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Chapter 8 - The Physician's Quest by A.J. Hall

The strain of waiting almost outdid the strain of listening. Nevertheless, by time as it was measured by the hour glass, rather than by the slow fraying of overstretched nerves, Adair returned with commendable speed. Moreover, Sherlock marked a new quality in how the boy held himself, as if his shoulders were starting to adjust to the weight of authority.

“Follow me. My uncle has retired to the chapel to contemplate his soul and the noon bell is about to sound, so most of the garrison will be soon in the buttery. Accordingly, it is unlikely your presence here will be remarked on.”

Adair whisked him through a warren of narrow passages and random spiral staircases, all, as promised, more-or-less deserted. They eventually made their way to a turret room, which Adair unlocked with one of the keys from the bunch that hung at his belt.  

The man sitting on the bunk turned at the sound of the door opening. His eyes widened a little as they entered, but he gave no other indication of surprise. To Sherlock’s relief, the heavy shackles had been removed.

“Now,” Adair said briskly, “for my own satisfaction. Repeat after me –”

Sinuous snake sliding/through misty morning sea-stones/Green as the June grass?” John’s voice was almost mocking as he repeated the tongue-twister in a pitch-perfect Gaaldine accent. Not just any accent, either. The hairs rose on the back of Sherlock’s neck.

“You could have faced it out.” Adair, plainly, had cast Sherlock as his witness to this interrogation. True to his role, he looked forward with a querulous, dispassionate interest. John avoided his gaze, and addressed himself squarely to Adair.

“Perhaps. In any event, ‘facing it out’ would have entailed a lie. I am a man of Gondal. The test is a broken reed, and no man of honour – no matter what side of the border he originates – would shelter behind it.”

Something flared up in Adair’s face, like a comet crossing the night sky. Sherlock knew it instantly for what it was.

I looked to find an enemy, and found instead a captain of my soul.

Sherlock gave Verney’s dry cough. “Not quite a broken reed. It did demonstrate one – anomaly – in the hall just now.”

Which blasted Moran’s encircling web apart, thanks be to the Virgin and John’s blessed obstinacy.

Adair swung to face him. “I take it you did not believe Moran’s story of a Gondalian wet nurse?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Oh, she undoubtedly will have been.”  He paused. “As was his mother. And, for that matter, his father.”

Adair looked as if he had lost the power to be surprised. His voice, too, was weary.

“You dropped a hint earlier. Tell me more.”

Sherlock considered. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the subtle lift of John’s mouth and chin, sending a message clear as shouting.

Adair has been betrayed once today already. He deserves as much truth as you dare give.

“Moran is a nobleman of Gondal, high in the favour of the Palace. He and I – “  He swallowed, thinking of a long-ago autumn lake in Northern Gondal, a bloody wreck of a corpse lying at the foot of a tree. “Many years ago he killed a very dear friend of mine. Mere days ago he killed my close kinsman. And – while I doubt his own hand did the deed – he was at least implicated in the death of Jem, the tavern-keeper, earlier this week.”

“Ah.”  Adair gave a long, painful exhalation of breath. “Jem tried to warn me about his play. I should have known the accident came too pat to be natural.”

“Moran’s after me, too,” Sherlock said abruptly. “I cannot give you details – there are high matters at stake – but though I’m a man of Gaaldine I am also pledged to advance the Queen of Gondal’s cause. This is no matter of mere sentiment. By making common cause with the Modernist sympathisers within and without Gondal we may blunt the force of any strike James of Gondal is planning against us. And such a strike is being planned, be sure of that.”

“And I let him go down into the town!”

John shrugged. “The wisest course at the time. Your uncle would hardly have backed any other. Who knows what he’d have tried had he felt himself cornered?   And there’s nothing in my lodgings, anyway.”

A hand squeezed over Sherlock’s heart.  

“No, but if he asks around he’ll know Mrs Hudson was there–”  He looked at Adair. “My landlady. Moran will target her. He may already be targeting her. I have to go.”

“No.”  

Sherlock’s head jerked out at Adair’s flat denial. “Wha – “

The boy nodded towards John. “We all three go. I made myself responsible to my uncle for you. But, also, I made myself responsible for Moran entering the castle. I need to see this matter resolved, now, once and for all.” 

John rose to his feet. “I assure you, you’ll not regret it. You have – it goes without saying – my parole.”

The noontide hush still lay over the castle. Adair led them down yet another precipitous stair and out through a sally-port in the crumbling tower. A steep track zig-zagged through the undergrowth and down to the sloped huddle of red-roofed houses on the town’s outskirts.

The moment they entered the livery yard Sherlock knew something was wrong. The horses were restless in their stalls; the cat which normally slept on the edge of the hay-loft stalked through the yard, its fur up and there was the faintest whiff of something coppery on the damp wind.

He gestured the others to stand in the shelter of the overhang and walked cautiously round the yard. In the farthest corner he found what he was looking for, and beckoned them over.

“Through here,” he said, gesturing at the half-rotten door, its hinges thick with rust, its useless latch hanging askew.

John raised his brows. “But -“

He licked his forefinger, bent, and brushed the ground, raising his hand so that Adair and John could see the red-brown particles clinging to it. 

“Some of the rust was dislodged from those hinges after the rain stopped this morning – it’s not had a chance to be washed into the gutter yet. Let’s see why someone opened that door this morning, for the first time in months.”

The answer sprawled out before they had the door more than half open; the corpse of a man, his eyes wide and staring.  

“One of the two Johannes despatched with Moran?”  Sherlock dropped to his knees besides the body. “Knife between the fourth and fifth ribs, upwards and from behind. The work of a second and he barely bled.”  He rose and slammed the door shut on the corpse. “The other will be upstairs. John, lead the way.”

The second man was sprawled across floor of the sparse upstairs room, his throat slashed from ear to ear.

I will see Moran hanged in chains from the topmost battlements.”  Adair’s voice was a hoarse whisper. It made him sound like a far older man.

“A worthy ambition. Onwards.”

Sherlock’s hand, despite himself, trembled as he pounded on Mrs Hudson’s front door. There was no response.

“Allow me.” John turned his shoulder, and then charged at the door. It burst open before his onslaught. At the far end of the room –

Mrs Hudson looked up from where she knelt besides the sprawled, bloody mess on the floor. “Oh Mr Verney. Mr Verney. I never meant it. Tell them I never meant it. Oh, Mr Ronald, I didn’t.”

John moved to kneel by the slumped form on the floor, feeling for a pulse at the neck. “You’ll not hang him, Adair. Stone dead. Skull stove in like an egg.”

Sherlock made three short strides across the room, pulled Mrs Hudson to her feet and held her tight against his breast. She fluttered there like a bird. He rested his chin on the top of her head.

“Whatever you intended, the world should stand up and applause. Have you never heard tales of the tigers of the Indies? Great beasts; cunning, ruthless and remorseless in stalking their prey. Moran was a tiger in human form. The world is left cleaner by his death. However you contrived it.”  

Mrs Hudson’s hand went to her mouth. “That was my best iron skillet. I’ll not fancy using that to cook again.”

Sherlock snorted. “Mrs Hudson, the town should get up a subscription to replace every vessel in your kitchen. In solid gold.”

That provoked a weak chuckle. “Oh, you silly boy. What use would gold be, for pans?”  She turned her head to look at the body. “But I never meant to kill him, I swear.”

His lip curled. “I’m sure the same can’t be said of his intentions towards you. Once he’d put you to the question, your life wouldn’t have been worth four cents purchase. So, he forced his way in, you flung something in his face -“  He bent, and sniffed. “Pickled char?”

“Tench.”  The contemplation of matters domestic seemed to calm Mrs Hudson. “It’s a muddy fish, as a rule, so sousing it in spiced vinegar lifts it a bit. Oh, I got him right in the eyes, but he charged at me, roaring like a bull and that great dagger of his out, so what else could I do?”

“Than trust to your skillet and your good right arm? Many a soldier’s done a great deal worse in the teeth of an unexpected attack. Nevertheless –”  Sherlock looked at Adair. “I don’t doubt any court would acquit on the grounds of self-defence. But I’d liefer not have her implicated in this business. The man was in high favour at the Court of Gondal. His death – richly deserved as it is – should be shrouded in as much misdirection as possible.”

“I have two men dead, Mr Verney.”  Adair’s voice trembled, a little. Doubtless it was the first time he’d come face to face with that aspect of command.  

“And the tavern-keeper’s wife is now a widow,”  Sherlock countered. The boy flushed, as if he had accused him of killing the man himself. Out of the tail of his eye he caught an admonishing glare from John.  

He cleared his throat. “Moran’s crimes are on his own head, not anyone else’s. He is doubtless now answering for them. Nevertheless, we do not honour Moran’s victims by taking the needless risk of adding to them. May I advise you?”

Adair nodded. “Please.”

“Then, I suggest you return to the castle before your absence is remarked on. Let others find your men. Once the alarm is raised, then send out search parties for Moran. Make a big fuss. Make sure that whoever he has posted to act as his messenger to Gondal – there will assuredly be such a one – is aware you are searching. Let him think Moran has made good his escape.”

The look the boy cast at the body spoke volumes.  

“Leave that to me,” Sherlock said. “No; leave it to us. I have to ask you to release John from his parole.”

After an agonisingly long pause, Adair nodded. “Yes. My uncle will be angry but – it was Moran who suggested the arrest. I think in the circumstances I am justified in assuming his motives were not sincere.”

He rose to his feet. “Goodbye. And good luck.”

The door whispered shut behind him. The moment he was gone Sherlock turned to Mrs Hudson, his blood singing with the sheer audacity of the idea which had come to him while Adair had been making his mind up.

 ”Mrs Hudson, I’m going to have to ask you to sacrifice that salt-cod barrel from the pantry. It can’t be more than an quarter full, anyway, after Lent.”

“Mr Verney!  You can’t be intending -“

“Why not?   It was Theo who gave me the idea.”

Theo?”

No-one notices the potman in the inn-yard.Similarly, with any dray loaded with barrels. Salted and pickled sea fish comes across the plains from the coast; lake and river fish travel down in the opposite direction. And it’s not just Gaaldine; the fish trade is all through the three kingdoms.”

“I’ve heard it said that there’s a kind of lake trout from these very hills that is especially prized in Gondal’s capital.”  John’s eyes glittered with an almost berserker light. “Courtiers occasionally procured barrels of it as gifts for the Palace.”

“Is that so?  Well, in that case our course is clear. Let’s send Lord Moran home.”

Mrs Hudson drew herself up. “I’m not staying for this – and you make sure you leave my kitchen clean, Mr Verney, after - after. And if you need anything of the kind, use the saws from the tool-box, don’t go touching my kitchen knives. Now, you’ll be needing a wagon, and I know where I can get one, but it’ll take me the best part of two turns. So don’t waste the time, either of you.”

With that admonition she was gone. 

The process of forcing Moran’s body into the brine tub, while crude, was at least quick, especially with John’s expert knowledge of anatomy. During the later stages Sherlock put the poker into the kitchen fire so that it glowed red-hot and, just before the barrel was sealed, he seared his badge, the emblem of a single sword, on the underside of the lid.

“There,” he said. “Let James of Gondal know the battle is not going entirely his way.”

John leaned back, wiping his hands on a cloth. “Over a turn of the glass to wait,” he observed. “What now?”

Memory, displaced over the last few hectic hours, flooded back.

“I was awaiting your answer, remember?”

“Ah yes. You were, weren’t you. I asked you for time to consider.”

“Well?  Haven’t you had time?”

“Those hours which have been occupied by my abduction, an interrogation, escape, and the disposal of a corpse?  Not a particularly introspective interval, wouldn’t you say?”

John. Please. Don’t torment me. Have you an answer?”

John’s eyes slid sideways, the corners of his mouth quirked up. Sherlock felt his stomach turn over.

“Oh, yes. But one better demonstrated than explained, like all the best proofs. So?”

He extended his hand. Sherlock took it in his own and drew him towards the door to his room.