In the Land of Stories Old
Merlin awoke to the sense of someone nearby, and the pain hit some seconds after. A strong hand touched his chest, which was coincidentally where most of the pain seemed to be coming from. “Easy there,” Arthur’s voice rumbled. “Movin’ around would not be to your likin’ right now. That’s what you get for makin’ several grand noble gestures in a row, you showoff.” Merlin blinked, or tried to; something was in the way. He raised one hand to that and had it stopped. “No, leave it alone. It’s much easier for me to do what I’m doin’ when I’m half again your size.”
Merlin’s hand dropped, but only to wrap weakly around his wrist. “Once the curse-magic was released, I thought…I thought it would spread out. I’d hoped…”
His voice was pained, not just from the pain of his injuries, and Arthur pretended to ignore the damp spots which began to appear on the silk scarf that was currently in use as a blindfold. “We all did—all kiddin’ aside, we’d all hoped it was a one for all and all for one sort of thing…but it wasn’t. So the rest of us will just have to find our own way.”
“But you shouldn’t…I don’t want you to…”
“Die?” Arthur squeezed his hand and went back to what he’d been doing, which was applying salve and changing bandages. “No, hopefully we’ll be smarter about it than you were and refrain from makin’ the grandest gesture just to get a few seconds of not bein’ a ruddy green dwarf.” He hesitated. “Try not to do that again for a bit, would you? Twice in one day is more than enough, and as I have some things to see about once you’re back on your feet I won’t be here to save you from yourself.”
Arthur blew out a breath. “Not just that.” He smiled. “That was my secret, you know. Red—Snow, I mean—pulled Excalibur out without really meanin’ to, and she offered to take it out again and give it to me.” Merlin choked. “Easy, easy—she didn’t know what it meant. And I’d sort of hoped that havin’ it in my hand would end the curse, but I think now that it’s most likely the opposite. I’ll not be able to draw her for real until I’m found worthy.” He patted his friend’s chest again, let his hand rest there for a second over that steady flutter that meant life. It had been so close… “And now I know what worthy means…well, that might be a longer road than I’d anticipated.”
Merlin produced a shadow of a smile that Arthur hadn’t seen in quite a long while—at least, not directed at him, anyway. “You want me to pull it out and give it to you, then?”
“You couldn’t even fall off this bed without help right now, you pillock,” Arthur snorted. “Because that’s what you get when you drain your magic down to dregs. The hundred-and-one-card lightnin’ show was bad enough—and I’ll have you know they felt that shockwave all the way down to the town and thought it was dragons fightin’ in the mountains or somethin’—but magickin’ the castle bridge back into place was a bit much.”
Confusion was evident. “Wh…what?”
Arthur made a mental note to let everyone know their magician’s memory had not come through his near-death experience entirely intact. “Well, you finished kissin’ the breath right out of your princess and then you saw Jack and Hans and I on the other side of the broken bridge. Snow says you just started sayin’ ‘no’ over and over again, and then you threw out your hand and the stones started to fly up and fit themselves back together. We all tried to shout you into stoppin’ and the triplets tried as well, but if you heard us you just ignored us, like usual. So now the castle has its tower bridge back and you saved everyone a long walk, but I certainly hope you like this room because you won’t be leavin’ it for a while unless your future wife carries you out the way she carried you in.”
He’d expected the faint blush, but not the soft chuckle. “I suppose I…won’t be living down being the damsel in distress for a while.”
“No.” Arthur adjusted the blankets. “Go back to sleep, Merlin. This is just like the first time, you have to sleep it off.”
Merlin made an inarticulate noise and was out again just that quickly, and Arthur rose to his feet with a grimace. In spite of what he’d just said it really wasn’t the same as the first time, which had been years ago and an accident. Merlin had never drained himself down this far before. It had been three days since the witch’s death and he was still pale as parchment and limp as a soggy noodle, and when he managed to come awake it was only for a few minutes at a time. They’d assured Snow that he should be fine eventually, that his body was healing and it just took time for his magic to recharge…but none of them knew how long it would take this time, because as near as they could tell he’d barely had enough left after the incident to keep himself breathing.
That was a little-known fact about magicians: once physically matured, their magic was intertwined with their life force to such an extent that without magic they would expire within minutes, sometimes even less. Arthur had once seen a mage literally turn to dust after a badly-cast siphon spell had backfired and drained him, his familiar, and the kidnapped ‘apprentice’ the Seven had been there to save.
He quietly let himself out of the room and started down the hall, then turned a corner and abruptly shrank four feet because Jack was coming from the other direction. “He is…?”
“No better, but no worse.” Arthur ran stubby fingers through his hair. “Your guess is as good as mine. And he doesn’t remember repairin’ the bridge…but now I know why he did it.” One golden eyebrow went up. “He was still feelin’ the magic from the transformation around him. He thought him turnin’ back would turn us all back, and when he saw we hadn’t he thought we had to be closer.”
“A reasonable thought to have had.” Jack shrugged. “I thought one breaking the curse might do for all of us as well, but it did not. Hopefully the curse will not require nearly dying for the rest of us.”
“Hopefully.” Arthur wasn’t all too sure about that, and he knew it showed. “You know, I’d never thought about it before…but that fairy could have killed him, if she’d blocked his magic with the curse instead of just shrinkin’ it.” Jack paled. “Yeah, exactly. If I happen to wander into her while I’m out and about, I might be inclined to thank her for not doin’ that.”
The two of them made their way back downstairs to the kitchen, which was where the rest of the Seven were as well. “He woke up again. He didn’t remember fixin’ the bridge at all.”
Kio was frowning into his tea. “We went out to look at it again, and it is just as it must have been before it was destroyed. Quite sturdy. Even the mortar is back between the stones.” That made Arthur groan and drop his head onto the table, and Kio ruffled his hair. “At least he did not half-repair it so that it collapsed again. That would have been a waste.”
“Since we could have easily walked from the tower to the rest of the castle on the ground, I think it was already a waste of sorts.” Jack poured himself some tea and stirred honey into it. “Have there been any visitors from the town?”
“No,” Pino told him. “When we went down for supplies, the baker said the children had been taken in by a family farther up the coast. They were not recognized by anyone in the town, and they do not remember why they were here or where they originally came from.”
“It is possible the witch kidnapped them,” Noki said. “What I want to know is how all this went on without us hearing about it! People were disappearing due to the witch long before we were cursed.”
Arthur raised his head again, accepting the mug Hans pushed at him. “I don’t remember ever hearin’ anything about this witch, not anywhere. And if Dad had heard, he’d have sent word to us.”
“He would have, yes.” Arthur’s father, King Uther, was very supportive of his boys—Merlin was his ward—and their friends, and passed along any news he thought might be useful to them when he heard it. He’d had them come to Avalon for training in the past, too, because he’d wanted to make sure they weren’t getting sloppy. Jack raised a perfect golden eyebrow at Arthur. “I know you cannot write to him, but now Merlin may be able to. He should be told where we are, at the very least.”
“He should, yeah.” Arthur didn’t look enthusiastic about it. He’d wanted to be back to his proper form before his father saw him. Not because Uther would react badly, but because the curse kept people from recognizing them and the idea of having his father see him and not know who he was—and to not be able to tell him, either—made Arthur feel sick. Of course, Merlin might be able to tell him. But Merlin also hadn’t mentioned Arthur’s father by name since…shortly after they’d been cursed. “We can ask him to try it, once he’s feelin’ better. At worst we’ll waste a piece of paper.” He looked around the table. Merlin had been…was their nominal leader, but with Merlin out of commission Arthur was in charge. “So, what are we all doin’ from here?”
“I will stay here for a time,” Hans said. “They have no one, and I would miss having such an appreciative table to cook for.” He did not say that he would be staying at least until Merlin was back on his feet, but it was understood. There was no cook in the castle, there were no servants, no guards, nothing.
The triplets were nodding. “We will be staying too,” Noki declared, running a hand through his disordered red curls; containing their untameable hair was one reason the triplets usually wore Vincian helmets when they went out. “We told the king that we would see what we can repair of the damage the death of the witch did not fix.”
“And create better defenses as there are no longer any here,” Pino piped up. The castle guards, like the rest of the inhabitants of the castle, had been sacrificed by the witch to maintain her power; they had become the creeping woody vines which had insinuated themselves over and through the castle, and once the witch was gone those vines had fallen to dust with no trace left of what—who—they had once been.
The witch really had deserved to die, all things considered. She’d been a murderess on a scale the Seven had never encountered before and hoped they never did again. “I will stay for a time as well,” Jack said, sipping his tea with more elegance of movement than a dwarf should have been able to pull off. “For security, as you said. And for cleaning, because this castle is filthy. It is not seemly for the princess to live under such conditions, or her father and her future husband either.”
And there it was. “I’ll stay until we get things cleaned up,” Arthur said. “And until we have decent defenses to at least keep people from just walkin’ right in whenever they please. But after that, I plan to hit the road. The curse won’t end itself.”
“Very true, it won’t,” Jack agreed. “But perhaps you should not be in such a hurry until we have found out if ending it actually requires our willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, or if that was only because it was Merlin.” His tone was cool, but the look he was giving Arthur was accusing, even contemptuous.
This is why you have a chunk of stone stuck to your sword, Prince of Avalon—you choose to run from the mess you made instead of fixing it.
In the Land of Stories Old