In the Land of Stories Old
The tea was helping enough that in just over a week Merlin was able to actually get dressed and make his own way around the castle, and although Hans and the triplets and Snow herself had put conditions on how much exercise he was allowed to get—honestly, she’d even caught the guards keeping an eye on him, she thought Jack might have asked them to before he’d left on his ‘journey of reconnaissance’, as he’d called it—he was still on his feet for at least part of every day and trying to learn everything he could about the castle and the kingdom. He’d been delighted by the large gallery of royal portraits she’d shown him, portraits going back generations of her family, many of which had even survived the Cataclysm. When they reached the end, though, Merlin frowned at the last portrait in the gallery thoughtfully. “But this shouldn’t be…where’s Queen Snow the First?”
“I’ll show you.” Snow twisted a sconce to the left, then another to the right, and part of the stone wall gained a crack that proved to be a narrow door. They both slipped inside, and Merlin somewhat absently lit the dusty candles there with a tiny flash of magic. It was a very small room compared to the gallery outside, but the curved walls had enough space to hold several large, old-fashioned portraits. The most prominent one was of a handsome middle-aged man wearing a crown whose golden hair was streaked with silver and whose brown eyes were warm and knowing. There was a fair-skinned child of perhaps eight sitting on his lap, her dainty blue gown embroidered with golden vines. “That was Nicholas the Second, King of Metra,” she said. “And his sister, Snow White, who would become Queen Snow White the First when he died, as he never married. It’s…it’s kind of a terrible story, honestly. Just like what happened to my father, a beautiful woman who was actually a witch came to marry the King of Metra, Nicholas’ and Snow’s father, after his first wife died, and she soon gained enough power over him that she convinced him to send his son away and then someone else stepped in to keep her from killing Snow when she was just five years old.” She slanted a sideways look at him. “They left her with a family who had been cursed by that same witch to be dwarfs, and those dwarfs raised her until her brother came back to retake the kingdom and kill the witch.”
Merlin just nodded. “So, a family pattern that repeats itself, at least up to a point. Meaning your family line is magical, not just you.”
“It is.” She indicated the next portrait, this one showing King Nicholas as an old man who looked like he should be his sister’s grandfather rather than her brother. “In Nicholas and Snow, the magic was in their blood…but using it exacted a terrible price. This portrait was painted just ten years after the first one. A deadly plague came through the kingdom, and he used his magic to save his people.”
“Their magic took time in payment, then.” Merlin raised a hand to the painted face of the not-so-old king, but drew back without touching it. “I’m going to guess he died soon after this was painted.”
“Sort of. He threw himself into studying the curse on the kingdom, the same curse that cost his own mother her life and resulted in his sister…looking the way she looked.”
He was startled by that. “She was a child of wish magic?”
Snow nodded. “Because of the kingdom’s dark reputation King Nicholas hadn’t been able to find a queen of his own, and there weren’t going to be any suitors coming for Snow either. So he studied the curse, and discovered that the spirit trapped in the old queen’s mirror had originally been trapped in the dark forest surrounding the castle. He made a deal with the spirit, he’d use what was left of his own magic to break the enchantment…if the spirit once returned to human form would agree to marry his sister and help her run the kingdom.” She led him to the final portrait. “This is him. Wherever he’d originally come from, he was supposedly from a royal line.”
Queen Snow the First was a beautiful woman with raven black hair and blood red lips and skin the color of spider silk, brown eyes sad and serious, gowned in velvet and wearing her brother’s crown. She was seated on a finely carved wooden chair, and at her shoulder stood a dark-haired man with golden-hued skin, a slender build, and dark, almond-shaped eyes. Merlin gasped. “He’s…how long ago was this?”
“Maybe five hundred years?”
“My…my mother used to tell us a story of her people, of an emperor’s lost son. The prince wasn’t pleased with any of the women presented for him to marry, so he went out into the world to find a bride who would suit him. He never returned, but one morning the emperor came out of his private chambers pale as death, and the portrait of the prince in those rooms was from that day onward always covered with a thick curtain of silk. Because the portrait no longer showed the prince…but only a deep, dark wood.”
Her eyes widened. “So my ancestor…was also your ancestor?”
Merlin shook his head. “No, but my mother was descended from one of his siblings.” He blinked, then tore his eyes away from the painting to look at her. “There are no coincidences in magic, Snow.”
“I guess not, since you’re here…and you did sort of die to save the kingdom.” He winced, and she moved in close and put her arms around him. “Oh Merlin, I’m sorry.”
“It’s…fine. You can’t help your heritage any more than I can help mine, and neither of us can control the web of magic that runs through our families and, apparently, connects them.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Your strength is your only gift?” When she nodded, he pulled her closer. “You got a better deal than your ancestors, I think, since it doesn’t seem to take from you the way it did from them.”
“It doesn’t take, no, but…” She indicated her plump, sturdy body. “The muscles have to go somewhere, and I have to eat a lot more than any proper princess should. I’m never going to look like Queen Snow the First.”
“I’d be horrified if you did, since she looks rather like a vampire we encountered once who tried to seduce Jack,” he told her. “Be sure you ask him about it when he comes back…assuming he doesn’t come back with her, that is, although if that were the case she’d probably tell the story for him in a very colorful and inappropriate manner. She was a bold sort of woman, Cecilia.”
“You didn’t kill her?”
“Oh no, of course not—in spite of how full of ourselves we were when we were cursed, and when you first met us, we weren’t just out there killing everything that looked a bit wrong. Cecilia wasn’t doing any harm to anyone, it was the master vampire who’d passed his curse to she and her vampyric sisters that was the problem. Unfortunately we weren’t able to find him and kill him to free them from his cursed bite. There were twelve of them in all, the Master Vampire was apparently something of a womanizer.”
“We thought so, and we wanted to put a stop to it, but he was nowhere to be found in the nearby islands. And then the fairy cursed us before we could arrange for a ship and start looking farther out.”
She snuggled into him. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad she cursed you.”
Merlin kissed her temple, but his eyes had strayed back to the painting of their distant ancestors. “I’m starting to wonder if she even had a choice.”
After seeing the hidden paintings of their ancestors and realizing the part Fate and magic seemed to be playing in…well, everything, Merlin began to spend more time digging through his books and studying the old tomes in the castle, devoting a portion of each day to study. Snow had showed him the journals kept by King Nicholas, and Merlin had obtained a suitable blank book to start keeping his own. He’d always kept a magician’s journal, of course, but that was mostly for recording spells, omens, and other magical research, and it also couldn’t be read by anyone but him.
The most recent thing he’d recorded in it was a recipe, refined by trial and error, for the herbal tea the mages of old had used to maintain their strength and help themselves recover when they overextended themselves magically. He drank a cup every morning and every evening, and had to admit that he did feel better for it even though the taste wasn’t much to his liking. Luckily none of the herbs required were difficult to find, in fact most of them were quite common. And Merlin was working on refining the recipe even further to see if he could create a more concentrated elixir which could be used in case of emergencies. He really didn’t want to spend weeks trapped in bed ever again.
When he wasn’t researching, there was of course a lot of work to be done in and around the castle. The Black Isle hadn’t been without governance for very long, but between that and the general apathy induced by the witch it had been just long enough for some people in the kingdom to start wondering why they needed a ruler. It had also been just long enough for some forces outside the kingdom to start wondering if they could just come in and take over. King White had been burying himself in correspondence with former allies, making explanations or apologies as necessary and doing his best to shore up faltering relationships. Merlin and Snow did their part down in the village once Merlin was able to manage the walk, asking questions about what was needed and what was not and what would just be nice to have. Trade was an overwhelming concern, as there had never been much of it anywhere and what little there was on the Black Isle had fallen off severely. King White had also never been overly good at managing that sort of thing, which sent Merlin and Snow back to the old books to see how things had been done in the past.
Which led them to discover that most of the Black Isle’s more recent trade had been fairly one-sided to begin with, as the island was near the center of the Fairy Isles and so made her markets convenient for people to access. And arranging for new trade to come in, as it turned out, wasn’t all that hard. You offered to make a trade agreement, listed what you had to offer and what you would be interested in, received a counter-offer from the other party, and then negotiated how much of everything would be coming and going and when it could be expected. Sometimes other requests might be made, such as security or tolls or declarations of alliance, sometimes you made an offer and the other party killed your messenger and sent back his head and then your counter-offer was a declaration of enmity with the option to start a war. Which wasn’t actually a thing anymore, since nobody had that kind of army and hadn’t since the Cataclysm, but the declaration of enmity was still a viable option.
Apparently if you were very lucky, you had a magician or some other entity at your disposal who could make the declaration appear before the offending ruler in a very significant way, which could sometimes result in an apology and possibly some trade concessions, a marriage offer, or just a big conciliatory pile of gold. As Snow had a very talented magician at her disposal, if he did say so himself, and also a friend who was good with his sword and could make himself invisible, she wasn’t too worried about being able to turn a blustering potential enemy into a sufficiently cowed ally in the future if she needed to. Trade, she was certain, would soon be re-established and flowing nicely through the kingdom. Merlin had suggested that they start with a proposal to Avalon once it was possible to do so, as if they could secure King Uther’s kingdom as a trading partner several other kingdoms would be eager to enter into discussions with them as well. Other more distant islands were unfortunately out of the question at the moment, because those would require an envoy or possibly even a royal visit from Snow herself. And Snow couldn’t take that sort of trip until after the wedding, when she’d be able to bring Merlin along as her Prince Consort and not just her really pretty magical boyfriend.
And he was really pretty. Snow couldn’t help but notice how other women’s eyes followed him when they went down to the market, even the women old enough to be his mother! And he was charming and courtly and he all but glowed with magic sometimes, and the one time someone had been rude to her he’d rebuked the man for being disrespectful to their future queen and then made a show of making a notation in a little notebook he carried around with him—a reminder, he’d said, that their business did not wish to be considered in trade negotiations and preferred to compete directly with imported goods instead.
Nobody else was rude after that. Hans said the story had gotten back to the man’s wife, who had made him sleep in his shop for a week of nights after—the wife was apparently no dainty little slip of a woman either, and she had taken her husband’s words very personally. Snow had thought that was hilarious and served him right, although she felt sorry for the wife. Merlin looked at her like she was the only woman in the world worthy of his attention, and she thought it must be terrible to be married to a man who didn’t feel that way.
Stories change with time and telling, of course. You can read the original tale of Nicholas and his sister Snow here.
In the Land of Stories Old