Karl and the other Nordrans sat at their table, a half-empty flagon of ale before them and their empty plates. They were quiet now, the idle banter of earlier having died as the hour grew later and Dan still had not appeared. Brett had turned up but he said he hadn’t seen Dan for a few hours, and had no idea where he was. Karl was starting to get anxious. But then he glanced across at the door for the third time that minute, and Dan was there, walking across the room towards them with the expression of a man preparing to carry out a reluctant duty.
Karl raised his cup to Dan as he approached.
“You’re back. How were the whores?”
“Good enough. Where were you earlier?”
“Finding us a ship. Took a little longer than expected but when the quarry’s scent is in the air, what’s another hour or two to pin it down?”
“Aye, but our quarry’s a bit harder to find than a ship and a captain.”
“One thing at a time. Sit, Dan, join us. Brett’s already here. And Amos has found a fine young gentleman to worry the aether for us. So that’s another rung on the ladder fixed and nailed on.”
“Aye, it’s like we’re at the gates of the mountain already.”
“Come now Dan, speak your mind. Jared’s told me about your reservations. That’s fine, we’re all friends here. How many times have we fought tooth and nail around a pot of ale over the finer points of some brave plan?”
“Aye, it’s true, but this ain’t about the finer details. I’m talking about the whole of it. I’ve been thinking. And I can’t see it. I can’t see it working. I can’t see the worth of it.”
Karl waited as Dan sat down opposite him, beside Brett on one side, and Thom on the other, who shifted over to let him in. Amos was to Karl’s left, and Jared to his right. At the left end of the table sat Ben and the right end was Caleb. Each had their drink before them, but they were all subdued. They all knew without Dan and Brett the plan would stand no chance of success.
“I thought you’d agreed to the plan. Or was that just to get you safe out of the shit.” Karl finally said.
“Yeah, we were all using the plan to get out of the shit. Don’t pretend I was the only one thinking of my skin. That’s why all of us left. Who here would ever have left our homes unless we had to.”
“And the plan got us out.”
“Yeah, and now we’re out, we’re safe. It worked. But the plan doesn’t stop just with our safety. I just think we should talk about going east. We don’t have to. The world’s a big place.”
“And where else are you thinking? What’s your alternative Dan? Eh. We have money, yes but not much. We’ve sold the ship now so we’ve got enough to last us a while. But split it up and it’ll last each of us what, a year, two? And what then? We can’t go back home. Not unless the Count dies, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
“I know all this, but we’re young, most of us, we can work.”
“Doing what. There aren’t any red dragons down here. A few scattered in Acada perhaps, but they’ll be hunted by Acadan guilds. We’ll have to apply to them, start at the bottom if it’s not a closed shop already. It’ll be decades before we get back to where we were. And that’s the best case scenario. Or what? Other work, farming? What do we know about farming? Or any trade but our own. General labouring will be our lot, scraping and struggling, bent backs until we die. Or soldiering, that’s the profession for brave young heroes like you. Marching up and down the valleys wherever some little southern lord tells you to, killing whichever poor soul he takes offence at. That what you want, hired killer for the fat cats?”
“I’m not saying that.”
“No and for sure you ain’t, none of us would do. I understand your reluctance Dan. It’s a risk. If it wasn’t then someone else would have done it years ago. We’ve got the key that they didn’t have, for sure, but it’s still a long way, a shot in the dark. We may well fail. But who are we but gamblers. Cautious, studied when we need to be, but gamblers nevertheless. We can plan, plot, tie up every end, tighten every harness, dot every i and cross every t, but at the end of the day we got to go out against a furious, fire-breathing monster and none of ever know what it’s going to do, whether this one’ll be our end.”
“That’s different. We know what we’re doing with a hunt. We’ve planned it out. We’ve done it before.”
“And the first group of lads that set out against a dragon, what do you think they were thinking? But they won, they got the fucker, and how much was the first dragon skin worth, when there was no one else competing? They’d have been fucking loaded, set for life. That’s us Dan. We’re setting out on the very first hunt. Scared, fuck yes I’m scared, we all are, we’d be bloody mental if we weren’t. But think of the rewards. We won’t ever have to work again. We’ll never be bent double under the midday sun, never have to bow and scrape for the lords and their jumped-up captains. No man is free unless he can buy his freedom out from under the noses of the rest. And we’ll be free as fucking birds once the year’s out.”
“Yeah, Karl, I’ve heard you talk this talk before, and bloody fantastic it is. You could charm the fucking worms out of the ground with all that shit. But it ain’t worth a fart in a storm if the plan don’t work. And I’m just saying it’s a fucking massive punt. We’re gonna be lucky to even get there, and if we meet Aaron and this mage of yours at the head of the river, what then? An unknown desert that swallows fucking armies? We’re supposed to find one mountain among a wasteland of shattered peaks, and crevasses? Do we even have a map? The fuck we do. And if we find it what then?”
“The mage knows where it is.”
“And none of us have ever met this mage. Who the fuck is he? Where did he come from? We put our lives in his hands, is he going to lead us right to the foot of this mountain, or slit our throats and bury us in the desert? Who the fuck knows?”
“I met him Dan. I give you my word, he’s reliable. He knows the mountain, he knows the way. For the first time in the history of the world, someone’s found the location of the Black fucking Mountain, and we’re in on it.”
“And how many dead bloody bastards have thought that before us eh? You think they were all heading off to the deadlands ‘cause they thought it’d be fun? They all thought they knew where it was as well as us.”
“They thought they could find it, they had clues. None of them had figured it out though. Mage Ardren has found it.”
“Trust me on this.”
“Fuck that shit. We all trusted you and where’s that got us? The kid’s dead, and the Count’s after our heads.”
“Fucking bad luck. That wasn’t on me. That wasn’t on anything we did.”
“We brought him up there. You brought him up there.”
“And you agreed.”
“Because I trusted you.”
“You did. And it went wrong. But that’s not on me, I couldn’t have seen the rope breaking like that. Neither could you and you checked it what, twenty times, didn’t you.”
“Fuck yeah I did.”
“I know you did, we all know you did. You did the best job you could, best of all of us. And the rope still broke. You think we shouldn’t trust you now? Fuck that shit, I don’t blame you. It could have happened to any one of us.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“And it’s what I’ve been saying as well. We need to hold together. Fate is a fucker, but we hold together and it can’t break us.”
“Fine words, but fine words don’t fill a stomach or save a man’s life. You don’t get what a fucking long shot this is.”
“I know what a long shot it is. It’s like, what, like playing a game of Blackdragon, running a deathwish on the first hand.”
“Yeah. And who’s ever been stupid enough to do that? And win off it as well. It’ll never happen. We’ll lose everything.”
“Bad example then, it’s not exactly the same, we know where the cards are, we know where we’re going. We have the keys.”
“No it’s a fucking perfect example. We only know half the cards, with a fucking massive unknown stack, we’ve got an impossible mission ahead of us, against massive opposition, and we don’t even know what’s ahead of us.”
Dan stuffed his hand into the bag at his belt, pulling it open by the drawstrings. He drew out his deck of cards and threw them down on the table in front of Karl.
“This is what you’re asking us to do. Run a deathwish from the start, win every fucking round perfectly, against all the odds, with everyone else trying to stop us. You’re asking us to do that and you’re surprised I’m a bit reluctant!”
“Of course you’re reluctant, but it’s not impossible. I’ve seen a deathwish run before, and won. You’re telling me if what, a million marks were here on the table you wouldn’t consider making the run? And we’re talking more than a million here.”
“Fine, you think it’s such a good idea, you do it.”
“Play, run the cards. You run the Black down I’ll come along on your quest to the ends of the earth. You make the risk then I’ll make the risk. But you gotta win. If you lose I walk, with your share of the ship as well.”
“That’s stupid, it’s not the same thing.”
“It’s the same fucking risk. You’re not willing to take it why should I?”
“He’s got a point.” Brett said. “And shut your hole Caleb, that’s not just cause it’s Dan saying it. Even you gotta accept it’s a good point.”
“Well, sure, it’s a point.” Caleb answered. “Not sure if it means anything though. Karl’s not gonna run the Black down, it’s impossible. Doesn’t mean the plan’s gonna fail the same way.”
“It’s a question of risk.” Dan replied. “Our leader’s asking us to trust him, to take the biggest bloody risk of our lives. Easy enough to take it when the Count’s breathing fire down our necks and we’re already feeling the long knives in our guts. Not so easy when we’re sitting in comfort with coin in our purse and beer in our bellies. When your stake’s gone, and you’ve only got one hand left, anyone’ll go for the Black. You’ve got nothing left to lose. When you’ve just sat down to the table and your glass is full and your stake’s sitting pretty beside you, suddenly the risk don’t seem such good odds at that point.”
“Well, mayhaps you’re right,” Caleb replied, “don’t mean I’m walking away though.”
“Well I am. I’m sorry Karl, but I’ve got too much life to lose, and I don’t see anyone beating the House on this one. I’m heading out tomorrow. And Brett’s coming with me. Anyone else wants to come, they’re welcome. I’m going west, to Taeglia. I can learn to hunt the green, if necessary. Or maybe not. Whatever happens, it’s better odds than this suicide run.” Dan stood up to leave, his cup of ale untouched.
“Wait,” Karl said. “Wait a minute.”
“What for?” He paused and stared at Karl across the table, the cards between them.
“Deal the cards.” Karl said.
Dan paused, wondering if Karl was serious. They stared at each for a long second. And then Dan turned and sat back down. He took up the cards and started to shuffle.
*** *** ***
The inn’s main chamber was quiet, like the world had stopped turning, like the world was holding its breath and waiting for a spinning coin to drop. A collection of others from around the room had gathered, even this late in the night, they stood behind the Nordrans’ shoulders and watched, their breath bated, scared to breathe in case they upset whatever luck or fortune was balanced here spinning on its edge.
The first few rounds had been hard-fought, Brett and Dan were playing together, Brett refusing to lay his hand down until Dan had built the best he could. A round didn’t end until the last but one player laid his hand on the table. So when one player was willing to lose so his mate could get a great hand, there was little anyone else could do to stop them. But Amos was playing with Karl as well, and willing to lose so Karl could continue to build his hand, swapping cards out continuously from the middle, his hands moving like lightning over the stacks, his eyes whipping between the top-cards and Dan across from him. The two players settling into a grudge match, a test of wills, and speed, among the fast movements of the others. Everyone had to play, and all eight of them fought for every card on the table. But it was Karl and Dan who were duelling among the chaos of the battle.
Karl laid the Black Dragon first to start the run, a winning hand of four kings and a duke beating Dan’s four fives and a four. The next round went badly for Dan and Karl took the Dragon Waking. It was the third round that things started to go quiet, and the people started to gather around them. Karl got five kings almost straight away, and there was nothing Dan could do to beat that, Karl taking the Dragon Stalking as his trophy. The fourth round Dan struggled to get the cards he needed, as Amos noticed him going for the kings and held two kings for himself. But somehow no one could stop Karl picking up four fours and a five, beating the rest of the table, and taking the Dragon Rampant.
Now only two more wins were needed to kill the Black Dragon which lay at Karl’s elbow. And each round dragged on as Karl and Dan built their hands, and Brett and Amos tried to steal the cards they needed. Dan went for the weapon cards but Amos and Karl took the high ones and held them, though not enough to win with, then Karl swopped to collect the Dukes, trying to get all five, but Dan blocked that for a tense few minutes. Finally, out of nowhere Karl slammed his hand down on the table, and Dan followed quickly. Dan had one five, three fours and a three. And Karl had a King, three Dukes, and a Knight. Warriors always beat weapons in a draw and Karl took his trophy, the Dragon Triumphant, leaving Dan speechless.
It was the final battle that seemed to stop time altogether. The players seemed to exist in a world apart. And Dan and Karl were balanced on a knife edge. The game sped up, Karl and Dan’s hands moving in a blur so fast surely neither could see the cards before they grabbed them. And then Karl slammed his hand down, and Dan followed. They paused, and the world paused with them, and as they lifted up their hands fate seemed to wait an instant, as though deciding which way to fall.
And there was a whisper on the edge of hearing, and the dust in the air seemed to float up rather than settling upon them.
And perhaps somehow Karl’s sheer determination pushed it to fall one way rather than the other, and as he lifted his hand to show the world what awaited it, the entire crowd drew in their breath in a gasp of disbelief. He held five kings, standing atop the Dragon Terrible.
Dan seemed to deflate. The entire table with him, unable to believe what they had just witnessed. And Karl blinked, unable to speak, staring down at his own cards as though he didn’t even recognise them. But the world turned on. And an instant later he was the centre of wild cheering, back slapping and free beer.