In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

Table of Contents

Chapter 32 - Bloodline

John’s uncle is about to get a very unhappy visitor. Or two.


In the dead of night, when frost lay heavy on the beach and the sentries’ breath mingled with the fog, the figure of a powerful man strode up out of the waves. Frost crackled beneath his feet, which were bare – in fact, all of him was, which caused the first sentry who saw him no little consternation. “Um…shipwrecked?”

The man snorted. “Hardly, boy.” And then he opened his mouth and a Sound came out; the sentry immediately dropped to his knees. “Hmm, someone remembered. You know me?”

The sentry nodded violently. “My lord, yes, of course. My father taught me.”

“Does he live?” The boy shook his head. “Have you children of your own to teach?”

“N-no, my lord, I’ve not the gold to take a wife.”

Another snort. “If they’re only looking for gold they’re not wives, boy.” He shook his head. “Get up, take off the symbols of this disgraced family and throw it all into the sea – tell any others who remember, who were taught, to do the same. And then all of you flee this place like a storm was upon you and wait for me down the beach where the rocks make a shield from the wind. I will come to you when I am finished with these traitors.”

The boy stood up. “Traitors?!”

“They no longer teach my ways. They usurped the line from the son of the eldest, and although he grew into a fine man he grew in ignorance and I myself had to teach him.” His face darkened; the waves at the shoreline thrashed. “My favor is withdrawn, from them and any who claim allegiance with them.”

The boy swallowed, but nodded and bowed. “I will gather those I know, my lord; we will await you on the beach, as you have instructed.”

He hurried away, casting off the coat he wore and throwing it into the sea as he did so, and Sel continued on up the beach, singing softly, and went directly into the fine house which had been guarded. He found the former head of the line sound asleep, and scowled. The man was fat and soft and surrounded by signs of wealth; likely he hadn’t even noticed the loss of his own Mark, which had been in the form of a medallion which he’d worn around his neck. It had been many generations since a son of the line had been Marked in the traditional manner. “UP!” he commanded, and the fat man bolted upright in the bed with a little scream, breathing heavily as though he’d been running. Sel huffed, folding his arms across his chest. “Really? You’d be like to die from this?”

“Who…who are you? Why are you in my bedchamber? I have guards! Guards!”

“Best you hope someone comes running at that call, or you’ll have to stand as a man on your own. If you can, which I doubt.” Sel scowled at him. “Do you know me?” The fat man started to shake his head, and then Sel made the Sound again; the man clutched at his fine nightshirt, eyes widening with fright when he realized the thing he’d been attempting to grasp wasn’t there. “So you didn’t notice, I suspected as much. And you don’t even make the effort to rise and kneel before your lord and master, although you are well able to do so – we had to hold the rightful head back from doing it, and that with him being half-dead and knowing nothing of his birthright.” His lip curled in a sneer, and the fat man pressed himself back against the carved bedframe, shaking; Sel’s teeth were showing now, the vicious canines of a bull seal, the wolves of the sea. “I know the position of importance which you hold in this kingdom, Karl Lorensson. What of your other family?”

“My…oh, my…you mean my younger sister, Klara? Father married her off to a merchant…yes, a merchant seaman, in the Danes. A very high-born family, related to the king!”

“And what of your elder sister?”

Karl made a face. “Katarina? She’s been dead more than twenty years now. She never fully recovered from that sickness that passed through the country, it left her very fragile.”

“Did she marry? Have children?”

“The queen demanded one of my sisters, wanted to marry her off to one of her courtiers,” Karl offered cautiously. “Of course Father offered Katarina; he’d already been working on a more advantageous match for Klara, and Katarina had no other prospects.” Sel’s eyes were boring into him; he kept talking. “They argued about it, I remember, Mother and Father, because Katarina wasn’t thought to be strong enough to bear a child. Father said all to the better, as it would…would most likely have been sickly and a worthless burden to the family like…like she’d become, and the queen’s offer meant the family wouldn’t have to deal with it. The queen paid him a very generous dowry, and he took…well, he took Katarina to the castle himself and saw the thing done, then came back home and never spoke of it again. The castle sent word that she’d died just two years later. I don’t know where the ashes went, they aren’t in the family crypt.”

Sel raised an eyebrow. “And her child?”

Karl shrugged. “Stayed with his father, I assume. It’s none of my problem.”

“Not now it isn’t.” The words came out as a threatening rumble. “And you’ve been none of his for the past three moons. He holds the bloodline now.” A very sharp, predatory smile had the fat man trying to press himself back through the headboard again. “It’s your luck I found him quite by accident, and he holds no ill-will toward you as he’s never known who you were. I, however, did know. He tells himself you possibly didn’t know he even lived…but you and I know better, don’t we? The only thing he took from his father’s line was their eyes, and he’s so like the portrait you’ve got of the founder of the line it’s a wonder no one has ever spoken of it – or it would be a wonder, if you hadn’t had that portrait hidden away after the first time you saw him, isn’t that right?”

“It…it would have needlessly complicated things! And the boy was just…just a lackey, in the castle, scribbling away in a dark room. Doing accounts, of all things!”

“His father’s trade, which is an honest and necessary one.” The predatory smile widened. “I am well pleased with the boy; he knew none of my ways, was never taught anything but the books his father toiled over…but he is loyal and brave and has a clever mind always thinking of ways to improve his world. There is no greed in him, no lust for wealth or power. His king rewarded his service with a title and the hand of his princess to wife, and he will be coming back here to this forgetful place as its king. But you will not be here to see it.”

“No!”

“Yes. Because well do I know that you would stop forgetting the boy the moment he took the crown, and out of duty he would be forced to acknowledge you. You’ll be but a distant memory by the time he arrives, for that reason.” He drew himself up, took a step back. “Karl Lorensson, the line has passed on from you and yours. Dress yourself, gather your family, and come down to the main hall with only what you can carry in your hands. You will go into exile this very night, and never set foot in these lands again.”

Karl slid from the bed, falling to his knees. “Please, my lord, no! It was my father’s doing, I just obeyed his command…”

Sel made a gesture with his spear, and the fat man fell over with a scream of pain, writhing on the floor clutching at his chest where a spreading patch of blood was now staining the fine nightshirt “You dare lie to my face?” the sea king hissed. “You’re worse than a coward, you’re a disgrace – not just to the line, but to everything that makes a man.”

He threw back his head and a different Sound came out; this one was deep and resonant and it seemed to be calling for something…and something came. A mist formed beside him, coalesced into the form of a man in a long, old-fashioned coat over a silk waistcoat and trousers and high seaman’s boots, his curly brown hair pulled back at the nape of his neck with a black ribbon. He was the very image of John Kepperson, albeit older and with blue eyes instead of brown. The man bowed. “My Lord Sel, you called me from my rest?”

“I had to restart your line, Ari,” Sel told him, waving a contemptuous hand at Karl. “This poor excuse for a man betrayed it, and broke my laws; he didn’t even notice that the Mark he wore had disappeared until he went hunting for it in fear of me.”

The man called Ari raised an eyebrow, looking his cowering descendant over with a critical eye. “Well, it looks like my line prospered, anyway – it’s obvious this one has wealth and does no work. What did he do to earn the mark of disfavor you just put on him?”

“Lied to my face about the true head, tried to make it his father’s problem after he’d already told me the boy was none of his.”

Ari whistled. “Stupid and cowardly, bad combination. The new head?”

“Brave, loyal, intelligent, and looks so like you he can’t be mistaken for any other bloodline.” Sel’s lip curled. “Which of course means there’s corruption in the castle as well, as all of them kept his birthright a secret from him, but he’ll have to sort that out himself – his current lord loves him like a brother and gave him rank in that country as well, and he’s to marry the heir to this throne and come back here as king.”

The former seaman smiled. “Then I’m a proud shade indeed this day, my lord. This house?”

“If you can find one worthy to stay, they’ll have it; if not, I’ll send someone.”

“I’ll have a look,” Ari told him, and solidified somewhat more as he bowed again to Sel, who clapped him on the shoulder and disappeared. Ari glared down at the deposed head of his family. “I am ashamed of you,” he declared coldly. “On your feet, you worthless piece of pork, and get yourself down to the hall to wait for me.”

Karl scrambled to his feet with no little difficulty. “I’ll just get dressed…”

“I say you’re as dressed as you deserve to be,” his ancestor cut him off. “Now do as I say and get down to the hall. I’ll send the others after you.” He glared down the last of the man’s frightened hesitation, sending him scurrying out of the room on bare feet, and then began to walk the corridors he well remembered – he’d helped build this house, after all – searching out the rest of the line. He rousted the man’s wife, a plump woman who yet had a pinched face as though she were permanently displeased by something, and then started on the daughters. One was missing, her bed empty, and he tracked her down to the servants’ entrance where he found her sobbing in the embrace of one of the house’s guards. He raised an eyebrow. “Well this is a surprise. Girl, I was looking for you. You need to be with your family.”

The guard drew himself up. “My lord, I would keep her. I know what is to become of her family…but I want her as my wife.”

Ari raised an eyebrow. “You would go into exile to keep her?”

The young guard swallowed, but nodded. “I should hate to leave my family…but I love her, my lord, and she loves me. I’d have married her already, but her father wouldn’t hear of it.”

Ari looked at the girl. “You love him?” She nodded. “You would want him to go into exile with you?”

She looked horrified. “No!” She turned to the boy. “Per, no, you mustn’t! We’ll doubtless end up at my aunt’s, and she’s married to a Danish lord. He’ll have you killed, or see you broken and begging on the streets!”

“Ah, so you do love him.” Ari was pleased. “Boy, your name?”

“Per Nilsson, my lord.”

“Do you know who I am?”

He shook his head. “I know that you serve Lord Sel, my lord, and therefore you and I must be as family. That is enough for me to know.”

“It is,” Ari agreed. “And as you have remembered our lord’s laws, and this girl loves you, she shall stay and so shall you – as the master of this house, Per Nilsson, with she as your lady wife. Now go, take her to your mother, and then at dawn you shall come back here to this house and all will be ready to receive you.”

“As you command, my lord,” the young man agreed, bowing. “Have you any other orders for me?”

“No, but I will ere I go,” Ari told him. “Go on with you now, and do not forget what has happened here this night. Lord Sel does not look kindly on those who break his laws.”

Per bowed again, and then quickly led his new wife away into the night. Ari smiled after him, and went back to rousting the other members of the household. Most that he found were not fit to stay, in fact one ran wailing from him, crying about the dead returning, which amused him to no end. “That will teach you to aid a traitor to the line!” he called after the terrified woman. “Go to your mistress’s side and stay there!” The wailing brought a very young boy out of the kitchen, and a slightly older girl, and the girl swallowed but bowed to him and made the boy do the same. Ari smiled at her. “You know me, little girl?”

She nodded, wide-eyed, and touched her ear. “The bells say I do.”

“As it should be,” he agreed gently. He went to one knee and held out a hand to her, and she took it…and although he continued to smile at her, he felt nothing but rage. He placed his other hand on the boy’s shoulder and it doubled. “Where is your mother?”

“She left one night and never came back in the morning.” She drew her small self up. “I help the cook. Why did she run and cry?”

“Because she knew she had done a bad thing, and I was here to punish her for it,” Ari said. “Did you know this boy was your brother, child?” Her blue eyes widened again, and she shook her head. “He is. And you’ve an older sister; she’ll be coming back tomorrow and she and her husband will care for you from now on, because you are of their family and that is how families work.” He ruffled her hair, and the boy’s, and stood back up. “Come with me now, I will find someone to take charge of you until your sister arrives. You won’t be going back to the kitchen.”

The girl took the boy’s hand and they fell into step with him, but when Ari saw that the boy was too young to keep up he lifted him into his arms and gave the girl his own hand to hold instead. The cook had apparently spread her fear through the other servants as she ran and so they saw no one else until they reached the main hall, where all of them were cringing together. The wife and daughters were clustered together by Ari’s disgraced descendant, who he noticed without much surprise was neither offering comfort to them nor having any sought. The man did pale when he saw the children, though, but before he could say anything his wife took one look and broke from her daughters with a shriek, beating at him with her hands. Ari made no move to intervene, although when she ranted that she’d been promised her husband’s bastards had been cast away or drowned rather than being hidden from her his voice lashed out, cracking like a whip. “Woman, hold your tongue!” he ordered, and the fat woman went from assaulting her husband to clinging to him just that quickly. “Every word out of your mouth condemns you further, and any mercy I may have felt is draining away.” His blue eyes narrowed. “Karl Lorensson, be very glad my hands are full with worthier matters right now.”

Karl paled even further. The appearance of his guards appeared to reassure him somewhat…but then he noticed that they were no longer wearing his colors, and that they looked not to him but to his ancestor’s shade, and he looked at his feet.

The eldest of the guards approached Ari and bowed. “My lord, Lord Sel has instructed us to take all you have gathered, he has a ship waiting in the harbor. Have you any other orders?”

“I do,” Ari confirmed. “I require one of you to stay and take charge of these children until the new lord arrives come morning. They are of the line.” He looked down when the little girl tugged on his hand. “Yes, sweetheart?” She patted her ear, questioningly, and he smiled. “Yes, the bells ring very prettily, don’t they?” He glanced up at the guard, whose eyes had widened. “Does one of you have small siblings? That would be the one I would choose to stay.”

“Ren does, my lord,” the guard told him, and waved that young man forward. “What shall he do with them?”

“Take them to a good bedroom, give them food if they want it, and put them to bed warmly,” Ari instructed. “Inform your new lord in the morning that they are siblings of his wife, and although they are not of his line I expect him to afford them all due care. It is not the fault of a child that its father has failed as a man.”

“Of course not, my lord,” Ren agreed. He held out his arms for the boy, then took the girl’s hand when Ari handed it over. “Come along, little ones, I’ll warm you some milk with honey – my mother always says that gives good dreams.”

A nod from Ari reassured the girl, and she let the young guard lead her back out of the hall. He waited until the three had to be well out of earshot before turning on the now-cringing cook. “Such as you does well to fear the dead,” he spat. “You knew they were of the line, so go to your grave fearing that every shadow contains my hand reaching for you – and if not mine, their mother’s.” He returned his attention to the guard. “Take them to the ship, see them placed on it and witness their leaving. I think we need have no fear that one of them will jump overboard and try to swim for it, I see nothing here capable of such a feat. They’re to be delivered to your former lord’s younger sister in the Danes?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Very well, take them and then return.” He stalked over to the former head of his line, glaring him down. “Karl Lorensson, you are exiled in disgrace from these shores. If you ever seek to return, you’ll be riding a narwhal all the way back to the Danes, do you understand?” Karl nodded fearfully. “I dare say your brother-in-law will be ill-pleased to see you wash up like refuse on his doorstep; for your family’s sake, let us hope he has more respect for his bloodline than you did.”

The guards hustled their former master and his family and their servants out, and Ari looked around the hall. There were but two servants left, both young – too young to know him, which was why he had spared them. “It will be a long night for you,” he told them. “Put things to rights as best you can, and prepare things for the arrival of your new master come the dawn. He is called Per Nilsson, and he is who I have chosen to have this house and the rank which goes with it. He has been given the youngest daughter of the line to wife.” They both bowed to him and scurried off to do his bidding, and Ari went searching through the house again. He finally found what he wanted, well-wrapped in batting and paper and hidden in a deep cellar, and he brought it back up to the main hall although he did not unwrap it, thinking it best to leave it for Per Nilsson to uncover after he had returned to his rest.

Dawn drew near, and everything Ari felt was necessary had been accomplished. He’d directed the clearing of the lord’s bedroom, and the placement of the youngest daughter’s things into the wife’s. The guard who had stayed behind, Ren, had placed the children in the long-unused nursery and then stood guard at its door once they’d gone to sleep; Ari spoke with him at length about the way of things not just in the house, but in the city and the castle as well, and he shook his head over much of it. His soon to be crowned descendant was going to be a busy man fixing all that had gone wrong in Arendelle, probably for years to come.

The other guards had returned, and on Ari’s order had removed the colors of Karl Lorensson’s service from their remaining clothing and returned to their posts; those who had not been on guard outside were stationed in the main hall to await Per Nilsson’s return, and Ari had questioned them all thoroughly to make sure there would be no resentment in their ranks for one of their own becoming their master. He had been satisfied with their responses, and the young man who was their captain had sworn to keep his eyes on them all to make sure such a problem did not arise at a later date, although he did not think it would. Per Nilsson was a good friend to all of them, he maintained, and they could accept that his love for the youngest daughter of the house had gained him rank; they had, in fact, been planning to aid and encourage their friend in running away with his lady love when the opportunity presented itself.

Ari was more than pleased by this revelation, and even more pleased than that when Per Nilsson himself arrived at the first light of dawn in the company of his father and several other older men whom the father had rousted to come witness what was happening, that none might brand his son a traitor or worse in the days to follow. He and the others had been nearly struck dumb on seeing Ari, and two had attempted to take a knee to him in their shock. “No, none of that,” Ari told them. “I lived and died a plain man just like yourselves, and by our lord’s favor we are all as brothers. Now, Per Nilsson.” The young man bowed, and Ari smiled. “I have chosen you to become the lord of this house, you and your line to follow, by your marriage to the youngest child of the blood-traitor Karl Lorensson. And I have discovered that your wife has two small half-siblings who were hidden from the former lady of the house with the cook and never told of their parentage; they are even now asleep in the nursery, and you are to raise and care for them as though they were your own blood, do you understand?”

“Of course, my lord. It is not a child’s blame to carry when its father fails as a man.”

“So I said myself,” Ari agreed. “Aside from that, the only instruction I have for you is to keep this house in honor, a state which I fear it has not known for some time, and to raise your sons and daughters to do the same. And when the new king comes, it is my expectation that you will aid his efforts to restore our country to honor as you restore this house.”

“We’re…we’re to have a new king?”

“Yes, and the return of your rightful queen by his hand.” That came from Sel, who had come striding into the hall. This time everyone present took a knee except Ari, who merely bowed. Sel looked around the room, raising an eyebrow at the still-wrapped painting near the fireplace. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you went looking for that.”

“I was forced to sit for it, my lord; therefore my descendants should be forced to display it for my efforts.”

That made Sel chuckle. “Display it until you have opportunity to show it to the rightful head of Ari’s line – you’ll know him the moment you first lay eyes on him,” he instructed Per. “And then gift it to him, that he might display it himself and remove that family curse from your house to his.” Ari just smiled at that, and Per nodded quickly. “On your feet, boy, and look me in the eye.”

Per rose, and looked, and Sel held his eyes for what seemed like a long time before nodding his approval. “You’ll do, young Per,” the Lord of the Northern Waters intoned. “Keep to yourself in the days and weeks that follow, and keep your tongue silent on what has happened here this night – and all the rest of you the same,” he ordered, “if you would not give those sea snakes in the castle forewarning of the reckoning that is approaching. If you do, whether by design or carelessness, they will kill the new king ere he can enter the castle doors and his lady wife will bury this place in ice with my blessing, do you understand? Her love for him and his for her averted nothing less than Ragnarok itself, so no blame will fall on her if she is forced to avenge him.”

“Ragnarok?!” That exclamation had come from several of the old men – and two of the guards – and at Sel’s nod they all regained their feet. “My Lord Sel, how…”

“The girl’s parents sold her fate to one of the meddlesome fairy-folk before her birth,” Sel told them. “If they weren’t already dead I’d have killed them myself for that – especially as they sold her elder brother’s fate into the bargain, and his kingdom’s along with him.” He nodded his head at the gasps. “Yes, Hector and Astrid’s first child was born in Hector’s natal kingdom of Valeureux – where Hector was not a younger son, as he led all here to believe, but rather the only son and heir of a dead king. The son of Hector and Astrid sits on the throne of Valeureux now, choosing to leave Arendelle to his sister and her new husband. It was he who approved their joining, although I and the Lord of the Southern Waters gave our blessing as well.”

“May we know who this man is, my lord?” Per’s father asked. “You say he is of the line…”

“He is the son of Karl Lorensson’s elder sister, Katarina,” Sel told him. “And therefore the true head of the line by blood and birthright, although he knew nothing of it until I told him. He is called the Comte de Valeureux, Lord John Kepperson.”

Several mouths dropped open widely at this revelation, and one man drew himself up as though in protest. “You can’t mean the old bookkeeper’s boy!”

Silence followed these words, even to the wind outside the walls. Per looked a question at Ari, who nodded, then turned to face the man who had spoken. “You knew of this?”

“I have friends at the castle, they tell me things,” the man said dismissively. “Especially Old Jor the butler when he’s in his cups. He said the boy was the spitting image of the old head of the family and they all knew trouble would come of it eventually – that’s why the councilors sent him to report to the Ice Queen about the damage she’d done with her wintry rampage, they were hoping she’d kill him for them.”

“You knew this,” Per repeated again. “And you told no one?”

A snort. “It wasn’t my business or anyone else’s who didn’t want to end up fattening the fish for the winter. The queen forced that match, and paid in both gold and silence for Katarina Lorensdottir’s hand to seal it. Why, I’d have been killed as a traitor right alongside Jor if I’d opened my mouth about that!”

Per cocked his head, frowning, as though he’d heard something unpleasant and didn’t quite know what to make of it. The older men, suffering no such confusion, looked at each other, and Per’s father asked quietly, “What else do you know from this drunkard’s loose tongue, Arne? Obviously the queen hasn’t hidden herself away, as we were all told, if she’s being married in her elder brother’s kingdom.”

“No, they lied about that,” Arne admitted. “There was some sort of odd goings-on the castle grounds one night, a very large fire was built in the courtyard, and when they went to get the queen from her bedchamber she was nowhere to be found. They discovered the bookkeeper’s boy was missing the following day, so it appears he realized something was about to happen and spirited her to safety – Jor says he remembers the boy going out with the couriers a time or two when he was younger, so it’s likely they escaped up into the mountains on one of the old routes. And she’s not the queen, anyway, or at least she wasn’t at the time,” he added with a shrug. “They decided it wasn’t a true coronation and undid all the paperwork. And because of that, the councilors could have named her a traitor for what she did to the country and her death that night would have been legal if not proper.”

“And the boy’s as well for helping her, of course,” Per’s father said, nodding. “I’ll echo my son’s words, Arne: You knew about this, and you told no one.”

Arne drew himself up again. “I’d be careful trying to take the high road, Nils Jaspersson,” he warned coldly, “since we’re here to legitimize this farce of putting your son in Karl Lorensson’s place. Not that I’d any love lost for the greedy fool, I hadn’t and neither had anyone else, but we all knew young Per had been mooning over the youngest daughter of this house and now here we all are. Quite a coincidence that gods and spirits come forth just like in a foolish child’s bedtime story to keep the girl from being sold off to the highest bidder as her parents flee the country, isn’t it?”

Per visibly took a good deal of offense at this, but Ari’s hand on his shoulder kept him silent. Sel was looking very thoughtful. “I had known there would be such as you,” he rumbled. “There always are. But perhaps this is a task I should take upon myself, rather than leaving the uncovering of it to Ari’s descendant – perhaps this is work for more than a plain man. The sickness of disloyalty is in you, hidden unless you reveal it in your speech. So be it.” He pointed at Arne with his spear. “I do not Mark you for your disloyalty to me alone, Arne Siggursson, but for your disloyalty to all except yourself and your own interests. All in this kingdom who are as you, from this hour on once they speak of it the mark of dishonor will be upon them. And once so marked, they will either repent their failings or leave these lands and my waters forever, for those that do not will descend into madness and finally die.”

The other men stepped back when Arne screamed, clutching his chest and falling to his knees. The dark eyes he turned up to Sel were wide and round with fear and disbelief. “No, it can’t be! You can’t be real, this is all a farce…”

The next scream that was wrung from his throat saw him falling over on the flagstones, and Per frowned. “For the record, I was planning to elope with Annalie,” he said with quiet dignity. “I’d not have dishonored my line by playing such games as you accused me of, and had Lord Sel not already punished you I’d be doing it myself for the insult you just offered my father. Doubt me if you like – though I’ve given you no reason to – but him you’ve known since you were both children and your words to him are something I’ll not forgive or forget. Do not set foot near my home or his again, Arne Siggursson.”

“Well said,” Sel approved. “Show me your mark, Nils Jaspersson.” Per’s father at once pulled a medallion from beneath his shirt, the plain metal pitted with age but well-polished. Sel took the medallion and looked at it, feeling the weight of years from it being passed from father to son on down their line, then raised a heavy eyebrow. “Do you willingly cede your place as head to your son, Nils Jaspersson, secure in the knowledge that you have taught him and he will turn to you for guidance as needed?” The old man nodded, tears in his eyes. “Very well. I will give you a choice, Per Nilsson. Will you wear the talisman borne by your father and his father before him, or will you take the Mark from my spear as did the men of old and Ari’s soon-to-be-crowned descendant?”

Per swallowed. He’d heard the old tales, and seen before his own eyes what had happened to Arne Siggursson…but although he felt some fear, he knew what his answer should be. “I honor my father and my ancestors, but I would take the Mark from your spear, Lord Sel, that there may be no question as to where my loyalty lies.”

Sel smiled, and Ari patted the young man’s shoulder. “A well-reasoned answer,” the shade approved. “I accepted mine on board my ship, tied to the mast for the occasion.”

“And he screamed so loudly he shook his ship’s sails,” Sel confirmed with some amusement. “Although his captain had screamed louder.”

Ari cocked an eyebrow. “And my descendant?”

“Made not a sound,” Sel told him, and smiled again when more than the shade’s eyes widened at that statement. “He did fall insensible when it was over, but as he was half-dead when we started that was only to be expected. I gave him a choice, just as I gave you,” he told Per. “And he told me that if that was what must be done to save their kingdom, then it was simply what must be done.”

The men present were all greatly impressed by this, as Sel had intended, and he ignored Ari’s knowing smirk. Nils Jaspersson cleared his throat. “Half-dead, my lord?”

Sel nodded. “The fairy bitch tried to kill him. He’s mostly recovered now, and chafing at the way his brother-in-law’s people are fussing over his health. The people of Valeureux love him,” he added. “He helped bring their country back from the effects of that same fairy’s unjust curse. He is a quiet man and usually mild of temper, but one to be reckoned with once his mind is made up about something.”

“Arendelle needs such a king,” Nils Jaspersson agreed respectfully. “As you have chosen him, we will support him.”

Sel nodded again, and then gestured for two of the guards to hold their new lord, who had already set aside his coat and unbuttoned his shirt. He lifted his spear, setting the point lightly in the center of the young man’s chest. “Per Nilsson, I Mark you as head of your family line, with the blessing of your father. My blessing will be on you and yours so long as you keep my ways and mind my laws, your enemies shall be my enemies, and you shall call on me as your lord in time of need. All those who swear allegiance to me shall know each other by my sigil and my song, shall hold the enemy of one to be a common enemy, and shall be as family to each other regardless of rank or station. So it has been, so it shall be.”

“So it has been, so it shall be.” The Marking took but a few moments, and although it looked to have cost him to hold it in no cry passed Per Nilsson’s lips. When it was finished he drew in a deep, shuddering breath and dropped to one knee. “Your servant, King Sel, Lord of the Northern Waters. Me and mine shall keep your ways and mind your laws, or expect the punishment we deserve should we fail you.” He rose somewhat shakily to his feet when Sel indicated that he should do so, glancing off to the head of the guard – who had been one of the men holding him – before returning his gaze to Sel. “My lord, I would ask that my captain of the guard also receive your Mark. He is head of his family line by birth, but when his father died a great injustice was done to him by his mother and his uncle and the talisman to be passed down was kept from him.”

“Per!”

Per looked over at the other young man again. “Leiv, you should have had the title a year ago, we all know it. And your uncle deserves to have that stolen talisman burn his greedy hands each time he touches it.” He looked back at Sel again. “We will accept your judgment in this, my lord, if you are willing to give it.”

Sel was frowning now. “Step forward, Leiv Andorsson.” The young man did so, not flinching when Sel looked him in the eye, and was rewarded with a grim smile. “Per Nilsson speaks the truth, and you will have my Mark if you want it. Your uncle will damn himself with his words, just as this one did,” he said, waving toward the disgraced man who still lay whimpering upon the floor. “And I agree you deserve the rank that was withheld from you through Karl Lorensson’s foolishness. Ari?”

“I agree as well, the impression he made upon me was a good one and his men look to him as a leader they trust.” The shade reached one hand into nothingness, pulled out a round pendant on a sturdy chain, the seal of Arendelle worked upon it in gold and polished jet. He snorted, shaking his head. “My disgraced descendant had it in with his personal ornaments; I’m sure those who knew what it was were laughing up their sleeves at him each time he wore it.” He held it out. “Per, this is the badge of rank I gave to my own captain of the guard, a man I would have trusted with my life any day no matter what circumstances befell us. If you wish Leiv Andorsson to hold this position of trust in your household, place it around his neck. He should wear it always unless he leaves your service.”

Per took the pendant with a nod, then turned to Leiv and placed it around his neck. “Guard-Captain Andorsson, I am proud to have a man such as you in my service…and as my friend.” He might have said more, but the cheer that went up from the other guards would have drowned him out, so he just smiled. “Well?”

Leiv’s answer was to hug him. “You’ll continue to train with the rest of us,” he ordered. “I’ll not have you getting fat like our former master; he was barely able to lace his own boots, it was an embarrassment.” Per laughed but nodded, and Leiv turned back to Sel – who to his relief was looking at him with amused approval. “My Lord Sel, I would take your Mark. And although I will rescue my sisters from his grasp, I will leave my uncle’s punishment to your judgment.”

“I doubt he’ll last long,” Sel told him. “What to do about your faithless mother is your own decision, but do not make the mistake of giving her even the least amount of your trust,” he cautioned. “A woman who betrays her own children borne is an unnatural creature, no matter what lies she gives to excuse her actions. Your sisters?”

“Not like her in the least, my lord.”

“No, they aren’t,” Per agreed. “He’ll bring them here for safekeeping until we can find situations that suit them.”

Leiv rolled his eyes. “You know Maiken will take over your kitchen.”

Per shrugged. “So will my mother; they can work that out between them. And I’ve no doubt they will, since Maiken learned that skill from her.”

Ari was smiling, pleased; his home had been a pleasant place, when he’d been alive, and his family warm and close. It was good to know that the home he’d built would know that again in years to come. “Make sure your wife joins them and learns herself, Per,” he said. “A woman should know how to run her own household and have a hand in it, from the least task to the highest. It was my own wife who told me that.” He waved his hand at Leiv, noting absently that it was becoming more translucent; nearly time for him to depart again, then. “Hold him, boys, we’ve a Marking to accomplish and then you both have a good deal of work to do.”

And they would, he knew. Both in setting things up in the house and preparing for a quick marriage ceremony, and also in preparing to support the new head of his own line when he appeared to ascend the throne with his bride. The coming of spring to Arendelle would indeed bring a new beginning – and one long overdue, at that.

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