Marion wrapped her Lapin fur coat around her as she stepped out of the limousine. Her fur-lined boots sank into the snow, but they were good, strong boots and her feet were warm and dry. She lifted Rodan out of the car. She had a lapin coat, too, with a hood around her face. She had boots. But her legs were too short for her to walk in the snow for more than a few steps. Kristoph gathered her in his arms and carried her along the torchlit path to the marquee that glowed from the lights within it.

Rodan’s nursemaid followed them, dressed in less luxurious but still adequate winter clothing. It was already long past Rodan’s bedtime and she was bound to get sleepy. The girl would mind her then, while Marion was free to enjoy the festivities.

The marquee was beautifully decorated inside. It was possible to forget it was merely canvas erected in the middle of the snow-covered southern plain. It felt like a real ballroom with a polished wooden floor and chandeliers hanging down from above. There was a raised dais at the far end where a string orchestra was playing softly as the guests mingled prior to the formal start of the Winter Solstice ceremony. She smiled happily as Aineytta and Lord de Lœngbærrow came to greet her. Lily was there, too. So were all of her friends from both the northern and southern continents. She was pleased to see Lord and Lady Thayla and their son talking happily with Lady Arpexia and her daughter, Valena. They seemed to be settling down again after their distressing experiences and participating in the social events of Gallifrey.

Presently, the informal mingling gave way to a fanfare blown on long trumpet-like instruments by two Chancellery Guards in their most impressive dress uniforms. Scarlet tunics and gold cloaks, with shining breastplates and helmets, formed a guard of honour along a hastily formed path from the entrance to the dais. The lords and ladies of Gallifrey watched as the official known as Gold Usher preceded the arrival of the Lord High President, the Chancellor and Premier Cardinal. As they passed, everyone knelt and bowed their heads in respect. When they reached the dais, all three resplendent in the finest and most elaborate robes and headdresses as befitted their office, everyone rose again. The honour guard discreetly withdrew to the edges of the marquee. A hush came upon the whole company.

Then the stirring notes of the Gallifreyan National Anthem filled the air. The men all pressed their hands against their left hearts. The women stood proudly at their sides as they all sang in praise of their world and its values.

When that was done, the President made a short speech. He simply welcomed everyone to the Winter Solstice Ball, made a little joke about the snow, and invited everyone to dance and enjoy the food and wine that was available because there were still two hours to midnight and no need yet to go out into the cold.

Marion danced. That was an easy part of the Solstice ceremony. She danced with Kristoph, of course, except when other Lords asked for the pleasure and he sought out Lily or his mother, or, once, Valena Arpexia, who smiled graciously at him as he led her onto the dance floor. She was rising fast through the ranks of the Inquisitory, despite her father’s conviction that she would never succeed in the job. And she freely acknowledged that she owed it all to Kristoph and all the help he gave to her.

Marion sat out some of the dancing with Rodan on her knee The little girl was still wide awake yet. She was fascinated by the music and dancing, the colours of all the gowns worn by the ladies and the robes of the men. Marion made sure she had her fill of the food that was available. She ate a little herself, and drank a glass of champagne.

Near midnight, she put Rodan’s lapin coat back on and wrapped herself up warmly, too. Everyone made their way out of the marquee and along the torchlit path to a place that had been prepared during the day. There, the snow had been cleared. There was a light dusting that had frozen over as night fell, and which crunched underfoot, but otherwise an area as big as a football pitch had been cleared. It was marked out by torches on high wooden poles all around. In the middle of the arena was a bonfire waiting to be lit. There was an air of expectation that fed the excitement

The fire was lit, and as it crackled and took hold, fireworks illuminated the sky. At the same time, drums beat a rhythm like the beat of a double heartbeat and performers wearing dark clothes that made them almost indistinguishable in the dark juggled and twirled fiery batons.

But that was all just a sideshow to the main reason why the Winter Solstice Ball was held out here on the plain. Beyond the arena, a dark bulk rose up against the sky. It was Melcus Bluff, the high, long mountain that was such a distinctive feature of the plain. Standing on the edge of the prepared area, between the torches, it was possible to make out lights leading part way up the mountain, forming a path in the dark. The path led all the way back to the arena.

“It’s time for me to do my duty,” Kristoph said to Marion as the midnight hour loomed. He kissed her fondly. He kissed Rodan, too, before he went to join a group of young Gallifreyans who were forming a neat crocodile ready to set out on that path up the mountain. They were all in coloured robes and ceremonial headdresses and Marion thought they were in no way suitable for a mountain trek at night, but this was the traditional way that it was done and she was assured that no young Time Lord candidate had ever been lost on the journey.

The Candidates set out, along with their mentors, one for each candidate. Kristoph was escorting a young man called Harlen Gomer whose father was quite an elderly Time Lord who it was thought wouldn’t be up to the journey. Most of the others were with fathers or uncles. The Chancellor led the party, along with a torchbearer. The families of the candidates watched as their torch lit line snaked away across the plain. The fireworks continued and the drummers and fire jugglers carried on. The light show and the sounds of the festivities must have carried on the air to those who had set out on their trek. Marion thought it must be a comfort to them.

Rodan liked the fireworks and the juggling and so she stayed out with her for a good while. It didn’t feel especially cold. The torches and the bonfire made it warm, and the excitement was still palpable. Eventually though, the little girl started to droop in her arms. Marion carried her into the marquee and let her nursemaid sit with her in a quiet corner. She went to get a little food and drink for herself and was pleased to find Lily there. They went to their own quiet corner to talk.

“I like the Winter Solstice,” she said. “This is my third, now. Not counting our Alliance which took place on the Solstice the first year I came to Gallifrey. It is a very pleasant ceremony. It… doesn’t quite replace Christmas for me. I will always need that, too. But it is a wonderful time.”

“It is always wonderful to see the young people going to be Dedicated to Rassilon,” Lily agreed. “I remember when I was a girl of 80. Kristoph was Dedicated the same year, of course. And Lee. We were all proud of ourselves. A little scared, too. But very proud.”

“What happens when they get there… to the mountain. Kristoph said there is some kind of cave entrance and a tunnel to a cavern inside. And a ritual…”

“A wonderful ritual,” Lily said. “The Candidates make contact with the Matrix… the repository of all Time Lord wisdom through the generations. It connects them with their ancestors. Some even come back claiming to have had messages from their forebears. I can’t say for sure. I didn’t get one from mine. But Lee and Kristoph both said they did, though they swore never to tell what their messages were. I sometimes wondered if they were teasing me, except that they would never be disrespectful to the traditions of our world, so I suppose they must have been telling the truth.”

“I believe them,” Marion decided. She looked around at where Rodan was sleeping. “Will she get a chance, do you think? As a Caretaker child?”

“Oh, of course she will,” Lily assured her. “She is a bright little thing, even at her age. I am sure she will go all the way.”

“I won’t see that. I won’t see my own child do this, either. seventy is the minimum age for Dedication. Even if I live to be a hundred, they probably wouldn’t let me come out in the cold.”

“Kristoph will be there for your son,” Lily assured her. “I expect he will be there for Rodan, too. He will make sure her Dedication is a happy day for her. But you mustn’t think such sad thoughts. You have your life ahead of you, still. You and Kristoph will be parents in time. And you will have the joy of knowing your child will be a Time Lord in his due course.”

“Yes, I will,” Marion answered. “Where do you suppose they are by now? Will they have reached the cave entrance? It is horribly cold outside.”

“They should have, by now,” Lily confirmed. “But don’t worry. They are all young Gallifreyans. They have the ability to adjust their own body temperature as well as much greater stamina and resistance to hardship than your own race. They will be all right. And just before dawn they will be back to join us, welcoming in the new day just as countless others have done before.”

“Yes, of course they will,” Marion said to her. The she yawned. “I don’t know if I can make it through the night, though. I’d quite like to curl up like Rodan.”

“Why don’t you?” Lily said. Nobody will think less of you. Madame Braxietel is resting, too.”

“But she’s pregnant. I don’t have any such excuse.”

“Come on,” Lily told her. “Don’t wear yourself out just to save face in front of a few snobs. You do need more sleep than we do. Don’t deny yourself.”

Lily and Rodan’s nursemaid helped make up a soft place for her to sleep on two chairs and Marion laid herself down gratefully. Lily sat next to her, holding her hand as she fell asleep.

The next thing she knew, Kristoph was shaking her awake. She opened her eyes and looked up at him.

“You’re back?”

“We’re all back. Everything went perfectly well. Time for a hot drink before we greet the dawn.”

She sat up and then stood. She felt strange, waking up in a heavy linen gown and her make up still on. Kristoph assured her she still looked perfectly lovely, and much more awake than a lot of the ladies who had stayed the vigil. They went to get the hot drinks together and then it was time to go outside. Rodan was awake, too. She let Kristoph pick her up in his arms and he carried her out into the pre-dawn. The air was sharp and biting on their faces, but it helped wake up and energise sleepy minds. The sky was gradually lightening. It was possible to see the dark line of the mountain against it now. It gradually paled to burnt orange and then pale grey-yellow by the horizon. It looked overcast, but everyone was hoping for a glimpse of sunlight. The bonfire was out now and the torches were put out, too. There was a hush over the whole assembly as they waited.

And then it came, a sliver of light on the far horizon. It illuminated the snow-covered plain and as the first rays of the solstice morning reached the arena, they glanced of polished mirrors mounted on the same poles as the torches. The light was refracted and reflected and shone on the faces of the newly Dedicated Candidates and their parents and friends. A new day was begun on Gallifrey and all that remained was for everyone to have a hearty and welcome breakfast before their chauffeurs took them home for a much needed morning’s sleep. The shortest day on Gallifrey was a day of rest.