Court was… different. Melkin felt like a pheasant among peacocks and knew that this was how the court perceived him as well, if not worse. His clothes were out of fashion, the customs were different, and the language strange and unfamiliar. Having been told by count Roderick’s manservant, Attilio, that his modesty was even more out of place here in Bretagne, Melkin couldn’t but wonder if he would be able to follow his count’s orders and find out king Idre’s political standing points.
“Avoid speaking directly to the king, at all cost!” Attilio had told him. “And if you ever are forced to do it none the less, you must act like a proud man pretending to be to be modest in front of the king. You must never seem weak in from of him!”
Gornerius, Melkin’s second cousin, had agreed with this. “You should try to humor the king, but it would be for the best if you did it indirectly. You should also try to befriend someone close to him, his wife, courtesan, friends or his son… I mean, if you truly are hopeless at feasts you should learn from the bests here.”
Melkin had not told Gornerius his true reason for being at the court. How could he? Count Roderick had made him promise not to tell anyone. Thus he had been forced to lie to Gornerius about his reasons, and had retold a couple of stories from feasts in Britain when he had been mistaken as a squire, arrived in an awful attire and the like. Melkin was a bit surprised how easy the lie was accepted by Gornerius though. Probably, Melkin thought wryly, because claiming to be worthless at feasts wasn’t a lie in itself.
However, the lie had not seemed to have fooled king Idres. When arriving to court Melkin had been granted all the perks the hospitality of the court could give, but not the liberty of leaving court. This was not too uncommon, Melkin later heard, but still a strange omission which indicated that the king suspected that Melkin had doubtful reasons. Not being at liberty to leave court, Melkin had realised just what that meant: he was currently a prisoner at court.
A couple of months had passed an Melkin was still wondering how on earth he would be capable of amusing the king without speaking to him. The task seemed impossible for someone without any considerable skill in orate, dancing or singing being typical activities at court. Gaining the friendship someone of the king’s friends also seemed like no small endeavor. Melkin knew that he was playing at some type of strategies, and that if he knew the rules he could probably play the game, but it was easier said than done.
He had started to gain the trust of some of the lesser knights at court, if only for being fairly good at drinking. One of them, Aemilius, certainly liked his wine and had taken a liking to Melking after a drinking game between them that Melkin had won. This was both advantageous, since Aemilius was fairly outspoken and knew many things about court, but also a bit of a headache since Melkin was forced to drink heavily every single night.
“… and I said no-one speaks to me in that manner and I will cut your throat before you ever do it again you asine!” Aemilius was standing now almost shouting in triumph as the other knights cheered him on.
Melkin was laughing as well, but had drunk a bit more than he probably should. Looking for his son he saw Brynach playing with a pair of copper coins at the far end of the table. Melkin had taken to play board games with the four-year-old every night just to fend of some of the drinks around the table with the excuse that he couldn’t be too drunk when he trained his boy in gaming.
“What if I would lose fair and square?” he had said to Aemilius as the knight had tried to shove a glass of wine into his hand. “I could hardly stand that!”
The truth was that Melkin often lost to Brynach, but that was mostly due to the fact that he let the boy cheat from time to time. It kept Melkin on his toes, and they would laugh about Brynach playing like a saxon. Tonight was no different, and Melkin stared intently at the board thinking hard. Brynach was smiling broadly.
“Don’t you give me that smile,” Melkin said with one of his own and moved one of the pieces shielding the king from one attacker in a way that made it impossible for Brynach to win.
Brynach’s smile disappeared and he set his brow in a deep frown mumbling to himself. He then shrugged and lifted one of his pieces and put it far away from its original position suddenly cornering the king.
“That’s cheating,” came suddenly a boy’s voice from behind Melkin’s back.
Melkin didn’t turn. He was trying to think, but he too drunk for the task.
“Yes…” he said slowly trying to gather his thoughts. “Yes it is…”
“I am playing the saxons!” explained Brynach helpfully with a broad smile. “Because they always cheat”.
“That’s stupid, why would you want to do that?”
Melkin turned frowning and suddenly was face to face with prince Mark himself. The boy looking somewhat irritated at the board between them.
“It’s not stupid,” argued Brynach and pointed to his head making the same gesture as Melkin had done many a time before. “If you want to beat the saxons, you have to think like a saxon”.
“It’s stupid anyhow,” said the prince as if to go.
“Well, a great commander once told me,” said Melkin looking the prince directly in the eye trying not to blink, “that if you do not understand the mind if the enemies, there is really no way of actually beating them. I would therefore argue, my prince, that a strategist has to find reason to learn from his enemies”.
Prince Mark, eyed Melkin suspiciously. “Why do you let him beat you?”
“Why, my prince, I let Brynach beat me now so that when I fight the enemy in reality I will in fact not lose”.
The prince made a “hmpf” sound and walked off. Brynach made a face after the boy, but Melkin sat thinking. It seemed like prince Mark actually knew the rules of Hnefatafl which did say a number of things. The game was fairly new, at least in Britain, probably brought by some of the seafaring peoples, some even said that it came from the saxons. Melkin had also realised that few knew the game here in Bretagne and thus prince Mark must have stumbled across the game recently himself, and the prince knew it well enough to have picked up on the rules of the game.
“Stupid prince,” muttered Brynach and went back to playing like a saxon putting a new piece in a forbidden spot. Melkin reached out over the board and slapped his son over the face.
“If you ever say that again,” Melkin said to the surprised and sobbing boy. “I will take this board and beat you with it until it breaks”.
The following months Melkin continued to play Brynach even more frequently. More often Melkin made Brynach actually play by the rules, instead of cheating his way towards victory. Melkin took time to play teach Brynach both about the game in itself but also the combat strategies that it represented. It happened once or twice that the prince came down and watched them play, but he never engaged in much conversation until one evening when Melkin indeed had drunk too much.
“That’s cheating!” said Brynach his eyes wide as Melkin moved his piece in a forbidden angle to attack the king on the board. He was now playing the game attacker and Brynach the defender.
“Well, this is Sigeberht the saxon warrior who my father, your namesake Bryn, fought during the Battle of Bath. And that,” Melkin pointed at the king in the middle, “is Ulfric of Silchester. Do you know what happened to him?”
Brynach shook his head uncomfortably.
“He died,” Melkin said flatly.
“But, I can’t win if you play the saxon!” argued Brynach pouting his lip.
“No?” Melkin laughed. “Too bad for you. This,” he gestured at the game, “was a real battle. If you cannot win, you will die.”
“But…” Brynach looked at the game with big eyes, “I can’t win… and I don’t wanna die.”
“Well true… you need help,” Melkin continued thinking. “Bryn wasn’t alone in the fight and neither should you be,” and then he continued without thinking. “Why don’t you go and ask prince Mark if he want’s to play one of the bannermen who killed Sigeberth?”
Melkin stared down in his empty glass for what seemed like a second and when he looked up he suddenly felt a lot more sober as both Brynach and prince Mark sat down opposite him.
“So, which one am I?” asked prince Mark and stared at the board.
Melkin looked from Brynach to the prince, and had the odd feeling that Brynach must have gone up to the high table a flatly asked Mark to play. Brynach was looking eager though:
“Well, I’m going to be my grandfather Bryn, so you can be you grand uncle Cadwallon.”
Mark looked confused. “I don’t know of any Cadwallon, who was he?”
“He was a Cellidon,” continued Brynach matter of factly. “They live in a magic forest and can hunt and eat redcaps if they’re really hungry”.
“Well,” interrupted Melkin seeing the doubtful look on prince Mark’s face, “maybe not eat the redcap, but sir Cadwallon was the warrior who slew Sigeberth in this fight.” He started to retell the story of the battle at Bath as he had heard it from lord Amig, and explained where they were in the battle.
And they started to play. Prince Mark was surprisingly sharp at the game being only ten years old. The two boys discussed different ways to take the enemies down especially Sigeberth. Melkin let them replay the story, roughly according to what he knew. When the token that Melkin had proclaimed to be Sigeberth ‘died’ and only one round of the game was left Melkin took one of the boys’ pieces.
“Your king is dead.” He proclaimed and placed the token next to the king.
Both of the boys gaped at him.
“You can’t do that!” said Brynach in utter shock.
“That man was on our side!” protested prince Mark.
“I told you that Ulfric died in this battle.” Melkin pointed at the token on the table that had so brutally ‘betrayed’ the others. “One man within Ulfric’s own ranks cut him in the back with a knife and there was nothing the bannermen could do about it. So you won the battle, but you lost the king”.
The boys were still looking stunned.
“And how do you plan against betrayal?” Melkin asked them both. “It is possible or course, but hard,” and he pointed at the so called ‘bannermen’ on the table. “Without trust or honour we cannot win, which is why we cannot make strategies like the saxons. Somehow we have to beat the ones who cheats, by playing according to the rules”.
“But how do you do that?” asked prince Mark now staring outright at Melkin.
Melkin gave the prince a tired smile. “By understanding what it means to be cheated”, he said simply.
After that evening prince Mark would start playing Hnefatafl with them from time to time. Being a child still Melkin was reluctant to ask the prince about the king, but Melkin slowly started to find out small things about king Idres which he himself could puzzle together. It was not nearly enough yet, but he was finally getting somewhere on count Roderick’s behalf.
One day the prince decided to challenge one of the knights at their table at the game, and quickly beat him. Brynach, of course, followed in the prince steps and did the same thing. When the two boys started winning all their games, people really started to gather round. Melkin knew that the boys mostly won since the game was still so unheard of that no-one else was trained in the rules, and Brynach and Mark did not particularly explain exactly what the rules meant to their opponents. A few weeks later he did however find out that king Idres had been highly amused by the situation of the two boys slaughtering his knights in the new strategy game.