Toliman snorted and swished his tail again. He seemed to be able to read Sarah Jane's thoughts, or at least her expression. He shot a look from Jeanne to Sarah Jane and gave a toss of his head to tell Jeanne to attend to her.
"Sarah Jane." And now Jeanne's face was serious and grave. She gently lifted Sarah's face by the chin so that Sarah would look at her. "Yes, Toliman needs your blood. But not all of your blood, and not enough to kill you. Your blood is not a source of life here on this immortal world. In fact, your blood would be deadly to anything that it touches here."
Sarah looked up at her and felt some dread at these words about needing her blood, but also surprise at this information. She forced herself to find out the rest.
"Then why does he want my blood?"
"Not so that he can live, but so that he can die. You are a creature who will die, and death rides upon your blood. Your blood, only a cup of it, less than would fill the tea cup from which you drank, will be the death of Toliman."
This was not at all what Sarah had expected, not in her most extravagant hopes of being spared. "He wants to die?" And she automatically looked over at the open grave.
"Death is the only course left to him if the planet is to prosper," Jeanne said. "He must cut the planet free from his existence, and this would have been done when he transformed by the flower to his celestial body. Now death is the only transformation left to him. Otherwise, he must continue in his current form, always in pain, never able to be healed, and the planet would slowly wither and continue at its lowest level of life, a wasteland. There would be no race from Achernar and Nitham, no flourishing life, no word of praise, no wisdom, no knowledge of the heavens as only the people born here can attain. Now that Toliman is wounded, the planet is wounded as well. Therefore, Toliman must be healed, and he also must be cut off as the source of life for the planet."
As stunning as this information was, and as much as it relieved her, Sarah Jane also felt a new flame of anger and indignation. "Why didn't he tell me from the start?" And now she stared at Toliman in a sort of horrified indignance, for it seemed to her that he had played with her and toyed with her fears, when all along he might have clarified things for her.
"Sarah." And Jeanne rested a hand on her head to stop her. Sarah fell silent. But even though she tried, she could not see any reason for him to have behaved as he did.
Jeanne turned and spoke to the Centaur across the table. "You are wise, Toliman, and yet there are many different ways to creatures of flesh. Forgive her if she seems impudent. She sincerely thinks she has been deceived, for the habits of her world are different from yours."
Jeanne turned to her. The old woman's demeanor was unchanged in its kindness, and Sarah realized that Jeanne was acting as an advocate for her with the king of this planet.
"Try to see it from his perspective," Jeanne said. "Was he to bring you here only to have you poison him? What would prompt you to agree to such a plan, when death is what you fear? And how could he persuade you to be wounded for him, when he knows that you have such a sensitivity to pain? If you had any compassion at all to spare a creature from death, you would refuse. And fear and loathing of your own blood might cause you to refuse. And further, what would be said of you in the race to come on this planet---that you came here and killed great Toliman? He could not let it fall that way. In your own world, are there not old myths and legends of witches? Was your name to be reduced to that of a crone or a hag? He had to enable Achernar and Nitham to love you and speak well of you in their stories so that your honor would be preserved. So he designed that you should teach them the laughter that is used on your world. And the kissing, so that the legends would not always link you with death and blood. Your name had to be preserved as the one who brought the transformation and enabled laughter and kissing to flourish. In ages to come, the children of Achernar and Nitham will invent a written language and record their antiquity. When they do, you must not be confused with Alphard, nor must your name ever be linked to his name."
This explanation stopped her cold.
"He is a king," Jeanne whispered to her. "The revealing of a plan over time is part of his glory and wisdom, Sarah Jane, and neither Achernar nor Nitham have ever questioned him, for they trust him. They wait upon his word without thinking it hard, for at every moment they know that he is working their minds towards better understanding."
Sarah lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry."
But Jeanne turned to the Centaur. "But you should know, wise Toliman, that on her world, the making of a secret is more often than not used to trap the weaker or the unwary. In her life, secrets form a part of the trapping and destroying---or else enslaving---of others. She had no way of knowing it was not so here. She fears secrets being kept from her, and part of her service on earth is to unearth the secrets that are kept by the powerful people, so that less powerful and innocent people can be wary."
This was an odd way of describing a career as a journalist, but Sarah did not dispute it. Toliman nodded gravely.
"And further," Jeanne continued. "It is the way of many of her race to kill others---especially young women. On her planet, this practice has gone on since before this planet of yours was founded. The blood of the innocent is drunk or poured out by their wise men in collusion with their leaders. And on that darkened planet, some do these abominations to honor me or you. For her race has members that teach that creatures such as you and I drink the blood of her kind for our sport or because we require it to live."
His face became quite sobered at this, and he looked more kingly than ever as he gazed at Sarah Jane with understanding and compassion. He opened both his hands, palm up, and spoke a few words.
Jeanne looked down at her. "Toliman says that he was not skillful in his dealings with you. And he knows now that he caused you a sorrow and a fear that he never even comprehended here on his world. This causes him grief, for you have received mercy, and you deserved honor and care for him."
Sarah looked from Jeanne to him, and now when she saw his face and his eyes, she realized that he was a person of Fomalhaut's station. She looked down. "I hit him on the leg, Jeanne. I'm sorry. It caused him a lot of pain. And it humiliated him. I'm sorry."
Jeanne stroked her head. "He understands that you were terrified for your life. Will you go to him yourself and ask his pardon?"
Sarah nodded, and she stood up. She came around the table, suddenly shy to look up at him, but as she came directly before him, she sensed a kindness in him. She realized that she had never really comprehended him well. Her own fear had never been all that far from her. She looked up at him.
"I'm sorry that I hit you. I'm sorry that from the first I thought you were----that you were---not handsome, when all along, you were in terrible pain."
He spoke to her in his language, his voice soft, and for a moment neither one of them knew what to do. Sarah Jane felt awkward, and she realized that the great Toliman also felt awkward. Then he held out his great hand to her, and she realized for the first time that the gesture from him had been a request for her trust, as well as a guarantee on his part to be her guardian. She had thought it only a sign that she should go with him.
She put her hand into his. And now when the great and powerful hand closed over hers, she felt a shudder of awe. For a moment she couldn't speak, but then the true import of Jeanne's words began to sink in on her. It was a relief to know that she had never been intended to die, but now that her fear abated, she confronted her true purpose here. Toliman would die. And she would be the instrument of his death.
He made a sound with his voice, encouraging her to speak.
"Why me?" she asked. "I mean, why me and not any human being?"
"Because of the mercy I showed you, Sarah Jane," Jeanne told her. "The food that I gave you, the weight of my mercy. These have become a part of you--even of your flesh and blood. I don't understand these things well, for I am not made of flesh and blood, but when Toliman smelled the scarf that Achernar brought him, Toliman knew that you could both heal him, and therefore release the planet from his wound, and also cause his death, cutting his life off from the creation here, enabling it to continue as it should have done once he transformed."
"But if he dies, what happens to him?" Sarah Jane asked. "I mean, does he go to heaven? Does he continue?"
"His breath will be torn from his physical body, and he will not be able to navigate his life, for he is unable to reunite with his celestial imprint," Jeanne said, and Toliman tossed his head in confirmation. Before Sarah could protest, Jeanne said, "I will swallow his life as the final breath is exhaled from his inner well. I will seize his life and protect him, and I and my fellow citizens shall undertake a long task to restore him. We shall refit him to his celestial body by bringing all of our skill and craft to bear."
Sarah's voice was small. "That sounds like a long process."
Jeanne inclined her head. "Thousands of years on your world shall pass before the light of Toliman is restored to its full glory. But he shall burn brightly again, and eventually, as we nurture him, his people here will know that he is not completely absent. And we will watch over them."
Sarah nodded. Toliman still had her hand in his, and he snorted as a horse would do, asking her if it was well with her to continue.
She nodded again, glanced over her shoulder at the open grave and the altar, and turned to Jeanne. "Well," and her voice suddenly shook. "How do we go about it?" But even as she asked, her heart was galled, for it was becoming more apparent to her that this was going to be a dreadful thing. It was not a wicked and treacherous ordeal as she had first thought, but it was nonetheless terrible.
"The return is not yet complete," Jeanne said. "When the time comes, Achernar shall pierce your arm, on the inside--" Toliman used his free hand to touch her inner arm, a few inches below her armpit. "And Nitham will collect your blood and help bind your wound so that you recover. But first, Toliman wants you to see the land that you are saving, to more fully comprehend the necessity of this hard labor that you and he will share, so that when you return to your own world, you will know that you had a vital role in saving a great kingdom."
"Yes, of course," Sarah said. She looked from Toliman to Jeanne, not sure how they would leave. This courtyard was completely enclosed. Toliman leaned over her, and Sarah automatically put her arms around his neck, as unthinking about it as a child with an uncle or grandfather. He lifted her up in his arms and looked at Jeanne.
"I shall wait for you at the return, great Toliman," Jeanne said.
With no preparatory motion at all, he leaped up to the top of the wall, opposite from the side they had entered. The golden moon was blocked on this side, but the light of the silver moon shown down on an incredibly long and steep ramp of steps that climbed to this mountain top height from the terrain below. It was much like the photographs Sarah Jane had seen of the Inca temples and the pyramids.
"You're not going to jump?" she said. He snorted and leaped. "Oh!" She had to close her eyes and hang on to him, but next thing she knew, they were flying down the stone steps, with Toliman's hooves indifferently crushing the places where they fell. The way was still incredibly steep, and she closed her eyes for most of the descent. And it took a while to reach the bottom, even with his swift speed.
She missed the TARDIS as they passed it. But there came a moment when she suddenly smelled the vegetation of the forest, and she opened her eyes. They were flying through the forest. But he did not have far to go. He brought her into a level clearing, and though she heard the river, she did not see it.
He set her down and immediately set to work pulling down boughs that were tangled in the trees. There was no sign of the great and devastating earthquake here, but it looked as though a great wind had come through, pulling down tree limbs. He quickly assembled these into what she realized was a bed for her, and then he pulled up armful after armful of the great, rush-like plants and laid them down for her, over the boughs, to make a mattress.
She was very tired, and she hardly felt awkward at all as she lay down with him looking at her. He settled himself at her head, rather protectively. He had his bandaged and wounded leg stretched in front of him, and his other foreleg curled under him. He rested his broad hand on her head.
She looked up at him. He was silhouetted against the velvet night sky. With a remonstrative snort, he very precisely pushed one of her eyelids closed and then the other, telling her to go to sleep. This made her laugh and say "All right, all right," but she kept her eyes closed. In a moment she was asleep.
* * * *
"Why did you not destroy Alphard on earth, Doctor?" Achernar asked as Nitham curled up like a little puppy with her head on Achernar's knee.
"He didn't harm any others did he?" Nitham asked.
The Doctor's voice was curt. "I came to find Sarah Jane. I feared that she was in danger. She left without a word to me."
"Toliman required her presence," Achernar said mildly, as though that settled the matter. The Doctor bristled on this, but with Sarah Jane in Toliman's hand, and with him dependent on the two of them for information, he contained himself.
"Why did you let Alphard come to the earth in the first place?" the Doctor asked.
Nitham rose up on this, amazed at the question, but Achernar shook his ruddy head. "It wasn't that way. We don't know how Alphard came to earth, or if he fell there or followed it by design. We thought he was dead, surely. For when he and Toliman fought, Alphard was already transforming into horrible and deformed images of himself. Then Toliman cast him out into deep space, and he went pleading for mercy from the elite, but they rejected him, for he still sought to destroy Toliman and enslave us."
Nitham spoke. "How he managed to regain strength is unknown to us. He has been gone for over a hundred of our years from here. And then the reports came from the watchers who protect the celestial pathways that he was restored in power. We went to spy him out and assist where we could, thinking we could defeat him. But his form is so changed, we were not able to stop him. You, Doctor. You seem to understand his process of staying alive better than anybody. When we perceived that you could diminish his strength, we thought surely you would destroy him."
The Doctor nodded, and for a moment his dread for Sarah Jane was sidetracked before the problem of Alphard. "On earth, it was obvious that he had learned to fine tune himself to live off of pure energy. And even though he did seem to transform several times, he stayed within certain parameters. He was able to remain a certain type of creature, though the nature of what he lived on varies slightly in its frequency." And the Doctor knit his eyebrows. "He worked changes upon the living beings he encountered to cause their bodies to give off the energy that he needed. But it was pure energy he consumed, not---"And suddenly he stopped as realization struck him.
"But Alphard surely was in physical form when Toliman tore down the front of the mountain, Doctor." Achernar was clearly worried about this. "We cannot comprehend how he could have regained the power to remake his own body. It should have been impossible. But nothing would have pleased Alphard more than regaining a form similar to what he lost and then returning here to enslave us."
The Doctor kept his voice cautious. "Alphard's form was more clearly that of flesh and blood than I had yet seen," the time lord said. The horror of realizing where Alphard had found the energy that he needed was almost too terrible to consider, and the Doctor pushed these thoughts away. "But surely Toliman destroyed him. Toliman opened up that entire valley out there as Alphard tried to get away. The earth swallowed him."
"Yes." But Achernar was cautious. "Though still I wonder how he refashioned a real body."
"Nobody would have intentionally helped him. Alphard probably stole what he needed." And the Doctor realized tried to sound like he was merely reasoning out the situation, but he suddenly comprehended Toliman's wrath. "But Alphard is surely dead," he added.
Achernar nodded and then made a decision. "Yes, Alphard is surely dead, and tomorrow the return is complete. The three moons shall be fully waxed and in place over the spires. We must meet Toliman there, where he will be waiting with Sarah Jane."
* * * *
Very gradually, a song built around Sarah Jane. She felt that she was floating in it. A very rich, exultant voice was singing, and she had the sense of a race car driver who has just won a race, or an artist who has just had a painting hung in the Louvre, or a historian who had just discovered an ancient manuscript that proved all his ideas. For a long time she floated in this song, and only after a good part of the night had passed, did she realize that the song was about her. Or anyway, it involved her. For it was a tracing of her journeys and adventures, her first meeting with Fomalhaut, the great arachnid Athena, the deadly lair of Alphard on earth. And her first reaction was one of great relief, for she realized that at least one other creature knew what she had experienced, and he knew that none of it had been a dream or a delirium or the result of amnesia. He knew all about it. In fact, as he sang, she revised her own memories as she realized that his mind had a clearer account than her own.
And then the song changed, and she dozed off again, but she dreamed that a great king was looking over a land and a people that he had longed to rule, and that he had loved and cultivated, and now he would never rule it. He sang about how beautiful it was, how perfectly fitted for joy and comfort and the springing forth of wisdom, and then he sang sweetly that he would never see this land, but she would always be in his dreams, always a part of him.
Sarah Jane woke up. Toliman was singing, his hands upraised, and the reality was even more piercing than the bittersweetness of the dream. And though she did not understand him word for word, she knew what he was singing.
There was no self pity in his voice. He sang about the great waterfall that would appear when the plates beneath shifted at their appointed time, and the wonder of the woolly people who would behold it from the opposite mountain tops, the cascading fountains of water, the crashing thunder that would resound day after day. He sang with great longing, but as one who knew he could not see it.
And then he sang about the children who would come: the caves and the huts and the quiet evenings when everything settled down, and the secret wise places when the woolly heads were bent close together in consultation, their eyes turning to the stars to consider them. All of this would wax stronger and stronger, and they were his people, but he would never see them, but they were always in his dreams, always in his hopes, always in his highest thoughts.
She couldn't bear it. She began to cry for him. He didn't quiet her but continued. All his longing and all his love and all his hopes were poured into the song. She climbed into his arms, and he took her and stroked her hair. She cried into his neck, unable to bear the sorrow that he would never see his own world, the world that he had fashioned, as it grew. Only at the end would he see it again, when all was past. But he held her and sang until she had breathed in the quieting fragrance of him, and she fell asleep with her head in his neck.
When morning came, she was in his arms against his chest. He smiled at her and set her on her feet. He touched his cheek and turned his head so that the side of his face was pushed at her. She didn't understand. He repeated this and then he touched her lips with one finger. Then she remembered that Jeanne had said Toliman had wanted her to teach his people laughter and kissing.
"It's easy, Toliman," she said. She leaned close and kissed his cheek. "See?"
He made a dubious sound in his throat. She repeated the demonstration.
He touched her cheek and she obediently turned the side of her face towards him. He leaned forward and tried to kiss her. It was more like a smudging of his lips.
"'Ere you! If you can fashion a world you can give a girl a kiss!" she exclaimed.
He thumped his chest to reply to her teasing and then leaned forward and tried again.
"Better," she said. He put his hands before him, palm down, to show one resting on Achernar's head and one on Nitham's head.
"Yes, I'll teach them," she said. And then suddenly she clung to him, and as he leaned close, she kissed his cheek and held the side of her face to his. He made a sound to reassure her, but she sensed that he also comprehended the tenderness and sympathy of a human kiss.
* * * * *
The way down the high hill of rubble was difficult to navigate, and the Doctor's hosts were willing to help him.
The fact they were all agreed to travel to the three spires made things easier. But Achernar and Nitham also had errands to run before they got to their destination. After they had managed to get down from Alphard's destroyed tower, the two satyr-like creatures took many side journeys from the path.
"Sarah Jane will need this," Achernar would explain as he pulled leaves from a low bush. "These numb pain." Or else Nitham would be diverted by a patch of extremely frail looking wildflowers with tiny, soft petals. "Oh, these will make the fatal drink more palatable," she would say. "They will make the transformation easier to bear."
The Doctor did not think it wise to make any comment on these forays, but he kept his eyes open for any stout bough or branch that he could take up as a guide stick and convert to a weapon. Anything to buy a few more minutes at the critical moment and get Sarah away from these creatures. The one optimistic thought in all of this was that Achernar and Nitham seemed certain that Sarah was still alive. Toliman, like any savage creature that followed a primitive religion, was waiting for a specifically significant moment to work his will on her.
* * * * *
Toliman took Sarah Jane by the hand and stood up. Then he moved so that she was alongside him, and he spoke towards the trees. For a moment, nothing happened, and then she saw that the foliage was moving. He pressed down on her hand to pressure her into a sitting position, and he also came down to his lowered position. In a moment, shy and sparkling eyes peered out at them, and then tiny two legged, softly furred creatures hopped towards them. These were followed by mouse-like creatures, and those resembling shrews and chipmunks and squirrels, but all of them black and grey and silvery colored, except every now and then one of a fir-colored dark green, and even more rarely, one all of gold or brilliantly red like Achernar's coat.
These creatures approached shyly, and after much hesitation, they came and sniffled at her canvas shoes and then pressed their cool paws against her feet and her legs. They stood on their hind legs or else hopped across her knees and looked up at her. Then they slipped past her into the forest. They were followed by more animals, slightly larger, and Toliman inclined his head at them to tell her that she could touch them and pick them up if she liked.
There were far more two legged rodents than one saw on earth, tiny caricatures of the form of Acheron and Nitham, some of them wooly and some with soft, plush fur. They hopped and bounded, and they were followed by slower, steadier four legged members of the animal race. And among these there were climbing creatures and burrowing creatures and some that clearly lived on riverbanks and others in trees. They gathered to her and touched her knees with their paws or claws or tiny hooves. She touched them and stroked them, and they all submitted, but she saw that some were more shy than others, more highly sensitive, and these trembled at her touch and her voice, and others were more clearly confident and delighted with her attention.
And then came the larger creatures, including the one she had awakened accidentally. He seemed to think they were now great friends, and he nosed into her face and bowled her right over with his good natured affability as he pushed into her. Toliman spoke a gentle word of restraint, and the creature let her up and nuzzled her head before passing on into the forest.
Then came birds--most darkly colored, but some quite brilliant in plumage. They rested on her shoulders and some affectionately tweaked her ear or her nose or tugged her hair in their beaks before flying off to their nests. Toliman spoke again to her, and she saw by his gestures that he was telling her of other creatures he had not called: vastly large creatures that lived in isolated regions, and tiny creatures that would be endangered if they came to the surface, for they did not bear light and heat well.
Then he bid her stand, and he clapped his hands, and many of the two-legged, hopping creatures of different species returned from every direction, each of them bearing food for her: the tiniest of them carrying only a single berry apiece in their forepaws, and the larger bearing the bulbs and heavier fruits.
And so she was served her lunch by the planet and its creatures. And when she and Toliman had finished eating and the creatures had retired back to their wild retreats and burrows, Toliman took her by the shoulders and came and stood behind her. And with his hands on her shoulders, he sang again. And even as she had known the night before the general content of his song, she knew that he was now singing about her, and her mercy in coming at his call, and her goodness to the planet, and his love for her for bringing about the transformation of this world into its own independent entity. He rested his right hand on the top of her head and sang his blessing upon her, and his will that this world should receive her and bless her and remember forever that she had come with mercy, even though he had taken the death she had offered him.
And finally, his hands gently turned her face up toward the sky, as though showing her face to the heavens above, and he held her this way, against himself, her head firmly underneath his heart, her face tilted upward. The wind and breeze stopped. The river had been rushing along nearby, but now it was silent. Everything in the forest became completely still, and nothing moved, and his song echoed so loudly in the stillness that it seemed to resound from above as well as from his voice.
She was overcome and would have turned and hidden her face against him, but he stilled her fear and awe and sang of his acceptance of all that he had laid out for himself, of his will that the planet and the race of Acheron and Nitham continue, of his acceptance of her as the instrument of his healing and death.
And then he was silent, and the entire world seemed silent. His hand holding her face was strong and kind, and her tears spilled onto his thumb and fingers, and she realized how good he was, and how kind, and she didn't want him to die. If there ever were a king who deserved to have his kingdom, it was Toliman.
Lightning flashed from one direction to another across the sky, and then again from another direction, and then a third time, and a fourth time. And then the wind returned. The rushing of the river resumed. Toliman stroked her cheek and chin and allowed her to turn towards him and put her arms around him and be overwhelmed.
Sarah Jane had no sense of time, and it seemed that something deeply buried in her suddenly sprang up and said all the things that she had never even acknowledged to herself except in secret. She told him that she was more silly than outright sinful, that she was only vain, and she had no wisdom whatsoever, and lived only from day to day, from paycheck to paycheck, from assignment to assignment. It seemed to her at that moment that her greatest crime was in how willingly blind she had been to the great mercy and truth all around. She felt that she had profaned it all simply by being herself. In a universe of enlightenment, she had chosen to be ignorant and vain. And now she knew she was blind and had always been blind and had wanted to be blind. And she poured this out to him.
He held her, his face close to her head, and he spoke to her in his foreign language: kind words. She knew that she was never going to be worth this. And killing Toliman seemed less horrible than profaning him by taking part in these grand events.
But he breathed on her and was quiet, and as he became quiet, she also quieted down. He had decreed his will and his decision, and she realized that whatever she suddenly understood about herself, he deserved to choose the plan that worked best for him. And if she had a role in his plan, her best choice was to fulfill that role.
"I'm sorry that I said I hated you," she whispered at last.
He spoke a single word and then kissed her forehead, and he got it right.
Then he lifted her face to his and only looked at her, his eyes sober and kind. She nodded. "Yes, if you're ready. I'm ready." He held out his great hand, and she put her hand into his. They set out for the great stairway and the ring of the stone pinnacles.