Hello, dear readers! I'm sorry for my long silence, it couldn't be helped, and were it not for the Godsend that is my local library, it probably would have been longer still. Thanks as always to all my reviewers for the encouragement, including RedQueen666, Chris and Nonimouse - and Nonimouse, do give Angela Carter a try. She does seem to divide opinion, but I always think she's worth a read.
Anyway, we left John and Raghnaid somewhere dark and threatening, didn't we? So without further ado...
Edit: no, not an update, dear readers! Just me editing so that the German spoken in this chapter isn't so appalling... I'll explain more at the end of the chapter.
'Oh, God,' John murmured in horror as he realised what they were seeing. They were in Raghnaid's old home, somehow, they were either seeing it together or they had been transported there by some means. The skeletons – huge, talons curving and wings spread with abandon – lay in various positions, some with the remnants of fur and feathers clinging to them, others totally bare. Some were almost intact, others had been totally disassembled, and John dreaded to think how those poor griffins must have died. Strangely, given the violence that had taken place, there were no traces of blood to be seen.
Raghnaid made a low noise in the back of her throat, and let go of John at last, sinking back onto all fours and walking forward slowly. She paused at the first skeleton, considering it, before moving on to the next and pausing there for a few moments. After a second, John walked after her, not sure what he could do to help but unwilling to leave Raghnaid alone.
Raghnaid walked from one skeleton to another, the clack of her claws upon the floor and John's soft footfalls the only noise to be heard aside from the steady dripping of the water, and the occasional gust of wind from somewhere – probably the cave entrance. It was strangely peaceful in Raghnaid's old home. John had expected it to feel haunted or forbidding, but it was just quiet and still.
Raghnaid completed paying her respects to her family, and sat down to contemplate the cave. John stood beside her, allowing his hand to rest on her shoulder. But she did not seem to need the comfort. She looked thoughtful, perhaps a little melancholy, but she did not appear upset or heartbroken. And then, with one sweeping movement she turned and John found himself on the receiving end of a hug, as she enfolded her great forepaws and wings around him.
Bewildered by her reaction but nothing loath, John wrapped his arms around her neck and squeezed back in his turn. They stood like that for a long minute, the only movement being John's gentle stroking of the griffin's massive head, as he wondering if this was all some peculiar waking dream, or if they really were standing in Raghnaid's old home, surrounded by the bones of what had once been her family.
Then John spied movement amidst the shadows.
Startled, he went rigid in Raghnaid's great paws. The griffin, with all the finely honed instinct of a predator, realised that something was wrong and whipped her head round to stare into the dark with a single huge eye.
For an instant, nothing happened. Then Raghnaid let out what sounded very like a growl, a warning.
And something answered her. 'Verzeih mir. Aber ich werde Dir nicht wehtun.'
It was a female voice, alto, distinct, yet also sweet and somehow... enticing. And the language was... German, maybe?
'Who's there?' John called out, voice steady, determined to show no fear, regardless of what emerged from the darkness. He braced himself for dealing with anything from a dragon to a hopelessly lost tourist.
What he was not expecting was two of the loveliest women he had ever beheld to emerge from behind a jagged rock outcropping.
The first was not especially tall, standing about his not very impressive height, but God, she was beautiful. Golden hair flowed over her slim shoulders and down her back, her eyes were glittering green with flecks of gold highlighted by the multitude of golden necklaces she wore around her long neck, and under a tattered dress of what looked like sealskin John could make out a very shapely figure and a fine pair of legs diving down to dainty – bare – feet. But for all her beauty, there was a hardness to her delicate features, and the redness of her mouth made him think, absurdly but queasily, that she had been drinking blood just prior to their meeting.
The other woman was also petite, but in contrast to her companion her eyes were dark, her hair raven black, her features fine-boned and elegant and she was chicly dressed despite their rough surroundings. Though her mouth was painted the same bright-red as the blonde's, it was reassuringly unnatural, obviously the result of lipstick. She was pale, in the way that suggested that she had not seen the sun for quite some time, and the look on her face was apprehensive as she beheld John and Raghnaid.
The blonde woman surveyed him in queenly fashion, detached, disdainful, though she kept her distance. But as she looked at him in a piercing manner reminiscent of Sherlock, he saw another emotion begin to dawn across her features – longing? Wonder?
She smiled at him. And just for that moment, you would have thought it was a gentle May morning.
'I bin die Loreley,' she said, in that captivating voice, before looking at him admiringly. 'Sie haben ein Licht in sich. Sie sind erstaunlich.'
'I'm sorry, I don't speak German,' John answered apologetically.
'She says you have a light inside you,' the dark woman translated, regarding him with marginally less suspicion. 'But who are you?'
John bristled. 'Who are you?' he asked defiantly.
The dark woman smirked. 'I asked first.'
Undaunted by their banter, the beautiful fair woman spoke again, her smile fading and her eyes dark and serious. 'Erzähle niemandem, dass du mich gesehen hast. Sie sind der Einzige, dem ich helfen darf.'
Then without warning Raghnaid, obviously feeling the conversation of sorts had gone on long enough, decided to intervene. She chirruped at the strange women, flapping her wings for emphasis.
And without the least transition she and John were back in the ballroom.
John looked round to discover that they had rematerialized (if they had ever left the mansion) behind one of the weeping willows, its drooping leaves hiding the rest of the ballroom from view. Raghnaid glanced round unconcernedly before nibbling on John's shirt cuff in the usual affectionate manner.
'Raghnaid? Did that really happen?' he asked her in bewilderment. She nodded her head for yes and twined herself around him like a gigantic cat, making little noises of appreciation.
'You great soft thing,' John remarked, stroking her neck, no less confused but confident that Raghnaid was not upset or angry at what they had beheld. She seemed to be remarkably happy about it, considering.
'John! Raghnaid! John!'
Sherlock's voice was not quite a panicked shout, but it was close.
'Over here!' John called back, and seconds later Sherlock came sprinting over to them. He was looking wild-eyed, and after doing his usual quick visual analysis of them to see what the heck had happened, he stepped forward and took John in his steely but tender embrace, Raghnaid having obligingly moved aside. John hugged him back in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, reflecting that he was getting hugged a lot this evening.
'John?' Sherlock whispered roughly. 'What happened? Where did you go?'
'Not far, Sherlock, don't worry,' he whispered back, comfortingly and untruthfully. Of course, Sherlock sensed his lie and pulled back to look at him searchingly, his face turning stony as his fingers drifted over John's torn jacket.
'You're hurt,' he said, his grip upon his lover tightening protectively.
'Just scratches,' John reassured him. 'From Raghnaid's claws, but it wasn't her fault. She was frightened for a few moments – so was I, but nothing bad happened to us.' That at least was true.
Sherlock took hold of one of John's hands, bringing it up to shoulder height. 'Physician, heal thyself,' he murmured. John obeyed and placed his fingers over the affected area, remembering what Sherlock had taught him, feeling the other man holding him close, keeping him safe. The rush of healing magic came easily, and he removed his fingers to find his shoulder uninjured and his jacket mended.
'Good stuff,' he murmured. Raghnaid, who had been watching them intently, whistled an apologetic tune. 'No worries, Raghnaid, it was an accident,' John said kindly. Sherlock shot her a quick glare, not quite as willing to forgive.
'Now, what the hell happened?' he hissed angrily. Luckily at that moment Mrs Hudson came bustling up, and before she had chance to draw breath Raghnaid launched into an explanation of sorts about what had taken place. Mrs Hudson, who had a reputation for equanimity in the face of the outrageous to uphold, translated as best she could, unable to keep the surprise from her voice as Raghnaid described her and John's visit to her old, abandoned home. Raghnaid did not mention the strange women – Loreley, was one of them called? – for whatever reason, and John wondered why not.
'Did we really go there, or did we dream it somehow?' John asked, as Mrs Hudson halted for breath.
'You really went there,' Sherlock interjected, voice and face expressionless. 'You were dancing together, and suddenly you just faded from view. It was a little alarming, to put it mildly. Now, how did it happen, John?'
'You're asking me?' John protested.
'Yes, I'm asking you,' Sherlock snapped back, ice creeping into his tone. 'Whatever just happened, I don't believe Raghnaid would have visited her old cave willingly, given the nature of what took place there. So you did something, by accident if not intentionally.'
John thought for a moment – then almost groaned as he remembered wishing for Raghnaid's happiness, and Sherlock's words about magic-handlers making things happen through sheer force of will.
'It's true,' he admitted, rather embarrassed. 'I was just hoping that Raghnaid was happy here, not too – too troubled by what happened to her family. I must have hoped a bit too much.'
'How, though?' Sherlock demanded for the second time, finally releasing John and standing with arms crossed, fuming. 'You're a healer, you can't step outside time and space or transport yourself across the country! The curse on this mansion prevents all such magic, I've tried all the spells relating to it –'
Raghnaid interrupted him, whistling loudly and indignantly. Mrs Hudson listened intently, before giving a little gasp of realisation. 'John did do it, Sherlock! He wanted Raghnaid to be as happy as possible here, but there was something preying on her mind – she wanted to see her family's resting place, to make her peace with losing them, as least as much as she could. She would have been too frightened to go alone and she won't leave here in case she can't find her way back. So you –' this addressed to John, '– found a way for it to happen – to help heal some of the trauma, as it were. And because it was healing magic, none of that wicked man's curses could prevent it.'
Sherlock and John stared at Mrs Hudson and the griffin, both unbelieving – Sherlock unflatteringly so. Mrs Hudson sighed in exasperation. 'What, boys, you thought healing was all about mending broken bones and curing colds? No! Healing broken hearts can take magic, and remember what I said about hearts and magic, Sherlock.'
John glanced over at Sherlock, not understanding what she meant, but the other man turned away from them all, face dark and brooding. So he turned back to Raghnaid. She tilted her head so Mrs Hudson could only see one of her eyes and with the other winked at him. John nodded imperceptibly back at her, realising that the uncanny woman they had seen was to remain their secret for the time being. 'So that – what I did – helped, then?' he asked haltingly, afraid of upsetting his feathery friend.
Raghnaid nodded, and sang another song for Mrs Hudson to translate. 'It did, my dear. Raghnaid's seen her family's last resting place, and they're at peace, their ghosts haven't lingered. The cave isn't haunted, it's just empty now. She's paid her respects and she can rest more easily now.'
John smiled a little shakily at the griffin and Mrs Hudson, but his smile faded away as he saw the rigid set of Sherlock's shoulders and his stiff posture.
'Sherlock, are you all right?' he asked, but the other man didn't respond. John looked after him worriedly, before thinking, of course he's not all right, you moron, he's tried for years to escape this place and you do it by flaming accident! No wonder he's angry.
Sherlock was angry – but his anger was not directed at John. Stupid fool. Stupid, arrogant fool, he chastised himself. Although he had entertained the possibility that John's healing magic might be just as powerful as his own high magic or even his fire magic, he had never lent the idea much credence. It was just a theory, an entertaining, improbable theory. How could John – straightforward, modest, practical John – ever be his equal in magical art and knowledge?
Well, John had just proven him wrong, however unintentionally. John was growing into his gifts now, and they were just as strong as Sherlock's. Sherlock had tried for years to thwart Moriarty's curse, and John had simply sidestepped it and transported himself and Raghnaid far away from this place, all because John wanted to help a friend, because he wanted to help someone he loved.
Gods, what if something malevolent had been lurking in that cave – a nasty little spell left by Moriarty, a surprise for any survivors that might return or someone who might have stumbled on Raghnaid's old home by accident? Sherlock flinched at the idea. He had thought, moronic individual that he was, that mastering healing magic would be a simple matter of John's building up enough stamina that healing wouldn't drain him. Sherlock had never once considered that John might be able to do extraordinary things like step outside the boundaries of time and space! John knew so little of magic, though he was learning all the time; Sherlock should have warned him, helped him to understand. Putting himself in danger through conceit and overconfidence was one thing, but danger to John was not acceptable.
Nor was John's continuing captivity.
Sherlock closed his eyes, agonised, as finally he faced the truth he had been avoiding for weeks. John was his equal, he had proved it tonight, and Sherlock knew that just as his imprisonment had been torture for him, so it would be for John, eventually. Before tonight, he had excused John's confinement on the grounds that Sherlock would be able to give him a better life than he could ever hope for out in the world, irrespective of whether or not he had his freedom. What in John's little life – his so-called career, his few friends, his drunkard of a sister – could compare to what Sherlock could give him? He had planned to care for John, protect him, show him all the wonders of the world, magical and otherwise... but none of that would mean anything in the long run. If he carried on keeping John his as his prisoner, his pet, his fucking property, then John would grow to hate him just as surely as Sherlock hated Moriarty.
Perhaps not soon, perhaps not for years. But eventually John's affection and regard for him would turn bitter, become poisoned and turn to abhorrence. It was all very well to offer someone magic and adventure, but when you forced them into it, gave them no choice in the matter...
Though the idea of losing John to his old life as police coroner, doctor, to his old friends and no doubt other potential lovers was sheer, throbbing agony in his chest, the thought of John coming to hate him was infinitely worse.
The touch of a hand on his arm registered and broke into his bleak musings. 'Sherlock?' John asked cautiously. 'Look, I – I know this is hard. You want to break out of here so much, and I manage to bungle my way into an escape... I know you must be angry. Please, don't – don't let's dwell on it.'
The tentative, unselfish words tugged at Sherlock's conscience and made it twinge. 'It's not that, John,' he responded harshly. 'Hell, I've been wrong about you, wrong about everything! I'm an idiot.'
'Wrong?' John asked falteringly, feeling as though his innards had turned to icy water. Sherlock ran his hands through his hair distractedly.
'I'm a paradox, John,' he mused out loud. 'For so long I despised myself, despised what Moriarty had turned me into. Yet I never lost my old arrogance – I was confident I was still an exceptional magician, that there were remarkably few I could count as my equal.'
'Believing in yourself isn't a bad thing, Sherlock,' John said cautiously, as Sherlock ceased talking and stared off into the middle distance. He stayed motionless, aware that something of the utmost importance was taking place. Wrong? How could Sherlock say that everything was wrong? What they shared was amazing.
'It is when it skews your perception of the world and the people in it,' Sherlock answered coolly. John stared, the ice water in his gut solidifying and threatening to crack him open. What was Sherlock saying? Had the past few glorious days been some terrible mistake in his opinion?
'What are you trying to say, Sherlock?' he asked, with the calmness of despair.
Sherlock suddenly whirled round and looked searchingly at John, those icy blue eyes clear and penetrating.
John looked at Sherlock looking at him, suddenly very conscious that Mrs Hudson and Raghnaid had somehow vanished and that only Ulysses sat watching them from atop one of the weeping willows.
'John, I must ask you something. Something crucial to everything that has happened and is going to happen here,' Sherlock said, finally breaking eye contact and striding over to one of the French doors, staring out wildly into the night. John stared at his back, held tense and rigid, betraying nothing.
'John? If you had your freedom – if you were to gain it somehow...' Sherlock began, the words coming with great difficulty.
Both of them would reflect on the irony of those words in days to come.
'I suppose what I want to know is – is – what the fuck?' Sherlock exclaimed.
John, concerned and bewildered by the non sequitur, started forward and went to stand beside Sherlock at the window. He peered out into the gloom – and gasped in astonishment.
Something was running up the long gravelled drive. No, not something. Someone – someone with very distinctive salt-and-pepper coloured hair.
John bolted, running from the ballroom and down towards the main hall, their intense conversation completely forgotten in the shock of what he had just seen. Sherlock, cursing frenziedly, tore after him.
John, always a fast runner, covered the distance to the main door in less than a minute, nearly barrelling into Mrs Hudson and Raghnaid on the grand staircase. He ignored Mrs Hudson's cry of alarm and Raghnaid's squawk of surprise, and ran straight to the front door. He heaved it open with one almighty wrench.
A split second later Greg Lestrade quite literally fell through the doorway to land heavily on the newly blue carpet, gasping for breath.
Both Mrs Hudson and Raghnaid let out cries of astonishment. Sherlock chose that moment to come pelting down the stairs after John, and juddered to a halt as he saw the tableau taking place in the hallway.
John fell to his knees by the exhausted Lestrade, who lay motionless, apart from the heaving of his chest as he sucked in much-needed air. 'Greg? Are you all right?' he asked frantically.
Lestrade turned his head, and his eyes managed to focus on John kneeling beside him. A look of utter relief mingled with triumph was etched on his face. 'John,' he murmured between gasps. 'I did it. I've found you.'
Author's Notes: yes, Lestrade's back in the game - but what is he doing back at the mansion? I'll leave you all to speculate, because I'm cruel like that ;-)
The language spoken by the mysterious blonde woman is German, and unfortunately as I don't speak German (apart from 'rache', of course!) I've relied on Google Translate for the words spoken here. Feel free to correct me!
Edit: well, I've been corrected! My heartfelt thanks to RPAshcroft and elufuir, who took the time to write and amend my frankly pathetic German. Thanks again to both of you for your time and effort. I've used a combination of your translations and hopefully things make a bit more sense now... emphasis on hopefully.
Verzeih mir. Aber ich werde Dir nicht wehtun = Forgive me. But I will not hurt you.
Sie haben ein Licht in sich. Sie sind erstaunlich = you have a light in you. You are amazing.
Erzähle niemandem, dass du mich gesehen hast. Sie sind der Einzige, dem ich helfen darf = do not tell anyone you have seen me. You are the only one I am allowed to help.
Tell next time, dear readers!