When Sherlock was born, people knew he was different. Not due to any sort of action on his part, but merely because his mother was a witch.
Grayson Holmes had very little patience with that attitude. Yes, his wife was a witch, but his children were more than just their parentage. And if some of the nurses and doctors in the hospital had been conspicuously absent when he was walking the corridors with his son in his arms in an effort to stop him crying...well, that was their problem, not his.
And right now, all his attention went to the small bundle in his arms. Sherlock had drifted off to sleep again, his dæmon curled up on his tiny chest, currently in the form of a baby rat, still blind and mostly hairless.
Grayson smiled and bent down so Samieyah could look at the baby. His dæmon had been reduced to waddling awkwardly at his side, as there wasn't enough room in the hallway for an osprey to fly comfortably.
“They're so tiny,” she whispered, before using her beak to tug the edge of the blanket further over the little rat dæmon.
As quietly as he could, Grayson made his way back to his wife's room, to find his elder son was sitting up on the bed with her, tucked under one arm. Their dæmons were on the bedstead, his wife's owl dæmon perched next to Mycroft's Tehayla, who was currently in the form of a swift.
He handed Sherlock over, and tried to ignore the way the back of his neck prickled as a nurse glanced surreptitiously into the room, as though afraid they were planting explosives.
It was far from unknown for witches to fall in love with men and have children, but it could hardly be called commonplace, either. Some (stupid, superstitious) people even thought that the children of witches were somehow cursed – there were more than a few children at school who avoided Mycroft like he was carrying a deadly virus. It made Grayson both sad and angry to think his sons might have to endure that kind of prejudice all their lives, but at the moment that thought was only the barest tickle in the back of his mind.
His son would be extraordinary, Grayson knew, and his family would only be a small part of that.
When John was born, he was nothing particularly remarkable. Average size, average weight, arrived neither late nor prematurely, and his mother's labour was as straightforward as a textbook.
When Harry was called in to see her new brother he was already asleep, one chubby hand resting on his dæmon, curled up in his blanket as a newborn puppy.
Harry's first thought was that both people and dæmons were ugly as newborns, a thought which was fully supported by Saphelon, who had made herself a mouse so as to be quiet and unobtrusive. Harry had been curious about John's dæmon, wondering if, like her, he had a dæmon that was the same sex as himself.
Unfortunately, no – Amarisa was female, much to Harry's disappointment. She didn't even take any interesting shapes, preferring to spend most of her time sleeping, only waking up to nose feebly at John's hand when he was being fed.
John didn't do anything interesting, either. He didn't scream when he woke up, only blinked open his eyes and peered around at the world with a sort of dim curiosity. There were no birthmarks, no weird defects...
As baby brothers went, John was actually rather boring.
Mycroft had accepted that there would be some people who disliked him purely because his mother was a witch. There would also be people who were in awe of him, and those who simply did not care one way or the other.
Mycroft would have preferred to associate solely with the latter two categories, but the world being what it was (full of dull, ignorant people), that did not happen. But he'd learned to be polite to those people in spite of their prejudice, because allies – however tentative they were – were always useful.
Sherlock, however, did not seem to grasp that concept.
Unlike Mycroft, who did not advertise his heritage, Sherlock seemed to take a strange glee in announcing that he was a witch's son whenever he could. Mycroft had seen his brother's so-called peers as their eyes widened and they made excuses to leave Sherlock's company, Sherlock and Raniel watching them go with a kind of fierce triumph.
Like just this afternoon, when a nice family outing to the beach had taken a downturn when Sherlock had disappeared. Mycroft found him fifteen minutes later, terrorising a small collection of cousins with boasts of his abilities to put a curse on them, Raniel at his side in the form of a dragon.
Mycroft had intervened, dragging his brother off by the collar of his shirt as Tehayla – who had settled as a raven one year ago, when Mycroft was thirteen – swooped at Raniel, pecking and harrying him along the way.
“We weren't hurting them,” Sherlock muttered resentfully.
Raniel had given up snapping at Tehayla and had changed into a small adder with red scales, fleeing into Sherlock's sleeve to escape.
“We just wanted to see what they'd do...” came the dæmon's plaintive mutter.
Mycroft sighed, pausing in his stride for a moment to let Tehayla land on his shoulder, her small claws digging into the weave of his shirt to anchor her there.
“Sherlock, you cannot announce Mummy's identity or claim fictitious powers simply because having people both frightened and in awe of you is somehow amusing. I'm certain Father has discussed this with you. Also, for future reference, you might want to avoid having people in authority see Raniel take such a shape again.”
Though really, Mycroft hadn't been surprised. Raniel was always taking strange, obscure forms; if he deigned to change into an ordinary animal it would either be an albino form or possess a similarly striking colour variant. Hence, the ruby red adder that was now peeking his head from beneath Sherlock's collar.
Both Sherlock and his dæmon played up their strangeness at every opportunity, almost as though they enjoyed being pariahs.
“Why?” Sherlock asked. “Don't people have mythical animals as dæmons?”
“It's usually an indicator of insanity,” Mycroft said, making his tone as rude and condescending as possible.
As expected, Sherlock bristled. “And you know everything about dæmons, is that it?”
“No, but I know enough.”
Once Tehayla had settled, Mycroft had read up all he could about dæmons; what certain forms could indicate about people, what the frequency of physical contact between human and dæmon could tell you...even how verbal the dæmon was could tell you a lot of things about their human.
“Well?” Sherlock folded his arms. “Go on then, what's the most common type of dæmon?”
“Mammals and birds predominate by a slim margin, though it is not yet clear why. The central theory is that mammals and birds are simply physiologically closer to humans than insects, reptiles, amphibians or fish, and so our dæmons are more likely to take one of those forms.”
“Does that include witches?”
Tehayla laughed, and Mycroft gave him a patronising glance. “Of course it does not include witches. All witches' dæmons are birds; including them would have skewed the data.”
“So, including witches, birds would be the most common dæmon,” Sherlock said, with a pointed glance at Tehayla.
Mycroft knew Sherlock was trying to imply that they were common, but wouldn't let himself be baited.
“What about people like me and Raniel?”
“Raniel and me,” Mycroft corrected. “Approximately ten percent of the population have dæmons of the same sex as themselves.”
“What about Samieyah?” Sherlock asked, referring to their father's dæmon. “Ospreys are meant to be brown and white, but she's white and gold.”
“Dæmons displaying colour variants are seen in close to six percent of the population.”
“Raniel displays colour variants all the time,” Sherlock announced.
Mycroft nodded agreeably. “Yes, but that is largely because he hasn't settled yet – if you remember, Tehayla was fond of taking colour variant forms before she settled.”
Sherlock scowled. “Could someone have a mule for a dæmon? Or a liger?”
“Hybrid dæmons are extremely rare, Sherlock – they manifest in less than one percent of the population. If you're trying to ask me what I think Raniel will settle as, there are easier ways to go about it.”
Sherlock turned away, huffing. Raniel slithered out onto Sherlock's shoulder and took the form of a small cat with blue fur, hissing indignantly up at Tehayla.
Mycroft sighed again. But as Sherlock was still walking alongside him, heading back to their parents, he refrained from commenting.
John continued to be, by and large, a pretty ordinary brother – sure, he got good grades, but he was hardly a genius, and while he did well at sports he was never going to represent the nation – but that was okay, because Harry knew their family were pretty ordinary to begin with. The most exciting thing about them was that she was a lesbian, and she took pride in being the one to bring a bit of a spark to an otherwise forgettable household.
Except she couldn't help but notice that for all John seemed average and forgettable, Amarisa wasn't. Most people's dæmons took on the forms of other dæmons or animals they'd seen, and Harry had thought it was pretty exciting when Saphelon had ended up settling as a spotted salamander when they were twelve, something they'd only seen twice in wildlife documentaries.
But Amarisa...Amarisa changed into forms Harry had never even heard of before. She'd once spent three days as some kind of bizarre, spotted cat-like thing that Harry had only later learned was a civet. Then it had been an eagle, then a cobra, an hyena, a bird-eating spider...
Amarisa shifted when the situation called for it in the meantime, of course. Changing into a mouse when they were playing hide-and-seek and it was John's turn to hide. Becoming a sparrow and hopping from branch to branch when John climbed a tree. Taking on the shape of a fish when John went swimming at Brighton.
Except the shapes Amarisa was truly attached to, the ones she kept for days on end...they were always predators, always dangerous creatures, though occasionally she also became a dog.
“Do you think she'll settle as a dog?” Harry asked her brother once as they watched television, Amarisa stretched over John's feet in the form of a St. Bernard.
John frowned, looking down at his dæmon. “Don't think so. Why'd you ask?”
As he spoke, Amarisa rose and leapt onto the couch beside him, snuggling in under his arm. Then, as though purely to defy Harry's question, she changed into a lynx.
Harry couldn't deny it was a little eerie. John was supposedly to be the normal one, the ordinary one – she and Saphelon were the weird ones in the family, the exciting ones.
She told herself it didn't mean anything. That in spite of Amarisa's fondness for wild, dangerous shapes, there was no reason for her to settle as one. Harry knew John was far more likely to have a dog for a dæmon.
At least, she hoped.
Raniel and Sherlock took pride in being able to make people uncomfortable. In Sherlock's case, with his words and general bearing. In Raniel's, with a variety of unnatural and disconcerting shapes.
So Raniel settling when Sherlock was ten was something of a disappointment, along with being a surprise. Disappointing because now he couldn't take the forms of mythical animals any more (it was always interesting to make the teachers think they had mental problems), and surprising because Sherlock had always assumed Raniel would settle as a bird. Of course, just because a member of your family's dæmon took a certain form didn't mean yours would too, but every member of Sherlock's family had a bird dæmon. Mycroft's Tehayla was a raven, Father's Samieyah was an osprey, and of course Mummy's Nostrepheus was an owl because all witches dæmons were birds.
Raniel, however, was a European polecat which, in spite of the name, was actually a form of ferret. Mustela putorius, to be precise, and they believed in always being precise. He couldn't take any of his more outlandish forms any more – he'd never turn into a rainbow-scaled cobra again, for example – but the polecat was striking enough, along with the fact that Raniel's final form was an albino, complete with pure white fur and pink-tinged eyes.
People seemed to consider polecats ugly, thought them vicious, and popular opinion held that having a ferret dæmon was something to be ashamed of, that it somehow represented trickery and deceitfulness.
Which, truth be told, suited Sherlock just fine. Most people were idiots, too blind and self-centred to just open their eyes and pay attention to the world around them, and every time he came into contact with people 'his own age' he always found himself desperate to slip away on the off-chance their stupidity actually was contagious. He played on their fears, insisting he'd put curses on them and their dæmons if they didn't leave him be, and had been satisfied when he remained alone. A dæmon that had settled as a polecat would help with this.
Besides, he liked Raniel's form. He had a predator's reflexes, an excellent sense of smell and was flexible enough to ride along Sherlock's shoulders and neck like a scarf, which meant he never had to stop and wait for Raniel to catch up.
He announced it that very night over dinner.
“Raniel's settled,” he addressed to the room at large.
Mycroft rolled his eyes.
“I wondered if he had,” Tehayla remarked loudly to Mycroft. “It's not like Raniel to keep a single form for an hour, let alone three.”
“Congratulations,” Father said, as Samieyah winged across the table to land on the back of the chair next to Sherlock, bending down to peer at Raniel as though scrutinising him.
“That's wonderful, darling,” Mummy smiled. Nostrepheus was nowhere to be seen, but Sherlock was accustomed to that.
He knew the separation between Mummy and her dæmon made most people uncomfortable, but Sherlock had grown up seeing Mummy sitting in front of the fireplace without Nostrepheus anywhere in sight, or being called in for dinner by the dæmon while his mother was in town. Their separation was simply a fact of life, and there was no reason to get worked up over it; he might as well have become distressed by the colour of the sky.
Raniel was curling his lips up at Tehayla to show his teeth when Mycroft spoke again.
“Will you be separating?”
“Mycroft!” Mummy scolded. “That's not a decision to be made lightly, and certainly not when Sherlock's only ten. You think on it, sweetheart,” she told Sherlock. “And come talk to me in a few years.”
Sherlock shrugged, having no particular feelings on separation one way or the other, save that it seemed an awful lot of effort for what would probably be very little reward. Witches separated from their dæmon because it was expected of them, and Sherlock could admit that separation would be useful with a dæmon capable of flight.
Mummy had felt her sons should have the option of separation, even if they never went through with it, and had raised the subject when Tehayla settled. While to witches it was something of a coming-of-age ritual which their dæmon often resented for a long time afterwards, Mycroft and Tehayla were unusual in that their decision to separate had been mutual.
They'd separated only a year ago, when Mycroft was sixteen. Mummy and Nostrepheus had taken them somewhere – they refused to say where, but Sherlock suspected it was at one of the poles – and they had undergone the ritual. Tehayla had told Raniel that for all of its dressing-up in mysticisms and superstitions, essentially Mycroft had been required to cross some kind of landscape that Tehayla could not follow him into. At the end, they'd found that instead of such an experience breaking their bond, it had simply...stretched.
While Sherlock reflected on that, Tehayla launched herself into flight, lapping the room before she sailed out of the window and into the open air, just to prove she could.
Sherlock watched her go, then glanced at Raniel, shrugged, and went back to his meal.
John fidgeted, one hand rubbing nervously at his knee, the other curled in Amarisa's thick ruff. He didn't know why he'd been called up to the office, but a sinking feeling in his gut told him it couldn't be good.
Amarisa gave a soothing half-whine and licked at his hand, nosing his palm in an effort to reassure him.
“It'll be all right,” she whispered. “You haven't done anything.”
“I know, I know,” John muttered, his voice low. “But why do they want to see me? If it was a family thing, they'd have Harry up here too, right?”
Before Amarisa could reply, the door at the end of the corridor opened. John blinked in surprise when he realised it was the school nurse, Mrs. Holbrook, that was beckoning him inside, not the principal as he'd been dreading.
Cautious, John rose to his feet and entered the room, deliberately decorated in bright, optimistic colours to make people feel at ease. At the moment, the cheery décor was having the opposite effect on John, ratcheting his nerves up another notch. Mrs. Holbrook's badger dæmon approached Amarisa slowly, his nose extended in welcome, but Amarisa was on-edge as well, and skittered back against John's legs as her human sat down.
“John, you know that I'm a nurse, don't you?” Mrs. Holbrook began, smiling warmly.
“And part of my job is to make sure students are healthy and happy.”
“I'm not sick,” John said defensively.
“I know,” Mrs. Holbrook agreed placidly. “But are you happy, John?”
“How are things at home, John?”
“What's this about?” John demanded.
Mrs Holbrook hesitated, but a telling glance at Amarisa told John what this was about. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should have lied on the registry.
You had to register your dæmon as soon as they settled, so arrangements could be made if the dæmon had special requirements. Like Lisa, the girl whose dæmon had settled as a bat; they had to close the windows in the classroom so her dæmon's sensitive ears wouldn't be too overtaxed. Or Mark, whose dæmon was a frog, and always had to have a spray bottle on hot days so she wouldn't dry out.
Amarisa had been late in settling – John was about to turn fifteen, and most people's dæmons were settled after fourteen – and John had first thought she was some kind of dog. And a rather intimidating dog, at that; she was 1.8 metres from nose to tail – longer than John was tall – with lamp-yellow eyes and a coat so deep black it took on a blue sheen in the right light.
But Amarisa had told him she didn't feel like a dog, so he'd done some research.
At first, he hadn't believed it. But when no better option had presented itself, they'd had to accept the truth.
Amarisa was a wolfdog. Half wolf, half dog.
It seemed ludicrous, but nothing else fit. John knew how rare hybrid dæmons were, but he didn't see what else his dæmon could be; Amarisa looked like a grey wolf with a black coat, except true wolves never had black coats. She had dew claws, again something wolves never possessed, and with the muscular proportions of the dog, she was actually heavier than a wolf of similar size would have been. She also barked and wagged her tail – behaviours wolves never engaged in.
But she had the larger feet, longer legs, and the long snout of a wolf. Her canine teeth were bigger and sharper than a dog's, and her skull was of a slightly different shape.
So John had put down 'wolfdog' on the registry, and now he was in the nurse's office being asked about his home life. Which, to be perfectly honest, he'd been half-expecting; wolf dæmons made people uncomfortable.
It wasn't as though predators were unknown as dæmons – plenty of people had birds of prey as dæmons, or large cats – but wolves were different.
Wolf dæmons existed, of course, but tales of them usually came from those wild places of the world where people still fought for survival. Wolf dæmons were the warrior's dæmon; they belonged in times of bloodshed and death, and while they were common in the Middle Ages they were much rarer in the twentieth century. Wolf dæmons were meant to be loping in the shadow of some battle-scarred warrior, swinging a broadsword or a spiked flail, not trotting beside a small, acne-riddled boy halfway through high school.
“This is about Amarisa, isn't it?” John asked bluntly.
Mrs. Holbrook sighed. “John, you must understand, wolf dæmons are very rare-”
“She's a wolfdog.”
“Which is even more unusual, but the fact remains; a wolf or, in your case, a half-wolf dæmon usually indicates problems at home,” she explained gently. “So I'll ask again; is everything all right, John?”
“You think someone's abusing me?” John asked, incredulous.
Mrs. Holbrook didn't say anything. Her badger dæmon was somehow managing to look both solemn and sympathetic at the same time.
Suddenly, John was absolutely furious. “Is this why I'm here? Because Risa settled in a form you don't like, so we must be hiding some dark, awful secret? We're not abused, we don't have a broken home or whatever other stupid explanation you've thought up – this is just us!”
John regretted storming out of the office the instant the door slammed closed, but now that he'd done it, he might as well do it properly, so he kept going.
He didn't return to class immediately, though. Instead he found a quiet corner near the library they could tuck themselves into, where he wound his arms around Amarisa's neck and buried his face in her fur.
Another one. First it had been Mum. Then Dad, then Harry, then his friends, then his English teacher, and now it was Mrs. Holbrook; they all thought that something awful must have happened to them for Amarisa to have settled as a wolfdog. Like it was somehow wrong for her to be that unless they were traumatised.
Why did they have to apologise for who they were?
“I'm sorry,” Amarisa whispered. “I didn't mean to settle like this.”
“It's not your fault,” John grumbled. “They're just stupid.”
“Still, you know they think-”
“We're fine just the way we are,” John declared, hugging his dæmon to him and trying not to dwell on why everyone thought something was wrong with them.
Sherlock knew Raniel's behaviour was a large part of the reason people thought him a sociopath.
He never showed much interest in other people's dæmons...or other people, come to that. He rarely spoke to them, usually settling for whispering his observations to Sherlock and letting him interrogate them (people got so huffy about that, as if someone else speaking to their dæmon was some kind of crime. Ridiculous, really; it wasn't as though Sherlock touched them).
Oh, he paid attention when they were being introduced for the first time; scenting them and examining them, noting every aspect so that Sherlock could identify what the dæmon was. A lot could be inferred about a person from their dæmon, and Sherlock made it a point to know as much as he could about the dæmons of the people he regularly interacted with.
Take the members of the MET, for instance. The first time he met them, Sherlock had identified their dæmons down to the genus, and his first action when he arrived home that night had been to go to his computer and identify them down to the species.
Lestrade's dæmon was called Zarania, and was Falco peregrinus macropus; a peregrine falcon of the Australian subspecies. Anderson's dæmon was a faded tricolour beagle, Canis lupus familiaris, and Donovan's an African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica.
Mycroft's assistant – whose name changed every week – had a Chamaele o calyptratus , commonly known as a veiled chameleon. Molly Hooper's dæmon – called Tobithias but she referred to him as Tobi – was a large specimen of Calopteryx aequabilis , a River Jewelwing damselfly.
But once they were identified, Raniel lost interest in them. Even Tobi's desperate attempts at conversation barely warranted a glance. And as dæmons of sociopaths never showed interest in anyone but their human, Raniel's complete disregard for other people and dæmons had always made such an assertion believable.
It was times like these that Sherlock almost wished he was a sociopath. He almost envied them, those people who moved through their lives serving nothing but themselves; it must be so much simpler not to care, not to get bogged down and tangled up in the complicated snarls of human emotion.
“Sherlock...we have something to tell you,” Father said, Samieyah shifting awkwardly behind him from where she was perched on the back of his chair.
Mummy looked sad, but what really tipped Sherlock off was the presence of Nostrepheus – he was never at Mummy's side during the evening unless it would be a particularly trying time for her, such as when the family was coping with bad news.
But, as usual, Mycroft spoke before he could. “You're leaving.”
“I am,” Mummy said quietly.
Sherlock had suspected it, but to hear it confirmed felt uncomfortably similar to being punched in the stomach. He'd always known Mummy would have to return to her clan, but he'd always assumed it would be decades in the future; certainly after Father died, at the very least.
“Why?” was all he asked, Raniel pressing his nose into the skin just behind Sherlock's ear in an effort to reassure his human.
Mummy's eyes darted to Mycroft, but it was Father who answered.
“There's been a...” he took a deep breath, apparently faltering over his words. “Your mother's clan was attacked.”
Sherlock had known that witch-clans held grudges, made alliances, and even went to war with each other now and then, but he'd never related that knowledge to his mother. She always seemed so removed from clan politics, living quietly in the country with Father, that it seemed ludicrous that they could have any impact on her.
“Why didn't you know about this?” he rounded on Mycroft.
In addition to running the British government to the extent that Sherlock was sure it would collapse were his brother ever assassinated, Mycroft had made his own position among the Witches' Consul, and it was something of a peace-keeper. Every alliance, every demand, was routed through him, because only he could see how it would affect every tiny detail of the witches' politics. Most people could see the immediate consequences, but Mycroft could see the far-reaching ones that even witches did not see, the ones that might not come about for two hundred years or more.
In short, it was impossible for a witch clan to make a significant move such as this without Mycroft knowing of it several months, sometimes years in advance. At least, it should have been; judging by Mycroft's scowl and Tehayla's hasty, embarrassed preening, this one had slipped them by.
“The attack took place over Norway,” was all Mycroft said.
Sherlock had already assumed such an attack would have to happen in a foreign country. Mycroft's reach and influence wrapped the world, but England was where it was absolute. And Norway was one of the few places where Mycroft had less control than he would have liked, largely due to the high numbers of panserbjørne; the armoured bears was the one society in which Mycroft didn't have a place. He had influence, of course (Mycroft had influence everywhere), but not control, and Sherlock knew the challenge of it usually frustrated his brother as much as it invigorated him.
But not now. Now, his lack of control in that part of the world was nothing but a liability.
“And we know it was a deliberate attack,” Mummy said, her eyes looking suspiciously wet. “There are less than twenty of us left.”
That rocked Sherlock. Having a witch for a mother meant that he'd grown up knowing as much about witches' politics as he did about humans – which was to say, not much, but enough to appreciate how truly rare such an act was. Clans didn't make sudden attacks to wipe another clan out, it just simply wouldn't be feasible; the other witch clans would forever after regard them warily, refuse them help, shun any alliance they might seek. So what would a witch clan have to gain from doing something like this?
“I won't be gone for long,” she went on, Nostrepheus leaning over her shoulder, as though for support. “With so few of us left, we will likely be absorbed into the clan of one of our allies. But for now, I am clan queen, and there is work for me to do.”
The 'clan queen' bit actually surprised Sherlock. Mummy had told them she was the niece of the current clan queen, but he had never thought anything of it; daughters inherited, not nieces.
Except in cases such as these, when all others in line for the title had perished.
“You're going to Afghanistan,” Mycroft said, in that bland, all-knowing way of his that made Sherlock want to punch him.
Mummy nodded. “I am.”
Sherlock suddenly understood. The fact that the Afghani forces had allied with witches had been in the newspapers for weeks, and given that Mummy was now going to Afghanistan, that suggested the clan that had made that alliance and the clan that had all-but destroyed hers were one and the same.
Mummy was taking her place as clan queen to lead a counter-attack.
Sherlock wished he could attribute the chill that struck him to a cold breeze.
Raniel noticed, of course, and licked at his cheek, trying to be comforting. It didn't quite work – he and Raniel had never been good at being comforting, quite the opposite, really – and he suspected Raniel's heart wasn't in it. After all, Sherlock's dæmon was as intelligent as he was, and he surely knew as well as Sherlock did the likelihood of Mummy returning.
The clan she would face would likely have members numbering in triple digits – one hundred and fifty was about the average for a witch-clan, and even accounting for losses they'd taken in the war, they would still vastly outnumber Mummy's clan.
“Why do you have to go?” he asked bluntly.
“Sherlock-” Father said, his tone reproving.
“No – you've often told us that witches do not bear grudges and do not seek vendettas. Even for murders or massacres, so long as there is no threat to those remaining, because to throw away lives in the pursuit of vengeance is to dishonour the dead. So were you lying, or are you simply a hypocrite?”
Mycroft frowned, Father shouted, and Mummy looked hurt. But Sherlock forced himself to be indifferent – this wasn't his fault, she was the one who was leaving them!
“There is a deeper reason behind this,” Nostrepheus announced. “There was a reason they struck now, and a reason they've decided to interfere with the conflict in the Middle East. We need to determine what those reasons are.”
The explanation was reasonable, sensible, and logical. Sherlock hated it.
Mycroft's scowl etched deeper lines into his face, and Tehayla clattered her beak in irritation. Usually, their sour expressions would have prompted a smirk from Sherlock, but now he felt nothing but frustrated fury and sickening worry. Even Mycroft would have trouble monitoring Mummy in a war zone, especially one that involved witches.
There was every possibility that they would never see Mummy again.
Sherlock wanted to say, “Don't leave us.”
He wanted to say, “Come back to us.”
He even wanted to say, “I love you.”
But in the end, he said nothing.
John knew he seemed to have strange tastes in friends. But perhaps 'tastes' was too strong a word – it implied he actually sought it out, rather than simply fell into it, and he hadn't actively tried to befriend his current companions; it had just sort of happened.
And now he was in base camp, staring up at the plethora of stars scattered across the night sky, with three witches.
'Funny how life works out,' John mused, tousling Amarisa's fur.
“What are you looking at?” came the low, musical voice of what John fancied to be the youngest of the three witches, Tamsyn Talitha.
“The stars,” John said honestly. “Been a while since I've seen this many.”
“London has a lot of light pollution,” John explained. “Can't see any stars, really...”
That statement attracted the attention of Hasna Azenet, the redheaded witch. “None?”
“None,” John confirmed.
Both Tamsyn and Hasna were frowning slightly, as though they couldn't contemplate not seeing the stars.
“As a human, you don't feel the star-tingle,” Tamsyn said suddenly, as though remembering something. “But...don't you miss them, nevertheless?”
John shrugged. “I don't think so. I mean, they're nice to look at, but I don't pine for them or anything.”
Tamsyn and Hasna still looked puzzled, as though they couldn't quite credit it. Only Aeliana looked understanding.
Aeliana Isidyor was the oldest of the three witches (or so John assumed – it wasn't like she had wrinkles or anything), and showed much more understanding of humans than her clan-sisters did. She'd admitted to John that she'd married a man and had sons with him, but John didn't know if she was speaking of a current marriage or something decades, maybe centuries, behind her, and it seemed impolite to ask.
In some ways, John thought he could understand why the witches preferred his company to that of the other humans; he never acted as though the absence of their dæmons was something freakish. Most people were made extremely uneasy by it but John, while he'd certainly been unnerved at first, had gotten over it relatively quickly. Perhaps it was because Amarisa was considered so unusual, because he knew what it was like to have people unsettled by his dæmon, that he was more willing to accept unusual qualities in other people's dæmons.
John had never seen Tamsyn's or Aeliana's dæmons, but Hasna's swan dæmon, Caedmon, remained with her and was often used to relay messages between companies.
Aeliana, perhaps sensing his gaze on her, looked up from where she was fletching her arrows and smiled at him.
Maybe it was the clear aura of wisdom – extensive even for a witch – maybe the fact that she seemed much more in tune with human needs and wants than her clan-sisters, but John felt much more at ease with Aeliana than he did with her clan-sisters.
It could also be the fact that he'd saved her life. And not in his usual way, either; there hadn't been an infected wound he'd needed to clean or an bleeding injury he'd had to staunch. John had spotted Aeliana in the air when she was struggling against three other witches, and had managed to shoot two of them down.
The witches believed that saving someone's life created a special bond. John wasn't sure whether he believed that or not – he never felt particularly connected to the people he treated, after all – but he couldn't deny that he felt more comfortable with Aeliana than with Tamsyn or Hasna.
“Why do you use bow and arrows?” John asked. He'd been curious about that for some time.
“Instead of guns, you mean?” Aeliana remarked, stowing her new arrow in her quiver. “It's easier for us to spell them. We make our arrows and our bow ourselves, which already creates a connection. And the closer our weapons are to their natural form, the easier it is to spell them. We can cast magic on wood, feathers and sand, but it's difficult for a spell to hold in forged metal.”
“Oh,” John said quietly as Amarisa extended her muzzle in the direction of Aeliana's quiver, her nose wrinkling as though she were trying to detect the spells by scent.
John heard Ragnvald's approach before he saw him, but he knew that was only out of courtesy. If he'd wanted to, the armoured bear was more than capable of sneaking up on them.
While John could (sort of) understand why the witches considered him a friend, it was more puzzling as to why Ragnvald did.
John knew the army had hired several armoured bears in an effort to even the odds after the enemy forces made an alliance with a witch clan. Aeliana's clan had soon joined the effort, of course, but they weren't exactly hired on by the army – it was more that they sought the same enemy, were more likely to encounter that enemy if they remained close to the soldiers, and so travelled with the platoons more out of convenience than anything else.
As to the exact number of armoured bears hired, no one seemed to know for certain, only that it was less than they'd have liked and more than they'd hoped. At least it was easier to hire the bears than it used to be – the panserbjørne used to be found only on Svalbard, but as their numbers swelled they were forced to expand their territory, increasing their contact with humans and thus, the likelihood of a bear finding work among them. It was still very rare for one of the panserbjørne to take up labouring in a human city, but it was becoming more and more common to find them hired as mercenaries by various governments.
Still, few had agreed to come to Afghanistan, largely because the stifling heat required that their thick fur be clipped regularly. At least they were safe from overheating in their armour, as it didn't conduct temperature the way other metals did (and John knew there were more than a few industrial companies who would pay a small fortune to get their hands on a bear's armour).
Ragnvald Finnurson and his sister, Aaltje Finnursri, had been the armoured bears attached to John's company. 'Had been', because Aaltje Finnursri was now dead.
John had been familiar with both bears, as they were often tasked with forging a path through the battlefield so medics could get to injured soldiers, and they seemed to like him better than most. Though personally John thought it was only because he avoided both categories most people seemed to fall into when they were dealing with an armoured bear – he was neither starkly terrified of them, nor did he treat them as though they were somehow less intelligent than humans.
John had never entirely understood that attitude. The absence of dæmons often led people into thinking they were little better than animals, but John had spoken to them and knew that there were frighteningly intelligent, cunning minds beneath the animal-like exterior. So John had trusted their judgement and listened to their suggestions, and they'd got along just fine until John and Aaltje had the misfortune to be pinned down by a squadron of enemy soldiers and witches.
They could have dealt with the soldiers (few human beings could withstand an armoured bear without a tank or rocket launcher or the like), but the witches were another matter. Those witches had been armed with more than bows and arrows; they'd had grenades, and had hurled every last one of them at Aaltje. She could fend off most of them – batting them away like they were tennis balls – but eventually too many of them came at once, and one grenade caught on her armour, in the small chink between her helmet and the plates that covered her shoulders.
The resulting explosion had been as bloody and devastating as anyone could expect.
John ran to help her, using his own jacket to try to staunch the bleeding, just as Ragnvald and a small squad appeared over the hill, too late.
John had bellowed for some of the soldiers to surrender their jackets to him, and had clamped them against Aaltje's wound as well, Amarisa actually having to lean all her weight against it to produce anything close to the pressure they needed. One hand worked on positioning the already blood soaked fabric as the other fumbled within her reddened fur, trying to find her pulse in the side of her neck that was still intact.
Aaltje Finnursri died within three minutes, in spite of all John's attempts to save her life.
Still, even though he'd failed, the mere fact that he'd tried to save Aaltje seemed to endear John to Ragnvald in some way. He'd even helped the panserbjørne burn her body, he and Amarisa gathering kindling and matches while Ragnvald had lugged the immense branches that made up the bulk of the pyre. John had lit it up, and together they'd watched the flames consume Aaltje's body.
When it was done, when there was nothing left but blackened ash and charred bone, Ragnvald had made a strange gesture. He'd bent down until his face was level with John, and pressed his furred head against John's forehead, his fierce eyes wide open and gazing straight into John's own.
John had been puzzled but, instinctively knowing it meant something, had held himself still, staring straight into Ragnvald's eyes until the bear straightened again.
It was only after the panserbjørne had lumbered away that John learned that gesture – pressing foreheads together while looking straight into each other's eyes – was one performed between two bears of equal standing who respected and were fond of each other.
It had been a little unsettling to learn that, but since then Ragnvald often sought him out whenever they weren't busy with their duties.
“Finished with sentry duty, then?” John asked as Ragnvald sat down beside him and began unbuckling his armour.
Ragnvald's conversation was always terse and to the point, something John respected – just because he could make small talk when he had to didn't mean he liked it. Even if he never made any particular effort to converse with John or showed him any unusual kindness, there was something soothing about Ragnvald's presence, the mutual silence and understated respect of comrades.
Of course, John was aware if he told someone he found it soothing to have an armoured bear sitting next to him, they'd think he was insane. Hell, he was having a few doubts about his sanity himself (doubts Amarisa was only too happy to confirm – she thought he was completely crazy, but didn't see why that should be a problem).
But here, in the middle of a war, in the company of witches and an armoured bear...for the first time, John felt like he belonged.