By A.E. Decker

The knight watched the cleric approach from the southeast, his step firm despite his apparent age. The staff he carried appeared more war cudgel than cane.

“Come nearer and I strike,” said the knight when the cleric reached a certain distance. Inside, he quivered, barely restrained rage scorching his veins. Come nearer, he begged. 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 soon marred by his brother’s capture.

Whether it was the effect of his warning or some more nefarious reason, the cleric halted just beyond his reach. Biting back a growl, the knight dropped his hand from his sword’s hilt. He used it instead to soothe Ebony. She shook her mane, as eager as he for the signal to attack. But there were rules.

“Peace,” said the cleric, leaning on his staff.

Again the knight fought down the urge to strike. “Peace is a hateful word in these circumstances,” he said. “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 to stroke his beard. The knight cast a mistrustful eye over him, weathered but hale, like a piece of white oak ossified through time. He 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 side wins?”

Matter? The question tore the knight’s thoughts into a glittering trail of fragments. He wrenched his attention back to the cleric. “Matter? 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 advanced on 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 piece. 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 advanced upon us.” The knight beat 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 paused. 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 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 couldnot do was believe that any of it had actually happened.

Where was it situated, this great kingdom he served? He swept his gaze across the landscape. Flat, barren, and featureless. No tender young grass would ever cover the hard earth. There would never be trees for birds to perch in.  No yellow grain would ever sprout to feed the hungry.

“In my worst moments,” said the cleric softly, 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 alone!” 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

A. E. Decker is the current chief editor of The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and a longstanding member of the BWG. She is the author of the Moonfall Mayhem series published by World Weaver Press as well as numerous short stories that have been published in such venues as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Magazine, and numerous anthologies. She is currently working on a novel and learning to stand on her hands.

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