"Chrístõ," Julia said. "I am worried about Natalie. This is the first time we ever had to leave her behind in the TARDIS when we came out exploring a new planet."

"She just needs to get a bit of rest," he said. "Besides, the territory here is way too rough for her. You be careful, too. I don't want you getting hurt."

"Chrístõ," she said, this time in a teasing voice. "Try to remember YOU are a teenager, too. You sound like an old man when you fuss like that."

"I feel like one sometimes," he admitted. "Being responsible for you both is…"

But that just made him remember that he wouldn't BE responsible for Natalie for long. He closed his hand around Julia's as they walked, picking their way along the side of a rushing stream that was the only negotiable path through the thick forest. Let the future wait, he thought. For now…

For now, he was walking by a stream through a forest with Julia's hand clenched in his. The spirit of adventure and the joy of facing the adventure with her filled his hearts. Yes, the responsibility felt heavy sometimes. But it was a responsibility he willingly carried.

"How much further is this village?" Julia asked as they left the stream bed and began to climb a path on top of an increasingly high banking with the stream rushing along below them.

"Another half mile, according to the lifesigns monitor," Chrístõ told her. "The Theronis are a fascinating people. I looked them up in the TARDIS databank. A Humanoid race who worship nature, a bit like Earth pagans."

"Well, that's not surprising," Julia said. "They're surrounded by nature."

"We're always surrounded by nature," Chrístõ pointed out. "Even in a city there is always something of nature to be found if you look hard enough. But indeed, this is exactly the sort of place where pantheism is bound to flourish."

They walked on a little more in silence. Then Julia spoke again.

"This pantheism. You mean like they believe the trees have spirits, that sort of thing?"


"I wish you hadn't told me that," she said with a shiver. "Because some of these trees look like they have shapes of people and faces in them."

"That's always the case when you look at trees," he said. "It's just your imagination. But it's a very good imagination. Don't be afraid to use it." He looked around at the trees. She was right. They were all gnarled, twisted and yes, it was possible to see limbs and head, torsos and even features. "That one looks like my great-grandfather," he said, pointing to one tree. "And the one next to it, the straight one with the smooth, silvery bark. That could be his wife, my great grandmother. Very upright, severe woman, as I remember her."

Julia laughed, as he hoped she would. And as they walked they pointed out trees with features like people they knew. She stopped feeling creeped out by them and instead started to feel as if it was a game. He was relieved. Julia had enough real things to haunt her mind without imaginary fears.

As they drew close to where he reckoned the village to be, though, they saw something that couldn't be put down to imagination, and opened up all those imaginary fears again.

"Chrístõ!" Julia screamed. "That's… it's…"

He shivered himself as he looked at the bodies tied to the trees. One was an old man. Chrístõ guessed he must have been dead for two or three days, judging by the texture of the flesh. But already it was as if the body was being reclaimed by nature. Branches of the tree, leaves, even part of the bark were closing around the body.

"When it is done, this tree will have a shape like an old man," Julia said. "He'll be a part of the tree."

"No," Chrístõ assured her. "It's just some unusual burial ritual. I think."

"That one is almost ready…" She pointed to another tree where the bark did seem to bulge and curve in the shape of a person and as he drew nearer Chrístõ was sure he could see an actual face half hidden by the bark. He reached out and touched it. Yes, that HAD once been living flesh. Long dead now, with a hard, waxy, almost wooden feel as if it was being slowly converted into vegetable matter.

That went against everything he had ever believed about animal and plant biology. But it was an infinite universe. And here, it seemed, in this corner of it, they really WERE close to nature.

"Look!" Julia called again. "This one is really new." Chrístõ turned and moved towards where she was standing now. There was, indeed, a very fresh body fastened to a tree. It was a young woman. She had a ghastly wound in her side that almost certainly accounted for her death and she, too, was fastened to a tree. It had not begun to 'claim' her yet. But his own imagination was filling in the future. He imagined the bark of the tree gradually closing over the body, and it sinking into the tree itself, until at last it was just a tree that looked like it had the outline of a young woman in the pattern of the bark.

He examined the body closer and gasped in shock at what he found. She had been dead no more than half an hour or so. She had been alive when she was fixed to the tree. The marks of the ropes on her flesh were consistent with tight restraints on a living body, and the wound had bled out as she was held in place there. There was a congealing pool of it on the ground.

"Chrístõ…" Julia's hand reached out for his and he held it tightly.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," he assured her. "Nothing at all." He moved away from the body and back onto the path towards the village, meaning to find out about it if he could.

"Stand!" a voice called out and he pulled Julia close to him as a man in tanned leather and animal skin clothes blocked their path. He had a sharpened flint held in his hand like a dagger and as he focussed on that fact Chrístõ became aware of movement behind him and knew there were more of these native warriors closing in.

More of them than he could fight bare handed.

"We mean you no harm," he said in a calm voice. "We are peaceful travellers. We come in friendship. If we have violated a sacred place here, I apologise and ask you to forgive us. We did not know of your customs."

"Walk, do not speak," he was told and he nodded and held Julia's hand tightly as they followed the lead man. He was aware of the others behind him though he did not turn to look at them. Keeping calm and doing as they were told was the only thing to do for now.

They were brought to the village. It was exactly what Chrístõ had expected, a 'native village' in the sense most 'advanced' beings imagined it to be. The buildings were made of rough hewn trees, mud and thatch and were arranged around a square. In the centre of the village was a 'totem' - a tree that had been stripped of leaves and branches and bark and carved with figures of animals and birds.

Their captors brought them to a hut and they were told to sit. They did so.

"Are we…" Julia whispered when the rough door of woven willow twigs was closed. "Chrístõ… what are they going to do to us?"

"I don't know," he answered. "But there is no need to worry. I think we did blunder into their sacred place. And they must be angry with us for that. But I hope I can reason with them. If I could talk to their leader…"

"They might kill us, and hang us on a tree to be swallowed by it."

"There is no need to think that," he assured her. "Just stay calm."

"I'm scared," she told him.

"Come here." He reached out to her and held her tight. "You trust me don't you?"


"And haven't I always taken care of you and rescued you from any kind of trouble."

"Yes," she said. "I'd be dead if it wasn't for you."

"There you go then. And I'll look after you this time, too. Don't you fret."

"Can you still see my future in my timeline?" she asked. "Because if you can, then it must be all right, mustn't it?"

"It's harder when you've travelled in the time vortex. It fragments it. The first time I held your hand, in the medical centre on the spaceship, I could see our future together clearly. But now…" He took her hand and closed his eyes in concentration. It was like looking at the pieces of a shattered mirror that for some crazy reason still reflected the last image it reflected before it was broken. Yes, in some of them he could see her as his bride in a diamond encrusted white dress. The destiny they both hoped for. But it was only fragments. And he wasn't sure if he could rely on them as a true representation of the future.

The reason the timeline fractured was that their life as time travellers was in flux. The future they would have if they stayed in one place and time would be assured. Their destiny would assert itself. But because they travelled to different times and places the future was not viewed from the same point in time from one day to the next and it became uncertain.

The future depended on them not getting into dangerous situations with primitive tribes on strange planets.

There were footsteps and then voices outside the hut. Julia pressed closer to Chrístõ as the wickerwork door opened. Two men came in. One of them was a tribesman who watched them carefully as if they might try to escape.

The other man, he was surprised to notice, wore woven cotton clothes and leather lace up shoes. He was clean shaven and had his hair cut neatly.

I'm Nigel Glover. I'm an anthropologist from Earth. I've been living with the Theronis for a year, researching their tribal customs. I gather you've upset them a wee bit."

"I think we have," Chrístõ answered. "You have their trust?"

"I do," Glover answered.

Julia looked at him with a puzzled expression, then asked Chrístõ a question.

"He's speaking English, yes," he told her. "The Theronis weren't. We just heard their words as English because we have the TARDIS translating for us."

In fact, he heard the tribesmen's words in Low Gallifreyan, as he heard all languages translated for him apart from Earth English, which was his second language - the language his mother spoke. Julia heard everything translated into English because that was her first language. But when Glover spoke he heard English without translation. And he replied to him in the same. He usually spoke English anyway when he was among his Human friends. It came as natural to him as the three forms of Gallifreyan that were his native tongue.

"Could you intercede with the Theronis and ask them to accept our apologies," he asked.

"I will try. But you must understand that you committed a grave error when you touched the body of the young woman in the woods there."

"I was making sure she WAS dead," he replied. "If I could have done anything for her…"

"You would have done more harm than good," Glover told him. "The woman was fatally wounded in a hunting accident. She was never going to recover. So she asked to be given to the tree spirit. She was given an honourable wake and left to meet with the spirit. She WAS dead when you found her?"

"Yes, she was," Chrístõ said. "Though not for long."

"Then you didn't interfere with the spirit passage," Glover said. "I will explain it to the village leader. You must stay here for a little while longer. You will be safe here until it is resolved."

"Very well," Chrístõ said. "But please impress upon…."

"I will do what I can."

Glover left again. The tribesman went with him. They were alone again. But this time they had a little more information and a shred of hope.

"A Human, from Earth," Julia said. "So they're not cannibals or anything."

"I never thought they WERE that," Chrístõ assured her. "But they are bound to be suspicious of strangers who look so unlike them. Our clothes, our hair, shoes, complexions, we are in every way different to them. We probably even smell different. We're used to taking showers at least twice a day with scented soaps. And beings all the universe over fear what isn't like them until they come to understand it."

"Well, that is true," Julia giggled. "YOU were scared of Cam."

"I was not," he began. "Yes, yes I was scared of her… him. But it wasn't because… It was more complicated than that. It was…."

"It was because she was different," Julia told him. "And because you kissed her and then found out she was a man as well as a woman."

"How did you know I kissed her?" Chrístõ asked. He knew that was changing the conversation but he didn't have to answer the other point. He answered it to himself. Yes, it WAS because Cam was different that he had been frightened. He was as susceptible to that sort of innate prejudice as anyone else. He was fortunate at least to have had a chance to make up for that recoil instinct by allowing himself to get to know Cam as a friend.

"All the women were talking about it. All the diplomats wives. They thought you made a lovely couple."

"WE make a lovely couple," he assured her. "Cam is just a friend."

"I know that," she told him. "That's why I'm not jealous. It's ok for you to kiss women if you want."

"I don't want to," he answered. "I love YOU. I…"

But the rest of that sentence went unfinished. The door was pushed aside once more as Glover returned, this time with another man who was, Chrístõ guessed, the leader of the tribe. He was dressed in the same kind of leather and skins, but with an elaborate headpiece of feathers and animal teeth and he carried himself in a way that seemed to mark him out as a leader.

"I have spoken to Mzo here, and the other elders," Glover said. "They are prepared to overlook your sacrilege as it was done in ignorance not malice. And bid you come to feast with them as they pay honour to their gods."

"Thank you," Chrístõ said standing and bowing his head to the elder, hoping that was recognised as a gesture of respect. He tended to find that it was in most places in the universe.

Julia stayed close to him, clasping his hand tightly as they walked out of the hut. It was about midday, with the sun at its zenith. The people were gathered in the square in two concentric rings around the totem. They were talking among themselves at first, but when the leader and the strangers were seen they quietened. The outer ring opened up to allow them to pass and Glover told Chrístõ and Julia they should sit in the inner ring, with the elders. They did so.

Food and drink were the first order of the proceedings. A basket of some kind of flat bread and some fruit of a sort Chrístõ had never seen before, but which he thought looked edible, was placed in front of them, along with a large gourd like pot with a fruit flavoured liquid in it. Chrístõ tasted the liquid carefully before he would let Julia drink it. He wanted to be sure there was neither alcohol nor any kind of drug nor indeed, subtle poisons in it. The tribe appeared to be friendly to them now, but he was being cautious. There might still be resentments of their 'sacrilege'.

It seemed to be all right, though he could not have said what the flavour was. He gave some to Julia and reached for one of the pieces of bread. He broke it in half and tasted that, too. Again it seemed to be wholesome enough and he shared it with her.

"So…" Chrístõ said to Glover as the general buzz of conversation resumed over the shared meal. "This tree spirit…. The dying are brought to be given to it?"

"Yes. The trees absorb the body and the soul becomes one with the tree."

"That's an interesting theology," Chrístõ said. "I've never come across it before."

"It's more than a theology. I've seen it. You saw it too, surely. The bodies being absorbed into the tree. The bark closing around them until they are part of it."

"I saw two or three old bodies that the undergrowth had partially covered. I didn't know what to make of it, except that… either bodies take a long time to decompose or the trees grow very fast."

"The trees are alive," Glover said. "They have living spirits within them and they are alive."

Chrístõ looked at the man and considered what he had said. As an anthropologist, he was supposed to observe the customs of the people but not become involved in them, and certainly not to speak of them as if he fully believed in them. His form of words, though, seemed to suggest that Glover was a convert to the pantheism of the Theronis.

"Seen it?" he questioned.

"Yes," he answered. "Many times. Not just natives. I had two colleagues with me. The pilot of our space craft, Malik, and my cousin, Halley. They were both fatally injured in accidents. And when it was clear they could not live much longer they, too, were taken to the woods. I watched them being lashed to the trees. They were scared at first. But then they became calm. They were… serene. They knew it wasn't death that was coming to them, but a different sort of life. I watched them die… and day by day I watched the trees claim them, body and soul. And I knew they would be all right."

Chrístõ was interested for several reasons. He wanted to know as much as possible about these strange ideas in case they posed a threat to either himself or Julia, or both. But the first, and overriding reason was the reason he wanted to travel the universe in the first place, the reason Glover was an anthropologist, for that matter. To learn about new people and new worlds, new wonders. And the idea that flesh and blood, organic matter, could somehow be transformed, subsumed into vegetable matter, that the soul of a living, breathing being could become the spirit of a tree, was incredible.

He would have said it was impossible, that it was the stuff of legend, of fantasy, of Greek literature with it's dryads and hamadryads, of Tolkein's Middle Earth, of M'a'lien Cobalt's Tetran Quartet or several other fantasy works of fiction he had come across in his father's library as a boy. He would not have believed that it could be done. His scientific knowledge of biology and plant biology told him that they were two different things, that one could not be changed into the other.

At least not without the animal life being ground down and turned to compost or the plant life being cooked and eaten and digested in the stomach of the flesh and blood being.

And in neither case could he imagine the soul being intact at the end of the process.

"The process takes several days?" Chrístõ asked, deciding to test exactly what it was that Glover and the Theronis believed in. "How many days?"

"Six with a dead body. But I've seen it happen much faster. It can be completed in a few hours."


"When there is a willing victim," Glover said. "When one of the people of the village volunteers to join the tree spirit while he or she is still fully alive."

"They make Human sacrifices?" Julia had relaxed as they ate, but now Chrístõ felt her stiffen warily and look about her at the villagers. "Oh…"

"Willing sacrifices," Glover repeated.

"Are you sure that is the case?" Chrístõ asked. "Because people can be persuaded to do all sorts of things. Emotional pressure, promise of rewards for their families… blackmail… Sometimes people are simply educated in such a way that they are given to believe that is their destiny. I've heard of it before. On Earth, in the Aztec times… they would select a 'Perfect Victim' and he or she would be taught to regard their death as an honour."

"No, it is not like that at all," Glover insisted. "The victims here… well, really victim is the wrong word. It IS an honour to join with the spirits they worship. They do it joyfully and willingly. It is quite beautiful to watch, and quite painless to the one who has chosen to give himself."

You've seen it?"

"Yes, I have. And you will see it yourself later. Today a volunteer is to be chosen. He or she will join with the spirits tonight before sundown."

"We won't be here to see that," Chrístõ said. "We have to return to our ship long before then. This was only a short trip to see the Theronis in their natural habitat. We have seen more of them than we expected. To share a meal with them is a wonderful experience for us both, but we shall be on our way before such a ceremony begins."

"The ceremony is already begun," Glover told him. "This is all a part of it. In a few minutes there will be music and tribal dancing. You may be able to slip away later, but it might be better if you stayed. It might be thought impolite."

"I don't want to stay and watch somebody become a tree," Julia said. "Not even if they WANT it. Let's go home to the TARDIS before it gets dark. Besides, Natalie will be worried about us."

Chrístõ was inclined to agree with her. As curious as he was about this amazing metamorphosis that Glover described he wasn't at ALL sure he wanted to see it, either. He knew he SHOULD be more curious, but he wasn't. The very idea of it made him shiver. And he really didn't want Julia exposed to something that even he was repulsed by.

"I understand," Glover said. "But do stay a little while longer. You will find the dancing quite interesting, and perfectly harmless."

"I WOULD like to see the dancing," Julia admitted. "Maybe I could learn something to use in my ballet practice."

"There you go then," Glover said triumphantly. "Now, let us all share in another of the traditions. See, we all drink from the Cup of The Tree."

Chrístõ watched as a great wooden cup or chalice was brought to them. It was another piece of remarkable native art. The wide, deep bowl was held up by the branches of a carved tree. As he looked at it closely he saw that the tree could, at the same time, be a woman with arms outstretched above her head. It was a beautiful carving that he would have admired if he hadn't been told about people becoming trees.

Glover drank deeply from the cup first. Then he passed it to Julia. Chrístõ leaned forward as if to stop her, but she had already begun to drink.

But Glover had already drunk from it, and so had the chief and the elders before him, so it must be all right, he reasoned, relaxing a little as it was passed to him.

The liquid was the colour and consistency of full cream milk, but it tasted more like fermented fruit. And he knew as soon as he drank that it WAS in some way alcoholic.

"Shouldn't have let you drink it," he said to Julia. "You're too young to drink." But he drank deeply from it himself and enjoyed the taste enough to take a second draught. He almost reluctantly passed the cup on and leaned back, feeling at ease. He had been worried about nothing, he told himself. Everything was just fine. Even if they didn't get back to the TARDIS before dark, they had torches and a homing beacon in his backpack that would help him find his ship. And Natalie knew they were going out for a whole day's ramble in the woods. Even Humphrey could manage for a few hours without him.

"It's nice here," he heard Julia say. "We can stay a bit longer, can't we?"

"Course we can," he answered picking up a fruit from the basket and biting into it. It had the same flavour as the drink, but not alcoholic. He shared it with Julia who snuggled close to him.

He felt strangely light-headed, but he wasn't very worried about it. It was a nice feeling. He wondered if it was what being drunk felt like for Humans. If so, then he thought he had missed out on a lot of fun. Next time he was on Earth and had the chance he ought to try it, he thought.

Julia had never been drunk either. And she didn't know what it was that made her feel so excited and expectant of something even more exciting about to happen. She noticed that Chrístõ was looking a little sleepy. He laid himself down beside her and smiled warmly and lazily at her. But she didn't feel tired. She felt energised. She wanted to dance.

And she had the chance. When everyone had drunk from the "Cup of The Tree" one of the Theronis began to tap a beat on a drum. It was slow at first, like a slow heartbeat, then faster, like a heartbeat of somebody running. No, she realised. It was too heartbeats, in syncopation.

"They made it sound like your hearts beating," she said to Chrístõ, but he didn't reply. He smiled and nodded but he looked too sleepy to reply. She stood up and stepped forward into the clear area in front of the totem and she began to dance to the beat. She was the lover of the one whose hearts beat that way and she was dancing to please him.

Soon other people came and danced with her. It was a whirling, abandoned dance of celebration, of the joy of life, of the joy of nature, and she danced as she loved to dance, not caring about anything but that rhythm that seemed so very familiar to her.

Chrístõ watched her dance and smiled. She looked so beautiful and so happy.

He did wonder if he was drugged. He was almost sure he was. He idly analysed the contents of his stomach. The 'milk' that he had drunk last did it, he decided. There was something in it, sap from a tree of some sort, he thought. And it WAS a powerful hallucinogenic and a muscle relaxant.

So that was it?

Oh well, he thought and lay down again on the grass. Nothing harmful. All natural ingredients, after all. Nothing that could harm him. In fact it seemed to have done him some good. He hadn't felt this free for so long. He was always worried about something. He was worried about Natalie, worried about Julia, worried about whether his cousin Epsilon was going to try to kill him again. He worried about his tasks for the Time Lords and whether they would, in the end, decide that they should do more practical things to help people elsewhere in the universe. He worried about having a birthmark in the shape of the seal of Rassilon that meant he was 'chosen' by fate to fulfil a great destiny.

He worried about too much, most of the time, for one his age.

But right now, he wasn't worried. And he was glad of it. He lay there and smiled dreamily as he watched the dancing feet. He could tell Julia's feet because she was wearing shoes and socks but otherwise she was as one with all the other dancers, male and female.

Should dance with her, he thought lazily. Maybe later. First a little sleep. And he closed his eyes and dreamed a dream that was in time to the rhythm of his own heartbeats.


He woke suddenly. There was no dancing, no drums now. But there WAS a very strange and ominous chant.

He was bound very tightly and thoroughly, arms pinned to his waist and legs immobilised. He was being carried along by several of the Theronis who held him high over their heads as they tramped through the forest. He turned his head and saw that Julia was also tied up and being carried in a similar way. She seemed to be asleep.

"Help," he yelled. "Glover! Help, what are they doing? You said…"

"Just stay calm," Glover answered him and he turned his head and saw the anthropologist walking alongside him with the village elders. "And it will all be so much easier. You and your little girl have been selected as the volunteers to be given to the Great Tree Spirit."

"I think they have seriously misunderstood the word 'volunteer' and YOU have lost it completely. You're not one of them. Why are you…"

"The Great Tree Spirit gives health and joy to those who pay it homage," he said. "I embrace the spirit."

"Let us go," Chrístõ pleaded. He flexed his muscles and tried to loosen the bonds, but they were made of some kind of very strong fibre and the effort only caused painful wheals on his arms. They repaired themselves straight away, but it did no good to keep struggling, even so. He had to hope that there was a chance of escape when they got where they were going.

"Let you go?" I think not. "The Great Tree Spirit will be pleased with the offerings made this day. We shall all be rewarded."

"What have you done with Julia? Why is she still asleep?"

"Just a little drink from the Cup of The Tree. She liked the taste. No complaints from her. She was starting to worry why you wouldn't wake up, so we had to calm her down."

The party stopped and Chrístõ was put into a kneeling position. His head was pulled back so that he could see the Great Tree Spirit.

It was certainly a tree. And it was great in that it was one of the thickest tree trunks he had ever seen. It must have been several metres in circumference.

And there was very distinctly a face in the gnarled bark. A stern, dignified face, wrinkled and old with great age. He was strangely reminded of the Face of Boe. But Boe was flesh and blood of a kind. THIS was a tree. The features were solid wood. And it could not speak no matter how much the elders bowed down and asked it to favour them.

Chrístõ blinked as he saw the great wooden lips move and a voice spoke.

"Who comes before the Great Tree Spirit?" it asked.

"We bring willing flesh to be joined in body and spirit to your children of the forest, great one," the leader of the village replied obsequiously. "A young maiden and a strong youth."

Chrístõ tried to protest that he was not a willing participant but a gag was forced into his mouth by Glover who very definitely WAS a willing participant.

"The maiden will join with the willow," the voice said. "Slender and supple, she will bend in the wind. The youth shall be a larch, tall and brave against the winter storms."

Chrístõ watched helplessly as Julia was held upright against the trunk of a willow tree to the left of the Great Tree. Her arms were lashed to it above her head and she was tied by the waist and legs. Her head was pressed back against the bark of the tree and Chrístõ watched in amazement as a thin whip-like branch, with leaves budding on it, coiled around her forehead, holding it in place. The tree was alive and it was already trying to possess her.

But he was not allowed to watch her for long. He was lifted by strong hands and himself pressed against a tree, this one a tall larch. He was lashed to it by the shoulders and waist and by his legs. Strong, thin branches began to snake around him even before they were done. He shuddered as he felt one closing around his neck.

"Oh, Great Tree Spirit, take this willing flesh as our offering to you," the leader intoned, bowing and backing away as all the villagers did. Glover was among the last to go. He looked up at Chrístõ and then reached and took the gag from his mouth.

"Relax," he told him. "It is a pleasant experience. I was not lying about that. My companions were frightened at first, but they realised they were going to a wonderful place and they were glad in the end."

"When I get free, I am going to burn your tree spirit to charcoal," Chrístõ vowed.

"In an hour or a little more the only freedom you will know is the wind through your branches." Glover turned and bowed to the Great Tree Spirit and then he, too, retreated through the forest.

Chrístõ sighed and tried once again to loosen his bonds. Even if they cut through to the bone, he thought, he had to get free. He strained and pulled at the strong fibres. They cut deep and his blood flowed as he struggled. Tears pricked his eyes from the pain and the effort. But slowly the ropes holding his wrists to his body were slackening, he was sure. He pulled one more time and his left wrist was free. It was bleeding badly and it hurt, but it was free.

One hand was free. But he was still tightly fastened to the larch trunk and the pressure on his neck was increasing as the thin branch snaked twice around. The needle-like leaves pricked his skin and one of the small, tight cones lodged painfully against his Adams apple as it slowly increased its pressure on his neck

Chrístõ closed off his lungs and recycled the air that was left in them. A Human being would be dying of asphyxiation by now, slowly and painfully. He was in pain, but he was not dying. At least not yet.

He calculated his chances of escape. The core sense of the thing he was struggling against was that of a tree. Its concept of time and movement was calculated in years, seasons, months, not hours and minutes and seconds. If he moved fast it wouldn't even know he HAD moved.

He was right. He had his sonic screwdriver in his hand and was setting it to welding mode before another thin branch had begun to snake around and reach for his wrist. He applied it carefully. He didn't want to weld his own neck. As the branch was seared through though, he felt the pressure on his neck ease. He quickly applied it to his other bonds and braced himself to fall as he cut the last one.

He rolled as he hit the ground, coming up with his sonic screwdriver held outstretched. He rarely used it as a weapon. Sometimes he let people think it WAS a weapon. It was a good bluff and it usually worked. This time, it WAS a weapon. The welding mode could cut through the hardest metals in minutes. It took only seconds to cut through wood and he used it to clear his path of creeping, snaking branches and roots that tried to claim him back for the Larch spirit as he tried to reach Julia. He tried to call to her, but his trachea was still mending and it was another half a minute before he could even draw breath fully, let alone scream. When he did, though, it was her name he called.

"Julia…." He reached the willow tree and gasped in shock as he saw her. Already the tree had begun to claim her. The bark was closing around her legs and lower torso and the creeping branches were folding around her arms. She looked like the figure in the carving on the Cup of The Tree that they had drunk from.

He raised his sonic screwdriver again and began to slice through the creeping branches. But when he did her eyes snapped open and she screamed as if he was cutting into her flesh. He stopped and touched her cheek gently as her eyes closed again.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry, Julia…" He kissed her cheek and turned from the willow. He ran towards the 'Great Tree Spirit.' He looked at the big face that had so clearly spoken before.

"Give her back to me!" he shouted at it. "Give her back, now. She was not yours to take. Give her back or I will burn you, and every tree around here except HERS." And to prove it he adjusted the sonic screwdriver to laser mode and fired the beam at the nearest tree, searing a great, wide cut in the drunk and setting leaves alight. It shuddered just as if it was a living thing and the branches shrank back away from him. He turned and aimed at the Great Tree.

"Why do you wish to undo what was done? Only the dying and the willing are brought to me. She came of her own free will."

"She did NOT!" Chrístõ cried out in reply. "She was NOT a willing victim! She was kidnapped and drugged and bound to the tree. They tried to hang me."

"If that is true…." The voice seemed to be thinking slowly. There was a low rumble that might have been its brain ticking over.

"It IS true. She was taken against her will, against MY will. And you WILL give her back to me."

I cannot GIVE her back. You must TAKE her back," the voice said. "But you must do it quickly. Before her essence is transformed."

"How?" he asked. "I tried to cut the tree. It only hurt her. As if she is already a part of it."

You must find her spirit and take that back. Then she can be freed."

"And how do I…." he began to ask, but suddenly the Great Tree Spirit gave a groan and the tree split open to reveal a cavern within. He stepped forward nervously and was not at all surprised when the door closed behind him with a creaking of age old wood.

He WAS surprised by two things.

Firstly, he could see. Of course, his Gallifreyan eyes could always see better than most other species as long as there was a small amount of light. But there WAS a sort of diffused greenish-brown light coming through the walls, a warm light. Sunlight being photosynthesised by the living tree that he was in.

Secondly, it was bigger on the inside than the outside.

And that really DID surprise him. His people had developed dimensional relativity as a science. It was astonishing to discover that on this planet it was a fact of nature.

He turned around and around and tried to get his bearings. There were tunnels leading off from the central trunk where he was. Branches, he thought to himself. But which one would lead him to Julia? He knew he didn't have much time.

If he had his backpack he could trace her with the portable lifesigns monitor. But that must be in the village still. He wondered what a primitive people would do with such technology.

Probably start a new religion, worshipping it, he told himself, grimly.

He wished he had a few other things from his backpack, too. Like the drinking water pack. His throat was horribly dry and painful still even though his body had repaired the damage.

Think, he told himself and looked at the sonic screwdriver. In a pinch it could act as a lifesigns detector. It wasn't very good, but there weren't any other people here so…

Yes. It was picking up something. He turned in the right direction and walked.

The tunnels were eerie. The walls were made of living wood. And he could feel the sap running through them, hear the slow heartbeat of the tree. He wondered, if he stood still, would it start to absorb him as it had tried to do to Julia? The thought made him move faster. Not quite running, but a fast, long-legged walk.

"Julia," he called out as he moved "Julia, hold on. I'm coming for you. Don't let this thing take you from me. Hold onto yourself. Remember me."

He was running now. The ground was rough and he wasn't sure that something wasn't trying to deliberately trip him, but he ran surefooted and steady as the sonic screwdriver emitted an increasingly rapid beep that told him he was getting close to her.

He rounded a bend and he saw her. She was lying on the ground, curled up small and still in a drugged sleep. He lifted her in his arms and examined her. She was still her. He could feel her dreams when he touched her face. She was dreaming of dancing. The dance was one in which willow trees dipped and bowed in the wind, but it was her dream, not the spirit of the tree.

"She is MINE," he cried as he stood with her in his arms. "Now LET ME OUT!"

"Take her!" The Great Tree Spirit voice boomed all around him and there was a creaking, cracking sound again. Chrístõ stepped backwards and stumbled and fell, Julia, still in his arms, fell on top of him.

He looked up at the canopy of trees with the sun shining through them at a slant as it dipped towards sunset. He was lying in the leaf litter of the forest floor, and both of them were covered in broken bits of tree bark, leaves and twigs that had come away as he released her from the willow tree.

Julia was still asleep, still oblivious to what had happened. Chrístõ stood up still holding her and looked around. He saw the Great Tree Spirit's face again.

"Go," it said. "While you can."

"You must make sure this does not happen again," he told the Spirit. "No more unwilling victims. You must reject anyone whose heart is not wholly give up to you."

"I will do so," the Great Tree Spirit said. "But you must go, now. The forest is alive and the spirits are restless. Neither of you will survive another sojourn within my domain."

Chrístõ turned and began to walk away quickly. Julia was dead weight in his arms, but he bore the burden as well as he could. He held on to her tightly as he moved. He wouldn't let her go for anything. But his hearts ached with the thought of how far he had to carry her to reach the TARDIS. And if the trees were against him it would be a hard struggle every step of the way.

"Stop!" His hearts sank even deeper as he heard the sounds of the Theroni tribesmen closing around him. He turned and saw Glover step out from among the trees, a sharp flint dagger raised.

"Oh, go away," he groaned. "I've had enough of the lot of you."

"You have committed the worst sacrilege yet," Glover told him. "You must die, and the girl given again to the Great Tree Spirit."

"The Great Tree Spirit won't take her again," Chrístõ said. "It will not take any more unwilling sacrifices. Now get out of my way, all of you or I…."

Glover and the Theronis all looked around in wonder at the strange, almost animal noise. The phrase Deus ex Machina popped into Chrístõ's head. But he smiled as he turned to see his TARDIS materialise in a rush of displaced air. As the Theronis cowered in shock he ran to the door. It opened automatically and he stepped over the threshold to safety. As the door closed behind him he was surprised to see Natalie at the console.

"But…" he said. "You can't… how…"

His words were drowned by Humphrey's half joyful, half sorrowful howls. Joyful because he and Julie were back aboard the TARDIS and safe, sorrowful because Julia was still unconscious.

"It's all right, Humphrey," he said. "She just needs to wake up." He took her to the sofa and laid her down gently. "Natalie, you look after her while I get us into orbit, and then you can explain how you managed to pilot my TARDIS."

“The TARDIS did it,” she said as she went and sat by Julia’s side. Humphrey hovered nearby, humming with concern. “It told me you were in trouble and you needed it. And it showed me what to do.”

“The TARDIS knew I needed it?” Chrístõ was startled by that idea. But as he put them into temporal orbit, his hands moving across the controls that were so familiar to him he thought about it again. He and his ship WERE symbiotic. His pattern was imprinted on it. And it had a consciousness of a sort. Why shouldn’t it KNOW that he was in trouble? And why shouldn’t it communicate with Natalie? It had done so much else to accommodate her, like the school room and the bedroom next to Julia’s that pleased them both. He had been rescued by a pair of females, one human, the other machine, who both worried about him. It made perfect sense.

"She's starting to wake up," Natalie said. Chrístõ locked off the controls in temporal orbit and came to her side. Julia stirred and put her hand to her forehead and moaned slightly.

"Where am I?" she asked. "What happened?"

"You drank something you shouldn't have done," Chrístõ told her. "I think you have a little bit of a hangover. And that's a lesson for you. Don't drink anything on a strange planet unless I tell you it's ok."

"I remember dancing with the people in the village and then… the Great Tree Spirit. They were going to make a sacrifice…"

"Oh, that. That was just a bit of mumbo-jumbo that Mr. Glover made up to tease you with. They don't really sacrifice living people. They had a sort of effigy, like Guy Fawkes, that they took to the forest."

Nearly as far back as he could remember, Chrístõ had been taught by his mother that telling lies was a bad thing to do. His father had been even more insistent that he expected honesty from him. But there were times when a lie was necessary and he was sure even his mother would understand this was one of those times.

"It was quite boring really," he added. "You didn't miss much."

"I dreamt about the trees," she told him. "I have an idea for a dance. I'll show you tomorrow."

"I'll be happy to see it," he answered. "But tomorrow, I think we'll be somewhere a long way from trees. Natalie, dear, how would you like it if I landed the TARDIS on a nice luxury cruise liner and we took a bracing sea voyage?"

"I think that would be a very nice idea," she answered him. She knew there was something that happened out there. Something so frightening even the TARDIS was disturbed. But she was glad Julia was unaware of it and that Chrístõ was ready to put it behind him. "As long as it's not the Titanic," she added