Day Twenty-three

“He has made a very strong impression on me in that short time,” Tree told her with a slight shrug. “And I will admit that there is some selfishness playing a role in my thoughts.”

“If Gypsies helped a man to become king,” Gerald said slowly, “then that king would look quite fondly upon the Gypsies. Perhaps he would even go so far as to commission them to make a sword or two, and in so doing return them to their previous prominence.”

“Well, he certainly is a clever young man,” River said. “I am not yet fully convinced that this is the direction we should take, but we are moving north anyway. Perhaps a few more days will solidify my opinion.”

“And what if the dragon did not do what he is accused of?” Rain asked, raising her chin so that she looked down her nose at Gerald.

“I think that while we are tracking down his current location,” Tree replied, “that we would have an excellent opportunity to investigate the claims against Blackwing. Should we find proof that he is innocent, then it will be our mission to bring that proof to the king, so that he may rescind his bounty.”

Gerald looked between the two Gypsies in silence, his thoughts tumbling together. He had left the castle thinking he would either return as the next king or not return at all. But what would he do if the dragon didn’t deserve to die? Could he go back there to resume his position as Royal Jester? Would the king allow it? More importantly, did he even want to?

With a general agreement reached to continue northward the next day - after supplies had been procured in Firona to repair the wagon - everyone pitched in with the cleaning of dishes. As they were dried and returned to the back of the wagon, instruments began appearing in their place. The younger men armed themselves with colorful guitars while Tree and Wind produced their flutes. After a quiet word from Tree, Lake brought over one of his hand drums for Gerald to play.

“This is a work of art,” Gerald said as he admired the designs that had been carved into its dark wood base. The instrument rose nearly to his waist and the skin across its top was rough, having not yet been worn smooth. A soft tap in its middle produced a pleasant bass sound.

“And I suggest that you treat it as one,” Lake told him with a wink. “What is it they are saying in the shops these days? Ah yes: you break it, you buy it.”

Gerald allowed the others to begin, listening to the unfamiliar notes springing from their instruments and waiting for the rhythm to speak to him. He began by nodding his head and tapping his foot before lightly tapping the drum. As his confidence grew, so did the volume of his music.

And then the women began to dance.

Cloud swayed gently from side to side, Twig still asleep in her arms. The others, including Rain and River, twirled in circles, their arms and hair straining to reach the horizon. They stomped their feet in time with Gerald’s drumming before swaying their hips to the rhythm of the flutes. For a few blissful minutes, Gerald forgot who he was and what he was doing.

But then the music slowed to a halt and the men handed their instruments to the women and rose to take their place.

“Up you go,” Meadow told Gerald with a gentle push.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Gerald sputtered. “I’m really not much of a dancer. I’ll just watch, I think.”

“This is not a competition,” Moss called to him with a laugh. “It is about being alive! Come, Jerry - you are about to face a dragon! Don’t you think you should celebrate every breath that escapes your lungs today? What good is life if we are not grateful for right here and now?”

Gerald shuffled over to the men, who welcomed him with slaps on the back and words of encouragement. As they women began to play he stepped awkwardly from side to side, watching the others to see how they moved. There seemed to be a lot of stomping and clapping going on, so he decided to join in.

“That’s the spirit, Jerry!” Meadow called out from behind the drum.

Before he realized it, Gerald was moving freely around the fire, a wide grin threatening to split his face in two. Throwing his head back, he stared up at the stars as he spun, feeling more alive than he had in years. Unfortunately, he quickly became dizzy and had to slow down before he fell into the flames.

For the third and final song, the three young men danced with their wives while their parents and Gerald played for them. Their affection for each other was plain in their eyes - especially Leaf and Cloud - and Gerald’s thoughts soon turned to Estelle. He allowed himself a moment to daydream of dancing around a campfire with her before bringing his focus back to the drum.

“You played very well,” Lake told him later as they were preparing for bed. “If you’re interested in keeping the drum, perhaps we can reach an agreement before we part.”

“I would like that very much,” Gerald replied as he extracted his bed roll from one of his sacks. Placing it a safe distance from the fire he added, “It seemed like you and your guitar were one tonight. How long have you been playing?”

“Since I was big enough to pick one up,” he told him with a wistful smile. “The first time I heard my older brother playing his, I knew there would be no other instrument for me.”

“Oh, is your brother traveling with others?”

“In a way, yes. He walks in the Great Dream now, taken before his time. Well, father says we cannot know when the time is right or wrong, but… well, it is difficult for me to believe his was fair.”

“I’m sorry,” Gerald said, dipping his head. He wished there was more that he could say but realized anything more would be superfluous.

Everyone was under their blankets shortly after that except for Leaf, who would take first watch and keep the fire alive. In a few hours he would wake Moss to take the next shift, then finally Lake would see them through to dawn. Gerald had offered to take a turn but had been graciously turned down.

Gerald lay awake watching the flames dance in the logs like demons, his thoughts tumbling around his mind as though they had just woken. He wondered what Estelle was doing and thinking and feeling at that moment, and whether or not she was already mourning his passing. He thought about King Owen and how furious he would be when he discovered his jester had tricked him in front of everyone in the Great Hall.

Before sleep finally took him in its dark embrace, he realized there was no going back to his old life, capering about like an idiot to earn a few laughs. The king could not take him back after what he had done.

No, he thought firmly, there was only one way he could return to the Great Hall, and that was if he brought with him a dragon’s head.

Chapter Seventeen

Dawn came earlier than usual the next day, it seemed to Gerald. The feeling was brought on partially by a lack of sleep, but eventually he realized that sleeping at ground level, with no buildings around, led to the sun’s rays finding him sooner than they would at the castle.

He raised himself up onto an elbow, his breath clouding the air, and was embarrassed to find that he was the only one still beneath his blankets. His nostrils informed him that breakfast was already being prepared - something with a lot of cinnamon in it - and he saw that most of the men had gathered around the damaged wagon. With only a wisp of reluctance, he left behind the warmth of his bed roll and went to join them.

“Good morning, Jerry,” Tree said with a quick nod. “Sleep well?”

“Could have been worse,” he replied. “I think it’s going to take me a while to get used to not sleeping in my bed back at the castle.”

“Your body will soon remember that it is more natural to sleep outdoors,” Tree said as he crouched down to examine the wagon’s undercarriage. “Perhaps upon your triumphant return you will require the construction of an open air bedroom.”

“Don’t inflict your beliefs on the poor child,” Wind admonished him with a soft chuckle. By the light of the rising sun Gerald could see that the other elder’s dark hair held more gray than his friend’s did and his face was free of scars. There was, however, a black tattoo on his left cheek - a thin, flowing image of a tree.

“I will make a Gypsy of him yet,” Tree said, giving Gerald a wink before turning his attention to the wagon. “But first we need to get this cart back in shape.”

Before sitting down for breakfast a shopping list was created, which Leaf and Lake agreed to take care of in Firona. The porridge that had been prepared by the women warmed them from the inside out and Gerald was unable to refuse a second helping.

While the two men took one of the wagons in to the town, those that stayed behind set about preparing the damaged cart for its repairs. They began by placing the sturdiest crates underneath its front edge. Once the pile reached just below the wagon’s floor, the men lifted it high enough for another crate to be added, raising the front wheels off the ground. The wheels were then taken off so that the damaged axle could be removed (and tossed into the fire). With nothing more to be done until the required supplies were brought back, Gerald’s thoughts returned to his first encounter with the Gypsies.

“Could I have a look at those completed throwing stars now?” he asked Moss as they walked together toward the fire.

“Oh, of course! I had completely forgotten - I’ll fetch them for you.”

He returned only a few moments later, carrying five of the weapons and an eager smile. He passed one to Gerald and reminded him how to hold it properly. Gerald winced as he pressed the knob and the blades came snapping out, thankfully leaving his fingers intact.

“Would you like to practice using them?” Moss asked, bouncing lightly on his toes.


They moved to the back of one of the wagons and Moss produced a circular target from its confines; it was green at the center, black at the outermost edge, and brown in between. Together they set it up a safe distance from the others and then took up a position twenty feet away.

“It’s all in the wrist,” Moss told him as he grabbed one in his right hand, brought out the blades, and whipped it at the target in one smooth motion. It hit just to the right of dead center. “Now you try.”

Gerald used the open throwing star that was still in his hand, cocking his right arm back and squinting at the target. Taking a deep breath, he released it and brought his arm forward at the same time. The weapon lodged in the outermost ring.

“Not bad for a first try,” Moss told him with an approving nod. “The first time Leaf tried it he missed the target by a foot! Here, have another go.”

Gerald threw the remaining three stars in quick succession; all of them hit the target, though none came anywhere close to the middle. They retrieved the stars and took up position again, though this time Moss helped Gerald with the angle of his arm. Another five throws later and his improvement was already apparent.

“Nicely done,” Meadow said as she came to watch them. “Would you like to learn a trick throw?”

“I think he should stick to working on the standard one for now,” Moss said with a laugh. “But I think he ought to see it done once, so he knows what he has to look forward to.”

Moss tossed her one of the stars without retracting its blades and his wife snatched it out of the air with a smile. Gerald shook his head, knowing he would never be that comfortable with the weapons. He watched as Meadow took up a position at least forty feet from the target and then looked on with alarm as Moss went to stand halfway between her and the painted circles.

“You’re not serious,” he said, his eyes darting back and forth between them.

“Hold still, my love,” Meadow called as she brought her arm back.

“Aim carefully, my heart,” Moss replied, folding his arms across his chest.

Gerald had to force himself not to look away as the star was sent twirling through the air, but he was glad he was watching. The weapon curved around Moss’ head and curved back to land on the target, dead center.

“I’ll teach you that eventually,” Moss told a stunned Gerald. “But I’ll let her stand in the middle when you practice.”

“Charming as always,” Meadow called over her shoulder as she returned to the fire.

Gerald got in a few more practice rounds before his arm began to ache. He was still unable to hit the green circle but he was getting closer and Moss promised to give him further instructions the next day. Not long after the target and weapons were put away, Leaf and Lake were spotted returning from town.

A log was pulled from their wagon and the men set to work trimming it to the required length and width. As the sun rose higher in the sky, Gerald tried not to think about his fellow dragon hunters and the progress they must have been making while he was stuck there. Lunch was prepared and eaten, then the work of attaching the new axle to the wagon began. It was almost in place when Lake’s words brought them all to stillness.

“We have company.”

The End

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