by Linnea Tanner
At dawn tomorrow, I compete with every reputed warrior in our kingdom to become the King’s Champion. Defeating my opponents is almost an impossible feat for any man, much less a woman. Even so, I will triumph and win my father’s respect.
As the king’s eldest daughter, I vow to protect him and everyone in his kingdom. I stand ready to defend my father in mortal combat against any challenger vying for his crown. A true champion emblazons courage, loyalty, and sacred love for her king and family. But first, I must tell you my tale that seeded my desire to combat every warrior in the kingdom and stand by my father as his champion.
When I was barely five winters old, my mother and I gathered with villagers to greet my father, astride his coal-black stallion. Returning from war, he was like a god towering over his worshippers as he rode through their midst. They welcomed him with chants and cheers. Snowflakes danced around him, also celebrating his return.
Shivering, I covered my mouth with both hands, suddenly ashamed about my appearance. Boys had earlier taunted me, “You have a donkey’s jaw and bray like one, too.”
My nursemaid, a woman with ample bosoms spilling out of her low-cut dress, shooed the boys away and told me, “Don’t listen to them. You have an overbite, that is all. They’re jealous of you. You can beat anyone of those whelps.”
Her words didn’t make me feel better, though, as I studied the reflection of my face on a polished metal mirror. My upper jaw hung over my bottom lip. My upper front teeth protruded outward, making it hard for me to eat and speak clearly. Hence, I remained quiet most of the time.
When my father approached us on his horse, I drew out of my muse and swallowed hard with anticipation of speaking to him.
“What do I say to him?” I muttered to my mother.
“Only speak when he tells you to do so,” my mother instructed.
Fiddling with my plaid cloak, I recalled waving good-bye to my father in a season of blooming wildflowers before he left for war. My mother told me then, “He sails across the narrow sea to fight for a foreign army. By winter, he’ll return home.”
During the summer and fall seasons, I never gave my mother’s words consideration about my father’s return. He was out of sight and ceased to exist in my mind.
My little sister’s soft touch on my hand grabbed my attention. She looked at me with pathetic-looking eyes. The day before, she had fallen into the hearth and caught on fire. The queen’s guard—my only true adult friend—pulled her out of the flames.
After my father dismounted onto the soggy ground, he no longer appeared a giant. He didn’t look like other men in the village with a clean-shaven face and cropped wheat-golden hair. He also didn’t resemble me one bit. My hair was dark like my mother, and my acorn-brown eyes were the same color as the warrior who saved my sister.
Father embraced my mother, then pulled away and stared at her bulging belly. “Gods above, how did you get so big?”
Mother’s burning scowl made my father whither like a green sprout under a hot sun. At that moment, I didn’t like my father for his cruel comment. He must have seen the displeasure on my face because he apologized, “Forgive me, my love. Battle hardens a man’s words.”
Wiping a tear from her eye, my mother turned to me and said, “Vala, greet your father.”
I felt like a fish gulping for air as my father bent over and squeezed my chin with his fingers. “Hmm, you look as strong as an ox,” he said amiably, but the disappointment on his face shouted, You’re as ugly as a donkey!
Conflicting emotions grappled with me. I only wanted Mother in my life, not Father. I burst into tears—a sign of weakness.
Father gave my mother a contorted, baffled look. “What did I do to make her cry?”
Mother’s eyebrows arched in a warning for me to stop my bawling. I bit my lower lip and fought back sobs.
He shifted his ice-cold blue eyes to my little sister. “What happened to Morgana? She looks like she was in a dogfight and got the worse of it.”
My sister’s wails spurred mine. Neither of us could stop crying despite my mother’s glower. The nursemaid’s hefty bosoms smacked against my face as she grabbed my hand and reached for my sister’s arm. She dragged us both away from the people’s peals of laughter to the silence of the Great Hall. Halting near the central hearth, where my sister had fallen, she thumped my forehead with her fingertips. “Shame on you. Why did you make such a fuss in front of the king? I learned you better than that!”
I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, “I didn’t do anything wrong,” but snapped my mouth shut when I saw her eyebrows rise like a storm. She would answer my protest with a swat on my rear end.
The nursemaid marched us through the high-vaulted, feasting hall into the adjoining living quarters where she corralled us like cattle in our bedchamber. “You get nothing to eat,” she bellowed and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
My sister covered her face with both hands and wept. Sitting on our straw-mattress bed we shared, I cuddled her like a baby in my arms to calm her.
“Shh … shush. No cry.”
She nestled her head against my shoulder and whimpered, “Vala, my Vala,” like a mantra until we both fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Later, the bang of a closing door awoke me. I wiped the drowsiness from my eyes and found Mother sitting on our bed.
“Why did you cry when your father greeted you?” she asked.
“He … he’s so mean!”
Mother frowned. “He never said an unkind word to you.”
“He thinks I’m ugly!” I declared.
“That is how you see yourself,” she said, stroking the top of my head. “Your father only sees goodness in your heart.”
I looked down at my chest in bewilderment. “Father sees my heart? Can he also see the babies in your tummy?”
Mother sighed. “No. He knows”—she touched her belly—“they are in here. That is why he has returned. To make sure I’m safe. It’s hard bringing two babies into the world.”
“When will they come?” I asked, recalling how bloody a calf looks after being squirted out of its mother’s rear end.
“Too soon, I fear.”
I could see the angst in my mother’s eyes as her gaze drifted to the closed door.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“You must always obey and love your father,” her voice cracked. “I may not always be with you.”
My stomach dropped into what felt like a tidal wave. “Where are you going?”
“I want to stay here with you, my dear. But we don’t always get our wish.” She sighed as if trying to lift the worries of the world off her chest. “Your father is outside. He wants to give you something.”
“A gift,” I squealed with excitement.
Mother turned her gaze to the door and called out, “My king, you can come in now.”
When my father poked his head through, his face burst into a big grin. “Good aft, my precious daughters. Look what I’ve brought you from my travels.” He bound into the room like a frolicking fox and held out two carved, alabaster horse heads in the palm of his hand. He offered each one of them to my sister and me.
I took the horse head and fingered the attached leather strap. “An amulet?”
“Yes. Let me tie it around your neck,” my father suggested with a smile. “The horse is our family’s sigil—an animal guide that protects you.”
After he placed the amulet around my neck, I beamed with pride and clasped the carved horse head against my heart.
My father’s leathery face softened. “Vala, you must promise to watch over your little sister and the babies in Mummy’s belly once they are born. Can you do that for me? Will you protect them with your life and be the King’s Champion?”
A sense of pride swelled inside me with the honor he had bestowed upon me. “I am the King’s Champion.”
“Truly, you are,” he said, embracing me.
“I promise to protect my sisters,” I vowed, hoping the babies were girls.
And from that moment on, I aspired to be my father’s champion, embracing the strength to protect the weak and the oppressed.
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