Childe's Play A Tale in Words of One Beat A knight stands in front of the bridge, the tip of his sword on the ground and hands at rest on the hilt. He wears plate mail, black curved slabs chased with gold. His helm is closed, and he gives no sign he knows I ride towards him. If it is a him -- he does not move, not to shift his weight nor take a breath. He could be a suit of mail that once stood in some old lord's hall, for all I can tell. But he blocks the bridge. My nag slows as we near, and stops a few yards from the dark knight. The bridge is not long, nor the ditch deep. A thin brown creek, choked with near-dead reeds, runs through it -- or does not run, it may be, for it makes no sound. The shades that hang from the leaves and moss and trunks of the road's hedge seem to leer in the ditch. I can't see what lies past the end of the bridge. I am sore from the ride on my road, and fear has burned deep in my bones for far too long. I try not to let it show in my voice. "Let me pass," I say. The knight does not move. There is no sound but the shades as they flit from branch to branch by the side of the road. At the start of my ride, I would been flip -- tried to quip a rise out of this tin man. But I lost my wit when I met the Wolf. I've been on this road for ... how long? I can't think. Too long. It seems my mind and my seat and my bones have been worn through, and I can't ride on. But to stop now is to -- not die. Worse. The woods would eat me, and tree roots gnaw slow. All I can do is go on. I touch my nag with my heels, and she jerks a step, then jolts to a stop at the voice: "Who is your sire?" The words seem to come from the air, or the dark, and not be said by the knight at all. Sire?! What for, to see if I've the rank and worth to fight? I've had to hold my true self in more than a few times when a lord's young whelp sneered at me. And here, now, this is too much. I fight as well as a lord, for all I don't know my Da and was raised by my "aunt" -- as soon this hard-cased man will see. I reach for my sword, yet when my hand grips the hilt, I stop and do not draw. A bare two weeks since, I drew it to swear my oath to King Mark. Is it this sire the voice means? I must choose right. This is a test, like the Wolf I fought, miles since, and the Hut where I chose this nag. A test, but what to say? As I try to think, I tap the hilt of the sword my aunt said was my Da's. The sword. Ah! I'd smile, but I've no more smiles till I sleep. I pull out my sword, and raise it, hilt to the dark knight. "He I hold this sword for." The knight stirs for the first time, and I all but jump out of my skin. At least I don't drop the sword. All he does, though, is shift once, then is still. Once more, the voice leaks out of the air: "Where do you go?" This, I know. There's but one thing to say. "To the end of the road." In fact, I think, that could be said of my life, and not just this ride. I find I do have a smile in me, a wry tug on one side of my mouth. But there's one more to come. With a sound like mold on moss, the voice asks: "What do you want in your heart?" What to say to that -- to be made a knight? to wed my girl? great wealth? fame? to get out of these woods with my life? Each of these and all of them. They are all the same. I bite my thumb. I have no way to choose. But why choose? I say, "The best thing in all the world." And that's three! Off to my left, deep in the woods, an owl hoots once. "And now," I go on, "will you let me pass?" The voice does not speak, but I seem to hear a sigh from the trees that line the road. "I've passed your test." Still all is still. My mouth tastes of dust and dank marsh. "Damn it," I burst out, "I've earned it!" This time the knight, not the air's voice, says, "As you said, here is your due." With a grace that no one with plate mail should have, he steps to one side. I blink. Then I tap my horse with my heel, and she steps forth. As we pass the knight, I'm gripped by the thought that it's a trap, that once my back is turned he'll strike me with his sword. But the rush of fright is drenched by the clomp of hoof on the bridge. Three more steps, then we're off and stand on the dry road once more. I look back, but the bridge is gone, wrapped in shade and trees. I shrug. The wood is like that. And now I'm near the end. I turn back to the road, and gasp. The road forks. Left or right, each path looks the same, with no sign which is the way out. And I know, for it is the way of these woods, that once I step down one, it will be, for good or ill, the sole road. Caught on my own words. As I spoke, I have my due -- all I'd said to the knight, the words meant two things. I'd made no choice with them. I stare at the roads. Now I must choose. Off in the woods, no one laughs.