Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 5

Kristoff was relieved to find that the trouble in Arendelle had passed. But has it?


Kristoff had come immediately on being informed about the situation in Arendelle, of course – Per had dispatched someone the moment Maiken had shown up terrified and in tears on his doorstep – and he was relieved to find the castle’s gates open and guards who knew him minding the comings and goings. Some men wearing Per’s colors were just riding out. “Off hunting our old guard-captain, Your Majesty,” one of the gate guards told him. “He’d thrown in with the traitor Fritjof, and he slipped away before anyone could catch him.”

“He deserves to be hunted, then,” Kristoff said. “King John?”

“In his throne room, Your Majesty, trying to sort out all the mess.”

“Thank you.” Kristoff strode into the castle – the doors of which were also wide open – nodding to a few more nervous guards on his way in, and then made his way to the throne room. There were more guards here, one of them scrubbing what he assumed was blood off the floor, and John was sitting on his throne, having apparently just dismissed another guard who was leading an agitated-looking townsman. Kristoff quickly closed the distance between himself and his brother-in-law. “John! You’re all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. The traitor killed himself rather than surrender, I killed his lover when she came at me to avenge him, and Per’s men are hunting down the guard-captain so we can kill him.” He offered a wan smile. “It’s just that kind of day, apparently.”

Kristoff nodded, but he was frowning. He was relatively certain John had never killed anyone before, at least not intentionally, but even that didn’t account for how pale he looked. “Where is Claude?”

“Good question…and one I may need you to help me answer,” John told him. “I saw the trouble coming and sent him off with the children, if he couldn’t make it to you he was to just take them to safety however best he could. I sent his wife to her brother so he’d know she’d be safe too. He’s just bound to be up in the mountains…do you think you can find him?”

“I can,” Kristoff said. It was telling that John didn’t want to send any of the guards, or anyone else – some traitors could still be about, apparently. “Per?”

“Helping to round up any sympathizers, and keep order in the town. We don’t need violence in the streets. I’ve already given the order, any suspected traitors are to be brought directly to the castle and they’ll be dealt with as appropriate.” He sighed. “I’m not expecting too many, but I think they’ll be safer in the cells here than they might be in the public gaol until we can sort everything out. Colder, certainly, but still safer.”

Kristoff’s eyes narrowed. “You were down there?”

John nodded. “Just for a night.”

He plainly did not want to talk about it, so Kristoff let it go. For the time being, anyway. “Do you think Elsa’s journey may have been part of this plan?”

“I’m almost certain of it.” Another smile. “I keep reminding myself that my wife is perfectly capable of seeing to her own safety, though.”

“She is, yes,” Kristoff agreed. He considered for a moment. “Claude went on foot?”

“Yes. They were already at the gates when I spotted them, he didn’t have a chance to get his horse.”

Kristoff nodded. “In that case, I’ll go after him now – I think I know where he’d have taken them, it’s a well-hidden place but it’s snug enough and not really all that far from the castle.”

John nodded, but grimaced. “I hate to ask you to go out when you’ve just arrived…but I’m worried, Kristoff. I don’t want to leave him out there thinking the kingdom has been overthrown and everyone might be dead.”

“I don’t either,” Kristoff assured him. “And he won’t come back until someone he can trust comes to get him, not when he’s got the children to guard.” He smiled. “It’s been a while since I got to go out traipsing around in the mountains. And the place I’m thinking of really isn’t all that far. If he’s there, we’ll be back in less than a day.”

“Be careful,” John cautioned. “I think all of the mercenaries Fritjof brought with him have either fled or been captured, but we can’t know if anyone else may be out there. And one of the ones we caught told me that ‘Her Ladyship’ had encouraged Fritjof to try this, and given him her support.”

Kristoff blanched. Still, though, he had protections against that sort of thing, and so long as John remained within the castle’s walls he did too. “I’ll be careful, you do the same.”

“I’ll see you out,” John said, and pushed himself out of the throne with an effort that drained even more color from his skin. “Claude went out the back way, I’ll show you. Do we need to stop at the kitchen for more provisions?” Kristoff indicated that they did, so John led him down to the kitchens. No one was about, and so they rummaged around and found foodstuffs that were suitable for packing along a mountain trail…and John stuffed in a handful of sweetmeats as well. “William likes these,” he said. “I’m sure he’s already fussing about Claude’s rabbit stew.”

Kristoff’s response to that was to wrap the smaller man in a hug…which also let him feel the thick lines of bandages under his clothing, wrapped around his chest and right arm. He had a feeling John was trying to keep quiet about that weakness, however – probably because there might still be those around wanting to take the throne – so he ignored the hiss and kept the hug gentle. “Stay inside the protections,” he warned in a near whisper. “I doubt she can get to Elsa on a ship at sea, either – you both have favor there, and I don’t think he’d like this.”

“He doesn’t,” a new voice responded quietly, and both men jumped – which made John hiss again. Ari shook his head. “You’re as stubborn as I ever was,” he said, and bowed. “Ari Torson, at your service – as much as a shade can be, that is. Give him the key and go back to your throne, John. I’ll show him the way.” The corners of his blue eyes crinkled when he smiled. “Go on, you look more like me than you should right now. Have the guards bring you some mulled wine to sip, it will help with the chill.”

“It will also make me sleepy.”

“Not if you sip,” Ari told him. “But come nightfall you’re going to have to sleep anyway, and that’s only a few hours away. Bolt the door when you go up to bed, I promise someone will be watching.”

John drew in a breath like he wanted to argue…but then he nodded. “I’ll get a mug of wine while I’m down here,” he said. “With Maiken still out of the kitchen and all of the maids still unaccounted for, no one will think anything of me serving myself.” That made the shade’s eyes narrow, and he shrugged, not quite managing not to wince. “The guard-captain was part of it…and he was Marked. And apparently someone known as ‘Her Ladyship’ was behind Fritjof’s plan.”

Ari swore. “Go carefully,” he warned. “King Kristoff, follow me as quietly as you can.”

Kristoff gave John one more careful hug and then followed the shade. This was more than he’d bargained for, but then again it was more than obvious that the dead man was an ancestor of John’s – and of course he’d seen the painting before, which was a very good likeness. They went up back stairways and through dark corridors and finally came out in a hallway he recognized as being in the royal wing. “My descendant made sure his man knew all the back ways in the castle for just such an occurrence as this,” the shade told him. “Before I show you the way the huntsman took, however, there’s something else.”

Kristoff hesitated at the door. “This is the royal bedchamber.”

“It is…and the other end of the path my descendant took to get out of the dungeons and back into the castle as well,” the shade said. “We’re also checking the room to make sure it’s empty for him, come on.”

Kristoff opened the door and went in, closing it quietly behind him. He checked everywhere a man might hide and was happy to find no one, but was less happy to find the clothes and still-sodden boots John had apparently discarded earlier. Too sodden for just a casual wetting. “What…”

“You’ll see.” The shade’s direction led Kristoff into a little sitting room with wet marks on the rug, and to a bookcase which swung open to reveal a dark stairwell. The shade went down it and Kristoff followed, and then the little key let him out at the end…outside the castle’s thick walls into an area concealed by rocks and trees. “Be careful on the stairs,” the shade’s voice warned him. “They’re quite worn at this point, I’m sure. You can swim down if you want, to see where he came up from; just come back here when you’re done and I’ll take you to the other door by the nursery.”

Apparently the shade couldn’t come out in the light, which Kristoff decided made sense. He wove around the rocks, finding a path recently disturbed by wet booted feet, and then found the worn rock stairs carved and placed with great care in the side of a small – very small – cliffside. At the bottom of them was the sea, waves slapping the rock almost playfully, and he could see the huge rocks which shielded the area from being seen by boats or ships. And the shade had mentioned swimming…Kristoff got a bad feeling. He quickly stripped off his boots and the rest of his clothing, leaving them behind a rock, then made his way down to the water and slipped in. The huge rocks towered above him like stern stone sentinels. He looked around, seeing no doors or other signs of entry in them, and then a darker patch in the water caught his eye. A cave? John had swum out…

…Of the dungeons, he had to have. Kristoff took a breath and dove, swimming down to the cave mouth and in through it. He broke water on the other side fairly quickly as the tide was low, and wasn’t much surprised to see the shade crouched up on a ledge high in the wall, putting off light for him to see by. It put a finger to its lips and pointed out an even darker hole in the rocky wall, which Kristoff swam closer to in order to look up into it. It was a sort of tunnel but probably more like a rough slide, and he had no doubt it led up to a cell in the dungeon. He looked up at the shade’s perch, seeing handholds in the rock for reaching the spot although they were higher than could have been reached with the water as low as it was now. So, a way out and a place to rest above the water. The shade was gesturing again, though, and it was pointing down. He looked down, through the clear water, and almost screamed.

The floor of the watery cave was thick with rock spikes, between which were scattered white bones; one skull, in fact, was impaled through its eye socket and hung there like a macabre bead on a pin. Kristoff swallowed, looking at the tunnel again, noting its height and angle. A man coming down with water to cushion him – a man brave enough to enter such a tunnel knowing he’d not be able to breathe until he reached the end of it, and smart enough to realize the water might be filling it for a reason – would emerge underwater and swim to the surface, then rest himself on the ledge. But a fearful man would wait until the water seemed low, until the tide went out…and his own falling weight would cause him to be scratched and torn in the rough passage before shooting him down into the shallow water, onto the spikes, to his death. He looked up again, nodded to the shade, and then dove back under the water to swim out of the cave. He shook himself once he got back to the stone steps, shaking off the water, and then redressed and went back up through the little door where the shade was waiting for him. “I will be warning him,” he told it. “He’d have taken his glasses off when he made that descent, tucked them away to protect them. There’s no way he saw that carpet of death beneath the water.”

Ari made a face. “I hadn’t thought of that – him taking off his spectacles, that is, but of course he would have. Yes, of course you should tell him. Are you dry? We don’t want to leave a wet trail behind us.”

“I left my clothing on the path,” Kristoff said. “We should hurry, so I can get back with Claude as quickly as possible.”

“Agreed.” They went back up and out through the sitting room, Kristoff carefully closing the ‘door’ up behind them and making sure its opening had left no trace. And then they left the royal chambers and went down the hall to the royal nursery. The door here was just a regular door concealed by a curtain, and it opened into another staircase which led down to yet another locked door…which opened out onto the feet of the mountains. Kristoff turned to thank his guide…and found himself alone. “Thank you,” he said anyway, and re-locked the door before tucking the precious key away safely. And then he re-settled his pack on his shoulder and plunged into the trees. He needed to be at least near the place he was seeking before the sun went down.

 

John did as his ancestor had instructed, taking his mug of mulled wine back to the throne room and staying there until it was time to go to bed. He used the King’s Passage – now cleaned of the traitorous guard’s dead body – to get back up to the royal wing, and then cautiously made his way to the chambers he usually shared with his wife. No lamps had been lit, but he’d known they wouldn’t be and so he’d brought up a small lantern to light his way. He hesitated, then went in. Nobody was there. He bolted the door – it had a bar, but he wasn’t able to lift it with one hand and to use both of them was to risk tearing out the careful stitch-work Per’s father had done on his back and arm – then made his way back to his bedchamber. The fire had gone out, so he brought in a few pieces of wood from Elsa’s chambers and then lit a taper from his lamp to light the fire with. And then he bolted that door as well, put out his lamp, and readied himself for bed by the gradually warming light of the fire. Once or twice he saw a blue flicker out of the corner of his eye, but the shade didn’t announce itself or come out where he could see it so he simply thanked whoever it was for keeping watch and then got into bed. He was asleep almost before he’d pulled up the blankets.

The shade of the mercenary who had accompanied Frijof into the throne room earlier that day smiled, shaking his head; he hadn’t wanted Arendelle’s king to know who guarded him, lest it prevent the man from getting some much-needed rest. He’d volunteered for the duty, though, as he’d felt it was the least he could do under the circumstances. “You’ve not a thing to worry about,” he told the sleeping man. “If anyone intrudes on these chambers this night, I’ll give them a scare they’ll never forget – I’ll chase them out the nearest window or down a flight of stairs, they’ll never trouble anyone again save with the mess they’ll make. And don’t you worry about your former guard-captain, either – he may have taken me by surprise, but I know my compatriots. He’ll not be coming back to this place unless it’s under a shroud.”

John slept on, undisturbed.

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