The stairs made a perfectly straight line up to the spires, but the way up was incredibly long. Even the Doctor's resilient strength was taxed by the climb. But the worst thing, after he and Achernar and Nitham had finally reached the base of the spires, was that the interior protected by these stone three guardians was entirely walled in, and the walls were sheer, smooth, and high. He glanced at his guides. "How do we get inside?"
Achernar smiled and gave a toss of his head. The long stairs that led up to the courtyard ended at a blank wall, but the ridge rose up around the wall on one side. Achernar showed him a narrow, twisting path. "We climb this path to the wall on the other side and then drop inside, over the top," he said. "I am very strong, Doctor. I shall help lower you to help you land softly."
"Then how do we get back out?" the Doctor asked.
"Toliman says we are not to worry about that," Nitham said. "If all goes well, the way will be opened to us."
"I see." He made his voice cheerful and careless, but this religious ritual suddenly seemed even bloodier than he had first thought. They would all be trapped inside.
Achernar was checking his tools On the way to the mountain stairway, Achernar had detoured to Toliman's forge and retrieved two wooden cups and a long, sharpened and highly polished needle. He kept these wrapped in a parcel of the large leaves. Nitham had drawn a gourd full of water, its flexible top pinched together to seal it.
"It doesn't sound like Toliman's in there," the Doctor said as they climbed the path in single file with Achernar first, then the Doctor, and then Nitham.
"If he's gone, he will return with Sarah Jane by dark," Achernar said. "The transformation shall take place tonight, when the heavenly witnesses are in place."
* * * *
For Sarah Jane and Toliman, the walk back to the mountaintop courtyard took most of the rest of the afternoon. And the stairs were the most difficult part. Toliman climbed them in his own hoofprints that he'd made, but these had been stamped into the stone as he had been at a full gallop, not at a walk, and so he had to gallop ahead every few steps and then wait for Sarah Jane to catch up to him. The stairway inside Alphard's tower had seemed long, but these stairs were much more long and steep. Finally, as the day was swiftly declining, great Toliman held his arms out to her.
Sarah Jane lifted her arms around his neck, and he swept her up. Then he galloped swiftly higher, and the journey did not seem long enough. She closed her eyes for most of it, not so much from fear but because she didn't want to think of what would come. Then she felt them soaring through the air as he leaped to the top of the wall.
He snorted as a horse would do, to tell her to look below, and he lifted her a little so that she raised her head. Together, they looked out over the vast landscape below: the trees, the river, the plains and terraces, the many caves, bathed in the white light of the highest moon. He was satisfied with it: His last sight of his own world. Then he leaped into the courtyard with her and set her on her feet.
The Doctor, Alphard, and Nitham were already there.
"Sarah!" the Doctor's eyes were sharply concerned.
Toliman raised a hand to tell him to stay back. The great Centaur snapped out a command, but Sarah spoke: "Toliman, Alphard is a thief and a murderer. If you blame every person who unwillingly or unknowingly provided strength to him, you'll never come to the end of the matter."
"Of course I never willingly helped Alphard!" the Doctor said, but he kept his voice subdued, for Toliman still had Sarah Jane.
But Toliman spoke again and pointed skyward, and Achernar translated. "My master is king of this planet. When he forced you off this world twice, why did you insist on returning yet again? You returned Alphard here, full of power." And now both Achernar and Nitham regarded the Doctor more judiciously.
Sarah took Toliman's hand in both of hers. "We don't always understand your ways, Toliman," she said. "The Doctor came to rescue me. He wouldn't have understood that you could force him off the planet. Please don't be angry with him."
Toliman spoke again, obviously yielding to her wishes, but his tone had a sound of contempt for the Doctor.
Achernar again translated: "The Master says the time lord should not be a witness to the deepest secret of mercy. He should go."
"You call this barbaric ritual mercy?" the Doctor asked.
Sarah spoke before anybody else could answer. "Yes!" She met the Doctor's eye. "It's Mercy. It's all right." Then she covered Toliman's great hand with her own. "It's all right, Doctor. I know why they need me, and it will be all right. I've chosen to help them."
He was amazed. "Help them by participating in this religious alchemy of theirs?"
"Yes." Her eyes were level. "If it doesn't work, well, they were wrong. No harm done."
"Except for mutilating you!"
Achernar was surprised at the Doctor's sudden protest. "Alphard has touched your mind, Doctor," the young prince said, and his voice was mild. "She shall give less blood to Toliman than what is required of the UNIT soldiers on earth where they store their own blood."
"And if things don't come off as Toliman says?" the Doctor asked.
Nitham was puzzled. "That's impossible. Great Toliman understands his destiny." Nitham turned to Achernar. "I don't understand. I thought Sarah Jane would be frightened, but the Doctor is frightened."
Sarah Jane turned to Toliman and spoke on the Doctor's behalf. "What if it isn't successful?" she asked him. "Is there an answer for the Doctor?"
Toliman lifted his free hand, palm up, and spoke a few words. Achernar nodded.
Achernar translated: "Then you shall go at once. She shall not be pierced again and again for Toliman. Only once."
Sarah's voice was concerned for the Doctor, not angry. "All right, then?" she asked him.
"I suppose it will have to be." He remained doubtful, but she saw that he was not angry, only concerned for her.
"I'll light the tinder," Nitham said.
And now Sarah saw that on one corner of the stone altar, a small pile of tinder and bits of wood had been gathered, and on another corner a large wooden mazer stood next to a smaller wooden mazer, and next to them lay an iron needle, about the thickness of two or three hatpins and polished so that it shone. In a third corner was a small pile of the thin and feathery wildflower petals, and in the fourth corner a pile of darker, more pungent herbs. The darkness of night was falling, and the moons were rising, moving by the minute towards their appointed stations over the stone pinnacles. The red moon was now higher. Nitham lit the tinder on the altar and as it flamed into life, she set the small pieces of wood across each other in the flame.
As silver light and gold light from the two bright moons spilled over them and illuminated the courtyard, Toliman beckoned for Achernar and Nitham to come closer to him. They did, and he turned to Sarah Jane, leaned down, and kissed her cheek. And then she kissed him as well. He looked at them and spoke.
"What does it do?" Nitham asked.
He gestured at her, and they came forward and let her kiss them, and then Toliman kissed them both. He rested his hands on their heads and spoke over them. Then he stepped back. He unbound the wound in his leg and cast aside the white cloth. Achernar took up some of the herbs, measured them by eye, then rubbed them between his hands and dropped them into the smaller wooden cup. Sarah saw that water had been poured into it.
"Sarah Jane," Achernar said. He took up the long needle and held it into the flame. "Toliman has provided for you to drink this mixture." And he nodded at the small cup. "For it will prevent the pain from the needle. You won't feel it when it pierces your arm."
Sarah looked at the cup, and then she looked at Toliman--at his chest, anyway. For a moment she couldn't look at his face. She was silent.
Nitham made her voice coaxing. "Oh Sarah, Achernar is very skillful with the needle. If you drink the elixir and close your eyes, you'll hardly know."
"This is barbaric," the Doctor muttered.
But Toliman made a gentle sound in his throat, stilling all of them, and Sarah looked up at him. "I ought to feel the pain," she said. "Master if it pleases you. If I can bear it, I ought to. If you have to die by my blood, then I should bear the pain too."
"But Death shall ease Toliman's pain," Achernar said automatically, but Toliman made another sound in his throat, consent for her request, and his eyes told her that Achernar and Nitham would not comprehend death until he had died. To them, it was a simple and straight forward transformation for him.
"I know that it's good and right for him to do this," Sarah said to them, not able to look at them. "But some things you can only know by pain. Even good things. The pain has to make its mark on you so you know and understand."
And Toliman again gave his consent. He rested his hand on her head and used his other hand under her left arm to lift it and extend it. Achernar came around the altar with the needle, and Nitham brought the larger cup. Nitham dropped a handful of the flower petals into it.
Sarah Jane buried her head into Toliman's side, and he held her close until she felt the needle pierce her: an intense but precise burning pain on the soft part of her arm, where the veins were close to the skin. The pain made her suddenly sob with grief. "Master, this isn't right. I'll die with you, Toliman. I'll go with you."
"Sarah!" the Doctor snapped. But Toliman stroked her hair and declined the offer with a gentle word. He leaned close and kissed her, and then he straightened her up to ask her to regain her composure, and she did. Nitham passed the mazer to Achernar and quickly took up more of the herbs and pressed them to Sarah's arm. "These will stay the blood," she said. "And numb the wound." They waited until the clump of herbage had quickly dried with her blood into a hardened knot over the small wound. Achernar handed the cup up to Toliman.
"Drink this and find ease from your pain, Master," Achernar said. "And return to your place in the heavens."
Toliman accepted it and spoke a few words to his heir, kindly in tone. And then without hesitation he drank the contents of the cup in one great draught.
He set the cup onto the stone altar. Sarah, trying not to hold her injured arm, looked up at him in the silvery and golden moonlight. Sweat immediately appeared on his forehead, but his eyes were clear, and the small lines of pain that had gathered on his face since Jeanne had last attended him smoothed out again. He spoke and gestured at his leg, and then extended it for Sarah Jane to see. The bleeding had stopped and the wound was now pink, and then it rapidly darkened to the color of his skin. He was healed. The pain had stopped at last.
He spoke clear words to say thank you, and then suddenly his legs failed him, and he fell against the altar.
All of them rushed forward, even the Doctor.
But Toliman was so great that he would have crushed them if he fell on them. He waved them back a few paces and then braced himself against the altar and stood, leaning against it. He gasped in his breath, and the sweat poured off his face. His flanks were wet with it.
"Master?" Nitham asked. Her voice was very small.
Toliman cast a glance around, seeking Sarah Jane, and she ran to his outstretched hand. He caught her and inhaled her sweetness, and she realized that the power of mercy that was on her could still comfort him.
"Oh Master, can I heal you?" she asked. She tried to brush the streaming sweat from his face. "Maybe there's some power that will do that."
He spoke a word, a clear no, but he pushed his face into her hair and breathed, and then he was steadier on his feet. He turned his head, set his eye on the grave, and resolutely stepped out towards it. His legs were quivering from his weakness, but he was determined.
"Don't go into your own grave!" Sarah pleaded. "Don't throw yourself in there, Master!"
He rested his hand on her shoulder, and she walked with him as he made this resolute but stumbling journey. "Please master, stay outside it while you're alive."
He managed to nod. He staggered to the grave, and she realized that the four of them would not have been strong enough to move him toward it if he died anyplace else but right at its edge. But it was a horrible thing to consider, and it was horrible to see him plod towards the dark hole that had been dug for him.
He came down on his knees on the edge of it, and Sarah saw this his eyes were suddenly filled with sadness and loneliness and a sudden shame, for he was reduced almost to nothing. He put his face into his hands.
"Master, I'm here with you," and she put her arms around him. But even the sweetness on her could not revive him. He cast one look at her, right into her eyes---shared grief because he suddenly knew that she would also die someday, compassion for her. He pulled his head away, released her, and hung over the grave. And, all his features showing sickness and shame, he vomited a long stream of red---far more than the cup had held. He vomited again. He couldn't breathe. A great trembling took him over, and he opened his mouth to vomit again, but his muscles failed to work.
"Master," Achernar and Nitham wailed. They were frightened. They threw their arms over his back.
His eyes closed, but he wasn't dead, and Sarah pulled with all her might, for he was going to fall into the grave before he was dead.
"Don't let him fall!" she cried, and she nearly went in with him, and then all of them: Sarah, Achernar, Nitham, and the Doctor, tried to hold onto him to keep him out of the grave. And then, suddenly, a short spray of red dashed over his lips, and he made a sound like a man does who has been punched, and he was dead. He went limp and fell from their arms into the grave, landing on his back towards one side.
Sarah fell onto her face from the recoil of his body slipping out of her arms. For a moment she heard only the crying and wailing of Achernar and Nitham. And then a great nothingness swept over all of them. The light was hidden, and the air was very still, but the noise sounded like wind.
"Fomalhaut, Fomalhaut," Nitham and Achernar whimpered, sensing her, but Sarah and the Doctor were each prostrate before this strong presence of vast emptiness and stillness. And around Fomalhaut, there were other presences. All four of the creatures of flesh lay silent and still as the rushing sound filled the courtyard. Far above them, a true wind swept all the clouds from the sky, and from all around the landscape, they heard a great barking and baying and rustling as the entire planet came to life. Wheeling birds suddenly crossed the light from the moons, and they called to each other and cried out across the sky, alive and in flight.
And then there was a tremendous crashing, and the section of the stone wall that separated one end of the courtyard from the steep steps abruptly fell away. Chunks from it crashed and resounded as they rolled down the long ramp of steps.
"Master, Master," Achernar whimpered. "I don't feel him. We're all alone. We're alone. He's gone from the land. He's left us."
Sarah managed to get up on hands and knees. Achernar and Nitham were both weeping, with the earnestness and innocence of children. "Where has he gone?" Achernar asked. "He's not in the land or in the sky. Where did he go?"
"Toliman," Nitham said. "I can't find you in my thoughts. Where are you?"
"Children," Sarah heard herself say, and her voice sounded very kind and calm and wise. They scrambled to her, and she put her arms around them. The Doctor, moved to pity for them in spite of his skepticism, also joined her and circled his arms around them all. Achernar and Nitham, frightened at their sudden loneliness, sniffled and huddled into their earthly companions.
"I don't understand. Where has he gone?" Achernar asked. "He said he would die. He said it would be like going to sleep for him. But he's not with us anymore."
"Surely you knew that," Sarah Jane said. "Everything has happened as he said."
"Not this way. Not this way," Nitham sobbed. "Oh he's entirely gone. Will we see his sun in the morning? Has his light been put out in the heavens?"
"Yes, his sun will rise," Sarah Jane told them. "And you felt the great guardians come and take him up, didn't you?"
"Yes," Achernar said. "Fomalhaut, and Aldebaran. Antares and Regulus. The greatest of the celestial citizens. But where is he in our thoughts? We knew he would be torn from his body. But there is no memory of him any where in this world. We are empty. Everything is empty."
"Oh Master, come back," Nitham cried.
And the two of them fell into heartbroken sobs of grief. They held onto the Doctor and Sarah and cried, and then they held onto each other and cried.
And then, suddenly, a great whirlwind cut through them, and the four of them were broken apart. The water gourd was flung aside in pieces. Achernar and Nitham were torn by claws across their shoulders, and they cried out with pain and surprise.
Then before the Doctor and Sarah could rise, Achernar, up until then untutored in the arts of war, shot across the courtyard and tackled the dark, shimmering form of Alphard.
"He's alive!" the Doctor shouted.
The youthful Achernar suddenly did not fight like an untutored boy. It seemed as though he instantly knew what to do. He slammed one fist and then the other into Alphard, and then he leaped higher than a human being could have done, with his wooly legs tucked under him, and he kicked both of them into Alphard's chest. He fell to the stone floor and bounced up like a red rubber ball.
Alphard snarled and slashed with his claws, and with a grace beautiful to see, the ruddy Achernar ducked under the claws and slammed his fist into Alphard again. For a moment, Alphard slashed and slashed at him and was never able to score his flesh as Achernar moved only ever so slightly, ducking his head, slipping underneath the frantic swings. And then he would come back up and strike hard and true into Alphard's face or chest.
And Achernar's face was suddenly filled with understanding. "Alphard, do you think Aldebaran, the King of War, would pass me by and not bequeath his skill to me?" And then he shouted with triumph. "Toliman spoke true. We have been helped, my Nitham. We are not alone without our master."
The Doctor had jumped up to assist the planet's young prince. But the dark and shimmering Alphard, as though suddenly realizing the truth of Achernar's words, and staggered by the tremendous punches, leaped away, and more speedily than anybody else could move, he swept over to Nitham and Sarah Jane and seized them by the arms in his grip. He jerked them to their feet and pulled them in front of himself as shields. His strength was tremendous, and he clamped his hands so tightly that they both cringed and could not fight or escape.
"Monster!" Achernar exclaimed, amazed at this treachery. "Let them go and fight me. I will tell the Doctor to stand back."
"I'll tear them to pieces before your eyes, bastard youth. Where is Toliman? What has he done?" Alphard
demanded. "He has discarded his body. Why? And this one." And he shook Sarah Jane. "Tonight I devour her, bone, blood, and flesh. Spare your own lives and tell me how to consume her so that I can be healed."
Achernar stepped forward, but Alphard wrung Nitham's arm, and she groaned with pain. Achernar stopped. "Know that I shall avenge their every pain!" Achernar snapped.
Alphard disregarded this threat. "Tell me what has happened to Toliman? I do not sense him. He is gone from the air and the river."
"He died," the Doctor said quickly. "He's dead. We tried to transform him at the end, but we were too late. He would have consumed Sarah Jane properly, but he died before he could complete the task."
Sarah Jane nodded quickly.
"No!" Achernar exclaimed, amazed at such a lie. He spun on the Doctor. "How dare you---"
"Achernar!" Sarah shouted. "Let him speak!. Let him say it! I surrender Alphard. Spare them," she said.
"She has to be bled properly or it won't work for you!" the Doctor snapped. "If you spare us as she requests, we'll show you how to consume her. She would have willingly given herself to Toliman. Now she'll give herself to you."
"Yes," Sarah Jane said. "But you need the herbs from the planet, too. And that wooden cup."
"Her blood carries the mercy on it," the Doctor said.
Alphard threw Nitham aside, pulled Sarah Jane with her back against him, and would have torn out her throat, but the Doctor shouted "No! You'll ruin it!" And the shimmering form of Alphard stopped.
"The flower," Sarah gasped. She tried to look back at the monstrous thing that had her, but she couldn't see him. Her heart was pounding, but she kept her voice steady. "When you ate the flower, you said you were not ready for it. You consumed it too quickly. The same danger is true for its cure."
"The cup is the measurement," the Doctor said. "You have to take it a cup at a time, with the herbs mixed in. You must not kill her outright or the blood will dry up before you get it all."
Achernar had at last caught on to the ruse. He remained silent, not sure how to play this game of deception. But he let them play it. Nitham also stayed where she was.
The Doctor took up the needle. "Hold out her arm, her uninjured arm," he said.
Alphard, one arm around Sarah's throat, did so. "You, whelp!" he snapped to Nitham. "Take her arm and pin it to your side so she doesn't struggle. And you, red face, you stay there," he told Achernar.
The Doctor passed the cup to Nitham, and she gathered the herbs into it and then stood ready. He stepped closer, looked at Sarah Jane, his eyes rueful, and then slipped the needle against her arm and quickly made a puncture wound. The blood seeped out, and he wrung the arm to help it along. Sarah became dizzy this time, and she felt Alphard shake her.
"Take it," she gasped. "Drink it quickly while it's a liquid." She hardly knew for a moment what was going on, and then she heard him make quick swallows.
"She has healed me," he said. "Pierce her again. Make it work for me."
"You have to give it a moment," the Doctor said. "This is a great process and must not be rushed."
And then Alphard fell back. His clawed hands dropped away from her. The Doctor caught her, and Nitham rushed to her. Achernar, furious, rushed forward, but the Doctor shouted, "No!" And the youth stopped and looked at him.
"It's done. He's dying!" the Doctor said. And Alphard's end was much more swift than Toliman's. He fell onto the ground, and the shimmering quality left his body. He rolled back and forth and they heard one groan, and then the dark form was oddly flat, almost like a leathery puddle rather than a body.
"Transform me!" he gasped, an exclamation of frustration. And then there was only a scorched place on the stone.
The Doctor eased Sarah to the ground, and Achernar came to her. He worked busily, stopping the second wound, and then he saw to Nitham's scratches, and then, while Nitham held Sarah's head, the Doctor saw to Achernar's shoulders and fists.
When they had finished, and Sarah Jane had regained some strength, they sat on the stone floor, well away from the scorch mark. For a long time nobody said anything, and then Achernar said, "Now we must rule, Nitham. And bear young."
"But where is the Master?" Nitham whimpered.
"Fomalhaut said that she would protect his life," Sarah told them. "And that she and her peers would restore him to his celestial body, but it will take a long time."
Nitham's voice was sorrowful and yet hopeful. "How long?"
"Until the sun waxes to its greatest brightness." Sarah glanced at her. "But in the meantime, Fomalhaut promised you will have help from her and her kind."
"Yes. For they breathed upon us," Achernar said. "And the sun will be in the sky tomorrow?"
"Yes," the Doctor said shortly. And though his answer comforted Achernar, Sarah knew from the tone of his voice that the Doctor did not believe the meaning of anything that had happened that night. In his eyes, Toliman had died by taking poison to end his pain, and Alphard had died by being tricked into taking poison.
"Achernar, we have to finish burying your master," the Doctor said at last. "But let me work at it first, so that you don't have to see him."
"No, timelord," Achernar said gently. "Your intent is kind, but as Sarah Jane said, I must have that pain to gain its wisdom. Come." And he stood and went to the grave with the Doctor.
The long night passed, and Achernar and Nitham curled up together against the wall, holding each other with their knees drawn up. The Doctor sat with his back against the stone wall and Sarah sat next to him. His clothing was ruined, and hers was little better. They were both in a rather sorry state, but the scent of the sweetness that was on her calmed them.
Her ordeal had drained her of her strength, and as she tried to doze off, he finally gathered her in against his ribs. The sweetness on her was stronger than it had been in the enclosed stairway, but now he found that he could resist it better. And she needed to sleep.
The moons set, and the night became black. The landscape settled into silence. And at last, the sky showed a pinkish edge that slowly paled into the golden, opaque canopy of this world. Achernar and Nitham stirred and then leaped up and raced to the opening in the courtyard, which directly faced the rising sun. The sun's rays washed over them with brilliant white glory and cast their shadows behind them: tall and slender shadows.
"Oh Toliman!" Nitham exclaimed. "There you are. The celestial body that awaits you."
"Now we have hope," Achernar said. "Now we can rule with certainty." He turned to the Doctor and Sarah. "Sarah has been bled overmuch," he said. "How is she?"
"Ready to go home with me, I think," the Doctor told him.
"I don't think I can do those stairs," Sarah said. She had been bled, and there had been no food or water for her.
A cloud passed over Achernar's face, but he stepped over to Sarah, stooped, and picked her up as Toliman would have done. "The stairway is too long for you, Sarah Jane. I shall take you down." And without a word to the Doctor, the young ruler carried her to the sunlight. He had been quite strong all along, and now a faint hint of stubble on his jaw made him appear older. Without thinking, Sarah rumpled the woolly hair on top of his head and felt the nub of a hard little horn growing on one side. She checked the other side and found its partner. "Well," she said.
"Ready?" he asked her.
"You won't fall?" she asked.
"Never yet!' And he sprang down the stairs with her. Nitham, bounding like a little cream colored kangaroo, followed. With a slight grimace, the Doctor followed after them, at a much slower pace. In a moment, they were far down the long ramp of steps.
As he walked, he realized that somebody was walking towards him, coming up the steps. This person was pale, and for a moment he thought it was Nitham, come to give him company. But it was an old woman.
"Pardon me," he said. "I don't believe we've met."
She came to a stop and looked up at him. "You would have done better to have yielded to the sweetness of my mercy, Doctor."
"Oh I see!" And he continued on as though he would have gone right past her. But when he looked up, though he had traveled down about twenty of the steps, she was still several steps down in front of him.
He made his voice icily polite. "I have seen what your mercy does, madam. Whoever you are. We left two of its bodies up above. No thank you."
"When you first knew it, you longed for my mercy," she said. "And two days ago, when it came to you endowed upon Sarah Jane, you shed tears because you knew you didn't deserve it, and you knew it would be given to you anyway, and you wanted it."
"Yes, well I've come to my senses. I believe in a mercy that is fair and equitable. A rational mercy. Where all parties sit down together and nobody comes out the loser!"
"Could you have sat down with Alphard and reasoned with him?" she asked. "It was your plan, was it not, to kill him by giving him what he wanted?"
He pressed his lips together. "And was it your plan to turn Sarah Jane into some sort of blood offering on this planet? When you supposedly showed her mercy in the Fomalhaut system, were you really just fattening her up for one of your needy colleagues here in Toliman?"
"No, that was not my plan," she said. "I heard the little creature's cry for mercy, and I beheld her shivering and weeping and in misery. So I healed her, and I covered her with my sweetness and beauty. But I do not say that the second purpose did not exist in the mercy that I obey. For mercy will be extended to every creature that comes to it with open mouth. And Mercy will come by blood, and tears, and even pain, as well as by food and drink."
"I have no use for a bloody mercy!" he snapped. "I believe in a mercy that doesn't need blood!"
"Very well." And she closed her mouth and would have walked away, but he could not resist adding, "True mercy is rational and thinking. It is founded in the mind. It is ethical."
She turned and looked up at him. "Man of ethic," she said. "Though Sarah Jane has wept for you and surrendered her life for you, I tell you that there will come a day when you will abandon her so that you may pursue your ethic. And when that day comes, you will have set aside a true friend, and the wound you give yourself in wounding her will do you more harm than any wound that was willed onto Sarah Jane from me or my kind. You will hurt her far more than Toliman could have ever intended in his sternest anger."
He was angry and he stepped forward. "I would never do that. I haven't forgotten what I owe her. I haven't forgotten what the universe has showed me about goodness! I've traveled, too, you know!"
Her voice was calm, almost resigned, not angry. "Not many days from now, you will undergo a deadly transformation, and the warmth and the joy you were given shall be forgotten by you. You, great man of rational mercy, shall forget the wisdom you accrued and will gain a new wisdom. But in the end, you will not like that new wisdom. The day will come, when you will long for what you know you've forgotten, when you will cry for it, and yet for all your genius, the memories will not come back to you. The heart of stone you've longed for shall be given to you, and you will have to endure it. All you will find is rational ethic, and all that you've abandoned will be swept out of your reach."
He stopped, and for a moment this statement seemed horribly real.
"When that day comes, find Fomalhaut," she said. "Dwell on the waste lands of my planets. And if there is anything left of kindness that can be shown to you, I will show it to you then."
And then she was gone.
Meanwhile, the journey down was comparatively swift, though Sarah Jane felt some concern that they had all simply left the Doctor behind. But Achernar and Nitham clearly were interested in anything she might say about her last day alone with Toliman. They wanted any last word that had been reserved for him.
Achernar set her down near the TARDIS, and they knelt by her.
"Are you well, Sarah Jane?" he asked.
She was light headed and weak, for she'd neither eaten nor drunk since her blood had been taken.
"I'll be all right," she said. "Achernar, though Toliman will be restored, it will be centuries before that happens. But others of his kind will help your world, for his sake. You can rely on them."
He glanced around at the surrounding trees. "It's just that he was always in everything. Now everything seems silent and cold. My world has become a strange and lonely world, even though I hear that the animals have all awakened from their deep sleeps."
"Children will change the loneliness," she told him. "They'll make the world happy for you."
"Will you stay?" Nitham asked suddenly. "Will you stay and teach our children to laugh? I don't think we'll ever laugh again, Sarah Jane Smith. You know how to make us and our people laugh."
She smiled at Nitham and then looked at Achernar. She ruffled Achernar's wooly head. "Achernar, when you have children, they'll hang onto your horns and wrestle with you like I played with Toliman," she said. "And they'll make both of you laugh. You'll be to your children what Toliman was to you: strong and comforting and guiding and wise."
He put his hands up to his budding horns and realization dawned on his face. "What a wonderful thing he's given us."
"The Doctor is coming," Sarah said, and she would have stood up, but her knees went weak.
"You need food and rest," Achernar said.
"He'll look after me. I'll be all right." She wanted to go home. She was exhausted, and she did not like staying here, here where Toliman had died. For even though she had spoken cheerfully to them, the weight of his death was heavy on her. She struggled to stand again, and Achernar helped her. The Doctor was hurrying down the last dozen steps.
"All right?" he asked as he jogged up to them. He put an arm around Sarah Jane, and though his eyes were kind, his face seemed stricken. She smiled at him.
He became concerned. "You're all in," he said. He turned to Achernar and Nitham and was overly brisk. "This is your world now. You'll have to manage it. Do you think you can?"
Achernar's voice and eyes were clear. "We have our commands from our Master, Doctor. He's made everything possible for us."
The light headedness was sweeping up Sarah Jane again. When she next opened her eyes, the Doctor was carrying her down the corridor of the TARDIS.
"Everybody's always carrying me places," she said.
"Yes, well, if these titans would stop fighting over you, you might have an easier time of it. I'm ready to get out of here." His voice was mildly disgusted.
"Did you make my goodbyes for me?" She decided against discussing this trip with him in any detail. She knew that he did not attach the significance to the events that she did. And part of her knew that he could not. She had to take a lot of it on faith, and he would have to take even more, as he had missed some of the wonders that she'd been shown.
"Yes I made your goodbyes. And I told them to keep working on their kissing until they got it right. That should help things along."
He entered her room and set her down on the bed that she used when they traveled long distance. "Will you be all right?" he asked. "I'll find you some breakfast."
"Yes, I'll just doze a bit."
He walked out, and Jeanne was instantly at her side. Jeanne rested her hand on Sarah's forehead. "The distance from my world to your world is too great for me to transmit myself easily," she said. "When the conjunctions form, it is easier to make a light bridge to communicate to you. But otherwise, I am silent there."
"All right." This news was actually something of a relief. And Sarah looked down.
Jeanne's eyes were suddenly sober. "Tell me what troubles you, dear Mouse."
"I can't bear it Jeanne," Sarah Jane said. "I just can't. You were right about Mercy. It requires a complete lack of fear, and I have loads of fears. I can't bear it. Mercy is right, and it's good, but it's too hard for me to understand, and it's too hard for me to exercise it." She rolled her eyes to indicate the entire experience she'd had. "I could never go through this again. I'm only a creature of the earth. Earthbound. Frightened. Ruled by death and time and change."
"All right, dear Mouse." And Jeanne stroked her head. "I was not the person who thrust you from your world into the realm of the stars. Live your life as you choose, with good will towards others. You have yet to learn the things of earth. But even on your world, you have an appointment with Mercy, and Mercy will keep that appointment, and when the time is right, and the return is come, you will be ready to receive the Mercy that you find." She took Sarah's hand. "All right?"
"Thank you," Sarah whispered. "Thank you for everything you gave me."
"You'll stay with the Doctor, then?"
"Should I? Do you want me to?"
"Yes, Sarah Jane. Show him kindness." And Jeanne stroked her head.
Sarah opened her eyes as the Doctor entered. He still had not changed his ruined shirt. He was bearing a tea tray. "Now I've got some wonderful orange juice for you," he said. "And then there's tea with sugar---"
"Anything solid?" she asked.
"Just bread and butter."
"That sounds delightful." She struggled to sit up. He set the tray down onto the stand by the bed and with his huge hands he took up a roll and a butter knife, carefully split the roll open for her, and began to spread it with butter.
She knew that it would hamper him as he worked, but she hooked her hand over his wrist, needing to be in contact with him.
For one moment his eyes were haunted by something, as though some quick dread had flashed through him. But she smiled and said, "You know, I'll be glad to be home. Perhaps you could hang around a bit, where it's safe."
"You know, I think I will," he told her. "Stay on earth, mind my own business. Keep out of trouble. There's plenty of back logged work at the lab."
She nodded and took up the orange juice. She took a long drink of it. "Rest and safety," she said. "At least for a bit. No changes. No danger."
"You're right. After all, what could happen in the lab at UNIT? It should be all right." And he smiled confidently, but his eyes were suddenly haunted again. She said nothing further but kept her hand on his wrist as he worked, so that he would know she was there.