PIECE BY PIECE
A lone knight falls back, approaching indirectly through the secured positions of the enemy. He draws up beside his liege, the King suffering his territory to be invaded, his sovereignty to be challenged, his very liberty to be threatened, if not his life immediately.
“Your Majesty,” the knight reports, “the battle is all but lost. Our forward ranks have been routed. My brother... taken prisoner.”
The King stares past the knight. “It is worse,” he admits. “Our strongholds have fallen. Desperately, I sent an envoy to negotiate a truce—my bishops. They have not returned. And—” the King pauses, chokes. “And the Queen. My Queen is dead.”
Respectfully, the knight does not speak.
“Only you and I remain,” says the King. “I will stand my ground. You must find help.”
The knight disbelieves.
“You must,” the King insists. “We will not survive without reinforcements.”
“But from where, Your Majesty? We have been slaughtered!”
The King brings his gaze to bear on the knight. “You must venture beyond the frontier.”
“Go now, loyal horseman. Our time for conference has lapsed.”
So the knight departs, as awkwardly as he arrived. Meanwhile, an enemy soldier has moved closer.
On his way, the knight deftly defends against several uncoordinated attempts on his life, sidestepping assassination. He cannot fail, he must reach the frontier and cross it, to enter the unmapped realm, to save his kingdom. He cannot be stopped. The knight fells two on his way to the edge of the battlegrounds. Then he leaves the familiar lands.
The King paces, slowly, directly. He bides his time. He has no castle to which to return. He has no clergy with whom to confer. No Queen to assure that all will be well. She is already in a better place. The King stops moving. He is surprised by a compatriot arriving suddenly and obliquely.
“God save thee, Bishop!”
“No, Your Majesty. God has turned a blind eye to us this day. We will have no peace.”
“So it must be,” the King sighs. “If it is not His will.”
“And I fear I have turned my back on Him, to save myself. I return to you with bloodied hands.”
“So long as you have returned.”
“We are at an end, Your Majesty.”
“Not yet, my friend. Not just yet.”
“But the enemy advances!”
“Then you must precede me, Bishop. You might join your King in heaven, that your King on Earth will survive.”
The knight crosses the frontier and is at once struck by the dissimilarity of this realm from his own. From what he can see, here the borderlands are desirable, while the interior is barren but for certain few charitable outposts. Also, the denizens of this demesne have discovered how to smooth their paths, covering them with a kind of black mortar.
And, what's more, they have named every road.
Eventually, the enemy pushes the King too far. He takes his next opportunity to attack, bluntly to strike back. Dependent though he has been, historically, traditionally, on the strategic protections of the forces under his command, the King is hardly without mobility or without courage, or strength enough to remove others from the war game.
The King shows himself to a foot soldier of the other side. The soldier is young, inexperienced. He stands in awe of the royal who faces him. The soldier cannot attack. The King does, without hesitation, and puts down the boy, not without some regret.
But still the King is in grave danger.
The knight returns. The King again stands alone; the Bishop has since been slain.
“At last!” exclaims the King. “What sayest thou? Come, come! What help have you brought, what aid in our battle?”
“I have brought help,” the knight confirms. “I found, in the unmapped realm, a rather motley bunch, engaged in a sort of race.”
“Just so, Your Majesty. When I arrived, another horseman had just won this race. I was able, as the others came in, to persuade them to return with me.”
The knight is breathless; the King is hopeful, near ecstatic. Other horsemen...! “Prithee, where are these new allies?”
“They assemble even now, Your Majesty.” And the knight points to the horizon. “A motley bunch indeed.”
And there, from the unmapped realm beyond the battlefield, from the province of another, less mortal competition, come the horseman, the dog, the automobile, the iron, the wheelbarrow, the shoe, the top hat, the thimble.
“Piece by Piece” appeared in the Palo Alto Review, Fall 1997; Barbaric Yawp, Winter 1998; Sidewalks, Spring 1998.