Trellach v. Damar
A Story by Aaron Canton
“…but I was not about to let this intruder get away with damaging your property and insulting you!” Trellach held a clenched fist up to her chest as her mages moved Damar to one side of the empty Lords board set on the amphitheater’s stone table. “He made it clear he believes we are too weak and foolish to stand up to him! Well, I will prove him wrong—in your names!”
The crowd clapped, though Trellach knew they didn’t really understand what was going on. But that was fine; they didn’t need to. All they needed to do was watch her humiliate their enemy and cheer for her when she drew her sword and cut off the mage’s head. Within a few weeks, they’d blame Damar for every misfortune that had befallen them, and Trellach would be as secure as ever.
“As your baroness, I have a wide latitude for what punishments I may inflict on those who would harm us,” continued Trellach, walking to the other side of the Lords table. “And I have made this a most fitting one. If Damar believes himself to be so much wiser than us, then we will play each other in the ultimate test of wisdom—the game of Lords. If he wins, he owes us nothing; I will pay to fix your property and accept this as my due for falling before a monster who thought nothing of upending your lies. But if—when—I win…” She swept an arm towards her audience. “He will do hard labor from morning to night, every day, until he has repaid us for the harm he wrought!” She turned towards Damar as the crowd cheered behind her. “I’m sure you’d much rather be doing important magical things—”
“Not really,” interrupted Damar in a quiet voice that somehow carried through the entire amphitheater. “I have a few spare hours before I need to leave town, so I suppose winning a quick game of Lords is as good a diversion as any.”
Trellach allowed herself a smirk. “Confidence is one thing, but in Lords there’s no substitute for good moves.” She dropped one hand to the side of the board, where a bunch of pieces had been readied for her to place. “Tyrn. His magic—”
“We placed bindings on him before you arrived,” said the mage, who nodded at his colleagues. “He cannot cast anything that targets another living being. That includes himself—no spells to boost his intelligence or anything like that.”
“Good.” Trellach picked up her general, the one mandatory piece, and smiled at Damar. “You may place your pieces first, wizard.”
Damar brightened. “Excellent!” He turned towards the crowd. “Prentiss! Mr. Prentiss, could you come here, please?”
“Prentiss? Who—” began Trellach before she heard a murmuring in the crowd and saw a very pale man in ragged clothes stumbling down the amphitheater steps. “Stop him!” she snapped to her mages. “There’s no asking for help in Lords!”
“I’m not asking for help.” Damar returned her smile. “Prentiss is a magic construct I whipped up one day when I wanted a good Lords opponent. He’ll be playing on my behalf.”
“What? That isn’t—”
“If you’re really cleverer than me,” said Damar, and suddenly his voice echoed across the amphitheater again even though he barely spoke above a whisper, “then surely you can beat one of my zombies.”
Trellach glared at Tyrn. “I thought you bound him?”
“Indeed he did!” chirped Damar. “Quite well too, really. But I was only bound to not cast spells on other living beings. Prentiss, as it happens, is quite deceased.”
Trellach examined the construct, which had reached the stage and was climbing up the stairs. The face looked familiar, and she realized it matched the one she’d seen in an old book. “That’s Matthias Prentiss!” she hissed. “The great Lords master who died thirty years ago!”
Damar nodded briskly. “I wanted a Lords partner, and I figured, who better than the man who revolutionized the game? So when I heard of his death, I simply went on over to the gravesite and brought him back as a death knight. We play every few days, and if I may say so, he’s even better now than when he died.” He chuckled. “Anyways, good luck beating him, baroness. I’m sure you’ll do splendidly.”
Tyrn moved forwards, magic crackling in his hands, but Trellach held up a hand to stop him. If he did anything now, she’d look weak in front of her people, like she couldn’t handle Damar after all. If she was to recover her pride and her dignity, she had to beat Damar as he was now, champion helper or not. “I will,” she told Damar. “Shall we?”
Prentiss was a thin old man with wispy hair and a completely blank expression. When he reached the board and moved besides Damar, he set up his pieces quickly and efficiently, choosing the classic formation: six soldiers—the weakest piece in the game—bracketing one knight in his second row and an array of archers and bards complementing his priest, mage, and general behind them. Trellach, for her part, went with her own usual strategy. She placed her general in the very back, then added two priests—whose special ability let them paralyze opposing pieces—and one mage—who could shoot halfway across the board in a single attack—in her center row. She filled every remaining space in her three deployment rows with a soldier.
The resultant board reminded Trellach of Lords books she had read when preparing for tournaments. Prentiss had used the traditional arrangement of pieces, now the favored army of what was called the ‘outpost’ school. It featured strong pieces, which could vault around the board and establish secured positions, and weaker pieces that protected and supported the stronger ones. Trellach, though, was a leading proponent of the ‘blockade’ school and had chosen an army to match. Her pieces were weak but numerous enough to clog the board, preventing Prentiss’ strongest pieces from making full use of their moves. Add in a couple priests to prevent opposing forces from fleeing and a single mage for a little firepower, and it was an effective way of shutting down a wide variety of enemy formations, then drowning them in sheer numbers. The result was the classic armies of the two largest schools of Lords would go up against each other… and, if Trellach remembered correctly, the blockade school won about sixty percent of such games.
“All right,” she said, smiling to herself. “Your move, Damar.”
Prentiss swiftly reached down, gripped a soldier, and shoved it forward two squares—the most common opening move in the game. Trellach moved a soldier one square, beginning what would soon become an inexorable crawl of her soldier army up the board. “I hope you brought some interesting variations,” she said. “Lest we all be bored to death.”
“Oh, no need to worry about that,” said Damar. “Why, in a few moves I daresay you’ll be completely and totally lost!”
Trellach scowled again, but Prentiss moved, and she returned her focus to the game.
The first dozen moves were straight from textbook, as both Prentiss and Trellach developed their sides according to the fundamental principles of their schools. On move thirteen, though, Prentiss moved an archer instead of the bard tradition dictated. This left his forward position slightly weaker, since the bard wasn’t there to ‘boost’ the pieces and enable them to move farther, but now his right side was stronger on account of the additional archer poised to fire into Trellach’s lines.
Trellach reached for her priest to move it one square to the right and paralyze the archer, but just before she picked it up, she saw what Prentiss was doing. If she did that, he’d be able—in only seven or eight turns—to exploit her underdeveloped left side and set up a forward base there. She instead moved a soldier, one which would both put a slight amount of pressure on the archer while also securing crucial squares on the left side of the board. Rather than rescue his archer, though, Prentiss just moved his mage to attack on an entirely unexpected angle, and Trellach once again scrambled to catch up.
Prentiss unleashed variation after variation, quickly departing from any book Trellach had read and moving the game onto a path of his own. As Trellach fought to puzzle his strategies out, she realized that each of Prentiss’ plans was thought out at least ten moves ahead, and if she missed a single one, then over the next fifteen moves, she’d find half her army isolated and captured. Soon her head pounded from the effort of trying to deduce Prentiss’ moves.
“Sometimes I have him play against himself for a week or two,” called Damar in a light tone. “Just working out new variations. What do you think?”
Trellach ignored him as Prentiss made another move. She narrowed her eyes, trying to work out his plan, and advanced one of her soldiers another two squares, but as soon as she let go, she felt she’d made a mistake. Prentiss swiftly moved his knight halfway across the board, and Trellach immediately saw he was concentrating his army to attack her formation in a spot she couldn’t reinforce without critically weakening herself elsewhere. All she could do was sacrifice a soldier to blunt his attack and buy her a turn to catch up, then dig in and hope he couldn’t press his attack.
But he did. Prentiss took the soldier she threw in front of his knight and maneuvered his pieces like a scalpel to tear into her weakened army. Over the course of ten turns, he widened the crack in the side of her massive army into a great rift, then worked his soldiers into where they could target her troops at their leisure. It was all Trellach could do to keep as many of her pieces alive as she could, but every turn worsened her position. When Prentiss forked her general and mage, forcing her to sacrifice the latter piece to rescue the former, she felt a wave of despair and heard her citizens whispering anxiously. “No,” she muttered. “I am not losing to a zombie.”
“Yes, you are,” said Damar in a pleasant tone.
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