Marion woke early in the morning and stretched lazily in her bed. She looked at the big viewscreen that was showing the exterior view from Li’s TARDIS just like a window. They were moving slowly down the Huang He on autopilot while everyone slept. At least, she slept, and Rodan did, being a child who wore herself out with activity by day and was ready for a full eight hours of sleep at night. Li was a Time Lord. He used the quiet night hours for meditation and mental restorations of a different sort.

The view was magnificent. The sun was still low and the ‘Yellow’ River was golden in its light. It was wide and slow moving and the countryside around it was mostly flat, planted with rice fields.

She got up and wrapped a silk Hanfu dress around her, slipping her feet into handmade shoes with a leather sole shaped to her foot and silk upper. She walked through to the quiet console room where Li was lying prone on a meditation mat with his body very still and quiet. She opened the door and stepped out onto the deck of the barge.

She stood at the prow and looked around at the flat world that surrounded her. She was used to wide spaces, by now. Living on the southern plain of Gallifrey she always had views that stretched for hundreds of miles. This was a different sort of land, but the feeling was the same. At sunrise, with that yellow-golden light reflected off the river, it almost looked like Gallifrey. Perhaps that was why Li loved this part of China. He was born and raised on that southern plain and this was a view that must delight him as well as tugging at his hearts-strings.

Then she became aware of something less satisfactory about her immediate environment. She looked downriver for a while, and smelled the unusual scent on the air. She turned and went back into the console room. She gently touched Li on the shoulder, knowing it would be enough to alert him to her presence no matter how deep his meditation.

She felt his hearts beat quicker and he gave a deep exhalation and an even deeper inhalation before he opened his eyes. He smiled at her.

“You are a precious sight to see in the morning,” he said. “My dear Lady.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “But, Li, there is something you ought to see. I think there is trouble downriver.”

He was vigilant at once. He put hand-made shoes on his feet and came out on deck with her. He noted the plumes of smoke against the morning sky and the smell in the air.

“The wood is scented with incenses,” he said. “But beneath that… unmistakeable - burning flesh. Those are funeral pyres.”

“It… could be natural?” Marion suggested.

“Not that many at once. You are right, there is trouble. We shall see if we might help.”

Of course he would say that. Marion fully expected it. The lives of the ordinary people in hamlets and villages along the river had been merely part of the scenery all through their journey, but if there was something amiss, his good hearts would not allow him to pass by without trying to alleviate the suffering.

“What can I do?” she asked.

“That we will know when we understand the nature of the trouble,” Li answered. “It will take a good thirty minutes to reach the source of the woe at this speed. Go and wake our fosterling and get breakfast for you both. I will call you when I know more.”

Marion did as he said. Rodan didn’t take much waking. She was ready straight away for a new day’s adventures. Marion explained that the adventure to come might not be very pleasant, and that she might need to stay aboard the TARDIS while she and Li found out what was happening. She accepted that restriction philosophically.

“Are many people dead?” she asked halfway through her toast and scrambled eggs.

“I… didn’t say that anyone was,” Marion replied.

“You’re thinking of it,” Rodan told her. “It’s sad.”

“Yes, it is. But we don’t yet know what’s happening. Li will tell us.”

She felt the TARDIS stop. While it was disguised as a boat it actually had a movement to match its appearance, and even inside she knew when Li had brought it to a mooring place by the river bank. He would go, first, to find out what the problem was then call her if she was needed. She waited patiently, drinking coffee and reassuring Rodan that there was nothing she should worry about.

Then she heard running footsteps and Li calling to her.

“Come, my Lady, there is work for us both to do. Child, it would be better if you were not witness to this. When your breakfast is done, sit in the console room with a book and your dolls. You will be safe there.”

Rodan nodded. She was only a little girl, but she was a Gallifreyan child. Obedience to adults was ingrained in her, and especially adults that she loved dearly. Marion came at once following Li first to the storeroom where he had put the spices he had bought in Lanzhou. He put a selection of the spices into a small leather satchel along with a mortar and pestle and a selection of metal measuring spoons.

“There is sickness in the village,” he explained. “I need to prepare medicines.”

“What sort of sickness?” Marion asked. Then she thought of the funeral pyres. “People have died?”

“Sadly, yes,” Li told her. “We shall try to ensure there are no more.”

She followed him off the boat and onto the dry bank. The smell of the funeral pyres was strong. They had been burning all night, and were only now dying down. She turned from the sight even though there was nothing to be seen but ash and embers and went with Li to the first of many houses where there was illness.

“It’s German measles,” Marion said as soon as she saw the mother and child lying together on a low bed. “Rubella. That’s all right for me. I had it when I was at school. I’ve got immunity, now. But… it shouldn’t kill people. Why are they as sick as this?”

“It is not a disease these people have suffered before. It is from the western parts of your world. They have no resistance to it. The very old and the very young have suffered badly. The rest are struggling. But I have medicines here that will cool the fever and will make a lotion to soothe the skin. We may ensure that there are no more deaths.

“We could bring better medicines from the TARDIS,” Marion pointed out. “There are antibiotics….”

“No,” Li said. “Those modern remedies might do more harm than good to people who have never used them before. Besides, it would be wrong to introduce such things into this timeline. My preparations are from ingredients bought on the market upriver, which grow from the soil of this land. All I bring is the knowledge of how to combine them for the best effect.”

He was right, of course. Besides, she had taken Li’s preparations many times, and all the year that she was sick Aineytta’s medicines, which came from the same wisdom, sustained her. Perhaps they were better than the modern medicines, after all.

Li was gentle as he tended to both the woman and child. Marion helped him to rub the lotion onto the burning rash that covered their skin. Then he divided the rest of the medicines and lotions and told her to go to the next house and he would take another. They would get through everyone who was suffering so much quicker.

Again he had spoken wisely, but even so she felt a little nervous about going into a house on her own. It felt like intrusion. The family within, though, grandmother, mother, father, and a boy and a girl, as well as a small baby, were all sick. She used half of the preparations Li had given her to treat them. They thanked her for her kindness. She promised to come back to them in a while when she had attended to others. She made a note to tell Li to look at the baby and the grandmother before then. The very old and the very young would always suffer most. She hoped he could save them.

In the next house, she was surprised by the people she found there. It was the preacher and his daughter who they had met in Lanzhou. The preacher was ill. The rash covered his face and he was moaning in a fevered delirium. The daughter seemed to be well. She was sitting by his bedside reading psalms aloud.

“He needs medicine,” Marion said. “You’d better let me attend to him.”

“Native medicines?” the daughter, Deborah, asked suspiciously.

“Do not be so dismissive,” Marion told her. “Medicines are also something the Chinese knew about long before the western world caught up, and they didn’t waste centuries accusing those with knowledge of being witches. This will help him as much as it helps the local people. Why aren’t you sick? Everyone else is.”

“I had this sickness when I was young,” Deborah answered. “I cannot get it again.”

“But you can spread it. Li said it was a Western disease. You must have brought it to this place. You and your father.”

Deborah looked disconcerted to have the truth pointed out to her, but she could not hide the fact that she already knew as much.

“Paster Jonathon, at the Mission, he was feeling ill when we left there. He is newly arrived from England.”

“Good grief,” Marion said. “Between the lot of you, you could have infected half of China. As if pushing your religion onto people who don’t need it isn’t bad enough, you bring diseases that they have no way to protect themselves from. And what have you done to help anyone in this village, even?”

“I have been praying,” Deborah replied.

“That’s all?” Marion shook her head. “Pray if you like, but do it quietly, while you help me to do what I can for them in practical ways, starting with your father.”

She gave the preacher the medicine for the fever and applied lotion to his face and neck. Deborah would not contemplate the idea of removing her father’s clothes to put lotion elsewhere on his body. Marion noted that she was still wearing the same layers of linen clothes, quite unsuited to the warm, humid climate of the riverside. There was clearly no reasoning with her on that matter, either.

With her assistance, even if she turned her back when Marion was treating the men, it was possible to get to the patients quickly. In a few hours everyone had been given medicine and lotion. Li kept a close eye on the children and the elderly. Marion, with Deborah’s assistance, then set about cooking rice and vegetables into a stew that the sick could easily swallow and the food was distributed throughout the village. Rodan proved helpful in that task, too. Since Rubella was not a disease that could hurt Gallifreyans, she was able to join them from the TARDIS. She carried the wooden bowls and spoons while Marion and Deborah brought a cauldron with the stew in it. While they were doing that, Li gathered the ashes from the funeral pyres into containers and placed them in the Buddhist shrine outside the village. Marion and Rodan stood with him as he said a simple prayer for the souls of the dead and bowed to the shrine. Deborah was scandalised by the idea of a western woman taking part in a heathen ritual of that sort, but Marion sharply reminded her that it was a western disease brought by their missionaries that had caused the deaths and dismissed her criticism.

They worked all day and most of the night, sleeping in short shifts in between giving medicine and lotions to the sick. Deborah insisted on reading psalms aloud whenever she was free from her duties, and Li permitted her that much of her religious devotions. But he would not let her do it within the hearing of the sick. She had to keep it to herself or her father’s bedside.

By morning, at least there was the good news that nobody else had died. All the young adults were starting to feel a little better. Only the children and elderly were suffering, still, and even they were responding to Li’s medicine.

The day passed again in dispensing medicine and lotions to the sick. Li brought more ingredients from the TARDIS and ground them together carefully. He went from house to house ensuring everyone was well.

In the early evening he came to sit with Deborah and her father. He had news to tell them.

“Some of the elders are getting well, now. There is that to be thankful for. But they are wondering how they came to be sick with an illness hitherto unknown to them. And it goes without saying that they are pointing the finger at the strangers in unusual clothing who came with stories about a great plague that swept through the land of Egypt. I must say that is an odd part of the bible to have chosen to preach to these people. No wonder they are suspicious.”

Deborah began to protest, but Li silenced her with a wave of the hand.

“I think it would be best if you left this village and returned to your mission. How did you travel here?”

Deborah explained that they had come in a horse drawn wagon. The horse was in the meadow and the wagon left behind the house where they were lodged.

“I will see to the horse, you gather your things. We will make your father comfortable and I will give you medicines and provisions. Then go straight back to your own kind at once. No more interfering with those people whose traditions you have no interest in understanding.”

They had no choice but to obey. Li was gentle with the still feverish and weary preacher but firm in his intention to remove them from the village as soon as possible. He watched the horse drawn wagon until it was just dust in the distance.

“I hope they will be all right,” Marion said.

“That is in the hands of their God,” Li replied. “We will stay here a few days more until the weakest are past the worst and the strongest can help themselves. After that we will continue our journey until it is time to return you to your real life and your own husband, who must, by now, be tired of constitutional affairs and will want to spend some time with you.”

Marion agreed. It had been a nice holiday, one that almost made her forget her true way of life. But soon it would be time to go home to Gallifrey and its yellow sky over the endless southern plain.