The path behind the Midwall up to the north was nothing but a muddy dirt road scattered with broken rocks, and heavily overgrown with weed. The steppenhorns had trouble finding sturdy ground under their feet, and progression was painstakingly slow. Combined with the biting wind and the miserable drizzle of rain that kept their coats damp throughout the entire day, the moods of the three traveling companions were becoming increasingly gloomier and irritated.
"For the last time, can you slow down!" The Doctor yelled at the Master who was riding up front as he glanced back over his shoulder at Donna. Her bird had slipped when they crossed a narrow stream, and had injured its paw. It was now limping behind the group with a swollen joint. "Donna is falling behind. She can't keep up with us."
"I do remember you telling me that she wasn't going to be a reliability." The Master shouted back without looking at him or slowing down. His own beast was pushed close to exhaustion, but he wanted to keep going till at least after sunset and put a good distance between him and the men of the Midwall, the small inconveniences of the Doctor's human pet be damned.
Donna cried out when she suddenly felt the weight of the bird lean too far to the left. The backpack shifted and her steppenhorn lost footing, throwing her from his back as he collapsed. Donna landed on a path of grass, her leg pinned down beneath the weight of the giant bird.
The Doctor jumped off his mount. Pushing his shoulder against the back of the animal, he tried to roll the beast off her. The Master finally turned around to see what the racket was all about.
"Can you at least lend me a hand with this?" The Doctor fumed.
"She is not my responsibility." The Master replied coldly.
The Doctor uttered a cry of anger when he finally succeeded to push the bird off Donna's leg.
"Are you all right?" The Doctor asked, really concerned. "Can you still feel your leg?"
"I am okay…I think." She responded bravely, although her face was as white as a blank sheet of paper. She tried to move her feet and wriggle her toes. Her sheen was bruised purple and covered in mud and feathers, but otherwise, everything still seemed to be functioning. "A bit squashed, that's all."
"That's it. We are going to set up camp for tonight." The Doctor decided.
"Don't be an idiot! We're not going to stay here. Not with ser Titanis's men still on our trail." The Master objected.
"Where are they then?" The Doctor replied angrily, waving his hands around. "You're not even sure that they're following us."
"Of course they are following us! These Saltmen live and die for their duty. We had a good chance of getting rid of them until you ruined my plans!" The Master replied with deep resentment.
"Don't you even start!" The Doctor warned him. The memory of the Master's horrific act still enraged him. "Donna was almost injured. The birds are too tired to move on. We stay put till tomorrow morning. No more discussions!"
"Oh this is rich!" The Master laughed sarcastically, throwing his head back in despair. "I said, she was not my responsibility! I knew this would happen! All she has to do is sit on her fat ass on the back of bird and still that clumsy ginger airhead is causing us trouble!"
"Oi! Who died and made you the new Fuhrer?" Donna sneered back.
"Tell me, what is your responsibility exactly?" The Doctor stared at him, eyes blazing. Don't you even dare to make up another excuse to abandon her.
"Is there a single day in your selfish little life when the sun does not revolve around lord Oakdown?"
The Master straightening his jaw and raised a single finger. "One night." He grudgingly admitted. "At least let us get off this road then. Unless you want to camp right here in the open and let ser Titanis's searching party trample all over us." He turned his steppenhorn and took out the longsword that he had confiscated from one of the guards. With brisk angry sweeps, he started cutting a path through the thick bushes, pretending it to be a certain someone's head.
It took a while for the Doctor to make a fire. Even with the sonic and laser screwdriver at hand, it was nearly impossible to light up the damp timber that they had gathered for fuel. When it finally burnt, the three of them huddled around the small circle of warmth, letting the flames cast out the dampness in their clothes and warm their half-frozen bodies.
"Anyone for a piece of toast?" Donna took an incinerated crumb of bread on a stick from the fire. Her companions didn't respond. The Doctor stared through the flames at the Master who sat at the other side, as far away from the others as possible.
"I thought we also had a bit of cheese somewhere." Donna kept talking, just to keep that awful silence away. Rummaging through the backpacks, she found a smelly yellow lump completely covered in grey fluff. Maybe she could cut off the bad pieces. "Anyone fancy cheese on toast?" She asked as lightheartedly as she could pretend to be.
"Why did you lock in those men?" The Doctor muttered, finally deciding to get it off his chest.
A bitter smile crossed the Master's face, but he didn't say a word.
"Those were Ser Titanis's men. You sat at their table and laughed with them while you shared their supper. They trusted you." The Doctor paused, finding it impossible to believe that these things, these very human things, appear to mean so very little to him. "Something is wrong. There must be…" His eyes locked with the Master's. "Ever since we arrived on this planet, you've acted differently. This is not you. Since you lost the drums you've been reckless and mad at times, but never truly cruel. Not without a reason…Tell me…what's wrong?"
"Why do you care?" The Master responded.
"Because when you're alone, the silence is maddening." The Doctor whispered, leaning closer to him. "But you're not alone. You're never alone. Not while I am here."
A twig snapped in the woods. It startled the Doctor and Donna. The Master wheeled around, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "Who is there?" He called out into the dark.
"Who…who are you?" Rasped a haggard voice through the thick tangle of branches.
"We're travelers." The Doctor answered, peering between the tree trunks to get a glimpse. "We mean no harm. We're just passing by."
"No-one can cross this land. No-one." The ghostly voice continued. "The roads are closed. The woods are shut. The marshes locked. No-one can reach the ruins of Dagonmourn."
"Come out! Show yourself!" The Master barked, taking his sword out from the sheath.
"Put that away immediately!" The Doctor told him firmly. "There is no use for it."
"Oh I'll be the judge of that." The Master responded defiantly, rolling his tongue over his lips.
"Master, this got to stop." The Doctor pleaded. "Every time you give in, you're drifting further and further away from me. Don't you see that?"
There was a moment of hesitation in the Master's eyes, and the Doctor was about to reach out and take away his weapon, when a creature leaped out of the bushes and landed on the Doctor's back, smacking him to the boggy floor. The Doctor cried out when ten dagger-like talons cut into his flesh and clawed over his spine. He managed to turn and stared into his attacker's face just when he leaned over him. Long strands of dirty white hair flowed over red eyes that burnt in a lean, starved face. A foul stench assailed his nose when the creature opened his mouth and showed him a graveyard of rotting teeth.
He heard Donna scream when the blade swooped low over his head. Then the grip of the talons lifted from his back. The nightmare creature rolled off him, screeching and bleeding.
"Arghh! You cut off my ear. My beautiful ear! You brute! You monster!" It rolled madly into a muddy pool, covering his bloody wound with both his hands. The Master kept him at the end of his sword. "Murder! Murder! You murderer!" It wept, staring crazily at the Timelord. "You murdered me!"
"Oh please, it's just an ear. Don't be overly dramatic." He could not even bring up a crumb of compassion for the cowering creature. In fact, after seeing what he had done to the Doctor, he could cut this madman up into ribbons in a heartbeat.
"Are you all right?" He turned to his friend, who was struggling to get up with Donna's help. The back of his coat was smeared with mud and crimson, but the Doctor nodded, straightening himself.
"So, what do we do with this vile beast?"
"It's not a beast." Donna said, when she came closer to have a better look. "It's just an old man." She stared at the wretched filthy creature coiling away from the Master.
"Man or beast, let me shut him up first. He's giving away our position, screaming the entire wood together." With a cruel grin, he pressed the tip of the blade onto his chest, and a pinprick of blood broke the skin. The man howled in fear.
"Stop that!" The Doctor pushed his sword away and shoved him aside. The Master watched with astonishment how he knelt down beside the old man. "Oh you're welcome!" He finally said, hardly containing his discontentment.
"Calm now." The Doctor said in a soothing voice to the frightened old man. "I am not going to let him hurt you. My name is the Doctor and this Donna. We're friends, we're not going to harm you."
"Oh really, he wasn't exactly friendly to you when he tried to rip the skin from your back." The Master stated, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"He was just scared. He didn't know what or who we were." The Doctor tore off a piece of lining from his coat. "Here let me help." He lifted the man's hand from the side of his skull to reveal the raw stump of what was left of his right ear. With Donna's help, he bound the wound, careful not to cause the poor man any more pain.
"You shouldn't have done this." The Doctor breathed, gazing up at him with a judging look on his face.
Something snapped inside the Master. "Of course, the good and righteous Doctor, our sainted physician! Excuse me your holiness, but I think I have to go somewhere and retch up my dinner!" He stuck the longsword in a treetrunk and walked away, seething with anger.
"It's all right. It's just me. I've got something for you to eat." Donna told the old man, and handed him a piece of bread from their meager provisions. She was dead tired. The campfire was dying out, and dawn was fast approaching, but none of them had slept more than a couple of hours. The Master had insisted that, since the Doctor won't let him get rid of their attacker in his own bloody way, they have to tie the old man down. To keep him wandering around the camp in the night, looking for an opportunity to rip our throats. He had half-joked with a grin that was all about defying the Doctor. She didn't really want to be affected by the Master's paranoia, but he did plant some very disturbing ideas in her head, and it was difficult not to be afraid after she had seen how the wild man had injured the Doctor. It's not the right to do, but as long as he doesn't get hurt, it's safer to keep him tied up. She justified to herself, but she still felt compelled to be extra nice to him to make up for keeping him prisoner.
"Feeling any better?" She asked, as she watched him devour the bread. The man nodded, but his bloodshot eyes kept darting over at the Master, who was sitting on a rotting tree trunk a few meters away, busy sharpening his sword on a piece of flint. The sparks illuminated his face in an eerie glow. Even with the prisoner's hands bound behind his back and a rope around his neck, the Master wouldn't stop keeping an eye on him.
"You don't have to be afraid. The Doctor and me won't let that lunatic harm you." She said to reassure him. "Do you have a name?"
The wild man gazed vacantly at her.
"What do they call you?" She tried.
"They call…They don't." He shook his head. "They don't call. They don't speak to me. They only whisper. Even when they do, they don't have a name for me. Not anymore."
Donna felt really sorry for him. Obviously, the old man had lost his wits. "What are you doing here out in the woods all by yourself? Don't you have a family or friends?"
The old man shook his head, the dirty strings of hair swept in front of his eyes. "No-one. No-one but me. The moors have swallowed them all." He ran his purple tongue over his ruined teeth. "I watched them die. Every single one of them."
"I am so sorry." Donna whispered, not sure what to say.
"Don't be. They're better off than I am." A sad smile cracked his lips and he leaned forward, his gaze flashing nervously from the Master back to her. "Why are you traveling with him?"
"What do you mean?"
"He's a murderer." The wild man whispered. "It's his eyes." He pointed at his own with two fingers. "His face had changed, but the eyes always remain the same."
Donna felt frosty fingers claw down over her spine and tickle the back of her neck. Don't take this too seriously. He's mad. She told herself. Running around the freezing woods in nothing but your birthday suit is an obvious gave-away hint. "Let me go get some water for you." She told him, getting up.
"You saw it too."
She stopped and turned around. Her eyes met the man's wild and frightful gaze.
"Inside the cathedral. He had that same murderous look when he watched the witch burn." He licked his lips, his red eyes pleading. "Get away from him." He whispered. "Run away child. Run away from the monster while you still can."
The Doctor sat on a damp patch of grass not far away form the camp. He was looking up to the sky through a hole in the canopy of swaying black leaves. In his hand he held white point star. It was the very same that they had retrieved from the Watcher's clan of Rassilon worshippers. By turning it up at different angles, he was trying to catch the light from the Hydra constellation.
"Don't you ever get tired of playing with that dusty old thing?"
Surprised by the mild tune in voice, the Doctor looked up. The Master stood in front of him. He was smearing oil over the blade of his sword with a dirty cloth.
"I told you to get rid of that." He told him sternly.
"Of course. Never mind it saved your life."
"You saved my life. Not this cold inert object with the loathsome capacity to kill."
"Don't be ridiculous. People kill, Doctor." The Master replied, rolling his eyes at him. "Not weapons."
"And you saved me, but it doesn't mean there was any bloodletting involved."
"Now you're reasoning in circles." The Master sighed. He sat down next to him. "Be careful now. It's the first symptom of madness. Believe me, I should know."
There was a ghost of a smile on his lips. It was the first honest smile that the Doctor had seen on the Master's face, a genuine smile that reached his eyes, ever since he came to know about Rassilon. It was in these rare moments, when he could still see a glimpse of the Master's old self shimmer through that cold mask of indifference that he resented Rassilon the most for what he had done to him. My dear old friend, you don't know how much it pains me to see you like this. The Doctor thought. The real battle has not even started and I have already lost a part of you, a part that was sincere and good.
He picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dirt, placing the white point star in the middle. The dull blue glow that shimmered with the pace of a Timelord's heartbeats cast an eerie light on his face.
"Is it time for the cosmic oujia board again? Oh you must be desperate." The Master teased.
"It led us to Saltsea and I know it wants us to head up north, but it's not clearly telling us that Rassilon is waiting for us at the ruins of Dagonmourn." He studied the drawing and drew a line over one-third of the circle to mark out the Midwall.
"You're afraid, aren't you?" The Master spoke softly. By now he could read the Doctor's face like an open book. "You don't want to go there because you fear what you may find. These Saltsea primitives have their own ghost stories about that place, but we, the children of Gallifrey, know the truth. What is inside that tomb, kept hidden for thousands of year, can change the entire universe."
"And that's exact the reason why we have to make one hundred percent sure that the drums are really leading us that way." The Doctor told him sharply. "I won't lie to you.I am afraid, as you should be. Dagonmourn is but a legend in the stories of our Elders, but even so, if there is only just one word of truth in the heart of it, then that should be reason enough to fear it."
"It could be falling into the hands of Rassilon, right now."
"If Rassilon is there we have no choice but to go to the tomb and deal with him." The Doctor said gloomily. "If not, I swear, there is not a bone in my body that doesn't scream for me to turn around and run."
He drew a triangle in the upper corner of the circle. That's Dagonmourn." The Doctor pointed out, feeling a cold rope coiling around his hearts. "Now show me the way to Rassilon."
The white point star drifted upward. A brilliant dot in the darkness, it caught the light from the stars in the sky, and bundled it into a single blue beam. The light swept over the circle, Searching. Guiding…and finding.
The Doctor felt the tug of the rope snap tight in his chest when he saw what the star had pointed out.
"I think we have no choice. Doctor." His friend picked up the diamond and handed it back to him. Before the Master strolled back to the camp, he wiped the markings away, where just seconds ago, the blue beam clearly had pointed out the small triangle in the top of the circle.
Donna's steppenhorn could not be saved. It had fractured its legbone during the fall and in the end the Doctor had to put it to sleep using what was left of the concentrated milkflower. The birds were not strong enough to carry two people at the same time, so they were forced to continue the journey on foot, while using the remaining two animals to carry the luggage. The decision was taken under loud protest of the Master, but eventually, even he had to comply when his own steppenhorn was crippled after he tried to force it through a thick path of thorn-roses.
"This is about the right moment to start shouting a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." He complained. "These beasts are useless." He was dragging the prisoner along, jerking on the rope that was tied around his chest. The old man's hands were still tied behind his back to stop him from trying anything. "Come on you lazy shit!" The Master barked, and kicked him in the back. "We don't have all day. We pretty much wasted most of it on her."
"Stop it!" Donna protested, appealed by the way he was mistreating the poor man. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I am trying to make progress." The Master sneered. "Honestly Doctor, can you at least gag her so we don't have continuously suffer her stupidity?"
"Why don't you let him go?" The Doctor asked, giving him a disapproving look.
"Oh yes, why not? Release him so he can creep back up on us when we are asleep and claw our bloody eyes out. Brilliant plan!" He applauded with a crazy grin. "Here, why don't you just take my sword and cut my throat right now? Let's spare the poor fellow a hell of a lot of trouble."
"Not every one is as bloodthirsty as you are." Donna argued back.
"Wanne bet?" The Master told her with a deep loathing in his eyes.
"Hush, both of you!" The Doctor told the two hotheads. "Listen!"
The clatter of talons scraping on stone revealed to the companions that a horde of riders was heading their way.
"Quickly." The Doctor urged, pulling the animals into the bushes behind him. "We can't outrun them. We have to hide."
They had just all moved out of sight when the riders arrived. From her hiding place under a cookook bush, Donna could see through a hole in the tangle of twigs the lower half of the steppenhorns. She counted 4 pairs of legs in total.
"Why did we stop?" A commanding voice that she recognized as that of ser Titanis asked.
"It's the birds ser. They can't pick up the scent anymore." Someone answered.
"They can't lose that trail! We've been riding for two days without rest, and we found those fresh footprints only this morning. Surely they must be close now."
"Wait. I think they found something again. They're heading off the road."
"We can't stay here. It's too close." The Doctor whispered. "These birds can sniff us out blindly." He pushed through the shrubs, signaling the others to follow him when the Master suddenly uttered a muffled cry. The wild man had his teeth locked on his arm with the rabid determination of a wolf. "No." Whispered the Doctor when he saw the Master reaching out for his sword. He would have almost certainly cut the man to pieces if not one of the rider's steppenhorns had stuck his head through the bushes. The Master's blade severed the back of the bird's neck, and sprayed the wildling's face with a shower of crimson. The wild man finally let go of the Master's arm, shouting bloody murder, while the giant bird swayed on his feet, and then collapsed, crashing to the ground and burying the rider underneath.
"They are in the bushes!" One of ser Titanis's men yelled. "They've cut down Olaf's steppenhorn!"
The Doctor pulled the Master away from the wildling. "You had no right to do that!" He shouted at him with anger burning in his eyes.
"I can see that you idiot." Titanis bellowed outside. "Don't just stand there! Help him to get that beast off him. You. Come with me!"
"Doctor! They're cutting away the branches!" Donna warned him, backing away from the sweeping swords and the falling branches.
"We have to get out of here." The Doctor mumbled. "Come on! Quick!"
They left the birds and the bags behind, and fled deeper into the shrub land.
Twigs swept in the Doctor's face as they ran. The muddy ground became softer till he needed to pull out his feet from the sinking ground with every step he took. As they fled, bitter thoughts toiled inside his head.
He could hear River whisper to him in a voice that was all reason and kindness. He almost killed him. A man who was utterly defenseless. He is beyond redemption. You cannot save him. He's too far gone. Doctor, come to your senses. Let him go, before it is too late.
Not now. Not ever.
"I hear flowing water." The Doctor shouted to the others. "This way, if we can get to the stream, the birds won't be able to follow our scent."
They stumbled forward in the direction of the sound, the shrubs growing thicker around them as they headed into the heart of the wild vegetation till they finally reached the bank of a murky stream. The Doctor went in first, wading through the water till he was submerged to up to his waist.
"Come on." He held out his hand to Donna, who took it. The Master was about to follow when the wild man started pulling on the rope.
"No! No! Not in there!" The man begged, scrambling away from the shore. "It's bog water! It's filthy. It's diseased. Don't get near it!"
"Come on you crazy old loon! Stop complaining, it's probably cleaner than you are." The Master jerked hard on the line, dragging him into the stream. The old man splashed wildly when he plunged in and squirmed frantically as if he was drowning, while the water still had to reach his waistline.
"It's the dead!" He shouted. "They're all around us. I can taste their blood on my tongue! These streams flow thick with it!"
"Shut up! Or I swear I will cut out that offensive tongue of yours!" The Master threatened, grabbing hold of his cheeks, and pinching them together to make his point.
The water indeed had a rusty color, but that didn't worry the Doctor as much as how the Master was handling the prisoner. Luckily, the old man was less mad than he appeared to be, and wisely shut his mouth.
"We head upstream. That way." The Doctor turned away and waded through the icy water, keeping Donna close by his side. It's like he's getting worse and worse. River's voice whispered to him. Have you seen how he dragged the old man into the water? He is treating him like a dog. He has no compassion. He will never known any. You try to teach Doctor, but your pupil is incapable to learn.
"Doctor?" Donna asked. She could barely keep up with him and the grip on her hand was like stone.
He shook the voices out of his head. "Where is the Master?" He shot a bewildered glance over his shoulder to look for him.
"He's just behind us. Something wrong?"
"Nothing. Just…Nothing." He swallowed hard and licked his lips. The water was reaching higher, and the rusty color was slowly turning into a darker colour.
"Doctor?" Donna suddenly stopped. "Please tell me that's your hand."
The Doctor lifted his hand that held on to Donna's hand, staring at her with confusion.
"The other one?" She asked hopefully.
The Doctor showed her his free hand.
"If that's not you, who the heck is grabbing hold of my leg!"
She screamed and swallowed a lung full of water when a violent tug dragged her under. She struggled to hold on to the Doctor, but her hand slipped through his wet fingers. The bright silver roof rushed above her head as she was pulled downstream by an invisible force. Panic seized her when her lungs started to burn. She opened her mouth and her cries escaped in a string of bubbles. Then a blade cut through the water. The pull on her leg immediately ceased. A hand locked her arm and she was hauled to the surface. As she coughed and wheezed, she gazed through her dripping strands of hair at the man who had saved her life.
The Master looked back at her in silence, his face unnaturally pale.
"What? What was that?" She asked, her voice trembling, she looked down at his sword. The sharp edge was dripping with blood.
"Donna!" The Doctor splashed through the water to get to her. "Donna! Are you all right?"
She nodded and noticed how the Master quickly dipped the blade in the stream to get rid of the blood smear.
"How could you ever think that was me?" The Doctor asked. "I can never reach down there while I was standing up!"
"I don't know! Anything better than to think that some very large fish was nibbling at me."
She realized that from that far, it must have looked like the Master had just hauled her back up on her feet. She gazed at the silent Timelord, waiting for him to say something. Anything at all. Come on. I saw how you looked at me when you dragged me out. You were as scared as I was. Why don't you want the Doctor to know?
"I slipped." She finally said. "My feet got caught in a bundle of underwater roots and I panicked. I know, it's just stupid. " She shrugged, wondering why she telling this lie to the Doctor for the Master's sake.
"At least you're not hurt." The Doctor replied with a sigh of relief. He noticed that she was shivering. "Let's get back on dry land. We've been following this stream for quite a while now. This should be more than enough to get them off our trail for a while." He took her hand and waded back towards the shore.
The banks of the stream were swollen, and the threes stood with their roots submerged in the dark, still water. Although there was daylight shimmering through the canopy of yellow and red leaves, the woodland was cast in darkness. The Doctor waded through the icy water. Crimson leaves dropped from the branches and drifted on the tranquil surface. There were no birdsongs, no wind rustling the leaves above his head. The woods were still and dead. Except for the voices. At first he could not make out what they were saying to him, so very soft were their whispers. It was only when he headed further downstream that they became louder and clearer. Take my family. He heard someone whisper. Head straight south for the walls. Keep them safe.
Then, there came a different voice with different regrets. These devils don't fight like Saltmen. We had no chance.
His honor is all a man has, he won't break his vows.
Please my love, let us stay here with you! Don't make us leave.
You are the most beautiful creature I've ever seen. Compared to you, all the stars of the galaxies fade to nothing.
Don't take my children! Don't harm them! Spare them! I beg you, please! NO!
The woman's cry echoed through the woods and cut through him like a knife. Then the trees suddenly started to drop their leaves. A snowfall of yellow and crimson drifted down to the flooded forest floor. He was shocked to see that where they broke the surface, the water turned into blood.
Why do you keep shutting your eyes?
"River?" He immediately recognized her, even in that whirlwind of voices.
How can you still trust him after what he did to our men?
Don't touch me! Get away or I swear I will cut my own throat!
My sons, my two beautiful boys! What have you done? You MONSTER!
"River!" The Doctor shouted, covering his ears to block out the other heart-wrenching cries. "River where are you?"
Open your eyes Doctor. Open your eyes and see him for what he truly is.
A woman rose from the deep dark water. She wore a white gown that was obscenely torn and showed her breasts, swollen and rotting. A big gash ran over her belly from where her entrails dangled like a nest of pink worms. She looked at the Doctor, her eyes red and inflamed from her salted tears, while drops of blood dripped from the spiderweb tangles of what remained of her hair.
You should have seen what he did to my boys. My two beautiful boys…Doctor. She whispered. Open your eyes. Open your eyes and SEE!
He gasped when he struggled awake, bathing in sweat and his old hearts pounding inside his chest. He wheeled around, and saw Donna sleeping next to him, curled up in a ball. The Master was lying a little further away. Rolled up in his cape, he was also fast asleep and dead to world. Even their wild captive was slumped against a tree and snoring.
The Doctor took in a deep breath to calm himself.
It was just a dream. There was no dead lady in the water, and there were no whispers. The woods were still…until a piercing cry shattered the silence and scared the birds out of their nests in the nearby trees.
Donna trashed awake. "What? What's going on? What the heck was that?"
"It's coming from the nearby stream." The Master muttered, his brown eyes fully alert, he stared anxiously into the dark woodlands.
The Doctor headed in the direction of the cries with his companions on his heels, following the path that they had cut out through the thick foliage during daylight. They soon reached the banks of the narrow stream that divided the forest. In the scarce light that came through the breach in the canopy, they saw a young man standing up to his knees in the water. He was wheeling his sword around like a mad windmill.
"Stay away from me! I've got nothing to do with this. It wasn't my fault! I am not a deserter, I swear! Stay away!" He kept hacking and slicing with his sword as if he was defending himself against an army of invisible enemies. His eyes were white and wild.
"What is he doing?" Donna gasped. "There is no one here. Who is he fighting?"
"He's hallucinating." The Doctor breathed and ran over to him. "Stop!" He yelled. "Stop! Please!"
"Who are you?" The young man screamed, looking at the Doctor as if he had just appeared out of thin air. "Are you with them?"
"Me? No, no! Absolutely not. Who-ever they are, I am not with them."
The young man glanced around nervously. "They are whispering. I can hear them. They're everywhere. In the water. In the air. Even in the trees. They're blaming me for everything."
"Then stop listening to them! Come on now, look at me and let's talk." The Doctor noticed the emblem on the young man's shield and cape that depicted the sign of a watchtower. "You're one of Ser Titanis's men, aren't you? What's your name?"
"It's Gellard." The young man swallowed. "Gellard the butcher's son they call me…because…well because my father was a butcher. If that makes any sense."
"That's makes very good sense Gellard." He smiled at him. "Nice to meet you! I am the Doctor. Now listen to me. I need you to calm down. You're not in any real danger. There is no one here but us and we're not going to harm you, so why don't you put that sharp sword of yours away before you seriously hurt someone."
Gellard stared blankly at the Doctor. For a moment, Donna thought he wasn't going to do listen to him, but than the young man slowly lowered his sword.
"Right, that's it." The Doctor encouraged him in a soothing voice. "Now put it over there on that rock. You're doing fine. Now slowly step away. Come." He held his hand out to him. "Get yourself out of that icy water."
Gellard approached him unarmed and with a sullen look, as if he had just been awakened from a very bad dream. "My boots are drenched." He commented to no-one in particular while he kept staring at the ground after the Doctor had pulled him out of the stream.
"What were you doing out here on your own?" Donna asked, studying the lad's pale face.
"I am not…" Gellard shook his head. "I am not on my own. I was sent out here." It was obvious that Donna's question had snapped him awake again.
"Sent here by whom?" The Master inquired.
"Our lord, ser Robert Titanis of the Midwall." Gellard's face lit up with panic. "Oh great merciful Salt God, I was supposed to find Olaf and Jenkin and bring them back for help!"
"What? Why?" The Doctor asked.
"It's my lord, he is in mortal danger. I have to get back to him!" Gellard was about to dart into the bushes when the Doctor stopped him.
"Tell me what happened."
"We went into the woodlands while Jenkin stayed behind with Olaf. We had great trouble to follow your trail, but we kept searching over the muddy riverbanks till we ended up in a part of the woods where the ground had turned into a traitorous swamp. My lord's steppenhorn sank away in the quicksand, dragging him down with him. My own bird was trapped, but I managed to drag myself up on a nearby rock. I tried to get ser Titanis out, but I lacked the strength, so he sent me out to get Olaf en Jenkin. I remember that the sun was almost setting when I left him." Gellard gazed up at the dark blue ribbon of sky above his head. "It's already dark." He concluded worriedly.
"Actually, it's been dark for quite a while now. It's nearing dawn." The Master remarked. "You've wasted a lot of valuable time boy."
Gellard went pale. "I have to head back and free him or the swamp will claim his life for sure."
"Let us come with you." The Doctor offered. "You can't get him out on your own."
Gellard hesitated for a moment, but soon realized that the Doctor was right. "I think I came from that way." He nodded. "Follow me. Quickly!"
When they finally reached the swamp it was already dawn, and the first rays of sunlight revealed the muddy forest floor. The small lake of quicksand was half hidden by a field of ferns, and looked deceivingly solid, but the Doctor and his companions quickly found out how deadly it could be when they discovered the remains of a steppenbird sticking out of the ground. Only half of the animal was visible, the other half swallowed by the hungry earth. A large flock of flies buzzed around the fresh carcass. Fat maggots were already crawling in and out of the corners of the eyes and nostrils of the dead bird.
The Master covered his mouth and nose with a corner of his cape. "You're sure he's not buried under this rotting heap? "
"No. That is not my lord's ridingbird." Gellard replied, trying to sound confident but looking like he had lost his way. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Ser Titanis! Ser Robert Titanis! If you can hear me, please answer!"
The young man looked very discouraged when only a chorus of swamp toads croaked a response to him. "Wonderful." The Master muttered. "I am sure the old man is very capable to reply with his mouth full of bog and flies."
"Shut up. That's not helping." Donna told the Master. "Maybe you remember it wrong." She told Gellard, ignoring the livid look the Timelord gave her. "Let's go down there a bit further. We might still find him." She gazed at the Doctor who put his finger on his lips and shushed.
"I think I hear something." He told the others, and leaped over a path of rocks that jutted out of the swamp. "Follow me. Do exactly like I do. Don't touch the ground!"
The others hopped over the stones after him till they reached a fallen tree resting on a bed of rocks. The Doctor climbed over the trunk and leaned over the wild crown of branches till he was dangling half over into the dark shimmering pool. He cupped his ear and listened. A brown bubble rose slowly up from beneath and burst in front of the Doctor's nose.
"He's here! I can hear him!" The Doctor yelled, wheeling around to the others. He broke off a long heavy branch and stuck it deep into the quicksand at the exact spot where the bubble had appeared. "Come on ser Titanis, grab hold of it!" As soon as he had said it, he felt someone tugging on the other end of the branch. "He's still alive down there!" The Doctor smiled, exhilarated and relieved. "Give me a hand! We have to drag him out before he runs out of air." Gellard and Donna grabbed hold of the other end of the branch and pulled hard. A head emerged from the brown mass, followed by a shoulders and arms. Ser Titanis opened his mouth and sucked in a lung full of air. The whole scene looked like the messy birth of a bogmonster.
"Hi there!" The Doctor grinned. "I am glad you're still breathing. Gellard there was really worried about you."
Ser Titanis blinked the mud out of his eyes before he set them on the Doctor. "You." He gasped. "You! We were out looking for you and your murderous company."
"Ah, you're still have enough breath in your lungs to be angry with us. That's a verry good sign." The Doctor reacted cheerfully.
"You deceitful mongrel! You bastard son of a poxey whore! You deceived me!" Ser Titanis seethed. "I took you under my roof and treated you as honored guests and how did you repay me? You betrayed my trust by poisoning my cup and setting fire to my castle!"
"Oh don't go blaming the poor Doctor for everything here. He only did the poisoning bit. The fire was actually my idea." The Master told him with a proud grin. So far, he had refrained from even lifting a finger to help, but now he was coming closer to the muddy pit. Ser Titanis turned his head in the quicksand to take a good look at him. "I know you." He muttered, narrowing his eyes. "You're that little weasel who was traveling with the Doctor! "
"Hmmm weasel. That's not very flattering." The Master calmly took out his sword and aimed it at the Doctor. "But I guess that sort of manners are to be expected from a bearded brute with all the good manners of a savage orangutan."
The Doctor looked at him with his eyes wide with surprise. "What the heck are you doing?"
"I am trying to save us a lot a trouble later on." The Master replied calmly. "You see, once ser Titanis has solid ground beneath his feet, he won't exactly be cheering for us to complete our journey to Dagonmourn, isn't that right ser Titanis?"
"Definitely not!" ser Titanis yelled back. "You'll be going back to the wall with us, cuffed, chained and dragged behind my mount if you must, but you certainly won't be coming anywhere near Dagon's tomb!"
The Master gave the Doctor an I told you so look. "So, what would remedy this problem? Hmmm, let me think…" Before the Doctor could stop him, the Master swung his blade down on the branch that kept ser Titanis afloat and split it in two. The Doctor, Donna and Gellard tumbled backwards while ser Titanis sank back to up to his chin in the bog.
"Have you completely lost your mind!" The Doctor shouted at him furiously. He hurried to snap another branch from the dead tree and was about to reach it out to ser Titanis out when his companion stopped him. "No." He said in an icy voice as he held the sword pointed at the Doctor's chest. "Not yet."
The Doctor stared at him as if he had just seen him turn into a monster, but the Master remained imperturbable. "Ser Titanis, will you be so good to swear on the name of your house that you will not try to stop us from traveling to Dagonmourn?"
The lord of the Midwall gazed up at him, his cheeks flushing crimson.
"Oh don't be so stubborn. Just pledge that you will not be in our way, and I will let the good Doctor and his companions save you. If not, be prepared to take a deep long breath and sink all the way to the bottom of this stinking pit."
"You crazy maniac!" Donna objected. "Let the Doctor help him. Can't you see that he can hardly breathe?"
"Oh yes, he's running out of air, and out of time." The Master replied with a devilish grin. "What do you say ser Titanis?"
There came a torrent of insults from the keeper of the Midwall that ended in a long string of muddy bubbles as he sank back till up to his nostrils in pit.
"You better be quick with your answer. Soon I won't be able to hear you."
Exhausted, ser Titanis made some muffled sounds before he threw back his head and managed to force some air out of his lung to form recognizable words. "On my house….I swear….I swear it."
"Splendid!" The Master smiled, and lifted the blade. "And remember, a Saltman who does not keep to his word is as shameful as the villain who tricked him into taking an oath." He stepped away and let the others rush over to help the unfortunate commander. When he leaped off the log he came face to face with the Doctor.
"What?" He asked, when he noticed that the other Timelord kept his eyes fixed on him accusingly. "Don't you have something more urgent to do than to chastise me?" He added with a mocking smile. "Your orange friend is still sinking away pretty fast."
"After what you have just done, I do wonder, do you still know how it feels be ashamed?" The Doctor said to him, reproachful of his actions.
The emotionless smile on the Master's stretched to a wide Cheshire cat grin. "Do I look that weak to you Doctor, to know the meaning of such a word?"
He slapped him mockingly on his shoulder. The Doctor didn't react. He couldn't. Any sympathy he had for him had suddenly turned into stone. While the others were trying to get ser Titanis to safety, the Master left and went back to the camp by his own. There he discovered the coil of rope around the base of the tree where he had bound the old man. The fibers had been chewed through, and their prisoner had vanished.
Hi there! Alan here. I regularly check my visitor statistics and wondered where all you guys who read my stories are from. If you have time, please leave a comment to let me know...I am just curious!