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

Vicki and Sukie looked at each other in their authentic mid-fifteenth century gowns and smiled in delight. They felt fabulous, feminine and much more grown up than they were.

“Fifteen IS grown up in this time,” Sukie pointed out as she straightened Vicki’s embroidered hennin, the plant pot shaped headdress of saffron and crimson with a sheer lace veil swept back over it. Saffron and crimson were among the most expensive dyes available in this time, marking them out as ladies of wealth and good family. Sukie’s embroidered kirtle was saffron and her overgown crimson. Vicki’s kirtle was crimson and her overgown saffron. It suited her delicate, innocent features. Sukie enjoyed the idea of being a woman in crimson. In both cases the combination of kirtle cut in a scooped neckline and the deep V of the overgown was both a little daring and at the same time perfectly proper.

“That’s true. Isobel is only eighteen, now, and she has been married to Christopher for two and a half years. She was a wife at our age.”

“That’s a mad thought, isn’t it?”

“Everyone thinks we’re married to Earl and Jimmy,” Vicki pointed out. “Because that’s how it would be in this time. But I’m glad we won’t really be thinking about that for a long time, yet.”

“Isobel is nice,” Sukie admitted. “She’s still quite fun, even if she is married. It was cool of Earl to get us all invited here for Christmas.”

“Christmas in 1465!” Vicki laughed at the very idea. “Before ANY of the traditions we have were invented. No Christmas tree, no presents, no Father Christmas, no cards, not even any snow, just frost covered fields and bare trees as far as the eye can see.”

“But plenty of fun,” Sukie pointed out. “And GREAT clothes.”

“For us, anyway,” Vicki said. “Jimmy isn’t keen on the men’s attire.”

“Neither is Earl, really, but he’s had more practice. He’s been visiting here for ages. That’s how Lord Richard de Southworth came to think he’s really an Earl from Richmond near London. He called it historical research. I think he really does LIKE wearing hose.”

“Tights!” Vicki laughed out loud. So did Sukie, then both of them adopted suitably calm expressions before they left the TARDIS where they had dressed and went back to the candlelit bedchamber given to the Earl de Gregory and his Lady Susan. The chamber allotted to Sir James Forrester and Lady Vicki was through an adjoining door. Naturally, the two girls had been sharing one room and their boyfriends the other for the sake of their twenty-third century decorum, and they had dressed in the TARDIS – hidden beneath tapestries in the corner of the room – where there were showers and other amenities like flush toilets.

Earl and Jimmy were waiting for them. Despite the giggles suppressed every time they saw them in fifteenth century menswear, both girls thought their boyfriends looked very impressive. Earl had adopted the royal colour of Tyrian purple for his padded and heavily embroidered doublet and silvery-grey for the hose. The slightly flared lower part of the doublet sat on his slender hips neatly and the hose served the same function trousers did in later centuries. The reason for the giggles was that the fifteenth century hose came in three pieces – two leg parts and what was called a codpiece that fitted in the middle.

Earl had got used to the style of clothing by now. Jimmy was still self-conscious in his outfit. Tonight for the Christmas Eve banquet he was in a deep indigo doublet embroidered in crimson and hose of deep yellow.

The girls looked their boyfriends up and down approvingly then fixed their gaze firmly above their waists as they waited for compliments about their outfits.

“You look beautiful,” Earl told Sukie. “Who would have thought this is the same girl I so often see in a firesuit with a helmet hiding her face. You are a lovely medieval lady, Sukie.”

Jimmy was a little less fulsome in his praise of Vicki. In this time when there was a clear demarcation between the upper classes and their servants, he was feeling more than a little out of his depth. He was fairly sure that his place in this house ought to have been in the kitchen as a serving boy. He felt as if he was wearing a rich man’s borrowed clothes, which added to his discomfort.

“You are really pretty, Vick-stick,” he said, using the playground nickname of their childhood that had become a term of endearment. Vicki smiled broadly. She knew what he was like, and to her, that was a compliment of the highest order.

“You are absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, Jimmy,” she reassured him. “Come on, let’s go join the party.”

They timed their exit from the chamber well, meeting with the young Christopher and Isobel coming from their own room. The Southworths of Samlesbury were not of royal bloodlines, so they didn’t wear shades of purple, but they could well afford the other expensive dyes such as saffron, indigo, scarlet and crimson, and the market town of Preston, a mere two and a half miles away, had merchants of quality who sold fine fabrics in those bold shades. Isobel’s kirtle and overgown were shades of indigo with gold embroidery and Christopher’s doublet and hose was a deep indigo with more finely done embroidery than anyone would have thought possible before the invention of machines to do the stitching.

The three couples made a vision worth a second look as they descended the stairs to the entrance hall where the worthy and less worthy of the neighbourhood were arriving. This was Christmas Eve, and as well as other families of note such as the Molyneux who were Christopher’s relations on his mother’s side and the Duttons who were Isobel’s family, many of the merchant class and holders of smaller lands were welcomed into the house. The church was represented, too, by the family’s own priest and two Franciscans who were on their way to York on pilgrimage. The simple cowls and robes of the monks were the only dull colours among the revellers, even those making do with locally produced dyes that didn’t look quite so grand next to the true gentry’s bright hues.

It was just eight o’clock and the banquet was due to go on until near midnight. There was no doubt that the food would last. The tables set out in the Great Hall under the high, vaulted roof were groaning under the weight of the platters and trenchers of meat, pies, fish and fowl, sweetbreads and sweetmeats, puddings and pies of all sorts. The tables were in an L-Shape with most of the guests seated at the long table opposite a huge fireplace where a Yule log - or possibly half a tree - was burning hotly. At the top table, set on a dais above the rest, were Sir Richard and his wife with their family and house guests. A whole roast boar with an apple in its mouth almost hid his lordship and his wife from view. The roasted flesh glistened and gave off a delicious smell. Another boar, equally huge, was on the long table.

“There are very few vegetables on the menu,” Vicki said telepathically to Sukie as a hush came over the company and the priest intoned a prayer before the feast began. “These people eat plenty, but they must be very short on vitamins.”

“Very true,” Earl answered her. “That was one of the problems of the upper class diet for many centuries, in fact. The peasants who didn’t see meat as often but ate their own organically grown vegetables were probably better off in that respect.”

“Shut up about history,” Sukie told her boyfriend. “I just want a slice of that pork. It smells fantastic. And it’s been spit roasted so most of the fat has drained out. It won’t be TOO bad for my figure.”

“No, the pies, puddings and everything else you’re drooling over will be bad for your figure,” Vicki teased her, though she had a healthy enough appetite and longed to dig in, too.

The prayers over, the feast began. Sir Richard himself carved from the roast boar while a servant took the filled platter and distributed the meat around the top table. Sukie was not the only one who fell to it with gusto, adapting to the fact that forks had not been invented yet and knives more like daggers than cutlery were used to cut and spear the food and transfer it to the mouth. The sort of manners she was accustomed to were unheard of. Many of the older men used their fingers to eat and wiped them on the hip parts of their hose afterwards. The younger ones used the tablecloths.

There was a great deal of ale and wine. Sukie and Vicki both drank a little red wine because it was the only liquid safe for them to drink. Water was utterly unhealthy. So was the unpasteurised milk. That was one of the big drawbacks of visiting the past.

They ate and drank and enjoyed music played on lutes and hand held harps and songs from the players of both. The lute-player in hose of red and blue in a diamond pattern and a doublet to match had a beautifully clear lyric baritone voice that carried from the minstrel’s gallery above to the revellers below. Most of the songs were unfamiliar to the young time travellers. The traditional carols they knew mainly dated from the eighteenth and nineteenth century and the more secular songs like ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ were products of Hollywood in the twentieth century. Even so, the songs were pleasant to the ear, even a rather sad one about the babies killed by Herod in Bethlehem and the mothers mourning their loss.

After the first sortie, Sukie slowed her attack on the roast pork, game pies and puddings. The banquet went on through the evening and it was possible to space out the food without any risk of missing out on anything tasty.

“You’re going to get fat,” Vicki teased her. “You’ve eaten more in the first hour of the party than you do in a whole DAY at home.”

“I know,” she admitted. “But we don’t SEE this much food at home. Besides, you’re on your fifth slice of game pie, and I saw you put a huge piece of crackling from the boar on your plate.”

Jimmy was eating his fill, too. There was more food on these tables than he had seen in his entire life. Earl was more careful, taking smaller portions and eating slowly, but he refilled his plate many times.

He was kept in conversation much of the time by Lady Elizabeth. She was thrilled to have a titled gentleman at her Christmas party, a man wearing the royal purple. She asked him many questions about his family’s demesne, for which he had carefully researched and prepared answers. He spoke cautiously about his exact connections with royalty. Of course, the king was Edward IV, the first monarch from the House of York. They were in Lancashire, where sympathies were with the Lancastrian Henry VI, who had been usurped just four years ago after the first of the Wars of the Roses. Earl managed to convey that it was Henry to whom he was distantly related, rather than Edward and spoke hopefully of the restoration of the House of Lancaster to the throne.

Sukie, taking a rest from eating, found politics too dull and let her interest drift from her boyfriend to the other men at the banquet. She was pleased to note that she probably had the best of them. The older men all seemed to lean towards fat with red faces getting redder as the evening wore on and they drank more ale. The younger ones were a slightly better deal, but most of them had black teeth. They seemed either pasty-faced and skinny or rounded with doublets straining at the seams. Some were already as over-heated with drink as their fathers. One or two exceptions managed to cut a handsome figure in their colourful clothes, but Earl still seemed the most attractive man among them, with Jimmy a close second.

Then her gaze fell upon an unusual figure amongst the revellers - unusual, principally because he didn’t appear to be revelling. He had a plate of food but wasn’t eating and a goblet of wine but wasn’t drinking. He was not talking or listening to the music. Instead he was looking at the other guests carefully, as if sizing them up. When his gaze turned upon the top table, Sukie looked away quickly.

“Who is that man?” she asked Isobel de Southworth who sat next to her. “The one in the red doublet.”

“I don’t know,” Isobel answered. “He must be a friend of Sir Richard. He… doesn’t look very jolly, does he?”

“Definitely not full of the Christmas spirit,” Sukie agreed. “He’s dressed very finely. He must be rich.”

“I’m not so sure,” Isobel replied. “That doublet is very out of date. Look at the flared sleeves, the….”

Sukie liked nice clothes, but she got bored very quickly with talk about them. She really didn’t pay much attention to the dozen or so details about the red doublet that made it at least fifty years out of mode. Isobel ventured the opinion that it might have belonged to the man’s father and he was wearing it to try to give the appearance of one who was still in the money.

“Perhaps that is why he doesn’t look happy,” Sukie ventured. “He is worried he might be recognised as down on his luck.”

That was a simple explanation of the man’s demeanour. Sukie didn’t look for a complicated one. She talked to Isobel for a little longer before turning her attention to the new entertainment that was starting. Sir Richard had engaged the services of a professional wassailing company who came into the great hall with a fanfare and proceeded to celebrate Christmas with a short play about the shepherds on the hill above Bethlehem before inviting those who had eaten enough to come and take part in the carol-dance.

This was just the thing Sukie was looking forward to. Earl held her hand as they joined a wide ring around the wassailers who sang the verses of a carol before those guests too infirm or drunk, or full of food, to leave the table joined in the chorus and those in the ring performed a dance that involved changing partners in a complicated way so that each lady met each gentleman in turn before it was all over.

It was in that way that Sukie came in contact with the Man in Red. She tried not to gasp out loud as his hands touched hers, but she couldn’t help notice how cold they were. He seemed a cold person altogether. Even the way he danced was peculiarly impersonal as if he hardly cared that it was a dance of joy for the Christmas time.

She was glad when Earl’s hands touched hers again three partners on and after that the dance was over. The wassailers and the lute player and harpist above played a solemn hymn before Sir Richard told his guests that it was nearly midnight and invited them to follow himself and his wife and Father Sutton, to the newly built family chapel for the Mass.

It seemed odd to the group of young time travellers that they had all been feasting and drinking, some drinking far more than others, as well as singing and dancing, and now they were going quietly to the chapel. They were surprised just how solemn and upright some of the guests managed to be despite all of that revelry.

“I don’t see him,” Sukie said telepathically as the Mass began. It was in Latin, of course, and very formal - very beautiful, but also just a little dull. Of course minds wandered. She was sure everyone there was thinking of something other than the liturgy the priest was intoning, but everyone else’s thoughts didn’t wander to another telepath.

“See who?” Earl asked her.

“The Red Man – the one with the icy hands and the cold expression.”

“He must be here,” Vicki said. “Everyone is here. It would be unthinkable not to be at the Mass.”

By her side, Jimmy was unaware of the silent conversation. She felt a little guilty about that, not the least because she knew Jimmy was as bored as they were with the service but couldn’t do anything to keep his mind off it.

Of course, they couldn’t turn and look at the people behind them in the crowd. That would be the height of rudeness. But the two girls felt Earl reaching out mentally, touching the minds of the people around them.

“He’s here,” Earl said after a while. “He’s not Human.”

“He’s… not?” Vicki and Sukie both reacted at the same time to the news.

“That’s not a problem. We’re not completely Human, either. It doesn’t mean he’s bad. But I’ll keep an eye on him, I think.”

“If he isn’t Human, do you know what he IS?” Vicki asked.

“No. I can’t even tell for sure if he really is humanoid or using some kind of perception cloak. Like I said, I’ll keep an eye on him, but let’s not worry about him. We’re here to enjoy an authentic medieval Christmas, even the bits in Latin.”

“I AM enjoying this bit, incidentally,” Vicki said primly. “It’s not all boring. The ritual is rather beautiful, really.”

“It helps that we can all hear the Latin in English,” Sukie pointed out.

“I’m trying not to,” Vicki answered. “I’m concentrating on the Latin. It’s lovely to listen to.”

Sukie laughed at her, but she knew that Vicki was right in her own way. The Latin Mass really was a pleasure to listen to. But she was too excited by the feasting and dancing and intrigued by the stranger in their midst who wasn’t of this Earth to fully concentrate. She wanted it to be over so that they could find a quiet place and talk openly.

“Do you think it was all right for us to have the Communion?” Vicki asked when they finally had that quiet. While the Mass was going on servants had cleared the Great Hall of the remnants of the feast. One table was left under the minstrels gallery still piled high with three whole suckling pigs, two geese and a huge game pie as well as an assortment of puddings and cakes for those still hungry, and there was a cask of ale and flagons of wine, but the chairs were set around the walls and there was a space for dancing to the lute and harp if anyone was inclined.

Few people were. Most sat quietly with a little food and drink and quiet conversation.

“Everyone is supposed to be Christian in this time,” Earl pointed out. “Even the Red Man went up to the altar. It was the appropriate thing to do.”

“What Red Man?” Jimmy asked. The others quietly filled him in on what he had missed. He was used to being left out of telepathic conversations, of course. It was one of the things he accepted for being the only pure Human in Vicki’s life. He glanced around and noticed the Red Man for the first time. He was talking to Christopher de Southworth and some of his male friends.

Then Christopher and his friends all went into a side room with the Red Man.

“Seems to be a male only thing,” Jimmy said. He stood up and went to follow. Earl immediately joined him. Vicki and Sukie looked worried.

“We’ll watch each other’s backs, as well as watching out for young Master Southworth and his mates,” he assured them. “Go and keep Isobel company. She doesn’t look happy.”

The girls did as he suggested. Isobel, sitting in an elbow chair by the huge, wide fireplace where the Yule log had barely begun to burn down, did, indeed, look very concerned about her husband. She confessed to them that she was apprehensive about what the stranger wanted the men to do in the private side room.

“When he was sitting with us, I couldn’t stop shivering,” she said. “It was as if he pulled all of the warmth out of the air around him, and when he smiled… as he did when he was talking to Christopher… he smiled only with his mouth. His eyes were… cold.”

“A cold man….” Vicki said. “Jack Frost.”

“Speak not of heathen abominations,” Isobel answered. “Such things would not be welcome in a Godly house.”

Vicki was a little puzzled. In her time Jack Frost was just a frivolous character in fairy tales and songs associated with winter. She had never thought of him as something sinister, heathen, and certainly not an abomination.

“They are VERY religious in this time,” Sukie reminded her. “Deadly serious about it. And they very much against anything they consider unchristian. That’s WHY it was right for us to take Communion. They might have thought we were Jewish or Pagan.”

“Yes, I know. I’ve been to Tudor and Stuart Lancashire with daddy. They’re really hot against witches and papists then. I suppose it’s just as bad, now?”

“Except that the word papist doesn’t exist now. Even the word Catholic, because it’s the only kind of Christianity at this time,” Sukie pointed out. “But Jack Frost, though…. He’s only a version of the personification of winter even to pagans. There are a couple of tales from Norse mythology of him freezing people who angered him. But that’s all. I don’t think that’s our Red Man.”

“No, I suppose not,” Vicki admitted. “Besides, Earl said he was alien. I don’t think Anglo-Saxon and Pagan gods were aliens.”

“I don’t know. The Doctor told us once, remember, that a lot of the Egyptian and Greek gods were extra-terrestrials playing tricks on Humans. The Greek ones were a bunch of Gallifreyan students on a field trip that got out of hand. That’s why the Greek alphabet is the same as the Gallifreyan one.”

“You don’t think the Red Man is a Gallifreyan?”

“No. Earl would have recognised one of our own. Oh, I don’t want this to be bad. I want to enjoy Christmas. We’ve got another Mass at dawn, then another at three o’clock. Then we are supposed to get ready for another banquet and dancing until gone midnight. All I want to think about it staying awake until after that dawn Mass, then some breakfast and a bit of sleep before the celebrations begin again. I don’t want aliens or pagans or anything else.”

Isobel was still talking and they were nodding and making agreeable sounds without really listening to her. They were both practiced in doing that ever since they were at school and tuned out of the ordinary lessons to be taught what they really needed to know by psychic transmission from The Doctor.

Then the men emerged from the side room. They all went back to their wives or lady friends and resumed the quiet conversations of the night-long vigil.

Christopher de Southworth went to the victual table and poured a goblet brim full of wine before drinking it down and pouring another that went the same way. The third goblet full he brought with him back to his seat next to Isobel.

“What is it, my dear?” she asked. “I’ve never seen you take wine so quickly. Be careful it does not make you ill.”

“My mouth is so dry,” he answered. “Even after a full swig of wine I feel parched.”

“What happened in there?” Sukie asked Earl and Jimmy very sharply.

Vicki looked around and noticed the Red Man leave the side-room last of all. He didn’t look at anyone, but there was a smile on his face – or at least on his lips. Isobel was right about him. His eyes didn’t smile. She thought of her father. He could be stern at times. When anything made him angry he was a storm of fury. But when he smiled the smile was in his eyes, twinkling with joy.

“It was nothing much, I thought,” Jimmy answered. “He said it was a tradition in the north, where he comes from.”

Vicki was puzzled. “THIS is the north, isn’t it?”

“This is the North-West of England,” Earl said. “It’s north for us, coming from London, but there is a great deal more of England much further north. Think of Northumberland where our friends the Lords Spenser and Stuart abide, and of course, he might have meant Scotland which is a place with traditions unknown to us.”

“It was… just a sort of cake,” Jimmy cut in. “A spiced cake with fruit and nuts in it. And… some other things. He said that the ‘gifts’ within the cake were omens of the future.”

“Omens?” Isobel spoke that word as if it were blasphemy in itself. “What sort of omens?”

Jimmy showed her a small silver coin with crumbs of cake still stuck to it.

“This means I’m going to have good fortune in the coming year,” he said.

“I got a stick,” Earl added, showing a small twig that looked partially chewed by somebody with good strong teeth who hadn’t been looking what he was eating. “The Red Knight told me it meant one of two things. Either I would have to do some hard work in the coming days or I would be beaten with a stick.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Sukie told him.

“Me neither, but I’m not superstitious. And besides if anyone comes at me with a stick they’ll regret it.”

“Nicholas de Barrow had a piece of lace in his cake, meaning he would find true love in the near future,” Jimmy continued. “But he laughed and said his fiancée would see to that. Then Robert Molyneux, Lady Elizabeth’s nephew, got a bronze coin. That was supposed to signify that he would lose money.”

“That could also come true without any supernatural help,” Christopher de Southworth said. “Robert is far too fond of games of chance for his own good.”

“My dear, do not say such things,” Isobel protested. “It was a heathen thing you all did, utterly unchristian, and you must not take notice of such false portents.”

“I agree,” Earl told him. “You most of all, Christopher.”

“Why?” Sukie asked. They had made light of the predictions. They sounded as realistic as the supposed results of finding similar ‘gifts’ in the pudding her father made every Christmas to an old lowland Scots recipe. But there was an edge to Earl’s voice when he spoke to Christopher, who put down his goblet and looked back at him, avoiding the gaze of his wife.

“Because he found a bone,” Jimmy explained. “A small one, from a chicken wing, I think. But that was a sign of… of….”

“Imminent death,” Earl admitted. “But it WAS just nonsense. There was something about the way the Red Knight spoke… it was almost hypnotic, and it was nearly possible to believe when he spoke. But only NEARLY.”

“I don’t know about that,” Jimmy contradicted him. “He had me for a while. What was his accent? It definitely wasn’t Scots. I would swear he was speaking another language entirely at one point.”

Vicki studied her boyfriend carefully. He could be mischievous, prone to pranks and jokes. But he was doing neither, now. He really seriously looked and sounded as if he had been in the thrall of the mysterious man.

“I think you all should stay away from the wine,” Isobel said. Her expression was tight. She reached and took the goblet from her husband. “No more, Christopher, my dear. There are enough people drinking to excess tonight. As the heir to this house, it behoves you to set an example.”

“You are right, my love,” Christopher answered. “I shall not slake my thirst that way. But I do feel very weary. I think I should lie down in a quieter place for a while.”

“I think that is a very good idea,” Isobel said. “Come to the parlour. I will help you.”

She clearly thought he was just drunk from too much wine. It was what afflicted most of the men by this time of the night, and one or two women who ought to have known better. She brought him to the airy parlour with a couch where he could lay down.

“Is it just the wine?” Sukie asked the pertinent question.

“It might be,” Jimmy said. “He had plenty to drink at the feast, and then drank three big goblets straight down just now. I’d be away with the fairies after one of them.”

“They drink a lot of wine in this era,” Earl said. “His constitution would be better able for it than ours. But I suspect there is a bit of Power of Suggestion going on. The Red Knight said he would be ill, so he’s ill.”

“Why do you call him the Red Knight?” Vicki asked. They had all said it more than once, and she wondered why it didn’t occur to her to question it before now. Perhaps there was a lot more Power of Suggestion going on than they thought.

“It’s how he introduced himself,” Jimmy answered. “He said he was the Red Knight of Christmas, and he was come among us to show us our destiny.”

“And none of us thought that was sinister,” Earl commented. “Maybe I WAS hypnotised and didn’t even know it.”

“Is something dangerous happening?” Sukie asked.

“Good question. Let’s keep alert. At least… some of us stay alert. I think the three of you should try to get a little bit of sleep. I’m going to take first watch and make sure chummy over there is never out of my sight.”

“No,” Jimmy contradicted him. “I’ll take first watch.” Earl started to protest but Jimmy stopped him. “I’m Human. We barely have three hours before the dawn Mass thing, and I’m so hyper from everything going on, I’ll get hardly any sleep if I try. Let me stay up since I’m awake. The three of you do that Time Lordy meditation thing that you do and be good and awake at dawn. I’ll sleep after the church thing, when I’m completely tired, and leave it to you super-beings.”

“Jimmy, you’re not… less than us in any way. Don’t ever think that,” Vicki told him.

“I don’t think it. But I know my limitations, and I know you can do a better job of dealing with any funny business that might happen later.”

“All right,” Earl said. “You girls lie down on the couch there. I’ll take this chair with my feet up on a stool. Jimmy, if it looks like chummy plans to leave the house, wake me. Otherwise, don’t disturb me until dawn.”

The girls lay down quietly and quickly dropped into a third level trance, refreshing their bodies and minds much more thoroughly than ordinary sleep could do. Earl went deeper, into a fourth level where much of his body slowed down. His two hearts beat only once every minute and his respiration was minimal. His brain was calm.

Jimmy stayed awake. Around him some of those who had overdone the eating and drinking had succumbed to sleep, but most were keeping the vigil until dawn, talking quietly amongst themselves and listening to the gentle sounds of the lute and harp in the gallery. Jimmy wondered if the same players were still at it or had they swapped around. Surely their fingers would be raw by now plucking at strings for so long.

The Red Knight sat alone, at the far end of the Great Hall, furthest from the warmth of the fire. He talked to nobody, but watched them all as he had done before. Jimmy tried not to let him know he was, himself, being watched.

As the first cold rays of morning light touched the Oriel window beside the gallery the household began to stir and ready themselves for the Dawn Mass. There were yawns and stretches and groans from most. Vicki, Sukie and Earl woke in the same instant, all three looking refreshed and re-invigorated.

Isobel and Christopher emerged from the parlour. Christopher looked pale and delicate. Then again, he wasn’t the only one. At Midnight Mass a lot of men had been drunk. The same men faced the Dawn Mass with the hangover that followed such excess.

Earl didn’t think Christopher was just hung over. He walked at his side, watching him carefully. They were among the last to enter the chapel and stood near the back of the congregation as Father Dutton began the service of celebration of Christmas morning. That meant that they were among the last to go up for Communion at the altar. Isobel knelt beside her husband and Earl the other side of him. They were both close enough to reach out to him when he tried to take the Communion cup and his hands shook violently. The cup containing the transubstantiated wine fell to the floor as Christopher’s body spasmed painfully and he finally collapsed with foam coming from his lips.

“He’s possessed!” the priest cried.

“He’s nothing of the sort,” Earl replied shortly, but he wasn’t entirely sure of that. He turned from examining the unconscious Christopher and saw the Red Knight fleeing from the chapel. He leapt to his feet and pushed through the crowd to make chase. He reached the courtyard in time to see the Red Knight mount a horse and set it at full gallop from a standing start. He leapt up onto the back of another horse and went after him at full speed.

Sukie saw the beginning of the chase through the chapel window as Christopher de Southworth was lifted and carried to his room, the priest murmuring prayers over him and Isobel, his wife, and Elizabeth, his mother, sobbing into each other’s shoulders.

“Come on,” Vicki said to her. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t do anything medieval like boring holes in his head to let the demons out.”

“They wouldn’t, would they?” Sukie asked.

“Let’s not give them a chance. Whatever it was that the Red Knight did to him, we can mend him.”

“Sure, and get burned as witches for doing unGodly things to him,” Sukie responded. “These are very narrow-minded people when it comes to stuff like that.”

“I have an idea. Come on.”

Vicki rushed after those attending to Christopher. Sukie followed her. She tried to make a telepathic contact with Earl but his thoughts were a jumble of speed and pursuit as he urged his horse on after the Red Knight. She noted that he was riding bareback without any reins of any kind and felt a deep sense of second hand pride in the man she fully intended to marry when she came of age.

“Let me through,” Vicki said with an authority in her voice that belied her age and appearance of demure femininity. “I can help him. I have seen a man with this affliction in London. I know how he was cured.”

“The prayers of the Godly will bring him back to health,” Father Dutton said. “If it be God’s will. If not, I am ready to give the last rites to a man who dies with all of his sins forgiven.”

“Let her try,” Isobel said. “If there is anything that might be done, do it.”

“Yes,” said the even more imperative command of Sir Richard de Southworth, master of the house. “Let the girl try. Father, you may pray for him in the ante-room. Let everyone else be gone from here and give him peace.”

Sir Richard had to be obeyed. He took his wife from the room, consoling her with the assurance that everything would be done that might be done. Everyone except Isobel cleared out of the room.

“When this happened in my father’s house,” Vicki said, making up the most convincing story she could. “The afflicted man was bathed in an infusion of herbs in hot water. It drew the poison from his body and made him well.”

“What herbs?” Isobel asked. “We have bunches of them in the kitchen.”

“Rosemary,” Vicki answered. “And dandelion, and the leaves of mistletoe.” She was thinking of leaves and herbs that might easily be found in winter, in Lancashire. Rosemary and dandelion would certainly be among the dried herbs, and mistletoe was hanging all over the house. It would be no trouble to boil them up in the kitchen.

Isobel went to tell the servants to make the medicine. It got her out of the room. Vicki and Sukie took up positions either side of the bed as soon as she was gone. Jimmy, looking tired but determined to do his part in the drama, kept his back to the closed door while they began the work of healing Christopher de Southworth.

“What are you doing?” he asked the girls as Vicki began unlacing Christopher’s doublet.

“Undressing him. How else can we treat him, even as telepathic healers. We need to physically touch his flesh with our hands.”

“Well... leave the… the… hosiery alone,” he said, awkwardly trying to assert himself appropriately. “That’s none of your business.”

“You handle the hose, then,” Vicki answered. “He’s wearing braise underneath. You can leave those on if it worries you.”

“There is some kind of poison there,” Sukie confirmed as Jimmy dealt with the lower half of the Southworth heir’s outer clothing, leaving his medieval linen underpants in place. “I can get that out of him easily enough. But I think that’s just the start of it. The poison is weakening him so that something else can be taken from him.”

“What?” Vicki asked.

“I think… his soul,” Sukie answered. She was already laying her hands on his cold, clammy chest and reaching into his body to push the noxious substance from his bloodstream, forcing it out through the pores of his skin and leaving an ashy residue over his body.

“His soul….” Vicki considered that. Her father, who knew more than anyone else in the universe, had told her that everyone had a soul, but there was no anatomical chart that could show where it was. No dissection of a body would ever find it. But it was the most vital part of any being. It was what made them who they are. Without it, any being was just existing, not living.

“It’s why he’s so cold,” Sukie added. “His flesh feels like a wet fish on a slab.”

“The Red Knight was cold….”

“He’s stealing Christopher’s soul, leaving him cold and empty like he was. That ritual with the cake… it was some kind of way of marking him out as the victim to be preyed upon.”

“What can we do?” Vicki asked.

“Nothing. It’s up to Earl. He’s chasing the Red Knight. Let him deal with him. We have to look after Christopher as best we can until then. He can’t die. He mustn’t die. He’s… a part of all our destinies.”

Vicki looked puzzled.

“He’s a Southworth. He’s the heir to the Southworth name. In… I don’t know how many generations… when Catholics are banned from England and his family are split between those who defy the law and those who conform, one of his descendents is the Seminary whose life Chris saved when he was just a little boy – the one who gave him the crucifix he wore for years and gave him the idea of being the sort of spiritual leader he is. And… last year that same man helped save Earl’s life when he was in trouble. If Christopher dies, all of that won’t happen. Not only will his family be changed, but ours, too.”

“That’s important,” Vicki admitted. “But even if it wasn’t, we’d still have to try all we can to save him.”

There was a knock at the door. Jimmy admitted Isobel and a servant with a steaming bowl of fragrant, herb-infused water. It smelt as if it could help. Sukie knew it was just a placebo – a way of being able to touch Christopher’s flesh without arousing suspicion. She could continue to drive out the poison from his bloodstream and mend the damage it had already done to his liver, repair his body.

The rest was up to Earl.

Earl was still pursuing the Red Knight in a northerly direction across country. He was slowly gaining ground. He had the advantage of knowing the lay of the land rather better than the alien did. There were more roads through it in his time, a city where the market town of Preston was, a village to the east where there was only a yeoman farm now, but Samlesbury Hall was still a few miles upstream from his house on the hill above the River Ribble. He had ridden a hover bike all over this area when he was a teenager. Since he was given his first time car for his eighteenth birthday he had explored Lancashire not only in his own time but in almost every time right back to before there was a settlement of any kind in this area.

The Red Knight was a stranger here.

He didn’t know that he was riding into a virtual dead end. The Ribble was in its lowland flood plain and where it meandered around the edge of Boilton woods it had formed a deep, elongated loop like a finger of land pointing north-north-west. The copse that the Red Knight had ridden into led only to the apex of that loop, at a place where the river was too deep to cross.

Earl cut across the edge of the copse and was justifiably satisfied with himself when he saw the Red Knight pull his horse up sharply, faced with an unexpected river bank. He urged his own horse on towards him and got ready to jump, unhorsing his quarry. It was a manoeuvre worthy of a holo-vid adventure. He briefly wished Sukie had been there to witness him being this heroic and dashing before remembering that Sukie adored him anyway and he didn’t need to impress her.

“Who are you and WHAT are you?” he demanded as he knocked the Red Knight to the ground and grappled him with his bare hands. “What have you done to Christopher Southworth?”

“His soul is mine,” the Red Knight answered. “I have been cold for too long. I will have his warmth… his vitality…. I will feed upon him.”

“I don’t think so,” Earl answered. But the Red Knight was strong. He fought back against him. He might well have taken his soul, too, if he hadn’t spotted something lying in the frost covered grass, glinting in the winter sunlight. He reached out for the sword the knight had worn at his side. It had fallen from the scabbard as he fell from his horse. Earl grabbed it and swung, bringing it down on the Red Knight’s neck. It was a clean, strong swing. The head was split from the body.

Earl had never decapitated anyone before. He wasn’t sure what he should expect, but he thought copious amounts of blood should be involved. He wasn’t expecting an actinic white light streaming from the severed neck and a roaring like the river in flood. The head, several feet away, looked like a Halloween lamp, light streaming from the eyes and the opened mouth emitting a high pitched scream that merged with the roar to make a thoroughly unearthly noise.

At first the light was one dazzling stream, but as he watched, Earl saw it divide into smaller streams and then divide again into thinning yet still shining shapes hanging in the air before shooting away in different directions. He watched one of them fly towards the just recognisable rooftop of Samlesbury Hall.

The souls, the essences, the life forces of many victims – how many houses had the Red Knight been to before he arrived at Samlesbury? How many young men were ailing in their beds when they ought to have been full of life and joy?

He looked back at the body. It was looking less humanoid now that those essences had been released. Before his eyes the shell of flesh crumpled in on itself, turning to dry grey and then crumbling to dust until there was nothing left but a red doublet and hose fluttering in the breeze.

The Red Knight was a parasite, living off the lives of others, and without those lives he was nothing. Earl kicked the clothes into the river where they floated for a while and then sank. Then he reached for the horse he had ridden and remounted it. The one the Red Knight had taken followed as he turned back towards Samlesbury.

When he reached the house there was a mood of relief and rejoicing among the company, but he wasn’t satisfied until he reached the bedchamber where Christopher de Southworth was sitting up in his bed, pale and sick, still, but alive and recovering from his ordeal. His wife and mother were with him as well as Father Dutton murmuring prayers. He turned back to the ante-chamber where Sukie, Vicki and Jimmy waited with Sir Richard.

“Jimmy said we shouldn’t be in another man’s bedroom now he’s awake,” Sukie told her boyfriend.

“Quite right, too,” Earl agreed.

“What happened to the Red Knight?” Jimmy asked.

“He was no more a knight than my granny was,” Earl responded. “He’s dead. He won’t harm anyone else.”

“You’ve slain the demon who afflicted my son?” Sir Richard asked.

“Demon?” Earl considered that word. It was a good a one as any. Funny that so devoutly Christian people still believed that demons could possess a man but that was easier than explaining that an alien from another world was feeding on the souls of humans. “Yes, it is slain. The body is gone, returned to the underworld it came from. It is all over.”

“Then at the last Mass of Christmas we shall give thanks for God’s guidance of your hand, my Lord, and you and your kin shall have the eternal thanks and unending friendship of the Southworth heirs. Come, let us drink wine and eat of the breakfast collation and later our Christmas may be merry again now that this curse is lifted from us.”

“Unending friendship,” Sukie said when they went to rest for a few quiet hours after such excitement. “He doesn’t know how true that is. It’s a shame his heirs are going to be so troubled in later years. But that’s just history and politics. At least they’re all right in THIS generation.”

“It’s not how I planned to spend Christmas,” Earl admitted.

“Then you’re trying to join the wrong family,” Jimmy told him. “This lot always get into trouble, Christmas or any other time. I think we just have to roll with it.”

“Fortunately, Christmas lasts for twelve days and nights in this time,” Vicki said. “We have plenty of feasting and dancing and celebrating, and more than a few Latin Masses to enjoy.”

“How do women in these times keep their figures with twelve days of feasting?” Sukie wondered aloud. “Earl, will you still love me if I get fat on roast boar and game pie?”

“Course I will,” Earl answered. “But stay off the puddings and cakes – not for the calories, but just in case there are any more ‘gifts’ inside them.”