THE CHESS PLAYER OF THE DESERT
Darkness had fallen on the desert. The hot wind of
the day had already slipped away. Cold will 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?" said the First Lord.
"Is there a place waiting for us up there?"
"We hear of such things My Lord," said the old
"Tomorrow will be a day for waiting," said the First
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 defense
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
honor, 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
"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 long seven days the great
invasion army laid before them.
"Let me take command now for 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
"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
"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 spear-men
in groups around their perimeter. These look like
they're 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 spear-men in their heavy
"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
the pursuit before 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
"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 un-
sustained skirmishing attacks. Going always further
west, the land they were conquering for their Lord
became dry and they were glad to have local guides.
These well paid turncoats knew where the water was
and that was all they needed for everything else had
been brought with them. Then at last they were in
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
"Where are the guides?" The cry went round after
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 green palms,
discipline was gone from the ranks of the invaders. It
had left with the last of the water as they 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
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
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,
"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
The invaders could hear it too. It made them forget
the 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 so the squares they
formed were small and too far apart to support each
other. What was worse, much worse, most had
abandoned their heavy shields back in the heat of the
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
armored, 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 were spared and the sand shone red with their
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."
The Chess Player of the Desert
was published in
Bewildering Stories, Issue 554,