The man was unarmed, hands raised and bare. Rolland flung off the bedcovers and slipped out of bed. He stood, slowly, a few steps from the man.
‘You speak Rennonian?’
The man nodded. ‘I speak many languages.’ His words sounded strange, but Rolland understood them well enough. ‘You are a Dreamer.’ His head cocked to the side. He wasn’t looking at Rolland as he spoke. Could he truly be blind? How had he gotten here?
‘I dream.’ He had just woken up from one. Men chasing him, fighting, dying.
‘We all dream. But few of us are Dreamers.’
Rolland grabbed a candle holder from his bedside. It was sturdy, heavy.
‘I’ve come to warn you, boy, not to fight.’
‘Warn me of what?’ He’d woken up with his heart thudding against his chest, breathing heavy, terrified from the dream, and to this man standing over his bed—Rolland gripped the candle holder tight, but his fear was leaving him. He felt this man was telling the truth.
‘Don’t be afraid, Ghurka.’
‘What—what is Ghurka?’
You are Ghurka.’ The man’s head cocked to the side. ‘You do not remember me, brother? No. You would not. You have only just returned to the dreams.’
‘Who are you?’
‘In time, you will remember.’ He paused. ‘Uthrid’s men are coming. You stand out, Ghurka. Your light betrays you, it shines like a beacon—’
‘You have the sight?’
The man smiled. He turned his head to the light of the window. His eyes, they were… glass? ‘In a manner of speaking.’
His tone turned serious. ‘You must remember, Ghurka.’
Thunder clapped. Rolland woke up in his bed. The shutters were open and the rain fell heavy on the window sill. The man with the glass eyes… had that been a dream? He often had nightmares, and they always felt real. But this… he’d never dreamt of himself before. Not since he was a child.
He closed the shutters, the rain spraying him. The latch had been on last night. Could the wind have opened them? He checked the bolt on the door. Locked.
Then he saw the muddy boot-prints at the foot of his bed, leading to the window.
Remember, the man had said. ‘Remember what?’
There was a knock on his door.
‘Breakfast, Rolland. We’ve lots to do!’
‘I’ll be down in a moment, Stanton.’
The inn was quieter in the morning. Less drunkards, though a few, more dedicated drunkards already had an early start on the day. The others had already grabbed a table. Koel was at the bar ordering breakfast.
‘So, what’s the plan today? Going to walk around Cheruga begging for grain?’ Jenna asked.
‘Not exactly, no. In fact, we’re going to be playing a game, or learning it.’ He pulled something out of his jacket and glanced at Rolland. ‘These are playing cards.’ He opened the packet and spread them on the table. ‘They have houses here where they bet on these games.’
‘Gambling?’ Koel sat at the table. ‘That’s your big plan? You’re going to win coin to buy the grain?’
‘Oh, not me.’ Stanton stared at Rolland. ‘Him.’
‘You’re good with money, no? They told me you were gifted in arithmetic.’
‘That’s not why you want me to play.’
‘No, of course not, but it helps.’
Rolland put his tattooed hand on the table. ‘You might remember that lighttouched are not allowed to gamble.’
‘Oh, that’s right. But I thought the rules were different here? Last night you drank ale, after all. And if I’m not mistaken.’ He grinned. ‘You’ve held a blade before.’
‘And look where that got me.’ Rolland grit his teeth. ‘This is what you wanted me for, all along, wasn’t it? Did you even come here to buy grain, why would you? When you could live off the winnings you’d make from me.’
Stanton put up his hands. ‘Rolland, my boy. Of course I want to bring grain back. Ashrennon is my home, I would not want my countrymen starving.’ Stanton’s eyes grew angry. ‘You’d do well to remember what you are, Rolland. I bought your services, remember? That means you have to do what I tell you to do. So we will all sit here, eat the slop they serve, and learn this game. Then, you will make money.’
Koel shifted in his seat. Jenna glanced between them. Neither said a word.
Rolland clenched his fists. He’d not felt this way since Jolm. He’d thought he’d gotten lucky with Stanton. He’d lost so much, so quickly. There had been no hope for him until Stanton came along. But now, he wasn’t so sure. He was beginning to learn just who this man was. He didn’t like it. But he would play his game.
The food came.
‘Ah, the food.’ Koel’s gaze locked onto his plate and he grabbed it from the server.
‘Yes, the food.’ Jenna did the same.
The tension drifted away as he filled his stomach. Perhaps he’d overreacted. Stanton was right, he had drunk ale. He’d already broken the rules. Rolland glanced at his residual limb. He’d broken many rules. All this freedom he’d been given after he left the walls… he’d not been following the rules for months.
What was the harm?
The game was a simple one. The cards had different symbols and numbers on them, denoting their house and value. There were many combinations of cards, each combination had a different value. Rolland’s skill in numbers helped him grasp the rules fast, but it wasn’t just his skill in numbers that was important.
‘He always knows what we have, and he knows when we’re bluffin’.’ Koel slammed the cards on the table. ‘How is this fair?’
‘It’s not supposed to be fair, Koel,’ Stanton said. ‘That’s the point.’
‘Do you really think cheating people out of their money is the right way to make friend in this city?’ Jenna asked
‘It’s not cheating, per se. Rolland just… knows more than they do. He’s not hiding cards up his sleeve.’
‘It’s cheating.’ Rolland glanced at the others, gauging their emotions. ‘It’s wrong, but then so is gambling.’
‘And that makes it okay?’
Rolland shrugged. ‘Not really.’ He put his hand down. It was difficult holding all the cards in one hand, rearranging them. But the more he used his only hand, the more dextrous it became. He only wished he were able to practice writing here. He flipped his cards. ‘Three swords.’
‘Damnit,’ Jenna said ‘That’s five hands in a row.’
Rolland couldn’t help but smile.
‘Don’t you think this will be dangerous?’ Koel eyed Stanton. ‘People will get suspicious. This boy comes in, barely speaks the language, but wins every hand and takes all their money.’
‘Well, we’ll be more subtle than that. And Koel, you should teach him the language.’
‘We had months on the road and you’re only asking me to teach him now?’
Stanton scratched his head. ‘I guess I didn’t think it through.’
‘Mister plan man didn’t think it through.’ Jenna sighed. ‘We’re doomed here, aren’t we?’
‘Hush.’ Stanton raised a finger. ‘It’ll all work out.’
For most of the day they just sat in the inn, playing cards. Rolland felt his reading get better as they went along. He had not been able to practice reading emotions since his apprenticeship. The card game was even starting to feel familiar, as if he’d played it before. But he supposed they had, for hours now.
‘Where did you learn this game, Stanton?’ Rolland asked.
‘Oh, they have the game in the smaller towns. It’s how I got this.’ He held up the timepiece that sat around his neck.
Rolland was also learning how to be more subtle in his observations. He started losing hands he knew he could win, with smaller bets, just so it would seem as if he were not cheating. Of course, he didn’t know how effective it was in this little circle, as they all knew what he was doing. The true test would come the next evening, when Stanton brought him to the gambling house. Rolland was looking forward to being helpful, needed. He was nervous, however. He didn’t like the idea of cheating people out of their money. It seemed wrong. It was wrong. And if they were found out, it could get him killed.
It could get them all killed.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.