A Sword for Kregen [Dray Prescot #20]

A Sword for Kregen [Dray Prescot #20]

by Alan Burt Akers

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Overview

The most popular game among the many peoples of Kregen, world of Antares, is one that resembles chess, called Jikaida. Jikaida is a battle of wits and war game pieces that suited well the tension charged atmosphere that enveloped Dray Prescot. For reconquering Vallia was assuming the aspect of such a game - move versus countermove, horde against horde! Then Dray Prescot found himself no longer in control of just a game - he had become a living chessman on a real-life board at the dreaded arena of Jikaida City. There every move was accompanied by bloodshed and behind every game might hang the fate of a city, an island, or even a nation!

Product Details

BN ID: 2940032965633
Publisher: Mushroom Publishing
Publication date: 12/31/2011
Series: Dray Prescot , #20
Sold by: Smashwords
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alan Burt Akers is a pen name of the prolific British author Kenneth Bulmer, who died in December 2005 aged eighty-four. Bulmer wrote over 160 novels and countless short stories, predominantly science fiction, both under his real name and numerous pseudonyms, including Alan Burt Akers, Frank Brandon, Rupert Clinton, Ernest Corley, Peter Green, Adam Hardy, Philip Kent, Bruno Krauss, Karl Maras, Manning Norvil, Dray Prescot, Chesman Scot, Nelson Sherwood, Richard Silver, H. Philip Stratford, and Tully Zetford. Kenneth Johns was a collective pseudonym used for a collaboration with author John Newman. Some of Bulmer's works were published along with the works of other authors under "house names" (collective pseudonyms) such as Ken Blake (for a series of tie-ins with the 1970s television programme The Professionals), Arthur Frazier, Neil Langholm, Charles R. Pike, and Andrew Quiller. Bulmer was also active in science fiction fandom, and in the 1970s he edited nine issues of the New Writings in Science Fiction anthology series in succession to John Carnell, who originated the series.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Jaidur is Annoyed

"Do you bare the throat?"

"Aye, my love. I bare the throat."

The brightly painted pieces were swept up and returned to the silver-bound box. I had been comprehensively defeated. The game had been protracted and cunning and fiercely contested, filled with shifts and stratagems on Delia's part that wrecked my cleverest schemes. I leaned over the board awkwardly from the bed and picked up my right-wing Chuktar. He was the only piece of high value my remorseless antagonist had failed to take.

"You held him back too long," she said, decisively, her face half-laughing and yet filled with concern for the instinctive wince I failed to quell as that dratted wound stabbed my neck.

"I did."

He was a marvelously fashioned playing piece, a Chuktar of the Khibil race of diffs, his fox-like face carved with a precision and understanding that revealed the qualities of the Khibils in a way that many a much more famous sculptor might well miss. Delia took the Chuktar from my fingers and placed him carefully in his velvet-lined niche within the box. When you play Jikaida, win or lose, you develop a rapport with the little pieces that, hard to define or even to justify coherently, nevertheless exists.

"You will not play again?" I leaned back on the plumped-up pillows and found that smile that always comes from Delia. "I am mindful to develop a new ploy with the Paktuns--"

"No more games tonight." The tone of voice was practical. There is no arguing with Delia in this mood. "Your wound is troubling you and you need rest. We have won this battle but until you are fit again I shall not rest easy."

"Sinkme!" I burst out. "There is so much to do!"

"Yes. And it will not get done if you do not rest."

The invasion of the island of Vallia by the riff-raff of half a world, and the onslaught by the disciplined iron legions of Hamal, Vallia's mortal enemy, had been checked. But only that. We held Vondium the capital and much of the northeast and midlands; from the rest of the empire our enemies pressed in on us. I'd collapsed after this last battle in which we had successfully held that wild charge of the vove-mounted clansmen--I'm no superman but just a mere mortal man who tries to do the best he can. Now Delia looked on me, the lamps' gleam limning her hair with those gorgeous chestnut tints, her face wonderfully soft and concerned, leaning over me. I swallowed.

"You rest now. Tomorrow we can strike camp and fly back to Vondium--"

"Rather, fly after the clansmen and try to--"

"The wind is foul for the northeast."

"Is there no arguing with you?"

"Rather seek to argue with Whetti-Orbium, of Opaz."

I made a face. Whetti-Orbium, as the manifestation of Opaz responsible for the weather and under the beneficent hand of that all-glorious godhood, the giver of wind and rain, had not been treating us kindly of late. The Lord Farris's aerial armada had played little part in the battle, the wind being dead foul, and only his powered airboats had got themselves into the action.

"Then the cavalry must--" I began.

"Seg has that all under control."

Good old Seg Segutorio. But--"And there is--"

"Hush!"

And then I smiled, a gently mocking, sympathetically triumphant smile, as with a stir and a rattle of accoutrements, the curtains of the tent parted and Prince Jaidur entered.

He saw only Delia in the lamplit interior with its canvas walls devoid of garish ornament, with the weapons strapped to the posts, the strewn rugs, the small camp tables, the traveling chests. Delia turned and rose, smooth, lovely, inexpressibly beautiful.

"Mother," said Jaidur. He sounded savage. "That rast found himself some flying beast and escaped."

Jaidur, young and lithe and his face filled with the passions of youth and eagerness, took off his helmet and slung it on the floor. Through the carpets the iron rang against the beaten earth.

"Mirvols, I think they were. Flying beasts that cawed down most mockingly at us as they rose. I shot--but the shafts fell short." His fingers were busily unbuckling his harness as he spoke, and the silver-chased cuirass dropped with a mellower chime upon the floor. Armed and accoutred like a Krozair of Zy, Pur Jaidur, Prince of Vallia. He scowled as Delia handed him a plain goblet of wine, a bracing dry Tardalvoh, tart and invigorating. Taking it, he nodded his thanks perfunctorily, and raised the goblet to his lips.

"Prince Jaidur," I said in my old gravel-shifting voice. "Is this the way you treat your mother? Like a petulant child? Or a boor from the stews of Drak's City?"

He jumped so that the yellow wine leaped, glinting over the silver.

"You--"

"You chased after Kov Colun and Zankov. Did they both escape?"

His brown fingers gripped the goblet.

"Both."

"Then," I said, and I gentled my voice. "They will run upon their judgment later, all in Opaz's good time."

"I did not know you were here--"

"Evidently."

My pleasure at his arrival, because it meant I could go on taking an interest in affairs instead of going to sleep at Delia's orders, was severely tempered by this news. There was a blood debt, now, between Kov Colun and my friends. For a space I could not think of Barty Vessler. Barty--so bright and chivalrous, so ingenuous and courageous--had been struck down by Kov Colun. And Zankov, his companion in evil, had murdered the emperor, Delia's father. But, all the same, vengeance was a road I would not willingly follow. The welfare of Delia, of my family, and of my friends and of Vallia--they were the priorities.

"I will leave you," said Jaidur with a stiffness he cloaked in formality. He bent to retrieve his harness. He made no move to don the cuirass and the helmet dangled by its straps. "Tomorrow--"

"Tomorrow!" The surprise and scorn in my voice braced him up, and sent the dark blood into his face. "Tomorrow! I recall when you were Vax Neemusjid. What harm has the night done you that you scorn to use it?"

Delia put her hand on my arm. Her touch scorched.

Jaidur swung around toward the tent opening.

"You are the Emperor of Vallia, and may command me. I shall take a saddle-bird. You will not see me again, I swear, until Kov Colun and Zankov are--"

"Wait!"

I spat the word out. "Do not make so weighty a promise so lightly. As for Kov Colun, there is Jilian to be considered. You would do her no favor by that promise."

He looked surprised. "She still lives?"

"Thanks to Zair and to Nath the Needle."

"I am glad, and give thanks to Zair and Opaz."

"Also, I would like you to tell me of your doings since you returned from the Eye of the World."

"I see you humor me, for whenever have you bothered over my doings?"

"Jaidur!" said Delia.

"Let the boy speak. I knew him as Vax, and took the measure of his mettle. I own to a foolish pride." Here Delia turned sharply to look at me, and I had to make myself go on. "Jaidur is a Krozair of Zy, a Prince of Vallia. I do not think there can be much else to better those felicities." I deliberately did not mention the Kroveres of Iztar, for good reasons. "His life is his own, his life which we gave to him. I, Jaidur, command you in nothing, save one thing. And I do not think I need even say what that thing is, for it touches your mother, Delia, Empress of Vallia."

"You do not. I would give my life, gladly--"

I said the words, and they cut deeply.

"Aye, Prince Jaidur. You and a host of men."

The color rushed back to his bronzed cheeks. With a gesture as much to break the thrall of his own black thoughts as to slake his thirst, he reached for the silver goblet and took a long draught.

"Aye. You are right. And that, by Vox, is as it should be."

Delia wanted to say something; but I ploughed on.

"Go after Kov Colun and after Zankov. Both are bitter foes to Vallia. But do not be too reckless. They are cunning rogues, vicious and cruel." My voice trailed away. On Earth we talk about teaching our grandmothers to suck eggs. On Kregen we talk about teaching a wizard to catch a fly. And here was I, prattling on about dangers and cunning adversaries to a Krozair of Zy.

Jaidur saw something of that belittling thought in me, for his brows drew down in a look I recognized and with recognition the same familiar ache. How Delia puts up with me and three hulking sons is a miracle beyond question. And, thinking these useless thoughts, the tent spun about me, going around and around, ghostly and transparent. I fell back on the bed, all the stuffing knocked out of me.

"That Opaz-forsaken arrow," said Delia, leaning across, wiping my face with a scented towel. I felt the coolness. I must be in fever. My throat hurt; but not enough to stop me from speaking; but the weakness made the tent surge up and down and corkscrew like a swifter in a storm.

"I--shall--be--all--right," I said.

"I will fetch Nath the Needle." With that Jaidur ran from the tent, dropping his gear and casting the wine goblet from him.

"All this fuss--for a pesky arrow."

"It drove deeply, my heart. Now--lie still!"

I lay still.

Fruitless to detail the rest of that night's doings. Nath the Needle, looking as he always did, fussing and yet steadily sure with his acupuncture needles and his herbal preparations, fixed up my aches and pains in the physical sense. But my brain was afire with schemes, stratagems I must set afoot at once, so as further to discomfort the damned invading clansmen. Our enemies pressed us sorely, and they must be dealt with as opportunity offered. The chances of success here must be balanced against defeat there. The campaign against Zankov's imported clansmen had been waged with fierceness. But it was all to do. I, a clansman by adoption myself, knew that no single battle would decide the issue.

The Clansmen of Segesthes are among the most ferocious and terrible of fighting men of Kregen. That we had put a check on their advance must have hit them hard, hit them with shock. But they were clansmen. They would retire, regroup, and then they'd be back, thirsting for vengeance.

And here I lay, lolling in bed like a drunkard in the stews.

There were able captains among the Army of Vallia. Many of them bore names not unfamiliar to you, many there were who have not so far been mentioned in this narrative. Delia told me, with a firmness made decisive by the crimp in those seductive lips, that I must leave it to Seg and the others. For now, she told me severely, they could handle any emergencies.

So, because Delia of Delphond, Delia of the Blue Mountains, who was now Delia, Empress of Vallia, willed it, I was immured. The fate of the island empire was, for that space, taken from my hands.

Phu-Si-Yantong, one of the chief architects of the misery in which Vallia now found herself, would not rest, either. His schemes had for a time been thwarted. But he held the southwest and unknown areas of the southeast and many of the islands. His partnership--and then I paused. Yantong was too egomaniacal a figure ever to acknowledge anyone his peer or to admit them to an equality suggested by a partnership. Yantong wished to rule the roost, the whole roost, and he wished to rule alone.

First things first. Our tenuous hold on the link through the eastern midlands between Vondium and the imperial provinces around the capital and the Hawkwa Country of the northeast had to be strengthened. We must attempt to relieve the pressure on the western mountains where people devoted to Delia, as to myself, still grimly held out. And there was always the far north, Evir and the other provinces beyond the Mountains of the North, where his self-styled King of North Vallia held sway. The north had to be forgotten for now. First things first.

As soon as I was deemed fit to travel Delia had me carted back to Vondium.

During that period there were many visitors, representatives of the churches, the state, the army, the air service and the imperial provinces. The navy and merchant service also showed up; but they were dealing now almost entirely with flying ships of the air. The once-mighty fleet of galleons of Vallia was being rebuilt; but slowly, slowly.

These men and women who came to see me spoke all in soft voices, even the gruff old Chuktars of the army mellowed their habitual gruff barks. Always I was conscious of the presence of Delia, hovering protectively, and I guessed she had given strict injunctions on the correct sick-room behavior. And, by Zair, when Delia spoke it behooved everyone to heed, and heed but good.

So, as you will see, I must have been much sicker than I realized.

Seg Segutorio, that master Bowman of Loh, kept his reckless face composed as he sat at the bedside to tell me of the fortunes of the army. I had peremptorily thrust command on him at the height of the battle--that engagement men called the Battle of Kochwold--when Jilian had reported in the news of the desperate affray involving Delia at the Sakkora Stones. We had brought her safely out of there, from that miasmal place of ages-old decay and present evil. But our daughter Dayra, she who flaunted her steel talons as Ros the Claw, had once more disappeared. I did not know if she was with Zankov, who had slain her grandfather. Truth to tell, I did not know how to view that situation, just as I did not know how to contain within myself the ghastly news of Seg's wife, Thelda. I made myself agreeable to Seg, which is not a difficult task, and did not summon up the courage to tell him that his wife, whom he thought dead and sorrowed for, believed him dead, also, and had married another upright and honest man, Lol Polisto. So we talked of the army.

"The clansmen fight hard, and, by the Veiled Froyvil, my old friends, they led us a merry chase. They regroup now up past Infathon in Vazkardrin. We chivvy 'em and give 'em no rest. Nath is foaming to get at them with his Phalanx, but--"

"They may be amenable to an attack in their rear from the Stackwamors." I pondered this. "Certainly we must keep them off balance. But reports indicate we may need the Phalanx elsewhere."

Seg fired up at this. All the fey and reckless nature of his fiery race suddenly burst out, subduing the shrewd practicality.

"Where, my old dom? We will march--the men are in wonderful heart--"

"I am sure," I said, somewhat drily. "With a victory under their belts."

These audiences--if that is not too pompous a word to use of these discussions between the Emperor of Vallia and his ministers and generals--were conducted in a neat little withdrawing room off the old wing once inhabited by Delia and myself in the imperial palace of Vondium. There was a bed, in which I spent far too much time, tables and chairs and wine and food, with a bookcase stuffed with the life of Vallia. And, also, many maps adorned the walls. As a matter of course and scarce worth remarking, an arms rack stood handy. Handiest of all was the great Krozair longsword, scabbarded to the bedpost. Now I pointed at the map which showed the southwest of Vallia.

"There, Seg, again. The army which Fat Lango brought has been seen off. But others are landing. It seems that some countries of Pandahem are still desirous of carving a helping of good Vallian gold for themselves."

"Vallia has something they deserve and which they will receive," quoth Seg, without flourish. "Something that will last them through all the Ice Floes of Sicce."

He referred, quite clearly, to the six feet of Vallian soil each one of her invaders would be dumped into. I smiled. Very dear to my heart is my blade comrade, Seg Segutorio. He and I have battled our way through some hairy scrapes since he first hurled a forkful of dungy straw in my face. And, by Zair, that seemed a long long time ago.

With that old memory in mind I said, and my voice, weak as it was, sounded altogether too much like a sigh: "If only Inch was here. Inch and all the others--"

Seg looked swiftly at me. He was not reassured by what he saw. He put a spread of fingers up under his ear and scratched his jaw. A very tough and craggy jaw, that jaw of Seg Segutorio's.

"Aye, Dray, aye. But I think Inch will not forget Vallia, or that he is the Kov of the Black Mountains. His taboos--for my money Inch has been eating too much squish pie."

That made me smile.

"When we were all slung back to our homelands by that sorcerous Vanti," Seg went on, half-musing, his eyes bright on me, his hand rubbing his jaw. "I felt no doubt that every single one of us would make every effort to get back to Valka or Vallia as soon as humanly possible." His voice betrayed nothing of the agony he must still suffer over his belief in the death of Thelda. I had pondered that problem. For all the news we had, Thelda and Lol Polisto might be dead by now. They were leading a precarious existence fighting our foes as guerillas. They could so easily be dead. Until Thelda was proved still to be alive, why torture Seg with a fresh burden that was so different and yet so much the same as his belief his wife was truly dead?

"My son Drak is still down there in Faol trying to find Melow the Supple." I spoke fretfully, for I wanted Drak back here in Vallia, with me, so that he could take over this business of being Emperor of Vallia. "But I think you have something else on your mind?"

"Aye. You have found a new marvel in Korero. He is indeed remarkable with his shields. So..."

"You don't think I haven't wondered what I'm going to say to Turko?"

His rubbing hand stilled. "What will you say?"

That was another poser for my poor aching head. The yellow bandage around my throat seemed to constrict in to choke me with problems. Turko the Shield stood always at my back with his great shield uplifted in the heat of battle. But, now, Korero the Shield, with his four arms and handed tail, stood always at my back with his shields upraised in the heat of battle...

I said sourly, "I'll make Turko a damned Kov and find him a province and get him married to raise stout sons for Vallia and beautiful daughters to grace the world. That's what I'll do."

"He, I think, would prefer to stand at your back with his shield."

"D'you think I don't know that!"

"Hum, my old friend, a very large and ponderable hum."

That was Seg Segutorio for you, able to cut away all the nonsense with a word. But he was smiling. By Vox! What it is to have comrades through life!

We talked for a space then about our comrades and wished them with us, and eventually returned to the subject of the army to be sent to the southwest and the knotty problem of choosing a commander.

Seg said, "I still have a rapier to sharpen with those rasts of clansmen. And, yes, before you ask me, I can spare a Phalanx, although preferring not to. Filbarrka's zorcamen make life a misery for them. And I am slowly becoming of the opinion that perhaps, one day, I shall manage to make bowmen of the fellows I have under training."

Well, if Seg Segutorio, in my opinion the finest archer of all Kregen, couldn't fashion a battle-winning missile force, then no one could.

We looked at the maps and pondered the likeliest routes the invading armies from Pandahem might choose. I would have to delegate responsibility in that area of the southwest, and make up my mind as to the numbers and composition of the army we would send. That would be the Army of the Southwest.

Presently I placed my hand on the silver-bound balass box.

Seg shook his head.

"Much as I would love to rank Deldars against you, my old friend, and thrash you utterly, I have another zhantil to saddle."

"There is never enough time," I said. And added, under my breath, "In two worlds."

"Anyway," he said, standing up and shifting his sword around more comfortably. "Delia tells me you have been playing Master Hork."

"Aye. Katrin Rashumin recommended him, although he has been famous as a master gamesman in Vondium for many seasons."

Once, I had interrupted a proposed lesson that Katrin was to have taken from Master Hork. He had returned to the capital city, and had, I knew, played his part in our victory. As for Katrin, the Kovneva of Rahartdrin, Opaz alone knew what had happened to her. Her island kovnate was situated far to the southwest and messengers we had sent had not returned. Perhaps our new Army of the Southwest might succeed in gaining news of her and her people.

"Master Hork has a great command of the Chuktar's right-flank attack," said Seg. "Personally, I incline to the left wing."

"Mayhap that is because an archer must have something of a squint--"

"Fambly!"

"And Seg, do you take great care. Your back is healed, well and good; but I don't want you--"

"I know, my old dom. May Erthyr the Bow have you in his keeping, along with Zair and Opaz and Djan." Then Seg, turning to go, paused and swung back. "And, I think, may the lady Zena Iztar also approve of our ventures. The Kroveres of Iztar do little, to my great frustration; but we try--"

"There is a great work set to our hands with the Kroveres." That sounded fustian; but it was true. "We must continue as we are, recruiting choice spirits, and remain steadfast. As the Grand Archbold, you have a double duty."

So I bid farewell to Seg and ached to see him go, and presently in came Master Hork with his own bronze-bound box of playing pieces and we set the board, ranked our Deldars, and opened the play.

Master Hork held within himself that remote and yet alive inner sense of being that marks the Jikaidast. A Jikaidast is a man or woman who plays Jikaida on a professional level. Because of the enormous popularity of the game on Kregen such a person can make a handsome living and receive the respect that is due. I was most polite with Master Hork, a slender, well-mannered man with brown Vallian hair and eyes, and a face that one felt ought to be lined and wrinkled and which was smooth and untrammeled. His movements were neat and precise. He wasted not a single scrap of energy. But he could play Jikaida, by Krun!

There was no point in my attempting to play an ordinary game against his mastery, so we went through the moves of a famous game played five hundred seasons or so ago. Outstanding games are usually recorded for posterity, and many books of Jikaida lore exist. The notations are simple and easily read.

This game was that remarkable example of high-level Jikaida played between Master Chuan-lui-Hong, a Jikaidast then in his hundred and twentieth year, and Queen Hathshi of Murn-Chem, a once-powerful country of Loh.

A Jikaidast will not deliberately lose a game, not even against so awesome a personage as a fabled Queen of Pain of Loh. But Chuan-lui-Hong had had to play with extraordinary skill, for Queen Hathshi might, had she not been a queen, have been a Jikaidast herself.

From the impeccable written record on the thick pages of Master Hork's ponderous leather-bound tome we re-created that famous game. It was, indeed, a marvel. The queen swept all before her, using her swods and Deldars to push on and deploying her more powerful pieces with artistry. At the end, Master Chuan-lui-Hong had played the masterstroke. By using a swiftly developed file of his own pieces, by placing a swod, that is, the Kregan pawn, into the gap between his own file and that of the queen's and so closing the gap, he was able to vault his left-flank Chuktar over the conjoined files into a threatening position that offered check. Check in jikaidish is kaida.

That spectacular vaulting move is unique to Jikaida. A piece may travel over a line of other pieces, either orthogonally or diagonally, using them as stepping-stones, and alight at the far end. The jikaidish word for vault is zeunt. The Chuktar moves in a similar fashion to the Queen of our Earthly chess. Master Hork read out the next move.

"A beautiful response." I felt the pleasure inherent in a neat move. "Hathshi avoids the Chuktar's attack and places her Queen on the only square the Chuktar cannot reach."

Although Vallians call the piece a King, many countries use the names Rokveil, Aeilssa, Princess, and in Loh, much as you would expect, the piece is called a Queen. The object of the game is to place this piece in such a position that it cannot avoid capture. In the jikaidish, this entrapment is called hyrkaida.

"And if the Chuktar moves to place the Queen in check, he will be immediately snapped up by her Hikdars or Paktuns. Although," I said a little doubtfully, "her position is a trifle cramped."

A Jikaidast lives his games, and lives vicariously through the games of his long-dead peers. Master Hork allowed a small and satisfied smile to stretch his lips. Deliberately, he closed the heavy leather cover of the book. The pages made a soft sighing sound and the smell of old paper wafted. I looked at Master Hork across the board where the pieces stood in their frozen march.

"See, majister," he said, and reached far back into Chuan-lui-Hong's Neemu drin.

His slender fingers closed on the Pallan.

The Pallan is the most powerful piece on the board. He combines in himself moves that include those of the chess Queen and Knight, plus other purely Jikaidish possibilities. Chuan-lui-Hong was playing Yellow.

His Pallan stood in such a position that he could be moved up to the end of the long file of yellow and blue pieces--and vault.

The instant Master Hork touched the Pallan I saw it.

"Yes," I said, and my damned throat hurt with that confounded arrow wound. "Oh, yes indeed!"

For the Pallan vaulted that long file and came down on the square occupied by his own Chuktar.

The Pallan has the power to take a friendly piece--excepting the Queen, of course.

Chuan-lui-Hong used his Pallan to remove his Chuktar from the game. Now the Pallan stood there, an imposing and glittering figure, and with the moves at his disposal he trapped, snared, detained, entombed Queen Hathshi's own Queen.

"Hyrkaida!" said Master Hork. And, then, as Chuan-lui-Hong must have done all those dusty seasons ago, he said: "Do you bare the throat?"

"I fancy Hathshi bared her throat with good grace, Master Hork; for it is a pretty ploy."

"Pretty, yes. But obvious, and one that she should have foreseen three moves ago when Hong's Pallan made the crucial move to place him on the correct square within the correct drin." Master Hork screwed his eyes up and surveyed me. "As majister, you should have seen, also."

With Seg, I said, "Hum."

Casually, Master Hork said, "Jikaida players say I am the master of the right-wing Chuktar's attack. This is so. But in my last ten important games, against Jikaidasts of great repute, I have not employed that stratagem. Not in the opening, the middle or the end game. There is a lesson there, majister."

I was perfectly prepared--happy--to be instructed by a master of his craft. But what Master Hork was saying was basic to cunning attack. Be where you are not expected.

"You are right, Master Hork. More wine--may I press this Tawny Jholaix?" From this you will see the truly high regard in which we of Kregen hold Jikaidasts, for Jholaix is among the finest and most expensive wines to be obtained. As Master Hork indicated his appreciation, I went on: "I have likened all Vallia to a Jikaida board. But how you would denominate the Phalanx I do not know for sure, for where they are they are, and there they stand."

"I saw the Phalanx, majister, at the Battle of Voxyri." He drank, quickly at his memories, too quickly for Jholaix, which should be savored. But I understood. When the Phalanx sent up their paean and charged at Voxyri it was, I truly think, a sight that would send either the shuddering horrors or the sublimest of emotions through a man until the day he died.

We talked on, mostly about Jikaida, and it was fascinating talk, filled with the lore of the game. As ever, when in contact with a Jikaidast, my memories flew back to Gafard, the King's Striker, Sea Zhantil. Well, he was dead now, following our beloved Velia, and, I know, happy to go where she led, now and for ever.

"Many a great Jikaidast," Master Hork was saying, "set store by the larger games, Jikshiv Jikaida and the rest. But I tend to think that there is a concentration of skill required in the use of the smaller boards. Poron Jikaida demands an artistry quite different in style."

"Each size of board brings its own joys and problems," I said, sententiously, I fear. But my head was ringing with sounds as though phantom bells tolled in my skull. I felt the weakness stealing over me, and growing, and pulling at me.

Master Hork started up. "Majister!"

There was a blurred impression of the Jikaida board spilling the bright pieces to the floor. That resplendent Pallan toppled and tumbled into a fold of the bedclothes. Master Hork made no attempt to save the scattering pieces. He turned, his face distraught, and ran for the door, yelling for the doctors.

His voice reached me as a thin and ghostly whisper, faint with the dust of years.

That Opaz-forsaken arrow wound! That was my immediate thought. By the unspeakably foul left armpit of Makki-Grodno! There was much to do, and all I could turn my hand to, it seemed, was playing Jikaida and lolling in bed.

And then...

And then I saw a shimmer of insubstantial blueness.

The radiance broadened and deepened.

So I knew.

Once again I was to be snatched away from all I held dear and at the behest of the Star Lords who had brought me to Kregen from Earth be flung headlong into some strange and foreign land. The injustice of this fate that doomed me rang and clangored in my head with the distant sounds as of mighty bellows panting. And the blueness grew and brightened and took on the form I knew and loathed.

Towering over me the lambent blue form of a gigantic Scorpion beckoned.

Once again the Scorpion of the Star Lords called...

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