“Tell me what ye saw.”
The Doctor crept down from the ridge, his face grim. “It’s still out there” he said. “We should get moving if we want to make it to the safe house by dark.”
“No.” Jamie pulled him aside. “Tell me what ye really saw. For their sake.” He gestured to the ragged band of children watching them with wide eyes.
The Doctor sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It’s too close,” he murmured. “It’ll catch us before we can get there. But I can’t tell them that!”
“You’re leading them to their deaths!” Jamie hissed back. “Ye have to tell them something.”
“They have to have hope, Jamie!” the Doctor snapped. A great rumbling sound split the air before he could defend himself any further, sending pebbles rattling down off the cliffside. Polly clutched some of the children closer against her sides – whether for their comfort or hers, Jamie could not tell. “We have to go. Now.”
“Aye, alright. Ye go on ahead.” Jamie turned to the cliff, searching for a suitable foothold. “I’m staying here.”
“You can’t!” Polly exclaimed, her voice trembling.
Ben cut in. “You don’t stand a chance out there, mate -”
“You’ll be killed!” Polly turned to the Doctor, looking at him pleadingly. “Don’t let him go, Doctor, please.”
“I suspect I can’t stop him,” the Doctor said wearily. “Jamie – you do realise that if you go out there, that creature will more than likely kill you, don’t you? You can’t fight something that’s more shadow than living thing.”
“Aye, I know.” Jamie scrambled onto the first ledge, clinging to a protruding spike of rock. To his surprise, he found that he was shaking, though his mind was perfectly calm. “I don’t want tae fight it, just give ye some time to escape. You’ll need it.” Prising his grip off the spike, he pushed himself onto the next ledge. “Go, you’re wasting time.”
The Doctor reached up towards him. “Are you sure about this?” he asked.
Jamie squeezed his hand briefly, then set his sights on the top ridge. “I’m sure,” he said.
“Come off it, Jamie,” Ben said. His voice was steadier than Polly’s, but his face was pale. “We can make it, we don’t need any heroics.”
“This isn’t heroics,” Jamie said. “I’m saving all your skins. Now go!” The Doctor nodded and shepherded Ben, Polly, and the children down the path, but quickly returned to the cliff, clearly unwilling to leave. “I’m not going tae come down, Doctor.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” the Doctor said. “I know you’re determined to do this, even if I don’t approve of it. I was just going to say – I’ll look for you. When the others are safe, I’ll come back for you, I promise.”
“Ye won’t find anything,” Jamie said. “Ye know what that thing does tae people.” He allowed himself one last glance over his shoulder, and his throat tightened when he saw the resigned acceptance written on the Doctor’s face. “Goodbye, Doctor.”
Jamie did not dare hesitate, pulling himself onto the ridge without looking back. Squaring his shoulders and drawing his knife, he strode down the rocky slope as determinedly as he could. Despite all his caution, he still slipped on the scree, but no shadowy creature emerged to take advantage of his lost balance. He gripped his knife a little tighter, readying himself. Maybe it had lost them, he thought, feeling a glimmer of hope. The Doctor had seen it, but the plains before him were empty, and the scattered copses of trees were surely too small for it to hide in.
“Hey, beastie!” he called. His voice echoed across the plains, pitifully faint against the expansive landscape. “Are ye out there?”
The shadows in one of the copses shifted, and Jamie recoiled, filled with sickening dread. The darkness rose, gathered together, and resolved itself into the shape of the creature. Its eyes glared out of the blackness like white-hot coals, and it narrowed them, focusing in on Jamie. Picking up a stone, Jamie threw it towards the creature, trying to distract it from the ridge. The creature did not even flinch as the stone flew through its incorporeal body, dissolving and reforming around the blow like smoke. It lowered its head towards Jamie, surveying him dispassionately. Why would it not attack?
Desperately, he slashed at its muzzle with his knife. It pulled its head back, roaring, but still turned its attention towards the ridge. It knew he posed no threat, Jamie realised. It was confident in the fact that it was untouchable, swatting him away as easily as if he was a fly. Its attention was still fixed on the children. Bracing himself, he adjusted his grip on his knife. “Creag an tuire!” He rushed at its leg, but passed straight through it, stumbling out onto the creature’s other side.
The Doctor was right, he thought. It’s hopeless. A cracking sound made him look towards the creature’s tail. It seemed to be solidifying, turning from a shapeless mass into a deadly weapon. He turned to run, but knew in his heart that it was too late. The tip of the tail caught him across the chest, and he fell, fingers twitching uncontrollably. As the shadow overcame him, his eyes settled on the ridge, crumbling beneath the creature’s weight, and for the first time he felt true, heart-wrenching fear. He had failed, he thought distantly. It was going after the Doctor.
* * *
For a moment, he wondered if the creature had managed to pull the whole planet under its thrall, dimming even the sun. But the sky was dotted with stars, and four purple moons were rising above him. The Doctor might still be alive, he thought, alive and fighting. Maybe there was some hope of finding him.
He tried to stand, but tumbled to the ground again, cursing and rubbing at his legs. He was still numb and clumsy from the creature’s blow, but he knew he could not wait for it to find him again. Why it had not dealt him a lethal blow, he could not fathom. Pushing himself onto his hands and knees, he crawled across the plains, wincing as the rocks dug into his palms. Once more, the destruction the creature had caused filled him with terror. Great boulders had been cast down the slope, and the ground was scarred with shadow-burnt footprints. Several of them were still smoking, darkness leaking out into the night.
He reached the crest of the ridge with precious little strength remaining, and slumped onto a flat rock, breathing hard and gazing down at the drop before him. “I’ll help you down,” a quiet voice said.
“Doctor?” Jamie sat bolt upright. “Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me.” The Doctor stepped out of the darkness of the forest. Worry was etched into every line of his face, and he reached towards Jamie tentatively, as if hardly daring to believe that he was real. Jamie all but tumbled into his arms, almost knocking him over before sinking to the ground. The Doctor followed him down, propping him up against the cliff face and sitting beside him. “What happened?”
“It -” Jamie swallowed thickly. His mouth was as unresponsive as his legs. “It wasnae really interested in me,” he managed. “It just kept goin’ towards -”
“The children,” the Doctor murmured. “Yes, we suspected as much.” He drew in a deep breath, bracing himself. “Jamie – you were ready to die out there.”
“Aye, I was.” Jamie hung his head, avoiding the Doctor’s eyes. “I dinnae want to talk about it now.”
“When will you talk about it? In front of Ben and Polly?” The weight of the Doctor’s gaze rested heavily on his shoulders. “Are you glad you didn’t?”
Jamie was silent for some time, considering the question. “I think so,” he said at length. “Aye. Aye, I’m glad I came back to ye.”
“Good.” The Doctor rested his head against Jamie’s shoulder. “That’s all I can ask.”
“Ever since ye took me away from Culloden, I’ve felt like I’ve been living on borrowed time.” The words spilt out of Jamie almost of their own accord, unwilling to stop now they had been started. “Why did I get tae live? Why not Alexander, or – or any of the others? There’s nothin’ special about me.”
“War doesn’t care who it kills and who it leaves to suffer the consequences,” the Doctor said. “You know that.”
“Aye, I do. But that doesnae make it fair. Or mean that I’m happy tae… suffer the consequences.” What little determination and strength had been left in Jamie’s body now drained away, and he relaxed into the Doctor’s side. “I just thought… if I died here, that’d be alright. All that borrowed time would be worth it, to have saved ye.”
“What do you think now?”
Jamie smiled. “That I’d like tae go home and sleep.” He looked up at the Doctor. “An' maybe just a wee bit more like we deserve our time together, if I keep comin' back.”
The Doctor opened his mouth as if to say something else, but settled for pressing a kiss to Jamie’s forehead. “That’s the spirit.”