The Knight of the Golden Rose
From sunset to sunrise to sun high in the sky, Arthur appeared in my dreams like an unwanted visitor. Sometimes he was still a newborn babe, skin glistening with murderous water; other times I saw him as the blank-faced shade in Bellemere Forest whose siren-like voice beckoned me to his shores.
I saw other versions of him as well. Perhaps his fair hair would have kept its precocious origins, and the real Arthur would grow up to be a timid-mouthed child with flaxen hair who drew open bouts of admiration from all the mothers in the village. Another vision of Arthur saw him as a rough-and-ready boy, the type that never listened to their mothers and went about the town beating small animals, fighting with anyone older than him, and scaring the girls. My mother would have used harsh words with him in public, but I know she would have also sung tender lullabies to him in private while caressing his bruised forehead.
Sometimes, Arthur grew up to be an adult. He was only a hair shorter than Anselm but much leaner with complexion even more fair than my own. My brother was nowhere in sight in those dreams, almost as if he realized he was no longer needed now that my mother's pride and joy blossomed into a fully grown man who would take care of the household much better than my father or brother ever could.
Or maybe my mother, unmarred by that early tragedy, would still retain her love of adventure and one day discover that she was secretly descended from the king of England whereupon she, with heart full of love and worry, would send Arthur and I on a legendary journey across England to knight my brother, afterwards returning and retelling our fruitful encounters with dragons and ogres and mischievous wizards to the village children, wide-eyed with wonder, knees knocking against each other.
It was on those occasions that I went over and hugged Anselm, letting my salty tears color the back of his already filthy tunic. We always stayed in that position until forced to separate.
Eventually, time was able to erode the image of Arthur from my mind, just as we began to encounter more people on the road.
There was one curious apparition I kept seeing over and over, much to Anselm's insistence that I was mad. A wisp of silver hair, a pair of ice-blue eyes, the musk of damp soil, and a sinister flash constantly danced on the edge of my vision.
We arrived at a village so small that I wasn't sure whether it deserved to be called a village. Straw huts splattered the landscape like the swish of a painter's haphazard brush. Several chickens dotted the perimeter of each house. Some of them even had a cow. There wasn't anything like a town square, and I didn't see a single merchant. Each house had its own tiny farm with budding vegetables, and it took about a day to walk between them.
The clanging of our baggage must have been loud, for a farmer in one of those fields stopped his tilling and looked at us.
I waved. "Hello! We are weary travellers and would be ever so grateful if you could provide a place to rest."
His face was calloused and red from hours toiling under the summer sun. "You are welcome to stay, but you better make yourselves useful. We do everything by ourselves here. No lord no nothin'."
"You pay no taxes?" Anselm poked his head up, clearly intrigued.
"Nope. We don't get as many visitors as that place over there," he said while jabbing his thumb behind him, "but we're happier not giving away our hard-earned work to some fat pig."
Anselm unmounted to look at the man's irrigation system. He was surely his parents' child.
"This is a good watering set-up."
"Thank you. It's a family secret."
Anselm picked up the farmer's dropped hoe and stuck it into the soil. The man watched.
"You have good technique as well. Where'd you learn? You don't look much like a farmer."
"Yeah, I'd have taken you for one of those useless noble sons who hunt for sport." He had a look of pure disgust as he spat out the last word.
He pondered for a little bit. "Your complexion is too fair. And you hold your head too high like you have something important to say even if nobody's willing to listen."
"I didn't realize," Anselm said. "That's interesting to know."
I looked at him. "Isn't that a good thing? Show him the brooch. You're actually royalty!"
Anselm shook his head. For some reason, he wanted to keep his journey a secret. Sometimes it felt like he treated his golden ticket to knighthood more like a burden to bear rather than the incredible discovery that I thought it to be. If I were him, I would be shouting my heritage to the world! Instead, Anselm only presented the golden rose when necessary; he looked almost ashamed to own such an object.
"We're glad to help," he said.
"Excellent!" The farmer tossed a pack of hay in front of our horse. "She must be tired as well."
He took us inside his house, thinly plaited with straw and flaking dry manure that was barely able to hold apart the tumbling wooden support rods. His lively wife ushered us in, hair and apron bobbing with bumbling speed like a bee as she set the table with bread and peas and carrots and berries and nuts arranged in a pleasing circular manner. There were decorated ceramic plates surrounding the feast and a jug full of wine in the center.
The children ran in, voices shrieking with the pleasures of a lazy afternoon. They bounced off each other like apples in water. There were five boys and three girls. Two of them looked young enough to require supervision, but the other six could very well provide for themselves. I could tell that the boys were so very close to manhood with their seesaw voices and tiny sprouts of facial hair. Soon they would take their own wives and perhaps tend to their own farm.
Dinner that night was the happiest I had ever seen Anselm ever since we left on our journey. No longer did he fall back to that clouded gaze when he thought no one was looking nor did he speak like every word carried its own gravity.
Instead, his speech was light and airy; he moved effortlessly from topic to topic. He laughed and cried and told jokes — my oh my, I didn't realize my Anselm even had a sense of humor!
Perhaps it was the happy free atmosphere of the household that opened up his heart. In the peasant's quarter when I visited, the threat of a lord's unreasonable demands always hung in the air like a slow-growing cancer.
Was this family happy? This family that was always one drought or disease away from starvation? We caught them in a good harvest, but what were they like during a bad one?
Maybe this was the life Anselm actually wanted for himself. Maybe knighthood was for those foolish, lackadaisical sons of royalty rather than a proper, hard-working man who knew the value of a long day's work. With his calloused hands and tanned back, perhaps he could never relate to those who only had swordsmanship and good manners to worry about, even if he was the very definition of royalty.
I wondered what Anselm thought about our lord and his taxes. Or his family that he left back in the village. I realized that I never thought to ask him about these subjects that were such a big part of his life. Instead, I filled his head with those stupid stories, things that would never be able to put bread on the table.
It turned out that the farmer had a spare house a short walk away from his own. It was much smaller, about the diameter of a medium-sized well, and only fit one shallow bed plus some personal belongings. There was no room for a table or chair or any of those extraneous details in life.
He said he killed the goose himself to stuff that mattress. I thanked him for his service.
That night, I dreamed of all the wonderful sweet bread and pudding from my father's oven. Even though we never talked much, I still admired my father's skill in creating mouth-watering delicacies from tiny white clumps of dust. The smells overwhelmed me, and I probably drooled on Anselm as I slept.
I woke up to a shout and rubbed my eyes. Books and clothes and other personal items were strewn all about our room. Anselm hobbled to and fro, desperately flipping over anything bigger than a coin.
"The brooch is gone!"
I bolted out of bed and together we marched to the farmer's house to demand an explanation.