Chapter 1 - The Physician’s Quest by A.J. Hall
One of the corners of the paper had been imperfectly secured; it fluttered in the light evening breeze. For some obscure reason it irritated him almost beyond measure. He burned with the urge to go up to the church door and hammer in another nail, to ensure it stayed straight.
He did not do it, of course. He was a marked man, an outlaw. Countless pairs of eyes were on the lookout. Being caught straightening the poster proclaiming his own banishment would be a peculiarly idiotic way for all this to end.
In any event, he knew the words by heart. A week ago, at a little church in an obscure village (soldier trudging home after mercenary service abroad, five days march from his home village, might as well have been from the Moon) he’d heard the proclamation from the pulpit, sensed the collective indrawn breath from the packed congregation, felt the bottom of his world give way beneath him, fallen down, down, spiralling endlessly into the abyss.
Before that moment he had believed himself prepared. He had wagered and lost. (So close. Holy Virgin, so close. I had him. I swear, I had him.) Mycroft had never been the sort to forgive a debt. Nor, had he been so minded, was this particular quittance his to give.
And yet, as the priest’s words rolled out, he had shivered so violently that the worshippers standing either side of him had edged away, as if they supposed him the bearer of some foreign plague.
Were they, in truth, wrong in that judgment? How many had died for him already?
Those two gipsies, eyes bulging, yellow and black silk garrottes drawn tight around their necks, dumped by the roadside.
William, one of his troopers (perpetual sniffle, unfaithful wife, no-one more lethal in a scrap at close quarters), sprawled amid bracken, his head half-blown off by a pistol shot, his knife buried to the hilt between the ribs of his last foe: a soldier whose gear bore the unmistakeable stamp of Gondal.
David, the gage of his lost gamble, supine on the shingle spit at the river’s bend, mouth slack, open eyes expressionless, in death looking younger even than Charis.
And still the priest rumbled on.
“Anyone knowingly giving him help, aid and succour shall face the like penalty, that being exile beyond the realm and outlawry within its borders.”
Knowingly. He clung to the word as a drowning man to a spar. By cutting him adrift from rank, fortune, aid and companionship, Mycroft had left him only one option.
He’d stumbled from the church, made a meal of bread and cheese at the alehouse, and begun an excruciatingly careful cast back to this small, clean, pretty town in the foothills, less than half a day’s ride downstream from the Reaching Beck Bridge.
Whatever Mycroft’s men might later claim, the townsfolk here had known him as Verney the scrivener for the last five years.
A lucky fortune, that. And, he thought with an increasingly elusive flash of humour, of Mycroft’s own doing. Five years ago he’d had no need to adopt a disguise. The whole idea of posing as the stooped, prematurely elderly, widowed Verney – one daughter married, one son a clerk in the capital, spending a few weeks in the hills for the relief of a persistent, dry cough – had been a covert dig at Mycroft. How dare his brother take petty revenge for a minor flare-up in Council by driving him into the wilds to investigate an entirely tedious saga of adultery and arsenic in the castle overhanging the town?
The whole charade had taken a different turn when Martha Hudson, the widow with whom he was lodging, had come to “Mr Verney” at her wits’ end and poured out the tale of her daughter’s two equally but oppositely unsuitable suitors. It had been quite the prettiest problem he’d seen in a long while; far more ingenious than anything the overfed, overbred pack at the castle could have contrived in a hundred years.
He’d failed to preserve the daughter’s maidenhead – a lost cause from the start, in Sherlock’s private opinion – but had at least recovered the widow’s life-savings. The girl vanished who-knew-where with the plausible, charming, thoroughly vile young man she’d been in cahoots with. The widow, after she’d recovered somewhat from the shock, had gone so far as to opine that the pair of them would probably be adequate punishment for each other. After which she’d cursed herself for not being a proper mother, burst into tears, pulled a bottle of lethal home-distilled plum brandy and two glasses from a cupboard and told him to come back and stay free of charge, whenever his cough troubled him too much down on the plains.
He’d taken her up on the invitation, and made regular spring and autumn stops at the gossipy little town. A fascinating location: for its size it seemed to generate a wholly disproportionate amount of mayhem and intrigue. Recently the press of events had forced him to neglect the place, but now it would be his refuge.
He skirted the crumbling perimeter wall around the ancient church of Sancta Maria inter Prata, from which the town took its name. Almost without conscious thought, his feet turned towards the hidden gap between a pair of leaning houses. Without hesitating, he followed a familiar pattern of twists and turns through the narrow, foot-polished backways.
A raucous gang of revellers (wedding-eve party, bride pregnant, groom wondering if the child’s his, bride’s father ensuring he’s too fuddled to back out at the altar) passed the end of the alley and he pressed himself flat against the stonework of the nearest house. None of them glanced in his direction.
Only once the last ragged notes of their singing had faded on the night breeze did he dare approach her door. The house’s shutters were closed tight, no glint of light showing . He knew her habits, though. She would not have retired so early.
He raised his hand to knock, felt an overwhelming sense of being observed and froze mid movement. A white owl swooped down from the eaves, shrieking at earsplitting volume. He ducked, throwing up his arm to protect his eyes. The owl swooped and shrieked again. Off-balance and unsighted, he blundered against the door, which resounded beneath the impact like a drum. So much for discretion!
The shutters of the upstairs window were flung wide. Lamplight spilled out.
“What the –” Her voice changed. “Mr Verney? Is that you? Wait just a minute, and I’ll be down to let you in. What have you been doing? Not looking after yourself; I can tell thatfrom here. But where have you been, and showing up at this time of night? Another quarter turn, and I’d hardly have been decent.”
He looked up at the tiny figure outlined against the lighted square of window. Unexpectedly his throat choked, so he could barely breathe, let alone speak.
“I’m sorry. I was delayed on the road,” he gasped, and was overcome by an entirely unfeigned fit of coughing.
Before a hurriedly unbanked fire, he drank hot spiced ale and let the warm flood of Martha Hudson’s concern wash over him. He even submitted to being wrapped in a warmed lambswool blanket with little more than a token protest.
Every bone in his body seemed to have softened. He had been holding himself rigid in defiance of the world for so long. Now he had permitted himself to relax he could not imagine regaining his own shape again. Fluid, like an octopus creeping along the sea bed, oozing through the tiniest gaps between rocks –
“Here, let me take that, you’ll spill it.”
He felt his fingers being gently unwrapped from round the pewter mug.
“I’ll put another blanket over you and make up the fire. Tomorrow I’ll air your old room and make you up a proper bed. But for tonight, you’ll not come to any harm in the chair. Sleep tight, Mr Verney.”