There are some things people want simply because they can't have it.
An unusual thought. Yet true, perhaps, if one would think of it. King Jordan probably knows that himself, and I bet'cha a dime or more that he'd give a hearty, deep-from-the-belly laugh at that. He would probably laugh too if I said he was doing it solely to prevent his kingdom from experiencing utter boredom. King Jordan would deny it of course, but what he'd be truly laughing at was how true that fact was.
If only Stefán could understand how completely taken he'd been by an escape. Stefán was my brother, of sorts -- not really my brother, but a brother just the same; he was a brother in a legal sense. He was also one of the more hard-headed thrill-seekers in the kingdom. Julia, Stefán's sister, my sister of sorts, tended to agree with my viewpoint on Stefán. If it wasn't for people like Stefán, the kingdom wouldn't have been so easily salvaged. So perhaps it is for the better.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Henry Richards III, a native to Rollingsland, until my country was conquered by the Eruthians of this kingdom. Presently I am a blacksmith. I am headed into town on business. Ironically, I go on foot to get my orders for horseshoes. I watch in envy as the rich lords and ladies of the land go on horseback, and by carriage. However, I do not complain. I enjoy the surrounding countryside, the clean air, and the fact that I am still alive. Sometimes, one does not think of oneself as properly lucky, or properly fortunate, unless one thinks of what one could be. Then, one feels like the most fortunate man in the world.
* * *
The Westryns (Stefán and Julia) took me in on a rather fortunate piece of luck after my country had been conquered. Stefán was in the army, and Julia was accompanying him during the invasion. She carried out several non-combative duties. I was at my home in the village, then employed as a local scholar. I had not been called to serve for Rollingsland's army. The Eruthians were winning this battle. (They eventually won the war.) It was Stefán who broke my door down during the battle.
"Come with me, ruffian!" were his first words. Appropriate words, since we were enemies. But I did not find them so pleasing, considering that I was a civilian of my country, and I had nothing to do with this silly conflict. I opposed the very idea of violence in the first place.
I looked up from my books. Stefán, seeing that I was no real threat to him, and probably trying to ignore the fact that my village was under siege, seemed slightly taken aback. Some of his fellow countrymen appeared after him, and Stefán put an abrupt end to that.
He'd already burst my lock, and slammed the door backwards so it struck the wall at the end of its arc, bouncing off it in a very yielding series of miniature shock waves. Stefán kicked over a table, and broke some rather fine furniture. Then, he approached me with his rather stocky gait. Stefán determinedly pinned my book to the table, his otherwise clean sword piercing through undiscovered knowledge.
In delight of his fellow soldiers' approval, he gave me a broad, showy grin, "So, do you give up yet, or must you fight, if only to die a slow and miserable death?"
This is how I met Stefán.
* * *
Giving him a stern look, I threw up my hands, "I surrender. What am I to say? Are you really going to kill a man in cold blood, one that does not even fight back?"
There was a hearty laugh from the Eruthian countrymen. Stefán acted shocked, obviously amused at my words. "Well, maybe I ought to kill him just for his smart mouth. We can't have our prisoners telling all the other ones the theories of the stars, now can we?" More laughs. I suspected this was not a violent situation; however, I kept my breath just in case the braggart tried something stupid.
"Well," he repeated, going into what passes for deep thought on his part, taking his sword and dancing about my home, destroying a chair here, slicing a book there, "Maybe I ought to kill him, just to kill him. What do you think, fellow soldiers? Is dying for one's country not the noblest means of death, even for such a ..." Stefán ripped my map in two with his yet clean sword, "scholar such as yourself?"
More chuckles, more cheers -- all a great encouragement for him, I was sure. One of the soldiers spoke up, "Maybe you ought to kill him just to kill, Stefán."
"Just to get some blood on your hands." another coolly interjected.
From this comment, and from my previous observations, I suspected there hadn't been much of a battle, and certainly not much blood spilled. But this soldier's suggestion had brought a definite challenge to the braggart, and in those passing moments, I was quite sure he would take them up on the offer.
"Well, I don't know, fellow gentlemen," he said, splintering my floor boards with his sword, "Perhaps we should be polite about it, for such a ... distinguished gentleman."
One of the soldiers was intent on riling him up, "We have no white gloves for you to don, Stefán!" More chuckles. Stefán was getting a wild grin on his face, mad with the thought he could kill me. Obviously, he'd never killed a man regardless of his claim. Outside, and within my home, there was silence.
Stefán grabbed me by the collar, "How," slamming me into a wall, "sir," he slammed me again, harder this time, "would you like to die?" There was an evil light in his eye that no man wants to see or hardly ever admits to seeing. But it was there, and I could do nothing else to do but stare at it and be penetrated by his foul breath, the rising dust from his Eruthian uniform, and the stank smell of sweat from a day's marching and anticipated combat. Perhaps his blood was running quite high.
"Tell, me, sir," he said, "do you really believe the rivers wander so? Perhaps we should take a better look at it. We can give you a nice grave there and it will be a handy location for all eternity." The Eruthians had invaded on the pretense of territorial disputes. The river did wander, and we took better records of it. They denied everything. I think they knew the truth, too. But the primary reason the Eruthians started a fight was because they wanted to fight. They desired to fight, to conquer, to express their aggression through warfare, and to gloat over our dead bodies. The usual medieval, macho, hard-headed things to pick a fight over: land, gold, and virgins.
Stefán brought the sword to my neck, his nose inches from my own. I didn't have time to think about it. In seconds, I feared I would be dead. "Tell me, sir," he growled, his eyes a fiery and determined blue, "What is the path of the river?"
"Stefán?" a woman's voice called, distant from beyond my door and somewhere in the village, "Stefán? Where are you?"
"Oh, Stefán!" a soldier gleefully cried, mocking him, "Your little sister wants to see if you actually have the guts to do it."
"You better do it right now, Stefán, because otherwise she probably won't let you," said another.
"That is your weakness, Stefán -- you can face a bear, but can you not submit to your family's will?" said yet another.
Stefán growled, loosening my grip with murderous eyes. Had she waited a half second longer, he'd have run his sword through my belly, just like that.
"Stefán!" Julia forcefully shouted, finding my door and peering in with an unease that betrayed her voice, "What in God's name are you doing?"
I truly believe she'd saved both our lives at that moment. And for that, I will always be indebted to her. Nothing else could have stopped him at that time and place. Oh, how did it all happen?
"You know it is a sin to murder!" she exclaimed.
* * *
The Westryns were actually among the noble families of the land, and Julia's influence had brought me from the dungeon that followed and certain death, to serve their family as a blacksmith. Being a blacksmith is hardly the occupation my abilities leant themselves to, but I gladly chose that to the alternatives.
The parents had little to do with me. I was well acquainted with them, but they never spoke beyond what the weather outside was like. That was fine with me. I often wondered what they thought of that awkward and unusual situation in Rollingsland, but I never brought it up.
I wasn't sure why they employed me as a blacksmith. They seemed to have the means to employ me in a better capacity. I asked them once. They vaguely explained of great debts they had, that they were not so rich, but were living in this fashion for only their blood. I had a hard time believing this, but what else was I to say? Despite the confrontation with Stefán, the Westryns had rescued me. The least I could do was to not pry, and to attempt to pay them back the tremendous debt I owed.
I was puzzled about how this all happened. I knew Julia had pulled a lot of strings. My first thought was that she was quite taken by me, and because she had a voice of authority, the law went the way she did. Julia Westryn was friends with many people in high places, including King Jordan and Queen Mary Beth.
However, I now know that it was simply Julia's belief in humanity's cause that had saved me. She explained that she wished merely to stop more blood from being shed. I had no reason not to believe her.
Truly, I miss Rollingsland as it was. But in some respects, I am still a citizen there, since it now exists as a part of Eruthia. Life is much different now, as I am no longer an influential person but a peon. I am glad to be alive. I am not one to complain, as it is better to live as a peon than to die as a scholar. I still have control over what my life shall become.
I am friends with Stefán Westryn, in a flimsy sort of way. I never trusted him after that eventful first encounter, and never really liked him. I thought he was too boastful for his own good and he would never amount to anything. However, he had a backwards sort of charm that he must have acquired from his family. Julia had this quality also, in even greater amounts.
As a friend, Stefán was easy to talk to, and a good companion. He was a somewhat clever fellow, who never quite realized his cleverness. It seems a shame to me, because if you never realize such things on your own, you'll probably never learn. If you never learn to be clever, you will never be clever.
Julia was very kind to me. She protected me often. It felt like she was personally invested in me the day we met -- her at the doorway, and Stefán holding me in a death grip. She was truly clever, even though she went about the usual duties of noble lady, none of which included scholarship. She claimed to have studied in her spare time. I wasn't sure if I believed her. One day, I asked her if we could go over a lesson together, but she declined. She said she couldn't possibly understand the things I studied. There was no convincing her otherwise.
Stefán was of average height; stocky, yet not short. He sported short blond hair, and a rugged-looking face with streaks that seemed willing to do nearly anything. However, I know better. He enjoyed fencing, archery, jousting, hunting, and the like. Stefán was not a lady's man: too aggressive for his own good, not much of a friend or a scholar, yet he still had a boyish charm that kept him from being lonely. He frequently courted women -- usually to no end. The first few times he met anyone, he was invariably slapped and told in seventeen different languages what a pig he was.
Indeed, he could somehow identify with people that neither Julia nor I could. He had a knack for keeping a person there, and though one might often get annoyed with him, he ultimately remained in their good favor.
Julia had long, dark hair, a thin, somehow wispy face, and a very beautiful smile. I was never sure what to feel about her, as she was a woman who saved my life. She attracted me, and yet she didn't. She fostered only an understanding, unsaid kind of a friendship. I really hadn't thought of courting her until I began seeing the same man, appearing on numerous occasions. This brought up many feelings I hadn't known I had -- and questions. Until then, I paid little attention to whom she courted. Then, one day, she brought it up.
* * *
I arrived at my quarters in the castle after working late. I was fiddling with the door, feeling incredibly anxious for no reason at all, when I heard footsteps down the hall. Julia was approaching. Instead of going in, I waited for her. I watched her practically dancing on air, a broad smile on her face, a light in her eye.
I suppose I already knew she was in love, but this ...
"Oh, brother, brother Henry III!" she cried, throwing her arms about me, nearly taking me off my feet as she swung through the air, "Oh, it is so wonderful! I must tell you at once!"
So, she told me. Well, she was going to tell me, anyway.
She paused, loosening her grip and turning earthbound. I was going a bit earthbound myself, as I never remembered a time she'd embraced me. It felt so wonderful. Her gentle touch, her sweet perfume, and her warm, trembling body seeking out mine in a moment of ecstasy. But it was not me. I could instinctively tell it. "Henry, where is Stefán? He must be here for this special moment as well!"
"He is probably sleeping, sister. It is not a waking hour, you know." I reminded her. Why did I call her my sister? She was not my sister. She had not called me a brother since long ago when I first became a blacksmith and the Westryn family had taken me in. Why this charade? Why had I never brought it up? Perhaps I already knew: to her I was but a brother .
She turned and ran down the hall to Stefán's quarters. I followed.
"Stefán!" Julia shouted, jubilantly, "Wake up! I have wonderful news for you!"
* * *
Many years later, I still found myself their friend.
"Of course!" Stefán cried, "You mean a great deal to us! Why, a friend of the family for years! You must experience an escape from reality!"
"Tell him, Julia, tell him how much he means to us, and to all of Eruthia, to deserve such an honor."
Julia took my hand. It was the first time in years since she'd married the magician that Julia had touched me. She smiled, her eyes pressing into mine, as though she hadn't been married. Was it the first time I genuinely believed this? Well, maybe. No, not completely.
For that reason, Julia, and all of the Westryns still seemed quite the mystery to me. I'd often thought that they kept me only because they needed me for some reason. Anyone can make a horseshoe. Yet, moments like this one made me think I enjoyed a real friendship with Stefán, or that Julia and I would be lovers. But she was married now, so it was odd to think of her like that. Stefán did seem like a real friend to me. I knew all of his faults so he didn't seem so macho and boastful but rather, trusting and vulnerable.
Please, God, don't tell her what I'm feeling right now! 'Tis a sin to covet, is it not?
Looking in her eyes, at the magician husband at her side, thinking of the escape Stefán loved so, I suddenly felt incredibly used. I never meant anything to Julia, but a laugh of a gesture you kept around to make you feel good. A nobleman and his wife who had only brought you out of a dungeon to live an inferior, menial occupation of the conquered; and their son, whose dire wish even to this day was to kill his first intended blood.
It was times like these you wished for an escape from reality; an escape to take you away from all the mistrust you felt. A little white magic could help a guy, and maybe even see the stars firsthand, as well.
Julia's husband had said he learned such an escape from the Egyptians.
How could one leave on such an escape?
Is it a spell concocted from one of the magician's black magic spell books? Maybe he found a spell that could sap a man's strength to send another to the stars. It was an idle kingdom, full of misplaced aggression. Every stone had been turned, all visible doors unlocked.
Except perhaps for answers that lie within the hearts of the Westryn family, that had come to mean a lot to me. Was it true? Had I been used all this time? Had they only kept me around for fun? Was I nothing to them? Was I just supposed to be? Was there some flicker of real friendship, of honest feelings, perhaps some guilt for what had really happened?
I didn't know if I could bring myself to answer those questions. I'm not sure I wanted to know.
"Just think, Henry," Stefán said, "it is the last great unknown, the last frontier. You have a far better chance of understanding it than I ever will. And though I can wallop you in a game of archery, I envy you for your skills."
"I will remember you," Julia told me.
"But will you?" I asked.
Julia blinked, startled, her face gone cold and blank.
Did I say that? Aloud?
Stefán put his hand on my back, peering into my eyes, a concerned look that searches for signs of illness. I felt so naïve.
I'll understand stars more than people any day. I'll take that escape to the stars and thrive for the short time at the inanimate nature of God's black and yawning sky. But then I will learn what a thousand scholarly books, or a thousand years of scholarly research could never tell me, in this escape.
I'll learn that the living must remain living, and continually deal with and forgive the sins of those living. Even most scholars know when to set a book down and seek one's family, or the company of a friend or lover.
That's me -- a scholarly rock.
Article © Kim Burkhalter. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-02-05
Image(s) are public domain.