She was going to kill him.
The first Valentine’s Day? he’d asked in response to her hesitant request. He’d promised her a break from searching for the pieces to the Key to Time, and it was the first thing that had popped into her head. His response had been underwhelming, Why’d you want to go there? Nothing but a bunch of stodgy old Cardinals and Bishops mumbling in Latin. Sure we can go, but that’s a bit boring. I’ll do you one better...
‘One better’ apparently meant her being captured by a group of locals shortly after they’d landed near ancient Rome. He was only leaving her on her own for a moment, he’d promised. He just wanted to go and ask that herder over there which of the seven hills they’d landed near. Get his bearings, he’d said. Don’t wander off, he’d said.
Within a minute of his leaving, she’d been body-checked, gagged, trussed like a chicken and hauled off by a gang of young men whose well-greased black curls smelled strongly of rancid goat. She could still see the Doctor in the distance, black leather jacket looking completely out of place against the low scrub of the ancient Italian countryside. You’d think with those ears he’d be able to hear her muffled screams, but he was too involved in whatever argument he’d gotten into with the herder. He was gesticulating emphatically as the young men spirited her around a hill, past the TARDIS (and they didn’t even blink! Bloody blue police box in the middle of ancient Italy and the bastards didn’t so much as turn a head!), and off to whatever nefarious purpose they had planned for her.
An hour later, she was still trussed and gagged. They’d dumped her at the mouth of a cave and headed back out, leaving only two of their number to guard her. Her guards were busy drinking something out of a bladder-like container that she was fairly sure used to be some poor goat’s stomach. They’d offered her some, but after weighing the benefits of having her gag removed against the prospect of having to drink whatever was in the bag, she’d firmly clamped her teeth around the rough wool and shook her head. Whatever was in that bag, it smelled worse than they did.
It was also obviously alcoholic. The two men — boys really, they couldn’t be out of their teens — were laughing longer and louder as time passed. She hadn’t managed to glean much from their conversation about why she had been nabbed. They’d complained at length about a new group of herders that had settled nearby, stronger and wealthier than their own folk. The boys were eager to blame the newcomers for everything from barren livestock to increased predator attacks on their own herds, each bravely reciting tales he’d heard of the foreigners’ degenerate ways until Rose was rolling her eyes in disbelief.
Mostly, though, they just talked about local girls they knew — who was easy, who was stuck-up, who was so ugly that they’d only shag her if they were blindfolded. It was infuriating. And strangely, it reminded Rose of when Jimmy Stone and his mates down at the pub would get a few too many pints in and complain about the girls who wouldn’t go out with them and the foreigners who came and took all the jobs. That realization was enough to make Rose consider swearing off men entirely.
The sun was low on the horizon when the young men stopped talking and started fumbling at each other’s waists, drunkenly kissing. Rose decided she’d had enough. The Doctor hadn’t come to save her yet, and she wasn’t going to sit around any longer waiting for him to do so. While her guards effectively distracted each other, Rose began to edge away, inch-worming along the dusty ground. The minor scuffling noises she was making were drowned out by the moans of her adolescent kidnappers.
She had made it to the path that led from the valley to the cave when she heard the sounds of jubilant revelry approaching. There was still enough light in the darkening sky that she knew her captors would see her when they rounded the hill. Realizing her main avenue of escape was cut off, she changed tactics. Clenching her lips and eyes against the dust of the path, she rolled and scuttled up the slope to the cave. She slipped into the dubious safety of its shadows just as her youthful assailants appeared. Two of them were carrying squirming bundles and she could hear the affronted wailing of babies.
“Where’d the girl go?” she heard one of the returning boys demand. His voice reminded her of Jimmy’s — the tones of a dedicated bully. She had to stifle a snicker at her guards’ astonished realization of her absence. They quickly rushed to deny that they’d shirked their duty, stumbling over each other’s excuses.
“She...she just disappeared.”
“The gods came to take her.”
“The wolf...it came right out of the cave and gobbled her up!” Lucky for the two boys — and Rose — the rest of the group was almost as inebriated as her erstwhile captors. She heard them accept the improbable stories with much backslapping and admiration for the guards’ bravery. All the while, the two bundles they passed around kept up a pitiful wailing.
“Give ‘em here,” she heard the bully command, followed by a bit of shoving. The wailing stopped with a set of pained squeaks, “I told you it would work. The wolf took the girl, and now it’ll take these two brats. Give it a taste of foreigner flesh so it’ll leave our stock alone!” There was a ragged cheer, and more hiccupping wails as the two infants were dumped on the ground at the mouth of the cave, not three metres in front of her.
The group moved off a ways, but she could hear them settling in for a night of drunken revelry. Soon enough the area outside the cave’s mouth grew almost as dark as the area within, but she could see the shadows of torchlight and dancing bodies against the ground outside the cave, and she knew that she wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Right. First things first was to get herself untied. It took a bit of wriggling and muffled grunting, but she eventually managed to stretch her bound hands under her bum and bring them to her front. Chewing the knots out after she’d removed her gag was more difficult. Her struggles had tightened them, and they were gritty and tasted like the rancid goat she’d been smelling all day. Picking through the bindings on her knees and feet was even more difficult.
“That’s what I get for not having long nails...or carrying a knife,” she muttered to herself as she finally picked through the last knot and rubbed circulation back into her feet.
Creeping to the edge of the shadows, she peered out of the cave. The young men were still drinking, but they’d moved from dancing and singing to sitting in a torch lit circle. The group was huddled together telling stories — scary ones, if their wide eyes were any indication. Some were lolling against their friends, while others were openly groping and fondling each other. A year ago Rose would have been shocked, but travelling with the Doctor had opened her mind in more ways than one. Different time, different morality, she thought with a mental shrug.
A snuffling noise drew her attention to the ground outside the mouth of the cave. The two bundles were still there and still making the odd unhappy whimper. Rose’s eyes narrowed. There was ‘different morality’, and then there was child endangerment and infanticide. She had to somehow get away and return those babies to their own people.
She was wracking her brain to figure out how to sneak past the boys when she recalled their superstitious nonsense from earlier.
“It always comes back to wolves with me, doesn’t it,” she muttered to no-one in particular. “Why can’t it be bunnies? Or kittens. I like kittens.” Setting her shoulders, she took a deep breath and let out a long, low howl.
As howls went it wasn’t brilliant, but it echoed weirdly in the cave, bouncing back and forth until what came out of the cave’s mouth was far more eerie than what had come out of her mouth. Everything in the camp stilled for a moment; even the babies fell completely silent. Then Rose was gratified to hear panicked scrambling, drunken shouts, and not a few adult whimpers as her assailants abandoned their camp with terrified haste.
A few minutes later Rose poked her head out to view the now empty hillside. Off in the distance she could see a few torches making a staggering progress through the night. With a self satisfied smile she bent down to pick up the two swaddled infants, juggling them as best she could. She was just stepping out onto the path when a distant sound stopped her. It seemed to flood the night from all directions. A chill terror swept over her and she felt a small stirring of pity for the fear she’d caused her kidnappers.
“Oh, bugger,” she whispered.
The wolf’s howl sounded again. It was closer this time.
The beast was coming towards her.
Clutching the infants to her, Rose did the only thing she could do.
He was going to kill her.
The first Valentine’s Day, she’d told him when he’d asked where she wanted to go. Silly apes, always believing that holidays were perpetually fixed in meaning. He’d told her that the first Valentine’s Day had been celebrated with a boring papal session on regional tithes. Now the Lupercalia...that was something worth visiting. So he’d set the TARDIS coordinates and ignored her silly questions about whether there would be chocolates and something called message hearts.
Don’t wander off, he’d told her. Was it really that hard of an instruction to follow? Apparently, it was. He’d only been talking to that herder for a few minutes, just long enough to discover that his girl had landed them several centuries earlier than he’d intended. The Lupercalia hadn’t been established yet. The settlement that would one day be Rome was little more than a pastoralist base camp. The different tribal groups that would one day form the Civitas were still mired in petty antagonisms over land and livestock.
Still, as near-misses went, he’d mark this one as a success. What an exciting opportunity this was for Rose to learn firsthand about the beginnings of modern civilization — much better than spending a day being subjected to a 21st century marketing nightmare. It even beat the Lupercalia, which he now vaguely recollected as involving men running naked through the streets of Rome, and possibly animal sacrifice. He tugged his leather jacket more closely about him and sent a silent wave of gratitude to the TARDIS for landing them here instead. She always had his back.
He’d finished with the herder and turned back towards Rose, already eagerly concocting an impromptu lecture on the founding of Rome, only to discover that Rose was nowhere to be seen. He wandered the countryside for a bit, calling her name and getting increasingly exasperated. Really, he’d only had his back turned for a few minutes. How did she manage to completely disappear in that short time? It was a gift. Some people had a knack for knowing useless trivia, or winning cheap stuffed animals from those claw machine things. Rose could completely disappear in less time than it took to ask a local for directions. If they ever travelled to the early 20th century, he’d make a point of introducing her to Houdini.
As it was, he found himself half-wishing for the ‘spock’ she was always asking him for, or at the very least that he carried his own superphone. He scanned the hilly countryside once more. It stubbornly refused to yield a blonde, or any indication as to her whereabouts. With a grimace and a deep sigh, he finally admitted to himself that once again a routine visit had taken a turn for the interesting, and that there was bound to be trouble in his near future, and perhaps a bit of running.
He began trudging in the direction of the herders’ camp. The locals could usually be depended on to have some ideas about what might be threatening them, which in turn usually was related to whatever trouble his companion had stumbled into. He just hoped that Rose wouldn’t be too put out with him over this slight mishap, otherwise he sensed that chocolates, message hearts and a preponderance of pink cards with lacy edges would dominate his near future.
It was that horrible prospect, more than any great worry over his Rose’s safety, that goaded the Doctor to pick up his pace.
The sun was near setting when he reached the settlement, and it was immediately apparent that something was wrong. Several people were clustered about the main square and one woman in particular was wailing and keening so loudly that he had to force himself not to cover his ears.
There was a bit of commotion when some of the men decided that the Doctor was the cause of their problems and tried to take him into custody, but he quickly sorted that out with his usual cheer and charm. It was so useful, the way that people just trusted him — so much more convenient than having to fight or sneak his way through calamity. Before long, he learned that the wailing woman had lost her children earlier that day, probably to some youths from one of the warring herding families.
“What would they want with your children?” he asked. It never failed to boggle his mind, how inventive humans could be in hurting each other for no apparent reason. In this day and age hostages were usually individuals with high status, not babes in arms who might not live to see their fifth year. Also, these people didn’t seem equipped to wage full-time war. They were still struggling with subsistence.
“It’s the wolves,” explained one older man who seemed to have taken charge, “the winter has been lean, and they blame us for their lost livestock. No doubt they mean to leave the babes as sacrifice to the gods, to keep the wolves at bay.”
If there was any doubt in the Doctor’s mind that Rose had somehow gotten mixed up in all this, that eradicated it. Wolves again. Always with the wolves.
Promising to retrieve the missing children, he got directions from the villagers to the cave where this sacrifice was likely to take place and set out into the darkening night.
It was a long walk. Rose was always commenting on how much running they did, but really he thought they did a lot more walking. The running mostly just made up the bits at the beginning and the end. In the middle it was always the walking.
Not that he minded. A nice walk at night in the Neolithic Italian countryside was just the thing to clear one’s head. It would be nicer with Rose there, someone he could share his excitement with over the fact that he was climbing the slope of Palatine Hill — Palatine Hill! — before it had ever been settled. Not that Rose would understand at first, but she’d get excited because he was excited and then she’d ask him to explain why he was excited. He’d tell her and she’d soak it up like a sponge until they were both excited together. He’d take her hand and tell her about Romulus and Remus, and the founding of Rome, and the mythic origins of the Lupercalia, and–
A flickering of torchlight in the distance above him drew him from his ruminations. He slowly uncurled the fingers that had unconsciously sought Rose’s hand as his walk turned to a jog. He was in the process of working out how best to approach the people who had abducted the babies (and Rose too, unless he very much missed his guess), when an eerie, strangely familiar howl split the night.
He stopped dead in his tracks. It...it couldn’t be. She was supposed to be a legend. Yet there was no mistaking the panic that swept through the camp. Within moments half-naked young men were running past him, running for their lives from the wolf’s call. He caught one boy by the shoulders, swinging the youth around with the force of his own momentum.
“Where is she,” the Doctor demanded, knowing he must look half-mad by the light of the receding torches. The boy gibbered his incomprehension and the Doctor shook him sternly, “The girl you took earlier. Where is she? And the babies. What have you done with them?”
“D-dead. Eaten. The Wolf got them.” The boy glanced up the hill with wide-eyed panic, as if the wolf had appeared. The Doctor looked as well and in that moment of distraction the boy managed to tear himself away and resume his mad rush down the hill.
Rather than wasting time with the fleeing boy, the Doctor pulled out his sonic screwdriver. Rose was up there, and it seemed the she-wolf of Palatine was no myth. But he knew how to deal with wild animals. Flipping the screwdriver to a little-used setting, he placed it to his throat and howled.
The call echoed in the night, filled with subsonic modulations that would interfere with the beta-brainwaves of Terran predatory beasts. He began jogging up the hill again, confident that any predator would back down from the challenge implicit in his call. He gave another sonic-modulated howl, just for good measure.
The Doctor was so busy congratulating himself on his cleverness that he failed to see the form hurtling towards him from the darkness until she was almost upon him. He only had time to raise his arms to catch her before she was barrelling him over and down the hillside. They rolled to a stop, coughing away the dust that had been kicked up. Rose was sprawled on top of him, which he might not have minded much except for the two yowling bundles squeezed between their bodies.
“Doctor!” she gasped.
“Hello!” He grinned above the indignant wailing, “Fancy running into you out here.”
“We have to run!” Rose scrambled to her feet, shoving a baby into his arms. He checked it over with the sonic screwdriver, then turned the device on Rose’s bundle. They both seemed unharmed, though likely to run out of oxygen if they kept up their crying. Rose was tugging at his jacket, “Did you hear me? There’s a wolf out there, coming this way. We have to run.”
“Naw. We’ll be fine. The village is this way,” he began strolling back towards the settlement, smiling serenely in the face of Rose’s urgency, “I took care of the wolf. By now she’s probably halfway to Venice...or rather, where Venice will be in about a thousand years.”
“You took care of...how?” Rose had fallen in step with him, but was still nervously scanning the darkness.
He put the sonic screwdriver against his throat and howled again, instantly regretting it when the bundles they carried resumed their infant arias.
“That...that was you? Both times?” Rose asked.
“Well, the last two times. Time Lords have incredible natural mimicry abilities. The sonic screwdriver just amplifies the sound and adds subsonic harmonics that–what’s so funny?” Rose had stopped and was doubled over with laughter. He stopped as well, bemused. Obviously she was just relieved that the predator had been scared away. Humans and their peculiarities. They never failed to amaze and delight him. He began to smile as well, happy to see her safe and happy.
“You,” she gasped through her laughter, “you howled and scared away the wolf — the big, bad wolf.” He was about to accuse her of belabouring the obvious when something in the way she was looking at him made him think back to that first howl he’d heard. It had sounded familiar, and now he realized why. He’d heard Rose howl like that in the TARDIS after they met Queen Victoria. She’d been the wolf all along.
Wait a moment.
He looked at her, then at the two bundles they were carrying, then back at the hill they’d just descended from. He recalled the half-naked young men running down the hillside. A wide grin split his face as he caught her gaze again.
“Rose Tyler,” he said, taking her free hand in his, “lets get these babies back to their mother, and then do I have a story to tell you. It’s about the origins of the Lupercalia–”
“Doctor,” she chuckled as he began leading her back the way he’d come, “really, it’s been a long day, and not exactly the fun-filled holiday that you promised me. I don’t know that I’m up for a history lecture. I just want to curl up somewhere on the TARDIS with a box of chocolate like I’d originally planned.”
“Oh trust me. You’ll love this one.” His grin widened and he squeezed her hand. She never failed to amaze and delight him, “It’s fantastic!”