Chapter 9:

On Top of the Hill

The Knight of the Golden Rose

"Yes, it took you two long enough!"Bookmark here

My knight unsheathed his sword. "Give it back right now."Bookmark here

"Only upon death." The beggar, the former Lord Barrymont, ruler with an iron first, fell over himself with a laughter that sounded more like a series of high pitched pig snorts. Bookmark here

As if he suddenly changed his mind, Anselm put the sword back in the sheath, tossed the entire thing to my lap, and ran forward and tackled the beggar with a crash.Bookmark here

He, the smaller, leaner man, was able to easily restrain the monstrous, slow-moving beggar, whose sinewy limbs were not nearly enough to escape and who was flailing like a turtle knocked over on its shell.Bookmark here

Anselm tore off all the man's possessions—the knapsack and waist pouch—and, one hand on the man's chest, rifled through the containers until at last his fingers traced a delicate metal petal wrapped around a dollop of gold.Bookmark here

"Now kill me!" The beggar cried.Bookmark here

"Nope, I already got what I wanted. Get out of my sight," Anselm said, tucking the brooch in his breast pocket.Bookmark here

"What kind of knight are you? I have caused you much dishonor!"Bookmark here

"Killing you is more trouble than it's worth."Bookmark here

The man rolled over. "I tire of living."Bookmark here

"We met someone else like that," I said, thinking of Doctor Asfutus.Bookmark here

"Truth be told, I could live out the rest of my days in the garden if I promised Lord Barrymont to stay out of sight. But I cannot live such a life. It will be like my old ways, dull and shameless." He sighed.Bookmark here

"But I am too afraid of death. I am a coward; I cannot fully embrace life nor death. I walk in purgatory, unable to commit. What kind of pathetic human being am I?"Bookmark here

I wondered if Doctor Asfutus was stronger than this man, for the theologian was able to choose death so swiftly and easily. Or was he actually the weaker soul, unable to withstand the constant onslaught of each day's piercing blows. Indeed, the former lord endured the torture of Sisyphus, rolling a lifetime's worth of regret up the hill, only to have it all tumble down at sunset, repeating day after day while the good doctor slept a cold, dreamless sleep, never again forced to witness another sunrise.Bookmark here

Was the life of an eternal wanderer a punishment for one who allowed his own son to die under his protection? The fallen lord, now reduced to a wretched beggar, was finally able to see the destitution of the subjects he once turned a blind eye to.Bookmark here

However, it was not purely through the villainy of the old Lord Barrymont that the people suffered. He came from a noble family and a rich history of caustic indifference to the masses. The defiled lord could never see the error of his ways, for the lives of peasants simply did not penetrate his restricted world view.Bookmark here

I couldn't decide whether existing on the periphery of life like the beggar or plunging into the unknown like Asfutus was the better course of action. I concluded that both men must have reached those states with a calm acceptance, finally free at the twilight of their years. What would I do at my own journey's end?Bookmark here

As if the old man had read my mind, he knelt and bowed his head deep and low before us.Bookmark here

"Thank you for putting up with my foolish idea. It was a mistake to expect someone as noble as you to slay me."Bookmark here

It seems that he had found a satisfactory answer. Or maybe he always had it, but he refused to acknowledge it until a certain hot-tempered knight-in-training nearly choked him to death.Bookmark here

"As a token of my appreciation for your precious time, I will give you a small piece of advice." He looked at Anselm.Bookmark here

"Lord Barrymont is holding a tournament three days from now. Go compete. If you make a name for yourself, your path to legitimacy will be easier."Bookmark here

Anselm's eyes clouded over once more, gaze fixed on the floor. It was like every step that brought him closer to royal knighthood also came with excruciating pain. I felt a twinge of anger in my temple. I would trade my life for his in a heartbeat! No longer would I be overlooked Cecilia, who faded in the background like a boring lecture. Instead, I would be a child of destiny, one who was destined to serve the king and write the new story of England.Bookmark here

I tried to wipe such frivolous thoughts from my mind.Bookmark here

"Thank you," Anselm said after a slight pause. "I will go."Bookmark here

The old man with his copper coin and his many regrets waved goodbye to us as we climbed up the hill towards the new Lord Barrymont's estate and his golden town of plenty.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

It smelled like the entire city was rotting. The strong, pungent odors forced their way up my nostrils and refused to leave. I was reminded of the stray dogs back at home who decided to use your house as their personal chambers. It was intoxicatingly nauseous.Bookmark here

There was trash on the streets, trash off the streets, and trash piled high like hills, threatening to fall over you at any moment. People bumped into each other without saying sorry, and merchants were constantly peddling their wares, somehow with a new supply every week.Bookmark here

The children were loud, and the animals were jittery. All around me was conversation. Words flew at me from every angle, but they all melded together in mid-air into a blob of indistinct chatter. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, walked the cobblestone roads. Women with flowing dresses and dangling jewelry peppered the crowd, chatting amongst themselves.Bookmark here

"I've never seen this many people before!"Bookmark here

I glanced at my ever-stoic Anselm. His eyes were fixed on the manor house which housed Lord Barrymont and his entourage rather than restlessly wandering like mine.Bookmark here

The estate was located in the middle of a vast field of green. A couple of trees populated the perimeter of the area, giving it a slightly wild look. A well-kept dirt road led up to the house itself, which was protected by a shallow moat and squat watchtower built of drab gray stone.Bookmark here

It was one of the largest houses I had ever seen in my life but not quite grand enough to be called a castle, despite its evident defenses. At least ten peasant houses could fit inside this one building. The walls were dotted with yellow and red brick. Thin, creeping snakes of ivy crawled up the sides. I had to strain my neck to see the elaborately cut windows that piled high, one on top of the other, racing up to the sky. The elegantly arched roofs were adorned with an odd combination of gargoyles and cherubim.Bookmark here

There was a small garden in front of the manor house, popping with bright colors of pink and purple and blue that contrasted with the grimy yellow of the house. A couple of small shrubs and trees also grew in that area, adding splashes of earthly greens and the browns to the overexcited palette.Bookmark here

I could tell that the steps down to the garden were well-worn, a result of the old man's dedication to his precious craft. If I met him again, I wanted to tell him that the garden was still alive and well.Bookmark here

The reluctant guard (who several moments ago was sleeping on duty in the tower) finally ushered us in after repeatedly assuring him that we were only there to ask about the tournament. A lady dressed in deep red welcomed us in a magnificent court filled with troubadours and ladies and stewards. The walls were painted in explosive larger-than-life scenes of knights and great battles. Gentle notes wafted from the harp and clung in the air, filling the hall with melody.Bookmark here

"Welcome, young knight!" A voice called out from above us.Bookmark here

He had a youthful face unbefitting of his stature and was dressed in a rich blue robe, thick with pure white rabbit fur and adorned with a golden fringe. He was resting his head on his knuckles with a confident smile as if to say that everything here belonged to him and him alone. A single, thin scar traced his cheek, perhaps from his brother's last ditch effort at saving his own life on that fateful night.Bookmark here

Anselm took out the golden brooch (which he was now careful to sleep with every night), and held it up for everyone to see. There was a collective gasp and then silence, for being of high status, they all knew the significance of such an item.Bookmark here

"As you can see, I am related to the king of England. Because of my lineage, I am requesting to join your tournament!"Bookmark here

Anselm's voice rang clear through the court.Bookmark here

"If I had known you were royalty, I would have sent out a procession to greet you! You are fully welcome to participate. In fact, I beg of you!" He stood up and held out his arms.Bookmark here

Anselm walked up to his chair and knelt before him. "Thank you, my lord."Bookmark here

Lord Barrymont made a flurry of gestures and dozens of servants were suddenly swarming around us.Bookmark here

"Please stay at our guest quarters during your visit. All that is mine is yours." His smile shone even brighter.Bookmark here

Suddenly Anselm was outfitted in new robes without a single hole, soft pants, and a fresh-cut leather belt that still smelled of the tanning process. His sword was ferried off and sharpened, and he was given a heavy black cape that signified his status as a favored guest.Bookmark here

For all the attention Anselm was getting, I was left alone. Occasionally, a maid servant would ask if I wanted a drink or to wash my clothes, to which I politely declined. I sat on the chair and watched the dirty peasant boy transform into an important-looking young man, into someone I almost didn't recognize. His eyes no longer shone like they did at dinner at the poor farmer's house; instead they were weighed down by duty. His face was frozen like stone and betrayed no sense of emotion.Bookmark here

He was like one of the knights in the paintings around me. Tall, foreboding, and unreachable.Bookmark here

I wondered what it would take for everyone to spend this much energy over me rather than Anselm, the slightly-hesitant and overly-cautious protagonist. I felt a few pangs of jealousy, but I quickly pushed them away. I should be happy that my dear friend was finding such success in his quest, even if I wasn't able to share it at this moment.Bookmark here

I looked around to see if there were any court magicians as I suddenly remembered my own goals in leaving the village. There wasn't anyone obvious.Bookmark here

It seemed like people in this court still believed in magic, so maybe it was only the peasants who no longer felt that sense of mystery. But I had yet to see any grandiose displays of power. There was a knot in my throat as I thought about all the spells I had tried and failed.Bookmark here

Maybe there would be some wizards at this tournament, and I could ask them.Bookmark here

Our room was just as elegant as the court and dressed in rich cloth. The bed was made of dark and heavy wood, polished to a shine. The mattress was so incredibly soft I immediately sunk into it like there was a Cecilia-shaped hole already built in. Magenta curtains covered the bed so it felt like Anselm and I were in our own world when we were inside, like we never set foot outside the village, unaware of the twisted lives of everyone around us. Isolated and secluded, like fresh babes twenty days after naming.Bookmark here

"Are you nervous?" I asked Anselm in that dark world of ours.Bookmark here

"A little. But I've been training for moments like this."Bookmark here

"Will you be okay?"Bookmark here

Anselm laughed a little. "Are you worried about me?"Bookmark here

"Yes, I am!" I grabbed his arm. "I don't want you to die in some stupid tournament."Bookmark here

"Then use your magic. Cast a defensive charm on me."Bookmark here

"I will! And I'll enchant your sword and your armor too."Bookmark here

He stroked my hair. "I can't lose with that kind of help."Bookmark here

I fell asleep dreaming of all the different spells I could try.Bookmark here

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi
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