The Gamer

Some nights when I put the kids to bed my eyes are too tired to read, but I still need to deliver a story.  Usually, these freestyle tales meander with no plot, but sometimes the kids like them and I’ll write them down for another day. 

The Gambe - Illustrated By Julian



King Franz was a merciful king and not a ruthless tyrant who jailed anyone for looking at him funny. Sure, he employed a new food taster every few months to make sure no one was trying to poison him, but after his latest food taster’s death by poison, no one argued with the king’s reasoning. And when the king strolled through the village, he was always greeted with the broadest smiles a face could muster even if he just raised the tax again. What more could a king ask?

When Franz wasn’t roaming amongst his merry populace or waiting for his taster to digest his next meal, the king played games. His favorites included dice, marbles, knucklebones, and chess. Franz felt the mental challenges of games prepared his brain matter for times of war.

Unfortunately, most of the villagers had the intelligence of a moat gator (his words) and bored the king. Franz had but a single opponent living in the castle who was cast as a worthy opponent. His name was Darrid and known to everyone as Darrid the Gamer.

King Franz identified the Gamer’s talent when Darrid was a boy of five who beat him in a game of Chinese Checkers. The king’s first impulse was to exile the young boy to the dark wood. His second impulse was to feed him to the pigs. Franz, however, settled on his third impulse, hiring Darrid as a professional opponent. For twenty years Darrid and the king competed in challenging games of chance, physical skill and intelligence.

The unstated rule was clear – Darrid must challenge Franz but he could not, must not ever truly outplay the king. Give him a good game but never take the win from him. Darrid observed the law strictly. Even though his skills often exceeded the king’s, he intentionally lost 10,000 times in a row because possessing his head was greater than possessing a single win.

Darrid was required to always be available to play upon the king’s whim. The king could awaken him in the darkest hour if a game of checkers might settle his insomnia. Darrid especially loathed chess because it took too long – he could lose a quick swordfight in mere minutes, while a game of chess could steal an entire afternoon.

The Gamer detested spending time with the King and wished for nothing more than to escape the castle. However, the queen, the knights, and all the other residents kept a close watch to ensure Darrid did not flee. They knew if he left, the King would turn his boredom on them instead. So they spied on Darrid constantly like hawks.

Over the years Darrid went from being a young man who could come and go freely to an imprisoned game companion. Though desperate to escape, Darrid was patient and employed strategy like a chessmaster, knowing freedom would require three unlikely variables to coincide.

First, the castle gates must be open, and they were almost always sealed shut. Second, all four of the murderous gate guards must be distracted at the same moment, and rumor was they didn’t even blink. Third, there must be a single horse saddled and rested in the courtyard for his escape. The last was the most reliable variable of the three.

Twenty years passed before all three variables aligned perfectly. That fateful night, a lone horse named Trusty stood waiting in the center of the courtyard, saddled and ready to go. Trusty’s owner, a guard, had suffered a heart attack on patrol and tumbled off his mount. The gate was raised temporarily to let the ailing guard back into the castle, leaving the other guards distracted carrying off their comrade.

Seeing all three conditions for escape finally in place, Darrid didn’t hesitate. He leaped onto Trusty and galloped full speed for the open gate. With no one to stop him, he made it through and into the safety of the woods before the archers could even notch an arrow. As Darrid fled, his heart pounded, ears straining for any sounds of alarm from the castle. But the only sound was the pounding hooves carrying him to freedom.

For two days and two nights, Darrid, sprinted away from the castle, stopping only briefly for food and rest. And because the King liked to keep the geography of the area a secret from the village, Darrid had no understanding of the realm. Day three took him deeper into the woods where he came upon a lovely stone cabin, surrounded by wildflowers and sweet aromas.

Confident he was able to rest, Darrid knocked on the door, but no one was home. He opened the unlocked door and entered. Inside was the most charming home he could imagine. Clearly, the homeowner was a woodcarver as there was beautifully carved furniture and large statues of animals and knights carved from wood.

The hearth was cool to the touch, and Darrid surmised the woodcarver was likely on an expedition. Darrid started a fire, laid down on the man’s bed and fell asleep. When he awoke, it was evening. He searched the man’s cabinets for a bite to eat. He found some jam and some wafers, as well as a jug of wine.

At the kitchen table, Darrid discovered the most curious wood carvings. Sat upon a handmade chessboard were highly detailed chess pieces. The board had triple the squares as a regular board, however, in place of pawns, bishops, and kings, the characters were modeled after actual people. Not just any people. The set was the residents of the kingdom he had escaped.

There was a piece for King Franz, the Queen, a set of knights, and in a box everyone else. The collection embodied his village in its entirety, including a piece that resembled himself. The woodcarver’s accuracy was astounding. He carved Darrid’s beard length and hairstyle perfectly.

Darrid finished off the jug of wine and was feeling topsy-turvy. The piece on the chessboard resembling the king was staring him down and he did not like so he tossed it into the fire. The king’s guards reminded him of how much they could be jerks and he threw them in too. Eventually, he tossed everyone from the entire kingdom into the fire; that is all but his own. He placed his piece in his saddlebag to keep.

At sunup the following morning Darrid left the cottage and began his journey anew. By day’s end, he reached the sea; a dead end. He zig-zagged for days seeking another soul for advice since his horse would not reply to his questions but found only woods and a narrow shoreline.

Darrid tried to make a map, but almost none of the journey made much sense. There were no people, and after munching on some poison berries, Darrid was utterly disoriented and accidentally blundered upon the same old castle he lived.

Watching from afar, Darrid saw no guards atop the ramparts. Even more surprisingly, the gate hung open. Were they inviting him back inside to lay a trap? With his mind foggy and belly empty, Darrid decided to cautiously enter on horseback. In the courtyard, a couple of clucking chickens looked up curiously to greet him. The castle appeared to be completely abandoned.

After searching thoroughly, Darrid determined some external threat must have attacked and taken the inhabitants prisoner. However, all the weapons and valuables remained neatly stored and untouched. Clearly no battle had taken place here. Perhaps the king had simply fled to a newer fortress closer to the sea for reasons unknown.

For almost a month, Darrid had the run of the empty castle all to himself. The first couple of days were peaceful bliss. He dined on all the stored bread and cheese he could eat and drank the king’s own aged wine. But soon the food spoiled in the untended larder, and while Darrid excelled at games, he was hapless as a cook. Facing starvation, Darrid made the odd decision to leave the castle and search for the former residents who had once been his captors.

He went back into the woods and after a third day, stumbled upon the same cottage he had visited before, although, the setting seemed different as if the house moved. This time smoke curled out of the chimney. The woodcarver was home.

Darrid peered inside the window. Sitting comfortably next to the warm hearth was a little man with white curly hair, pointy features and small felt cap worn jauntily atop his head. The woodcarver hummed to himself while whittling a small block of wood with a pocketknife. Darrid knocked politely on the door, and the woodcarver beckoned him inside.

He offered Darrid some tea and a sweet cake. As they ate, Darrid confessed, “I must admit, I was here once before and drank all your wine and ate all your jam.”

“Oh yes,” the woodcarver said amiably, “I knew I’d had a visitor. But do not worry, I have already replenished my stocks of wine and jam.”

“I also must confess, in a fit I burned all of your exquisite carvings of the villagers,” Darrid admitted guiltily. “Having just escaped the village, I found their lifelike images vexing.”

“Well, you must not have burned them all,” the woodcarver replied in a thoughtful tone, glancing at the small figure of Darrid still sitting on his table. “For here is one piece I call ‘The Gamer’ who yet remains.”

“That carving is meant to be me,” Darrid explained. “For I am the gamer. I’ve spent a lifetime losing games on purpose to appease the king, even though I could have bested him.”

“Ah, kings do dislike losing face,” the woodcarver nodded sagely. “But perhaps your circumstances have now changed?”

“Indeed, for when I returned to the castle, it was deserted.” Darrid went on to describe his plight to the sympathetic woodcarver. “So now I am bored alone in the empty castle,” he concluded. “Might you consider creating some new subjects to populate the place and challenge my skills?”

The woodcarver smiled faintly and sipped his tea before answering slowly. “Loneliness is a terrible burden. I shall help end your boredom, Master Gamer.”

“You are most kind!” Darrid replied joyfully, not noticing the subtle gleam in the carved man’s eyes.

“Please give me time, and in one week your castle will be lively again.” the woodcarver assured him.

Thanking the woodcarver for his efforts, Darrid departed in good spirits to await the new arrivals at the castle. For the next six days, he contentedly dined on the remaining livestock and slept peacefully each night. But on the seventh night, Darrid was jolted awake by the bone-rattling sound of thunder. More earth-shaking rumbles followed in rapid succession. Darrid quickly dressed and armed himself, realizing this was no ordinary storm.

Peering out into the courtyard from the tower, Darrid was met by an astonishing sight in the moonlight. A gigantic one-eyed beast as large as a mountain was approaching the castle walls. On the grounds below, a pride of lions roamed restlessly, their roars mixing with the ongoing thunder. Coiled around the castle was a monstrous serpent whose body was wider than the moat itself. And circling ominously overhead were sinister birds with smoky wings of fire instead of feathers.

The woodcarver had not created peaceful subjects at all. These were players designed with one goal – to defeat Darrid. Though hideous in form, each possessed a cunning intellect and skills that overmatched Darrid in every way except his wits. Weapon raised hesitantly, Darrid stared in awe at his new opponents, feeling equal parts fear and excitement. For despite the long odds, he knew in this strange world he remained the Master of Games. And he was eager to play.

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