Sir Roger de Coverley was among Elinor’s favourite dances, usually — she liked imagining the dancers like foxes, darting in and out of cover amid the hunt. Also, it allowed for conversation between partners, which she quite enjoyed.
However, at the Willoughbys’ ball, the feeling of being hunted was far too real, and the conversation she overheard was extremely troubling.
“That younger girl is the one who threw herself so audaciously at Willoughby during that London ball I told you about,” a man whispered. “Shocking.”
“I suppose those are the sorts of gowns we can expect to see in the country,” said a woman on the chasse, with a glance at Elinor and Marianne’s simple cotton dresses, trimmed with ribbon yet plain compared to the shimmering silks that bedecked the fashionable set from London.
Elinor was spared the indignity of hearing what Mrs. Willoughby said herself, though her sharp eyes followed both Dashwood sisters about the dance floor without ceasing. Sometimes she seemed to be laughing at them — though, Elinor felt, a better-tempered woman than Mrs. Willoughby might be forgiven for making merry at the sight of Mrs. Jennings loudly giving them counsel, or of Elinor herself trying as best she could to dance with Sir John.
Most worrisome, however, was the conversation she heard between the dancers next to her.
“Tell me, what gave you the idea to wear — that?” Marianne said to her partner.
The Doctor replied, “A wise man once said — or will say, can’t recall at the mo — ‘beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ I intend to make do with what I’ve already got.”
“I suppose a uniform for cricket is not wholly inappropriate for dancing, as both practices are so vigorous. It is not at all the thing for a ball, however. Or so most men would say.” Marianne paused as they took hands with the next couple. “And celery for a boutonniere?”
“It’s in season,” he said blithely.
It was not so much the conversation itself that worried Elinor — after only a brief acquaintance, she was well aware that the Doctor’s talk could be both elliptical and frivolous. What concerned her was the odd note in Marianne’s questions. Her mind was still turning around the puzzle of the Doctor, and no doubt still coming up with magical explanations, as though it would require divine influence for a man to come into possession of a stalk of celery. Such irrationality could not possibly help Marianne navigate the difficult situation in which they found themselves.
When they took a rest to sample the punch, Mrs. Jennings declared, “Doctor, ‘tis too true that you’re out of practice at dancing. Though you followed the steps well enough, you did jostle the poor curate on the glissade.”
“It’s been ages. Literally.” The Doctor’s mind did not seem to be on the conversation, nor on the punch. His gaze remained fixed on a far corner of the ballroom — in particular, on a hallway down which the Willoughbys had briefly parted from the company. “Dare say I’ll get the swing of it.”
“A swing?” Sir John said. “A daring addition to a ballroom, I would think. But who’s to say what these young bucks might get up to?”
The Doctor straightened and placed his cup of punch on the table — avoiding all the other abandoned cups there, though he did not look. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment. Ladies, Sir John.”
“Do not forget our Miss Dashwood at the next allemande!” Mrs. Jennings called. To the sisters, she said, “Droll man. Most curious. And yet I find him quite dear.”
“We too must beg your leave,” Marianne said, taking Elinor’s hand. “Do not fear. We will not long abandon our good chaperone.”
Mrs. Jennings beamed. Elinor was heartened to see that Marianne had at last learned to appreciate the kindly nature of their boisterous hosts. She was less encouraged to realize that Marianne was following the Doctor.
“Marianne, what can you be thinking? Surely the Doctor wishes some privacy.”
“This is not as mundane as ducking behind the screen,” Marianne said, a most shocking statement to make where they might be overheard. But Elinor’s blushing was cooled by her sister’s next words: “I believe that the Doctor has become suspicious of Willoughby’s wife.”
“Suspicious? What can you mean?”
“I hardly know. But there is such in his expression when he looks at her — as though he found her fearsome.”
“As well he might, a woman so proud and unpleasant.” Elinor extricated her hand from her sister’s grip. “Please, you must use good sense. You must display reserve, tact, an immunity to the — cruel situation in which you are caught.”
“Why must I, Elinor? In order to win the good opinion of those whose regard is not worth the having? I care not what these people make of me. But I care very much to know what secrets the Doctor is hiding. This is not mere gossip. Do not you see it, Elinor? That this is more?”
Elinor did not see it. She did, however, see the brightness in Marianne’s eyes and the flush of her cheeks. For the first time since Willoughby had left Barton Cottage forever, Marianne seemed wholly herself. Even happy.
If her bizarre convictions about the Doctor somehow gave her peace — and gave her courage in the face of disapproval that Elinor herself would do well to emulate — then by all means, they would investigate.
“Lead on, Marianne,” Elinor said. Her sister smiled brilliantly, and they hurried down the hallway, following in the Doctor’s footsteps.
A door creaked, and they turned a corner just in time to see the Doctor disappearing into a darkened room quite far away — surely the very edge of the house. The sisters followed. Elinor whispered, “Ought we to make our presence known? I do not wish to be rude.”
“Nor do I. Yet as kind as the Doctor has been to us, he has not told us the whole truth, and he is skilled in the arts of evasion. If we are ever to learn more, we must catch him out.”
Their words stilled as they reached the threshold of the darkened room; the Doctor had not closed the door behind him but had pulled it to, so that only a sliver of the darkness beyond showed around the door’s edges. The sisters exchanged a glance before Marianne pressed her hands to the door and pushed it forward, slowly, so that the hinges might not creak.
The Doctor stood in the middle of what must have once been a sort of library, to judge by the high bookshelves that covered each wall from floor to ceiling. Yet the shelves no longer held books. Instead, glass cylinders, perhaps jars, were piled thickly where the books ought to have gone. And each cylinder held —
What was it? Elinor could not say. Her first thought was fireflies, but that was not correct; fireflies showed as small skittering dots of orange light, and this was another type of brilliance altogether. An arc of light, perhaps, bouncing within each jar, like serpents in water. The glow radiated thereby was enough to illumine the shelves, but not the centre of the room, where the Doctor stood. He stared down into a black square, roughly the dimensions of a billiards table. To judge by the greenish flickering that played upon his sombre face, it was certainly something else. The Doctor took from his pocket a sort of metal contraption, the same size as a letter-opener, and pointed it downward; its tip began to glow, not unlike the light-serpents themselves.
Magic, Elinor thought. She was too astonished to feel chagrin, but could there be any doubt she had been proved wrong?
Marianne took one tentative step within, then, when no disaster befell her, walked quickly toward the Doctor. Elinor kept only a short distance behind. When they were very near, Marianne said, “You will not tell us this is a trick of the light.”
The Doctor jumped. “What the —“ When he saw them, he scowled. “Dancing slippers on thick carpets. Quieter than cats. I’ll have you know every civilized world has outlawed such a thing.”
“Explain,” Elinor said. Her heart beat at an alarming rate. “You must explain this. Explain yourself. Do not mislead us any longer.”
“We wish to be friends,” Marianne added. “True friends do not keep such secrets.”
“True friends can keep secrets you’d never imagine.” The Doctor’s gaze slid sideways, and his sour expression transformed into one of profound unease. “… and it might have been better if we’d tried whispering.”
“What do you mean?” Elinor looked in the same direction as he, and realized that the light-serpents were moving differently now. Instead of gliding about gently within their jars, they now thrashed from side to side, so that all the glass rattled and vibrated.
Marianne clutched Elinor’s arm. “What is happening?”
“We’re running!” The Doctor pushed them both in front of him so that all three began to dash toward the door. As they ran, jars started to shatter, each fall of glass resulting in a louder and louder hiss, as though the work of real serpents. Elinor glanced back once and saw that the lights were meeting one another, forming a larger creature, almost a dragon, that seemed to stare at them — to be pouncing at them —
The Doctor tackled the sisters as a cowherd might an unruly calf, bearing all of them down onto the carpet in the hallway outside. He managed to kick shut the door behind them just before the light-dragon struck it; the wood vibrated with a terrible sound that must have echoed within the whole house and far beyond it.
They stumbled to their feet just before the first partygoers began to venture into the hallway, in search of the source of the noise. “What has happened?” said one fashionable Londoner. Elinor could not think how to explain. The Doctor’s face took on a very odd expression, and she became certain that he was on the verge of inventing some colourful, implausible tale that would reassure no one whatsoever.
Marianne, with what Elinor considered great wisdom and excellent timing, chose that moment to feign a swoon.
When she collapsed against Elinor’s shoulder, all those witnessing were overcome with concern for her — or, as she overheard in various whispers, the need to gossip about Miss Dashwood’s obvious distress at the sight of her former swain and his new bride. The Doctor managed to say that she had fallen, which could not at all have explained a crash so loud. However, as this tale enhanced the dramatic nature of their gossip, the party was satisfied. By supplying a new source of conversation, Marianne had successfully diverted the interrogation.
And, Elinor thought with a worried glance backward, Marianne had also kept anyone from opening the door that held back the terrifying light-dragon.
As Mrs. Jennings helped Marianne into her carriage, Elinor heard Sir John say to the Doctor, “Will you remain at the ball, sir? Surely Miss Dashwood will be well once she is restored to her home. But if you prefer to come with us, you are welcome to stop a while with my dear mamma and myself.”
“I’ll see myself home,” the Doctor said, with a not-unkindly smile. Yet there was that in his voice as presaged great danger.
Elinor, now in the carriage beside her sister, looked down at Marianne. When their eyes met, she knew what they would do, and how they would do it, as surely as though they had planned it some months in advance.
No, she needed no more persuasion to investigate “magic.”
Later that night, after Mrs. Jennings and Sir John had left and their mother had fussed over Marianne at length, the sisters Dashwood were at last able to shut the door of their bedroom in the pretence that they wished to sleep. Elinor felt some surprise when Marianne began to undress. Then she realized that it would be most foolish to venture out in their party gowns, and inadequate to the evening chill. Together, without a word, they helped one another into their warmest and sturdiest dresses and coats, the ones they normally reserved for days of labour.
It was fortunate that both Mamma and Margaret were both quick and sound sleepers. Once they were dressed, Marianne and Elinor could immediately set out down the stairs to their front stoop, where they put on their shoes at the door and closed the latch quietly. The moon was near full and the sky cloudless, so silvered light showed them the way toward the meadow where they had first seen the Doctor’s shed.
“Are you afraid, Elinor?” Marianne said.
“We have never walked out so late, it is true, but one never hears of vagrants or other such trouble in this vicinity.”
“I meant, of the Doctor.”
Elinor realized that the question was not an unreasonable one, and yet even upon further consideration she could discern no trace of fear within herself. “I am only curious, I find.”
“I, too.” Marianne smiled so brightly that Elinor thought she might laugh aloud. “Is it not exciting?”
In prudence, Elinor thought, she should say something cautionary. In honesty, she could not entreat her sister to a greater caution than she felt herself. She therefore said nothing as they made their way quickly through the meadow toward the tiny blue shed silhouetted by the moonlight.
When Elinor knocked on the door, there followed a long pause, so long that the sisters glanced at one another in dismay. “Could he have remained at the Willoughbys’ ball?” Marianne asked. “Surely he has not gone back to fight the dragon himself.”
“He would not be so foolish, I think.”
“And yet he had gone to fight it alone before!”
“Then it was several serpents in jars, not a — larger sort of — dragon. Or such.” The necessary vocabulary was most unseemly.
The shed’s door opened, and the Doctor stood there, still in his cricketer’s uniform, plus an odd sort of straw hat with a flat crown and a band decorated with marks of interrogation. “Might’ve known you two couldn’t leave well enough alone.”
Elinor did not take kindly to being growled at. “Had you beheld such as — as that, and you did not understand its nature, could you rest easily without answers?”
The Doctor sighed heavily, yet despite himself seemed somewhat amused. “Well, neither of you has fainted yet. Good a sign as any, I suppose.” He turned and walked inside the mysterious golden interior of the shed, then glanced back after them. “What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation? Get in before you catch your death. It’s chilly out there, and as you’ve seen --- strange things are afoot.”
The sisters walked inside, in no less a feeling of awe than they had felt the first time. “How is this possible?” Marianne said. “This phenomenon of this shed’s true size. Of your transformation when we met you. The earth-quake, if that is indeed what it was.”
“And how all of this can possibly involve Mrs. Willoughby,” Elinor added. When Marianne stared at her, she said, “You had realized the connexion before now.”
“I — yes, I had wondered as much, but I half believed the notion to be only my own mean feeling,” Marianne confessed.
“Sometimes, you even have to trust your petty side,” the Doctor confided. “Because it’s steered you in the right direction this time.”
Enough vagaries. Elinor demanded, “What is this … shed?”
The Doctor looked heavenward. “Shed. A shed, she calls it! Don’t jostle her too much, dear girl; she knows not what she beholds. This, Misses Dashwood, is a TARDIS. That stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space, which is what she can move within. She’s a living thing, no machine … but you wouldn’t expect a machine, would you? More used to horses than to horseless carriages.”
A horseless carriage sounded particularly useless to Elinor, but she had no time to puzzle over his odd phrases. “This — TARDIS moves? Under its own locomotion?”
He grinned. “We can go to Paris. To the West Indies. To the moon. To the indigo grasslands of Levixtian Three, which is a planet orbiting a different star altogether from the sun. And if your discontent with the here and now has more to do with the ‘now’ than the ‘here,’ I can take you back to meet Edward the Confessor. Boudicca. Whoever else strikes your fancy.”
None of it was remotely sensible. None of it had any place beyond the pages of a fairy story. The Doctor was telling lies, mocking them: That was the only rational explanation. Yet Marianne stared at him, her face dawning with wonder, as though she believed every word and had never heard anything so delightful. It was no great surprise that her fanciful nature would accept and even welcome such a tale.
The great surprise was that Elinor — against all logic and inclination — believed it too.
Marianne gaped. “So this is — this is truly — magic.”
“A wise man once said — or will say, honestly, I ought to check the dates in my Bartlett’s sometimes — ‘Any science sufficiently developed will be indistinguishable from magic.’ And that’s what this is. Science. The unfolding of natural law, in ways that haven’t yet been discovered on your planet, in your century.”
“On … our planet,” Elinor said. “Not your planet.”
“What gave me away? It’s the ears, isn’t it? I thought they didn’t quite regenerate correctly this time. Overenthusiastically, at any rate.”
In a far steadier voice than she would have thought possible for such a sentence, Elinor continued, “You are a sort of … scientist-traveller from another world and era, using a living vehicle that is larger on the inside to move great distances or over centuries.”
The Doctor grinned. “Nicely done! As many times as I’ve had to explain, I don’t think I’ve ever made so neat a job of it.”
The sisters’ eyes met, as each sought confirmation of the other’s belief. Marianne brightened as she saw that she would not need to convince Elinor further. “How delightful!” Marianne said. “That seems somehow inadequate to the moment, but I know not what else to say.”
“Delight’s rather nice, actually,” the Doctor said. “I’ll take it.”
Elinor turned these revelations over in her mind once more. What they had learned here — it was not a fancy, not a delusion. Not was it simple, plain fact, to be fitted into the ordinary course of life. It was both logic and illogic, fantasy and science, the merging of her reason and Marianne’s sensibilities. For once, neither of them was wrong; both of them had been completely right, even though their beliefs had been exact opposites!
She laughed aloud. Marianne raised her eyebrows, and even the Doctor seemed to be surprised. Elinor covered her mouth with her hand, but she knew her glee to be ill-concealed. “Delightful,” she said. “Yes.”
The Doctor turned back to the machination at the centre of the TARDIS, and with his long fingers punched at certain bits of metal. An illustration of the light-dragon appeared, though instead of a drawing it seemed to be made of light as well, and it hung in mid-air. Although the sisters gasped at such a marvel, he did not seem to pay much heed. “Looks familiar, hmm? What you see here is a Nalosian Congregation, which is actually several dozen or hundred Nalosians all jumbled together.”
“The Nalosians —“ Marianne hesitated on the unfamiliar word. “Were they the serpents in the jars?”
“Precisely, Marianne!” the Doctor declared, indelicately omitting the proper “Miss” before her name. Then again, Elinor rationalized, they had gotten on rather familiar terms very quickly. “Each Nalosian on its own — hardly worth worrying about. Off their home planet, they’re badly weakened. Worst thing one could do is tip over a vase. Not much to worry about, unless you’re extremely fond of some particular vase. But when you get a Nalosian Congregation, you have something fairly deadly on your hands. The one in the Willoughbys’ home isn’t very large — yet. Given more time, however, I suspect Mrs. Willoughby could work up a proper monster. And I think she means to.”
Elinor interjected, “How is Mrs. Willoughby the cause of this? You suggest that these creatures are from another world, and surely she is not.” A pause. “Is she?”
“Doubt it. To be precise, it’s nothing to do with Mrs. Willoughby itself,” the Doctor said. “It’s the thing that’s taken up residence inside her.”
Marianne paled. “Do you mean … possession? As if by demons?”
“Very like.” The Doctor punched at a small contraption of metal squares and rectangles; the illustration of the Nalosian Congregation vanished and was replaced with an image of a finely worked silver bracelet.
“That is Mrs. Willoughby’s bracelet,” Marianne said. “The one you noted when we all first met on the path that day.”
The Doctor folded his arms, running one finger absently along the stalk of celery pinned to his jumper. “Some people would call it a bracelet. Other people would call it a ‘telepathic tether.’ The Nalosians shoot them out into space, in all different sizes, always bright and shiny. Every planet’s intelligent races love bright and shiny things. We’re all pathetic like that, it turns out. Anyway, somebody eventually takes the tether. That person is then possessed by a Nalosian, and as the possessed person subverts the will of one person after another — turns them into her puppets, whether for an hour or forever — essentially, they make little baby Nalosians.” He paused. “Sorry, was that improper? I keep forgetting, this era’s rather … staid.”
In truth, Elinor’s cheeks had pinked, but she said smoothly, “We are not ignorant of such matters. Pray continue.”
“Well. The more Nalosians that come into being on this world, the larger a Nalosian Congregation we’ll be dealing with. Which raises the prospect of mass hysteria, property destruction on an enormous scale, the occasional murder, and, for some reason, a gigantic increase in the fox population. Something about Nalosian Congregations affects foxes the same way Barry White affects humans. Or will affect them. Really, I’ve got to brush up on my Earth dates.”
Marianne stepped closer to the Doctor, her youthful face alight with hope. “You mean that Mrs. Willoughby — she truly is controlling people’s behaviour? Including Willoughby’s?”
Elinor had thought Willoughby’s protestations of being forced into cruelty by his wife to be merely weak pretexts for his own ill-conduct. Faced with the possibility that this was the literal truth, she no longer knew how to assess her own condemnation of him — or what this might mean for Marianne.
This matter did not bear discussing at the moment, however; a more pressing question had come to Elinor’s mind. “The bracelets are used in the subversion of people’s will, you said?”
“Precisely,” the Doctor replied.
“Just as Mrs. Willoughby tried to subvert Mrs. Jennings’s will, according to what she told us that day at tea.” The story — with the bracelet being flashed about, and commands being given — sounded so different now. “Yet she was unable to subdue Mrs. Jennings.”
“A platoon of Cybermen couldn’t subdue Mrs. Jennings.” At the sisters’ stares of incomprehension, the Doctor further explained, “Highly strong-willed people aren’t as susceptible to the Nalosians’ influence. Mrs. J. fits into that category, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It could not be argued otherwise,” Elinor said, keeping as straight a face as she could manage.
Marianne’s focus had remained unchanged. “If Willoughby is under this infernal creature’s influence, how can we free him? How do we stop her?”
The Doctor took a deep breath. “We go over there, bonk her on the head and get the bracelet back.”
The sisters looked at one another for a moment, then turned back to the Doctor as Elinor said, “… bonk?”
“Hit. Strike. Thump. Whack.” He mimed the motion against the wall of the TARDIS, perhaps in the belief that none of these words would be comprehensible to them. “Whatever it takes to get that bracelet off her wrist. It’s one of the only two ways to break the link between Mrs. Willoughby and the Nalosians; the other involves a soak in a solution including polyphenols, phenolic acids, alkaloids, and — you know, what say we just grab the bracelet? As soon as the link is broken, the Nalosians will begin to fade, and they’ll instantly lose the power to form a Congregation.”
“As surely you will undertake the more combative aspect of this plan, what role do you wish for us to play?” Marianne asked. Elinor started in surprise, but Marianne continued, “I do not believe you would have told us any of this, had you not felt our cooperation necessary.”
The Doctor did not deny this, which Elinor felt to be a compliment to their good sense. “I don’t know what Willoughby was like before. So I don’t know whether he’s merely under her sway, or whether he’s possessed as well.”
“But he wears no bracelet,” Marianne protested. “We would notice anything so peculiar as that!”
“Which is why he’d hide it — as an armband under his shirt, perhaps. But if he’s merely being controlled, you might be able to snap him out of it — bring him back to himself, maybe. If the two of you come with me now, once we’ve parted Mrs. Willoughby from her jewellery, you can tell me whether the problem is solved, or whether he’s going to need bonking on the head as well.”
Elinor privately felt that Willoughby rather deserved a … bonk … on the head, irrespective of whether it was strictly required. “Now? It is the dead of night.”
Marianne interjected, “Every moment we linger potentially adds to her strength. And if we are to slip in secretly, it must be by night.”
“Like thieves?” Elinor protested.
Crossly, Marianne said, “Do you wish to wait for an invitation to dine? If Mrs. Willoughby ever invites us again, it will be with the object of subverting our will, and I would prefer therefore to go when she does not anticipate our arrival.”
The Doctor looked impressed. “You’ve got a knack for this sort of thing, you know that?”
Her words indeed represented good sense. Elinor straightened her bonnet. “Very well,” she said. “Let us begin.”
No servants stirred at this hour — even the lowliest scullery maid would have finished her scrubbing up by then and gone to her garret to sleep, and not even the most vigilant footman had yet risen. Thus the Dashwood sisters and the Doctor were able to approach the great house without fear of discovery. The door proved to be locked, but the Doctor’s odd little contraption — which he called a “sonic screwdriver” — undid that in an instant.
“You are a formidable man, Doctor,” Marianne whispered as they pushed the door open, slowly, that the hinges might not squeak. “I shudder to think what it would mean to have you as an enemy, rather than a friend.”
“You do well to shudder.” As the Doctor said this, Elinor studied his face in the moonlight, in the hope that he was jesting. She believed he was not.
They made their way through the ballroom, which showed very little sign of its earlier glamour; already the servants had taken away all the flowers and put up all the candles. Only a lingering scent of gardenias suggested that a dance had taken place this night. Wordlessly, they travelled the way they had come before, toward the room where the Nalosians had been kept in their jars. As they tiptoed down the hallways — carefully, for they were now in boots rather than their soft slippers — they began to hear voices.
“My love,” Willoughby said, all politeness, “the hour grows late. We should to bed.”
Mrs. Willoughby replied, just as sweetly, “We cannot rest until we finish our labours, dearest.”
The doorway from before had been opened, and a sickly green light flickered in the hallway. Elinor felt quite nervous that the Nalosian Congregation — or, as she still thought of it, the light-dragon — could easily come after them. Nothing now held it in place. Yet the Doctor and Marianne kept on, and where they went, Elinor would follow.
When they reached the open door, the Doctor leaned over to peer inside the room with far more confidence than Elinor thought the situation merited. However, when no shrieks of anger greeted this movement, she and Marianne both followed suit.
The light-serpents had returned to their jars — or, as it were, to new jars. Broken glass still littered the floor; no doubt the Willoughbys had told the servants never to enter this room. Willoughby sat, straight-backed, in a chair in one corner, and only a certain stiffness in his posture betrayed that all was not well. His eyes were blank, and his smile handsome as ever, if ill-focused, like a man thinking of someone not present. On the table next to him sat a teapot and two cups, though no steam issued forth — the tea was no doubt long-abandoned, gone cold. In the centre of the room, in front of the strange billiard-table-shaped device, paced Mrs. Willoughby. Still she wore her glittering ballgown, though it was slightly askew now, one of the sleeves pulled entirely off her shoulder in an unseemly manner. Her fair curls had escaped their hairband, but Mrs. Willoughby paid this no notice. Instead she went back and forth, back and forth.
“How can he know?” she whispered. “Who can he be? He smells of a Time Lord, but they are only concerned with their mad wars against the Daleks.”
“Sorry,” the Doctor declared loudly, stepping into the room. “The Time War’s ended. Which puts me back on duty, so to speak.”
What madness was this? Elinor could hardly believe that the Doctor had done anything so foolish as announcing himself to their enemy, particularly while she was surrounded by light-serpents that could band together to do her bidding. But Marianne quickly took her place at the Doctor’s side, leaving Elinor little choice than to do likewise.
Mrs. Willoughby, spying them, began to laugh. “Have you brought along little human girls to do your bidding, Time Lord? How unworthy of you.”
“I haven’t stolen their bodies. Used them like toys in a dollhouse,” the Doctor said. “Like some others I could mention.”
“I do what I must.” Mrs. Willoughby tossed her curls in a manner so natural and familiar that Elinor felt certain this, at least, was something that survived of the true woman, not the demon alien possessing her. “You attempt what you should not.”
She flung out her hands, which crackled with a strange light, like the sparks in woollens on dry cold mornings. And the light-serpents began to writhe.
Why had the Doctor showed himself? Elinor wondered. Yet immediately she comprehended the answer. No opportunity to surprise Mrs. Willoughby had showed itself. Therefore he meant to distract her, leaving any show of force to the Dashwood sisters. Elinor meant to have a word with the Doctor about the imprudence of this plan later, but for now, she slipped away to the side, attempting to get lost in the shadows.
Marianne followed, but more swiftly, and she obviously did not govern her conduct to avoid attention. “Willoughby!” she cried. “Willoughby, you must awaken. You must free yourself from her power!”
Willoughby glanced at Marianne, but absently, as he might look about a ball for any special acquaintance.
“Do you not hear me? Willoughby! We need you — you must overcome her!” Marianne went to Willoughby and shook his shoulders. When this produced no effect, she slapped him across the cheek. “Willoughby!”
As Willoughby made no particular movement, despite having now been “bonked” upon the head, Elinor privately decided that he was not a separate prisoner of the Nalosians, but rather the plaything of his possessed wife. Quietly she tiptoed behind Marianne and Willoughby, glad of the hubbub in the room that would disguise her movements — and increasingly nervous about the thrashing of the light-serpents. She suspected that, if the light-dragon came forth again, this time they would discover its true power.
“Why do you continue to drive us from Earth, Time Lord?” Mrs. Willoughby said, circling the Doctor as their gazes locked. “We will always return, you know. It is so rich for us.”
The Doctor’s smile held no mirth. “You’ll always return,” he agreed. “And you’ll always be wrong. That’s why I’ll always be here to stop you.”
“How grand you think yourself,” Mrs. Willoughby sneered.
Now the Doctor actually seemed amused. “And isn’t that fine, coming from someone who gads about in dyed emu feathers?”
Mrs. Willoughby hissed in the manner of an angry cat. The light-serpents writhed so desperately that the jars began to rattle. Time was running out.
Elinor did not trust the strength of her own blows, but she thought perhaps she might throw something at Mrs. Willoughby. That might prove most forceful. But what could she throw? This room was devoid of books, she dared not shatter even one of the jars. Then an idea came to her. In desperation, Elinor seized the china teapot and threw it directly at Mrs. Willoughby — and missed, only splashing her thoroughly with tea.
But as the teapot fell to the ground and shattered, Mrs. Willoughby began to scream.
The terrible long peal of her cry trembled through the very walls. Slowly, the light-serpents dimmed, darkening the room to near blackness as they faded entirely. Mrs. Willoughby swooned to the floor, quite insensible.
“Miss Dashwood!” the Doctor exclaimed, quite beside himself with glee. “That — that was — it was —“ He struggled in vain for a word, then hit on, “Fantastic!”
Willoughby stood up very suddenly, and Marianne stumbled back a few steps in shock. He said, “My God. You have defeated her. That vile creature. I am myself again.”
“I do not understand,” Elinor confessed. “I did not strike her, and the tea would not have been hot enough to scald.”
“You soaked her in a solution of polyphenols, phenolic acids and alkaloids,” the Doctor pronounced with pleasure. “Did the trick in a jiff. I was hoping you’d catch on when you saw the teapot.”
Marianne said, “Do you mean that all we needed was — a cup of tea?”
The Doctor nodded and folded his arms across his chest. “Tea solves everything.”
Aware that her sister was gaping at her, Elinor revealed no reaction, in an effort not to appear too thoroughly self-satisfied.