The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part two)
He spun the wheel, and the number was ten.
“Your move then. Take ten of my pieces, and place one of yours on the tenth square.”
Rapid was the exchange of tests, up to perhaps the dozenth spin of the wheel. The board cleared, and I, ignorant as to any means of victory, rather willful as to fidelity, sparks of which I planned to snuff—Stol could have his game, I had only time—advanced my men every which way, taking such numbers of his as the wheel indicated.
But here were wide gaps on the board, and if I were to win seven steps, I might gain one captive…while if Stol won eight, he might take my lone patrol and move more dangerously towards some cluster of four or six…
I saw my way. The fewer men left, the more strategic every move.
“But there are players, you know, players who are at the game for days…the boards may sit while a man goes about his business, and when next he visits his opponent, he has thought of the best answer. But then, his opponent has thought, too. Players, I was going to say, because there are four hundred pieces altogether…who have in their heads great charts, great diagrams. Each possible move of each possible piece by each possible turn of the wheel. I am far from being so good.”
Stol, of course, beat me several times over, and allowed me at last to nap, when I’d grown too sleepy to attend.
We’d conversed, playing, Stol coming to nurture pride of his own in his protégé’s successes. Pride it was, I thought…but very secret about this…had won me his regard. I too was a maker of mental charts, young in the eyes of others, but old in the years I’d spent at it, those pleasant games of the fortune-teller.
I did know how to flatter and please. I had nothing other, of which to barter; I might easily be hated as a curse, driven in nakedness to the wild lands.
You see, that commonplace of condemning the flatterer is a luxury. Even Lady Nyma, of such high integrity, was courted, and did not need to court.
I woke to shutters banging open, fresh cold air filling the hall.
Stol said to me, “Eat your breakfast and come down to the water trough.”
This instruction, my head busy with the War-Maker’s game, I followed half-dreaming…the puzzle of whether it mattered much to plan, until the field had cleared, or were it true, so complicated as the numbers destined upon each piece be, that like the spheres of the stars, these numbers are written, and the wisdom to read them—to read them all—a matter attainable in deep study. All the slaughter of the early rounds could not be waste, then.
It meant much to me. I came heedlessly near the trough, moving glass soldiers through imaginary cycles…
And got a great surprise. I had passed Stol, not seeing him under the dining porch; he strode up behind me, and seizing my collar, dunked my head.
“Make yourself alert! There is almost nothing about fighting I can teach you in two days. Now tell me why we played the game.”
I mopped at my face, to take a moment’s time.
But why ought I care if my answer were the right one, or the wrong one? I gave what had been on my mind. “Strategy.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s something.”
The knife was weighty iron, but blunted. I was given a shield of wood—both together, too heavy.
“Could I not fight with only a shield, though?”
“Can you kill a man with a blow?”
This gave me thoughts of divine justice. But I hadn’t the strength of a rearing horse. “Suppose that I had knocked the knife from his hand?”
“Is this the way I teach you? Take those up!”
I took them up, my labor to stand perhaps overacted. I faced him, and he at once touched the side of my neck with the blunt edge of his own knife.
I said: “I hadn’t thought of that. I’d supposed it was the heart.”
“You may suppose any foolish thing you prefer. But you had better quicken your intellect. I will do that again…I want you to tell me anything you see that may be of use to you.”
He swung the blade, while I stood quite feckless for wishing, by the gods, to have my intellect quickened.
This time, as slowly, slowly, for my sake, Stol lifted his elbow, I moved my blade, and countered the blow…just there, at the elbow. My intuition suggested it, that the muscles moving the arm be severed.
“And why do you know what you know?”
“Because you were slow for me.”
At last, a smile.
Aching limbs, after our brief lunch…though Pytta, I believe, had ordered the best of her kitchen (and more than any delicacy, it bolstered me knowing her silence was not disdain)…taught me to make bolder choices.
Stol’s lesson for me, above all lessons, was this: a lunge with the knife was a movement that must complete itself. The weight would carry, the brain adjust an instant behind, but one or more instants were yet needed…
If to plan, not flinch.
Pyrandtha’s great stature in the order was due to her quickness, that greater thing than might.
“So then…I want to see you give me a sober look…if Mumas supposes you small and weak… If you struggle, as you did now, lifting your shield, he may give you the gift at the very outset, before you tire yourself.”
He was telling me to exaggerate, play on my enemy’s folly. And did I guess, so, that honor has its limits, I was not to twitch a lip. I took my sober eyes from his face, and when he raised his weapon, I let the shield slide to earth.
Caught by the impulse of his senses, for just that second, my seasoned tutor had left his belly clear for the touch of my knife…but then it shook a bit, with laughter.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)