Lyra sighed and surveyed the hopeless situation before her. Valiant knights lay slain on the sides of the battlefield. An outlying tower had been toppled, its defending forces dead and thrown to the wayside. Even the clergy had gotten involved, but the warrior priests had been shorn from the mortal coil for an early meeting with their deity. The enemy’s army loomed ever more menacing in comparison to the dwindling forces of good. The battlefield was a grisly reminder of fragile mortality and the brevity of life.
“Hah!” Lyra exclaimed, slamming an exquisitely carved ivory rook into place. The heavy chess pieces jostled on the hewn stone chessboard. “Check!” she nearly shouted with a smile.
The dwarf, whose name Lyra had already forgotten, grinned wryly beneath his beard. He casually tipped over Lyra’s last remaining rook with an ornate bishop carved of a slightly darker ivory than her own pieces. “Not anymore, it’s not. And ’mate.”
“I—” Lyra started, speechless at the cunning move. The soldier had thwarted her attack and won in the same turn, all while eating his breakfast. She sighed again and resigned herself to defeat. Lyra hadn’t yet won a game with this wretched chess set that she bargained off of Haloisi. These sorts of nick-nacks were far more interesting to the young sorcerer than lost books or uncovered knowledge. She almost regretted the deal.
“Again” Lyra said adamantly, resetting the board. She would need to try a different tactic. “So have you heard about The Swordsman of Moonsong? The fight at the wellspring got to test the full measure of his skill.” she said nonchalantly. “I was there, you know.”
Her opponent looked up from the opening turns of pawn movements and arched an eyebrow, clearly intrigued at the mention of Fletcher’s made-up title. The soldiers of Guss’s Gate were quite enamored with the half-elven mercenary. He had made fast friends with the militaristic dwarves with a few quick words and even quicker sword strikes.
“It was one Hell of a fight.” Lyra began as she returned the series of opening moves. “So, there we were, trying to make our way to the wellspring beneath the fort,” she said, hoping to match the dwarven soldier’s careful positioning with sheer randomness in her own first moves. “Darin prepped us on the layout ahead of time. Good thing too, or else we would have fallen right into a trap. We could see the enemy’s leader, Pete something or other, down at the end of the hall.” Lyra looked pointedly at the opponent’s king, an elaborately carved figure standing head and shoulders taller than the rest, complete with armor, sword, and a crown. “He glowed blue, don’cha know. Luckily we were ready for the enemy on our flanks.”
“We approached carefully, and the Swordsman of Moonsong was showing off his newly magical blade, courtesy of you dwarves.” Lyra tipped over a pawn with the base of her knight, claiming the first casualty of the game. She tried to hide a smile; the knight had a small flaw carved in the ivory, a chip on one side of its sword. It appeared to wield a tiny curved weapon, just like Fletcher.
The dwarf listened intently but took a pawn himself with his bishop. “But little did we know, there were skeletal archers across the way.” Lyra said with a frown, lamenting her first lost piece. “Yours truly landed a Damn good crossbow shot, drove straight through a skeleton’s skull.” Lyra moved her bishop, taking another pawn and perching the bishop on a safe space on the board. “Unfortunately, they seemed pretty resistant to that sort of thing.” The bishop was more detailed than the typical chess piece with a funny hat. Instead it depicted a man with a book, not unlike a spellcaster. Lyra couldn’t help but relate it to herself, trying to stay safe but still be helpful from the back.
The dwarf nodded and took her rook, apparently less distracted by the tale than the storyteller. “I suppose it is just as good that Nisa wasn’t there. Her arrows would have been next to useless on the skeletons.” Lyra sighed yet again. That rook would be missed, it was every bit as stalwart and dependable as Nisa, constantly covering retreats and halting advances. Always ready to strike at the king.
“Boy I tell you, that Fletcher is quite a sight in battle.” Lyra said. The dwarf brightened again at mention of Fletcher. Lyra grabbed the knight and knocked another pawn off the board. "When he gets in an enemy’s face, it is a sight to behold. He was a blur. He lopped off all four limbs of a skeletal champion with one sweep, then spun and thrust his blade through the skeleton’s falling skull within a fraction of a second.â€ She pantomimed a U-shaped cut with her hand then jabbed forward with a finger. “He seemed to visibly grow at this. He told us later that the new enchantment on his sword empowers him with the strength of a dwarf for a time should he prove himself worthy in battle.”
The amateur chess players exchanged a few more turns, in which the dwarf’s knight took another two pawns. “Haloisi and I weren’t faring quite so well in the close quarters. We aren’t used to the blunt weapons that you dwarves favor. Haloisi was still shaken from our first encounter on the wall. She had a bit of a breakdown before we ventured into the temple halls. Axiomus tried to calm her down, but turned his attention to the logistics of potion distribution mid-thought. I don’t get that guy sometimes.” Lyra mused, stopping an advancing unit with the properly carved knight. “You know Haloisi right? She’s pretty great, very handy with songs and spells, not so much with maces. I think she was still suffering from residual shock or something. Couldn’t hit a thing.”
The dwarf chuckled at the mention of two spellcasters flailing around with heavy maces. His scratchy voice spoke for the first time all match, mockingly saying “Well lass, y’know wha’ they say about you elves.” His voice trailed off, preferring to keep things polite by not finishing the insult.
“Hey, I’m not an elf!” Lyra countered. “I’m only half elf. And you know who else is?” With a quick snap of the warped ivory knight, Lyra took the dwarf’s rook. “The Swordsman of Moonsong, Fletcher Callahan himself.”
The dwarf observed the board with consternation. He had been distracted by Lyra’s tale, just as she had hoped. “Hah! You should see your face right now.” Lyra jeered. “Anyways, the undead leader took notice of Fletcher’s moves too, and began taunting us from the end of the hall as we fought our way through. He kept talking about wanting to test himself against a worthy opponent, or some such nonsense.”
The dwarf positioned his pieces, trying to isolate Lyra’s successful knight. He was certainly no chess master, but he was definitely a practical tactician. Fortunately for him, Lyra was neither master nor tactician; she had to resort to creativity, fast talking, and downright randomness. Though she did know a thing or two about being a squirrely target and kept the knight safe in the onslaught.
“Well anyways,” Lyra began, “we got to the final chamber of the temple. The hallway opened up and allowed us some maneuverability, not unlike the board now.” She gestured at the table. “It was ’round then that Thifal came rushing in to help us.” Lyra slid her second rook into the fray. It would be too easy to label Thifal as the bishop. Besides, the rook perfectly reflected his skillset; unyielding in defense but still punishing in offense.
A bishop struck down Lyra’s other knight, the one with the properly carved straight sword. “Our foes had a mage on their side. It reached out and touched the noble Axiomus with a spell of putridity. He had vanquished many a skeleton with his fiery breath, but the enemy mage rendered him paralyzed for the remainder of the battle.”
Lyra moved her own bishop to remedy the situation. “Luckily, I took the mage out on my own. But that’s when things got weird, and Fletcher did his thing.” Her short friend was fully distracted by the tale now, evidenced by the careless loss of his bishop to another bishop.
“This skeleton master challenged the Swordsman of Moonsong to a one on one duel. We didn’t want to allow it, but Fletcher insisted. The enemy leader had waited patiently for us to finish his minions up until now, and Fletcher was adamant that he return the favor. The undead man told us that he was cursed and must be defeated in single combat, lest he be revived and forced to continue fighting.” Lyra said, losing pieces turn after turn. “We were doubtful, but he held a fantastically brilliant weapon and wore ancient armor. He didn’t look like the type to make things up.” The board was nearly clear now, a sign of true chess amateurs just hunting for heads and having fun.
“Fletcher struck first, but was swatted away with a backhand. Peter struck back, landing a hilt strike on Fletcher’s jaw.” Lyra told the dwarf, who listened intently as he jockeyed for a good setup with the last few pieces. “Fletcher just spat some blood and spun back. The skeletal champion ducked in the smallest of movements and brought his terrible flaming sword upwards along Fletcher’s chest. It left a streak of embers along his armor.” Lyra explained, miming actions with grand sweeping gestures.
“Haloisi was singing at this point, her melodies filling Fletcher with inspiration. I tell you, when you hear a proper musician singing your praises, you can just center your mind and focus so easily. So that’s what he did. He blocked a blow aimed for his neck, managing to thrust back with his own blade.” Lyra was hardly focusing on the chess match at all. Neither was her opponent, fully engrossed in the tale of mortal combat, as any true dwarf would.
“Both combatants sliced at each other’s vitals; neither held back. Fletcher was filled with strength both from the battlesong and his peculiar enchanted blade. The duelists were trading blows faster than I could keep up, and I have very sharp eyes.” Lyra moved her warped knight in circles around the dwarf’s queen. “Then a gout of blood sprayed across the temple’s pews. May I remind you that the enemy did not have any blood. Fletcher was amazing though, he just ate the near-mortal blow and used it as an opportunity, bringing down his sword through Peter’s armor in the most vicious single strike I’ve ever seen.” Lyra slammed her hands on the table, abandoning any focus on the chess match. “And I’ve seen ogres, trolls and giants up close. Understand my full meaning when I say this hit was massive; it cleaved clear through the enemy’s armor. The enchanted armor, which kept the skeletal champion alive for hundreds of yearsâ€¦ and it was in two pieces.”
The dwarves in the mess hall had nearly finished their breakfast. Somebody rang a brass bell in the corner of the room. Each of the dwarven soldiers began collecting their arms and filing out of the mess hall towards the wall for morning watch. They all looked weary from the long hours of high alert in the midst of a siege. Lyra’s new friend also buckled on his helmet and hefted his axe, ready to leave.
“Wait, I was just getting to the good part!” Lyra protested.
“Sorry lass, duty calls.” replied the dwarf with the forgotten name. He reached down and moved a lowly pawn a single space, seizing the hero knight, Lyra’s last non-pawn. “And checkmate in two moves. I really enjoyed your story, I’ll be telling the boys on the Wall about the mighty Fletcher Callahan. It ought to brighten their spirits.”
Lyra smiled at a mission accomplished, successfully inspiring another soldier. But she was still disappointed with yet another loss. She examined every possible move, baffled that a pawn could force an ending. Sure enough, the dwarf had assured his victory, perfectly capitalizing on the mutual sloppy play. The night watch was trundling in to the mess hall. One watch’s breakfast was another watch’s dinner.
Lyra slid up to a tired dwarf enjoying his meal of beans and stale bread rations. “Hey bud, you look stressed. Care to unwind with a friendly game? I’m awful, I promise.” she said, setting the board between them. He nodded and chewed on hard tack without a word.
As she reset the ivory chess set again, Lyra was reminded of the enemy that awaited them beyond the dwarven earthworks. Hundreds of gnolls chittered day and night, afraid to move forward into the fort, and even more afraid to retreat into whatever was driving them forward. Undead giants had already attacked once, and skeletal strike teams had infiltrated the holy wellspring below. Then there was the Dread Lady Niln, the probable commander of these undead forces. She remained an enigma, and a powerful one at that, to keep a champion as strong as Peter of the Sun Valley under her thumb.
Lyra shivered at the thought of a full assault. The slightest misstep could spell defeat. She couldn’t see her friends’ faces in the chess pieces anymore. They weren’t noble bishops, stalwart rooks, or valiant knights. They were all just pawns, in the end.
But even lowly pawns can seize victory. All they need is the courage to march on.
She looked up at the tired dwarf and smiled. “Say, have you heard about the Swordsman of Moonsong?”