First Strike

by

Joe Vadalma




King Knight Black of Retslu was a worrier. He worried about many things. First and foremost he worried about his northern neighbor, Neerg. Several times Neerg's evil King Skeemer had invaded his beloved land. He also worried about the state of his treasury, which despite every effort to keep his coffers filled was always depleted. He'd raised taxes to such an extent that the people killed tax collectors on sight. He worried about the state of the economy, which was worse every day. Peasants were starving. Even the nobles had to give up expensive luxuries. It didn't help when the news got out that certain merchants were making enormous profits on the black market and had bribed government officials.

Knight Black had never been a popular king. Some said that he was a usurper. And that was what Knight Black worried about most of all -- his image among the populace. Every day, a new pamphlet came out berating him for not lowering taxes, for not improving the lot of the poor or blaming him for the latest scandal among the gentry.

He confided his doubts to the haughty Queen Jennifer.

"Knighty, I always knew you were a little on the stupid side, and not worthy to become a king. The answer to your problems is obvious. Do what my father would've done."

"What is that, my dear?"

"Make war on Neerg. People always rally around the king in times of war."

"But we have a peace accord with King Skeemer. He hasn't made a move against us for years now. We've always been the good guys. What excuse can I give for invading him?"

Jennifer pursed her lips in that famous pout of hers. After a few moments, she said, "Remember when Skeemer sent that enormous iron giant against us?"

"Yes."

"And hasn't he also used Sorcerer Mordrake's magic against us?"

"Yes."

"Well, there you go. Announce that we've discovered that he's secretly building weapons of magic destruction. That we must invade Neerg to prevent him from using them."

Knight Black gazed at her in admiration. He'd always known she was a brilliant strategist and absolutely ruthless. For the first time since their marriage, he felt that there was something to like about her.

####

The next day, Black Knight met with his cabinet. "Gentlemen, I've called you here today to announce a problem of great concern to our fair nation."

His ministers groaned. Dorian, his minister of history, propaganda and national security, said, "Not another problem. We've had so many lately. It's getting hard to make excuses for them."

Knight Black stared daggers at Dorian, but did not reply to this remark. "It's a dreadful thing that I have to announce. It's come to my attention that King Skeemer is again building weapons of magic destruction."

Again, he was interrupted. This time by Shadow, his security chief. "My spies haven't reported anything like that. Where did you hear such a thing?"

The king began to perspire. This was not going well. "A secret source, which I must keep confidential, even from you, Shadow. The thing is, we must attack Neerg before Skeemer completes his plans."

All the ministers began to talk at once; each one tried to get the attention of the king.

Knight Black held his hands over his ears. "One at a time, please. General Boris, you first."

Defense Minister General Boris rose and puffed out his massive chest, which was covered with medals he'd bestowed on himself. "Your Majesty, I'm sorry to say that at this time the army is in no condition to mount a preemptive strike. After years of peace and low pay, recruitment is down. Our army is greatly understaffed. Skeemer's troops would roll right over us."

"Raise their pay. We'll have a draft."

"We'd have to whip the new recruits into shape. That could take months."

"Well, we'll call on our allies to help."

Two hands went up, the Minister of State's and the Treasurer's.

"Baron, you see a problem."

Minister of State Baron Philander replied, "I don't believe our allies will go along. Since the peace treaty with Neerg, they've been trading with Skeemer. Their economies would suffer if they severed relations. Some might even fight on his side."

Knight Black's face turned red. He scowled. "You must convince them that our cause is just, that Skeemer presents a threat to the entire civilized world. Screege, what do you have to say?"

Old Man Screege, the Royal Treasurer, rose creakily to his feet. "Only this, Your Majesty, you cannot raise the soldier's pay, nor draft more soldiers, nor mount a preemptive strike. The treasury is dry. The monarchy is on the verge of bankruptcy."

"Very well, we won't pay our brave warriors but simply allow them to loot to their heart's content. That should give them the incentive to fight."

Philander said, "If I'm to convince our allies that Skeemer is building weapons of magic destruction, I'll need to show them proof."

"You'll get proof. Shadow, tell your spies to obtain proof that Skeemer is manufacturing weapons of magic destruction or be prosecuted for malfeasance and dereliction of duty. Since the army is not prepared, Duke Wisdom and Hokum, you must devise our own weapons of magic destruction."

Wisdom was Minister of Science and Technology; Hokum was the Royal Wizard, who, if the truth were known was not a real wizard at all, merely a stage magician who was faking it. Knight Black was well aware of Hokum's distinct lack of magical power, but phony magic was an appropriate response to a phony threat, so ...

"Baron, send a message to Skeemer that if he doesn't stop making weapons of magic destruction, we'll take drastic action against him. Dorian, make sure the pamphlet writers and town criers are made aware of Skeemer's deadly plan and our response. Thank you Gentlemen, for your cooperation in this time of crisis. This meeting is closed."

With a swish of his ermine cape, Black Knight strode from the room, leaving his cabinet in a state of panic.

####

In a few days, the news was all over Retslu and beyond. No longer were the stories in the news pamphlets about the scandals within the administration or blaming the king for the sad state of the economy. No longer were the town criers crying out warnings to the king. The impending war with Neerg took precedence over other news. This put a smile on Knight Black's face as he read The Royal Gazette. Things were going splendidly.

Oh, there were dissenters who held rallies against the war and burned the king's image in effigy, but they were a minority. Most of the populace believed that war with Skeemer was inevitable.

####

In Neerg, King Skeemer called his own emergency cabinet meeting. He read the note from Baron Philander aloud. "To His Royal Majesty of Neerg, in the name of His Royal Majesty King Knight Black and the people of Retslu, we must protest the manufacture of weapons of magic destruction, such as magical plagues, demonic warriors, death rays and so forth. We also protest your aid and encouragement of the Beast Things' acts of terrorism. If you do not cease and desist your warlike actions, we will have no choice but to use force against you. Have a nice day, Baron Philander, His Majesty Knight Black's Representative and Minister of the Sovereign State of Retslu."

Skeemer glared around the conference table until his eyes alighted on Mordrake, his royal sorcerer. "What's this all about? Have you been brewing up magical weapons that I don't know about?"

"Absolutely not, Your Majesty. It's all lies, although I could've predicted this. My crystal ball showed us going to war. I was going to inform you, but you've been busy lately with your mistresses."

"Never mind about that. Obb Skuer, what do your spies say?"

Obb Skuer, Neerg's Chief of Intelligence, smiled slyly. "Our best agent overheard a conversation between Knight Black and Queen Jennifer. This threat of war is a ploy to take people's minds off the king's failings."

"Then it's all bluff?"

"No. I believe he really intends to attack us. Whether he has the means is another thing. He's hoping for help from his allies, Vampirevania, the Nether Lands and the Beast Things."

"The Beast Things will never go to war against us. They'll overthrow Chief Wolf Man first. As for Vampirevania, the country won't fight alongside the Bikings of the Nether Lands after King Eric's aborted attempt to conquer them."

Mordrake said, "Nonetheless, according to my crystal ball, war is inevitable."

"This is not a good time. Some day I hope to conquer Retslu, but not today. We must figure out a way of thwarting Knight Black's scheme. Can we expose his devious plan?"

Lord Caution, Skeemer's Prime Minister, said cautiously, "What if we proclaimed that we aren't making any weapons of magic destruction?"

"No one would believe us."

"We could invite magical weapons' inspectors to check the facilities that we used previously to construct magical weapons..."

"Good idea. Take a note. Reply to Philander's message as follows..."

####

Knight Black read the note twice that Philander had handed him. "What does he mean, he'll allow magical weapons' inspectors into his country?"

"He's trying to get world opinion on his side. If we invade without showing proof that he has weapons of magic destruction, we'll look like the bad guys."

"Hmm. We certainly don't want that. What should we do?"

"Call an emergency meeting of the United Kingdoms' Organization and have them pass a resolution that unless he gets rid of his weapons of magic destruction immediately, dire consequences will result."

"Excellent. That will get everyone on our side when he refuses."

####

The United Kingdoms' Organization was founded by the monarchs of several nations after the devastating Magical Wars I and II. Its charter was to (1) ban the use of magic in warfare, (2) settle differences between rulers through diplomacy if possible, and (3) ensure that all member nations were ruled by absolute monarchies. The heads of state of every member kingdom and empire attended the emergency meeting of the Security Council. Of the many kings, emperors, and potentates represented, some of the more prominent were King Skeemer of Neerg, Eric of the Bikings, Hortilla the Hun, Emperor Cruelius of Roam, Skull the Vandal, Knight Black of Retslu, Duke Savage of Barbaria, Count Gorblud of Vampirevania, Wolf Man of the Beast Things and the Great Banghis Khan of Cathay.

Knight Black was the first to speak. Banging the lectern for emphasis, he stated, "As everyone here knows, King Skeemer of Neerg is an evil man and a troublemaker, a spawn of the evil one. Four times he's tried to conquer my fair land of Retslu using weapons of magic destruction. First he used a monstrous iron giant. Next he used the magic of his court sorcerer, Mordrake. In his last attempt, we were attacked by life-size animated wooden soldiers. Mordrake is still in his cabinet and is manufacturing new dreadful weapons of magic destruction. I propose that by unanimous vote, this meeting draft a resolution of war against this demon unless he desists."

After he stepped down, Skeemer took the floor. "My friends and fellow rulers, I do not like to call a person of royal blood a liar and a fraud, but King Knight Black is both. I don't know why he's decided to declare war on my peace-loving nation, except perhaps to expand his own territories. All this prattle about weapons of magic destruction and the use of magic in warfare is old news. Neither I nor my kindly wizard, Mordrake, have any plans to make or use such weapons. To show my good faith, I propose that this organization send magical weapons' inspectors to look in every nook and cranny of Neerg. They'll not find a thing."

Knight Black rose again. He pounded his boot on the table in front of him. "And if they do immediate war is the answer."

Afterwards there was much debate between the monarch. Most favored Skeemer. The consensus was that there was no proof of Knight Black's assertion. Finally a proposal was passed to send neutral magical weapons' inspectors to Neerg. "If magical weapons of destruction are found, dire consequences must follow," the final sentence of resolution read. It was not clear what the "dire consequences" would be, but everyone assumed it meant an immediate attack by Retslu on Neerg with the organization's consent and blessing.

####

Meanwhile, back in Retslu, there were demonstrations and marches against a war with Neerg. Knight Black's own son, Prince Pawn Black, was the leader of a group of Peacenuts, as the pro war faction called them. He spoke at a rally. "My father has gone mad. An unwarranted attack on Neerg is against all that Retslu stands for. It's unjust, unfair and bad. What's more, it'll impoverish our land and aggravate our problems."

When the king's soldiers tried to break up the demonstration, many of the participants refused to move. The prince and several dozen other persons were thrown into the castle dungeon.

When Queen Jennifer heard that her son had been arrested, she had him brought to her. "What in the name of holy monarchy did you think you were doing?" she admonished.

"Serving the cause of peace and justice. Even if Skeemer is making magical weapons of magic destruction, of which there is no proof, why this rush to invade him? War should be a last resort. Father certainly has not exhausted every diplomatic means."

Jennifer shook her pretty golden locks. "Oh Pawn Black, it's obvious that you've still a lot to learn about kinging. This war is but a means to another end, which I feel I must keep from you at this point."

"So the end justifies the means. That may be what you believe is the kingly thing to do, but it isn't my way. You'd better lock me up, because I shall do everything in my power to stop this stupid, unjustified war."

Jennifer's countenance went dark. "You dare to oppose both my and your liege's wishes in this matter."

"Absolutely. My conscience requires me."

The queen slapped him across the face. "Guards, take the prince to his quarters under house arrest. Pawn Black, you're to stay in your rooms until the war with Neerg is over."

"I'll be there until the end of my life, mother. The war will never be fought."

####

After weeks of negotiations and wrangling, a group of men from different lands were chosen as magical weapons' inspectors. First there was Hokum, Knight Black's Minister of Magic and Wizardry, who was told that he'd better come with evidence that Skeemer had magical weapons if he valued his position as Knight Black's wizard. There was The Beast, the richest and ugliest beast thing in Beastly. There was Carlton Chan, a detective from Cathay. Finally, there was Misha, a lieutenant in Hortilla's Horde.

The group was greeted at the border by King Skeemer and an armed escort.

"Greetings gentlemen, welcome to Neerg. Where do you wish to look for these imaginary weapons of magic destruction?"

"Your palace," said Hokum.

"Mordrake's castle," interrupted The Beast.

"The home of a man called Nemesis," chimed in Carlton Chan.

Misha did not express an opinion.

"Do you wish to visit those places in order? Or do you gentlemen want to split up and look at all three places at once?"

"In order, starting with your palace, Your Majesty," Hokum replied.

"My palace? That's ridiculous. But if that's your wish ..."

####

After they entered the foyer of Skeemer's sumptuous palace, Hokum said, "Lead us directly to your suite."

Skeemer raised his eyebrows. "My suite? But surely you don't think I've anything hidden there." He had a guilty look.

"Nonetheless, that's what we want to see."

Skeemer shrugged and led him to his apartment.

"We wish to inspect your bedroom."

"My bedroom? What in the name of Skeemer for?"

Without replying, Hokum strolled quickly to the bedroom door and flung it open. Two nubile young women giggled and quickly pulled up covers to hide their naked breasts. Hokum took out a notebook and made a note. Ignoring the protests of Skeemer and the two young women, he marched up to the bed, got down on his knees and peered under it.

"I must protest," said Skeemer. "This is insane."

Hokum arched an eyebrow. "Are you interfering with our work? You realize the dire consequences."

Skeemer bit his lip. "No. Go ahead. Look wherever you wish."

Hokum methodically peeked behind the curtains, searched through drawers, throwing the king's underwear on the floor, opened an armoire and roughly pushed the king's garments around. In one drawer he found a corset. "What's this?"

Skeemer blushed. "A corset you fool. Did you think it was a magical weapon?"

The other inspectors and the two women snickered.

Hokum searched the rest of the palace from top to bottom, probing every room as thoroughly as he had the king's bedroom. He found many items embarrassing to Skeemer, but no weapons of magic destruction or anything magical. It was late at night by the time he finished. The inspectors were given dinner and rooms for the night.

####

With Prince Pawn Black gone from the scene, the antiwar movement fell apart for lack of strong leadership. At first people remarked at his mysterious disappearance, but the king and queen let it be known that their son was on a visit to a foreign land for health reasons. No one believed this, but dared not dispute it. After a few days, he was forgotten. The newsmongers spread the word that war was imminent. Knight Black spoke to populous about what a horrible person King Skeemer was.

Since war seemed inevitable and to be what the people wanted, even those who had supported Black Pawn in the beginning began to say that perhaps Knight Black was right. A king should not be questioned in matters of foreign policy. Knight Black's popularity waxed until most of the country was behind him. Queen Jennifer's scheme had worked.

####

The next place the inspectors visited was the castle of Nemesis, a mad scientist and recluse of the worst type. His greatest invention was a machine that changed the color of the moon. King Skeemer said to the weapons' inspectors, "Who? I never heard of this Nemesis fellow."

Mordrake said, "I know him. If you like, I'll fly you to his castle in the mountains. It would take weeks to travel there by horseback. It's quite isolated."

At first the inspectors were reluctant about riding a highly dangerous magic carpet, since it swooped and bucked through the air with nothing to hold onto except the fringe.

Nonetheless, they braved it. Once they were in the air, Hokum remarked, "You know, this magic carpet could be used to drop rocks or even pots of burning oil on an enemy."

"I never thought about it that way," replied Mordrake. "To me it's just transportation."

"Nonetheless, it must be done away with. It's definitely a magical weapon."

They landed at the front door of an isolated castle. For several minutes they pounded on the door with huge knockers (somewhat resembling one of the women in Skeemer's bed). A weird little man in a lab coat, whose bald head was twice as tall as the average peered at them through bottle-thick glasses. "Mordrake. What do you want? I have no more wooden soldiers."

Mordrake made a gesture of inclusion. "These gentlemen are weapons' inspectors. They need to pry into the secret places of your castle to see whether you have any weapons of magic destruction."

"What? I cannot allow that. It would be against all the rules of the Evil Mad Scientists Union. Go away."

"Ah ha," cried Hokum. "This must be where they're hidden. Either let us in, or our king will declare war on Neerg."

"What do I care whether you go to war with this Neerg place?"

Mordrake suppressed a giggle. He'd dealt with the weird scientist previously. "Ah, Nemesis. You live in Neerg."

"I do? Is that what this land is called? I often wondered about that. As I recall, you once said that it was ruled by a fellow called King Beemer."

"Skeemer. Yes, and he's ordered all citizens to cooperate with these fellows."

"It doesn't seem right. I'm going to protest this to the authorities, but come on in if you must. Clank, take these men's coats."

Clank was a robot. It helped the inspectors remove their outer garments.

Chan asked the robot, "Can you fight?"

"I ... am ... a ... good ... fighter. I ... once ... fought ... a ... dragon," it replied in a mechanical way.

"Then you must be destroyed," said Hokum. "Sorry, old boy."

The robot dropped their coats on the floor and fled the room.

Nemesis said, "You've frightened my butler. I'm going to sue you people. What now?"

Chan said, "We need to search the castle for weapons of magic destruction."

Nemesis shrugged. The castle was so enormous that there were places that he'd never seen himself. He followed them from room to room. The tower room contained his moon coloring machine, which resembled a laser cannon.

Hokum asked, "What's this?"

"It's a moon coloring machine. Here, let me show you."

Nemesis pointed the barrel at the moon and changed its color to purple.

"Can you change it to black?"

"Sure." The moon disappeared from the night sky, making everything darker.

"This could be used to cover up troop movements. It must go."

Hokum made another note in his book.

####

It took the inspectors several days to complete their inspection of Nemesis' home. In his basement laboratory, they found many items that could be categorized as weapons of magic destruction.

Hokum sent a report back to Knight Black, and the inspectors were taken to Mordrake's evil castle on his flying carpet.

"Now, stay with me," Mordrake warned them. "People have become lost in my castle. It's a magical labyrinth whose corridors change every time anyone passes through them. Shadow, Knight Black's chief of security, wandered around in it for weeks when he was spying on me."

After the inspectors followed Mordrake for several hours, never seeing the same room or hallway or staircase twice, The Beast whispered to Misha, "I think this sorcerer is leading us on a wild goose chase. Let's split and find his laboratory. I want to see what he's brewing."

The two hung back and went in a different direction from the others. As a result they became lost in the labyrinth.

When Hokum and Chan noticed that the other two inspectors were missing, Hokum said to Mordrake, "Where are The Beast and Misha?"

Mordrake sighed. "I told you fellows to stay together. Now it'll be a son-of-a-demon finding them. My crystal ball is on the fritz."

They began to search for the missing inspectors. Somehow, Hokum and Chan also became separated from Mordrake and lost in the labyrinth.

####

Knight Black gloated over the first report. After several weeks went by without further word from the weapons inspectors, Knight Black sent a note to Skeemer demanding their return immediately.

When Skeemer read Black's message, his hand trembled with anger. He contacted Mordrake by telly phone, a device the sorcerer had invented. He called it a telly phone because it was used to tell people things. He had an idea for one that people could carry around with them that he would call a celly phone. He wondered whether it was such a good idea though. He imagined people having conversations on the device and forgetting what they were doing. If they got too engrossed in conversation, they'd bump into people and objects. Also, the celly phones might ring at inappropriate times, such as in the middle of an opera.

"Mordrake. Where in My Holy Name are those weapons' inspectors? Knight Black is accusing me of abducting them."

"They're lost in my castle. You know what the place is like."

"You can't find them?"

"I've tried locating them with my people finder, but every time I discover a place where they've been, they've already moved on. It's frustrating."

####

"Mordrake's keeping them prisoner in his evil castle," Shadow said at the emergency meeting.

"Obviously we must go to war," Knight Black said. "Skeemer has refused to destroy the weapons of magic destruction designed by this Nemesis fellow, with the excuse that Nemesis is a private citizen and uses them for his amusement. How stupid does he think I am? Private citizens don't build weapons of magic destruction. And now he kidnaps the weapons inspectors and refuses to tell us their whereabouts. Is everyone agreed?"

The cabinet members reluctantly nodded their heads, although most of them felt that this was a disastrous course. Several resolutions were passed. First and foremost was a formal declaration of war on the Land of Neerg. Secondly, to pay for the war, taxes were raised on the already overtaxed population. These included new import taxes, new export taxes, and new land taxes. The peasant farmer tax was raised from twenty percent to fifty percent, and the taxes on the nobility was raised from two percent to five percent of their income. Thirdly, a draft of all men between the ages of fifteen and eighty-five was initiated.

####

A week later General Boris led an army of five thousand of his regular army troops into Neerg in a surprise attack on several small villages, which fell immediately. The soldiers were encouraged to loot and pillage. Since they had not been paid in months, this raised their morale. Skeemer sent six thousand of his ragtag troops to head off the invaders. Because of the long peace, they, like the Retslueans, were not in fighting fiddle. The two armies clashed in a mountain pass. At first the fighting was fierce, but after both sides lost many men, the remainder went into defensive positions to await reinforcements. Trenches were dug, and an occasional arrow or musket ball would find its way to the head of a foolish soldier bold enough to stick it above the edge of the trench.

Skeemer called up Mordrake. When the sorcerer recognized the king's voice, he said, "No. I haven't found the weapons inspectors yet."

"That's not why I called. Forget about them. Knight Black has invaded. We're at war. I need magical weapons to use against them."

"I don't have much available at the moment. I'll contact Nemesis. He's always inventing something new."

"Go to him immediately. My army can't hold out much longer. They don't like fighting wars in which they can get hurt."

####

Mordrake pounded on Nemesis' door a hundred times before Clank, the robot butler, answered.

"The ... master ... is ... busy ... at ... the ... moment. He ... is ... not ... seeing ... anyone."

"Tell him that it's an emergency. Neerg has been invaded. King Skeemer needs his help."

"I ... will ... relay ... that ... message ... to ... him." The robot slammed the door in Mordrake's face.

It returned a half-hour later. "The ... master ... asks ... what ... the ... emergency ... is. He ... said ... he ... never ... heard ... of ... Neerg ... or ... King Beemer."

Mordrake tore at his hair. It was bad enough trying to deal with the eccentric Nemesis, but trying to do it with a stupid robot as a go-between was impossible. He cast a battery-draining spell on Clank, who froze into position. Mordrake squeezed past him. "He's probably in his lab. It think it's down this corridor and down some steps." Mordrake wandered about for an hour or more. Finally he found a stairwell to Nemesis' underground laboratory.

Nemesis was bent over a tiny man with skin the color of clay on a lab bench.

Mordrake coughed to get his attention.

Nemesis turned. "Mordrake. How did you get in here? I left strict orders with Clank not to be disturbed. I'm trying to animate this golem."

"I'm sorry. I had to disable your temporarily robot. It's an emergency. Your country needs you. We've been invaded."

"I see. Clank said something about someplace called Neerg. I forget, is that the name of our land?"

Mordrake choked back his disgust. "Yes, it is."

"Well, I'm certainly a patriot. We must support our troops. How can I help?"

"We need a weapon of magic destruction to use on the Retslueans."

Nemesis rubbed his chin. "A weapon of magic destruction. Hmm. Well, I have this thing called a Quark Bomb, but it may be a bit of an overkill. It would destroy the entire planet."

"Nothing that drastic. We just need to kill a few thousand soldiers."

"How about a unstoppable plague?"

"Is there an antidote that we could give our own troops?"

"If there were an antidote, it wouldn't be unstoppable, now would it?" Nemesis snapped his fingers. "Wait, I know just the thing, my Terrible Automatic Nemesis Kar. TANK for short. It's in the garage."

He led Mordrake out of the castle and into an outbuilding, in which there was an armored vehicle that rode on tracks with a large cannon protruding from its turret. Nemesis showed Mordrake how to enter the hatch, drive the vehicle and operate the weapons.

When the demo was over, Mordrake said, "Yes. This is just what we need. But we must have several. Do you have plans that we can use to manufacture these vehicles?"

"Of course."

####

The war went on. Casualties were light on both sides as the only men hurt or killed were those who were foolish enough to pop their head up to see what was going on. However, in Retslu, there were demonstrations against the war and the new oppressive taxes. Young men publicly burned their draft cards and their father's tax records, farmers destroyed their crops rather than pay the corn and wheat taxes, nobles hid their gold and jewels and refused to become knights. The land was on the verge of civil war.

Knight Black complained to Queen Jennifer, "I thought you said that this war would make me more popular. People are calling for my head on a pike."

Jennifer shrugged. "You haven't presented the case for war to the people properly. You must make them see that Skeemer is evil incarnate, that only his downfall can stop the fighting. You must make it seem as though he attacked us."

Knight Black made a speech from the palace balcony. "Friends, Retslueans, countrymen, I realize that you have suffered hardships because of this war. But we have nothing to fear except fear itself. Ask not what your king can do for you, but what you can do for your king. We must defend ourselves against that mad monarch of Neerg. He has brought this trouble upon both our lands with his weapons of magic destruction that he refuses to give up and his kidnapping of our citizens. We cannot be satisfied until that tyrant is dead."

He ducked inside quickly as rotten tomatoes and eggs were tossed at him.

That same day Prince Pawn Black escaped from house arrest. He left on a ship bound for the Nether Lands. He planned to ask his old friend Eric the Biking to overthrow his father and stop the war.

####

The standoff in the trenches continued for months. Meanwhile, Skeemer had his blacksmiths working night and day building the TANKs, while Mordrake trained knights in their operation on Nemesis' prototype. Finally, ten TANKs were sent to the front. At first they were extremely effective, crushing the Retslueans, destroying their bunkers and blasting groups of them with cannon. But, as sometimes happens, nature interfered with the plans of men. The rainy season started. This bogged down the tanks, which became stuck in the mud more often than not. Once a tank was immobile the Retslueans would clamber all over it, open up the hatch and pour flaming oil into the interior.

The continuous rain also made the trenches awful places. Men stood in foot deep water, miserable, damp and cold. At times the walls caved in and had to be repaired. Soon soldiers on both sides began to desert, sneaking away at night. After a while, no one was left to fight the war.

Retslu was in a state of anarchy. There were food riots, tax riots and general looting and burning. Only the king's loyal guards kept the royal palace from being stormed.

One day, Prince Pawn Black arrived with a contingent of Bikings. They overwhelmed the guards and broke into the royal bedchamber where Knight Black and Queen Jennifer were hiding.

"Your reign is over," cried the prince.

"I know. I know," replied Knight Black. He removed his crown and handed to his son. "This kinging business was never for me. I was always more of a fighter and a lover."

Pawn Black placed the crown on his own head, and went out on the balcony to address the people. "Stop your rioting. You have a new king. I promise to end the war with Neerg, remove the heavy taxes that have been burdening you and bring prosperity back to Retslu."

Like most politicians, he didn't keep any of his promises.

THE END



2005 by Joe Vadalma

Papa Joe says: "I'm a former technical writer retired from a major computer manufacturer. I've loved science fiction and fantasy from the time I learned to read. I've had several short stories published in E-zines. My hobbies, besides writing, are adventure game playing and do-it-yourself projects. I've also sold a series of dark fantasy novels to Renaissance E Books. The series is called The Morgaine Chronicles. Renaissance has also published a collection of my short stories, The Sands of Time, and an SF novel, Star Tower. Delingers Publishing has published my science fiction novel, The Isaac Project. The Book of Retslu, a humorous fantasy, has been accepted by Mundania, but has not been published yet. My web site, The Fantastic World of Papa Joe, contains SF, fantasy and horror stories, serials and art."
Joe's stories have appeared a number of times in Aphelion, most recently The Adventures of Prince Woden, July 2005.


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