The Knight of the Golden Rose
I checked my body up and down and didn't find any obvious wounds.
"Anselm, are you hurt?" I motioned to the crimson stains around us.
He put his hands on his face then looked down his shirt, shaking his head. He continued inspecting his legs and feet.
"Ah, I cut my foot on a rock when dragging you out," he said. Indeed, the source of the blood was a gash on the sole of his right foot.
"Does it hurt when you walk?"
"It didn't even start hurting until you pointed it out."
"I'm sorry!" I winced.
"Nah, it's not your fault. Must have been the adrenaline earlier."
I hobbled to the bag and untied it. "All of our bandages are soaked!"
Anselm shrugged. "I won't walk on this foot for a bit. It'll heal by itself."
The wound looked pretty deep, and there was an angry red flare around the cut. Anselm put his foot back in his boots, closing one eye in pain. He stood up while leaning on his left foot.
"Shall we go?"
We mounted the horse again and made our way over the rectangular rocks, past the brambles, and into another sparse forest where bugs buzzed in our ears and strange multi-colored mushrooms grew on every tree.
Every so often, we stopped the horse to feed her, give her water, and gather some plants for the next leg of our journey. If it was night, we made a small fire to scare off any curious animals and cooked any meat Anselm had captured earlier.
He kept hobbling on one foot even after a week had passed, even though a little injury should have healed itself by then. It was rarer and rarer for Anselm to take off his boots, but whenever he did, I almost gagged from the odor that came out.
"Take a bath, you disgusting brute," I said.
I caught a glimpse of the wound whenever I dressed his foot with the bandages that had finally dried. It was festering. He kept assuring me that it would heal soon despite the fact that every night I squeezed fresh leaf juice according to the book's instructions and nothing had changed.
One morning, I woke up earlier than Anselm, nudged him to leave, and found that his face was hot. I put a palm on his forehead. It burned.
My stomach fell. He had a fever.
I ran into the forest, trampling small plants and insects under my feet. My face and limbs suffered hundreds of tiny cuts from the thorns and nettle. I lunged like a wild animal, looking for any plants that could help cure fever. I desperately looked for any lakes or rivers, for some rare herbs only grew near water.
I sprinted back to Anselm with an armful of wormwood, garlic, radish, bishopwort, and other plants that only had pictures and not names in the medicine books. I grounded them up, melted them in butter, and sang an amalgamation of old folk songs, hoping that at least one would invoke enough magic to heal him.
I held the simmering stew to Anselm's mouth, and he drank, then coughed.
After making sure he was breathing steadily, I sat on the floor next to him and waited.
"I'm sorry!" Anselm's face twisted in pain.
He was back to being sound asleep and didn't respond. He must have been sleep talking.
Once more, he writhed and shook. "I'll never touch that stupid sword again! I'll be a good boy."
I had never heard Anselm talk in such a vulnerable manner, high-pitched and whining. It was like the echoes of a much younger child and not the man before me.
"I killed them, I killed them!" Tears welled up in his eyes.
He was silent after that outburst. I put a wet towel on his forehead and waited some more, wondering what those words could mean. It occurred to me that I only knew about Anselm's life after the famine and that he never told me the names of his dead brothers and sisters.
After a couple of hours, he woke up. "Ah, the sun's so high in the sky! We should get going."
I pushed him back down. "No, we're staying here today because you're sick and need rest."
"I can rest on the horse," he said.
"It's easier here," I said with a firm tone that signalled the end of discussion.
He put his head back down on the pile of leaves.
"Did I say anything funny in my sleep?"
"You said some things, but I don't think they were very funny," I replied.
"That's not good," he said. "I had a dream about the village when the harvests were still good. Then the harvests suddenly turned bad."
"Was it a dream or a memory?"
"Both. It was so vivid it was like I was living through that famine again even though I tried my best to forget it."
In the few moments of quiet that passed between us, curiosity overwhelmed my tact.
"You said you killed them. Who are you talking about?" I used the softest tone I could muster.
Anselm's face fell, and he turned away from me.
"It's an old story that I don't like to talk about too much. Before the famine, I used to be the smallest and definitely most annoying out of all my siblings. My parents could never make me sit down and work.
They gave me the little chores like feeding the pigs and the chickens, finding some local fruits, and tending the garden. But I never did them because I was too busy training to be a knight with some rusty old sword I found in the trash pile. My parents said I wasn't strong enough to be a fighter and that I needed to help in the fields like everyone else.
I hated it when they said that. Back then, there was nothing more I wanted to do than leave the village and kill a bunch of monsters.
Then as you know the rain stopped coming and the crops started dying. We ran out of food. For some reason, I refused to die like my brothers and sisters. It was like I lived off of air instead of bread.
My parents had to bury their children. They had a face like stone the entire time. After the last kid was six feet under, my mom turned to look at me. She said, `If only you helped us. Then there would be more food.`
She terrified me. I felt like the scum of the earth. I think I wandered off somewhere in town to cry. That was where I first met you.
I told you how I did something really bad and that my parents didn't want me anymore. You told me not to worry and that everyone makes mistakes. Then you took me to your bakery and gave me a slice of bread that I could tell you were saving for yourself.
You said I just needed to work twice as hard to make up for the past. You were so kind that I cried.
From then on, I woke up before the sunrise to feed and plow and sow, stuff that kids twice my age were doing. My parents were shocked.
As you know, eventually the rain came back and the fields started producing healthy crops again. With more food, I shot up in height and my muscles solidified. I could even lift my father. Sir Hector took notice of me and offered to take me under his wing.
I refused at first, but my mother convinced me that it was a good idea, for my younger siblings were now old enough to help my father with the household chores and farm work, and didn't I want to be a knight when I was younger?
And you know the rest."
Anselm turned back to me and grinned.
I stared back. "Wait, so you're saying you knew me earlier? Why did you act like we were strangers when I saw you training in the forest?"
He blushed and took a deep breath. "Isn't it normal to be embarrassed in front of the girl you like? I was trying to look cool."
My cheeks immediately turned red. "Y-you what?"
Did he mean that in past tense? Or present tense? My head spun, and I forgot where I was.
Anselm's lips were sealed tight.
"Say it again, say it again!" I tugged on his arm.
"Never. I hope you burned those words into your memory." He shook me off.
"I totally forgot already, so you have to say it again."
He shook his head vigorously. I laughed and rolled up next to him.
"Just kidding. I'll remember that one for a while."
"Cecilia, you bully," Anselm said with a chuckle.
We lay on the ground facing each other. The size difference was almost comical. He was a solid foot taller and twice as wide in the broadest sections. Strong, well-built limbs entwined with noodle-like arms and legs. Injuries completely forgotten.
I leaned forward and touched my forehead to his. I felt his staggered breath on my lips.
"Still hot," I said.
"This time, it is because of you," he said.
I smiled and snuggled closer.
"You know it's not your fault, right?" I whispered in his chest. The air grew sullen.
"I don't know," he said.
"An extra handful of berries would not have made any difference."
"But everyone else had to work harder to make up for me."
"A child's work is nothing," I said. "All of it could be done in an afternoon."
Anselm was silent. He rested his chin on top of my head. When we were like this, I felt secure that nothing in the world could hurt me.
What a scandalous position we were in! My mother would have died from shock. It occurred to me that I never asked my mother if Anselm would be a good fit for a husband. Perhaps she would not be so upset after all.
"You know how Asfutus called Charlotte his angel? You're my angel."
My head was completely numb and burned like the afternoon sun. All my thoughts floated away.
"I-I see..." Further words escaped my grasp.
By this point, I was enveloped by Anselm's whole being like we were already lovers.
"That's why you're the only one for me."
"Will you elaborate?" My voice shook. I didn't even know what kind of answer I wanted, only that I wanted an answer.
"No," he said, gently ruffling my hair.