Abruptly, the water slowed, as though she had been carried into an inlet. But she was not in any type of inlet. The current had simply---and unpredictably---gentled.
She was hurt, and she had to right herself and come up to the surface for air. But she did, and she found her balance and caught her breath. Upstream, she saw the great centaur plunge in to the river. It came up to the top of his great broad chest. The inscrutable face was fixed on her, but he made no move to swim towards her. She nearly went under, and then she kicked with her legs and was able to stay afloat. Her left shoulder and her ribs ached, but she was a good distance away from him, and she could move again. The current picked up every so slightly. It carried her downstream, and she moved with it. She could navigate around the rocks, boulders, and other debris. When ever the way was clear she swam in concert with the gentle flow. When she looked back, he still had not moved.
She'd lost both stick and gourd, and even working in concert with the water, she soon became exhausted. But her travel time was excellent. She was being moved in a different direction from which she had come, drawing closer to the hill where she had first been brought. But soon enough she passed the point where she had descended to this planet, and she was speeding away from it.
And now, best of all, the river became more shallow. She could touch her feet to the rocky bottom, and step along as the current softly pushed at her. Moving by running with the current and then swimming with it as she was able, she traveled swiftly.
The glorious morning began to break. She worked herself closer to the shore opposite the side from which she had entered the river. The bank was steep, undercut by the waters, but soon she saw that a sandy patch was up ahead, and she let the waters carry her to it, and then she cut across the current and stepped onto dry land.
She was exhausted. She crawled over the sand to the soft grassy fringe that was spread out like a welcome mat to the forest, and she lay down right there, too tired even to get under cover until she had caught her breath. In the pale dawn, she could see one of the moons, golden and round and now pale because of the sun's glory, hanging just above the horizon over the river.
"Oh little mouse, why did you strike great Toliman?" a gentle voice asked.
Sarah Jane would have been glad to see Jeanne except that she knew this was just a dream. She looked up at the sparkling eyes of the old Scottish woman.
"I heard Achernar say that they plan to shed my blood for him, Jeanne. They talked about my death. They've kept that part of their plan a secret. I heard them say they couldn't tell me because I would be afraid of what they want to do. Can't you take me away from here?" she asked.
Jeanne stroked her cheek. "I see. I understand. But you've hurt yourself on the rocks. You might have been killed."
"I didn't want him to get me."
"You were that afraid?"
Jeanne said nothing more , but Sarah had fallen onto her side on the soft grass, with her hips twisted to spare her aching ribs. Jeanne quietly straightened her hips, legs, and shoulders, so that she was lying in a straight line, and Sarah realized that she had only dreamed about the pain, for the pain wasn't real any more. In fact, in spite of being wet from head to foot, she felt comfortable and was glad just to be out of the water.
Then she realized that Jeanne was gone, and it had been a dream, like the pain. She fell asleep, and the sun warmed her, as the gentle morning breeze dried her wet clothing and hair. The warmth and the gentle stirring were almost like the breath of some great person breathing around her, or the whispering of soft, peaceful voices. The whispering and warmth disassociated her fear from her, and she slept for many hours after her exhausting journey, forgetful of all danger.
* * * * *
The Doctor had to do the best that he could with his injuries. There was no time to patch himself up. In his fear for Sarah Jane, he assumed that the creature would faultlessly track her down, that it would know enough about the terrain and about the conditions here to locate her. He could see from broken branches and occasional prints in the soft earth that the savage creature had ignored the stone stairway and instead had plunged into the forest. And so he took the forest route.
But as he pushed his way through the foliage, he came to a great, shallow river. It sparkled in the bright sunshine. And just up the river, on the opposite bank, lay the very figure he had been searching for. It was Sarah Jane, and she was close enough for him to see that she was merely sleeping. Her arms were curled together in a natural resting posture. There was no sign of the creature, and no sign of the two alien adolescents who had taken her with them.
As his own clothes were in tatters at his chest, he did not bother to spare them. The water seemed gentle and fairly shallow, perhaps waist-deep, and so he stepped into the river to wade across. But as he did, it seemed that a great, gentle, but overpowering hump of water rose up in a great swell and carried him effortlessly away, sweeping him a great distance in just a few seconds. He struggled and then dived, trying to cut across the rolling current. The water was suddenly much higher. He came up and gasped for breath, flung back his wet hair, and dived again. But his progress across was slow, and the water was carrying him further and further away.
* * * * *
Sarah awoke with a dry mouth, and she realized that she had slept several hours. The sun had ascended almost overhead. She sat up on one elbow and looked around, getting her bearings.
The realization that she had let herself fall asleep right on the grassy back mortified her. Any one of the others could have found her simply by coming downriver. And surely they might easily have chosen such an alternative. Then she wondered why they had not. But perhaps they thought the river had drowned her.
She got to her feet. She was nearly dry, except for one long stripe down her back where she had stayed in contact with the grass.
This part of the river formed a pass between two gradually ascending hills that turned into rocky mountains as a person followed the terrain. But it was in the lower hollows that food was more available, and after a long drink from the river---which was rushing full speed again---she set out into the forest to find something to eat.
Success was quick, for these lands had not been foraged, and she soon unearthed a few of the edible bulbs and discovered clumps of the bushes that yielded a few berries. Thus provided for, she continued into the forest, and soon her glance took in something she had not expected: a path.
It was overgrown by the low, curly dark grass, as though it had not been used for a long time. Indeed, the grass had so overgrown it that it had turned the path into a black carpet that ran like a ribbon through the trees. Her eye was judicious enough to see that some skillful hand had mapped out and leveled this walkway, removing trees and rocks. Unlike the winding footpath on the other side of the river, this had been done by measurement and tools. She remembered Alphard. Had this been his domain---removed from the others? She followed the path.
On her way, the trees grew more dense, and she passed several stands of the stalks that yielded their bulbs for food. There were other stands that were clustered together, all of them overgrown with leaves and not showing any fruit, but bearing the uniformity of that which had been planted by design. If Alphard had lived here, he had wisely organized the vegetation along the pathway to make travel easy for hungry journeyers.
The land began to ascend steeply, and she continued, now in the deep twilight dimness of the darkly boled trees. But she was careful to listen and to watch for pursuit, as well as for any place to hide. And at one point her eye did spy out a large formation of rock far off the path that ran as an ever-increasing vein up higher until it went out of sight---joining other veins to form a rocky peak up above, she thought.
She left the path to inspect it for any footholds or crevices that might serve as a means to hide or fend off pursuers. As she walked around it and surveyed it, she saw that close to the ground, a low fissure had been formed by rain runoff. She got down on hands and knees and peered into this. It looked fairly deep, though quite low. It might be a hiding place that she could squeeze into.
Insects had been so rare on this planet of leaf and twig and rock that Sarah Jane simply thrust her hand into the darkness. She instantly touched soft fur. She snatched her hand back. The darkness under the rock shifted, and she realized that some great creature was lying in there.
She stepped back, horrified. A huge paw slipped out from under the rock cover, grey and many-taloned. It was followed by the chin and whiskers of a large, spade shaped head that carefully nosed out. Then all in one languid, sinuous, and horrifying act of dexterity, a silvery and smoke colored animal the size of a leopard slipped out from the crevice and sleepily shook its head. It saw her and with no hostility it walked up to her and thrust the top of its head into her midsection. This made her jump with terror, but then the creature indolently turned around and pushed its back into her, briefly. It looked over its shoulder at her, its eyes sleepy but amiable.
It seemed to be waiting for something, and so she said at last, "Nice kitty. Good boy."
It stretched, ducked its head low, and returned to its crevice with that same gliding motion. But she also realized, from a stirring within the fissure as it curled up to sleep, that there were others of its kind in there, all sleepily accommodating to its return.
She returned to the path and continued the journey.
The path now climbed steeply, leading her away from the thickest grouping of the trees. The rock outcroppings became more predominant, and they soon formed wall-like cliffs on either side of her, until at last the path led directly to a horseshoe-shaped wall of rock. Directly before her, unmistakable in being hewn by an intelligent hand, was a dark doorway.
She hesitated, and then she approached this opening and cautiously peered inside. Though it was dark to behold from outside, when she peered inside, the interior was dim from a source of light much higher. She entered, stumbled against something hard at her feet, and fell forward onto stone steps. This hurt, but she'd caught herself on her forearms, so she was not injured. But she carefully and slowly lifted herself and felt along the surface of the steps. They were even and level. Staying on all fours, she climbed them.
This was quite a steep ascent, but the best part of it was that Toliman could not have possibly come through that doorway, and the steps were far too narrow for his great hooves to ascend. He, at least could not pursue through this walkway.
But the climb was extensive, and she realized that this inner stair way was designed to take her up to the rocky summit. Yet Toliman could not have built it, for the climbing passage became narrow at some points, and the steps themselves would have been difficult for his massive hooves to negotiate.
The edifice itself would have required years to build. The carving out of the steps must have been a mammoth task. She wondered how old this planet was, and what the true age of Achernar and Nitham might be.
She climbed well over a hundred steps, and yet there was no end. Several times she had to stop and rest. At last, the dim light at the top actually seemed to be drawing nearer. But just as she saw the top of the steps and a rectangular entryway to some other room or open space, she saw a light flash against the wall to her right. It was instantly winked off. She stopped and sank onto the steps in the darkness, unwilling to be seen.
The light had almost seemed like the beam from an electric torch, but she could not be certain. And then she heard a welcome voice from far down the steps: "Sarah Jane, are you up here?"
"Doctor!" She sat up. The light beam flashed again. It was certainly a man-made electric torch.
"I'm coming!" he called.
* * * *
As Sarah Jane heard the Doctor laboring up the steps, she realized that she had been justified in being exhausted by them, for even he had to toil to ascend them.
At last after several minutes, the light flashed again, and she could see him behind it, his face marred from scratches. "What happened to you?" she exclaimed.
Grateful to rest and grateful to have found her, he sank down on the steps and took her by the arms, the flashlight still in his hand so that it shone against the wall behind her. "Are you all right? Did that horrible thing come after you?"
"Which one? I've got them all after me." Her voice was rueful. "Toliman and his gang. What happened to your face?"
She lifted her hand and touched his face, careful of the scratches. Thanks to the Doctor's speedy metabolism, the bloody furrows were now reduced to welts. They would be gone within a day, though they were sore. Her hand cooled them. This startled him, as he had been ready to wince at her touch. Then he caught the scent of her, the same scent from his dreams and memory. The light from the torch shone on the wall behind her, highlighting tiny particles of dust in the air from their intrusion on the deserted steps, and the tiny dust particles were falling in a slow, barely perceptible shower over him, carrying the sweet, life giving fragrance from her. This gentle, almost invisible shower of light particles fell on him, like a slow and beautiful rain, rich with sweetness and kindness. For a moment he was transfixed with awe as he saw it.
Her voice brought him back. "You've been badly scratched. You're in pain. What got hold of you?" she asked. She took his face in her hands, and the pain from the welts lessened further.
"Thank you." His voice was suddenly reduced to a whisper.
"It's all right. It's all right." She seemed to know without looking where he had been hurt, and she seemed to know what to do. She pulled aside the tatters of his damp shirt and touched the aching handprint over his heart. "Something did something to you," she said. The constriction on his heart eased as the palm of her hand pressed against it. "Now you're all right. That's better, isn't it?"
He couldn't speak. The sweetness was not as strong nor as stunning as it had been in the Fomalhaut system, but it seemed to affect him more. The familiar sensation of longing for her while being flooded with an odd shame and humility came back to him and nearly overpowered him.
"And your shoulders," she said, though she could not see the injuries to his shoulders.. "You've got deep punctures like drill holes---" She came up on her knees and rested her hands on his shoulders. "Maybe if you took off your jacket so I could see what got you---"
He took her in his arms, amazed that she would even want to be this close to him and actually touch him, and then he stopped himself and tried to behave as though he were preventing her from overbalancing and falling down the long stairs. "Be careful. My shoulders will be all right. Look at this." And he turned away from her to the wall. He shone the light onto it. "I noticed these carvings when I came in, but I wanted to spare the light." Anything to not look at her directly and inhale that rejuvenating fragrance.
She was glad to stay in the protection of his free arm, for she didn't like the steepness of the stairs. She settled onto the steps, his arm around her, and peered around him at the wall. "Almost like those figures we saw in the star charts," she said. She pointed, and it was everything he could do not to take her hand. The sense of her frail and beautiful life sheltering against his ribs, under the protection of his shoulder, suddenly put a lump in his throat. He felt that the most beautiful creature on earth had taken refuge with him. He didn't dare to look at her. "There's the flower," she said. She pointed to a drawing of a flower among the carved images. "Toliman tried to tell me about it. It was destroyed. There was some sort of war between himself and Alphard."
These confusing details brought him back to the problems at hand. He flashed a quick glance at her and then focused on the drawings on the wall again, but he made his voice casual: "Perhaps you should start from the beginning and explain."
She told him all that she had pieced together, and he was able to calm down as she spoke, though he kept his eyes focused on the carvings as though deeply interested in them. It was difficult only when she moved against him or when he got too much of the sweet fragrance.
"I think this stairway must lead to some sort of observatory," he said as he cast his eyes up the few remaining steps. "And these carvings are of their constellations, as they understand them. This Alphard must have been Toliman's wise man--sort of a Magi on this planet."
"Yes." She instantly understood and agreed. "These are the constellations that Achernar and Nitham told me about: the Flower, the Door, the Tower, the Horn. And look, there are more all along the wall. Do you think there really was a flower?" she asked. "I mean a literal thing down here on the planet? Some plant that was powerful, that Alphard stole?"
"I don't know what's mythic truth and what's literal truth," he said. He turned to her to speak and couldn't help but inhale the sweetness. Her eyes were large. She looked up at him and was startled.
"Are you crying?" she asked. "Doctor?"
He couldn't answer. Tears suddenly flowed down his lined cheeks, over the welts.
"Why are you crying?" she asked softly.
"Sarah Jane, something--" He took her face in his hand. "Something has shown you a great mercy---something powerful has come to rest on you---"
This news didn't seem to take her by surprise at all. She was concerned for him. He framed her face with his hands. "I'm not worth being here---I'm not---I'm not worth it."
Perhaps she intended to answer with good natured humor, the bantering tone she used to express her affection. But as her words came out, her tone was suddenly serious and tender. "I think you're worth it." And then her tone was sure and very tender, almost a command: "I say that you're worth it."
He took her in his arms carefully, to cherish that sweetness, her voice, the mercy that was on her.
"It's all right," she said. "You don't have to cry."
Whatever would have happened next was interrupted by a snarling outcry and a quicksilver shimmering on the steps as something race towards them, outraged and furious. It came up the steps much more swiftly than any human could have done.
"Go higher!" the Doctor shouted, and he turned and met the furious onslaught with a fury of his own that astounded her even as she scurried away and ran for safety.
"You infernal hellish torment! Get down!" he shouted, and his voice had never sounded so outraged. He actually threw it down the steps. She scurried over the top of the steps and found herself in a wide, bare room, all of stone, with great stone windows cut into it. It overlooked a tremendous valley below, but from one large window, the ridge of the mountain proceeded even higher and more steeply, and she saw up above, in a place of incredible height and barren loftiness, three tall stone pyres all close to each other. But there was time for only a glance. She realized that they were trapped in this room. The ridge that led further up was too narrow, uneven, and precipitous to attempt travel with something chasing them. Her heart would have failed her at attempting it even with mountaineering equipment.
But the Doctor was not intimidated by being trapped. He gave ground to the snarling creature and came up into the arena-shaped room where he could see it better.
Snarling from deep in its throat like a demon, it sprang from the dark staircase into the light of the vast room, and he grappled with it. He wrapped his long, strong legs around it and brought it down on top of himself, his arms twined around its arms, preventing it from scratching him or tearing at his eyes and throat.
The creature was dark and shadowy, but not easy for the eyes to define. Parts of it seemed to shimmer and actually fade out of view. But it certainly possessed two legs, two arms, sharp nails, and stubby horns.
Unable to grasp the Doctor, it sank its face against his chest. He shouted as it bit deeply into his flesh, and he rolled on his hips and came down on top of it, astride it. Still keeping its arms controlled, he slammed his body onto to it smash its head into the stone floor. The Doctor heaved up with it still clinging to his chest with its teeth. Its teeth were clamped together in his chest, with the fabric of his clothing wadded and bunched together, preventing the streams of his blood from running into its eyes and nose. Its throat muscles were locked to prevent it from swallowing. He was bleeding badly. He smashed it into the stone floor again. He heaved up and smashed it again. His blood was starting to stream down the sides of its face. He worked one arm free while pinning the creature's hands in between itself and him. He punched his fist into its face and the side of its head. He hammered at it, but it would not let go.
At last it worked its own hand free. The Doctor ducked his head into its neck in time to protect his eyes, but it raked its claws down the back of his head and then stabbed them into the back of his neck. The Doctor's blood was pooling around it now, spreading out on the stone floor.
"Stop!" Sarah Jane exclaimed. "Stop! I'll do what you want. Let him go!"
But the Doctor was already struggling to keep his strength. The creature worked its knees under his legs and pushed him off by thrusting out its knees. The timelord fell back, his chest covered with blood. He tried to rise to stop it, but he slipped in his own blood, and Sarah Jane skirted around him and the blood.
"Let him go. You've got me!" she exclaimed.
"Sarah!" the Doctor exclaimed.
She threw a glance at him: despair and farewell.
The creature leaped up, swift as a panther, and seized her face in its claw, forcing her head back. It spit out the swath of the Doctor's shirt front and spit again to get any of his blood out of its mouth. "How is it done? You are willing now? You bequeath it to me?"
"Yes, but to save him," she said. "You have to let him go."
"When Alphard reigns, all things will be his," it said. "But I will spare him if you bequeath the healing to me and make me whole. Is it in your flesh? Or just your skin?"
"Sarah, no!" the Doctor exclaimed. She extended a hand to tell him to stay, and the creature twisted her head to warn him that it could kill her before he interposed himself.
"The flower," she gasped. "Tell me about that. Did you eat it? Are you Alphard?"
"I was Alphard, and there was treachery, for when Toliman ate the flower, Achernar would become king, and I would become foot servant to him, that boy, that ignorant, generative, youth. He would procreate; the race of the planet would be his descent. They would over run the place: babbling whelps, eating the food, tramping down the forests, taming the animals---"
"But you can't procreate!" she gasped.
"There shall be no procreation! There shall be no race of Achernar. There shall be Alphard, and Achernar and Nitham his servants! They were my students, and I would be made their servant?"
"The flower?" she gasped.
"I seized it to prevent Toliman from transforming. I consumed it. But I was not ready for it. It would have spread my body thinner and thinner, with less and less cohesiveness. And though I have discovered ways to hold my life intact, the flower is yet undoing me. By great skill, I have made myself a physical creature once again and have returned to my planet to claim it, yet still I transform, but closer to death, not to the celestial body the flower would have imparted to Toliman. I must be healed, but the heavens were shut against me, and even Fomalhaut met my pleas with a closed mouth. But you---" He seized her in his arms, and he smelled like dirt unearthed from a graveyard. She turned her head away. "Rich with the smell of life and health and healing. And Toliman has made you richer, here in his garden. Like a sweet fruit, ready to be pierced. You are more powerful than you were on your home planet. Tell me how to consume you. "
Her voice was shaking. "Well, it depends on how you ate the flower---" This deception actually fooled him for a moment, and he was suddenly attentive. Before she could think of a complicated methodology to stall him, there was a faint rumble. The rumble immediately exploded into a roar, and the stone wall on one side of the great room collapsed. It fell away, all the way down the sheer side of the mountain. The floor shook, and Sarah Jane would have fallen over except that the ruined Alphard kept his balance and held her tightly.
Thunder clapped, and then they both fell, their limbs numbed by it, and she realized it was not thunder but the voice of Toliman himself. Alphard fell to the floor on his face, and Sarah Jane, though she also fell, scurried to the Doctor on hands and knees. He was weak but conscious. She spread her hand over the wound in his chest.
"It's all right," he whispered. "Get away, Sarah Jane."
A great wave of dust from the collapsed wall rolled across them, and the tall, narrow, twisting stairway caved in and then fell apart with a deafening crash of cracking stone. From far below, unable to reach them until he had destroyed the walls, Toliman shouted again, the great thunder clap shout that took all the strength from her. The entire side of the mountain was falling away.
She was numb, but she took the Doctor's head in her arms. "There's no escape," she told him. "Toliman is too powerful." She held his head and again covered the wound in his chest with her hand. "He even controls the lightning."
Though weak, the Doctor was puzzled. "What's he going to do?"
"The same thing as Alphard, I think. It was just a matter of time." She held his head. "It's all right," she told him. She looked at his chest and again spread her hand over the deep bite wound. "I think its stanching the blood, Doctor."
The floor was shaking again, a tremendous rumbling as though a train were coming in. Sarah held his head again to cover him if the roof collapsed.
And then, rushing up the collapsed heap of rubble that had been the stairway, the great Toliman thundered into the room. Alphard leaped right over the open side of the room. For a moment he was silhouetted against the opaque and golden sky, a black figure with his knees bent, as though dropping from this distance would not kill him.
Toliman, outraged, shouted and raced to the open wall. He spread his great hands wide, and the valley below roared in response. From where she was, Sarah Jane could see, off in the distance, that the ground was opening up all around the valley, swallowing Alphard in a hail of collapsing terrain. Great waves of dust rose up and would have choked them, but Toliman called, and a steady wind cut through the room from the opposite windows and blew the dust away from them.
Even the Doctor was stunned at the sight of this power. Sarah Jane was shivering uncontrollably, but she stayed where she was.
Toliman turned, saw them, and reared up on his back legs, outraged. He roared and stabbed one clawed finger at the timelord, and the Doctor suddenly cringed with pain.
"Doctor!" Sarah clung to his head. For a moment he stopped breathing, but she pulled open his collar and then realized that her hands and her nearness seemed to diminish whatever Toliman had done. She could revive him.
Toliman reared up again and roared at her, forbidding her from helping him. Then he pointed to the Doctor again. She covered the Doctor as well as she could, shielding him.
"Doctor, I'm here. It's all right. I'm here," she whispered.
"He's pulling the life right out of me. Don't fight him. He'll kill you," the Doctor whispered.
"No I'm here. It's all right." She'd had enough. Enough of being terrified and driven and running and hiding. From the day that Cole had been killed, she had not comprehended the great forces that had been battling for her. And now, she abruptly stopped caring. She pushed back her hair and then held his head again. "We're both in for it," she said. "But I'm all right when I'm with you."
"I'm all right, too." But his eyes were exhausted. She had fended off the worst of this physical attack from Toliman's will, but the Doctor was losing strength. In what she thought was the last moment of her life, she looked up at her captor as he roared again.
"I hate you, Toliman," she said clearly. Toliman froze, his mouth open. The expressionless eyes showed amazement. She didn't care. She was going to say it all. "And if there is a life after this one, I'll hate you there, too. In fact, I despise you, and even though you kill us, there's no creature lower than you. You are nothing but a beast---pure animal with unnatural powers, and you'll kill him like a beast would do, and you'll make me watch and then kill me. And then I don't know what: drink my blood or eat my flesh because somewhere out there, something showed me mercy, and you can't bear it. But I'll hate you forever, and nothing will ever stop that, Toliman. My hatred for you will never die." She stared up at him, her eyes filled with tears at this sad end of her own life and the Doctor's. But her jaw was set.
"Sarah," the Doctor whispered. He lifted his hand to her cheek. "Look at me if you're afraid. Let me see your face."
She looked down at him. "You're my best friend." And now two tears spilled from her eyes. "But I couldn't save you."
Instantly, as swiftly and cleanly as lightning strikes, she was taken up from the Doctor, into the great and terrible arms of Toliman. He shouted at the far wall, the part that looked onto the high, peaked ridge. A section of the wall crumbled away.
"No!" the Doctor shouted, for it seemed that Toliman would throw her right off the precipice. But the great centaur raced across the room with her and leaped through the opening to the treacherous ridge. He was as sure footed as a goat. He ran with Sarah Jane towards the distant spires.