In the Land of Stories Old
King White looked up from…well, he really hadn’t been doing anything, just staring at the papers on his desk, but he looked up when he heard laughter echo up through his office window. Had the children come back, gotten into the inner garden? His memories from his time as a wooden rabbit were fuzzy, but he seemed to remember them playing out there, the little bears. The office window was set too high to look out of, so he left that room and went to the nearest set of windows that weren’t so high, lovely tall paned ones in what had once been a music room.
The laughter from the garden, however, hadn’t been coming from children. It looked like Snow had been out there having a picnic or something with her prince, and he had made her laugh. Winter leaned against the glass and just watched them. The mage was trying to teach Snow some sort of dance, it looked like one of the country dances. He was being rather silly about it, from what Winter could see, but as he watched the movements of both of them became smoother and more graceful as they moved through the pattern, eyes never leaving each other’s. And when the boy pulled her in for a perfectly chaste but not at all passionless kiss, Winter jerked away from the window feeling like a voyeur. And somewhat jealous as well. He’d loved his wife, Snow’s mother, of course, but not like that. He’d never danced with her in the garden, never made her laugh with such delight she sounded like a child at play. He’d never included her in the work of running the kingdom, or asked her opinion, or gone for a walk with her after dinner. And although he had loved her…he wouldn’t have died for her. He hadn’t even died for their daughter, he’d just gotten drunk and in that state somehow realized that Snow wasn’t safe in the castle. He hadn’t told her what to do or where to go or even given her advice or anything else, he’d just told her to leave before she disappeared too.
He hadn’t noticed her absence for two days, and then only because his new wife had asked where Snow was, saying she’d been looking for her. And he hadn’t known, hadn’t even remembered what he’d done two nights before. Luckily she’d decided that Snow had run away on her own, and he’d promised to punish his daughter severely when she came back. Just remembering it made him feel sick. He’d never told Snow, and he never planned to. He was fairly certain the look of horror on her face when she realized he’d only saved her by accident would kill him outright.
Not that he didn’t deserve it. He hadn’t been a very good king, but he’d been a much worse father, all things considered.
That thought drove him back to the window with the vague thought that a good father was supposed to be guarding his daughter’s virtue. The two of them were back to being silly again, and when the boy tried to dip Snow he lost his balance and they both ended up in the grass. Winter didn’t have to be down there to know Snow was probably mortified, and he marched away from the window with the idea that he was certainly going to give the boy a stern talking-to about not embarrassing his daughter that way, mage or no mage. He headed for the nearest stairs that led down to the garden level, but as he approached them a ghostly guard with a rather threatening expression on his translucent face appeared standing beside them and the king turned back the way he’d come rather quickly. Perhaps later he’d do it.
Down in the garden, Merlin was trying to find the breath to both breathe and laugh at the same time. “Oh, all those weeks in bed were not good for me at all. I swear, my love, I will get my strength and stamina back eventually—I’ve been training with the guards every day!”
Snow was laughing too. “I know, I’ve seen you. The captain told me it takes a lot of strength to fight the way you used to.” She propped herself up on one elbow so she could look down at him. “You’ll get it back. He said you’re coming right along.”
Merlin huffed. “It’s still embarrassing to try to do something simple like dip my lady and fail at it. Thank goodness your father wasn’t around to see that. Although he most likely wouldn’t have been a fan of the kissing earlier, either.”
“I was a fan of the kissing,” Snow told him, and sat up a little more. Merlin started to sit up with her, but she pinned his arms to the grass and leaned down to kiss him again, very thoroughly. He was somewhat wide-eyed when she pulled back. “Merlin?”
He blew out a breath. “I think I just learned something about myself that I hadn’t known before,” he said, sounding a little dazed. “Thank goodness I have no stamina to speak of right now, or I’d be a different kind of embarrassed and your father would likely kill me.”
She blushed and let go of him. “Should I…not do that again?”
He focused on her. “Oh my love, I will be very unhappy if you don’t.” And then he grinned. “But maybe not again until after the wedding, I think.”
Her blush deepened. “I don’t…know much about that. Anything, really.”
He sat up, a faint wash of color flushing his face as well. “Well it’s not like I’ve ever…done it myself, so I suppose we’ll just have to figure it out together.”
That surprised her. “But I’ve heard the way other women talked about you. You had fangirls!”
Merlin snorted, reaching up to shake grass out of his hair. “No man in his right mind does that with a fangirl, Snow. Not even…not even Arthur, for all we’ve teased him about his dating habits. And I…magicians can’t do that casually anyway. It’s too dangerous.”
Snow retrieved her wineglass and took a sip, hoping it would cool some of the fire heating her cheeks. “Are you telling me our wedding night will be dangerous? Now I’m intrigued.”
He laughed. “No, that is not what I’m telling you! But it’s dangerous for a mage to do…things that can cause his magic to release unexpectedly without a lot of prior preparation. Vows, rituals, that sort of thing. If you ever hear of a mage out…well, dallying all over the place, tell one of us so we can go kill him. Because I guarantee you he’s either mad or evil.” She raised an eyebrow at him, obviously wanting to know more about that. “He could be draining his partners of their life-energy, of their youth and beauty, or of their magic if they’re at all magical. Or creating bonds that are nigh unbreakable, leaving his victims shells of their former selves, slowly going insane and virtually enslaved to him.” He made a face and reached for his own wineglass, draining what was left in it. “When we marry, I’ll construct the rites very carefully to make sure the bond we form is proper and safe for both of us. And after that, my magic will never be able to harm you, whether I’m in control of it or not.”
Snow thought that over. “So what you’re actually telling me, then, is that our wedding night is going to be highly magical and I’m probably never going to want another man as long as I live?”
He looked up at her through his eyelashes; Merlin, she had discovered, could be a terrible flirt when he wanted to be. “I mean, would you anyway?”
She pretended to think about it, and then laughed at the look on his face. “Of course I wouldn’t. You’re so pretty I can’t believe you’re mine half the time. After the witch was gone, sometimes I would just sit there and watch you sleep and wonder how I got so lucky.”
Merlin caught her hand and kissed the back of it, his eyes never leaving hers. “I’m the lucky one, I think.”
She ran the fingers of her free hand through his hair and let them trail down his cheek. “Maybe we’re both lucky. And you weren’t wrong, my father would be horrified by this conversation.”
“Thank goodness he’s not out here to hear it, then.”
Snow plopped herself down on one of the chairs that served the table in the kitchen later that afternoon, while Merlin was upstairs rather resentfully taking a nap he knew he needed but didn’t want to need. “Hans, can I ask you to explain something to me?” The auburn-haired dwarf dropped the spoon he’d been holding, a somewhat alarmed look crossing his face, and she laughed. “No, not that. Merlin and I already discussed that.”
“And so long as he did nothing other than talk about it, that is all to the good,” Hans declared with relief. “Yes, I knew about magicians not being able to be free with themselves in that way. Arthur used to tease Merlin about giving in and creating an army of fangirls to do his bidding.”
“And that was what I wanted to ask you about,” she said. “Can you explain the relationship between Arthur and Merlin to me?”
He put the recovered spoon down very deliberately. “Now that is a question,” he said. “May I ask what prompted it?”
She shrugged. “I know Merlin is—or was?—King Uther’s ward. It just seems like he and Arthur used to be…closer? Much closer. And when those times come up in conversation, Merlin seems sad, like he’s lost something he knows he can’t get back.”
“He did not lose it, and it can most certainly come back.” Hans moved the pot he’d been tending to a cooler part of the hearth—some things just tasted better cooked in well-seasoned iron over a slightly smoky fire—and hopped up on a chair himself. “You did not ask Merlin about this.” Her cheeks flushed, and he patted her hand. “No, I wouldn’t have either, it is all right. They grew up as brothers, you see, and were the best of friends. In many ways they still are. But when we,” he indicated his short, green form, not being able to say the words in front of her, “Arthur did not take it well. He blamed Merlin, and some terrible things were said. Merlin was never the same, after that. It was like the very foundation of his life had been snatched out from under him. And he became desperate to end the curse. Not because he sought Arthur’s forgiveness,” he said when she looked like she thought she understood. “But for the sake of King Uther—for what he feels he owes King Uther. Arthur is the only heir to the throne of Avalon, and the cousin who would be next in line…well, maybe he could aspire to be a mediocre pig-keeper, with some work.”
Snow almost smiled in spite of herself. “And so when Merlin realized him ending his curse hadn’t uncursed the rest of you…”
“He panicked and nearly killed himself, yes. I do not believe Arthur truly realized how much damage he had caused until that moment. Merlin had only done such a thing one other time, and that time he had done it by accident. It never happened again after that, because the incident frightened him terribly—as it frightened all the rest of us—and so he guarded against it happening most carefully after that.” He shook his head. “This time, however, Merlin knew exactly what he was doing. He was desperate to save you, yes, but his desperation to save us from something he holds himself responsible for ran just as deep.”
“Is that also why Jack talks to Arthur the way he does sometimes?”
Hans nodded, patting her hand again and climbing down off the chair. “They were both good friends with Jack before they met the rest of us, and Jack is still furious with Arthur over what happened. He told him, at the time, that men like Merlin die from such wounds, and that if that day ever came Arthur was going to pay for it at the point of Jack’s sword.” He snorted. “I just refused to let him have sweets for a week, although I baked them every day to torment him. And the triplets would not sharpen his axe or give him what he needed to do it himself; they said he could gather sticks for the fire like a child since he was behaving like one.” He glanced over at her. “Shut your eyes, please? I need to get something from the cupboard.”
Snow shut her eyes. She could hear him rummaging around. “What do you look like, Hans?”
He snorted again. “Quite a lot like my father although not as much like my sisters. There are four of them, all very pretty. I was the youngest child of my father and quite unexpected.” Some more rummaging, the sound of something pouring, and then the sound of things being placed on the table as another full-sized human body moved close enough for her to feel its warmth. He kissed her forehead. “There, you eat, Princess. Cake makes worries lighter. And you do not need to concern yourself about Merlin and Arthur; what you see between them now is the result of Arthur not knowing how to rebuild a bridge he himself blew up, and Merlin believing that the words Arthur threw at him that day were the truth. Arthur will eventually break his curse and then he will go home, and King Uther will yell at him and write to Merlin asking why he would believe such stupidity as his brother comes up with when he is in a strop over something, and then our mage will be assured he still has a family who loves him and will go back to normal. Or to as normal as a mage gets, anyway. I have yet to meet one who was not odd in one way or another.”
Snow opened her eyes and picked up her fork. “I won’t tell him you said that.”
He moved his pot back to the hotter part of the hearth again and gave the contents a stir and a sniff. Maybe some more rosemary? “Oh trust me, he already knows.”
In the Land of Stories Old