Sapphire and Steel 4

Based on the TV series created by PJ Hammond
The following is written entirely for the enjoyment of those who watched the original series and not for profit of any kind. No charge has been made to view this material. All rights remain with the writer, producer, director and cast of Sapphire and Steel the original TV series.

The Church Hall

Part One

The place was silent, muffled by falling snow. But the snow could not stop the sound of a sudden, piercing scream.

They stood on the side of a hill. Steel seemed unperturbed by the swirling, icy flakes. He looked in the direction of the only building visible; a small church huddling into the freezing landscape. 

“Did you hear that?”

Sapphire nodded.

“It’s happened, hasn’t it? We’re too late. Again.”

Tess followed them as they headed towards the church. Snow flew into her eyes and mouth as she went. She could hear Sapphire’s telepathic communication with Steel. “There is a person inside, a woman. She’s in the hall attached to the side of the main church. She’s alone but…”

“But?” Steel’s voice now.

“But… fifty two seconds ago there were nine others with her.”

There were two doors; one huge and ornate, the other smaller. Sapphire placed a hand on the large door. “The wood is almost two hundred years old but the building itself is much older.”

She swiftly moved to the smaller entrance. Now she spoke with her physical voice. “This door has been added much more recently; twenty, twenty-five years ago. But the building is the same age as the main church. Parts of it date from the Thirteenth Century. The woman is in there.”

Steel grabbed the door knob, ready to tackle whatever locking mechanism might be in place. The catch clicked and opened easily though and he entered. They found themselves in a corridor. Above was a slanted, glass roof covered on the outside by a thick layer of snow. Three electric lights hung from the ceiling, bulbs glaring. There was the smell of polish and disinfectant. On the walls were pictures. Poster paint on coloured paper. Crude figures and landscapes daubed by thick brushes. There was a row of pegs on which were hanging small coats, hats, gloves and scarves. Sapphire gestured toward one of two more doors which lead off from the corridor. It stood ajar.

Steel went in first. The room was large and filled with small tables and chairs, like those in an infant school. There were art materials lying around on the tables; jars of thick paint with brushes stuck in, brightly coloured card, pots of glitter and glue. To one side stood an old fashioned overhead projector which was switched on and beaming out light onto a screen on the wall. In a corner was an upright piano with cracked and yellowing keys. 

The place appeared to be empty of people. Steel looked to Sapphire for guidance. Her eyes moved around, finally settling on a shadowy corner next to the piano. They hadn’t noticed that the woman was there. She was clutching the pitted wood of the piano, hiding her face against it.

Crouching, Sapphire reached out and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. She flinched.

“It’s all right,” Sapphire said. “We’re not going to harm you. Can you stand?”

There was terror in her eyes. Reluctantly, she allowed Sapphire to guide her out of the corner and over to one of the few adult size chairs in the room. She was shaking and pale.

Sapphire introduced the three of them and asked the woman her name. She was so traumatised she could barely speak.

Steel scrutinised her. “What’s your name?”

“Nell. I’m Nell,” she murmured.

“We heard a scream. What happened here?”

She glanced about, still petrified.

Sapphire knelt close to her. “Just describe what you saw. It won’t seem incredible to us, I promise you.”

“W,w,we were practising carols…”


“Me and the children.”

“This is a school?”

“ Pre-school. Me and Mrs Alvestone run it for some of the kids in the village. There’s only a handful that attend.”

“How many attended today?”

“Eight, I think.”

“And you were practising carols? Singing?”

“Yes. Nearly Christmas.”

Tess felt an unexpected surge of emotion on hearing this. For a split second she panicked that she hadn’t bought any presents or written any cards. Then she remembered that none of that was real for her now.

“It’s crazy,” Nell went on,”I can’t even believe it myself!”

“Just describe it as best you can.”

“I was moving the words on the projector so the kids could see. We haven’t got the money for a laptop so we have to use that old thing. It flashes the words up on the screen so they can see. They can’t really read but we put little drawings next to the words so they can follow it. And they were all singing away, just like we’ve been practising the past few weeks. Then the next minute…”

She took a deep breath to steady herself.

“The next minute… no singing! I looked up from the projector expecting to see the children sitting in their usual places… Fred and Billy and little Lizzie and the rest… But they were gone! Not gone, into the corridor or down the hall; they didn’t get up from their seats and walk out, I would have heard them. They just vanished! All of them! That’s when I screamed. I mean, what could have happened to them?! It’s madness! People don’t just disappear like that! Something terrible must have happened. I have to do something! I have to call the police!”

She started to get to her feet but Sapphire put a hand on her shoulder and guided her back down. “That’s all taken care of. We understand the situation perfectly. We’re here to put things right.”


“It’s our job.”

“Oh. Who sent you?”

Steel stepped forward. “Can you tell me exactly where you were standing when it happened?”

Nell pointed to the overhead projector.

“Stand there, if you would.”

“What, why…?”

“Just do it, please.”

She climbed to her feet, aided by Sapphire and walked unsteadily over. Instinctively, she reached out to adjust the acetate sheet that was lying on the surface of the machine.

“Please don’t touch anything,” Steel said.

Nell snatched back her hands.

Peering down at the words written on the plastic sheet, he read them aloud. “‘We saw three ships come sailing in…’”

“Steel, no!” Sapphire was horrified.

“It’s all right, I won’t read far.”

“You know how dangerous…”

“Yes,” he seemed to be smiling a little. “I do.”

“That was the carol we were practising.”

“And the children were sitting around in the chairs here?”

“Yes that’s right.”

“Anyone else in the room?”

“Only Mrs Alvestone. She runs the group, I’m just the assistant.”

Steel paced the room. “And where was Mrs Alvestone?”

Nell blinked. “Sitting at the piano.”

Approaching the battlescarred instrument, Steel inspected it. It looked old but not ornate. It had probably stood in that same spot for years. There was a four legged stool in front of it.

“She was playing as the children sang?” Steel asked.

“Yes. That’s what we always do.”

“Sapphire, would you sit there please?”

She sat at the piano as instructed. There was sheet music open on the stand. The title printed above the notes was ‘We Saw Three Ships’.

Steel waited until Sapphire was in position. “Everything else is exactly as it was when it happened?”

“I think so.”

No-one moved for the next minute except Steel who stalked around the room like an exam invigilator, grey eyes constantly scanning. Tinsel hung forlornly from cupboards and picture rails, glittering in the light from the projector. Paper chains swooped from light fittings, each link no doubt stuck together by little Fred or Billy or Lizzie or one of the others. Outside the window, snow was still falling fast.

“In a moment,” Steel said, “I want you to sing the first line of the song…”

“Sing? Me?!” Nell was appalled. “I can’t do that!”

“I thought you said you were all singing when it happened.”

“Yes, I was singing along with the kids. Not doing a flippin’ solo performance!”

“No-one will be paying any attention to your singing ability, I can assure you.”

“Even so…”

Across the room, Sapphire turned her head from the piano. “You want to get the children back, don’t you? This way there’s just a chance we can do that.”

“How the hell is that going to help?!”

“Just trust us, Nell. We know what we’re doing.”

She bowed her head but seemed to accept Sapphire’s words.

“As you sing,” Steel told her, “watch for my signal; if I move my hand clockwise continue singing, if I move it anti-clockwise reverse the order of the words…”

“Reverse the order?” Nell was incredulous. “As if singing the normal way wasn’t mortifying enough, now you want me to sing backwards?!”

“Don’t worry about the melody, Nell,” Sapphire said. “Just say the words in the opposite direction. That’s all we need.”

Nell shook her head in disbelief. “This is the maddest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

 Everyone settled into their places. There were a few seconds of silence. Nell seemed to be building herself up to it. Finally her voice rang out, quiet and tentative at first but slowly gathering in confidence.

I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

I saw three ships come sailing in….”

She stopped because Steel had raised his hand.

Something was moving on the wall near the screen. Where the wall met the ceiling, a patch of light was swirling and shimmering. 

After observing it for a few seconds, Steel rotated his hand in the opposite direction and Nell continued to sing.

“…On Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day?

And what was in those ships all three…?”

Steel’s hand had motioned again causing her to stop. The shimmering patch of light on the wall had grown in size and a low, rumbling sound was rising from nowhere. He walked cautiously over to what looked like a small whirlwind of light, clinging to the wall. Gusts of wind were coming from it, picking at his hair. From his new position, he indicated to Nell to start singing again.

Nell could hardly tear her eyes away from the weird disturbance on the wall but finally managed to continue the song.

“On Christmas day in the morning?

Pray whither sailed those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day?

Pray whither sailed those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas day in the morning?”

As she sang, the sound of rumbling increased in volume until it became louder than her voice. Steel remained in his place near the wall, his eyes fixed on the tremoring vortex of light. It appeared to have stopped expanding for now.

O they sailed into Bethlehem,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

O they sailed into Bethlehem,

⁠On Christmas day in the morning.”

There came the deafening sound of bells ringing outside, louder than any bells had ever sounded before. Steel glanced out through the window but nothing was visible except thick snow falling from the sky. While his attention was momentarily distracted, the swirling light on the wall suddenly tripled in size and intensity. Shards of brightness shot from the original shape and engulfed them all. The wind became a tornado that threatened to push Steel off his feet. The transparent sheet of words blew off the surface of the projector and fluttered across the room. Nell watched it go, mouth open with horror. And what was that other sound? Tess strained to distinguish it from the wind and the ringing bells. High pitched and mournful, finally she realised that it was the sound of children crying. They were frightened, those children. Terrified. But of what?

Steel motioned for Nell to reverse the order of the words. She saw his hand revolving anticlockwise but her entire body was frozen by fear. The most she could do was open her mouth but no sound came out. Glaring at the words of the carol written in front of her, she could only gape and gasp like a fish out of water. Around her, a gale howled and tinsel fluttered. The sound of children’s voices was unmistakable now. They were crying out in distress. Shadows flitted across the wall; the shapes of children? Tess saw on Nell’s face that she had heard those young voices, that she recognised them.

“Reverse it!” Steel shouted over the clamour. 

Nell was still unable to respond.

Sapphire stood from her position at the piano and began reciting the words of the carol, backwards.

“Morning the in day Christmas on,

Bethlehem into sailed they O,

Day Christmas on, day Christmas on…”

The gale immediately began to lessen, the swirling lights on the wall faded. The agonising sound of the children crying stopped. Everything in the room returned to normal. There was a short period of complete silence. None of them moved. 

“I heard them,” Nell whimpered. “I heard the children. They were calling out! Where are they? Tell me where they are?”

Sapphire gripped her arm, gently but firmly. “We don’t know that yet. As soon as we do we can set about bringing them back.”

“Huh! Now she finds her voice!” It was Steel talking telepathically to Sapphire. They still did not seem to realise that Tess could listen in on these secret conversations.

“Steel, I need to speak with you,” Sapphire replied silently. “Those children are in terrible danger.”

“I gathered that much.”

“No, I mean worse than simply being torn away from their own worlds. It wants to harm them, Steel.”

“Doesn’t it always?”

“Not like this. It wants them to play a part in something. A recreation of something.”

Steel told the sobbing Nell to sit down and Tess fetched her a cup of tea from the little kitchen area in the corner. Then he turned back to face Sapphire. Outside the window, the snow was still falling.

“What are you sensing?”

Sapphire’s eyes were shining their dazzling, electric blue as she looked at the place on the wall where the patch of shimmering light had appeared. “Something… A long way into the past…”

“It’s an old building. What did you say, Thirteenth Century? So… seven hundred years ago?”

“Yes but… there’s a link to something even further back.”

“What kind of a link?”

“I’m not sure.”

“How far back?”

The blueness of her eyes seemed to become even more intense. Her head was moving from side to side. “It’s a long way, Steel…”

“I need more detail.”

She closed her eyes but the pupils shone so brightly that they were still visible through her lids. Her brow creased with concentration. “Hundreds of years further back… hundreds…”


“Two thousand years ago.”

Even Steel could not conceal his surprise at this. “Two thousand…? Was there even anything here then?”

“Just a hillside… No buildings… Nothing.”

“Why take children back there?”

“I’m sensing something else, too.”

“What is it?”

She breathed deeply then exhaled slowly. “The sea.”

Steel pulled a face. “We’re miles from the sea!”

“I know.”

“You’re getting it wrong.”

“I am NOT getting it wrong.”

“Well, then it’s tricking you.”

“I’ve no way of knowing that, Steel.”

“I know, I know. What else?”

She paused. “Ships.”

“Ships… the sea… It doesn’t make any… Wait a minute…” Steel turned to the projector and snatched the acetate sheet from its surface. He scanned the hand-written words. “Three ships? Are there three ships, Sapphire?”

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s the song, the carol… I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day.”

“Don’t say it out loud, Steel.”

“It wants them to be a part of the song. Remember the house? It wanted to make you a part of a painting. It’s just like that.”

“Yes.” Her eyes returned to their normal colour.

Steel looked to be lost in thought. “But why?”

Just then, they heard a noise coming from the corridor. Tess wondered if it could be parents coming to pick up their kids but Nell assured her that there was a couple of hours yet before they were due. The noises from the corridor did not sound like those that had come from the pulsating light on the wall a few minutes ago. These noises sounded like a real person moving through a real environment. Tess glanced over to Steel and Sapphire but they did not seem to have noticed.

“There’s something wrong with the history of this, Steel,” Sapphire was saying. 

“I’m not surprised you’re a tad confused.” Tess heard the voice in her mind the same way she would hear the voices of Sapphire and Steel when they communicated telepathically. This was not the voice of either of them though. “But history actually hasn’t gone wrong, for once. It’s just been fiddled with a bit. That’s why I’ve come over to give you a hand.”

Steel let out a sigh

A broad smile spread across Sapphire’s face. “I know that voice. Is it really you?”

“Of course, my darling, who else would it be? Have you seen the snow out there? Talk about bleak mid-winter!”

Still beaming, Sapphire moved over to the door which led to the corridor where the children’s coats were hanging. Stepping over the threshold, she gave a little wave to someone. “I knew it. How marvellous to see you, Diamond.”

Part Two

Into the room came a woman with dark skin and silvery white hair. Sapphire seemed delighted to see her, Steel not so much. 

“Diamond, you’ve changed your face again!”

The new arrival beamed at Sapphire’s observation. “I’m afraid I get easily bored, dear.”

“I might just follow your example.”

“Sapphire, you never need to change one thing about your adorable self, not ever. No new face could possibly rival the one you have right now.”

Tess had not encountered Diamond before but she instantly liked her. She seemed warm and self-deprecating, qualities not always that evident in Sapphire and certainly not in Steel. As she breezed past, she shot Tess a smile and a wink. “It’s Tess isn’t it? You and I must get to know each other much better the first chance we get.”

Steel watched from across the room. 

“Hello Steel, “ Diamond twinkled.

“You know about this case?” His voice was flat as always.

“I know that History is a crucial part of it. And, as you know, History is my thing.”

“Tell me.”

Sapphire frowned. “Steel, she’s barely walked through the door!”

“And I thought the snow was cold,” Diamond added. She sidled up to Steel and scrutinised him. “How are you bearing up, my lovely? You’ve been through a lot lately, haven’t you? You look tired.”

Sapphire suggested they show Diamond around the place so that she could get her bearings. The two set off on a tour of the building and Tess tagged along. A door at the far end of the entrance corridor led to the main church. Diamond was fascinated by the oldness of it all. Plenty of history for her to get her teeth into here. They climbed the stone steps of the steeple which led them out onto a small walkway, several inches deep in snow. Above them was a spire, barely visible amidst the swirling, white flakes. Tess made the mistake of looking over the edge of the wall to look at the ground far below. She drew back quickly, heart quickening. None of them felt much like lingering up there.

They returned to the school room and rejoined Steel and Nell. Diamond did not seem like the type of person who could be rushed. Her dress glittered as it flowed across her slender form and her eyes were alive with shimmering reflections. Approaching Nell, she took her in her arms. “Poor darling, we’ll do our best to get those children back, I promise.”

Steel glowered at Sapphire who simply smiled.

“We saw three ships,” Diamond said as she turned to face them. “That’s what they were singing when Time broke through.”

“We know that,” Steel told her.

“Do you also know that the three ships mentioned in the song were actually used to transport the relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the Twelfth Century?”

He looked at her blankly.

“Biblical magi?” Diamond tried. “No? Anyone?”

Nell stepped forward. “The three wise men?”

“Exactly, my dear,” Diamond chuckled, “exactly.”

A sudden noise interrupted the conversation. It was a single, chiming note that seemed to come from somewhere behind them. They all looked at the source of the sound. It had come from the old piano in the corner. One of the gnarled keys had been pressed down, creating the note that they had heard. As it faded to silence, the key lifted back to its original position. Before anyone could react, another of the piano keys moved downwards as though being pressed by an invisible hand. A different note, slightly higher than the first, rang out. The tone of the old, neglected instrument was jangly and off key but still strong. A few seconds later, another key was pressed and then another, each creating its own echoing note. The battered piano stool stood vacant. 

Steel approached the piano cautiously.

“Fascinating!” Diamond murmured. “Barrel pianos were first developed in the early 19th century as an attempt to mechanically automate piano music…”

“Pianos that can play by themselves?”

“Yes,” Diamond replied. “But this isn’t one of them.”

“Then how…?” Steel’s eyes narrowed.

“The notes it’s playing,” Sapphire said, “they’re the first few notes of the carol, ‘I saw three ships..’”

“Something is pressing the keys?”

She took a step towards it. “No, whatever it is, it’s inside the instrument.”


“In the housing, the case… In the strings and the hammers and the pedals. It’s hiding, Steel.”

He moved closer to the piano. Sapphire urged caution.

“How long has it been in there?”

“It came out of the light we saw on the wall, earlier.”

“Travelled through it?”

“No… Splintered from it. It’s been there since… hiding… waiting…”

“For what?”

“For a chance to take what it wants.”

The piano keys had stopped playing. Steel stared at it for a moment longer then turned and strode away.

Tess saw fear and utter bewilderment on the face of Nell. Sapphire and Diamond’s expressions didn’t offer much more in the way of comfort. 

After a while, Diamond mustered a smile. “Steel will figure out how to get the children back.”

“Really?” Nell whimpered. “I heard their little voices. They sounded terrified. Poor things don’t deserve this… poor tiny things.”

Diamond!” Steel called to her with his mind. “Tell me more about the Biblical Magi.”

She gave them all a twinkly smile. “Der Dreikönigenschrein or Tomb of the Three Magi is believed to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi, also known as the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men. The shrine is a large triple sarcophagus placed behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral in western Germany. The bones were taken there in 1164 in three ships.”

Ships? Like in the song?


“What’s the link to this church?”

“I haven’t a clue, dear. I’m a historian, not a clairvoyant.”

There doesn’t need to be a particular link to this place,” it was Sapphire’s mind speaking now. “Whenever certain conditions are met, Time is able to break through. Hardly matters where or when.”

But it can’t just be the singing of the carol that triggers it or else Time would break through every time it was ever sung.

Tess looked over at the instrument in the corner of the room. Half cloaked in shadow, it was silent now but there was something about it that gave her the shivers. It was like looking at some kind of animal lying there motionless, trying not to be seen. She was about to mention this telepathically but at the last moment remembered that Sapphire and Steel didn’t know that she could communicate in that way. If they ever found out they might not be as keen on having her around.

“What about the piano?” She said it aloud instead.

Diamond gaped. “Good point, Tess darling!”

“It’s nowhere near old enough, I’m afraid,” Sapphire said.

“No, of course.” Diamond sighed. “Except…”

Steel had returned and was now listening intently.

“Except… It did once belong to a Reverend Matthew Heisenberg, a minister in this church until 1998 but also a descendent of Philipp of Heinsberg, Archbishop of Cologne at the time the remains of the Three Wise Men were placed there.”

“That’s it!” Steel declared. “That has to be it! The piano is the link!”

“So we just destroy the piano?”

“Yes,” he told Sapphire, “along with whatever it is that’s hiding away inside it.”

“How exactly?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we burn it. Place it in a sinking ship like we’ve done with dangerous objects before? Does it matter?”

“Before we all get too excited,” Diamond interjected, “there is still the question of the children.”

“It wants the children to be a part of what happened back then,” Sapphire said, solemnly. “It wants them to be the bones of the Magi.”


They all took their places. Sapphire sat at the piano, a safe distance away. Nell stood at the overhead projector. Steel stood over near the wall where the strange, shimmering light had appeared earlier. Diamond and Tess sat in the opposite corner on tiny children’s chairs; she had taken Tess’s hand and was gently rubbing it. It felt as though they were all about to give some kind of performance.

On Steel’s signal, Nell began to sing the carol.

I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

I saw three ships come sailing in 

On Christmas day in the morning

And what was in those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?

And what was in those ships all three

On Christmas Day in the morning?”

The words made Tess shudder now that she knew what had actually been contained within those ships all those years ago. The same swirling patch of light had appeared on the wall near to where Steel was standing. The air in the room became cold and a strong breeze fluttered the paper chains and tinsel.

“Pray whither sailed those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day?

Pray whither sailed those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas day in the morning?”

The piano keys began to play again, this time quicker so that the notes were in time to Nell’s singing. Sapphire watched them, her eyes shining bright blue in the shadows. Then came the sound of the children again, still crying with fear. Who could guess what horrors they had faced during their time away from everything they knew in the world?

Steel turned from the growing light and walked slowly towards the piano. Tess watched him. She could not begin to imagine what he was going to do now. If Time was using the piano, if a part of it had actually splintered and taken refuge inside the old, wooden casing, then how could Steel dispose of it. Would he smash it with his bare hands? Would he set it alight with fire rays from his eyes? These weren’t the kinds of superpowers she had seen him and Sapphire display as yet but, who knows, maybe they could do that stuff? As he reached the piano, Steel reached out a single hand. Light had begun to eliminate from inside the square casing, shining through every crack in the rickety timbers. It was as though a fire had started inside it. Bracing himself, Steel touched the surface of the piano. With what appeared to be very little effort, he moved it from its position in the corner across the room in the direction of the pulsating light. The wind howled louder as the piano trundled along. Tess couldn’t believe he could move it on his own; that thing would normally take two or three men to shift it! Finally, the piano began to lift off the ground and glide through the air into the source of the light. It wasn’t clear whether it was Steel lifting it or whether the light was sucking the instrument in. It was incredibly heavy and yet it tumbled through the air and into the swirling abyss. And it was gone. Completely consumed by the vortex.

Sapphire and Steel scanned the room.

“They should be back here, Steel, The children should be back here now.”

None of them had appeared and the light on the wall continued pulsating. No-one seemed to know what to do next.

At last, Steel turned to Nell. “Get them to sing!” he yelled in her ear. “Get the children to sing the carol!”

Tess saw a look of horror and disbelief cross Nell’s face. A moment later though she was calling out to the absent children from her class, calling out through an insane morass of crackling light and sound. “Children! Children, can you hear me? This is Miss Rooney speaking!”

Amidst the moaning wind, the sound of children crying continued. It was possible that they couldn’t even hear Nell calling to them let alone carry out her wishes.

“Children! Children, hush now! Listen to me! Mrs Alvestone too, if you can hear me, we have to get the children to sing the carol! Remember the carol we were learning just before all of this happened? Remember the words we learned, children? Mrs Alvestone, tell the children they have to sing, they always listen to you, they always do as you say!”

The sound of the children crying stopped. Steel glared at Nell; “Again! Tell them again! If they don’t do it, Time will turn them into the remains of those Three Kings on board the ships! They’ll never get back here!”

“Children!” Nell was almost screaming the words now. “Children, please listen to what me and Mrs Alvestone say! I know you’re frightened. I’m frightened too. God knows I am. It’s all going to be all right soon, I promise. Just sing the carol like we learned and everything is going to be okay. Please, children! Please!”

Steel. Sapphire and Diamond remained motionless, waiting for something to happen, hoping desperately for something to happen. Around them the gale blew and the light surged. The decorations that the children had made jingled as the tree trembled.

The new sound was barely audible at first over the rumble of the swirling light. Slowly, it grew in volume. Sapphire seemed to hear it first; she straightened up and her eyes opened wide. Steel saw her reaction and strained his ears even more to detect what Sapphire seemed to have heard. After a few moments, his mouth fell open and the frown in his brow melted away as he appeared to hear it. Finally Tess  heard it too. She thought she must be imagining it because she was wishing for it so much. Sometimes Tess saw her little dog Silver in her dreams because she wanted him so much. Other times Tess heard her Mum’s voice.

The children were singing. It was some kind of miracle that they had been able to hear the voice of their teacher flowing through from their classroom to whatever God forsaken place they had been dragged off to. Maybe they were on those three ships sailing across the ocean all those hundreds of years ago. Most likely they were cold and confused and utterly terrified and yet they had started to sing. Their teacher had told them to and so they were singing.

“I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

I saw three ships come sailing in 

On Christmas day in the morning”

Their voices were faint at first, teary and afraid. The melody was unmistakable, though. The children were singing the carol that Mrs Alvestone and Miss Rooney had taught them at school. As the song went on, their voices grew in strength. The very act of singing was starting to lessen their terror. 

Suddenly, there they were. At the very centre of the swirling circle of light on the wall, children’s faces appeared. The faces grew in size and the sound of them singing grew even louder. The gigantic frames of three sailing ships crashed through the light behind the children, ocean spray shooting up into the air. For a moment it looked as if the majestic vessels would plunge into this very room, crushing them all under their gnarled and ancient timbers. Tess could barely believe she was seeing three ships from more than eight centuries ago lurching towards her.

And what was in those ships all three,

⁠On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?

And what was in those ships all three

On Christmas Day in the morning?”

And then they were in the room. Fred, Billy, Lizzie, even Mrs Alvestone and all of the others. The images of them turned into the actual reality of them, here in the classroom. They had been returned.

Nell lifted her head and looked at them. She blinked, barely able to believe what she was seeing. The children clung to the skirts of the trembling Mrs Alvestone, each staring around them with wide, young eyes in fear and confusion. In a second, Nell had rushed from her position at the overhead projector and joined the newly arrived group. They grabbed at her and pulled her into their group hug, laughing and crying at the same time.

The patch of light on the wall faded and finally disappeared. Along with it went the wind and the rumbling sound. Everything in the room returned to normal.  Diamond reached over and hugged Tess. Steel released a long, slow breath. “It’s done,” he said.

There was a lot more crying and hugging as the children were welcomed back. A head count took place. It reminded Tess of doing the register at her own school. It was established that all of the children were present and correct. Apart from the trauma there were no injuries. None of the kids wanted to say much about where they had been taken to, all they wanted was to go home. Parents would be arriving soon and they would take their sons and daughters home in their little coats and gloves as usual, almost like this had been a normal day. Home through the thickening snow as though nothing had happened.

Steel…” Tess heard Sapphire communicating with Steel with her mind. She wondered why she didn’t speak aloud now that the threat was gone. 

“What is it?”

She took a breath. “It’s not done.

Diamond did not seem to have heard this as she began saying her farewells. She gave Tess the warmest of embraces.       

 “We’re going to have that talk, young lady,” she promised.

Then she did the same to Sapphire who stood stiffly throughout. “We need to talk too, my love. About you-know-who. He’s suffering, you know. And he’s thinking about leaving.”

“Steel?” Sapphire looked shocked.

“That business with the Transients affected him more than you know,” Diamond went on, “and more than he admits.”

With a wave, she was gone.

Nell and Mrs Alvestone herded the children into the corridor to be collected by their loved ones. One of the children asked where the piano had gone but was bundled away by Nell. Outside, snow was still tumbling from the darkening sky. They should all get home while the roads were still open. Finally the room was empty except for Sapphire, Steel and Tess.

“What did you mean ‘it’s not done’?”

Sapphire glanced out through the window at the cascading snow. “When the piano entered into the vortex… it was empty.”

He looked incredulous. “But the children were returned.”


“The time break closed.”


“But the thing, the ‘splinter’ wasn’t in the piano?”

Sapphire shook her head. “It left the piano a second before you threw it into the vortex. It wants us to think we won. It wants to continue to hide here, continue to wait.”

“For what?”

“For the next time children sing that particular carol. For the next time it can break through. It wants to make them part of that day in History. This was just a practice run, Steel. The next time will be much, much worse.”

Steel glanced about the room. The Christmas tree stood over near the window, a little battered now but still upright. The decorations still clung to the walls in something of a state of disarray. Tiny chairs and tables stood empty.

Where did it go when it left the piano?

Sapphire nodded towards the old overhead projector which was standing in its usual place, still illuminated with acetate sheet on its smooth surface.

Slowly, Steel walked over to it. Reaching down, he unplugged it at the wall socket. The internal bulb should go out once the electricity supply is turned off but it continued to glow. That was a sign. It was in there all right.

Is the door to the corridor open?

Sapphire nodded.

The door to the main church building?

Another nod.

Extending his hands, he grasped the sides of the projector. Nothing happened. Following a last look at Sapphire, he lifted it from its resting position and began to walk gingerly over to the door with it in his arms. Sapphire and Tess followed in silence.

Emerging into the corridor, Steel saw Nell and the others at the far end waving off the last of the children. He moved in the opposite direction towards the entrance to the main church. Once through that he began to climb the ancient, stone steps up the the steeple. Those steps seemed to go on forever.

It’s noticed me,” Steel said as he climbed. “It knows we’re up to something. The metal is getting hotter and hotter… getting close to melting point. It wants me to drop it…

He exited the building onto the balcony at the top of the highest part of the church. Snow flew into his eyes and mouth as he carried the projector, still lit, towards the edge.

Can you hear that?” Steel said. “It’s talking to me. It’s talking to my mind. It’s telling me, ordering me to drop it. It knows things about me, Sapphire. It knows I’m weakened. It knows I’m close to the end.

“Don’t listen to it,” Sapphire told him. “It’s not true, Steel.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Of course not.”

“Are you sure about that, Sapphire?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been thinking recently that… that I can’t do this much longer.”

“That’s understandable. All that we went through… Of course it would affect you. But you’ll get through, Steel. We’ll get through.”

“Will we?”

“You know we will.”

“All I know is… this thing wants me to drop it and I’m going to do as it says…”

“Wait, Steel…”

“I’m going to give it what it wants…”

He was now on the very edge of the balcony, still clutching the projector in his hands. The thing was shining like a ball of fire. Steel’s hands must be burning away to nothing.

“Throw it over the side, Steel,” Sapphire ordered.

“If I let it out of my hands… it might escape again… like with the piano… Maybe if I jump with it…”

“No! No, Steel!”

“It’s the only way to be sure…”

“You don’t need to sacrifice yourself!”

“Happy to sacrifice others, though, aren’t I?”

“You’ve saved so many…”

“George Tully?”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Happy to sacrifice him, wasn’t I?”

“If there had been any other way…”

“He didn’t deserve that…”

“What happened to him saved many more lives. You know that.”

“He was a decent man. Probably more decent than me.”

“Throw the thing off the steeple, Steel. That’s all that’s required.”

“Do you know how I feel about you Sapphire?”

There was a pause. “Yes,” she said.

Tess could no longer see Steel at the top of the church steeple. She had been following the mental exchange between the two but now all fell silent. During the endless pause that followed, she found herself thinking about Mum and her dog and work and how wonderful Christmas used to be back then. She thought about how safe she had always felt and how loved.

There was the sudden sound of something metal crashing against stone. The projector must have gone off the edge of the balcony and plummeted to the ground. Tess scurried back down the steps and through the corridor to the outer door. Through the buffeting snow she saw a small group of parents with their children, looking over to the source of the crashing noise. Nell and Mrs Alvestone were standing closer to the building, also peering over to where they had heard the noise. Hurrying in the direction of their gaze, Tess saw the wrecked remains of the projector strewn across the snow-covered ground. There was no light coming from it now. It looked like a dead thing. What Tess most dreaded seeing was the body of Steel. If he had thrown himself off the top of that tower clutching the thing inside the projector she would not be able to bear it. But there was no body. Tess looked back to see if Sapphire had followed her but there was no sign of her either. No Sapphire. No Steel. Just the snow.