Five years had passed since Alexander was brought to Monastery and met Jonah Remington. He was a skinny young man of seventeen years and had been training as hard as he could to join the ranks of the Elite L13. Throughout this time, he continued to idolize Jonah, but the bane of his existence was Rowan – the hardened and militaristic man who trained the potential knights to fight. Rowan showed no favor towards anyone and always pushed his trainees harder than they thought they could handle. Still, he got results and there was no denying he was an effective leader. Alexander loved to hate the man, always grumbling under his breath that he was doing the best he could even as Rowan railed at him to do better. In truth, Rowan made Alexander feel like a complete failure.
This bright spring morning began as every other with an early morning bugle call to wake the trainees to go to breakfast. As usual, Alexander sat alone with his food. He was smaller and slower than the rest so they never accepted him as one of their own; as a future brother of the L13. Alexander ate quickly and left the dining hall before everyone else. He made his way out to the courtyard where a lone, massive oak tree grew in the exact center. Its long branches reached out and up toward the heavens, shading the entire yard. Heading straight for the tree, Alexander knelt before it and lowered his head and spoke to the tree reverently, as he had done everyday since his training began, “Would that I could be as resilient and tall as you, that my body grow strong. Wound that my arms be as your branches that dominate everything around you. My roots have been cut yet my limbs still try to reach ever higher. I may never be the warrior Jonah Remington is, but I will die trying.”
Alexander’s prayer was interrupted by a booming voice calling from the training yard, “RECRUITS! ASSEMBLE!” He scrambled up and ran to the training yard to join the rest of his comrades only to find that he was late, yet again, and the rest of the recruits were already standing at attention in formation.
“ALEXANDER!” Rowan yelled at him, “What are the three stones that build our foundation?”
“Strength, Honor, and Integrity, Sir!” Alexander barked in response.
“And how do we define Integrity?”
Again, the question was directed toward him and he answered, “The quality of being honest and fair – the state of being complete or whole, Sir!”
Rowan paced in front of the assembled trainees and asked, “How does showing up late for training show integrity?”
Alexander’s face burned as he heard the quiet laughter of his comrades and felt the humiliation rise. “I am sorry, Sir!” he stated.
“The next time you are late, Recruit, you will be tossed from the program. Am I clear?!” Rowan glared at the boy.
“Good. Now begin,” he directed towards the recruits. “Swords at the ready! Close Guard!” Rowan turned and watched as the recruits held their wooden swords close to their hips with knees bent. This defensive posture the recruits learned was used to protect the hips and waist while still giving the opportunity to deliver debilitating thrusts to an opponent.
They spent the rest of the morning practicing defensive postures of varying degrees until the sun was high in the sky. The repetition forced their muscles to remember the forms before their minds could think what should happen next. By early afternoon, the recruits were sweaty and sore from the training and were grateful for a break when Remington strode out to the training yard, pulling Rowan aside. Alexander watched his hero talk to the man who made him feel so small and just knew he was the topic of discussion. His failures were always the topic of some discussion or another. Sipping his water, he looked toward his tree, seeing the tall branches swaying in the light breeze from across the battlements and longed to be sitting beneath its soothing shade.
Later that night, after the recruits ate dinner and the sun was beginning to set, Alexander went back to that tree, his tree and sat beneath it. The day had been difficult, full of hard training and ridicule by his fellow recruits so he craved the solitude and comfort the great oak provided. He leaned his head back against the rough bark and looked up, watching the leaves flutter in the light breeze and allowing his mind to let go of the day’s events. It was that moment of peace that allowed his other senses to take over. Suddenly, he felt the prickle of unease creep up the back of his neck, a feeling he recognized immediately as that of impending danger, causing him to stand up quickly.
Looking around, Alexander saw Rowan walking through the gardens. He shook his head, angry at the intrusion, and prepared to sit down again when he glimpsed a shadowed and hooded figure in a dark cloak following Rowan. Alexander squinted his eyes in the failing sunlight and caught a flash of light as the last remnants of the day glinted off a dagger. Panic flooded him as past memories swirled around inside him. “No man deserves to die by a blade in the back, no matter what kind of man he is,” his inner voice whispered.
Alexander glimpsed at his empty hands, wishing he had even his practice sword readily available as he stepped into the path of the assassin, moving between him and Rowan. “You have failed in your task. Throw your weapon aside and surrender to us,” he said in a clear yet shaky voice.
Rowan turned in surprise, just in time to see the assassin jump at Alexander, who tried to fight back with his fists, and push him back against the oak. “Stop!” Rowan yelled, pulling his sword from its scabbard and moving to intercept the assassin’s blade, but it was too late. Alexander’s eyes opened wide in pain and shock as his life force poured freely from the open gash along his neck. His face grew increasingly pale as he slowly slid down the rough bark; his blood draining from his body and gasping for the air that would not come. His last sight was of Rowan leaping towards his killer. As blackness began overtaking his vision, Alexander saw Ruben and Miranda smiling at him from behind the battling Rowan and Assassin.
Rowan’s blade easily found its mark pushing through the assassin’s defenses, killing him instantly with a well placed thrust to the heart. The attack and assassin’s defeat was over in a matter of seconds. Rowan used the tip of his sword to throw back the hood of his would be killer. It revealed the blank stare of his prized student, Duskin. Rowan glared at the body in surprise and disgust before clenching his teeth and moving to Alexander. He shook his head sadly and looked down upon Alexander’s body, regret in his eyes at the loss and misjudgement of the bravery residing in one so young.
The next morning, he gathered the recruits under the tree. They all stared in surprise at the dried blood that coated the grass and exposed roots of the Great Oak and looked around to see if any among them was missing. When they found Duskin was not with them, they met each other’s eyes in shock, all assuming the blood at the base of the tree belonged to him. It never occurred to them that Alexander was not standing among them as well. They collectively turned their gazes to Rowan as he began to speak. His back was to them as he faced towards the tree with his hands clasped tightly behind his back –
Who among you is missing today? What face, who has never before failed to show up when asked, is not here? Do you notice the one face, or do you realize two are missing today? Are you surprised to see me alive?
Rowan turned to his students and looked into each recruit’s eyes individually as he gauged their reaction to revealing the previous night’s true events. –
You all thought that Duskin was the best. The best fighter, the best strategizer, the best friend. I thought these things too until he tried to put a sword in my back last night. In the darkest times, you can’t always rely on the strongest as they can be the first to fall, whether to treachery or through the focus of your enemy. Those who have lost everything, those whose lives are broken, those whose hearts beat the strongest, those who have the most to protect can have the greatest courage because they know what can be lost through cowardice. The smallest and weakest among us showed the greatest bravery of all through his sacrifice. We lost a great man yesterday, one whom we all misjudged in the worst way.
We all assumed Alexander was the weakest and the most cowardly among us, but it is his blood that stains the earth here. His blood that was spilled to protect one we all knew he despised. I treated him worse than any man should treat a fellow soldier, yet he used his last breath to protect me. If he could do this to guard one he hates, imagine what he could have become for those he loved. Had we treated him with the respect he deserved, then maybe the events of last night would have ended differently.
We all forgot how he came here and what he did to earn a spot with the L13 because we assumed. We assumed that he was lucky the day his family died, yet he survived. We assumed it was luck that killed the demon that attacked him. We assumed it was luck that saw him able to crawl a league through the forest before we found him. We assumed he was weak because he was small, but we were wrong. We were wrong to believe that mere luck followed this man on that fateful day. It was not luck. It was strength that no one could see and such bravery that no child should ever have to show. Take heed to his story. Let us use his strength as our strength. Let us use his bravery as our bravery so that no man, woman, or child should ever have to suffer again. Listen to his silenced wisdom that has come to us too late.”
Rowan’s voice trailed away leaving the recruits to stand and stare at the dried blood in stunned silence. More than a few tears trailed down their cheeks as they realized, too late, their mistake. No one could take their eyes off the blood as they relived each time they knocked Alexander into a wall, threw his food to the floor, and remembered all the hateful things they said to him. All thoughts whisked away as the dried blood begin to glow faintly. It seemed to be a trick of the light at first, but the golden glow became brighter while the blood seeped into the ground. The tree shivered as though new life had entered it and the trunk began to shimmer with golden sparks that flew up to its highest branches. Then, a gentle breeze ruffled the leaves and those gathered could feel Alexander standing beside each and every one of them, forgiving them. They could hear his words whispering within their minds, “Fight for this world as I wanted to. Learn from your teachers and know that strength of heart, strength of mind, and strength of soul is just as powerful as any weapon.” As his voice faded, each recruit stood taller, determination to protect flooding through them.
The Tree never glowed again, but from that day forward, whenever students and teachers within Monastery would sit beneath the tree and close their eyes to its shade, they could hear a whispering inside them. The whispered words spoke of endurance and wisdom, filling their hearts and minds with the courage to fight for their broken world.
On battlefields, it was not uncommon to see an L13 Knight close his eyes during a brief respite to recall the words of strength felt beneath the Lamenting Tree. It was the inner strength that no one could understand but it was the L13 Knights who needed it the most.
Written By: Joni Graham and Jenni Chan – Artwork By: Savoula Tsoraklidis and Patryk Kowalik