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Chapter 60
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 28 November 2022 3644 words
Chapter 61 Previous Annual Barbarian Melee Day 2022 Next
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 60

They couldn’t stay home, of course, not for long. Now that Merlin wasn’t cursed anymore…well, the amount of power he had at his disposal was, in his words, ridiculous, but should be plenty for cleansing the shadows from water, land, or people. And so two days after they’d gotten back to the Black Isle, he went down to the shore to have a look at the water, taking Arthur and Jack with him. There were indeed shadows a bit farther out from the coastline, milling in the water like fish in a pool, and Merlin crouched down at the water’s edge and concentrated, placing his hands on the surface of the water. A web of magic flowed out, both along the shore and a good distance out from it, and then sank beneath the surface exactly like a fishing net. Bubbles erupted out of the water and popped, releasing dark smoke and blue sparkles, both of which dissipated on the morning breeze. Merlin stood back up and looked around while Jack used the glass to check. “Clear?”

“Clear,” Jack confirmed. “And you?”

“Fine. I can get the rest of the shoreline on this side today, we’ll do that from the one of the floating docks, and then tomorrow we’ll have a look at the rest. I could probably get it all today, but I don’t want to overdo it.”

He was at once nearly smothered in a double hug. “Well, now we know you’re uncursed,” Arthur said. “You actually made a plan and didn’t just try to do the whole island at once.”

Merlin pulled back, giving him a very penetrating look. “Had I really gotten that bad?”

“Yes,” Jack confirmed, giving him one last squeeze before letting go. “We know you probably do not remember, but the oath of fealty you gave me so we could uncurse Valeureux was the only way we were able to keep the curse from driving you to kill yourself while we were on our way home. I ordered you to not go below half-power while we were traveling, and so you could not.”

“But then of course, once we made it back to the castle all bets were off,” Arthur rumbled, letting go as well. “So, the docks, and then back up. Were we supposed to get anything from the market while we were down here?”

“No, Hans and Serena are doing that. We are only allowed to come down, clean the water, and return.”

“I am strangely all right with that,” Merlin said. He frowned thoughtfully. “I know I probably shouldn’t attempt an extended swim today, but the two of you could—and you’d both feel better for it. We’ll say you’re going out to check to make sure I got all the corruption taken care of.”

Jack quirked a golden eyebrow. “Do we need to do that?”

Merlin shrugged. “It can’t hurt. And since we know the corpses of the infected can drift along the sandy bottom…well, if there’s anyone drifting around down there just waiting for the tide to come in I’d rather know now, wouldn’t you?”

“Good point,” Arthur agreed. “The last thing we need is some of those things slidin’ up on the beach in the middle of the night.”

They walked back up the shore until they reached the pier, and then Arthur waved over one of the dock guards to let him know what they were doing. “The shadows were here,” he said. “Not in close, not yet, but they were here. Was anyone out here fishin’ this mornin’, or in the last week or so?”

The man shook his head. “No, the sailors on the trading ships don’t usually drop their lines here, Your Highness, and our own fishing boats stay in the western bay. Do we need to check the catches?”

“We do,” Merlin told him. “We can do that once I’ve cleansed this part of the water, and then tomorrow I’ll go get the western shores. Has anyone gotten sick while we were gone?”

“None that I’ve heard of, Your Highness.”

Jack snorted. “Fingers crossed nobody is hiding it behind closed doors. But we will not borrow trouble. Merlin, where will be best?”

“Just on the other side of the pier would be fine. And you can dive from one of the floating docks.”

“Yes, that would work. We need to go in after the cleansin’ is done to make sure everything is clear,” Arthur told the guard. “I don’t suppose King Jack and I could borrow a couple of towels from the guard house, could we, Nick?”

The guard’s eyebrows went up. “King?”

Jack shrugged. “I gained a kingdom of my own while we were out searching for a solution to the shadow sickness,” he explained. “But my lands were tainted as well, by old curse magic, so I will not be able to go back and get to work there until what Merlin put in place to fix the problem has had time to cleanse the taint.”

“You should see his kingdom, it’s in this beautiful valley surrounded by high cliffs,” Merlin told the wide-eyed guard. “It’s called Valeureux, and it was apparently quite famous before the Cataclysm, especially for its apple harvest. But unfortunately the taint from the curse-magic had gotten into the apple trees and affected the fruit, so we couldn’t bring any back with us.” He cupped his fingers into somewhat of an apple shape. “That big around, and apparently red as rubies when they’re ripe.”

“That would be a sight to see,” Nick agreed. He bowed. “I can go get towels, Your Highnesses…Your Majesty. And I’ll let the magistrate know what’s happening. Should we keep everyone away from the pier?”

“There’s no need,” Merlin told him. “Arthur and Jack will keep anyone from disturbing me, and what I’m doing wouldn’t present a danger to anyone even if they were in the water.” He made a face. “But I might want your help keeping…certain of the people away while they’re diving? We don’t want an incident, especially not with Arthur’s betrothed in town doing some shopping.”

“I’ll bring another guard back with me, Prince Consort,” was the amused reply. “The magistrate absolutely will not want that sort of incident. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

He left, and Jack raised an eyebrow at his friends. “So that was necessary?”

“Yes,” Arthur told him. “He’ll tell the magistrate, and the other guards, and they’ll tell everyone else. Aren’t you the one who always says we should make the rumors work for us?”

“Point,” Jack sighed. “I…am just still getting used to the idea, I suppose. Shall we get started?”

Merlin patted his shoulder and started looking for a good place to work from. He finally found a spot that wasn’t too muddy and squatted down, concentrated, and placed his hands flat on the surface of the water. This time the web spread out farther, and Arthur and Jack moved a little bit closer to him when they heard people on the pier and on the boardwalk reacting to the sight of the net of magic flowing out across the waves and then sinking down. There were a lot of oohs and aahs when the bubbles erupted, and some cries of dismay at the sight of the dark smoke. Merlin opened his eyes and looked out across the water. “Over there,” he said, standing up and pointing. “There’s something over there, but I’m not sure what it is.”

“We will find out,” Jack said. He made sure Merlin was steady on his feet—he was, but checking had become a habit—and then they made for the nearest floating dock.

Two guards met them there, the one from before carrying towels and the other with a spear. He quirked a smile when that raised a few eyebrows. “The magistrate said not to take any chances with your…safety, my lords,” he explained. “Because he’s certain you won’t be swimming in your clothes.”

“No, that we will not,” Jack confirmed with a chuckle. He took off his jacket, and then started on the buttons on his shirt, and Arthur did the same. Merlin took charge of their clothes, making two neat piles in a spot where the splashing waves wouldn’t reach. He heard a distant shriek when Jack dropped his pants, and two more when Arthur did, and glanced back over his shoulder. “Spear at the ready there, Joseph.”

“Oh, I can see them, Your Highness.”

Jack took a few deep breaths, put his belt knife between his teeth and dove into the water, and Arthur followed immediately after him. Arthur surfaced to take another breath some little distance out, but Jack didn’t and Merlin soothed the nearer guard’s evident anxiety. “He used to dive for pearls in Fantastique, Nick. Jack can hold his breath for an astounding amount of time.”

That got Joseph’s attention, although he didn’t turn all the way around. “The Queen of Fantastique let her son dive for pearls?!”

Merlin chuckled. “I seriously doubt she knew anything about it, or she certainly would have stopped him. You’re familiar with it?”

“Enough to know how dangerous it is,” Joseph told him. His attention stayed on the boardwalk and the farther pier. “One of my uncles used to do that in his younger years, he’s told us stories.”

Jack finally surfaced, far out from shore. Arthur surfaced near him a moment later, and they appeared to have a conversation before they both ducked beneath the waves again. The next time they came up, Jack took a breath and dove again and Arthur started swimming back to shore. He didn’t pull himself up on the dock when he reached it, just folded his arms on top of it like a visiting merman. “Merlin, do you think you can make it out there? Because you need to see this to fix it, I think.”

Merlin immediately took off his jacket…and almost flinched when a chorus of shrieks from the boardwalk sounded out across the water. “What the…what is wrong with these women? It’s like they’ve never seen a man before!”

Nick waved to the magistrate, who had come out of his office, and pointed at the boardwalk; the man at once stalked off in that direction to help contain the problem. He then held up one of the towels, blocking the boardwalk’s view, which resulted in a few howls of disappointment. “Your pardon for just saying it, Your Highness, but their husbands and sweethearts don’t exactly look like one of the Fearless Seven.”

That made Arthur laugh so hard he fell back into the water. Merlin huffed. “We just look like men who travel and fight a lot. You and Joseph are twice-over as muscular as I am.” Merlin was fast at getting his buttons undone, and his shirt quickly joined his jacket. He glanced over when the guard made a distressed noise. “They’re just bruises, Nick, I’m fine. We had to deal with a curse that was…fairly resistant to letting go, and things got a bit violent.”

Nick thought that ‘a bit violent’ was probably an understatement, given what he was looking at, but he didn’t say so—although he wanted to when their prince consort’s pants joined his shirt and he saw the rest of the bruises. Some of them were visibly handprints, like someone had been holding him down! “If it helps any, Your Highness, we guards have to be careful about when and where we swim as well. There are just a few…bold ones in town, that’s who you’re hearing most of the noise from.”

“Oh, good to know.”

Merlin jumped into the water next to Arthur and then they both swam back to the spot where Jack was waiting. Joseph broke down into laughter once they were both far enough away they wouldn’t be able to hear. “Just a few ‘bold ones’, Nick?”

Nick snorted. “He’d never come down to the town again if we told him the truth. Pretty sure the queen knows, though. You’ll notice they don’t ever let him come down by himself.”

“That’d give me more nightmares than Uncle Ennis’s stories about eels and rip currents,” Joseph agreed. “What the hell were those bruises all over him? They looked like…”

“They were.” Nick shook his head. “Maybe he was captured by someone? That’s the only reason I can think of. Did you see the marks he and Prince Arthur had on their chests?”

“Yeah, and Prince…King Jack was wearing a medallion with the same. Those remind me of something, but I can’t think what just now. Maybe I’ll ask Uncle Ennis, he might know. Oh, here comes Prince Hans.”

“Hopefully he won’t decide to go in the water too, we’d be overrun—that Widow Firkin, she’d toss us both off the dock and dive in after him.” He considered that. “You know, I think maybe I need to talk to my mother about that situation. She and my aunts could go have a talk with the baker’s widow about not…well, just not. Before someone from the castle decides they need to do it.” He bowed slightly in greeting when Hans came onto the dock. “Your Highness, Prince Arthur and King Jack went in to check that the magic had cleansed all of the shadows from this area, and then Prince Arthur came back and said they needed Prince Consort Merlin to take a look at something so he went in too.”

Hans sighed. “Of course he did. And I am sure it was necessary, but possibly more excitement than…certain of the Black Isle’s citizens needed on a fine bright morning.”

Nick held back a snicker. “Prince Consort Merlin said he can’t understand why they act like this, like they’ve never seen a man before.”

That made Hans snort. “He knows he has a pretty face, but as magi must be rather…prudish until they marry, for safety’s sake, he has no idea that to almost any woman’s eye the pretty goes all the way down. Her Majesty is certainly aware of it, though, and she…well, just between us, after the wedding she said she thought she might turn into a ‘jealous bitch queen’ and start pitching overly-forward women off the docks for ogling what was rightfully hers. It is why we never let the two of them come down unattended.” He waved when he saw his brothers surface again, and Jack waved back. “I wonder what it is they found out there? Hopefully not any of the infected.”

“That can happen?!”

“That can happen,” Hans assured him grimly. “The truly dead ones can sort of drift along the sea bed and sometimes slither up onto the shore. That is what happened on one of the smaller islands nearest Odinson, as near as we could tell.” He saw Merlin dive again, Arthur and Jack going down with him, and then the water in that area started to glow. All three of them appeared again, swimming quickly for the shore, and shortly after masses of bubbles began breaking the surface, releasing smoke and sparks in a veritable light show that happily drew the boardwalk’s attention away from the floating dock. Arthur pulled himself out of the water first, and then pulled Merlin out with Jack’s help, and then Jack climbed out as well. None of them wasted any time getting dried off and into their pants. “It was some of the infected,” Jack told Hans; Merlin appeared to be a bit too out of breath to talk. “But they had become caught under an overhang of the shelf, and…well, it was rather a mess. They were leaking.”

“Luckily that’s all they were doin’,” Arthur said. “That could have been a disaster and a half if the currents hadn’t been workin’ against them.” He was doing his best to ignore the catcalls—and to stay between Merlin and the boardwalk—when Serena came marching onto the dock. Her pretty face was a furious red, and her blue eyes were glowing. She planted herself in front of him and glared at the boardwalk. “HE’S MINE!” she yelled. “Go back to your business or I’ll come over there and make you!”

And then she turned around, looked Arthur up and down—he was very grateful, in that moment, that he’d already gotten his pants on and buttoned—and growled up at him. “I. Don’t. Share.” At which point she reached up, cupped one dainty hand around the back of his neck to yank his head down, and kissed him breathless.

Jack huffed out a breath. “So that is a wedding to plan, then, on top of everything else. Serena, let him get dressed before we cause a worse incident the guards will have to deal with.”

She let go of Arthur, but only to hand him his shirt. Which she watched him put on, which made for some fumbling with the buttons, and then she handed him his jacket. “The next time you decide you need to do this, you will take precautions against,” she flung one hand out toward the boardwalk, “that!”

Arthur considered her for a long moment. And then he picked her up, kissed the tip of her nose, and put her back down. “Of course, my lady,” he agreed. “I apologize. We found the corruption to be a bit worse than previously thought, and then we found a knot of the infected trapped out there under a ledge. It simply couldn’t wait.”

“Of course it couldn’t,” she allowed, rather primly. “I know you’re usually more careful. I was just…upset.”

Arthur sat down to put on his socks and boots, grinning. “Oh, I didn’t mind, Princess. Not. At. All.”

Merlin laughed at the look on Jack’s face. “I’d say we could have Dad call him home, but she knows where we sleep.”

“Yes, quite.” Jack straightened his clothes and then stepped over to his baby sister, who suddenly looked a bit unsure of herself. He sighed, shaking his head, and pulled her into a hug. “You are going to make an excellent Princess of Avalon,” he told her. “And I cannot deny that you have learned how to use your temper quite well—the display on the boardwalk while we have been out here was disgraceful and disrespectful in the extreme.”

“So I told them all as well.” That was the magistrate, who was puffing a bit. “The corruption?”

“Dealt with along the curve of the eastern coast and here along the docks to the tip of the promontory,” Merlin told him. He’d pulled on his shirt and jacket and was now fumbling with buttons himself. “It was…thick, in some spots. And then I felt something out just past the shelf, and Jack and Arthur found a pocket of the infected trapped out there under a ledge.” He looked the man in the eye. “Has anyone taken ill in the town, Magister George, or down the western shore or around the bay? Because I’m tired, but not too much to cleanse someone who’s picked up the taint. The alternative is…it’s unthinkable.”

The magistrate nodded. “I don’t know of any who’ve turned up sick here, but I’ll ask around—the gossips at the tavern will know if anyone does, or the fisher-folk over on the bay.” He made a face. “So the only cure…”

Merlin nodded. “Is to just have enough magic to force the taint out,” he confirmed. “They’ll be weak for a few days, but it won’t kill them.” He took a deep breath. “But if they’ve ingested blood already…there won’t be anything I can do.” The man winced. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” That came out rather sharp, which widened more eyes than Merlin’s, but the older man shook his head. “Your Highness, you’ve done nothing but try to help the people of the Black Isle since you got here. Anyone who has sense knows that one man, no matter how much magic he has, can’t fix everything.”

“Thank you for that,” Merlin told him. “If you find someone who can be saved, though…send someone up to the castle to get me, no matter whether it’s midday or the middle of the night. Because the less time a person stays infected with the shadows, the better.”

“Understood,” the magistrate agreed with a nod. “What should we tell the fisher-folk on the bay?”

“Tell them I’ll be down tomorrow after breakfast. And ask them not to go out on the water in the morning, that way I won’t have to wait for them to come back in.”

“We’ll tell them.” He frowned over at the boardwalk, where two more guards were herding people—mostly women—back to their business and away from the rail. “And please tell Her Majesty from me that…that is being dealt with and she needn’t worry about it.”

“I’ll tell her, thank you.”

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