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.
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.
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.