The Knight of the Golden Rose
The entire time during our ride to Dinasfield, I apologized profusely to Anselm for having missed the handwriting earlier when we passed by the little town. Because of my inattention, we had to retrace our steps and waste more of our precious food supply. The horse certainly wasn't happy.
Anselm just smiled and shrugged in his usual demeanor, head slightly tilted like a curious cat. It wasn't a big deal.
I looked at that scrap of paper and imagined that the healer at Lord Barrymont's estate must have seen some sort of potential in me. Or perhaps she was inspired by my tenacity in opposing her teammates. Did she send other young sorceresses to Bathsheba in Dinasfield? Whatever the case, I thanked her for her kindness and hoped that it would not go to waste.
I excitedly told Anselm about my plans for tutelage and what kind of magic I wanted to learn. Healing was first because it was the most useful. Then various enchantments. I was desperate to know what step I had failed in my charms on his sword and shield. Despite the fact that I took up almost all the conversation, Anselm looked happy just to listen to my silly ideas.
Every day, I pictured Bathsheba and I pouring over books, brewing potions, and practicing spells on small animals. For some reason, I always imagined she would have a deep blue robe studied with rubies and carry a yew walking cane. Hunched over, she would be a little shorter than me, but fully standing up, she would be a touch taller. I saw her frizzy salt and pepper hair and impossibly-thin limbs. I liked to think she had a pet cat.
The horse with her daydreaming riders slowly plodded across flat wide plains with bushy grass, climbed over rocky hills under the beating sun, and petered dangerously close to a fast-flowing creek with suspiciously clear water.
Finally, we arrived at Dinasfield, a town that was protected by melting gray trees. When we dismounted the horse, our feet were immediately sucked in by the soggy mud. For a reason none of the villagers could articulate, the original inhabitants of the village had settled in a swamp. The air was thick with moisture, a perpetual faint mist settled fat on the ground, and only a scatter of light was able to penetrate the dark hull of the swamp, all factors that made me question, ever so slightly, everything that I saw.
The ground was lumpy and uneven — the scattered houses needed to rest on stumpy wooden pegs of various heights to avoid the onslaught of grimy and disgustingly lukewarm water. Villagers did not bother wearing shoes or long pants, for simply walking around the area had them soaked up to their knees. I shuddered to imagine the stink that the rotten fleshy remains of the swamp must produce under a high summer sun.
It was a fairly small town; there were less people here than in our home town. They minded their own business and did not pay us travellers much attention. Anselm breathed a sigh of relief that no one had heard of him before.
The inhabitants spent most of their time indoors because the constant flooding denied them the regular outdoor hobbies. I did not find the regular procession of travelling merchants that I normally saw in other villages. I figured that visitors did not stay here very long; perhaps they could not stand the rotting stench that rolled off the swamp in waves.
Anselm was confused about how the village was even able to sustain itself until I pointed out the small shoots of bright green oat growing in a fenced off section of dry land near the edge of the town. Then I also noticed the plethora of deep indigo berries that dotted the multitude of creeping wooden tendrils that surrounded us. People only needed to walk a couple of steps from their house door in order to gather an abundance of leaves, roots, and mushrooms.
A man who had just finished checking the crops for disease happened to walk in front of us on his way home, and I bounded up to him. "Have you heard of Bathsheba?"
Caught off guard, he took a step backwards and said, "Why yes, of course. She is the witch of this town. Everyone has heard of her, and many come from miles away just to see her."
"Excellent! And where does she happen to live?" I took another step closer.
The man, in visible discomfort, said, "The small house with the black roof three buildings down." He pointed. "You'll know it when you see it."
"Thank you!" I shouted as I ran off, leaving the man, who was slowly beginning to sink in the ground, grumbling in the distance.
It was situated on top of a small mound, which allowed the walls to be built out of crudely cut stone and the floor to be made of dirt. Moss rose from the ground and slowly invaded the outside of the house, seeping through the rocks and peppering the roof, which was black with decayed straw. There were no little windows to let the scant light shine through; the only way inside was one simple wood door with rusted metal hinges. The house looked smaller than the other ones, and I doubt it was able to support more than one room.
Being near that building gave me such a feeling of unease that I knew it had to belong to Bathsheba, for no other residence emitted such an insidious aura.
I walked through the weeds right up to the entranceway and knocked on the door. "Hello! My name is Cecilia and I am learning the art of magic. I have received a letter instructing me to find you."
While waiting for a response, I remembered our first intrusion into Doctor Asfutus' home.
The door opened much quicker and more quietly than I had expected. A large woman with sleek black hair and piercing eyes appeared in front of me. She must have been almost as tall as my father and towered over me. She wore an obnoxiously red dress that loosely hung over her body and swung around her knees.
Furthermore, her nose had neither the bulbous warts nor prickly blackheads that I expected it to have. In fact, her skin was relatively smooth and clean with the exception of some slight crinkles around her eyes and mouth. I thought she would look older, like a hobbling grandmother, but I never knew how much witches could disguise their real age.
"A letter, you say? Bring it over here, girl," she said and ushered me in. She noticed Anselm standing a little behind me. "You too, you big brute."
He scrunched up his face, looking a little insulted. I suppressed a chuckle and waited for him to follow me like he usually did. Instead, he had his head turned, looking at something or the other in the village, until I waved my hands to grab his attention. He snapped his head as if suddenly waking up and ran up to me.
Just as I had guessed, the house only had enough area for one room, a fire pit, and piles and piles of books splayed open on their spines. It was almost as dark as Asfutus' room, except the fire burned slightly brighter, so I could see the shadowy figures of Bathsheba and Anselm walking around the room.
The renowned witch moved to a small table, which held scattered tarot cards and vials of every color I could imagine. Various quills littered the smooth wooden surface alongside fragments of faded paper.
I sat down with her and moved my hands over the bumps and dents on the table. I passed her the message.
"Ah, I recognize this technique! Invisible writing only revealed by water. I invented it myself," she said proudly. "This looks like the handiwork of Edith. She was with me for almost twenty years before she left in service of that lord, whatever his name was. So she sent you here, huh? I guess she must've liked you. Well, I hate to tell you this, but I'm not exactly taking apprentices right now. Maybe in the past, but not anymore." She handed me a tarot card, face down. "I'll give you a fortune for your troubles."
I pushed the card away. "Please!" I begged. "I've come all this way to learn from you! In my village they don't believe me when I say magic still exists. They don't think my stories are real, but I want to prove that they are. I loved those stories more than anything."
I blinked and realized that my eyes had filled with tears. I tried to wipe them away before she noticed.
She closed her eyes and leaned back in thought. "Okay, I'll give you a little test. Real simple. If you can pass it, I'll take you on. See me tomorrow."
I snatched the tarot card from her hand and hugged it to my chest. "Thank you! I'll do my best!"
Grabbing Anselm's hand, I bid Bathsheba farewell and marched out of the house right to where we tied the horse. I grabbed my books out of the bags and sat down on a branch that poked out from the still water. After a couple of minutes being engrossed in the meaning of tarot cards, Anselm walked over and tapped my shoulder.
"We should probably find a place to sleep tonight," he said softly.
I jumped at the touch, suddenly finding myself back in reality. "I totally forgot!" I exclaimed.
Anselm shuffled his feet and opened his mouth several times without saying anything, which was uncharacteristically indirect of him. I even saw him bat his eyelashes a couple of times.
"Earlier, I saw a shepherd. I was thinking we could stay with him if we help out with the sheep. I like the work."
A hearty laughter escaped my lips. The tension from the encounter completely left my stomach. "Is that what you were embarrassed about?"
He blushed. "I didn't think you'd like it since animals are pretty smelly. And I thought you'd like a nicer place to stay."
I threw my arm out and pointed at the horse. "I've been with this thing the entire time! How could you think I wouldn't want to live with animals?" I laughed some more.
"Don't call my horse a thing! She has feelings too!" His bottom lip turned out in an adorable pout.
"Anyways, I'm happy to stay with the shepherd. You can tend to the flocks, and I can learn from Bathsheba."
Anselm's face lit up. "That would be wonderful!" And he hugged me so hard I nearly dropped my precious book.
Walking with the horse, we returned to the main village entrance to see a small shepherd boy, barely older than me, with a crop of about fifty fluffy sheep that grazed on all the available grass the swamp could support. He sat on a log and watched his sheep eat.
Anselm and the boy exchanged waves.
"Hello!" said the almost-knight beside me.
"Hello," said the boy who wore a simple tunic and liked to twirl his shepherd's crook when he thought no one was watching.
"We are two weary travellers looking for a place to rest," Anselm said. "If you could provide a place for us, we would be happy to provide extra hands for the flock."
"Sure, you are free to work for me. I too am just passing through, but the villagers were kind enough to provide a small tent for me in a location that is not filled with water. You are welcome to stay there, but you will need your own beds, for mine is rather small." He looked a little embarrassed to reveal the size of his bed, as if it correlated with his own diminutive stature.
He put us to work immediately. Each of us received a third of the flock to keep track of as we led them from grass patch to grass patch in and around the village. I never realized how much just one sheep could eat. Every so often, I peeked at Anselm and saw tranquility reflected across his face as he stared at his herd. He looked like a boy who wouldn't lift a sword to save his life.
I worked like this for about an hour, then I declared that I had done enough to earn my keep. I told the group that I had to study for a big test, gave my responsibilities to Anselm (who happily took them), and returned to my books and my wild fantasies.
After a sufficiently restful sleep in the painfully humid tent with Anselm and the shepherd boy tossing and turning, I went to Bathsheba and declared that I was ready for the test.