“Offend me?” The old professor shook his head in answer to Ileana’s question. “Not at all. Since the beginning of time, people have told stories in an attempt to understand the world. I have spent much of my life studying this subject. Also,” he added dryly, “I understand the concept of a metaphor.”
He tipped his chin up and smiled. “In fact, there is a particular story, from an anthology of folklore, that comes to mind. It also reminds me of the game that Chess has told me about. With your permission…”
He looked toward Sariel, who seemed relieved to cede the floor to him.
“Once, in a land far away,” Noah began, “there was a wayfarer, an adventurer of sorts…” He smiled, seemingly to himself. “I believe that he was called Chess.”
Chess groaned quietly. The mild relief that he had felt when Sariel had left off of her story now dissipated. But he reminded himself that he had, after all, been the one who asked for a story.
“This wanderer was between adventures just now,” Noah explained, “and, as was his habit while he was waiting for something new to come along, he was hanging around his favorite inn, in his favorite village, and ordering far too much ale from his favorite red-haired serving girl, who always seemed to have a smile for him.
“In fact, he was beginning to get bleary-eyed, when a woman walked in -- a beautiful stranger. And she stood just inside the doorway, gazing around, as if taking the measure of the inn. Somehow, Chess managed to catch the woman’s eye, and was amazed when she came over and sat down at his table.” Noah waggled his head. “The serving girl, for her part, scowled at the woman, but poured a drink for her all the same. Chess paid for her drink, and they began to talk.
“The woman introduced herself as Il-sa and, when asked her business in town, merely said that she wished to learn as much as she could about the local area, and the people who lived there. Chess leaned forward with a self-assured grin and announced that he could assist her.
“In answer, she gave him a radiant smile. ‘Be warned that there is much difficulty involved in helping me,’ she told him. ‘And much danger. With what do you believe you can assist me?’
“Chess settled back in his chair, affecting a roguish expression, and answered, ‘Everything.’”
From his ground-level view, Chess gazed around the group. Sariel and Ileana, of course, were leaning forward in polite attention. Sariel had a tiny smile on her lips. Gryff, with half-closed eyes, had settled back against his gear and was affecting disinterest, but Chess could tell, somehow, perhaps just because of all the time they had spent together, that he was listening.
“Now, to Chess, the wanderer,” Noah continued, “it seemed that the best way for this woman to achieve her goal would be for her to travel around to the villages in the area. And, the best way for him to get to know her better -- for that was now his goal -- was for him to accompany her as a personal guide. And so, although he normally preferred to journey on his own and on foot, he set about renting horses and securing places for both of them among a local trading caravan.
“Well,” Noah said with a nod, “as you might expect, Chess and the woman, Il-sa, talked much over the course of their journey. At first, Chess felt as if he controlled the situation: the native guiding the tourist. Gradually, however, he realized that she was truly the one in control.
“Everything about her, from the way she carried herself, to the way she conversed with strangers, to the way she seemed to penetrate his very thoughts with her gaze, fascinated him in a way that no one else ever had. Her ability to acquire knowledge was startling to him: she gathered it as effortlessly as a river at flood, processed it as unerringly as the rhythms of nature, and adapted to it with the speed of a lover’s heartbeat. He grew to adore her, and felt more protective of her by the day.
“Once, while they were riding along, she turned to him and said, ‘This countryside is so lovely. This earth is so beautiful, it mesmerizes me to look at it. If you could go anywhere, where would you go? What, in all the earth, would you like to see?’
“Poor Chess was already very much in love by then. He stared at her, his head full of dreams of the two of them traveling together forever, and whispered his one-word answer fiercely. ‘Everything.’”
Continued next page...
“Phedre,” Ysandre sighed. “The more I try to set you out of harm’s way, the deeper in it I find you. All right. Like as not, you’d only turn up with an army of brigands at your back if I tried to leave you. You may come.”
- Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey
I wanted to say something about Hadrian’s Wall, which is mentioned a few pages back. Briefly, when the emperors of Rome attempted to conquer the entire world, they were stopped or, more likely their forces were running a bit thin by the time they got to Great Britain. The natives of northern England proved to be so rebellious that the Romans decided to build a huge wall across the island, separating approximately the top third of the country from the civilized, Roman-ruled southern two-thirds. The wall was guarded by Romans soldiers who, at least in all the fiction books that I have read, felt as if they had been posted at the end of the earth. Peering over the wall into the northern country was akin to Chess looking past the gates of civ: gazing into the scary unknown, a wild land filled with monsters. It was like looking over the wall in Game of Thrones.
During college, I read many fiction books about King Arthur and Arthurian-era England (about 500 C.E. or so). The story goes that once the Romans gave up and went home, the northern barbarians came back southward and attacked the no-longer protected villages. Also during this era, it seems that Vikings were invading the island, as well. Unfortunately, the tribal chieftains of the south spent as much time fighting each other as fighting the barbarians. King Arthur, who probably did exist as some sort of leader, comes down to us in legends as a savior because he united the minor leaders in one cause: to bring peace to the island.
I love all these stories, as well as Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And, yes, Game of Thrones, with its initial setting of many scattered leaders all vying for the high-kingship, and the over-arching fear of the threat from beyond the wall, absolutely reminds me of Arthurian England.
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