Day Eighteen

Owen eyed him silently, emotions appearing and then vanishing in his eyes so quickly that Gerald was unable to identify them. He heard a few nervous laughs and some shuffling of feet behind him but he kept his eyes on the king, trying to keep his face as open and honest and as free of fear as possible.

“This is a ridiculous waste of time, Your Majesty,” Henry said with a scowl. “If you give this boy your oath it undermines the legitimacy of the ones granted to these other men. The people will hear of this and they -”

“Oh, get a sense of humor, Henry,” Owen said as he took a step towards the jester, scroll in hand. Gerald swallowed again as sweat pasted his costume to every inch of his body. He tried to focus on keeping his breath steady with little success. “Jerry… I hope you are not planning on doing anything… momentously stupid.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Sire.”

“If any harm befalls you because I grant you this oath, my daughter will never forgive me.”

“I understand, Sire.” Gerald was struggling mightily as he did his best not to lie outright to his king and was about ready to end their conversation before he suffered a heart attack. So, with his most engaging smile, he held out his right hand to receive the scroll.

“Do not make me regret this, Jerry,” the king whispered as he placed his oath in his hand.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Gerald said, dropping to one knee. As he straightened again he added, “And I apologize in advance for ruining whatever fancy conclusion to this ceremony you had planned.“

Owen’s forehead crinkled in confusion but before he could say anything Gerald whirled away and raised his sword and scroll high above his head. He capered and pranced and jumped and twirled his way down the line of men, whooping and hollering the entire time.

“Death to Blackwing!” he shouted several times and soon the Great Hall was filled with the chant. “Death to Blackwing! Death to Blackwing!”

Gerald paused to look at the nobles for a moment, a smile finding its way on to his lips. He really hadn’t expected things to go this well. He saw that he was standing near Sir Dustin again and gave him a thumbs up, which only received a smirk in return. Taking a deep breath, he turned to face the princess for what could very well be the final time.

“We go forth to win the crown, Your Highness - but your hand is the true prize. Be well and may we all see you again one day.” Gerald thought he saw a tear forming in Estelle’s eye and quickly bowed deeply before he could be sure. He didn’t want to know. He then turned to face the men again and bellowed, “So it’s a race then! May the best man win! Last one out of the Great Hall is a rotten piece of chicken meat!”

With that he took off at a sprint for the entrance door at the far end of the hall, causing nobles to step quickly to get out of his way. Behind him the men laughed nervously and exchanged bemused glances. Then, one by one, they began to follow after Gerald. Nonchalantly at first, then a little faster, and by the time they reached the door they were jostling for position and exchanging heated words. The king, Gerald would have been pleased to know, was watching it all unfold with a wide grin. The princess, unfortunately, did not see the humor in the situation - she was too preoccupied with hiding her tears from the nobles and her father.

Gerald ran through the empty halls as fast as his feet would carry him. He needed to get to his room, get changed, collect his things, and be off the castle grounds before anyone could catch him. If anyone saw him looking fully prepared for a journey north, the joke would be over in a very big hurry and any chance he had of reaching the Gypsies before they decamped would be gone.

As he approached the stairs he stopped just long enough to give his wooden dragon sword to one of the statues of armor that stood sentry in the hallway. With a laugh that verged on crazed, he took off again, taking the stairs two at a time for as long as he could manage. By the time he reached his room he was completely out of breath but adrenaline pushed him onward.

Slamming the door behind him, he stripped quickly and began putting on the outfit he had laid out on his bed that morning. He was just buttoning his shirt up when a voice came from behind him.

“You’re really doing it, aren’t you?”

“Colin! You nearly scared me to death,“ Gerald said over the sound of his pounding heart. “What are you doing in here?”

“I was watching from the back of the hall with the other servants,” Colin replied from the chair by the door, his eyes on his dangling feet. “As soon as you received your scroll I knew you would have to come back here first.”

“You’re not going to talk me out of it,” Gerald said as he hauled his supplies out from under his bed, “so don’t even bother trying.”

“I’m not here to tell you to stay,” Colin said, hopping down from his chair. “I want you to take me with you!”

“Oh no, absolutely not! I will not be responsible for getting you killed. You will stay right here and live a nice, long, happy life. Grow up to be big and strong and make your parents proud.”

“But all those knights had squires, you should have one too!”

“Colin, that is very brave of you, it really is,” Gerald said, dropping to a knee to look the boy in the eyes. “But this is something I must face alone. And besides, the king will need a new jester while I am away!”

“But… you always told me not to want to be one,” Colin said, confusion scrunching up his face.

“Yes, well, change of plans!” Gerald looked around the room, trying to keep his panic under control. He needed to get out of there two minutes ago. When he spotted his wardrobe he knew what he had to do. “Look, why don’t we go have a look at my outfits? I bet we could get the tailor to adjust a few of them for you.”

“Really?” Colin asked as he walked over to the closet, Gerald following close behind. Gerald opened up the doors and Colin reached out to touch one of the outfits. “I’ve always really liked this one, do you - oof!”

“Sorry, Colin,” Gerald said as he closed the doors, trapping the boy inside the wardrobe. “But time is of the essence. Don’t worry, you’ll be found soon enough. Goodbye and… thank you for everything.”

Gerald raced from the room, guilt dragging his heart down to his toes, Colin‘s muffled screams in his ears. He left the door open, hoping that would expedite his helper’s discovery, and hefted his burden onto his shoulder. He was tempted to strap his sword onto his hip but knew that would cause too many questions at the gates. As he descended the stairs he promised himself that he would make it up to the boy if he actually managed to make it out of this madness alive.

It might be an idea, he thought grimly as he headed in the opposite direction he had come in, to also make arrangements to make it up to Colin in the likely event that he did not survive his date with the dragon.

Chapter Fourteen

Gerald reached the east castle gates unchallenged and, as far as he could tell, unnoticed. As he strode from the castle and crossed the small courtyard he kept his head down, feeling exposed in the open space. He did his best to appear unhurried and relaxed, though he felt anything but.

“Good morning, Jerry,” one of the three guards on duty called out.

“Hello Edward,” Gerald said, giving the man a quick nod while not slowing his pace. “Sorry, in a bit of a hurry today. If you’re still here when I come back I’ll stop and have a proper chat, all right?”

“Sure thing,” Edward said as he eyed the sacks Gerald was carrying. “Do you need a hand with all of that? I’m due to take my break in a couple of minutes - if you can wait that long, I’d be happy to help.”

“Much appreciated,” Gerald said over his shoulder as he exited the castle grounds, “but I can manage it. Take care, lads. I’m looking forward to seeing you again later.”

He kept exactly how much later he hoped to see them to himself as he turned to navigate the crowded street that would take him to the eastern edge of the city. Judging by the sun’s position in the sky he didn’t have long to reach the Gypsy camp, so he was forced to set aside his usual patient and polite demeanor.

“I should have learned to ride a bloody horse when I had the bloody chance,” he muttered after shoving his way through a group of men standing outside a clothier’s shop.

His hands began to ache from his tight grip on his sacks of supplies and his shoulder burned where they rubbed against it. But he kept putting one foot in front of the other, keeping his focus on the emptying hourglass in his head. Once Colin was found in his room it would only be a matter of minutes before the chase would begin in earnest. If they learned which gate he left through fast enough, it wouldn’t take much effort to track him with the way he was moving.

As Gerald continued trudging east, the crowds began to thin until he was one of only a handful of people on the street. He pressed on as the trees of the Blackburn Forest came into view over the tops of the homes ahead of him. The Gypsies would be waiting for him there, but for how much longer he could only guess.

His legs grew weaker as he walked and he began to stumble. He would catch himself with a muttered curse and carry on, knowing that resting would lead to guaranteed failure and that giving up was not an option. He glanced backward only once, as it caused him to very nearly fall flat on his face, and was relieved to find no signs of pursuit.

When he crossed the edge of town and staggered into the cover of the forest he paused to lean against a tree and catch his breath in the pine scented air. It felt like cause for celebration but he reminded himself that if he missed the Gypsies’ departure it may still all be for naught. Pushing off the tree with a low groan, he traveled deeper into the woods.

He came across them ten minutes later, just as he was preparing to accept that he had missed them. They were finishing packing their supplies into their two wagons when he entered the small clearing they had been camping in. The man Gerald had assumed was their leader was the first to spot him.

“So you managed to make it after all,” he said, coming to greet Gerald with a few long strides. “We have four throwing stars ready for you… are you all right, friend?”

“It’s a very long story,” Gerald gasped, dumping his sacks onto the dirt at his feet. Doubling over, he placed his hands on his knees and took several long, shuddering breaths. Once he was able to speak normally again he asked, “How much gold would it cost me to tell you the tale while we traveled north in your wagons?”

The End

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