In the Land of Ever After

Table of Contents

Chapter 38 - On the Road Again

It’s time to leave Valeureux, but they aren’t going alone.


The winter in Valeureux passed quickly, as there was much to be done before the coming of Spring both in the castle and in the valley below – spring was planting season, not to mention it was the time when John and Elsa were due to make their journey back to Arendelle.

Quite a few people were not too fond of that idea, one of them being Valeureux’s king. Adam knew it was necessary, though, and that it couldn’t be put off…because the heir to the throne of Arendelle needed to be born in Arendelle, because John had turned out to be the same sort of perfectionist Charming was. Not that Adam had been lax in that area himself, as Belle was also with child. And Kristoff had accused him – via messenger, anyway – of having a fertility curse on his castle, because by the time they’d gotten home from the wedding Anna had been pregnant as well and according to the Rock Trolls was also having twins. Adam had sent him back half a dozen bottles of an effervescent cider Anna had particularly liked and a promise to look into it – accompanied by a note from Belle which said he definitely would be looking into it or she was going to bar the door between their rooms.

Luckily for Adam, that turned out not to be necessary; Sir Martin had confirmed that the entire kingdom seemed to be having the same ‘problem’, if one could call it that. “The ewes were spitting out so many lambs no one knew what to think,” he told his king at one of their regular meetings. “Horses are foaling the same way, the same with the cows and goats, and the chickens are producing fountains of eggs. I think the valley is trying to catch up after so many years of being held back by the curse.”

“Which would mean it might taper back off in time,” John observed, nodding. “We’ll need to make a plan for that, and be certain our trade arrangements aren’t dependent on this bounty continuing at its current rate.”

“I have been talking to the other farmers about stockpiles, and what we might do to preserve more so that nothing goes to waste.” Sir Martin nodded back at John. “I’ve been requested to tell you that they want to send at least a wagon’s worth of the valley’s bounty along with you when you and Lady Elsa return home, Lord Kepperson. Word has gotten around that the Castle of Arendelle is in decidedly poor straits, and the more superstitious among us believe it’s because they lost what was left of their luck when the two of you were forced to leave. The farmers and sundry of Valeureux have told me to tell you that they don’t find it acceptable to send their comte and comtesse back home wanting for anything.”

That made John smile. “I appreciate that sentiment, but we’re going to be trading with you anyway for exactly that reason – and I was planning to get it started almost immediately, as people who are well-fed and warm are much less likely to cause problems.”

“I agree with both of you” Adam said, leaning back in his chair. “Tell them yes, Sir Martin, we’ll definitely want to send that wagon along. And happy subjects are in their homes at night being happy, not out running around with torches and pitchforks.” Sir Martin winced. “Stop that, I know it wasn’t any of you – most of the drunken louts who tried it that night fled the kingdom long ago. Which I know for a fact, because Lumiere kept track of them all and I think he may have threatened a few into leaving without telling me he’d done it.”

“He’s a good man,” Sir Martin agreed. “I’ve quite a few of those myself. One of whom has also asked if he could come with you, Lord Kepperson: Claude Royer. Claude says he thinks you might have need of a man who can take down a bear, and there aren’t quite enough bears around here to keep him busy.” He put down his mug of mulled wine; the chill of fading winter was still in the air. “He’s one I’d have said should be up for magistrate, honestly, but he’s rather more plain-spoken than some people like for that place, although he does know when to choose his words with more care if it’s necessary. I’d second his request, my lord. You’ll need a good man at your side; once King Adam returns home, it will just be you and the comtesse alone in what sounds to be a nest of spiders, and King Kristoff is too far away and doubtless has concerns of his own. We’d all feel better if you’d someone from here with you, someone we all know you can trust.”

“I like that idea too,” Adam seconded. “Claude impressed me as the sort of man who knows when not to bow his head, if you know what I mean. Do you think he’ll like living in the North, though?”

“That would be my one concern,” John admitted. “I’d be honored to have a man like him in my service, Sir Martin, but Arendelle is very different from Valeureux. She’s a relatively busy port town, and in the winter we can go for a week without ever seeing the sun – a cold day here would be considered positively springlike in Arendelle. So tell him to come talk to me about it, and if he still wants to come after that I’d be more than happy to have him.”

Claude did come and talk to John after that – the very next day, in fact – and the following week he moved up to the castle that he might learn his new master’s habits before they left. It was decided that he would be given the title of Huntsman for practicality’s sake, as this was a position nobody in Arendelle should be able to find a reason to protest him having. Especially seeing that, in light of the dire straits John expected to find Arendelle’s royal treasury in, Claude’s prowess with a gun might be the only thing keeping meat on the royal table for a time. And possibly keeping his employer safe as well, as no one was truly sure about what was going on in that kingdom or what they might expect to find when they got there. Gossip from the northern sea ports was slow to travel inland, and although Kristoff and Anna had sent letters when they could they didn’t have much to tell either. The councilors were apparently still maintaining their fiction that the princess had gone into seclusion, but other than that no news was coming out of the castle. Something had apparently been going on in the town, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with either the castle or the princess and nobody seemed to want to talk about it. This mystery worried Adam far more than it did John, who said it was likely just some scandal or other brewing among the higher-ranked families. “Someone’s son or daughter probably ran off to be married,” John told Adam. “Or a new rivalry has started up, or someone has lost part of their fortune. Kristoff avoids those people, so even if he had heard what the problem was he might not recognize the significance of it – because it would doubtless only be significant to them, not to anyone with sense.”

Adam’s eyebrows went up. “Who in Arendelle has a fortune to lose?”

John snorted. “No one in the castle or most of the town, but there are some wealthy families who have personal fortunes – people who own shipping concerns, for example. We couldn’t raise the tax, remember? Some of them have been taking full advantage of that.”

“So there’s gold coming in, the kingdom at large just isn’t getting any of it.” Adam made a face. The day had finally come, and they had been tearfully seen off on their journey just over an hour before and had already easily settled back into the traveling habits they’d picked up while on their quest. John and Adam were riding side-by-side and Elsa was perched behind John with her arms around his waist – only this time the spare horse was being led by Claude, who was riding behind the royal party but in front of the wagon, which was being driven by two guards and had two more bringing up the rear behind it. “So I’m guessing your first move to increase the tax isn’t going to go over too well?”

“No, they won’t like it,” John confirmed. “But I’ve no intention of raising it all at once, either, because that would be too big a burden on the smaller concerns and might have a negative impact on trade. We’ll wait to get the tax all the way up to where it should be until a few new trade agreements have been reached and more gold and goods start flowing in and out, then they’ll take to it better.”

Elsa rested her cheek on his shoulder to look at her brother. “You’re afraid they’ll try to kill us over the tax? They won’t – the people who will be the most angry won’t do anything except complain.”

“What about the councilors?”

“They’ll be put in their places, or exiled, long before that,” John assured him…just as he had multiple times before over the course of the winter. “They’re cowards, Adam. I don’t take that threat lightly, but I’m not inclined to worry overmuch about it either. Seriously, if I pointed this sword I’m wearing at Councilor Fritjof he’d wet himself on the spot.”

That made Adam and Elsa both snicker, and Claude and the guards as well.

 

The inn was bustlingly busy when they arrived after several uneventful days of travel, and Kristoff was already there waiting for them. He broke off his conversation with the stableboy to wave at them, and they noticed that Otto was outside and tied to a post rather than being put up inside the stable. “There’s not a room to be had here, they’re full up with travelers already,” he said, not seeming much bothered by the idea. “The stable is full too. But the innkeeper said we’re welcome to camp in the meadow, and have the use of the inn’s well as we need it.”

Adam shrugged. “That’s no great hardship, it’s not like most of us aren’t used to it.” The ones who weren’t used to it were the guards, of course, but they were coming right along – none of them wanted to be shown up by their king, the comte and the pregnant comtesse any more than they already had been on this trip. “We should go get started settling in, then, so we can make a leisurely night of it. Have you already picked out a likely spot?”

“I was waiting for you.” Kristoff shrugged. “If more people had started to show up I would have. Maybe over there, near that tree? It’s upwind from the inn.”

“Good choice,” John agreed. “Where is the well?”

“It’s in the back, my lord,” the stableboy answered at once. “Behind the inn. But if I might say so, it’s a good idea to be farther rather than nearer this night – the crowd inside is already noisy, and we’ll have more in by nightfall. You’re lucky you were early.”

“And it sounds like we were lucky to be too late for rooms as well,” Adam agreed. “The noise inside is bound to be worse than the noise outside. There’s a good deal more traffic on this road than there used to be, I take it?”

“It comes and goes with the seasons,” the boy told him. “In winter we see very few travelers, of course.”

“Of course,” Kristoff echoed. “All right then, everyone, let’s go make camp – I’m looking forward to stretching my legs out as well.”

The stableboy stayed where he was as they walked their horses off with the wagon following, frowning as though he was trying to remember something, and John gave Kristoff a sidelong smirk once they were out of earshot. “Do you think he’ll remember who you are, since you obviously didn’t re-introduce yourself?”

Kristoff shrugged, not denying it. “They’re full up, and it’s already too noisy. I thought we’d all be more comfortable in the meadow, honestly.”

“I agree,” Adam said. “I think we’ll also be safer out here if those outlaws John encountered the last time are still about, and we’ll be able to leave whenever we like with a minimum of fuss.”

“He means he doesn’t like to check the horses into a stable, on the off chance we might want to leave in a hurry,” John corrected. “And we’ll be more easily able to defend ourselves if those outlaws are in the area again.”

Elsa smirked. “I can stop them.”

“Of course you can,” Adam told her. “But if we let you do it they’ll scream like pigs being slaughtered and we’ll have them rolling all over the ground, just like last time.”

“Those ruffians deserve it,” John countered, lifting her hand to his lips and kissing the back of it. “Just use your best judgment, sweetheart.”

Kristoff was nodding. “Yes, they likely do deserve it,” he agreed, somewhat to Adam’s surprise. “I saw them, when Anna and I and our guide were here,” he explained. “They stayed off of us because they didn’t want to deal with a man my size. I had wondered at the time how you’d gotten around them, John.”

It was John’s turn to shrug. “The innkeeper saw the problem as soon as we walked in, he gave us the room next to his own and brought our supper up himself – and he woke us the next morning by knocking on the wall, so that we could have breakfast and leave before any of the other guests and sundry were stirring.”

“And then John held off the one in the stable with his letter opener until the stableboy could hit him over the head,” Elsa added, smiling sweetly at Kristoff’s openmouthed astonishment – and squeezing her now-blushing husband’s hand. “Do you think the outlaws will remember us?”

“If they try to come upon us tonight, I have no doubt they’ll remember us forever,” Adam told her. He was snickering himself, and he patted John’s shoulder. “No, you’re never going to live it down.”

Kristoff had recovered himself. “Yet another story someone needs to make a song about for singing around the winter fire,” he said, shaking his head. They had reached the tree, which was a fine large old walnut with spreading branches, and the ground beneath it was smooth and dry enough. John and Adam arranged a spot for the fire and got a nice one going while the guards took care of the horses and Kristoff and Claude started setting up tents and shaking out bedrolls – the tents were a luxury they’d only been able to afford thanks to the wagon. In very little time they had their camp set – and a nice, comfortable camp it was, thanks to all the experience setting one up that Adam, John and Elsa had – and then they were all taking their ease while a pot of stew cooked on the fire.

More guests did come to the inn and from there to the meadow as the shadows of evening grew longer, but these mostly stayed closer to the inn. One of the guards brought back a bucket of water from the inn’s well to water the horses, but although he offered to go get more he said he wouldn’t go alone again. “There are some rough types in, Your Majesty,” he told Adam. “We should set a watch tonight.”

“We can keep a watch until we’re all ready to sleep,” his king agreed. “But after that the comtesse will set her traps and we’ll all bed down. We’re about to enter the mountains, I don’t want anyone’s head muddled from lack of sleep.”

The guard looked like he wanted to argue about that, and Claude shook his head. “If there were room for the one who stood watch to sleep in the wagon, I’d be agreeing with you,” he told the guard. “But there’s not. Her Ladyship has kept our camp safe all this time, hasn’t she?”

“Yes, of course.” The guard bowed to Elsa. “I wasn’t meaning to doubt you, my lady. I’m simply worried, because these men I saw looked very dangerous.”

“They’ll be mostly dangerous to the innkeeper’s ale supply until well into the night,” John assured him. “That’s how he said they were when we were here before. And even if a drunken man does exert himself to stumble out this far, he’ll likely be too far gone to avoid a trap. And then…”

“He’ll be squealing and crying on the ground,” Elsa said cheerily, which made everyone laugh and John hug her. She hugged him back. “It will be fine, don’t worry.”

It was. They had a leisurely supper and then Elsa laid little traps all around the front of their camp and even made a guard-shaped statue out of ice before shooing everyone off to bed. Claude stayed awake for a time, though, speaking quietly with the still-worried guard about what he’d seen – being attacked this night wasn’t a worry for him, but he had some concerns that their party might be followed into the mountains. It was nearing moonrise and the banked fire was only infrequently crackling when a shape began lurching across the meadow in their general direction. It was possible whoever it happened to be was just homing in on the fire, but Claude took in the size of the man and doubted it. The meadow grass wasn’t yet high enough to hide a crawling man, but the darkness could easily hide others circling around to converge on their camp from the sides. He smiled, motioning the guard to be silent, and settled in to wait for the evening’s entertainment to begin.

Sure enough, the drunken man approached the icy sentry and tried to engage it in conversation…and then lashed out with a knife, which from the sound of it may have snapped on impact with the rock-hard ice. He cried out in pain and anger, hopping around holding his injured hand. And then being a determined sort of fellow, he headed for the fire. The near-invisible wall of clear ice which served to discourage animals from approaching stopped him, and he stumbled back in comedic confusion. He put out a hand – the injured one – and yelped when the ice burned him. He tried this experiment twice more and then retreated and tried approaching the fire from a different angle. Ice broke beneath his boots and made him fall forward, and after trying to right himself, failing, and deciding that crawling might serve him better, he’d made enough noise that just about everyone had come out of their tents to see what was going on and Claude stood up and joined them. He cleared his throat rather loudly, and the man froze and then slowly looked up, blinking like a surprised owl. “I thought…isn’t this my camp?”

“You’re staying in the inn,” John told him, sounding like he was merely reminding the man of something he’d forgotten. “You should get back there, don’t you think?”

The man blinked at him, then lumbered somewhat unsteadily to his feet. He reached for his belt, frowned when he found nothing there. “I had…”

“It broke, remember?” Claude pointed out. “When you tried to stab our camp guard, your knife broke on his armor.”

That got some rapid blinking. “It broke!” He held up his hand, and looked alarmed when he saw the blood. “He hurt me!”

“You tried to stab him,” Claude reminded. “Go back to the inn, fellow, you’re done here for the night.”

Another frown, deeper this time. “But there was things, things I wanted…”

“You’ll not get them here.” Adam rolled his eyes. “Go back and sleep it off, before something worse happens to you.”

The man goggled at him. “Worse? Whaddya mean, worse?”

“There are spiders, in the grass,” John told him. “White ones. Didn’t you just run into their web back there? I heard it crackling under your feet. Why, they’re probably coming for you as you stand here. I would run.”

That made the man laugh. “I ain’t…’fraid of no spiders,” he boasted, puffing out his chest and nearly unbalancing himself in the process. “Little bitty things…”

Which was when a white form rose out of the grass, spindly legs stretching out impossibly far, and began to stalk towards him. Its eyes were glowing in the moonlight, all five of them, and the clawlike mandibles that were its mouth rasped and clicked against each other. The drunken man stood frozen for a fraction of an instant, then stumbled back, fell, righted himself and ran screaming back toward the inn. John laughed until he cried, and the guard went to check the ice sentry for damage. “Broke his blade,” he confirmed, bringing the pieces back with him. “Of course, it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t oversharpened the old thing into near nothingness – this blade’s thin as an autumn leaf.”

“Thievery must not be paying too well around these parts,” Adam observed drily. “Elsa, your pet?”

She stuck her head out of the tent, pretending a too-innocent pout; said pet was currently dancing a little jig in the grass, which was a somewhat disturbing thing to see a giant ice spider do. “You don’t like him?”

“I like him just fine, but I don’t want the innkeeper to see him – better they all think the fellow’s out of his head drunk and seeing things that aren’t there.” The spider shrank down to a very manageable size and scuttled under the wagon, still dancing, and he laughed. “That will do, thank you. Think anyone will follow him out here?”

That had been addressed to Claude, who shrugged. “I doubt it – they’ll likely see his hand and think he ran into a sword. I’m going to turn in now, myself.”

“We all will,” Adam announced. “Elsa’s pet can keep watch, and alert us if anyone else comes. Just don’t let it attack them, Elsa.”

“It won’t.” She sounded sleepy, and John yawned and went back into their tent. “Good night.”

“Good night, my lady,” Claude responded when Adam yawned. “Thank you for the entertainment.”

“Don’t encourage her,” Adam scolded, heading back for his own tent. “John does enough of that as it is.”

Claude just smiled and went to the tent he was sharing with the guards. He just loved his new position.

itlandofea_story-footer

Table of Contents