Donna Noble crumpled to the ground, the bookshop swimming before her eyes and her ears ringing. The copy of Death in the Clouds she'd picked up fell from her hands. Her emotional state, in those last few seconds of consciousness, could best be described as 'exasperated'.
The fainting fits had started on the Christmas Day before her wedding, when Donna had collapsed in the street. Since then, they'd occurred at random, infrequent intervals. Her GP had sent her for various tests, all of which concluded that she was in perfect health – if anything, better than she had been for years. There was, it seemed, nothing that the medical profession could do for her.
Dimly, she perceived a passerby leaning over her, and felt the tips of his fingers brush against her face. If she'd been capable of speech, she'd have given him a few choice words on the subject of perverts who took advantage of helpless women. As it was, she had to content herself with thinking them.
Another thought stole into her mind. I'm sorry, Donna. I'm so sorry.
Recognition electrified her. Doctor! she thought, in the last instant before–
– and then she was standing on a stage, one of a small group of women. The others were all wearing armour and horned helmets; she looked down at herself, saw the breastplate, felt the metal around her own head.
"Sal?" one of the other women whispered. Someone nudged her. "Sal? You all right?"
Donna realised 'Sal' must be her. She nodded, her thoughts a whirl. Somewhere out of her line of sight, the orchestra struck up. The other women stepped forward; she followed suit, realising to her further shock that she knew every word of the chorus they were about to sing. *
Not for the first time, Donna wondered if she was a fool to come here. The staircase was narrow, its treads uneven and worn with age. The paint on the walls was cracked and peeling. The air smelt, in equal parts, of cooking, floor polish, and incense. Whoever this 'shaman' was that Katherine had recommended, it was obvious that he wasn't in it for the money. Or, if he was, he was making a terrible job of it. Still, if Donna was going to see a mountebank, she'd prefer him to be an incompetent one. Less chance of losing her money, if it was her money to lose.
She reached the door, which was painted a faded cream colour that had probably once been white, and knocked. It was opened almost at once by a little man with dark hair, who was wearing a pale jacket, checked trousers and a knitted jumper covered with question marks. In his left hand, he held an umbrella with a red handle.
"Can I help you?" he asked, in a mild Scottish accent.
"I'm here for a consultation," Donna said.
"Ah, do come in." He led her through a narrow hallway into an ill-lit room, indicated that she should sit on a rickety chair, and perched himself on a stool opposite her. Grounding the tip of his umbrella, he placed both hands on its handle and rested his chin on them.
"Now then," he said, fixing her with an uncomfortably penetrating gaze. "What seems to be the problem?"
Donna took a deep breath.
"I don't know if you'll believe this," she said. "I'm living someone else's life."
At some length, she related the tale of her fainting fits, of her encounter with the Doctor in the bookshop, of suddenly finding herself onstage.
"And now everyone thinks I'm this Sal," she said. "I'm living in her flat and everything. I can sort of remember being her, if I concentrate, and I know the words for all the operas she's singing in. But I'm not her. I'm Donna Temple and I want to know what's going on."
The man didn't appear to have moved since she started talking.
"A curious case," he said. "If you'll excuse me, I shall commune with the Spirits of the Abyss –" he freed his hands from the umbrella, briefly touched his thumbs with his forefingers, and recaptured the umbrella before it toppled "– and see what may be learned."
He closed his eyes. Donna sat back, trying not to fidget. She could hear the distant sounds of traffic, the footsteps of people on the other floors of the building, and the occasional creak from the floor.
The man's eyes snapped open, suddenly.
"Trouble," he said. "Come with me."
"What d'you mean, trouble?" Donna asked.
"I'm not the most popular of citizens. In about a minute's time, a group of large, ruthless men will be at that door looking for me. It would be a good idea if we weren't here when they break it open."
"But they're looking for you, aren't they?" Donna asked, allowing herself to be led to a window. "What would they want with me? Actually, on second thoughts, don't bother telling me. If they're as bad as you say..."
"Worse." The man opened the window and threw out a length of rope, one end of which was tied to a ring set in the wall. "Now, out you get."
Donna shook her head. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Believe me, I'm not joking."
By themselves, those words wouldn't have convinced Donna. But taken in conjunction with an outbreak of crashing and shouting noises from somewhere at the front of the building, they tipped the balance. She lowered herself over the windowsill and down the rope into a dingy, fenced-off yard, managing to avoid all but the mildest of rope burns. As the erstwhile shaman climbed down behind her, the sounds of chaos from the building intensified.
On reaching the ground, the shaman's first act was to give the rope down which they'd climbed a sharp tug. It came loose; Donna had to jump back as the coils of rope slithered to the ground where she'd been standing.
"Can't you even tie a rope properly?" she demanded. "What if that'd come undone when I was a couple of floors off the ground?"
"It wouldn't have." The little man clapped a battered straw hat on his head, and nimbly climbed onto one wall of the yard before Donna could begin to think of a rejoinder.
"I'll be in touch about your reading," he said. "By the way, I wouldn't hang around here if I were you."
He jumped down on the far side of the wall.
"Point taken," Donna muttered. The shouting from the building they'd just come from was becoming louder and angrier by the minute. She climbed over the wall, laddering her tights but sustaining no worse injury, slid down on the far side with all the grace of a sack of potatoes, and found herself in a deserted, ill-lit alleyway. By tortuous routes, trying to make sure she wasn't being followed, she made her way back to her – or Sal's – flat. *
For the next few days, Donna saw nothing of the shaman, and was beginning to think he'd vanished from the face of the earth. At one point, she'd made her way to the tenement where she'd gone for her consultation. The faded white door had been hanging open, and the rooms beyond deserted. Then, one afternoon, as she came out of the church hall where they'd been rehearsing Tosca, she saw him. He was standing quietly beside a lamp post, his umbrella in one hand and his disreputable-looking hat on his head.
Donna detached herself from the other singers, and approached him.
"Thought you'd disappeared for good," she said.
"A lot of people think that," he replied. "They're wrong. Shall we walk?"
He replaced his hat, and began to wander down a road apparently at random. Donna had no choice but to accompany him.
"So what's wrong with me?" she asked.
"There is something in you. A unique quality."
"Is that all you've got to tell me? I don't call that value for money."
He shot her a surprisingly sharp glance. "Considering that I haven't yet taken your money, I don't see that you have any cause to complain."
"Apart from that little thing about living someone else's life. Next time I see the Doctor, I'm going to thump him."
"Ah, yes, the Doctor. I'm afraid the Spirits–" he tucked his umbrella under his arm and made the same gesture he had before "– have not been able to locate him, thus far."
"That's not much good, is it? What sort of things can they tell you?"
"They are a source of boundless information otherwise unavailable to mortals. They see past, present and future as one."
Donna folded her arms against the wind, wishing she'd worn a thicker coat. "How does any of that help me?"
"Doubtless all will become clear in good time."
"So why did you come looking for me today? I mean, couldn't you have waited until–"
The ground shook, and there was a bright flash of light in the direction they were walking. The sound of the explosion rolled over them a couple of seconds later.
"An incursion!" the little shaman snapped, and began to run.
"Hey!" Donna shouted. "Come back here!" Then, since that had no discernable effect, she hurried after the man, trying to match his pace.
Although the explosion hadn't sounded too far away, it was further than Donna could comfortably run, and she soon lost sight of her mysterious companion in the maze of streets. However, the column of black smoke now billowing into the sky provided an adequate guide. Once she got closer, so did the sounds of flames and alarms.
When she finally came in sight of the building that had exploded, Donna stopped to catch her breath and to take stock of the situation. It looked as if the place had, until recently, been a pawn shop, part of a small parade. Now, there was a large hole in its roof, from which the smoke was still pouring, and flames were visible behind the upper windows. Passers-by were already gathering at what they presumably thought was a safe distance.
For a moment, Donna wondered what to do. Then, silhouetted against the flames in the upper window, she saw the outline of a person.
"There's still people in there!" she shouted at the onlookers. "Isn't anyone going to do anything?"
"Best to wait for the fire brigade," said a young mother, keeping a tight hold on her son as he watched the shop burn.
"No point in risking your life too, love," a middle-aged man added.
They had a point, Donna realised. If she went in there, chances were she wouldn't be able to help anyone, and if she got into difficulties people might get hurt trying to rescue her. She looked up at the window again, and caught a glimpse of what might have been the handle of an umbrella. Somewhere in there was the only person who knew anything about her situation, and she considered the prospect that he'd be killed before he'd told her what she knew.
"Oh, sod it," she muttered, and made for the front door of the shop.
The doorway was empty, the door itself having been torn off its hinges by the explosion. Within, the floor was strewn with merchandise and the racks it had been on. Near the entrance, the ceiling and walls were relatively intact, but the back half of the room was a chaos of fire and rubble, lit from above by a hellish red-orange glow.
Donna glanced around, trying to work out how to get to the upper floor. It looked as if there might be a staircase in the far corner, though between the smoke and the flickering light it wasn't easy to tell. If there was, it might be reachable if one edged round the left-hand side of the room.
Then she looked round again, and did a double-take. A fallen cabinet not too far from her was rocking from side to side. There must be someone trapped under it. Carefully, Donna picked her way to the cabinet and took hold of it.
"It's all right," she said. "I'm going to get you out."
There was no answer from the person under the cabinet, but it continued to rock. Donna gathered her strength, and pushed. The cabinet resisted, then turned over with a bang, while Donna lost her footing and fell backwards. Various pieces of merchandise broke her fall, all of them seemingly hard and awkwardly shaped.
For a few seconds Donna had no thought for anything except her new bruises and the pain where she'd banged her elbow. Then she remembered the person she'd been trying to help. She sat up, still rubbing her elbow, and saw what had been under the cabinet. Her mind reeled.
The thing that had been trapped under the cabinet was a skeleton.
Unable to tear her eyes away, Donna watched in horror as the skeleton slowly climbed to its feet, blackened bones clicking into position. She even found time to wonder why it didn't fall to bits, since the bones obviously weren't wired together. Then reality caught up with her, and she struggled to her feet and tried to back away.
The skeleton, moving swiftly and fluidly, made a grab for her arm. Donna threw herself backwards faster than she would have thought possible, making another uncomfortable landing in the shattered remains of a table. Her right hand closed on something; she glanced down, to see that she was holding one of the table's legs.
She looked up, to see the skeleton leaning over her, and brought her improvised club up as a matter of instinct. As the creature reached for her, the club struck its right arm, which flew off at the elbow.
Once more, Donna levered herself upright, and brandished her weapon threateningly.
"Right, matey," she said. "Try any more of that, and it's clobbering time."
If the skeleton heard Donna, it made no sign. However, it didn't make another attempt to grab her. Keeping a safe distance from her, it stalked through the ruins of the shop until it stood between her and the door. Then, it stiffened into immobility, like a sentry on guard.
"I get the message," Donna muttered. "No exit."
Now that the skeleton wasn't moving, she could hear scuffling from further back in the shop. She risked a look in the direction indicated; though she couldn't be sure, she strongly suspected that the vague shape she'd seen was the skeleton's missing arm, dragging itself across the floor by its fingertips.
Then, she heard another clicking sound, and spun round. Emerging from where she fancied she'd seen a staircase, on the far side of the shop, were two more skeletons – one about her own height, the other smaller, that of a child.
"What's this, Happy Families?" she asked them, and promptly wished she hadn't. It gave rise to all sorts of horrible thoughts about where the skeletons had come from, and who they'd used to be.
"Listen," she said, trying not to let her rising panic show. "You lot keep away from me, or you'll get your heads knocked off. Got that?"
Still not speaking, the skeletons closed in on her. The larger of the two new arrivals raised its hand, with something metal glinting among the charred fingerbones, and aimed it directly at Donna.
Once more Donna dived for cover, managing to avoid anything sharp on the floor. Something hot zipped past her head, and there was an explosion behind her. She looked up, to see the skeleton change its aim, and with her free hand, grabbed the first thing she could find – which turned out to be two video tapes in a box – and hurled it in the creature's face. Its skull went flying, but the rest of its body didn't seem to care. Slowly, deliberately, it aimed whatever device it was holding at Donna, and she saw its fingers begin to tighten.
Then the red light from the blaze upstairs suddenly rose in intensity, changing colour through orange and yellow to eye-hurting brilliant white, and blinked out. As it did so, the skeletons collapsed, disintegrating into scattered heaps of bone in less than a second.
Donna scrambled to her feet and tried to dust herself down. As she did so, she heard soft footsteps from the staircase, and the familiar figure of her shaman came into view, swinging his umbrella as though on a quiet country walk.
"Ah, Donna," he said. "I wondered why our friends were suddenly so eager to be somewhere else. Thank you for providing a very timely distraction."
"Distraction?" Donna took a deep breath. "Listen, sunshine, if you think I came here just to distract those things and save your life, you're..." She tailed off as she realised that that was precisely what she'd done, and tried another tack. "What were they, anyway? I mean, apart from skeletons."
Her inscrutable companion was poking around among the bones with the tip of his umbrella. "They were the people in the shop at the time of the incursion," he said. "They would have died instantly, if that's any comfort."
He bent down, scooped up the metal thing that the skeleton had been holding, and dropped it into one of his pockets.
"Look, what is all this 'incursion' malarkey?" Donna demanded.
In the distance, the sirens of fire engines could be heard. At the same moment, Donna realised that the fire wasn't out. A dim red flickering could be glimpsed through the hole in the ceiling, and new flames had sprung up in the corner behind her. The heat was becoming uncomfortable.
She felt something touch her arm, and looked down to see that she'd been hooked by the handle of the shaman's umbrella.
"We need to get out of here," he said sharply.
Within minutes, they'd picked their way round the edge of the room, found a passageway leading to the back of the building, emerged into a back street, and put several hundred yards between themselves and the fire. Then, having looked around carefully as if to make sure they were not pursued, the shaman stopped, and turned to face Donna.
"Before we were interrupted," he said, "I believe you were asking me whether the Spirits" – he performed the propitiatory gesture with his hands – "had anything further to say about you."
Donna tried to think back that far, and nodded.
"They did. There is something in your mind, something that cannot be tamed or destroyed, except by killing you. But perhaps it can be brought safely to birth. That will be thirteen pounds fifty, please."
"You– I don't believe this. You drag me halfway across town and through a burning building full of walking skeletons, and now you want me to pay you?"
"I did mention before that you hadn't paid for your consultation."
Donna groped for words, eventually settling for "No!" and storming off.
"So be it," the shaman said, watching her retreating back. "Doubtless other opportunities to pay will present themselves." *
Even after a long hot bath and a change of clothes, Donna couldn't stop thinking about that last conversation. Sitting in the flat she'd usurped from 'Sal' – whoever 'Sal' was – with a wrap flung over her shoulders and a mug of warm tea, she still felt horribly uneasy. And that wasn't just down to the bruises, though she'd definitely be black and blue tomorrow. She'd have thought that her mind would dwell on the animated skeletons or the burning shop, but again and again she came back to that calm, enigmatic figure in the straw hat.
"Something in my mind," she muttered, and glanced down. There was a pad of paper on the table, and she'd been idly doodling on it. Now she looked at what she'd drawn, it did look vaguely familiar. A mountain, perhaps, with buildings at its foot. It was only a sketch, but looking at it made her uneasy. She turned the paper face down.
"This is all your fault, Doctor," she muttered. "Just wait till I get my hands on you."
Humming softly to herself, she started a new drawing. Ah, chi mi dice mai Quel barbaro dov'è... Her memory, or Sal's, supplied the translation. Who will ever tell me where that scoundrel is?