The Knight of the Golden Rose
"I trusted them!"
My feet dragged on the ground as I was being pulled forward by Anselm's tremendous stride. Lunge after lunge, he walked with a purpose.
I jumped in front of him and spread my arms out. "I think you're jumping to conclusions. We didn't even show them the emblem, remember?"
"Who else could have stolen it? I was a fool to let it out of my sight!"
He smashed his hand on his forehead.
"No, don't hurt yourself!" I wrestled with his arms before they could do any more damage."
"How do we even ask nicely? Hey there, got any stolen goods recently?" he said mockingly.
"Maybe there's an explanation. A passing thief, perhaps."
"That's even worse! Then I'll never get that brooch back." He waved his fists in frustration.
"But at least it won't be them that took it."
Anselm sighed. "That would make me feel a little better."
"Because they've been so kind and that would be pretty awful if it turned out they weren't so nice after all, huh?"
"Yes, exactly, Cecilia."
I beamed. Anselm looked like he was ready to wipe that grin off my face.
He took a couple of deep breaths. "Let's ask if there was anything fishy recently."
We calmly knocked on the door to the farmer's house. It opened, and a wide-jawed, fully-bearded face greeted us, eyes half-closed and yawning. He leaned against the door frame.
"G'mornin'." His breath wafted in front of me with the air of a wet dog.
"Good morning," I said.
"Hello. Did you hear any odd noises last night?" Anselm leaned in.
The farmer spit out a piece of straw he was chewing. "Funny noises? Nope, I slept like a baby! Maybe you should ask my wife, she's a real light sleeper. Always tossing and turning."
He cupped his hands together. "Honey! C'mere! These folks wanna know if you heard anything last night!"
His wife appeared, cleanly dressed in blue and white and wide awake. Her hair, although intricately done, was falling apart at the ends where the ties were slipping away. She was holding a child in one hand and shooing the dog away with the other.
"Last night? There was the little bit of thunder, but I don't remember much else..."
"No robberies lately?" Anselm asked.
"Robbers!" The man jumped. "We haven't had those in ages! We have nothing to steal!"
Anselm let out a groan. He stepped forward and grabbed the front of the farmer's shirt. The coarse threads threatened to break under the bewildered man's weight, which was bound up in Anselm's powerful biceps.
The wife screamed. The dog whimpered. The child stayed silent.
"Listen, if you have the brooch, I'll be nice and let you off easy. Otherwise, I'll take it back by force."
"Anselm!" I clawed at his hands. Put him back down. He did nothing wrong!"
"Exactly! I haven't seen a brooch in ages! Don't come crying to me just because you're good at losing things."
Anselm immediately turned beet red and, head down as if he had just realized what he had just done, slowly lowered his victim. The wife let out the breath she had been holding for the past several minutes.
"Forgive me for losing my temper. It's a very important keepsake."
"Anyone with eyes could tell you that! Well, because of your stunt, I don't think you can stay as our guest anymore. Pack up your things and scram!"
He slammed the door and left us in a cloud of dust.
"Yes, I understand..." Anselm said in a small voice.
He meandered back to our makeshift hut like a wounded puppy, gathered our supplies, and helped me on the horse.
"Thank you, thank you for your hospitality," he said as he waved goodbye to the kind farmer and his wife and eight children.
Anselm was hunched over and quiet while we rode clickety-clack around the village, desperately looking for any glint of gold or shred of twisted metal. I admired the self-sustainability of each family and felt deeply ashamed of my own inability to fend for myself.
"Chin up, Anselm. At least so you know where we're going."
"I was so awful to those people. And oh! The brooch... Where could the brooch be..."
"Do you think we lost it before we came to this village?"
"No. I remember holding it when you told me to show him, but I decided not to."
We pondered in silence.
"Did we go anywhere else?"
"Just that area around his field." He pointed.
"Maybe an animal took it!"
"Are you daft?" he said sharply.
I simpered. "Just trying to help."
Anselm patted my head, instantly regretful. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me lately."
"Yeah, fix your anger issues."
"I should. It's unbecoming of a knight."
He sighed and stopped the horse. "Let's rest here for a bit and come up with a solid plan instead of wandering around aimlessly."
We set up a fire and cooked some nuts we had gathered earlier with the farmer and his family. I read Anselm the same stories he had heard many times before.
"Aren't you bored of listening to the same thing over and over?"
"Not when you tell them. I like your voice."
My heart skipped a beat. "Well alright, I'll read this next one with extra dramatic monologues."
Anselm laughed. "Go ahead."
After I had finished the tale and the nut supply ran empty and we were both lying down, staring at the blinding yellow eyes of the flickering flames, I remembered that dinner conversation.
"Say, Anselm, what kind of people are your parents like?"
"Is there a reason? You've never brought this up before."
"You seemed really happy in that household. I thought that's what your parents must be like."
"... Sort of," he said. "They're a little more serious. Down to business. Less talkative. More worried about taxes. More worried about everything."
"Your parents are starting to sound completely different!"
"I guess so," he said. He paused as if he were internally debating a philosophical question but finally came to a somewhat unsatisfactory answer. "They're good parents."
"What about farming? Do you miss that?"
"I do! Everyone says how I'm so lucky to be chosen as Sir Hector's disciple, but no one says you're lucky to be working in the fields."
"Well that's understandable. It's back-breaking work."
"That's true, but think about the miracle of the seed! Look at how we've harnessed nature for ourselves. We're not at the whims of the movements of the wild beasts nor grasses!"
"What about the weather or plague?"
"That's true. We haven't solved everything. But through time and grit, we will get there!"
"I don't think we'll ever be able to control when it rains."
"But we can grow so much food we don't need it to rain!"
"You're never this chatty normally. What's up?"
"Sorry, it's just — all anyone ever asks me about is my training or whatever silly errand I happened to go on that day. If everyone just spent longer thinking about better ways to tend the crops, we'd all be a lot happier. There'd be less hungry kids."
"I'm sorry. Should I start talking about plants instead of knights?"
"No, you keep doing what you do."
"But you just said—"
"You're an exception."
In a softer voice, he added, "Please don't stop."
"Why am I special?"
I heard a rustle from the opposite of the fire, as if Anselm were trying to hide his embarrassment.
I laughed. "Okay. Tell me one day."
"I will, I promise."
I felt a pair of arms wrap confidently around my back, and my insides instantly became hot.
"Hey Anselm, no surprise attacks!"
"Too bad," he said. And held me tighter.
We stayed in that position until only embers were left in the pit.
It truly was an interesting village. Apparently all the residents were refugees of the larger town up the hill ruled by a cruel Lord Barrymont who imposed harsh taxes and starved the peasants every winter. However, he was as generous as he was harsh, so he constantly attracted merchants and other travellers looking for easy entertainment. He would host feasts and tournaments and all sorts of spectacles, and no one thought to question his draconian policies, for the constant stream of visitors made the town rich.
Some of the peasants, fed up with the constant shower of praise on double-faced Lord Barrymont, fled the crops that fed the village and settled just outside the area where the soil was less fertile and the plants grew thinner and paler.
I asked the farmer why Lord Barrymont never reclaimed his rightful possessions with force, and he just laughed. They weren't worth it. You could find ten peasants to replace a lost one in a single day.
I think Anselm also liked that about the village — how every person lived for themselves and no one else.
I wondered if the villagers got bored. But maybe boredom was also a privilege of those well-off.
I don't remember when we fell asleep, but I woke up to a wild man sitting across from us.
His tangled beard was filled with knots and fell past his chest. His eyes were wide open and fierce like a wolf's. Patches of grimy cloth held together by haphazard stitches hung loosely from his thick, broad frame. I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of deja-vu.
Anselm also arose in confusion.
"Who are you?"
"I am but a humble beggar," the man replied. "If you would give me an alm, I would be ever so grateful."
"Unfortunately for you, the only thing we had of value was stolen from us recently."
"Ho-oh." The beggar uncrossed his legs. "How unlucky. I've had my own share of bad luck over the years."
"Tell me about it," Anselm said, rolling his eyes.
"I tire of my travels. But I cannot stop, for I am banished."
"Banished?" I started paying closer attention.
"That town on the hill. I used to live in that manor house." He jabbed his finger up high. Spit flew from his mouth.
"Wait, the manor? Doesn't the lord and his family live in that manor?" I looked at the beggar then Anselm and back at the beggar again.
"You are Lord Barrymont?" The usually stoic Anselm looked mildly surprised.
"I used to be. Now I am nobody."
He let out a wail like a donkey and told us the sad story of how his second son felt robbed of his rightful inheritance (for the first son always took everything) and one night, in a fit of insanity, killed his older brother, watering his father's carefully-tended garden with blood. Then, he and his entourage of usurpers sent the former Lord Barrymont in exile in a small shack right between the town and the outlaw peasants' village.
The new Lord Barrymont devised a sorrowful tale of unjust slavery and torture with his father as the chief perpetrator. This turned the entire population against our beggar, who was now unable to show his face anywhere in town without the threat of a mob. The son blamed the father for all the bad harvests and missing rain and crime while promising that his own rule would be idyllic.
"Surely you have some allies," Anselm said. "Who would recognize the blatant slander and rescue you?"
"Alas, I made too many enemies during my time!" He pounded his fist on a fallen log. "Otherwise, my son would not have succeeded in taking the title of Lord from me."
"He is truly more fit to be ruler," the beggar continued sadly. "My own son, how could you?"
Anselm took a copper coin from his bag and put it in the man's hand. "For a good story."
Realization suddenly washed over me like a flood.
"He was the one who was following us earlier!" I cried.
That flash of white, the unnerving smile. The overwhelming scent of wet earth.
"Then you are the thief!" Anselm bolted upright, ready to spring into action. A wave of shame spread through my body. How could I not have noticed earlier? Why did I forget such a suspicious person?
My next realization was that I needed to prevent Anselm from murdering the old man.