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For the second day, the cold rain drummed down, sometimes with bits of ice in it. Richard hung about Midculter, wandering aimlessly through the rooms, unable to pursue his usual pastimes and without any business sufficiently urgent to take him outdoors without throwing his household into paroxysms of fussing. After dinner, Mariotta took pity on him.

"My dear, I cannot wish away the rain for you, but a game might keep your attention from it for a little while. Your mother tells me you used to be fond of a game of Dames."

Richard looked reproachfully at Sybilla. She smiled sweetly from her carved and cushioned chair by the fire, adjusted her spectacles, and focused on her embroidery once more. Richard sighed. "Might as well. I daresay I'll have plenty of time yet to build the Ark we'll likely need after all this rain."

Mariotta fetched the chess board and the stones from the backgammon set and set them out on the small trestle table. She sorted the stones by their colors and offered the black ones to her husband, who waved them away. "Ladies first, my love."

They arranged their dames on the board, Mariotta with concentration and decision, Richard with a mixture of suffering and carelessness. She made her first move, and he answered.

A few moves later, and Richard was paying far more attention. He'd lost three dames, and damned if Mariotta wasn't shaping up to take another. Another two, he discovered a moment later. He tried to rally, but a few moments later, his efforts were moot. "Oh my," exclaimed Mariotta, color vivid in her cheeks. "I've won!"

"You won't next time," promised her husband. The next game lasted longer, but the result was the same. Richard scratched his head and rubbed his sleeve across his face. "I think I need a drink."

"That won't help your strategy, Richard," said Sybilla, severely, but she called for some canary, nuts, and biscuits. With their refreshments at hand, the two opponents set up their pieces for a third bout. Sybilla gave up any pretense of needlework and moved to a small chair nearer their table.

"Perhaps a wager might sharpen his game, Mariotta," she suggested, innocently. Richard frowned, then shrugged. "I know!" exclaimed Mariotta. "We'll play ten games. That leaves Richard with plenty of chance to recoup his losses. And if I win the most of them, then when the weather clears, he must go with me to visit Janet and her latest little girl."

"And if I win the tourney, I'll spent the same amount of time hunting!"

"You would!" said his wife. "Here I'm offering something for us to do together --"

"Believe me, I'd rather moulder at home than waste a fine day indoors with Sir Wat's domestic menagerie."

Mariotta pouted and made her first move. Richard hunched over the board like the personification of Judgement and managed to win, at last. "Ha! Mine, darling!"

"It's just the one game," retorted Mariotta, tossing her dark head, and made good on her words by beating him soundly once again. Richard groaned, heartfelt, and Sybilla chuckled wickedly. "Whose side have you taken, anyway?" demanded her son.

"Neither, and both. I haven't had this much fun since ... oh, for years, anyway!"

By the ninth game, Richard had taken three rounds to Mariotta's five. Now he could do no better than a tie, and with a feeling of inevitability, he watched as Mariotta swept another two of his dames from the board. Only an error on her part could save the game for him now, and he was not terribly surprised when she made none.

"Your game," said Richard sadly. "And you have the prize, my lady." Mariotta crowed with pleasure and embraced Sybilla, dark head against fair. Richard watched them resignedly. "Where did you learn to play like that, darling?"

image of a man's and woman's hands clasped above a draughts board

As the words left his lips, they saw a change come over him. He flushed angrily for a moment, then took a deep breath. "My brother, I suppose," he said, flatly. "He had plenty of time during his convalescence. Although he always loathed Dames - not much of a challenge for such a clever lad, of course."

"He still loathes it," answered Sybilla, crisply. "I taught her, as I did you. She seems to have taken to it rather better, that's all."

Richard left his chair to kneel at his wife's feet and bow his head to her knee. "I concede the victory to you, Lady Culter. As soon as the weather clears, I will accompany you to Branxholm and spend a day there being pleasant."

Mariotta laid her hand gently on his hair. "I think the morning would be sufficient. I will convince Janet to release you and Wat for the rest of the day. I am sure your mother will help."

Richard looked up, startled, then grinned. Sybilla rose and rested one hand gently on her daughter-in-law's shoulder. "Mariotta, if you put your mind to it, I'm sure my aid won't be needed all. Janet may be diabolically clever, but you, my dear, are starting to show quite a grasp of strategy."


(Image of draughts board from cdevers on Flickr; image of clasped hands from taliesan on morguefile.)