Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 8

The king is up early. The guards are on edge. And there’s a bird in the throne room.

John was up quite early the following morning, mostly out of habit but more than a little due to worry having awakened him. He got dressed, opting for a somewhat thicker coat than the season required as he was feeling a bit chilled, and secreted two small knives about his person in addition to the ones sheathed in his boots just in case any more trouble decided to come at him. He’d managed to get his sword belt on, but it was only for show; there was no way he’d be able to draw the blade and he knew it. Very few other people were in possession of that fact, however, so the threat the sword represented – empty though it might be – would probably be enough to discourage most who might think to attack him.

He took the King’s Passage down to the throne room, seeing no one along the way, and the throne room itself was empty as well. Which was as it should be, so John even more cautiously used the servants’ entrance which led to the kitchens in search of breakfast. Nobody was there either, so he poked up the hearth fire and put a kettle on the hob to boil. Two cups of tea later he was feeling much more alert, and the food he’d foraged for in the pantry had put some much-needed starch back into his legs, so he felt ready to face whatever the day might be preparing to throw at him. He took a third cup of tea back up to the throne room and then went out to check on the royal guards. Two of them were in their usual places by the main doors, and his appearance in the hall startled them so much that one dropped his spear. John had to smile. “Quiet morning?” he asked.

“Very, Your Majesty,” the guard not fumbling to recover his spear confirmed with a bow. “Lord Nilsson’s men returned just after dawn with the old guard-captain’s body, but Captain Eydisson said there was no point to waking you as the body wasn’t going to be doing anything of interest.”

“No, I’m sure it wasn’t.” John hoped it wasn’t, anyway; he’d seen stranger things, but he didn’t like to say so when the guards were still so much on edge. “Who’s on the gate?”

The guard who had dropped his spear bowed. “Fannar and Alv, Your Majesty. And Captain Eydisson has two more of us on the wall with bows, but he’s had them changing out every two hours so I’m not sure who it is up there now.”

“That’s fine. Any other news I should know before I go back to the throne room?”

“There’s at least one Rock Troll about,” the first guard told him. “It showed up last night to help search for the missing servants.”

“King Kristoff must have sent it,” John said, taking a sip of his tea. “I’ll remember to thank him for that later. Since we’re running short on manpower, if anyone comes just send them directly in to me, and if anything else happens ring the bell and I’ll come out to you.” They hesitated. “One man on the doors is not an option, not today, possibly not for many days to come,” he told them sternly. “And the day I’m too full of myself to get up off my throne without an invitation and a royal escort is the day I don’t deserve to sit on it any longer. Do you understand?”

They both nodded and bowed. “We’ll ring the bell, Your Majesty,” the first guard said. “Two peals together if it’s something you need to come out for, one only if someone is coming in to see you. Will that be acceptable?”

“Yes, that will work – and ring it three times when it’s time for you to change out. Carry on.”

They both bowed again, and John took his tea back to the throne room. It was early yet, but he knew it wouldn’t be that much longer before people started queuing up to request – or in some cases demand – an audience. He smiled to himself. The guards had standing orders to make the demanding ones wait in the entry hall until no less than three more polite visitors or one solid hour had passed, a fact which was well-known in the town but which hadn’t discouraged some of her more self-important citizens. Until John had instructed the servants to take the cushions off the benches, that was…

Movement caught his eye, albeit a very small movement, and he had barely settled back onto his throne when a tiny brown bird with a blue breast swooped down from the high rafters to perch on the back of Elsa’s throne, from where it proceeded to cheep and shake its feathers at him as though it were making a complaint. John couldn’t help but smile; it wasn’t unusual for birds to get in when they’d had the castle’s front doors open for any length of time, although most of them weren’t so forward as this one was being. “If you’re looking for crumbs, I’m afraid you’ll have to fend for yourself until Maiken comes back,” he told it. “And Elsa isn’t here to shift you safely back outside.”

The response to this was an even more agitated bout of cheeping, but when John’s only response was to shake his head and take another sip of his tea, the bird let out an ugly, angry squawk. He raised an eyebrow. “I can have you put in the dungeon for that – or worse, in a pretty cage in the nursery.”

Another bout of complaining and then the bird took off again, circling the thrones and making as though it were going to go back up into the rafters before turning in midair and diving straight toward him. Caught by surprise, and lacking any other immediate way to ward the tiny creature off, John threw his tea at it. The cascade of warm liquid caused the bird to falter in its dive and turn aside, catching itself on the arm of a lamp bracket and shaking tea off its feathers. The noises it was making were quite terrible now, as was the look it was giving him with its black button eyes, and John very quickly went from amused to alarmed. He stood up, slowly, noting the way those eyes followed his every move. Something was very wrong…

A familiar voice coming from the shadows startled him. “John, back away slowly,” it hissed. “And whatever you do, don’t let it scratch you.”

John did as he was instructed. “Poison?”

“If not something worse.”

“Well that’s just lovely.” And it also meant he couldn’t ring the bell for the guards. Spears and swords wouldn’t do them any good against a tiny flying assailant – assuming they didn’t just think their king had lost his mind and ignore the bird altogether, of course. He thought quickly. The bird was still watching him, and still shaking out its tea-sodden feathers, but he had a feeling it was going to take to the air and come at him again any time now so he didn’t dare take his eyes off of it. “Is it actually a bird, Ari?”

“I don’t think so, no.” The bird left its perch and started circling again, making more awful noises. “Dammit! How did it get past the protections?!”

“How did ‘Her Ladyship’ corrupt some of the Marked without anyone being able to tell the difference?” was John’s response. “There are three of them down in the dungeons now, and none of the rest of us can hear anything amiss no matter what treason they spout. Nothing has happened to Lord Sel, has it?”

“No – trust me, if anything had, everyone on the northern waters would have known it.” The bird dove, but John threw his now-empty cup and it was forced to swoop and duck, circling away again. “It’s coming back.”

“I see it.” From the side this time, and aiming lower; John had a feeling it was hoping to scratch the back of one of his hands. He drew his hand up into his coat sleeve as much as he could and struck out with his arm, and then again. The bird swooped and ducked, and now the noise it was making suggested it was laughing at him. “I think it’s trying to wear me down.”

“Or make you tear that stitching and bleed yourself weaker, yes,” Ari agreed. “I’d suggest you try to catch it in the curtains, but it would be just as likely to catch you there.”

“Yes, probably.” John considered pulling out one of his knives, but decided that would make his hand more of a target, not less. He needed something larger to fend it off with, something with some weight to it…with a quick lunge that made the stitching on his back scream he dove for Elsa’s throne and snatched the cushion up off of it, then swung it with all his might. The wind this created buffeted the bird back, tumbling it over in the air. It squawked in pure rage and dove at him screeching, and this time he swung down, the force dashing the bird onto the flagstones. His back and arm were burning, but John ignored that, raising the cushion for another swing. His eyes were on the bird, but in his mind all he could see was a strange serving girl bearing a steaming goblet whose noxious vapors formed the shape of a skull as they rose into the air. Ridiculous as it might seem, considering the size and shape of his opponent, this fight was for nothing less than his life and he knew it.

Before the bird could right itself and come at him again, however, the stone rippled and shot upward to form a rough cage around it. A scowling rock troll melted up through the stones beside the cage. “Gotcha,” it spat at the screeching bird, and then offered John a bow. “King John. I am Pebble. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you I was watching, I didn’t want her to hear me.”

“That’s all right,” John assured him, willing his heartbeat to slow to a more reasonable pace. “I appreciate your help, Pebble. Her?”

“Your children’s nurse, Your Majesty.” The cushion fell from John’s hands. “She did them no permanent harm, merely drugged them to sleep that they might not cause trouble for their captors. King Kristoff called for our aid the moment he learned of this, and I was sent to help your guard-captain find her and locate the missing servants.”

John made his way back to his throne and sank onto it. His hands were shaking. “My guess is you haven’t found them yet.”

“No, but I will keep looking.” The troll essayed a proud smile. “I am best at finding things, but it is a very large castle.”

“It is,” John agreed. “Ari, would you be able to help Pebble search?”

“No, because I’m guarding you,” was the shade’s response. Ari stalked out of the shadows to glare down at the caged bird. “If I was a living man, I would pluck you and eat you,” he told it, rolling his eyes when it screeched at him. “I’m supposing you were such a fool you actually believed she’d reward you once your task was done – or that she’d bother to turn you back if you failed.” He bowed to the rock troll, who bowed back. “The threat is larger than we thought, isn’t it.”

Pebble nodded. “So the Elders say, and there’s no reason to doubt them. Word was sent out before the sun rose; we made the stones sing with our warning the world ‘round so all the Lords would know that the Daughters of Circe had banded together to break their power.” He nodded to John. “The breaking of the Marks was their first venture, as King Sel was the one who first exercised his power against them.”

John swallowed. “Is he in danger? Are you in danger?”

The troll beamed and bowed so low his forehead almost touched the floor. “Eventually, perhaps, but far less than you are, King of Arendelle. My people are on their guard now, and two accompany King Kristoff and your huntsman and the children to guarantee their safe return home.”

“Your people have all my gratitude for that, Pebble,” John told him, and a faint golden light spread itself out across the stones. “If there is ever any way within my power that I may help you, all you have to do is ask.”

“I will relay that message, Your Majesty,” Pebble said. He pulled the rough stone cage up, and it stretched into a finer-looking cage on a tall stand. “There, that’s more fitting for a throne room. Unless you want to buy some freedom by telling me where they are?” he asked the bird, which made it beat at the bars with its wings and try to reach him with its claws. “A small cage is your fate, then. I’ll be back,” he told John and Ari. “I can move the bird wherever you wish it to go then.”

John nodded, and the troll vanished back into the floor. He turned his attention back to the shade of his ancestor. “You hid before so she wouldn’t see you and report to her mistress, am I right?”

“Yes,” Ari admitted. “The Lords of the Sea – all of the Lords, honestly – are not supposed to meddle overmuch in the lives of mortals. Lord Sel gave me the choice to remain here, to be his eyes and ears if not his hands, but there is little more he can do than what he has already done. On the land, at least. At sea it’s a different story.”

“I can’t imagine they’d try him in his own domain, no.” John sighed. “Dammit. As soon as we’re on a more stable footing here, word will have to be sent to Valeureux. Adam will need to know about the breaking of the Marks, and that none of the fairies can be trusted.” Ari raised an eyebrow. “The one who wears blue favors him, and he feels a great deal of gratitude toward her for her help in breaking the curse on both his kingdom and his wife.”

The shade nodded slowly. “I know the one you speak of,” he said. “She may favor him, but she hates you.”

“I know, but I have no idea why.” John shrugged. “I’ve never so much as spoken to her. But the first time we encountered her she immediately threatened me with being turned into a cricket if I opened my mouth, and when she appeared in Valeureux before the wedding she nodded to me out of politeness but didn’t otherwise acknowledge me at all.”

Ari frowned. He well remembered the fairy in blue saying his descendant ‘didn’t know his place’ while she was being chastised by Lord Sel, and he’d just assumed she’d had some sort of confrontation with him. But if her animosity hadn’t been ‘earned’, so to speak, then where had it come from? The answer supplied itself to him almost immediately. “Plans,” he nearly spat, surprising John. “Something Lord Sel said about them, that the fairies were always playing with mortals, tugging at the strings of their lives, dressing them like dolls. That must be it.” Disgust was visible on his face, and more than a little anger. Not just because this man was of his line, and a credit to it, but because he’d been a good man on his own before that and the bitch of a fairy had actually held it against him. “We already knew that part of her desire to kill you is as a means to an end,” he explained to John. “She seeks to impose punishment on your wife in a less direct manner, attempting to skirt the edges of her promise that no blame would fall for the defeat of her wicked wand-sister. But the rest…I have to think she hated you for acting, John. For acting without having your strings pulled by one of her kind, for being a man who would seek to save a cursed princess without the aid and approval of the ones who twist curses to further their plans and pleasure.”

John’s jaw set. “So she hates me for saving Elsa.”

“Yes, but not just that. The Daughters of Circe, as their mother before them, see men at best as tools and at worst as playthings. The bitch must have noticed that the princess was falling in love with you…and she didn’t like it, because you’d earned that love all unknowing instead of being chosen to receive it by one of her kind.”

“Fairies must be stupid, then,” John said, which drew a screech of protest from the imprisoned bird. “At that time, Elsa didn’t even know what love between a man and a woman truly meant. She didn’t know anything, Ari. Even after we had to have Adam’s cook and his butler’s wife explain…certain things to her, she still thought the former Chief Councilor telling her they needed her to ‘do her duty’ with Prince Hans had just meant she needed to hold her powers in for the duration of the marriage ceremony.”

Ari’s mouth dropped open. “No one had…what the hell were they thinking?!”

“That they could legally execute her for killing Prince Hans in the marriage bed,” John said. “Tarben didn’t deny that had been his plan when I confronted him with it.” He snorted. “I’m rather meanly glad he went insane; him dying by my sword would have been too quick.”

“If he was making plans like that, I agree with you.”

Outside, the bell rang once. “Someone’s coming in,” John said. “You should remain hidden, I know we still haven’t flushed out all the traitors.”

“You’re not wrong,” the shade told him, melting back into the shadows again. “I won’t reveal my presence unless I have to.”

“Hopefully you won’t have to,” was John’s response, and then he straightened up a bit more as one of the chamber’s heavy doors began to open. “We’ve got a bit of a mess in here!” he called out. “And mind the cage in the center of the floor, the creature in it is quite deadly.”

That brought the visitor directly into the room. “Your Majesty?!”

John smiled. “Good morning, Finn. Pebble is still searching for the others, but he did catch the children’s nurse.” The bird let out an ugly squawk. “The cage isn’t much to her liking, I’m afraid.”

Finn stepped around the mess of tea and broken crockery, his eyes widening when the bird pressed against the bars and swatted at him with faintly green-glowing claws as he moved past the stone cage. “You weren’t harmed?”

“Only by the loss of my tea,” John told him. “I’ll go get some more shortly, but I didn’t want to leave the cage unattended and risk having her poison some innocent person with those wicked little claws.”

“I see them,” Finn said. He wasn’t touching the part about the tea; he had it on good authority that their cook was going to be back sooner rather than later, albeit with guards from Lord Nilsson’s to guarantee her safety, so he’d let her handle barring the king from serving himself. “Pebble told me last night that the nurse had been revealed as a traitor, but I still had hope she was hiding with the other servants to better pretend her innocence. I should have had someone standing guard in here…”

“We haven’t enough men for that,” John contradicted him. “And I don’t want to start splitting them up, for safety’s sake. That was why I told the two on the doors to ring the bell if something happened instead of sending someone in to get me.”

The guards had already related that conversation to Finn, of course. He couldn’t disagree with the logic behind the order, but he still didn’t like it. Mainly because he was one of the very few people who knew that King John wasn’t exactly able to defend himself at present. And with that in mind, he broached his argument very carefully. “We will need to have someone here in the throne room once people start to come in to request an audience,” he pointed out. “I’d choose Stuart for that, Your Majesty. He’s still unhappy about not being able to protect you from the traitor Fritjof’s men; setting him to be your personal guard today would fix that.”

John chuckled. “Of course it would. Do you want to tell him I can’t draw this sword, or should I?”

“I’ll let him know, Your Majesty.” Finn let his own smile leak out. His king could be a stubborn man, but he wasn’t an unreasonable one. “Should we let the first audience-seeker know they’ll have to earn the privilege of being heard by mopping up the floor in here?”

“I’d consider it if I thought any of them knew how,” John told him. “But I’m fairly certain they’d just make a bigger mess.”

Finn couldn’t disagree with that either, because he knew it to be true. He resolved to go down to the kitchen himself directly as he was finished speaking to his king to fetch rags. And more tea, while he was at it. The bell from the entry rang, once, and he frowned. “With your permission, Your Majesty, I’ll just go tell them they have to wait until called for.”

“Yes, I know we have things to discuss,” John agreed. Finn went back out and then returned with Per Nilsson in tow. “Good morning, Per. I heard that our traitorous former guard captain was brought back last night in no state to cause any more trouble.”

Per nodded. “My men found him dead,” he confirmed. “They said it appeared the mercenaries who escaped had killed him. And from the looks of the corpse, they were…more than a little angry with him about something, he’s as perforated as a sieve.”

“He may not have realized they wouldn’t welcome him,” John said. “Their leader told me he’d happily have built a gibbet for Gunder with his own hands; they apparently did not think much of his wanting Maiken as the ‘prize’ for his treachery.” Surprisingly, that drew another squawk of protest from the caged bird, and his eyebrows rose. “Oh, did he promise you differently, Ragna? Were you thinking you’d be lady to his lord?” A smug cheep, and the bird preened. “You must have misunderstood him; I had it from Fritjof himself that the prize he’d demanded was Maiken. Although I suppose he may have been planning to keep you on in your old position and use you as a mistress.”

That sent the bird into a frenzy, and Finn just managed to not roll his eyes. “What shall we do with Gunder’s body, Your Majesty? Burn it with the others?” He seemed surprised when John shook his head. “No?”

“No,” John said. “He was a traitor to the kingdom and to his line, and to everything that makes a man worthy of respect. Is he intact enough to hang?” Finn nodded. “Then hang him with the others – in fact, have him strung up first, so the three who can walk to their execution will know what company they’re keeping. I know it sounds needlessly vindictive,” he added. “But we have to send a message, and it needs to be something would-be traitors won’t be able to help but remember.”

Per nodded slowly. “You’re right, of course. And it’s not like his family would want him in their crypt – or at least, I hope they wouldn’t.”

“I hope so too. But if they do, send them to me and I’ll deal with it.” John gestured at the bird. “This is the traitor I’m really not sure what to do about. She plotted to aid Fritjof and Gunder, not to mention betraying mine and Elsa’s trust, but she didn’t actually harm the children. And she’s imprisoned in more ways than one, as I doubt the magic that changed her will be employed to change her back now that she’s failed in her task.”

“We can always wait to decide her fate, Your Majesty,” Finn suggested. “I was going to search both her rooms and the nursery this morning, so more information about her loyalties may yet be brought forward.”

“True. All right, then, we’ll worry about Ragna later. How does the town seem this morning, Per?”

“Quiet,” Per told him. “It’s still early, though. Yesterday people were giving even their neighbors sideways looks, but today we’ve got two ships due in so most are consumed with the work they need to be doing. Speaking of which, I have someone who’s not on the watch keeping an eye on the docks. We’ve no way of knowing if the traitor Fritjof had allies coming or not.”

What he wasn’t saying – and didn’t have to – was that they also had no idea if the watch were still loyal. “Good thinking,” John approved. “You haven’t had any problems?”

Per shrugged. “None I didn’t have before. Although I have put a guard on Mother, which she doesn’t much like.”

“And Maiken?”

“Wants to return home, Your Majesty – she tried to come with me this morning, as a matter of fact. Her brother said he’d allow it as long as you approved and he could send a man to guard her.”

John considered it. He himself would have made Maiken stay away until Claude was back, but if her brother – Per’s own guard-captain – thought she should return…well, then being kept away was probably upsetting her too much. “Can you spare someone for that?”

“Yes,” Per answered at once. “And Liev has already told her that she’s not to leave her guard’s sight, which she agreed to.”

“Then yes, she can come back,” Jon agreed. “But if even a single incident happens in the kitchens, she has to go right back to your house and stay there until Claude comes to get her.”

“Agreed. Shall I go get her now?” He made a face at the wet floor. “And perhaps someone else who can use a mop?”

John smiled. “Just Maiken, for now. And yes, go ahead – I’m sure she’s waiting at the door for you.” Per bowed and made fast tracks back out of the room, and John turned his attention back to Finn. “In the interest of having more men rested and ready if we need them, I think the archers on the walls should be called down until nightfall,” he said. “Especially seeing as its sunny today and that makes the men too easy as targets. If you think someone should be watching from a higher vantage point, have one of them do it with a glass from the parapet where the flag is at.”

“True, no arrow or bullet could reach a man that high up,” Finn agreed. “And they’d be able to see the harbor from there as well.”

“I am truly hoping there will be nothing out of the ordinary for them to see there.” John sighed. “Tell them to be wary of birds, though – we don’t know if Ragna was the only one making bad bargains with fairies. In fact, I’d suggest sending up a net, just in case.”

“I’m truly hoping there’s no need of that either, Your Majesty – but I’ll have them take one and keep it there.” The bell rang again, and he rolled his eyes. “I know that one’s not Lord Nilsson, or anyone else with news that can’t wait. With your permission, I’ll tell them they have to wait until Stuart comes out to get them. And I’ll have him bring a mop; we’ll have it all over the town that the castle is a slovenly wreck if one of the troublesome ones sees it like this, and then we’ll have Maiken screaming at shopkeepers every time she goes to market.”

That made John laugh. “True, the townspeople have probably been traumatized enough without adding that to it. Go get him, I’ll stay put unless the door guards ring for me.”

Finn was already planning to tell them they’d be doing no such thing until either he returned or Stuart came, not unless a whole army of fairies was attacking the gates, but he didn’t say so. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said, bowing. “I know you don’t like it when we fuss…but we don’t want to lose our king.”

“A sentiment I appreciate, thank you,” John responded. “But I also don’t want to lose any more of my people than I already have, so we’ll have to compromise.”

Finn bowed again, then hurried out. His exit had the effect of pushing back the townsman who was huffily making his way to the doors, and he extended an arm to block the man’s path when he even more huffily tried to go around. “I’m sorry, my lord, you’ll have to wait,” he said. “The king just attended to another murderous traitor, and I’m afraid there’s a bit of a mess in there right now – like there was yesterday, you know. Just let me go get someone to clean it up, then you can go in.”

He’d know the man would have argued, but the mention of ‘yesterday’s mess’ was enough to see him backing down with an expression of distaste. Finn hid his smile until he was back outside. Word had definitely gotten around about the pool of blood decorating the throne room floor the day before. And letting them all think their king had been up early killing more traitors could only help to keep the man safer.

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