"There is a rose at his mouth." Segundus is staring at Arthur intently.
"A rose for silence?" Strange asks. Now that Segundus is officially on loan to SOE from Hurtfew, the two of them have been bouncing ideas off each other with mutual enthusiasm.
"Yes, exactly that. Can you talk about France again please? Look Childermass, can you see it? It is only truly visible when he talks."
"I cannot see it. A faint blur perhaps but nothing more." Childermass scowls at Arthur, trying to see more clearly.
"Well it gives you your answer: it is a silencing spell, triggered only when needed. It is a white rose too, a York rose I assume, meant as an insult to Norrell perhaps?" Segundus scribbles notes in his book.
"So no danger to our agents?" Arthur sounds relieved.
"None that I can tell, it is an inconvenience only. Not well done either, to leave it so dependent on the location of the person. From what Norrell has said I would judge it to be an enchantment cast in..." He coughs, "excuse me, in irritation more than anything. Not actively malicious or cast in anger, more to challenge and thwart. It would not be unheard of for a faerie."
"So what do you make of Norrell's theory, that it's tied to the landscape?" Grant peers at the map as though it will reveal its secrets if he stares hard enough.
"I think it more likely than ever. It is after all the easiest way to do so. Let me see the shape of it. What are the significant points? Does it centre around something, or is it between landmarks?"
"Remember," adds Strange, "they are points a faerie would consider. A river, perhaps, or a tree: natural occurrences."
They all focus on the map.
"There is a wood there, to the North, that connects to the known points we have," says William, brought in for the first time for his pilot's eye view of the landscape. "Would a faerie make a bargain with a whole wood? Or is it coming in towards the centre?"
"It's possible that the whole wood is collectively part of the spell, or it might be the oldest tree," replies Strange. "So that gives us North, with it stretching out here and here. A rough square, do you think, or rather a diamond?"
"This corner, does it end with a point on the river? The last known marker we have is close to it."
"The bridge, perhaps. It might have been a ford at some time. That would count as a natural landmark I believe.” Strange puts a marker on the map.
“Well spotted." Arthur sounds pleased. He and William have got over their previous differences about this mission, probably in ways Grant wants to know nothing about.
"I can't get anything on this side though. There's nothing obvious, nothing that follows the map properly. Is it likely to be symmetrical? Have we got the boundaries wrong?" William is still eager to prove himself.
"Perhaps," Grant admits, "our information was running thin. Too many enchanted agents."
"We can deal with that later. For now I see two targets. How do we neutralise them, gentlemen?" Arthur, as always, sees the military view of magical investigation.
"Destruction or negotiation I believe, with a spell to end the enchantment" Strange has been conferring with Segundus. The table around them is strewn with books of magic, stacked in heaps and crammed full of scraps of paper. Mr Norrell would be horrified at their ill-treatment.
"A forest can be negotiated with but a river cannot, particularly if it is tied to the presence of the bridge or ford rather than the natural course of the river." Segundus adds.
"Well then gentlemen, since destruction is, I believe, our specialty in this organisation, how about we try with that one first?"
The First Mission
Before the mission, Grant takes Jonathan aside and provides him with an RAF uniform.
“Put this on,” he says. “We can’t hope to disguise you as a Frenchman yet so this is your best shot for getting out alive if you’re captured. Your papers give your name as John Marlin, which should be close enough to your real name and call sign that it won’t be questioned should either of them be overheard. If you are captured, you tell them your plane went down over France and you bailed. They ought to make you a POW instead of shooting you as a spy. Stick to that story and tell them nothing else. You don’t want to suffer the alternative.”
“No, indeed.” Jonathan watches Grant rubbing the fingers of one hand. He wonders if he’s remembering his own time as a prisoner. If the unit legends are to be believed, it’s not something he wants to experience.
“Good, get dressed, come back to the main office within twenty minutes for the final briefing.”
Grant leaves and Jonathan dresses, tucking his notes into his pocket with a bottle of water. He cannot take his books or anything else into France with him in case they are taken from him. All he has are these scraps of notes, printed on paper that will dissolve in water and instructions to destroy them if he falls into enemy hands. He hopes that they will be enough. He also hopes that the river will not dissolve them before he has a chance to use them.
He tried to telephone Arabella earlier, just in case. He can’t quite bring himself to think of it as a potential goodbye, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Perhaps just for good luck. All he’d managed was to talk to a rather severe sounding woman in Bell’s office who told him that Mrs Strange was very busy and unable to get to the telephone. He wonders if he should have left a note, also just in case, then realises that he is becoming morbid and this is a state of mind is likely to be more unhelpful than anything else. “I shall talk to you later,” he thinks, to the imaginary Bell he pictures, busy at her work. Besides, if something does happen, he knows that she will understand far more than he could ever write in a letter. She needs no proof of his love.
Jeremy thinks that Strange looks uncomfortable in his borrowed uniform, perhaps a little nervous too. He tries to smile in a way he hopes might be reassuring. Grant looks grim, which is his usual way during briefings but doesn’t help the new men to settle. He’s a worrier, like Jeremy’s sister, too busy fretting to see when someone might actually need a bit of a nudge in the right direction.
The flight out in the Hudson goes smoothly but Strange fidgets all the way there. Jeremy knows Merlin is perfectly capable of making the jump, he taught him himself, but he doesn’t want him to mess it up through panic. Strange hovers on the edge of the open door. Jeremy puts a hand on his shoulder. The drop site is approaching rapidly.
“You go first, sir, just like we practised,” he shouts in Strange’s ear, “I’ll be right behind you.” The first man down has a better chance of surviving, any waiting guns having less time to aim. His orders are to protect the magician at all cost. Fortunately, Strange makes it down without any problems and Jeremy finds him already struggling out of the tangle of his parachute. There are men on the ground waiting for them, people he’s worked with before.
“So this is your magician, eh?” Étienne asks him when they have exchanged greetings. “Is he any good?”
“Not bad, not bad.” Jeremy follows them as they head towards the river. They want to survey it before they make the real attempt at demolition tomorrow night. Making two flights to France and blowing up a bridge is considered too risky for one night’s work, relative to a day of hiding in a French basement and waiting for nightfall. With luck, in the confusion of the explosion tomorrow night, De Lancey will be able to fly in while people are more worried about saboteurs on the ground than planes.
The bridge is a stone one, obviously very old. Perhaps that’s why the faerie managed to use it. Thinking about the fae makes the hairs on the back of Jeremy’s neck stand up. It brings to mind too many of his mother’s old fireside tales when he was a boy. People who thought they could outsmart a faerie and were never seen again. He shudders and Étienne, noticing, hands him a French cigarette.
“It is not normal, is it? On the… the borders. It’s like…” he points up, “there is something in the sky where it shouldn’t be. I will be glad when it is gone.”
The two of them watch Strange as a distraction. He paces the bridge, mumbling to himself and reading from his notes. Other people try to dodge him as they work out the best places to put charges to bring the whole thing down.
Strange continues to fret over his notes once they are settled in Étienne’s house, holed up in the cellar until dark. Jeremy is glad when he sleeps at last: his nerves were catching. When he wakes up again they play cards in the light of the single candle.
At last Étienne comes back and beckons them up the steps. It’s a colder night tonight and people are wrapped up warm despite the busy work of getting the explosives where they want them. Strange is focused so completely on his magic that he doesn’t seem aware of anything else. He mouths strange words to the sides of the bridge and slithers down the bank to put his hand in the icy water on both sides.
When he’s ready, Étienne sends everyone else away. “So, magician, when you are ready, give me the sign and I will,” he makes a gesture to imply blowing everything sky-high. “Jeremy, you know what to do after that?”
“Yes, thank you Étienne.” They shake hands, and Étienne wishes them good luck before crossing the bridge. After the explosion, he will run one way back to the village while Strange and Jeremy go in the opposite direction to meet William.
Strange is mouthing words again, lighting a candle. Magician things. There’s a hum in the air, maybe a distant bell. It climbs, becoming oppressive, like the buzzing in your ears after a bad cold.
Strange blows out the candle: Étienne’s signal and the end of the spell. There’s a dull boom, and Jeremy drags Strange down into the shelter of a ditch. In the aftermath, ears ringing for a different reason, the air feels different. Despite being full of smoke it fizzes, like a spring breeze or the rush of jumping from a plane. It feels like being drunk.
“It’s gone!” Strange tells him, “The magic is gone! Can you feel it?”
They whoop, celebratory and full of joy, before Jeremy remembers where they are. He pulls Strange up and they run, fast and free, towards the plane.
They come back still in high spirits despite the cramped journey and William seems to have caught it from them, grilling them on their success via the radio. It’s cold when they leave the plane, frost crunching under their boots as they leave her to the ground crew and make their way back to the barracks. It doesn’t subdue them. They stumble into the building, crashing the door back on its hinges and trying, very loudly, to make each other be quiet. There’s a loud thumping noise, like a fist on wood, and an angry voice yelling something that sounds like ‘shut up y’southern bastards.’ On the post-mission high it makes them laugh helplessly before they remember to be quiet.
“Arthur’s on night shift,” William says, “I’ll go and give him the good news.”
He heads off to the main office, while Jeremy goes left into his room. Unfortunately this leaves Jonathan the only person in the corridor when Grant yanks open his door to find out who is making all the noise. He has obviously been asleep: he’s wearing pyjamas with a thick dressing gown over them and there are creases from the pillow in his cheek. His hair sticks up a little wildly, begging for someone to run their fingers through it to smooth it down. Afterwards, this is what Jonathan blames for what happens.
“Merlin!” Grant says, “what on earth are you doing?”
“I, uh, forgive me, we just got back from France. I apologise for making so much noise, it won’t happen again.”
“So it was a successful mission, I take it?” Grant gives him an understanding half smile. “If someone has gone to tell Arthur, I shall go back to bed and pretend I didn’t hear anything.”
“Yes, William went. The whole thing went exactly as we planned it.”
“Goodnight then, Merlin, and well done.” Grant smiles properly this time, warm and approving.
It is, Jonathan thinks, a moment of madness. One moment he is standing there, watching Grant standing in his doorway in a perfectly rational manner and the next he is unwisely throwing himself at the man. For a moment, just one moment, Grant kisses him back. It’s a good kiss, a very good kiss, until Grant brings his hands up and shoves Jonathan quite firmly away from him.
“Merlin, I will put that down to an excess of adrenaline and we will say nothing more about it. Understood?”
Grant is flushed, his lips reddened. He still looks infinitely kissable, but also really quite severe and his folded arms and frown finally get through to Jonathan. He curses himself for ruining things once again. Why must he be so hopelessly smitten with a man that is determined to turn him down and why must he be such a fool?
“I’m terribly sorry. I’ll just…” he waves vaguely in the direction of his room. He can feel his own face starting to heat, and not from the kisses.
“Goodnight Merlin.” Grant looks almost amused. “Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.”
It sounds like there might be a story there, but Jonathan doesn’t want to know. He flees, to lie awake in his bed for hours, tormented by the feel of Grant’s body pressed against his, the warmth of his mouth and his own overwhelming stupidity.
He doesn’t know that Grant goes into his own room and stands, leaning against the closed door. It’s hard to resist the temptation of calling Merlin back, of throwing away any scruples he might have for another of those kisses and a warm body in his bed. He has been alone for some time now and it’s harder to stop himself giving in, in the face of Strange’s enthusiasm. What is he resisting for, after all? He has no wife, no lover, nobody to object.
He stops himself, with one hand stretched out to open the door. This is a temporary madness, he thinks, one he would regret in the morning. He goes back to bed but does not sleep.
William goes to find Arthur in his office, but is told that he has gone back to his own room, only to be disturbed if something significant happens. It’s one of the ways that he and Grant manage the three shifts with only two of them. It also gives William an entirely plausible reason for disturbing him in his room.
He’s full of anticipation now, full of the buzzing energy that comes from flying and the knowledge that Arthur is waiting for him. He doesn’t bother to leave his flight suit in his own locker, just goes straight to Arthur’s room and bangs on the door.
Arthur opens it almost immediately. He has been sitting up in anticipation of their return, waiting to know if the mission was a success. He tastes of strong coffee when William backs him against the wall and kisses him thoroughly.
“Mission objectives successfully achieved, I take it?” he says when William lets him go, giving him an inch of space between them to talk.
“Yes, all done,” William says, yanking at the fastenings of his suit, “target destroyed, boys home safe, plane home safe. Not so much as a scratch on the paintwork. So fuck me, damnit.”
William always does know what he wants. He smells faintly of the aircraft, hot metal and oil, the canvas smell of his uniform and the tang of sweat. It makes Arthur want to kiss at the salt on his neck, to lick, to bite.
“What do you want?” He eases a hand down, between them, and William bucks forwards.
“You said, last time, you’d have me against the wall.” The look in William’s eyes is a challenge.
Arthur pushes him up, turning them quickly and pinning the younger man hard against the wall. “Like this you mean?”
William nods, still trying to wrestle himself out of his clothes. It’s a rush, a tangle of limbs to be freed. He ends up half stripped, bare from the waist down but still wearing his unbuttoned jacket and jumper. Arthur runs his hands over warm skin, leaning forward to let William feel the press of his weight against him. At the first touch of Arthur’s fingers, William moans and Arthur shushes him, presses hard kisses against his mouth. He’s impatient, demanding.
“Ready?” Arthur doesn’t need to ask it, William is already trying to struggle upwards, trying to wrap his legs around Arthur and pull him closer. William’s not a small man but Arthur is strong enough to lift him and wedge his back against the wall. He fucks him hard and fast, enjoying the way he enjoys it. William is glorious after he has been flying, wild and desperate, not shy of asking for what he wants. He grabs Arthur’s hand and wraps it around his cock. Arthur has to press William harder against the wall to stay upright but he doesn’t protest. One socked foot scrabbles for purchase against the desk, trying to hold himself up, while the bare one digs into Arthur’s back.
It’s not long before William starts to make the soft whining noises that mean he is close. Arthur knows they will get louder, and silence is essential, so he lets go of William’s cock and presses his hand over William’s mouth, enjoying the response it gets him. William had been holding on, his arms around Arthur’s neck for balance but now he reaches down to stroke himself clumsily, hand and cock trapped between their bodies and the rough friction of the wool he is wearing. It’s rough, unstable and too good to stop.
William bites Arthur’s hand, hard, when he comes, then laps at the bite apologetically. He suckles at Arthur’s fingers until the sensation of hot, wet tongue and the heat of William’s body around his cock are too much and they collapse against the wall, sticky and shaking. Arthur pushes his face into William’s neck, panting, while William clings to him.
“Oh God, oh God” is the first thing William says, followed by “get off me, I’m going to roast.”
Arthur pushes himself up and William sprawls, a debauched mess on the floor with a flushed face and half his clothes missing. Arthur never even managed to undress properly. He does it now, regretting that his jumper may never be the same again. He flops back onto the bed to breathe, legs aching with the effort, as William manages to right himself and strip off his jacket. His clothes peel off to show bruises from the wall already beginning to form.
“You bastard,” William tells him affectionately, “you don’t go easy on me.”
“Nor do you.” Arthur holds up his bitten hand and William comes to kiss it again. He drapes himself over Arthur, body lax and contented. The warmth makes them both sleepy.
“I’m sorry you can’t stay,” Arthur tells him, “someone is bound to come to find me before too long.” Neither of them can risk being found like this. They should at least dress.
“Mmm… I know.” William nuzzles drowsily against his neck, “just a few minutes more.”
Christmas arrives at last. It's not the same as a peacetime Christmas, but people do their best to make something of it. Not many people have leave to go home or the means to get in these days of petrol rationing and calls to reduce unnecessary train journeys. Those who remain make the most of Christmas dinner in the canteen (a better meal than some, perhaps out of unexpected seasonal goodwill on the part of the cooks). Then they depart to the village pub, where the Greysteels are hosting a 'private party' to get around the licensing laws: the village bobby has agreed to turn a blind eye to it. Flora greets them at the door and the boys greet her with pretend rapture and kisses on the cheek despite some significant throat clearing from Dr Greysteel.
The Greysteels have done their best to decorate the pub with holly and other greenery above the pictures and on the mantelpiece. A small fir tree in a pot has been given pride of place on a table in the corner and strung with paper ornaments and some rather elderly tinsel. As is traditional, they switch on the wireless to hear the King speak and afterwards someone asks for a carol or two. The selection varies widely, through the traditional to the modern, the religious and the secular. A dedicated few gather around the piano as the rest of them begin to split into groups to talk or play darts and cards. Jonathan finds himself among them, almost by accident. Not all of them sing: Arthur insists that his only musical talent lies in playing the violin, which he no longer has. Segundus is also quiet, perhaps too shy to join in but apparently taking pleasure in the music.
Jonathan misses Bell, but not as much as he feared he might. He still hasn’t spoken to her on the telephone but he had a parcel from her yesterday and opened it this morning. Inside had been a long letter, a package of sweets, new gloves and a copy of Lord Portishead’s new book. It’s a cheaply printed thing, and intended for children rather than grown up magicians, but she knows his fondness for the legends of the Raven King and her inscription on the front page makes it all the more precious.
The evening passes in a blur. Jonathan plays darts against Grant, who accuses him of cheating by means of magic. William tells him that Grant is only sour because he is very good at throwing knives and thinks that darts ought to be the same. When singing turns to dancing, Jonathan dances with Flora, which few of the others are brave enough to do, but he presents himself to Dr Greysteel as a responsible, married man and gets away with it. Flora is an energetic dancer and, he cannot help but notice, prettier than ever. To further cultivate an air of innocence, he takes a turn with Flora’s aunt as well and then William, because female partners are in short supply. He avoids asking Grant.
People slip away at various points, there being no official closing time tonight. Arthur and William, due to take the night shift, leave earlier than most and (for William) unusually sober.
“It’s a shame to leave so soon,” William says as they cross the village green, leaving the sound of the piano starting up again behind them.
“Perhaps,” Arthur says, his collar turned up and his hands in his pockets against the wind.
“It’s not a normal Christmas I suppose, but it’s better than nothing. Where would you be, if you weren’t here?”
“Oh, doing something very boring I expect.”
“Really, what would you be doing?” William looks at him, halfway between cheek and serious enquiry: the sort of expression that asks to be kissed. Arthur resists.
“You really want to know? My days of youthful Christmas exuberance are over, you know.” The cold has taken away the warm glow of the alcohol, leaving him inclined to gloominess.
“Don’t be ridiculous, what would you be doing? Or would you be asleep before a good fire already?”
Arthur sighs, folding his arms to pull his coat a little closer. “Christmas is for the boys, mostly. If this were Christmas before the war, I’d have spent the day eating too much, then crawling all over the floor assembling jigsaw puzzles and settling disputes over Monopoly. By this time, as you suggested, I expect I would be asleep, or at least dozing. Not the most exciting of days, you’ll agree.” Arthur raises an eyebrow, mocking himself, but William frowns instead of joining in the joke.
“That sounds rather fun actually. You miss them, don’t you?”
“Well, they were always at school during term time so I was used to them being away and of course I was working…” Arthur talks himself to a halt, standing in the middle of the road. “Honestly, William, I miss them every day.”
He doesn’t know what he’s expecting: perhaps an awkward silence or a change of subject. He certainly doesn’t expect the bear hug from William, nor the questions, being asked about the phone call he had with them earlier (far too short, nowhere near enough time to hear everything he wants to hear) and how they are getting on at school. By the time they get back to the office, he’s half way through the story of his eldest’s cunning plan for getting out of cross country running.
“And he thought nobody would notice?” William laughs. “I’d like to meet him one day and congratulate him on the plan, even if it didn’t work.”
It’s an unthinking comment but they are suddenly on more dangerous ground. It seems to keep happening with William, no matter how much Arthur tries to avoid it. Under what circumstances will William ever meet his sons? Some day, after the war, after the affair is over? He tries to imagine them meeting, old friends who served together. His sons would be so pleased to meet an RAF pilot, particularly Charlie who is currently obsessed with planes. Perhaps William would be a father himself. The two of them catching up on old times while the children play. He ought to be glad, to think of an afterwards where they might still be friends, but he isn’t.
“You’re thinking again.” William nudges him with an elbow. “Stop it! It’s Christmas!” William kisses him, and it feels like Christmas again.
Grant leaves the pub a little before he has to, expecting his usual solitary walk but Merlin contrives to leave at the same time and there’s no choice but to walk together. At least they manage half the distance in silence, giving Grant time to restore his sense of calm before Merlin starts on whatever topic has had him carefully coordinating the shared walk.
“About the other night,” Merlin begins, a little hesitantly.
“Yes? I thought I told you that was forgotten?” Grant had hoped it wouldn’t be this.
“You did, but perhaps I don’t wish it to be forgotten.”
“I have rules, Mr Strange, and for the last time, I don’t take advantage of men under my command.”
“Your rules, is it that they… is it that you dislike relationships with married men or have I given you some other reason to dislike me? Have I caused you some offence?”
“No, Merlin, you have not given me any cause, nor given offence, but I will not engage in a relationship with any person who is married. It saves difficulties.”
“You see, my wife, she is a very understanding woman.”
“So are many wives. I have found that in my experience, wives are less understanding than their husbands give them credit for.”
“No, you don’t understand. We have an, an arrangement of sorts. An agreement. I assure she is aware of my regard for you and…”
“Mr Strange! Before this conversation becomes any more involved in what your wife does or does not know, please allow me to tell you that no matter what your relationship, I will not pursue a married man, not even you.”
They walk on for a while in silence. Strange breaks it. Grant doubts he can help himself.
“But if I were not married?”
“You would still be under my command. I wish you would stop asking.”
“Forgive me, it’s just that I cannot help wondering: if I were not married, not working here, if the war was over and it was just you and me, would you still refuse me? At least answer me that, since it is an impossible circumstance and I promise I will not give myself any allowance of hope, no matter what you say.” Jonathan’s hand rests on Grant’s sleeve, not tight but inescapable all the same.
“Strange. Merlin. You are lucky it’s Christmas and I am in a charitable mood.”
“That is not an answer. Please.” Jonathan is very close now, or perhaps Grant is the one that moved closer, each of them in the other’s space. There’s nobody else around at this hour. It’s cold and the stars shine brightly overhead. The last few minutes of Christmas Day are ticking by, surely a time for a small concession to Merlin’s demands, one moment of confession.
“Then, if you insist on an answer: yes. If you were not married, if we were not working here, my answer would be yes.” Grant kisses him, very chastely, on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Merlin.”
Childermass and Segundus leave later than most. There’s a biting chill in the air as they set off and Childermass eyes Segundus with suspicion, wondering if he is warm enough.
“I’m fine,” Segundus tells him, reading the look before Childermass has time to open his mouth. “I have my new jumper on. It’s very warm.” It’s true, and Childermass ought to know. He knitted it himself, deflecting all comments with Yorkshire sarcasm and needles. He says nothing, but unwinds his scarf and tries to drape it around Segundus. It doesn’t entirely work. It’s possible that they might both have had a little too much to drink, particularly Segundus. He doesn’t have the tolerance that Childermass has. They tussle over the scarf. It’s a relief to be so foolish, stumbling home together in the early hours of Boxing Day morning.
In the end, the only compromise is that they both wear it, one end around each of them and tying the two of them together. They don’t mind the closeness: it is Christmas after all.