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Chapter 38
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 15 May 2022 2757 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 38

The discussion regarding the shadow-taint and what needed to be done about stopping it went long into the night, and everyone slept in a bit later than usual the following morning as a result. Winter White had not joined in this discussion, as he had not been invited to it in the first place; he certainly knew something was going on, but he asked no questions and removed himself from breakfast as quickly as he reasonably could. Merlin frowned after him. Snow had told him, once they’d gone up to their bedchamber the night before, that after the Seven had been gone only a few days on their quest to bring aid to Odinson her father had begun muttering little comments in the vein of ‘this is how it starts’ until Snow had finally snapped at him over dinner one evening that she was not surprised he’d no faith in her husband’s fidelity as he apparently had never experienced that condition himself. And his further attempt to deal with this uncomfortable outburst by taking his meals in his own chambers had been thwarted when the furious young queen had ordered the elves to refuse to give him food anywhere except the dining room. She had definitely been his queen and not his daughter in that moment, Merlin had thought to himself as he’d drifted off to sleep with her tucked comfortably into his arms, and he was proud of his wife even as his heart ached for the fact that she would be left mostly alone with the twisted bastard again soon and for a much longer period of time.

Breakfast was a rather relaxed affair otherwise, as the only plan for the day was to return to the hidden docking cavern and further explore it, and to begin carrying up salvage from the raiders’ ships. Merlin had announced his intention to do something about the taint on the one ship as well, and after a bit of brotherly arguing everyone agreed that using magic and fire together would probably be the best plan. He also intended to burn whatever was left of Fear’s ship as well, a plan which was met with no argument at all.

Everyone except the Dowager King left the castle shortly after breakfast, with Snow ordering Jonas, the day-guard, to seal the gates and allow no one entry until they came back. Briar had gone ahead of them to let Noki know they were coming, but once Pino had figured out the opening mechanism for the door—it was underneath the stone bench, and quite cleverly concealed—they got in easily enough and then closed the door up after themselves again before following him down the wide stone steps. They met Noki coming up shortly thereafter. “Now that I am thinking about it,” he greeted them, “I do not believe most cargo came up and down this passage. There should be a lift of some sort for hauling it into or out of the castle proper, one that must either be well hidden or damaged enough to have been unusable by the raiders.”

“Was it, though?” Jack questioned. “I could have sworn that at least Fear’s men made their appearance within the gates. Or perhaps only one of them did, but we simply did not notice the one raider whose sole purpose was letting the others in.”

Snow grew rather pale at that. “So you’re saying we’ve just been lucky so far—luckier than we thought we had been.”

“Perhaps,” Pino said. “It is possible not all of them knew of such a passage, or were for some reason afraid to use it. But I believe Noki’s thinking to be correct either way. No one would choose to haul a ship’s hold worth of goods up and down these steps, and to do so regularly would be to risk many, many people discovering the secret of the door.”

“The door may not have been a secret back then, though,” Arthur argued. “What if this was just the only way they could have ships at all? The Black Castle is built into the cliffs, and it likely wasn’t on an island before the Cataclysm.”

Captain Roberts huffed. “That would explain the stones with carving on them that we passed, then, and possibly the arrangement of that entire area—it’s the remains of an underground passage that ships moved through to get to…a lake, a river, the sea? Some body of water large enough for trading vessels to use, anyway.”

“That would make sense,” Snow agreed. “My earliest-known ancestor didn’t appear to have known about it, in fact he more than once referred to his kingdom as being landlocked, but possibly the secret of the door had been forgotten or something else had happened that prevented them from using it.”

“I would guess both, with the former happening over time,” came from Kio. “Perhaps the water levels went down too far to allow the passage of a ship?”

“Or rose too high for it,” Roberts suggested, nodding. “Which also suggests they weren’t using barges and trading with a lake-town or similar.”

They reached the docking cavern in short order, going down almost always being a faster proposition than going up, and were greeted by a few neat piles of salvage waiting to be divided and the Northern Rover’s crew taking the opportunity to do the sort of cleaning and maintenance that can only be done when a ship is docked. One largish pile was set to one side of the others and covered with a torn sail, and the flag from Fear’s ship was laying on top of it. “Hmm, not as much as I thought he’d have aboard,” Merlin observed. “He must have been piling it up in a bolt-hole somewhere between attacks.”

“Oh, he most likely had two or three such places,” Roberts said. “With any luck, he’ll have mentioned where they’re at in the logbook, or at least mentioned enough other locations that we can guess the general area and go from there.” He offered the wondering young queen a nod. “We will be splitting those caches with the Black Castle, Your Majesty, if we can find them. It wasn’t just you and your consort Fear acted against, it was your entire line and legacy.”

Snow nodded slowly. “I can agree to that, Captain, so long as you agree not to take unnecessary risks in your pursuit of those caches. Especially as the taint may have been spread to them by now.”

“We will take every possible precaution,” he assured her. “Although I’m beginning to think I should be having a mage in my employ, or at least a wizard.” He snorted. “And, according to my crew, we now also require a cook.”

She laughed. “If it makes you feel any better, the elves had to negotiate with Prince Hans to arrange for sharing the castle’s kitchens with him.”

“It does, Your Majesty, thank you—although I’ve no complaints about his excursions into our galley, believe me. Those may be some of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten at sea.” He turned his attention back to Merlin. “Prince Consort, I know you’d probably like to get on with your plan for the tainted ship…but I can’t deny I hate to see you do it.”

Merlin shook his head. “It shouldn’t be nearly as taxing as before, honestly, as there are no people on board who need to be cleansed. In fact, I had the idea that I could start by putting a layer of magical protection on a few people and having them move everything salvageable off that ship, and then once it’s been emptied I could just set the ship on fire without having to cleanse it at all.” He frowned at the second ship, which was now riding quite high in the water. “What should we do with that one, do you think?”

“Burn it,” Roberts told him. “It belonged to a trader turned raider named Dix, and unfortunately it’s far too recognizable to either use or sell—Dix was in the business of selling his spoils to other raiders, or trading with them for items that might be difficult to dispose of otherwise. There was talk that the Golden Cherries were of his making, created from such trinkets which he acquired and then melted down.”

That got a few nods. Golden Cherries sometimes turned up in this market or that around the Fairy Isles, smooth roundish lumps of gold about the size of a man’s thumb which contained a ‘pit’ consisting of a hollow iron shell with a jewel or jewels inside and a looped ‘stem’ which could be used to hang the Cherries from a chain. “Now that is a hidden raider’s store I would like to find,” Jack said. “If only to take possession of his molds.”

“Check the inventory of what came off his ship,” Merlin told him. “And if it’s not there, we can check the ship again for hidden compartments. If it was him making them, it’s entirely likely he carried at least some of his equipment around with him.”

“Possibly,” Jack agreed. “But only if he was doing so to make sure no one else got hold of it. It is not possible to do such fine work on board a ship at sea, the movement caused by the waves would be too much.”

“You should check all three ships for hidden compartments, Merlin,” Pino pointed out. “You can do the first two while the third ship is unloaded, and then you can do that one as well before burning all three. My brothers and I are going to go look for the hidden lift.”

“I’m going to have a look at the taint on that third ship before it’s burned,” Elana said. “It’s making my skin crawl, even from here, but I want to be familiar with it in case it turns up on the Black Isle later.”

“I’m just glad it’s only tainted,” Merlin told her. “The actual infection…well, I’d think if they’d had any of it on board it would have visibly eaten away at the wood of the ship by now, and possibly spread to the pier as well. And I don’t recall any of the raiders who came here displaying the…behavior we saw from people who were infected.”

“That doesn’t mean none of them were, just that no one who was infected left the ship,” Arthur pointed out. “Who knows what we’re gonna find in the hold.”

“I will go with you to check,” Hans offered. “The crew who will unload her can follow once we have made sure there are no deadly surprises waiting for them.”

“Be careful,” Merlin warned, and held out his hands; they each took one, and a blue glow flowed over both of them. “This will only keep off taint, not someone’s teeth.”

“We know.”

The two of them immediately headed for the tainted ship, Elana trailing along in their wake; her wings emerged when she got closer, and she started to glow faintly green. Snow offered the startled captain a smile. “Princess Elana tells me that technically her wings are always there, but you can only see them if she’s actively pulling on her magic,” she explained. “It’s just…unfortunate that her type of fairy sort of resembles a rather unsavory type of witch.”

“Yes, that must be most unfortunate,” Roberts agreed, and offered her a bow which also included Serena. “Your Majesty, Your Highness, there will no doubt be quite a lot of activity around here soon, I believe you’d be more comfortable—and have a better view of it all—from the deck rather than the pier. Will you come aboard?”

“We would love to, Captain.” Snow would really rather have gone with her husband, but they had talked about it the night before and she’d agreed that the possibility of coming into contact with the taint was simply too great a risk for the Queen of the Black Isle to take. Especially as her husband was already planning to exhaust himself clearing said taint out of the docking cavern and might not be able to help her. He had promised, however, that once he was certain all had been made safe she could explore the cavern to her heart’s content.

She allowed herself to be escorted up the gangplank and onto the ship’s well-scrubbed deck, Serena close behind her. Roberts saw that his crew had assembled themselves and drew himself up. “Welcome aboard the Northern Rover, Queen Snow, Princess Serena,” he said. “May I present my first mate, Mr. Taylor.”

A tall man standing to one side of the others bowed to them. “Your Majesty, Your Highness, welcome aboard.”

“Thank you, Mr. Taylor,” Snow told him with a smile. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about ships, Captain, but this looks like a fine one to me.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty, she’s a good ship for us.” A small table had been brought out onto the deck, and a few chairs from his own wardroom—Captain Roberts had sent a message with one of the elves earlier that morning, letting his men know who would be coming down with him—and in short order a steaming pot of tea was on the table along with a brown cone of sugar and a plate of rather artfully arranged sweetmeats. Roberts briefly left the two royal ladies to their refreshment to attend to his first mate, who had indicated he needed to speak with him. “There were no problems during the night, were there, Mr. Taylor?”

“It was silent as a tomb, Captain, and nothing moved save the water,” Taylor told him. “One of the Black Castle’s servants came down this morning to tell us that they’d be seeing us provisioned and asked for a list, which I made a start on and left on your desk, along with the inventory from Fear’s ship. We already brought the usable sailcloth and rope aboard, and the casks that weren’t too worm-addled to save, but we left the rest until you could decide what was wanted and what wasn’t. And some of it…sir, some of it we’re probably going to have to burn regardless, as it’s,” he glanced meaningfully over at the two young women, “rather obvious how Fear and his men must have gotten possession of it.”

Roberts grimaced. “I see. Very well, once Prince Merlin has done a final check of Fear’s ship, have those particular items quietly moved back onto her and they can burn with the rest. And once Prince Arthur and Prince Hans are finished making their check of the tainted ship, we’re going to need volunteers to unload her. Prince Merlin will ward them against picking up the taint, so it shouldn’t be any more dangerous than emptying Fear’s ship was.”

That made Taylor snort. “Fear’s ship was only a danger due to the sheer filth of it,” he told his captain. “The Tainted Jewel was much better, but that’s only to be expected—Captain Dix was a rogue, but he knew his business and ran it like one.”

The captain just nodded; there wasn’t a trading ship sailing the Fairy Isles that hadn’t had dealings with Dix a time or two, including his own. “You found his logbook? Because Prince Jacques expressed interest in finding whatever hidey-hole the man had been doing his forge-work in. Assuming all the tools of his trade weren’t on the ship with him, that is.”

“He had a whole shelf of log books, busy thing that he was. Shall I bring the most recent one out for you, Captain? And the Jewel’s inventory?”

“Yes please, to both.” Roberts went back to the table and rejoined his guests, pouring himself a cup of tea. He’d no doubt it was going to be a rather long day. And hopefully, a boring one as well.


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