When mighty symbols clashed
The Universe was born
The Minstrel Strummed
The Piper Hummed
And the Wizard blew his horn.
The Great Game had begun
Chaos burst onto the stage
To the tune of war
Peace reigned no more
Space and Time, came of age.
Kings, Queens and Bishops
Seek a sacrificial Pawn
A Rook, a Cosmic Knight
Darkness against the Light
When the Wizard, blew, his horn.
As the pale sun cleared the distant mountains, Ionuin, one rogue tear trickling slowly down her cheek, placed the final stone on her father's cairn. Slanting rays of weak sunshine streamed through the lower boughs of the few surrounding scattered pine, the mild heat dispersing the thin silver mist, gently warming the tanned skin of Ionuin's exposed arms and legs. After spending a few moments in reflective silence, she cinched her father's ancient leather belt around her middle, securing her wolf-hide dress, and tied back her light brown hair with twine. After sliding her sword, Fyrdraca, into its scabbard, she glanced back at the old stone cottage for one last time before setting out in search of the killers.
She had only been absent for two days on a hunting trip, but in that short time her life had changed irrevocably. Tharl, her father, had once been a great warrior, battling freely with all challengers, fighting dragons, rescuing maidens and generally having an exceptionally good time.
Towards the end of his life, having lost one eye and blindness claiming most of his vision in his remaining eye, he had been forced to become something of a recluse, withdrawing from the wild life of daring escapades. This dying world was not a place where the strong protected the weak ,and throughout his life Tharl had made many enemies while indulging in what he liked to think of as his heroic adventures. Ruthless vicious enemies who would not allow a disability such as the onset of premature blindness prevent them from exercising their retribution. To kill a warrior of Tharl's status would be a great coup, even though the man was old and past his prime, he was still a living legend and to defeat him would bring exceptional kudos to any warrior. Regrettably, that time had now arrived. Tharl's blood had been spilled, the fire of his life-force quenched. The man that had become a myth in his own lifetime: was no more.
When Ionuin was born her father had given up his wayward lifestyle and settled in the mountains on the edge of what remained of civilization. They had made their home in a secluded little valley where opportunist cutthroats, travelling bandits and mercenary soldiers of fortune were never seen. Ducat, Tharl had called their isolated cottage and meagre gardens, which in the old language meant 'Lion's den'. When Ionuin had asked why they never had any visitors or ever saw travellers passing through their valley, Tharl claimed they had been granted a protection spell by a great wandering wizard. The wizard had cast a ward over the whole valley that kept trespassers at bay and virtually made the cottage invisible, so they would always be safe. Ionuin never believed the story, but she never questioned it either.
The years had passed peacefully and Tharl had taught his young determined daughter all she needed to know about the art of combat, survival, the ways of the wild and the world. He had instilled the wisdom of countless generations into her eager mind. Taught her how to depend upon her own intuition, take major decisions for herself and to trust gut instinct when dealing with others. In a harsh drought-like environment where life was tough, trust was a precious commodity that could not be given lightly as it could mean the difference between extinction and survival.
As her mother had died while giving birth, Tharl, representing both parents, had raised Ionuin to the best of his abilities. The task had not been easy as she had developed into a wayward child with an inherent mischievous streak. She was wilful with an independent nature, confident in her own skills and harboured a toughness that was tempered by a veiled kindness of spirit. She expected things to be done right, but could be forgiving if they went amiss so long as attempts were made at correction.
Ionuin remembered schooling being the worst part of her upbringing as Tharl would be the first to admit he was never the best of scholars. He had known his letters and basic mathematics and Ionuin had proved to be a quick learner but still, teaching often proved difficult. By the age of twelve Ionuin was even teaching him a thing or two so Tharl accepted that as far as education was concerned, no more could be done. Ionuin had rebelled against the idea of teaching herself, claiming that, as he was her father and guardian, it was his duty. Tharl had countered that once the pupil exceeds the master, no more can be taught.
In a stubborn protest Ionuin refused to further her education by herself, hoping her father would relent, but Tharl was an old master at the fine art of stubbornness and his opinion could not be moved. Eventually, to quench her aching thirst for knowledge, Ionuin had returned to studying the score of books they possessed and her education continued, perhaps not in ideal circumstances, but in the situation at hand, the best that could be hoped for. As a peace offering, whenever Tharl did venture into any of the scattered settlements that remained he endeavoured to find books for his daughter. Invariably, he was successful until by the time Ionuin was in her fourteenth summer they had four shelves full of volumes on various topics that they jokingly referred to as, 'The Little Library'.
At the beginning of each day they indulged in ritual combat instruction. If Tharl had been honest with himself, it was only the size advantage he held over his daughter that stopped her getting the topside of him during their routine swordplay. Admittedly, he was almost blind and Ionuin took it relatively easy, but in his own mind he still represented a formidable opponent. Ionuin knew that her father's fighting days were over, leaving the exploits of his youth to become the comfort of old age and the folly of many a stretched yarn. Old age is a familiar friend to those managing to avoid premature death, becoming the ultimate price man pays for his reprieve from an early grave.
Ionuin had spent many a chilly evening seated by the fire listening to her father's tales of his misspent youth. His daring and bravery pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds. Now, these recounted adventures were nothing more than memories that belonged in a bygone era. Tears threatened to overwhelm her in a gushing flood, but Ionuin drew in a deep breath, forcing her emotions under control. She had unfinished business that needed tending in the present before she could finally close the door upon the past.
Her father had been brutally slain and from scuffed markings along the ground Ionuin estimated that there were at least three in the murderous party. Along with the trail of tracks there were other markings too. Animal prints, but they were very faint and Ionuin could make nothing of them. There was something else too, the heavy scent of blood that was not her father's, it smelled different, spicy. Ionuin had always possessed a remarkable sense of smell, a thing her father often remarked upon. She sniffed around the markings on the ground, her nose hovering over blood spatters. It seemed her father had at least got one strike home before he fell as the blood had dripped in more than one place. Not a fatal wound but . . . she stooped, scratched in the dirt and unearthed a dismembered finger, giving it close examination before placing it in the pouch slung across her shoulders. At least one of the killers would be easily recognizable, a youngish fellow by the look of the finger and if he had his companions with him: the more the merrier as far as Ionuin was concerned. Boiling anger suddenly reared its ugly head as she thought of the murderers. She felt like lashing out wildly, but there was nothing upon which she could vent her displeasure. Instead, she breathed deeply, letting each breath ease away the pain until slowly, her self-control was reasserted.
"You shall be avenged father, or I shall die trying," she promised, touching the top stone of her father's cairn. "On this, you have my word of honour."
The king remained, silent, motionless, his chiselled features giving no indication of the turbulence raging within. His worried eyes locked firmly on the impassive yet beautiful face of his slender queen and she returned his measured gaze. Her calculating eyes conveying to him some much needed assurance. The king relied heavily on his queen's judgement. She kept control of his court and oversaw the running of his small empire. Their world was constantly under threat from the forces of Darkness residing on the far side of this unassuming world and their very existence was seemingly in the hands of the Gods. Supreme beings that had allegedly shaped them all and created the divine rules by which they lived and more often than not: died.
The king had become distressed because men had been sacrificed, for the greater good, his queen would say, but still sacrificed. Often, usually at night when the dark blanket of silence had descended, he thought of peace and what the world would be like if peace reigned supreme. Although when he saw his magnificent troops preparing for war, his knights mounted and ready to lead the charge, all thoughts of peace disappeared in an all-consuming blitz of battle fever. He wanted victory, demanded victory, and, with his powerful queen by his side marshalling his forces, it was win or die.
Across the cacophonous fervour of the tumultuous mayhem being waged he casually surveyed the situation and saw above the sharpened points of clashing weapons, a possible weakness along his enemy's flank. He checked there was not a cunning ploy afoot to lure him into a trap and prayed that with the help of the omnipresent Gods he would win the day. However, before he could capitalize on the situation, catastrophe struck a decisive blow in the enemy's favour. Charging out of nowhere, a knight, clad in full battle armour and his sword raised, leapt through the defensive line and slaughtered his queen without mercy. The king reeled back in shock as the knight wheeled around and threatened him. He was trapped with no possible escape. With his queen dead, all was lost and he retained no desire to fight on or even live. Somewhat lacklustre, he capitulated and slumped to the floor. 'So this is death', he thought as his senses seeped away leaving only a terrible numbing coldness that welcomed the dark as once again, he had lost the game.
"Another checkmate I believe," said Lord Nexus as Lian pushed over his white king.
"No, I conceded," argued Lian, his lavender eyes darting around the board. "I could have moved my Lord only . . . well I thought I saw a-"
"He's a poor loser, aren't you Lian," interrupted Bollfur, relaxing on a nearby stone couch. "I suppose it's only to be expected, considering your heritage."
Lian sprang to his feet, anger flashing in his eyes. "What do you mean Lord Bollfur?"
"Now, now, sit down Lian," said Nexus, "you did not mean anything, did you Lord Bollfur? Do try and remember that young Lian here is my ward and under my protection. An insult to him is an insult to me; we don't want any upset now do we Lord Bollfur?"
The whole cavern had suddenly gone very quite. Two-dozen pairs of eyes were fixed on the unfolding tableau before them.