Chapter 20:

Trials and Tribulations

The Knight of the Golden Rose

Flanked by several important-looking men with finely-cut beards, we passed through a large, double-doored entrance into the most majestic grand hall I had ever seen and ever will see in my life. The ceiling was supported by repeating frames of three interconnected arches and taller than the sky.

Sparkling chandeliers as bright as the sun hung from the roof and cast the entire chamber in brilliant golden light. Our shoes clacked across the polished pink-tinted stone floors that were immaculately clean.

Next to the walls were rows and rows of glistening armor: helmet, chest, legs, and feet. They were so complete I was sure they would jump off the stands and start walking around any minute. Interspersed next to the armor were larger-than-life statues of what seemed to be famous men in some heroic pose or the other riding horses or brandishing large swords.

The walls themselves held portraits of past monarchs with their names scribbled in silver ink underneath. Tall, majestic, and powerful, they gazed at us as we walked through that endless hall.

Way above us, humongous windows adorned all sides of the building and showcased the bright blue sky. Below the windows of transparent glass sat smaller stained glass windows in a motley of reds, greens, blues, and yellows that lent a darker, more mysterious air to the otherwise bright and chirpy building. Most of the panels of colorful glass shards morphed into traditional images of saints, but one of them displayed a huge golden rose, the spitting image of Anselm's brooch.

In the middle of a hall sat a very long wooden table, enough to seat several hundred people. Many court ladies were gathered there, enjoying the dizzying array of buffet options with their endless meats — chicken, veal, hare, boar, swans, peacocks — and overflowing bowls of pottage that contained so many leafy greens I did not recognize. Funky-smelling cheeses dotted the table, and there was a loaf of bread and wine at every seat. Dessert was given its own section near the end of the table. I wanted to scoop up all the amazing puddings, pies, and custards, and bring them home for my father to analyze and recreate so I could eat them every day.

Song flooded the hall from a minstrel. It was one of my mother's favorite old tales. When he got to an exciting battle or scandalous love affair, the entire court fell to hushed tones, eager to hear every bit of juicy detail. When there was a funny scene, the court roared with laughter. And when Arthur and his noble knights appeared in full glory, the court stood in awe.

My heart swelled with pride: being in the king's palace and listening to the minstrel describe the grandiosity of Camelot brought me to tears and made me fall in love with the legends all over again. A love that was weakening but now came rushing forth in brilliant hues.

I looked at the boy next to me. I knew he would be the perfect knight. Pure, elegant, chivalrous. And I, hopefully, had the honor of being his wife.

At the very end of the hall came a series of stairs that led to an elevated platform covered with red velvet carpet. There, the king sat proudly in his throne of gold the same color as Anselm's brooch. I marvelled at the power of all of England contained in a single man — I was almost too afraid to look at him, lest my gaze was unworthy and I turned to stone where I stood.

He wore a crown richly inlaid with rubies that covered curly brown hair which fell at the side of his head. He had small eyes and rosy boy-like cheeks. The thick, dark red coat with silver fur lining that covered his large body was so puffy it made his limbs look like balloons. Tight leggings that emphasized his well-defined calves ran down to meet surprisingly small beige shoes. Finally, a cape in the same colors as the coat hung from his shoulders like a protective shield and was secured in the middle by a brooch in the shape of a golden rose.

We arrived in front of the king and knelt, noses touching the floor. I dared not speak and let Anselm do all the hard work.

"My most esteemed king, I thank you for your hospitality. My name is Anselm, and I have traveled from far away in order to learn the secrets of my birth. I was raised by poor farmers in a small village, but in the summer of last year, I learned that I was adopted and that the only memento of my birth is this small brooch with your symbol on it. I left my home on a quest to learn who my real father is. Before you are the fruits of my labor."

Even though all I could see was the carpet, I felt the king's eyes on our backs like fire.

"You may arise," he said. "Let me see your brooch."

Anselm held up the golden rose like so many times before, except this time, his hands were trembling. The king took it from him and turned it over and over in his heavy palms.

"Yes, this does indeed look like my very own brooch. Only the finest goldsmith in my employment can create such a lovely piece." He paused and turned to the woman sitting next to him in a seat of equal grandeur. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, with soft auburn hair and fair skin. Crystal-blue eyes and an elegant face, neither too large nor too small. Like she just came out of a painting.

"This is my wife," he said, holding her hand. He closed his eyes in preparation for a tale.

"Many years ago, we had a very sickly baby boy. None of the healers in the royal court could make him better. In desperation, we sought out a famous witch to save our child. It was said that she could perform miracles. She took him in her care, and slowly he became healthier. We were overjoyed. However, one day, she suddenly disappeared with the baby. All he had on him were his swaddling clothes and that golden brooch. We looked everywhere, searched the entire realm, but we could not find our son or that cursed witch. He would be your age now."

The king looked directly at Anselm. "If you are indeed our lost child, then we would love to welcome you back. However, I cannot be sure of your status just yet. You must undergo a test that only someone of royal blood can pass. Then you will have proven your legitimacy as a prince of England."

Anselm bowed his head. "I thank you for this opportunity. What will my test be?"

The king's fleshy lips wobbled open. "Recently, there have been three items terrorizing my kingdom. One is a giant who destroys houses and kills my soldiers. He has most recently been spotted in a village just south of here. Bring back his hair as proof of his death.

"Another is the Black Witch, whose haphazard curses destroy our crops. She lives in a little house in the middle of the forest. My guards will show you on a map. Bring back her blood as proof of her death.

"Finally, there is the mystic boar Rotch. He has the strength of a hundred wild boars and is larger than an ox. It is said that the spirit of an ancient Irish king resides within him. He has been killing my peasants, but his whereabouts are currently unknown. Bring back his tusk as proof of his death."

A guard, who had been listening, retrieved a map and handed it to Anselm with marks for the locations of the giant and the witch.

Anselm stepped forward. "I understand. I promise I will return in victory," he said solemnly.

"Good luck," the queen said sweetly. "I quickly await your triumphant return."

I could almost hear the trumpet's blare in my head to signal the start of a real quest! I felt like I was accompanying one of Arthur's knights on an epic journey. As we left the grand hall, I was no longer embarrassed by the scores of staring noblemen and noblewomen; instead, I was proud that they could witness the beginnings of a new legend, still alive and well in the land of England, just like I always wanted.

The king said that giants and magic boars still existed, so maybe we might even run into a dragon! Or an ogre! My smile was so wide Anselm turned up a brow in concern.

All of my previous doubts evaporated. Even if I myself was plain and unremarkable, Anselm was special enough for both of us. I wanted to share everything. His victories were my victories. His failures my failures. For some reason, the future prince of England had chosen me. I felt unbelievably lucky.

Yet, as I remembered Bathsheba and her final words, fear stabbed my heart. I knew that if I just thought about it a little more, I would have a completely different conclusion regarding the whole affair. I did not think about why the king gave us such odd tasks or how doing any of that could prove Anselm's parentage. Nor did I think about how long it would even take us to find a boar that no one had ever seen.

But back then, I didn't want to destroy that happiness. That pure, unbridled joy only the young can have, free of the ugly marks of experience. A happiness that I have not found since then, for happiness that comes from potential belongs only to youth.

Pushing Bathsheba away, I chose to ignore that nagging feeling of unease because I knew that this moment would never come again, and I instead put all my impossible dreams on the shoulders of a boy who could never hope to achieve them.

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi