Chapter Three: The Traveling Song

They walked along the road for awhile, Zal trying to get accustomed to his unbalanced, dragon-laden pack before he found his stride. His boots were getting very muddy; he could feel some of the cold ooze seeping through the cracks in the ill-made shoes and squishing between his toes. The sun was coming up, and with it came the bugs. Mosquitoes, gnats, flies in all sizes and varieties, even a few swarms of murgs. Zal didn't mind the murgs so much; they were very, very tiny and bright green in color, and moved together in clusters approximately the size and shape of pine cones. Complete with the stem and protuberant knobs around the middle. Maybe it was more like a beehive, Zal reflected. Supposedly the murgs were descended from bees.

Lena slapped at her neck, crushing the mosquito that had been feeding there. Zal himself was relatively fine; he wondered at his luck. Well, with someone so much sweeter than he about, how could the bugs not flock to her? Zal gave a wicked grin in Lena's direction. Then his attention snapped back to the dragon in his pack when a cloud of flying murgs disappeared in midair.

Zonk, what was that! Zal twisted his head around to look at Apple, who was gulping even more than usual, his throat contracting and squirming from the inside. Apple, did you

I just ate those murgs, the dragon said after swallowing the mass of bugs in his throat with a forceful throat contraction. He paused, cocking his head to one side, and Zal tore his gaze away from the dragon and back to the road he was following. It wouldn't do to trip and fall on top of Lena. Well, he would actually quite like it, but he doubted she would.

I wonder how I knew they were called murgs, the dragon mused in Zal's ear. I mean, did the magician put that in my head? His tone turned mournful, still slightly squeaky and overloud. It's a sad turn of events, not knowing what in your head's your own and what's just a--happenstance. He paused. See, there I used a really nice big word, and I don't know if it's a tribute to my intelligence or the magician's!

Zal said. Can't help you there. He was beginning to get a headache from all this himself. When had life turned so complicated? Zal frowned. Now he had two companions, a pretty yet pretty much hopeless would-be jester and a deaf, philosophizing dragon. Who could talk. And who did talk pretty much incessantly.

After awhile, though, Apple grew quiet, and Zal peeked back to see his eyes had closed, covered by thin, near-transparent lids. Oh, good, he was asleep, apparently lulled into a stupor by the warm rays of the morning sun. The road was baking itself a little, becoming less muddy, for which Zal was grateful. His legs had started to ache already; the dragon was heavy, had to weigh at least fifteen pounds, if not more. Why couldn't he be one of the lighter, winged dragons?

Zal shrugged, wincing as his pack shifted on his back. His nose was also starting to twinge as the sun's rays exacerbated the pain of his burn. He winced again, wrinkled the appendage and ducked his head down to his chest, trying to protect his nose from the heat and light emanating from the sun. It was not very successful, so, under his breath, Zal began to sing a little song he had made up himself, just to pass the time.

Oh, hum de dum dah dah de dum... he started, then stopped, cleared his throat, and started to sing in earnest. It was a song he liked very much, though it was more serious than most he sang, and a lot less rude. It was his Traveling Song, and he sung it every time he set out on a new road.

Hum de dum dah dah de dum,
People may go and people may come,
But never will people just stay where they are;
Where people are is just too far
From where they want to be, you see.

Hum de dum dah dah de hum de dum day,
I've quite forgotten what I wished to say,
I'm too busy traveling all through the land.
Through fields, through forests, through mud and through sand,
Why can't we ever learn just to be?

Hum de dum dah dah de hum de dum doo,
That is a question for me and you, too.
Of course it's not the time for the answer just now;
If you're the kind to stay still you might as well be a cow.
People are people and people you see,
Will likely not ever learn to be...

Lena was rather quiet through all this; he could hear her breathing loudly. Ah, so she wasn't as used to long walks as she pretended to be! Or maybe it was that huge ax she was lugging around. Finally, Lena spoke.

Interesting song. She turned to Zal and started walking sideways along the road. Where'd you learn it?

Made it up, Zal said. It's my Traveling Song. Every jester has one.

Lena frowned. I don't know, she said. It doesn't seem terribly humorous to me, except for the line about the cow of course.

Not supposed to be humorous. Zal wasn't really in the mood for banter at the moment. He was quickly running out of breath after his song, what with lugging a cat-sized dragon in his pack.

Lena paused. That's odd. You seem like the type as is always humorous.

I'm hard to peg. Zal shifted his pack on his back and kept walking so that Lena had to skip sideways, swatting away flies and mosquitoes, to keep up. Noticing her labored breathing, he took pity on her and slowed down a little. Not much. Just a little.

Lena said, turning around and walking straight once more. She paused, the looked back behind her at the sun, rising high in the sky by now. Do you suppose they've sent anyone out to find me yet?

Zal snorted. Don't flatter yourself. They probably think the two of us are off in a barn somewhere. He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. Your father is probably too embarrassed by your lack of virtue to--hey, ow! Lena had turned to him and grabbed hold of his sore nose again, giving it a good yank.

Didn't I tell you last night not to insult my virtue? She smiled at Zal, one of the first times he had actually seen her smiling. It was a good smile. Great, so now all he had to do to get her to smile was suffer horribly. That would make her grin, all right.

Zal rubbed gingerly at his nose. The large blister was still there, slightly numb by this time, thank God. Not that God had anything to do with it. All God did was control magic and souls. And Zal wasn't quite certain he believed in either, though magic... well, what with Apple and all, magic did seem to exist. Right. So if magic existed, that meant God existed, which meant... it meant Zal was getting a headache. he said again.

Oh, quit whining. Lena sounded satisfied with herself. Why, oh why had he brought her along on this trip? He resolved to abandon her at first opportunity, unless of course she warmed up to him that night. Zal grinned.

Lena continued, ignoring his sudden lightening of mood, Tell me about jesting. I want to learn, you know, so I can maybe perform when we get to Lord Renvil's castle.

Zal paused, then shrugged beneath his pack. I guess I could tell you a few things. Right. Just a few, because she was gone after tonight. Definitely. Well, probably.

So tell! Lena looked pointedly at Zal's pack. For one, what's all your equipment and so on?

Zal said, fingering his blistered nose and recalling the juggling sticks, Usually I have some, ah, juggling sticks, but given the recent fiasco... anyway. Some juggling balls, tin plates and so on. My cinth. My Jester's Guide to Comedy, Twentieth Edition. I'l tell you about that and show it to you tonight. If he hadn't managed to sneak off by then. I have, let's see, an extra costume, some thread and needles amd shears for sewing, some bread, a small bow for hunting and a quiver of arrows, and other things that are very secret. Very Secret, he emphasized. Um, a jester's hat. A fake rabbit. An endless chain of tablecloths, useful for pulling out of the hat and also for escaping nasty situations. Some sleeping powder. Don't ask about that. Some feathers. Some small pieces of cloth, in various colors. He thought some more. You know, I know there must be more than that, but I can't quite think of it at the moment. Oh, and there's my lucky anchor.

Lena's voice rose in pitch, sounding incredulous. You carry a whole great anchor with you?

Zal nodded. Well, a very small one, maybe four inches wide at the bottom. You wouldn't believe the ways in which it's come in handy... He paused. Oh, and I have a brochure for my parents' bakery.

You have parents?

Zal grinned at Lena. Now, that was a fairly stupid question. Who doesn't have parents, then?

Well, I just thought-- Lena glanced sideways at him. You don't seem the type to be burdened by parents.
I'm not burdened by then, Zal pointed out. They're burdened by me. I think I near made my father fall over of a spasm when I said I was giving up the family business to become a jester... of course, that was two years ago. He shrugged. They've gotten over it by now. My sister's inheriting the bakery. He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. It was easy enough; how bitter could he be? It had been his choice to take up jesting as a career, after all. And jesters were never bitter.

Your sister's inheriting the bakery? You have a sister? Lena frowned at him. Or maybe she wasn't frowning, just squinting from the sun rising in the east.

Yes, evidently I have a sister. Zal stumbled wearily to a halt on one side of the road. he said, shrugging off his pack and placing it carefully on the slightly dew-wet grass, let's have breakfast.

What is it with all these questions! Zal swung around to glare at Lena. He was hungry, his back ached from carrying the dragon on top of everything else, and his nose was stinging. Even a jester could get mad, under those circumstances. He swiped one hand across his forehead and brushed back a few sticky strands of hair. Can we just have breakfast?

Why are you asking me? Lena started at him and dropped her own pack next to his with a thump so loud Apple awoke and leapt out of Zal's pack, startled, his frill puffed out all the way, a jet of flame spouting from his mouth.

Good point. Zal paused, then opened his pack, sorted past the endless chain of bed linens and other paraphernalia until he came to his food supply: a lone loaf of bread. He sighed, looking at it. They were five days from Renvil's castle and here he had one zonking loaf of bread. Great. If only he had gotten his payment from Sterbut in advance!

Lena noticed the direction of his gaze and stared at the loaf of bread, which was admittedly very stale.

That's all you have to eat? She clucked her tongue when Zal nodded. Good thing I brought supplies for both of us!

You brought supplies? Zal stared at her. Well, maybe she wasn't so bad. But he was definitely leaving her behind that night. She shouldn't be too disappointed, after all; being a jester was surely no more than a passing fancy for her. Well, it was a fancy that had gotten him food; that was something to be grateful for, anyway.

Yes, I brought plenty, Lena was saying, going through her pack. Let's see... She unearthed a couple of rather green apples, a few turnips, a loaf of bread and some dried meat, not to mention a large wheel of cheese. What do you say to bread and cheese?

Apple hissed like a snake at the cheese. I hate cheese!

Not for you, Zal said, licking his lips. You can go off to hunt mice. This cheese is for me. He looked at Lena. And uh, her of course.

I should think, since I brought it--

All right, enough of that, Zal said, yanking the cheese from Lena's grasp and drawing the small knife he kept in a sheath at his side. He cut of a hunk of cheese and stuffed it in his mouth. Thas gur, he said, chewing. He handed the wheel of cheese back to Lena, who had a faintly disgusted look on her face.

Were you brought up in a barn? she asked, cutting a dainty sliver of cheese for herself and placing it on top of a chunk of bread. She moved to sit down on the embankment next to the road, smoothing out her skirts underneath her as she did so.

I wouldn't talk about being brought up in a barn, miss farm girl, Zal said, sitting beside her and reaching for the loaf of bread she held in her hand. Say, may I have some of that?

Lena swatted his hand away. Not until you apologize!

Zal rolled his eyes, noticing, as he did so, that Apple had wandered off somewhere, presumably to hunt mice. Great. Now he was alone with Lena. While at one time he would have thought the circumstances ideal, he was now filled with trepidation rather than desire.

I am not going to apologize, it's perfectly true, Zal said. You are a farm girl.

Not anymore, Lena said. It was horrible. You have no idea. Up at dawn, feed the pig, feed the horse, who by the way hates me and tries to bite me... She sighed. And then, at night, it's off to work for Master Sterbut. She brightened, her frown lessening, and took a bite of bread and cheese. But not anymore! Now I'm to be a jester, isn't that right?

Zal shrugged. If you can read through the Jester's Guide to Comedy. He smiled. It was extremely long.

Lena frowned again. I can't read. My mother was going to teach me... She blinked rapidly.

Why didn't she? Zal asked, curious.

Lena took a breath and played with the bread and cheese she held. She died this winter. And my father isn't doing any of the farm work, just mourning, like, and so you see I had to run away, didn't I? She looked like she was trying to smile. It was a failure. So, you see, I would really like to be a jester. She took another bite of bread and cheese, then held out the rest of the loaf to Zal, who ripped off a piece.

he said, guilt welling up in his stomach. Or maybe that was just hunger, it was hard to tell. Um, you know, I guess you don't have to actually read the Guide to Comedy to be a jester. I guess it would work as well if someone read it to you. What was he getting into? Well, he would still sneak away in the night. Maybe.

His musings were interrupted by Apple's abrupt return. The dragon scuttled up to Zal, legs splayed, and dumped something in his lap. Zal examined the thing. It was small, and furry, and bloody and oh, ugh...

he screamed, his voice sounding severely undignified and high-pitched. He leapt up, dropping what was left of the hunk of bread he held, brushing frantically at his clothes.

Lena looked at the thing on the ground curiously. She wrinkled her nose and turned away.

It's all right, she told Zal. It's just a--

It's a mouse! Apple picked the mouse up in his jaws and scuttled over toward Zal, who backed away. Uh mouth fuhm-- He spat the mouse out and continued. A mouse for my new friends! He shot some flame at the mouse and watched in delight as it sizzled. Look, I can even cook it for you. Humans like their food hot, don't they? He tilted his head, staring at the mouse. Well, I like my food hot, too, but I prefer it to be alive.

Good for you. Zal had calmed down somewhat. All right, Apple, look. We don't like to eat mice, all right? Only dragons, cats and Peccians eat mice. He grimaced to think of it. The first Peccian he had ever met had been a newcomer to the Ebaran mainland and had ordered mouse pie from his family. Mouse pie! His mother had chased the Peccian out with a broom for insulting her business. Mouse pie, indeed. Peccians were all rather strange, though. It came from living on such a small island. Most of them were traders, and in Zal's experience, that meant they were a little strange. Or maybe strangeness was what led them to become traders, as opposed to farmers. Interesting. But unimportant at the moment, because Apple had given up on Zal and eaten the mouse himself. As he slurped down the long pink tail, Lena started to gag a little and turned away.

Apple said, once his throat was relaxed and the mouse safely inside his stomach. That was good. Not as good as alive, but almost.

That phrase stuck in Zal's head as they finished their breakfast rather hastily (neither human had much appetite left), and set off down the road in silence, Zal trying to avoid looking back at Apple for fear of getting a blast of mouse-flavored dragon breath straight in the face. Not as good as alive, but almost. That could be made into a seriously funny song, Zal was certain. He hummed to himself. Perhaps... a song about the legendary vicious dragons of the north? The really large ones? He had heard people had found huge dragon bones in the ground as far south as Peccia, but now the dragons were rumored to live in the north.

Hm. So how could he make that into a song? He thought about it all day, barely speaking a word to Lena at lunchtime, except to answer her nagging questions about being a jester. When night fell and they camped at the side of the road, he had some semblance of a song.

One day the bravest knight the people ever did see
Set out to find dragons far across the land.
He toiled and traveled and got stung by a bee
And his boots got all full of sand.
Still the brave knight rode on.

Until, of course, his horse did die
And went to that pastureland
High up in the sky.
The knight was left alone with a bee-stung hand.
Still the brave knight walked on.

Until, of course, his feet fell off
And stayed stuck in the mud of the road
And then he developed a terrible cough
And a truly terrible cold--which he pronounced code
Still the brave knight crawled on.

Until he came at last to the dragon
Sitting high up in a far northen cave
This dragon was a big'un, tall enough to hang a flag on
They fought and they fought and though neither one gave
Still the brave knight fought on.

Until the dragon, with one swipe of a paw
Did knock off that knight's head
From his crown to his jaw.
The knight fell over then, dead
But at least he made it into the dragon's maw.
Not as good as alive, but almost.

Zal jumped up from where he had been lounging against his pack as Lena looked through her own pack, trying to find the other three loaves of bread she'd said she had in there. Apple, of course, was off hunting mice. He said the dark didn't really bother him so much, nor did the cold; strangely enough, he seemed to have some sort of internal warming mechanism. Most dragons, for all they could occasionally shoot flame, didn't.

Hey, Lena, Zal said, breaking the silence, and she straightened up, a loaf of bread in her hand.

Here it is--yes? She looked at Zal, squinting through the falling darkness. What is it?

I made up a song. Zal hummed the refrain. He sang it to her, and she giggled when he came to the part about the knight getting his head bitten off. She frowned at the ending, though.

What's a maw?

It's a mouth. Zal leaned forward and touched Lena on the lips with a finger. She didn't move away. What luck! Not the kind of mouth we have, though. It's more like the mouth of a dragon.

A mouth. Lena stared at Zal. I see.

And Zal decided, burden or no, he wasn't going to run away from her in the night.

For one thing, she had all the food.