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The Ancient Game

Chapter One: The Bachelor's Goblet

By Moritz BauerPublished 12 months ago Updated 9 months ago 22 min read

There weren't always dragons in the valley. Certainly not during most of Leister Doyle's long life. Maybe even too long, some would add, who had met him in person on one of his rare visits to the village. He had always been a grumpy fellow but after his wife died twenty-three years ago he became especially resentful towards everything and everyone who dared to exist outside of his home.

Even Leister Doyle had heard of the rumors some fishermen had spread at The Lucky Potion, the local pub. They had claimed to have spotted a humongous winged creature flying through the mist that covered the sea throughout the early morning hours. Scared to death, they had dropped their nets filled with fresh catch back into the ocean.

Leister Doyle did not care for the villager's gossip. The fishermen were known to be regular guests at The Lucky Potion and probably had to find an excuse for spending the night looking for the bottom of a tankard of Fire Ale instead of looking for fish out on the sea. This time, however, he was wrong. To be fair though, almost no one could have imagined any of the momentous events that were about to unfold.

After the fisherman, a pair of traveling cloak and herb paddlers reported a similar incident. They had camped out on a hill at the outer rim of the valley when their horse waked them. Gusts of wind rattled their tent but when they stormed out it was already too late. The horse was gone without a trace. As the incidents piled up over the following months the villagers began interpreting dragon sightings as a sign of bad luck and blamed the dragons for all kinds of misfortune. Bad weather was the result of dragon wings that blew the clouds inland; a gambler was possessed by dragons' greed caused by their aura and even miscarriages were blamed on fowl dragons' breath that polluted the air at night.

Mr. Doyle had never seen a dragon himself nor did he think of wasting a moment staring into the distance to possibly spot one of those beasts. He spent most of the days he had left in his drafty cottage made of black basalt stone that had been in his family for centuries. It towered above the steep and cultrated cliffs that have been shaped by relentless waves bursting against the stone for ages. Unfortunately, Mr. Doyle was plagued by a severe case of insomnia which caused him to spend most nights sitting by a lantern, emersed by scrolls of parchment and dusty books, heirlooms of no particular value but conscientiously passed on for generations between the Doyles.

Even though he liked to pretend to be half deaf when he was around other people his hearing was actually quite fine for his age. That's why even on this stormy night where the wind whistled through every corner of the room and heavy rain was hailing down on his roof, he picked up the hissing sound just outside his window. He decided to pay no attention since the chances of an unwanted intruder were slim to none. No one in his right state of mind would step a foot outside in this weather, particularly not make his way out on the slippery path to the remote cottage.

He took a sip from a small glass that contained a bright yellow liquid followed by a rattling cough and proceeded to apply himself to the parchment in front of him. The recipe for his late-night drink stemmed from a thick and heavy book called The Chemists Handbook for Rural Ailments. Yellow Elven Root was an old folk remedy that was supposed to help against blisters, corns, arthritis, and also insomnia. The book also recommended it against gnom-infested vegetable gardens but magical creatures seemed to avoid the Doyle's estate such as human beings. Apart from this, there wasn't really anything besides a few turnips that dared to inhabit his rocky backyard that suffered dearly under the rough circumstances.

Again, a hissing sound from outside but this time it lasted a little longer. A green shimmer flickered against the window of his kitchen. No thunder followed the lightning. Now he was sure he had heard several voices from outside. Mr. Doyle put out his hand for his lantern. He stood up mumbling something so dark and dirty no one should ever write it down on paper. He reached behind his worn out wing-chair and brought out an old-fashioned crossbow. With great effort accompanied by more cursing, he drew the crossbow and inserted an arrow. As he limped towards his door a voice from outside said: "This is it? Are we sure it's here?" There was only the sound of the storm for a moment before another voice responded. It only said one word but it was enough to let Leister Doyle freeze in his tracks while a shiver went down his spine. Slowly speaking, hoarse but piercing, the voice cut clearly through the howling wind to Leister Doyle's ears saying: "Inside!"

Mr. Doyle had enough. He might be fairly aged but he wouldn't let anyone mess with him, let alone trespass on his family's property in the middle of the night, he thought to himself. He thrust aside the deadbolt and ripped open the heavy oaken door. He shouted into the rain: "I'll give ya 3 bloody seconds to run like ass-wiggling pigs you bastards." He wouldn't even count to one. Mr.Doyle was not sure what he was looking at.

Three shapes in dark cloaks stood in his front yard. Two of them were men-sized and one was distinctively shorter like a child. They turned their heads as he stepped through his doorframe, the lantern in one, the crossbow in the other hand. Just in that moment, a fourth shape appeared on his left, standing in the archway that led around the house to his garden.

Mr. Doyle flinched and so did his old hand. His finger slipped and pulled the trigger of the crossbow that ultimately released the deadly arrow towards the closest shape nearby. What happened next appeared to Mr. Doyle as if it had happened in slow-motion. A pale hand appeared out of its cloak and performed a small semi-circle in the air in front of him. The movement was fluent and without great effort. The arrow changed its course mid-air and disappeared in the night sky. Before Mr.Doyle could say a word the hand performed an almost casual gesture towards him as if it would wave away a fly. Leister Doyle was grabbed by an invisible gust of wind and thrown back into his house. His body flew straight through the living room. He crashed into his wing chair that slammed against the wall along with him. A bookshelf came down with a racket and a couple of Mr. Doyle's beloved heirlooms rained down on his head.

The figure followed him into the house. The wind pulled on his dark cloak as he stepped inside the living room. Mr. Doyle clenched his fingers around the crossbow as a thin stream of blood ran down his temple. The figure walked slowly towards the middle of the room and removed his hood. Long shadows jumped from the walls to the ceiling as the only light source was the guttering light of the lantern on the floor.

The man's face was as pale and bony as his hand. His eyes however appeared almost pitch black. His head was wrapped in a black turban. Leister Doyle felt his anger flooding back to him and tried to get up in protest: "Who the f ... ." The chair wouldn't let him go. The scuffed ornaments that had once been carved carefully into the wood came alive and wrapped around his forearms. Mr. Doyle had to witness helplessly how the group entered his house. The pale man's eyes nervously jumped around the room until they returned to him with an apologetic smile: "Excuse our late disturbance." He turned around to the others and indicated a slight nod. They spread out without a word and began tearing down shelves, opening parchments, and carelessly flicking through some of the old books. One of them returned from the small staircase that led to a small basement storage. It was the first voice Mr. Doyle had heard that night: "You were right, Sir. I found it lying under a case of moldy turnips." He made a disgusted sound followed by a giggle." The pale man reacted pleased: "Thank you, Scribbles. I couldn't have done it better myself." He suggested a smile that almost seemed to cause him pain.

His attention returned to Leister Doyle, caught in his own chair. It looked like he wanted to say something but instead, his gaze fell on the small glass of Yellow Elven Root. His eyes twitched. He put out his fingers for a second but pulled them back as if he had changed his mind. He looked at the old man and said: "I want to thank you for your hospitality but unfortunately it seems like we have almost concluded our business here." He turned to the lantern and his eyes brightened for a second. He lifted his pale hands as if in prayer and swung them away from each other. The small flame of the candle immediately expanded to a ball of fire that split straight through the middle and splashed against the walls. Quickly spreading it dripped onto the floor setting the rest of the room on fire. He walked backwards while looking around one last time as if he felt inspired by his own destruction. He imitated a small bow implying to tap his imaginary hat and said: "Good evening, Sir." He closed the door behind him and left Mr. Doyle sitting in his chair surrounded by flames devouring his worldly goods. From afar, the burning cottage on top of the cliffs looked like a lonely beacon burning in the night.

Ray didn't want to wake his mother nor one of his three brothers and two sisters because if he did there was no way of leaving the house before noon. It was a crisp October morning and the sky had just completed its transition from dark blue to a cloudy grey that would probably last the whole day. Putting on his shoes he looked from the window to the other side of the room. The first challenge was not to wake Gilbert who blissfully slept in his bed munching on some imaginary feast. His younger brother and Ray had only two and a half years between them and they were definitely too old to share a room.

Ray grinned, when they were younger neither of them would have let such a great opportunity slip to put one's old sock into the other's mouth. For Ray, it felt strange to have him back around at the house since Gilbert had left to go to the Academy of Diplomacy two years ago. He had returned home however with the explanation that the big city just wasn't right for him. Ray couldn't blame him. He had visited his younger brother once and from his short experience, the city was loud and crowded. Even if you were lucky enough to find a quiet corner in a park, a group of shady-looking characters would try to sell you all kinds of curiosities like grounded dragon testicles for ever-lasting potency or fairy dust that allowed you to fly or at least would give you the impression to do so.

Even with a little help from their family, Gilbert could only afford a small apartment that was right above a busy pub in the lesser nice part of town. It had consisted of one tiny room that was stuffed with books about politics, candle stumps from his nightly studies, and empty boxes of chicken pie. Ray remembered to have had trouble finding sleep since the pub and its clientele kept him awake until the early morning hours. He knew Gilbert had felt ashamed that he wasn't able to offer his older brother a more comfortable visit so Ray had tried to cheer him up and invited him for breakfast the next morning. He still remembered how heavy his heart felt when the two young men said goodbye that day.

Ray sneaked out their door into the hallway and risked a glance over the wooden staircase railing. Their room was located in one of the little towers on the top floor. Growing up, Ray and his brother had mastered the art of getting to the bottom stair without making the slightest sound. The trick included a combination of knowing each squeaky step and creaky plank such as using chairs, rails, and windowsills to avoid certain parts of the floor. Ray loved this house. It was like someone had designed a vertical labyrinth and filled it with hidden chambers and cabinets. The crooked appearance from the outside was amplified by the arbitrary positioning of windows of different shapes such as protruding oriels. This inevitably resulted in the fact that no room on the inside was like the other. To this day, Ray did not know all of its secrets as all of his siblings were very particular about their rooms' privacy which turned into zones of certain death during their teenage years.

As Ray reached the last flight of stairs he froze. He had heard a noise from his mother's room. His eyes widened. Appolonia Greaser woke up every morning before dawn to get another person's day's work done before preparing breakfast for everyone. Now that everybody had returned home for the big celebration tonight she wouldn't miss out on her headstart on the day. He didn't know anyone who had so much energy right after waking up. Sometimes he wondered if she slept at all or simply waited in her room to get busy again at dawn. If she would catch Ray leaving she would unload a list of chores on him that would defeat any plan he had for this particular morning. In a matter of seconds, he rushed through the homely kitchen toward the backdoor but sensed someone watching him. Pip, the Greaser's housecat, calmy observed Ray's escape from the kitchen counter. Next to her was a plate of Moonberry Muffins covered with a handkerchief. Ray hesitated and weighed the risk of getting caught against the taste of fluffy Moonberry Muffins. His tummy had just woken up and made the decision for him. Ray turned around in one fluent movement, lifted the handkerchief, grabbed a muffin, pet Pip over the head, and slipped outside. Pip casually accepted the road-toll and reapplied herself to cleaning her paws as part of her morning routine.

A damp chill laid over the ground and the corn plants had grown tall on the field that bordered the Greaser's backyard. Ray was only wearing a sweater but he was in such a hurry he didn't even notice the cold. He reached the top of the hill behind the Greaser's house and looked over his shoulder. Nobody had noticed his escape. Good. He felt a little bad for leaving on such an important day but he would be back just in time. He knew how much tradition meant especially to his mother.

Ray disappeared behind a wall of yellow and green. Making his way through the field, he pushed aside the leaves trying to look ahead. Finally, he passed the hollow tree where he and his siblings used to hide when they were little. At the end of the field, he stumbled out onto a trail and took a sharp left. He sprinted towards the green hills and the ancient forest behind them. Growing up, he remembered, he had been afraid of the knobby trees of the forest that must have been there for at least several hundreds of years. His older brothers Ruben and Pat had spun him around with his eyes closed and had dared him to find his way out by himself. A cruel game, but after he had cried his eyes out, he had found the path and discovered that his brothers had secretly watched him the whole time.

Ray jumped athletically over some gigantic roots that were covered with a thick layer of dark green moss and purple mushrooms and skillfully slid over a wet boulder. Every now and then he looked up to spot a hole in the dense canopy of leaves. He reached a small opening filled with ferns and looked up to the sky. He couldn't see much but grey clouds. That's when Ray sensed a salty breeze tickling his nose. He knew he was close.

He reached the treeline and stepped into the open. He was standing on a small patch of grass that ended abruptly after a few meters. Behind it waited twenty-five meters of a gaping chasm and at the bottom the icy ocean. The view, however, was spectacular. The massive coastline appeared as if the land had been cleanly cut like a cake. You could see different layers of ancient rock and soil that were topped with green grass. Next to it, spiky rock formations stuck out of the ocean but were partly covered by a thick blanket of morning mist that pushed ashore from the open sea. Ray took a few steps onto the grass towards the brink. He could feel his heart beat as his eyes nervously wandered from side to side along the horizon.

The moist wind carried the sea spray and ruffled his hair while the cry of seagulls stood out from the sound of the crashing waves. Ray also recognized another sound, a rustle from behind the trees. Someone must have followed him. He kneeled down, pretending to tie his shoe and grabbed a stone from the ground. As he stood up he turned around and threw the stone as hard as he could towards the direction from where he had heard the noise.

"Careful!" a voice cried out. Ray recognized it immediately. A young woman emerged from behind the tree. Her strikingly luminous red hair fell in thick and long curls on her shoulders. Catriona Girdwood was Ray's best friend since they were little. The grew up together and her family lived in a house not far from the woods. No one knew the forest better than her. "Before you say anything ...," she explained, "if you didn't want me to know where you were secretly going you shouldn't be wearing your Forget-me-not. You know that I never take mine off!"

She was right. Ray was angry at himself for not thinking of it. Forget-me-nots were magically enhanced magnetic stones that had one unique corresponding partner piece. Those could be worked into a pair of bracelets or, for example, a lock and a key. If you touched one of the pieces you would feel a gentle pull towards the location of the partner piece. Cat and Ray had found them by chance in a stream in the woods when they were eleven years old and Ray had crafted them into tiny pendants for them. Cat wore hers around her ankle whereas Ray wore his on a chain around his neck. As kids, they used them to pretend to have magical powers in front of their friends or used them to secretly hang out when their parents tried to make them do homework.

Passing the area of the Girdwood's house must have triggered Cat's bracelet. "And so you decided to spy on me?", Ray said. He wasn't really angry but felt caught in the act. "Well, yes," she grinned from ear to ear. "Anyway, now you can tell me what we are doing here so early?" He realized that there was no point in keeping things from her. Ray looked over his shoulder and back to her smiling face. "Come!", he said. Cat hesitantly joined him at the edge of the cliff. They both looked out on the ocean, the wind in their faces. "Ray?!", she asked nervously after he hadn't said a word. His body was full of adrenalin and his skin was tickling. Nothing happened. Cat couldn't keep it in anymore:" Ray what are we... " "There!", Ray said full of excitement. Cat followed his eyes. A shadow amidst the mist on the ocean near the cliffs. Again a movement and a scaly wing appeared and vanished immediately. Cat opened her eyes wide open: "What was that?" "That was a dragon!", Ray said almost whispering. His eyes were pinned on the cloud of mist. Cat took a step back from the edge. "What?", she said in shock. "First of all, do you know how dangerous this is? I mean, if this is really a dragon, we have to warn the village."

The dragon was gone. Ray turned around. His eyes were wet from the wind and the emotions that rushed through his body. He hadn't really listened to her and burst out: "Cat! You saw that right?!" "Well yeah, I saw something," she said. "Cat! You know what you saw. That ...", Ray said and pointed towards the ocean," That was a dragon! They are real!" He could have jumped with joy. "I have to warn my parents," she said. Ray protested immediately: "You can't tell anyone about this".

"Do you think it is going to come back to attack?". Ray thought about it for a moment:" I don't think so. If it has been living in this area for a while it could've attacked any time, but it didn't." Ray had to think of his family and couldn't help of imagining them bustling about at home preparing everything for tonight, wondering where he went. "I need to go back!", he said. "Wait!", Cat said and followed him. "How did you know?", she asked. "How did you know the dragon would be here this morning?" she continued.

Heading back through the forest Ray explained how he heard a roar from the distance a few weeks ago. He had followed the noise to the cliffs but didn't see anything. He came back a couple of times but always returned disappointed. He began to doubt his memory but one day it struck him. Dragons were magical creatures that were rarely spotted throughout the day. Villages and farms were spread all over the coastline but the ocean was a vast and mostly unexplored space where they could roam undisturbed.

"But why now?", Cat asked. "How did you know that it would be here?". Before Ray could answer she cried out: "The mist! The morning mist is the perfect natural disguise to pass the shoreline without being seen." "Exactly my thoughts," said Ray. "I am still not sure but it's a theory and also I guess that we got a little lucky." He smiled proudly. Cat still seemed to process everything. Ray felt like he needed to see if she was truly okay. "Are you coming back to us?", he asked, "Everyone is preparing for the Moon Fair.” Cat saw right through him: “You’re afraid your mum will give you a lecture about your responsibilities, and now you want me to dampen the blow because you know your mom loves me!” “What?” Ray tried to act innocently. "I simply care about my friend's wellbeing. We just saw a mythical creature, a beast risen from the legends, a real dragon ... also mom baked Moonberry Muffins yesterday," Ray added. Cat rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. Walking back to the Greaser's house she observed him from the side. "Speaking of well-being, what about you? Excited for tonight?", she asked with a cautious undertone. Ray hesitated before he answered: "Hm. I don't know. Maybe a little." The truth was that Ray laid awake all night waiting for the first light of day. His thoughts were jumping around in his head between the dragon and the Moon Fair.

The Moon Fair was a tradition Ray used to love as a child. It was held in October around full moon and always set the whole village abuzz weeks in advance. The forest that surrounded the village transformed each year into a colorful spectacle. Trees were covered with firefly lanterns and decorations made of yellow and red leaves that were strung together by the kids. The larger families took special pride in setting up small and big party tents on clearings in the woods that were illuminated by torches and lanterns. There was an unofficial competition where each family tried to outdo the others by extending their tent with smaller tents and sometimes even small wooden balconies. Some families arranged games and competitions where the villagers could prove their skills whereas others were famous for their burning fire ale or handmade delicacies.

The real climax of the festivities however was the Bachelor's Goblet. A challenge for the unmarried men of age that consisted of retrieving a goblet from the bottom of a lake in the forest. The goblet was supposed to magically help its winner to find a suitable wife throughout the following year. In case he succeeded, the last year's winner's intended wife ceremoniously initiated the Moon Fair by throwing the goblet back into the lake. Luckily, so Ray felt, the tradition had spared him over the last years since it was his older brothers' turn. Now, after Ruben was married and Pat engaged, it was his turn.

Ray was a fairly good swimmer and even though jumping into a cold lake at night wasn't a pleasant idea it was another part of the challenge that worried him. Ray knew he probably was neither a bad catch nor what a mother-in-law ideally hoped for. Most things came naturally to him and he had a quite capable pair of hands. He was in great shape and if he wasn't helping out around the village he was nose-deep in his family's small but comprehensive bookshelf, studying history, alchemy, mythology, and other subjects. Nevertheless, he felt stuck. He was 23 years old and still lived with his family, he never really traveled anywhere remarkable nor experienced anything truly extraordinary in his eyes. He wasn't ready to find a wife. There was so much to do, so much to learn and to become before he wanted to settle down. Every night he went to bed there was this desperate longing inside of his chest. There was one sentence in particular that found its way back into his thoughts over and over again. He couldn't remember where he had heard or read it but he remembered the feeling it had left in him: There is a whole world out there.


About the Creator

Moritz Bauer

I am a filmmaker, actor, and writer. I am pretty active on Instagram. Usually, I don't enjoy running but I do it anyway and 10 out of 10 times I don't regret it ... It is pretty much the same with writing :)

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  • Laura Schilling12 months ago

    ufff <3 so moody, amazing how you created an entire world filled with magic, secrets, emotions, lovely details, amazing ideas! Loved it! I literally had goosebumps when they spotted the dragon! Hope you win!

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