“My Lord,” Grant clears his throat, “my Lord, there is something I believe you should see.”
Wellington looks up from his report. He does not look amused. “Major Grant, I believe I told you to find me my magician.”
“Yes, my Lord. I’m afraid I… ouch!”
“Major Grant, what is the matter? Where is Merlin?”
Grant makes no reply, only unfolds his arms from behind his back and deposits something on the Duke’s desk. It is a small, furry something.
“Major Grant. What is this?” Wellington gestures at the creature with his pen.
“We believe it to be a stoat, my Lord.”
“Yes, I can see that. I asked you find me a magician and you have brought me a stoat. I am hoping for an explanation, any explanation, that does not make that my magician.” The stoat, taking exception to being poked at by a feather, pounces on the pen and bites it. Wellington eyes Grant over the remains. “I am waiting.”
“I’m afraid to say, that we believe that is indeed Merlin. He said he was working on further refinements to the magic. When I went to fetch him I found this… creature, sitting in Merlin’s bed.”
“Merlin? If that is you, sir, I suggest you find a way to turn yourself into a human again as soon as possible.”
The stoat tries to burrow under the paper on the Duke’s desk. Wellington reaches for him but Grant calls out a warning, “Careful, my Lord! He bites!”
Grant holds out his bleeding hand for inspection. The tooth marks are clearly visible. “I’m afraid he bit De Lancey first. He’s gone to find a bandage.”
“Merlin,” The Duke tells the stoat (or as much of the stoat that is visible), “I will not have you biting my officers.”
There’s a squeaking noise from under the paper.
“He appears to be a very young stoat,” Grant observes, “and not altogether aware of what is happening. I will admit the change can be rather… startling, but one usually regains ones sense of who one is rather more quickly. I’m afraid Merlin might have done something to the spell. Perhaps it is a younger Merlin, or perhaps he has been overwhelmed by his instincts.”
“Well then Major, I suggest you take this creature somewhere it will not be observed and we shall both hope that the enchantment will end before anyone enquires after our missing magician. You may tell them that he is busy with magic elsewhere. Do not let anyone hear the truth of the matter: this is something I would not care to share with the French army.”
“Quite so, my Lord. I shall inform you the moment that there is any change.”
“Thank you, Major Grant. Now, if you can remove Merlin from my papers without destroying anything else, I would be obliged to you. That quill was a particularly good one. Oh, and Grant? See that you have that bite cleaned. I’ll not have you succumb to infection because our magician has forgotten his manners.”
Some hours later, Grant and De Lancey are sitting side by side in Grant’s tent, observing the contents of a wooden box.
“Are you sure it is Merlin?” De Lancey asks, dropping a little ham into the box.
“Well if it isn’t Merlin, where the devil is he?”
“Do you think he’s frightened?” De Lancey peers in. They dropped some things into the box for Merlin to hide under: the only sign of him is the red uniform sash twitching and a small furry nose whisking the ham out of sight.
“Well he is very small. How long do you think it will take for him to change back? This is not at all how I planned to spend my evening: acting as nursemaid to a magician in stoat form.”
“Perhaps I should change too?”
“De Lancey, Merlin is currently both tiny and a predator with no recollection of who he is. If you turn into a squirrel he’s going to die of fright or try to eat you for his supper. Probably the latter. He’s already bitten you in human form!”
“I don’t suppose he meant it.”
Grant glares at him so he doesn’t suggest the idea again.
“Do you suppose this spell will be useful, if he finds a way to remember who he is?” De Lancey is peering in the box again. There’s a snap of teeth and a tearing of cloth. De Lancey hastily removes his hand.
“I don’t know.” Grant sounds irritated. “He’s rather small for espionage but he has sharp enough teeth. Did you have to give him my uniform to hide under?”
“Well we are in your tent. My spare uniform isn’t here. Maybe we could use him for sabotage? We could get him to bite the French.”
“I rather doubt that Wellington would risk Merlin trying to give the French a few nips.”
“That depends how annoyed he is when Merlin eventually changes back.”
Conversation lags after a while, Grant not being in the mood for idle talk. De Lancey grows bored of feeding Merlin pieces of ham and stretches out on Grant’s bed for a doze. Grant fully intends to keep watch all night but eventually he too drifts gently into sleep.
“Grant! Wake up!”
Grant wakes up at De Lancey’s insistent shaking and rubs his eyes. “What’s going on? Is it the French?”
“No! Merlin has escaped!”
The two of them go through the box. It is unquestionably empty. This is a far greater sin than losing the Duke’s pretty new artillery. They have lost the magician.
“What if something ate him?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, De Lancey. He’s a natural predator. I’m sure he can’t have gone far.”
They tear the tent apart looking but there is no sign of a be-whiskered face anywhere. De Lancey energetically dismantles the bed down to its component parts and looks in even the most improbable of possible hiding places. Grant is no luckier with his attempt at a systematic search.
“We will have to tell Wellington.” Grant is the first of them to face up to the inevitable, surveying the wreck of his sleeping quarters.
“Perhaps we could look outside the tent again?”
“If Merlin is outside the tent he is long gone. His legs may be rather smaller than usual but he’s still fast. No, I’m afraid we will have to tell my Lord.”
They walk to breakfast slowly, neither of them in a hurry to confess. They have debated who is to make the confession, unable to decide whether De Lancey, with his superior rank, has the right to delegate the task or has the responsibility to do the telling. They flip a coin for it and Grant loses, but he does extract a promise that next time someone needs telling something unpleasant it will be De Lancey’s turn.
“My Lord,” he begins, “I regret…”
“Ah, good morning Major, Colonel. Thank you for looking after me so well yesterday.”
In their rush to tell the Duke, neither of them noticed Strange sitting at the breakfast table. He looks much like his normal self, if a little tired and prone to twitching slightly at any sudden noise.
“You regret, Major?” Wellington, unfortunately, has noticed the beginning of Grant’s speech and is eyeing his two officers in a way that suggests he knows rather more than either of them are comfortable with.
“Nothing, my Lord, I, ah, regret nothing. Glad to see you looking so well Merlin.”
“Indeed.” The Duke adds a wealth of meaning to the single word. “Well gentlemen, I shall leave you to your breakfast. Merlin, I trust you will remain free of fur until after you have moved that river for me.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
Grant and De Lancey watch Wellington’s retreating back in silence. When he is safely out of earshot, they both turn to Merlin, who is calmly helping himself to another slice of toast.
“Merlin! Dear God man, where did you go?” De Lancey is the first to speak. Grant can only take his seat in shocked silence. This he blames on De Lancey making him speak to the Duke first.
“I haven’t the faintest idea. I woke up somewhere by the river, aching all over and with the most abominable taste in my mouth. When I arrived here, I found Wellington under the distinct impression that you had been set to keep a watch on me.”
“I’m sorry Merlin, we did try. What did you think you were doing, playing around with magic like that without telling anyone?” Grant frowns at him very sternly.
“And you bit us. Both of us.” De Lancey holds up his bandaged hand. Merlin has the grace to look slightly ashamed.
“Well then, I shall say that we have all suffered for this experiment. I humbly apologise for the injuries you sustained. I was not aware of what I was doing at the time. Nor did I intend to become what his Lordship assures me was a stoat. I thought to be something more useful.”
“Apology accepted Merlin. We apologise for allowing you to escape.”
Well, then we shall say no more about it. Would you care for some breakfast?”
Grant looks as though he would like to say more about it, possibly on the topic of unnecessary magical risks or the holes in his red uniform sash. De Lancey kicks him under the table.
“If you will pass me the coffee,” says Merlin, “I shall give you this ham. I cannot bear the smell of it this morning and I need something to take the taste out of my mouth. I cannot think of anything to account for it except that I must have gone hunting.” He shudders.
De Lancey opens his mouth to comment on the predatory nature and feeding habits of stoats. Recognising trouble, Grant takes the opportunity to return the favour and kick his ankle in turn.
“I think, gentlemen,” he says, “that as Merlin suggested, it would be wisest to say nothing at all!”
Merlin lifts his cup of coffee in a silent toast.