Eric and Ariel
Chapter title: bitter warnings
Word count: 1,254
It was an unusually cold morning in the kingdom as Eric watched the waves crash on the shore. An hour before, he had been woken by messenger with word of Ariel's safe arrival. The sun was just starting to rise above the shimmering blue ocean. He felt queasy - but he could not place why. Something simply felt off in the world. A crinkle in the fabric. Seagulls cried out as they dove down into the waves for fish.
Uncertainty was not something Eric handled well.
He sipped at his coffee and wondered to himself what the day had in store. The sun rose but never lit the beach. Instead, huge billowing clouds, the color of ash, covered the sky. They'd moved in rather quickly, Eric thought, and went inside.
Waiting in his chambers was Grimsby, lounging in Ari's favorite recliner. The aquamarine fabric reminded her of home, as Eric had hoped it would when he'd had the set custom built for her birthday the previous year. Grimsby smiled at him but the gesture set Eric on edge. He wasn't certain he recognized the strange grin.
"You're up early, Eric," he commented. Eric wondered if he was imagining the suspicion he heard in the other man's tone.
"Ariel sent word, she's arrived safely on Targan soil. The peace negotiations are underway as we speak," he answered, keeping all hesitation from his voice.
"Splendid," Grimsby said, "I'm sure all will be successful. You should rest."
"I will rest when she returns home," Eric said, unable to keep the anxiety from leaking into his inflections.
"Ariel is a clever girl, Sir Eric, you worry too much for her safety."
Eric wondered why there had been such deliberate intonation behind 'her.' He felt paranoid and unstable just thinking in such a way. He wished he knew the source of the unsettling lump of nerves in his stomach. Outside, thunder cracked and Eric could feel the vibrations in the stone floor beneath his feet. A gust blew through the open french doors, shaking them angrily; they rattled noisily on their hinges. "What was it you needed, Grimsby? What brings you to my chambers so early?"
"You have a guest waiting," he said, rising from the plush chair. He did not meet Eric's eyes. "She refuses to give a name or a purpose, but she insists on seeing you, m'lord."
"Fine," Eric said, brushing a hand through the air in dismissal. "I will be down in a few moments, I have something I need to do."
Grimsby bowed slightly and let himself out of the room. When Eric could no longer hear his footsteps, he pulled out parchment and his quill pen and sat down at the desk. In hurried, frantic script, he wrote to Ariel.
He folded the parchment and stowed it safely in the safebox Triton had gifted to them on their wedding day. Too heavy for any man to carry, and charmed with the magic of the sea. Out of curiosity, Eric had once called a troop from his army in to see if the box was liftable. Nineteen men had gotten hands on it, with room for not a single other digit, but even together they had no luck.
Eric lifted it one handed and smiled. He would have to thank Triton again for the gift. The King obviously knew the benefits of such a treasure. Eric slipped his long knife into it's shealth at the small of his back and made his way to the main hall.
The first step into the grand chamber was enough to make him want to call the guards. A putrid smell filled his nostrils and he fought back a gag. His vision blurred with the intensity of the stench.
There was a woman, with long, thick black hair falling in stringy waves down her shoulders, standing in the very center of the hall. "Ah," she rasped at him, a sickly smile stretching her narrow, chapped lips wide across her face; a gruesomely mis-proportioned grin that made her appear freakish and unnatural. "You finally have time for old Stella, dearest Princey?" The black dress and cloak that hung on her withering, aging body was filthy and tattered.
"Your familiarity indicates that I should know you," he said, "but, Miss Stella, I'm afraid I've never met you before this day."
"No, no, dear Princey," Stella crooned in the same singed, gravelly way, "you do not know Stelly but Stella knows you."
"Is that so?" He seated himself in his throne, adjacent to Ariel's empty one, and prepared himself to suffer through the rank odor.
"Indeed, my Princey." That eerie smile tore across her starved features. "Do you swallow down unrest on this dark and dreary day, my Lord? You should, you should."
He bristled, unable to restrain himself fully, and said, "What do you know, Stella? What have you come here for?"
She wagged a long, bony finger at him; just her index finger sticking out from beneath the shadows of her cloak. "Stella came to warn the dear Prince but Stella thinks now that her Princey already knows. Stella thinks the Princey Dear is more clever than she thought."
"Knows what?" He leaned forward in his seat, heedless of her rotting stink now, too curious to care.
Her wide eyes went black as she looked at him. She scanned the room.
"There are cheaters and betrayers,
liars, and aides, and thieves," she said,
"these walls are full of traitors.
Hear the gypsy warning
of deceitful creatures lurking beneath:
be gone by morning, be gone by morning.
Or empty this home
shall be when
the hero does come."
And then the woman vanished in a puff of acrid, pea-green smoke, her rhyme hanging in the air like the fetor of so much stale garbage.
They did come for him, the liars and traitors and thieves, in the night. Once the sun had set and the clouds still lingered. Rain fell from the sky in mighty torrents that only further fed the raging ocean tides. He was waiting in the dark, ready. Expecting them.
He couldn't be expected to flee his own castle.
He'd placed a variety of his weapons around the room - hoping it would leave one within reach at all times. They broke down the door.
He immediately scolded himself for having overlooked part of the warning. 'These walls are full of traitors,' she'd said - and he had let it slip through his fingers. He dodged a cleaver to the head and rolled out of the way, tripping the cook and hoping it was enough to stun the large man.
He had to bite back the bitter swell of betrayl in his chest. All those he'd grown up with - people his parent's had entrusted his care to - were turning on him. Again, he found himself grateful that Ariel was an ocean away.
He held his own in the brawl for almost half an hour. Almost a dozen opponents, and he managed to keep them away from him until Grimsby meandered in with a pistol.
The movement around him seemed to slow down and he watched in agonized hesitation as Grim levelled the weapon right at him. They stared each other down across the fray of activity, and Eric knew he had no escape.
He had one hope: that whomever had turned his makeshift family against him wanted him alive, not dead.
Eric dropped his sword and the last sound he heard was the clatter of steel hitting the stone floor.