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Bullpup Press
A Creative-Writing House

The Highgrove Ritual


Lynn Walker & Carole Manny

Chapter One

Ioan McShane stopped beside a metre-high dry stack of pale stones. Barney trotted ahead, realized his master wasn’t following, and paused as well. He looked back over his shoulder, whined, and wagged his tail as if to say, “Well? This doesn’t look like the place, does it?” McShane frowned. The cairn marked the northern boundary of Oldgroves, the 300-acre estate of Colonel Anstrethy, Lord Highgrove, and while the little tower of stones was an informal reminder to trespassers, the Colonel had been known to take strong measures against any who ignored the message. Barney whined again, trotted ahead a few paces, then stopped and looked back. His meaning would have been clear to a man with far less knowledge of dogs than McShane.

The shepherd sighed. “All right, laddie. I know what yer tellin’ me.” Like many people who live alone, McShane had fallen into the habit of speaking to his dogs as though they were human. “But Lord Highgrove’s in, and he don’t care much for folks roamin’ about on his land. Still,” he added, starting after the dog again, “he don’t much like sheep on his place, neither. Maybe if we take our little wanderer off his hands he’ll reckon we’re even, eh?”

Barney dashed ahead, pleased to have communicated his meaning at last, and led McShane another hundred metres deeper into Oldgroves. The dog skirted Smokham Wood and stopped at the edge of a rocky ravine, one of several that dotted the southeastern quadrant of the estate. Such ravines were ubiquitous on the downs, McShane knew. The largest underground river system in Britain flowed beneath the Mendip Hills, wearing away large areas of the underlying limestone and attracting cavers and even cave divers, because many of the subterranean recesses filled with water. The River Axe itself rose on Highgrove land less than a quarter mile from where McShane now stood, and was responsible for one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions, the Wookey Hole Cave. Tourists often strayed onto the Colonel’s land as they followed the river upstream, ignoring the posted ‘no trespassing’ signs and incurring his wrath. McShane was urgent to retrieve his sheep before the Colonel discovered him. He furthermore didn’t fancy the idea of wandering about the hills after dark, and the early autumn sun hung just above the treetops. Although he knew the land as well as he knew his own house, McShane also knew that new chasms could appear unexpectedly as the water collapsed the underlying rock. Then, too, the Romans had mined lead in the hills, and by no means all of their excavations had been accounted for. Only a fool would blunder about the place in the dark.

At the bottom of the two meter deep ravine, baa-ing at irregular intervals and looking more bewildered than even a sheep had a right to do, stood a single lamb, unhurt by its tumble. McShane sighed, but there was nothing for it. He scrambled down the ravine wall with the gentlest slope, dislodging a small cascade of loose rocks and dirt as he did so. He caught up the lamb, hoisted it above his head, and boosted it over the rim of the crevice. The lamb landed in a soft heap on the turf. “Watch him, laddie,” McShane said to Barney. “Watch him.”

The oaks and elms of nearby Smokham Wood had sent their root systems questing far out through the soil and rock, and many lay exposed in the side of the ravine. McShane grasped one of these and used it to haul himself up, but when his feet slipped on the scree he fell face down, lost his grip on the root, and slid to the bottom of the ravine. It wasn’t a hard fall, but it was a somewhat ignominious one, and he was glad that there was no one around to see it. He stood, dusted himself, swore perfunctorily, and stepped forward to try again. As he did so his foot made a hollow, scraping sound on the rock. He looked down and frowned. In falling he’d exposed a strangely flat rock slab, scuffing it clear of the overlying dirt and scree. Odd. He knelt and brushed away more of the dirt, but as far as he cleared it the rock remained unnaturally flat. Puzzled, and using two hands now, McShane scooped and dug until he had revealed a roughly eighteen-inch-square slab of flat stone with two dull-grey lead straps running across it, embossed with some kind of curving symbols. He dug around the edges until he had exposed enough of the object to reveal that it was a limestone box. The lead straps appeared to circle the entire thing and reinforce what looked to be ornately cut iron hinges on one side.

In spite of his desire to betake himself and his sheep off Oldgroves before the Colonel discovered him, McShane paused to consider his find. The Colonel was widely known to be an avid student of Celtic history, and particularly of druidic practices. He maintained an extensive personal collection of relics and artifacts, both found and bought, valuable historically and monetarily, that would be the envy of many a museum. He often loaned his treasures to museums around the world. If the stone box proved to be as ancient as it looked, and if it contained relics or even human remains that dated to druidic times, the Colonel might be very inclined to reward the finder.

McShane had exposed only the top three inches or so of the box. He had no way to guess how deep the thing might be, but there was no question of his being able to carry it out of the ravine alone. He would have enough trouble getting himself out unencumbered. With renewed energy he clambered out of the pit, sent Barney home with the sheep, and started toward the distant manor house.

“That’s almost got it, Reggie,” Lord Highgrove called to the man waiting above the ravine. “Stand by to bring her up when I give the word, but slowly, eh? Very slowly.” He turned to McShane, standing with him in the bottom of the ravine. Together they had carefully freed the stone box from the earth and wrestled it onto a mat of thick nylon strapping. Highgrove pulled the corners of the mat together and fished a beefy metal hook through the corner grommets, gave an experimental tug on the cable that ran from the netting up the side of the ravine and over its rim, and grunted with satisfaction. “I think that will do it,” he said to McShane. He raised his voice to carry out of the crevice. “Okay, Reggie. Haul away slowly.”

Topside, Reggie Larkin stood beside the liftgate of the Colonel’s Rover and activated the electric winch. The cable retracted almost imperceptibly at first, and Larkin waited until the slack left the cable before calling, “How’s that, sir?”

“Great, Reggie. It’s holding perfectly. Maybe just a tad faster. There—that’s it. Keep her at that,” came Highgrove’s answer. “I’ll follow on, but don’t go any faster that this.”

Highgrove was a tall, broad-shouldered man, fit and well-muscled, and he followed the box up the side of the ravine with an unconscious, athletic ease, taking great care that the box didn’t tip or get jostled. McShane waited until he was well clear of the rim, then made his own way up, much more awkwardly, and found to his embarrassment that Highgrove was waiting at the rim to give him a hand up.

“Thank you, sir, thank you,” McShane muttered, and although Highgrove’s hands were every bit as dirty as his own he wiped his hands self-consciously on his jeans.

“Never,” Highgrove said boisterously. “If anyone deserves thanks around here, it’s you, Ioan. This is amazing, just amazing. Do you know what you’ve found? Look at those straps, the hinges. This is an Iron Age cist, a reliquary.” He used a finger to lovingly trace the interlocking curlicues stamped on the lead straps. “These are triskeles,” he said. “Very common motif among the Celts. It symbolizes the Threefold Sister Goddess: Fotla, Eiru, and Banba. This is an amazing, amazing find.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” McShane repeated. It seemed the safest answer. McShane, as usual, didn’t follow much of what Highgrove said. The Colonel was so immersed in Celtic history and rituals that it often never occurred to him that his listeners might be somewhat less so.

“Reggie,” Highgrove said to the man at the winch, “Pour us a spot of tea, will you? One for yourself, as well. And don’t forget to add a little flavor to it, eh?” He smiled at McShane. “A find like this calls for a little celebration. You’ll join me, of course?”

McShane hesitated, but Larkin had already produced three cups of tea from a thermos and was liberally lacing each with whisky from a flask. “Well, sir, I really should be getting back to the sheep, now that it’s so near dark, but…Barney won’t let them stray too far, and a little nip never hurt anyone, I suppose. I thank you for your hospitality, sir,” he added, taking the little cup.

“Nonsense,” Highgrove boomed, clapping him on the back. “I told you: It’s you who deserves all the thanks. By the way: You haven’t told anyone else about this little find, have you?”

“Oh, no sir,” McShane said at once. “As soon as I got the lamb out of the ditch I sent Barney back to the flock with her and came straight over the woods to you. There’s no one to tell, any gate,” he added softly.

“Excellent, excellent,” Highgrove said. “You know how it is around here with the bloody tourists. If word of this got out there’d be massing with shovels and pickaxes, trying to find their own relics. It’s hard enough keeping them out when they’re hunting for their damned ’Wookey Witch.’”

McShane wasn’t too sure that his lordship should be mocking the Witch—he’d seen and heard enough strange things in the Hills to make him keep an open mind on that point—but it wasn’t his place to correct the Colonel. To hide his nervousness he drained his cup of tea—and then wondered whether he could presume to set it on the Rover’s liftgate. Reggie solved the dilemma for him.

“All finished, sir? Let me take that for you,” he said smoothly, and bustled it off to the front seat of the car.

“Well, sir,” McShane said to Highgrove. “I thank you for the dram. Barney will be wondering where I’ve got to all this time…”

“Of course, of course,” Highgrove said. “How rude of me. But listen: before you go. Let me give you a little something to show my appreciation, eh?” He reached for his wallet.

McShane put up his hands. “No, sir, no. I couldn’t possibly—”

“Of course you can, Ioan. Don’t be ridiculous. None of that, now. Take this—”pressing two one-hundred-pound notes into McShane’s hand“—and spend it in good health. I insist,” he added when McShane opened his mouth to protest again.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you.” McShane backed away, gave a little bow and touched the brim of his hat, then turned and hurried off.

“Take care as you go, Ioan,” Highgrove called after him. “You know what the Hills are like at night.”


John paid the cab driver and joined Sherlock on the pavement outside their flat.

“Well, that could have gone better,” he observed.

“I told Lestrade to keep the zookeeper under surveillance.”

“You definitely did.” John’s phone rang then. “It’s Mycroft,” he said, looking at it.

“Ugh,” Sherlock groaned. “Ignore it.”

“Oh, no. He’s finally started phoning instead of abducting me. I don’t want him backsliding.”

Sherlock quirked the corner of his mouth. “It is an improvement.”

“Mycroft?” John said.

“John,” Mycroft said smoothly. “So good of you to take my call after Sherlock told you to ignore it.”

John rolled his eyes but kept his voice polite. “What do you need?”

“It has come to my attention that one of Her Majesty’s highly-decorated war heroes has been trying, without success, to get in touch with Sherlock,” Mycroft said. “He has a little, ah, puzzle, you see, and he feels that my brother may be of some help in unravelling it. He’s sent a number of e-mails, but Sherlock hasn’t bothered to respond.”

“Yeah, well, he does that,” John said. “You’re calling me instead of him because…?”

“Because this person is Colonel Cedric Anstrethy, Lord Highgrove.”

“Uh-huh. Wait. Colonel Anstrethy? Colonel ‘Bunny’ Anstrethy?” Beside him Sherlock, who had been openly eavesdropping, pricked up his ears at something down the block. John followed his gaze and recognized one of Sherlock’s homeless network lounging several doors away. “Yeah, go,” he said in an aside, waving him off, and Sherlock strode away.

“Am I keeping you from something?” Mycroft asked.

“Uh…no,” John said, speaking somewhat at random. He’d slipped automatically into his habit of methodically scanning the rest of the street, including the windows and rooftops, a precaution he’d learned in the war and which he’d found invaluable in his association with Sherlock. He was only half-listening to Mycroft. “Sorry,” he said. “Go on: Bunny Anstrethy wants Sherlock’s help?”

“Apparently. Do you know him?”

“Just by reputation. Not personally. But he was a very popular officer. Well-respected and everything. Very popular with his men.”

“How nice. I’ve been told something similar. I’ve never met the man; never wanted to—but that’s just between us, John. He appears to be held in high esteem in certain circles.”

“I imagine so. What does he want to see Sherlock about?”

“It seems that the Colonel has found some sort of Celtic relic on his property. He lives in Somerset, near Wookey Hole Cave, and I’m given to understand that such finds are, if not exactly common, then at least not unheard of. The Colonel is famous in archaeological circles as a highly accomplished amateur. He’s a prominent patron of the British Museum, and many of his collections are on loan to museums around the world.”

“I’d heard that about him. He studies Celtic history? The history of the British Isles, something like that?”

“Something like that. He’s considered a leading expert, though he’s entirely self-taught. This find has potentially profound historical value, my source assures me, but the Colonel—‘Bunny,’ as you say—appears anxious to keep it out of the press for now. He wants someone discreet to help him examine this item, and for some reason he thought of my brother.” Mycroft paused for irony. “I believe he’s the first person who’s ever accused Sherlock of being discreet.”

“And this item is…?”

“A secret.”

“Mycroft,” John said, and thought, Christ, now I’m scolding him, too.

“My source was disappointingly vague on that point.”

“Great. Well, I’d love to meet him. Don’t see why Sherlock would, though. Doesn’t sound like there’s any mystery involved.” He watched Sherlock turn away from the homeless woman and amble back toward him with a discontented expression. “What makes you think that he’ll listen to me, anyway?”

“History, John. He does, you know. He will.”

John laughed. “If you’re so sure—”

“The Colonel is taking the first train up from Bath in the morning. It arrives at 10:15. Make sure my brother is in when Highgrove gets there, John.”

“Mycroft. Mycroft—” John looked at the phone. “Dammit.”


John sighed. “Yeah. No. I don’t know.”

“Indecision is a terrible vice, John,” Sherlock said, unlocking the front door.

“Yeah, well, so is presumption. Your brother—”

“Mycroft wants you to convince me to see a client.”


“A Colonel Anstrethy.”


“He keeps e-mailing me,” Sherlock said, hanging up his coat and scarf as they reached their landing.

“Mycroft said. Why haven’t you answered? You could at least turn him down.”

Sherlock dropped negligently into his armchair. “Why bother? If it’s important enough he’ll get a little more creative. If it’s not he’ll go away. And oh, look: Mycroft’s gone to all the trouble of phoning you, so…?”

“So Mycroft’s, what, vetting your appointment calendar now?”

Sherlock smiled. “Not that he’s aware.”

John slipped off his shoes and settled into his own chair with a sigh. “Do I have to talk you into seeing this guy, then?”

“Do you want to?”

“God, no.”

“You do want me to meet with him, though. Why?”

John shrugged. “I knew him in the service. Well,” he corrected himself, in answer to Sherlock’s glance, “I knew of him. He was popular with his men. Very well-respected. It’s hard to fake a reputation for very long in a combat zone, you know. I knew a couple of guys who served under him, and they all said the same things: tough, fair, wouldn’t ask you to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do. Not a desk jockey type. A hard-charger. That sort of thing.”

“There must have been a lot of commanding officers who fit that description. Why do you remember Highgrove in particular?”

“I guess he kind of stuck out because I heard that he was a big British history buff. It always struck me as a little…I don’t know…” John gestured vaguely as he searched for the right word.


“Yeah. That he’d be such a high-profile military figure and also a big expert on druids or something. The guys always said, ‘Don’t get him started.’ But you know, I like reading about history a bit myself, so maybe that made him more memorable to me than he would have been otherwise. I guess I wouldn’t mind meeting him.”

Sherlock looked thoughtful. “One more question.”



John laughed. “Ah, that’s one of those famous military nicknames. There’s a story behind it—well, there’s one that I heard. I’m not sure if it’s true or not.” He looked at Sherlock. “You don’t really want to hear that.”


“Well, this is just what I was told. I’m not saying it’s true.” He hesitated, but Sherlock was looking attentively at him with no sign of irony or impatience, so he said, “The Colonel was shopping for a Christmas present for his aunt Lobelia. She was famous for being a very enthusiastic baker, I guess, and he wanted something that would be really useful to her. So he looked through some catalogues and ordered something he thought she might really appreciate. She wrote back a long letter thanking him for the lovely bunwarmer.” John paused again. “You see where this is going, right?”

“I believe so.”

“Yeah. So word got out to the troops through the Colonel’s secretary, who I think is now second assistant dogcatcher in the Faroes or something.”

“Soldiers called him ‘Bunny’ to his face?”

“Oh, God, no. No, never. But it was never malicious, either. Well, unless he had them doing something especially unpleasant, I suppose. But no. It was kind of an affectionate nickname, or at least respectful, but not one that anyone would ever say to his face.”

“Hm. And Lionheart?”

“Never mind.”

“Worth a try.”

“Not really. So: You’ll hear what he has to say?”


“Sherlock. Look. How about this: There’s nothing on right now. If your little homeless friend outside had turned up anything on that Sussex stuff you wouldn’t be sitting here interviewing me about theoretical clients.”

“True,” Sherlock admitted ruefully.

“All this guy wants is for you to look at something he dug up. Some sort of relic. This is the first break we’ve had in weeks and a nice, easy case turns up. You’ve been running yourself into the ground lately, and you know it. Look at you: you must have lost half a stone in the last two months.”

Sherlock looked away sulkily.

“Trust me, I’m a doctor: Even someone your age can kill himself with stress and bad habits.”

Sherlock scoffed. “That’s ridiculous. Statistically I’m far more likely to die in an accident.”

“Oh, I’ll make it look like one.”

In many ways Lord Highgrove was exactly what John had expected from his reputation: tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, with the short-cropped hair—blond, in this case—of an active-duty military man, still trim and fit in his mid-fifties and with the upright, formal bearing of an officer. His handshake was firm and confident, his brown eyes alert and intelligent. His well-tailored clothes were casual but clean and neat: dark denim, a crisp white button-down shirt open at the throat, olive green cotton twill shooting jacket, and oxfords that could have passed the inspection of the most particular drill sergeant.

After the usual handshakes and greetings and with coffee offered and declined, Highgrove settled into the client chair. John focused rather less attention on him than he would otherwise have done with a client, because he’d realized at once that Sherlock was going to make the interview a trial. Although he initially appeared more or less civil, everything in his manner telegraphed to John a distinct inclination to be contrary and inimical, and John wanted very much to head him off if at all possible.

“Well, gentlemen,” Highgrove began, “before we get to business I want to say what a very real honor it is to meet you, Captain Watson.”

John blinked. “Sorry. Me?”

“I’ve met a lot of brave men and women in my career, as you can imagine,” Highgrove said, “but I’ve rarely heard of an example of courage so far above and beyond the call as Captain Watson, here—”glancing at Sherlock“—showed in the Delaram action.”

John shook his head adamantly. “No. It wasn’t above and—”

“Modesty noted, Captain,” Highgrove said, holding up his hand. “But they don’t hand out the CGC like third prize ribbons at a country fair. I know what I’m talking about, and I’m telling you both that I’ve known some special forces troops who might have equalled what you did that day, but I don’t know any who could have surpassed it.”

“I got shot that day,” John said tersely. “Plenty of people did the same.”

Highgrove ignored the demurral and looked at Sherlock. “Has Captain Watson ever told you about his actions at Delaram?” he asked.

“Not interested,” Sherlock said coldly.

“Would it surprise you to know,” Highgrove went on, not really registering the reply, “that he saved the lives of four badly wounded troops in the middle of what turned out to be the second biggest firefight in Afghanistan that year?”

“No,” Sherlock said. “But it would delight me if you would get to the point of your visit. Please state the nature of your case.”

Highgrove had not been addressed in that tone by anyone under the rank of brigadier for decades. His chin went up with a peremptory jerk and he glared at Sherlock—but Sherlock, too, had the air of a man with the habit of command; moreover, he was on his home turf and he’d never been oppressed by rank or title. He returned the Colonel’s gaze unflinchingly. John’s expression of polite neutrality offered Highgrove no support, and the Colonel realized that he had hit the wrong note entirely.

“Of course,” he said, looking down. “My apologies. Straight to business, then.” He coughed, then began. “My place, Oldgroves, is near the southern boundary of the Mendip Hills,” he said. “It’s not half a mile by the main road to Wookey Hole and the Wookey Hole Cave—or caves, to be more accurate. Wookey Hole is the most famous cave in the area, but there are hundreds. It’s an odd-sounding name, ‘Wookey Hole,’ isn’t it?” he added—rhetorically, as it turned out, because neither of his hearers replied. “Do you know its etymology?”

Sherlock sighed and looked away.

“No, sir,” John said politely, with a worried glance at his friend.

“It comes from the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon languages. ‘Wookey’ is derived from the original Celtic word for ’cave,’ and ’hole’ from the old Anglo-Saxon word for ’cave.’”

Sherlock swung his gaze back to Highgrove. “So ’Wookey Hole Cave’ means ‘cave cave cave’?”


Highgrove laughed. “Very good, Mr. Holmes. Yes, I suppose it does. Well, whatever it’s called it’s very popular with the tourists; almost impossible to keep them from wandering onto Oldgroves. Full-time occupation chasing them off.” He paused and smiled, but John was still watching him with his features composed in an expression of civil attentiveness, offering neither encouragement nor discouragement, while Sherlock just stared at him with his oddly pale eyes, unnerving Highgrove and reminding him very much of a leopard contemplating a meal. He coughed nervously again. “Yes. Well, four days ago my neighbor to the north, Ioan McShane, a sheep farmer, had one of his flock stray onto Oldgroves and fall into a ravine. Ravines and crevices are common in the Hills and there are several on the estate. He retrieved his sheep, but in doing so he discovered a cist.”

John frowned. “Cyst?”

“Cist,” Highgrove said. “C-i-s-t. A stone ossuary or reliquary.”

“Oh. A sort of coffin, then?”

“Very often, yes. Cists are small stone boxes, usually about forty-five centimetres square. This one dates from the Iron Age, a time when the Celts cremated their dead, although this one doesn’t appear to contain any human remains. Usually they filled these cists with the ashes or shards of bone and items the dead might need in what they called the Otherworld: combs, tweezers, cups, personal ornaments. We can tell a lot about the social status of the individual based on the items interred in the box.”

“Yes? And?” Sherlock said impatiently, and John glanced worriedly at him again.

“McShane told me about the box,” Highgrove said, “knowing my interest in regional antiquities, and helped me bring it up out of the ravine. It’s quite an amazing find, Mr. Holmes. One of the most significant archeological discoveries in southern England in the last thirty years.”

“And yet you want to keep it a secret and you come to me,” Sherlock said. “Why?”

“Publicity. It’s because of its historical value that I’d like to lie low for a while. If word of this gets out prematurely there will be no stopping the archaeological community from breaking down my doors. The items in the cist are incredibly valuable both historically and monetarily.” Highgrove paused. “Have you heard the old saying about the sunset being ’red as druids’ gold’?”

“Sadly, no,” Sherlock said.

“It’s quite true,” Highgrove said. “The gold smelted in Iron Age Britain was often tinged with red. Do you know why?”

“The crude manufacturing techniques available at the time introduced copper and other impurities into the smelting process. They were in fact producing a gold and copper alloy.”

Highgrove looked surprised. “Exactly. Exactly. Very impressive, Mr. Holmes. Not one person in a thousand knows that little fact.”

“I’m not one person in a thousand,” Sherlock snapped.

“No,” Highgrove agreed. “No, of course not. Well, to the point, then. The collection of relics we found in the cist are made of that very sort of red gold. The Celts valued gold above all other metals and it was vital to their most important rituals and sacrifices. Druids, of course, presided over those rituals and used knives made of red gold to make their sacrifices to the gods. Are either of you familiar with Russell’s translation of Geber?”

“No, sir,” John said.

“Ugh,” Sherlock groaned, and slumped rudely in the chair.

“It’s quite compelling; it captures the idea perfectly,” Highgrove said, and recited. “‘Gold is of all metals the most precious, and it is the tincture of redness…Spirits are commixed with it, and by it fixed, but not without very great ingenuity.’”

“Fascinating,” Sherlock said sarcastically. “Will you be approaching your point any time soon, Colonel, or shall I send out for lunch?”

“Sherlock,” John warned again. Highgrove had not impressed John favorably by dredging up Delaram, but he respected the Colonel’s reputation and office. He knew that the longer Highgrove took to get to his point the greater was the likelihood that Sherlock’s imperfectly-anchored manners would come completely adrift. Sherlock had agreed to see Highgrove to accommodate John, but opposing that were his constitutional impatience, his obvious dislike of the man, and the fact that this meeting somehow obscurely obliged Mycroft. John very much wished that Highgrove would get on with it.

“I’m sorry,” Highgrove said. “I forget that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Besides the druidic gold relics in the cist, we found a map.”

“‘We’?” Sherlock said.

“My secretary and I. Reginald Larkin. Reggie’s been with us since he was a boy; in fact his whole family has been with us for generations. He shares my fascination with druidic history and he was as excited as I when we realized the value of this find. Caves were sacred to the Druids. They believed that they were part of the afterlife, what they called the Otherworld. I can’t prove it without a translation, but I believe that the map provides directions to another entrance to the Wookey Hole Caves, and I believe that it lies on Oldgroves. If that’s the case you can see why we’d prefer not to make the find public as yet. As I said, it’s difficult enough to keep the tourists away now. If word got out that there’s a north entrance to the caves, hidden for a thousand years but now discovered, it would be chaos. Caving is incredibly popular in Somerset, and the chance to explore one previously unknown to modern science would be irresistible.”

“And you want our help to do…what?” John asked.

“Decipher the map,” Highgrove said. “I know it must seem a bit mundane to a famous detective like yourself,” he added, looking at Sherlock, “but I assure you that I can compensate you handsomely, and when I finally make this discovery public I can guarantee that you’ll get one hundred percent of the credit in the popular press as well as in the scientific journals.”


“I’m sorry?”

“Sherlock.” John wondered if he was going to set a record for a consultation.

“I don’t work on cases that will make me famous, Colonel. I don’t work on cases that will make me rich. I work on cases that interest me, and if you don’t say something interesting in the next—”glanced at his watch “—thirty seconds, I will have to say ‘good day.’”

Highgrove glanced at John, who shrugged apologetically, then at Sherlock.

“Eighteen seconds,” Sherlock said implacably.

Highgrove reached into the manila envelope he’d been carrying and withdrew a photograph inside a plastic sleeve. “This is the map we found inside the cist.”

Sherlock took the photograph, glanced at it. “I’ll take the case.”

John said nothing. He was used to it by now.

Highgrove looked surprised but pleased. “You’ll help, then? You’ll try to decipher the map?”

“I will decipher the map,” Sherlock said, examining the photo. “I’ll also want to talk to the man who found the box. Your neighbor to the north.”

Highgrove’s expression fell. “I’m so sorry,” he said gravely. “I should have said. Ioan…well, he was found dead three days ago.”

“How very shocking.”

This time John did glance at him. Highgrove had apparently not caught the note of sarcasm in his voice, but John heard it.

“Yes,” Highgrove said, “it was. Shocking and sad. A neighboring farmer found him two days after he helped me excavate the cist, when he noticed that Ioan hadn’t been past with his flock in all that time. The police believe it was a heart attack. He was known to have a bad heart, and I imagine the exertion of climbing in and out of that ravine with his sheep and then helping with the box—it’s quite heavy—was just too much for him.”

“Very probably. Well, I expect you’ll be hearing from us shortly, Colonel. John will explain our fee when he sees you out. Good day.”

Highgrove realized that he’d been dismissed.

John stood. “I’ll see you to the door, Colonel,” he said.

Highgrove looked at Sherlock, but Sherlock had steepled his hands in thought and his remote expression showed that he’d already forgotten Highgrove was in the room. Highgrove realized that there was no point in addressing him, but he was too polite not to say, “Thank you, Mr. Holmes.”

John didn’t even bother “Sherlocking” Sherlock. He just said, “Colonel?” in an apologetic tone, made an “after you” gesture, and followed him downstairs.

“I suppose I should be happy that you agreed to hear him out,” John said when he returned. “Expecting you to be civil was too much to hope for.”

Sherlock never glanced up from busily typing on his phone. “Why, did I embarrass you?”

“A bit, yeah.”

He embarrassed you a lot.”

John wasn’t in the mood to debate the merits of revenge incivility. He dropped it. “Why did you agree to take the case?”

Sherlock held out the photo. “You like to read all those histories of Britain. The Crusades, the Bronze Age, pre-history. Take a look at this Iron Age map and tell me what you think.”

John hated it when Sherlock did that, but he was getting better at following and applying his methods, and at least in this case Sherlock didn’t appear to be doing it out of spite because he’d been scolded, so John took the photo and tried to study it the way a mad genius would. The photo was somewhat over-exposed from the glare of the camera’s flash, but he could make out the writing and drawings on it easily enough, if not much detail about the medium on which it was written. Two pale brown metallic objects, one of which was identifiably a knife, lay on the map but didn’t obscure any of the writing.

“Well…the writing isn’t in any language I can make out,” he began cautiously. “But it looks like it’s in the form of verse? Like a poem or a chant, maybe? A religious chant? Religious ceremonies were usually conducted in Latin until pretty recently, but this doesn’t look like Latin.” He glanced at Sherlock to see whether he was on the right track, but Sherlock gave him an exaggeratedly sorrowful shake of his head. John frowned at the map. “Not a religious chant…because…because there’s the sketch. Directions to something, then. Highgrove thinks it’s directions to a cave.”


“But this could be anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily have to refer to something where the map was buried.”

“No, but…?”

“But…then why bury it in that particular spot, if that spot wasn’t near whatever this gives directions to?”

“If that map was in fact buried in the box then we have to assume that the location referred to is nearby. If it’s not, and if the translated text doesn’t otherwise give an exact location, then whatever the map leads to could be anywhere and therefore nowhere, for the purpose of finding it.” Sherlock nodded at the photo. “What else?”

John puzzled over the photo a bit more. Sherlock wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t already decided that there was something else, but John was running out of observations. “It looks like it’s written on paper of some kind…but it’s hard to tell from the photo. There’s not a lot of detail. It could have been written on hide, I suppose.”

“It’s not hide.”

The answer clicked into place. John looked up. “This isn’t an Iron Age map.”

“Excellent. Why not?”

“Because the Celts didn’t use paper. They carved everything they wrote on rock.” John was confused. “So…that’s why you said ’if’ it was buried with the box? I don’t get it. Highgrove’s supposed to be a big expert on ancient British history. Why would he think that this is a Celtic-era map?”

“He doesn’t. That’s why I took the case. He wants us to think it is, and I want to know why.”

“Any ideas?”

Sherlock considered. “Maybe a working hypothesis. If an armchair historian like yourself can see that the map is more recent than the Iron Age, it’s obvious why Highgrove wouldn’t want experts looking at it. So the question is, how old is the map, really? There were no working paper mills in England until the late fifteenth century. That map could be as old as the late Middle Ages or as recent as the last one hundred years. The box itself might really be from the Iron Age and been used more recently to conceal the map, and when I say ‘more recently’ I mean ‘last week.’ So when was it placed in the box, and by whom, and how old is that paper? And why has Highgrove gone to all this trouble to involve us?”

“You think Highgrove planted the map in there?”

“Too early to say. We’ll know more once we translate the text and get a look at the original map. Come on: we’ve got some research to do.”

They made an additional copy of the photo so they could work separately. Sherlock sat at the kitchen table puzzling out the text of the map, alternately hand-writing notes on a legal pad and consulting his laptop. John worked at the living room table with his own computer. He found topographical maps of the Wookey Hole and Oldgroves areas and worked on matching them up with the rather sketchy features shown on the map.

The map in Highgrove’s photo showed only a bit of waterway, a few stands of trees or woods, and what could be either rock subsidences or prominences: it was very hard to tell from the crude drawing. The lack of a scale on Highgrove’s map made matching it to modern charts difficult, but John made some rough estimates based on the way trees and other features were depicted. He found three locations on a topographical chart and three corresponding satellite views for an area within a one mile radius of the estate that were plausible potential matches, but of those three it was impossible to tell which was an exact match for the map. He printed the six charts and the last one dropped into the paper tray just as Sherlock wrapped up his work deciphering the translation.

“Got it!” Sherlock announced.

John looked up. “You’ve translated it?”

“Look at this, John,” Sherlock said, pleased with himself. He carried the map and his handwritten notes to the living room and laid them out on the table. “It’s Latin with a simple three-letter shift.”

“That’s it? A three-letter shift?”

“Assuming that this is as old as the late Middle Ages, that’s all they would have needed. The literacy rate wasn’t all that high in the first place. What would be the chance that if someone unintended found it he could both read Latin and crack the cipher, assuming he even recognized it as a cipher?”

“Not good, I suppose. Let’s see.” John read aloud from Sherlock’s notes.

Where was it hidden?

South of the door

Take you two dozen

Steps on the floor

Seek out the miller

At break of day

At sunrise the miller’s sack

Will show you the way

At the sign of the goddess

Look low and then shove

Take heed of the guard

At the Druids’ gold trove

How much will you give?

It demands a great toll

If you will have the red gold

You must give it your all.”

He looked up. “Poetry. Nice. Any idea what it means?”

“Directions to buried treasure,” Sherlock said, his eyes wide with exaggerated drama.


“’If you will have the red gold’? All that counting of steps? The big secret that Highgrove wants to keep from the press? It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“You think Highgrove knows there’s gold buried somewhere on his place?”

“With all that blather about discretion? Droning on about the druids’ red gold and his Russell translations? Of course. I did a little research into his background, too. That family dates back to at least the late Middle Ages, and they’ve been in that estate of his the entire time. If at some point in the last six or seven hundred years a Highgrove hadn’t buried something valuable on that land I’d be surprised. I’d also be surprised if there weren’t a family legend about it, something that makes Highgrove think he’s got the key to it now. Whether he really found it in the box or added it is another question. What have you got?”

“Oh: Couple of topo and satellite charts.” John laid them out over the table. “I searched within a mile radius of the manor house, and in that area these three sectors more or less match up with the map for terrain features. There are three pairs of charts: each pair is one satellite and one topo view of each sector. I centered them all on the manor house, just to have a common reference point, and cropped them to make the scales match each other and the map as closely as I could. There’s some guesswork involved, though. It’s impossible to know the scale and orientation of the original map, but if you superimpose one on the other you can see that they match up pretty well.”

Sherlock was doing just that: holding up to the light the map photo with each topo and satellite chart in turn. “This is excellent, John. Excellent. You are coming right along.”

“Yeah, great. So, what next? We turn this over to Highgrove and that’s it?”

“Hm. Well, technically we’ve done what he asked. He wanted the map translated and it is.”

“But you think there’s more to this than just him wanting the translation.”

“I think there’s really gold somewhere on that estate, and so does he, and I think he’s willing to kill for it.”

“Kill for it?” John mentally went over the meeting with Highgrove again. “The shepherd? You think he killed the shepherd? But if the red gold thing is true it’s not even real gold. You said yourself it’s part copper. Wouldn’t that make it worth a lot less than pure gold? Besides, if the shepherd found it on Highgrove’s property it belongs to Highgrove, period, and so would any gold the map leads him to. Why would he kill for that?”

“I don’t know.” Sherlock frowned, thinking. “It’s not his until the Crown says it is, though. The ‘individual non-coin’ clause of the Treasure Act would prevent him automatically keeping any of those relics for himself.”

“The what, now?”

“The 1996 Treasure Act,” Sherlock said. “Any individual non-coin find that’s at least 300 years old and at least ten percent gold or silver has to be reported within fourteen days of discovery to the coroner of the jurisdiction in which it’s found. If the coroner says it meets the law’s definition of treasure then Highgrove has to offer the item for sale to a museum. He can only keep it if the museum declines to buy it, although he’d be entitled to its market value in any case.”

“He’d know that, wouldn’t he?”

“Of course. It’s more likely that he wants the find for its historical value more than its monetary value. The historical value is probably much greater to him as a collector, to say nothing of what an obsessive personality might make of it. You have no idea the value of minutiae to the obsessive personality, John,” Sherlock added with no trace of irony.

“No,” John said with considerable irony. “I know nothing about that.”

Sherlock was staring off into the distance. “I need to see that map,” he said.

Chapter Two

As their train left London behind the next morning John settled back into his seat with a contented sigh. He was pleased to get out of the city, pleased by the clear intensity of the mid-morning sky, pleased with the early autumn countryside and its sprinkling of chestnut trees just starting to turn, rivaling the always-colorful copper beeches for brilliance, and pleased with the prospect of the train ride for its own sake. He was pleased, too, at having got Sherlock out of the city, because while Sherlock was as thorough-going a creature of London as it was possible to be, and while John knew that his friend thrived on the kind of work and drama that could be found only in such an international crossroads—and while he generally shared his enthusiasm for it—he was also firmly convinced that a change of both pace and scenery would do Sherlock some good.

For his part Sherlock, while initially keen to be under way, lapsed into silence as they passed beyond the city limits. Once the train swept through Reading the scenery changed abruptly to scattered farms and sparsely populated parishes, and except for Swindon and Chippenham they passed only a few rural hamlets of picturesque homes and shops clustered together.

Sherlock regarded the landscape gloomily. “Look at that, John,” he said.

“Hm?” John turned away from the window where he’d been drinking in the view. “Sorry, what?”

“All that crime.”

“Crime? Where? What are you—”

“There.” Sherlock waved his hand vaguely at the window. “You look out this window and all you see are the trees changing color, the green farm fields, the bucolic little villages; am I right?”

“Well…yeah. I suppose.”

“I can’t.” Sherlock heaved a dramatic sigh. “I look at these little towns and isolated farm houses and all I can see are the crimes that go on there, year after year. Cruelty…incest…rape…murder… Undetected. Unpunished. You think all this rural solitude is beautiful? Picturesque? I think there are worse crimes committed here than the vilest London criminal can imagine, and almost no chance that those crimes will even be discovered, much less solved.”

“For God’s sake, Sherlock.” A pleasant ride ruined. John returned his gaze to the window and tried to resume his reverie, but as the train rolled on he couldn’t help wondering whether Sherlock might be right. By the time the train slowed for the Bath station he was thoroughly dispirited. Sherlock, however, perked up as they pulled into the station and by the time they stepped off the train he was his old self. Too late for John.

They hired a car, the keys to which Sherlock accepted. At one time the question of who would drive the cars they hired had been a topic of repeated and noisy disputes, until, during one especially spirited debate in which Sherlock maintained that it was not only entirely possible but eminently desirable to anticipate the moves of other drivers no fewer than five steps in advance, John ran into the back of a UPS van. Since then John had flatly refused to drive, to the relief of all concerned.

By the time they reached the Wookey Hole Hotel, directly across the car park from the entrance to the Wookey Hole Cave, it was late afternoon. A handful of tourists queued up for the cave entrance, but it was off peak and both the village and hotel were otherwise nearly deserted. Sherlock phoned Highgrove to announce their arrival while John checked them in. They turned their bags over to the valet, then made the short drive north through the town.

They easily found the impressive entrance to Highgrove’s estate. Massive brick and stone columns stood athwart the head of the driveway, supporting an ornate, wrought-iron gate with ’Oldgroves’ spelled out in iron in Old English script. Iron clusters of oak leaves and acorns were sprinkled artfully on the gate, and more had been carved in relief on huge limestone plaques, one on each upright. After getting buzzed in they continued down a quarter mile of tree-lined, crushed limestone driveway that wound past gently undulating, close-cropped emerald lawns with never a weed or stray leaf in sight. Massive oaks and elms, each centuries old, dotted the grounds. Far off to the west and northwest stood the extensive tracts of Ebbor and Lammas Woods, and to the north and east spread Smokham Wood, less sprawling than the other two tracts but every bit as ancient.

The residence itself, a converted gothic abbey in the Early English style, displayed many of the architectural features common to the late Medieval era, although it had clearly been altered and modernized over the centuries by a series of Highgroves, with the result being something of an architectural olio. Patches of lichen spattered the grey limestone and flint exterior and wisteria vines clung to the facade.

The driveway terminated in a roundabout in front of the house. They climbed the half dozen curved limestone steps to a set of massive oak double doors, nearly seven feet high, with equally massive iron hinges to support them. Sherlock was reaching for the bell when the door opened to reveal a 40-something man, blond, with the drawn, over-trained look of a gym rat, but well-dressed in a conservative charcoal-coloured suit and subdued navy and black-striped tie.

“Mr. Holmes? Captain Watson?” the man said. “I’m Larkin, Colonel Highgrove’s secretary. May I take your coats? The Colonel is in the library. If you’ll follow me, please?”

“Ah, Captain Watson, Mr. Holmes,” Highgrove cried boisterously, starting up. He circled the desk to shake their hands. “I’m so glad you’ve come. Can I get you anything to drink? Something to eat? No? Nothing? Thank you, Reggie, that will be all for now. Please, sit down.” He gestured to the two armchairs arranged before the massive, elaborately carved oak desk. “Well, and so you’ve made some progress with the translation?”

“Some,” Sherlock admitted. “It’s Latin encrypted with a simple cipher. Can you make anything of this?” He withdrew a sheet of paper from his pocket and passed it across the desk.

Highgrove read aloud from it.

“”’Where was it hidden?

North of the door

Take you a dozen

Steps on the floor

Seek out the druid

At close of day

At sunset the druid’s hat

Points out theway

At the sign of the roebuck

Look high and then shove

Take heed of the guard

At the Druids’ gold trove

How much will you give?

It demands a great toll

If you will have the red gold

You must give it your all’“

John had a great deal of practice at not looking surprised by the things Sherlock said and did in front of clients, but now it took some self-control not to glance over at him. Those weren’t the words Sherlock had translated in the flat. Clearly he distrusted Highgrove as much as he disliked him.

Highgrove looked up from the paper, beaming. ”This is absolutely amazing, Mr. Holmes. Amazing. Do you realize what this is?“

”I believe it provides instructions for finding a cache of gold.“

”Yes. Yes, that’s my interpretation exactly. And do you see? I was right: the map must show the way to a lost entrance to the Wookey Caves. This text is a druidic ritual chant that must lead to the entrance, and from there to the gold. But where is the starting point?“

”Where, indeed?“ Sherlock said, and then appeared to lose all interest in the subject. ”Well, Colonel. You have your translation as requested. I believe John discussed the fee with you?“ He glanced at John. ”If we make the next train but one we can be back in London by suppertime.“ He checked his watch, then looked expectantly at Highgrove. The message was unmistakable: Give me my money.

”You’re leaving?“ Highgrove cried. ”But—“ he scrambled for something to hold them there. ”Mr. Holmes. Wait. Please. I know you’re a very busy man, but I can make it worth-I mean, I’d like to change the terms of our arrangement, if you’re willing.“

Sherlock hiked an eyebrow.

”This translation,“ Highgrove said. ”It—well, it’s confusing to me, I don’t mind telling you. I can’t make heads or tails of it. It’s obviously a ritual, obviously directions to a hidden cave, but as for where to start…I’m lost. Lost on my own property, as it were. If you’d be willing to stay, to help find this…this cave and the ‘trove’ that the ritual refers to, I’d be very grateful, and I can’t tell you what it would mean in archaeological circles.“

Sherlock looked at John. John looked doubtful. ”You do have that Sussex case that needs attention,“ he pointed out. ”And that government thing?“

Sherlock appeared to weigh his options. ”I can spare a day,“ he decided finally. John shook his head as though he thought this was a terrible decision.

”To be honest, Colonel,“ Sherlock said, ”I did give some thought to the meaning of the ‘ritual’ as you called it, on our way here, and I think I might have some ideas on where to start looking. I can stay in Somerset…until the day after tomorrow.“ He looked at John. ”We can take the first train back Friday morning.“

John made a resigned ”whatever“ gesture, making it clear that he thought they should leave now.

Highgrove looked relieved. ”Thank you, Mr. Holmes. Captain Watson. Thank you. You’ll let me put you up here, of course.“

”No, that won’t be necessary, Colonel,“ Sherlock said. ”There are a couple of hotels in the village. I’m sure they can spare a room at this time of year and we wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing you.“

”It’s no inconvenience at all. Please.“ But Sherlock shook his head and Highgrove dropped it: Insisting that they stay would be rude. ”At least let me treat you to one of Reggie’s dinners. He’s the envy of every chef in Somerset. You won’t be sorry.“

Sherlock and John exchanged glances. ”Supper would be lovely, Colonel,“ John said. ”Thank you.“

”Not at all, not at all. Well. I’ll let Reggie know you’ll be staying for supper, then. Meanwhile, would you like to see the cist in person?“

”Please,“ Sherlock said.

”Yes, definitely,“ said John.

Highgrove texted Larkin about supper, then led them from the library down the hall to his display and research room. It was a vast, high-ceilinged place with a wall of north-facing windows, lined with shelves and glass cases full of relics from ancient British history and pre-history, all as carefully labeled as they would be in a museum or even more so, for here Highgrove could include details of interest only to enthusiasts. In the corner to the right of the doorway stood a work table covered with papers, journals, and Highgrove’s tools of the trade: magnifying glasses, forensic tweezers, Vernier calipers, measuring tape, a folding ruler, a mason line, paint brushes, photographic scales, and a laptop computer. Over the table more shelving held a series of well-thumbed reference books.

The cist itself stood near the work table on a waist-high wheeled stainless steel lab cart between two free-standing shop lamps, which Highgrove switched on. The flat stone lid of the box hung open, still attached by the iron hinges, its free end resting on the table. The lead straps holding it closed had been cut off and carefully laid out side by side on the table with their embossed surfaces uppermost. Inside the unlined box lay several crudely made red-gold relics: a cup, a plate, a comb of sorts, a knife, a handful of ceramic beads. There was very little dirt in the box, just a few bits blackened, desiccated, unrecognizable organic matter—probably some sort of food intended as an offering—and of course the map, which lay face up under the knife and comb. John at once recognized the map arrangement from the photo.

Sherlock stopped a few feet from the box and eyed it; John knew he was comparing the position of the items in the box with his memory of the photo. To John it looked like the same arrangement, but Sherlock was the last word on that.

”How long has this box been open?“ Sherlock asked.

”Since the night we found it,“ Highgrove said. ”That would be last Friday. Five days.“

”Have you touched anything? Moved anything?“

”No. And I can’t tell you how tempting it’s been to start working on it. But when I saw the map I knew I was going to need help with it. It seemed best to leave everything undisturbed until then. It’s been agony leaving it all in place, but we’ve made do with photographing and describing everything in situ.“

”Very prudent,“ Sherlock said somewhat absently, and John could see the exact moment when he excluded from his consciousness everything in the room but the box. Sherlock circled the table, examining each strap, then the hinges, then the exterior of the box from every angle at that range before repeating the process with his glass. Soon John realized that he was taking more than his usual time: was it deliberate? As though in answer Sherlock, on the far side of the table, looked up from behind the box and his eyes met John’s—just for an instant, but John got the message. He waited until Sherlock moved on to another part of the cist, then turned to Highgrove.

”Colonel, listen. He’s going to be a while, and…well, I’ve done a lot of reading about early British history myself. I remember once when I met a couple of your boys: Artie Dunham especially said what a great historian you were, and I thought then that I’d love to meet you. It seems silly now I’m actually standing here to not take advantage. Would you mind showing me some of the things in your collection?“

”No, of course not,“ Highgrove said, pleased. ”You know Artie?“

Left alone with the cist, Sherlock proceeded to the interior. He could identify the exact place where the mason had changed tools when his chisel drew dull, because the new one had a tiny nick in the blade, but he was less interested in the cist’s construction than in its contents. One glance at the map confirmed his opinion about it, but he went over it with the glass anyway, in great detail. He used the pair of tweezers from Highgrove’s desk to carefully lift each corner of the map that wasn’t weighted by the knife and comb. ”Come on, come on,“ he muttered impatiently. He glanced at John and Highgrove, but their backs were turned as they exclaimed over something in a case. Sherlock moved the knife, raised that corner of the map and smiled. ”And there you are,“ he murmured. He reached in with the tweezers and deposited what he’d found in a small plastic evidence bag which he dropped into his pocket. Then he replaced the knife exactly as he’d found it and strolled across the room to join John and Highgrove, who had moved on to a case containing several framed photographs of a tiered hillside and a scattered array of little metal objects.

Highgrove was pointing to the metal pieces. ”Here, you see: Those are pins, those are rivets,“ he was saying. ”That’s a brooch or a sort of pin for a cloak. All bronze, as you can see. What’s interesting is that there’s no source of copper or tin ore locally, so we believe that they must have been brought in through trade with other areas.“

John wasn’t faking his interest in the collection. ”When you find items like that at a site, does it tell you anything about what the site was used for? I mean, I know it was a fort, but did people live there, as well, or can you not tell from just a few buttons and things?“

”Oh, no, we can tell a great deal from items like that—Oh, Mr. Holmes.“ Highgrove broke off when he realized that Sherlock was standing behind them, his hands clasped behind his back. ”Are you all finished? Exam complete and all that?“

”Yes, I think so. Very interesting.“

”Anything that will help make sense of the map?“

”Not directly, no.“

Highgrove looked disappointed.

”But I have a pretty good idea of how to work it out. John and I will get started first thing in the morning.“

”I’d like to help,“ Highgrove said.

”We’ll move faster on our own.“

”We are a bit pressed for time, Colonel,“ John chipped in. ”Sherlock has several cases already on now; if we can’t finish up here by Friday morning it could be weeks before we can get back here.“ When Highgrove still looked a bit doubtful he added, ”Think of it like this, sir. Remember when the papers would send a journalist out and want you to take him along on a mission? It wasn’t that the guy would get in the way so much but that you were adding a different element into the mix, and your teams already worked really well together Anything new would tend to slow them down. You see?“

This made sense to Highgrove. ”Yes, I do. I do. You’re right, of course. Well, in that case, at least let me know whether there’s anything you need. Any tools, equipment?“

”As a matter of fact, I’d be obliged for the use of a proper laboratory,“ Sherlock said.

”A proper…There isn’t anything locally, I’m afraid,“ Highgrove said, thinking. ”But there’s the Robert Blake Science College in Bridgwater. I know people there. I could phone them tonight, let them know you’d be coming down tomorrow. What time would you like me to say?“

”Oh, first thing,“ Sherlock said. ”Then we’ll be able to spend the rest of the day here, working out the ritual.“

”Yes, that would probably be best,“ Highgrove agreed. He pulled out his mobile. ”There,“ he said a few minutes later. ”They’ll be expecting you at nine. When you go in the gate you keep on straight ahead, keep the one-storey building off your right, and go back to the taller building. There’s a directory inside, but the lab’s on the second floor.

“Excellent. Thank you, Colonel.”

Business concluded, Highgrove said, “Hungry, gentlemen? I imagine Reggie’s about got supper on table.”

“Starving,” John said with a smile, and in fact they hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

They headed back down the corridor the way they’d come. Sculptures and paintings large and small lined the broad passage, most depicting scenes of ancient Britain: druids and altars; Celtic warriors, one of which was recognizably Boadicea; a plinth holding a one-sixth scale marble reproduction of The Dying Gaul. Sherlock stopped before a group of six smaller paintings, all showing Celtic fighters doing something warlike to Romans.

“Tell me about these paintings, Colonel.”

“Ah, you have a good eye, Mr. Holmes. This group is one of my favorites. My Thornhills. These were painted between 1725 and 1728. He took some liberties with his subjects, but on balance they’re quite accurate. They show the Celtic resistance to Roman occupation.”

“Really. I’d have said Swedish.”

“I don’t follow.”

“They’re all blond,” Sherlock said, pointing. “Every one of the Celts in these paintings. Surely that’s not accurate.”

“Oh, no, that’s quite accurate, Mr. Holmes, I assure you,” Highgrove said, and recited. “‘The Gauls are tall of body with rippling muscles and white of skin and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so for they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing colour which nature has given it.’” He smiled at their expressions. “That’s the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus on the Celts. They used limewater to dye their hair blond, you know.”

“Fascinating,” Sherlock said.

“Yes, but pretty tough on the hair, it seems,” Highgrove said, as they started off again. “Diodorus says that it made it the texture of a horse’s mane.”

“Ah,” said John. “Before product was invented.”

As an ancient manor house to nobility Oldgroves naturally included a great hall for feasts and celebrations, but the house had also been modernized over the ages, and they dined in a much smaller, more intimate space in the west wing, a space which Highgrove explained had originally served as the pantry for the adjacent kitchens. In spite of its modest origins, however, the oak-paneled, informal dining room now included every modern convenience and was as comfortable and welcoming a room as any that might be found in an upscale City residence.

Sherlock possessed no fund of small talk or conventional, meaningless chatter. He sat on Highgrove’s left, across from John, looking remote and inattentive, eating little and saying nothing, so the burden of maintaining a continual flow of conversation fell entirely on John and the Colonel. John was used to it, however, and his interest in history and the Highgrove collections was real, so it took little effort on his part to steer his questions and Highgrove’s answers toward the safe topic of British history.

Larkin had whisked away the soup bowls and served the roasted partridges—culled from the estate itself—when, during a lull in which Larkin poured Highgrove a third glass of cabernet, the Colonel turned to John and said, “Well, and so you knew Artie Dunham.”

“Yes, sir,” John said. “Just met him briefly when he and I were on the same flight into Kandahar coming back from leave, so I didn’t know him well. He saw me reading a book about the Crusades and introduced himself. Said his CO was mad for early British history and we talked about you for a bit. I remember thinking that it would be interesting to meet you. Never expected to end up sitting at your dining room table,” he finished with a smile.

“And I never expected to have you sitting at my dining room table,” Highgrove said. He looked at Sherlock, who had been absently relocating the potatoes from one side of his plate to the other. “Captain Watson would have us all believe that he didn’t do anything special at Delaram,” he said, “but I happen to know better. Every man who was in Afghanistan that day knows better. Delaram turned out to be the second biggest firefight in the country that year, and your friend here almost singlehandedly ensured that we lost—how many?—just twelve of our boys.”

“Just twelve,” John said grimly, all pleasure in the conversation evaporating.

“Well, of course twelve is a very shocking number. What I mean is, if not for Captain Watson that number would have been a third higher. And he put a pretty good dent in the enemy, too. How many Taliban did you account for that day, Captain? Seven? Eight?”

John spoke through clenched teeth. “I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s say six,” Highgrove said. “And between small arms and air support we took out over one hundred and thirty enemy fighters. A good day’s work any way you slice it, eh, Mr. Holmes?”

At the mention of his name Sherlock glanced briefly at Highgrove, but he’d been watching John intently since the Colonel started this hare, and his eyes went back to him at once. John’s gaze was fixed on something in the center of the table, he was breathing faster, and he was obviously not seeing the room or anything in it.

“God, I wish I’d been there,” Highgrove said.

John swallowed. “No. You don’t.”

John quickly learned to hate the dust. It fouled the food, water, bedding, guns, and vehicles. Even the pages of his books were grimy with it. It drifted everywhere: in doorways, alleys, roads, and in the lee corners of every vertical surface. For every enemy movement the dust revealed, it betrayed the motions of the coalition forces, as well. He’d have called it a double-edged sword, except that where it drifted more thickly into corners it made planting improvised explosive devices so much easier for the Taliban. Four inches of flour-fine dust, and the higher drifts were natural places to conceal a pressure plate. John hated the sand flies, the camel spiders, and the scorpions. He hated how the women and children would stand on the rooftops and peer from doorways, hoping to see him and his friends blown up. But mostly he hated the dust.

John and two combat medics, corporals Ricky “Ticky” Colms and Bill Murray, had been assigned to a fifteen-vehicle convoy transporting supplies and coalition troops from Kandahar to a forward operating base outside Herat, where John was to be stationed for the next six weeks. The new FOB would be busier than Kandahar, and he thought that he would enjoy the activity. Just now, however, he was looking forward to moving at all. The British army, and even more so combined military operations like this one, ran on the principle of interminable delay interspersed with hellfire hurry, and John had already enjoyed nearly thirty minutes of pointless sitting around in the MRAP while the process of coordinating troops and equipment carried on outside. Every few minutes the door would open, admitting a blast of 48C heat and another few coalition troops, mostly Brits but today a couple of Canadians and Americans, as well.

The door opened once more and John squeezed his eyes closed against the blazing mid-day sun, but he opened them again when he recognized the voice of the man who stuck his head inside and boomed, “Doc Lionheart!” Danny Mornington shouldered his way into the vehicle. “’Scuse me, pardon me, ’scuse me,” he said boisterously. “Shove over, soldier,” he said to the man opposite John, and took his seat.

John grinned, pleased to see his old friend, and shook his proffered hand. He’d known Mornington since their university days, when they’d been rugby squad teammates. Having enlisted well before John joined up, Mornington had been ideally placed to show him the ropes when he arrived in Afghanistan. “Morny,” John said. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were going home three days ago.”

“You and me both, brother,” Mornington replied. “But that was Plan A. Plan B is I get to shag my ass up to Herat with you candies, make sure you get there without breaking a nail, then come back Monday with the outgoing crowd.”

“And Plan C is they change their minds again,” John said.

“You know it,” Mornington said.

“I wish I was going home,” one of the Canadians offered.

“You just got here, you pussy,” said another. “You don’t even know how much it sucks yet.”

“Ah, fresh meat,” Morny noted. “Well, you’ll be in good hands with the Doc, here.” He reached across and clapped John on the shoulder. “There’s none finer when it comes to putting a bloke back together again, so don’t go wetting yourselves when the mortars start falling.”

One of the Americans indicated John’s armament with a nod: In addition to his full kit and medical supplies, now stowed under his seat, he carried the same L85A2 Bullpup rifle as the other British soldiers, his Browning 9mm on his right hip, and a couple of spare pistol magazines on his left. “I’ve seen SWAT teams with less firepower,” the American said. “What does he do when you’re injured, shoot you like a horse?”

“Just his American patients,” Mornington said.

“Hey, you’re looking at Doc Lionheart,” Ricky announced, in much the same way that he would have said, ‘You’re looking at Winston Churchill.’

“Shut up, Ricky,” John said good-naturedly.

“We were gonna call him Deadeye, but Bill here already took that name,” Ricky added, shoving the medic next to him in the shoulder.

“Keep on Doc’s good side, that’s my advice,” Mornington told the American. He glanced at John again. “Hey, I gotta get going. We’re about ready to mount up.” He jumped out of the truck, but turned and stuck his head and shoulders back inside when John called after him, “Hey, Morny. Did you get to talk to Janie yesterday? Wish her happy Valentine’s Day?”

“Did he?” interrupted Bill. “He read her the world’s lamest poem. It was so bloody pathetic the satellite dropped the signal halfway through.”

“Nah, his wife hung up on his ass,” Ricky put in, prompting a roar of laughter.

“Let’s hear it, Sarge,” someone called.

“Yeah, read us a poem,” Bill said, “so we know how much you love us.”

“Shut your pie hole, Murray,” Mornington laughed. “Janie knows great poetry when she hears it, which is more than I can say about a philistine wanker like you.”

“You shouldn’t use big words like ‘wanker’ around Bill,” said John. “It’s bad for his self-esteem.” More laughter.

Mornington gave John a jovial salute and shut the door. A minute later the truck gave a lurch as the driver released the brake and the convoy started off. A cheer went up and then the soldiers gradually settled in for the long ride, nattering comfortably among themselves.

They’d been alternately rolling and lurching over the highway for two hours when they reached the outskirts of the city of Delaram. The American soldier who’d asked whether John shot his patients had just started a conversation about IEDs with his neighbor when a massive blast rocked the convoy. John learned later that it wasn’t an IED that brought them down, but a suicide driver in an explosives-packed Toyota who rammed the lead vehicle from an intersecting street.

With perfect slow-motion clarity John felt the MRAP go airborne and tip, and then it slammed down hard onto its side and time snapped back into place. The smell of gasoline filled the truck and settling dust drifted over everything like a veil. John unclipped his seatbelt and dropped. Ricky had already done the same and was trying to help Bill get unclipped. The other soldiers who were in the truck with them had already either scrambled out or were helping each other evacuate. As John grabbed his kit and clambered from the vehicle the hard glare of the mid-afternoon sun blinded him, adding to his sense of chaos until his eyes adapted. The blast had half-deafened him, imposing a bizarre, impersonal remoteness, a sensation that he was watching this happen to someone else.

His side hurt from having been thrown hard against the seatbelt and the sound of the blast had half-deafened him, but he wasn’t actually injured. Bill and Ricky also appeared unhurt, and the three of them plus the other men in their truck regrouped with the soldiers from the rearmost vehicles behind a low mud wall that paralleled the road.

The flight controller was already on his radio, yelling over the all-pervading noise of the incoming small-arms and RPG fire for air support from Kandahar, giving their location in lat/long coordinates. Bullets howled overhead and kicked up puffs of dust when they punched the wall, leaving fist-sized craters. As the dust cleared frequent muzzle flashes showed that most of the firing was coming from the hills to the west and northwest of the highway, from the far side of the convoy. The intensity of the incoming rounds and the volume of muzzle flashes made it clear that they were being targeted by a couple hundred Taliban fighters: They’d been expected.

As he looked around John could see that no one from own vehicle appeared hurt, and farther south along the wall, now manned by the soldiers from the rearmost vehicles, everyone for the moment looked intact. It was forward of his position that the worst injuries had been sustained, in the first three vehicles of the convoy. The lead MRAP had taken a direct hit, T-boned by the bomber, and had been utterly shattered, along with its crew. The blast left a nearly three-metre-deep crater in the road. Charred bodies, pieces of bodies, and vehicle parts lay smoldering in the street. A vagary of the breeze brought the appalling odor of it to John.

Most of the men from the third vehicle had already made their way back to their comrades behind the wall, and Bill and Ricky had already begun treating the injured among them, but the second vehicle in the line, a Vector gun truck, had been flipped inverted by the blast and its sheet metal shredded. At a quick glance John counted seven badly injured men scattered around it. He grabbed up his kit.

“Bill,” he yelled over the ceaseless firing, and supplemented his words with gestures. “I’m going up.” He pointed.

Bill shook his head vehemently. “No way, Doc,” he yelled.

“Stay here,” John shouted. “Tell ’em I need cover.”

Bill knew there was no stopping him: They called him Lionheart for a reason. He crawled forward to the ranking NCO he could see, a lance-bombardier, got his attention, and yelled. “Doc’s going forward. He needs cover.” Bill pointed.

The lance-bombardier followed where he was pointing and nodded. He looked at John. “Can’t stop the RPGs,” he yelled into his ear.

John dismissed that with an impatient shake of his head; he was focused on the men he could see, on where he would start his triage, and on the route he would take to get to what he believed were the most seriously wounded men. He could make it most of the way behind the wall, but he’d be exposed for about 30 metres before he reached the shelter of the disabled truck.

“Go!” yelled the lance-bombardier, and John sprinted forward, very surprised when he reached the cover of the truck without being killed. He slid in the dirt behind the inverted truck and an instant later Ricky skidded in next to him.

“Goddammit, Ricky! Are you crazy?”

“Like a lion, Doc,” Ricky said with a grin.

For the moment they were sheltered by the vehicle, but the Taliban would target it once they realized what John and Ricky were doing. They had to hurry. They checked the two men on their own east side of the truck, but they were already beyond help.

John pointed to the casualties on the west side of the vehicle. “We’ll alternate,” he yelled. He pointed to each in the order in which he had mentally triaged them. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Okay?”

“Got it,” Ricky shouted back, with a thumbs-up gesture.

John left his kit behind, adjusted the Bullpup behind his back, and sprinted from cover. He reached the first soldier, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him back behind the shelter of the truck. “Go,” he yelled to Ricky, and Ricky plunged out of the shadow of the vehicle toward the next soldier while John turned to the man he’d retrieved. He worked automatically, wrapping pressure bandages, injecting fentanyl, shouting encouragement to the badly injured soldier. Blood soon gloved his hands, making them so slick that he had to use his teeth to open the packets of supplies. When Ricky returned John left cover to retrieve the next man.

They had moved three of the soldiers to the temporary shelter of the Vector when Ricky, starting forward from cover again, suddenly pitched face down into the dirt. John grabbed his feet, pulled him back, but Ricky was dead, killed instantly. “Ricky, goddammit,” John shouted and his eyes filled, but there was no time to grieve.

He made two more dashes to bring the fourth and fifth soldiers into the relative shelter of the Vector’s east side. Now his priority became moving them from the Vector back to the wall where Bill and the other medics waited with more equipment. He reached one soldier whose left leg was gone mid-thigh; John had placed a tourniquet when he first brought the man behind the truck, and now he chose him as the first that he’d bring to the medics. As he double-checked the security of the tourniquet the man’s burned and bloody hand caught his wrist. Only then did John meet his eyes and recognize Danny Mornington.

“Morny,” he said in surprise, then realized that Danny couldn’t hear him over the firing. He leaned close and shouted into his ear. “Hang on, mate. We’re almost home. You’re doing great.”

Mornington tried to speak, but either he wasn’t strong enough or whatever he said was lost in the noise of the battle. “Think about Janie,” John shouted in his ear. “We’re going now. You’re coming with me.”

Mornington’s eyes rolled to meet John’s, and then his body jerked as two rifle rounds hit him, sending up little red geysers. Two more rounds slammed into the Vector’s sheet metal beside John’s head. “No!” John screamed. He tried frantically for a pulse. “Shit, Morny, don’t do this,” he yelled, shaking him by the shoulder. Nothing. He sought for a pulse again anyway as his tears fell and his nose clogged and the words ‘futile intervention’ burned in his brain. “I can’t, Danny,” he cried. “I’m sorry, mate. I’m sorry.” Another round slammed into the Vector—like the bullets that killed Mornington these came from the east, behind their line of defense—and then the Bullpup was in his hands, his thumb flipped the fire selector to full auto, and he fired in the direction from which the rounds had come. He fired at every enemy fighter who moved, and he fired to kill the people who were killing his friends. He kept his finger depressed until the magazine emptied, then dropped it and slapped in a fresh one, racked a round into the chamber, thumbed the cross-bolt safety on, and slung the gun over his back.

He forced himself to move on to the next soldier, mechanically rechecked his pressure bandages, shouted something he hoped sounded encouraging. Futile intervention. Jesus. How much of his intervention today would be futile? He pushed the thought aside and hoisted his patient in a fireman’s carry. The man was a good 130 kilos in his body armor and John staggered under the weight, but adrenaline and anger and fear drove him on. The soldier’s toes dragged the ground and his blood dripped down John’s chest. John had a goal in mind—to get all four casualties behind the wall—but every breath he took without being hit himself was a surprise and a gift. He was thinking second-to-second, not planning ahead: this step, the next, the next, pick up the next patient, turn, run.

He was ten feet from the shadow of the Vector with just one man left to retrieve when something punched him hard, high up on the left side of his back, knocking him to his hands and knees. He tried to catch himself but his left arm gave way, tipping him forward so that the side of his face hit the ground. “Earthquake,” he thought dizzily, not sure why else the ground would tilt so crazily. He crawled the rest of the way to the soldier with his arm hanging uselessly.

Without the use of his left arm he was reduced to dragging the man by his collar. All the troops had been heavy in their gear, but John couldn’t understand why this time the trip was taking so long. He was breathing hard, sucking in air in great gasps, but it wasn’t enough. Dust filled his mouth. Of course none of the army’s manuals had warned about suffocating on the stuff—the pricks never told you the really important things—and then he realized that he was face-down in the dirt. He coughed, and the pain cracked him like a hammer, ripping through his chest and back and bringing tears to his eyes. Darkness swarmed in at the edges of his vision, but he fought it off furiously: If he stayed out here in the open he was going to die.

Then he was looking up at the sky, at a puff of red smoke: the flight controller’s flare marking their location so air support wouldn’t mistake them for the enemy. He was being dragged: Someone had grabbed his collar and was hauling him rapidly across the ground. A broad ribbon of blood unwound in the dust under his feet and he wondered which poor bastard that had come from. Then Bill was leaning over him, shouting something he couldn’t hear. He couldn’t breathe, either; they would tell him later that the bullet shattered his left scapula and punched through his left lung, partially collapsing it. Bill squeezed his hand but John was exhausted now, sick of all the noise and dust, and he let his eyelids drop shut. It hurt less when his eyes were closed, anyway. Bill slapped him twice; he was yelling something at John, pointing at something in the sky, and as John tried to focus three American A10s roared by, hammering the enemy position. It was the last thing he saw that day.

“God, I envy you, Captain,” Highgrove sighed.

John was a long way away and when the Colonel’s voice finally penetrated his consciousness it felt like waking disoriented from a dream. He blinked and said quietly and automatically, “Sorry, what?” but Highgrove didn’t hear him.

Sherlock did. He hadn’t taken his eyes from John’s face for the intervening thirty seconds—it had been no more—as Highgrove nattered away. Now he watched John’s dark eyes regain their focus, watched him push what he’d been seeing away with an effort and return to the present.

“You have no idea how much I envy you,” Highgrove went on. “I know: of course it’s a terrible thing to be injured, to be laid up in hospital, sent home…but I’d trade all of this—” gestured to indicate all of Oldgroves “—for a chance like you had, to take out a few insurgents, stand there shoulder to shoulder with your mates, fighting the good fight…” He shook his head ruefully. “You may not believe this, but I’ve never been in a real battle myself. I came along just after the first Gulf War, and missed all the glory.”


“Oh, I’ve done my share of pulling myself up through the ranks, you know, but I never had a chance to distinguish myself in combat, although I’ve made studying strategy and tactics a sort of second career. I’d give anything to have been in your position. The Conspicuous Gallantry Cross. Imagine that. It’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. I tell you, Captain, I’ve seen a lot of brave men in my time, but your actions that day—”

Sherlock slapped his hands palm-down on the table, rattling the china and making John and Highgrove jump. His napkin tumbled to the floor as he stood. “We’re leaving now,” he announced.

Highgrove was stunned and even John looked at him in surprise—but John could take an opening when one was handed to him and he got up as well.

“Already?” Highgrove cried in dismay. “But you haven’t finished your dinner. We haven’t had dessert, yet. Reggie’s apple popovers are—”

“Yes, I’m sure they’re annual prizewinners at the parish fair,” Sherlock said, “but at this point I’d rather eat razor blades than—”

“We have to get an early start in the morning, Colonel,” John interrupted, riding over the rest of that sentence. As much as he was disgusted by Highgrove now, as much as he disliked the man personally, he couldn’t bring himself to be deliberately rude, nor could he quite overcome his ingrained deference to rank. “Bridgwater and back, working out the map. It’ll be a long day. We’re going to have to call it a night. I’m very sorry, sir.”

Sherlock had already strode from the room. “Of course, of course,” Highgrove said, staring after him with bemusement. “I understand. Duty calls, and all that. I’ll show you out.”

John propped his elbow against the car window and rubbed his eyes. “Thanks.”

Sherlock shrugged. “I don’t like popovers.”

At the hotel, John stepped out of the car and paused to stretch out the tension in his neck. He tipped his head back and gazed up at the stars. “I’m going to walk up to that pub we passed. Have a pint.”

Sherlock considered him. “Company?”


They crossed the hotel car park, then the main street, and as they reached the far pavement Sherlock said, “I don’t understand.”


“Why does it bother you?”

John didn’t answer immediately. He knew that Sherlock hadn’t asked out of prurient interest: he really didn’t understand and considered this a gap in his knowledge that needed to be filled. John knew that about him, and while he didn’t resent it he also didn’t want to talk about Delaram, not even with Sherlock. Still… “Listen,” he said. “When you took that header off Barts. If that hadn’t worked-”

“It would always work.”

“Yes. Yes, I know. Because you’re Sherlock Holmes. But if it hadn’t. If you’d done all that, tried that hard to save Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson and me, and if Moriarty’s men had gotten to us anyway, would you be happy about it? If someone gave you a medal for that, for trying really hard even though you failed, would you pin it to your chest and strut around?”

“I’d throw it in the Thames.”



“Blackfriars Bridge.”

“Hm.” They walked on in silence for a few paces and then Sherlock said, “You didn’t fail, though. Highgrove said you saved four men that day.”

That day.”

Sherlock’s head went up in the habitual gesture he made when realization dawned. “They died later. In hospital?”

“Fred Blakely stepped in front of a train. Mike Miller and Al Patterson blew their brains out. Dave Nicholson can’t even recognize his wife and kids.”

Of course John would remember their names. “That’s not the same as failing to save them, John.”

“I know,” John said with some asperity. Sherlock was no closer to understanding, he realized. He didn’t want to talk about it any more, but it wasn’t fair to take it out on Sherlock, either, so he tried again to explain. “It’s not the same as failing, but it feels the same,” he said. “It feels worse, actually.”

Sherlock had no idea what he meant by that and couldn’t begin to guess. He knew that it upset John to talk about Delaram, but he’d known that before. Now, while still not grasping why, he’d apparently managed to do nothing but cause John more pain.

“I understand,” he said.


The Golden Sickle was a typical British pub. In fact, as a place designed to appeal mostly to tourists it could be more accurately described as a stereotypical British pub. The carved wood sign hanging over the door depicted a sickle painted in a glossy metallic gold color, entwined with little dark green leaves and white berries. Inside, the place was divided into two spaces: a deserted dining room in the front, dominated along the right-hand wall by a massive hearth flanked by two thickly padded arm chairs, and the pub itself in the back of the building, reached through a single door currently propped open with a wooden wedge. Sherlock veered toward the fireplace and they took up residence in the armchairs.

“What did you get from the box?” John asked.

“The map is Medieval. The paper it’s written on is made with real linen. In the Middle Ages they used linen rags in the manufacturing process. Much stronger and more durable than modern wood-pulp paper. If it were put in the box in, say, the late fifteenth century it would have no trouble surviving this long, as long as no moisture got to it.”

“So it was put there when? The Middle Ages?”

“Last week.”


“The paper itself is old. Centuries old. But it’s not original to the box.”

“Wait. The box is Iron Age. The paper is Medieval?”


“But it’s only been in the box a week.”

“Since Highgrove’s shepherd found it.”

“How do you know?”

Sherlock reached into his pocket and withdrew the little envelope.

John took it, held it up. “Is that a hair?”

“A blond hair.”

“I don’t get it.”

“That was in the box.”


Under the map.”

“So the map was placed there after the hair fell in. What does that prove?”

“Depends on whose hair it is, but Highgrove said they hadn’t touched a thing in the box, remember? That all they did was photograph the contents.”


“If that hair is modern, which I’m betting it is, then Highgrove’s still lying to us.”

“That’s why you need the lab? To tell whether the hair is modern?”

“To confirm that it is.”

“But it could be as old as the box.”

“I very much doubt it.”


“Because they didn’t have Clairol in the Middle Ages.”

John considered that briefly. “I still need a pint,” he decided.

When he had gone Sherlock pulled out his phone and researched directions to Bridgwater, the police report on McShane’s death, McShane’s obituary and photo in the local paper’s online edition, and everything he could find about Celts and druids. After about a half hour of that he pocketed the phone and pulled out the charts that John had printed the day before. He considered each set in turn and compared them to Highgrove’s photo of the map, unconsciously tapping his fingers and bouncing his knee as he did so. Eventually he folded the charts and tucked them back into his coat. He leant back in the chair, steepled his hands under his chin, closed his eyes, and sat listening to the noise from the tavern. An occasional thwack and the sound of cheering told him that a game of darts was in progress, and he wasn’t surprised when the game concluded with a universal groan of disappointment as the local representative lost. There was a lull, then a cheer, and John strolled in with a three quarters-empty pint glass of bitters in his hand and a smile on his face.

“Angry villagers with pitchforks in our future?” Sherlock asked.

John shook his head. “It was only for twenty pounds. I used it to buy a round for the house. We should be safe.”

“One of these days you’re going to run into a local darts champion and lose a match.”

“Yeah, some day. But not today.”

“Feel better?”

“Yeah. Let’s get out of here.”

They walked back down the hill and crossed the street to the hotel car park, on reaching which Sherlock said, as though only a few seconds had passed instead of nearly an hour, “You think saving them feels worse than failing because of what it did to them and what it cost you.”

John thought about that. “Yeah.”

“You didn’t want to leave the service.”


“If you hadn’t left the service you wouldn’t have met me.” He said it with no trace of irony and with all his trademark insufferable confidence.

John laughed. “That is a true statement.”

As they waited for the hotel lift John eyed a rack containing brochures for what looked like every tourist trap west of London, but he found five that related to Wookey Hole and the local area. These he carried up to the room, where he sat on the edge of his bed and leafed through them. Sherlock dressed for bed, went to the window, and heaved a discontented sigh. John knew what was coming.

“How do people sleep with all this…this silence?”

“I imagine they find it restful,” John said.

“It’s annoying.”

“Want me to go down and rev the car until you fall asleep?”

“Would you?”

“Listen to this, instead,” John said, waving one of the brochures. “There’s a legend about a witch living in the Wookey Hole Cave.”

Sherlock turned away from the window with a groan and dropped full length onto the other bed. “That’s not a real thing, John.”

“The witch used to curse the budding romances of village couples until a monk splashed holy water on her and turned her into stone. That was the story, anyway. Then in 1912 they found a one thousand year-old skeleton of a woman in the cave, and of course that just cemented the idea that a witch haunted it. Now they say that she guards the caves. But it also says that when you see the caves you’ll be too amazed by their natural beauty to be afraid.”

Sherlock dismissed the caves’ natural beauty with a flick of his hand and said, “Irrational. Witches don’t exist, and even if you accept the completely arbitrary premise that they do, is it the stone or the skeleton? It can’t be both. A is A.”

John tossed the brochures onto the desk and turned back the covers on his own bed. “Good night, Sherlock.”

Chapter Three

Sherlock leaned back from the microscope at the Science Center lab with a smile of satisfaction. “Take a look,” he said.

John peered in. “What am I looking for?”

“See the root end?”

“Yeah. It’s darker.”

“That’s the native hair color. It’s dyed blond. That’s about .63 centimetres of growth since the color was applied. Who do we know with blond hair and brown roots?”

“Highgrove and Larkin both have blond hair. I didn’t notice their roots,” John admitted a little sheepishly.

“John.” Disapproving. “Highgrove’s naturally blond and he wears a short military cut. Too short for a match with this sample. Larkin’s roots make it obvious that he dyes his hair, and the length is a match. Assuming a standard growth rate of about 1.3 centimetres per month, and based on the demarcation between the dye and the root, Larkin last dyed his hair blond about three weeks ago, which would be about two weeks before this hair fell into the box. Of course a DNA test would make a positive identification, so we’ll hang onto this in case the police get involved, but for our purposes I’d say we have a pretty solid basis for a working hypothesis that Larkin and probably Highgrove are involved in putting that map in the box after they opened it and arranging the other artifacts on top of it.”

“The shepherd might have had blond hair. Highgrove’s lied about a couple of things so far. Maybe he lied about whether he opened the box when the shepherd was around, or-” Sherlock’s expression stopped John in mid—career. “Which you already thought of.”

“Checked the police report and obituary last night, while you were embarrassing the locals. McShane had grey hair, much shorter than this.”

“What about the limewater? Highgrove said that the Celts used to dye their hair blond. How can you tell it’s a modern dye job?”

“Like this,” Sherlock said. He held up a little vial with a stopper, filled with a milky fluid. “Saturated solution of calcium hydroxide.”


“Limewater.” He ran his hand through his hair, produced a single strand, and fastened it to a slide. Drew the limewater into the dropper, deposited a drop on the hair. Clipped the slide next to the other under the microscope. Focused, then leant back again and made room for John. “Take a look.”

John peered into the glass.

“See the difference?”

“Yeah. Pretty dramatic, too.”

“What was Highgrove’s quote from Diodorus? That the limewater turned the Celts’ hair as coarse as a horse’s mane? No one would buy hair colouring if it damaged the cuticle like that. Of course, with the right equipment we could do even better: they didn’t use phenyl methyl pyrazolone in the Middle Ages, either, but for now this is all we need. Come on.”

Back on the A39 to Wookey Hole, Sherlock said, “We need to know more about that shepherd.”

“Like what?”

“Like whether he really died from a heart attack. The coroner didn’t bother ordering an autopsy; he just stampeded to that conclusion because McShane had a history of heart problems.”


“Wrong. Lazy.”

“I can access some of his records,” John said, reaching for his wallet, from which he withdrew his smartcard. “His SCR won’t show a lot, but it will list whatever meds he was on: allergies, stuff like that.”


“Summary Care Record.” Using his phone, John logged on to the NHS database and found McShane’s record. “Well,” he said, studying it, “he was taking some serious medications. Coumadin…that’s an anticoagulant for preventing blood clots and strokes. Suggests he had a stroke in the past, for them to put him on that.”

“The record doesn’t mention stroke specifically?”

“No. They can’t. They’re restricted to showing medications, allergies, things like that.”

Sherlock growled in frustration.

“Some people still value their privacy, you know. You should sympathize if anyone does.”

“He’s dead. He doesn’t need privacy. Anything else?”

“Bisoprolol. That’s a beta-blocker. Beta-blockers help protect against a second heart attack. They also interfere with stress hormones like epinephrine. Blocks them from binding to beta receptors in the heart muscle cells. Looks like…enalapril, too.” John looked up. “That’s an ACE inhibitor,” he added.

“Is that usual, to combine those drugs?”

“Oh, yeah. Not universal, though. Depends on the patient. They both treat hypertension. They just go at it in different ways.”

“Looking at that record, then, would you say it’s plausible that McShane could have died of a heart attack?”

“Yeah, no question. Or a stroke. Or ischemia. He was on some serious medication; must have had pretty serious heart disease. Hell, when it’s that bad, even coughing or vomiting can trigger an MI. In fact, ACE inhibitors themselves can cause coughing that can lead to one. But you don’t think he died of natural causes.”

“I think it’s extremely convenient for Highgrove that the man’s dead.”

“Come on. Highgrove’s insanely rich. Look at that estate. So he found an old box and some copper alloy. So what? Okay, yeah: I know it’s supposed to have some kind of historical value, but it doesn’t make sense that he’d kill someone over keeping that quiet. I don’t care what he says about keeping people off the place, either. With that kind of money he could easily put up a three-metre chain-link fence, razor-wire coils, and automatic machine gun emplacements around the entire perimeter if he wanted to.”

Sherlock smiled but without much humour. “He could. There’s something else going on here. Something that we’re not seeing yet. Something he wants beyond that cave and beyond that gold.”

John made one more call during the drive back to Wookey Hole, to Highgrove, to let him know that they’d be arriving soon to begin the search of the grounds.

Sherlock observed that looking for a tree or any other organic marker as a reference point would probably be pointless: anything alive when the map was created would be long dead. Instead they concentrated their efforts on every ravine and rocky prominence on the estate, and as these features were numerous and extensive, they needed to narrow the parameters of their search, a necessity which led back to the question of how to interpret the Ritual’s directions. The key part of it for the purpose of finding the presumed cave entrance and therefore any cache was what the Ritual called “the miller’s sack.” The power of the nearby River Axe had long been used to drive mill wheels. The area had been the site of a corn mill as long ago as 1086, whereas the first paper mill had not been built on the Axe until the 17th century, so they took as another working assumption that the Ritual referred to a rock formation shaped like a bag of grain, much as the ‘witch’ of Wookey Hole was a roughly human-shaped rock. Sherlock possessed little in the way of imagination when it came to such things; to his literal way of thinking rocks looked like rocks, so it fell mostly to John to decide whether a given formation might have suggested a bag of grain to a druid. Finally, they agreed to assume that the “miller’s sack” was an above-ground feature: there was no point in looking for something they couldn’t see.

By about three in the afternoon they were working their way through the second sector, which included the part of Lammas Wood that lay due north of the house, having dispensed with the first sector, in the western and northwestern zones of the estate.

“They’re about out of candidates in Lammas, sir,” Larkin observed as Highgrove strode into the security office where Larkin sat before four color monitors. The monitors’ screens were divided by the incoming video feeds into quadrants, with each quadrant receiving input from a different camera mounted somewhere on the grounds.

Larkin pointed to one of the camera feeds, where Sherlock and John could intermittently be seen working their way methodically through the trees. “Here, on Camera Eight. You’ll be able to see them again in about a minute. They’re working from north to south in a sort of modified grid pattern. Always perpendicular to the property line. Out and back. Never across.”

Highgrove grunted. “That’s a strip pattern,” he said. “No doubt Watson’s idea. Still the good soldier.” He glanced at his watch. “How long do you reckon it will take them to reach Smokham?”

Larkin considered “Well, at the rate they’ve been going, I’d say about another half hour? Forty-five minutes, maybe.”

“And they haven’t found anything yet? Haven’t stopped anywhere?”

“No, sir. Not other than to look around the ridges and ravines they’ve come across. But they don’t stay. Whatever they’re comparing the map to hasn’t seemed to match what they’re looking for.”

“Hm. Well, it’s just about tea time at any rate. Better run out and see if they’d like something.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll go now. The rest of the supplies are in the Rover, in case this goes the way we hope.”

“It will, Reggie. I know it will.”

John moved confidently and easily through the woods, enjoying the ramble and feeling invigorated by the crisp autumn air. Challenging himself to move as quietly as possible through the leaf litter gave him something other than Highgrove’s unpleasantness to think about, and he drew satisfaction from the scent of the damp, cool soil, from noting which way the breeze was blowing, and from the awareness that here their lives didn’t depend on that knowledge. He carried the charts and stopped periodically to make sure that they remained on Oldgroves, but by now he had a clear idea of the extent of the place, a very exact idea of where they were on it, and a much better sense of the scale of the map from the cist.

Sherlock’s understanding of the charts and the estate’s layout was as thorough as John’s, but he conceded John’s skill at orienteering as well as the wisdom of searching using the strip pattern, the orderliness of which helped soothe his nerves. And his nerves needed soothing. He was missing something important about Highgrove’s motive for involving them, he knew, and his failure to perceive it disconcerted him. He also very much disliked tramping through the woods. The great outdoors had established very early in the day a persistent tendency to nearly put his eyes out with branches, muddy his shoes, and snag his coat, and while he was as capable of observing details here as he was in the city, most of them were meaningless both separately and in aggregate. He was sadly bored and somewhat cross.

They reached the property line due north of the estate, followed it east for twenty metres, and turned south again, starting another strip. John had led them about fifteen metres into the woods when he said, “Sherlock.”


“There’s a game trail camera at your seven o’clock.”

“I know. That’s eight so far.”

“Great. I don’t suppose they’re Mycroft’s.”

Sherlock smiled. “Probably would be if he’d thought of it, but no. They’re Highgrove’s. Legitimate way to keep track of trespassers, but they’ll be monitoring us, now.”

Ten minutes later they reached the southern end of Lammas Wood and emerged into the open, untended land between it and Smokham Wood. There Larkin waited, sitting on the lift gate of a Range Rover. He hopped down when he saw them.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he called. “The Colonel asked me to meet you. It’s been rather a long day, and he thought you might like tea.” He stood aside to reveal a wicker hamper and an insulated carafe. “I brought sandwiches as well, if you’d like a bite.”

“Oh, that was nice of him,” John said.

“Yes, how kind,” Sherlock said coolly, eying Larkin and the offerings. “I don’t eat when I’m working.”

“Oh,” Larkin said. “Well, tea, perhaps? You must be thirsty.”

“Yes, thank you,” John said.

Sherlock accepted the cup Larkin held out. Sniffed it. “What kind of tea is this?”

“Oh, it’s an Egyptian blend,” Larkin said as he withdrew another cup from the hamper. “The Colonel found it in an Afghani market. It’s delicious, but something of an acquired taste because it’s naturally rather bitter. It takes a dash of sugar to make it palatable to anyone more used to English tea.”

“Sugar?” John said, disappointed. He was in fact quite thirsty. “Sorry, I’ll have to pass. I don’t take sugar.”

“I’m so sorry, sir,” Larkin said looking distressed. “I wish I’d known; I’d have brought coffee. Perhaps you’d like me to go get—”

“No, no. Don’t bother. Really, it’s no problem,” John said.

Sherlock sipped his tea experimentally, and either he was thirsty as well or he approved of the taste, because he drained the cup in short order.

“How’d you know where to find us?” John asked, and he was a little surprised when Larkin answered truthfully.

“Oldgroves is very well monitored,” he said. “We have camera installations throughout the property. It’s less expensive and less objectionable aesthetically than a fence. I hope that doesn’t make you feel as though you’ve been spied on. When the Colonel had tea this afternoon he asked me to see if I could find you and offer you something, and of course the fastest way to do so was to check the cameras.”

“I suppose with all the tourists it’s just about mandatory to have the place monitored,” John said.

“Very much so,” Larkin agreed. “More tea, sir?” This to Sherlock, who held out his cup to be refilled.

“Well, this has been lovely,” Sherlock said when he had swallowed the second cup with much the same celerity as he had the first. “Come on, John.” He turned abruptly and strode off.

“Uh—Sorry about that. Please tell the Colonel that we said ‘thank you,’” John said, and hurried after him.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Larkin called. “And good luck.”

Another half an hour of searching brought them to a large clearing in Smokham Wood. They stepped out of the trees from the north and paused. More or less in the center of the clearing rose a rugged limestone outcropping some twenty feet high, forty long, and about the same across. John compared the images on the charts to the rock formation, the relative position of the trees, and his knowledge of where the River Axe flowed to their south. Sherlock stopped to brush twigs from his hair and then, curling his lip and scowling, he picked irritably at a burr in his coat.

“If you keep doing that your face is going to get stuck that way,” John noted.

“That’s not physically—oh.”

John left him muttering about his coat and circled the rocks. By now he had the Ritual very nearly memorized, but he pulled out the scrap of paper and went through it again.

Where was it hidden?

South of the door

Take you two dozen

Steps on the floor

Seek out the miller

At break of day

At sunrise the miller’s sack

Will show you the way

At the sign of the goddess

Look low and then shove

Take heed of the guard

At the Druids’ gold trove

How much will you give?

It demands a great toll

If you will have the red gold

You must give it your all

Nope. He still didn’t get it. He made his way around the rocks to the south side and looked back at them—and suddenly his heart beat a bit faster. He stepped back, moved around to the east side and looked again.



“Come see this.”

Something in his tone made Sherlock abandon the burr and move quickly to see what he’d found.

“Look,” John said, pointing. “Those rocks. Would you say that looks like a person with a bag of grain?”

“I’d say they look like rocks.”

John sighed. “If you were a druid, would you think they looked like a person with a bag of grain?”

Sherlock considered. “Maybe. If I’d drunk enough mead.” He paced around the rock, observing it from several angles. “I suppose that upright bit could represent a miller, and that a bag of grain. ‘At sunrise the miller’s sack will show you the way,’” he added thoughtfully.

“If that’s the miller’s sack, how does it show the way?”

“Somewhere within these rocks is the entrance to the caves. At sunrise the angle of the light hitting the rock makes it apparent, or at least points to its location.”

“We’re not waiting until tomorrow morning, I hope.”

Sherlock shook his head. “We need a little artificial sun,” he said, and John produced his mini torch.

Sherlock pulled out his magnifying glass, got down on his hands and knees, and John shone the light onto the rock. Sherlock examined each fissure of the rock, pressed and prodded the stone, and finally he gave a little cry of triumph.

“Here,” he said, pointing. “Help me dig.”

John couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but he joined in, scraping turf and dirt away from the base of the rock that Sherlock had already started on. After nearly ten minutes of work they’d cleared a three-foot strip of soil and scree to a depth of about eight inches. John didn’t see how this profited them, but Sherlock was clearly pleased with their progress. He pushed against the rock and it shifted inward slightly—just a fraction, but enough for John to suddenly see what Sherlock had all along: that section of rock was a loose slab, separate from the surrounding rock. A doorway. Sherlock strained against the stone without much success, and John dropped the torch into his pocket and joined him.

The thick slab stood on a pivot down its center rather than a hinge on the side, like a primitive revolving door, but even with their combined efforts, after the first six inches they couldn’t shift it any further.

“It’s hung up on something,” Sherlock decided. He knelt again and began pulling handfuls of dirt away from the base of the stone. He reached under the slab and felt about. “A root.”

“Let me see,” John said, and unclipped his folding SOG knife from the front pocket of his jeans. He reached under the slab where Sherlock had been groping, found the root with his right hand, and with his left reached in with the knife.

“You’re going to ruin that knife,” Sherlock observed.

“I know. But it’s either this or I chew through it.” Sherlock opened his mouth to reply but John was already done. “There. That’s got it.” He wiped the knife carefully on his shirt, folded it, and clipped it back into his pocket.

They renewed their efforts and soon had an opening wide enough for John to slip through. His torch revealed a long, moderately sloping tunnel leading down into the darkness, worn smooth by centuries of use. With each of them pushing on their respective sides of the slab they soon rotated it 90 degrees from its original position, giving Sherlock enough room to follow John inside.

The exertion of moving the slab had them both breathing a little faster, but as they paused just inside the entrance John saw to his surprise that Sherlock was sweating in the cool air. He supposed that ten minutes of wrestling with a rock slab in that overcoat could very well explain the sheen on his face, but he had to ask. “You okay?”

“Hm? Fine,” Sherlock said distractedly, peering down the passage. He produced his own torch, clicked it on, and strode off into the darkness.

The tunnel was stone and while it was probably a natural feature originally, they could see that it had been enlarged and reinforced at some time in the distant past. There was enough room for them to go side by side, although not quite enough for them to stand fully upright, so they made their way down it in a half crouch. John for one was surprised by the humidity level below ground. The place was positively damp—but then the Axe ran not far from here and rainwater easily filtered down through the limestone, carving these very caves and tunnels, so perhaps it was not so very surprising after all.

The tunnel’s moderate slope terminated after about fifty feet on the level, packed dirt floor of a much broader, taller passageway. Here they could easily stand upright and they paused while John shone the light about. The passage branched away in both directions.

“Left at the fork, or right?” he wondered. “Sherlock?”

Sherlock was standing with his eyes squeezed closed and his head tipped back. John had occasionally seen him do something similar at crime scenes to eliminate visual cues while he concentrated on scent and sound, but this didn’t look quite the same. “Sherlock? What’s wrong?”

Sherlock opened his eyes, blinked several times, and shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Which way?”

“What does the Ritual say? ‘Where was it hidden?’”

“‘South of the door,’” John quoted.

“There’s the door,” Sherlock said, pointing back up the tunnel.

John shone the light to their left. “And that way’s south.”

“‘Take you two dozen steps on the floor.’” He started off, and when he’d counted twenty-four steps they stopped. The passage had opened up into a vast cavern and they were well inside it. Water pooled in scores of places on the stone floor and dripped down the walls. They could hear the river running its subterranean course some distance ahead, as well as smell the water, and stalactites and stalagmites, formed drop by drop over the millennia, studded the cavern.

John didn’t think that this was the place, but he glanced at Sherlock to see what he thought. Sherlock clearly was of the same opinion. “This isn’t right,” he muttered.

“Maybe we counted wrong?” Not ‘you.’

“We’ll have to go back. Start over.” Sherlock turned to go back but stopped suddenly, took a deep breath, then lurched away into the darkness and threw up.

“Jesus. Sherlock—” John began.

“I’m fine,” came the muffled reply, followed by renewed retching.

“Obviously,” John muttered.

Somewhat out of breath, Sherlock stepped a little unsteadily out of the darkness. “It’s nothing,” he said irritably as John regarded him with concern. “I’m fine.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“I ate something.”

“No you didn’t. You haven’t eaten anything all day.”

“Food isn’t the only way to pick up bacteria. Come on. Twenty-four steps.” He strode off, counting to himself as he went, and John followed, keeping his own count. When they reached the tunnel again Sherlock turned, frustrated anew. “That was twenty-four. What’s wrong with these people? What idiot drew that map? Did two dozen mean ‘thirty’ in the Middle Ages? ‘Twenty’?”

“I got thirty-two,” John said, frowning.

Sherlock stopped his agitated pacing. “Say that again.”

“I got thirty-two. I counted thirty-two steps back.”

Sherlock growled in frustration. “Of course!” he cried. “Oh, I’m thick! Thick!”


“Don’t you see? Twenty-four paces by a person from the Middle Ages. The average height of an adult male in the fifteenth century was 173 centimetres.”

I’m 173 centimetres.”

“Yes, obviously. The average height even of the nobility was slightly shorter than the average height of an adult male today. Of course the stride length would be different.”

“173 centimetres is not short.”

“Start counting. Exactly as you stepped them off before, on the way back here. Carefully.”

They stepped off the twenty-four paces with John leading. This brought them to two smaller branches in the passage which they’d passed on the way to the large cavern. The branch on the west side of the passage extended beyond the beam of their lights, but the one to the east dead-ended after just a few feet. It was a niche, not a proper cavern or passageway at all.

“‘Look low and then shove,’” Sherlock muttered, playing the light from his torch over first the floor and then the rock. “Look low…look low…Hah!” he cried. “Look, John.” He aimed the beam at a spot about four inches up from the floor. John could just make out a vaguely familiar curved shape carved into the rock, about two centimeters across. It was probably never very deep to begin with, and now it was barely visible even when Sherlock held the light at an oblique angle.

“Look familiar?” Sherlock asked.

“Yeah, but I can’t place it.”

“It’s the triskele pattern from the lead straps on Highgrove’s box. A ubiquitous Celtic motif.”

“Do you think that’s the ‘sign of the goddess’?”

“Yes. Among other things, the triskele symbolized a divine trinity, a ‘sister goddess,’ they called it.”

“The authors of the map carved it?”

“Possibly. Or it was already here and they just used it as a reference to count. Doesn’t matter.”

“So this is another hidden doorway?”

In answer Sherlock dropped to his knees and examined the rock on each side of the triskele with his glass in his right hand and the torch in his left until he found a crack in the stone that wasn’t a crack. “Here,” he said.

He pushed experimentally as he had with the cave entrance, and when he felt the resistance give way pushed harder. A slab of rock appeared, separating itself from the surrounding stone. John shook his head in admiration: It was so obvious now. Sherlock pushed the stone again, and while it was just as massive as the slab at the cave entrance this one ground relatively smoothly over the stone floor, which had clearly been worn down as a consequence of the slab being swept back and forth over it for centuries. Like the other, this crude door moved around a hidden center pivot.

Immediately beyond the slab door they found themselves in a chamber roughly ten metres long and nearly as wide. Chisel and other marks on the ceiling and high on the walls showed where the ancients had enlarged the chamber’s natural dimensions, so that now the slightly curved ceiling rose above them to a height of about three metres. Smooth, flat, roughly square limestone paving stones had been laid as a floor, now overlaid with a thick layer of dirt and dust.

At the far end of the cavern a dark, glistening line ran down the cave wall as water seeped from the rock. About a metre above the level of the floor a rough bowl had been carved out of the rock as a sort of primitive font, into which the water fell with long intervals between drops. The trickle kept the bowl filled, but in spite of the ambient humidity the drip rate was apparently balanced by evaporation so that the font never overflowed, because the ground below it was dry.

Before the spring and its bowl at the head of the chamber stood a massive rough-cut, flat stone slab about three metres long and one wide, orientated with the long axis of the room and laid atop four thick base stones about a metre high.

John approached the table and played his light over it. A hole about two inches in diameter had been drilled completely through the slab at its foot and he shone the light through it. “What was this, do you think?” he asked. “Dinner table?”

When Sherlock didn’t reply John turned to see what he was doing. Sherlock had stopped in the center of the room and stood doubled over with his with his arms drawn protectively around himself.

“Jesus,” John cried, and started toward him. “What’s wrong?”

Sherlock straightened at once. “I’m fine,” he gritted out through clenched teeth.

“Stop lying, dammit, and tell me what’s wrong.”



“You asked what that table is. It’s an altar.” He shook his head and pressed the heels of his hands over his eyes.

“For God’s sake—I don’t care about that. What’s wrong?”

Sherlock shrugged away from him and stepped a bit unsteadily toward the stone slab. He shone his torch at the head of the table, where a hole identical to the one at the altar’s foot had been drilled through the rock. “Still traces of rope fibres,” he noted, “where they tied their sacrifices down.”

“Oh, God,” John breathed.

Sherlock brushed the sweat from his eyes and shook his head again, but his voice sounded almost normal when he said, “John. Read that Ritual again.”

John recited.

“Where was it hidden?

South of the door

Take you two dozen

Steps on the floor

Seek out the miller

At break of day

At sunrise the miller’s sack

Will show you the way

At the sign of the goddess

Look low and then shove

Take heed of the guard

At the Druids’ gold trove

How much will you give?

It demands a great toll

If you will have the red gold

You must give it your all.”

Sherlock irritably paced the width of the room. “The guard,” he muttered to himself. “‘Take heed of the guard at the Druids’ gold trove…”

“What does that mean, ‘guard’?” John asked.

“I don’t know. There’s no one here now. Hasn’t been in ages.” He dismissed the guard with a wave of his hand. “We’ve been through the whole Ritual: the bag of grain, the steps, this chamber…So where’s the gold?”

He resumed pacing, and as he passed the foot of the altar he suddenly knelt and brushed at the dirt over the flagstones. He tapped experimentally with the butt end of the torch, his ear cocked toward the floor. “Here,” he said, when the tapping produced a hollow sound. He swept away more dirt until he’d revealed a flagstone of the same shape as the rest but somewhat larger, about two feet square.

John knelt down as well. “What is that?”

“Help me clear this away.”

They dug around the edges of the stone to a depth of about three inches, enough to reveal the lower edges of the two-inch thick slab. Sherlock hooked his fingers around the far side and pulled, but the stone barely moved. “A little help, here.”

“Get over,” John said, and he was a little surprised when the slab shifted relatively easily. Once he pushed it aside their torchlight showed that the slab had formed the lid of a stone-lined cavity some eighteen inches deep, filled with gold coins, ceremonial cups, a circlet of tiny hammered gold leaves with three round white moonstones set into it, and a long, thin, bone-handled sickle that looked as sharp as the day it was made.

Even in the harsh artificial light of their torches the gold had a faint reddish tinge to it. Sherlock drew his sleeve across his damp forehead, then looked across the box at John and smiled. “Red gold,” he said.

“We found it,” John said. “Now what? I hate to turn this over to Highgrove if he killed the shepherd.”

“With what we have now we can’t prove that he did,” Sherlock said. “In my experience local police forces aren’t typically receptive to a dislike of coincidences. They like to have facts that even they can’t ignore.”

“Yeah,” John agreed. “Well, let’s get out of here. We can work that out later. You look like the dog’s dinner. This case is over and you’re sick.”

“I’m not sick,” Sherlock growled, but it took him two tries to get to his feet, and when he did he stood swaying dizzily and looking stubborn.

John was fully acquainted with the fact that the worse Sherlock felt the harder he worked to deny and defy whatever ailed him, but while he was concerned for him on a personal level he knew as a doctor that there were any number of innocuous explanations for this sudden indisposition, and he wasn’t overly alarmed.

“Okay. You’re not sick. I can see that now,” he said dryly. “Let’s by all means not get you someplace where you can have a lie down.”

They’d crossed the chamber and were almost to the door when movement there stopped them in their tracks, and Lord Highgrove stepped into the room.

“Colonel,” John said in surprise.

“Captain Watson. Mr. Holmes,” Highgrove said. “I hope I didn’t startle you. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t wait. Reggie said he told you about the cameras: When I didn’t see you come out of the clearing it got my hopes up that you’d found something, and I just couldn’t take the waiting any longer.” He looked past them and pointed a big Maglite torch around the room. The beam stopped on the font and its little trickle of water. “The Spring of Rebirth,” he whispered. “This is it. It is, isn’t it? The trove. The ’gold trove’ the Ritual mentions? Is it here?”

Sherlock had drawn himself up when he saw Highgrove and now gave a creditable appearance of being perfectly all right. “Yes,” he said. “There’s a gold cache, in any case. It would be strange if it were a coincidence, and not the one the Ritual refers to.”

Highgrove hurried forward and knelt to peer into the cache. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Exquisite. What a find.”

He reached inside and withdrew the curved knife. John frowned: it seemed to him that the procedure for handling an important discovery like this ought to involve a more methodical approach for removing the items, but he supposed he was no expert.

Highgrove held the knife up with a reverent expression and cried, “The Morrigan approves.”

John had not the least premonition of danger. He was wondering what the hell a morrigan was when Larkin’s blow fell, catching him behind his left ear, and he pitched forward, senseless.

Chapter Four

When Sherlock’s brain registered John falling, understanding hit him like a cataract punching through a dam—when it was far too late to save them. The Golden Sickle Pub…the mistletoe depicted on the sign…the gold sickle in the cache…the moonstone mistletoe berries on the crown…his own sudden illness…“Gold is of all metals the most precious, and it is the tincture of redness”…Highgrove’s motive for involving them…All of it came in the heartbeat it took him to lunge forward, catch John’s arm, and break his fall.

A quick check of John’s pulse as he lay motionless reassured him, and he looked up in time to see Larkin drop the stone with which he’d struck John. Without a word he sprang at Larkin, but Highgrove was ready for that, and pinned his arms from behind. Highgrove had never been the warrior he wanted to be, but he nevertheless knew how to fight, and with Sherlock’s strength failing the Colonel easily countered his efforts to break free.

“I knew it,” Sherlock snarled when he had exhausted himself. “This was never about the caves and the gold.”

“Oh, it was about the caves and the gold, Mr. Holmes. But you’ve finally figured it out, have you? Why I wanted you here?”

“Seriously?” Sherlock panted. “Is that it? That’s your big plan? All that rot about the map, the druids, the gold…all to get you in here for some rubbish ritual?”

“No, Mr. Holmes. To get you here. The Ritual’s most important ingredients are you and Captain Watson.”

Sherlock furiously renewed his efforts to free himself, but Highgrove blocked his every move and waited patiently until he ran out of air and strength. If Highgrove hadn’t been holding him up he’d have been on his knees. “You’re out of your mind,” he gasped finally.

“Not at all. Transmigration of the soul was well known to the Celts. ‘They believe that the soul does not die, and that after death it passes from one body into another…for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.’ Julius Caesar wrote those words.”

“‘Spirits are commixed with it and by it fixed,’” Sherlock quoted.

“Exactly. The Morrigan has blessed this place. She approves of our offerings. The signs are everywhere. The very fact that you two came here together means that she’s given us her blessing. ‘The highest form of human courage.’ Did you know that they called Captain Watson ’Lionheart’ before Delaram?”

“You honestly think that killing John will transfer his courage to you?” Sherlock cried. “I’ve never heard anything so stupid in my life.”

“I know it will. ‘The soul does not die,’ Mr. Holmes. ‘After death it passes from one body into another.’ The druids knew it, my ancestors knew it, and I know it. Captain Watson’s courage and your intelligence are gifts from the goddess. Gifts from the Morrigan.”

“And of course you put mistletoe in the tea,” Sherlock said.

“Berries,” Highgrove agreed.

“John was supposed to drink it too, wasn’t he?”


“And the old man? You never cared whether he knew about the box. He was a test case, wasn’t he?”

“He lived a long life. It was important to know whether the dose was correct.”

“Where’d you really find the map? Tucked away in some old book?”

“The Oldgroves library,” Highgrove said simply. “I was after a volume on the top shelf one day. Started moving things about and found it pressed between the pages of a three hundred year-old accounts ledger. The legend of the cave and the gold have been in the family for generations, of course, but no one in living memory had ever seen the map and we always assumed that it had been lost long ago. I puzzled over it for two years before McShane found that box and I realized that I’d lucked into the perfect way to get the Ritual translated. I wasn’t lying when I said I envied Captain Watson,” he added. “I never had a chance to distinguish myself in battle, never got to prove my bravery the way he proved his.”

“You never will. You never could.”

Highgrove looked at Larkin, indicated John with a nod. “Get him tied up before he comes around.”

“No!” Sherlock shouted. “John! John!” He strained to get at Larkin, his face contorted with feral rage. “I will kill you if you touch him. John! Get up!

In moving around John with the rope Larkin briefly stepped within range and Sherlock lashed out with a kick that would have disabled him had it landed as intended, but Larkin was fast and Sherlock was slowed by the poison. Larkin turned so that Sherlock’s foot struck high on his outer thigh—a painful but not debilitating blow. In a flare of anger he back-fisted Sherlock, snapping his head to the side, and Sherlock slumped in Highgrove’s hands. Starbursts blazed in the darkness that crowded the edges of his vision. He fought to raise his head, but Larkin followed up with a straight punch, and if Highgrove hadn’t been holding him up Sherlock would have been face-down in the dirt.

The first thing that penetrated John’s awareness was the sharp, hard-edged pain in his head. Some instinct warned him to lie still, to keep his eyes closed and stay silent, and soon his conscious mind remembered why. He could feel the damp air on his face and smell the dirt, and he knew he was still in the cavern. Ropes bound his hands and feet. The memory of Sherlock’s illness and Highgrove’s unexpected arrival returned, and he could hear the Colonel and Larkin speaking and moving about behind him. Larkin: of course. Larkin had blindsided him. Just what reason they had for the treachery he couldn’t imagine, but figuring out the Colonel’s motive could wait. Freeing himself was the priority.

What really scared him was that he couldn’t hear Sherlock. The pain in his head was making him nauseous, but that fear focused his mind amazingly. He opened his eyes to the merest slits and assessed his position: He was lying on his side with his back to the altar, apparently still where he’d fallen. Shadows flickered and jumped about the walls and ceiling, but where he lay in the dirt he was mostly in shadow. Slowly he reached for the knife in his front jeans pocket, keeping his movements as small and unobtrusive as possible. If he attracted their attention before he freed himself, Sherlock, wherever he was, had no hope. Opening the knife was a two-handed process at the best of times. Now, with his hands bound as they were, he had to grip the haft in his teeth as he pried at the blade. He dropped it twice before the blade locked open with a soft snick.

“What was that?” Larkin whispered. He’d been dragging Sherlock’s body to the altar, but now he straightened and listened fearfully.

“What’s wrong now?” Highgrove demanded irritably.

“I heard something,” Larkin insisted.

Highgrove scoffed. “There’s nothing to hear,” he said. “Grab his feet and help me lift him. Toss me that rope. Get his feet tied. Come on.”

“There!” Larkin cried suddenly, and there was silence as both men stood still, straining to hear.

“I don’t hear anything,” Highgrove decided finally.

“It’s the witch,” Larkin whispered.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Larkin,” Highgrove cried. “That’s a rubbish myth someone made up to titillate tourists.”

“No, sir. No. The bones. Remember? They found her bones.”

“If they found bones then she’s dead,” Highgrove told him.

“But the Ritual, sir. Even the Ritual warns about her.”

“What are you talking about?”

“‘Take heed of the guard,’” Larkin said. “’Take heed of the guard at the druids’ gold trove.’ That’s what it says. That wasn’t written for tourists. It’s a thousand years old. The Ancients knew. They knew.”

“The Ancients knew that the Morrigan guarded the gold,” Highgrove replied. “The gold is hers. These offerings are hers. That’s the whole point: by using her own gold sickle in the transmigration ceremony we’ll have her blessing.”

“But if the guard is the Morrigan—” Larkin began.

“It is.”

“Remember Cuchulainn,” Larkin quavered. “Remember what she said to him. ‘It is at the guarding of thy death that I am, and I shall be.’ She never gives anything freely. The Ritual says so: ‘At the druids’ gold trove you must give it your all.’”

“Goddamn it, Larkin,” Highgrove cried in exasperation. “Will you listen to yourself? We’re not asking her to give anything freely. What do you call these two? Of course she demands a price, and they’re it. They’ll be giving their ’all’ in about five minutes. The Morrigan has already blessed this place. Everything that’s happened proves it: the spring, the gold, the sacrifices. That map was lost for centuries, but she led me to it. She led me to these men. What possible reason would she have for doing that if she didn’t approve? If she didn’t want us to carry on? Why would she do that if we didn’t already have her blessing?”


“No!” Highgrove snapped. “Get the chalice. That’s an order, Larkin,” he added, when Larkin hesitated.

Their chalice was a crudely made red-gold goblet of sorts which they’d found interred with the other relics. Larkin dipped it in the font, then stood at Highgrove’s right. Highgrove himself moved to stand at the head of the altar. Larkin handed him the goblet and Highgrove clutched it with both hands and raised it over his head.

“O phantom queen, goddess of strife,” he intoned.

“We praise you for the brilliance of your power

We honor the symbols of your strength:

The mighty oak that never bends

The raven that sees all

The wolf that destroys all who oppose her.

Goddess of death and rebirth, bless this water

That it may sanctify the offerings of your servants.”

He dipped his fingers into the cup and flicked the droplets over Sherlock’s insensate form, then drank from the goblet and passed it to Larkin, who likewise drank from it.

“The Waters of Rebirth,” Highgrove cried. He caught up the gold sickle and held it aloft, and with the thousand-yard stare of the fanatic in his eyes, he chanted.

“Goddess Morrigan, phantom queen:

We seek to walk in your footsteps

Goddess of the Old Times,

Goddess of our Mothers and our Fathers, speak to our hearts

Share with us and bless us, that we may become one with you.

We invoke thee, Morrigan, opener of every gate

Take this man’s wisdom and make it yours

And in so doing, bless your faithful followers

Share with us that wisdom, that we may follow you more truly

So that we may purify ourselves and become worthy in your eyes

We offer you this man in sacrifice

We give you the blood of his heart.”

Highgrove shifted his grip on the sickle.

John only half-listened to Highgrove and Larkin; his focus was on freeing himself before they took any notice of him. Before they killed Sherlock. His hands were sticky with blood where he’d cut himself and their muscles cramped from the unnatural angle at which he had to grip the knife, but when the words blood of his heart reached him he knew his time was up. He bore down on the ropes with concentrated fury and suddenly he was through. He didn’t bother trying to free his feet. He dropped the knife and reached behind his back for the Browning under his coat, then pushed himself up onto his knees as he turned to face the altar.

Highgrove and Larkin had placed two common outdoor oil torches of the sort people sometimes used in their gardens, one on each side of the head of the altar, and each man wore a cowled, rough-woven black robe. John would have laughed at the absurdity of it all had Sherlock not been trussed hand and foot to the stone slab, inert, his face slack. In the uncertain light cast by the torches John couldn’t tell whether he was breathing or not.

John made himself slow down, made himself think and be certain of his aim, and then he smoothly squeezed the trigger. The oil vessel of the torch between Highgrove and Larkin disintegrated. The noise of the shot, horribly loud in the confined space, made both men start violently. Larkin dropped the chalice with a terrified gasp.

“Get away from him,” John rasped, swinging the gun to cover Highgrove, who stood with the knife poised above Sherlock’s throat.

“That’s not going to happen, Captain,” Highgrove replied, and something in his manner, something in the euphoric, distracted way that he spoke reminded John ineffably of junkies he’d seen in City hospitals.

“The Morrigan has blessed this place,” Highgrove went on. “She’s blessed me. She expects a tribute and I’m going to give it to her!” He grabbed a fistful of Sherlock’s hair and jerked his head back. The pain of having his hair pulled began to bring Sherlock around and he groaned—a huge relief to John, who until that second hadn’t been sure whether he was alive or dead.

No!” John yelled. “Let him go! Move that knife one more time and I swear to God I will kill you.”

“You don’t understand, Captain,” Highgrove said, still clutching Sherlock by the hair. “The Morrigan needs you and your friend. She needs your blood. I need it. Transmigration requires it.”

“Throw down the knife and get away from him. So help me God, Colonel—”

Suddenly the remaining torch whipped violently, and as it did a low, ethereal moan filled the cavern, rising and falling erratically.

John didn’t know what the hell the noise was, but its effect on Larkin was immediate and profound, and a way to exploit it came to him at once. “You hear that, Larkin?” he said grimly. “You know who that is, don’t you?”

Larkin stared past him, aghast. “No,” he whispered.

“Yes. How do you think I got free?” John said. “I had help. Her help.” He raised his voice and cried, “‘Rash beyond all reason, why comest thou to look on me?’ You know what that means, don’t you, Larkin? The guardian is coming. She’s coming for you. Can you hear her?” The low moaning, sighing noise rose in volume once more.

No!” Larkin screamed, and bolted toward John. John very nearly shot him, but Larkin fled past him, out the chamber door, in a frenzy of blind terror.

When he realized that he wasn’t Larkin’s target John quickly swung back to cover Highgrove. The Colonel had dropped the sickle and he too stared past John at the weirdly dancing shadows at the back of the cavern. Again the sighing moan filled in the room. The torch flame whipped violently and nearly went out.

“No,” Highgrove half-sobbed. “No. No! The Ritual…I did everything right…The spring…the sacrifices… Goddess of strife…Goddess of…” he began in a choked voice, but he couldn’t finish the prayer. He edged toward the chamber door, staring wide-eyed into the shadows dancing at the back of the cave, and then his nerve failed and he ran.

John turned with him, pivoting on his knees to keep him covered with the gun, and out of the corner of his left eye he thought he saw movement. He swung toward it but there was nothing there. Just the shadows cast by the erratically flickering torch.

He stowed the gun, grabbed the knife, and slashed the ropes binding his feet. Awareness of his headache returned with a vengeance once he stood up. Blood dripped liberally down his neck behind his ear and soaked his shirt as he stumbled to the altar, where Sherlock was trying feebly to raise his head. John saw at once that he was much sicker now, and livid bruises were forming where Larkin’s fist had made contact. Once freed from the ropes Sherlock turned away from John, hung his head over the side of the altar, and threw up.

“I know the feeling,” John said, cutting the ropes that held his feet. “We have to get out of here. You okay?”

“No,” Sherlock gasped.

“What’s wrong?”




“Phoratoxin? What are you—”

“The tea.”

“Oh, God,” John said, realizing. “There was phoratoxin in—they poisoned the tea?”


“That’s it. We’re going. Come on,” John said urgently, helping him to sit up. “They’re gone now, but they could come back. We gotta get you to hospital. Can you walk?”

“You’re bleeding.”

“Don’t worry about it.”


“Forget about that. Can you walk?”

“Of course,” Sherlock said, with a trace of his wonted asperity. But he could barely stand, and John had to support him out of the chamber. As they approached the cavern exit Sherlock suddenly shied; at the time John assumed he had stumbled, but the instant they emerged into the passage Sherlock broke away from him and threw himself against the slab door. He couldn’t shift it.

“Help me,” he cried.

“Leave that, for God’s sake,” John said. “It doesn’t matter.”

But Sherlock continued to heave futilely at the door. “Help me,” he cried again, and John pushed the door closed for him.

Sherlock sagged against the rock wall, but John was desperate to get him out of the caves and unwilling to let him stop: Whether he rested or not he would only get sicker. “Come on,” he said impatiently. “We have to go.”

Sherlock shook his head. “No,” he said. “Listen.”

“Listen to what? Sherlock—”

Listen,” Sherlock insisted, and then John heard it, too: The noise came from far to the south, within the big cavern where the River Axe coursed swiftly in its bed: shouting, a scream, and two distinct splashes. Then only Sherlock’s labored breathing broke the subterranean silence.

“Jesus,” John whispered.

“‘It demands a great toll,’” Sherlock recited.

“‘You must give it your all,’” John replied.

“They did give their all,” Sherlock said contemptuously. “May it profit them.” He pushed himself away from the wall but a sudden stab of pain made him stagger and he fell back with a cry.


“I’m fine,” Sherlock said automatically, but the pain doubled him over. When it receded enough for him to stand upright—it seemed to come in waves, like the nausea—John helped him along the passage and then up the tunnel, and they stepped out into the cool, clear dusk. The wind tossed the tree branches and swirled the dry leaves at their feet.

Even with John half-carrying him the effort required to get up the slope left Sherlock exhausted and blowing, but John refused to let him stop and steered him at once for the manor house and their car. A direct route there would take them through part of Smokham Wood. If he could get Sherlock to the edge of the woods he could bring the car across the fields to him, and he thought that on balance the direct route through the trees would be faster than the more forgiving path around them.

And they were running out of time. Sherlock was failing rapidly. He stopped twice to throw up before they were halfway through the woods, and each episode sapped what little strength remained to him. After the second bout his legs folded under him and he sank to the ground in spite of John’s best efforts to keep him on his feet.

He knew what was happening to him. “’taxia,” he gasped.

“I know,” John said. “I’ll help you. Come on. Just a little bit farther. We’re almost home.”

John tried to get him up again, but it was immediately apparent that Sherlock was through. The poison had drained the power from his muscles, and although his mental toughness matched anything John had ever seen in special forces troops, his body simply could not obey the command of his will. He lay on his side, his eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of pain and anger.

“Hurts,” he admitted reluctantly as John knelt beside him.

“I know,” John said, trying to keep the distress from his voice. “I know it does. Listen: Fifty metres to the end of this wood, and then you can rest. I can bring the car to you. But we have to get out of here. Understand?”

A nod.

“You’ve gotta stand up for me.”

A shake of the head.

Yes. Sherlock, mate, I know it hurts, but the longer we take now the worse it’ll be for you later. Come on.” He drew Sherlock’s arm around his shoulders again, lifted, and brought him to his knees. Sherlock by this time was almost completely incapable of helping.

“Come on, Sherlock,” John urged. “You just had to have two cups of tea. At least give me a hand, here.” He received only a low groan in reply. “On three,” John told him. “When I say ‘three,’ you stand. Got it?”

John took a deep breath, braced himself, and counted. “One…two…three. Now, Sherlock. Stand up!” he cried.

Sherlock really tried—John could feel it—but it was nothing like enough. John took nearly all of his weight himself, and in spite of his lean build he was dismayingly heavy. There was no longer any question of him walking out of the woods, assisted or not. His head lolled against John’s shoulder and his knees buckled. There was only one thing for it.

“You’re not going to enjoy this, mate,” John said, “but we’re running out of options. Here we go.” He caught Sherlock’s wrist, ducked under his arm so his shoulders were under his chest, then pulled Sherlock’s arm down and over his shoulder. He hooked his free arm around Sherlock’s legs and staggered with him the rest of the way out of Smokham Wood. Once he reached the tended lawn he stopped, knelt, and reversed the process he’d used to lift him, carefully settling him in the recovery position: If he vomited again before John returned that would give him the best chance of not aspirating it.

“Don’t go away,” John said, not sure whether Sherlock even heard him. He raced for the car, and as he bumped back across the lawn with it he saw without much surprise that Sherlock, still stubbornly fighting, had somehow heaved himself back up onto one elbow. That made it marginally easier to get him up and into the passenger seat, where he slumped against the door, his head hanging, his eyes squeezed closed, and a fixed expression of misery on his face.

As he drove John dialed 999, identified himself, relayed via the emergency service what the hospital should expect, and told them to stand by with a gurney, IV fluids, cathartics, vasopressors.

By the end of the fifteen minute drive to the West Mendip Community Hospital Sherlock had stopped responding to John’s voice, but the ER staff took him quickly in hand. John was urged into an adjoining room to get his still-bleeding scalp laceration sutured, while Sherlock received epinephrine to counteract the low blood pressure that had made him so dizzy and nauseated, IV fluids to flush the toxins from his kidneys, and, against John’s best medical advice, provided gratis to the doctor, an NG tube through which an activated charcoal slurry was poured. Within half an hour his symptoms abated enough for him to realize what was being done to him, and by whom.

John’s first hint that he was feeling better came when a woman screamed, followed instantly by voices raised in alarm and anger, something metal clanging hard against the wall, and Sherlock’s voice, not very strong but utterly adamant, rising above the general uproar. “Get out!” he shouted. “Get out! John!” John broke away from the doctor suturing him at the first shriek and hurried next door as the screams and shouts intensified.

Sherlock was sitting up on the gurney, breathing hard and looking furiously indignant. Blood streamed from his nose. He gripped the NG tube in his right hand and the terrified doctor’s wrist in a joint lock with the other. Two nurses and a male orderly formed a semi-circle around the little tableau and were exhorting him to let the doctor go, but no one quite dared to approach the violent lunatic. John shoved roughly through them into the center of the little room and interposed himself between the warring sides, but when he spoke it was in a low voice that forced the others to stop clamouring in order to hear him.

“Sherlock,” he said quietly, looking not at the outraged detective but at the nurses and orderly. And when the doctor stumbled back, gasping and cursing and cradling his hand, he said to the man, still in that low, calm voice, “What did I tell you when he came in? I said, ’Don’t tube him; he’ll get combative.’ I’m sorry, but I did warn you. Please. Just…let me take care this. Go. All of you. Please.”

When they hesitated, looking doubtful, Sherlock waded back in. “John, how would you evaluate the professional ethics of a married ER doctor who carries on simultaneous affairs with three nurses and a male receptionist?”

Sherlock!” John cried, but the rhetorical question very effectively cleared the room, although an equally noisy new dispute arose at once in the corridor.

Sherlock didn’t have time to look smug before John rounded on him. “Dammit, Sherlock, I was in the middle of having my scalp sutured. Those people were doing their jobs.”

“And disregarding your instructions.”

“You didn’t know that—and anyway, I’m not in charge here!”

“You are now.” Sherlock couldn’t keep the note of triumph from his voice.

John closed his eyes. He counted to three, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that Sherlock quailed in the face of his profound irritation, he was reduced to sulking at the floor, and he accepted without objection the glass of fluid John handed to him. “Drink that,” John ordered, and when he finished John exchanged the glass for a wad of tissues and said, “Mop yourself. Give me your hand.”

Sherlock offered his right hand, palm down, and John reinstalled the IV needle that he’d pulled out mid-tantrum. “Leave it alone now,” he said, not unkindly. “You need the fluids if you want to keep your kidneys.”

“What did I just drink?”

“Oral suspension of sorbitol. Lie down before you pass out again.” Sherlock complied, curling onto his side and drawing up his knees. John threw a blanket over him and regarded him thoughtfully. Now that Sherlock’s temper had ebbed he looked perfectly wretched: His face was grey and lined, his eyes red-rimmed. “How’s the pain?”


“Scale of one to ten.”




“Scale of—”




“I’d ask about the ataxia but you’re obviously strong enough to assault the staff.”

“I didn’t—”

“Shut up. Think you can let me finish getting stitched now?”

Sherlock closed his eyes. “Keep them out.”

“It’s a hospital, Sherlock. They’re nurses. They work here.”


“Be quiet until I get back. Fifteen minutes. If their lawyers get here before I do you’re on your own.”

Three hours later they were discharged, exhausted, dirty, and unlamented. Under his bruises Sherlock was paler than usual and certainly quieter, but he walked out under his own power holding an ice bag gingerly to his face. John’s stitches were covered with a plaster and the dispensary had given him something effective for the headache. Of the two of them he was the only one in any condition to drive.

Back at the hotel Sherlock crawled tamely into bed and settled in with a groan. John cleaned himself up as well as he could, then climbed gratefully into his own bed and clicked off the lamp. Silence and darkness settled over them.

The room was beginning to swim in a very pleasant fashion as sleep rose up to meet John when Sherlock’s voice recalled him.



“Please go rev the car.”


They missed the first two trains from Bath station. Both of them slept past the first, and John let Sherlock sleep past the second, so it was early afternoon before they left the hotel. While John queued up to buy their tickets Sherlock returned the car, then phoned his brother.

“I am sorry, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, when Sherlock had covered the high points of the adventure for him, and when he’d agreed to officially handle the question of Highgrove’s disappearance. “I had no idea that something so simple on its face would turn into such a debacle.”

“Oh, please.” Sherlock paced the platform with unconcealed tension. “Do you expect me to believe that you had no idea Highgrove was a superstitious flake? Surely that’s in his file somewhere, marked with a little sticky tab. Perhaps labeled ‘N’ for ‘nutter’?”

“I have neither the time nor the inclination to memorize the service records of every one of Her Majesty’s troops,” Mycroft said loftily.

“No, but you might have dug a little deeper with this one since you were so desperate for us to get involved with him.” Sherlock glanced over to confirm that John was still at the ticket counter, then dropped his voice to a fierce whisper anyway. “You know as well as I do how much John hates anything to do with Delaram, and Highgrove never got off it. That’s all he’d talk about. You might at least have thought of that.”

“Yes, Sherlock, because I’m clairvoyant and I knew three days ago that Highgrove would choose that as a conversation starter. As far as that goes, you were there. Why didn’t you shut him up?”

“I tried. That’s not the point.”


“Well, what?”

“What is your point?”

“I think it’s that we’re through taking any more cases you steer our way.”

“What about taking a holiday?”

“What the hell does that mean?” Sherlock demanded irritably.

“It means that you might like to consider John before you finalize your new policy.”

Sherlock stopped pacing and the colour rose in his cheeks. “Me? I might consider him? Mycroft—”

“He’s due for a break, Sherlock. A little time off in the country at no cost to either of you. The gift of a grateful nation. I’d originally hoped that this case would provide it for him, but of course I had no idea that your ‘nutter’ would over-face you.”

“Over—?” Sherlock was nearly speechless with indignation. “I wasn’t ‘over-faced,’ Mycroft. I knew about the murder, the map—”

“Yes, bravo. Congratulations. You got everything right except the part where you voluntarily swilled the poison he gave you.”

“You’re right. How stupid of me not to have figured it out. The obvious motive for so much twenty-first-century crime is druidic ritual sacrifice to transmigrate souls.”

John approached with the tickets at that point and easily deduced from the level of sarcasm and rancor that Sherlock was speaking with his brother. He held out his hand for the phone. “Let me talk to him,” he said.

Sherlock handed the phone over with a grin: Mycroft was going to catch it now.

“Mycroft.” John’s voice was terse.

“John,” Mycroft said smoothly.

“Don‘t ’John’ me, dammit.” His dead-on mimicry of Mycroft’s tone made Sherlock snort. “That ‘friend of a friend’ rubbish you used to suck us into this case nearly got us both killed yesterday.”

“That’s an exaggeration, surely. You had a gun—”

“A gun’s no good against phoratoxin!” John shouted, to the delight of Sherlock and the consternation of several bystanders. “Your brother was about forty-five minutes from respiratory arrest. If we’d been much farther from civilization…Do you think I run around with vasopressors and gastric lavage equipment in my pockets?”

“John, I really am sorry. Please.”

John stood glowering, his mouth a tight line.

“I’d like to make it up to you,” Mycroft said.

John snorted derisively. “Oh, this I gotta hear.”

“Sherlock’s due for a break, John. You know he is. I’d hoped that this case would provide you both with something a little less…hard core, shall we say? I had no idea that it would end so distressingly.”


“What would you say to a genuine holiday? On the house, as they say. The gift of a grateful nation. Get you both out of London for a while. You know he needs some time away.”

“Uh-huh. And we’ll discover your ulterior motive for offering this when?”

“Has living with Sherlock really made you that cynical, John?”

“No. Getting to know his brother has made me that cynical. Goodbye, Mycroft.” He handed the phone back to the thoroughly delighted Sherlock. “He wants me to take you on holiday.”

“Really,” Sherlock drawled. “He wants me to take you on holiday, too.”

They were thirty minutes into the journey home when Sherlock suddenly opened his eyes and sat up. “‘Rash beyond all reason, why comest thou to look on me?’’” he said.

“What?” John said, startled.

“Where’d you come up with that line?” Sherlock asked.

“Oh. Those brochures I found at the hotel,” John said. “That was something the Wookey Hole Witch was supposed to have said to the clergyman they sent after her, to stop her putting curses on village romances. You heard that, huh? I thought you were out of it then.”

“I just remembered it. Not bad.”

“Yeah. Sometimes it’s like that. You think of the oddest things at the oddest times.”

“Mm. How did you know it would work?”

John laughed. “I didn’t. I didn’t know what Larkin was looking at, or thought he was looking at, but that noise really pushed him over the edge. At that point I think it would have worked if I’d told him flying monkeys were coming to get him.”

Sherlock blinked. “Flying monkeys?”

“Never mind. You know, I wonder if those guys were…”


“Yeah. I wondered about it at the time, but you know how it is. A thing flashes through your brain and then it’s gone and you never follow up on it. Or maybe you don’t know how that is,” he added, because Sherlock was eyeing him skeptically.

“If they ever recover the bodies I wouldn’t be surprised if the tox screens showed high levels of some entheogen,” Sherlock said. “Psilocybin, maybe. That’s a fast-acting one. Not hard to come by.”

“Magic mushrooms.”

“Drug-induced paranoia, panic, terror,” Sherlock said. “Blundering about in that pitch-dark cave, one of them runs into the other. Each assumes he’s just been caught by their ‘Wookey witch,’ attacks the other, and it’s all over but the drowning.”

John nodded thoughtfully, then said, “You heard it, right? That kind of ‘wooo’ thing? Got any theories on what that was?”



“Really, John. Those caves are riddled with anfractuosities. It was a breezy day. Obviously the cave contained at least one natural flue that communicated with the outside, and the wind blowing across it created the noise.”

“Like blowing across the mouth of a bottle.”


“Huh. But we were in there for half an hour, and that was the only time we heard the noise.”

“Maybe the wind veered. It probably has to come from a certain direction to produce the effect.”

“Good timing, anyway. Would have been a PR nightmare to have shot them.”

Sherlock grinned. “Would have served Mycroft right if we’d dropped that in his lap.”

John smiled at the thought, and then in replaying that part of the case another question occurred to him. “Why were you so desperate to get that door shut?”

“What door?”

“To the chamber.”

A shrug. “I’d been poisoned. I wasn’t acting rationally.”

John narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but Sherlock was giving him nothing. “Did you see something in that cave?”


“Yeah. Something.”

“Can you be any less specific?”

“Anything, then. Did you see anything? Is that why you wanted that door closed?”

“For God’s sake, John,” Sherlock said disgustedly. “You mean, did I see the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’? How could I see something that doesn’t exist?”

“I didn’t say it—”

“You’re a doctor: You know that one of the effects of phoratoxin is impaired vision.”

“But you acted like you saw something when—”

“John. The only thing I could see in that cave were two frightened men. And you.”

They spent that evening, as they did more evenings than most people who knew them would have guessed, reading quietly. A fire flickered and snapped in the fireplace. John chose The Nutmeg of Consolation, Sherlock an organic chemistry journal. As he read, Sherlock maintained what John called a listening watch on his surroundings, which in this case constituted the flat, of course, but mostly John, and they’d been sitting silently for three quarters of an hour when he became aware that John hadn’t turned a page in eight minutes. Sherlock gave no sign of having noticed, but he wasn’t surprised when three minutes later John laid the book aside.

“Listen,” he said, with uncharacteristic hesitance. “Um…You asked me why it bothered me when Highgrove talked about Delaram like he did.” He paused, cleared his throat. “That was a bad day, and I didn’t like hearing him act like it wasn’t. I didn’t like talking about why, much, either. I still don’t. There’s something else I’d like to explain, though, if…?” He glanced at Sherlock.

Sherlock set aside the magazine and turned his full attention on John.

“I loved the army,” John said. “Loved it. Not the war. That was horrible, of course. Unspeakable, sometimes. But I loved the army, and I didn’t even know why until I came home.” He paused again, gathering his thoughts.

“The first time I met your brother he said I was going to crime scenes with you because I missed the war. He was wrong. I didn’t miss the war; nobody sane does that. I missed how people behaved in it. I know it’s a cliche, but you never knew from one second to the next…” He stopped, looked down at his hands, and when he went on his voice was tight. “Did you go to the latrine at the wrong time? Bend over to tie your shoe? Stand up from tying your shoe? Get into the wrong chow line? Sometimes things like that made the difference between dying or seeing another day.”

He stopped again, and Sherlock waited. John was staring into the fire and Sherlock knew he was seeing something far away from Baker Street, but when he spoke again his voice was almost normal, although he didn’t look up from the flames.

“You’d think that would be a horrible way to live, but people in a combat zone treat each other better. Words mean something. Most people—civilians, I mean—they treat each other like rubbish. They lie, they say things they don’t mean, promise things they won’t deliver…Those things that military men talk about, like honor, respect, integrity…brotherhood…Things people laugh at. If you’re not afraid of being killed while you’re watching telly they’re optional. In a combat zone they’re mandatory. Here—” he gestured to take in the whole city “—people don’t take life as seriously, because most of them don’t walk around thinking that it might be taken away.”

“In the army I didn’t think about any of that. It was just how we were, and all I knew was that whatever we were doing, it felt right, like it was the right way to live. The way things should be. When I got back to England and that was gone it was hard to take. It felt like I’d lost something important. People just go along, caring about what brand of shoes some celebrity wears, which politician got caught with his pants down this week. I hated it. I hated that…” He gestured vaguely, searching for the right words.

“Unthinking frivolity,” Sherlock supplied.

John looked at him in surprise. “Yeah.” He frowned. “How do you do that?”



Sherlock shrugged. “I’m listening,” he said, and when John looked skeptical he added defensively, “It happens.”

John smiled. “Yeah. Unthinking frivolity. Anyway, I hated it. Ella said it would take time to get used to civilian life, but I didn’t want to get used to it. I didn’t want to lose what I had in the service. But I had no idea how to get it back.”

“What did you have in the service?”

“A mission. Something to fight for as hard as I could, and someone to do it with. We had a common goal, and our only reason for being there was to help each other accomplish it.”

“And you still miss that.”

“No,” John said, meeting his eyes. “Not for about six years now.”

Sherlock stared at John then with an expression that John had seen many times, though never before directed at him: the expression that said Sherlock was wondering how he could have been so dense for so long, the one that said he was looking at a puzzle to which he’d just been handed the key.

To the extent that he thought about it at all, Sherlock, like his brother, had believed that John missed the war, and that missing it was a necessary and sufficient reason for his singular and otherwise inexplicable willingness to join in Sherlock’s adventures. He remembered the day he’d returned to London from self-imposed exile, remembered Mycroft telling him that John had “moved on with his life,” remembered scoffing, “What life? I’ve been away.” He’d been so smugly, insufferably confident that he knew exactly why John stuck around. After four years and all the evidence to the contrary, he’d still seen John as he was when he’d met him: withdrawn and isolated. Six years since their first meeting, and it finally dawned on him tonight: John was alone in those days because he and Sherlock, in spite of their very real differences in mind, body, and habits, were in one fundamental way very much alike.

Sherlock lived his life very effectively alienating people because he utterly declined to compromise: He held himself apart, neither making nor accepting overtures of friendship, because he had learnt at a very young age that involving himself with people led invariably to demands that he bridle his cleverness, throttle himself back to the pace of the herd, or deviate from the reason that he valued above all else. He not only declined to comply but passionately resented any request to do so. John never deliberately drove people away in Sherlock’s style, but in those days he, too, held himself apart: Not because he was desperate or needy or weak, but because he was every bit as strong as Sherlock, every bit as unwilling to abandon his values. Each of them, for his own reasons, had been strong enough to remain alone until he encountered the one man he could have met who not only never asked him to compromise, but who firmly rejected the desirability of doing so. The one man who expected, needed, and reveled in the very best he had to offer.

Most people underestimated John Watson. John sometimes underestimated himself. Sherlock, too, had made that mistake in their very first case together, but one of the many attributes on which he prided himself was his ability to avoid making the same mistake twice. With real chagrin he realized that he’d badly misjudged John again.

John finally couldn’t take the staring any more. “What?” he said.

“I…apologize,” Sherlock said.

John regarded him warily. “Okay. Why?”

“Your limits, John. I don’t think I’ll ever get your limits. At least, I hope not.”

“What does that mean?”

Sherlock didn’t answer, and John knew that expression, too: the one that said the cryptic reply was all he’d ever get. He sighed and stood up. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

Sherlock smiled as he watched him go. “Good night,” he said, and then added very quietly, far too quietly for John to hear, “Lionheart.”

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