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Chapter 57
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 7 November 2022 2631 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 57

Jack sat down with Merlin first thing the next morning, and with everyone else watching, to try to tell him about the curse. “What do you remember about yesterday, Merlin?”

His friend gave him an odd look. “I set things up so blessed seawater would cleanse the taint from the valley, King Adam accepted that you were his heir, we freed all the spirits, and I cleansed at least some of the horses.” He frowned. “And then you ordered me to go to sleep and sleep until morning as soon as we were back to our camp. If something had happened last night…”

“Nothing happened, and if it had the rest of us could have dealt with it.” Jack took a breath. “Do you remember the talk that we had, among the apple trees? Any of it? Do you recall what you told me there, because at the time you were all but drunk with my family magic and you were not able to lie to me?”

Merlin slowly shook his head. “I don’t remember anything like that, Jack.”

And Jack’s medallion hummed, rather sadly, against his skin. Because he was looking into Merlin’s eyes, and he could clearly see that his friend was telling the truth…but he could also see something else.

He could see the block put up by the curse. Merlin wasn’t surprised or alarmed by what Jack had just told him…because the curse wouldn’t allow him to even think about it. Still, he had promised that he’d try, so… “Merlin, you most likely will not be able to remember this, perhaps you will not even be able to hear me say it: You are under a curse. You have been under a curse since the moment you entered the Black Castle with all the love you were feeling for Snow in your heart. It is a curse on the men of the line, born or married, and it is attempting to kill you by draining your magic.”

For just an instant he saw Merlin react to that, saw the relief and the sick horror and the awful helplessness his friend was feeling…and then his medallion twinged as the curse clamped down on that knowledge and forced it away. And Merlin winced sharply, putting a hand to his head. “Ow, that…what did I just do? Did something attack us?”

Jack swallowed hard. “No,” he said. “You still have not recovered from yesterday’s exertions, I think. Lay down and try to sleep it off, Merlin. Two hours and you should be fine again, and then we will begin the journey home.”

“But sire, we haven’t found…”

“Something more important than searching for an old artifact has come up, we must return home as quickly as possible. The future of the Fairy Isles depends on it.” Jack pulled up his family magic then and ordered, as gently as possible, “Go to sleep, Merlin.”

And Merlin nodded, laying back down on his bedroll and immediately falling asleep. Jack ran a shaking hand over his face. “That…was the most terrible thing I have ever seen.”

Noki put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “So what do we do now?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Arthur answered. “When he wakes up, Jack orders him not to go below half-power and then we get ourselves home as fast as we can and hope that either Elana has an idea about how we can fix this or one of us comes up with somethin’. That’s all we can do.”

“How long will he follow your orders, though, Jack?” Hans wanted to know.

Jack shrugged. He suspected that the farther they got from Valeureux, the weaker the hold his family magic had on Merlin would become. And once they set foot on the Black Isle… “Hopefully until we get home.”

His hope was borne out, for the most part. The curse tried to push Merlin as best it could, but his vow of fealty to Jack had anchored itself in his own magic and so Jack’s orders not to drain himself too far or put himself in danger held as they made their way back to Sherd, the village which had grown up amid the ruins of a prosperous kingdom which had once been called Asher, and from there across the Broken Lands—across the cracks rather than along them, this time—to a very small but regularly traveled harbor from where they were able to pay for passage on a trading ship. They kept their cloaks on and hoods up and did not introduce themselves to the spare, swarthy captain of this ship, and he did not ask for their names. Nor did he question them wishing to be taken to an unnamed, supposedly uninhabited island in the vicinity of the Black Isle; he simply pocketed the Golden Cherry Jack offered him in payment and grunted at his pilot to get underway. The crew did not attempt to interact with them either, and the travelers kept to themselves, discussing nothing which might arouse anyone’s interest.

That lack of interest most likely would have continued, but the moment Pino’s boots touched the sand of the Seven’s former island home a golden glow rose from the ground, shimmering as though with anticipation. “I suppose my intent was enough,” he sighed, and straightened, throwing back his hood. “Very well. I, Pino DaVinci, claim these lands and waters with the power of the royal line of Vinci, to replace the ancestral home taken from our people by the rising of the sea. She will be known as New Vinci, cherished and defended as our homeland from this day forth!” The glow exploded out across the island and spread itself along the surface of the water as well, and he raised a red eyebrow at the goggle-eyed sailors and their shocked captain. “Swear to keep what you have just witnessed to yourselves until I can officially claim my crown,” he called out to them, “and I will sign an agreement for trading rights with you here and now.”

The glow licked at the ship like eager flames, and the captain hurried down the gangplank, hesitating but a moment before going to one knee on the glowing, sparkling sand. “I am sorry…Your Majesty, I thought…”

“So did we,” Pino told him, indicating that he should get back to his feet. “But I have heard enough from you and yours on our voyage to know that you are no more raiders than we are—you have all our apologies if our need for secrecy caused your crew distress. And as we will be frequenting your home port regularly in the future, this arrangement should serve us both well.”

The captain was more than willing to agree to that—such an inroad to trade with the Fairy Isles was nothing to be sneered at, after all—and happily swore himself and his crew to secrecy once the agreement had been signed. The rest of the group stayed back and kept their hoods up while this was happening, and once the ship was out of sight they at once began hurrying for the land-bridge which connected what was now New Vinci to the Black Isle, as the sun was already setting and the bridge could be somewhat treacherous in the dark if lanterns or mage-lights were not in use. If Pino hesitated just a moment before stepping off his newly-claimed land and onto the bridge, Jack was there to offer quiet commiseration.

By the time they had made it across the bridge and to the foot of the King’s Road it was almost fully dark, and they were careful to avoid being seen by the town’s guards or anyone else as they ascended. Everyone was staying close together as well, as they all knew they did not dare give Merlin a chance to move away from them; he had been growing increasingly agitated since setting foot on the Black Isle, and would only say that he felt something was not right within the castle. Which definitely would have been an entirely different concern to his friends and his wife had they not already known that this feeling must be caused by the curse and not Merlin’s instincts, magical or otherwise.

With almost everyone out of the castle the elves had decided to spend most of their time working at the Palace of Seven Princes, which meant no one was there to meet them save for the night guard at the gate, but the sound of a bell ringing when the gate had opened was doubtless letting Elana know that someone was coming in. Merlin was looking around, frowning, as they entered the antechamber…and then his eyes widened with horror and he moved to touch the stone wall with a glowing palm, so quickly that if they all hadn’t been expecting it he’d have no doubt been dead within minutes. Arthur caught his arm in a fierce grip before he could make contact and pushed him back into the center of the group, which had Merlin scowling and reaching for his sash…and then Snow had him locked in a hold he couldn’t break free from. “Merlin, no,” she murmured in his ear. “You have to fight it, my love.”

He wasn’t able to break away from her magically-enhanced strength, but he tried. “I have to remove the curse from the castle before it kills all of you!” he cried out desperately. “It’s evil…!”

“That it is.” Elana had appeared in the entryway, frowning. “Because it was placed by a witch so foul she plotted the murder of a five-year-old child so she could consume the girl’s heart. Because she couldn’t tolerate anyone being more beautiful than her.”

His wild eyes fixed on her. “You know…”

“So did you, because you managed to leave a marker in King Nicholas’s journal and I found it—and I could feel the strain it had placed on your magic to do it, too.” She brushed the back of her hand against his flushed cheek. “You, pretty magician, are too powerful for your own good sometimes. I don’t think anyone even noticed what you’d done, because you were still on your feet when any other mage would have been out cold on the floor after a battle of wills like that.” She nodded to Arthur. “It was the curse ‘helping’ him maintain his connection to the guards, you were right to be suspicious. He should never have been able to take their weapons into his own hands.”

Snow frowned. “Why didn’t they say anything? I talked to them a lot while they were here, we all did. They…they liked Merlin.”

Elana shook her head. “I’m sure they did, but the dead don’t see things like the living do…” The round of nods that got startled her, but only for a moment. “There’s a story or three there, I guess. But they don’t. They were here for one reason, to protect the castle and their princess out of loyalty to the family line, and that was all they were concerned with. Well, that and their hatred for King White, of course. It was only Merlin holding them back from actively harming him—again, a battle of wills nobody realized he was fighting because nobody could see the effect it was having on him. Because he has excessive amounts of magic.”

Snow looked around. “Where is my father?”

Elana sighed. “He’s a rabbit in the central garden, probably snoozing under his favorite bush.” She shook her head again when several mouths dropped open. “No, not like that. He was…I thought he was doing all right, but the curse was pulling on him too and his behavior was becoming even more erratic—that’s how I realized something was going on with the castle, in fact. So I asked him what I could do to help, and he wanted me to turn him back into a rabbit for a while. And as it turns out, the curse doesn’t give a damn about him when he’s a rabbit.”

Pino was hopeful. “Would that work for Merlin?”

She shook her head. “No, he’d fight my magic. I wouldn’t be able to keep him transformed for very long, and the curse could use that to make him drain himself until he died.”

“Meaning you cannot knock him out with magic while we decide what needs to be done, either.” Noki pulled small mallet out of his pack and unceremoniously tapped Merlin on the head with it. There was a rather solid thud and the magician crumpled immediately. “It is better for him to be mad than dead, I think.”

“He won’t have a chance to be mad,” Arthur assured him. “So what can we do? Takin’ him out of the castle won’t work, the curse goes with him.”

“He said it was making everything he did more ‘magically expensive’,” Jack added, and shook his head when Elana started to ask him about that. “The story would take some time to tell, and I do not think we have that time at present. Suffice it to say, in order to free my own ancestral kingdom from the corruption caused by multiple curses, I had to take Merlin as my vassal. My own magic when it infused him temporarily allowed him to speak of the curse to me.”

She blinked at him. “You…that is some old family magic you’re carrying around now, Jack.”

“Nearly a thousand years’ worth,” he confirmed. “And we now know yours to be just as ancient. But again, it is a story for when we have time, and now we do not. We need a plan, and we need to make it quickly. This plan,” he indicated the mallet Noki was still holding, “can only be used once, and may not work for long. Tying or holding him will not work for long either, because it is only a matter of time before the curse begins to use his magic against us and Snow is the only person it cannot harm.”

“Because this curse is determined to make any male ruler in this family pay for that ancient evil queen’s downfall with his life, and it wants Merlin gone even faster because his magic is strong enough to almost fight it,” Snow murmured. She had scooped her limp husband up into her arms, and her eyes were full of tears. “So how do we break it?”

“How did the evil queen cast it?” Hans asked with a shrug. “That, I would think, would be the place to start. Arthur, you have explored the upper reaches of the castle. Did you find anything which might be a clue?”

“Nothin’ I didn’t write down,” Arthur said. “Skeletons, some treasure, that room that looked like someone had set it on fire…” He saw Elana’s eyes widen. “Yeah, I thought it was kind of weird that it’s just one room. And it was a room with no windows, in one of the towers.” He thought for a minute. “That’s odd too. There should have been at least one window.”

“It may have been sealed.” Kio was frowning. “We will go check this room with our princess while you find a place to put Merlin where he cannot touch the castle’s stone.”


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