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The Chronicles Of Sekar
Chapter Two – The Companions and the Keep
“I couldn't help overhearing your conversation – how would you like a small assignment?” Antim and Sekar looked at the guard captain and then at each other. “I'm ready if you are” said Antim, glancing nervously at his big companion despite his bold words; the barbarian grinned at the smaller man and nodded to the captain, who went on: “Right then. My name is Rabat and I am authorised to offer you a commission; for reasons which will become clearer, it is a task I think you would be better suited to than a squad of my guardsmen. I'd better take you to chamberlain El Amah, who can brief you properly.” Rabat led them to a large civic building overlooking the town square. Upstairs, a lavish room of silks, cushions and large plants was the setting for the chamberlain's reception area. A middle-aged man displaying an impressive collection of rings and adorned in fine clothing, slightly turning to fat, he reminded Antim of a great many of the traders he was used to dealing with in his former occupation as a merchant's scribe. Except those traders didn't have the power to have me executed on a whim, he admitted inwardly.
The chamberlain looked up from some papers he was going over. “Ah, Rabat. These must be the prospects you mentioned.” He shuffled the papers into a neat pile and laid them to one side. Rabat made a gesture with his hand to them and Antim bowed deeply to the chamberlain, nudging Sekar to do the same. “We have a little problem. If you can help us with this you will be well-rewarded, of course. One of the Caliph's tax-collectors has gone missing in the Borra hills province to the north of here. There are of course bandits in that area but we have an understanding with them and have reason to believe they are not involved. One of them has in fact helped us with our enquiries extensively.” He paused and looked directly at them. “We could, of course, send a few squads of troopers into the hills, rough up some peasants and so on but something about this does not feel right. The tax-collector is a cousin of mine and is beyond reproach, nor do we believe anyone could have casually disposed of him and his escort without someone knowing about it and disclosing events to us for the reward offered. It has been a week now since they vanished; frankly, a subtle approach is required.” He fiddled with one ring. “Should people feel our officials are...how would you say...potential targets for mischief...then rule of law would be impractical without undue difficulties. Find them, find out what has happened, ensure it does not happen again or bring me information that will let me prevent future occurrences. Rabat will go with you, bearing warrants to act with impunity so feel free to use whatever methods gain answers. I would ask that you be as discreet as possible but, to be honest, I don't really care as long as you get results.” He waved a hand vaguely and Rabat ushered them out.
In the corridor, Antim spoke up “But why could yourself and a few guards not deal with this – I mean, I understand its a delicate matter, but...” Rabat looked at him. “My guards are paid low wages for the simple skills they show of being able to do very little except stand and watch, maybe occasionally deal with a few cut-purses. This will, we feel, require the sort of minds that are subtle in the way I saw when you both played the royal game, chess. Besides, I will be with you and between Sekar and myself, I imagine you will be quite safe my friend. I will meet you both in an hour, gather what you need from your lodgings and I will see you at the North Gate.”
Antim raced back to the merchant's quarters he had been living at and gathered up his small bedroll and clothing into his knapsack, seizing also his little chessboard and some writing paper and pen and ink. He left a few trinkets – today saw the start of his new life and they were things he would not need. He explained briefly to the surprised merchant, who had been almost family to him these past three years, that he was going to seek his fortune. The merchant looked him in the face and decided not to quiz him but assured Antim that there would always be a place for him there, should he tire of his wanderlust. Back in the market, he gave what savings he had to a weapons' trader in exchange for a shortsword and belt to hold it. He may not be proficient with it now but was sure it would be better to have one than not. He made his way to the North Gate, where finding himself there ahead of the other two, spent the time waiting by practising swinging his new weapon. “Careful with that, little brother,” came Sekar's voice, “We don't want to scare the citizens into calling the guards.” He winked at him playfully. Antim blushed, “I was hoping I won't need it, but...” He broke off, realising Sekar was looking at him approvingly.
Rabat joined them shortly after and handed them each a small pack. “Rations” he explained simply. They set out for the hills, walking for a few hours till light was fading. Al-Rokh and the surrounding land was always dry and pleasant in the evenings this time of year, so they laid out their bedrolls and camped under the stars for the night, breaking out some of the rations Rabat had provided. “Tell me,” Sekar asked their guide, “Do you play chess yourself?” Rabat laughed, “Doesn't everyone?” Antim got out his board and it turned out Rabat was a fairly capable player, showing the chamberlain had picked the guard captain for his agile mind and more than just his way with a sword and capacity for bullying traders. As they took turns playing by the moonlight, they discussed their strategies. “When we reach the first village, I will show my documents of authority but you two watch their reactions and try to see if anyone looks...of interest. These villagers may lead generally simple lives but I expect they will have a fair bit to hide from officialdom; we will have to see beyond their general paranoia about taxes and appeal to them that I am more interested in looking for the guards that were with him than the tax-collector himself – a soldier looking after his own. Maybe even suggest that I have hired the two of you independently. They will certainly see that you are not watchmen or guards yourself.” Antim and Sekar nodded; Rabat made a lot of sense. They agreed to get some rest and Antim lay looking at the stars for a while before succumbing to sleep, exhausted.
They rose with the sun and walked the last couple of hours to the first village on the tax-collector's route. This village had a headsman who met with them and produced receipts the collector had given for initial taxes collected and showed where estimates had been commissioned to collect more precise remaining taxes for the balance due on his return, which had not happened yet. The headsman was slightly obsequious but not suspicious and Rabat accepted his version. Nothing seemed untoward to any of them in the remainder of the village – whatever anxieties they might have had about taxation were obviously dealt with. As Rabat commented, “They usually calm down once the taxes are levied, its when they are trying to avoid them in advance they get agitated and resist.” Nobody seemed particularly guilty or furtive so they moved on.
The next village was to be another hour along the little road so they followed it, keeping an eye out for bandit activities such as corpses in ditches, despite the chamberlain's earlier assurances that such was unlikely. Sekar did notice one faint dirt track leading off the main road but they decided for now to carry on to the second village. It was pleasant enough to walk through, this Borra hills area, and Antim was feeling a new lease of life outside the city. The next village was pretty much the same to look at but this headsman clearly flinched when tax-collector was mentioned. He relaxed visibly when Rabat explained they were looking for the guardsmen and that the three of them were not there now to audit them, just looking for their friends. With the headsman's blessing they asked about the village but nobody had seen any strangers matching the description given. They conferred and each felt there was truth at both villages and that the answer lay back on the road between the two villages, possibly up that dirt path they had seen. They headed back.
At the dirt path, they could see that it led off towards a couple of hills and surmised that it was indeed possible that the tax-collector had had some inkling that there may be one or more properties that way not under the auspices of either of the first two villages and potentially worthy of investigation. They followed it along and saw some sort of tower appear in a slight valley ahead, which had not been visible from the main road. “Be on your guard” said Sekar and Rabat nodded. It was just too much a coincidence if there was a mysterious road with previously unknown habitation for it not to be somehow connected to their missing tax-collector. Antim personally wished they could go back to one of the villages and ask about it but he shook off such forebodings.
As they got closer they saw that it was indeed a squat tower, or keep of some sort, with a high-walled area in front of it, at the end of the dirt path. There were no signs of life and they paused at a door in the walled area. Rabat opened it and they found themselves in a courtyard. Just ahead of them was a chequered floor with a door at the other side. They were on a strip of small pebbles and the floor ahead seemed to be large slabs of stone, three feet across, some of which had motifs on them of chess-pieces; the stones were shaded alternately and it was clear it was a giant chessboard in design. Rabat started forward; Sekar lunged after him, saying “Wait, something...” but it was too late. The guard captain had stepped onto the giant “chessboard” and the paving-slabs had hinged open underneath him and he was falling. It was too late for the others to grab him and too late for him to turn back; he howled and tried to grab the square in front of him, which had a knight emblazoned on it but it too opened and he was gone, the slabs slamming back into place. Antim and Sekar looked at each other in horror. For a minute they just looked at the floor in front, unable to speak and then, slightly in shock, Antim said “It looks like we are in the right place, then...”
What to do? Clearly, the knight on the second rank did not support weight or Rabat would have been saved when he grabbed at it. Sekar cautiously walked along the pebbles on the edge of the board, testing each square with one foot. Each dipped under his weight but when he got to the one on the far left with the other knight he paused. It seemed firm. He beckoned and Antim wandered over; Sekar said “Trust me” and picked him up easily. Still holding onto his friend, he put him gently on to the corner square. There was an audible click as his weight was lowered onto it but the square held. “Next time,” said Antim weakly, “I lower you onto the possible trapdoor.” Sekar laughed and reasoned “At least now we know there should be a way through. Now, what do we see? A bizarre chess position, roughly equal material with most of it attacked. But it's nonsense!” Antim went thoughtful at this, then realised suddenly “You're right! It is all attacked!” Sekar raised an eyebrow quizzically. “The pieces are each attacked by their own side...they form a pathway.” They traced the path of the knight to the bishop to the rook and looked at each other excitedly. “Only one way to find out...” said Antim and leapt to the bishop “attacked” by the knight. He landed, bracing himself, half-expecting to keep falling but was relieved to have solid ground. Again the click had come but this time he noticed it was not from directly under the square landed on, but from farther towards the centre of the board. “I think each pressure triggers the next square to be made safe. That's why the other knight wasn't stable before.” Sekar nodded back at him, relieved that his friend was still with him, but curious now as to who would devise such an insane method of security. He could only imagine they had some way inside the keep of disabling it, to allow supplies to be brought in, as there was no other entrance. Funny, he thought, it does look rather like a huge rook.
Antim sprang forwards to the right, landing on the rook then back towards Sekar for the king, listening for the clicks all the while, some part of his mind distrusting his life to these mechanisms but still joyously comparing it to the ennui of cataloguing spices back at his old job. He stepped cautiously onto the knight that had been so treacherously unstable before but it held. More confident now, he sprang to the queen, an L shape away and then forwards to the bishop. There was only a step diagonally to the last pawn but here he paused. “The pawn isn't attacking anything” he called to Sekar. “Then promote” came his reply and Antim tested the square in front of him, tantalisingly close to the end. It seemed solid so he put his weight on it and then was over to the other side, panting with his exertions but safe. Sekar joined him in careful steps and leaps and they looked at the board together. Sekar wandered over to the black king in the corner and nudged it with his foot. “The black pieces must comprise the way back. I wonder how many poor souls have been trapped like Rabat, ignorant either to chess or the solution itself?” Antim nodded gravely, “Any one of us would probably have fallen had we been in front of him. Although you did realise something was amiss and tried to warn him – how was that?” Sekar shrugged; he could no more explain his instincts for danger than understand how to fly.
Both recovered now, there seemed nothing for it but to try the door to the keep, which opened easily, revealing an untidy and dusty hallway with some rather old furniture and stairs up and down. Thinking of the missing Rabat, they agreed to explore downwards first, lifting a couple of old but serviceable oil lamps from near the door. The stairs wound down to a pitch-dark room which at first seemed full of statues. Stepping in further, though, their lamplight revealed that the figures were frozen somehow, living but not breathing. Antim reached out in horror to one and the arm moved slightly at his touch – just a fraction but enough to indicate the people had been posed here. With a start he saw Rabat; something on his features looked haunted but the eyes were empty and lifeless. Sekar and Antim wandered unbelieving round the large room and counted about twenty people: a few villagers, the tax-collector and his two guards, some workmen, poachers, a couple of people who might have been robbers (garbed in dark clothes anyway) and most bizarrely of all three well-dressed women, one elder and two younger, but with the thickest layer of dust on them. How long these unfortunates had been here, somehow magically surviving without food nor with the ravages of time and decay affecting them....Antim shuddered to think. He had brought the writing materials with him on this expedition hoping for some interesting tale to document but this was just evil beyond his experiences. He glanced at his companion and saw that his face was set in a grim mask. Someone was responsible for this and Antim knew at that moment that whoever it was would pay for the lives they had wrecked.
Sekar spoke and his voice was like stone: “There is foul magic at work here and no doubt the source is upstairs. Rabat's capture will have announced our arrival at the outer courtyard but in the dust here I see only one set of footprints. I suspect no one else has made it through the trap so it is just possible we will have an element of surprise. Let us tread lightly; I will go up slightly ahead but hold back a little way behind me in case further traps exist.” Antim nodded, his heart pounding in his chest. They reached the ground-level hall and listened but heard nothing so extinguished their lamps and left them there, venturing on up the spiral stone stairs. There was light from a doorway at the top, the door ajar. Sekar waved for Antim to wait and proceeded lightly up to just below the doorway. He could see that the room just inside was dimly lit and contained some more of the old dusty furniture but little else that he could make out. He slipped noiselessly into the room but saw too late a flash of movement to his right. A cloud of some powder burst into his face and he reeled. He recognised the scent of opiates but there was something else there that caused the powder to seize hold of him and force its way inside his nose and mouth.
A figure stepped out of the gloom, an old man in robes who leered at him. He stuck his head out the door briefly to make sure no one else was coming up the stairs; Antim flattened back in the shadows, glad Sekar had made him go so far behind. “Don't try to fight it, its impossible to resist.” Sekar tried nonetheless but indeed could do nothing to stop his limbs feeling leaden and his body allowed itself to be led over to a table and chairs, where a chessboard waited. The old man cackled, “Its so long since I have had real company – all my friends downstairs are so wooden, so set in their ways. All this time playing chess with myself, hoping my little trap downstairs would let just one opponent through, one who could finally give me what I craved: true companionship. I must admit you are not quite what I expected but still, you will do. Now you will stay here and play me till...well, till you bore me. Rest assured, though, my hunger for your mind should keep you from joining those down below for a while yet...” He set the board up, taking white for himself. “Now the drug should start to allow you limited movement but also dull your willpower – not so much that you cannot think of chess moves but enough to prevent silly thoughts of escape or harming me.” Sekar realised the truth of this as he could not will himself to jump at the old man and overpower him; what worried him more was he could feel the desire to do so ebbing away. He reached for a small spark of hatred inside himself and carefully nursed it.
The old man played his king's pawn out two squares and looked expectantly at Sekar. “You can and will do this, young man. Focus. Focus!” he hissed. Sekar's sword arm jerked up, surprising him. He found that he had some control over the fingers but had to think abstractly, as if controlling a puppet behind his back. His vision swam as the drug coursed through his system. He felt himself taken by it in waves and then back to semi-coherence again. As Sekar battled to move his hand closer to the board, the old man babbled. It was a garbled litany, that of someone who had not had real conversation with another person for a long time, talking in the third person at points, but Sekar got shards of it filtering through his haze – that he had known the keep was his destiny the moment he saw it and had to possess it and that my magics fetch me what I need. Gradually, the barbarian's fingers came more over to his control; like the old man had said he could not rebel but he could at least play this damned game – he knew he had hope if he just bought time but the nature of that hope eluded him like trying to catch water through fingertips. His thoughts strengthened as the time passed and he made some vaguely remembered moves which seemed to satisfy the old wizard.
The old man extended a hand, indicating the pieces. “You know the best bit, my muscled friend? The ones downstairs who thought to take all this from me...their souls are now trapped within these pieces!” He broke off into more of his cackling. Sekar realised that the slight glow from the pieces that he had accepted as being part of the drug was really there; they pulsed with some eldritch force. He fed his ever-increasing willpower into preserving that scrap of hatred inside him. He dragged his eyes to the board and felt himself begin to sink within it. Patterns erupted and he let it become part of himself, responding more naturally to the wizard's moves. The old man also seemed rapt in the game and their play developed, till both of them had all their pieces out, with strong central pawn tension and tactics which at times made sense to them and at times didn't, so complicated was it becoming.
Meanwhile, Antim had crept up the remaining stairs and edged in the doorway unseen. There was no way he was going to burst in, for fear of what other magics the old man might have at his disposal, so he bided his time, creeping gradually in the shadows of the room till he was behind him, facing his friend. Sekar was regaining his faculties a fraction at a time and became aware of the slight movement in the shadows. The hope he had been vaguely aware of suddenly coalesced in his mind and he remembered what he had been trying to catch hold of – Antim was here! Rolling his head from side to side as if more in thrall of the drug than he was, Sekar attempted to disguise his occasional flick of the eyes as he sought to link up with his friend. The old man was oblivious, caught up in this game he could at last play after so many years of solitude. Antim edged slightly out of the shadow, his shortsword raised. Sekar saw this at the edge of his vision and his mind raced. A distraction would be the key here, but what? Suddenly he saw what he could do and brought his queen crashing down to take a pawn by the wizard's king, sacrificing her. The old man took his head in both hands as he tried to calculate variations. Antim saw this absorption and stealthily stepped in closer, fearing at any point that the wizard would look up but he cleared the distance and poised, his sword raised. The moment of truth came and he realised he could not stab the man in the back, no matter how evil. He had never killed anyone before, let alone murder them. Antim sighed in despair and the wizard whirled, hearing the sound, only to impale himself in fright on Antim's sword. He died in seconds, his magic no use to him now; the last thing he saw was Antim's shocked face as the old man's life slipped away.
Antim dropped the bloody sword and raced to Sekar's side. Sekar, woozy from the drug, pointed to the chess-pieces – they were glowing still but the glow was starting to fade. Antim helped him up, reckoning fresh air was probably the best thing for him and they started down the stairs. They heard the sound of voices down below; by the time Antim got Sekar down to the ground floor Rabat had staggered up from the basement to join them. They opened the door and sat Sekar down with his back to the wall, the breeze in his face reviving him a little. Rabat and Antim went back inside and started looking round the hallway – a minute's searching revealed, as earlier they had guessed, that there was indeed a mechanism to shut down the trapdoors of the chessboard outside, concealed in a cupboard near the door. They headed downstairs again where the other revived victims were either staggering about or sitting in shock. They helped them all up to the courtyard where introductions were made and explanations given. Some of them had been there for years, most notably the three women, who it turned out actually owned the keep. The husband of the elder lady had built it some years ago as he had been fond of chess himself but the courtyard had been added on later by the wizard with the aid of the workmen also imprisoned.
For all of them, thankfully, no time had felt to have passed but a few did complain of slight headaches. Rabat took charge, of course, but saw no value in delaying the return to their families for most of them. The tax-collector and the guards, however, he was not letting out of his sight till they were back in front of the chamberlain. The three women requested that they travel back with them as they had property in Al-Rokh and could not bear the thought of what had been happening in their keep. All in all, there were eleven of them including Antim and Sekar who travelled the road back to Al-Rokh together; to Antim no procession could have been more triumphant – his first mission had ended in liberty for many and the stain of the old wizard's death did not hang too heavily upon him. Sekar recovered from most of the effect of the opiates on the way.
Back in Al-Rokh, the chamberlain was delighted with their work and was true to his word – he awarded each of them a small bag of golden coins for the thoroughness of their accomplishment – they had recovered the targets, eliminated the transgressor and demonstrated judgement and skill. As they relaxed in a tavern, a job well done and exuberant, Antim paused from writing some notes about their adventure and turned to his companion.
“Tell me, Sekar: where did you learn to play chess?” - his friend raised a tankard to him and began his tale.
Crom! Great story!
Crom! Indeed. Thanks, crazy.
I like it.