Tales from the Land of Ever After

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Winds of Change, Part 9

Kristoff and Claude come back…into the middle of a rather strange situation.


Kristoff and Claude re-entered the castle with the children the same way they’d left it, except that this time they were being led by one rock troll and shadowed by two more; Kristoff had sent the fourth one off to find Pebble and get a report from him the moment they’d gotten inside. Everything seemed quiet, though, at least until they entered the King’s Passage. A man’s voice reached them first, louder than it should have been and with a blustering tone that was growing increasingly less than respectful, and then John’s tired voice broke in. “Lord Frodesson, you still haven’t explained to me exactly what this situation has to do with you. The traitor’s own father doesn’t want the body back, in fact he was relieved I wasn’t going to make them taint their family crypt with the ashes.”

“It’s a shame on their line! Why, I’m told the boy’s mother is nearly insane with grief over these goings-on…”

“She isn’t,” John interrupted again. “She was understandably distraught when she found out what her son had been up to, and so ashamed she couldn’t meet anyone’s eye, but I spoke with her and so did the castle’s cook and she was calmer when she left. So either your source of information likes to improve on the tales he tells you, or you’re just making things up to suit your argument.”

That had been a slap, and the outraged intake of the man’s breath said it had connected. “Why you…!”

The rock troll pushed open the door, and Kristoff stepping out into the throne room holding William with Claude right behind him carrying a sleepy, cooing Annabelle against his shoulder had the effect of shutting the blustering man’s mouth with a rather comical snap. It also startled John to his feet, but the sight of his children made the young king’s pale face light up with a relief which was almost painful for Kristoff to see. “We aren’t interrupting something important, are we?”

“Just the opposite,” John said, hurrying over to them, ignoring the renewed spluttering behind him. He held out his arms to take William, who at first seemed reluctant but then wrapped his arms around his father’s neck and sobbed into his shoulder. John held him tightly, his own eyes not entirely dry. “I missed you too, William. But your first adventure wasn’t all that bad, was it? You had Claude and Misha and then Uncle Kristoff came to get you…”

The sobbing gained words Kristoff could just barely make out, but he knew what they were because he’d already heard them. “He thinks you sent him away, John. His bitch of a nurse has been telling him he’s a bad child and a bother to everyone, and that you’d eventually have her send him into the woods for the wolves to eat.”

“Oh she did, did she?” John’s jaw set, but the hand he stroked his son’s curling brown-gold hair with was gentle. “William, look at Papa. Look at me.” The boy peeked at him with one wet brown eye. “Son, you aren’t bad. Ragna is the one who was bad.”

The other brown eye appeared. “I bad.”

“No, Ragna was bad – she was so bad we had to put her in a cage.” John kissed his forehead. “I sent you and your sister with Claude to protect you from a very bad man who came here.” Still unsure. “Claude goes into the woods all the time, and so does Uncle Kristoff. Are they bad? Have wolves eaten them?”

William was horrified. “No!”

“Exactly.”

That got him another hug, but William almost immediately sat back up out of it, this time pointing over his shoulder. “No! Bad birdie!”

That was when Kristoff saw the stone cage and the blue-breasted bird. “What…”

But John’s attention was all for his son. “William,” he said in a low voice, “have you seen that birdie before?” A violent nod. “Did it scare you?” William buried his face in his father’s neck again, and John patted his back. “Don’t worry, Papa is going to take care of it. The bad birdie won’t be able to scare you ever again.”

Claude’s eyes were as wide as Kristoff had ever seen them. “Your Majesty…”

John shook his head. “I’ll explain momentarily. Kristoff, could you please take William back?” The boy clung to him. “Just for a moment, William, just for a moment. I need to remove someone from the room, and then you can sit with me, all right? You and Annabelle will get to stay with Papa all day and all this night as well.” That made Annabelle coo, and John freed a hand to stroke his baby daughter’s rosy cheek. “Princess, Papa missed you too,” he said, and she babbled at him happily. “I know. You can tell me all about it later.”

Kristoff took his nephew back, exchanging a puzzled look with Claude. Had more been going on before they’d been close enough to hear? John had already gone back to his throne, although he didn’t sit down. “Lord Frodesson, this audience is at an end. But first…” He stepped down off the dais as though he was going to confront the larger man – and apparently Frodesson thought so too, because he looked rather more alarmed than he probably wanted to – but then John abruptly pivoted on his heel, drawing a knife from his belt and thrusting it between the stone bars of the cage. The bird screamed, trying to swipe at him through the bars with green-glowing talons, but he withdrew the knife and moved out of reach before it could. “Bitch,” he spat. “Were you just waiting for your chance, then? Fooling us into thinking you trapped in that form by magic, planning to reverse the change and get us to enlarge your prison, allowing you to escape between the bars? And that aside, did you think for one instant that I would show the least drop of mercy to one who not only betrayed my trust, but who also terrorized my child?”

The bird screamed again, but in a different key, and a few feathers fell away to reveal pink skin beneath. The rock troll who had led Kristoff and Claude in hurried to the young king’s side. “Your Majesty, being injured could cause her to lose control of the transformation. I can enlarge the cage just enough to prevent…a mess from occurring, if you’ll allow me…”

“Of course, thank you – and the guards will be thanking you too, for not making them clean up yet another bloody mess in here.”

“Better that than seeing her get free, Your Majesty,” Stuart said. The cage was already stretching out as both feathers and flesh began to press against the stone bars, but he moved his king back anyway, and Lord Frodesson as well as something of an afterthought. “Were you wanting to question her, or should I finish her off?”

“We’ll see if she feels like talking first,” John told him. He stepped closer again, getting the expanding bird to swat at him which resulted in a blood-streaked arm ending up pinched in place between two stone bars. The nails at the tips of her rapidly lengthening fingers were still glowing faintly green. “I admit to being quite interested in knowing how long she’s been able to do this. And how she’s been able to hide her talent from the queen as well.”

The bird’s beak had both shrunk and expanded into a pink mouth, which sneered at him. “My mistress is more than powerful enough to do whatever she likes.”

“Of course,” John allowed. “Except for coming into the castle to do her own dirty work, that is. Instead she played on the greed of the weak to get her way. I thought you didn’t much like the idea of being Gunter’s mistress, Ragna?”

She screeched in rage, which left her coughing. Fully back into human form now save for a few stray feathers and still coal-black bird eyes, the children’s nurse was cramped into a tight ball of compacted flesh within the confining stone bars save for the one outstretched arm. “I was to be his lady!”

“You have a short memory. I already told you Gunter had demanded Maiken as his payment for helping to overthrow the kingdom.” Claude’s intake of breath at that was so sharp Kristoff had to think it had been painful. “Even the mercenaries he was working with wanted so see him hung for that, their leader offered to build the gibbet for me.”

“No! She would have given him to me! We were to be married, and she said she would give me a beautiful gown such as any queen would be envious of…”

“So in return for treachery, and for terrorizing a child, she offered you a pretty dress and a man who didn’t want you in the first place,” John returned. “Did she also promise to keep him faithful? Because I guarantee you that without magic, he wouldn’t have been.”

She spat, and where a drop fell on the floor it smoked like burning acid; John quickly tossed the dagger he’d still been holding away. “He loved me.”

“He loved that you were helping him, I’m sure. So was that why you weren’t in the nursery when Claude came the other day, Ragna? Had you already flown off to let Fritjof and your unfaithful lover know the children were ready for the taking so soon as the castle’s defenses had been breached?” Sullen silence. He cocked his head, considering her, then held out his hand to Stuart. “Let me borrow your sword for a moment, please.” Only somewhat reluctantly, the guard drew his sword and put it into his king’s hand. “Thank you.” John laid the edge of the blade against the girl’s outstretched arm, letting her feel its sharpness. “I want answers, Ragna. How long has this been in the works? How long have you been working for the fairy bitches and against the best interests of not just Arendelle but also the rest of the world? How deep does your greed and treachery go?”

More spit. “You’re going to kill me anyway.”

John nodded. “Yes. But whether I do it quickly or slowly is entirely up to you.” He drew the sword back, leaving a red line on the pink flesh, then repositioned the blade at her wrist. “I repeat: You tormented my son. A king knows he must hold himself back, but a father sees no need. I’d happily see you suffer a thousand cuts before you die, and shower you with seawater to extend your suffering before slowly sinking this blade into your worthless heart. Now find your tongue or answer to William’s father instead of your king.”

It was obvious this frightened her – and Lord Frodesson as well, if the horrified expression on the man’s face was to be believed – but she tried for spite one more time. “You aren’t my king! The Blue Fairy says you were not meant to sit on this throne, none of this was meant to happen as it did. She and her sisters will set things to rights with help from their faithful servants, and all will be as it should be once again!”

“Oh, things will be as they should be soon enough,” John told her. “Is there anything else you’d care to tell me?” No answer, and he nodded. “All right. There was one more question I wanted answered, but I can get that answer without your cooperation.” And with that he withdrew the sword from her wrist and handed it back to Stuart before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a handkerchief; holding the fine cloth by two of its corners, he swiped it across the girl’s glowing nails several times before moving to hold it above the shallow cut he’d made on her arm. He looked into the fear-widened black eyes. “I want to know what this poison does,” he said. “I’ve wanted to know for several years now.” And then he pulled the green-streaked handkerchief down around her arm and quickly tied the ends into a knot to hold it in place.

Ragna screamed. She tried without success to pull her arm back in, but it was firmly pinned in place by the stone bars. Green lines began to creep out from underneath the handkerchief, running along her skin like evil vines, seemingly following the veins below. Faster and faster they expanded to cover every visible inch of her body, even to circling and then invading her eyes…and then, the screaming stopped. Her breath stuttered in her chest, her skin turned gray, and then just as quickly as they’d appeared the green lines vanished, leaving behind bloodless skin and staring dead black eyes. A single remaining blue feather drifted between the stone bars and fell toward the floor, extinguishing itself halfway down in a puff of green vapor.

John looked at the dead girl for a long moment, then turned back to the rock troll. “I don’t suppose that could be sealed up with her body inside, could it? Because I’m fairly certain the poison will still work whether she’s dead or not.”

The troll considered for a moment. “Did Your Majesty want it to stay here or be taken someplace else?”

“I don’t think it should stay in here,” John said. “We could put it in the north garden, that way if the stone is ever compromised we’d know by the grass dying. I’ve only seen this poison in action the one time before, but its effect on plants is rather dramatic.”

“A good plan,” the troll agreed. He wrinkled up his brow, frowning in concentration, and stone flowed up to cover the cage, leaving it an egg-shaped obelisk. A design of vines and flowers crawled across the smooth stone surface, and then inscribed words appeared: If no life grows near me, ‘Tis high time to flee. “Does that meet with Your Majesty’s approval?”

“More than,” John told him. “You are…”

“Gothi, Your Majesty.”

“Gothi,” John repeated. “Thank you. Your craftsmanship is most impressive. And I especially appreciate the inscription, it’s a very nice touch.”

“We can’t be too careful when fairies are involved,” Gothi told him. “We’ll have this moved out to the garden when the others come back.”

“Thank you,” John said again. He turned his attention to his shocked subject. “Are you quite all right, Lord Frodesson? My apologies for coming at you that way, but I required a distraction and you were the only person in position to help me create one.”

The larger, older man’s mouth worked for a moment before words emerged. “You just…right here…you just killed her!”

“Quite,” was John’s placid answer. “For obvious reasons, hanging her along with the other traitors wasn’t an option. I hadn’t yet decided how or when she should be executed, but I’ve known since early this morning that she would have to be. Of course, this morning we also thought she was trapped in bird form because she’d failed in her task.”

“Her…task?”

“To kill me.” John raised an eyebrow at the man’s renewed shock. “What, you thought all of this was play-acting, Frodesson, mere political drama? I assure you, it hasn’t been. We’ve just weathered an attempted coup led by men whose efforts were being supported by creatures who hide the foulness of their intentions behind sweet words and sparkling displays of magic. Fairies can’t enter the castle directly, as the rock trolls graciously sealed the stones against them for us some years ago, but they don’t appear to have much difficulty finding people willing to enter on their behalf.” He took a step closer, locking eyes with the larger, older man. “No doubt this situation is as far outside of your understanding as though you were a duck watching a parade, but I will distill it for you: Our kingdom is being threatened, and not just by mortal actors. I want, even need you to come to me if you have concerns, or news, or even gossip if you believe it to be something I should know about, but do not expect me to have patience when you demand an audience only to waste my time with pointless posturing. Because I swore to Lord Sel that Arendelle would not fall if I could at all prevent it, and that is exactly what I am trying to do.”

From his place of concealment behind the draperies, Ari smirked as the formerly blustering, self-important windbag of a man bowed and murmured apologies before departing the throne room with more haste than grace. He’d tell the story when he returned home, if not before, and word would spread not only about the threat posed by the fairies but also that any who raised a hand against the royal family would be shown no mercy. It might at least give others thinking to plan such a coup pause, if nothing else.

 

That evening, John retired to his rooms with William and Annabelle, gave them a much-needed bath with no little difficulty and then tucked them into his bed – it was a large bed, and with some clever arrangement of pillows and bolsters it had easily been divided up into separate sleeping spaces for himself and the children. Kristoff had retired to his usual guest room after an early supper, planning on leaving the next morning to return home, and John had ordered Claude to retire early with Maiken as well. John didn’t feel able to sleep yet, though, so instead he sat in his chair in front of the fire and tried to sort out the dark thoughts he was having. The blue flicker from the corner was a welcome distraction from this exercise, and he waved a hand. “You can come out, if you care to,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name when we first met.”

The shade of the mercenaries’ captain stepped out of the shadows and bowed. “Considering how we first met, Your Majesty, I’d not have thought you’d want it.” He cocked his head. “How did you know?”

John smiled, albeit rather grimly. “Gunter’s body. I knew your men must have had a reason for killing him five times over that way other than not liking his morals. He took you by surprise?”

A grimace. “Very much so. And he apparently thought that meant he was entitled to take my place, if the last words I heard from him weren’t my ears playing tricks on me.” The shade came a little closer, grimace becoming a rather sympathetic frown. “Your ancestor told me you had to kill another one. Can’t stop thinking about it?”

“No.” John made a face of his own. “To be honest, I’m wondering if I did that last one a bit too easily. I don’t feel as…bad about taking her life as part of me thinks I ought to, if that makes sense.”

The shade nodded. “It does. But I’m sure you know that the day you don’t wonder is the day it’s become too easy, right?” John nodded. “Then you’re fine. You didn’t torture the bitch to death, right?”

“I wanted to.”

“I’d have wanted the same, but I wouldn’t have done it either. You’ll pardon my bluntness, Your Majesty, but no man in his right mind can walk down that path with both eyes open.”

John nodded slowly. “I don’t disagree with you…but how much I wanted to walk down it is still disturbing to me.”

“Understandable.” And he’d feared it would be more than disturbing to others, of course, which was why the young king was alone in his rooms talking to a dead man instead of someplace else with a bottle of good wine confiding in a living one. The shade considered for a moment, then sat down on nothing to put them at a level for speaking comfortably. “As you asked, my name is – or rather, it was – Flavio Vestri di Abano. And although standing guard was the bane of my existence when I was a young soldier, I felt it was the least I could do to make up for the trouble I had helped to cause for you.” He waved a hand at the bed with its stacked pillows. “No one you could trust to watch over them, or you simply couldn’t bear to have them out of your sight?”

“Both” John admitted. “The Rock Trolls finally found the missing maids. Ragna had led them all to a ‘hiding place’ and then used magic to hide the door – on both the inside and the outside. I had them taken back to their families to recover from the ordeal and I’m not sure when or if any of them will return, so we may be short on servants for the foreseeable future.” He shook his head. “We still don’t know what was going on there, why she didn’t let them out once Fritjof had taken control. I do recall it being said he was more than annoyed when he found that there were no servants available to answer the bell, so that was no plan of his.”

“Nor one I had heard of either. Another plot within a plot?”

“Obviously, but to what end I have no idea. Although I did warn their families to guard them carefully and bring them back to the castle – or at least to send word – if anything strange happened.” John sighed. “Elsa might have been able to tell if anything had been wrong with them, magically speaking, but there’s no one else here who has that gift. And by the time my wife returns home, it will most likely be too late.”

“You’re not wrong.” Ari slid through the door and took an invisible ‘seat’ of his own, making something of a show of stretching out his legs. “I couldn’t see anything amiss with the ones that were found, but my ability to do so is limited in some ways. My advice to you, however,” he told his descendant, “is to stop worrying about that unless something comes of it. Honestly, John, my guess is the girl wasn’t able to undo what she’d done in the first place because it wasn’t her power she’d used to do it. Perhaps it was supposed to come off by itself once some specific goal had been reached, such as your death.”

“Or theirs,” Flavio put in. “I’ve heard tales of dark magics which can turn the dead to slaves. Even the worst men I know wouldn’t do such a thing, but fairies might lack such scruples.”

“They do,” John confirmed. “The Fairy Marguerite killed an entire ship’s crew and passengers just to hide the fact that our former rulers had not been on board. I had thought she must be an exception, that the others couldn’t be so bad…but now I don’t believe that to be the case.” He covered a yawn with his hand. “It was nice of this one to mark her servant with her colors, though. If that’s a vanity they all share, then it would at least be a way to tell their handiworks apart.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” Ari said. “I think the blue one just likes her own color a bit too much, or perhaps it’s her way of giving fair warning.” John covered another yawn, and he shook his head. “You should go to bed, John. Your mind may be saying it wants nothing to do with sleep, but your body doubtless won’t agree once it’s settled into that nice, soft mattress. Not to mention, if you’re careless enough to fall asleep in that chair you won’t be able to move come morning.”

“I feel like I can barely move now,” John admitted. “It was a long day.” He pushed himself up and out of the chair with a groan he wouldn’t have let out had any living person been present. He had already changed into his nightclothes, as the children had been generous in the sharing of their bathwater earlier. “Are you staying in here, Ari?”

“I thought I might sit and talk to Flavio for a time,” the shade said. “Unless you believe our conversation might prevent you from sleeping, in which case we can take it elsewhere.” His descendant waved off that idea with a tired hand, and he smiled. “Then yes, I’ll be staying. Good night, John.”

“Good night to you, Ari – and to you, Flavio.”

“Good night, Your Majesty.” The two shades at once began to converse rather aimlessly just as any living men might at the end of a long day, Ari asking after places he’d once visited and Flavio telling him of the way some things had changed and some had not, and so when John did fall asleep his dreams were filled with canals and cobbled walks instead of blue-breasted birds and poisoned goblets. Which was what Ari had intended, of course. His descendant needed all the rest he could get, as his days were going to be neither shorter nor easier for the foreseeable future.

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