In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 24 - In a Far Country

King Fergus has been keeping a secret. His wife is not amused.

In a sturdy stone castle set amid rolling green hills, the king of DunBroch was very pleased with himself. Perhaps even a bit too pleased, which was making his wife the queen suspicious. “Yer up to somethin’,” she accused, and had her suspicions vindicated when his response was to smile broadly. Queen Elinor sighed. “Well, what is it? You know you can’t keep a secret to save yer life.”

“I’ve kept this one for a month of days, Elinor, with nobody the wiser.” He considered a moment, then led his wife into the throne room and closed the heavy doors. “I should tell you now,” he agreed, dropped carelessly onto his carved wooden throne; she settled onto hers more warily. “I didnae want it to get out until all was settled, though. You know how Merida takes on when we bring up needin’ to have a thought for her future.”

“Oh Fergus, you didn’t…”

“Hush,” he told her. “I know what I’m about this time, wife. Our daughter was right before, there’s no man available here who’s suitable for her – they’re all either too old or too stupid to match her.” He drummed his fingers on the arm of the throne. “I’d heard of a man who’s neither, though. Young, but had to take charge when his father died. Had already saved his people a few times over, brave as a lion but uses his head first.”

His wife raised a dark, skeptical eyebrow. “And then why is such a paragon not already married and producin’ heirs?”

Fergus shook his head. “His lady died, my love. They say he’s not looked at another since. But his mother and the oldsters told him he’s got to take a wife, and he’s wise enough to know they’re right.” He gave her a look. “His lady was quite the spitfire, they told me. Could out-ride him, out-shoot him, and out-argue him most days – and he loved her for it.” The eyebrow stayed up; she knew there was more. “He’s Chief Ironfoot of Berk, the Northern cliff tribe that was almost wiped out some few years back by dragons.”

Her eyes widened. “You want to marry our daughter to a Viking? Have you lost yer mind?!”

“No, I found it when I got you back,” he countered. “When I realized, as you did, that a girl who can ride and shoot as well as any man shouldn’t be trammeled in a corset like a clipped bird just because she’s of age to be married. Have you seen any man here who wouldn’t?” He tossed himself back in the throne, the wood creaking. “Not to mention, most of the ones we’ve got are still not sure she’s not some kind of a witch, and I’ve had two tell me they thought they could beat the stubborn out of her.” He was satisfied she understood when he saw her pale at those words. “Ironfoot comes from a people who’ll value her, Elinor. We’ve three boys to pick from to sit this throne after me, and our people will accept any of them – the other two will marry into some other laird’s family and be accepted there.” This time he raised his eyebrow. “Can you see that bein’ the outcome in any family here for our Merida?”

She frowned down at her hands, which were clenched in her lap. “No,” she admitted. “But I’d not be wantin’ her to think we’re sendin’ her away, either. Or givin’ her to some cold stranger from a foreign land who didnae want a wife in the first place.”

Merida decided she’d heard enough, and quietly slipped away from her hiding place. She made her way out to the stables and saddled her horse; riding often helped her calm herself, and clear her thoughts. And her thoughts right now were heavy and confused.

She knew she would eventually need to marry, there was simply no help for it. She also knew there was no man for her here at home, because they’d tried to find her one and the attempt had failed miserably – and only partly because she was stubborn and wouldn’t pretend to be aught but what she was. The idea that some of those same men, men who hadn’t been able to hold a candle to her with a bow, were of the opinion that she needed ‘the stubborn beaten out of her’ filled her with anger. Who did they think they were?! She was their king’s only daughter, his eldest born! That they dared think such a thing, much less tell her father to his face, was unthinkable.

And yet, her father hadnae told her. He’d sucked on the problem all by himself and decided the answer was to marry her to some wild Viking chieftain who’d already lost one wife and didnae want another. Her mother had known nothing of it, didnae approve of it…and had still ended by agreeing with her husband that it was their only alternative to ‘giving’ Merida to some man who wanted to beat her into submission.

She’d ridden quite far up and out into the hills, farther than she’d originally meant to, when she spotted a horse beside the old Ballanshire road and, near the horse, a woman sitting on the ground. The horse was cropping at the grass, but he lifted his head when Merida rode down the hill and exchanged a brief neigh with her own mount. The woman seemed entirely surprised to see her, but she stood up and dropped a slight curtsey. She looked to be only a bit older than Merida, dressed in plain but well-made traveling clothes, and her dark hair was pulled back in a simple knot at the nape of her neck. “I’m sorry,” she said in a pleasant voice, although her accent was a foreign thing. “I’m not trespassing, am I?”

Merida shook her head, jumping off the back of her horse. “No, yer not trespassin’ here – and I’d nae begrudge yer horse a few mouthfuls even if ye were.” She looked around; no one else was in sight. “Yer out here all by yer lonesome?”

The woman nodded. “I’m…trying to find my way back home, but I’m not sure where exactly I am so I’ve just been following the road. I came from…well, from Ballanshire, from the castle.”

Merida shuddered in spite of herself. There wasn’t a bairn alive who didnae know the story of Ballanshire. “You don’t look like a ghost.”

“I’m not. Everyone else there was, I think – all I could see of them was their hands.” She shivered, apparently at the memory, and shook her head. “They’re all free now, though. The curse is broken.”

A red eyebrow went up. “Nobody knows how to break the curse of Ballanshire – it was a fairy curse, the Curse of the Beast! An’ they say the old lord died still bearin’ it and his shade haunts the ruins.”

The woman shrugged. “It did still roam there, haunting the old library where he…caught his last victim. I set it afire, though, burned it to the ground. He’s gone now, for good.”

“If he is, it’s good riddance.” This was news her father should have sooner and not later, Merida knew. If the lands of Ballanshire truly had been freed from their curse, fighting was likely to break out once people knew of it and tried to claim the ancient seat of power for their own. But it could be avoided if Fergus claimed it and moved to place a laird of his own there, perhaps sealing their allegiance with a betrothal to one of her brothers as she herself was, apparently, already spoken for. She grimaced, shaking her head. “I’ll have to tell me Da about this, we’ll have trouble if this news comes to any ear before his. But he’ll want to know who told me, and how ye knew it: Who are ye and what were you doin’ at the castle?”

To her surprise, the woman looked at the ground almost as though she were ashamed. “I’m…I’m Belle,” she said. “Lady Belle, of Valeureux. A fairy cursed me and sent me to the Castle of Ballanshire.”

Merida considered that. Her father had always said fairies were tricksy creatures, but she hadn’t known they could send a person right out of their own country. “Do yer people know where ye are?”

“No.” Belle covered a sniff with one hand. “I’m sure they’re glad about that, even though the fairy said my husband was…was missing me. I supposed he might have been, we were friends once. He’s off on a quest, she said she’d met him in another kingdom and he’d helped her with something.” A rueful, rather wet smile. “She liked him.”

“I suppose that was a lucky thing for him,” Merida observed with a shrug. “Why didnae ye go on the quest with him?”

The eyes went down again. “I was the reason he left – I gave him no choice, he told everyone I’d been cursed and he was going to find the person who’d done it.” She shook her head. “He’s actually trying to find out what happened to his parents, I’m sure. They disappeared when he was a boy.”

“So are ye goin’ home, or are ye goin’ after him?”

That quite obviously startled Belle. “Going after him?”

Merida rolled her eyes. “Well it’s obvious ye love him, and ye know he’s missin’ you. Why not go find him and apologize and then ye can both go home together?”

The other woman blinked. “I…I honestly hadn’t thought of that. But I don’t know where he was going…and I don’t know where I am, either. I was hoping I’d find someone who could at least tell me how to get back to Valeureux.”

The name was odd and completely unfamiliar, and Merida shrugged. “Never heard of it. It’s nae on any map I’ve ever seen, and I know them all the way down to the gray cliffs of the sea. What kind of land is it?”

“The castle is up in the mountains, surrounded by sheer rock cliffs, and then a large valley opens out below them in the middle of the foothills,” Belle told her. “It’s not as cold there as it seems to be here, so it must be farther south. And it’s nowhere near the sea.”

Merida considered again. “In that case, yer probably needin’ to go east – south from here isnae gonna get you anywhere but a clifftop, but east will get you down out of these hills anyway.” She was about to suggest that Belle could come back to the castle with her and speak to her father, perhaps see if he knew more about what the best route might be for her to take, when a noise as of something large moving in their direction stopped the words before they could leave her mouth. She waved the other woman to silence, thinking quickly. If it was a bear, they’d be in trouble – she had a knife and her bow, but there were only two arrows in her quiver and the knife was not a long one. Not that the noise should be a bear, as it was the wrong place and the wrong season for them, but a stag wouldn’t make that much noise and neither would a wild sheep. “If that noise we’re hearin’ turns out to be a dangerous sort of beast,” she murmured just loudly enough for the other woman to hear her, “you get on yer horse and ride up the way I just came down, d’you hear? Just ride, I’ll catch up and take you to my father.”

Belle’s hazel eyes widened. “I don’t…oh wait, now I hear it. You think it’s a wild animal?”

“I know it’s nae a horse, that’s for sure.” Merida pointed. “We’ll see it in a minute, it’s comin’ right at us.”

The sounds got steadily louder until the source appeared over the crest of the hill. Half of the disturbance turned out to be a youngish man with wind-tossed brown hair and dark eyes, older than Merida by a few years at most. He had one hand on the head of the other half as they waded through the tall grass, the other half being a large indigo-colored dragon which seemed to be complaining in a low rumble under its breath. It also had on a leather harness and saddle, and the man – its rider, presumably – was wearing a distinctively styled leather vest lined with fur and carrying an even more distinctively designed horned helmet under his arm. Belle had sucked in a startled breath at the sight of the dragon, and Merida pulled out her belt knife, wishing she’d grabbed her bow instead. “Stop right there!”

The young man stopped, and so did the dragon – which looked every bit as surprised as he did, which was rather startling to Merida. “I’m sorry, are we trespassing?” He essayed a short bow. “My name is Hiccup, I was flying over and Toothless got tired so we stopped to walk instead…” That got the knife brandished at him a little more wildly, and he put up his hands. “Hey, we don’t want any trouble, we’re just passing through.”

“A likely story,” Merida countered. “Ye’ll not snatch us away without a fight!”

Hiccup looked somewhat startled by this accusation. “Why would I do that?”

She used her knife to point at the helmet. “Yer a Viking!”

He rolled his eyes. “And you’re a Scot; should I ask if you’ve stolen any cattle lately? No, I shouldn’t – because it’s a stereotype.”

Merida wrinkled her nose. “A sterea-what?”

“Stereotype,” Belle supplied. “It means judging someone based on stories that are told about their people, not on the actions of the people as individuals.”

Merida raised a red eyebrow at the young man. “People say we steal cattle?”

Hiccup nodded. “And sheep. And that you paint yourselves blue when you fight.”

Her nose wrinkled again. “There’s some that wear paint when they’re warrin’, but not all of us do it.”

“I didn’t think so.” He leaned against the dragon, who huffed at him. “You stop. I can’t let you hunt here, then we’d be the ones stealing cattle.”

Merida was interested in spite of herself. “He needs to eat?”

The young man shrugged. “He wants to eat – whether he needs to or not is a matter of opinion and we’re not agreeing with each other right now.”

That got him another, more offended huff, and she had to smile. “It wouldnae be a good idea to hunt our cattle, no…but I can bring him down a buck, would that do?”

The dragon immediately became very interested in her, and looked up at his rider sideways rather like a begging dog. Hiccup rolled his eyes again. “You spoiled thing. If you wouldn’t mind,” he told Merida. “He could hunt a deer himself, or I could, but I didn’t want us to accidentally start an incident. Or rather, I sort of would like to do that,” he ran a hand through his somewhat shaggy dark hair, looking a little sheepish, “but I really don’t want to start a war. I’ve got enough people getting on me about what I’m supposed to be doing now.”

“Aye, I do as well.” Merida considered the dragon – which was considering her back – then cautiously moved a little closer. “Can ye wait a little longer? I’ll get you a nice fat buck, but we’d not any of us want ta get inta trouble o’er it.”

The dragon blinked at her, then leaned forward to delicately sniff. When she raised one hand, he butted under it, demanding scratches. “Why, he’s like me horse!”

“He’s spoiled,” Hiccup repeated, joining in the scratching himself. “I spend a lot of time with Toothless, so he’s used to getting lots of attention. Your horse?”

“The same. Me da says I’ve spoiled him to the point he’ll never take another rider.” The dragon snorted her skirts and she squealed and jumped. “Why you fresh thing!”

That made the young man laugh. “He used to do that to…” His voice trailed off, all of the animation suddenly draining out of him; the dragon immediately gave him a nudge, and he patted its neck. “Well, to someone.” He bowed to Merida, then to Belle. “I really should be going. I’m supposed to meet with someone about…something which I really don’t want to do.”

Merida cocked her head. “Why do it, then?”

He gave her a soft, sad smile. “Because it’s for the good of my people. Sometimes what we want has to…well, sometimes we have to do what we have to do, that’s all.”

“Aye, that we do.” She thought for a moment, then held her hand back out to the dragon, who bumped it with his nose. “Do ye want me to come with you?”

Hiccup looked startled all over again. “I…I’m not sure you can. It might look a little odd, I mean, since I’m here because they want me to marry the king’s daughter.”

Merida’s blue eyes went wide. “Wait, yer Ironfoot? You said yer name was Hiccup!”

He blushed. “It is. I got my other name when I took my father’s place as chieftain. And because of this.” He held up his right foot up out of the tall grass…and it was not a foot at all, as it turned out, but rather a thick twist of metal curved at the bottom so it would fit his stirrups. “They wanted me to wear a boot over it, I told them no. I’ll go through with this because it’s the right thing to do for my people…but I won’t lie about who I am.”

It was probably the best thing he could have said, under the circumstances and considering who he was talking to, even though he didn’t know it. Merida’s eyes got even wider, and then she blinked and took a step back…and dropped a very graceful curtsey, plaid skirts billowing against the grass. “I’d not either – that’s why me father’s had such a time tryin’ to marry me off,” she admitted. “I’m Merida, King Fergus’ daughter. I was out ridin’ to try to clear my head, tryin’ to decide what to do about bein’ married off to some stranger I knew nothin’ about…who they said wasnae wantin’ to be married off any more than I was.”

Hiccup’s mouth moved a few times like he was trying to say something…and then he bowed again, lower this time. “My lady, I am so sorry.”

She shook her head, red curls flying. “So am I.” She moved closer again. “What was her name?”

His eyes filled with tears; he dashed them away with the back of his hand. “Astrid.”

“Then that will be the name we give our first bairn,” she told him, and he gasped. She held out her hand to him. “For the good of our people, we can be who we are…together, as friends?”

He caught his breath, looking into her eyes…and then he smiled back and took the offered hand, bowing over it. “We can,” he agreed. “I’d…I think I’d like that, in fact. Shall we go talk to your father?”

“Aye, we should. He’s probably noticed I’m missin’ by now – I didnae intend to ride out as far as I did.” She gave Toothless one last pat, then went back to her horse. “Lady Belle, do you want to come with us? Me father might have heard of yer homeland.”

Belle smiled and shook her head. “I have a direction to go in now, thanks to you, and I’ve stopped long enough.” She put a hand to her breast, feeling the sadness and worry that wasn’t her own. “I need to get home to…to my husband, if he’ll have me.”

Merida reacted to the downcast expression by enveloping Belle in a quick, impulsive hug. “He’ll welcome you back or I’ll come give him what for,” she insisted, giving the other woman a little shake before letting go and moving away toward her horse. “You said the two of ye were friends once, you can be again.”

“I hope so.” Belle got back on her own horse but didn’t resume riding all at once; she was watching the two of them head off up the hill together, walking side by side between the horse and the dragon. And she smiled. They’d start as friends…but she had no doubt they’d learn to love each other soon enough.

The way she and Adam had, once upon a time.


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