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.
King Franz was a merciful king and not a ruthless tyrant type who jailed anyone who looked at him funny. Sure, he employed a food taster to make sure no one was trying to poison him, but after his 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 this taster to digest food, the king played games. His favorites include 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 cast himself 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. Darrid 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. So for twenty years Darrid and the king competed in games of chance, or physical skill and intelligence.
The unstated rule was clear, Darrid must challenge Franz but he can not, must not ever outplay the king. Give him a run for his money but never take it. Darrid observed the law strictly. Even though he was able to outwit the king, he lost 10,000 times in a row because possessing his head is greater than possessing a win.
Darrid must always be available to play. The king could decide in the darkest hour a game of checkers might settle his insomnia. Darrid loathed chess because it took too long. He could lose in a swordfight in mere minutes, while a game of chess could steal an afternoon.
The Gamer detested spending time with the King and wished nothing more than to escape the castle. The queen, the knights, and all the castle’s residents knew if Darrid left, the King would turn against them in boredom. So, they spied Darrid like a hawk.
Darrid went from being a young man who could come and go freely to a prisoner. The Gamer was determined to escape. He employed a strategy like a Chessmaster. Escape required patience because it would need three variables to coincide.
First, the castle gates must be open, and they almost never were. Second, all four of the murderous gate guards must be distracted, and rumor is they don’t even blink. Third, a single horse must be in the courtyard, saddled and rested. The last was the most reliable of the three variables.
Twenty years passed before all three occurred together. Twenty years spent with a deranged King, who smelled like a man was never told he had an odor. That night, a lone horse, named Trusty, stood in the center of the courtyard saddled and unhitched. It’s owner, a guard, suffered a heart attack on patrol and fell off. The gate was down to let the injured guard back into the castle, and his fellow guards carried him off. All three conditions of his escape in play.
Darrid did not hesitate. He lept onto Trusty and bolted for the gate. With no one to stop him, he made it through unimpeded and safely to the woods before the archers could even prepare an arrow.
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, and 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 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. His piece he placed 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.
He watched from afar, but the guards in the tower were absent. More surprisingly the gate was open. Were they inviting Darrid back in only to a lay a trap? Because his mind was not right and his belly barren, he entered on horseback. Inside, a couple of clucking chickens greeted him. The castle was abandoned.
Darrid considered the possibilities and determined a warring party had attacked the castle and taken them, prisoners. However, the weapons were all present and properly stored. No battle had taken place. Perhaps they had fled to an updated fortress nearer to the sea.
For a month, Darrid had the castle to himself. The first couple of days were beautiful. He dined on all the bread and cheese he could eat and drank the king’s own wine. Soon though, the food spoiled, and while Darrid was a masterful gamer, he was not a competent butcher or cook. It was clear he would starve without help, so he made the strange decision to set out to find the king.
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 into the window. Sitting next to the fire was a little man with curly white hair, a pointy face and a small felt hat worn high on his head. He rocked in his chair widdling wood with a knife. Darrid knocked on the door, and the woodcarver invited him in.
He gave Darrid tea and cake.
“I must confess,” Darrid said soon after his arrival. “I was here before and drank all your wine and ate all your jam.”
“Oh yes,” the woodcarver said. “I knew I had a visitor, but I have replenished my wine and jam.”
“I must also confess, I burned all of your carvings of the villagers,” Darrid said. “I had just escaped the village, and their images displeased me so.”
“Well, you must not have burned all,” The woodcarver said kind and curious.
“No,” Darrid reached into a pocket and set down wood carving of own his image.
“Ah, yes,” the man said inspecting the piece. “This piece I call the gamer.”
“That’s me,” Darrid said. “I’m the gamer. I’ve spent my whole life losing to the king when I knew I could beat him.”
“King’s don’t like to lose,” the woodcarver said.
“When I returned to the castle they were gone, and now I’m bored,” explain Darrin.
The woodcarver chuckled and sipped his tea. “You’d like me to make some company for you?”
“Oh yes. That would be wonderful,” Darrid replied eagerly. “But no king. Please give me a challenge. I want to a chance to win but could you make me challenging opponents.
The man nods with a wry smile. “Master of games, I will end your boredom.”
“Ah, that pleases me greatly,” Darrid says. “You are a forgiving soul.”
“Please give me time,” The woodcarver says. “In one week the castle will be filled with life again.”
“Thank you, kind woodcarver,” Darrid says leaving the woodcarver to his work.
Darrid returned to the barren castle and closing the gate behind him. For the next six days, he feasted upon the remaining chickens, and for the next six nights, Darrid slept peacefully in his bed. On the seventh night, the woodcarver’s new players arrived.
Darrid slept in his room until being forcibly awoken by the sound of thunder. Followed by a steady barrage of additional noise. Darrid believed it was not thunder but the sound of new folks arriving at the castle.
Darrid quickly changed and secured his sword.
The courtyard was empty, and the thunder continued. He shuddered considering what it might be. Darrid clambered up to the tower and saw the source.
Lit by only the moon, Darrid saw a one-eyed beast walking towards the castle as big as a mountain. On the grounds outside, Lions roamed impatiently roaring. A snake wider than the moat encircled the entire fortress. Above him, menacing birds with fire for wings circled.
The woodcarver’s players where unhuman. The beast was now just outside the castle’s walls. It carried a staff made of an entire pine tree. It raced the snake to be the first to occupy the fortress.
The woodcarver created players with one objective – to defeat Darrid. Each overmatched him in all ways except brainpower. Darrid raised his sword with a smile because, despite the odds, he knew in this world he was the Master of Games.