An essay by Raxx Wimcombe, as provided by K. Tracy-Lee
Art by Leigh Legler
Walking amongst the crowds of the main street that ran perpendicular to the rows of outdoor merchants and the Gardens of King Hekkon, under whom I served in one of his battalions, I felt a presence that I had felt before and knew immediately–an avoidable Being of such high power, influence, and benevolence. His presence was like smoke so strong that it turned you around to find the source.
I should say that I was not merely walking in the city square. I was wandering, lost, and when I crossed paths with this Being, there was a beckoning, and I felt calm, which was a feeling that I had not felt in many years since leaving the service and since my life had been upended. I had to give this my full attention.
And so I did.
We had met before, a long time ago, in another city and in another district that the Great Map didn’t accurately capture, a place where the boundaries of what are known and cherished in life disappear, where there were battles and bloodshed and bargains made between the living and the dying. It was a brief and much-needed meeting, and although I stood far from him, amongst my fellow soldiers, who were anxious and ready for the tides of war to change to their favor, I watched him provide supplies for us–in exchange for what, I do not know, but I had a feeling that a gesture such as that did not come free. I survived the war, thanks indirectly to this Being, and I knew that without him I would not be alive today. I never had the chance to thank him personally.
I turned on my boots, the heels nearly falling apart, and I moved my rags-for-clothes out of the way to bow to him. He had an aura of elegance. He had already spun where he stood and tapped the silver end of his cane to the brim of his hat. We did not need to introduce ourselves–our greeting and familiarity was unspoken and understood–yet we did shake hands, out of politeness. His grip was warm, and hungry as I was, I tried to make mine as strong as I could.
I apologized for the dirt collected on my hands and under my fingernails. My farming was not going so well. The Season of Rain had not been kind to my new job after being in the military for so long. It seemed that a soldier could not be anything but that, and I was learning that the hard way.
“Please–” he replied and motioned to me to retract my apology. He understood my sentiment, which relieved me. I had a feeling that he would understand.
He offered drink and food–“Not out of pity,” he clarified, “but out of the goodness of my heart”–and said he was going to a card game and that I should come, if I wanted. His eyes shone like small embers.
Food and drink sounded good, especially if both were available to my own lack of success, and I was sure that they would be the best quality. “How could I say no to you or that?” I replied and followed closely behind him as we wove in and out of the many people, merchants, wounded veterans, musicians, and beggars flooding the streets.
Into a small room we went. It was so bright that everything within had strong details to the point that they were dreamlike. I noticed that this brightness had nothing to do with lights. There were no lights in the room, and yet everything was lucid.
There were silky curtains hanging across different parts of the room, and they resembled pieces of the sky and clouds cut out and stitched together. Several tables were set up in the middle where players held cards or waited for another round to begin. Some players drank from common cups–cups like those I used at home–and some drank from chalices that I knew were awarded to mercenaries from the Long War that the king and queen could not win without outside, albeit paid-for, help, a decision not taken lightly or favorably by the rest of the kingdom or all of the court’s commanders and soldiers. I did not care at the time. I just wanted to serve, survive, and return to my life and my lovely wife. We had plans on starting a family.
My associate had a hand in said decision, whispering, it was said, into the ear of King Hekkon. I was in a battalion that he provided aid to. Without his intervention, our battalion would have been lost, I would have died, and the kingdom would have fallen into the hands of enemy from over the Dark Hills. My associate had guided victory, and yet he disappeared before he could receive proper recognition from me or any one, for that matter. In fact, it is said that he disappeared from where he had been conjured.
“How about this table?” he asked and pulled out his chair and pointed his long, greyish fingers at the other chair.
“Just the two of us?” I asked and sat down.
“I think so.”
He started dealing cards. I unclipped my leather pouch jangling with the few coins that I had earned as payment during the better seasons. I untied the string and poured some into my hand. I paused, knowing that I could lose them were I not skillful in my card playing. I wanted to play. I loved playing cards, especially during the war, because it was a distraction and a way to make money, but being good at playing cards was not my concern. Losing all the money and then having nothing to return to, to build upon, was.
My associate seemed to notice this. He brushed my action away with his hands and adjusted the fine black jacket that he wore that could be found on the shoulders of any well-to-do gentlemen in the Seven Counties. “You keep your money. We’ll play for something else. Something … more vital and longer-lasting than money.”
The minute he said that I knew what he meant, for in my head, I saw visions of grandeur, of beautiful waterfalls that I hadn’t seen since my youth and marriage, the kind of waterfalls that look like a spectrum of colors tumbling from the source above and bouncing, not breaking, on the rocks like pebbles of multiple colors. My dear and beautiful Gwynthem, rest her soul, loved those waterfalls, and we had traveled many times to see them before the war and my conscription. Now, here they were again inside my head as real and tangible as they had been. I also saw long tables full of delicious food–exotic game, fruits and vegetables that only grow in certain seasons and in certain counties, and drinks that would make the imbiber never leave the comfort of hearth, home, and a lover’s warm body in bed.
Watching this vision unfold in my head, I had the feeling of youth and good health, as though eating and drinking and sitting near the waterfalls would never make someone grow old. I wasn’t old, but I wasn’t young anymore, though I looked older than I did in my twelve moons of life. I was stuck financially, professionally, and was lonely, having been a widower for some time. My injury form the Long War had crippled me and made me only able to work standing or sitting for a few moments before the pain was too much to bear. Farming, although enjoyable for the ethics, was not physically rewarding, nor, I was finding out, monetarily rewarding. I felt different in that vision. I knew what I would be playing for and what currency would be used to win or lose, and I accepted those terms and the bet that I made.
My associate started dealing, and as we played our first hand, he struck up a conversation, the typical kind that a refined Being such as him was wont to do. He started talking about politics and how the court really should lower the taxes on merchants and farmers, that to burden the lower ranks of this great society was gross and inept, even for a wise, but imperfect, king as Hekkon. He wondered if the king’s council distorted the truth during their debates about the kingdom and its citizens. He understood that the military never received all the glory and financial gains, even for all those soldiers who had pledged their lives to service, and that the artisanal class was well off, thanks to a state-mandated patronage system, which irritated those citizens who had sacrificed their lives and watched the artisanal class avoid any and all military action.
My associate believed that better living and a better society for all citizens was possible when they were treated the same by the wealthy and those in power. “And yet,” he said, “sometimes the balance has to be shifted by other means.” He looked at me and played his card. He had a good hand. He sipped from a small glass chilled with green drink. He got one for me and then apologized for aggrandizing his personal view of politics and admitted that the county had improved since the war and that things were much worse before that.
I knew that he was right, as bitter as it was for me to admit.
We played a few hands and then he discussed art, music, and sport, the latter being his favorite.
“Did you see the recent fight? It was the talk of the Seven Counties.” I asked him and worried about my new hand, though I did not want him to know, and yet I felt that he somehow knew that I was worried about my hand.
“It was rousing!” he replied and topped off our glasses. “I had never seen such bravery. When the yuglig seemed unwilling to die, Zarzky swept in with his sword and finished it.”
“All four heads,” I cheered. I look at my cards. My hand had not improved.
“Yes, all four heads in one swift cut of Zarzky’s mighty sword. Though, I would argue that it was his brute strength and not the sword.”
“Many would disagree with you,” I countered. “There are those who saw that were it not for the Tillian steel Zarzky could not have cut through all four heads.”
My associated nodded at me in a chivalrous manner. “Tillian steel is the best, and it’s pure Tillian when it glows bright blue, as it did in Zarzky’s hands,” he said and toasted me, knowing that a fresh supply of the metal, which he procured with his influence, helped us win several key skirmishes in the Long War. “We could at least agree that both were needed. Physical strength and strong steel from the Tillian Mines.”
“Yes,” I said and toasted him in return. I folded. I did not win with that hand, either.
Much time passed. We played two more rounds, and in the end, I lost two of the three games, and now I had to pay. It was, after all, a deal, and I am a man of my word.
My associate gathered the cards, placed them on the table, and folded his hands over his crossed leg. “Well, my friend, I must be going.”
“Yes,” I answered and waited more information from him. I owed him.
He leaned in. I could see his eyes and the smooth grey skin pulled tightly over his oval-shaped face and the three-pronged chin. His long silver-black hair covered his jacket’s collar. His face was as luminous as the rest of the room. “I want you to know,” he said, “that what I’m getting in return from you, from our bet and the games here, won’t be mishandled at all. You will be taken care of.”
I nodded in agreement. I was a man of my honor, and I knew that he was honest with what he said.
“You remember what you saw?” he asked. “The long table with food and the waterfalls?”
“Of course, yes.”
“It will all be there, and then some. Imagine more, imagine your heart’s content, filled with more food, not from here, but as though they are from elsewhere that you have not been to in this life … perhaps delicious food from the Gods and Goddesses, if you believe in that sort of thing any more. Imagine all those things because of our game and the bet you made, using the one thing that you had. You laid your life on the line again, and I cannot let that go unnoticed. Our game and your bet was truly not about money. All your desires will be fulfilled.” He leaned back. He was serious and sincere, not sarcastic or arrogant. He had a look on his face that he understood what happened between us over the years and, now, with this game. He closed his eyes, opened them, and stared at me.
“I’ll make sure that your wife is there, too. You’ll be reunited.”
I felt his words clothe and feed me in ways that neither real food nor clothes had. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.”
“I’ll be in touch. I’ll send someone for my payment,” he said and paused before continuing. “Excuse me. I did not mean to reduce all this.” He spread his long arms across the table and into the space of our area of the room. “Allow me to correct myself. I shall send someone for you.” He stood up, dusted off his jacket, grabbed his hat and cane, and walked out of the room.
A warm breeze swept inside briefly before dying down. The light inside the room remained bright. The players sitting at the other tables had not noticed my associate at all, it seemed; they kept playing and betting and winning and losing and cursing and cheering and drinking.
I stood up and made my way for the door. I was not sad, nor was I happy. I was relieved and content.
A soul is a curious thing to lose. I could hold on to mine until my associate called for it. I know that others have talked or written about the same thing, especially when these travelers find themselves on the edge of the Grand Woods where many spellbinders and individuals knowledgeable of magic live. I know that it is claimed that my associate was once a ruler there, that he grew tired of ruling and wanted out. It is said that he was kicked out for being too kind to anyone willing to enter the woods and not be afraid and to want something good rather than disruptive from the woods, as its long history had provided. It was said that he helped those in need achieve whatever it was that they wanted.
I could not help but feel that I had something good coming, that I even though I had lost something innate about me, I was gaining so much more in return.
Raxx Wimcombe served during the Long War in the Third Battalion of King Hekkon, was married to a strong woman from the Hollows, and has recently given his soul to a demonic presence that he knew all about and, still, could not avoid in order to play a hand of cards. If you heard his story, it’s because he’s happy where he is and won’t be coming back anytime soon.
K. Tracy-Lee lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“The Bet” is Copyright 2018 K. Tracy-Lee
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Leigh Legler