The persistent drizzle of rain was like a fog the day they arrived at the capital. The gates of the city rose as a dark mass from the gloom.
There were few people in the streets to acknowledge this passing band, and the glances of those present held little interest. Perhaps this was another woodland thief or political troublemaker. The gallows would present a more interesting spectacle, and time if not justice would most likely place this stranger there.
The castle was set on the most elevated site in the city. The central keep and its prominent tower was at least twice the height of any man-made structure that Thomas had previously encountered. On this day it simply disappeared into the mist.
As they approached the entrance arch Thomas scanned the castle walls for information. It was likely too early to observe anything that could tell him about his sons, but if there was any chance of escape later he would need to remember the distance of fall from the few narrow windows further up the wall, the potential handholds in the stone work – anything that might make the difference between escape and death in a pursuit.
They rode inside and the lieutenant signalled for Thomas to dismount. They were in a large courtyard area, with sufficient space to hold a town market. However it was readily apparent that petty trading was not the regular business of this area. The beamed, weathered structure of a hangman’s gallows stood tall and prominent to the west side of the yard.
To the north rose the sheer face of the castle tower, and Thomas noted a fenced platform at the base, large enough for perhaps a half-dozen men.
After a brief wait a door opened at the base of the tower, and a smallish man emerged dressed in woollen tunic, belted at the waist and embroidered around the hem and sleeves. A man of some import it would appear. Striding forward he stopped before Thomas and spoke in a somewhat cold tone.
“I am Lord Vitan,” the man introduced himself. “Chief advisor to the king.”
Thomas gave a respectful bow, suppressing the urge to demand information about his sons. He sensed that he would find out just as quickly by remaining passive.
“Follow me,” said Vitan, walking over to the fenced platform.
As they approached Thomas saw that there was more to the arrangement than was at first apparent. The poor visibility today had obscured the rig of ascending struts, the vertical rails that were secured against the tower walls, and the rope that ran upwards from an interconnected series of toothed wheels, the largest of which had two handles extending beyond the perimeter.
“Please step on,” said Vitan with an air of civility that Thomas observed with deep mistrust. “I think you will appreciate our ingenuity. I am given to understand that you have some skills in designing machines yourself.”
It was true that Thomas was something of an inventor. He had been well taught as a craftsman by his father, and had a mind for new concepts.
Once the two of them were on the platform Vitan gestured to the guards at the large wheel. Stepping forward they each grasped one of the handles and leaning forward began to push in opposite directions around the wheel.
As they pushed Thomas felt a shudder underfoot as the platform lifted laboriously from the ground. At the height of three arms length or so the pace began to quicken as the men gained momentum.
“I must inform you that I presently have control over the lives of your sons,” said Vitan.
It was clear that this platform was going to keep rising and that Vitan was making a simple insurance against any wild attempt by Thomas to throw him overboard. Perhaps it was possible that a man limited in forward thinking would in rage make such an error. Once the platform had been raised ten times the height of a man it would have been a simple matter to send this slighter man to his doom.
Thomas looked down and saw that the ground was now disappearing into the mist. He could hold the question no longer. “Where are my sons?” he asked.
“Above us,” said Vitan. “But for now we will not be going quite that high. ”
They were drawing level with a pair of doors set into the wall. Vitan pushed them open.
“This will be your quarters for now. Please step inside.” said Vitan.
Thomas did as he was bid and found himself in a room of moderate size with a bed, a basin and a commode. What mostly drew his attention however was the chess table with two chairs. The design was quite simple, and the pieces appeared to be made from a type of stone. It seemed that a game was already in progress.
“Do you play?” asked Lord Vitan, following Thomas into the room.
“I understand the game my Lord.” Thomas replied.
“That most certainly is not an answer to the question. Understanding the game might mean that you simply know the rules. That does not make you a player. On the other hand to say you understand the game might make you much more than just a player. It might indicate that you are an excellent strategist. Which of these are you Thomas?” he gestured Thomas to take a seat, and the two of them sat down and faced each other over the table.
“In truth my Lord I am at neither extreme. I attempt to calculate a few moves ahead. However I do not count on much beyond two moves.”
Vitan leaned back. “I pride myself on a depth of three or four moves.” Then after a pause he said “Of course you will be aware that some men have been said to master this game to a depth of ten or more moves. Such an ability seems almost unnatural perhaps.”
Thomas nodded his agreement, aware that the conversation was being led in certain direction, but unclear as to what that might be.
“If a man predicts the final result of a chess game from the outset that would be a different matter, no?”
“There are only two players sire, and therefore two choices. It does not seem so great a feat.”
“But if such a man told you where the pieces would lie at the conclusion. What then?”
“It would not appear to be possible.”
Lord Vitan nodded. “Such a man would have to be more than just a deep thinker. He would require powers beyond that.” He looked intently at Thomas. “The king believes in the existence of such powers.”
This last statement was a sharp turn – an indication that light was perhaps about to be shed on this mystery.
Now Lord Vitan stood up and gazed thoughtfully out of the open door. “Let me tell you a story … ” he began.
“There was an old sage who used to attend the king’s court. It happens he was the finest chess player I had ever seen. The king was fascinated by the old mans mind. The sage thrived on the royal attention he received and began to assume, shall we say, certain airs. He evidently sensed his own ability to influence the king and began to exploit it. He had no apparent desire for the kings coin, and so his counsel came to be treated by the king as pure knowledge – as if from the gods themselves. When a man begins to desire nothing but to see his own name heralded by royalty, where does he stop? He knew his years were almost exhausted. There is no legacy in just having been a fine counsellor. We are only preserved in words and thoughts once the gods see fit to take us. A legendary man must leave legendary words if something extraordinary is to remain of him.”
“We are preserved by our kin,” countered Thomas. “They bear our name and carry our reputation when we are gone.” He could not but help think of how in this sense the twins were custodians of his Racael, and his longing to see them was becoming unbearable.
“The old sage had no kin,” said Vitan. “Words were all he could leave. He convinced the king that he saw a future as one might picture it on a chess board. He said it was not determined in an absolute sense since the king himself was one of the players. It intrigued the king and he thirsted to know more.
“‘Two will come forth from the same stock’ said the Sage. ‘One is dangerous. If it is not captured and cut down, it will devastate this kingdom and destroy the kingship.'”
Thomas absorbed this information. Two from the same stock – twins. His sons lives rested in the balance on account of the ambitions of a pretentious old soothsayer, and the gullibility of the most powerful man in the land. “But why mine?” said Thomas asking the most obvious and burning question.
Vitan offered a weary smile. “There is no particular reason to identify your children with this prediction of the sage. In the king’s mind every twinned offspring in the land is a potential assassin. We have been rigorous in our mission to gather them all for the king for many years now.”
“And what has happened to them?” Thomas asked hesitantly.
“In every case so far the king has made vague attempts to positively identify his would-be enemy. There is always some sort of trial held on the roof of our tower here – the securest area of our castle for obvious reasons. He believes that by making such attempts – all of which have failed up until now – he is justified in exercising his only alternative.”
“Which is?” said Thomas, already fearing the worst.
“Removing both pieces from the board of play,” said Vitan, shifting his gaze to the chess board before Thomas.
Thomas noted the layout of the pieces for the first time. The black knight was positioned so that both white rooks were in its sights – a classic fork. It appeared that at least one of the two could not avoid capture on the next move.
“There is another option,” said Vitan. “If the king could be convinced that he has found his nemesis, this could all be over. Not only would the second child be spared, but twin children throughout the kingdom would once again be safe. The king could be convinced by a parent that he has knowledge of this matter. If we give the king what he wants great good could be accomplished and the nonsense will end.”
Thomas looked up wearily “You are asking me to sacrifice one of my children sire.”
“No Thomas, I am asking you to save one of your children, and many more.”
He rose and stepped out through the doorway onto the platform outside. “I will permit you to sleep on the matter,” he said, his form slowly descending.