Day Twenty

“I am too old now to remember the very beginning,” Tree said as he looked around the wagon. “But I know that we were almost continuously on the move because that is how my people have always been. We traveled in a wagon much like this one, though it carried more musical instruments than tools.

“I was taught how to play the flute before I learned how to walk. It is difficult for people to pass by a toddler playing music without dropping a coin or two in his basket, so I was soon earning more than my father did with his guitar. It would not last, of course, but we did not want for much in those early days.”

“Do you still play?” Gerald asked, burying his fingers in his armpits to keep them warm.

“As surely as I still breathe,” Tree replied. “I will play with my sons around our campfire tonight and, if you are very lucky, my wife will sing. Do you play an instrument? You would be more than welcome to join us.”

“I used to have a hand drum when I was younger but it was cheaply made and I wore it out pretty quickly. There was no one around at the time that knew how to make a new hide and fit it properly and my interests soon turned elsewhere.”

“To pretty girls, perhaps?” Tree asked with a mischievous smile. “If you’d like to see if the old rhythms still pump through your veins, we have a few hand drums in the other wagon. Lake brought them back after one of his trips to the deserts in the southern lands. He hasn’t used them much though; I think he just likes to look at them.”

“I might give them a try,” Gerald said, feeling fully at ease with a man he hardly knew. “So how did the little sapling grow into a Tree?”

“You know, I was actually called Sapling until my sixteenth birthday. That is how our names work… at least, it is in the old ways. But fewer and fewer of my people are interested in learning how things have always been done. They are too keen on the new ways… but I am stumbling off the trail already and we have hardly begun our journey!”

“I don’t mind,” Gerald said. “I don’t really know too much about Gypsies and I would be happy to hear whatever you would share with me.”

“Few are those who know anything about us that do not have Gypsy blood pumping through their hearts. We tend to be a secretive people, though I have never fully understood why. Superstitions, most likely. I suppose self-preservation fits in there somewhere as well.”

“And never settling down means no one is around you long enough to figure you out,” Gerald added as he pulled the blanket over his head like a hood. Looking back the way they had come, he could almost see Father Winter chasing after them, the grass at his feet turning an icy blue as he passed.

“Also true,” Tree said with a sigh. “Regardless, it comes as no shock to hear that you are not familiar with our ways. Our numbers dwindle and we are fading from relevance, despite our best efforts. Did you know that Gypsies were once the favored weapon smiths of kings from here to the eastern ocean?”

“No, but after seeing those throwing stars of yours I could believe it!”

“My father’s father created the sword that your king uses to bestow knighthood,” Tree said with a sparkle of pride in his eyes. “It has been passed down, from king to king to king, and it is likely to be in use long after I have moved on to the Great Dream. I think I would like to see you holding it.”

“I thank you for saying so,” Gerald said with a dip of his head, “but there’s a dragon standing between me and that moment. And I’m having a lot of trouble seeing past that beast at the moment.”

They traveled on in silence for a while as darkness settled in around them. Gerald wondered how many miles they had put between themselves and the castle. It felt like his old life was already a world away.

“We will share your story with the others at dinner tonight,” Tree said at length, his face lost in shadows though he was only a few feet away. “Then we will discuss what we shall do next. We have many options but I must admit that I am leaning very heavily toward only one and I expect my boys, particularly Moss, will feel the same as I do.”

“And what option is that?”

“That we take you north until we find this dragon of yours,” Tree said, an unseen smile on his lips as he leaned forward. “And on the way we’ll see if we can’t help you figure out how to conquer it.”

Chapter Fifteen

After the dragon hunters had left the Great Hall, Estelle made her own exit before her father had even turned around. She needed to be away from prying eyes and ears so that she could think and scream and cry. But she needed to be sure before she could do any of that, so she made her way to Gerald’s room.

As all the servants had gathered to watch the ceremony, the hallways were completely empty and she was able to make her way there without any need to maintain her royal dignity. Hitching up her skirts, Estelle ran as fast as she could, her footsteps echoing ominously off the stone walls.

But she wasn’t used to physical exertion - she would have been hard pressed to remember the last time she had the chance to move at even a fast walk - and her legs tired quickly. Then as she was pulling herself up the stairs by the wooden railing, a stitch made itself known in her right side. She pushed on, knowing that if Gerald was serious about going after Blackwing then he would be leaving immediately, before anyone had a chance to stop him. And he had the advantage of a head start and a shorter route to his room.

By the time she reached his floor, she was nearly doubled over in pain, her face flushed from overextending herself. She was grateful that no one was around to see her like that, but also was beginning to worry that Gerald had actually been joking. What would she say if he answered the door with his lunch in hand, wondering why she looked like she had just been shot with an arrow?

“I am about to make a terrible fool out of myself,” she gasped, using one hand to steady herself against the wall as she continued on.

But she had to be sure.

As she came around the final corner before Gerald’s room, she heard a noise coming from up ahead that she couldn’t identify. When she realized that it was coming from his room, she forced herself to pause for a moment to try to regain at least a small portion of her composure. Ignoring the searing pain in her side and the ache in her legs, she straightened her spine and slowed her breathing. By the time she stood in his doorway she was still breathing hard, but at least she no longer looked like a panting dog.

“Jerry?” she called out, gazing around the apparently empty room. “Are you there?”

A muffled shout that emanated from the wardrobe to her right startled Estelle, but not nearly as much as the pounding from the inside that soon followed. She approached it warily, trying to figure out what was going on. Had Gerald somehow locked himself in there by accident?

With a shaking hand, she eased the door open and then stood back quickly. She didn’t know exactly what she had been expecting, but it was certainly not Gerald’s servant stumbling out, red faced and indignant.

“Colin! What were you doing in there?”

“He tricked me! I can’t believe he tricked me!”

“Jerry locked you in there?” Estelle asked, more confused than before. “Why would he do that?”

“I came to talk to him after seeing him accept the king’s oath,” Colin muttered, kicking at a spot of dust on the floor. “I can’t believe he was so mean to me.”

“You came to try and stop him and he threw you in there?” Estelle asked, a hollow feeling settling into the pit of her stomach. “It was just a big joke, Colin, surely you can see that? But I must say that locking you in there is taking it much too far.”

“It’s not a joke! Your Highness.”

“How do you know that?” Estelle asked, holding her breath as she awaited his answer.

“Because I didn’t come to stop him,” Colin said, sitting down on the floor and slapping his legs in frustration. “I wanted him to take me with him. So we could go a big adventure together and see a dragon and see places and stuff like that. But he said he had to do it alone.”

Estelle dropped to her knees and wrapped the boy in her arms. She rocked him back and forth, pressing her cheek against the top of his head. The tears threatened to come in full force then, but she held them off for just a little longer.

“How long were you trapped in there?” she asked the boy.

“Just a couple of minutes before you came and let me out,” he replied. “Do you think I could still catch him? I can run really fast - my father even says I could catch a rabbit if I ever saw one!”

“Did he say how he was traveling? He doesn’t even have a horse!” Estelle was torn between chasing after him herself and letting him go in the hopes that he would actually return. She chastised herself for being so selfish, but still she didn’t move.

“No… but he couldn’t be walking with all that stuff he was carrying! Maybe he’s stealing one from the stables right now!”

“All that stuff…” So he had been planning this, Estelle realized. Suddenly the pieces began falling into place. Of course he hadn’t been in the castle the last two days - he’d been putting his plan together and making preparations for a long journey north. Buying food, arranging transportation… purchasing a weapon.

So that he could slay a dragon.

For her.

“Don’t cry, Your Highness!” Colin sounded quite alarmed. Obviously he had not received proper training on how to handle a bawling royal. “Isn’t it exciting that Jerry is trying to become your husband?”

“It would be, Colin,” she said, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her gown. “Except it’s very likely that he won’t survive the attempt. These tears are falling because I’m afraid I won’t see him again.”

“Oh, don’t think that! Jerry is super smart, the smartest guy I know! If there’s a way to kill that mean dragon, I’m sure that he’ll figure it out. You just have to have faith in him!”

The End

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