Chapter 23:

The End of a Journey

The Knight of the Golden Rose

In the two days that we had left together, Anselm and I walked through the castle, ate all sorts of delicacies, hunted in the king's personal forest, listened to the minstrels, cuddled with each other, and pursued so many more activities that I cannot list them all. It was as if we were trying to condense a lifetime's worth of company into those two days because we did not know when we would see each other again.

In a blink of an eye, the two days were up, and the grain shipment was prepared. The cart, taller than any man, required five horses to pull and was piled high with bags of wheat that were so full they spilled like water. Glistening pods of grain covered the cart's bottom. I asked the driver if I could ride with him. He shrugged and said yes, there's enough room. I gave Anselm one last hug and climbed up.

As we began to leave, I looked down and waved to Anselm, who had been watching me the entire time. I tried to burn his fluttering hair, handsome jawline, and still slightly-chubby cheeks into my memory. I never wanted to forget that figure.

He opened his mouth for one last exchange between us.

"I love you, Cecilia!" The words reverberated in the courtyard then flew away like birds.

For a split second, I thought about jumping off the cart and running back into those familiar arms. A bolt of fear shot through me. Was returning home a decision I would regret?

But I had already made this decision two days ago, hadn't I? Because I knew life with that boy was simply a fantasy and I had my own burdens to bear. I forced my legs to keep still, and the waves of anxiety slowly receded.

Instead, I said "I love you too!" and kept waving even when the horses started moving and we were going, going, gone, and Anselm disappeared like a tiny speck of dust behind the horizon. Goodbye, goodbye, and thank you for everything. I'll miss you.

And I tried not to think about him too much lest I burst into tears before we were even out of the city.

The journey to the village was not nearly as long as the journey to the castle because we took no detours and stayed no longer than a single day at any one village, be it for sleep or food. The cart was much more spacious than a single horse, so my body was not in as much pain at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, as I expected, the cart driver was not much of a talker, and I spent most of those months alone with my thoughts.

I relived my adventures with Anselm and all the people we had met. Asfutus, Charlotte, all the wise peasant farmers, Lord Barrymont, the former Lord Barrymont, Sir Acton and the other knights, Edith, Bathsheba, the shepherd boy, and so many other faces flashed before me.

And then finally I came to Anselm, who elicited so many different emotions in me that I ran out of names to call them. Every time I thought of him my heart ached, and my head became numb. My stomach churned. My hands shook. And at night when the cart driver had already gone to bed, I cried so much that surely I used up my entire life's worth of tears.

I cried not just because Anselm was gone but because I could no longer hide behind a veil of ignorance, blindly hoping to get whisked away to a utopia; I cried not because magic was gone but because magic had never existed outside of my imagination. And finally, I cried for the death of Anselm as the perfect knight and the bringer of the new golden age of legend. In his ashes lay Anselm the regular farmer, above all a man, and everyone knows that a man cannot be so many things at once.

A bolt of fear struck me. What if I never loved Anselm the man and my final words to him a lie? Was my love as false as the king's court and Bathsheba's prophecies? Was I doomed to repeat the falsities of my elders?

But then I thought about it some more. Strip away the titles and Anselm was still Anselm. The time we spent together did not suddenly disappear. The happiness, the sadness, the victories, the failures. They all belonged to Anselm the man. I had simply killed the fake knight, an empty shell. That love was dead and gone, but the love for the real Anselm remained, as imperfect as it was. My shoulders relaxed.

I hoped that one day, I could give him as much love as he had given me.

Eventually, I got so sick of my own thoughts I started to talk to the cart driver. He was a little hesitant at first, but it seems he, too, tired of the day's monotony.

I learned that he was born in the city and raised by merchants, so he grew up travelling all throughout England. He knew the plains and the gorges and the rivers and the mountains like the back of his hand.

In return, I narrated an episode of my own adventure to him every day. I might have left out some parts or exaggerated others, but on the whole, I like to think I was fairly truthful.

"Is it boring?" I asked after I had exhausted all my stories, and we had nothing more to talk about. "To sit on this cart for your entire life?"

"Not always. The gorgeous landscape keeps me company," he said.

And then a little later, he added, "Every trip is a new adventure."

When the sun completed another hundred or so trips through the sky and peasants began to harvest the wheat they had planted last winter, we finally arrived at my village. We drew a small crowd since no one had seen a cart so huge and so full of food. Children lagged behind us, trying to pick up any spilled grain seeds. I noticed their gaunt faces and bellies swollen with hunger. Fragile skin stretched taut over brittle bone.

The cart driver dismounted and held out a sheet of paper with a decree that was stamped with the royal rose. "I am delivering 500 bushels of wheat by request from the king of England as gratitude for raising his son, Sir Anselm."

All the people around us burst into chatter. They couldn't believe Anselm had actually done it. The king had recognized this tiny village in the middle of nowhere. And the food! What a blessed day!

Singing and dancing, the farmers hurried to unload the grain from the cart to put in storage along with the rest of their harvest. It was such a wonderful boon!

The sight of that line of happy farmers attracted more and more people to us until surely the entire village had gathered around the now-depleted cart. I jumped off and ran into the crowd, looking for Anselm's parents. I pushed through all the chatty ladies, excited boys, and beer-guzzling peasants until I found a small red-headed woman and a heavily-bearded man leaning on to a building, in tears at the entire scene.

I tapped Anselm's mother on the shoulder. "Did you hear? Your son is now a royal knight. I was with him. He was amazing."

She gave a slight yelp like a wounded puppy and turned towards me. Her eyes expanded. "Cecilia! We thought you were dead!"

"Nope, I'm still here," I said with a laugh. "Anselm protected me the entire time."

Both of Anselm's parents suddenly rushed in to give me a hug. Three sets of arms intertwined.

"Thank you for coming back to us," she said, both crying and laughing because relief is a funny emotion like that and makes you feel many different things at once. "Thank you for giving us an ending. Every night, we worried about our decision to send him off. There were so many things that could go wrong. We were so, so selfish..."

"There's no need to worry anymore," I said, petting her on the back. "He says food should come every year. And that he is going to find a way to live in this village again."

"That sounds like our Anselm!" the father exclaimed, equally in battle with his emotions. "He really did it, didn't he? Isn't that child truly amazing? I can't believe I ever doubted him..."

I left their embrace. "I must be going now. But rest assured that you can be proud of the man that your son has become."

I waved and left the happy parents behind me. Then I kept running, running, faster and faster, zigzagging through the dwindling mass of people. People gasped and whipped their necks in my direction in disbelief as I passed them.

Just as I was about to give up and leave, I caught a glimpse of unmistakable silken hair out of the corner of my eye. I looked closer and saw the backs of my mother, brother, and father on the familiar road home. I started walking but then broke into a sprint towards them.

"Mother!" I cried and wrapped my arms around her waist. "I've missed you so much!"

Calm and collected as ever, my mother simply looked behind her and gave a brief pause of surprise. "Cecilia...? Could it really be you?"

In contrast, my father and my brother started screaming and touching my hair, my clothes, and every part of my body to make sure I was not simply a figment of their imaginations.

"Yes, it's me. I left home with Anselm more than a year ago. But now I'm back."

My mother gently stroked my head. I saw tears pooling in her eyes, the first time I had seen her cry since before Arthur was born. "I'm glad you're back. I missed you."

I sobbed, unable to stop my own emotions now. I felt more hands on my back, probably from my father and brother. We stayed like that for a brief eternity, and then we separated and walked home as a family.

I returned to my daily routine in the household as if I had never left. My father and my brother left in the morning to the bakery while I stayed home with my mother, except this time, we did not work in silence. I told her all about the journey, the good and the bad, and my mother gasped and laughed and groaned in all the right places. She was a much livelier woman than I remembered.

Then one afternoon when I had finished my chores early, I visited the little gray gravestone in the backyard. There were wilted flowers placed on it. I bowed my head, and after a little while, my mother came out with a fresh set of purple bellflowers. She sat down next to me and put her hands together.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I think it was my fault he died. I dropped him in a river."

"It doesn't matter anymore," she said. "It's in the past."

"I'm sorry."

"We are all to blame." She wrapped her arms around me once more. It was like I was a child again: too fragile and weak for this world and needing a mother to survive.

After we both hung our heads in silence for half an hour, I told my mother that I had decided on marriage plans. It would be Anselm and no one but him, for was not the greatest knight in the realm the best husband any woman could ask for? She was a bit shocked and asked if marrying him was even possible.

"Of course it is," I said. "He told me he would come back one day, and when that day comes, we'll get married."

My mother said nothing for several minutes, but finally she acquiesced. "Yes, he would make a wonderful husband," she agreed, even though we both knew this idea was ridiculous, Anselm might never come back at all, and I would be forever husbandless. Or even if he did come back after years and years, he could already be married.

But all adults lie every once in a while as I had learned from the king and his court and the witch Bathsheba. A plain lie by itself is neither good nor bad, and if enough people believed in it, then the lie would even become the truth, just as it had for Anselm.

So on that day, I committed myself to that lie and all the hope it brought me, for what good is life without a little bit of hope?

I stood up, brushed the dust off my knees, and began to prepare for tomorrow's work.

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi