In Zugzwang

"In zugzwang" refers to the moment in a game of chess where all possible moves are bad ones. Sigurd the Saintly has been roped into negotiating the annual truce between the Summer and Winter Courts of Faerie. Prompt: Start a War


Sigurd the Saintly, Abbott of Ottobeuren, entered his courtroom.

His cane clacked on the stone floor, announcing his approach. The old monk's knees were bad, from an overabundance of stairs throughout his Abbey, and his back was bad from a lifetime of hunching over illuminations. Still, he surveyed his surroundings with his nose in the air like a prince.

Some imagination was necessary in Sigurd's line of work. He was a master illuminator, recognized chiefly as an inventor of creatures for bestiaries and marginalia. He was also very good at picturing himself in the role of a bewigged justice. Indeed, to study law had been his ambition once, when he was a younger man. However, envisioning a proper courtroom in the space he'd just entered was difficult.

The room had been a library once, before the building burned and the roof fell in. Now it was something of an unfortunate garden. All of the books were gone, and their charred shelves looked like the remnants of a lost civilization. Climbing ivy crept in over the windowsills. A tree pierced one wall with its stubborn branches, and mold grew on everything.

Fixing the old building was too costly for the monks of Ottobeuren, but tearing it down was too much work. The problem of the library had become a game of chess, stuck in zugzwang. No choice was worth making. Every possible decision would create more problems. So long as no one demanded that he act, Sigurd was quite content to leave things as they were.

God favors procrastination, the Abbott thought to himself with a slight smile. One cannot sin if one does nothing at all.

Sigurd sat at the head of the table in his position of authority. Sunlight streamed through the beams of the damaged roof, casting peculiar shadows. The pattern of light and dark looked like a chessboard. Sigurd reached into the pouch on his hip and produced one white pawn, which he set on a bright square in front of him.

The Abbott spent a great deal of his time either playing chess or dwelling on the intricacies of it. Old as he was, it was one of the few things he still enjoyed. Situations with no good outcome, moments in zugzwang, were the ones he found most fascinating.

Sigurd sighed heavily and gazed out the window. He could see the rest of Ottobeuren not far away. The old library sat on a hill, which afforded him a view of the river, the neighboring village, and a lovely little orchard. It was difficult to tell if the trees were budding yet. Spring was a deceptive season. Crocuses were blooming in the melting snow, and some of the birds had returned, but there would be a few more nights of frost before Winter retreated.

If Winter retreated.

Sigurd could feel something in his bones, which warned him that the appointed time was drawing near. The sensation reminded him of the mysterious letter he'd found on his desk three days previously. No one knew who had delivered it, or when it had arrived.

In a distressingly perfect hand, it read:

"The Faerie Queens of Summer and Winter hereby request that Sigurd the Even-Handed, Arbiter of Bargains appear at the former library of Ottobeuren on the eve of the Vernal Equinox. The counsel of this second Solomon, whose wisdom is renowned by Men, is necessary to settle the matter of which Season shall henceforth have dominion over the other."

Sigurd was troubled by the praise that the fae heaped upon him. Although he considered himself quite proficient in the laws of God and man, his usual legal forays were simple. They included business contracts, marriages, and the occasional case of public drunkenness. In fact, he'd thought the letter was nothing more than an elaborate prank played by some novice monks... at least until the paper folded itself into a bird and flew away.

A sharp, disorienting cold washed over the Abbott, and he sat upright.

The chair on his left was occupied. He had not seen nor heard the fae enter, and yet there it was. Sigurd steeled himself for what horror he might witness, and slowly turned his head.

The Emissary of Winter was a mass of wet rags, vaguely humanoid in appearance. Patches of mottled pinkish skin were visible through the layers of torn cloth covering the creature's body. A hood obscured its entire head, and discolored water pooled around its feet.

A piebald raven with eerie red eyes perched on the rag-creature's shoulder.

"What are you looking at, man-thing?" The raven demanded, ruffling its feathers.

"Are you the Emissary of Winter?" Sigurd asked. His gut told him that the faerie representative was the ominous thing in rags, but the raven had spoken.

"In voice only. I speak for the Mawg," the raven replied.

The Mawg shifted slightly in its seat. More oily water pooled on the floor underneath it. The smell emanating from the creature was nauseating, like fish guts in the sun.

"Greetings, Abbott. I am Summer's emissary," another voice announced. It was not precisely masculine or feminine, but possessed of a certain musical quality and a raw power that made Sigurd wonder if he was hearing an angel.

Sigurd sensed something approaching him from behind, warm and soft like a mother's caress. His heart leapt as a velvety equine nose brushed his shoulder. Was it possible? He'd heard tales of Summer's fairest creature. It was a beast the color of moonlight, a stag with the tail of a lion and eyes the color of the summer sky. It moved through the forest like rushing water, leaving not a single footprint to mark its passage. There was no quarry more elusive or desirable.

The unicorn stepped around Sigurd's chair. Its dainty hooves made a sound like tinkling chimes. Sigurd stared in awe. What a glorious animal!

"A unicorn!" The raven cawed. "The audacity! Does Summer want a war?"

The unicorn snorted like a bull. "I was promised a worthy adversary, and this is what Winter sends? A loudmouth raven and that foul, cowardly thing? Why, I ought to put it out of its misery right now!"

The unicorn's horn flickered like new steel. The Mawg tilted its head slightly to the right as if to ask for Sigurd's opinion. It was a disconcerting motion, like a nodding marionette. Although Sigurd still could not see the Mawg's face, a fat water beetle scuttled out of its ragged sleeve.

Sigurd recoiled instinctively, rocked back in his chair, and hit the floor hard. Stars swirled in his vision, accompanied by images of the raven, the unicorn, and the Mawg. Cold water dripped on his face, and he regained his senses.

"Are you dead, Abbott?" The unicorn inquired, looking down at him. Its nose brushed his cheek, and he was awed again by its softness and warmth.

Sigurd rubbed the back of his head and slowly sat up, groaning. "I am not dead," he replied. He returned to his chair with considerable effort and sighed heavily. "Now, I don't know how you fae usually settle your disputes, but in my court, by God, there will be no fighting! Besides, I thought unicorns couldn't abide by blood," he added.

"And how many unicorns have you met, mortal?" The raven asked. "They're a violent lot. They lock horns like stags during the rutting season, but with generally more fatal results."

The unicorn glared at the raven. "I'm insulted," it said.

The raven was not impressed. "I sincerely hope you are, you dumb, spike-itty bastard! And anyway, no sooner did you arrive than you threatened the Emissary of Winter! Not the best way to start a peace negotiation, wouldn't you agree, Abbott?"

"No," Sigurd confessed. It made him rather ill to realize that he agreed with Winter, but proper legal procedures dictated that one party could not threaten the other.

The unicorn glared at the Mawg, obviously disgusted. "I have no intention of negotiating with that abomination!"

"Abomination my tail-feathers!" The raven squawked. "This coming from the ill-begotten spawn of a goat, an ass, and a lion!"

Sigurd took a deep breath. He realized he had forgotten to bring his gavel, so he took his cane and rapped it hard against the table. "Order!" He shouted. "Order in the court! Emissaries, please!" Sigurd sighed heavily. "You are each here representing your Queens. Behave as if they were watching." The Abbott paused. "As I understand it, they probably are."

There was a moment of silence.

"He's right, you know," the raven said.

Sigurd crossed himself, and silently asked for God's guidance. Surely, Winter was the enemy? Winter was cold and ruthless, the season of sickness and death. If Winter did not retreat, fields would lie fallow, and humans would suffer terribly.

The unicorn snorted, sounding more haughty than horse-like. "Well, I don't understand why we're bringing mortals into this matter at all," it said. "We should settle this with honorable combat, as we always have."

"You may do as you will do, but I will do as my Lady commands," the raven replied. "This monk is impartial. He has a sterling reputation." There was an odd pause on the word "impartial", as if the raven thought it meant something very different than Sigurd did.

Sigurd took a deep breath and considered his next move. Summer and Winter had been at war since before time was time, and had only ever held to short truces. Of course, a temporary cessation of hostilities would be a small mercy for the farmers and shepherds of the villages surrounding Ottobeuren.

Sigurd smiled slightly. A stalemate, his preferred tactic, was the obvious solution. But how could he create a situation in zugzwang, where neither party would choose to move? The best way to do that, he reasoned, would be to watch Summer and Winter play.

Sigurd took four chess pieces out of the pouch on his hip. He set the white queen on the side of the unicorn, and the black queen in front of the Mawg. The Ladies of Summer and Winter ruled the board. If there were kings, Sigurd had never heard tell of them. Very purposefully, he placed a black bishop to the right of the black queen, and a white knight in front of the white queen.

"Are either of you chess players?" He asked.

"All fae are chess players," the raven cackled. "But the Mawg is especially fond of this game. Winter considers chess to be a fine substitute for combat. It is in fact combat of the mind."

"Winter is not wrong," the unicorn agreed gruffly. "Set the rest of the board."

"Hear me out first," Sigurd announced, surprised by his own boldness. Was God inspiring him? A truce was essential, but what if the fae could be taught a more permanent lesson? If both the Mawg and the unicorn were chess players, perhaps he could make his point plainly and leave them to think on it. "In the game of chess there is a situation called "in zugswang", Sigurd explained. "It means quite simply that neither side can make a move which won't end badly for itself. The best move to make would be no move at all."

He quickly placed four more pieces on the board, illustrating Summer and Winter's respective position. "In chess, you always must move, regardless of whether it would be prudent or not. But, in reality you can chose not to move. Sometimes staying exactly where you are is for the best."

"I believe what you are implying is that if we each kept to our traditional boundaries, there would be no reason for us to fight," the unicorn paused. "You are clever, Abbott." The unicorn's words were like honey, and hearing the creature's complement warmed Sigurd's heart.

The Mawg nodded solemnly, slowly reaching out for the white knight. It studied the piece for a moment, and then ate it.

"Beast!" The unicorn snarled. Its horn swung just over Sigurd's head like a sword. The way it cleaved the air assured him that it was quite sharp. The Mawg tilted its head to the side to avoid being gored, but did not leave its seat.

The raven settled on Sigurd's shoulder. "The Mawg would like a recess," it announced.

"I think that would be best," Sigurd agreed, shaken by how close the unicorn had come to striking him. "Do inform Winter's Emissary that eating my chess piece was... inappropriate. It is not possible to have a fair game without an equal number of pieces."

"The Mawg apologizes for destroying your property," the raven nodded. "But the Mawg now thinks that you better understand Winter's position."

Without another word, the raven fluttered away.

Sigurd buried his head in his hands. He did understand Winter's position, and that troubled him. Winter was foul and cold, but Summer seemed especially warlike. Was it Summer who traditionally pushed the boundaries? Sigurd considered the approaching spring, and how he had already seen the first crocuses valiantly defying the snow.

Humans longed for fair weather, and took those flowers as a sign that Summer was on its way.

But from Winter's perspective, what were crocuses?

Usurpers.

Summer's destruction of Winter's snow, and of the season's proper bounds was tantamount to an invasion! From a purely legal perspective, perhaps Winter was in the right?

Sigurd sighed heavily. He needed a recess himself. He made his way out to the balcony and gazed in the direction of the Abbey. It was time for services. The bells were calling the faithful, and though he wanted nothing more than to postpone his decision for a later date, the matter had to be settled. It was going to be a long night.

A flash of white caught Sigurd's eye, and his heart jumped. The unicorn's hooves rang out louder than the church bells on the tiles of the roof as the creature galloped towards him, defying gravity as it leapt from the roof to the balcony. Wild-eyed and breathing smoke, it drew its head back and lunged at him.

Startled as he was, Sigurd immediately lost his grip on his cane and fell to his knees.

The unicorn speared the Mawg with its horn.

Sigurd had not realized how near to him Winter's Emissary stood. Was the Mawg trying to kill him, or was the unicorn trying to kill it? Either way, things did not bode well for his negotiations.

Sigurd scrambled underfoot, shielding himself with his cane. "Order! Order in the Court!" He shouted. The fae ignored him.

The unicorn thrashed, trying to free its horn from the Mawg's rags, which were beginning to unravel. The Mawg ignored the fact that the unicorn had impaled it, and doddered around awkwardly, attempting to wrap itself back up. Everywhere that its exposed skin met the light of the sun, it sizzled. With an alarmed caw, the raven dove at the unicorn. The unicorn planted its hooves, and finally tore its horn free.

The Mawg's hood fell.

Sigurd stared in horror. The beast underneath the rags looked like a blind salamander with feathery red gills on either side of its head, and no eyes or nose to speak of. The only feature it did have was an astonishingly large number of teeth. The fading sun caused the creature's flesh to catch fire, and it gave a harrowing, unearthly howl. Certain that he was faced with a demon from the very bowls of hell, Sigurd swung his cane with all of the strength he had left.

God heard his plea, or at least he thought so. His cane caught the Mawg squarely in the chin, and the monster tumbled over the balcony.

After a moment of silence, Sigurd crept on his hands and knees over to the railing and stared down at the beast. It did not appear to be moving. Had he killed the it? Would it be right if he had? It appeared terrible to him, but the Mawg had been remarkably civil. It had even apologized for eating his chess piece.

The unicorn brushed his shoulder. "There now," it said, in its smooth, honeyed voice. "You're not impartial after all."

"That monster was trying to murder me!" Sigurd sputtered, although he was certain that he had made a mistake.

"Actually, I was trying to murder you, not that you'd expect that," the unicorn replied.

"What? Why?" Sigurd demanded, taking a step back. He made sure to move in the direction of the library, to avoid being pitched over the balcony himself.

"Because unicorns are assassins, that's why!" The raven snapped.

Sigurd stared at the unicorn. "You're an assassin?" he echoed incredulously.

"What did you think unicorns do, fart rainbows?" The unicorn scoffed. "We're impossible to track or capture, we have our own very effective weapons,, and everyone we meet instinctively loves us. It's a perfect package."

Sigurd turned back to the raven. Looking at the unicorn was poison. He did love the creature. That was part of its power. In order to be impartial, he needed to hear it and not see it. He needed to picture the unicorn as it sounded when it spoke to him, like a thing that was hot-tempered, ruthless, and more than a little bit insane.

The raven landed on Sigurd's shoulder.

"Is your master dead?" he asked, feeling very ashamed of his actions. The unicorn had played him for a fool, and the Mawg, though horrifying in appearance, had been harmed for no good reason.

"Unlikely. Probably very annoyed," the raven admitted. "My Lady will be too, when she hears of this."

"Would you send my apologies?" Sigurd asked hesitantly.

The raven cackled. "Man-thing, what happened here never happened, if you catch my meaning."

Sigurd nodded solemnly. The raven flew off, and he turned to face the unicorn.

"Thank you, Abbott. Summer appreciates your services," the unicorn bowed.

"I am not on your side!" Sigurd protested. "I have no intention of starting a war!"

The unicorn did not respond, but it looked very smug. With the tinkling sound of silver bells, it bounded back onto the rooftop, and then down to the road. In moments, it disappeared into the forest.

The sun was going down, and the air smelled like snow.

Regardless of the official season, Sigurd got the distinct impression that the weather would be unpredictable for quite some time.