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Chapter 39
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 22 May 2022 4076 words
Chapter 40 Previous One Day in Surrey Chapter 27 Next
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 39


Toward mid-afternoon, Jonas began to be troubled by a low grinding sound that, while it seemed to not be coming from nearby, was setting his teeth on edge. He’d have thought it was just his imagination if his examination of the walls of the entrance chamber—the idea that the ghosts, among them his cousin Gerard, might be returning having crossed his mind—hadn’t proved to him that it wasn’t; there was a faint, fine trembling running through the stone. He went back to the gate and looked through it, seeing nothing and no one, hearing nothing save the farther distant murmur of the sea and a whisper of wind now and again as small gusts brushed against the granite walls of the King’s Road. It was while he was looking that he realized the noise had stopped and with it the vibration in the stones, and he frowned. There were tales, although none that anyone he’d ever known had seen for themselves, of forces within the earth which could send burning water or rock shooting up into the sky, onto the land, to devastating effect. It seemed unlikely, but he’d also thought he’d smelled smoke at several points throughout the day even though there’d been none to be seen and no sign of fire…

So intent was he on trying to puzzle out this new mystery that the appearance of Prince Noki coming into the entrance chamber from within the castle proper nearly startled him right out of his boots. The tall Vincian prince smiled but didn’t laugh at him. “Well, now we know exactly how the raiders got into the castle,” he announced. “They let themselves in.”

“Prince Noki, we were told you stayed on the ship last night…where did you come from?!”

“The Black Castle’s hidden docks,” Noki told him. Merlin and Snow had both already decided that trying to keep the docking cavern and its hidden door a secret from their two human guards was a bad idea now that the cavern was going to be in at least somewhat regular use. “After hearing of the attacks by raiders we kept having, Captain Roberts said he thought there must be a hidden dock. And we found it. There is an old entrance for ships on the other side of the island, somewhat treacherous now, and within the mountain is a large cavern which contains a pier fit for docking several ships at once, as well as storerooms and the cargo lift I just came up in.” He made a face, rubbing one ear. “I do not recommend riding in the lift unless you have no other choice, honestly. The grinding of stone on stone is quite loud when you are inside of it.”

“I heard such a noise, faintly, but I could not locate the source,” Jonas admitted. “So this means the raiders cannot be kept out?”

Noki shook his head. “It means they will never get in again. There is a gate which bars the way into the cavern from the sea, and the first thing my brothers and I did on finding it was determine how it worked and lower it into place. There will never be another surprise raider attack on the Black Castle from that entrance.”

Jonas considered that. “Are there other entrances?”

“One, and I am going to show it to you now. If you would please unlock the gate?”

The other man hesitated. “I would need to go get Davy…”

“No, you will not—trust me when I say that within five minutes no one will be able to so much as approach this gate unless they have wings. Come along now, you will need to see the mechanism in action to believe it, I think.”

Still somewhat reluctantly, Jonas unlocked the gate and then went through it a step behind Prince Noki, wondering what sort of doorway they were talking about. Mechanism? So not magical, then, or at least not entirely. But there was nothing along the path, as it had been carved directly into the mountain…and then the two of them rounded the second bend in the road just in time to see a section of the mountainside shiver and then slowly swing out, just like a door, until it completely filled the path with a massive wall of stone. Jonas swallowed. “That’s…some mechanism, Your Highness.”

Noki grinned. “It is, isn’t it? And just wait until you see what is beyond it.”

 

Snow, Pino, Elana, Serena, Arthur and Hans had all come up from the cavern, bringing Roddy Nilsson and his two tiny daughters with them, and Noki had taken Jonas down to familiarize him with the working of both the door and the sea-gate as well as the layout of the docking and storage caverns, assuring him that the elves would be keeping an eye on the castle’s gates until he got back to them; the elves were going to be near the gate anyway, as Kio was directing the men from the Northern Rover in the use of the lift to start bringing up the Black Castle’s share of what had already been salvaged from the raider ships. Jack was still hard at work evaluating gems from the part of the salvage which had yet to be divided, as the ship which had once belonged to the raider captain Dix had turned out to be riddled with hidden compartments full of treasure—apparently the raider-trader hadn’t trusted that his hoard would remain safe if it were out of his control, and had had every intention of taking it all down with him if someone eventually got the better of him. Which meant the molds for the Golden Cherries had indeed been on board, along with a maker’s journal which appeared to predate its possession by Dix, and Jack had already stated his intention of continuing to produce the Cherries himself now that the secrets of making them were in his possession. In fact, he already had his first commission: Captain Roberts had requested that a portion of his share of the gold and gems be transformed into Cherries, one of which would be given to each member of his crew while the rest were secreted within one of his own ship’s hidden compartments as security against future emergencies.

Merlin was monitoring the burning of the three raider ships now that they’d been emptied, and at everyone’s insistence he’d been doing that from his wife’s seat at the table on the deck of the Northern Rover. The ships had been moved away from the pier, and as Merlin had started the fires at the tops of the masts to prevent the creation of an underwater hazard later they looked rather like a cluster of gigantic ship-shaped candles burning down. He’d also done something to conceal the smoke that was pouring off of them and flowing up and out of the opening at the top of the cavern, as he didn’t want anyone to spot it and come running up to the castle to report a fire on the mountain.

In consequence he was beginning to feel more than a little tired, and he was very glad to be sitting in a comfortable chair on the Northern Rover’s deck drinking tea while he kept all of these various things under control and worked out the finer points of a two-way contingency plan with Captain Roberts in case the shadow sickness spread to either the Black Isle or to the Isle of Mendekua, which was where the good captain and most of his crew had their homes. Still, Merlin was even more glad when everything was finally finished and he and Noki and Kio were able to bid goodbye to Captain Roberts—temporarily, anyway, as the Northern Rover would be returning in a week’s time to take the Fearless Seven to a place where they could begin making their way South into the Broken Lands—and then the sea gate was lowered again and they ascended the smooth-worn stone steps back up to the castle. Dinner in the Black Castle was served early that evening, and it wasn’t long before Merlin and Snow were going up another set of worn stone steps, this time the ones that took them to their chambers on the third floor. “There are far too many stairs on the Black Isle,” Merlin told his wife, taking off his jacket and stretching mightily. “Just a ridiculous number of them.”

Snow laughed at him. “So says the man who’s walked the length and breadth of the Fairy Isles how many times?”

“That’s different,” he disclaimed immediately. “That’s not stairs.”

She moved into his arms and gave him a kiss. “I can’t see how it would be all that much different, climbing hills and land-bridges and mountains seems to me like it would be harder. What do you think it’s going to be like in the South?”

“I’ve honestly no idea. Rougher terrain, maybe? If the heart of the Cataclysm truly lies in that area, I’d expect it to be rocky at the very least. There might be fissures and cliffs as well—I’m sure they’re called the Broken Lands for a reason.”

“I’m sure.” Snow was giving him a very direct look. “We’ll find out together, I suppose. I’m going with you.”

Merlin’s brown eyes widened. “My love, you…we’ve no idea what’s out there, or even exactly what we’re looking for. And the kingdom…”

“Won’t miss me. I’ve already worked it out with Elana, thanks to her talent with glamours not even my father will realize I’m gone, and no one from the town should find out. Not to mention trade is about to slow to a trickle again, thanks to the sickness going around. You’re not going without me!”

Merlin pulled her close, letting his magic expand around the two of them like a warm blanket. “You’re afraid I won’t come back.”

She huffed against his chest. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to come back. Me being with you will make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s not like Arthur can lift a boulder off of you.”

“No, that he can’t.” He stroked her hair. “It’s going to be dangerous, but you already know that. And you and I won’t be able to…I mean, for the most part we’re all going to be sleeping rough, but even if we had a tent it’s not…we can’t…”

“Merlin, I know. I just…maybe we’ll find an inn somewhere?”

He laughed. “You never know. I’ve never even met anyone who’s been to the Broken Lands, and Captain Roberts only knows of them from second- or third-hand tales, so who knows what we’ll find.” His arms tightened around her. “But I suppose we might as well find whatever it is together. And if we don’t come back?”

“The crown reverts to the Dowager King, who would no doubt find it quite easy to marry again and father another child if he were allowed to do so.” She pulled back to look him in the eye. “A child which will be raised by Elana and Serena and the elves, not by him or whatever he finds to marry. Like I said, Elana and I worked it all out. I’ll draw up all the paperwork before we leave, and you can secure everything legacy-related with magic, just in case.” A smile. “But it’s basically just going to be a waste of time and paper, because we will be coming back. All eight of us.”

He pulled her back in, not having the heart—or the energy—to argue with her. “If you say so, my love.”

 

Down in the triplets’ workshop, a similar conversation was taking place—it was taking place in the workshop rather than in their shared quarters because attempting it in the latter was just asking for said conversation to not be completed. And it definitely needed to be. “You are sure?” Pino wanted to know.

Elana nodded decisively. “Much as I’d love to come with you, we don’t know what you might be walking into, who you might meet, and I can’t keep my glamour up all the time. And since I have no desire to start planting fruit trees inside the castle, nor am I interested in replacing my three amazing boyfriends with a mostly worthless dowager king, I’m the logical choice to stay here and make sure there’s a castle and a kingdom for all of you to come back to. No one from the town will ever know Snow is gone.”

“Show us,” Kio requested, and his eyes widened when with an aimless-appearing little gesture their beautiful fairy girlfriend was replaced by the Queen of the Black Isle. He stood and held out his hand, bringing her out of her chair and turning her this way and that. “Astounding,” he said. “Could I not feel your smaller hand in mine, I would never know it was not her.”

“That’s the idea,” Elana said in a passable approximation of Snow’s voice. She dropped the glamour and accepted the kiss he gave her before sitting back down. “I’m going to suggest to Merlin that he puts both guards under a royal geas, just to make sure nothing slips out.”

“It might be difficult to keep them fooled, yes,” Noki said. “And such a situation is just begging for a dangerous misunderstanding to occur.”

“Quite true,” Pino agreed. “But just in case such a misunderstanding occurs anyway, we will show you how to disable both the hidden door and the lift so that they cannot be opened from the outside.”

“And we will also show the elves,” Noki agreed, nodding. “Because there is a difference between disabling and destroying, and we will doubtless be too tired to make such repairs when we return.”

Elana’s eyes grew rather bright, and she gathered three hands into her own. “You’d…you’d better come back, or I’m going to come down here and plant a tree in the bloomery.”

“Ah, such sacrilege,” Pino said, lifting his free hand to stroke her cheek. “You know we cannot in good conscience make such a promise, Elana. But you have my word as Crown Prince of Vinci that we will do everything in our power to return to you.” He smiled and shrugged when the little wave of power that pledge produced made her gasp. “Our natal island may have been swallowed by the sea, but the power of the Crown of Vinci goes where I go.” He stood up, stretching. “It is going to be a long few days as we prepare to leave the Black Isle. We should take what opportunities we have for making pleasant memories to sustain us on our journey, should we not?”

“Yes, we are all going to be quite busy,” Elana agreed, this time allowing Noki to raise her to her feet. Her wings shimmered into view. “I believe I can make sure you don’t forget me.”

Kio laughed, slipping an arm around her waist. “Oh, we could never forget our beautiful princess. We will be thinking of you the entire time we are gone!”

“We will,” Pino agreed, taking her hand and pressing it over his heart. “Do not doubt that for a moment, Elana. If we are at all able to return to you, we shall. And if not…”

She put a slender finger against his lips. “I’ll do what I need to do. And I’ll send word to your people in the Cantisles…but do your best not to make me need to do any of that, all right?”

His response was to sweep her up into his arms, capturing her mouth in a passionate kiss. “That I can promise, my princess.”

 

In the kitchens, Hans was puttering. He’d already made cake, and readied things for a generous breakfast, and he’d have likely started doing something in the stillroom if Briar hadn’t popped in and stopped him. “Out,” the elf ordered, frowning at him. “It’s late, you’re tired, go to bed.”

Hans rolled his eyes. “I will not be able to sleep, and I know it.”

“Then come sit by the fire and have some milk, and then you’ll be able to,” Briar told him, herding him out into the main part of the kitchen and very pointedly pulling out a chair for him. The elf immediately began flitting around to get a mug of milk sweetened and warmed. “I heard your presence aboard ship has all but forced Captain Roberts to start looking for a cook.”

Hans snorted. “They need one. But I did not do anything special.”

Briar snorted right back. “So says the man who could easily have earned his mastery from the Craft Guild by now if he hadn’t chosen to be a hero instead. Cake?”

“No, thank you.” Hans put his head down on the table with a sigh. “I may enjoy having a kitchen to do with as I please, but I would be bored to tears if it were my only occupation.”

“True, very true. And luckily you are equally skilled as a hero. So what has you so worried?”

Another sigh. “All the skill in the world will not keep plain bad luck from catching up with us. Like it did not so long ago. But this time, if it does, it is not just the seven of us who will suffer for it.”

“An understandable concern,” Briar said, stirring a swirl of magic into the milk. “But an unfair burden to place on yourself as well. And there will be eight of you, not seven, as the queen will be joining you.”

That made Hans sit upright again, his eyes wide. “She will?”

“Of course—she’d allow her husband go hunt down a lascivious vampire, or make a trip to provide aid to a kingdom in distress, but there’s no way she’d let him walk into the unknown without her.” He handed over the mug. “Plans have already been made, none but ourselves and the guards will know of her absence. Now take your milk upstairs and get to bed, we’ve all got a busy week ahead of us.”

Hans gave him a look. “You put magic in the milk to make me sleep, didn’t you.”

“Of course, because if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have.” Briar reached up and patted his shoulder. The elves were much more familiar with Hans than they were with the other princes—in private, anyway—as the young prince from Holle so often worked alongside them in the kitchen and preferred it that way. It was the elves alone, of anyone in the castle, who knew how he had come by the skills that allowed him to function at the level of a journeyman craft master within the kitchens and as a royal son well-trained in all the proper arts without them. “Get on with you, now, morning comes early. Your letters are all written?”

“I sent them out with the official notices when we were in port at Wawel,” Hans told him, standing up with a groan. “My sisters and my father should all be well-warned by now.”

“Good, good. And now goodnight.” Briar shooed him out of the kitchen, mug in hand, and made sure he actually went up the stairs and didn’t wander off somewhere else instead, smiling and shaking his head. They would all be back, Rose had said so and she was never wrong. The smile fell off. He just hoped they would all come back relatively unscathed, as Rose hadn’t been able to tell if they would or not. And no elves had ever ventured into the Broken Lands.

 

Arthur knocked on the door to Jack’s workroom and then opened it and stepped inside when he heard his friend respond, rolling his eyes when he saw his betrothed gracefully curled up sound asleep in a chair just like the wolf she sometimes was. “I was comin’ to ask if you’d seen Serena.”

“She wanted to speak with me about something,” Jack told him, not taking his eyes off the small mold he was adding molten iron to. A line of little half-shells made of the same metal were lined up on the worktable nearby. “I wished to test the molds for the pits, as at least one of them was cracked. I am happy to say that it is still perfectly functional.”

“I’ve always wondered why iron—why not silver, or more gold?”

Jack finished pouring and set the long-handled little cup which had held the melted metal aside. “The outer shell only contains the equivalent of four gold pieces—Dix had a mold for that too, and was apparently minting his own coins just because he could. The true value of the Cherries lies in the jewels within their pits, and to both encase these and access them the gold must be molten. Iron melts at a much higher temperature than gold, meaning the outer shell can be formed without damaging the pit and then later the gold can be recovered easily enough without being tainted by a baser metal.”

“Makes sense.” Arthur sighed. “I’m worried, about leavin’ the girls here with just the elves and two guards and Snow’s father.”

“As am I, but it is not like we have a choice.” Jack did look up this time. “There is no way to contain this sickness, and no telling what the taint as it spreads may do to people either,” he said. “Merlin is not enough on his own to stop it, and you saw what happened when he and that mage from Vistu tried to force the taint out of one of the infected together.”

“I did, and it scared the hell out of me.” Merlin, luckily for the weaker but much more arrogant magician from Vistu, had realized that even together they didn’t have enough power and had called a halt to their efforts, but they’d still both been severely drained. The magician from Vistu hadn’t been quite such a snot to everyone after that, which had been the only good thing to come out of the situation. “You think we’ll find somethin’ that’ll work, in the Broken Lands?”

“I hope that we will,” Jack said. “My biggest worry is that whatever remnants of old power we may find there may be just as dangerous as what festers on the Isle of Deer, and that we will solve one problem only to begin another which our descendants will have to deal with. But perhaps that is not something we should be concerning ourselves with until the current crisis has been resolved.”

“One problem at a time, yeah.” Arthur sighed again. “Well, I guess I should head up to bed.”

Jack nodded. “I will be doing the same shortly, I just…needed to settle my mind before I attempted to sleep. And discussing with Serena what she should do if certain situations arise while we are gone also went a long way to setting some of my own fears to rest. She knows they are to seek sanctuary with your father on Avalon if they for some reason must flee the Black Castle.”

“He’ll expect them to come to him,” Arthur agreed, and moved back to the door. “Good night, Jack.”

“Sleep well, Arthur.” Jack waited until the door had fully closed and Arthur’s heavy footsteps had faded away. “You are sure?”

Serena opened one bright blue eye and covered a ladylike yawn with her hand. “I’m sure. My magic doesn’t lie.”

Jack just nodded.

 


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