The Knight of the Golden Rose
Unfortunately, Anselm was not able to overcome the deranged bear-like man who swung his sword as if it were a mace. While the younger knight was able to get a couple of clean hits on the older man's armored chest, it simply fell away at the bulging chunk of breastplate with a soft clink.
After a series of admirable dodges, Anselm was finally struck down by a stray blow to the legs, and he collapsed. The shield toppled to his side, equally defeated. So much for that enchantment too.
"Anselm!" My legs started to move, but then I remembered the rules. He was neither likely to be killed nor permanently injured from such a fight. I forced my legs to stop.
Right on cue, Anselm looked in my direction and flashed a smile as if to say "I'm okay."
The burly winner immediately lost interest in the loser and quickly turned his attention to two fresh and ready duelers riding up in front of him.
Now there were only three knights still on horseback and one on foot. Two on each side, red and blue. Evenly matched, an honorable battle. Lord Barrymont leaned forward in his chair.
The three knights decided to dismount and all fight on foot, for it was only fair to the single unhorsed knight.
Flashes of brilliant white hopped in the air like butterflies. Anselm, still conscious, turned his head to see the technical prowess of the remaining knights. Their feet danced on the ground in perfect synchronization, flitting left and right. Take note, young knight, for this is a battle of masters.
The back and forth continued for about an hour until finally one side faltered and fell away. The toppled knight sunk down in shame. His surviving partner now took on the job of fighting two knights at once. With a stroke of luck, he was able to take out one of his opponents, leaving the battlefield down to two heavily fatigued men.
Lord Barrymont was now standing up, hands curled into fists, face contorted in ecstasy. This was the excitement he lived for! This showdown was what he starved over half the village to see. His wife motioned for him to sit down, lest he fall from that high stand.
Metal against metal. My own heart was beating with anticipation, even though I had no idea who either of the men were. Their helmets had fallen off a long time ago. Besides, the small slits were too small to see through anyways.
On the left was a knight with red hair and a dark brown birthmark on his face. On the right was a smaller, squatter man who had more hair on his face than the top of his head. Neither of them were anywhere as handsome as my Anselm.
The red-headed knight suddenly seemed to gain the upper hand and increased the speed of his onslaught. Pushed into a corner, the fat one roared like an injured boar and smashed his balding head into his opponent's stomach with a sickening crunch. Caught off guard, the taller knight flinched, which allowed the other man ample time to start pummeling his face. The birthmark quickly turned dark purple and began to bleed.
I was shocked at the childish brutality. Were these not well-trained knights who spent hours each day mastering the noble art of swordsmanship? Here they were at their last wits, reduced to a shameless tavern brawl.
Finally, the chunkier man prevailed. Perhaps it was the advantage of the extra weight, but the fist fight rendered the other knight's face a black-and-blue-eyed lump of flesh while his own face was still like freshly molded clay.
One more punch caused the leaner knight to crash into the ground amidst his fallen allies. He did not get up.
Trumpets blared once more to declare the end of the tournament. The crowd erupted in cheers. I found myself yelling even though I never cared for which team actually won.
A woman in a translucent fairy-green dress walked on the arena and kissed the last man's cheek twice.
"The red team is the winner! You are truly the most noble knight of this entire tournament, Sir Hankin!"
Sir Hankin knelt down and kissed the lady's hand in return.
"It has been my honor," he said.
Next, Lord Barrymont descended from his spectator's seat and went to the middle of the arena.
"Thank you everyone for coming! I hope this tournament has been to your pleasure. I was most certainly entertained! The utmost of congratulations to Sir Hankin! Now we shall take care of our competitors."
With a flourish of his hand, Lord Barrymont signalled the beginning of the after-tournament clean up.
All at once, dozens of servants flooded the field to first retrieve the injured knights and then scavenge any armor that could be reused, for a full suit of armor is quite expensive.
Two maids in black ferried Anselm past me in a cart with several other men whose limbs were hanging out in the air. His chest was rising up and down with ease, so he gave me a thumbs up as he rolled by me, but I could see the cuts and scrapes and bruises on his face, the blood-matted hair, and shaking hands.
Hundreds of men in various physical conditions were all rushed into the infirmary, where they were treated by Lord Barrymont's personal team of medicinal women, specially gathered together for tournaments and other spectacular displays of prowess.
There were three of them, ordered from shortest to tallest, with various amounts of silver hair and dark moles. They were all willowy-thin like they could disappear in the next breeze and wearing coarse beige robes that twisted and turned and fell over their feet so they looked like wrinkled heads on top of a weak tree trunk.
They went to work immediately, rubbing a murky brown mulch over the injuries and open wounds and filling the entire room with an aroma of rotten eggs and screams of pain.
Broken bones were set with splints and wrapped around multiple times with thick, drooping cloth whose edges were frayed with crawling yellow fade.
A small girl with pigtails and brown clogs who looked younger than me ran from bed to bed, holding water to the patient's lips and then offering a viscous green slurry. They drank. Fluids dribbled down their chins.
I was going to ask who the girl was, but she disappeared before I could talk to her.
After they had bandaged everything and the men had finished their strange concoctions, the healers chanted words of power intended to bring out the magic of the plants they used in their medicine. I read about these spellcasters in Asfutus' books. They were intimately connected with nature and knew the ins and outs of anything that grew in the forest, the closest thing we had to the ancient Celtic druids. It often took a lifetime to gain that kind of knowledge.
I walked in and introduced myself as Anselm's travelling partner. They said he performed admirably.
I held up the bundle of herbs and flowers I had picked from the nearby field and said I could help with the healing, for I had learned much from my books and my practice.
The tallest one with small dark hairs sprouting on her chin laughed a dry, harsh laugh. "No, you are clearly not ready. What you have gathered will do nothing for even the smallest scratch."
"But it says here in this book—"
"I cannot read nor have I ever wanted to read," she said. "Tradition has given me all the knowledge I need. Do you know who writes your books? The woman who taught me was the village healer for decades. She saved hundreds of lives. Can you say the same for your author?"
The middle witch snorted. "You are arrogant, child! You may bring drink and water to the men, but you know nothing of magic."
The shortest one simply looked at me and shrugged.
I walked to Anselm, who had one eye bandaged.
"I'm sorry none of my spells worked," I said.
"What are you talking about? The shield saved me so many times!" He was more boisterous than usual.
"The sword broke," I said quietly.
"It was nearing its end anyways." Anselm shrugged as best as he could with those wounds.
"The shield only lasted that long because it belonged to Lord Barrymont."
"Says me," I said. "I can't do anything."
He had a momentary loss of words and simply gazed at me in sadness.
"What have you got there?" Anselm pointed at the bundle of dried plants in my arms.
"Useless herbs and flowers."
"Use them to heal my legs." His legs were wrapped in aging white cloth. Spots of blood seeped out. He wiggled his toes to indicate that he could still move.
I took a stone and ground a dusky ruby flower petal in a small wooden bowl. I mixed the resulting dust with a bit of water, kneaded the raw substance, and added a sprig of herb.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the smallest witch staring at me. She had black, almost purple hair and a thin nose that whistled when she breathed. She was just a little shorter than me but somehow managed to take up way less room. While the other two women instantly drew attention when they entered the room, she had such a non-presence that I frequently forgot there were supposed to be three healers instead of just two.
She opened her mouth as if to alert the other members of the medical team who were busy tending to the other knights but then silently closed it. We locked eyes. She smiled as if my little treatment was our special secret.
I mouthed a quick "thank you" and turned my attention back to my patient.
Anselm swallowed the pasty red dough and grimaced.
"Does it taste that bad?"
"Yes, but that's how I know it's working."
"That's the spell to fix any injuries below the waist," I said. "I couldn't find the ingredients for anything specific to the legs."
Anselm ruffled my hair. "I can already tell I'll be in tip-top shape by tomorrow."
By the next day, many knights were already up and full of energy. They said they felt much better thanks to the old croons. So that's the power you gain in exchange for never finding a husband. My mother would be horrified.
However, others did not fare as well. Infection set in the wounds of some men, and a sharp putrid odor rolled off their bodies whenever their bandages were changed. They moaned and groaned and complained of the poor quality of care that they had received.
By the next week, some men were completely recovered and off on their next adventures, making sure to thank Lord Barrymont, who accepted their words graciously, before leaving.
For the men with deeper wounds, fever set in. The old women with their wet towels and calming grip said that fever was a natural phenomenon and it would disappear as quickly as it came in. However, I could tell from their shaky breath and darting eyes that they feared the fever that overstayed its welcome.
The healers ended up being right and wrong. Most of the knights with fever eventually overcame the inner fire and said they felt strengthened by the encounter with death. A handful of men succumbed to fever and burned up inside. The witches wailed and lamented nature's failures.
Lord Barrymont held a small ceremony for every death. He said that those knights died for a noble cause and that they would now be serving the Lord in heaven. The audience clapped, for the lord had a poet's tongue and crafted beautiful speeches.
Luckily, Anselm did not get a fever. His face quickly healed up, although he lay immobile in the infirmary for a couple more days because there was an infection in his leg.
I endured the revolting smell and changed his bandages every couple of hours between stories about King Arthur's legendary tournaments that I told at his bedside. The servants were glad since they had one less man to care for.
In the end, it seems that my solution had also done nothing for Anselm's legs, though he constantly insisted that his now excellent health was due to my ability.
Anselm left the infirmary, and the medicinal women happily added another person to their list of happy patients that Lord Barrymont was so proud of. As we walked out the door, the only witch who did not scold me slipped a piece of paper in my hand without saying a word. It was a pale gray color and about the size of my palm.
It was also blank. I showed Anselm, and he suggested that I keep it just in case, for the words of a magician can contain immense power.
I was about to toss it out, but I figured it wasn't too much effort to take with me, so I tucked it in my bag along with my useless books while preparing for the next leg of our journey.