Chapter 3

Here is the third chapter of my novel For Two. If you haven’t read the previous two chapters, they are somewhere in my previous posts.

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Jean opened his eyes the next morning to find himself still on the floor, lying by his wife. He pushed himself up, and felt the soreness from the night spent on the floor. His wife and son were both still asleep, his son blissfully unaware of his father’s predicament, and his wife’s face pleasantly content in the oblivion of sleep. He didn’t know whether he should wake them before he left, or just let them find him gone when they awoke. Finally he decided it would be far less painful for him to slip out without them knowing.

He walked to the cupboard where they kept their meager supply of food and took just enough food for a breakfast on his way to the castle. He then grabbed his extra pair of clothes and wrapped the small lump of bread and cheese in them. Walking softly across the floor so as to not disturb his sleeping family, Jean approached his young son’s little bed and stared at his sleeping form. His face was peaceful, his blonde hair obscuring his forehead. Jean bent over and lightly kissed his forehead, knowing he would never see his son again. “I love you,” he whispered as he straightened up.

Elain was soundly asleep on the floor, no doubt exhausted from the night before. Jean kneeled and caressed her long hair, then gently picked her up and carried her over to their bed, kissing her lips as he laid her gently onto the mattress. She did not wake.

Walking to the door, he cast his gaze one last time upon his family before setting out for the castle.

It took Jean over an hour to reach the main road, which eventually led to Amsbury’s castle. Once he had reached the wagon-rutted dirt road, he walked for three or four hours without incident. Around ten in the morning he stopped to eat his meager breakfast. It was still nearly six miles until he would set eyes upon the castle, and he would arrive before noon even with a break for breakfast. He ate glumly, reflecting on his imminent death and the hardships and pains awaiting his family after his death. As he sat thinking, anger swelled up in him, anger at his situation and anger at those who had put him in it; he chewed his bread ferociously, his teeth snapping together with every bite, frustration mounting in his body.

Jean finished his breakfast and resumed his brisk pace. The repetition and movement of the energetic walk calmed him down, and he felt his emotions subside somewhat. Desperate thoughts still weighed on his mind, but did not overcome him with their weight. A cart came down the road, the lazy trot of the horse slowly bringing the cart up even with Jean.

“D’you mind if hitch a ride in your cart?” Jean called out to the driver, indicating the nearly empty cart bed and hoping to distract himself from his thoughts.

“Be my guest!” The driver bellowed back, a slightly portly and good-natured fellow. “The horse won’t mind much, and I could use the company.”

As Jean climbed into the wagon, the man asked, “What business brings you this way?”

Jean settled down on the little bit of old hay in the bottom of the cart and though for a moment how to respond the jolly fellow. “I have business at Lord Amsbury’s castle,” he replied amiably, not willing to spoil the driver’s mood with his own sorrow. “What’s your business around here?” He asked, taking the focus off of himself and his miseries.

“Just an old farmer and tinker, name of Simeon, nobody much. Been traveling through these parts for a while lookin’ for work of some sorts. I’m headed to that castle right now as well, hoping to find some sort of work for an old tinker like myself. I tried my hand at farming for a while as a younger man, but it never sat well with me.” He snorted derisively. “Not in the least because I never grew a decent crop in my life. I just wasn’t cut out for that I suppose. I took up traveling and tinkering instead. Not too steady, but at least I’ve usually got something to eat at night.”

Jean smiled at the driver’s caustic description of farming. “Well, my name is Jean, I also was a farmer, with a family I loved beyond anything else I had, a beautiful wife and a darling little son. I found farming to be a very agreeable livelihood.”

“Well then I don’t suppose we can see eye to eye there,” Simeon said chuckling, “but it seems we’ve both left that livelihood for another. So by what means do you do for a living now my friend, and pray tell me, what happened to your family?” His voice softened as he asked this obviously sensitive question.

Jean was momentarily confused that Simeon had asked what he did now did for a living, until he realized that he had told him that he had been a farmer. Not that he currently was a farmer, but that he had been a farmer. Unconsciously, he had written his own eulogy and presented it to this man, speaking of himself as if he was already dead.

“My family…” Jean began, not knowing how to answer, “ My family is fine. No misfortune has befallen them yet, and I have not changed my livelihood.”

Confused silence met this statement. Simeon did not know how to interpret this enigmatic statement. Not knowing how best to continue the conversation, Simeon said, “Then, ah, what is your business at Amsbury’s castle? I truly cannot say that you are making much sense to me; I am rather confused.”

“My business at the castle is not of my own choice,” Jean replied, willing now to unburden himself onto another person. “I have been chosen by Amsbury to compete in his Competition of Arms for this year’s Spring Festival. I am sorry if I have confused you; it is because I speak of myself as one already dead. True, I am a farmer, with a family, but I can’t claim them as my own any longer. The only thing that awaits me is death in a bloody combat. I would run, but for the fear of what Amsbury might do to my family if I did.”

Simeon knew of Amsbury’s bloody games, even though he did not live within his province; he had traveled through it enough times to have heard of it, and knew the seriousness of it. The townspeople had spoken of it with a mix of anticipation, disgust, and anger. Simeon’s generally jolly face sobered considerably at the divulgence of the somber news. “I’m sorry,” he said.

They rode the rest of the way in silence, Jean’s taciturn nature showing itself and Simeon’s normally garrulous personality subdued by Jean’s simple yet dismal words.

They arrived at Amsbury’s castle half an hour before noon. The castle sat on a modest hill, elevated above most of the surrounding area. A gray stone wall with a heavy, foreboding wooden gate encircled the castle buildings. From outside the walls Jean could see little of the buildings inside the walls, but he could see a tower, the castle’s main keep, towering high above the walls. He could also just see the roof of a larger, lower building, the great hall.

The castle had been built when the kingdom had been in great turmoil and any lord who was able built himself some sort of defensive structure to protect himself and his people. The castle had been built for defense, but was not impregnable. At some point in the past Amsbury himself had laid siege to castle, ousting the lord who had held it. Since it was such a formidable structure, Amsbury had chosen the castle as his power base while he subjugated the rest of the surrounding area, adding on to it and making it even more fortified. Once he had established his power in the area, he kept the castle as his seat of power.

The gates were closed, but a party of several men sat outside the gates. As soon as they saw the approaching cart they stood up and approached it.

The leader of the group, a grizzled yet robust man in his forties, greeted them very bluntly. “Are either of you he who is to compete against his Lordship?”

“That would be me,” Jean answered, swinging his legs over the side of the cart and hopping down to the ground. He stood nearly half a foot taller than the man who addressed him, but the man nevertheless retained his attitude of superiority.

“I am Carenen, head of the castle guard. I will escort you in to an audience with his Lordship before you are shown to your room.”

“Ah, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Simeon interjected apologetically, “But might I also gain entrance here? I’m a tinker by trade, and am seeking work.”

“We have no need of you, be on your way,” Carenen replied brusquely as he turned back towards the castle.

Another man, with the appearance of someone who had once been a doughty knight or footman, interjected, “Let him in, Carenen. I can find plenty of use for him.”

“As you wish Tiurne,” Carenen grunted as continued towards the gate. Jean, Simeon, and the rest of the welcoming party fell in behind Carenen, and he shouted to men inside the walls to let them in. The heavy gates creaked open to let the small entourage inside.

The great gates swung open and the small party entered, passing by a small gatehouse. Once inside, Simeon went off with Tiurne. Jean continued on with Carenen and several other guards to his audience with Amsbury.

His audience was in the great banquet hall where the castle’s inhabitants ate every night. It smelled of smoke and fresh bread, but the room was nearly deserted. As Jean followed his escort past the long wooden dining tables, scrubbed clean of last night’s dinner by diligent maids, he noticed only two other people. One was an odd, hunched figure who sat by the cavernous fireplace wearing a tattered cape. The figure’s bony legs were visible, poking out of his cloak, and wiry hair stood up at odd angles on top of the thin head. As he walked past he glimpsed the man’s wrinkly, bearded face and saw his lips moving rapidly as if he was reciting a long poem very quickly.

The other person he saw was, he assumed, Lord Amsbury. He sat in a large padded chair at the head of the hall on a dais.

Long, well-kept hair fell down to his shoulders and his face was neither inviting nor hostile as he leaned against the arm of his chair. His eyes peered steadily at Jean as he approached with Carenen and the other guards.

“Here is the noble man who is to meet you in combat,” Carenen said as they neared the dais.

Amsbury stared steadily at Jean for several moments, taking in details of his appearance and demeanor. Amsbury stood up suddenly. Jean flinched at the sudden movement. Amsbury, eyes still locked on Jean, stepped off of the dais and stood in front of him. He held out his hand as if to shake hands, and said, “I am honored to duel against you.”

Surprised, Jean shook Amsbury’s hand. He had not expected Amsbury to shake his hand or show any sort of respect to him. Jean momentarily forgot that this was the man that was going to kill him in a mere two weeks.

“Have him shown to his room,” Amsbury said to Carenen, and turned to leave the hall.

One of the guards showed Jean to where he would be staying, a small but comfortable room on the second floor of the castle, and informed him that he would begin training for the combat the next day. “You may explore the castle grounds as you wish, but by no means are you to go outside the walls of the castle. You will eat in the hall with everyone else tonight,” the guard told him, and then left him alone in his room.

Jean’s room had a small bed and a small table with a washbowl on it, but was otherwise empty. Jean sat down on the bed, his mind wandering back to his meeting with Amsbury, the man who was going to kill him. It was inevitable, he knew. But then he remembered the night before, and the promise he had made to his wife.

“For me.”

“Anything.”

He had forgotten. How had he forgotten the last words he had spoken to his wife? Resolve bubbled up, mixing with the feeling of inevitable defeat, swirling together to create a seething, conflicted pot of emotions that Jean could not make sense of. Instead of focusing on this, he instead tried to think of how he would try to beat Amsbury. He was lost in thought for near an hour, sitting on the edge of that smell bed, conjuring ideas of how he could pull off such an impossible task. For all his thinking, Jean could not come up with any solid, realistic way he could overcome Amsbury; but he refused to give up hope like he had when he had heard the fateful words come out of the Herald’s mouth.

Rather than sit and meditate on his position until he lost himself in despondency, Jean decided to look around the castle grounds.

The upper floor of the castle consisted mostly of private chambers, and Jean spent little time up there before making his way down the stairs. He wandered the lower chambers of the castle until he came back to the great hall. It was still deserted, and it seemed slightly eerie as Jean made his way from one end to the other of the cavernous, table-filled hall. From there he exited into the airy courtyard of the castle.

The courtyard was bustling with people going about their daily business and with people getting ready for the imminent Spring Festival. All of the people of the province would be invited to the castle for the festival, and already a few people were getting ready for the festival games and competitions. Jean moved through the hurrying people casually, watching the people go about their business. No one took any notice of him, intent on his or her business. As he wandered through the courtyard he came upon some of the castle guards going through sword drills. The elder man who had been in the party that had greeted Jean outside the gates, the one who had told Carenen to let Simeon in, was leading them. Jean watched as he shouted out commands and the guards followed his commands, swinging their swords in tight, powerful routines. Jean remembered that he was going to start training the next day. He wondered if he would be working with this man who was leading the guard’s drills, and if so, if he would find an ally in him, possibly get an advantage over Amsbury some way. He studied the man, memorizing his face.

After a few minutes of watching he continued his walk around the courtyard. The next thing he came upon was the stables. The smell of fresh hay and horse was familiar and comforting. The horses were tall and strong, kept in prime condition for hunting or battle, nothing like the worn-out work horses Jean was used to. He walked along the stalls, admiring the muscular stallions and beautiful mares. He put his hand on the neck of one horse, feeling its great muscles as it nuzzled his ear, looking for something to eat. Jean had always loved horses, but had never been around any as magnificent as the ones in Amsbury’s stables. He quite enjoyed perusing the stalls, taking in the magnificence and beauty of the horses. When the grooms learned who he was they offered to give him riding lessons, and although he would have like very much to accept, Jean regretfully declined, knowing that spending his time learning the finer points of horse riding would help him not at all if he planned on not being the victim of Amsbury’s game.

After leaving the stables Jean happened upon the castle chapel. It was a small, nondescript building, only differentiable by the single small stained glass window that adorned its outside wall. He entered, hoping to find a priest who would pray for him, but there was no priest to be found. Instead he sat in reverent silence on one of the plain wooded benches for a while, hoping that God might know his prayer even without a priest’s intercession. Finally he stood in that slow, contemplative way people do after sitting silently in a church, and headed back to the great hall, his fears hardly diminished by his time spent in the chapel.

By this time the great hall had just begun to fill up for the evening meal. Jean knew he was supposed to eat in the great hall that night but did not know where he was supposed to sit. Not knowing what to do he stood awkwardly by the wall, trying to stay out of people’s way. As he stood there, he heard a whisper, distinct despite the babble in the hall. He looked over his left shoulder and then his right, but saw no one. He heard the whisper again; it was distinct, but he could not make out any words. Then he felt a small prick on his left hand, painful enough for him to notice but not painful enough to make him cry out. Surprised, he looked down at his hand to see a tiny drop of blood on his palm. Then he felt it on his right hand. Then again: left, right, left right, until he had four tiny drops of blood beading up on each hand. Each set of four drops formed a perfect line across the bottom of his palm. Confused and scared, thinking that it might be some sort of sorcery Amsbury was using against him to ensure his victory, Jean stared at his hands and then rubbed them vigorously against his pants, as if trying to rid himself of whatever magic had pierced him.

He heard a soft, metallic plink at his feet. He looked down to see a pendant without a chain lying at his feet. He was sure it had not been there a moment before. It was fashioned to look like an eye, the silver formed into a delicate almond shape, the upper lid of the eye made from intertwining lengths of silver, arching up to create the eye shape. Tiny slivers of silver made delicate eyelashes on the pendant. The bottom lid of the pendant was made from one simple piece of silver, and in the center sat a smooth, sapphire blue stone, looking almost exactly like the iris of an eye. Jean bent down and picked up the intricate and beautiful piece of jewelry, wondering at its appearance, turning it over in his hands and admiring the workmanship.

“Jean Levison!” Jean started when he heard his name, and quickly pocketed the pendant. He looked up to see Carenen approaching him. At first Jean was afraid that Carenen had seen him pick up the pendant and was about to accuse him of theft, but then he said, “You are to sit at the head table as our honored guest. Come with me, I shall show you to your seat.”

Jean followed him up to the dais where he found an empty seat waiting for him. He sat down tentatively between Carenen and a young lady. Amsbury sat on the other side of Carenen, so Jean was only one seat away from him. As the dinner commenced, Amsbury got to his feet and said in a booming voice, “Attention, loyal people of this castle! Before we commence, I would like to honor this man who sits at the head table with me. Jean Levison, the man who is to face me on the field! A toast, to my noble opponent!” At Carenen’s urging, Jean stood up hesitantly. “A toast! May he fight well, and may he be well remembered!” A shout of agreement went up from the long wooden tables, along with an assortment of toasting drinking vessels, but Jean could not help but notice the finality with which Lord Amsbury had said, “may he be well remembered.”

Jean spent the rest of the meal in silence, once again lost in thoughts of his own inescapable demise.

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Barrie’s Pan; Book Review

J. M. Barrie published “Peter Pan” in 1904, at the age of 44. Barrie considered the title character to be a mixture of the five sons of Llewelyn Davies, a close friend of Barrie’s. These boys, who Barrie took custody of after their mother’s untimely death in 1910, were in a way responsible for Barrie’s fame, for they were the inspiration for the work that received rave reviews in its own time and even today, over a hundred years later, still stirs the hearts and minds of those who encounter it and its whimsical characters. Some of the main themes of Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan”-imagination, young childhood, the mother-child relationship, and growing up- can be explored through the examination of the title character and his antagonist, Jas. Hook.

Imagination rules Neverland. Peter is in command of the Lost Boys because he is the least grown up. When he pretends-even when he pretends there is food to eat when there is no food to eat- the others can do nothing but pretend along. This is the essence of the affect a child has on older people- if a child offers you a piece of cake, regardless of what is in his hand, you will take it as a piece of cake and you will act like you are eating it like it is a piece of cake. In a sense, the child is in charge because his imagination is obeyed by all whom he introduces it to.

Peter personifies the essence of young childhood affection, childlike love. He is intensely affectionate and unvaryingly forgetful of others, yet impossible not to love. In the presence of Pan, just as in the presence of a little child, individuals are enraptured by their energy, loveliness, innocence and sincerity. We are fully aware that the child by whom we are enchanted is selfish, conceited, ignorant, and likely to forget about anyone other than himself, but we nevertheless adore them. This is the essence of the childlikeness that Peter Pan embodies.

Peter’s feeling towards motherhood embodies the psyche of children. He deifies motherhood while simultaneously reviling the idea of having such an authority figure in his life. Whenever the Lost Boys talk of their mothers, Peter always asserts that his mother was better in every possible way. He brings Wendy to Neverland for the express purpose of having her as his mother, but when she is to leave Neverland with the Lost Boys, he affects not to care at all whether she stays or goes. Peter is enraptured by the idea of a mother- a beautiful, angelic, loving being who will lavish her undying love upon him- but shrinks back at the thought of ruled over by anyone, told to go to school and grow up and do manly things. He adores ‘the mother’ because he is a child, but reviles ‘the mother’ because he wants to always stay a child.

Hook is both foil and antagonist to Peter Pan. He embodies everything ‘grown up’. He is ruthless, eloquent, commanding, and values ‘good form’ above everything else. He characterizes the only other possibility to adoring a child like Peter Pan- hating him. Hook hates Peter, eventually realizing that it is his imperturbable cockiness that engenders so much hate in him for the boy. While Peter values his freedom from anything that could hold him captive in any way above all else, Hook desires above all else to have control of everything. This quintessentially childlike desire and this thoroughly grown-up desire have been at war since the beginning of time, just as Pan and Hook are at war.

“Peter Pan” has stood the test of time because it tells the universal tale of childhood with whimsy, spirit, sauciness, and above all else, accuracy. Any person reading Barrie’s classic can immediately relate to Barrie’s description of childhood and the child’s mind and attitude. Peter Pan is every child ever, and no child at all. Peter Pan is imagination and make-believe. Peter Pan is reality.

Chapter Two

Here’s another long post. This is the second chapter of the book I wrote, For Two.

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The cavernous great hall smelled of smoke and roasted meat, resounding with the sounds of half-drunk laughter and raucous shouts. The long wooden dining tables were filled with the occupants of the castle: knights, noblemen and ladies. At the far end of the hall was a dais where sat Lord Amsbury himself, along with the more important occupants of the castle. Amsbury was graying at the temples, and past the prime of his life, but still strong and fit, if putting on a little weight on his midsection. He had worked his way up through the ranks of infantry, becoming a knight and eventually becoming a very powerful commander who found victory in many campaigns before becoming the lord of his own province. His fighting prowess had been as infamous among his men as his proclivity to cruelness. He now sat at the head of the hall on a cushioned and elaborately carved chair, tearing into a hunk of meat, paying no heed to the grease that smeared onto his clean-shaven face and hairy arms.

There were five other people who sat with Amsbury at the head table. The first was Carenen, Amsbury’s captain of the castle guard. He was in charge of the thirty castle guards, but that was not why he sat on the dais with the others. It was mostly due to his close confidence with Amsbury.

The second was Olfelia, the plump Lady of the castle. She was not the wife of Amsbury, or involved with him in any such way, but merely the woman who played the role of Matron of the castle. Her liberal application of rouge made her perpetually look as if she had imbibed a little too much wine, and her large lower lip gave her a pouty appearance. She spent most of her days ordering around the working women of the castle, wheezing from her own weight as she bustled to and fro amongst the workers, ordering and correcting them in tasks. To say that she put on airs would be putting it lightly, but Amsbury tolerated her, since she generally kept to her own business of managing the women of the castle.

The third was the young Lady Sienna. She was the niece of Amsbury; her mother, Amsbury’s sister, was said to have died in childbirth, and her father had perished in battle soon after. Lady Sienna’s beauty and figure were popular topics of conversation among the knights, who liked to compare her to all the other maidens in the castle and debate which one’s features were more pleasing. Very rarely did a knight try to argue that another woman was truly more beautiful than she. Many knights had asked to carry her token in tournaments and battles, but few had received such a token. Those who did were completely enamored with her, and heartbroken when she ultimately rejected their advances. At nineteen she was the perfect age to be wed, and many nobles and knights desired her hand.

Fourth at the head table was Mernov. Mernov was a knight of the highest position, and had earned his place at the head table through many feats of valor. Young, strong, and in the prime of his life, many people considered him to be the obvious heir to Amsbury’s seat of power after Amsbury was gone. As the highest ranking knight in the castle, Mernov often led patrols along the province’s border, and any time complaints of bandits or marauders appeared he was generally the one to lead the elimination of such lowlifes. Unlike anyone else at the castle, Mernov would often visit Donsburr, the village near the castle. He would devote his time to speaking with people, spending the evening in the tavern with the farmers and travelers. Sometimes he brought food from the castle for the occasional farmer or tradesman who was having a difficult time feeding his family.

Fifth at the head table besides his lordship was Tiurne, an elderly man who was both in charge of the training of the guards and knights as well as being in charge of the general affairs of the castle. He was considered a rather harsh man, keeping everyone in line with a steely gaze and harsh voice, but the deep wrinkles in his face betrayed the innumerable smiles that had graced his face as a younger man.

Amsbury wiped the grease from is face. “Carenen, has the herald returned from delivering his message?” he asked. The herald had been sent out near midday and Amsbury was eager to hear about the man he would be competing with.

Carenen, who sat directly to Amsbury’s right, leaned in to reply. “Yes, my lord. The man who was selected is named Jean Levison, he is a farmer who lives with his wife and-“

“Never mind all that,” Amsbury grunted impatiently, grabbing at a loaf of bread and grabbing a knife to cut it with. “Tell me what he’s like.”

“Of course my lord,” Carenen replied, knowing exactly what he meant. “A man in the prime of his life. He is quite tall, perhaps a couple inches taller than Mernov, and very well muscled from a full life of farm work. Not built like a blacksmith, slimmer and less muscle mass, but all his muscles are toned. He’s never seen battle, never been trained in weaponry or war at all.” Carenen smirked. “The closest he has ever gotten to combat is cutting down a tree. ”

Amsbury grunted contentedly through a mouthful of bread. Despite the fact that Jean had been described as tall and in superior physical condition, as well as being in the prime of his life, Amsbury was not in the least bit worried about that. Amsbury was confident that his own extensive experience with combat gave him a great advantage regardless of his opponent’s physical condition, if he had no experience in fighting. Even then, Amsbury would not be unduly worried if his opponent did have experience in fighting, because he did indeed rig the competition.

In the fifteen years of his Competition of Arms, only twice had it not been rigged; the first year of the competition, when Amsbury was a younger and more athletic man, he had had no doubts about his victory. But that ended in near disaster when his opponent revealed himself to be a traveling mercenary who had secretly taken the place of the farmer who was supposed to fight. The mercenary, who had hid his prowess in battle until the day of the competition, had almost defeated Amsbury. Only by blind luck did Amsbury triumph, and from that day on he had rigged the competition.

Amsbury rose, pushing back his seat and raising his goblet. His strong voice rose above the general hubbub as he called out, “A toast! A toast to the sixteenth year of our Competition of Arms!” The clamor of the diners muted as he continued. “Once again, I, your illustrious lord, benefactor of this province, will battle a man in single combat, for the good of us all! A toast, to the brave man who is to face me in this mortal combat, and a toast to I myself!” There was a cheer and a general raising of glasses.

A knight somewhere near the middle of the tables, shouted out, his courage bolstered by the wine he had liberally consumed. “And may the best man win!”

A wave of snickering and tittering rustled through the diners at this statement, but all of those there who were mindful of their own well being tried hard to suppress their laughter. Everyone in the castle knew it was a rigged competition, and the knight’s words had obviously been a jab at this.

Amsbury had not seen which man had presumed to shout such a statement. So instead of directing some action towards the man who had made the statement, he instead addressed the whole assembly. He set his goblet on the table and spread his hands out wide.

“What man of you,” he began, his voice booming out in the hall, with a dangerous undertone of menace that had not been in his previous speech, “what man of you can claim the conquering of nations? What man of you can claim to have received honors from a king? What man among you can claim to have brought prosperity to a region, beyond any that had ever been know in this region before? What man of you”-his voice grew noticeably louder and more intense-“can claim to protect the hundreds, even thousands, of people under your rule from marauders, bandits, and foreign powers every day? And what man can deny that it is necessary for a man in power to display his power, lest those who follow him attempt to rise up against him, thus forfeiting the safety they had under him? What man among you can claim a pure heart?”- his voice rose to a crescendo-“Is there any knight here who can say that, in the midst of battle he has no felt a heat in his heart for the death of his enemy, felt the protection of his own life, that sin of selfishness, pervade him, so that to kill his enemy is sweet? No man can truthfully say that has kept himself from all the evil of this world. But each man would say that he does what he can and must to combat that evil.” Amsbury’s voice took on a charitable tone. “And that is all that I am doing here. A battlefield is where a man sees his own heart most plainly, and I am merely bringing that battlefield into our lives, to remind us of who we are, to protect each of us, as is my duty, from the wickedness that seeks to devour our humble lives. No man can say that I am against those who I rule. No man can say that I am not just. A fair trials of arms, that is all I ask of you. A fair fight, the pitting of two men against each other. We cannot rid this world of evil, but I, as all of you, must play our part, and that is all I seek to do.”

The hushed crowd stared in silence at Amsbury as he finished his speech. Amsbury strode out of the hall towards his own chambers, followed closely by Carenen. It was not unusual for Amsbury to burst out into impromptu speech, but this one had been particularly fiery. After a few moments of silence after Amsbury’s departure, a man spoke up weakly.

“What is the life of one man? Amsbury has prospered each and every one of us here.” The speaker looked around, seeing if there was anyone who wanted to challenge his assertion. Few men would look him in the eye, and none looked as if they wanted to contradict him. “So, I say we just let Amsbury do as he likes, all he’s ever done for us is good, in my opinion, and we should just get on with our lives. God knows what’s right.”

There were a few mumbled grunts of agreement from the assembly. No one dared challenge Amsbury’s violent custom outright. Most would rather just watch it in silence.

At the head table Mernov stood up, catching people’s attention. “Indeed, God knows what is right. And surely it is the duty of every man to obey him who is of greater authority than he. And if we are the lesser men, what are we to do but follow his commands?” Mernov surveyed the group of nobles, knights, and ladies before him and then exited the hall, his face blank. He was soon followed by both of the ladies at the head table and Tiurne. The babble in the hall slowly grew back to its preview volume, and Lord Amsbury’s impassioned speech was soon forgotten by all but a few.

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.

Starting and Finishing

Everyone has heard the apothegm, “Finish what you start.” But obviously some things that we start are harder to finish than others. A full-length book is one of the things many people undertake but ultimately find too time-intensive or challenging to finish. Many times it is a lack of motivation that leaves a person with a half-finished book.

I have the lucky distinction of being able to say that I have actually started and finished writing a book. This spring I had a lot of time on my hands, and my Mom challenged me to expand a short story I had written into a full-length book. This gave me the necessary motivation to actually write the book consistently, about a chapter a week, and eventually finish it.

“Finished” is a relative term. When I say finished I mean that I’ve written a first draft that is very, very rough. I haven’t even read most of it. It took about fifteen weeks to write a thirteen chapter book. With all of the words down on paper, now the real work starts: The Editing.

Luckily for me, my very intelligent older brother and my Mother are helping edit my book, both for grammatical and language errors as well as for plots and character development. Hopefully after it has been fully edited, I will be able to publish it in one capacity or another.

My book is about a man living in a medieval world as a simple farmer who is chosen by his twisted and cruel Lord to fight with him in a battle to the death during the annual Spring Festival. The farmer, Jean, is torn from his family and forced into the battle, but he is determined to overcome the Lord, even though no one had ever beat him in the competition. Many people of power in the castle seem to want help Jean, but he cannot figure out who he can trust and who he cannot. On the side, his faithful wife is also trying desperately to help save her husband.

As a writer I am definitely an amateur, and am not highly familiar with what the best way to write a book is, how best to carry a story arc throughout the book, or anything like that. I really just started with an interesting story idea and went at it. The finished project will not be groundbreaking or brilliant, but its somewhere to start. And I don’t want to avoid starting something just because my first result isn’t going to be of superlative quality. If I did that, I never would have learned anything, not even how to walk.