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Chapter 43
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 26 June 2022 1460 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 43


The next day’s walking got them to the cliffs, which turned out not to be the solid walls of rock they appeared to be from a distance but were in fact weathered towers of tumbled stone rising precariously into the air in mimicry of the mountains they resembled. “This…it’s like someone picked up mountains and smashed them on the ground,” Arthur said. “What the hell happened here?”

“Possibly just that.” Jack was investigating the wall of broken granite—the triplets had already confirmed that it was good, solid granite, and were bemoaning the fact that it was too far away from New Vinci to be used to build themselves an actual castle with—and he abruptly went to one knee and began digging soil from around a stone with his fingers. He quickly had it uncovered on one side, and he looked up at Arthur. “This was not a raw stone, it was shaped. Most likely, it was part of someone’s house.”

Everyone else quickly gathered around to look, and Noki and Pino took over seeing if they could pry the stone out of the wall of rock and dirt it was embedded in. It didn’t take long, as they were using tools, and soon the stone was in Pino’s hands and he was holding it up to examine it. “This came from a chimney, I think—the stone has been discolored by heat, but only one the one side. So yes, a house.”

“I wonder if it’s under the rocks, the rest of it,” Snow said. And shivered. “It’s so bleak over here by the rocks, like the land itself just wants us to go away.”

“That’s not the land,” Merlin said. “There’s something on it. Not a curse, but rather like the remnant of a curse. A curse that was meant to drive people off, maybe?” He eyed up the wall of rock. “I’d rather not climb this.”

“We do not have to.” Kio had been walking along the cliff wall, and when everyone looked at him he stuck one arm into it. “This is wide enough for a man to walk through, but just barely. I would not even have seen it had I not been right beside the wall, the brush hides it from the front.”

“So we have found the passage to the hidden kingdom, perhaps,” Jack said. “The one found by the man who sold the first King of Duria his crown.” He moved to Kio’s side and looked into the gap. “I cannot see the other side, but these walls seem solid enough. Do we go now, or camp here and go in the morning?”

“I guess we could just go in there and see where it comes out, then decide,” Arthur suggested. He, too, looked into the gap. “We can always make camp on the other side, if there’s a spot for it.”

“I don’t see why not.” Merlin shrugged. “If we don’t find a spot, we can always come back out.”

They organized themselves and filed into the narrow pass—barely more than a crack between towering walls of jagged, broken rock—and after a few twists and turns began to wonder if maybe it led not to a valley but rather out to the coast, or directly to the sea. Because they could hear the deep echoes of the sea, even though it was impossible to tell how far or near the sound of the restless water might be coming from them. And then all at once the rock walls fell away like curtains being drawn, and they found themselves looking down into an ancient, broken valley filled with blossoming trees which almost concealed the remains of a stone palace on the other side. Arthur blew out a breath. “Well, we found something.”

“We found more than something,” Jack said, pointing. There were some kind of large creatures visible in one open area, milling together. “There are the ‘monsters’ who greeted the man who found the King of Duria’s crown, I think.”

Arthur squinted in that direction. “Are those what I think they are? Are those horses?”

“Maybe,” Merlin said. “They could have been trapped here, after the Cataclysm. We should probably stay clear of them, they’re very large and I doubt they’d know what to make of people after all this time.”

“Well, before we can stay clear, we have to find a way down,” Hans pointed out. The ledge they were standing on was roughly three feet wide and sat a good twenty feet up from the valley floor. “It will not be easy.”

“Then we should get started,” Jack said. “It will be dark quickly here, I think.”

“It will.” Pino pulled a coil of rope out of his pack, and his brothers produced more rope and a small machine connected to a pulley. The machine drove a forked spike deep into the rock, and then Noki took hold of one side of the rope and rappelled down the broken cliff face. He disappeared into the trees, and soon a green flag came up the rope. “And we are ready! Who will go first?”

Arthur and Jack exchanged a look, and Jack put the harness attached to the rope around his waist and went down. Hans went next, then Kio, then Snow. Arthur followed her down, and then Merlin raised an eyebrow at Pino. “So, do we leave it or do you have another plan?”

Pino frowned. “It would serve to get us back out, so long as the rope remains intact. I would hate to lose it, but I would hate more trying to scale this rock with our hands if we must leave quickly.”

“Point,” Merlin agreed. “Be right behind me.”

“Of course.”

In just a few more minutes, everyone was standing beneath the canopy of the white-blossom trees, which turned out to be overgrown apple trees. Hans was shaking his head over them. “I have never seen this variety,” he said. “They must live only here now, like the horses.”

“There might be a lot of things here that don’t exist anywhere else,” Merlin said, biting his lip. “Be careful what you touch. I can feel…I believe it should be safe enough to stay here tonight, but we should make camp near the spot where we came down and start for the ruins at first light. I don’t think we want to be there when the sun goes down.”

Arthur sighed. “Well in that case, there’s a flat spot over here in the rocks…”

 

They kept watch that night around their small fire, but the night was warm enough and the only thing that happened was a curious squirrel coming by to see what they were doing. Everyone was on edge, though, because Merlin was. He’d insisted that everyone keep their backs to the rocky wall of the valley, although he’d also said he didn’t think they were in much danger. But he took the watch twice that night, once waking from a sound sleep to sit beside Jack, staring into the darkness in the direction of the ruins. “It knows we’re here,” he said, and then sighed when Jack handed him a steaming mug. “Not ghosts,” he clarified. “But this land…as soon as my feet touched the valley floor, I could tell this land had once been under a powerful curse—possibly more than one. What’s leaked outside is just a shadow of it. Something…I’m afraid something terrible happened here, and whoever was behind it had power like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

“Are they still here, then?”

He was relieved when Merlin shook his head. “No. As far as I know, nothing like that is still in the world, Jack. But the fact that it was…”

Snow wrapped her arms around him from behind and rested a sleepy head on his shoulder. “Finish that and come back to sleep, Merlin. And Jack, don’t put on your cloak tonight. We need to be able to see you.”

“We do,” Merlin agreed. “And there’s so much leftover magic here, we’ll have to be very careful what we touch. No one should pick even the smallest flower.”

Jack snorted. “Tell Hans that, he was still muttering about cuttings when I relieved him.”

“I’ll remind him—constantly, if I have to. We don’t dare take any of this leftover curse magic back to the Fairy Isles with us.”

 


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