Disclaimer: The characters from "Doctor Who" are, of course, the BBC's; I am merely borrowing them.
Note: This story is set shortly after "Terminus."
In a dense, still wood shrouded in brume, a small, furry mammal sniffed about the leaf-strewn floor, foraging for tender, green growth beneath the decaying layer of leaves. The animal's short ears twitched upward, and its nose quivered instinctually at the impending intrusion. With a final sniff beneath a sienna leaf, the animal bounded away before the larger creatures neared.
Two men stumbled past the trees, their arms locked around each other. Both men kicked and clawed viciously, each trying to extricate himself from the other's grasp. They cursed and yelled, their voices echoing through the woods. One of the men managed to twist around and pin his auburn-haired opponent against a tree, moving his arm up to press against the other's neck. The trapped man's hands reached up in an attempt to pry the other's arm from his throat, his breath coming in short gasps. He kicked his feet in vain as his captor stepped sideways. Finally, in a moment of clarity, the pinned man allowed his arms to drop, and he stilled. His hand reached downward as he lifted his foot to withdraw a dagger from his boot. The forest swam before his eyes; he could not draw breath any longer. But his target was directly before him, his blond hair glowing in a singular beam of sunlight. With the last of his faltering strength, the redhead thrust the dagger upward. He felt it slow then stop as it plunged into the other man's chest, sliding between his ribs to the hilt. He twisted it once then pulled it free.
The injured man gasped and stepped back, staring in awe at the blood that spread darkly over his sorrel-colored jerkin. He pressed his hand over the wound and sank to the ground.
His opponent, quickly recovering once released from the stranglehold, looked at the dagger in his fist. He could see that it had sunk in deeply; the other man was mortally wounded. He would survive less than an hour, and he would surely suffer during his last minutes.
The bearer of the dagger wiped the weapon over the leaves to remove some of the blood then stuck it back into his boot. He gave the other man a sharp kick in the ribs, directly over the wound, and smiled at the deep moan this action elicited.
As he turned to walk away, he spat on his opponent. "You won't tell them of our plans now. Your people are defeated. The King will have the south country!" He sauntered away toward his compatriots camped some ten kilometers away, his laugh ringing out through the woods.
The injured man lay back against the leaves; they rustled dryly with his slight writhing movements. Tears welled in his eyes as he pulled a torn sheet of parchment from his pocket. The ink was smudged, and his fingers left red streaks across the coarse fibers, but most of the words were still legible. He clasped the parchment tightly against his chest. There was no one to help him, no one to deliver this crucial message to his companions. He was utterly alone.
He closed his eyes and prepared to die.
A grinding wheeze startled the birds from their perches in the trees. A flutter of wings palpitated through the air even after the wheezing noise had ceased. In a clearing in the woods a steel blue British police box stood among the tall evergreens. After a minute, the door opened, and a young man with red hair stepped out.
"It seems nice enough," he commented, turning slightly to address his blond companion, who poked out his head.
"Yes, it does. If I'm not mistaken, we should find the Rudarian rose bush about half a kilometer to the south."
"And this flower is really worth a trip through two galaxies?"
"To Tegan, Turlough, I believe it will be."
"If you say so, Doctor," Turlough replied rather disinterestedly. "It's this direction, you say?"
"Yes. I'll just fetch Tegan, and we'll be on our way." The Doctor stepped back inside the TARDIS.
Tegan knelt on the floor in her room. A large box lay in front of her, and several small objects were scattered at her feet. She placed a folded, burgundy velvet shirt at the bottom of the box with a melancholy sigh.
"Tegan," the Doctor said cheerfully from the doorway, "we've arrived."
She looked up. "All right." She did not stand but instead reached for another item.
"We haven't much time here—we'll need to walk to the rose bush and return to the TARDIS within an hour or so."
"Tell me the reason for the hurry again?" she asked languidly.
"The rose bush is considered sacred to the inhabitants of Rudaria. At dusk groups of pilgrims gather before it. While they are not hostile to visitors, I feel that it would be best for us to admire the rose's beauty without an audience. Its effect will be more enjoyable in relative private."
"It must be some rose," Tegan mused. "You've never taken us to see a plant before."
The Doctor smiled cryptically. "This one is worth the trip. Come along."
She stood and followed him out the doorway. In a minute they joined Turlough outside the TARDIS. He had wandered several feet away to rest his hand against a mossy tree trunk. When he saw his companions, he commented, "I've never seen moss quite like this before."
The Doctor glanced at the tree. "Those are lichens, actually. The flora here is exceptionally rich due to a high concentration of minerals in the soil. The moist atmosphere contributes as well. Those are two reasons for the rose's grandeur."
"There are leaves everywhere," Tegan said, noting that her feet were covered in several inches of discarded foliage. The gentle stirring of wind against voluptuous branches made a whispering sound that seemed to brush almost tangibly against her ears.
As Tegan listened, she could hear many small noises from the forest. Leaves shifted underfoot, the top layer swept along by the breeze. Branches rubbed and swayed, their needles scratching against bark. The air seemed filled with the whispers of the woods. For a moment the noise was almost overwhelming.
"It's awfully loud here," she said with a shake of her head, touching her temple just above her ear.
"Loud?" asked the Doctor. "I find it rather peaceful."
He began to walk; Tegan and Turlough followed closely behind. After a few minutes, however, Tegan's steps slowed as she paused to admire some wild violets that appeared to be scattered over the leafy ground. Upon closer inspection, she found that they grew through the dead leaves, their petals resting on the carpet of foliage. The flowers were a vibrant shade of purple with golden centers.
Tegan gazed at the richly colored blossoms for a moment. Suddenly she glanced up. Something had passed by, several feet to her left and just outside her line of vision. She blinked then looked toward the left. She saw only trees. Perhaps she had glimpsed a swaying branch or a shadow.
Turlough glanced back to see that Tegan was several yards behind them. "Come on, Tegan!" he called.
The Doctor looked at the young woman, too. "It's all right, Turlough. Let her enjoy the flowers. A few moments of pleasure will be good for her."
"She really misses Nyssa, doesn't she?"
"Yes. They became quite close."
"And you really think that seeing this rose will make her feel happier?"
"It is reputed to have that effect on people."
"Surely you of all people don't believe in magic."
"Magic? No. But visual and olfactory stimulation can and do affect the emotional center of the brain. The colors and scents of this particular rose have long been known to have calming effects on the individuals who see and smell it. It is said to bring a sense of peace to those in its presence." He glanced at Tegan once more. "She has undergone some very difficult experiences recently. While Nyssa was with us, she was a calming presence for Tegan. Now I believe that Tegan needs something else to help center her emotions. The image of this rose may be one that she can carry with her and reflect upon during difficult times."
Some yards away, the dying man lay among the leaves. He still clutched the parchment to his chest, breathing raggedly and shallowly as his blood continued to flow from the wound. The woods were quiet. The animals and birds seemed to know that death was imminent, and they had fled the area. The man's thoughts were hazy in the stillness. A small noise, however, drew his faltering attention. He listened, forcing his diminishing senses to focus. He heard vague voices somewhere beyond the towering trees that surrounded him. With the last of his rapidly waning strength, he called out.
"Help." His voice was barely a whisper. He repeated the word, over and over, as if chanting a sacred prayer, although he knew that no one could hear him.
As Tegan stood with a violet in her hand, she was again aware of the many noises surrounding her. Now she heard small animals moving about and the gentle flutter of birds' wings overhead. The wind still caressed the leaves, and their dried brethren crunched under her feet. But there was another sound, a distant whisper that barely registered in her senses. She stood very still, listening with closed eyes.
"Doctor!" she called after a moment. "Someone's calling for help!"
The Doctor and Turlough turned to see her walking toward a more densely wooded area to her left. "In here," she said, ducking under a branch.
"Tegan, wait," the Doctor cried, but she had disappeared among the trees.
A minute later, they heard her frantic voice. "Doctor! Hurry!"
The Doctor and Turlough ran forward to find Tegan sitting on the ground next to a prone figure. The Doctor bent toward the man. His skin was ashen, and his jerkin was saturated in blood. The Doctor pulled back to garment to view the wound then pressed his hand over the man's heart .
"You have to help him!" Tegan said. "He's badly hurt—"
"Yes," responded the Doctor, "he is." His eyes met Tegan's, and he shook his head.
"But we could take him back to the TARDIS—" she began.
"We're too late. There's nothing that can be done now."
The man had appeared unconscious, but now his eyes opened. He squinted at the three faces that seemed to hover over him.
"Do you support the king?" he whispered.
"We are visitors here," replied the Doctor. "We support no one in particular."
"Help me," the man panted.
Tegan took his hand and looked up at the Doctor with pleading eyes.
The Doctor moved his hand to the man's shoulder to clasp it lightly. "We'll do whatever we can to make you comfortable."
"No," the man murmured, "not for me. I'm going to die; you can't help that. But you can help my people." He lifted his hand from the leaves. He still held the parchment. "Take it," he urged Tegan.
She grasped it with her fingers.
"It must… go to my… people. The attack—they cannot survive it. They… must… know." His eyes closed.
The Doctor leaned over to read the words. Turlough asked, "What does it say?"
"This seems to be a warning," the Doctor said, taking the paper from Tegan. "Was it written today?"
Thewounded fellownodded weakly.
"It describes an attack that will take place the day after tomorrow," the Doctor replied.
"Yes," the man whispered; his voice was barely audible. "Take it to… them. Warn them. Please."
"Who is going to attack?" asked Tegan.
The man shook his head slowly. He did not seem to possess the energy to speak.
"Where are your people?" asked the Doctor.
The man pointed a shaking finger at the paper. The Doctor turned it over to find a rough sketch on the back. "We… are… here," the man gasped out. "Go… there." He touched the paper; his finger left a spot of red on the top of the ecru parchment.
The Doctor began to straighten, but he bent in again to ask, "What year is it?"
The man's lips moved, but Tegan could not hear what he said. The Doctor, however, sat upright, muttering, "Oh no."
"What is it?" asked Tegan darkly. "I've heard that expression too many times before."
"I'm afraid," said the Doctor, "that we have arrived in the midst of this planet's civil war."
"Doctor!" Tegan admonished.
He shrugged. "I had forgotten about it. We should have landed in 1983 Terran time. The TARDIS seems to have a slight glitch, perhaps another tempermental solenoid—"
"When doesn't it?" Tegan grumbled.
Suddenly the man's hand gripped the Doctor's lapel as he pulled the Time Lord downward. "Please," he hissed, "tell me… you'll deliver the message… to them."
The Doctor wrapped his fingers around the man's arm gently. "It's all right. We will."
The man drew one deep breath, then he seemed to sink back into the leaves.
"Is he gone?" asked Tegan.
The Doctor nodded. "Yes."
"Poor man," she said. Her gaze wandered to the note in the Doctor's hand. "What are you going to do about that?"
The Time Lord lifted the parchment. "I suppose we shall have to deliver it."
"Wait a minute, Doctor," Turlough protested. "We can't just go traipsing off through a battle zone because a stranger asked us to. We have no idea who this man was or what his motives were."
The Doctor considered this for a moment. "That is not entirely true. Prior to arriving here, I briefly reviewed the history of the planet. The civil war involved two factions, one seeking to keep the planet's seven kingdoms united under a system of representative government, the other striving to establish a dictatorship for a ruler who wanted to control all of the kingdoms. His followers fought against those who opposed him."
He pointed at the fallen man's jerkin. On the breast was a rose embroidered in gold thread. "If I am not mistaken, this symbol represents the unified planet."
"A rose?" asked Tegan.
The Doctor nodded. "Yes. The rose bush that we have come to see symbolizes a united planet, one in which each part relies upon the others yet has its own identity."
"So this man is with the group that wants to stay united," Turlough said. "How do we know that he's in the right?"
"We can't know for certain," replied the Doctor. "However, I do know that at the end of the war the planet will remain united; the dictator's troops will be defeated. Eventually this will be a very peaceful planet."
"So," said Tegan, "I'm guessing that you think we need to deliver this message to be sure that the dictator doesn't win, right?"
The Doctor looked away for a moment, then he responded, "I'm not certain that our arrival here at this precise time was a coincidence or due to a malfunction with the TARDIS."
"Oh no," Tegan said with some cynicism, "and it certainly wasn't a programming error."
The Doctor gave her a brief dark glance but then changed his tack. "Regardless of how we managed to arrive here, it seems that we are obliged to try to offer our help. After all, we did promise this man that we would."
Tegan sighed. She had hoped to see the rose bush and be back in her room in the TARDIS within an hour. She wanted to finish packing Nyssa's things. Having them all in plain view was a constant reminder of how much she missed her friend. "Where do we have to go?" she asked tiredly.
The Doctor studied the parchment. "Hmm," he pointed at the red smudge, "if the camp that we need to reach is here, then I should think that we need to go in this direction." He stood and turned half-way.
"And how can you tell that?" asked Tegan dubiously.
"From the rose, Tegan," the Doctor answered, holding out the paper to her.
She could see now, as she stood, that a simple flower was sketched in the center of the rough map. Above it appeared triangular shapes that she supposed represented mountains, and below it lay arches that could indicate hills. Some squiggly lines might denote streams or rivers; she was not sure.
"So you know where the rose is from right here," she said, sweeping her hand out toward the trees. "But how do you know which way these mountains are?" She nodded toward the paper.
"At the moment, I don't," the Doctor replied. "But once we have found the rose, we shall be able to orient ourselves appropriately."
"How far away is this camp?" asked Turlough.
"If this map is drawn to scale," said the Time Lord, "I believe that it is about eight kilometers. If we start now, we should be able to reach it shortly after dark."
"Doctor," Tegan interjected, looking down at the deceased man, "what about him?"
"I'm afraid that we haven't time to bury him," the Doctor said somberly. "We shall have to leave him. Perhaps his companions can return here to give him a proper burial according to their customs." He began walking, adding, "Come along. We really haven't any time to spare."
The three walked away, Tegan glancing back once at the dead man. As she looked at the soldier's face, framed in a corona of blond hair, a subtle movement caught her eye. Immediately she looked up; a shadow passed the corner of her eye. When she turned her head in its direction, she saw only the trees.
"Did you see that?" she asked as she joined the Doctor and Turlough.
"What?" responded the Doctor.
"I thought I saw something—someone—out there." She pointed toward the woods.
The Doctor's eyes scanned the trees, and he listened intently for a few seconds before saying, "I don't see or hear anything. Turlough?"
The young man shook his head. "No. It was probably just a shadow or an animal."
"Maybe," Tegan replied slowly.
"Nevertheless," the Doctor added, "there may be soldiers, possibly even guerrillas, out here—someone did kill this man. We must be cautious."
"Great," muttered Tegan. "We come to see a rose and get stuck in the middle of a war."
The Doctor did not respond to this. Instead, he said, "Come along."
The three began walking briskly, returning to the area where they had landed then heading toward the rose. They had walked for thirty minutes when they heard voices. The Doctor stopped and held a finger to his lips. Snippets of conversation were audible.
"… right flank… after sunset…"
"… across the hill… they're going to camp…"
"… this way… scout spotted a group of Briars…"
The voices seemed to move closer; they could hear the conversation more clearly.
"Briars?" Tegan whispered to the Doctor.
"The faction wishing to remain united," he said softly, then he added, "Sshh. Come on." He swerved toward a particularly thick copse of trees to the right. Tegan and Turlough followed closely.
A fallen tree lay across the ground. Its branches, although decaying, were still thick enough to provide some cover for the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough. They crouched behind the tree, peering out among the dried leaves.
After a few minutes, a group of a dozen or so men emerged from the woods to their right. They wore deep blue tunics and carried shields and spears. Most had a sword or dagger hanging at his waist as well. The soldiers all had similar coloring: coppery red hair and fair skin. The older men had short beards. While not excessively tall, all appeared sturdy and strong.
As they neared the fallen tree, the Doctor pushed Turlough and Tegan down, ducking himself to disappear beneath the branches. They listened to the continued conversation of the soldiers.
"He said they were this way."
"Six, seven maybe."
"They're a long way from the main camp."
"Far enough that no one's going to hear us kill them."
"Do you think they'll try to surrender, like the group yesterday?"
"Doesn't matter, does it? We'll still kill every one of them."
Several rough chuckles followed this comment. Tegan suddenly felt cold and fought the urge to shiver.
The group neared the fallen tree, their feet crunching through the leaves on the ground. Tegan could smell the earthy muskiness of their bodies as they approached. The tree provided an adequate hiding place for a casual glance; however, if any of the soldiers should look down, the three visitors would most certainly be visible.
Tegan held her breath when the men stopped directly before the tree. One said, "This is a good spot for camp."
Something hit the fallen tree and made the trunk vibrate slightly. A sharp snap caused Tegan to look at the booted foot directly in front of her. The soldier had stepped on a cluster of withered leaves. A faint dust began to rise around his foot. An acrid smell prickled in Tegan's nose and throat; she felt a distinct urge to cough. She swallowed repeatedly, her eyes filling with tears in her efforts to remain silent. Her throat was burning now.
"Lots of wood. Let's return here after we take them."
A few acknowledgements of agreement were given as the men began walking away.
Tegan, Turlough, and the Doctor remained very still for several minutes. Thankfully, the burning in Tegan's throat was subsiding. As she glanced at her companions, she saw that they appeared similarly affected. Finally, as the voices died away, the Doctor rose with a cough, saying, "We need to leave this area."
Turlough and Tegan were each consumed with a small coughing fit.
"Too right," agreed Tegan huskily after a minute. "That was much too close for my taste." She pointed at the crushed leaves. "What are those?"
"It appears to be of the genus valeracopaea. The oils in the leaves are particularly irritating to the mucous membranes. When dried, they form miniscule, barbed crystals that attach to the mucosa and—"
"That's more than I need to know," Tegan interrupted.
The Doctor appeared somewhat peeved at his companion's lack of interest in his lecture. "You might be glad to know that the effects are only temporary. The crystals dissolve once they are exposed for a few minutes to the moisture in the mucosa," he finished.
Tegan coughed again. "Those soldiers could have been your cousins, Turlough."
The Trion shook his head. "Well, they're certainly not," he retorted.
"I know that. I just meant that you look a lot like them." Tegan's eyes scanned the woods. "Which way is the TARDIS?"
"Are we going back?" asked Turlough.
"To the TARDIS?" said the Doctor. "No. We need to locate the Briars' main camp before nightfall."
"You're not seriously considering still trying to deliver the message?" Tegan exclaimed.
"Of course I am," replied the Doctor.
"But Doctor!" she protested, "if those soldiers had seen us—"
"But they didn't, did they?"
The Time Lord's calm manner was particularly irritating to Tegan; she still felt slightly shaky from the encounter with the soldiers.
"But there are people fighting out there!" she said. "We could walk right into the middle of a battle."
"Then we will have to be extra cautious, won't we?" responded the Doctor.
Tegan crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't like this one bit. I have a bad feeling—"
"Yes," said the Doctor, "this is a bad situation. You heard those soldiers say that they would kill the Briars even if they surrendered. That is bordering on anomie."
"Anomie?" repeated Tegan.
The Doctor was staring off in the direction the men had gone. "Hmm? Yes—the breakdown of cultural norms. I'm afraid that if the Briars lose this war, the planet will be plunged into a very dark time."
"But you said the Briars were going to win," Tegan reminded him.
"That was before our arrival here," said the Doctor. "If we do not deliver this message as promised, history could very well change."
"You still think that's why we're here?" asked Turlough.
The Doctor nodded gravely. "The more I learn about this war, the more I believe that our presence here is no accident."
Deeper in the woods, from the direction in which the soldiers had gone, faint shouts could be heard.
Tegan asked, "Are they fighting?"
"Yes," replied the Doctor simply. "Let's go."
He turned and began moving quickly through the tall trees. As they walked, Tegan was again aware of the numerous sounds in the forest. The lofty branches shielded the floor from most of the wind that swept overhead; however, the movement of the leaves made a whispering that resembled voices. Several times Tegan almost believed that she could make out words. She shook her head, muttering, "Stop imagining things."
"Pardon me?" the Doctor asked.
"What?" responded Tegan.
"I thought you said something."
"No, Doctor, it was nothing important."
They continued walking. After a time, Turlough said, "Shouldn't we be near the rose by now?"
The Doctor paused. "Yes. It should be just through those evergreens." He gestured slightly to the right.
"Finally," said Tegan. "I'm ready to see something that isn't a tree."
They stepped ahead, but all they found were more trees. There was no sign of the rose bush.
"Hmm," the Doctor muttered. "I really thought it was this way." He looked about.
"You've gotten us lost, haven't you?" Tegan reproved.
"No," replied the Time Lord. "I have noted on which side of the trees the lichens grow and used that as a guide to our direction. Our detour to avoid the soldiers must have taken us slightly off course." He looked up through the trees at the sky. "Unfortunately, this leaves us less time than anticipated to reach the Briars' main encampment. We still need to find in which direction the mountains lie. I had hoped to be able to see them from the rose bush; it is in a clearing, on a rise. However, our best course now may be to search for the mountains in a different way."
Without another word, the Doctor reached for the lowest branch of the nearest tree then swung himself up. Tegan and Turlough watched as he climbed nimbly from branch to branch, finally reaching the top. He stood for a moment then began to descend.
"Well?" Tegan called up to him.
He looked down. Tegan could just see his face among the high branches; he was smiling. "The mountains," he said, "lie in this direction." He removed his right hand from the branch he gripped to point. "There are four mountains," he continued, moving his foot down to a lower branch," and the diagram shows the camp at the base directly in the middle of them—"
A loud, sudden crack caused Tegan to twitch. The branch on which the Doctor had placed his foot snapped. He slipped, trying to keep his hold on the branch he had gripped with his left hand. He reached for a nearby limb with his right hand, but it slid from his grasp as he continued to plunge downward.
"Doctor!" Tegan cried, watching in horror as his body fell through the branches. His arms flailed outward.
Turlough grabbed Tegan's shoulders and pulled her back as the Doctor landed on the ground just beyond her feet. He lay without moving. His eyes were closed.
Tegan and Turlough knelt beside him.
"Is he all right?" asked Turlough anxiously.
"Does he look all right?" Tegan touched the Time Lord's cheek. "Doctor!" she said, patting at him lightly. Her eyes ran over his face. A dark spot just above his hairline near his right ear caught her attention. She watched for a moment as blood seeped into his light hair.
"He's hit his head," she said, touching the spot gingerly.
"But he's still alive?" Turlough's tone was slightly skeptical.
Tegan pressed her hands against his chest. "Yes. Both hearts are beating."
"Has he broken anything?"
"I don't know!" she snapped. A torrent of panic began to well up in her, but she forced herself to quell it. She closed her eyes to think. "I'm not sure if I can tell," she said, finally.
She ran her hands over the Doctor's arms and shoulders; nothing seemed out of place to her. She felt gently along the back of his head and down his neck, then moved her hands over his torso and down his legs. She recalled something about broken bones affecting circulation, so she checked the pulses in his wrists and ankles. They seemed steady enough to her.
Tegan leaned back on her heels, pressing her hands to her thighs. "I don't think anything's broken—at least not that I can tell."
Turlough's expression showed some surprise. "I didn't know you knew anything about medicine," he said.
She shrugged. "I don't know much, but I did have some basic first aid training once."
"So what do we do now?"
"We have to wait for him to wake."
"How long will that be?"
"I don't know, Turlough. I have no way of telling that. If he's got a concussion, he could be unconscious for some time. On the other hand, he's a Time Lord, and what little I know about concussions may not apply to him at all."
Turlough was looking about. "I don't like the idea of just sitting out here. Those soldiers, or another group, could come by at any time."
Tegan nodded. "You're right. We should try to find some sort of shelter where the Doctor can rest, and we'll be out of sight as much as possible. I'll stay here with him; you take a look around. See if you can find anywhere that's secluded."
Turlough rose and walked away. The Doctor lay before Tegan, very still and quiet. A trickle of blood had begun to drip down his cheek. Tegan found a handkerchief in his coat pocket and wiped the blood away.
"Doctor," she said, "you'd better wake up soon. I have no idea what else to do for you."
Suddenly she was struck with a disturbing thought: If his injuries were too severe, he would have to regenerate. That would leave him weak and disoriented for some time. She did not want to consider how she and Turlough would deal with such an event should it occur in the midst of a war zone.
Again she was aware of the whispers of the woods. As the sun lowered in the sky high above, deep shadows began to cover the forest floor. Tegan felt chilled and alone as she sat next to the unconscious Time Lord.