The tall newcomer was richly dressed. Putting up a hand, he threw back the hood of his sumptuous cape, revealing golden curls and a healthy beard to match. Simultaneously he advanced slowly toward the gaming table. The lamp- light fell on clear blue eyes, muscular shoulders, large hands, and a handsome face. A long sword of some kind was belted at the newcomer’s waist.
His much smaller companion followed him closely, but maintaining a certain distance like a respectful servitor. A few steps closer to the lamps and it was easy to see that she was a woman, as fair as the man, and with a delicate feminine beauty of face that more than matched his masculine good looks. Her beauty was combined with an aura of power and self-confidence, enough of both that Kebbi heard not a single mutter of lechery from any of the scum present. He thought that even had her escort not appeared so formidable, the result would have been the same.
“I hope that the game is not yet finished.” The voice of the tall newcomer was powerful, and strangely accented, and he was looking steadily at Kebbi as he spoke. “Come, I am sure that it must not be finished. For I intend to play.” His smile showed perfect teeth.
Kebbi said nothing in reply to this. Nor did the men who had almost surrounded him. They were leaving him alone now, and beginning to drift back in the general direction of the table. The tall blond man moved in the same direction now, and their group shattered, softly and silently, and began to disperse into the background.
The music of drum and tambourine, which had faded away when the threat of violence loomed large, now resumed slowly. Very gradually the tempo began to pick up again.
The new arrival still smiled at Kebbi across the battered table, where two lamps still flared upon brown cloth. The dice, the original dice belonging to the landlord, lay at one end unattended.
“Shall we?” The newcomer gestured toward the abundance of empty chairs.
“Why not?” As he stepped forward Kebbi had his hand on the hilt of his Sword, and he could feel the immense power so subtly playing there. Fortune had somehow found a door to open for him, even in this almost uninhabited wilderness. He returned the stranger’s smile.
The former participants in the game were now drifting back again a little toward the table. Not that they had any intention of sitting down; they were glad to excuse themselves from this particular contest, but they did not want to miss seeing it, either.
The stranger was as indifferent to what these men did as he was to the indifferent women who had now resumed their dance.
Kebbi and the newcomer, as if by unspoken agreement punctiliously observing some rule of courtesy, seated themselves simultaneously.
Kebbi, feeling an intoxication much more of impending triumph than of drink, faced his single opponent across the blanket-covered table. The tall man’s shadowy companion, as if she meant to protect his back, moved up close behind him, where she remained standing.
And now, moving slowly, the hand of the unknown brought forth from somewhere inside his cape a truly magnificent jewel, holding it up for all to see. The stone was the shape of a teardrop, the color of a sapphire’s blood. His large, strong fingers held it up, turning it in the lamplight for Kebbi to see and admire. Still the man’s attention was entirely concentrated upon Kebbi, as if he were totally indifferent as to anything that other folk might see or do.
Unhurriedly the tall man said: “I will stake this gem against the Sword you wear.”
All Kebbi could think was that Fortune, the Sword’s Fortune, was working even more swiftly and powerfully than he had dreamt was possible.
“One roll of the dice?” he asked.
“Fine. I accept.”
Satisfied, the stranger nodded and looked away. Now his long arm went out to scoop up the dice where they lay at the end of the table; and now he was putting them down on the cloth in front of Kebbi.
Now, at the last moment, Kebbi felt a twinge of reluctance to stake his Sword in any wager. But Coinspinner would not, could not, have led him into this situation only to have him suffer such a loss.
Unless this could be the Sword’s method of taking itself away from him? But no, according to the stories Coin-spinner used no human agency for that.
Another musician, he thought vaguely, had joined in. It now seemed to him that he could hear the sound of a third drum, tapping a jarring counterpoint to the first two.
And Kebbi threw the dice against a lamp-an eight.
Now it was the stranger’s turn. His large right hand cupped the landlord’s dice, and threw them out with careless impatience.
The rich jewel that Kebbi had just won came arcing toward him through the lamplight, tossed by the stranger. Kebbi automatically put up his hand and caught the bright pebble in mid-flight.
“Now,” said the stranger, to all appearances unperturbed by such a loss. “Now, we are going to play again. Double or nothing.” And between the fingers of his gloved right hand appeared two more gems, each looking exactly like the one he had just lost.
Kebbi’s breath hissed out between his teeth. “I accept.” His doubts had been foolish. Whatever might happen next, he was protected.
This time the stranger threw first.
Yielding to a mad twitch of bravado, Kebbi threw left-handed this time. As he did so, three fingers of his right hand were resting lightly on his sheathed Sword’s hilt, and the great, strange jewel he had just won was clenched securely in the remaining two.
But there was something wrong with the result, and
Kebbi could only stare at it without comprehension.
The dice read only three. A single pip on one ivory cube, two on the other. And that meant that this time, he-he and Coinspinner together-had lost.
Such a result could not be true. It could not be true. It could not be possible, or-
Struggling to make sense of the impossible, Kebbi did not notice that again only two drums beat in the background.
There had been some mistake, some error in the way the world was working. The Sword of Chance could not be beaten, least of all in a game of chance. But he could not bring himself to utter a word. How could his luck, how could the power of the Sword, have suddenly deserted him? The Sword itself was still with him. He could still feel its silent energy, seemingly unimpaired.
Kebbi was too stunned to make any effort at resistance when the tall stranger, giving up an effort to talk to him, came moving lithely around the table. He was jerked to his feet. Strong hands undid his sword belt and pulled it away, carrying its priceless contents with it. A moment later the great jewel that had been his so briefly was torn from where his fingers still clenched it, mindlessly, against the palm of his hand. Then Kebbi was cast aside, staggering, like some emptied and discarded vessel.
A moment later the tall stranger and his diminutive attendant were in retreat, vanishing almost as suddenly as they had appeared. And already the local men, the losers in the first game, were closing in on the fallen Kebbi, determined to reclaim the few coins he had won from them.
Still too shocked to do anything, the most recent loser could already hear them arguing over who would get his riding-beast.
The tall blond man in the sumptuous cloak, hurrying away from the poor tavern with his companion and his new-won prize, had not far to go down the dark road before he was met by a griffin, a mount bigger than a war beast, winged like a giant eagle and taloned, fanged, and muscled like a lion. The creature crouched before the man in the attitude of a submissive pet.
In the next moment the man’s diminutive helper, the tiny woman of great beauty, moving like an active child, hopped aboard the beast. Then she looked down at him where he still stood gloating over the Sword he had just won.
He had drawn another Sword that looked identical to the first and was exulting with one blade in each hand.
“Master Wood?” she called, deferentially puzzled.
“One moment. With Coinspinner now in hand, I have some spells to cast. Trapping spells. Before I do anything else.”
“Against Prince Mark?”
“Against his whelp. The elder one, the heir. A softer target, dear, by far.”
As Adrian and Trilby continued their steady advance into the City of Wizards, the landscape through which they passed became even less like that of the normal world outside. Within the domain they had now entered, a glow of extra magical potential, perceptible to their trained senses, touched and transformed almost everything.