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Chapter 74
By Goth Kitty Lady Posted in Story on 18 April 2023 2734 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 74

Hugin was startled into dropping the book he’d been reading when the elf he’d come to know as Thistle popped into being right beside him, eyes even wider than usual. “King Hugin, help is needed at the gates!” he said urgently. “The Fearless Seven have returned with refugees.”

“Please tell Queen Snow I’m coming.” Thistle immediately popped back out, and Hugin ran for the main stairs. He was rather proud of himself for not being very much out of breath when he reached the castle gates—the Black Castle’s stairs were something of a workout, going up or coming down—but that thought quickly fell away when he saw the large number of people flowing into the antechamber, their shocked, somewhat dazed expressions all too terribly familiar to him. “Where…”

“Vistu,” Elana threw over her shoulder; her wings were visible, much to the wide-eyed awe of several otherwise pale and frightened-looking children. “The elves are making a place to put everyone for right now, but someone needs to go down and see how many more are coming. Would you…”

“Of course,” he said immediately; apparently the secret dock wasn’t going to be a secret anymore. The dwindling tide of people led him down the road that wound down from the gates and he was more than surprised when he suddenly came upon a short wall of rock and a correspondingly large opening in the side of the mountain. A tall man dressed like a sailor was just coming out of this doorway with Merlin, who was hollow-eyed and looked to be barely keeping his feet; Hugin immediately moved to help support the staggering mage back up the path to the castle. “Overdid it, did you?”

Merlin almost found a smile. “Quite.” It seemed to be taking most of whatever he had left just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, although he did try to straighten up some when he heard his wife call his name. “I’m fine, I just…their village well had been tainted.”

Snow paled. “Mr. Taylor…”

The tall man nodded, grim-faced. “All of them, Your Majesty. We had to bring away everyone who could be saved. They’re all up here now…but more than a dozen white stones are still stored on the ship.”

“We’ll bring those up once I’ve made a safe place to put them,” Merlin said. “We’ll be gathering in the meeting room, Your Majesty, I’ll ask one of the elves to come get you once everyone is ready.”

“This report can’t wait until tomorrow?” He shook his head, and Snow sighed. “Very well. But you are to go straight to the meeting room and stay there, Prince Consort, is that understood? If I see you out here trying to help with anything, I’m carrying you upstairs in front of everyone.”

Somewhat to Hugin’s surprise, Merlin smiled at her and managed about half a bow. “My Queen, your word is my law.”


Merlin had his head pillowed on his folded arms near one end of the long table and seemed to be asleep by the time the rest of the Fearless Seven, both ships’ captains and King Hugin had assembled, but he straightened back up and even stood to bow when his wife entered the room. “Sit back down!” she snapped, and he wasn’t the only one the exasperated order dropped back into his seat with more haste than grace. Snow took her own chair. “The refugees have all been settled in the ballroom for now, with the elves and Princess Elana seeing to their needs. Captain Roberts, I’m glad to see that you’re all right—we were quite worried about you and your crew. What is the situation on the Isle of Mendekua?”

“Mending, Your Majesty. We were infected by sailors from a ship which had taken on tainted water—every man of them was sick, but one crossed over while he was in our market and things went downhill from there. When the Fearless Seven arrived they settled the infected prowling our streets, checked all the houses for any who needed help, and then found a way into the castle to search for our queen, who had locked herself in with her guards. She is dead, but I understand she might have had a distant cousin who can take her place and continue the line.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve no standing to speak officially on behalf of Mendekua, but you’ve all our thanks for sending help.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Snow told him, although a little frown line had appeared between her eyes. “And after leaving Mendekua, the Rescuer went on to Caray as planned?”

“Yes, we went to address the source of the taint,” Arthur told her. “It was…an indescribable horror, what that island had turned into in just a few months. It took five days to cleanse the water and burn the tainted land, and then we had to take on the Blood Wood.”

Merlin took up the narrative from there. “We know now that the Blood Wood must have originally been just a dark place, tainted by an old curse or by improper burials—whatever it was, it’s not really important now. But that darkness drew the shadows to it, remnants of a dark, twisted magic so old it predated not only the Cataclysm but all we know of our history from before it. It was the magic of a Grand High Fairy, the beings who caused the Cataclysm and, luckily for everyone, destroyed themselves in the process. I don’t have the kind of power it would take to meet one of those creatures head-on, even when it’s just the mess she left behind, but a somewhat scaled-up version of the method we used to begin cleansing the taint of similar magic from the Kingdom of Valeureux was determined to be our best option. I infused cleansing magic into the seawater and, well, threw it at the Blood Wood, where it destroyed the taint and rooted out the corrupted trees. Unfortunately the water and debris rushing back down into the sea afterward resulted in the Rescuer taking a significant amount of damage. I managed to conjure up something to keep the ship above water, but that was all I could do before I had to rest. And the next morning the Northern Rover showed up unexpectedly and rescued us.”

“They were able to take the Rescuer in tow,” Captain Gerralt said. “The Princes Vinci had managed to somewhat patch the hole in the hull, and then myself and two men stayed aboard her to steer while everyone else went aboard the Northern Rover.”

Captain Roberts nodded. “We were making good enough speed back to the Black Isle when we encountered a drifting ship that turned out to be the very one which had brought the shadow-sickness to Mendekua. It looked as though all her crew were gone, and Prince Consort Merlin was able to help Prince Arthur and King Jacques safely board her—it was a matter of some importance to find out where she’d been, you see, as we knew she’d likely been spreading the taint everywhere she went after she’d picked it up herself. They returned with the ship’s log book, and that was how we found out that the Ferryman’s Folly had last put to port at the Isle of Vistu.”

“We could not, in good conscience, leave those people to their fate,” Jack said quietly. “As it was we were almost too late to save any of them. The Folly had visited other islands, of course, not to mention the one we believe she got the tainted water from in the first place, but we could not…we were out of room, out of food, and out of magic. We had no choice but to return to the Black Isle.”

“I have already spoken to the people of Vistu, and they will be moving to New Vinci once they are recovered enough to do so,” Pino added. “Their village had only the one source of fresh water and it was unsalvageable, so they cannot return to their former home. But this brings up another matter: We must decide how best to go forward from here. The source of the taint is gone, yes, but the shadows it spawned still remain and with every day that goes by they multiply and spread.”

“But we also can’t just go from island to island lookin’ for shadows,” came from Arthur. “That would waste time and resources, and we’d wear ourselves out. So we’ve got to come up with some kind of plan for figurin’ out where to go and in what order.”

“I’m afraid we’re one step ahead of you,” Snow told him. “While you were gone we started getting messages about places where the shadow-taint has been reported, some of those sent directly from the affected islands and asking for the Fearless Seven to come save them. King Hugin suggested we should put them all on a list, from most urgent to least…and so that was what we did.” She held up a hand before anyone could say anything. “Prince Consort, are you positive that no other mage can do what you’ve been doing?”

“I wish I wasn’t,” Merlin told her. “But yes, to the best of my knowledge I’m currently the only mage who can destroy a shadow infestation or root out taint that has taken root in a living person without killing myself in the attempt. We did try something different on Vistu, because there were so many people who needed help, and discovered that blessed water will remove the taint from someone who’s just been drinking lightly tainted water…but it’s not nearly as fast, and it’s infinitely more dangerous.”

“We lost three people on Vistu to this method,” Jack said. “They were apparently too close to crossing over into the next stage of the infection.”

“So your answer to the question ‘can anyone but Merlin do this’ is still no,” Arthur said. “We think a less powerful mage could likely use the water trick to slow things down enough to give us time to get to them, but it’s gonna be dangerous for them and the people they’re tryin’ to help.”

Snow’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly happened to those three people?”

Several of the men present avoided her gaze and Arthur shook his head, but Merlin held up a hand. “The Queen has a right to know, so that she can make an informed decision,” he said firmly. “They were basically boiled alive from the inside, Your Majesty. We didn’t expect it to happen—I’m not sure why they were more tainted than the others—and precautions will be taken in the future to see that it never happens again. But even still, blessed water may prove to be our only option for addressing situations like the one on Vistu.”

Snow nodded slowly. “Very well. Then according to the plan we’ve come up with, the Fearless Seven should remain at the Black Castle for one week before going to the island which is at the top of the list—we’ve been ordering them according to the reported severity of the problem. And once you have done what you could on that island, you will return home and rest for another week before going out to the next on the list.” She was surprised when most of the Fearless Seven shook their heads at that, her husband included. “What part are you disagreeing with?”

“We can’t just do one island at a time,” Merlin objected. “Especially not with a week or more between each one.”

“And we also should not go to the worst affected first,” came from Jack, who winced at the horrified look that got him. “No, not like…you do not understand.”

“Places where it’s not so bad yet, we can probably save most of them,” Arthur explained, “and we can help more than one island before we have to come back.”

“But if we go first to the places where the situation is already dire,” Hans said, leaning forward so he could meet her eyes, “most of the people there will already be beyond help. We would have to come straight back to the Black Isle, likely with more refugees.”

“And while we were recovering,” Pino put in, “those islands which were only lightly tainted would be getting worse. To go to them first seems cold, I know…”

“But it will save the most lives,” Kio said. “And the more islands we can save…”

“…the closer we will be to rendering the Fairy Isles safe from the shadows,” Noki finished. “We do not like it either, Your Majesty…but it is the only way.”

Snow looked around the table, seeing the grim truth of this on every face save King Hugin’s—his was buried in his hands. “All right,” she agreed. “We’ll keep the list as it is, but we’ll work from the bottom up—or at least arrange each trip to cover two or three islands that are near to each other, so that as many people may be saved as possible.” She stood up and they all quickly gained their feet as well. “Captains, I’ll want to speak to you both tomorrow,” she ordered. “I’ll come down later to see the state of the Rescuer for myself, but you should send someone for Master Klew so that he can evaluate the damage before that. The rest of you…go do whatever you need to do. Until tomorrow, gentlemen.”

She moved to her husband’s side without another word, and Merlin caught Hugin’s arm before he could leave the room with everyone else. “No, please wait, I…” He blew out a breath, running a hand down his face. “I just wanted to offer my sincerest apologies, Hugin. I wish we’d known…I wish we could have done more for Odinson before it was too late. And I didn’t want to say anything before, but I suspect it was the letter I sent to Alfred that made him think he should try…I am so, so sorry.”

Hugin swallowed. “I wasn’t going to say anything either, Merlin…but you should know that I don’t blame you and never have. None of us knew what the shadows were when you first came to Odinson. And I walked in on Alf trying to cleanse the taint from an infected kitchen maid not an hour after he got your message, and I saw the look on his face. She wasn’t anyone special to him or anything like that, he just wanted to prove he was better than you. For a moment I could tell he thought he had it…and then he just came apart into nothingness and it’s my sincere hope that everyone in whatever afterlife he went to is making fun of him.” He put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I loved my cousin, yes…but I wasn’t blind to his faults. In fact I’d already ordered him to correct that one because it had the potential to reflect badly on not just our family but my entire kingdom as well. You’re not to blame for him being an idiot and neither am I.”

“Thank you, Hugin.” They exchanged a hug, and Hugin used getting out of it to slip his arm under Merlin’s shoulders. The younger man sighed but leaned into his support, ignoring the smile his wife was trying to hide. “Yes, thank you, I absolutely will need help getting up the stairs. You’ve probably noticed by now that they’re rather a lot sometimes.”

Hugin found a smile of his own. “Oh, I noticed. I was rather congratulating myself earlier because I made it all the way down this time without puffing like an old man…”

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