The old man chuckled, the wisdom lines on his face bursting out in chaotic patterns, not unlike the cracks on a spot of sun-dried mud after a storm.
“This isn’t funny,” Iric said, trying to contain his frustration. “There’s a thief on the loose, and if I don’t catch him, Sergeant Vott will have my hide!”
The man continued to smile and laugh softly to himself.
“What’s so funny?” Iric asked, feeling the heat of anger rising up inside his chest.
“You’re much too serious, young man,” the old codger finally managed to say. “Yur thief’ll be back ‘round soon enough.”
“What do you mean he’ll be back around?”
Iric stared over at the crowded scattering of buildings where the thief had fled, but he could see no sign of his quarry. He didn’t know where the narrow road between the buildings led, and he couldn’t see past the taller, wider structures standing in the shadows of those in the fore. What he did know was that the man he chased would not be coming back this way. He also knew he had no chance now of catching the fugitive, where ever he had gone. All the old coffin-dodger had needed to do was point him in the right direction, but even that little bit seemed even much for the senile old coot. Be back ‘round, for sure! Iric clenched his fists and huffed.
“Take a seat an’ catch yur breath. Fussin’ like that ain’t good fer the blood.”
Iric shot the old man an angry glare.
“Very nice devil’s eye, ya got there. Very intimidatin’. Come now. Have a seat. Indulge an old man.”
Iric gave up trying to play tough; it obviously wasn’t going to work. Usually his watchman’s breastplate and long sword gave people a second thought before teasing him, but this old man didn’t seem to have the sense. Iric conceded and dropped down into the chair with a sigh.
The old man was also seated, in a chair which rested on the opposite side of a wooden table from Iric’s. On the table was a water glass—from which the codger occasionally sipped—and what looked to be a game board. Iric didn’t recognize the game.
“Have ya ever played Foxes and Larks before?” the old man asked.
“No,” Iric replied simply, not in the mood for games.
“It’s easy. I’ll teach ya. Stop watchin’ the road, nothin’s gonna happen fer a while.”
Iric turned back to look at the man; the old coot was still smiling as brightly as when he had first encountered him. Bright enough to blind passersby, Iric joked to himself. He surrendered to his failure, feeling some of the stress of the chase wash away.
The game pieces were finely carved out of what looked to be bone, but darkened somehow. They felt light and slick in Iric’s hands. The board was made of a light-colored wood, cut in the shape of a hexagon, with the flat ends facing the players. The top of the board was covered in squares—to guide the movement of pieces—and some squares were raised up higher than the others. The old man explained the rules of the game. It was, indeed, very simple. One player was the foxes, the other the birds.
“Ta put it simply,” the old man lectured, “the game is ’bout birds migratin’ south fer winter and the foxes who are tryin’ ta catch ‘em and eat ‘em. The player controllin’ the larks needs ta get as many pieces to the opposite end of the board. The fox player needs ta capture as many larks as possible. Got it?”
The old man clarified a few more details. The sides were balanced in several ways. There were more larks than foxes, the larks moved further than foxes, and the larks could move onto the raised squares—which represented trees—but foxes could not. In general, it seemed the birds had the advantage. The only benefit the foxes had was in having several different movement patterns; larks could only move in straight lines and could not cross other pieces.
The first game was a complete wash. Iric lost all of his birds to the old man’s foxes. Normally, after the first game the players would switch sides, their comparative scores from playing the bird side being the way to determine the winner. But the old man suggested Iric try again as the larks.
“Ya need ta clear yur head. Stop worryin’ ’bout the street and focus on the game.”
Iric did focus. This time he spread his birds out wide, forcing the old man to split his foxes up to chase. But for some reason, the man left one fox back. It seemed odd to Iric that he didn’t use all of his limited pieces to their fullest.
Iric lost himself in the game, determined to do better on his second try, so as not to seem completely daft. He tried to push his birds through aggressively, but each was surprised by a pair of nimble foxes working together to box them in. Before he knew it, he only had one lark left. Fortunately, most of the foxes were on the far side of the board. Iric moved his last piece forward, just one more move away from…
“Gotcha again,” the old man said, taking the last bird off the board.
Where did that fox come from?
“That’s why you left that one behind…” Iric said with sudden realization.
“Sometimes it’s best ta let yur quarry come to you,” the old man said. “Speakin’ of which…”
Iric followed the old man’s line of sight back to the road. He saw the thief cautiously emerging from between the buildings. The watchman jumped to his feet and started to run, but the old man grabbed his hand.
“Don’ be so hasty now,” he said.
“That road’s a dead end. Jus’ a wall of buildin’s past there. Nowhere ta go but back.”
Iric’s gaze drifted to the sky, as his mind scolded him for his previous foolishness, and his rude treatment of the old man.
“Why don’cha wait over there,” the man said, pointing to a nearby bush. Iric nodded in understanding.
The thief strolled by, much too sure of himself, paying little attention to his surroundings. Iric leapt out from behind the bush, startling the rogue, who stumbled into a sprint. As he passed near the table, the old man toppled it into the thief’s path. The fugitive tumbled over it with a loud groan. Iric grabbed him by the collar and pinned him down.
“Looks like I caught myself a little birdy,” Iric shouted triumphantly.
The old man chuckled. It was a sweet sound.
*Previous volumes of “The Adventures of Iric” can be found here: