SIR HERBERT THE HESITANT
by Karleen Bradford
Copyright © Karleen Bradford. All rights reserved.
Sir Herbert was not a very successful knight. In fact, he was a dud. He had tried jousting, but he fell off his horse before he and his opponent, Sir Smarmy, had even crossed lances. It didn’t help that Sir Smarmy just sat on his horse, looking down on him and laughing. In fact, he had to lie on his back like a turtle for ages until someone stopped laughing long enough to come and help him get to his feet. Then he tripped over his steel-linked, pointy-toed boots and almost fell again. He couldn’t help thinking that square-toed boots would be much easier to walk in.
The king was patient with him, probably because he was his uncle. The queen was kind to him, probably because she was his aunt. They had brought him and his sister up the best they could after his own parents had unfortunately wandered off somewhere and never returned.
“He comes by his forgetfulness and clumsiness naturally,” the queen demurred when the king sometimes lost patience. “My brother, his father, was always falling down and his poor mother couldn’t remember her name half the time. I’m sure they’ve just forgotten to come home, but they’ll remember sooner or later.”
It didn’t help that Sir Herbert’s sister was smart and clever and neat and tidy and organized and beautiful to boot and she never let Sir Herbert forget it. In fact, she was the bane of his life.
“If you would only polish your armour more,” she would say, “keep it clean and shiny. It might help.”
Sir Herbert couldn’t begin to see how this could help, but he tried his best. Then he dropped the armour polish down the well and it was weeks before they could clean the cistern out thoroughly enough to drink the water again.
Things might have gone on well enough, though, if a dragon hadn’t decided to take up residence high up on the cliff that overlooked the town. The first thing the townspeople knew of it was when a clump of trees on the clifftop caught fire.
“Very odd,” the townspeople said.
Then a loud roaring began one night and didn’t stop. No one could get any sleep at all.
“We must do something about this,” the king said, but his knights just looked at each other nervously and no one volunteered to be the one to investigate.
The roaring stopped, then sparks began to rain down upon the town. Several thatched roofs caught fire and were only put out with great difficulty.
The king called his knights to a meeting. “What is going on?” he demanded.
“I think,” began Sir Herbert hesitantly. “I think we may have dragons. Or at least one dragon.”
The other knights stared at him. It was unusual for Sir. Herbert to offer any opinions and no one usually paid any attention to him at all.
“Dragons haven’t been around for ages,” Sir Smarmy said finally. “We killed them off years ago. Not that you would know anything about that,” he added scornfully.
Sir Herbert blushed. It was true. He was squeamish about killing things–couldn’t even squash a bug–and he had never taken part in the dragon slayings. The other knights hadn’t minded too much. Truth to tell, they were relieved. No telling what disasters might have occurred if Sir Herbert had been in on the battles.
The king frowned. “You know, I think my nephew might be right,” he said. This caused even more widespread surprise, but the king went on. “Somehow or other, we might have missed one. We’ll have to deal with it.”
“Not me,” said Sir Smarmy. “I’ve done my share. I’ve had enough of slaying dragons. It’s a nasty, smoky business. Gave me an asthma attack, it did.”
The other knights were quick to agree. Then with one accord they all turned to look at Sir Herbert.
“Hmmmmm,” said the king.
“Oh, no,” said Sir Herbert. “Oh, no! You know I wouldn’t be of any use...”
But before he could argue further he found himself loaded onto his horse, a shield stuffed into his left hand and a sword thrust into his right. He was still protesting when someone whacked the horse on the rear and the horse, startled, sprang off. In all his years of being Sir Herbert’s horse this had never happened before and the poor animal was confused.
“Well, at least his armour’s clean,” Sir Herbert’s sister said as she watched him disappear into the distance.
Unfortunately for Sir Herbert, the path leading up to the top of the cliff was neither steep nor long. Much sooner that he would have wished, he found himself at the top. Sure enough, a dragon lay curled up in the sunlight. The fearsome beast seemed to be dozing, but at the sound of Sir Herbert’s horse’s hooves clattering on the stones, it slitted its eyes open and let out a puff of steam. The horse skittered backwards and Sir Herbert had to grab for the pommel of his saddle to keep from falling off again.
“Where’s the fair maiden?” the dragon hissed.
“Wha...What fair maiden?” Sir Herbert stuttered.
“A fair maiden from your village,” the dragon replied. “I’ve decided to come and live here and that’s the deal. One fair maiden every spring or I burn the village down and slaughter all the townspeople.”
“Oh,” Sir Herbert replied. He cast his mind over the fair maidens of the village that he knew. He was pretty sure none of them would agree.
“Oh,” he repeated. “Hum. A maiden? I don’t think...There’s my sister, of course. .. But no, I couldn’t do that. (Although the thought was tempting!) You wouldn’t like her anyway. She’s pretty bossy...”
“No, that wouldn’t do,” the dragon said. He blew a stream of fire out that just missed the horse’s feet. The horse side-stepped away, clearly indignant now. Sir Herbert only just managed to hang on. “Bossy people are too tough and chewy. I want someone soft and fresh.”
“I don’t think...” Sir Herbert began. “I don’t think I can do that.” He took a deep breath and gulped. The words came out in a squeak.
The dragon drew himself up, swished his tail and spread his wings wide. He towered over Sir Herbert. “Then I will fly down and kill every man, woman and child in your village,” he bellowed.
Sir Herbert took another deep breath. He clasped his shield tightly and raised his sword high. “I can’t allow that,” he cried. At least he had meant to cry the words out, loudly and terrifyingly, but they came out as even more of a squeak. His horse turned his head to gaze at him with an astonished look.
Then several things happened all at once. The dragon roared in fury and unleashed a stream of flame that singed the horse’s mane. The horse, who was very proud of his long, silky black mane, had finally had enough. It reared back, as furious as the dragon. The dragon was taken by surprise, but no more so than Sir Herbert who, in his amazement, forgot to lower his sword. At that exact same instant, the dragon plunged down toward Sir Herbert and Sir Herbert’s sword impaled itself in the soft under part of the dragon’s throat–the only vulnerable spot in all of a dragon’s hide.
The force of the blow knocked Sir Herbert off the horse. He hit his helmet clad head on a rock with a clang that rang and reverberated throughout his brain to such an extent that he lost consciousness for a moment. When he could take possession of his senses again he saw an unbelievable sight. The horse was cropping contentedly on a small bush, and the dragon...The dragon lay stretched out dead before him.
And that was how two people who had been berry-picking on the clifftop found him. Actually, the man tripped over him and that’s how he noticed him.
“I do believe that’s our son,” the man said.
“I do believe you’re right,” said the woman.
“And look, isn’t that our village down there?” the man asked.
“Why yes it is,” the woman answered. “I wondered where it had gotten to.”
They helped Sir Herbert to his feet.
“I say,” his father said, “your armour’s looking good.”
“Did you slay that dragon?” his mother asked.
“I...I guess I did,” Sir Herbert answered.
“Well done,” his father said, and gave him a whack on the back that knocked them both off their feet.
“We’d better go home and tell my sister and her husband all about this,” Sir Herbert’s mother said when she had both managed to get them up again. “I’m sure they’ll be most pleased. You’ll be the biggest hero the town has ever known. Fancy killing a dragon all by yourself.”
They started back down the path. Sir Herbert’s father went to throw a loving arm around his son’s shoulders, but then thought better of it. Sir Herbert picked up his horse’s reins.
The horse winked at him, and he winked back.