Another Whofic out of me! Wow. I just had to write this following the throwaway lines in "Fires of Pompeii." But don't worry if you haven't seen the episode yet! There are no spoilers at all for series four--as long as you've seen series three, you're fine. This is set in the nebulous time after "The Runaway Bride" and before "Smith and Jones." Hope you enjoy!
Echoes in Erythrae
Day is nothing but a smear of deep orange in the west when the gauzy curtain parts and he steps into her chamber.
She knows him at once (as she knows every man who approaches her) and yet she does not know him (as she is quite certain he is no man at all).
"Hello," he says. He grins suddenly—as though it would make his arrival better—and she thinks that his teeth look too sharp.
She stares, ready, but he makes no move except to sit on the floor a few feet away from the cloth cushion on which she reclines. He stretches out, looking thin and pale in garments which she has seen but will never encounter again. He flicks a hand around to indicate the surroundings and says, "It's a nice sort of a place, isn't it? I was expecting, I don't know, a cave. That's what they say, you know. You live in a cave, unkempt, mouthpiece of the gods and all the madder for it."
"The priests do well by me," she responds, willing her tone towards gratefulness.
He rocks forward, eyebrows raised. "Well, yeah. How else would you expect them to act? If they mistreat you, you could just call down the wrath of Apollo on them, right?"
"Even the Sibyl should not expect the gods to do her bidding."
He leans back. "No, of course not. Seems a bit unfair, though, don't you think? They get to use your head and your mouth and your body, but they wouldn't protect their vessel should men decide to damage it?"
She is silent.
He grabs a discarded cushion, places it under his elbow, and settles in. His expression is vaguely amused.
"Do you want something from me, Doctor?"
The amused expression vanishes as though it had never been there at all. "What did you say?"
Now it is her turn to smile, a feral thing in the lamplight.
"How do you know that name?"
She watches her hand splay across her thigh like a fleshy spider, twisting and spinning a web of thoughts and pictures and things to come. She does not look at the man (not-man) with the dangerous face leaning towards her. "You scream it. At every moment and at every person. 'I am the Doctor, I am the Healer, the Righter of Wrongs, the Lonely God.' It is written in your face, this name you have given yourself—your face and your hands and your tongue, the soles of your feet, and it uses you as the gods use me."
There is a whistling of breath drawn through teeth, and she knows that she is correct.
She turns to look at him then, pupils blown wide in the dimness, and speaks through the hair that falls into her face. "Is it good, being the Doctor? Or do you feel sorrow for the things that must be discarded?"
"I don't know what you mean."
She brings her hand from her thigh and touches each finger in turn. "The inevitable destruction. The wounded arm that must be amputated to save the body, the rabid beast that must be killed to protect the flock"—her smile grows wider—"the rose that must be cut off to produce the next."
His face is nothing but stone. "Stop it."
Leaning back, she sighs. She is stretched before him, unprotected and unafraid, as unmoving as he is. "There is a boy-child coming, you know. A child of Zeus, a king to conquer all the known world. He will reign triumphant, and yet he will not see his thirty-third summer. I feel it is my purpose to know this."
The lamp's oil pops and sizzles for a moment, and a muscle in his jaw tics.
"Doctor?" she whispers, and her voice has lost its intensity—she seems less a mouthpiece of the gods and more the twenty-three year old she actually is. "I see things I should not see. I know not only the knowledge of gods but the knowledge of men, of things that are not men, of things that once were men. I see death and birth and stars, and places other than this earth, and not only the future but the past. Why is this my gift?"
His rigid posture softens, loosens, and he looks sorry. "It wouldn't make any sense to you, believe me."
"I would like to know anyway."
He sits up, folds his legs, and rests his chin in a palm. "Erythrae is home to a Rift. Not much of one, really, and it's closing pretty fast, but it's there. You've been here, on it, for years—and perhaps you're naturally attuned, or perhaps it's affected you in some other way, but I think you're using it to see into the Vortex. I've seen it before, there was a girl named Gwyneth—her sight wasn't as strong as yours, though."
"There will be other prophetesses here, I have seen it."
The Doctor grins suddenly. "Fakers, the whole lot. You're the only one that's real. Well, here, anyway."
She turns on her side, staring at him. "I should not have said the things I did. It was not proper. You have done much good in your time."
"Yeeeah, I try. Nine hundred years, you'd think I'd get it right some of the time," he laughs. She wrinkles her nose but does not laugh. "Tell me about them, Herophile. The things you see."
Her eyes are on him, wide and empty. "I never told you my name."
One side of his mouth quirks as he replies, "Turnabout's fair play. I know so very, very much about you. Do you want to hear what I know?"
The Sibyl does not shudder, even though she can feel the muscles under her skin twitch like a horse's when a fly lands on its shoulder. Instead, she picks at her fingernails, uninterested. "What do you know about me, Doctor?"
"I know you were born far away and will die here. You will predict the rise of a king and the fall of a city. When you were six, your mother lost you in a marketplace and before a strange man in strange clothes led you back to her, you saw the market laid to waste, rebuilt in metal, and destroyed again in an instant. I know the reason that your mouth hurts is because your upper right wisdom tooth is coming in late; not to worry, though, your teeth will be fine. Your favorite fruit is pomegranate—excellent choice, by the way," he grins, delighted. "You have a fondness for the mice that live in the crack behind the altar. The smell of myrrh makes you ill. And I know that on bad days you can't stand to be in a crowd of people because you can see them all dead, even as they speak to you."
Now the Sibyl does shiver, but it manifests itself in a manic flailing of limbs as she sits up and spits, "Red grass under an orange sky, bananas are good and pears are not, bits of strings and toys and clips in your pocket because you never know what will come in handy, different faces on the same man, you will see the end of everything and wish forever that you hadn't, and why don't you vote Saxon while you're at it?"
The Doctor reels backward away from shrieks and looks alarmed. He holds out an arm, as if to restrain her, and seems to think better of it. "All right, it's all right. We'll stop playing this game, shall we? No more, right?"
Her chest heaves. "No more?"
He places a hand over his heart (and yet she knows—has seen—that he has another) and holds the other aloft. "Honest injun," he says, the grin reasserting itself for a moment before being replaced by a quizzical look. "Haven't said that in a while. I should go see Mark Twain again. Interesting man if ever there was one."
"But you won't. Once you leave, you don't often return, Doctor."
He throws her a sour look. "I thought we weren't doing this any more?"
She leans back into her cushion. "My apologies."
There is a darkness at the edges of her mind, like a great beast with poisoned fangs, and she barely suppresses a hiss. She continues to wait, and yet nothing happens.
"So, what do you do?" the Doctor asks, stretching out his legs and tapping the toes of his shoes together. "You know, besides the obvious?"
She rolls her head so that she can look at him upside-down. "I eat, I pray, I give riddles to the haughty. Sometimes I dance."
"Dance, eh?" he says, suddenly interested. "What do you dance?"
The Sibyl rises to her feet. Humming under her breath, she grabs the hem of her garment and begins to sway, undulating to music that only she can hear. The Doctor watches, delighted, as hips go one way and feet and hands another.
"Tarantella?" he asks, nodding his head in time to her rhythm.
"Is that what it's called?" she replies. She is so close that she has to lift small feet over his legs to continue her movements.
"Do you dance, Doctor?" Her body is still moving fluidly, her toes just grazing the cloth above his knees, but her eyes have once again adopted the vacant expression.
"What, me? Ah, no. We-ell...no. Not really. I mean, I'm a decent step-dancer in a pinch, but that's not really the same thing..." His voice has gone up half an octave since he's realized she's been moving up his body, and the cloth covering her thighs is now swishing inches from his face. And, for the first time, she throws back her head and laughs—a sound just as loud and jarring as the voice with which she speaks her prophesies.
"Will you, Doctor, with me?" She offers one delicate hand, leaning down to look him in the eye. "It's just a dance."
He takes her hand and scrabbles to his feet, muttering "It's never just a dance."
Throwing one arm into the air, she spins and dips. "Like this."
He is nothing but sharp angles for a few moments, the soles of his shoes scuffing against the stone floor. Then, the heretofore perplexed expression drops away and he smiles easily, becoming fluid like a cat as he takes her fingers in his own and pulls her into a twist. She barks a laugh again, and the sound coming from his throat is somewhere between chuckling and pure glee.
The rest of the night is passed in story-telling. He regales her with tales of his adventures in this world and beyond, and she compliments these with anecdotes about the rich and greedy and the stupid who come to hear their fates—only to be puzzled by spectacular riddles. He grins and claps and tries to guess the answer to each one.
Every single minute is like sticking another fire-tipped pin into the Sibyl's body. She waits, and still nothing happens.
It is hours past the mid-night mark, perhaps only two until dawn, when she finally begins to fall asleep. Propped on a cushion, her eyes slip closed even as the Doctor is rattling on about some distant city called Raxa...Raxacor...
The darkness in her mind has edged closer, and she would swear she can feel hot putrid breath against her skin. There is a gleaming flash of teeth—and a burst of blue light.
Her eyes crack open to see the Doctor standing by the curtain that separates her chambers from the main part of the temple. He is holding a glowing stick and seems to be watching something on the other side. She feels her eyelids grow heavy again, then the Doctor is beside her, gripping her wrist so tightly it almost hurts.
"Herophile, did I tell you about the time I fell in love with a plant? No, really, I did. I land on this planet, meet up with some local leaders, and the next thing you know, they're shooting me up with this strange goo. At first I think, hey this isn't so different, maybe they were just vitamins, and then I saw it: a laurel tree. Let me tell you, this was the finest laurel tree any known species has ever laid eyes—or eye-equivalents—on. And I knew, then and there, that we were just meant to be..."
She laughs quietly, and somehow manages to keep laughing for the next two hours as he assaults her with a non-stop litany of the most terrible jokes she's ever had the misfortune to hear.
And then, suddenly, he stops. He stands, pats his knees, runs a thumb along her forehead, and turns to leave.
"Where are you going?" she asks helplessly as he pushes aside the curtain to her chamber. The weight of the earth (past and present and future) weighs on her throat.
"It's morning," he says, as if this explains everything. "Besides, this whole thing between us is lovely, but I just don't think it will look the same in the light of day."
Her face slides past concern and into impassiveness. "Does this mean you will not kill me?"
"Kill you? Why'd I do that?" He seems genuinely confused.
She stands, weariness temporarily forgotten, and pads over to him. He tilts his head to the side, so she kisses him. She thought, just prior to this, that he would flee, or freeze, or push her away. Instead, he stares at her, eyes locked on her face, and slides his tongue past her lips. She feels it, briefly, smooth across the ridges on the roof of her mouth.
Then he takes a step back. He makes a throaty hnnn sound and she watches (fascinated) as his tongue curls around itself, retasting her. "Yup," he declares after a moment, "definitely some rift energy you have got coursing through your body." He smacks his lips, going for overkill. "Tastes like chicken. Or rift energy, I'd wager. I guess they're not really interchangeable."
"I had a vision yesterday," she says slowly, uncertain of the future for the first time in years. "I saw myself dead by the power of an otherworldly creature."
"And you thought it was me?" he asks, affronted. "What for?"
"It wasn't you?"
The Doctor runs a hand through his hair, making the ends stand farther up. "No! I mean, the dream dog, sure, but not me! Well, I say dream dog, but it's really more of a consciousness devourer. Comes at those with multiple levels of superconsciousness—that'd be you, what with the clairvoyance—and swallows the inner mind whole while they sleep. Leaves nothing behind but an empty meat shell. It's a rift beastie, hazard of the area. So I had to keep you from sleeping while my multi-consciousness cry-baby trap lured it back through the rift. Very humane. The RSPCA would be proud."
She comprehends only half of that speech, but it's enough.
"I don't understand," the Sibyl says, wide eyes and unkempt hair making her look impossibly young in the predawn. "I foresaw it. I foresaw my death last night."
His face softens, and he reaches up to cup her jaw. "I know. We both see things all the time—the past, the future, the ages burning and crumbling and rising again. It's not a gift, it's a burden."
He leans closer, their foreheads nearly touching. His breath tickles her chin as he says, "But there is a fundamental difference between you and me, beyond the obvious ones. You can only see what has happened and what will happen. But I, Herophile, I have the power to change it."
And later she will recall how he smiles in that moment. Later, when she talks of the night that Apollo himself stood guard against the rabid wolf come to slay his disciple, she will think back (not a vision but a proper memory) to the sight of him, haloed against a paling sky, grinning as though he owns the world and all the treasures thereof. And she will think then as she thinks now: he probably does.
Day is nothing but a pinpoint of blinding orange against the egg-blue of the eastern sky when he walks down the steps of the temple and out of Erythrae.