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Chapter 44
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 5 July 2022 2952 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 44


Morning dawned rather later in the hidden valley than it might have elsewhere, held back by the tall walls of rock, but when it did come it was beautiful. Merlin repeated his caution about being careful what they touched and not taking things over breakfast, and then they packed up their camp and headed out. Although the ground was broken and uneven, the walk to the ruins was still pleasant. The blooming apple trees were fragrant and sparkling with early morning dew, and birds sang sweetly from their branches. Occasionally a buzzing insect could be heard, or a tiny flash of color heralded the flight of a butterfly, but otherwise the valley was silent, peaceful. At one point they came upon the twisted remains of one half of a wrought metal gate which the triplets exclaimed over. “This was fine work,” Kio said, running his hand over a curved section of iron bars which had been bent around the trunk of a stubborn apple tree. “It was a true craftsman who created this.”

“And built it to withstand daily use, I think,” Noki added. He’d been examining a broken hinge. “These were forged for strength rather than beauty, although he may have etched them for aesthetic purposes.” He stood up. “I would guess they were meant to match the ironwork of the castle. These would have been the gates guarding the King’s Road.”

“That makes sense.” Arthur looked around. “I wonder if the upheaval swallowed up the village or the trees did?”

“Probably both.” Pino shrugged. “Houses and shops are not built to last the way a castle is. If all is safe, though, perhaps we can look amongst the trees later to see if anything else is left to tell us of these people.”

There was an odd note in his voice, and Merlin turned to him with concern. “You feel it too, don’t you.”

Pino nodded; Noki did the same, and Kio sighed. “It feels…something like our princess’s magic.” He shivered. “I am glad she is not here with us. I do not think this would be a good place for her.”

“No, not if what did this was an ancient bad fairy—who knows what being exposed to the taint here might do to her.” Merlin stepped around the remains of the gate. “We should keep moving.”

Arthur fell into step with him, frowning. “And what exactly do you think the taint of it might do to you?,” he asked in a low voice.

His brother shook his head. “Maybe if I stayed here and wallowed in it for weeks on end I might have a problem, but the taint is far too different from my own magic to corrupt me the way it could Elana. She’s only a quarter fairy, but I don’t doubt that would be enough.”

“Makes sense.” Arthur frowned at the remnants of a tower visible over the treetops. “I’m surprised the whole thing wasn’t swallowed up. The closer we get, the more it looks like this whole part of the mountain collapsed.”

“I think there was a reason for that,” was Merlin’s reply. He was staring at the tower as well. “I can feel the magic on it from here. Whatever is left…it was left here on purpose.”

Their next find was, surprisingly, an iron-banded wooden door. It was half buried, but the part that was visible made Kio’s eyes widen. “They must have had strong servants,” he said. “This is iron oak, four inches thick. And see the hardware? There were two of them.”

“The doors to the castle’s entrance?” Noki speculated, shaking his head. “These would have been better suited to something like the Black Castle, to my way of thinking. Unless they had something quite strong and terrible to keep out.” He raised an eyebrow. “Or perhaps in?” Everyone turned to look at him, and he shrugged. “Our journey here to the South was not the first time I had heard stories of men cursed to wear the form of beasts. Not like our sweet little Moon Princess, or even a were, these were said to be fearsome monsters as they had been terrible men, cruel and wild and full of rage—it was a punishment. And they were confined until the curse was broken by either love or death.”

Kio nodded. “Elana said she learned the curse she used on us from her mother and her mother’s mother, as a method for showing disrespectful men the error of their ways. There were different ways it could be cast as well. There was a story passed down that the very distant ancestor who created the spell turned her victims into pigs.”

Jack blinked at him. “Did she turn them back, or…” Pino shook his head, and he made a face. “Well that is disturbing.”

Merlin made a mental note to himself to check all future livestock coming into the kingdom for traces of transformational magic. It would be all too easy to dispose of someone by simply selling them for slaughter with a herd of other animals. Snow leaned into him to whisper in his ear. “I think we should be checking the animals in the market. Frequently.”

He kissed her cheek. “I was just thinking that myself. My mother and my teacher told us stories similar to that when I was young, about those who were disrespectful or greedy being turned into pigs by the spirits and…well. So at one time it must have been common practice.”

Arthur groaned. “Stop talkin’ about it! You’ll put me off bacon for the rest of my life.”

Hans smacked him. “You say that, but one sniff and you will be raiding the kitchen without a thought of it in your head.” He did give Merlin a look, though. “We should…”

“I already told him we should,” Snow said, and wrinkled her nose. “Maybe there’s some kind of spell that could be put on the market, maybe at the docks too, that would either notify us of a transformed person or just change them back.”

To her surprise, Merlin shook his head. “That could be dangerous, love. Not the notification, the change—if someone had been in animal form for a long time, there might not be very much human left inside them. So changing them back without checking first could…cause some problems.”

“Pigs can be quite vicious,” Hans agreed. “So can goats. To have a man-pig or a man-goat suddenly appear in a crowded market, fearful and angry, would be a terrible thing.” He shrugged. “That may be a task for Elana, to set such a notification. If all of this means her magic naturally leans toward transformations, to detect them should be a simple matter for her.”

“We will ask her once we return,” Pino said. “I had been wishing she had come with us, but now I am so glad she did not. I would hate to lose our beautiful girlfriend to stupid tainted fairy magic.”

Some twenty feet beyond the half-buried door, the crumbling ‘entrance’ to the ruins was sitting mostly roofless several feet above the level of the ground and looked like it might have once been part of a tiled hallway, broken lintels making crooked empty doorways which opened on nothing as it led to what once must have been a grand sweep of stone staircase. Near the end was a door which sat disturbingly pristine in its arched stone frame and which almost glowed in the fractured light that filtered through broken stone and over-arching branches alike. “Not the throne room,” Jack observed. “It would not be so far back, and not on this side. The missing doors here would have led to offices, meeting rooms—places where visitors with business could come. The throne room and other rooms of state would have been on the other side.”

“This room must have had some special significance,” Merlin mused. He put out his hand to touch the door. “Something is in there. A spirit, maybe.” He took a deep breath and slowly pushed open the door with an ear-abusing creak of long-disused hinges. “Oh my. It’s a repository for books.”

“It’s gigantic,” Snow said, her eyes wide. “I’ve never seen so many books in one place!”

“I’m not sure anyone has since the Cataclysm,” Arthur said, holding himself ready to grab Merlin if the possibility of digging through what looked like thousands of books made him forget to be careful. “I wonder if it was a special sort of place?”

It’s a library,” hissed a woman’s hollow voice, making everyone jump and Merlin put himself even more in front of his wife. “Honestly, how could you not know that? I made literacy a law!

Arthur cleared his throat. “That’s a good law,” he said. “I can think of a few places could do with that one.”

You can?” The spirit appeared out of nowhere, hovering in midair, a gaunt-faced woman in what would have once been a fine royal gown although no feet were visible beneath its ragged hem. She was outlined with a blue-gold aura of magic, but it had a sickly, spoiled cast to it and her hollow eyes were alight with what looked disturbingly like madness. “Everyone should be able to read!

“They should, truly,” Merlin agreed. He bowed to her. “My lady, our apologies for intruding on your sanctuary. Prince-Consort Merlin Emrys of the Black Isle, at your service. My companions and I were traveling, and we stumbled upon your palace quite by accident. If you would tell us, what kingdom is this we find ourselves in?”

She ignored him, as now her focus was on Jack. “Where are you from? You look something like my husband, the king, when he was younger.

Jack bowed. “I come from Fantastique, my lady—quite a long journey from here. And here is…?”

Again she didn’t answer, but surprisingly flew upwards and started perusing the leaning but still intact shelves of books. “Fantastique, Fantastique, there must be something here about it…” Apparently she didn’t find what she was looking for, because after a few long moments of her flitting all over the tall tower room she flickered back down in front of them and gave Jack a scowl. “I don’t have anything about Fantastique! Where is it? You must tell me everything!

“We have a map which I can show you, with all our natal kingdoms on it and many others besides.” Jack swallowed. “Your kingdom does not appear to be marked on it, though. Perhaps you could fix that for us?”

Us?” She seemed to notice the rest of their group for the first time. “What…why have you come here?

Jack looked to Merlin, who shrugged. “We were looking for something,” he told her. “As my companion has said, we stumbled across your kingdom by accident. Queen Snow White the Second and her husband, Prince-Consort Merlin Emrys, of the Black Isle,” he introduced, and Merlin again bowed. “Prince Arthur Pendragon of Avalon, Prince Hans Brinker of Holle, and the royal brothers Princes Pino, Noki, and Kio of Vinci.” He swept her his best courtly bow. “And I am Prince Jacques de la Mer of the Isle Fantastique.”

He had a feeling that if she’d had feet she would have stamped one of them. “But where did you come from?!

“The Fairy Isles,” Snow repeated, stepping around Merlin. “We journeyed from the Fairy Isles, searching for…our peoples’ history, Your Majesty.” She waved a hand at the books. “It is so lucky we found you and your…library. There must be so much knowledge here.”

There is. So much knowledge.” The spirit folded her arms across her chest. “I’m waiting, young man.” Jack took the map Arthur handed him and unrolled it, holding it up for her; he had to repress a shudder when she drifted in closer to see. “Hmm, this does not look at all familiar,” she mused. “I thought I had memorized the atlas…” She abruptly flitted away again, but this time she flicked her hand at him and the map was jerked out of his grasp and spread out on a cracked table listing drunkenly in the center of the room. After exchanging a somewhat alarmed look with Merlin, they both gestured for the rest of the party to back out through the door again and then made their way to the table. The spirit kept flickering between shelves, but this time books were being deposited on the table next to the map. Some of them were very large books, and when the spirit finished finding what she wanted she flipped open one that half-covered the table, revealing it to be a book filled with large, detailed maps. “The atlas,” she said forcefully. “Now show me where these islands are located, and if they aren’t there show me where they should be!

Merlin and Jack at once bent over the atlas, impressed by the quality of the maps it contained but unsure if they would be able to find any place that would correspond to their own map—neither of them needed to voice the thought that trying to tell this spirit about the Cataclysm would probably be a very bad idea. Luckily, however, Merlin finally spotted something that looked familiar and traced an invisible line with his finger. “There, that’s the approximate route we took to get here. Which would put the Fairy Isles…right about here, I think?”

You think?” The spirit didn’t seem to be impressed, but she did lean in to look and the brush of her aura against his skin made Merlin want to run out of the room. Madness was crawling in her, but also something else: a stronger binding magic that felt similar to the taint that was on the rest of the valley. This spirit had been cursed, both in life and in death. “No, that can’t be right, unless the scale of one of these maps is terribly off. Let me see…

She started flitting around again, and Merlin grabbed Jack’s arm and started backing him out of the room, staying between him and the spirit. He gave Jack a shove once they reached the door, making him stumble over the threshold, and then brushed the stone wall with his hand in a very purposeful manner before summoning their map and all but falling backwards in his haste to get out of the room. Jack slammed the door as soon as he was clear, and turned to find Merlin pale as death with the map still clutched in his hand. “She’s cursed,” he whispered, “She was before, but then she died in there and the curse bound her to that room, possibly for eternity. But it had also bound her to something else, and that’s what drove her mad…before she died.” He winced when the spirit’s enraged scream reached them even through the door. “She can’t leave the room, thank goodness.”

“What…what was she bound to?” Snow wanted to know. “One of the books?”

“No.” Merlin swallowed hard, looking quite sick. “Her husband, the king. And when he died…that bond didn’t break. I’m not even sure it was supposed to.” He shook his head like he was trying to get something out of it. “He’s not here. The bond is stretched…into a place her mind couldn’t follow it.” He shook his head again. “We can’t…we can’t leave her here like this, it’s too dangerous. But…I think I need some air before we do anything else, and we should look around the ruins to see…if anyone else has been here.”

“Yeah, goin’ back out of here sounds good.” Arthur took his arm and pulled him out of the ruins of the palace, settling him on a boulder before turning to the rest of the party. “No one alone and no one goes inside the ruins for anything,” he emphasized. “Where there’s one curse, there might be more. If you find somethin’, come back here and wait for the rest of us.” Everyone scattered, and he fixed Merlin with a hard look. “Stay here and watch the front in case somethin’ comes out. Don’t either you or Snow move from this spot.”

“We won’t,” Snow assured him. “Be careful.”

Arthur made for the west side of the ruins, but as they were about to round the corner Hans tugged at his arm and he looked back. Merlin had his face buried in his wife’s shoulder, and his fists were clenched in the fabric of her skirt. It was obvious he was trying to regain control of himself. “This is bad,” he said, pulling Hans out of sight. “What the hell is this curse?”

“Something ugly,” Hans said. “When the sunlight hit her, she looked like spoiled meat. The princess in the old Metra wood did not look anything like that, and she had become a ghoul.”

“So you think we’re lookin’ for bodies?”

Hans shrugged. “She cannot leave the room, but I cannot imagine she would allow someone to stay in it with her for very long either. Perhaps they have been disposed of through one of the broken windows?”

“We’ll know soon enough.”

 


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