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The Chess Player of the Desert

by Colin W. Campbell

Darkness had fallen on the desert. The hot wind of the day had already slipped away. Soon the cold would come with the night.

The First Lord of the Great Western Desert and his old Chancellor sat out for a while apart from the others. The canopy of stars, bright in the clear air, held their attention. They knew some by name, for these were the companions that guided them by night when they were far out on the desert.

“Are they the souls of the dead?” asked the First Lord. “Is there a place waiting for us up there?”

“We hear of such things, My Lord,” said the old Chancellor.

“Tomorrow will be a day for waiting,” said the First Lord.

The next day came with a great bustle and noise of men ready for battle. Still low in the sky, the sun sparkled in a dance of death on armor and weapons. Detachments of horsemen were loosely lined up outside the palace walls. More were arriving.

They had come from all corners of the feudal lands; it was a time of reckoning for the great nobles. Their lands and titles were held in trust from the First Lord. Even his sons were obliged on pain of death to provide their full quota of armed men in the defence of the kingdom. The High Clerk in the office of the old Chancellor took a tally.

“Take care you don’t hurt yourself with that pen, it might be sharp,” shouted one minor noble, himself bristling with more weapons than were necessary.

“Stick to your chess. We’ll look after the real battles,” shouted another who knew him well from the court.

The tally was good, and no one was short, for this was no reluctant, pressed army. These men were warriors, born of warriors, and battle was what they did best. War might be the bringer of death but it also brought honour, treasure, and advancement in society.

“The nobles are called to a council of war.” The cry went round, raising the level of expectation.

The nobles came quickly to the Great Hall. Each was announced in order of precedence and seated with ceremony and courtesy according to status. Their loud talk of war was abruptly silenced when the old Chancellor slammed a strong fist into the table, three times.

“Please be upstanding for the entry of the First Lord of the Great Western Desert,” he announced.

Once the proper salutations had been exchanged, the First Lord laid the naked blade of his sword on the table in front of him. He had their undivided attention, for he spoke of matters of life and death: theirs.

“A great enemy waits on our eastern borders. They are ordered here by a Lord who stays at home with the women and children and does not know the ways of war. Their numbers are great but many come on foot with a spear and a few weeks of training. I know you are all ready to smash them on the border and send a signal down the years to any who might be tempted to follow: Step on our lands and die.”

In an instant the nobles filled the air with their loudest threats and their best curses.

The First Lord acknowledged their readiness for the fight with his sword held high in a gesture of victory and waited. When all was quiet again, he continued. “You are ready to die and I salute you, but this day I will ask you and your men to do something far more difficult. It will test your loyalty. I must ask you to wait. Not for long; but for now, you must wait.”

The First Lord offered no explanation, and the nobles knew not to ask. Slowly and deliberately he sheathed his sword, laid it down on the table and left. They realized at once that handling a delay at a time like this would be a far greater challenge to their leadership than heading a charge. Everyone wondered what the old fox was up to.

* * *

That night a small force of the First Lord’s best horsemen left under cover of darkness. They were commanded by the High Clerk in the office of the old Chancellor. He said little as he led them towards the border. At last, after seven long days the great invasion army lay before them.

“Let me take command now; I was born for this,” said the Captain of the horsemen. “They have not yet seen our approach, and we have the high ground. Their horses are tethered and most are not even saddled. A sudden charge now will deal them a severe blow.”

“I know my orders and you know yours,” said the High Clerk. His answer was the same as it had been throughout their week-long journey to meet the invaders. Now, for the first time he offered some explanation.

“They are waiting to be attacked. Then their Lord will have an excuse to cross our borders. Our charge might not be a strong blow, for they have spearmen in groups around their perimeter. They seem to be resting, but I don’t always believe what an opponent appears to be doing. Your men are the best there are. They will charge onto spear-points, but their horses will not.”

The High Clerk gave his orders, and the Captain deployed his cavalry along the skyline. They advanced at a slow walking pace with bows, not lances, at the ready.

At first nothing stirred in the camp of the invaders. Then a signal horn sounded. In a well-rehearsed movement, a wall of spears took shape and there was great activity around the horses. The High Clerk gave his signal and arrows were loosed into well-protected spearmen in their heavy shields.

“Withdraw,” shouted the High Clerk and the little force headed back up the hill a great deal faster than they had come down it. The spear wall broke ranks, and the invaders’ cavalry poured out. They broke off pursuit before reaching the top of the hill.

“Why do they not follow us?” said the Captain when they were at a safe distance.

“They expect a trap,” said the High Clerk. “Perhaps they play chess too.”

“They will soon see there is no large force waiting for them over the top of the hill, and if they think we are weak they will push deep into the kingdom,” said the Captain.

“Oh, I do hope so,” said the High Clerk.

For many days the great army of the invaders pushed deeper into the lands on the outer reaches of the Great Western Desert. They celebrated victory after victory as their opponents offered only weak and unsustained skirmishing attacks.

Going always further west, the invaders found the land they were conquering for their Lord increasingly dry, and they were glad to have local guides. These well-paid turncoats knew where the water was, and that was all the invaders needed, for everything else had been brought with them.

Then at last the invaders were within striking distance of the desert stronghold of the First Lord. They heard from the guides that they should carry water for a final two-day march at infantry pace. Not trusting them, they took water for four days.

“Where are the guides?” The cry went round after two days. But they were all gone.

Two more days and most of the water was gone. Some of the old hands had carried an extra water bottle. Their hands were now never far from their weapons, and they looked with suspicion at any comrade who came too close.

By the time they saw the first of the palms, discipline was gone from the ranks of the invaders. It had left with the last of the water, and they had endured a full week of searing hot days and bitterly cold nights. The horses that remained were led, not ridden, for too much of their blood had been taken to save the riders. The great army was strung out in a long line that stretched back to the horizon as the strongest left the weakest behind.

The old Chancellor and his High Clerk watched from the shade of the palms.

“They have no proper battle formation,” said the High Clerk. He gave the signal and a hundred fires were lit.

This was the time of year when the wind blew dry from the west. It carried the smoke to the ranks of the invaders’ advance guard. It caused their eyes to narrow and their throats to burn, but mostly it brought confusion. They turned around, shouting, “Go back, go back.”

“They have not learned to expect the unexpected,” said the old Chancellor.

“And now they never will,” said the High Clerk for he could hear a low thunder just out of sight in the near distance.

The invaders could hear it too. It made them forget their thirst and remember their training. All down the line they struggled into infantry squares, where their spears could resist even the most determined cavalry. But their line was strung out; the squares they formed were small and too far apart to support each other. Worse, much worse, most had abandoned their heavy shields back in the heat of the desert march.

With a great shout, the horsemen of the First Lord of the Great Western Desert swept over the skyline in a close-packed and seemingly endless wave. Lightly armoured, they moved fast on tough little horses, each warrior skilled in the use of the deadly composite bow. Terror and death rained down as one by one the squares were overwhelmed.

Back among the palms, the High Clerk ordered the fires be put out. Through the thinning smoke he could see the last of the wounded invaders being butchered. None was spared, and the sand shone red with their blood.

He felt a sudden chill and turning to the old Chancellor said, “We have killed so many men.”

“They came here to kill us,” said the old Chancellor.

When the victory celebrations were over and the High Clerk had been made a noble and given lands, the First Lord and old Chancellor sat out again under the night stars.

“The desert is silent once more, and there are so many stars,” said the old Chancellor. “Our chess-player has saved the lives of many of our men.”

“Perhaps more than they know,” said the First Lord. “If the invaders had been defeated by our men, their King would have lost face. He would attack again and again. But all the world will know they were beaten by the desert.”

Copyright © 2013 by Colin W. Campbell

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