The Knight of the Golden Rose
The first time I saw him was when I burned the bread my father trusted me with, and I wanted to forget about my mother's disappointment and my brother's mockery.
He was wearing an oversized tunic and a couple of scrapes on his knees, really a scrawny little thing — I was surprised he could even hold up the sword. His cheeks still showed remnants of baby fat, somehow unmarred from the famine.
I didn't want to disturb that rhythmic swing, so I stared at him from a distance until the sun's rays no longer reached us. After he left, I ran my fingers through the neat grooves on the tree, in awe of how each precise stroke was able to reach its target.
After a couple of weeks, I approached him. He looked at me for a little bit before saying that his name was Anselm and that he was training under Sir Hector.
"Sir Hector? The one who my father always complained about?"
"He means well," he said simply.
I asked if I could play with the sword. He didn't let me.
"I'll keep watching you whether you like it or not," I said.
Anselm shrugged again and got back into his stance.
I eventually discovered a couple of things about him, even if he wasn't much a fan of talking. First, his parents were farmers. Second, he had nine siblings, all younger. Third, he was going to be the greatest knight in the world. When he said that, I was shocked. It was the most emotion he had ever displayed.
"What kind of knight would you like to be?"
"The most famous one, Lancelot." Anselm flashed a rare smile. His teeth were almost too big for his mouth, for he had yet to grow into them.
"But everyone says that. Wasn't the greatest knight actually his son, Galahad?"
"I don't want to be like Galahad. He was always everyone else's perfect little knight, but he never lived as himself."
"How do you know that? He might've been a prude by nature." I edged closer, hoping to get a better view of his youthful face furrowed in deep concentration.
"I want more than that. Maybe I'm just too worldly, but I think Lancelot was the one who took full advantage of his life. Even if it meant making mistakes." A loud thwack echoed from his blade meeting the trunk.
"I agree. You can't know what real love is like without messing it up." I twirled a leaf and blew it away.
Anselm stopped his swing. "I'm glad you get it."
"It's not all about the spiritual, right? I'll die when I feel like it!"
Anselm laughed. He laughed so hard he dropped his sword and plopped down next to me. I resisted the sudden urge to ruffle his tawny hair.
"You're a funny little kid," he said.
"I'm bigger than you," I held my hand flat on top of my head and moved it down to his in comparison.
"Not for long you're not. I'll hit my growth spurt any time now. Plus my dad's super tall."
He stood on his tiptoes and threw his arms up.
I giggled. "Fine. We'll see about that in a couple of years."
Anselm won the bet. Soon enough, his head shot way above mine, and his oversized tunic became comically small. I started noticing his broad chest and prominent muscles. His Adam's apple. A hushed, sonorous voice filled with gentleness without any hint of the pitchiness of youth.
"Will you leave this town?"
We sat in our usual positions in the forest by my house. Me lying in the willowy grass and him in the perfect battle-ready posture. By this time, Anselm had graduated to a much larger sword whose blows were almost enough to fell the tree.
"I don't know," he finally said. "Maybe one day."
"I will!" I jumped up. "I've been talking to Lawrence. You know Brother Lawrence from the monastery? He says magic still exists, and we just have to find it outside of here."
"I believe it. Everyone around here is obsessed with farming."
"Will you help me then?" I grabbed his hands. "I don't want to be a farmer! Let's go on a quest together! You'll be Lancelot, and I'll be the Lady of the Lake!"
Anselm patted my head. "You're getting a little ahead of yourself. Where would we go? What would we do? Lawrence never said where the magic was, did he?"
"We'll find it if we're the heroes of the story."
"We might not be," Anselm said with a frown.
"I'll make it so that we are!" I twirled around, letting the hems of my dress fly out.
"You should head home now. It's dark. Here, I'll come with you." He took a step forward.
"I thought you'd understand..." I said sadly.
"I do, I promise," Anselm said while holding out his hand. "Let's go."
When I told my mother my plans, she said I was sure to die. She told me to think about how much she had done for me, and how absurd it was that I would throw it all away. For some stupid stories?
I know she loved those stories as much as me. The only difference was that she didn't think Camelot was ever real. Or maybe I never talked to her enough to know whether she ever thought Camelot was real.
I don't remember the last time I saw my mother happy. When I was little, she used to sing songs while she worked, but she stopped after we buried my little brother. Gone in twenty days after she named him. I didn't see her shed a single tear.
"For you, a nice husband," she always said after that.
A nice little family and a nice little house. It's not like she hated my father. She was always quite pleased with him. But never anything more. He never sought her out except when he needed her help. He never went so far as to love her, but he liked her well enough, which was really all you could ask for. She was a good wife; she did as she was told, and we were a respected family. It wasn't a bad life, but I was stupid and hated listening to those who wanted the best for me.
"Sleep on it," my mother finally said. "You'll understand soon enough."
But I knew that Anselm was the hero of the story. He proved me right the next time I went to the town square and five bodies instantly blocked my view. I could hardly see the houses and shops littered with cracks from the heat and lack of water.
There was shouting and cheering and jeering, and at the center of it all was Anselm, tall and handsome. He was flanked by his parents and siblings, the youngest of which were crying to go back inside.
"Hurry up with your announcement!" An angry fist waved in the air.
"Let us see the brooch closer!"
Anselm held up a golden rose. Even from a distance, I could see the cool metallic glint of the delicate engravings that surrounded the brilliant petals that shimmered under the blaze of the afternoon sun.
"This is my birthright. It was with me when my parents found me in the basket."
On his right, his mother said, "Almost two decades ago, a beautiful baby boy was entrusted to us. We have raised him as our own until now, but it is time to let him go."
A hazy cloud settled over all my memories with him. Here was a boy whose very birth I could not confirm. Did the Anselm in my mind bear any resemblance to the Anselm before me? I wiped the doubts from my mind. If the Anselm I knew was a plain but hardworking boy with big dreams, then how much more amazing could the real one be?
A tall and imposing figure stood up. It was the goldsmith. "The brooch is genuine. I verified it. Only a craftsman from the royal family could produce jewelry this beautiful."
The shock silenced the crowd. Then it erupted. The king's symbol! No one but the king's very closest could have a brooch of that quality! Royalty? In the backwaters of England? What other secrets did Anselm hold?
"My apologies for waiting this long to tell everyone."
His father stepped forward. "He wasn't ready before. But it's the right time now. Anselm has just completed his training."
"I will be going on a quest to find the king of England. I will find out my real identity and become his knight," Anselm declared with premature royal authority.
A real knight in my midst. I knew the legends were still alive. I let out a breath I didn't realize I had been holding.
I sat on a log braiding my hair until the crowd eventually lost their interest and dispersed for dinner. It was just Anselm and me and a dying sun retreating behind the horizon. We were bathed in a warm orange glow.
"I guess you are Lancelot after all," I said.
"I guess so," he murmured.
Anselm's face was long and dark. He looked at the ground, eyes half-closed with an emotion I didn't recognize..
"Aren't you excited?"
"I am. But it's a huge responsibility. To my family and the village."
"Now you can take me with you!" I jumped up and down, creating small dirt clouds above my feet.
"No, I cannot do that," he said solemnly.
My face fell. "Why not? A knight must have a lady to protect."
"It is my mission to undertake alone. A lady should wait back at the castle."
"I'll be a witch then! Not a princess!"
"Careful with those words now." Anselm smirked. With a wave of his hand, he turned and left.
With enough gossip, I was able to determine the knight-in-training's date of departure. No secrets lasted longer than a couple of months in this village where mouths were loose and midwives were bored.
To stay in the village was to stagnate; to go with Anselm was to discover the world, to live a life of excitement! Plus, it had to be him. For some inexplicable reason, I knew that Anselm was the partner I needed for this journey. Not Lawrence or any potential husband that my mother picked out. Anselm was the guiding star that would lead me to my destination, the one that shone brightest in the entire night sky.
At the crack of dawn, I parked myself at the first tree past the village entrance and waited. I packed a couple of my most favorite books (stolen from the monastery), a change of clothes, a leather flask, and a knife for emergencies. I watched the leaves sway and the honeybees buzz and the ants gather. The sun grew hot in the sky and wilted again as I reread the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere's forbidden love.
Finally, I heard the clop clop of a horse's hooves and the jingle jangle of a full saddle. A foreboding outline of a rider emerged. I darted out like a shadow.
"Take me with you!"
The glow of the full moon illuminated the ridges of Anselm's taut face. Fireflies blinked in and out of the black air. His eyes narrowed. "This will be extremely dangerous."
"I'm ready for it."
"Do your parents know?"
Anselm sighed. "You should probably go back."
"Maybe. But I'll let you decide. If you tell me to go back, I'll go back. But if you tell me to come with you, I'll come with you."
I crossed my arms and stood up as tall as I could. The wind howled in the distance. Anselm's horse whinnied. I thought about how that figure in front of me looked nothing like the boy I once knew.
I waited, heart pounding.
"Come with me," he said, barely above a whisper. "It'll be an adventure."
With the village behind us, we started our quest.