Written by Rupert Laight. Illustrated by Brian Williamson.
Written by Rupert Laight. Illustrated by Brian Williamson.
'All I wanted was a shopping trip to 1985. Puffball skirts are back in fashion - and there's nothing like the real thing,' said Donna gripping the TARDIS console as the ship flung her and the Doctor violently about. 'If I'd known there was this much turbulence in the mid-Eighties, I wouldn't have bothered!'
'According to the scanner,' shouted the Doctor, struggling to stay upright, 'we've been dragged off course.' He squinted at the display. 'One thousand two hundred years off course, to be precise.'
Donna stared at him in shock. 'Chiswick in the future? Fantastic!'
'One thousand two hundred years into the past, I'm afraid. It's 800.'
'800?!' repeated his companion, incredulously. 'What we gonna do in Chiswick in 800? It'll be two druids squatting by a swamp.'
'We're heading for Belgium, actually,' said the Doctor, without looking up.
The TARDIS suddenly jolted to a stop.
'Belgium?!' yelled Donna. 'I don't think so!'
But the Doctor had already sprinted over to the main doors and yanked them open. Donna trotted down the ramp to join him.
'I ask you,' she said, 'what's the point in Belgium?'
'They do fantastic lace,' offered the Doctor.
'So we'll be fine for doilies then.'
Donna followed her friend outside and immediately banged into three dead rabbits hanging from the ceiling of a cold, stone-walled room. 'Charming,' she muttered. 'Where are we?'
'No idea,' replied the Doctor. 'But wherever it is, we won't go hungry.'
Donna peered into the gloom. They were in a dark pantry used for storing meat and vegetables. She held her nose - the place stank.
The Doctor strode over to the room's only door. He rattled the handle. It was locked. He rummaged in his pockets for his sonic screwdriver and aimed it at the lock. The mechanism gave a hollow clunk, and he pushed the door open. 'Come on then,' he said, grinning across at Donna, and she followed him as he marched through the doorway.
'Oi! You two!' yelled a harsh voice. 'Stay right where you are!'
The Doctor and Donna were confronted by two burly guards pointing vicious-looking pikes at them. They raised their hands in the air.
'It's a fair cop,' said the Doctor.
The guards seized the intruders.
'Watch it!' yelled Donna, angrily, as the man pulled her hands behind her back and held them fast. 'I've just had my nails done!'
They were now in a hot, crowded kitchen. Servants scurried about with trays of food, cooks mixed ingredients in gigantic bowls, and a pig was roasting over a roaring fire.
'Let them go, you fools!' boomed a deep voice from across the room. 'At last! But what were you doing in the pantry?'
The guards released the Doctor and Donna and moved off. Striding towards them was a stout man with a red face. He was dressed in robes of red and purple velvet, the ensemble topped off with a feathered hat.
'Oh, y'know, routine inspection,' bluffed the Doctor. 'Just checking your rabbits' best-before dates!'
'Getting down to work so soon?' smiled the newcomer, delightedly. 'What a man! What bravery!' He turned to the room and clapped his hands together for silence. 'May I present... the Emperor's new official food taster!'
All the servants stopped working for a moment and stared at the Doctor with admiring smiles. Some even broke into applause.
'Glad I'm not in your shoes,' whispered Donna.
'Very brave indeed,' continued the red-faced man. 'Especially considering the fate that befell our last taster.' He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. 'Mandrake in the artichokes.'
'Sounds painful,' said Donna.
'But forgive me,' said the man, 'I do not recall your name, sir.'
'Just the Doctor. And this is Mademoiselle Noble. My tasting assistant.'
'Leave me out of this,' hissed Donna, from behind a clenched smile.
'I am Baldebert. Keeper of the Kitchen. Welcome to the court of Charlemagne!'
'Who?' asked Donna.
'Charlemagne!' crowed the Doctor, turning to his travelling companion. 'Charlie to his mates. What a leader! He practically dragged Europe out of the Dark Ages, he was the saviour of art and culture... Oh, this is marvellous. Where is he? Love to meet him.'
'Never heard of him,' said Donna. 'But I'll take your word for it.'
Just then, Baldebert, who had been ignoring this exchange, barked an order across the kitchen. In response, two servants heaved over an enormous salver piled high with food. They carefully set it down on a table beside the Doctor.
'The first course!' announced Baldebert, proudly.
'Looks like Lancashire hotpot,' said Donna.
The Doctor threw his friend a nervous glance, dipped in a finger and took a taste. His face immediately fell.
'Poisoned?' asked Baldebert, nervously.
'No,' said the Doctor. 'Not enough garlic.'
Next, a vast ceramic tureen of soup was brought over. The Doctor peered in, used the ladle to stir it round, then took a cautious sniff. 'Uh!' he blanched.
'What is it?' asked Baldebert. 'Do you detect the acrid stench of aconite?'
'No, the acrid stench of celery. Never liked celery.'
'Oh, move over, you big fusspot,' ordered Donna, and she grabbed the ladle and took a noisy slurp. 'Nothing wrong with that. Nice actually. I'll have the recipe.'
At that moment, the kitchen door flew open and a young boy raced in, out of breath. His face was spattered with mud and his stockings were torn. He fell to his knees before Baldebert. 'The Emperor has disappeared! Just vanished! Into the blue!' he gasped.
'What?' interrupted the Doctor. 'How? When? Where?'
'My name is Macon, sir. I am page to the Emperor. We were in the forest, heading back to court. Charlemagne was in his carriage as usual, but when he didn't respond to our enquiries, we looked inside and... he'd gone!'
'That's ridiculous!' said the Doctor. 'Impossible!'
'But he has to meet with the Pope this afternoon,' chimed Baldebert, fretfully. 'It is imperative. It is the reason for this feast.'
'Pope Leo the third?' murmured the Doctor, looking panicked. 'This is the year 800! If that meeting doesn't happen...' His voice trailed off.
'What?' asked Donna.
'Charlemagne won't be crowned head of the Roman Empire. The whole history of Europe will be up the swanny. We've got to find him - and fast!' He turned to Macon. 'Can you take us to the spot where he disappeared?'
'But who are you to - ' began Baldebert.
'But nothing,' interrupted the Doctor. 'Do you want him found or not?'
'What does a food taster know of finding kings?'
'Oh, you'd be surprised,' said the Doctor. 'Come on, Donna!'
Macon led the way through the deep undergrowth of an Ardennes forest. Hot on his heels was the Doctor, a bow and a quiver of arrows on his back, hacking away at the ferns and brambles with a short sword. Donna came last, huffing and puffing as she went.
'Oi! Robin Hood!' she shouted. 'What do you need the arrows for?'
'This place is full of bandits,' replied the Doctor. 'Makes for a good deterrent.'
'Have to be a clever kidnapper to find someone out here,' she wheezed. 'You can barely see a foot ahead.'
'Good point,' mused the Doctor. 'Makes me think this isn't any ordinary abduction...'
Macon stopped suddenly. 'This is the place,' he called. 'This is where the Emperor disappeared.'
They had emerged from the undergrowth onto a muddy path which cut a swathe between the trees.
The Doctor sniffed the air. Something made him screw up his face in disgust. Then he dropped to the ground.
'A-ha!' he cried, triumphantly, and he sat up, crumbling soil between his thumb and forefinger.
'What?' asked Donna, kneeling down beside him.
'Quantum detritus. A yellow residue left behind when something - or someone - is taken out of Time.'
Just then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of green light, a loud whirring noise, and Donna and the Doctor vanished into thin air...
Donna opened her eyes and looked around her. She and the Doctor were standing in a long corridor in a once-great palace. Its granite pillars were now cracked and decayed, weeds grew between the flagstones, the walls were covered in mould where there had once been intricate murals, and the windows were so filthy virtually no light entered.
'What is this place?' hissed Donna.
'You are in the Palace of Hy-Ridion,' answered a terrifying, booming voice.
'Bit rundown, wouldn't you say?' mused the Doctor, and he used his jacket sleeve to clear a section of one window. He peered outside and was confronted by a barren wasteland. In the distance, he saw piles of rubble where there might once have been houses. Beside them, crudely constructed, there were huts of mud and reeds.
This was not Earth.
'Do not look outside! Never look out there!'
'Who are you?' asked the Doctor.
'I am Momus,' answered the huge voice.
'Can you be more specific?'
'Momus the Wise.'
'That's still not helping. What planet is this?'
'You are on Planet 12 of the Ridion Alliance.'
'Never heard of it,' admitted the Doctor. 'But it doesn't look much fun out there. What happened?'
'We had a war. A very long war,' said the voice. 'But that is of no concern right now. Explain who this other being is.'
'Careful, mush!' warned Donna. 'The name's Donna Noble.'
'She was not invited to the Great Dinner Party.'
'What are you saying? I'm not posh enough for a dinner party?' She paced off down the corridor.
'What dinner party?' asked the Doctor, frowning.
'The Great Dinner Party for which you are the final guest, Doctor,' boomed Momus's mighty voice. 'I have waited a long time to gather you all together. Now we shall dine!'
'Hold on a sec,' Donna called back. 'Is this you?' She pointed up at the ceiling and laughed. 'But you're tiny!'
Hovering above them was a small ball of silver, with flashing lights and wires poking out all over. A tiny computer with a massive voice.
'Yes... well... that depends... er... it's all relative,' said Momus, defensively.
'You're relative all right, matey. Relatively small.'
'What have you done with Charlemagne?' demanded the Doctor.
'You will find out,' said the computer, 'when you meet your fellow guests.'
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