By Laura Campbell
The battlefield was ready.
A vast, mist-shrouded land lay between the two armies. The illumination coming from the east and the darkness that still lingered in the west filtered through the air, merging together to cast a beautiful, yet somehow frightening silver-grey half-light over the field. The unevenness of the ground made the place seem a patchwork quilt of light and shadows.
To the east, coming with the rising sun, were the white armies. The Pawns marched forward in a line as straight as the shafts of the spears they carried. Their white surcoats and bright shirts of mail gleamed in the dawn light as they took up position and stood tall, their weapons held high and proud.
To the west, where night still clung to the sky, came the black armies. Their approach was like a wave of darkness creeping up the edge of the land. Knights cloaked in shadows calmed their restive warhorses while the black bishops beside them muttered prayers and incantations in fervent voices to their dark gods.
Then, as one, the warriors of the black army brandished their
weapons and let out a roaring cheer to acknowledge the arrival of their
Raven looked up and twisted a long strand of her dark hair about one finger, as she did when trying to remember something. "Is it King on his colour, or Queen on her colour?"
"It doesn't matter," Pearl replied, shifting the flickering, fluorescent lamp so that it rested beside her. She muttered something about the lack of portable electric lights in her friend’s house, then added, "Just remember that I get first move because I'm white."
"Okay, then.” Raven shrugged and finished positioning her chesspieces. “It's your move."
Pearl smiled, the light playing off her fair skin and pale blonde hair as she opened with a conventional King's Pawn move.
Play commenced as the two probed each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Both knew the game well. Both were skilled. But only one could win. For a long time, neither lost a piece. They were content to fence with each other and plan their own strategies.
White and black pieces moved over the board of alternating light and dark silver squares, until, at last, two wills clashed...
The Bishop smoothed his pristine white vestments and made way for the one approaching him from the grey plane. It was a black armoured Knight on a midnight charger. The warrior reigned in his horse a short distance away before turning his steel-encased head in the Bishop's direction.
"I've been expecting you," the priest stated.
The black Knight dismounted with a clank of armour then drew a seven-foot long broadsword of steel the colour of obsidian. "It's time we got started, Bishop. Your death has been ordered."
"The forces of darkness will never triumph," the white Bishop exclaimed, clutching the ornate crucifix hanging around his neck for reassurance.
In a voice that sounded oddly hollow behind his helmet, the Knight replied, "Watch them." And with a single sweep of his heavy blade, he beheaded the priest.
The bishop crumpled to the ground, the top of his white robes stained crimson as his head rolled away across the ground to rest nearby, dead eyes vacant and staring.
The Knight paused a minute to clean his weapon and was about to turn back to his horse when something struck him low in the chest. He looked down in detached surprise to see the ivory-white shaft of a spear emerging from his own body, dripping with his own blood, then fell, his last sight being that of a white-cloaked Pawn.
"It was worth it to save my Queen," Raven said.
"Was it?" Pearl replied, raising a pale brow. "We'll see."
"A Knight is worth more than a Bishop."
Pearl laughed softly. "That depends on who you ask." She paused. "It's your turn."
Raven considered the board for a minute, her face a mask of shadows and her dark brows drawn into a frown of concentration. She moved one of her Castles forward. "Yours. Did you want another drink?"
"Mmm... yes, please."
"That was tea, one sugar and milk?"
"That's it. And yours was coffee with no milk." She reached down and shifted her Queen diagonally across the board, practically from one corner all the way to the other. "Check."
The black King frowned out across the grey expanse of the land. His sable robes folded as he moved them, irritated by their weight. Then he saw her. Like a tall, white pillar of shining marble with hair like spun sunlight. Deadly beauty...
Cold eyes reminiscent of chips of ice fixed on him and he recoiled.
"Knight! Protect me!"
"Good move!" Pearl complimented. She moved her remaining Bishop to guard her Queen then took a sip of her drink. "I think you forgot the sugar."
"Sorry." Raven passed the sugar pot over so that Pearl could help herself, then moved her own Queen and stood up. "I'm going to put some music on. Any preferences?"
"Just don't put any techno on. I detest techno."
"That's putting it lightly. I heard what you did to Mike Sullivan's radio last week-"
"Would you believe that it was already broken before I dropped it off the bridge?" Pearl moved a pawn forward and let out a sigh of anticipation. "A few more squares and you'll have another Queen to worry about."
"Not if I can help it! Wait a minute." Raven turned on the CD player and put a disc in, then stabbed the play button with her thumb. "'Shadowlands'," she said in answer to her friend's questioning look.
"I thought I recognised the cover."
Raven smiled and carefully reached down with her foot to move her Queen again, softly singing along with the CD... "Close call, there in the shadows, there's a fear in the dark. There's no one out there..."
The white Pawn thought she could hear music. To her ears, the music was dark, unholy, evil. Fitting, considering who was approaching him from across the battlefield.
Regal, gowned in a floor-length gown of pure black, a dark, iron crown set with obsidian resting on her ebony locks, she was every inch a Queen.
"You would pit your puny skills against mine?" the Queen sneered when the Pawn shifted her grip on her white spear. "Or is it because of your ambitions that you think you can win? A crown lies so close, yet you are so far away from it." Her lips curled with scorn. "And now, it will never be yours."
"That remains to be seen," the Pawn said.
The Queen's laugh was deep and full-throated. Eyes still sparkling with cruel humour, she moved her arms in a complex gesture. Her black-painted nails started to trail smoke as her hands moved back and forth, weaving forms too intricate for the eye to follow.
The Pawn drew back in sudden dread, her spear lowered and ready for anything.
A whirling, midnight vortex streaked from the hands of the black Queen and twined around the Pawn with all the speed of a striking serpent. In barely the time it takes a heart to beat, the Pawn was blocked from sight and a single scream tore the air. An instant later there was silence and the Queen lowered her arms, smiling with satisfaction.
The black vortex had vanished. And so had the white Pawn.
"I'd imagine that she looks somewhat like Mortisha from ‘The Addams Family’," Raven said, adding the Pawn to her collection of captured pieces.
Pearl thumped the lamp beside her. It had started to dim a little. "I think the batteries are dying. We might have to resort to candles, at this rate."
Raven grinned and brushed back her dark curtain of hair, which had fallen across her face as she'd pushed herself up. "I think I can win before then."
Raven's grin widened as sang along to the song that was currently playing. "No day, no night, no moment can hold me back from trying..."
"Very nice," Pearl interrupted, rolling her eyes. "Are you sure you wanted to join the Chess club instead of the Choir?"
"I, my dear Pearl, have a plan. You're not even going to see it coming. It will leap from the darkness like a shadowed wolf and..."
"Or maybe the poetry class?"
Play went on for quite a while and more pieces vanished from the grey chequered board. Neither side was sitting back now. Both were on the offence, attacking with all strength and cunning. There was no remorse for the sacrifice of Pawns - both had eyes fixed on their opponent's crown...
The stately white King looked around and breathed deeply of the fresh air. Would this ghastly, grey mist never lift? He shook his head in resignation and wondered whether it was worth the effort to get himself a drink. A little whisky to warm his tired old bones wouldn't go amiss.
Abruptly, a shadow fell over him. He frowned in annoyance. Was a nice, warm patch of sunlight too much to ask? He held his golden crown steady on his white-haired head with one hand, then tilted his face back to look up.
And with a screech of protesting masonry, a big, black Castle made a bad day worse through the simple act of falling on him.
Raven toppled her opponent's King. "Checkmate," she said.
The lamp chose that moment to give in, and the room was plunged into darkness.