The Case of the Somewhat Mythic Sword

By Garth Nix

Sir Magnus Holmes, cousin to the more famous Sherlock, is asked to investigate the appearance of an otherworldly knight carrying a legendary sword in the cellar of a Victorian London pub.

“We was ’oping for t’other ’Olmes to take an interest,” said the publican. He wiped his fingers again on his striped apron as if this might somehow remove the strong aroma of beer that emanated not just from his hands, but his entire being. “Meaning no hoffence, your ’onour.”

He might mean no offence, but there was considerable doubt evident in his gaze, and some suspicion. This was centred on the recently regrown, rather wispy Van Dyke moustache and beard on the sprig of gentility in front of him, as if the facial hair might in fact be a disguise of some sort. A very bad one.

“Everyone wants Sherlock,” replied Sir Magnus Holmes with a heartfelt sigh. “However, I am here at his behest.”

“Beg yer pardon?” asked Jolyon.

“Sherlock sent me in answer to your note,” explained Sir Magnus, with an air of resignation. Nearly all his conversations, whether involving anything of importance or not, began with his cousinly connection to the very famous Sherlock.

Jolyon brightened a little at this, as Magnus continued.

“He considers this more of a matter for my particular talents, as it were. I do have my own expertise in certain areas. Allow me to introduce you to my keeper, Almost Doctor Susan Shrike. Mister Jolyon, isn’t it?”

“Julius Jolyon,” answered the publican automatically. “Er, your keeper, sir?”

“Sir Magnus will have his little jokes,” said the raven-haired young woman who did indeed carry a doctor’s Gladstone bag as if it were her constant companion, her attitude toward it making it seem not out of place with her otherwise modish, though sombre, ensemble of a deep blue velvet coat over a long dress, lace-cuffed and -collared. This was topped with a soft cap in a lighter shade of blue, adorned with a diamond brooch of some antiquity. “He meant to say medical consultant.”

“Oh yes,” said Jolyon. “Wery pleased to meet you, miss . . . er . . . halmost doctor.”

“What exactly is the trouble?” asked Sir Magnus. “Sherlock wasn’t very forthcoming, nor Doctor Watson.”

Susan Shrike sniffed at the mention of Doctor Watson, indicating her opinion of the man’s medical skills. He was very much of the old school and quite out of date as far as she was concerned. Susan hadn’t quite graduated yet from the London School of Medicine for Women, which was why Magnus liked to call her “almost doctor”, but she soon would be one of the very first officially recognised female doctors in Great Britain. Though this was only formal recognition of her skills and experience. Susan had been practicing medicine, of one kind or another, since she was fourteen.

“Best I show you, but the cellar’s . . . wery dirty,” said Jolyon doubtfully as he looked Sir Magnus up and down. The baronet was nattily attired, sporting a dove grey top hat, a frock coat of a similar shade, and a darker waistcoat with an unusually heavy gold watch chain. His collar was highly starched, his shirt white as the proverbial driven snow, his tie inimitable, and his immaculately pressed trousers seemed to almost merge with his shoes of brilliant patent leather.

He carried a cane with an ivory-and-gold handle, and all in all looked like someone who had never once crossed the threshold of a dirty cellar and never would.

“Nothing I like better!” exclaimed Sir Magnus. “Old holes in the ground are something of a specialty of mine.”

This was true, after a fashion. Sir Magnus’s primary area of knowledge was arcane practices, many of them necessarily conducted out of the sight of ordinary folk, and so very often underground. From necessity he had become more conversant than he would have liked with caves, hypogea, catacombs, Mithraeums, vaults, crypts, cellars, tunnels and all the other subterranean lairs and dwellings of those whose delvings were sorcerous as well as earthly. He was also quite knowledgeable about sacred groves and the like.

“Your inn, I believe, was built in 1539, as is proclaimed by the date in the stonework above the stables?”

“Rebuilt, sir,” said Jolyon proudly. “The hinitial hestablishment was one of them beer monks’ places, put up in the first William’s time, and as my grand-dad ’ad ’ad it they weren’t the first ’ere, oh no, there’s been beer ’ere since druid days, and Romans and all, some say.”

“Cistercians, I fancy,” muttered Sir Magnus to Susan, correctly divining the question forming on her lips concerning “beer monks”.

“If you’ve no hobjection, sir, it’s this way,” said Jolyon. “Would you care to take a gin and water in the parlour, the private parlour, miss . . . doctor—”

“I would not,” said Susan. “Where would Sir Magnus be if he needed my medical advice in the cellar if I’m in the parlour? I am not afraid of dirt. Or blood, for that matter.”

“Blood! There ent no blood!”

“Is your cellar well lit, Mister Jolyon?” asked Susan.

“Bright enough to see blood, if there was some!” protested Jolyon.

“Oh, that’s not what I meant,” said Susan. “Only Sir Magnus has sensitive eyes and does not see well in the dark. A storm lantern or similar will be necessary.”

“I am . . . that is my eyes . . . are almost completely better!” protested Sir Magnus, but he subsided as Susan arched her left eyebrow a fraction. He could see extremely well in the dark, as a matter of fact, but darkness of the kind that would be found in a cellar after, say, a single candle was extinguished, might trigger an unpleasant change in Sir Magnus, though he was mostly better.

Some months before, also while assisting a cousin, in this case Mycroft Holmes, Sir Magnus had been involved in a fracas with a particularly powerful sorcerer, a famous Hanoverian magical philosopher known as Krongeitz. He had originally come to England with George I, attempted to meddle with matters of state, been found out, tried to flee to join the Pretender, and got caught. He had then been immured in a bronze casket by Conyers Darcy, bearer of the white staff as Comptroller of the Household and thus, far less publically, Walpole’s secret Master of Magic.

Unfortunately, the records noting who was in the casket had been misplaced. Decades later the casket itself was moved from the deep cellars of the Tower of London and it had eventually ended up for sale at a church fete in Kent. The buyer, a curious curate, had opened the casket. Krongeitz had emerged alive and apparently none the worse for his long confinement, apart from a raging desire to wreak his revenge upon King George. Or, as it turned out, George’s descendent, Queen Victoria.

It had taken all the genius of Mycroft, some detective work from Sherlock, and the arcane talents of Sir Magnus and several others to defeat Krongeitz. He was once again in the casket, but it had been a very close-run thing, and Sir Magnus had copped a very powerful curse, which, despite various ameliorative spells and treatments continued to lurk within him.

The curse was triggered by darkness and certain other stimuli, so it was important to keep Sir Magnus well illuminated. An unpleasant change in the baronet would result in the irreversible change commonly known as “death” to everyone in the vicinity, in this case not just Mister Jolyon’s inn, but the entirety of Clerkenwell, and perhaps even farther afield.

“There’s two candles under glass to light ’im,” said Jolyon. “And I generally carries down a lamp.”

“Him?” asked Sir Magnus.

“Best y’see yourself,” replied the publican, leading them behind the bar to a storeroom, well stocked with bottles, kegs and barrels, with a door at the far end propped half-open. Beyond the door lay rough-hewn stone steps heading down into the twilit depths, accented by the flicker of candlelight.

Susan reached into the surprisingly voluminous pocket of her coat, and checked her purse revolver was positioned for swift removal and use. She had a larger British Bulldog revolver in her medical bag, but often the few seconds gained by using the little .32 were more important than the Bulldog’s .450 bite. Should gunfire prove to be ineffectual, Sir Magnus had a silvered blade within his cane. Should that not be sufficient, Sir Magnus was currently a weapon himself, after a fashion, albeit a double-edged sword . . .

Jolyon paused at the top of the steps to take down a lantern, which he lit with a match struck against his heel, the puff of sulphur-tainted smoke it sent up making Sir Magnus wrinkle his nose. After trimming the wick, the innkeeper settled the glass and held the lantern high as he started downwards.

“Watch yer step,” he warned, tapping with his boot to indicate that the middle of each stone step was deeply worn from use over centuries, creating slippery hollows, so it was safer to tread on the sides.

The cellar was much larger than anyone might have expected, far larger than the inn above. Even Jolyon’s lamp illuminated only a small portion of what seemed to be a limitless cavern, supported here and there by pillars of stone and brick and beams of ancient oak, evidence of several different ages of excavation and expansion. There were many barrels and kegs, and racks of wine holding cobwebbed and dusty bottles.

Some thirty feet away, in a straight line from the steps, there was a simple candle lantern set on a crate. In its small pool of light, Sir Magnus saw a man sitting on the stone floor, cradling a sword.

Not merely a man. A knight. Rusted mail hung off him, under a surcoat so rent and torn it was little more than rags over the metal. His battered shield, split in several places, lay at his side. His dented helmet was upended by his feet, which were wrapped in straps of leather, reinforcing the remnants of boots that had been marched on too far and for too long.

The knight’s hair was long and filthy, as were his moustache and beard, and was of no discernable colour, save that of dirt. His face was obscured by more dirt. He did not look up, his attention fixed on the goblet he held in his hand, a battered thing also, of brass or bronze, held at such an angle that wine slopped from it over his fingers, which were as dirty as his face. An empty bottle lay nearby, companionably nestled against a plate of gnawed chop bones.

Only the sword was bright and clean. A great sword, made to be wielded in two hands, its cross-guard dark iron above the brighter metal of the blade. It towered above the sitting man, the point wedged in a gap between flagstones, the flat of the blade resting on his chest and shoulder, the hilt high above his head, the bronze-wired grip and heavy bronze pommel gleaming.

There was writing on the blade, gold runes brighter even than the steel.

“He doesn’t stink,” whispered Susan to Magnus. “He should reek.”

“He’s not entirely present,” Magnus whispered back. “In this world, I mean.”

“Why is the sword so bright and clean when he is not?”

“Ah, there you have it,” whispered Magnus infuriatingly. “It is all about the sword.”

He raised his voice to speak to the publican.

“How long has he been here? Has he spoken?”

The knight did not move, or show any sign of hearing Magnus.

“My Norbert wuz first to spy ’im,” replied Jolyon. “When I sent ’im down for the ’48 claret. Day afore yesterdee. Just as ’e is now, sitting with that there blade. Norbert arsks ’im what ’e’s up to, but ’e don’t talk until Norbert gets up close and then ’e says foreign for ‘wine’—which Norbert knows on account of his Navy times in the Mediterabeum—and ’e ’ands over a coin or two.”

“He’s been here two days, like this?” asked Magnus. “But you only sent word to ask for Sherlock’s assistance this morning?”

“The coins wuz gold . . .”

“I see,” said Sir Magnus. “Could you show me one of these coins, please?”

“I ’spose I might ’ave one on me person,” said Jolyon reluctantly. He rummaged under his apron, hands moving in an apparent attempt to misdirect the onlookers as to where he actually kept his cash. After several more mysterious movements, he withdrew a small gold coin and slowly handed it over to Magnus.

“Hmmm. A Byzantine ἱστάμενον, which is to say, a histamenon,” remarked the baronet, holding it up close to his left eye. “Of Isaac I Komnenos. Here, take it and touch it against one of the iron hoops of that barrel.”

“Wot? Like this—”

The gold coin turned into sand as it touched the cold iron, trickling through the publican’s fingers. He gasped in surprise and, very quickly, sorrow.

“But! It wuz . . . it wuz gold!”

“Some would call it fairy gold, Jolyon,” said Magnus. “How close do you have to get before he responds?”

“Close,” replied Jolyon, faintly stunned. He was rummaging about under his apron again. “I ’spose the gold would stay good along as it doesn’t touch no iron?”

“Only until the new moon,” said Magnus. “Best not try and use it, Jolyon.”

“But ’e’s ’ad a dozen bottles of my best Burgundy,” protested Jolyon, his mind apparently more ready to grasp the concept of “fairy gold” than it was his own monetary loss. “And prime wittles as well. Best Yorkshire ’am, sausage, Mother Jolyon’s pork pie . . .”

“Why did you . . . eventually . . . ask for Sherlock’s assistance?” asked Susan. She delicately did not dwell on the fact that the prospect of more gold had clearly delayed any earlier attempt. But why had fear or suspicion eventually overcome the greed?

“Well, at first I took ’im for a heccentric gentleman,” replied Jolyon shiftily. “A payin’ one . . . but then there was the water . . .”

“Water?” asked Magnus.

“I come down this morning and ’e’s sitting in a river! Water a-gushin’ and rushin’ all around ’im, coming from nowhere, going nowhere! Now that ent natural, is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” said Magnus. “I think I know what it is happening here, but I’d better have a few words with the chap myself. Susan, there is a slight chance that the . . . um . . . mythic envelope around this chap might trigger the Krongeitz . . . er . . . effect, so if you would prepare yourself?”

Susan nodded, set down her bag and undid the straps. Jolyon looked properly mystified, as was to be hoped.

Almost Doctor Susan Shrike’s primary responsibility as Magnus’s keeper was to be alert for the effects of the curse that the sorcerer Krongeitz had placed upon the baronet. This very powerful malediction that had resisted all attempts at removal, even by Magister Dadd, current leader of the coterie of official British sorcerers. The curse was fading, but until it was entirely dissipated, Magnus had to spend his nights locked up in the most private and secure wing of the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the Insane, and either Susan or more rarely one of Dadd’s other associates accompanied him everywhere in daylight hours.

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