The Knight of the Golden Rose
On our map, the guard had circled a little enclave of villages to our south, and since we weren't sure which one actually held the giant, we decided to simply go to the nearest village and hope for the best.
Getting to the village was about three days' worth of straight travel. The only stops we needed to make were at night, for we had plenty of food and water from the royal pantry. Furthermore, the area around the king's city was mainly lush plain, so there were no mountains or forests to painfully trudge through.
The village was about the size of my own, and the townspeople were neither particularly friendly nor particularly unfriendly. There was a little residential district and a wide, flat area for the market. The vast majority of the space was taken up by farmland. It was a run-of-the-mill, average village, just like the thousands of others in England.
Anselm and I set about questioning the villagers for any sightings of giants. All of them said no, they had never seen a giant in their entire lives, what a ridiculous thing to ask them.
We were about to leave the village until I saw a collapsed building in a row of houses. "Could that be the handiwork of a giant?" I asked.
A man passing by stopped and chuckled. He informed me that that particular house was rather old and the wooden frames had finally rotted away. Luckily no one was hurt when it all fell apart. No one saw the need to clean up the mess since they had enough houses, and besides, the children liked to play there.
Dejected, I thanked him for his time.
We started on our path to the next village, where we received the same lukewarm response and saw no giant. My spirits dipped lower with every confused look. It was the same with every village we visited in that cluster on the map. No one had seen any giant, and any broken houses were simply a result of environmental causes.
While we were on the road back to the city, hunched over in failure, Anselm suddenly turned around, rushed to the town we had just left, and dismounted, telling me to stay with the horse. I was surprised — he never left me alone. But I figured I shouldn't question the prodigy knight, so I stayed back like a good little girl watching Anselm run around the village like a madman.
He hopped from man to man, inspecting their faces for a couple of seconds, shaking his head, and then moving on to the next person. Sometimes he even disappeared inside houses. Soon he disappeared from my vision. I gave myself until sunset before I began to look for him, just in case he had really lost his mind.
I did not have to wait that long, for before the sun had moved too much in the sky, Anselm returned to me with his prize clutched in one hand: a bundle of coarse, tawny hair.
"Did you find the giant?" I asked incredulously.
"No, but I found a man as tall as a giant and with more hair than my mother. I paid him a coin to lop a bit off." He showed me each thick, straw-like strand, turning them over between his fingers.
My eyes widened in horror. "Anselm! That's lying! We mustn't do that! How can you call yourself a knight if you resort to trickery!"
Anselm stared at the ground, unable to look me in the eyes. "I don't think there is a giant. No one in any of the villages the guard showed us knew anything. And nothing we saw looked remotely like a giant. There were only regular people. Cecilia, it's a wild goose chase."
I was shocked. Was the man before me really Anselm? The epitome of chivalry?
But he did have a point. If we wasted all our energy on finding a giant, we would never be able to finish the other two tasks. Perhaps part of being a knight was knowing which battles to fight.
"Okay," I said. "In the interest of time, we can move on. But once we finish off the witch and the boar, we must find the giant!"
Anselm finally lifted his head and looked at me with those dark, weary eyes, the same ones that Bathsheba had. "Thanks, Cecilia. I knew you'd understand."
We set off for the witch's lair. The forest was west of us and took another week's travel. We crossed a couple of small rivers, and this time, I was not as afraid as I used to be of the water.
Uniform rows of short, stubby trees made up the majority of the forest. The ground was a little moist but not soaking. Bird chirps and insect buzzes frequently punctuated the air and filled it with incoherent noise, so unlike the deathly silence of Bellemere Forest. There were many tree stumps that were probably the result of nearby building projects.
"Should we split up to search for the witch?" I asked Anselm once we entered a clearing.
"No," he said. "We might as well stay together since this place is pretty small."
And so off we went, systematically riding up and down the star-shaped forest, carefully inspecting every semi-regular assortment of logs for evidence of the Black Witch.
As Anselm and I both suspected but didn't have the courage to say, there was none.
I was tired of riding the horse all day, so I jumped off, sat on a half-rotten log, and ate some purple fruit I picked off a tree earlier. "What now?"
Anselm too dismounted and tied the horse to the nearest trunk. He took out a small bottle and cut his arm with a knife, letting the thin stream of crimson red blood drip into the neck of the container. After squeezing his arm to milk out the last drops of blood, he corked the bottle and put it back inside the bag with the human hair.
"And we're done," he said plainly.
"I still don't think this is right." I was going to say more about the matter like how we were spitting on the face of chivalry with such lies, but what else could we do? We had double-checked and triple-checked the maps. This was the designated location. There was no witch.
"I know," Anselm said with a sigh. "I know."
But I wanted to believe that we could still create the stuff of legends, so I told him, "We'll leave the witch alone for now and move on to the boar."
Even as I said it, I knew how ridiculous that proposition was. If we could not find the giant and the witch with their locations marked on the map, how could we possibly hope to find a boar whose whereabouts were a complete mystery?
I held on to a faint hope that if I said we would find the boar, then a miracle would occur, just like in the stories, and the mystic boar would turn up at our doorsteps the next day, where we would slay it in triumph and glory.
And so we left that witch-less forest in search of the wild boar Rotch.
There was no particular methodology we used to find the creature, for a complete traversal of all of England would take several lifetimes. Just like the journey to the king's castle, we hopped from village to village, asking if anyone had heard of a boar as large as an ox, to which some people responded that they had, but only in their childhood stories. No one had ever seen anything other than a boar-sized boar, and besides, if there were an ox-sized boar, then it would already be dead, for its meat could feed an entire village for weeks.
With every banal response thrust upon us and every unremarkable herd of wild boar, my hope grew weaker and weaker like the flames of a dying candle. I could feel Anselm's spirits dipping beside me as well, and as the weeks turned into a month, it was like we were being punished rather than attempting a quest, but perhaps all unfulfilled quests were simply punishments.
The next time we saw a perfectly-average boar, Anselm decided he was sick of pretending, so he shot a couple of arrows in its side, and when it was weak and tumbling, he sliced off the head with his sword. Then, fumbling with a knife, he carved out the bloody tusk and tied it to the horse.
We had pork for dinner that night.
"What will you do now?" I asked while gnawing on a bone.
"Return to the king with the results of my hunt," he replied in a somber tone.
"You are a false knight." Above me, beautiful constellations were watching us. I wanted to hide away in shame.
"Yes," he said. "But it was an impossible task anyway." He threw a bone into the fire pit.
My once-radiant knight who used to shine brighter than the sun looked so small and helpless sitting next to me. He was hunched over, gnawing on a piece of meat like the shadow of a rat. His teeth made disgusting gnashing noises, and his eyes dark and shifty. How was this one ordinary boy supposed to do anything? What had made him so special besides that stupid piece of jewelry he carried around?
But even so, Anselm was stronger than me. He knew when to give up on this ridiculous quest; if it had been up to me, we would be aimlessly searching for three imaginary creatures until the end of time. I was a fool who didn't know when to face reality, but Anselm did.
Or perhaps the disappearance of those creatures simply meant that Anselm was not royalty after all, that he was destined to fail this test and we were to return to our village with our journey of one year in failure. But that was a conclusion I was not willing to accept and Anselm was not able to accept.
I remembered that old bet I made with Anselm in the fields behind my house, that he would not surpass me in height. It seems that he not only won the battle of heights but also the battle of maturity, for he did not let childhood naivety stop his goals.
"Do you think the king knows that all these things are fake?" I said.
"Of course. I'm sure everyone in that court knows." The response was immediate.
"Then why...?" Tears rolled down my cheeks.
"I don't know. Maybe he's bored and just wants a good show. They all want a good show. What's he got to do besides that? Fight wars?"
"How can they live with such lies?" I screamed.
"It's part of being an adult." A simple, yet unsatisfactory answer.
I buried my face in Anselm's chest just as I always did when the nights were long and the world scary. "I really wanted to believe!"
"I know," he said with such gentleness that for an instant, I was brought back into the arms of my mother. "You alone have kept the faith, and that is admirable."
And then in a smaller voice he said, "I'm sorry too."
"For what?" I asked.
There was no answer.
After we finished our dinner, we buried the rest of the boar that we weren't able to carry back. I slept an empty, dreamless sleep. The next morning, we set off once again for the king's palace.