Spring was still a month away and it looked it in the northern Bavarian countryside they were travelling through. On the back seat of the people carrier Rani and Sky both looked up at the snow covered mountains and thought of skiing down the pristine slopes.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow,” Sky said. “It’s going to be great fun.”
“But you’ve never BEEN skiing before,” Rani pointed out to Sky. “How do you know you’ll be any good at it?”
“I know,” she answered. “I studied it on the internet and I know all there is to know about it. I’ll be good at it.”
Sarah Jane nodded. The first time around, with Luke, it had worried her when he did and said things that marked him out as ‘different’, but with Sky she felt much more confident that she could look after herself. She knew she shouldn’t say things like that in front of strangers, of course. But here they were with friends who all knew about her unusual background. Even Pieter, who was driving, with Luke in the passenger seat beside him, was in on most of their secrets. He knew that Luke was created at the age of thirteen by the bane, and that his adopted sister came from the Fleshkind of the Tornado Nebula. He knew that Sarah Jane was a former traveller in space and time and that there were strange and wonderful adventures here on Earth, too. He had been unwittingly drawn into two of those adventures already. He was fully entitled to know what it was all about.
“Is the lake at your castle frozen up enough for skating?” Rani asked. “That would be wonderful.”
“No,” Pieter answered. “The lake is too deep to freeze fully and there is always a current beneath the ice because the river flows into the lake. It would be dangerous. But there is a small lake beside the ski lodge that is safe for that purpose. Did you all bring skates?”
“I did not,” said a mechanical voice from around Sarah Jane’s feet. “I do not see the point of ‘winter holidays’. Snow and ice are very bad for my circuits.”
“K9 is still miffed about having to have his side panels taken off by the customs officers at the airport,” Luke said. “He is offended by the idea of him being mistaken for a drug trafficker.”
“I do not get ‘miffed’,” K9 replied.
“Oh, yes you do,” Sarah Jane told him. “I must say I was a little cross about that, too. I had all the papers from U.N.I.T. to say that K9 was entitled to cross international borders, and they still insisted on the full inspection. Thank goodness the delay won’t make us late. I really don’t think driving up those mountain roads in the dark would be a good idea.”
“We’ll be at the lodge in good time,” Pieter promised them all. The beautiful Rothstein Schloss that was his ancestral home was dead ahead now. The river that ran into the lake was alongside the road. As they drew closer the castle looked like a very elaborate frosted cake with the snow covering all of its towers and pinnacles. The thin layer of ice over the lake reflected a perfect mirror image of it in the cold afternoon sunlight.
Inside, there was a real log fire in a huge old-fashioned fire place and hot soup and bread rolls to bolster them all before they set off on the last leg of their journey. While they ate the staff transferred their luggage to the snowcat along with all the ski equipment they would need for this winter holiday.
Pieter again drove. He was quite adept at managing any kind of vehicle. Sarah Jane had been a little worried about leaving wheels on tarmac roads for caterpillar tracks across snowfields, but she soon felt confident enough in their driver and transport to enjoy the view as they climbed the Roten Berg. Rothstein Schloss was soon looking like a toy castle. The river and Rothsburg village were frosted cake decorations. It was all so very beautiful, and what a contrast to Ealing in the thawing out slush of the one snowfall of the English winter.
“Roten Berg… Red Mountain….” She translated the name easily. That was a by-product of her life as a TARDIS traveller, instantaneous translation of languages. “From the same origin as ‘Roth’ in Rothstein, Rothsburg…. Your family name, Pieter?”
“Yes. We don’t actually OWN the whole mountain, but we do have exclusive rights to one of the best piste slopes right beside the lodge.”
Pieter didn’t mean to sound boastful when he said things like that. He really didn’t. For him, living in a castle and owning a sizeable piece of a mountain was normal. He wasn’t a snob, and he didn’t offer the use of these facilities to his less well-off friends in a condescending way. He just wanted to enjoy the semester break with people he liked in the home he loved.
When he talked about the lodge, they had all imagined a log cabin of some sort with bunks and a calor gas cooking stove. What Pieter meant by a lodge for occasional retreat from the Schloss would have happily housed a large family from one of Ealing’s council estates. It was built of solid pine logs, and it was only one storey, but it had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully fitted kitchen and a comfortable lounge with an open fire already lit and heating up water in a backboiler for the radiators that warmed the other rooms. A separate building turned out to be a fully equipped steam room, sauna and hot tub. There was no sense of ‘roughing it’ in any way.
“I LIKE the way Pieter lives,” Sky commented as they sat in the warmth of the fire in a drawing room that looked out of a wide picture window onto the sunset over the Tal des Roten Flusses – the Red River Valley in English or Tal Rothstein as it was generally known.
“I like the way we live when we’re with Pieter,” Clyde commented. He sipped at the German style coffee that Pieter had made for his guests. That meant a tall glass mug topped off with a huge schlag – a thick layer of whipped cream that was very nearly a food item in its own right. Pieter and Sarah Jane’s coffee had a measure of Aspach – German brandy. The others had it without the brandy, but it was still good to drink in the dying light of a winter’s day on the side of a mountain.
It was obviously too late to do any sports tonight. That would all start tomorrow. Tonight was just about relaxing after a long journey. And even those who didn’t have brandy in their coffee soon started to drift in the warmth and comfort of the room. Sky tried not to be the first to give in and go to bed. She sat there blinking and stifling yawns until Rani announced that she was tired and suggested that they get the biggest bathroom to themselves before the boys. Sarah Jane followed them. Then with the conversation lagging the others admitted defeat and took to their beds.
The next morning dawned bright and crisp with a pale blue sky above a pristine white world. A fresh fall of snow just before dawn lay over the scene and made it thoroughly inviting.
The lodge was near the top of the piste. The winding house for the ski lift was in a small log-built building. Pieter had the key and set it going before they set off downhill. Clyde was slightly nervous. He had, in fact, never skied on snow before. He had learnt on the artificial slope at the Ealing Snow Centre so that he wouldn’t be the odd one out when they came on this trip.
“When did you learn to ski, Sarah Jane?” Rani asked as they stood and looked down the magnificent and as yet untouched slope.
“Oh, it was ages ago, when I was with The Doctor. There was this planet that was nothing but snow. I had a lovely time. Mind you, he DID promise me tropical sunshine. Typical of him.”
She laughed and pushed off down the slope. Rani and Sky followed her. Pieter and Luke went next. Clyde took a deep breath and followed, hoping he didn’t do anything foolish.
He didn’t, but he was the slowest. Sarah Jane, Rani and Sky were already heading back up on the ski lift when he reached the bottom. Luke and Pieter nodded to him, acknowledging that he had done it right, but not drawing attention to the fact that it was his first proper descent of a ski slope.
By the third or fourth go he was perfectly confident and talking about attempting moguls and ski jumps. Pieter regretfully admitted that their private slopes didn’t have such facilities. He suggested a cross country ski after lunch, though. The girls weren’t enthusiastic about that, especially Sarah Jane, who still had memories of that snowy planet and trying to keep up with The Doctor’s pace across the snowfields. They opted for skating on the deeply frozen mountain lake.
When the boys returned from their cross-country trek it was starting to get dark again. They were tired but triumphant at having covered more than twenty miles in a wide circuit. Clyde was thrilled to have seen a lynx in its white and black winter coat roaming across the snow. As soon as he took off his outer clothes he set to work sketching it with a view to doing a watercolour painting when he had more time.
After supper at the end of that pleasant day of winter sports, Sarah Jane and Rani both wanted to try out the sauna room. Sky decided to follow them. The men stayed in the lodge. Pieter and Luke started up a long game of chess that Clyde lost interest in after a few moves. He knew that the two intellectuals could go on for hours with a game like that. He made himself comfortable at the window with his portable easel and charcoals, drawing the silhouette of the snow-covered Roten Berg peak and a silver moon in an inky black sky full of stars that weren’t blotted out by light pollution as they were in London. Sitting in a warm place and looking out on a cold one through a double-glazed window was a pleasant occupation. He was perfectly content.
Then something disturbed his contentment. He put down his charcoals and easel and looked out at the scene to be sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“What are those lights over there?” he asked.
“It’s the Dower House,” Pieter replied without looking up from his game. “That doesn’t belong to our family, either, now. We sold it in my grandfather’s time. An elderly lady lives in it with two servants. She used to be a famous actress in the 1950s, but these days most people have never heard of her. I think she’s a bit barmy, living in the past, sort of thing. The servants come down in a van about November to buy groceries to last through the winter and nobody sees anything but lights in the windows until spring. My father says somebody ought to check on her more often.”
“Somebody should,” Clyde said. “What if the servants decided to bump her off and live on her money or something? But I didn’t mean the house lights. I can see them. I meant the weird coloured lights above the house.”
“Weird coloured lights?” Luke left the game and came to look. “Where? I can’t see anything.”
“You’ve been sitting under the table lamp. Your eyes need to adjust to the dark outside properly,” Clyde told him. “But just look carefully… over there…. It’s like a night time rainbow – all the colours of the spectrum but subdued.”
As his eyes became accustomed to the dark Luke saw what Clyde meant. It wasn’t exactly a rainbow. It was more like arcs of light rising up rapidly into the night sky. The colours were, as Clyde described them, subdued, but at the same time iridescent. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Luke admitted. “Pieter, do you know what it is?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I do. It’s the start of something I was expecting…. Except… I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next…”
“What do you mean?” Clyde asked him.
“Remember Christmas… my diary that had my year written ahead of me…. It got blanked out when Mr Smith did… whatever he did. At first, I could remember some of what was written. But later I found that it had been wiped from my mind, too. Except I KNOW that something is meant to happen this week. And my diary…. Well, look. And bear in mind I’ve been playing chess with Luke since the ladies went out to the sauna.”
He reached for the leather bound diary and opened it on today’s date. In neat, small handwriting, was a concise account of meeting everyone at the airport, driving home, then coming up the mountain to the lodge. The last line of the diary entry mentioned that Clyde saw strange lights in the sky.
“That last bit wasn’t there before. It’s writing itself as it goes along. But I knew, sooner or later, something was going to happen tonight that would start it all off. I just don’t know what happens next, or how it all turns out… except I am pretty sure we all came out of it alive. I think I WOULD have remembered reading something like that.”
“So we’re predestined to have an adventure up this mountain, but we’ve no clues at all about what we might be in for.”
“None at all.”
“So, we know something weird is going on, but we don’t know what, or who’s doing it, or why,” Clyde summarised. “Well, that’s nothing unusual, is it? Question is, what do we do about it?”
“We don’t tell mum,” Luke decided. “She was looking forward to a nice, ordinary holiday. Let’s not tell the girls at all. Let them enjoy themselves. Whatever it is, we’ll sort it out, the three of us.”
“Why not? Pieter knows the mountain. We know how to deal with weird things. Between us, we’re a team without bringing mum and my sister and Rani into it.”
“Rani will kill us for leaving her out,” Clyde pointed out. “So will Sky. And Sarah Jane will kill us for going off doing dangerous things without telling her.”
To Be Continued...