Chapter 1: the call to arms
“No.” Caroline crossed her arms and raised her left eyebrow, a slash of gold against her fair brow.
“Caroline,” her father sighed, rubbing a hand over his own fair brow. “You have to be married.”
“No.” She raised her right eyebrow, her lips pursing. It was a look he’d seen often over the years, from her and from his wife. He chanced a look over his shoulder and saw the look reflected on his wife’s face. He sighed again, feeling a tension headache creeping in.
“Sweetheart,” he tried, in his suavest tone, the same one he used to use on her to make her pay attention to her embroidery tutor. Actually, he reflected, it had never really worked then, either.
“Honey,” he said, turning to his wife, “mayhap we ought not-”
“No.” Liz said, tone as final as her daughter’s had been. “The invitations have been sent. Every noble, unmarried man in the surrounding hundred miles will be here in a fortnight to participate in the tourney. Caroline, honestly, you should-” whatever Caroline should or shouldn’t do was lost in the hellacious screech that their daughter emitted in her whirling exit from the solar.
“Honey,” Bill tried again, his tone softer now, as his wife rested a hand over her eyes and tried to control her breathing.
“Oh, honestly, Bill,” Liz snapped, though there was mostly no heat to it, “isn’t there some stable boy you can be bothering, instead of me?”
He only smiled and told the steward in the hall to send for a pot of tea.
“Just, can you believe this? Why do I need a husband? It’s not like I can’t rule on my own!” Caroline fumed, firing arrows into the centers of the targets at the opposite end of the shooting field. Perched on a stump next to her, Liv only rolled her eyes, barely paying attention. All of her focus was on the book in her hands, probably another one of her romances.
“What about children? Are you going to impregnate yourself , Your Royal Highness?” Liv asked her mistress candidly, tone as acidic as ever.
Caroline shrieked. “I am nineteen years old! ” She bellowed, and flung down her bow into the grass. “And if I needed a child that badly, I’m sure there are some to be found lying about!”
“Whatever you say, Your Highness,” Liv muttered, and made an encouraging gesture. “Keep shooting. Maybe the sun will burn you and you’ll look bad enough that none of the lords want to marry you.”
Caroline stomped off, instead, though she did pick up her bow and loop it over her head, slinging it across her back for safekeeping.
Liv didn’t appear to notice her departure, idly turning to the next page.
“Just, can you believe this? She didn’t even ask me, Bonnie! Who does that?” Caroline exploded, pacing back and forth in the little smoky room where Bonnie Bennett was stirring a large cauldron over a crackling fire. The Court Magician’s apprentice rolled her eyes much like Liv had done earlier, though she was careful to keep her back turned as she did.
“Well, Care, I don’t know what you want me to say here,” she hedged, glancing over at the open grimoire on the desk. “Maybe if you hadn’t run off all the suitors that’ve come around until now, your mom wouldn’t have to give your hand to some random lord’s son at a tournament.”
Caroline gaped, pausing her pacing. “I haven’t run off any suitors!” She hissed, fists clenching. Bonnie tossed in a pinch of adder’s tongue and leaned back as the concoction let out a bang and a cloud of foul-smelling smoke.
“What about Matt?” Caroline winced, remembering poor young Lord Donovan, who had come around when she was sixteen to pitch his woo.
“Well,” she reasoned, “that was a long time ago. I was barely more than a girl, and he didn’t believe that I could outshoot him.” Matt Donovan’s outdated notions on what a woman could and could not do were not her fault. And besides, he’d probably grown into less of a chauvinist because of it.
“You shot him in the leg, Caroline.” Bonnie reminded her. “He escaped in the dead of night with only his horse. His trunk is literally still upstairs somewhere. ”
“Well, maybe I did run him off. But he’s the only one!” Caroline insisted, cheeks reddening.
“What about Lord Salvatore’s sons?” Caroline gritted her teeth.
“That one was all Elena’s fault,” she retorted hotly. “If she hadn’t been the biggest skank in the whole entire kingdom -”
“Caroline, you lit their capes on fire. And what about Enzo, and Jesse, and-”
“Bonnie, enough!” Caroline interrupted, throwing up her hands. “I’m not asking you to defend my mother. I’m asking you to help me figure a way out of this.” Caroline waved a hand towards the contents of the room, the jars and bottles full of herbs and eyes of newt and the like. “You know. With your special skills. ”
Bonnie stopped stirring.
“How am I supposed to stop this tournament? Your mom has had them building the arena for weeks. The invitations have been sent. Caroline, it’s not like I can brew a potion and make this all go away.”
“I’m not asking for you to poof everything away!” Caroline argued, stepping closer to her friend and gripping her by the upper arms. “Just, we have to think of something. Bonnie, please. I don’t want this.” Her eyes were feverishly bright, the way they only got when she was plotting something. The last time they’d looked like this, Bonnie remembered, she’d let loose all the livestock into the Great Hall to chase off stuffy Lord Saltzman. That had been a disaster, though he’d run straight into their old governess, Miss Parker, and ended the woman’s reign of academic terror with a marriage proposal.
Bonnie sighed. “Fine. We’ll figure something out.”
“You know,” Caroline began nervously, drawing her cloak even tighter around her body as they crept through the darkened forest, “when you said you had a plan, I didn’t think you meant ‘get me killed in the Mystic Forest so I didn’t have to marry anyone at all, ever.’”
“Funny,” Bonnie deadpanned, leading the way with a witchlight that cast a bluish glow over the ground in front of them. “I didn’t think you were really in a position to be picky.”
Caroline huffed, and then stumbled over a root, swearing.
“There!” Bonnie whispered, reaching back and grabbing Caroline’s wrist to still her. She pointed at a mossy little cottage just ahead, seeming to become excited at the sight of it.
“What the hell is this place, Bon?” Caroline whispered back, as they crept nearer and nearer. The cottage was unmarked, and the moon overhead was heavy and blue and full, casting light onto where it was situated in a sweet little clearing. “I’ve never seen it before.” Before, she’d have claimed to know every piece of the Mystic Forest, as it was one of her favorite places to go and hide from her pointless needlepoint lessons. She’d completed her studies on her country’s history when she was fifteen, and her lessons on diplomacy by seventeen. She could speak three languages and shoot a squirrel dead at a quarter of a mile with her bow. What use did a future queen have for sewing and painting and other such tedious pursuits?
“I heard Grams talking about it once.” Bonnie replied, and her voice trembled a bit with excitement and terror. “If anybody can poof away your suitors, it’s Qetsiyah.”
“Qetsiyah?” Caroline asked, furrowing her brows. “Who’s-”
“You called my name.” A deep, even voice said, cutting through the stillness of the night, and Caroline shrieked, falling backwards ungainfully.
The woman was tall and almost heartbreakingly beautiful, with a plush mouth and a complexion like simmering brown sugar. Caroline was struck by her impossible beauty, and for a moment was frozen, before she regained her wits and ripped the dagger from her boot.
“Who are you?” She asked, brandishing the blade before her, where its silver edge caught the moonlight sharply.
“I am Qetsiyah, witch of these woods,” the woman answered, with an odd smile tugging at the corners of her lush, rosy lips. “I am the one that you seek.”
Qetsiyah’s dilapidated cottage was impossibly larger on the inside, Caroline noticed with growing unease, wrapped in a borrowed shawl by the fire crackling merrily in the stone fireplace. She sipped at the cup of broth that Qetsiyah had ladled for her out of the pot that rested on the nearby hearth. Bonnie was practically vibrating with questions, hands curled into fists at her knees. Whenever Caroline glanced her way, she mouthed Qetsiyah and oh my god at her, clearly having some sort of Moment.
“Now, Princess, what is it you wish? Why have you come to me?” Qetsiyah asked her, and though Caroline was no less unnerved by her than she had been outside, she also was unable to stop herself from feeling the slightest bit soothed by her rhythmic, melodic way of speaking, as well as the oddly herbal taste of the broth. It made her tongue looser than it might’ve been, otherwise.
“I don’t want to be married.” She heard herself saying, and then flushed at her own bluntness. She’d been taught better than that, in all her lessons on diplomacy and negotiation. Never show your hand.
Qetsiyah, however, only smiled, as if pleased by her lack of artifice.
“Ah. You want me to kill your fiance, is that it?” She sounded terribly nonchalant discussing murder, which should’ve made Caroline even more uneasy, but instead she found herself laughing.
“No, no! My mother, she’s throwing a tournament. To find me a husband.” Here she paused to roll her eyes dramatically. Bonnie coughed, a strangled sort of sound, but Caroline drove on, taking another sip of broth, and then another. She’d have to have the cooks learn this recipe, she mused, it truly was something else. “As if I need a husband! I don’t want to marry some stranger! But, the law states that if a tourney is called, I am duty-bound to marry the victor.”
Qetsiyah tutted, and then stroked a hand over her hair. Caroline blinked in surprise, as she wasn’t sure when the witch had moved close enough to do so.
“And if someone undesirable wins? Someone your mother does not favor?” Qetsiyah questioned, lightly, and Caroline snorted, imagining the look on her mother’s face should a disguised crofter win, like in some ballad.
“The law says I’d have to marry them anyway,” she replied, still giggling a bit.
“Ah. I think I have your solution then, my dear,” Qetsiyah murmured in her ear, curved around her back. She was quite warm, and Caroline leaned back into that warmth unconsciously.
“You do?” She asked mindlessly, turning her head as she spoke so her mouth grazed the witch’s warm, sweet-smelling skin.
Bonnie let out a light snore from her chair. When had she fallen asleep?
“I will give you a gift,” Qetsiyah whispered, her voice bouncing off of the walls of the cottage that seemed closer than they had before. “The tools with which to shape your own destiny.”
“That is very nice of you,” Caroline told her very sincerely, before she promptly passed out.
Chapter 2: the sword
Honestly, I don't even know.
The sun was high overhead by the time Caroline awoke, groaning, on her back in the clearing that had, last night, been home to a ramshackle cottage and a crazy forest witch and now contained nothing but her and Bonnie and a very large white horse.
And something shiny.
She blinked, and crawled over to the pile of glinting something.
The horse neighed, and Bonnie came awake with a muttered slew of curses. Caroline ignored her in favor of running her fingertips over the glittering armor and weapons that lay in the grass as if they’d grown from the ground.
They were wrought from some kind of metal that she’d never encountered before, something that seemed like a cross between steel and silver, embossed with a pattern that, when you tilted your head and squinted a bit, looked like interlocked Q s. There was a breastplate, helmet, grieves, and chainmail, all of it shining and embossed with the same pattern, laid alongside a sword, lance, and bow as fine as any she’d ever seen. The bow was laid next to a leather quiver full of shining silver arrows and she traced over its curve reverently.
“Caroline, what-” Bonnie started, once she’d gotten to her feet and stumbled over, but she stopped suddenly in favor of gasping at the sight of the treasure before them.
“Bonnie, what if I-” Caroline began, feeling ridiculous, but there could be no doubting the witch’s intent, not with the size of the armor. “Could I compete for my own hand?”
“You want me to what ?” Liv asked incredulously, her voice barely more than a hiss. Caroline had caught her coming up the back staircase from the yard and she was suspiciously mussed, mouth swollen and hair askew. Caroline knew that the lords had begun to arrive, and with them their retinues of squires and grooms and the like. No doubt Liv had found some handsome horse whisperer to roll about with, away from the prying eyes of her older sister, the new Lady Saltzman.
“ Please, Liv. Please. You know I won’t be happy with some lordling for a husband, I don’t want to be like my mother-” this made Liv wince, thinking of the rumors that abounded about the queen and king-consort’s separate sleeping arrangements, and of Steven, who had been a stable boy before his appointment as Head of Household at King-Consort William’s hunting lodge.
Liv sighed, and tugged Caroline closer to her, hooking her chin over the crown princess’ shoulder. This close, Liv smelled like fresh hay and rosewater and the particular sort of dust that old books collected. “I guess it is kind of romantic,” she conceded. “Like a fairytale. You and your magical armor and your magic steed.” Caroline hid her growing smile into Liv’s golden hair. “What do you need me to do?”
“You’re being very… agreeable about all this.” Liz said to her daughter, managing to sound both cautiously pleased and suspicious. Caroline shrugged, wincing as Lexi stuck a pin in her side by accident.
“You’re the queen. I have to do what you say. But I don’t have to be happy about it,” she reminded her mother. Lexi snorted, and Caroline rolled her eyes, inching her foot over to stomp on the older girl’s toes. Lexi grunted and turned it into a cough.
“Be that as it may,” Liz continued, arching her eyebrow. “I at least expected some friction about the outfit.”
As it happened, the traditional outfit for maidens about to be given away into matrimony to the winner of a tournament called by their noble parents included a floor-length, very-nearly-opaque white veil. Caroline thanked her lucky stars (and the definitely sexist sentiments behind the vaguely-icky tradition) for this, when it came time to execute the plan.
“Ugh, could this dress be any more hideous?” Liv grumbled, looking at herself in the mirror and turning this way and that.
It was pretty horrendous, long and all-but-shapeless except for where it was cinched painfully tight around the waist with a golden girdle, but at least it would disguise the fact that Liv and Caroline’s bodies didn’t exactly look all that alike, save for that they were tall and both had long flaxen hair.
The veil really was their saving grace in that regard, falling in an even more shapeless drape around Liv’s entire body, held in place by a golden circlet designed to look like a woven crown of roses, each petal crafted from enough gold to feed a crofter’s entire family for a season. But it was traditional, and Caroline had put up no fuss about it where she normally would, though Liz had caught her dubiously eyeing the thing.
“At least you won’t have to wear it to the feasts,” Caroline consoled her, while frowning a bit at the thought of how she did have to wear it to the feasts. Each night of the tournament would be a grand banquet in her honor, and she would have to sit in the hideous white sack and uncomfortable golden girdle at the head of the Great Hall, smothering beneath white gossamer. She wouldn’t even be allowed to eat - she’d have to take her own meal after she was excused for the night, in her room, alone.
Liv hmphed and tossed her head, still snarling at her own reflection, which Caroline thought was a little much. It wasn’t as if anyone would remember Liv’s part in all of this, once all was said and done and Caroline was crowned the victor of the tournament and owner of her own hand in marriage.
The tournament began on a Wednesday afternoon, because Caroline herself had been born on a Wednesday. Wednesday’s child is full of woe, she remembered hearing in that old nursery rhyme that all girls grew up knowing intrinsically.
It began with a presentation of all the participants, from the devilishly handsome Prince Marcel of Orleans to the young Lord Tyler of Lockwood Estate, a famed duelist and hothead that Caroline had once knocked off of a horse with a well-thrown river rock to the head. His presence surprised her, though, she considered, looking around at all the young men who were present that she had ‘run off’ in one way or another in the past, perhaps a man could look past previous instances of bodily harm for a chance at ruling a kingdom such as hers.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t admire their forms- Lord Tyler had a very nice mouth, and Prince Marcel had a very nice everything, as did Duke Lorenzo and even Liv’s admittedly psychotic older brother, Kai, Lord Parker. All of her suitors, bar a couple, were handsome and would no doubt give her handsome children, but there was more to finding a partner to rule a kingdom with than looks. Her mother had chosen her father because of his dashing good looks, nevermind that he was untrained in warfare and politics, and look where that had gotten them. Her father’s beauty had faded and while he was a kind man, he was still out of his depth when it came to any matters of state.
She was lost in thought beneath her veils, considering the misfortune of her parents’ sham of a marriage, when the very last of the suitors were introduced.
It was then, coming back to herself at the call of their names, that she knew she was in trouble.
“My lords! My ladies! My fair king, my fairer queen, my most fair Crown Princess Caroline of Forbes! As bard to the Mikaelson family, that most virile clan of warriors and statesmen, kings in the North in their own day, it is my, Vincent of Griffith’s, greatest, most sublime pleasure to introduce the unmarried of the Mikaelson sons for your consideration in this glorious tournament!” The crowd was tittering at the man’s outlandish proctoring, his gracefully waved hands and his quicksilver grin that contrasted sharply with the warm russet of his skin. Caroline herself spared a smile beneath her veil, for it was rare that a squire announced their lords with such vigor.
The first son brought forth was hardly more than a boy, perhaps fourteen, and fair of face, with dark raven hair that was free to stir gently with the wind, falling to his shoulders in soft waves. Vincent of Griffith introduced him as ‘ my young Lord Henrik Mikaelson, scourge of the villainous Wolfstar Clans of the Far North, slayer of evildoers and protector of Mysterian virginity!’ which made him blush violently and had the assembled knights and lords chuckling, elbowing each other and muttering about Mysterian virginity .
The next son was also handsome, perhaps eighteen, with a slim face and a leonine build, settled astride a horse as black as the night. He had a smirky look to him, and dancing eyes that settled upon Caroline’s veiled form with some carnal knowledge, as if he could see straight through all her layers of gossamer and silk and linen. It sent half a shiver down her spine, though not entirely of disgust. His hair was not quite as dark as his younger brother’s, but just as long, also left hanging free to his chest.
He was ‘my Lord Kol Mikaelson, the most noble Knight who ever was sent across the sea to decimate our enemies, who was once traveling a road at nightfall and came upon a scene of terrible darkness, an attack upon a fatherless maiden so fair that to look at her was to look upon the face of an angel, and what did he do? He drew his sword in one hand and snatched her from her attackers with the other! He fought all six of them off single-handedly and restored her to her estate some three miles away, unsullied by their craven lusts!’ and from the back of his horse he bowed with such fluid grace that it sent a bolt of attraction through the gut of nearly every person in attendance. From the smirk on his face when he rose, Caroline thought sourly, he knew it, too .
The third and final unmarried Mikaelson needed ‘ no introduction, as his exploits have been known far and wide across not just our realm, but our world, too!’ He was tall even on the back of his horse, which was a rich brown color and had a crescent moon-shaped white spot on its nose, and he had hair that seemed at once red and a paler gold than Caroline’s own, bundled into a knot at the back of his head. He had a lush, red mouth, and his cheeks and jaw were crowned with a soft, pale field of hair too long to be called stubble and yet not quite a beard, either. His eyes were blue, or perhaps green, and they were hot, burning, like the very center of a campfire on the coldest of nights. He was ‘Lord Klaus Mikaelson, the Young Wolf of the Northern Army, defender of beauty and goodness and truth’ and Vincent had apparently met him ‘on a mountain peak in the Great Far North, on his knees, stained with the blood of his evil enemies, praying for salvation from his violent deeds, though they were done with the most righteous of authority, to protect the most innocent of innocents!’ Vincent’s tone was different when he spoke of this Klaus - there was no humor in him, no exaggeration. He spoke as if Klaus really was all of these things, and more, as if that scene upon a mountaintop in the snowy North had actually taken place.
He had a proud, haughty sort of look to his face, though when those burning eyes fell upon where Caroline sat, they softened into a simmer that had her feeling more than just a passing bolt of attraction, like his brother had caused. They were eyes that saw right through you, past your clothes and your skin and straight into the meat of you, the heart of you. He bowed his head to her and only to her, before stirring his horse to walk off.
He was, quite possibly, the most handsome man that Caroline had ever seen in her entire life.
And this was where the problem began.
In order to make the whole scheme work, Caroline had decided to recruit a third assistant. She had originally wanted someone who was famed for their secret-keeping abilities, though as it turned out, such a person was usually not famed, since they kept a secret of their secret-keeping.
It was because of this that Caroline ended up telling Elena about the whole thing.
Elena, of course, turned around and told both of her Salvatores, who either cackled madly about the thought of Caroline fighting for her own hand (in the case of Lord Damon) or immediately tried to convince Caroline that it was a terrible idea and she should just hope for the best and submit to the will of her mother and take the winner of the tournament in holy matrimony (in the case of Lord Stefan.)
This was how Caroline found herself stripping off her hideous white dress in a sweaty tent emblazoned with the Salvatore crest, nestled in amongst other sweaty tents on the camp field.
Liv was grumbling the entire time, standing in her shift and waiting impatiently for Caroline to surrender her clothes so that she could take her place as the crown princess.
Elena was wringing her hands and reminding them that there was still time to back out, even as Caroline shoved the dress at her and she had to begin lacing Liv into it.
Caroline was snapping back reprovingly to Elena’s pleas even as she was wrestling on her breeches and shirt and smacking at Damon Salvatore’s wandering hands as he helped her into her armor.
Bonnie, standing guard outside, hissed at them to hurry up, as the sword fighting competition was due to start at any moment and both ‘Princess Caroline’ and their ‘Mystery Knight’ had places to be.
Finally they were both dressed, and Caroline found herself looking down at her own armored chest and legs, for the first time feeling nervous about the whole endeavor.
The glinting silver sword Qetsiyah had given her was light in her hand despite its heft, and as she stepped out into the light of day she saw, just for a moment, words written on its blade.
Where there is will, the script read, there is strength.
Tournaments looked very different from the ground, Caroline reflected, as she strode into the arena behind Stefan and Damon Salvatore and a whole other group of young knights and lords and princes.
From above, everyone seemed like a painting, armor glinting and swords flashing.
From below, everyone smelled like sweat and they were muttering to each other and singing snatches of bawdy songs that made her blush fiercely beneath her helmet. She reached up one last time to make sure that her braid hadn’t come unpinned from her head and fallen into sight beneath her helmet. While blonde hair wasn’t so uncommon, she was sure that her mother might be suspicious to see a knight with a waist-length braid the exact color of her daughter’s.
Caroline was signed up for the tournament as Cesare Salvatore, a Salvatore cousin who lived in the Western Reach. The real Cesare Salvatore was a fifteen-year-old lute playing lothario who was currently laid abed at his father’s estate with a broken leg after falling out of a married noblewoman’s window in the dead of night two weeks prior.
Caroline was also pretending to not know a single word of English.
(She’d known that her Italian lessons would come in handy someday.)
“Ah,” she muttered in her deepest voice when one of the tourney organizers, a steward who had known her for her entire life, asked which hand was her dominant one, “no English.” This gave Damon an opportunity to smarm her way into being given a registration number and an opponent to fight.
As it happened, that opponent was young Lord Henrik Mikaelson.
The sword-fighting portion of the tournament was fought in rounds, with several one-on-one matches happening at once during the first few rounds, until there was few enough swordsmen left that they could be viewed one at a time. Caroline found herself directed to a patch of dirt far away from the royal viewing box, sword in hand, and waiting for her first opponent.
Lord Henrik had not yet put on his helmet, and he carried it beneath one of his arms. As he walked, his armor dislodged it from his grip and it fell to the ground, rolling away. His fair face flushed deep from embarrassment as he had to go fumbling around on the ground for it, and then flushed deeper when he realized it had landed in a pile of old horse dung, which was not easily wiped off.
Caroline felt bad for the boy, but hoped that his inexperience would pay off, as she herself was all but shaking with nerves.
“Hello,” Lord Henrik mumbled to her, shy but friendly, and she nodded to him.
“Ciao,” she mumbled back, and then took up her stance as he put on his dung-spattered helmet and raised his own weapon, a broadsword that, while formidable, was rather ridiculous-looking compared to his slender build.
He knew how to use it, though, and while his body was still slim with youth, he had power in his limbs that made every clash of their swords sing through her whole body, ringing in her ears. She’d never been very good with the sword, preferring her bow, but as they fought she found herself growing more determined, and instead of becoming weary she was vibrating with energy as the time wore on. It took her body spinning in a way more nimble than she could’ve managed with her armor off and a dagger in hand instead of a sword for her to realize that this was because Qetsiyah had put a spell on the sword and armor.
Where there is will, there is strength, the sword had read, and when Caroline realized what this meant she grinned viciously beneath her helmet and thought once more of walking down the aisle to marry some faceless lordling who would do nothing but laze about and humiliate her and expect her to be his subservient little wife.
Lord Henrik fell to the ground, disarmed, and Caroline grinned even wider, hidden from sight, as she helped him up and shook his hand, congratulating him with a muttered grazi.
Next she found herself fighting a rather clumsy knight errant who introduced himself as only Josh and couldn’t pronounce Cesare when he repeated it back to her. Josh wielded a slim sword and had such a long reach that he was unprepared for her to duck beneath his arm and penetrate his zone of defense to hold her blade to his throat.
After Josh was Damon, who had had his fill of fighting in the prior rounds and carelessly said oops as he dropped his sword after the third time it met hers, all but surrendering. While he didn’t want to participate in the tournament, he was also expected to, being unmarried and of noble birth, no matter his previous attachments to certain persons of Caroline’s court. [Read: Elena, Baroness of Gilbert.]
Finally, after she had defeated Damon, she was set to fight in the last bout, being one of the only two knights left standing.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Lord Klaus Mikaelson was her opponent.
He grinned, a wild expression rife with blood from his split lip, and called out a greeting to her, asked her how she liked the fray.
“No English,” she replied curtly, and rolled her shoulders. His eyes got brighter, impossibly, and he nodded slowly, said ‘ah.’
“Klaus Mikaelson,” he introduced himself with a flourish, and she nodded again, said Cesare Salvatore with a curl to the Es in a passable enough accent, for how short of breath she was.
He furrowed his brows then, but they smoothed out and he smiled before putting on his helmet.
The match was… difficult. Klaus was tall and broad-shouldered and so strong, but more than that, he was cunning, like a stalking predator in the night. It was all she could do to dodge his strikes and the sweeps of his feet trying to take her to the ground. Where there is will, there is strength, she chanted in her head, and finally was able to knock him to the ground, though he dragged her down atop him.
She held her sword to his neck and he laughingly yielded, though not before he dragged her even closer to breathe words against her faceplate. “You are not Cesare Salvatore,” he whispered, and his eyes danced, his helmet knocked off and lying a foot away from them.
She strode off quickly once her arm had been raised by a herald and she’d been declared the victor of the day’s event, her sternum hot where Klaus Mikaelson’s knuckles had grazed it beneath her mail.
You are not Cesare Salvatore.
What had she gotten herself into?
Chapter 3: interlude: the first feast
What the hell is this.
The feast was scheduled to begin promptly at 7 that evening, a time that, the stewards had reasoned, would give everyone an opportunity to clean up from the day’s excitement and activity.
In reality, it was barely enough time for Caroline to take a furtive, cold bath and scrub down vigorously to wash off all the dirt and sweat and general disgustingness that the sword fighting had caused. Her skin was still vaguely damp when Liz and Elena were wrestling her into the shapeless white sack that Liv had worn all day, and the dampness turned the little world inside her cloistering veil into a veritable sauna.
All this to say, Caroline was absolutely miserable even before they entered the Great Hall, and she became no less so when she was escorted to her seat on a raised dais at the back of the Hall. Tradition stated that she would sit there the entire time and observe the suitors drink and eat and arm-wrestle themselves into a decadent stupor (like watching animals in their natural habitat) without removing her veil or revealing her countenance to anyone.
It was all a leftover from a long-ago time that was concentrated on chastity and preserving the virginal mystique to the point of obsession, and frankly, Caroline was rather insulted by all of the tradition’s implications.
Still, she reminded herself, if there was no such tradition, then she would not be able to execute her plan as she had been.
Just three more events left, she encouraged herself, and then there would be nothing but her own anti-matrimonial freedom and impending queendom to look forward to.
A throat clearing next to her startled her from her reverie and she gave a slight gasp when she realized that the person who had cleared his throat was no other than Klaus Mikaelson.
“My lady,” he said, bowing only scantly, and his eyes burned with the same intensity they had when he’d first laid his eyes upon her veiled form during the introductions.
She nodded at him, a dip of her white-swathed head, and murmured back. “Lord Klaus.”
“I’ve been wanting to ask,” he purred in a voice that set her hackles up immediately, waiting for whatever he’d say. You are not Cesare Salvatore, and what if he had discovered her? And how ? “Why is it that a king and queen must give away their only child in a tournament such as this? What must occur for that to happen?” It was a tease, but a poor one, at that, and though Caroline knew that Northern temperaments were often blunter and less sensitive than Southern ones, it still took her aback.
“Excuse me?” She asked him, willing him to stand down and change the subject, rage blooming in a flush on her cheeks, hidden from view.
Klaus Mikaelson was either very brave or very oblivious, because he soldiered on, still with that smarmy grin upon his face.
“Are you horribly disfigured by some terrific wild animal maiming? Are you secretly an elf? Or are the rumors of your… spirited nature true?” He leaned in even closer, close enough that his lips grazed her veil as he spoke. “Did you really burn down the eastern wing of this castle in a fit of jealousy over the Salvatore brothers?”
Her hand flew up to slap him before she could stop herself, but before she caused an intranational incident, it seemed that his battle instincts kicked in. He caught her hand in his, enfolding it in his larger one like he was holding some precious, exotic bird.
He didn’t even have the decency to wear gloves, she noticed, with a dawning sort of horror and attraction, and his hands were… quite warm.
He stroked her hand with his, daringly, and his eyes danced, and finally she could not take it anymore and stomped her foot onto his, jerking her hand back. “It’s true,” she told him, leaning towards him like a specter. “I’m a disfigured hunchback with murderous tendencies and an illustrious past in arson. Go away.”
He grinned even wider than he had before, and it seemed like something more genuine had entered his expression as he laughed.
“As you wish,” he told her with a bow, and beneath the sheet she rolled her eyes.
“Quit ripping off The Princess Bride. Everyone in the whole realm has read the works of S. Morgenstern. You aren’t special.” She told him loftily, and then made a shooing gesture with her hand.
And so he went, but not without a backwards glance, his grin visible even across the hall.
“The nerve of him,” she mumbled to herself, and clenched the hand he’d stroked into a fist, hating that it was still alight with tingles.
Lexi was in her room when she got back from the feast, bustling around and getting everything ready for the next morning. She was singing the Rattlin’ Bog quietly to herself as she worked, and Caroline was overcome with emotion by it, leaning against the doorframe to watch her silently as she laid out fresh shifts and petticoats and laid out Caroline’s silver-backed hairbrush on the vanity next to a clean set of white silk hair ribbons.
Lexi had been taking care of her since she was a little girl, though the woman never seemed to age.
“And on that flea there was a shoe, a rare shoe, a rattlin’ shoe, and the shoe on the flea and the flea in the egg and the egg in the nest and the nest in the twig and the twig in the branch and the branch in the bough and the bough in the tree and the tree in the hole and the hole in the bog and the bog down in the valley, ho!” Lexi hummed, and Caroline finally stepped into the room, making enough noise that Lexi noticed her.
“Oh, hello my love,” she greeted her fondly, moving forward to take the veil from her. “I’ll get this cleaned as best I can before tomorrow,” she said with a wrinkle of her nose, and set it out in the corridor, ringing the bell for a maid to come and take it down to the laundry. She set in immediately to freeing Caroline from her high-necked dress and golden girdle, murmuring the song still, and it was like being a little girl again.
Caroline blinked back tears, feeling off-kilter and strange. Perhaps she’d gotten too much sun, or gotten hit too hard during the fighting. It was just that all of a sudden she was beginning to realize that she wasn’t a girl anymore, and that, after all this was over, she’d be a woman, in charge of her own fate.
And it thrilled her to the core, truly, it did, but for just one last night, she wanted to indulge in childhood comforts.
“Will you read to me, Lexi?” Caroline asked her nurse-turned-head-of-household, peering up into her tired face with those blue eyes that struck down everyone they came in contact with in a helpless sort of fondness that blossomed easily into love.
It was not difficult to fall in love with Caroline of Forbes, and she’d had Lexi wrapped around her smallest finger since the first day she’d been given the babe to nurse, sixteen and still grieving the death of her own child, who’d been born still and silent. Caroline had been the perfect baby, happy and round-cheeked, and Lexi had been caught from the start.
“I suppose. Just a bit, though. You need your rest,” Lexi conceded, and once Caroline was tucked up abed in her nightshirt she drew an armchair from the other end of the room to take up space at the princess’ bedside.
“Chapter one,” she began, opening Caroline’s favorite book to the first page. “Buttercup was raised on a small farm in the country of Florin. Her favorite pastimes were riding her horse and tormenting the farm boy who lived there…”
“What does she look like?” Klaus demanded, shoving his prey up against the brick wall of the courtyard. “What is she like? Why all this fanfare to find her a husband?”
“Listen, pal,” Damon Salvatore slurred, rolling his eyes, “you’ve gotta calm down on all this…” He paused, looking the so-called Young Wolf up and down. “Everything you’ve got going on. The wenches don’t like murderous intensity. Passion, sure. Not this crazy-eye thing you’re doing.” He blinked, and then went vaguely green. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, and then leaned over to be sick all over Klaus’ boots.
“Useless,” Klaus grunted, and dropped him, striding off to find his brothers.
Chapter 4: the bow
Uhhhhh, I ripped some of this off of Brave. Also yes, they have the Princess Bride here. Unabridged. I don't know. I am ridiculous. You're all lucky that Jareth the Goblin King isn't showing up for a cameo. Because I am r i d i c u l o u s.
The second day’s competition was the bow and arrow, and Caroline was not worried about it.
“Honestly, Bon,” she complained. “Why do I need to be up this early? I don’t need the practice.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Bonnie snapped, growing more irritated by the second, rolling her eyes so violently that she appeared to be having some sort of fit. “I forgot. You crossdress and conceal your identity from half the nobles in the kingdom and shoot arrows with a magical bow every week. How silly of me. Caroline. ” Her tone brooked no argument, and finally Caroline threw up her arms and submitted to Bonnie’s demands.
“Alright, fine. Let’s go.” Putting on the armor was easier the second time around, and Caroline left Liv sleeping off her ale in her bed at the far end of the room. The longer she got to sleep, the better mood she’d be in, and the less likely she’d be to snap and give away their cover.
Qetsiyah’s bow was as light as her sword had been the day before, and to shoot it was to feel a bolt of pleased pride all through her.
Caroline grinned behind the faceplate of her helmet, and though she still didn’t think it was as radically different to her normal bow as Bonnie had feared, she was thankful that the apprentice wizard had taken her to practice with the enchanted weapon before it was time to compete with it.
The archery competition was less fraught with adrenaline as the sword fighting one had been, and it took Damon and Stefan both explaining that their cousin was both very shy and very romantic and he did not wish to be seen without his armor or with his face uncovered until the tournament was over and done with to excuse why she was wearing full armor and mail to shoot a bow in an arena at a stationary target.
The stewards had all shrugged at each other and mumbled about eccentrics, but they’d let her pass nonetheless.
When she was shown to a space in line right next to where Klaus Mikaelson was also awaiting his turn to shoot, Caroline began to think that she may have been suffering from some of the worst luck in the history of the world.
He was as handsome as he’d been the night before, and the day before, wearing no armor except for a tooled leather breastplate that bore his family’s sigil, a white oak tree and a crossed pair of swords.
“...Salvatore,” he greeted her, with such an air of dubiousness that he might’ve said imposter and sounded less conspicuous about it. She nodded at him anyway, waving her hand in a way that she thought was quite Italian but also might’ve just been stupid.
“Ciao, amico,” she greeted him, voice cracking in a way that made him smother a laugh, thinking her some pubescent boy hiding behind a helmet, playing at being a knight. She could tell he was scornful of who he thought she was, just as she knew that he somehow had knowledge that she was definitely not Cesare Salvatore.
“I believe it is your turn,” he said, gesturing towards the target with a flourishing wave of his hand that was definitely mocking her, and she set her teeth, gritting them as she strode up to take her place at the line, raising her bow. Klaus took his stance as well, aiming for the target next to hers.
She waited for him to shoot, watched the arrow sail forth and embed itself in the center of his target.
She shouldn’t. She knew she shouldn’t. She didn’t need to draw attention to herself. It was bad enough that she was even in the archery competition, risking the master-at-arms or her mother noticing that one of the competitors had technique suspiciously similar to their princess’.
She shouldn’t do it, but Caroline was bad at impulse control on a good day, and especially on a day where she had the opportunity to wipe that smug look off of Lord Klaus Mikaelson’s stupid face.
Caroline drew an arrow from her quiver and took aim, taking a deep breath and picturing the look on Klaus’ face if she did what she was about to do. Where there is will, there is strength, and she’d practiced firing arrows every day since she was old enough to draw back a bowstring.
Caroline inhaled. Focus.
Caroline waited a beat. Focus.
Caroline exhaled, and loosed her arrow. There.
It drilled through the air, whistling as it cut through, sailing across the arena to find its target.
It struck Klaus’ arrow and split it in three, coring itself into the center of his target, stopped only by the head of its conquest.
Klaus swore angrily, the sound barely audible over the sudden roar of approval from the crowd, and Caroline allowed herself another triumphant grin, quickly drawing another arrow from her quiver and sending it sailing into the dead center of her own target.
Take that, Young Wolf, she thought to herself.
“Excuse me, my lady,” a sardonic voice called out, and Liv forced herself to stop and affect a stance more like one Caroline might take, softening out her hips and bending her knees a bit to seem shorter.
“Hmm?” She mumbled, nervous but trying to appear as nonchalant as Caroline would. He was a Mikaelson, of this she was sure, but which Mikaelson, she had no good guess.
“I believe you dropped this.” He proffered her hair ribbon back to her, bright white satin against the healthily-tanned skin of his elegant hands.
“Thank you,” she managed, reaching out and taking it from him. She wasn’t expecting him to catch her hand in his, nor for him to turn it this way and that, puzzling, with his brows furrowed, as if her hand were some exotic puzzle from a faraway land.
“As you wish,” he mumbled, and when she did not say anything he dropped her hand as if it were a hot coal and bowed quickly at the waist, speculation in his eyes.
As he walked away, she was sure of two things- one, that he was just about the finest looking man she’d ever seen in her life. And two, that he was going to be trouble.
Chapter 5: interlude: the second feast
Listen, they feast a lot.
Klaus scrubbed his face with water and the white soap that Freya had insisted he pack, submerging his whole head in the washbasin and coming up sputtering from the cold and the stinging in his eyes.
It didn’t make any sense. The spitfire of a princess that he had spoken to at last night’s feast had been, in a word, exquisite. Her voice had been sharp but sweet, disapproving but amused, and her hand had been a work of art, slender and golden-skinned and with an odd ridge of callous that he couldn’t identify a source for, especially not on the skin of a noblewoman.
Caroline of Forbes, Crown Princess of Mysteria. The prize to be won in this tournament, and a prize he intended to win. He was the third son of a dead warlord, and the least-favored brother of the current Lord of the Manor, his late parents’ eldest male heir, Finn.
While Finn had mellowed somewhat since their parents’ death, he was still disapproving of each move that Klaus made, as if somehow he’d disgrace the entire family by speaking too loudly or fighting in one too many skirmishes with the wild clans of the Far North. It was exhausting.
Klaus had made his peace with never inheriting his family’s estate or his father’s title, as much as one could make peace with learning that they were a bastard and dashed from the line of succession as quietly as such a thing could be done. What he had not made his peace with was facing down a life of dependency on his brothers and sisters.
If he won the tournament, and thus the crown princess’ hand in marriage, he would have to depend on no one.
And now there was the added incentive of Princess Caroline’s acidic tongue and her sweet hands.
Sweet hands that did not match the ones of the veiled maid who’d been presented as the crown princess during the day’s tournament.
Her hands had been longer, bonier, paler, and, most noticeably, smudged with ink. Her mannerisms had been stiff, quiet, as if she were hiding something.
That made two Princess Carolines running about, and Klaus was most eager to find out which was the real thing.
The atmosphere of the second feast was slightly more bearable than the first, and after the men had been fed, Caroline’s mother called for her to stand and entertain them with a song, as stories of her voice had surely traveled far and wide throughout their realm.
It was mortifying in a way that only a mother could be, but Caroline could see the genuine pride in her mother’s face when she spoke of Caroline’s singing ability, so she was powerless to refuse. It was likely because singing was the only suitably maidenly activity that Caroline had not either failed miserably at or attempted to eradicate from human practice altogether. She had failed at needlepoint, painting, drawing, ventriloquy, playing the sousaphone, everything. All she was really good at was planning things, learning languages and laws and history, archery, and lighting suitors on fire.
She chose a sea chanty, mostly because she thought it might shock the more conservative men assembled, and began it without any more fuss. “Upon one summer’s morning, I carefully did stray…” She launched into My Jolly Sailor Bold, letting her eyes roam about the room, as it was a novel thing to be able to sing to a crowd of people and not have them staring at her, just in her direction.
She could see them, but they could not see her. Not really.
A few seemed bored, whispering to each other, but all three of the Mikaelsons sat at attention, watching. Henrik was flush-cheeked from his ale already, swaying a bit and bobbing his head to the rhythm of her song. Kol was half-reclined where he sat, limbs sprawled indecently and lips curved into a lazy smile, eyes half-lidded. No one should look so well-bedded in public, and yet Kol Mikaelson managed it, though, considering what she’d heard from Liv about his various romantic successes with the castle’s kitchen maids, scullery maids, and stable boys, Caroline couldn’t be that surprised.
Klaus was another beast altogether, as she suspected was often the case with him, and he sat ramrod-straight, sizing her up and fisting his hands in his lap reflexively.
For a moment she looked at his hands and his obvious distraction, and then she hoped that the feel of her skin was still fresh in his mind. She scolded herself for her romantic notions even as she finished her song and curtseyed before sitting back down.
The night wore on slowly, with eating and talking being interspersed with the entertainment that her mother had lined up- fire dancers and plate-spinners and bards and musicians and magicians, performing their best tricks to impress the dozens of easily-bored young men that occupied the Hall, and yet even as the revelry took place, Caroline could not tear her eyes away from Klaus Mikaelson.
He was deep in his cups by the end of the evening, and yet when he picked up a discarded lute that lay next to where he’d taken a reclining position by the giant hearth at the side of the Hall, his fingers were steady. They plucked out a light melody and he accompanied it with a vocalization more murmuring than singing, something low and raspy that Caroline could feel in her chest all the way across the room. He had elegant hands, and in the firelight he seemed like some young god, Apollo in their midst, like he’d been created to do nothing but slay his enemies and play that lute.
She slipped off to bed then, before his song was done, and thought that she’d seen the last of him for the night before there was a knocking at her door not ten minutes after she’d gotten back to her room.
“Who is it?” She whispered, standing in her nightrail and speaking through a crack in the door, but even before he spoke she knew that it was him. She could smell him, earthy and bright, iron and freshly-cut grass, and his voice was no surprise to her.
“An assassin,” he answered, just as quiet, but jovial even so. “Come to assassinate you.”
“Hmm,” she whispered, feeling reckless and daring and like her heart was in her throat, like she would choke on it, beating madly. “I don’t think I’d like to be assassinated tonight.”
“What about evanesced? I could take you far away from here.” He offered, and slipped his fingers through the crack in the door that she allowed. She laid hers over them, feeling daring with their hands touching, and did not protest when he dragged her hand through the crack to press a kiss to her knuckles. He had soft lips, and the sensation of his warm breath on the back of her hand was not wholly unpleasant.
“I have plans tomorrow. Perhaps we could reschedule.” She tried to keep a straight face, but she felt drunk, giddy. He was no less infuriating than he’d been the night before, but he thought that he had the upper hand. That he was the big bad Young Wolf of the North and she was the glorified trophy that he was competing for.
In her mind’s eye, she saw her arrow splitting his in two, and imagined what sort of look would’ve been on his face had she done it unmasked and as herself.
“Perhaps,” he murmured against her skin, and she shivered, closing her eyes briefly and resting her forehead against the door before she drew her hand back.
“Go to sleep, Lord Mikaelson,” she instructed him, and cursed the fact that she must be the responsible one, always.
If she were Liv, she might’ve invited him inside, kissed him and dragged him over to her bed.
But she wasn’t Liv- she was Caroline, the crown princess, and her room was currently occupied by things she’d rather not have Klaus Mikaelson snooping around in.
“Sweet dreams, Caroline,” he breathed, and his footsteps retreated as she stood struck dumb by the sound of her name on his lips.
The cot in his tent was slim and chilly and inhospitable, despite the fact that it was draped with blankets. He imagined his bed at home, wide and low and draped in animal skins. There were braziers at home to be folded in with the furs nearest his feet, hot from the fire and designed to heat the bed quickly.
He imagined what Caroline’s bed must look like- ornamental, like everything else in the castle, and perhaps made of cream or pale pink painted wood and golden gilt, a decadent thing for her to find her beauty sleep in.
Her hand had answered the question for him of which veiled ‘princess’ was the real Caroline of Forbes. He’d been strangely relieved to realize that the fiery girl with the golden hands was the real thing, though he was sure that having someone as docile as the imposter seemed to be as a wife might be easier.
What a strange tournament this was shaping up to be, he thought to himself as sleep finally claimed him- an imposter princess and an imposter lordling running about.
Whoever it was in the silver armor, Klaus was sure beyond a reasonable doubt that it was not Cesare Salvatore, who did not have a shy bone in his body and was currently laid in a bed with his mother at his beck and call due to an unfortunate occurrence with Klaus’ eldest brother and his lovely wife Tatia.
Chapter 6: the joust
I TOTALLY MISSED PUTTING THIS CHAPTER UP OMG
Of all the events, Caroline had been the most nervous about competing in the joust.
The lance that Qetsiyah had provided her was long, and Bonnie assured her that if she broke it on someone then she was sure that it would just fix itself, but Caroline was still cautious as she held it aloft, pinning its long handle beneath her arm to steady it.
The snow-white horse that she’d found in the witch’s clearing was docile and sweet but swift as the wind, and so she’d decided to call it Swiftwind, a name which made Bonnie scoff and snort and swear that she wasn’t laughing at Caroline, it’s just that she was laughing with her and her terrible taste in stories.
Caroline had sniffed, because, like with Klaus and the Princess Bride, it was not her fault that she was attracted to the classics. Every young girl in Mysteria grew up thrilling at the tales of the great warrior She-Ra and her winged unicorn companion. It was Bonnie’s own bad taste that she’d always preferred hearing stories about Madame Razz, instead.
She sat astride Swiftwind and paced to and fro as the tournament organizers sorted through names and titles and ranks and ages and decided which tournament participant should compete against which.
It was quickly decided that she would first face Kol Mikaelson, the only one of the three brothers she had yet to come up against in direct combat.
Kol Mikaelson’s horse was black as night and, if the gossip surrounding him was to be believed, named Lucifer and only drank large quantities of bourbon.
His take on the Mikaelson crest was darker than his brothers’, his armor glinting a darker silver and his standard backed in black instead of red.
He had a filthy kind of grin, and his jackal face was arranged in a saucy expression when he looked her up and down where she was settled on Swiftwind’s back.
“I’ve heard Italians do it better!” He shouted down the track to her, jovial and obscene. “Would you like to demonstrate?”
She refrained from choking, but only just, and managed to mumble back still no English, which made him give such an exaggerated pout that made her even more sure that his entire personality was put-upon, a joke to disarm his opponents’ defenses. Despite his ease and his cheerful lechery, his grip on his lance was tight, and he gripped it expertly.
She braced herself. Where there is will, there is strength, and she still had will in spades, even if she also had an abundance of fear. She squeezed her thighs around Swiftwind’s sides and gripped Qetsiyah’s lance tight, clamping it beneath her bicep.
As Swiftwind galloped nearer to the center of the track, Caroline imagined walking down the aisle of the old sept, dressed all in white, to meet Kol Mikaelson, her grinning-skull-faced bridegroom.
Where there is will there is strength, and the tip of her lance struck Kol Mikaelson in the chest, flinging him off of his horse and snapping all at once.
The crowd roared its approval of her toss and she caught her breath for a moment, feeling where Kol’s lance had glanced off of her breastplate with unease.
It hadn’t been the singing pleasure of firing an arrow, nor even the wild sort of happiness that winning a sword fight brought. There had only been sickly anticipation and fear and then the lackluster victory of unhorsing a man at full speed and nearly maiming him.
Kol picked himself up from the dirt, coughing and blinking in surprise, and then took his raven-coated horse by the reins to lead it over to her, resignation in every line of his face.
She was confused for a moment, before she realized what he meant to do. In traditional tourney rules, if a man lost his seat on his horse then he also lost his horse, and Kol Mikaelson looked full of sorrow and dread at the prospect of surrendering his hellish-looking steed.
“Here,” he said, trying to proffer the thing to her with as much enthusiasm as one might offer to be executed for a crime they did not commit. “Please, take care of Rainbow.” It took her a moment to realize what he’d said, and then it took her another moment to compose herself and not give the ghost up.
Rainbow? she mouthed beneath her faceplate, and shook her head.
“No horse,” she enunciated in a bad Italian accent, pushing the reins back to him. “You keep.”
He looked mystified, and probably it was bad for her cover, but she stirred Swiftwind back towards the starting point and left him standing there, stroking Rainbow’s mane.
Each round of the joust was worse than the last, though Qetsiyah’s armor kept the blows of her opponents’ lance-tips muffled, hardly enough to bruise. Caroline kept up her strategem of imagining marrying each of her adversaries. This was good fodder for the witch’s will-based enchantment, and she beat each of them handily in no more than three rounds a piece.
As was quickly becoming tradition, she was set to face Klaus in the last round. It seemed he was the strongest of the assembled men, and she wondered at who would be his main competition, should she have not entered the contest with her spelled weaponry and her assumed identity.
Klaus was a good horseman, with a confident seat and straight shoulders that did not slump under the weight of his lance, which Caroline had heard was shaped from the wood of a white oak tree, found only in the Far North. He did not attempt to speak to her, only nodding before putting down his faceplate and hitching his lance into its proper position.
She braced herself and imagined, as she had before, coming down the aisle of the sept to be delivered into the waiting arms of Klaus Mikaelson. She kept this image going in her mind as she spurred on Swiftwind, as clear as day.
She was surprised, however, when Klaus’ lance found its mark in her stomach and snapped in half while he curved his body to avoid her lance entirely.
The stewards bellowed that Klaus had gotten a point and Caroline struggled to catch her breath again after the forcefulness of the hit.
What the hell, she thought as she gasped, and heard Klaus’ low chuckle as she bent over Swiftwind’s neck to cough.
The pain plus the humiliation had her cheeks red and her mood black. She didn’t know why picturing Klaus as her betrothed didn’t work to steel her resolve (or, at least, she would never admit to knowing) but the thought of him laughing at her definitely did.
She shook her head to clear it and took a few deep breaths to ascertain that no ribs were broken.
Klaus was handed another white oak lance from his squire to replace the one he’d splintered on her breastplate.
Caroline grinned, savage with bloodlust that was, she was learning, the nature of the beast when you were competing tooth and nail against others for something you all craved.
Swiftwind tossed its head, silvery mane sailing through the air. Caroline leaned over its back. Let’s go, she thought, and did not have to spur the horse on before it was galloping at full speed.
The tilt was on, and Caroline kept thinking of how satisfying it would be to wipe the amusement off of Klaus’ smug face.
This was what she was thinking of when her lance struck home in his abdomen, and what she thought of as she watched him fly into the air, unhorsed and unmanned, to land on his back on the ground in a clatter of armor and a chorus of sympathetic groans from the spectators.
Klaus lay still on the ground and Caroline allowed herself a smirk at the sight of him lying prone and groaning before she swung down from Swiftwind’s back and went to offer him a hand up.
He did not take her hand but instead swore lowly and rolled to the side to push himself up into a crouch, and then into a standing position, moving slowly as if every twitch of his muscles pained him.
He shouldered past her even though it obviously hurt him to batter his arm against hers roughly, and she found herself replaying the wounded sound he’d made when their armored sides connected.
It was a guttural noise; later, when she had changed back into her gown and veil and gone to her room to scrub off the grime of the day’s fete, she thought about what other situations he might make such a sound in.
The thoughts brought a flush to her cheeks.
The night before she’d given over being a child to make way for being a queen.
Tonight, she felt on the edge of her own private wilderness, not a child but also not yet the stoic thing she knew she must become to rule her people.
Chapter 7: interlude: the third feast
Without Klaus in attendance, the third night’s feast seemed a sickening rush of boredom, trapped beneath her veil and suffocating in the heat of the room that all seemed to become trapped along her skin by the gossamer.
Caroline wondered where the atmosphere of the night before had gone- was it only Klaus’ absence that made the room seem smaller and stuffier, or was it that all but the final competition had been fought, and now the men were less jovial as the prospect of their victory dwindled to nothing?
Whatever it was, she decided, she was not going to spend her last night as a creature of potential desire under a sheet in a room full of maudlin drunks.
With that decision, Caroline of Forbes rose and excused herself from the Hall.
The Mikaelson contingency of tents were made of rich red velvet, which seemed endlessly sumptuous in the light from the moon and the various fires burning around the vast campground. Happily, three of them were larger than the rest, and marked with the monograms of their owners- first an H, then a K, and finally an N, for Niklaus .
Caroline passed the other tents and paused outside of the one marked N, fingers barely grazing the velvet drapery. She inhaled shakily.
She’d never been alone with a man before. Not a man who mattered, anyway. A man who was a man in the same space that she was being a woman.
A woman alone.
It was a heady sort of thing, and made every step, every blink, every heartbeat feel weighted. Important. Divine.
He was settled in a tall copper bathtub, steam rising from it, his back to the door.
“Is that an assassin, come to kill me?” He drawled, softly, in a tone of honeyed amusement that did not shatter the moment’s gravity but somehow enhanced it. She kept walking, her tred silent but her skirt rustling against her thighs.
“It’s only me,” she murmured in response, “an assassin. Come to kill you.” And with that she knelt behind him, tall enough on her knees that she could see the bruises he’d earned in his fall. The dark, fist sized bruise at his sternum where her lance had struck him and broken, unhorsing him.
He chuckled, and she could see also that his eyes were closed as he relaxed further into the water, which smelt strongly of some herbal concoction no doubt mixed up to soothe his aching limbs, the reason he’d been absent at the feast.
“But what a way to go,” he said, a surrender, and she picked up the washcloth from where it was slung over the tub’s edge, dunking it into the hot water and humming in pleasure when her hand was submerged in it.
His eyes opened lazily as she brought the cloth up to gently rub circles into his chest and he sighed, a soft sort of sound. “So it is you,” he all but accused, and she smiled despite herself.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she whispered in his ear, feeling bold and daring and maudlin and sad, all of a sudden, that this was all she would have of him. Tomorrow she would take up her magic sword once again and defeat all the competitors in the melee who challenged her. Tomorrow she would stand tall and unmask herself, declare herself the owner of her own hand.
Klaus rolled his shoulders, a gesture almost feline, and closed his eyes once more even as he ducked his head to run his nose over the veins in her wrist, where Lexi daubed perfume every morning. She wondered if the scent had lasted through the day’s events, lemon and mint proving superior over sweat and filth.
She leaned forward to take up one of his arms for washing, so close that her breasts pressed against the warm copper outside of the tub and her hair brushed against Klaus’ shoulders. It was his right arm, and she noticed for the first time the silver band upon it, a bracelet made of bent and braided silver that was open and capped on either end with a wolf’s head. Two matching rubies were set in the wolves’ yawning, toothsome maws. It was a distinctive thing, and she ran her fingertips over the skin surrounding it.
“What’s this?” She asked, both because she was curious and because she wanted to hear him speak again.
“A tradition,” he replied, though not as forthcomingly as she’d expected. “A mark of my entry into manhood. My father gave it to me.”
“Have your brothers not yet become men, then?” She queried idly, running the cloth up over his inner elbow and to his sweetly rounded bicep. She felt him tense, there. “Why have they no traditional armbands?”
“Why do you not sit with your mother during the events?” He retorted, a question for a question, and she bit her lower lip in frustration.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, as obstinate as he was, and for a while the only sound in the tent was that of water stirring and, eventually, Caroline’s humming.
I loved a maid as fair as summer, she hummed, and when she’d run out of body parts within reach of her post she took up the carved ivory comb on the nearby table and began gently tugging it through Klaus’ tangled hair, which was for once unbound and in its natural state, with sunlight in her hair.
Klaus joined in on the next line, I loved a maid as red as autumn, with sunset in her hair, and his voice was just as rough and low and pleasing as it had been the night before in the Great Hall, when he was settled next to the dying fire and plucking the strings of a borrowed lute, half-murmuring a song about wolves and girls that had made her whole body feel liquified, unsteady, like she was made of gelatin.
By the time she’d finished the song she felt the same, warm and syrupy, quietly lilting you are the seasons of my love and feeling unbearably foolish and so full of something in her chest that she couldn’t stop herself from ducking her head to nose Klaus’ hair away from the nape of his neck so she could press her lips firmly to the skin there.
He groaned, and reached up to catch her hand in his, holding it against his damp, naked chest. She could feel his heartbeat through their clasped hands and breathed in the scent of him, herbs and salt and earth.
“I have to go,” she murmured finally, when she felt that she could take not another second without disgracing herself and throwing all of her efforts away. It would be nothing to hide the armor away and wear her own clothes to the tournament’s conclusion tomorrow, to watch him win the melee. To give him the crown of golden roses and allow him to place it back upon her head, as if he had any right to crown her anything.
She would be queen. She didn’t need anyone, much less a man. No matter if he was beautiful and infuriating and brilliant and so intensely both noble and feral that the dichotomy made her teeth ache.
“Marry me,” he spat out, a desperate sort of plea that she could tell he hated making even as his hand tightened around hers, keeping her where she was.
“I have to go,” she said again, and kissed his throat once more before she rose and left in a whirl of skirts, leaving him staring in her wake, having only caught a glimpse of her golden hair and the long line of her back as she fled.
Caroline slipped in through her bedroom window just as Liv was sneaking in through the door, disheveled and frowning in the haunted way she only ever did when she thought no one could see her. She stopped short at the sight of Caroline, wearing her simplest dress and smelling of medicinal herbs, her hands limp at her sides and her face raw with heartache.
“Oh, Caroline,” Liv sighed, so understanding that Caroline let her face crumple because it was dark in the room and Liv was Liv and if she wept the entire night with her lady in waiting curled around her back, Liv didn’t mention it the next morning.
Chapter 8: the melee
The melee began with much fanfare, each participant being separated into two groups that stood in line along either side of the arena. Caroline found herself ( Cesare Salvatore ) on the Easterly side, squinting into the sunlight and standing with Damon on one side and Henrik Mikaelson on the other, while Klaus’ name was called for the Westerly group.
Caroline took a deep breath to steady herself, not for the first time that day. Her head ached from her night of weeping, but her grip on her sword was sure.
They were about to start when Caroline realized that someone was trying to get her attention from the sidelines.
It was Bonnie, wrapped in the cloak she wore when she thought she was being stealthy, and she was hissing Cesare! over and over in an attempt to hail her.
Caroline broke formation and hurried over to her friend’s side, knees a little weak from the anticipation that she was beginning to suspect was the norm for things like this.
“ What, Bon?” She hissed, leaning in close and pitching her voice low so that (hopefully) none of the nearby squires and stewards and bards would hear young Cesare Salvatore’s newfound prowess with the English language.
“Caroline, I was up last night reading-“ Caroline made to turn back around, exasperated at Bonnie’s attempt at an impromptu book club meeting. Bonnie caught her by the wrist in an unnaturally strong grip, her eyes flashing oddly. “ And I found something. The winner of a tournament called by a royal couple with a daughter of marriageable age is allowed to pick their own spouse from those assembled.” Bonnie said this as if it should mean something to Caroline, who only had ears for the trumpeting that indicated the melee was beginning.
“Listen, Bon, I have to go-“ Caroline said, twisting her wrist from her friend’s odd grip and rushing headlong into the fray, freeing her sword from its sheath and keeping her right shoulder low to use as a battering ram of sorts.
Bonnie shouted something after her, but her voice was lost in the shouts of the men and spectators.
A melee, as it turned out, was quite different from anything else in the world— except, perhaps, real warfare.
Caroline found that hearing the sounds of live steel crashing together all around her was possibly the most invigorating thing she’d ever experienced, and her magical armor was practically glowing as it drew its power from her determination.
She couldn’t even remember who she had fought, who she had sent flying to the dirt and disarmed. It was all only the next clash of swords, the next opponent, until it was only her left standing.
Well, her, and Klaus.
They circled each other, her and Klaus, like wary, half-starved wolves begging for scraps. Klaus had lost his helmet sometime in the fray, or perhaps he’d not even bothered with one in the first place. Even as they circled each other he began loosening the straps on his breastplate, too, casting it off into the dirt. He moved in a half-crouch, his sword held low, and resembled nothing so much as a wild animal.
It was intoxicating . Just looking at him made her feel like a wild animal, too— made her thirsty for blood and violence, for him.
And then he began to speak.
“I know you can understand me,” he said, a low purr, the kind of noise she always imagined that a jungle cat might make. “I don’t care who you really are. You aren’t going to win this fight, mate.” He advanced and their swords clashed briefly, before he drew back to resume their circling again. The crowd had gone deathly silent, holding its breath.
Where there is will, there is strength, she chanted in her head, and then lunged, swinging her steel in an arc towards his head that he deflected with a savage kind of gleam in his eyes and a low grunt.
“I’m going to win,” he continued, and no wonder Vincent told tales of men fleeing from the sight of him in battle, because he was growing more darkly terrifying by the moment. It shouldn’t have been as attractive as it was. “I am going to win because you don’t deserve her.” This made her bark out a laugh, made her hackles rise. Deserve her? As if she were some prize to be won?
Well, she supposed that in this case she was a prize to be won, and shuddered briefly, whirling with her rage and letting her sword carry itself to a strike at his side, hitting him with the flat of her blade right where she knew a bruise lay from yesterday’s jousting rout. She felt wild. She felt like her expression must match his, and it pleased her suddenly, fiercely, that she would be the one to strike him down. That no one else would have that pleasure, that this would be the final nail in her coffin.
“And you do?” She snarled, battering him back.
“No,” Klaus said, eyes burning, meeting her stroke for stroke, and she ached, something in her stopping suddenly and not resuming its motion as he continued speaking. “I don’t. But I love her.” And it was… ridiculous. It was ridiculous, but she choked out something like a groan and a sob, because he loved her.
He loved her, and she could not deny any longer that she loved him as well.
But did she love him enough to sacrifice her victory? To give away her freedom, when it was so close within her grasp? How could she? If loving him meant giving up her freedom to choose, could she allow herself to do so?
For a moment they stood with their swords locked and she imagined it, imagined letting her grip slip, falling to the ground in defeat. Giving up the will that powered Qetsiyah’s enchantment and falling to Klaus’ superior strength. Slipping off and changing places with Liv hurriedly before the final ceremony, gazing upon Klaus as his betrothed and not his opponent.
It was a sweet enough picture, like something from a storybook. The princess and prince living happily ever after.
She was not always going to be a princess, though.
Caroline was going to be a queen.
She surged forward and, with a savage twist of her wrists, flung Klaus Mikaelson’s sword into the dirt.
“Surrender,” she said, a bittersweet smile growing on her face beneath the plate of her helmet. “Or die.”
Chapter 9: happily ever after
Well, I mean. It's over now. I'm sorry you had to read this mess of self-indulgent trash.
The crowd was deathly silent for a long moment as it took her in, slim and willowy in silver armor and, for all intents and purposes, a fifteen year old minor Salvatore cousin who had just shutout their tourney and won the hand of their crown princess.
It was clear that they did not know how to react, but a scattered applause began and then grew into a more respectable clamour as Liz stood from her throne and began to clap as well, an impassive look on her face. Inscrutable. It was one of the qualities that made her mother so formidable, the ability to keep all her emotions out of her expression.
Caroline’s heart was thundering in her chest and she felt as though she might be violently ill. Klaus still lay on the dirt with an expression of such utter self-loathing that she could hardly bear to look at him. He looked up at the podium where Liv sat, disguised, and she heard him mutter quietly I have failed you, my lady.
What was it that Bonnie had said? She tried to remember as she walked forward, wooden and numb, to the patch of dirt in front of the royal box.
The winner of a tournament called by a royal couple with a daughter of marriageable age is allowed to pick their own spouse from those assembled.
But she knew that already, didn’t she? The prize was the hand of the royal couple’s daughter. It wasn’t as if high-born ladies were often in attendance at these events- not unmarried ones, at least. It was a place for bachelors to fight for the hand of a single unmarried lady, the choicest one in the realm.
The winner of a tournament called by a royal couple with a daughter of marriageable age is allowed to pick their own spouse from those assembled.
Why was this so important that Bonnie risked exposing their charade at the eleventh hour to relay it to her? She had won the tournament, and thus won the hand of the princess- of herself. It was the point of the entire thing, to win her own hand in marriage and prevent her being given away to some random pompous git who would spend the rest of their lives embarrassing her and distracting her from her duties as queen.
The winner of a tournament called by a royal couple with a daughter of marriageable age is allowed to pick their own spouse from those assembled.
She stood at the designated patch of dirt and gazed up at her mother, and then at Liv, who was practically buzzing with nerves beneath the veil, that crown of golden roses glinting from its perch at the top of her head. The sight of them made her brow furrow. Their own spouse from those assembled, she mouthed to herself, and finally understood.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the lead herald bellowed, stepping up to her elbow. “I give you your champion, who has won the right to choose their bride from those unmarried maidens assembled here today,” he turned to her with a flourish. “Cesare Salvatore!”
Well, she thought, it’s now or never.
With will comes strength, and Caroline threw off her helmet with a clatter, freeing her golden hair from its confines. “Actually,” she said, voice shaking but strong. “About that…”
The crowd gasped. Her mother’s expression changed, her jaw dropping slightly in a way that might indicate mild surprise in another person but on Elizabeth meant that she was nearly bowled over with shock. Her father choked on his wine and then did a poor job of hiding his proud smile behind his hand.
“If you’re…” Liz began, furrowing her brows. “Then who…” She seemed to realize the answer even before Liv stood and tossed away her veil with a sheepish expression on her face. She held the crown carelessly aloft in her hand and proffered it to Liz, shrugging and grimacing semi-apologetically. It was a very Liv thing to do, and Caroline couldn’t help but smile a bit at her friend’s antics.
“That crown belongs to me,” Caroline told her mother, squaring her shoulders. “The right to choose my own spouse from those assembled is mine.” She made sure to quote the law itself, and her mother nodded sharply, coming down the stairs to stand before her.
“Princess Caroline of Forbes,” Liz said, projecting her voice for all to hear. “You have fought bravely in this tournament called by my husband and I, and prevailed in every task we have laid out for you. I hereby gift you this crown of golden roses, and with it the right to decide your own matrimonial fate.
The crown was heavier than it looked, Caroline reflected, as her mother placed it into her hands. The queen clearly expected her to set it upon her own head and end all of this with a declaration that she would remain unmarried until her dying day, legitimate heirs and clear lines of succession be damned.
Caroline supposed that she startled everyone when she turned on her heel and began walking back to the center of the arena.
Klaus had regained his footing with the assistance of his youngest brother, Lord Kol and Vincent of Griffith flanking him on either side as he stood battered and bruised and with a truly inscrutable expression on his face.
She came to a stop before him and raised her hand to her mouth to bite the tip of one of her glove’s fingers, tugging her appendage free from the thick leather so she could strip off the other one. The crown was warm from the sun and from being settled upon Liv’s head for the entirety of the day and it felt pleasant against her bare skin. Her hands seemed as strangely obscene next to all of that metal as they had days before when they were settled in Klaus’ own, and she smiled a little self-consciously at the sight.
Klaus’ eyes were fixed upon her hands, which were all he had ever seen of her naked skin, and then they found her face, tracing her every feature with a reverence that Caroline had only glimpsed in the faces of the monks she had seen once on her travels throughout the realm. As if she were something holy to be gazed upon with wonder and awe and not a small amount of terror.
She lowered herself onto one knee.
“Klaus Mikaelson,” she began, and smiled when he let out a bark of surprised, joyous, delighted laughter. “Will you marry me?”
The crown of golden roses looked ridiculously perfect settled upon Klaus’ head, Caroline reflected, gazing at her betrothed with proud satisfaction from her spot next to him at the head table. He was simultaneously trying to down his wine and glare menacingly at his younger brothers, who hadn’t stopped sniggering for the last half hour.
“How long do I have to wear this thing?” Klaus leaned over into her space to ask, his lips brushing her jaw, and she closed her eyes and hummed with the pleasure of it, before she smiled wickedly at him, stroking back a stray strand of his hair.
“Forever,” she informed him, thinking of always being able to look over and see the crown resting on his head, being able to always remember that he was her choice, not the other way around, not her mother’s, not anyone’s. “I like it. Everyone will remember that you’re my prize.” For emphasis, she reached over and set her hand on his thigh, squeezing.
Klaus ducked his head and scowled but there was a pleased tilt to his lips and a warm blush spreading over his cheeks.
How divine, Caroline mused, to be able to put such a blush on the face of the wild Young Wolf of the North.
And even more divine, to know that she would have a lifetime to continue doing so.
“I still don’t understand how it happened,” Liz complained to her husband, reading glasses on and gazing down at a treatise laid on her desk.
Bill made a soothing sort of noise from where he was laid in their bed, nightshirt on and a novel in hand. “Dearest, I told you before. Caroline will never do what we expect her to, and especially not what you try to force her to do.”
“She gets that from you.” Liz accused lightly, sighing and rubbing at her eyes when they refused to focus on the flowery script of her Secretary of Agriculture.
“Yes, dear,” Bill murmured agreeably, and then rose from the warmth of the sheets to cross the room and wrap his hand gently around her wrist. “Come to bed. You’ll have enough time for that in the morning.”
Liz yawned. “Oh, alright. Remind me again why I married such a nag?” She teased, leaning into his side as he drew her towards the bed.
“Oh, because I was handsome, I think. Isn’t that what they all say? You sent out for the handsomest man in the kingdom and I showed up?” Bill laughed.
“Yes, that was it. It couldn’t have been anything else.” She agreed solemnly, and crawled into her side of the bed.
“O, love!” Bill exclaimed, reaching his upper body out of bed far enough to extinguish the lamp at his bedside.
“Goodnight, Romeo,” Liz mumbled, already half asleep, and smiled when his hand found hers, fingers twining together.
Theirs was no great, passionate romance, she would concede to anyone. However, she would never be resentful at marrying her best friend.
“Where the hell did you learn how to do that?” Tyler of Lockwood panted, falling back into the sheets and pillows beneath him that were already soaked with sweat and other fluids.
“Oh, here and there,” Liv grinned, stretching her arms above her head and tucking her face into her elbow, blowing a stray curl off of her cheek.
“God, I’m so glad I didn’t win that tournament,” he mumbled, half-asleep, only to yelp when Liv’s foot dragged up the inside of his calf, teasing and kittenish.
“I don’t know,” Liv said with a laugh. “If you’d won, you could’ve claimed me as your prize.”
“I still might, yet,” he told her hoarsely, and then rolled over on top of her again.
She laughed loudly, and dragged him down for a kiss.