In all the books Bradley had ever read and in all the films he'd ever seen, big reality-swapping adventures usually came as a result of a head injury so that the protagonist was conveniently unconscious while the magic happened. After playing Arthur Pendragon for three years, he was fairly well-versed in the art of convenient unconsciousness, so he fully expected that if any world-altering shenanigans were going to involve him, they would happen when he was knocked out during a stunt gone wrong or something equally plausible and painful.
Something mundane on the other hand, like a power outage while filming down the caves at Chester, seemed like less of a chance for magical shenanigans to ensnare him. At least, that's what popular film and literature would suggest. Bradley knew, from personal experience, that mundane things could trigger magic, like a heartfelt wish or an explosion of emotion or just the wrong conversion of energies.
Bradley knew from personal experience because, irony of all ironies, he had magic.
Like Merlin, Bradley was born with his magic. Unlike Merlin, his mother wasn't concerned with keeping her son's talents a deep, dark secret. She was concerned when he didn't Awaken to his magic at the precocious age of twelve like she had. (Bradley's first act of magic actually occurred when he was fifteen and fully resolved to play for Arsenal, seeing how he wouldn't be following in his mother's footsteps. He'd inadvertently made his teaspoon keep stirring his tea after he let it go. Then he'd been dazzled by seeing the Tapestry for the first time and promptly passed out. When he'd awakened six hours later, his mum told him she was very proud of him and that self-stirring tea was a very English magic skill. Bradley's second act of magic was Aunt Sarah's fault. She'd made him watch the film Practical Magic too many times, which prompted him to learn how to light candles by blowing them out, and he almost set his own birthday cake on fire.)
Like Merlin, Bradley could move things and set things on fire and sometimes waffle with time, but unlike Merlin his magic was not elemental and instinctual. It was good on the small-scale, for things like birthday candles, stirring tea, and saving Aunt Sarah from spilling a glass of wine on herself, but it required years of study (sweating and swearing and effort while his cabal siblings laughed) and an external focus (his ubiquitous ring).
So when the lights in the caves exploded in a shower of glass, Bradley didn't think it was the start of world-altering shenanigans, but in retrospect it was a perfectly logical starting point for said shenanigans. Bradley leapt to cover Colin, because he was wearing armor, and even though it was plastic costume armor, it offered more protection than what Colin had on. He ended up with Colin's nose jammed up into his collarbone, and Colin swore, and then his lanky legs got tangled up with Bradley's, and they ended up on the ground in a heap.
"Thanks. I think," Colin said.
Bradley heaved himself up onto his knees. "You're welcome. Are you hurt? Bleeding at all?" He could feel Colin's breath puffing somewhere near his temple, and the ground was uneven beneath him.
"I'm fine. Just a bit – squashed. Make-up and costume are going to have a fit," Colin said.
"Yes, well, that won't matter until we get the lights on." Bradley tried to peer, but it was useless. They were in total darkness, the blackness around them opaque, darker even than when he closed his eyes. When he closed his eyes, he could see multicolored sparkles against his eyelids, but when he opened his eyes...nothing.
"Jeremy?" Colin called out. "Andreas? What happened?"
There was no answer.
Bradley was immediately worried, because half of the crew swore like sailors, and whenever something went wrong – and they weren't filming somewhere children might be watching – they turned the air blue with their curses. This time there was nothing, not even a "flippin' 'eck" from Charlotte, who was too polite to swear.
"Hello?" Colin called.
His voice echoed back at him.
He said, "This is...bad."
"Yeah." Bradley took a deep breath and wished he'd followed his mother's footsteps more closely and learnt some Correspondence magic. At least then he'd have a chance to figure out where they were, and possibly open a portal to safety, only he really wasn't that strong, and Colin's mundane presence would make working magic that much harder.
"Where is everyone?" Colin asked.
Bradley held his breath and listened. He didn't hear a sound besides Colin's breathing – no moans of pain or unconscious snores. "I don't know."
"Can you stand?" Colin asked.
"I think so," Bradley said. He heard Colin shift in the darkness somewhere to his left.
"Wait," Bradley said. "Don't move yet. You had a candle."
"Merlin had a little candle for this scene. Where is it?"
"I don't know," Colin said. "I dropped it."
"See if you can find it," Bradley said, thinking quickly. He stripped off Arthur's leather gloves and – yes. Success. He was wearing Arthur's silver ring. It wasn't on his thumb, and it wasn't his ring, but it was a ring and it would do in a pinch. Only they were in much more than a pinch.
"Do you have matches or a lighter or something?" Colin asked, and he was still talking like Merlin, had worked himself into Merlin's accent and hadn't been jolted out of it.
"Or something," Bradley said in a low voice. Like Merlin, he had kept his magic hidden for most of his life. Unlike Merlin, it wasn't due to fear of death, because the magical community was a thriving underground, and Bradley's mother had arranged for him to be tutored with other boys and girls his age who had magic. Mages didn't tell people they had magic because people disbelieved, and their disbelief made magic...harder. Like Merlin, however, Bradley was terrified of rejection, of what his mundane friends would say if he told them he could, in emergency situations, dilate time to give someone extra moments to think and react. People had been institutionalized for claiming less.
Somewhere off to Bradley's right, he could hear Colin scrabbling around on the ground. Then he heard a soft hiss of victory, and then Colin said,
"Where are you? I found it. It's not broken, and the wick is intact."
"I'm here," Bradley said and reached out. They fumbled in the darkness until their knuckles collided, and then Colin pressed the candle into his hand.
"No one else is here," Colin said. "At least – I don't think they are. I can't hear them. Do you hear them?"
"No," Bradley said. "I don't hear them." He slipped one of his gloves back on and grasped the candle carefully, and then he turned Arthur's ring round his index finger three times, focused. He lifted the candle and blew softly on the wick, and then – there. A single, small golden point of light blossomed against the darkness and illuminated Colin's face.
"How long do you think the candle will last?" Colin asked. He looked both scared and relieved in the way that only he could, and Bradley was relieved that he wasn't asking questions about how Bradley lit the candle.
"I don't know," Bradley said. "A couple of hours, maybe, but we weren't that far from the entrance. Maybe a fifteen minute walk."
"Assuming we can even get out," Colin said. "Maybe we should put the candle out to save oxygen?"
"I didn't hear a cave-in, just the lights blowing out, so I don’t think we risk running out of oxygen," Bradley said. "Hang onto my belt, and we'll go together. See if we can find anyone."
He took a deep breath and stretched the candle out in front of them, and its little sphere of illumination wasn't very big, but it was big enough to guide them to the wall so they could feel their way along. A few meters down from where they started, Bradley turned, brandished the candle against the middle of the cave – and stared.
It was empty. There was no equipment, no wires, and no other human beings. In fact, the wires that had been running along the walls were gone, as were the railings.
"Colin," Bradley said quietly, "I think something very terrible has happened."
"Where is everyone?" Colin asked. "They can't have just vanished. And they wouldn't have left us."
"This is the cave we started the day in, isn't it?" Bradley waved the candle around, searching for some sign that they were in the Cheddar cave or some other cave instead, but he'd been to the Chester cave before and knew them well, and they were in the proper cave.
With the exception of the sudden absence of the entire crew and extras.
"It is," Colin said, and his voice was high, tight. "We should get out of here and get help."
"Maybe it's a prank," Bradley said faintly. "The lights went out, we fell unconscious, and it's some very ill-thought-out prank."
"Maybe," Colin agreed, but both of them knew the crew would never go to this extent, not with Colin. With Bradley alone, maybe, but Colin was so accident-prone that the producers and directors never wanted to tempt fate. Maybe the rest of the crew was waiting outside for the pay-off, some party poppers and “Gotcha!” or whatever they’d concocted.
"Let's keep walking," Bradley said. And so they did. His internal clock was actually startlingly accurate, a side-effect of his Time magic, and he'd had to learn over the years to say 'about fifteen minutes' when someone asked how much time elapsed and he knew thirteen minutes and forty-five seconds had passed. As he'd predicted, fourteen minutes and seventeen seconds after they'd begun walking in earnest, light began to creep into the tunnel, so Bradley blew out the candle – actually blew it out – and Colin let go of his belt, and they both picked up the pace.
Bradley was practically running when he reached the mouth of the tunnel, and he burst into the afternoon sunlight, sucked in great gulps of fresh air. The clearing around the entrance to the tunnel was also barren of people and equipment, and Bradley felt unease trickle down his spine. Something was wrong with this place – with the time here. Only it was something he'd never felt before.
"Did you find it?" Eoin asked.
Bradley spun and saw Eoin come ducking out of the trees. He was dressed in full costume and carrying a sword. A moment later, Santiago, Rupert, and Tomi followed. They all wore full costume – in fact, the costumes they'd been wearing for the scenes they were shooting last week in the Forest of Dean. Bradley was utterly confused, because their scenes were done yesterday and they'd all dispersed until the next block of episodes where they'd be needed.
"Find what?" Bradley asked.
"Where is everyone?" Colin asked again.
Santiago's brow furrowed. "It's just us. His Majesty charged us with seeking the Lady Morgana in secret, and he trusts no others –"
"His Majesty?" Bradley echoed.
Santiago shot Colin a look, as if to say, Again?
Eoin stepped forward, and he wore Gwaine's easy grin. "Did you hit your head again, Arthur?"
Santiago nodded and stepped forward as well, put a hand on Bradley's shoulder. "Did you encounter magic in the cave? Is that why you didn't find it?"
"Are we still in the middle of a scene? Why aren’t you calling me by my real name?" Bradley asked. He cast Colin an expression of alarm.
"Because we can't get away with calling you 'clotpole' to your face," Eoin said with Gwaine's easy grin, and he was using Gwaine's accent. Okay. So they were in costume and in character. This was part of the prank. Bradley could deal with that sort of prank dedication.
But then Rupert shot Eoin a look and muttered, "Respect!"
"Oh please," Eoin said, "I've punched him in the face. We respect each other just fine."
Santiago craned his neck to peer at Colin and said, "Come tell me what happened. Elyan, Gwaine, and Leon can help His Highness have a drink."
Bradley frowned. "It doesn't take three people to help me have a drink. And don't call me that. Just tell me what's going on."
Tomi took Santiago's place at Bradley's side and started guiding him toward the trees. "We're looking for the shield of the Blood Guard. Morgana and Morgause need it to raise more troops to their cause."
Okay – they were in the plot of the season premiere, but these weren't their scripted lines, so this was some sort of long-form improv game. Bradley had never been great at improv, but he'd been playing Arthur for three years, and he could fake it with the best of them. He'd gone to school for it, after all.
"Of course," he said. "I'm sure if we find it we will find them. Have we tried looking at the Isle of the Blessed?"
"Where?" Rupert asked. "I've never heard of such a place."
Eoin blanched slightly at that, but Tomi spoke up. "I've heard of it before, during my wanderings. It's the home of the Old Religion."
"Well," Bradley said, attempting to sound as authoritative and Arthur-like as possible given that he had no lines memorized, "Morgause is a priestess of the Old Religion, so it stands to reason that the shield might be there."
"Where is the Isle located?" Rupert asked, and he looked utterly Leon-earnest.
"Somewhere over the White Mountains and..." Bradley scrunched up his face, puzzled, and then belatedly remembered Arthur never looked that puzzled. "Merlin would know. He's been there before."
Eoin turned even paler. "He has?"
"Yes, back when he saved me from –" Bradley cut himself off. This was the problem with filming three episodes all at once – he never had all the scenes in the right order in his head, and he and Colin had spent their spare time yesterday puzzling out the nuances of Merlin's confession scene, so he was using knowledge Arthur didn't have yet.
"Saved you from what?" Tomi asked.
Bradley sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Okay, look, this ridiculousness has gone on long enough. First you put out the lights and left us alone in the cave, and now you're attempting some long-form improv, and I'm sorry, but it's been a very trying day, and I'd like to just go back to the hotel and watch some Buffy."
"Buffy, Sire?" Rupert sounded politely puzzled.
Bradley threw his hands up. "Stop calling me that! And yes, Buffy."
Tomi looked puzzled. Eoin looked puzzled and also highly amused.
"Drop the act already, okay? Please? This stopped being funny a good nine minutes ago." Bradley winced at the slip of the tongue, at telling Time like a Mage, but it was too late to fix it, and he didn’t have the energy to try.
"What act, Sire?" Rupert asked. He stepped closer to Bradley, held up a leather wineskin. "Do you need a drink? What happened in the cave? Did you hit your head?"
"Again?" Eoin piped up.
"I didn't hit my head," Bradley said, "and I've reached the end of my rope. Yes, generally, I do try to have a sense of humor, but this has gone on long enough, and can we just call it a day, please? Where are Jeremy and Andreas?"
"I don't know who those people are," Tomi said, and he was looking at Bradley very strangely.
Eoin rested his hand on the pommel of his sword, the gesture easy and subconscious, as if he did it all the time, which was absurd, because he tended to giggle like a schoolboy whenever he had a chance to play with a sword. "I think all those times he's hit his head have finally caught up to him."
Bradley curled his hands into fists. "Stop. Stop now."
"Stop what, Sire?" Rupert asked.
Bradley growled. "Calling me that!"
"I'm sorry, Sire – Arthur. It's just, most of my life I've not called you by your name," Rupert said, and he sounded both apologetic and faintly alarmed.
Bradley took a deep breath. "My name is not –"
"Arthur," Colin called, sharply, and he was still using Merlin's accent.
Bradley spun around. "Not you, too. What did Santiago say to you?"
Colin hurried across the clearing and caught Bradley by the shoulder, tugged him aside. "I need to talk to you. Alone."
Santiago went to stand with the other three; he was watching Colin with worried eyes.
"What the hell is going on?" Bradley demanded.
Colin's face was pale and his eyes were wide. If the camera crews had been present, the picture Colin presented would have sent fangirls the world over cooing in sympathy. "They're not pretending."
"They're actors. They're paid to pretend, and frankly, I'm sick of it," Bradley said. "Where's the crew?"
Colin shook his head. "You don't understand. They're not actors."
"What do you mean?" Bradley glanced over his shoulder at the four men dressed as knights; he had it on good authority that all of them were actors, and apparently good ones too.
"That man who took me aside just now – the one who one looks like Santiago – he's actually Lancelot," Colin said.
"How do you know he's not just having you on?" Bradley asked.
"Because he called me Merlin and asked if I'd had to use any magic and were you all right and he didn't drop character, not once, and Bradley – he was genuinely afraid for me. For Merlin. In case Arthur finds out about his magic," Colin said.
"It's part of the stupid game," Bradley said. "They're having both of us on. We should tell them to snap out of it and –"
"It's not a game," Colin said, voice low and frustrated. He darted a wary glance toward the others. "I'm serious. Something happened back in that cave and we're not – we're not in England anymore. Or at least, not any England we've ever known."
Bradley closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Please, please tell me you're not in on the prank too, that this isn't revenge for the time I helped Katie change your toothpaste for hair gel."
"That was you?" Colin hissed.
Bradley opened his eyes, swallowed hard. "Oh. So you hadn't figured that bit out. Katie was sure –"
"Look, this isn't a prank," Colin said firmly. "I'll prove it to you."
"How?" Bradley asked.
Colin turned and marched toward the others. He held out a hand. "Sword, please."
Eoin reached for his first. "What for? You can't go killing Arthur. They have laws against that sort of thing." But he unsheathed it and handed it over, pommel first.
Colin winced at the weight of it, and Bradley felt his chest tighten. Colin was having him on too. He'd figured out the toothpaste-hair gel thing ages ago and now he was part of this madness – and then Colin reached out and ran his palm down one edge of the sword.
Eoin and Tomi swore and lunged at him with a cry of, "Merlin!"
And then Colin drew his hand away from the sword. It was bleeding.
Bradley's heart crawled into his throat. The sword was real. He'd seen all the stunt swords before, knew the weight and shape of them, knew the details in the guards and pommels because, despite being a nancy boy actor, he liked weapons, and he'd appreciated the chance to use them, and he knew that none of them – not one of them – was real. Andreas would never risk his men like that.
"See?" Colin said.
"Are you mad?" Rupert demanded – and oh. No. He was Sir Leon.
The one who looked exactly like Santiago, he was Lancelot. He turned and headed further into the trees while the other two – Gwaine and Elyan – fussed over Colin. Lancelot reappeared with a wineskin and bandages and proceeded to dress the wound on Colin's hand.
"It's shallow, and it should heal soon," Lancelot said, and he cast Bradley a dark look, as if all this were Bradley's fault, as if Bradley had goaded Colin to hurting himself –
As if Arthur had goaded Merlin into hurting himself.
Bradley pushed past the other knights – they were actual knights with sharp swords and they killed people – and pulled Colin around to face him.
"I believe you," he said, very quietly. He elbowed Lancelot aside and finished bandaging Colin's hand himself.
"I'm fine," Colin said to the others, and they took a step back. Bradley knew he'd been rude, but he didn't care, because the odd tingle down his spine was suddenly making much, much more sense – scary sense – and they had to figure out what the hell happened.
"What do we do now?" Bradley asked softly.
"Play along," Colin said. "Until we can figure out how to get home."
"Gaius or the Dragon could help us, right?" Bradley could feel the others watching him, could feel panic prowling the edges of his consciousness, waiting for him to give him.
"Maybe," Colin said, "but I don't have a Dragonlord's powers, and how will we get Gaius to believe us?"
Bradley took a deep breath, tried to settle his nerves, but he could feel his pulse picking up speed. "I don't know. Colin – how am I supposed to lead them? I can't really fight with a sword and if you don't have magic....how are we going to stay alive? Everyone knows Arthur is alive because of Merlin."
Colin's face was pale, his eyes wide and solemn. "I don't know what we're going to do."
Bradley finished bandaging Colin's hand. "I'll think of something." He was the one with magic, after all. "Until then, just...play along. You're Merlin, and I'm Arthur."
"All right," Colin said.
Bradley wished he didn't look so trusting.
Merlin had been resolved to do this for hours. Half a day, even. To tell Arthur about his magic. His resolve might have had something to do with Gaius pushing him firmly out the infirmary door and telling Merlin he couldn't come back in until he had confessed. Arthur had been the acting regent for months now, knighting worthy peasants and kissing Gwen out in the open and everything; it was high time Merlin start making advancements for sorcerers. As the legendary Emrys he really needed to get a move-on with it all. And Merlin had been going to confess, he'd just been about to, as soon as he was done mucking out the stables and doing Arthur's laundry, but then Gwaine came by and distracted him, and then Lancelot joined them and distracted them both by moping about Gwen, and then Leon arrived and informed them that Arthur needed them immediately, and, well, Merlin couldn't very well tell Arthur in front of all the others.
So he resolved to tell Arthur as soon as they were alone. He'd been suspecting that it wouldn't be until the middle of the night, and then he'd have to wake Arthur up and face him while he was sleepy and grumpy. Finding time alone on a quest was a complicated task, and anything to do with Morgana made Arthur grumpy, so when Arthur informed Merlin that they were supposed to capture a shield to lure Morgana and Morgause to Camelot, Merlin knew it was going to be a long, grumpy quest. Then they ran into Grettir, who informed them that the shield they were seeking was deep in a vessel of the earth, so they'd headed for a grotty cave, and of course Merlin was the one to follow Arthur down into the darkness instead of one of the fully-armored, armed, trained knights.
As they wended their way through the dark and damp, Gaius's voice – complete with an image of his arched eyebrow – came back to haunt Merlin, and he knew that this was possibly his only chance to confess.
And so he tried.
"Listen, Arthur –"
"Did you hear something?" Arthur swung around, torch held high. His face was still, solemn, the line of his shoulders tense. He drew his sword.
Merlin listened obediently, but all he heard was the distant drip of water, which wasn't uncommon in a cave, and Arthur's breathing. "No, I don't hear anything."
"Sh!" Arthur said. He gestured sharply, and even though Merlin wasn't much with knightly sign language, he knew get behind me well enough, so he scrambled to obey. He curled one hand in front of him, ready to cast a spell at whatever ugly thing was about to lunge out of the darkness, but nothing came.
After a few moments, Arthur relaxed, if fractionally, and proceeded deeper into the cave.
I have to tell him, Merlin thought. He doubted the shield would be at all well-guarded since non-magic users had no purpose in obtaining it. If they kidnapped it before Morgana and Morgause could get it, they could lure the sisters out into the open, but it wasn't as if the shield was anything like the Cup. Getting the shield would be an easy matter, so it wasn't as if Merlin would be putting their lives in danger by striking up some easy conversation. So how, precisely, did a man tell his best friend he'd been lying for the entirety of their friendship?
If only I could be sure we were somewhere safe, where he couldn't turn me over to the king, couldn't kill me. Where it was us and nobody but us, Merlin thought. I wish –
And then light exploded overhead.
"Merlin!" Arthur dove, tackled Merlin to the ground, shielded Merlin's body with his. Merlin's pitiful candle went flying. Somewhere behind him, Arthur's dropped torch sputtered out, and they were trapped in total darkness.
Merlin lay trapped beneath Arthur, his heart hammering against his ribs; he could feel Arthur breathing heavily above him, knew the sound of Arthur's panic.
And then a woman said, "Flippin' 'eck, the wiring's just gone and shorted itself out. Nobody move – radio aboveground and have someone bring in some torches, will you?"
Panic sent Merlin's heart leaping up into his throat.
Arthur said, "Who goes there?" He sounded brave and authoritative, but Merlin knew he was afraid, because they'd been alone in the cave, he was sure of it, and that woman must have appeared by magic.
"Don't worry, duck," the woman said. "If we all keep our positions we won't bump into anyone or anything, and someone will be along with lights soon enough."
Several other men – other men? Where had they come from? Were they sorcerers too? – began cursing the air blue, complaining about delays and money and possible injuries and almost getting burnt to death or cut to ribbons by falling glass.
Arthur levered himself off of Merlin carefully, then tugged Merlin up onto his knees and shifted in front of him.
Arthur said, "Should you really be speaking like that in the presence of a lady?"
"Oh, come off it," one of the men said, and the woman said, somewhere off to Merlin's left,
"That's really sweet of you to care, duck, but I've been around these foul-mouthed louts for years, and nothing will make them behave."
"Arthur," Merlin whispered in the general direction of Arthur's ear, "where did these people come from?"
"I don't know," Arthur whispered back, and he sounded angry, tense and afraid. "That flash of light must have been magic – that's how they got here. I can hear lots of people, more than we've heard talking. We're surrounded."
"Maybe they're Druids guarding the shield, like they guarded the Cup?" Merlin suggested. If so, maybe he could use his influence as Emrys to secure his and Arthur's safe escape.
"I don't know," Arthur said. "They seem friendly enough, for now, since they don't know who we are, so we should play along until we can make a run for it. Then – then we can rally the others and make an attempt to get the shield." Merlin could hear him shifting his grip on his sword.
Both of them jumped when they heard a strange crackling noise, almost like sheets of crumpled parchment whispering against each other in a breeze, and amidst the crackling there were voices. It had to have been some sort of communication spell, because the woman who'd addressed them began speaking in some strange, abbreviated fashion that involved a lot of "Roger" and "over".
"Is Colin all right?" one man called out.
"Yeah, he's a delicate little lamb," another man said, and laughter rang through the darkness.
Merlin's heart climbed into his throat. Were there druid children present? He remembered how Arthur had been threatened to kill a druid child the last time they'd encountered one. Even though Arthur had saved Mordred – who really, really shouldn't have been saved, Merlin would admit it now – he had been fully prepared to end a druid child's life to obtain the Cup. Granted, the shield wasn't nearly as important or as powerful as the Cup, it was just a ploy for a plan to capture the sisters, but Arthur could be reckless when it came to earning his father's approval.
"You didn't squash him did you, Bradley?" another man asked.
Neither Colin nor Bradley answered.
The second man snickered and said, "His highness isn't answering us because he's all offended we swore in front of Charlotte."
Merlin frowned, confused. Only Arthur had spoken up in defense of the woman's honor. Did they think he was someone named Bradley? Perhaps he sounded like a friend of theirs, one named Bradley. In the dark, they didn't know who was who, after all, and none of them had been surprised at hearing Arthur's voice.
"Bradley, really," the woman said, "don't be offended on my account. It's fine. All riggers talk like sailors."
Perhaps Arthur had come to the same conclusion, because he said, "I didn't squash Colin."
"I think I saw you tackle him when that light blew," another man said, and how many of them were there? "Got Prince Arthur's protective streak going, have you?"
Beside Merlin, Arthur tensed. How did they know who he was?
"Prince Arthur always protects his subjects," he said cautiously, and the man laughed.
"This is quite true, but technically Merlin isn't Arthur's subject, is he? After all, he comes from Cenred's kingdom," the man said.
Merlin curled his hand into a fist again, ready to cast a fireball, because these people knew he and Arthur were there, knew who they were. They must have been magic users, or maybe spies, and that meant Arthur was in danger.
Arthur said, "Why are you talking about someone named Merlin? You asked if I'd squashed Colin, and I said I hadn't."
There was more rumbling laughter around them, and Merlin really, really wanted to use his magic, because they were surrounded and had no other choice. Maybe this was how his confession would come about, he'd use brilliant magic to rescue them and maybe Arthur wouldn't be so angry about him having it.
Then the woman said, "Yes, well, Colin plays Merlin, doesn't he?"
A random man said, "Oh dear. Bradley might have hit his head when he went down. Johnny's going to have a fit if he's injured. Does your head hurt, Bradley?"
Merlin was confused now. They thought someone named Colin was pretending to be him? How did that work? He leaned closer to Arthur and whispered as softly as he could,
"What's going on?"
"I don't know," Arthur said, just as softly.
Light cut through the darkness in front of them. It was clear and bluish-pale, not like any light Merlin had never seen before, a swathe of light that was straight and radiated from a perfectly circular slice of glass. Several more lights bobbed behind it, and Merlin realized they were carried by people. Once his eyes adjusted to the illumination, he saw that there were people everywhere, people and massive metal contraptions whose functions he could only imagine, all of which were connected by slick black cords made of some foreign substance. All of the people were wearing trousers and thick coats, including one woman hovering near a couple of chairs.
"We've brought light," a man said. "We'll move in groups of five, go topside and get warm, make sure everyone's accounted for. I think Johnny called for craft services so we can have an early supper while the electricians sort things out. I think also Jeremy might want Colin and Bradley to go over some scenes while they're waiting."
Merlin had no clue what electricians were, or craft services, but he was quite sure that whatever was going on, magic was involved.
It seemed Arthur had come to the same conclusion, because he rose up slowly, sword gripped tightly, and tugged Merlin up and behind him.
"Get ready to run," he said, and then one of the magical lights swung toward them.
"Colin, Bradley, you're in one piece," a woman said, and she sounded relieved.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," a man said from somewhere in the shadows. "Bradley might have taken a knock to the head – he tackled Colin down when the bulbs blew, and he sounded a bit confused there in the dark."
Arthur and Merlin exchanged looks. They were surrounded by magic users who thought they were people other than who they were. Apparently they thought Merlin was someone named Colin and Arthur was someone named Bradley, and while they knew who Merlin was and who Arthur was, they didn't think that the two people with them were Merlin and Arthur; they were Colin and Bradley.
Merlin closed his eyes and sighed. This business was giving him a headache. Then he remembered that whoever this Colin was, they thought he was pretending to be Merlin, so perhaps it stood to reason that they thought this Bradley character was pretending to be Arthur. Maybe if Arthur and Merlin pretended to be Bradley and Colin, no one would be suspicious, and when they got the chance they could run. Hopefully Gwaine, Percival, and the others had managed to make themselves scarce before these people showed up.
A woman with a magical light came closer, and she peered at Arthur.
"Did you hit your head, luv? Come along into the daylight and we'll have a medic check you over."
Arthur straightened up and said with all the princely hauteur he possessed, "I am completely sound of mind and body, my lady. If you would be so kind as to direct us away from this...confusion, my servant and I can fend for ourselves."
The woman laughed. "In good humor, I see. I suppose you might as well stay in character so Jeremy can have a word with you about your big scene coming up." The woman herded them toward three other people, one of whom was Charlotte, the woman whose honor Arthur had defended, and together the five of them followed the woman with the magic light to the mouth of the cave.
It was the same cave they'd gone into looking for the shield, only outside the cave the clearing was just as cluttered with people in that same strange clothing and with those shiny metallic contraptions. Merlin stayed close to Arthur, ready with a subtle spell – he could use the cords everywhere to make someone stumble and fall, give them time to escape – but then one of the men in the strange clothing came toward them. He wore spectacles and was carrying a sheaf of parchment that was bleached bone-white.
"Bradley, Colin," he said, "I'm so sorry about this delay. The electricians think tapping into the overhead lighting grid blew a fuse, and it's going to take hours to get everything back online. In the meantime, I thought we could run lines for some of tomorrow's scenes."
Merlin glanced up at Arthur, who nodded stiffly at him.
"All right," Arthur said. "We can run some lines. From where to where?" He scanned the clearing around them, his soldier's mind likely calculating distance and terrain. Merlin sighed and told himself to buck up. He hated running drills like the knights did, but if a bit of discomfort meant they could escape and continue with their quest, he would do it.
The man flipped through the sheaf of bleached parchment. "I was thinking of starting right after you find the shield and working through the conversation with the knights, and then going on to the confession scene."
Arthur blinked slowly, processing, and Merlin realized that this man didn't mean physically running a given distance, he meant reviewing a certain timeline. Then Merlin realized that the man had also referenced the shield they were looking for.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "Where is the shield?" he asked, tone carefully casual.
"Down there in the dark. We won't be able to film with it today, not until everything is repaired. We have to get all the crew and equipment out and then the electricians have to get their equipment in, and..." The man sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's going to be a long day. You might as well change out of your costumes for now."
Merlin looked down at his clothes. They thought he was wearing some sort of costume? He wanted to ask the man a question, something that wouldn't give the game away, but then a woman shouted, "Jeremy!" and the man excused himself and turned away.
"What do we do now?" Merlin asked.
"Play along," Arthur said. "He wants us to change out of our clothes. I assume we're to wear something like what they're wearing. Do you recognize any of these contraptions or these clothes? Have you seen anything like it in Gaius's books?"
Merlin shook his head. "It must be some kind of magic, but...what if it's not? No one seems afraid of it, and I've not heard anyone incant any spells." He didn't always have to incant to cast spells, but he knew that was an unusual feat. "Maybe it's a type of science? Just different from what we have?"
"How can it be different from what we have when we're just over the border in Odin's territory? Father would know if Odin had such new science," Arthur said. He stepped closer to Merlin and lowered his voice. "Find us some of their clothes to change into and then help me off with my armor."
Merlin cast a glance around, searching for signs of a camp or tents he could raid for spare clothing, but then the woman Charlotte appeared, and she was carrying two bags of sleek black material.
"Here, lads, go off into the trees for some privacy if you need it. Just leave the armor here first, all right?"
"Thank you, my lady," Arthur said.
Charlotte laughed. "So formal today, Your Highness. Go on, take a load off – no need to wear uncomfortable clothing all day." Then someone called her name, and she turned away as well.
Merlin wondered how anyone here got anything useful done with the way they were constantly running around shouting each other's names. He reached up and began unbuckling Arthur's armor. Ordinarily the chore would have annoyed him, but the familiarity was comforting this time. Merlin put the maille, pauldron, and gorget in a neat pile with the two black bags and followed Arthur toward the trees.
Inside the bags, Merlin found trousers made of the thick, sturdy blue material that so many of the others were wearing, as well as tunics made of a soft, cottony material, only they had no laces. One tunic was black and emblazoned with the phrase 'Death Cab For Cutie'; the other was green and marked 'Abercrombie & Fitch'. The bags also contained socks and the strangest shoes Merlin had ever seen.
"Do you think it matters who wears what?" Arthur asked.
"I'm guessing one bag is Colin's and the other is Bradley's," Merlin said. He held up one of the tunics, eyed it, then eyed Arthur. He handed the green tunic to Arthur. "I think this one is yours."
Arthur nodded and shucked his tunic himself, squirmed into the new one. It was much more fitted than the ones he usually wore, but it fit him across the shoulders properly. While Arthur was used to strutting around half-dressed, Merlin had always dressed in private, so he turned away and told himself Arthur wasn't looking while he squirmed into the new tunic and trousers.
"Hurry it up, Merlin. I need help off with these boots," Arthur said.
Merlin knelt at Arthur's feet and began tugging obediently on one of the boots. "Sire, what are we going to do? Do we even know where we are?"
"These are the woods we came through earlier today," Arthur said. "I know them. I can only assume Leon led the others into hiding as soon as these sorcerers appeared."
Merlin paused in divesting Arthur of his boots. "We're alone. In the forest. Why don't we just run?"
Arthur arched an eyebrow. "Are you deaf, Merlin? Can't you hear the people all around us? We'd never get far. And it sounds as if they want to keep these Bradley and Colin characters around. We'll have to wait until Bradley and Colin's duties are done or until everyone else is sleeping, and then we can get the shield. That Jeremy fellow said it's still back in the cave, so we can get it and then run."
"Will we even be able to run from these people?" Merlin asked. "We were alone in that cave. I know we were. That they appeared so suddenly means they must have powerful magic."
"That's why we're going to play along," Arthur said in that tone he used when he thought Merlin was being particularly dense, "and wait till we have a chance to escape. Now come on – we have to get changed and get out there. Let me do the talking. I can get the information we need from Jeremy."
Merlin nodded. "All right. We'll do it your way. But something isn't right. Something about this place is...off." He could feel it in his magic; these woods weren't the woods they'd roamed before.
Arthur arched an eyebrow at him. "Of course we're doing it my way. Have you forgotten who gives the orders around here?"
"Have you forgotten your round table and its equality?"
"No," Arthur said with that exaggerated patience again, "but you seem to have forgotten who has years of military strategy training."
And you don't know who has a lifetime of magic, Merlin thought, but he resumed tugging on Arthur's boots anyway.