The Only One He Ever Feared

by Patty Jansen
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The blare of trumpets cascaded through the Great Hall. Every voice fell quiet, from the lowest servant to the noble lords and ladies and the king himself.

Taking his dear wife’s arm, Sir Berthold the Brave stepped onto the red carpet, holding aloft a dragon’s claw. Whispers followed him across the hall. ‘He tore it from the great beast himself… after he had killed it with only his sword… and braved its flaming breath…’

At the dais, the king rose from his throne, spreading his hands. ‘Welcome, welcome to our hero, Sir Berthold the Brave, the saviour of our kingdom.’

Sir Berthold warmed with pride.

The king gestured at a table groaning under the weight of the most splendid of meals. ‘You and your family will be my guest at the high table tonight.’

Lady Giselde curtsied. ‘Thank you for your generosity and thank you for honouring my beloved husband.’ She pushed forward the ghost of a girl who had walked up the red carpet behind her and hissed in her ear, ‘Come on, behave yourself as worthy of your father’s achievements.’

The girl didn’t curtsy, she didn’t bow, she didn’t even smile.

The king reached out and pushed the curtain of greasy hair out of her face. His eyes twinkled as he spoke. ‘How nice that you are joining us tonight, Annabelle. You are becoming quite a young lady. I can’t believe how much you have grown since I last saw you.’

Grown indeed. Taller than her mother, but lank of frame and hunching her shoulders. Sir Berthold still hardly recognised his own daughter.

Annabelle’s mouth twitched, but she still said nothing.

Sir Berthold cringed.

The king gave a forced grin. ‘Well, I’m sure you will enjoy yourself at the ball tonight. You youngsters always seem to…’

Lady Giselde handed her cloak to the maid and turned to her husband. ‘I enjoyed tonight, sweetheart. My feet positively ache from all that dancing.’

A grey phantom entered the still-open front door, chucked a cloak on the floor and streaked across the candle-lit hall. A door slammed; Sir Berthold flinched.

Lady Giselde placed a hand on his chest. ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. That’s just Annabelle’s bedroom door.’

‘Does she have to slam it that hard?’

‘She didn’t slam it; have you seen Sir William’s portrait standing against the wall? That is from when she-’

Sir Berthold gripped his wife’s hands. ‘My love, what has happened to our daughter? She behaved most abominably tonight. She was rude to the king, never danced and the only smile I saw on her face was one of those grumpy ones where her mouth goes all twitchy and she looks as if she’d rather have you for dinner.’

Lady Giselde smiled. ‘Just like the dragon.’

Sir Berthold pressed his lips together. No, not like the dragon. The dragon was evil. It breathed fire and tried to eat you. You could spear it, you could stab it. With a sword or arrows. Swords and arrows he understood. This he did not. He started down the hall. ‘Annabelle? Shall I get out the pieces so we can play a game of checkers?’

From within the room came a muffled voice. ‘I’m too tired.’

Sir Berthold turned to his wife. ‘Too tired? Since when has she been too tired for checkers? What time does the maid send her to bed?’

Lady Giselde chuckled. ‘I can see you haven’t been home for a while, sweetheart. Annabelle sends the maid to bed, and no, she isn’t tired. It’s just her excuse for not doing anything.’

No checkers? ‘I don’t understand. I go on a quest and I come back and my lovely little daughter has gone like this. Where is her smile? Where is her happiness?’

‘Don’t worry. It will pass.’

But Sir Berthold couldn’t sleep that night.

King Reginald pushed aside charts of the kingdom, where lines of black marked positions of his armies. ‘Seeing that’s all settled, can I please you with a glass of my favourite wine, Berthold?’ Without waiting for an answer, he rose and put two glasses on the table. ‘So thanks to your help and bravery, the war is looking good again. I am so proud to have the loyalty of such a man as yourself.’

Sir Berthold stared at the painting on the opposite wall. Three women, young of figure but happy, darting in a meadow full of flowers. Why could Annabelle not be like that?

The king poured the glasses. ‘I’ll be appointing you to the position of advisor. Unless, of course, you’d rather travel…’

Travel? Next time he came home Annabelle wouldn’t even know who he was. ‘I love travel, as you know, but I think I should take the post in the palace.’

The king raised his eyebrows. ‘Why, is anything wrong? Speak to me, Berthold. I have always considered you a friend.’

Sir Berthold leant back in his armchair, heaving a deep sigh. ‘I don’t know, Reginald. Just between me and you, I’m worried. It’s my daughter…’

‘Ah, the lovely Annabelle. Is anything wrong with her?’

‘I don’t know. She seems to have forgotten how to be happy. My wife says it’s part of her growing up, but I don’t like it. I want to see a smile on her face. I want to hear her laugh. I want to make her happy.’

The king thought for a while and then winked. ‘I can’t claim great authority on the subject of girls, since I have only sons myself, but don’t all girls dream of marrying a prince?’

Now that was an idea worthy of a king.

Annabelle’s hands descended on the table with a thud that made the household’s prize china rattle. ‘Prince Alexander?’

Her father beamed from ear to ear. ‘Yes, Prince Alexander. I’ve heard he is quite smitten with you.’

Annabelle dropped her spoon in her soup with a dramatic, theatrical gesture. ‘Mother, tell him he’s off his brain. Prince Alexander has sail ears and pimples and he only ever talks about horses.’

Dabbing soup off the table, Lady Giselde forced a smile in her daughter’s direction, while flashing a where-on-Earth-did-you-get that-idea look at her husband. ‘But he’s a prince, my dear.’

Annabelle gave an exasperated sigh. ‘A prince. So what? Haven’t you noticed? I don’t give two figs about princes.’

What language for a young lady! Berthold had to remind his wife that lessons in etiquette and embroidery might be more appropriate than those drama classes she was taking. He said, ‘You’re being entirely unreasonable, Annabelle. Prince Alexander is a very nice young man. He-’

‘Dad, I couldn’t care less if he was emperor. I’m not marrying Prince Alexander.’ She rose from the table, pushed away the chair, which fell over, and stomped off to her room.

The magician put down the ladle. His star-bespeckled cloak glittered in the light of the crystal that hung suspended from the cavern ceiling. ‘Oh great and wonderfully brave Sir Berthold. Why is it that you grace me with your presence?’

Sir Berthold flapped an annoyed hand. ‘Please cut the dragonshit, Algernon, just answer my question: can you do it?’

The magician lowered his half-moon glasses to the tip of his nose. ‘A love potion, you say?’

Sir Berthold nodded.

Algernon frowned. ‘But that seems quite unnecessary to me. The lady Giselde is without doubt the most devoted wife-’

‘No, no, no, it’s not for my wife, it’s for my daughter.’

‘Ah, the lovely Annabelle.’ He smiled. ‘Now who is the lucky young man upon whom she has set her eyes?’

‘Uhm… that is the problem. She hasn’t set her eyes on anyone.’

‘But you would dearly want her to?’

‘Yes. She’s coveted by the young prince Alexander.’

Algernon frowned over the steam rising from the cauldron. ‘She wants to marry Prince Alexander?’

‘Well… uhm… you see… I think she spends too much time in drama classes, and all those sad plays make her unhappy. She doesn’t see the lovely young men who want her. That’s why I need the love potion.’

Algernon sighed. ‘In that case, I’m afraid I can’t help you.’

‘But Algernon-’

‘No, I’m sorry. True love is what you want, and none of my potions procure long-lasting emotion. Why are you so keen for her to be married?’

Sir Berthold gave him a desperate look. ‘I just want her to be happy.’

‘There are many other ways to achieve happiness.’

Sir Berthold balled his fists inside his pockets. Leaders of religion sprouted meaningless phrases like this. ‘Then tell me how.’

Algernon tugged his beard and said, ‘Have you tried asking her?’

Ask her, and be mocked, ridiculed and made to feel the worst father in the kingdom? He’d rather fight the dragon.

Lady Giselde held up her embroidery: a dragon pattern in gold and red. ‘Look sweetheart. I will present this to the Queen to be hung in the palace hall to commemorate your bravery.’

Berthold slouched in a chair. ‘Put it away. I’m not brave at all.’

Lady Giselde lowered her work, and frowned. ‘Not brave? But think of the dragon you slew and saved the land from all its evil magic-’

‘Just for once stop talking about the flaming dragon. That was nothing.’

Lady Giselde’s eyes widened. ‘What is wrong, sweetheart? Has the king sent you on an even more perilous quest?’

Not meeting her eyes, Sir Berthold felt a deep shame. The king’s quests were lizard bones compared to this. He shook his head. ‘I shall not be afeared. A knight should always look danger in the face, anticipate where the next attack will arise and pre-empt it.’

And with that, he rose from the couch and went to his daughter’s room.

His heart beat in his chest and his throat felt drier than it ever had in his life. Turning the door handle, he almost wished it was locked, but the door creaked open.

Pots and jars crowded the dressing table and frilly cushions spilled from the bed onto the floor.

‘Annabelle?’

A muffled response issued from under the blankets on the bed. ‘I hate you!’

He flinched. ‘Annabelle, please.’

‘I’m not marrying Prince Alexander.’

‘Did I say you had to?’

The heap of blankets moved and a mop of lank blond hair emerged. ‘But you said-’

‘I didn’t say you had to marry him. I proposed you might like to, because I thought it would make you happy.’ He averted his gaze. ‘I suppose it doesn’t.’

‘No.’

Sir Berthold sat on the bed, feeling silly and vulnerable without his sword. ‘I come home after a long trip away and all I see is your sad face, hiding behind that curtain of hair. I worry and wonder what I can do to make you happy, because I love you, Annabelle, and I can’t stand to see you like this.’

Annabelle slowly brushed her hair out of her face. Like this, she still very much looked like his little girl. She let herself fall into his arms; she smelled of perfume. ‘I love you, too, Daddy.’

‘Then tell me, what do you want?’

Annabelle stifled a tiny sob. ‘I don’t know, Daddy. You’re so brave and everyone thinks I should be something great and wonderful. But I’m just ordinary Annabelle. I’m not pretty. I’m not smart. I’m not fearless, like you-’

‘I’m not fearless either.’ A great weight fell from his shoulders with this admission.

‘You’re not?’ She looked up at him through her tears. ‘You mean when you faced the dragon-’

That infernal dragon again. Sir Berthold shook his head. ‘My fears are in… other parts of life.’

‘Oh.’ She paused to think. ‘Like you’re scared of spiders or something?’

Spiders. Like teenage daughters, they watched prey become entangled in their complex webs. ‘Something like that.’

‘Daddy? Scared of spiders?’

Sir Berthold cringed, but Annabelle laughed and it sounded like music to his ears.

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