Once upon a time there were two young princes. Each little boy was utterly enamored of their mother, the Queen, and each in their own way tried to win her attention. The elder brother, Mycroft, was the dutiful son, the heir, the one Mummy trusted in his teens to be ambassador and councilor and would one day be a fine king. The younger, Sherlock, played his violin for Mummy and behaved abominably the rest of the time, leaving dissected frogs and sheep’s eyeballs in the strangest of crannies in the castle. He would never make a good prince and it was lucky he would not be king, for the kingdom would forever be at war for the unrestrained comments that would fly from his mouth.
Prince Mycroft thought that Mummy loved Prince Sherlock best despite his behavior. She was too tolerant, too lenient, and she smiled too fondly at her beautiful son.
Prince Mycroft became bitter as he grew up and started taking more and more of the responsibility of taking care of the kingdom while Sherlock grew only more dissolute and uncontrollable as he came of age. His brother was clearly mad, a detriment to the future of the kingdom, whispered his closest advisor. After all, what if Mycroft himself died without issue? The kingdom would fall to Sherlock and it would surely disintegrate into a chaotic ruin within a year.
The only way to ensure that this would not happen was to make sure Sherlock perished first.
An accident. Everyone would believe an accident, whispered the advisor when he and Prince Mycroft were in closed quarters. Prince Sherlock is careless, he said. No one, not even the Queen, will suspect anything.
And this was true. Sherlock had converted part of the dungeons into a laboratory, where he could experiment in peace far from the living areas of the castle. He often mixed chemicals together just to see the results, and many times, this had resulted in fumes and smoke and in liquids that burned through tabletops.
Therefore, when the accidents started happening, no one really noticed. When two flasks got mixed up and caused a small but smoky explosion, Sherlock just stormed up to his room and hid away until he could stop coughing. He appeared when summoned later, stroppy and disgruntled, upset that he’d made such a stupid miscalculation.
It wasn’t until the third time that Sherlock saw the pattern and began to look furtively at those who came and went in the lower parts of the castle.
It also didn’t take him long to recognize the expression of disappointment on his brother’s face once he was looking for it. The advisor’s face held unrestrained glee, knowing that Prince Sherlock knew and could do nothing about it.
Mummy had fallen ill by this time and Sherlock didn’t think he could take his suspicions to her. And if she died, Mycroft would become king. At that point, it was likely that the attempts on his life would be more relentless and less discreet. After all, Mummy wouldn’t be there to mourn him.
So the night his mother breathed her last, Sherlock left the castle. He stole the clothing and cape of a servant, still finer than worn by the common folk of the kingdom, a bit of bread and cheese, a water skin and a few coins. He wasn’t sure where he could go that would be safe, but anywhere else would be safer than the castle.
And this is where our story begins.
Prince Sherlock walked for several days, taking only short breaks to rest or to nibble on the food he’d brought, trying to make it last. Food in the castle he could take or leave, but food in the forest had to be worked for. And Sherlock knew a great many things, but how to survive in the forest on his own was not one of them.
Word in the kingdom spread faster than Sherlock could flee on foot, for the first town he came across already had posted handbills with Sherlock’s likeness on them. They offered a reward for his heart to be carved from his chest and brought to the castle. Whatever reason the new king might give for this decree was irrelevant.
Sherlock had planned to spend a coin on a warm bowl of stew at the inn, but pulled his hood over his dark hair and walked back to the edge of the woods. He would not be able to venture into towns, not without incredible risk. And if the guard had already traveled farther from the castle than him, he might never be able to pass them and make it to the border of the kingdom.
Sherlock passed the night shivering, tucked into a tight ball, and the next morning running from the Royal Guard. He tried every trick he had ever read about, backtracked, hid, flew through the brush as fleet as a deer. The sun rose and the fog began to clear when Sherlock finally felt he’d evaded his death that day when across a clearing, he heard a forceful command.
Prince Sherlock did little better than collapse into a panting mess on the ground at the surprise. He was exhausted from lack of sleep, little food, and the cold that had settled into his bones. The smaller heart of a rabbit could beat faster, but Sherlock’s heart was attempting to keep pace.
Sherlock swept back his hood and lifted his face and stared at the stranger across the small clearing. A huntsman, bow steady, arrow nocked and drawn back with a sure hand. Not one of the Guard, then, but perhaps looking for the reward money. He was built well, though shorter than Sherlock, clearly capable of the physical work required in the forest. His sandy head was bare, his clothing serviceable and warm, boots worn but sturdy. He had kind blue eyes.
Sherlock wasn’t sure why he noted that sentimental detail, particularly when those eyes were aimed at him much like the arrow.
Sherlock drew himself up to full height; he wouldn’t be taken down cowering. The eyes kept looking at him; the hands remained steady.
Suddenly the arrow flew and for a long moment, Sherlock wondered where he was hit. Then he realized the arrow hadn’t hit him, not at all.
“You missed,” he said, with a characteristic smirk.
“I never miss,” the huntsman replied. “Come now, Your Highness, we must get you to safety.”
Sherlock’s head whirled around. One of the Guard had crept up behind him and now had an arrow vibrating in his heart. Sherlock peered down at the body before quickly pulling out the arrow and following the huntsman who was already dashing through the trees.
They ran together for almost longer than Sherlock could bear it before the huntsman paused so they could rest. The huntsman crouched with his back against a tree and kept his eyes on Sherlock, who sat more firmly on the ground, panting.
“The King thinks you killed the Queen,” the huntsman said, making conversation.
“No, he doesn’t.” For Sherlock knew Mycroft thought no such thing.
“I see,” replied the huntsman.
After a few more minutes, they ran again, deeper into the forest. They paused to catch their breath again. The huntsman filled his water skin and Sherlock’s at a small, clear stream. They drank deeply and filled them again. The huntsman gave Sherlock a strip of jerky from a pouch at his waist. Sherlock was too tired to chew it properly, so he just bit off small pieces and washed them down with the water.
“My name is John, Your Highness.”
“Call me Sherlock. I’m hardly royalty anymore.”
“Of course. Sherlock.”
They set off again, this time at a brisk walk. Apparently John knew the forest well enough to know they were far from the remaining Royal Guards, though where they were headed, Sherlock didn’t know. It wasn’t towards the man’s own home, though, that was certain.
“Where are we headed?”
“I know somewhere you can stay. Somewhere safe.”
“There is nowhere safe when the reward will make a betrayer a wealthy man.”
“Have I betrayed you, Sherlock?”
“That remains to be seen.”
They traveled the rest of the way in silence. The safe place John the Huntsman led them to was a cave.
“This part of the forest is enchanted. No one can find their way here unless they’ve already been. You’ll be safe.”
“I don’t believe in enchantments, John. Magic is for children’s bedtime stories and idiots. There is a scientific explanation for everything.”
John regarded Sherlock in silence for a few minutes.
“Nevertheless, I believe you will be safe here. The men that live here have received no visitors besides myself in years, and my father before that.”
“You are not afraid of the forest.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Most people are. They’re afraid of getting lost, afraid of the wild animals within. We are most of a day’s walk from the nearest village and I saw no path except those the animals use to drink from the stream.”
John the Huntsman nodded.
“Enchantment aside, you may be correct. I will likely remain unfound here, if the inhabitants are agreeable and offer sanctuary.”
“We’ll have to wait. They won’t be back until dark.” It was getting close to winter and darkness fell early, but it was still a long, cold wait. After the darkness fell and Sherlock could barely see John in front of him, he heard a whistling in the trees. Soon after, he saw lamplight pierce the darkness, flickering between the tree trunks. A line of short men steadily appeared.
Three days later, John the Huntsman came around with a “Hallooo,” at the entrance to the cave. Sherlock rushed out, slowing his steps at the last moment so he wouldn’t appear too eager.
“They’re still looking, but they think you’ve gone further afield. Most of the Guard has moved out.”
“Most, but not all.”
John shook his sandy head. “Should be safe in the woods. They didn’t leave enough to patrol, only represent the Crown.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“I could cut out the heart of the next stag I take down, take it to the Guard, tell them it’s yours.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, John,” Sherlock said sharply. “A stag’s heart is completely the wrong size. They would know in a minute you were lying. Better to take the heart of a youthful boar.”
John stared at Sherlock for a minute then started to laugh.
“Okay, so it was a bad idea,” John said, finally. His laughter finally induced Sherlock to smile, and that made him feel better, too.
“How are you getting along with the men?”
“You mean Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Bashful, Grumpy and Hudson?”
John laughed heartily. “Tell me you do not call them that.”
“Only Hudson. Who, by the way, constantly tells the others he is not their housekeeper, yet he cooks and cleans and makes all the tea. Does he not realize?”
John could not stop laughing. Sherlock finally began laughing at John’s laughter and some of the ache at his plight broke. They sat together at the entrance to the cave and talked and laughed about nothing of consequence. All too soon, John had to leave.
“If I think it looks safe, I’ll stop by here tomorrow and you can come hunting with me if you like.”
“I think I should like that very much, John.” For Sherlock had never really had a friend, and certainly not one such as John, one who could make him laugh, one he actually cared to speak with instead of talk at.
John arrived early the next day, flushed from jogging through the trees much of the way from his small cottage to the cave.
“You don’t live in the village,” Sherlock stated when he saw John. “You live alone and a good distance into the forest. There is a path that leads from the village to your cottage, so you’re not hidden, but you often prefer the seclusion. You also have excellent stamina to have kept up a pace that would allow you to arrive before the sun was halfway in the sky, even as hermetic as your cottage is.”
John stood straight, facing the onslaught of Sherlock’s deductions with more than a little curiosity.
“You recognized me as Prince, though we have never before met. You killed a King’s Guard with little thought to treason. You didn’t believe the accusations on the handbills and you have little love for the King to have helped me so readily. Why?”
John didn’t answer; Sherlock wasn’t really asking for one. Pale fingers steepled against carved lips.
“Perhaps once you worked for the Crown. A guard, a soldier, a bowman given your skill with the instrument. Something happened to make you leave, make you angry.”
“That’s quite amazing, Sherlock.”
“Really? That’s not what most people say.”
“What do they say?”
“‘Please excuse me, Your Highness.’ Because, of course, they can’t just say ‘piss off,’”
John laughed. “Well, I promise that if I ever wish to tell you to piss off, I shall.”
“That would be… unpleasant, I think.”
“Then don’t give me a reason.” John’s blue eyes twinkled. “Come, I told you I’d take you hunting. I can teach you how to track, and how to not get lost in the forest, if you like.”
“Those skills would be useful to acquire,” Sherlock agreed.
John and Sherlock spent a good part of the day in the forest together. John showed Sherlock the signs that a deer or large animal had passed recently and Sherlock proved remarkable at observing them. John set a few snares and they made a meal of rabbit roasted over a small fire. Sherlock watched eagerly as John made short work of dressing the animal and laid out the bones in their proper order on the ground as they picked them clean.
They talked companionably when the hunt allowed, and stalked silently when necessary. John kept them within the reaches of the enchanted part of the forest, no matter how much Sherlock scoffed at the idea.
“I warn you, Sherlock, do not venture too close to the village. The forest can only protect you if you stay deep within.”
“I understand that, but it is not magic, John. It is simply being far enough from civilization that keeps me hidden.”
“Call it what you like, Sherlock. The outside world cannot touch you here.”
“Why do you care if I am safe? I am not your liege, nor anything but a death sentence for you.”
“I think of you as my friend, Sherlock.”
“I don’t have friends, John.” Sherlock knew he’d made a mistake when John glared at him and turned and walked the other way. “No, I meant, I’ve never had a friend. I don’t have friends. I only have one.”
“I suppose I can teach you that, too. Come on then, you big git, let’s get you home.”
And Sherlock followed, pondering the way he felt about being so affectionately called a ‘git.’
A few weeks passed and the notion of their friendship became truer. John came by the cave at least twice a week to save Sherlock from the inanity of living with seven strange little outcasts. Each time he saw John’s smile emerge from the woods into the little clearing, his heart fluttered just a little. At first he suspected it was because John’s was the only friendly face he saw, well, ever. After a while, Sherlock began to suspect something more. He had to struggle to keep the irrational reaction well tamped-down.
The odd men who had allowed Sherlock sanctuary were tolerable enough, if a little eccentric. Sherlock could hardly fault them for that. But their relationship with their guest improved when Sherlock took the observations he’d gathered on his treks with John and applied them to the mining work they did. He brought them to several new places to dig, and the men struck gold in several cases and diamonds in another.
Overjoyed, they sent the ones Sherlock referred to as ‘Happy’ and ‘Grumpy’ on a week-long trek to the capital city to trade. When they returned, they brought with them news and a few fine trinkets to thank Sherlock for their good fortune. Sherlock examined most of their gifts with disinterest – he missed his laboratory at the castle, and he was not appeased by an ivory comb for his oft-tousled hair, nor odd hats and jewels.
One item caught his eye, though, a fine brocade tunic with silver buttons down the front. He didn’t wish for it for himself, but when he saw the sky-blue color, he was reminded of John’s eyes. Likely he would rarely wear it, for his life was too rough for fine clothing, but perhaps when he saw it, he would think of Sherlock.
Sherlock resolved to give it to him the next time John visited. He wrapped it carefully back in the muslin scrap it had arrived in and tied the bundle shut.
John consented to stay the night as he said it was a holiday and the nine of them had a merry evening. Hudson cooked a fine meal and news of the state of the kingdom spread around the table. Apparently King Mycroft had negotiated for a wife and would marry in the spring, uniting his kingdom and one neighboring to the south. John and Sherlock shared a look – if he continued to run, south would be a disastrous direction, then.
Still the news of a wedding relieved Sherlock somewhat. His brother might be distracted, at least a little, by the preparations and soon his new wife. His search for Sherlock would not be foremost on his mind.
“I’m off to bed,” one of the men said, yawning and stretching.
Sherlock caught John’s eye and mouthed, “Sleepy,” and they both started to giggle to the confusion of the others.
The one Sherlock called ‘Bashful’ could play a rousing tune on a pipe if suitably convinced, and Sherlock muddled along on a rough-hewn fiddle nothing like his fine violin back at the castle. The music didn’t seem to rouse ‘Sleepy,’ nor did their laughter and clapping, even though it surely echoed through the length of the cave.
One by one, the little men claimed exhaustion and the party dropped off to just John and Sherlock.
“I have a gift for you, John,” he blurted out, not knowing how to bring the conversation around to the topic smoothly.
“You do? I haven’t gotten you anything.”
“You gave me my life, John.”
Sherlock brought out the bundle and laid it in John’s lap where he sat in a chair near the hearth.
John’s eyes were wide as the firelight caught the shiny buttons and the thin silver threads of the brocade. Sherlock watched him from his position nearby crouched on the thick rug in front of the fire.
“It’s stunning, Sherlock. Where did you get it?”
“They brought it back from the capital.”
“Why did you not keep it for yourself?” Sherlock’s ill-fitting clothing was becoming worn. Hudson had mended his shirt three times and the fabric of his tunic was beginning to fray near the buttons. And the fine fabric was much more suited to Sherlock’s elegant good looks.
“I simply wished for you to have it, John. There were other clothes for me.”
John stood, undoing the ties of his plain brown tunic.
“What… what are you doing?”
“Trying it on, obviously,” John teased. Soon he stood in front of Sherlock in his billowy white shirt, open at the throat. Sherlock could see where on John’s neck his stubble ended, where the fading tan lines marked the collar of his summer clothing. He wanted to help John with the buttons, but not to fasten them. Sherlock gripped his knees tighter, but could not look away.
In the rich fabric and with his neat, sandy hair, John could have passed for a lord, a prince himself. He smiled with such pleasure at Sherlock that Sherlock felt dizzy.
“It suits you perfectly, John.” He found he barely had control to say the words.
“I don’t know, Sherlock. I didn’t think so at first, but it feels a bit tight. Maybe it would fit better on someone with your slender build.” John fidgeted.
“The buttons aren’t straining, John.” Sherlock’s brows furrowed. “It doesn’t look tight.”
“No.” John coughed lightly. “But it must be. It’s a little hard to breathe.”
John moved his fingers to the buttons but he fumbled. His face was turning red and he tried to pull in a breath but couldn’t.
“Sherlock,” he wheezed.
“John.” Sherlock shot up, tried to help him with the buttons. No matter how many times Sherlock thought he’d pushed it properly through the hole, it was still fastened a second later. Now his fingers were trembling and John’s hands had fallen away. He was gasping, trying to breathe.
“John. John, try to relax. I’ll get you out of this.” Sherlock grabbed a knife from the dinner table and began to saw away on the threads that held fast the buttons, one by one. He couldn’t wedge the knife under the tunic for risk of cutting John instead.
Half the buttons were gone, tumbling and bouncing on the floor, but John still couldn’t breathe. His eyes were starting to get droopy as his little sips of air were getting smaller and smaller.
“John, stay with me! John! John!”
Sherlock got a firm grasp on the edges of the tunic and pulled with all his strength. The rest of the buttons flew away and John fell to his knees. Sherlock dropped to his as well and pushed the tunic off his shoulders. He was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath as John’s chest was finally allowed to expand fully with air.
“John, John, are you alright? Can you hear me?”
“Quiet down, Sherlock,” John rasped after a moment, “unless you want to wake the household with your shouts and have everyone see you’ve undressed me. People will talk.”
Sherlock stared at John a minute, unable to believe he was joking at a time like this. Still, the hysteria bubbled over and he found himself laughing himself to tears over John’s wheezing giggles.
“It was most certainly not an enchanted tunic. That’s ridiculous, John. It was clearly poison of some sort, some chemical that caused your body to begin to asphyxiate. There are several chemical combinations that create a gas that…”
“Disappear entirely the moment the tunic is unfastened? That didn’t affect you in the least? It was magic, Sherlock, admit it!”
“There is no such thing as magic.”
John sighed in frustration, running a hand through his hair. He was still in his shirt sleeves, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace.
“We ought to burn it, just in case.”
“I’ll dispose of it when I’m finished experimenting on it.” Sherlock was gathering the buttons from the floor and putting them in a small pouch, awkwardly because he was wearing a thick pair of mittens Hudson had knitted.
“Just… just don’t put it on, Sherlock, okay? Promise me that?”
Sherlock took too much time to think this over, in John’s opinion.
“Very well, I promise,” he finally said, “but it would be more informative to attempt replication of the previous…”
“Absolutely not. I’m holding you to that promise.”
Sherlock sighed. “Very well, John. We’ll have to find out where it was purchased in the morning. More information will be helpful.”
John watched Sherlock pick apart the fine tunic one thread at a time. He held the fibers close to the lamp to examine them and sniffed at the fumes created when they burned. His sharp eyes examined the weave of the fabric, the stitching, every nuance of the construction. He didn’t sleep, but sat close to the lamp until John’s eyes couldn’t stay open any longer and he dozed in the chair.
‘Happy’ looked anything but when he found out what happened the night before. John woke in the midst of Sherlock berating the much smaller man.
“Describe the person who sold you the tunic,” Sherlock demanded.
“Just a man. A vender with a stall on the street. He had many nice things.”
“Did he recommend this one in particular? Did you buy anything else from him? Did he ask where you were from? Did he ask your name? What did he look like?”
The poor man struggled to remember, to answer the questions Sherlock shot at him.
“He was short, slim, dark haired, I think. He had a pretentious city accent like yours. I just asked him if he had anything that would suit a tall, slim man…”
“In short, you described me to him, a vender in the capital city.” Sherlock paced back and forth. “Did this man give you a name? Think! You must think!”
“If he did, I don’t remember it.”
“Did he or didn’t he?” Sherlock shouted in his face, towering over the diminutive man.
“Yes…” came the stuttered answer. “I think… it was something like… Maurice or Motley or…”
“Moriarty,” Sherlock breathed.
“That’s it!” The little man nodded in relief. It was short-lived.
“Get out! I have to think and I can’t do it with all of you staring at me like anxious little puppies!”
The dismissal both angry and regal, the seven little men vanished, leaving John regarding Sherlock with a small amount of disapproval. Sherlock glared at John before resuming his pacing, tossing his arms around like he was breaking imaginary plates and cups and occasionally large furniture.
“It’s not his fault, Sherlock,” John said finally.
“I know that,” he bit out. “But he was careless. And now there’s a clue to my whereabouts. There are now people to be questioned. Who was the strange little man who came to trade gold and diamonds? Did he mention where he came from? Which road did he take?”
“It could all be an accident, a coincidence.”
“Moriarty can twist coincidences out of thin air, John. I know my brother’s advisor well. What coincidence is there to the advisor to the king selling clothing on the street?”
“Maybe Moriarty wasn’t the name the vendor said, but it sounded close enough when you suggested it. Maybe it was a family member, same name, same general description. Maybe the King threw him out on the street and that’s how the wretched troll makes his living now.”
“Quite imaginative, but each scenario you come up with is less and less probable, John. Now, do stop talking. I must think.”
John left Sherlock to think shortly after. Sherlock hadn’t wanted him to go, not really, but he didn’t say anything because saying something would likely result in saying too much.
Moriarty. The slender man had appeared one day as a minor courtier when Mycroft was still a teen. The two bonded quickly over little palace intrigues and gossip. Sherlock and Mycroft had never had the most amicable relationship, but after Moriarty, it was worse. Each poisonous whisper in the future king’s ear drew the web more and more tightly around Sherlock.
When Sherlock escaped, it was certainly only because Moriarty wanted to extend that devious little game of his. Make the Prince run, hunt him down like a hound after a fox. The real prize wasn’t in the capture, but in the chase.
Sherlock could imagine that whatever slight he’d given unto Moriarty was not imagined; he was quick to annoy people, oblivious to consequences. But the situation had long been past forgiveness, either asking or giving. This wouldn’t end until one of them was dead.
Sherlock tried very hard in the next few days to unravel the mystery of the suffocating tunic. John came to the cave daily to try to coax Sherlock into keeping him company in the forest, but he was soundly ignored. He noticed the dark circles under Sherlock’s eyes, the dull tone of his skin, but did not comment on them. John didn’t need to be told that Sherlock wasn’t sleeping. Hudson did tell John that Sherlock only nibbled on the meat John brought and nothing else he could bake would tempt him.
Sherlock finally let John burn the tunic in the crisp winter air as they both watched.
“Sherlock, you’re safe here. Everyone will be more careful about bringing things into the cave from now on.” John’s voice was reasonable; it always was. But Sherlock paced back and forth. He had reason to worry.
“And every nibble of food will be shared with the mice to see if it’s poisoned? Every scrap of fabric wrapped around a rabbit to see if it dies? And when he shows up here with a full contingent of guards and makes a massacre of us all, then what? I couldn’t bear it, John, to bring death to you.”
“I would have brought it to myself, Sherlock, the second I chose to let that arrow fly into the heart of the guard instead of yours.”
Sherlock paused in his anxious pacing to stand directly in front of John. His voice was strained.
“I cannot come to any other conclusion than yours, John, but I still cannot believe it.”
“I don’t need to be right over this, Sherlock,” John said, placing a firm hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. “You don’t have your scientific equipment from the castle. That is limiting.”
Sherlock didn’t respond. John’s hand on his shoulder was pleasant, more than pleasant, but it made his stomach and throat tighten. He hadn’t eaten, he supposed, and his stomach was shrunken to a tight little tumor in his gut. He had poured all his focus and attention into the tunic to distract himself from the awful nightmares he’d had anytime he allowed himself more than ten minutes sleep. It hadn’t helped. The tunic was still a mystery, or magic, and his nightmares infringed upon his waking mind.
While Sherlock did not believe in magic, he had a sick feeling that Moriarty, his brother’s advisor, was behind everything. Somehow. Only that man could infiltrate a mind like a worm, eating its way through the folds of brain matter and leaving a path of destruction. He’d crept into even Mycroft’s formidable brain, turning him against his family, his brother.
Sherlock had no doubt the tunic was meant for him, that Moriarty had figured out where Sherlock had been hiding. And now he was toying with him, inflicting his special brand of terror. In the dreams, Moriarty would smile his oily, vicious little smile and say, “Oh, Sherlock, my frigid prince. Have you found a heart at last?”
“What have I done to you?” Sherlock could not help but cry out every time.
“You were a convenient adversary and a surprisingly fleet and wily foe. Your brother was hardly a challenge in comparison. He was so anxious for a friend, for a close whisper in his ear. It took so little to turn him against you.” Moriarty was always so cheerful, so utterly disturbing. He’d whistle a little tune over Sherlock’s eviscerated corpse, quite likely. “It’s been delightful, Prince Sherlock, but I tire of this game. It is time for it to come to an end. And now that you’ve found a heart, I’m going to burn it out of you before I see you dead.”
Sherlock would wake in a cold sweat. He was not safe here if Moriarty could find him, had found him. And John and the others would not be safe either.
Sherlock had to leave. There was one thing he had to do first: say goodbye to John.
John was surprised to see the cloaked figure emerge from the woods one gray afternoon. It was a day he had stayed close to home to hunt and those had been far too sparse recently. The people of the village had remained well-fed, could not complain, but only because John dragged his carcasses home on a sled from deeper in the woods where he could hunt with Sherlock.
The deer had not moved on yet and were still plentiful near the village. Hunting far afield was only an excuse to spend time with Sherlock. The tall, striking prince was brilliant and energetic and when they ran together after prey, John’s heart had begun to beat quickly for more reasons than exertion.
And here was the man himself, skulking out of the woods. His face was hidden by the hood of his cloak, but John would know those long legs and that mile-eating stride anywhere. John turned back to the hanging deer he was skinning to hide his pleased smile. He’d seen Sherlock only the day before when he’d finally managed to coax a full meal into the man after so many days. He had been planning to head back to the cave tomorrow if the clear weather held, but Sherlock had not waited.
Sherlock approached until he stood on the other side of the deer carcass and watched John work for a minute. His hands were so capable, wielding the sharp knife with assuredness. His handsome face was touched with pink from the cold wind. John caught his eye and smiled. That smile he gave Sherlock, that was the utter essence of John.
“Sherlock, what are you doing here?” Wait, that hadn’t come out right. “It’s not safe this close to the village, I mean, not that I’m not glad to see you.”
“I did not want to wait until tomorrow to tell you, John.”
“Tell me what?” John moved his hands away from the deer and wiped down his knife with a rag.
“How much I admire and love you.”
As many times as John had imagined Sherlock expressing sentiment, he never thought it would actually happen. He had no idea how to respond and only hoped that his expression was encouraging.
“I have always preferred my own company above anyone else’s. I never thrived at the castle, but I never realized how empty I was, either. You, John, you fill me with your light and your goodness and your friendship.”
“Sherlock.” John felt so very soft and melted at this moment, despite the winter wind. Sherlock didn’t let him continue.
“I realize I am a difficult person, John. But you make me wish to be so much better. And when I’m with you, I believe I can be. I came here today because I could not stand not being with you one moment more.”
Sherlock moved closer, rubbed his fingertips against the stubble on John’s cheek. His bare hand felt warm against John’s wind-roughened skin. He bent his head to John’s and breathed rapid puffs of warm air against John’s lips as if unsure whether he should move forward, whether John would push him away.
John was too eager for their lips to touch to wait. He moved forward, brushing his lips against Sherlock’s. His skin was cool, but the mouth that opened to his was hot and silky. It was just their lips touching at first, moving together, tasting, but it was absolutely everything. Then Sherlock’s fingers moved from John’s cheek, stroked the nape of John’s neck. Sparks of pure thrill streaked down John’s spine.
“You would kiss me when my hands are covered in blood.” John laughed faintly as he pulled away. “When all I want to do is pull you closer.”
“John,” Sherlock said in that voice, the voice that made John weak in the knees as the deep tones reverberated in his ears.
“Go inside, Sherlock. Warm up some water for me to wash with. Eat a little something. Please, for me,” he added when Sherlock sighed impatiently. “There’s bread and cheese. I’ve eaten some of both, so they will be safe.”
Sherlock started to look petulant.
“When you’ve done those things,” John said, his voice dropping lower, “I want you to undress and get into my bed and wait for me.”
“John,” Sherlock practically moaned.
“Go.” John grinned at how frustrated Sherlock looked. “No one has seen you, yet, but it is not wise to tempt fate. Go inside where it is warm and safe and wait for me. I need to finish this before the hide freezes to the meat.”
“Can’t you come in now?”
“No, Sherlock.” Now it was John’s turn to move slowly, to tease. “Someone could see the half-skinned deer and wonder if something is wrong. I don’t want to be interrupted.” John lifted his mouth to Sherlock’s for a brief, fierce kiss. “I want to spend the rest of the day and, if possible, the entire night loving you. Touching you. Cherishing you. Worshipping you.” Each statement was coupled with a soft kiss or a flick of tongue.
“Trust me, Sherlock. I will hurry. The thought of you waiting for me in my bed is rather intense motivation.”
Sherlock groaned, buried his mouth and nose against John’s neck for a moment, scenting him, tasting him, feeling that rough stubble against his lips.
“Very well, John. But be careful with that knife. You will need all your fingers and certainly all your blood to take proper care of me.”
Sherlock smiled as he heard John’s laughter behind him as he went into John’s little cottage.
John rushed to finish stripping the hide from the deer. The deer could hang in the tree all night before he finished butchering it, but he ought to at least get the hide salted in the lean-to before hoisting the carcass higher into the branches. As much as he wanted to talk himself into not needing either the deer or the hide, it was wasteful and surely someone would notice. His cottage wasn’t distant enough from the village that no one would ever stop by just to see how he was getting on.
That was one of the reasons he’d never invited Sherlock back to his home. He couldn’t risk the prince’s life on the behaviors of his neighbors. Even now, John worried that someone had seen his tall figure walking through the woods, that a child gathering kindling saw them here together and might make an innocent comment to her parents, that the Guard might decide today was a good day for a house-to-house search. Sherlock was safer far in the woods, even if they could never be quite alone.
John tried to dismiss the worry with thoughts of Sherlock waiting for him, pale skin surrounded by John’s sheets, the furs on John’s bed. Would he be demanding as John walked in the door, frustrated from the teasing? Or would he have grown shy, all his forthrightness used up to walk all this way and state his feelings? Would John have to teach him love, the way he’d had to teach him friendship, or would Sherlock be the more experienced, the more worldly? John had never had a man in his bed.
A frisson of heat blazed in John’s belly a second, thinking of that. It was the sweetest feeling. Love. It was bittersweet, feeling love for the first time in years, knowing Sherlock’s situation. How were they to be together? They could leave together, flee somewhere Sherlock was unknown. Or John could build them a little cottage in the enchanted part of the woods, somewhere they could live and love freely, and John could come alone to the village when he needed something the forest could not provide.
It was a silly fantasy that he could keep Sherlock happy while isolated in a tiny cottage in the forest. There had to be some way to end this, some way to either repair the rift between Sherlock and the King or escape His Royal Wrath completely. Perhaps in the morning, they could discuss it. Sherlock was brilliant. Surely between the two of them, they could come up with a plan.
John recalled the first time he’d seen Sherlock. The prince’s beauty had struck him: hair as dark as ebony, skin as pale as snow, high cheekbones flushed with his panicked flight from the Guard. Yet when he thought he was captured, moments from death, he stood, faced John bravely.
And when he’d so cheekily taunted John for missing… John laughed. Maybe he’d fallen a little in love just then.
Sherlock entered John’s little cottage, closed the door behind him, and stopped. His frozen posture wasn’t because he had never been inside John’s home before and needed to take the time to suss out every detail about John’s life he’d not yet known. He certainly didn’t stop because he was unsure of his intentions nor because he had any regrets.
No, he stopped because there was a quite unexpected visitor sitting in John’s chair near the fireplace. Unexpected and vastly unwelcome.
Sherlock glanced at the door behind him, hoping John would stay outside and out of harm’s way until the confrontation was done.
“Prince Sherlock, you’ve kept me waiting a very long time.”
Sherlock said nothing in response to the sing-song accusation. An apology wasn’t merited.
“I am not a patient man, you know, unless winning the game is well worth it.”
“Has it been worth it, Moriarty?”
The small, dark man produced a knife and an apple from his pocket. His cloak was draped over John’s bed; the man himself was sitting on John’s chair. Sherlock felt sick.
“You’re wondering what would have happened to your beloved huntsman if you hadn’t come here today. Let me settle that for you. I would not have found your huntsman if you had not ventured from the forest. I know you, Sherlock. I know you don’t believe in enchantments and magic. But you were very well-hidden. I’ve been awfully bored waiting for you to make a mistake. To be honest, it isn’t a mistake I thought you would have ever made. Sentiment. Makes fools of us all, doesn’t it? Well, not me, of course.”
“If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with.” But leave John alone, Sherlock wanted to say. He didn’t, knowing that Moriarty would just kill John in front of him if he thought it would upset Sherlock more.
“I’m not going to kill you, dear Prince.”
Sherlock’s stomach dropped. Not John, please not John, please not the only man who ever loved me, the man who made me feel, made me live, made me human.
“You’re going to kill yourself.”
“What?” Sherlock tried to sound defiant and confident. His voice was a bit too high, so he probably failed.
Moriarty displayed the glossy, red apple he held, and the knife in the other hand.
“You can choose not to, of course. Apple for you, dear Prince, or the knife for your huntsman. I really don’t care which. Of course, the apple will be quick and painless. The knife, not so much.”
Sherlock felt like the knife was already ripping into him. He’d never before thought that an emotion like anguish could be so physically painful.
“The sun sets rather early these days, so I’ll give you until sunrise tomorrow to accomplish the deed. If you try to run, and believe me, with the Guard surrounding this little hovel, you won’t get far, I’ll haunt you the rest of your days and I’ll skin the huntsman in front of you and tan his hide. He certainly has a fine blade for the task, doesn’t he?” The knife glinted in the cool winter sun, as shiny as the polished apple.
Moriarty stood and with a quick, violent movement plunged the knife into the oak mantle above the wide stone hearth, then set the shiny apple beside it.
“Sunrise, Prince Sherlock. I’ll return with the Guard, then, to take a body to the King.”
And he was gone before Sherlock could even truly rationalize that he’d been there at all.
Sherlock had taken the apple and the knife and folded them in his cloak, which he laid on the chair by the hearth. He couldn’t look at them. He didn’t want John to see them.
John couldn’t know. He’d insist that they run, that the forest would protect them. It couldn’t, not forever, even if they could get past the Guardsmen Moriarty had stalking the nearby woods. John, good John, caring John, would come to the village to trade, to bring food to the hungry, something, and Moriarty would be waiting. Or Moriarty would grow impatient and quite literally burn the entire forest to smoking char hoping to trump him.
Sherlock perched on the edge of John’s bed, fingers steepled in front of his lips, staring off into a dim corner. His mind immediately started deducing the apple. Poison, most likely, but either grown into the fruit itself or injected under the skin, for Moriarty had no qualms about handling it, polishing it on his shirt. Would likely be quick and relatively painless. Moriarty said one or the other, therefore the game would be over and John would be safe. He had a choice, but there was no choice, no choice.
But Moriarty might let John live if Sherlock ate the apple. It was John’s only real chance, though a slim one at that – Moriarty’s word was far from trustworthy. But Sherlock knew for a fact he couldn’t live knowing John had been tortured to death because of him. Watching that would kill him just as surely. Sherlock was dead either way, wasn’t he? Was it selfish of him to not want to watch John die?
The horror of it all gripped Sherlock ferociously. It was all he could do to dig a hole in his mind and bury those feelings deep enough so that they would not sprout up until just before dawn. After all, he knew what he was going to do.
John was whistling as he approached the door, opening it cheerily and giving Sherlock a bright smile even when he noticed that Sherlock was neither naked nor lounging in his bed. He was sitting on it, though, fully dressed and in his thinking pose.
“Figuring out all my secrets, Sherlock? I should have known you’d be distracted; it’s the first time you’ve been in my home.”
“You know me so well.” Sherlock smiled and tried to sound flippant. He moved his hands to the bed behind him, leaning back a little and propping himself up.
John lifted the kettle from the hearthstone. It was still half-full from this morning. He could have a little warm water to wash with, and he poured it in his wooden wash bowl carved from a burl. He topped off the basin with cold water from the village well before stripping off his coat, belt, thick woolen tunic, thin woven shirt. He scrubbed himself clean, feeling Sherlock’s eyes on him from across the room.
John turned to face Sherlock as he dried himself with a scrap of linen. Sherlock’s eyes were flicking over him, surely spotting every detail, every scar, every muscle, but John couldn’t quite figure out his thoughts.
“You haven’t changed your mind, have you, Sherlock? I don’t want to rush you.”
“I feel like I want to do everything, all at once,” Sherlock replied bluntly. A blush crept up his cheekbones, over the bridge of his fine Roman nose. “I simply do not know where to begin.”
“A statement like that is an excellent start, Sherlock.” John strode to stand in front of Sherlock and leaned down to press a warm, lingering kiss to Sherlock’s lips, cupping his jaw with both hands. His hands itched to stroke that fine, pale neck beneath the cowl, to bare it, to lick it, to mark it as his. Patience. John brushed his fingertips through the soft hair that curled over Sherlock’s forehead as he pulled back.
“John,” Sherlock whispered, eyes wide.
“I love you, Sherlock. I can never tell you enough.” John moved to sit beside Sherlock on the edge of the bed. He leaned forward to remove his boots, untying the leather laces. Sherlock did the same, only faster, and curled his feet underneath him, shifting behind John. John leaned forward to remove his second boot only to find that his fingers had forgotten how to untie laces; Sherlock’s hands were pressed firmly against his shoulder blades. Those hands, Sherlock’s hands, on his bare skin made John’s heart flutter and his eyes droop closed. It was incredible, like he’d never been touched before.
Sherlock moved his hands down John’s back and pressed his lips against the nape of John’s neck.
“You taste like snow, John.” He ran his hands around to John’s chest, where one of John’s hands covered one of Sherlock’s. That voice rumbled through him. He had to capture it. John turned, took Sherlock’s mouth with his, plundered it, swallowed every deep moan.
They came together in a flurry of kisses and stroking hands. Some moments were incredibly tender: when John pulled back only to deliver soft kisses to a passion-blown Sherlock; the first time John entered Sherlock’s body and their eyes met in wonderment of the overwhelming nature of it; the second and third times they started up again because they were simply unable to refrain from touching each other now that they had permission to do so.
Other moments were incredibly exhilarating: the way Sherlock’s innate curiosity explored every inch of John’s body with fingers first, then tongue; the desperate pleas just before climax; the bite Sherlock inflicted on John’s shoulder when he first shuddered with such intense, unknown pleasure.
And Sherlock truly did want to experience everything with John. When John laughed, (and Sherlock so loved John’s laugh, his sparkling eyes, the warm, homey sound of it), and said that they didn’t have to try everything tonight, Sherlock could only kiss him and shut away the anguished scream inside.
John woke to Sherlock sitting on the edge of the bed, wrapped in a rough sheet. The sun had not risen yet, but the pre-dawn light and the glow from the fireplace was just enough to see by. John moved a hand to Sherlock’s hip, ran his hand lightly down his leg.
“Something I can do for you, love?” he asked.
Sherlock captured John’s roving hand and pressed it to his lips. His eyes glittered in the dim blue light.
“I love you, John. I’ve never loved anyone or anything so much, but as much as I want to, I can’t stay here.”
“Sherlock, we can find a way. I know we can.”
The taller man shook his head slowly. More than his eyes glittered now; his high cheekbones were glossy and wet. John lifted a hand, brushed away the tears with his thumb.
Sherlock stood, moved away. He scrubbed his face with the back of one hand.
“There’s no other way.”
John saw what had been hidden in his hand. At first he couldn’t figure out what it was, but the shape, the firelight reflected in the glossy red skin, the way Sherlock cradled it in his hand linked in his mind: apple.
“Where did you get that? Sherlock…” John sat up, threw his legs over the side of the bed to stand.
“There’s no other way. They’ll be here for me at dawn. I’m sorry, John.”
And before John could get to him, Sherlock lifted the apple to his lips, took a large bite, and fell down dead.
John’s heart stopped as Sherlock slumped to the floor of his cottage. When John’s heart started again, it made itself known with a painful, wheezing thump against his ribcage. Blood rushed loudly in his ears, blocking all other sound, and his vision throbbed bright and dull with the pulse.
“Sherlock, love, no, Sherlock,” John repeated over and over, scrambling to kneel beside his beloved. He slipped a finger past those still, white lips only to find an empty mouth, a clear throat, where there should be a bite of apple. Enchanted apple, then, poison. The shiny red fruit had rolled from Sherlock’s slack fingers onto the floor a few feet away.
When he held his ear to Sherlock’s still chest, feeling and hearing nothing but the rush of his own panicked heart, something inside John broke. He can’t be dead. He can’t be. But as John waited for the thump of a heart in the chest beneath his ear, praying to every god there ever was and perhaps even begging the devil to show up and trade with him, he began to realize that Sherlock wasn’t going to suddenly sit up with a deep gasp. This was no constricting tunic that could be removed. This was fate. This was what was meant to happen when John intervened those months ago and shot the guard chasing Sherlock. Their love wasn’t meant to happen. The fact that it did was a miracle. That John had those months with his beloved Prince, that John had that single night and the love of such a man was a bittersweet gift.
John waited for nearly an hour, his head resting on Sherlock’s still, cool chest. The position pained his back, his knees. He ignored the chilling of his bare skin just in case he might miss the tentative restarting of Sherlock’s heart, just in case some magic required John to be there, to feel it for it to beat a second and a third time.
There was nothing to miss.
John might have waited until he too, expired from cold or thirst or hunger. There would be no better place to die than with his head resting on his beloved’s chest.
The sound of horses outside, though, and a quantity of men’s shouts made him lift his heavy head. A gauntleted fist beat at his door; a gruff voice demanded he appear. Mindless of the cold outside, John pulled on only a pair of trousers to cover his nakedness and threw open the door.
The man at the door flickered his eyes over John’s bare chest and feet but, aside from the twitch of an eyebrow, showed no sign of surprise. He stood aside, taller than John by more than a head and with a shock of blond hair on his head that screamed Viking. His soulless eyes were certainly cold enough to come from the frozen North.
A smaller man swept up past his silent guard.
“Well, well, have I interrupted something?” he said in a lilting, playful voice.
John had never seen him before, but he knew him at once. This was Moriarty, the advisor to the King. This was the foul little man who had chased Sherlock from his home, who had hunted him, who had gone so far as to disguise himself and sell their friend an enchanted tunic that had almost killed John. And this man was the reason Sherlock now lay on John’s floor cold and lifeless.
The vile creature spied the body on the floor behind John’s protective stance.
“So he did it. How utterly dull.” Moriarty did his best to disguise his delight with disappointment.
“What do you want, Moriarty?”
“Ah, so my reputation does precede me. I want my proof, John the Huntsman. I am here to take the Prince back to his brother, the King.”
“No.” John would rather be flayed and boiled before allowing this demonic little man to cart away the body of his beloved Prince. If it was the last thing he did, if it was the only thing he ever did, he would guard Sherlock with his very life.
“No?” Moriarty’s playful voice intoned. “And you think you’re going to stop me, Huntsman? You’re not even armed.”
“I’ve arms and hands. We shall see if that is enough.”
“Oh, such a brave, stupid, savage man. What such a brilliant, delicate Prince saw in a filthy brute such as yourself is unimaginable.”
“Clearly not, since you apparently like a bit of rough yourself.” John’s eyes flicked to the tall, blond Guard standing nearby.
Moriarty’s eyes narrowed.
“Moran, go inside and collect the Prince.” His voice was cold now, not playful and lilting.
“You shall not have him.” John was not cowed by the taller soldier.
“By order of the King, I shall have the Prince’s body,” the Guard Moran said in a very official voice. “Stand aside.”
The Guardsman approached, using his broad shoulders and chest as intimidation. John stood firm in his doorway even as the heavy-booted feet crossed his threshold. Moran lifted a large hand to thrust John to the side, but as he moved, John’s quick fingers found the dagger in Moran’s belt, swept it free from its sheath, and thrust it low into the inner thigh of the Guardsman. Moran wobbled before he could even see that he’d been injured.
The Guardsman glanced down at the bloody dagger in John’s hand, then lower at the blood spurting from his own thigh. Armor plates covered his chest and shoulders, protecting him from arrows and sword-blows; thick leather was molded along his neck and waist; studded leather wrapped around his upper thighs, but John had swiftly thrust the dagger into an unprotected joint underneath the tails of the chain mail hauberk.
The blood streamed in waves to their feet and John wiggled his toes in it. Moran lifted a fist to smash it into the smaller man but wavered. So much blood gushed from that small wound. John was a huntsman, after all. He knew where the rivers of blood flowed through the body. He knew how to drain a carcass.
The tall Guardsman staggered to his knees, unwillingly bowing before the David to his Goliath. John flipped the dagger around in his hand and slashed it underneath the raised chin. More blood flowed. John pushed against the man’s shoulder and he fell to the snow-covered ground beyond the doorway.
John raised a red hand and left a vivid handprint over his heart, fixing his cold eyes to Moriarty’s infuriated ones.
“I’ll gladly bathe in your blood as well, Moriarty.”
“You are an unworthy adversary, huntsman,” the dark little man sneered.
“Why? Because you know you won’t best me?”
“Because it would be no challenge to kill you. Violence is so boring.”
But they both knew it was a tactical retreat on Moriarty’s part. John may gladly die but he’d take Moriarty with him.
“Just leave me to fucking grieve.”
John disappeared from the doorway for a brief moment before returning. He threw the bitten apple at Moriarty, who caught it with one gloved hand.
“Your proof, then. Go. Never return.”
“I will not forget this, huntsman.”
“Neither will I.”
Two other Guardsmen appeared as Moriarty jerked his hand. They approached quickly, but only grabbed Moran’s body around the upper arms and dragged him away. Neither of them dared look in the eye of the blood-covered huntsman.
When the Guard reformed their squad and marched away, John moved Sherlock’s body to his bed, arranging his long limbs carefully. When Sherlock was… comfortable, and covered with a sheet to his shoulders, as if he lay there asleep, John washed and dressed. He didn’t want to wash. He didn’t want to rinse away the feeling of Sherlock’s touch on his skin. He cleaned away the blood from the guard, but deliberately didn’t rough up his skin with the wet cloth anywhere it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
John melted kettlesful of snow and used them to wash the floor where the guard had bled out. Once that was done, he collected more snow and warmed it by the fire. There was nothing to do except wash Sherlock’s body, prepare it for… final rest. He took his time, caring for each inch of the cooling flesh. When he was done, he wrapped Sherlock in his bed sheet, tucking and binding the fabric before wrapping Sherlock’s dark cloak around him. When he shook out the cloak, something clattered to the floor. A knife had fallen, a wickedly sharp skinning knife. John set it aside, not even wondering where Sherlock had gotten it or why it was folded in his cloak.
John layered himself in his outdoor clothes, trying not to remember that the last time he’d worn them, Sherlock had come to him from the woods and kissed him for the first time. He carried Sherlock to the small sleigh he used in winter to transport deer or bear from deep in the woods back to the village and lashed him to it securely.
It was too cold, the ground too frozen, for John to dig a grave for Sherlock. He couldn’t truly bear to think of Sherlock hidden under the cold ground, anyway. He would take him into the forest instead. He took special care with Sherlock’s body, as if he held his hand and led him blind through the maze of tree roots and brush.
It wasn’t until he reached the cave and Hudson patted him on the back with sympathy that he felt the first hot tears fall from his eyes.
The seven men and John built Sherlock a bower in the forest out of an old bed frame and two trees “Happy” felled near the clearing John picked. This was the spot he’d thought about building them a cottage of their own. It was near a small lake and far from anything else. The edges of the lake were coated with a layer of ice as clear as glass. John broke off a piece and set it in the top of the coffin, like a window. He’d be able to see Sherlock’s face until the end of winter, and maybe pretend it wasn’t frozen and lifeless.
When the final wedge had been placed to hold the ice in the wooden frame, John knelt by the side of the coffin. He was simply too heavy to stand any longer. It didn’t matter that the ground was hard and bitter beneath his knees and the snow melted and soaked even through the leather covering his legs.
“Sherlock.” He spoke quietly, oblivious to the presence of the seven men milling behind him. “I think I understand why this happened, but I’ll never understand how you could do what you did. You left me, Sherlock. How am I supposed to…?” John trailed off. What was he even supposed to do? Live? Move on? Track down Moriarty and the King and have his revenge? Nothing he could do would bring Sherlock back.
Why had Moriarty not killed John right away, assuming he could? Another game to play? Would he laugh up in the castle watching John try to exact revenge? Would he simply find a way to manipulate John into the executioner’s noose? John had killed two Guards and no one had arrived to take him to gaol yet. Should he see how many Guards he could take down, how close he could get, before he was executed for treason?
But a part of him felt he had to stay alive to guard Sherlock’s body. Moriarty had tried to claim it once; surely the King would send him to try again. John couldn’t guard Sherlock forever, surely, but eventually there would be no one to look for him. Even if he had to help that circumstance along.
John couldn’t account for how long he knelt there. Voices around him came and went, calling for him, “John, John,” until it rattled in his head, a cacophony of little men and little voices.
It was long after dark when he looked around. Only Hudson hovered over him and John now had a blanket slung over his shoulders. It couldn’t help. He was beyond cold.
“John, please come back to the cave, get warmed up.” The little man frowned when John only blinked. “Please don’t grieve yourself to death.”
“I don’t want to leave him.”
“I know, John, I know.”
But John allowed himself to be gathered up and followed soullessly behind.
John visited each day to make sure the grave remained undisturbed. Snow occasionally turned the coffin into a soft, white hillock but no harm ever came to it – no animals disturbed it, no branches fell upon it, and no human footprints approached the clearing except John’s. More surprisingly, no blue, nor frost, nor corruption marred those beloved features. It looked for all the world like Sherlock was merely sleeping. He gazed at the strong, beautiful face beneath its window of ice for hours.
In those cold months, John would kneel and stare in silence, one hand on the wood over Sherlock’s heart. His clothes went unmended, his face unshaven. He ate and slept without much thought about either. Those in the village who came to expect a pleasant chat from the man were rebuffed, but no one could force him to tell them what was wrong.
When John finally began to speak, it was only to Sherlock. When John talked, he told Sherlock all the things they’d never gotten a chance to talk about. Some things Sherlock had known, probably – he was brilliant like that. Others, John would have told him eventually, if they’d had the time. Sherlock deserved to know.
The first thing John said was, “I hope you like this clearing, Sherlock. I had hoped to build us a little house right here. It’s lovely in spring.”
Little shoots had begun to creep up around the wooden coffin, curling around it, decorating it with soft green leaves. A nearby tree had wept white blossoms, covering the clearing like a soft blanket and the coffin was dotted with blooms as if they’d been strewn by a lover. John brushed a few away from the pane of ice that covered Sherlock’s face.
Sherlock himself remained pristine and uncorrupted despite the warming weather and the sun through the trees. The clear ice above his face never melted, though water ran in rivulets across it when it rained. It was as if it were glass or diamond, though it still felt like ice to the touch when John pressed his fingers to it above Sherlock’s cupid’s-bow lips.
Another day brought, “We could have fought this, together. We could have come up with a plan. We could have done something.” John’s voice cracked. “Why couldn’t you tell me?” That had been the last very, very bad day.
A more resigned John, beard trimmed for the first time in months so he looked less like a wild man, came to the clearing and said, “God knows I didn’t know how on earth I would be able to keep you. I like to think that you would have been happy with just me in our little cottage. We could have hunted together and made love in the sun near the lake. I would have done anything in the world to make you happy. You only needed to ask, Sherlock.”
Weeks later, nearly summer, John said, “I never told you about Mary, did I, Sherlock? You asked once – well, not exactly, but you said something happened to make me angry with the King. You were right. When he was still Prince, he was given control of the armies by your mother, the Queen. I’m sure you remember the Belgravia offensive, though you were little more than, what, fourteen? The Prince conscripted every able-bodied man and drove us to the outskirts of the kingdom. While we marched, a small band from Belgravia rampaged through the countryside. There were no soldiers, no men capable of defending the villages in their path.
“It wasn’t until the Guard repelled them at the castle gates that they were stopped. The affected villages were left to rebuild and somehow survive on their own. The Prince didn’t even repeal the taxes that year.
“We men were allowed to return to our homes a few weeks later. None of us knew whether we had homes to return to, or not. I found out why I hadn’t had word from anyone in the village. It had been ransacked. The only ones who survived were those who ran and hid far enough into the forest.
“I was married, Sherlock. I don’t know if you ever deduced that, but I know I never told you. I never speak of Mary. I’d known her all my life. We had a little home in the village and she was heavy with our first child when I was taken away. She couldn’t run when the marauders came. I was told the midwife stayed with her, that her pains were coming. The midwife was struck down. Our home was burned with Mary laboring in our bed.
“I blamed myself for not building our home far outside the village for a while, but never as much as I blamed the Prince for insisting on such a stupid display of posturing. Perhaps he learned from his mistake, but there were so many of us who had to suffer for it.”
“And he was not done making mistakes, was he, Sherlock? He drove you away, the finest man I have ever known.”
It was days later before John fell to talking again. His grief was too raw, the wounds scraped open doubly.
King Mycroft had lost more than a stone in the months preceding his nuptials. The courtiers snickered, postulating that he was trying to improve his physique to impress his pretty young bride. The kinder souls, though there were few at court, privately thought he was still mourning his mother despite the fact that he was rushing to secure a wife and heir. No one even whispered of his brother, relegating Sherlock to complete non-existence.
When the bride’s party arrived at the castle, King Mycroft received them in the Great Hall, as was proper, and then returned to the study with Lady Anthea’s father to finalize the negotiations. The lady’s person was inconsequential; King Mycroft barely looked at her. Though she was lovely, this marriage was about money and the perpetuation of the royal lineage.
The bride’s father, a younger grandson of a neighboring kingdom, made a show of bargaining, torn between the knowledge that his daughter was receiving the ultimate honor, and wanting to take advantage of the fact that this was a most ideal time to gain quite a settlement from the King. However, King Mycroft prided himself on his ability to dictate a favorable contract and he looked forward to the coming debate.
A note signed with a boldly scrolled A found its way into the King’s hand via the tea tray. The advice it delivered was curious, but King Mycroft found he had nothing to lose by abiding by it. He accepted the offer of a bow and arrow made by the neighboring land’s master bowyer and fletcher and would not relinquish the items for any price. Lady Anthea’s father became ever more unnerved by the King’s vehemence regarding what most would consider a trinket of little value and eventually ceded more land and coin than he’d ever intended.
In the days that followed, Lady Anthea proved far shrewder than her father. Well-versed in courtly life, she merged into the crowds in the Great Hall with ease. She was most attentive and soon had a mental map of all the games and intrigues in play. She held herself apart from the bored and frivolous nobles, and soon they were currying her favor. She engaged with those who held the King’s ear and they were soon won over as well, impressed by her information and insight.
Even James Moriarty was not exempt from Lady Anthea’s charms, though in a much more blunt and base manner. He found the lady unattended of an evening and imposed upon her solitude to ardently profess an admiration for her skill in sovereign affairs.
“I do believe we could make quite the pair, Lady Anthea,” Moriarty murmured, looming far too closely to be proper, “particularly if you would promise me your firstborn son.” His hand drifted shockingly low on her person, making his meaning quite clear.
“Sir, you do flatter me with your reverence, but I possess neither the cleverness nor the fortitude to cuckold the King.” Lady Anthea twisted away, feigning timid virtue. She would not be used to put this vile man’s seed on the throne, but she also could not let him know just how much his zealotry disgusted her.
Moriarty seemed to be fooled by her blushing humility and smirked.
“Ah, dear maiden, do remember my offer when your marriage bed proves unfulfilling. Your future husband cannot do anything without my advice, and that includes getting his wife with child.”
Lady Anthea made note of this treasonous overture and was more than relieved when Moriarty slipped away.
The wedding ceremony was long and tedious. King Mycroft was in little mood for celebration. Lady Anthea merely indulged him with a sphinxlike smile which made the King more uneasy. He’d seen her maneuverings at court these past weeks. At first he’d been pleased that she so deftly handled herself among the sniping factions but then he began to wonder precisely what her designs were.
King Mycroft endured the raucous tidings that followed the new couple to the marital bedchamber, but upon arrival, sent everyone out of the room except for his new Queen.
“I wish to speak to my bride in private,” he bellowed over the protests of “Not done,” and “But, my King…” Every servant and well-wisher was ushered out the door, which was quickly barred against them.
“My lord, this is most unusual,” she said, unflustered by the fact that the King was defying convention. She ought to have been undressed and put to bed by her maids and mother while he was readied in the adjoining chamber.
“My Queen… Anthea, I wish to ask you a question.”
“Of course, my lord. I am at your command.”
“Are you conspiring to assassinate me?”
There was no overblown shock, nor weeping, nor anger at the accusation. Queen Anthea simply tipped her head to the side.
“What gives you the impression I would benefit from your death, my King?”
“I’ve observed precisely with whom you have spoken, and more tellingly, whose company you’ve rebuffed. You cleverly hold court with the ladies, but always within earshot of more important conversations. You’ve quickly tangled yourself in the web around the throne; surely the spider has revealed himself, secured your assistance.”
“I realize you have little reason to trust me, my lord, but at least understand that were I to assassinate you at this stage, without at least a potential heir in my belly, that I would no longer be Queen.”
“Someone always wishes to overthrow the king, and as I have no proper heir, anyone with either enough support or barbarity could gain the throne.”
“While that is most certainly true, I would personally prefer you kept it.” Queen Anthea indicated with a gesture that she would prefer to sit. The King nodded his permission and she perched on a small chair, smoothing her skirts with precision.
“I knew I would one day be married to a great man. I endeavored to prepare myself for that future. Upon arriving at your court, I took very careful note of every word against you.” For the first time, the brilliant wisp of a girl in front of him looked uneasy. “Your advisor, Moriarty, I know you hold him in your confidence above all others.”
“And thus you should be careful what accusations you make against him.”
“I understand that, but if you truly look for a spider, you must hear me.”
King Mycroft listened to his Queen’s confession of Moriarty’s proposition with a most uneasy feeling. She could be lying, of course. Causing dissent between the King and his closest advisor could have countless outcomes, if even to bring another advisor to Moriarty’s high position. Moriarty, himself, could even have reasons to compel the Queen to make such a confession, such as testing her loyalty. And yet there remained the possibility that she told the simple truth, which was particularly more distressing.
In the end, the King knew he could not fully trust his wife, but neither could he trust his closest friend.
“My lord, there is one question I wish to ask you, though I do not wish to be indelicate.” Despite her cautious words, her tone was flat and practical.
“Ask.” The King was lost in thought and his reply came nearly a minute later.
“What happened with your younger brother?”
This caused the King to start. No one had mentioned Sherlock in weeks, as if he’d ceased to exist. Certainly, the search went on, but no results had been reported and soon the reports themselves became infrequent.
“He ran off the night our mother, the Queen, died. He had always been foolish and tempestuous and we fought viciously during her illness.” The King sighed. “I worry what has become of him, though we never loved each other as brothers ought to do.”
Queen Anthea considered her next action very carefully. She deliberately lifted the hem of her skirt, smirking when King Mycroft looked away for propriety’s sake. It was their wedding night, after all. What she removed, however, was not a piece of clothing. She extracted a rolled up piece of vellum from a hidden pocket in her skirt.
“My lord,” she said, proffering the scroll. “My wedding present to you.”
King Mycroft accepted the gift hesitantly, but with all the grace of his station. He unfurled the weathered notice carefully, curious as to why she’d secret it upon her person.
At first, he read what he expected, an offer of a reward for information on the location of his brother. But after a moment, the lettering seemed to reorganize itself. The handbill not only offered a reward for information on Prince Sherlock’s whereabouts, but declared him a treasonous fugitive; the delivery of his head and heart was double that of him as a prisoner.
Seeing the face of his brother and the lethal decree printed in King Mycroft’s name, something tiny in his chest broke. It made him gasp.
“Was it right, then, that I took one of these? I had done so with the intention of asking which treasonous offense he had committed, but upon my arrival, other probabilities became clear to me.”
Queen Anthea saw how much this information upset her husband. She stood near him, hand on his shoulder, hoping her quiet presence would be a comfort.
“I am sorry.”
“I have been a fool, given a madman my ear, shoving forth all the keys to my betrayal with glee. I was raised to be a strong man, a king, yet I could not even see my own actions. I need to think, Anthea. Please, leave me.”
And for the first time, King Mycroft saw the web within which he’d become so tangled.
King Mycroft decided to proceed in public as if his Queen had not confessed the perfidy of his closest friend. His subtle investigation into the matter of Moriarty and his brother would go better undetected that way. Still, he found himself avoiding James’ company, more certain every day that his eyes had been opened to Moriarty’s true motives; the man’s cloying demeanor had suddenly become intolerable. At least the King could excuse himself, citing his wish to remain closeted with his new wife. Their bedchamber, however, was a place of confidences and plotting, a private spot where conversations were not overheard.
The new Queen gave invaluable advice, but was content to present a vacuous façade. They developed a sort of code for public appearances, wherein she could make her opinion known without contradicting her husband. Another benefit of a wife from another land, another court, was the inclination of all the resident nobility to share gossip with the newcomer. Queen Anthea was thoroughly regaled with secrets and aspersions by and against every person of consequence and even several of no consequence. She dutifully reported the most relevant of these to her husband and they drew a clearer picture of Moriarty’s web.
They discussed what to do regarding the missing Prince. There was a good chance that the King’s brother was long dead and it was certainly Moriarty whom the King had entrusted with the search. Still, he had no proof that the order for Sherlock’s head had not come from his own mouth; in fact, it certainly may have. His grief during their mother’s illness had been exacerbated by Sherlock’s abominable behavior. The Prince had rarely visited her in her chambers, spending days with his chemicals and experiments and creating mayhem with his explosions. When the Queen had died and Mycroft realized his brother was gone, had he shouted to bring the Prince back at all costs? And was James there to twist and relay such words with his own nefarious agenda? He’d rarely left Mycroft’s side, all the better to manipulate the goings on in the kingdom.
Queen Anthea recommended that he speak to someone in the Royal Guard, preferably one from the squads that patrolled beyond the castle walls. If news of the Prince was not reaching the King, then they must consider which soldiers may hold more loyalty to Moriarty than himself. In the end, the King commanded common vestments from a servant and snuck down to the garrison at the city walls. He was not unrecognizable, of course, but attempted to draw as little attention to himself as possible.
Once there, he found a grey-haired man, obviously long a soldier, and drew him away from the training of the young squires. The soldier took in his clothing and demeanor and remained discreet, nodding instead of bowing and leading his King to a private spot where they could speak freely.
“Sire, what can I do to serve you?”
“I wish for you to tell me how goes the search for my brother, Prince Sherlock.”
The weathered face of the soldier made only the tiniest show of uneasiness.
“Wouldn’t this be a question more appropriate for your generals, my King?”
“Must I ask twice?” the King replied archly, though if he read the soldier right, he wasn’t going to enjoy the answer.
“My utmost apologies, sire.” The soldier straightened up and delivered the news frankly. “The search has been called off and the soldiers stationed in the far reaches have returned to the city these past weeks. The Prince was discovered dead in a huntsman’s cottage near the village of Marylebone.”
“And why was his body not returned to the castle?” The King could not believe he managed to speak the words, speak any words. His brother was dead and it was most certainly his fault.
“Ah… the huntsman guarded the body fiercely. Captain Moran approached and was slain within seconds. Lord Moriarty immediately withdrew the squad.”
“Did this huntsman kill my brother?”
“No, I do not believe so. Sire, if I might speak freely?”
The King gave no response but to wave the go-ahead. He felt ill and gullible, as if he’d been slowly poisoned for months and only discovered the treachery after the final, fatal dose had been delivered.
“Were you never informed of these facts?”
“No.” The King’s voice was hollow and the soldier felt a pang of sympathy. Despite everything, the King was but a man, and clearly an imperfect one.
“I am sorry, sire.”
They spoke a while longer before the soldier escorted the King back to the castle, where King Mycroft relayed the news to his wife that night. She comforted him as best as she was able. They spoke of what must be done to allow the King to travel to Marylebone without attracting the suspicion of Moriarty. The grey-haired soldier was to hand-pick the contingent of guards to accompany the King. He knew it was absurd to trust the man so implicitly, since his trust was so wrongly placed before, but he had little choice.
In the end, a diplomatic missive arrived and the King elected to travel with his new wife to settle the differences between two of his far-flung nobles. Moriarty showed no signs of being suspicious of the newlyweds’ decision to travel to a pleasant locale at the onset of summer. He also showed no desire to personally abandon the capital for the more rusticated provinces.
The King was thoughtful in his travelling carriage and Queen Anthea allowed his silence. She knew what he was seeing as he stared out at the thick forest: Prince Sherlock running through these trees, fleet as a hart and being hunted as one.
The village of Marylebone boasted a noble house, though one abandoned for several years. An entire wing of the building had been destroyed during the Belgravia offensive and the aging Count who had lived there had done little more than close off the rest of the house from the rubble before he’d moved permanently to the castle. The King had been warned of this, but he did not care. Moth-eaten bed-curtains and musty bedding suited his mood. The Queen sent two of her own servants ahead to make it habitable.
Once settled there, subtle inquiries obtained the direction of the huntsman’s cottage. The grey-haired soldier, Lestrade, reported that the villagers seemed loathe to discuss the huntsman. They had no complaints against his work and generally appeared well-fed and comfortable, but the man was regarded as forbidding and solitary. They warned against approaching him without good reason.
King Mycroft took this under advisement; that is to say, he ignored it completely. He had come to see this man and would not be dissuaded. However, he should have expected the effrontery of the small, blond man taking a long look at the bejeweled, silk-clad king standing on the other side of his humble threshold before shutting the door firmly in his royal face.
“Shall I open the door, sire?” Lestrade asked mildly.
“No, no.” The King rapped lightly on the door with his own knuckles. “This will be a unique challenge of diplomacy, I see. You may stand down.”
Alas, it was a day when John was unable to speak, nor did he answer the door again. King Mycroft patiently waited, knocking no more aggressively every half an hour, until Lestrade whispered in his ear that he ought to allow his guards to return to their makeshift barracks and rest.
“I will return tomorrow, John the Huntsman,” he intoned loud enough to be heard through the door.
King Mycroft returned the next day, returning to his bride mere minutes later when it became clear that John had left for the woods quite early that morning. The King posted someone to wait and inform him when John returned, though warning the young soldier quite implicitly not to approach or threaten the man in any way.
The King tried to approach again when John was outside his home, cleaning the carcass of a boar. John ignored him as thoroughly as possible, though he did express his displeasure at the company by disposing of the boar’s offal disrespectfully close to the King’s fine shoes.
Still, the King fell into the habit of watching John labor so honestly. He thought about speaking, but until the man was ready to hear him, there was little point. It took a week before John’s resolve broke before the King’s presence.
“What do you want? If you were going to arrest me, you would have done so by now.”
“Why would I arrest you?”
John remained silent.
“Ah, yes, Captain Moran. No, he is not the reason I have come.” Of course it wasn’t. No King would bother being present at the arrest of a man over the murder of a Guard captain. “I wish to see my brother.”
“He is dead.”
“Then we’re done here.”
“Please, I wish to see my brother’s grave.”
“No.” John’s response was firm and absolute. “He is finally at peace. You hounded him into that grave; I shall not allow you to desecrate the serenity of it.”
The King caught just the faint glimmer in the huntsman’s eye before the man turned to his house and slammed the oak door behind him.
King Mycroft returned the next day, and the next, but each time the answer was the same.
It wasn’t until the King said nothing but, “I need your help to vanquish Moriarty,” that John reluctantly agreed to listen to the King.
“Why should I trust you?”
“You probably shouldn’t. I was weak. I let myself be bewitched by James… by Moriarty, believing all the while I retained the upper hand. I did not. I never did.”
“The ego of a king.”
“Yes.” King Mycroft looked discomfited at needing to be humble for the first time in his life.
It was this humility that convinced John to follow the King and Lestrade to the noble house where Queen Anthea waited. Once they had secreted themselves in the house’s shabby library, hidden away from eavesdropping servants, the circumstances of Sherlock’s death were fully laid out from both sides.
If the King and Queen realized John’s version of events was heavily edited, they said nothing. The King outlined his history with his brother to the best of his ability, admitting when he’d allowed his anger and jealousy to overwhelm him and how that weakness abetted Moriarty’s plans. John retained his stoic façade, giving only one response.
“What do you need me to do?”
As the King pursued John, the Queen had spent her lonely days conjuring up a plan to, plainly, assassinate Moriarty. Anything less might invite retribution or incite a revolution among his supporters. Something that looked like an accident would be ideal, but it would have to be distinctly and immediately fatal – no slow poisonings or arranging for a fall from a horse. She considered everything she had learned about the layout and routine of the castle and its surroundings and worked her way through a number of possible sequences and their repercussions.
Here she shared her plan. Both men turned pensive.
“Lestrade will be with you, John, and will ensure your escape before the alarms are raised,” Queen Anthea said. “There will be no repercussions, no way for anyone to prove it was you.”
“I am not worried for my life,” John countered mildly. He truly wasn’t. Since Sherlock’s death, his own life meant little to him. But traveling to the capital would take him far from Sherlock; it had been difficult enough to visit the grave with the King in constant attendance. Perhaps if he could sneak away for one last day, he could excuse his absence and promise vengeance. And if he did not return, well, did not the priests say they would meet in the afterlife? “How can you be so certain this will work? Magic is notoriously unreliable.”
“I suppose if I am the villain, it will strike me.” King Mycroft said this with all the nonchalance in the world, but somewhere inside him, he was worried. He was guilty. Whether the enchantment would judge his betrayal worse than that of Moriarty was certainly something he considered. Anthea was confident it would work, but she hadn’t been there. She couldn’t possibly know.
“I’ll do it,” John said, as if the King’s discomfiture made all the difference.
The forest was cool even this time of year. The sunlight dappled the ground, bright spots twinkling over the ground like fairies as the leaves in the canopy overhead rustled and flitted in the breeze. The lovely scenery was a good excuse to keep to the woods, though John didn’t particularly need to stay hidden. The nature of his solitary sojourn was best kept discrete, yes, but mainly he didn’t feel like being social on the proper road to the capital.
He’d waited for the King and Queen to depart with their full entourage before trekking to say goodbye to Sherlock, as he could not be convinced to share the location of Prince Sherlock’s final resting place. When he was certain they’d gone, John walked that familiar path into the forest. He spent several hours in the peaceful glade lying on the ground next to Sherlock as if they were comfortably in bed and discussing the events of the day.
Despite the royal assurances, John was not certain he’d be returning home. There was always the chance that he’d run into Moriarty unexpectedly or that Lestrade wouldn’t be able to facilitate his escape. The King himself may betray John and have him executed for the crime he begged him to commit, or any of a dozen other things may go awry. When John said goodbye to Sherlock, he didn’t cry. He said it in the manner of a man who knew they’d meet again soon, one way or another.
Once he started his longer journey, John found himself on a path through the woods that would take him past the spot where he’d first encountered Sherlock. The body of the Guardsman was no longer there; whether he’d been found by animals or humans was anyone’s guess after all these months. John forced himself not to pause too long. Still, he couldn’t help but touch his fingers to the foreign bow slung across his back, check the arrows in his quiver just in case he might need to pull one.
The journey on foot, steadfast and straight as the crow flies, took John several days. He tried not to think on the task at the end of his pilgrimage. When he thought about it, he felt foolish, trusting in a foreign Queen and a guilt-ridden King. For all their seeming-sincerity, John knew he could simply be little more than a disposable pawn in a much larger game. Still, there was little other option than to go forward.
Thus it was with an uneasy heart that he finally slipped past the looming city walls, mingling with a boisterous caravan of merchants, and settled in to wait for the prearranged time.
King Mycroft sat alone in his library, having dismissed all advisors and politicians and servants – in short, everyone around him who breathed lies. Aside from the birds chirping in the gardens below his wide-open window and the muffled shouts of the Guard at training drills beyond the city wall, the room was silent. It had been occupying his mind for days now, exactly what he would say to James. The man had so thoroughly betrayed him, had been manipulating him, laughing at him, plotting to usurp him every moment. Would the man now, upon confrontation, lay his plot open or deny his devilry?
The door opened and James sauntered in. His longstanding familiarity with the King negated the need for him to wait for acknowledgement or invitation to sit, so he sprawled in his usual chair.
“Ah, my lord, how was your adventure into the hinterlands?”
As far as King Mycroft knew, James suspected nothing of his trip to see the huntsman.
“Quite fruitful I do believe, James.” Now that the first words to the traitor had been said, the rest flowed much more easily. “I trust things went smoothly in my absence.”
“Regular as the moon phase, Sire.”
“Excellent. Any news regarding the whereabouts of my brother?”
One dark, well-shaped eyebrow went up.
“I would have informed you immediately, sire.”
James was an excellent liar. There was nothing in his face or manner that conflicted with his statement. In fact, it was given with just the correct mixture of apology and deference.
“Then perhaps you ought to inquire again of your retainers, for they have been keeping secrets.”
“Have they? Then you are quite right; I shall have to investigate the matter. But you have had news then! Surely you will share your information.”
“Of course, James.” King Mycroft took the moment to observe his advisor. The man had never remained perfectly still, full of energy and rapid thought, but now he jumped up and paced the room, rubbing a thumb over his lips and fixing the King with an intense glare when he still hadn’t shared his news.
“I have it on good authority that the Prince was discovered dead during the winter. His body was interred in one of the provinces.”
“That is unexpected, my lord.” Moriarty flopped back into his chair, all the better to observe the King’s mood and respond appropriately. “It is a good thing, then, that Your Highness has married and may soon have a proper heir to the throne on the way.”
“The Fates willing,” King Mycroft agreed.
“Oh, I do hope you know that Fate has very little to do with it,” Moriarty insinuated with a wink. Apparently, he planned to say nothing else about Prince Sherlock’s death. That would not do.
“I am aware that the Prince and I had our differences, James, but I did not truly wish for his death. It weighs heavily on my heart. I would do anything to bring him back.”
“Anything, my lord?” Moriarty’s eyes flared. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. Here was the King offering everything on a silver platter. Surely it wouldn’t be any more satisfying to slither around for untold years yet plotting to obtain what was now so freely offered.
“Even turn over your kingdom, wallow in hunger and poverty, just to have his voice in your ear uttering complaints and finding fault with your circumstance?”
They looked intently at each other for a long minute before King Mycroft flicked his eyes away in dismissal. “It’s not as if it is possible.”
“What if it was?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if there was a potion or a bit of magic that could bring your brother back? What would you give for it? Your kingdom? Your bride?”
“What next, James, my very own life? It is unlike you to speculate in such hypotheticals.” King Mycroft kept his tone disbelieving and dry, though this conversation was not progressing in any predictable way. “Have you come to sell me some magic beans?” he all but scoffed. “I’m hardly in the mood.”
John found Lestrade in the morning and was invited to join in with the Guard’s archery practice just south of the city walls. Lestrade, in friendly competition, proved himself to be a more than adequate archer, but John’s skills bested many a young man, whether the arrow was shot at a moving target or stationary. He helped Lestrade critique form and gave advice to those who needed it.
The men didn’t question the presence of this former soldier, this friend of their mentor. They joked and laughed jovially with him, even when John’s response was more restrained. Many of the men admired the bow given to John by the Queen but John didn’t let it leave his own hand. It was beautiful, the craftsmanship unlike that which John had ever dreamed. The elegance of the bend was unmatched; the weight of the draw and the snap of the string spoke to the perfect ratio of heartwood to sapwood.
It was perfect and the Queen had held the bow and a single arrow in her hands most reverently.
“There is a legend in my land,” she said, “of a master bowyer and his three children. Their descendants create all our weapons, but each generation crafts just a few such masterpieces. I entrust you with one of them for it will be the key to the justice you seek.
“Once there lived a master bowyer, who sent his eldest son high into the mountains to find the best wood for his bows. As the young man moved to cut down a particularly fine young tree, a terrible maiden with eyes dripping blood appeared. She warned him not to touch the yew on this particular mountainside as it was sacred to her sisters. The young man recognized her as one of the Erinyes, the Furies, and offered his skill to her in trade. If she would allocate him a few trees to craft his bows, he would ensure they would only be used in her name, that of righteous fury. She acquiesced to the man and allowed him three trees.
“Now, the nature of the yew tree is such that the branches may droop to the ground and take root, creating a new trunk over time. The apprentice bowyer knew this and did not cut down his allotted trees. He removed part of a single tree and made a single bow. He brought his eldest son to the sacred place and together they did the same from the second. The man’s descendants returned time and again to those three sacred trees, ever growing, ever spreading, crafting longbows which never broke.
“The master bowyer’s second son would become a fletcher. He learned of his brother’s arrangement with the terrible maiden. He went to the same mountain and found a stand of ash trees. Just as he was about to cut down a tree, a pale maiden belted in writhing snakes appeared and forbade him from cutting down the trees sacred to her sisters. The clever boy gave the spectral Fury the same offer as his brother; he would dedicate the use of the arrows he made to vengeance and justice. She agreed and allowed him three trees. He and his descendants collected the branches fallen from those trees and made the straightest, fiercest arrows in the land. They always flew true.
“The master bowyer had no more sons, but a daughter. She made her way atop the mountain and began to collect spider silk from the trees. The third Fury watched the girl from the shadows as she spun the gossamer threads together. When the girl was finished, she held the woven bracelet out and met the eyes of the reticent Fury as if she’d known the deity was there. The offering was admired, and the girl was gifted with three spiders. She would teach her daughters the secret of weaving the wispy threads into a bowstring that could rival steel for strength.
“‘Your family’s bows and arrows shall forever punish those who have sworn a false oath, in the name of the Erinyes, my sisters,’ the Fury said, which was as close to a blessing as a goddess of vengeance could invoke.”
John and King Mycroft had listened to Queen Anthea’s haunting tale, after which she laid the bow and arrow that was her deceptively innocuous bridal gift into the huntsman’s hands. The King was ever more grateful that he’d heeded the Queen’s covert advice to accept it. He often told her in private that marrying her was the wisest decision he ever made. She would tease him in return about his most divine luck, as he had neither spoken nor corresponded with her prior to their marriage.
Whether the legend was true or not, John was not one to discount curses and blessings. His father’s fireside tales had always stressed that faith and resolve were the most important components of magic. John knew the enchantments in the forest had kept Prince Sherlock safely hidden while he’d remained within its confines. Even now, the magic protected his body. He could have faith a little while longer that a sacred arrow shot from a sacred bow would find its way into their greatest adversary. John only needed to hold that faith for another minute, at most.
As the sun rose in the sky, they shifted position to practice with a glare in their eyes. The flight of their arrows ran parallel to the thick stone wall separating the meadows from the castle’s gardens. Lestrade arranged the archers in formation as if they were shooting into the ranks of a vast army. Accuracy wasn’t the goal in this exercise; distance and spread was. No one would see where all the arrows fell in the vast field beyond; no one would notice if one veered over the city wall. No one, that is, except for the man it struck and the man who was with him.
John pulled the curse-blessed arrow from his quiver, nocked it in well-practiced unison with the other archers and waited for Lestrade’s command to shoot. He lifted his eyes to the open window of the tower room where the King had indicated he would summon Moriarty today at noon. All John had to do was fix his mind on Sherlock, on his heart-rending grief, on the diabolical cause of it all, and focus his eyes and aim on that window. The bow and arrow would do the rest.
John let out his breath as he leaned into the heavy draw, bending the bow and lifting it towards Chiron.
“Loose your arrows!”
“It’s not a bean, my King.” Moriarty’s face twisted in vexation, which he quickly smoothed over. “It’s simply a possibility, one which I, alone, can twist into being.”
The King wasn’t certain if he ought to believe Moriarty before he realized that of course he should not. The man may make all the promises in the world, but he would never follow through with something that wasn’t to his own advantage. It was hard to think of James, his friend, that way; but what was seen cannot now be unseen.
“Do feel free to tell me how the dead can be resurrected, James.” Mycroft let all his skepticism appear in his voice. Perhaps it was too much. James narrowed his eyes at his King. Then he laughed, a high, shrill noise that made the King’s teeth shiver.
“Your brother was really a very brilliant man, you know, much cleverer than you. He saw my true nature as a mere boy, though he was unable to do anything about it once I had you on my side. It is a shame he was so utterly ordinary in the end. All it took was threatening his precious huntsman.” James said this in a light, playful voice as if he were teasing. “I had heard such tales of the matchless intelligence of the princes of the Holmes lineage before I came to this kingdom, but your brother willingly ingested poison to spare the life of a mere peasant and you, you still do not truly see. You cannot see what is right in front of you. It is rather pathetic.”
Moriarty’s voice had grown sharp and annoyed. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath like he was centering himself, and beamed, gesturing in the air like a showy magician. “I do not propose resurrection.”
Here the arrow appeared at the window, its trajectory sure and true. The King had two thoughts within that brief moment of time: please let it hit James, for he was still guilt-stricken with his own role in his brother’s death; and no, not before he tells me what he means; but only the first fervent request was granted.
The arrow hit Moriarty’s chest as he turned in vigorous gesticulation. Considering how far it must have flown to even reach the window, it hit with quite a bit of force. Moriarty stumbled back mid-gloat, astounded at first; then his eyes glinted with mania as blood bubbled up into his mouth.
“This is an outcome I did not predict, Mycroft.” He coughed and his chin flooded with scarlet. “I thought we’d make a deal. But now, I’ll take your brother to the grave.”
“He’s already there,” Mycroft stated plainly.
“Yes,” was the bloody, smirking response. Moriarty’s legs faltered beneath him; he hit his knees, then the floor. The King’s eyes didn’t flick away from Moriarty’s until they had become glassy and still.
King Mycroft waiting another few minutes before calling for help – both for John to take his leave from the archers and to make sure nothing could be done for James Moriarty. As the lifeless body was hauled away, questions asked, gossip spread, King Mycroft felt more relief at James’ demise than bitter regret at not discovering all of Moriarty’s secrets. It was probably a lie, anyway, the possibility of Sherlock coming back, one of thousands of whispered, wormy little lies. He’d only hear them in his nightmares from now on.
John bid the archers farewell and clasped Lestrade’s hand, exchanging their secrets with just a look. John walked unmolested from the city without hearing any hue and cry. In fact, there was so little deviation from mundane routine, John wondered if the whole plan had come to naught. It wasn’t until he stopped at an inn two nights hence that he heard of his success.
John had ducked inside due to a fall of rain that made him consider the tale of Noah. While his sodden clothing steamed by the common room fire, he overheard two noblemen discussing the incident at the castle – one was outraged that more hadn’t been done to punish the Guard archers while the other reminded him that neither of them were sad the mad bastard was dead. “Besides, he was the King’s closest advisor. If his Majesty sees fit to declare it an accident, be grateful he is not looking for conspirators within the castle walls.”
John felt something inside him break. He wouldn’t call the feeling relief, exactly, but it wasn’t quite grief, either. No one, not even John, noticed the tears that mingled with the rain still streaming from his hair.
The coats of the deer and other animals had begun to thicken by the time King Mycroft found his way back to the decrepit noble house in Marylebone village. He trod the familiar path to John’s cottage with only Lestrade trailing behind.
“I imagine you have heard,” the King said when John responded to his knock.
This time John spoke to the King on his first visit, though King Mycroft wasn’t entirely certain he would. Much of his anger had dissipated in the intervening months though he wasn’t certain he’d ever feel peace again.
“Yes, before I reached Marylebone.”
The silence stretched between them. After a bit, John pulled back from the door, leaving it open in as much invitation as he was capable of lately. The King stepped inside. The cottage was sparse and tidy as if John only rarely lived there. The shorter man pulled a small glass of ale from a cask in the corner. He set it on the short plank table and the King sat.
“This is quite good,” the King said to break the silence.
“Traded it for a bear skin from last winter,” was all John said. He did not add that Sherlock had been a party to tracking that bear, had helped him field dress it. Certain words caught in his throat still.
John sat in the opposite chair and drank with the King.
“John, may I ask you again to take me to see my brother?”
John knew that question had been coming. The King would not have come all this way just to inform him that Moriarty was dead.
“Tomorrow, quite early. Just you. No guards.”
King Mycroft didn’t have to think about the offer, not for a moment.
The King wore simple, durable clothing borrowed from Lestrade, though his fine boots were still his own. He judged they would have to do. He arrived at John’s cottage before the dawn had lightened the forest. John was awake and dressed with a pack of food waiting on the table. Neither of them had slept.
The King was not used to the distance they travelled, even if some days he felt like the corridors of the castle were endless. John allowed him to rest frequently, though King Mycroft was anxious to continue the journey at the end of every break.
“How is the queen?” John asked as the sun hoisted itself into the sky.
“With child,” the King huffed in return. “Running the kingdom.”
John wondered when his heart would stop aching.
“Thank her for the bow and arrow.”
“I do, every day.”
The clearing broke open before them some time later. The ground was thick with grasses and wildflowers. The wooden coffin peeked out over the tops of the swaying flora, as pristine as the day it was hewn.
John couldn’t greet Sherlock as he usually did; his royal audience made the pain too raw. He moved towards the coffin slowly, leaving the King behind, and peered at the still, pale face behind the window of ice. He plucked away a few white petals that had fluttered from the trees since he’d last visited.
The King was slow to approach, but his eyes moved quickly over the scene. If he was surprised at this unique manner of entombment, he said nothing. He looked through the incongruous pane of ice and saw his brother for the first time in nearly a year. He fell to his knees, an honor bestowed by the King unto no one else.
“I am so sorry, Sherlock.”
John stood a short distance away as the King bowed his head and placed one hand on the coffin over Sherlock’s heart. John had spent many hours in the same position. For now, though, he hunkered down at the edge of the clearing and looked out towards the gently rippling waters of the lake.
After a tentative touch to the pane of ice that revealed the Prince’s face, the King joined John. He sat on the ground cross-legged; it looked strange, as if John expected a servant to follow the man around carrying a throne, or at least a padded, velvet stool. The King remained silent as John broke open a round loaf of bread to share and arranged their lunch on a scrap of cloth. He had no fine pastries to tempt the King’s appetite, but King Mycroft made no complaint of the plain fare.
“I feel as if Moriarty had my head muddled with a spell all this time, and that he finally lifted it so I could feel all the anguish and pain and guilt purely.” The King pulled the cork from the bottle and took a long drink. He didn’t expect John to feel any sympathy for him. “That arrow silenced quite a vitriolic diatribe, John. Moriarty seemed convinced that I would turn over my kingdom, my wife, everything, to bring my brother back to me. And I considered it.
“However, I could not believe the offer. No one can resurrect the dead. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the last thing Moriarty said, that it would not be resurrection.” The King watched John avidly. The simple man’s head was bowed, but the tensing of his jaw, the clenching of his fists was more than obvious. “Now I see my brother as if he had ceased breathing a moment ago and I do wonder if Moriarty’s ranting held some iota of truth. I do not say this to give you hope where there may be none, John. I say this to beg your permission to try something.”
“What is there to try? His body lies uncorrupted due to the enchantment within the forest. If he could have magically returned to life, don’t you think he would have by now? When Moriarty died, perhaps?”
The King did not answer this directly.
“Once Moriarty was gone, I made it a point to search his rooms at the castle thoroughly. I had men removing the very walls, stone by stone, to reveal anything that might be concealed there. I had the entire staff clean the castle from top to bottom and bring me any insignificant but unusual item they found. I was certain after a time that I truly was looking for a magic bean, a pill, a phial, anything Moriarty might have concealed. But there was nothing.”
After a moment, he said, “My brother was a brilliant child, but difficult. His alchemy tutor was the only teacher he didn’t drive from the kingdom. I am convinced that Sherlock would never have learned to read or write or do mathematics if he hadn’t needed to learn these things for his work in the sciences. Still, his tutor understood that he needed to be set with difficult tasks, even as young as he was, and thus set him upon creating a panacea.
“This led to more than a year of mixtures and experiments; Sherlock was utterly engrossed as they worked to a viable solution. One day, and keep in mind, he was all of nine years old, Sherlock came to me with a tiny golden vial on a chain. He told me, quite seriously, that I ought to wear it at all times. As heir to the throne, I was susceptible to threats on my life. He was certain his concoction would negate all known poisons.
“I did laugh at the time, but took the charm. I put it on to humor him, but as the years passed and our brotherhood progressed towards antipathy, I put it aside.” The King withdrew the small gold necklace from his shirt, drew the chain over his head. “I kept it, but only in the sense that I rarely thought of it and certainly not for long enough to dispose of it. And after Moriarty’s death, I began to wonder if he knew of this panacea of Sherlock’s, if the key to bringing Sherlock back was such a little thing already in my possession.
“But I needed you to bring me here, John. Because there was no way for this to work if Sherlock had…” He could not say it, but John knew. “I didn’t want to tell you yesterday, in case… I had to see his body.”
“Must you talk so much? If you’re going to try it, then do it,” John snapped. Somehow that little bit of hope, that glint of gold in the King’s hand, made John sick and all the pain was refreshed. He just knew that the disappointment would start the process of grief all over again. The childish elixir wouldn’t work and Sherlock would be dead anew. Damn the King.
The King’s hands shook as they pried away the small wedges holding the icy window in place. Once that was removed, John couldn’t help but reach inside and stroke a fingertip along a still-supple curl. The King was reminded of his Queen. “He loved your brother,” she had told her husband when they were alone and Moriarty was gone.
“It seems so,” agreed the King, though this seemed unbelievable. He wondered if his brother had returned that love, if he’d found himself capable. Sherlock had always shut himself so tightly away from such things. Their mother was the only person to whom the Prince had ever shown any affection, and that was before her illness.
And here the King was, watching John, a simple huntsman, grieve his aloof, abrasive brother; and all evidence indicated that Sherlock had died for this man. He opened the tiny vial carefully, not certain what, if anything, was within. The King gently parted Sherlock’s lips and tipped the gray, powdery dust into his mouth. There was no glint, no effervescence, no miraculous waking. The Prince did not grimace at the foul taste, nor swallow, and those pale lips certainly did not berate Mycroft for such a coarse mouthful.
As much as King Mycroft’s heart broke as they waited fruitlessly, he felt John’s despair more keenly than his own. John looked like he’d sooner crawl in the coffin with Sherlock than live to be disappointed again. The huntsman’s rough hand stroked over Sherlock’s lips, closing his mouth and then he spoke as he did when the King wasn’t there.
“Sherlock, my love, I know you hated sleeping. You never wanted to miss anything. But right now you’re missing your stupid brother groveling at your side. It’s quite a sight, let me tell you. And you missed a summer of long, lazy days swimming with me in our lake. Or perhaps you’d prefer to experiment on the tadpoles. We can’t do that now; they’ve all turned to frogs.”
King Mycroft stood and moved away, letting John talk to his brother. He rested his own head in his hands and wept, unaware how much he anticipated being right and just how utterly crestfallen he was that the elixir did not work. He wept until his head hurt from it and John fell silent.
John sat next to the coffin, one arm draped over the wood as if he could hug the man inside closer. His face dripped with tears that he let fall freely as if he couldn’t even feel them anymore.
“Sherlock, my love, I was so alone. You were my miracle; you brought me back to life. I hate to have to ask this, but would you do just one more thing for me?” He ran a thumb over Sherlock’s cheekbone and took a deep, shuddering breath. “One more miracle? Don’t be dead. Just stop this. For me.”
John leaned over the open window and lightly pressed his tear-damp lips to Sherlock’s.
John would later attribute what happened to the magic of the forest and the endings of fairy tales. King Mycroft suspected that the panacea had dried out in the little vial and needed to rehydrate; the liquid of John’s tears on his lips as he kissed Sherlock was enough to activate the elixir. Whatever the reason, when John pulled back, Sherlock’s eyelids fluttered. He inhaled with a sudden, sharp gasp.
“John?” His voice was rough with disuse and his hands were cool when they stilled John’s desperate attempts to rip the wooden coffin apart. “John, you’re alive.”
“Of course I’m alive, Sherlock.” John knew he sounded hysterical as he laughed and cried at the same time. “You were the one who was dead.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, John. I couldn’t bear to watch you die.” Sherlock could barely get his words out as John took his face in his hands and kissed him again and again.
“You can be sorry later when I’m not so glad, Sherlock.”
The King wanted to greet his brother, beg for his forgiveness, but John’s ebullition put a blush on his cheek and so he turned away to give them some semblance of privacy.
The clearing was closer to the cave housing Hudson and the other small men, though John rarely had the heart to visit. Still, Sherlock had no clothing or shoes save the sheet he was wrapped in and his cloak. Sherlock argued that he would prefer to go straight home, meaning John’s home, but he wouldn’t take John’s boots and John wouldn’t allow him to walk all that way barefoot. He still had belongings in the cave, and despite the fact that the men would surely make a fuss about Sherlock being alive were they home, they would go collect them.
Due to Hudson’s fussing, the exhausting explanations all around, and the long walk, it was night by the time the King had left them alone in John’s small cottage. Despite the bad thing that had happened there, good had happened as well and there was no place they would rather have been.
John undressed Sherlock again and pressed his lips to every place he could feel Sherlock’s heart beat. The flat of Sherlock’s chest reverberated under John’s lips. The blood swooshed rapidly through the artery in Sherlock’s neck. The rhythm was faint at the bends of Sherlock’s elbows and at his wrists, but John could taste the pulse on his tongue. And then John gripped the soft, smooth skin of Sherlock’s inner thigh between his teeth so gently.
But while John lusted for every living inch of Sherlock, nothing but the pulsing throbs of climax, nothing but the warm, living fluid flowing into his mouth would satisfy him.
As for Sherlock, he could only vow to never let this man leave his arms again.
King Mycroft wished to find them a grand home befitting the brother of a king. He offered to rebuild the manor house in Marylebone if they did not wish to return to the city. Prince Sherlock refused on both counts and he and John built themselves a small, simple home. It had servants, yes, more than John would ever become used to, and a space for Sherlock’s laboratory; but it was peaceful and close to the forest where they could hunt and provide for the villagers.
A new Prince and heir was born the following spring and in due time, he and his siblings’ earnest minds were well-filled by their uncles. Uncle Sherlock taught them facts, sciences, math; Uncle John taught them to play and to hunt, and tucked them into their beds at night with tales of heroic princes, loyal knights and magic.
As those fairy tales often end, John had gotten his Prince. And Prince Sherlock, well, he had found his heart in a simple huntsman.