Day Twenty-four

Gerald’s thoughts went immediately to the king’s soldiers he was sure were out searching for him, so he ducked down behind the wagon before carefully peering around it. He didn’t know if he should be relieved or more worried when he saw that the newcomers were Sir Dustin Drake and his portly squire.

The knight approached their camp atop his black horse at a casual walk, Dragon’s Tooth peering over his left shoulder and around his right hip. Richard rode slightly behind him on a smaller, brown horse, his left hand resting on the pommel of his sword. It was difficult for Gerald to determine which of them was wearing the more arrogant expression.

“How… quaint,” Sir Dustin said, stroking his mustache as he surveyed the Gypsies. “It would seem that fortune is smiling upon us, Richard, for we have found entertainers to amuse us after our arduous ride from the castle.”

“That tall fellow looks like he might be a sword swallower!” Richard said, pointing a thick finger at Tree. “Shall we get him to stick Dragon’s Tooth down his gullet?”

“I am sorry to disappoint you,” Tree said, spreading his arms wide, “but we are about to be on our way. However if you are looking for entertainment, the town of Firona is well equipped to serve you.”

“No,” Dustin said as he swung down from his horse, “I think I would rather have you lot perform for me.”

“And I could really go for something to eat,” Richard added as he dismounted. “Do you guys have any duck? I love duck.”

“I appreciate your enthusiasm,” Tree said, raising his voice to drown out the muttering coming from Moss a few steps behind him. “But we have already been delayed by a broken-down wagon and cannot afford further delay.”

“You got something more important to do than entertain future royalty?” Richard asked while scowling and scratching his rear end. “That doesn’t seem too likely to me.”

“Ah, you must be one of the mighty dragon hunters!” Moss called out, causing Tree to frown at him over his shoulder. His youngest son continued on as though he hadn’t noticed. “Seems a bit presumptuous though, calling yourself future royalty without even having seen the dreaded Blackwing The Beheader.”

“Those other fools don’t stand a chance against that miserable beast,” Dustin said before returning his attention to Tree. “Now, how about some tricks to get our minds off of our weary bones?”

“And some lunch,” Richard added.

“I don’t think so,” Tree said as he turned to walk away.

“Then perhaps this will change your mind?” Dustin asked, holding up the scroll King Owen had granted him. “You wouldn’t want to defy the king’s orders, would you? That sort of behavior could lead to a long stay in a dark, damp cell. No day light, no fresh air. Most unpleasant, particularly for you people, I would think.”

“This is not how the king’s oath is meant to be used!” Gerald shouted as he came charging over to stand next to Tree, red faced and vibrating with anger. Pointing a shaking finger at the knight he added, “In fact, it includes a condition that you must act in a way that is appropriate for the next king!”

“Do I know you, boy?” Dustin asked, his eyes narrowing.

“That’s not -” Gerald began but was quickly cut off.

“It’s the fool!” Richard shouted. “It’s that bloody fool that made a joke out of the whole ceremony. That made fun of you in particular, Sir Dustin!”

“So it is,” the knight said, his smirk growing wider. “Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise. And what, pray tell, is the royal fool doing so far from home?”

“I’m just as certain that your piece of paper doesn’t entitle you to an answer,” Gerald snapped before Tree placed a calming hand on his shoulder.

“Sir Dustin, I do believe this little clown has decided to take the king’s oath seriously,” Richard said with a snort. “Oh, this is rich! Can you imagine? That dragon will snap his silly head off without bothering to wake up!”

“I am not a clown!” Gerald said as he tried to move towards the squire but Tree held him back. “And I say the dragon will roast you over a spit before devouring you whole, just like the fat pig you are.”

“That’s enough,” Tree and Dustin said in unison. The two men eyed each other silently before the knight continued on his own.

“Richard, surely you are mistaken. It’s perfectly clear that you would stand a better chance than this fool - at least you’ve had proper sword training. What would he do - juggle his tiny balls until the dragon died of boredom?”

“I think it is time we parted ways,” Tree said through gritted teeth. “I wish you luck in your quest, sir knight.”

“Luck is for the unprepared,” Dustin said, staring at Gerald as he spoke. “But I agree. Let us be off, Richard. I grow tired of these people.”

The two men mounted up silently before walking their horses through the middle of the Gypsy camp. All eyes were on their backs until they were out of hearing range, at which point Tree ordered everyone back to work.

“There has been more than enough delay,” he said as he maneuvered a wheel into place, “let us not waste any more time on those… men.”

“Go ahead father,” Moss called from the opposite end of the new axle. “Call them arrogant donkeys. I know you want to.”

“Those would not be the words I would choose,” Tree said with a quickly concealed smile. “Now let’s lower the wagon back down and test out our repairs.”

Gerald stood to the side by himself as he watched the Gypsies work, his thoughts still with the departed knight and his squire. As hot as his blood may have been, he was still aware that they had a valid point. He would need a lot more training before he went up against Blackwing if he expected to survive. But time was slipping from the hourglass, and now at least one of his competitors was ahead of him.

“She looks good,” Tree announced after a few uneventful trips around the camp. “Let’s load her back up and be on the move. We have lost time to make up, and the day shall soon turn to night.”

Gerald helped load the crates and sacks into the back of the wagon, his already sore muscles groaning in protest. He ignored them as best he could, knowing that he needed to build as much strength as he could in the coming days. Between all of them working together, it was not long before they were ready to go.

“Ride up front with me for this next leg,” Moss told Gerald. “I think it would be healthy for both of us to get some fresh air after those arrogant -”

“Moss…” Tree called from the interior of the wagon.

“… people,” Moss continued, shooting a dark glance in his father’s direction, “fouled up the air around us here. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Gerald said as he climbed up to join him. Settling in under the grey blanket that was already up there, he added in a whisper, “I think it would also be healthy to say what’s on our minds without cooler heads ruining our fun.”

“I knew you were a kindred soul, right from the start,” Moss said with a laugh as he flicked the reins and the wagon lurched into motion. “And while we’re at it, let us figure out a way for you to kill this dragon before Sir Dumb Thing and his plump squire know what hit them.”

“I think my first act as the new king shall be to have Dusty and Ricky expelled from the kingdom,” Gerald said in his most regal tone.

“Ah, a most excellent decision, Your Majesty,” Moss said with an awkward bow that pulled the reins to his left. As the horses began to head to the left, he quickly straightened and righted their course. “I think you will make a very good king, Jerry - as long as my driving doesn’t get you killed first.”

Gerald laughed at the joke, though in the back of his mind a thought stirred that said it would be a far more pleasant way to die than being beheaded by a dragon. Shaking it off, he got down to the business at hand with Moss, with the two doing far more laughing than strategizing as the miles rolled past.

By the time they stopped to make camp that night, Gerald was no more prepared to face the dragon than before, but at least his spirits were lighter.

Chapter Eighteen

Estelle took her seat on the dais in the Great Hall and chewed her bottom lip as she waited for her father to arrive. She had managed to avoid seeing him since the ceremony the previous morning, but only because Grace had refused to allow him to see her while she was ‘resting her poor, overwhelmed little head’.

Now there could be no more putting it off and she was going to have to lie to him. Twice.

She took a deep breath to try to steady her nerves and it worked for a moment. But then the king’s herald appeared, much earlier than usual, and she almost bit through her lip. After what seemed like too brief a fanfare, her father entered the Great Hall and made his way over to her. He had almost reached her when she realized that she was still seated.

“Father,” she said, springing to her feet and bowing her head to receive his kiss.

“Daughter,” Owen replied. “Are you feeling better? I know that yesterday was a very big day for you - if you are not up for joining me today then I will completely understand. You need your rest.”

“Oh,” Estelle said, blinking rapidly. She had not expected to be given an out so easily and she was dearly tempted to take it. But she had promised Grace that she would be there in order to help allay any suspicions that Gerald’s absence might cause, and to do what she could to stop the king from checking in on him, so the first lie spewed from her lips. “Thank you, father, but I am feeling much better after having a pleasant rest yesterday. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to speak with you after the ceremony, but Grace insisted that I not be disturbed. She was probably right though - I was quite distressed by it all.”

“She does take very good care of you, old Grace does,” Owen said fondly, patting her on the shoulder before easing onto his throne. “At any rate, I am pleased to see that you are doing better today.”

“Thank you.”

“Will you indulge your old man for a moment?” he asked, looking at her with a wry grin on his lips. When she nodded her assent he looked around to make sure they were alone before continuing. “Did you have a favorite?”

“Sorry?” Estelle cocked her head at him, unsure of what he meant.

“Of the men who came to receive my oath yesterday,” he said. “You know, did one in particular catch your eye? Are you rooting for any man over the others?”

“Oh,” Estelle said, her cheeks going a shade darker as she looked away. “Well, I must admit… that yes, there was one.”

“Splendid!” the king said, clapping his hands together and drawing the attention of the nearest nobles. Waving them away, he asked in a more subdued tone, “Which one?”

“I… don’t think it would be proper for me to say,” Estelle said, her eyes going to the spot on the stairs that Gerald should have occupied.

“I suppose you are right,” Owen said, clearly disappointed. Then, as he finally noticed that his jester was missing, he asked, “Where is that boy anyway? I have more than a few words for him after that stunt he pulled.”

The End

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