Both boys were practicing again. Everyday, for the last three weeks, Joleen Zelonis had been coming out here to watch her two friends pretend to be soldiers. She liked coming here, away from her mother and her attendants. Mistress Haylem, a monstrous sized woman with a rotund waistline, was head of the kitchen and was always nice enough to hand Joleen a sweet cake or something of the sort. From the doorway, Joleen would come and watch all the soldiers train.
She always thought the men were handsome in their armor. They reminded her of her father. But after coming here for several days, she found that soldiers mostly gawked at other women and made lewd noises when they thought nobody was looking at them.
Today, though, she was keenly aware of her two companions. There was something stirring in her chest for the first time as she stared at the boys. They seemed more masculine, their muscles more defined, and their faces had a certain quality Joleen had not noticed before. She found the feeling quite interesting and unsettling.
The brothers stood in the middle of the courtyard, swinging their practice swords in front of her father, their hair matted to their foreheads with sweat. The king stood several feet over them and his shadow seemed ready to swallow Addigo and Johannassen Khabriel whole. His vigilance over his young pupils was paying off it seemed.
A few weeks ago, they could barely hold the practice swords up for more than a few minutes. But now, the king would bark his orders, and the two young students would follow suit flawlessly. It was a vast improvement from the days when they had just started learning.
Joleen Zelonis always felt the training of soldiers was much like the training of her hunting dogs. Except her two mastiffs were more beautiful than most soldiers. She knew learning the art of war was essential for most boys. A properly trained and equipped army was needed to ensure the protection of the kingdom, but she really didn’t like it now because the time it took to practice was more time she had to spend without her friends.
The routing continued for several minutes, with one swinging and the other parrying. How she wished to join them, to be a part of the boys without getting in trouble. She could handle the brothers. She had whipped both of them playing king of the hill. But she knew it was no use arguing the point with her mother. Sword fighting was not for young girls who were going to grow up to be ladies. Her time should be spent reading and learning so she could be a better wife to her future husband.
When Johannassen noticed her hiding by the kitchen door, he signalled to Addigo. Both boys shifted nervously and smiled at her. They quickly regained their focus and stood at the ready. When the king gave the signal, both brothers were to show that they could use in battle what they had just learned.
“Remember, boys,” explained the king, “this is practice. We do this to learn to defend our homes, our families, and our way of life. Let’s take it easy and let’s finish for the day.”
Johannassen was always the bigger of the two brothers, but what Addigo lacked in size he made up for in speed. At the signal, Johannassen charged with the force of someone who knows they are the stronger. Addigo swiftly stepped to the side and brought his sword to bear on the back of his older brother’s neck.
Johannassen dropped to one knee and quickly glanced at her. The king applauded the younger Addigo and took their swords. The king guided Addigo to the hall where he could freshen up.
But Johannassen didn’t rise from his prone position. He just kneeled where he had been defeated and stared at his friend of eleven years, the future queen of The Valley of Life, with something like shame in his eyes. Before she could say anything to him, he ran away from her, his footsteps echoing in the open space of the courtyard.
* * *
The three had grown up together. As inseparable as a pack of wolves, Joleen Zelonis spent all of her waking days, when her mother was not teaching her the ways of courtly life, with the two brothers. Day after day, the trio would climb high into the upper reaches of Castle Bonemeyer, where nobody could reach them. They would sit on the ledges of the highest tower and listen to the flapping of the flags in the evening wind. They would stare in awe at The City and its people, who seemed like tiny ants from such height.
There were days when the clouds were crawling just above the surface of the land and Castle Bonemeyer disappeared beneath them, covered by thick, white cotton clouds. On those days, the world seemed to disappear, and the only ones that existed were the three of them, perfectly happy, perfectly contended. Some mornings found the entire coast covered in fog and Joleen, Addigo, and Johannassen would congregate here, just to watch the clouds crawl by like grazing cattle and make them feel like they were flying high above.
It was here, in the upper reaches of the highest parapet, among the flags and birds, where Joleen Zelonis found Johannassen Khabriel. He sat huddled in a small corner of the little open space, his back to the wall, staring at nothing in front of him. She could tell from the look of him, that he was extremely upset. But her young mind could not comprehend where exactly the source of his ire was coming from. He looked up at her, his brown eyes taking her in at a glance, as she came into the tower.
“I let you down, Jo,” he muttered miserably. Jo. He only called her that after the three of them were yelled at or hit with a switch by her parents.
It occurred to her for the first time that maybe he was mad at her for some reason. Had she distracted him in some way?
“How did you let me down?” she asked.
He ran a hand through his blonde hair. “I wanted to impress you and I made a fool out of myself in front of the king. More importantly, I made a fool out of myself in front of you.”
“Why?” she asked perplexed.
He smiled. That was the first time Joleen Zelonis felt their age gap, and felt strangely inadequate to be having a conversation with him. He was five years older than her. She had never paid it any mind, but now she could feel the vast difference, and it was as deep as any chasm.
“Why, what?” he asked. “Why was I trying to impress you, or why did I make a fool out of myself?”
Brushing strands of hair out of her face, she remained silent, not sure what to say to the hurt young man before her. He smiled up at her in their awkward silence, and for a moment he was her young friend of eleven years again.
At that moment, they could hear Addigo climbing the stairs to where they were. He still had a towel in his hand and he was drying his dark brown hair when he arrived. He smiled innocently at the both of them and sat across from her, next to his brother. They stood in silence for a few moments. The tension in the air was not noticeable to Addigo, and then he broke out with laughter.
“Don’t you want to know what the king had to say about us?” He slapped his knee and then pulled out a jug of clean, cold water. He took a mighty swig, part of the liquid spilling down his throat and underneath his shirt, and then handed it over to Johannassen.
“What did the king say?” asked Joleen to change the subject.
Addigo looked at them both in turn. “The king says that Johannassen and I will lead his armies one day. He says we have the most potential out of anyone he has ever had the privilege of training!”
Addigo’s elation was contagious and then the three were laughing. Johannassen smiled and all the tension inside of him seemed to flow out of him like water into the ocean. Joleen found the laughter exhilarating but could not shake the look of shame in Johannassen’s eyes from her mind.
In the years to follow, Johannassen would get increasingly more aware of his shame. At times, that shame would threaten to overwhelm him, bringing him to tears. His shame came from some deep, hidden source that could never be reached. It would instill in him a drive that would make him the greatest Lord-General in The Valley of Life. His studies in the art of warfare would make him read books of other nations, to go beyond the xenophobic ideals of his own people and make him aware of others before him, not a part of his country’s long history. His drive and love of warfare would take him to lands beyond the castle walls, to places only read about in the books he leafed through. This research would make him the single most experimental general in the tactics of war unlike anything ever seen before.
Joleen would never find out the source of his unhappiness until much later, when events took their lives beyond their control. There would develop in him an iciness that none could penetrate. The shame would work like a blanket on his soul. It would drive the cold away, but in return, it would keep any warmth out, as well. Many would come to know the future Lord-General as an arrogant man who only looked after himself, a man who only wanted for his country what was best for him.
Whatever the source of his shame, it would shadow his life from that moment in the tower alone with Joleen Zelonis, through the mandatory exile of his own brother, and eventually to the downfall of the City he was sworn to protect.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III