The Knight of the Golden Rose
They called it the Bellemere Forest. It was located just northwest of the village and unfortunately prevented trade routes in that direction, for merchants always sought to avoid its legendary enchantments.
According to legend, Merlin once visited this forest in his youth. However, he ate a poisoned berry and in his anger decided to curse the entire area, infusing the air with trickery and malaise. However, the forest retained its spirit — if you were a kind soul, it would remove all thorns in your path and guide you to your destination with a gentle hand.
Therefore, the peasants warned us that Bellemere Forest could either shorten our trip by a week or lengthen it by a week. Or we could just wander in, never to return just like the hundreds of children that had disappeared there over the years.
Charlotte's temporary affair with madness also led her to the Bellemere forest, although she said she didn't go very far. According to her, it was a twisted maze of trees and shrubs and brightly colored plants sprawled as far as the eye could see. It took her several days to find her way out.
Anselm asked if there were not some alternate path we could take. The peasants said we could go around the forest, but that would delay our trip by at least a month. I reasoned with him: we were good, noble souls, so the forest should let us pass through immediately. Anselm acquiesced.
We loaded up on salted meat and fresh fruits from the village and departed. It took about a half day's travel to reach the forest. I heard the noise of the town square disappear behind us as we ventured into the deep woods.
The air was suffocatingly silent and still like you were drowning into nothingness. Sometimes, a bird would squawk or a squirrel would scitter up a tree. Insects were hard at work beneath our feet. I began to notice the mystical plants that Asfutus pointed out to me. Oh the thin line between life and death! An extra leaf, a slightly different fur tint, a missing stripe.
We stopped to let the horse take a break and to recover our strength. Anselm started a fire. I gathered a bundle of vines, mushrooms, and stalks, double-checked their shape with Asfutus' books, and brought it to my handsome knight-in-training.
"To keep up your strength," I said.
We roasted the mushrooms dark and crisp, and I popped them into my mouth one by one, savoring each bite.
"These are good," Anselm said, munching on some roots. "You've picked up a useful skill."
"I told you helping Asfutus would be a good idea!"
"I'm not sure how much we helped..." Anselm reached for another mushroom. "It still ended up like that."
"He was content at the end," I said. "It was a good conclusion to that story."
We finished our meal and kicked dirt over the dying embers. After reloading the horse with our baggage, I climbed on, took my familiar place at Anselm's backside, and closed my eyes, letting myself be enveloped by his musty scent.
The sounds of the forest began to blend together, and I felt myself slipping further and further away from Anselm's body. The many colors of the forest swirled and finally melted together into a blank canvas and then nothing.
I opened my eyes to layers of dense trees above me, and the skitter scatter of beetles crawling beside my head. A crack of sunlight broke through the fortress of green and hit my face. The back of my dress was soaked from the decayed slush of the forest floor. Anselm, the horse, and the books were nowhere in sight.
"Anselm!" My voice reverberated. There was no response.
I suddenly felt the weight of my loneliness. There was likely not a single person for miles and miles. I had not realized how comforting Anselm's presence was and how much I had taken his status as my guardian for granted. He was an incessant worrywart over trivial matters but a stubborn ally once he made up his mind.
The brooch worried him daily. I saw him stare at it when he thought I wasn't looking, turning the leaves of the rose over and over. Was Anselm really related to the king? Why did his parents hide such a heritage from him? What of his real father and real mother? Why did they abandon him? Was it destiny that Anselm go on this journey? And what of my role?
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine his face with the spiky chestnut hair and prickly chin that tickled when he slept close to me. Was he worried about me? Was he looking for me at this instant?
A young boy's voice woke me from my slumber.
"Cecilia, Cecilia, why have you abandoned me?"
I couldn't figure out where that voice was coming from.
"Cecilia, Cecilia, why have you abandoned me?"
I stood up and started walking. Slowly the trees around me transformed into wooden walls, the shrubs morphed into furniture, and the loose debris beneath me hardened into a dirt floor. I saw my mother at the loom, holding a baby swaddled in musty cotton.
"Hush, he's sleeping."
I walked over and peered into the child's raisin face. I brushed my hand over his sparse, downy hair.
"Have you decided on a name?"
"Arthur. Like the king."
"Those are some high expectations for a baby."
My mother smiled. "He'll be great. I know it."
I don't think my mother was ever this protective of my older brother, who was unquestionably my father's child and bore no resemblance to the sparkling youth forced to marry a man twenty years her senior. The burden of being first-born weighed on my brother like a trailing cloud of misery that constantly reminded him of his duty to father and family.
After my mother had me, several children died in the womb. When at last Arthur effortlessly emerged from a perfect pregnancy right into her arms, she was particularly protective of him. The new child had none of my father's features but rather looked like a tiny, dried-up version of me.
It was during those days that she told me the most stories about King Arthur, hoping that my little brother would inherit even a fraction of that greatness. She wanted him to keep his head in the clouds, unburdened by mundane concerns like my father.
One day my mother had to run errands for the bakery in town and put me in charge of Arthur.
"Be a good girl and look after him. He gets upset easily!"
I sat in that dingy little house and stared at the forest outside, wondering what kind of lives the unseen little animals lived while every five minutes Arthur alternated between cooing and shrieking but never silence.
"Cecilia, Cecilia! Come play with us!"
Three children ran up to me. They were from the peasant's quarter and free from their work for the day, for the harvest was good. I was friends with the children there because I frequently bought wheat from the farmers for my father's business. We picked berries together or played war in the town square.
"Sorry, I have to take care of my little brother." I rocked Arthur, who had just started a new set of tears, back and forth.
"Oh that's no fun," a little girl in pigtails said. "My little brothers all take care of themselves, no matter how small!"
A boy held up a stick. "We're going to explore the outskirts of this town and defeat any wild monsters. We'll be heroes."
"Hmm... I suppose I can just bring Arthur along with me." I looked down. "You'll stay safe, right?"
He blew a bubble of spit in my face, which I took as a "yes" and bundled my brother up in the thickest cloth I could find, making sure it was thick over his mouth so the crying was muffled.
We marched straight downhill through the green-and-yellow grass to that patch of trees behind my house. Unfortunately, the entrance was blocked by a swiftly flowing creek where fish would sometimes jump out to their deaths and my father would gather them to cook over a fire for my mother, my siblings, and me.
The three kids lined up and effortlessly leaped across the smooth river stones which popped out of the water like buttons over to the other side where the trees sat tall, dark, and imposing, as if they were tempting us to challenge their mysteries.
I positioned myself right in front of the closet rock from my end of the creek. The surface contained almost no blemishes or cracks as a result of the water's sculptor-like embrace. My heart quickened its beat. I bent my knees and jumped, making sure to lead with my stronger leg.
My foot hit the stone and immediately swished left. My balance completely tilted, and I felt the world swirl sideways then upside down.
I heard two splashes. One when my face fell into the water and the other when my arms were suddenly light and my heart dropped to my stomach.
I quickly scooped up that pile of soaking rags and looked inside. He wasn't crying or making any noises, so I put my hand over his nose. A slight puff of air greeted my finger. Then another, spread out in uncertain intervals. He was straddled between life and death.
I ran back home, legs burning and heart pounding.
After I wiped every inch of Arthur's wet, translucent skin, I set him in fresh sheets and watched his breathing with more concentration than I had ever paid my father's bread. Every time he sputtered or coughed, I wanted to die from regret.
When my mother came home, she immediately noticed the difference in her lively baby and immediately took him in her arms. "Arthur! What happened?"
She nursed him and spent the entire night rocking him back and forth, singing soft nursery rhymes. I stayed up with her and whispered words of repentance to my baby brother.
Arthur's breathing eventually became more consistent, but he started to run a fever. My mother asked everyone she knew if they had a cure for fever, but no combination of plant roots could cool down my baby brother, who radiated a more sickly heat day by day.
By the seventh day, he revealed a dry hacking cough that sounded like his insides were going to spill out at any moment.
He died on a Sunday, and we buried him under a small stone near our house. My mother spent entire days there with her lips moving but no words ever falling out.
I never told my mother what happened at the creek, only that Arthur suddenly became sick on that fateful day.
Perhaps my mother suspected me, for since his death she always kept me at a distance. Her words froze into empty indifference, and she no longer encouraged me to explore or play, only to marry and settle.
I hated that silent house, so all I wanted to do was escape. Escape and go against my mother's wishes. Escape so far away that I never have to see the creek that killed my brother ever again. Escape the village where Arthur showed up in every face. I thought that if I ran far enough, I could also escape myself and my blood-stained hands.