The cleric approached from the southeast, his step firm despite his apparent age. The staff he carried seemed more war cudgel than cane.
One step more, begged the knight silently, eyes locked to the cleric’s every movement. His hand tightened on Ebony’s reins. Closer, closer. Let me avenge the loss of my comrades.
The battle couldn’t last much longer. Both sides had suffered horrendous casualties. He’d watched from a distance, outwardly impassive, as one of his lord’s castles was taken. He’d retaliated by striking down an enemy knight, but that victory was marred shortly thereafter by his brother’s capture.
“I see you there, Sir Knight,” said the cleric, halting just beyond his reach.
Biting back a growl, the knight took his hand from his sword’s hilt and used it instead to soothe Ebony. She tossed her mane, as eager as he for the signal to attack. But there were rules of engagement.
“I mean you no harm,” said the cleric. He leaned on his staff.
The knight’s arm twitched towards his sword. “Please, sir, no lies,” he said, forcing it to relax. “You and I are enemies.”
The cleric stroked his beard. A wind fluttered his white robe about his legs. “Enemies? Hm. Why?”
Ebony stamped. “Your side advanced on us, old fool,” said the knight, patting her neck. In lieu of a physical attack, he poured as much disdain into his voice as it could hold. “But we shall be victorious.”
The cleric continued stroking his beard. Acting the harmless dotard, thought the knight, casting a mistrustful eye over him. Weathered but hale, like a piece of white oak ossified through time. Not easily broken. The knight refrained from looking back over his shoulder, lest he give away his lord’s position. Have faith, he told himself. Hold strong and victory will be ours.
“Does it matter which of our sides wins?”
The cleric’s question shattered the knight’s thoughts into a glittering trail of fragments. “Matter?” he said, wrenching his attention back to the cleric. “What could be more important?”
“The feel of the wind,” said the cleric at once. “The ground underfoot.” He tapped his staff against the smooth, flat earth. “They, at least, are real.”
It took several seconds before the knight gathered enough breath to speak. “What of your vows to your lord?”
“I can’t remember them.” The cleric shifted his weight; in all their bleak surroundings, there was nothing to rest on. “Tell me, why we are fighting?”
“Didn’t you hear me?” said the knight. “You attacked us.”
“Ah, yes.” The cleric’s pale eyes grew vacant. “That’s how it always starts.”
The knight steadied Ebony as she danced beneath him, his muscles shifting smoothly with her movements, as if they were all of one body. Madman, he thought. Fool. Then: distraction. Deliberately, he returned his attention to the battle at hand. How many remained, out of the fallen?
But the cleric spoke again. “I envy you,” he said. “All glorious fire and blind devotion. To still feel purpose. Yes, I envy that. Tell me again why we’re fighting.”
“Your side attacked us.” The knight smote a fist against Ebony’s saddle. “How many times must I say it?”
“It’s not enough!” cried the cleric, tilting back his head. The sky spread above them, starless and fog-gray. “Tell me, knight, when did you kneel before your lord and swear eternal fealty? Was the ceremony glorious or somber? Did the courtiers shout huzzah or keep a genteel silence?”
“The ceremony?” The knight frowned.
Of course there’d been a ceremony. He was a knight; therefore he must have been knighted. He could envision every detail: a rich carpet stretching across a floor as dark as still water to a dais where his liege waited, his sable-trimmed cloak pooling about his feet. In solemn silence the knight had advanced, knelt, and bowed his dark head. The great sword lifted, descended three times. His shoulders tingled under the blows. The courtiers cheered… he could hear their cries.
What he could not do was believe that any of it had actually happened.
Where did it lie, this great kingdom he served? He swept his gaze across the landscape. Flat, barren, and featureless. No tender grass would ever cover the hard earth. There would never be trees for birds to perch in, no flowers to perfume the air, no yellow grain to feed the hungry.
“In my worst moments,” said the cleric, leaning on his staff, “I believe that we are here simply because whoever made the rules decided it would be… enjoyable.”
No. The knight’s hands shook on Ebony’s reins. A lie. I am a knight. I serve my lord. He conjured up his vision of the ceremony, willing it to be true, but it broke apart at his mind’s touch, fragile as a paper flower cast into water.
A glimpse of white caught the corner of his eye. The knight sucked in a breath as the pale lady, the most lethal of all his adversaries, swooped across the battlefield in a movement deadly as a falcon’s stoop.
Purpose returned in a flash. “You’ve been distracting me all along!” he shouted at the unmoving cleric. Drawing his sword, he urged Ebony forward, leaping into the path of the onrushing foe. “Here’s for your stratagems, old fool!” he cried, striking her down.
The cleric raised a brow. “Not mine. But for your sake, I fear you should have held your position.”
Frowning, the knight turned the fallen queen over with the tip of his sword. On her face he beheld not despair, but the satisfaction of one who has sacrificed life for victory.
My Lord! He whirled around exactly as the lowly pawn, unheeded until now, took the single, lethal, step forward. The knight screamed his throat raw, but there were rules and they held him helpless.
“Tell me again,” said the cleric. “Why are we fighting?”
I no longer know. The knight wept as his king fell, checkmated.
A. E. Decker is a former ESL tutor and doll maker who currently resides in Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Odyssey 2011 and a member of the Bethlehem Writers’ Group. Two of her stories will feature in the BWG’s ‘Seasonal Pursuits’ anthology.