In 2005 I was lucky enough to contribute a Doctor Who short story to a Christmas-themed anthology from Big Finish – Short Trips: A History of Christmas , which was edited by Simon Guerrier. It’s long out of print, and I certainly can’t charge for it, but I don’t think there’s any rule against me giving it away. So here is some free stuff – my first published short story, an adventure for the seventh Doctor and Ace.
I have measured out my penitence in Christmases.
It was Christmas day when they bricked me up in my cell at the back of the church. The choir were making the most beautiful music. The congregation prayed for my good health and gave thanks for my sacrifice as the mason laid the bricks that sealed me in, leaving only a small window through which I could receive food and water.
It was an honour to serve the people of this parish as their anchorite. I became part of the fabric of their church, fasting and praying for the safety of the community that had raised me. I was their talisman, their totem, their good luck charm. My offering served to insure the village from pestilence and famine and drought and war. As long as I remained in my cell, praising the Lord and begging his mercy, my charges in the world outside would remain safe. No calamity would befall them.
Even now, so many years later, I still ask myself what it was about me that was not worthy…
‘You are… welcome. Are you… are you an angel?’
‘No. Far from it. Too far, sometimes. I am just a man trying to do the right thing.’
‘You say that as if you find it difficult.’
‘More and more, these days. People keep dying.’
Christmas has changed so much since my penitence began. The rituals, the songs, the prayers are all different. Protestantism holds sway now, and a poor anchorite, a relic of Catholicism, is ignored, an uncomfortable reminder of days past.
I do not speak to my congregation any more. I abide in my cell and watch them worship, waiting for a chance to atone. A chance that finally came this morning, this Christmas morning, when the Demon came to Little Brockton.
It arrived in a flash of hellfire and brimstone. The heavy oak doors of the church, so solid for so many centuries, cracked and split and burst inwards with a stench of sulphur. The Demon emerged from the smoke, striding down the aisle towards the altar.
It was a giant, nearly six feet tall, clad in armour that was scarred and mottled from its time in the Pit. Its face was blood red, and horns rose from its temples, twisting about its skull like streamers of bone.
In its hand it held what I took to be a pistol of some kind, which it raised and pointed at the priest. A tongue of flame leapt from the weapon and our priest was gone, sucked into a column of smoke and drawn down into the depths of hell itself.
‘You… will…be… SILENT!’ The demon howled at the villagers, who screamed and wailed and cowered in their pews.
‘SILENT!’ It cried again, and the wailing subsided to a faint sobbing of prayer and supplication.
I wondered if once again I was going to have to watch my community die in torment as I sat helpless to intervene.
‘Death is God’s judgement, it comes to us all.’
‘Hmmm. I suppose you’re wondering what all that was about.’
‘I do not wonder. I watch, I wait, I pray.’
‘Pray for what?’
‘Absolution for my crimes.’
‘Or what?’ shouted a voice from outside. A man of normal height stepped through the wreckage of the church doors and walked to the aisle. ‘What exactly do you think you’re going to do? Where precisely do you imagine you’re going to run to?’
The newcomer was dressed in a cream suit of the most uncommon cut. A red neck tie dangled from his collar and a straw hat sat atop his head. In his hand he held a walking stick with black cloth furled around it, the purpose of which I was unable to divine. His voice had the faintest burr of Scots to it, and his gaze darted hither and thither, absorbing the details of his surroundings.
For one instant his sight fell on the small window to my cell, the tiny opening through which I was observing these events. His eyes narrowed and his head cocked slightly to one side, as if in curiosity, or recognition. The wisdom, the depth, the compassion in that momentary glance was like a balm to me. This was no ordinary man.
As the fog of smoke from the Demon’s entrance dissipated they stood there, facing each other along the church’s long aisle – the Demon and the man – flanked by my congregation, ranged left and right in their pews, too terrified to move.
The man stood still, casually leaning on his stick. The Demon hunched its shoulders and breathed heavily, like a cornered animal. It raised its weapon and pointed it first at the pews to the left, then those at its right.
‘It’s over, don’t you see that?’ said the man, and in his tone of voice he seemed almost to pity the Demon. ‘Your plan has failed, your fleet is destroyed, your troops are gone. There’s no-one left. There’s just you. You and your gun,’ he spat the word with the utmost contempt. ‘Can you really hope to conquer a world on your own, with nothing but a single weapon?’
The Demon ceased its wavering, slowly raised itself to its full height, and stared the man straight in the eye.
‘I no longer need to conquer the whole world, Doctor,’ it said. ‘I only need to conquer you.’
He raised his gun and aimed it squarely at the man’s – the Doctor’s – chest.
‘What crimes could you possibly have committed, my friend?’
‘The greatest crime an anchorite can. I was unworthy.’
‘Of what, of whom?’
‘Of my congregation. They died, Doctor. They all died.’
The Demon paused, confused.
‘Sorry,’ said the Doctor. ‘Just struck me as ironic.’
The Demon’s gun wavered.
‘Yes. You came here to conquer the world in order to bring the rule of your gods to its people, to purify them and make them holy, and here you are, committing murder in a temple.’
The Demon gasped.
‘Yes,’ replied the Doctor. ‘Look around you. This is a holy place. This is where the people of this community come to worship their God.’
‘They have gods?’ It seemed shocked.
‘No, well, not hereabouts, anyway. No, here they worship just the one God.’
The Demon’s hideous, misshapen face appeared to register disgust.
‘One God? Only one? Heathens. Peasants. Our gods would strike them down for such blasphemy.’
‘Yes, I suppose they would,’ said the Doctor, ‘but here you are in the house of their God. You’ve killed their holy man, and you’ve interrupted their worship on the holiest day in their calendar.’
‘You lie,’ spat the Demon.
‘Oh no I don’t. Today is the day they call Christmas. It’s the day they celebrate the birth of their God, the day they believe he came to save them. From the monsters. Monsters like you.’
The Demon appeared confused, uncertain how to respond to this information. And as it stood there, looking around at the plain church walls that surrounded it, the relics of Catholicism long since stripped away by the puritan zeal for simplicity, I realised that it was afraid.
The Doctor pressed his advantage, walking slowly down the aisle towards the Demon, his echoing footsteps punctuating his pronouncements.
‘He is a powerful God, you know. More powerful than yours. Yours just pop up every now and then, zap a few sacrifices to keep you in line, tell you which world to conquer next, and then pop off again.’
The Doctor continued his wary progress towards the increasingly agitated Demon. The parishioners sat on either side of him, hands clasped together in mute, terrified prayer.
‘The God of this world is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful,’ he said. ‘If you continue to defile his holy place he will surely strike you down.’
And as the Doctor continued to walk towards certain death, I saw the vestry door behind the Demon crack open.
‘How did they die?’
‘You had rather ask why.’
‘All right, why did they die?’
‘Because of me, Doctor. Because of my weakness.’
A face appeared in the doorway, a young girl’s face, round and pleasant. Gently, quietly, ever so softly, the girl pushed the vestry door open and squeezed through into the apse. I realised in an instant what the Doctor was doing. He was distracting the Demon, allowing his acolyte to surprise it from behind.
‘I don’t believe in your God,’ bellowed the Demon. ‘Let him strike me down then, if he is so powerful. Let him come and finish me.’ It raised its pistol and fired once, incinerating Goodwife Baker in the front pew.
The Doctor stopped his advance, appalled.
‘That was unnecessary,’ he said quietly.
By this time the girl had crept out through the choir stall and was standing behind the altar. She looked left and right, frantically, as if searching for escape or… yes, a weapon.
She was clad in striped stockings, heavy boots and a dress that mocked all dignity. Atop this she wore a strange black coat which was covered in sigils of some kind. Her hair had been pulled from her face and tied back, harshly. She was the most unwomanly female I had ever seen.
‘I deny your God, Doctor,’ the Demon cried. ‘I slaughter his followers in his temple and he does nothing. He is a weak God, if he exists at all.’
The Demon stepped forward, emboldened. It strode towards the Doctor until it stood halfway down the church aisle, face to face with its pursuer.
‘Let us see if he can save you now,’ said the Demon, as it reached out one huge clawed hand and wrapped it around the Doctor’s neck. The girl in the apse began to panic. She had lifted an incense burner, its heavy brass weight anchored at the end of a long chain, but the Demon was too far away for her to strike.
The Demon lifted the Doctor off the ground by his throat.
‘And now, Doctor,’ it whispered, ‘you shall die, then so shall all the cattle in this godless temple.’
‘I had been the anchorite of this parish only two months when the plague came. Our chandler was the first to fall, succumbing to infestation on his return from market. I prayed and fasted. I scourged myself almost hourly. It was my task to protect my parishioners from such visitations. But try as I might, the pestilence spread. Every day the congregation dwindled away while I, safe in my cell, remained healthy and untouched. My charges were taken by the Lord and I was preserved, left to watch them die, to witness daily the terrible cost of my own unworthiness. I should have saved them, Doctor, but I could not. I was weak, impure, ungodly. It took a long time for the village to die. Farmer Broadbent was the last to succumb. He brought me my last meal and then sat in the final pew, praying for mercy. He died even as I watched. It was Christmas morning, one year to the day from my internment. I had wrought such devastation. Such devastation in only one year.’
‘It wasn’t your fault. What could you possibly have done?’
‘I should have better tended my immortal soul, Doctor. My purity should have saved them. For if he cannot save the lives of the people in his care, what good is an anchorite? What purpose does he serve before God?’
‘I see. And so you’ve been sitting patiently here ever since. Waiting for a chance to atone.’
‘Yes, Doctor. Waiting. Just waiting. Until today.’
The Doctor’s feet were off the ground, kicking helplessly in the air. He dropped his cloth-bound stick, and it clattered to the floor. The girl shouted something, I did not hear what, and ran forward, but she could not possibly reach the Demon before it snapped the Doctor’s neck. My parishioners cried out in horror once more.
I stood, peering through my cell window, powerless to intervene. What could I do? Unless I could find some way to prevent this slaughter I would have to watch my village perish one more time. Was this to be my punishment? Forced to watch communities rise up and be cut down, time and again, a never-ending cycle, a reminder of my own failures? The thought was so painful to me that, entirely unconsciously, a strangled sob escaped my breast.
And I heard it.
Could it be that I…?
Without hesitation, I bellowed.
‘THERE WILL BE NO MORE DEATH IN MY HOUSE!’
The words burst from me and the sound spiralled up, up into the rafters, caught in the stone and wood of the ancient building, my cry echoed back and forth, its message amplified by the bones of my church. My voice seemed to fill the very air.
The Demon stopped dead, as if encased in ice. It looked terrified.
‘YOU WILL RELEASE MY SERVANT IMMEDIATELY!’
The Demon did so. The Doctor landed cleanly, like a cat, never losing his balance.
‘You see,’ said the Doctor. ‘I told you so. The God of this place is stronger than your petty Godlings. He can destroy you like that.’ He snapped his fingers in the face of the transfixed Demon. ‘Put down your gun,’ he said. ‘It’s over.’
The girl resumed her progress, heavy brass censer dangling from her hands on its chain.
The Demon hesitated. ‘I deny this,’ it said, but its hunched shoulders and staring eyes belied its words. ‘There is no God here. This is more of your trickery.’
‘LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPON, DEMON,’ I shouted, ‘OR I SHALL STRIKE YOU DOWN INTO THE VERY PIT OF HELL.’
The girl crept closer, almost there…
‘You heard him,’ said the Doctor, who had reclaimed his strange stick, and was jabbing its pointed end into the chest of the Demon for emphasis. ‘You’ve seen what your Gods do to their sacrifices. The piles of charred corpses, the screams as the flames consume them. That is nothing compared to what this God will do to you if you defy Him in His house.’
‘Your Gods can’t save you here. You’re on enemy territory.’
I could think of no words to add, so I roared my rage at the rafters, and as the cry of fury echoed around the awestruck Demon’s ears it desperately turned its gaze to the roof, scanning left and right in terror, awaiting the wrath of a God that it now felt sure was about to descend upon it.
At that precise moment the girl swung the heavy censer in a wide arc and smashed it into the back of the Demon’s skull as hard as she could.
The pistol fell to the floor. Unsteady on its feet, the Demon turned to face its attacker, just in time for the censer to strike it once more, square in the face. It stood there for a moment, stunned, and then slowly toppled to the floor, unconscious, my mocking laughter ringing in its ears.
‘Because today you did save them.’
‘Yes. Yes, I did.’
‘Without your intervention I would have been killed, and so would everyone in this church, perhaps even everyone in the world. What was your given name?’
‘Paul. I was christened Paul.’
‘Well, Paul, your words saved your parish. Surely that’s atonement enough? Surely now you can stop waiting.’
‘How long has it been, Doctor? How long have I waited, do you know?’
‘A long time, my friend. Very, very many Christmases. It’s been nearly three hundred, or more, I imagine, since you died.’
‘Three hundred, that many… and can I go now? Am I released from my penance? It is over?’
‘Yes, I think so. Rest now, Paul the anchorite. Rest.’