- nostos (pl. nostoi)
- A homecoming. Origin: Homeric Greek.
"Mr Watson!" Martha scolded me as she came down the stairs with Baskerville, the Queen's little Japanese spaniel, struggling in her arms. Holmes' violin had been groaning for days, and the dog kept sneaking upstairs to moan an accompaniment outside his door. The little dog did not seem capable of proper singing, but neither did Holmes seem capable these days of proper playing, so the two were well-matched. I lived in hope that Holmes would let the dog in for the duet it obviously craved, and thus save Martha and I from continually retrieving the poor animal from outside his door.
"Holmes is not coming down for tea?" I asked, as Martha swept past to the kitchen.
She cast me a sharp look: the continued racket from upstairs should have been answer enough.
"Pity," I sighed, and sat myself at the tea table. It had been days since he had last emerged from his room.
"You must fix this," Martha hissed, shutting the kitchen door on poor Baskerville.
I reached for the teapot to pour for us both, but she whisked it away from under my hand and returned it to the tray.
I blinked and watched it go. "How am I to fix it? He has nothing to do now that Moriarty is dead."
"Our lives were flat and grey before Mr Holmes came back and fixed it. Now it is his life that is flat and grey, and you must fix it."
"You wish me to become a criminal mastermind? I am not well-suited—"
She gave me a withering look, and I sighed.
"I wish you to be his friend," she scolded. She removed my cup and saucer to her tray, then my plate and the biscuits. I grimaced. Clearly, there would be no tea until I fixed this. Lysistrata herself had not taught such cruelty.
"'My Friend, Sherlock Holmes,' you wrote. If you will claim it, then you will be it."
"Well," I teased, "Holmes did say it was all lies."
She did not find me amusing. "Then it is time to stop lying, John Watson," she said, and swept up the tea tray, taking it upstairs to Holmes.
His violin became louder, and then softer again, as Martha took the tray into his room. There was no subsequent interruption to the noise, however, to suggest that Holmes was enjoying his tea.
I sighed and retreated to my study.
I did not disagree with Martha, but in those days after Holmes' return and Moriarty's death, Holmes did not seem to want a friend. He did not want a companionable drink or conversation, and had rebuffed even my attempts to renew his instruction in boxing — a point that I did not press, because in my pique over his sneaking in and out of Baker Street while allegedly dead, I still harboured too strong a wish to strike him. But even in my anger, I would not wish him to be so miserable, either.
It was as if we had all changed shapes in his absence, and did not fit in Baker Street together anymore, now that he had returned. Holmes brooded, Martha scolded, Baskerville yapped, and I…
I was supposed to be writing up Holmes' latest adventure, wherein he had saved the Queen. It was not going well. Moriarty had meant the scheme to be his masterwork, the capstone of his years-long machinations to suborn the Queen's army, and Holmes had been untangling and tracing the threads of his efforts for nearly as long. Unfortunately, when taken in sum, the affair was arcane and abstruse, and I had already used many of the elements in earlier stories. Simplifying it to an entertaining bagatelle — and consequently explaining Holmes' return from the dead — was proving my undoing.
Instead of writing, I idly flipped back through the pages of my journal. They spoke only of errands and lists, the petty complaints that had occupied me before Holmes' return, matters of no interest to anyone besides myself, and of precious little interest to me, besides. The single illustration among those bleak pages was of the scientist and lecturer Professor Challenger…
I paused, and turned back the page.
Professor Challenger, a man who by all accounts was as much a force of nature as Holmes himself. He was due to give a public lecture just this evening; the press was in a froth of anticipation for it.
A mere week ago, before Holmes' miraculous return from the dead, I had acquired tickets for Martha and myself, but it had been a poor notion: Martha was not entertained by the claim that she was descended from apes, and Challenger's lectures were no place for a lady, notorious as they were for ending in riot. But Holmes was of the scientific persuasion, and once upon a time, before he had given up Baker Street for the questionable pleasures of shepherding, he had delighted like a fishwife in the petty rivalries of the Royal Society. He might very well enjoy a riot, too.
Martha and I might not have enough appeal to stir Holmes from his rooms, but perhaps he would come out for the famous Professor Challenger.
"And what are these?" Holmes said, glowering at the two innocent pieces of cardboard. I had not knocked, not wanting to risk being turned away, but had come straight in. He had at least put down the cursed violin to speak to me. I considered it a victory, however slight.
"Tickets, to Professor Challenger's lecture tonight. A very interesting man. I was following his adventures while you were…" I waved a hand, rather than risk naming his time away as one thing or another.
Holmes stopped studying the tickets and studied me instead. "I'm familiar with Challenger."
"Yes, well. My editor has asked me to cover the proceedings." Rather, I had begged him for the opportunity, but there was no need to mention that.
"You're no newspaperman," Holmes said, frowning.
I shrugged, cavalier. "What's one kind of lie compared to another?"
Holmes very nearly smiled, but it did not last. He took out his pipe and packed it. It was the one he had stolen from the display of Mr Sherlock Holmes' Pipes a year ago, while he had been hiding from us, pretending to be dead. I looked away, trying to rein in my temper.
"And you wish me to come with you, to see this very interesting man, whose adventures you followed while I was away."
His phrasing made me feel as if I had invited Martha to come and see a music-hall singer whom I much admired. I gritted my teeth. "Um, yes?"
"Do you wish it was you, who had been away traveling, instead of me?" he asked, taking up the tickets. "To see the wonders of South America?"
"I… no. Of course not. Baker Street…" I stopped, tongue-tied. He waited. "I like Baker Street," I said, although that encompassed none of the confusion of my feelings, how badly I wished for the Baker Street of before, or the uncanniness of Holmes living in a shrine I had built to a semi-fictional dead man.
He studied me some more. "Very well," he said, although he seemed to take no pleasure in it. He loosened the hair on his bow, and hung both it and the violin on the wall. "I will come see your Professor Challenger."
"It is Professor Summerlee who is the scheduled speaker tonight, not Challenger," Holmes said in my ear as we pushed through the crowd in Great Portland Street. He had evidently found time to read the newspapers while locked away in his room. He took my elbow and pulled me close to his side, to prevent others from wedging between us. "The two are great rivals. It must stick in Summerlee's craw that the press is billing tonight as Challenger's evening."
"I don't understand why there's all this talk of monkeys," I said. "The dispute was over extinct monsters in South America."
"There's been rumour of an exhibition of some kind," Holmes replied. "Perhaps he's faked up the missing link."
I cut Holmes a sharp look. He shrugged.
"There's as strong a line in counterfeiting zoological specimens as there were was in currency. More art in it, besides."
I grimaced. Perhaps in this post-Moriarty age, Holmes could occupy himself with ferreting out zoological fakes, instead of crimes against the Crown.
There were no seats to be had in the hall, so we elbowed our way in among the hurly-burly of medical students at the back. Holmes, disreputable and unshaven as ever, blended right in among our fellows, but I could barely remember being so young and irresponsible.
"This will never do," Holmes said into my ear a few minutes later, as we were jostled from all sides. "We can't see a thing from here."
"We should be able to hear, at least." But surrounded as we were by the unruly medical students, that seemed optimistic.
Holmes had turned and was examining a wall near us. "Make me a step!" he instructed, and I laced my fingers together. With him leaping and me throwing, he managed to clamber onto an ornamental railing above our heads. He reached down to haul me up in front of him. "Much better," he said, when I had scrabbled up. A few students took his action as inspiration to join us on our perch, and Holmes crowded closer behind me to make room. From our new vantage, I could see over the dark sea of top-hats crested by the occasional ostrich feather to the stage itself, where several rows of distinguished robed scholars sat.
Professors Challenger and Summerlee may once have been rivals, but that night Summerlee was Challenger's ally, endorsing every claim Challenger had ever made, the existence of living ape-men the least among them. I thought the tale entertaining enough, even if Summerlee did devote too much attention to the trivia of South American insects.
Holmes was less impressed by the lecture, continually leaning forward to make critical comments in my ear. "Are we truly to believe this rubbish? What did all these great, fantastical creatures eat, in a territory so small?" and "Surely island dwarfism would have exerted an influence!?"
Most of the hall seemed to side with Holmes, heckling Summerlee and calling for proofs of his claims. At long last Professor Challenger, unable to ignore the baiting any longer, took his place beside Summerlee. A great, japing cheer went up from the crowd, pleased to have flushed more satisfying quarry. Challenger scolded the assembly for their disrespect — another ribald cheer went up — and demanded to know if they required to see the thing itself for their proof.
Their clamour of approval was deafening.
Challenger turned and signalled to one of his associates, and a large, wooden packing-case was dragged forward on the stage. An expectant electricity hummed through the hall; Holmes was no less galvanised by it than I. Clinging to the rail by his elbow, he whipped off his glasses to give them a hurried polish.
On the stage, crowbars were produced.
Given Holmes' prediction of fakery, I expected some travel-beaten, half-mummified fragment of a carcass, something that could as easily come from an African hippopotamus as a gigantic Jurassic armadillo. Instead, what emerged — and under its own power, no less — defied all my expectations. A great, leathery, bird-like creature hopped up to perch on the case's edge. The crowd gave a collective gasp.
The thing fixed us with its malevolent gaze. It was just possible that it was an automaton, its operating mechanism sheathed in a flexible, leathery skin that gave it every appearance of life: the artisans of the Empire have achieved remarkable things, and we were not near to the stage. But even at that distance, I doubted that the thing that tilted back its long-beaked head and shrieked its defiance to the rafters could be explained by something so unpoetic as ticking cogs and wheels.
Holmes seemed flummoxed, unable to decide whether he could see it better with or without his spectacles.
Then the thing spread its wings — great, leathery wings, spanning twice the height of a man and yet nearly translucent in their delicacy — and flew.
It swooped low over the heads of the audience — both men and women ducked and screamed — and feverishly beat its wings for altitude. A steep, banking turn barely kept it from grazing the back wall, and sent it directly toward Holmes and me. I clutched hard at Holmes and the railing both to keep us from falling; reaching for my pistol was beyond possibility. The creature banked again, passing yards from us.
The breeze that wafted after it smelled of putrid fish.
"How do you fake that?" I demanded of Holmes. "How do you fake that?"
"You don't," he breathed. "My god. John. Look at that beautiful, beautiful thing. You don't fake that, you don't."
The creature — some gargantuan, misbegotten cross between a pelican and a bat — circled the room, labouring mightily for every inch of altitude. I belatedly realised it was aiming for a long, narrow window just above us, which had been opened wide before the lecture to vent the heat of the crowd. Onstage, Challenger bellowed for someone to step lively and shut the window, but the raised pane of glass lay well beyond either Holmes' or my reach, and the students below us were in too much of a confusion to find the closing rod.
I ducked low as the creature clumsily gained the windowsill. Its talons scrabbled and clawed at the stone just above our heads, and the great beast squeezed out.
Holmes, to my horror, leapt after it.
I was just in time to grab his trousers and haul him back. I had mourned him once when he had thrown himself from a cliff; I had no wish to repeat the experience due to an experiment in self-defenestration. For a moment we were both precariously balanced, as likely to tumble in as out, but I and the students beside us finally got Holmes' feet under him again.
He used his newly-secure footing to grab my lapels. "John! The roof! We must get to the roof!" He dropped to the floor. He looked up to check that I was following; I let myself drop to the space beside him.
The hall was pandemonium, but we were fortunate that most people were pushing toward the stage or the exits. We wanted access only to the stairs, which left our way largely clear; I was required to apologise to only a minimum of souls whom Holmes mowed down in his haste.
We emerged onto the roof, the chimney pots of London throwing up smoke all around us into the rapidly darkening mustard-yellow sky. It was difficult to make out much in the descending twilight, but Holmes pointed, and I saw that one of the doubled chimney pots was not a chimney pot at all, but Professor Challenger's great, hulking creature, huddled close to the warm brick, the bulk of its wings wrapped tightly around itself. The wings had too many joints; the tips pointed unnaturally to the sky.
I quietly removed my revolver from my pocket.
Holmes knocked my pistol aside. "Watson, what are you doing!?" he whispered.
"Shooting it!" I hissed back. "Before it kills someone!"
"It hasn't tried to kill anyone! We were like a coop full of chickens back there and it attacked no one! Give me your coat!"
"My what?" I asked. But he had knelt down and was untying his boots.
"Your coat, your coat!" he hissed. "Give me your coat!"
God only knew what he wanted with my coat. He, however, had only a jacket, so I shrugged out of my long overcoat and handed it to him. He handed me his boots and stockings in return. As an afterthought, he thrust his glasses into my hand.
"Holmes, what are you…?"
He violently shushed me.
Holding my coat open before him, he began stalking the creature across the steeply canted slates.
"Are you out of your mind?" I whispered after him. Huddled up against the chimney pot like that, the thing wasn't particularly imposing, but during my time in Afghanistan I had seen men falconing with golden eagles. Those murderous birds, capable of such bloody violence, were only somewhat smaller than the creature Holmes was stalking. And this thing was no bird. I had seen a wicked double row of teeth when it soared past us in the hall, and it possessed twice the avian count of talons, bearing claws on its wings as well as its feet.
Holmes ignored me, continuing his attempt to sneak up on the creature. Cursing him under my breath, I raised my revolver again, but the light was uncertain, and there were only a few degrees of difference between Holmes and the thing he proposed to catch. I crawled across the tiled roof, seeking a clearer vantage point from which to shoot.
I hadn't yet reached a good position when the thing attacked Holmes.
It was the stout wool of my coat that saved him, the creature's initial attack deadened by the tangling weight of the material. Holmes threw himself forward, landing on coat and creature both, attempting to wrestle the thing to the tiles. I shouted Holmes' name and lunged forward to add my weight to his, desperate to keep the creature from pitching him from the slates.
The battle didn't last long. The creature freed its beak from the encumbrance of my coat, stabbing and biting wildly, and Holmes and I frantically scrambled to get clear of that fierce, dangerous piston. Released from our weight, the creature launched itself off the roof with a screech of defiance. It nearly tumbled out of the sky, entangled in my coat as it was, but it shook itself free and beat furiously to gain altitude. It circled us once — we both ducked back among the chimney pots for shelter — then bore off toward the southwest, toward Mayfair.
Holmes scrambled to his feet; I put a restraining hand on his shoulder lest he decide to follow it in earnest. Together, we watched that great, shadowy creature beat away from us into the yellow sky. Below us, in a nearby street, I could hear a crowd singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." As we continued to watch, the singers moved on to "God Save the Queen."
"Look at it," Holmes breathed, although the dark silhouette was invisible, having finally merged with the inky roofs and chimney pots. "Oh, just look at it! Where are my boots, Watson? We're going after it."
"We're going after it?" I repeated, looking out at the darkening London sky. "Why? How?"
"Oh, John, where's the poetry in your soul?"
I gibbered at the unfairness of that. I had plenty of poetry in my soul, but no one had ever wanted it. Not my editor, nor my readers, nor Martha. And especially and emphatically never Holmes.
"Any fool can learn the art of tracing footsteps," Holmes continued, oblivious to my discomposure. "Few enough do, I grant you, but anyone could. But to trace the flight of a pterodactyl, a creature so ancient as to make the Romans look like mewling infants, across the rookeries of London? That, John, oh, that would be a feat worthy even of your fabled and much-embellished Mr Sherlock Holmes."
Martha shrieked when she opened the door to us, as well she might: my coat torn and hat lost; Holmes' spectacles bent on his face; both of us bruised and bloody.
"Mr Holmes!" she exclaimed. "Mr Watson!"
"It's all right, Mrs Hudson," Holmes said as he limped past her in one boot. We had never found the other.
But she reached out and grabbed his chin, turning his face so she could see where the beast had attempted to put out his eye. Twenty minutes earlier, when we had come down into the Queens Hall gaslights, I had made exactly the same gesture, grabbing his chin and tilting his head to inspect the injury. He had pushed me off of him when I had done it, but he did not dare the same with Martha.
"He is fine, it just needs some ice," I reassured her, but I was not spared her inspection, either, for a strong hand landed on my shoulder and turned me. She gasped as she catalogued the tears in my coat. "I wasn't wearing it," I reassured her, because I knew how it looked.
"I was using it to attempt to capture a pterodactyl," Holmes explained. "John won't be back for breakfast, we're going straight back out."
"A pterodactyl?" she asked.
My hands worked. "Something like a bat or a bird? But large, like an eagle."
She nodded at me, her eyes huge.
"Some ice, Martha," I prompted.
Gathering her skirts, she flew to the kitchen.
Holmes was tossing his room, looking for god knows what, when she returned with the ice. She fussed over him as much as she did me; even more, perhaps, given the close call with his eye. She and Holmes professed to dislike each other — perhaps even genuinely, it was impossible to tell with them — but she had always been fiercely protective of him, as he was of her.
Just as we were leaving again — Holmes wished to put out word among the chimney sweeps in advance of sunrise — she pulled me back inside the house.
"You're a good friend, John Watson."
"The pterodactyl wasn't mine," I said, as if it could have been.
But Martha did not care about such mundanities.
"Now be a better friend, and don't let him get killed." She turned me away from her, and pushed me back out into the street.
Four days later, Holmes and I greeted the morning from the shelter of a stand of trees on the Devon coast. Out in the open, a side of fresh mutton hung on a spit over a flame that struggled for its life against the rain. The meat had hung unattended long enough for one side to char black; the other was still raw and bloody. I looked to the northeast, waiting for our quarry to arrive.
Holmes and I had spent a thrilling two days tracking the creature through London's smoky maze. Holmes' wit in his pursuit had been as keen as I had ever witnessed, his earth-bound skills an even match for the creature's aerial instincts. If he had only permitted me to shoot the creature, we might have caught it twice over, but Holmes had been sharply limited by his determination to take it alive. Sadly, it had ultimately managed to break free of London's rookeries and gain the freedom of the English countryside.
From there, it had borne steadily southwest, as if drawn by a compass point. At first we tracked it by its predation on the farms along its course, but when we gained enough confidence in its route, we caught a London and Southwestern to get ahead of it. I napped in the swaying carriage while Holmes pored over his maps, making his plans.
Which is how we came to be hidden in a copse just outside Kingsbridge, standing watch on a ingeniously-rigged side of mutton that was slowly charring in the rain.
Or rather, I stood watch. Holmes looked southward, toward the invisible Channel, and chewed his lip.
"We're on an island," I reminded him. "It'll run out of land soon."
"That's what I'm afraid of." He removed his spectacles and chewed on those instead.
"If we miss it here, it'll bear west, follow the shoreline. We'll try again in Cornwall."
"No," he said flatly, "she won't. Hélène wants to go home."
That was another thing that had happened: Holmes had named the creature. Hélène, he called it, as if it were a great beauty, capable of breaking the hearts of the strongest of men. I might have called it Hélène ironically, a comment on its beastliness and ability to break strong hearts with terror, but Holmes seemed to mean it sincerely. It had begun to worry me, how attached he had become to the thing.
"I sympathise with her," Holmes continued bleakly. "Nothing so insignificant as swimming the Channel would have dissuaded me from attempting to get home to London."
There was too much in those words, and I turned away from them. "It's not a migratory creature. It can't be, it lives nowhere but Maple White Land! There's nowhere for it to migrate to."
But Holmes was still shaking his head. "In a country as wild as that, they could migrate two thousand miles and the esteemed members of the Royal Society would never know. There could be an entire archipelago of Maple White Lands in that country, undreamed of by any civilised cartographer."
"But you've seen it!" I insisted. "It's never done better than fifty miles in a day. It is not a long-distance flyer. It can't cross the Channel, Holmes. It doesn't have that kind of stamina."
"She can't, but she'll still try. She wants to go home, John. Her path is set for Maple White Land, as straight as any arrow."
I growled in frustration. "Then it will come here first, and we will catch it before it can continue anywhere else." I bodily turned Holmes to face the spit of mutton. Its scent hung heavy in the air, despite the rain. "Stop brooding and look. Can that be improved?"
Holmes studied our trap. Over the past several days we had learned that the creature had no fear of flame but a real love of roasted meat: twice it had stolen someone's hot dinner off a fire rather than hunt live prey for itself. The pterodactyl should approve of our bait; the question was whether the trap itself would work, whether the rigged nets would successfully entangle the pterodactyl.
He considered, then shook his head slowly. "No, it cannot be improved."
"Then we sit here," I told him, "and we wait, like soldiers."
"Or tiger hunters," Holmes suggested, after some time had passed.
"Yes," I agreed, although I had never hunted tigers in Asia. "Like tiger hunters. And that bit of mutton is our goat."
The pterodactyl, when it arrived, scorned our bait, flying high over our heads on its way to the Channel. It must have eaten elsewhere, or perhaps the call of Maple White Land was simply too strong to permit a delay for breakfast.
We ran out to watch as it flew straight and true on the course it had been keeping for days.
"Surely it can see the Channel by now?" I asked after we had watched for a few minutes. There was no indication in its flight path that it had seen that great width of water, one hundred and fifty miles across where we stood.
Holmes gripped the shoulder of my coat. "Plymouth, John!"
Plymouth was no London, but it still harboured ships of all sizes, from trim passenger liners to humble fishing boats.
"We split up," Holmes said, as we ran down to the docks. "Canvass every boat that's come into port in the last hour. Any sighting of Hélène, hurry!"
He went left along the docks to poll the myriad small craft; I went right to the deep-water docks, where the liners and steamers were berthed. Holmes moved faster between boats than I could, reading at a glance how long a boat had been berthed or who might be willing to gossip with a stranger, but he also had many more boats to canvass; by the time I joined him far out along the fishing docks, he had only just finished his survey.
"No one's seen her," he greeted me, but I shook my head.
"The S.S. Friesland, ten miles out."
"A devil, or a bat, they said. Or a flying goat. I'm sorry, Holmes. If anyone could have captured her before she left England—"
But Holmes was uninterested in my sympathies. "We must hire a boat," he said, turning to scan the docks again.
"Nets, and a winch to bring them aboard," he muttered to himself, running his eye down the line of craft. Most of the fishing boats were unloading their haul onto docks.
He shot me a quick glare, as if I was the one being foolish. "We're not letting her drown out there!"
I threw up my hands. "We couldn't catch it on land, how do you propose to catch it at sea?"
But he had already picked a boat. It was trim and well-kept, and from the size of its haul it carried a competent crew, but the very size of its haul also meant it was far beyond our means to hire it. They would lose their catch if they took us back out again, and we hadn't the funds to make the loss worth their while. Assuming, of course, they would even entertain our offer: we were both disheveled from long days chasing after the pterodactyl.
It took very little time for my expectation to be proven correct. Holmes returned, nearly vibrating with frustration.
"Holmes, we can't… She won't…" I sighed with my own frustration. If I forced him to give this up and come home to Baker Street, his violin would soon be filling the house again with his grief, that much was clear. I turned to face the line of boats. "Look and tell me, which one has the least to lose?"
His eye travelled the line. "That one." He indicated a purse-seiner just coming to berth. "The Violet May. Late out, late returning, and see how high it's riding in the water? They have no catch to speak of. But it's a pit of a boat, John."
I could only agree. It was poorly maintained, and the crew — father and son, by the look of it — were both three sheets to the wind. But the Violet May, unlike its more prosperous brethren, would be available to hire. "A boat we can hire is faster than one we can't," I said, and stepped forward to try my hand.
In the end, it cost us the price of their coal for the day — both what they had burned in the morning, and what they would burn again with us — plus what they claimed would have been the fair market price of their paltry catch, had we permitted them the time to unload and sell it. I was unconvinced of the fairness of that price, but Holmes was eager to pay whatever it took. With an avaricious gleam in his eye, and a few sharp words for his son, the skipper reversed from his berth and steamed out to sea, his unloaded catch still stinking in the hold.
It was two tense hours before we caught sight of the pterodactyl, exactly where Holmes predicted it would be. It laboured heavily in the rain, flying so low that its wingtips just skimmed the wavetops.
I had become somewhat inured to its appearance over the past several days, but the crew of the Violet May baulked hard at the first sight of those great, leathery wings.
"We agreed to hunt a bird," the skipper shouted, spinning the wheel to return to Plymouth.
"We never said it was a bird!" Holmes returned.
"No, it's one of the very devils of hell itself!"
"She is only lost and trying to get home!" Holmes sprung forward and tried to wrest the wheel from him, but the skipper shook him off easily.
"It is flesh and blood, and nothing more," I tried reasoning with the skipper. "A South American animal which— Holmes, what are you…?"
Holmes had leapt to the small skiff that the crew used to set their net and begun releasing it from its fastenings. With a growl, the skipper's son, every bit as large and strong as his father, went to strike Holmes. The skipper abandoned the wheel to follow—
I fired once over their heads, and levelled my gun at the crew of the Violet May. "Back away from him," I warned them. With malevolent glares at me, they did.
Holmes shouted in triumph, and the skiff tumbled overboard. Miraculously, it landed upright, bobbing in the water until it hit the end of its painter, at which point it jerked around and was dragged in our wake, water foaming white around its prow.
"Holmes, what are you doing?" I hissed.
"She just wants to go home!"
"And what are you going to do, row to South America? We can't catch it in that thing!"
The skipper laughed, but it was hard and cruel. "Go ahead, shoot us if you like. Better a clean death than to lose our souls trying to capture a demon."
"It's not a demon," I insisted, but I was distracted by Holmes, who was trying to bring the skiff closer to the boat. Happily, he was not having much success in overcoming the Violet May's speed and the skiff's drag. If he attempted getting into the thing at this speed, he would surely drown. "Holmes…!"
"We're in a major shipping lane, someone will come along sooner or later. The Channel is busy with boats. But Hélène!" He flung an arm to point behind the Violet May, where the pterodactyl was still doggedly straining for South America. "She can't fly forever!"
I looked. The brown-grey of the petrodactyl's body was already barely distinguishable from the blue-grey of the clouds and waves.
"Why does it matter, Holmes!? It's just an animal! It's not even unique! There are dozens, hundreds more where it came from!"
"She just wants to go home, John. No matter how hard I try, everyone always dies," he pleaded, his voice low enough that I had to move closer to hear.
Groaning to myself, I realised what his mania was about. I was lucky he had not named the creature Irène.
"Just once, I should like to save someone from dying," he entreated.
"You saved the queen, Sherlock! Just this week! The queen!"
"No," he spat, full of pity and despair. Pity for me, perhaps, and despair for— I was unsure whom, himself or the pterodactyl. "I saved the Queen's birthday."
"We will sell you the skiff, if you are so set on chasing devils," the skipper offered. "May the fires of hell make you both very happy!"
I dragged my free hand over my face, trying to think what to say to Holmes.
"A happy ending. You like happy endings," he wheedled. "I've read your stories, always so much kinder than what actually happened."
"That's my editor," I protested. "It's my editor who wants the happy endings."
But it was true, I wanted them, too. Even when a happy ending had been an impossibility, I had written myself in Switzerland, present at Holmes' side until the very last moments.
I did not wish to write that story twice.
"All she wants is to go home, John."
I blew out my breath. "Martha is going to kill me for this. And then she will kill you."
He grinned. "She is not here. She will have to wait and kill us later."
His logic was impeccable. It always was.
"Stop the boat," I ordered the skipper, indicating with my gun where I wanted him to move. "We will take the skiff and…" I turned to Holmes. "What do we need, nets?"
Holmes rattled off a list, mostly provisions. The three of them prepared the skiff while I stood guard, watching that the skipper or his son did not attack Holmes or myself. When the boat was loaded, I drew a banknote from my pocketbook to pay for the lot, wedging it in the mesh of a fishing net so that it didn't blow away in the breeze.
All too soon, Holmes and I were bobbing in a little wooden boat in the middle of the Channel, watching the white wake of the Violet May as it steamed back to Plymouth. Beyond that streak of white, there was nothing but grey all around us: sky and rain and sea-water; iron and silver and slate. Only when the waves lifted us high could I see the grey-brown dot of the pterodactyl.
"I look forward to Martha killing us," I said, and set my oar into its lock.
I had ample time that afternoon to regret my decision. Despite Holmes' claims that we were in a major shipping lane, we saw no other boats. We rowed with our backs to the pterodactyl, but Holmes laid a little compass on the thwart between us, so that we might correct our course without breaking rhythm to look over our shoulders for the ever-dwindling dot we were chasing.
If you could call it chasing: the pterodactyl flew faster than we could row.
I had no idea how Holmes intended to catch the creature, or what he intended to do with it, once he did. There was barely space for two men in the boat, to say nothing of the pterodactyl.
"This boat stinks of fish," I said. "Why does it stink of fish?"
"It's a fishing boat," he said, as if I were slow-witted.
At least our hastily-bought oilskins, when combined with the exertion of rowing, were sufficient to keep us warm. My palms burned and my back ached, but I was not cold.
"Oh," Holmes said, looking over his shoulder, and I turned to look, too.
The pterodactyl had not been visible the last three times we had looked, but now I could see it, tiny but well clear of the horizon, spiraling up into the sky.
"Give me your gun," Holmes instructed.
"What? You can't hit it at that range! Even I can't hit it at that range!"
"Your gun, John!" he insisted. He was holding out his hand insistently, shaking it at me. I knew him well; in a moment he would start rooting through my overcoat for it.
I handed him my pistol. "I thought you wanted to take it alive?"
He opened the cylinder and started shaking the bullets out into his palm. "I don't want it getting wet." He dropped my revolver into the inch of water swirling about our feet.
"Holmes! That's my—!"
He shoved the bullets into a pocket. Presumably it was those he meant to keep dry, since it certainly wasn't my revolver.
"Holmes! Why would it get wet?"
Holmes glanced at the sky. "Take off your boots," he instructed me.
I looked up. The pterodactyl was larger, more distinct now.
"Why would it get wet?" I demanded.
"Your boots! Your boots!" He was leaning down to unlace his.
"We're using a net, right? Why do I need to take off my boots? Holmes!"
He shucked off his own boots, then reached across for my laces. I beat him off and started undoing them myself. He tied his own laces together, then reached for my boots, adding them to the bundle and stowing them somewhere behind himself.
"We're using a net on it, right?" I insisted. The pterodactyl was even larger in the sky now. Larger and lower, both. "Now would be a good time to get it out!"
"Are you crazy? In a boat this size? A net would drown all three of us!"
"Am I crazy??" I demanded.
Holmes heaved something overboard, and I saw the painter snake out after it. With one last look at the sky — the creature was headed straight for us now, no question — Holmes whipped his spectacles from his face and tucked them away in a breast pocket. He shipped his oar, then snatched his hat from his head, throwing it into the bottom of the boat. He did the same with my hat. He stood.
"Jump, John!" he shouted.
And then he jumped.
"Sherlock!" I shouted, leaning over the gunwale. The boat rocked precariously while I stared into the water. Or tried to: the surface of the waves was flat and opaque, no more transparent than slate. "Sherlock!"
He erupted from the water with an unearthly scream, as if he were being attacked by sharks beneath the surface. I grabbed for his hand, but he thrust himself away from me.
"Sherlock!" I shook my hand at him. "Give me your hand!"
But he was deliberately moving away from the boat, well out of my reach. "Jump!" he gasped, sounding as if he were strangling. He fought for breath — not as if he were choking on seawater, but as if his lungs were rebelling against breathing. "Goddamn it, John," he wheezed, "jump!"
There was a scream above me — Hélène, of course, how could I have forgotten Hélène? — and I grunted as something heavy struck my back. I heard my oilskin rip.
"John!" Holmes shouted, or tried to.
I caught up my oar out of its lock and turned to face that devil-spawn. I would be damned before I surrendered our boat while Holmes drowned.
Hélène wheeled for another dive; she, too, was unwilling to relinquish the only refuge for twenty miles.
"Jump!" Holmes shouted again.
I swung at the creature, and it swerved past me. The boat lurched, almost sliding out from under me. For a moment there were only teeth and a red eye and the overpowering odor of rotten fish. I staggered, reaching for the gunwale for balance. I could smell gunpowder.
"Take my hand!" Holmes shouted.
I looked. Holmes was immediately below me, a hand lifted high for me to pull him back into the boat. I grabbed his hand. He reached up with his other hand to grip high on my forearm—
—and then he pulled, kicking hard at the boat, pushing it out from under me.
I toppled over the side.
Cold does not begin to describe the water there at the edge of the North Atlantic. Cold is being caught in the sleet some wintry evening: one's fingertips gone icy, the breath knifing in one's lungs, the wind prickling through the shoulders of one's coat. This was another matter, the cold so overpowering that it became a vise-like pressure. My skull pounded as if it would burst. Water poured down the neck of my oilskin, flooded under the hems, and encased my chest in iron. It did not matter that I was underwater; I could not have breathed even if air was available. All my muscles locked, and I felt myself sinking.
Martha has terrible luck in husbands, I thought, as I slid inexorably downward.
Something grabbed my coat collar and hauled me back up again.
My face burst through the surface, but I still could not inhale. Grey sky hung above me; the dark water lifted me toward it. "Breathe!" Holmes commanded in my ear. I tried to drag a breath past the bands around my chest. A little seawater came with it, and I discovered that coughing was nearly as impossible as breathing. I spasmed, and Holmes swore.
I could feel him struggling behind me. "Kick! And don't drown!" he ordered, and let me go.
I slid under again.
There was a distinct pause before he hauled me back up again. "Goddamnit, John," he swore. "I told you to kick! Don't rob Mrs Hudson of her chance to kill you."
Hysterical and panicked with the cold, I tried to laugh, but choked on seawater again. The coughing was agony, but it went a little better this time. My head still pounded and my breath still seized, but I was regaining some control of my limbs. I thrashed out, flailing.
"Hold onto that," he instructed me.
'That' was the oar that had come into the water with me. I clutched at it, and it sank under my touch, insubstantial. I learned, however, that if I pushed back the panic and stopped trying to climb on top of it, then there was some buoyancy in it. Pushing back the panic was easier said than done.
"Kick, John," Holmes commanded again.
Concentrating my mind, I kicked. I got hit in the face by a wave, swallowed some more water, and choked some more. Again, the oar seemed as if it was nothing.
Our boat was maybe twelve feet away. Holmes struck out for it, towing me along by the oar.
It took longer than it should have to get there, our clothing dragging in the water and the waves pulling us back as often as they pushed us forward. But eventually we reached the boat, and we crowded close under its lee, occasionally getting knocked against the strakes.
Holmes reached up and put his hands on the gunwale, and timing his kick with the rise and fall of the waves, thrust himself up to peer over the edge.
There was a violent screech; Holmes immediately dropped back again.
"Damnit, John. If we drown out here it's going to be your fault." He was fiddling with something in the water.
"Why couldn't you jump when I told you!"
"I was trying to stay in the boat! Whose not-drowning plan involves jumping out of a perfectly good boat?"
There was another hiss from above us, long and malevolent, and Holmes shushed me.
He was fiddling with something just beneath the water. "The knots have swollen… Do you have your knife?"
Clumsy with the cold, I dug beneath slicker and coat for my trouser pocket.
"Careful, don't drop it," Holmes scolded, and I became intensely aware of the bottomless water beneath us. He swarmed close, his body bumping against mine, his hand following down my arm. I went back to clinging to my oar and allowed him to do the digging through my pockets. "I've got it," he said a moment later, and he left my side again. Not long after that I heard the tear of wet fabric. It was the bundle he'd thrown overboard earlier, I realised, tied to the boat's painter. I kicked forward and grabbed at the painter, too, which provided more security than just my oar. He withdrew something from the bundle that flashed white and silver.
"Fish," I said dumbly. "You're the reason the boat stank of fish."
"It's not stealing. You'll remember we bought the whole catch."
I was long past caring what was or wasn't stealing. "Just get on with it. I want back in our boat. Our perfectly good boat that you gave away to that devil-bird."
"She's not a bird, and she's not diabolical." Heaving himself up again, he offered the fish to it. He was immediately driven back into the lee of the gunwale.
I stared at him. "Your plan was to tame it before we drown?"
"She is tame!"
I whistled my disbelief.
"She was stolen as a chick and hand-fed most of her life! If she isn't acting tame, it's because she's scared and alone and far from home! The only time she's attacked anyone has been in self-defense!"
"Like just now, when it drove us out of the boat," I reminded him.
"Like just now, when you attacked her with an oar!" he hissed.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and resigned myself to drowning.
Holmes' attempts to gentle the pterodactyl went on for hours, or perhaps days. Maybe it was only minutes. It was impossible to think about anything but how exhausted I was, the cold water sucking at my energy. I clung to my painter and my oar, kicking occasionally, trying not to drown, and listened to Holmes wheedle and plead with the devil-creature who had commandeered our boat.
"Please, Hélène," I heard him beg at one point, sounding desperate. "Don't make me choose between you and John."
"Holmes," I said, with all the patience I could muster. I did not think his choice difficult at all. Even if I were to choose between Holmes and the devil-creature, it still was not difficult. "I understand why this is hard for you. You've named it. You've never been a killer. But I am a doctor and a soldier. Licensed to kill, and trained for it, too. I will do this thing for you. You don't have to watch. You can put your head under, and you won't even have to listen. I will do this thing for you, and then we will both get in the boat and never speak—"
"No one is killing anyone!" he snapped. He turned his attention upwards, scolding the pterodactyl in turn. "Do you hear me, Hélène? You are not killing John, and John is not killing you! No one is killing anyone!"
I clung to my rope, and returned to my task of drowning as slowly as possible.
Some while later, a quiet cry of triumph roused me from my stupor. The boat rocked again, and I looked up to find Holmes dropping back from where he had been hanging, head and shoulders, over the side of boat. The creature's head came into view as it peered curiously at us over the side of the boat, looking to see where Holmes had gone. He offered it another fish, and the pterodactyl neatly plucked it from Holmes' hand.
"Now you!" he said, pressing a slippery-cold fish against my hand. The great head came down to steal it from him, but Holmes hid the fish behind his back until the head pulled back again. He was like a man coaxing tricks from a dog. "Feed Hélène!" he urged me, trying to make me take the fish.
"I'm not going to feed—"
"If you want to get back into the boat, you will!" he hissed in my ear, closing my hand around the fish.
The large eye above me was red and malevolent, and yet it made no move to strike at me, or to force me to hand over my fish. I did not have the requisite foolhardiness to reach up and let it bite off my hand entire; I tossed the fish upwards.
Hélène snapped it out of the air.
"Again," Holmes urged, passing me another fish.
I did it again.
Clambering back into the boat was an ungainly, awful struggle. Holmes went first, clawing his way up over the stern, where his weight was somewhat counterbalanced by the beast huddled low on the prow. Hélène disliked the proceedings, hissing and moaning her discontent at Holmes, but by then we were too desperate with cold and fatigue to indulge her feelings any further. I offered her another fish to distract her from Holmes' advance; thankfully, she declined to drive him out of the boat again.
Then it was my turn. I half-swamped the boat in my clumsy attempts to gain entry. Holmes couldn't both bribe Hélène and assist me, but I finally managed the thing. I slumped down between the thwarts, exhausted. There were inches of cold seawater in the bottom of the boat, but there was also an absence of wind, which struck me as a fine thing. I half-heartedly bailed at the deep puddle of water I sat in, while Holmes soothed Hélène with some more fish and attempted to recover our boots from under her jealous guard.
Holmes eventually managed to snatch our boots while her head was upraised to catch a fish. He tossed me mine, and joined me in the bottom of the boat. My boots were cold and wet when I thrust my feet into them, but presumably they would warm eventually. I didn't attempt the laces; my coordination was far too gone for that. Holmes pushed up tight against my side, donning his own boots. He wasn't precisely warm, but he was still a little warmer than anything else in the boat. Holmes put my hat on my head.
I laid my head on his shoulder and considered sleeping there.
"We should row," I said, although I had no idea where we were, or in what direction we should row.
"We have only one oar," Holmes said.
I nodded and gave the problem as much thought as I could muster. At some point during that effort, I fell asleep.
When I awoke again, shuddering from cold, Hélène was huddled up with us in the bottom of the boat, close against Holmes' other side. Her breath rasped in her lungs. She had not sounded like that on the roof of the Queen's Hall, I thought, but my brain was sluggish, and I couldn't be sure. It vaguely occurred to me that I should be wary of her proximity, but she was a few degrees warmer than the wasteland all around us, and in my sorry state, that was as much character reference as I needed.
I pressed closer to Holmes and waited for my shuddering to pass.
By first light, I felt somewhat better: I was still wet through, but we were both wearing good English wool, and the oilskins had kept off the wind. My clothing was heavy, sodden, and uncomfortable, but I no longer felt like I would die of cold.
The pterodactyl apparently also felt better: she abandoned her position against Holmes, sluggishly returning to her previous roost on the boat's prow. She fidgeted and turned, spreading her wings in the weak sun that slatted nearly horizontally under the low clouds.
"Stay here with us," Holmes wheedled, offering her a fish. She refused it. "It's cold and wet out there, Hélène, no land for fifty miles."
I groaned, and dragged myself up onto one of the thwarts. I was ravenously hungry. The rations were in the stern, thank god, away from the pterodactyl, so I pulled out some beef for myself and Holmes.
He offered his to the pterodactyl. She scorned it, no more interested in our beef than in her fish. "Oh, come, look how nice this is," he coaxed. "Look how nice it is here. Where you're headed is even more water, more than you can possibly imagine. You can't get there, but we can get you there! Just like we can get you nice roast beef."
She gave no indication of thinking the roast beef nice.
"We still have an oar," I offered as I chewed. "I could stun it, if you're so worried about it flying off." It would have to be the oar; my gun was hopelessly fouled with seawater.
"No one is hitting any—" he snapped, and broke off with a despairing cry. "No, no, nononono nooooooo, Hélène!"
Hélène had launched herself into flight. Holmes hurled himself after her; I lunged after him to keep him from falling into the drink. He came to rest across the gunwale, pleading to himself as we watched her go.
She was flying low to the water and roughly a hundred points to the right of the rising sun: precisely the same bearing as the day before. We could have used her as a compass, if we still had two oars. I doubted using our one oar as a paddle would get us far. Not as far, certainly, as her wings would carry her before they failed.
Perhaps Hélène would find another boat out there, somewhere. Perhaps its crew wouldn't keep driving her off again until she drowned.
Holmes sagged, settling back into the boat again. "I wanted to get her home, John."
"No one…" I tried, and cleared my throat. I had never been known for my comforting bedside manner. "No one could have done more."
He said nothing, just huddled in misery against the dawn chill, watching the pterodactyl fly away to her death.
"Give me your spectacles," I said, when the pterodactyl could no longer be distinguished from the waves. He had been compulsively cleaning them all morning, but wet, salt-logged wool was not good for cleaning lenses: the glass scattered the morning light with a smeary, oily sheen. "Your spectacles," I said again, when he didn't immediately comply.
He dumbly handed them over.
I rinsed out my handkerchief with a little of our fresh water.
"John," he protested, but without much energy. "We'll need that."
I gruffly shushed him. Comfort was not one of my skills, nor could I could get us to shore, but I could ensure he could see. I was willing to sacrifice a little of our drinking water for that.
When I had done the best I could, I spread out the handkerchief to dry and handed his glasses back to him. The lenses were still water-streaked, but perhaps I could finish the job in an hour or two, when the handkerchief was dry.
Presuming, of course, that it did not begin drizzling again.
Holmes put his glasses on and stared moodily at the bit of water streaming back and forth in the bottom of the boat. I watched the horizon for ships.
"Sherlock," I said, some while later, when I felt sure of what I was seeing.
The pterodactyl had come into view again, no larger than a seagull. She rose unsteadily above the horizon, beating erratic circles up into the sky. We watched her for several long minutes. Then, as she had the afternoon before, she pointed herself at us.
I reached for our oar.
Holmes also lunged for it, attempting to wrest it from my grip. The boat rocked dangerously.
"Fine! Then you paddle," I scolded him, as I let the oar go.
He stared at me.
I shrugged at the pterodactyl, who lurched and slid through the sky in apparent distress. "I was going to paddle to meet it, while you came up with a plan that doesn't require us to go swimming."
With a wondering look at me, he handed me the paddle and turned to contemplate the pterodactyl. He adjusted his glasses, resettling them on his nose. "No one is going swimming," he assured me.
I laughed, incredulous, as I set the oar's blade in the water. "You make many pronouncements about what everyone won't do."
"Have I been wrong? No one has killed anyone else, and no one has hit anyone else."
I harrumphed. I would happily hit the pterodactyl, if I thought there was anything to be gained by it. Instead, I paddled to meet the creature — or tried to — in the hopes of sparing Holmes the sight of watching it drown.
It was impossible to tell how much good my paddling did, as there were no landmarks on that open waste by which to judge our progress, but Hélène did not drown before she reached us. Holmes took the oar from me at the last minute, evidently not trusting me to not make an attempt at hitting her. With a great flapping of wings, she settled into her previous roost in the prow and huddled low, apparently content to let us be as long as we stayed well to the boat's stern. She wrapped the meat of her wings tight around herself and laboured to breathe.
"What's wrong with her?" Holmes demanded.
I shook my head. If any of my London patients had sounded like that, I might have thought to prescribe good sea air, but that she had in abundance. "I'm a physician, not a veterinarian."
"So, what's wrong with her?" he demanded again, as if the distinction between the disciplines were mere trivia.
I shrugged. "She spent the first months of her life in a box, but is now trying to fly halfway around the world. She was meant to live in clean, high, dry air, but has since been poisoned by London fogs and English damp. Perhaps she has fallen prey to the cowpox that has long since killed off every other pterodactyl outside of Maple White Land! Take your pick. There are many things that might be wrong with her, Holmes!"
"Shh, Hélène," Holmes cooed to her like a lover. He tried to feed her some fish. She turned her head aside.
Twice more Hélène left the boat that morning, but both times she circled up into the air instead of bearing straight-away for South America. Both times she returned promptly, labouring for breath.
"Clever girl," Holmes praised her, the first time she came back. I rolled my eyes at him.
"Sherlock," I said a minute later, reaching for his wrist. I nodded at the horizon, where I could see a brownish smudge. "Smoke." Hélène was still perched on most of our gear. "Do we have… flares, or…?"
He shook his head, still staring at the smudge. "No. Nothing useful."
"Your plan was to be picked up a stray ship, and yet…?" I didn't bother finishing the sentence.
The smudge faded away without our ever seeing the ship that produced it. I wrapped my oilskin tighter around me and muttered my hatred of both Holmes and the pterodactyl.
The next smudge on the horizon, however, did not fade, but grew darker, then darker still. When we could see the ship's funnel, Holmes grabbed the drying handkerchief, took up our oar, and climbed onto a thwart, steadying himself with my shoulder. I reached up to keep him from pitching over the side. Hélène hissed dully at both of us, but otherwise didn't move from where she crouched low in the bow.
It took some time for the steamer to come hull-up over the horizon, and then more time for us to be sure she had seen us. "Sit down," I urged, when I was reasonably sure the ship was bearing for us. I had no desire to end up in the water again, even if rescue was imminent. He stepped down from the thwart, but continued to stand. I might have stood, too, if I thought the boat stable enough to tolerate our both doing it.
We had plenty of time to study the S.S. Percy Harrison as she approached. She was a small coastal steamer, outfitted amidships with a small crane, and was lightly loaded, riding high in the water. Several sailors stood at the rail to stare at us as she came a few lengths upwind of us. Her engines strained as the propeller was thrown into reverse; white foam boiled around her stern.
"I heard there were two fools out here in a rowboat!" a man called through a speaking trumpet over the throb of the engines. He was dressed like a gentleman, despite his speech. "And look, we found two fools in a rowboat!"
While he spoke, a sailor with an impressive arm threw us a line, the coil unwinding gracefully through the air. Holmes and I scrabbled for it before it could be lost overboard.
"We appreciate the rescue!" Holmes called back, ignoring the man's rudeness.
Hélène was less appreciative of our rescuers. She stretched herself up, spread her wings, and screeched at them. Holmes dropped the line to make placating gestures at her — I had seen little indication that she actually found such motions calming — and dug out some fish to try to soothe her, even though she had been rejecting the fish all morning. I hauled on the line; the sailors above us did the same. With the wind's assistance, the distance between our hulls closed satisfyingly quickly.
"And what is this you have with you?" the man with the speaking trumpet called down.
I had been trying to think how to get them to accept bringing the pterodactyl on-board, but the man's lack of surprise seemed odd. The sailors at the rail beside him were riveted by our show, perhaps even amused by it, but showed no disquiet.
I glanced at the pterodactyl, her wings still spread in agitation, so obviously neither bat nor bird, and far too large for either. The crew of the Friesland had called her a flying goat; the Violet May, a devil.
"An albatross," I called back warily, confused by the reactions above me.
"Oh, an albatross, is it?" the man called back down, his voice arch and indulgent.
Holmes was still distracted by Hélène's pique. "Yes, yes, an albatross! Seven years bad luck if you harm her!" he warned over his shoulder.
There was a ripple of amusement along the rail.
I stopped hauling on the line. By then, we were nearly under the lee of the ship, but that is not why I stopped hauling.
"Such a prodigious, featherless chick!" the man called back. "How magnificent its parents must have been!"
Holmes heard it then, too. He glanced upward. Seeing something I did not, he lunged for Hélène, shouting and clapping his hands, trying to drive her into flight. There was shouting above us, and I threw the line overboard, grabbing up the oar to push us off the Harrison's hull. Hélène drew her wings into a mighty downbeat, launching herself into flight—
A heavy net descended across all three of us, as beautifully deployed as the coil of rope had been moments earlier.
A net is a confounding thing to work one's way out from under, even under the best of conditions. Being mutually ensnared with a panicking pterodactyl in a tiny, rocking boat is a very bad condition. It was only moments before Hélène was hopelessly fouled in the mesh. She toppled overboard, dragging both Holmes and me off our feet.
Holmes and I both grabbed at the thwarts, trying not to be dragged over with her. Holmes grunted as the gunwale caught him in the midriff. I, too, was dragged hard against the gunwale, the boards slamming into my thigh and my leg collapsing beneath me. Holmes, closer to the pterodactyl than I, hooked his heels under the thwarts and grabbed at the net that had caught us, trying to use it to pull Hélène back into the boat. I battled to get out from under the net altogether, in the hopes of defending us from the Harrison.
There was a heavy thump beside me, and water spilled over the side as a sailor landed in our boat. A second thump, and the water swirled around my knees. The first man loomed above me, his fist raised; I tried to throw up a protective arm, but I was tangled in the net. The blow caught me solidly, and with Hélène's thrashing weight still dragging at me, I staggered and struck my chin on the thwart. I tried to gather my feet under me and shove upward from beneath the net in an attempt to topple my assailant out of the boat, but it had little effect.
Holmes, still preoccupied with his effort to keep Hélène from drowning, ignored our boarding party. They did not ignore him, however, and I saw the second sailor raise a meaty fist to strike him.
"Holmes!" I called out in warning, and he turned to look.
The warning was too late, and Holmes went down. A second blow caught me, and my limbs collapsed. I sprawled, dazed and uncoordinated, unable to overcome the weight of the net.
The sailors set to hauling a panicking Hélène back into the skiff. Even fouled by the net, she managed to catch one of them a hefty blow across the face. He reeled back, bellowing an oath, but a barked command from above restrained him from returning the violence on her. After an evil look upward, he finished hauling her into the boat.
I was unable to significantly impede the sailor who untangled me from the net and bound my arms and legs; he had long experience in handling rope in difficult conditions, and I was as weak as an infant. Holmes did not resist at all: his limbs flopped loosely as he was bound with ruthless efficiency. I ground my teeth to see him handled so.
The Harrison had drifted down to the skiff by then, and we knocked loosely against her hull. Another cargo net was tossed down to the sailors in our skiff, and all three of us were bundled into it, Hélène still tangled in the original net. She struck out at anything and anyone she could reach, and I wormed my way around as best I could to shield Holmes' unconscious body from her wrath. She struck and bit at my back and shoulders, but the double layer of net restricted her blows, and my slicker and heavy coat took the worst of her bites. Only my bound hands in the small of my back were fully exposed to her, and so I balled my hands into fists to protect my fingers, and did my best to keep my hands angled out of her way. I set my teeth and endured her attack; better that her violence fall on me, who was able to do something to mitigate it, than on Holmes.
It was a relief when we were finally set on the deck and dragged away from her. We were left to lay in the scuppers while three men wrestled her into a large, open cage pushed up against the steamer's aft superstructure. Then we were dragged to a small, claustrophobic cabin, hardly bigger than the two bunks welded to the wall, where we were left on the floor.
Holmes had been left on his stomach; I endeavoured to get a shoulder under him and push him partway up onto his side so he might breathe better. The steel floor beneath us was cold and our clothing still damp, so I stayed pressed up against him, him half-laying on me, so that he might share my body-heat. Bound as I was, there was little more that I could do for him.
I lay still, dazed and aching, listening to the sounds outside our small cabin. They were retrieving our skiff, I thought. More orders were given, and the engines changed their note. The ship stopped rocking with the waves and began fighting them instead, the hull beating out a rhythmic slip and thump as it cut through each wave and dropped into the hollow beyond.
Maybe ten minutes passed like that, the instructions outside our door becoming briefer and more infrequent as the ship steadied down into its normal running order.
Holmes pushed off me, wriggling fully up onto his side. "Are you all right, Watson?" he asked, his voice low.
I ducked my chin to look at him. His eyes were alert and intent.
"You were faking," I accused, my stomach swirling with relief and irritation. Playing dead was becoming a new skill of his. I wasn't sure I liked it.
He grinned, pleased with himself. "I slipped most of the blow. They were after Hélène, not us, and we weren't going to win that fight. Roll over, let me see your hands."
With a grumble, I rolled over and showed him my hands.
He was silent a few long moments.
"Hélène did this?" he asked, his voice grave.
I shrugged, feeling more tongue-tied than usual with my hands bound.
"I'm sorry," he said, still grave. "I felt… In the net…" He had felt me trying to shield him, of course, the energy of her blows transferred through my body to his.
I shook my head. "It's no matter." Even if I had known he was conscious, I still would have tried to protect him. It was what I did. It was what I had done since the day I met him.
He gave no response but a quiet, regretful sigh.
"My hands?" I prompted.
"Stay still," he instructed, and flopped over to put his back to me, his hands to mine.
He had to roll back to study the knots once more before he succeeded in loosing my wrists. I sat up and sighed gratefully as I shucked out of the ropes, able to take my first deep breath since leaving the skiff. I pushed his shoulder and he rolled over farther so that I could undo his bonds; I could not have done it by feel, not with my bitten and swollen fingers, but the knots came free readily enough. We each leaned forward to untie our ankles. He finished his first, and helped me with mine.
I started to stand up, but he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder, tilting me to see the back of my neck. The stretch of it stung; there must have been an open wound there. "Let me get this first," he said.
"It's fine," I said, brushing his hand away.
"It's bleeding, John," he said, as if he'd never seen blood before. He wrapped a hand around the collars of my slicker and coat and tugged, attempting to make space to see better. "And you don't know what venom she had in her mouth."
I sighed, but let him have his way, sitting still while he wet his handkerchief with a bit of whisky from his flask and set to the wound. I bit my cheek: the combination of salt and alcohol was unpleasant.
"Let me see the rest," he said when he had finished, and tugged at my collar again, this time trying to wrestle slicker and coat off of me.
"They could come in any minute," I hissed. "Better that we—"
"They won't," he interrupted me. "Listen."
I listened, but whatever it was that he heard — or whatever he understood from it — I couldn't make it out.
Nevertheless, I let him take my coat and slicker off. "They're just scrapes," I groused, but I took off my jacket and waistcoat myself.
"More than scrapes, John," he bit out, ire in his voice. He deliberately touched something on my shoulder that made me wince. "See?" He tugged at my braces.
With a sigh, I shrugged them off my shoulders. At his urging, my shirt, too, my fingers stiff on the buttons.
He disliked whatever he saw; that was clear enough from his breathing.
"It's fine, Sherlock," I said, trying to reassure him. I leaned forward, resting my head in my crossed arms on my knees. "Just… Clean whatever is bleeding, and the rest will be fine."
The pterodactyl had broken my skin more times than I realised, her needle-like teeth piercing through the thick wool of my clothing even when she had not torn it. Sherlock's touch was gentle as he worked, but I still had to concentrate on not flinching from it.
When it seemed he had finished, he paused, a hand resting on my shoulder. From the feel of it, the flesh there was coming up in a bruise.
"Sherlock?" I asked, uncertain of what he was doing.
"Thank you," he said at last. "I don't… I haven't said that often, I don't think."
The gentleman detective I wrote about for the Strand was free with his thanks and his apologies; Holmes was markedly less so. But I, too, was a better man in those stories.
"It's nothing," I finally said, at a loss for anything better. I pulled my shirt back up over my shoulders. He wanted to tend to the deep puncture wounds on my hands, too, but I took the cloth and whisky from him. "I can manage," I said, when he tried to take over from me. I would have needed his help to bandage them properly, but I had nothing to bandage them with.
He had his ear pressed to the door by the time I finished dressing. I looked a question at him, but he shook his head. "Locked," he said.
I nodded and lay down on the lower bunk, all but groaning with the pleasure of getting to lie flat after a night slumped in the bottom of a rowboat. The bunk's owner probably wouldn't appreciate my boots, but I didn't appreciate being beaten and imprisoned, either. I appreciated it even less on Holmes' account.
"The S.S. Percy Harrison of Falmouth, sailing from Plymouth," I prompted, when Holmes finally turned away from the door. The Harrison had been one of several steamers I had polled for news of Hélène when we had canvassed the Plymouth docks the day before. I had paid the Harrison little mind at the time; she had been in port for several days, and so had no news of Hélène. Her captain had obviously paid more mind to me. "Chasing a story I told them back in Plymouth."
Holmes glanced at me, then began methodically working his way around our tiny compartment, rattling doors and footlockers. "If your story had spurred them into action, they would have left port when we did. Two crazy men on a dock asking if anyone had seen a pterodactyl? Pfft. That's gossip for the pub. But after hearing the Violet May's story? Maybe the Friesland's? Backed by rumours in the London news that there's a pterodactyl loose in England? That's enough to launch a ship. Especially for a professional adventurer, one with a ship already outfitted."
"A professional adventurer?" It seemed plausible to me; the man in charge hadn't seemed like a merchant officer. If he was an adventurer, then he would be a gentleman with money, connections, experience, and a taste for risk.
"Thomas Forsyth," Holmes said, and thumped the sea chest he was examining with frustration. It was locked, like the cupboards set into the steel wall.
I shook my head; Forsyth's name was unfamiliar to me.
"Minor African explorer. Got into that game a bit too late. Africa is well-explored now, not much left to find."
"Oh. Maple White Land!" I breathed, the pieces coming together. I sat up, ducking to keep from hitting my head on the upper bunk.
He awarded me the point with a flourish. "Africa can wait a few weeks with no appreciable loss of glory. But Maple White Land…"
"It'll be the new gold rush."
"Riches for the first few men in."
"And Hélène is as good as a lodestone."
"Unless the members of Challenger's expedition can be divided from each other, or his porters in Pará found and suborned, she's their best chance. She all but falls into his lap like this? How could Forsyth resist?"
"Well," I said after a while. "That's good news for her."
Holmes frowned. "How so?"
I frowned back. "He wants her as a guide, not a trophy for his wall. And he wants to take her where she's already trying to go."
Holmes stared at me. "You would trust her with him?"
I shrugged. I wouldn't introduce a hypothetical sister to the man who had abducted us, no matter his wealth and connections, but these things were all relative. "They could have pitched us overboard, let us drown. No one would have been the wiser."
Holmes continued to stare. "They hit you on the head, John."
And Holmes had tried to drown me in the Channel just yesterday. I failed to see his point.
"They have a better plan than rowing to South America." With two spread hands, I indicated the ship around us. Fuel, equipment, navigational implements, general seaworthiness: all things our rowboat had lacked.
"How long would Hélène survive in Maple White Land, after it's been invaded by men like that?" Holmes demanded, his ferocity making me sit back. "How long do you think her rookery would survive? What would have been the point of returning to London, I ask you, if you and Baker Street hadn't been there? We can't let them find Maple White Land," he continued, as if he hadn't said anything extraordinary. "Otherwise, what's the point of getting her home?"
I blinked, trying to digest that. "So what is your plan?" I asked, deciding to focus on the thing that actually mattered. "Let them take us all to South America, and then somehow stop them from following her? Hope they don't throw us overboard along the way?"
"I'm working on it," he snapped. "If it comes to it, we can steal a rowboat and take our chances in the shipping lanes again."
I blew out a breath and lay back down, exhausted by the prospect. An open rowboat in the middle of the Channel was one thing; an open rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic was something else entirely.
"How many of them are there?" I asked. His eyes had been shut while he was faking, but I still trusted his count more than mine.
"Seven, maybe more. Forsyth, an assistant, the one officer and two sailors that we saw, with at least another crewman in the bridge and a fifth in the engine room."
Seven, no weapons between us, and we were already under lock and key. I whistled. At least they hadn't so far been inclined toward murder: if they hadn't pitched us overboard at the beginning, they probably wouldn't now. Unless we wanted to attempt sailing the ship to South America ourselves, the confusion of making port in Belém would probably be our best opportunity to make a move.
Holmes was listening at the door again. The motion of the ship had changed while we were talking, the rhythmic slide and thump smoothing out to something gentler, but I couldn't hear anything beyond that.
I was working through various possibilities for how we might be treated on the way to Pará, and what we might do in each case, when I saw Holmes tense, pressing his ear tighter to the door.
Even with that warning, I was not prepared when the pterodactyl shrieked. A confusion of voices erupted. Someone screamed in pain; the rest was a babble of shock. Hélène shrieked her displeasure again, and the chorus swelled in anger and fear.
"What's happening?" I asked Holmes. Two voices gave orders over the hubbub, although I could not make out the commands themselves.
Holmes shook his head, his lips pursed.
I listened for another few moments. The injured man had not quieted. If anything, his distress had increased.
I pushed Holmes aside and pounded on the door with my fist. When that didn't make enough noise, I kicked it. "I'm a doctor!" I shouted. "A physician!" Holmes joined in.
It took many long minutes for them to respond to us; when they did, it was in the form of a booming clang in the metal under our fists. I jumped back from the door.
"Shut up in there!" an uncouth voice yelled.
"I'm a doctor! I can help!" I repeated. I could still hear the injured man, although his cries had subsided into broken moaning and become more distant.
"It's a long way to Pará," Holmes called, leaning close to the door. "He's a doctor, let him help."
"You can help by being quiet!" The direction was emphasised with another ringing boom of the door.
Footsteps receded in the passage.
I looked at Holmes. He shrugged.
I was considering beating on the door again when footsteps returned. There were more of them this time. Holmes flashed two fingers at me; I nodded in agreement.
"Stand back in there!" a voice ordered, this one more genteel than the first.
"Yes, all right, fine!" Holmes called as we stood back. There wasn't much space to stand back to, but we did what we could.
The door swung open onto a brawny merchant officer who stood in a narrow exterior passage, roofed, but open to the sea beyond the rail. Forsyth stood beside him, tense and unhappy, a revolver leveled at the both of us.
"Which of you is the doctor?" he asked, and on receiving his answer, motioned me out into the passage. Forsyth had me stand a few steps along, out of reach of either of them, while the sailor locked the door on Holmes. With another wave of his pistol, Forsyth indicated that I should lead the way forward to the midship deck.
Hélène, agitated and restless, was still in her cage against the superstructure. She hissed at us, spreading her wings until they hit the cage bars. She had freed herself from the net, which she trampled under her talons as she postured. I stood my ground, but the sailor behind me flinched away. She battered the bars with her wings and hissed again. This time I saw the blood in her teeth.
There wasn't much blood on the deck, but a trail of droplets led around to the other side of the superstructure. With a glance at Forsyth, I followed them.
Along the way, I passed a scalpel lying on the deck. A few steps later, a syringe rolled in the scuppers. I cast a speculative glance back at Hélène. She glared at me balefully, her breath rasping.
The injured man — Forsyth's assistant, judging by his mode of dress — lay in the lower bunk of a small cabin that mirrored our own tiny prison. He had great, gashing wounds on his arms and hands, but lay huddled in on himself, moaning and clutching his eye. Forsyth, pale with anxiety but otherwise calm, tried to persuade the man to drop his hands and let me examine him, but the injured man was too panicky for reason.
A reasonably complete field medicine kit stood open on the floor, but when I went into it for the tools to sedate the man, I found it missing its morphine and syringe. A sailor was dispatched for the syringe; the morphine was retrieved from the injured man's pocket. With the bodily assistance of Forsyth and the sailor, I was finally able to sedate my patient and examine his eye. He was in danger of losing it altogether, but I did what I could for it. Then, my fingers clumsy with my own injuries, I threaded a needle and set about tending to the rest of his wounds, cleaning and repairing the damage to his torn flesh as best I could.
While I worked, I tried not to think on what Hélène might have done to Holmes, had she not been so hampered by the nets.
When my patient was properly blindfolded, stitched, and bandaged, I turned to Forsyth. The merchant officer had left partway through the proceedings, apparently having other matters to attend to, but the sailor who had been left in his stead stepped to the door and signaled to someone outside.
"How is he?" Forsyth asked, as the merchant officer came back into the small cabin.
"Proper rest and care might save his eye. Particularly if he can be kept calm. The rest…" I made a considering noise. "It'll heal, if infection can be avoided." I paused to reconsider. "It may not heal well." There was, after all, only so much that might be done with needle and thread.
The merchant officer swore to himself.
"Hastings is a good man," Forsyth said, regret in his voice.
I nodded, although I had no particular opinion on his goodness. I was glad, however, that he had someone who was concerned for his welfare. "He has medical training himself?"
Forsyth frowned at me. "Nothing beyond basic field medicine. We both spend a fair amount of time in wild country."
"Ah. Because he was attempting to sedate the pterodactyl when this happened, yes? For surgery. So that he could slit her wings." I mimed the small, delicate cuts I was envisioning. "Keep her from flying so far, or so easily."
It was an easy deduction, given what had been missing from the medical kit, and where it had been found. Holmes and I had kept up with Hélène across England via the services of the London and Southwestern, but there were no such conveniences in the territory that hid Maple White Land. If Hélène were to get loose from them even once, they would never see her again.
Forsyth's eyes narrowed. "And what of it? It's my pterodactyl. I can do as I wish with it."
I sucked my teeth; I had hoped to hear another answer. I had no real affection for the creature, but it seemed a sorry thing to allow her to be maimed for Forsyth's glory.
Holmes, of course, would be incandescent with rage and grief if the proposed surgery were to come to pass. Martha and I might even find Baker Street turned into a rest home for lame pterodactyls. I shuddered at the thought of Martha's reaction to that.
"So now you'll have to wait for Pará. Or will you attempt it yourself?"
"One of the sailors will do it," he said curtly.
But the merchant officer baulked. "No. Our contract was for passage to Pará and assistance in capturing that beast. It's in its cage, we're now finished with it."
The two began to argue about the terms of their contract — a contract that seemed moot to me, given that neither could risk bringing it to court after our abduction, but what did I know? "Perhaps you should wait until Pará," I soothed.
"Absolutely not," Forsyth snapped. "There's too much chance of it escaping once we reach land."
If Forsyth would not wait until Pará, then we could not, either.
"Or…" I suggested.
"Or what?" the captain asked, eager for a plan that wouldn't put one of his own men in the pterodactyl's cage.
I shrugged, attempting to be casual. "Or we could help."
"Hastings and I are grateful for your efforts, but I have this well in hand, thank you."
"Do you? How long did Hastings last against the pterodactyl? Minutes?"
The captain made a derisive noise.
"See, not even minutes," I concluded. "Whereas we spent twenty-four peaceable hours in an open boat with it."
"Not so peaceable as all that," Forsyth said, gesturing at the damage Hélène had wrought on me.
I touched the wound on my neck. "This happened after your thugs riled it. But even so, I'm still standing." I pointedly considered his assistant: bandaged, blindfolded, and sedated.
"Far be it from me to tell you your business, Forsyth," the captain said, "but you'd be a fool not to take him up on it. You're already short-handed because of that thing."
Forsyth, I could see, was unpersuaded, understandably reluctant to to trust two unknowns. He had just stolen a pterodactyl from us; we might try to steal his expedition in return.
"Your entire expedition depends on that pterodactyl," I reminded him. "Did you even consider that she was sick, when you thought to drug her with morphine?"
"It's sick?" he asked, visibly startled.
"Does a healthy animal breathe like that? Morphine is a tricky thing, if there is already respiratory distress. If you want her to lead you to Maple White Land, you need Holmes and me."
We had no intention of letting him get to Maple White Land, of course, but if I could get us out from under lock and key, then Holmes and I had far more options for getting Hélène away from this man.
He crossed his arms, his smile sardonic. "I suppose I would be wise to take you on as pterodactyl-herders, then."
My returning smile was tight. If I had truly wanted any of the glory of Maple White Land, I would have been insulted by his proposed title. But perhaps it would amuse Holmes, graduating from sheep-herder to pterodactyl-herder.
"I suppose you should," I agreed.
I negotiated the terms of a fictional partnership with Forsyth, attempting to feign some hunger for the riches of Maple White Land. The only thing I really wanted, however, was our liberty so that Holmes might have more opportunity to devise a plan.
When Forsyth and I finalised our purported agreement, I contrived to be busy cleaning Hasting's blood from my hands, so that I would not be compelled to shake on the deal.
"So! That's settled, then," I said brightly. "If you'll be so good as to release my friend…"
"I rather think not."
I paused, looking at Forsyth, then the merchant captain. "We can't guarantee her health from behind a locked door."
He laughed. "And if you think I'm going to give you run of the ship on the basis of nothing but some words, you're a fool."
"I helped your friend."
"And I'm grateful. But before I release your friend, I need to see you deliver." He gestured at the medical kit. "Take what you need."
He raised his eyebrows at me. "To clip its wings."
I took a deep breath. "She's ill. It's at least a week to Belém, better to—"
"Not so ill that it couldn't do that," he interrupted me, nodding at his friend, his voice hard.
I swallowed nervously. "You know, it's really Holmes who—"
Forsyth reached for his gun again, and I stopped talking.
"I don't know this Holmes of yours. You're the one who's made promises."
I glanced at the captain. His expression was skeptical; there would be no assistance there.
"Right. Of course." My laughter had more nerves in it than I liked. "Gentlemen."
I turned to the field kit and began arming myself.
"Morphine?" Forsyth asked suspiciously, as I charged the syringe. "I thought you said morphine would kill it."
"It's a question of dosage." The dosage I was drawing, however, was for a vigorous adult man. I put the vial in my pocket for safekeeping, trying not to be nervous of the fact that Hastings had done the same an hour earlier. I took a lancet for myself, and then a second one. It was a pity the kit wasn't equipped for field amputations.
When I was armed, I straightened my spine and turned to the two other men. "Ready," I declared.
"After you," Forsyth said, and motioned for me to precede him.
Nearly the entire ship's company had gathered on the midship deck. Assuming that there was still a stoker in the engine room and another crewman on the bridge, Holmes' count of the crew was short by one. Most of the gathered sailors had armed themselves with makeshift staves or cudgels, but from what I could see, Forsyth's revolver was the only firearm among the company.
Hélène huddled low in the back of her cage, watching the proceedings. Her breathing was audible even from where I stood.
I stepped into the open semi-circle of men. "I'll, ah…" I indicated the lock on the door. "I'll need access." I held up my syringe, clearly too short to reach the pterodactyl.
"You're going in there?" Forsyth asked dubiously, but he stepped forward to unlock the cage.
Hélène lifted her head and hissed at him.
"Mm," I agreed. I had no intention whatsoever of going inside. Holmes might have been foolhardy enough to try it, but I wasn't.
Forsyth signalled for someone to come man the door, and at the captain's bidding, one of the sailors did so, albeit reluctantly. Forsyth drew his gun and retreated, circling wide.
"Are you sure you don't want to wait for Belém?" I asked.
"Get on with it," Forsyth growled from behind me.
With a sigh, I gestured to the sailor to open the door. I stepped forward.
Hélène screeched and rushed forward a few steps, her wings half-spread. It was an imposing sight, but she was also clearly reluctant to leave the debatable safety of her cage.
"Clever girl," I said to her, approaching as near to the door as I dared.
Her head dropped low, and she lunged forward to snap at me, falling short of where I stood. She snapped and lunged again, attempting to drive me back, but not willing to out-and-out attack me.
"You're not feeling at all well, are you?" I murmured. "You don't want us anywhere near you, do you?"
She screamed again. I was dimly aware of the rumble of eager voices behind me.
Reaching into my pocket, I took one more deliberate step forward.
She lunged again, and this time the snap of her jaws just barely missed me. When her head pulled back readying for the next snap, I followed, lunging forward at her. As I did so, I screamed as loudly as I could and threw a handful of coins hard into her face.
It was a feint on my part: one hard lunge directly at her before I turned and ran, barreling my full weight into the sailor at the door. I jabbed him with the syringe and depressed the plunger, even though the fight would be decided long before the morphine would take effect. The sailor shouted in shock and scrabbled back from the needle, leaving me in control of the door. I swung it wide, flattening myself and it against the cage bars.
It took Hélène, enraged and screeching, two tries to get herself through the door, her wings at first extended too wide for the narrow gap. With a wrench of effort she burst through and half-ran, half-flew at Forsyth, who was nearest her path.
Forsyth was a man of rare courage, or else strongly motivated by the call of Maple White Land; he held his fire and tried to club her with his pistol instead. Shouting sailors swarmed forward to assist. One raised a gaff to bludgeon Hélène from behind; Forsyth brought up his pistol and coolly shot him.
The world seemed to swim with the shock of it. I was stunned by his sudden violence, even though I had half-expected Forsyth to defend the pterodactyl. The other sailors had apparently not expected it at all. The deck erupted into bedlam.
I sought out the captain, who was standing back from the melee, attempting to organize the sailors into some kind of coordinated action. He didn't see me coming, which gave me a momentary and sorely-needed advantage: the previous twenty-four hours had taken their toll on my strength, and he fought like a lifelong veteran of wharfside brawls. I took too many blows from him along the way, but he finally went down. I rifled his coat for keys, and ran to release Holmes.
When I rounded the corner into the narrow passage, I could hear Holmes screaming my name and pounding something heavy — one of the sea-chests, perhaps — against the inside of the iron door. "Watson!"
"I'm here!" I shouted back as I reached the door. I rifled through the keys, my hands trembling violently. Back on the midship deck, a second gunshot rang out. The keys blurred, and I had to begin over.
Inside the room, whatever-it-was thumped hard to the floor. "Watson!" Holmes shouted, still urgent, but markedly less panicked. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, Holmes!" I shouted, clumsily rattling the key in the lock. The door finally swung open, and Holmes lunged through, grabbing my coat collar to hold me steady for his inspection.
"I'm fine!" I gasped, catching his wrist. "Hélène's loose, they're trying to kill her."
Swearing, he pushed past me and tore up the passage. I followed.
We reached the midships deck to find Forsyth with his gun drawn, holding three sailors at bay on the other side of the deck. Two bodies lay still, bleeding sluggishly. The captain was just getting back to his feet. Judging from the way the ship moved, no one was at the helm.
Hélène, not far from Forsyth, staggered as the ship rolled.
"I'll sail this ship to Belém by myself if I have to!" Forsyth bellowed at the sailors. "Don't think I can't!"
One of the sailors gathered his courage to rush him; Forsyth took two quick steps sideways to improve his line of fire and shot.
Unfortunately, those two steps brought him near Hélène. She screamed and shied from the gunshot, then lunged at Forsyth, managing to knock him down under her weight. He shouted, trying to beat her off, but he had dropped his gun when he fell. He had nothing to defend himself with but his fists.
Holmes and I were closest.
"Get him clear!" Holmes shouted to me as he rushed forward, stripping off his jacket. He had to physically beat the pterodactyl with it to draw her attention off Forsyth, but she finally whirled on Holmes, and I darted forward. Holmes skittered sideways to evade Hélène; I dragged Forsyth to cover by his coat collar.
Halfway there, a brawny pair of hands joined mine; I looked up into the captain's face. His eyes burned with anger. "This is on you," he growled.
There was another gunshot, and I looked up.
"No no no no no," Holmes shouted, waving his arms, running toward—
One of the sailors had found Forsyth's dropped gun, and was trying to shoot the pterodactyl. Holmes, the utter fool, was attempting to block the shot with his own body. In the process, he had turned his back on Hélène.
I swore and scrambled forward, not taking the time to stand. Just before I reached the sailor I bellowed for his attention: it gave up some of my surprise, but it also drew his eyes — and more importantly, his aim — away from Holmes. I ducked my shoulder and tackled him at the knees. The gun went off again as we fell, and we both hit the deck in a sprawl.
Holmes shouted; the pterodactyl screamed. I lost my orientation in the fall, and had no real sense of where either one was. I tried to find the sailor's arm and the gun that ought to be at the end of it, but his superior weight bore me down into the deck, and I found myself fruitlessly attempting to wrestle a man who was both heavier and fresher than I. I gasped for breath as his forearm ground into my throat.
A dark shape blotted out the sky above us. I turned my face away from both the smell of fish and the sound of the sailor's scream, taking cover under his shoulder as best as I could. He thrashed and shouted, and the gun went off again. I could hear Holmes shouting my name in a panic, but I couldn't gather the breath to call back. Claws scrabbled on the deck; I grunted as a talon caught my thigh.
Then the pressure of the pterodactyl's weight was miraculously lifted. I pushed the thrashing sailor off me and scrabbled for the gun. This time I got it.
Gasping, I kicked the man away from me and sat up, drawing aim on the two sailors who were nearly on top of us. Both backed away from the gun.
"Holmes?" I called, not looking away from the sailors I was holding at bay.
"Watson!" he called back, breathless. I risked a quick glance: he was using his jacket to harass the pterodactyl, much like a toreador with a bull. She hunkered low to the deck, supporting her weight on her fore-claws. The extra joints of her ungainly wings projected beyond her. She moaned her displeasure as she revolved slowly to keep Holmes before her. Everything about her movement proclaimed her exhaustion.
"The syringe!" I called out. "Who has it?"
"Or you could save everyone the trouble and put a bullet in the thing!" the captain called back.
I turned the gun on him. "The syringe!"
He glared back at me, unintimidated. For a long moment we stood like that, Hélène wheezing somewhere behind me and the cage door clanging as the ship rolled. With a last, evil glance at me, the captain turned to his two standing crewmen. With a long stream of profanity, he directed them to find the syringe.
Keeping a careful eye on the three of them, I limped over to Hélène's cage and fished the abandoned net from the bottom of it.
There was a thump and an exclamation of surprise behind me; I glanced back to see Hélène prostrate on the deck, her long neck extended toward Holmes. She struggled to push herself up again.
"Come along, beautiful," Holmes coaxed. "Just a little more. A little more, and it's over."
"Doctor!" the captain shouted. The syringe came skidding across the deck at me.
I gathered it up and circled around behind Holmes and Hélène, positioning myself so that I could survey everyone in the same glance: the sailors, my friend, and the pterodactyl. I shoved the gun into my waistband and withdrew the morphia vial from my pocket, calculating dosages in my head. I knew how much I would give to a schoolboy of Hélène's approximate weight, even one who laboured for breath as she did, but that was a nearly useless point of reference: Hélène had far more strength and power than a mere schoolboy, and I had no idea of her sensitivity to the drug.
She was also nearly dead on her feet. At a loss, I halved the dose I would give a schoolboy, hoping it would keep her at least uncoordinated and disorientated, but not kill her.
It required a ridiculous amount of concentration to thread the needle into the vial and draw the correct dose.
I recapped and pocketed the vial and stripped off my greatly battered coat. With a last glance at the sailors — they were retrieving their wounded mate — I called to Holmes.
He and I made a hash of throwing the net, our efforts completely unlike the graceful spread that had floated down on us earlier. Fortunately, Hélène was so exhausted and had so many awkwardly projecting angles that our ham-fisted throw hardly mattered. When she was sufficiently fouled in the net's cords, I tossed my overcoat over her head and Holmes threw his weight down on it, pinning her to the deck. Even pinned so, she thrashed enough that there was no possibility of discovering or using a vein: I sunk the needle into the meat of her pectoral muscle while she attempted to deafen us with her screams.
The deed done, we got ourselves clear. Hélène thrashed and flopped in the net. We could hear every harsh inhale as she whimpered piteously to herself.
"Intramuscular," I said to Holmes, still catching my breath. "It'll be a little while before it takes effect. And I had no idea of the dosage."
He nodded, his eyes fixed on Hélène. "I'll watch her," he promised, as if it were I who was invested in her survival.
Nodding, I looked up and surveyed the deck, then went to the nearer of the two fallen sailors. A cursory examination showed that Forsyth's shot had killed him. It was the same with the other.
I looked up to see where Forsyth himself was, as the man next-most-grievously-injured, only to find the captain standing over me. "Take that creature and get off my ship," he gritted.
I blinked, and glanced back at Hélène. She moved sluggishly under the net, the drug already beginning to work. Holmes saw me looking. I turned back to the captain. "It was Forsyth who—"
He did not let me finish. "Two of my crew are dead because of you and that creature."
"Some of these men need a doctor," I pointed out.
"I've seen your doctoring. Sawyer and Jenkins saw your doctoring. The last thing any of my crew needs is more of your doctoring."
"That man—" I tried, indicating a sailor who was clearly cradling a broken arm.
"Can wait for Falmouth," the captain returned with barely-leashed fury. "The only one who can't wait for Falmouth is Forsyth, and he's already destined for a noose, so it isn't much mind to me."
"Falmouth?" Holmes asked, coming to join us. "Not Belém?"
"Why would I spend the coal going to Belém?" he asked, going purple. "I have no charterer!"
"As it happens," I attempted, "we need to get to Pará—"
The captain's answer could have blistered paint.
"That thing—" he concluded, when he finally wound down, "is going overboard! In a boat or out of it, I don't care which!"
I eyed the remainder of his crew. Despite the ferocity of his words, he didn't have the manpower to back his threats. The standing members of the Harrison nominally outnumbered us four-to-two, but one had a broken arm and a second was already listing from the morphine I had injected him with earlier. Further, I was the only one with a firearm.
"If you touch that gun, doctor," the captain snarled, "you had better be prepared to begin by killing me with it."
My eyes snapped back to the captain. He was as unintimidated by my revolver as he had been earlier. Any attempt to threaten him into compliance would not go well.
"Watson," Holmes said quietly.
I didn't look at Holmes. There were some things I could not do, not even for him.
"We will need a new oar, and also drinking water," I said.
"Plus a few other supplies," Holmes added. "In exchange for us going quietly."
All too soon, Holmes and I were bobbing in our cursed little wooden boat in the Atlantic, watching the white wake of the Percy Harrison as it steamed back to Falmouth.
The sense of déjà vu was overwhelming.
The primary difference from the day before was the pterodactyl lying insensate at our feet, her breath rasping quietly, wrapped in a tarp against the damp and wind. Otherwise, we were once again in a rowboat at the mercy of the sea, but now with two men dead behind us and another four injured.
My medical conscience had twinged at keeping the syringe and morphia with me, what with so many injured men aboard the Harrison, but the Harrison would make Falmouth by morning. Holmes and I were unlikely to be so lucky.
At least we were still near the mouth of the Channel, where the trans-Atlantic traffic would be more concentrated.
"Look at that," Holmes said, looking between the Harrison's wake and his compass. He was nearly manic with nervous energy, and had been since he'd gotten into the boat. "We could have reversed Hélène's course, and done as well."
"We're rowing for England, then." I set my oar in its lock, too tired to feel anything but resignation.
Holmes shooed me away from my oar. "No, no, I'll take first shift rowing. You look like hell."
I brushed my fingers over my stubble.
He made an exasperated noise. "I meant your leg, and your hand, and your general air of…" He waved a hand, encompassing my whole being.
I glanced down at my leg, where Hélène's talon had caught me. The injury was more bruise than anything, but coming on top of the battering against the gunwale the day before, my leg was nearly lame. I had limped while we prepared the skiff, and had nearly fallen on my face getting into it.
"Move, John," he said, tugging at my coat. "I had a rest earlier, while you were doctoring."
"More likely you had your ear pressed tight to the door," I said, but I moved to the rear thwart, grateful for the chance to rest, and grateful likewise that Holmes was holding his tongue about my mistakes on the Harrison. Mistakes that had once again landed us in this cursed rowboat.
"I'll watch for ships," he said, making shooing gestures, as if there were anywhere for me to go. "You rest."
I took him at his word and stopped fighting my exhaustion. I settled myself down crosswise in the bottom of the boat, wrapped in a tarp against the half-inch of water that slopped about. I rested my head and shoulders against the slope of one gunwale and my boots against the other. It wouldn't have been a particularly comfortable bed in other conditions, but I was too tired to care, and I had been in the Army. I lay still and shut my eyes, listening to the water slap against the hull, the wooden creak every time Holmes pulled the oars.
"I'm sorry, John," Holmes said, apropos of nothing, when I had nearly fallen asleep.
"You're sorry?" I turned my head to frown at him. It was my reckless plan that had killed men and landed us in the rowboat again. Holmes had shown extraordinarily good grace about it.
"I thought you wanted a proper adventure again. I didn't mean it to go this far."
I stared at him, trying to make sense of that claim. "We were chasing a pterodactyl in a rowboat."
He grimaced and looked away to the horizon, ostentatiously checking it for ships. So that was the point that he thought he should have turned back from. It was true: a more sensible, more prudent man would have given up the chase before attempting to conduct it from a rowboat.
I closed my eyes again. He was not a prudent man. After all, who sandbags his friend — the soldier who knows how to properly shoot and fight — to run away to face his mortal enemy alone?
"When I heard you scream," Holmes said. "First Hélène, and then you…"
I waved a hand, but it was cold outside the tarp, so I pulled the material snug around me again. "It wasn't like that. She didn't want to attack me. I was trying to get her to attack me."
The rhythm of the oars stopped. "John! Did you think those talons, those teeth, are for show? What were you thinking!?"
"I was thinking that I couldn't allow them to clip her wings."
He sat silent, the boat rising and falling on the water. Then the wooden creak of the oars resumed, along the rhythmic slap of water against the hull.
"You set her loose," he said, when he had worked it through in his head. "You couldn't talk them out of clipping her wings, and you couldn't fight them alone. You counted on their reluctance to kill their golden goose. You volunteered to do the deed yourself, then when the time came, you set her loose instead."
"Yes," I said. Holmes had seen none of it, but it was nearly as if he had.
"It was an awful risk, John. You saw what she did to the first man who tried it."
He had only heard it, but he was still right: it had been an awful risk, and two men had died for it. They had not been innocent men, but neither had I expected Forsyth to go so far as to kill his own side.
"I'm glad you're not dead," he said.
I pulled my tarp closer, amused by his declaration. "I'm glad you're not dead, too."
It occurred to me then that I had never said as much to him, when I had realised that the man hectoring me into solving the Cadogan-West case was not Mycroft Holmes, but his presumed-to-be-deceased brother. I had not said it in the first heat of my anger, nor had I said it in the two weeks since.
It had been on the tip of my tongue to crack wise at him: that I was glad he wasn't dead because I wouldn't cheat Martha of the pleasure of killing us both. But I held it back, and let the sentiment sit, without disavowal. I'm glad you're not dead, too.
When Holmes woke me for my own shift at the oars, I felt nowhere near so charitable toward his continued existence. Night had settled, and the cold with it; my body ached with the chill and damp. I took his place rowing, however, while he settled down into the bottom of the boat, wrapped in my warm tarp.
I struggled with the oars at first: my body was cramped and stiff from the previous twenty-four hours, one hand still swollen and tender from the pterodactyl's attack. The invisible water had a disconcerting tendency to be present or absent when I went to dip my oar blades, depending on the state of the swell. Eventually, however, my body warmed and limbered, and I likewise learned the rhythm of the boat and the water.
I rowed. The black shapes of the night shifted and glimmered like phantoms. The small radium dial of the compass gleamed. There were no stars.
When I spied a faint glow on the horizon off my left shoulder, I first thought it only a trick of my eyes. But then a distinct, discrete light blinked into sight over the horizon. It was gone again the next time our skiff rose high, but it reappeared again on the rise after, and the rise after that. I kicked Holmes awake.
"The lantern, get the lantern!" I ordered as I shipped my oars. Holmes scrambled to light our lantern, and I turned to set it forward in the bow. Hélène came awake at the fuss, moaning discontentedly to herself, and I drew a light dose of morphine, hoping to prevent her from panicking when we set off the flares. The swaddling tarp kept her mostly still as I pushed the needle through the fabric into the meat of her pectoral again.
"Shit," Holmes hissed, the unlit flare in his hand.
"What? Did you drop the matches? Do you need a light?" I stretched to reach the lantern.
"It's a passenger liner," he said, despair in his voice.
The ship had come hull up over the horizon while we were busy, and I could see the long, parallel rows of lights down its length: the large rectangular windows of the lounges and salons above, and the suggestion of portholes beneath. It was late, so only a few of the windows were lit, but the overall scheme was clear enough.
"Well?" I asked. "They won't be out to abduct Hélène, at least."
He grimaced. "I had hoped I wouldn't have to choose. Between you and Hélène," he clarified.
His answer brought me no clarity. "Why would you have to choose?"
"It's a passenger liner."
"There are women and children on there. They'd be mad to bring a pterodactyl on board. We'd be mad to attempt it."
I looked longingly at the bright lights of the liner and the warm, comfortable salons they marked within. "So we wait for another ship," I said. I didn't relish spending the rest of the night like this, but we had not waited so very long to see this ship. And there were, I was told, many ships on the sea.
He shook his head. "This has already gone longer than it should have. The risk was barely justifiable on my own account, John. Dragging you into it was even less so."
I studied him in the lantern light. The shadows on his face shifted as the boat swayed.
"Give me the flare," I said.
He dumbly handed it across.
I lit it, and the signal rose bright into the night sky.
"No one is choosing anyone," I told him, and set my back into the oars again.
By the time the S.S. Friesland's lifeboat came to meet us, I had given the oars back to Holmes. I used the time to truss Hélène as tight as a turkey, turning her into a nondescript, tarpaulin-wrapped parcel. The earlier dose of morphine had already begun to kick in, but if she wasn't fully quiet by the time the boat arrived, I planned to give her a small intravenous dose to tip her over the edge into unconsciousness. I hoped that the remainder of the intramuscular dose would keep her there for the first few hours.
Holmes watched skeptically while I checked, and then double-checked, her ability to breathe in her wrappings.
"Are you planning on keeping her bound and drugged for the entire week? There's no privacy in steerage, and that ship is going to the Americas, you know."
The ship had first appeared over my left shoulder; of course it was going to the Americas. "We want to go to the Americas," I pointed out. "Do you have the cost of a ship-to-shore telegram?"
"Yes," he said, studying me.
"There are women and children on there. We're hiring a stateroom, and locking her in for the passage. Unless you have a better idea?"
"An impromptu pterodactyl cage."
"Why not? Floor, walls, ceiling. A door that locks. Heat, which might help with her lungs, whatever is wrong with them. And Martha's good for the cost. She'll add the sum to your rent, of course, but she's good for it."
He fixed me with an accusing index finger. "She'll add half of it to my rent. You're too deep into this adventure to disavow it now."
I couldn't keep back my smile. I glanced up to gauge the distance of the approaching lifeboat, and checked Hélène's breathing one more time.
Our time on the Friesland passed like a terrible music hall farce. Holmes and I struggled to quiet Hélène, smuggle her food, distract cabin attendants, catnap in the salons, and generally keep the Friesland's crew and passengers from learning that we harboured a monstrous predator from the depths of time in our stateroom. The heated cabin agreed with Hélène, which was a mixed blessing: as her health improved, she grew steadily less cooperative with our efforts to keep her quiet. Toward the end of the passage, Holmes and I were delirious with lack of sleep and had sunk to telling ever-more-shocking lies about the screeching emanating from our cabin. I learned later that the stories I told blatantly contradicted Holmes', and yet no one took us to account for it. I shudder to think what might have happened if the Friesland's officers had been less scrupulously courteous about our apparent madness.
The morning of our scheduled arrival in New York, in the small hours when no one was awake save the night watch on the bridge and the stokers in the engine room, we roused Hélène from her sleep. Holmes herded her down the narrow passages to the deck, while she groggily moaned and protested her lot. I alternately ran ahead to turn aside any late-night wanderers and came back to give her a second target at which to vent her irritation.
We had spent days planning that dark-hours sojourn, but it still seemed a miracle when we gained the deck unobserved and without casualties. The Friesland was outfitted for both steam and sail; in a fit of pique with us, Hélène flew to the yardarm of the forward mast. She perched there, glaring down at us, while we spent the last hours before landfall at the rail, by turns standing watch and looking for the lights of New York.
While we waited, Holmes drew his pipe from his pocket, packed it, and lit it.
"Are you sure about this?" I asked him.
"It was only the Atlantic she couldn't manage on her own. For the rest, we're a liability. Forsyth didn't track her, he tracked us."
"Well, yes, but…"
Holmes looked at me and waited, drawing on his pipe.
"Maple White Land, Holmes! Dinosaurs and glyptodons and sea-monsters. Ape-men!"
"So you do want to see the wonders of South America."
I shrugged. "Don't you?"
"Everything comes to London, eventually. We've already seen the first pterodactyl. I imagine we'll see the rest, soon enough."
I snorted my disbelief. "You spent three years gallivanting the world."
"No, I spent three years herding sheep, tracking Moriarty and trying to keep from drawing him down on you and Mrs Hudson." He held out his pipe for me. "Do you honestly not recognise this?"
"Of course I do. It's the one you nicked from the display." It still smarted that he had snuck in and out of Baker Street, without a single word to us, while he was pretending to be dead.
"None of those pipes in your little display were mine, I've only ever had the one. Which you didn't put on display, I note. I assume you hid it away somewhere, to keep light-fingered sightseers from making off with it."
I hemmed, not wanting to admit that it was in my bureau. I had considered sneaking it back into his room after his return to Baker Street, but the embarrassment inherent in Holmes noticing its reappearance — and then deducing where it had been in the interim — was too great. It seemed I needn't have fussed myself; he had known its whereabouts all along.
"I could buy a pipe nearly anywhere in the world, John. Tell me, why would I go through the trouble of taking one from Baker Street?"
I looked at the pipe again. It had originally been mine. Of the several I had sacrificed for the display, it had once been my favourite. Perhaps I need not have felt quite so embarrassed about keeping his own pipe for myself.
"Watson. Baker Street is my Maple White Land."
I glanced up at Hélène. She had given up glaring at us and stared fixedly out to sea. We had come far enough west that she looked to the south, now.
"And you, Watson? If you wish to see the wonders of Maple White Land…" He glanced up at Hélène. "It's not too late."
I had already seen three continents, and two of them had brought me nothing but grief. In a few minutes I would glimpse a fourth. I had no burning desire to seek a newer world, and even less desire to set myself against murderers like Forsyth simply for the prize of laying eyes upon an iguanodon before they did.
The sky was just beginning to lighten. We would be able to see the mainland soon, if we were near enough.
"It's enough to know that iguanadons live somewhere," I said. "I don't need to see them myself."
His grin was brilliant.
I was unable to keep from returning it. "And I'd hate to miss an ape-man in London because I was chasing a pterodactyl up the backwaters of the Amazon."
Holmes laughed. "We should take a different line back," he suggested.
"Mm," I agreed. "I'd rather not be here when they see what Hélène did to that cabin."
I wrapped my battered coat around myself. We stood together in the dawn, he and I, our backs to the rail, and waited for the moment when Hélène would spread her wings and fly.