The only sound was the gentle whisper of the overgrown grass lining the road swaying in the breeze. And the curses and thrashing sounds of someone lost in said grass, away to the side somewhere. And then a strange sort of pulsing noise. A blue box appeared, perched jauntily on top of and amongst the grass. A slender dark-haired man got out and was immediately met with a faceful of grass. He spluttered, then took a nimble step back as though pretending that he hadn't. He looked around.
He said, in a mildly accusing way, "You're not Apollius Six."
Then there was another sound to disrupt the serenity of the road, a kind of flashing roaring hiss; a burst of flame, as golden as the sun, scorched a path through the thick grass and lashed into the blue box's side. The blue box made an unhappy little whining sound. The man made a similar sound, and then said, "Hey!"
Merlin ran through the path that the fire-bolt had cut, ignoring the sizzling sounds his boots made as they crunched over burnt vegetation. He'd been carrying a ragged armload of grass when he heard the cry, and nearly dropped the lot; when he saw the strange man and the stranger box he forgot he was carrying anything and just stared.
"Hey," the man said again, fury in his eyes. He was … strange. What was that thing around his neck? Merlin, without thinking about it, found that one of his hands had gone to his scarf, as though to assure himself that it did not look quite as absurd as that. But a cow wearing dancing shoes wouldn't've looked as absurd as that man. Or as angry. But mostly not as absurd.
"It wasn't me!" Merlin blurted.
"That was you!" the man cried back.
"Ah," Merlin said, trying, despite his panic, to smile, to speak in a stop-being-foolish-but-I-shall-indulge-you voice – it wasn't hard, Arthur spoke like that all the time. "I just said that it wasn't."
"So plainly it was!"
"No it wasn't!"
"It was you."
"It was you. You just attacked my ship."
"I didn't—" Merlin started to say. Realised he'd been about to say 'mean to'. Stopped. "It was … lightning! Lightning from the sky! We'd better … get under cover. Ah. Help! Help! Lightning! From the sky." He tried to cower and ended up dropping the grass. Still, it was quite a good cower. He was proud of it.
The man strode up to him and stuck his face much closer to Merlin's than Merlin would've liked or expected it to be. "You," he snarled, his face fearsome. "You …"
"Still not me!" Merlin managed feebly.
"You are both improbable and implausible. Stop that."
His face was so glare-y and so close that Merlin was cringing in expectation of at the very least a headbutt, but then the man's expression went vague and distant and he swung on his heel and marched back to the blue box. He examined it anxiously, resting his hand on one wall. Voice deeply worried, he said, "You scratched the paint."
"You mean the lightning," Merlin chirped. "Scratched the paint."
"Nothing scratches the paint," the man said, running his hand up and down the side of the box soothingly. He sounded absentminded – too worried by the state of the box-thing to pay much mind to Merlin, or indeed what he was saying. It showed. "This paint is … unscratchable, it is unscratchable paint. An exploding sun couldn't scratch this paint. When the Tardis exploded it didn't. Scratch. The paint. This paint? Is scratched. This should not be scratched paint."
He leaned his head anxiously against the box's side, then started pacing around it, eyes roaming over it as if in search of more damage. Merlin felt a pang. "Sorry," he said, then remembered. "I mean, about the … lightning."
From the other side of the box, the man's wafting voice said, "You mean the magic."
Merlin could feel his heart beating, quick and frantic. It was strange that he could feel anything through the icy hand of fear that was squeezing his chest. Funny old world. "Please," he said, and walked up to the box, peering around the corner so he could look the man in the eye and try to convince him. "Don't tell anyone."
The stranger was a little strange in the head, obviously, and a traveller; maybe he just didn't understand the urgency, didn't understand what that meant. Merlin thought of the smell of burning wood, of other things burning, and felt sick.
The man didn't so much as glance at Merlin, busy knocking his knuckles against the wood and frowning. "That you're a vandal who scratches paint?" he said. Knock knock knock. "I see no reason not to." And he swung around suddenly and flung out his arms and announced vaguely, "This is a vandal who scratches paint. And he's … lily-livered. Don't employ him or give him pudding."
And he turned back to the box.
"Please," Merlin said, and got distracted by the box doing this odd little flashing thing. He glanced at it uneasily, and then in intrigue – it was a strange thing, but beautiful in its own way, and it had a feeling of power hanging around it that made him want to sneeze or twitch or move. He remembered belatedly that he was pleading for his life. "They'll have me killed!"
"That seems a bit excessive," the man said absentmindedly, giving the box a grateful pat. "Maybe just mauled? I think I'd settle for a good mauling."
"I think," the stranger said severely, "if you're going to walk around breaking things you deserve a little mauling. And no cake."
Merlin blinked. The box was strange, but this was stranger still. "You're not angry because I used magic?"
The man raised his eyebrows and gave the box an amused smile. "Not lightning then," he told it.
Merlin grabbed the sleeve of his odd jacket. "Please!"
And then, finally, the man turned to him. "You're …" He looked puzzled. "Terrified, why are you terrified? I'm not terrifying, am I? I try not to be terrifying. Would it help if I did this?" He placed one thumb behind each ear and waggled his fingers seriously.
Merlin laughed. It came out strangled, because of the fear, but it was a laugh all the same. "Terrified of dying, makes sense to me," he said.
The man blinked. "Why would using magic make you die? It's common in several sectors. On Apollius Six they can turn fish into cushions! Quite nice cushions, too. Comfortable. Of course, the people of Apollius Five are fish. War-torn history, very sad."
Merlin grinned. "You're not from around here, are you."
The man smiled back. "I travel," he said, bouncing on his heels.
"Must be hard lugging that thing around," Merlin said. He reached out a hand to pat the box, then lost his nerve and just waved at it.
"You'd be surprised." He seized Merlin's hand and held it. "I'm the Doctor."
"Alright …" said Merlin uncertainly, and then pulled his hand back when it seemed that the Doctor – better than 'the man', though only by a bit – had no real concept of shaking. He smiled gamely. "I'm Merlin."
"Merlin," said the Doctor. "Nice to meet you, Merlin. Where am I?"
Merlin blinked and glanced down the road. Yes, there was Camelot barely ten minutes walk from here, its familiar walls glowing in the afternoon sunlight. "On a road," he said, obviously. "To Camelot."
"Camelot!" said the Doctor, looking delighted. "I love Camelots! Apollius Six has a Camelot, maybe I'm there after all." He looked around. "… Doesn't smell as much, of course. Still." He beamed and repeated, "Camelot!" happily.
On further reflection, Merlin decided that this was not, after all, the kind of man to report him to Uther. "Hey," he said. "You aren't any good at clearing long grass, are you?"
"Absolutely!" the Doctor said brightly. "How would you do that?" And before Merlin had time to be properly disappointed, the Doctor continued, "Actually no. Why would you do that?"
"Oh – I angered Prince Arthur," Merlin said, generously not adding 'the prat', "and I'd already scrubbed the stables—"
"Does smell a bit, now I notice."
"If you want people to be nice to you don't attack their ships," the Doctor said.
"Oh. Well. Fair enough." He had to admit the sense of that. "… I'd already scrubbed the stables, so here I am clearing the grass, and - Arthur doesn't have a ship, he has no such excuse—"
"Wait," the Doctor said, and then when Merlin tried to finish his sentence, he said, "Wait wait wait. Wait." Merlin waited. And waited. The Doctor stared at him wonderingly.
After a while of this Merlin tired and said, "Well?"
"That's what I said, yes." The prat.
"Yes, I just—"
"King Arthur! Of Camelot!"
"Ah – no no no, his father—"
"You're Merlin! He's King Arthur of Camelot!" The Doctor seized him by the shoulders and beamed at him. It was a little alarming. "He's real! You're real! Camelot's real!" He flung out his arms. "And you're all real!"
"Um," Merlin said.
The Doctor peered intently at his face, and then pushed his chin up to examine him better. Also alarming. "I'd assumed," the Doctor explained, as he was doing this, "that it was the normal sort of historical mess, events being attributed to a number of important personages over a broad frame of time …" He frowned. "I'd been expecting a beard," he said reproachfully.
"Right," said Merlin, who hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about.
"But maybe that's what happened, and so many stories were told that they gained truth in the telling ..." He nodded to himself, looking distant and mystical. Then he added, "And I admit that the scarf is a surprise."
"I like my scarf."
The Doctor suggested, "Scarves are cool."
There was a pause.
"Please don't tell me," Merlin said, seizing onto the only part of this he could understand, which was the Doctor's delight on hearing Arthur's name, "that you're one of those pilgrims who've heard of Arthur's great courage and quested to see him?"
"No," the Doctor said simply.
"Because I get tired of those." Merlin grinned. "Though the last one tried to kiss his feet, you should've seen Arthur's face, it was hilarious."
"I'd like to," the Doctor said. Then he said, "See his face." Then he said, "Honestly not a pilgrim," because Merlin was eyeing him suspiciously.
Merlin sighed. "I don't suppose you're visiting royalty that needs to be escorted to the castle?"
The Doctor said, "I don't suppose I am."
"We could say you are," Merlin said, then sighed. "It's just that Arthur said I couldn't come back until all this was cleared."
The Doctor looked around. For several hundred metres the ground on either side of the road was densely, thickly covered in a happy, healthy, thriving thicket of grass. Except for a teeny-tiny little patch of vaguely cut grass, off in one corner.
"Yes, I know," Merlin said wearily. "Arthur's really annoyed. I don't know why! I mean, it's not like the pink won't wash out. Eventually."
The Doctor grinned. "So," he said. "Doing a little illicit magic practice here?"
"Yes. I could've burned to death! And – do you know why I have to clear this grass?" Merlin said, warming to his subject now. Complaining about the things Arthur made him do was, he had to admit, rather enjoyable. "Because otherwise bandits hide in it. Bandits! Arthur wants me to be killed by bandits! I could die. I'm defenceless!"
The Doctor looked at his blue-box thing, and then at the trail of burnt grass, and then at Merlin. He tilted his head.
"Well as far as he knows I am," Merlin said. "Not the point. Defenceless! Anyone could be a bandit! You could be a bandit!"
"Cunningly concealed in my large blue box."
"You mustn't," the Doctor said, picking up a handful of severed grass, nibbling the end of a stalk, grimacing and dropping it again, "be very good at magic, then."
"I am!" said Merlin, and then grinned, rueful. It was funny to be insisting that he was good at something that would have King Uther calling for the headman, or just for ropes and tinder and lots and lots of wood. "I just don't get much practice. King Uther does … not approve of magic."
"You're lucky you haven't been burned to death," the Doctor said cheerfully, waving at the scorched grass.
That on top of his own thoughts was rather too much. Merlin winced. "Only because no one knows."
The Doctor looked thoughtful. "King Uther, you say. Why does he hate magic?"
"His wife …" Merlin said, and trailed off. He wanted to say revenge has made him mad, it's broken his wits and so he breaks us in turn, but even to a foreigner – no. Just no. Treason would get you killed just as sure as magic would. "Not my place to say why a king does things. And I'm not that bad. I mean, I know – plants! Lots about plants!" He looked around, and plucked a small greenish plant. "This is wakewort, it keeps you from sleeping."
"That's grass," the Doctor remarked.
"No no. Wakewort. Definitely." Gaius had given him an ironic half-hour lecture on the many wonderful and mostly non-harmful properties of wakewort after he'd caught Merlin asleep over his magic book. "So I know it's stupid. I just needed to practice. I mean, out here, there's no chance of people seeing me, of Arthur – Arthur having me killed." It hurt more to say it than to think it, which shouldn't really have been possible. "Out here there's no one but the odd traveller, and it's not even the main road. No one comes here."
Then there was the sound of horses, the jingle of armour. Merlin blanched and pushed his way through the grass to the road. A couple of knights were riding up it, exchanging jokes amongst themselves. Arthur wasn't one of them, but still – He glared at the Doctor, accusingly.
"Well it's not my fault," the Doctor said, and strode out into the road. "Hello!" he said. "Yes. Hello. I'm the Doctor. Hello." He smiled politely at the knights as they pulled their horses up around him. Merlin groaned and jogged out of the cover of the grass.
"Merlin," a knight said cheerfully. "Arthur said you'd be out here. He asked us to check up on you, seeing as Bill here wanted to practice woods-fighting anyway." He nodded at the woods not far along the road.
"In case I was killed by bandits?" Merlin said hopefully.
"In case you weren't working."
Merlin heaved a weary sigh.
"Who's this then?" the other knight, Bill, said. He eyed the Doctor with exaggerated wariness, which was fair enough. "Is he a bandit? Should we fetch Arthur?" The first knight chuckled.
"He's the Doctor," Merlin said, not very helpfully.
"You have business in Camelot, doctor?" the first knight said politely.
"Yes!" the Doctor said. "I want to report magic. Someone using magic. A magician using magic. Magically."
Merlin went still. Fear had felt like ice clutching his heart, but terror just felt like slowness, like he couldn't imagine ever moving again; considering that, he was surprised that his hands had clenched into fists. He relaxed them back into their normal, comfortably loose position at his sides. If he was going to die he'd at least try to die bravely. He'd learnt that much from Arthur. The prat.
All trace of good humour had vanished from the knights' postures; they'd gone as still and tight and tense as Merlin, frowns creasing their faces downwards. "Stranger," the first knight said. "Don't speak lightly. Anyone accused of magic must face the King, and any found guilty of it must die. That's a serious accusation."
"I'm a serious man!" the Doctor said brightly.
"Who?" said Bill. "Who are you accusing?" Merlin shut his eyes.
The Doctor said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Prince Arthur."
So there they were in the grand hall, Uther glaring ferociously down from his high throne to where the Doctor stood, looking around curiously. It was the kind of glare that could have even perfectly innocent people breaking down into gibbering tears, and had, several times. The Doctor, rather to Merlin's admiration, seemed impervious to it. In fact he seemed about to wander off and admire the tapestries. ("Prince Arthur's tapestries!" Merlin imagined him saying, with that cheerful smile.)
"Do you realise," Uther said, iron in his voice, "what you are doing?"
"Oh yes," the Doctor said. "I'm accusing Prince Arthur of being a magician."
It was probably only the ferocity of Uther's face, and his known temper, that kept the onlookers from bursting out laughing. It was a ridiculous sort of situation. But everyone knew that Uther wouldn't let anyone get away with maligning his son so, however mad the maligner was. Merlin's one hope – that Arthur might laugh this all off, and ease all the tension – was dashed; Arthur was standing by his father's side, frowning at the Doctor with his severe regal expression. Merlin hovered behind him anxiously.
"Sorcerer," Uther corrected, almost absentmindedly. "And what leads you to believe such a thing?"
"Oh," the Doctor said dismissively, "anything. He smells of frogs. He likes summer afternoons." He strode up the length of carpet, ignoring Uther's outraged, "See here," at the breach of protocol, and looked Arthur up and down. "Look how red his shirt is. Everyone knows red is a sign of sorcery."
"It is not," Uther said.
"Oh," the Doctor said, and turned his examination to him, wide-eyed. "You have knowledge of sorcery? I suppose I'll have to accuse you as well." He pointed at Uther menacingly.
"Stop this folly," Uther said, his voice that angry, livid growl that everyone had come to dread. Merlin winced. "What right do you, a stranger, have to stride in and make baseless accusations against my son?"
"I didn't stride," the Doctor said, a little irrelevantly. "I was pulled …" He seemed to realise that he was still pointing, and, frowning at his hand, waggled his fingers distractedly, then dropped it. As he was doing this his next words came out sidelong, preoccupied. "What makes you think they're baseless? After all, anyone accused of sorcery must face the king, no matter how baseless the claim. Anyone accused by anyone. But not the prince?"
"Because it's absurd," Uther snapped.
The Doctor nodded. "And of course it's impossible that it's just as absurd when it's anyone else," he said cheerfully, and, suddenly, Merlin got the feeling that he wasn't preoccupied at all. That he knew exactly what he was doing.
It wasn't really a very encouraging thought. What he was doing seemed to be Trying My Best To Get Killed.
"Is there anything else you want to say?" said Uther, his voice now low and dangerous.
"Yes, actually," the Doctor said, and snapped his head back, his eyes flashing with ferocity. "There's something rotten at the heart of this place, something broken, Uther Pendragon. Your people live in terror of being accused on no evidence of something that shouldn't be a crime. It is wrong. You are wrong!" By the last word his voice was nearly a roar.
Arthur drew in his breath sharply. He wasn't the only one. Merlin bit his lip. After that little outburst, this strange mad traveller would be lucky to get away with being sent to the headsman – burnt alive most likely, without even the mercy of using smoky wood so the smoke killed him afore the fire did. Or other, stranger tortures. Merlin had been in the depths of the castle once, seen the room full of strange sharp things glinting in the dark. He'd had to be sick afterwards.
Uther clenched his gloved hand into a fist.
"Father," Arthur called softly.
Uther glanced at him. Gritted his teeth. Said, as though the words pained him, "Is there anything else?"
There was another intake of breath. The king was offering the Doctor a chance to withdraw his words, to pretend that he hadn't just lashed the king to shreds with his withering scorn, to live. Merlin felt himself go all wobbly and happy with relief, and he gave the Doctor an enormous, delighted grin and mouthed, Yes!
The Doctor said, "Your tapestries are quite nice."
Relief gone. In moments Uther would give the orders, the Doctor would be dragged off to the dungeons or to the stranger, darker rooms, they'd order the wood piled, he'd burn.
Merlin tugged at Arthur's arm and hissed something anxious at him, he didn't know what. Whatever it was, it must've worked, because Arthur turned his severe, regal look on him, and then gave a much more petulant scowl.
"Please," Merlin whispered. "He – he treated his box like it was a person, he liked my scarf, he talked about fish."
Arthur rolled his eyes. But, "My lord," he said politely, and strode out so he was in front of the Doctor. In doing this he forced the Doctor back a few paces, which was a good move, Merlin thought – the Doctor breaking etiquette in such a way hadn't exactly been helping his case. "Might I ask for clemency?"
"This foreigner has barged in making absurd accusations and insulting my honour," Uther said coldly. "What reason have I to grant him mercy?"
"Not mercy, Father, no," Arthur said, looking grim and princely. "He needs to be taught a lesson, and made an example of. A night in the dungeons, perhaps, might cool his fevered brain." He gave the Doctor a dismissive look over his shoulder and drawled, "The man is obviously a lunatic."
Merlin knew a cue when he saw one. But it seemed the Doctor didn't; he stared at Arthur, completely perplexed. Merlin tried desperately to catch his eye, waving and frantically nodding and mouthing encouragements. Arthur looked at him like he was the lunatic. Merlin stopped.
"Well?" Uther grunted. "What have you to say for yourself?"
Please don't yell please don't yell please don't -
"I like spoons," the Doctor said.
There was laughter. Even Uther laughed, which was such a surprise and a relief that the laughter of everyone else doubled in intensity and volume. In the midst of all this mirth, Uther ordered, "Take him to the dungeons. He's harmless, but it may be that even madmen can learn to better their ways."
Merlin beamed at Arthur and the Doctor indiscriminately, delighted with the world. The Doctor was too busy frowning at Uther to notice, and Arthur only stopped looking grim and princely long enough to scowl at him some more. But Merlin beamed all the same.
He liked it when people didn't die!
"So you'll be alright here?" Merlin asked the Doctor anxiously.
The Doctor beamed at him. "The dungeons of King Arthur!" he said, flinging his arms out as though he was in a magnificent courtyard rather than a small, dingy cell.
Merlin had to laugh at that. "Uther's still," he said. "Arthur would make them nicer. Wouldn't you?" he asked, over his shoulder.
"Dungeons aren't meant to be nice, Merlin."
"But there are rats and things," Merlin said plaintively.
"King Arthur's rats!" the Doctor said.
Arthur breathed out through his nose, looking exasperated. Exasperation was his normal expression in this sort of conversation, though, so Merlin wasn't worried. "You're right," Arthur said.
"I am?" Merlin said, brightening. "You know, I think it could really be improved by a little kindness. Maybe a window, or some pillows—"
"The man is plainly mad," Arthur said. "Though I begin to wonder whether one night is enough." He gave the Doctor a deeply unimpressed look.
The Doctor looked right back at him intensely; from head to toe and then back again, staring at his face. "King Arthur," the Doctor said slowly, reverently.
Arthur said, "Uh," looking a little unsettled.
The Doctor said, "You're a bit of a prat."
Merlin laughed rather too loudly, and tried to cover it with a cough. "Far too damp down here," he explained feebly, when Arthur glared at him.
"I'm tired of both of you," Arthur muttered, and swept regally away. "Merlin, you owe me for this. Clean my spare armour."
"But it has rust!" Merlin protested, running after him. He paused at the top to give a grin and a wave to the Doctor. "Sure you'll be alright? It looks like it's going to storm."
"I'm fine," the Doctor assured him. "I am fine and in Camelot and very, very fine."
"Hurry up," Arthur called distantly.
The Doctor called back, as Merlin vanished from sight, "Don't give him any pudding."
"Honestly, Merlin," Arthur said. "First Lancelot and now this. If you take in any more strays we'll have to have a house built for them."
"Alright," Merlin agreed easily, poking at the fire. Arthur had this habit of letting it die out to the bare coals, and Merlin could never figure out whether it was because he honestly didn't know better or whether it was just to make Merlin work to coax the flames out. "It can have windows and pillows." He turned around and flung out his arms and said, in tones of awe, "King Arthur's windows!"
He ducked the shoe that Arthur threw at him, laughing. "Steady, sire," he teased, "we wouldn't want you to go out fighting monsters with your little toesie-woesies bare, would - please don't kill me," because Arthur was just standing still and looking. At. Him and it was never a good sign when Arthur didn't just work away his anger by trying to attack him or something, it meant that he was going to attack him with words. Scathing, scathing words.
But Arthur just rolled his eyes and turned away as though giving up on him. He said, "How did you go on the grass?"
"I was attacked by bandits and died," Merlin said promptly. "Horribly."
Arthur gave a reluctant snort of a laugh. Merlin grinned. He was glad he'd judged Arthur's mood right, he wouldn't want to have had to rescue both shoes from the hearth. "No one uses that road," Arthur said, "so there's no reason for any bandits to lie in wait to ambush clumsy young manservants. You're such an idiot, Merlin."
"There could've been bandits this time," Merlin insisted, stubborn. "You never know, do you? With bandits? I mean, one minute nothing, just peaceful fields and smiling horses, and then, bam," he clapped his hands together, "bandits!"
"Horses don't smile, Merlin."
"I wouldn't either if I was about to be attacked by bandits!"
"You would," Arthur said fondly. "Idiot."
"Prat," Merlin said, the exchange as comfortable and familiar as old shoes that … weren't on fire. Oh. Oops.
He glanced back; Arthur was now busy tugging his shirt over his shoulders, not noticing that one of his shoes was starting to smoulder. His own fault for throwing it there, really, but he certainly wouldn't see it that way. Merlin did his best to kick the shoe away while not making any noise; in the process he accidentally kicked the fire, killing it.
"Oh, come on," he said, "I've spent the last minute getting you all nice and healthy, don't die on me now!"
The fire ignored him and sank further down, crackling in a way that Merlin found rather insolent. He muttered a spell, feeling the familiar liquid-gold feeling tingle through his veins. The fire perked up immediately. Merlin gave it a proud sort of grin.
"Merlin," Arthur said.
Merlin whirled around guiltily. "Sorry about the shoe, I'll get you a new …" he started. Then he stopped. "Arthur?"
"Merlin," Arthur said again, hoarsely; he looked pale, he – he looked scared, Arthur looked scared, that wasn't right that wasn't right at all. "You're a sorcerer."
And the happy feeling of warmth that doing magic had gave him bled away. "No," he stammered. "No, I – too much of an idiot, me." He gave an awkward laugh. "Remember?"
"Don't you lie to me!" Arthur said, angrier than Merlin had ever seen him. And then, no, angrier even than that, beyond angry, you could see the fury outlined in every inch of him; it made stones of his fists and a stone mask of his face, hard and cold and terrible. He said, slowly, "This whole time you've been lying to me."
"No," Merlin whispered. Yes.
"Who's paying you?" Arthur snapped, stepping up close to him. Merlin stepped away, then flinched at how automatic that had been. It was just Arthur. Arthur had proven the depth and strength of their friendship a dozen times over; had proven his honour and nobility times without count. Arthur was shocked, Arthur was wounded, Arthur was furious; but dangerous? Not to him, never to him.
"No one's paying me," Merlin said.
"You're doing this on your own?" Arthur said, looking more wounded still. "I thought – if you needed money, maybe—"
"I don't need anything but to be at your side!"
"All sorcerers lie," Arthur said distantly. "That's what Father says. I suppose it's true. This whole time …"
"Sire," Merlin said, speaking quick and frantic, "please, you must believe me. You are my dearest friend. I am loyal. I would no more harm you than—"
"Stop talking," Arthur said.
Merlin swallowed and went on, the taste of danger bitter-cloying in his throat. "I have aided you as best I can for all this time, sire – Arthur. Please. You know it to be true."
For a second Merlin was terrified; there was a sword within reach of Arthur's hand, and he'd never been all that good at controlling his temper. (But better, he was getting better, he'd be a fine king one day, he'd be the best of kings.) And then he saw the look of dawning comprehension on Arthur's face, and relaxed. It was sinking in, the knowledge, he was wrapping his head around it.
"It's wrong of me," Arthur said, almost conversationally, wrapping his fingers around the hilt of the sword, "but – I can't bear to see them burn you, somehow."
"What?" said Merlin weakly, and then Arthur punched him hard in the chest. Merlin stumbled back in the surprise – they'd roughhoused a little, mostly in jest, but nothing like that. You could kill a man with a hit like that, if you knew where to hit. "Arthur, you prat," Merlin said, annoyed, and then he saw the blood on the sword.
The worst part wasn't when he looked down and saw the hole in him, all that red blood, feeling it hurt, feeling himself go all stupid and slow with the shock of it. The worst part wasn't the way he imagined that he could feel his magic pulsing out along with the blood and leaving him hollow and empty and gone.
The worst part was when he looked back up, and saw Arthur's face, and saw the grief on it.
"Arthur," Merlin tried to say, but it was too late; for the best, perhaps, because he had no idea what he would have said.
Merlin woke up and lay there for a moment or two, still with terror. His hand was clenched into a fist over his breastbone; he could feel the dampness of blood beneath.
But – no, he was lying in his bed in his comfy little room, surely that hadn't …
"Just a nightmare," Merlin said, and then he laughed. He didn't laugh for very long. It sounded wrong, hoarse and fake against the darkness and the pain and the noise of the storm. And it took him another few seconds of nerving himself up before he had the courage to slide his hand beneath his shirt and feel for a wound there. Nothing. "Just a nightmare," Merlin repeated, more quietly, and he slumped back exhausted.
He'd had nightmares before, of course he had; he'd seen people killed, he'd even seen people killed because of him, and evil or not that left a scar on you. But this – he could still see the look on Arthur's face, he could still feel the cold of the steel as it cut. "Idiot," Merlin told himself, "just a nightmare, just a nightmare," but it wasn't, no matter how much he tried to tell himself that, it wasn't, there was truth to it. If Arthur ever did find out –
He found himself imagining it again, the look on Arthur's face, the pain of the wound; with a start he sat jolt upright. He'd almost been falling asleep again. How could he have done that? When he was so terrified, when his magic was jerking around beneath his skin in that way that always made him easeless with nerves? How could he possibly?
Fresh air was what he needed. He got up and hopped over the clothes scattered defiantly on the ground – he'd have preferred things to be tidy, but he spent so much time cleaning up after Arthur that he somehow felt the need to let his own space be a cheerful mess out of sheer bloody-mindedness – to the window, which he flung open. Outside the world was burning.
Merlin slammed the shutters closed so quickly that they banged open again, and he closed them again, hasty and fumbling and quick, not looking outside. That one brief glimpse was enough, had scorched into his eyes a confused mess of colour, swirling blue and sickly twisted gold. Things he could see outside – perfectly normal things, the courtyard with that one amusing statue in it, things he saw everyday – were twisted by the light, altered, sickly and scary from it. He stood there staring at his hands, white-knuckled, gripping the sill.
"That," he said, a little lamely. "That is really not a normal storm at all. Gaius!"
Gaius had been working late, as he often did, staying up through the coldest hours by the guttering light of lamps and hearth. "Gaius," Merlin panted, "there's something wrong with the storm, it – it's stupid, but I think there's something magic about it, something wrong."
Gaius looked at him. "Nothing."
Merlin frowned. "I …" he said. "I just had a nightmare, so I'm shaky, but there's definitely something wrong, and the nightmare wasn't normal either."
"I did nothing," Gaius said conversationally. "They died and I did nothing and I watched them burn. All my friends, all my friends and comrades, oh, my dear dear friends … Nothing. I did nothing. They died and I did nothing and I watched them burn. All my friends, all my—"
His eyes were wide open, staring. Merlin frowned, then waved a hand in front of Gaius's face. Nothing.
"—did nothing and I watched them burn. All my friends, all my friends and comrades, oh, my dear dear friends."
They had encountered a spell once which set all the castle to sleeping; Merlin had tried to spell Gaius awake and only made him – like this, frozen and wide-eyed and staring and, really, still asleep. Maybe it was a spell like that, this storm, only it gave people … nightmares?
"—watched them burn. All my friends, all my friends and comrades—"
Gave everyone nightmares?
"Arthur," Merlin said, and he was running, running, running up the stairs so fast he nearly fell over, his heart hitting his ribs hard, his breath scraping with panic. There were people on the way, maids curled up in sobbing balls in corners; as he passed the kitchens he saw the portly Master-of-Arms asleep amongst the wreckage of his midnight feast, tears dripping down his face to pool on the table. Merlin only glimpsed these things briefly as he rushed past, he had more important things to do, Arthur Arthur Arthur – "Arthur," he gasped again, as he rushed into his liege-lord's quarters. The fire was still burning just enough to see by, dimly; Arthur was lying on the bed, rigid, arms flat at his sides. "Arthur! Arthur, wake up."
Arthur sat bolt upright, drawing in breath sharply. Upon seeing Merlin the wild panic faded from his face, and he swallowed and said, in something close to a normal voice, "You've woken me up too early, Merlin. A good clue is the fact that it's night."
"Arthur," Merlin said gently. "What's wrong?"
And Arthur's own eyes looked almost teary, for a moment. "I failed him," he said blankly, numbly. "I failed my father."
Merlin sighed. It would be that. Someday, he thought, he'd really have to take Arthur aside and explain that he was far too good for his father; only, as he now knew rather better than he'd ever wanted to, he did not particularly want Arthur to kill him.
"I failed my country. They are dead because of me." Arthur rubbed his forehead. "They're … not, are they?"
The vulnerability in his voice caught at Merlin's heart. 'Vulnerable' was not something that Arthur could often be called. "Alive and kicking, sire," he said cheerfully, and slapped his chest. "… Ow."
"There's a storm. I think magic's in it, somewhere; it's messing with our heads. With everyone's," Merlin said, stressing this. "So you don't need to be ashamed or anything thick like that. Everyone's having nightmares."
Arthur wriggled back so he was seated more comfortably, his back steady against the bed-end. "Really?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "Not just you, is it?" He clasped his hands to his chest and mimicked Merlin's voice, quite badly. "Mummy, mummy, help, it's dark …"
Merlin decided, on reflection, that Camelot's Crown Prince would probably be needed to help sort out whatever was wrong with this storm, and, thus, that kicking Camelot's Crown Prince out the window probably wasn't a very helpful thing to do.
But – there was that frailty to Arthur's voice, still, a kind of brittleness, like he was about to snap. Like he was being nasty because it was that or cry, and for Arthur, well, that was unthinkable, gods forbid you be human.
"Everyone, Arthur," Merlin repeated patiently.
Arthur ran a hand through his hair. "My father?"
"Everyone, Arthur," Merlin repeated, somewhat less patiently.
"Stop that," Arthur snapped. "I mean that it could be an attack targeting someone in particular, and sorcerers have reason to hate my father. Foul souls."
"It doesn't feel like a guided storm," Merlin said. "Not guided by a human, anyway."
"And you'd know, would you?"
Idiot idiot idiot. "Of course not, but – well, just look at it," and he crossed over to the window and eased it open just a crack, just for a second, before slamming it shut again. "Do you think any sorcerer's going to be mad enough to call that up? Likely as not it'd just turn on him as well."
Arthur snorted. "They're all mad. And what do you suggest we do, then? Seeing you know so much about it?"
Merlin bit his lip at the scorn in his voice, but said, "Wait. I think we should just … wait."
"Genius plan, Merlin, how on earth aren't you Royal Advisor by now?"
"It's a storm, you idiot!" Merlin snapped. "It's going to blow over sooner or later. Or it won't. Either way, do you have any better ideas? Because I'd love to hear them!" He crossed his arms over his chest and glared.
Arthur glared back. "What did you dream about?"
"Normally you're all …" He made a vague gesture that could've meant anything. "Grinny. Idiotic. You're yelling. You don't yell. Come on." He smiled suddenly, unexpectedly. "You know mine. It's only fair."
Merlin stared at him.
Then, "Apples," he said.
Arthur looked incredulous for a moment, then scornful. "Really, Merlin?" he said, but there was a laugh bubbling through it.
"It's not funny!" Merlin said, in his best wounded-dignity voice. "You aren't the one spending half his time in the stocks, you know. Those things bruise." He sat down on the bed so he could lean forward and widen his eyes and hiss, "You'd be scared, too."
"I would not."
"You would!" He leaned back again and grinned. "I can just picture it, the brave Prince Arthur in the stocks – Mummy, mummy, help, they have potatoes!"
Arthur's not-quite-a-smile faltered for a second, and Merlin cursed himself. He'd been doing a nice job of easing the tension, and making Arthur laugh, and stopping him from wondering about Merlin's nightmare as a handy side-benefit, and here was Merlin being fool enough to bring up Arthur's mother.
"Seriously though," Merlin said, babbling a bit, "apples, they're much scarier than everyone gives them credit for. I mean, think about it. They're red. You know what else is red? Blood!"
"What about green apples?"
"Poison is green," Merlin said promptly. Then he paused. He had no interest in science, but living with the Court Physician gave one a certain dedication to accuracy whether you wanted it or not. "Some poisons. The more effective ones are colourless, actually. But, I mean, the nastiest ones are green."
Arthur surveyed him, lips twitching. "Let me get this straight," he said slowly. "Your worst nightmare in all the world is … apples?"
Merlin said, "They had fangs."
Arthur ducked his head, perhaps so Merlin wouldn't see him grinning. "You're lying to me," Arthur drawled. "Lying to the heir to the throne of Camelot! I could have you whipped, you know." Then he looked up, and he was grinning, ha! "Really though. You do know mine. Be fair, Merlin. I know the only way you'd ever become a knight is if there was a horrendous plague that killed every knight in the castle and, by some strange side effect, turned you into someone who could hold a sword without dropping it on his foot, but surely you have some notion of honour. Camaraderie. All that."
Merlin wriggled off the bed until he thumped onto the floor. Then he wriggled along until he was sitting snug in the corner made where the bed met one of Arthur's cupboards.
"What on earth?" Arthur said, sounding amused.
"I was going to sit next to you," Merlin said. "But you'd just shove me off." And this way Arthur couldn't see his face. He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. "Arthur … I was lying. That's not my fear at all. Apples, I mean."
"Really?" said Arthur, in tones of vast surprise.
"Apples are nice," Merlin added, stalling. "They make good pies."
"What is it, then? Never-ending stables to clean?"
"No, sire," Merlin said softly. "Not stables."
There was the sound of blankets moving, and then a voice, right in his ear, "Well then?" He sounded honestly curious.
Merlin cast him an irritated glare. "You know your hair looks stupid at this time of night?"
"Merlin," Arthur said, coaxing.
"Fine," Merlin said, and he flopped his head back against the bed. "In my nightmare I was, I was in your chambers—"
"I'm not that terrifying, am I? Sorry!" Because Merlin had done the glare again. "Sorry. Go on. I won't laugh, I promise. You're in my chambers …"
"And … we're talking. You know how we talk." Arthur looked like he wanted to say something, but, for some reason, he didn't; after a surprised little pause, Merlin went on, "I make you angry …"
"And you throw a cat at me."
There was another pause. The fire crackled dimly in the hearth, making shadows dance over the ceiling. Outside the storm raged.
Arthur said, "What?"
"You throw a cat at me," Merlin repeated seriously.
"I … I throw a cat at you."
"Your worst nightmare is me throwing a cat at you?"
"Don't laugh, Arthur," Merlin said, wide-eyed, "you said you wouldn't laugh." He tilted his head at an awkward angle so he could see Arthur's face; Arthur looked like he was struggling to decide whether or not to believe him, though mostly he looked confused. Merlin managed to keep the grin that kept on wanting to bubble out onto his face firmly locked in, and looked at Arthur reproachfully.
"Is …" Arthur said uncertainly. "Is it a large cat?"
Merlin shook his head. "Small," he said, shaping the air with his hands. "No larger than your foot. It has claws …" He made clawing motions. "And it has eyes. Oh, those eyes. They're, um. Terrifying. Terrifying," he added, "with terror—"
Arthur stared at him for a moment or two more, then burst out laughing, the deep joyous belly laughs that you can't tell from crying. His head disappeared as he rolled back onto the bed, still laughing; Merlin, knowing him quite well, ducked, and the pillow that had been flung at him bounced off his shoulder. Arthur gave a merry little wheeze.
"You did promise not to laugh," Merlin said cheerfully.
Arthur made a non-committal noise, which turned into a laugh again. Merlin gave a smug little smirk. Arthur did not, now, look at all likely to start crying, or panicking, or worrying about how to solve this. He'd figured that would work. Solving this could wait till daylight came; there was no point in trying to figure things out when their minds were all strained with nightmare.
Anyway, there was something nice about this, telling tales to a friend as the fire flickered, telling tales to keep the storm at bay.
"What was it really?" Arthur asked, a little eagerly.
"Right," Merlin said solemnly. "Well. I'm walking by a river, and there's these fish, right, and they're … dancing …"
At some point he drifted off. When he woke up the fire had burned down to bare coals, and he could hear Arthur snoring. The storm, he realised with a pang of fear, showed no signs of stopping soon or even slowing down. They would need to interfere, after all.
That meant sorcery.
Merlin got up and went over to the window and opened it, wishing he was wearing something warmer than his nightclothes – this storm had no fierce breezes, no squally rain, but just looking at it made him want to shiver. He'd have to do more than just look, though …
He held out his hands and closed his eyes and murmured a spell, the strange words falling thoughtless and easy from his tongue as though he’d always known them. It was a spell for Seeing, Seeing truly - and it worked, of course, all his spells worked these days. There was the familiar warm liquid-gold feeling in his veins, and he smiled despite the situation, but once he'd extended his senses a little way into the storm he frowned. This … This was strange. This felt strange. He ought to have felt the taint of dark magic on it, but it – it felt dangerous, certainly, sharp and wild, but not evil, certainly not that. It felt like it was in pain. And amidst the blue jagger and swirl of the storm he got fragments, images: strange worlds where too many moons shone, where iron birds screamed across the sky and iron cities shone, where there was snow and ice, deserts, oceans, strange creatures with names he didn't know – a library, a library all silent, a twisted slimy thing all cased in a deadly shell, winged statues that sent fear racing through his heart.
And a man, one man with so many different faces –
Merlin realised that he was slumped on the ground. He got up, with difficulty, wincing at the needley tingle of movement returning to parts of his body that had numbed with inactivity. That was the problem with casting out your senses. You forgot that you needed to reel them in again, sooner rather than later.
Something about that last image was clamouring for his attention. He let it. Straining to try and recall wouldn't help; the best thing to do would be to wait for whatever he was trying to remember to sidle slyly into his head full-formed. In the mean time …
"Let's figure out how to stop a storm, hm?" he said, and he went to stand by the fire so that it warmed him, not particularly wanting to come back from a burst of particularly vigorous magic to find himself chilled. Amongst the images had been something far more familiar, a golden warmth as familiar as his heartbeat. What was his magic doing in a storm?
He spoke another spell. This one was trickier, strings of syllables sliding into each other so his tongue nearly tripped over them. But it worked. He held out his hand and poured out his magic, silky golden threads curling and glowing in the dim light. It was beautiful, and he grinned. With his magic out-of-his-body like this he was exposed, vulnerable; his body felt stupider, slower, less aware of the world around it, but at the same time he could feel things that the swirls of magic felt: subtle shifts in the air, the pulsing lifeness of Arthur asleep in the bed, and, outside, the storm …
It reminded him of Arthur, for some reason. Arthur when he was sulking, Arthur when he'd been injured, and had nothing better to do but lie around in bed and throw insults at people in an attempt to get their attention. Merlin frowned, trying to figure out what that meant. The thing nagging at the back of his mind became more insistent, jangling, and he almost got it, but then something else started to twitch at him as well. Something important.
"This is stupid," Arthur said abruptly, "there's no way that idiot could ever be a sorcerer."
His magic sensing things: the shifts in the air, the storm, Arthur not asleep in the bed … And Merlin, standing there, staring, fully lit in the lazy golden loops and swirls of his obvious, obvious magic.
"Sire," he said hoarsely.
"Not that this isn't better than the one where I killed everyone," Arthur remarked, to the room at large, "but I think you could do better."
He looked sleepy and tired and irritable. Merlin could feel his heart pumping in panic; knew that it was, because his magic reacted, swirling faster, pulsing alternately dark and bright. "Yes," he said, "you ought to go to sleep again so that you can get a proper nightmare, this one's ridiculous."
Arthur nodded. "That seems sensible."
He didn't show any signs of falling back asleep. "Or," Merlin added, desperately, "I'll have to start singing."
"You would, wouldn't you," Arthur said in disgust, and he flumped back against the pillows and was snoring again in seconds.
Merlin, far too exhausted to return to his own room and not particularly inclined to leave Arthur to his nightmares in any case, sat clumsily in a chair by the fire and settled down to wait for the dawn.
When it came it brought very little light, except for a brightening of the blue-and-gold that Merlin was starting to hate. But it did bring a different sort of illumination.
A man who changed his face, changed so much so many times. And the last face had been …
"Wake up, Arthur!" Merlin called cheerfully, flinging a pillow at him. "We need to talk to the Doctor!"
And he ran off down to the dungeons, leaving Arthur to follow him at his own pace. When he finally did enter, grumbling about how, really, what was the point of even having servants if you had to dress yourself, Merlin had already been staring at the Doctor in dismay for a number of minutes.
"I got the keys," he said, waving them at the open cell door, "the guard was lying there whimpering about cliffs, but …"
"He's asleep," Arthur said, surveying the Doctor disapprovingly. "Just wake him."
"You'd think he'd be happy to be wake up from a nightmare."
"That's the thing. I don't think he's even having a nightmare." Merlin leaned against the wall and bit his lip. "I mean, he's smiling. Maybe it affects him differently. I think it might have something to do with his box …"
"His box. The blue one."
"I don't see a box."
"It's by the path – by the grass. Where I was yesterday. It wasn't there one minute and then, hey, hello blue box. I think it must be magic."
Which he shouldn't have said, which obviously he shouldn't have said, idiot idiot. Arthur said, dangerously, "He's a sorcerer?"
"No! If he was a sorcerer, don't you think he'd have … sorcerer'd his way out of here already? I'm just afraid that we won't be able to wake him."
Merlin blinked. The Doctor had sprung up between the two of them, smiling at one and then the other in confusion.
"You," Merlin said. "Uh."
"Don't be silly, I'm perfectly awake," the Doctor said, and then, with no change in expression, he fell over. Merlin dived to catch him, staggered under his weight. Arthur rolled his eyes and hauled them to their feet.
"Thank you," the Doctor said, "I really can't think what came over me."
He started to fall over again. Arthur slapped him hard across the face. The Doctor blinked at him, looking indignant, and then slapped him back. Merlin hid his grin. "There's a storm," he said, speaking quick and earnest, trying to get in all the necessary information before the Doctor could fall asleep or Arthur could kill him. "A storm of, of colour, and it's making everyone have nightmares."
"Blue. And some gold."
The Doctor paled. "A vortex storm?" he said, and he started to stride rapidly away and up the stairs, almost at a run.
"If it was a vortex storm, could you do anything about it?" Merlin asked, scrambling to keep up.
"Do you have any science equipment here?" the Doctor shot back at him, taking two steps in a jump.
"Then yes, it's a vortex storm!" Merlin yelled, trying to be heard over the thud of footsteps.
"Take me to your science!" the Doctor yelled back.
"There's no reason for you both to yell!" Arthur yelled at them. "The storm's not that loud!"
The Doctor came to a stop so abruptly that Merlin banged into him, and Arthur banged into him, and they all quavered for a few seconds as they tried to find their balance on the stairs. "Not loud?" he said, and tilted his head to one side as though listening. "Then it's not a vortex storm. In those you can hear time breaking down – all time, all at once. I think I'm about to fall asleep again."
He swayed dangerously to one side. Merlin rescued him. Arthur slapped him across the face with rather more relish than was entirely reasonable. The Doctor blinked and grinned at them. "Right!" he said, and ran up the rest of the stairs. Merlin followed.
How exactly they all managed to get to Gaius's rooms without some disaster happening – Arthur killing one or both of them, Merlin tripping over a slumbering member of staff – was rather miraculous, but there they were, and there was … "Wakewort," Merlin said, delighted, and he fished a handful out of its jar and shoved it at the Doctor.
"Oh," the Doctor said, without much enthusiasm. "Good." But he stuck some into his mouth and chewed. "Right," he said, around it, "it appears that I'm in some sort of alchemical laboratory, that's quite exciting. Is it yours?"
Merlin shook his head. "Gaius's. Hang on, I'll wake him."
"--oh, my dear dear friends … Nothing. I did nothing. They died and I—" he was saying, still, and it was a relief to shove the wakewort into his mouth and hold it closed. After a second the manic wakefulness faded from Gaius's face, and he blinked. "Merlin?" he asked. Merlin nodded. "Why is your foreigner rifling through my cupboards?"
"I need to construct some manner of distilling device," the Doctor said absentmindedly, tossing more jars that he'd randomly grabbed onto the table and sweeping away the books that had been on it. He somehow managed to completely ignore Gaius's severest eyebrow-glare. Merlin was rather impressed.
"There's a storm," Merlin explained, "it's giving people nightmares, he's going to stop it."
"No I'm not," the Doctor said brightly, emptying a jar of powder into a different jar of powder, "I have no idea what it is!" He beamed, as though to say that wasn't that marvellous?
Arthur gave an impatient snort. "This'll wake people?" he said, grabbing a handful of wakewort. "I'm going to wake my father."
Merlin caught his hand. Arthur gave him an incredulous glare, but Merlin, undaunted, said, "Your father will think the Doctor is a sorcerer for this, Arthur. And he's the only one that can help us."
"That's true," the Doctor said helpfully. "Oh, and I wouldn't advise waking people. These nightmares, were they extremely very real-feeling?"
"Yes," said Merlin, and Arthur, and Gaius.
"There you are then. If you wake people you'll challenge their reality, could drive them mad! What's this?"
"It's a spoon," Gaius said flatly.
"Oh. Is it? Well." The Doctor eyed it uncertainly. "Spoons are good," he declared, and stuck it vaguely into a pot. Then he whipped out some manner of wand and pointed it underneath a jar. Blue light shimmered, a strange noise warbled; fire sprung into life beneath the jar.
"My word," Gaius said faintly.
"Sorcerer—" Arthur snarled.
"Who is going to save us," Merlin insisted stubbornly, though he was beginning to doubt that. Eccentricity was one thing, but the Doctor …
Gaius seemed to be having the same thoughts. Fair enough, as the things the Doctor was randomly throwing into the jar with the fire under it included flower petals, the spoon and a dead frog. "You're a doctor?" Gaius said politely. "In what field?"
"Oh, any field. All fields. A few … orchards, look, these things are bubbling, we should look at these bubbling things and stop asking questions." The Doctor pointed the wand at the jar again, and the fire went out. He snatched up the jar, poured out half of its contents onto the table and poured the other into a jar of honey. "Merlin, could you add some water to this?" he said absentmindedly, shoving it at him. Merlin went to take it, and the Doctor whispered loudly, "And by 'water' I mean—"
"Right," Merlin said hurriedly, and he went out into the corridor. Once there he reached for his magic without even wondering what the Doctor needed this for – there wasn't time. He spoke. Magic dripped down into the cup, and the potion turned … gold, bright clear gold. Merlin blinked at it.
"I'm probably going to have to be the one drinking this, aren't I," he said, resignedly, and went back inside.
"Right!" the Doctor said brightly, and he snatched it from his hand. "This is a compound invented on Xirenia …" He glanced around at them. "I mean, a spell. A magic spell to protect you from the Tar – from the storm. If you drink this you won't be affected by the nightmares, you can go to the centre of the storm – the Tardis, that's my blue box – and you can …. Look, she's probably mostly just sulking, it shouldn't be too hard for you to stop things. I'd go myself, but I think she's annoyed at me, she always makes me sleepy when she's trying to sulk. Last time I crashed on a temple."
He smiled at them encouragingly. There was an uncertain pause. Merlin wondered if anyone else had understood any more of that than he had.
"This potion will protect the drinker from the storm?" Arthur asked. "You're certain?"
"Absolutely," the Doctor said. Then he added, in the same tones of complete conviction, "A bit."
Gaius sighed. Arthur, shrugging, said, "We don't have much choice, do we."
"Right," Merlin agreed.
"Oh! One thing. I can't believe I forgot. This is important. This is completely, astonishingly important." The Doctor held the potion out to him. "Say 'Higitus Figitus zumbabazing'."
Merlin stared at him. "Uh," he said. The Doctor was looking at him pleadingly. "Higitus Figitus zumbabazing."
"Couldn't resist," the Doctor confided. "Right." He waved the golden potion enticingly. "Who'll drink it?"
Merlin laughed. "Me, obviously," he said. Like he was going to let anyone else drink something so strange made by a stranger that they were only trusting because of him.
"I think not," Arthur drawled. "You'd probably just make things worse." And he grabbed the cup, and drained it before Merlin could stop him.
"Good man," the Doctor said softly.
"Right. Merlin, fetch my sword."
The Doctor looked pained. "You won't need your sword."
"I'm the prince!" Arthur snapped. "If I say I need my sword, I need my sword!"
Merlin fetched his sword.
Arthur never did tell him what happened, out there in the storm. He came back looking haunted, and mumbling about planets, and angels, and time.
The Doctor, before he left, told Merlin that the Tardis needed a burst of strong noble energy to get her sorted again after the knock that Merlin had given her – and he glared at Merlin very severely when he said that – and that Arthur would have had to do something stupidly noble, when he got there, for things to have been solved.
"Surely drinking the potion in the first place would count?" Merlin had asked. "And how did that storm even work?"
The Doctor said, "Haven't the faintest."
And that was that. No one else in the castle seemed to have figured out that anything had even gone wrong, though there were a lot of pale sleepless faces around the next morning. Uther was enraged when he discovered that the mad foreigner had disappeared from his cells, and even more enraged when he discovered the Hall's walls entirely free of tapestries. Merlin was so tired the next morning that he didn't dodge the vase Arthur threw at him in time, and had to spend ages cleaning it up, and, really, sometimes he didn't know why he bothered.