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In the Land of Stories Old
It was a long way up to the Burnt Tower, as Arthur had labeled it on his map, and the four of them were entirely out of breath by the time they reached it. Once they opened the door, Noki held up his lantern and whistled. “This definitely did not burn by itself. And the windows which were here have been bricked in.”
“Trying to keep something out or in?” Kio wondered. “Or both?”
The broken shards of glass scattered amongst the ashes seemed like they might be a clue, given what they knew about the evil queen, but Elana shook her head. “That’s probably from one of the windows. I read that her magic mirror was made of highly-polished silver—that long ago, they may not have had mirrors made of silver-backed glass. Although it is interesting that her mirror was made by men she cursed to be dwarfs, she used similar magic to the last one we know about who was here, and she was drawn to this castle and its king…”
Pino’s snort interrupted her. “That last one was drawn here by the dark magic, most likely. And by rumors of how easy it would be for a beautiful-appearing woman to ensnare King White.” He was pulling on a pair of heavy gloves, and Noki and Kio followed suit as he raised one blackened and warped corner of a heavy sheet of silver from the ashes which had been concealing it. “Step back, my princess, you should not touch this foul thing. Noki, how quickly can we raise the fire for smelting?”
“I would not count on this silver melting as easily as pure, untainted silver would,” Kio said.
“No,” Noki agreed. “But this piece is too large to melt on the hearth we use for gold and silver without cutting, which we do not dare try, so it will have to go into the bloomery instead. It will take an hour to have the fire hot enough.”
Elana took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll go let the others know, and then I’ll join you in the workshop. The magic might lash out…” She caught a red glint from the mirror, like a sullen eye winking, and made a face. “Okay, scratch that, it will definitely lash out. And I’m not losing my three amazing lovers to this.”
All three of them grinned. “Nor do we want to lose our beautiful wife-to-be,” Kio said, and winked at her. “Be careful on the stairs.”
Elana could still feel how hot her face was as she ran—carefully—down the steep stairs. She’d been half afraid the triplets’ ardor might have cooled some while they were gone, but apparently absence really did make the heart grow fonder.
Merlin came awake with a scream, fighting like a wild thing to get off the bed—which had been dragged out into the middle of the room so there would be no way he could touch the walls. “No! I have to…I have to…”
“No, you don’t,” Snow whispered to him. “Merlin, you promised to stay with me.”
“I have to do this, to protect you…you’ll be safe…”
“He can’t actually hear you, Snow,” Jack said suddenly. “All he hears is the voice of the curse.” The medallion under his shirt was burning. He could try calling on the oath of fealty Merlin had made to him, he knew, but that didn’t feel right. It might force Merlin to fight the curse harder, yes, but at what cost? Draining his magic even more? He pulled the medallion out and wrapped his hand around it. What can I do? he thought. What good is magic if it can’t help my…
And then a rush of warmth flooded his chest and he knew. And he knew why calling on fealty was definitely the wrong answer.
Magic freed and claimed. But Gothi’s vision hadn’t been about Merlin’s magic, it had been about Merlin himself. Because mature mages were their magic.
Jack nudged Arthur out of his way, trusting Snow to be able to keep her husband in place, and with a silent apology to the tailoring gods he tore Merlin’s shirt open, sending pearl buttons flying everywhere. And then he yanked the cord over his head and pressed the glowing medallion into the center of his friend’s heaving chest. “This man is as a brother to me, and so I release him from his oath of fealty,” he declared simply, and felt the golden magic of the line stir at his call and provide him with words he’d only heard before in his sleep, adapted to fit the use he was putting them to. “I call on the dreaming power of the sea kings and queen who are my patrons, to recognize my need and gift Merlin Emrys with their Mark. And all those who swear allegiance in this way shall know each other by the lords’ sigil and their song, shall hold the enemy of one to be a common enemy, and shall be as family to each other regardless of rank or station. So it has been, so it shall be.”
Merlin’s eyes were fixed on him, fevered and wild, and Jack could see the fight going on inside of him, could almost feel what it cost him to push against the power of the curse and answer the call of the old sea magic. “So it has been,” the magician rasped, “so it shall be.”
And then he screamed again, this time in pain.
Down in the workshop, the shield Elana had constructed was barely containing the black roiling mass of dark magic that fought to escape from the melting silver mirror. The castle shivered around them, tiny, terrifying trails of rock dust trickling down the walls as the curse which had inhabited them for so long was pulled out of the stone. She was about to lose her grip on the shield when a Sound resonated from everywhere and nowhere, faint but powerful like the distant chiming of bells echoing across deep waters. An inhuman screech of protest came from the bloomery, and from somewhere else in the castle came the very faint sound of someone screaming in agony.
And then the last bit of silver gave way and dropped into the seething mass inside the bloomery, and everything just stopped. The triplets rushed to her, and Pino looked up as though he could see through the cracked stones. “Was that…was that Merlin?”
She pulled him closer, trembling, and not just from having expended so much power. “I don’t know.”
Upstairs in the bedroom, a damp-eyed Snow pinned Arthur’s arms behind his back. His shirt was open, his expression determined. “Do it,” he told Jack. “So this can never happen again, to any of us. You are as a brother to me.”
“And you to me,” Jack told him, pushing the glowing medallion against his skin. “I call on the dreaming power…”
Sitting on the side of the bed, Hans stroked Merlin’s sweat-damp hair and waited his turn, eyes tracing the interlocking lines of the raw, bleeding Mark in the center of his friend’s barely-moving chest. “I always wanted brothers,” he murmured, and winced when Arthur let out a high-pitched shriek of pain. “Even if one of them screams like a girl.”
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