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

Davie Campbell was awake before anyone else. He made coffee and took it outside. At a little before dawn on a Tiboran midwinter morning the frozen lake and the mountains that rose up around it sparkled coldly. Even the scarred top of the volcano that had erupted so dramatically a few short years ago was snow covered and looking beautiful against the still inky sky in that direction.

It was a peaceful scene, which was as it should be.

It very nearly wasn’t. Last night, Midwinter Eve, it very nearly went very wrong.

It started just fine, the way Midwinter Eve was supposed to be. Seb and Mark were excited because tomorrow morning there would be presents, and before then there was a big communal party at the lakefront community hall.

Brenda was excited about that. It was her first Midwinter Eve party since before she had married Davie. It was her first party as an adult, as a parent, bringing her own children.

Her brother Philip was excited, too. The teenager had been at the lodge all day, ‘helping’ his sister to prepare the food she was contributing to the communal table. He also spent a lot of his time talking to the twins about the Earth tradition of Christmas that was so similar to their Midwinter Day. Their explanations of the festival were not quite illuminating.

“There was a baby who was born in a stable and was king of the world,” Mark said. “So that’s why we have lots of presents on Christmas Day.”

“There is a baby at Midwinter,” Philip answered them. “Mrs Jerrell across the way had a baby boy yesterday morning. It is the closest to Midwinter so it will be blessed as the Midwinter Prince at the party.”

“I hope they wrap the baby up warm for the journey,” Davie commented as he overheard the boys talking. “The temperature is dropping by the minute. It hit minus ten at sunset and it’s still going down.”

“They only have a half mile to travel,” Brenda assured him. “They’re closer than we are to the Community Hall, and they’ve got a new snowrover.”

“Good. I can’t imagine anyone getting around at this time of year without one.”

“They used to, a couple of hundreds of years ago, when we had horse-pulled sleighs,” Brenda pointed out. She looked at the row of colourful cards from friends that decorated the mantelpiece. “Very pretty on Midwinter Cards, but I prefer a snowrover, too. As long as you don’t treat it like one of your racing cars.”

“In this weather, certainly not,” Davie replied. “Will there be room for the kids along with all the food you’re making?”

“Do you want us to look frugal?” Brenda countered. “There’s room for all of us and the Winter Queen, too.”

“I’m not taking hitchhikers. Who is the Winter Queen when she’s at home?”

“Dad, everyone knows about the Winter Queen,” Seb told him. “She comes for ungrateful children who don’t appreciate their Midwinter gifts.”

“And bad parents who don’t GIVE their children GOOD Midwinter gifts,” Mark added.

“Bribery and extortion both ways,” Davie commented. “I might just give you a badly knitted woolly hat each and take my chances. I’ve fought Dominators, Sontarans, Rutans, Cybermen, Zygons and worse. I can handle a frigid royal. Go and find your winter coats. We’ll be leaving as soon as your mother gets the last pie out of the oven.”

The boys ran off, giggling with excitement. Philip hung back, giving Davie a worried look.

“What?” he demanded.

“You shouldn’t make jokes about the Winter Queen. If she is displeased she can take children away.”

“Oh, Philip,” Brenda told her brother. “It’s just a story. The Winter Queen isn’t real. Aren’t you a bit big to be worrying about those sorts of stories?”

Philip looked hurt. Brenda hugged him and promised not to offend the Winter Queen. He seemed satisfied and went to find the twins.

“What was that about?” Davie asked. “He IS way too old for fairy stories.”

“I know. It’s…. I’ve spent a lot of time away from Tibora. When I was his age I was at school on Earth. Then later I was with you as often as possible. I forget, sometimes, how ‘traditional’ these rural parts are. Most of the locals have stopped bowing when they see you, especially since the boys were little and you used to push their buggy. That kind of dispels the ‘living god thing. But people still think twice about looking into an ice-covered pool in case SHE looks back and it is bad luck to break ice in a tub without asking Her permission. Even people who own snowrovers have those sort of superstitions. I was wrong to make a joke about her in front of Philip and so were you.”

“Well, dad always used to warn me and Chris about the Caillech Bheur, who froze water with a tap of her walking stick and would deal with naughty boys who wouldn’t go to bed. He made Scotland sound like a terrifying, wild place full of bloodthirsty spirits. Even after fighting Dominators and the rest I wouldn’t want to meet the Caillech.”

“There you go, then. You take the food out to the snowrover. I’ll make sure Mark hasn’t got tangled in his mitten strings.”

That was a fair deal. Davie lifted the heavy box of carefully packed baked goods and carried it outside. The bitter cold hit him as soon as he stepped out of the cosy lodge house. He put the food away in the luggage space in the motorised sledge commonly called a snowrover and turned to look at the old-fashioned barrel that caught rainwater off the roof in softer weather. A thick layer of ice covered the extremely cold water. He punched it with a gloved hand. It cracked loudly and shards of ice submerged. Almost immediately the water began to ice over again, but he was satisfied.

“I don’t need permission from anyone just to break ice,” he said aloud to the empty air. All the same, he went back to the snowrover and was in the driver’s seat with the heater on when his wife and the children joined him.

It was only six o’clock in the evening, but Midwinter was the solstice of the year, the longest night. Halfway out of the dark, The Doctor called it when they observed the old Gallifreyan tradition at the Hill of Tara. The darkness was defied by the brightly lit Community Hall on the other side of the lake and the headlamps of dozens of snowrovers heading around towards it.

Snowrovers were capable of skating across ice as well as snow, but he noted that all the lights were going around the lake. Nobody would risk going straight across. He certainly didn’t consider it. There had been people skating on the thick ice layer during the short afternoon, and there were skates for the boys among their brightly wrapped Midwinter gifts. He fully intended to teach them to enjoy the ice safely. But driving across that dark expanse at night gave even him a hollow feeling of fatality.

Besides, it wasn’t that difficult to skirt the edge of the lake. The snow had been packed down by regular traffic. They slipped behind the vehicle driven by Brenda’s father as they reached the family farmstead. Philip waved madly to his parents and the twins copied him. The last quarter mile of the trip was noisy but cheerful.

It felt even colder outside after the warmth of the snowrover, but there was only a short walk from the parking area to the inviting Community Hall entrance. Multi-coloured solar lights illuminated the door and a pool of yellow warmth spilled from the vestibule where outer garments were hung up before going into the main hall. Brenda was pleased and proud at the number of people who greeted her. She was not a permanent member of the community, living on Earth with her new family, but she was welcomed as one of their own.

One of their own who was married to a Time Lord. The Freemans had long ago got over the urge to bow when they saw Davie, but it was proving a lot harder for their neighbours. He could see the confusion in their faces as they wondered whether to treat him as the husband of one of their own, a part of their community, or to kneel in his presence.

They chose the former, but it was a close thing for a few seconds.

The twins weren’t worried about their father’s social status. There were games to play with children of their own age. They were simple games involving balloons and singing rhymes, but they joined in with enthusiasm. The older children like Philip were engaged in dressing a corner next to the stage where a wicker crib was placed. Colourful ribbons and boughs of fresh evergreen were used to decorate the place where the Winter Prince would lie after the blessing. This was a very serious matter to which they paid a great deal of attention.

The adults had music and dancing. Neither were quite Davie’s thing. They resembled in too many ways the music and the steps of an American barn dance, which was a long way from his musical preference. He joined in to please Brenda and tried not to let the monotonous polka rhythms grate on his nerves.

There was plenty of food and drink. Long tables groaned under the weight of roast meat, pies, puddings and cakes while a cask of local beer and flagons of wine were available. There was a fruit punch for the children and tee-totallers. Between dances everyone ate and drank their fill.

“The boys are going to burst from eating,” Davie observed before he was distracted by a middle-aged man who he vaguely knew as Joss Carlin, a Burgher – elder - of the townlands surrounding the lake. He told Davie that he was currently the Alt-Burgher - something like a mayor of the district.

“It would normally fall to me to bless the Midwinter Prince,” he said. “It is merely a traditional ceremony, of course, conferring luck and prosperity on all who witness it.”

“Yes, I understand the idea,” Davie answered him. “It is a charming tradition. I am looking forward to seeing it for myself.”

“Yes, but… you are a Lord of Time. You outrank me. The honour should be yours.”

“Oh.” Davie was non-plussed. “Oh, no. Really, I am merely visiting for the winter festival. You are the elder of the community. It should be your honour. I should be happy just to watch the ceremony and celebrate with all of you.”

It was the only response he could give. He didn’t want his status as one of the Lords of Time that the Tiboran people regarded as their living gods to be highlighted. He wanted to visit this place, staying in the lakeside lodge, just like any other member of the community. Being front and centre performing a ceremony – a ceremony that he knew nothing about - would hardly do much for that.

“Perhaps you are right,” Burgher Carlin conceded. “I only thought….”

“Of course, I am pleased to be asked,” Davie added, making it clear that the proprieties had been observed. Burgher Carlin was satisfied. Davie excused himself from his company and turned to look for Brenda to dance with her again. Just as he found her among her family and friends, though, a sudden change came upon the hall. The temperature actually dropped several degrees. He felt it as his Time Lord body automatically self-adjusted. At the same time, all the conversations stopped and the music came to a ragged halt as the musicians ceased playing.

All eyes turned to the strange woman who had walked into the hall. She was dressed in a silver-white gown that fitted in all the right places. Her hair was long and silvery-white, too, though her face was young and unblemished.

Her face was pale as if it had never been touched by the sun except for thin, ruddy lips that smiled coldly as she walked in an ever-widening space between the silent groups of neighbours.

She was carrying a baby wrapped up in a white swaddling wrap. Its face was as pale as hers. Davie looked at it closely as he passed very near to him and thought that there was something a little repulsive about it, as if it looked less like a baby than a sort of bone white larvae in a cocoon. The woman, though beautiful in a cold sort of way, looked a little repulsive, too. The word ‘succubus’ settled in the front of his thoughts and refused to be dislodged.

“Who is that?” he whispered to Brenda.

“I have no idea,” she answered. “I don’t think she’s local. She doesn’t even look Tiboran.”

“She’s the Winter Queen,” Philip said in a tone just a bit louder than a whisper. Even so it shouldn’t have carried to the woman, but she stopped and turned. Davie pushed Philip behind him and met the sinister woman’s chilly gaze himself. He felt her cold touch against his mind, but he was well practised in shielding his thoughts from the telepathic Tiboran people and she quickly withdrew. She turned and walked towards the crib the youngsters had decorated for the Winter Prince. Without any word of explanation she placed her child in it.

“Madam, what are you doing?” Burgher Carlin returned from his search for the Jerrell family and exclaimed in horror at the unwarranted use of the Midwinter Crib.

“This is my son,” replied the mysterious woman. “He should be Winter Prince.”

“The Jerrell baby has been selected, already,” Carlin replied. “Please remove your child from the bower.”

“The Winter Prince is the child born closest to Midwinter Eve,” the woman countered. “My child was born at dawn this morning. He is the Prince.”

“If she gave birth this morning and fits into that dress, I’m a balloon,” Brenda remarked amid a general murmuring of discontent. Almost immediately she gasped as she felt a chill within her. The woman’s eyes were upon her.

Again, Davie shielded his family bodily from what felt like a very tangible threat.

“Madam….” Burgher Carlin began again. The woman turned her icy gaze back to him.

“You will do me the respect of calling me by my name.”

“I do not know your name, madam,” Carlin pointed out quite logically.

“I am Olwen Neve,” she announced in a voice that echoed like a flint struck against a frozen rock to make fire on an ice-covered tundra.

“She’s the Winter Queen,” Philip again insisted. “Her name means cold.”

This time his father stepped in front of him to protect him from the icy stare of a woman with an uncanny way of knowing who had spoken against her.

The boy was right, of course. In old Tiboran Olwen meant ‘snowy footprint’ and Neve meant simply ‘ice’.

What anyone other than Philip thought about that Davie couldn’t tell. It was their natural telepathic abilities that first brought them to the attention of the Time Lords of Gallifrey, but all around the hall, each mind had closed tight against the stranger in their midst.

What he felt most strongly amongst the community was fear. Davie looked at Marcus Freeman, a strong, intelligent man who had shown courage on more than one occasion. He was frightened, not so much for himself, but for his family, his wife and son who he held with his two strong arms, and Brenda, his daughter, and his grandsons. Fear of what might happen to them held him back from challenging the woman who carried the winter cold into the warmest place.

That was the case with every man except Burgher Carlin, who took his responsibility for the whole community seriously and stood his ground against her firmly.

“You are not part of this community. You are a stranger to us. The Winter Prince is chosen from amongst the people he will rule over for the year.”

“My child is the Prince,” Olwen Neve insisted. “You will give him the blessing.”

“I will not,” Carlin replied. “Take your child and be gone from this place where good folk are gathered together.

“Please…” It was Mrs Jerrell who stepped forward, her own baby wrapped in a pale blue shawl and a knitted hat. “If it makes things easier, I don’t mind if my Eric isn’t the Winter Prince. It’s just a tradition.”

Strangely, her attempt at conciliation only seemed to enrage Olwen Neve. She took an angry step towards the frightened mother, her arm outstretched, fingers pointing as if to cast a curse.

“It is NOT just a tradition,” she said. “It is far more than that. You fools have forgotten the old ways. You have forgotten that winter is a time of hardship and sacrifice when food is scarce.” She glanced scathingly at the tables still full of more food than the people gathered in the Hall could possibly eat. Even worse was the mess of dropped sausage rolls and spilled puddings around the edge of the table – food gone to waste.

But was Olwen Neve here to lecture them about greed or wastefulness? Surely not.

“You are soft and disrespectful to the gods of Winter,” she continued. “Have you forgotten the true reason for the blessing of the Winter Prince?”

“It used to be to prevent the Midwinter King taking the child as his own,” whispered Brenda’s mother. “But that was a very long time ago. Ancient times.”

Davie understood that much. He was reminded of the pagan customs that were superseded by Christian ones on Earth. Christmas with all its associated feasting and present giving replaced the solstice rites. The Doctor called it ‘halfway out of the dark’, because it was the darkest and coldest the winter would get and from here on the days would get longer and the spring would be coming. It was a chance to say ‘yes, we will make it through.’

Obviously the same kind of solstice rites had existed on Tibora long ago, but now it was just a token nod to the old times with party food, dancing and a pretty little ceremony performed by the elders of the community.

“We have no Midwinter gods,” said Mr Jerrell, father of this child. “This community is gathered together in friendship and celebration. You are the only one who has come bearing enmity. Be gone with you and leave us in peace.”

Olwen’s pointing hand turned upon him. Her face hardened into a scowl of pure hatred. Mr Jerrell cried out once and collapsed. His wife screamed and sank to her knees beside him, still clutching her child and sobbing that her husband was dead.

Davie moved quickly. He knelt and examined Mr Jerrell. He was very cold but he wasn’t dead, just in a shocked stupor.

“Get blankets, keep him warm,” he instructed the shocked neighbours, but as they moved to do his bidding Olwen raised her hand again and ordered them not to move.

Davie stood and faced her defiantly. He felt her cold eyes burning into his as she again tried to touch his mind. She couldn’t, and the strength of his resistance puzzled her.

“You’re not from this place,” she accused.

“Nor are you,” he countered. “But I am one of the Lords of Time who long ago promised to protect these people as their kindred. So, what is it you want? This blessing on your child…. Why?”

“Because the Winter King will take him if he does not receive the blessing,” she answered. “All children born in winter are his, and those born at Midwinter more so.”

“And why would you fear that? You look like you belong with the King, yourself. Midwinter Queen?”

“I do not fear him. But I demand the blessing on my child to protect him.”

“No,” Philip said, stepping out from his father’s guard. “No, it’s not that. The Midwinter Queen can’t have babies the ordinary way. She makes them from the snow. She needs the blessing to make it truly alive… real… warm-blooded, like us. That’s the story in the books I’ve read about her.”

“Who gave you books with tales like that in?” his mother asked. “What terrible, unnatural ideas are those?”

“The boy speaks truth,” Olwen said. “I will let him live.”

With that, her hand swept around the Hall. A few people had chance to cry out. Most grabbed their children close and fell together in sad heaps. Davie looked around to see Brenda clutching the twins and her father reaching out to her desperately.

“Mum, Dad!” Philip called out plaintively as he was left standing.

“They’re not dead,” Davie assured him. “I can feel their lifesigns around me, just slowed down, like trees in winter, waiting for the warm weather to make the sap rise. They’ll be all right.”

“But she said….”

“I know what she said. But she’s a liar. She’s not powerful enough to kill so many people at once. Their blood is too warm. It’s a wonder a frozen-hearted harridan like her can bear to be among so much life. I think that was the real reason for sending them all to sleep. It was too much to cope with. Now it’s just the two of us to deal with – mostly me. What was it you said, Philip, about the Midwinter Queen’s babies?”

“She makes them of snow,” Philip answered. “But the blessing of the Midwinter Prince will turn it into flesh.”

“Is that so?” Davie strode across to the crib and picked up the swaddled baby. It looked more like it was made of some kind of wax than snow, but it was certainly not flesh and blood. He pressed his hand against the cold body and felt no heartbeat, no warmth of life. The features of the face were stiff and unlifelike except for two small, black, beady eyes like those of a bat or some other nocturnal creature. It was far more like a sinister doll than a baby.

Even so, he was glad Brenda couldn’t see what he did next.

“This is the only blessing a vile thing like this deserves,” he said, lifting the ‘child’ above his head and throwing it to the floor. Philip yelped in shock at the violence of the action and the Winter Queen howled in rage. For a brief, uncertain moment Davie looked down to see if he had been mistaken and a real baby lay bleeding at his feet.

Instead there were some lumps of unidentifiable white substance melting into a puddle of dirty water. Philip was right. The Midwinter Queen’s baby was not ‘real’ in the warm-blooded sense anyone on Tiboran recognised.

“If you take my child, I shall have yours!” Olwen declared. Davie thought immediately of the twins and moved to protect them and Brenda. Philip realised that she meant the community’s youngest child. He ran to grab the Jerrell baby from his unconscious mother’s arms and then kept running out of the hall. Davie opened his mind enough to see Philip’s intention to jump into one of the parked snowrovers and lock the door behind him.

“You stay where you are,” he told Olwen Neve. “You may be one of the old gods of Tibora, but I’m one of its new ones. The Time Lords of Gallifrey didn’t quite live up to their promise to look after the people of this world, but there is a new lot in charge, now, and I’m here to see you banished from this place of love and warmth, back to the black netherworld where demons and succubi belong.”

Olwen screeched like the proverbial bean sidhe that belonged in the same netherworld and tried to fly at him, her hands reaching towards him. He felt a stab of icy pain in his chest, as if an icicle had pierced his heart.

It ought to have been enough to cause a heart attack. He should have been debilitated, perhaps dying.

But Olwen Neve obviously knew nothing about the Time Lords of Gallifrey. She certainly didn’t know that Time Lords have two hearts. He supressed the pain and instead reached out towards her heart – or at least the place where it ought to be. In his mind’s eye he pictured a white hot star, the source of heat and light for a whole solar system, the source of life itself.

And in that life-giving heat and light a creature of snow and ice and darkness withered. Davie was a little surprised by his own power as he watched her pale flesh turn to water and evaporate instantly. In a few moments there wasn’t even a puddle to be seen. Even her dress had disintegrated with her.

For a little while he stood there quietly, gathering his strength, expended in the effort. He saw Philip come back into the room with the Jerrell baby. The child was awake but content, snuggled in Philip’s warm, winter clothes.

“What about everyone else?” he asked. “How will we wake them?”

“Come here,” Davie said to him. He took Philip’s hand in his and thought again of the life-giving sun. “Go to Mr and Mrs Jerrell, first. Get the little one back with his mother. Then the rest.”

Philip looked at his own hand in astonishment. It was glowing faintly. When he touched the unconscious Jerrells they revived almost instantly. Davie took care of his wife and children and her parents first, then their neighbours in turn.

Soon everyone was awake, but there were a lot of awkward questions and a lot of worried parents who just wanted to go home.

“She’s ruined the Midwinter Eve, anyway,” Philip noted.

“Hold on, I might be able to do something to help. It’ll be hard work. Power of Suggestion really only works on a one to one basis, usually, but I’ve just literally touched the hearts of nearly everyone here. I might have enough of a connection, still.”

He closed his eyes and reached out to all of the minds around him. He blurred the edges of their immediate memories and put another idea into the forefront of their thoughts.

“Burgher Carlin,” Marcus Freeman called out in a cheerfully mocking tone. “If that’s what a ‘traditional mummers play’ is like, I think next year we’ll just have the chap who juggles fire. Let’s leave Midwinter Queens well alone.”

Carlin laughed and agreed then called on the band to play something cheerful while everyone got themselves a drink and prepared to toast the newly blessed Midwinter Prince.

That happy ceremony, conferring good fortune for the year not only on the Jerrell baby, but the whole community he lived in was duly performed. When it was over the dancing, eating and drinking continued until after midnight when families donned outer clothes and headed for their homes. In the morning there would be Midwinter presents to open, and the Midwinter Day dinner - plenty to look forward to.

Yes, it could have gone very wrong. Davie sipped his coffee and wondered again just where Olwen Neve had come from. Was she really one of the old gods of an ancient belief system that the Tiborans had long ago abandoned? The idea clashed with his scientific reasoning. Such creatures could not really have existed and even if they had, there was no place for them here.

He heard footsteps and turned to see Brenda come out to join him with her own mug of coffee. He hugged her close as the dawn light slowly began to define the mountain tops.

“You feel warm, even out here in the cold,” Brenda told him, snuggling close. “Is that a Time Lord thing?”

“It’s the heart of a white hot star that gives light and warmth and life,” he answered. “And keeps coffee from going cold in the mug. If I was feeling especially smug, I can also melt the ice on the water barrel with the power of my mind, and nuts to the Midwinter Queen. But I think I’ll leave that be, for now. I’m going to just enjoy the minimum ten minutes more we have before the boys wake up and ransack the presents.”

Brenda laughed, then paused in thought. There was a question, somewhere in the back of her mind – something she felt she ought to ask. Talking of that Midwinter Queen had nudged it forward in her mind, but before it was fully formed it vanished again.

“Happy Midwinter,” Davie told her. “Your present is one of the small packages, but it does include a really large diamond.”

“Yours is to do with cars,” she answered. “Happy Midwinter.”

From inside the house there were noises that signalled the awakening of twin boys. Their parents smiled at each other and went indoors to greet them.