Forwin stood leaning against the wall and stared with moody distaste at the bustling crowd, a dozen raucous conversations setting his nerves on edge. Monty’s Hall was typical of taverns found on a trade route and he was heartily tired of the noise, the smell and most of the all the food – or what passed for it – in such places. His eyes scanned the motley crowd with habitual wariness, one hand clutching his satchel for reassurance. Farmers thronged the bar, men and women with hard-bitten faces, drowning a hard day’s work with ale. Rough-looking rabble crowded the tables, sporting an assortment of weathered armor, bounty-hunters from the look of them (no doubt staking out the ruins that dotted the countryside). There were a fair share of leather-clad troops in the throng, mercenary grunts, spillover from the battle raging sporadically on the border with Gwynloch. All in all, your typical low-income clientele. Except for the Wizard cloaked in dark blue robes, who had a table all to himself despite the crowd.
Neighing of horses and loud laughter outside the door intruded into Forwin’s awareness, making him scowl. He wished he was back home at the capital, instead of couriering promissory notes across the kingdom to Father’s vendors. But Father had made it clear. Better start pulling your own weight, my boy, if you want to inherit the business someday. True, it wasn’t like the old days, where couriers carried actual gold and got themselves robbed and stabbed. Still, it sucked to be out in the hinterland.
The door burst open to admit a party a three, no, make that four. Three soldiers staggered in, one of them clad in mail and dragging a young woman. The girl’s hands were manacled, her once lovely gown torn and dirty. There was a wild look on her tear-streaked face as she looked around at the crowd. The spoils of war, thought Forwin sourly, some poor girl from Gwynloch unlucky enough to be taken prisoner. Probably from a noble house, going by her dress. Despite his relatively sheltered life, Forwin had no illusions about war. But it was one thing to know of unpleasantness, and quite another to witness it.
“The best ale for my men, Rosalind my dear,” yelled the mail-clad mercenary wearing a corporal’s insignia on his sleeve, who seemed to be the leader of the trio, “and some soup for my pretty little slave here.”
The bar maid – who was apparently Rosalind – nodded sullenly. The corporal walked up to an occupied table and jerked his thumb. He was broad-shouldered, heavily muscled with neck-length hair and a permanent leer. Badly healed scars across his cheek and forearm attested to battles survived. The farmers at the table scowled, then thought the better of it and vacated silently. Food and drinks were served once the mercenaries made themselves comfortable around the table. Forwin’s felt a stab of pity as the female prisoner attacked her soup like a starved animal.
The corporal glanced slyly at his captive and suddenly yanked her on to his lap. The young woman, taken by surprise, struggled to rise as she pushed herself away from her captor who guffawed at her discomfiture. She was brought up short by the thin chain that leashed her manacled hands to the corporal’s belt. The girl’s face reddened with shame – even in her broken state – her eyes welling with fresh tears as they darted around the room. But she received only curious stares from the rough crowd, no help was forthcoming.
“That’s no way to treat a lady,” the words spilled from Forwin’s lips without conscious volition, and he found his fists had clenched, “sir,” he spat out as an afterthought. A startled silence filled the room. The two soldiers flanking the corporal looked up at Forwin, their lips curling in derision.
“What did you say, lad?” the corporal was looking at him incredulously and twirling a large serrated knife that had suddenly appeared in his hand, “Better watch your tongue unless you fancy a blade between your ribs.”
“You can’t hold her against her will,” Forwin swallowed, sounding ludicrous even to his own ears, “She is of no strategic value.”
“Oh, she is of much value to me,” the corporal’s leer deepened, “Once I’ve had my fill, I will auction her to the Frostlander chieftains. They will pay much for one as young and lovely as her.”
Forwin stared with loathing at the mercenary. King Alfred’s latest military adventure had scraped the bottom of the barrel. With the sheer stupidity (or genius) of going to war at harvest time, the King couldn’t rely on the farmer conscripts that usually made up the bulk of his attack force. The vacuum had been filled by mercenary cutthroats from all over Ordossia.
“How much?” Forwin demanded, hardly believing what he was saying. Father would kill him if he squandered a fortune to rescue damsels in distress.
“More than you can afford, lad,” the corporal’s gaze grew crafty, “as fancy as your clothes are. But, if you are so keen on saving the lovely lady, why don’t you fight for her?”
“Fight?” Forwin stared blankly.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the corporal chuckled, full of false cheer, “not a real fight. I could eviscerate a bookworm like you before you knew it. That wouldn’t be sporting, now, would it. I meant a game of chance and wit. A wager, if you will.”
“What kind of wager?” Forwin asked suspiciously. The crowd was unusually quiet, jostling and closing around to watch the confrontation.
“Now you’re talking, lad,” the corporal gathered the three wine goblets on the table, now empty, the bronze dull with age. One was forged with an image of a mermaid, the second with a serpent’s coils and the third with a stylized hawk. The corporal produced a shiny gold coin on the table, upturning the goblets such that the coin was hidden under one of them, “Take these goblets and the coin, out of sight of prying eyes. Hide the coin under one of the goblets of your choosing, and bring them all back on a tray. If I correctly guess the one with the coin, I win. Else you win. Best of ten. A smart scholarly lad like you should have no trouble besting me, should you?”
“Why would you take those odds?” Forwin stared at the corporal, knowing he was being baited but not knowing why, “And what’s in it for you?”
“After I make my tentative choice, I just need you to uncover one of the other two goblets that doesn’t contain the coin. Then I make my final choice. For inspiration, you see, since the odds are against me,” the corporal grinned and wiped the blade across his palm, “I am willing to risk those odds for the right to carve you with this knife. If I win. The girl is yours, if you win. But you can’t possibly lose, can you.”
Forwin’s heart beat faster. The corporal would kill him most painfully if Forwin lost. But Forwin couldn’t lose, could he? The odds of the corporal guessing the correct goblet was only one in three, and the corporal would almost certainly lose to those odds if the game was played ten times in a row. Uncovering an empty goblet wouldn’t reveal anything, since Forwin would always uncover an empty goblet no matter what the corporal chose at first. The corporal couldn’t know whether the coin was under his first choice or under the other uncovered goblet. The odds didn’t change, right? Forwin couldn’t turn down this chance to rescue the girl, when the odds were in his favor, without looking like a fool or a hypocrite.
“You have some way of sensing the coin,” Forwin retorted accusingly, “I am not convinced you’ll play the game by the rules.”
“I swear by…” began the corporal.
“I can ensure that the game is played by the rules,” the voice rumbled low and deep like distant thunder. Forwin had forgotten the Wizard at the next table. The blue cloak was topped by a hood that shrouded his face in inky darkness. In the dimly lit tavern, Forwin couldn’t even tell if the Wizard was old or young, bearded or shaven. Only his cloak clasp identified the Wizard with the Order of UnAffiliated, respected across the realm as the closest thing to a neutral council. If the Wizard could magically vouch that the corporal couldn’t sense the coin, Forwin couldn’t get a better guarantee than that. The corporal shrugged theatrically and grinned up at him. The girl was looking at Forwin with wide startled eyes.
“I accept the wager,” Forwin swallowed. The crowd muttered in anticipation, all other business temporarily forgotten. The corporal’s grin grew wider.
The sinking feeling in Forwin’s chest blossomed into panic at the end of the sixth round. The corporal made his tentative pick of one of the upturned goblets, the Mermaid it happened to be. Forwin uncovered one of the other two goblets to show that there was no coin beneath it. The corporal paused, and then changed his final pick to the other upturned goblet just as he had on the prior five rounds. The crowd gasped at the gold coin revealed beneath the goblet the corporal had uncovered.
Four out of six rounds, the corporal had won despite the odds being against him two out of three. How? Forwin moaned to himself. The corporal’s shit-eating grin was plastered to his face now. The captive girl had her shoulders slumped, the glimmer of hope in her eyes growing ever dimmer. The Wizard suddenly seemed to lose interest in the game. He beckoned to the barmaid who was standing idle to watch Forwin’s catastrophic misfortune unfolding. Rosalind looked surprised at whatever request the Wizard had made, but nodded and pushed her way through the crowd. She returned with a dozen shot glasses and placed them on the Wizard’s table. The Wizard nodded his thanks, and dug into his robes to produce two silver coins, one of which he gave to Rosalind and then placing the other coin on the table.
Then the Wizard proceeded to upturn all the shot glasses, with one of the glasses covering the silver coin which was still visible through the glass. The Wizard’s casual attitude annoyed Forwin. Wasn’t he supposed to keep an eye on Forwin’s wager? After all Forwin’s life was on the line. The Wizard struck a pensive pose, his hand wandering over his glasses as if trying to pick one. The Wizard seemed to pick one of the glasses at random, and then with his other hand straightened all the other shot glasses except the one with the silver coin. What’s he playing at, the fool? wondered Forwin, distracted.
“Time for the seventh round,” the corporal’s drawl cut into Forwin’s thoughts. And the corporal was twirling his knife, licking his lips in anticipation…
Despair settled like a thick blanket around Forwin, within the darkened storeroom that he had been allowed to use. He placed the gold coin under one of the three goblets selected at random, just as he had on six prior occasions. At the rate the corporal was winning, Forwin’s life was forfeit. The corporal had cunningly played Forwin’s intellectual snobbery against him. But how was he doing it, with odds at one in three? The corporal had changed his pick every time, after Forwin had revealed an empty goblet. Could that be it? But how? The corporal couldn’t know where the coin was. The odds didn’t change by looking at an empty goblet, did it?
An image came to Forwin’s mind of the Wizard picking one of dozen shot glasses at random. In the Wizard’s own little mockery of the wager. The odds of the Wizard selecting the glass with the silver at random was only one in twelve. Then the Wizard had uncovered every other shot glass except the one with the silver, since the Wizard of course knew where the silver coin was… oh bloody shit. The odds of the corporal picking the correct goblet at random was low. Only one in three. The corporal was counting on that. The coin was much more likely to be in one of the other two goblets, and Forwin was obliged to show the corporal which one it wasn’t. That was what the Wizard was discreetly trying to teach Forwin. Forwin groaned as his perspective on calculating odds shifted dizzyingly. What a fool he had been. The very rules of the game had stacked the odds against Forwin, while making it seem that the odds were in his favor. He made a mental note, never to wager a game of chance again, which shouldn’t be a problem since the corporal was going to kill him. Forwin didn’t see how his new found understanding would help him now, since he was committed to playing through the remaining four rounds.
Wait. The corporal was counting on not selecting the correct goblet on the tentative pick. But that was only true if his selection was truly random. What if Forwin could bias the selection so that the corporal picked the correct goblet on the first try? Then his enemy’s strategy would unravel. But how could he influence the corporal’s selection? Forwin racked his memory of the last six rounds. The corporal had selected the Mermaid goblet as his tentative pick five out of six times, a subconscious affinity perhaps, while Forwin had chosen the coin’s placement at random. If Forwin also placed the coin always under the Mermaid…
The crowd roared in excitement as the corporal shifted his pick at the end of the tenth round. Shocked twisted his face as the goblet came up empty yet again. Forwin sagged with relief. All the last four rounds had gone in Forwin’s favor. Forwin had won six to four. Forwin’s gamble that the corporal wouldn’t – couldn’t – change a well honed strategy had paid off. The captive girl was staring at Forwin, the desperate hope in her eyes painful to see.
“You cheated,” snarled the corporal, his face ugly with rage, “I was winning. Everyone saw…”
“Must have been a lucky streak,” Forwin shrugged dismissively, “How could you win, really? The odds were against you two to three. You said it yourself. I will take custody of the lady, now.”
“I don’t think so, lad,” muttered the corporal, ominously waving his knife, “what are you going to do? Fight me?”
“The wager was played in good faith and rightfully won,” the Wizard’s voice was cold, cutting through the tension like an icy blast, “you will hand over the girl, corporal.”
“Or what, old man?” the corporal spat contemptuously, “I know your type, Wizard. The experienced ones all wield a magic staff. I don’t see you carrying one. I think you are a novice. You couldn’t cough up a fireball if your life depended on it.”
The Wizard pushed back his hood to reveal a balding head with a gray beard, as his masking blur dissipated. The face was gaunt to the point of seeming like a skull with skin over it, “You are correct, corporal, that the weakest of my kind do not carry a staff. But neither do the strongest.”
Forwin had never seen him before, though there were a few gasps of recognition from the crowd. The corporal had stood up, toppling his chair in haste.
“My Lord,” there was sheer terror on the corporal’s face, “I… I didn’t realize it was you. Please forgive my rudeness. I will release the girl, of course, as agreed.”
The Wizard turned to the newly freed girl, after the corporal and his men had made themselves scarce, “I am headed for the Gywnloch capital, my dear, and expect to be there in a week or so. You can come with me, if you wish.”
“I would be most grateful, my lord,” the girl nodded, her voice breaking as she curtsied to the Wizard, “My family’s lands have been overrun, and I do not know how many of my family still survive. But I have relatives in the capital who will take me in.”
The Wizard turned his gaze on Forwin, “Unless you wish you keep the lady for yourself, young man.”
“No… no, my lord,” stammered Forwin, “I only wished to free her.”
“It is settled, then,” the Wizard turned away toward the door. Not so much as a thank you, Forwin grumbled to himself, as he looked at the girl’s retreating back.
Just as she reached the door, the girl turned to give Forwin a quizzical look. Then she turned away, following the Wizard out through the door.