In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 21 - Bad News

The palace is beautiful, but what they find inside may not be.


Four days of riding steeply northward from the mermaids’ cove brought them near to the possible end of at least one quest, but what they found when they got there made them pull up short. The little cove the mermaids and their dolphin friend had marked on the map wasn’t actually so little on the land side, as a flat field so huge it seemed to go on forever was separating them from their intended destination. It was also almost knee-deep in snow and a sharp wind was blowing across it, channeled by sheer granite cliffs on either side. “That’s more snow coming, probably quite a large storm,” John informed Adam. “We have to decide whether to go into it and hope we find someplace to shelter before it hits, or turn back and take shelter here – if we’re caught on this plain when it reaches us, we’ll die and so will the horses.”

Elsa frowned over his shoulder. “I can…”

“Princess, we don’t know if you can or not – the time to test your powers isn’t when failure could leave you all alone out here in the middle of nowhere and Valeureux without a ruler, all right?” She held him a little more tightly and he sighed. “Sweetheart…magic doesn’t mean you can stop planning and just plunge into situations without any forethought. Having magic just means you have more options for making plans than a person who doesn’t – which also means more ways that the plan can go wrong.”

“But…”

“Look what happened to Ursula, the sea witch,” Adam pointed out. “Magic was her entire plan, she didn’t think she needed anything else. So when something unexpected happened, her plan fell apart all over the place.”

“Literally,” John said. “And she just stood there with a dumbfounded look on her face, changing back into an octopus woman.”

The arms around his waist relaxed. “I think I understand. It’s all right to make a plan with magic, just as long as magic isn’t the only part of the plan.”

“Exactly right, Princess.” John cocked an eyebrow at Adam. “So, which plan should we go with now? Stay or go?”

Adam considered it. “I think we should ride on and try to beat the storm. Because if we don’t, we’re likely to be trapped anyway, and then we’d also risk running out of food. But if my parents are here…well, they have to be living in something and eating something, so we should be at least marginally better off.”

John thought it was possible they weren’t living at all, but he didn’t like to say so. And at the very least getting across the field would put them closer to the sea, which meant food would be available if they needed it. “Sounds good to me,” he said. “We should start riding, then, and get across this snowfield as quickly as we safely can. These storms can move in from the sea very quickly.” He fished a piece of rope out of his bag and tied one end to his saddlehorn, tossing the other end over to Adam. “Tie it to your saddlehorn, getting separated if the storm does catch us could be the death of us.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “Elsa, if I give the word…well, be making a plan for what you can do if the storm catches us out in the open.”

“I can do that.” She sounded happy about it, in fact, and then she pulled the hood of his cloak up and adjusted the heavy fabric in the front so her arms were holding it closed. “There, now you’ll stay warmer.” He shivered just a little and didn’t say anything but he did pat her arm in thanks, and she hid a smile in his shoulder. Garreth and the mermaids had all said showing that you care was better than telling, and once she’d thought about it Elsa had realized John had always done that. He was a caring, gentle man, and so the way to ‘properly upset him’, according to Garreth, was to simply return the favor by being a caring, thoughtful woman. If what you feel is true, little missy, the big seaman had said, then havin’ a care for his well bein’ and comfort – the way he does for yours – is the way to show it. Makin’ a man hot an’ bothered may be good for a quick tumble, but if yer wantin’ somethin’ more than that then what you want is to make him warm, like the glow from a good fire. A comfortable man is a happy one, and a happy one won’t be goin’ nowhere.

Elsa definitely didn’t want John to go anywhere – at least, not unless she went with him. And the idea that she could make someone feel warm…well, it was something she’d never expected she’d be able to do, and the idea that she could do it so easily was making her very happy. Hopefully it would make John happy too.

 

They were about halfway across the snowfield when Adam’s horse suddenly balked. He tried to nudge it forward, and when it tried to rear he stopped, spoke soothingly to it, and then dismounted to see what the problem was. The face he lifted to John and Elsa was wide-eyed. “Oh god, I think we’re on a frozen lake. As in right out in the middle of it. Elsa, can you tell if it’s frozen thick enough for us to finish crossing?”

She frowned, and waved to him to get back on his horse, which he did. And then she waved again and the snow moved aside, revealing the ice beneath. A patch of lighter blue-green just a foot from where Adam had been standing showed that the ice there was quite thin indeed, and there was actually a crack running back towards them. She thought about that, then raised her hand and snow began to drift back over the cleared spot, freezing into thin layers of ice one on top of the other until a white ribbon of a road had formed. “Go very slowly,” she warned. “If the horses run, it could crack.”

They immediately nudged the horses back into motion, carefully, but none of the three animals balked once they were on Elsa’s road. It was slow going, much slower than they would have liked to have gone, and the lake was apparently very large because it took them what seemed like a very long time to reach the end of the white road. They allowed the horses to take a brief rest once they were certain they were on solid ground again, and then started off at a slightly better pace through the deep snow.

The snowfield was coming to an end, fingers of rock beginning to encroach on its flat sameness as the towering cliff walls to the east drew closer to the sea, when they got their first glimpse of the palace. The sharp wind was picking up, a steady, hard blow that John said was a sign the storm was going to be harsh and most likely go on for a good while, when through the thickening snow flurries appeared slender minarets reaching for the gray cloud ceiling above them. A few more twists and turns, picking their way around the rocks, and a tower came into view, and then two more smaller ones. They were pure white, and had the sky not been so overcast they might have blended into the snow. “Well, it’s definitely a palace,” Adam said. “Hopefully it’s not a ruin.” John looked at him, and he shook his head. “I’m well aware they might be dead – I’m hoping they’re not, of course, I’m hoping this is a situation where rescuing is what’s needed, but I know it’s possible we’re not going to find anything…pleasant.”

“We’re not?” Elsa wanted to know.

“They might be long dead, Princess,” John explained. “And people who’ve been dead for a while don’t usually look like Prince Eric, or even like the old man in the hut, they look like…what we didn’t want you to see in the forest with the ghosts.  Dead bodies aren’t pretty.”

“I don’t understand.”

He considered that for a moment. “Think of a piece of fruit. It starts off pretty, but if you don’t eat it, it rots.”

“People rot?”

She sounded horrified, and he winced, patting her arm. “When they’re dead, Princess, only when they’re dead. Everything rots when it’s dead, unless something stops it. Like ice. One of the Northmen’s fishing boats brought a large block of ice to Arendelle once that had some sort of bear creature in it no one had ever seen before. It had been dead a long time, but the ice had kept it from rotting so it still looked exactly as it had when it had died. I remember they kept it displayed in the courtyard all winter, and then in the spring when it thawed it was butchered and fed to the dogs. We don’t do that with people who freeze to death,” he added quickly at her little gasp. “When a person is found frozen to death – in Arendelle, anyway – they thaw the person out and then burn the body.”

Now Adam was looking shocked. “You burn…”

“You can’t dig graves in the winter, the ground’s too hard. So they’re burned, and then what’s left is collected and packed up into some kind of fancy container – a pottery urn unless they were important, in which case it’s usually a carved stone box. When the Lord High Chancellor of Arendelle died, he had one of marble and they made a ceremony of putting it up in the royal mausoleum. The Chancellor and I had put my father’s urn in there the year before.” Adam was still looking rather surprised. “What?”

“Your father is buried in the Royal Mausoleum in Arendelle?”

John shrugged. “He was the Royal Bookkeeper of Arendelle, appointed to the position by Elsa’s grandfather. I suppose he could have been put wherever his father had been, but the Chancellor said Father had more than earned his place with the other servants of the Crown through his dedication and loyalty over the years.”

“I’m sure he had,” Adam agreed. And then they rounded one last corner, and the palace came fully into view. His mouth dropped open. “Oh my goodness.”

The appearance of the palace was well worth some surprise. Tucked into a little half-moon cove that curved into the cliffside, it rose out of the snow very much like one of Elsa’s ice structures, pure glistening white walls forming an enclosed courtyard behind ornate gates, three towers soaring up from behind them. It was a very small palace and just impossibly beautiful against the backdrop of dark cliffs and gray-white skies, snow beginning to swirl around its towers in a lover’s dance. John swallowed. “That has to have been built by magic.”

“I think it was,” Elsa confirmed. She hugged John. “It’s so pretty!”

“It is beautiful, yes.” There was a low building around one side of the palace which looked to be a stable, sheltered and dwarfed by the cliff-side which sheltered it. Adam looked from castle to stable and made a decision. This was his quest, possibly his parents, so going in first to see what was going on inside the pretty little marble palace was his responsibility. “I’ll go in and see whatever there is to be seen,” he said, swinging down out of the saddle. “John, you and Elsa take our horses to the stable and get them taken care of before this storm gets any worse.”

John started to say something…but then he nodded and dismounted himself. “Be careful, Adam,” he warned. “If someone’s in there who isn’t your parents…well, they may not like guests much.”

“I’ll be careful,” Adam promised. “You do the same in the stable – you don’t have a letter opener with you this time.”

“I am never going to live that down, am I?”

Adam smiled. “No, probably not. Especially since I see you ripping into the official correspondence with it almost every day.” He clapped his friend on the shoulder. “If I find anything that’s, well, very much not alive, I’ll come back out to the stable and we’ll figure out what to do from there.”

“If you don’t come out, we’ll come in,” John agreed. “Carefully, just in case.”

“I’m hoping that won’t be necessary,” Adam said. “But yes, just in case.” And then he handed over the reins and strode to the golden-traceried gates, which swung open at a push of his hand to allow him entrance.

 

Inside the gates was a small courtyard floored with a colorful tile mosaic which could only be seen in patches due to frozen snow. There was a path through the snow, though, drifted over but still visible, and he followed it to another set of doors. These had a knocker, which he used.

Nothing happened. When he didn’t hear anything, he cautiously pushed on one of the doors and it opened for him just like the gate had, letting him step inside onto a conveniently placed woven mat. He was standing in a white marble hall which was open all the way to the top of the middle tower, the coming storm’s fitful light spilling in through high-set windows. A set of stairs with gold-traced railings curled up on each side, presumably leading to the shorter towers, and looking up again he saw that there was a golden-railed walkway around the inside of the larger one, presumably to prevent someone on one side from having to come all the way down and back up to reach the other. No one else was around, but he could hear the sound of a fountain and what might be a slight murmur of conversation coming from behind the next set of elegant gold-and-white double doors – these were also inlaid with what looked like precious stones to mimic the design of the mosaic outside. So he walked over to these doors and knocked. This time the murmur was definitely voices, one high, one low, but nobody called out to him. Adam considered for a second, then pushed one of the doors open and looked inside.

“I hope you didn’t think we were going to come to you,” a woman’s voice huffed. “Royalty don’t open doors for people, you know.”

“Actually, I open doors for people all the time,” Adam countered, albeit politely, stepping inside. “Because the doors on my castle are so heavy half the staff can’t open them unassisted. Which is something I really ought to fix, now that I think about it.”

“Or you could just hire stronger servants,” a male voice said, sounding amused. “Well don’t just stand there, come in and introduce yourself. Royalty, you say?”

The room seemed to be some sort of solarium, not so large as Adam had expected but with great tall windows looking out at a storm-lashed garden and very inconveniently backlighting the two richly-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs in front of them so that it was difficult to see their faces. They sounded young, the man had short dark hair and the woman’s was a cascade of curling gold pouring over one shoulder, but that was about it. He bowed. “Prince Adam, of the kingdom of Valeureux.” Silence; he looked up to see the woman with her hand over her mouth. “And you are?”

The man humphed. “Shocked, I’m sure. Aren’t you supposed to be a ravaging monster confined to an enchanted castle?”

Adam sighed. Even all the way out here… “That was a curse; it was broken. As you can see, I’m just a normal man now, not a monster any longer.”

“Astounding,” the woman breathed, having apparently recovered herself. “So you…well come closer, come closer, let us see you! We were told that curse would never be broken, you simply must tell us all about it.”

“Wait, you were told…” Adam moved closer, until he was near enough to see them…and then stopped and nearly took a step back. He swallowed, remembering fireflies in a dark forest, but this room was bright… “You…how in the world is this possible? Are you ghosts?” The woman tittered and the man chuckled, shaking his head. “But you can’t be…you haven’t aged a day!”

“Oh, that – magic, of course.” The woman – his mother! – waved it away. She looked to be no older than Belle or Elsa, and definitely younger than Adam. “Well just look at you! We hadn’t expected you to grow up at all, it makes me feel quite old to know my son is such a handsome young man. And most likely married too?” Adam nodded. “Oh dear.”

“You’ll never be old, my darling Astrid,” Adam’s father assured her, standing up. He was just as Adam remembered him, only now instead of being a tall figure to look up to they were of approximately the same height. “I’ll just get you some wine, son, you look like you could use it – and I could use a drink myself. Whatever in the world are you doing all the way out here? Don’t tell me you inherited my wandering nature.”

Adam found his voice. “I…I’ve been on a quest. At least partially to find you.”

“Oh, how sweet,” his mother chirped. “Hector, I want wine too – wash the taste of oldness out of my mouth. Now, who did you bring with you? Your wife, some servants, a mistress or some other playmate, perhaps? We heard horses before you came in.”

Which apparently hadn’t made them curious enough to come out and see who it was, or even stir themselves from their chairs. Something was very, very wrong here. “I didn’t see any servants when I came in just now…”

“We don’t have any,” his father told him. “Lady Marguerite said having them here would be too much of a bother, so she enchanted the palace to do everything itself. Which is convenient, although sometimes I do miss having underlings to order about.”

“Lady Marguerite?”

His mother waved an aimless hand. “The fairy who arranged everything. You saw her when she came to the castle, I’m sure – you must have, or she couldn’t have cursed you.”

The airy, unconcerned way she said it made a chill run up Adam’s spine. That was when the door opened and Adam turned to see John and Elsa coming into the room, looking wary. They both hurried to him with exclamations of alarm when they saw his face, and he did his best to pull himself together. “It’s…we found them. They’re alive!” He accepted the hug Elsa spontaneously gave him. “They’re alive.”

“Well of course we are, we just told you so,” Queen Astrid scolded lightly…and then she got a good look at Elsa and her pretty blue eyes rounded. “Oh no. Oh dear.”

“Astrid, what…” Hector turned around and saw Elsa. “Oh. Well, this looks like it’s going to be awkward for everyone involved. I suppose it’s too much to hope she’s just your mistress, or that she’s with this other fellow?”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t understand. This is Princess Elsa, she’s on a quest of her own. My wife is back at home.”

“Oh thank goodness!” Astrid fluttered dramatically. “Hector, I really do need that wine now. What a shock to my system…”

But John’s brown eyes behind his glasses had gone almost as round as hers had – and with the same kind of recognition. “Oh no. No, it can’t be. How in the world…what kind of monsters are you? Both of them?!”

Adam jumped. “John…”

His friend turned to him, scowling. “I walked past that royal family portrait every morning on my way to the ledger room for my entire life, Adam, I’d know Queen Astrid anywhere – she had dark hair in the portrait, but it’s her. And there’s a portrait of her with King Hector in the Grand Hall! Elsa is your sister, Adam. Elsa and Anna’s parents…are also your parents.”

“Well, yes,” King Hector admitted. He raised an eyebrow. “Wait, I know who you are! The old bookkeeper’s boy. He kept you hidden away in his den all the time, I always wondered if you were defective somehow.”

“I was a little boy and my mother was dead. Where else was he going to keep me?” John asked, rolling his eyes. “And don’t change the subject, please.”

The king frowned. “Somebody’s gotten uppity.”

“He’s got more right to it than you do,” Adam countered. Shock was giving way to anger. “You’ve been alive, all this time? And you let everyone think you were dead!”

“You were trapped in that enchantment, dear,” the queen pointed out. “Not like we could have come back to you after that.”

“No, especially not since you had to have set it up with the bad fairy in the first place,” John said wryly. “And that still doesn’t explain why you abandoned Arendelle. Word came back that the ship you’d been on had gone down in a storm and there were no survivors.”

“Oh so that’s how she did it,” Queen Astrid observed. “We had wondered. All she’d told us was that we were to refuse to board and order the ship to set sail without us – tell them we were going to ride overland, see a bit of the country and meet them at the next port.”

“Yes, she gave us very specific instructions, and we followed them to the letter,” King Hector agreed. “She said she was arranging things so everyone would think we were dead. I suppose she must have sunk the ship to that end so the seamen couldn’t tell anyone we hadn’t been on board.” He took a sip of his wine. “Efficient way to go about it.”

“Efficient?” Adam’s voice actually cracked on the word. “It was efficient to kill innocent men for something like this?”

“Well, yes.” Hector raised an eyebrow. “I must say, I’d have expected you to have a little more violence in your nature after spending all those years as a ravaging Beast, son.”

“But why were you working with the fairy in the first place?” Elsa wanted to know. “She was bad!”

The queen sniffed. “The fairy came when Adam…when he was just a boy. She said the thing must happen, she threatened to kill us as well as him.” She lifted insincere blue eyes to her shocked son. “You must believe me, darling, it was the only way to save us all.”

Adam blinked, not knowing what to make of this. “And Elsa?”

“It was a christening curse…”

John’s eyes had narrowed. “No,” he interrupted. “No, it most certainly wasn’t. You’re lying.”

The former king of Arendelle scowled at him. “How dare you…!”

“I know how I dare, but I’m not sure how you dared to do it twice,” John snapped. “You abandoned two kingdoms, three children…for what? Greed, sloth, vanity…shall I keep listing sins until we’ve hit on the right mixture? How can you live with yourselves, causing so much pain to the innocents who were your responsibility, how can you bear to look in a mirror?” There were very nearly tears in his eyes. “How could you? He was barely eleven, and she was six years old!”

The king and queen looked at each other, and then, inexplicably, the king chuckled and went back to get his wine; he handed a glass to his wife as well as he sat back down. “Well, that explains it. Elsa, my dear…well, I suppose you did learn to hold it in, didn’t you, or else he’d be dead by now. I’m a better teacher than I thought. But this is why we don’t consort with the upper servants, daughter,” he scolded. “They start to believe they’re better than they are and put on airs; at least with a stableboy or a footman they can’t get above themselves too very much without being slapped down, and the lower servants are also easier to replace. I suppose it’s too late to do anything about it now, though, unless…” He picked up a dainty silver bell from the small table between their chairs and rang it. “Lady Marguerite! Is this part of your plan?”

There was a spray of sullen silver sparks, and a fairy appeared. Unlike the one they’d encountered in the kingdom of Asher, this one was thin and dressed in dark, slightly ragged-appearing clothes, and the wand in her bony hand was of twisted gray wood ringed with silver tracery. She looked the tableau over with a huff, eyebrows going up when she saw the way Elsa was clinging to John, then scowled and pointed one long finger at the queen. “Astrid, this is your fault!”

The queen pouted. “How was I supposed to know this would happen! I wast bored, and he was such a cranky, dry old man who never came out of his cave – and it’s not like the girl had other prospects, her father was quite glad to get rid of her. She was an old maid already and never left her home.”

“Because she was fragile, sickly,” John said. He sounded sickened, and Adam put a hand on his shoulder. “So you really did play with them like dolls – and with no more thought to it than that.”

The queen waved a languid hand dismissively. “Oh pooh, they were my subjects, that’s how it works. They were there for my pleasure.”

He recovered himself, unable to let that stand. “No,” he corrected. “That isn’t how it works, Your Majesty. That has never been how it works…unless the ruler in question is a bad one who doesn’t deserve their crown.”

She shrieked. “You can’t speak to me that way, I’m your queen!”

Adam shook his head, gripping John’s shoulder a little tighter. “No, you’re not,” he told her. “John came from your daughter’s service to mine, with her blessing. And since she’s of age, she’s been confirmed, and you took off to do,” he waved a hand at the palace, “whatever this is,  you’ve technically abdicated. You’re nobody’s queen, just like our dear father there is nobody’s king.”

King Hector smiled. “Well, you’ll  never be a king either, son – the country’s laws won’t let you ascend the throne. Of course, the way I understood it you were supposed to be a rampaging monster until you died so that was never going to be a consideration. Rather inconvenient that you found someone to break the curse.”

“And that she decided she’d rather have the Beast than him after the wedding,” the fairy smirked, making the king snicker and the queen titter behind her hand; this time John was the one grasping Adam’s shoulder, and Elsa put her own hand on his arm. “Which was a side-effect of the enchantment, by the way, although I’d never have guessed it would have played out the way it did – that part was her fault.”

“No, the whole thing was your fault,” John countered, scowling. “You’re the one who did it. Why, though? Why take the name of the kingdom from everyone? Why concoct some convoluted plan to turn an innocent boy into a beast for ten years and trap all of the servants in the castle with him? What did you possibly get out of that?”

“That was incidental to my purpose.” The fairy called Lady Marguerite shrugged. “But unlike their shallow creature of a mother here, I actually had one other than furthering my own amusement – although it did that, too.” She laughed. “You know, Astrid, I believe I will forgive you for complicating this situation; this little man has actually made it more interesting, I think. And I believe he may have given me the key to getting what I’ve been waiting for all these years. Because last time her love for her sister stopped her doing what she was created for…but this time, love will push the other way.”

“What do you mean, ‘what she was created for’?” John had moved to put himself between Elsa and the fairy; so had Adam. “The princess was born to the king and queen of Arendelle…”

“Ah, but I was the one who stuffed the power to bring down Ragnarok into her,” the fairy corrected. She huffed at the blank looks. “Ragnarok? The end of the world in an endless torrent of ice and snow?” John and Adam and Elsa looked at each other, then shook their heads, and she threw her hands up in frustration. “How could you not know that?! It’s a prophecy about the end of the world!” She waved her wand, and both men vanished; John’s cloak, which had been draped over his arm, fluttered to the floor. The fairy pointed at the wide-eyed, white-faced Elsa. “And you’re going to make it happen for me, my sweet little princess. You almost did it before, but this time you won’t stop, will you? This time your brother and your lover are gone, gone, gone, ripped away from you forever, and your pain will bring an end to this boring world of mortals once and for all!”

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