In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 16 - On the Side of the Road

The road from Asher had them riding through empty, lonely country. But there had been someone waiting…


They left Asher early the next morning. They had originally planned to visit the Kingdom of Corona next, the place whose well-attended christening ceremony might have been attended by one or both sets of missing royal parents, but as Corona’s king had come to the wedding King Rupert had approached the man about the matter himself to save them the trip. The other king had remembered hearing the King and Queen of Arendelle announced at one point, but he’d only even remembered that much because they hadn’t been known to he or his wife and in truth he hadn’t been sure why they’d been on the guest list in the first place. It was he who had suggested that Adam and his companions should try picking up the trail of the missing royal parents at the small but wealthy city they were now en route to, as he said that place had always been popular with royal or at least well-heeled travelers heading to or from the sea.

Being back on the road was rather a relief to Adam. He’d become good friends with Charming and it had been interesting to be around other royalty as it wasn’t an experience he’d ever had before, but the Castle of Asher was much more formal than he was used to and he’d found that wasn’t at all to his liking. He’d never given it much thought before, but over the course of the past two weeks he’d discovered he was quite happy that the members of the comparatively tiny staff in his own castle were familial and fussy and not afraid to speak to him whenever they felt like it.

That thought made him glance over at John with a frown. John had rather too easily slipped back into formality in Asher, as apparently things were even stiffer in Arendelle, and he was still ‘Your Highnessing’ Adam altogether too much even after half a day on horseback. He’d also lost some color after spending the better part of their visit poring over records in a windowless library, something Adam was rather upset with himself for not noticing sooner. But the bookkeeper still seemed cheerful enough, even though he was being rather quiet at the moment; Elsa, who had insisted on changing horses almost the minute they’d gotten out of sight of the castle, was sleeping on his shoulder, and he was very obviously trying not to disturb her.

John noticed the frown, of course. “Your Highness? Is something the matter?”

“It will be if you call me that one more time,” Adam snapped, and then stopped being annoyed almost immediately because the startled look on John’s face was nearly comical. “John, you called me by my given name all the way to Asher, I’d gotten used to it,” he explained. “When we’re in company or visiting someone else’s kingdom I’d expect you to go back to being formal, of course…but please, when it’s just us, I’d much prefer you just called me Adam.”

John blinked at him, shocked, and it was only Sven faltering a step because his hand had tightened on the reins that shook him out of it. “I…of course, Adam, if that’s what you want.”

Adam nodded. “Thank you. So tell me, how was the party below stairs last night?”

“Large and loud, although I didn’t see very much of it,” John told him, relaxing again. “I did go down, because they asked me to, but I don’t know how to dance and one glass of the punch they were drinking was more than enough for me, so I extricated myself as soon as I could do it politely and went back up to our rooms to start packing. And then I made the mistake of sitting down on the couch, which was why I was asleep when you came in – I’m not sure what was in that punch, but do I know I won’t take more than a sip if I ever encounter it again.” He cocked his head. “I understand the wedding party upstairs was being very free with the wine. There wasn’t any trouble from any of the ones who weren’t chosen, was there?”

“No, but not for lack of a few of them trying.” Adam rolled his eyes. “I thought I was going to have to stop Charming drawing his sword on one girl’s father, he was about one more snide remark away from it. That family’s name went on a list King Rupert had a servant keeping off to one side, they’ll be lucky if they’re ever invited to another function at the castle again as long as they live.”

“No, I don’t imagine they would be even if he hadn’t ordered a list made – the servants love their prince and they’re all completely enamored of their new princess, I suspect anyone who slights her is going to find themselves out of favor without the king knowing a thing about it.”

“That’s quite likely to happen in my kingdom as well, you know,” Adam pointed out. “If Mrs. Potts had ever found out about Master Beauchard greeting you with the business end of his gun that first time you went out there…well, I’m sure the entire village would have heard about it before I did, and we’d not have gotten the tax problem worked out in my lifetime.” He saw that John looked rather unsure what to think about that and nodded. “Yes really, John. She quite likes you – she had at me before we left about looking out for your safety while we were on this trip, you know.”

John shook his head. “It’s supposed to be the other way around. Especially since I’ve actually got some experience being out traveling like this and you haven’t.”

“Four days’ travel?”

The smaller man huffed. “Five, actually. And I’d gone out with the couriers in the past…”

“And how many times did you do that?”

He deflated again rather quickly. “Well…twice. The couriers taught me a lot, though, and I remembered a good deal of it even though it was so long ago…” The prince raised an eyebrow, and John colored up a little. “They did teach me a lot, really. Those were the only times I’d ever been out of Arendelle – or even very far away from the castle, actually – so I asked a lot of questions about everything.”

Adam was getting suspicious. “And this was how long ago, John?”

The bookkeeper went quite a bit redder. “Not so very long…eight or nine years ago, I think?”

This time Adam was the one who caused his horse to falter. “You were thirteen?!”

His exclamation startled Elsa awake. “Adam…”

John patted her arm. “He was just surprised by something I said sweetheart, everything’s fine. Are you feeling all right? You’ve been dozing off for most of the morning.”

She snuggled back into his shoulder. “It was all the dancing. I feel like I danced all night.”

“Well, we danced for the better part of it,” Adam confirmed. “You didn’t enjoy yourself?”

“Oh, I did.” She sighed and sat upright, covering a yawn with one hand. “It just made me tired, and my feet still hurt. Why aren’t you tired, Adam? You danced even more than I did.”

“Oh, I’m tired,” Adam admitted. “I didn’t sleep well last night, even after all the exercise I got in the ballroom. But the fairy said we should be back on our way right after the wedding, and then she broke the nameless curse on the kingdom…well, I was rather afraid that if we didn’t leave early she might think I wasn’t doing as she told me. And I know better than most that making a fairy angry is something to be avoided at all costs.”

John was immediately concerned. “You aren’t suffering any ill-effects from the curse being broken, are you? We can stop…”

“I’m not, but we probably should make an early camp anyway,” Adam told him. “We’d all a long day and a late night yesterday, I think we’ll start fresher tomorrow if we stop earlier today.”

“Probably,” John agreed, although he still looked concerned. “And we’ll probably be sleeping more comfortably than we did on the way to Asher. I noticed our bedrolls are considerably thicker than they were when we arrived; the maids insisted on taking them down to be washed and aired, and I believe someone decided they weren’t quite suitable and improved them on us.”

“I won’t complain if they did.” Adam smiled. “Mrs. Potts would have done something like that herself.”

“Mrs. Potts wouldn’t know what to do with the laundry the Castle of Asher has,” John told him. “They’ve got six washerwomen, Adam, and they decided to add a seventh one once they had two princesses in residence. King Rupert wasn’t joking when he said there were plenty of servants underfoot; the servants’ quarters might as well be a little village of their own, there are so many people in them.”

“Well, it is a huge castle.”

John shrugged. “Arendelle’s is almost as large, and we hadn’t a tenth of the staff King Rupert does. I’m not saying he doesn’t need them all, I’m just confused as to what they all do all day. At first I thought some were temporary staff brought in for the balls, and the wedding, but apparently they were all already in residence.”

Adam considered that. “You know, I honestly have no idea. I was just thinking as we were riding along that I was so glad my own kingdom is small, and that everyone just comes up and talks to me whenever they feel like it. I don’t think I could take having my servants all scurry around like mice every time they saw me coming.”

That made John laugh. “No, I can’t see you getting used to that. And I have to tell you, the maids were more than a little scandalized that you and Elsa dress yourselves instead of having someone attend you. Apparently that is just not done in their experience, and they were all whispering about what kind of kingdom doesn’t have maids and valets. And then one of them started telling a fairy story about a kingdom in a dark wood surrounded by black cliffs which was so foreboding that the king couldn’t get a princess to come marry him, and they decided all at once that your kingdom must be a similar sort of place and have had a really frightful curse on it that kept all the maids away.”

Adam couldn’t help but laugh as well. “I’m sure they know better today. King Rupert has a painting of the Rubis Marche in Valeureux, it’s a huge thing in a gilt frame and almost as long as a table. They’ve most likely had a regular parade through that room once the name of my kingdom started being passed around.”

“The Rubis Marché?” Elsa wanted to know. “What’s that?”

“It’s apparently when all the harvest comes to market,” Adam explained. “I didn’t know anything about it myself until last night, except for the name, but after seeing the painting I could understand why it was famous. Valeureux is a beautiful kingdom anyway, but when the trees around the village turn red and gold and the market is in full swing it’s absolutely breathtaking. The villagers apparently used to dress for the occasion, in the painting they were almost all wearing red, and all of the little shops were decked out with garlands and banners. That painting is older than King Rupert, though, so I’m not sure how long it’s been since we last did things that way. I’d like to bring it back to that, if I could.”

“I don’t see why you couldn’t,” John said with a shrug. “We ought to be able to get trade going again now, so even if the people of Valeureux were reluctant to resume that tradition you could always present it as an added draw for visitors, a way to boost trade. Although if we do that, we’re going to have to come up with more public lodging, perhaps an inn…” He shivered when a thin layer of frost suddenly decorated the side of his jacket. “Sweetheart, Adam’s kingdom doesn’t have ruffians in it anymore, an inn in the village would be a perfectly safe place for travelers.”

She tightened her hold on him. “Those bad men were travelers.”

“They were, but that particular inn is out in the middle of nowhere,” he soothed. “I’m sure every sort of person, good and bad, has come through there. This inn we’re talking about, though, would be right in the village, and the people staying in it would be visitors to the village who’d come to buy things at the market.”

Elsa considered that. “But don’t bad people buy things too? And there are a lot of pretty women in Adam’s kingdom…”

Adam’s horse faltered to a confused stop. “All right, I think we may have had a misunderstanding about exactly what kind of ruffians you encountered on your way to my kingdom. John?”

John sighed. “It was…rather obvious that robbery wasn’t the only thing on their minds. Even the innkeeper noticed it and warned me that I shouldn’t bring Elsa down to the common area for supper; he brought it up to our room himself. But it’s not like I hadn’t already thought someone might…get an idea like that, I’d told her to keep her hood up and stay close to me, and I warned her that if something happened we’d just have to get away as quickly as we could.”

He sounded more than a little defensive, and Adam realized he’d given offense without meaning to. “I wasn’t criticizing,” he amended quickly. “I may tease you about the letter opener, but that’s because I see it on your desk every day and it’s just so obviously made of pot metal.” Elsa visibly did not understand that. “Blades you’d use for hunting or fighting are made from steel, Elsa,” he explained. “Pot metal is what you make things out of which don’t need to be as durable, or hold as sharp an edge.”

That made her frown; she leaned around so she could catch John’s eye. “Is that why the man in the stable tried to attack us?”

“Possibly he noticed, yes.” That obviously wasn’t a good enough answer. “He realized it would most likely break if I tried to stab him with it, yes,” he elaborated. “It would never have gone through the leather jerkin he was wearing, which is why he was wearing that – most travelers aren’t carrying a steel blade, and he’d not have tried to attack someone who looked that dangerous in the first place. Those kind of ruffians are looking for easy pickings, they don’t want an actual fight with someone who might be able to best them.”

Elsa’s frown deepened into the beginnings of a scowl. “Then why did you tell me to pretend I couldn’t defend myself? I could have beaten him!”

John half-turned in the saddle so he could look her in the eye. “Because the only way you could have beaten them all would have been to kill them, Elsa…and I did not want you to have to do that.”

Adam saw the exact moment Elsa realized what those words meant, and had to reach out quickly to catch John’s sleeve so the resultant hug wouldn’t knock them both right off Sven’s back. He was starting to wonder exactly how much longer it was going to be before Elsa figured out the truth about the ‘urgent quest’ John had whisked her away on – if she hadn’t already.

 

Their chosen route took them through rolling hills which eventually smoothed out into wide green meadows split by the faint line of the road. It was an old road which looked as though it wasn’t used much anymore – in fact it hadn’t even been on King Rupert’s maps – but it did lead to the distant fringe of a forest they needed to be on the other side of and was a more direct route to it besides, so they’d decided to follow Cogsworth’s old map rather than King Rupert’s newer one. Making their camp each night under the vast canopy of stars was no hardship, and it was certainly preferable to taking their chances with random strangers on a more popular road. There were no people at all in this land they were riding through, in fact it looked as though there might never have been people there at all. Which did strike both Adam and John as somewhat odd; it was pretty country and the deep green swaths of meadow grasses betokened fertile soil and abundant water, so the idea that no farms or villages had sprung up in the area made little sense to either of them.

After several days of riding through this pretty but lonely country they were more than surprised to come over a little rise late one morning to find a small hut waiting for them farther up the road. There was no other structure visible as far as the eye could see, nor any fences or gates or plowed fields, just the small hut which got smaller and meaner-looking the closer they got to it. Nothing stirred save the wind in the tall grasses as they approached the hut, no response was forthcoming when Adam called out a greeting, and not a sound was heard when John dismounted and went to knock on the door before cautiously pushing it open and looking inside. He started, then swallowed and let the door fall closed again. “It’s…an old man,” he said quietly. “I don’t think it’s been very long, but he’s quite obviously dead.”

Adam got down off his own horse with more haste than grace. “Did someone…”

John shook his head. “No, not that I could see. But he seems to have been very old.” He shook his head again. “He’s…looking toward the door, like he was watching for someone to come.”

“And they didn’t, obviously.” Adam clasped John’s shoulder – the bookkeeper looked to be quite upset by what he’d seen – then pushed open the door to look and stepped back in spite of himself as the staring dead eyes seemed to fix on him when the light hit them.“Oh my goodness. What…what should we do?”

“Well, we rather have to…I mean, we can’t just leave him like that.” John seemed to realize something. “Is he…your first?” Adam’s nod made him straighten. “All right, then, I’ll…just go in and see if he’s got a shovel or something we can use. The lantern?”

Elsa had dismounted by this time. “I can make a light…”

“No, because that would mean you’d have to go in with me,” John told her. “In fact, I want you to stay well back from the door until I can cover him up, you don’t need to see…that.”

“You don’t,” Adam agreed. “It’s an old man and he’s dead, Elsa, and he died looking at the door. It’s…disturbing.”

To his surprise – and John’s – the princess drew herself up. “I’m not a child,” she told them both, and moved past them to push open the door herself. She did gasp when she saw the dead man, a little pattern of frost scattering out across both the door and the ground around her feet, but then she pushed the door open wider and held up an ice light in one hand, illuminating the interior of the hut as brightly as though the full moon was shining inside. The light didn’t do the scene any favors. What few furnishings there were looked crudely made and dirty. The blanket covering the man’s body was threadbare, the pillow supporting the sparse-haired head with its wrinkled parchment skin and staring black eyes flattened and yellow. Even the sleeve covering the gaunt, outstretched arm – stretched out as though reaching for something – was ragged and stained. “He was poor.”

“And alone,” John agreed. He went around her and pulled the blanket up to cover the dead man’s face; the reaching arm would not be bent back into place, so he left it and quickly made his way around the room. The crumbling hearth was filled to overflowing with ashes and a pot hanging on a hook within had long since boiled dry. The chest held only a few pieces of clothing and, oddly, a worn pouch containing a single heavy gold piece, a faceted emerald, and an intricately carved ivory spoon inlaid with silver. He laid the pouch on top of the clothes, frowning. “He’s got some…well, treasure in here; I’m not sure what it means, but I suppose that doesn’t matter now. We can bury it with him.” He hunted around some more, not finding anything much that they could use to dig a grave save for a smallish spade with a long, splintering handle behind the door and a rusty pick beneath the bed. These he brought out, moving his princess and prince away from the door and then closing it. “We won’t go back in until we’ve got a place to put him,” he said, handing the pick to Adam. “On the other side of the hut, do you think? Since he was reaching in that direction?”

Adam nodded. “That makes as much sense as anything. Treasure?”

“A pouch with a gold piece, an emerald, and an ivory spoon. Maybe an inheritance, or things he took in trade from travelers?” He frowned at the seemingly endless sea of waving meadow grass. “Not that it would have done him much good way out here. And I saw no trace of another person having lived here with him, so either he’d always been alone or whoever else had been here left long ago.” He shook himself. “Princess, are you all right?”

Elsa nodded slowly. “How could you tell how long he’s been dead?”

“He still looks very much like he must have while he was alive,” John told her. “If he’d been dead for very much longer than a day or so he…wouldn’t have still looked that way.”

She wanted to ask what he meant by that, but the look on his face was such that she decided against it and simply nodded instead. He gave her a hug and she hugged him back, feeling the tension in his body dissipate a little and realizing that he’d needed comfort but hadn’t wanted to ask for it. That bothered her, so she thought about it while she wandered around in the meadow while Adam and John dug the hole that would be the old man’s grave. John, she decided, wasn’t used to asking for things. Like hugs. Or help. When he was upset or sad or worried he just kept it all inside…John, she realized with a start, was a lot like she had been in Arendelle, she just hadn’t noticed before because he always seemed to know what to do, always had an answer to her questions – and Adam’s, for that matter. John hid his own feelings of helplessness because other people needed his help.

Just like she’d hidden her feelings of being lost and lonely and afraid because Arendelle had needed its ruler and her sister had needed to be with Kristoff. John had still seen it, though. He’d seen it the very first day they’d sent him to talk to her about all of the bad things happening in the kingdom, and after that he’d come every day and helped her as much as he could. She thought that over, frowning, realizing for the first time that something hadn’t been right about that situation. When they’d wanted her to marry Hans, the Chief Councilor had come to talk to her himself. And when they’d needed to talk to her about anything else to do with…well, anything, either he or one of the other two councilors had come, or occasionally the Royal Steward had. Nobody else, nobody ‘lesser’. Lesser servants and officials weren’t allowed into the royal wing of the castle, much less permitted to speak with her privately about important matters.

So why had they sent the Royal Bookkeeper, whom she’d never seen or spoken to before, to come talk to her about how to fix the kingdom? For that matter, why hadn’t anyone other than John ever come to speak with her about it? Elsa, like Adam, had learned some things from her two weeks in Asher: She’d learned that the vast distance between King Rupert and Prince Charming and their village-worth of servants was far too great a distance for her liking, just as Adam had, but she’d also learned how restrictive that distance could be. King Rupert would never in a thousand years have just popped into his bookkeeper’s office with a question; he probably didn’t even know where that office was, or which bookkeeper to ask – Asher, according to John, had four of them and they all handled different things. And the Castle of Arendelle was run quite a bit like the Castle of Asher…

The answer came to her so quickly she gasped out loud. The councilors hadn’t come themselves because they were afraid of her reaction to being told about what she’d done to the kingdom. So they’d sent John because he was lesser to them in the castle’s hierarchy of servants, because it didn’t matter to them if he died. The ground she was walking on erupted with jagged icicles, and although she quickly dissolved them so no one would see, she could still feel the painfully sharp spike of emotion that had caused them. The councilors had expected her to kill John.

They thought she was a monster. That made Elsa shudder, and although she didn’t notice it from under her feet sprouted an intricate pattern of frost like a round of fine white lace. Was she a monster? Because of what she’d done to Arendelle, even to her own sister…

A shout startled her, and Elsa turned around; John was waving to her…oh, he didn’t want her to wander too far, that was it. He’d been keeping an eye on her while he was digging the old man’s grave. The icy knot that had been forming inside her chest dissolved in a burst of warmth, and the frost pattern melted into the ground and vanished as she started wading back through the tall grass, waving to let him know she was coming. John didn’t think she was a monster, and so far as she knew he never had. Adam didn’t either, and neither had Belle or anyone else in Valeureux that she knew of. Maybe when they eventually went back home she could exile Councilor Tarben for trying to kill John. She was the future queen of Arendelle, after all…

Elsa very nearly stopped dead in the middle of the meadow as that thought led to another shocking realization. Why would you send your future queen on an urgent quest in the middle of the night with only a nearly unarmed bookkeeper who you’d already tried to kill once to accompany her? The answer was: You wouldn’t. John had said he was ‘the only one who could come’, but now Elsa remembered that he’d also said something else, something she hadn’t thought much about at the time because everything had been so new and confusing. Now, though, those remembered words were entirely too telling.

Even if someone else could have come, I couldn’t have trusted them with this.

Nobody had sent John that night. John had sent himself.

To protect her. Because he hadn’t trusted anyone else – after all, they’d already tried to kill him once and use her to do it. And John didn’t want her to have to kill anyone. He knew how upset she’d been when they’d had to kill the blue butterfly she’d made, even though he’d been at some pains to explain to her why killing it had been the right thing to do.

He’d gone back to digging, and she moved closer to the hole but not close enough to be in the way and made herself a seat out of ice with a soft snow cushion on top, sitting down on it to think some more while she watched Adam and John work. They’d both stripped down to the waist so as not to ruin any more of their clothing than necessary, and as they were both very fair-skinned she couldn’t help but notice that the usually-covered parts of their backs and arms were turning a bright, painful-looking red. Elsa frowned, putting aside her other thoughts momentarily to consider this more immediate problem – the hot sun overhead was apparently burning them – and after a little bit of thought and some concentration she caused a small snow cloud to form over the growing hole, like the one she’d once made to protect Olaf only larger and wider. Both men immediately stopped digging and looked up, startled…and then they both smiled.

Elsa wasn’t sure why she’d never noticed before how warm John’s smile made her feel, except possibly because this time the warm feeling caused her icy seat to melt and dump her unceremoniously into the grass. She might have been somewhat upset about that under other circumstances…but this time she was too busy thinking about how John’s laugh was actually warmer and nicer than his smile had been.

 

It was mid-afternoon before the hole was deep enough to be a grave, the ground having been hard and the available tools inadequate – in fact, the long-handled spade had broken early on in the digging, and John had ended up using the small spade they carried with them and eventually just his hands to scoop dirt out of the hole as Adam broke it up with the pick. Which also broke, but luckily not until after the hole had already reached an acceptable depth. They carried the old man’s body out on his thin straw mattress and just laid the entire thing in the grave, and then John put the man’s little bag of treasure on his chest and used two coins from his own purse to weigh closed the staring eyes before covering the wrinkled face with the blanket again and helping Adam pile dirt back into the hole. They spread ash from the hearth on top of the dirt in hopes of keeping the grass at bay for a time, and fashioned a marker from pieces of the crude stool which had been in the hut. There were really no words to say as they hadn’t so much as known the man’s name, but Adam wished the man well on his journey, John said he was sorry the man had died alone, and Elsa made a garland of ice flowers to lay on top of the grave. And then they closed up the hut tightly, fastening the door with a piece of leather so that the wind might not blow it open, and walked the horses until they came to a stream some little distance away where Adam and John could clean themselves up. They were both exhausted, not being used to such work as they’d just spent several long hours doing, and so they ended up making their camp beside the stream. And trying not to think too much as they bedded down that night about the lonely old man laying there dying in his bed in the crude, filthy hut, staring at the door in hopes someone would come to be with him in his final moments, and stretching out one desperate hand…for what?

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