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Chapter 5 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

The reed-beds on the further side of the lake rippled in the dawn breeze, betraying no hint of the beaters working within. Crouched in the stand, John checked his powder-flask and shot for the sixth time. The dog, picking up on his tension, quivered from nose to tail-tip. Sherlock made a small sound of impatience. John grimaced in reflexive annoyance.

The chief loader – a grizzled old man with a long-healed powder burn to one side of his face – grinned.  

“Save it for the ducks, sirs.”

“Shut. Up.” Sherlock’s voice was barely a whisper. It cut like a whip-crack. 

The loader shrugged, as if his lot in life was to be shouted at by those more highly placed than himself, and he’d long since ceased to let it trouble him.

With a fast drumming of wings the first bird scared up by the beaters crossed the lake.

“Too high!”  

Sherlock’s warning was superfluous; John had abandoned any intention to take a shot almost before his gun had reached his shoulder.  

Someone hadn’t been so restrained. “Boom” went a gun on their left. Then a second shot, louder, hard upon the first.

Instantly, Sherlock was on his feet, forcing his way out of the stand, heedless of noise. For a moment sheer terror paralysed John.

“You can’t – “

Words and imagination failed him. Interrupt King Ambrosine’s sport,  just as a drive was commencing? He grabbed the prince’s sleeve.

“Let me go. Don’t you listen? That second shot wasn’t from a fowling piece.”

“What?”

“Rifle-gun. Assassin. Look to the King. If you still have one.”

Horror yawned, a bottomless pit beneath John’s feet. The two of them, plus loaders - and the dog, dancing excitable circles at this unwonted change in routine, too well bred to break training and bark - tumbled out of the stand.

Outside a scene of chaos reigned. 

A group of shouting, gesticulating men milled about beneath one of the trees of the heronry which occupied the higher ground, behind the narrow ribbon of marshy pasture which fringed the lake.  

To John’s immense relief he spotted the King, in front of the third of the eight stands along the lake-shore. Moran stood at his right-hand side, his air of swagger unmistakeable. Two guards flanked them.

Most of the other nobles, including the Earl and his daughter, stood in an uneasy knot a little way from the King. A wise precaution; even at this distance cold rage radiated from him.

Sherlock barely spared the noble portion of the party a glance. He set off at a dead run towards the group under the trees.

“Get back, my lord! It’s no sight for a boy.” The sergeant-at-arms was a solid block of muscle, six feet tall, with arms thick as thighs. He spoke with the guttural accent of Eastern Gondal, John’s home province.

Sherlock’s nostrils flared. Before he could say anything, John strode forward.  

“Let me through. I’m a physician.” Not the time to quibble about an incomplete apprenticeship and the longed-for, ever receding promise of Glasstown’s school of anatomy or – fragile, cherished hope – that of Padua or Leyden.  

The men parted. As they did so John added, in the dialect of his childhood, the tongue of shepherds and fishermen from the salt-marshes, “The boy, as you call him, is the grandson of the wolf of Gaaldine. From that stock, do you really doubt he was blooded before he was breeched? He comes with me.”

The sergeant-at-arms saluted, as if despite himself. John made an absent, courteous acknowledgement and pushed past, Sherlock following. 

The body sprawled beneath the tree, amid broken twigs and heron droppings, was a ruined mess. He knelt by it, felt for a pulse at the neck – he had never ceased to be amazed, over six years following behind his father, at what the human frame could survive – and was relieved to find nothing. The blast of shot had torn away any recognisable features, burst eyeballs, left nothing but a bloody wreck.

“Lord Moran,” the sergeant-at-arms said, from somewhere above his head. “Caught sight of him in the tree, got a shot off just as he was aiming.” A stubby finger stabbed down, indicating a gun on the ground. “Saved the King. A fraction later –” He spat, eloquently.

“French design and stock; metalwork by a gunsmith out of Saxony.” Sherlock, thank God, was living up to the reputation John had given him. He crouched down in the blood-soaked mud and picked up the weapon. “Maker’s mark engraved on the plate here – oh.”

The monosyllable bore an almost unbearable weight of recognition, surprise and – pain?

“What is it?”

“I know the cipher.” Whatever emotion John thought he had detected in Sherlock’s voice was gone. “Father had a matched pair of wheel-lock fowling pieces from this workshop. A gift from the King of France. On the occasion of his marriage to my mother, the Princess Royal of Gaaldine.” 

He straightened up and raised the gun to his shoulder, sighting down the buckled, twisted barrel towards the group of nobles by the lake. There was some little commotion there; it seemed the Earl’s daughter had fainted.

“A long shot, but a weapon fully capable of achieving it. In the right hands.” Sherlock let the gun fall to his side. “This is no petty plot.”  

He nudged the dead body with the toe of his boot, so it flopped over on its side, what was left of its long hair mercifully shielding the ruined face.

“Whoever armed this man set him to hunt the noblest game of all. But not with some border bandit’s weapon. A gun worth upwards of a thousand thaler, from a workshop open to only the very highest families of Europe. That fact will, I think, be of particular interest to the King.”

This time the sergeant-at-arms’ salute was by no means perfunctory. “Will your grace attend him to share your conclusions yourself?”

Adroitly handled; John could only admire it. After a moment Sherlock nodded. “Prepare his grace the King for disturbing news. I shall follow in a moment.”

The sergeant-at-arms nodded, and withdrew. Sherlock plucked John by the sleeve and drew him aside from the mob around the body.

“Tell Santiago and Hamish to have our bags packed, the horses fed and watered. We’ll travel light and fast once the order’s given. Any comforts they can contrive, I’ll pay.”

His mind a blizzard of unanswered questions, he nonetheless nodded, as if all were plain and easy to him. The right response; the prince’s expression cleared.

“Good man. See you later.”