In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

Table of Contents

Chapter 17 - The Forest of Nightmares

Camping under the shelter of the trees had seemed like a good idea…


It took them three more days to reach the forest – it should have been two, but Adam and John had still been so stiff and sore from digging the old man’s grave that they’d only been able to manage a few hours of riding on the first day before they’d had to stop again. They finally reached the forest just as a small storm began blowing across the wide-open meadows, and the wind-driven rain pushed them under the protecting canopy of the trees and further in until they found a clearing wide enough to make camp in, and that was where they stopped for the night. They quickly gathered dry leaves and fallen branches to make a fire, hollowing out a little pit in the ground to keep it from getting away from them, and tethered the horses close by.

Darkness fell quickly, turning their little clearing into a high-ceilinged room ringed by rough pillars and draped with black curtains, like some dark chamber in a forgotten forest temple. The noise the wind from the storm had been making in the branches finally died away, leaving the forest mostly silent except for the crackling of their fire and the noises they themselves were making – which seemed almost indecently loud, and so caused them to refrain from all but the most necessary and low-voiced conversation.

Until lights suddenly appearing in the darkness just beyond the tree trunks brought all three of them to their feet at once, that was. The lights bobbed and danced, coming closer and then darting back, spinning around the trees, briefly illuminating forest depths which had been hidden by the velvety black curtains of darkness between the trees. Elsa was clinging to John’s arm. “What…what are they?”

Adam took a deep breath, trying to calm himself back down. “I think they must be fireflies,” he said. “Harmless little flying insects that make their own light – Belle told me about them once, supposedly they’re quite common in the valley. She said the light is how they attract mates.”

“It’s…eerie,” John observed. “Pretty, but eerie.”

A few fireflies ventured into their clearing, bobbing and weaving just outside of the circle of light cast by the fire, and Elsa let go of John’s arm to move closer, trying to get a better look at them; they veered away and she followed them around the side of the fire. “They are pretty,  they look like they’re dancing in the air.”

“They do,” John agreed. “At first I wondered if we were seeing fairies. I can hear them buzzing now, though…” He shook his head. “Are they getting louder?”

“Yes.” Adam nodded. “There seem to be an awful lot of them coming this way, maybe they’re attracted to the fire the way other insects are…”

That was when Elsa suddenly screamed and took to her heels, running…directly into the arms of men wearing the livery of the Castle of Arendelle, who were quick to drag her away and fasten her to a post set on top of a heap of wood and rubbish which was immediately set alight by means of a smoldering torch. John cried out himself and snatched a branch out of the fire, meaning to go to her aid, but from out of nowhere a figure stepped into his path, making him fall back a step, and a familiar voice snapped, “And just where do you think you’re going?”

John felt all of the blood drain out of his face. The man was tall and spare and stooped at the shoulders, and his eyes were black holes in his furious, lined face. “F-Father?”

Adam had frozen in place at this sight himself, but before he could recover enough to move to John’s side a familiar laugh stopped him cold. He turned his head; Belle was there, swaying out of the trees toward him with a contemptuous look on her pretty face. “And just what do you think you could do to help him, Adam?” she asked with acid sweetness. “You’re all but worthless as a man, after all.”

Belle?” He swallowed hard. “Belle, you…why are you here?”

She laughed, a hard, cutting sound. “Oh, not because of you, little boy prince,” she said. “I came in search of my Beast, of course.” She leaned forward, almost as though sharing a secret and quite deliberately displaying her décolletage at the same time. “He’s the only one who can satisfy me, you know.”

Adam wasn’t sure how a man could be red and pale at the same time, but he felt like he was managing it. “Belle…why?”

And she laughed again, waving a dismissive hand. “Because you weren’t worthy, Adam. You’ll never be worthy.”

John, for his part, was trying to get past his father to rescue his princess, who was screaming now as the flames licked at the hem of her dress, screaming for him to come save her. “Father, the princess…!”

“I taught you to stay out of it,” his father snapped. “And see what’s come of you ignoring me! You’ve abandoned your duties, you’re a traitor to the kingdom and a disgrace to my memory! And for what? That cursed get of the queen’s? What business is it of yours if they burn her, there’s another heir! All that matters is that the kingdom keeps going…and in the state things are in that won’t happen if the books aren’t properly kept up.”  A long finger poked toward his chest. “And just who is doing the books now? No one? No one! Because you ran off like some romantic fool of a boy…”

John flinched. “I can’t let them kill her, she hasn’t done anything wrong!”

His father was shaking his head, not even listening to him. “I always feared this would happen. You let yourself be distracted away from your work…”

The fire rose higher, and Elsa’s screams reached a crescendo. John made to lunge around the old man, although he already knew he was too late. “I can’t let her die! If I have to I’ll…”

“You’ll keep your mind on your work!” his father insisted, grabbing at his arm as though to hold him back. “You’re to keep your mind on the books and stay in your place, you’ve a responsibility…”

John ripped his arm free of the old man’s nebulous hold, wheeling on him in fury. “I have a responsibility TO MY KINGDOM!”

For just an instant, everything froze. Adam felt the words vibrate through him all the way to the soles of his feet, shaking him out of the fog of sick horror and betrayal he’d been lost in. He stared at John, openmouthed. What had just happened?

John didn’t appear to have noticed anything, and he swung the flaming branch in his hand with all his might. The image of his father exploded into a cloud of tiny flickering lights when the branch hit it, and John started back when they swarmed toward him angrily for a moment before darting away in a thousand directions, disrupting the horrifying image of Arendelle’s burning, dying queen at the same time. Realization dawned. “The fireflies!” he yelled. “Adam, it isn’t real! Scatter them! Quickly!”

Adam shook himself and reached for a smoldering branch. Belle’s mocking voice resumed its taunts. “Oh, taking orders from a hired man now. No wonder they won’t make you king, you’re barely fit to be a servant in your own castle, much less satisfy a woman! And they all know it! I showed them, didn’t I? I proved you weren’t a man, Adam, proved it to your entire kingdom. Do you even dare to go back and face them? Maybe John will let you be his apprentice, since you take orders so well…”

The branch was in his hand, and he faced her through the smoke, the sneer not touching him now. “You aren’t my wife!” he cried, and then leaped forward and smashed the illusion apart, violently scattering the fireflies into the clouds of smoke…wait, no, not smoke.

Fog. The air was chilling, fog was rising from the warm ground. He saw John running, flaming branch still in his hand, and ran after him. In a clearing in the trees just beyond the one they’d made their camp in, Elsa was on her knees, surrounded by ice and fireflies. Her face was buried in her hands, she was quite obviously sobbing, and Adam could hear a cacophony of hollow, accusing voices hissing out of the air. He stepped forward, branch raised, but John slammed into him, shoving him to the ground just as a bolt of icy magic flew crackling through the space he’d been standing in; it splintered against a tree, coating one side of the trunk and several branches in a thick layer of crystalline ice. “What…”

“She thinks she’s being attacked, she’s protecting herself,” John hissed in his ear. “Stay back, I have to try to get her attention.” He swallowed hard. “If I can’t…just run, get out of range. And tell her I said it wasn’t…it wasn’t her fault.”

Before Adam could protest he was picking himself up and retrieving the branch, circling around the edge of the clearing. He just barely managed to duck another blast of ice, and then he started yelling. “Elsa! Elsa, it’s me, John! Elsa, look at me!”

She was shaking her head, violently. “No!”

“Elsa!” He moved closer. The next blast of ice clipped his arm and made him yelp, and she cried out at the same time. “Elsa, stop shooting ice at me! I’m real, I’m not a ghost! Now let me come help you chase them away!”

She lifted her head, and Adam almost cried out himself; he had never seen anyone look so devastated in his entire life. “No, you’re dead, I killed you! I killed everyone!”

“Of course you didn’t!” John snapped. “You haven’t killed anyone, it’s all a lie!” He made it a little closer, this time not dodging away from the snowball that hit him in the chest. “Elsa,” he said in a calmer voice. “Princess, you’re looking right at me, and you just hit me with a snowball. I’m not a ghost. There are no ghosts here, I promise. And I’ll show you how to drive the nightmares away – I’ll even do it for you, if I can.”

Tear-filled blue eyes blinked. “J-John?”

“Yes, it’s me.” He dropped the branch and held out his arms, and she rushed into them almost hard enough to knock him over. He held her tightly while she cried, hiding her face in his shoulder. “It’s all right, it’s all right. You haven’t hurt anyone, sweetheart, and you certainly haven’t killed anyone. It’s all right, I promise.” But then he looked up, into the angrily hissing clouds of fireflies, and Adam saw his face go paper-white. “Oh no, not…Adam, stop them, stop them!”

Adam lunged into the clouds of fireflies with his now-extinguished stick, beating at glowing structures he could just barely make out.  John joined him after a moment, horror turned to white-hot fury. “What…”

“It was a frozen graveyard – literally everything dead, frozen into ice statues. And the air was full of ghosts.” He swatted down a cluster of fireflies so viciously that half of them were smashed. “We’ve got to get out of here, Adam! They’re regrouping…”

Elsa suddenly yelled. “John, Adam, duck!”

Both men threw themselves flat on the ground as ice crackled over their heads…and then a rain of little frozen bugs fell out of the air. It happened twice more, and then it stopped and everything was still. Adam lifted his head to make sure the coast was clear, started to get up, and then flopped over on his back to stare up at the dissipating dome of fog overhead. “Did we just almost get killed by fireflies?”

“Yes.” John rolled over and sat up, slowly. “Did I…did I just kill my father?”

“If you did, I killed my wife at the same time.” Adam sat up as well, frowning. “We need to get out of here, before they come back.” His frown deepened. “Are you bleeding?”

“Am I?” John looked, shrugged it off. “It’s just a scratch – an icicle got me.” He blinked. “Wait, Elsa…”

“John.” She was approaching them slowly, looking unsure and upset. “Did I…”

“Not on purpose,” he assured her. “I saw what they were showing you, sweetheart. I’d have set the whole forest on fire to make that vision go away.”

A wind blew through the trees at that, making a low, angry sound somewhere between a moan and a growl. Adam jumped to his feet, dragging John up with him. “Back to the fire!” he ordered. “We’ll pack up and ride out the way we rode in – but with torches this time to keep them at bay.” Elsa started to say something, and he shook his head. “I don’t think they’re afraid of the cold – they must have winter here, after all – I think you just took them by surprise. Fire is our best protection right now. Stop the fireflies if they come back, but otherwise just stay close to me and John.”

“I…I can do that.” They hurried back to the fire, which was smoldering under a fall of damp leaves, and kicked the embers until it blazed up again. The moan came back, louder this time. They quickly picked up their camp and tied everything onto Buttercup’s saddle, and then John boosted Elsa up onto Sven’s back and handed her two flaming branches before mounting up in front of her. He took one branch and handed the other to Adam once he was seated and then they began to retrace their steps out of the forest.

It took what seemed like a long time, the overgrown road being nearly invisible in the darkness, and they quickly learned to brandish their torches at the slightest whisper of buzzing in the air, but finally they were riding out of the trees into wind-brushed meadows lit up almost as bright as day by the high-riding moon overhead. They rode a good distance more – enough that the forest was reduced to a dark fringe – and then stopped and made camp again in a cluster of rocks, lighting a new fire to keep the thought of the forest at bay. John’s cut was tended to, as were Adam’s scrapes, and once Elsa had gone to sleep with the promise that someone would keep watch all night, Adam and John watched together for a time before tossing a coin to decide who would sleep first. John lost and made himself comfortable where he was sitting, so as to be within easy reach if something were to happen, but he was still asleep within moments of shutting his eyes.

The moon had dropped a handspan in the sky when Adam heard the buzzing and reached for John, but a man’s voice coming out of the air stopped him. “No need for that, we just want to ask you a question.”

Adam reached for a stick instead, but didn’t lift it out of the fire. “You may ask.”

Fireflies rose out of the grass and a man shimmered into view. It was no one Adam had ever seen before, a strong-looking man of middling years with a cropped head and coarse, plain clothes. “We want to know why you came into our forest.”

The prince shrugged. “We were just following where the road led. We weren’t trying to come to your forest, we were just passing through it as we traveled. And we only made our camp there because it was raining.”

“Why didn’t you heed the warnings?”

“Warnings?”

The man frowned at him; he had a scar on one side of his lip. “The warnings in the village. They know of us, they warn travelers to take a different road.”

Adam slowly shook his head. “There is no village on this road for a league at least, possibly two. There was a man in a hut beside the road not far from here, but he was dead when we came upon him. John and I buried him as best we could. Was he of your people?”

“I did not hail from this cursed place,” the man snapped. “You don’t know a seaman when you see one?”

Adam shook his head again. “I’ve never seen one, so no. My kingdom lies far from the sea, and this is the first time I’ve ever left it.”

“What kingdom is that?”

“Valeureux.”

The man started, some of the fireflies buzzing out of place as though the sudden motion had disturbed them. “I know of it – you speak the truth in that at least, you’ve likely never seen the sea. What draws you so far from your home?”

“We’re on a quest – several of them, in fact.” Adam raised an eyebrow. “Of course, you know all about the reason behind at least one of them, don’t you?”

The dead seaman made a face. “I’d have killed the bitch, if she were mine,” he said. “But I suppose royalty is not so free. Stay here, I will return.”

The fireflies dissipated and darted off. John pushed himself up on one elbow, rubbing his eyes. “I thought I heard…”

“One of the firefly constructs came to ask why we’d been in their forest despite the warnings from the village – I think they’re actually ghosts.” Adam poked the fire up a bit with his stick and then moved the stick to a more convenient location. “He said he’d been a seaman, not from here, and he seemed surprised when I said we’d seen no village coming into this area. I think he went off to see about the old man we found. I have to wonder now if the old man was pointing, not reaching – pointing toward the forest, trying to pass on the warning.”

“Possibly, although I’d say that makes his death seem even more horrible to me.” John sat the rest of the way up. “The ghost said he’d have killed…”

“Belle.”

“Oh.” He patted Adam’s arm, then untangled himself from his cloak and stretched. “We quite regularly had seamen in Arendelle, although not so often at the castle so I’ve not had much contact with them, but they’re interesting men – very colorful way of speaking, too, even when they’re not telling stories.”

Adam nodded. “This one seems very plain-spoken, but I’ll not hold it against him for speaking his mind. I don’t suppose the dead feel the need to stand on formalities.”

“I rarely felt that in life, save when my captain demanded it,” the seaman’s voice said, and then the fireflies swirled up out of the grass to make him visible again. He nodded to John. “Arendelle…you’d the Northmen to trade with, then. They are an interesting lot, yes, and not afraid of much at all in the world. Don’t ever drink with them, they live on the stuff and down it like it was water.” He returned his attention to Adam. “It was as you said, the village is long gone – and all else we knew in this country as well. You had no warning because none are left to give one, your dead man was the last – and you buried his share of the curse with him instead of taking it as some might have done for their trouble. So you may pass through the forest once the sun rides high in the sky and you will pass unharmed, it is but a few hours ride from one side to the other. But hide the eyes of your princess as you go, or at least tell her not to look up.”

He disappeared again, but Adam’s ‘Thank you’ was greeted by a buzz and so apparently had been heard and accepted. He leaned back against the rock with a sigh. “What do you think, should we continue to keep a watch?”

“For a bit longer, perhaps,  in case he returns with more to say.” John selected a stick of his own and put it in a place where he might grab it easily. “Go ahead and sleep, I’m wide awake now.”

Adam didn’t move. “So am I, unfortunately. We’ll both watch for a time and then sleep, we won’t be starting off again until well past dawn anyway.” He frowned up at the moon. “Why didn’t your father have eyes, John?”

John sighed, although he’d been expecting the question. “Because he went blind when I was twelve, and his vision had been diminishing even before that – too many years of squinting at the ledgers in poor light in a windowless room, and he wasn’t a young man by any means. So when I was twelve, I had to take over and be his eyes for him – he could only just tell light from dark at that point. We had to keep it a secret, though. He said the King’s Chancellor would find it necessary to put us out the moment he knew, and Father had no other way to earn a living, and no pension. Not to mention, he said they would replace him with some lackey who couldn’t do the job properly, and that would be the end of Arendelle. Father took his responsibility very seriously. It was his whole life, he’d no other cares or interests – for him there was nothing but the books.”

“And you?”

“I was his eyes,” John repeated, letting his head rest on the rock, staring up into the night sky. “He told me I must always keep my mind on the books and out of the clouds…but once he couldn’t see, I’d hide all in a manner of other books under the counting table to occupy my mind with when the figuring and counting and balancing were all done and the lamp was still burning. I suppose I should feel bad for deceiving him that way…but I don’t. The ledgers may have been my job, the responsibility I inherited from him even before he died, but those other books meant the world to me – they were all I had. He did care for me,” he added quickly. “He truly did, really, as much as he was able. He taught me everything he knew, not just about the books but also about dealing with people and avoiding politics. He said the politics in Arendelle had gotten out of hand after the old king had died; things needed to be run with a firm hand, but the new king was gone as often as he was there and the queen wasn’t much better – in some ways she was actually worse.” He frowned up at the winking stars. “She’d get bored, you see, and start meddling in things to entertain herself, rather like a child playing with dolls. I know that much of my own history, anyway. She got it in her head that my father should have a wife, and since he hadn’t found one yet she did it for him. My mother was…much younger than he was, and also quite fragile; it was the reason she hadn’t already been married off, although the queen didn’t seem to have cared too much about that and insisted the marriage was to bear fruit if they didn’t want to be out of favor. My mother survived my birth by less than two years, I’ve no memory of her at all. And Father never had any portraits or mementos I could look at, he didn’t even keep a lock of her hair. He wasn’t a…sentimental person by any means, or a romantic one.”

“No, obviously not,” Adam conceded. “Your mother’s family?”

“No idea. I know they must have been from somewhere in the kingdom, but I never knew who they were and they certainly never sought me out.” He did not quite laugh. “I think they may have forgotten about me, in fact, if they even knew I lived. My father did keep me hidden away in his office most of the time, as a consequence of him spending almost every waking moment there himself; it wasn’t until I grew old enough to be useful and run little errands for him about the castle that most of the other inhabitants of it actually saw me.”

Adam was getting the idea that Arendelle must be a much darker, odder place than he’d originally imagined, and the idea didn’t please him. He’d grown quite attached to his quick-thinking, pleasant bookkeeper and sweet, curious exiled princess over the year they’d been with him, and it pained and even angered him to think of what their lives in their own country must have been like – the illusions the fireflies had used against them had been telling. He didn’t think he should share those exact thoughts with John, though, so instead he said, “That seems a very odd thing to me, but then I was raised mostly by the castle’s servants and they’re a very tight, familiar bunch even on a bad day due to there being so few of them. After seeing the level of formality at the palace in Asher…well, I can’t help but think Charming is going to be quite shocked if he ever comes to visit us.”

John chuckled. “Oh, his servants are tighter than you think. They dance around the king because he has a quick temper, or so they told me while we were there, but apparently their situation is most agreeable otherwise and they were happy to brag to another ruler’s servant about it. I was given more gossip than I knew what to do with.”

“Anything entertaining? I could use a distraction just now.”

“Only if you want to know who’s sleeping with who in the palace, or what color underthings the king wears.” He saw the raised eyebrow and smiled. “Pink. One of the washerwomen made a mistake one day and dyed the lot by putting them in to boil with a red flannel, and he decided he liked it so that’s what color they stayed.”

That made Adam laugh. “I can see that, yes. It wouldn’t happen in our castle, though – Mrs. Potts would never stand for it.”

“I did hear her scolding Cogsworth one day because his shirt looked ‘dingy’.”

“She’s gotten spoiled, we all had – the enchantment on the castle used to do most of the work, you see. Everything was always sparkling unless…someone didn’t want it to be.”

John nodded when he trailed off. “Belle told Elsa that story, and Elsa told me. I can’t think I’d have wanted to clean that room either, or let anyone else come in to do the job for me.”

“That was how I felt about it, yes.” Adam made a face. “Not that I could have cleaned it myself anyway, not really.” He held up one smooth-skinned hand, flexing long, sensitive fingers around nothing in the moonlight. “I had claws, very long curved ones, and massive paws to go with them. Manipulating anything small was nearly impossible.”

“I’d imagine so.” John shifted so he was looking at the other man. “I realized earlier that I hadn’t said it before, but…I am sorry, Adam. I know you love her. Everyone knows.”

“They also know she doesn’t return the sentiment.” Adam snorted a little laugh, although it had a bitter edge. “I really, truly don’t understand what went wrong, John. You…saw, I know you did. When she first met me I was a monster, and violently ill-tempered most of the time. I was miserable and hated myself, and in consequence hated everything around me. But even though she apparently loved me enough to break the curse, even though she knew how horrible it had been…she still wanted it to come back, she wanted ‘her Beast’ and not…and not just for companionship. It makes no sense to me at all.”

“To me either,” John agreed. “I heard her father was…not quite right?”

That made Adam snort again. “Oh, someone was being polite. He was insane, I believe they even locked him up for it on more than one occasion…” And then he clapped a hand to his mouth, almost as though he wanted to be sick. “Oh no. No! He was…it was my fault.”

John shook his head. “If the curse was involved, then no it wasn’t – it couldn’t have been, you weren’t even responsible for the curse being cast in the first place. I’ve told you that and so has everyone else.”

“But I…I forgot, John! Belle’s father was… he was the Royal Historian.”

Even John turned a funny color at that. “Dear god, the second part of the curse must have scrambled his mind like an egg. No wonder he went insane! Did his daughter…”

Adam shook his head. “She’s several years younger than me. She’d not have known enough to have that effect. And she’s spent most of her life caring for her father. The way I understood it she was well thought-of in the village, the one man I ever did want to kill had been more than determined to marry her…”

“I’ve heard about Gaston from more than just Master Beauchard’s men, Adam – he was a drunken braggart, and something of a bully besides. Elsa says Belle was terrified of him. And wasn’t he trying to kill you and force her into marriage with him?”

“Considering that at the time I looked more like a trophy animal than a prince, and I had seemingly kidnapped the woman he wanted? I can’t really hold that first one against him.” He frowned at the stars. “That second part, though…he did deserve to die for that. Lumiere taught me that a man should never force himself on a woman – tease and flatter to get her attention, yes, but never discount her honest wishes. He said, ‘If you want to possess something warm and living, buy a horse – a woman is a treasure to be cherished, not a possession to be owned’.”

John chuckled. “He would say that, wouldn’t he? He treats Annette like she’s made of gold.”

“He was pursuing her even before the curse fell, and even that didn’t slow him down –  believe me, watching a candlestick flirt with a feather duster is a surreal and somewhat confusing experience.”

“I can only imagine.” John was still thinking. Something about Belle… “Wait, Belle was how old when the curse fell?”

“Maybe seven or eight?”

“And she’d been taking care of her father all that time.” He made a face. “Damn. It would be much nicer to believe the problem could all be blamed on the curse rather than…well, on her being spoiled, I suppose, wouldn’t it?”

“Spoiled?”

“Spoiled, Adam – and I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily, it just came to a bad end, most likely because of the influence of the curse. Her father wouldn’t have been able to tell her ‘no’ would he? She had to learn to be responsible, to be the adult to her father’s child from a very young age, but that also means that from a very young age she’s always had things her own way.  And then the enchantment on your castle gave her the same thing, but with no responsibilities attached.” John snorted. “So I guess you could say she is cursed, after all – she’s cursed with always wanting everything to be exactly the way she wishes it to be, and to thinking there isn’t anything wrong with that. Elsa’s mother suffered from the same malady, just to a more extreme degree.”

“Hmm.” It was an interesting way of thinking about the situation; in fact, it made him feel a bit better. Still, though… “You don’t think it was…me?”

“Adam, putting aside the fact that you’re the more…experienced in that area of the two of us, I feel perfectly safe in saying I’m sure it wasn’t you, or anything you did, or anything you didn’t do. She just wants what she had before because it was an exciting thing rather than a mundane one, and she’s not thinking of you at all in that equation.”

That was also true. “So you’ve never…”

“No, of course not. There was never any…opportunity, honestly. I was always kept very busy, I spent most of every day in the counting room, and then after the Lord High Chancellor died…well, I stayed even more busy but became very expendable as well. Why do you think they sent me to talk to the princess after everything that went on? The remaining three councilors were a lot of things and most of those weren’t very good. I’m positive that at least the Chief Councilor if not all three of them together had something to do with the rumors and violence that led to us to have to flee the kingdom that night.”

“Violence?”

John shook his head. “No, I don’t want her to hear about that, not even in her sleep. I realize that someday she’ll have to know, but I won’t tell her unless I’ve no choice. I hate to think what her reaction will be to knowing she may never be able to go home again.”

Adam sat up a little straighter. “Her sister…”

“I can’t be sure. All I had up until that point were rumors, and none of them anything I could confirm. From what I’d heard, though…yes, the lies may have taken root in that area as well. Certainly no one who could have stopped…bad things from happening was about that night, not even just turning up to see what the noise was all about in the courtyard. And you may have noticed that no one has ever come looking for her since, either.”

Adam reached over and clasped his shoulder. “Her home is in Valeureux now, John – as is yours.”

John returned the gesture. “I know, and I thank you for that. But what happens when she decides this ‘secret quest’ business is all well and good but she wants to see her sister?”

“We’ll tell her the truth, and let her send a letter to test the waters. If it’s to happen, her sister can come visit her in Valeureux where we’ll have control of the situation.” He puffed up, just a little bit. “I’m told I have a rather fearsome reputation in some areas.”

That made John laugh and give him a push. “Only in those areas where people don’t realize you were changed back – or where they think you might do it again.”

Adam essayed a mock shudder. “Dear god, don’t even suggest that could happen. I can’t think of a single advantage to being a hairy monster of a Beast.”

 

They slept late that morning, and took their time breaking their hasty camp in the rocks, not getting back on the road until the sun had almost reached its zenith. Elsa was once again riding behind John, and as he had passed along the seaman’s warning she had pulled up her cloak’s hood just as they reached the edge of the forest. Which was much less menacing in the bright light of day, although once the buzzing began to be heard the three of them became more wary. The road remained clear, though, the sun kept shining through the trees where it could…but then Adam started and pointed into the shadows.

There were ghosts there, watching them pass. He and John looked at each other, and then they both shrugged and acknowledged their dead watchers with a nod or a wave as they passed. This seemed to cause some surprise, but a few returned the gesture and vanished while others seemed unmoved. They kept riding. “Adam, there are too many ghosts here,” John said quietly. “I don’t pretend to know much about it, but wouldn’t that mean…”

“…That they must have died – or been killed – someplace nearby? Yes, I think so. Why so many, though? This place isn’t all too near the sea, if our map isn’t wrong, but most of them resemble our seaman from last night.”

“And why here, in the woods?” John concurred. And then he remembered their visitor’s warning from the night before and had a horrible thought. He slowly glanced up, peering into the shifting green canopy above their heads, and Adam saw his eyes widen behind his glasses. He shook his head just short of violently when the prince started to open his mouth. “Elsa,” he said, “hide your face in my shoulder, and don’t lift your head until I say you can.”

The choked horror in his voice made her obey him without question, her arms tightening around his waist until Adam was amazed he could breathe. The prince steeled himself and looked up. At first, he didn’t see anything…and then he did.

Boots. Rotted from long exposure to the elements, but not so much as to make them fall apart and disappear due to the protection afforded by the thick, close branches. Dangling like some horrible rotten fruit, dozens of them. He swallowed, trying not to be sick. “My god. Do you think that village…”

“If they had any part in this, I hope they all died of a bursting plague,” was John’s hoarse reply. “They’d have to have been monsters, absolute monsters.”

“Can’t we…”

“Adam, it would take an army of men to dig this many graves – we don’t even have a proper shovel.” This time John was the one who swallowed, as a rather large pair of boots was sagging into view very near him, white bone and parchment flesh showing through rents in ragged pants which still retained a hint of blue. “No wonder they don’t like travelers passing through, much less camping here. This is a graveyard.”

“Aye.” The new voice startled them. A very large ghost had appeared right beside the road, no doubt the previous owner of the large boots. He’d obviously been a massive man in life, tall and broad with a vast grizzled beard and a florid complexion. His pants were indeed a rich shade of violet blue. He shrugged. “Took four of them to string me up, and one burst his shoulder doin’ it so he weren’t no good for anything afterward. I’ve always been rather proud of that.”

“I…I would be too,” John told him. “Can we…can we ask what happened?”

The ghost shrugged. “Ye can, but I won’t tell you in front of the little missy there. I’d agree with you about the burstin’ plague, though.” He waved a large, vague hand at the woods. “Happened o’er many years time, not all at once.”

“I think we can guess what was going on, then,” Adam said, having turned his horse so he could better speak to the ghost – and be nearer to John and Elsa, just in case. “Is there anything we can do? Because John’s right, there’s no way the two of us would be able to bury all of you, but I don’t like leaving you…”

“Hangin’?” The ghost boomed out a hollow but still cheerful laugh. “Oh, that be a good one, boyo!” He seemed to be considering something, and then he peered around John at Elsa, who was peeking at him with one frightened blue eye. “Little missy, it’s all right.” He held out a cautioning hand when she started to lift her head. “Careful there – you can look at me, just don’t look up. Me mortal remains ain’t no sight for the likes o’ you – I weren’t even no beauty in life, an’ death ain’t kind to a body. Now, if ye don’t mind…what were ye doin’ last night? I’d never seen a thing like it.” Elsa adjusted her hood, then held out one hand and made a little snowball…which then melted down into a tiny ice statue of him. He moved closer to examine it, then laughed again. “That’s prob’ly the smallest I’ve ever been in me life! An’ you even got me beard, what a wonder that is.” He made a movement as though patting her hand with his ghostly one. “Yer a sweet little missy, you are. I’m sorry we upset you last night – we’d no way of knowin’ you weren’t ones who’d ignored the warnin’s and deserved it. Now, you hold tight to yer wee little man there and keep ridin’ out the road, you need to be clear of the trees afore sunset. And if you boys are serious about helpin’…” Adam and John both nodded, and he smiled. “Well then, turn an’ wait just outside the edge of the forest for me to come, per’aps there’s somethin’ ye can do for us after all.”

He disappeared, and so did most of the watching ghosts. Surprisingly, Elsa slid off Sven’s back before John could stop her and placed the little ice statue against the trunk of the tree the ghost had appeared in front of. Her little gasp said she’d caught sight of what was hanging in the tree as she climbed back up, but she didn’t say anything, just buried her face in John’s shoulder again. He patted the arm that was wound around his waist, ignoring the cold seeping through his clothes. “That was nice of you, Princess. And it really was a good likeness.”

And then he bit his lip and ignored the icy tears soaking into the shoulder she was using, and with a nod to Adam they continued on their way.

 

The sun was a double hand-span above the horizon when the finally exited the forest, and after a bit of searching they found a good spot to wait in, dismounting and letting the horses crop the short grass and drink from a small stream while they themselves stretched and drank some of the water as well. The large ghost showed up a bit later, once the shadows were deep enough for him to appear in, and he had their other ghostly visitor with him. Adam at once got to his feet and bowed to them both, as did John. “Gentlemen.”

The larger of the two ghosts snickered. “Ain’t never been that, boyo, but good evenin’ to you all the same. Now, are ye still wantin’ to help us?”

“If we can we’d like to, yes.”

The smaller ghost nodded approvingly. “Good thought, to qualify that. Some will take advantage if you’re not careful what you promise.” He straightened. “You said you’d a map; can you show us what route you’re plannin’ to follow from here?”

“Certainly.” John pulled out the map and brought it to him, holding it in one hand and tracing the route with his finger. “We’re heading down this way at the moment, because someone told us it was a common route for well-to-do travelers in the past and we’re hoping someone might remember a certain royal party which passed through some time back.”

“Hmm.” The ghost was shaking his head. “No, that won’t do – and not only because it wouldn’t suit our purposes, either. I know the place they’re thinkin’ of, and you’ll not get answers out of those who live there unless you’ve a wagonload of gold to pay for it – we always avoided the place except to trade, and they’d make us stay outside the gates for that.”

“Oh, that place.” The larger ghost nodded, making a face. “No, those people’ve got their noses so far in the air they’re snortin’ clouds out of the sky, yer better off not exposin’ the little missy to that sort of human ugliness. If you go this route, though…” He traced a different path with his finger, one which led down to the sea and then beside it. “We’d use this one ourselves, and there’s little villages aplenty there where someone might recall a royal party passin’ through an’ be happy to tell you about it – they’re that bored when the fish aren’t in, an’ they’re hospitable folk too, or at least they were in my day.”

“Aye, that’s a good route,” the other ghost agreed. “Safer, too – there’s highwaymen out near the other, an’ some of them are king’s soldiers to boot.” John and Adam both looked horrified by that, and he smirked. “I’d always heard Valeureux was a nicer sort of place, looks like I heard right. Don’t you worry about it, boys, if you follow our route you won’t see any of ‘em.”

“Keep the little missy on your horse, though,” the large ghost warned John. “She’s safer there if you meet someone on the road.”

Elsa pouted at him. “I can protect myself.”

That made him smile, but he shook his head. “Darlin’, you’d not know what to be protectin’ yourself from. Let yer wee little man do his job, he’d not have taken it on if he didn’t want it.”

“I wouldn’t have,” John agreed quietly. “As I’ve told you before, Princess. And that will spare the other horse in case one of ours picks up a stone or something.”

“Also a good thought,” the smaller ghost approved. “You’re not offended by bein’ called a ‘wee little man’, then?”

John shrugged. “If it was coming from a man your size maybe. From a man his size? He’s just stating a fact.”

The larger ghost grinned. “I like you, boyo – an’ always remember, many a tiny wee man has taken out giants where larger men have failed from trustin’ their strength too much. Yer mind should always be the first weapon ye reach for.” He backed up a step and waved one hand, and a small knot of fireflies descended from the trees. “All right, I’m goin’ to show ye my idea. If it works, you’ll be doin’ us such a service I’ll bless yer names for eternity from the afterlife – I’m that sick of this bloody forest.” The fireflies buzzed around a bit, then formed the illusion of a clear ball which seemed to be filled with…more fireflies? “Little missy, can you make a ball like this, all hollow-like, that we could put somethin’ into? An’ could you keep it from meltin’ until you reach the sea?”

Elsa moved closer, taking a better look at the illusion. “I could make a ball, but won’t they freeze if you put them in there?” Then she blushed. “I’m sorry about…the ones last night.”

“Don’t be,” the smaller ghost reassured her. “We were attackin’ you, and that unfairly – you’d a right to defend yourself.”

“And these won’t be wee little flyin’ bugs, whether they look the part or not,” the larger ghost told her. “The ones you’re seein’ now are, same as the ones from last night, because that’s the only way we can be seen is by ridin’ the wee little things, so to speak. But could you keep such a ball as this intact an’ safe all the way down to the sea?”

She nodded slowly. “I can do that. I don’t have to sit by the fire, cold doesn’t bother me.”

“It won’t be cold on this route, so you’ll only need fire for cookin’,” the smaller ghost said. “You’ll be goin’ south, so it’ll be gettin’ warmer fast.  But can you keep the ice solid all that way? It can’t open, not even the least little bit.” She nodded. “Well, then, this could work.”

The larger ghost nodded gravely. “It could – it has to. All right, then, here’s what we’ll do: Make your camp here this night, build your fire with dead wood in the rocks an’ you boys go to sleep once the moon rises. Then the rest of us will help the little missy with the ball an’ tell her where to take it, and in the mornin’ you can be on your way.”

“Straight down to the sea on the route we gave you and follow the instructions,” the smaller ghost warned. “You’ll hurt us if you don’t, and you don’t want to do that.”

“We wouldn’t want to do that,” Adam insisted firmly, ignoring the threat. “We’ve no fixed schedule for our quest anyway, and it’s not like the trail we’re seeking isn’t a decade old already. Even if we find nothing in that direction, it costs us nothing to make the trip.”

The larger ghost snorted. “You’ll make a good king someday,” he approved. “If you keep this kind of thinkin’ up, that is.” He dismissed the fireflies and made a stiff sort of bow. “We’ll be obliged to ye for helpin’ us, but we’ll not be able to make good on it after so here’s what we’ll do: When you wake in the mornin’, we’ll have you provisioned for the trip so you’ll not have to stop and hunt along the way – this route is safer for ye because there aren’t that many along it, but that also means food can be hard to come by. You’ll have enough to go on, an’ probably a bit more since I doubt the three of ye eat like seamen do.”

Adam chuckled. “No, probably not.” He returned the bow. “We would appreciate that assistance, yes. I’m thinking it will take us about four days to get to the seashore?”

“Not longer than a week, dependin’,” the smaller ghost agreed. “It’s settled then.” He frowned, and then made a bow of his own. “I think I’d have quite liked you boys when I was alive.” He aimed a finger at John. “You remember what I said about them Northmen and their drinkin’, you hear? No matter what they say about it, it only takes one drink to seal a bargain and after that they’re just playin’ with you.”

John bowed back. “I’ll remember, thank you.” The ghosts disappeared, and he looked at Adam. “Well, I guess we should set up camp for the night. Those rocks over there, do you think?”

“That works for me.”

 

It didn’t take them long to set up their small camp, or to gather dead wood for their equally small fire so they could cook their dinner, and then as soon as the moon began to rise Adam and John reluctantly bedded down for the night. Neither man had thought he’d be able to sleep, but almost as soon as they’d lain down sleep descended upon them and they neither one stirred again until the light of dawn woke them.

Adam sat up and stretched, shaking his head to clear the last fog of sleep out of it. “I think we had some ‘help’ going to sleep last night, John.”

John was also sitting up, glasses in one hand while he rubbed sleep out of his eyes with the other. “I don’t doubt it, but we probably wouldn’t have slept much at all if they hadn’t. Elsa…”

“Asleep on the other side of the fire.” Adam blinked. “With tribute, it looks like.”

John put his glasses back on. Elsa was indeed asleep, peacefully asleep with the glowing round ball of ice cradled in her arms, and all around her were piled little bundles and stacks of things – not all of them food for their journey, and quite a few looking to be made with gold and ivory and a variety of precious stones. “Well, now we know where the old man’s treasure came from. Personal possessions they wish to be buried with, do you think?”

Adam nodded, biting his lip. “We’ll have to be sure to get them far enough out in the sea, then, or someone will pull them back out of the water when the tide goes out.”

There was a rough chuckle from the ball, although it was barely more than a whisper. “No need, boys, those trinkets are for the little missy. We’ve had no need of such things for more years than you’ve been alive.”

John smiled. “I’ve a good sturdy bag somewhere, I’ll pack them up safely for her. Even though she’s a princess, she’s never had any pretty treasures of her own that I know of.”

“That she hasn’t, more’s the pity.” A sound very like a yawn. “I’ll not be able to talk with ye anymore, boys, lest I go out like a blown candle. Good journey to ye.”

Elsa woke up then. “Did I hear Garreth?” She sat up, still carefully cradling the ball, and stroked one hand over it. “Naughty, you know you’ll have to conserve your strength.”

“His name is Garreth?” She nodded, and John smiled. “That was our fault, Princess. He was just letting us know that all of these pretty things are presents for you.”

She looked around herself, blue eyes widening. “Oh my…”

“I’ve a sack we can put them in, and we’ll pack them away safely so nothing is lost,” John told her, climbing to his feet. “I’ll find it as soon as I’ve cleaned up a bit in the stream.”

“I’ll go after you,” Adam told him, settling back against the rock and stretching out his legs. “So, what did we miss last night?”

Elsa stroked the ball again, and some of the lights fluttered. “Not very much. It didn’t take me long to make the ball, and then Garreth said I should go to sleep and they’d take care of the rest. They told me stories in my dreams, stories about places they’d been and the wonderful things they’d seen there. I’d seen some of them in books in the castle library.”

“Those must have been good dreams, then.”

She nodded. “They told me not to approach living seamen, though. Alonzo said some of them don’t respect women the way they should.”

That was a relief to him. “That can be true of men in many professions. It’s why John and I are so careful of you when we encounter strangers.”

“He said that too. He was born in a beautiful, romantic place called Italia, right on the sea. And Garreth said I should certainly have John take me there to see it once our quest is done.”

Of course he had. Adam had wondered if the seamen would pick up on that…situation. “Perhaps we can all go,” he temporized. “If Belle is better by then, I’m sure she’d like to see it too.” That made her frown. “What?”

“Alonzo says you’re fooling yourself about Belle. He called her a name I’d never heard before, and then Garreth yelled at him.”

Ah. “I understand why Alonzo…doesn’t like her,” Adam explained delicately. “You understand about the different social stations people have, I know.” She nodded. “Well, those stations are social because they dictate how we’re allowed to behave in society. If I were of a station like Alonzo…”

“Instead of being a prince?”

“Instead of being a prince, then we’d not have had to make up a story about Belle’s…illness, I’d have in all likelihood just thrown her out of the house and told everyone she was…well, probably the word Alonzo used. And it would have been perfectly all right with society for me to do that. But since I am a prince, I had to do what I did.”

She was still frowning. “I don’t think you’d have thrown her out of the castle.”

“I don’t know if I would have or not, because I’ve never been in a position where it was permissible to think of things that way,” he admitted.

The frown grew even deeper. “Would John have?”

Adam chuckled. “No.”

John reappeared, settling back into his spot and rooting around in their provisions bag for an apple. “I wouldn’t have done what?”

“Thrown Belle out of the house because of her…problem.”

The bookkeeper almost choked on the bite he’d just taken, but he recovered quickly. “Where in the world did you come up with a question like that?” Adam waved at the ice ball. “Oh, of course. No, Princess, I wouldn’t have. I’d probably have done exactly what Adam did and blamed it on a curse – I’d have had to, you don’t keep a royal appointment very long if you create a scandal.”

“Royal appointment?”

“How people like me get their jobs – someone appoints us to them. The Lord High Chancellor of Arendelle appointed me to be the Royal Bookkeeper, for example. He had a paper made up that explained the terms of my appointment, and then he had the other three councilors sign it to make it official. The old king, your grandfather, had done the same to appoint my father to the position years before.”

She cocked her head, puzzled. “But Adam didn’t appoint you. And he doesn’t have any councilors.”

“My kingdom works a bit differently than Arendelle,” Adam explained. “I have a small kingdom and a small castle with not too many people working in it, so if we need someone else either I hire them or Cogsworth does. I’m not sure we’ve ever had formal appointments the way the larger kingdoms do.” He stood up. “Are you back so quickly because the water’s that cold?” John nodded, and he sighed. “Well, I guess we’ll be on our way sooner and not later, then. Put an apple in the embers for me, would you? I’ll want something hot.”

John obligingly put out their fire and then tucked a few apples around the sides to heat while he started packing up their camp. He could feel Elsa’s eyes following him. “Just ask, Princess.”

“Would you take me to Italia when our quest is complete? Garreth said you should.”

He nearly dropped a water skin. “Garreth said…why did he say that?”

She blinked at him. “Because he thought I would like it, and so did Alonzo – he was born there. They said it was a beautiful, romantic place.”

Much to her surprise, he flushed and looked away. “That…wouldn’t be proper, sweetheart. Did you tell Adam about this?”

“He said we might all go, if Belle is better.”

“I’ll have to thank him for that later,” John muttered, then cleared his throat. “Then we shall just have to see, Princess. We won’t know until we get back, will we?”

She pouted at him. “It was proper for you to take me on a quest, but not to Italia? Why not?”

Oh no, there it was. He thought a moment, then knelt down and took her hand in his. “Princess, we had to leave on an urgent quest, remember? We’d no time to find a proper chaperon. And it’s all right now because Adam is with us and he’s married, not to mention that, since I work for him, it’s perfectly proper for me to be here with you or to take you on a short trip – say, into the village to the bakery – so long as he approves. But as much as I’d truly love to take you to see Italia, it simply wouldn’t be proper unless Adam and Belle came along. It would only be all right if we were married, like they are.” The firefly lights in the ball were fluttering, and he raised an eyebrow. “They seem agitated.”

She smiled, stroking the ball again with her free hand. “They’re laughing. I’m not sure why.”

“They most likely think it’s all a bit silly,” he told her. “I believe Mrs. Potts and Annette explained to you the difference between being a princess and a common woman, correct?”

“Annette said it was silly too.”

Of course she had. “Perhaps it is,” he agreed. “But we’ve no choice in the matter if we don’t want to get you into trouble with the people who don’t think it’s silly. People like the councilors in Arendelle.”

That made her scowl. Why should she care what the people who’d tried to get her to kill John thought? “I don’t like them. They wanted me to marry Hans, and he was a terrible person.”

He had to chuckle. “Yes, but they paid for that.” He squeezed her hand and then stood back up, getting back to packing and finding the little sack to secure her new treasures in. “He was a worse choice than anyone knew at the time – he turned out to be working with someone else, a powerful kingdom to the West, trying to gain control of Arendelle so it could be added to their plans for empire-building. Our kingdom’s worthier citizens were quite unhappy when that came out.”

What he wasn’t telling her – and wasn’t planning to – was that said story had only gotten around to some of the kingdom’s more important ears because he’d seen to spreading it himself. He’d hoped their outrage might defuse some of the sentiment against his princess, and it had…but not enough, not nearly enough.

 

That night when they stopped to camp, Elsa curled around her icy ball of fireflies and went to sleep…only to find herself in a dream straightaway, standing on a pretty white beach with a strange-looking tree on it. Garreth appeared, looking upset, and pulled her into a strong hug. “Oh me little missy, I’m sorry. Old Garreth was thinkin’ he was bein’ funny, and that’s what he gets for thinkin’.”

She hugged him back, letting some of the upset she’d hidden before show. “I thought…it would be so nice to see Italia with John. I like traveling with John, he makes me feel…I can’t explain it, it’s a different feeling than I’ve ever had.”

Garreth frowned and pushed her back a little, looking at her searchingly, and then he laughed, just a bit, and shook his head. “Well, of all the things for me to be havin’ to explain to a little missy like you. Come over here an’ we’ll sit and watch the waves while you tell me all about this ‘different feelin’. If it’s what I think then there’s no help for it, but you’ll feel better for the tellin’. An’ I can give you at least a bit of advice for handlin’ your wee little man so’s you don’t upset him anymore unless you’re wantin’ to.”

Her eyes went wide. “Why would I want to upset John? I don’t want to upset John!”

Garreth laughed and chucked her under the chin with a callused finger. “Little missy, we’re not talkin’ about that sort of upsettin’ – this kind he’ll grow to like, because all men do whether they want to or not. And I think your friend the prince may be inclined to help ye with that as well, but ye’ll still have to go careful-like about it. ‘Cause nothin’ sours a man more than bein’ offered somethin’ he thinks he can’t have…”

 

It took them four days’ ride to reach the coast, and probably would have taken five had they not been pushing themselves to travel as quickly as they could; the weather had grown so very warm as they went farther south that Elsa had begun to fear for the ice ball she carried and the fluttering souls contained within it. They had actually come upon the sea almost unawares, riding up over a hill to find it spread out below them all the way to the horizon, waves burning with fiery color courtesy of the impossibly huge sun sinking majestically behind them. The firefly lights in the ball had grown very agitated at this, and so they’d quickly ridden down the grassy verge and then dismounted and walked out onto the sand.

Or at least, Adam and John walked out onto the sand. Elsa kept walking, a road of ice arching up under her feet with each step, carrying her over the glowing waves until she was far enough out. She held up the ball. “I’ll miss you,” she told the flickering lights. “You’ve shown me ever so much, and told me so many wonderful stories. But it’s time for you to be free now.” And with that she tossed the ball up in the air, changing it from ice to a shell of snow. The snow dissolved almost instantly on making contact with the water, and fireflies exploded out of it in a swirling, ecstatic dance…and then scattered across the waves and disappeared. All except one, that was. A single firefly flew back up and landed on the princess’s nose, glowing brightly, making her laugh before diving into the waves and vanishing as well.

Elsa walked back to the beach, wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, an action which caused both John and Adam to meet her once she’d set foot on the sand again and envelop her in a comforting joint hug. She hugged them back. “Garreth said goodbye.”

“We saw.” The sun was sinking more quickly now that the bulk of it was down, so they hurried back to the horses to get a camp set and a fire built up above the tide line. Luckily there was driftwood close at hand, so by the time darkness fully fell they had a good fire burning. And by the time the moon had risen in the sun’s place, turning flaming waves to silver in her light, they were all three fast asleep.

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2 thoughts on “In the Land of Ever After

  1. neeliemom

    Wow, that was quite a chapter! Really packed with goodies. 😉 I’ll have to let it settle a few days and go back and read it again. Thanks so much for posting!

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