For Two

This is the first chapter of a book I wrote tentatively entitled For Two. Any suggestions or comments would be welcome and appreciated.

CHAPTER 1

Jean quietly opened the weathered wooden door of his one-room farm cottage, trying not to wake up his wife Elain and young son Jon with the noise of his exiting the house. Dawn’s first light had barely tinged the horizon, shedding just enough light on the surrounding farmland for Jean to see by. His family would not awaken for another hour, but every single day started at this time for Jean.

Jean retrieved his axe and made his way to the woods half a mile away. Once there he selected a tree about one foot in diameter and two-dozen feet in height. He set himself to the rigorous task of cutting down the tree. The practiced stroke of his axe, with his long, strong arms and labor-toned back working in tandem made short work of the tree. After cutting it down he quickly trimmed the trunk of the branches and then hacked the trunk in half. He then fastened his axe onto a loop on his worn leather belt where it would not trip him up as he walked, and proceeded to shoulder one of the halves of the trunk. A grunt escaped his lips as he heaved the heavy log onto his shoulders, but he managed to pick it up without too much trouble. He would take it back and store it by the farmhouse with the other logs he had gathered to burn in the winter. Later, after the brunt of the work of planting was over, he would begin chopping the logs smaller and splitting them for fire wood. He would return the next day to carry home the other half of the tree he had felled.

Jean stopped to rest twice on his way home. The bottom of the sun was barely touching the horizon by the time he returned. After depositing the log with the others, Jean made his way to the small, run-down barn where he kept his two workhorses. He ducked his head as he entered through the low entrance of the barn, scraping his short, blonde hair against the ragged, bare wood of the doorframe. The two horses whinnied quietly as entered, eager for their morning oats and hay. He obligingly fed them before fetching the trappings of their everyday labor, which he put on them as they stood contentedly eating their breakfast. When they had finished their meal he led them outside and hooked them up to the plow. The plow was old, and showed signs of age, but was still usable, due to Jean’s meticulous care to keep it well maintained and rust-free. This was in part due to his natural tendency to apply himself fully to anything he did and pay much attention to detail, and in part because he did not have the money to buy a new one if this one was to become unusable.

After he readied the horses he headed inside to eat a hearty breakfast, leaving the horses in their traces while he ate. When he entered the house he could smell the beans and dense bread he ate for breakfast every day, and also smelled the tantalizing smell of ham cooking; meat was a luxury for Jean and his family, and it was rare that Elain would break out ham or sausage for them to breakfast on. As enticing as the frying meat smelled, all of Jean’s attention was on Elain as soon as he entered and set eyes on her. Seven years, one of courtship and six of marriage, had not dulled his affection for her in the least. She was short, in contrast to Jean’s notable height, with long, strawberry-blond hair pulled back so as to not get in her way as she worked. She smiled quickly and spoke slowly, always the first to know what was on some else’s mind. She always seemed to know what was on Jean’s mind despite his closed-off manner, and was able to penetrate his hard skin and stoic manner to the attentive yet complex and misread compassion he hid underneath it.

Her ability to influence him in such a way was evident as he entered their small house. She looked up from her cooking and smiled at him brightly, and he returned the look with a playful yet utterly sincere smile, an expression that few people witnessed on his face, and even fewer people received. Jean walked over to her and hugged her, feeling fully contented with his life. Elain smiled contently as she buried her face in his shoulder. As they stood, their four-year-old son, Jon, got up off of the floor where he had been playing and began to tug on his mother’s skirt. She bent down and lifted him up, placing him in his father’s arms before once again wrapping her arms around her husband and resting her head against his chest. They stood there for a moment, a family, wrapped in one another’s embrace and feeling the need for nothing else in their lives. Jean felt in that moment that if he was offered whole kingdoms, glory in battle, or the most beautiful woman in the world he would take none of it in place of his wife and son. After a few moments they disentangled themselves from one another and set down to breakfast, all three together. After a comfortable breakfast Jean went back outside to begin the day’s plowing. He worked for eight hours, sweat pouring down his bare torso and staining his pants. He took frequent breaks in order to take deep drinks from a large container of water he had brought with him to the field; by the end of the eighth hour, his water supply was depleted and the sun was inching its way towards the western horizon, but Jean still had several more hours of daylight he could work through. Despite his lack of water he resolved to continue working until dusk set. An hour later, as Jean struggled to push the horses to plow the rough soil, he noticed a mounted figure approaching him through his field.

“That’s odd,” Jean said to himself. It was unusual to see anyone on his land, even more unusual to see a horseman there. Most people would wait at the house instead of coming out into the field to meet him. He slowed the horses to a stop and then shaded his eyes with his hand as he tried to make out the rider. As he approached Jean noticed his flamboyant hat, complete with resplendent feather, and that his horse was no ordinary farm horse. A pit formed in his stomach as he considered the reasons such a man would come to his farm. He felt the muscles in his right forearm twinge from dehydration, and he shook it vigorously, trying to ignore it and wishing he had some water.

When the rider reached Jean he reined in his horse and dismounted. The richly dressed man slipped on the freshly tilled ground, as if he was not used to walking on uneven ground, as he approached the quizzical farmer.

“Are you the farmer, tenant of Lord Amsbury, whose name is Jean Levison?” the man asked rather pompously as he stopped before Jean. As the man spoke he began pulling a thick paper scroll from his vest.

“That is I,” replied Jean. “What brings you here?” Jean asked with growing apprehension. The dress and attitude of the man implied that he was of the higher class, some sort of noble, and the only place nearby which he might have come from was Lord Amsbury’s castle. Very seldom did a tenant of Amsbury see someone from the castle into the town, and nearly never did one come to a man’s farm. There was only one occasion when such a man visited someone’s farm. Jean felt the inevitability of what the man was about to say to him weigh upon his shoulders like a mass of boulders. His heart began beating faster, his arm twitching from dehydration. He felt as if he could feel his pulse in his legs, an odd sensation, and felt the sweat dripping down his back in the setting sun.

“I am the official herald of his lordship, Lord Amsbury; you have been chosen from among all the people of Amsbury to compete in the Competition of Arms against his lordship this year at the games. Congratulations! You are required to report to the castle tomorrow morning by noon, where you will have two weeks to prepare for your combat.” He handed Jean the thick scroll.

Jean’s stomach turned violently as he heard the words, and he felt faint. He knew that the proclamation had been inevitable, but hearing the words spoken to him gave such a realness to his predicament that he felt panic weighing down on his chest, as if a living being had jumped up and was hanging onto his chest. The Competition of Arms was held every year during the spring festival, and was a battle to the death between Lord Amsbury and a randomly selected peasant. The competition was the idea Lord Amsbury himself, who put it on for no other reason than his own twisted pleasure and to assert his authority as lord of the region. Jean often reflected on the oddity of men- that a man like Amsbury could be such a brilliant statesman and leader, such a great military leader, and a man who had led his people into an era of prosperity, but still of detestable character. No man could deny that Amsbury was a lord who had prospered them greatly through his military feats and shrewd economic policies, but neither would any man argue that Amsbury was cruel, twisted, and conceited. His twisted nature was perfectly displayed in his insistence on the Competition of Arms. Amsbury was no mean fighter in hand-to-hand combat, but it was still generally believed that the competition was rigged so as to ensure his victory.

Jean looked the herald in the eye, and, hiding his despair at the proclamation as best he could, replied, “I am honored to participate in the competition. I shall report to the castle tomorrow.” As the rider walked back to his horse and then rode off over the uneven ground, Jean’s thoughts were solely occupied by his wife and son.

“How will I ever be able tell them?” Jean whispered to himself. Although he feared for his life and death in the combat, his greatest fear was for his wife and son. How would they survive when he died? Who would take them in? Jean entertained no thoughts of winning the competition, saw no hope that he might return to his family. In general the material situation of the people in Lord Amsbury’s province was better than that of most others. Few were left without the necessities of life and basic comfort, but when the breadwinner of a household was suddenly removed, there was no assurance that the other members of the household would be cared for. Some of the wives of past contestants who had no sons to support them had been left on their own, some becoming beggars if they were not taken in by some kind soul. Some of them had not lasted long after their husband’s demise. In that moment Jean dreaded telling his wife worse than he dreaded the combat itself.

Amsbury’s games were a product of a long and violent history. Thirty years ago the kingdom of Fligere was ruled by a king named Eron III. The kingdom was prosperous, having good political relations with both the neighboring kingdoms, Amana and Fre-Elune, which enabled it to engage in beneficial trading agreements with both kingdoms. Unlike most kingdoms and kings, Fligere and its king, instead of seeking expansion, maintained peaceful relations with its neighboring countries. The king had no desire to expand his power by conquest.

Fligere had only a small but well-trained army. Its military advantage lay in that, every man who worked as a tradesman or who lived within a major city was obligated to serve one year in training as a soldier. Since there were no major conflicts for these soldiers to engage in, the year was usually focused entirely on vigorous training. After the year was over the men returned to their normal lives. The result was that, although Fligere had only a small standing army, if any real military crisis assailed the kingdom, nearly half of the men of the country were well trained as soldiers and could be called upon for battle. The fully assembled might of Fligere’s fighting force would be formidable to say the least.

The commander of the army of Fligere was an ambitious man who was unhappy that King Eron did not desire to expand the kingdom. Behind closed doors he held meetings with several important figures. The commander or the army devised a plot to assassinate the king. Within two months, King Eron had been murdered, a dagger through his heart while he slept.

The commander of the army had planned on taking the seat of the king once Erin had been killed and then use Fligere’s military might to expand the borders of the kingdom. But this was not to be. Less than two weeks after the king’s death, the commander of the army was also assassinated, this time by another noble who was just as power-hungry as the commander had been.

The death of the commander of the army sparked a full-out power struggle between half a dozen powerful men. In order to gain an upper hand, these men sent out heralds to all of Fligere to call the many trained men dispersed throughout the kingdom to their aid. Each one intended to amass the largest army and then proclaim himself the rightful king. In order to do this, all six men took with them an entourage of fighting men and rode out into the kingdom to rally support to themselves.

In the absence of these powerful nobles from the king’s castle, a young nobleman named Theon, who was a second cousin to the deceased king, made a bold move and proclaimed himself the rightful king. Through skillful speech and eloquence, he convinced all of the men of the standing army to pledge allegiance to him as the king (with no commander and no current allegiance to any king, most of the standing army was still within the capital castle).

When the six men (all of whom were either lords or knights) heard of Theon’s claim to kingship and that he was in control of the king’s castle, they quickly returned with the forces that they had amasses and all six made a temporary alliance in order to dethrone Theon from his place within the castle.

The battle that followed was long and brutal. The castle was laid to siege. It lasted for months, but in the end, Theon was defeated and his supporters massacred.

Once again the lords were thrust into a game to see who would be the one to claim regency over the kingdom. The other four lords once again set out to levy the support of men around the kingdom. But this time their plan did not go as expected.

The news of the capital castle’s siege and destruction flew like an eagle throughout the kingdom. Hearing the news, many aspiring noblemen and knights from around Fligere saw a chance to grab greater power for themselves. Without a central seat of power, there was little uniting the people Fligere. Dozens and dozens of lords and knights gathered their own fighting forces around them, and scores of battles flared up all over the country as ambitious men struggled to makes themselves a ruler. Mean palisade keeps rose out of the countryside almost overnight, and luxurious estates were transformed into fortified castles as some men found a measure of victory in their campaigns and became more powerful, building up fortifications for themselves. Towns were burned, farms abandoned. Mercenaries roved through the forest and along the roads. The struggling continued with no resolutions for three years. Near the end of the third year, eight men distinguished themselves as the most powerful in the land and over the course of the next two years boundaries for eight provinces solidified. The great kingdom that had once been Fligere was no more; in its place were eight provinces, ravaged by years of war and bandits, built on nothing but mercenary military might, and constantly in danger from one another.

The land that Lord Amsbury controlled was one of these eight provinces. Over the years, it had gained peace and prosperity, but the shadow of the past loomed close over its people. Amsbury had instituted the games as a way to assert his power, but also as a way to indulge his own cruel fancies. Now Jean found himself the victim of these cruel fancies.

The sun was out of sight by the time Jean had unhitched the horses back in their shack. He began making his way to the house, every step heavy, knowing he would have to face his wife in mere moments. In his mind he imagined the devastated look that would appear on his wife’s face when he told her.

He reached the door, stopped a moment, then opened the door. He shut his eyes as he opened the door, afraid to look at his wife and son, knowing that soon he might never see them again.

Elain looked up from tucking little Jon into bed to see her husband standing in the open doorway, silhouetted against the darkness outside, his eyes shut and one hand clenched tightly to the doorknob, the other hand clutching a clump of his trousers with equal intensity. His handsome face was set in a look of vague pained sadness, his lips and eyelids both pressed tightly together.

Jean opened his eyes slowly, wanting to be able to preserve the image of his wife he saw in that moment for the rest of his life, however short that might be. He saw her straighten up from Jon’s bed, her long hair falling in her face and obscuring all of her face except her mouth, which was set in a bright smile at the opening of the door, her teeth flashing in the light of the farmhouse. She brushed her hair back and started towards Jean. Jean felt a pulling at his stomach like the first time Elain had unexpectedly put her arm around his waist when they were courting, but this time it wasn’t because he felt giddy young love bubbling up inside him, but because he was looking at what he loved most and was about to lose it. He felt like running to her or falling to his knees, he didn’t know which. As she reached him he held out his arms and hugged her, and never wanted to let go. They stood there for several minutes embracing. Elain realized something was wrong from the length of her husband’s intense hug and because she could feel silent tears dripping down his cheeks to land on her chin. She felt disquiet building up inside of her as she stood there.

“What is it?” she asked quietly.

Jean was quiet for a long time, and then said, “A man visited me in the field today. He told me I was to compete in the Competition of Arms against Amsbury in two weeks. I am to leave tomorrow morning.”

The shock of this put Elain on the floor; she sunk to the ground without a word. Jean followed, enveloping her small frame from every side, like a mother hawk protecting her young from a thunderstorm. They sat there without saying a word for hours until the lamp had sputtered and burned out, leaving them in total darkness. They could here the light breath of their son as he slept peacefully in his bed. Neither of them moved. Cradled in each other’s arms the darkness felt friendly to them, hiding them from the reality of the next day. But not even the silent, still blackness could wipe out the dread they both felt. Finally, Elain spoke.

“Win,” she said.

“I can’t,” Jean whispered, his head bowed.

“For me,” Elain said, choking back tears in the darkness.

Jean felt as if his heart was burning away at her words. No one had ever won; it was impossible for him to do so.

“Anything,” he replied, holding her even closer.

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