A Chance to Prove Myself
"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,"-Sir Winston Churchill
"He is the most likely to succeed in his event, and the best equipped for what may follow."
Julius' words pleased me and brought a smile to my face; my name was about to be announced. After all, I had trained hard in running long distances and had more than proved myself to be the best at what I do. Very soon I knew, Julius would announce me as the third member of our contingent for the games being held in the land of the Germans, and I, along with my cousin Will and our friend Beanpole who had just been named for the mission, would be leaving to infiltrate the city of the masters. I leaned back in my seat, grinned at my fellow training members, and licked my lips in anticipation as Julius continued. Soon I would have my chance to do my part in the fight against the Tripods.
"Fritz Eger-do you accept?"
A short while later I laid down on top of my bunk and closed my eyes as I tried to think about what I could do next as a response to Julius' decision. My bunk is located in a side tunnel that had been bored into the rock of the mountain during the glory days of the Ancients. No one here really knows why the Ancients carved into the rock but some of the more learned men here, Beanpole among them, believe that the tunnels were built to ferry passengers and goods across the mountain range. Beanpole believes that this served as a mountain-top Shmand-Fair, much like the one that we traveled on when Will and I first met him.
I had begun to think of what to say to Julius when I heard someone sit down on the bunk next to mine. There are 24 of us in this section and I knew exactly who it was that sat down because his bunk is right next to mine.
"Henry, are you alright?" asked Will in a hushed voice.
I didn't feel like responding to him or to anyone else for that matter. I had important things to think about.
A few moments passed and then Will spoke again, "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," I said and rolled over, putting my back to him.
"Are you sure?"
A moment later I heard him stand up and walk off toward the main tunnel. I had a brief feeling of satisfaction at getting Will to leave but it was fleeting. I began to feel guilty over my rejection of his concern. After all, he had sounded sincere in his regard for me and why shouldn't he? We are cousins and more than that, friends...best friends. However, there was a time when that wasn't so. I closed my eyes and turned my thoughts back to the events leading up to my arrival in the mountains.
Growing up in Wherton-
Up until I was 13, I lived in a small village called Wherton. The village is both small in terms of size and population with just over 400 inhabitants and is dwarfed by the nearest sizable town of Winchester which is many times the size of Wherton and has over thirty thousand people. Wherton is so small that everyone knows everyone and everyone's business. Additionally many people are related to one another. Not too many people marry people from outside the local area.
One of those people who I happen to be related to is my cousin Will Parker who I have already mentioned. I also mentioned that he and I weren't always friends. Actually we we're the exact opposite of friends. We were enemies and had been since we had learned to walk.
Looking back, it is odd that we started off so poorly with one another. Our mothers are sisters, interestingly enough both of our fathers have the same last name but are unrelated, and we were born three months apart and were raised side by side. What should have been from the outset a great friendship turned instead to bitter dislike. We never got along, always took toys from one another, and generally found the other to be in our way.
I admit it (to myself) I was initially jealous of Will, his father owned the town mill and thus his family was considerably more well-to-do than mine, but in my own defense Will wasn't exactly the easiest person to get along with. He always seemed impulsive, thoughtless, hardheaded, and sometimes rash. He also came across as acting like he was better than me. He had ignored my small peace offerings and instead focused his attention on his cousin Jack Leeper. Jack was his cousin from his father's side and was in no way related to me. The two would spend all of their time together, that is until Jack was capped.
My home life wasn't that great either. It wasn't bad but it could have been better. My mother, God rest her soul, died when I was thirteen. She was sick a lot and my father could be best described as distant. I, like Will and Beanpole, was an only child and was expected to be like my father and become a laborer which isn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to do more with my life than just performing manual labor in Wherton, unfortunately at that time I had no idea what it was that I wanted to do.
Everything changed for me right after my mother passed away. My father arranged to have my aunt and uncle take me in. He told me it was because he was too busy with work to properly raise a boy but I knew better: That was his way of saying that he viewed me as a hindrance to his life and his work. He never said that to me but I knew it from the gulf that separated the two of us.
Living with Will was not something that I agreed with and I can say the feeling was mutual. I was given a portion of his room by my aunt and I could tell from the look on his face and the tone of his voice that he was as annoyed by the decision as I was. We hardly spoke and came close to fighting more than once.
In the past we had fought several times and all but once I was the victor. He is shorter and lighter than I and so I had the advantage. However he had his cousin Jack who gave him some pointers on how to fight and once, only once, did he beat me. After he had managed to best me he tried a repeat performance and ended up getting sent to the ground twice. His cockiness didn't pay off.
I had only been staying with Will and his parents a short time when I was awoken one night by the sound of him getting dressed and going out the door. He had tried to be quiet about it, but his fumbling in the dark woke me and so I lay there quiet and still and watched as he made his way out. He had been acting strange for a few days and I had noticed that he was squirreling away things when he thought I wasn't around. It had occurred to me the day before that he was planning to runaway and now my suspicions were being confirmed. I counted to 30, got out of bed, grabbed my clothes, and went after him.
Admittedly running away with the one person I couldn't stand was not my idea of fun but I had come to the realization that there was nothing left for me in Wherton. I had lost my mother, barely had a relationship with my father, had been cast off to live with relatives, and was stuck in a small town that most people didn't travel more than ten miles from during their entire lives. There had to be more for me out there than this, but what it was, I hadn't a clue.
If I wasn't too happy to be running away with Will, then the same could be said of him. He walked fast out of Wherton but I was faster. I confronted him about running away and he naturally denied it. He rejected my insistence to join him (no doubt due to his dislike for me) and this led into a one-sided scuffle in which I came out on top-literally. I straddled him and explained my reasons for wanting to join him. After a few quiet moments in which I am sure he debated the situation in his head he relented and allowed me to come along.
Because I had decided to follow him on such a short notice I had neglected to bring nothing with me but the clothes on my back. Will on the other hand had a pack with extra clothes, a blanket, and most important for any growing boy: food. I had to admit it: I was now subject to his mercies…but that wouldn't last for long.
I heard them before Will did: the sound of something approaching or rather somethings. I gave warning and the two of us hurried away from our pursuers. To me it sounded like men on horseback but as I looked back over my shoulder I found that I couldn't make out who was after us. The dark was obscuring whoever it was that was after us. Instantly I imagined that it must be Will's father and mine coming to get their runaway sons. We mustn't have been quiet enough when we left the house.
"Listen," I said.
"What is it now?" came Will's annoyed sounding reply.
"I think someone's coming after us."
"Run for it!" Will whispered urgently.
The two of us broke into a sprint with Will in the lead. Suddenly he yelped and went down in front of me.
"Where are you?" I asked, "Are you alright?"
Will groaned and I moved to his side and hunkered down next to him. I put my arms around him and tried to lift him but he groaned in agony.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
"My ankle…I think its broken," Will said as he cradled his lower leg, "You'd better go on. They'll be here any moment."
One might imagine that leaving him behind would have been my choice but despite how he and I felt about each other I couldn't just leave him. I didn't hate him that much.
Just then something bumped into me, something that had an animal smell. I slowly reached my hand behind and felt what had bumped me. I smiled and hoped Will couldn't make out my expression in the dark.
"I think they're here now," I said stifling a laugh.
"What…?" said Will as he reached his hand out and touched the woolly beast, "Sheep!"
The sheep he had touched bleated.
"I suppose they were curious," I said, "They do that sort of thing sometimes."
"You stupid fool!" Will said angrily, "You've had us running from a flock of sheep, and now look what's happened!"
I felt his ankle and guessed it wasn't a brake. It was probably a bad sprain then I stood, pet the sheep on the head, and retrieved my cousin from the ground.
I walked off with Will hanging onto me in a fireman's carry. We went for a few minutes until we came across a small abandoned hut where, exhausted, we laid on the floor and fell asleep. Before I went to sleep, I wound an arm through the straps of his pack to ensure that he hadn't faked his injury and decided to ditch me as I slept.
I awoke with Will still asleep and went off in search for food, but not before I emptied the pack and placed its contents on a small shelf. He too had wound an arm around though the straps of his pack but he slept so heavily that I had managed to take it from him. I returned with food and found Will glaring at me with a look on his face that was all anger. He questioned me as to why I had left and why I had left him with nothing. I told him that I went to get us more food and then I pointed out the food that I had left on the shelf. He honestly thought I was going to leave him there but then again, I couldn't blame him for thinking this way.
Looking back, I suppose that this was the turning point in our relationship. Although at this point we still weren't what one could consider friends, we were now bonded together in common cause. We had made a decision to escape capping and find freedom and so all we had was each other. That is until Beanpole came along.
His real name, as Will and I would later find out, is Jean-Paul but he has always been Beanpole to us. The first time I saw him was when he had come to mine and Will's rescue. He was tall and thin and had this…thing on his face. The thing was a metal frame that had two round glass pieces set into it that were in front of his eyes. One glass piece was slightly, but noticeably, bigger than the other which made him look cockeyed and somewhat bizarre. It is because of his height and overall appearance that I gave him the nickname Beanpole which he didn't seem to mind, I honestly think he views the nickname as a badge of honor. He was surprising to us in three ways: One. He let us out, Two. He spoke English, and Three. He accepted our invitation to come with us.
It turned out that he lived with his distant aunt and uncle and a much-liked cousin. He left the only family he had ever known, as his parents had died when he was very young, because of the growing fear of his impending capping. It's comforting to know that I wasn't the only one who was afraid of being capped. I knew Will was even though he hadn't at this point told me and I sure wasn't going to tell him about my fears.
Beanpole is truly a blessing. He spoke the native language, knew his way around, and had a sharp mind. His mind seems years ahead of mine and Will's. He thinks up clever ways to solve problems, is extremely practical, he picks up on things that Will and I miss, and to top it off; he makes things. Or rather he invents things as he like to put it. The thing on his face for example: he calls them lunettes which help him to see more clearly.
Since we arrived at the White Mountains, he has been hard at work with the men who call themselves scientists. These men are working on recreating the wonders of our ancestors. If anything is complex and difficult then he's there, right in the middle of things, doing his part to make things work.
Odd Man Out-
In the weeks following or meeting Beanpole, a curious thing began to happen between the three of us. At times two of us would associate more with one another at the exclusion of the third. At first it was Beanpole who, despite our interest in him, was the outsider. Gradually things shifted. All of a sudden I was the outsider and Will and Beanpole were the pair. I got a little annoyed at all of this.
I suddenly found myself as the least valuable member of our trio. Will had the map and compass, Beanpole has the smarts and knew the land, while I had…What did I have? I hadn't brought anything along with me like Will had, I couldn't act as a knowledgeable guide like Beanpole, I really had nothing to bring to the table. Now I was the biggest and strongest of the trio but there really wasn't any situation that called for muscles with the one exception where I carried Will when he hurt his ankle. So what exactly did I have to contribute?
The answer hit me after a few days. I had one thing that my traveling companions lacked: Common Sense. Will is, by nature, prone to his earlier mentioned hardheadedness and has a habit of thoughtlessly getting himself into a bind. He also wears his emotions on his sleeve. Beanpole on the other hand gets too preoccupied with thinking things out to the point where he forgets about everything else that is going on around him. While we were wandering the City of the Ancients he would have to stop and examine every single thing we came across. Will and I would have to practically force him away from whatever it was that fascinated him. I think that if it wasn't for our getting after him, we'd still be in the city.
And so it came down to me holding our trio together. I had to be the balance between these two, very different, people. Beanpole focused on the wonders of the past, Will on the hope for the future. Somebody had to worry about the present.
After our stay in the ruined city our trip hit a detour… a big detour. Will became sick, so sick that we couldn't travel. We took shelter but were later found by a party of the local nobility and taken to the Chateau de le Tour Rouge. According to Beanpole it means the Castle of the Red Tower due to the large, red tower that is part of it. We were placed with the sons of the knights and courtiers of the Comte de le Tour Rouge (he is the lord of the manor) while Will was put under the care of the Comtessa and her daughter in the nicer quarters of the chateau.
It was during this time that Beanpole and I formed a partnership and it was Will's turn to be the odd man out. Because of Will's delirium, no doubt brought on by his sickness, he had unintentionally blurted out the fact that he and I were not from France and spoke no French. Luckily the attitude toward runaways in this country is that they are just people seeking adventure and that is something to be respected. There is a great sense of honor here among these people. Feats of skill with swords, along with horsemanship, and hunting are what sets one apart from the rest. By being runaways we were seen with a certain level of honor that most other boys were not.
The major reason for the shift was the daughter of the Comte and Comtessa. Her name was Eloise and she was beautiful. She had a small, oval shaped face with gentle features, a small frame, and a manner about her that made everyone like her. She had a way about her that made you feel welcomed and, more than that, made you like her. I can see why Will fell for her. He's never admitted it to me but it is plainly obvious that during our time at the chateau that he developed feelings for her. Really I couldn't blame him. Beanpole was the one exception I think. When I asked him what he thought about Eloise he just shrugged and said something about how there was a girl back in his village. I tried asking him about her but he just changed the subject. I'm pretty sure he blushed though when he mentioned her.
There was one curious thing about Eloise though. She always wore a scarf over her head, I guess it's a fashion here for young girls, but I never did see her hair. Anyhow, she and Will spent a lot of time together. Beanpole and I would see her there when we visited him while he was still sick and we noticed that she was teaching him French. Beanpole was teaching me as well but Beanpole and I never went riding on horses, or had picnics, or walked through the gardens together in the evenings.
If I'm sounding jealous then you're mistaken. Well…not really. Okay I admit it: I was a little, and I mean a little, envious of my cousin. It was bad enough that he was living in luxury, and it was worse that a beautiful girl was paying attention to him, but word got around that the Comte was thinking of inviting him to become an official part of his household with the intention of making him his own son. No offense to Will but he really was nothing special. I mean all he did was get sick. That's really the only reason how he ended up in such good graces. Chances are that if I or Beanpole had been in his shoes the same thing would have happened to us. Still, I do envy him a little for his relationship with Eloise.
Something happened between Will and Eloise that brought him back to the trio. It happened during the Tournament. This was a multi-day celebration that was similar to a country fair. At the end of the Tournament a Tripod would come and cap the 14 year-olds... us included. Never mind that all three of us were still 13, it was expected that we would be capped along with the other children and then would live out our lives in servitude. This was something that did not go over well with Beanpole and I so we made a decision to leave.
We told Will our plans and he told us he was going to follow us after a few days. I didn't believe it. Not one bit. I knew why he wasn't planning on joining us. It was because of her and her father's offer of getting the King of the French to grant him nobility. The least thing he could have done was to see about getting Beanpole and I ennobled. As we left him in his fancy room, I purposely made a smart remark that was loud enough for him to hear: I said to Beanpole that things were better this way and that the Comte was bound to miss his adopted son.
As we left that night however, I had a feeling of guilt wash over me. I was leaving my cousin to be capped by the enemy. I should have just charged up to his room, knocked him out, and dragged him with us. We may not have been friends at that time but he was still my cousin and I didn't like the fact that he had chosen to stay. Not going after him was something I regretted.
I regretted it until a day and a half later when Will came riding up to us on the back of one of the Comte's horses. He acted like he had planned to join us all along but there was something in his eyes that belied his story. He looked sad, as if someone had hurt him, but he didn't speak of it. Instead he once again became part of the trio. My guess is that he must've told her his feelings for him and that she rejected him by saying that she just wanted to be friends or that she was promised to a prominent nobleman. I'm thinking it is the latter. I could tell from watching the two of them that they really liked one another and that, if given time, they would have grown to love each other. She must've had to fulfill her noble duty and been forced to reject him. I actually felt sorry for him then…but I didn't tell him.
Three against a Tripod-
It had been following us for days. The Tripod from the chateau, we were pretty sure it was the same one that had shown up for the Tournament, would always be off in the distance, just far away enough to make us think that it wasn't after us but something in my gut told me we were being followed. It wasn't until after a few days that we came to this realization. Now the question had become: how is it following us?
The answer came when Beanpole and I noticed that the underarm of Will's shirt was cut and the area of his skin there had a reddish tinge. We soon discovered to our horror that a small piece of metal the size of a button, the same as the metal of the caps, had been melded into Will's flesh. It was somehow following us through Will! We had to make a decision: either continue on and let it follow us or we could leave Will to the Tripod. I was leaning toward leaving him (I think he'd have thought the same thing if our roles were reversed) but Beanpole had other plans.
Beanpole cut the metal button out of Will's armpit while I held him down. It wasn't pretty and it made me nauseated, but we got it out. Will crawled off to be sick while Beanpole held the bloody thing in his hands in fascination. I know he wanted to take it and examine it but my common sense trumped that idea. We left it there in the woods where we had hid and moved on.
The Tripod was not to be deterred however. It caught up to us and we soon found ourselves trapped inside a hedgerow while it yanked the hedges up as it searched for us. I figured we were done for. It was going down the hedgerow in our direction and would shortly be upon us. We could've made a run for it: one boy in a different direction with the hope that at least one of us would make it but then Beanpole's brain kicked in.
"We can fight it," he said calmly.
"What with?" I said as I brought my hand to my face in disgust, "Our fists?"
Will too made a smart remark, but Beanpole had an idea. While we were in the tunnels of the underground city we had discovered a bunch of iron eggs with rings attached. If one pulled the ring from the egg it would explode. We found this out the hard way and almost went out with a bang. It seemed as if our ancestors used the eggs to fight so now we were going to fight.
Beanpole had four with him that he had brought from the city. I had had some of my own but had left them behind as they were heavy and took up space. Now Beanpole took two, he needed them because he throws about as well as a person with a broken arm, while Will and I got one apiece. We rushed out of the hedges and separated and took up places where we could attack the Tripod from different directions. I figured I wasn't going to make it out alive as the odds were completely against us but I decided that if I was going down I'd was going down fighting.
Beanpole's first throw landed nowhere near the Tripod and it responded by coming at him. I threw my egg to take the attention from Beanpole. It hit the ground, bounced up and hit the Tripod on the lower leg, it exploded but did nothing but scuff up the metal. I turned and ran. Beanpole threw his second and it just missed its target. Now the Tripod focused on Will.
It was all up to Will. He was readying his egg when all of a sudden one of the Tripod's tentacles wrapped itself around him and raised him up toward its head. I saw an opening form on the underside and watched in horror as he was drawn to it. Somehow he managed to throw his egg into the opening. The egg exploded and the next thing I knew Will was riding the unfurling tentacle down to the ground. It stopped a foot from the ground. He stepped away from the tentacle on unsteady feet and then gazed up at the unmoving colosus. Will had destroyed the Tripod.
Afterward we had to hide as more Tripods came and scoured the area for us. They were there for a day and a half as they swept the area. At night they shone lights down at the ground but we stayed out of sight under a large boulder that had enough of a short overhang to hide us. After an agonizingly long period of time they left and we came out. We had one other run in with two Tripods before we reached the mountains. They paid us no attention for they were too preoccupied by moving a glowing, golden sphere between them. We had no idea why they were doing this. Soon afterward we reached the White Mountains and were welcomed into the resistance.
My talk with Julius-
"I still don't see why there can't be four of us for the mission sir," I said to Julius. I had finally gotten through my reminiscing of my journey and had left my bunk to speak with our leader.
Julius is the leader of the freemen. He is in his late sixties and walks with a limp that was caused by an injury to his thigh that he had suffered in his youth. He is a very calm man and very intelligent. He thinks in the long term and sees more than we boys do.
"Henry," I know that you want to go with your friends, after all you, Will, and Jean-Paul have been together since you made the decision to join us and I imagine that you feel disappointment at not being chosen and possibly even a little resentment at Fritz for being chosen instead, but a decision has been made by the council," he paused and smiled warmly. He knew how I was feeling about the council's decision but something told me that he had other plans for me, "A general never uses his best troops over and over. You are the best runner but you may not have that much success at the Games. Your friends might not make it into the city either and sending more than three would create too much suspicion, but your time will come."
"My time will come?"
What exactly did that mean? "I'm not sure I understand…"
"It means that there will be other, equally important tasks for you in the future Henry," he stood and came to my side and patted my shoulder, "Not today, not tomorrow, but soon you will be called upon to do your part."
As I left Julius' quarters I could scarcely begin to imagine what was going to be in store for me.
Will and I-
The day after I spoke with Julius I stopped by the gallery and looked out of the large widows to the mountain tops and the valley below. One had to wonder why such a place had been built so high up. Will had told me that he thought it was the palace of a king but the name of the place gave us the answer: Hotel Jungfraujoch. Over a century ago men had built this place atop the roof of the world as an accommodation to travelers that used the mountain-top Shmand-Fair. The room in which I stood seemed to be an area where the hotel's guests could view the landscape below.
As I stared out at the snow covered peaks and the tiny pinpricks below that were cattle, I heard the sound of footsteps. I turned my head and saw my cousin who came to my side and looked out at the scene below.
"If you want me to go…" he said with a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
"No," I said and shrugged, "It doesn't matter."
I could tell from his voice that he was sincere and also bothered by my predicament. I gave him a reassuring grin of self-depreciation, "Not as sorry as I am."
He went on to tell me that he had gone to Julius and pleaded his case to have me included in the mission and I replied that I had already talked to our leader.
We discussed Julius' reasoning for my being left out to which Will said, "Well you will have a chance next year."
"If there is a next year."
He knew what I meant. There would be a second expedition to the city if the first one failed.
Will became quiet as he let the possibility of failure sink in. If the mission did fail than this could very well be the last time he and I ever saw one another, Beanpole as well and also Fritz. I looked over to my cousin and saw that he was staring intently at the land below. I could tell from the look on his face that he was deep in thought. I could only imagine the things that were going through his head as his departure date neared.
"Everything will be alright Will," I said to him, "You'll make it."
He looked at me and smiled, "Thank you Henry."
I watched him as he left the gallery and then it struck me: In the course of the eight months since we had left home, Will and I had gone from the bitterest of enemies to the best of friends. The adversity that we shared, along with our best friend Beanpole, had forged a bond that would have been unthinkable back in Wherton. Funny how things work out.
They left two days later. I didn't see them off. I was still down in the dumps about not being able to go with them and pride got the better of me. In retrospect, I should have seen them off but I knew that they would understand why I wasn't there when they left. The night before I had wished all of them good luck, even Fritz. The moody German gave a guttural thanks in English.
I am surprised at the similarities between English and German. I, like Will and Beanpole, had been learning German since we had arrived and I was amazed at how quickly I was picking it up. My one complaint is that it is a harsh sounding language which sounds vaguely sinister. A girl could tell you in German that she loves you and it would sound like she was saying she hated you. Anyway back to my friends.
Even though I wasn't with them when they left I watched them leave from afar. I followed their progress for a time from the gallery. I saw a crowd gather around them wishing them well as they set out on their journey and I watched then as they made the slow decent to the valley below,
"Godspeed you three," I said quietly and gave a half-hearted sigh, How I wish I could go with them.
"You wanted to see me sir?" I asked as I stepped into the council room.
Julius was there alone at the head of the council table, "I know my decision not to send you has troubled you Henry."
"I'm fine sir."
Julius smiled and I knew from the look on his face that he could see that I was still feeling dejected. Even though it had been a little over two weeks since the expedition set out I was still in the dumps about it.
"Remember when I told you that your time would come Henrich?" he asked using the German version of my name and smiling as he said it.
"Yes," could my opportunity to prove myself be coming? Was it my time?
"You have gained a fair grasp of German and given your travels from your home to here, I can tell that you are accustomed to travel," he paused and then continued, "I have a task for you."
"I am sending out scouts to search for new recruits to join the freemen…I want you to be one."
My eyes widened, "Me?"
He smiled, "It is your time Henry."
It seemed as if my fortunes had changed, I was going from being disappointed to having the opportunity that I so badly wanted. Now was my chance!
The following morning I sat in a chair while I had my hair cut short and then shaved down to the skin. The cut pieces of hair tickled my face and made me itch. The barber handed me a mirror. I took it and in its frame was a blue eyed boy, a bald blue eyed boy.
I felt my bare scalp and smiled, "I doesn't even look like me!"
"Wait until you put the cap on," said the barber, a man named Frederico who laughed, "You'll look even less like you!"
The following day the cap went on. It had been taken from a dead man and no longer worked. It would crown my skull and my hair would grow to mask the fact that I wasn't truly capped and as such, would given no commands.
A month, and a few inches of hair later, I left out with three others; another boy my age and two men in the early twenties; wolves in sheep's' clothing on a mission to find others like us who would challenge the Tripods dominion over Earth.
As I walked down to the valley below I held my head up high, pleased with the fact that I was doing my part. However, something told me that I would have an even greater part to play in the future, what that was I did not know but I knew in my heart that it would be something to do with defeating the Tripods and bringing freedom back to the world.