Chapter 1: Oak and Ash and Thorn
Oh do not tell the priest our plight
For he would call it a sin
But we have been out in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in.
“Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson,” the sad-eyed young woman said with a certain stiff formality as she positioned herself on the clients' chair, nodding at them and extending her hand. “Miss Martha H. Lithgow. I thank you for being willing to meet with me.”
“You've made a long trip, Miss Lithgow,” Sherlock said. “I'm a little curious as to what brings a deeply religious Scottish Highlander all the way into the black heart of sinful London.”
“How did you . . . “
“Please. Your accent and the mud on your shoes pinpoint your point of origin down to the nearest loch. Linnhe, as it happens. You have old-fashioned habits; you took a train from Fort William even though a flight from Glasgow would have shaved off hours. You move like someone highly reserved around strangers and careful of appearances. You are neither wealthy nor poor, but the trappings and customs of the urban middle class of your age group are unfamiliar to you, and you have a hint of disdain that you can't quite hide. This clearly isn't based on class status markers, so I suspected it comes from believing yourself a member of a different type of elite. The gold cross around your neck isn't a mere decoration, it has wear marks from being fondled often in stressful situations. You were doing it just a second ago, completely unconsciously. It brings you comfort and reminds you of your overdeveloped sense of duty.”
John tried not to feel glee at the expression on her face that he couldn't help just because Sherlock was so damn good, but there it was. A fleeting, complex mixture of anger and fear. A small, self-aware hint of a laugh. Would John describe it that way later, if this case turned out worth blogging?
“Mr Holmes, I'm not in the habit of approaching . . . consultants. But you are correct. I have great faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And until recently, I also had faith in the rule of law. Only the second one has wavered. Three years ago, my fiancé, Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highlands Constabulary, went to investigate an anonymous report of a missing child in a remote place called Summerisle. He never communicated with me while he was there, and he never returned.”
She presented a photograph of a man in sharp, impeccable police uniform. His smile was real, if thin, but his eyes were cold.
A newspaper picture. Not a lover's keepsake.
Sherlock was playing it careful and cool, but by now John knew him well enough to recognize the tiny quivers in his stiffly steepled fingers and the quicksilver flashes in his eyes. He was beginning to be interested.
“Let's get the tediously obvious out of the way first,” he said. “Why did you wait three years?”
“As I said,” Miss Lithgow looked down and then up again, steely proud. “I had faith in the law. I was assured that the best of the Scottish police were on the case, and would certainly bring me information soon. For years I've held onto that belief, until I could no longer sustain it. You're my last resort, Mr. Holmes, not my first best hope.”
“Unfortunate,” Sherlock said. “By this time, the trail will be very cold indeed. And supposedly Scotland's finest couldn't even confirm the two most likely possibilities: that your fiancé is either dead, or living somewhere else far away, probably with another woman.”
Her prim little fists in her old-fashioned gloves tensed, and John was pretty sure she wanted to slap him. She wasn't the first and she wouldn't be the last. “Mr. Holmes,” she said, all cold rage. “I'm not stupid. I'm holding out no real hope of seeing my Neil again in this world. I want to know what happened to him, and I want justice so that my heart can rest easier when I meet him in the life everlasting.”
There followed a high priest of uncomfortable silences. “I suppose would some say it's 'closure' you're after, then,” Sherlock all but sneered. “Therapists, for example. They're all for that, aren't they, John?”
“Yeah,” John murmured. “Ella believes in closure.” Wanted to make sure I got some when you were dead, he thought. Look at how that turned out. He doubted Miss Lithgow would have a similar outcome, but you never know.
“So will you help me?” Miss Lithgow asked. “Please?”
“Maybe,” Sherlock said, commandeering John's laptop. A few moments of clicking, a hmm and a quizzical sound, and then Sherlock slammed the lid down and nodded. “Yes. I'll take your case.”
“Were you checking your schedule to see if you could fit me in?” she asked.
“No. I was confirming something a common mind might call a hunch. I was correct. There are no pictures whatsoever of Summerisle on Google Earth. No streetviews. No maps. No tourist-ridden bed-and-breakfast reviews. Nowadays, it might as well not exist.”
“I assure you, it does,” Miss Lithgow said, eyes narrowing.
“Oh, that I don't doubt,” Sherlock said.
“Will you need me to accompany you?” she asked. “If I must, I will. I'm a teacher, though, I'll need to give advance notice.”
Sherlock turned and faced her with a gleaming gaze. “No, Miss Lithgow, at least not at first. John and I can handle this just fine. I will certainly need to ask you a few more questions, if you don't mind.”
- - -
“You know the answer already, don't you?” John asked after Miss Lithgow had left.
“I know that Howie's almost certainly dead, but that's not the point. We're going to Scotland, John. We'll get you fitted for a kilt.”
John blinked. “Well, that's a nice thought, but I have one already.”
“I know that. A better one. Cancel all your shifts; it's a long trip and we'll be gone at least three days.”
Curse him, John thought. He really needed the money, and he really needed to be seen as reliable. Somehow. And yet – for long days before, Sherlock had been in one of his deep funks, rarely lifting so much as a limb from the sofa that by now permanently bore his body's imprint. Seeing his friend excited and engaged again, well, what could John do? And if this case was more exciting than it seemed (as it likely was), how could he miss it?
He sighed. The Scottish Isles were lovely and it would be nice to visit them again. Getting far clear of London had a way of refreshing the mind.
- - -
The trip was long. A flight from Gatwick to Inverness, and from there a hired car to the harbour at Kyle of Lochalsh, over the bridge to Skye (speed, bonnie cab, like a bird on the wing), and then a long drive in a rented car north up that island to the ferry port at Uig. They'd have to leave the car there, because the road had ended. Sherlock showed no interest in its fate. There were boats to Summerisle, they were told, but no regularly-scheduled ferry. The only way to get there was if someone deigned to allow it, and somehow word had traveled ahead of them. After a long, long awkward wait, eventually a finely-painted 19th-century cargo ship had pulled in and accepted them as passengers, and the dinghy rowers had beckoned to Sherlock and John after dropping off their cargo of bottles at the pub.
They got on that lovely ship with its empty crates of apples, and so sailed the unfriendly chop of the Little Minch into the tight little harbour at Summerisle.
“There's a West Highlands Police hydroplane somewhere beneath us, completely submerged,” Sherlock muttered to John, with his hands on the railing and looking down at the cold grey water. “As far is the law is concerned, Sgt. Howie's body is there too, though it's never been found. Foul play is not officially suspected.”
“Well,” John said quietly. “We've come a long way if that's true.”
“You know my methods, John,” Sherlock said with his finest sociopath's smile.
The unwelcoming faces of the grizzled men watched intently as the dinghy pulled up at the little stone quay, and Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first set foot on Summerisle.
Far, far from the bustle of London was this place. The keening cries of seagulls and the constant low roaring lap of the sea. The uncanny-wise faces of the seals in the harbour.
John knew that type of people well – all those hostile faces, distrustful of outsiders, could have been well out of his family album, but at least fifty years past. And Sherlock, well, he had no care for the opinions of some backwater villagers. Just fine for him, he wasn't the one who'd slipped while climbing out of the little rowboat with the painted eyes, so he wasn't walking down the high street with one wet shoe.
Say this for their tight-lipped client at least, someone had got them past the stern-faced town gatekeepers and into the Green Man Inn to get a room. Only one room, of course, and that with only one bed.
“Sorry, boys,” said the landlord with an implication he wasn't sorry at all, “May Day is upon us, so it's a miracle there was a room at all. Someone must be favouring you.”
“Yes. I wonder who,” Sherlock said, taking the key.
The room was cosy but definitely not fancy. Retro, even, John thought – a big brass bed, a side table, an open window letting in the spring seaside air, and nothing but. This place was old, and not reworked for modern tastes.
“So – we're staying here, then. Okay.”
“No other choice and it could be much worse,” Sherlock said.
“I didn't mean . . . of course I've had worse,” John said. Truth be told, he didn't hate it at all. The Green Man was clearly a fine tavern of the old school, at least a century's worth, and as few outside travelers as this island likely had, he was glad there was such a place at all. The pub downstairs looked promising; from the gleeful singing of the people inside, he thought the local brew must be rewarding.
John thought that if he were in this environment alone, he'd be able to navigate – but he'd have to share this town with Sherlock. Who was here to find out truths that the locals would not want revealed.
And he'd have to share that bed with Sherlock. Sherlock who could deduce any intent or desire or grudge from a scar or a glance or a hair, and yet had steadfastly missed every single signal that John knew he was lousy at hiding for all the years they'd shared a flat.
No. Sherlock was on a case, and he rarely slept during that particular frenzy of his, certainly not during normal hours – but if he wanted to, then John would take the floor. But it was no time to worry about such things yet. Sherlock had a lot of exploring to do. John watched him run the length of the room, standing on his tiptoes to study the tops of the window sashes, down on his knees to examine the baseboards. He paused for a moment at another door, that seemed to connect the room adjacent. Locked. He seemed satisfied by whatever unfathomable thing that communicated to him.
The island was completely unlike anything John expected. In his limited experience, the Hebrides were chilly and stony and treeless, full of blasted heaths and rugged mountains, just barely hanging on against the sea.
Summerisle was sweet and warm with a sultry sea breeze – gentle like the tropics, profoundly un-Scottishlike – and green and fertile, riddled with palmettos around the streets and buildings, and dark with the promise of a proper forest on the edges of the flowering orchards. The little cobblestone high street that trickled down a steep hill from the inn should have been either sparse and poor or full of tourist-trap frippery that no locals could afford – but instead it was full of the normal businesses of a half-century before: the butcher, the dressmaker, the tea house, the boatman, the grocer, the chemist.
Dusk was approaching, late as it came this far north. Weeks past the Spring Equinox, weeks still to go til the Solstice. John was hungry, but he was sure Sherlock would want to start walking the little streets and interrogating people, right away.
“Are you hungry, John?”
“Well, yeah, but . . . ”
“Let's have dinner! I'm sure the pub has excellent food, don't you think?” Sherlock wore a giddy grin, and John was about to ask who he was and what had he done with Sherlock, when Sherlock winked, locked the room and led John downstairs.
The pub was full of people gathering for the evening's festivities. John noted with pleasure this seemed to be the kind of place you went for craic; the little cluster of young people softly playing folk music nodded at him, absorbed in their tune.
. . . Lord Donald he jumped up / and loudly he did bawl / he struck his wife right through the heart / and pinned her against the wall . . .
Sherlock had the shepherd's pie, John the fish and chips, and both had the dark golden Summerisle ale, presented in pint glasses by a pretty teenager. “Here for the May Day?” the girl asked cheerfully. “We don't have a lot of outsiders here. You must be a guest of Lord Summerisle.”
“Yes, he knows we're here. Your pub came highly recommended,” Sherlock said, turning on the charm.
“Well, welcome,” she said.
“We've come a long way and your ale hits the spot,” Sherlock said, getting downright oily. Oily enough that the middle-aged man behind the taps was starting to give him a shifty look from a two-sided face; cheerful for the regulars, drawn and wary for the strangers. Deliberately oblivious, Sherlock held out his hand. “I'm Sherlock Holmes, and this is my friend, Hamish Watson.”
John almost dropped his pint and turned to Sherlock with murder in his eyes.
“So the MacGregor family owns this pub – are you a MacGregor too?”
“Oh no, I'm just helping out in the busy season. That's Alder MacGregor there and his daughter Willow. My name's Rowan Morrison.”
“Lovely name for a lovely young lady. Thank you, Miss Morrison,” Sherlock said, while John tried to keep a bit of vinegary potato from falling straight out of his mouth. Neither the landlord nor his daughter looked best pleased, though Willow's calculating look had a different tone from her father's.
“John,” Sherlock said under his breath. “If you make a trip to the toilet any time soon, you might want to take a look at those photographs along the wall. The girls are much too young for you, but you also enjoy food, so the pictures of the harvest might interest you. Our Rowan herself was one of those future May Queens, posing with the crops, not so long ago. She was cheated, I'm afraid, that wasn't one of Summerisle's better years.”
Then his voice dropped even lower. “She was also the missing child that Sgt. Howie came to search for. As you can see, she's alive and well and accounted for.”
“Oh. Well, I don't need to go just yet.”
Alder MacGregor had left his post behind the taps as the singing got louder and more raucous, and insinuated himself up to John and Sherlock's table. “Is everything to your liking?”
“It's fine, thanks,” John said. “Hey, before I forget, what's the password to the WiFi here?”
The pub fell silent as MacGregor fixed him with a pitying look. Then laughter burst out, increasing a bit at John's bewildered expression. “What's so funny?” he demanded.
MacGregor shook his head. “Mainlanders. Can't live a minute without their little toys.”
John was even more enraged to see that Sherlock was apparently sharing in the general mirth at his expense. Filled with a sudden, horrible thought, John whipped his mobile out of his pocket. No signal. Not even the hint of a bar.
“It's no use, John,” Sherlock said. “I'm sure we left our last mobile tower behind at Kyleakin.”
“You knew!” John said in an angry whisper.
“I knew you'd figure it out eventually,” Sherlock said.
John took another long pull of ale. So he faced a long night ahead with Sherlock in a tiny room – with no internet to distract him and no way of contacting anyone on the mainland. Sherlock might bluff now, but that lack of connection was going to drive him barking in three. . . two . . . one, whether he was willing to admit it or not.
“Relax, John,” Sherlock said. “I'm finding it refreshing. Facing this puzzle with no tools at hand but my senses and my reason – it's almost exhilarating. How would I have functioned a hundred years ago? I'd have had to truly rely on my wits, wouldn't I? I'm sure I'm up to the challenge.”
“You sound like you've signed up for one of those wilderness survival shows.”
“We have,” Sherlock said.
“I didn't,” John said sulkily.
Back up in the room, John now felt trapped and hemmed in by the room in a way he hadn't before. Sherlock was sitting in the chair by the window, perusing a book on the plant life of the western isles and to all appearances utterly content. “Cheer up, John. There's a chance the chemist or the post office has some suitably trashy reading material for you. We'll go looking tomorrow.”
“I thought you weren't acting like yourself before. Now you are. I think I like it better the other way.”
“No you don't,” Sherlock said firmly and turned back toward the book.
John sat back on the bed, staking out space there. The singing from downstairs was almost pleasant – mostly fine old folk songs, he imagined, and he wished he knew more of them. But then there'd been that one about the landlord's daughter, and while it probably was authentically old, it wasn't the sort of thing you'd hear at the better class of folk revival concerts. Willow hadn't reacted the way he'd have expected her to – she seemed sincerely flattered, and even her father wasn't the least bit put out by the lewdness.
He'd almost drifted off napping when he happened to glance over at Sherlock, who was now no longer even pretending to read. His attention was fixed on the window, and John could almost hear the gears turning in his head as he watched something.
“What is it?”
“Look. But stay out of the window, try not to be seen. Not that they'll be paying much attention.”
At first, all John could see was darkness beyond the edges of the inn's garden. But as his eyes adjusted and the moon waxed above the sharp lines of the hill, he saw movement in several places – directly below him, and out on the green. The ones against the pub wall, that was clear enough: a cluster of people, two men and a woman, moving and clutching together, kissing and groping. The ones farther out, though – he saw pale light reflected on bare skin, entangled pairs moving in obscene, delighted ripples and rolls of their shameless bodies.
“There's people out there . . . having sex. Out in the open in front of everybody. And it's a lot of them!”
“I appreciate the explanation, John. Otherwise I might have been confused,” Sherlock said, snickering.
“What is this place?” John asked, mostly to himself. He thought he ought to look away, it wasn't the kind of thing you just watched . . . except here, apparently you did.
His attention was so far out in the fields with the coupling couples he didn't even notice the approach to the window below. Sherlock did, though, watching with keen eyes.
Two men in Highland formalwear, kilts and sporrans and lace at their throats. One was young and virtually quivered with nerves and anticipation. The other – well, the other was just regal. He was much older, perhaps a distinguished if youthful fiftyish. He was very tall – he'd slightly tower over Sherlock – and wore his regalia like a royal robe on his broad shoulders. He had flecks of grey at his temples and a keen wit in his dark eyes. With a deep voice, he called out to the window, and John almost started until he realised the man was calling for Willow MacGregor. She put her pretty blonde head out of the window of the room next to theirs.
“Lord Summerisle,” she said happily. So this was the great laird himself. He certainly looked the part.
“I bring a sacrifice for the Goddess of Love,” Lord Summerisle said, with a respectful little bow. “I present Larch Campbell.”
She giggled and nodded. “Welcome, Larch. Come on up, don't be shy.”
Lord Summerisle nudged the young man forward, and John watched as he disappeared into the pub. The music changed abruptly. This was no bawdy romp or bloody ballad, this was an earnest, sensual love song, all plaintive Highland tenor and throbbing bodhrán.
“Sacrifice?” John said a little worriedly. “You don't think ... ”
“I wouldn't worry,” Sherlock said. “I think Larch will enjoy being sacrificed.”
Indeed, it appeared he did. And if John had thought that being trapped in a tiny room with Sherlock, with one bed and no internet and too much folk music, was a stressful situation, it was nothing compared to being there when the music was overridden by intimate laughter and ecstatic moans and the steady thump and squeak of a well-used bed, just on the other side of the wall in the next room.
“It's nice of the local laird to take such a personal interest,” Sherlock had quietly muttered in the dark. “You don't see that kind of noblesse oblige anymore.”
Chapter 2: The Chalice and the Blade
Sherlock wins friends and influences people.
John was alone in the room when he awoke, and that was a relief. His head was swimming and the images that came up from the dregs of his dreams were so trippy he almost wondered if Sherlock had drugged him again. Sherlock had been so weirdly insistent on dinner, after all.
But no. He wouldn't have had to, considering where he was. Summerisle itself was enough to cause vivid dreams at least on the level of eating moldy cheese before bed.
There were wild and windy dreams; a spinning sensation, unearthly music- like the pub tunes but eerie and distorted – and a sort of fiendish insidious sense of physical pleasure that started when he first saw the locals 'seeding the fields' last night, so brazen, and dreamed himself among them. But who? That Willow MacGregor seemed up for it and she was a fine one, with her pert rump and pouting lips and knowing eyes. But no. No. In John's dream, he'd moved like that all tangled up with a longer, leaner body; the hands clutching him much larger and the moaning voice in his ear much deeper.
John just wanted to enjoy the sweet lassitude of that dream memory for a moment, until a chill of cold terror flooded his veins and completely ruined the moment. Odds were good that, in this little room, he'd had an observably sexual dream in Sherlock's presence.
Fucking hell. That's just great, he thought.
By day, the village sounded almost normal. There were birdsongs and chattering voices. As John roused himself reluctantly from the bed, he heard water running in the bathroom down the hall, and then the door opening and closing as someone left. Just the one, then. The Green Man was minimalist in that way. Probably still had a meter on the hot water. (If there was a shower, he probably ought to take it cold anyway.)
He was standing there sulking under the non-existent pressure and the spitting bursts of frigidity when there was a loud pounding on the door. Thankfully, he'd locked it. That didn't stop the invader.
“Jesus Christ!” John yelled, pulling the worn curtain around himself.
“No, just me,” Sherlock said. “Hurry up. I've managed to get the schoolmistress to agree to speak to us.”
“Because she teaches children, and children talk. And she's more than she seems.”
It was a lovely day for a stroll, John had to give it that. Summerisle was showing its fairest face, a sweet warming tone in the air and a faint scent of flowers, yet cool enough that Sherlock's great coat of stylish armour wasn't completely uncalled-for. Sherlock and John still had the uncomfortable effect of stopping conversations dead without saying a word – but not all the glances and stares were unappreciative.
Still, John couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the cluster of boys dancing around a maypole with the ribbons around their waists, singing a song that was more than a little too suggestive for their age, and the schoolroom full of girls singing merrily along.
“And who can tell me the true meaning of the maypole?” the teacher was asking as Sherlock and John watched from the window.
A little redhead down front waved her hand eagerly. “It's always you, isn't it Fern?” the teacher said, not unkindly. “So keen.”
“It's a phallic symbol!” the girl said quickly.
“Very good, Fern. Of course you're right,” the teacher said. “Now who can tell me what that means? Someone else, please. Clover?”
“It represents the penis!” said Clover, who was a little more reticent.
“Yes, and more than that. It's the generative principle. Fertility. Very important in religions such as ours, and it's what we celebrate in our May Day rites. Now, if you'll pardon me, we have guests today.” She beckoned to Sherlock and John through the window. Of course she knew they'd been there all along.
“Let me introduce them,” the teacher said to the class. “Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Hamish Watson.”
John cringed. “Call me John, please,” he said plaintively.
“Thank you for meeting with us on such short notice, Miss Rose,” Sherlock said, talking right over John but showing Miss Rose an uncharacteristic flash of chivalry.
“Now, class, they've come all the way from the mainland. Farther than that. All the way from London. Have you ever met a Londoner before?”
The little heads shook almost uniformly.
“Dr. Watson is a doctor of course, and Mr. Holmes is a detective. Who knows what a detective does?”
Fern raised her hand. “It's someone that pokes his nose in other people's business,” she blurted without waiting to be called on.
“Absolutely right, Fern,” Sherlock said, beaming. “As far as it goes anyway.”
“Are you here to ask nosy questions?”
“I sure am. But there's a lot more to it than that,” Sherlock said. “If you're very good, I'll tell you all about it. Am I the first outsider asking nosy questions you remember?”
“Yes,” Fern said firmly, and all the other girls seemed to agree.
Miss Rose shook her head indulgently. “Excuse me, class, I'd like to have a few words with our guests. Please take out your books and turn to Chapter 3 in 'Fertility Rituals.'”
The little school room's entrance hall was festooned with flowers and students' artworks. Some were standard trees and landscapes and animals – stags and hares and goats -- but John had to stop and blink at a rendering of a naked woman with a shining yellow sun between her legs and a man wearing antlers and a giant erection. “Do you like those?” Miss Rose said. “That's our Myrtle Morrison. She's only thirteen but she's very talented.”
“Um, yes, they're very nice,” John managed to choke out.
“So your current class of students never met Sgt. Neil Howie, did they?” Sherlock asked suddenly. “But surely you did.”
“I'm very certain no such person exists,” Miss Rose said.
“By which you mean, he doesn't exist anymore,” Sherlock clarified. “He's dead.”
“We prefer not to use that word,” she said coldly. “Not in the earshot of the children. We believe that when this human life has ended, the person's life force rejoins nature. The sky, the forest, the crops, the sea, the animals. Rotting bodies are a stumbling block to the childish imagination.”
“They weren't to mine when I was young,” Sherlock chuckled. “Where would I find the rotting body of Neil Howie?”
“Sherlock!” John muttered, waiting for the sympathy flinch.
“Nowhere, Mr. Holmes. It is nowhere to be found. Unless it's everywhere.”
Sherlock nodded, as if this answer were satisfactory to him in some way. John looked at him and back to Miss Rose, befuddled as usual, but he at least remembered to say thank you before tagging after Sherlock, who'd already covered a lot of ground on his stalk towards the crumbling stone wall of the old churchyard.
And it was a churchyard; there was a stone church with an actual cross on top. It was an abandoned ruin of course. Closest to the walls, some tombstones had crosses too – the very oldest ones. John was studying names and dates, and the crosses seemed to stop entirely after the late 19th century. The names became less and less Biblical and the epitaphs grew more and more . . . inventive.
“Here lies Beech Buchanan,” he read out incredulously. “Protected by the Ejaculation of Serpents.”
“It's hard to imagine how,” Sherlock said. “Venomous serpents don't have venomous ejaculate, that would be counterproductive to the propagation of the species.”
“You actually put rational thought into that.”
“It's what I do, John. Oh look, this is fascinating. The trees planted on the more recent graves – oh, this is a human umbilical cord. I thought those were traditionally buried at birth. Perhaps not.”
“That’s . . . touching, I guess,” John said.
“Are those on all the graves – oh, they'd biodegrade quickly, you can't tell – whoa, pardon me!” He'd walked around a lichen-covered stone plinth to see a young woman sitting on a stone table (an altar, was it?) bare-chested, nursing a baby. She said nothing and obviously couldn't care less.
“Good day to you,” Sherlock said. What was in the air here, that was making Sherlock so terribly civil all the time? It was starting to creep John out.
Leaving the graveyard they returned to the row of little shops.
They stopped in at the post office and introduced themselves to the postmistress – May Morrison, Rowan and Myrtle's mother. John observed that they carried newspapers and sweets and typical tourist postcards – but all of the postcards were of other scenic Scottish Isles locations. None of them specifically Summerisle, none claiming to be such. Sherlock was about to say something when the door burst open with a little jingle, and Myrtle came in, eyes downcast, and looked at no one.
“Please pardon her,” May Morrison said. “The next days are hard on her – she so wanted to be May Queen like her sister was. But they chose Heather MacEanraig instead, and she's been inconsolable.” She dropped her voice and stage-whispered, “They don't get on so well, those two.”
“So all the girls want to be May Queen,” Sherlock said. “There's nothing scary about it.”
“Oh, not really. I suppose if you're shy – all that attention. But not my girls.”
“I'm told that not too long ago there was an outsider who feared Rowan was in grave danger,” Sherlock said, leaning in close. “But you never worried. You knew better.”
“I'm not sure I recall any outsiders at all showing any interest in my girls. Except you, Mr. Holmes. And I think you'd best back off.” She said this with the sunniest of smiles. She was a sweet-faced matronly woman, and John thought she was probably just a few more insinuations away from making Sherlock a nice cuppa tea and then throwing it in his face.
“My apologies,” Sherlock said falsely.
“Would you like to stay for tea?” she said with a brittle friendliness.
“Ah – no,” John said quickly. “I'm sorry, we'd love to accept, but we still have to do a lot of . . . sightseeing. Yeah!”
Sherlock was already out the door and headed for the next stop, an unwelcoming looking building with a plain sign on the door: REGISTRAR - BIRTHS, DEATHS, AND MARRIAGES
“You don’t think he’s got a proper death certificate here, do you?” John said to Sherlock quietly as he caught up.
“No, but sometimes you can learn as much from what isn’t there as what is,” Sherlock said.
They’d caught the archivist mid-snack, and she didn’t look happy - but that did nothing to detract from her golden-haired, pert-nosed beauty. They sure grow them pretty here, John thought, and the smile that spread across his face was instinctual. “Hi there, Miss, do you mind if we look at some--”
Her eyes were cold and almost indolent, in the manner of put-out civil servants everywhere. John found it oddly reassuring. “Do you have Lord Summerisle’s permission?”
“Do we need it?” Sherlock demanded. “Considering that I can tell that your perfume was almost certainly bought for you by a lover who’s been embezzling . . . is it embezzling? No! Smuggling! A false bottom in one of those boats that takes Summerisle cider to the tourist pubs in the Hebrides and even as far out as Anglesey. A Welshman, if I’m not mistaken.”
She goggled at him in offended horror, and realized she’d failed at hiding the letter beneath her desk blotter that addressed her as “Cariad.”
“A Welshwoman,” she snarled.
“Ah! There’s always something,” Sherlock groaned. “Do you want to know how I deduced the rest of it?”
“Not really,” she snapped, handing them a stack of black ledger books. “Now piss off.”
“Thank you!” Sherlock said, his cheery veneer returning as he flipped through them. Recent deaths - as he expected, nothing like what he was looking for.
John looked over his shoulder. All elderly people, natural causes - that in itself was suspicious, weren’t there ever any diseases or accidents? He was a little bit surprised to see Sherlock turning rapidly through a different book entirely - birth records, and this one was older. Seventies and eighties. Something made Sherlock’s eyebrow twitch, but he said nothing of it.
“Will we be seeing you at the May Day, then?” the librarian asked, an unpleasant little gleam in her eye.
“Almost certainly,” Sherlock said and departed in a swirl of coat.
“Good day,” John said awkwardly, and lingered long enough to see her picking up a heavy, old-fashioned phone from the desk.
Next down the row was the chemist's shop, and Sherlock pushed past John with his eyes alight. Once inside, he drew in sharp breath at the rows and rows of jars and bottles of dubious provenance and a bizarre mixture of the scientific and the superstitious – precise chemical formulas next to jars of preserved animals and animal parts; a tub of fetal pigs, a two-faced cat suspended in formaldehyde. Eye of newt and toe of frog, wing of bat . . . you could buy all that here. As well as enough chemical raw materials to blow up half the island, if you were so inclined. John paused by a display of ornate goblets and a variety of sharp knives and daggers.
Oh God. He was never going to get Sherlock out of here.
“No, Sherlock,” he hissed under his breath, “We are not going back to London with a giant jar of dried foreskins.”
Sherlock gave a tiny pout. “What about a small jar?” He held the look in all earnestness until John collapsed in helpless giggles.
“Well, maybe, but only if you charge it to Mycroft.” Sherlock had to look away to conceal his choking laughter.
“Can I help you lads?” the shopkeeper cut in. He'd been at the pub last night, John recognized his horn-rimmed glasses and thick accent. “We don't see a lot of outsiders here. Especially Englishmen.”
“Yes, reaching rather far afield, isn't it, Mr. Lennox?” Sherlock said, stepping forward. “This web that's cast sometimes.”
“I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about.”
“What happened to the last outsider who came here asking too many questions, I wonder.”
“I'm certain I don't remember one,” Lennox said, flinching only a little when Sherlock stepped into his personal space and sniffed him.
“You're a photographer,” Sherlock said. “You work in a traditional, old-fashioned way. Film, not digital. I can smell the developing chemicals on you, underneath your general miasma of asafoetida and dragon's-blood resin and damiana and other substances common to the practice of witchcraft. But you're passably well-educated in basic scientific chemistry as well; you practice herbal medicine and spell-casting by choice, not out of ignorance, and you combine the two when it suits you. Indeed, you don't see them as opposed at all. Fascinating.”
Mr. Lennox backed away, affronted. Then he smiled. “In another age, in another place, you yourself might have been burned at the stake, Mr. Holmes.”
“I suppose I would have to take it as a compliment, even as I screamed in agony,” Sherlock said, “I don't reject the modern world. It has its advantages.”
“Neither do I, sir. Now, how can I help you? Just got these in,” he held up a selection of the most obscene mushrooms John had ever seen. “They do wonders for the . . . male nature.”
“No need for that,” Sherlock smiled, and John twitched. “It would help me a great deal if you could show me any photographs you happen to have from your May Day festivities three years ago, when Rowan Morrison was May Queen and you had a policeman from the mainland here trying to find her, under the impression that she was missing or dead.”
“I don't recall any such person, no. Rowan, of course, she was lovely, but I can't remember any policemen. But I don't keep those photographs. Except for the display at the inn, they're all in the personal collection of Lord Summerisle now.”
“Really. You never keep any copies for yourself.”
“Oh no, sir. And even if I did, I'd need Lord Summerisle's permission to show you.”
Sherlock nodded. “Exactly what I knew you'd say. I'll return, of course. Your shop is delightful.” His tone was snide and bitter, but John could tell he was actually sincere.
To Sherlock's disappointment a few shops were closed for the holiday. That gave them a little time to talk.
“They're really not giving us a thing,” John muttered. “Can't take a crap without Lord Summerisle's permission around here. So where are we going now?”
“We're going to get Lord Summerisle's permission, of course,” Sherlock said, turning and leading John up the cobblestoned street in the general direction of the gardens that led to the great manor house by the sea.
“So . . . everyone in this village is a member of this cult?” John asked. “They're raising all their kids that way?”
“You're catching on. They've done so for generations. Almost all of the people you see were born and raised here. This is their world. They have little interest in events on the mainland, and certainly no love of outsiders.”
“Oh.” John looked around him again with new eyes. “Well – they seem happy and healthy enough. Live and let live, I guess.”
“Indeed. Now consider Sgt. Howie. My sources tell me he was a devoutly religious man, of a strict, evangelical breed of Puritan Christianity. Authoritarian and sexually prudish by nature. I think you can see the inevitable culture clash that would have occurred.”
John let out a low whistle. “So – you think he pissed off the wrong people? Things got heated? They do, about religion. He got too nosy, he messed up some ceremony or other . . . there was a fight, he got killed, they got rid of the body and never told anyone? The whole town kind of sticks together, don't they?”
“They do,” Sherlock agreed. “I've investigated and researched so much organised crime, and this is the most airtight omertà I've ever seen. Well done!” His eyes were shining.
John shook his head with a tight little smile. “Okay, back down, fanboy.”
“No, no. That in itself is important. It's too airtight, and too uniform. This isn't a case of a coverup of a crime committed in the dark by a few people, with a few witnesses. Whatever happened to Sgt. Howie, there is virtually no one on this whole island who doesn't know exactly what happened. People who have a vague knowledge of a crime but don't know the details – well, you can always find someone who's willing to spin a fictional tale. There is none of that here. None. My working hypothesis is that the entire population of Summerisle knows exactly what happened to Neil Howie, because they witnessed it.”
John took a deep breath. “You think it was a ritual killing.”
“I'm almost sure of it. Lord Summerisle himself will give me the final key.”
The plot thickens . . .
Massive thank you to Winter_of_our_discontent and snogandagrope, most excellent betas and supporters!
Chapter 3: The Holly King
Lord Summerisle casts his long, dangerous shadow. Willow makes Sherlock an offer he shouldn't refuse. (He does.)
“Come along, John. It’s a nice long stroll, and by the time we get there, I’m sure Lord Summerisle will be expecting us.” Sherlock turned up his coat collar against the chill breeze, with a little smile. Mysterious. Cheekbones. Full of that charm he got when he was happily up to his long neck in a good puzzle. Goddammit.
They didn't make it very far up the road to Lord Summerisle's palatial home before being overtaken by a young man driving a horsecart. “I'm to give you a ride,” he said.
“Oh, it's fine, we don't mind the walk,” Sherlock said warily.
“I insist,” said the young man sternly.
Ah, John thought. An offer we can't refuse. An escort.
The driver held out his hand. “Branch Burns. Assistant to his lordship.”
“I'm John Watson,” John said, hoping to get out ahead this time. There was something about Burns's face that was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “And this is Sherlock Holmes.”
“I know,” said Branch tersely as John and Sherlock climbed into his cart.
There was barely room for three on the little seat, and John, squeezed into the middle, was acutely aware of the press of Sherlock's leg against his own, and how it might be more comfortable if Sherlock were to rest an arm against the back seat instead of constantly fidgeting about to stare at everything they passed so elbows bumped ribs with each twist and turn.
They rode through lush gardens and fields of sprouting vegetables. “Well, the crops look good this year, so far,” John said quietly.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Sherlock said. They had to guard everything they said in Burns's presence, they knew that. But what harm was there in a little speculation?
“Oh, that's pretty,” John said as they passed through an orchard, apple blossoms as far as the eye could see, luminous in the late-afternoon sun.
“Wait. Stop a moment,” Sherlock said. Before the driver could even actually get the horse to stop, Sherlock had vaulted out of the cart and virtually leapt into the orchard, studiously ignoring the pregnant women who strolled through, stroking branches, letting apple flowers fall through their fingers. He stood there, stiff and vibrating, sniffing the flowery air and seeming to test the breeze with his fingers. When he passed by some low-hanging branches, John was struck by the crazy image of flowers stuck in his hair.
“What is it? What did you see?” John asked as Sherlock climbed back on the cart.
“It's what I didn't see,” he said.
The little road took a curving path to the flat top of the hill, through lush semi-tropical gardens. John couldn't help but gasp a little as he got the first glimpse of Lord Summerisle's estate. That wasn't a manor house, it was a castle.
As if that wasn't enough, Sherlock nudged him at the sight of movement on the grounds, flashes of bright hair and flushed, smooth skin. Up on a hill there was a ring of standing stones, and within it a dozen young women were dancing around a small bonfire, singing a chanting song and taking turns leaping the little blaze, every one of them naked as the day they were born. The song was led and guided by an older fair-haired woman in a white robe. John looked closer and blinked. She looked very different out in the open like this – a pagan priestess with an image of the sun on her breast, with her hair let down from the elaborate style she wore in the schoolroom, completely shed of modest blouse and prim pearls. It was Miss Rose, and she led the girls' dance with an air of power and skill, seeming to weave light with her hands.
“Down, boy,” Sherlock muttered with a smirk.
“I wasn't - I didn't - ” John stammered.
“I can hear you think sometimes, you know. When it's that loud.”
But you can't always hear it right, can you now? John thought.
The house seemed even bigger and grander inside if that was even possible, and as Branch Burns led them in, John gazed up at the decorations in awe. Every available surface of wall was covered: by portraits of nobles and Highland clan chiefs in tartan finery, by windswept landscapes of mountains and sky and sea and forest. In every large enough blank space in between them were weapons: swords and spears and rifles and axes, and a vast display of horns and antlers – more kinds than John had known existed in the world.
Sherlock was admiring a gigantic set of pipes built into the wall above an intricate console of keys and pedals. “Look, John,” he said. “Lord Summerisle has a very large organ.”
“Oh my god,” John snorted. “Are you really twelve years old?”
“It's the soil here,” Sherlock said. “It grows innuendo.”
John found himself wandering to the window again, where the naked girls were still singing and leaping the bonfire one by one in an elaborate formation.
“I take it the sight of healthy human bodies in their natural state does not offend either of you,” said a deep voice from behind them that wasn't Sherlock's, and John nearly jumped out of his skin.
Lord Summerisle rose out of the big leather chair by the fire and approached them, gracefully. He had thick brown hair with patches of grey, deep dark brown eyes, and several inches of height over Sherlock. There was a lean sort of strength about him in his deceivingly homely tweed jacket. A fearful symmetry, John thought.
“No, of course not,” John said. “I'm a doctor. It's good to see healthy ones.”
“Why would it offend us?” Sherlock asked.
Lord Summerisle smiled indulgently. “On the rare occasion that we have visitors, there have been a few incidents where certain sensibilities were upset. Some find it difficult to adjust to our ways. But of course nudity is the safest and most practical costume for jumping bonfires.”
“No doubt,” Sherlock said, with the tone of someone who did doubt it. “Anything in particular they're hoping to achieve?”
“Parthenogenesis. They're hoping to receive the blessing of the god of the fire, and so to conceive.”
Sherlock gave this a moment of focused thought, rather more than John thought it deserved. “Parthenogenesis has been observed in a few much simpler species, but the offspring are always female. If this method actually worked reliably, I'd expect to see a much more widely skewed gender balance among the population here.”
“Oh, that's a relief, you're a scientist,” Lord Summerisle smiled. “Are you a religious man, Mr. Holmes?” he asked, circling Sherlock slowly.
“No,” Sherlock said firmly. “But the subject sometimes interests me. There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion, and it's fascinating to see the leaps some spiritual minds make. Claiming that the mere existence of aesthetically-pleasing plant genitals are suggestive of the existence of a benevolent god, for example.”
“So you aren't about to rain down Old Testament wrath upon us,” Summerisle said, grinning.
“Hardly,” Sherlock said. “But at least you admit to remembering someone who did. Or who tried. For all the good that it did him.”
Lord Summerisle moved over to the piano and started picking out the notes of their song, watching the girls. His deep brown eyes noted Sherlock watching his fingers. “Are you a musician?”
Sherlock nodded. “I play the violin; I find it helps me think.”
“He's really good,” John blurted.
Summerisle smiled and kept playing. “I have my grandmother's Guarneri still. Perhaps if you need help thinking, we could have a tune of you.”
Sherlock blinked. “I think I'm thinking just fine, Lord Summerisle.”
“Are you representing the law, Mr. Holmes?” Summerisle said, stilling his hand and standing up straight.
“Call me Sherlock, I'm bored with archaic pretence. I'm representing the fiancee of the late Sgt Howie. She was the one who engaged my services.”
“Ah yes, your services,” Summerisle said with a little leer. He was standing way too close to Sherlock for John's comfort. “The great detective and his faithful chronicler. I'm not completely oblivious to celebrities of the mainland. You must suspect us all of covering up a murder, mustn't you?”
“I do,” Sherlock said. John flinched. “But I'm always curious to hear about the circumstances. You have a fascinating little fiefdom here,” Sherlock said, flickering his hands around him to indicate the whole of Summerisle. “I'm open to the possibility that you acted to remove a perceived threat.”
“Well, yes and no, Mr. Holmes,” Lord Summerisle said. “Come, walk with me. You too, Dr. Watson.” He led them down a hallway and out a low door, onto a terraced garden lush with growth. “Fine old name, Holmes,” he said. “'Dweller by the holly tree.' You should come and visit us at Yuletide – we grow spectacular garlands.
“My great-grandfather came here for the remoteness of the isle and the healthy qualities of its air,” Lord Summerisle went on, “and for the cheap labour its residents could provide, I admit. He was a scientist and agronomist who loved the rich volcanic soil of the island, and the warm gulf streams from the sea that made the climate milder and the growing season longer than you'd expect in this latitude. It proved perfect for the new strains of fruits and vegetables that he'd developed. And with typical mid-Victorian zeal, he made the land fertile, with a potent mix of science and magic.”
“And the . . . religious nonconformism?”
“It was a way of maintaining the loyalty of the islanders. The Christian God – well, he left them to struggle and starve, didn't he? But now, the joyous old gods, the gods of the fields and the forest and the sky and the sea, of the harvest and hunt, of love and desire – combined with the new fertility provided by science, those gods proved themselves worthy of the people's love.”
“Hmm,” Sherlock said, bending down to examine the soil between stones on the garden path.
“And what my great-grandfather began out of expediency, my grandfather and my father after him continued out of love. And so I was raised – to honour the old gods and the music and pageantry of their worship. To love nature, and sometimes to fear it. To celebrate it, and show gratitude, and appease it when necessary.”
John gave a little gasp at this, as if Lord Summerisle had confessed something, but Sherlock seemed to barely register it at all.
“How were the crops last year?” Sherlock asked suddenly.
“Ah,” Summerisle said a little sadly. “Not what we would have hoped for. It wasn't a catastrophic failure, but I fear it bodes ill for the season ahead.”
“You need to prevent another disaster like the one a few years ago. Your power base is threatened.”
“The faith of my people is not so weak as all that, Sherlock,” he said with a crafty smile.
“But your island's economy might be.”
“We've branched out into greater crop diversity in recent years,” Lord Summerisle said. “I'm not so worried as I might once have been. Monoculture is very risky, and I want my people to have self-sufficiency. There is little we need that we have to import.”
“Except fresh blood?” Sherlock said.
John shivered. Not for the first time, he was realising how isolated they were here. They had even arrived across the water only on Lord Summerisle's sufferance. They had no private, safe communication, no independent transportation, and that idea was starting to make his blood run cold in the crisp April evening. How had he even allowed Sherlock and himself to walk into this situation? Lord Summerisle was civil enough, seemed to be amused rather than enraged by, well, Sherlock being Sherlock, but Sherlock's whole purpose here was to expose a well-kept secret, and really, if worst came to worst, the best they could hope for was someone investigating their disappearance well after the fact. And the person trying to do that simply couldn't be as good at it as Sherlock Holmes.
As if reading his thoughts, Sherlock gave John a little smile and nod. It was meant to be reassuring, and yet it failed. He's overreached before, John thought.
“We don't see new faces nearly often enough,” Lord Summerisle said, and John was hoping he was just getting paranoid and way too eager to interpret his smile as ever so slightly predatory. He and Sherlock were circling each other like wary cats, pretending friendly indifference – and there could be hissing and claws at any moment. “I'm glad to show off our lovely island. Please feel free to investigate wherever you like. You have my permission.”
“Thank you,” Sherlock said, nodding almost respectfully. “And if you don't mind, I'd like to continue with your library.”
“Be my guest,” Lord Summerisle said as he walked them back to the great house, through the parlour and into a huge room lined with walls and walls of heavy wooden bookshelves. Science and literature and agriculture and religion and travel and history; Summerisle was well-read, or at least well-collected.
“Might we borrow a few volumes?” Sherlock asked. “John has been struggling a bit with the lack of internet at the Green Man. He's used to having something to read before bedtime.”
“Yeah,” John said. “I am.”
“Your friend knows your needs well,” Summerisle said. “Of course you may. So you will be spending another night with us, then?”
“You knew we would,” said Sherlock, picking up a book with a pleased little hum. “Oh, this old book on beekeeping. A classic, but badly out of date.”
“Also by a Holmes, I note,” said Lord Summerisle. “A relation of yours?”
“Distantly, yes,” said Sherlock.
“You'd best be getting back to your inn before long,” Summerisle said. “As much as I'm enjoying this visit, I think you probably still have work today. I'll have Branch call ahead and make sure your room is still held.” He nodded at an old-fashioned wall-mount phone and turned away.
“Landlines, nothing but landlines,” John griped under his breath. “Not even any ansaphones. I know they're trying to time-travel to pre-Christian times, but it's like they got stuck in the 1970s.”
“Patience, John. You're getting to know their ways.”
John shook his head at Sherlock. “You like it here!”
“So far I do,” Sherlock admitted. “I'm not bored yet.”
“That isn't reassuring,” John said.
“Why do you need reassurance?” Sherlock snapped.
“Because things are starting to get really, really creepy.”
Sherlock didn't deny it.
Dusk was falling as Branch Burns pulled up his horse cart to take them back to the village. Sherlock insisted on sitting in the middle this time, and he was restless – shifting about from side to side, so that his thigh kept brushing John's in the most distracting way, and at least once John took an elbow to the ribs when Sherlock whirled around suddenly to look at something or other, never explaining, never saying a word.
John felt someone ought to, so he found himself trying to make stilted conversation across Sherlock. “So tomorrow's a big day, huh?”
“One of the biggest of the year,” Burns said. “Glad you're staying. You'll see.”
“So it's like . . . mummers, and a bonfire and a maypole and all that?”
“And all that,” Burns said. He wasn't the greatest conversationalist.
“Stop!” Sherlock yelled.
Burns yanked back on the reins, and the horse huffed angrily. Sherlock bolted from the cart and hopped a low hedge, approaching a low stone wall that guarded the approach to the sea. He looked down at the ground for a long moment, with his shoulders hunched and his back turned, then he picked up a stone and threw it across the water. Even over the wind, John thought he could hear Sherlock's triumphant laugh.
“What's he doing?” Burns asked.
“No idea,” John said. “Probably something to help him think.”
The chilling sea wind billowed Sherlock's coat out around him, hiding anything he might be doing, except he really seemed to be getting a lot of enjoyment from throwing rocks into the water. “Come walk with me, John,” he yelled.
“Oh . . . all right?” John looked at Burns questioningly. Burns nodded, but looked very put upon.
When John reached Sherlock, he had a flat, smooth black rock in his hand, about the size of a mobile phone. “Volcanic, just like Lord Summerisle said,” Sherlock said cheerfully. “Igneous gabbro. There are protrusions of this throughout the Hebrides. Your Cuillins on Skye, for example.”
“Did you think Summerisle was making it up?” John asked, utterly baffled.
“Just wanted to make sure,” Sherlock said and walked with him in silence for a few minutes, back and forth along the water. His keen eyes scanned the shoreline on either side – the cliffs above and around them rugged and harsh and riddled with caves.
“You know something you're not telling me,” John said reproachfully. “Lots of things.”
“I'm percolating,” Sherlock snapped as he turned and led John grudgingly back to the horsecart. He said nothing for the rest of the ride back to the Green Man Inn.
John thanked Burns for the ride as Sherlock hopped out and strode on ahead, fast and preoccupied. He wondered if one was supposed to tip kidnappers or strongarm escorts or whatever Burns really was underneath that blank surface. It was a habit by now, sweetening the sting of time spent with Sherlock by those who weren't used to it.
In their room that night, John was tense and felt cooped up. He paced, he placed himself stiffly on the bed with a book that was too dry to take him out of himself. Sherlock sat still in the chair by the window, looking out at the garden and the sky and listening to the sounds of chattering voices below. Then he took out a book and began to read, and his concentration seemed absolute.
And then they heard a husky female voice crooning, “Sherlock . . .”
That was all she said. It was Willow, it had to be Willow, on the other side of the door.
She struck out a soft beat with her hand on the wall. It matched the beat of the bodhran downstairs.
The walls were so thin, her voice cut clear through as she sang so softly and seductively.
Sherlock never lifted his head from the books he'd pilfered from Lord Summerisle's private library. He just kept reading.
John heard every word that came out in that voice: tender, seductive, inviting, longing, almost begging. He could almost see her on the other side of the wall; naked, swaying, lovely, caressing herself.
The history of the Highland clans, courtesy of Lord Summerisle, that he'd been reading fell aside as he began to sweat. Blood pooled in his groin and his jeans grew tight; he loosened his collar as the siren song filled him with a terribly embarrassing need he could never confess. Now he was attuned to every word of Willow's song, her promise of touches as gentle as a feather and sun-at-midnight, wonders shown, and her song did what it was meant to; it weaved itself into every thread of his body and made him crave.
But he knew he was not the object of her call. Her spell, even. Sherlock stayed in his chair, reading his book, completely impassive.
John made a tight little movement that made the fabric of his underpants scrape the surface of his swelling cock, and he struggled to calm himself. Just one little whimper caught Sherlock's attention, and he found himself the focus of that gaze that bared everything. “John. This is really affecting you.”
“You're in distress,” Sherlock said as he stood up, alarmed. (Of course John glanced at his groin. Saw nothing unusual.)
“Yes,” John said.
“I'll make it stop,” Sherlock said, and he went to the door their room shared with Willow's, and turned the knob before John could stop him.
The door was unlocked and Willow was waiting – standing against the door frame with one curvy hip cocked, her round breasts and firm belly lightly sheened in sweat from her dancing. The smile she gave Sherlock was ravishing, and John squirmed miserably as she touched him, one small hand on his forearm, pushing his rolled-up sleeve higher. The contrast between her nudity and his fully-dressed state was so sexy John had to look away. “Good evening,” she said, the insinuation clear that she had every intention of making it better.
“Are you trying to seduce me?” Sherlock asked. The answer was obvious to him, but he was interested in how she'd phrase her reply.
“Oooh, you're a good detective,” she said with a wink. “You seem like a red-blooded man who wouldn't turn down an honest night's sporting.”
“If you think that, then you're not a very good one,” Sherlock said. He peeled her hand off his chest and placed it back down by her side, paying no attention to her round hips or pert bum or inviting triangular tuft of hair. John shivered and groaned, and he wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed. Something about the idea of Sherlock taking Willow up on her offer, taking her in his arms, letting her undress him . . . God, it made him want to come and vomit at the same time.
“I imagine you aren't turned down very often, are you?” Sherlock said.
“No,” she said, a little edge in her voice. “And you'd be wiser if you didn't. You really should let me have you, and it really should be tonight of all nights.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I'm trying to save you,” Willow said frankly.
Sherlock's head snapped up and his spine straightened. John couldn't see all of his face, but the half of it that was out of the shadows was focused and almost entranced, gears in his brain turning madly.
“You've done this before. And what's in it for you? Oh, of course. You enjoy it. And it's your job. You give the condemned man a last chance.”
“You're a fool not to take it.”
“Maybe I am. But as well as you fit the prevailing standards of beauty in women, you are simply not stirring me at all, I'm sorry to inform you.”
“Not at all?” Willow said, with a coquettish pout.
“Nope,” Sherlock said, popping the P brattishly, and looking at her like a slow child, waiting for the penny to drop.
“Oh!” she said. “Oh, I see! Not the Goddess Aphrodite for you, but the God Eros. Well, no hard feelings then. So to speak. I could suggest Spruce, the butcher's son, he's a very well-made lad, and he swings that way...”
“That would hardly suit the purpose of . . . fertility,” Sherlock said, coldly amused.
“It's symbolic,” Willow said.
“Ah!” Sherlock said. “So you've modernised a bit. Glad to hear it. Gerald Gardner's conception of the primordial witch-cult's rites is oppressively heterosexual, although the emphasis on scourging is certainly an intriguing direction to --”
“Never mind,” Sherlock said, smirking a little. “Anyway, thank you for your kind offer, Willow. I do appreciate it.” He slammed the door in her face.
“Oh God, Sherlock,” John said, horrified. But a little fascinated. “What is it with you and women wanting to talk to you while they’re naked?”
“Twice could still be a coincidence,” Sherlock shrugged.
“Figures you’d have that power and not even appreciate it,” John said.
“Come on, John, let’s go for a walk. You need fresh air. Go masturbate in the lavatory quickly, I’ll wait. No, wait! You should do it outside. The rosebushes are looking peaky.”
Chapter 4: The Burning Times
Summerisle isn't a united front after all, and Sherlock takes on two new clients. He's just declined an indecent proposal - now it's his turn to make one.
“Rosebushes, goddammit,” John muttered as he and Sherlock struggled through them. Or rather, he struggled, his clothes torn and skin scratched by thorns.
Sherlock stood on the other side of the hedge, moonlight shimmering on his face – and John knew that look. Lost to the world at the moment, wheels upon wheels, data flickering by at a blinding pace. Sherlock's hands moved unconsciously, placing ideas into a chain, linking it, weaving it. The force of his mind buffeted him about like a high wind sometimes.
John was torn between his training - the time he’d spent learning how to speak Sherlock, an exacting discipline in itself - to get the hell out of the way of that force of nature, and his own need to know and to understand. Sherlock would explain himself when he was good and ready, and not a moment before.
Sherlock had a big smile spreading across his face now. “If I'm right, I can go anywhere I like tonight. Do anything I want.” His strange, fey glee was infectious. “No one on all Summerisle would dare to do me harm tonight. But I don't think that applies to you, John. Stay close to me.”
“You've got that face again,” John said. “That 'we both know what's going on here' face. You know that pisses me off.”
“Try to keep up,” Sherlock said.
“No, no, you don't get to pull that. I need to know what's going on. What she meant when she said she was trying to save you.” John was tense, standing his ground stubbornly, but perilously close to grabbing Sherlock’s arm to hold him still until he gave some damn explanations. Just a few facts, goddammit.
“She was testing me,” Sherlock said tersely, pulling up his coat collar.
“Oh, that clears it all up. I understand everything now,” John said, throwing up his hands.
“Of course not.” But Sherlock had already outpaced him up the little cobblestone street, towards the graveyard.
The moonlit way seemed to call for silence, as did Sherlock's preoccupied manner, so John held his tongue and listened to the night sounds of Summerisle. There were owls in the trees, and the roar of the sea was coming closer.
“Sherlock?” John felt compelled to whisper for some reason.
“Why do you think you can do anything you want tonight?”
“Because something very important is supposed to happen to me tomorrow. No Summerislander would dare to interfere with that.” He stopped still, and froze. “Unless . . . Oh yes. Unless some would. Yes, that explains a great deal. But not everything. Come with me, I need to test a hypothesis.”
“Sherlock, I have no idea what you - ” Damn it. Sherlock’s oblique blather was coming dangerously close to losing its charm.
He turned on his heel and headed back to the town with John on right behind, striding double-time to keep up and make sure Sherlock never left his sight. It was a nice night for villagers to be out, and in twos and threes they strolled – and in twos and threes they celebrated the season. John nearly tripped over a couple that turned out to be two young men, and one of them managed to give him an appreciative leer from a very awkward position.
Sherlock grabbed John's arm and pulled him into a row of hedges behind the main street's shops, his grip tight on John's wrist, and John felt something warm and strong and very ill-timed blooming low in his belly. In the bushes with Sherlock. God.
The pale light of a streetlamp gleamed for a moment in Sherlock's eyes as he stared at John for just a beat too long. Then he was off down a little alley, pulling up short behind Lennox's shop.
“This lock is just an insult,” Sherlock said.
“Surprised they even bother to lock it at all around here. I'm sure he's got a curse on anyone who tries to break in.”
“He doesn't lock it,” Sherlock said. “This lock is new. Never used til now. And not even shut all the way.”
“Do you think it's a trap?”
“Either that or a pantomime,” Sherlock said.
He fell silent and looked up suddenly – not to the flat at the top of the shop but one two doors down where a window opened. John had to take a second to register what he was seeing, for at first it seemed like some horrible mythological creature in the window. But then he realised it was just another reveler in a mask, a hawk or an eagle of some sort. By the size and silhouette of the figure, a woman. She was watching them like, well, a hawk.
“All right, well, that blew that setup,” Sherlock said quietly and cheerfully. “Walk with me, and we'll see what follows us.” And as they got farther from the street, he bent to whisper in John's ear. “And I'll tell you what we would have found in there.”
Far behind them, they heard a window slam angrily, and the sound of running footsteps. Not in their direction.
Down the road, the village streets turned into a paved path, gradually leaving the village behind and climbing a little rise. The path wound its way by a gleaming river, lined by oak trees and hedges. The lights of the village fell away and they were left with only the moon to show their path, but it was bright enough. Pointless to even ask where we're going, John thought.
The rustles in the woods and the occasional flickers of torchlight and fire moving in dancelike patterns off in the distance were eerie, but they didn't faze John anymore. “What would we have found in there?”
“Photographs of the harvest in recent years. And photographs of the May Day rite, particularly those from three years ago.”
“The ones Lennox said he didn't have.”
“Yes. He wasn't lying. They would have been planted there very recently, for the same reason Lord Summerisle loaned me the books he did. But the photographs were not planted by Lord Summerisle.”
“You're not really telling me very much. What is in those photographs?”
“Depending on who planted them, either everything but Neil Howie's death, or everything including it. Someone besides us has been doing things without Lord Summerisle's permission.”
“Surprised anyone would be so bold,” John said. “Whatever it is. It’s bound to happen, though. They can’t all be as happy as they look.”
“You think it’s some sort of political dissent?” Sherlock asked, amused.
“You’re the one with the theories,” John said.
“I think we ought to speak with him again,” Sherlock said and turned back up the path out of the village. When they passed through the graveyard, they saw a grizzled man digging a fresh grave by lanternlight, and he let out the most inappropriate of giggles.
“Want to see?” he said to them, appropos of nothing, and showed them a severed stag’s head in a coffin. “Chop chop,” he said, still laughing.
“Christ,” John muttered as they walked away.
The path rose sharply outside of the village and passed out of the gardens and onto bare, treeless hills. The towers of Lord Summerisle’s manor were visible along the horizon, getting closer and closer, and over it all was the sound of the sea. The sea cliffs came up on them almost too suddenly, and John didn’t like it one bit when Sherlock stood too close to the edge, looking down at the white foam beating itself violently against the sharp rock spires. Hills rising around them had sinister openings in them, sharp mouths of stony caves. “Wonder what’s hidden in there,” John muttered, shuddering. Everything about Summerisle by night seemed designed to excite all the dark places of the imagination, bringing out primal fears - the folk of the hollow hills, the restless dead, the hungry gods.
“It’s more what’s hidden in plain sight,” Sherlock said, leading him up a half-cliff.
“What . . . the fuck . . . is that?” John breathed, staring at the human-shaped colossus silhouetted against the sky.
“It’s a wicker man, John. A sacrificial effigy, to be burnt tomorrow. Do close your mouth before something flies into it.”
“I just . . . I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Sure you have. Every Bonfire Night. Just not usually on such a grand scale. Anyway, there’s no credible evidence that Druids actually burned their human sacrifices inside one of those - the only sources are Roman, and they’re just a bit biased. However, whether the Druids ever really did or not, I’m now fairly sure that Summerislanders have done it at least once.”
John stood back for a moment, taking it all in, and his mind was starting to reel with horror as possibilities flooded his mind and all his instincts were telling him that the most repugnant fantasy of dread he could come up with was probably the most accurate.
“And you still want to go talk to Lord Summerisle again?” John asked. His own impulses were all about fight-or-flight now, and Sherlock still wanted to chat.
“It’s all the more important now,” Sherlock said. “I imagine he knows that I know. Honestly I’m surprised we haven’t already been picked up and made an offer of a ride we can’t refuse. The kidnapping service here is terrible tonight. If we have to walk, I’m not tipping.”
A cool briny breeze rose from the sea and lifted Sherlock’s hair and dripped ice down John’s spine. “I really think we should get out of here,” John said as they walked back downhill to the gentle hills that surrounded the apple orchard. The sweet scent of the blossoms seemed ominous now. Everything did. “There’s got a be a way."
“The only way out is through,” Sherlock said. “It’s not as bad as it seems. I have bargaining chips.”
John was not reassured.
The moon had won clear of the clouds by the time they reached the long lane to Summerisle Manor. Sherlock had to pound on the door twice with the wild-faced foliate-head door-knocker before a handsome middle-aged woman opened the door. “Hello, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson. I’m Ivy, the housekeeper. Mr. Burns has the night off. Lord Summerisle is expecting you.”
“Of course he is. Thank you, Ivy.”
Summerisle’s parlour was transformed by candlelight and a roaring fire in the grand hearth. Upon the white fur rug sat Miss Rose, lovely and radiant in her mature beauty, in a simple blue gown that set off her big eyes. Lord Summerisle was in what must be his customary evening wear, kilt and jacket and lace, seated at the piano and playing. Miss Rose and Lord Summerisle finished the chorus of their bawdy song (her voice rich and flirtatious, his deep and grand) before either paused to acknowledge their guests.
Then Lord Summerisle was all courtesy, rising from the piano bench to pour drinks from a decanter on an elaborate sideboard. “Good evening and welcome. Do have some excellent whisky,” he said to Sherlock and John, “The genuine article - we have our own distillery here, and we guard its products closely. You cannot get this in London for any price. And it's making my ancestors weep to see me serving it in good fellowship to Sassenachs. But of course, I do have English friends, in these more cosmopolitan times.” He poured a tiny splash of cool water in each glass - not to water it down but to bring out the flavour.
Three glasses, three fingers each. John waited to see if Sherlock would sip. He did. So he followed, and just the tiny burn of it in his mouth was glorious: it tasted like forests smell, with undertones of rich peat and sea salt.
Sherlock turned around and fixed his eyes on Summerisle with a hard stare. “Neil Howie was a very religious man, of a strict and puritanical Christian fundamentalist sect. Every single aspect of your way of life here would have horrified him. Even by believers' standards, he was naïve and demagogic, and obviously prayed his way through every single session of diversity training that even the backwater police forces make a token stab at nowadays, rather than listening. I can think of no worse person in all Britain to actually solve a mystery on your island. So I have to conclude that his competence was not the reason he received an anonymous call aimed directly at him.” He paced about in little stalking cat steps, back and forth across the window through which they’d watched naked girls dancing mere hours before. The rhythm of his speech seemed to bounce him a little, one tiny hop on his toes as he reached his own glorious conclusion. He turned and met Summerisle’s gaze, daring him to refute a word of it.
Lord Summerisle's eyes were just as capable of holding a prey pinned fast. “So I'm sure you already understand that he was summoned for other reasons. Certain criteria that he met.”
“I found the book that was so crudely laid out for me in your library, yes. I have to say, I do not represent the law in any official capacity. I'm called in when the Queen's law fails, which is all too often.”
“You are here of your own free will. You can't resist a mystery,” Summerisle said, creeping closer and using his height advantage.
“I'm not a fool,” Sherlock said. “At least not all the time.”
“Sometimes you are,” Summerisle said, and nodded his head at John. “And the last, well. Let's not speak of the last yet. I do read the papers, Mr. Holmes. I'm willing to treat you as a peer because I read between the lines of your initiation experience. You had a death and resurrection. You gave up everything: your work, your home, your possessions, your reputation, the company of your friends and family, even your name. Many who loved you believed you dead, and you let them. You spent two years in the underworld—alone, virtually naked, living by your wits, a walking fighting corpse. You risked your life again and again even after you had ‘died.’ And you survived and you rose again and came home. Many religions revere a figure who has done something similar. Including our own. Including Mr. Howie's,” Summerisle chuckled.
“I hardly did it with that intention,” Sherlock said, with a tight smile that didn’t rise to his eyes.
“All the better. You did it because Fate called you to. You are the Holly King, the winter incarnation of the God who dies and rises again,” Lord Summerisle finally concluded, with something resembling a calm benevolence, perhaps even admiration.
“I did what seemed necessary at the time,” Sherlock said, trying to avoid looking at John too long. “It came at a price and I have my regrets.”
“The Holly King dies at Beltane,” Miss Rose said. “It is time then for the young Oak King to mate with the young Goddess, and together they rule until the turn of the year.”
“Yes, that's a nicely symmetrical mythology,” Sherlock said. “Is that why I was lured here? Because I've already died and risen from the grave, you think I'd be amenable to doing it again?”
Summerisle started for just a moment, as Sherlock fixed him with a piercing gaze. “You knew I was coming. But you knew it after the fact. It was not on your orders, not originally. You have a power struggle on your hands here.”
“You're better at this than the unfortunate Howie, that's for certain,” Summerisle said. “That is true.”
“Last year's crop failure wasn't as bad as the year of Rowan Morrison. Your own opinion was that a human sacrifice isn't needed. Is that true?”
“Tell me, this is the only thing I'm not certain of. If Howie hadn't come to the island, would you have sacrificed Rowan?”
“That question was rendered irrelevant.”
“It's never irrelevant,” Sherlock said. “How about this scenario: what if Howie had taken Willow MacGregor up on her generous offer the night before?” Sherlock paced the room, arms crossed, tapping his lips with a forefinger, lost in thought. “If he'd betrayed his religious principles regarding sexuality, would he have then have been unfit as an offering? It would have removed one of the criteria he met.”
“She was a test,” Miss Rose said matter-of-factly.
“Yes, of course. One which I also – was it passed? Or failed? You must know that by now, she must have called you right away.”
“She did,” Lord Summerisle said. “It's remarkable, Sherlock Holmes. You've undergone the rite of passage that men most dread, and yet you've never had the initiation that most men desire. The intimate touch of a lover, a willing body wrapped around your own, giving yourself to a sweet and life-affirming ecstasy.”
John shivered at this – god, Lord Summerisle's voice could sell coal in Newcastle. And John wouldn't need much persuasion to want what he was selling.
“And I still haven't quite deduced how you could possibly know that,” Sherlock snapped.
“I have it on good authority from someone who knew you. Not in the Biblical sense of course, and not for lack of trying,” Lord Summerisle said with a sly little grin. “Someone who knows what I like.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Oh, for God's sake! Is there anything the woman hasn't had her fingers in?”
“You, apparently,” said Summerisle, managing to make it sound dignified.
“And she's still in my business after all these years. So you do enjoy a bit of the ritual scourging, as Gardner recommended, then?”
Lord Summerisle’s eyebrows gave a little twitch, as if he were shrugging with them. “I have found it good for my constitution, yes. Now, you've as good as admitted that Miss Adler's information was at least at one time accurate. And the expression on your face now is suggesting it's still true.”
John was shaking his head. He'd suspected it, but to have it all but confirmed was still a little bit of a shock. “So you really are . . .”
“But here, now, Sherlock,” Lord Summerisle said softly, reassuringly. “It's all fine if the charms of women don't move you.” John almost jumped out of his chair as Lord Summerisle touched one fingertip to that little curl at the nape of Sherlock's neck. “We could certainly find you an acceptable alternative.” His lips were close to Sherlock's ear, and Sherlock had frozen still.
“There are several types of sacrifices,” Sherlock said, hands clenching and unclenching with nervous excitement. “The fire and the sea. The blade and the blood. The crop failure was bad that year and the sacrifice of Sergeant Howie had to be spectacular. And it was. There are those among your people who loved that spectacle, who crave it. Who desire an escalation – ever-increasing. Who will not be happy in a year when a less dreadful sacrifice is required. Once you've burnt a man alive, some won't settle for simply butchering pigs and pouring ale in the sea.” He pulled away from Lord Summerisle – with some reluctance? Oh God, John thought, oh no, that can't happen – and paced the room. He stared Miss Rose in the face, watching her responses. “You, Miss Rose. You're the High Priestess. Lord Summerisle is the figurehead but you're the real power in spiritual matters. You don't want a fatal sacrifice this year.”
She clearly wanted to keep her cards close to her chest, but her sad smile suggested that Sherlock was right.
“You need a spectacle, but you'd rather not raise the stakes any higher than they've already gone. Hmmm, a virgin sacrifice,” Sherlock said pensively. “There are two ways to take that. You'll kill me if you have to, but you'd rather not. You can't have the people expecting to witness a gruesome death every year. After all, if the crops fail disastrously again, whose sacrifice will be required? One of your village's own children? More than one? Lord Summerisle himself? Yourself?”
“Sergeant Howie made that same point,” Lord Summerisle said, droll and deadpan.
“Too late for him,” Sherlock said. “And he would never have agreed to play the game by your rules. He was easy to dupe, but he never would have bent. I just might.”
Miss Rose nodded. “He was a threat and a walking insult. He was completely convinced that we kill children. He had such contempt for us that he wanted to believe that. He would never, ever respect our ways.”
“And you think that I do?” Sherlock said. “Well, maybe respect is a strong word.”
“'At least you don't have a crucifix up your arse.”
Sherlock chuckled. “Not sure I want a maypole up there either. I can certainly imagine the unpleasantness of the small talk. I never had the pleasure of meeting him.”
“I know pleasure, Mr. Holmes, and that was not one,” Miss Rose said with a vulpine grin. “As to the symbolic maypole, it can feel rather nice.”
“So I'm told,” Sherlock said. He thought for a moment, looked at John and smiled a smile that wasn't unlike Miss Rose's, and all the hairs on the back of John's neck rose and tingled. Several other ones did too. Usual response to danger, John told himself. I know that about myself at least. “The sacrifice you wanted, Miss Rose . . . the sacrifice of the chalice and the blade, will that do? What some call the Great Rite? The seeding of the fields?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And you, Lord Summerisle? Would that be a show that your bloodthirsty serfs could enjoy?”
“Serfs, Holmes, really? Is that necessary? Besides, under the right conditions, under these conditions, it's not what my people want. It's what the gods demand.”
“Your goddess of the fields, what would she want to receive, then? How much is willingness worth to her?”
“A great deal,” Miss Rose said. “A very great deal. What you are suggesting is what my heart is telling me is right. For this year.”
Sherlock nodded. “All right then. I'll take your case, Miss Rose. Yours too, Lord Summerisle. I accept and consent.”
John really did jump out of his chair. “What?”
Sherlock held up his hand. “On two conditions--”
“You're hardly in a position to demand conditions, Mr. Holmes,” Lord Summerisle said. “We're all well aware that you and Dr. Watson have no way to escape this island without my knowledge.”
“On the contrary, I am. If I refuse to play your way, you will have to kill me, and I can't imagine John standing for that without a fight. You'll have two more murders on your hands, you'll have to do this every year, and eventually it will be you.” Sherlock laid a hand over the surface of Lord Summerisle’s piano, tapped out a nervous rhythm with his fingertips that changed to a slow ominous light beat. “And, worst of all, you will never find out who is trying to undermine you and take over. Not until it's too late. But if you play the game in the way I'm willing, you will. Those people will be flushed out. And best of all,” he said with a proud, dramatic little flourish of his hands, “Your crops will not fail.”
“And here I thought you weren't a believer.”
“I'm not. I don't have to be.”
Summerisle and Miss Rose stared at him and matching smiles of light crossed their faces. Feral smiles, smiles of something clicking into place.
“Very well, Sherlock,” Lord Summerisle said. “I must say, reports of your genius and the lengths to which you're willing to go have not been exaggerated. What are your conditions?”
“That allowance is made for my natural inclinations, and I don't care if it doesn't fit your symbolism. The second is that I get to choose my . . . swordsman.”
“Agreed,” Miss Rose said.
“Acceptable,” Lord Summerisle said. “We are heathens, yes, but not, we hope, unenlightened ones.”
John was still feeling the floor wobbling a bit beneath his feet and a severe sense of unreality setting in, and his brain felt even foggier than usual. “Your . . . swordsman,” he said, staring at Sherlock.
“The Great Rite is an offering of pleasure to the gods,” Miss Rose said. “There's little to fear.”
“My partner in that act, not my executioner,” Sherlock said with a shrug and a little huff of disgust. “It'll cost me nothing but something that has no real meaning. Virginity is just a conceptual construct, John. It's not a thing in itself. It's a lack of a thing – of a specific experience. It's not useful in any way, but it's also completely harmless so I've always ignored it. Well, up until now it's been harmless. Now it's proving quite a liability. It's outlived its uselessness.”
Everything in the room fell away to the sides of John's mind except Sherlock's face, as the light of understanding dawned like a flashing strobe. “But . . . okay. I understand that, I really do,” John flailed. “You snark on me for being a romantic all the time, and yeah. It's true. I guess I am,” He looked down, embarrassed but full of conviction, speaking more softly but unable to look Sherlock full in the eyes. “I think your first time should be special.”
“I'm to be ritually deflowered in a pagan ceremony, possibly by a man wearing a mask and antlers or some such, while a whole town looks on, in the belief that human sexual displays have some sort of beneficial effect on agriculture. I'm not sure how much more special I could take.”
John's eyes darted helplessly to the walls, to the windows, looking for help. Helpless he remained. There really was nothing that Sherlock wouldn't use in the pursuit of a puzzle, was there? “I just . . . I think it should be someone you trust. Someone who cares about you.”
“Believe it or not, I agree. That's why my first choice to do the honours is you.”
All right, that floor really was wavering now. Even Lord Summerisle was sympathetic. “Sit, Dr. Watson, please. Shocks are much better absorbed with the knees bent. Here, that's a good fellow.” He took John's glass and refilled it, and John chugged it in just the way whisky of that quality should not be chugged.
“Your first choice,” was all John managed to growl out.
“Yes, of course. I've always found you attractive, since the day we met, and that effect has increased over time, not diminished. You're very loyal to me, you're certainly brave enough to handle this, and I know that you do have sexual feelings towards me, and that the customs of Summerisle are inflaming your already highly active libido. I don't think I'm asking you to do anything that you don't already want to do. But of course you can refuse, and I'll find an alternative. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, I think Lord Summerisle himself has been sending signals that he's not completely averse to claiming the droit du seigneur . . .”
“Oh God. Sherlock. Just --”
“Lay off it a bit, Mr. Holmes,” Miss Rose said gently. “Give him a moment.”
“Bit not good?” Sherlock asked.
“A bit, yeah,” John whispered.
“You're correct, by the way,” said Lord Summerisle unhelpfully.
“He's mine, but I'd loan him,” Miss Rose chimed in.
“Sherlock,” John said. “I need to talk to you. Alone.”
Respectful nods from the Lord and his lady – perhaps a bit relieved – John all but frog-marched Sherlock into the hallway and shut the parlour door. “Sherlock,” he hissed. “Are you – what are you playing at? No – no -” he held up a finger “if you say 'the game' I will punch you. Are you really telling me -” he paused to catch his breath. “That I have three choices. I can – oh god – have sex with you, or I can watch someone else have sex with you, or I can watch you die again, seriously?”
“Well,” Sherlock said, tilting his head ceilingward with a little shrug. “I could possibly find a way to get out of the last one. But possibly not. It would be a lot more difficult, that's for sure. And my assumption going in is that if it comes to that, I doubt they'd let you live. Hostile witness.”
“You're not getting killed to appease some pagan gods. Not on my watch. That's unacceptable.”
“I had hoped you'd see it that way.”
John was almost laughing now, this whole situation was so completely insane.
“So I would take option two, if you're unwilling,” Sherlock said.
“Oh God,” John groaned, putting his face in his hands. “I – I can't. I – don't want that. Either.”
“John,” Sherlock said, taking John by the wrists and pulling his hands away, leaning down close. “Look me in the eye and tell me you don't want me that way, at all. Tell me the idea doesn't excite you even a little bit.”
John couldn't. He could do no such thing. He couldn't even make eye contact with Sherlock and say anything. So he closed his eyes and blindly reached out, and put his fingers through soft curly hair. He was so keenly, painfully aware of Sherlock's warmth, his breath and his pulse, and the tiny wet sound his lips made parting before he touched them to John's mouth.
It was a hesitant, uncertain kiss. Sherlock didn't really know what he was doing. But there was a movement of lips and a tiny flick of tongue, and it was terribly full of promise of better things. And now that he'd tasted Sherlock once, John knew all too well he'd spend his days craving more, and he'd want to kill anyone who took that which he wanted so badly.
“All right,” John said raggedly, without even opening his eyes. “You fucking lunatic. We'll have it your way. Always your way.”
“I think the idea is that you'll have your way with me,” Sherlock said, a smile in his voice. “I suspect only penetrative intercourse will fulfill the requirement in their eyes, so -”
“Please,” John gasped. “Just – stop talking for a minute, okay? Give me a moment.” He took a deep breath and finally opened his eyes. The look on Sherlock's face was pleased, amused, and there he found the reassurance John didn't know he'd been craving. “God, you know what? I mean, I never would have admitted this, but I had this dream. Last night. The people out on the grass – I dreamed I was out there with them. And it was me and you. I never thought--”
“Yes, well, under different circumstances I'd never have told you that I noticed. I am not completely lacking tact and discretion.”
“How do you not know about the fucking solar system, but you suddenly know all about pagan sex rituals?”
“It's not sudden, John. The occult doesn't figure into crime nearly as often as superstitious people think it does, but that doesn't mean it never happens. A working knowledge of common cult practices has proven useful in my line of work before.”
“So has the solar system,” John said.
“And that lacuna has long since been filled,” Sherlock admitted. “Now it's time to fill another.”
Chapter 5: Aught of Sacrifice
Sherlock is foolish, John is horny, and the Game is On.
“All right then,” Sherlock said to Lord Summerisle and Miss Rose. “Tell us what we need to do to make this work.”
And they did, and gave them a box of clothes and gear, and a promise to warn Alder MacGregor that he had his Fool duties relieved - and that at least he wouldn’t spend the festival tied to his bedpost with a headache. (A situation he might not have minded so much had it happened under better circumstances).
Because Branch Burns had the night off, it was Ivy who drove the horse-cart that took Sherlock and John back to the Green Man Inn. She chattered non-stop for the whole first half of the trip.
“. . . ach, and you're both so handsome, when you get tired of London as all sane men must, don't hesitate to call us . . . “
“Ivy,” Sherlock finally cut in, “please stop acting dumber than you are. It's entertaining no one.”
“You’re a rude one,” she said sharply. “But I’ve met worse.”
“Does Mr. Burns always take off the night before the May Day?”
“Didn’t last year,” she said. “Oh, I hope he’s not hungover. It never bodes well for his swordwork.”
Back in their room at the Green Man, with at least an illusion of privacy, John whipped around and pointed his finger at Sherlock, keeping the volume of his voice down but the angry energy still in it.
“You are mad. You are absolutely fucking nuts. This is . . . actually, I'm not sure this is the craziest thing you've ever asked me to do, now that I think about it.”
Sherlock smiled sideways. “Texting a murderer?”
“No,” John said. “No. I think it was walking around like a zombie grieving for you for two years after you made me watch your very convincing fake suicide, and then letting you walk right back into my life. After that? I didn't think anything you could do would shock me anymore. I underestimated you.”
“John, I . . .think I've fallen behind on those thousand apologies.”
John just laughed tightly. “Well, at least you're here to work on it. Though you keep racking up more. You fucked-up miracle.”
“That's the only kind of miracle you can trust, isn't it?” Sherlock said.
“Are you sure you're up for this? I know it's not the farthest you've ever gone for a case, but – it's pretty damn far.” John was still feeling a sense of whirling unreality not that far removed from the one Sherlock's “death” had caused. Of course this didn't compare on the agony scale, but that didn't mean it wasn't completely terrifying in its own right.
“Of course I am. Are you? You can still back out.”
“You're using me, aren't you?” John said, more exasperated than angry. “You keep doing that. You trust me so much you never even bother to check in with me while you make your schemes.”
Sherlock recoiled. “John, I'm trying to keep us both alive. Obviously that's my highest priority!”
“And you do it by committing us to put on some kind of . . . sex show? Just because you knew that I --” John's voice trailed off.
“That you what?” Sherlock demanded.
“Have feelings for you. You couldn't even confront me with it in private like a real friend, you hoarded that knowledge up for an occasion when it would be useful to you. And now you expect me to perform like a porn star to help you solve your goddamn mystery. And you even kissed me like it meant something. Fuck you. And goddammit. Fuck or die, really? How the hell do you keep finding these ridiculous situations . . .” John trailed off, sniffing for breath like an angry goat, fists clenching. “I will fuck you to save your life, of course I will, but that is not how I would have wanted it, and . . .”
John stopped up short when he saw the stricken look on Sherlock's face. “Now what? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“It did mean something, John,” Sherlock said. “When I kissed you. You kissed me back. I hoped that meant that you understood and agreed with me. That this would be okay, because it was something we've both wanted for a long time.”
John sat down on the bed, running his hands through his hair, and just breathed. Breathe for a while, yeah, that's good. Yes, that was the accursed truth of it, when he ran the whole situation through his mental Sherlock-to-Earthling translator, it made perfect sense. In fact, it would be stupid to do anything else. In a fuck-or-die scenario, obviously you would fuck, especially if both parties actually wanted to fuck each other. Why even waste valuable Mind Palace real estate considering alternatives? It had been Sherlock's suggestion, for fuck's sake.
That was what pissed John off the most. It was so clever. And so cold and ruthless. “You just expected I'd say yes, didn't you?”
“I hoped,” was all Sherlock would admit.
“Would you really shag Lord Summerisle if I said no?”
“Yes. He's an attractive man and I'm sure he has experience and skill in that area, and he's proud enough to make sure I'd enjoy it. Hopefully it would keep him too occupied to plan any last-minute treachery, and Miss Rose would probably consider it a sacrilege to do any harm to me during the act. Of course, there's still the problem that Lord Summerisle is not the person I'm most worried about, and I'm not yet sure who that person is, though I have a few suspicions. Ideally, I'd like to keep him in position as a witness, not an absorbed participant.”
“All just pieces moving around on your chessboard, like that, is it?”
“I have faith in your abilities to multitask; I don't know him well enough to say the same of him. Besides, as I've admitted before and you keep pushing me to do again and again, I want you. Much more. A great deal. I want all of you I can get.”
John just had to shake his head at that – he had no defenses at all that could stand up to Sherlock for long, he bloody well knew it, and yet he had to stubbornly keep testing the fact. “Yeah, well, you know what? I'm proud enough to make sure you'll enjoy it too.”
Sherlock had settled down into the armchair by the window and gave John a look that wasn't the least bit apologetic. If anything, he lifted his chin a little higher and his gaze was challenging. “I know.” His posture was inviting, long limbs sprawled and loose. “Are you worried I'll make a fool of myself because I don't know what I'm doing? Maybe you should teach me some things. Right now. A dress rehearsal for the big event.”
“That's dangerous,” John said, standing up and walking slowly towards him. “Very dangerous.”
“Yes,” Sherlock said in a low voice, hissing softly on the s.
John sank down into Sherlock's lap and trapped that smart-arse, inviting mouth against his own. There was only a flash of that earlier diffidence; then everything turned hot and fierce and melting, and Christ, Sherlock was getting the hang of kissing very quickly.
John groaned and nuzzled the side of Sherlock's head, losing himself in the shampoo scent of those wild curls, bent his hand to curl and grasp around Sherlock's neck. It looked more desperately in need of licking and biting than ever, which was saying a lot, and John was still dazzled and disbelieving that he was allowed to do this now, that he could touch Sherlock like this, knowing that Sherlock welcomed and wanted it. “So what do you think would happen . . .” John murmured against Sherlock's surging pulse, “if I stripped you naked and laid you down on that bed . . . and you gave it up to me right now?”
Sherlock laughed deep in his chest and John felt it, close against him. “I think the good people of Summerisle would shoot us both in the head and throw our bodies in the sea.”
“Nice to know,” John said, laughing too, as he kissed Sherlock again.
They were so wrapped up in each other they barely heard the door open. Willow stood above them shaking her head, wrapped in a demure dressing gown. “I think you lads need a chaperone,” she said.
John pulled away, panting, removing Sherlock's hand from between his thighs. “I hate to admit it, but you might be right.”
She smiled indulgently. “You should sleep in my room tonight, Mr. Holmes. Your chastity is safe with me.”
“Has that sentence ever come out of your mouth before?” Sherlock asked.
“No, and I pray the gods it never will again,” she said, smirking glumly.
“Just give us a moment, I'll be right in,” Sherlock said, waving his hand, dismissing her.
“Do you need something to help you sleep, Dr. Watson?” she said. “I'm sure I have a Hand of Glory around here somewhere.” She turned and pulled the door behind her, leaving it ajar.
Sherlock stood up, started assembling his pyjamas and very metrosexual array of hair products, and then he turned to John, speaking quietly but urgently:
“Look, John, I need you to be honest with me about this. Can you do this? I mean -” and the sight of Sherlock blushing was not one easily forgotten - “are you really certain you could, er, perform in that way? With a big audience, under dangerous circumstances and tremendous pressure, and . . . with a man?”
“Do you mean, could I get it up and keep it up?”
“I'd really hoped you wouldn't need me to clarify that point, but yes.”
John felt like he might almost have the jump on Sherlock here, because he'd been asking himself that question for long enough that he bloody well knew the answer.
“If that man was you, then yes, I could. I know I could.” John nodded and smiled and held Sherlock's gaze, expecting Sherlock to look away first. He didn't. Not even when John ran a hand up the outside of Sherlock's thigh.
“So we won't need to break into Lennox's shop for real and get one of those mushrooms, then,” Sherlock finally said, with deadpan voice and gleaming eyes.
“Not unless you want me to bugger you with it,” John said.
“I doubt that would meet the either the letter or the spirit of the requirement,” Sherlock said, and then they were both laughing so hard that their terrible awkwardness and awkward terror crashed down in defeat.
Halfway through that giggle fit, John felt a wave of reassurance. Could he get it up, goddamn, what did Sherlock think he was? Underestimate John Watson's sex drive at your own peril, my friend.
What John said was, “You think I'll have a problem? That's fighting words.”
“Good,” Sherlock said, smiling widely. “You're at your best in fighting mode.”
“What about you?” John said, taking up the smile, all challenge. “Since this is so far outside your comfort zone.”
“Comfort zone, pffffft!” Sherlock said. “A 'comfort zone' is a place of habit and complacency and stagnation. Dull. Whatever mine is, I'm at my best when I'm nowhere near it.”
John looked at Sherlock awkwardly. “Okay. Well, I'm glad you're – okay. We're both okay, right?”
“Of course,” Sherlock said. All seriousness now, with a steamy gaze and a bulge in his trousers. Christ.
“All right then, well,” John stammered.
“Relax, John,” Sherlock said with a small smile. “We'll get to have sex tomorrow. Less than twenty-four hours away. In the meantime, I suggest you skim this book.” He handed a heavy red hardback to John and actually walked through the door to Willow's room.
“If you fuck her, I'll kill you!” John finally managed to yell. “Before anyone else gets a chance!”
“Not. Bloody. Likely,” he heard Willow say as the door closed.
Grudgingly, John took up the book and skimmed ahead to the section marked 'May Day Festivities.' That chapter was rather heavily hinted at, considering that it was marked with photographs that fell out when John turned the page.
Lennox's work, clearly. Nothing especially horrifying – just pictures of a procession of people in ludicrous costumes and masks.
John read about the characters that populated this rite – the man-animal, a big bearded man wearing some contraption that gave him a huge skirted body and a snapping animal head. John wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a horse or a dragon, but he didn't know if it mattered much. Realism clearly wasn't the goal here. There was the man-woman played by the village leader – John supposed that would be Lord Summerisle himself. Yes, there he was was in the photo, in a dress and wig and white stage makeup; the most unconvincing drag John had ever seen, so he had to laugh a little. This whole thing was ridiculous, so very surreal, this crude village theater performance with real sex and death.
And the Fool. Dear god. In one of the pictures, zeroed in in closeup, the Fool's mask had slipped, and those horrified eyes were so clearly the same eyes as the newspaper picture of Howie. So that was what he had done – disguised himself, and believed that the villagers were fooled. John shook his head. Sherlock could have pulled that off, maybe, he thought.
The part about the six swordsmen and the star of the sun – that bit was worrying. But worst by far was the part about the sacrifice in lean years: “but in bad years, when the harvest had been poor, the sacrifice was a human being. In some cultures, it would be the king himself. In others, the most beloved virgin.”
John had to chuckle at that. Howie certainly hadn't been Summerisle's most beloved anything. They cheat, John thought. They fudge the rules all the time. And he tried not to think about how Sherlock was certainly John's most beloved virgin. Well, he had to be. John wasn’t sure he even knew any others.
“Methods of sacrifice differed. Sometimes the victim would be drowned in the sea, or burnt to death in a huge sacrificial bonfire. Sometimes the six swordsmen ritually beheaded the virgin.”
John set the book down and took a deep breath. This wasn't relaxing reading. He resorted to some of the techniques he'd learned in the Army, to sleep in tense circumstances when one absolutely, positively had to be at the top of one's game the next morning. He managed to banish the most horrifying and gruesome and dreadful of the mental images, but he was left with one persistent one that would not go away:
Sherlock, naked and shaking – and that damned Buckingham Palace incident gave John a pretty vivid memory of what most of Sherlock looked like under those suits – on a stone altar, smiling and ready but a little bit nervous, as Lord Summerisle of all people caressed him and kissed him and coaxed him, and finally spread his thighs and entered him with whatever unimaginable fertility-god phallus might be lurking under that kilt. The startled look and then the easing smile, as Sherlock felt himself breached for the first time, adjusting to it and then beginning to enjoy it, relaxing his body and moving slowly, letting a primal pleasure overtake him.
And John just had to watch, imagining what he could not have, the feel of those lean muscles moving under that fair, downy-haired skin . . .
Christ. Fucking stop it, he told himself, looking down at his treacherous cock. Damned thing had been half-hard since his first night on Summerisle and it wasn't showing any signs of calming down now. You can't teach a stiff prick patience. Yeah, a wank is probably the thing, he admitted to himself. Battlefield medicine.
Just as he started, finally opening up his jeans and taking himself in hand, he heard a door open and close, and distinctive footsteps in the hallway and down the stairs. Sherlock. Leaving Willow's room. Going somewhere.
“Stay,” said Willow, through the wall.
John stayed, and he didn't even care anymore that Willow could probably hear him panting, desperately pumping himself towards enough relief to sleep. In his frenzy he stopped, stripped off all his clothes and let the feel of his skin against the cheap sheets bring him closer to the edge, bringing him off quickly and sharply and suddenly - and not terribly satisfyingly - and then he collapsed back against the sheets, the sultry air of Summerisle covering him all over.
It worked. It got him to sleep. But his dreams were a tangled mess of desire and horror – the clacks of swords and the roar of flames, the whirr of a helicopter and the sound of his own voice screaming, blessed at last by a soft brush against his cheek that smelled like Sherlock's hair, a calming kiss on his lips and a sweet scent of apple blossoms.
In the night, when he thought everyone must be asleep – except Sherlock, most likely, wherever he was – John opened his eyes with a strange new sense of resolve. He had preparations of his own to make, and he did so, with an eye to the costume Lord Summerisle had given him.
He might be a fish out of water here, but he wasn't going to drown without making an effort to swim.
The shadow that fell over John in the morning was Sherlock, who paced about with a barely-contained excitement. In a rare show of consideration, he'd brought John a cup of coffee. John decided to refrain from asking if he'd made it himself. He'd find out soon enough. “Did you have nice dreams, John?”
“Oh, fuck you,” John said fondly.
“Is that what you dreamed about?”
“I dreamed about Lord Summerisle fucking you, if you must know,” John said cheerfully.
“Oh good, I'm glad it wasn't a nightmare,” Sherlock said, bending over in an utterly gratuitous manner to fetch something out of his suitcase.
“It was for me,” John said. “You didn't seem to mind.”
Sherlock gave an impatient little huff and flitted out of the room again, leaving John to get dressed.
John hadn't worn a kilt in years, and the last time, he hadn't actually gone regimental. But the Summerislanders were nothing if not traditionalists. His and Sherlock's position was precarious enough that he didn't want to risk offending them with underpants.
“Well, laddie,” he said to his cock in a comical Scottish brogue, “looks like this is your day to shine.”
He let out a little giggle – well, what else could he do?
It wasn't the full formal ensemble – leave that to Lord Summerisle – so he put on a comfy jumper of good Scots wool that hung just loose enough to cover all his secrets, and of course they'd allow him a sgian-dubh, wouldn't they? He felt as well-armed as he was going to get – and that was before the stag mask and the crown of antlers.
Those things were heavy and sharp. He could probably do some serious damage with them if he had to. Try not to spear Sherlock in the gut when you go down on him, he told himself. Totally defeat the purpose. And then John started giggling so hard he had to sit down and contemplate the train wreck that was his life. We can't giggle, this is a ritual scene, he heard Sherlock's voice saying, and that only added to the problem.
He had to slap himself to restrain his hysteria like some Victorian doctor. But all his efforts were doomed, because he heard a jingling down the hallway, and any attempt at quelling his laughter died when he saw Sherlock standing in the doorway in a jester's cap and a pot-bellied, hunch-backed, cod-pieced costume that was obviously made for a much chubbier and shorter man. (Alder MacGregor, specifically.)
John had been feeling a little apprehensive about his own getup and was gearing up for a counterattack – until he saw the look on Sherlock's face, the way that silvery gaze of his went dark and focused beneath the black lashes as it moved up and down John's body.
“That . . . suits you surprisingly well,” Sherlock said, licking his lips in an unconscious mirror of John's own habit.
And that gave John a little thrill. He looked up straight and boldly into Sherlock's eyes and smiled a little, reading the truth: Sherlock was really, truly, at least a little bit turned on by the whole situation, and not only for the intellectual puzzle of the mystery. He liked this, John in his bizarrely masculine pagan costume – and that made John stand up a whole lot straighter and hold his chin and his antlers high, and maybe almost take the whole charade a little bit seriously. There was something to it after all, wasn't there? The primal force of the desire he'd been feeling so long, focused and channeled and understood as a powerful, important, worthwhile thing, acknowledging the fact that humans are mammals, considering the possibility that the sex drive is actually more sacred than sinful – yeah, okay. Yes. It had its appeal.
“Nice rack,” said Sherlock.
The village had been all hustle and bustle since dawn; a parade of children carrying a doll shrouded like a corpse through the streets; all the local people eager to show off their masks: the butcher with the bullock's head, the fisherman as the Salmon of Knowledge.
In the courtyard of the town center, Lord Summerisle held court in turtleneck and trousers with his dress draped over his shoulder, presiding over laughter and dancing, food being cooked, tar being stirred, musicians tuning and rehearsing.
“I thought the John Barleycorn song was about liquor, not bread,” John said as the baker showed off his wares.
“Both,” the baker said grinning, pointing at a life-size corpse baked out of bread, and the sun faces on cakes (one of which had eye and mouth holes – he was planning to wear it), all meant for the feast. “Either way, he'll die in style tonight. Go talk to our brewers, they're killing him too!”
“And some of that delicious cider too?” John asked hopefully.
“Running a little low this year,” the baker said. “Not as bad as some years. The mead, though, now that's a sad situation.”
“Hmmm,” said Sherlock, his features unreadable below his grotesque Punch mask.
Along the promenade route, John began to more fully appreciate just how small the population of Summerisle really was. He'd been here just two days, and he thought he recognised at least a third of the people, even in their eerie animal masks.
And they were weird all right. Furry and dead-eyed and stiff, and people wearing them tended to just appear and disappear; out of shrubbery, up in windows, behind low stone walls. Man, woman, or child, they all looked otherworldly. Hares and cats and badgers and boars and fish and seals. A slender woman running along a hedge with the face of a fox.
Mask vendors liked to push them on you too – once, he'd been informed that someone saw him as more of a hedgehog type. Not so good for the ego, that, even though the same person (wearing a dog mask) also insisted that the Fool was really more like an otter.
John was startled to see the haughty hawk-mask woman watching again, speaking briefly with the butcher-bull.
As the procession assembled, Summerisle split itself by gender again; the women and girls ran ahead laughing, pretty and light-hearted, while the men marched with a stiff dignity to a deep martial drumbeat and a slow, grand little brass band.
Well, dignity if you didn't take into consideration Lord Summerisle, twirling stiff-leggedly in a long black wig and flowing dress over his regular clothes, wielding a sprig of mistletoe in one hand and a curved bronze sickle in the other. And Sherlock in his supremely unflattering getup, capering “around the garden, like a fairy,” as he put it himself once.
The hobby-dragon man roamed at will, running ahead to trap girls under the skirt of his costume and snap at them with his phallic beast-head, bells jingling.
John noticed it all looked exactly like the illustrations and the photographs, except for the fact that the six swordsmen were masked this time. And John didn't think he liked that, especially when the weird parade turned through the mighty dolmen that marked the entrance to Lord Summerisle's circle of standing stones.
“CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP!”
God, the chant was oppressive as John stood there, sweating in his mask but with the wind chilly beneath his kilt, watching the Summerislanders one by one step up and push their heads through the sprung-anew star of swords, offering their necks to an artful tangle of very sharp blades.
In his position in the line he couldn't see their faces, but his battle instincts taught him to read body language well enough to know that at least some were genuinely afraid. And at a random pattern he couldn't discern, sometimes there would be a dreadful pause, and the swordsmen would hesitate and look at each other, and he heard the people around them freeze and draw breath. The risk was real.
Lord Summerisle went first. The blades lowered around his neck. A clap of hands, and they rose again, and he went free.
Miss Rose was second. John watched her shoulders tense. The swords lifted away.
John could barely restrain himself when the Fool was ushered forward. Surely they'd notice they had to lift their swords higher than they were used to, that this was a different man? And that the usual guy was marching in the general group with a bear mask on, relieved not to have to wear that hideous smelly thing another year? Of course they noticed, but it didn't matter. They released Sherlock too.
“It's a game of chance,” Lord Summerisle announced. “Everyone must try their luck.”
John didn't believe that for a second, so when it was his turn, he was tense. He contemplated breaking away and running, but that could ruin every single detail of their elaborate plan.
It was a test of nerves, John told himself. Nothing more. He was fairly sure he was lying to himself, but that would help him get through it. He stepped up, bent his knees, and let the masked swordsmen lower their deadly star of blades around his neck.
There was a pause. The hobbyhorse/dragon thing snapped its jaws. The chant stopped. Even the drum stopped, and in between the gaps in the swordsman's marks, he noticed a fast glimpse passing, shared, conspiring; he saw wrist muscles tensing to strike; he saw Lord Summerisle turn and stare with what seemed to be anger on his blank, painted face, and John was just about to enact evasive maneuvers when –
One of the swordsmen let out a yelp, and John heard the crowd laugh and saw the man yanking his kilt back down as his sword went out of formation. The Fool was laughing and capering away.
John lowered his head and stepped on, as the next person put her head in the blade-star. One beat, and she was freed. And so forth, and no one lost a head except a schoolboy who quickly dropped out of his papier-mache dog head. He lay there still for a while to milk it, but there was no blood, and he rose up laughing soon enough.
Later on, when the march grew more chaotic and the Fool could lean down near him, John muttered to Sherlock, “Did you just save my life by grabbing some bloke's arse?”
“Mmmaybe,” Sherlock said, clearly in the spirit of his character. “I'm afraid, probably so.” He cavorted away and swayed back later to admit, “it wasn't just his arse.”
“NOW TO THE BEACH,” Lord Summerisle bellowed.
And so they went down, for a dramatic display of sacrifice; great barrels of cider and ale were loaded on horsecarts on the rocky strand. Lord Summerisle himself stood astride them with an axe in his hands and announced, “Lord of the Sea – Mannanan Mac Lir – accept this gift!” He punctured the barrels, and men scrambled to roll them into the surf. The ocean rose up foamy as the sacrifice leached out into the salt water.
“And now, for our most - awe-inspiring sacrifice. A special request this year, and a gift has landed on our shores.”
Lord Summerisle winked at Sherlock. It was impossible to tell if it was returned.
The procession rose up unto the little headland over the sea where the giant wicker man stood on a pedestal of wood and kindling, full of vegetables and animals. Stealing a closer horrified look, John could see that the livestock seemed to be already dead. Silent and unmoving, anyway.
“This is a kinder, gentler Summerisle this year,” Sherlock said, appearing suddenly behind John and muttering in his ear. “They burned the animals alive that year too.” John shuddered and reached back for Sherlock’s hand. He got a brief squeeze before Sherlock turned his attention up to Lord Summerisle, who was beckoning to him. “It’s the moment of truth, John. I believe that’s our cue.”
“Here he is, come to us,” Lord Summerisle announced. “The Holly King. A wise man and a fool. Once dead and once risen. A virgin, untouched. The right kind of adult male.”
The crowd murmured and shivered, leaning close, eager to see. Lord Summerisle held up his hands. “You remember, three years ago, when we took what we needed. This May Day, it is different. Our crops have not fully failed. Our gods are not angry. What they ask is not so dire. And this time, our visitor is offering us a great gift.”
Miss Rose stood up close beside Lord Summerisle, and her voice projected nearly as deeply as his. John shivered to hear it, because it felt to him in that moment that there was a very real power in her. “He comes to us knowing and willing. We need not take his life. We will bless our fields with his seed, not his ashes.”
Sherlock stepped forward.
John watched, trembling, hands clenching, as Miss Rose and Willow and the archivist – what was her name, for now he was just going to call her Cariad Piss-Off – surrounded Sherlock. John tried so hard not to protest as Miss Rose pulled a little knife and cut the cords of Sherlock's ill-fitting Fool’s costume.
John had expected more rudeness and lewdness. But it was with great care and ceremony that Sherlock was stripped completely naked, and his clothes were folded and passed from hand to hand. Sherlock held himself tall with great dignity.
Damn, he was beautiful. He never flinched a moment as the three women attended to him. He looked lean and strong, but a little young and vulnerable now – his shoulders narrower than they seemed beneath his tailored suits, his skin given to little tremors and shivers. His flanks trembled, muscles tautening as he was ceremoniously washed and anointed with oils at forehead and chest and thighs.
Miss Rose sank briefly to her knees and kissed the tops of his feet. She rose up and kissed him low on his belly, just above the thickening of his dark hair above the base of his cock. John couldn't hear what she whispered to him as she kissed him chastely on each nipple and at last on his lips, but it seemed to be of import in the ritual, and it made Sherlock smile and laugh. So it couldn't have been too bad.
Willow and Cariad filled in too, singing, stroking him with their hair. John was sweating behind his mask. It was clear to him by now that Sherlock just wasn't attracted to women, but he couldn't help but physically respond to their intimate touches on his body, and it was hard for John to watch. Damn, Sherlock had a great cock. It had looked nice dangling and soft, but as it plumped and swelled, all John could think of was being the only one allowed to touch it.
The women wrapped Sherlock in a white robe, open and belted like a dressing gown.
“King for a night,” Lord Summerisle said solemnly, and he held up a crown – a garland woven of ivy and apple blossoms and holly branches; deep green and pale pink and studded through with red berries like spots of blood – and then he set it down firmly in Sherlock's thick curls, where it tangled and would not come dislodged, no matter what happened.
“Who speaks for him?” Lord Summerisle demanded of the crowd. “Who will act for the gods and claim this prize?”
John stared out at the sky and the heath for a frozen moment, paralyzed with stage fright until he felt Willow's hand at his back, pushing him forward.
“I do!” he cried, and his voice cracked at first, so he tried again and got a more confident voice. “I do. I claim the right.”
Miss Rose stepped forward and pushed his mask up, exposing his face and cupping it in her hands. “A warrior and a healer. Well chosen,” she said with a smile and a nod as she kissed John's forehead in blessing.
Showtime, John told himself, noting with relief that his hand had stopped shaking. There were little ripples and murmurs in the crowd – discontent – and John made his move to win them over.
“Hello, Summerisle,” he declared as he pulled his mask all the way off – keeping the antlers – like the most awkward rock star ever.
There was no more joking. No more putting it off. Even the little bottle of lube that Miss Rose had discreetly laid down spoke to the fact that it was now or never and do or die.
Sherlock stared at John. John stared at Sherlock.
John froze. I've wanted to fuck my best friend for years, gods help me. Now I have to fuck my best friend. Right now. And we're so fucking awkward about it.
Sherlock moved first. He seemed to be in slow-motion as he wrapped his big hands around John's neck and turned his face up and kissed him.
What they'd done in their room, that was primary school. This was an A-levels kiss, wild and demanding and desperate, as it determined their future. John was so grateful that it was hot enough to surrender to, and he pressed his hands against Sherlock's back, drawing him in.
“Um,” Sherlock said quietly, “what we did last night in our room. When you pulled my hair . . . and kissed my neck. I liked that a lot. Just . . . let's start with that.”
“Oh, gladly,” John whispered as he followed down, lips pressed close to Sherlock's ear, pausing to lightly lick and kiss. “I want to make it good for you. Make you feel good. Show you why people like it.”
“I am – starting to understand that now – there, use your teeth a little right there, yes - ”
“If I was reluctant to agree to this - ” John murmured, between licking, nipping kisses to Sherlock's neck, “-- it's not because I don't want you. You know that.”
“Yes, I know,” Sherlock said. “Here, will you let me touch you? I want to try...” Sherlock pressed his hands on John's waist, both sides, and started to push John's jumper up, and John stopped him, grasping his wrists to communicate no even as he worked his way back up to Sherlock's mouth, sliding his tongue in.
John put Sherlock's hands where he wanted them to show him something important: first down under beneath his kilt, to his strong, ever-growing erection. Sherlock's eyes went wide as he felt it out, and then his long fingers wrapped around it and slightly squeezed. John groaned quietly and closed his eyes for a moment, lightly thrusting as the iron core of him slid in Sherlock's grip.
Then he – reluctantly – nudged Sherlock's hand away from his longing cock and just a little bit up and over, waiting for him to feel out the leather straps in the crease of groin and thigh that led up to his waist, holstering the cold heavy metal hidden beneath his jumper and kilt waistband.
Sherlock gasped and his eyes got even wilder, bright and burning in the twilight. John could feel Sherlock's cock swell bigger against his belly.
“Wanted to give us more options, in case you changed your mind,” John murmured, nuzzling at Sherlock's shoulder, slowly caressing up his chest with one steady hand.
Sherlock's voice sounded trembling and wrecked as he wondered, “What if they'd insisted you do this, er, 'skyclad?'”
“I'd've told them it's against my religion,” John said.
“Don't think that would have helped much,” Sherlock said, kissing John again between choking laughs.
“Still okay with this?” John asked quietly in the pauses between their hungry gropes of lips and meeting of tongues.
“I haven't changed my mind,” Sherlock said. With his other hand he clenched at John's hair and dragged his mouth down John’s throat, scraping with his teeth, sucking, making John shudder and moan.
John untied Sherlock's robe, exposing his body again – oh so unfair that it should be so beautiful -- and slid hands down his chest, fondling the sparse spray of hair and testing Sherlock's nipples with his fingertips to see if he was sensitive there: oh, he was, yes, he gave a startled cry and arched his chest up for more; oh, the way his hips jerked against John was exquisite.
Sherlock gasped and jerked, pressing his chest into John's little tugs, bucking his hips. Even now, under such circumstances, Sherlock wasn't passive; his hands were sliding up the backs of John's thighs under his kilt, groping at his arse, trying to pull him in.
“God,” John moaned. “You really want to get fucked, don't you?”
“By you, yes,” Sherlock said, letting John feel every shiver of his muscles, every convulsive twitch of his arms and legs, rising up to wrap around him.
“Well, be patient,” John said with a little smile, nipping the tip of Sherlock's nose. He worked his way back down, spending a lot of time on Sherlock's neck, a little bit on his clavicle, and a lot of licking and sucking on first one nipple and then the other, until Sherlock was writhing.
John slowly pushed Sherlock back down, towards the grass. He wanted Sherlock on his back beneath him; Sherlock understood and lay down and pulled John down with him.
John was utterly wrapped up in reading Sherlock's responses to every action of his, and Sherlock was utterly abandoned in his enjoyment. John was thrilled to finally be able to do what he'd wanted for so long – kiss and lick and bite his way down Sherlock's shivering belly, and finally hear the kind of noise Sherlock would make when another human being drew the head of his cock into an eager-to-please mouth for the first time.
For that, John was willing to shut out all the noises of the crowd. The deep beat of the drum, that worked. Sex had a rhythm, and he was willing to use that one.
That noise Sherlock made was glorious. It wasn't deep and throaty at first – it was high-pitched and breathy and utterly surprised, a pathetic and vulnerable whimper.
In John's consciousness, it drowned out all other voices for just a moment. And that one moment was crucial.
For not all the crowd voices were singing. There were yelps and shouts and a struggle. For just a few seconds, John and Sherlock were so lost in each other that they missed them.
And in an instant, the woman with the hawk mask had rushed through the crowd, and with one swift twist she'd grasped the sharp bronze sickle from Lord Summerisle's hand and grabbed Sherlock by the hair. She held the wicked curved blade molded around Sherlock's throat.
“You'll take the sacrifice I sent you,” she snarled to Lord Summerisle and Miss Rose and the others. “And you'll take it the way I meant it, the way that worked before. The ancient way.”
“I told you no, Hazel,” Lord Summerisle said with a quiet, deadly anger. “I told you the gods did not ask for that, and I told you that you will never have power over me or Summerisle.”
She jerked Sherlock's head up for the knife, but her reaction to Lord Summerisle's rage gave John enough to time to whip his gun out from under his kilt and aim it at her head. “Drop the knife and let him go,” John said in a cold, ruthless voice as they stared at each other down the length of Sherlock's body. “Or I will kill you.”
Chapter 6: Sumer Is Icumen In
Summerisle has their most spectacular May Day in years.
“You'd kill me that way – and defile the rite?” said this masked woman called Hazel.
“No more than you already have,” said Miss Rose, sidling forward.
John was unwilling to move his eyes even a little from Hazel, and from Sherlock in her grip, but the hair on the back of his neck was rising. Miss Rose's voice, from behind and close above him – did not sound natural. Or rather, it did. Terrifyingly natural. And it resonated like not one woman's voice, but many.
“Then I might as well kill him, and be killed,” Hazel said. God, her voice was familiar. John looked into her cold, compassionless eyes through the mask, and then he remembered.
Oh God, he thought, we really walked right into this one. He risked a half-glance at Sherlock, who seemed as calm as any man can be when he's just had his very first blowjob interrupted by a madwoman with a knife and murder on her mind.
Her wrist holding the sickle twitched, and Sherlock gave a quick little gasp. John's finger tightened on the trigger. Thoughts rocketed through his mind while he stayed deadly still and his body felt steady, stable, almost calm. Was this how Sherlock felt in the grip of a deduction?
If I shot at this range, I wouldn’t miss, John thought. But a fatal head shot causes convulsions. One twitch in her hand could jerk the blade through Sherlock’s jugular vein and/or carotid artery, or even just his trachea or larynx. A remote chance, but possible. And to cause her violent death in front of witnesses, definitely trouble. Death by gunshot probably not ritually-approved. What would happen then? Not sure.
Hope to distract her then. Sherlock's eyes were fixed on John, wide and frightened. Not who he should be watching so closely. He should be studying Hazel for the slightest hint of a chance to escape.
Miss Rose stepped forward, and her face was fearful to look upon. “That is not the sacrifice She desires this night. You would ruin it all for your pride. The pride of a traitor with a false name and a selfish plan.”
“My pride?” Hazel cried bitterly. “My pride. I gave up my pride two years ago, when I came here and fell on my knees before the Old Gods and confessed I had been fooled by a false faith all my life. I gave up my pride when I realized that my love died nobly and for the best of reasons.”
“He died screaming and cursing us all,” Miss Rose said coldly. “His curse had no effect. He was weak.”
“I am not weak,” Hazel said feverishly. “You have become weak and soft – you offer this watered-down sacrifice, all pleasure and no pain, all seed and no blood. Lord Summerisle has gone soft-hearted. A change must come. The gods will laugh at you before they smite you and starve you. I will see this done the right way. And a new age will come. I hear what the gods command, and I will give it to them. And I don't stand alone, and I will take your place.”
“You betrayed your own god. Why should ours trust you?” said Miss Rose.
“Howie died because he was a fool, in every sense of the word. Holmes will survive because he is clever,” Lord Summerisle said. “And because he is loved.”
“Howie was loved,” Hazel cried.
“Was he? Really?” Miss Rose said, coolly.
Why was Lord Summerisle being so useless? John wondered. The man had power, why wasn't he using it? Was he waiting to see how this would play out? He did seem to believe in fate, after all.
Lord Summerisle seemed unable to take his gaze from Miss Rose. The way she carried herself now was unlike any way John had seen her before. She was more than regal – in her anger, she was royal.
John could see that Hazel was trembling at Miss Rose's words, and occasionally glancing back at John, and her hands shook and her arms tightened. There was a thin red line on Sherlock's throat – just a pressure line, no blood yet, but John was watching in increasing terror. Hazel still showed no signs of releasing him.
John might really have to do it then, take the risk. His gun hand held steady. He hated the thought of it, she was obviously ill. But no one, nothing, not on this earth or outside of it, was going to take Sherlock away from him again. Not after what they'd already been through. Not after John had had a brief taste of his heart's desire.
Sherlock's sharp grey eyes moved. He hadn't been staring at John at all. He'd been staring behind him.
In the crowd around then was a sound of clinking, some muttering, a scuffle, and John saw them out of the corner of his eye – the masked swordsmen, moving into position. Not all of them. Three, not six.
Immobile as he was, all John could do was wait until the felt the pressure of a blade against his neck.
Well shit, he thought.
“Just so you know,” John said quietly, defiantly. “I'm definitely not a virgin.”
He probably couldn't strike off my head with one blow, John thought wildly, not at that angle, that only works in the movies. And on 'Highlander.' A strong man could strike deep enough to cause fatal bleeding or paralysis on the first blow and death on the next, though.
“Drop the gun, Dr. Watson,” said the voice behind him.
“Why would I do that? You're going to kill us anyway.”
Sherlock was really looking at John now, trying to communicate something with his eyes. He made the smallest gesture with his hand, tried in vain to tilt his head.
He heard something. Listen. John stilled the rush of his breath and blood and thoughts for just a second, and then he heard it too.
Miss Rose lifted her eyes up to the sky, acknowledging the sound they'd all been hearing – a deep, multivoiced buzz. It would be ambient noise in London – traffic, trains, busses – but here, it was a new sound, and it was growing louder. With her multivoiced voice, Miss Rose cried out in delight: “She comes! The Queen of the orchards and her thousand daughters! Be still! She comes!”
It happened as quick as anything. A brown, clustered mass was rising up over the craggy hill and flying low over the gathered crowd.
It changed shape. First it was a blob and then an oval – next a rod and then a cloud again.
Miss Rose stood up and stretched out her hands, and it surrounded her, buzzing so very loud, clearly now a group of thousands of individuals – a hivemind, literally.
“Make your choice, my Queen,” Miss Rose said authoritatively, once the cloud was around her head. She had no fear, only joy.
Hazel was shaking in terror, obviously wanting to flee but unwilling to give up her death grip on Sherlock. Her hands shook. She pulled his hair. A very fine line of blood swelled around the knife, and John was just about to pull the trigger. But then Hazel was enveloped by the cloud of honeybees. She screamed and swatted at them, and John didn't like being so close to them either, but he almost crumpled in relief as Lord Summerisle's sickle finally fell from Hazel's stung, swelling hand as she screamed and screamed, a horrible sound of agony and animal panic.
“Vatican cameos,” Sherlock said quietly, barely a vibration in his lightly bleeding throat, and John moved – suddenly, fluidly, dodging the sword blade and jerking his head up, driving his antlers into the groin and belly of the swordsman standing behind him.
There was a grunt of shock and pain and an attempt to grab the antlers, but then another cry of pain as Sherlock's bare foot lashed out and swiped into the swordsman's wrist. Hard. The blade dropped, John grabbed it and passed it, and in an instant, Sherlock was up off the ground with the sword in his hand – still more naked than not, white robe flying behind him like his coat. The sword flashed bright in his hand as another masked man came at him.
Sherlock knew how to use it – of course he did – and John just wanted to get into a defensive position where he wouldn't have to actually shoot anyone, and maybe get everyone subdued enough that he could pay attention to Hazel, whose hands and feet and probably the rest of her that he couldn't see, had swollen up appallingly. Her screams had stopped, and now she had stopped twitching, and lay so terribly still that the wounded swordsman now ran to her aid.
He pulled off her mask to check her breathing, and her dead swollen face lolled in the firelight on a limp neck. Martha Hazel Lithgow. Deathly allergic to bee stings, severe anaphylactic shock. Probably beyond emergency help. Does nobody in this crowd carry an epi-pen, John thought wildly. And would they have helped her if they did? Maybe not. The swordsman bent over her body with his sword held out, to defend her against all comers.
There was no real threat now – the other two men had given up and tried to slink away through the crowd.
But Lord Summerisle turned on that young man with a sword he'd grabbed from one of the others, roaring in rage, and chased him down until he had him backed up against the pedestal of kindling that supported the wicker man, a sharp blade pressed at his heart.
“Tell me why I shouldn't,” he bellowed. “Give me one good reason.”
“No,” said Miss Rose quietly, horrified.
“No!” yelled another woman from the crowd. “Don't, please don't!” Her voice was strained and cracked, but John thought it sounded familiar. Again. “I'll never forgive you. You'll never forgive yourself.”
Lord Summerisle suddenly, inexplicably, laughed. The fury seem to drain from him, and the nearly-speared prisoner dared to look up at his face in hope. “Ah, little Blossom,” Lord Summerisle said. “I could never break your heart like that. Or my own.”
It was the slim woman in the foxface mask, and as she ran towards them, she shed a pair of beekeeper's gloves.
“Why? How are you here?” asked the prisoner. She stepped up to him, right beside Lord Summerisle, and snatched off his mask. It was Branch Burns. The woman slapped him.
“What, a Summerisle girl can't come home for the holidays? Sing some songs, get laid, drink some mead, see the procession?” She laughed. Then she got angry again. “I'm here because my brother is an idiot, and my employer’s brother isn't!”
She stood there trembling and shaking her head, and laid her hand on Lord Summerisle's arm. “I'm sorry. No, I'm not sorry. I'm glad I came when I was called.”
Lord Summerisle looked at her fondly, and at Branch only slightly less so. “I'm glad you did too. It could have been so much worse.”
Miss Rose stepped up to them. “What will you do?” she asked.
“Bind him,” Lord Summerisle said. “For the time being. Then banish him for five years. He needs to see the world.”
Miss Rose sighed with relief. The big bearded man who'd worn the hobby horse stepped up.
John and Sherlock watched everything warily, back to back, protecting each other, gun and sword at the ready.
But there was an odd reverence and calm to the proceedings now.
Fox-mask - Blossom-- slinked back into the crowd. Miss Rose and Lord Summerisle allowed Branch to remove the mask from Hazel's dead face – Martha Lithgow, looking so different from that late afternoon at Baker Street. Branch kissed her forehead and her lips, and then stood aside in acceptance as the big dragon man gently carried her body up the wooden ladder and placed it inside the wicker man.
John started to protest – he wanted to examine her, make sure she was beyond help – but Sherlock grabbed his arm and stayed him.
The deep drums began to beat again slowly, and men came forward with flaming pitch torches, and set fire to the oil-covered base of the wicker man. The scent of burning wood and oil rose to the heavens as the flame took and heated and crackled.
John turned and smiled at Sherlock. Sherlock smiled back. “Well,” John said quietly. “That worked for you, right? Your plan?” He laughed a little. “Damn, you timed it all so well. Imagine if we'd actually had to have sex in front of all these people. I mean, we definitely need to talk about the fact that we would have done, but . . . “
Lord Summerisle and Miss Rose were now intently focused on John and Sherlock again. Lord Summerisle bowed his head slightly and said, “I do apologise for the interruption.”
“Let the sacred offering continue,” Miss Rose said. She took a white handkerchief from Lord Summerisle and dabbed gently at Sherlock's neck, wiping up a little streak of blood. It was only a shallow surface cut, nothing to worry about. But it still was a fearful reminder of a horrible possibility, narrowly averted.
The people of Summerisle were crowding in around for a better look.
The fox-masked woman stepped up to John and held out her hand.
“Give her your gun and your holster. We can trust her,” Sherlock said.
John read Sherlock's expression carefully, and then, reluctantly, did so.
“Take that gun away from here and keep it safe, Blossom. Give it back to Dr. Watson tomorrow,” Lord Summerisle said.
She shook her head. “I'll keep it safe, but I'm staying right here. I'm not going to miss this.”
Lord Summerisle chuckled. “Very well. So be it. That's my girl.”
Sherlock set his sword down on the ground and pressed up behind John, sliding his hands around John's waist and speaking low into his ear. “We have to finish what we started now.”
By reflex, John slid his hands behind him, up the outside of Sherlock's legs. “Oh, so your plan didn't work?”
“It worked almost perfectly,” Sherlock said, licking John's earlobe.
“It didn't get us out of having to do . . . this.”
“I never meant it to,” Sherlock admitted.
“Oh,” John said, surprisingly unsurprised. “So I still have to take your virginity in front of everyone.”
“Yes, of course,” Sherlock said. “The interruption was just that, from a ritual point of view. We consented and agreed and we'd started; we can't renege now.”
John sank his head back against Sherlock's shoulder, and, for just a moment, submitted to the sensation of Sherlock's hands sliding down his waist, down his hips and legs, low enough to push up his kilt. Now Sherlock's hands were on his legs, pulling him close, and he could feel Sherlock's cock pressing into his sacrum.
Oh god oh god, had Sherlock been half-hard the whole time? John certainly had been.
The scents of Sherlock were amazing – the oils he'd been anointed with; forest scents like cedar and moss, undertones of musk, so mammalian and male; his natural sweat from the fight for their lives. God, yes. John turned around in Sherlock's arms so they were face to face, and he gripped Sherlock by the hair to pull him down for a kiss.
“You smell so good, John,” Sherlock said.
“I do?” John asked. “Really? Me?”
Sherlock folded down into his kiss – and oh, this one was so different, so hot and deep and wild. It went on and on. It had a rhythm. Their tongues lifted and rose and tasted each other. All of Summerisle was watching, and they just didn't care, licking the insides of each other's mouths with wild abandon.
John slid his hands down Sherlock's back under the robe until he reached the rich, plush arse he'd been admiring for too long, and claimed it with a possessive squeeze. Sherlock gasped, just a hint of a cry under his breath.
“You want this. You really do,” John said.
“Yes,” Sherlock said.
“All right then,” John said, standing on his toes to murmur in Sherlock's ear. “Anything for you. Absolutely anything. You know that, don't you?”
“I . . .” Sherlock gave up on a reply to that and turned his head, lips parting for John to take. John throbbed his tongue slow and deep inside Sherlock's mouth, suggesting ways he was planning to move another part of him later, and Sherlock moaned softly, clutching at John's jumper and lifting the kilt, running his hand up the side of John's thigh and clasping his arse firmly, pressing his thigh against the scratchy wool of John's kilt.
“Off?' John whispered.
“I want to see you. I want to touch you all over, but . . .”
John bit at Sherlock's jaw impishly. “But I'd have to take the antlers off to get the jumper off. And you want me to keep them on, don't you?”
“Good. You're keeping that crown too. Queen of the May.”
“Holly King,” Sherlock corrected as he went on his counterattack, grabbing John by the nape and nipping his throat.
“Both,” John moaned. “Oh god, that --”
He'd done enough to Sherlock by now that Sherlock had a good idea of behaviour to mirror and themes to improvise on. Sherlock bent him backwards and slid his hand across John's chest beneath the jumper, teasing nipples – oh god, when he splayed his hand wide he could almost touch both at once, why was that so hot? Looking into Sherlock's eyes John saw delight every time John moaned or shivered or pressed harder against him or responded in any way, and then he couldn't help but give himself over for a few moments, absorbing Sherlock's kisses and caresses into his skin to keep them forever.
Then John remembered that he was supposed to be leading this show, and he opened Sherlock's robe all the way, pressing against him, pulling back to look at him – beautiful, strong, and his to caress and touch, his to pleasure and tease. His responsibility to care for. Reverently he caressed Sherlock's chest and belly, bending to kiss him all over, spending extra time and tongue and teeth on each pink peak of nipple until Sherlock began to pant and writhe and tremble. John sank to his knees slowly as Sherlock bent down over him, trying to catch John's mouth for a kiss.
And then a tine of John's antlers got tangled in Sherlock's flower-and-holly crown. They laughed quietly, shoulders shaking as they untangled. “Careful now, don't stick me,” Sherlock muttered.
“I've got something better to stick you with,” John leered. Sherlock laughed. Once freed, John continued downward, trailing his lips and his nose down Sherlock's belly, pausing to lap at his navel, which made Sherlock twitch and squeak. Ticklish. Very important information there, John thought as he sank to his knees. From the grass he ran his hands slowly up and down the mesmerising length of Sherlock's legs, feeling the strength in them and the way they quivered now, mapping every inch and curve of ankle and shin and calf and knee and thigh. He buried his nose in the dark hair at Sherlock's groin and breathed deep the dusky animal scent of him, nuzzling teasingly at his blood-hot cock, long and thick and fully erect, slick head emerging from delicate skin.
“John, please,” Sherlock managed to breathe out.
“Pick up where I left off?” John said as he let his hot, heavy breath flow into the heat of Sherlock. He parted his lips and ran his tongue down the side of Sherlock's shaft, and heard a strangled, pleading sound above him. Wrapping a hand around it loosely, John mouthed gently at the head of it, flicking his tongue beneath and around and over the salt-flavoured slit, before taking mercy and enclosing Sherlock’s cock as far as he could, beginning to suck him slowly, increasing the pressure bit by bit. He moved both his hands to claim Sherlock's plush, obscenely round arse again, teasing the crease at the tops of his thighs, squeezing both cheeks and parting them slightly, worshipping him at back with his fingers and at the front with his mouth. He dared to gently work his fingertips down the cleft of Sherlock's arse, giving a teasing, testing brush against that tight, sensitive little pucker of muscle he'd be opening up like a gift soon enough . . .
Sherlock twitched and cried out and thrust his hips helplessly. John felt one of those beautiful hands petting his hair before taking hold of one of his antlers to guide him. Oh fuck that's hot, John thought, trying to show Sherlock he could use that as a handle all he wanted. He turned his eyes up to see that Sherlock's other hand was playing with his own nipple, and Sherlock's head was thrown back in unabashed abandonment, and the whole fucking village was watching him, and every fucking one of them, whether they were usually into men or not, was going to have to be going a little bit hard or wet or both at the sight, how could you not. . .
“John,” Sherlock said. “I have to – I can't – I might,”
“Mmm?” John asked, unwilling to take his mouth away.
“I . . . I can't stand up anymore. I'm going to fall if you keep that up, it's too good, god, you’re going to make me come that way.”
“We don't want that. Not yet,” John said fondly. He slowed his long pulls on Sherlock's cock before pulling off entirely and leaning back, making space for Sherlock to sink to his knees before him, and drew him close, kissing him again and again and feeling Sherlock sampling his own flavour in John's mouth. Sherlock wrapped his hands around John's shoulders and bent him backwards and John braced his hands on the ground as Sherlock stretched himself out and down, and pushed up John’s kilt past his waist, exposing him to the air.
At least one person in the crowd gave an appreciative cheer at the sight of John’s cock that was loud enough to be heard over the roar and crackle of the flames, the throbbing drumbeat, the rushing in John's head as Sherlock bent and took him in his mouth, playing back the movements John had made as he licked and sucked and hummed in pleasure, causing delicious vibrations.
God, he's brilliant, John thought – when I was sucking him I did all the things I like when someone's doing it to me and now he's doing that to me, and oh, all the buildup and tension and terror and adrenaline were doing something to him, building up a fire and tightness in his bollocks, which Sherlock was now caressing and cupping and rolling and stroking. “Stop!” John cried, pulling on Sherlock's hair. Sherlock jerked his head up quickly – fuck, those dilated eyes and slick, swollen lips of his.
“Did I do it wrong?” Sherlock looked almost hurt.
“No, fuck no,” John said, panting, closing his eyes. “It was too good. I was about to . . .” He caught his breath, barely. “. . . ruin everything.”
“Oh,” Sherlock said. His face flushed even further and his mouth quirked into a shy, proud smile as he looked down for a moment. He pressed a hand to John's chest and leaned away. “Then you should get your cock inside me as soon as possible.”
“Shouldn't rush,” John said. “The anticipation is important.”
“Do you think I haven't had enough anticipation?” Sherlock demanded. He lay back slowly on the grass, shrugging his robe from his shoulders to his elbows, spreading his legs to give everyone a lewd display. His cock was red and desperate, leaking a thick clear drop, his balls looked big and full, and his luscious little hole looked eager, if it could be said to have an emotion. John lunged over him on hands and knees, pure instinct, kissing him again, and Sherlock's legs encircled his waist.
“Guess so,” John gasped into Sherlock's mouth. “You want it this way? Might be easier if I'm behind you.”
“No. I want to see your face. Want you to see mine.”
“Okay, yes, um, that's . . . good. You could be on top, you could ride me, then you could have more control.”
Sherlock smiled, running his hands down John's back, hoisting up John's kilt to present his arse to all of Summerisle. “For once, I want you to be in control.”
“I want to record you saying that,” John said, softly biting Sherlock's shoulder. “Use it as my ringtone.”
“I would call you hundreds of times a day,” Sherlock said. “Get you too worked up to work.”
John laughed and closed his eyes, and did that imply that this might not be the only time he would get to . . . ? Was that too much to hope for? “You do that anyway,” John murmured and propped himself up on the ground with one hand as Sherlock took the other and guided it down between his thighs, letting John grasp teasingly at this cock and balls, moaning as John's fingers caressed his perineum, and enjoying the look on his face when John touched his entrance again, with more pressure and intent, the pad of his finger indenting him.
Sherlock scrabbled above his head for the little bottle of lube, found it without looking, and laid it down beside them.
“It's okay if you don't like this,” John said. “Some people don't, you better tell me if you want to stop, all right?” When he applied more pressure he froze for a moment. Sherlock wasn't as tight as he'd expected, already a little slick and loose at his rim, and – oh god, had he?
Sherlock slicked his fingers and seductively slid his hand down beside John's. John gasped as Sherlock quickly jammed two of his long, longer fingers into himself, deep, to his second bony knuckle, thrusting and teasing. “Willow . . . had a lot of helpful suggestions,” Sherlock said, his voice deep and low and insinuating. “How to prepare. How to . . . practise.” That last sound was a delicious hiss.
“Oh God,” John moaned as mental images battered him.
“You've done it before, haven't you?” Sherlock said, almost accusingly. “With women.”
“Yeah, it's a body part that doesn't change much,” John said.
“But I have a prostate gland,” said Sherlock - proudly, like it was an accomplishment.
“Oh yes you do,” John said and pushed, wriggling. Sherlock threw his head back and moaned and that sound went straight to John's core, where he was nearly humping the air as he knelt over Sherlock. Sherlock filled his hand with more lube and wrapped it around John's cock with a filthy squelching sound.
“Fuck. Me. Now.” Sherlock pulled his other hand free of his arse and grasped John's hip hard under the kilt. Imperious, demanding, irresistible.
John sank down, spreading his knees to align with Sherlock, who lay spread out and wanton on white robe and green grass. Taking himself in hand he teased Sherlock's sensitive hole with his cockhead for a moment before the first careful, gentle push.
Sherlock moaned again, a hoarse and breathy quality to this one. John felt his legs tighten around him as he leaned in, feeling the muscle part slowly to accept him – slowly, so slowly, closing his eyes for a second to calm down from the clenching grip of it, then opening them again to see Sherlock arch his back off the ground in his eagerness, grey eyes gone dark and desperate, muscles straining. “John,” he cried, drawing the one syllable out and making it sing.
John thrust further and Sherlock bucked his hips up to meet him, taking him deeper. “Oh, fuck, fuck, Sherlock, you feel incredible, that's amazing, you . . .” God. The sky and the sea and the smoke – the smell of burning meat, for fuck's sake, and he hoped it was just the animals he was smelling – the drumbeats, the singing, the whole village watching his arse and thighs moving as he began to move with slow, rocking thrusts, encouraged by Sherlock's cries. Taking him, fuck, he'd done it, they were doing it, Sherlock isn't a virgin anymore, and Sherlock was blissed out, lightly sheened in sweat, savouring every second of his new status in life. He was tightening his legs and clenching his arse with deliberate purpose, drawing John into him harder, deeper, making John gasp and moan his name.
Who's really in charge here? John wondered and then didn't wonder anymore as Sherlock bore down and canted his hips up, taking John in balls-deep and shaking in ecstasy. “More,” he said, his voice hoarse and wrecked. “I can take it. Thrust upward just a little - oh.”
“There – that it, that's the spot?” John growled through gritted teeth as he gave it to Sherlock good and hard.
“Yes – yes. Oh, oh, stop.”
“Fuck.” John stopped. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” Sherlock said, suddenly keen-eyed and alert. “Change positions. Get behind me. Let them see me.”
“Oh . . . okay,” John said, pulling out slowly and reluctantly, chuckling a little as Sherlock pulled him back in for a moment, then gasped as the head of John's cock tugged his rim a little on the way out. He kissed the tip of Sherlock's nose, impulsively. Sherlock shrugged the robe the rest of the way off his arms and down on the ground.
They rearranged themselves on their knees, John behind Sherlock, Sherlock sinking slowly back against John's thighs until John was deep inside him again. That accursed height difference – John couldn't see anything but Sherlock's back, but that was alright, he didn't need to. Closing his eyes, he felt his way around Sherlock's body as Sherlock moved up and down on him, pinching his nipples hard to hear a high-pitched cry, taking Sherlock's cock in his hand and pumping in counterpoint to each thrust inside. Sherlock's weight kept the strokes fast and tight and sharp, and soon Sherlock was panting hard, his body tightening, every muscle in his long back and lean hips straining and going taut. He jerked and twitched so hard, with a sharp shout, and it was all John could do to hold onto Sherlock as he came, shaking and nearly sobbing. Creamy wet heat spattered his hand as Sherlock convulsed for a shockingly long time, digging his nails into the side of John's thigh. John couldn't see, but the Summerislanders could, and he could feel and hear and, oh god, smell him.
John wrapped both arms around Sherlock's waist and clutched him tight, fucking him with quick, ruthless strokes until the knot of pleasure deep in him burst and spread, and he filled Sherlock up with it – moaning his name, burying his face between Sherlock's shoulderblades, biting one of them hard.
“Oh, oh, wow,” was all John had to say as they came down from such cosmic heights.
Sherlock lay back against John's chest and slithered downward to the ground, sweaty and shaking and clutching at John's legs with a death grip.
“Good?” John asked, pressing kisses along the side of Sherlock’s wet face. “You all right?”
“So good,” Sherlock whispered. “Extraordinary. Amazing. Brilliant.”
“Mmmm, I know you are but what am I?” John teased, nuzzling him and holding him with a fierce protectiveness. Sherlock might be lying limp and vulnerable and completely on display, but John had him now, and would never let him go.
“Exemplary,” said Miss Rose, stepping forward and smiling. She moved carefully and slowly, reading John's possessiveness in his face, careful not to spook him. With an oddly clinical sort of tenderness, she pulled out the handkerchief that had a little stain of Sherlock's blood, and with it, she wiped a single drop of semen from the head of his cock. Then she moved fast with a little silver knife, and took just one curl of his hair, and wrapped it up. Still smiling fondly, she backed away. And she tossed the little bundle onto the pyre at the base of the creaking, sinking effigy. “Part of you will always be with us now, Sherlock Holmes. You're always welcome to return.”
“Charming,” Sherlock muttered, laughing giddily. Their giggles were nearly lost in the sound of the roaring flames as the wicker man began to crack and bend and bow its flaming head against the setting sun. The crowd was singing as one, a merry song:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
Chapter 7: Dressed in the Fruits of the Wild
Masks are removed, and the rabbit hole gets some excavation. What happens on Summerisle doesn't always stay on Summerisle.
Sherlock squirmed a little, restlessly, then started to push himself up off the ground, using John's aching thighs for leverage. For one moment, he leaned back, into John's quick, stolen, private kiss. Then Sherlock folded himself up and away. As he rose to his feet, he winced a little, and John instinctively grasped his waist to help push him up.
“Are you sore?” John asked apologetically.
“No,” Sherlock said. “Just . . . slippery.”
“Oh,” John chuckled. “We'll get you cleaned up soon.”
A change came over Sherlock as he wrapped the robe back around himself. All trace of nerves or exhaustion or softness or vulnerability were gone from his beaming face. Sherlock acknowledged the cheers of the villagers with a quick shake of his fists in the air, and he looked like nothing so much as a victorious prizefighter.
Wonderful, John thought. His ego has a whole new playground.
“Share the applause, John,” Sherlock said, holding up John's hand as he bowed. “You did most of the work.”
Cut him some slack, John told himself, choking back a snicker as he shared Sherlock’s last bow. You were proud of yourself when you first got laid too. Admittedly, you were fifteen, but still. And your first time didn't have life-or-death consequences. This was the weirdest post-coital afterglow John had ever had; all those hormones had to go someplace, and they expressed themselves as profound relief, ridiculous fondness for the madman who’d got them into this and then out of it again, and a certain trippy hallucinatory daze.
The music of the villagers began to increase and build in pace and intensity. The pipers and drummers had resumed their instruments, playing with volume and frenzy. The people were grabbing each other, some beginning to lead up to performing their own matings on the heath; others were hungry for food, and they led each other by the hands back down to the path towards the village, where there would be feasting and drinking and dancing all night.
Lord Summerisle and Miss Rose stepped in front of Sherlock and John, and the fox-masked girl stood beside them. “We want to invite our most honoured guests to a very civilised feast,” Lord Summerisle said.
“Where the conversation can be private,” Miss Rose said pointedly.
Fox-face finally took her mask off, and John boggled at what he saw. Sherlock gave a quiet chuckle as John blurted, “Anthea?!?” John stepped back a little, shaking his head. Once again, he’d been miles behind and over his head.
“All will be explained, John,” Sherlock said. He really did look a little tired now, and that grass-stained white robe seemed insufficient to guard against the rising evening wind from the sea.
“As usual. Don’t keep me waiting too long,” John said resignedly, as Ivy pulled up at the top of the hill, driving a larger two-horse buggy that could possibly sit five more, if two were willing to be very cozy indeed. Which they were. John discreetly traced his fingertips gently across the underside of Sherlock’s knee. Considering what they’d just done, it was kid stuff - but it was private and intimate, and it made Sherlock shiver, just a little, or perhaps that was the chill.
By the time they pulled up to the manor, the staff had a hot, excellent meal waiting. Lord Summerisle poured more of his magical forest-god-flavoured whisky – for such a rare brew, his supply didn't seem to dwindle much.
Everyone was very eager to attend to Sherlock, and by the time he finally admitted he'd really like a bath, it was already ready. The mission to find Sherlock's clothes in the crowd had been still ongoing the last they'd heard – and they better find them, John thought, he really liked that white shirt. At it wasn't the aubergine one he loved most to see Sherlock in, or the blue, or one of those sleek black ones . . . well, good thing Sherlock had left the coat and scarf safely back at the inn; there'd be blood if those had gone missing.
“My apologies,” Lord Summerisle said. “It's very likely they've been cut up for souvenirs and charms by now. They'll be replaced at my expense, of course. It's the least I can do.”
Therefore, John was treated to the sight of a moist, wet-haired Sherlock relaxing back in one of Lord Summerisle's chairs, drinking Lord Summerisle's spirits and nibbling at Lord Summerisle's lamb, and wearing Lord Summerisle's dressing gown – a tartan of course, predominantly green, and of course Sherlock looked lickable in it. But the sleeves were a little too long for him.
“We must go downstairs,” Lord Summerisle said. “I do apologize; it's a long walk. But there are things that must be cleared up, before we're all relaxed and exhausted and socially lubricated – as we should be on May Day night.”
Only right, John thought, as Lord Summerisle led the little party out of the parlour and across a long, drafty foyer leading to the very oldest part of the house. Summerisle Manor is a castle, so it must have a dungeon. He was impressed by it; it was so . . . medieval. An imposing oak door swung onto a dark, lichen-covered stone stairway leading downward. The way was long and winding, and they paused only to let Lord Summerisle light flickering lamps set into the damp walls. Gaslight, John thought. This part was last modernised at least a century ago. Who or what had the first Lord Summerisle kept down here?
As they all walked down the dripping, dank underground hallway at the lowest level, John heard rough voices talking.
“Yeah, and the way Howie screamed and screamed and screamed as the fire went up his arse . . . tried to be all high and mighty but he was cryin' and pissin' himself when they took him up there. It was great. And the smell – swear I could tell what was him and what was the sheep.”
“You could not. It was all the same, it was all meat. Like when a steak falls down the grill.”
“Shame it didn't happen this time. Would have loved to hear that ponce screaming like that.”
“Naw, I wished they'd chopped his stuck-up head off. Saw a video once, a beheading. The blood shoots everywhere and the body twitches and the head doesn't even realise it's dead for a few seconds . . .”
“Ooh, that've been great. But faggots are for burning.”
They stopped up short when they saw who was standing in front of their cell. John, Sherlock, Lord Summerisle, Miss Rose, and Anthea. Blossom. Whatever.
“You should be glad you've got bars protecting you,” John said.
“You should be glad the Goddess wouldn't want you,” Lord Summerisle said.
Branch Burns sat glumly in a cell by himself, poking gingerly at the bandages on his stomach where John's antlers had gored him. From what John could tell of the wound - as the one who inflicted it as well as from a doctor’s point of view - it seemed more painful and embarrassing than serious.
John saw him cringing - at the nasty talk of his former co-conspirators, maybe? Oh, John hoped so - and he didn’t look up right away at the approaching sets of footsteps.
“My condolences for your loss,” said Lord Summerisle, formally and insincerely.
Branch just shook his head sadly and finally looked up. His pale face was streaked with tears. “She wasn't wrong,” Branch said. “The Goddess of the fields took her sacrifice. Tell him, Miss Rose. You know. You were Her. I saw it in your eyes.”
Miss Rose said nothing, biting her lip.
“I almost killed you,” Lord Summerisle said, his careful neutrality crumbling. “You conspired against me. You nearly undermined me in front of all of our people. You tried to manipulate us to kill a man who is ten times better than you.”
Another twinge of pain crossed Branch's face – emotional or physical, hard to tell, John thought. Likely both.
“Your plan – if it worked, which it would not have done – could have led to my eventual death in the long run,” Lord Summerisle said. “That didn't bother you at all?”
Sherlock stepped forward – if anyone could work an ill-fitting dressing gown and a few stray bits of holly and ivy still caught in his hair, it was him. “That was Branch's plan, but it was only one of Hazel's plans. She wanted to be the High Priestess, the power behind the throne, with a Lord Summerisle as her consort. Whether it was the current one or the next one made little difference to her. She wanted to be prepared for contingencies.”
Branch at last stood up painfully, using the iron bars to raise himself from the floor. “Do you think I didn't know that? She loved the gods above all.”
“A recent development, I understand,” Sherlock said, rocking a little on his feet and smirking coolly. “New converts are often the most . . . fervent. You do understand that she'd have been willing to put you in the wicker man if she felt the gods wanted it?”
“Yes, I understood that,” Branch said. “I'm not as dumb or naïve as you think I am, Mr. Holmes. You might ask, why conspire with someone I can't trust? Because my situation had become intolerable. Here I was, a mere employee when I should be an heir. We are not Christians here. No one on Summerisle cares a whit about sex and babies outside of matrimony. Why couldn't my own father acknowledge me? Why should he be ashamed?”
Lord Summerisle stood up ramrod-straight, at his full imposing height. There was rage in his eyes but sadness in his voice. “I was never ashamed of you, Branch,” he said. “Until now.” He turned stiffly and walked away. Miss Rose stood a moment and shook her head sadly, and then followed him.
Branch slumped down, utterly dejected. Anthea gave Sherlock a little smile. “Now I think I know how Mycroft feels every time he has to apologise for you.”
“Hardly my concern,” Sherlock sniffed haughtily.
Anthea sighed and shook her head. “Well, Branch is still my brother.” She pushed in between John and Sherlock and reached for his hand through the bars. “He'll come round, Branch. I'll talk to him.”
Branch smiled a little stiffly and let his sister comfort him. “He listens to you, sometimes,” he said ruefully. “You were always his favourite. You figured it out so long before I did. Maybe someday you'll be Lady Summerisle and I'll be your butler. If you'd hire me.”
She smiled sadly. “He's sending you to the mainland to seek your fortune. I think that's good. You could still do really well. You know Mum and I will help you.”
Branch looked up at her and got a slightly mischievous glint in his eyes. “I don't suppose there's a chance of a job for me with your employer?”
She laughed softly. “After you conspired to set up his little brother as a human sacrifice? I think not.”
“Fair enough,” Branch admitted. “Bridge burned.”
Sherlock lightly tugged on John's sleeve, pulling him back up the hallway and towards the high, dripping stone stairs. To let Anthea be Blossom again, in privacy with her twin.
John was feeling just a little bit lightheaded again, as everything he thought he knew about Anthea -- which wasn’t much at all, and had turned out to be even less than he thought - rearranged itself. Summerisle. Brother. Father. Well. Categorise that later. His first concern was still Sherlock.
“So. Let's talk,” John muttered quietly. “Um, about what we did out there – are you okay?”
“Of course I'm okay, why wouldn't I be?” Sherlock said impatiently. “We didn't do anything that millions of people aren't doing even as we speak just for the fun of it.”
“I just, I mean – it was under duress.”
“It was under duress, yes,” Sherlock said, searching John's face with his keenest grey-green gaze. “For you as well.”
John nodded. “True. Guess I got used to the idea pretty fast. I'm still more concerned about you, though.”
“Because it was so weird, and you never did that before.”
“Why are so you fixated on that? One must always do everything for the first time once, obviously, and once that’s out of the way, one goes on to doing it other times.”
John looked up at him, struggling to hold the intensity of his gaze. “So you might want to do it . . . other times. Right?”
“Right. Correct.” Sherlock gave a Cheshire-cat smile. “Even with a man, then, you can enjoy it that much. Useful to know,” Sherlock said, his eyes gleaming in the dim lamplight.
“Well,” John said. “I guess I have to admit I'm a little more gay than I thought. And so you are, then. I always thought you might be, but I was never sure.”
“Inasmuch as it was relevant before, which wasn’t very, I do find myself mostly attracted to men, yes,” Sherlock said, his voice falling into back into his assured, all-knowing comfort zone, reciting information to himself and any surrounding eager ears to anchor himself. “You weren't lying when you said you weren't gay, and you weren't in denial. You're not gay. You're slightly bisexual, contingent on situation and opportunity. You had male partners in the Army and you enjoyed it. But when you came back to civilian life, you compartmentalised.”
“You're on the right track so far,” John said. Sherlock's chest reflected dark golden gaslight between the lapels of Lord Summerisle’s robe. John itched to touch it. He did. “All of that is true.”
Sherlock went on, picking up a little nervous urgency. “Your dominant inclination is towards women, so when you resumed what you thought was normal life, those are naturally the attractions you pursued. You associate sexual activity with men with the military, wartime, and remoteness from civilian reality. But when you work with me, you see a different battlefield. Our work is dangerous. I am dangerous. That blurred the line. It opened the box just enough for you to experience attraction towards me.”
“True enough, as far as it goes,” John said, nodding, thinking about standing up on his tiptoes to kiss Sherlock just once at the crest of his nearest cheekbone. He did, and nearly lost his balance on the slippery stone step. Sherlock caught him by the upper arm, and did not let go.
“As far as it goes?” Sherlock said a little sharply, frustrated with himself. “What am I missing?”
“The same type of thing you usually miss,” John said. “And I find this difficult. As you know. But . . . I think it's because you weren't around to observe me when I thought I'd lost you forever. The regrets. The what-ifs. The things I wish I'd said and done. You should have seen it after you came back, but it was almost like you were being willfully blind. And that's not like you.”
Sherlock sighed, and he took John's hand that had crept back to his chest, and covered it with his own, laying it still directly over his heart. Which was pounding. “I thought I saw. I did see. But I was determined to guard against wishful thinking. I may have been . . . overzealous in that regard.”
Something settled in John's belly, warm and melting and slow as honey. “I did the same thing,” John said, and kissed him. “You were overzealous about that. I was too.”
Anthea came up behind them on the slimy, mossy stone steps, poking Sherlock in the ribs almost affectionately as she pushed past to lead the way. After all, she’d been here before.
“So you, ummm, watched that? Out there?” John muttered.
Anthea paused for a moment, breathing deep as they climbed, laughing quietly. “Not the whole thing, no. Mr. Holmes the Elder is almost family to me now, so it turns out it felt a bit incestuous. Couldn’t do it, not all the way. I turned my head sometime during the, er, oral stage of the performance.”
John felt his face blush hot. Not as much relief there as he’d hoped. Then he started to laugh again, at her attempt at discretion. “Okay, good. That was . . . good. I think.”
Sherlock laughed too, a free and fluttering sound. Anthea turned on him quickly and said, “Don’t be too relieved. If you’re not good to John, I’ll send pictures to Mycroft.”
Sherlock’s smile froze dead and cold on his face. John laughed harder.
Anthea turned to John, eyes sparkling impishly. In that moment John could definitely see her Summerisle heritage shining through. “And if you don’t treat Sherlock well, I’ll send them to your therapist.”
“Drink and eat and enjoy,” Miss Rose said, when Sherlock and John had finally sat down again with them both. “You've earned it well.” She put her hand on Lord Summerisle's arm. “Come sport with me for a while, my love. Let the young people talk amongst themselves.”
Lord Summerisle looked at Sherlock and John and Anthea with some reservations. But the pressure of Miss Rose was clearly the most important, and he let her lead him up the stairs, laughing a little as she elbowed him in the side.
Everyone waited until they heard a door shut.
Anthea sat slowly nursing her glass and watching John and Sherlock's faces. She looked beautiful and put together as always – but there were still tracks of tears, from that one moment when she had been genuinely afraid. “They’ll be completing the final component of the ritual. Sealing the magic. Best done by the High Priestess and Priest in private. And they’ll be eavesdropping on us too, of course.”
“Of course,” John nodded acceptingly. “Sherlock, you promised me you’d explain it all. Go on, do your thing. You know I love it.” There was no wiping that dopey grin off his face, and this time John wasn’t even moved to try.
Sherlock turned to John to explain, having never got the memo that it might be rude to tell someone else’s life story in front of them. “Blossom and her fraternal twin brother Branch were, like several babies every year, listed in the village registry as 'fireborn' – conceived asexually, by the fire-leaping ritual, therefore, no father listed. Of course, this is a convenient way to register children born on the wrong side of the blanket. Their mother, Lavender Burns, no longer resides here – I recognised her name from a list of research scientists currently employed at Baskerville.”
“That's the truth, John,” Anthea said. “Both sides of my family have deep roots on Summerisle. My maternal great-grandparents contributed to Operation Mistletoe, the secret occult workings that Churchill commissioned to fight in the spiritual world against Hitler's Ahnenerbe.” She smiled with clear pride.
“They didn't find out until the 1970s that the field agent they'd reported to during the war was Aleister Crowley,” Sherlock said. “There were several centers for these experimental operations. Gerald Gardner's coven in New Forest. Dion Fortune's society in London. What remained of the Order of the Golden Dawn. And of course, Summerisle, tasked with protecting Scotland and the surrounding seas. Operation Mistletoe was credited with Rudolf Hess's little flight of fancy. Forty years ago, the British government approached the present Lord Summerisle's father with a request to place a secret research facility here. Not unlike Baskerville, but much smaller, and more focused on flora than fauna. It's fallen into disuse in recent decades, but it still carries a certain cachet. The previous Lord Summerisle agreed, but with the condition that some island children with certain talents should be allowed to apply for roles of . . . great importance, if they had the interest and skills.”
“Hence my position,” Anthea said. “Mycroft knows most of this.”
“Lord Summerisle has a private mobile and wireless node – of course he does,” Sherlock said. “So naturally I pickpocketed his PA for his mobile phone, and wasn't as surprised as I could have been to find familiar numbers in it.”
“Sherlock and I have a code of our own,” Anthea admitted. “Sometimes we have to try to bypass Mycroft. Sherlock should just be glad my mum's still at Baskerville – do you know what it's like to try to get a swarm of hybrid, climate-change-resistant bees with less than a day's notice? And Mycroft had the Lear in Istanbul. I’d have come sooner, but the helicopter needed special preparation to transport the swarm. I know how to fly it of course, but I needed to jump through some hoops to get the clearance. Especially since the trip is near the limit of that model’s range. If I didn’t know I’d be able to refuel here, I couldn’t have done it at all.”
John sat back and took another drink of whisky, stunned and startled. Sherlock and Anthea apparently had custody of a very deep rabbit hole indeed.
Sherlock smiled. “Granted, those hardier bees are a bit more aggressive than the norm, as they demonstrated, but taking that risk is still preferable to no pollination at all. I didn't anticipate that. It was an accident that Hazel was so terribly allergic.”
John's head was still swimming. “So - the helicopter I heard last night. I thought I dreamt it. They’re in my dreams all the time, from Afghanistan. Sherlock! When I heard you leave Willow’s room last night, you were going out to meet with her, weren’t you?”
“'Yes, we had to discuss timing,” Sherlock said, dismissing that as a totally uninteresting line of conversation. “‘Anthea' means 'blossom' in Greek,” he went on. “A good choice for the new identity she took on when she she was talent-scouted by MI6.”
“It's less . . . hobbity,” Anthea said.
“Branch doesn't have the talent you do,” Sherlock said to her. “He's not nearly as clever, as this plot showed. Trying to play a long game, and couldn't even see how it might come back to bite him, especially when he hitched his star to someone as out of control as Hazel, or should I call her Martha?”
“He was always angry,” Anthea said, shaking her head a little. “It’s not entirely out of character. He figured out the truth a lot later than I did, and he was resentful. Felt he should have been more than just Lord Summerisle's most trusted employee. But he hasn't exactly acquitted himself well now, has he?” Anthea said, a little sadly.
“Branch wanted to be acknowledged. He wanted his birthright. He wanted to be sure he'd inherit when the time came,” Sherlock said. “It's not a terribly unreasonable thing to want. But then Lord Summerisle would have to publicly admit that the whole idea of the 'fireborn' is absurd, which I suspect he is still too proud to do, and the concept still serves other purposes. I knew you had grown up under unusual circumstances, but it wasn't until I arrived here that I put it all together,” Sherlock said to Anthea. “Looking at Branch's face was the final key. I'm afraid he won't find the phone I pickpocketed unless he's an excellent diver. I only just made it before the range of Lord Summerisle's personal wifi ran out on me.”
Anthea sighed exasperatedly. “I'll have Mycroft buy him a new one. He really needs to learn to keep his wits about him more than he does. And after all this he probably still doesn't understand why Lord Summerisle doesn't think he's prepared to inherit.”
Sherlock snorted maliciously. “Even for nobility, that’s an entitlement complex on an epic scale.”
Anthea nodded. “I was surprised for a moment to see your code coming from that number. But not as much as I might have been if I didn’t know he’d make trouble sooner or later.”
“But I still don't understand,” John asked. “Why did Hazel come to Sherlock for help? Three years later?”
“Oh,” Anthea said. “My father has a strange sense of humour. Hazel had been pestering him for months – she clearly had designs on taking over Miss Rose's role, orchestrating the ceremony, choosing everything. And procuring a sacrifice, if one was deemed needed. He's always liked to hedge his bets. He always has a Plan B. If Sherlock was coming anyway, he'd keep him in reserve.” She looked at Sherlock with a little smile. “And I'm sure he thought that if you got too nosy, he'd have you taken care of.”
“That would be . . . ambitious of him,” Sherlock said.
“Well, you can't say you weren't taken care of,” Anthea said slyly.
“I realized that as soon as I met you, Sherlock,” Lord Summerisle cut in dramatically, standing on the stair landing wearing nothing but his kilt and Miss Rose’s ritual chalice in his hand. “And that to end you with the sword or the fire or the water would be a terrible waste of a brilliant mind – however, of course, our gods generally prefer the sacrifice of that which we love and admire, therefore . . . “
“Except Sergeant Howie,” Sherlock said, standing up, clearly startled by Summerisle’s abrupt appearance.
“He really did set himself up perfectly,” Lord Summerisle said, full of mock innocence. “What were we to think but that the gods had chosen him and sent him themselves?”
“I know perfectly well the setup wasn't all his doing,” Sherlock said. “You know that I know.”
“Yet he played into our hands in ways even I didn't foresee. And speaking of foresight, let us not speak ill of the dead - Hazel couldn't have been completely useless if she managed to deceive you for any length of time.”
“There's always something,” Sherlock admitted. “Of course she played her religious role well – she'd lived that way her whole life and only recently converted. All she did was let herself lapse back into the role that was so natural to her. And I didn't see it at the time because I didn't know I should be looking for it. The things about her that were off are clear to me in hindsight. But I ascribed them to her feelings for her late fiancé not being as deep as advertised.”
“Oh, I think she did love him,” Lord Summerisle said confidently. “Enough that she couldn't allow herself to believe that he died in vain. Enough that her entire worldview rearranged itself around his loss.”
Miss Rose came up behind Lord Summerisle and wrapped an arm around his waist. “She'd have gone over to you in a heartbeat, if only I were out of the way. Which I had no intention of being. Did you know, she actually quoted Gardner to me? To me. And it was his suggestion that it was a High Priestess's duty to gracefully step down when she was no longer young and beautiful. Even Gardner abandoned that one quickly, the clod.”
“You are even more beautiful to me now than you were when the Goddess first chose you for me many years ago. Your beauty grows with your wisdom,” Lord Summerisle said to her, and the truth of it was in his eyes. This was a man in love.
“Quite right,” Miss Rose said proudly. “I’m sure Howie was a decent man in his way. He probably deserved better in life. Still -- witches burning a Christian. I thought it had a fitting irony. You were right, my love. A true martyr’s death is a rare gift for a believer in modern Britain.”
“And you've deduced us all well, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson,” Lord Summerisle said. “You are always welcome back here.”
Miss Rose smiled and nodded and took her chalice back from Lord Summerisle and raised it in tribute. “Not only did you comport yourselves cleverly and help us a great deal, it really was an exemplary act of sacrifice to bless the fields. You were sincere after all -- but the passion in your lovemaking was real, and it was a joy to witness. Please visit us again. We'd be honoured to host your handfasting.”
Anthea laughed. “Can you imagine the look on Mycroft's face?”
John cleared his throat. “Look. I apologise for not getting the joke, but --”
“A handfasting is a type of pagan marriage ceremony, John,” Sherlock said. There was just a glimpse of a strange expression that crossed his face – it could have been nothing, but it also could have been something.
Lord Summerisle retreated into another room at the top of the stairs and returned with a very excellent old violin. He led them all into the parlour and glanced pointedly at Sherlock, setting the violin down. Lord Summerisle began to play the piano. Sherlock took up the violin, knowing a command when he saw one. They improvised a theme on ‘Sumer Is Icumen In,’ via Vaughan Williams.
Miss Rose swayed and smiled, and Anthea gave John a fond, sympathetic look. John thought that when he’d first met Anthea, he’d never have wanted her to look at him like that, but now, damn, it was good to have an ally.
Ivy came in and told them all the cart was waiting to take John and Sherlock back to the Green Man Inn if they wanted it. They did, even though Lord Summerisle offered to host them in one of his guest rooms in grand style.
John felt that the Green Man was more their space. Their room, their things, that one big bed he had every hope of really making theirs.
“Something's still bothering you, isn't it?” John said back in their room, watching the play of light and shadow on Sherlock's slightly frowning face as John took pyjamas out of their respective suitcases.
“Yes. Hazel met all the requirements at least as well as I did. She came here of her own free will, trying to find out what happened to her fiancé. She came with some of the will of a king, if not an earthly one – she actually tried to evangelise and do missionary work, at first. There's little doubt she was a fool. And, just like Howie, she was raised in a strict religious environment with strong prohibitions against premarital sex. By the time she converted, she'd already set her cap for Lord Summerisle and wouldn't settle for anyone less; he declined to give her what she wanted, and then she hedged her bets by playing hard-to-get with Branch. Therefore: virgin.”
John looked out the window, at the vivid green fields that had been full of writhing flesh the night before and now were innocent, verdant farmland, fit for any family-friendly postcard. “But wait – she was already dead when we, er. Because of the bee stings. And Miss Rose seemed satisfied.”
“Yes,” Sherlock said. “Unfortunately, I wasn't planning for Hazel to die. That may have negated one thing I was hoping to achieve: it leaves an opening for the more bloodthirsty faction of Summerisle politics to claim that it wasn't our sacrifice that restored the crops, it was hers. However, considering that Branch Burns is unlikely to fan the flames again any time soon, we have to trust that Miss Rose and Lord Summerisle can manage their own business themselves in the near future.”
“So, I still don't quite get this,” John said. “Howie died because he didn't play the game as well as you, is that what both you and Lord Summerisle are saying?”
Sherlock sat back, eyelids flickering rapidly. “Yes. But that's not the only reason.”
“Howie died because he didn't have a John Watson,” Sherlock said quickly. “I'm very fortunate; I don't suffer from that particular condition, the lack of a you. If I did, I’d very likely be dead now. My head severed; my drowned body floating abandoned in the sea; I could be a collection of ashes and bone chips blown away by the wind. Gruesome death is a constant possibility in my line of work – the strength in my constitution is you.”
John was stunned and moved, and yet still carrying something that didn’t sit quite right with him. “You still don’t seem terribly upset about it. Howie or Hazel. So you think – anyone who isn't lucky enough to have someone like me deserves to die?”
“Deserves to die?” Sherlock said, “Of course not. I made no judgments about deserving. I'm only talking about balance of probability.”
John stood up slowly and stretched, plucked at his dirty clothes, and told Sherlock, “You've had a bath and I haven't. We'll talk about this more after my shower.”
At least part of John felt much better about the whole situation when he came back from his shower and found Sherlock already in bed. He was wrapped up in the sheets and shirtless – pantsless, possibly? Oh, maybe. John certainly hoped so.
John shut and locked the door and stood there in nothing but a towel around his waist, hands behind his back.
“So back to that whole sex thing,” he said nervously, running a hand through his damp hair. “It seemed you were – that it was - intense for you,” John said nervously. “I mean, I don't want to pry, but -” This was supremely difficult to even begin to choke out, even though objectively speaking it was ridiculous to be so afraid. John didn't even know how to begin to mention the fact that he'd tasted tears on Sherlock's cheek.
“Yes,” Sherlock said, staring off into space. “That's true. I didn't expect to have such a powerful emotional response to a foreign object in my rectum.”
John stared at him for just a second, completely gobsmacked. He was surprised to hear himself say in an impressively deadpan voice, “That's the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”
Sherlock turned to him sharply, with that endearing puzzled scrunch between his eyes. “Really?”
John managed to hold himself still for a long, long moment before collapsing into helpless snorting laughter. “Of course not, you tit! I had you! I totally had you!”
Sherlock froze for a moment as the penny dropped. “Oh yes,” Sherlock gasped after his own laughter hit. “You had me all right, you totally had me.” He recovered quickly and spoke in a deeper, more serious voice. “Would you like to have me again?”
“Um. Yes,” John said, caught off guard and therefore terribly honest.
“Good, I feel the same way,” Sherlock said quickly. “I'm glad for the necessity. Who knows when we would have spoken up otherwise. I'm glad our hands were forced.”
“Not just our hands,” John said, walking closer to the bed.
Sherlock sinuously moved under the sheets until he was near the edge of the bed, looking straight up at John. With one long arm he reached out to John’s hip, and unwrapped the towel with a quick yank, dropping it to the floor. John resisted the instinct to cover himself; the urge only lasted an instant, and then he felt that piercing grey-blue gaze slide up and down his naked body like a long, firm caress. The warmth on his skin that lingered from the bath intensified in his cock. Yeah, that made sense, that Sherlock could start to get it hard just by looking at it. “No, John,” Sherlock said, and his voice was full of something John so rarely heard there - only in the presence of intense cleverness and masterful crime and beautiful music. Reverence. “More. So much more.”
John was flushed and trembling, wondering what Sherlock would do next, but this was not a moment he was willing to break, not with that raptness on Sherlock’s face as he studied John up and down, seeming to see through his very skin.
Sherlock did something John did not expect: he just smiled, almost shyly, and backed off a bit and held up the sheets, a clear invitation for John to crawl in beside him. John found himself wrapped up in a lazy half-embrace as Sherlock pulled John close. When John had settled his head on Sherlock's shoulder, Sherlock took a deep breath. “Are you . . . happy?”
“Oh God yes,” John sighed, and felt Sherlock relax. “Strange,” John went on. “I thought you were - just not that interested. Like sex is something ordinary people get excited about and you don’t. Like football or famous people.”
Sherlock sighed, and hoisted himself a little bit up the pillows and headboard and nudged the sheet down a little. “I always thought it was a simple, base drive. But it's actually so rich and complex.”
“What do you mean?” John asked, smiling.
Sherlock took John's hand and placed a fingertip on his own nearest nipple, and moved it slowly. “This. Just this one spot. Every single type of touch feels different. Your finger, dry. Your finger, wet. Two of your fingers, circling, two of your fingers pinching gently, or pulling hard. Your lips, softly. Your lips sucking quickly. Your tongue, licking. Your teeth, biting. Gentle. Hard. Slow. Fast. I could spend hours categorizing all the sensations of the things you can do to this one tiny point on my body, and the intensely arousing effect it has on the rest of me. And when you repeat them on the other nipple, which should be a perfect mirror, they're slightly different – (and here Sherlock moved John's fingertips over to the left to demonstrate his point.) “Everywhere on my body, every possible way you can stimulate me, is so full of different minute, fractally different permutations. Even the places that aren't obvious erogenous zones respond in ways I never could have imagined.”
Sherlock fell back against the pillows. “I have only begun. Barely begun. Is it like that for you? Every type of touch on every part of you feeling exquisite in different ways?”
John just kept circling Sherlock's nipple, eager to hear whatever he had to say, wanting to start working harder again soon, because Sherlock’s erotic monologue had left him breathlessly hard. But he knew this was important so he looked up into Sherlock's burning, curious eyes and said, “Yeah. That's exactly how it is. When it's good, anyway.”
“You’d classify our first time as ‘good,’ then?” Sherlock said. John looked for the smirk. It was there, but it seemed oddly unsure of itself.
“Fuck yes,” John said.
“Good,” Sherlock said.
“You’re a natural.”
“The guiding instincts are powerful, I noticed,” Sherlock said. “But I learn everything quickly.”
John scooted closer until he could roll and lie against him. He turned his eyes up to Sherlock’s, determined to choke out everything before he chickened out and the window of opportunity closed. “It upset you for a minute. What Miss Rose said about handfasting.”
Sherlock was going to try to deflect, John could just tell, so he gave Sherlock his best “don't lie to me” face. One of these days that might actually start working.
“It wasn't a joking matter to me,” Sherlock said quietly.
“It isn't to me either,” John said, holding Sherlock's gaze.
Sherlock's eyes went suddenly wide.
“This isn’t just sexual, for me,” John said. “It's really, really not. I mean, it is. Of course. Very, very sexual. But it's everything else too. And I mean everything.”
Sherlock lay there blinking for a few long moments – barely breathing, barely moving, heart fluttering like a caged hummingbird – while this sank in. John suppressed the temptation to cover that sweet, confused, dazed expression in kisses, and he just waited.
A switch flipped, and next thing John knew there was a shove and a twist and John was on his back under a wild and ardent Sherlock who was kissing him desperately.
That feels a lot like a yes, John thought. “We still have a lot to talk about,” John said in between kisses. “I mean, we. . . . can’t just rush into . . .”
“Of course not,” Sherlock said quietly, once he had John splayed out beneath him like a starfish, for his own delectation. Sherlock hoisted himself up on hands and knees and just looked at John for a long time, face to neck to shoulders to chest to belly to groin.
“I wonder what it is about you, John,” Sherlock said. He leaned his weight harder on one hand so he could use the other to brush fingers over John’s bullet scar -- but not for very long, it was just the entry point to keep caressing, wider and further and lower. “You’re average for a man of your age, in so many ways. Except for your penis, which looks average when flaccid but is definitely not so when erect, and frankly I feel proud of myself for taking it so easily. And yet --”
John smiled and laughed a little. “Maybe ‘cause I’m not insulted by any of that? I mean, if I heard some of it from anyone else, I would be. But not from you. Because I know you.”
Sherlock smiled as he ran his hand around the swell of bone at John’s right hip, probing at the sensitive skin and muscle above. “That’s a good start. But that’s not all of it.”
“You’re the genius,” John said. “You tell me.”
Sherlock sucked in breath hard through his teeth as he propped himself up over John. “The scent of you and the slump of your shoulders delights me. Every time you lick your lips, my blood rises. This has been true since I met you. When I had to be away from you, the only thing that gave me a little comfort, a little pleasure in the worst nights, was my memory of the sound of your voice. Your clothes are atrocious, and I like that, because it makes me want to rip them off you that much more. I can only conclude that must mean that I’m desperately attracted to you. As to why? I think it’s because you’re brave and steady, and you know how save lives and you know how to end them. Also, your pubic hair is redder and less grey than the hair on your head, and I’m only just now seeing that, and it’s amazing. Do you know how uncommon that is?”
“No, is it, really?” John said.
“Well,” Sherlock admitted, “I have seen a lot of naked men over the years, but -”
“All of them were dead,” John finished.
Sherlock smiled shyly.
“Didn’t think you’d know what to do with a live one,” John said. “You learned fast. You liked doing it out in front of all those people, didn’t you? Showoff.”
“I am a showoff, John. It’s what we do.”
“Mmm, yeah,” John said, a bit of a challenge in his voice as he ran his hands up and down Sherlock’s arms, feeling the strength and tension in them as they held so much of Sherlock’s weight. “But now it’s just us. Come on then, show me some more.”
“Yes. And there is so much more we can do.” Sherlock lowered his head, his voice dark and deep near John’s ear. “Just you and me.” He sank down on his elbows and just barely brushed John’s lips with his own. Deceptive. Treacherous. When John reached up to pull Sherlock by the hair into a deeper kiss, he found his wrists pinned to the bed.
Captured, John gazed up, heart pounding. Just because Sherlock had discovered his own hormones didn’t mean that dazzling computer-chip mind would stop reading every detail and processing it into information. John shivered with a strange frisson. “You like to take charge in bed,” Sherlock said. “Not because you crave power, but because you’re a caretaker.” His voice was assured as usual but rawer, breathier. “You have trouble just letting your partner work on you.”
John was panting and writhing beneath Sherlock -- oh, and he liked that long, lean weight on him; Sherlock was heavier than he looked, all muscle and bone -- but not trying to free himself.
“You’ll let me,” Sherlock said. He was so sure. “Because I want to learn you.” His voice was vibrating against John’s ear and jaw as his lips caught and tugged skin and his teeth scraped gently. “Let me.”
God, how many hands did Sherlock have? How could John feel so trapped and so caressed at once? The heat of skin all over his, sweat beginning to rise where they pressed together. How many mouths did Sherlock have? It felt like more than one, licking and kissing and sucking at edges of tendons and creases of skin, drawing out electric surges up and down John’s spine. When John’s hands were released, he simply twined one in Sherlock’s hair and clutched as that keen analytical instrument of a head moved slowly down his shoulder, laving the scar tissue with tongue and then downward to torment his nipples with lips and teeth.
“Fuck, Sherlock, you’re amazing,” he cried in a strangled whisper.
“You’re so complex,” Sherlock declared into the soft plane of John’s belly. “Infinitely . . . could study you for years, your nerves, your responses . . . there’s so much to know . . . your skin alone, here,” as he bit down lightly on John’s hip and worried the skin a little with a small shake of his head.
That really is one of the most romantic things anyone’s ever said to me, John thought but didn’t say. Instead he arched and squirmed against Sherlock, rubbing his fevered cock against Sherlock’s chest, tugging on Sherlock’s hair. “Come on up here. Kiss me. More later, I just want to - now, please.”
Sherlock surged up and melded his mouth back against John’s, their tongues delving deep together, as Sherlock’s cock nuzzled up against John’s in their sweat-damp trap of their bellies. John spread his legs wide and lifted them to lock around Sherlock’s hips, digging his heels into the strong, clenching backs of his thighs as they rocked together wildly, creaking the bed and slamming the posts against the wall.
They heard Willow pounding angrily on the other side, and it only spurred them on harder.
Sherlock gave a fierce little cry and flailed his arm out at the nightstand where he’d placed the lube he’d pocketed from the ritual. One-handedly, a little awkwardly, he coated his hand and managed to smear as much as he could around his own cock and John’s, and found his long fingers could wrap around both at once. Then it was all kissing and gasping and groaning and writhing. John dropped his head back against the pillows, baring his throat, baring his teeth,, and then biting his lip as Sherlock got some artistry in his movements, a little swing and roll to the obscene pumping of his hips as they rutted together. Sherlock’s squeeze on their cocks was almost painful when he came, sliming up the space between them with musky wetness, biting at John’s shoulder - but John was right along with him, clenching his legs violently around Sherlock as the fiery contractions made John’s body seize up rigid with spasms of pleasure.
They held onto each other, sticky and shaking, for a long time, regaining breath. “That was . . . base,” Sherlock panted. “Animalistic.”
“Yeah, sure was,” John said, nearly giggling, hand tangled in Sherlock’s curls. “You liked it, didn’t you?”
“Still also complex,” Sherlock said, his voice wrecked. “Yes. I liked it very much.”
“That counts as sex, too, you know,” John said, kissing Sherlock’s temple and then his cheek.
“I know,” Sherlock said, slumping his head down on John’s shoulder for just a moment, splaying a hand out over John’s pumping heart.
“Doesn’t have to be, y’know, penetration for it to be . . .” John murmured. He felt this was an important point, but a lot of other important points he wanted to make were getting lost in the fog of blissful, contented exhaustion.
But Sherlock just couldn’t let it go and sleep at last, not yet, talking as much to himself as to John. “But why that act specifically? Definition of virginity in a man who prefers men - there’s no official definition at all, is there? I might have ceased to be a virgin the moment you took my penis in your mouth . . . no, not then, I think there’d have to be an orgasm for it to count. At least one, ideally two.” He looked uncertain on this point. “Anyway, it was best that there was no ambiguity. I wasn’t keen on being burnt alive on a technicality. My lack of fitness for future sacrifices had to be demonstrated so as to leave no doubt in anyone. Best to mimic the procreative act as closely as possible. It’s clearly a cornerstone of their ritual symbolism. I think everyone was satisfied, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” John nodded, smiling. “Especially you. And all ‘mimicking of procreative acts’ aside, even on Summerisle, I’m pretty sure you’re not pregnant.”
“It’s highly unlikely,” Sherlock agreed, finally starting to calm down. “I was careful not to leap over any bonfires.”
John laughed slightly maniacally into Sherlock’s hair as he held him close, no longer worried it would be his only chance. Sherlock seemed reluctant to crawl off John for even as long as it would take John to wipe half-heartedly at the mess that fused them together. But Sherlock finally settled at last, holding John from behind with an arm around his waist.
Soon John was able to answer a long-ago question. Yes, mine is a snorer. But an elegant one.
Bright and early the next morning, Sherlock was gone and Willow breezed in uninvited, and had a giggle at the state of the room – and of John, who lay limp and boneless and half-asleep in the wreck of the sheets, face pressed into the pillow.
“I hope you're happy,” he grunted as she opened the curtains and let in the too-bright morning sun. “You people have created a monster.”
“I'm not happy,” Willow said cheerfully. “I didn't get a wink of sleep, and I'm the one who'll be washing those sheets.” Then she sprouted a little secret smile when she caught John's eye. “But I think you are. Happy.”
John propped his head up on his hand and looked at her sleepily. “Yeah. You're right. I am. Happy. I really am.” He smiled, and then a warm feeling burst inside his chest. He wouldn't tell her but the emotional impact of what had happened last night, at dusk, and then again around midnight, and again around 3 AM (when Sherlock half-awoke with his cock fully awake, expecting John to do something about it; John was glad to oblige), was only fully hitting him now.
Willow patted John on the head, kindly. “It really was a beautiful sacrifice. I could tell, Sherlock enjoyed it so much, and you worked so well together. I couldn't have done any better myself.”
“Well, thank you,” John said. “Thanks for your help, and I'm so sorry about the sheets.”
“Oh, don't worry about that,” Willow said lightly. “If you want to leave a mess of your spunk lying around on an island full of witches, that's your business.”
John almost sat up straight before remembering he was naked under the tangle of sticky cotton. “Um. Hadn't thought of that. Could we – buy them and burn them?”
She shook her head. “Burning's really not recommended. And there's no point to it. We've already worked our magic on you. Can't you tell?”
“Oh, you two look . . . healthy this morning,” Anthea smirked.
“Fresh air,” John said. “Exercise.”
“So I heard from Willow,” Anthea said. “One would think you thought just once wasn’t enough to make sure the job was done.”
“I’m sure Mycroft has told you all about my addictive personality,” Sherlock sneered.
Anthea winked. John blushed.
“Well, I have to get the helicopter back to Baskerville before Mum needs it, or I’ll live to regret it,” Anthea said. “So I can take you as far as Dartmoor and you can hire a car from there.”
“Fine,” John said. “Thank you.”
Nearly all of Summerisle had turned out to say farewell, as the propellers of the chopper whipped their hair and clothes. Lord Summerisle shook hands with John and Sherlock, and Miss Rose hugged and kissed them. There were no long speeches, but there was a lot of understated gratitude, and a long moment when Lord Summerisle became just a father again, embracing his daughter.
She took the right path in life, John thought, and he hoped Branch would find his way around to it eventually.
Sherlock turned his back and took his seat in the helicopter just over their luggage. To which had been added John’s rack of antlers, and Sherlock’s holly-and-flower-crown, hanging off one tine of the rack. “Sentiment?” John whispered to him, smiling.
“It will balance out the room, opposite the buffalo skull,” Sherlock said, looking out the window with a tight little smile. John smiled back at him and pretended he hadn’t noticed that underneath Sherlock’s coat was, yup, a jar of dried foreskins. Can’t take him anywhere, he thought tenderly.
“Do you boys want me to book you a room at the Cross Keys?” Anthea asked, shouting over the roar of the engine, as she guided the chopper to a comfortable altitude over the mesmerising, primitive beauty of the Scottish Isles. “Hasn’t changed much. I hear they got a pug.”
“That’s all right, Anthea,” Sherlock shouted back. “I want to continue my new research at Baker Street. As soon as possible.”
“Research?” John shouted.
“You, John,” Sherlock said. “On every surface.”
Lovely as the landscape was beneath them, that set John to wishing it would ride by faster.
(But watch this space for the epilogue!)
Much of what Sherlock and Anthea are saying about Operation Mistletoe is true, or at least a very well-documented legend. There certainly was an occult aspect to World War II, on both sides, and prominent British occultists of the time were definitely involved in the war effort, with their particular specialized skills. Ian Fleming, future author of the James Bond series, was involved - and hey, if you want to get even more meta and what-fourth-wall about it, it's not impossible that they could have had some contact with Royal Air Force Intelligence, where young Christopher Lee was employed.
Katherine Kurtz's novel Lammas Night is a great fictionalized account.
Bios of some of the figures involved:
Dion Fortune's first teacher was a Dr. Theodore Moriarty (1873-1923); any relation? And Crowley's health was beginning to fail by WWII but he certainly still could use his extensive experience with occult espionage - having gone to the US to work for anti-German counterintelligence during WWI (don't ask him about the Lusitania. Seriously, don't.) Might he have had contact with an allegedly Irish-American double agent allegedly named Altamont? That's a deep rabbit hole, my friends!
You may notice that the chapter numbering has changed. That's because there's going to be an Epilogue - coming soon.
Chapter 8: Epilogue - Attained at the End of Desire
A year and a day later. Sherlock and John make a return visit to Summerisle. This time, it's personal.
“Ack! Antlers!” John cried as the sharp tines clashed and locked together, caught up in the matching garlands of flowers and ivy.
From the foreheads up, Sherlock and John looked more like fighting stags than human men doing what the rest of them were doing.
With his one free hand, Sherlock managed to extract his own heavy antler crown from his tangled hair, and threw it to the floor.
John’s antlers were caught in the brass grill of the bed. Between that and his wrist tied to Sherlock’s, he was almost in bondage. He rather liked it.
For so long, he and Sherlock had been caught up in kissing and non-dominant-hand undressing, making a half-arsed job of it as they thrashed together in that now-familiar bed at the Green Man Inn, panting and desperate.
“It’s a good thing we’re both wearing kilts now,” Sherlock gasped.
Sherlock’s shirt and jacket were undone but still on him. He’d hiked his kilt up and tucked it into its own waistband, letting John see him: rampantly erect and predatory, but with a soft openness in his face.
John lay back to give him a show, wriggling his hips to push his own kilt up, spreading his legs, showing himself obscenely hard and eager.
Sherlock crawled up upon him quickly, so hungry for it, but a little shy too like an uncertain wild creature, as he clumsily shoved the tartan wool up John’s thighs and hips to his waist, slicking himself with lube - awkwardly, with his left hand - and spilling half of it across the sheets where it leached under John’s back, cold and clammy. He’d get stickier before this was all over.
John grasped at Sherlock’s cock - awkwardly, with his right hand, and helped guide him to the correct place. “Come on,” he urged in a strangled voice. “It’s my turn. I want you inside me, come on.” He opened for Sherlock, everything, his legs, his arms, his heart.
In retrospect, this wasn’t the best choice of position for their situation. But at least they were both so worked up they wouldn’t have to maintain it for long. John still gave a blissful little moan as Sherlock breached him, sank into place, and began to writhe; Sherlock’s sharp, angular face took on a joyous softness in his pleasure, bright eyes hooded and blinking.
Sherlock lowered his face near John’s ear, and between his deep breaths starting to come harder and faster as he pulled nearly all the way out and sank only half in again, again, deeper the next time, he murmured, “With my body, I thee worship.”
He hadn’t said anything like that in the ceremony. Sherlock: perfectly willing to let himself get fucked senseless in front of the Goddess and everybody, but oh, the things he’d say, sometimes, only for John, only in private. John tightened his legs around Sherlock’s lower back, arching his neck and throwing his head back as he rocked his hips to meet Sherlock’s movements - pulling him in, absorbing his force, arching up when Sherlock bent his spine enough to take John’s mouth with his own, sealing them together at both ends in a closed complete circuit. John swallowed down the desperate sounds they made, his own shameless little whimpers and the low broken moans Sherlock emitted with each rolling, oceanic thrust.
A year later. This wasn’t the first time. But it was a first. Sherlock was a sensual creature after all, wantonly tactile, melting and grasping with complete abandon, chasing every pulse of sensation. This mirrored their first time, though now there were no witnesses (unless you counted the serenaders outside the window); penetration, reversed positions, John giving it up this time - or rather he was taking - taking Sherlock inside and holding him as though he would never let go. And now he had indeed vowed that he never would.
“Oh. Oh John, hold tight, I’m--”
He didn’t say “hold me tight.” But John knew that was what he meant, and so he did, shuddering together until the bed rocked and creaked.
Afterwards, Sherlock at last consented to removing the cord that bound their wrists. They set to it, and it was a struggle - the knots were pulled tight and damp with sweat. John reached for his pocket knife in his askew, weirdly-dangling sporran.
“No, don’t!” Sherlock cried, and kept tugging at the knot until he managed to work his own wrist loose. Then he was able to untie the knots, digging at them with fingernails and teeth until the red silk cord slithered away, intact, and Sherlock gathered it up and wound it carefully around his hand into a neat little coil, which he set carefully on the edge of the pillow.
John watched him as he finally took off his own antler crown, and he smiled groggily. “You’re really doing this by the book, aren’t you? Don’t tell me you’re feeling superstitious.”
Sherlock just snorted at him, but then he lifted John’s wrist to his lips, kissing tenderly. John shivered and stroked Sherlock’s hair with his finally-freed left hand. Then at last they could finish the job of undressing each other, freeing familiar, well-loved bodies from binding jackets and scratchy wool and wet spots and stains, and at last crawling into a skin-to-skin embrace.
“Hazel’s death was not a complete accident,” Sherlock said with a little sigh. “Though she was moments away from slitting my throat at the time, so I’m not inclined to raise much of a fuss about it.”
“Well, that changed the mood real quick,” John said, shaking his head. “Yeah, I can’t be too upset about that either. But what the hell are you talking about?”
“I mean . . .” Sherlock’s voice trailed off a bit. “Well, since we can no longer be compelled to testify against each other, I should say . . .”
“Oh, you are such a romantic,” John said, laughing quietly.
“I do believe . . . I know what I witnessed. Miss Rose had put herself into an altered state of consciousness. There are countless ways to do this. Every human culture has had a form of it.”
“I think we just did it ourselves,” John said, nuzzling Sherlock’s shoulder.
“Oh yes,” Sherlock agreed. “One of the oldest and most effective methods.”
“Your Mind Palace - that’s another one.”
“Yes. Though it’s based entirely on rational principles, I can’t deny it’s a mental state somewhat removed from what most would call ‘normal’ consciousness.”
John ran two fingertips slowly up Sherlock’s left cheekbone, toying with a sweaty curl in front of his ear. “You have no idea what normal consciousness feels like, do you?”
“I have my own baseline,” Sherlock said.
“Drugs?” John asked with a little sigh.
“Crude and limited, but reliable.” Then Sherlock drew back a little, as if he’d said too much and wandered off in a direction he hadn’t intended. “At any rate, there is nothing I could prove. There is no material evidence of Sergeant Howie’s death remaining. All I know is what I know. Summerisle could have kept their trail covered completely simply by killing us, but that would have complicated things far worse for them in the long run. Lord Summerisle has powerful friends who are very skilled in looking the other way, but there are limits. One unmourned policeman - hostile terrain, inclement weather. One disappearance of an unstable woman, possibly suicidal? This is a popular region for that sort of thing: isolated, remote, some say romantic. But to harm us would have crossed a line. I don’t need to prove anything. It’s enough for me to know. And I know that Miss Rose is the reason that the bees attacked Hazel and no one else.”
“But you don’t believe in magic or gods or any of that.”
“No. But Aleister Crowley once wrote that his work concerned elements of the supernatural - and yet it’s immaterial whether any of them exist. By doing certain things, certain results follow. His students were most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.”
“And yet . . . ?” John prodded, stroking Sherlock’s hair.
“And yet. By doing certain things, certain results follow. Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will. Miss Rose had changed her consciousness.”
“And you . . . changed yours,” John said as he thought he might be beginning to understand. Slowly. “So . . .you wouldn’t take the cord off until the right time. And you certainly wouldn’t cut it.”
“I . . . preferred to do things properly,” Sherlock admitted.
“All right,” John said, smiling. “Since you’re in confessional mode, are you ever going to tell me what was the deal you struck with Anthea? What was in it for her?”
Sherlock chuckled. “You mean the pleasure of possibly saving my life and getting to watch me being publicly debauched wouldn’t be reward enough for anyone?”
John laughed and guided Sherlock’s head down to rest on his shoulder. “Well, certainly that was an honour, but . . . “
“You must have realised that even though Howie’s murder is solved in my mind, there would never - could never - be any legal repercussions for Lord Summerisle. At least not in this instance. As I’ve said, there is nothing that can be proven at this late date, and of course he is very well-connected. Anthea has always had a closer relationship with her father than her brother does, and this gave her a chance to, shall we say, show her quality. Lord Summerisle has no legitimate heirs, so he’s bound to acknowledge his scheming little bastards eventually. It wasn’t Branch’s inheritance that was settled by this little escapade. It was Anthea’s.”
“And yet you were the one who had to get naked. Not that it was much of a burden for you, I gather.”
“We may never be completely naked again, John,” Sherlock said quietly, with a little smile.
“Why do you say that?” John said, suddenly worried.
“Well, we aren’t now, are we?” Sherlock said, running his hand up John’s arm until their left hands met. Sherlock reached over to fondle his own ring, and the place where John’s matching one clicked against his as their fingers laced. “I don’t plan to ever take this off, do you?”
John pressed his eyes shut for just a moment to prevent an embarrassing emission from them. “Nope. Never.”
What a day it had been. John was so exhausted, and he was going to need to get a few winks in before Sherlock woke him in the middle of the night for another round, as he was wont to do even when it wasn't his wedding night.
”May Air inspire you; may Fire excite you; may Water refresh you and Earth sustain you. May you never hunger. May you never thirst. May the Moon keep your secrets, and the Sun speak of your love,” Miss Rose had whispered in her blessing.
The Sun, at least, held up its end of the job.
HOLMES AND WATSON OFF THE MARKET? BIZARRE PAGAN-CULT GAY WEDDING RUMOURS EXPLODE! HERE’S THE PROOF!
You read it here first: these pictures were received from a source who wishes to remain anonymous. They depict a Pagan occult wedding ceremony between two men held yesterday on a remote, mysterious Scottish island called Summerisle, where the residents are hostile to outsiders and said to be very protective of the secrets of their lewd and primitive cult.
Look close – those two men wearing kilts and flower-decked antlers are none other than celebrity detective Sherlock Holmes and his long-time live-in companion and blogger Dr. John Watson.
Our source apologises for the poor quality of the photos, but says he had to keep his distance because he fears the wrath of the sinister Lord Summerisle, who bears him a personal grudge. But you can clearly see these two no-longer-confirmed-bachelors have their wrists tied together with red cord.
Our source – who is very well-versed in this bizarre cult's shocking practices – tells us that this cord is traditionally not removed until after the couple has consummated their union. He also explains that stag antlers are symbols of masculinity. Both grooms in this wedding (there was no bride) wore them, so inquiries along the lines of “who’s the girl?” would not be welcomed.
We are told by our source that though the wedding was highly private and exclusive, there were a few guests from London. A lady pathologist whose name has been linked with Holmes in our pages before; clearly she doesn't hold a grudge. A lady of a certain age who nonetheless demonstrated impressive exotic-dancer moves on a maypole. A certain detective inspector of New Scotland Yard who made it clear he'd rather enjoy the festivities than issue any citations for public indecency – which would have run him ragged.
The only Summerislander willing to speak to our source on the record was Miss Willow MacGregor, a “sex educator and counsellor” who lives at the quaint, rustic Green Man Inn, where the newlyweds spent the night. The inn lacks a honeymoon suite, but Miss MacGregor supposes it has one now: “Everyone is going to want to **** in that room now. For luck.” The inn has thin walls, so she can definitely confirm that the Holmes-Watson marriage was consummated passionately, “and in private this time,” which implies that on other occasions they were not so discreet.
You can see more of pretty Willow tomorrow on Page 3.
“Mycroft could have stopped this,” John seethed as he stared in horror at the tabloid on his mobile, one hour out of Glasgow.
“He did,” Sherlock drawled bitterly. “Note that he redacted any reference to his own presence there.”
Of course he did, John thought. He breathed deep and set his phone down and took Sherlock’s hand as the train rocked and rolled, and closed his eyes, pretending to nap. (It wouldn’t fool Sherlock, but if John was lucky it might signal to Sherlock that he ought to pretend it fooled him for just a few minutes.)
It bothered John a little, the lack of justice for Howie. That had to have been a terrifying and painful death, and Sherlock knew that perfectly well. Yet, for Sherlock, it was enough to have solved the puzzle and to know the truth for himself - punishment for the perpetrators wasn’t important to him in this case.
John drifted off a little, full of the past few weeks of mind-numbing knowledge about the finer points of Scottish marriage laws, no residency required, legal ceremonies can be performed by Pagan clergy, gender no object anymore. Well, why not? John thought to himself. Might as well have the officiating done by a couple of murderers. Suits us, I suppose. Nice enough people once you get past that whole human sacrifice thing. Thanks, Anthea, it was lovely.
John still heard Lestrade’s words, from years ago: “. . . a great man, and someday if we’re very lucky, he might be a good one.”
He is, John thought fiercely. The best man I’ve ever known.
Really? said John’s inner contrarian. He’s all about the puzzle and the solution. The law isn’t his priority. Never has been. He’s got a sense of justice in there somewhere, but it’s fucked up. He’s fucked up. You know that.
John lifted his chin a little, and another part of him argued back, defiant. No shit, Watson. Of course I know that; I know him better than anyone. There’s no turning back now. Problem?
Nope, we’re good, said the other side of John’s self. We do what we have to do. We’re no angel ourself. And we’re finally happy down in the heart where it counts, so no beef.
“No beef,” John muttered aloud as he dozed off on Sherlock’s shoulder.
John jerked his head up, only slobbering a little. “Chicken. When we get back to London I want chicken, not beef. Um. Nap.”
Sherlock laughed a little. “Take a good nap now, because when we get back to London I’m going to want to have sex again right after we arrive at Baker Street. I’ll place an order online and set a delivery time for your chicken, one hour after our ETA. Kung Pao or vindaloo?”
“Tikka masssssala,” John murmured. His body slumped sideways and his head landed on Sherlock’s thigh, and he closed his eyes, and dammit, he was sleepy.
John heard the tinny clicking sound of Sherlock’s keys as he texted in the order.
Terrible flatmate in so many ways, but so far at least, not a terrible husband.
From the Blog of Dr. John H. Watson, May 4
All right, all right, please stop already. This time, it’s actually true. Readers, I married him. Happy now?
Marie Turner: Yes, very.
Marie Turner: This is Mrs Hudson, by the way. Now I have married ones too!
Marie Turner: This is actually Mrs Turner. I had them first.
Molly Hooper: I caught that reference! Mr. Rochester or the madman in the attic?
John Watson: I think I got a twofer with him. :)
Harry Watson: Congratulations! Thought you were supposed to be the straight one! Obviously not. Glad you wore dresses so the bridesmaids didn’t have to!
John Watson: Not dresses. Kilts. Kilts are very manly.
NSY SILVER FOX: Especially on a windy day. I got one of Sherlock on my phone that looks just like that famous Marilyn Monroe picture.
John Watson: Terrible pseud, even I know who you are. When did Marilyn ever wear antlers on her head?
NSY SILVER FOX: You know what I mean.
John Watson: Sherlock, have you got any further on that project to invent a chemical pesticide to kill off homophobic trolls on every message board forever? Cause we could really use it right about now.
theimprobableone: OH. You’re pagans?
John Watson: No, we haven’t converted. We just spent time on Summerisle last year on a case, and we had an offer of hosting. Scottish marriage laws happened to suit us well. The details of the case must stay confidential for the time being, sorry.
theimprobableone: Is that how he did it, for real? Witchcraft?
John Watson: Yup. He had a flying broomstick under his coat. He was only willing to tell me the truth and show it to me after we were married.
John Watson: Of course not.
Harry Watson: And now you ride each other’s magic broomsticks all the time!
John Watson: Go home, Harry, you’re drunk.
Harry Watson: I AM home.
Harry Watson: I still can’t get over it. My straight brother finally caught himself a husband!
John Watson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisexuality
John Watson: Sherlock, that troll-wiper would really come in handy right about now.
Sherlock Holmes: Get off the computer, John, this is our sex holiday.
John Watson: Every day with you is a sex holiday.
John Watson: I’m deleting this whole post, swear to god. Either you saw it or you didn’t.
Blossom: Blessed BEE!
Blog of John H. Watson, May 5.
[May 4th post deleted]
Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.
Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.
And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.
For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of desire.
(Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Starhawk, The Charge of The Goddess)
And here it is, our traditional happily-after-ever. A million thanks to Winter_of_our_discontent and snogandagrope for stellar beta work as always, and thanks to all the readers who have been with me on this journey.
This one's for you!
Spoilery as hell, and so very VERY sexy and romantic.