John wasn't a happy camper. In all fairness, Sherlock had a right to be frustrated, miserable as he was with flu, but did he have to be so petulant about it? John couldn't help thinking how it was all Sherlock's own damned fault for going out in this insane weather in the first place. John had barely made it home the first night without suffering from frostbite, and it was colder out now. So cold in fact that the snow had ceased to fall and the Thames had frozen. Four hundred years ago, the Queen would have called for a Frost Fair. Now, the news reports all said to stay inside if you didn't want to end up as a popsicle.
So naturally Sherlock had gone out in it. A part of John couldn't blame him. He was worried about his Irregulars, of course. When he'd come home from his little outing, he'd been chilled to the bone. And when he'd woken up the next morning, it had been immediately apparent to John that Sherlock was ill.
John had ordered him back to bed with a hot water bottle, and he'd grown even more concerned when Sherlock didn't argue. A quiescent Sherlock was not a good thing.
Twenty-four hours later, John was missing that docile compliance. Sherlock was, without question, the worst patient he'd had to deal with outside of a war zone. And to make a bad situation worse, he'd already gone through what little they had in the house in the way of cold medicines. They were down to the last two aspirin tablets from John's medical bag and one dose of cough syrup.
That afternoon, Sherlock lay napping restlessly, shivering under layers of blankets. John tucked a fresh hot water bottle at his feet and crept out of the room. Then he bundled up in every warm thing he could wear at one time and went to tell Mrs. Hudson he was going out.
"You're a fool to go out in this. You'll end up as bad off as Sherlock--and that's if you're lucky."
"Yes, I know. I'll be careful. My phone is fully charged. I have it right here." He patted his chest where the phone was tucked into an inside pocket of his anorak.
"Be sure you answer it this time."
He'd ignored several messages from Sherlock on his way home the first day of the storm in favour of keeping his hands warm. "I will. I'm only going as far as the chemist's."
"You should go to the off license," quipped Mrs Hudson. "Dose him with enough brandy and he'll sleep till he's all better."
"I think I'll stick to more modern methods."
"I'll be back as soon as I can."
"See that you are. I'm not his nurse, dear, just your land lady."
John braced himself at the front door, but the cold still hit him like a wall of ice. Anyone else would have turned back before taking a single step. "Anyone with any sense," John muttered. But he knew perfectly well why he was doing what he was doing, and he knew he wouldn't be satisfied until he'd done it.
Two blocks later, he began to question his sanity.
Ten blocks later, when he found the chemist's closed and a sign in the window saying "Back when it melts", he knew he was out of luck. There was nowhere else near enough to try reaching it, and he was positive he could feel his nose hairs freezing in the dry, icy air. He'd have to go home empty-handed and hope that Sherlock's fever broke before it got to dangerous heights. He shivered with cold and irony.
Discouraged, he turned around and began the snowy slog home. He'd passed no one on his way out, and that didn't change on his way back. He glanced up into the crystalline sky. It would only get colder tonight without clouds to hold in what little heat there was. He hoped Sherlock's Irregulars had all found safe shelter for the duration.
Sherlock. John had to get home to him, even if all he could offer was tea and a sympathetic ear.
Ahead on his left, a spot of colour amidst the greys and whites of snowbound London caught John's eye. Lights twinkled through the windows of a little shop he'd never noticed before. As he approached it, he wondered how on Earth he could ever have missed it. Unless it was brand new.
A weird collection of arcane paraphernalia filled the shop's windows. Books on tarot reading. Crystals of all shapes and sizes. Chains with pendants with everything from fairies to pentagrams. Bundles of dried herbs. He glanced up at the old-fashioned, hand-painted sign with the inexplicable picture of a white pig and a black cauldron. More encouraging were the words "Apothecary & Herbalist" beneath it.
He hesitated, about to go on his way. It was growing dark, and he'd already been gone for longer than he liked. But the place looked warm and inviting despite, or perhaps because of, its quirkiness. And maybe he could beg the owner to sell him the meds out of the shop's first aid kit. It was a long shot, but John was desperate.
A bell jingled as he opened the door. He shut it quickly, not wanting to let the cold in with him. The place was just as bizarre inside as outside. Shelves filled with jars of teas and herbs lined the wall behind the counter. The counter itself contained a case full of tarot decks and charms and crystals at one end and racks of essential oils at the other. Behind him were floor-to-ceiling shelves full of herbal soaps and remedies and incenses and candles of seemingly infinite variety. The colours and chaos of it was like sensory overload after the nearly two-dimensional monochrome outside. And the smell of the place... He couldn't describe it if he had a dictionary of nothing but adjectives in front of him. He defied Shakespeare to have the verbiage to do the smoky-sweet-herbal-warm-welcoming aroma justice.
A woman appeared from behind a long curtain to the left of the counter. She was inexplicably dressed in a velvet skirt that brushed the floor and a fuzzy cardigan that came to her knees. John could just make out a picture of melting Daleks a la Salvador Dali on the exposed vee of her t-shirt. Her pale face was framed by straight red hair, and she wore round rimmed glasses that would have looked right on anyone from Augustus Finknottle to John Lennon. The smile with which she greeted him immediately turned to a frown of sympathy and concern. As inexplicable as her appearance was her uncanny accuracy when she spoke. "Oh! Your boyfriend is sick, is he?"
"Uh, flatemate, but yeah. How did you--?"
"Cold or flu or something more?"
"Um, flu, actually. And how did--?"
"Oh, ugh. That's no fun at all." Her accent was Welsh and it rolled over him like soft ripples of a slow-flowing creek in spring.
"No, uh, quite. I was wondering--"
She slipped behind the counter and began pulling jars from shelves, climbing up and down a little wooden step ladder when things were too high for her to reach. "You'll definitely want rose hips and willow bark."
"For the vitamin C and salicylic acid."
"Actually, that's what I was hoping for. I know it's a bit unorthodox--" The irony of using that word in such a completely bizarre place was not lost on John. "--but I was hoping you might sell me whatever medicine you have in your first aid kit."
"You don't want that. Here's liquorice for his throat. It's bad, isn't it?"
"His voice does sound pretty rotten, yeah. He's been complaining about his throat, too."
"Of course he has. Your fellow's quite a handful."
"Flatmate." The correction was half-hearted and automatic. She didn't seem to hear him.
She placed a final jar next to the others and began measuring out the various herbs and whatnot into little paper pouches on an old counterweight-style scales. There was a grace and efficiency to her movements that captivated him. He tried to make conversation while she worked. "Have you, uh, been in the neighbourhood long? I don't think I've seen you or your shop before." In truth, he'd have remembered if he had, and there was no way he was going to forget her or it after this.
"I've only just arrived."
"Do you get much business? I mean, when the city isn't snowed under?"
She smiled benevolently at his lame attempts a small talk. "When people need me, they come."
John didn't know what to make of that and so kept silent.
Her task complete, she placed the twisted paper cones, each carefully labelled, into a woven basket that looked like it might have been a prop left over from the filming of 'Cranford'.
"I really just was hoping for some ibuprofen and maybe some throat lozenges."
"Nonsense. This'll do him much more good." She explained the proper dosages of each item and when and how often to administer them, and John concentrated carefully on her instructions. His medical mind was in a quandary. She spoke like a physician but the words she used were far from the technical jargon of a modern clinic or hospital. They were more like something his great aunt Winifred would have said; she'd always been fond of her herb garden and her old home remedies. At least her tutelage meant he recognized everything the woman packaged up.
The shopkeeper paused suddenly as if listening to something far off. John listened too, but the whole city seemed muffled by the thick blanket of snow. He heard nothing either near or distant. Even the usually constant rumble of traffic was gone.
"You need one more thing. Wait here." She disappeared to the back of the shop and John briefly contemplated slipping out. He hadn't a clue what this lot would cost. He had very little cash, and he had the odd feeling that his debit card wouldn't be any good to him here. In fact, he had yet to spot a cash register of any kind. But without another option, the herbs she offered were the best he could do to help Sherlock. Maybe she'd take a down payment and he could bring her the rest once he could get to an ATM.
She returned with a tiny cylinder barely as long as his thumbnail and hardly wider than wooden kebab skewer. "I wouldn't normally prescribe this, but he's a stubborn one. This will help him sleep soundly and will aid the rest in healing him. A good night's sleep will do him as well as anything right now." She pinned John with her gaze and he noticed that her eyes were intensely blue behind the lenses of her glasses. "This is a decoction of my own design. You needn't be afraid. It won't do him any harm in the short term, and this is only enough for two nights. If he needs more than that, well, I'll be here and you'll be back. But I don't think it'll come to that."
He took the little tube and pocketed it. This was all so strange that the fact that he trusted her absolutely seemed utterly logical. "Um, how much do I owe you for all this?"
She only smiled and shook her head. "You'll return the kindness when it's needed."
Again, he had no answer for her odd statement. "Oh. Okay."
She handed him the basket with a smile and it was as clear as any spoken dismissal.
He paused at the door. "Thank you. I, uh, didn't get your name. I'm John, by the way."
"Most people nowadays call me Winnie."
"Oh. Like my great aunt. Uh... Thanks again."
"You're welcome. Hurry now. Your fellow needs you."
The little bell jingled as he stepped outside and shut the door. His phone went off the moment he was out on the street and he fumbled to answer it.
"I hope you're nearly home." It was Mrs Hudson and she sounded both worried and irritated. John glanced at the time on his phone. He'd not been gone as long as it felt like, and yet he still couldn't blame her for being annoyed with him.
"Nearly there. Can you put the kettle on? I'm going to need hot water."
"I'll make the tea. You just see to Sherlock."
"Not tea. Not exactly." John walked as he talked, the basket of herbs held close to his body. Although night had fallen, the streetlights reflected off the snow making it quite light out. "I found this little herbalist's shop just up the road." Silence met him over the phone. "Mrs. Hudson?"
"So, you found Winnie's place, did you?"
"You knew about it?"
"I've seen it once or twice. You'd better pick up your pace and get home. If she's come around, there's no time to waste."
The line did go dead after that. John pocketed his phone and stepped it up, cursing the snow that kept him from going as fast as he'd like.
Mrs. Hudson had hot water ready the moment he was inside and John wasted no time combining exactly the ingredients that Winnie had told him he would need tonight. He was sweating under all his layers, and removed his hat, coat, and scarf while the tisane steeped. When it was ready, he poured out a large mug of the stuff. The steam wafted to his nose, herbal and floral and spicy.
"Oh, wait." He dug into his coat pocket for the tiny vial and carefully squeezed two drops of pale gold liquid into the mug.
Mrs. Hudson eyed him but didn't question. He hurried upstairs.
Sherlock's normally pale face was positively ashen. Bright spots of red flushed his high cheekbones. He'd clearly been sleeping fitfully, the blankets tossed about and heaped awkwardly around him.
"Sherlock, wake up." John spoke softly but with the tone of command that no patient who heard it could deny. "Wake up. I have medicine for you."
Sherlock's eyes opened a fraction and John's belly did a sick-making flip. It was like his friend wasn't there. Like he was lost somewhere behind that glassy gaze.
John set aside the mug and got around behind Sherlock, helping him to sit up enough to drink the tea. When he finally had Sherlock settled against his chest, John reclaimed the mug. He blew on it to make sure it was cool enough to drink before holding it carefully to Sherlock's mouth. "Careful. It's hot."
It was a slow process. One sip at a time. By the time Sherlock had downed the whole thing, though, he seemed better. John knew it wasn't possible for the stuff to have done anything yet, and in truth he still would have been happier with modern medicine, but 'we needs must go as the Devil drives us', as it says in Faust, and at least it could do no harm.
John left Sherlock sleeping peacefully at last. Already his colour was much improved and John rearranged the blankets over him before heading back downstairs to where Mrs. Hudson sat in the warm kitchen. She looked up as he entered.
"He seems much better. It's almost like magic."
"Sorry?" He sat at the table with her and she poured him a cup of tea.
"I've met Winnie, myself, although it's been nearly thirty years since I entered her little shop."
"It can't be the same woman then. She didn't look older than thirty herself."
Mrs. Hudson shook her head. "Long red hair? Bright blue eyes?"
"Yes. Maybe it's your Winnie's daughter?" he suggested.
She shook her head again and stirred honey into her tea. "Didn't you see the sign over the door?"
"Yeah. It was weird. A pig and a cauldron."
"A white sow and a cauldron," she corrected him.
"What do you think Winnie is short for?"
"Winifred, isn't it? Old-fashioned sort of name. I had a great aunt Winifred."
"No, dear. She's much older than that. She's not Guinevere. She's Cerridwyn, and if you're lucky you'll never need her help again."
"I don't understand."
Instead of answering, she said, "Did she ask for payment?"
"No. She said when the time came, I'd return the kindness."
"You will. You might not like it, but you will."
John let the matter drop. Such odd words from the mouth of the imminently practical Mrs. Hudson were disturbing and he didn't care to contemplate them further.
On the second morning after John's visit to Winnie's shop, Sherlock woke looking hale and healthy.
"Whatever magic potion you gave me seems to have done the trick," he said with a hint of a smirk.
"Who said it was magic?" demanded John quickly.
Sherlock paused in thought. "I don't know. Odd that it would even occur to me." He stretched like a cat and scratched at the three days growth of beard along on his jaw. "I need a bath and a shave. And burning those sheets wouldn't hurt either."
"I suspect a good laundering will be sufficient," replied John dryly.
Sherlock paused in the doorway to the bathroom and looked back at John with a rare, unguarded expression on his face. "Thank you, John. I don't know what I'd have done without your kindness and care the past two days."
"You've done as much for me."
"I don't quite think I have." He went into the bathroom and soon John heard the sound of water running in the tub.
"Your kindness and care..." John echoed the words softly as other words came into his mind, spoken in a feminine and delicately accented voice: "You'll return the kindness when it's needed."
Somehow, John didn't think he'd paid his debt to Cerridwyn just yet.
Continued in Surprises