The Knight in Rusting Armour
The road to Kmeria was uneventful.
Located on the other side of the Western Wall, Kmeria was half a week away. With just an elfless forest between the Forest of Old Tarsus and the border of Kmeria, Nelumbella and Charter encountered no other people; the average traveller preferred routes that included forests with elves. Thus, they met only animals. The animals were friendly, and most had heard of Charter from their friends. Some had even lived in his forest before migrating for the season. The animals gave Charter directions, and the pair moved swiftly to their destination.
At Charter’s insistence, Nelumbella rode on Dirus for the first part of the journey, but healing quickly, she was soon able to remove the bandages and travel without aid. As she preferred, she walked barefoot. Her feet were scarred, but she no longer bothered to conceal her shame; she would be fixed soon enough.
Nelumbella thought that travelling with Charter was much better than travelling alone with Dirus. Charter made sure they were comfortable, providing food and water; and when the days turned to night, he burrowed a tree for them to rest in. He also continued caring for her feet as he had the night they left home. What Nelumbella appreciated most was the conversations they had. She found that without the presence of Wye or Linden, and when she was not climbing a tree, he was delightful company. His topics were never bland and nothing like what she had experienced with the knight who did not know how to stop dancing or jabbering.
During their exchanges, Nelumbella discovered that Charter rarely left his forest. Although mixed blood was always frowned upon, since the incident that caused the Western Wall’s construction, some had developed a strong hatred towards mutts in recent decades—especially on the continent. Since he was distinctively a half-breed when he was younger, Wye and Linden confined him in their tree during the immediate months following the event. They allowed him to venture out again only when calm came, but they still did not like him leaving their forest, especially on his own. His proportions had just balanced recently. Despite his peculiar hair and mismatched eyes, new guests in the inn generally assumed he was human. When she asked him why he decided to chaperone her, he used those reasons, claiming it was an appropriate time for him to experience what was outside of his forest without his brothers.
Charter developed a habit of flattering her, picking flowers for her on the way and making a point to tell her she was beautiful. Whenever he did so, Nelumbella stared at her feet. She knew he was trying to convince her to return to their tree, but her proportions were not right. She needed help. Each time she uttered a word of self-hate, Charter corrected her. He told her about how he had ears too large, hands too small, teeth that did not fit in his mouth, and feet large enough to topple him over. He was consistently mismatched from the time he was born until he finished puberty. He told her that he liked her big feet because they reminded him of his childhood, of happy times. Nelumbella did not change her mind. Unlike her, save for his unique colouring, he was no longer mismatched. In her opinion, he was better proportioned than most of the human males she knew, and he was definitely more proportionate than she could hope to be.
Charter joked with Nelumbella often, telling her how thankful he was that she had not tried to dispose of him again. While he understood why she had reacted negatively to him initially, he enjoyed teasing her. He too liked to think they had become friends. Besides the occasional playful shove, she had not attempted to attack him.
At the end of the elfless forest, the pair noticed an oddity. The elfless forest had not one single raindrop, but it stormed where Kmeria began. The contrast was stark.
They did not cross immediately. Nelumbella waited while Charter grew umbrellas. He did not want to risk her becoming sick. He sat by a flower and nursed it with elf magic. Soon he had what they needed. The flower was larger than any flower Nelumbella had seen. If the tree they lived in was normal, then the flower he grew was normal as well.
Charter cut the flower at the centre of the stem and handed the makeshift umbrella to Nelumbella. He took a leaf attached to a good amount of stem for his own. With the remaining leaves from the flower, he made a coat for Dirus. They were ready to cross.
The land was flat and had few trees. They saw that the sun shined everywhere except for near the border where they stood. They thought nothing of it, assuming it was simply how the weather patterns were.
However, further in, they heard the sound of crying. They scanned their surroundings, attempting to locate the noise. ‘It is hopeless,’ a small echoing voice said. ‘We will never find help. It has been raining for years. I can barely fly.’
‘I do not know about you, but I rather like the moisture,’ said a smaller, fainter voice.
A pig squealed. ‘People!’ it oinked, ‘Foreign people!’
Suddenly, a small pink pig stood in front of the trio, stopping them in their tracks.
‘Oh, finally,’ said the pig, pawing at their legs. ‘Please tell me you can see me. Please tell me you can understand me.’
‘Of course I can see you,’ said Charter, kneeling down to the pig.
The pig sneezed. ‘We have been waiting for someone who could sense us for so long. Please help us. Please, oh, pretty please.’
‘You poor thing,’ said Charter, petting the pig. The pig nuzzled into his palm. ‘Don’t worry. An elf is here to help you.’
‘Elf?’ said the pig, eyeing Charter suspiciously. ‘You are a human.’
Nelumbella giggled. ‘He is half elf,’ she explained. Kmeria was truly magical. Even the animals spoke. She thought it was wonderful. Kmeria was, without a doubt, the ideal place for her to find help.
Charter’s head snapped to Nelumbella in surprise. ‘You understand what the pig is saying?’
‘Of course I do,’ she said. ‘He is speaking the common tongue. Can’t you tell the difference?’
Charter shook his head. All animal languages sounded the same to elf ears.
‘Excuse me,’ piped the pig, ‘but I am not a he, I am a she.’ Frustrated, the pig blew a puff of air out her snout.
‘I am sorry, Miss Pig,’ said Nelumbella, hoping the epithet would appease the animal.
The pig smiled. ‘You are forgiven,’ she said, ‘but I do urgently need help.’
‘Why don’t you tell us what’s wrong?’ said Charter.
‘My sister is rusting,’ the pig said gravely.
‘A pig is rusting?’ Nelumbella asked. None of the animals at her uncle’s home ever rusted, but that was plain unmagical Tarsus. This was magical Kmeria. She looked to Charter. He knew animals well, but he too was befuddled.
The pig shook her head. ‘Not a pig; a suit of armour. Although I am the biggest of my animal sisters, I cannot move her far on my own. Opposable thumbs would make the task much easier.’
‘Take us to your sister then,’ said Charter.
‘She is right around the corner,’ said the pig. ‘Follow me.’
As the pig had claimed, by a decrepit tree nearby was the rusting suit of armour.
‘I put her under a tree. I thought it might protect her,’ said the pig.
‘How did you manage?’ asked Charter.
‘A lot of hard work,’ replied the pig, ‘but I am afraid I took too long. The tree does not protect her entirely either. She is still getting wet.’
‘Oh, good,’ an echoing voice said. ‘You have found help.’
Nelumbella was shocked. ‘The suit of armour talks?’ she asked.
‘Yes and no,’ said the pig. ‘That is a different sister. She has been living in my sister who is a suit of armour for a couple of years.’
‘I cannot fly in this rain,’ said the voice.
Charter lifted the suit’s visor to reveal a dainty red bird priming herself. ‘You can understand her too?’ he asked Nelumbella.
‘She speaks the common tongue,’ she answered, grinning. She liked not being excluded in the conversations Charter had with animals.
‘And your suit of armour talks?’ he asked, crouching to the pig.
‘Sometimes,’ said the pig, ‘but she is usually too gloomy for that.’
‘How long has she been here?’ he asked, standing to inspect the rusted armour, which was far from decent condition.
‘For a few years, I suppose—maybe ten. We have lost track of time,’ said a small voice. ‘When we tried to leave the country we got caught in the storm. I suspect it to be the witch’s doing.’
Nelumbella stepped back, trying to locate the speaker.
‘Please watch your step,’ said the voice, halting Nelumbella’s movements. ‘Critters of all sizes are in the area.’
‘You almost squished her!’ squeaked another voice.
Nelumbella glanced below and behind her foot. She saw a long pink worm and a small grey mouse. ‘My apologies, Miss Worm, Miss Mouse,’ said Nelumbella, assuming them to also be sisters. She lowered and offered her hand to the worm and mouse. ‘How about you two come up so we can see you more clearly?’
They climbed aboard.
‘You understand the worm and the mouse too?’ asked Charter, astonished.
‘They speak the common tongue,’ said Nelumbella, holding the pair up to him.
‘Or my elfish ways have finally rubbed off on you,’ he suggested with a wink. ‘I am contagious you know.’
‘Hah,’ Nelumbella retorted. ‘I must be sick.’
‘Will you lovebirds stop and focus?’ said the red bird. ‘I do not want our sister to rust through. She is fragile enough as it is.’
Charter smiled at her, but Nelumbella scrunched her nose, feigning disgust. ‘We are not lovebirds,’ she insisted.
‘A bird knows lovebirds when she sees them,’ said the bird.
‘Anyways,’ said Charter, redirecting his attention back to the suit of armour. ‘Can we take her apart for transportation?’
‘As long as you put her back together, it should be no problem,’ answered the pig.
Charter and Nelumbella put down their umbrellas. He took the helmet off and gave it to the pig to carry. He slung the arms over Dirus, and took the body himself, which the bird, worm, and mouse travelled in. Nelumbella carried the legs. Although Charter was reluctant, she had insisted. She claimed that she was well enough and had always been a strong girl.
The animals, Charter, and Nelumbella carried the suit of armour to where the sun shone in Kmeria. They continued travelling until they found sturdy ground for the armour to rest on and moist soil for the worm to burry in.
Dirus shook off his raincoat, curling up for a midday nap. Nelumbella and the animals sat together and chatted. Charter took on the duty of reassembling the armour. At the request of the pig, Charter grew fruits that had qualities beneficial to metal and polished the armour with it. While he did so, the armour said not one word. Charter questioned if the armour was alive like the animals had claimed. He reasoned that the animals had taken a liking to it in a similar way that children did with precious toys.
When Charter finished polishing, the suit was not good as new, but it was decent. ‘There we go,’ he said. ‘How are you feeling, Rusty?’
‘Much better, thank you,’ a voice echoed. Charter thought the voice came from the red bird, but the red bird was perched on its shoulder, watching him work. ‘I do not know how much longer I would have lasted.’
‘You don’t look so bad after your polishing,’ said Charter, staring in disbelief. ‘You’re still a bit gritty in certain places, but you’re sort of reflective again.’
The suit of armour did not reply again, nor did it move.
Charter did not press further. ‘So how did you learn the common tongue?’ he asked, sitting down with the Nelumbella and the animals. ‘I haven’t met animals, let alone a suit of armour, who spoke it before.’
‘We were not always animals,’ said the pig. ‘The Queen made us into what we are today. We were humans once upon a time.’
’You mean the Other Queen,′ said the bird, holding her beak high. ’She does not deserve to be, nor will she ever be, the Queen.′
‘The Other Queen?’ queried Nelumbella, wondering if the Other Queen and the powerful witch was the same person.
‘She is not the true Queen of Kmeria,’ explained the worm, burrowed partially in moist soil. ‘She simply took over one day. She claims she rightfully inherited Kmeria, but she did not. She bewitched people into believing her lies, feeding them cursed fruit so that they would love her. We are not foolish enough to fall for her tricks.’
‘If she is not the true Queen, who is she?’ asked Nelumbella. The Other Queen was indeed the powerful witch.
‘We do not know where she came from,’ said the bird, ‘but we hate her. She turned our eldest sister into turkey and roasted her in celebration.’
‘She is an imposter, a murderer, and the wickedest witch of all,’ cried the pig. ‘Oh, I hate her so much.’
‘There, there,’ said Charter, petting the pig.
The little pig sniffled and crawled into his lap. ‘She took our names too,’ she said, her big blue eyes gazing at him mournfully.
‘Are you sure she did?’ asked Nelumbella. Besides her uncle’s stories, and what she heard from the guests at the inn, the abilities of witches were new to her. She was uncertain of what they were capable.
‘Each human is given a name,’ said the worm, wiggling. ‘We had them before we became animals. We know that much.’
The worm was right, thought Nelumbella. She had not met many people, but she did not know anyone who did not have a name. ‘How can someone take your name?’ she inquired.
‘Magic,’ answered the worm.
Charter did not like the Other Queen. He did not like anyone who mistreated people or animals. ‘Then what should we call you?’ he asked, hoping they might brighten with a name.
‘Whatever you like, I suppose,’ the pig said, cheeks rosy, full, and beaming. ‘I rather like Miss Pig.’
‘Miss Pig it is then,’ said Nelumbella. ‘We will think of a good name for each of you.’
‘If she is Miss Pig then I want to be Miss Bird,’ insisted the bird, hopping onto Charter’s shoulder.
‘Then I have to be Miss Worm,’ said the worm.
‘I guess I ought to be Miss Mouse then,’ squeaked the mouse.
The animals were much happier to have names, but the suit of armour remained quiet. With Miss Pig in his arms and Miss Bird perched on his shoulder, Charter stood to talk to the armour. ‘Do you have a name you’d like? I know you can’t like being called Rusty.’
He waited for several moments before the armour spoke. ‘I do not deserve a name,’ said the armour.
‘Everyone deserves a name,’ insisted Charter.
‘Not me,’ the armour replied gloomily. ‘I cannot even remember her name.’
‘Let her be,’ said Miss Pig. ’She is always like this. Whenever she does speak, it is usually about not remembering her name. I do not know why she is so upset though. None of us remember our own names, let alone a mysterious her.′
Charter sat back down. The animals were cheerier, but he knowing that the armour was alive, he wanted to make her happier too. From the way the animals took care of the armour, it was clear to him that they wanted their sister to live.
Nelumbella pitied them, but she was more curious about how they became the way they were. She never thought such a thing could happen. ‘I know that the Other Queen made you this way, but what happened to make her want to do this to you?’ she asked.
‘We have spoken about this a lot,’ said Miss Pig. ‘We only remember so far back, and that is not very far.’
Miss Bird started their story: ‘There was a scream. It was our eldest sister. I ran into the room to see what was happening. When I entered, I saw an old hag. She was disgusting, green, and pimply. She was holding onto our eldest sister who had been transformed into a turkey. Our turkey sister screamed for help. She was like us; she could speak the common tongue. When I tried to help, the witch turned me into a bird. The hag said she needed one for show and one to eat.’
‘I was studying when I heard it,’ said Miss Worm. ‘The screams were horrible. It hurts so much to become smaller. I searched for help, which was why I did not arrive sooner. But when I entered with the guards, she morphed us into worms. The hag, the woman who became the Other Queen, said our sister needed to be fattened for the feast. She fed the guards to our eldest sister. Our sister did not want to eat us, but she was forced to. I escaped thanks to our mouse sister. I owe her my life.’
‘I have been quiet since I was a young girl,’ said Miss Mouse. ‘I remember watching the incident from afar. I was on a little balcony that peered into the room where the Other Queen performed her sorcery. I was terrified. I did not know what to do. When I saw that our turkey sister was about to be fed our worm sister, I knew I had to take action. I snuck in. She did not notice me at first, so I was able to leave with Miss Worm. We were in the hall when she caught me. She transformed me into mouse, the sneaky thing the witch claimed I was.’
‘That is where I come in,’ said Miss Pig. ‘When I was cooking, I saw them running past the kitchens. I was worried, so I quietly followed them out with a frying pan. Reflecting back on it, I should have taken a knife with me, but I had grabbed the closest thing. Maybe I could have pierced her heart. I saw my chance when the Other Queen was transforming Miss Mouse. I struck her on the head, but she was unfazed. She turned to me and said, “I should pan fry you for attacking me.” She then I became a pig.’
‘It was thanks to her that we were able to get away,’ said Miss Mouse, scurrying over to kiss her pig sister on the cheek. ‘I scampered into a hole in the wall and took Miss Worm with me.’
‘Our eldest sister and I were able to leave too,’ said Miss Bird.
‘But how did the suit of armour come to be?’ asked Nelumbella.
‘That is my fault,’ admitted Miss Pig. ‘I had passed by her when I was following the hag. I did not want her to be hurt, she is the youngest of us—the baby of the family. She wanted to help me stop the witch, but I made her hide. I put her in the suit of armour and told her to stay quiet. I did not think anyone would look there, but the witch did. She did not bring me to the kitchen as I expected. She tossed me against the wall, knocking me unconscious. When I came to, I immediately checked the suit of armour; but when I peered in, it was empty. Only her soul remained.’
‘Did your little sister ever say why she was not turned into an animal too?’ asked Nelumbella.
‘She said the witch wanted her to live an empty of a life as the witch had,’ said Miss Worm.
Charter listened with creased brows.
‘We lost our names when she turned us,’ said Miss Bird, grooming her feathers, which were ruffled by the retelling of their curse.
Nelumbella found the Other Queen fascinating. She knew that asking so much was distressing the animals, but she needed to know more. She reasoned with herself that it was for Tarsus. If she learned enough about the Other Queen, she could be able to convince the witch to make her feet normal. Then, Tarsus would have a Princess. ‘You said your eldest sister was eaten but that you had escaped with her,’ said Nelumbella. ‘How did the Other Queen capture you again?’
‘Magic,’ said Miss Worm. ‘We escaped before because she did not mind us leaving.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Nelumbella.
‘We had left the castle when she caught us,’ said Miss Pig. ‘Despite the object she became, even our little sister was able to run. She swept me into her arms and dashed into the woods near our home. We found the rest of our sisters there too, but the Other Queen came and caged us.’
Miss Bird took over the story telling: ‘On the day of her coronation, the witch took our eldest sister out of her cage, and she sat the rest of us in the dining hall. We were confused at first, but then we saw the main course and knew what had happened. She roasted our eldest sister and made us watch her be eaten!’
‘After the witch had dinner, she released us,’ said Miss Worm, recognizing that her sister was too distraught to continue. ‘She wanted us to suffer. She left us in the middle of nowhere. We wanted to cross the borders and find the Good Witch, but we were unable to leave. To start with, we were lost; we did not know where she had left us. Then, when we were finally at where you found us, it started raining. We could not travel, and our little sister started rusting. Moving became harder for her so we stayed there. The rain never stopped, and whenever a person passed by, they could not see us or hear us. I suspect the witch enchanted them. You two are the first to have heard our cries.’
Nelumbella listened in awe. The Other Queen was so powerful that it mattered not if there was a Good Witch. ‘Why would she do that to you?’ asked Nelumbella, pressing further.
‘Is it not obvious?’ chirped Miss Bird. ‘She wants to break our spirits so that we die miserable deaths.’
‘And it is working,’ wailed Miss Pig.
Charter felt as if he had to do something. ‘Is there any way to turn you back?’ he asked.
‘You would help us become human again?’ the bird tweeted.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’ll do anything to aid an animal in need.’
‘You do not have to help,’ said the pig, comfortably curled in his lap once more. ‘We could not ask so much of you, good elf.’
‘I insist,’ he said ‘What do I need to do?’
‘It is a tricky task,’ said Miss Worm. ‘You have to make the Other Queen’s first heart beat. We found out that she has two hearts from a couple of migrating birds when we were lost. They said that they had seen her reassemble herself many times—said that they saw a smaller heart within her normal heart. The smaller heart is her second heart.’
‘What does this second heart do?’ Charter asked eagerly.
‘I am getting to that,’ said Miss Worm. ‘I read about this when I was human. The second heart exists when the body did not originally belong to the witch. The second heart stills the beat of the first heart so that the witch can continue to exist and practice her sorcery, as the heart is the source of magic. If one can make her first heart beat again, it will still her second heart, and the magic the witch had casted will disappear, granting us our human forms again.’
Miss Pig patted Charter’s arm with her hoof. ‘I do not want you to go, Mister Elf. You are so nice, and I do not want her to turn you into an animal too.’
‘I know the risks, but I will try,’ said Charter. ‘Besides, being an elf, the majority of my friends are animals already. I can’t imagine it would be too much of a change.’ Realizing he had forgotten about the opinion of girl he was with, he turned to her and asked, ‘Do you mind, Nell?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘We can do this first.’ She had the perfect excuse to meet the Other Queen! The guest would not have suggested the idea if the Other Queen was entirely heartless either.
Charter grinned. ‘I’m sure we will find a witch who dabbles in good magic for you soon enough.’
Nelumbella smiled at him. ‘They need help more than I do.’
‘Where do we find her?’ Charter asked the animals.
‘Her castle of course,’ replied Miss Worm. ‘We can take you there.’
‘Oh, but I really do not want to go back,’ squeaked Miss Mouse. ‘What if she eats us too?’
‘Do not worry,’ said Miss Bird, fluttering to Miss Mouse. ‘We will all be together.’
Miss Pig hopped out of Charter’s lap to nuzzle Miss Mouse, and Miss Worm wiggled over to offer her support as well.
‘Just one thing,’ said Miss Bird. ‘What about our knight? Who is going to move her? We cannot leave her here, and I do not imagine either of you want to carry her all that way.’
Charter scratched his head. ‘We can take her apart again,’ he suggested.
The armour spoke, but she quivered, attempting to move. ‘No, I will walk.’
‘But sister, you have not done so in years,’ squeaked Miss Mouse, scurrying to the foot of the armour, attempting to still her sister.
‘I will manage,’ insisted the suit of armour. Her joints creaked as she bent to lift Miss Mouse. ‘You will need me. I am your knight, and I will protect you.’
‘I do not want you to break,’ said Miss Mouse. The armour made an unsettling sound as she wrested Miss Mouse onto her shoulder, yet she remained intact.
‘I may be more brittle than when I first became what I am, but thanks to our elf, I am also stronger than when I was caught in the rain,’ said the suit of armour. She moved her legs, stumbling as she attempted to walk.
‘Easy,’ said Nelumbella, rushing to the suit of armour’s side. ‘Lean on me.’
‘You are so small,’ the armour said.
Nelumbella shook her head. ‘I am as sturdy as a tree. I do not fall over so easily.’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t,’ said Charter, sharing the armour’s concerns. He yipped to Dirus, who sprung from where he laid and nudged Nelumbella out of the way, offering his support to the suit of armour instead. ‘You’re lucky I let you walk on your own. If I had my way, Dirus or I would be carrying you.’ Wanting to be useful, Nelumbella cupped the patch of soil Miss Worm was laying in with her hands for travel.
The suit of armour took a few practicing steps and was soon able to walk on her own, albeit a tad slowly. Warming up her mechanics, she claimed she would be able to keep up in no time.
‘Wonderful,’ said Miss Worm, lengthening her body upwards from Nelumbella’s hand. ‘Now, we shall head to the Other Queen’s castle.’ Miss Bird took flight and flew high above, serving as their eyes and leading them to their destination.