least he had had the wisdom to pick a table where he sat with his back to the wall. Now there flowed through his mind half memories of other times when he had been in just such uncertain lodgings. A table swung up and forward could serve as a barrier to deter a rush. And the outer door? . . .
There were two doors in the room. One led, uncurtained, to the inner part of the inn. The other had a heavy leather drape over it. Unfortunately, that was on the opposite side of the room. To reach it he would have to pass a group he had been watching with quick glances, five men gathered close together whispering. They had seemed to show no interest in him, but Milo did not depend on such uncertain reassurance of innocence.
The eternal war between Law and Chaos flared often in Greyhawk. It was in a manner of speaking a "free city"—since it had no one overlord to hold it firmly to his own will. For that reason it had become a city of masterless men, a point from which many expeditions, privately conceived and planned for the despoiling of ancient treasures, would set out, having recruited the members from just such masterless men as Milo himself, or perhaps the berserker only an arm's length away.
But if those on the side of Law recruited here, so did the followers of Chaos. There were neutrals also, willing to join with either side for the sake of payment. But they were never to be wholly depended upon by any man who had intelligence, for they might betray one at the flip of a coin or the change of the wind itself.
As a swordsman Milo was vowed to Law. The berserker had more choice in such matters. But this place, under its odors of fresh and stale food, stank to Milo of Chaos. What had brought him here? If he could only remember! Was he spell-struck in some fashion? That idea caught and held in his mind to worry him even more. No man, unless he had won to high adeptship and therefore was no longer entirely human, could even begin to reckon the kinds and numbers of spells that might be set to entangle the unwary. But he knew that he was waiting—and he again tested the looseness of his sword within its sheath, keeping his other hand close to the edge of the table, tense as a man may be before he reaches a position he has chosen for his own defense.
Then—in the light of the fire wasps he caught the flashes from his wrist. Dice—moving! Again he half remembered a fast, fleeting wisp of some other knowledge he should have and did not—to his own danger.
But it was not the suspected men in the corner who were a threat. Instead the berserker got to his feet. Up the mighty thickness of his mailed arm fluttered the pseudo-dragon, to perch upon his shoulder, its spear tongue darting against the cheekpiece of his heavy helmet. He had caught up his cloak but he did not turn to the leather curtain of the outer door. Instead he took two strides and stood towering over Milo.
Under the brush of his brows his eyes held a red glint like those of an angry boar, and he thrust out his hand and wrist to match Milo's. There, too, showed the glint of the dice, turning by themselves on their almost invisible gimbals.
"I am Naile Fangtooth." His voice was close to a low grunting. And, as his lips moved to form the words, they betrayed the reason for his self-naming—two teeth as great as tusks set on either side of his lower jaw. He spoke as if compelled to, and Milo found that he answered as if he must offer some password, lest the danger that made his flesh crawl break forth. Yet at the same moment he knew that his sensed danger did not come from this mighty fighting machine.
"I am Milo Jagon. Sit you down, fighting man." He moved his shield, slid farther along the bench to make room for the other.
"I do not know why, but—" Fangtooth's eyes no longer held those of the swordsman. Rather he was looking with an open expression of perplexity at their bracelets. "But," he continued after a moment's pause, "this is what I must do: join with you. And this"—he attempted to slip the bracelet from his thick wrist but could not move it—"is what commands me—after some fashion of its own."
"We must be bespelled." Milo returned frankness with frankness. Berserkers seldom sought out any but their own kind. Among their fellows, they had comradeships that lasted to the shores of death and beyond, for the survivor of a fatal encounter was then aware always of only one driving force, the need for revenge upon those who had slain his other self in battle-kinship.
The berserker scowled. "Spells—they have a stink to 'em. And, yes, swordsman, I can pick up that stink a little. Afreeta"—the pseudo-dragon flickered its thread of tongue like a signal—"has already sniffed it. Yet it is not, I think, one sent by a dark-loving devil." He had kept his voice low with a visible effort as if his natural tone was more of a full-throated roar.
Milo noted that the eyes beneath those heavy brows were never still, that Naile Fangtooth watched the company in the room with as keen an eye for trouble as he himself had earlier. Those who whispered together had not once made any move to suggest that the two were of interest to them. The shabby druid licked his spoon, then raised the bowl to his lips to sup down the last of the broth it contained. And two men wearing the shoulder badges of some merchant's escort kept drinking steadily as if their one purpose in life was to see which first would get enough of a skinful to subside to the rush-strewn, ill-swept floor.
"They—none of them—wear these." Milo indicated the bracelet on his own wrist. The dice were now quiet on their gimbals. In fact when he tried to swing one with his fingernail, it remained as fixed as if it could never move, yet it was the same one he had seen turn just before Naile had joined him.
"No." The berserker blinked. "There is something—something that nibbles at my mind as a squirrel worries away at a nut. I should know, but I do not. And you, swordsman?" His scowl did not lighten as he looked directly at Milo. There was accusation in it, as if he believed the swordsman knew the secret of this strange meeting but was purposefully keeping it to himself.
"It is the same," Milo admitted. "I feel I must remember something—yet it is as if I beat against a locked door in my mind and cannot win through that to the truth."
"I am Naile Fangtooth." The berserker was not speaking to Milo now, but rather affirming his identity as if he needed such assurance. "I was with the Brethern when they took the Mirror of Loice and the Standard of King Everon. It was then that my shield brother, Engul Widehand, was cut down by the snake-skins. Also it was there later that I picked Afreeta from a cage so she joined with me." He raised a big hand and gently stroked the back of the dragon at a spot between its continually fluttering wings. "These things I remember—yet—there was more. . . ."
"The Mirror of Loice . . ." Milo repeated. Where had he heard of that before? He raised both fists and pressed them against his forehead, pushing up the edge of the helmet he wore. The edges of the two thumb rings pressed against his skin, giving him a slight twinge of pain. But nothing answered in his memory.
"Yes." There was pride now in his companion's voice. "That was a mighty hosting. Orcs, even the Spectre of Loice herself, stood against us. But we had the luck of the throws with us for that night. The luck of the throws—!" Now it was Fangtooth's turn to look at the bracelets on his own wrist. "The throws—" he repeated for the second time. "It means . . . it means . . . !"
His face twisted and he beat upon the table board with one calloused fist, so mighty a blow that the horn cup leaped though it did not overturn. "What throws?" The scowl he turned upon Milo now was as grim as a battle face.
"I don't know." Milo wet his lips with his tongue. He had no fear of the berserker even though the huge man might well be deliberately working himself into one of those rages that transcended intelligence and made such a fighter impervious to weapons and some spells.
Once more he struggled to turn the dice on the bracelet. Far back in his mind he knew them. They had a very definite purpose. Only here and now he was like a man set down before some ancient roll of knowledge that he could not read and yet knew that his life perhaps depended upon translating it. "These," he said slowly. "One turned just before you joined me. They are like gamers' dice, save that there are too many shapes among them to be ordinary."
"Yes." Naile's voice had fallen again. "Still I have thrown such—and for a reason, or reasons. But why or where I cannot remember. I think, swordsman, that someone thinks to play a game with us. If this be so, he shall discover that he has chosen not tools but men, and therefore will be the worse for his folly."
"If we are bespelled . . ." Milo began. He wanted to keep the berserker away from the battle madness of his kind. It was useful, very useful, that madness, but only in the proper place and time. And to erupt, not even knowing the nature of the enemy, was rank folly.
"Then sooner or later we shall meet the spell caster?" To Milo's relief, Fangtooth seemed well able to control the power of were-change that was his by right. "Yes, that is what I believe we wait for now."
The druid, without a single glance in their direction, had set by his now empty bowl and got to his feet, ringing down on the table top a small coin. He wore, Milo noted as he turned and his robe flapped up a little, not the sandals suitable for city streets, but badly cured and clumsily made hide boots such as a peasant might use for field labor in ill weather. The bag marked with the runes of his training was a small one and as shabby as his robe. He gave a jerk to bring his cowl higher over his head and started for the outer door, nor did he make any attempt to approach their table. Milo was glad to see the last of him. Druids were chancy at best, and there were those who had the brand of Chaos and the powers of the Outer Dark at their call, though this one was manifestly lowly placed in that close-knit and secret fraternity.
Fangtooth's lips pursed as if he would spit after the figure now tugging aside the door curtain.
"Cooker of spells!" he commented.
"But not the one who holds us," Milo said.
"True enough. Tell me, swordsman, does your skin now prickle, does it seem that, without your helm to hold it down, your very hair might rise on your head? Whatever has netted us comes the closer. Yet a man cannot fight what he cannot see, hear, or know is alive."
The berserker was far more astute than Milo had first thought him. Because of the very nature of the bestial ferocity such fighters fell into upon occasion, one was apt to forget that they had their own powers and were moved by intelligence as well as by the superhuman strength they could command. Fangtooth had the right of it. His own discomfort had been steadily growing. What they awaited was nearly here.
Now the five whisperers also arose and passed one by one beyond the curtain. It was as if someone, or something, were clearing the stage for a struggle. Yet still Milo could not locate any of the signs of Chaos. On the berserker's shoulder the pseudo-dragon chittered, rubbing its head back and forth on the cheekplate of the boar-crowned helmet.
Milo found himself watching, not the small reptile, but rather the bracelet on his wrist. It seemed to have loosened somewhat its grip against his mail. Two of the dice began slowly to spin.
Naile got to his feet. In his left hand he held a deadly battle axe of such weight that Milo, trained though he was to handle many different weapons, thought he could never have brought to shoulder height. They were alone in the long room. Even those who had served had gone, as if they had some private knowledge of ill to come and would not witness it.
Still, what Milo felt was not the warning prick of normal fear—rather an excitement, as if he stood on the verge of learning the answer to all questions.
As Naile had done, he got to his feet, lifted his shield. The dice on his bracelet whirred to a stop as the hide door curtain was drawn aside, letting in a blast of late fall, winter-touched air. A man, slight and so well cloaked that he seemed merely some shadow detached from a nearby wall to roam homelessly about, came swiftly in.
Copyright © 1978 by The Estate of Andre Norton
Posted July 3, 2012
The first time that rolegaming was set to fiction - or was it the other way around? Either way, Ms Norton not only brings the game and its background to life, she does so with a cleverness and sense of humor that has been imitated over and over. Most recently, to my knowledge, in a dirty little film called "the Gamers" with the same ending. But even "Monty Python & the Holy Grail" owes a debt to Quag Keep and the inimitable Andre Norton!
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