My father told me, “Whatever happens, you will always be the son I love.”
I was four years old and I didn’t believe him.
My father is Cavallan, the King’s Hound, the hero of a thousand legends. He never tried to hide that from my sister or me, but he was more father than hero.
Or at least, no more hero than any father is to his children.
My earliest memories show him sprawled on the rug, his bad leg stuck out at an angle, as he turned his crutches into a fort full of toy soldiers. He usually won those battles, just like the real ones he’d fought. But the battles were still fun, especially when he starting giving the soldiers personalities.
“This is Matti,” he’d say, pointing to an ordinary soldier. “He’s fought in dozens of battles and likes to collect teeth fillings.”
Or: “This is Lord Such-a-snob. He looks down his nose so often that he can watch himself sneeze without even trying.”
My father would grin and his eyes would light up with memories as he played. But if you asked him about real people, he tended to fall silent. And he’d never talk about himself or express his feelings even with a passing gesture.
I wanted that gesture. I wanted to be worth his love. But, somehow, I never felt I was good enough.
After all, when he taught my sister and me and even my mother to defend ourselves, I was always the worst. I could never be half the fighter he was and although I could run and jump and had two good legs, I always felt that he was judging me and I didn’t measure up.
My father never commented on my performance. Whenever I did learn something and ran to show it to him, I could see his eyes cloud and go distant. After a while, I stopped trying to show him.
Instead, I stayed close to him. He was always there when I needed him, and he always had a moment.
Then I started my training at the Warrior’s Guild. As soon as I was enrolled, he left the town. I hardly saw him from one year to the next. The few times he did appear, mingling with the stream of Warriors that spent a night in the guild house as they pased through the town, he blended into the crowd. He always the plainest of uniforms – when he wore a uniform at all. He looked like a common soldier instead of a man who had been the king’s chosen champion. He was just my father, a local Warrior and a member of the town’s guard.
Just an ordinary man with grizzled hair and a lame leg that Master Jekker called ‘Val’.
The masters knew him of course, but they never mentioned his rank either. At least, not that I or any of the other trainees heard. And we would have heard if anyone had said that my father was a Black Warrior, the best of the best. It’s the highest and rarest rank in the whole of the guild. Everyone wants to know a Black Warrior.
I worked even harder when my father was around, trying to catch his attention. Trying, somehow, to prise his love into the open. If he actually had any love for me. He never took any notice of my attempts. He treated me just the same as anyone else.
I worked myself to exhaustion for twelve years in an attempt to be worth his love and graduated top of my class. Not that I was anywhere close to his rank and skill. I wasn’t.
Even on crutches, my father fights better than I do.
I did the best I could. But he didn’t even turn up to see what rank I earned.
I told myself it didn’t matter, that I didn’t care.
It was a lie. But it gave me the strength to walk into the presentation hall with my head held high.
My sister met me there with laughter and hugs. I didn’t see my father anywhere. I told her he hadn’t come, but she just laughed again. “He’s here,” she said. “You’ll see him in a minute.”
He came out onto the platform with the other masters dressed in his hero’s colours of black and silver, wearing his full guild identity and every award he had ever been given. His leg was stiff with the brace he used when he wanted his crutches out of sight. My classmates oohed and aahed.
Obviously, they didn’t recognise him.
But I did.
He was there. For me, he risked being revealed as the hero he was.
Each of my classmates in turn was called up onto the platform and my father presented them with their badge of rank. As the highest ranked, I was last to be called. But, finally, I heard my name and walked forward to meet my father.
He pinned on my badge and smiled at me. Then he placed his hand on my shoulder.
He said, “You are a better son than I ever could be. I’m proud of you.” There was a brief pressure and he released me.
I smiled back as best I could, and left the stage.
Shortly after that, he and the masters left too. I watched his back until it disappeared.
My father is Cavallan, the hero. An ordinary man with grey hair and a lame leg.
And a son that he loves and always will.
A son worth loving.
Although safe for work in the normal sense, this story has been known to make readers burst into tears. Read at your own discretion – you have been warned!