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Ancient dreams and dark designs

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It was ten years into the exile in the Darkness that the two English magicians received their first visitor. As they had a tendency to move quite often, it was not perhaps as astonishing as it might seem. Mr Norrell was not inclined to seek out or wish for company beyond Mr Strange, and Strange was perhaps too melancholy at times to wish to seek out any form of merriment.

And of course, as one traveled through the lands, one could scarcely account for what sort of visitor might darken one's door.

The magicians were currently staying in a curious realm that seemed to be an ocean of green trees and leaves as far as the eye could see. Glowing yellow lights lit the way through the thick undergrowth, which had proved quite resistant to letting either of them pass. They would have left, but the abbey seemed strangely affixed there – vines curling around the stonework and holding it fast to the ground.

The visitor first made her presence known through a tinkling laugh, that echoed throughout the room where Strange and Norrell took their breakfast.

Norrell was of course, alarmed at once. Not only had some unseen creature breached the rather elaborate wards set up to counter malign supernatural interference, but moreover, it was one of a female persuasion, a terror far more troubling to him.

Strange, for his part, set down his butter knife and laid a hand upon Norrell's to steady him.

“I would bid you welcome,” he said, politely, “but I must confess, we were not expecting company at this time.”

The voice laughed. “Then you must forgive me,” she said. “I am not used to the company of gentlemen, and I have quite forgotten my manners.”

“Understandable,” he said. “May I have your name?”

“Oh, I am not one to fall in that trap..” The voice was amused. “But I will do the courtesy of giving out your names. You are the English magicians I have been seeking and have been must elusive. I have most enjoyed the hunt, but now I think is the time for conversation rather than pursuit.”

Norrell had summoned up his courage by then. It was all very well to be nervous of offending a supernatural creature, but it had not been the first time he had matched wits with a fae, and he had Strange at his side. “Then speak,” he said, “and let us know what it is you require from us.”

“Very well,” the voice said. “I have been made aware that the two of you have played some part is the dispossession and eventual dissolution of a relative of mine, a most mischievous cousin of mine that may have entangled you into one of his games.”

It did not take more than a glance between the two magicians to agree upon whom the voice was referring to. “Then I take it you seek revenge?” Norrell asked cautiously. It would be most troublesome if they were forced to engage in a battle against another fae, and they did not have the power of England to rely upon. Not that Uskglass had proven that reliable either – neither Norrell nor Strange had determined precisely what had happened.

“Of course not,” the voice laughed. “I hated his little jokes, his foolish words, and his absolutely dreadful manner of dressing. If I were to feel any sort of anger, it would be that you robbed me of the chance to do it myself. But no matter. No, I have come to grant a boon.”

“That is very kind.” Norrell tightened his grip on Strange's hand. “But we do not deserve such a gift,” he said. That he longed to ask for a way out of the Darkness was in the back of his mind always. To ask a fairy, though, for assistance? He had learned his lesson about any sort of help from such creatures.

The voice sighed. “How dull,” she said, most petulantly. “I could grant you any manner of unobtainable desire, and you wish to spurn it?”

“I pray our indulgence, madame,” Strange said, waking up from some reverie he had fallen into. “I fear we must. Please forgive our lack of imagination.”

There was silence, into which any manner of dark emotion might be read. Neither magician dared speak.

Then the voice spoke again, more cheerful than the nettled tone it had but a moment ago. “No matter,” she said. “You may be gentlemen of learning, but your hearts tell me far more than your foolish thoughts ever could. I will visit you again.”

A gust of wind knocked a teacup off the table.

The magicians waited, but no more words were forthcoming from the strange visitor and there was the sense that they had been left alone.

Norrell looked at Strange, who had fallen back into deep thought. “I dare say, Mr Strange, that we may need to prepare better for her return. Might I suggest something out of Dewitt? It is rather inefficient, but I believe his foundations are solid.”

“Perhaps the Maskelyne variation,” Strange replied, but he seemed curiously distracted and remained so for the rest of the evening. Norrell chalked it up to surprise at their unexpected visitor and thought no more about it.

The next morning, Strange did not wake up.


At first, Norrell's thoughts immediately turned to Lady Pole. It was not dissimilar, this unnatural sleep, and if a fairy were responsible, it would only be natural that a relative of the gentleman would use a similar method.

And yet... it was not quite the same. For while Lady Pole may have slumbered half the day in Fairyland and spent the other half in exhausted languor, Strange did not wake at all. His eyes did not flutter, his skin was cool, and if it were not for the beating of his heart, Norrell might think him dead. The thought distressed him greatly. He had already lost Strange once to jealousy and madness and the interference of those around them.

He could not lose him again.

Perhaps something in Hamilton? Or Alderich? There were ways to wake one from a deathless sleep, but none seemed quite right. Strange had not been badly injured nor had he succumbed to magical exhaustion. A fairy was involved, yes, but Strange had been recently risen from the dead.

It seemed that two things were equally likely. One, that the voice had been involved somehow. Two, that despite whatever claims she had made about wanting to give a gift, it was more likely a curse than a boon.

And he did not know the name to call, so what knowledge he had was useless.

An entire day passed and still Strange did not wake.

And thus it was that while he was watching him, fretting and pacing about the abbey, once the strain became too great in the room, that he began to notice changes in the rooms around him.

It was growing late, to be true, but there were shadows where no light could cast them. They crept in at the edges of things – a mirror gradually turning to a pool of darkness, as if it were the abyssal depths of the sea. Words in a page on a book bleeding through, their ink covering everything in a sheet of black. A candle's flame, flickering into a light that seemed to dim the room rather than illuminate.

Norrell grew even more nervous. Though the Darkness had never been particularly pleasant, it had at least been easy enough to overlook within the confines of the abbey. He had grown used to the lack of sunlight, but now even his rooms felt as thought a constant night had fallen into them.

He took to Strange's room, took a blanket and tried to rest uneasily in an armchair he pulled near the man's bed.

He closed his eyes.


 

It must have only been a few hours later, perhaps not that long, when he found himself rising to his feet. Norrell did not know what possessed him, a bravery that did not seem to belong to him, but he could hear a faint rattling noise.

He took the candle from the bed, which had mercifully kept its flame, and opened the door. Looking back, he reassured himself that Strange's chest still rose and fell, his breaths the only indication that he yet lived.

As soon as he shut the door, the candle went out.

The hallway was dark, but it mattered not to the one who owned the house. Norrell was never particularly graceful but he could maneuver around the tables and chairs that were invisible in the darkness.

Ahead of him, in the very room where he had taken his breakfast with less than a day ago, a window lay wide open, letting a surprisingly cold gust of wind in. He shut it and latched it.

Norrell was not expecting to feel the weight of a hand upon a shoulder, nor hear a voice whispering in his ear, “I had wondered where you were.”

“Mr Strange?: It seemed impossible that the man he had just left lying in the bed should be at his side, and yet had the very same man not done things that were impossible? Strange had always been capable of surprising him.

“Yes, Mr Norrell,” Strange said, and then he did a most curious thing. He let himself press against Norrell's back, his chin atop Norrell' shoulder. Norrell experienced his usual sense of nervous discomfort mixed with odd elation, a feeling he had first associated with Strange's magic, and more lately, with Strange's constant presence in his life.

“Are you feeling quite well, Mr Strange?” Norrell asked. Contrary to the chill of his body in the bed, Strange was quite hot to the touch. “If you are experiencing a fever--”

“I wonder after all this time why you still have never addressed me by my name.” Strange's hand moved towards Norrell's arm, brushing against the sleeve before his clever fingers found their way to Norrell's wrist. His grip was tight and burning. “Surely it is not lack of familiarity that keeps you from doing so?”

“No,” Norrell said. “Only—Mr Strange—I must insist you return to bed as you have undergone some manner of attack or curse. You can see that the Darkness has spread inside and we must--”

Strange laughed, and it sent an unexpected shiver down Norrell's back that Strange must have felt as well. “You wish me to return to bed? How very forward of you, Mr Norrell.” Norrell felt his hot breath against the back of his neck, before a soft touch followed.

Norrell's wrist was still in Strange's grasp, but he pulled it away. “Mr Strange! You know that is not what I meant.”

“So dull,” Strange said, in a petulant sigh. “You are a most tedious man, Mr Norrell.”

Then he began to laugh, a high and mocking giggle that horribly echoed throughout the house.

Norrell managed to wrench himself away from Strange and stumble blindly back through the hallway,, knocking into things in a desperate attempt to escape from that laughter.

At last, he felt the familiar sense of the wards he had laid upon the door, and with a choked sob, he wobbled in and shut the door.

Mr Strange still lay insensate upon the bed. There was no sign he had ever left. 


 

The laughter went on for perhaps a few minutes, before Norrell heard it abruptly stop. Then he heard something more abhorrent as the sound of footsteps deliberately making their way down the hallway

They stopped before the door. Then the door shook with the force of a knock.

There were three raps.

“Won't you let me in, Gilbert?” Strange said. “We have not finished our conversation.”

And Norrell shuddered. It was him and yet not, for Strange had never had this sibilant whisper, one that insidiously slid from all sides of the door into the room.

“You are not Mr Strange,” he said, his own voice hoarse, but steady. “I do not know what manner of creature you are, but you are not him.”

The false Strange chuckled. “Surely, you must know that I am some form of him. Do you not know your old pupil, Gilbert? I know we may have had a falling out, but I would think even now, you would recognize the voice of someone you feel the greatest affinity for.”

“No,” Norrell whispered. “You cannot be him.” It was more a wish than a decisive word. Fae were capricious creatures and to give him his most hidden longing in such a form would be the cruellest joke, one fitting of a relation to the fairy he had bargained with so long ago.

The false Strange seized upon his hesitation. “Can you truly say that I am not?” Its voice was soft now. “If you wished for me, how do you know that you were not rewarded?”

One look at the true Strange's body in the bed and Norrell's resolve was strengthened.“I will not believe in your lies,” he said firmly. He was grateful that the wards still held, but now he was cut off from anything he might use to send the apparition away. No wands of oak, no bars of iron, just him and Strange, who remained as still and cold as ever.

This must have displeased the false Strange, for he grew angry. “Oh, let us talk of lies,” he said, his voice now trying to hurt where once it wooed. “Shall we speak of the lie that you respected me as a magician while slandering and destroying my life's work? Or the lie that you were worthy to teach me in the first place, a second-rate, priggish pedagogue who could never hope to summon the Raven King on his own, let alone do real magic?”

Norrell could not respond for much of it was words he had in his own mind, a litany of faults that he had ample time to explore, trapped as he was in the Darkness. This rang true, far more than the professions of desire or the tender entreaties and there was pain he could not force away.

Then the voice turned gentle again, and its words were even worse for it. “Or perhaps we'll talk about the greatest lie of them all – that anyone would wish to spend time with you if they weren't trapped by a curse. I take pity upon you, because I am forced to and because I feel sorry for a man whose only friends were unworthy sycophants, as you chased away all those who were good or true.”

Norrell shuddered, each word falling as a blow. He staggered back a few steps, trying to shut the voice out.

It was whispering now. “Did you really think I would love you, Gilbert? You who took my life away, took my wife, left me with nothing but this barren world of darkness. You were the reason all of this happened and I have finally found a way to make you pay for it.”

“No.” Norrell's eyes were stinging and he blinked back the tears trying to form. It could not be that – he had hoped perhaps that after several years had passed Strange might come to esteem their friendship the same way he did and in some more guilty nights, hoped that it might lead to – well, he was not entirely sure, since his experience in this area was quite limited.

“I had hoped to do it a more subtle way, by flattering you and coaxing you into my arms with honeyed words until I could utterly destroy you, but you proved to be too obtuse even for that. How did I suffer for so long, listening to your insipid conversation, day after day?”

It was a horrible thought, Norrell knew,, as he had grown to appreciate just how much Strange had lost, but being together with his protege had led to the greatest happiness of his life. And yet all this time, Strange had been resentful of it, plotting...

No. It was not Strange, who had always made his displeasure in Norrell perfectly well known. The Strange he loved was the man lying in the bed, the one who argued with him and challenged him and practiced the most wonderful magic that was equal parts terrifying and beautiful, much like the man. “You are not him,” Norrell said. “And no manner of trickery can ever convince me you are.”

The door shook harder as several hard blows landed against it. “She read my heart and saw what was truly there, the dark desire I had for so long. Do you think you can stop me?” The false Strange snarled. “You've always been a far lesser magician than me.”

Norrell ignored him and walked over to Strange, seeing his face pale and drawn in the little light remaining in the room. Darkness was pouring from underneath the door, a pool seeping beneath his feet. “I would ask you to leave,” Norrell said. “You are not welcome here.”

“I will not go.” Cracks in the door were beginning to show as the force of the blows grew harder. “You will have to stop me. It might be amusing for you to try, as weak and foolish as you are.”

The candles began to go out one by one .Norrell let his hand touch Strange's cheek. “I will stop you,” he said “I may not be as sly or as ingenious as Mr Strange, but I do know quite a bit about breaking curses.”

There was a splintering of wood and a corresponding flash from the door. One of the symbols on the door flickered and died out. The voice was muttering now, incomprehensible words in a foreign tongue.

And yet Norrell was not afraid. For at the beginning of all of this, he had had a thought – a wild, impractical folly of a thought that would appeal more to a man like Strange than one such as him, but one that rang with perfect truth to his very marrow.

“Not much longer now, Gilbert.” More flashes at the door as the ward was unraveled.

“No, I suppose not.” Norrell let his hand drift down, fold over Strange's. “I am sorry about this, Jonathan.” The last candle flickered, then died as he bent down, kissed the man on his lips.

One final crack and then a massive gust of wind that blew through the room, sending objects flying. Gilbert stumbled back and reached towards the bed to regain his footing. He was falling--

An arm outstretched to steady him.

The wind stopped. The candles relit themselves. Norrell looked at the door. Splintered and cracked, it was still shut fast.

He looked at Strange, who yawned and opened his eyes. He looked blearily around until his gaze alit on Norrell, noticing his blotchy face, his red-rimmed eyes.

“I'm sorry,,” Strange said. “I seemed to have caused you some distress.”

“No matter.” Norrell found himself shaking, as the events of the past few minutes truly registered. “I believe it is over now.”

“I had a dream.” Strange met Norrell's gaze directly. “There was a voice and then nothing but darkness that I wandered in it for some time. I wondered if I would ever wake, but I heard a voice calling me. And then--” His eyes widened as some thought or memory struck him.

“You kissed me.” Strange's voice cracked at the end, and he ran his tongue over his lips, which had been quite dry to Norrell's own. “I did not dream it, did I?”

The old Norrell would have said no, cowardice winning out over honesty, safety over the possibility of rejection and wishing for too much. But Norrell found that he could no longer do that, the words unwilling to come out of his mouth. “Yes,” he said nervously. “I did.”

Strange nodded. He had a small smile on his face. But he said nothing.

Norrell could not take the silence. “I thought that perhaps it was a sleeping curse after all, since the fae are often fond of such things. Herold had some interesting thoughts on the matter, if slightly derivative of --”

“Would you like to do it again?” Strange's smile had grown larger, his eyes twinkling. “I should like to make sure the curse is truly broken.”

Norrell was horrified to find himself blushing like some young maiden. “I wouldn't worry, Mr Strange,” he said. “You needn't force yourself to confirm--”

He stopped, reconsidered the circumstances that found him holding Strange's hand somehow. “If you would like me to do, I would willingly oblige.”

Strange still stared at him expectantly.

“Jonathan,” he added.

“Good,” Strange said. “Then we shall explore this together as well.” He leaned up to kiss him, his embrace far more assured than the tentative one Norrell had initially proposed.

It may have been awkward at first, but soon they were both gratified to discover that Strange was an excellent teacher, and Norrell a very promising student. Advancement was quickly made and Strange's tongue proved to be just as clever when it wasn't speaking, much to Norrell's delight.

A few minutes later, after both were considerably flushed, Norrell had forced Strange to lie down and get some proper rest. He stepped to the cracked door, steeled himself for what he might find.

There was a mound of myrtle leaves arranged in a heart, and in the center of it, a single foxglove.