Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 2

John knows something about the dungeons that Fritjof doesn’t.


The flooding cell was already ankle-deep in water when Fritjof’s men went looking, so they did not have a problem telling which one it was. They shoved John in, and he recovered his balance enough not to fall in the water – they’d been trying to make him, he knew – turned around and raised an eyebrow. “You should remember this, you know: This is not the way an honorable man, king or ex-chancellor or net-mender, treats someone who’s in his power. He’ll not be kind to you if you fail him.”

One man looked bothered by that, but the other punched his arm. “We won’t fail him,” his fellow said. “And he’s kind enough – you’re alive, aren’t you?”

“Oh, I’m sure that won’t last,” John told him, not sounding all that much bothered. “I’m only alive now because he’s afraid he won’t be able to manage the books, you know.”

He stayed where he was until they left, then went to the stone bench which served as a bed in this cell and sat down, pulling his feet up onto it to keep his boots from getting any wetter than they already were. The water would rise until it was nearly level with the top of the bench, but that wasn’t the bad thing some might have thought it was. He’d known that if he mentioned it Fritjof wouldn’t be able to resist putting him in the flooded cell, of course. It was cold, in the dungeons, and a man who was cold and wet would soon sicken – and a weak, sick man would be easier to handle, and a demoralizing sight for his former subjects as well. But John wasn’t going to let things get that far. Because he knew something about this cell that Fritjof did not.

He knew why it flooded with the tide the way it did. And he knew it happened by design, not by accident.

He sat and waited for the water to rise and fall again, thinking of his wife, trying not to think of their children, and hoping against hope that Claude had gotten safely clear of the castle and Maiken had made it to her brother, who was Lord Nilsson’s captain of the guard. Not because he expected rescue; he didn’t. He was sure the gates had been locked up tight in the wake of the invading force, probably no one but Elsa could get through them at this point and she wouldn’t be back for a month of days at the very earliest. That just had to have been planned.

The water rose, farther than he’d thought it would, and so by the time it ebbed again John was rather wetter than he’d hoped he’d be. He was also shivering, but he ignored that. The guards had left a lamp, and he had work to do by its fitful light once the water had retreated to below floor-level again. He listened, making sure no one was either waiting or coming to check on him, then got down on the floor and moved a stone. It swung aside, revealing a metal grate…with a keyhole in it. John unlocked it with only a little bit of difficulty, cautiously tested the grate, then swung the stone back into place and got back up on top of the bench, making himself as comfortable as he could. It was an exit he couldn’t use when the tide was out, he was fairly certain that without the cushion of the water the fall down the steeply narrow stone channel, wherever it led to, would quite possibly kill him, so he had a long, cold night ahead of him before the tide came back in with the dawn.

He did managed to doze off once or twice during the night, but he woke the moment he heard the water splash over the grate. He listened, hearing nothing, then got up and went to the door’s small barred window to look. It was dark, the lamp had long since gone out, but he couldn’t see or hear anyone in the stone corridor. Swiftly, knowing he might only have this one chance, he swung out the stone again and this time lifted the grate and slid into the water-filled hole beneath it boots-first, pulling the stone back into place so that no one would know how he’d gotten out – with any luck, Fritjof would assume treachery and rage at his own people for a while. Working in pitch black darkness now, and having already tucked his glasses safely away, he let himself sink lower into the gently rising water, then took a deep breath and let himself slide below the surface, gently lowering the grate back into place so that it wouldn’t fall shut and make a noise that might give him away.

And then, praying he wouldn’t run out of air, he shoved against the stone walls of the channel to propel himself downwards through the black water.

John was just starting to think the channel might be too long for him when the stone walls abruptly vanished and he found himself in free water. There was light – and there were also spots in front of his eyes, so he knew he had to find the surface quickly. He kicked his feet to propel himself upward toward the lighter blue, and within seconds broke the water’s surface and gulped in some much-needed air. He just hovered in the water, breathing, for a time, and once his lungs had forgiven him for depriving them he opened his eyes and looked around as best he could.

He was inside what in the very dim refracted light seemed like it might be a largish cave, and although the mouth of it appeared to be underwater there were still a good many feet of air over his head. And there was a niche of sorts carved into the side of the wall, one he thought he should be easily able to reach once the water rose a bit more. Sure enough, another few inches let him pull himself up into the niche, and no sooner had he stretched out than he felt sleep tugging at him. He considered it, then let himself relax. No one could find him here, he was as safe as he could be…and so he let himself sleep, hoping he wouldn’t dream of endless stone channels filled with water.

He didn’t – in fact, he didn’t dream at all. John wasn’t sure how long it was he slept, but he did feel better on awakening, although he was thirsty and knew he’d have to solve that problem sooner and not later. He looked around the cave again. He could make out the cave mouth now, an irregular patch of light down in the water, and he gauged his fitness for making that dive – he wasn’t a very strong swimmer, and he knew it – and decided he could do it. The distance wasn’t as far as he thought the channel had been, even accounting for having to go up the other side again. So he stretched, rubbing his arms and legs to warm them, and then once he felt he was sufficiently un-stiffened he slid out of the niche back into the water and swam for the light.

It proved to be a bit farther than he’d thought, but he made it out and up the other side before the spots came back. Rocks were all around him, shielding him – and the cave mouth, he assumed – from view of anyone who might be on the water nearby. And there were also stairs here, carved into the rock, worn by decades of wind and water but still usable. John pulled himself up onto them, sat for a few moments to recover from his swim, and then put his glasses back on and cautiously made his way up.

The stairs led up to another sheltered little hollow screened by rocks, and he was more than a little astonished to find himself right outside the castle walls…and right in front of a small stone door. His key opened it, and he found himself in a stone corridor with stairs that led up to yet another door. Which he only knew about by feeling it, of course, because he had no light with him and the corridor was pitch black. A bit of fumbling let him unlock this door as well, however, and it swung heavily open…

…Into the sitting room just off the royal bedchamber, where it had apparently been concealed by an oaken bookshelf. If he’d been able to safely, John would have laughed out loud. He closed up the passage again, taking a moment to marvel at how smoothly the no doubt long-disused mechanism operated, and then went into his rooms to see about getting a drink and getting himself dry and warm again. And after that, he was going to have to come up with a plan to take his kingdom back. Which he thought should certainly be easier than getting out of the dungeon had been.

 

After a drink, an apple from the bowl the servants kept filled for him in the sitting room, and an hour or so in front of the fire in dry clothes, John felt ready to venture back out of the room’s safety and see what he could do to kick Fritjof off his throne. He knew better than to think he could do it by himself, so his first plan was to see about finding the loyal guards, who had doubtless been locked up somewhere. Possibly in their own barracks, which he could get to using a back passage which let out near the stables.

He made it there without encountering anyone else, making note to himself that the lesser-known back passages and side doors might not be guarded. The door to the guards’ barracks, when he reached them, had a thick bar laid across it, which John sized up carefully before trying to lift – it wouldn’t to do make a noise and be discovered now. He moved the bar, making sure it hadn’t been jammed in, then lifted it free and carefully set it down flat. And then he pushed on the door, just a little bit. “Don’t attack me, I’m here to get you out,” he said in a loud whisper to the men he could hear shifting around on the other side. “I’m coming in now.”

He pushed open the door and slipped inside, ready to duck if they hadn’t believed him. Nobody attacked, though; they were all staring at him in disbelief.  And then, almost as one, they all bowed. John rolled his eyes. “We don’t have time for that. Are all of you here?”

One man cleared his throat. “No, Your Majesty. The guard-captain isn’t with us, he’s…with them.”

John winced. “Well, that’s bad, but it could be worse. Is everyone all right?” Nods. “Good, then let’s get out of here and get to work. They may have numbers almost equal to ours, but we have the element of surprise – and probably a veritable army waiting outside the gates if we can get them open.” He pointed at Stuart. “Your job is to get to the flag and change it to signal distress. The last thing we want is for some innocent ship or group of travelers to get caught up in this, and that will also let those in town know at least some of us are free. You two,” he indicated two others, “are to circle around the stables and conceal yourselves there. The minute those gates are open, I want one of you riding for the Kingdom of the Rock Trolls and the other riding for Lord Nilsson – assuming he isn’t already outside the gates, in which case you’re to join up with his men.”

“The prince and princess?”

“Safe. I took care of that before the traitor was fully in the gates. The Royal Huntsman and his wife were sent off as well, so we’ve no one to worry about except ourselves. The children’s nurse? I had sent for her before I came back down to the hall to meet our visitors, but she never arrived.”

One of the guards shook his head. “She’s most likely hiding somewhere, Your Majesty, as I believe a good many of the maids are. The former councilor was quite put out when there was no one in the kitchen to answer the bell.”

“Hiding is probably the best thing they could have done,” John said. “We won’t try to get any of them to come out until all the traitors are routed, if they haven’t been found already then they’re most likely safer where they are. Do we know where Fritjof’s men have stationed themselves? Or where you think they might?”

“There will be at least one outside the throne room,” the man who had spoken first said. “More in the entry, of course, and some on the gate.”

“There are four on the gate,” John told him. “I saw them when I came out to find all of you. I didn’t see the guard captain, so he must be off doing something else – if he’s even still alive.”

“Oh, he’s alive,” another guard confirmed grimly. “He’s the one who locked us in here, Your Majesty – he came running and rounded up all of us he could, said we were coming back here to regroup and gather more weapons. And then he dropped the bar across the door.” He swallowed. “He’s the one who had that put on, some months ago, so he’s likely known of this treachery for some time.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it once he’s caught,” John assured them all, although he was rather wondering if they could, or if the answer would be to anyone’s liking once they had it. The guard captain had been from one of the old Marked families, so the state of his loyalty should have been easy to tell…but obviously it hadn’t been, not even by John himself. “All right, we’ve talked long enough, now is the time for action. Those of you with tasks, get to them. I want you, Finn,” he indicated the man who had confirmed the guard captain as a traitor, “and one other to accompany me, everyone else is to scatter, hide, and lie in wait for the signal that it’s time to start going after these invaders. Capture if you can do so without risking yourselves overmuch, otherwise kill them where they stand.” The order fell with cold finality, and John saw several of the younger men swallow; there had not been such an instruction given to the Royal Guard their lifetimes, or in their fathers’ before them either. “Let’s go. Someone bar the door again once everyone is out, we don’t want to give ourselves away before we have to…”

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