Home-Thoughts From AbroadCharacters
: Nyssa, FivePrompt
: 13, yellowWord Count
: PGAuthor's Notes: Nyssa finds a piece of home in the Forest of Cheem
It reminded her of the festival days at home, when all Traken would pour into the streets and gardens. That was the only other time when she had seen so many people gathered in the one place, and felt such joy and contentment from a crowd. She had quickly lost the Doctor in the confusion, but that was all right; if he got himself into trouble she’d find out soon enough, and in the meantime she found a sunny patch of ground and settled to wait.
The forest stretched as far as she could see in any direction. Children chased one another through the trees and up into the branches; most of them were barefoot, like the adults, and Nyssa slipped off her own shoes and enjoyed the feel of the warm, soft grass. She wasn’t quite so comfortable as to join the ranks of those who were stripping off their clothes altogether, but when any of them called out to her she smiled back and thanked them.
She had never seen so many species, or so many different skin patterns and feathers and fur. One of the children in a tree nearby fell, and twisted to land on his paws. A reptilian scuttled past her, fussing over its dozen or so children and begging forgiveness when the smallest nipped curiously at her toes. A woman with pale blue skin flecked with delicate red spots sat beside her and said, “You’re not lonely, are you? You’re quite lovely. It would be a terrible thing if you were lonely.”
Nyssa laughed, flushing a little in the heat. “Thank you, but I’m not lonely. I’m waiting for a friend, but you’re welcome to talk to me until he arrives. I’m Nyssa.”
The woman gave a little bow. “Puli.” Her dress was gathered together at the front into a pouch, and she plucked tiny flowers from it and began to thread them together at the stems. Nyssa lay back on the grass and watched her six-fingered hands until the speed of the movement made her dizzy, and then she went back to watching the people instead. What she had taken for a statue suddenly yawned, and she jumped, then laughed at herself.
“I knew a planet,” she said, to cover her disquiet, “so pure that anything evil would turn to stone the moment it touched the ground.”
“If it’s fairy stories you’re after, I know one about the wolf who dressed in human skin and danced at the Arch-Emperor’s ball.” Her new friend regarded her. “If you don’t mind me asking, what are you? I’ve never seen anyone who looked like you, and I’ve seen a lot of strange people today.”
Calling herself Trakenite would mean too many questions she didn’t want to answer. “Human,” she said.
Puli looked at her oddly. “Well, we’re all that, my love. You mean you’re from one of the old colonies, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes,” she bluffed, and was saved from either a clumsy lie or a painful truth when Puli said, “That must be your friend, then. He looks your species.”
She sat up and watched the Doctor wend his way through the crowd, dodging some people and apologising to others. “Yes,” she said with a smile. “That’s the Doctor.”
“Funny names your people have got for yourselves. There, it’s done.”
A deft movement of fingers in her hair and Nyssa was wearing a crown of flowers. “Very fetching,” the Doctor said as he reached her side.
“Thank you. Did you find out where we are?”
“The Forest of Cheem.”
The Doctor rocked back on his heels. This was, Nyssa had learned, generally a sign that something had gone wrong. “Approximately five billion years after your era.”
It was too big a number too comprehend. She’d become used to treating travelling centuries, even millennia, as if she were crossing a courtyard. Timescales on which stars lived and died were unfathomable.
“I didn’t know the TARDIS could go so far,” she murmured, and wasn’t reassured when the Doctor said that neither had he.
“I’m amazed the time rotor wasn’t permanently damaged,” he said. “And we could be in quite a lot of trouble if the Time Lords find out about this, so we’d better not mention my name while we’re here, hmm?”
“Oh.” Nyssa gestured guiltily at Puli, who was staring between them as if she suspected this was some sort of street performance. “I already told…”
“I have no idea what either of you are talking about,” Puli said. “You’re possibly mad. But I’ve never heard of any Time Lords, if that helps.”
“Thank you,” the Doctor told her. “Now, if I might borrow Nyssa?”
“She’s no-one’s,” he said cordially. “Only her own. Excuse us.”
Nyssa picked up her shoes and followed him, with a quick smile of apology and thanks to Puli. She turned to wave at her as they walked away, but the crowd closed over behind them and she was quickly out of sight.
The Doctor, she noted, hadn’t followed everyone else and gone barefoot. He hadn’t even taken off his jacket, though he turned his hat between his hands as they walked.
“Are you worried?” she asked. “About the Time Lords, I mean.”
“There are very good reasons why my people don’t travel this far.” One last twist, and he put the hat on his head, brushed a few strands of grass from the brim. “At least, they’ve always insisted there are. Something about not knowing too much of our own future. Anyway, they’d be upset about it, to put it mildly.”
“If they find out.”
“Ah, and there, as they say, is the rub. We can leave straight away, find somewhere a little less illegal, and nobody will be any the wiser, how’s that?”
“Oh?” He looked sidelong at her. “You don’t want to leave.”
“It isn’t that,” she protested. “I know we’re not supposed to be here, and it’s important that we leave, but…” She stopped. They had been moving against the flow of people and now they were alone in one of the forest’s clearings. The grass was dotted with blue flowers. Lines of tiny lights were strung across the lower branches of the silver-leaved trees. If she closed her eyes and just breathed in, she might be back on Traken. “It’s lovely here.”
“It’s a beautiful place. Tranquil. Unspoiled.” He sighed. “Despite the best efforts of some of the people at the festival.”
She smiled at the image of him giving inconsiderate litter-droppers a stern ticking off. “It is a festival, then. I thought so.”
“The forest is flowering. Every tree, all together, just for a few weeks. Apparently it only happens once in a thousand years or so. Beings from all over the galaxy – from all the galaxies – make the pilgrimage here to watch, or pray, or marry, or,” he cleared his throat, “whatever strikes them as appropriate.”
The crown of flowers was tickling her ears, and she eased it off her head, wrapped the chain around her hand. “I don’t expect Puli wanted to pray with me,” she said. “Or marry me. Yellow flowers. I would have worn these on my wrists and around my neck, if I’d married on Traken.” The Doctor rarely volunteered information about his past or his people, and she never asked, but it was suddenly, inexplicably important: “Do people wear flowers for weddings on Gallifrey? Are
there weddings on Gallifrey?”
“Weddings on Gallifrey mean days of speeches from very old, dull men desperate to pretend that the only reason people might consider marriage is to ally themselves with another House.” He touched one of the tiny flowers. The petals fell away and drifted to the ground. “Yellow flowers are for funerals.” A small, wistful smile. “Do you know, before I left home I’d hardly ever seen them.”
She thought of Adric, who had never had flowers. She wondered what she would have done, if she’d had the choice between the whole universe or a safe, dull home.
“Nyssa, we can stay a little longer if you’d like,” the Doctor said. “At least until nightfall, it couldn’t make much difference.”
She took a deep breath and held it, soaking in the perfumed air. “No,” she said, “I’m all right. Let’s go back to the TARDIS.”
It was easier said than done.
“This is the path,” Nyssa said. “I know it’s the path, but we’re going in circles.”
“The paths move.” The Doctor said it as if it was obvious, already wheeling left. “The trees rearrange themselves. A bit like the rooms in the TARDIS, don’t you think?”
She found herself jogging to keep up with him. “How do you know?”
“I talked to some of the Trees.”
It wasn’t an answer she had been expecting. “You talked to the…”
“Trees.” He grinned at her. “Sentient trees! Didn’t you notice? No, I suppose they were keeping away from the visitors. A very peaceful, very private people. Born rooted in the soil; they don’t walk for centuries, and when they get old they slow down again. A return to their roots, so to speak.” He stopped so suddenly she almost ran into him, and whispered, “There.”
There was a garden, just off the path and half hidden in the trees. A figure, cloaked in a robe of grass and moss, moved among the flowers.
Nyssa moved like a sleepwalker, hardly aware she was leaving the path and that the Doctor was calling after her. She sank to her knees beside the bank of flowers, staring at one in particular. The petals were white, edged with orange that made it look as if the flower was being eaten by flames.
“This is from Traken,” she said.
“My lady?” The creature’s voice was feminine. Nyssa looked up and saw that beneath the cowl it – she – had lively eyes set in a rough bark face. At any other moment she would have been startled, delighted even, to find herself talking to a being so different to anything she’d encountered, but there were more important things now.
“My mother used to grow these,” she said. “They were her favourite flower. But that was five billion years ago, and Traken was destroyed, so how can it be here?”
“Coincidence.” The Doctor was at her back, his fingers just brushing her shoulder. “In an infinite universe, with infinite variety…”
“We remember Traken,” the tree-woman said, her voice low, melodic. “The people of Cheem remember all the worlds that were.”
“But this flower,” Nyssa persisted, “where did it come from?”
She inclined her head in what Nyssa realised was something like a shrug. “An offworlder brought the first flower when I was a sapling, Daughter of Traken. I kept it alive.”
“Thank you.” She looked up at the woman and tried to smile past the fist in her throat. “Thank you for that.”
“Could you be so kind as to point the way back to our travel-machine? It’s a blue box, about so high. I’m rather afraid that if I stay still here for too long I’ll begin to put down roots myself.”
Nyssa barely listened as the Tree gave him directions. She was remembering her mother’s smile, her father’s quiet wisdom; she was thinking of garlands in the trees at festival time and the Melkur in the gardens and a childhood spent without knowledge of nightmares or evil or violent death.
She took a single petal between her thumb and forefinger, and remembered home.
“Shall we?” the Doctor said. He reached out to help her up and his hand, when she clasped it in hers, was cool and smooth as stone.
The Trees have their own stories, held deep in their rings and their roots, and their young move in the world and talk only in sounds; but the old Trees grip the earth, and remember in silence.
They remember a woman whose world had died, who came to the Forest by a winding path and stayed only a little while. She knelt beneath their branches and thought of the life she had lost, and did not cry.
(Some say there was another with her; a man she loved, though not her father, or her husband. His name is not remembered.)
They whisper of a daughter of Cheem who died with the Earth, and they say among themselves that this was fitting because her given name meant
beloved of the Sun.(Some, though not all, say that when she was a sapling barely freed from the ground the Forest bloomed and an offworlder came. Jabe had never seen fleshkind and she hid herself among the trees, but he followed her and he said, don’t be afraid, and he gave her two flowers, saying, these are from worlds that don’t exist, and I don’t need them any more. She planted the flowers in her own garden and tended both, the one that was white and re-grew year after year, and the one that bloomed yellow only for a single day.
A very few say that it bloomed on the day she died; they also claim that the stranger kissed her as he took his leave.)
And the very oldest of the trees, those whose roots stretch too deep to ever move again, remember the world where the yellow flowers grew, and the war that burned them to ash.
They remember the name of the last, the one without roots, the god who walked by himself.
But they speak only to one another, and that only in the barest ripple of the breeze, and so his secrets are kept.