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Black and White

by C. La Shure

The young prince stood on the bluff, feet spread apart to brace himself against the wind, arms folded across his chest to ward off the biting cold. The white pennants snapped and cracked above him with each gust as he gazed at the plain below where his army was arrayed for battle. They were marching across the checkered fields to meet the fearsome black-clad hordes of his enemy. He watched the hordes draw closer, swarming like locusts over the crops and trampling the ripe wheat and barley underfoot. Unconsciously, his mouth turned down into a grimace.

“The only harvest to be reaped here today is that of blood,” he muttered. He turned and noticed a page watching him, his face ashen, and for his benefit the prince added fiercely, “and may it be the blood of our enemies!” The page forced a grim smile and nodded.

The prince turned his attention back to the field of battle, and then lifted his eyes from the armies below to gaze across at the heights on the other side. They were far off, yet even had he a long glass at hand curling mists would have hindered his sight. He did not have to see with his eyes, though, for he knew in his soul that across that field his enemy waited, hidden behind the curtain of mist. The prince stared intently, as if by sheer force of will he could penetrate the distant mist and slay his foe by hatred alone. At last he turned around and strode toward the large canvas tent behind him that served as his field quarters. The page followed at his heels.

As he pushed the tent flap aside he saw his advisors huddled around a map that had been spread out across a large wooden table. They stood straight and then bowed as he entered.

“My lord,” said his chief advisor, turning back toward the map, “our scouts report that the enemy has sent horsemen in a wide arc toward the edge of the field.” Here he traced their path on the map with his finger. “He is not contesting the center of the field; he appears to be trying to outflank us. Shall we send our horse to counter?”

“No.” The prince shook his head. “Let them be. We will take and fortify the center and then position our horse there, where they may have free range over the field. We will strike before the enemy has time to bring his horsemen into position.”

The advisor nodded, and the prince felt his heart leap within his chest. His enemy had made an early error, careless in his over-confidence. If the prince moved quickly he could take advantage and deal a crushing—perhaps even fatal—blow. He gave detailed orders to the page who had followed him in, who would in turn relate them to the signal corps.

“Be quick now,” the prince urged. “There is no time to waste.” With that he went back out into the cold. The opposing armies had drawn closer together, but the enemy was hanging back in the center. He could see the enemy horsemen off to his left, out of range and ineffective for the moment. Yet a shadow of doubt haunted him. What was he missing? He scanned the field, trying to anticipate where the first blow would fall.

He watched as his orders were carried out. His foot soldiers moved carefully into the center of the field and began to build hasty fortifications as his horsemen circled nearby, watching for enemy incursions. Everything was going according to plan, and that was what worried him. The enemy showed no interest whatsoever in checking his movements, allowing him to control the field of battle. It was all too easy... what sinister stratagem was the enemy contemplating? The prince peered hard at the distant mist, but he could find no answers.

He looked down again. There—a single troop of enemy foot soldiers was advancing toward his fortified position in the center. They had no visible support, and the enemy horsemen were still far off to his left. The prince thought hard for a moment, and then realized that his fists and teeth were clenched tight. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and slowly exhaled. Then he opened his eyes, took one final look at the field, and issued his orders. He glanced over to watch the signal corps wave their colorful flags in a graceful yet deadly dance, and moments later his forward troop of infantry executed a sudden oblique charge, annihilating the enemy foot soldiers. The prince allowed himself a slight smile.

“My lord!” His chief advisor had emerged from the tent, and was now pointing off to the left. The prince turned his eyes and saw the enemy horsemen charging back toward the center of the field. Another troop of black-clad horsemen was advancing deliberately from the opposite direction, and he realized that his infantry was caught out in the open, supported only by a single troop of his own horsemen. Worst of all, his strong position in the center had been weakened. The battle had begun, the enemy was moving, and he could feel the blood draining from his face.

He watched helplessly as his troops tried to maneuver for position and avoid being overrun. The enemy horsemen from the flank crashed into his infantry at full speed, trampling the men into the ground. The prince gritted his teeth as the signal flags waved frantically. His horsemen were already in motion and they soon joined the battle, charging headlong into the troop of enemy horsemen and throwing them into disarray. There was dust and confusion on the field, and the cries of dying men and the cold clash of steel swords reached his ears as he stood on the bluff. When the skirmish was over, casualties were fairly even on both sides, but the enemy had weakened the prince’s hold on the center. He whirled around and stormed back into the tent.

The prince struggled to remain calm and issued a few hopeful orders, but his resolve had been shaken and the enemy was pressing hard, giving no quarter. He watched mutely as his advisors hovered over the map, their rising voices punctuated by animated gestures. They argued about the best course of action, but it was clear to the prince that the battle had turned against him, and hope was a flickering candle on the verge of going out.

He looked up as a messenger entered the tent and bowed. They would come quickly now, the messengers bearing ill tidings: the loss of his last troop of horsemen, a crushing attack on his left flank beneath which his lines threatened to buckle, the slow but inevitable advance of the enemy across the battlefield. The prince listened silently and stared at the ground as the specter of defeat once again loomed before him.

At that moment the prince heard a cry of “Halt!” from outside the tent, and then the flap was held aside to reveal a man in black livery. He quickly raised the olive branch he held in his right hand, and his narrow eyes flickered back and forth between the guards who stood on either side with swords drawn. He licked his lips nervously as he waited.

The prince frowned for a moment, but then nodded at the guards. “Approach,” he said to the enemy messenger.

The messenger walked to where the prince stood, flanked by the guards, who had not sheathed their swords. From his coat he slowly pulled a parchment scroll and held it out to the prince.

“A message from my lord.”

The prince looked at the man’s thin, sallow face, and thought that he caught a glimmer of evil delight in his eyes. He snatched the scroll from him so quickly that the man jumped. The prince ignored him and looked down at the scroll. It was sealed with dark red wax, like spent blood, and in the wax was the impression of a rampant dragon. He looked back up at the waiting faces around him.

“Perhaps he wants to capitulate,” he said with a sidelong glance at the enemy messenger, who scowled. The bitterness in his tone, though, stifled any laughter that might have followed. The silence swallowed his words, and impatiently he broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. Deliberately, he read aloud the five words written there: “How was your day, son?”

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