Lancelot sighed deeply, watching his horse stamping its hooves and tossing its head, eager to be on the move. This was so unnecessary, so expensive. His gaze widened, taking in his men, his good, faithful men readying themselves for battle. Again.
“Roderick, help me up why don’t you? We need to get this over and done with,” he said, nodding at the wooden mounting steps. He held out a gloved hand to his manservant, who was strong and also faithful, but not short on opinions. “And don’t say a word. I know.”
Roderick braced his outstretched arm under the king’s weight, now almost doubled by the burden of head-to-toe chain-mail. He grunted as he launched Lancelot onto the horse, which whickered softly in protest as its rider landed with a thud on the saddle.
“Your brother, Sire… he has even less sense than I thought, and that’s not saying much. Our Queen Mirabelle is not impressed by all of this posturing, and neither is Queen Ariadne!”
“Enough, Roderick. This time, you don’t get the last word. Any more of your grumbling and you can leave my employ – right now!”
Roderick kept the rest of his thoughts to himself. Sometimes, even King Lancelot followed through with his threats. He thought back to the early years of his employment. Back then he had spoken out once too often and as a result, had experienced a week of cleaning out the castle garderobes – a foul and disgusting task. Being cut loose to find another job as good as this one would be a far worse burden in these hard times. Although, if the two brothers would stop fighting… Roderick sighed quietly, careful not to show his irritation too openly. Temperamental was not the word, today.
Lancelot shifted around on the worn and patched leather, doing his best to achieve some kind of comfort on the lumpy seating. By rights, he should be sitting on a new custom-fit saddle instead of this hand-me-down from his father, which was just not working out. But the money, oh the money…
Standing in his stirrups, he raised his arms aloft and banged his sword against the edge of his battered shield.
“Men! It is time to make our way to the battlefield! Listen well!”
As he delivered the usual speech – fight hard, fight clean, use your wits, watch out for dirty tricks – Lancelot tried hard not to feel dispirited at the sight of his men. They turned out for him unfailingly, they were loyal, they rarely grumbled. But they looked so tired! Every single one of them wore cuts and bruises about their faces, their own chain-mail was ill-fitting and even rusty in places and they could all do with new footwear. As for their shields – well, they had all been a brilliant white many battles ago, but paying for a new coat of paint was proving to be too much of a financial burden these days.
He focused on Henry, his newest recruit and therefore still hungry for the win that would probably never happen. “Some of you may wonder why we continue to fight week in, week out, when the outcome is almost as predictable as sunrise…”
“Sire! We are all loyal to your goodly cause – nay, our goodly cause!” Henry shouted, raising his own sword in support with one hand, whilst pushing back his too-large helmet with the other as it slipped forward into his eyes, yet again. It was a miracle that the boy was still alive, thought Lancelot glumly. He must be a brilliant foot soldier or the luckiest in the two kingdoms. To their credit, the rest of his men agreed with the boy’s sentiments, even if not quite so enthusiastically.
“Thank you, Henry. Of course, we all know that we have no choice but to respond to my brother’s challenge. I am sorry for that, men.”
“God will provide, Sire.” Bishop Greatheart, who had just finished blessing each of the soldiers, patted Lancelot’s horse with a calming hand and offered it a carrot. “And if he does not, my young colleague will be here with me to tend to the wounded on your return. Won’t you, Jeremiah?”
A thin whisp of a man, bedecked in threadbare clerical garments, jumped guiltily on hearing his name yelled across the courtyard.
“Err, yes – umm, Luke – I mean Bishop Greatheart – I mean Sire!” Flustered, he bowed low to the ground, almost toppling over in his desire not to offend King Lancelot. As usual, he had been daydreaming, wishing he was hidden away at the top of the South Tower, reading tales of courtly love hidden in its secret library. He hated being the bishop’s younger brother, he hated being too feeble to fight, but most of all, he hated being lumbered with the title of Junior Bishop when everyone knew he was the least religious person in the castle. But since his predecessor had carelessly stood in the way of an arrow, and the remaining men were now in the army, he simply had no choice.
Lancelot waved his hand dismissively, turning his gaze away from the ungainly young man. The last thing he wanted to remember – God forbid he should be unseated, or worse, today – was the sight of a nervous, sweating and utterly miserable representative of the church. He rolled his eyes heavenwards, but no inspiration was forthcoming.
The knights were ranged behind the foot soldiers, and as usual, their horses were nervy, side-stepping, flicking their tails, snorting and showing the whites of their eyes as if they had been prodded with a hot poker. Why his most expensive military assets were so wild, King Lancelot still could not make sense of it. His brother seemed to have much better control over his own horses, although since he never got close enough to see the Dark Kingdom’s mounted division, he couldn’t swear to it. I just might be wrong about that as well, he thought, knowing that he was sliding into a depression. And where on earth were the blasted –
“Sire! Sire! We’re sorry, so very, very sorry to be so late!”
Metal-banded wheels sparked on the cobblestones, ringing around the courtyard. The chariots had arrived – at last. Their captain jumped down and ran, his armour clanking and his cloak trailing behind like a great, white pennant. “There was a bit of a problem with the seamstresses!” He made to throw himself to the floor in abject distress, but Lancelot grasped him by the arm, halting his descent.
“No! No! Kester, don’t! How – ?” Lancelot left the question hanging in the air. No need to ask how they could have afforded it, how they found the time, how they had not been turned away by every seamstress in the kingdom.
Kester smiled. “We went to see Queen Ariadne. She’s sick to the back teeth of all this fighting. She also knows that King Randolph has just invested in new chariot horses – but they are from the darkest part of the Dark Kingdom, and hate any light brighter than dusk. We’ll blind them and send them packing!” He beckoned to his manservant, Geoffrey, who ran forward with a huge sack, brimming with new, brilliant white material. “We only had time to have the armoury mend and polish our own armour, but we have fine cloaks for everyone! Queen Ariadne gave us all the gold to pay for the cutting, the sewing and the embroidery!”
The atmosphere changed in a moment as the men took the cloaks that Geoffrey passed around, wrapped them around their shoulders, marvelling at the heavy white brocade, the gold embroidery and the brilliant platinum clasps that fastened at their necks. As if arranged by Bishop Greatheart himself, the sun burst from behind the heavy clouds for a few moments, illuminating the spectacle below. It was indeed a brilliant display.
“Sire, I would have arranged for a suit of armour for you -”
“No matter. You chariots are our heavy artillery – you need the most protection. I prefer to be lightly protected, and therefore speedier,” Lancelot replied. “However, Kester, I am not certain I approve of your methods -”
“But Sire, I was a complete gentleman! I cannot help it if Queen Ariadne has a soft place in her heart for me -”
“Even so, you play a dangerous game. Remember, I need you all, things being as they are between the Dark Kingdom and the Light.”
Kester ducked his head, the adrenalin rush knocked out of him. It was true, he could get too carried away with the excitement of subterfuge – he enjoyed sneaking across the border, pretending to be a poor wandering minstrel, listening to much and saying little.
“No matter, good sir. You are safe now and you may have helped fortune shine on us, for once. You know for a fact that these stallions of my brother’s have this failing in their sight? We will look fools if otherwise!”
“Well-dressed fools, Sire!” shouted out young Henry, carried away with the excitement.
Lancelot stood in his stirrups once more, towering over his men. Things were getting out of hand. “Who knows of my brother’s new stallions? Anyone?”
Of all people, Jeremiah, the miserable Junior Bishop stepped forward. “Sire, I know the forest from where these stallions are taken and tamed. I can see it from – from the South Tower,” he said, stuttering over his words. “I sometimes go there to gaze at the stars and moon with my telescope and to – to – contemplate, Sire.”
Lancelot hid a smirk behind his hand, hoping that he had covered his amusement. He well knew what books lined the shelves in that room, since he had purchased them himself, in more prosperous times. “Really, Bishop? And this forest, is it as dark and dense as the storytellers would have us believe?”
“Oh yes, Sire! And the horses are as dark as pitch! They are the very devil! I saw the horsemen enter the forest to claim the beasts just after our last battle – they brought out eight, all told!”
A hiss of horror echoed around the courtyard.
“But they are blinded like moles, if the sun should shine. King Randolph must be hoping for a dull day indeed!” said Kester, imitating the small furry creatures that drove the King almost insane with their daily incursions underneath his bowling green.
“Indeed, Sire, the horses flinched greatly against the daylight!” agreed Jeremiah, warming to his role. “Randolph’s men had to guide them all the way to his castle!”
A ripple of laughter rolled around the courtyard, and Lancelot saw that his men now felt better both in body and in spirit. Even if the stories were exaggerated, a boost in morale would carry them all a long way towards victory. And besides, it was an insult of the highest order, as if the House of Light couldn’t even achieve victory over a harras of half-sighted, untamed horses. This was war.
He glanced at the large clock mounted high above them. It was nearly time. His dear Queen Mirabelle appeared, mounted on her own white horse. Tradition dictated that she would ride out to the battlefield with King Lancelot, surrounded by their escort. After all, it was her honour for which they were fighting.
“Come, dear husband. I feel our fortunes have changed this day, thanks to good Kester Rook! Perhaps for once, victory will side with the Kingdom of Light,” she said as they rode out through the arch and across the drawbridge.
They paused, the sight of the battlefield below them breathtaking as always. King Lancelot took his wife’s hand in his, kissing it gently. “You do realise, my dear, that if we win today’s fight, it will be our responsibility to maintain all of this?”
Queen Mirabelle smiled. “Of course! But the winnings will more than pay our debts, with enough to spare. Perhaps we can take the opportunity to redesign it?”
The couple watched as the Black King’s servants finished their preparations, laying out seating at a safe distance from the field of combat, setting up the food and drink stalls. “Perhaps you’re right, my dear, but for now – well, now it is the same old, same old.”
He raised his standard high above his head. “Men! Proceed to your places! Foot soldiers, to the fore, make sure you have plenty of arrows on you! Chariots, protect the knights flanking behind! Bishops, take care of my Queen, I will watch from here until all else is in place.”
The army of the House of the White King took its place. The army of the House of the Black King settled opposite. Each monarch rode slowly to his allotted place, behind his ranks of men.
All was still.
The alarm rang out.
The clock started to tick.
The chess tournament had begun.