Part I: Sherrinford Hall
“Excuse me,” John said to the gnarled old man leading a plodding horse across the yard. “Can you tell me where to find Tobias Gregson?”
The old man stopped, considered John, and then appeared to ponder the question so long John wondered if he was deaf. Finally the man jerked a thumb over his stooped shoulder. “He’ll be around the back, in the paddock with the wee lasses.”
“Thank you,” John said and followed in the direction of the man’s vague thumb. Even so close to the stables the air smelled sweet, fresh with lilacs and spring flowers. The paddocks were well maintained to John’s eye, but he saw no small girls. He headed for a burly man leaning against a fence, watching three prancing yearlings. As John came closer, he realized the horses were all fillies. Ah. Wee lasses, indeed.
The man looked up, his weather beaten face open and cheerful. “Aye?”
“I’m John Watson. From the Chase?”
“Oh, aye!” The man shook John’s hand. “We thought you’d wire ahead—we’d have sent a gig for you to the station.”
“No need, I enjoyed the walk. Beautiful country around here.”
“It is that. The walk wasn’t…”
“I can walk and ride fine, as long as I needn’t gallop too long—it was my shoulder that was broken. But my racing days are done. I can’t hold the position anymore, there was some damage to my leg too.”
“What horse were you riding?”
“Lancer,” John said shortly. “He had to be put down.” The memory of Lancer screaming was the worst part of the ordeal, a nightmare that still haunted his sleep.
Gregson’s eyes were shrewd. “Hurt worse than the shoulder, I’ll wager.”
“You look a mite young to be racing. How old are you?”
“Fourteen. Old enough to manage a horse, young enough to train up if your ways are different.”
Gregson laughed. “You’re a sharp lad,” he said approvingly. “I doubt you’ve learned bad habits at Sir Willoughby’s stables. Lovely racehorses he has…d’you know Moonlight?”
“Oh yes. He’s enjoying his retirement now, fat and happy in the pastures…we just had a colt of his born a few weeks ago, out of Lady Jane.”
“That’ll make a champion one day. We’ve one of his fillies here, can you pick her out?”
John dropped his bag to climb up on the fence. He considered the three young horses, all long legs and pricked ears, coats glossy in the warm spring sunshine. He held his hands out and looked to Gregson for permission. “Can I?” At Gregson’s nod, he clapped his hands together and shouted “Hah!” The fillies broke into a scatter of movement, tossing their heads and galloping about until they lost interest.
“That one,” John said promptly. “The bay. The way she picks up her feet? Beautiful gait on her.”
Gregson clapped him on the back so hard John almost fell off the fence. “Got it in one! All right, you can stay.”
John looked startled and Gregson laughed again. “You’d be staying anyway, but I’m glad the Chase hasn’t sent us a fool. Come on, let me show you around.”
They walked over the practice yards and stables, Gregson introducing John to everyone they met.
“We don’t raise racehorses here, mostly hunters, and the carriage horses, of course. His Lordship isn’t much for riding anymore, he’s getting on in years. The young Lord, Mycroft, he rides out for the hunt, but not much otherwise. They stay in London a lot of the year now, his Lordship’s in the government. The younger son, young Master Sherlock, he’s the rider. Loves a fast mount. Takes after his mother, God rest her soul.”
“So the family’s not here now?”
“No. Won’t be in residence for another month or so, probably.”
This was fine with John. Sir Willoughby had been one thing, a rich old bachelor who loved his horses more than his daily bread, but the Earl of Sherrinford and his family sounded a different matter altogether.
Gregson led John back to the cluster of buildings and through a low door into a long, cheerful room, with a fireplace at one end and a stove at the other. A woman and a girl a year or so younger than John sat at a large table, peeling potatoes.
“My missus, who does for us, and my girl Annie, to whom you’re never to speak,” Gregson said.
Annie rolled her eyes at John. “As if he would,” she said. “The only way a girl would be noticed at this table would be if she had four legs and a mane.”
John grinned back. It was true enough for his part—he’d yet to meet a girl who made his heart pick up the way a fine horse did.
“You’ll spend a lot of time here, evenings and winters,” Gregson said. “The other unmarried grooms and the gardeners have their quarters upstairs, but you’re the newest and youngest, so you’ll be replacing Young Tom in the stables.”
“Fair enough,” John said cheerfully. It was usual for someone to sleep in the barn, in case of fire or emergency. At Willoughby Chase he had spent his first two years bunking with the other stableboys in the hayloft.
The stables were well enough—not as extensive as those at the Chase, but airy and clean. A very tall young man leading a gray mare stopped and said, “Ah, you’ll be the lad from the Chase.”
“John Watson,” John said, offering his hand.
“Tom Abbot—everyone calls me Young Tom.” Young Tom had a pleasant, narrow face, and a slight cast to one eye.
“I’ll be taking your bed out here, I’m told?”
“Right you are—Young Tom, show him where to go, I’ll take Circe. My knees aren’t up to those ladders anymore.” Gregson took the lead rope and Young Tom pointed John to a ladder at the far end of the barn.
John was expecting a corner in the hay with a blanket roll, but as he reached the loft he saw a whitewashed door a few steps in. “That’s it, push the door open,” Tom said behind him.
The room was tiny—barely room for a narrow bed, small chest, and some hooks on the wall—and the ceiling sloped sharply, but the small windows set into the walls made it bright and cheery. John blinked at the quilts and pillow, the cozy rug, the lacy patterns of the furling baby leaves on the chestnut outside the east window. “All by myself?”
“Everyone else is just there at the house, and there’s a bell in case of fire,” Young Tom said reassuringly.
“No, I don’t mind, it’s lovely! I never thought of a whole room.” John had been born and raised in a one-room cottage, and even after graduating from the hayloft had shared a chamber at Sir Willoughby’s with three other boys. He had never even had a bed to himself, let alone a bedroom.
“Oh, I know what you mean. It’s lovely and quiet here, that’s sure—no snoring, no farting…”
“…no elbows in your back,” John said wryly. And no one to hear him if he had nightmares, he thought.
“And no one taking all the blankets—that was my brothers,” Tom agreed. “You’re right, I’d quite miss the place if only I could stand upright in here. It’s better suited for you, I think, no offense meant.” It was true that Young Tom could not straighten up even at the doorway, and he would be bent double by the window.
John laughed. “I’ll be snug as a mouse in a nest.” He dropped his bag at the foot of the bed. “Let me help you carry your things over, then you can show me the tack room.”
Tea at the big kitchen was lively and cheerful. John was the youngest, but most of the grooms and several of the gardeners were close to his own age, and were a boisterous lot in spite of their long day’s work. John made sure to compliment Mrs. Gregson’s cooking, which was excellent.
“It’s a treat to find peas and lettuces on the table,” he said. “We won’t have them for a while yet back home.”
“What’s it like there?” Annie asked, so John told them about the tiny village, the long winters and treeless moors.
“Have you had much of the trouble there?” Young Tom asked, looking up from his plate. “We heard it was worse, in the north.”
“More so in the cities, I think,” John answered. “The ladies that were taken up and, er, mistreated—that was in Blastburn, or maybe York. We’ve had not trouble in the countryside, nor likely to, I should think. Sir Willoughby’s a fair master and a just lord; there’s none with cause to complain. My father died in a barn fire a few years ago and Sir Willoughby let my mother stay on in the cottage, rent free, until we were grown.”
“Not many would,” one of the gardeners, Len, said. “My own mother was turned out when my father died.”
“But if the reforms were passed,” said Young Tom, “then your mother would have been entitled to the widow’s mite by law, and not dependent on the charity of the lord.”
“I didn’t know that.” Len looked up in surprise. “I thought the reforms were all about schools.”
“You hear that most, around here,” Gregson said, “but that’s because of the Earl—his Lordship is a leader of the reform movement, he’s behind the Schools Act,” he explained to John.
John nodded politely. He had little interest in politics, but of course if his employer was a supporter, then John was too.
“Don’t hold with it,” Old Tom said unexpectedly. “I’m a horse man. God made me a horse man. I was born a horse man, I’ll die a horse man, and sending me to school and making a scholar or a parson out of me would have just made me a…horse man in a collar.”
“I’d go to your church, Reverend Tom,” Danny, another of the young gardeners, said seriously.
“Why’s that,” Old Tom said suspiciously.
“Short sermons,” Danny said and John laughed with the rest. He had seen already that Old Tom was parsimonious with his speech.
“I don’t know about that,” Gregson said, leaning back amiably. “I feel much the same, but I was born to the work. Maybe if I’d been born in Plymouth I’d think I was a seaman instead of a horseman. What about you, John? Were you brought up with horses?”
“Oh, I was bred to the stable,” John said seriously. “My father wanted to be a jockey all his life, but he grew too tall and it broke his heart. So he traveled the country delivering horses for Sir Willoughby until he found the smallest girl in England and married her, so he’d be sure to have a short son. So he always said, anyway.” Everyone laughed again, and he smiled too, but he felt the sting of bitterness in the story now. Was his father disappointed in him, up in heaven?
Mrs. Gregson tactfully changed the subject, asking the gardeners about the spring planting. The meal ended and the men settled around the table, cleaning boots, reading the newspapers, or playing checkers. John watched for a while, but it had been a long walk and a longer day. He soon excused himself.
Up in his new room, John climbed into bed alone for the first time in his life. He stretched experimentally, savoring the freedom to sleep in any position he chose, sprawling out over the bed. Within a few minutes, though, he found himself curled onto his side, staring wakefully into the dim room. The walls did not go all the way to the ceiling, so he could hear the horses’ soft rustlings below, mice scurrying in the hay, but the stable still seemed too quiet. The bed felt big and empty. For the first time in years he felt the ache of the empty space at his side, the absence where Emmy had always curled under his arm.
There was a soft thump and John looked up, unsure where the sound had come from. He saw nothing out of place, but a minute later he heard a small sound—prrrp—and felt a second thump by his feet. A barn cat. She sniffed John’s blanket, picked her way delicately over his legs, and finally settled behind him, curled up into the backs of his knees. A loud rumbling purr rose.
John smiled. He could just see that the cat was a ginger, with white face and tail, fluffy and plump on barn mice. Emmy had been a redhead too. Her hair had been the brightest in the village, the brightest thing in John’s life.
“Did my sister send you?” John asked the cat. “It’s just the kind of thing she would do.” He pictured Emmy, as he supposed, in a white gown and wings, looking down at her homesick brother, deciding that what he needed was a cat. “Tell her thank you for me,” John told the cat gravely. The cat purred. John tucked himself more comfortably under the blankets and closed his eyes, still smiling. He still felt the awful burden of his empty life, a life without racing, but the bed felt warm and cozy now. His room was not quite so empty.
Over the next several weeks, John found himself gradually settling in. Mr. Gregson was kind, if a firm taskmaster; the other lads were friendly; the grounds of Sherrinford Hall lovely—the parks where he rode the horses more beautiful than any he had seen in the north. He was content enough, he supposed, but it was a dull quiet life, nothing to the excitement of racing. And no matter how hard he rode and worked during the day his sleep remained fragmentary, broken all too often by dreams of pain and fear and Lancer’s distant screams.
One drizzly and dreary morning John stumped to the kitchen feeling dull and gloomy, only to find everyone in an unexpected uproar.
“What’s up?” he asked Young Tom.
“The family comes back today. Don’t you remember? Mr. Gregson’s in a state because he says we didn’t get the carriage shined up properly yesterday.”
John had been working with the colts, and had been missed carriage duty. “Can I help?”
“Ah.” Young Tom waved the offer away. “He’s never satisfied til he goes over it himself. Do you want to go along to town? They’ll need a wagon for all the luggage, and lads to load it. We always go early so there will likely be time for a pint. You’ve only been the once.”
John was tempted. Sherrinford town, with its high street and shops, seemed a bustling metropolis to him, but his family needed his wages and he would need new boots come winter. “Best not, but thanks,” he said. “Next night off I’ll go to the pub with you though. I want to walk Circe a bit today anyway, she’s favoring that right foreleg.”
“All right then.” Tom drained his tea and sighed as Gregson bellowed from the doorway. “I’d best get to it, it’s never a good sign when he turns red in the face like that.”
The drizzle had turned to full-on hard rain by the time the carriage and wagon returned in the afternoon, mud spattered halfway up the freshly polished sides. John saw the entourage from the where he was riding and hurried back to the barn, knowing the wet horses would need to be rubbed down. He had just pulled out a pile of pleasantly horsey-smelling blankets when Young Tom appeared, drenched to the skin and leading the carriage horses.
“You look like you need this more than the horses,” John said. “Go over to the house and get dried off—Old Tom will be along in a minute and we’ll take care of them.”
“Ta. It’s really pissing down right now, I’m glad the footmen have charge of the luggage.” Tom shook himself like a dog, spraying water everywhere, and handed the reins to John. “Let me just get some dry breeches on and I’ll be back in a jiff.”
John got the bridles off and the halters on, draping one horse with a blanket while he went to work on the other. Old Tom appeared, grumbling, just as Ned brought in the wagon horses, every bit as soaked as Young Tom had been. Mr. Gregson appeared in the doorway, looking wet and harassed, and said, “Where’s Young Tom? We need to get the carriage—oh, I beg your pardon, my Lord.”
John looked up. Standing just outside the barn door was a tall, impeccably dressed young man holding a large umbrella, which he lifted courteously to cover them both as he said politely, “May I have a word, Gregson?”
“Of course, m’Lord,” Gregson said. This must be Lord Sherlock, the rider, thought John, arranging for a mount the next day. “Optimistic of him,” he muttered, rubbing at the horse’s mane as he glanced at the rain sluicing past the barn door.
Gregson came back inside, wiping rain from his eyes, “John—oi, where have you been?”
“Dry trousers,” Young Tom said succinctly as he ducked inside. “I’ll take him, Ned, you change now—sir, Davy says can you come to the carriage house, he thinks the wagon’s loosed an axle.”
“Blast it,” Gregson muttered, going red again.
By teatime man and beast alike were dry and warm and spirits had risen considerably. There was a great deal of gossip about the family, most of it secondhand from the house servants. John, whose acquaintance did not stretch past seeing an indistinct wet clutch of aristocrats making for the front door, could not muster much enthusiasm, but everyone else took a lively interest. One of the lords, or maybe more than one, looked well; one seemed pale; someone had yet another new tutor; and there was general pleasure that some cousin or other would not be joining the party until later.
“I’m glad this is letting up,” Young Tom said, looking out at the rain, which had once again slowed to a misty drizzle. “Lord Sherlock will ride fair weather or foul tomorrow and we just got all that mud cleaned up in the stables.”
“Right,” Gregson said, looking up. “John—“
“Sir, I’m sorry I meant to tell you earlier, Circe’s got a limp,” John said. Circe was the fastest of the riding horses, and he assumed she would be Lord Sherlock’s first choice. “I just walked her today, but she’s still favoring it. I’ve put a poultice on and I think she ought to rest a few days. I’ll be changing the poultice after tea, if you want to take a look for yourself.”
“No need. You’ve got a good eye for an injury,” Gregson said and John felt himself flush with surprised pleasure. He had always taken care to learn all he could about tending to the horses when they were sick or lame, but hadn’t realized Gregson had noticed.
“We’ll need the farrier out soon anyway—Leviathan’s got a shoe loose now,” said Davy, and Gregson groaned.
“Oh, by the—“ he cut himself off at Mrs. Gregson’s disapproving glare. “—blessed St. Eligius. Lads, if there’s any more trouble, save it until tomorrow unless it’s life or death, all right? It’s enough to drive a man to drink.”
The rain had all but stopped when John went to Circe’s stall, hanging the lantern carefully so that he could see her foreleg. The poultice seemed to be irritating her, but he saw no swelling, so he cleaned off the leg and put on a clean bandage. Then he leaned against the wall and let her nibble sugar lumps from his palm.
“Is this my life from now on?” John asked the horse. “Mucking out stalls, bandaging forelegs, talking to horses and cats?” He sighed. “I don’t know, girl. There’s plenty would say I don’t know my own good fortune—room and board and good wages, I know I’m luckier than most, but…nothing ever happens to me. Not anymore. Is this all there will ever be?” Circe nuzzled at his palm, snuffling for more sugar, and John stroked her soft nose. “Well, that’s all the sugar there will be, for tonight, anyway.” Circe huffed. “Spoilt lassie,” John said with affection. “Go have a nice sleep now, it’s the low pasture for you tomorrow.”
Even a glimpse of the stars in the east could not cheer John from his gloom as he climbed to his loft. So it would be clear tomorrow, so what? Another dull day. He tucked himself into his bed and thought again nothing ever happens to me as Emmy’s cat leapt happily down and tucked herself into his legs.
John woke abruptly, in the pale gray dimness of too-far-before-dawn. Something had woken him, but he did not know what. A horse, took sick? He sat up to listen.
Down below, in the stable, he heard a soft, human-sounding chirrup, followed by the slow clopping of hooves. Someone was taking a horse out of its stall, John thought with sleep-fuddled astonishment. What on earth? Sir Willoughby had never had guards—Willoughby Chase’s isolation made them unnecessary—but John knew the big racing stables down south feared theft. The Earl’s horses, however, though fine, were hardly in a class to tempt horse thieves. Someone from the village? Mobs as they had heard of in the north, raiding aristocrats?
Well, there was only one way to find out. John considered ringing the fire bell, but that would rouse the whole estate, and might be a bit excessive if this just turned out to be a village lad on a dare. As quietly as possible, John slipped into his clothes and boots and leaned out over the ladder. No one in sight. No lights either—whoever was down there did not want to be seen. He quickly nipped down the ladder, grabbed a pitchfork, and crept along the center aisle, eyes wide and already adjusted to the dim light. Halfway down he spotted an empty stall: Circe’s. John set his jaw.
At the crossway in the center of the stable John came to Circe, cross-tied and waiting patiently, but no one else was in sight. Circe nosed at John in the hope of more sugar. “Shh,” John whispered, looking over his shoulder just as someone came out of the tack room carrying a saddle. A very small someone. “What do you think you’re doing?” John said loudly.
The boy jumped so hard he almost dropped the saddle. He was wearing a very shabby coat and hat that were far too big for him, and he had to tip his chin up to look at John from under the brim. “I am going for a ride,” he said haughtily. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Stopping you,” John said, planting the pitchfork.
“You are not,” the boy said indignantly. “That’s my horse!”
“That’s my Lord the Earl’s horse. Who might you be?” In spite of the coat and hat this was clearly no villager—his accent was far too posh. A guest?
“I’m Sherlock Holmes. Who are you?”
“You’re not either. I’ve seen Lord Sherlock, and you’re not him. And you mean to tell me that’s a lord’s coat?”
“It’s a disguise!”
“What’s going on?” Gregson pushed through the small barn door. “Ah, Master Sherlock. I had a feeling you might be here.”
John’s jaw dropped. “This is Lord Sherlock? Then who were you talking to last night?”
“Lord Mycroft,” Gregson answered.
“Lord Mycroft,” repeated John in confusion, while Lord Sherlock said crossly, “What was Mycroft doing here?”
“Telling me your father’s orders. Which were that, after the kidnappings recently, you weren’t to ride out alone. And as I understand it your latest tutor doesn’t ride, so your father’s made it known that you’re not to go out without a groom to accompany you.”
“I don’t want a groom! I’ve a great deal of ground to cover today and I can’t be bothered with Old Tom holding me back and whinging that we have to get home or he’ll miss his luncheon. Anyway look, I’ve got a disguise—no one’s going to know who I am.” Lord Sherlock held out his arms to show his coat.
“Oh, that will fool everyone,” John said sarcastically. “If the kidnappers are too dim to notice the quality of your horse and saddle, they’ll still know you for an aristocrat the minute you open your mouth.”
Lord Sherlock frowned, momentarily distracted. “Do you think so? Maybe I should work on that.”
“Work on it all you like. You’re not going out alone,” Gregson said. “And you needn’t worry about being slowed down because I’m not sending Old Tom with you, I’m sending John.”
“What?” John and Lord Sherlock both said in unison, identically outraged.
“I’ll wager he can keep up,” Gregson said placidly. “And you’re not going out on that horse, either—she’s favoring her foreleg; I’m surprised you didn’t notice. You’re taking Blackbeard.”
“Blackbeard’s got fat! How am I supposed to escape from rampaging aristocrat-hating mobs on Blackbeard?”
“I’m a lot less worried about those mobs than I am about you giving John the slip. That will be a lot harder to manage on Blackbeard. Mind your manners, and you can have a faster mount next time.”
Sherlock looked mutinous. John felt much the same as he said, “But sir, I’ve got my duties, and Circe—“
“I wager I can manage those colts, and Circe’s likely to survive until you come back. “
“But…” John could think of no other ending to this sentence than the honest one, which was “I don’t want to spend the day nursemaiding a spoilt child,” which didn’t seem the wisest thing to say out loud. Judging by the glare Lord Sherlock shot him, he didn’t have to.
“What horse is John taking?” Sherlock demanded.
Sherlock opened his mouth in enraged fury, and John waited for him to fling the tack to the ground, threaten to tell his father, or at least stamp his foot. Instead—to John’s grudging respect—he blew out hard through his teeth, snapped “Fine,” and turned on his heel to stomp back into the tack room. He was actually going to put up Circe’s things, John realized in surprise.
“You go on over to the kitchen,” Gregson said to John. “Missus had a notion he would try to sneak out early, so she’s getting you some breakfast. Sorry I forgot to tell you last night.”
“I’ll get Hermes, and if Master Sherlock wants to roust decent folk out of their beds before sunrise, he can tack his own horse.”
“Oh,” John said, casting desperately for a last minute argument that would save him from this chore and failing utterly. “Yes, sir.”
Mrs. Gregson was just taking the kettle up when John came in. “Ah, he tried to slip off, didn’t he? I thought as much. Thank goodness you caught him, John, Lord Sherrinford would be in a taking if he’d managed it.”
“I suppose,” John said, and then, feeling he sounded a bit churlish, “He’s a bit young to be going off on his own in any case, isn’t he? How old is he?”
“Oh, he’s twelve and a half now. Midwinter baby. Came early too, but it was a mild winter and all went well, that time.” She set a plate before John.
“Thank you,” John said, and then, “But not the next?”
“Too early again, and the childbed fever. My Lady and the baby both lost. A hard way to go; my own mother was the same.”
“My oldest sister too,” John said. Mary had been nine years older, more a parent than a sibling, but he had loved her and her death had nearly broken their mother’s heart, coming after their father and Emmy. “He’s rather little then, isn’t he? For twelve?”
“Oh, he’s always been delicate. Weak lungs, they say, though he’s always done well enough here in the country. He’ll grow tall in the end though, you mark my words—Lord Mycroft was just the same.” Mrs. Gregson brought a satchel over to the table. “Now, if I know Master Sherlock, he’ll be gone for hours with no thought to his own meal or anybody else’s, so I’ve put up enough bread and cheese for two, and there’s a bottle of ginger beer for a bit of a treat. Just for today, mind, don’t go expecting it every day.”
There was an impatient shout from outside. “John!”
Mrs. Gregson rolled her eyes fondly and put her hand out as John made to get up. “You finish your tea, he can wait another minute. I’ll just have a word with him about these silly tricks, waking us all up so early.” She bustled out as John sank back, clutching his mug and thinking with horror, every day?
The sun was just up when John made his way out with the satchel, making him squint up at where Sherlock was already perched impatiently on Blackbeard as though ready to lead troops into battle. He had done off with the ridiculous coat and hat and John saw him properly for the first time: the fine straight line of his back, his long neck and high cheekbones, the piercing grey-blue of his eyes. John’s chest gave a funny, squeezing clench. Lord Sherlock was…beautiful; there was no other word for it, as beautiful and proud as the finest Arabian John had ever seen. He realized abruptly that he was staring and flushed, turning to Hermes.
“Don’t let him run off,” Gregson muttered, handing John the reins.
“I heard that,” Lord Sherlock snapped. “I’ll have no reason to run off if John can actually keep up as you say, but I can’t be responsible if he doesn’t.”
“Oh, I can keep up with you,” John said, swinging himself easily into the saddle. “Let’s be off then.”
They kept to a walk up to the gate, where John waved to the porter, wondering how Lord Sherlock had planned to get past him if he made it out of the barn. He had no idea why they were leaving the grounds at all—Sherrinford Hall’s parkland seemed practically endless to John—and he assumed they were headed to town, so he was surprised when they reached the road and Lord Sherlock turned right.
“I assume I’m allowed to canter?” Lord Sherlock asked haughtily.
“Certainly,” John replied, and they were off. John felt his spirits rising with the sun. It was a beautiful day, he was out for a lovely long ride on a fine horse, someone else would have to muck his stalls, and his charge had not given him too much trouble. Yet. John had to admit that Gregson had been right: Lord Sherlock was an excellent rider, although he would be no match for John mounted on fat old Blackbeard. John almost hoped he did try to escape—it would be lovely to give chase.
They had gone only a few miles when Lord Sherlock stopped abruptly, slid off, and said, “Here—hold my horse,” and walked into the woods. John stood uncertainly, holding the reins. Was he trying to escape? He couldn’t get far around here on foot, surely. Perhaps he just wanted a piss. John was beginning to feel annoyed when Lord Sherlock reappeared and swung himself back in the saddle without a word of explanation, adjusting, John noticed for the first time, a satchel even bigger than John’s own. What was he up to?
“Keep up,” Lord Sherlock snapped and heeled his horse to take off again, not even waiting for John to mount. John cursed and flung himself back into the saddle, catching up easily as Sherlock continued along the same stretch of road.
Lord Sherlock stopped several more times. Once they had turned onto a smaller road and were out of the woods John could see what he was doing, although that didn’t make his actions any clearer: he seemed to be collecting dirt with a teaspoon, tipping it carefully into small envelopes and then making copious notes in a leather notebook. “What are you collecting?” John asked curiously.
“Soil samples,” Lord Sherlock snapped curtly, and that was the end of that discussion.
Eventually they came to a curve in the road in an area of gently rolling turf, meadows and pasture spreading in all directions. Lord Sherlock pulled his horse to a halt and turned, rather stiffly, to John. “I want to go to a pond—it’s about a mile away, that direction.” He pointed over the smooth grass. “You’ll see the trees around it when you get closer. I wish to gallop there, but I give you my word I will wait for you at the pond and not try to leave before you catch up.”
“You think you can beat me to this pond, do you?” John asked mildly.
Lord Sherlock looked taken aback. “Of course.”
“Well, only one way to find out,” John said. He wheeled around so he was next to Blackbeard and said, “On your mark…” He felt himself automatically falling into starting position, knees tight and hips raised, without the slightest twinge in his leg.
“One, two, three, go,” Lord Sherlock shouted and John shot forward like a rabbit startled from cover. He flew out over the grass, wind in his face and eyes streaming, all but laughing with the sheer joy of riding swift and smooth on a fast horse. He kept his eyes fixed on the direction of the pond, trusting Hermes to see to the ground, filled with the thrill of it, of racing, hearing his opponent’s hoofbeats fading behind as he…wait. That wasn’t good. If he got to the pond first Lord Sherlock was likely to be furious—aristocrats were always sore losers in John’s experience—and would make his life miserable. Or the whole thing could be a clever trick and Lord Sherlock was actually planning to peel off the second John was far enough ahead not to notice and take off in a completely different direction. Then everyone would make John’s life miserable. There was a small ridge up ahead, not likely to be steep, but John seized the chance to slow as though nervous about a drop. Lord Sherlock was by him in a flash, low and determined with his eyes narrowed against the wind, and John made a great show of shouting and haranguing at Hermes to catch up while keeping him back. Only when the copse of trees came into view did John dig in his heels, putting on a last burst of speed to arrive at the bank of the pond just a bare length behind Blackbeard.
John slid off Hermes, short of breath and grinning like a fool, only to be rounded on by Lord Sherlock in what looked to be a fine temper. “You let me win,” he accused.
“What?” John said, taken aback.
“You let me win. Don’t deny it, you’re a far better rider than I am, I saw it when we started out. But then you pulled back halfway through. It isn’t a fair race if you hold back.”
John was astonished. Of all the outcomes he was expected, it had never occurred to him that Lord Sherlock would be angry about winning the race, but here he was, clearly furious, blue eyes burning in his pale face. “Well,” he said fairly, “you’re quite a good rider yourself. If you’d been on Hermes and I’d been on Blackbeard, I think we’d have been quite evenly matched.”
Lord Sherlock’s face lit with inspiration. “We could switch on the way back!” Then it darkened again. “You won’t though, will you. You think I’ll run off.”
“This morning, perhaps, if you’d not let me canter, or you couldn’t keep up,” Lord Sherlock admitted. “But if you let me have Hermes for a race and I swore to switch back at the end, then of course I wouldn’t.”
“Well, let’s see in a bit,” John said. “These horses have earned a bit of a rest and I wouldn’t mind one myself. I’m going to take them around the other side where the bank slopes down and let them drink, and then find a good spot to tie them out. I’ll fetch you when I’m done, if you like?”
Lord Sherlock agreed to a break without fuss, so John led the horses around to the far side of the pond and took off their bridles, wiping them down and replacing them with rope halters. He took them down to the pond and let them drink, idly watching Lord Sherlock on the other shore; he now appeared to be tipping mud into a glass vial. John shook his head, thinking rich people, but without any real rancor. Lord Sherlock might be headstrong and rude, but John was coming to see that he was also clever, determined and honest, and spoke to John as though he were an equal. He was surprised to realize that he was actually looking forward to sitting with Lord Sherlock and sharing a meal--maybe he would find out what he meant to do with all the dirt. Their drink finished, John brought the horses up to a nice patch of grass. He liked this place: there was a fine sunny slope overlooking the pond, a tiny trickling stream for water, and a large inviting willow if the sun grew too hot.
As he set out to round the pond again John heard voices. He looked up, shading his eyes with his hand, and saw three boys making their way down the back. Village boys or farmers, John thought; they would likely recognize Lord Sherlock and keep going, but he was probably finished with his mud anyway. John set the satchel in the willow’s shade and followed after them, unnoticed.
John was cutting through the small stand of trees when the idle chatter suddenly stopped and one of the boys—the biggest, John thought—said, “Well, look who it is, Lord Freak. Playing in the mud now?”
“How charming to see you too, Daniel. Out thieving again?” Lord Sherlock drawled. There was absolutely no trace of nervousness in his voice. John groaned inwardly. Had the boy no sense at all? Perhaps he just trusted to his status to protect him. John began silently edging his way sideways through the trees, trying to circle around the village boys while still keeping them within earshot. “And you, Robert Moreland—skiving off school? Your mother thinks you’re there; she wouldn’t have packed you up that nice luncheon to get into trouble with Daniel Watts.”
“Don’t you talk about me mum,” a second voice snarled, and then a third, lower, said, “Come on, lads, let’s be off.”
“Kit?” Lord Sherlock said, surprised and suddenly uncertain. John stepped on a twig that snapped loudly underfoot and froze, but the little group down below showed no sign of hearing.
“Kit?” Daniel said, a jeering note in his voice now. “What, were you friends with Lord Freak, Christopher?”
“Course not,” the boy mumbled. John was almost behind them now. He saw the boy, skinny and towheaded, head down as though unwilling to look any of them in the eye. “Used to see him around when we lived on the grounds, is all.”
“Why aren’t you in school, Kit? You were clever. You wanted to go to school.” Lord Sherlock sounded more curious than dismayed: John couldn’t tell if the other boy’s denial had hurt him or not. “It’s your stepfather, isn’t it? He can’t abide the thought of you rising farther than he did, not that that would be hard, it’s a fairly low bar—“
“Shut up,” Kit snarled, his face now suffused with red.
Lord Sherlock hesitated, then plowed ahead. “Would you like me to talk to—“
Daniel sniggered and Kit said abruptly “I don’t want anything from you. I don’t need school anyway, everybody knows it’s just for nancy boys and pansies—“
John was far enough out now that he saw the brief flash of shocked hurt in Lord Sherlock’s eyes before his face went cold and aloof again. He turned away with a shrug, saying, “Go on then, at least you’ve made it easier when things go missing in this area later today. I would be careful in those boots though, Daniel, the prints will be even more distinctive than the last time you were caught. Did you try to mend them yourself? Rather a mistake, I should think. Funny, your brother always has new boots, do you think your father favors him because he’s so much more likeable than you are or because he knows you’re likely a bastard? You do realize it’s the worst kept—“
Daniel roared and threw himself at Lord Sherlock with such force that they both toppled into the pond. John sighed, cleared the trees, and leapt down the bank after them. Lord Sherlock came up swinging—he was no coward—but he was also no fighter, and Daniel knocked him down easily again before the other two boys reached them and hauled Lord Sherlock to his feet between them for Daniel to punch.
John jumped the rest of the way, landed behind Daniel, and tapped him on the shoulder. Everyone looked up as Daniel turned, and John hit him with a swift uppercut that knocked him into the water in turn.
“Is this how it’s done here?” John asked them. “Three against one, and all of you bigger? Doesn’t seem like a fair fight to me, but then I’m new in these parts.” Kit had already let go of Lord Sherlock and was edging away, but Robert was foolish enough to leap for John, so John knocked him down too. Daniel had got to his feet by that point and landed a lucky punch that split John’s lip, but then Lord Sherlock, still winded from getting struck repeatedly in the solar plexus, threw himself at Daniel’s knees and knocked all three of into the mud. John kicked out at Robert, who was getting to his feet again, and caught him in the jaw; he then dragged Daniel bodily up by his clothing and tossed him toward the bank. He was blazing with fury. “You want to pick a fight,” he shouted, “then go start one with someone your own size. Now GET OUT!”
They got out. John was left standing on the edge of the pond, wet, bleeding, and trembling with rage. He took several deep, calming breaths before looking around for Lord Sherlock, who was standing behind him knee-deep in the muddy water, wide-eyed with shock.
“Here, let me…” Lord Sherlock said, digging in his pocket, and before John realized what he was doing the Earl’s son had caught the back of his head and was pressing his own immaculate handkerchief to John’s lip.
John looked into that pale patrician face, a tiny crease between the clear bright eyes, and knew instinctively that Sherlock was every bit as lonely as he was himself. “All right,” he said, “Sherlock. But only when we’re alone, mind.”
“All right,” John said, pressing the cloth to his mouth. He had never held anything so fine, and it seemed almost a sacrilege to soil it with his blood. The linen was as smooth as paper. “Listen, I’ve got bread and cheese in my bag over there. What do you say we have a rest and some luncheon?”
They ate in companionable silence, swapping the ginger beer bottle back and forth, watching the horses graze and the lazy lapping of the water in the pond. They had spread their jackets out to dry and when they finished John lay down on his stomach to dry his backside, closing his eyes and dozing in the sun. When he woke, he cracked one eye to see Sherlock lying next to him, chin propped on his left hand as he made more notes.
John stretched and yawned, rolling to his right side to face Sherlock. He was curious about the notebook, but wasn’t sure if it was something he should ask about. “Why was that boy Daniel so rude to you? I mean, before you started insulting his mother.”
“Oh.” Sherlock looked over as though he had forgotten John was there. “Last fall someone stole chickens from old Widow Turner. The thief had climbed through a small window and there was a band of gypsies camping on the green at the time, so suspicion fell on them and some of the children were actually arrested. Which was ridiculous, as there were clear footprints at the chicken coop made by someone wearing muddy boots, and of course the gypsy children had no shoes. I explained this to the inspector, but he wasn’t inclined to listen to me, especially as he and his men had trampled the coop so thoroughly that no footprints remained to be seen. Fortunately, there was a clear print on the windowsill and some of the mud had dried. When I looked at the mud through my magnifying glass, I could see there were bits of chaff and flour caught in it.” He paused and looked at John expectantly.
“Exactly! You’re far cleverer than the inspector, although he did get there eventually. I identified Daniel as the most likely suspect--he lives at the mill, he was the right size to fit through the window--well, he was then--and had already displayed character traits that seemed consistent with someone who would rob an old lady and let innocent children take the blame. His boots were a match, and the gypsy children were released. Daniel never went to jail himself. I’m not sure if the inspector was more likely to be merciful to the son of someone he likes to share a pint with, or if he knew Daniel’s father would thrash him so thoroughly he would have preferred to go to jail. We weren’t exactly friends before anyway,” he added. John rather thought it had been a different story with the boy Kit, but it might be a bit of a sore subject.
“Course.” John sat up. Sherlock looked like he wouldn’t top six stone if you threw in his saddle, but he was fierce, and he might actually be able to hold his own with a few pointers. “But you have to tell me how you knew all those things you said earlier when you made them angry. Not that they didn’t deserve it--I heard the whole thing, that Daniel lout definitely started it. But how did you know?”
Sherlock considered him a minute, eyes half closed against the brightness of the sun, then pushed himself up to sit cross-legged in front of John. “All right,” he said. “You come from the north, obviously, but not more than half a day’s journey by train. Your father is dead--the knife you used was his, the initials are the same but it’s too old to have been yours first, so you were the eldest son and it came to you on his death. Your mother is still alive, judging by the care and the skill of the person who mended your clothes and embroidered your handkerchief, but she lives with your elder sister now and you don’t get on with your sister. You were a jockey, trained for years, but you suffered a fall in a race and were injured. The interesting thing is that the more severe wound was to your shoulder, hardly career-ending for a jockey, but you gave up racing because of your leg injury. But. You limped back at the stable and favored that leg in the saddle when we started out, but when we raced you braced both legs equally and when you came to my rescue earlier you showed no limp at all. It’s not the injury that really ended your racing career, it’s the guilt, over what? Oh, of course, the horse. He had to be put down, didn’t he.” He stopped, out of breath, and raised his eyebrows.
John lay back on the grass and closed his eyes, feeling the sun warm on his face. He thought about it for a while. Would he go back? No. Maybe the guilt did underlie the injury, but the guilt was real. He had put the race ahead of his horse, and Lancer had paid the price. He could never go back to that again. But it was astonishingly freeing to realize that Sherlock was right--his leg had not pained him since the moment they set out on their race. He was not a cripple trapped in a job he had got mostly through charity--he could do something else, maybe even join the army in a few years, see something of the world. He was truly finished with the life he thought he would have. It was time to look to the future, a future that seemed much brighter than it had last night. For the first time in months, John realized, he felt truly alive.