Disclaimer: The Beeb owns all.
It was raining again, and the Doctor was tempted to stay in the old house and forget the mundane routine chores of the day. He was close to a breakthrough, he was sure of it, and a few more hours in his lab could mean the end of all this. But he knew that these were dangerous thoughts: he had to keep the routine, had to maintain at least the illusion of a life. He had to stay alive so that he could escape.
He remembered a time when he would have enjoyed the rain, making a game of avoiding the puddles, or childishly splashing in them. These days, he simple didn’t have the energy — he had been shocked at his last regeneration, never considering after hundreds of years that a death would result in an old body. Perhaps it was the trauma. Now every time he looked in the mirror he saw short, silver hair, and a heavily lined face staring back at him. But, as he had commented long ago, that was always the trouble with regeneration; you never knew quite what you were going to get.
He paused in the doorway of the old house, watching the raindrops fall.
Another time, he had carried an umbrella, even in good weather. It had been a vanity much of the time, but how he wished for such a simple, practical object now, on this world where plastics were as unknown as elementary chemistry.
“If wishes were fishes,” the Doctor muttered, though he could have shouted and it would have made no difference: nobody would have heard him. The closest settlement was a good two miles away, tucked into the mountains. He preferred the open air, and the fact that he was surrounded by nothing more than green grass. Sometimes it made him feel as though he were still free.
The rain was showing no signs of stopping, and a moment later a thunderclap echoed through the mountains. The Doctor sighed as he trudged through the mud towards the henhouse. If this weather kept up the roof was going to start leaking again, and that would be more time wasted on repairs.
He pulled open the door to the henhouse and ducked inside.
Of course, there weren’t really hens in the henhouse, but they were close enough for the Doctor. Short, plump creatures, but their feathers were too short and coarse for the Earth creature that they reminded him of. He found only two eggs, and shook his head. If he wanted to keep eating eggs he was going to find out why they weren’t laying. Another distraction, another delay.
He fed them quickly, and trudged back to the house. He was favouring his right leg again, he noticed. He was beginning to think that it had something to do with the weather.
The first thing he noticed when he stepped back inside the old house was the painting. It hung opposite the door at the insistence of its young painter, Ansil. When the boy had presented it to him, the Doctor had smiled and for a moment, he had felt genuinely happy. At the time he had thought it was a gift, but had found out that it was also a goodbye.
The painting hadn’t been the only improvement that Ansil had made to the old house. He was the one who had built the henhouse, he had restored the stairway, opening up the top floor of the house and he had repaired the worst of the leaks in the roof.
He had turned up at the Doctor’s doorstep years ago. He couldn’t remember how many exactly. The Doctor had been startled to hear a knock at the door. In his surprise he had dropped his eyeglass, shattering it. He had been angry, any replacement that he could make would be inferior, and he had not wanted to answer the door.
But in the end, his curiosity had gotten the better of him: he hadn’t had any visitors for decades.
He opened the door to see a boy staring up at him: Black hair, round face, and clear blue eyes.
“What do you want?” asked the Doctor. His voice was not unkind, but it was stern, almost gruff. The boy didn’t blink.
“I want to learn,” he said. The Doctor frowned at the ridiculous request. He knew that the nearby village regarded him as a particularly eccentric hermit, but a harmless one.
“Go away,” replied the Doctor, wanting to get back to work. He tried to close the door, but the boy’s foot was in the way.
“Please,” said the boy. He paused a beat before he said, “I know who you are, who you really are.” The Doctor froze, and took a moment to recover. He opened the door again and waited.
“Well, boy,” he asked. “Who am I?” He almost grinned as he asked, thinking of all the times he had been asked that question, all the cryptic half-answers he had given.
“You’re the wizard,” said the boy. The Doctor cocked an eyebrow: not exactly what he was expecting, but hardly a revelation either. But the boy wasn’t finished: “The real wizard. My mother tells stories about you. Not the ones we hear in the schoolhouse. I mean they’re the same story, but she says the wizard is real. . .that it not just a fairy story, that there really was one. That he saved us. She says you didn’t go away either, that you were trapped here, and that it’s you . . . you look pretty old, but I didn’t think anyone lived that long. And she said you used a kind of magic called Skeens, and I wanted to learn it.”
The Doctor blinked. Just once, and slammed the door shut.
On the other side the Doctor sank to the floor, his eyes wide. He stayed motionless for as long as he could, desperately hoping that the boy had gone. There was no further sound from outside the door, and the Doctor stopped fighting and let the memories roll over him, crushing and trapping him into the inescapable truth: he was alone and he was trapped.
At first he had believed it would be merely temporary: his genius provide a solution for his escape, it always did.
As the hope of creating some form of escape had faded, the Doctor turned his thoughts to his previous exile imposed by the Time Lords. He remembered his annoyance at their frequent visits to him both then and later in his life demanding that he complete some task for them. And he had begun to think that they might come when he needed them. His people wouldn’t abandon him, would they? But it had been decades and hope had passed into despair, as he realised that no one in the universe was able or willing to help him now.
His head hit the wooden floorboards as sobs wracked his body.
That night, he didn’t sleep.
But the despair the Doctor felt had quickly turned to excitement as he had made a breakthrough with the TARDIS components he had managed to save. So when the boy appeared again and repeated his request, the Doctor had agreed to teach him.
“There is a single condition attached, young Ansil: there must be no more talk of wizards.”
So across the months the Doctor found himself taking an hour of each day to teach his new friend elementary science. He described the elementary particles of the universe, taught Ansil how to measure the distances between celestial bodies and ran experiments to illustrate the chemical properties of different substances.
And despite his despair at being trapped, he had found moments of enjoyment in teaching the boy. For many years he had found his memories to be unpleasant companions, constant reminders of better times and happier days, but now he found pleasure in Ansil’s wide-eyed wonder at the simplest of scientific mysteries.
Then when the lessons were done, the Doctor would return to the room at the back of the house that he used as his laboratory, and Ansil would make repairs on the house. It had been a surprise to the Doctor when he emerged form his laboratory just after sundown to hear noises coming form the kitchen. He had been indignant at the liberty taken by Ansil, until he had discovered that the boy really was a superb cook.
But that was past: Ansil had grown up, and they had grown apart. The Doctor wasn’t surprised when Ansil told him that he wasn’t coming back. He knew that he had been increasingly withdrawn and short-tempered; his moods increasingly dark, hopelessness engulfing him as he proceeded with his almost impossible task of forging a means to escape.
The Doctor pulled his eyes away from the painting. He was so close now, so close to his freedom, he couldn’t allow himself any distractions.
And then the ground shook. It wasn’t much, just enough to cause the painting to jump, but he ran to the laboratory. Checking the equipment with a compulsive meticulousness. Nothing was broken, he realised, with a sigh of relief.
There were often minor quakes in this area. The Doctor hadn’t had the time or inclination to work out precisely where the fault line was, but the frequent quakes spoke for themselves. Still, he could not remember there ever being a truly devastating one. Ansil had made sure that the house was sturdy enough to withstand the small tremors.
The Doctor worked feverishly through the night, knowing that freedom with near. The excitement sharpened his concentration, he made the adjustments with a sureness that he had thought he had lost. All he needed know was a proper stabiliser, and he was sure that he could cannibalise what was left of the TARDIS components.
He felt a tinge of sadness as he took them apart, the final pieces of his precious ship. But his beloved TARDIS would give him the ability to escape to a more advanced time, to reach a point where he could create a more complex time machine, where he would be free of a single world; where it would take him mere years instead of decades to construct what he needed.
Morning dawned, and he barely noticed, struggling to finish his work.
All he needed to do was slot the crystals in place, and then he could activate his Time Ring.
He could escape.
Someone knocked on the door.
The Doctor pretended not to hear, savouring his moment of triumph. The noise didn’t stop.
He ignored it, suppressing his curiosity. He checked the circuits one final time, and found everything in place. It wasn’t much; it had sufficient power for perhaps two dematerialisations, but that was enough. In the future he could find a better power source; the co-ordinates of the worlds he needed he knew of by heart.
He didn’t notice the creak of the front door opening, or the soft footsteps that approached the lab. He only looked up when the lab door opened. Anger rose in him as he glared at the intruder. He stood, his features contorted with fury, and prepared a suitably poisonous barb to aim at the unwelcome visitor.
“Hello, Doctor,” said the intruder, and it took a moment for the Doctor to recognise the voice.
“Ansil?” he asked weakly. “How. . .?” He blinked, unbelieving. Had it really been that long since he had last seen the boy? But he was no longer a boy: tall and board-shouldered, the streaks of grey in his hair suggested that Ansil was approaching middle-age. Wide, blue eyes watched him. “Ansil, what do you want?” asked the Doctor, recovering himself.
He didn’t appear taken aback by the Doctor’s brusque manner, in fact, it seemed as though he were expecting it, but that didn’t prevent him from approaching the workbench.
“Doctor, I need you help,” he said. It took a moment for the Doctor to reply, he was moments from freedom, and now he was being bothered by the simple concerns of a primitive. He caught his thought, shocked. Ansil is your friend, he reminded himself. Slowly, he nodded. Freedom had waited so long, what would a few minutes more matter?
“Go on,” instructed the Doctor.
“The quake yesterday caused a rock slide,” began Ansil. “It’s blocked the entrance to the caverns.”
“So there are people trapped in there, Doctor!” Ansil took a deep breath, trying to keep his voice calm. “Children too, including my daughter.”
“And what were they doing inside a mountain, exactly?”
“Excuse me?” said the Doctor, confused. “What happened to the Four Elementals?”
“I taught when I went back, Doctor,” said Ansil with a small smile.
“And you were accepted?” asked the Doctor. Ansil nodded, and the Doctor raised an eyebrow. “Rational scientific thought calmly accepted by a primitive culture. Interesting. Well, Ansil, I’m impressed. Well done. Now what do you want me to do about this rock fall?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know what else to do, Doctor. We’ve tried to free them, but simply haven’t any way of moving that volume of rock.”
“But surely there are other ways into the caverns?”
“Perhaps, Doctor. But we have found none. Can you help? Will you?”
The Doctor closed his eyes for a long moment, before saying, “I will, of course, try, Ansil.” He smiled, and nodded towards the door. “After you.”
Before leaving his house, the Doctor had quickly collected together his most important components and his almost complete Time Ring, and placed them carefully in a bag. He smiled to himself as he closed the door and followed Ansil down the valley - he knew he wasn’t coming back.
When they arrived at the village, it was quiet, and the Doctor took a few minutes to look around, staring curiously at the low thatched cottages all squashed together in the valley. Nearby, he heard the sound of running water from the river that passed by the village. It struck the Doctor as an incredibly stupid place to build a settlement. The valley was flat, but narrow and surrounded by viciously high mountains. Not only did it appear likely that there would be frequent floods, but it seemed that getting out of the valley to go inland would entail a very long, circuitous route. But the Doctor said nothing; merely shrugging to himself and following Ansil past the houses, and then larger buildings: a town hall, a schoolhouse. The few people that they did meet greeted Ansil politely, but quickly moved on, staring at the Doctor, but looking away when he met their gaze. It seemed as though they were afraid of him.
Now they were following a narrow winding path near the foot of one of the mountains. Great chunks of recently fallen rock littered their way, freshly crushed plants trapped beneath them. The ground was dusted with crumbly pebbles. The path stopped suddenly at a massive pile-up of rock that had settled below a sheer cliff wall. Several people were here, talking quietly, they stopped as Ansil and the Doctor approached.
“I take it this is it,” asked the Doctor, and Ansil nodded. “Well, let me see . . .”
Nothing he could think of would work, and if only he had more time perhaps a way could be found, but there were a dozen people who had already been trapped inside the mountain for two days. Without food or water, they wouldn’t be able to survive, and there was no way to tell if anyone had been injured, or indeed, if anyone were still alive.
It was getting dark, and Ansil was becoming decidedly more anxious. That certainly wasn’t helping the Doctor’s concentration.
“Do calm down!” he snapped, and instantly regretted it. Of course, Ansil was anxious: his daughter was in there.
“Couldn’t you . . .” Ansil broke off, his voice withering away.
“Well?” asked the Doctor, his eyes sharp. “If you want to make a suggestion, do feel free.”
“Couldn’t you use . . . magic?”
There was silence for a moment, and then the Doctor burst out laughing: a deep throaty chuckle that went on so long Ansil began to feel annoyed.
“It was just a suggestion,” he muttered.
“Dear boy,” said the Doctor, a smile still playing on his lips. “Don’t you remember anything I taught you?”
“I know. But you know so much more than us. Some of the things you showed me, I know that I could never understand. To me they *are* magic.”
“Arthur C. Clarke,” murmured the Doctor.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said the Doctor, smiling. “You are quite correct, Ansil.” The Doctor frowned, considering, and as he thought of it, he realised that it was the only way.
“New idea?” asked Ansil.
“I do believe I have,” said the Doctor. “Listen carefully: I want this entire area outside the caves kept clear, don’t let anyone come within five metres of those rocks. Understand?”
“Yes. But what are you going to do?”
“Magic, Ansil,” said the Doctor. He moved his hand into the bag and pulled out the Time Ring. He paused just before setting the co-ordinates, giving himself one last chance to reconsider, he knew what he was doing; he knew that he had to save them. But someone, one of his other selves perhaps, was still arguing fiercely inside his head, he wanted freedom. The Doctor pushed him aside, but the insistent voice would not stop; it reminded him of the work he had done, the years he had been trapped here, the life that he was condemning himself to if he did this.
*The universe owes us! How many times have we saved it! How many lives are we owed! *
The Doctor slotted the crystals into the Time Ring, and it hummed with power. His hand hovered over it, hesitating.
*We can escape now. Reset the co-ordinates; there’s no w ay for him to know. He’ll be satisfied and you’ll be free.*
The Doctor sighed, the long weary sigh of a being millennia old, and cast his eyes over the stars.
“No,” murmured the Doctor. “That’s not who I am.”
He caught Ansil’s eyes — wide and blue. “Good luck, Doctor,” he said, and as he watched he saw the Doctor smile and close his eyes. He felt a deep calm settle over him, the calm of certainty.
He shimmered for a moment, and was gone.
Just before he disappeared, Ansil thought he saw a tear falling.
Less than an hour later, the path was filled with people: Ansil could barely believe it when they appeared in front of his eyes. Tired, and hungry, but no one was injured. He had run to his daughter first, before looking around for the Doctor.
He wasn’t there.
There had been a celebration in the village that night. Music and dancing and a sense of euphoria at the rescue; Ansil had been made to relate his story a dozen times before he had managed to slip away. He made his way up the valley towards the Doctor’s house.
The Doctor had apparently said very little to those who had been trapped, merely instructing them to move closer together and stay calm. Ansil knew that it had been technology that had saved them, but the rest of the village had been convinced it was magic, and he was happy to leave them with that. It seemed that the story of the wizard was going to have another chapter.
But Ansil would make sure his daughter knew the truth.
The old house was dark and empty. Ansil had searched every room, but there was no sign of the Doctor or any indication that he had revisited the house. The only sounds came from the hen house.
The Doctor was gone.
As Ansil made his way back to the village, Ansil’s mind played over his last conversation with his old friend. There was something there that he was missing, something important. He realised then that the Doctor had known that he wasn’t coming back. He could have returned with everyone else but he had chosen not to.
Perhaps, considered Ansil, perhaps he really was a wizard.
Perhaps the wizard has gone home.