Chapter 2 - The Inn
The inn was a wondrous place to Elsa, but John had said it could be dangerous. He was right.
They spent that night in another courier hut and rode out just after dawn the next morning, but when the sun started to set again John stayed on the road. “We’re going to an inn tonight,” he announced, after gently shaking Elsa awake where she’d been sleeping with her head on his shoulder. “We need more food, and so does the horse. Now, inns can be dangerous places…”
She sniffed. All the riding was starting to make her cranky. “I can protect myself.”
He patted her arm. “I know. But you aren’t to do it while we’re at the inn unless there is no other choice, do you understand? We can’t let anyone know who you are, it isn’t safe. So if anything does happen, you need to pretend that you can’t protect yourself, all right? Just pretend, and let me handle it.”
“What if you can’t?”
He sucked in a breath so sharp it actually startled her, but then he blew it out again and shook his head. “I’m…I’ll try my best, Your Highness. If I can’t and you have to do something, though…after that we’re just going to have to get away as fast as we can, all right?”
She put her other arm around his waist and squeezed; she knew without seeing his face that he was worrying again. “I’m sorry, I can pretend. I don’t want to get us into trouble.”
He sighed. “I know you don’t – but if we do, it isn’t your fault. I want you to remember that, Princess. The way people react when they see you use your powers…that’s not because you’re doing something wrong, it’s because you’re doing something new to them, and for some people new is scary.”
She burrowed into his shoulder again. “It was scary for me too, at first.”
His chest hitched at that but he didn’t say anything, he just squeezed her arm and let his hand rest there, warm and comforting, until she was feeling better.
The inn was a wondrous thing to Elsa. There were so many sights and smells and people, and everything was all so new! Still, she kept her hood up and her head down while they left their horse in the stable and she stayed close to John when they went into the inn itself. She understood now why he’d said the inn was dangerous; she could tell that some of the men who had noticed them coming in were bad, from the way they stared at her and sneered at John. That made her frown. These men were all big, like Kristoff, much bigger and stronger-looking than John. Who was small, Elsa realized for the first time, barely any taller than she was.
John whisked her up to the room he’d gotten for them as quickly as he could, breathing a sigh of relief once they were safely on the other side of the heavy oak door with its sturdy iron bolt. This was a fairly reputable inn for travelers, but even before the innkeeper had warned him he’d known that some of the travelers who were in at the moment could possibly be trouble.
Trouble he might not be able to handle. His princess had called that one right when they’d been talking about the inn…
Arms went around his waist from behind, startling him. “You’re worrying again,” Elsa said. He looked over his shoulder and saw the frown. “I saw them, I knew they were bad because of the way they watched us. And they’re bigger than you are.”
“That they are.” He extricated himself from the hug, gently. “I’m…not a big man, Elsa.” He’d warned her that he couldn’t call her Princess or Your Highness while they were at the inn, for fear someone might overhear them. “Those men probably think we have money, because of the clothes we’re wearing, and they’d like to take it for themselves. And they know you’re a woman, a pretty one, so they’d like to take you for themselves too.”
Elsa’s big blue eyes were completely clueless – completely innocent. She literally had no idea. John thought that over for a moment, the idea of trying to make her understand twisting painfully in his stomach, then shook his head. “No, I can’t…I just can’t explain that concept to you, Elsa. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s bad, very bad, but it’s a thing I don’t think you’re ready to understand yet.” And one John was certainly not ready to explain to her yet, either. “Now, those men will be drinking far into the night, and then they’ll go to bed late to sleep it off. We’ll leave early in the morning – the innkeeper said he’d thump on the wall to wake us, since we’re right next to the rooms he lives in – and that way we’ll be on our way before those men even wake up and we won’t have to deal with them at all. All right? We’re plenty safe in the room, our horse…”
“…Sven is safe in the stable, so all we have to do is get a good night’s sleep and then be on our way in the morning. And someone is going to bring us up some supper; even the people who run the inn know you shouldn’t be downstairs tonight.”
She cocked her head at him, and then smiled and gave him another hug, which startled him all over again. “You’re so good at helping me.”
If she’d been looking at his face, the expression that crossed it might have alarmed her. It was worried and sad…and even somewhat frightened. “I hope I so, Elsa, I hope so.”
They passed the night in their room without incident, and were up at dawn the next morning. The inn was quiet and clean now, with all the guests still asleep, and they had hot porridge and honey with the innkeeper before slipping out to the stables to get Sven.
Which would have been just fine, if one of the men from the night before hadn’t been sleeping in the stables too. John spun around and pushed Elsa behind him when he heard the rough chuckle, facing the huge, unkempt man who was leering at them – possibly at both of them, John realized, feeling sick at the thought. He stood as tall as he could, did his best to look and sound commanding. “We’re going now. Move.”
The man chuckled again, rubbing his dirty beard. “I thinks I’d like ya ta stay, is what I thinks.” He took a step forward…and then stopped, because a knife with a fine long blade had appeared in John’s hand. “Hey now, none o’ that…”
“If you’re about to say you were just being friendly, save it,” John ordered. “Now get back to your wallow and finish sleeping it off, or I will send you back there to bleed to death on the straw. Back, I said!”
The man backed up a step, eyes fixed on the knife. John moved Elsa and the horse – Sven, he reminded himself, who had ever heard of a horse named Sven? – out of the stall and started drawing them along behind him toward the stable door. The man backed up another few steps, but his eyes were narrowing. He smirked suddenly and started forward…and that was when the stableboy hit him over the head with an ox-collar and he dropped into the straw completely senseless.
John was so relieved he almost fainted. He fumbled at his belt, pulling out one of his few remaining coins and tossing it to the boy. “Thank you,” he called over quietly, just in case there were any more ruffians sleeping in the stalls with their horses. “Appreciate the help – be careful when that ruffian wakes up, he’ll foul the straw for sure.”
“Eh, I’ll drag him into the stableyard,” the boy said, grinning. “He don’t know I hit him noways. You an’ your missus have a safe trip, m’lord.”
John smiled. “And you have a good day, my boy – and a better night! I’ll tell all I meet that this inn is one to stay at.”
He led the horse out, helped Elsa mount and then mounted in front of her and they were off again. She waited until they’d gotten well away down the road before asking any questions, but John beat her to it. He’d been chuckling to himself, and she could hear the smile in his voice. “I didn’t correct him because we’re traveling in secret, Princess – he thought I was a merchant, probably, traveling with his lady wife, and that’s what he’ll say if anyone asks.”
“What about the man he hit?”
“The man he hit is going to wake up in the stableyard with a headache – which he would have done anyway, because drinking all night does that to you. He might remember that I had a knife, he’ll probably tell his fellow ruffians that I was vicious and beat him and then they’ll beat him themselves for being bested by a man half his size. We’ll have enough head start by then that they won’t catch up to us, though, so whatever he tells them won’t matter.” He jumped then, because her hands were feeling over his belt and she’d tickled him. “What…”
“I wanted to see the knife. I didn’t know you had one.”
John snorted. “I don’t have one, actually. That’s a letter-opener I had on my desk. And I’ll show it to you the next time we rest the hor…Sven, all right? But you need to stop feeling around for it, that tickles.”
“It does?” Elsa vaguely remembered tickling – when she’d been very small, before her powers had come out, she remembered her father tickling her and her sister. And Anna had liked to sneak up behind her to tickle. She hadn’t realized you could tickle an adult, though, or tickle by accident. Just to be sure, she tried it and John jumped again and squeaked, which made Sven snort and toss his head. She muffled her laugh in John’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to see if it worked.”
“It works, yes.” He didn’t sound unhappy about it; in fact, he sounded like he was smiling. “Don’t do it again, though, Sven doesn’t like it when you make me jump like that.”
“I won’t do it again while we’re riding,” she promised, and internally John sighed. He was happy that she was relaxed and playing, but at the same time it was only highlighting the fact that she had no clue what was going on or how much danger they could actually be in. He was all too aware of it, though, and of how unprepared they both actually were for a trip like this.
After all, the only reason he even had the letter opener with him was because he’d snatched it off his desk in desperation as he’d gone running to save her from her own people, fearing he would run into some of them in the corridors and be forced to defend himself – or her. Because those same people had killed her little snowman creature that very night by throwing it into a fire in the courtyard. A fire built far too large to just melt one little snowman.
They ‘camped’ behind an outcropping of rocks that night, well off the road and with no fire except John’s little lamp; Sven was staked out close beside them. They had left the snow behind, having come down out of the mountains, so the camping wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it might have been. There was also a noisy little stream nearby, so as soon as John had gone to sleep Elsa changed into a shift made of snowflakes and took her travel-soiled clothing down to clean it as best she could in the swiftly-running water. She washed her hair while she was at it, then made a comb of ice to get the tangles out with before braiding it back up. The wet clothing she froze, then shook the now-frozen water out of the heavy fabric, leaving it clean and mostly dry. She didn’t really want to put the clothes back on again, preferring to sleep in something lighter, but she knew John would be upset if she wasn’t wearing anything but snowflakes when he woke up so she reluctantly put the clothes back on before going back to their little camp and settling down on the hard ground to sleep. If she dreamed of the fluffy snow bedroom in her pretty ice castle that night, no one could have blamed her.
John, the next morning, was somewhat startled to find his princess looking every bit as fresh as she had the night they’d left Arendelle. He was even more startled when Elsa insisted on cleaning his clothes as well. “You said we were going to have to go into a town or a village soon so you could make more money for us to travel with,” she reminded him. “We can’t go looking like we’ve been riding around on a secret quest for days, can we? People will notice!”
That made him laugh, but he agreed with her that yes, people would notice – and likely wouldn’t want to hire him, which would be a bad thing because they needed more money to continue their quest. He led Sven down to the stream, placating him with a handful of oats from the little bag he’d filled at the inn’s stable, then threw his cloak over the horse and undressed behind it, tossing the clothes over to Elsa and then gingerly washing himself in the cold stream while she cleaned them. Finally re-dressed, although shivering quite a bit in the lukewarm light of the early morning sun, he did declare he felt much better and thanked her profusely. “We won’t be telling anyone about this, though,” he mock scolded as they led Sven back to the road. “Princesses aren’t supposed to do laundry, especially not when it belongs to one of their subjects.”
That reminded her of something. “Why did you come with me on this quest, John? Weren’t you needed at the castle, to do the accounts? Someone else…”
“There wasn’t anyone else,” he said quickly, stopping and turning to face her. He was frowning, and looking worried again. “Princess…I was the only one who could come. And I wanted to, please do not ever doubt that. Even had there been someone else available, I couldn’t have trusted them with this.” He offered her his hand, then boosted her up onto the horse and resumed leading it back to the road. “Now, we’re heading for a village at the foot of a mountain, and near the top of that mountain is a castle which used to be enchanted. Which is why we’re going there.”
“Because it used to be enchanted?”
“Yes, because that means the village is used to magic, so it’s at least somewhat safe.” He couldn’t help but smirk. “And I’ve heard a rumor that told me my services might be appreciated; apparently letting a child prince grow up as a rampaging monster trapped in an enchanted castle doesn’t give him the greatest grasp of how to manage a kingdom. We’ll see.”
Elsa thought about that all the way there. She had already learned so much from John on this quest. And now to find out that there were other people like her! She wondered what sort of magic the prince had…