Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

The TARDIS had materialised upon a wide, empty plain. The Doctor stepped away from the door gleefully, waving his hands as he spoke enthusiastically of the great dome of the sky, a pale, smoky blue, and the lands stretching to the horizon as far as they could see in every direction. Wyn, Jamie and Stella all looked around and were suitably impressed. It WAS an amazing place. They all felt strangely small standing there, with the TARDIS the only tall thing to be seen. The vegetation amounted to a few scrubby bushes and a yellowy-red grass and something not unlike the tumbleweeds of the American prairies that rolled along in the wind.

“Red grass?” Jamie, in his male form today, knelt to look at it. “Unusual.”

“Correction,” said K9, hovering on the threshold of the open TARDIS door. “There are many different coloured grasses in the universe. Most unusual is the tangerine grass of Gan-Yek, which has a citrus smell. The apple grass of New Earth, while traditionally green, actually has the taste and smell of apples. There is also the black grass of Vocru-Oehuri 8, although that is, technically, a lichen, not a grass.”

“Red grass,” The Doctor said as K9 continued to rattle off examples of unusually-hued grasses across the cosmos. He bent to touch the blades. “This is the dry season. It’s not at its best. After the rains it is carmine bright. We used to have red grass in the valleys on my planet, too. But it was verdant all year around. If you can use the word verdant about red grass. Technically it means an abundance of verdure, which means green foliage.”

“Doctor, you’re babbling,” Wyn told him.

He stood up and grinned at her.

“Yes, I am, sorry. I’m a bit over excited. I love being here. It’s a wonderful planet. Magnificent people. El'Rhoa’X, home of the Tu’lK’et’h.”

He watched his companions’ lips move as they tried to get their tongues around the syllables. It was easy once you knew how.

He looked up at the sky and saw a white bird swooping down towards them and then rising up and flying away again on graceful wings. It didn’t look as if it was flying anywhere in particular, but he knew it was. It was taking a message to its masters, letting them know they were there.

“Won’t be long,” The Doctor said with a smile.

“What won’t be long?” Wyn asked. “Are you waiting for a train, Doctor? Because if you are, I think you’re a bit early. They haven’t built the track, yet!”

The Doctor smiled even more, his eyes twinkling merrily and pointed towards the horizon. At first as his companions looked they thought there was nothing different. Then Stella gave a gasp of surprise.

“There’s something there,” Jamie said, shielding his eyes. “There’s something moving… a long line.…”

“A train?” Wyn was still on her last thought process.

“Caravan,” The Doctor said.

To Jamie the word was completely unfamiliar. To Wyn and Stella it conjured up visions of holiday camps all along the Welsh coast full of squat boxes on wheels that some people enjoyed squeezing into and calling it fun.

“Oh, you mean like a desert caravan,” Wyn said eventually as she recalled the other definition of the word. “Lines of camels and people travelling along.”

“Not camels,” The Doctor added. “But you’re on the right wavelength now. He shaded his own eyes with his hand and watched. His Gallifreyan eyesight was infinitely better than his friends. Where they saw only a line of dust on the horizon he saw details. He saw when a party split off from the caravan and began to head towards them. Long before the others he could see clearly the fantastic beings he had brought them to see.

“Horses!” Wyn exclaimed as they finally drew closer. “Beautiful horses, but the way you were being so secretive, Doctor, I was expecting something more exotic.”

Wyn liked horses, though she was not one of those people that were always in riding clothes or mucking out stables and who talked in a horse code about ‘tack’ and ‘grooming’ and ‘dressage’ and such things, and she had never yearned to own one. She had learned to ride when she was with The Doctor and once a year at least took herself off on horse-themed holidays – cross country trekking and the like. A horse-themed holiday on another planet would do her just fine now.

Stella had never ridden but she lived in a village. She saw horses and knew the sort of people Wyn had thought of, the ones for whom jodhpurs were a second skin. She could take them or leave them.

Jamie breathed in excitedly. He LOVED horses. His world had wide open expanses of grassland where the privileged classes rode at their leisure. He was not born of the privileged class, but in his free time he often went to places where he could hire a horse and spend an afternoon riding over the grasslands and forgetting the distinctions of class in the freedom that such activity offered.

The Doctor came from a planet that, for all its wonders, had no indigenous species remotely resembling a horse. No dogs, either. He had always thought Gallifrey was the poorer for those omissions. As the riders drew closer he was the most excited of them all, practically bouncing up and down.

“Oh… my…!” As the lead riders drew close and reined in, Wyn took back her comment about “expecting something more exotic”. She blinked several times to see if she wasn’t imagining it.

“They’re...” Stella whispered.

“Amazing,” Jamie added.

“They’re….” Wyn faltered. She couldn’t begin to put into words what she was looking at. The horse was big, obviously bred for long distance travel, with strong muscles rippling beneath the glossy brown coat. The rider was a muscular looking man dressed in leather and silver bits and a big cloak fastened at his neck that had billowed out dramatically behind him as he rode.

He rode bareback with no bridle at all, and…

And this was what made Wyn and the others all stare in amazement…

His legs were moulded into the horse’s side as if he were a part of it. Leather clad thigh just smoothly became horse’s flank.

A second rider came to a halt. This one was female. She had long hair held back by a bandana and a cloak fastened at the neck. She wore a dress made of silvery fabric that ended mid-thigh and her legs, too, melded into the sides of a horse so white it nearly glowed.

The Doctor stepped forward and made a complicated sort of bow with one leg forward and his arms by his side. The two horses bent forward in the same sort of gesture and their riders bowed their heads in unison with them.

“I am Gallia, daughter of Glennis of the Tu’lK’et’h,” said the female rider. “This is Mika, my mate. We bid you welcome, strangers, to the horselands of El'Rhoa’X.”

“Good day to you,” The Doctor replied. “But I am no stranger. I am The Doctor. I was welcomed here long ago by Lord Glennis when he was newly crowned king of the Tu’lK’et’h.”

“The Doctor?” Gallia looked at him in astonishment. “But that was eighty years ago before my father had chosen his queen, my mother. You look so young. Ah, but if the legends are true, you are more than you appear, Doctor.”

“Far more,” he replied. “But we linger unnecessarily, and the caravan moves on as we speak. You are travelling to the Hall of El’Rhoa?”

“We are,” Gallia replied. “We return from a visit to the summer palace by the great sea. We should be delighted to have you and your companions join us as our honoured guests.”

Mika raised his hand in gesture and three ordinary horses were brought forward, led by more of the horse-rider combinations. At the same time a pair of horses harnessed to a flat bed cart was brought close. The Doctor turned and stepped into the TARDIS momentarily and then called to Jamie to help him haul the TARDIS onto the cart.

They easily lifted the TARDIS onto the flat bed. K9 came out of the open door and settled on the wooden cart floor, ready to enjoy a ride across country without needing to wear out his own batteries. The Doctor told him to sit tight as he secured the TARDIS with ropes that might, possibly, have been made with horse hair.

“It was so light,” Jamie said as The Doctor closed the TARDIS door and tested that the ropes were secure. “I expected…. It’s so big inside. It shouldn’t be possible for two people to manhandle it.”

“I altered the gravity to make it as light as possible. I wouldn’t burden the horses with any more weight than necessary. They are, as you may have guessed, a highly valued creature here. They are used as beasts of burden only so long as they are respected.”

“Goes without saying,” Jamie answered. “The… Tu’lK’et’h… Gallia and Mika… Are they… I mean… I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“They ARE fantastic, aren’t they!” The Doctor agreed.

When the TARDIS was fastened to the cart with strong ropes The Doctor told Wyn and Jamie to mount two of the horses. He turned to Stella and, without a word of warning lifted her and put her on the third one before climbing up behind her in one smooth movement. Stella glanced nervously at the ground that seemed a long way down and wondered if she was safe.

“You’re perfectly safe,” The Doctor assured her even though she hadn’t voiced her fear. “Lean forward a little and put your hands on the horse’s mane, but don’t grab bits of it. They REALLY don’t like that. Just support yourself that way.”

He put his hands around her waist, not because he needed anything to hold onto, but to make her feel that little bit more secure. Then the party set off again. Mika rode between Wyn and Jamie at the head of their mini-caravan. Gallia kept pace with The Doctor and Stella. Behind them two of the Tu’lK’et’h flanked the cart with the TARDIS on it and the rest of the group followed behind. They struck out at an angle across the plain that would put them ahead of the caravan on the horizon, but obviously they were aiming for where the caravan would be when they caught up.

“How do….” Stella paused as she contemplated the rest of her question. Which ‘how do’ to begin with was the problem. How do people who are part horse eat, sleep, sit down, lie down, were at the top of the list. Then there were the intimate ones like how do they mate. She had refused to let the question of personal hygiene even join the queue.

“It’s not as complicated as you think,” The Doctor told her. “You’ll understand when we make camp later.”

Again she hadn’t actually spoken her thoughts aloud, but he knew instinctively what she was thinking.

Mostly they rode in silence. There was no need for words. The joy of moving swiftly across the plain, warmed by the sun and cooled by the breeze that blew in their faces, was enough. Stella forgot to worry about falling off. She was almost certain she couldn’t fall with The Doctor riding with her. Wyn and Jamie were perfectly happy. They rode side by side and smiled at each other as two people who were still full of the joys of love.

They rode north-west to meet the westerly travelling caravan. It took a little less than an hour. As they drew closer, they could see that it consisted of something like two hundred of the Tu’lK’et’h and maybe twice that many ordinary horses carrying packs and several carts with more bulky freight, some covered with canvases a little like the ‘covered wagons’ of the American pioneers.

They slipped into the line just like merging with traffic on a motorway and continued on the journey, riding through a long afternoon with the sun gradually dropping lower to the east. Wyn checked their direction on a small pocket compass and then thought about it for a moment. She dropped back and rode next to The Doctor while she talked to him.

“Is that right?” she asked. “The sun sets in the EAST?”

“Yes, it is,” The Doctor answered her. “I thought you’d be used to things like that by now. Not every planet has the same axis of rotation. I hadn’t even given it a thought, actually. An easterly sunset… Gallifrey’s sun set in the east. I used to take that for granted. It felt strange when I first came to Earth and saw it set in the west. Anyway, it’s about three hours to sunset whichever way it sets. We’ll make camp an hour before. It gets very cold after sundown so it’s important to have all the tents up and fires made.”

The place where they made camp looked little different to any other part of the plain. It was merely the nearness to sunset that determined where they stopped. Then Stella and the others saw what was even more remarkable than a horse and rider fused as one being. They saw the rider’s legs morph into real legs and they detach themselves before they climbed down, standing just like ordinary men and women.

“Oh!” Stella remarked. “But…how?”

“Well, I don’t quite know the anatomical reasons,” The Doctor admitted. “But they have been that way for millennia. They evolved with a natural and complete symbiosis with their horses.”

“There is a fable that tells how it came about,” Gallia said. “Perhaps we may tell it after supper? But for now there is work to be done.”

The carts, including the one with the TARDIS on, were all brought together into a large square. Within that square tents were unrolled from the packs and pitched. They were made of a strong fabric like canvas but thinner and lighter which made them easier for the horses to carry. While the tents were going up fires were lit. Wyn brought K9 from where he had spent the day on the cart and he hovered alongside her.

Stella wondered what they might use to light a fire in the middle of a place with no trees. Wyn and Jamie had a strong suspicion. The Doctor laughed.

“It’s just recycling,” he said as he brought them to a camp fire of grass, tumbleweeds and horse dung. The smell was perfectly ok. Mostly it smelt like burnt grass. They were just a little dubious as the Tu’lK’et’h began to prepare their supper over those fires. First because of the nature of the fire, and then about the nature of the food.

“They don’t eat horses, do they?” Wyn asked as she watched Gallia and Mika’s servants prepare some sort of meat cut into cubes and put upon a ridged metal plate over the fire. The meat began to cook in its own fat. When that was browned they added something that looked a little like sweet potato and a sort of mushroom that absorbed some of the meat juices. Beside the cooking pot were placed flat breads on a hot stone. They smelled like warm barley and sesame seed as they cooked.

“It’s a game meat caught on the prairie,” The Doctor answered. “The Tu’lK’et’h always have hunting parties out foraging as they travel.”

He didn’t mention that he had seen the servants skinning and cutting up the meat behind the tent, and that it was a type of snake. He guessed Wyn and Stella wouldn’t be too happy if they knew.

“It’s nourishing food,” he assured them. “And as guests we are given the best of it.”

It was good, they had to admit. The bread was warm and really did taste like sesame seeds. The meat tasted a little like chicken and they forgot to question what species it was. While they ate, a pot of sweet smelling beverage was boiled on the same fire. They all drank mugs of it and decided it was something like malted milk, though they couldn’t imagine where milk came from in the middle of the plain. Unless it was possible to milk horses?

“It is vegetable,” K9 informed Wyn after scanning the mug of liquid solemnly.

“Vegetable?”

“It is made from the dried sap of a tree which grows near the summer palace,” Gallia said. “We carry stores of it with us when we travel. Mixed with water and boiled it is a pleasant taste and aids sleep.”

“As I said, vegetable,” K9 reiterated with a triumphant sound in his voice.

The drink WAS pleasant, and as they drank it the fire was stoked up with more ‘fuel’. The Tu’lK’et’h and guests settled for the night around the camp fires. The horses that they were bonded with during their day’s rides lay beside them, and they leaned against their warm flanks. They would sleep that way later, but first they would entertain each other.

Stella tentatively mentioned the fable that Gallia had talked of.

“Indeed,” Gallia said, sitting up very straight backed with her legs under her. She spoke very clearly as she told a story of how a thousand generations ago the young men of the Tu’lK’et’h had fought a battle against another tribe of the plains, one that sought dominion over them all. They had fought gallantly despite their enemy outnumbering them greatly. Their one advantage was their horsemanship. the Tu’lK’et’h were rarely unseated even though they rode bareback. The legend told that they rode and fought for five days and nights, and vanquished the enemy. But they had word that a second wave was surrounding their city, defended only by a small guard, a city of women and children and elderly folk. So tired and battle weary as they were they turned and rode hard for home, riding day and night, crossing the plain, crossing a great swollen river. As they rode, they found that their legs had become bound to their horses flanks. They were one with the horses. They could not be unseated, and when they reached the city they easily defeated the enemy that besieged their loved ones. Only then, when their duty was done, did their legs become unbound and they climbed down from their horses. But ever since, generation after generation, the Tu’lK’et’h have had the gift. When they mount a horse they become one with it.

As she told the story, in the poetic, oral tradition of her people, The Doctor held out his hands in front of him and concentrated hard. Above his hands images appeared, three dimensional yet not quite substantial. His companions and the Tu’lK’et’h alike watched in hypnotic wonder as he illustrated Gallia’s tale.

“Is that the truth?” Stella asked. “Is that really how it happened?”

“Who’s to say,” The Doctor answered her. “I don’t know any scientific explanation for it. But some things are beyond science. It is just a natural ability of the Tu’lK’et’h people.”

Gallia reached and touched the slowly turning image of a Tu’lK’et’h horse warrior that he still maintained.

“You have some natural abilities of your own,” she told The Doctor. “Is there a ‘scientific’ explanation for that?”

“Not really,” The Doctor admitted. “Some things we just take for granted. But the night is young, still. Are there any more stories to be told? I think my companions would like to hear more before they sleep.”

“There is a much newer story,” Mika said. “The story of a stranger who helped a young king of the Tu’lK’et’h to prevent a jealous rival from taking the crown for his own selfish ends.”

“There must be better stories to tell than that one,” The Doctor answered.

“Oh, I think that one would do just fine,” said Gallia.

“Very well,” The Doctor said with a resigned tone. “But at least let ME tell it my way. After all, I WAS there.”

He shifted his position, lying on his side with one hand under his head and the other stretched out as before. His companions sat close.

“Yes,” he said with a soft sigh. “It was about eighty years ago in the reckoning of the Tu’lK’et’h. A single generation for a long lived race such as they are. For me…. For me it’s nearer five hundred years. I was a different man then.”

A different man, indeed. The image that coalesced in the air in front of him was in his mid-fifties, age lines marking his face, though still with a mop of dark hair without a trace of grey. He had an open and easy smile that began in his twinkling eyes and ended in a grin.

“Not so very different,” commented Wyn who knew the same twinkle and the same grin well enough.

Two people stepped into the image, flanking The Doctor. Both the image of The Doctor’s second incarnation and the man himself smiled at them.

“My friends,” he said. “Jamie and Zoë. Yes, I knew another Jamie once. A brave lad. A Highland piobaire, a lad who marched to battle playing rousing tunes on the pipes to boost the clan’s morale. He fell into my company in the middle of a fight with the English invaders of his country. He was at home here on the plain with the horsepeople. Zoë… she wasn’t so comfortable. A space born child who knew about computers and mathematics. There are none of those things here. But both of them followed me willingly. They were content to be guided by me when we were invited to join the caravan and travel to the Hall of El’Rhoa. They enjoyed the journey, and when we made camp they didn’t enquire too closely about the nature of the meat they were eating. Jamie’s tales of Highland battles and the songs that went with them amused our guests.”

Stella looked as if she MIGHT enquire about the nature of the meat after all, but The Doctor continued speaking.

“We arrived at the Hall of El’Rhoa on the third evening. And it was well worth the wait. It was a magnificent place.”

He didn’t have to describe it, since the image appeared in front of him. But he did anyway, telling how the Hall stood at the foot of a range of mountain peaks, and it had the shape of one of the mountains itself, rising up from a wide base to a high, pointed spire that made the viewer dizzy to look at. There was a great stone staircase leading up to the first floor of the Hall, because the ground floor was a luxurious stable where the horses were treated with the utmost respect and honour and their needs attended to by a small army of servants.

When the Tu’lK’et’h stood on their own legs and walked up the steps the great door was opened with a flourish and the guests were conducted to the king’s chamber to pay homage to him.

“Which we did, of course,” The Doctor said as the image changed to an opulently decorated chamber with a distinct horse theme. Freizes and tapestries of horses cantering across the plains covered the walls and the king’s throne and the empty one for his queen if he had one had gilded horse heads for the arm rests.

The king was about seventeen years old. He wore his kingly robes rather like somebody who wasn’t quite used to wearing them and he seemed a worried, nervous boy whose eyes darted to and fro. He seemed unhappy to have such a large crowd in the chamber and The Doctor, with his superior hearing, was puzzled when he saw him turn and speak to a man who stood by the throne in robes nearly as opulent and royal.

“Must I have so many here at once?” the boy king had asked. “If one of them is an assassin.…”

“You must,” the advisor told him. “It is expected of you.”

“What about these strangers?” he added. “What if they mean me harm?”

“Then they would die before a hair on your head was touched.”

The king seemed partially reassured. The Doctor looked at his advisor and made a guess at who he might be. A guess that was confirmed when he and his companions were presented to the king and he introduced his uncle, Mirat, his chief minister.

“Ohhh!” Wyn cried as The Doctor paused in the telling of the story. “Hamlet!”

“Aladdin,” Stella added.

“Prince Caspian,” Wyn retorted.

“Harry Potter!” Stella managed before they ran out of fictional characters with wicked uncles. “Well, sort of, anyway,” she conceded.

“I’ve heard of Hamlet and Caspian,” Jamie said. “I’ve lived on Earth for a bit. But I was thinking of a story from my own world. A young Overlander called Cameron Dey Risse whose parent’s sibling was envious of the property he inherited.”

“I dare say there are similar tales on just about every planet where people tell stories to amuse each other,” The Doctor said. “Jealousy and covetousness are common enough vices. Sadly this was not a pantomime. Young King Glennis was being advised by a man who professed to have his best interests at heart, but I wouldn’t have turned my back on him for a moment.”

And it wasn’t just hindsight that made him say that. His earlier incarnation, the one people easily dismissed as a grinning fool without seeing the intelligence that lay behind the smiling eyes, kept a close watch on the king and his uncle throughout the audience. Later as they dined at a great table with golden horse head motifs on all of the cutlery and serving dishes in a dining room that continued the horse theme in its tapestries and mouldings, he watched as Mirat insisted on first tasting all of the food and drink presented to the king. He clearly gave an outward show of protecting the boy from any harm.

“What harm is threatened against his Majesty,” The Doctor asked of those nearest to him at the table.

“We are not certain,” he was told. “But Mirat received intelligence that an assassination attempt was to be made. The king is greatly affected by the news. He was a happy, carefree man before his coronation, who liked nothing better than to ride out alone across the plains, at one with his horse. Even after his coronation he was content, accepting the duties thrust upon him by his father’s untimely but natural death. But since the threat became known the duties have sat hard on him, and he is no longer able to ride anywhere without an armed escort. It is to be hoped that he finds a queen soon, and she may ease his troubled mind.”

It certainly seemed likely, The Doctor noted as he watched the king call Zoë to sit by his side. He seemed interested in her. And why not. She was about his age and a pretty young thing. She was shy at first but talked easily after a while, and the king seemed to smile more naturally.

The Doctor wondered if it was possible? Zoë DID have a life to go back to on the space station where he found her, but if she really wanted to give it all up to be Glennis’s queen he could not stop her, any more than he could stop his own granddaughter falling in love with David and leaving him, or Vicki deciding she would call herself Cressida, wife of Troilus of Troy.

Yes, his fledglings all wanted to fly the nest sooner or later. And Glennis seemed a decent enough young man when he wasn’t in the thrall of his uncle.

The Doctor looked from them to the uncle. He made a pretence of being happy that the king was talking to a young woman who could be a potential match for him, but his thin-lipped smile was clearly a mask. Beneath it he was seething with annoyance. Zoë would never do as a queen. She was too intelligent, too quick-witted. She would see through Mirat too easily.

He couldn’t harm her while they all sat at dinner, but later, when they were conducted to the guest apartments, a suite of luxurious rooms with horse themed decorations, The Doctor was wary.

“Zoë, you sleep in the main bedroom,” he said. “Jamie, I know you’re tired too, but I need you to do something for me.” Jamie was attentive at once, pulling himself up tall as if to prove his worth. “Once Zoë is tucked up in bed, I want you to sit in there and watch over her.” Zoë began to protest, but The Doctor was adamant. “No, my dear. I want you safe. Jamie can look after you.”

“Aye, I can,” Jamie insisted. “You can count on me, Doctor. But where are you going to be sleeping?”

“I’m not. At least not yet. I’m going to do a bit of snooping.” Jamie looked conflicted. Guarding Zoë was an honourable task and a necessary one. But if The Doctor was going to do anything hazardous he wanted to be at his side, too. “No,” The Doctor added. “Zoë’s safety is paramount. I don’t like the way Mirat looked at her.”

“That sour faced old wart?” Jamie commented. “Aye, you could be right there. You think he means trouble?”

“I think he IS trouble. I mean to find out just how much, and for whom.”

“Doctor, you’re just nosy,” Wyn told him with a laugh. “You always have been. And you’ll never change.”

“Zoë told me that, too,” The Doctor answered her with a grin. “She hadn’t really noticed Mirat. She was more interested in the King and the fact that he was interested in her. When I left them she was falling asleep in the middle of telling Jamie about Glennis’s promise to take her riding the next morning. Jamie looked tired, too, but I knew I could count on him. Highland honour could not be besmirched by him falling asleep on duty.”

Once she was asleep and Jamie settled in a chair with wooden horse head carvings The Doctor slipped away. He passed servants in the corridors carrying jugs of water and warming pans and they nodded courteously. He passed guards who did much the same. Yes, people the universe over tended to overlook old men with jovial but not especially intelligent expressions. He could have wandered through the whole palace unchallenged.

Not that he intended to stick to the corridors. When he was close to the king’s private apartments those eyes that belied his true worth became very sharp. He had noticed something throughout the palace. The tapestries, every now and then, billowed as if there was a sudden air current behind them. He knew what that meant. It was the reason he asked Jamie to sit inside Zoë’s room, not merely keep guard outside the door. He looked up and down the stretch of corridor and then pulled back one such tapestry. Yes. It was cleverly disguised, but there was a crack that a distinct breeze came through. He felt all around for the hidden trigger and smiled triumphantly as the secret door opened. He stepped inside and closed it behind him. It was dark, but not completely so. As well as secret doors, the passage was peppered with spy holes that doubtless were disguised as parts of the colourful friezes.

“You know, Doctor,” Stella said. “That is really corny. It’s like Enid Blyton stuff. Secret passages.”

“Yes, I know,” he admitted. “But it’s true!”

“I know of the passages,” Gallia said. “When I was a child I used to explore them for amusement. They are a veritable labyrinth within the palace.”

“That they are,” The Doctor agreed before he went on to describe how his Gallifreyan eyesight was good enough to allow him to see by the light let in through the spyholes. And his natural sense of direction – he ignored the sarcastic coughs from his friends - brought him presently to the king’s private bed chamber where voices could clearly be heard. He looked through a spyhole and saw the young king, in his rest robes, half-lying on a chaise longue – with carved horse motif, of course – prior to getting into the huge four poster bed with horse motifs on the headboard and the curtains. Mirat was standing over him.

“You cannot pursue a suit for this common stranger,” he was telling the king. “She is utterly unsuitable. I shall have her and the two male companions sent away tomorrow morning.”

“You will not,” Glennis responded. “It is my wish they should stay. The Lady Zoë is beautiful and charming and witty and the boy Jamie has a wealth of stories. As for The Doctor – he reminds me of my father before his illness robbed him of his strength and made him a shadow of himself.”

“My Lord,” Mirat continued. “Must I remind you of the danger to your person? We have no way of knowing who these strangers are beyond the tales they themselves have said. And there is the question of the box the older one insisted on bringing. It has strange symbols upon it and the servants who transported it and installed it in the guest chambers say it has a vibration as if there is a power within it. I fear it may be some devilish means to harm your Majesty.”

“Do you think so?” Glennis looked doubtful. “Mirat, sometimes I wonder. You see assassins everywhere. Yet I have not been harmed.”

“That is BECAUSE I see assassins everywhere and take care to have them dealt with. I only wish to protect you, Majesty. A king so young as yourself is vulnerable. There are many who would wish to take your throne and your lands from you.”

“Yes,” The Doctor thought to himself. “There are, indeed, beginning with you, my obsequious friend.”

“I won’t have the strangers sent away,” Glennis said. “I will go riding tomorrow with them in my company. I shall continue my suit of the Lady Zoë. While they are out with me, safely surrounded by my soldiers, and with you as my most observant bodyguard, you may instruct your spies to take The Doctor’s ‘box’ and examine it thoroughly. If there is any treachery involved, then you shall be most thoroughly justified in your suspicion, Mirat. But now, I shall retire to my bed. I am weary.”

“As you wish, Majesty. Drink your herbal brew first, though. It will help you to sleep without the nightmares that trouble you.”

“It didn’t last night, or the night before,” Glennis answered him, but he drank the brew. The Doctor noticed that he became visibly sleepier and Mirat guided him to the big royal bed. He stood over him as the king’s eyes closed and spoke to him in a low hypnotic voice, telling him that he could trust nobody, that he had enemies within the palace as well as without, that he must not trust anyone, only himself, Mirat, his uncle. Nobody in the palace was beyond suspicion. Why, even the very walls had eyes and ears…

Mirat looked up from ensuring that the last thing the king heard in his drugged sleep were words guaranteed to cause nightmares and leave him tired and worried in the morning. Eyes and ears….

He seemed to look right at the place where The Doctor was watching. It had to be coincidence, but The Doctor stepped back and moved as quietly yet swiftly as he could. If his sense of direction was as good as he thought it was, then he would be able to get back to the guest quarters without stepping into the corridors.

Yes, he found the way. Jamie jumped up in shock as he heard the sliding of the secret panel and the tapestry moving. His Sgian Dubh was in his hand, raised to stab before he recognised The Doctor.

“You gave me a fair old fright there,” he said as he put away the knife.

“Not as much as you gave me,” The Doctor answered. “But keep it handy. The king wants us to go riding tomorrow with him but Mirat might decide to have our throats slit in the night all the same. And there’s something else I have to do.”

He went to where the TARDIS was placed in the ante-room and stepped inside it. Jamie watched as the police box suddenly settled into the plush carpet as if it had become much heavier.

“I changed the gravity. I made it light so that the horses and servants wouldn’t be troubled. But if Mirat’s spies think they can steal it while we’re away in the morning they’ll be much mistaken. Meanwhile, you lie down on the chaise there. It looks quite comfortable. I’ll keep watch for a few hours. I’ll wake you if anything untoward occurs.”

“I’ll be awake in a moment if ye need me, Doctor,” he promised. And The Doctor knew he would be.

They went unmolested during the night, though, and the next morning they had a light breakfast with the king in his private dining room before heading out on horseback. It was a warm day already, even though the sun had yet to rise above the mountains behind the Hall of El'Rhoa. Glennis looked dull-headed as he ate, but once out there, literally and figuratively at one with his horse, he seemed a different man. Perhaps the horse blood that mingled with his own counteracted some of Mirat’s befuddlement.

The King had Zoë ride alongside him and they seemed to be getting on well. Mirat glared at the two of them but there was little he could do about it. Not without giving himself away as a two-faced liar, anyway.

“Do not go too far ahead,” called Mirat, feigning concern. But the King was not in a mood to be told what to do. He reached for Zoë’s horse’s bridle and drew it close and then he reached around her waist and plucked her from it, placing her in front of him. Then he galloped away from the main group with her, ignoring the pleading voice of his uncle.

Yes, The Doctor thought. That’s how it should be. The young king enjoying himself in harmless pursuits, no anxieties or fears implanted in his mind by his devious uncle. If only he was out riding more often, good sense might prevail.

All was well. The courtiers were mostly relieved to see their King happy and there was even talk among them about whether he might in fact consider the Lady Zoë as his future queen. The only one who didn’t consider that a fine idea was, of course, Mirat. But he had to hide his private thoughts behind a mask of a smile.

Then something happened. The king’s horse stumbled. It recovered for a few steps, but then it went down once more on its front legs and seemed unable to raise itself up. The Doctor immediately urged his horse forward and he saw Glennis lift Zoë and push her away before the great heavy weight of the horse collapsed sideways. But for his foresight it would have trapped and crushed her. As it was she landed in a clump of the red grass, winded but unharmed and picked herself up immediately. She ran back to Glennis’s side as The Doctor jumped down and ran to his aid.

The horse part of the symbiosis was whinnying with obvious pain. Glennis was gasping for breath and looked pale and ill. The Doctor saw the cause of both at once. A dart buried in the horse’s flank. He pulled it out and sniffed warily at the yellow-green substance on the tip.

“Poison,” he said to himself. “And while rider and horse are joined as one it will affect both.” He pocketed the dart and turned to examined the king. Zoë was kneeling at his side, cradling his head. He looked up at her weakly and seemed to be trying to speak.

“Calm yourself,” The Doctor said. “I am here to help you.” He put his hand over Glennis’s chest, first, and steadied his heart. The way it was racing, and with the poison coursing through his body he would be dead in minutes otherwise. Then he spread his arms wide, placing one hand on the King’s forehead and the other on the horse’s head. He took a deep breath and reached into both of the joined bodies with his own mind, seeking the molecules of poison in the blood. It took a great deal of his concentration and effort. To clear one ordinary body of poison was relatively easy. But the horse and rider joined were one huge cardio vascular system and the poison had already spread far.

Zoë, watching him, half guessed what he was trying to do, but she wasn’t certain he COULD do it, at least not without killing himself.

“Stop him!” cried Mirat as he and the other courtiers finally caught up. “He is killing the King.”

“He is not,” Jamie answered, leaping from his horse and standing between The Doctor, Zoë and the King and anyone who might interfere. His hand was ready to have the Sgian in it in a blink of an eye if any tried to pass him. Even Mirat seemed to see the folly of calling his bluff. A wise move, since Jamie, a young warrior with a simple set of principles by which he lived, didn’t know how to bluff.

For a long few minutes there was a sort of hiatus. Then Zoë gave a squeal of relief.

“It’s working,” she cried. The horse and the king were both, for a brief moment, covered in beads of pale yellow-green perspiration and then it evaporated. The horse lifted its head and whinnied in a much healthier way. The king opened his eyes as Zoë cradled his head and murmured something only she could hear. Neither were completely well, but when the horse clambered to its feet the King managed to raise himself upright briefly before slumping forward simply because he had not the strength to hold himself erect. He was alive and that was the important thing.

“Doctor!” Jamie cried and Zoë, whose thoughts had been with the King, turned to see him stand up, then sway dizzily and fall down again in a faint. Jamie called for a horse and he lifted The Doctor up onto it then climbed up behind him. Zoë turned and asked for a horse for herself, but to her astonishment she found herself grabbed by the arms and placed in front of one of the guards. Two more guards flanked Jamie with the unconscious Doctor. Mirat was shouting orders. He had ordered the three of them arrested.

“Are ye mad?” Jamie responded. “Did ye no see The Doctor save the king’s life? Everyone else did. Didn’t ye?”

The courtiers looked uncertain. They had seen the king fall. They had seen the stranger do something and the king was alive, but clearly not quite himself. Mirat settled the matter.

“Saved him? Did he indeed? And if he did, it was by witchcraft. But did he first try to kill him? Is this a ruse to gain the king’s confidence by pretending to be his saviour before killing him when there are less witnesses? Take them away. They will be brought before his Majesty for questioning when he has rested.”

The King said nothing. He let Mirat ride at his side and two others of his courtiers at his rear as they turned back towards the Palace.

“Well, of all the ungrateful…” Stella, Wyn and Jamie all declared as they heard this part of the story.

“No,” The Doctor assured them. “Just misled by Mirat. He had meant to kill the king and frame us, no doubt. That plan foiled he saw a way of discrediting me and making the king believe that the threats on his life were even more real and immediate than he had represented them to be, and that he alone could protect him from such threats. We were tools in his plan to fill the king’s mind with fear and suspicion and paranoia.”

“What happened to you, anyway?” Stella asked. “Why were you so sick?”

“It took a lot out of me. It was a strong poison and I had to save both man and beast because they were joined together and if one died, the other was gone, too. It drained me. I was out of practice with such things anyway. I had lived with humans for so long, acted Human, and my Time Lord abilities were atrophied. I just needed rest, though. I was all right by the time we reached the Palace. So was the king. But he was shaken by what had happened and Mirat had him convinced that I had used some evil power to make him ill and then connived at the ‘cure’ in order to work myself into the king’s favour.”

“Sneaky so and so,” Jamie remarked.

“MY Jamie said something similar,” The Doctor recalled. “But in much more colourful terms. The Scots are a passionate people!”

“It’s no use, Jamie,” The Doctor had said as the young Piobaire ran out of Gaelic curses to pour onto Mirat’s head and kicked the barred door of the palace dungeon. It was below the stables and the one part of the Hall of El'Rhoa that had no carved horse motifs and no secret doors behind tapestries.

“Why is he doing this?” Zoë asked. She had cried a little, not so much for herself as for The Doctor who she had been worried about and the King who she had allowed herself to be fond of. “Glennis, I mean. He’s… he’s nice. Why is he doing this to us?”

“Because he’s a two faced, deceitful…” Jamie began but The Doctor shushed him.

“The King is not thinking for himself,” The Doctor told them both. “He’s half drugged and half hypnotised by a string of lies. He thinks his life is in danger. I don’t believe there is anyone who bears him the slightest ill will except for his uncle, but he can’t see it.”

“What will they do with us?”

“I’m afraid,” The Doctor answered. “What they mean to do with us is only too obvious.”

And he was proved correct. Very soon the guards came for them. They were taken to the Throne Room and brought before the king. The Doctor looked at him. He was, he was sure, clear of the poison, but Mirat must have given him another of those ‘herbal brews’. His eyes were glassy and his mouth slack and his voice was a mere whisper that Mirat alone could hear. Mirat passed on his proclamations to those within the chamber.

“His Majesty, King Glennis of the Tu’lK’et’h, Lord of El'Rhoa’X commands that the stranger known as The Doctor and his companions are guilty of attempted regicide by witchcraft and are sentenced to the death of quarters.”

“What!” cried Jamie reaching for his Sgian Dubh before he remembered that it had been confiscated from him. “No, that’s not right.”

“It’s insane,” Zoë pleaded. “Glennis, please. You know we have not hurt you. It was not witchcraft. It was a poison dart that brought you down. The Doctor saved your life. Glennis…”

“Enough,” Mirat said. “Take them to the place of execution.” Glennis seemed about to speak, but his strength and will failed him and he changed his mind.

“No, wait,” said The Doctor. “Please. I beg you. If you must take innocent blood unnecessarily, then I ask you, take me. Let my friends go. They are young people with their lives before them. Take me alone as your scapegoat. Let them go.”

“No,” Mirat replied.

“Yes,” Glennis said in a voice louder than he had managed before. Loud enough to be heard by all assembled before him. Mirat could not countermand it. “Yes, let the Lady Zoë and the boy free. The Doctor alone tried to kill me, not they.”

“In your heart you know that is not true,” The Doctor said in a strangely quiet voice. “But I thank you for your kindness, even so.”

Then he was taken by several guards at once, allowing no chance of flight. Zoë and Jamie were pushed away from him. He managed to look back once and see them clinging to each other. Jamie, barely seventeen years old, but already a seasoned warrior of his clan, looked brave. Zoë was crying again. He saw the King try to take her hand but she pulled away from him and spoke some bitter words that Glennis alone heard.

The Doctor was taken out to the front of the palace. They must have been ready for an execution even before the mockery of a trial took place. A square had been roped off and the people of the palace gathered expectantly. Zoë and Jamie, though they didn’t want to see The Doctor killed, knew they could not desert him. They forced their way to the front of the crowd. They looked at the preparations that had been made and were puzzled. They didn’t understand what form the execution would take.

Neither did The Doctor for a few moments as he was led into the square. Then he worked it out.

Six strong horses and riders stood in the square, facing out. Ropes were attached to bridles that were unusually found on the symbiotic horses. One each was fastened to The Doctor’s arms and legs. The other two were tied loosely around his waist. At the given command, the horses would move forward. The ropes would tighten, and keep on tightening. Limbs would be torn from the body. The ropes around the waist would tighten until the body was cut in two.

“Oh, My GOD!” cried Wyn as she heard The Doctor describe the method of execution and stared in horror at the picture that illustrated it. She turned accusingly at Gallia and Mika. “You allow such a thing to be done?”

“Not now,” Gallia assured her. “My father passed a law abolishing all death penalties and all forms of torture.”

“Well, GOOD,” Wyn assented. “But… Doctor… how did you...?”

“You escaped, of course,” Stella added. “You must have planned something. You didn’t mean to let yourself be killed. You HAD a plan?”

“No,” The Doctor said. “I didn’t. My only plan was to die with dignity and hope that was enough to make Glennis see that he was being deluded. But there was precious little dignity in that method of execution.”

He was prepared to die. Yes, he was. He said nothing as the preparations were made and he waited for the command. It was the King’s command that had to be made. And the king, to his credit, did not stand off. He came right up to his victim and looked him in the face. The Doctor stood with as much dignity as he could muster and met his gaze steadily.

“I…” the king began. “I don’t see guilt in your face. I didn’t before, either. Now you are moments from death, but I still don’t see it. Could I be wrong?”

“You must decide that,” The Doctor told him. “None other can.”

“I don’t know what…” He glanced at his uncle and then to The Doctor. And there was uncertainty in his face. The Doctor kept his gaze on him. His life hung on the king coming to his senses before it was too late.

“I must be resolute,” Glennis said as the glazed look came over his eyes again. “I cannot show weakness in the face of my enemies. You must die for your crimes against me.”

“Justice and mercy are not weaknesses,” The Doctor told him. “But you must do as you see fit. You alone can decide what is the right thing to do. YOU alone.”

“I…” Again for a few moments the king seemed on the point of realising the truth. Then he turned away. He raised his hand to give the order.

Then he put it down again.

“Now!” cried Mirat. “The king commands it.” And the riders made to ride forward.

“Hold!” cried the king. “I do NOT command it. Not yet. I am not certain.” He turned and looked at The Doctor. “There is something I am missing. Something that is relevant to this case. A poison dart. That was it. You said I was brought low by a poison dart. Where is it?”

“Your uncle took it from me when I was taken,” The Doctor answered. “He has it. He knew of the poison but did not disclose that to you.”

“Majesty,” said Mirat, moving towards him. “This procrastination ill befits you as a king of strength and resolve. You must give the command.”

“I have one command,” the king said. “Seize HIM!” He pointed to Mirat and his guards stepped forward to do his bidding. “And…” He shook his head as if to clear the chaos of drugged befuddlement from his mind. “And search his room for poisons and herbs that confuse the mind. And… and cut that man free. He is innocent. Of that I am certain. Give him food, drink, comforts, tend to any injuries he may have. Let his companions go with him. When they are rested, I will see them in my Throne Room.”

Mirat struggled to escape but there were too many guards. He was taken away. The Doctor was cut free and Zoë and Jamie ran to him as he was escorted into the castle and to better accommodation than before.

When they had all rested, they presented themselves in the Throne Room, this time as free people. Glennis beckoned them all forward. He turned to Zoë first.

“Will you forgive me?” he asked.

“Yes, I will,” she answered. “Though I think you were very foolish to let your uncle use you in such a way.”

“Aye,” Jamie added. “Very foolish. But ye saw the truth in the end.”

“Doctor….” Glennis turned to him and bent his head humbly. “I have no excuse. I was a fool to let myself be trapped under such enchantments. I hardly deserve your forgiveness, but I beg it.”

“You have it,” The Doctor answered.

“I looked into your face and saw truth. I looked into his and saw only lies. I knew then.”

“May you continue to know the difference and rule well, your Majesty,” The Doctor said to him. “But what of Mirat?”

“Now my eyes have been opened, there are many questions to ask of him. I wonder if my father’s death was as natural as it was purported to be. If so, his crimes go so much deeper than the misuse of my own person.”

Just then there was a murmuring about the Throne Room and a guard pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He bowed low to the king and begged his pardon for the intrusion, but the matter was urgent.

“It is news of Mirat?” the king asked. “Has he answered?”

“If he has, only to eternity,” the guard replied. “He is dead.”

“How?”

“By his own hand. He was searched for the poison dart used to attack you this morning. It was found on his person but he made a grab for it. He stabbed it into his own neck. There was only a little poison left. Enough to ensure his death was slow and agonising. We tried to make him confess his crimes in the last, but he only laughed and cursed at us.”

“Then we shall never know if he DID kill my father first,” Glennis sighed. “No matter. He has paid for his crime. Dispose of the body decently. And let that be an end of the affair.”

He then requested that The Doctor and his friends should remain a while at the Hall of El'Rhoa and advise him on the selection of ministers who would help him rule wisely in future. The Doctor promised they would. Then he had a separate request of Zoë and he took her to his private chamber to talk.

“Now that’s NOT fair,” Stella protested. “Another one with a king proposing to her. Mum and Peladon, that Vicki one and the King of Troy. It just isn’t FAIR.”

“She didn’t accept,” The Doctor assured her. “She let him down gently. His world was too different from hers. She needed her computers and science and mathematical problems.”

“My father was disappointed,” Gallia said. “So I have been given to understand when that story was told before. But he accepted her decision gracefully. And a year later he proposed to a noblewoman who lived by the summer palace. My mother who was his queen until her death a few years ago. They were happy. I hope the same was true of the Lady Zoë.”

Stella looked at The Doctor as if expecting him to confirm that Zoë DID live happily ever after. She was shocked to see his expression. He didn’t look like happy ever after was in his vocabulary. There was a glassy look as if he was holding back tears.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I hope she was happy. But I don’t know. Soon after we left of El'Rhoa’X we came to our last adventure together. It brought us, reluctantly, to Gallifrey, to my own people. And they… they put me on trial for their own set of ‘crimes’. After Glennis’s reprieve, they took my life after all. Their idea of mercy was to let me regenerate into a new one and exile me to Earth. That wasn’t so bad. After all I met some good, wonderful people like Jo. But the cruellest thing was that they took my friends away from me. Zoë and Jamie had their memories wiped of all that they did and saw with me. Even their time here on El'Rhoa’X. They knew me only as a stranger who passed through their lives for a brief time. I was forbidden to cross into their time lines, to have any contact with them, forever.”

“That’s not bloody fair,” Wyn told him.

“Fair never came into it with the Time Lords,” The Doctor answered.

“YOU remember them,” Jamie told him. “You haven’t forgotten THEM.”

“No, he hasn’t,” Gallia confirmed. “Nor will they be forgotten by my people. That story has been told around campfires for a generation. It will be told for many generations more. Your friends will be remembered by the Tu’lK’et’h of El'Rhoa’X. And tomorrow when we reach the Hall of of El'Rhoa my father will be delighted to see you, Doctor, and talk over old times. He will remember you even if you have changed your face.”

“I shall look forward to it,” The Doctor admitted. He smiled, banishing his melancholy mood. Wyn looked at him and remembered what she had thought earlier. Yes, he was not so very different. His smile still began in his eyes.