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A Sea of Assyrian Tents

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Donna supposed she really ought to be used to this by now — after all, she'd already been to Pompeii with the Doctor; what was so very different about finding herself in a sea of tents in the desert in Old Testament times? Assyrian tents, apparently. The Assyrian army, under the command of one General Holofernes.

The Doctor was off in one of the more elaborate constructions of cloth and carpets and elaborately dressed men with hard faces and cold eyes, no doubt talking piffle at a great rate. He'd been collected up and hustled off almost before he could finish telling Donna where and when they were. But it was as if the guardsman-soldiers didn't even properly see her or register her presence as a person.

Well, that left Donna all the freer to figure out what was up and do something about it then, didn't it?

They'd arrived in the late afternoon, the sun sending long shadows slanting between the dust-colored tents - ochre and umber, rust and grey and beige peaks and walls spreading out from a central edifice of stark black and white with a brilliant pennant stirring in the faint breeze. Donna followed the eddies of servants, slaves and aides-de-camp as they busied themselves with evening chores. There was a ferment of activity near the center tent, and Donna made her way there, still feeling quite invisible, hearing scraps of gossip and conversation from soldiers and servants as she went.

A big party was planned for the general and his principle staff, plus the woman from the city they were besieging - Bethulia it was called. Her name was Judith, and no-one quite understood what she was about, she and her maid. No-one dared offer her insult, and she came and went as she pleased. Holofernes was absolutely smitten with her, he'd even set up space in his tent for her. It all sounded more and more like a story out of the Bible, but Donna couldn't quite place which one.

She got to the open space in front of the great tent just as the guests were being ushered in by several lofty attendants. Donna was not the least surprised to see the Doctor among them. She was surprised to be caught by the sleeve and tugged behind one of the neighboring tents by a shrewd and bright-eyed person of indeterminate age who actually saw her.

"I need your help," the woman said, low and urgent. "You are not Assyrian, nor are you of Bethulia. The learned man said as much when he spoke to my mistress. We need you, will you come?"

"Of course I will," Donna said instantly. "Come where? Help how?"

The woman was leading her around and behind the main tent. It was even more elaborately immense than it seemed from a distance, with several lower roof-peaks arrayed around the towering center, and what seemed to be side-rooms bumping out as well. A kind of tent-palace.

"We need you to help get the General drunk."

"This is a fine and rare vintage, presented as a gift to the great General Holofernes," the Doctor said expansively, his eyes twinkling at Donna as she balanced the amphora in careful hands.The man lounging in the largest welter of embroidered cushions on a carved and gilded couch looked up, his black hair and beard curled in oiled ringlets, just like the statues. His eyes saw only the wine-jar, not Donna at all. She might have been an animate wine trolley for all she registered. But now, instead of being irritated, Donna smiled behind her veil. Invisible was perfect.

The general watched idly as she poured the first cupful, the rich red dark as blood against the gold, the heady fume of the unwatered wine a perfume in the air. After that, he paid no attention to her, instead leering at the queenly, self-possessed woman beside him, conversing with his men and picking at the amazing array of food. Donna made sure the cup was never empty, carefully filling it again as soon as the level dropped below half. She was having fun imitating the other invisible wine-stewards, listening to the wide-ranging conversation. The hard part was staying silent and not joining in.

Donna's feet were starting to complain and the amphora was very nearly empty when at last the feast wound down. The other guests were leaving, the dishes and cloths removed, the servants vanishing behind the painted canvas walls. Donna filled the cup with the last of the wine and with a daring glee, steadied it in the general's wavering hand. He swallowed it in one gulp, then subsided, limp among the pillows.

The Doctor stood, bowing to Judith and her maid with a grin. "Time we were getting along," he said. "It looks to me as though you have everything very well in hand."

Judith glanced over at the unconscious man, determination in her face. "Thank you Doctor, Donna," she said quietly. "I will remember you in my prayers."

The major-domo drew the curtain across the inner chamber as Donna and the Doctor left, ignoring them both. Outside in the cool desert air Donna breathed deep, glad to be out of the the tent. When the Tardis came in view the Doctor spoke, "Amazing woman, Judith. She'll be remembered for a very long time." He looked back over the sea of tents, dim in the starlight. "A long time." Then he shook himself and opened the door with a flourish. "So, Donna, where next?"

The penny finally dropped. Donna looked from the beckoning interior of the Tardis to the tall peak of the general's tent and back again. "I'll say she'll be remembered! She cut his head off! She's doing it right now! That's why he needed to be drunk. Goodness." Well, he'd certainly intended to wipe out Judith's city, and take her by force too. Still! Donna shivered and stepped firmly into the Tardis. "Somewhere not quite so Biblical this time, I think."

Plushie Judith with the head of Holofernes