Day Twenty-eight

“Thank you, that means a lot to me,” Gerald told him earnestly. “I really hope it doesn’t come to that though.”

“I think that you’re about to find out,” Moss whispered, tilting his head to the left.

Gerald turned to find Tree standing alone on the far side of the fire, the dancing flames casting strange shadows across his face. He looked at everyone seated before him in turn, moving from his left to his right, then settled his gaze on Gerald.

“We have had enough time to discuss together and ponder privately the matter of bringing Jerry to his destination,” Tree said in a loud, clear voice. “Tomorrow the road we travel on forks. One route will take us to the coastal towns, where we had planned to do business and perhaps spend our winter. The other continues north, with villages and towns growing farther and farther apart, until it comes to rest at the base of Okar Mountain, where Blackwing was last seen.”

By horse, Gerald calculated, they were still more than a week away. He didn’t want to think about how long it would take him by foot.

“I have made my decision, as has my wife, and so too have Wind and Rain. Now I ask each of you to make yours.” Tree paused to look at everyone once more. “When the road splits tomorrow, I will continue north with Jerry. River has chosen the same path. Wind and Rain will take one wagon to the coast. That means two wagons are spoken for, and two are not. You do not have to choose right now, but we will reach the fork by midday tomorrow so you will have to decide by then.”

“I have no need to delay my choice,” Moss called out. “I go north.”

“As do I,” Meadow said without hesitation.

“Thank you,” Gerald told both of them with a smile and a bow of his head, gratitude lifting his spirits and causing his skin to tingle.

“I cannot allow my parents to travel alone,” Lake said quietly as he turned to look at Gerald. “I am sorry to miss out on such a fine adventure, but Snow and I will be going to the coast.”

“I understand,” Gerald replied with another bow of his head. “But I hope I can convince you to allow your beautiful drum to come with me.”

“We will agree to a price of some sort in the morning,” Lake said with a smile before turning to his left. “And what of you, Leaf?”

“Cloud will take Twig and go with you while I go north,” Leaf said, his hand resting on top of his wife’s. “Keep them safe and healthy; I will be coming to collect them before Father Winter’s breath freezes the waters.”

“It looks like there is no need to wait until tomorrow then,” Tree announced. “In the morning we shall load the two coast wagons with goods to sell and enough supplies to get their passengers there safely. The two north wagons will bear the rest of the supplies and whatever weapons we require. With smaller numbers and less weight, we should be able to pick up the pace and make up for some lost time.”

Gerald rose on legs that miraculously did not give way beneath him. He looked at everyone around the fire before taking a deep breath to collect the words bouncing around his mind.

“To those of you who go to the coast tomorrow, I say thank you for all that you have done for me to this point, and I hope that we will meet again. To those of you who have chosen to join me for the rest of this insane journey, I say… words cannot properly express my gratitude. I know that we go to meet a dragon, but I promise you, and especially the friends and family who will not be with us, that I will do everything I can to keep you from harm. The danger should be mine and mine alone. If I fail, it will be only my own fault. If I succeed, it will be thanks to you.”

“Let us fill our mugs and have a toast,” Tree said and his sons retrieved two large leather flasks from one of the wagons. They moved in opposite directions around the fire, filling each mug until everyone had a drink. Gerald brought his to his face a took a tentative sniff.

“It smells like apples,” he said.

“Have you not tasted cider before?” Meadow asked.

“No, the only alcohol I’ve tasted was a goblet of wine I… well, never mind that.”

“A tale for another time, I suspect,” Tree said with a rumbling laugh. “Now raise your mugs! Let us drink to good health. Let us drink to good friends. Let us drink to safe journeys and to the day we meet again. Let us drink… to the death of a dragon. Let us drink!”

With a cheer everyone raised their mugs and then drank from them, some more enthusiastically than others. Gerald sipped his tentatively, finding it at first quite sour but then very sweet. With a shrug he took another, longer sip before wiping his mouth with the back of one hand.

“Now let us play and sing and dance,” Moss shouted, raising his empty mug high over his head, “for we may never have another night like this one!”

Instruments were brought out and several mugs were either refilled or topped up, including Gerald’s. They celebrated long into the night, the music growing more chaotic as the cider continued to flow. One by one they gradually settled into their bed rolls, unable to fend off sleep any longer, until only Gerald, Moss, and Leaf remained awake.

“This will be an adventure for the ages,” Moss told them, swaying slowly from side to side. “We will be written about until the end of time! Songs will be sung in every corner of this kingdom about what we are about to do! Isn’t that an incredible thought, Jerry?”

“Oh, I don’t know about all that,” Gerald mumbled, his head dipping towards his chest before jerking up again. “I just want to marry the princess, that’s all.”

And with that he promptly fell asleep where he was sitting.

The two brothers managed to carry him to his bed roll and stuffed him into it. Then they shuffled to their own beds and crawled into them, doing their uncoordinated best to not disturb their wives.

“You know we’re going to regret this in the morning,” Leaf said before yawning widely and closing his eyes.

“Yeah, we will,” Moss said with a tired smile. “But it’s still going to be worth it. Good night, brother.”

But Leaf was already snoring. With a chuckle Moss turned over, wrapped an arm around his wife and nuzzled the back of her head. He was asleep within moments, which was a shame.

If he had only stayed awake a few minutes longer, he would have heard the dragon pass by high overhead.

Chapter Twenty

There was much grumbling and wincing the next morning as the supplies were redistributed between the four wagons. Gerald helped as much as he could, or at least, as much as his pounding head would allow. He was having great difficulty understanding why anyone would ever want to drink more than a sip of cider at a time.

Most of the sorting was done quite easily, without much discussion. The coast wagons were given enough food to make it there plus three days’ worth just in case they met with any delay. Lake assured them they could hunt and gather for anything they required should it take them any longer than that, but Gerald still felt wary at leaving them with so little.

All but one of the throwing stars went to the coast, with the tools needed to create them going north. Moss and Leaf had both become very efficient at making the weapons, so they figured by the time they reached the mountain they would have more than enough. The target, after a lengthy conversation between Moss and Lake, ended up in a coastal wagon with Moss assuring Gerald that he would paint a new target on the side of one of their wagons (much to River’s consternation).

As they broke camp, Gerald rode with Moss and Meadow, while Tree, River, and Leaf traveled in the second north wagon. As the two wagons carried the bulk of the weapons, Moss took the lead and Leaf brought up the rear of their caravan. They were not expecting trouble, but the further they journeyed from the royal city the greater the chances of encountering bandits became.

The End

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