© 2013 Mundungus42. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the author. Permission may be obtained by e-mailing the author at mundungus42 at yahoo dot com. This is an amateur non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by the BBC or any other lawful holder.
The next day, John was late to rise, and by the time he reached his master's chambers, Shakespeare was already there, scribbling on a sheet of paper with a volume of the Holinshed open before him.
Sherlock let out an impatient sigh. "We have been waiting for you," he said. "I had thought Shakespeare would compose an entire play before you should arrive."
"I have," said Shakespeare, making a flourish with his pen. "Behold: my first play on the life of Henry VI."
"The first play?" asked John.
"The first of at least two parts," said Shakespeare. "The history is too complex to confine it to one. After these two parts shall be the story of that great villain, Richard III. I shall introduce him in the second part of Henry VI."
"Why Henry VI?" asked John, searching his memory for any heroic deeds done by that king and finding none. "Why not a king of known legend?"
"This is my first play, good doctor, and as I know not how to proceed, I should much rather have a mediocre monarch at the centre of the action, for there will be fewer critics apt to decry my work for love of the king."
Sherlock frowned. "This isn't a play."
"Not yet," said Shakespeare. "But from these notes, I shall wring speeches to break the heart and to seduce the minds of the audience until they know not for whom they cheer."
"Act I:" read Sherlock.
"[Suffolk and Queen Margaret kiss]
Henry VI: I see not that! Tra la la! How goeth the war in France?
Gloucester: Very ill. Cardinal Beaufort: Pray, whose fault may that be, Gloucester?
Cardinal Beaufort: Pray, whose fault may that be, Gloucester?
York: [Plots in soliloquy.]
Peasants: Foreshadowing that York intends harm to the king. Duchess Gloucester: [Abuseth Queen Margaret] O demons and other naughty spirits, will my husband be king? Beaufort: WITCH! Duchess Gloucester: God's bollocks!
Duchess Gloucester: [Abuseth Queen Margaret] O demons and other naughty spirits, will my husband be king?
Duchess Gloucester: God's bollocks!
[Duchess Gloucester is banished]
Beaufort: Ha ha ha!
John couldn't help himself. He burst out laughing.
Sherlock's expression was stormy as he brandished the sheet of paper at Shakespeare. "Is this what you suggest I present the men who asked me to find England's next great playwright?"
"Of course not!" said Shakespeare, taking the paper from Sherlock. "This is but the frame on which I shall hang noble verses and lofty sentiments."
"Lord," said Sherlock. "I hope thy acting be more subtle than thy frame."
"Do not concern yourself," said Shakespeare, "for my frame is loved of all ladies, and my words are cunning and subtle."
Sherlock sighed noisily. "Gentlemen, we have more important roles to discuss."
"I agree," said Shakespeare. "Queen Margaret, for example."
"Hang Queen Margaret," said Sherlock impatiently.
"Holinshed says nothing of the kind," said Shakespeare. "She shall curse Richard III ere she depart my play."
Sherlock took a deep breath. "Our play is set in the present day," he said. "One of the queen's valued advisors has married a foul witch who wishes to put her husband on the throne, and it's up to the advisor's brother to expose the witch and her accomplice as villains."
Shakespeare, who had been counterfeiting disinterest, sat up. "This is a good plot, though it demands meaner witches. And perhaps an exotic setting so as to avoid beheading."
"Fortunately for the queen, the advisor's brother has devoted himself to exposing the villainous plot."
"Why is it villainy?" asked Shakespeare.
"Because obviously, the wife intends her husband to have a position that should rightfully be someone else's."
"That seems an unfair interpretation," said Shakespeare. "What if the advisor would make the better monarch? Surely the good of the state should outweigh the good of a single exotic monarch."
A cold feeling settled in John's stomach at the suggestion of treason. "You realize that Master Sherlock is not speaking in parables," he said.
Shakespeare shrugged. "I am relieved to hear it. Such a plot would hardly bring audiences to the theatre, and it would likely result in beheading."
"I shall remember that," said Sherlock sourly.
"Of course," said Shakespeare, laying down his pen. "It could be improved, given the modern audience's taste for stagecraft. Perhaps a ghost in addition to the prologue? Groundlings love a ghost. And a madwoman, if one can be found."
"This is no jesting matter," said John. "Master Sherlock's life hangs in the balance."
"If I do not jest, then our play has all the makings of a tragedy," said Shakespeare. "And surely death is not a consummation to be wished."
"I cannot avoid death, but I shall rise again like the phoenix," said Sherlock, with far more confidence than John possessed.
"I trust you do not bear such plumage to entertain us," said Shakespeare.
"My true plumage is hardly entertaining," said Sherlock. "I have admirably performed the role of brother, of friend, and of soothsayer, yet my brother has failed to note my warning. I hope that the tragedy I perform will bring about greater wisdom than he now possesses."
"You are a protagonist of an entirely different sort," said Shakespeare thoughtfully, scribbling a note in the margin of his paper. "Perhaps our villain is as well."
"God's light," said Sherlock, laughing, "I seek only to reveal an adder in our midst. What sort of adder it is is none of my concern. Now, are you engaged to play a part?"
Shakespeare's writing stilled. "I am engaged," he said.
"Good," said Sherlock. "Take this letter to Masters Hoddleston and Wishart."
"Hoddleston and Wishart?" asked Shakespeare scornfully. "Those effeminate popinjays? Those counterfeit knaves? Those boys who tempt the greater lords? What use has your lordship for them?"
"They are the men who have asked me to find a playwright to write them great roles," said Sherlock. "It was on their errand that you were summoned thither."
"Ah," said Shakespeare, clearing his throat. "Hoddleston might make an Henry V someday, provided I introduce him as a callow youth to prevent Burbage from stealing his speeches. And Wishart, someone of tragedy, like Richard II, for he hath the eyes for it."
"Enough!" said John. "It is needful that you understand the trap that we lay."
"The first thing Burbage taught me is that I need only understand my role," said Shakespeare. "Have you a side for me, or am I to extemporise?"
"Your role is that of the clown," said Sherlock.
"It is always thus, for the role of the clown is to speak the truth," said Shakespeare.
"In this case, the clown must say little and do much," said Sherlock.
"What is to happen?" asked Shakespeare.
"Firstly," said Sherlock, "I shall die."
Shakespeare blinked in surprise. "It's rather unusual to kill the hero in the first act. And will it not prove difficult for you to give testimony when thou art dead? Unless you are to play the ghost as well."
"I have here a potion that will make Master Sherlock appear to be ill unto death," said John.
"And when I am seeming dead," said Sherlock, "Lady Holmes and Doctor Moriarty must never be alone together in the same room unless it is my brother's study, which is at the end of the hall, where Lestrade and my brother will be hidden."
Shakespeare frowned. "But what if your death be not counterfeit?"
"Then your part is all the more important," said Sherlock. "For your actions and John's shall reveal the true cause."
Shakespeare nodded. "What of Hoddleston and Wishart?"
"The details are here," said Sherlock, brandishing the letter. "They have asked me to provide them with men's roles, and here are their first assignments."
"I wouldn't have thought those two so hard up for male parts," said Shakespeare, making a rude gesture.
"Make haste, Master Shakespeare," said Sherlock, ignoring the pun. "The hour grows late. I should lend you a horse, but Lestrade can know nothing of our conspiracy. Here's half a crown. Hire a coach to bear you three. Wait at the alehouse two streets down until someone is sent to fetch you. Above all things, remember that Masters Hoddleston and Wishart must not be seen when you hide them in my brother's chamber."
"I'll go on your lordship's errand," said Shakespeare, clearly dubious of the plan.
"Thank you," said Sherlock, handing him the letter and pressing the coin into Shakespeare's palm.
Shakespeare bowed and departed.
"There's a merry fellow, to be sure," said John.
Sherlock sat down on the bed. "I am all out of humour," he said.
"Not surprising, given how much Moriarty took out of you yesterday," said John. "Your colour is better today. Have you eaten?"
"As much as I could stand," said Sherlock. "I must have food inside me in order to have the signs and outward shows of the poison Moriarty believes I have taken."
John nodded, his worst fears confirmed. "When do you need to take the friar's herbs?"
"Presently," said Sherlock, though he made no move to remove the herbs from inside his boot where he had hidden them the night before. "I do not relish this," he said at last in a small voice.
"Nor do I," said John. "But a great man tells me that it is necessary, and I believe him."
Sherlock gave him a small smile. "You are too credulous by half," he said, as his face became serious. "Will you stay with me until it is over? I should be glad of your company, though it is cowardly of me to ask it. It will not be pleasant."
"Nothing could draw me from your side," said John. "Is there any service I can do to make the herbs less bitter?"
"No," said Sherlock, "but I thank you. Bring them me?"
John did as he was bid and handed Sherlock the packet of herbs, which he upended in a cup of ale. Sherlock looked at the cup and raised his wide, frightened eyes to John's. "A kiss," he whispered. "Give me a kiss, good friend, so that I may gain some of the bravery that you have in such ready supply."
John sat on the bed and kissed the pale lips with great tenderness. When he opened his eyes he found Sherlock's cheeks stained with red. "Oh," said John, stroking his cheek. "I feel powerful fear. You have drawn off too much of my courage."
"How thoughtless of me," said Sherlock, a ghost of a smile trembling at the corner of his mouth. "Here, have some of it back again."
Their lips met once more, and this time John felt a promise pass between his mouth and his master's: that this would not be their final embrace.
Sherlock raised the cup in salute. "Here's to my health," he said. "May it return in full once these dark days are behind us."
"Amen," said John, sending a hopeful prayer heavenward.
Sherlock raised the cup to his lips and emptied it, his face twisting into a grimace as he swallowed the draught. John took the cup from him and hid it in the wardrobe.
"Bring the close stool from the store-room," said Sherlock. "I shall have use of it soon. And give me the chamber pot in the corner."
"Both at once?" asked John, feeling a frisson of fear for what his master was about to endure.
"Let us hope not," said Sherlock grimly. "But we should be prepared. Though we cannot, of course, appear too prepared."
"How long until the herbs have their effect?" asked John.
"Not long," said Sherlock. "What words are you to tell my brother to guarantee that he will come with you? Tell me."
"Norbury," said John.
"Good," he said. John could already detect a roughness in his master's breath that indicated discomfort.
"Tell me of the day you lost your arm," said Sherlock.
John pursed his lips in distaste. "You know the story of that great victory. Why do you wish to hear my account when all I saw of the action was blood and injury?"
"It does not matter why," said Sherlock. "I wish to hear it."
John sighed. "I was in the cockpit. I knew only when we tacked the ship and when the enemy's guns struck true, for the whole ship trembled. I was tending to the first wave of casualties when another volley struck the ship near the water-line. It struck the table where I was conducting an extraction, and the good English oak shattered into a hundred pieces. A large quantity of it stuck into the arm I used to shield myself."
"How did you do it?" asked Sherlock, closing his eyes.
John knew what he was asking. "I had seen enough injuries to know the arm couldn't be saved, and that knowledge made what was to come another procedure, no different than those I had performed on a hundred men before. When we had taken account of all the casualties, I had my loblolly boy hold down the arm while I applied the saw. The brazier with the cauterizing irons was still upright, thank God, and that is the end of the story."
Sherlock was silent, and John took his master's cold hand, stroking it with his thumb. "Thank you," he whispered. "Knowing that something must happen does give one the strength to begin, but how did you see it through?"
John grimaced. "Once the task is undertaken, you can't stop. You just have to keep going and trust that the end will be better than the present."
Sherlock let out a moan, and John wiped away the perspiration that was beading on Sherlock's brow.
"The close stool," Sherlock whispered, wrapping his arms around his stomach. "It will not be long now."
John made haste to the store-room, where he found the sturdy chair with a cut-out in the seat. A clean chamber pot sat within its opening, and he dragged the chair to Sherlock's chamber as quickly as he could, since it was too heavy to lift. He found his master wiping his mouth and a small pool of vomit on the floor next to the bed.
"I think that shall be sufficient to convince them that the spell came on suddenly," said Sherlock, spitting into the chamber pot. "Put the close stool there," he said, pointing to a small patch of floor near the writing desk, groaning. "I feel my insides rebel. Please, John, don't leave me."
"Never," said John, relieved that the sound of moving furniture had summoned one of the pages. "Send for the doctor," he told the boy. "Master Sherlock is unwell."
Sherlock chose this moment to break foul wind. "God in heaven!" he moaned, hitching up his bedgown and voiding his bowels into the close stool.
Though the smell was unholy, John did not release his master's hand, except to fetch the chamber pot to catch another spew of vomit.
Time slowed, and he had no conception of how much time passed between fits of violent puking and shitting. His focus was on his master. He was vaguely aware of servants entering and bringing water to help with the futile task of keeping Sherlock clean and offering whispered assurances that the doctor was on his way.
With every fit that came upon Sherlock, John noticed him growing weaker to the point that he called for ale and all but forced Sherlock to drink it.
It wasn't until the mid-day sun struck the book on the writing desk that John realized that nearly an hour had passed since Sherlock first began to be ill, and there was no sign of Doctor Moriarty. It was then that ice settled in John's stomach. What if Moriarty didn't come? The entire plan would be ruined, and John would likely be held responsible for his master's death. Sherlock's recovery from the herbs, would lay charges of negligence to rest, but the conspiracy that his master fervently believed existed would remain uncovered, Moriarty would still be free, and Sherlock would still be in mortal danger.
This black mood lasted through Sherlock vomiting up the ale he had just consumed.
"How now!" came a loathsome voice that John had never been happier to hear. "Have you forgotten to give Master Sherlock his medicine?"
John turned to find Moriarty in his plague doctor clothes once more, and he allowed himself to shudder obviously.
"I gave him two spoonfuls this morning," said John, relying on the words Sherlock had given him.
Moriarty glanced into the chamber pot on Sherlock's lap and lifted one of his pale thighs to see the contents of the chamber pot below, and he nodded to himself.
"It is as I feared," he said. "The illness has returned despite my best treatment."
"What's to be done?" asked John, not having to feign the desperation in his voice.
Moriarty turned to the footman hovering in the doorway. "Fetch Lord Holmes," he said.
"Oh God," whispered John, clasping Sherlock's hand. He felt a feeble squeeze in return.
There was a buzz of conversation from the corridor, as the bad news travelled through the household staff. John fancied it passed down a line of servants leading all the way down to the kitchen, where Mrs. Hudson would receive the message and go running for Shakespeare, Hoddleston, and Wishart. At least, that was Sherlock's plan. It was nearly as infuriating to be unable to check on the plan's progress as it was not to be able to alleviate his master's suffering.
"There, there," said Moriarty, pressing a gloved hand on John's shoulder. "You have done everything you could. You may leave me with him now."
"I promised him I would stay," said John.
"He clearly drew this promise from you when he was ill," said Moriarty. "I relieve you of it. Go, fetch Lord Holmes."
"Anders has gone for him already," said John. "I should very much like to stay, if not only to say goodbye."
Though John could not see Moriarty's face through the hideous beaked mask, he could tell that the man was trying to think of a reason to get rid of him. "I fear that the miasma which passeth from the body upon the moment of death should cling to you," said Moriarty.
"Then I shall open the window," said John, doing so and relieving some of the noisome atmosphere of the sick room.
"Very well," said Moriarty. "Though you do no good here."
"If my master is dying, then I shall not make matters worse," said John.
"Surely you overstate the matter," said a cold voice from the doorway.
"Though his words be rough, they are true," said Moriarty, bowing to Lord and Lady Holmes. "I would not that it were so."
"What has happened?" asked the earl, his mouth tight.
"Master Sherlock has failed to respond to my most potent treatment," said Moriarty. "There is nothing to be done."
"May God grant him peace," said Lady Holmes, raising a handkerchief to her face.
John felt Sherlock's grip tighten around his hand. "I live yet!" he shouted in a rough, hissing voice.
"Try to rest, brother," said Lord Holmes, stepping into the sick room and taking Sherlock's other hand. "Doctor Moriarty's medicine may yet return you to health."
"I feel my life drain from me," said Sherlock, coughing feebly. "Do not pray for the restoration of my body," he said to his brother. "Pray instead for my soul."
John was surprised to see tears in Lord Holmes's eyes, and he turned away from his brother so that he might not see.
There was a commotion out in the hallway, and John could hear raised voices, though he could not tell what was being said.
"Are you there, John?" whispered Sherlock, who lay limply against the back of the close stool. "I am going. I fear I may already be gone."
"I am here," said John.
"Unhand me!" said a familiar voice, and Friar Lawrence stepped into the room. "Will you deny a dying man his last rites?"
Lord Holmes frowned. "How do you know my brother?"
"I have heard his confessions weekly," said Friar Lawrence. "It is with a heavy heart that I come to perform this final office."
"Leave us," snapped Lord Holmes to the numerous servants who were gathered in the corridor. He closed the door. He seized Sherlock's arm and drew it around his neck. John followed his lead, and the two of them moved Sherlock from the close stool to the bed.
Sherlock's skin was grey, and his breathing was rapid and shallow.
John's eyes never left Sherlock's face as the friar spoke comforting absolutions, and he saw his master grimace as the friar delivered his final communion between his bloodless lips.
"In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost," whispered the friar.
Sherlock's grip tightened around John's, and his eyes widened. He met John's gaze as his body seized up, and then fell back on the bed.
"Hold him down," said Moriarty, and though Sherlock was all skin and bones, it took John, Lord Holmes, the doctor, and the friar to restrain him until his body stopped twitching and fell slack upon the bed, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Sudden stillness echoed through the chamber.
"It is finished," said Friar Lawrence softly, reaching over to close Sherlock's vacant eyes.
The household servants stood on either side of the corridor as John passed through them, seeking the servants' stair. The thought that he had to find Mrs. Hudson was foremost in his mind, but he had quite forgot what he was supposed to tell her. Fortunately, the admirable lady knew her role, and as soon as John staggered into the kitchen, she pressed a measure of her strongest ale into his hand and ascended the stair to wash and wrap the body.
John felt numbness descend, which allowed him badly needed focus on his next task. Once he had finished the ale, he went looking for Lestrade, who wasn't in the courtyard or the stables. This wasn't according to Sherlock's plan, but John supposed it wasn't so terribly important.
He mounted the stairs once more and found Moriarty and Lord and Lady Holmes in Sherlock's sick room speaking with Mrs. Hudson, whose arms were filled with sweet-smelling herbs and branches.
"My lord Holmes," said John, bowing. "A word in your ear."
Mrs. Hudson gave a little cough, and John realised that he'd made an error. He wasn't to leave Moriarty and Lady Holmes alone. Where on God's green earth was Shakespeare?
Unfortunately, Lord Holmes nodded gravely. "I would hear of my brother's final hours, and I suspect such things are unfit for a lady's ears."
"Oh, Doctor Moriarty!" cried Mrs. Hudson, holding her hands aloft. "How am I to prevent carrying Master Sherlock's affliction to the wide world? Can you tell me which of these good herbs may stave off this awful sickness? And is there a way that I should wash him to protect the house from it?"
Moriarty appeared nettled to be detained thus, and Lady Holmes even more so, but he began to invent an explanation to calm the old woman's nerves.
John blessed the lady a thousand times in his thoughts and followed Lord Holmes down the corridor. At first, John feared that he would choose the study for their interview, but after a moment's pause, he thought better of it and continued to his chambers.
John held his breath as he passed the outer and inner doors, not knowing what he would find. To his surprise, the room was dark, despite it being mid-day, and he could make out the figures of two men lying on the earl's bed.
"What in blazes?" shouted Lord Holmes, pulling back the curtain at the window to reveal Lestrade lying atop Shakespeare.
Lestrade sprang off Shakespeare as if he were made of fire. "My lord!" he exclaimed. "I took him for you!"
"So I see," said Lord Holmes, trembling with anger.
"No!" said Lestrade. "I came here seeking you and found the room darkened, containing a man the size of your lordship with the same beard. I made to give you, uh, succour in your time of need."
Lord Holmes drew his sword and pointed it at Shakespeare. "What excuse can you give, villain?"
Shakespeare gulped. "Would you believe I came looking for Master Sherlock and took a wrong turn?"
"Norbury!" shouted John.
The earl froze mid-step and turned to face John. "What did you say?" he asked, face paling.
"Norbury. And if that word means to you what Sherlock felt it did, then you and Lestrade will join me in your study, for what shall be said there concerns you both."
Lord Holmes's eyes narrowed at John's easy use of Sherlock's Christian name, and John cursed himself for a sentimental fool. After what felt like an eternity, Lord Holmes nodded. "I shall come," he said. "But Lestrade shall stay with this naughty fellow to have what revenge he would for the trick visited on him."
Shakespeare raised his hands. "It was no trick!" he said. "I came here in error and made to find the exit when this man entered and began to kiss me as I have never been kissed by man or woman! Hercules himself would have been arrested in his tasks had he been thus accosted!"
"Save your lies, you rogue," said Lestrade, whose ears had turned red. "I shall have the truth from thee though it take all night."
"Have I thy promise?" asked Shakespeare saucily.
As the earl closed his chamber door behind him, John caught sight of the two actors, hiding under the bed. He hoped fervently that Shakespeare would be able to talk Lestrade into letting the players perform their necessary roles.
The earl made to close the door to his study behind him, but John held it open.
"There isn't time to explain fully," said John, "but we must conceal ourselves. There is villainy afoot, and I would your lordship hear it with your own ears. If you ever loved your brother, please hide with me now."
Lord Holmes's face was perfectly still. "For love of my brother, I will go with thee," he said softly, pulling back the corner of the tapestry to reveal an alcove just wide enough to hold two men. Lord Holmes drew his sword once more and gestured for John to enter first. Lestrade should have been the second man in the alcove, for John had no weapon, but he tucked himself into the far corner of the alcove so as to make room for the earl and his rapier.
The alcove was plunged into darkness as the earl lowered the tapestry, but when John's eyes adjusted, he found several small moth-holes through which he could see the study door and the hallway beyond.
John smiled as he heard Mrs. Hudson bleating over the general hubbub in the corridor. He spied Moriarty and Lady Holmes walk past the study door in the direction of Lord Holmes's chambers, but they returned a moment later in great haste and shut the study door behind them.
John could see Lord Holmes frown in the light from the moth hole.
"Might Lord Holmes discover us here?" asked Moriarty.
"No," said Lady Holmes, scornfully. "I have just heard my husband and his hobby horse in his chambers. He will be engaged for some time."
John felt the earl stiffen next to him at the casual insult from his wife, but he remained silent.
"We take what comfort we can in such times," said Moriarty, his tone impertinent, and he removed his mask and gloves.
"So much the better," she said, "for my husband leaves me in peace."
"He is a fool, then," said Moriarty, raising his hand to Lady Holmes's face.
She slapped it away. "You dare touch me after this?"
"You did not let me touch you before," said Moriarty, removing his heavy black gown, "and now that the job is done, I thought to receive your gratitude."
She let out a harsh laugh. "You are too bold, dear doctor, and you prize your service too high."
"Has not the impediment to your husband's political ambitions been permanently removed?" asked Moriarty.
The earl released a huff of incredulity.
"That remains to be seen," said Lady Holmes, sweeping over to her husband's desk and collapsing in the chair. "If I were never to look upon such a sight again, it should be too soon."
"You were a pillar of Christian strength and mercy," said Moriarty.
"I should not have had to look at it," said Lady Holmes. "It was vile and my gorge rises to think on it."
"Heaven forefend your ladyship should look on the consequences of her wishes," said Moriarty. "Had you but warned me you were coming to town, I should not have given that fool of a ship's doctor the medicine," said Moriarty. "All simple seamen believe that if one dose is salutary, two doses are doubly so. And I would not have needed to give it to him at all had your own attempt to remove the impediment not been so inept that even that simpleton saw it coming."
"Loyal men who are also persuadable are difficult to find," said Lady Holmes archly. "Even in Rutland, where they have greater freedom and less work than on most estates."
"What a shame that loyalty and persuasion do not result in competence," said Moriarty.
"I shouldn't have needed to send a man at all had I any confidence in your ability to bring about our shared aim," said Lady Holmes. "But my husband wrote me that my brother made a miraculous recovery from his fever."
"You were always too hasty," said Moriarty. "That was but a feint. For what confidence would Lord Holmes continue to have in my skill if Master Sherlock died of his first serious illness under my care?"
Lady Holmes sighed. "But it's true, the deed is done, and you have my thanks. What payment will thou ask?"
"Nothing that you would not freely give," said Moriarty. "I should most like to remain as your family physician. Dear little Mary would miss me so if it were otherwise. And now and then I may ask you to deliver the odd word in your husband's ear on trivial matters that are of import to me, assuming he should remain in the Queen's favour."
"Now that my husband need no longer play nursemaid to his brother, his star shall be in its ascendancy," said Lady Holmes, her eyes bright.
The earl made a choked sound, and Moriarty's head snapped toward the tapestry. "How now!" he said, drawing a short sword from the folds of his gown. "Do I detect a rat?"
Lord Holmes reached upward and pulled the tapestry from its mount on the wall, and it fell to the floor with a thump. "The only vermin in this room I see before me," said Lord Holmes, his face incandescent with rage.
Lady Holmes's hand flew to her mouth. "Husband!" she said. "You misunderstand me!"
"I would that I did," said Lord Holmes. "I would that your blush be modesty and not shame for the part you have played in my brother's death, but it cannot be so." He turned to Moriarty and raised his rapier. "I shall have your life for my brother's death, villain."
Moriarty made a flippant gesture with his sword. "If you try, you shall lose your favourite toy, for if I die today, he dies upon my lawyer's pleasure."
"Lord Holmes," said John in the earl's ear. "I know of what he speaks. Lestrade made an imprudent investment, and this spider hath caught him in his web."
"I can pay whatever monies he owe," said Lord Holmes pointing his weapon at Moriarty's face.
"The deed demands his flesh in payment," said John.
"Then the deed is forfeit," rang a voice from the doorway. John turned to find Shakespeare clad in what had to be Lord Holmes's clothes, for he was bedecked with gold embroidery, fur, chains, and the largest, laciest ruff John had ever seen.
Moriarty scowled at him. "Who are you meant to be?"
"I am Master Barnard, Lord Holmes's lawyer," said Shakespeare, and I have seen the agreement of which you speak. My client's friend is to repay you with his flesh to be cut off from whatever part it please the debt-holder, is this not so?"
Moriarty's eyes narrowed. "It is. And my lawyer assures me that there is no impediment to collecting it."
"No impediment on paper," said Shakespeare, "but in practice, I do not see how you can collect it without taking more than you are allowed."
"The deed does not specify an amout," said Moriarty. "I can take as much flesh as it please me."
"The deed says that you must cut the flesh, but with flesh cometh blood, and thou art not entitled to that unless the debtor enlists your professional service. Something I daresay he will be loath to do."
"Thank you, Master Barnard," said Lord Holmes. "I shall double your retainer."
Shakespeare gave him a wry smile. "Your lordship is too kind."
Moriarty made an infuriated sound and sprang at Lord Holmes, who parried his thrust, though both men were knocked to the ground with the force of Moriarty's attack. John, who had no weapon, seized the candelabra near Lord Holmes's desk, but he found himself fighting Lady Holmes for it, and he dropped it in surprise. Shakespeare, who was also unarmed, leapt into the hallway, and Lestrade, Hoddleston, and Wishart joined the fray.
"Beware his weapon!" shouted Shakespeare, "for the man hath poison in his very being."
Lord Holmes had managed to kick Moriarty's sword out of his hands, but Moriarty seized Wishart's wrist and twisted, which made the man cry out and drop the dagger he brandished. Lady Holmes brought the iron candelabra down on Lestrade's head as Moriarty made a desperate leap at Shakespeare, and to John's horror, Moriarty sank the knife neatly between Shakespeare's ribs as he shoved him out of the way and ran out into the corridor.
Shakespeare's eyes went wide and his hands flew to his side as his legs gave way and he fell to the ground.
"Tend to him!" John shouted at the actors, whose faces were ashen with horror, and he took off after Moriarty down the servant's stair. John could hear Moriarty's heavy boots on the landing below, and suddenly there was a woman's scream, followed by a dull thump.
John rounded the stair and found Sally standing at the foot of the stairs with an iron in her hand and Moriarty lying at her feet, motionless.
"God in heaven," she whispered. "I've killed the doctor." She looked at John. "I was bringing the iron to Mrs. Hudson and he ran into me. I thought he meant me mischief, so I hit him, but now he's dead and I'm going to be hanged for it!"
John looked at her horrified face and he couldn't help himself. He began to laugh.
At this, Shakespeare and Lestrade came tearing down the stairs.
They took one look at Sally and Moriarty, and they too began to whoop with laughter.
Sally put her hands on her hips. "What are you wags laughing at? And what are you doing in Lord Holmes's clothes, you thieving beast?"
"Peace, Sally," said John, frowning at Shakespeare. "I thought the villain stabbed you."
"That he did," said Shakespeare, grinning, "with the very dagger that hath slain a great many tragic characters on our fair stage. Bless Master Wishart for arming himself thus."
"Come," said Lestrade, nudging Moriarty with his foot. "Let us take him to Lord Holmes. He shall hear of your part in this, Sally," he said, smiling. "And for my part, I'm in your debt."
"Speak no more of debts, Lestrade," said Shakespeare, hoisting Moriarty over his shoulder. "We shall find some other way to repay the lady. A sonnet in her praise, perhaps? My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun," he said in his player's voice. "Coral is far more red than her lips' red. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow- ow!"
"There'll be more of that if I hear you speak of my breasts again, you fork-tongued knave," said Sally, brandishing the iron.
When Moriarty had been dispatched to prison with great haste and numerous Holmes men-at-arms, Lady Holmes banished to the solarium, and Shakespeare returned to his own clothes, Lord Holmes gathered the company together in his study to interrogate each man.
He began with Hoddleston and Wishart, who knew only their roles in the adventure and no more, and then moved on to Shakespeare, who gave witty, if incomplete replies to his lordship's questions, and he made no reference to the poison Sherlock had taken in an attempt to survive Moriarty's attempt on his life. He also gave a spirited account of the conversation between Lestrade and Moriarty that he and John had overheard, which led to the discovery of the infamous deed.
Lord Holmes sat back in his chair. "But how did you manage to think of such a way out of the bond?"
Shakespeare smiled. "Your lordship ought not depend on my argument, for though it have sense, I do not know the law. But seeing the doctor treat Master Sherlock yesterday put me in a sanguine frame of mind. And I did deliver the verdict very well, did I not? And my death was wonderfully lifelike. Even Doctor Watson believed me to be grievously injured."
"Indeed," came a voice from the doorway. "I daresay your death was the second most convincing this house has seen today."
John turned to see Sherlock, wrapped in a linen shroud, standing in the doorway looking pale, but determined. John's knees buckled, and his eyes filled with tears of relief.
Lord Holmes let out a cry and ran to his brother, embracing him as tears rolled freely down his face.
"How is this possible?" he asked, shaking Sherlock gently, as though convincing himself that his brother was not a ghost.
"Forgive us the tragedy we have had to perform for your benefit," said Sherlock. "But I knew of no other way to expose the conspiracy and save the lives of all involved if Moriarty and his accomplice did not believe me dead by his poison. With the help of the good friar who ministered my last rites, I was able to mimic the symptoms, and these good, loyal men have played their parts admirably."
Lord Holmes clapped his hands to summon Anders. "I shall have the whole story later. For now, you must rest and eat and drink, if you have stomach. Friends, I would have you join us at supper. Anders, see that—" he stopped and sighed as Anders blanched at the sight of Sherlock and fainted.
"It seems that I must insist on your presence, Sherlock. Otherwise, we shall have a rash of fainting footmen. And please resist the temptation to terrify the servants by appearing at supper in your burial shroud. Good day. I shall see you all at supper."
Lord Holmes bade Lestrade drag Anders out in to the corridor and followed them. John took the opportunity to position himself next to Sherlock, not daring to touch him, but merely to see with his own eyes that his master was truly alive and well.
Sherlock made room for John next to him as he smiled at Wishart, Hoddleston, and Shakespeare. "Thank you all for the parts you have played today. And it is with great pleasure that I tell you that you shall have a series of three plays to start on the lives of English monarchs, the first to be delivered in a month's time."
"I am glad to hear it," said Hoddleston. "William has told us that he shall be the author."
"I shouldn't mind if a horse were writing the plays, provided there were excellent roles for us," said Wishart.
"There are to be so many male roles that even the boys shall have to play farmers and rebels," said Shakespeare. "And though both of you must also play Queen Margaret and the Duchess Gloucester, neither lady shall be lacking in spirit. I might even write a fourth play set before the first two if one of you should desire to play Joan of Arc."
"You have not yet finished one play yet, and you speak of a sequence of four," said Sherlock, leaning upon his brother's desk. "You are either fated to be a playwright or a king who dies from a magnificent show of hubris."
"My time in your lordship's presence has been most educational," said Shakespeare, bowing ironically.
"Let it not be too educational," said Sherlock. "Neither I nor my brother would appreciate being portrayed onstage, no matter how skilled the actors playing us."
"The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Sherlock, the Melancholy Gentleman," said Shakespeare. "I should have to make you a prince in order to interest the public in your interminable observations and eventual death. And perhaps add a ghost. The groundlings love a ghost."
A page appeared, beckoning them to come to the hall for an early supper, and Sherlock bade the actors precede them.
Sherlock let his shroud fall and wrapped his arms around John.
John finally let the tears that had been brimming in his eyes fall as the joy he felt in his master's embrace filled him to overflowing.
"Here now," said Sherlock, brushing a tear from John's cheek. "Are you sad?"
"No," said John, his voice rough.
"Not that," said John.
"You are neither sad, nor sick, but neither merry, nor well."
"None of those words are accurate," said John. "Although perhaps all together."
"Perhaps silence is the most eloquent expression?" asked Sherlock, lowering his lips to John's.
John tightened his arm around Sherlock and deepened the kiss.
They stood there in Lord Holmes's study, conversing in timeless language until they heard a throat being cleared.
Sherlock and John parted breathlessly and found Shakespeare leaning against the doorway, tutting. "The course of true love never did run smooth," he said, "for I must interrupt this pretty scene with rude words from Lord Holmes strenuously requesting your presence at supper."
"Very well," said Sherlock. "At my brother's command, I shall follow."
"Sherlock," said John. "You might have noticed that you're not wearing anything apart from some sprigs of Mrs. Hudson's rosemary."
"My brother ordered me not to appear at supper in the burial shroud," said Sherlock airily. "I strive to follow his commands to the letter. Besides, I have never been cleaner in all my life. T'would be a shame for Mrs. Hudson's excellent work to go to waste."
He strode off down the corridor as naked as the day he entered earth and descended the main stairway.
"Don't worry," said John quietly. "It won't."
"Come, good doctor," said Shakespeare, gesturing towards the servant's stair. "Shall we watch the great player make his entrance from the gallery?"
John clapped him on the shoulder. "I wouldn't miss it for all the world."
London, March, 1589
Six months later, John and Sherlock sat in their usual room at The Theatre while the company below took their bows. Even Sherlock, whose habit was to look bored until the theatre patrons began to leave, clapped his hands together several times, though John knew he would claim it was because of the cold, damp air.
"You must admit it: the play was better than you thought it would be," said John, unwrapping the blanket from his master's legs.
"I was myself disappointed that the Duchess of Gloucester did not exclaim 'God's bollocks!' upon being caught at witchcraft," said Sherlock, stretching and rising from his throne.
"You're only saying that because 'God's bollocks' has become your favoured response when someone accuses you of being a wizard," said John.
Sherlock shrugged. "Perhaps Shakespeare has some talent for memorable phrases after all."
As Sherlock drew his cloak around him, John marvelled at the difference the months had made in his master. He was still thin, but his skin had taken on a healthier hue, and his hair had grown out so much that it had begun to curl about his collar. John knew he should cut it, but the abundance, after such privation, pleased him.
But the largest difference between the invalid he had met in the solarium of Holmes house and the man he was proud to call his lord and master was the confidence of his place in the world, and it made John's heart swell with pride every time his brilliant, clever master solved a thorny problem or shed light on a mystery. Sherlock's tongue, however, remained as tart as ever.
"Now," said Sherlock, "we have before us two irksome options: endure the boisterous company of actors whilst supping at the inn tonight, or returning to the tedium of Baker Street, where no interesting problems arrive after nightfall."
"Mrs. Hudson expects us to sup in town," said John, who knew how restless Sherlock would grow in their new suburban lodgings without some problem to engage him. "And Shakespeare wishes to tell us of a comedy he wishes to write."
"Heaven preserve us from men happy in their work as they are in their marriages," grumbled Sherlock. "If I have to listen to one more sonnet written about his wife, I shall embed his quill in a tender part of his anatomy."
"I'm afraid we are engaged," said John, smiling. "Unless you can see some mystery unfolding before us that wants solving."
Sherlock glanced out over the packed theatre, where the applause was still going strong. "This theatre holds no mystery for me," he complained. "Merely a blackmailer, a handful of cut-purses, a thief spending his ill-gotten gains on cushions and sweetmeats, and an adulterous nobleman in flagrante delicto with his orange-seller mistress in the tiring room below. There is nothing here worthy of my talents."
"What about those two apronmen?" said John, pointing at a pair of labourers in the pit who were shoving one another and appeared to be about to come to blows.
"Disagreement over a doxy's affections," said Sherlock dismissively. "See, there she stands, looking amused by the fracas. There's her apple-squire looking for a way to gain twice her usual price from them."
John was about to bring Sherlock's attention to the singular appearance of a man with bright red hair when a cry of "Help! Thief!" rang out from the gallery, where a nobleman sat, his fingers clenched in his jerkin, across which a jewelled collar had previously hung. The nobleman's man-at-arms was slumped against the wall of the room, having been struck insentient by the assailant.
John felt a thrill go through him as Sherlock seized his hand.
"Come, John," said Sherlock, his eyes alight. "The game's afoot!"
Notes: Enormous thanks to the Holmestice mods who assigned me to a recipient who loves Sherlock and Shakespeare as much as I do. Saki101 requested a "historical AU and/or a work inspired by or featuring a piece of instrumental music, a poem, a building, a painting, statue or other artefact," and I reckoned the works of Shakespeare would be sufficient inspiration.
Apart from ACD's "The Dying Detective," I've stolen most liberally from 2 Henry VI, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice, though there are other small bits stolen from countless other plays and poems, the most notable being the final line, which ACD himself appropriated from I Henry IV.
My eternal thanks and love to my wonderful husband for beta-reading, Lifeasanamazon for Brit-picking and beta-reading, and Scoffy, who held my hand and cheered me on through this writing marathon. This story would not be in readable-ish condition without their efforts.