Day Seventeen

“Thank you all for coming here this morning to bear witness to this historic ceremony. Today you shall meet your next king. Though we do not yet know his name, we can be sure of three things: he will be brave, he will be daring, and he will have slain the most vicious dragon this kingdom has ever known in order to prove that he is worthy of this crown… and my daughter Estelle’s hand.

“There can be no doubting the immense danger of this task I have set forth. It is very likely that many of the men you are about to meet will lose their lives in the attempt. So you will hear their names and they will be recorded so that future generations may be inspired by their heroic examples.

“But the time for talk has come and gone. Now it is time for action! Bring the contenders for the crown into the Great Hall they hope to preside over. Bring in the dragon hunters. Bring in your next king!”

The herald strode solemnly to the center of the dais before descending to the floor. He stopped there and brought his trumpet to his lips. As he began to play, the entrance door was pushed slowly inward and all heads turned to watch the procession commence.

Gerald, from his position on the steps, had one of the best views in the hall as a column of men were led forward by Henry. The king’s advisor was dressed in his finest red and burgundy robe and carried a woven basket which was brimming with scrolls. A line of soldiers marched on either side of the men he led and it took Gerald a moment to understand why their presence was required.

The men who had come to receive King Owen’s oath were armed.

There were ten in all, each more impressive than the one before. They surveyed the nobles as they approached and Gerald saw no fear or discomfort in their faces - only confidence. It was, he realized, the confidence brought on by carrying a sword while the ones you observe are unarmed.

As the herald’s tune began to fade, Henry paused ten feet away and offered his king a deep bow. He then turned and led the men to his left until they formed a fearsome line before the dais. With the final note, they turned as one to face the man they wished to replace.

The Great Hall was filled with the applause and cheers of the nobles as Henry came to stand beside Owen. Some of the men turned to acknowledge the accolades while others fixed their gazes on the king. And one had eyes only for the princess, Gerald noted with a scowl.

“Your Majesty,” Henry said softly while the cheers slowly faded, “it is not too late to reconsider your decision.”

Owen gave his advisor a long, silent look before turning to survey the men. His soldiers had formed a second line behind them while two had joined the king by his throne. It took Gerald three glances to recognize David in his ornate helmet and another four to see that Derrick was the other man.

While the hall gradually returned to its usual respectful silence, Gerald studied the men he hoped to challenge. Eight of them were clearly knights, as squires had come to stand a few feet behind them. Many of them were scarred, all of them looked capable. The jester recognized one of the others as a soldier in the royal guard - William, he was almost certain. Only a few years his senior, he was by far the youngest and most nervous of the lot.

But it was the tenth man who had drawn the most pairs of eyes to him and he seemed to know it. While the others had chosen to appear in armor polished to perfection and carried massive swords on their hips or backs, this man wore loose breeches, a billowing shirt open at the collar, and had brought with him only a pair of daggers which protruded from the front of his waistband.

“A mercenary?” Estelle murmured just loud enough for Gerald to hear. She was obviously not keen on spending the rest of her life with that one.

“Henry,” Owen called out as he held out both arms towards the men, “introduce these brave souls.”

The king’s advisor did so after only the slightest of hesitations. He began with the mercenary - a man named Damon from the town of Vinyarsa - and worked his way down the line. William earned a round of applause from his fellow guards when he was introduced, which only caused him to look even more uncomfortable.

But it was the final man to be introduced who really stole the show. Or rather, his squire did.

“And finally, Your Majesty,” Henry began, “I give to you -”

“Give your poor voice a rest there, old timer - I got it from here.”

“Sorry?” Henry managed to say through his obvious shock.

“Don’t be,” the squire told him with a cocky grin before coming to stand directly in front of the king. With a slight nod of his head, he turned his back to Owen - an action that drew gasps from many of the older nobles - and addressed the hall. “Ladies and gents, my name is Richard. But that is not the name you will need to remember. No, that honor belongs to the man I most humbly serve.”

Gerald was quite certain the short, stout squire didn’t do anything very humbly. But he was as captivated as the rest as the boy waddled over to his knight.

“It is my great privilege to give to you the man who rides the mighty horse known as Dragon’s Bane. The man who carries the sword called Dragon’s Tooth. I present to you the next king of this land: Sir Dustin The Dragon Slayer!”

The man at the center of this spectacle was just over six feet tall and wore his massive sword diagonally across his back. His black hair was drawn back into a long ponytail and a well oiled mustache adorned his face above what appeared to be a permanent smirk. The golden armor that covered him from neck to toe had only one embellishment: a red dragon’s head, painted in gruesome detail.

In the awed silence that followed his introduction, Gerald’s words carried to every corner of the Great Hall.

“Well then, I wonder what you do for a living? Do you tend to the sick, by any chance?”

This elicited a few chuckles from the crowd and a venomous stare from Richard. Dustin, however, only stroked his mustache and smiled at the jester. It was a smile that died long before it reached his eyes.

“Well,” Owen said, clearing his throat noisily, “now that we know who has come to receive my oath, I believe it is time to read it aloud. Henry?”

Henry placed his basket on the floor at his feet and plucked a scroll from its interior. It was as he unfurled it for the king to read that Gerald began to panic. What if they had only brought enough scrolls to give to the men who had already announced their intentions?

“The bearer of this note shall inherit my crown, come the day I am no longer able to rule, should he be the one to slay the dragon known as Blackwing The Beheader.” Owen’s unwavering voice was the only sound in the Great Hall. “This mighty deed requires proof, which shall be in the form of the delivery of the dragon’s head to the Great Hall.

“The bearer of this note is doing the crown’s work and shall be treated accordingly. All lodging and food costs incurred in the course of his mission shall be paid for from the Royal Treasury.”

A few smiles appeared on the men’s faces at this, though none wider than the one on the mercenary’s lips.

“By accepting this note,” the king continued, “the bearer agrees to conduct himself in a manner befitting the next ruler of this kingdom.”

Gerald had difficulty hiding his own smile as those of the men disappeared. The mercenary almost looked like he was ready to walk away after hearing that.

“Should the bearer of this note meet with death during his mission, his family will be fairly compensated from the Royal Treasury. Should the bearer of this note succeed in his mission, he will be wed to the Princess Estelle at the earliest possible opportunity.

“I swear all of this on my crown and on my life, before those gathered here today.” Henry rolled up the scroll and tied it with a burgundy ribbon before passing it to Owen. The king looked at each man in turn before adding, “I wish you good luck, gentlemen. I pray that we shall all meet again.”

The men came forward one at a time to receive the king’s oath. After a deep bow, each would draw their sword and rest it point down on the floor before them. Henry sprinkled a blessing oil on each weapon and then Owen would hand each man his scroll, with a few quiet words of encouragement.

Until it came time to hand the mercenary his oath.

While Damon held out his daggers to be blessed by Henry, he directed a challenging stare at the king. Owen, in turn, stared right back, the scroll in his hand crinkling slightly as he gripped it tighter. Obviously the king was as reluctant as his daughter at the prospect of this man becoming his successor. But he had backed himself into a corner and there was nothing to be done but hand it over, which he eventually did without uttering a word.

Sir Dustin was the final man to come forward and as he placed his sword before him, his pommel coming level with his eyes, Gerald’s palms began to sweat. The basket which held all of the scrolls appeared to be empty from where he was sitting. He racked his brain for a way to still receive the king’s oath as Dragon’s Tooth was blessed but came up empty. All seemed lost as Owen handed Dustin his scroll and he returned to the line with a confident swagger.

“Ten men stand before you, ready to face a dragon to become king,” Owen announced as he gazed around the room. Henry lifted the basket off the ground and, to Gerald’s great relief - and great horror, if he was being honest - pulled another scroll out of it. “Will anyone else step forward to accept this great challenge?”

“It’s a bit too serious in here, don’t you think?” Gerald asked the princess with a shaky laugh. Licking his suddenly parched lips, he added, “Time to lighten things up. Watch this.”

With a wink, he turned and picked up the sack at his feet. Rising to a crouch, he pulled his creation free and somersaulted forward, coming to rest at Dustin’s feet. With a loud cry he leapt to his feet, holding his newest prop high above his head. He was aware that, at the periphery of his vision, Derrick had partially drawn his sword and David was stepping between them.

Gerald paused to stare up at his creation as he gathered his wits and his strength. He had painted his wooden practice sword a bloody red and attached two intricate ornaments to its guard - from each side dangled a severed dragon’s head, a jester’s hat adorning each one. With a deep breath, he brought his gaze down to meet the king’s and stepped forward.

“Your Majesty!” he cried, silently grateful that his voice didn’t break. “You seek another brave soul to vanquish this terrible dragon? Look no further! I, your brave and noble Royal Jester, have heeded your call!”

“What are you doing, boy?” Henry hissed, anger dancing in his eyes.

“Jerry… this is an extremely serious occasion,” Owen murmured, his lips hardly moving.

“All the more need for a few laughs, Your Majesty.” Gerald swallowed with great difficulty before adding, “Please? It is times like these that the people need laughter the most - you told me that once, when I first began serving as your Royal Jester. Allow me to show you that it still holds true.”

The End

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