In the straw, Tegan curled up into a tight knot of resentment. Oh to sleep, only sleep, to put it all outside her. To not throw herself against the stone and beat her fists bloody. Just two more days and she'd be out. Maybe next time the curse came visiting she'd be in her clean little room on the TARDIS. She built it in her head: the brass rails, the wicker chair, the greenery Nyssa had insisted on. So many of the cozy touches were Nyssa's. Tegan had loved to hear her speak of Traken, though she'd never dared ask for it. Sometimes, when they were lying in the dim room surfing the edge of sleep, Nyssa would speak of the gardens and the velvets, the courtly ceremonies of her life. Tegan tried to imagine herself living with such tranquil purpose. “It sounds like a Buddhist temple crossed with Versailles”, she’d said to Nyssa, and then had had to blunder about trying to explain from her meager knowledge of both subjects. Nyssa’s questions drew out the pieces of fact in her head so that Tegan was surprised how much she’d retained. How she missed sane, sensible, sweet Nyssa! She’d found a purpose in life and followed it with a quiet, steely determination that far outmatched Tegan’s desperate stubbornness. Nyssa would have never let these people degrade her. No matter what was done to her.
So what would Nyssa do? Tegan rubbed the tip of her nose against her arm, thinking, her mouth slowly curling into a grin. “You are so not Nyssa.”
“Who is Nyssa?”
Tegan twisted around, digging her way into the straw as she turned so that hardly more than her head showed. Straw ends jabbed her in delicate places but she’d covered her arse for once and was free to take in her new companion.
Faunminathlay was curled up in another heap of straw, nibbling on some brown substance that looked like a strip of jerky. “I thought you were asleep until you spoke.”
“I wasn’t expecting company.”
“Zhial will probably be in here tomorrow or next day. My blood calls hers.” She lifted one thigh and wiped a handful of straw across her labia, then casually tossed the bloody straw into the fire pit. “What are you making a face for? You’re in here for the same reason. You act like I was a man, the way you hide your body.”
“My friend Nyssa stayed behind in a place full of sick people, because she wanted to make it a place of healing and safety. She’ll do it, too. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. She will care for them, and they will love her.”
Faun blinked at her. She mused over the food stick in her mouth, sucking and scraping. Tegan waited with hard eyes and let the silence hold.
“So you’re not like that?” Faun asked at last.
“No. I’m a bitch.”
They traded those speaking glances perfected as part of a secret female martial art.
“That you so are,” Faunminathlay agreed.
They held the silence lightly now, not counting the inevitable rustle of the straw.
“What did you use before they built this?” Tegan indicated their lodge with a jerk of her chin.
“They wove a straw hut and burned it down afterwards.”
“Is this an improvement?”
“Yes, the straw hut shook in the wind and got sour with damp.”
“I’m glad I missed out on that.”
“Teach me that song you were singing, with the strange words, about Matilda.”
“Huh. All right, then. How about the chorus first?”
“Billabong, billabong. That is a beautiful word. There was such a water near my home village. If I have ever a daughter I will name her Billabong.”
“Huh? Why not Matilda?”
“They marched in the streets? Why were they not stopped?”
“They were. They got thrown in jail, threatened, beaten, but there were many of them and they weren’t going to give up. They wanted to be heard, and they were willing to take the risk. And at that time, the laws had improved so that people had a right to speak their minds, even if women were considered too foolish to have anything to say. There were men who helped them too.”
“Why, what did they get out of it? Did the women fuck them for their help?”
Tegan snorted. “I suppose it happened, but what mattered is that they stood with them in public and said that they believed the rights of women should be recognized.”
“And they were listened to more than the women, of course.”
“Oh, of course. And it’s still a work in progress. But in the land where I come from, women can own their own property and speak for themselves before a judge and have a say in how their community is run. They can be wealthy and have men working for them and following their orders.”
“And what of the Blood? What of Khiav?”
“In my land, people are free to follow their own gods. That’s the law. I’m not saying that everything has been fixed. Anything that’s happened to me here could happen to me there, it’s just that there it is against the law.”
“Jedorn is the law here.”
“Yeah, that’d be right.”
By now they had resigned themselves to huddle together against the chill. They accepted each other’s bodies and blanked out the messy and smelly necessities. The fire swallowed everything but left them smoky. They had to keep their heads back for fresh air, but their toes could be warm pressed against the stones ringing the pit.
“I want to sit in a bath with hot soapy water up to my nose.”
“Infuse water with sadhula flowers and weeping root. Leaves your skin soft and smelling clean, and makes your hair shiny. It’s my special recipe.”
The next morning, she was given the pitcher of water and the dried flower or leaf that resembled a cross between a sponge and a loofah. She used this to wipe down her body, glad of the clean despite the chilliness. The flower went on the fire. Faun watched her with stony eyes, not wanting to engage now that she’d be alone until Zhial showed up. Tegan gave back the empty pitcher, and was traded a red robe for it. She bit her lip as she draped it around herself. The purification ritual lay ahead of her. The whip of grass had not hurt so much as being naked and cringing under the priest’s eyes. Who would do it here? Jedorn, Menmenthnal? She didn’t want to think about it. She moved to the door, crouching to crawl out. On her knees she looked over her shoulder at Faun. “There isn’t a man alive who didn’t get here through a woman’s work.”
Faun yawned. “They still take all the credit.”
So maybe the feminist indoctrination hadn’t taken. At least she was still awake in there. Tegan crawled out of the chamber. She froze in place at the sound of a whip snap, but it hit the floor well away from her.
“I think I have the hang of it,” the Doctor said brightly. “So the grass flail, then the herb bath, then she can rejoin the world, and very welcome she will be.”
She peered up under her lashes. The Doctor was taking the woven grass quirt from a sulky Menmenthnal. Jedorn was by the exit.
“Yes, yes, the purification ritual is very simple,” the senior priest was plainly ready to leave him to it and get on with his own business. “Come along, Menmenmenny.”
“That’s not funny,” Menmenthnal grumbled, “And he’s not a priest, and–“
“And I am high priest, yes? We know so many things, when we listen.” Jedorn grinned at his junior, who shut up promptly. They went out.
“Let’s get this over with,” the Doctor said in soft tones, helping her out of the red robe.
Numb with relief, she stood quietly as he flailed noisily all around her without once touching her skin. The herbal shower was lukewarm instead of icy, though being soaked and standing on wet and chilly stone was unpleasant. The Doctor asked nothing of her. He toweled her briskly off with the red robe, then bundled her up in a white one and drew the hood over her head. She stayed his hand and looked up at the image of him swimming in her wet eyes. He tweaked her nose and tugged the hood into place.
“There’s a bowl of soup waiting for you, Tegan, then a soft bed. Tomorrow I expect you to be back to your caustic self.”
She couldn’t reply yet. She wasn’t back in the world, not yet. The interior of the house seemed labyrinthine after the simplicity of her smoky and stinking cell. She clung to the Doctor’s arm. It felt like metal under her grip, bundled steel wires thrumming with tension.
The soup brimmed with shreds of meat and tender vegetables in a broth that was just spicy enough to make her nose run. Right now she wanted there to be nothing more in the universe than herself and this soup. It slid down her throat and sought out every cold and unhappy corner of her body. The Doctor gave her a handkerchief but otherwise left her alone. He sat nearby, looking out the window. His fist lay still against his thigh.
She scraped her spoon across the bottom of the bowl for the last tasty bits.
“The aqueduct will be done in another month.”
“I spoke with Tolannes.”
He looked sharply at her then shook his head. “Not today, clearly.” He briskly tucked her into bed and drew the curtains. They shut out light about the same time as Tegan’s eyelids.
The mattress dipped under a warm weight and with her whole body she snuggled into that presence. “Mrrmm,” she said.
“I hoped you would be more articulate today.” A stroke down her shoulder. “Can you possibly need more sleep?” The quilt settled securely about her.
Tegan cracked an eye open. Her stomach was waking up. “Brekkie?”
“Ah, that’s a small step in the right direction. Since you can ask for breakfast, you may have some.” The Doctor slid off the bed, pulling the quilt down to the footboard.
Tegan stretched, her body unstiffening with little crackles as she wriggled. The chill was completing the wake-up call of her stomach. She yawned through her food and smacked her lips through the herbal tea. The Doctor had said nothing further, only waited for her with patience set hard on his mouth.
“So what’s on your mind?”
“I found out where the TARDIS is.”
Tegan’s eyes rounded. “Where? How far?”
“On the uplands past the well. I heard a foraging party talking about it. They bring it offerings.”
“Sounds like the same spot we left it in. Could you get to it?”
“Not likely. I am watched over, because Jedorn wants to be sure I have everything I need for the work.”
“How considerate of him.” Tegan fiddled with her empty mug, swirling the bits of leaf around to see her future. Probably indicated she would have to wash dishes. It had always been accurate in the past. “You want to finish it, don’t you, the aqueduct?”
“I’m not doing it for Jedorn. But I will leave it incomplete, if we have a chance to get away.”
Tegan drummed her fingertips a few beats, then consciously stilled them. Turlough, wait for Turlough.
The end of the stick was wrapped with twine that had had white clay rubbed into it. It was a meter long, springy, and when Turlough moved it quickly it made a whipping sound that focused the attention of his audience. “So Lenvagen’s force has camped in the bight of the river and penned their drangi by the water.” The white tip hovered over the leaf and stick representation of the herd. “Kend, you have three warriors with you now, and your own main force is at least six hours away. You have been following Lenvagen’s trail. What do you do now?”
“How wide is the river?”
“Farther than a man can throw a spear.”
Kend stared at the dirt map that Turlough had arranged to show terrain. “I send two men back to my commander to report the location of the enemy.” He glanced sidelong at Lenvagen who wore a typically playful expression. “We all four go back a mile to make it look to patrols that we’ve all gone. Then me and my companion cross the river to watch them from that side. It’s our territory, we should know where best to cross.” Kend placed a marker for his force on the other side of the river.
They all contemplated the map.
“Can drangi swim with a rider?” Turlough asked, glancing at one of the slender beasts.
“They’re not good in water. They don’t like getting their bellies wet. You can’t ride them, it’s better to have a raft for the gear, and have riders with the drangi to help guide them.
“My brother Lensordan trained a troop of drangi to be accustomed to water. It’s a long range, fast patrol group. He had to start training them as fawns, and it didn’t take with every animal.”
“Does the enemy use drangi?”
“They have ruarks, but not many, and burden beasts to haul supply wagons.”
“That word I do not know. Ruarks?”
Lenvagen drew in the mud a four legged creature with a burly front and sleeker hind. “They have thick, bristle-furred hide in front, with strong claws that are good at digging. They can’t run very fast, but they can bounce up into your face and tear out your throat. Each one has to be bonded with specific soldiers from birth, so usually they take a litter and a group of soldiers to raise them to form the fighting unit. The biggest ones are about waist high on a man. The smaller ones are used for patrolling. If you run into a group of these, kill the ruarks first. The men might run away, but if you kill their bonded men, the ruarks will kill you or die. If a patrol spots you, they’ll send a message back with a ruark. A ruark by itself can run a long distance and is hard to see in most conditions. If you lose your mount, and there are ruarks about, you’ll want lit torches.”
Turlough decided he definitely wanted to avoid an encounter with something that looked like a cross between a bulldog and a boar. “But the drangi can outrun them?”
“Yes. They will track you, and a trained patrol is almost certain to find you even if you try to break your trail. Either you will have to fight them, or they will decide you are not worth the effort.”
“So when you had us practice riding in circles, that’s one way you break a trail?”
“Yes, it confuses the scent. You can lose wild ruarks doing that, but a unit with men will know how to cast about and figure which way you went. It will still slow them down.”
Turlough unfurled the hide map again. It wasn’t very detailed, but it was marked up with references to scouting reports. Jedorn had been sending drangi troops on small scale incursions for years and building up his knowledge of the lands they were to invade. This indicated patience and calculation far beyond what Turlough had expected of these people. He thought they would succeed in their invasion, but would they be able to keep the lands they conquered?
It wasn’t his problem, but these men… they followed him. If only because of their odd religion and his red hair, and yet–he cared. “Fighting is the easy part. It’s knowing when to stop that’s harder.”
Kend smiled up at him. “When we beat them, they’ll know we’re stronger than they are.”
Turlough chuckled and jumped on him. He let the wrestling go on until he saw his opening. Then he pinned Kend face down until the younger man slapped the ground, admitting defeat.
“So am I stronger than you?” Turlough asked.
“Yes, sanguinary, certainly,” Kend said laughing.
“So will you never try to wrestle me again?”
“I’ll get better. I could win next time–oh.” He peered up at Turlough out of the corner of his eye.
Turlough released him. “Now I beat you, and I let you up, knowing you might beat me later. But that’s fine, because we are friends. How do you let your enemy up? If you were my enemy, and I killed you rather than chance you winning next time, what would happen? Your family would hate me, and everyone would think I am cruel and that perhaps I feared you and I only beat you out of luck. And if I let you live, maybe you would come back and beat me, and kill me.”
“You are wiser than your years,” Branchun observed. His eyes glinted beneath the hooded lids of age.
“I have been the one on the ground; the one who had his life spared.”
“So what is the answer? How do you stop fighting?” Lenvagen spoke up from his lounging spot by the fire. His little belt knife shone as he pared his fingernails.
“You know why you are fighting, and when you have won. And if you are clever, you know how to win so that your enemy is too weak to fight you, if not forever then for a long time. If you can, you make him your friend, or at least, your ally.”
“And if you aren’t as clever as you think you are?”
“Then you stop too soon, and the enemy defeats you. Or you stop too late, and you are as beaten by your long war as your enemy. Or maybe you never stop fighting, because you love the taste of blood and the thrill of victory. Eventually, those who tell the histories are those who say who won. If those who fight are remembered at all. Time wins all wars.”
“You speak as one who knows.”
“In my land, I was of a noble family. We lost our war and were exiled.”
They started asking how many sanguinaries and incarnadines were in his family. Branchun hushed them and sent them about chores. Turlough was relieved. Thoughts of his family, and of the rumored loss of their vessel, were painful still. Better to travel with a Time Lord and experience the haphazard incidents of the Doctor’s life.
He still didn’t know how the Doctor had come to trust him. He meant to be worthy of that trust. Turlough spread out the map again. Melnarey was here, and there was the well, and the ridge. And they had left the TARDIS… there. Or close enough.
They had to cross a river before they could approach the downs west of Melnarey. It wasn’t a nicely managed river either, as he had seen on Earth with tended banks and convenient bridges. The approach was swampy, and the drangi hunched their backs as they picked their way. They did not like the way they splashed their own bellies with each step. The men were tense as well. Nahalan’s squad stayed back on higher, dryer ground, shortbows strung and quivers uncovered. The hitching, sucking steps of the drangi sounded like they could be heard for miles. Ruarks could probably hear that kind of noise. Turlough loosened the hafts of the javelins strapped across his back. If there was trouble, his job was to run away fast. Right now, his mount was held down to a leisurely bunny hopping pace. If this was water, he could swim fast, but in this muck he’d be even slower than the drangi.
Ahead, the forward squad was untacking their mounts. Branchun peered through the reeds. “Ah, they have found the rafts.” He explained to Turlough, “They are lashed in among the reeds. If they are made well, and stored correctly, they last until the rainy season.”
When Turlough drew near, he could see that the rafts were merely bundles of reeds wrapped tightly and lashed together. They served to keep the tack out of the water, and the riders’ packs and clothes. The men were stripping naked. Like the others, Turlough only retained his belt knife on a rawhide cord around his neck. He took careful note as to where on the raft his gear had been stored.
Lenvagen pressed close to his back. “Nahalan thinks there may be trouble. He signals he saw movement on the far side, but downstream. It may just be wildlife but my bow hand feels itchy.” He pinched Turlough’s bum. “So watch your fine white hide, sanguinary.”
Turlough glanced downstream, but as he expected, he saw nothing but water and reeds, and the fuzzy green of the hills.
“Put bowmen on the rafts. Have them stay low until there is trouble. I will swim; I am a very good swimmer. Um… do these rivers contain dangerous creatures?”
“Sometimes there are serpents, but they will stay away from a group, or hide in the mud on the river bottom. Once you touch bottom, move away from anything that wriggles.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Turlough kept a calm tone despite his glumness. He wasn’t that afraid, but he did have bad luck. If there was a serpent, he would find it.
They started across the river. The rafts were staggered so as not to draw a cluster of arrow fire. Each raft had two men who poled it across the river. The current, though slow, caused downstream drift. If there was an enemy force that way, they were being carried towards them.
Turlough took note of the others’ efforts and decided he was the best swimmer. Swimming in survival situations and for aquatic maneuvers had been part of his training as a cadet. He ducked his head under water and tried opening his eyes. Murky within a few inches of the surface, but clear where the current flowed. He didn’t do it for long, wishing to lessen the risk of a parasitic infestation. The water was cold, but not brutally so. He engaged the proper breathing techniques to maintain his core heat.
If he were the enemy, he would strike when the river crossing force had made it to shore and was busy getting the drangi to higher ground, unloading the raft, and getting dressed. If the enemy knew they had been spotted, they’d retreat if they were a small force. A larger force would take advantage of their vulnerability in fording. Turlough slipped back to Lenvagen and spoke quietly.
The irrepressible grin flashed out. “If this works you will get a reward tonight.” Lenvagen quietly passed his orders.
The first raft’s rear poleman got stuck in the mud and lost his footing on the raft. He clung to it, swearing, but his profanity paled in comparison to the lead poleman who had to keep pushing the raft back. With the help of the men in the water, they were able to push back to the stranded man. For a few moments the river rang with jeers until the squad leaders ordered quiet. The other rafts diverted upstream a little. The second raft landed first and farthest upstream with the third and first rafts hitting on the reeds of the far shore at about the same time. The men herded the drangi, soaked and looking skinned with their fur sleeked down about their slender limbs, up towards the third raft. Turlough slipped his javelins off the edge of the raft. He was in water up to his chest, but he was crouching lower.
“Down.” That one word, and Lenvagen’s hand, sent Turlough diving. He put the shadow of the raft over him, then eeled through a stand of reeds. The water was murkier here. He felt a temptation to turn, to swim for the clear water of midriver. Downstream, away from these people. But he had learned how to resist temptation, hadn’t he? He breached the water nose first, a quick breath, then listened. Deep coughing animal calls — sounded like it should be those ruarks. They were trackers. Right now he was well hidden. Arrows were flying overhead back and forth. When they stopped coming from the enemy’s direction, then the ruarks would be upon them. He lifted a little, looking over his shoulder to catch Lenvagen’s eye. He held the tip of a javelin out of the water. Lenvagen gave a curt nod. He had some cover from the raft as he fired his shortbow. Turlough wasn’t sure how he was aiming — perhaps he was copying the line of fire of someone with a better view? Moving targets through the reeds would take luck to hit anyway.
“Three heading towards you.”
Turlough took a deep breath and slipped underwater, barely slitting his eyes open. Even there he could hear the animals baying. Splashing now. Making the water murkier, but he wouldn’t miss one coming close enough to attack. Something slithered fast around his shin, but he held the javelin steady. Now, the shadow–
He didn’t miss.
The enemy assault fell apart. Many ruarks were killed or wounded. The soldiers made a feinting attack to retrieve their wounded animals, then withdrew. Lenvagen sent a squad to harry them with arrow fire, to keep them moving away. Two of their riders were killed, seven others had wounds that were thankfully minor. Five drangi had been wounded.
Turlough managed to find a private moment to vomit. The sight of a battlefield was not one he had missed. He pinched some color back into his lips and cheeks and set about drying himself and putting his gear back on.
“The enemy has come farther north than we expected,” Branchun grumbled.
“They should never have attacked us,” Turlough said, thinking out loud. “If they want to spy out our travel routes, our numbers and the volume of our supplies, they should have have faded back and let us pass. There were not enough of them to be sure of wiping us out.”
“Perhaps they were looking for you.” There was an odd note in Branchun’s voice, as though he was mulling over some offense he attributed to Turlough. “To take our sanguinary would be a prize.”
“How would they know I was with this company if not from spies among your people? How likely is that? Not at all, I would have thought.”
Instead of being reassured, Branchun’s look only soured. Later, Lenvagen told Turlough that Branchun had warned him against taking Turlough’s military advice. “It’s jealousy and pride of place. If you hadn’t been with this party, the priest would have been grumping at me. I had a word with him about not discouraging the men. We came out of that ambush very well. That clever move of yours, hiding underwater, that impressed them. And me.” He kissed the corner of Turlough’s mouth. There were some men who had slipped off together to work off post-combat energy, but Lenvagen left it at the kiss.
“I was glad to have you backing me up.” Turlough meant it, but in retrospect he was appalled at how close he’d come to death on this primitive world. He’d be going native if he didn’t watch himself. Lenvagen had that confident bearing that helped reassure the soldiers he commanded. It was a sad truth that if a commander looked calm and optimistic, that his people felt he knew what he was doing. That could be a sham. Being such a sham was something Turlough didn’t want to worry about. He had no intention of trying to command this force directly.
He was going to escape. He was going to leave them. Why did that thought hurt?
The Doctor lay on his back. His loosely entwined fingers resisted the urge to fidget. Beside him in bed, Tegan tucked up under her blanket in a tight curl that spoke of lingering distress. He had no comfort for her — he could not promise her she would be safe.
He had called Tegan ‘Barbara’ today, and Alfya had looked at him in bewilderment. Now, lying here quietly, he watched Barbara Wright materialize in his conscious mind. Tall, elegant, she had the mind of a scholar, the heart of a teacher, and the spirit of an adventurer. The Aztec ceremonial garb she wore sparked the memory of that time spent among a primitive culture. She had wanted to desperately to steer them away from their customs of human sacrifice. There was nothing half-hearted about her compassion. He hoped that fool Cheltenham had turned out to be a good husband. Ah, the old joke! A faint chuckle rasped his breath. The interfering pair of them, following Susan back to the TARDIS. Susan, yes.
His mind reeled. He deepened his meditative state into a true trance, letting memories roll in and out again. A sea of knowledge beat its tides against the desolate atoll of his cognition. He needed a bigger territory.
Apparently Jedorn and Tolannes felt the same way. As did their people reaping a crop of discontent planted for them by corrupt and abusive authorities in Thenmarcal. That was the story the Doctor had elicited from Tolannes. He did not consider Tolannes a reliable narrator. He wanted to know where Tegan and Turlough and the Doctor came from; and if it was some handy source of incarnadines and sanguinaries that he could exploit -- or if it was a threat to his plans. The Doctor had had to exert all his self-discipline to listen to the man and let him spill information. His own air of wishing to be elsewhere had Tolannes talking just to keep him in a display of dominance by conversation.
The Doctor’s jaw had gone tight with words unsaid. He was genuinely unsure of what might have come out if he let it.
If he dropped the trance and woke Tegan up, he could ask her to, ask her, to, yes, lay a cool compress on his heated brow. The touch of her small deft hands, her determination to make him feel better: these he craved. He could feel the heat of her warming the space between them. How could she bear to be so hot? Her warmth invaded him like tiny silken tendrils slithering into his pores and threading through his veins.
Sweat beaded on his skin.
He took a breath… held it… held it… released it, then held himself empty. Empty, unmoved, cool.
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