Gerald and his traveling companions arrived at the outskirts of Firona just before the scheduled meeting time, but they found no one waiting for them there. Tree told him that there was nothing to be concerned about, but Gerald saw worry in his eyes as he scanned the dark horizon.
“Mother is never late,” Leaf said as he built a fire pit with his friend.
“Yours might not be, but mine often is,” Lake told him with a laugh. “And my father is getting on in years, his bones are growing more fragile with every phase of the moon. If there are two bumps in the road he would insist that they slow down. Three? He would want to walk the horses around them!”
“They will be here soon,” Tree said without looking at either of them. “Make the fire so high that it melts the stars so that they will see us from afar.”
The two men did their best to comply with Tree’s wishes but the stars remained stubbornly out of reach. It was, however, more than enough to keep them warm as they kept their silent watch.
After half an hour had passed and there were still no signs of anyone else on the road, Moss went to stand beside his father. After a brief exchange, he came back to the wagons and unhitched one of the horses. Mounting up as easily as Gerald might juggle two balls, he gave them a quick nod before tearing off into the night. As the sound of his horse’s hooves pounding against the ground faded into silence, the men eased themselves to the ground as close to the flames as they dared.
“He will find them,” Tree said quietly as he took a seat beside Gerald. “Let us prepare dinner while we await his return. I think that a pot of your rabbit stew would do us all some good tonight, Leaf.”
“Yes, father,” his son said without hesitation. He moved to the back of one of the wagons and pulled a massive cauldron from it. Bringing it over to the fire, he placed it on the ground with a soft grunt before returning for more supplies. Feeling guilty, Gerald got up to help him.
“Let me carry that,” he said, holding out his hands to take a covered bucket of water.
“Thank you, Jerry,” Leaf said with a tight smile as he passed it over with one hand. Gerald needed both hands to carry it back to the fire, and barely made it there without spilling even then.
Shortly after the water began to boil, they heard Moss approaching from the west. Tree breathed a sigh of relief and pushed himself off the ground as he moved to meet his son.
“They are two miles away,” Moss reported without dismounting. “One of the wagons snapped an axle and they have made a temporary repair, but it won’t hold up to much jostling so they have been forced to travel slowly. Mother is… a little grumpy.”
“We will tend to it properly in the morning,” Tree said with a smile. “Return to them and guide them here. Let them know that dinner will be waiting to warm their bellies.”
Moss nodded once before bringing his horse around and urging it into an easy canter. He disappeared from the edge of the fire light in a much more relaxed manner than the first time and the tension among those he left behind dissipated quickly.
Gerald helped Leaf with dinner as best he could, having last cooked a meal when he was fifteen years old. He had accompanied the king on an overnight hunting trip and was left to his own devices come dinner time. The soup he had thrown together had been very salty but otherwise it had turned out reasonably edible.
When the first creak of a wagon wheel carried into their camp, the stew was simmering in the pot and causing more than one stomach to grumble in anticipation. The four of them stood to greet the arriving party as Moss came into the light, leading his horse on foot.
“It is good for my heart to see you again,” Tree said when the first wagon came into view, a diminutive woman at the reins. The scowl she had been wearing softened momentarily as she nodded her head in his direction before returning as she focused on parking the wagon between the two that were already there.
The second wagon arrived shortly after and even in that poor lighting Gerald could easily see that it was the damaged one. The middle of the front axle was almost touching the ground on every rotation and he marveled that the cart hadn’t already collapsed. A second woman, much younger than the first, was in the driver’s seat and her eyes were locked on the horses before her.
“My heart can beat safely once more,” Leaf called out to her as she eased the horses to a halt. The woman placed the reins down with a relieved sigh before jumping down into his waiting arms. “Were you racing rabbits again, my love? You know this poor old thing can’t handle such abuse!”
“I was doing no such thing,” she told him with a free and easy laugh. “I think you have been feeding our son too much and his mighty weight proved to be too heavy a burden!”
Gerald smiled before quickly looking away, feeling like an intruder. He retreated to the wagons and searched for serving bowls and spoons, wanting to allow the families some privacy for their reunion. By the time he found what he was looking for, the wagons had been freed of their passengers and Tree stood waiting for him.
“Jerry, it is my pleasure to introduce you to my wife, River.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Gerald said, bending at the knee and dipping his head.
“You have taken in an outsider,” River said, raising an eyebrow at her husband. Her silver hair cascaded down her back before coming to a rest at the base of her spine and she was dressed in a thick brown robe that scraped the ground. “I look forward to hearing your story, Jerry, for surely it must be quite something to have convinced this husband of mine to allow you to travel with him.”
“I hope that it does not disappoint,” Gerald told her with a smile. She returned it before accepting a bowl from him and moving to the waiting stew.
“The woman you see with Moss is his young wife, Meadow,” Tree informed him, nodding in their direction. As the youngest son brought her over to greet him, Gerald saw that she was paler than the rest and her hair was a light brown where all the others had raven locks.
“Good evening,” Gerald said with a short bow, resorting to the usual castle behavior as he was unsure of what the proper greeting might be among Gypsies.
“And to you,” Meadow said with a smile that lit up her eyes. Accepting a proffered bowl and spoon she added, “And many thanks for setting the table, such as it is.”
Gerald watched the pair as they moved to join his mother at the fire, wondering if Moss’ bride had caused any difficulties with Tree. He hadn’t seen any indication of tension between the two so far, but then he had hardly seen them together. Still, any hint of breaking from the old ways could not sit too well with the man.
“Lake’s family is in the other wagon,” Tree said, bringing Gerald back to the present moment. “That is his dear wife, Snow, and I am sure that by now you have guessed the driver is Leaf’s wife - she is called Cloud, and she is Lake‘s sister. Lake’s parents are Rain and Wind; they are very dear friends to me. It is strange for me to be reminded that my family’s blood does not also flow through their veins.”
“It sounded like Leaf and Cloud have a child?” Gerald asked, remembering the woman’s earlier comment.
“Ah yes, how could I forget the little one?” Tree said with a wide smile. “They have named him Twig. According to the old ways he will become Branch on his sixteenth birthday. But that is a long ways off yet.”
The two families gathered around the fire, steaming bowls in hand, and talk soon turned to the repairs required for the limping wagon. Gerald listened politely, feeling out of his depth and out of place. He ate his dinner in silence, aware that he would be cast into the spotlight eventually and finding it difficult to relax in the meantime.
“Now that our bellies have been warmed with a fine meal,” River announced as she placed her bowl on the ground beside her, “I think it is time that we are properly introduced to our young guest.”
All eyes turned to Gerald and he smiled weakly. After a long moment of silence, he realized that no more words would be spoken unless they came from his lips. Taking a deep breath, he got to his feet and moved back a few paces so that everyone was able to see him without straining. Looking at each expectant face he gathered his wits and began his tale for the second time that day.
They listened attentively, with several questions coming from both Meadow and Wind. Otherwise they allowed him to speak without interruption, taking in every word. All except for Twig, who could not have been more than nine months old, who slept peacefully throughout.
When he had completed his retelling, Gerald returned to his seat next to Tree and waited to hear what they had to say. When it came, it was not at all what he had expected.
“What they are saying about the dragon is utter nonsense,” Rain declared, shaking her head from side to side.
“I’m sorry?” Gerald asked, afraid that she had not believed a word of what he’d said.
“Blackwing The Beheader? Not a chance! Dragon’s don’t behead people. They have as little to do with us as they possibly can! And when they do, it is strictly for food - they don’t go around murdering people for fun!”
“The king has received reports from men he trusts completely,” Gerald said, careful to keep any outrage from his voice. The last thing he wanted to do was to offend his new companions. “I can’t believe that they would lie to him. The penalty for such foolishness is suitably harsh.”
“Then perhaps they have been lied to themselves,” Rain said with a shrug. “It matters not. It simply is not true.”
“Peace, Rain,” Tree said, holding up a hand, palm towards the woman. “I know that your father’s father was a champion for the dragons of his age, but these are different days we find ourselves walking in. It is possible that a single beast has lost his way.”
Rain didn’t look like she believed him but she held her tongue. Gerald breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for Tree’s support.
“What do you wish to do, father?” Moss asked, a gleam of excitement in his eye.
“I think we should help Jerry,” Tree said simply, gazing around at the others. “While we were in the city we saw many of the men who would become this land’s next king. I think Jerry is better suited than them all.”
“You have known him less than a day,” his wife pointed out as Gerald’s cheeks darkened, “and you feel this way already? You are not one to come to such judgments so quickly, my heart.”