The Salis watched the blacksmith work from its place inside the forge. The heat was soothing, but would not sustain and protect it from this world for much longer. It needed a corporeal body, designed to survive in such an oxygen-rich environment, if it was to even survive long enough to plan an escape. This body seemed its only chance.
When the blacksmith picked a piece of red-hot metal out of the forge with tongs, the Salis moved from the heat of the metal to the heat of his body, and hid.
The Doctor hurried around the console, checking various readings, as his two companions stood by.
“Yes, yes, very good, very good, let’s see where we are now, shall we?”
The scanner showed a road, or at least a very wide pathway, of beaten earth, beyond which were green fields. There was a small wood in the distance.
“Well now, that looks very promising.” He opened the doors, then turned away, as if to walk further into the TARDIS.
“Aren’t you coming with us, Doctor?”
“Oh, of course, Chesterton, of course. I shan’t be a minute, I just need to find...” He gestured vaguely and disappeared into another room.
Ian stepped out of the TARDIS, and hurriedly back again as a horse-drawn carriage passed, the nearest wheels running through a puddle and throwing up a spray of muddy water.
“Is it that bad out there?” Barbara asked mock-seriously.
He turned to face her. “Oh, it’s deadly.”
She smiled, but her eyes were distant, looking past him into the world outside. “Definitely not 1963, then?”
“No.” He hesitated. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No,” she said slowly, as they walked out of the TARDIS and the doors shut behind, “I don’t. But what if it was?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just...it’s so soon after Susan. We’d...he’d be alone.”
The soft sound of their footsteps, describing a large circle around the TARDIS, seemed louder in their silence.
“Well,” Ian said eventually, “we can worry about that when we come to it. Judging by the Doctor’s track record, it won’t be for a while.”
Barbara took his hand. “Adventures, then?”
“Adventures,” Ian agreed.
The three of them had passed a few people on the road and many more in the town, all of whom had been dressed in the British fashions of the mid-nineteenth century and all of whom had looked askance at them, but none as intently as the blacksmith. He straightened up from his work and stared at them. Something scratched in the Doctor’s mind and he stopped.
“Doctor?” Barbara said. “Is something wrong?”
The blacksmith put down his tools and started moving purposefully towards them and the itch deepened, becoming a sensation of something being pulled from him. Tearing his gaze away, the Doctor fumbled in his pocket for the letter he’d taken from the TARDIS and a stamp and held them out to Barbara.
“No, no, my dear. Er, the Post Office is just over there; could you and Ian go and post this for me? It’s to a very old friend, you know, and I’ve been meaning to post it for a long time.”
Barbara still looked concerned, but she took them, glancing at the name. It would mean nothing to her. The letter wasn’t to anyone famous, or historically important, just, as he’d said, a friend.
“All right, Doctor. We won’t be a minute.”
The blacksmith watched them go before turning the full weight of his attention on the Doctor. It held him in place easily; the Doctor realised he couldn’t move if he wanted to.
“Strangers, are you? You wear strange clothes.”
“Oh yes, yes, indeed. We’re travelling actors, you see...” The Doctor trailed off as the strength to keep talking left his body. His limbs felt numb and distant and his mind was clouded in black, his suffocating thoughts small white sparks. His foolish curiosity would be the death of him; he worried for Ian and Barbara; would he, could he, change, outside of the TARDIS; what was doing this and why?
He peered at the blacksmith, shifting in and out of focus, and saw the creature, a red mist, uncoiling as it sucked greedily on his temporal energy, spreading throughout the human but still somehow maintaining its integrity, like oil within water. It was trapped, he realised. That would change, though: it had done this before, killed others, but they had not been enough, none had been like him. What little energy it had, he noticed, it devoted to keeping itself separate from its host rather than full control.
More white sparks danced with the darkness as the Doctor pulled forth memories — the ache in his bones; the rawness of air in his throat as he gasped with exertion; the texture of alien soil under his feet; the smog that hung thick in the air of 1963 London; the unique patterns of language across the universe that the TARDIS could not standardise; the giddy excitement of the unknown, a tantalising glimpse on the scanner — imbuing his temporal energy with the knowledge and the sensations of how it felt to live through all those seconds.
The creature reacted violently, snatching itself away as if burned and hastily withdrawing into a small, safely isolated space. As it pulled away, one more memory crossed the Doctor’s mind: handing Barbara the letter and a stamp. He’d been distracted, he hadn’t noticed: the stamp, although a perfectly valid Penny Red, had been torn from a perforated sheet. It was 1848 and perforated stamps wouldn’t be in regular use for six years yet.
“Oh, dear me,” he muttered.
“Joe!” A man approached the blacksmith and he turned from the Doctor, the human back again.
He wondered how long the whole thing had taken. Maybe he could… He glanced up the road and no, Ian and Barbara were already on their way back, Barbara animatedly pointing out a fascinating historical feature, Ian smiling and nodding along.
“Dear, oh dear, oh dear.”
“Why don’t we just ask for it back?” Ian had suggested.
“Chesterton,” the Doctor had protested, “would the postal service in your own time simply hand a letter back to you? Besides, we must avoid drawing any attention to it. It is absolutely vital that any intervention, however minor, go unnoticed.”
“And the postmaster isn’t going to notice us breaking and entering?”
“Men tended to gather in the taverns every evening. There wasn’t much else to do.”
“Absolutely, my dear,” the Doctor had agreed, patting Barbara on the arm. “I shall keep him occupied while you search: buy a few rounds of drinks, perhaps!”
So, when night fell, the Doctor had made his way to the inn while Ian and Barbara went to the Post Office and entered without breaking, through the unlocked back door.
The gaslight outside gave the darkness inside the Post Office a pale green tint. Barbara found a candle and matches on the kitchen table and lit it, cupping her hand round the flame as she held it up and peered around the room.
“Shall we start with those pigeon holes out the front?” Ian said.
Barbara nodded. “Let's hope it's still there.”
“No-one can beat old Joe,” the postmaster declared. “He’s not even been affected by the drink this past year!”
“Nevertheless,” the Doctor said.
The two inhabitants of the blacksmith’s body were struggling with each other. The blacksmith wished to accept the challenge, to preserve his pride, and the creature was trying, too late, to gain control and subdue the impulse.
“First round’s on you, then,” said Joe.
“I’ll need glasses by the time we find this letter,” Ian muttered, squinting at yet another address by the light of a flickering flame that cast more shadow than it did light.
Barbara smiled. “And very fine you’ll look too.”
They worked in silence through the rest of the pigeon-hole and halfway through the contents of the next. “Aha!”
“My eyesight may yet be saved. Is that the right one?”
“It certainly looks like -” Barbara broke off, looking worriedly at the door to the back rooms.
Ian frowned. “What?”
“I thought I heard -”
There were footsteps on the stairs.
“Where shall we go?” Barbara whispered.
Ian looked around hurriedly. “Over the counter, keep quiet and hope. We don’t want criminal records eighty years before we’re born.”
No sooner had Ian helped Barbara down and Barbara blown out the candle than the light from another turned the corner.
The postmaster’s wife sung tunelessly as she prepared a late-night snack and they settled in for a long wait.
“Well now,” said the Doctor, nine pints later, “this is getting a bit difficult, don’t you think?”
“Do you give up?” Joe’s cheeks weren’t flushed, not as such, just a very little bit redder than usual, his blood slipping through the creature’s control.
“Oh no, no, I meant for you, whatever you are, hmm? You can’t control this intoxication, can you, it’s stretching you a bit thin. It’s seeping into you.”
“I think the old man’s going,” said someone.
The blacksmith picked up his glass and defiantly drained the contents, seeing victory around the corner. The creature writhed.
“The alcohol’s helping, but it’s not, it’s not that. It’s the solidity, all that breathing and blood and chemical emotion. You can’t keep it as just clothing; it gets under your skin, you know. Oh, you’ve tried, you’ve made a good effort, but it’s all too easy to forget.”
There was a pause, filled with the background noise of all the other men, talking and arguing and placing small bets.
Joe breathed. Slow, deliberate breaths that were somehow audible over everything. Something in him, a part of him, looked surprised at this, before he fell forward onto the table, blind drunk and utterly human.
The postmaster looked suitably enthralled.
“There you two are,” the Doctor said.
Barbara lifted her head from Ian’s shoulder and blinked up at the Doctor, standing over them.
“Doctor? What happened?” Ian asked.
“I’ve helped bring the postmaster home after a night of more than usual revelry and found you two still here. Now, shall we be gone? Before someone else notices and wonders what you’re doing here, hmm?”
They climbed awkwardly to their feet, stretching stiff limbs and smoothing rumpled clothes; a white rectangle fell to the floor at their feet.
“Oh,” Barbara said, and stooped to retrieve it, “we found your letter, Doctor.”
“Excellent, excellent. Thank you, my dear. We can’t be leaving anachronisms around now, can we?”
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