The piece was delicately cradled in the soft palm of the young dusk elf. Her name was Nystro, but her name mattered very little at the moment. To her the only name that mattered belonged to the piece. In her hand was a likeness of her species, its wooden legs rounded to look like the bottom of a column. Its face was placid, but she sensed worry from it. Worry over the name.
There were two more new pieces in the grand game hall that day. They were held in different hands. One was firmly held in the greenish grip of an adolescent orkh. Its teeth were expertly painted with mother-of-pearl powder, so it would glisten on the tiles of the miniature battlefield. It was crafted by Ancho, and he was very proud. It would bellow its name in the middle of the game, and draw gasps from every adult around. He would be a revolutionary. Perhaps his people would turn him over the fire that night as punishment, but something had to be done.
The third piece had its head pinched between the fingers of a human boy named Erik. He still had bits of painted sawdust under his fingernails from crafting. It had a name too, despite his instructions. He followed his father through the hall, careful not to bump into the adults of the other races attending.
It was difficult, because you never knew when a bulging orkh thigh might pop out into a lane and try to trip you. They always did that during games, even breaking their own focus to do so. Erik didn’t understand how they could take it so lightly. The fear in his throat threatened to choke him now, better than any orkh could. There was still time to ditch the piece, throw it under a table, or make some excuse.
Nystro took her seat at the three-sided table. Her parents and their matriarch stood behind her; she didn’t even know whose hands were on her shoulders. She just stared at the game board and tried to work out the finer details of her strategy. There were other pieces there, older pieces, from previous craftsmen.
Every four years the races came to the game hall to settle their differences. Here the blood could be turned to splinters, the resources to tokens, and the wealth to thin paper. It wasn’t a perfect pact, but it was rope that rarely frayed.
Ancho plopped into his seat, ready to ruin everything. His father was behind him, grunting and sneering at every human that passed. Ancho looked instead at the dusk elf girl at the other side of the table. She was pale, nearly purple, eyes white, and had black daggers of lightning tattooed like tears falling from her eyes and striking her cheeks. She did not reveal her piece; it was kept tight in the cage of her hand.
Ancho was too proud to hide his. He smacked it down on the marble board, right into its intended space. The piece’s cloth ears bounced. Its wooden face sprang to life, because the magic of the board had begun. The faces of the older orkh pieces contorted to life as well, smacking their tin axes against their tiny copper shields and sounding like the tinkling of a dinner bell.
Each piece had its own powers and history. Some even had legends of their own. Ancho knew the one with the chain around it, a chain barely big enough to go around his finger, was Bork the Crusher. It had taken more than a hundred enemy pieces off the boards. Every four years, when the games were held, Bork took a new victim, a new splinter in his base.
Erik dusted off his seat and took his place at the third side. He saw the elf and the orkh size him up. He couldn’t breathe. The human-made pieces in front of him, some representing his own ancestors, looked over their shoulders. He could tell they didn’t like being commanded by him. His piece went down. They all looked to the elf girl, who responded in kind. The game was ready.
A horn blew. They were not the only battle; they were just one issue of many, but the children played like it was the fate of the world. Children were the best at games, that was why the responsibility was theirs, but their hands still shook whenever they moved a piece, with the exception of Ancho’s.
Around them the parents and officials argued on every little detail. Nystro’s piece had crossed a line. Ancho’s was improperly motivating the older pieces by whispering in their cloth triangle ears. Erik’s battalion of pieces was hoarding the bridge part of the board, in violation of an arcane rule more than a thousand years old.
To their credit, the children said nothing. They moved their pieces based on the strategies that had been drilled into them over the course of years. Here and there units were lost, killed, and tossed away. Only the best pieces would survive to play again next time. Erik looked down. Where did the pieces go? Nobody was tripping on them. They weren’t rolling away. It was as if they vanished. He wanted to look under the table, but the game was still blazing in front of him, and he was down four pieces. He might even be banished if he lost badly enough.
The adults got worse as the game wore on. They shook chairs. They threw things and blamed children across the room. With each move the shouting became more thunderous, the races butchering each other’s languages as they grew apoplectic.
“Orkh no move two spaces back!”
“Ynn-levenn san you safsay offgang less!”
“What did you just call me you pitch-tongued hay sniffer?”
It was time. Ancho didn’t want to wait anymore. His piece was perfectly positioned at the center of the board, alongside the pieces of the other two. His piece looked back at him. He nodded. Little did he know, the same drama played out across from him twice. All the pieces had names. All were ready to shout.
“Nypho,” the dusk elf piece declared itself.
“Grogdan!” the orkh piece shouted.
“Rose,” the human piece said defiantly.
The shouting of the parents ceased. The game was over. The issue could not be settled. The pieces were not supposed to have identity. If they did, then there was no point in avoiding bloodshed. Identities would die either way.
Ancho looked at the other two with respect. They knew what he knew. The games were what was truly childish. They needed to end. Talk needed to solve these issues, not strategy. They had mad their point. Each child was grabbed by the ear, most painful despite the differences in lobe shape. The punishments would be severe, but they had made up their minds during the crafting, while staring into the miserable eyes of their wood, metal, and cloth children.
Below the table, as the event dissolved into chaos above, the discarded pieces hopped through holes in the stone. There was a floor beneath the floor where all the defeated pieces lived. They listened to the gods above destroy the sky. Three new pieces fell in. Nypho, Grogdan, and Rose joined their company, their beautiful defeated family.
When the peace finally came, the pieces would march out. They would make their suffering known. It was a game, but they were all hurt anyway. They would make their makers proud, and keep the children’s spirit alive no matter how many cycles it took. The pieces would march. They would be played with no longer.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by joucay during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop bytwitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!