Day Twenty-nine

The fork in the road came into view as they rounded the base of a steep hill shortly before midday. A weather-beaten wooden signpost stood wearily in the middle of the road to let travelers know that the path on the right led north and the one to the left ended at the sea. The wagons eased to a halt at its base and an early lunch was taken as the sky grew thick with dark clouds.

“I can almost see Father Winter riding down from the mountains to welcome you into his lands,” Lake told Gerald while they ate, studying the winding road ahead. “Make quick work of this dragon, for the roads will only grow more treacherous with the coming of snow and ice.”

“I suspect that one way or another my meeting with Blackwing will not last long,” Gerald said with a shaky laugh. “I have been thinking about your drum, and I -”

“It is yours,” Lake said. “If you become king, I only ask that you allow me to play for you on the day of your coronation.”

“I would like you to play on my wedding day as well,” Gerald said with a smile. “And while I’m at it, I’d like to request dancing monkeys and a unicorn that tells jokes.”

“Keep the faith, Jerry,” Lake said, patting him on the back and standing up. “Tree and his family will give you every chance to succeed. Trust in them, trust in yourself. I will see you again.”

Gerald watched him walk over to his wife and help her climb into the back of the wagon. He then shared a few quiet words with Leaf and Moss before embracing them and climbing into the driver’s seat. Gerald was so focused on watching them that he didn’t notice Rain appear at his side until she spoke.

“I wish you well, Jerry,” she said, looking down at him with a stern expression. “And I ask of you a favor.”

“Ask away,” Gerald replied, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“Keep your eyes and mind open. If there are signs that Blackwing has not committed these terrible deeds, do not let your desire for the princess’ hand blind you. Do not allow Moss’ thirst for eternal glory deter you from saving an innocent life.”

“I am not a murderer,” Gerald said fiercely, “and I do not intend to become one.”

“Then that is good enough for me,” Rain said and turned away to join her family.

Shaking his head, Gerald stood and climbed into the back of Moss’ wagon. Meadow came over almost immediately and pulled him out, assuring him that there was room for three up front. He tried to beg off, not wanting to intrude on their privacy, but she was insistent.

“It’s not healthy to coop you up in there all by yourself for the whole day,” she said, escorting him to the front of the wagon. “Besides, a woman can go a little crazy listening to Moss yammer on about everything and nothing for hours on end! Having you with us just might keep me sane for a just a little longer.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Gerald said with a laugh. “You really don’t have to come with us, you know. You could go with the others and stay safe.”

“I wouldn’t miss out on this for all of the gold in the world,” she said. Then as she walked away, she winked and added over her shoulder, “And me being there when you reach the dragon’s lair is the only way I can make sure that my husband doesn’t go in there with you!”

Gerald laughed again before turning to survey the road ahead. The hills were reaching higher and higher the further he looked, to the point that the road detoured around them rather than going up and over. There were a few bare trees but towering evergreens were crowding them out. The air was crisp enough that he thought if anything fell from the clouds it would be snow rather than rain.

After Leaf and Cloud said a long, lingering goodbye, he kissed his son on the forehead and walked quickly to the other northbound wagon without looking back. Tree and River soon joined him and the two groups separated with many well wishes and promises to see each other again. Then, just a few moments later, silence descended on the travelers and the only sounds to be heard were the clopping of horse hooves and the creaking of the wagon wheels.

After a short mourning period, Moss urged the horses on and Leaf did the same, maintaining a safe distance between the two wagons in case the first were to breakdown. The road was bumpier there, as it was less traveled and there were fewer people around with an interest in maintaining it, but Gerald was not about to complain - the faster they were able to move, the better his chances of reaching the dragon before the other hunters.

“Do you miss the comforts of the castle?” Meadow asked, finally breaking the silence after several rough miles had passed.

“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t,” Gerald replied, wincing as a particularly large rut caused his backside to slam against the bench. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that this is worth it. Staying wasn’t an option, not when it meant having to watch Estelle marry another man.”

“And not just that,” Moss said with a shake of his head. “You would have had to perform for the happy couple as well! I couldn’t imagine being in a position like that. If Meadow had been a princess about to be forced to marry someone else, I would have kidnapped her without a second thought.”

“And steal me away from my life of style and power?” Meadow asked with an arched eyebrow. “How terribly rude.”

“So how did you two actually meet?” Gerald asked.

“Oh, he kidnapped me all right,” Meadow replied, “just not from a castle. Though I’m quite certain an entire army couldn’t have kept me safe from this one.”

“It was hardly a kidnapping,” Moss said with a frown. “That would have required it being against your will and, as I recall, you were a very willing participant. Wait. Wasn’t it your idea to begin with?”

“That sounds highly unlikely,” his wife said with a delicate sniff as she looked away. “I mean, really, you’re making me out to be some common floozy or -”

“I see that you two could go on like this for days,” Gerald interrupted with a laugh. “And while that might be extremely entertaining, I fear I would never hear the story. So, if I may be a nuisance, can we get to the details?”

“And here I was thinking that you were a man who’d been cut from the same cloth as I was,” Moss said, clearly disappointed. But a glare from both his wife and Gerald caused him to surrender with a laugh. “Fine, fine. We met in a tavern, a world away to the east. She was serving drinks and I was consuming them. It was love at first sight.”

“Hardly,” Meadow said with a snort. “The first time I laid eyes on him I thought he was nothing but trouble. I was right, of course, but he just happened to be my sort of trouble.”

“I won her over with my dashing good looks and incredible charm,” Moss informed Gerald solemnly. “It didn’t hurt that I could also drink her under the table. She seemed to like that.”

“So where did the kidnapping come into it?” Gerald prodded.

“The tavern owner was a bit of a tyrant,” Meadow replied, growing more serious. “A lout and a drunkard, he treated all of his girls poorly. None of us were making enough coin to leave that town and that was how he liked it.”

“Bloody thought he owned you girls,” Moss muttered with a shake of his head. “I should have burned the place down, with him inside it.”

“And then what would have happened to the girls left behind?” Meadow asked. “They did not have my good fortune to have a good man walk into their lives and take them away. Without that job, as terrible as it was, they would have been out on the streets and forced to do much baser things to avoid starvation.”

“So you took her away with you?” Gerald asked.

“In the dark of night, when the idiot was passed out drunk in his own mug. Best thing I’ve ever done.”

“What did Tree think when you came back to camp with,” Gerald paused, suddenly uncertain how to phrase the rest of his question without offending them both. His cheeks went crimson as he fumbled about for the right words.

“A woman with the wrong color skin on her bones and polluted blood in her veins?” Meadow asked, mercifully coming to his rescue. “Oh, there was quite a bit of yelling, as I recall it.”

“But he wasn’t about to deny his youngest son’s heart,” Moss said with a shrug. “He could see in my eyes I would have broken off on my own if he even tried. Besides, Meadow proved her worth before the week was out.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Gerald asked, remembering her ability with the throwing star. “Let me guess… you went out hunting and brought back a deer that was bigger than a horse.”

“Actually,” Moss said quietly, “she saved our lives.”


“Quite,” Meadow said. “Three nights after I arrived at their camp, two mercenaries tried to kill us all. Fortunately I was still having trouble sleeping outdoors, so I heard them. I managed to fell one of them and badly wound the other.”

“We tracked him down the next day,” Moss continued. “It took a bit of convincing, but eventually we learned that the tavern owner had set them after us. So we went to pay him a visit but he was long gone by the time we came back into town.”

“It was beautiful, really,” Meadow added. “The girls had taken over the place and were paying themselves a fair wage. Business was better than ever.”

“Did you ever find him or hear from him again?” Gerald asked.

“No, but I haven’t exactly been keeping an eye or ear out for him,” Meadow replied with a shrug. “And I figure the way he was drinking back then, he wasn’t much longer for this life anyway.”

They returned to a comfortable silence for the next few miles as the day shifted quickly towards night. Moss slowed the pace of the horses as what little light the day had to offer waned, and before long they began looking for a place to camp before the horses injured themselves. Eventually Meadow spotted a clearing just to the right of the road and Moss brought them to a stop, with Leaf soon pulling up beside them.

“Find what deadwood you can,” Tree called over after taking a deep breath of the rich pine scent that infused the air around them. “But do not wander too far, we can ill afford a broken ankle.”

“We’ll stick close together,” Moss replied, hopping down from the bench and pulling two small axes from beneath it. “Gerald, would you be so kind as to assist me while my lovely wife helps to prepare our dinner?”

“It would be my pleasure,” Gerald replied with a formal bow before joining him on the ground.

They were able to find a few small sticks gathered around the nearby trees but were soon forced to start removing low lying branches. Gerald was glad of the work as the temperature had dipped dramatically already, though he tired quickly. So he transitioned to the job of carrying the wood back to the wagons and allowed Moss to continue collecting it.

Once a small fire had been started they kept to its weak light until they had gathered enough to get them through the night. Gerald disappeared into the back of the wagon and changed into a fresh set of clothing, pulling out a few extra blankets for everyone to use while he was at it.

“It will only get colder,” Tree told him after receiving a blanket with a grateful nod. “This is the toughest time of year to live outdoors but you will get used to it.”

“Don’t have much choice, do I?” Gerald said as he settled down close to the fire. “Are you up for another sword lesson after dinner?”

“Of course,” he replied. “I am eager to see how much further we can take you. You have progressed very quickly in all that we have shown you - it is very impressive.”

“About that,” Gerald said before pausing to chew on his bottom lip. “What happened the other night, the way the weight of the sword seemed to disappear for a while… what happened?”

“The sword became part of your body for a few moments,” Tree told him with a smile. “So there was no separate thing to hold onto. Of course there was no weight - it would have been like your arm complaining that your hand was too heavy to carry around!”

“Is that always the way it is for you?”

“It is, but I have never had to wield a sword for very long. I suspect there is a limit to how long the feeling can last, though I have yet to reach mine. It is my hope that we can increase your limit to a satisfactory degree in the coming week.”

“Would my… would my father being a soldier have anything to do with my ability?” Gerald asked, staring at the fire. “I know it sounds silly, but I can’t think of any other explanation.”

“I think there is warrior blood flowing through your body,” Tree replied. “That is something that never goes away, though it can grow dormant. It would seem that you have awakened it.”

The End

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