Day Twenty-six

Owen ground his teeth together, obviously not thrilled with the position he had found himself in. But after a moment of stalling (just for show, really) he said a few words to the guard in the hall and shut the door, a little more firmly than necessary.

“Gerald is not sick, is he?” he asked, crossing his arms across his chest.

“No,” Grace and Estelle replied in unison.

“And he is not just hiding from me out of fear.”

“Not just out of fear,” Estelle said, “though I imagine that played a role in the speed of his departure.”

“His departure.” Owen sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “So it is as I feared. I should never have given him that scroll.”

“You saw through his charade then?” Grace asked, though she could read the answer in the king’s body language.

“I could see the truth in his eyes,” Owen said, easing down onto the stool by the desk. “I am not so easily fooled as that. But I wanted to be wrong and he certainly knew how to put me on the spot. Still, I should not have been so irresponsible. I have sent him to his death.”

“You have done no such thing, child,” Grace said with a shake of her head. “Jerry had made up his mind and was going to find a way to do this one way or another. All we can do is hope that either another hunter succeeds before the dragon has a chance to kill Jerry, or -”

“Or Gerald succeeds himself?” Owen’s eyes narrowed. “Were you two in on this?”

“Absolutely not!” Estelle said, anger igniting in her eyes. “I would have tied him to his bed if I’d had even the slightest inkling he was thinking of doing this! I didn’t know Jerry was gone until I found his servant locked in that wardrobe over there!”

“And when was this?” Owen demanded, rising to his feet.

“It doesn’t matter -”

“Answer the question!”

“About ten minutes after I left the Great Hall yesterday,” Estelle said, the muscles in her jaw clenching.

“And I am only being informed of this now,” Owen said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Do you want that boy to die?”

“No, father,” Estelle told him with a challenging stare, “I want him to succeed.”

Grace winced and braced for the explosion she was certain would follow. But Owen, after beginning to erupt, suddenly deflated and sank back down onto the stool, closing his eyes. Estelle’s anger dissipated and was quickly replaced with concern.

“Father, I -”

“How long?” he asked without opening his eyes.

“I… how long, what?”

“How long have you loved him?” Owen opened his eyes and looked at his daughter with an unreadable expression.

“I… I don’t know,” Estelle said quietly. “I only just realized how I felt very, very recently.”

“This is why none of your suitors would do,” the king said softly. “No matter the title, no matter the looks, none could lay claim to your heart… for another already had.”

“And neither of them realized it until you threatened to force a husband upon her,” Grace said gently as she moved to his side. “Of all the things your decision set in motion, this was the one none of us could have seen coming.”

“I am sorry, father. If I had known I would have… had you send Jerry away, or… something.”

“I tried that once,” Owen said with a tired smile. “You nearly went out of your head, so I chose not to do it again. It was easier on both of us that way.”

“His jester training?” Estelle’s eyes went wide. “But… we were so young then! You couldn’t have possibly known that -”

“I saw the writing on the wall,” Owen said with a shrug. “I can see now I should have sent him to military school so that he might have had at least a little preparation for this quest. But I had no way of seeing all of this coming, so here we are. Hoping and praying for his safe return.”

“You would accept Jerry as my husband if he kills this dragon?”

“I have given him my oath,” Owen said as he pushed himself to his feet and moved to the door. “Besides, he already has your heart and any other match would never suffice for you. It would warm this old heart to see you two wed, though I never dared dream it was possible. Perhaps, against all odds, some good will come of this.”

With that he exited the room, leaving the two women in stunned silence. After several moments, Grace moved to Estelle and wrapped her in a tight embrace. They remained that way for a long time, no words needing to be spoken, until Grace let go and took her leave. Estelle, still feeling blindsided, sank down onto Gerald’s bed and sat staring at the flickering candles.

She didn’t move again until the first candle extinguished itself, at which point she finally made her way to her room. In a daze, she fell into her bed fully clothed, thinking of Gerald and the dragon and the words of her father, until sleep took her at last.

Chapter Nineteen

The journey north continued without incident for several days, and Gerald’s aim with the throwing stars improved with each morning practice session. He was finally able to hit the middle circle of the target with some consistency and Moss was gradually increasing the distance he was throwing from. But Gerald was aware that no matter how good his aim might become, the weapons would not slay the dragon - a sword was required for that.

So on the third morning after their encounter with Sir Dustin and his squire (which was still coming up in conversation rather regularly), he pulled his sword from its scabbard and began to practice the moves Magnus had taught him. Tree watched him in silence for several minutes and then, while Gerald was pausing to regain his breath, came over to speak with him.

“You wield that as though it was a poisonous snake trying to sink its fangs into your face,” he observed.

“Thank you… for the… encouragement,” Gerald wheezed between deep breaths. After several more he added, “Perhaps I am practicing to handle Blackwing like that. I bet you didn’t think of that, did you?”

“Ah, of course. Strangulation, that is the way to take the dragon out. Such a clever young man you are.”

“At least I’m aware that I need to practice,” Gerald muttered as he brought his sword up again and took a couple of swings. “Would you rather see me charge blindly into his lair, hoping that he might happen to impale himself on my sword in all the commotion?”

“You have been wise enough to seek assistance with the throwing stars,” Tree said, “why have you not done the same with this weapon?”

“I took a lesson before leaving the city,” Gerald said, letting his sword tip sink into the ground at his feet. “But now I am without a teacher, so I must do what I can on my own.”

“Ah, without a teacher, I see.” Tree looked at him for a moment, a smile playing at his lips. “Most unfortunate, that. If only there was someone amongst us that knew even the smallest amount about swordsmanship.”

“Who?” Gerald demanded, his eyes narrowing.

“I might be able to teach you a thing or two,” Tree replied casually.

“You don’t strike me as the sort of man that would ever touch a sword.”

“Too… peaceful?” Tree asked with a smile. “I would be a poor leader of this group if I had no way of defending them. So I have learned how to wield a sword, how to shoot a bow, throw a spear. Rare is the occasion that I must use such knowledge, but it has been invaluable when the need arises.”

“Will you help me?” Gerald asked before shaking his head and laughing. “I mean, even more than you already have? You have been far too -”

“I will help you, Jerry. But not now - you look exhausted and we must be on the move again soon. Rest up while we travel and tonight we shall see what can be done about your relationship with your sword.”

Gerald spent the day on his own inside the wagon while Meadow rode up front with her husband and Tree rode with Leaf. He listened to Moss and his wife speaking fondly to each other for the first hour after they broke camp, allowing himself to wallow in the misery of his separation from Estelle. But he finally forced himself to move to the far end of the cart to take in the landscape they were moving through.

There were more hills in that area, and it seemed like they were always either climbing or descending. Gerald spotted several stands of twisted trees, their limbs already bare of leaves, but otherwise it was open fields as far as he could see. They had not met with any of the other dragon hunters, nor seen any sign of them, though several wagons making their way south had met them on the road. They passed with waves and short greetings, not wanting to be on the road any longer than necessary as the days grew steadily shorter.

Pulling a second blanket overtop of the first, Gerald squeezed himself into a ball as the wind began to pick up. Every muscle in his body ached, including several he hadn’t known existed before leaving the comfort of the castle behind. But he liked the smell of the air out there - it was so much more invigorating than in the city. He thought he would find it stuffy when he returned.

“When,” he said with a shake of his head. “My, aren’t we getting optimistic all of a sudden?”

He was, much to his surprise, enjoying the experience. Perhaps Moss was on to something with all that talk about living life to the fullest, he thought with a smile. He may only have a few days left to him, but he was intent on making the most of them.

They stopped to make camp that night in the meager shelter provided by a collection of five spindly trees. The wind was howling down from the north and Gerald was happy to lend a hand with the chopping of firewood as it got his blood pumping after a day of stillness. Meadow and Rain created a soup out of some of the dried meat Gerald had brought with him and they consumed it in silence.

“Still up for a lesson?” Tree asked Gerald while they were cleaning up afterward, the wind whipping his hair around his head in a jingling cloud.

“I don’t think I have the luxury of taking time off just because the weather is unpleasant. But if you’d rather not I’ll understand.”

“Weather is neither pleasant nor unpleasant,” Tree said. “It merely is. It is we that put names to it, like good or bad. I choose to see it is as good, for if I am experiencing the wind or the rain or the sunshine… it means I still live. So let us practice together.”

Gerald retrieved his sword from the back of the wagon and turned to find Tree waiting for him, a blade that was nearly as tall as the former jester resting on one shoulder. Gerald smiled weakly and they moved to a flat area between the fire and the trees. The wind, if anything, felt stronger there, forcing its way through his clothing with brute force. He allowed himself a moment to be jealous of the others as they buried themselves in blankets and huddled together for warmth before bringing his focus back to the man - and weapon - before him.

The End

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