“If you are running from the law we cannot help you.”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” Gerald said quickly. It was an effort for him to not look over his shoulder to see if anyone had followed him. “I just need to head north as quickly as possible and when you mentioned yesterday that you were traveling that way I began to think about joining you.”
“And yet you look like one who does not wish to be caught,” the man observed, scratching the side of his nose with a dirty finger.
“Look,” Gerald said as he slowly straightened, “how about this: I will tell you the whole story as we travel and if you don’t care for my reason for wanting out of here as quickly as possible, then you can dump me at the side of the road and I shall continue on foot. And I will still gladly pay you for taking me that far.”
“Father,” one of the other men said as came to join them. He was nearly as tall as his father, though he wore his hair much shorter and a scraggly beard covered his face while the older man was clean shaven. “We must leave soon or we will be late for the meeting - and you know that they will leave without us.”
“Patience, Moss,” the man said, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder. “There is time yet and this feels like a choice that should not be rushed.”
“Well, I say bring him along - at least as far as the meeting place,” Moss said with a shrug. Then, pointing at Gerald’s face, he added, “Besides, I think we’ve found ourselves a kindred soul.”
Gerald’s forehead wrinkled with confusion as he looked back and forth between the two men. It wasn’t until the father tilted his head to the side to examine Gerald’s cheeks that he realized he had forgotten to wash the designs from his face.
“You are a performer, then?” the father asked.
“Yes… or at least, I was.” Gerald took a deep breath and decided to take a chance. He knew he had to tell them eventually, so he might as well get it over with then and there. With a flourish, he bowed low and said, “Jerry, the former Royal Jester, at your service.”
“I do believe yours is a tale I wish to hear!” the father declared with a laugh that rang the bells in his hair. “Good to meet you, Jerry. I am called Tree, and this is my youngest son, Moss. Behind me you can see my eldest, Leaf, and his friend, Lake.”
“Good to meet you all,” Gerald said with a quick nod to each of them. The two men by the wagons gave him friendly waves before turning and climbing into the driver’s seat of each wagon. The two horses attached to each covered cart stamped their hooves in the dirt, clearly ready to be on the move again.
“Let us be off,” Tree announced, bending to pick up one of Gerald’s sacks as his son grabbed two others. “You shall ride with me and I will hear your words. We will take you as far as the outskirts of Firona, where we are due to meet our wives and children - your tale will suffice as payment to that point. If we decide that we will take you further, we shall settle on a price there. Agreed?”
“That sounds more than fair to me,” Gerald said, holding out a hand to seal the agreement. But Tree batted the hand aside and grabbed him by the back of the head. Their gazes locked on each other, Tree brought their foreheads together gently for a moment before pulling away and moving toward the wagon on the right. Gerald, feeling rather disconcerted and the earthy smell of the man filling his nostrils, followed in his wake.
“Don’t worry about that stuff,” Moss whispered as he walked beside him, “the old man’s still stuck in the old ways. If it had been me, I would have shaken your hand.”
Gerald nodded his thanks for the support as they loaded his things into the back of the wagon Tree had climbed into. Moss gave him a hand up before heading for the other cart and Gerald made himself as comfortable as possible in the tight space.
The sunlight leaking in from the end of the cart allowed him to make out unlabelled boxes of all shapes and sizes, as well as several sacks of grain piled around him, one of which he was sitting on. An array of wooden and metal tools were hanging from the ceiling and tied to both walls and Gerald studied them with great interest while he waited for Tree to finish giving his son instructions at the other end of the cart.
There were tools he recognized, such as hammers and saws, but there were far more that he did not. One in particular captured his imagination - a cylindrical metal object hardly bigger than his hand with a narrow opening at the top and several levers on the side. If he was not mistaken, the bottom looked like it could be screwed off - so that it could be filled with something? Gerald couldn’t even begin to guess what it might be used for.
“You have a keen eye for the unusual,” Tree said as he joined him at the back of the wagon. As he eased down onto a sack of grain opposite the former jester, the cart lurched into motion. “Shall I tell you what that is meant to do or would you prefer to imagine a purpose of your own?”
“I think I would like some more time to consider it,” Gerald said with a small smile, still staring at the tool. “But before we part I think I will need to be told, lest it drive me to distraction.”
“I am growing more fond of you with each passing second,” the man said as he pulled a wooden pipe from a pocket in his breeches. From another he produced a tiny bag full of dried leaves and other things Gerald couldn’t identify. Adding a small amount to the pipe’s bowl, he lit it with only two strikes of a flint against steel. Leaning back against the wagon’s wall, he puffed a few times before telling Gerald, “And now I think it is time to hear your story.”
Gerald turned to look at the retreating woods, wondering where he should begin. Other than the creak of the wagon wheels and the jingling of the horses’ reigns, all he could hear was birdsong. He suddenly felt very tired and out of his element, having not been beyond the city limits for any length of time since he had completed his jester training. He wondered if he would ever see Estelle or Owen or all the servants and soldiers again.
“Missing home already?” Tree asked quietly.
“No, just… feeling ungrounded, I suppose. It feels strange leaving this place after so many years. Abandoning a routine I’ve carried out for so many days that I expect I’ll be getting up early tomorrow and looking for a new costume to put on and someone to perform for.”
“Oh, I’m sure the boys would be happy to have you do a trick or two for them. They would probably even play some music for you as well,” Tree said with a raspy chuckle. “But if you wish to learn the life of the traveler, then you could hardly have found better teachers.”
“I think that I would like to hear your story after you have heard mine,” Gerald said, a smile playing at his lips. “But that requires me to begin mine. How long do you expect us to take to reach Firona?”
“If we want to eat, we will be there by dinner. If we wish to spend the night trying to find our families, a little later. You have plenty of time.”
Gerald nodded as he returned to studying the passing trees as the wagon gained speed. The dirt road they journeyed upon was surprisingly smooth, as though it had been worn flat by generations of travelers - and yet he’d had no idea it existed. It seemed to him then that he was going to be learning more things in the coming days than he had in the previous five years.
“Her name is Estelle,” Gerald began before his throat tightened and forced him to a stop. He realized that he might need all of the time he had, and then some. “She is the king’s daughter. I have known her since I was as tall as this sack I am sitting on. I have… loved her for much longer than I had realized.”
“And then one day you heard that she was going to be taken away from you by the slayer of this rampaging dragon in the north,” Tree said, sending a trail of grey smoke out of the back of the wagon. “So you decided to take up your sword and become that dragon killer, for it was your only chance to become her husband.”
Perhaps it would not take so long to tell his tale after all.
“That‘s about it,” Gerald said with a sad smile. “Except that I had to buy a sword first, before I could pick it up.”
“Oh, you have it very bad indeed then. But that is the far too hasty version, something my youngest would be satisfied with. Not this old man. I will hold my tongue now and let you tell it in full.”
So Gerald went back to the very beginning, for that was far easier to talk about than the recent past, and worked his way back to that moment. He spoke of what he had been told of his parents and their passing, of growing up as the best friend of a princess and not really knowing what that meant until he was sent away for jester training. How his fellow students seemed to think it was a very big deal.
He told Tree about his fading interest in being a jester that had become so much worse in the previous months. The lack of satisfaction, the desire to reach greater heights. The growing understanding that the young woman he was so close to was actually so far out of his reach.
As they left the forest behind and began passing between farmer’s fields and orchards, he recounted the events of the previous three days. Hearing himself put his decision to face the dragon into words made him feel incredibly childish, as though he had lost his grip on reality.
“I must be the most idiotic person you have ever met,” he told Tree, who had been motionless save for the smoke erupting from his nostrils since he had begun his story.
“Not by a long shot,” he said with a smile, his pipe dangling precariously from one side of his mouth. “But that is a tale for another time. You have a unique story though, that cannot be questioned. A jester facing a dragon for the love of a princess. A touch suicidal, certainly, but so very admirable. My wife will swoon over it, of course… but that is my problem, not yours.”
“What is your wife’s name?” Gerald asked as the sun sank below the horizon and the temperature dropped almost immediately. Wrapping his arms around his legs he added, “May I ask how you met?”
“She is called River and to tell you how we came together would be to start in the middle of a very long tale.” Tree blew a final stream of smoke before tapping his pipe on the back of the wagon. After holding it out to let it cool for a few moments, he returned it to his pocket and reached over to open the nearest crate. He pulled out a brown blanket and handed it to Gerald before grabbing a green one for himself. “Shall I distract us from the cold with my story?”
“Please do,” Gerald said as he pulled the blanket close around him, surprised by how soft it was. He had half expected it to be made from grass and hay.
“If you are running from the law we cannot help you.”