A Matter of Balance
By Gerry Torbert
"No, I've got no idea why I'm here! For the tenth time, I'm telling you! And unless you can come up with an idea why you're here, I suggest we quit talking about it!"
James Sampson sat on a flat rock with his back against the stone wall of an ancient city that he never took the time nor interest to appreciate, his legs straight out in front of him. He flipped card over card from his right hand to his left, his cuff jewelry flashing with a glint of the meager evening sun, his silk suit almost shining as wrinkles appeared and disappeared with every movement. He mentally calculated the odds of the appearance of each card, his lips moving silently as he multiplied and divided in his head. Sampson was like that--he took his card games very, very seriously.
"No sense getting' yerself all flustered, human. I got the same invitation as you did; damnedest thing I've ever seen." He reached into the pocket of his leather shirt, pulling out a ragged page scrawled in ancient Dwarven, just the same way he had done every day or so for the past few months. Small wonder the paper was barely readable, worn thin as it was and poorly illuminated by both the waning sunlight and the flickering campfire he had built.
"You pulling that thing out again? I know what it says. Are you one of those people who do the same thing over and over again, little stuff that annoys people? What do they call them...yeah, 'itchy people', that's it."
Dwarlim the Slippery sighed, folding the paper in the exact same creases, to within a thousandth of an inch, that it came with. He knew he had a strange mental configuration, something that made him comb his beard for endless hours at a time, something that made him sit slightly sideways at the card table, something that made him cut his food into precise cubes and eat from the center of the plate outwards, in a spiral. He was itchy, all right. He knew it and felt it gave him the edge when it came to cards, If only by rendering his opponent annoyed and frustrated.
Dwarlim frowned and sneered at the high-roller. He wasn't speaking to Sampson out of some desire to gain a new friend nor out of appreciation for his craft; first, their vocation precluded friendships for more than the length of a few hands; secondly, he fancied himself his equal in his ability to play the game. No, he simply was unsure of his fate, and there was little else to do. "Yeah, human, 'itchy people', that's what they call my type." He nervously tugged at his fine leather shirt, twisting and stretching his neck muscles half in feigned preparation for a game, half in shame. "I'm sure there are humans who have the same problem. So what? It's served me well. What's your edge?"
Sampson smiled a wry little crinkle of his pursed lips, huffing slightly in indignity. "You actually expect me to divulge my secrets? Everything I've guarded so tightly since I started this crazy job of mine?" He stopped flipping and counting long enough to take a deep breath, letting his harsh exterior shell down a little. "I'm driven, dear Dwarf. Driven by much the same desire as are you, no doubt: to be the best; to beat everyone in my craft; to gain enough riches to retire some day, a young lass on my arm, drinking the finest of wines. Does that not sound like you?"
The aptly-nicknamed Dwarf nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. But unlike your short and uneventful life, I've been doing this for a hundred years. I'm sure to have a lot more experience than..." He stopped mid sentence and moved his glance to the side slightly. "Well, will you look at...we got some company, player." He nodded in the direction of the newcomer.
Sampson's head whipped around in the direction of the Dwarf's glance, and his jaw kept rotating around and down as he gazed upon a rather large being: an Orc, fully dressed and dapper, but not in battle gear. He moved quickly, but not with the lumbering and ground-pounding authority of his battle-tested brethren; no, more like the self-assured litheness of one who had dedicated his life to the art of peaceful deception. Dwarlim stood up immediately, reaching clumsily for his knife. But Sampson's hand on the Dwarf's shoulder stopped him from making a fool of himself--the stocky card player couldn't find anything in his belt, his hands fumbling in surprise.
"No need fer that, little man. 'Ere's not a weapon to be found on me; even my short gambler's dagger became lost very near here. I ain't here fer fightin', so relax."
"Easy, Dwarf. I think this guy is telling the truth. And I believe we're staring at a fellow gambler, an Orc named Garlat, is it not?" He held out his hand toward the taller, broader but slightly pudgy dark one.
"Yeah, seems my reputation precedes me; looks like I'm a little famous. An' from yer outfit, you're James Sampson; an' you, Dwarlim. I done some studyin'."
Dwarlim was surprised as well; he still fumbled around for his knife, but not for protection. "Well, this all gets stranger an' stranger. As I remember, you were the only man to ever beat The Big Three; lasted two weeks, didn't it? Ya got the last two drawin' a Lot on the Lord o' Gluttony suit--pretty gutsy, I'd say!" The Dwarf held his hand out as well, but only after pulling out a cloth and wiping it clean.
Garlat shook the hand hesitantly, nodding slightly. "Ah, an itchy man. I've heard you folks are to be reckoned with at the table. The game, it was only ten days, an' I guess I got a little lucky. Legend tells you cleaned out Wawmar more'n once. An' Mr. Sampson was the terror o' quite a few river boats, I hear."
"My guess is that you got a little letter summoning you here, Garlat. Mine was strange, but it was something I couldn't say no to."
Garlat reached into the pocket of a vest that no other Orc would be caught dead wearing; woven into the exquisite Zeland wool was what appeared to be fine gold thread in a stunning plaid with contrasting colors and textures--it begged the questions of where, how and who; just what kind of game got him such clothing? "Yeah, strange, no doubt," he read; "Says ta be here for the '...game of my life...' An' with you two here, I can imagine it will be."
Sampson glimpsed over the large Orc's shoulder and answered, "Well, it doesn't look as if it will be just us three, my friend." He nodded in the direction of two more people making their way to the campfire.
To the left was a strangely dressed man, uncompromisingly comfortable in his strangeness. Many of the inhabitants of Farland knew of them, but they never failed to bring a whit of uniqueness to a gathering. This one was no exception, and the assembled knew well of Tavish MacTavish. He was given to say, when asked, that his father liked the name so much he just had to repeat it. His yellow and black kilt wasn't a clan norm, but he was known to wear other family's colors. He was known more, though, for his boisterous and seemingly irreverent personality, which supposedly led more to the interruption of games of chance than any perceived cheating.
To his left was a well-known card shark of the Belendale, Glarmin of the House of Aerfar. Dressed typically elfin in leather jacket and pants, he often gained an advantage just for being an elf. Compared to his stereotypical brethren, he shunned the desire to seek truth of life and knowledge to follow the statistic and mathematical world of chance. As such, he was somewhat shunned by his own and distrusted by other players who thought he had a particular edge through knowledge of arcane arts. Neither was deserved, as his only desire was to understand and control the rules governing the world of happenstance, to his own ends.
A further glance around a few more degrees gave rise to more than a little trepidation from the first three. Making his way to the ruins was another orc of distinction, none other than Putlack. A round creature, uncomfortable in his rotundity, he slaved away at the ubiquitous subjugation of that most dark and powerful of his enemies, gravity. And that was just his gait. He appeared to be uneasy with the very act of walking erect; true to the legend that preceded him among other players, he consumed his winnings more in the form of foodstuffs than any other vice. The sartorially challenged orc certainly didn't spend much on clothing, perhaps sacrificing quality for quantity. He was the first of the relative newcomers to speak.
"Well, I'll be damned. Looks like someone'll invite anyone to this thing! Sampson, Dwarlim, a damned elf, a Creag in his skirt, even my deeeeearest of friends. We finally meet in a game 'at means sumthin', eh, Garlat? Been runnin' from me for years!"
"Well, the circus does seem to have pulled into town. And the main attraction, the fat lady, is at her very best, I see!" Garlat advanced and chuckled as he held out a hand to the oblate spheroid who was well known as an orc willing to draw to an inside Rank of Sloth.
Putlack shook the hand vigorously, the flab on his arms and hands vibrating synchronously with his laugh. Sampson, however, sighed loudly and indicated his distaste for the assemblage, quipping "Circus, indeed! What happened to the good old days when orcs ran around the countryside killing everyone? And since when has a Creag stayed sober for a whole game?"
"Arrgh, Sampson, an' it is! Glarmin, looks like we got easy pickins! I whupped ye a'fore, Jimmy-boy! Come back fer some more, eh?"
Dwarlim stood and smiled in the direction of the Elf, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Glarmin, me ole' friend! Often wondered what would happen if the two of us would meet with the stakes up!"
"Ah, Dwarlim! A few games and we're friends, now!" He laughed politely, but it was understood that these two would tear at each other in any game.
Putlack turned his gaze toward MacTavish and was ready to mention something about his clothing, but a sudden flash of light from within the ruins startled the men, who all turned to see the pulse grow more steady and eerie. Shadows reached out from behind the walls, painting pictures of tables of food on the dirt courtyard. The shadows of maids scurried about the tables, piquing the interest of the players. "Ahh, food...an' a few lasses, eh? Ye remember lasses, do'in ya, Putty-boy?" He flashed a smile toward the fat orc, who answered with an evil frown.
"At's our cue, girlie skirt! Hope they didn't do as much injustice to clothing as you seemed to have done!"
Glarmin interceded a bit, noting "Gentlemen, we're being summoned, I believe. Let us leave the bravado out here, and fight it out around our sponsor's table!"
The six men beings with little more speech into what had, at one time, served as the main hall of the ancient metropolis of Aelfar. It was barely discernable as a gleaming jewel of a once great city, but a few of the remnants of the more stable corners of a building still remained, and a cut stone floor had partially survived. Whoever their benefactor was had furnished the area quite elegantly, with a rugged playing table in the center and food tables carefully placed around the perimeter. The light was bright enough to illuminate the hall and for playing a game of cards, but it was unsure as to where it came from. Several waitresses hurried about tending to traditional orcish, dwarven, elven and human dishes, served steaming hot and presented with the finest silverware and china. One by one, the players' jaws dropped as they found their own cuisine and piled their plates high, taking them to the playing table.
Sampson was the first to sit, looking back to Dwarlim and Garlat. "Seems our mysterious friend knows a lot about each of us, gentlemen. This nut butter and preserve sandwich was very prevalent in my household."
Dwarlim nodded as he sat. "Yeah, this ale's a lot like me pappy used to make; the head clings to the fine glass, an' it ain't shrunk much since I poured it." He looked around at the table and asked, to no one in particular, "So, anyone know what game we're supposed ta play?"
Glarmin dug into his quail and vegetables as if he had been walking for days from the Belendale, which wasn't far from the truth. "I like 'Chasing the Dog', myself, or a good game of 'Tall Man', which is a competitive late-evening game. I'm surprised our provider hasn't told us in detail what he, she, or it wants us to do."
MacTavish grabbed a hunk of haggis and dunked it into his large mug of whisky, bellowing "Arrghh, 'Tall Man's' a nice game, if yer a'playin' yer niecey an' sistah fer a kiss, but I doot I'll be a swappin' spit wi' any a'youse. I think 'Runnin' Raw' 'as a lot ta say fer itself. We'd play it ta see 'oo's gotta shear the sheep, when we's li'lle." He raised the hunk of gut sausage out of the mug and tossed it into his waiting mouth.
"I doubt you Creags needed much provocation to chase sheep, Tavish. Follow the two's. Best game you could ask for." Putlak quaffed half his blood grog, biting off a ropey crawler as it threatened to work its way out of the mug. 'Best game, 'cause you gotta be prepared for any change in trump suit, at any time. An' followin' a low card like a two makes it a double whammy." His guess, which came out as more of a proclamation, stunned the others into a moment of silence, if not thoughtfulness.
It seemed to be the perfect game for gambling. Few could memorize the intricacies of the multitudes of combinations and rapidly changing conditions. The deck itself consisted of seven suits, with a ranking from most powerful to weakest named after the Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, Lust and Pride. In the initial condition, a card of a higher suit is worth more than a card of greater value of a lesser suit, each by a factor of one. So a trey of Greed is worth more than a four of Sloth, a five of Envy, and so on.
But that was just the basic rule set. Combinations, or 'Lots', of cards of a higher suit are likewise worth more than a better Lot of a lower suit, so an 'Even' of 2-4-6 Greed is worth more than a 4-6-8 of Sloth, but less than a 2-4-6-8 of Wrath. Add to that the ranking of combinations: an Even of four beats an Odd of three, but a high-seven Odd 4 beats a high-eight Even 3; 'Files' of equal numbers (four 6's) beat Even 4's or Odd 4's; 'Ranks' of consecutives (e.g., 8-7-6-5) beat Files, Evens and Odds of an equal number of cards; and 'Armies' of a Rank in the same suit beat all the Lots, unless the suits once again change the worth. In between the Armies and Ranks were a bevy of rankings and combinations called 'Castles', which were two of a kind, three of a kind, etc. - a 'country castle' consisted of two of a kind and three of a kind, while a 'river castle was a three of a kind and a four of a kind, etc.
A final twist is the 'following'. The 'Key', in this case the deuce, makes the next card's suit the high suit, until another deuce changes the suit again. If the follower is a Pride, for instance, it becomes the high suit, bumping each other suit down one. A deuce following another deuce enables the next player to call whatever suit he wants as top suit.
It was small wonder that this type of game separated the men from the boys, the casual player from the professional and the well-to-do from their riches. The deck itself, with its squarish configuration of seven suits and ten cards, offered many strange combinations unavailable with the more rectangular, 4-suit, 13-card system played on a more regular and casual basis on the continent. Even smaller wonder that this game had caused many fights and more than a little blood spilled.
The silence was broken by the gentle, refined voice of a man easily half the size of either of the orcs, but with a grace that demanded attention from the gathered few; a fine-tailored gray wool suit fit him well, and the shiny hooded cloak completed a classy entrance. "I do believe Mr. Putlak has arrived at the answer to your important query, my good Dwarlim. I do hope each of you have brushed up on that most telling and aggressive of all card games."
Glarmin put down his glass of fine wine and said what everyone else was too shocked to ask. "And who might you be, sir? Still another player?"
The little man smiled and picked up a piece of fruit from one of the tables, biting off a piece before answering. "Oh, no, my elfin friend. And none of the rest ever met me, I believe. My name is Tallowman, James Tallowman. I was selected by our benefactor for three reasons: my knowledge of the game, the fine art of hosting such events, and my unquestionable impartiality. I hope to bring the appropriate ambience to this chilling locale and am charged with providing you with everything you need."
A chuckle came from the boisterous one, as MacTavish smacked his lips at the end of a long draw of Creagish whisky. "Well, lad, ya sure found the best Whisky I've tasted fer years. Mebbe ya could swing a little lassie action me way--ye gut some fine pretties what might find me kilt a little lively, if ya know wha' I mean!"
Tallowman cringed at the crudity of the Creag's comments. "There will be time for such a thing later, Mr. MacTavish, if the Fates provide. In the mean time, I would heartily suggest you partake of that libation with care. You certainly want to be at your best during the game, as the stakes here are high."
MacTavish slammed his glass on the table and thought to address and defend his rowdy behavior, but instead smiled and nodded. Sampson leaned forward in his chair, pushing his mug of brandy to the side and asking a few of his own questions. "So, if you're knowledgeable in this game, Mr. Tallowman, why aren't you playing as well? And what are these stakes to which you refer?" A few of the others nodded and grunted in agreement.
Tallowman finished his chunk of apple and wiped his hands on a napkin at the edge of the table. "I think you'll find that my talents are not applicable to sitting for long hours at a table and playing a game, and I am not as good a player as any of you. I simply am a host, and know enough about the rules to be able to interpret and enforce them equally and fairly. And as to the issue of the stakes, I cannot in all honesty say what they are, other than the eventual bragging rights and the pot. But rest assured that a sponsor who could lay out such a spread, as well as contact each of you and arrange such a game, would scarcely reward the winner with a simple trophy."
"Nor the losers, a few coins for their return trip..." The rest looked at Glarmin, who had a way of getting to the point that others barely thought of.
Tallowman nodded, adding "...I am told that for the losers, it will be as though nothing ever happened."
Garlat swirled the last disgusting remnants of the fermented blood and body parts in his tankard, swilling them down with the aid of a few chews. "Well, dammit, I'm tired of talkin' about it all. I'm ready ta start takin' some candy from the babies, as they say. Let's break out the cards."
"That's the spirit, my orcish friend. First, I should make mention that your weapons have been removed. They are stored nearby and will be returned; this certainly is no place for them. You will each find a sack of gold and silver coins beneath the table at your feet; each sack is easily enough to give any one of you quite an easy life. Any of you can walk away with the sack and go home, but our sponsor feels that is not the kind of person he sees in each of you. The cards..." he said with a pause as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the deck, "...have been weighed, cleaned, checked for distinguishing marks, everything that could give anyone an edge."
He then tossed the deck onto the table near its center. "I believe a draw for first deal is in order?" The maids began clearing the table for the game, wiping food stains from the fine wooden surface. One by one the players picked a card, with Sampson pulling an eight of Greed to Garlat's eight of Envy. "Well, looks like this may be a portent of further successes, eh?" Garlat smiled and nodded, knowing well that the first deal was nothing more than a minor inconvenience to players of such caliber; Dwarlin cringed at the loss and slammed his card down with his right hand, then picked it up and slammed it again with his left hand; MacTavish looked quite disgusted at his selection.
Sampson hauled in the cards and shuffled the deck, reviewing the rules. "Okay, as I recall, two cards down, six rounds face up, two more down; first bidder is the player following dealer, then the high hand showing each hand thereafter; minimum bid...?" he looked toward Tallowman, who answered "Two silver", then continued as he dealt the first two cards to each; "...ante one silver to sweeten the pot; suit following first two is high suit; two twos in a row and the player with the second two calls any suit he wants; three twos...?" he looked again toward Tallowman, who said "Hand and Pot, gentlemen; hand and pot."
"Tough rules, no doubt. And who becomes the arbiter if anyone is suspected of...say...a little underhanded action or two?" Glarmin got a few glances from the rest of the players, as if each was beyond reproach; but each knew how to bend the rules, and what a little bend looked like from the experienced player.
"I wouldn't worry about that, Mr. Glarmin. That is another reason I was drafted into service; I will know, believe me."
Sampson laid the remainder of the deck by his side and peeked under his cards. His solid face was strong and unwavering, showing no emotion or the hint of emotional restraint. But his opponents were known even to read that particular restraint.
Putlack, seated left of Sampson, snorted in disgust at his spots, which was well known as his calling card. Many times an opponent had tried to gauge his hand on the power behind his snorts and intentional distractions, and many failed. But this group knew better than to try to figure him out. "A simple silver on top'a my ante, gentlemen." He tossed two toward the center of the table.
"Call" followed from Glarmin, Mactavish, Garlat, Dwarlim and Sampson in that order around the table. The initial bet round from lesser players would mean something, perhaps; but for such a group of experts such as these--sharks who could lose hands for an hour, 'catch fire' and even things up in a few hands--it was nothing more than each one getting their fingers limbered. A round of 'ups' was dealt, showing Garlat with a nine of Greed to Glarmin's ten of Envy.
"Well, I guess I'll start the bidding..." the orc said, looking over his shoulder toward Tallowman, who nodded agreement, "...at one more silver, for now."
The bid continued around the circle, players calling in turn and no one checking his bid. The second round gave Sampson a six and four of Gluttony, which hinted at an Army of the third-lowest suit; Glarmin pulled a nine to match his seven, making an Odd look possible. But Garlat garnered a nine of Gluttony, making a File of Nines a distinct possibility, and he claimed first bid again. Tallowman nodded as the well-dressed orc tossed two silvers to the crushed wool perimeter of the beautiful burled elm table; it was expected, and another round of calls came forth.
Three more rounds presented the assembled with an interesting display: Garlat still led with two nines and a high ten of Greed; Glarmin's Rank of nine, seven and five looked good, but Tallowman agreed that the odds of his downs increasing the value of his hand wasn't worth him bidding first; Dwarlim looked vacant as he nursed a rather innocuous hand, tapping each up card with a different finger three times, and Putlack snorted as usual; Sampson slowly shook his head and smiled as he dealt the remaining two rounds face down, and MacTavish nursed a glass of amber refreshment with no expression whatsoever. Surprisingly, no two was faced.
The players picked up their downs as Garlat announced another silver bet. Several checked, leaving only Sampson to call. With no other bets or raises, Garlat laid down three nines and three fives. No other hand came close, and Tallowman announced the orc winner of the first hand.
"A nice beginning: inauspicious, nothing but pure chance, from what I could see. A good round to get your blood moving, I'd say. Mr. Putlack, I'd say the deal goes to you."
Snorting and laying down a rather large sandwich, the large one tossed a silver ante into the center aside from the pile that Garlat was sweeping toward him. He picked up the cards and shuffled.
The second hand was a little more eventful, and luck played quite a large part. A deuce finally appeared on the second 'up' to MacTavish, and the card dealt to Garlat was a Gluttony, making Gluttony, Lust and Sloth of more value than Wrath, Greed, Sloth and Envy, in that order. This played well into Sampson's hand, which was a five and three of Gluttony, and he was hiding a seven.
He then bet a little higher than what he normally would, thinking that there was little chance for another two in the up pile. He was wrong; the fourth up round produced another two, followed by a four of Sloth. This still left his gluttonous cards third highest, but Dwarlim had a six and four of Envy, giving him the next bet. Such a dizzying set of seemingly frivolous ebbs and flows was not to be unexpected in this game.
Dwarlim took a chance and bet a gold on his hand, guessing that his luck would hold out and another two wouldn't upset his chances; he was right this hand, and spent a few minutes wiping off each coin with a clean cloth as he raked them in.
Such a complicated game played by professionals can continue for a long time, as was the case with this bloodless struggle amidst the ruins of an ancient civilization. The give and take continued throughout the night and well into the next day, trying both the concentration and stamina of each of the contestants. Each player suffered periods of loss and gain, but Glarmin suffered a little more than the others. Down to his last few golds, he tossed them in the pot and hoped for the best with an eight-high three card Rank of Envy--Sampson's nine-high four card rank of Sloth saw to that. Glarmin sighed and leaned back into his chair, at least confident in Tallowman's promise that for the losers, it would be as if nothing happened....
MacTavish shuffled, musing aloud "It's a blinkin' wondah 'at no elves were invited. They're pretty smart, ya know."
Garlat nodded and grunted agreement as he sipped some blood grog. "Yeah, Creaggy. Five seems like a strange number a' players. Ya'd think six would be better. Never did have the time a' day fer them elves, anyway. Too calculatin' if ya know what I mean."
"Too many cooks spoil the pot. Five's a good number, I say. Odd. Never trusted even numbers. Five fingers on a hand. Never knew an elf to play cards, anyway. You gonna shuffle the spots off'in those cards, Tavvy?"
The Creag sighed toward Dwarlim's impatience. "Okay, okay. Cut, dwarfy."
Tallowman seemed quite disturbed, but he couldn't seem to put his finger on what was wrong, judging from his distracted stare at the cards and the furrow on his brow. "Anything wrong, Mr. Tallowman?" asked Putlack.
"Uh...no...no, everything's fine...I suppose." He wasn't convincing.
The five gamblers continued their game, with a careful watch over each other's every move, every breath, every inflection. They also watched over their own movements, cautious to make sure they didn't give any sign of their cards or their intentions. At this point, the mathematics became secondary to the battle of personalities.
Putlack used his sighs, breathing and grunting in different cadences and for different up cards, trying to throw off his opponents. Dwarlim tapped his fingers, stroked his beard or scratched his skin as well, but with his disposition toward unconscious movements, no one could ever be sure if he was testing them or just being 'itchy'. Sampson acted cool, but often silently mouthed his calculations and statistical determinations. MacTavish went through a series of looks, motions and almost inaudible noises, always meant to be random. Garlat watched each of the others, perhaps telling more about his hand by the attention he paid to one or the other.
Indeed, Garlat noticed that Sampson's calculations increased as he was met with increasingly outside chances, and he used this fact to his advantage. He had learned throughout his professional life that any small inflection could be telling in a tight game, and this was no exception. He checked through a few pots, even folding with a slight possibility to make sure Sampson didn't gain when his numerous calculations seemed to dwindle, signifying he had a better hand. With minimal losses, he weathered a storm of reasonable hands by the human, while MacTavish noted Garlat's attention and played the hands the same way.
After a while, Sampson's pot diminished considerably and one good hand, coupled with a daring bet by MacTavish drained his human counterpart. Sampson sighed as he turned his cards over to show a five-high four-card Rank of Sloth to Tavvy's four-card File of Wrath. A strange look came over his face for a second.
Dwarlim shuffled as he always had done, fanning a multiple of seventeen cards each cut and carefully squaring each part of the deck before shuffling. It was maddening at first, but the others usually used the extra time to get up and get a bite to eat.
"You know, I may sound maudlin, but this sure is the best four-player game I've ever had," mused Putlack. "The hands been even, the pots small, an' no one's had a big advantage or cashed out yet."
"Ha! A blood-thirsty orc, accused a' bein' maudlin! Nevah thought I'd 'ear such a thing. Next, ol' Putty'll be donnin' a pretty dress an' dancin' fer the lot'a us!"
Putlack grunted a chuckle, his rolls synchronous with his mirth. "A'right, ya Greagish dress-maker! Yer chides are touchin' but well placed, ya got me wit dat one. Now bet, ya drunken sot!"
Dwarlim dealt the next two rounds up, mentioning how a four-player game seemed strange; Tallowman watched the play, seemingly upset and more agitated as the game went on. Putlack bid a gold to begin the festivities; the rest saw his bet, setting the stage for a wild hand. The third card up gave Garlat the advantage with an eight and seven of Greed to Dwarlim's ten-high of Wrath. Still no one checked, making the possibilities of the down cards more mysterious.
Finally, the first two showed, and the next one changed the high suit to Gluttony, playing into MacTavish's three up cards. His first bet was two golds, whereupon Garlat and Dwarlim checked, the Dwarf nervously drumming his fingers on his cards in some sort of cadence. Rather than throw in such a hand, Putlack saw him and raised another gold. A final round was inconclusive, so the last down cards were dealt and they picked up the rest.
"Pretty bold, there, Tavvy" said Dwarlim. "Gluttony is still high, but I'm willin' ta bet yer hidin' behind a barn."
MacTavish chuckled and threw out another gold. "Barn door's open, laddie-buck. Ya got ya a few good cards ta back 'at up?"
Garlat and Dwarlim both called, but Putlack studied his cards and began a little drumming of his knuckles of his own. He was sweating now, more so than what his normal physiology demanded. He fumbled around with his coins, turning them over, stacking and re-stacking them. "Ya gotta crap 'r step away from the thunder'ole, brothah!"
"A'right, Creag! Shut up, I'm thinkin'! Ain't got a lot o' cash left. If yer sittin' there with a hand like I think ya are...other hand, if ya got nothin' as big as I think ya might..."
MacTavish smiled and nodded. "An' that's wha' the game's all aboot, now, isn't it, Putty? Truth is, I wouldn't like ta be in yer shoes...but I bet ya know what I got, don't'cha?" The gamesmanship shone from the kilted Creag like an aura around his face; Garlat stared at him, trying to figure his game.
"A'right..." squeaked Putlack, "I'll see yer gold..." He tossed in a coin.
"'At's it? Ya see me? No raise, no spunk? 'At's not the orcish way, now is it? No fight in ya?"
"...an' raise ya...what I got. You got anything worth lookin' at?"
"I'm still in the game; so is dwarfy" cautioned Garlat. "But I gotta check again. Dwarlim?"
"I got guts left, but 'fraid not the cards our whisky-drenched friend has. I'll sit this one out." He threw his cards aside and leaned back, sighing deeply.
"Well, I got nothin' more ta bet. Ya can't squeeze blood outa the turnip, so they say. Whatcha got, Tavvy?" The sweat on Putty's brow was now rolling down his nose and down to his chin.
"I'd like to see what's in your hand, too, Tavvy. I fold." Garlat looked to his left and into the swashbuckler's eyes; he saw a vacancy that scared him--true gambler's eyes.
MacTavish flipped up his downs, showing a three-card seven-high Rank of Gluttony, still the highest suit. Putty's three-card seven-high Rank of Lust paled, but only slightly. His eyes became glassy with the feeling of watching a three-hundred pound trebuchet ball only ten feet from his face, hurtling through the air; the look was replaced rather suddenly with a strange fright....
"The three of us...no doubt the best players in Farland...I kinda like the odds."
"Yeah, you're right, Dwarlim. I like a good game with two opponents. I've been the undisputed best in the Dark Lands for about five years, but I've heard a lot about you and MacTavish, here; word gets around. Are we ready to start the game...Mr. Tallowman?"
The little man looked down and shook his head slowly. "Yes, I guess we're about to...start...." He sighed and shrugged. "Normal 'Follow the Two's' rules, you gentlemen need no rehashing, I'm sure. Cut for draw to see who deals first, Mr. Garlat." Much was amiss here, and Tallowman knew it; what he couldn't grasp was why it was happening.
The play continued, or re-began, or started; Tallowman didn't know which, and no one else seemed to notice. The game was lively at first, each man feeling out the other two to determine their weaknesses and strengths. Much like the first round of a prizefight, the first several hands were uneventful and boring, with little money changing hands.
With three players of this caliber, there was little room to let your personality or traits betray you. Unfortunately, there wasn't much about Dwarlim that wasn't personality. He understood the importance of masking his foibles, but there wasn't much he could do about some of his traits. To his advantage, a wizard using divinations would have a difficult time deciphering what he did and translating it into his hand.
To his disadvantage, he was playing two of the greatest diviners on the continent. Although neither had training in the magic arts, years of playing cards and reading their opponents gave them a lot of experience. Understanding the opponent was second nature at least--the whole purpose of the game at most.
Garlat and Tavvy watched Dwarlim go through his histrionics and related them to his hands and his play. It was difficult at first: tapping his fingers, stroking his beard over and over, rearranging the cards in his hand, even tapping the cards as they were played and before he dealt; they all had some significance to the trained eye.
Within a few scores of hands, though, they had him. MacTavish never looked toward Garlat any more than he had to, averting any knowledge that he had seen the dwarf tap harder and stroke more furiously when he had something worth betting on. But time after time, a good hand by the shorter man was wasted when they both checked and folded; and careful betting and drawing their opponent soon wore his pile to a few meager silvers. He lost them all on a nine-high Rank of three Envys, when he tapped a little too hard. He had a surprised look on his face for a moment....
"I think 'Follow' is a good game, Mr. Tallowman. We both know da rules, eh, MacTavish?"
"Hae, laddie. Growed up wit' it, an I did. Lots o' quick changes, good strategy. Ye wanna lay the rules doon, Tally?"
Tallowman nodded slowly, looking nervously around the room. He quickly repeated the lay of the game, which came easy to him; he felt he had repeated it several times over the past few days. MacTavish dealt first; with only two players, there were more unused and hidden cards, leaving much of the game to Lady Luck. And as the next half day unfolded, it was evident that the fine young lass wasn't going to favor the Creag with much more than an occasional smile.
Time and time again, Garlat wore down the kilted one with a flourish of followers and a cast of Castles, Ranges and Files courtesy of the Lady. Betting little, Tavvy could do no more than chuckle at the astounding streak of providence wielded more effectively by the dark one than he could ever shoulder a weapon on the battlefield.
A bit of chance kept him alive, but destiny seemed to be camping on the front porch of the well-dressed orc this night. A simple ten-high Rank of Envy beat his lower suit; the lovely lady took his final few golds.
An eerie silence suddenly enveloped the three men; it was sudden in its occurrence and all-encompassing in its extent. Garlat and MacTavish were motionless, suspended in time; Tallowman stood quietly, looking around the room for what he had already seen four times. He knew what to expect.
To his left, the darkness seemed to congeal as if it was alive; indeed it was--a form appeared, swirling out of a gap between two rock columns; it solidified into that of a tall, gaunt, lightly bearded and strikingly handsome but fearsome man.
"I won't be needing you anymore, little man. I'll just take the last of these pitiful creatures and put him where he belongs."
Tallowman bowed slightly and took a few steps backward, acquiescing to the dark man, whose left arm began to dematerialize and transform into a dense, black cloud. He walked closer to MacTavish and held his smoky forearm over his head. "Now, I'll remove the last of the losers from our memory." The cloud moved and started to envelop the Creag's head, just as it had several times over the last few days.
"I don't think so, Walker!" came a voice from the other side of the table. A man emerged from the shadows, not hiding, but forming out of thin air. He was bald with a long beard, dressed in a robe and pointing a staff in the direction of Tavvy's head, which was slowly disappearing into the fog. A loud crackle issued and a bolt of lightning discharged, dissipating the fog.
"Dekk! Bastard! What gives you the right to..."
"You made it necessary, Walker! It's a matter of balance. God or not, you can't upset the balance of natural occurrence, can't violate the Ontological Oath. That's what you have been doing here--eliminating people from memory, from history, from time itself! There are certain things that no god..."
"I'm not just any god, you weak old man! I'm the most powerful of all gods, something of which you and the others will be keenly and painfully aware in the coming years." His arm withdrew, immediately solidifying again, but now beginning to glow. "I think maybe this time has been long in coming...with you out of the way, I'll be able to remove every other god, one at a time!"
The glow started to glow brighter, then change from one hue of gray to the next while his power built; the black fog formed once again from his elbow to his fingers; it was a darkness that defied description. It wasn't just the absence of light, but more correctly the absence of anything visible or otherwise sensible. The feel of evil, perhaps its smell and sound as well exuded from the arm; then came forth the unmistakable sound of screaming, pleading souls. This was truly a shroud of Barathus, of hell, and it was meant for Dekk.
The god of balance leveled the staff in Vornoth's direction; as to its effectiveness in stopping such an elemental blast, he couldn't be sure. Indeed, he may never know. The darkness grew to yards in diameter, shading the Walker from view; he raised his arm and thrust it toward Dekk; the solid cloud rushed toward the slightly frightened old man.
The mass of darkness suddenly made a quick turn toward Tallowman and streaked toward his head, where it wrapped around it and began swirling in a large globe, spinning faster, ever faster and turning brighter as it spun. The Walker and Dekk both twisted their heads to look, astonished at the sight.
The hood of Tallowman's fine cloak flipped from his head as the swirl gained in speed and brightness. Within seconds it glowed and flashed particles and elemental ions, and the swishing sound grew inexorably to a roar. The brilliance became nearly unbearable; both Dekk and the Walker squinted and turned slightly away. There was no question as to who was behind it.
"Damn! In the name of all the Planes of Existence! What are...Tanarus! You're in league with Dekk?!"
The light subsided slightly, quivering in cadence with the Sun God's voice, which seemed to reverberate throughout the ruins; not with sound, but intense sympathetic vibration of the very essence of life itself. "No, Vornoth. Dekk, my master and creator, and I haven't spoken for years. He is right, though. Eliminating people in such a manner has a much vaster effect on all that lives, more so than you realize. I am here to prevent you from doing the same to this one," he said, pointing to Tavvy.
"Oh, this is one of your little pets? A project of yours, or something? You don't seem to realize to whom you're talk..."
"Nor do you, evil one. You have great power, but I am the Sun and everything that lives under it. Here on Núrion, I have the power to help enforce the Ontological Oath you took eons ago. I won't initiate a fight, but when Dekk and I band together, we will finish it."
"Fine, fine. Have your little MacTavish puppet. I'll simply take..." he threw another bolt of emptiness to Garlat, who disappeared quite quickly, "...this one!"
Dekk started toward the orc, but much too late. "Damn you back to Barathus, Vornoth!" a blast of energy from his staff thrust the evil god back, but Vornoth simply smiled.
"Sounds like a good idea, right about now. I did violate the Oath, after all, and if you sensed it so swiftly, my dear Dekk, the other gods will do so as well. My business here is...?" His attention was caught by the pile of cards on the table. He pointed to them and they floated toward his outstretched hand. "Seven deadly...hmmm...sins...interesting idea. I may have a little book that has some extra space in it to write that idea down." He turned his attention again to Tanarus--"MacTavish, eh?"
"Yes, Tavish MacTavish. Why?"
With a smile, the Walker began to blend in with the darkness behind him. "Oh, just thought I'd remember the name..." He left the ruins the same way he arrived.
Dekk nodded toward Tanarus, the demi-god that he created so long ago, and melted into the shadows.
Tanarus waved his hand over the table and over Tavvy, awakening the scene and returning everything to normal time. MacTavish looked up and noticed the swirling head of an old nemesis. "Tanarus...damn - what the hell are you doing here? I was supposed to be playing a card game, but no one showed up!"
Tanarus then waved his hand over him again, jerking the Creag's head back; a look of astonishment came over his face. "So...this all happened? Here?"
"Yes, Darmon Stuart. I suggest you drop the MacTavish schtick now. Accept who you are for once."
Darmon looked sadly and thoughtfully to the floor. "I thought that's what I was doing. Maybe my destiny now is to roam the land and to do something as simple as play games."
"No, old man. Look, there's enough coin to feed a lot of Creags. Take it all. Go home and lead; your people will be needing you soon, more than you can know. Here..." he said, tossing a beautifully crafted sword with a clang on the table, "...take Dragonslayer with you. You'll find some interesting souls in its steel." Darmon picked him up and gazed into the reflections of all the cursed souls to whom the sword had given a place to rest. In the background was a huge dragon; in the foreground, five new souls smiled back.
Tanarus disappeared, as did Tallowman. Dragonslayer hummed slightly, having returned once again to the place of his awakening. A fine steed was waiting outside the ruins; Darmon saddled her up with untold riches and a lot of food. He strung the lightly humming sword to his back, listening to the stories he related.
Somewhere in Slaughbaetha, in the Highlands of the green hills of Creagland a sword hangs over a huge, flickering fireplace. In the shiny steel of the sword there is one hell of a card game going on.