Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 3

The man who would be king…probably shouldn’t sleep in on his first day back?


Getting to the King’s Passage which led into the throne room was almost too easy, and a quick look inside the room revealed it to be empty. “He may not be out of bed yet,” John observed a low voice. “I’m sure staging a coup like this is tiring work. All right, I’ll stay here to confront him when he comes in, I need one of you to find some way to block the other end of the passage so he can’t use it and the other to stand ready to give the signal once I’ve got him in the room.” The older of the two guards gave him a questioning look, and he shook his head. “He’s a coward, Finn. I’m not sure what stirred his blood enough to get him to try this, but unless he’s gone insane or magic is involved he doesn’t have it in him to stand up to me on his own.  And it won’t look good to anyone he may have with them if he tries to hide behind them.”

Finn couldn’t help it, he smiled. “True, Your Majesty. Be careful.”

“You as well,” John told him. “We don’t know where the other traitors may be.”

Finn nodded and retreated back into the passage…and not a minute later came the sound of a scuffle, the quickly cut-off beginnings of what might have been a yell, and he came back out white-faced and holding a bloody knife in his hand. “Um…we know where one was, Your Majesty.”

“Damn. You’re all right?” Finn nodded. “All right, you go block the passage door as best you can, then be ready to go give the signal. Ring a bell if you have to, being subtle may not serve our purpose.” The man hesitated – quite obviously he was reluctant to leave his king alone – and John shook his head. “No, it will be fine – with the passage blocked no one can sneak in behind me, and I doubt anyone here would think to use the kitchen entrance. Go on now, we don’t want this to end with you and I back-to-back in the center of the room fighting off two streams of enemy invaders – it would make a good story, but I doubt we’d either one be around to tell it after.”

“True again.” Finn bowed, then disappeared back into the passageway, pulling the door mostly closed behind him. John immediately went to the door and listened, making sure he’d gone up the steps and continued going up them – not like there was any way to tell who had attacked who in the passageway, after all. He tore a tassel off the curtain and wedged the wooden bead it was wrapped around under the door. It wouldn’t keep the door from opening, but it would make a noise and let him know if someone was coming in. And then he pulled the concealing curtain back into place and went to sit on his throne and wait for the former councilor to show up. While trying not to think about his wife and children.

 

John had been waiting for about half an hour when the throne room doors opened and Fritjof swept in through them…and stopped dead when he saw John sitting on the throne and looking more than a little annoyed. “What took you so long, were you practicing your entrance and couldn’t get it quite right?”

The former councilor paled. “How did you…who let you out?!”

“You mean you didn’t already know I was out?” John shook his head. “You are really not very good at this.” He stood up, folding his arms across his chest. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I…you…” Fritjof grabbed the guard that was with him, tried to shove the man at John. “Take him back to the dungeon!”

“I’ve already been, thanks. It was very wet down there, luckily I had another pair of boots to change into.” John hadn’t moved. “Guard, if you would please, give your master your sword.” He drew his own sword, stepping down from the dais. “I already have mine.”

The guard visibly considered that, then drew his sword…and shoved it into Fritjof’s hands. “What…what are you doing?! He’s just a bookkeeper, take him back into our custody!”

“No mere bookkeeper holds a sword like that,” the guard informed him. “You told us the man to be overthrown was a jumped-up impostor who was only keeping the throne because the people were afraid of his fairy-cursed wife. Yet without her here he managed to have his own people and his children spirited beyond your reach, he met you at the doors with guards who’d been ordered not to offer violence because he didn’t want them dead, and he escaped from a locked cell and came back to confront you again. That’s not an impostor, that’s a king.” He bowed. “A good one, from what I’ve heard. We may be mercenaries, Your Majesty, but the most of us truly did think we were liberating a kingdom that had already been taken by someone else and was in chaos because of it. I see no chaos here, except for what we’ve caused ourselves…and for that I am honestly sorry.”

“I think I could have liked you, had we met under different circumstances,” John told him. “Things are as they are, though. If you and the men who feel as you do happen to disappear while I’m sorting out this traitor, I’m sure no one here would be able to think of a direction to search for you in – just don’t take my former guard-captain with you, I need to have words with him after I’ve done with this one.”

“I’d build you a gibbet for that one,” the man snorted. “He was wanting your huntsman’s wife for his own, and she was promised to him by this traitor,” he nudged Fritjof, “as payment for services successfully rendered.”

Fritjof quailed away from the look John gave him. “I was going to have him killed, once he’d helped me.”

“He’d have been more likely to kill you the minute you turned your back on him,” John told him. “A man willing to betray his king and steal another man’s wife isn’t likely to stop his treachery there.” He moved closer. “Now come on, defend yourself. I’m sure the nice mercenary here would like to have his sword back so he can be on his way.”

The older man seemed to consider it, holding up the sword – which was likely too heavy for him – as though he was going to try to use it, but then he dropped the point when John drew even closer. “No, this is murder! You know I’m no swordsman!”

“Then give it back to him and surrender yourself to me,” John offered. “I’ll be kinder than you were, you can go into the drier part of the dungeon.”

“You’re the one who told me about that.”

“As a test,” John lied. “One I was certain you’d fail…but it did display your lack of honor very nicely for those who’d agreed to support your treachery. So, will you surrender?”

“No!”

John sidestepped when Fritjof somewhat clumsily lunged at him, then swatted the former councilor with the flat of his blade, making him stumble and nearly fall on his face. “I’ll ask again: Will you surrender?”

“And be exiled?”

“You know the law better than that.”

“You wouldn’t kill me!”

John looked him in the eye. “You think not?”

Fritjof raised the sword again…against his own throat. “I’ll not let the worthless get of a blind bookkeeper have that honor,” he said, and slashed downward.

A great fountain of blood erupted from his neck, making both John and the mercenary jump back. John made a face. “You may not want the sword back, after that.”

The mercenary shook his head. “No, he can keep it,” he agreed. He bowed again. “Your Majesty…I wish you luck and a long reign. I’ll just go gather up a few men to get the gates open for you, shall I?”

John nodded. “Since you’ll be on your way out, of course. You might announce on your way through that the traitor Fritjof is dead.”

“Of course,” the mercenary agreed. He bowed again, then slipped through the doors and was gone.

John checked the King’s Passage and found it empty save for the dead guard, and then returned to the body of the former councilor, lying in a veritable pool of blood, dead eyes staring up at the vaulted ceiling. “I’ll never understand the greed that drove you to this end,” he said quietly. “Luckily you had no family to disgrace.”

“He had me,” a voice hissed, and pain slashed across John’s arm and down across his back even as he jumped and tried to turn to face his attacker; his sword went skittering away across the stone floor. The old cook was there, a now-bloody kitchen knife in her hand. “He had me! He only wanted what was best for Arendelle, and you killed him. Murderer!”

“He killed himself rather than surrender,” John pointed out, although he didn’t think she was in any frame of mind to listen to him. In fact, he suspected she might be completely out of her mind, if the mad look in her eyes was anything to go by. He was also cursing himself for a fool for not securing the servants’ entrance which came up from the kitchens; it had never occurred to him that Fritjof would bring his former paramour back to the castle with him, but it probably should have. He reached for his own knife and found it gone, doubtless slipped out of its sheath by one of his own guards when he’d been setting them free. Luckily, though…he reached down, keeping his eye on the cook, and pulled up the leg of his trousers to get at his boot knife. He needed to get to his sword, of course, but the knife would serve to defend himself with until he could do that. “You can surrender yourself, you know.”

“Not to you. Never to you.” She was circling, trying to find an opening, and he used dodging away from her next lunge to get himself closer to the sword. “I always hated your father.”

“And?” The query seemed to confuse her. “I mean, you can’t just toss a statement like that out without an explanation. It doesn’t signify anything unless you say why you hated him. So?”

“He always held himself like he was above the rest of us,” she spat. “He wasn’t! Who cares who appointed him to the position!”

“That would have been the old king, I believe. The person who usually appoints people to important positions.”

“There’s nothing important about being a skinflint old miser!” she roared, lunging again. Faster than he’d thought she’d be, she actually managed to draw blood again with the long knife before he could get out of her way. “Cutting back the money for food, refusing us the least little luxury. And you were no better! You took our pay, made us work for our keep!”

“That would actually have been the councilors,” John pointed out, even though he was certain she knew it; many was the night he and Stefan and Jor had sat at the kitchen’s sturdy worktable, doing what work they had to by the light of the hearth fire and the kitchen’s sole lamp to keep their clothing to the councilors’ standards. More proof that she was insane if she’d forgotten that, he supposed. “You mean to tell me our former councilor lied to you? He wasn’t sharing the bounty they’d all three demanded for themselves with his lover?” He raised an eyebrow. “Or did he perhaps have more than one, and you simply weren’t his favorite?”

That made her scream in rage and leap for him, and as he was still too far away from the sword he ducked to one side and thrust out with his boot knife, hoping to cut her arm and disable her somewhat, perhaps even make her drop the kitchen knife. He hadn’t counted on her slipping in her dead paramour’s blood, however, or on her fall impaling her on his knife, which tore through clothing and flesh with a horrible wet ripping sound before the force of her falling weight dragged the small blade from his grasp. She let out a blood-curdling scream and fell face down across Fritjof, her own knife burying itself in his cooling body and her face plunging into the pool of blood. She struggled, choking, then went still as the pool grew wider around them both.

John backed away, retrieved his sword. He could feel himself shaking and he forced it to stop, straightening his spine even as he felt the cold weight of his own blood soaking into his shirt and jacket – she’d done more than just scratch him, unfortunately. He listened, and then he heard it: Men’s voices yelling, boots pounding on the stone floors. He lifted his sword, ignoring the pain and the warmer rush of blood against his skin, backing away from the door enough to give himself a fighting chance if the men he heard were not his men. He knew he couldn’t run from them, even if he’d been inclined to try.

The doors were thrown open, and Finn burst in…with Per and several of Per’s own men, as well as Per’s father and other men from the town. John lowered the point of his sword – he didn’t think he could re-sheath it, honestly – and nodded. “Good job, Finn,” he said. “You’re the new guard-captain now, by the way.”

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