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Chapter 6
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 27 September 2021 3908 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 6


Merlin, of course, crumpled like a dropped shirt the moment the captain’s spirit left him, and he stayed insensate for four days before waking with a blinding headache that lingered for two more. “The need to outdo yourself is not one of your more endearing traits,” Hans scolded him halfway through a bowl of soup.

“It isn’t,” Arthur agreed from where he was lounging on a chair beside the bed. “I’m still tryin’ to figure out how you actually made it downstairs in the first place.”

“Very slowly,” Merlin admitted. “Luckily the stones in the walls aren’t laid smooth, so I had plenty of handholds.” He swallowed the next mouthful of soup and sighed; his hands were still too unsteady to hold a spoon or even a cup without spilling its contents, not to mention he wasn’t able to sit up by himself. “I hate this.”

“I’d be worried about you if you enjoyed it,” Hans said. “Come on, a few more spoonfuls and then you’re done.”

Merlin frowned but ate the rest of the soup, and managed not to sigh again when Hans cleaned his face like he was a child. “How long…”

“No idea.” Arthur stretched. “The first time you did this you were back on your feet in a few days, and full-up magically a week later. We don’t have a reference for you goin’ low enough to almost die twice in a row. Two weeks, a month? Who knows?”

“Not us, because you are the only magician we know,” Hans added. “Something we should try to change, now that I think about it.”

“What…oh.” Merlin sank a little deeper into his pillows, turning his head so he wasn’t looking at either of them. “Of course.”

Arthur sat forward and flicked him on the temple with his finger. “No, not to replace you, you idiot, so we’ll have someone who can help when things like this happen.” And then he frowned. “Not that we want this to happen again, mind you. Don’t do this again. Or that other thing, don’t do that again either.”

Merlin actually pouted. “It’s not like I planned it—either time.”

“Any of the three times,” Hans corrected. “Or is it four? And we know you did not, that just makes it worse.” He finished gathering everything back onto its tray and headed for the door, holding back a sigh when Arthur went out ahead of him. “Go to sleep, Merlin.”

“That’s all I do!”

“Well, you are doing it very well, so keep it up!”

Once he got back down in the kitchen, however, Hans started to feel like he was overlooking something, something important. He checked all of the food, he checked the stores, he checked on his friends—nothing. He nodded to a ghostly guard, who nodded back…and five steps on, Hans stopped in his tracks and slowly turned around. “Guard?” he asked politely. “Could you answer a question for me?”

A few hours later, Hans came back into Merlin’s room with a teapot, a cup, a honey pot and a spoon on the tray and put the blindfold back in place so he could stay his right size. “Wake up, I have something for you,” he said, sitting on the side of the bed and gently shaking his friend’s shoulder. “It is not soup.”

Merlin twitched, then went still when he realized the blindfold was back on. “Hans?”

“Yes.” Hans ruffled his hair and pulled him into a more upright position, stuffing pillows behind him. “I have tea for you. A very special tea.” The questioning tilt of Merlin’s left eyebrow above the blindfold said he wanted to know more than that. “They have had magicians in the castle before, although not recently. And one of the guards remembered that those magicians used to drink something special to support their magical health, and another recalled that there was a book used for reference for such things and a great deal more besides. It had been hidden away, but they found it for me.” He used one hand to support Merlin’s head, and the other to hold the mug even though Merlin had wrapped his own hand around it too. “Drink. If you don’t like it, I can add more honey.”

Merlin drank, and made a face. “More honey, please.” More honey went in, and he drank deeper. “It tastes like licorice.”

“That’s the anise,” Hans told him. “ ‘Add star for magic’, the recipe said, and someone had drawn a smiling face next to it.”

“Sympathetic magic, maybe?” Merlin speculated. “If you don’t have something, you use something that resembles it.”

“Perhaps—or perhaps the person who made it just liked anise.” He made Merlin finish the mug, then looked him over critically. Still pale, but was there a bit more color in his face? With any luck it wasn’t just his imagination.

It hadn’t been. Within just a few days, it was obvious that the tea was helping. Merlin wasn’t sleeping as much, his shaking hands had steadied, and he seemed to be regaining some of his strength—he was sitting up, reading, conversing with them, and flirting with his princess. He’d tried to write the proposed letter to King Uther, but every word he’d put about Arthur or one of the others had melted off the page and so they’d given up on that. Hans suspected Merlin probably could have written to Uther about himself alone with no problems, but he hadn’t seemed inclined to do that and no one—namely Arthur—had suggested it. Hans brought that up with Jack and the triplets the next day, and Jack huffed at him. “Do you not remember why he would not think doing such a thing to be a good idea?”

“I remember,” Noki grunted. “I most definitely remember Arthur being a total ass.”

“And never apologizing for it,” Pino agreed.

“Even though he has had plenty of opportunity, especially of late,” Kio pointed out. “I have been rather surprised he has not run from the castle in fear of Jack, though.”

“Merlin did not succeed in dying, therefore he knows I will not challenge him,” Jack said. “And he knows that I know Merlin nearly died the first two times out of love for his princess, so that did not count.”

Hans rolled his eyes. “The third time was him trying to save the rest of us, and the fourth his princess again, so those do not count either. I still say he wouldn’t have done it, Jack.”

“He had not been given opportunity,” was Jack’s cool response. “So we shall never know if he would have or not.”

“And he would not do it now,” Kio said, “because of his princess. But we should still watch him carefully.”

“Oh, there is no question that we should watch him,” Hans conceded. “He cannot help but be what he is, and the grand gesture comes too easily to him. Much like it does to Jack.”

“I know where you sleep.”

“Yes, and what are you going to do about it, give me a cuddle?”

Jack snorted. “I like girls, a fact you know quite well. Ask Arthur if he can accommodate you.”

Arthur chose that moment to come into the kitchen. “Ask Arthur what?”

“If you would give Hans a cuddle,” Pino said, and Hans obligingly cocked his head and batted his eyelashes.

Arthur just rolled his eyes. “You may be adorable, but I’m not Dad,” he said, hopping up onto a chair. “So, what’re we talkin’ about?”

Jack shrugged. “What to do from here, now that Merlin is recovering and there are guards to protect everyone. I was thinking I might go out and have a look around this island and its nearest neighbors—reconnaissance, as it were. We have been out of action for too long, and there may be threats nearby which we need to know about.”

“We are staying, still,” Pino said. “The workshop here is nice, now that we have cleaned it up, and this way someone will be close in case something else happens.”

Hans shook his head. “I am not going anywhere yet. I am the only one who knows how to make Merlin’s tea. And I need to start planning the wedding cake and the feast that will go with it. Even if they were to somewhere find a cook who was willing to work in the Black Castle of Death, as I have heard it called in the shops in town, no one is making Merlin’s wedding cake but me.” He took a drink of his tea. “Or any of the rest of yours, either. So be prepared to have me in residence for a time whenever you happen to find a wife.”

“I will never complain about your cake,” Kio told him. “You can live with us forever, we won’t mind.”

“And if I find a wife of my own and have a dozen children with her?”

“We will build more rooms!” Noki announced. “The cake would be worth it. And the stew as well, that one with the herbs that look like a little bouquet.”

Hans just smiled. “Well then, I suppose that is all settled.”

Twelve children?” Arthur asked. “Where are you gonna find a woman who wants that many?”

“Merlin’s family had more than that, if you recall,” Jack said. “So apparently such women do exist.” He raised an eyebrow at Hans, who was chuckling into his tea. “Or he may be planning to take more than one wife?”

“I am not planning on it, no, but I am open to suggestions.” Hans kept smiling. “This is not an attempt to marry off your brothers both at once, is it?”

“I would not do that to you, Hans,” Jack assured him. His mood appeared to have been improved by the familiar banter. “And the only man I have ever seen Pierre look twice at was Merlin, who I would not have done that to either.”

Arthur choked on his tea. “Yeah, the day we met them, Jack assured us that no matter what it looked like, Pierre was, in fact, a man,” he managed. “But the way he looked at Merlin made me wonder anyway. You think he’s found a wife yet, Jack?”

Jack shrugged. “I doubt it, unless Maman put her foot down about his choosiness, which I am sure she did not do. Now Marcel, him she might foist one off on for concessions in trade or some other assets of value. But he still cannot be married before Pierre—the risk of him producing a first son is too great.”

“Oh yeah, that would get ugly in a hurry.” Arthur’s nose wrinkled as he thought of something. “Unless…does Pierre even want to get married?”

“It does not matter if he does or not,” Jack said. “He is first-born, he must marry and produce an heir and Marcel cannot marry before he does—that is the law in Fantastique. Maman could change the law if she wanted to, but I do not think she wants to.”

“What about you?” Kio wanted to know. “Do you have to wait for both of them to marry before you can?”

Jack just smiled. “I am not in Fantastique, so I will do as I please. If I were to go back there our mother would have some say in my affairs, but I have no intention of going back any time soon.”

“And what of you, Arthur?” Hans wanted to know. “Are your plans still the same?”

“They are.” Arthur drank some more of his tea. “In fact, I plan on leavin’ first thing tomorrow mornin’.” Dead silence greeted this announcement, and he looked up into five frowning faces. “I have a plan, all right? And if it works, which it absolutely should, I shouldn’t even be gone that long. I’ll just stop in and see Dad after and let him know what’s been goin’ on and then I’ll be back to help the rest of you.”

And just like that, Jack’s mood darkened again and his bright blue eyes went hard. “You have known of a way to end this, for yourself if no one else, for how long?”

“It’s not like that,” Arthur disclaimed. “I honestly didn’t think of it until about a week ago, and then I remembered…well, it should work, that’s all I want to say about it. And I can’t end up married or re-cursed from tryin’ it either, and I shouldn’t end up dead unless her husband is around and mistakes my intentions.”

Pino’s mouth dropped open. “You are approaching a married woman? Arthur!”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “It’s not like that. Stop lookin’ at me that way, all of you! It’s not like you got this upset when I told you Merlin had been lookin’ up love potions in that awful book.”

“Because we knew he wouldn’t have actually gone through with it,” Hans said. “We all know how Merlin feels about that sort of magic, he only had the book in the first place because he took it from that one witch, remember?”

“And he came into the workshop the day after you found he’d been looking at it and threw the book into the smelting fire,” Kio added. “Merlin knows how to manage his own temptations.”

Arthur drew himself up as much as a two foot tall green dwarf could. “Well, so do I. And this isn’t one, trust me. We just need a kiss from someone we think is the most beautiful woman in the world, there’s nothin’ in there that says it has to be romantic or anything like that.”

“Oh look, a loophole,” came from Jack. “What an interesting thing to discover…”

“Stop,” Noki told him, but the eyebrow he raised at Arthur was challenging. “So were you planning to tell him you were leaving, or just leave and make us do it when he wondered where you were?” Arthur looked back down at his tea, and Noki scowled and hopped down off his chair. “Damn you for a coward,” he hissed. “And do not say you simply do not want him to worry—he is going to worry regardless. We all will, but him most of all. For good reason!”

He stomped out of the kitchen, and Arthur called after him, “I have a good reason too!” Kio and Pino both picked up the scowl but didn’t say anything, and he sighed. “I do, actually, have a good reason. I’m afraid that it might not work if I tell anyone exactly what I’m plannin’, all right? And Merlin…he’d figure it out.”

Hans put down his mug, an unreadable look on his face. “He has met her.”

“Yes, but he…didn’t see her that way,” Arthur explained. “So it wouldn’t have worked for him. It might not work for me either, but it’s the only idea I’ve got. This curse has to come off. It’s been more than a year!”

Surprisingly, it was Jack who responded to that. “He is not wrong,” he said. “And for him it is different than it is for the rest of us, as Arthur is his father’s only heir. Pino sends wordless messages to their uncle to let the man know they all still live, Hans and I have families who are used to us being out of touch and think little of it…but King Uther is no doubt more than worried to have received no word from anyone for over a year. And we have already found that Merlin cannot tell him anything which would reassure him—he was able to write that you live,” he told Arthur, “but that is not a reassurance, and I believe he fears King Uther’s response to receiving such a blunt message. As he cannot offer further explanation…well, such misunderstandings tend to beget political if not physical violence, and the Black Isle cannot weather such a storm as that.”

“True, the people as it stands would be likely to attempt to end the source of the problem, if they heard rumors of Avalon’s anger,” Kio agreed. “And eventually they would succeed, and attempt to inform King Uther, thinking to appease him. The Fairy Isles would descend into war.”

“That wouldn’t happen.” Arthur went back to his tea. “You all are blowin’ this way out of proportion. I’m sure Dad has already guessed that we were cursed somehow. He’d figure it out…”

“In time?” Hans asked. “No, I agree with Jack, that is not a risk worth taking. Snow does not deserve to be executed by idiots from the town.”

“Merlin does not either,” Pino pointed out.

Hans shook his head. “He would not be—he would die protecting her.” He finished his tea and hopped down off the stool he’d been using. “I will ready you a bag of supplies, Arthur, and you may have it this afternoon—if you are going immediately, you might as well leave when the ferry will be there to take you instead of waiting until tomorrow morning and wasting time wandering about.”

Arthur started to say something, but the looks on the three remaining faces around the table made him think better of it and he nodded, climbing off the chair—which put him below the level of the table and hid what he was feeling from their sight. “I’ll go pack.”

While this conversation was happening down in the kitchen, Snow was sitting with Merlin in his third-floor bedroom. Now that he was awake and and able to think clearly he was desirous of getting to know her better, and so their conversation had turned to her childhood in the Black Castle and she’d told him about growing up with her father and what courtiers and servants they’d had in residence. He was saddened by the fact that she’d been an only child and said so. “I grew to manhood as a ward of the King of Avalon, with only Arthur and his cousin Kai around, but I was born near the tail-end of a very large family,” he told her. “Thirteenth, in fact.”

“So you were the youngest?”

“No, twin baby sisters came after me.” He looked wistful. “They were adorable little things. They looked like our mother, just like the rest of us did.” He gestured to his blue jacket, which was hanging on a hook nearby. “If you bring that to me, I’ll show you. I’m not really supposed to, but you’re to be my wife so you really ought to know. The only other people who’ve ever seen it besides you are King Uther and…well, Arthur.” Snow fetched the jacket, forcing herself not to tear up over the burns and tears and rusty brown stains that covered it, and he got into a nearly invisible pocket inside the inner left breast and pulled out a battered locket. It opened with a faint spark of magic, and he sighed before handing it to her. “There she is.”

Snow felt a little tingle as she took the locket, but the painted miniature she saw inside was not what she’d expected. Merlin was tall and slender and aristocratic-looking, but his mother was a cheerful little dumpling of a woman in a beautifully embroidered court gown, all curves and smiles that crinkled the corners of her warm brown eyes. A tiny column of gold symbols trailed down one side of the portrait, and she frowned over them before handing it back to him. “What do the symbols mean?”

“Characters,” he corrected, closing the locket with another tiny spark of magic that still made his skin lose a bit of color. “The ancient written language of my mother’s homeland, the same one I use for magic. They say…” His voice broke and he closed his eyes, tears gathering on his lashes as he clutched the locket tightly. “They say, ‘Never forget that I love you’.”

“Oh Merlin.” Snow moved to hold him, and he let her. “Oh Merlin, I’m so sorry. You can’t…”

He shook his head against her shoulder with a sniff. “Father banished me, formally. The day I turned seven.” Another sniff. “The cursed seventh son of a seventh son born thirteenth in line…belongs only to Fate and has no home and no family, he said. I was escorted from the palace by the royal guards and no one was allowed to speak to me, but on each of the last seven steps a servant was waiting, and they each handed me one item I could take with me.” He managed a small smile. “Father had wanted to go the traditional route, sending me off with only seven pennies in a bag sewn with seven stitches—he was a very superstitious man—but I believe my mother convinced him that presenting me with seven symbolic gifts would work just as well.

The fact that the crazy king had needed to be ‘convinced’ was horrifying to Snow. What kind of man would want to do such a thing to his seven-year-old son? Or to his wife, for that matter? “So the locket was one of the seven gifts.” He nodded, and she wrapped her hand over his. She could feel the magic on it now, probably he’d put it on there to protect the locket and its precious portrait from being damaged or destroyed. Possibly he’d put it there at the age of seven, and she wondered if he’d even done it on purpose. “Was it your mother who taught you to use magic?”

He shook his head again. “She didn’t have magic, no one else in the family did. I’d had a tutor almost ever since I could walk. He was a little old man, but he moved like there was wind in his bones.” The next sniff had a tinge of amusement in it. “He never seemed to have much use for my father. It wasn’t anything he said, just…the way he looked at him.” He sighed. “I think…I think he would have come with me, honestly, but he died a few months before my seventh birthday.”

Snow thought that sounded a little too convenient, but she didn’t want to say so. Bad enough to have your father exile you at seven without also thinking he’d had your mentor killed too—that was the kind of thing familial revenge-killing sprees were born from. Not that she would have objected to helping Merlin with that, but they had other things they needed to do first. Like getting to know each other better, fixing the kingdom, getting his friends uncursed, and getting married. Not necessarily all in that order.

 


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