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Chapter 6 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

Even given Sherlock’s warning, John had been taken aback by how fast the party got on the road. They were a depleted band, Napier and two of the other senior lords vanished who-knew-where and the baggage wagons and body-servants left behind lest they slow their progress.

Sherlock and Moran rode each side of the King, the Royal guard pressed close around them, forcing John to the rear of the party. A dozen miles down the road the rain began, first as the pattering of fat drops on parched earth, then a driving, relentless downpour. It cut visibility to mere yards, made a thick red porridge of the churned earth.  

They made camp on a heath, as night was falling. No fires were lit. John contrived a bivouac against one of the sparse thorn trees, wrapped himself in blankets and lay down. Rest remained at bay, banished by the persistent dripping of rain through the canopy and the dank cold seeping into his bones.

“We left summer by the tarn,” he muttered into the dark. He drifted, at length, into a nightmare in which Sherlock and the faceless assassin became one and the same, pursuing him through the forest, gasping out clotted, unintelligible pleas from its ruined lips.

He woke, to find a sodden Sherlock burrowed in beside him, snorting and muttering in his sleep. The effect was not unlike having one’s bed invaded by a large and undisciplined wolf-hound.

The only glimmer of hope about the whole business was that Sherlock seemed to be equipped with an internal furnace. For the first time since entering the bivouac, John started to feel warm. He pressed closer to the prince, who muttered something incomprehensible and turned over, flinging the back of an open-palmed arm across John’s throat. 

“Fine,” John muttered. “Choke me, why not?”

Whether the sound of his voice got through or not, Sherlock turned his arm. It now lay palm down, lower, across John’s chest, a gentle weight.

“I can live with that. Thank you.”

The prince was oblivious to his surroundings; John might as well have been a cushion. Still, the warmth was – nice.  

When he woke again the prince’s hand was digging into his shoulder, fingers biting deep.

“Too soon,” Sherlock hissed in his ear. “Why shoot so soon?”

“Uggh - ?”

“Moran.” The grip on his shoulder tightened, impossibly. “You shot too early and I will know why.”

The long fingers shifted; John’s hand shot up only just in time to protect his throat.  

“What the hell – Sherlock, you’re asleep!”

All the medical texts said that one should not startle a sleepwalker into wakefulness. John could only assume they had never had to deal with a sleepwalker making a very determined attempt to throttle one.

Five years younger than John, the prince was already an inch or so taller, with a wiry, hard-trained strength which sleep did nothing to diminish. John, too, had to fight as if with one hand tied behind him, avoiding serious damage, while Sherlock had no such constraints. 

After a short, intense struggle he managed to flip Sherlock over, so that he was straddling his chest. He leant forwards, caught Sherlock’s right ear and twisted.

“Wake up.”

The prince came to his senses in a great gasp, limbs flailing. When John, alarmed, caught his wrist the pulse raced beneath his fingers.

“I’m sorry – oh, hell, I’m so sorry.”

In the dark of the bivouac he couldn’t see Sherlock’s face. The prince’s voice, though, had a ragged edge of desperation.

“What was I doing?”

John pulled Sherlock close and made his voice gentle. “Don’t worry about it. You were dreaming I was Moran. So, perfectly sound instinct to choke me. You just need to work on the execution.”

“I dreamed you were Moran?” Sherlock rolled away and propped himself up on his elbow. “Did you – what else did I say?”

John paused for a moment.

Tell me.”

“Something about him shooting too soon, and you wanting to know why. What was all that about?”

There was a charged, tense silence. Then –

“It’s safer if you don’t know.”

John put up a hand to touch the tender spot at his neck. “Excuse my mentioning this, but I’ve got a bruised voice-box that would like to disagree. When it’s able to.” He heard a quick sound of impatience from Sherlock. He continued before he could interrupt. “No; don’t treat me as if I’m stupid. I know I’m a nobody, and not in anyone’s inner council.   But one thing I do know. If you don’t talk about it when you’re awake enough to know what you’re saying, who knows what might happen next time you fall asleep?  Suppose you’d been sharing a bivouac with Moran?”

“He asked me to, actually. He’s got one of those oiled canvas campaign tents. The King thought it would be ‘most suitable’.” He could hear the bite in Sherlock’s voice. “Not that I would have slept, if I’d been sharing with Moran.”

The implication of trust set a warm glow in John’s chest, but the prince’s next words shattered that.  

“Of course, perhaps not sleeping was his intention. One does hear things.”

Not if one is a physician’s son, rather than a lord of the court, he wanted to say, red rage rising in his gullet, his whole body tight with unexpressed fury.

“You’re upset.” Sherlock sounded vaguely puzzled.  

Half a hundred possible responses went through John’s mind.   He rejected all of them.

“Acute guess, there. Well-observed.”

Sherlock’s hand snaked out to encircle his wrist; the firm, almost brutal pressure set John’s heart beating erratically. He prayed the prince didn’t ask why.

“Moran’s a bastard. But he’s the apple of the King’s eye, at present. It’s dangerous to oppose him. They can’t do much to me – at least, not openly. But they could take you for questioning if they thought I’d told you anything. They could drag you away to the Caitiffs’ Tower and I wouldn’t be able to stop them.”

The thought chilled John more than the earlier rain. He was, though, a realist. Furthermore, his apprenticeship might be incomplete, but in his heart he had been a physician for as long as he could remember. For all Sherlock’s assumption of a maturity well beyond his years, the prince’s strength was that of the bow, not the pike. If he did not unburden himself, he might well snap.

With his free hand he gently eased Sherlock’s hand from its convulsive grip round his wrist, and interlaced their fingers together.  

“Ssh. Stop trying to blame yourself. These are high politics we’ve stumbled into, and we’ll get out of them the same way we got in. Together.”

Sherlock’s voice sounded oddly diffident. “You do realise, if I tell you, and they do question you, you must not tell?  Whatever that means?”

His mouth was suddenly dry. “Yes. But it’s too big a secret for one man to hold. There was a plot against the King, after all.”

“There was.” Sherlock paused. “Tell me what you saw today.”

“An assassin aimed at the King, from a place of concealment in a tree. Moran shot him before he could complete his design.”

No, John. That’s what you were told happened. Tell me what you saw.”

Abruptly, John did see. “A duck. Lone and high, scared up by the drivers from the reed-beds across the lake.”

“And then we heard two shots. No doubt the first was Moran’s. The second came only when the stranger’s gun fell from his hands. It discharged on hitting the ground. The barrel was distorted; the muzzle must have been blocked with mud.”

“Ye-es –”

“So, what caused Moran to look behind him?  The drive was just beginning – every man’s attention was on the far side of the lake. Save only his. Why?”

The enormity of the implication almost deprived John of the power of speech. He prayed the storm raging outside would block any chance of being overheard.

“You believe Moran knew in advance of the assassin’s presence?”

Sherlock’s breath brushed John’s ear as he spoke. “The wind blew from the heronry towards the lake. Moran claims his instincts alerted him to a sound from the trees. He swivelled, caught a glimpse of the gun, and fired on instinct.”


“The King has trained himself to use acute hearing in the field to compensate for indifferent sight. Yet the King heard nothing. And what could Moran have heard?  The assassin must have planned to fire during the height of the drive, when the sound of an additional shot would have gone unnoticed. The last thing he would have done would be to make a noise before it started.”

John’s own instincts were utterly on edge. He cast his mind back to the scene beneath the tree: the bloody mess of the man’s face, the mangled wreck of his weapon –

He poked Sherlock gently in the ribs. “Tell me about the gun.”

“You heard me at the scene. A first-class example of the gunsmith’s art.”

“Yes. Quite. You told everyone that. Complete with a touching story about your father’s wedding present from the King of France.”

“That was quite true –”

John clicked his tongue gently against the back of his teeth, another trick his father used with fractious patients. “I don’t doubt it. But your parents’ wedding was what – twenty-five years ago?”

“Ye-es.” Sherlock sounded wary. Fine. Let him chew on this.

“Guns have changed out of all recognition since then. Especially among those who can afford to pay for the best. I’d bet you ten thaler that however fine your father’s guns were when they were made, they’ll not have been used in the field since before you left the nursery.”

Either dawn was on its way or his eyes were adjusting to the gloom of the bivouac. Sherlock’s face showed tense and unhappy. 

“I doubt they were ever fired in anger. My father kept them in their presentation case. Mycroft’s got them now. He always did have an exaggerated regard for the French.”

John treated the last sentence as the blatant attempt at misdirection it was and  pressed doggedly on.

“Makers always put their marks in the same place. Below the pan, in this case. But you couldn’t have seen that on a gun kept in a presentation case. So?”

Sherlock gave a short, exasperated sigh. “Don’t you realise yet what’s going on?” He made a dismissive, cutting gesture with the side of his hand: mimicry of a headsman’s axe. “Not just treason. An attempt to provoke war between Gondal and Gaaldine.”

The stench of intrigue swirled, thick and menacing, in the muddy air of the bivouac. John gulped, and spoke the most difficult two words he had ever uttered.

“Go on.”

“The assassin’s face was destroyed – unrecognisable. But the little finger of his left hand was crooked, as if crushed in some accident long ago. You doubtless remarked it.”

John cleared his throat. “I did. I thought he must have been lucky to keep the finger.”

“My grandfather’s physician is very expert.” The grimness in Sherlock’s voice almost masked, for a second, his meaning.  

“What?  You knew him?”

“I would recognise that hand anywhere.” He paused for a moment, and then added, “It steadied my own, when I was first learning to shoot.”

They said drowning men saw the whole of their lives unrolling in the instant    before they died. John had never understood how anyone knew. Still, in that split second, he saw the future enfolding in fire and blood. He saw marching men, burning buildings, sacked cities. And he saw Sherlock, kneeling to rest his chin on a block, and a hooded headsman stepping up behind him.

His voice came out almost unnaturally calm. “Who was he?  A – a relative?”

“A distant cousin. For many years his father, Viscount Hambledon, headed my grandfather’s Council. A little over a year ago, they quarrelled.” He paused. “Two weeks later the head of Palace Security uncovered a web of peculation, the Viscount at its very centre.   He had, it seemed, been exploiting his position as head of the Council to considerable effect.”

John gulped. “It was a set-up?”

Dawn was coming; he could see Sherlock’s considering expression.  

“No. I had suspected for years that greed was the Viscount’s besetting weakness. Doubtless Grandfather had as well. The Viscount was always given to ostentation. As when two years ago he gave his son a coming of age present; a pair of hunting rifles made by the same craftsmen as those my father had received from the King of France.”

That gun was one of the two?”

“Unmistakable. I have fired it myself.”

Another pause; the note of desolation in Sherlock’s voice deepened. “They told me Alexander had gone abroad. I hoped – perhaps – he might become a famous general, a soldier of fortune, and so win his recall that way. I never thought –” 

His voice failed at last. John pulled him tight against his chest in a frantic, fumbling attempt at comfort, his anger raging white hot at the bloody thing whose overweening ambition had brought things to such a pass.  

Sherlock turned to him, clinging as hard as he had when in the grip of nightmare. “I can’t see the way out. There’s too much in this plot. Who put Alexander into the tree? Who told Moran he was going to be there?  Did whoever it was intend to spoil the Earl’s plans for his daughter, or was that just collateral damage?”

Clear as a hunting horn, John heard the one question Sherlock had not put into words: the question he could not bear to speak.

“He probably never suspected you were to be of the party. If he left Gaaldine over a year ago, I doubt he would even have known you were in Gondal. He cannot have meant to betray you.”

It was now fully light. Sherlock sat bolt upright, his face fierce, exultant with some revelation.

“Don’t change, John. Promise me never to change.”

He scrambled to his feet. “At the pace the King’s setting, this party will be in the capital by late morning tomorrow. I must seek audience of the Queen. She has a subtle mind. She will understand that a gun may be aimed at one man and targeted in quite another direction.”

Then he was out into the grey, weeping, hopeless dawn, leaving John alone and puzzling.