Day Twelve

Before the princess could offer a reply, the king’s herald made his appearance and the morning’s proceedings were soon underway. Gerald succeeded in staying awake throughout the morning - though there was a very close call while the treasurer was giving his report to the king - and so did Estelle. If Owen noticed that either of them were on the verge of sleep he chose not to mention it.

As the king strode from the room after his business was completed, Estelle turned to speak with Gerald but he was already halfway to the far end of the hall. She watched him slip through the gathered crowd and out the door before following in her father’s wake.

After a few steps she realized it was better that way. She would call on him after lunch, on her way to the tea room, and they could speak in private. It did not even cross her mind that he might not be there.

Chapter Ten

Gerald moved through the crowded halls as fast as he could manage without pushing people aside, intent on reaching the kitchens first so that he could procure his meal and be quickly on his way to meet Magnus. He wasn’t at the head of the line when he arrived, but he was close enough.

“Hi Jerry,” the boy behind him said while they waited for those ahead of them to get their lunch. “Big day tomorrow, huh?”

“How did you… oh, right.” Gerald’s heart had thudded to a stop in his chest when he thought the boy had been talking about his own plans. It only returned to its regular rhythm with great difficulty. “Yeah, with the king meeting with all those lunatics that want to get mauled by a dragon. The castle will be brimming with them tomorrow.”

“Me and some of the other lads are having a friendly wager on it - you want in?”

“What’s the prize?” Gerald asked, moving forward two spots as a pair of twins moved off with their plates. “And what exactly are we betting on?”

“Well, we figure it’s going to be total chaos in the Great Hall tomorrow morning,” the boy said in a rather audible whisper. “So we’re going to sneak in and watch the big ceremony or whatever it’s gonna be. We’ll get a good, proper look at everybody who receives King Owen’s oath and then we make our picks.”

“Ah, which one you think shall become our next king. Sounds like good fun.”

“Yeah,” the boy said before looking over his shoulder and leaning in close. “Plus we pick a second one.”

“What for? There’s no second place in this competition. Either you’re the one that kills Blackwing or you’re not.”

“No, I mean we pick the guy we think is going to get killed first.”

“That sounds rather… difficult to verify,” Gerald said after a slight pause in which he realized all of the second bets would be on himself. If he actually convinced the king to give him his oath. If he actually asked for it in the first place. “How will you be sure who the dragon gets first?”

“Squires,” the boy said simply as they reached the front of the line. “They know better than to be at their knight’s side when they go up against dragons. They’ll report back to the king with the time and place. If there’s anybody crazy enough to go without a squire, we‘ll just have to rely on eyewitnesses.”

Gerald ordered his lunch and waited for it in silence. He wasn’t sure if he should be horrified or wager the rest of his money on himself winning. After all, if he wasn’t the one to slay Blackwing he likely wouldn’t be around to care about losing all of his gold.

“So, what do ya think?” the boy asked as they walked away, lunches in hand.

“I’ll get back to you,” Gerald said before bidding him a good afternoon and heading for his room.

When he arrived there, he found that Colin had already dropped off his washbowl and cloth. So he cleaned himself up while the water was still hot and then changed into his oldest pair of breeches and his grubbiest shirt, fully expecting to get very dirty during his sword lesson.

Gerald began eating his lunch but discovered that his appetite had gone missing. He forced a second bun down his throat, knowing he would soon need all the energy he could muster up, and grabbed his mug of apple juice to drink on the way.

As he stepped out into the hall, he heard two people conversing around the corner to his right. It took him a moment to recognize Estelle’s voice, but the moment he did so he took off in the opposite direction. He had no time to waste and he didn’t trust himself to come up with a convincing lie to explain both his appearance and where he was heading.

Leaving through the same gate he had entered the previous night (after depositing his mug in a place he was sure to remember to retrieve), Gerald took a much more direct route to the weapon shop this time. The streets were less busy as well, though he did notice more knights and squires than usual, so he made very good time, appearing at Magnus’ doorstep a little over ten minutes after he left the castle grounds.

“Here is your sword, little Jerry,” the big man said, laying the weapon on the counter. He pulled it from its plain brown leather scabbard with practiced grace and handed it to the jester. While Gerald moved it this way and that, admiring the way it gleamed in the torchlight, the smith locked his front door.

“It’s magnificent,” Gerald whispered, feeling completely undeserving of such a fine blade.

“Indeed,” Magnus said, holding out a thick hand. “Now we’re going to put it away because you are certainly not taking your lessons with that.”

Gerald handed it over with a reluctance that surprised him. Without the sword in his hand he felt different. Naked, almost.

Before he could analyze the sensation, Magnus ushered him through his shop and out the back door. There he was greeted with an open dirt area, covered by a roof consisting of several tree trunks tied together. Gerald could almost picture the smith throwing them up there, one or two at a time.

“You will start with this,” Magnus announced, handing him a wooden sword that appeared to be the exact same design and dimensions as the sword he had purchased. “I will teach you what you need to know with this and eventually you will have the strength to move your sword as if it was as light as this one.”

“Makes sense to me,” Gerald said, pleased to take a few practice swings without losing his balance. “So where do we start?”

“Where else?” the smith asked with a wide smile. “At the beginning.”

They began with the grip. Magnus showed him how to hold it with both hands, while taking the time to assure him that if he ever grew strong enough to hold it with just one he could return for another lesson. Gerald laughed nervously at this as he placed his right hand under the guard and his left hand on the pommel. They worked through a few awkward practice swings before the smith moved on to proper footwork.

After several minutes Gerald was able to make hard slashes without falling over. Another twenty minutes after that he managed to move from one side of the practice area to the other, swinging his sword the entire time.

“You are a natural!” Magnus roared, causing Gerald to blush. He could only hope that the cold air and his exertions would conceal it. “You must have swordsmanship in your blood, little Jerry.”

“My father was a member of the king’s royal guard,” he said quietly, keeping his eyes on the imaginary opponent in front of him. Taking a deep breath, he began making his way back across the dirt, making harder slashes this time. When he came up against the far wall, he turned around to find Magnus facing him from ten feet away, a practice sword of his own in his right hand. “Uh oh.”

“Indeed,” Magnus said before offering a slight bow. “Defend yourself.”

Gerald didn’t even have time to ask how he was meant to do that. The smith closed the space between them in a heartbeat, swinging his sword lightly at first, then progressively harder. Each blow rattled Gerald’s bones until one succeeded in knocking his sword to the ground.

“Pick it up,” Magnus ordered. He wasn’t even breathing hard as Gerald bent to collect his weapon and straightened again, wiping sweat from his forehead. “Ready?”

“No,” Gerald said, “but I suspect that doesn’t matter.”

“Quite right. This time, you attack me.”

Gerald did as he was told, tentatively at first, then with more aggression as he realized he stood no chance of actually hurting the man. He swung until his arms burned and his fingers went numb. A final blocked blow caused his sword to fall from his hands. He placed his hands on his knees and sucked in lungful after lungful of crisp fall air.

“Very good, little Jerry,” Magnus said, not even a drop of sweat apparent on his face. “When you have had a rest I will show you one final technique. Take your time, I will go see if I have any customers gathered at my door.”

Gerald waited until his trainer had left the practice grounds before he allowed his legs to go limp and sat down hard on the dirt. He ached all over, but it felt good. And, he thought with a weak smile, Magnus must be nearly as big as Blackwing, so he was fortunate to have found an appropriate practice partner.

He had meant to get back to his feet before the smith returned but he hadn’t moved by the time Magnus came striding out of his shop again. Without a word, he came over and offered Gerald a hand up. He accepted it gratefully and was almost lifted into the air as a result.

“All right,” Magnus said, “I want you to hold your sword like this. A bit higher. There you go. Now, when the dragon swoops in, you must -”

“When the what does what?” Gerald sputtered, his sword point dropping to the dirt.

“The dragon,” Magnus said, his expression stern. “That is what this is all about, is it not?”

“How did you know?”

“In the last two days, I have had five guys in my shop just like you. Except the other four boasted about how they were going to be my king before the month was done and that they would remember me if I gave them a good deal on a new sword. I offered all of you a free lesson, because you all needed it, but you were the only one who accepted.”

“I see.” Gerald studied the dirt at his feet for a moment before looking up at the big man. “You must think me a fool. Why are you wasting your time with me?”

“Because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to sell you a sword without giving you at least a miniscule chance at survival,” Magnus said with a shrug. “Because you were willing to put the work in to learn. Because you would make a much, much better king than those other four idiots.”


“Any time. So. Do you wish to learn how to slay a dragon or not?”

“It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world at the moment.”

The technique was relatively simple, though it involved taking an incredible risk (just in case standing in front of an angry dragon wasn‘t dangerous enough on its own) and the likelihood of it actually working was minimal. But it was better than just closing his eyes and hoping for the best, which up until that point had been the jester’s plan. Gerald executed it successfully after a handful of tries and promised to continue practicing it until he mastered it.

“I wish you the best of luck,” Magnus said once they were back inside his shop. “I would advise you to not even make the attempt, but I can see in your eyes that it would be a waste of my breath.”

“Thank you, Magnus,” Gerald said as he placed his sword into an empty flour sack the smith had found behind the counter. It was a poor disguise but it was the best he could do. “And, should a miracle occur and I actually succeed in this lunacy, I promise that I will remember you.”

“I know you will, little Jerry.”

With a final nod, Gerald turned and left the shop. After a few moments, Magnus returned to his work, though his thoughts remained with the jester for the rest of that day. He would find himself thinking of Gerald at odd times for the next few weeks, wondering where he was and how he was doing.

He couldn’t stop himself from expecting the worst, so he made himself hope for the best.

The End

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