They said it was a bad idea. They said it could be dangerous. The place was haunted – the old tower, or what was left of it, the neglected rose garden, bristling up with thorns, and the surrounding woods, gloomy and unwelcoming. And there was… a man, Molly told him, a very handsome man. She was the only one of the Barts team on vacation who had ventured a walk to this spot, despite the local rumors, because why would a girl who worked in the morgue be afraid of ghosts and decay?
"Since when are you so easily frightened away by handsome men?" John asked her, amused. She didn't seem to appreciate the joke.
This man asked Molly if she were a witch and regarded her with inquisitive slanted eyes. Then he told her about the colour of her skin and the way she squinted in the bright sun – too much time spent in cold rooms with no daylight. He told her she worked with the dead. And that she had a cat – witches do have cats. "Have I got anything wrong?" he asked.
Molly said she wanted to see him again, but was afraid to. He was not… human. Not a ghost either. She felt he could lure her into dark places with no way out. She always had a vivid imagination, poor romantic thing. "Maybe… maybe it was just a dream?" she murmured, hesitantly. "He couldn't be real."
John didn't make any comments. Probably it was just a village guy who liked to show off, all mysterious. And if he wasn't… All the more interesting.
So he went to the woods, alone. Looking for trouble, and he found it.
The man appeared out of nowhere. There was no one around – and the next moment, when John was about to pick a blazing red rose for Molly, a tall figure was standing right next to him. A black cloak, John noted to himself, and black clothes, clearly not modern, more of a medieval fashion. A historical reenactor, perhaps?
And then he looked in the man's face, otherworldly pale, and the gaze of these bright eyes made him freeze in place, spellbound.
"Is there a war in the East?" the stranger enquired.
He knew everything, this man. Molly was right. He knew of John's military past, his work as a "healer", and many other things. It was fascinating.
John asked for his name, and the man's lips twitched slightly, "That's not what people usually ask me."
"What do they ask you, then?"
"Hm. Often, they ask me to predict their future, which is most stupid of them – it's not in my powers, only the king and the queen can do these tricks. Some ask me to take them with me, to the fairies. Which is even more stupid."
"Because you can't?" John assumed, mesmerized by this rather peculiar conversation one could have in a dream.
"Because I can."
"So you are… er… one of the fairy folk?" John went on, in the same casual tone, joining the game. "But you say it would be stupid to go with you. Why? I thought it was fun. Living with the fairies."
"Oh they do have fun," the man said with sudden bitterness. "The fairies. But not the humans whom they own. And oh, I haven't answered your question. Apologies. The name is Sherlock Holmes."
John woke up at dawn when the shadows had become long and oddly shaped. He was sitting at the half-ruined steps of the tower, his cane leaned to the grey wall, chipped by time and weather. A dream, then. Just a dream. Probably provoked by Molly's story and all those legends of this place…
But the strange name stuck in John's mind, and when he returned to the hotel, he decided to browse it. The twilight grew thicker, and the fluorescent shimmer from his laptop's screen was the only source of light in the darkened room. Maybe that was why he had a strange feeling that it was a continuation of the same dream. Especially when he found "The Ballad of Sir Sherlock Holmes", a text dated back to the sixteenth century. It was a story of a young knight "that's wi the fairies gane" – of a man abducted by the fairies, to be short.
John shook his head. He must have read it some time ago, hence this name in his dream. Or, which was possible too, if the man who called himself Sherlock Holmes was real after all, he could have been just a local guy who liked to mystify gullible tourists. A fake. Only it didn't explain why he made John – and Molly – feel so strange in his presence. Totally glamoured. It was a bit frightening, and yet so intriguing.
The only thing John knew for sure was that he would go to the old tower again, despite the fact that it was rather ugly and not picturesque at all.
And so he did, the next day.
"I've been waiting for you," Sherlock said, poking at a grey, moss-covered stone with a very medieval looking dagger.
"Bored. Bored, bored, bored. Nothing happens to me. What's that thing in your pocket?"
A hand reached out impatiently – and John put his mobile phone into Sherlock's narrow palm.
He told John he had been stolen by the fairies, just that simple. Stolen like a precious thing, but still… a thing. A forest where they were said to dwell was surely a wrong place to fall asleep. He hadn't been afraid of the fairy folk back then. "I should have been though," he added sullenly. "Used to talk of stupid superstitions… Sir Boast-a-lot."
Day after day, John kept coming to the tower like he were enchanted. Night after night, lying in his squeaky bed in the hotel room, he kept telling himself it all couldn't be true – but the next morning, it didn't really matter somehow. He went anyway. Secretly. No one knew, not even Molly. It was strange but exciting.
Once, John forgot his cane at the hotel – and didn't even notice until Sherlock pointed it out, with a knowing smirk.
John's vacation was coming to an end. The days started growing shorter, and there was chill in the air. "I can't leave," Sherlock said. "I can't. I'm only allowed to be on my own in this wood, at daytime. An illusion of privacy."
He looked so lost, so hopeless… so exhausted and pale… He never talked of the time he wasn't on his own, of the nights spent with the fairies.
The words slipped out without thought, "Can I do something? I mean, to help you?"
Sherlock stared at him, obviously surprised by this suggestion, "Maybe… maybe you could, yes. If you come back in autumn."
That's how it happened that on the eve of All Saints' Day, instead of enjoying the cosy, habitual loneliness of his London flat, John was walking along an endless thorn hedge in the countryside. The night was clear and chilly, and from time to time John had an uncanny feeling that shadows were moving on the other side of the hedge – or inside of it, following him with unfriendly curiosity. Finally, he came into the open where a solitary rowan tree grew at the crossing of three roads, and looked at his watch. Still a few minutes to midnight.
It was a magical night, Sherlock said, when the winter moon overpowered the sun and all the barriers between the worlds began to weaken. The said moon was now a pale apparition above the bleak fairy forest.
"Betwixt the hours of twelve and one, the fairy folk would come riding towards you," Sherlock's voice was sing-songing in John's mind. "First, let the black steeds pass you by, and secondly the brown. I'll be riding a milk-white steed, you shall see me. Step out then, pull me down, and just hold on to me. Keep your eyes fixed on me. No matter what happens. Don't let me go until the fairies disappear." There was a hint of hesitancy in his tone when he asked, "Will you do this for me?"
"Why, sure," John told him then. "Seems simple enough… Is there some tricky part I should know about?"
Sherlock scowled. "I don't know, honestly. I've never seen anyone rescued this way. But they won't set me free that easy, the king and the queen. They might try to scare you, show you illusions, whisper tempting things… I'm their favourite knight, their favourite amusement. They are… attached to me, in a way. Might be dangerous to make them cross…"
John smiled widely at these words – Sherlock looked at him, bemused, and let out a chuckle, "Not the right thing to say to put you off, was it?"
Now, John caught himself grinning again. Oh yes, the wrong thing entirely… Did Sherlock know that? – he wondered suddenly. Could it be that Sherlock, whoever he was, had manipulated him into something foolish by playing on his sympathy combined with adrenaline addiction?
It was getting cold. Minutes passed, and John was starting to feel more and more stupid standing alone in the crossroads. Perhaps… perhaps…
A distant sound of hooves clattering on the ground caught him by surprise, made his nerves tighten again. Soon, he could discern the faint tinkling of tiny bells on the bridles. And then – he saw the whole host approaching.
Heading the cavalcade was the king himself. A shimmering crown adorning his head and a heavy crimson robe made him look unmistakably royal – and equally vain. No crown was spoiling the flawless coiffure of the queen who was riding by his side, but she didn't need one to look like a royalty.
John stood under the rowan tree, unnoticed as if he were invisible, and let the wild hunt pass him by. At last, he spotted Sherlock and stepped out of the shadow. A cry went up when John pulled him down from the saddle. John clutched Sherlock's body tight and tried to pay no attention to the whirl of faces around him.
"Tut-tut, what a shame," a slimy voice purred into John's ear. "A mortal stealing from us." John jerked away, and black eyes with no expression looked into his above Sherlock's shoulder. The fairy king.
"A brave soldier boy – but is he brave enough?" he wondered with a mocking grin.
John felt that the human body in his arms was changing, transforming, melting into something else… He blinked, and the next second, a huge adder was wriggling in his grip and hissing right into his face. John flinched instinctively, but his arms remained convulsively grasped around the vile thing. An illusion. They will show you illusions, that's what Sherlock said. It didn't look like one, it didn't feel like one, it was too real, the split tongue and venomous teeth too close to his face. "Sherlock, it's me, I've got you," he muttered soothingly – and the wriggling stopped, but then another wave of transformation shook the flesh in his clasp.
John lost count of all the transmutations, of all the ugly and terrifying beasts that were so hard to hold and to calm down, he forgot that he should be afraid – until searing pain ripped through his palms. He stood with a red-hot bar in his arms, fiercely burning, unyielding, inhuman, and felt panic rising in his chest. This ache was never going to stop, never, never… unless… "Unless you let go," the king confirmed. "Do it. Before it's too late." With a sob, John hugged Sherlock even tighter. He squeezed his eyes shut, not to see his hands…
The pain vanished. He dared to take a look. No blisters. Not even a sign of burns. And Sherlock had now regained his human form, wobbly in John's firm embrace, shivers running through his whole body.
"Oh Sherlock, Sherlock," the king was whining somewhere nearby, "I should have ripped out your heart of flesh and put in a heart of stone. You wouldn't have been so funny then, but at least you'd stay with us."
All this time, the queen had been watching them from a distance. The strong autumn wind didn't dare to tousle her perfectly arranged hair, but her dark cloak was fluttering as if it were made of living eels, or black feathers, or both.
"Oh you men," she finally sighed, with dramatic exasperation in her voice. "All these primitive beasts, all these hot irons… How very old-fashioned and unimpressive. Have you got no imagination at all? Look what a woman can do." Her thin red lips curved into a predatory smile – and a succession of images rushed through John's mind. Sherlock in his tidy London flat, making a mess of it… Sherlock talking to his friends with arrogant disdain… Sherlock ordering him about like John were his henchman… casually commenting on his idiotic habits, turning off his girlfriends…
John squeezed his eyes again, but the same scenes kept flowing before his inner sight. "See what your life will become when he enters it," the queen's voice whispered in John's head, so much like the gentle rustling of the fallen leaves, and his own insecurities echoed her persuasive words. "You won't leave him because he'll be needing your help to adjust to the new world – but what will he give you in return? Confusion, disorder, humiliation. You'll be miserable, you'll be angry, you'll regret the very day you met him. Sherlock won't hurt your body, oh no, but he will burn you from the inside."
Suddenly, John felt Sherlock trying to worm out of his tight grip. He opened his eyes – and saw Sherlock's face, so close, contorted with anguish and despair. "Let me go, John," Sherlock pleaded quietly. "You've seen it – that's how it's going to be. I don't want to… I can't do this to you… So you better leave me now. They will do you no harm, they only want me back. She promised. You'll be fine. Just do as I ask. Just let go, John. Let me fall."
John's breath hitched as he looked into Sherlock's eyes, full of pain. "No," he snarled. "No way. It's my damn life, so I'm to decide. Do you hear me?" he called out for those who surrounded them. "I'm not – letting – him – go."
A gust of unbearably cold wind swished through the air, a flock of crows whirred into the night sky with loud caws… and all of a sudden, they were alone in the road, Sherlock safe in his arms.
"Why didn't you let go?" Sherlock demanded, clearly puzzled. "I'll make you unhappy. And now you're stuck with me."
"It's just and illusion, remember? She showed us what she wanted us to see. Just a few episodes, not the whole movie."
"What's a movie?"
"A fairytale. I like fairytales."
Sherlock chucked softly. "Well I don't, I've had my share."
He leaned to John, wearily, and sighed. It was just the two of them at the crossroads, in the moonlit world full of wonders.