In the Land of Ever After

In the Land of Ever After

Table of Contents

Chapter 39 - Confrontation

They know he has to do it, but they don’t have to like it.


There were no more disturbances that night, and not long after sunrise they broke camp and went back to the inn to get a hot breakfast. Very few of the other guests were stirring yet, and the innkeeper served them matter-of-factly and with no sign of recognition that he was in the presence of royalty, which put Kristoff in a very good mood indeed. They were back on the road within an hour, and by noon they’d reached the foot of the mountains. The trail John and Elsa had used two years before was somewhat off the main road, and after Claude and Kristoff – who had used the main road on both of his trips across the mountains – had come back from taking a look they’d both been in agreement that the wagon would have to go by the main road. Adam agreed, but insisted that all four guards should go with it. “You’ll possibly encounter more people,” he told them. “I doubt we’re going to see anybody. And we won’t need the tents, there are courier huts along this route – we’ll probably be more comfortable than you will.”

“He says that because he’s never seen a courier hut,” John contradicted. “But we’ll be secure and warm, and we’ll have a place to put up the horses. Don’t rush,” he warned them. “We should arrive in Arendelle before you, and if you encounter anyone who wants to know your business, tell them you’re meeting a ship. No one will question that.”

Adam was somewhat surprised. “People cross these mountains to meet ships?”

John nodded. “Not so very many of them these days – although I expect that will change once we’ve got more overland trade going. But some do, because it’s a convenient place to meet a ship to pick up trade goods, or to get on one as a passenger.”

“It’s a safe route,” Kristoff assured the guards. He said nothing else about it until they were all well under way again, and then he raised an eyebrow at John. “I noticed you didn’t mention that couriers aren’t the only ones who use these trails through the mountains, or who stop at the courier huts.”

It was Elsa who answered him. “He told me about those other people, when we first came through the mountains,” she said. “They follow the couriers, trying to get whatever valuable thing they might be carrying. But they usually don’t bother trying to take things by force, do they, John?”

“No.” John shrugged. “As I told you, the couriers are young and poor, for the most part, and that makes them easier to bribe. This particular trail, though…isn’t used very much anymore.”

“No, Cogsworth told me it was one of the old routes most people have forgotten,” Adam agreed, and shrugged himself when his friend looked surprised by that. “He showed me how you came through the mountains and into Valeureux once, on a map he had in his office,” he explained. “He told me he wanted me to be impressed by what you’d done, and know I’d made a good call hiring you. He said men who just do what’s necessary regardless of whether it’s impossible or not don’t come along every day; apparently making it across these mountains in three days with one horse and no supplies to speak of is quite a feat.”

“I’d say so,” Kristoff put in. He was looking more than a little surprised himself. “It was still winter in Arendelle when you left.”

John shrugged again. “Not like the timing of that trip was my choice, you know.”

“No, of course not.” Kristoff let the matter drop, but he filed it away with all of the other surprising stories he kept hearing about his brother-in-law and the conversation meandered into other areas. It was nearly night when they reached the courier hut, and he chuckled over Adam’s surprise. “It’s sturdy and it’s warm, you can’t expect it to be pretty too,” he said. “Some of these places have been here for a hundred years, tucked into the side of the mountain like chicks sheltering under a hen’s feathers.”

“It’s built into the mountain?” Adam went to see that for himself, Claude trailing along behind. Sure enough, the structure he’d thought was a very shallow thing was actually a largish room dug and chipped into the side of the mountain, the hearth at one side made from stacked flat stones. “Well this is cozier than I imagined it would be, from John’s description.”

“Not all of them are this large,” Claude told him, and nodded at the raised eyebrow. “We have a few like this in Valeureux, up above the valley where the game trails run,” he said, and then to Adam’s surprise made a face as though recalling something unpleasant. “Speaking of which, Your Majesty, there’s something I need to tell you about that. Near to three years ago, I was out hunting and I stopped in one of them…and found that someone had already gotten there before me, although not very recently.” He swallowed. “I buried what was left, and used only a stone as a marker. The old magistrate was still in power then, you see.”

Adam was more than shocked. “You mean he survived that fall?”

“Survived and crawled away to find shelter,” Claude confirmed. “He was a strong man, Gaston, and stubborn. The fall wasn’t what killed him though, Your Majesty, and that’s why I’ve never said anything about it. What killed him was a knife through the heart.” He saw the look of horror on his former king’s face and shook his head. “I’m not sorry for him and, begging your pardon, King Adam, but you shouldn’t be either. Gaston was a bully and a braggart and despite his claims not everyone in the valley loved him. I can think of half a dozen men off the top of my head who might have done it – most of them fathers of daughters.”

“That…doesn’t surprise me.” Adam took a deep breath. “Belle was terrified of him, you know. And even though I was a Beast at the time, he was still nearly a match for me when we fought.”

Claude nodded. “I thought he might have been. I saw him wrestle a bear once for sport, so that was a fight he knew how to come out of.” He cleared his throat. “I just wanted you to know, Your Majesty, in case something ever came of it. You weren’t the one who killed him, some other hand did that.”

“I appreciate you telling me, Claude,” Adam assured him. “It…weighed on my mind, sometimes.”

“As it would on any good man’s,” Claude agreed, and slipped back out of the hut. It was a weight off his mind to have told his former king about Gaston’s fate, even though he hadn’t told him all of it and he never planned to tell all of it to anyone else, either. The owner of that blade had died not a month later from a sickness no doubt brought on by going unprepared into the mountains, but Claude was certain the man had died satisfied. The former Royal Historian of Valeureux had had a better reason than most to wish Gaston dead, after all.

 

They passed that night in relative comfort, although the next night not as much because that hut, the one John and Elsa had sheltered in the first morning after they’d left Arendelle, was quite a bit smaller and rougher. And the closer accommodations meant that Adam woke at once when John got up and went outside, and when the other man didn’t come back directly he followed and found the little clearing before the hut filled with fog spilled over from the rocks above and John quietly readying his horse in the dim light of false dawn – his own horse, which Claude had been leading while John and Elsa rode Sven. Adam pitched in to help him without a word, then readjusted his sword belt before he mounted. “There, now you won’t stab your horse when you dismount. We’ll follow…”

“Not too close behind me,” John warned him. “We don’t want this new rule built on fear of its queen, that would end us right back where we were the night she and I had to flee into the mountains. I’ll make sure any remaining nonsense is out of the way, then it will be safe for Elsa to come retake her throne.”

“Be careful,” Adam warned him in return, and then wrapped him in a strong hug, which was returned with equal feeling. “I don’t want to have to avenge you, John.”

“I’ll do my best to make sure you won’t, I promise.” John mounted his horse, cloak billowing in the cold air, and then rode off and disappeared into the fog almost immediately.

Adam went back inside, putting their kettle nearer the fire and settling himself near the hearth to wait for it to heat; Kristoff joined him a few moments later. “He’s off to the castle?”

“Yes. I know it has to be done this way, but I don’t have to like it. You know they’ll try to kill him.”

“Of course they will – they’re idiots. But he’ll be…”

Adam clapped a hand over his mouth. “Don’t even say it.”

 

John rode into the castle’s courtyard with the rising sun, projecting as much lordly bearing as he could muster as he dismounted and handed his reins over to the sleepy-eyed stableboy who came stumbling out. He didn’t wait for anyone else to appear, just went straight to the doors and walked in. He knew the steward would be up, and sure enough the man came out and did a very gratifying double-take upon seeing him. “What…John?!”

John bowed. “Lord Kepperson, Comte de Valeureux, now. And married to our princess.” The older man’s eyes went wide. “Yes, that’s why I’m here – not like I’d have let her come back, even with me, until I was sure we weren’t going to have another bonfire in the courtyard.”

The Royal Steward winced. “I…didn’t find out about that until the next morning. You went to Valeureux, the king’s old home?”

“Without knowing it was, yes. The curse put on the place had taken the name from everyone’s memory – drove their Royal Historian insane, in fact, it was quite a terrible thing. But we did manage to find out that the King of Valeureux is brother to our two princesses, and that the bad fairy who cursed him had been working with their parents to try to bring about Ragnarok.”

“No, not…”

“The bad fairy stuffed the power to start it into Princess Elsa when she was born,” John told him. “The king and queen were part of that plan, Stefan. They abandoned two kingdoms and three children…well, to stay young and spend all their time amusing themselves, apparently. Even the fairy who’d been using them had nothing good to say about them. They were monsters.”

“That’s treason!”

“No, it’s the truth.” He could hear a faint ringing in his ears, like tiny, out of tune bells, and he sighed, shaking his head. “Please send someone to get the councilors up for me, Royal Steward? It’s them I need to bring this news to.” The older man hesitated. “Yes, I know they’ll try to kill me. And if I might get a cup of tea while I wait for them to wake up and dress themselves, that would be lovely – it was a long, cold ride to get here.”

The old man just stared at him for a moment and then made to leave the hall, turning back just enough to toss over his shoulder, “You shouldn’t have come back, John.”

John waited. Sure enough, a few moments later two guards came out and stood on either side of the doors; they were both carrying spears. He nodded to them. “I’m here to speak with the councilors, gentlemen. Are you escorting me to them, or am I having my tea with you while we wait?”

One of them sneered at him, but they gave no other response. John continued to wait. He really had wanted the tea – living in a warmer climate for two years, not to mention nearly freezing to death that one time, had significantly lessened his tolerance for the cold – but he was at least somewhat sure now that if they did give him anything it was going to be poisoned. Which saddened him more than he’d thought it would. He and the Royal Steward hadn’t ever been friends per se, but they’d worked quite closely together for years and John had respected the man a great deal. He was extremely glad he’d thought to come before Elsa, though; doubtless if he hadn’t, the servants would already have been building a new bonfire in the courtyard.

 

It was nearly an hour before more guards appeared to escort him into the councilors’ audience chamber, and the first words out of John’s mouth were, “Well it certainly took you long enough.” He bowed, but it was perfunctory. “We’re definitely falling down when it comes to how we treat guests, gentlemen; that will have to change.”

“I think we’ve treated you with extreme civility, considering you’re a traitor to the kingdom,” the councilor on the right-hand side countered smoothly. “Mr. Kepperson, we really are astounded that you came back.”

“That would be Lord Kepperson, Comte de Valeureux, to you,” John returned politely. “Good kings are grateful when you serve them well; bad kings and queens steal the royal pension funds and go off on a vacation they never intend to come back from.”

“How dare you!” the councilor on the left thundered. “Speaking against the king and queen…”

“Who didn’t deserve their crowns, after abandoning three children and two kingdoms,” John snapped back. “Not to mention having been in league with the bad fairy who cursed two of those children and one of the kingdoms.” He arched an eyebrow. “Really, gentlemen, I know you’ve ‘remembered’ Valeureux – the birthplace of our former king. I’ve been in the service of his eldest son for the past two years, and Princess Elsa has been under his protection all that time as well.”

“Oh, but you kidnapped the princess,” the Chief Councilor said. He was an oily man, very sly, and John remembered that the Lord High Chancellor had never had much use for him. “Not like she was supposed to leave the kingdom, most especially not in the middle of the night without telling anyone.”

John smiled. “Oh no, of course she wasn’t supposed to leave that night, Chief Councilor. After all, you’d arranged that very special bonfire for her in the courtyard, hadn’t you? The one they tested on her little friend Olaf. She was actually quite upset when she found out she’d missed that.”

“Oh, you mean the way she was ‘upset’ at her coronation ceremony?” He smirked. “I’m surprised Valeureux is still standing.”

“Why wouldn’t it be? Arendelle still is,” John shot back sweetly. “And that after you tried to get the princess to marry the man who’d already tried to kill both she and her sister to take over the kingdom? Yes, that was such a lovely choice you made, I don’t know why she rejected him, I really don’t.” He cocked his head. “Of course, you were most likely expecting that she’d kill him on their wedding night and cause an international incident, which would have freed you to execute her and hand the over the kingdom to whoever’s been paying you all this time.”

“Why you…!”

“I honestly don’t know how you dare sit there in those robes, in that chair in this room, pretending to pass judgment on anything or anyone,” John cut him off. “You’re so corrupt you stink of it. And don’t think I didn’t notice whose window had a light in it that night. Of course, you wouldn’t have dirtied your hands by being present at the murders you’d incited…but I think you did want to watch.”

The man went red, shot to his feet. “I declare you guilty of high treason!” he yelled. “We won’t listen to another word from you. Guard!”

One of the guards stepped forward, drawing a long knife. John rolled his eyes. “Really, you’re going to kill me right here, in this room?”

“The people believe what we tell them,” the Chief Councilor hissed. “And we’ll tell them you tried to kill me. Guard, execute this traitor at once!”

Little bells rang, in tune this time, and John locked eyes with the guard; the man wavered, seeming unsure, so he raised a hand to the neck of his shirt and pulled on it just enough to open several buttons so that the top part of the Mark could be seen. The guard turned dead white and dropped back a step, shaking. “My lord, forgive me, I…didn’t know.”

John nodded. “I realize that. And now?”

“I…await your orders, my lord.”

“Thank you. Stand beside me, please. You can put the knife away, we won’t need it.”

The guard at once took up a position just behind John’s shoulder, sheathing his knife as he did so and shaking his head at his fellow guard. That man’s eyes widened when he approached and saw the Mark, and he at once bowed and then hurried to take up a position opposite his fellow. John looked at the one councilor his mentor had always spoken more highly of, ignoring the ranting of the others; this one was equally as corrupt as they were…but he could hear the bells again, albeit very faintly and ever so slightly off-key. The councilor apparently could hear something as well, because he shook his head several times like he was attempting to dislodge a thing that had gotten stuck in it. He was muttering to himself. “No, it can’t be, it absolutely can’t be…”

“Quite obviously it can,” John told him. “And you know as well as I do that our lord’s laws are quite clear on this subject, Councilor Erling.”

“How would you know that?!” The desperate frustration in the older man’s voice shocked the other two into silence. “You were never to know anything, anything at all!”

“I didn’t,” John admitted. “And Lord Sel was much less than pleased about that – and about my mother’s family usurping control of the bloodline, of course. Apparently he does not much like it when people break his laws, he said he was going to deal with them himself and ordered King Adam and the princess and I to leave it alone. I would like to know what happened to them, though.”

Erling shook his head again. “They went to visit…your aunt, in the Danes. All except the youngest daughter, she took up with one of the house guards so they married her off to him and left her behind to have charge of the house. Or so everyone was led to believe, anyway. They aren’t coming back?”

“How would I know? I’ve been living in Valeureux for the better part of two years, I only arrived back in our country last night. I’d think it would be in their best interest not to come back, though, as if they did I’d have to banish them and I’m sure they know it.”

“Foreign rank doesn’t give a bookkeeper the power to banish anyone…” He trailed off beneath the look John was giving him, going from white to red to white again. “No!” At the younger man’s nod he shot to his feet. “Ridiculous sea magic superstitions be damned, I’ll kill you with my own hands before I take a knee to you!”

And then he screamed and dropped to the floor, falling off the dais the councilors’ chairs were placed upon, clawing at the front of his fine robes. Velvet robes, John noted absently, making a mental note to check to see how many washerwomen the castle now had and how they were being paid – or if they were being paid at all. The Chief Councilor was staring with wide eyes. “What sorcery is this? You don’t have magic!”

“No, I don’t – I didn’t do that, my assumption would be that Lord Sel did.” He gave the man a wintry little smile. “We met him in the course of returning from King Adam and Princess Elsa’s quest to find their parents, you see. He marked me as head of my line directly after he and another sea king of our acquaintance had finished declaring Adam to be the rightful king of Valeureux. He also gave his tacit approval not only for my increase in rank but also for my marriage to Princess Elsa – which she had requested of her brother, by the way, not me.” He raised an eyebrow. “So, where do we go from here?”

“To your death!” the Chief Councilor shrieked. He was shaking. “Traitors, all of you! I’ll see you all executed this very day. Guards! GUARDS!”

The doors to the chamber opened, but instead of more castle guards a well-dressed young man strode in with a small body of armed men behind him who it was obvious by their colors were in his own service. He swept John a deep, respectful bow. “Lord Kepperson, I am Per Nilsson – your cousin Annelie’s husband. Lord Sel told me you would be coming and said I was to assist you in any way I could. We’ve already secured the castle gates and the front doors, and separated out those few guards who aren’t loyal so they can’t cause trouble.” He caught sight of the councilor with the now bloody-fronted robes panting and whining on the floor and rolled his eyes. “Another one? We’ve had a rash of that over the past few months, we’re all going to have to have twelve children apiece to replace all the people we’re losing.”

“My uncle was the first?” John guessed, and sighed when Per nodded. “I’m not surprised, Lord Sel was considerably less than pleased with him. He told you all of it?”

“He told us enough that every man present was angry, and the one who was found to have known all along became the second to gain the mark of his disfavor. That man left the kingdom last month for parts unknown. A few of the others have stayed to face their shame.”

John came to an unpleasant realization about Stefan and the sour note the bells had been ringing for him. “Or to pretend they don’t carry it?”

Per nodded. “Some, yes. Lord Sel told us to leave them be, though, so we have. He said they’d eventually go mad if they didn’t either repent or leave, but that was their own business and not any of ours.”

“He said similar to us about not going after my uncle, yes – although he said nothing about the mess of corruption here in the castle, so I’m assuming that part of the problem is mine to deal with however I see fit.”

The Chief Councilor was turning a very unhealthy shade of purple. “How, by having your ‘wife’ murder us all?”

The man was perhaps expecting to incite some sort of violence with this statement, but although John favored him with a cold look he did not move from the spot where he stood. “I gave you a chance,” he said quietly. “I knew you weren’t of the old blood, Tarben – you’re a Dane, and you’ve most likely been working for their interests over ours for years. If you had accepted things, I’d have quietly exiled you and said no more about it, because what their parents did hurt our kingdom in ways only those of us who served in this castle knew. What in the world were you going to do without a ruler here, Tarben? Watch the kingdom die? Or hand it over to the Danes’ High King, who keeps stretching his hand out in our direction – or even worse, to that greedy bastard to the West who’d given Prince Hans his support?”

“You’re serving a witch who tried to destroy us!”

Erling had pushed himself up to lean against the dais, although he made no attempt to regain his feet. “She wasn’t, though,” he corrected hoarsely. “He explained it to us, Chief Councilor, after we first sent him to speak with her, after…she came back. After you sent him to her because you said we could easily enough do without him when she killed him too.” He grimaced. “The state of both books and treasury after two years of his absence have…definitely put paid to that lie.”

“She was a child.” John was still speaking to Tarben, although he had raised his voice that all present might hear him clearly. “I explained it to you, she was a child who needed to be taught, not a monster to be feared. She was genuinely distressed by the harm she’d caused, because it had simply never occurred to her that she was causing harm – she had no knowledge of anything, because no one had ever taught her. And if she couldn’t control her powers…well, that was because they weren’t hers, they aren’t anybody’s. The only reason Princess Elsa ever had such powers to begin with is because the Fairy Marguerite put them into her at her birth – with her parents’ consent, no less. The whole point to this gigantic, cruel, stupid plan was to bring about Ragnarok, because one bad fairy had decided she was tired of the world so why not end it.”

“But why?” the third councilor wanted to know. He was a shivering, sallow man, and his dark green robes made him look as yellow as a piece of old parchment . “Why would the king and queen…it doesn’t make sense!”

“It does, if you remember what they were like when they were here,” John told him. “They were frivolous and selfish – they were in Valeureux as well. The fairy made a bargain with them, all they had to do was follow her direction and she would give them what they wanted, which was a life of ease and pleasure free from both age and responsibility. We found the palace she made for them – a ‘gilded cage’ she called it – and all the fine and beautiful things placed there for their amusement. They are dead,” he informed the room at large. “Their own vices were their undoing, even their bad-fairy benefactor said they were horrible people who cared for no one and nothing but themselves. And then she tried to kill King Adam and I, at which point the princess turned her into a very surprised bad-fairy popsicle. So she won’t be doing anything like that again, in our lifetimes at least.”

Per’s eyes had widened. “What…you mean she isn’t dead?!”

John shrugged. “I’ve no idea how fairies work, so I’m not going to assume anything. She’s encased in a block of ice as wide as the deck of a small ship, but another of her kind we’d encountered earlier — a somewhat better one, thankfully — spoke as though she were merely napping, albeit for a thousand years or so. Who knows what her disposition will be when and if she wakes up. With that in mind, and a few other incidents which possibly had that same origin, I plan to leave a warning for my descendants, or whomever’s follow mine, to beware of fairies and to avoid having dealings with them if at all possible. Because the damage they cause…lingers.”

 

Far, far beneath the coldest waters of the northern ocean, in a palace formed from ice so old it almost knew the world’s beginning, King Sel, Lord of the Northern Waters, chuckled and shook his head. “Some men have sense,” he told the plump, scowling fairy in the blue dress who was standing before his throne, contained by the glowing sigil on the mirror-smooth rock floor as though by iron bars. “Wipe that scowl off your face, he credited you with being better than your murderous wand-sister and that’s all the credit you deserve from him.”

“He doesn’t know his place!”

“I think it’s more that you and your ilk have forgotten yours,” Sel corrected, a rumble as of grinding ice invading his deep voice, and she cringed. “Fairy, the lords of the sea are not amused by this latest string of intrigues. We may favor the children of our waters, but we do not play with them. You tug at the strings of their lives as though they were puppets who should dance for your amusement, and then you dress them like dolls and demand that they be grateful for your interference.” He leaned forward, the shifting blue and green light which filled his palace growing menacing shadows as he pointed his spear at her. “No more, Fairy. Your kind will cause no more shipwrecks, twist no more families into grief and ruin, cause no more heartaches for the children of men who fall under our aegis. By the power of our lord and master Poseidon, you are bound from sea and shore.”

A flash of light from the spear tip was echoed in the sigil which contained her, causing a net of power to rise around her, and she screeched in rage. “You can’t! He sleeps, they all sleep!”

He cocked his head. “You think a sleeping god does not dream, Fairy?” She cringed again, and he lowered the spear. “It is done.  And lest you think you will continue as you have been in the lands which never touch the sea…know that we have sent out messengers to inform the lords of forest, mountain, plain and swamp of what your petty games nearly wrought.” He smiled at her when she squeaked a denial of that, his sharp teeth making the expression menacing, a threat. “Tell your wand-sisters the gods’ sleep is restless and their dreams this past turning have been filled with anger and dismay, for Ragnarok nearly came that day and with it the end of all of us together. Tell them of how you came here to set in motion a punishment targeting the queen of this land for besting the fairy who had tormented her, and how you brought punishment down on all your kind because of it. Tell them the truth, that you put yourself in my power by breaking your word, as you’d told the girl’s brother no blame would fall on them. You thought to skirt the edge of that promise by having your revenge fall on her husband in her stead, as you did on her brother’s wife, but he escaped your first attempt as she did not. You’ll get no other chance at him.” He waved the spear, and she vanished before she could say anything else. The seal beside him barked, and he stroked its head. “So what do you think, did she listen?”

The question hadn’t been addressed to the seal, but instead to the man who faded into view from the blue-green shadows. “I think she’ll choose not to remember the parts that displease her,” Ari told him with a shrug of his shoulders. “Mainly those parts which mark she and hers as being in the wrong. I am disturbed, though, my lord,” he said, frowning. “Even I, a shade, flinch away from the very idea of Ragnarok. But this fairy did not.”

“So I noticed as well,” Sel agreed. He considered, then shook his head. “I’m sure they’ll try something else – the look on her face told me those plans may be already in motion – but I can’t interfere any more than I already have. We’ll just have to wait, and make plans of our own.” He raised a silvering dark eyebrow. “I’d ask if you wish to return to your rest, Ari, but I already know the answer. Will you remain as a shade among the living to keep watch for me in Arendelle, that my hand might not be seen there any more than necessary?”

Ari smiled and bowed. “Of course, my lord. It would be my pleasure.”

itlandofea_story-footer

Table of Contents