(Note: my attempt to do a new Eccleston sketch was a disaster, so I'm afraid I cheated and grabbed an old one, hence the difference in style. I may try to insert a new Ecc pic at a later date. For 'this is not an adventure' disclaimer and background notes, see part 1)
Part 1 here
From the Novitiate Diary of Quindeci-Novus-Hortus, Year of Grace 1297:
Is the universe under the watchful eye of some greater intelligence? I don’t mean the phantoms some of the Sororiate talk to, of course. I just wonder sometimes if there isn’t…something guiding our steps.
I gathered my things and ran away from the Cenobate today. It was in the deepest part of the night, the very hour that Nono-Dam left us, two years ago. I have often found myself awake at that time.
It was impossible for me to go without saying a final goodbye to the Aeturnums, even though in my five years of tending them I’ve never betrothed myself to one of them. Or they to me. I’ve never been sure whether it was a mutual aversion.
I could follow the path without hesitation by the light of the stars and moons, and it was not long before I could see the shimmer of the lake, and the faint outlined peak of The Vigilea beyond. But as I drew closer to the water, there was a sound that I could not identify at first, so out of place it seemed there, by the garden. Eventually I realised it was the sound of someone sobbing.
The sound, so seldom heard, already disturbed me, but a tremor ran through my entire body as I suddenly felt certain that it was not a member of the Sororiate I could hear. The wretched sound came unmistakably from a male throat.
I stood for a few minutes, unsure whether to skirt the garden and go on my way. I could just make out the shape of the man, huddled by the Aeturnum bed. His sobbing subsided a little, and, drawn by a feeling I cannot adequately explain, I moved closer.
He heard me and raised his head. His hair was obviously close-cropped from the rounded silhouette I saw; I wondered briefly if he might be a brother from some other order. But there was no way any of the Fraternae could have come here.
I stopped a little distance from him. ‘I…did not mean to intrude on your…’ I had no idea how to describe what I had heard. ‘Is there anything…anything that I… or perhaps I might fetch one of the Sisters…?’
He applied the shining sleeves of his dark jacket vigorously to his eyes; two quick wipes, and he looked up. ‘No. Thanks. I was…I…’ He made a quick gesture with his hand, and fell silent.
I stood, not moving, not knowing what I should do.
Without warning, he climbed to his feet. ‘I’m sorry, I…you must be here to meditate, or…I should get out of your way.’
‘No.’ I desperately wanted to pour out my sufferings to someone; I was seized by a powerful urge to tell him what I was doing, to ask for his understanding, his absolution. But I managed to keep silent.
‘I feel in the way now,’ he said. ‘Wherever I am. I’ve never felt that way before. Like I…like I shouldn’t be here.’
He inclined his head slightly. ‘You too? I’m sorry.’ I spread my hands slightly, shrugging, and he nodded. Then he lowered his head, an involuntary movement, and I felt something surge in my throat at the mere sight of his hunched shoulders. I had been feeling that the weight of my years at the Cenobate was more than any one person could bear, but I knew at once that the burden I carried was nothing beside his.
I heard him catch another sob in his throat, and he lifted his head again, his movements artificially brisk. ‘Came here because it…it always helps. Well, usually. But…this time…the peace here only…’
‘This is a good place for solitude,’ I said. ‘But a terrible one for loneliness.’
A long, harsh breath shuddered out of him. I could not see his face clearly, but the starlight glinted wetly in his eyes as he faced me, swaying like a man who wanted to run but who was rooted to the spot. I stood quite still, knowing that he needed to speak, knowing that anything from me would silence him at once.
He spun away from me. ‘I couldn’t save them…’ He took two steps, and I could feel the patient discomfort of the Aeturnums as he stepped on the edge of the bed. Perhaps he felt it too, despite his anguish, for he drew back quickly. ‘They’re all gone…they’re…’ He looked towards me again, and seemed to lose his balance, dropping to his knees. I watched him surrender, his shoulders hunching again and his head dipping, and then I was beside him on the ground, clutching him tight. He gave in to his grief again, and clung to me.
We sat together a long time. The night crept away and sun-view came upon us as we sat. His breathing had slowed, and eventually, by some unspoken mutual consent, we withdrew from the desperate embrace. He sat forward, hugging his own knees. In the pale morning light I could see a face full of energy beneath a high, lined forehead, deep blue eyes hemmed in by a strong brow, and a prominent nose.
‘I’m sorry.’ He did not look at me. ‘Whatever you came here for, I bet it wasn’t this.’
‘No matter.’ I found I could barely remember why I had come out in the night.
He drew in a heavy breath. ‘I’ll be all right now. I can…’ He stopped speaking, his attention caught by something in front of him.
I saw it. A flower, turned towards him in defiance of the rest. A bright blue flower. I knew it well. And yet…a trick of the morning light, perhaps, but it now seemed to me a different shade of blue than previously.
He put his head on one side. ‘Have we met?’ he asked, apparently of the Aeturnum. Then his eyes narrowed and he sat up a little straighter. ‘Of course we have. I remember…’
I knew that flower, so I hastened to correct him. ‘There was another visitor, some years ago. I don’t know why that bloom should turn to you…’
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
It took me a moment to recollect myself. ‘I am Quindeci-Novus-Hortus.’
‘That’s not a name, that’s a title. Who are you? Is your name…Florence? You look like a Florence…’
‘Quindeci-Novus-Hortus. It is the only name I have now.’
‘So what would you have called yourself if you had run away?’
I stared at him. He smiled; a quick movement, not opening his mouth. ‘Well then, Quindeci-Novus-Hortus, let me point something out to you. I’m not the only one who got the attention of the Aeturnums.’
He extended a finger. One of the flowers was open towards me, and the petals were a steely gray.
‘Perfect match, I’d say.’ He was looking from my eyes to the flower. ‘And it wasn’t like that last night—am I right?’
I shook my head, unable to speak. I had not been near enough to the bed, had never looked directly at the flowers. This was an impossibility. Perhaps someone else had been here just before the previous sun-drop…
‘I am right, aren’t I? Hortus…’ He was musing. His eyes turned to me. ‘Yes, you’re the gardener here. I’d almost forgotten. And you’ve never embraced with one of Aeturnums.’ He was speaking matter-of-factly, but even the gaze of the Septo-Dam was not more penetrating. ‘Were you always going to run away? You’ve never been happy? How old are you?’
I drew myself up slightly. ‘That is a lot of questions for one who has no right to be in this place.’
‘And that’s a good way of not answering any of them.’ He looked at me for a moment longer, then jumped to his feet and held out a hand, offering to help me up. I let him pull me to a standing position. He kept hold of my hand – which was an odd feeling, an unusual sensation in my life now – looked at our clasped fingers for a moment, then turned his eyes to the surrounding landscape. ‘This is the most beautiful place I know—but it’s a bit boring after a while.’ He gestured over his shoulder. ‘Other side of that slope, I’ve got the doorway to the whole of the universe—and all of history. Come with me. You won’t be running away from anything—you’ll be running towards everything.’
He dropped my hand, and turned away. ‘But here’s the thing.’ He spun back. ‘I think Quindeci means you’re fifteen. In some parts of the universe, that makes you a minor. Caela, Caela…can’t remember. But then, I never was big on rules…’
‘It does not matter,’ I said.
‘Not to you, maybe, but you won’t get hauled off by a Judoon squad for child trafficking, will you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I mean, it does not matter. Because I am staying.’
‘Oh?’ He folded his arms. There was a sudden twinkle in his eyes, as if he was keeping something, some knowledge, from me. ‘That’s a bit sudden, from someone who’s been thinking about running away for years. Any particular reason?’
Without thinking I lowered my eyes to the flowers.
‘Oh, so the first plant that winks at you…’ He shifted balance, still watching me, still with his arms crossed. ‘Why did you never bond with one before?’
‘I do not know. Because…because I never felt I belonged here…?’
‘But you do now?’
‘I…last night was the first…’ I was not sure how to put it. ‘No one comes here except me. The…Sisters, once, when they arrive, to choose a flower. No one else.’ I remembered the man and woman from five years before, and hesitated. But sometimes I felt I must have dreamed them. I forced myself to continue: ‘Then you were here, and you were in pain, and…I do not know, for the first time it felt like this was my place, and you had come here because you needed something. And the Aeturnums could not give you…everything.’ I crouched slowly, looking at the newly-grey flower. ‘I did not know this was possible. It must have…somehow, because of the strength of the feeling, perhaps…’
On the edge of my vision, he nodded thoughtfully. For some moments neither of us spoke. ‘I am sorry,’ I said. ‘I would like to go, it sounds…it sounds wonderful, but I cannot, not now.’ I stood. ‘What about you? You have lost…’ I realised I had no idea. And I could not ask him about it.
I tried something simpler. ‘Do you have a home?’
‘No. Yes. What there is, is over the other side of that slope.’
‘And nowhere else? No…favourite place?’
Almost at once, he smiled to himself. ‘Matter of fact, there is.’
‘Do you have any reason not to go there?’
He let out a breath, and did not look at me. Then he shook his head. He straightened his shoulders, looked squarely at me, then dropped to squat by the flower. He looked at it for a few seconds, then pushed himself up. ‘Well, Quindeci-Novus-Hortus, I think I’ve disrupted your life quite enough for today. But I’ll come back. Or…forward.’
He gave me another of those lightning smiles, this time with his teeth, then turned away.
‘I do not know your name,’ I said.
I smiled. ‘That is only a title.’
‘It’s the only name I have now.’
I watched him until he was out of sight. Then I turned back and took the long path to the Cenobate, pausing only when I caught the echo of some strange, distant sound that seemed familiar from long ago.
From the Meditation Daybook of Viginti-Discipulus-Hortus, Year of Grace 1307:
The storm inflicted such damage on the Cenobate that I felt more than a little guilty excusing myself to check on the Aeturnum beds. But the Octo-Dam said to me: ‘If the body of the Sororiate is the building, the soul lies there beside the lake.’ She even offered me the help of one of the other Sisters, but I told her I would manage.
I was glad I had done so. When I came over the final slope I found others there, doing the work I had set for myself. A man and two young women were setting about smoothing the earth around the flowers, removing the pieces of flotsam that had been carried by the tornado, and shoring up the stalks of the blooms that had been all but broken by the raging wind. I approached cautiously. The man seemed to be directing the others. He was tall, with fair hair and light-coloured clothing; a thin coat seemed hardly enough protection against the evening’s bitter cold. The women in contrast were both almost buried in heavy coats that seemed too big for them, as if they had borrowed them from others. But there was no one else to be seen; nor could I tell how these people had arrived.
The woman furthest from me – short brown hair, and with features of some beauty and strength of character – was the first to see me. She straightened and tried to reach the man’s shoulder, while keeping her eyes on me. I judged her to be a few years older than I was.
Being unable to reach her companion, she spoke. ‘Doctor.’
The word stirred something in my memory. But before I had time to think the man looked up at the woman, followed her eyes and stood up. ‘Ah.’ He brushed his hands together, made to give them a final wipe on his coat, stopped himself, then gave me a beaming smile which made him look almost younger than his companion. He extended a hand as he came forward. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to interfere…’
At this the woman who had alerted him made a sound something like ‘Hmmph.’
‘…but some of them were in danger of dying if we didn’t perform a little horticultural surgery.’
He continued to hold out his hand. I recognised the gesture from somewhere, and took it. He gave a firm squeeze. ‘I’m the Doctor. This is Tegan,’ he indicated the standing woman, ‘and Nyssa.’
The young woman still tending the bed was looking up. Her face was round, her softly curling brown hair down to her shoulders, but there was a calm intelligence in her eyes that countered the impression of innocence. She was a little younger. ‘Hello.’ She returned her attention to the Aeturnums.
The man released my hand, then pulled his back quite quickly and looked at it as if remembering it was slightly dirty. ‘Ah.’ He looked up at me with an apologetic smile. ‘And you are…?’
‘That’s a mouthful,’ said the woman called Tegan. ‘What do they call you for short?’
I struggled to think. The Sororiate still frowned on informality. ‘Hortus,’ I said eventually, with a little shrug.
‘Gardener,’ said the man to Tegan. He turned a pleasant gaze on me. ‘An honourable profession.’
‘As is medicine.’
‘Ah. Well, I don’t…exactly…’ he appeared somewhat at a loss.
‘He fixes all sorts,’ said Tegan with a smile.
‘Including gardens, it seems.’ Then I remembered what had drawn me to this place, and I moved to the Aeturnums, to the end of the bed. The man – the Doctor – seemed to sense what I was looking for; I could tell he was watching me with a slight sense of expectancy.
Both flowers had survived. The slender brown bloom that had embraced the beautiful young woman, and my favourite Aeturnum, the impossible one that seemed to respond to more than one person. The latter was currently a shade of blue I had not seen before, and it was directed towards…
I looked up at the Doctor. In the dying light it was difficult to see the colour of his eyes. He straightened his mouth in a kind of sympathetic grimace, and his hands slipped past his open coat and buried themselves in his trouser pockets. ‘Was the Cenobate badly damaged by the storm?’
‘Y-you know the Cenobate?’
‘I was there once. With a…a friend.’ He seemed distracted for a moment.
I stood up. ‘No men are permitted to visit the Cenobate.’
His hands popped out of his pockets in a conciliatory gesture. ‘No. Quite. My mistake.’ He lifted his fair, almost invisible brows. ‘Perhaps they will be one day, eh..?’
‘How did you get here?’ I immediately regretted the harsh, inquisitorial tone of my question. ‘No one comes here.’ Again, at once, mild regret; I reflected that this was not true. Not quite. ‘No one is supposed to be here. No knows of this place.’
He nodded, drawing in a deep breath and looking to where the sun-drop was silhouetting the Vigilea. ‘One of the last unspoiled spots in the universe. Don’t worry, we’ll keep your secret.’
Tegan moved closer. ‘What do you actually do here? I mean, apart from water a few flowers. Admire the scenery?’
I saw the Doctor and the girl called Nyssa exchange glances.
‘We are a contemplative order.’
‘So, you sit around and think? About what?’
‘What are those?’ said the Doctor loudly before I could answer. He pointed towards the Memoriam Steps, bringing a hand into the middle of Tegan’s back and guiding her gently. ‘Shall we have a look?’
Tegan twisted clear. ‘It’s bad enough here—if you think I’m going out on slippery wet rocks in these heels…’ Beneath the huge furry overcoat she wore I could see boots that rose at the back, balancing on a sharp point and holding her feet at an unnatural angle.
‘Well, I’m going to have a look.’ The Doctor hovered as if hoping she would follow him, but after a moment or two admitted defeat and strode off.
‘Well.’ Tegan looked at the ground. ‘After that not-so-subtle attempt to head me off I guess I’d better not ask you any more questions.’
‘We have nothing to hide concerning our life here. Ask whatever you wish.’
‘No, it’s not…’ She shrugged. ‘The Doctor was right, I would have just started telling you to get off this rock.’ She looked down at Nyssa, who was still rescuing bent stems and half-buried blooms. ‘Funny sort of a garden, just one type of flower. Even if they are a special sort.’
Tegan looked at me. ‘What for?’
‘The Doctor has explained what the Aeturnums are?’
‘Then choose one. Kneel, and bring your face close to it.’
I saw that Nyssa had already bonded with one of the blooms, which stood in attendance on her as she worked.
Tegan turned away from the bed. ‘No thanks. I sort of like being itchy.’
‘Restless. Prickly. Your flowers have no thorns; you need thorns to survive.’
I gestured at the bed. ‘Apparently not. Besides, the Aeturnums do not change who you are. They do not change anything – not permanently. That can only come from you.’
‘Sure. Ok. It’s still “no thanks”.’ She walked away from the flowers as if to underline her point and then paused, looking at the figure of the Doctor as he reached the last of the steps. I looked towards Nyssa, who went imperturbably on with her work. I knew I should help her, but I went to stand beside Tegan.
The Doctor stood, hands in pockets, looking out over the water. I thought of the lonely man I had encountered a decade ago. ‘Where is his home?’ I asked Tegan.
‘That’s a good question. Not where he came from, that’s for sure.’
At her request I described the man I had met. She turned her mouth down and shook her head. ‘Dunno.’ She looked up at the figure on the water. ‘Never thought of him as lonely, exactly, but now you say it…cut off from his own people…if he has a home, it has to be the TARDIS.’ At my look, she added: ‘A sort of ship.’
‘That is how you came here? But…where is it?’
Tegan nodded at one of the west slopes. ‘Over there a little way. He can’t always control exactly where we land. I’m impressed he got us here, frankly. More successful than his efforts at getting me home.’
‘And where is your home?’
She was silent for a few seconds. ‘Aah, I’m not sure any more. Some places are…comforting because they’re familiar, y’know?…but you can still feel like you don’t belong. You know what I mean?’
I nodded, without meeting her eyes. ‘I know.’
The Doctor was coming back along the steps. As if by mutual consent we began walking to join him. A few paces on I recalled my duty and half-turned back towards the bed, but Tegan put a hand on my arm and smiled. ‘Let her do it. Nyssa’s good at getting things in order. She likes it.’
One becomes used to not being touched; it is one of the conditions of life in the Cenobate. It leaves you unprepared for the experience when it occurs unexpectedly. The simple pressure of a hand on my arm almost took away my ability to stand. Tegan saw me sway, and stepped around to support me with her other hand. For a moment, her hands were all that held me upright. But I had to push her away, so strong was the temptation to wrap my arms around her and hide my face against her coat. She stared at me uncertainly as we stood a little way apart. I lifted my hands. ‘I am sorry.’ Shaking the Doctor’s hand had not affected me like this. I knew why. I took a step back.
‘You all right?’
I drew in a deep breath. The Doctor was approaching, and I fought to compose myself. I forced myself to nod at Tegan. ‘I have had little sleep because of the storm. And…no breakfast.’
‘You want to look after yourself better.’
I managed a smile.
The Doctor stopped beside me. ‘Well, I feel like we’ve taken up enough of your time. I’m sure you have things to do. At least Nyssa has been some help to you.’
‘Well, as you said, we’re really not meant to be here at all.’
‘This is my garden—my responsibility. I am giving you permission to stay.’
He looked at me as if aware of more than my words. ‘Thank you. But I really do think we should be on our way.’
Did he sense the danger if they stayed? Did he sense the sudden upheaval within me? I looked at Tegan. ‘Will you do one thing for me, if you must go?’
‘What is it?’
‘Find a flower; let it find you.’
She looked at me for a second, then dropped her eyes, shrugged. ‘Okay.’ She lifted her head again, held my eyes – did she read what I tried desperately to keep hidden? – and then turned away towards the bed.
‘She rails against everyone else,’ said the Doctor as we watched her crouch beside Nyssa, ‘but it’s her own helplessness that she hates, when things get…difficult. She wants to be strong all the time.’
‘She will not let herself feel at home.’
He sighed. ‘No. I think she’s stopped wanting to go back, but she doesn’t know how to go forward.’
Tegan looked a little awkward as she cupped her hands around one of the Aeturnums.
‘The very first humans I took with me,’ said the Doctor, seemingly to himself, ‘wanted to get back home, at first. I couldn’t manage it for a very long time. But I don’t think they regretted the time they spent with me. I hope she won’t, either.’
‘She chooses to stay, now?’
‘Yes, I think so.’ A pause. ‘Yes,’ he said, more definitely.
‘Then you are not responsible for her happiness. She is.’ I turned my eyes to him. ‘You should look to your own peace of mind.’
‘Oh, I’m all r…’ He found it impossible to finish. He gave me a bright, slightly artificial smile. ‘We all do what we must to get by. Now, we really should be getting out of your way.’
Nyssa and Tegan had both risen to their feet by the time he joined them. Nyssa waved, the Doctor gave me a smile, and they moved towards the western slopes. Tegan stood for a moment, hugging her coat more closely around her. She raised a hand slightly; I did the same. She walked away.
I hoped she would find a place she could call home.
It was cold. The last light was dying over the horizon. I went to the Aeturnums. I stood for a while looking at the newest to take on its own unique hue, a deep warm brown.
Nyssa had cleared and tidied the bed as well as anyone could have done. I knew I should get back to the Cenobate; there was much to be done there.
I sat down beside the brown flower.
Part 3 here