The war was unstoppable. It had raged back and forth for so long that the combatants had lost any conception of its meaning. Only the endless, bloody skirmishes remained, only the hourly struggle against fatigue. It had taken on a logic of its own, which would grind on to its conclusion, no matter the cost. It was grinding up everyone who fell under its influence. Numbers dwindled as countless lives were grabbed up and made to vanish from the scene. It felt abrupt and meaningless to those who were left behind, who waited their turn.
Arthur Hotspur and Kenneth Lilywhite were foot soldiers in the militia. Humble men, and dogged, they marched where they were told to march, pikestaffs gleaming in the rain or in the sunshine. Heading towards this enemy or that, they grumbled as much as they fought and they fought as hard as they grumbled. Once proud of their station, of their service to flag and throne, they’d come to see their only duty as being to each other and their common preference for survival.
“Forsooth, Kenneth,” sayeth Arthur one day, as another cold dawn bit into his bones. “Dying’s a fool’s errand.”
“Tis, tis true,” sayeth Kenneth, and spat. “And war’s the cruellest mistress the likes of us’ll ever see. Damned expensive mistress, at that. Cost me kith and kin and all that ever was mine.”
“Aye,” nodded Arthur. “I even wonder how it is the likes of us get invited to sample such expensive fare. Tis more to your noble’s taste, surely. Am I right?”
“Surely. As right as this here hand of mine that’s been my only bedfellow since last I saw the inside of my wife’s goodly chamber.”
“Well, there was that whore in Cheapside, Ken…”
“Aye,” Kenneth spat, fondly. “But my point still stands. And what I do say is this: since all this warring is mite too rich an indulgence for such fellows as you and me, tis best we bow out. Let yon monarchs have all the guts’n’glory they can stand. They can afford it, so let them and them alone battle it out.”
Arthur gazed through the morning mist to where the royal encampment was erected on the hill. Soon the True King would step out to survey the remnants of his troops, and at his side would stand the Free Queen. Arthur was disillusioned and he had a marked preference for not dying, yet he still loved his queen. He loved both his queens.
Indeed, Hotspur and Lilywhite were the loyal servants and protectors of two noble queens now, since, in the madness and confusion of wartime, two queens had been crowned. “Aye, maybe it was madness,” Arthur reasoned with Kenneth one day, “yet maybe there was method in the seeming madness, too.”
“How’s that?” Kenneth sayeth.
“Forsooth, another crowned head serves to protect the rightful line of succession,” Arthur nodded.
“Line of succession my arse,” Kenneth spat. “You’ve been talking to the bishop again. Warned you about that more than once, I have. ‘Sides, these fair queens of ours give you the horn is all.” Arthur chuckled and didn’t deny it.
Be that as it may, as the vagaries of war raged, one of these beauteous queens had been captured and set in chains, to Arthur’s dismay. She was henceforth called the Trapped Queen while the other, by contrast, became the Free Queen. And it was she, the Free Queen, appearing like an apparition through the dawn mist on that day, who would rally the shattered forces to her standard. They would follow her to hell and back if only she gave the sign; if, from her vantage point, she surveyed the enemy lines, saw them buckle and yield, and ordered the rout.
The sun rose higher and musket shot and cannon balls clouded the sky as they rained down. Waiting for the order to engage, Kenneth grumbled all the louder and Arthur squinted through the missiles to where his queen stood, imperious. Short-sighted at the best of times, the constant need to duck for cover hindered Arthur’s vision all the more, as he tried his damnedest to interpret all the frantic comings and goings atop the royal hill.
In desperation Arthur turned, as always, to his brother-in-arms. “Are we to charge then, man? Speak up! Was that her signal that we’re set fair? Well? What’s the Free Queen see, Kenneth? Ken?! Oh alack…” Arthur groaned, as his friend split asunder. “They killed Kenneth!”
This story was written in response to the yeah write challenge #171 – This week’s optional prompt is: What’s the frequency, Kenneth?, which I managed to include, phonetically, at least.