November Challenge: Day 6

Well, here’s day 6. I’m learning a little bit each day with this exercise. For example, I learned today that I don’t have to stress myself about every aspect of exposition the first time I sit down to write. That stuff can come later. Today started with a single idea. “Beating Death at a Game”. Common enough trope. I realized that the character had to have some back story, so I wrote a quick one, not worrying about the plot holes that might arise. I still didn’t know the character well enough. If I feel like it I can go back later and flesh those bits out. As I wrote the story I did think of new things to include in the exposition, or things that I would know but weren’t terribly important, or things that I wrote that didn’t work out so well. I just kept pushing on ahead and didn’t worry about it. Now I have 2,000 words done and I can build from there, make it better. I took the first step even though it was hard.

So, hopefully this is a good sign. I think for my second week of writing (starting this Friday), I will go back to my list of story ideas I’ve jotted down in various places and start writing something about them. Abandon what doesn’t work for me that day and see where things go. Get fresh ideas. Something to consider.

November Challenge Day 6 (Untitled)
By, E. W. Morrow
Word Count: 2067

William took a swig of ale from the leather tankard he kept in his bedroll and watched the men as they walked away. Deeper inside the camp he could hear the sound of soldiers drinking and reveling with wild abandon in anticipation for the following day. Impending battle did many different things to men, but tonight everyone seemed intent on having all of life they could before dawn found them. Ale and whores were passed around the camp, fattening the purses of the merchants and brothel Madams that followed every army on the march. A few soldiers, William knew, would be alone in their tents, looking to their weapons and armor, the sound of whetstones scraping along blades and spit polishing lost to the sound of terrified merriment all around. William never thought he’d have been one of them.

He grabbed his winnings from the wooden crate by the fire and slipped the coins into his money pouch. In the morning he would take the pouch to the followers camp and find a likely lad or honest looking merchant and he’d give them the pouch and tell them to deliver it to the nearest church or orphanage or whatever and donate it. Probably whoever he picked would simply pocket the money themselves. Honest looking merchants seldom were, William knew, but he didn’t care. He’d won enough money off drunken soldiers to last him a lifetime. The fact that he didn’t have any of it anymore only proved his point.

That was William’s problem. He was a winner. Cards, battle, women, it didn’t matter. William succeeded at everything he’d ever set his mind to. He knew that there was such a thing as losers, since he’d made so many of them, but he didn’t know how it felt. Tomorrow would be the first time in his life that he would lose at anything, and it would cost him his life. When your bastard of a father went out and stole from places of worship, eventually one of the curses called down upon his head would bear fruit. He’d stolen a sacred idol from the Sisterhood of the Patient Truth. True to their name the sisters curse gave him a year and a day to set things right, to return the idol to it’s resting place in the tiny monastery in the mountains, but the bumbling fool had already pawned it to a traveling peddler. When he sobered up a week later in a puddle of mud and horse urine, it was too late. The idol was gone and he lived the next year in silent horror of the inevitable. When he’d died, the curse, patient as always, had passed on to the next male in line: William. He had exactly as much time on the Earth as his father to break the curse. He’d spent the past eleven years traveling as a soldier of fortune but had never found the tiny idol that was the bane of his life. Tomorrow was his 25th birthday, and he had not yet succeeded. Not it seemed like he never would. He took another swig of ale, emptying the flask in one go.

“Good evening” came a voice to William’s left. William glanced over and saw a tall, thin man standing just outside the firelight. His bald head gently reflected the firelight in a way that was just slightly not the color of the actual fire. The man was clothed in simple black riding clothes with a few silver glints of ornamentation. His face was mostly hidden in shadow. “May I join you.”

“Be my guest,” William answered indifferently. The stranger strode forward and sat on an upturned stump on the opposite side of the wooden crate from William. As he moved through the firelight the shadows across his face shifted slightly but never seemed to fully depart. William was given the impression of high cheekbones, a slender nose and arching eyebrows of an indeterminate dark color. William rubbed his eyes and silently cursed the drink he’d consumed that evening. Obviously it was playing tricks on his mind.

“I hear tell that you are the man to see for a little entertainment.” Said the man. His voice was quiet and cultured.

“That depends what kind of entertainment you’re after,” answered William.

“The kind where games are played and money changes hands. I believe cards were mentioned.”

“Well, I might be. Who was doing the mentioning?” The last thing William wanted was some uppity noble slumming it with the common soldiers to lose a pocket full of someone else’s money because some miserable drunk wanted the company of other losers.

“Men who lost,” said the stranger.

“Really? They admitted that much, at least?” asked William?

“No. Not really. But it was rather easy to tell.” A flash of pearl played across the man’s face and faded so fast William hardly even registered the smile. William returned it. The stranger’s standing had just risen in his eyes.

“Well, in that case, what’s your game?”

The stranger smiled again and said “We’ll get to that. But for now, a few hands of poker.”

He pulled a deck of cards in a custom leather pouch from the sleeve of his riding jacket and placed it on the wooden crate in front of William. William picked them up and slid them from the leather, noting the skull imprinted on the front as he did so. The cards were old, that much was certain, but had been gently used. Instead of the normal symbols he was used to William saw that the cards used the old system of cups, coins, knives and wands. Ornate paintings on each card, replacing the simple wood cut stamps or scribbled faces on most cards William had ever seen, only added to their aesthetic value.

“A fine set of cards you have there,” William said appreciatively.

“Do you like them,” asked the stranger. “Please, take them, as my gift to you.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” William said warily.

“Please, I insist. I have other sets, and this one has always been—unlucky. Perhaps they will bring you more luck than they have me.”

“Tell you what,” William countered, “how about I win ’em off you. First hand? Against, say, 5 crowns?”

“Oh…oh yes. I like that. If they truly are unlucky, I will lose and be rid of them. But would it not be more unlucky to keep them? What to do, I wonder?” William only smiled in response.

That was the secret to winning. William would be the first to admit that he was an incredibly lucky individual, but luck only carried you so far. The secret to winning all the time was to spin the odds in your favor. Get inside your opponents head before the first card was dealt and you had won already. The shadows on the stranger’s face shifted into a razor thin grin. The firelight caught his eyes and twinkled slightly off color in the gloom.

“I think I shall accept,” said the stranger after a moment’s thought.

“Five card draw, aces high?” asked William, already dealing the cards. The stranger had the good grace to respectfully watch William’s hands as he dealt, but in an politely unobtrusive way.

“But of course,” he replied.

William set the deck back on the wooden crate and picked up his cards without looking at them. The stranger did the same with his own hand. William realized that they were both waiting on the other to look at his cards first and betray some mistake. Well I know how to deal with that, William thought. He broke eye contact first and peaked at his cards. A pair of nines stared up at him. He let a flicker of annoyance pass across his features and then waited for the stranger to look at his own. The stranger’s face was impassive as he pulled three cards out and laid them face down on the crate. William dealt him three more cards from the deck then looked at his own hand again. He took a moment to agonize over the choice and then selected three cards to discard, but put one back at the last moment and drew two instead. A third nine joined the others. William refrained from smiling.

“Well, we gonna show them or do you want to sweeten the pot?” asked William.

The stranger reached into a pouch on his belt and took out two gold coins, throwing them in next to William’s. William reached into his own pouch and took out two coins, and then five more and threw them on the pile. The stranger’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Ah,” he said. “Yes, I thought as much.”

“What?” asked William politely.

“My bet wasn’t high enough. You sensed weakness and struck.”

“Perhaps.”

“But, how do you know I wasn’t forcing you to throw more money in before I made my real bet?”

“I didn’t. Same way you didn’t know I would raise. So, I figure you were just testing.”

The stranger stared at William for a moment and then flashed a smile. He laid his cards down on the wooden crate in submission. William scooped the coins into a neat little pile and picked up his new deck. William believed in luck, and he certainly believed in bad luck. He just thought of it as something that happened to other people.

“Well now,” said the stranger, “I think we’ve gotten a fair reading of each other now. Shall we up the stakes?”

“How much?”

“Five crown minimum bet, three coin minimum raise?”

“Sounds fine to me.”

The stranger seemed content to let William deal the cards, though they took turns alternating initial bets. William didn’t have it completely his own way, losing a few hands, but after a dozen or so hands he had considerably more money than when he started. He didn’t see losing a single hand as really losing, especially if he minimized his losses. The game wasn’t won in a hand, or even in the cards. It was won in the playing, and William always played the long game.

It would have been perfect if only the stranger would stop smiling.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” said the stranger suddenly, “but I really do have places to be. Would it be alright if we just hurried things along?”

“How do you mean?”

“One last hand. One last bet. For everything.”

William paused for a moment and stared intently at the shadows covering the stranger’s face, willing himself to see him in detail. It didn’t work.

“You know, I never did catch your name,” William said.

“Do we have a deal?” the stranger asked in the same quiet voice.

William opened his mouth to refuse. Obviously this man was a fraud, a card shark and a grifter, trying to force William to make a mistake by building up his confidence. Next he would ask to shuffle the cards himself this time. But before William could laugh in the man’s face, he remembered tomorrow. Maybe it would be nice to lose just once. As a kind of test run.

“Fine,” he said with a smile.

“Might I shuffle this time?” asked the stranger. I knew it, thought William. I bloody knew it. He handed the stranger the cards anyway, reveling in the novelty of it all. “And now, the wager.”

William took his coin purse out and emptied it on the crate. More than years worth of soldier’s wages glinted in the firelight. The stranger reached down to his belt and unfastened his own coin pouch. He tossed it on the crate. Instead of the tinkle of coins William had been expecting, it landed with a muffled thunk. William arched an eyebrow.

“And what’s this?” he asked.

“Everything,” the stranger replied.

William reached down, pulled the purse open and dumped it’s contents out onto the crate. A small, wooden idol bearing a few runic symbols tumbled into view. As it did, something on the idol caught the firelight. A single, gigantic sapphire gem flared in the center of the idol, like a great blue eye.

It was the symbol of the Sisterhood of the Patient Truth.

“I take it,” said the stranger jovially, “that you are aware of the practice of cheating Death by means of competition?”

“Yes,” croaked William.

“Well, we all have to lose sometime.”

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