Iric couldn’t have guessed that Sergeant Vott was such an avid Foxes and Larks player. The moment the big man found out the rookie watchman was learning the game, he disappeared into the dark, dusty storage room.
“Any man with even a slight measure of wits should know this game,” Vott said from the cavernous depths of the room. His voice bellowed out of the space like an ethereal echo.
He returned with a faded wooden box in his hands, setting it down on the large meal table that took up most of the space in the watchhouse break room. Vott undid the latches and swung the box open, revealing a shiny set of copper play pieces. The game board was on the inside of the box, protected from the elements that ravaged the outside. The squares were made from a thin cut of some sort of green stone, with smoky, black and white trails weaving through it. The space between the squares was white bone.
“This game set looks expensive,” Iric said, his eyes still wide to take in the full sight of it.
“It was a gift to the watchhouse. Many years ago. But nobody else here plays, so it never gets used.”
“Not even Captain Steele?”
Iric watched as the sergeant’s big, calloused hands lifted each piece with visible deference and placed them softly on the board. There was a hidden truth in how he handled each of the copper foxes, lifting them from their velvet lined storage spaces, slow and gentle, wiping the board with his free hand before setting them down. Iric rarely saw the man so reverent. When he was, there was usually a story.
“Who gave it to you?” Iric asked. “And why?”
“Digging for a story again, kid?” Vott shot him a blank face.
“If there’s a story, I’d like to hear it.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you…but with one condition. Afterwards you have to play me. Deal?”
Iric nodded. Vott sighed as he considered where to start the tale.
“It was a long time back. Maybe eight or nine years ago. Soon after the Skirmishes, when I left the regiment and joined the Watch…I was still a bit rough around the edges then, and was new to the job. Captain Steele, who was then Lieutenant Steele, had found out about a gambling ring that was doing some bad things to the people who owed them money. Steele had roped up a guy who was in deep with the gang, convinced him to turn informant. Not long after we first heard about it all, things started spiraling out of control…Hey, can you grab me a glass of water?”
Iric stood and walked over the bar that occupied most of the wall on one side of the room. There was a wooden pitcher and a pair of drinking glasses. He grabbed them all and shuffled back to the table, pouring drinks for himself and his sergeant. Vott gulped the water down without taking a breath.
“So what did you do about the gang?” Iric asked.
“Like I said, Steele had a guy in the middle of it. His name was Jari. The man had also been in the regiment during the Skirmishes. A Kingston pikeman put a hole in his leg, which never fully healed. After we came back, Jari was one of the men that never found his place. He fell into gambling, hoping he would get lucky and make enough for a new start. Instead, he dug his own grave and was about to be dropped in it for good. Steele stepped in, part of him wanting to help an old veteran like himself, the other part already fully invested in the mission of the Watch.”
“I hadn’t realized the Skirmishes had been so bad. All I ever heard was there were a few fights over a bit of land by the river.”
“Fighting always leaves scars…And sometimes the ones on the inside are worse than the ones on the skin.”
“So Jari helped you take down the gang?”
“Yeah. He somehow managed to weasel his way into a high-stakes card game. Once he got word of where it was being held, he led us to the area. We stumbled right into an enforcer beating some poor bloke half to death. Took him down and let the bloodied man go. Hadn’t guessed he’d run right back to the gang and let them know we were coming.”
“Why would he do that?”
“When you’ve been beat like a dog for so long, you get to thinking every moment about just avoiding the next beating. You lose the long-term focus required to even consider escape.”
Vott grabbed the pitcher. Iric tried to take it from him, to pour the water himself, but the big man shook him off. Taking a sip, the sergeant continued his story.
“We were expecting to have surprise on our side. But that was lost. There were only four of us—myself, Lieutenant Steele, and two others. Once things started going wrong, Jari grabbed the enforcer’s sword and joined us. Steele tried to talk him out of it, but it was no use. Jari had decided to cut his chains to the gang, whatever that led to.
So we hit the house hard on one front. There was a lot of resistance, arrows and knives and all sorts of jagged objects flying through the air. It got worse once we made it inside. Cramped halls and messy rooms made the fighting difficult, treacherous. Our sergeant, an old-timer named Halvor, tripped on some junk on the floor and never got back up.
When it was all done, we found two more corpses—the guy that we had saved from the thug in the alley, and another poor bloke who was dressed in little more than rags. A couple others survived…physically at least…but they never really got their minds right again. Some of the things that gang did were unmentionable…And this, just after coming back from the brink of war, after losing good men in some dirty fights about some border out there somewhere…”
“It’s what made you decide to stay in the Watch. Right?”
Vott looked at the rookie, his face colored with surprise…and respect.
“Yeah,” he said.
“But none of that explains where the expensive game set came from.”
“Jari had been an avid Foxes player before getting into cards. Before the Skirmishes, he had been a local champion, almost famous. This set had been a prize he won at some tournament somewhere. After the mess with the gang was finally sorted, he didn’t want to touch another game, any game. So he gave his old prize set to us, as repayment for pulling him out of tomb he had fallen in.”
“Why haven’t I ever heard of this gang?”
“Because after we broke up their gambling ring, their rivals, the Southtown Gang, finished the job. In a not insignificant way, we actually helped the Baron raise himself up to where he is now. By accident, but helped nonetheless. But at least the Baron doesn’t prey on hopeless vets like the other gang did.”
“Ever think to ask Jari to come over for a game?”
“No. Not once. I respect the man’s decision to give up his past joys in order to keep his life on track.”
Iric wondered what he could learn from an old master like Jari. But Vott was right to honor the man’s decision, even if Iric couldn’t figure out how the two were connected. You couldn’t really gamble at Foxes and Larks, at least not as far as Iric knew.
Vott finished setting up the game. The copper pieces shimmered in the faint sunlight that came through the narrow windows at the side of the room opposite the bar.
“Enough blabbing. You owe me a game, kid.”
*Thank you for reading. The previous volumes of “The Adventures of Iric” can be found here: