The people waiting for their turn on the outdoor chess board had no chance to move out of the way. As the knights appeared out of thin air with levelled lances, and charged at each other, it could have been wholesale slaughter. Fortunately, they seemed to have a limited range of movement and that saved some people. Even so a number of players were instantly skewered.
‘No worries, mate,’ said one of the knights in response to the screaming. ‘They’ll regenerate in a minute.’
Regeneration wasn’t on Claire’s To Do list. Mind you, neither was dying. Where did that fit into her wedding plan? As she bled out, deep crimson staining the milky white marble, the list became less urgent. With a sigh, she faded.
Opening her eyes had been a mistake she decided. She must be suffering from stress hallucinations brought on by the wedding. Even taking out time to play in the park didn’t seem to have helped. For when she peered through barely opened eyelids a second time, the scene had not changed. She was lying on her side staring into an alien sky with three moons. What’s more, something pointed was prodding her in the back.
‘Get up!’ a voice urged. ‘Get up before they notice and send you off the board. Come on girl, come on.’
The prodding became more urgent. Then something licked her hand. That did it!
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she enquired frostily, imbuing her tone with as much injured dignity as possible from a horizontal position. ‘Get off me!’
She tried to leap to her feet but fell back to her knees, hampered by the weight of dull black chain mail that she was now wearing. Not a good look for a bride she decided. Whatever possessed her to try this on? She wasn’t planning to marry Conan.
The licking spread towards her elbow. Crouched on all fours trying to push off the ground, she looked down. A large pink tongue was working its way up her arm.
‘Yuk! Get away from me!’ she hissed.
The impromptu bath ceased instantly and a furry body pushed under her and heaved. She found herself upright, teetering gently. A large black cat crouched at her feet and someone behind her shoved her forward onto its back. The cat turned on the spot and now she saw two opposing armies.
In front of her was a ragged row of foot soldiers, one of whom shoved a long lance and a shield into her hands. She glared at him through narrowed eyes.
‘What?’ he asked. ‘Why the look? I’m only doing my job. You’re not doing yours. Get out on the board and menace the king. Oh and watch out for the white bishop. She’s got you in her sights.’
‘Right, because I’ve got all the time in the world to play your little game! I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be buying a wedding dress and booking the venue.’
The soldier brandished his short pike at her. ‘You don’t got any choice. You’re here on the board so you must play. Get on with it!’
‘Or what? What if I don’t want to?’
‘It won’t be pretty!’
Huffing, Claire spotted the king and nudged the cat. It sidled sideways, then gathered itself and sprang diagonally, narrowly missing the helmet spike of a soldier.
‘Not like that, stupid!’
She urged the cat to charge straight at the king.
‘Oi! You can’t do that! Knights can’t move in straight lines.’
A chorus of outraged voices was raised against her. She looked at the ring of faces turned towards her. Shrugging, she nudged the cat forwards again and, settling her lance, aimed it straight at the king’s throat.
‘You really should try to stick to the movement rules m’dear. There are other less obvious cheats if you’re that desperate to finish the game.’
The clipped British accent belonged to the white bishop who had grabbed the cat’s back leg with her crook and was pulling the cat backwards. The cat sat back almost unseating Claire, but the sliding stopped. Meanwhile two white tanks were trying to flank her. Swivelling their turrets, they started firing at her. Reflexively she ducked and the rounds passed harmlessly over her head, landing amongst the line of black soldiers following her up the board.
‘Uh oh. Pawns don’t like being cannon fodder. They really don’t like taking hits for their own knights.’
‘They should learn to duck then,’ Claire retorted, charging the cat straight at the white bishop to shut her up. Having flattened the bishop, she nudged the cat again, turning it back towards the white king. But the king had moved behind the tanks and now she had to face their fire again. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that something strange was happening to her line of pawns. Instead of protecting the king and the main playing pieces, they were advancing steadily toward her, pikes extended.
She retreated, or rather, the cat did, without guidance from her. Gradually, inexorably, they were both pushed towards the edge. She hadn’t noticed the edge of the field of play before. It was very obvious now. It looked like a long way down. Actually, Claire couldn’t see any ground at all. The cat definitely didn’t want to go over. It dug its claws in and stopped suddenly. Helped on her way by the pawns, she lost her seat, shooting over the cat’s head and into the void.
As she fell through the void, she had time to think, ‘Douglas Adam’s whale didn’t know …’ before she landed on her back on a green grassy field. Feeling flattened but happy to be off the board, she glanced to her left and right. Rows of paper thin people lay alongside her, some piled into neat little stacks.
‘Oh no! Not again,’ she wailed. ‘What about my wedding dress?’