Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 7

Claude has information. It isn’t good.


Kristoff had, just as he’d told John, found the spot Claude had taken the children to with ease — it was a spot he’d used himself on occasion, a cave big enough to hold his sledge and Sven but with its mouth shielded enough by trees to protect it from the wind. In the old days he would have approached it from the side, wanting to see whatever or whoever else might be inside before it saw him, but this time he came in straight, knowing that Claude would hear him, and stopped beside a thick-trunked tree whose branches were actually high enough off the ground for him to stand under without stooping. “Claude!” he called out, just loudly enough to carry. “It’s me, Kristoff! John sent me to find you.”

A small glint let him know that the arrow pointing in his direction had been lowered to point at the ground. “King Kristoff?”

“Per sent for me the moment he realized what was going on,” Kristoff said. “But by the time I arrived, John and the Royal Guard had already settled the matter.” He stepped out so that the moonlight would better illuminate him. “It was that cringing snake Fritjof, and the guard-captain in it with him. Per has his men hunting that one down now, apparently he’s to be executed as soon as they catch him.”

Claude also stepped out of cover. “And the snake?”

“Killed himself, and then John killed the lover he’d brought back with him. Maiken is still with her brother, I think John won’t let her return until he’s sure it’s safe.”

The huntsman found a smile. “She’ll be in a tear over the state of her kitchen when she comes back, then. Come up and share the fire, Your Majesty. The children are asleep, and I’ve information of my own to add to this tale of treachery.”

Kristoff came up. Claude’s hunting hound — a gift from Captain Dezhnev — was alert in his spot beside the fire but laid his head back down with a huff when he recognized the new arrival. “Good to see you too, Misha,” Kristoff told him, divesting himself of his pack and settling into a spot near the small fire. Normally the hound would have come to greet him, but at the moment he was being used as a pillow by Prince William. “I brought more food,” he told Claude. “And John stuffed in a handful of sweetmeats for William.”

Claude, to his surprise, looked rather grim about that. “Where did he get them?”

“The kitchen.” The larger man raised an eyebrow. “Where shouldn’t he have gotten them from?”

“The nursery, I’m afraid.” Claude settled back into his own place, moving a small kettle closer to the flames to heat. “When I went to get the children, I was supposed to tell their nurse that the king wanted to speak to her…but she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere in the nursery, in fact, and the prince and princess were sleeping so deeply that I just knew they’d been drugged. They didn’t wake up until we were nearly here, and once they did they were fretful the way a child only is when it feels sick. Did King John mention the nurse? I’m sure he would have wondered why she didn’t come to him as ordered.”

Kristoff slowly shook his head. “He said the maids were all still missing, doubtless he thinks she’s with them.” He took a stone talisman out from under his clothing, pulling the cord over his head and then touching the carved stone to the cave wall.

Within seconds there was a grinding noise and then a rock troll detached itself from the raw stone and bowed. “King Kristoff. Huntsman.”

“You already knew we had a problem in Arendelle, Brock, but it’s a bigger one that we thought,” Kristoff said without preamble. “The children’s nurse may have been part of this treachery, and Claude has reason to believe she might have drugged them. I know John thinks she’s with the rest of the missing servants, but she’d apparently left the nursery before the alarm was given.”

“I will bring someone,” the troll called Brock said at once, and then he sniffed. “King John’s watching ancestor revealed himself, did he?”

Kristoff wasn’t surprised. “He showed me how John escaped from the dungeons, and then he showed me the way Claude took to get out of the castle – after he had me check the royal chambers to make sure no one was hiding there.” He snorted. “Which is something you’ll need to make sure I don’t forget to tell John, Claude. That escape route is a deadly trap for cowards and fools; the bones of the last few who failed its test are still there. But I know he would have taken his glasses off when he made the descent, so I’m quite sure he didn’t see them to recognize the warning they represent.”

Brock nodded again. “We built that slide,” he said. “Rough-carved, water-softened. The cave with its teeth was already there, though, and the pocket in the wall we simply enlarged to fit a resting man. Although the last brave one to use the slide was a princess fleeing a bad match – quite the tale, that was. I’ll be back.”

The troll disappeared into the rock again, and Claude dropped his head into his hands. “Dammit. If I’d been there…”

“You’d most likely have been killed,” Kristoff told him. “And the children taken as hostages to force John to do the traitor Fritjof’s bidding – and probably with the thought that their continued safety would guarantee Elsa’s compliance as well on her return.” He snorted. “I’d have quite liked to see the look of surprise frozen on the traitor’s face when that plan didn’t work at all.”

“We could have had him as a statue in the courtyard, or perhaps in front of the gates,” Claude agreed. “He’d have been an ugly one, though. So the king is unharmed?”

“I wish I could say he was, but no,” Kristoff said. “There are bandages wrapped around his chest and one arm, concealed by his clothing. He’s trying hard not to show his weakness, I know he fears there are still traitors about who might seek to take advantage of it if they knew. I doubt he’s fooling anyone completely – his ancestor accused him of looking more like a shade than he ought to, which he does – but we can hope the act is at least making them think twice about trying anything.”

Claude sighed. “We can hope,” he agreed. “Is it known who was helping Fritjof yet? Such a plan had to be larger than one coward with a bag of ill-gotten gold could have managed by himself.”

“Oh, it was.” Kristoff shook his head. “John was having all of those suspected of being part of the treachery brought to him at the castle…but one of the mercenaries they captured told John ‘Her Ladyship’ was behind this. Which only makes sense, as it would take a great deal of magic to have concealed the guard-captain’s treachery. He was Marked.”

“So we’ve no longer the assurance of that loyalty either.” Claude poked at the fire with a stick. “I could have sworn the children’s nurse was from one of the old families as well. Word will need to be sent to Valeureux, King Adam also trusts in that magic.”

“Yet another thing to be attended to as soon as we get back,” Kristoff agreed. “If John hasn’t already, of course.”

 

Brock came back shortly thereafter, bringing three more trolls; two of them had spears, and they stationed themselves at the cave’s mouth, blending into the rock so seamlessly that that they could not be seen at all. The third made a beeline for the sleeping royal children, which had Mischa back on the alert until a word from Claude settled him again. Brock was looking positively grim. “King John sleeps in safety,” he said. “He is well-guarded. And I sent Pebble to help Arendelle’s new guard-captain find the missing servants. It is known they must still be in the castle, but no sign of them has yet been found.”

“Pebble is good at finding things,” Kristoff agreed. “You look like you have other news which is not so good, Brock.”

“I do,” the troll said. “Two more of the Marked now reside in the castle’s dungeons for treachery. This could not have been done by a single angry fairy, Your Majesty; it would take many of them, perhaps even all of them working together, to subvert the power of King Sel in this manner. This is no longer about them seeking revenge against one man, one family or one kingdom. This must be a move by the fairies to break the power of all those who might thwart them.”

Kristoff’s eyes widened. “The Lords of the Sea.”

Brock nodded. “And the other lords as well. All those who came together in agreement to censure them for their wickedness.”

“Our people as well?” The troll nodded again. “Is there anything that can be done?”

“We will warn all those we can. By dawn the stones will be singing of it across all the world. Be warned, however: Once these capricious Daughters of Circe have heard that song, a very dangerous time will be upon us all. The most desperate of creatures is the one pressed into a corner.”

“Very true, it is,” Claude agreed. “What should we do now?”

“Eat, then sleep,” the troll said. “We will keep watch, and guard your return journey tomorrow.” He made a face. “Had we known this was more than just a coup staged by greedy mortals, we would have accompanied King Kristoff to Arendelle and come to find you ourselves, Huntsman. We will be more careful in the future.”

“There’s no way any of us could have known what was behind this, Brock,” Kristoff said. “I don’t believe even Lord Sel would have anticipated something like this.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Brock shrugged. “It matters little now – now is for dealing with what we know. Which is that we must proceed with more care than we have been of late, as our enemies have power they do not fear to abuse.” He placed a hand on the rock, as someone might push open a door. “I will return to the valley now, to see that our defenses have no gaps which might be exploited, but I will return in the morning.”

“Be careful, Brock,” Kristoff cautioned, and the troll nodded once, sharply, before vanishing into the rock again. The King of the Rock Trolls sighed. “I hope this is not a sign that war is coming upon us.”

“War may have already been upon us, Your Majesty, or at least the beginnings of one,” Claude told him, shaking his head. “We simply didn’t see it for what it was.”

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