The Knight of the Golden Rose
During the last couple days at Lord Barrymont's estate, we had more visitors than the rest of our stay combined.
"Sir Anselm, you were fantastic at that tournament!" The ladies always gushed over his duel against the knight with the odd birthmark whose name was apparently Sir Acton. They said it was the most gentlemanly battle they had ever witnessed and gave them such pride to be surrounded by such chivalry in an age when chivalry was dying.
And it wasn't just Sir Acton that Anselm had defeated. He felled countless of no-name knights in his carnage. How rare was it that a first time competitor could last that long! Why, it was said that even Sir Hankin, the winner, needed years of experience before making it past the thirty minute mark. And he was of such noble lineage as well! How much superior must the younger knight's blood be?
Anselm then informed them that he was not, in fact, technically a knight yet and that the entire purpose of this journey was to become knighted by the king, who had had a mysterious relationship with.
That detail always set the gossipers on fire. They squealed with delight — a peasant boy from some backwater village in England who was secretly part of the royal family? Why, this was precisely the childhood of King Arthur himself, although this time there was no selection sword involved, and England had no need of a new king.
Anselm often stared at his feet or scratched his hair while the group of women jabbered amongst themselves, admiring his long eyelashes and well-sculpted muscles, a modern Adonis! They said that there was no doubt his strength in battle was inherited from the king himself. Furthermore, his unmatched poise and elegance could only have one source. The average knight was no better than the average thief: they would know since the knights in their own village were a black scar on the face of chivalry, too shameful to even be called "Sir." They decided to travel all this way just to see what true knighthood was like.
I couldn't help but compare myself to the court ladies who exuded elegance with their rich velvet dresses draped over a voluptuous body, their intricately-fashioned hair (immaculate in any weather), and their graceful faces with such perfect proportions they could belong to an angel. They were beautiful, exactly like the illustrations in the paintings.
In contrast, I was barely taller than a child, my hair looked like a haystack had exploded on top of my head, and my facial features didn't quite fit together like a jigsaw puzzle missing a piece. My eyes were too wide for my small face, and my nose too downturned. My cheekbones were too thin and weak. My figure was similarly undefined. I invoked the appearance of a terrified owl.
The women thanked Anselm for being a paragon of manliness and for restoring their faith in feudalism. Giggling, they hurried away. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Already the traveling minstrels were putting on plays of the tournament and singing praises to Sir Acton and Sir Hankin and the not-yet Sir Anselm between the traditional stories of Sir Gawain, strengthening the connection between Anselm and that legendary world that I so desired to join myself.
Fans approached Anselm when we ate at dinner, when we were helping the peasants gather food (he was not just popular at the estate), and when we were listening to the harpist play an old folk song that my mother used to sing.
They would first look apprehensively in our direction, shirk away when our eyes met, but then quickly run up to Anselm after regaining their lost confidence. They wanted to hear about his battles in the tournament, especially the one against Sir Acton that had the whole crowd watching with bated breath. Did he think he was going to die? How bad were his injuries? It was an admirable recovery, thanks to the court healers!
Another favorite topic was the discovery of his birthright. After he finished telling the story about his parents and the village square and the start of his quest, he would take out the brooch with the golden rose on full display (letting the light hit it at just the right angle so that it sparkled) to prove that he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
He denied any request to touch the beautiful metal because he learned from the old beggar to never let his precious rose fall in any hand but his own.
I always chimed in with my own stories of Asfutus and Bellemere Forest, but they were never as popular as Anselm's versions. No matter how much he encouraged them to listen to me, the court residents always found Anselm's terse accounts much more riveting. Perhaps I was too talkative for my own good.
I offered to show them my books of knights and magic, but they again preferred Anselm's broken sword and rusty armor. Perhaps objects with real use were more exciting than my books that very well could just be full of lies.
The manor servants were kind enough to load up our bags with cured meats and cheeses from the pantry, where I would occasionally steal a custard pie or two anyways.
Before we left the town for good, we made sure to say good-bye, thank you for your hospitality, and all that to Lord Barrymont just as the other knights had done.
With a tear in his eye, he bid us farewell and said that Anselm was surely on his path to greatness.
We once more burdened our trusty horse with our baggage and continued north.
After travelling for some hours, I said, "It seems you'll become more well-known around here from now on."
"Look how far some people travelled. They took entire weeks to get here. And when we ever need help from them, they'll know who you are."
"That'll be convenient," he said.
Several minutes passed in silence.
"How come you aren't more happy about this?" I felt like I had asked this same question before.
"I am happy."
"You sure don't look it."
"That's just my face," he said.
I burst into laughter. "Don't say such things with that dead look! It's too much!"
"That's just my face," he said again, snorting.
"No it's not." I grabbed his cheeks and started moving it around. "I've seen you laugh and talk like a real person before and not like that statue you were at court."
Anselm thought for a moment. "I suppose so. I wonder why that is..."
He had some sort of sixth sense that allowed him to detect when I was pouting.
"I got it," he said. "I'm mad that they aren't paying more attention to you."
"That's not true, and you know it!"
"It is! They don't understand that you're the invisible strings pulling me to success," he said.
"What have I even done besides talk a lot?"
"That's all you've needed to do to save me," he said. "I'm glad I brought you with me. I would have given up a long time ago if you weren't here."
Either his voice was shaking ever so faintly or my ears were playing tricks on me.
"...You really mean it? Even if I can't do any magic and I'm an extra mouth to feed?"
"Yes, I do," he said.
"Ah, are you blushing?" I leaned forward to look at his face.
"Not at all."
"You are! This is the most emotion you've shown in days!"
"Shut up or I'll send you back to the village."
"That'll add another couple of months to your quest. Are you sure you want that, you old fart?"
Anselm pinched my side, sending me into fits of giggles and writhing all over the poor horse who silently listened to our foolishness.
We came to a wide river with hurtling water and gnashing white specks of foam. The water was pale bronze green splattered with shades of brown. It must have been born from a lake in the far west. The river slithered like a snake, blocking our path and wrapping all the way around us, then finally emptied in the sea to the south.
The waters hummed with evil. Fish struggled to swim against the powerful flow. Waves crashed into the huge pink-tinged stones half-covered with fleshy green moss. Massive rocks formed jagged banks that cut into the water's path.
"What shall we do, Anselm? Can we go around it?"
I hopped down the horse and looked across the river, wider than any creek I had ever seen in my life. A much more formidable foe than the stream behind my house.
"Unfortunately not," he said, looking at the map. "We'd have to go backwards."
I strained my eyes to look further in the distance. "I guess the river serves as defense for the towns up there."
"Don't worry, Cecilia, we'll just swim through it."
My eyes widened. "You're crazy!"
"Sane as can be. I've crossed rivers countless times," he said.
"The horse definitely can't swim!"
"Actually she can," he said, stroking the horse's mane. She sneezed.
My shoulders dropped. Slippery rocks and drenched cloth and baby cries flashed through my mind. I saw my mother with her head down.
"I don't know about this..."
Anselm clapped his hands on my cheeks, squeezing my mouth into a puckered-up O-shape. "Trust me, Cecilia! I've crossed rivers wider than this hundreds of times!"
He held out his hand, and I took it. He had a strong and firm grip that enveloped me in a halo of protection. My legs steadied and my breath slowed down.
We carefully stepped down the pile of rocks that were so cleanly cut they could be gravestones. With slight hesitation in each step, the horse followed behind us.
After arriving at the lowest point on the riverside, where gravel met water, Anselm secured our bags and helped me back on the horse, where I clung to his back. We started moving forward.
The horse was born on his family's farm, and Anselm had been raising her ever since she was a foal. He fed her twice a day, brushed her mane, clipped her hooves, and, when she was old enough, rode her for his horseback training. She was not particularly big nor fast, but she was extremely durable. According to Anselm, she was able to run for three days straight as long as she had food and water. Some days I thought he liked that horse more than me.
The first step felt like we were still travelling over dry land. By the next several steps, I could feel us sinking deeper and deeper along with my heart, which was beating furiously.
"It'll be okay," Anselm whispered.
The water steadily creeped up the horse's body. Finally, the depth of the river was taller than she was, and suddenly the floor fell away as she lifted her legs and started to paddle. I no longer felt the firm safety of land, and wobble brought a new wave of uncertainty. I gripped Anselm's back tighter.
The overworked animal steadily pushed through the murky water which seemed to trap us. After a while, she hit a consistent rhythm, and my heart stopped thumping. Inch by inch, we moved forward over the deepest part of the river and ever closer to the other side.
A tongue of water whipped us from the right, and we lurched to the left. I lost my grip on Anselm's tunic, and I crashed into the murky depths. I took a breath out of reflex but only found my lungs filled with water and my throat on fire.
The world grew hazy and dim. I let my eyelids fall into darkness.
Something grabbed my wrist, and the world flashed back into color. My head slammed on a hard surface, and I felt hot rough rock on my back.
Anselm's worried face swam into my view. Water dripped from his scraggly hair down to his pointed nose, wiggled, then fell onto my face with tiny splashes. His large eyes were fixed on me. The sun behind him was blinding and shot stabs of pain in my head.
I coughed like my lungs were about to fall out along with the water. The liquid that came out of my throat tasted like a mixture of blood and mud.
"Sorry, I slipped." The words caught in my mouth, and I was shocked by how thin and hoarse my voice was.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm okay," I said.
Anselm didn't look convinced. He tenderly put a palm to my cheek. "You're freezing!"
"You too! You're completely soaked!"
He looked down at his shirt and pants that clung to his body and were slightly see-through. His face immediately reddened. He ran to the horse, unzipped the bag and threw a fresh dress on my lap.
"Turn around and get changed! I'll change as well. In the opposite direction."
Now it was my turn to blush. His movements were stiffer than usual, and his words moved faster and breathier.
After a couple minutes of awkward fumbling, we turned to face each other with dry clothes. A minute passed in silence. Then, Anselm shuffled closer and brought me into his arms. Strong hands supported my back.
"It's my fault! We shouldn't have tried to cross that dangerous river."
"We're both okay. And we made it on the other side!"
I looked left and right. "The brooch! Do you have your brooch?"
Anselm held up the golden rose, which hadn't lost its luster despite its stint underwater.
"It's practically sewed onto my body." He pointed to the bag. "Luckily, our stuff was locked up pretty tight, so I think everything is still there."
I suddenly noticed the splotches of blood splattered on the rock where we were sitting. Someone was injured.