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Chapter 19
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 26 December 2021 2170 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 19

When the triplets did not come back in a week, Arthur and Merlin set out to look for them and ended up meeting them some three hours out from the castle. As dwarfs, bouncing along beside their walking machine which had a hooded female figure riding in it and was pulling a small cart full of things behind. Arthur recovered himself first. “You’re late!”

“Yes, yes, thank you for coming after us!”

“But as you can see, we were just running a little behind schedule.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “You’re also runnin’ a little short…” Which was when Pino did a little hop and transformed into his original human form with a bow, and then Noki and Kio did the same. “The hell?!”

“No swearing in front of our girlfriend, you uncultured lout!” Kio scolded. Noki was helping said girlfriend out of the machine, and he kissed her cheek when she threw back her hood. “May we introduce you to the beautiful Princess Elana.”

And Arthur was just in time to catch Merlin when he fainted. He gave the triplets the singularly unimpressed look he’d picked up from Jack. “Yes, let’s surprise our entirely too stressed-out magician with the woman who cursed him, that would be fun.” He nodded to the surprisingly distressed-looking fairy princess. “Although it is a pleasure to meet you properly, Your Highness. You’ll forgive me if I’m currently plannin’ to beat your boyfriends to within an inch of their lives. I promise they’ll recover enough to be useful to you.”

Pino moved to Arthur’s side and started patting Merlin’s cheek. “Stop being a drama queen,” he said when his friend’s brown eyes blinked back open. “The curse she cast wasn’t meant to do what it did. She was horrified when she found out what had come of it.”

Merlin blinked again. “So I was right?”

“I think so.” Elana had moved to Pino’s side. “I would never…I mean, I wanted to teach you a lesson, but that definitely wasn’t it.” She made a face. “Now that little pipsqueak Average, he’s a different story. With a personality like his, I’m not sure what he’s going to have to do to change back.”

“My lady…will be happy to hear that, actually. Prince Average made quite a nuisance of himself where she was concerned.” Merlin sat up, took her hand, and kissed the back of it. “Your Highness.”

Arthur could feel him shaking. Pino obviously could too, because he plopped down on the ground and motioned to Noki and Kio. “We should have some wine before we finish our journey, don’t you think?”

The wine did help, and after half an hour and the temporary addition of three extra travelers to their party—who had happily partaken of the wine and unintentionally kept the conversation from delving into dangerous territory—they were back on their way to the castle. “It’s a good thing we got the extra bathing room in order before we left,” Merlin said. “We’ll definitely need it now.” He peered around Arthur, who had been careful to keep himself between Merlin and the fairy princess. “Elana, the triplets did tell you about the ghosts, right?”


“The guards,” Noki explained. “And no, we did not think of it. When the witch’s spell was ended, all of her vines fell to dust instead of turning back to people as her wooden constructs did. The guards were still there in spectral form, however, and when Merlin called them to help protect the princess, they offered to stay and guard the castle until after the wedding.”

She raised an eyebrow. “There had to have been a condition.”

“Oh, was there,” Arthur said. “They weren’t any too happy with King White over what happened, so they said they’d only help if he turned over the crown to his daughter. He agreed to do it as soon as she and Merlin got married, and they accepted that.” He snorted. “They won’t talk to him, and they refused to protect him at all.”

“I did speak to the captain about that,” Merlin put in. “I requested that they don’t allow the king to be killed if Snow is present, and he agreed. They all adore her, I often find her talking to them in the evenings.”

“Wait, they speak? They can touch things?”

“Oh yes, and their swords and spears work just fine as well,” Pino confirmed. “They have dispatched quite a few raiders who attempted to take the castle. Is that a problem?”

“It’s surprising. I didn’t think Merlin had that much magic to spare.”

Arthur stopped walking. “What?

Merlin just grabbed his arm and hauled him back into step again. “You will not discuss this with Snow, and no I haven’t hidden it from her that I’m the reason the guards can be semi-corporeal if they need to. By the terms of our agreement I’ll be able to release them after the wedding. It won’t be that much longer.” Arthur jerked his arm away, and Merlin rounded on him. “Arthur…”

“Merlin, there are fifty of them!”

His friend just rolled his eyes, ignoring the gasp of dismay from Princess Elana. “And the castle is huge and empty and we can’t defend it by ourselves, even with the fortifications the triplets built! While you and Jack were gone, there were two more attacks by raiders. If it wasn’t for the guards, there wouldn’t have been anyone left for you to come home to.” He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “What we’re going to do after the wedding is anyone’s guess. I won’t hold them past the agreed-upon day of their release. And in all honesty, I’m not sure I could even if they asked me. Leaving the castle right now is…difficult. The only thing keeping me going at present is the tea the guards told Hans about.”

“Star anise?” Elana wanted to know, and when he nodded, she sighed. “Sympathetic magic. It works, but not very much.”

He actually smiled, which made the triplets exchange relieved looks; they’d thought Merlin could probably do with another magic user around to talk to, and it appeared they’d been right. “That’s why you blend it with ginger syrup, carnation petals, parsley, and exactly two drops of tincture of nightshade steamed into a handful of dried bergamot, and then brew the tea in a bowl hand-carved from laurel wood with a blooded knife. The guards pointed Hans to a very old book which was full of such recipes, brews for everything from chilled blood to possession to childbirth. They said the mages who were once in the castle used the anise blend to boost their power—although honestly, we both suspect the anise is just in there because someone liked the taste.”

“Old books?”

He nodded. “Ancient, some of them. The Black Castle was once the royal seat of the old kingdom of Metra.” She didn’t appear to recognize that name. “From long before the Cataclysm.”

She blinked. “And it’s still intact.”

“Yes, from the topmost tower down to the lowest cellar. Some of the walls are a bit uneven now, there are cracks in the stone and the mortar is loose in spots, but otherwise it’s just as it seems to have been before. Arthur can tell you more about that, he’s been mapping the upper levels. No one had been up there for generations, it seems.”

“And some of the people who’d been up there before seemed to have not wanted anyone to follow them,” Arthur snorted. “The traps I found had mostly rotted through, but they were nasty ones back in their day. And of course the whole of the upper levels are completely filthy, but we decided it was better if no one started tryin’ to clean things up until we were sure those floors hadn’t been abandoned for a reason.”

The rest of their walk was mostly taken up with speculation about what might have been going on in the Black Castle before the Cataclysm, and if that might have had something to do with the castle surviving said Cataclysm mostly intact. And of course there was quite a bit of excitement once they got back to the castle, which was compounded by Merlin making a formal apology on his knees to Princess Elana…and to the rest of his friends as well. If looks could kill, the ones Jack and Hans had given Arthur would have seen Avalon heirless then and there. And Arthur thought Elana had seen them too, because her response had been to take Merlin’s hand and lift him back to his feet and apologize herself. “We all screwed up,” she said. “I did think it over later, you know, once I got done being offended. I’m the only one of my kind, Merlin, that’s why you’d never seen anyone else like me. And I know about the ritual that makes the iffier witches turn green, but in the heat of the moment it never occurred to me that you’d look up and think that’s what you were seeing. So you all have my apologies as well, because even though it all seems to have worked out in the end…well, I overreacted and my magic, intentionally or not, made ending the curse overly hard on most of you.”

That last came with a significant look directed at the triplets, who shrugged as one. “We simply thought it through,” Pino said.

“And we have a beautiful princess of our own now!” came from Kio.

Noki just batted his eyelashes at her, and she blushed teal. Arthur took in Serena’s wide eyes and realized that Jack was going to have one hell of an afternoon explaining…well, that to his oh-so-innocent baby sister. Which was all to the good, because Arthur needed to talk to Merlin. And if he hadn’t already known he needed to do that, Hans made it pretty clear after everyone else had gone to help Elana get settled in or trotted off to explain how the more uncommon types of relationships work—Snow had gone with Jack and Serena for that one, to help Jack or to find out herself Arthur wasn’t sure—that Arthur was in trouble with him. “You have had weeks to talk to him since you came back!” he hissed. “Yes, he is tired. Yes, he has many demands on his time right now. But the longer you leave this, the worse it gets! I understood why you perhaps did not wish to speak of it at first…but he attempted to offer comfort to you when you returned and you pushed him away. Do you honestly want him to die believing his second family has also rejected him?”

Arthur’s blood ran cold. “You knew, about the guards. You knew.”

“Of course I knew! How could I have missed it?” Hans didn’t often get angry, but he was there now. “He has been conserving his power, Arthur—his very strict daily schedule, that is what it’s for. That he managed to drag himself back into fighting form while doing so is unbelievable even to me and I watched him do it! I have sparred with him, and the triplets as well, and he is almost back up to where he was. But that will not help him with conducting two large magical workings and powering all of the interaction the guards will be doing with dozens of guests on his wedding day, now will it?” He took a step back, which kind of relieved Arthur; Hans was more dangerous than he was in a close-quarters fight. “Is your father coming to the wedding or not?”

“Of course he’ll be at the wedding, he wouldn’t miss it! Merlin is…” Arthur grimaced, running a hand through his hair. “Dad was furious with me. Merlin is his second son in every way but blood.”

“I am furious with you too,” Hans said. “Because the person you should have said that to is Merlin, not me.”

And then he turned and stomped away, probably going back to the kitchen. Arthur knew better than to follow him. He was really surprised, however, to see that Noki had been watching them from the doorway. “You fix it today, or we will write your father,” Noki told him. “And we will be sending that letter with you as the messenger.”

And then he was gone too, and Arthur was feeling like he was only two feet high again. This time deservedly so.


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