Evening was just beginning to fall over the Kingdom of Arendelle, and her king was watching it from a high window, somewhat pensively taking in the way the not-yet-setting sun’s rays were glinting off the sea’s placid waves. He was more wondering what his wife was doing and if she was safe than he was admiring the view, even though he knew she was perfectly capable of seeing to her own safety. Queen Elsa had left not quite a fortnight ago, gone to attend a trade summit of all those whose ships plied the Northern seas, and she’d even left in the company of Captain Dezhnev of Rasseeyah, who was attending the same summit on behalf of his royal cousin, Tzar Ivan. No, it wasn’t so much that John was worried – although, like any loving young husband, he most certainly was – but more that he missed her company and wished she hadn’t gone even though he knew the summit was quite an important one and Arendelle had most certainly needed to be represented.
Aside from that, however, he was also worried about their kingdom. Arendelle’s recent history had been somewhat tumultuous, which was why he hadn’t gone with his wife as he should have liked to – there was just enough disaffection left in the kingdom that he didn’t dare. Someone had to stay on the throne, and look after the children, and as Elsa was the one most able to protect herself and her kingdom’s interests if all was not as it should be at the summit, so it was John who had to stay behind. Things had been fine at first, quiet even, but over the past few days John had felt himself overtaken by a sort of nervous anticipation, as though something were about to happen and he was only waiting for it. So he’d taken to watching out the castle’s windows on a regular basis, mainly in the direction of the main gates, missing his wife but also keeping his eyes open for anything which seemed amiss.
There hadn’t been anything to see on any other evening, but on this one John’s attention was drawn away from the waves by the bobbing lights of torches being held aloft, approaching the castle gates. They massed there and he thought for a moment the trouble would all be contained outside the castle walls…but then he saw the restraining posts being pulled back and knew what was about to happen – he’d been hoping it wouldn’t, of course, but being a practical man he’d always known it could and that the absence of his wife could be seen as a golden opportunity for anyone wishing to stage a takeover attempt. He thought quickly, then ran for his Royal Huntsman’s rooms, hoping Claude hadn’t already left for his night hunt as he’d been planning to earlier.
Luck was with him; Claude was still there. “That circumstance we’ve discussed, it’s happening,” he said without preamble. “Tell the nurse I sent for her, then take William and Annabelle and get them out of here – to King Kristoff if possible, to Lord Nilsson’s if not, or even up into the mountains if you have to. Just get them to safety.”
Claude was already picking up his travel bag; he glanced around the room, snatched up an empty bag lined with fur that he thought would do to carry the Princess Annabelle in. “My wife…”
“I’ll send her out one of the side gates with a market basket, and tell her to get to Lord Nilsson’s and stay there,” his king assured him. Claude had married Maiken, the castle’s cook, the previous winter, and they were even now expecting their first child; if they hadn’t been, John would have sent Maiken with her husband and the children. “I’m going now – I’ll meet the bastards at the doors to slow them down.” He clasped Claude’s arm. “If this becomes very bad, Claude…take our families back to Valeureux and keep them there, do you understand?”
Claude returned the arm-clasp, nodding, feeling too overwhelmed to trust his voice…then turned and ran for the royal wing. He could hear his king’s boots running in the opposite direction, down toward the kitchens, and he sent up a silent prayer to whatever gods might be listening that it wouldn’t get that bad.
John sent Maiken off ‘to market’ just as he’d said he would, letting her out one of the small stone servants’ doors with his own master key. There was no one else to send off, as none of the maids were anywhere to be seen and Jor, the old steward, had died the previous winter, so he hid the key on his person and straightened his clothing before marching to the castle’s front hall. He could hear a commotion outside on the steps, and he had to be rather stern with the guards to get them to open the doors. “No,” he said quietly when one of them lifted the spear he was carrying. “There are too many, you’d be throwing your life away. If we’re lucky, all they want is surrender.”
One guard’s eyes widened. “But, Your Majesty…”
“You’d rather I let them kill all of you to make me capitulate?” John asked, and did not quite smile when the man grimaced. “This had to be planned, Stuart, with help from both inside and out – they waited until the queen was gone to try it, after all. Now go on, open the doors and let’s greet our visitors politely. Oh, and whoever was on the gates let them in, I saw it, so keep that in the back of your mind.”
Stuart nodded, and then he and his fellow guard pulled open the heavy doors. His king stood before them, just as he would were he greeting an arriving visitor…and then, once the doors were fully open and the invading force on the steps could be seen, he rolled his eyes. “Well you’re the last person I ever thought would dredge up enough manhood to try something like this,” John said. “I was under the impression you’d left Arendelle for good, Mr. Fritjof.”
Former councilor Fritjof sneered. He was wearing robes even finer than the ones he’d had before leaving Arendelle, and his bearing was haughty in the extreme. “I left only to find help to take back my kingdom, Mr. Kepperson.” The armed men with him rushed in, displacing and disarming the guards, and two of them took hold of John and made to disarm him as well…only to find that he wasn’t carrying any weapons. Fritjof made a show of looking him up and down. “I’m surprised, I’d expected you to have grown comfortably fat from living the royal life.”
“Running a kingdom is hard work,” John countered smoothly. “I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about that, though. Nice robes, by the way. I see you’ve kept your taste for velvet, and is that gold embroidery? If you’re serious about taking over, I hope you’ve brought your own washerwoman with you. Ours wouldn’t know what to do with that.”
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Stuart couldn’t help but smirk and neither could his fellow guard. King John hadn’t even worn velvet at his own coronation, and compared to their former councilors his wardrobe was restrained in the extreme. Even in his relatively plain everyday clothing, however, he still looked ten times as royal as Fritjof currently did.
Fritjof apparently knew this, because while he didn’t lose his sneer, the tips of his ears went red. “I wouldn’t expect a mere bookkeeper to understand pride of place, or propriety, for that matter,” he retorted. “You should have stayed in your place, John – but as you didn’t, I will put you back in it myself.” He smiled then, rather like a snake might smile at a vole. “And you will stay there…for the sake of the children, of course.”
John drew himself up. “You think I did not know that would be in the mind of anyone seeking to take the castle, Fritjof? Do you honestly think our children are still within your reach?”
“They’re still here, you lie! Guards, up to the nursery, bring the queen’s bastards to me this instant!”
“Up the stairs two flights, then take the right-hand staircase and go down the second corridor until you reach the blue door,” John said helpfully, and smiled when the foreign guard faltered and gave Fritjof a questioning look. “Oh, so he did know enough to tell you in advance where it was. You can go if you like, but it’s quite a walk with nothing for you at the end of it.”
Fritjof advanced on him until they were almost nose to nose; Stuart wasn’t able to prevent himself pulling at his own captors’ hold. “Where. Are. They!”
“Safe,” John told him. “I had time to see to that if nothing else before you made it in the gates. Have fun searching the castle. You won’t find them.”
“Then they can starve where they are!” Fritjof snapped. “You’ll tell me before you’ll let that happen, of course. Guards, take this usurper to the dungeons and leave him there. We’ll see if he feels more cooperative after a few days of the conditions he kept the old Chief Councilor in.”
John sneered back at him. “I’m surprised you’re not telling them to put me in the cell that floods.”
Fritjof smiled his snake-smile again. “What a good suggestion, John. Make sure he goes in that one, we don’t want to draw this show of stubbornness out.”
Stuart would have fought then, but a hard look from his king stopped him cold. He swallowed, shaking his head at his equally ready-to-fight fellow guard, and they allowed themselves to be led away in the opposite direction. He did turn his head for one last look, though, and saw King John walking calmly between the two mercenaries, back straight and head high. The sight put a lump in his throat. He did not think his king would be giving in to the traitor’s demands.
In fact, he suspected the man would die first.