The Knight of the Golden Rose
She looked not yet thirty, but experience shone through her gaunt, trembling eyes and avoidant gaze. Curly, soot-colored hair fell around her waist which was encased in thick leather. Footsteps stained the hems of her dark navy dress as the oncoming villagers split around us.
"What do you want from me?"
"Doctor Asfutus is in trouble, and you're the only one that can save him!" I mustered up my most child-like gaze.
"I told you not to say that word!" Her shrill voice exploded in anger.
I flinched. "Sorry!"
"It's a sensitive topic. Besides, I have not talked to him in years," she said in a softer tone. "What could he possibly need help with?"
"His heart has fallen into despair, and he said that you're his angel." I stretched out my arms for effect.
Charlotte put a hand to her chest and took a breath. "Is that so? That doesn't sound like the Asfutus that I knew."
"Would you like to talk at our home?" Anselm joined the conversation. "Standing here must be tiring for you. We have food."
She pulled her head down even lower, lips quivering. Her brows furrowed, and her gaze shifted. We waited.
While Charlotte wrestled with her decision, life went on. People continued to walk around us. Some made their displeasure more audible with a grunt or click of their tongues. Dogs begged for food. Mosquitos buzzed in and out of view.
"Okay. I'll come," she said at last. "I hope I don't regret this."
Anselm and I high-fived each other behind her back.
When we arrived at our quarters, the peasants oohed and aahed, almost as if a long-lost princess had returned. Anselm escorted her through the fields, arm in arm, a knight in shining armor. A tinge of jealousy stabbed my heart. I pushed it away.
"The color of her dress!"
"Such beautiful hair!"
We arrived at our single-room, mud-and-straw draped house. Charlotte sat hunched on the floor. I handed her a basket of strawberries.
"We went to Asfutus' place earlier," I said. "And he begged us to help him. He says he made a pact with the devil in exchange for knowledge."
"That does sound like something he would do. Is he feeling sorry for himself? Now that part I don't understand."
Charlotte wore a faint smile.
"I remember my Asfutus." Her voice was strained, but she continued. "I met him at the chapel on a cool and rainy day. I was worried about my eternal soul, and then he shows up, all pompous and arrogant, in his stupid black robe, telling me that I was a silly little girl for believing in hellfire anyways."
She popped a strawberry into her mouth, mechanically moving her jaw up and down. She told us about how he had a scripture verse ready for every single one of her questions and how when she was finally spiritually satisfied, he offered to take her home with him.
"I was engaged! I said I was engaged, and he still insisted!" Charlotte's laugh was vibrant and sparkling. "He started reading poetry to me. Told me that secular works were much more fun."
Charlotte paused, caught up in memories.
"I started to read the books he suggested. It was all love poetry, can you believe the audacity! But I fell for it. Asfutus was a very charming man. I started craving his presence.
"I used to sneak out at night and meet him at that chapel. There was only a single candle between us when we read about Tristan and Isolde. We were so close together. I'm shocked my husband never noticed how tired I always was in the morning. Or maybe he did, but he didn't care."
Softly shaking her head, she closed her eyes and sighed.
"Asfutus promised me that he would learn everything there was to learn on earth. I had never heard such arrogance before! He was certain that his own intelligence would make up for his awful personality and bad luck. He was so pompous he thought he was smarter than his teachers who had twenty or thirty years on him!
"He wanted to unroot centuries of scholarship with his new ideas about some theological dilemma. He was convinced that he alone understood God. Some people accused him of blasphemy, but he never cared. All he did during the day was write, write, write. He wrote books and pamphlets and treatises. I'm sure the other monks hated him.
"And at night he wrote even more, but he wrote only to me. I loved it."
"That's intense," I said, admiring the amount of passion Asfutus had for his craft in his younger years. I hoped I could put half that effort into magic and that my abilities were not only limited to talking and crying.
"No amount of knowledge ever seemed to satisfy Asfutus. He was constantly hungry for the next big idea. Once he learned something particularly difficult, he lost interest immediately. He hopped from book to book like he was desperate for some thrill that didn't exist. He always told me how he was disappointed by the banality of everything. To this day, I still don't know what he was looking for.
"And the mood swings! The monks say they were horrendous. Apparently some days he thought just being alive was God's gift to man, while other days all he did was curse at everyone in his way.
"One spiteful teacher told me how they had a lovely conversation about the Book of Job in the morning and a screaming match over spilled porridge in the afternoon."
Anselm furrowed his brow. He seemed much less impressed by this character than I was.
"Funnily enough, he was never angry with me. Every time I talked to him, he was a hopeless womanizer, always so smooth with his words. Happy and confident and never bored.
"I don't know what I did that was different. He had so many mistresses, but he would always break it off after a couple of weeks, then tell me how horrible she was. Some of them were still in love with him! How cruel was that!
"He always came back to me. I felt so special, like I was better than the other women. He used to say that such a miracle like me could only come from a loving and merciful God. I was such a fool for believing him."
She spat out those last words, disgusted with herself. But as she encountered more memories, her face seemed to soften like it suddenly belonged to a younger woman.
"He was loud, egotistical, and annoyingly right about everything. He introduced me to such a different world, full of color and light! In those six months, I felt more emotion than I ever had in my eighteen years of life. I was ready to give everything up for him. We talked about it, and he said he would accept me if I broke off the engagement."
Charlotte's eyes lost their gentleness. "So I ended it with my husband. He beat me. Even though he beat me, I was happy because I knew Asfutus was waiting for me.
"But he wasn't. I showed up to the chapel at the time we agreed on and waited the entire night. He never showed up.
"I don't remember much about what happened next, but I woke up without clothes in a strange forest. My body was utterly filthy. I just kept walking and walking. Walking nowhere. Walking in circles."
"One day, I suddenly regained my senses. I was horrified at what I just did. I went back home stark naked and begged my husband to take me back. It was so shameful! So utterly shameful!
"I promised everything. I would never do anything without his permission. And that I would do anything he asked of me. I was on my knees and in tears. He had pity on me and agreed. We have been husband and wife ever since."
Anselm offered Charlotte some water for her hard work. She accepted it with a weak smile.
Mouth agape, I scooted closer to her, eager to hear the rest of the story. "Did you ever find out what happened to Asfutus?"
"The next time I saw him was when he received his official designation as theologian after he finished his studies. He was a completely different person. His eyes were so terrifyingly black I didn't think they could hold love for anyone anymore.
"But he did look at me on that stage. I think he looked at me a little longer than everyone else. Sometimes I still think about that. I wonder if it was regret. Or maybe guilt."
She paused, lost in thought.
"Did he really say he needed me? I did not realize I meant that much to him," Charlotte continued. "I thought he had abandoned me."
"That is quite odd," Anselm said. "I wonder why Asfutus did that..."
I burst out laughing at this ridiculous scene. "What kind of quest is this? This is all so silly! Just talk to each other! You'll easily reach an understanding that way!"
"I tried," Charlotte said. "He never spoke more than a few words to me."
"But he's sure to talk to you now." I grinned. "This whole situation will be solved in a jiffy."
"I don't know if I'm ready to talk to him again. And I have promises to keep for my husband."
"Don't you want to solve this great mystery? Now is your chance." I held out my hand.
She was silent and still.
"Let's see how bad he is. I will make no guarantees."
We three returned to Asfutus' house and knocked on the door twice.
"It's me, Charlotte," she said softly. "I'm here to see you."
A great moan penetrated the air. Silence. Then a hysterical shriek.
"An angel in hell? Charlotte, you are too kind!"
His pasty skin stretched taut over his bones. His eyeballs bulged out of his cavernous eye sockets. Black robes hung limply over a skeletal frame. This was a man who was wasting away.
She gasped. "Asfutus?"
"It is I indeed! Virgil, is that you? Will you lead me out of Lucifer's dwelling?" He slowly stretched out a crooked hand towards her as if he didn't believe she was actually in front of him.
Charlotte buried her head in Anselm's chest and shook uncontrollably. "I'm sorry, I can't do this. This isn't the Asfutus I knew."
"Hold out a little longer, please!" Anselm squeezed her hand.
Slowly, she stopped quivering and left his embrace. Charlotte took a deep breath, looked up, and faced Asfutus. She stretched her arm and caressed his cheek with her slender fingers.
"Are you okay? I've missed you all these years."
Asfutus froze, and streams of tears poured down his face. "Ah, my Charlotte. I'm so sorry! I was a fool, a complete and utter idiot! Why did I never tell you!"
"It's okay. You had your reasons." She continued stroking his cheek as he trembled with sorrow.
"I thought I needed to remove any weakness. You were the only one who could set my mind ablaze for days with a single touch! What a fool, what a fool..."
"It makes me happy," Charlotte said. "To know that you still thought about me."
"I am worse than Icarus! My hubris has ruined both our lives! Every day I dedicated myself to my craft, I regretted my decision. I thought the devil's knowledge would give me everything I needed to ask for your hand again. My dear Lotte, I did not just think about you. No, I have loved you all this time. You are the only woman I have ever loved."
"And you, Asfutus, are the only man I have ever loved," Charlotte said with hollow eyes and stone lips. I could tell she was speaking words that once meant the world to her but were now utterly empty. I wondered if she was even able to lament the loss of those feelings anymore.
I saw Anselm wipe a tear out of the corner of my eye. Poor boy, callous on the outside, but so sweet and soft-hearted on the inside.
"Will we be able to restart, Lotte?" Asfutus took her hands in his. "Forget the last ten years! Run away with me!"
"No." Charlotte smiled with emptiness. "I cannot do that."
She loosened her grip and let his hands fall.
"I see," he said with a voice about to fade like a candle. "I knew you were going to say that."
Asfutus sat in deep contemplation and then stood up with more steadiness than he had ever shown before. He turned towards us.
"The despair has left me! Thank you Sir Anselm and Lady Cecilia. You have finished this quest splendidly, and you shall have your reward. Tomorrow, I will show you my books. Come and learn well."
I jumped up and hugged Charlotte and Asfutus. "I'm glad everything worked out!"
"All thanks to that iron head of yours," Anselm said to me. "Maybe I should learn from you."
Doctor Asfutus showed me magic books from England, France, Persia, China, and all the far reaches of the earth. The covers of these books were more elaborately decorated and intricately designed than anything I had seen in Lawrence's collection. My head swirled with ingredients and rituals and incantations.
"Look at all of these possibilities! There's even necromancy!" I shook at the possibility of bringing back my dead brother.
"I'd be careful with that one. Trying out those spells got me in trouble with the church once."
"This ingredient list is so expensive! Molten gold, silver, and lead? Anselm will kill me!"
Asfutus flipped through the pages. "To be honest, I think a lot of these recipes don't work. I've tried them multiple times. But I'm no wizard."
I spent a couple of weeks in Asfutus' study learning the general structure of his magic books. He taught me the basics of alchemy and various natural magics. I learned about plants with healing properties and plants with deleterious effects. Eventually, he declared me a suitable novice and sent me packing with a dozen or so books he thought most useful.
"From now on, you will learn more from studying these books yourself. Magic is a skill you must cultivate, not read."
Asfutus also gave us a map of England. "Here is your destination. That is the last known place of the king's castle. To exit this town, you must pass through this forest. But be careful, they say it's enchanted."
Anselm nodded. "Thank you for the information."
The next day, Asfutus died.
They found him with a knife through his neck, blood seeping out in a vermilion puddle. There was no note.
Rumors spread that he was finally taken by the devil. Others believed that he was saved. Charlotte said nothing.
Anselm asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I turned him down.
Asfutus was someone who saw his life at a standstill. He must've come to a profound realization the day when Charlotte rejected him. At that point, the world of the living held nothing more for him, and the only solace was in death. I remembered Asfutus' calm demeanor as he watched over my studies. He looked more at peace than I had ever seen him. There was no tremor of the hand nor jitter of the teeth. His movements were strong and steady.
His heart was not full; indeed, he was still cloaked in a particular emptiness. However, it was not quite sorrow that bound him. Rather, it was an acceptance of the world as it was that drained his soul.
I think he was glad to have finally completed his journey.