To break an oath, one must first take an oath.
I woke up groggy and exhausted. It had been another night with much tossing and turning. I did everything I should before going to bed--no eating after dinner, no work, no exercising, and I even read from my favorite book, The Washing of Whales, for an hour--yet still I had horrible sleep filled with even worse dreams.
I was out walking through a beautiful garden that stretched for miles with Benedict, my faithful Burmese companion. As we walked, the pink, purple, and blue flowers all turned to faces, each scowling and hissing at me. I turned to Benedict for solace, but he too changed. He grew larger and larger until he was the size of a small house. Then, his back paws became longer like clown's feet and his nose seemed to go into his face as it became smaller, the extra growth going to his ears and teeth. Benedict was a Mountain Dog no more. He was a gigantic rabbit.
"Don't forget to eat your vegetables," said what was once my poochy pal. He snatched me up with his front paws and lifted me into the air. Except I was no longer me. I was a carrot. He opened his mouth, brought me toward his chomping teeth, and...
I went from there into a number of other odd dreams, each as inexplicably stressful and strange as the last.
Looking for a morning charge, I opened the shutter windows to welcome the light of the world into my room. That too was a disappointment, as the day brought with it overcast clouds and a gloomy cold. I looked out from the tower where my room was over the land. The shallow, muddy moat separated the castle from a field that wasn't much drier. At least today was dry as opposed to the rains that had lasted all the week before. Far after the sprawling fields came a shrub pine forest, which sat at the base of an old mountain.
As much as I wished to claim this royal setting of sadness my own, it was thankfully not. It was my cousin Tom's, a man I knew not at all as a child and only a tad better as a man.
Tom was a Lord in a small European country not to be named, not out of reverence or request, but because I did not fully know the legal rules to which I was bound. Tom had summoned me from America, "those United States" as his letter said, after himself being summoned to some high court somewhere else not to be named, this time because I simply didn't know exactly where. I was only to watch the castle for a week or two, three at most. This being the end of week five, it felt like it really was becoming my gift of a curse, Lord Mac of the Muddy Keep.
I put on a yellow puffy collared shirt, a red velvet cape, and some blue Aladin-like pants, attire I was still not used to after all this time. I went down the winding steps into the kitchen, where Roland, cousin Tom's head chef, had prepared a breakfast of eggs, eggs, and more eggs. Tom, it turns out, was not only the Lord of a castle, but also the Lord of more chickens than I had ever seen before.
"Protein to start the day," said the excited, balding man. "Eggs first then the world second, I always say!" He did always say that. At least he did in the five weeks I'd been eating his eggs.
I smiled, took a plate, and made my way into the main hall. The hall was a high ceilinged, minimally decorated room. A few portraits of Tom and Toms past hung on the walls, dating all the way back to Lord Tom Samson the 1st back in Hoo-knose. Hoo-knose was the name of the country way back before it was named as it is now. Good luck with that clue.
Truth be told, the castle was really only a castle by technicality. It was moreso a big old stone house with a fifteen foot drawbridge, a few towers, poor insulation, and a dungeon converted man cave. It had some plush chairs, a library of naughty reading, and several old board games I'd never seen before. My was cousin Tom ever the creative bachelor.
I set my plate on the huge round table in the hall's center and hopped up into one of the thirteen chairs circling it. After half a plate of eggs, which was quickly becoming my measure of any boring morning at Cousin Tom's, Janice, Tom's housemaid and assistant, came through the front door, bringing in with her a gust of the outside cold.
"Good morning, Mac," she said, hanging her coat on a rack and pulling up the chair next to me.
"Morning!" I said, trying my best to warm the room with my tiny charm.
Janice forced a smile then resumed her usual unwelcoming face. She was apparently immune to my friendly efforts. Janice was stern, but still a nice sight to see. She had unblemished pale skin and wore her dark blonde hair up in a bun. Her pretty jade eyes occasionally flickered amusement, but the rest of the time seemed to be somewhere far off. She was as interested in me as she was her job, which was an even smaller amount than my short, short height.
"What have we on the docket for today?" I asked, trying another shot at warmth. "Perhaps a shipment of crocodiles for the moat?" I extended my arms out in front of me and closed them together like a crocodile's mouth.
Janice ignored the joke. Rightfully so, it was desperately stupid. "No, no crocodiles in this part of the world."
I looked down at my plate of eggs. Maybe laying eggs is the only thing here that isn't boring, I thought.
"You do have a letter," she said.
I looked up. Janice handed me an envelope. The front had elegant handwriting on it and the back was sealed with a wax stamp. "It is addressed to my cousin," I said.
"Yes, but he isn't here. You are the acting Lord. Including during tonight's event."
"Tonight!?" I said, a sudden rush of ice in my stomach even though I knew not what to fear. "Why didn't you tell me earlier so I could have prepared for... Whatever it is. What is it?"
Janice stood up and walked across the room in the direction of her office. "I didn't know if his Lordship would be back by now." She opened the door and took a step in before turning to face me. "Apparently he is not." She continued on, sat at her desk, and busied herself with some documents.
I looked down at and fingered the letter, annoyed with Janice's uncaring calmness. "Tonight!" read the front.
As if I need reminding, I though. I flipped it over and examined the crimson seal. It was stamped with a rose imprint. I opened the envelope, careful not to break the interesting seal, and pulled out a letter. It had the same elegant handwriting as the front.
"My dearest Lord of" (Don't think I've forgotten the rules now!)
"Tonight is the night.
The night where we gather our knights.
Our knights who haven't grown at all light,
And certainly not weary of the sight,
The sight of our most sacred fight,
The fight we shall fight at your site,
Where tonight we set to call it right."
I flipped over the page, puzzled, but there was nothing on the back. "Hey, Janice?" I called across the room, still studying the letter.
"Yes?" she answered, pausing from whatever work she was doing.
"Do I have any knights?" I asked.
Janice laughed, the first time I'd heard her do that. "Very good one," she said, returning to her papers.
I read the letter to myself again. "I'm serious," I repeated, receiving only a brief chuckle from my impossible assistant.
It was finally dusk after what had been one of the longest, most uneventful days I've ever had. After breakfast, I went about asking the rest of castle staff if they knew anything about the letter's contents. I received no answers, many smiles, and one comment from Roland.
I showed Roland the letter and he looked at me with a doofy, toothy grin. "Don't try and hatch an egg when it's not ready," he said. Thank God he was making apple pies when he said it or I think I would have cracked open his head, ready or not.
I took a long walk along the edge of the forest, then tried to approach one of the horses that roamed the vast field. Whether I was completely clueless on how to properly get its attention, which certainly was the case, or if the horse had just never seen a man as short as I am, I do not know. Either way, I never got more than a stone's throw from any of the horses. That was the extent of my day spent waiting.
I paced about the hall as Janice packed up her things, done with work. "Really? No one will tell me anything?" I asked, far past the point of irritation. "I'm just the foreign house, er, castle sitter with no clue and no worries?"
Janice put on her coat. "Precisely," she said.
I threw my hands up in the air, hopeless. "Where I come from, we call that bullshit," I said.
Janice remained as curt as ever. "You don't say?" she said, opening the door to leave. "What a specific definition for such a rude word." With that, she slammed the door shut.
I lit a fire and sat in front of the immense hearth, defeated. Probably all a ruse, I thought. I sipped beer from a stein I brought from the kitchen and stewed in the heat and my frustration. I stewed for some time.
The front door swung open and a crowd came right into the hall before I could even turn all the way around. They were a hodgepodge of men, twelve in total. They all wore red, yellow, and blue garments, matching in color and color alone. They could have been from the past, the future, or the present, the way they carried themselves, all chatting like chums.
A man in a blue beret stepped forward. "You're not Tom," he said, sizing me up. "You're just a little guy."
A fat man with a red hooded tunic and thin mustache pointed at me. "I've never seen a man so small!"
I stood up, confused and angry. "Hey, you can't just barge into the castle and call me small," I said.
"And you can't just sit in the Lord's chair by the fire, you numpty," said a third man with long black hair and sagging yellow pants. "We ought to teach this tiny, tiny fellow a lesson."
A fourth man picked a club off the wall. He beat his palm with it, threateningly. "By the time we're done with you, your only Kraft will be eating Jet-Puffed Miniature Marshmallows with no teeth!"
"Yeah!" agreed the rest. Yelling, they approached, forming a semicircle around me.
I scurried back behind the chair, panicked. I had nowhere to go. The angry men closed in on me, pushing me back. I felt the heat of the flames on my rear. "Wait!" I called, desperate. "Wait, I'm, I'm--"
I was too quiet, or maybe the gang was too angry. They snatched me up and lifted me overhead, marching toward the round table. Doomed, I thought. Deader than any of the chickens in a castle filled with chickens. The men were practically screaming now. I flinched as they placed me on top of the table.
"Mac!" said a man with a red jacket on. "He's Mac!" he said.
"Hiya, Mac!" said the men as one, all smiling, laughing, and chummy as before. They all circled the table, excluding one man who went to the kitchen.
"I... You... I... Tom... How do you..." I struggled for words.
The men were taking their seats at the table when the man from the kitchen returned carrying a tray of beer steins. "Tom told us about you. You think he wasn't going to mention that his short cousin from out of town was watching his castle for a few weeks while he's gone?" He passed out the beers then took a seat himself. "He told us to give you a hard time for tonight's gathering." They laughed. "Come, sit," he said, motioning next to him to the last remaining spot.
I walked over and hopped down, met by all smiles. "Are you my--Tom's knights?" I asked.
"Only technically," said the man from the beginning with the club.
A man across the table from me was passing around a wooden box. Each man reached into it and pulled out a rose, which he then set at the table before him. The box came to me last.
"Take one," said the fat hooded man. "Otherwise you forsake the Oath." He took a long drink from his beer, normal as if he had just told me about the weather.
I pulled out the final rose and set down the box. "Oath?"
The man two places to my left stood up. He wore a black robe with a red, yellow, and blue striped patch on his breast. "The Oath of the Rose," he said.
Everyone set down their beers and bowed their heads in silence. I did the same.
"Back up, young Samson," said the robed man.
The man who'd passed out beers elbowed me and motioned upward with his head. I stood.
"Order of the Rose, here before us stands a man related only by blood but perhaps much more," said the robed man.
"The prick of the thorn will show us the truth," everyone chanted.
"Order of the Rose, do we decree that we shall see if the most important qualities are held by he?" said the robed man, pointing his rose at me.
"The red of the petal comes from a fiery heart," everyone chanted.
"Order of the Rose, do we entrust in this man our most sacred Oath?" the robed man asked.
"It shall come from his lips, as red as the rose," they replied.
I felt a rush of ice in my stomach again.
"Newcomer to the garden, do you wish to be tested by blood to see if your seat at the table is earned, knowing that the consequences of unworthiness are damning?" asked the robed man. The rest raised their heads and looked at me.
My lower back was damp with sweat. "Uh, Order of the Rose, please don't--"
The robed man reached into his pocket, grabbed something, and held it out in his fist. "If you wish to accept the Oath, you must make a sacrifice."
The crowd stared at me. I turned, looked at the fire as if it had some answer, then faced the circle again. I felt like I was going to vomit. "Murd.. Sacrifice?" I said.
The robed man walked to me. My head spun, dizzy from being scared. He grabbed my hand, lifted it, and put the thing into my palm. It was an egg. "Just smash the egg," he said.
"Smash it!" someone yelled from across the table.
"Smash it!" someone else chimed in.
"Smash it! Smash it! Smash it!" they all chanted, the robed man joining them.
I clutched the egg and smashed it on the table. The gooey insides ran between the cracks and dripped onto the floor. The Order of the Rose applauded.
"He took the Oath!" said the man who'd brought the beers and elbowed me, finishing his stein.
"Nice work, pal!" said the man sitting next to him. Everyone drank and cheered and drank some more.
Confused, I drank and cheered myself. "What in the hell is all this?" I asked.
The robed man pulled back his hood, revealing dark blonde hair and jade eyes. "That's the Oath of the Order of the Rose," he said, reaching out his hand for a shake this time. "I'm John, Janice's brother. She can be a right old stiff, huh?"
I shook his hand and laughed. "Yeah, she sure can."
John gestured about the circle. "We're a club. Used to be back in the day we did all kinds of cool medieval stuff. But nowadays, we just sort of drink and hang out. Tom thought you'd like it."
I didn't even know where to begin. "You mean Tom's Lord of a castle and in a club of old knights?" I asked.
"Yup. We all are. Practically everyone's a lord here, we've all got castles. They're really like big old stone houses." He clinked steins with the man to his other side and took a drink. "We get together every few weeks at a different castle and have ourself one hell of a night at the round table."
"He's empty!" said the man with the blue beret, looking into my stein. "We've got to fill him back up!"
That was one of the funnest, wildest nights I ever had, and not just in cousin Tom's rainy, not-so-boring-after-all kingdom of chickens.
I still don't really know Tom that well, but it's good being related to and bound to him and a bunch of other fun, informal European Lords. That's the Order of the Rose. I honestly don't fully understand my Oath, but I know I'll never break it.