It turned suddenly and regarded him, flashing a large number of shining teeth.
“White’s pawn should take the pawn,” it said in a soft, nasal voice.
“Huh? Come on,” Martin said. “Bishop takes knight.”
“You want to give me black and play it that way? I’ll walk all over you.”
Martin glanced again at its feet.
“…Or give me white and let me take that pawn. I’ll still do it.”
“Take white,” Martin said, straightening. “Let’s see if you know what you’re talking about.” He reached for his pack. “Have a beer?”
“What’s a beer?”
“A recreational aid. Wait a minute.”
Before they had finished the six-pack, the sasquatch—whose name, he had learned, was Grend—had finished Martin. Grend had quickly entered a ferocious mid-game, backed him into a position of dwindling security and pushed him to the point where he had seen the end and resigned.
“That was one hell of a game,” Martin declared, leaning back and considering the ape-like countenance before him.
“Yes, we Bigfeet are pretty good, if I do say it. It’s our one big recreation, and we’re so damned primitive we don’t have much in the way of boards and chessmen. Most of the time, we just play it in our heads. There’re not many can come close to us.”
“How about unicorns?” Martin asked.
Grend nodded slowly.
“They’re about the only ones can really give us a good game. A little dainty, but they’re subtle. Awfully sure of themselves, though, I must say. Even when they’re wrong. Haven’t seen any since we left the morning land, of course. Too bad. Got any more of that beer left?”
“I’m afraid not. But listen, I’ll be back this way in a month. I’ll bring some more if you’ll meet me here and play again.”
“Martin, you’ve got a deal. Sorry. Didn’t mean to step on your toes.”
He cleaned the saloon again and brought in a keg of beer which he installed under the bar and packed with ice. He moved in some bar stools, chairs and tables which he had obtained at a Goodwill store. He hung red curtains. By then it was evening. He set up the board, ate a light meal, unrolled his sleeping bag behind the bar and camped there that night.
The following day passed quickly. Since Tlingel might show up at any time, he did not leave the vicinity, but took his meals there and sat about working chess problems. When it began to grow dark, he lit a number of oil lamps and candles.
He looked at his watch with increasing frequency. He began to pace. He couldn’t have made a mistake. This was the proper day. He—
He heard a chuckle.
Turning about, he saw a black unicorn head floating in the air above the chessboard. As he watched, the rest of Tlingel’s body materialized.
“Good evening, Martin.” Tlingel turned away from the board. “The place looks a little better. Could use some music…”
Martin stepped behind the bar and switched on the transistor radio he had brought along. The sounds of a string quartet filled the air. Tlingel winced.
“Hardly in keeping with the atmosphere of the place.”
He changed stations, located a Country & Western show.
“I think not,” Tlingel said. “It loses something in transmission.”
He turned it off.
“Have we a good supply of beverage?”
Martin drew a gallon stein of beer—the largest mug that he could locate, from a novelty store—and set it upon the bar. He filled a much smaller one for himself. He was determined to get the beast drunk if it were at all possible.
“Ah! Much better than those little cans,” said Tlingel, whose muzzle dipped for but a moment. “Very good.”
The mug was empty. Martin refilled it.
“Will you move it to the table for me?”
“Have an interesting month?”
“I suppose I did.”
“You’ve decided upon your next move?”
“Then let’s get on with it.”
Martin seated himself and captured the Pawn.
Tlingel stared at the board for a long while, then raised a cloven hoof which parted in reaching for the piece.
“I’ll just take that bishop with this little knight. Now I suppose you’ll be wanting another month to make up your mind what to do next.”
Tlingel leaned to the side and drained the mug.
“Let me consider it,” Martin said, “while I get you a refill.”
Martin sat and stared at the board through three more refills. Actually, he was not planning. He was waiting. His response to Grend had been Knight takes Bishop, and he had Grend’s next move ready.
“Well?” Tlingel finally said. “What do you think?”
Martin took a small sip of beer.
“Almost ready,” he said. “You hold your beer awfully well.”
“A unicorn’s horn is a detoxicant. It’s possession is a universal remedy. I wait until I reach the warm glow stage, then I use my horn to burn off any excess and keep me right there.”
“Oh,” said Martin. “Neat trick, that.”
“…If you’ve had too much, just touch my horn for a moment and I’ll put you back in business.”
“No, thanks. That’s all right. I’ll just push this little pawn in front of the queen’s rook two steps ahead.”
“Really…” said Tlingel. “That’s interesting. You know, what this place really needs is a piano—rinkytink, funky… Think you could manage it?”
“I don’t play.”
“I suppose I could hire a piano player.”
“No. I do not care to be seen by other humans.”
“If he’s really good, I suppose he could play blindfolded.”
“You are also ingenious. I am certain that you will figure something out by next time.”
“Also, didn’t these old places used to have sawdust all over the floors?”
“I believe so.”
“That would be nice.”
Tlingel searched the board frantically for a moment.
“Yes. I meant ‘yes’. I said ‘check’. It means ‘yes’ sometimes, too.”
“Oh. Rather. Well, while we’re here…”
Tlingel advanced the Pawn to Q3.
Martin stared. That was not what Grend had done. For a moment, he considered continuing on his own from here. He had tried to think of Grend as a coach up until this point. He had forced away the notion of crudely and crassly pitting one of them against the other. Until P-Q3. Then he recalled the game he had lost to the sasquatch.
“I’ll draw the line here,” he said, “and take my month.”
“All right. Let’s have another drink before we say good night. Okay?”
“Sure. Why not?”
They sat for a time and Tlingel told him of the morning land, of primeval forests and rolling plains, of high craggy mountains and purple seas, of magic and mythic beasts.
Martin shook his head.
“I can’t quite see why you’re so anxious to come here,” he said, “with a place like that to call home.”
“I suppose you’d call it keeping up with the griffins. It’s the thing to do these days. Well. Till next month…”
Tlingel rose and turned away.
“I’ve got complete control now. Watch!”
The unicorn form faded, jerked out of shape, grew white, faded again, was gone, like an afterimage.
Martin moved to the bar and drew himself another mug. It was a shame to waste what was left. In the morning, he wished the unicorn were there again. Or at least the horn.
It was a gray day in the forest and he held an umbrella over the chessboard upon the rock. The droplets fell from the leaves and made dull, plopping noises as they struck the fabric. The board was set up again through Tlingel’s P-Q3. Martin wondered whether Grend had remembered, had kept proper track of the days…
“Hello,” came the nasal voice from somewhere behind him and to the left.
He turned to see Grend moving about the tree, stepping over the massive roots with massive feet.
“You remembered.” Grend said. “How good! I trust you also remembered the beer?”
“I’ve lugged up a whole case. We can set up the bar right here.”
“What’s a bar?”
“Well, it’s a place where people go to drink—in out of the rain—a bit dark, for atmosphere—and they sit up on stools before a big counter, or else at little tables—and they talk to each other—and sometimes there’s music—and they drink.”
“We’re going to have all that here?”
“No. Just the dark and the drinks. Unless you count the rain as music. I was speaking figuratively.”
“Oh. It does sound like a very good place to visit, though.”
“Yes. If you will hold this umbrella over the board, I’ll set up the best equivalent we can have here.”
“All right. Say, this looks like a version of that game we played last time.”
“It is. I got to wondering what would happen if it had gone this way rather than the way that it went.”
“Hmm. Let me see…”
Martin removed four six-packs from his pack and opened the first.