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Chapter 21
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 9 January 2022 1585 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 21

Settling into life at the Black Castle was…interesting for Princess Elana. And not just because she now had three handsome, amorous boyfriends who were intent on keeping her happy. If she’d been a different kind of woman it actually might have been a problem, how devoted to her the three of them were, but Elana had never been spoiled or even very demanding—she’d never had the opportunity, to be honest, as she and her mother had lived in a tower far away from other people for most of her life and although she’d never really wanted for anything their lifestyle had been far from extravagant.

Of course, nobody’s lifestyle in the Black Castle was anywhere near extravagant either, in fact except for the king they all sort of acted like a large family sharing a somewhat run-down house. Everyone did chores, everyone contributed of their skills and talents, everyone helped wherever needed. Nobody ever used a title unless they were talking to the king or someone from the town. There was a lot of hugging, and everyone including the king ate most of their meals in the kitchen; if everyone was together for dinner, then they clustered together at one end of a long formal dining table—Arthur was using the other end to work on his maps.

It was more than obvious that Princess Snow was loving every minute of being part of such a family. It was somewhat less obvious that her father had…issues with the entire situation, even though he also appeared to know that nothing could be done about it. And the way he looked at Merlin when he thought no one else was watching made the hair stand up on the back of Elana’s neck. “He doesn’t approve of the match?” she finally asked her boyfriends. “Did he want her to marry someone else?”

Noki snorted. “No, not that we know of. He just does not like Merlin very much.”

“He once said as though in jest that he wished she had chosen Hans, due to his skill in the kitchen,” Kio elaborated. “But the look in his eyes said it was no jest. And once Hans had resumed his original form, he never said it again. We are not sure what was going through the man’s mind, or what still goes through it.”

“The guards say he is jealous,” Pino contributed from where he was braiding her hair. Elana hadn’t gotten to brush or braid her own hair since she’d set foot in the castle, because one of her new boyfriends was always there wanting to do it for her the minute she picked up her brush. “We agree that is likely part of it, although the guards’ opinions of their former king…well, they are not fans, obviously. But the captain of the guard is very approving of Merlin.”

“As well he should be, since he was inside of him the first time raiders came,” Kio snorted.

Elana’s mouth dropped open. “The captain of the guard possessed him?”

“For a very short time, out of necessity.” Pino tied off the golden braid with a strip of silk. “There, perfect. Captain Gerard told Arthur—because he asked—that possessing the living is not pleasant and he had no intention of doing it again.”

“We believe him,” Noki said with a shrug. “And Merlin said it cannot happen again, because there is no…hook?”

“If a spirit is planning to use someone as a vessel more than once, they leave a magical hook inside the person and then tether themselves to it,” Elana explained. “Sort of like keeping a door from latching properly so you can get back into a house.”

“Well then, happily there is no hook,” Kio said. “The captain is…well, was, an honorable man. He still is to the extent that he can be, we think.”

“That only ends when raiders are about,” Pino added. “To them he is ruthless, and merciless.” He shrugged. “Not that we blame him for that. Of the ones who have come, at least some had a pretty royal prize in mind for themselves after they had killed the king and Merlin.”

“In that case, good for him being merciless,” Elana said, taking a sip of her wine. It was a sweet red blend partly made with one of the rich, strong vintages from Old Vinci, so she was drinking it very slowly. “Does anyone know why there have been so many attacks?”

Pino shrugged. “We suspect that it started with gossip, but we have no idea how the gossip spread so quickly.”

“Or so accurately,” Noki added. “The very first batch of raiders was led by Rufus Fear,” he nodded at Elana’s gasp of recognition, “and he knew far too much about what was going on within the castle. Including that Merlin at the time was all but helpless in a bedroom on the third floor.”

“That’s…really specific.”

Kio nodded. “We know. But as there was no one else here…well, what we don’t know is how anyone found out. Luckily subsequent raiding parties have just been working off that same old gossip, and they are all taken very much by surprise by encountering ghostly guards who can actually hurt them and a fully functional and very angry mage.”

“I wouldn’t call Merlin ‘fully functional’ at the moment,” Elana cautioned. “The guards are a strong, constant drain on his magic, I honestly don’t know how he left the castle to come looking for you.”

“Oh, we know,” Pino told her. “It is because he is stubborn. And because he was trying to protect Arthur, of course.” He gestured with his wineglass. “Arthur is lucky I was able to wake Merlin when he fainted, and that he was able to walk back to the castle under his own power, or Jack might have decided to have more than words with him. Jack had sworn some time ago that if Merlin were to die because of Arthur’s poor control of his temper they would be crossing swords, and Jack is twice the swordsman Arthur is. Or any of the rest of us, for that matter.”

“Hans, him you have to watch with a knife, or a short sword,” Noki said. “He is most dangerous at close quarters.”

“We fight well as a unit,” Kio continued. “And it helps that most cannot tell us apart, so we seem to be everywhere at once. Now Arthur, he is not at all unskilled with his sword, or with knives, but his advantage is brute strength. He has trained all his life to be able to wield Excalibur, and she is a heavy blade.”

“Especially when she is clinging to a piece of her stone.” Pino laughed. “When we came to rescue the princess here, Arthur’s weapon had been broken. He tried in vain to draw the Sword from its stone.”

“She was not giving in,” Noki said. “So we decided to get her for him. With a blow from our machine.”

Elana gasped. Kio shrugged and drained the rest of his wine. “She let us—we believe she sensed how desperate the situation was. But she clung to a piece of the Stone the size of my head. And Arthur used her like that for more than a week. Effectively, even. As a dwarf.”

“He put her back the night after the first band of raiders were dispatched, and the Stone formed back up around her.” Noki poured himself more wine. “Captain Gerard got him into the guards’ hidden armory, which had not been subject to the same depredations as the rest of the valuables in the castle. The blade Arthur carries now is the one the captain selected for him.” He offered Elana more of the wine, and smiled when she pulled her glass away and shook her head. “It is very strong, we know. All of the Vincian reds are that way, and the whites are light and sparkle like the sun.”

Elana took another sip. “This blend is lovely, but if I drink much more I’m going to lose control of my magic, and not in a fun way.”

“Well that will not do.” Pino took the glass out of her hand and set it aside, then wrapped his arms around her waist. “The fun way is always preferable.”

“I do need to be functional tomorrow,” she reminded him when his breath tickled her ear. “I’m supposed to go into town with Snow and Serena to do some shopping, remember?”

Kio moved in to give some attention to the other ear. “Oh, we will make sure you are fully functional. Unless you do not want…?”

Elana huffed. “Of course I want,” she told him, moving her head to give him better access. “I just…oooh…I just don’t want to be walking funny in front of the girls. Would you want to explain that to Serena?”

“No, of course not.” Noki had put his glass aside as well, and he leaned in to kiss her. “We will be very careful with you, our beautiful princess.”

And then he kissed her again, and Elana gave in. She’d just tell Serena she’d tripped on a rug…


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