Toliman raced so quickly that Sarah felt as though they were flying along the jagged summit of the long ridge. She had no inclination to look at him, and she covered her face with her hands to wall him out.
Neither did he express anything to her. The only thing she sensed was his determination to take her up to the three pointed spires that she had seen.
It had been impossible, from the lofty height of the stone room, to see the spires in any type of perspective, for they had been silhouetted against the blank sky. The journey to reach them was actually quite long, though Toliman never once abated his determined and swift pace, nor did the weight of her in his arms seem to tire him.
The daylight, even up on this great height, began to decline as the afternoon waned towards evening. She dared to look around a few times, but there was nothing but air around her, the rocky path directly beneath his hoofs, and the tall pinnacles of stone ahead. As the time passed and she returned to her hunched down position, her hands over her face, she couldn't help but lean against his muscular chest. She even began to doze as the rhythm of his pace worked on her. Then she would awaken again and realize her plight and her probable end once he reached his goal. He would either throw her down in wrath at her impudence, or he would devour her as Alphard had wanted to do. And then the rhythm of the hoofs beneath, the sound of his fast but regular breathing, even the beating of his heart, would slowly cause her to become drowsy.
And so this cycle was repeated for the last half hour, until he leaped with a high and soaring leap that made her scream He alighted on a naturally formed wall that joined two of the great spires, and then he leaped down with her and landed on a hard stone floor.
She looked up. The tall pinnacles of stone above were markers around a natural courtyard. Half of this courtyard was floored with solid stone, and half was earth. And in the half that was earth, a grave had been dug and left open, a pile of dirt alongside it to cover whatever was to be buried. And on the stone half of the room, there was a small stone pillar that was short enough, flat enough, and broad enough to be used as a table, or altar. It was bare.
He set her down on the stone floor, quickly but not as roughly as she would have expected, and then he reared up on his hind legs and launched himself into the stone wall that bordered this arena. He crashed into it with his horns. Even he was not strong enough physically to break through the thick stone wall.
Amazed, she watched him.
He backed up and shouted, and then he lowered his head and drove his horns into the stone wall. He reared up and scraped at it with his hooves, and now his shouts were not the huge thunderclaps that had caused the face of the mountain to fall away. They were shouts of anger and outrage as any man on earth might shout in a human rage of frustration. This was clearly his anger working, for if he had wanted the wall down, he could have commanded it to fall.
Sarah Jane backed away from this spectacle to the far wall and watched him, fascinated in spite of her fear. Owing to the high walls, the shadows in this courtyard were lengthening,. She realized that there was no doorway for her, and she could never have leaped to the top of the wall as he had done. The walls were nearly twenty feet high.
She slid down to a sitting position, her back against the stone, and watched as he shouted, tore at his hair and horns with his great hands, and attacked the wall again and again.
She realized that she was both hungry and thirsty, and there was nothing here to provide for her. And then, of course, she realized that it couldn't possibly matter for much longer. And the idea that he was working himself into some sort of ritualistic rage to tear her apart occurred to her.
Again, the sense that she had put up with too much, that she had been the object of some titanic struggle that she did not even comprehend came back to her. And she realized that she would do better not to care. Her own end seemed clear, for whatever purpose would be served by it. There was no point in caring. There were always going to be hunters and predators in the universe, and they would always take their prey.
She turned her face to the wall and put her hands on it. The sight of her hands reminded her of the comfort she had given to the Doctor, the sense right before everything had gone wrong: that the Mercy that had been shown to her on the planet in the Fomalhaut system had descended upon her again, and this time she had used it to help another person. And then with a rush of bitter disappointment she realized that she would never understand what had been shown to her by the mysterious Fomalhaut, and this bitterness brought tears to her eyes, and she forgot Toliman's rage. Her life, she thought, had teetered on the edge of a great enlightenment, and she had missed it. She had never understood, and now she never would understand. Death would cut her off.
She bowed her head, her hands up on the wall, and she contemplated praying to Fomalhaut, but that wasn't how it had worked last time. Something higher and greater poured mercy even to Fomalhaut.
"If there is a mercy," she whispered. "Have mercy on me and help me to take this bravely. If I can't have my life, help me understand what helped me once. Have mercy on the Doctor if he's still in pain. Whatever that mercy is, pour it out on me. Have mercy on me, because I never understood what it was all supposed to mean." And then she cried with all her strength. "I did the worst thing," she gasped. "I came home and tried to live a normal life, like everything was only normal, but what else could I have done? I couldn't even understand it when Fomalhaut held me in her arms and tried to explain it. And nobody on earth could tell me. I'm going to die and I don't know what mercy is." She cried again, not so much for fear of death, but because of what she had never understood.
Her tears were the most severe she had ever cried, and much later, she opened her eyes to realize that she had actually cried herself into a stupor. She was lying slumped against the wall, and she could see that night had come, and the great white moon of this planet was directly over one of the tall pinnacles of stone. The great golden moon was over another. And over the third pinnacle, a tiny, dark red moon seemed to be rising, though it had not yet reached the place exactly over the spire, as the other two moons had done.
Across the courtyard, Toliman's voice was calling, and it was filled with grief. She realized that this calling and talking from him had been going on for some time.
By the light of the moons, she could see that he was facing the opposite wall, his arms out, his head raised to the sky, and he was speaking, not just grunting, with great anguish. He was talking to the heavens, crying to them. She was so exhausted that felt no emotion whatsoever at this sight.
A human hand touched her forehead, and a very sorrowful voice that she recognized spoke to her. "Drink this water, my poor girl. I've come." And there was Jeanne, kneeling alongside her, and Jeanne's face was kind but grave and sorrowful.
"Jeanne!" And she put her arms around her protector, but Jeanne, though she accepted Sarah Jane into her embrace, was clearly sorrowful, too.
"Drink this water, Mouse. You've exhausted yourself." And Jeanne again pressed a gourd of water to her lips. Sarah drank it all.
"What a great sorrow comes when two unlike creatures meet," Jeanne said, but she moved so that Sarah Jane did not have to look at Toliman. "What confusion and misunderstanding. Let me calm him, for he is beside himself."
"He's killed the Doctor," Sarah said.
"The Doctor is alive," Jeanne told her. "Though Toliman sentenced him to death, at your insistence, he spared the time lord."
"Because the Doctor tried to rescue me and take me home," Sarah said. "That's why Toliman wanted to kill him."
"Because the Doctor brought Alphard back to this planet and gave him a new and powerful body, Sarah Jane," Jeanne said, though her voice was not unkind. "There has been great confusion. Will you wait here and let me calm Toliman?"
"Jeanne, if he has to kill me, will you stay?" Sarah asked. "Will you help me bear it?"
"He will not kill you." Jeanne stroked her cheek and then rose and crossed to the great Centaur. He had not seen her, but as she approached and rested her hand on the joining place of his torso and horse shoulder, he turned to look down at her and then bowed his head before her, his face in his hands. And he sobbed out with a grief so sincere that even Sarah's heart was wrenched.
"All right, great heart," Jeanne said. "Shall I see to your wound? You are fair spent, my lord."
He nodded, and again the impression of someone vulnerable struck Sarah Jane. Jeanne was wearing her wool jumper and the soft shawl. She removed this, and with great care she touched his wound with her hand and then applied the shawl to it, and though there was no water gourd, water from the shawl ran down his leg, and she cleaned the wound for him. The courtyard filled with the fragrance of sweet flowers and rejuvenation.
Jeanne worked patiently, and under the light from the moons, Sarah saw Toliman's face change. The great leathery creases in it smoothed out, and his eyes became much more expressive. With a start she realized that pain from the wound had disfigured his face into a never ending grimace and mask of pain. Once the pain was eased, he was quite handsome. He touched his hands again and again to Jeanne's white hair as the old woman worked, gestures of gratitude and blessing.
"Yes, my lord, the time of pain is ending," Jeanne said. "Everything may yet be set right. Come, let me care for you, gentle king." She had bound his leg in her shawl, and now from her jumper pockets she pulled out two very ordinary looking curry combs, and she ran these down the horse part of his body. The effect on him was incredibly calming. Sarah forgot her anger at him, and she felt a certain thankfulness and pleasure in watching Jeanne restore his dignity with her quiet care. Jeanne brushed him as any human would do for a work horse that has put in a long day. She worked down one side and then the other.
And then as she approached his head, he bowed again, put his great face into her shoulder and wept. His large fists struck his chest several times as he cried.
"All right," she whispered to him. "All right. All can be mended, sweet king."
He let her return to Sarah, though he stayed turned away at an angle so that Sarah did not see his face. Though Jeanne had been hard at work cleaning and currying, she smelled as fresh and as sweet as she had on arriving. "Oh Sarah, you have endured great things," she said, as she sat down and took Sarah into her arms. "But what gave you reason to think that Toliman meant to kill you or devour you?"
And then Sarah poured out her own story, of all that she had heard from Achernar and Nitham. And then she found herself going all the way back to the beginning and talking about Inspector Cole and how angry he had been with her, and the prison, and Superintendent March and how he had berated her and mocked her, and the horrible dreams, and the Doctor. Jeanne rocked her, and at one point, Sarah thought she heard the Centaur let out a gasp of grief like a person who suddenly comprehends the suffering of another, but she wasn't sure. Nor did she consider it further. She wanted Jeanne's sweet smell, her concern, and her attention. And most of all, she wanted to understand.
"To explain all of Mercy to you would be like explaining all the universe to you," Jeanne said when Sarah had finished and had cried again. "Or telling you what it is like to live a full life. There are means of mentally understanding, Sarah, but it is also true that the understanding comes by the experience of it: by receiving mercy and by being merciful. And when you are fearful for your own well being, you will be blocked from comprehending mercy."
"I was afraid, but I don't know how to not be afraid."
"I know, dear Mouse. That's where the struggle is, and that struggle has to be one that you encounter again and again. But nobody dismisses fear just by sucking it all out. It's the love of Mercy that replaces fears. And that has to come to you over time, and with effort. A continual struggle." And Jeanne kissed the top of her head, and for the first time, Sarah saw tears in the old woman's eyes, behind the glasses, and she realized that if there was anything that Jeanne actually pitied her for, it was for the fears that blocked Sarah Jane from experiencing mercy. Sarah suddenly clung to her, and Jeanne held her tightly. But at least, Sarah thought with a glimmer of hope, I knew enough to cry about not understanding it. And somebody came to help me. And then she was almost all right.
"Is it somehow merciful for me to die to help Toliman?" she asked.
"Toliman is not Alphard," Jeanne said. "He does not prey upon others. But it is for him to make all things clear to you, for it is his plight, and his world, and his rulership. And now the two of you are quite estranged. So there is only one remedy."
Jeanne helped her stand up, and when the old woman stepped out of the way, Sarah saw a table, as though from earth, set with plain crockery and loaded with breads, and butter, and jars of jam, and steaming pots of tea and coffee.
"You must eat," Jeanne said. "Come and eat, and I will serve you and Toliman."
* * * *
Whatever the centaur had done to the Doctor, the effects slowly faded as the shadows in the great open room lengthened. By the time the sun was setting, the Doctor could get to his knees. He shakily stood, nearly fell over again, and then caught himself. He stumbled to the opening where the centaur had leaped to the ridge with Sarah Jane.
A similar jump from a timelord, especially one in his condition, was impossible. The ridge was impossibly steep, more like am upright wall of stone at this height, and the top of it was more like a point on a steep roof than a proper path. Toliman's hooves had crushed the places where they had landed, and the centaur had actually hammered out his own level path as he had raced along the sheer ridge with his captive, but negotiating the way by staying in the hoof prints would be difficult by day and impossible by night. The Doctor did a quick calculation of the route he had traveled and realized that the stone staircase where he had landed the TARDIS must surely be on the other side of the ridge that was crowned by the spires. Doubtless, the spires marked some sort of temple or sacred ground. And if he wanted to reach them, he would have to retrace his journey and get back to that incredible stone stairway. It was the only path possible for him.
The wound in his chest from the bite of Alphard had been severe, and Sarah's hand had eased the pain and slowed the bleeding, but he was weak. He sat down and tried to think. The first thing to do was get out of this room, and that meant negotiating the rubble and climbing down: another feat that could be performed only by daylight.
But as he sat and mused in the growing dimness, he heard voices. They were coming from the ruined stairs.
He crossed the room and looked down. The roofing over the stairs, the stairs themselves, and the outer wall had fallen away entirely, leaving a vast mountain of rubble that was treacherous and seemed impassable unless a human or timelord should be armed with ropes and stakes. But now in the growing twilight, like two forest creatures navigating through fog, two unclothed but wooly creatures were making a game of leaping from point to point on the rubble, ascending higher through the cloud of dust that still hung over the debris.
The Doctor recognized them as the two visitors who had been at UNIT, but now they were clearly in their true form, leaping like happy mountain goats, without a trace of fear. Pain, he suddenly realized, was almost certainly unknown to them. So why were they in service to Toliman?
"Hallo!" he called to them.
Amazed, they both stopped and stared up at him.
The little one was fearful of this apparition of the Doctor above them. "Alphard!" she exclaimed. "He's returned to his habitation!"
"No, sweet Nitham, it is the friend to Sarah Jane, the one for whom she gave herself up on earth. Doctor!" Achernar called. "Is Toliman my master well? Is Sarah Jane well?"
"Yes," the Doctor said briefly. "Last I saw of them."
Achernar had been pacing himself by Nitham, but now he spoke briefly to her and then bounded up much more quickly. In a few minutes he reached the Doctor. He saw the timelord's ruined clothing and the blood.
"You've been injured," Achernar said. "Did Alphard come? Did he find you? We heard the earth shake and saw the mountainside collapse, and we feared that he had overcome the barrier somehow and entered our world again."
"Alphard and I fought over Sarah Jane," the Doctor said.
"Then Toliman came and destroyed him. Look!" And Achernar swept a hand over the destroyed valley. But he quickly turned to the Doctor. "Surely Toliman has taken Sarah Jane to prepare her for the transformation. We can see to you. Wait here, friend."
And he bounded down the mountain of rubble before the Doctor could speak.
* * * *
The only comfort Sarah Jane took when she started the meal was that Toliman was at least as uneasy as she was. Sarah Jane sat on a plain wooden chair that had been provided as mysteriously as the food, but the centaur stood at the table, and Jeanne also stood and served them.
"Look, kindly King," she said to Toliman, as she took up a thick slab of bread and spread it over with butter. "The earth people treasure this, for its sweetness. Now, while your wound has abated, taste and see how good it is."
He took it with a dutiful nod of thanks. Jeanne rested a hand on Sarah's head. "And you, sweet mouse, here is honey for your tea. Drink it hot, dear. I knew you would miss your tea. And the honey is the symbol between us, is it not, that mercy will be poured out to the hungry soul? Drink the tea and find pleasure in it."
The old woman moved back and forth between them, filling their plates and cups, touching them and talking to them. Her humility was profound, for Sarah Jane knew enough to know that Fomalhaut was a great person, yet it was worth her time to reconcile them.
Sarah ate a great deal, for she was quite hungry, but Toliman ate far more, as he was a great creature. And so as Sarah sipped a second cup of tea and at last watched the horned king methodically bite off piece after piece of an entire loaf of bread and hold it out for a dollop of jam from Jeanne's spoon every now and then, Sarah found that she could look at him again. Without the mask of pain creasing his face, he was handsome, and there was a clear kingliness in his eyes.
Jeanne spoke as he continued to eat.
"My dear kingly friend is one of my race, Sarah Jane. We don't have much to do with your races, and it was decided that this was to our disadvantage. And so kind hearted Toliman undertook to have bestowed on him the parts of earth and flesh, the rhythm of the planet and not the star, and so to be able to know the path of life for your kind and the like. Therefore, unlike me, he must eat and rest instead of drawing his sustenance from the never ending light, as I do." She stroked back Sarah's hair. "He is like you in that he can be hungry and thirsty. He has imparted to us great wisdom, for he has allowed time to have dominion over him. She stroked Sarah's hair again. "But he is still immortal."
Toliman snorted and swished his tail. He glanced at Jeanne, his eyes steady.
"And yet," Jeanne said. "His life has been stolen from him. And he has been given a wound. And his planet is also wounded. He can only take the best alternative now, and for that he needs you. This planet needs you."
They're looking for a blood sacrifice, Sarah thought. She knew that Jeanne had no use for violence, and yet she still was certain as to where this explanation was leading. The wounded god figure, the waiting grave, the altar---they formed a part of too many myths on earth to be unclear. Yet though in part her own role in all of this galled her, Sarah also sensed that there was probably a rightness and a goodness in whatever Jeanne asked of her. She supposed that creatures as innately powerful as Fomalhaut and Toliman probably did have some sort of right to make demands upon lesser, flawed creatures when their own situations became critical. She only wished that Jeanne would come to the point and say it.
* * * * *
"There, my friend, see if that doesn't make you more comfortable," Achernar said as he finished binding the poultice to the Doctor's chest. "You are not like us, but neither are you like Sarah Jane. Plants from your home world would doubtless serve you better, but these should ease the pain and remove the heat from the wound."
"Yes, it feels much better," the Doctor said. Nitham was busily lighting a fire in the center of the great, open room. Neither of them had questioned the Doctor about his role in the interactions of Toliman, Sarah Jane, and Alphard. Apparently, it had not occurred to them that he might be under the centaur's wrath, or that Sarah Jane might be Toliman's prisoner. They were affable and entirely innnocent.
"It is a mystery to me how Alphard was able to return here," Achernar said as he pushed against the poultice to make sure it would stay in place. "For long ago, Toliman threw him from this world and put up a barricade around us to keep him out. Did you chase him here to stop him, Doctor?"
"I assumed he had come here ahead of me, and I wanted to save Sarah Jane from him," the Doctor said. "Saving her was my first priority. I didn't really chase him. I was looking for her." He did not add that Alphard had stowed away in the TARDIS.
Achernar inclined his wooly head. "Thank you for your concern. Now Toliman has her and has taken her to the ring of the stone spires. So all is well. She can safely take part in his transformation."
"Can you tell me about this transformation?" the Doctor asked. "Toliman left with Sarah Jane in a great hurry. I wasn't able to ask him about it."
Achernar knit his red eyebrows. "It is not the first transformation, mind you, the one that was intended. Alphard ruined that and ruined himself."
"Yes the flower. Can you tell me about the flower?"
"Toliman is of the nature of the sun, time lord. But he allowed the heavens to reduce him to being a creature of flesh. He set out to learn all of the ways of time, living under time and cycles." Achernar nodded thanks to his mate as he took a leaf of food from her and passed it to the Doctor. "But this was appointed to him only for a few centuries---"
"Yes, Doctor. I and my joyful Nitham awakened to my master's voice more than two hundred years ago by the count of the earth world. And he was in flesh and fashioning this place long before Nitham and I were given to him to be his servants and the holders of his knowledge. Alphard is older than we by the same amount again. Alphard was our teacher."
The Doctor took a bite of the wizened fruit that had been given to him. It was good to the taste, but he could see that it was stunted.
"But Toliman is a heavenly creature," Achernar told him. "It was for him to understand and then to pass rule to us, so that we could raise young and populate this world."
"And by us," Nitham added in a small voice. "The great ones, the residents of the stars, even to the merciful Fomalhaut, would gain a clearer knowledge of the ways of flesh and the rule of time."
Achernar nodded. "Toliman, when he ate the sacred flower that grew in the raised courtyard yonder---"and he pointed out to where the three spires stood--- "would have resumed his heavenly form, returned to his star, and blessed us with his light and his shining countenance for thousands of years. At regular cycles, he would have returned to us in flesh, healed our injured with his own hands, blessed our children, feasted with us, received our love and thanks. And together we would have rendered praise and given back our understanding to the One, and Toliman would have caused us to understand the deep mysteries of the One. For time itself is a secret of the heavens, and flesh is linked to time and transformation, and yet also to the One."
Nitham spoke. "But Alphard stole the flower and ate it. And the eating of it wounded Toliman."
"And stunted the planet?"
"The planet and Toliman are the same thing," Achernar said. "The planet was ready to be transformed to its fruitfulness when Toliman transformed to his celestial body, when the days of fashioning ended, and the days of fruitfulness began."
The Doctor was puzzled. "How is Toliman one with the planet?"
"He is of it, of the same material, and it has been molded by his will. But he must separate from it for it to be truly its own."
Understanding dawned. "Like a mother having to have the umbilical cord cut," the Doctor said.
"The what?" Achernar asked.
"When we have young," Nitham told him. "The thread of nurturing."
"If he cannot transform, why does he need Sarah Jane?" the Doctor asked.
"That part is unclear," Achernar told him. "Toliman said there is still one way that he can transform. What the humans call death."
"And?" The Doctor felt some alarm, but he was still puzzled.
"The mercy of the heavens is on her. Fomalhaut's presence," Nitham told him. "Toliman says the influence of Fomalhaut on Sarah Jane's blood will end his wound even though the death in the blood will kill him."
"And he wants that? He wants her blood?"
"Oh, yes. He's wanted that from the beginning. But he had to persuade her, first."
The Doctor made his voice cautious. "What if he's not successful at persuading her?"
Nitham bit into one of the white plant bulbs. "Oh, Toliman is always successful."
"And he'd doing this to Sarah Jane now? Out there?' The Doctor nodded in the direction of the three spires. The moons were now up, a silver moon and a golden moon, and the spires were visible as silhouettes in the distance. "He's using her blood to transform?"
"No, of course not," Achernar said. "We have to get there, first. Toliman will wait until we arrive, for we must be the witnesses of the transformation."
The Doctor decided to press his luck with their innocence. "And may I go?"
"Certainly, as you are the friend of Sarah Jane, she will want you there," Achernar said.
"You can comfort her," Nitham added.
The Doctor leaned back and looked at them, trying to keep the incomprehension out of his face. They had no ability to understand death or its horror, at least not in reference to Toliman and what he did.
* * * *
Far down in the ruined valley below, a hump of earth moved and then was split apart as a black and shimmering hand broke through it. The hand grasped the root of an overturned tree and pulled. More earth was pulled loose and fell away. At last, a head and shoulders emerged from the pocket of earth over which a tree had fallen.
There was a landslide of debris pinned against this great tree from above, but only dirt and smaller stones had poured through its branches and filled up the gaping hole over which it had fallen. The figure that emerged from this soft but weighty grave moved slowly but with determination. It pulled itself out and then fell on its face. But as the time ticked by, it lifted its head and listened to the echo of the voices far above, and it saw the glimmer of the firelight flickering on the jagged edges of stone at the opening above.
It crawled out further, and on its forearms and knees it circled, like an animal casting about. At last it detected what it wanted: not the voices above nor the more distant signs of life at the three spires, but the memory of the energy cells in the power core of the TARDIS. First on hands and knees it moved in that direction, climbing over debris and rubble. At last it gained its feet, and it loped off into the night towards the river and from there the TARDIS.