Chapter 17:

Stealth Operations

The Knight of the Golden Rose

Standing there like an angry parent, Anselm gave me an earful about how this wasn't like me at all and how hard I worked to get here and were a few mean words really all it took for me to give up? Even the shepherd stopped to stare at the normally timid Anselm screaming into my ear.

"It's not just this," I said. "It's everything. Bathsheba just told me what I already knew. I'm not like you. I can't do anything."

Those words put him into more of a frenzy. "What do you mean not like me? I can barely do anything either! My swordsmanship is far from perfect. I can't talk to people like you. I'm impatient. The most I've ever done for anyone is help out with some chores!" His face was red and he was panting like a dog.

"But you were so good at that tournament. Everyone loved you."

"Oh, that thing? All I did was wait around 'till they had all beaten each other up! It's one of the most cowardly things you could do!"

"But you looked so cool!" I protested.

"Maybe you thought so. But I felt like an idiot the entire time. I was only able to defeat a couple of malnourished peasants." He shrugged haphazardly.

"And you're always getting me out of trouble... Like in Bellemere Forest or with the river...." My voice grew fainter.

"I only found you by chance!" Anselm protested. "And the river ordeal was my fault!" He thumped his chest for emphasis. "I should be asking for your forgiveness."

"I'm just regular ol' Cecilia. I'm not royalty like you," I said, this time a little firmer.

He stepped forward and started shaking my shoulders furiously.

"What do you mean?" Anselm was so close he practically spat in my face. "My lineage has absolutely nothing to do with this! I am no different than if my parents had truly been farmers!"

"Well, maybe people in the royal family inherit magic powers or something," I said.

Anselm sighed. "Look, God will choose who to bequeath blessings on. It's not based on family or royalty or anything like that."

"And I know it isn't me." I stared at him with tears in the corners of my eyes, challenging him to prove me wrong.

I waited. Anselm did not say anything more for several minutes. Then, he began.

"Cecilia. I wouldn't be here without you. Really, truly. You've made my life and this journey so much more fun and bearable. I would have never met Doctor Asfutus or Charlotte or Lord Barrymont. I'm such a bore, if it were just me, I would have skipped right past them.

Without you by my side, I would probably be reduced to a madman talking to his horse the entire day! I've thought about giving up and just going home to tell my family 'Sorry, I wasn't up to the task' so many times, but your eagerness has always pushed me through. I love waking up in the morning to see your face, so happy and bright."

His words became punctuated with sobs.

"So, please, if not for yourself, keep believing for me."

I was stunned. I had no idea Anselm felt that way. My image of the perfect knight crumbled away. Here I had thought him so noble and brave, not a man constantly on the verge of turning back with his tail behind his legs.

I also realized his words contained a more insidious message, that maybe keeping up with certain lies wasn't such a bad thing; after all, who has gone their entire lives without lying?

Slowly, confidence returned to me. "It's a team effort then," I said with a smile.

He finished wiping away his tears. "Yes, a team effort."

Putting two fingers to my chin, I said, "Even if I don't have that power of prophecy Bathsheba gloated about, surely I can perform some low-level spells.What if I just hide out in her house and see what she does on a daily basis? I bet I can at least learn something like that."

"That's pretty gutsy. Won't she find out?" Anselm asked.

"Oho! You underestimate my skills!" I said. "I am the reigning queen of hide-and-seek among the village children."

In response, he simply put a hand to his waist and laughed. "Now this is starting to sound like the Cecilia I know."


Right before the earliest rays of sun began to penetrate the swamp village, I left the snoring shepherd's tent and snuck my way past the sleeping houses to Bathsheba's lair. There was a tree with sprawling branches next to the house that I hid myself in and waited for the hours to pass. I was getting good at waiting.

A little past morning when everyone else had already woken up and started their daily routine, Bathsheba left her house to gather her much-needed plants in a nearby patch of weeds. When she was sufficiently out of sight, I dashed inside the pitch black dwelling and felt for any sort of nook and cranny I could squeeze myself into.

Her single room was excessively flat and box-like, but it was filled with an incredible amount of books. There had to be just as many books here as in the monastery back home, but they were not stacked nearly as neatly. Instead, they were flung around, this way and that, piled high, and scattered low. I would have tried to read them had there been a source of light.

In terms of furniture, she had a single straw bed and a small cabinet with what I could only assume was a mirror on top. Unfortunately, the bed sat squarely on the floor, so I could not rest underneath it. In the cabinet I felt mysterious roots and tendrils, the ingredients for her magic potions.

I briefly thought about digging a hole in the floor and burying myself but decided that that would take too much time and besides, wouldn't a freshly-created hole be way too obvious?

As the minutes ticked by, my heartbeat quickened and I created a fortress of books in the corner to hide myself in, grateful for my child-like stature for once in my life. Surely she would never look there, for every single cover I touched had a film of dust covering it.

Bathsheba sauntered in, arm heavy with berries and tree bark. In the dark, she dumped her bounty in a pile of existing tree bark and lit the fireplace. It crackled with life. Then, sitting down, she put her dark plump fruits in an earthenware bowl and began eating them, one by one, savoring each bite. She fiddled with the tarot cards and the books on her desk, trying to make them neater for her incoming clientele. Finishing that, she fished out a jug beside her bed and began chugging what I could only assume was large quantities of beer.

Next, she started heating a huge tub of water over the fire, letting the bubbles pop and the smoke pass through the hole in the roof. After the water had roared to a brisk boil, she tossed chips after chips from that fat pile of bark into that stew.

She let out a very long and weary sigh.

At last, a knock came.

"Come in, come in!" she cried, her spirits suddenly lifting.

The door swung open to reveal a man with a cane. He hobbled in on one foot and collapsed on the chair.

"I have travelled so far to meet you, Bathsheba," he said. "None of the healers back in my village can heal this leg of mine. I cannot work with only one leg. I will die!"

Bathsheba grabbed a flask, filled it up with the bark-infused water, and tossed sprinkles of the mysterious herbs from the cabinet into the mixture. She muttered some fast-paced phrases and swished the liquid around. "Drink this and have faith," she said.

The man swallowed the entire mixture in one gulp. "Thank you!" He bowed his head.

"You will slowly regain sensation in your left leg in the coming days," she said solemnly.

He quickly nodded his head up and down, glad that there was some hope for the future. He hobbled out, thanking her profusely.

After he left, Bathsheba laughed. "That fool."

The scene replayed itself with several other visitors. They came in, claimed some sort of ailment or disease, and the witch would refill that flask with the bark water and a random assortment of dried plants from the cabinets, then tell the guests that they would be healed in the coming days.

Occasionally, a woman might ask for a prophecy for her child's future, whereupon Bathsheba would open a heavy black book and hum while flipping through the pages. Then she would suddenly stop as if in a trance and begin her series of predictions such as "Your child will live to eighty" or warnings like "Beware of the sea at full moon."

The woman, holding her child in happiness (for the predictions were always pleasant and the warnings always useful), gave the witch a coin for her troubles and left.

Watching from a tiny slit between the book stacks, I was bored by how utterly mundane it all was. Where were the sparks and the crackles? Where was the outburst of power? Were healing and minor prophecies all witches good for these days?

But then again, what did I even expect from magic? I had always conjured up the image of a wizened wizard with his flowing white beard and billowing robes, but I never had enough creativity to imagine what came after. How did he cast his spells? What kind of effects did his magic have?

Perhaps I was too in love with the idea of magic to learn what the profession actually entailed, just as I was too in love with Anselm's knighthood to recognize his human weaknesses. Maybe the tempting light of perfection had blinded me to reality.

Eventually, the trickle of clients slowed to a halt as the flame flickered and died. The witch bottled up the extra bark-infused water for use the next day. She counted up her profits and put the newly-earned coins in a little pouch under her pillow. Darkness fell, and Bathsheba retired to bed.

When her body began steadily rising up and down, I gingerly pushed the books aside, making sure that the noise didn't wake her. I saw that my coast was clear and picked up an assortment of books off the ground. I made sure to grab the thick fortune-telling volume off the table on my way out.

Giddy with excitement and led only by moonlight, I ran all the way back to the tent with my frantic feet that threatened to splash dirty water on the stolen books. While the shepherd was snoring away, I lit a candle with Anselm and opened up the smallest volume of my haul. It had a green cover and a silver spine.

I read the text, then reread it, unable to believe my eyes.

"Isn't this just the Bible?" I turned to Anselm in confusion.

He looked down and nodded. "Yup, that's Psalms. I remember that part from church."

I quickly flipped through from the beginning: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and so on and so forth, all in the right order with not a single chapter missing.

"What on earth...?" I said, picking up another book and opening to a familiar section of Romans. "This one is also the Bible but in a different font."

All of the books that had been left on the ground turned out to be Bibles in different shapes and sizes. None of them contained any magical recipes or forbidden spells.

Bewildered, I reached for the last book I hadn't opened, the prophetic black tome, and let the pages flop to the side. They were all blank. My jaw dropped.

"Well I'll be," Anselm said. "It certainly doesn't look like Bathsheba has been using these books. Not for witchcraft anyways."

"Then why would she bother keeping them around?" I asked, scratching my head.

An idea popped in my mind. I timidly dipped half of a sheet of unblemished paper into the mud water. I held my breath. Nothing changed.

"I guess it's not invisible ink either," I said.

Anselm flashed his most winning smile. "Will you expose her?"

"Not yet. There's still one more thing I have to check." I narrowed my eyes as if I could see the future.

Sleep did not visit me in large amounts that night. Before the sun could rise and expose my crimes, I crept back into the witch's house and returned the books to their rightful place, trying to recall the original position that I had found the empty black book in.

Then I emptied out her bedside cabinet of its withering plants and replaced them with dried weeds that I had gathered earlier, harmless weeds whose only special property was their own uselessness, so insignificant that some farmers did not even bother to remove them from their fields.

I rebuilt my tower of books and waited for Bathsheba to fall into the trap.

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi
Cours Twent