The Knight of the Golden Rose
Bathsheba took me inside her house to that stubby little table and sat down. A single candle flickered between us, illuminating her murky green eyes. I felt so small in her presence that even her shadows overwhelmed me, and I thought to myself that this is what real power looked like — powers that once influenced the fate of entire kingdoms.
My stomach lurched in anticipation of the test that she planned to give me. I mentally flipped through my books, convinced that I had memorized the ingredient list and special instructions of every spell.
The witch smiled.
"Tell me about myself," she said. "Past and future. Present, while you're at it."
I raised my brow. This wasn't a spell I saw in the books. I knew about the fortune tellers, but I needed a method to extract information. I couldn't come up with it out of thin air.
"Can I use tarot cards? Are there any stars I can look at?"
"No. Real wizards can look at someone and just know. You know Merlin, right? He wasn't the most famous wizard because of some fancy spells. He was born with the power of prophecy. King Arthur valued him most because everything he said came true. He even predicted his own death! Now, what can you say about me?"
I stared at Bathsheba and tried to imagine her life before this town. Did she have a husband and children? Where was she born? Failing to come up with anything, I thought about her future. Would she live out the rest of her days alone in this tiny hut?
Her gaze burned hot on my head as I tried to come up with some lie that would convince nobody. How was anybody to know such things?
I shook my head sadly as I realized that this mysterious woman completely eluded me. "I don't know," I whispered. "I don't know."
Her grin widened into a crescent that almost split her face in half. "Well there you have it. You don't have the gift!"
My stomach sank as she said those last words as if she had just pronounced the death of a family member. At that moment, she cruelly cackled like the true witch I expected her to be.
"But my spells have worked before. I healed Anselm's fever. I made medicine," I said with weak resistance.
"Any child with working fingers can perform such things. That isn't real magic. The juice of a willow tree will always treat fever, don't you know that? Midwives have been using it for centuries and will continue using it for the next millennium. There is nothing special about your remedies, my girl!"
I said nothing as she looked at me with self-satisfaction.
"Don't worry. There are very few people born with such powers. I myself have only inherited the smallest sliver of knowledge." Her voice softened. "Perhaps I was a bit too harsh earlier. You will make a fine woman. Be a good wife to your husband. That is a very respectable life. Your parents would be proud."
She leaned over and gently rubbed my back. I barely heard her words of comfort.
"Thank you for your time," I said quietly and left.
The tears that I thought would come did not come. Instead, I was an empty shell wandering through the swamp, letting nettle cut my feet as I waded through the brackish water. Anger did not find me either, for I knew Bathsheba had done me no wrong; rather, she had imparted valuable wisdom unto me.
It was a truth that I already knew but desperately wished to avoid. From the first time that I tried a spell from a magic book, I felt nothing. I had always felt nothing. There was no sparkle, no tingle of the hands, no premonition, nothing that would suggest I had any ounce of magic that resided in my pathetic body.
Did Anselm know that I had no ability? He must have sensed the hesitation in my demonstrations and lied out of kindness. I bore him no ill will, for his words had always banished my doubts. With him, I truly believed that we were destined for greatness.
But I needed magic, for the rest of my life was utterly unremarkable. I did not have particularly good house skills. I constantly pricked myself while sewing, my cooking skills were mediocre at best, and I had no sense of managing children.
Unfortunately, my mind was also lacking: Lawrence, out of goodwill, simply said that I was a slow learner, but I remembered those flashes of frustration he often revealed during our lessons when I failed to grasp a simple concept.
Beauty could not save me either; I was far from the prettiest woman in the village. I was short as a child and carried myself with such brashness that I could never hope to reach the level of elegance of the court ladies. I did not have enough money or prestige to attract reputable suitors.
I suddenly remembered the pale black-haired boy in Bellemere Forest who looked so lonely. My stomach churned in horror — what could I possibly do to make up for that sin? It was an incompetence past incompetence. Self-disgust gurgled in my stomach and threatened to spill out, and hot shame flooded my body. How could I be so stubbornly focused on my fanciful magic abilities when I had such a crime weighing on my soul?
I remembered that sleepless night when Anselm and I admired the vast expanse of sky. Perhaps I was simply a dim star who was meant to be forgotten. A member of the legion of good-for-nothings who lived and died without anyone ever knowing. Gone like we had never existed. It was for the better.
Somehow I found my way back to Anselm and the shepherd. They were busy shearing the sheep.
"What's the first thing she's going to teach you?" he asked heartily once he saw me.
"That I can't do magic," I said. "Or anything, really."
He didn't say anything for a few minutes. Then, thumping me on the back, he said, "Don't worry about it, Cecilia! We'll find you another teacher. I bet Bathsheba is not all she's cracked up to be anyways."
"A new teacher will not change anything. I just don't have what it takes."
This time, he didn't try to convince me that I was special. He, too, was probably tired of this game of pretend.
Instead, he simply asked me if I wanted to continue our journey to the king's castle.
"I don't care," I said. "In fact, maybe you should just leave me here and go by yourself so I don't eat all your food."
I was surprised by my own indifference. Just a week ago, Anselm consumed all my waking thoughts and invaded my dreams. I would have rather died than left his side. Now, he was no different from any other man.
"I would never do that!" he exclaimed. "I need you with me."
Bathsheba's judgement and the failed test echoed in my mind. I could not find the energy to respond to him.
"Please," he added.
"Okay," I said at last.
"But for now, let's stay with the shepherd a little longer. There's some work I have to finish. Plus, it's quite relaxing, so I think you'll like it," he said.
That Anselm was so caring when he had an important mission to fulfill and that I was so self-obsessed with my own worthlessness just made me more disgusted with myself. Why should Anselm, who was so successful in his knightly endeavors, the very image of chivalry, care for a lowly baker's daughter? And how unforgivable of me to reject his noble efforts!
Soon Anselm was telling me about how the shepherd boy frequently moved to let his sheep graze on fresh pastures and that he stopped in a town every so often to sell the wool, milk, cheese, and sometimes the meat from an animal nearing the end of its life.
Right now, they were preparing wool to sell to the local townspeople, so Anselm took me through each careful step in scraping off the fresh white coats. First, I learned that the sheep should be starved for a day before the shear. Next, I took note of how he calmed the sheep before the procedure and what positions he put it in for the easiest cut. Finally, we herded the now-naked animal back to the flock and retrieved our next fluffy victim.
With only the next task on my mind, I helped to prepare the products for market. I gathered up the wool and washed them, I milked the animals, and I put finishing touches on the fermenting cheese. I gave the fruits of my labour to the shepherd, who was overjoyed with our work. Before I realized, the sun had already set, and we had an entire group of quivering white-and-pink sheep bleating with displeasure.
That night, I slept a lot better in the crowded tent, for my muscles ached and I thought about nothing in particular.
For the next couple of days while the shepherd was busy in town selling his wares, I mechanically repeated the same routine: I woke up, ate a small porridge, split the flock with Anselm, and watched my section meander around the village from sunrise to sunset. I rescued sheep who had wandered off and scared away any predators that tried to eat them.
During those long hours, my mind was a blank slate with only the image of sheep burned in. Evil memories of Bathsheba's words would occasionally wander in alongside a familiar feeling of despair, but I forced myself to wipe it all away.
I was amazed at how quickly time could pass. Before, I thought that only an intense storm of activity could let the hours slip by, but now I realized that the opposite was also true. So that's how my mom spent so long sitting in the corner, patching an endless supply of worn-out clothes.
Days slipped by just like the hours. The shepherd returned from the market with respectable coffers and even offered us a bonus. Anselm politely refused.
That I did not have to say a word the entire day except of grunts was liberating. No longer did I need to think about other people and how they perceived my speech as my mother often wanted me to do. The sore body and puddles of sweat at the end of the day gave me all the validation I needed that I had done a good job.
One day I woke up, and my failures did not haunt me like they did in all those previous mornings. I did not feel the familiar pangs of emotion, neither happiness nor sadness nor anger, and was instead filled with a calm emptiness.
I was even ashamed of myself for overreacting to Bathsheba's rejection. Was my supposedly boring life as a shepherd's helper not a perfectly fine way to live? Every day passed in peace, and I slept with a full belly, so what could I possibly have to complain about? Did not farmers and bakers and blacksmiths also exist in those old stories?
My mother had such a clear path for me. If I just gave her the word, she would find a responsible husband, and we would start a happy little family. There might be times of trouble, but we would push through them if we worked hard enough. Then I would die, old and full of years, as my children carried on my memory.
Who was I to throw away such a respectable life in pursuit of things that I could never hope to accomplish?
I decided to tell Anselm about my new future plans and was shocked to hear the first and last time he would ever raise his voice against me.