To the shadowy players, the fields and forests of Tarag are a convenient board on which to play an occasional game. More than once, though, it has become a stage where crucial battles have been waged.
"Yes, I did promise that you might have the black pieces this time," the First Player concedes. "But since I won last time, you must still take the first move."
"To cure all the ills of man or beast. Only one tiny bottle of this magical elixir and health and happiness shall be yours..."
Jerys watched eagerly, his mouth slightly open over protruding teeth. The peddler was doing a brisk business in Moggus Village. He bartered the little bottles for whatever the villagers had to offer. A few hoarded coppers were brought out of dusty hiding places, but mostly he accepted foodstuffs or handicrafts that could be sold in the markets of other, larger towns.
"How about you, lad?" The peddler's eyes fixed on Jerys. "A bit of elixir to make you grow strong and healthy?"
"I've ... I've no money." Jerys wiped his nose with a tattered sleeve. "Nothing to trade."
"Too bad, son." He turned away. "Ah, my lady. Surely you need not my poor elixir to enhance your beauty!"
The peasant woman simpered at his words. Jerys flushed and stumbled away from the peddler's wagon, not noticed by the other villagers. Not even the plump young dragon that pulled the cart could hold his attention. His thoughts were on the magical elixir. To be strong! A nose that didn't run, and eyes that no longer watered when the grass grew tall. The village wizard was too busy with important things to help Jerys the Widow's Son. If only he could ... If only he had...
His head full of confused wishes, Jerys wandered aimlessly until he found himself standing once more by the peddler's wagon. No one was looking. The peddler was talking to Eldred, the young village wizard. Brushing lank blond hair out of his eyes, Jerys moved closer to the wagon. With a furtive glance around he reached under the gaily painted canvas cover, groped around until his fingers closed on a lone bottle. Using the bulk of the wagon for cover he hurried away, not stopping until he was in the deep woods beyond the village fields.
"A good move." The first player nods and moves one of his own pieces into position. "Unorthodox, but well thought out."
"The Sorcerer's Guild asked me to deliver it," the peddler explained. "Said you had some trouble here a while back. That you could use it to strengthen your Powers until your own strength had returned."
"It is indeed welcome," Eldred agreed. Little more than a youth, his gaunt pallor gave him the look of one who had recently suffered a wasting illness. "Is that why you came this way? Moggus Village seldom has any visitors of consequence."
"It was not far out of my way. The Guild likes to know what is happening in all parts of Tarag. Your potion is here in the back of my wagon where none can ... Where none..."
"What's the matter?"
"Your potion. It's gone!" The peddler searched frantically. "But ... the protective spells!"
"Be silent." Eldred raised his staff and the peddler backed away, almost falling over his own feet in his haste. The point of the staff traced a glowing pattern in the air, a pattern that streamed out into a glowing mist all around the wagon. Through the mist a shadow moved. Only a faint outline, it approached, hesitated and moved away again.
"Whoever it was made for the woods," Eldred muttered, half to himself. "I cannot see clearly. Some countering force clouds the scene. We must follow. This did not happen entirely by chance."
The game is underway, the shadowy Players making move after move in quick succession. The Second Player senses a doubt in his opponent and moves his pieces out boldly.
In the shelter of an ancient tree, Jerys tugged at the cork of his stolen bottle. It resisted. He poked and pried at it with the point of his knife.
"Open, damn you!"
The cork popped out, releasing a spicy aroma. He sniffed at it cautiously once, but that was enough. The fragrance filled his lungs, rose to his head with a rush. He tipped the bottle up and drank. The liquid made a ball of warmth in the pit of his stomach, spreading throughout his body until he tingled from head to toe. All at once the sun seemed brighter, the grass greener. In the silence of the forest he heard a thousand voices. The squirrel racing through the branches, the bird building its nest, even the mouse in its tunnel. They called out to him, saying that life was good.
He darted off through the trees, running lightly through sun and shadow. Pausing at a stream to drink, he saw his face in a quiet pool. No longer was he thin, pallid. No longer Jerys the Widow's Son. His skin was tanned and healthy, blond hair curling about pointed ears. Front teeth no longer protruded, but were white and even. He sprang to his feet with a shout of joy, laughing as a startled rabbit dashed for safety.
"Come back!" He commanded. The rabbit stopped short. Hopped back to crouch at his feet, sitting as though frozen.
It dashed for the safety of the bushes. Jerys watched it, laughing. Knowing he could call it to him whenever he wished, from wherever it was.
"I would eat!" It seemed the most natural thing in all Tarag to come upon a laden table in a little clearing. He ate until he could eat no more. With a wave of his hand the table was gone. More slowly now, he moved on through the quiet woods.
He stood on the brink of a hill. Looked down at Moggus Village far below. His ragged peasant garb had been replaced by fine clothes, tooled leather boots where ragged sandals had been.
"I am Lord Jerys and this is my castle!" Energy swirled and matter took new forms. Around him rose the walls of a castle; strong stone, and wood, and gleaming metal.
"I command servants and brave men-at-arms!" Other, more subtle forces stirred. In the woods around Moggus Village wolves came forth from their dens. Bear and deer and smaller animals turned their faces toward this new source of power. Silently they came in the bright sunlight, and as they passed through the castle gates a change fell upon them. Soldiers drew up in orderly ranks while workers and soft-eyed wenches went about their daily tasks.
"I rule over all of this land before me!" In the village at the bottom of the hill nothing seemed to change, but Bailiff Chorgo stopped making up his monthly list of tax revenues for his master, the Baron.
"Baron Womath? I know no Baron Womath." He rubbed out the unfamiliar name from the top of the page. With the satisfaction that comes from a job well done he carefully inked in the name of Lord Jerys. In other minds throughout the village a few small memories changed, but the Baron was far away and had little to do with their everyday lives.
Taken aback by this swift and deadly attack, the First Player rallies his forces, but his moves are hurried and unsure.
The peddler picked up the empty bottle from where it lay in the tall grass. Even the scent of its contents had long since gone. They cast about, but from there the trail was lost.
"What will the potion do?"
"I do not know. Cannot even make a close guess." Eldred leaned a bit wearily on his staff. "Normally, nothing unless the one who drank it had a fair measure of the Power. Even then all that it would do is to strengthen that Power somewhat, nothing more. I cannot believe that this will be the case here. Too much is at stake, of that I am sure. This is a matter of more than a few small Magics, a trifling mischief. For one who has had Guild training there are safeguards, protections that cannot be easily broken. For one without such guards there is great danger. An outside Power can reach out and tamper, perhaps even take over. This should not have happened."
"Ah, well. I shall leave the matter in your hands. These matters are too deep for me." The peddler stirred uneasily. "I must be on my way. I shall carry the tale of what has happened back to your masters in the Guild, but first I must pay my respects to Lord Jerys."
"Lord ... Jerys?" Eldred shook his head as though in a momentary daze. Warring memories clashed.
"The castle." The peddler pointed impatiently toward the top of a nearby hill. "I must stop by the castle of Lord Jerys."
"No! The news you bear is more urgent than you can guess. Make all haste to the nearest Guild hall. Tell them all you can of what has happened here. This task I set upon you in the name of the Great Guild!"
Puzzled but obedient, the peddler hurried back to his wagon. As soon as the man was gone Eldred sent questing tendrils of thought toward the castle. It stood solid under his probing, stone and timbers stained by age and weather. Dimly on the mountain's flank could be seen traces of quarry pits that had supplied the blocks of stone for its walls. The road that led up to its gate was rutted and worn with the passing of many wagons, countless feet. At first he could not reach beyond the castle walls. It was as though he gazed upon a painted scene that moved and lived but had no depth. The scene gained more life even as he watched. The gate swung open and people moved in and out. Bright pennons fluttered in the breeze, adding a touch of gaiety to the castle's grim towers.
.... There is more of this story ...