The Knight of the Golden Rose
Anybody listening to the final goodbyes between Anselm and the shepherd boy would have thought that Anselm was leaving behind a dying brother when in reality the sheep had been sheared, the wool sold, the grass grazed, and there was simply nothing left to do in this town unless we wanted to travel with the shepherd.
By now, fall had started to yield to winter, and the first batch of soft snowflakes began to grace the rolling hills of England. Icy blasts stripped the proud trees of their protective coats, sending auburn leaves swirling up high in the air then back down to the ground where they now sat, decomposing in large black mounds.
The sun's presence weakened; day by day, it appeared later and fled earlier, cutting into our precious travel time. The temperature steadily fell, and soon I was waking up shivering in the middle of the night and hiding myself in Anselm's bear-like arms for warmth.
It was becoming harder for us to feed ourselves. Many of Anselm's favorite game animals had gone into hibernation, and the traps returned empty; lakes froze over, so we had to break the ice in order to fish; bushes stopped providing us with their tried-and-true berries; fresh layers of snow hid the roots and small herbs that I had come to rely on.
Sometimes we were lucky and a wild boar wandered into our path, but on the whole, our supplies were getting scarce. We began stopping at various towns and villages more often. There, Anselm might perform a little favor such as catching a thief or chasing off a bandit, and we would be rewarded with a small amount of bread and cheese and a place to stay for the night.
If the town were a little bigger and held tournaments, Anselm might jump in (with my encouragement) with his golden badge of royalty and entertain the audience with some silly display of bravado. The longer I watched him, the more I realized that he was never in any real danger, for some knights put on such a show that they were more suited to be actors than warriors.
The townspeople were always amazed, without fail, by Anselm's brooch. They thought his journey was so noble and pure. While they droned on and on about what a great knight he was, Anselm simply listened in silence.
As usual, I was left out of these conversations and forgotten like old furniture. However, a curious thing had occurred since my encounter with Bathsheba: I found myself gladly ignored because, after all, I had nothing to prove to the motley crowd of children that congregated around Anselm, who later confessed that he would happily trade his fame for my peace and quiet.
I no longer felt the need to tell everyone my favorite tales of knights and dragons. Instead, I preferred to listen to other people's stories. Indeed, my most treasured memories of those days involved sitting around a fire in the frozen night and sharing a meal with the rowdy peasants while an old and wizened grandmother told us some folk story as old as time.
During those brutally cold rides between our village stops, I, left alone with my thoughts, often wondered what I was on this journey for. I had left my home with the intention of finding England's lost magic, but how much progress had I made? All I learned was that the bark of a willow tree could heal fever.
And what of dragons and ogres? I had not met a single creature larger than a deer and fiercer than a feral dog. No knights ran through the forest in search of the Questing Beast. Full show of armor and prowess existed only within the walls of the tournament.
But strangely enough, I did not feel the hot pangs of shame when I imagined returning home and reporting my failure to Lawrence as I did in the early days of my travels, for I always remembered my duty to Anselm just before the waves of disappointment could roll through me. I took pride in supporting him. Every one of his victories was my own.
I truly believed that he would be a great knight, worthy of being immortalized in story books.
In the darkest hours of twilight, we talked about our hopes for the future. I liked to rest my head on his shoulders while listening to him. One night, when my confidence was particularly high, I confessed my ill-will towards my mother's dizzying array of potential suitors for me.
"Why don't you just marry me?" he then said with such plainness that I stared at him for several long seconds before realizing what he had just proposed. I instantly turned beet red and flapped my hands wildly, mostly in confusion but a little in personal victory. My mouth opened and closed like a fish.
"Hey, I'm not that bad," he said in indignation. "In fact, I think I'm a pretty desirable option."
"Now look who's narcissistic!" I said after I finally recovered my voice.
"Hm... You might have to stay at the castle for a bit if I really do become the king's knight." He continued speaking without listening to my interjections.
"That's fine, isn't it? I've never lived in a castle before, so I'd like to see what it's like."
"You don't want to go home?"
"Not particularly. I want to stay with you," I said with force.
"Ah, I see..." His voice trailed off into the darkness. Nobody said anything for an unbearably long moment as if we were frozen in time.
Anselm broke the silence. "Well, none of this is official anyways. Let's not talk about it now. Who knows what will happen when we reach the king!" He spoke rapidly like he was trying to erase what he had just said. The marriage idea left just as quickly as it came. I could not help but feel rather disappointed.
I tried to probe him further about the topic, but he kept deflecting, telling me to just focus on the present instead of the future, which sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than me. We did not continue the conversation.
Many uneventful weeks passed by, and nothing particularly important happened. We kept our routine of traveling over snow and ice by day and resting at small hamlets by night. When we could not reach a warm building in time, we were forced to wrap ourselves with wool blankets (gifted to us courtesy of the shepherd) and shiver in our sleep.
Just as autumn fell away to winter, so too did winter fall away to spring, whose mild embrace melted the angry grasp of ice over the earth. Trees and shrubs burst forth with vibrant green, sprouting extra branches and new splashes of fruit. Bright nascent flowers poked through the thawing soil. Anselm's hunting trips were successful again, and I welcomed back my forest plants. Persephone had returned to her mother.
After one long and tiring day of travel, Anselm looked at the map and realized that we were just on the cusp of the king's castle. Only a couple more days and almost an entire year's worth of hard work would culminate.
As he was calculating the route to the castle, Anselm's face grew long and hard like he was marching to his death. He had the same look as he did back then when he first announced his quest in the village square. It was that shadowed look of hopelessness so unbefitting of such a happy occasion.
When I tried to ask him what the matter was, he brushed me off, telling me not to worry about it and that we were so very close to the end of our journey.
Those several days passed like a summer breeze, and finally we found ourselves at the base of a magnificent wall that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was made out of perfectly cut gray stone that no doubt took thousands of man hours to build. The guard at the tower closest to us simply waved us through, along with the dozens of other travelers, young and old, tall and short, that found themselves at the entrance to what was the largest collection of people I had ever seen in my life.
It was at least one hundred ordinary villages enclosed in a single, continuous wall. One thousand even. My village, Asfutus' village, Dinasfield, they were all a speck of dust compared to this new area — a city, Anselm said it was called.
I recalled the noise and putrid odors of Lord Barrymont's village, which I now realized were nothing in the face of a real city. Whereas before, the chatter would die down occasionally, here, the sheer volume of ribaldrous humans and impatient animals created such a constant racket that I had to yell for anyone to hear me.
And the stink! Every step I took ran the risk of submerging my feet in utter filth. Human waste abounded. Rotten food that dirty little children and stray dogs ate to ward off starvation littered the streets. I resigned to breathe through my mouth, unable to stand the smells even worse than those of the swamp village.
The city was also intensely tight. Skinny wooden buildings protruded from every angle. I thought they would surely fall on me as we walked through the maze-like roads that were barely wider than Anselm. When I looked up, I saw churches instead of sky. Shops and homes were bundled so tightly together I was sure you could visit every single building in the city without actually stepping on the ground.
A frightening thought crept into my mind: if someone set fire to a house, the rest of the buildings would feed into it like tinder until flames engulfed the entire area.
I was in awe of all the goods that the city produced. There was a street filled with tailors. A street for just blacksmiths. A street with such delicious smells that could only be produced by a baker's fresh bread. I visited several shops to ogle at the custards and puddings, eating them with my eyes, until finally Anselm tossed in a couple of coins and let me eat them for real.
There were even a couple of bookshops. I had never seen them before since books were usually only kept in monasteries and churches. Anselm asked if I wanted to stop and check if they had any magic books, but I told him no, I already had enough.
And the market square! So big and crowded and full of people. Even though I just had an entire pudding, the meat pies and sausages set my stomach churning once again. There were fishermen with their huge crates of flopping mackerel, cod, and whatever else they managed to catch that day.
Animals were no stranger to the market either, for cattle and sheep and chicken all found themselves and their products for sale. Blacksmiths were also here, selling their weapons and armors to local knights. Exotic odors wafted from a spice stand, where I smelled things that I had only heard about in stories from the East. Anselm looked at the prices and balked.
After I had my fill of food, drink, and revelry, I asked a local artisan (a regular source of information for us) where the king lived since surely a castle would be hard to find in a city with so many large and fearsome structures.
It turns out we were in luck! Apparently the king frequently moved, and we caught him just as he was settling into his spring residency here. The artisan was confused — what were we looking for the king for? Everyone knew that it was near impossible to get an audience with him. I thanked him for his time, and we went on our merry way.
Somehow I had missed the fact that inside the already-impressive city walls, there was another set of thick defensive walls, complete with battlements, that protected a region larger than my own village. A whirling moat just as wide and deep as any river scared off any thieves trying to rob royal treasure.
As was custom, Anselm flashed his brooch to the guard, who immediately bowed and let us through, for everyone knew the significance of the king's symbol in the king's city.
The first thing I saw in that secluded area was a humongous building with two twin towers that scraped the sky like Babel. The rest of the body was rectangular, with jutting blue roofs, but no less impressive in its height. Little crosses dotted every tower top.
I reached the entrance with all its grandeur and thought that this is surely what the gateway to heaven must look like. I was about to walk in when Anselm informed me that this building was just a church and that the actual castle lay ahead of us.
My mind could barely comprehend the scale of the real castle. It was even taller than the church I had just seen and contained infinitely more towers and spires and meticulously chiseled windows. I thought that the entire world's population could easily fit inside this marvellous castle, and with room to spare!
There was an obvious resemblance between the intricate archways and delicate decorations of the castle and the church, but no features were as impressive as the pure white stone that glittered like jewels in sunlight and lent those buildings an angelic glow. The pristine castle somehow escaped the curse of time which rots wood, erodes stone, and turns even the most beautiful house into an ugly drabness.
I felt so small, smaller than an ant, before this powerful display of architectural might that I thought about leaving and trying again some other day, but Anselm held my hand and my confidence surged. We walked forward.
With a couple more displays of the golden rose and a little bit of questioning, we were granted access to the main hall, where we were told that the king was entertaining visitors and in a jolly good mood.