In the Land of Stories Old
A few days after the memorial, Merlin woke up for no apparent reason. He could tell nobody was in the room with him, but something didn’t feel right. It was like he was sensing a disturbance somewhere in the castle, a vibration of violence shaking its way up through the stones and charging the air, and it brought him the rest of the way awake and saw him tearing off his blindfold and sitting up with a start. Or at least, it saw him shoving off the blindfold and sort of rolling to one side and attempting to prop himself up on his elbow. Which hurt, because that was the side his broken ribs were on, but he was distracted from the pain by the disturbance which was only just becoming audible.
Fighting. Inside the castle.
And the sensation…sound of heavy boots on stone steps, getting closer.
He forced himself into more of a sitting position, left arm pressed tightly against his side, and took stock. His magic was a barely-there flicker inside of him, like a candle mere minutes from guttering out, so using magic to defend himself was out of the question. There didn’t seem to be any weapons in the room, not that he could have lifted a sword anyway, and the scissors on the table by the bed were barely the length of his hand. Hiding under the bed was out, it was the first place someone would look—it was the first place he’d look. Nothing else in the room presented itself as a hiding place either, as the room was rather bare. Still, he started working his way out of the bed. The stone floor was icy cold against the soles of his feet, but that little jolt of fresh pain went a long way toward making him feel more alert. The nightshirt he was wearing was well-washed linen and somewhat overlarge for him—he thought it looked like one of Arthur’s—but luckily it wasn’t anywhere near so long that it presented a tripping hazard.
Standing up made the room twist and warp, but he focused on the far wall and willed the sensation to stop as an idea formed. Clutching the scissors in his free hand, a weapon of last resort, he began making his way across the room. Far too slowly for his own piece of mind, considering the boots pounding up the stairs. It would be close…
The heavy wooden door slammed open, hitting the wall with a tremendous crash and then rebounding almost into the face of the burly man who had shoved it open in the first place. He pushed it back and stepped into the room, never noticing the brief flash of white that quickly vanished into the gap between door and wall. “Magician, your time has…” He blinked at the empty bed. “Where’s he gotten to? He was supposed to be here!”
“Maybe he’s hiding under the bed,” one of the two men with him suggested, and hurried forward with one of his fellows to give the sturdy wooden frame a shove. “He’s not here!”
“I can see that, you idiot,” snapped his leader. A suspicious glance went around the room, but it was obvious nobody was there. “He’s not supposed to have invisibility, but who knows what tricks a magician has up his sleeve. Find him! Once the ‘hero’ and the king are taken care of, the castle and the town will be ours!”
He stomped back out, taking his men with him, and it was all Merlin could do not to slide to the floor. His friends were in danger, his princess was in danger, and her father was probably in even more danger than that. He couldn’t stay here. A shiver ran up his legs and kept rising, and he winced. The nightshirt wasn’t going to be enough, he’d no idea where his pants were, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull them on even if they’d been in front of him. He’d need to improvise.
A few floors down, the rest of the Fearless Seven, quite unfortunately still in their cursed dwarf forms, were taking on the small army of ruffians who had invaded the mostly empty and defenseless castle. The king and the princess had been told to hide, as there simply weren’t any weapons around they could use to defend themselves, and the dwarfs were doing their best to keep the attackers away from the general area they’d run in.
Arthur’s heart absolutely sank when several of the ruffians split off from the rest to look not for the king and princess but for ‘that magician’. The story of what had happened to the witch must have spread past the town, and someone had correctly assumed that the magician involved would be out of commission. Someone had also let everyone know that the only other people in the castle besides the king and the princess were very small dwarfs.
Arthur had quite a grudge against Someone at the moment.
The fighting…wasn’t going well, although it could have been worse. Armed and armored raiders against a handful of battle-trained dwarfs who were only two feet tall was of course leaning in favor of the raiders. Enough so that there had been nothing any of them could do to stop the small group breaking away to find Merlin, most likely with intent to use him as a hostage if not outright kill him. The fact that their leader had come stomping back in a temper because the magician had gotten away from them had both delighted Arthur and horrified him. Where could Merlin possibly have gone, and how had he gotten there? Or had he tried to use magic and…
Another gigantic oaf of a man charged him then, and that fear slipped away to be wondered about later.
King White had hoped the small counting room he’d secreted himself and his daughter in would be far enough away from the invaders’ point of entry to keep them hidden…or at least he’d been hoping that until one of the raiders had kicked in the room’s door and sneered at them in triumph. “Gotcha,” the man snarled, brandishing a long knife. “One dead king, comin’ up…”
“Or one dead rogue, take your pick,” a somewhat familiar accented voice said. “I know which one I’m picking. Shall I decapitate you fully, or just run your neck through and watch you die on the floor gasping like a fish?”
The man swallowed, knife falling out of his hand. “Um…decapitation?”
“Wrong answer,” Merlin said, and something silver poked through the front side of the man’s neck. King White lost no time grabbing the dropped knife, and when the raider staggered forward he stabbed the man through the gut rather more viciously than had probably been necessary. Luckily the blade wasn’t so long that it hit Merlin when it came out the other side, although it was still a near thing. “Hmm, I didn’t offer him disemboweling as an option, but c’est la vie.”
Snow and her father just stared. Merlin was bracing himself in the doorway, barefoot and wearing a blanket that had been draped over his shoulders and wrapped several times around his waist with a scarf to approximate a longish robe. He nodded to the king. “Sorry I wasn’t down here sooner, Your Majesty, but I didn’t realize we had a problem until some of these rough fellows came upstairs looking for me.”
“Quite all right, Prince Merlin,” the king said with a barely-forced smile. “Your timing was excellent.”
“I do my best.” Merlin took a step into the room, but his second step almost saw him falling and Snow caught him before he could hit the floor. His arms went around her. “Thank goodness you’re safe, my love. I was afraid…I would be too late again.”
“How did you even get down here?!”
“Oh, I walked.” One arm came back down to brace his ribs. “And believe me, I felt every single step.” She tried to make him sit down, but he wouldn’t have it. “No, I can feel…hear more of them coming. And I hear Arthur, who hopefully hasn’t gotten himself caught.” He locked eyes with the king. “Your Majesty, I have a plan, but I’m going to need both of you to help.”
When the three raiders made their way into the short hallway, Arthur almost groaned to see the door at the end of it so obviously half off its hinges. He’d been caught while trying to keep them out of the corridor and had given up trying to wiggle himself free for the moment, hoping the man who had him would get distracted enough at some point to give him a better opportunity. But when the moment came, he was too startled to take advantage of it.
Because when the door swung back, three people were standing behind it: Snow, King White…and Merlin. On his feet, wearing a robe he’d gotten who knows where, and holding up a very familiar piece of ink-marked paper. “This isn’t going to go well for you,” Merlin told the raiders, who’d stopped dead in their tracks. “Small enclosed space, big explosion…no, I just don’t think any of you will survive it. Although whoever’s not bringing up the rear might have a chance if you drop my friend and run away as fast as you can.
Arthur just knew the men weren’t going to buy the magician’s bluff…and then to his complete shock the paper started to glow, and seconds later he was dropping to the ground and rolling out of the way of three men who were shoving each other into the walls in their haste to get away. “What the…how?!”
“The power of illusion,” Merlin told him, tucking the slightly singed paper into the scarf wrapped around his waist while King White blew out a burning candle. “And a very strong princess holding me up, of course.” His knees started to buckle, and Snow very carefully lowered him to the ground. He leaned into her shoulder with a sigh, closing his eyes. “Give me…ten minutes and we could do it again, maybe.”
“Sure we could.” Arthur did his best to ignore his friend’s bare feet and the fading but still ugly bruises on his legs—even if it happens underwater, having a boulder land on you leaves marks—and instead looked at the dead raider on the floor. “Are those Jack’s scissors?”
“Needs must,” Merlin waved it away with a flutter of one hand. “And it was His Majesty who finished the man off, I just distracted him.”
Arthur dropped his head into his hand and counted to three. “You are goin’ to be the death of me.”
That brought Merlin’s head up. “Please don’t joke about that, Arthur. Not until you’ve…not for a while, at least.”
“Sorry.” Arthur sighed and tapped the chunk of stone fused to his sword against the wall. “Hans and I’ve killed two of them and so has Jack, the triplets took out a few more, and I think we’ve got ten or twelve left to go. Although maybe the three who think we’ve got a fully functional magician with us might run for it now.”
“We can’t count on that.” Merlin let his head fall onto Snow’s shoulder again. “I can’t think, everything’s spinning too much.”
Snow tightened her hold on him. “We’ll figure it out, Merlin.”
He huffed. “In less than eight minutes, I hope. My plan…isn’t the best.”
“Your plan isn’t the one we’re goin’ to use,” Arthur told him. “At least some of them know you can’t use magic, Merlin, you just took the three that came down here by surprise.” He tapped the wall again…and to his surprise, something tapped back. “What…?”
“Ghosts,” King White said, making a face. “The castle’s full of them, thanks to the witch. I didn’t know they could respond, though. They don’t respond to me. In fact, I think they’re angry with me.”
Merlin’s head came back up, eyes wide. “With you, maybe.” He started trying to get to his feet, and huffed in frustration when it didn’t work. “I need to…I need to touch the wall.”
Arthur’s eyes went wide too, but for a different reason. “You can’t use magic!”
“I shouldn’t have to.” Snow reluctantly helped him get close to the wall, and he first placed his palm against it and then leaned against it with a sigh. The cool stone felt good against his skin, but he did his best not to be distracted by that. “I know you can hear me,” he said. “Please, your princess is in danger. Any help you could give us…would be greatly appreciated.”
Silence, and then the stone began to radiate a cold blue light and a vibration like marching feet began to thrum through the room’s walls and floor. Merlin stiffened with a sound that was not quite a whimper, and when he opened his eyes the blue light was flickering through them as well. He straightened away from the wall with surprising steadiness and inclined his head to Snow. “Your Highness.”
It wasn’t quite Merlin’s voice—it was deeper, slightly hollow, and the accent was definitely missing—and she stared at him in horror. “Who…”
“I was once your father’s captain of the guard.” The blue-lit brown eyes never left her face. “He is responsible for our fate; we will not aid him. But for you, we will do what we can.” Merlin’s shoulders shrugged a little, in the way of a man settling a cloak across his shoulders. “This mage is weak, but willing to be my conduit.”
Snow paled. “Please don’t hurt him.”
The familiar face smiled in an unfamiliar way. “I will not, although his recovery will be lengthened. He has agreed to this.” He slowly, carefully, got to his feet, the glow spreading to cover him from head to foot. “We will repel the invaders, and defend the castle until all is put to rights again,” he said. “On the condition that your father steps aside and surrenders his crown to you, Queen Snow White the Second.”
“Done,” King White snapped, and didn’t even blink when the blue-brown eyes turned to him, suspicion writ in their depths which he wasn’t sure was coming from the ghost or the young mage-prince or both of them. “On her marriage, I will step aside for she and her consort—I will not make my daughter carry such a burden alone.”
“As you say it, so shall it be,” the man intoned, and then Merlin’s body turned and walked up the hall with a stiff stride that was quite unlike him. “But woe to you should you betray us, Winter White.”
Arthur resisted the urge to beat his head against the wall and instead followed his friend, not having the heart to tell Snow not to come with them. Once Merlin was back on his feet, he was going to kill him.
When Merlin—or rather, Merlin’s body—strode into the audience room, everything just…stopped. Arthur took a deep breath and stepped up beside him. “Seven, to us!” he ordered. “Protect Her Highness, future Queen of the Black Isle!”
The leader of the raiders first went white, then red. “You!” he yelled, pointing at Merlin. “How do you have magic? They said you’d used all your magic!”
“He did,” Merlin’s mouth said with a sneer that was chilling. “I know you, Rufus Fear. My men have kept you and your band from the Black Isle for many a year, and now we will end your threat for good. GUARDS, TO ME!”
And the walls glowed blue and the sound of marching feet rang out loudly from the stones as the spirits of the castle’s guardsman came out at a run, knives and spears in their hands and swords at their sides. Dozens of them came, encircling the raiders, taking up positions all around the room and then spreading out into the castle. Those came back driving terrified men before them, until the remains of the band were huddled piss-soaked and bleeding in the center of the room. One tried to escape them, and a ghostly spear ran him through and left him gasping his last on the floor. A guard approached Merlin and saluted. “Captain, we have retrieved them all save the dead ones.”
“Do they linger?”
Merlin’s head nodded. “Kill the rest, strip their valuables for the treasury, and come nightfall we’ll drag the bodies out and burn them. Choose a place where the smoke won’t rise to bother Her Highness.” He turned his head to look down at Jack. “Please escort the princess from the room, by the request of my vessel. I will join you when we are finished here.”
Jack was startled and horrified in equal measure, but swept him a bow anyway. “Of course…Captain. Princess Snow, let us go from this place.”
“Go,” Arthur told her. “You don’t need to see this, Your Highness.”
She hesitated, but finally nodded and let Jack lead her away with Hans trotting along behind; after a bare second’s hesitation, the king followed them. The raiders started screaming, trying to get her to come back, and once Snow was out of sight the spirit-guards wasted no time in using their swords and spears to put a stop to the noise. They left the leader alive, however, and Merlin’s body stalked to the edge of the circle of corpses to look him in the eye. “Who gave you your information, Rufus?”
The man spat at him, the slimy liquid falling short and hitting the body of one of his dead comrades. “Why should I tell you anything, you’re going to kill me anyway!”
And Merlin smiled—or rather, the captain did, because Arthur was certain he had never seen an expression that cruel and cold on his friend’s face. “We are…but it’s up to you how we do it. My vessel gave your man he killed a choice, so I shall give you one: Die by the stroke of a sword…or die by many of them.” He leaned forward. “My vessel may be a merciful man, but Death has torn away any such sentiment I once possessed, Rufus. Speak now or die by inches, your choice.”
And Rufus talked. One of the guards appeared to be taking notes, and one of the triplets was as well. Arthur inserted questions of his own where appropriate, as he had knowledge of some existing problems in the surrounding kingdoms that the dead captain of the guard perhaps did not, and he had a feeling that Merlin was making suggestions of his own in that same vein. Once all the information available had been extracted, however—some of it more than once, to make certain of its accuracy—the man started to beg for his life. The captain just sneered at him, but Arthur nodded. “One more question, then,” he said. “You came to take the castle, and kill the king. What were your plans for the princess?”
Excalibur stabbed into the heart of the sobbing man before he was halfway through his confession, and then Arthur brained him with the attached piece of the Stone for good measure, splitting his skull like a melon. “Part of me wishes he’d gone for the second option.”
“Part of me does as well,” the captain said. “You should return that back to its place, I think.”
Arthur cocked an eyebrow. “Is that comin’ from you or from Merlin?”
His friend’s head nodded once. “Needs must, but once the need is past things should be put to rights.” A slender hand rimmed in flickering blue light clapped down on his shoulder, the touch familiar and yet unfamiliar for more reasons than the obvious. “We will see to it that you receive a blade to use in her place, our hidden armory has not been touched. Your usual blade?”
“Broken on an idiot’s mace who was tryin’ to take the princess,” Arthur admitted. “You’re both right, though, I’ll return Excalibur to her proper place tonight.” He gave the other man a thoughtful look. “This possession is just a one-time thing, right?”
Another nod. “Yes. I would not…possessing the living isn’t really a pleasant thing to do, honestly. If your mage hadn’t been so drained, he could have just called us out himself.”
Both of Arthur’s eyebrows went up this time. “He can do that?”
The captain snorted. “They can all do that, but most of them won’t unless there’s no other choice. Disturbing the dead without good reason is…frowned upon.”
“And after the princess is crowned?”
“The mage can dismiss us, and we will go to our rest.”
Arthur considered that, then held out his hand. The captain took it, Merlin’s hand icy cold in his. “I’d offer to avenge you, but Merlin already did it.”
The captain smiled. “That he did, at least in part. Let’s get him back to the princess, so she can return him to bed where he belongs.”
In the Land of Stories Old