THE GOOSE AND CRADLE, by David Austin:
Fewer and fewer people were stopping by the Goose and Cradle. Everyone that had anyone was at home holding them close, waiting for the walls to crumble.
Mirsare was under siege, and massive chunks of rock rained steadily down. The walls were strong; the boys could hold them for hours yet, maybe even a day or two. But the invaders were in no hurry, and there was plenty of ammunition to be had. The dark skies dropped death upon Mirsare, and few men wanted to spend their last hours in a poorly ventilated pub drinking lukewarm beers and playing Godseye.
After two in the morning, a tavern common room starts to look more and more like a funeral. Each drunk is a mourner, head hanging down and eyes drooping, hands wrapped around their mug like a drowning man clinging to anything that might float. The one old serving woman is the widow, wondering where her world has gone, and who all these people surrounding her are; they never really cared for him like she did. The barkeep is the priest, keeping a wary eye on all the friends of the deceased, making sure they don’t mess up the church and its careful, somber decorations.
I suppose the dead man must be the previous day. So much life and careful planning gone to waste, nothing changed from the night before. The poor widow looks near to weeping, so many husbands has she watched die. That leaves me as the pallbearer, carrying each corpse where it needs to go, putting it in the ground, and throwing dirt over top of him by the handful.
I took a long drink and tried not to taste it. The service was over, the mourners almost all unconscious. There were four other patrons, and only Arny looked alive. He was humming an old sea song to himself, and swaying back and forth. The serving woman was sleeping in a chair along the back wall. Her dark brown dress hid the stains well.
There were reasons she had to work the nightshift. Her voice was harsh, like two stones rubbing together; her hair was fraying; she was stout, like a tree trunk that didn’t plan on being knocked over by any storms.
The dayshift girls wore bright colors and smile; their voices high and twittering like a songbird’s. They were slender and delicate. The nightshift woman had probably been like them once, before children and years of rough treatment. She reminded me of my old axe. It had notches in the blade, the grip on the handle was gray and ragged. Fresh-faced nobles in brilliant chain-mail would come at me with longswords sharp as razors, and my worn and beaten axe would shatter their polished blades like the glass they resembled.
I didn’t know the nightshift woman’s name. I had asked several times, and she had ignored the question. She did her job and not one fingernail more. She knew she was too old to be getting tips for being friendly, and had long since stopped trying. But as she slept there, and boulders outside made gravel out of darkened houses, she looked beautiful. Her skin was weathered and strong, like a pair of good boots that kept a man dry on long marches. Her hair still looked soft, even though it would never again be the wild mane it had once been. And when she breathed, she looked fragile. Her chest barely moved at all. I always wondered that she didn’t suffocate, if she drew in only that little bit of air.
I took another long drink and turned to the game board at my table. This was always my table, and it was set for Godseye every night. Some nights I’d find would-be-generals willing to play for a bit of coin, others just to pass the time. Frequently I’d play against myself, which I enjoyed because then I could justify ordering two mugs. Tonight, though, the board was empty. The pieces sat quietly in the plain wooden box to the side.
If I turned my head and squinted a bit, the gameboard was a map of Chilseren. I stared and tried to picture the real places that I’d seen, corresponding to the crude drawing on the map. I could see Lake Prinz, the geese flying over in formation and the turtles pulling their heads back in as I walked past. The Light Woods, squirrels and birds and foxes hunting. The Wime Mountains; the boundaries of my game, but always there in the distance waiting for me. I had planned to go there after the war, to climb and climb until the whole world looked like the fuzzy map that I had spilled beer on. It was so peaceful without the armies, with all the little humans placed in the box on the side table. But gods, it was boring.
Another crash, this one close by. Arny jolted upright and he stated, quite loudly, “I didn’t take anythin’, I swurr!” A mug fell off the shelf and the barkeep swore, creatively, as he put it back. No one else so much as flinched. The Goose and Cradle was not the refuge of scared men. Apathy permeated down to the floorboards.
Then the door opened, and a deeply cloaked man walked in. The near-sleeping servingwoman looked up at him, and he gestured for a mug. Then he came and sat down across from me. I glanced at the face under the hood, and straightened up a little.
“Fancy a game, sir?”
“What stakes?” he asked me.
“Whatever stakes you care for. Some men play Godseye for the prizes, some for the game itself. Some play because they have nothing better to do. What do you play for, my friend?”
“Of those three? Let’s play for the game.”
The servingwoman came and sat the man’s drink down beside him. He thanked her politely, and she began to walk away.
“Please miss,” I said after her, “can I not know your name?” She kept walking as if she hadn’t heard.
I looked over at my opponent and shrugged, and he smiled slightly underneath his hood. He had a graying beard and lines around his eyes and mouth. He was not old yet, but maybe tomorrow.
We began to place our pieces, one after the other; some people preferred to set their pieces in a way they knew, and some preferred to watch their opponent and set up counter to him. I rarely did either, instead choosing to grab a piece and set it down at random. Often, my opponents saw this as an elaborate strategy and withdrew away from me.
The man did not appear impressed with my unorganized setup. He had his pieces in fairly standard lines, cautious but not afraid. As we finished placing, I thought he looked slightly insulted. Another crash outside the pub, this time causing the board to shake, like a massive earthquake on miniature scale. Arny replied with a hearty snore, and the mug fell again. The barkeep invoked the gods’ testicles and left it on the floor.
I offered him the first move. He looked at me for a moment, moved, then took a drink. “What are you doing here?” he asked after a forceful swallow.
I made my move. The game was too young to see anything important. “Playing at war, my friend, the same as you.”
He sighed and moved a piece of cavalry towards my scattered lines, to slow my progress or to goad me into surrounding it. He did not stare at the board, as most men did. Like me, he preferred to see how the opponent was thinking; the board stays the same, whether it is being watched or not, but humans are always shifting, like a lake with something large swimming just beneath the surface. That was how this man looked, at least.
“But why this place, friend? Is it the strength of the drink, or the agreeable servers?”
The servingwoman cracked one eye at that comment, to store away which of us had said it. I gestured towards my opponent with my eyes, but she was already back to feigning sleep. I wondered if she slept during the day, or if she had another job. All lives are hard, and the difficulty seldom comes from the number and magnitude of hardships. I’ve seen princes with the world at their feet be miserable every day of their soft existence, and I’ve seen laborers break their bodies from sunup to sundown, and go back to their hovels with grins wide as the Firth River. I wasn’t even sure the servingwoman was unhappy; I just assumed that everyone in the Goose and Cradle was.
I looked back and remembered that I had been asked a question. “Mr. Hillman always keeps this table for me, and this board. And most other taverns have either closed up or their patrons are overly human.”
“Overly human?” The game was still developing, but the man looked to have the upper hand. The alcohol fog over my eyes lifted; I rarely had a chance to play from behind.
“Yes, you know. Big red-faced men taking out their anger on smaller red-faced men. Or minor nobles crying into their cheap wines, bemoaning their state and explaining their importance. Or men who jump at every crash; no use worrying about the rocks, either they hit you or they don’t and worrying won’t move them one inch.”
The corners of his lips turned up slightly and he forced another drink down. “You are an interesting man,” he said.
“Oh, every man is interesting,” I replied, “some are just more obvious about it than others.”
He began advancing his army across the Mifarillan Plain, with the peasants at the front. I hadn’t seen that tactic in quite some time, and was pleasantly surprised. If I moved my cavalry around to sweep them away, he would be able to weaken them with archers placed just out of reach; if I countered with heavy infantry, his cavalry would dash into the hole they would leave behind. He was taking advantage of my random unit placement; he really had been insulted, and intended to rub my face in my confidence. He watched me eagerly.
“You, my friend, for example, are interesting,” I told him. I ignored his advancing forces, instead organizing my pieces wedged between the Mountains and the Lake. “You are dressed appropriately for this type of place, dirty and disheveled, but you don’t smell like gutter. So you probably don’t frequent this type of establishment.” I nodded an apology at Hillman, and he nodded back. The constant smell of unwashed feet helped the beer go down and stay down.
“Perhaps I’m a homeless man with a penchant for bathing instead of drinking,” he said. He kept advancing with his primary force, forking into two prongs, aimed at the sides respectively weak against them. I kept withdrawing.
“Those who are overly concerned with bathing rarely allow themselves to become homeless. And very few homeless play Godseye, because of the hunger and poverty and such,” I said. He began to advance his cavalry after my retreating forces. In two more turns at most, he would begin chipping away at my army. If I turned to fight back, his infantry would catch. Most players would have turned on his cavalry and inflicted minor damage as they pulled back. Most players would not have seen that my opponent would have split his horses and circled as the bulk of his army engaged, forcing me to use infantry to protect the archers, leaving the front lines too weak to hold. I kept retreating.
Another rock crashed nearby, and no one in the room moved. After forty-one days of siege, the rocks were Mirsare’s timepiece, like the sands of an hourglass falling one by one. Old Arny was still snoring, and the room’s shaking didn’t even dislodge his mug from the two fingers it dangled by. The servingwoman was still pretending to be asleep, but I thought I saw a glimpse of her blue eye from between her lids. I feigned to look back at the board, and her eyes opened a bit wider, following what little of the game she could see.
“I don’t think that all homeless men are poor and hungry. I know one man, at least, that chooses this life for himself, for whatever reason.”
“Men have many reasons for what they do, and rarely do they understand all of them. This life is simple, and understandable. For example, every night, Arny gives what few coins he has begged to kind Mr. Hillman behind the bar. And Mr. Hillman carries Arny to a cot in the back room every night after he passes out, though he doesn’t want anyone to know it. Arny will wake up in the morning, belch quite unpleasantly, and proceed to clean up and catch the rats which plague the kitchen. Then he leaves and begs. It may not be a glorious life, but he has a friend, and a bed, and a mug every night. Not many men would envy Arny, true. But envy leads to all sorts of terrible things. Are you going to move?”
“I don’t believe that you plan to let my horse continue slicing your forces apart. I’m trying to see what else can happen,” he said, staring closely at the board. Instead of blindly avoiding what he thought I wanted him to do, he decided to do what damage he could until the trap was sprung. And he was very careful. One good decision, one bad one.
The servingwoman moved over to the bar, pretending to talk to Mr. Hillman. Hillman looked taken aback. I had never seen her voluntarily speak with him, and he didn’t seem to know what to say. I couldn’t make out her words, even though the only noises in the room were of muffled, contented snoring. Even the screaming from elsewhere in the city was in a lull. It may have been wishful thinking, but she seemed to be watching us play. Her eyes had a life in them that I had never seen before. They were open wider, moving quicker, shining brighter. Eyes that knew and understood.
My opponent cleared his throat. He seemed annoyed once more that my attention was not fully directed at the game. I felt a bit guilty; a player of his caliber should be respected, even if I could beat him while trying to puzzle out the nameless woman. Why was she interested in the game now? Surely she couldn’t know that this man was a better opponent than any I had faced in the Goose and Cradle. She’d never shown any interest in the games I had played before.
I still hadn’t moved. To almost any eyes, I would have looked doomed. My forces were weaker, and split into several groups. Three of the groups were faced with opposing armies considerably stronger than themselves. The fourth army, the men I had left wedged between the lake and mountains, was faced with a containing force large enough to hold me off his flanks. Maybe she wanted to watch me lose. My heart sank for a moment, that she would light up just because I might fail. Had I asked for her name one too many times? I considered letting the man win, to give her what she wanted. After all, the game didn’t matter to me.
But I had insulted my opponent enough through inattention; to give him a false victory would be too cruel. He had nearly done enough damage to win the game. If he had been a bit less cautious, a bit more eager, he might have won through sheer numbers. But as he had chased each force into chokepoints and passes, he had spread too far out. First, my lake and mountain group would break free, and hunt down those forces which had been pinning them. He would reinforce, but each of my trapped forces would be waiting to pounce if he weakened a containing army too far. His armies could beat mine in a face-to-face battle, but if they began withdrawing, I would cripple him as he had me. But he had nowhere to flee.
All of this because I had spotted a weakness in the army containing my lake and mountain group. There was a chink in his lines, and now that he had chased me all over the world, it was wide enough for my army to break through. And my four trapped armies would quickly become four surrounding armies.
The game would take all night to finish out, but I was in no hurry. The servingwoman walked over. I tried not to look at her, tried to concentrate on breaking my lakemen free. But I did look, and gave her a smile. She didn’t smile back. Instead, she patted my opponent on the shoulder and said, “I thought you had him for a moment. But the old general doesn’t make mistakes. Can I bring you anything else to drink?”
The man was speechless for a moment. “He… how do you… I’ve got him trapped!”
She chuckled warmly. “No, he has you. Or he will, as soon as those,” she pointed at the men by the lake, “break free. See there?” she pointed at the chink in his lines, “He will hit you there, and your lines will shatter like a tray full of porcelain carried by a pretty barmaid through a room full of drunken, lonely sailors.”
I broke out laughing. “Wonderful! Who are you, miss? Please, I can take it no longer. If you do not tell me your name, I will surely die.”
“A bit dramatic aren’t you? You’ve never told us who you are, why should I tell you who I am?”
“Because you are an amazing woman, who sees from across the room that which few men could see if it slapped them across the face. Because I have asked you kindly every night for two months now.”
My opponent still stared at the board, trying to see a way out of his predicament.
“And,” I finished, “you appear to know who I am already. I cannot say the same of you.”
“Fine,” she said. “My name is Marrillea. We met once, before we got old and ended up here.”
I sat and chewed my fingertip, as I do when I’m thinking. Twenty, no, thirty years ago, I had been playing Godseye against the Marshall Wime, at the finest restaurant in the city. A beautiful girl was serving us, and watching the games. Every noble played at that establishment; people would pay to watch from the overlooking balconies. Tournaments were held, with money and land and fame as prizes.
And that one day, the Marshall Wime was playing particularly well. I had not lost since before being made General, some fifteen years. The king had announced that anyone who defeated me would be awarded fifteen thousand full gold pieces; more than any noble made in a year. And Wime was close to it.
I barely remember the board, or the formations. I do remember that the pretty little servinggirl had shown Wime how to beat me. I don’t think she did it on purpose; she was studying the board, and I had assumed that she was just feigning interest as the girls were all paid to do. Then her eyes lit up brighter than ever I had seen before. “There! You’ve got him!” she exclaimed and pointed, then turned horrendously red.
The proprietor took her away immediately. I objected, saying that spectators shouted frequently, and she shouldn’t be punished for a moment’s indiscretion. I objected partly out of concern for the girl, and partly because she was right. If I had been upset, that would have given her plan credence.
But Wime was playing particularly well that day. He saw, and halfway understood what the girl had meant. But he was too careful. He looked where she had pointed, but didn’t know what to do about it. He started to push with everything, to drive a wedge, but then he decided I was tricking him, and pulled back. Someone should have told him that indecision is the surest path to failure. He lost the game, and blamed the girl for distracting him. He stomped off in a rage, and I inquired after the girl. Her name was Marrillea, I was told. The next time I came, I requested her, but they told me she had quit, though I knew she must have been fired. She stuck in my mind as the only person to defeat me until two months ago; but she was never real to me. She was the phantom that saw through me. She was the inevitability that, if one plays enough games, one will lose. And now she had found me again.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She shrugged. “Too late for any of that. And too late for our fine guest. He’s noosed.”
Another crash shook the room. The windows glowed brighter, though whether it was morning or fire I couldn’t tell.
My opponent finally saw his trap. That was good. I believe that a man should always know why he lost. He sat back in his chair and pulled out his white handkerchief, which all Godseye players carry with them. He laid it down gently over the board. There was a royal seal in golden stitching in one corner. The man lowered his hood and smiled at me.
“I never could get the better of you, General,” he said.
“You could simply order me to lose, my King,” I replied.
Marrillea’s eyes popped wide open. Hillman’s jaw nearly touched the floor.
I reached across the table to shake his hand.
“Ah, that would be decidedly unkingly. You knew it was me the whole time?” he asked.
“As soon as you spoke. Though your disguise is well done. It is good to see you again, old friend, but I have to ask. Why have you come?”
“I needed to learn a bit more about war, and you are the only teacher I have left.”
“A few more games, I think, and I will no longer be your better. You learn faster than I ever did. But what do you want to know?”
“Two things. The first is, how did you lose? No one has ever beaten you in thousands of games. You are the best in the world. How did they beat us?”
I had asked myself that question every day since the Mifarillan Plain fell. I saw my men breaking under the pressure, running from a likely death into an assured one. I didn’t blame them. They could not know the cost of their momentary panic. My lines had shattered as the enemy poured through that one little hole. That one spot that was too weak.
Every man that could made his way back to Mirsare. My cavalry fought a brave holding action to buy the city time. I made it back to report my defeat, then tried my best to disappear. Two months, of failure and siege, and I still didn’t know why I had lost. I drank all night at the Goose and Cradle, playing that battle against myself on the board, and I always won. The enemy should not have broken through.
“Do not ask me that, my King. I do not know. What is your other question?”
The king sighed deeply. “How do you know when to surrender?”
“Make that decision the same as any other; does the good outweigh the bad?”
He sat in silence for a long time, staring at the board, and at me. Arny woke up from his drunken daze and began humming again, a bawdy song about the dangers of women onboard a ship. Marrillea sat at the bar and watched me, though I don’t know why. I was just one more man, waiting for the world to end.
“I must surrender,” my friend said with sad eyes. I nodded; there was no path to victory left. “They want your head, my friend. To ensure that you do not lead a rebellion. Your head, and they spare the city. We become a vassal state. We must pay tribute, and give them our armies if they call. But they will spare the city.”
My head. If they could’ve seen me, sitting in the dark as the city burned, playing at games with drunken old men, they might not want my head. It was no good any more. Maybe thirty years ago, I could have led a rebellion. Maybe then, I would have been worthy of fear. But not now. Now I just wanted another beer and one more game. Something to distract me.
The world comes for every man, no matter how deep he buries himself. I nodded my consent, and stood up. I put every piece away, carefully, lovingly. I folded the board and put everything in its case.
I gave it to Marrillea. Maybe she could teach her grandchildren. I dropped a purse of gold coin on Hillman’s bar, and nodded a ‘thank you’ for all he had done for me. “Give a little to Arny,” I said, “for teaching me all the words to his songs.”
Marrillea didn’t stand. She didn’t throw her arms around me or kiss me goodbye. I didn’t expect her to. I hadn’t won her heart, but at least I knew why I had lost it. I kissed her forehead, and backed away. I looked deep into her eyes, and gave her a smile. She smiled back weakly, and I could believe that she would miss me. That would have to be enough.
I wrapped myself in my cloak, and pulled the hood. The king did the same, and I walked out the door. Now he was the pallbearer, I suppose. I would miss the Goose and Cradle. The sun was coming up, and I did my best to taste the morning light.
David Austin is twenty-three years old and currently living in Birmingham. His near-future plans are to be in graduate school in either Creative Writing or Lit. He first got into fantasy, as so many of us did, through Tolkien. “The Goose and Cradle” is his first published story. He’d like to thank his girlfriend Kourtni for her help editing and for reminding him to eat something while he worked.