On Rogard’s right, Flambard the King stood, tall in crown and robes. He lifted an arm to shade his eyes against the blazing sunlight. “They are sending DIOMES, the royal guardsman, first,” he murmured. “A good man.” The coolness of his tone was not matched by the other hand, its nervous plucking at his beard.
Rogard turned back, facing over the lines of Cinnabar to the frontier, DIOMES, the LEUKAN King’s own soldier, was running. The long spear flashed in his hand, his shield and helmet threw back the relentless light in a furious dazzle, and Rogard thought he could hear the clashing of iron. Then that noise was drowned in the trumpets and drums and yells from the ranks of Cinnabar, and he had only his eyes.
DIOMES leaped two squares before coming to a halt on the frontier. He stopped then, stamping and thrusting against the Barrier which suddenly held him, and cried challenge. A muttering rose among the cuirassed soldiers of Cinnabar, and spears lifted before the flowing banners.
King Flambard’s voice was shrill as he leaned forward and touched his own guardsman with his scepter. “Go, Carlon! Go to stop him!”
“Aye, sire,” Carlon’s stocky form bowed, and then he wheeled about and ran, holding his spear aloft, until he reached the frontier. Now he and DIOMES stood face to face, snarling at each other across the Barrier, and for a sick moment Rogard wondered what those two had done, once in an evil and forgotten year, that there should be such hate between them.
“Let me go, sire!” Ocher’s voice rang eerily from the slit-eyed mask of his helmet. The winged horse stamped on the hard red ground, and the long lance swept a flashing arc. “Let me go next.”
“No, no, Sir Ocher.” It was a woman’s voice. “Not yet. There’ll be enough for you and me to do, later in this day.”
Looking beyond Flambard, the Bishop saw his Queen, Evyan the Fair, and there was something within him which stumbled and broke into fire. Very tall and lovely was the gray-eyed Queen of Cinnabar, where she stood in armor and looked out at the growing battle. Her sun-browned young face was coifed in steel, but one rebellious lock blew forth in the wind, and she brushed at it with a gauntleted hand while the other drew her sword snaking from its sheath. “Now may God strengthen our arms,” she said, and her voice was low and sweet. Rogard drew his cope tighter about him and turned his mitered head away with a sigh. But there was a bitter envy in him for Columbard, the Queen’s Bishop of Cinnabar.
Drums thumped from the LEUKAN ranks, and another soldier ran forth. Rogard sucked his breath hissingly in, for this man came till he stood on DIOMES’ right. And the newcomer’s face was sharp and pale with fear. There was no Barrier between him and Carlon.
“To his death,” muttered Flambard between his teeth. “They sent that fellow to his death.”
Carlon snarled and advanced on the LEUKAN. He had little choice—if he waited, he would be slain, and his King had not commanded him to wait. He leaped, his spear gleamed, and the LEUKAN soldier toppled and lay emptily sprawled in the black square.
“First blood!” cried Evyan, lifting her sword and hurling sunbeams from it. “First blood for us!”
Aye, so, thought Rogard bleakly, But King MIKILLATI had a reason for sacrificing that man. Maybe we should have let Carlon die. Carlon the bold, Carlon the strong, Carlon the lover of laughter. Maybe we should have let him die.
And now the Barrier was down for Bishop ASATOR of LEUKAS and he came gliding down the red squares, high and cold in his glistening white robes, until he stood on the frontier. Rogard thought he could see ASATOR’s eyes as they swept over Cinnabar. The LEUKAN Bishop was poised to rush in with his great mace should Flambard, for safety, seek to change with Earl Ferric as the Law permitted.
There was no time to wonder what the Law was, or why it must be obeyed, or what had gone before this moment of battle. Queen Evyan had turned and shouted to the soldier Raddic, guardsman of her own Knight Sir Cupran: “Go! Halt him!” And Raddic cast her his own look of love, and ran, ponderous in his mail, up to the frontier. There he and ASATOR stood, no Barrier between them if either used a flanking move.
Good! Oh, good, my Queen! thought Rogard wildly. For even if ASATOR did not withdraw, but slew Raddic, he would be in Raddic’s square, and his threat would be against a wall of spears. He will retreat, he will retreat—
Iron roared as ASATORs mace crashed through helm and skull and felled Raddic the guardsman.
Evyan screamed, once only. “And I sent him! I sent him!” Then she began to run.
“Lady!” Rogard hurled himself against the Barrier. He could not move, he was chained here in his square, locked and barred by a Law he did not understand, while his lady ran toward death. “O Evyan, Evyan!”
Straight as a flying javelin ran the Queen of Cinnabar. Turning, straining after her, Rogard saw her leap the frontier and come to a halt by the Barrier which marked the left-hand bound of the kingdoms, beyond which lay only dimness to the frightful edge of the world. There she wheeled to face the dismayed ranks of LEUKAS, and her cry drifted back like the shriek of a stooping hawk: “MIKILLATI! Defend yourself!”
The thunder-crack of cheering from Cinnabar drowned all answer, but Rogard saw, at the very limits of his sight, how hastily King MIKILLATI stepped from the line of her attack, into the stronghold of Bishop ASATOR. Now, thought Rogard fiercely, now the white-robed ruler could never seek shelter from one of his Earls. Evyan had stolen his greatest shield.
“Hola, my Queen!” With a sob of laughter, Ocher struck spurs into his horse. Wings threshed, blowing Rogard’s cope about him, as the Knight hurtled over the head of his own guardsman and came to rest two squares in front of the Bishop. Rogard fought down his own anger; he had wanted to be the one to follow Evyan. But Ocher was a better choice.
Oh, much better! Rogard gasped as his flittering eyes took in the broad battlefield. In the next leap, Ocher could cut down DIOMES, and then between them he and Evyan could trap MIKILLATI!
Briefly, that puzzlement nagged at the Bishop. Why should men die to catch someone else’s King? What was there in the Law that said Kings should strive for mastery of the world and—
“Guard yourself, Queen!” Sir MERKON, King’s Knight of LEUKAS, sprang in a move like Ocher’s. Rogard’s breath rattled in his throat with bitterness, and he thought there must be tears in Evyan’s bright eyes. Slowly, then, the Queen withdrew two squares along the edge, until she stood in front of Earl Feme’s guardsman. It was still a good place to attack from, but not what the other had been.
BO AN, guardsman of the LEUKAN Queen DOLORA, moved one square forward, so that he protected great DIOMES from Ocher. Ocher snarled and sprang in front of Evyan, so that he stood between her and the frontier: clearing the way for her, and throwing his own protection over Carlon.
MERKON jumped likewise, landing to face Ocher with the frontier between them. Rogard clenched his mace and vision blurred for him; the LEUKANs were closing in on Evyan.
“Ulfar!” cried the King’s Bishop. “Ulfar, can you help her?”
The stout old yeoman who was guardsman of the Queen’s Bishop nodded wordlessly and ran one square forward. His spear menaced Bishop ASATOR, who growled at him—no Barrier between those two now!
MERKON of LEUKAS made another soaring leap, landing three squares in front of Rogard. “Guard yourself!” the voice belled from his faceless helmet. “Guard yourself, O Queen!”
No time now to let Ulfar slay ASATOR. Evyan’s great eyes looked wildly about her; then, with swift decision, she stepped between MERKON and Ocher. Oh, a lovely move! Out of the fury in his breast, Rogard laughed.
The guardsman of the LEUKAN King’s Knight clanked two squares ahead, lifting his spear against Ocher. It must have taken boldness thus to stand before Evyan herself; but the Queen of Cinnabar saw that if she cut him down, the Queen of LEUKAS could slay her. “Get free, Ocher!” she cried. “Get away!” Ocher cursed and leaped from danger, landing in front of Rogard’s guardsman.
The King’s Bishop bit his lip and tried to halt the trembling in his limbs. How the sun blazed! Its light was a cataract of dry white fire over the barren red and black squares. It hung immobile, enormous in the vague sky, and men gasped in their armor. The noise of bugles and iron, hoofs and wings and stamping feet, was loud under the small wind that blew across the world. There had never been anything but this meaningless war, there would never be aught else, and when Rogard tried to think beyond the moment when the fight had begun, or the moment when it would end, there was only an abyss of darkness.