For it is the same indivisible divinity that is active through us and in Nature, and if the outside world were to be destroyed, a single one of us would be capable of rebuilding it: mountain and stream, tree and leaf, root and flower, yes, every natural form is latent within us, originates in the soul whose essence is eternity, whose essence we cannot know but which most often intimates itself to us as the power to love and create.
- Demian, by Hermann Hesse
"Do the magic, Mr Segundus."
So Mr Segundus did the magic.
- Susanna Clarke
Mr Segundus had never had occasion to find himself inebriated. This could be regarded as strange, for a gentleman his age. Furthermore, he resided in Yorkshire where liquor such as sherry and whiskey were a necessary retrieval from the cold and the endlessly grey sky, but Mr Segundus had throughout his whole life never had reason enough to drink himself into a stupor. Naturally he’d had several opportunities to observe intoxication in other men, especially during meetings with the magicians’ society in York (the inn’s owner dutifully refilled all goblets for the meeting’s duration), but that had not helped him understand what it was to experience that state of being. His yearning for discovery was wholeheartedly dedicated to magic and he never examined the question any closer. Mr Segundus’s thoughts were always occupied by some spell, book, magical formula, or story, but also by the last rays of twilight illuminating the ancient stone of the cathedral, the whispers of the grass that grew on Yorkshire’s enigmatic hills, the stillness of the stars, and of late — the state of Starecross’s rooms and the wellbeing of their inhabitants. He saved himself from the cold by the means of firmly shut windows and a warm fire. And as for the grey sky, one could imagine it didn’t coax him into a state of melancholia due to a lack of time to observe said phenomenon.
Yet sorrow of more intimate nature was not a foreign emotion to Mr Segundus. Loneliness had since childhood been his faithful companion. Perchance this is the outcome for all those who spent most of their time studying books and working obscure experiments, that is to say, all scientists and magicians. But as Mr Segundus was a diligent person by nature, he tried to not succumb to such dreary thoughts and he’d succeeded until now.
All changed when the loneliness no longer seemed a bearable existence to Mr Segundus. If anyone had asked him, he wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the exact moment of this epiphany, but he could at least admit the reason to the change, if only to himself.
Mr Segundus had for some time been hopelessly in love.
This was to be the most unexpected and difficult revelation of his life. It took him many long years to arrive at this conclusion, from that feeling of diffuse irritation to the chills that ran down his spine when he first met John Childermass’s dark, heavy gaze in the snowy twilight on the stairs of York Minster, where it seemed as all of the world stopped existing, leaving just the two of them, alone. And then the scarce correspondence that piqued curiosity, the confrontation on the subject of the uncertain fate of the school of magic, which ended in a quarrel and the incomprehensible desire that this odd, obstinate and unpredictable man would see him, Segundus, and not a mere disturbance to Mr Norrell’s pride. Through his first successful spell, which Segundus performed with Childermass’s assistance, it was as if his innumerable failures no longer existed, as if doing magic was as easy as breathing. During the long conversations on the subject of magic, where Childermass proved to be the most interesting company Segundus ever had known, and their joint experiments where exchange of knowledge made the task even more intriguing. After freeing himself from Mr Norrell’s service Childermass began to visit Starecross often, and they spent innumerable nights in the library, forgetting both to eat and drink. Time seemed to Mr Segundus as a swift, small lizard that basked on sun-warmed stones; it was so still in Childermass’s absence, but could disappear in the wink of an eye when he was near.
At first, when he understood from whence the wish to share with Childermass every new find, every new spell, came from, Mr Segundus was frightened. He had other friends, but there was no one who occupied his thoughts as often, no one he was as glad to see. Segundus found himself thinking a strange thought: everything that he could achieve as a magician, everything he dreamed of, turned pale and unattainable if he couldn’t meet Childermass’s mocking or serious, obscure gaze from the other side of the table. This was new and exciting but at the same time -- a source of insecurity and sorrow, with which Segundus did not know how to deal.
Segundus, though used to acting according to his heart’s will and beliefs, and not give up in the face of misfortunes, and to meet woes with raised chin, became weak-kneed when met with his guest’s tenacity, which separated him from the world around him through many years of experience. Childermass’s dark clothes, buttoned up fully, the cloud of tobacco smoke, his expression which never revealed his thoughts and his peculiar, both mocking and polite manner, all seemed to warn against getting close to the man. But in his eyes Segundus could see warmth and it seemed as if Childermass enjoyed their encounters just as much, even if the indecent thoughts which entrapped Segundus never crossed his mind. At times Segundus wondered if Childermass, with his vast knowledge of human nature, could read everything in his face, as he read his cards, and a furious flush appeared on his cheeks. But Childermass seemed unaware of Segundus’s torment, and gave him no reason to assume that should Segundus find the courage to ruin the established course of their friendship, he wouldn’t lose him forever.
And that is why one evening, when Mr Honeyfoot asked again if Mr Segundus would like to have a drink at the inn, Segundus answered in the affirmative, to his own and Mr Honeyfoot’s surprize. People drink to distract themselves, to forget, or to while away the hours in a pleasant way. Segundus felt he needed all these effects of the drink, but was far too inexperienced to be aware of others. Of late, Childermass’s visits to Starecross had no more than a month between each appearance, and while he was away there were letters which contained precise observations, new thoughts on the subject of the Raven King’s Book, and some times Childermass even asked for Segundus advice regarding one question or another. Segundus never stopped marveling at Childermass’ absolute faith in his knowledge and abilities. He himself was used to being met by a wholly other attitude from other people, and had a more humble view of himself. But now Childermass hadn’t shown himself for two months’ time and the last letter Segundus had sent had gone unanswered. Dark thoughts overpowered Segundus. He missed conversing with Childermass like one could miss air and the loneliness of the school, in which no students dwelt for the time being, ceased being a pleasant thing. He also felt diffuse worry for his friend; he knew Childermass was a man who didn’t shy away from danger and, with their past in mind, he couldn’t avoid imagining the worst and felt foolish when he couldn’t refrained from doing so. Work could not distract Segundus, magic being too closely associated with Childermass.
It was in this state of mind that Segundus sat down across from Mr Honeyfoot in the tiny, rural inn and gave an absentminded nod every time Mary, the innkeeper’s wife, came over to their table to refill his glass. Honeyfoot, who was an experienced consumer of stronger spirits, emptied his glass much slower, but had no inclination to rein in his companion’s drinking: conversation flowed and he was in good company, and that Mr Segundus’s tongue not quite obeyed him didn’t bother him — it would only do his friend some good to drink a little excessively. He hoped that the alcohol would wash away the unnatural melancholy that shone in Segundus’s eyes and divert his attention from the books, to which he so thoroughly devoted all his time.
Mr Honeyfoot felt no alarm until right before the tavern was about to close. While he enjoyed the familiar light hum at his temples, he’d spent the last half hour speaking of the school’s future and didn’t notice how quiet Mr Segundus had grown. Now that it had become time to call it a night, Mr Honeyfoot didn’t know whether to laugh at or comfort his friend. Segundus wore a rapt, preoccupied expression, as if he were listening to something deep within him, which he didn’t completely understand. The bell which had heralded the tavern’s closing made him frown. It seemed as if Segundus was wrestling to catch an important but flighty thought, just within reach. Mr Honeyfoot decided not to wait for it to happen.
“My friend,” he began as he made to stand. “Time moves quickly in your company, so let us leave for home, before Mrs Honeyfoot finds cause to worry.”
His companion’s expression changed somewhat. Honeyfoot shook his head; Segundus’s honesty was one of the main reasons for their friendship, but he often wondered how much trouble his friend’s inability to shroud his emotions caused him in the company of others; he was sure that Segundus was a fantastic human being who deserved all happiness. There had even been a time when Mr Honeyfoot had considered introducing Mr Segundus to his youngest unmarried daughter, but Mrs Honeyfoot laughed at the suggestion when he put it to her and asked him not to speak such nonsense. Honeyfoot was well used to his wife having some unattainable knowledge, and connected this ability of hers to the mysterious female nature. He therefore obeyed his wife in all matters and thus brushed off his idea. Yet he didn’t stop feeling compassion for Mr Segundus’s loneliness, though of course never made a show of it, to avoid wounding his friend’s pride.
Segundus started and tried to rise. He succeeded on his second attempt, but his stance was wobbly. He stood thinking for a moment, then said:
“Why is the floor swaying? We are not on a ship.”
Honeyfoot hurried to grab on to Segundus’s elbow to steady him.
“These things happen when one has indulged in a lot of wine. Forgive me, I didn’t know you were so unaccustomed to imbibing spirits. Let me help you back to Starecross Hall, it has grown so dark outside.”
“But what of Mrs Honeyfoot?” asked Segundus, insecure, as he took hold of his friend’s shoulder.
“She holds you very dear and will understand that I couldn’t leave you in this state.” In actuality, Mr Honeyfoot knew that a storm would be unleashed when his wife found out that he’d gotten ‘the child’ drunk. Even though the difference in age between them wasn’t that great, it felt as if Mrs Honeyfoot saw Segundus as the son she never had. He sighed, opened the tavern’s door, and began to slowly move away from the tavern.
Segundus felt new exciting sensations in his body. He could even have called them pleasant. The crisp evening air pinched at his cheeks, but he didn’t feel cold. A slow warmth spread through his whole body. It came from a source deep within him. It reminded him of the feeling of Childermass’s magic pulsing through him, strong, wild and true. He turned his face heavenward and smiled as he gazed up at the stars that glittering spread themselves across the night sky. The taste of the wine had been pleasant and it had absorbed his anxiety in the same way sugar dissolves in tea. It wasn’t wholly easy to move along the winding road which went from the village to the Hall, but Mr Honeyfoot was there at his side and the fact that the whole world was swaying and that the road took sharp turns, now left, now right, only amused Segundus.
He didn’t know that the wine’s insidious effects didn’t show themselves at once. He’d almost completely lost control over his legs by the time they’d ascended the stone steps of Starecross Hall, and complained loudly thereof. As Mr Honeyfoot was currently pushing him across the threshold to the drawing room, Segundus was very surprized to hear a laugh come from the unexpectedly lit furnace.
“Childermass!” cried Honeyfoot, relieved. His previous aversion to Mr Norrell’s former servant had since long been replaced by approval due to his positive influence on Segundus. Honeyfoot let go of his friend, who remained standing in the middle of the room, lightly swaying as he squinted at the shadows out of which his unexpected guest stepped forth.
Childermass nodded politely and looked at Segundus with an unreadable expression. Segundus stayed silent. Honeyfoot took this as a sign of fatigue and decided to take his leave.
“How good it is you’re here, and that I can entrust Mr Segundus in your care! I’m afraid we got distracted by our conversation, and he’ll need help getting upstairs to the bedroom. I must hurry back or Mrs Honeyfoot will be very upset.”
“Of course,” said Childermass, slowly, without taking his eyes off Segundus. “Take care on your way home. Send my regards to your wife.”
Honeyfoot gave Segundus a pat on the back and then hurried out.
“You have let all your servants off again,” said Childermass softly in the ensuing silence.
“It is Sunday today and I am here alone,” muttered Segundus. His good humor had disappeared and given way to a sense of dejection blended with a partial feeling of having been mistreated, for which Segundus could find no clear reason. Only a moment ago the world had been perfect, fragile as a dream and therefore complete, but now that Childermass was here he was no longer satisfied with the situation. One could simply say that now Segundus wanted something to be different and thus could find no peace in the pleasant oblivion he’d spent the past few hours in. Needless to say he was happy his friend had come, but the thought of unanswered letters beclouded all feeling of joy.
Segundus wanted Childermass to understand. Unfortunately Segundus’s current condition allowed for no sensible explanations.
He blinked, glancing into the fire which was the room’s only source of light, and then turned his gaze on his guest who meanwhile had moved closer. The flames reflecting in Childermass’s dark eyes turned out to be a spellbinding sight; Segundus only came to his senses when a heavy hand landed on his chest and he swallowed to bring moisture back to his dry throat.
“Let me assist you with your coat.”
Segundus nodded, as he felt speech eluded him at that moment. Childermass’s weathered fingers nimbly undid all the buttons. He then took a step back to stand behind Segundus, lifting the coat from his shoulders. Segundus felt how each hair at the back of his neck stood on end as if before a thunderstorm, when the dry air is full of tension. He waited for Childermass to say something more, but he remained silent. The ceiling began to spin and Segundus closed his eyes for a moment.
Childermass took a few steps away as he neatly folded the clothes and Segundus found the power to clumsily make his way to an armchair by the furnace. His body instantly turned heavy and he yawned.
“Shall I help you to bed?” asked Childermass quietly.
Segundus shook his head stubbornly. Now he could observe Childermass and saw, even though his eyes played tricks on him, that Childermass seemed to be more reserved than usual as if he felt uncomfortable. Segundus could draw no conclusions from this observation but even the phenomenon in itself was interesting.
Childermass took off his coat as well and had turned up the sleeves of his shirt, probably because he’d made the fire. A few locks of hair had escaped the untidy knot at the top of his head and a sooty smudge was visible above his right eyebrow. Segundus suddenly had a hard time drawing breath, he fully felt how empty Starecross had been without Childermass, how any place, whenever he went, would be empty without him. The burning desire to touch him, if only to clean the coal from his face was overwhelming.
Segundus was wholly unprepared to hear these words; he just blinked and remained silent, watching Childermass with wide eyes. But Childermass was not done and drew closer, cradling a glass of water which he’d found somewhere.
“I came as soon as I could. There is so much I must tell you of the place where I was all this time. No letters could be delivered there.” Childermass gave him a crooked smile. “But I can see now that excuse won’t suffice. I just didn’t think…”
He ran his fingers through his hair. Segundus watched, captivated, yet another lock of hair escape the knot, Childermass tucking it behind his ear.
“I just didn’t imagine it would upset you. I value our friendship highly and would not wish you to think otherwise. I should have told you of what I intended to do.”
Segundus felt something tighten in his chest. He didn’t fully understand what had been said, he was far too distracted by Childermass’s rugged countenance, but he did not wish to continue being angry with Childermass anymore. He wished to know how his hair would feel to the touch, what would happen if he pulled at it, traced the neck with his nose, untied the neckcloth…
He shuddered as cold glass touched his hand and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Childermass, expression unreadable, made him take the glass.
“Drink this, and you’ll thank me in the morning.”
Segundus did not protest. Childermass towered over him like a shadow and blocked all light which was peculiarly comforting. He thought of how threatening and disagreeable he’d once considered this person and absentmindedly put the glass to his lips, but his hand trembled and half the contents of the glass spilled into his lap and onto the floor.
“Oh,” he said fretfully, “How did this happen?”
He heard a sigh above him and the glass was taken from his hand. After a moment Segundus felt warm fingers upon his face and looked up.
Childermass stood over him, attentive and serious. This time he cupped his hand under Segundus’s chin, lightly, but firm.
“Better if I help.”
The edge of the glass touched his lips. Segundus trustingly leaned his head back and closed his eyes as he took a draft of water. He did not see how Childermass’s eyes darkened and traced the line of his neck as he swallowed. Childermass’s fingertips were rough and the water was cool. Segundus drained the glass slowly and looked up again only when it was empty. Childermass lowered the glass but didn’t take his eyes off Segundus, as if he was deep in thought and had quite forgotten where he was.
A drop of water tickled Segundus’s lower lip and he licked it away. And then he smiled as a thought struck him.
“Thank you. Did you know, I’ve never had wine before. Only tea.”
“I can imagine.” Childermass’s voice was hoarser than usual.
Segundus thought his voice was as his fingers - rough but warm, warm with the type of warmth that settles deep in one’s chest and trembles lightly, like a cat’s neck. Childermass took the glass away and then returned to take a seat across from Segundus.
They sat in silence. Segundus desperately tried to keep the memory of Childermass’s warmth and touch fresh but it floated away like all his other thoughts and he felt wretched. Childermass also sat deep in his own thoughts but did not take his eyes off him. His relaxed posture gave the impression that he was fairly pleased with the evening, but he still asked:
“Why do you not wish to go to bed, as Mr Honeyfoot suggested?”
Segundus pursed his lips and then said without thinking:
“I haven’t seen you in a long time. I do not wish to go to bed now and find you gone tomorrow.”
“I have no plans to leave immediately. That is, if you’ll allow me to stay.”
“And you have no plans to disappear in to the realm of the fairies. But I can imagine some kings of fairies not agreeing with you on that point!”
Mr Segundus was a reasonable person. He understood, even though insobriety had laid itself as a thin veil over him, that he wasn’t reasoning as he usually did, but there was nothing he could do about it. Now it was not reason speaking, but something painfully honest, something that he'd held deep within him for a very long time. But restraint had never been one of his strengths. Restraint, unlike honesty and diligence, went against his very nature and therefore something was wont to happen sooner or later. He felt his strength returning, smashing the comfortable and sleepy cocoon that surrounded him and made him ready to show Childermass exactly how wrong he was.
The surprize revealed in Childermass’s face was a rare sight. It was a shame no one else was there to witness it.
“Mr Segundus,” he said carefully. “You believe that some of the fairy kings would be tempted by… me?”
The way he stressed the last word upset Segundus.
“Maybe you don’t think highly of yourself, John Childermass, but that doesn’t mean others share your opinion! You are used to other people doing as you tell them to but contemplate this: there are those who don’t forget you as soon as you step out the door. We both know you’re not invulnerable. And it would be a dull-witted fairy indeed that wouldn’t wish to have you for themselves…”
He surged out of his armchair and spread his hands to emphasize his words and realized at once that it was a mistake. His legs tried to retain balance and had time to take a few steps and in that manner save the situation but an old enemy was waiting for him.
Starecross Hall was a special place. Like other old buildings it had a certain character: alive and empathic towards its inhabitants, but not always reasonable. In the endless silence of Yorkshire an ancient and at the same time young magic awoke here. Starecross put up no resistance to the changes Segundus had implemented, but was at times as stubborn as its owner. Most rooms had been made ready. But there were still a handful of objects that needed to be replaced or disposed of. Segundus was most annoyed by the rug in the drawing room which was so worn it had a hole in it, the size of an infant’s head. And it was not for nothing that he’d tried to get rid of it - Segundus’s foot had now gotten stuck in the hole and he stumbled forward.
Strong hands took hold of his shoulders. Segundus stiffened. The fall had knocked the air out of him and he suddenly saw how close Childermass’s face was. The dark eyes appeared surprized, but quickly returned to their regular expression, the one that made Segundus want to hide and to walk into the brightest light simultaneously. Childermass’s mouth slowly pulled into a smile.
“You were saying…?”
Judging by this smile Segundus had already said more than enough but that did not concern him. The warmth from the hands that rested on his shoulders seeped through the fabric. Childermass’s closeness, his scent stopped him from continuing. He just wanted to bury himself in all these sensations, that surrounded him. Segundus twisted himself into a more comfortable position and sighed in contentment, closing his eyes. His nose was pressed against Childermass’s throat and his hands laid themselves on the rough cloth of Childermass’s vest.
No mockery remained in Childermass’s voice. Rather it seemed to hold a tone of alarm and if one was very attentive one could note a hint of insecurity which was truly unnatural for him. But in Segundus’s current position Childermass’s words echoed pleasantly in his chest and he therefore made no attempt to stand up straight. On the contrary, he wanted to get even closer and rest his face against Childermass’s throat. The room had not yet fully warmed but Childermass radiated warmth and Segundus thoughtlessly drank of that warmth in every way he could. Childermass smelled like the rough leather of his horse’s harness, and of something fleetingly sweet and tangy, like old paper. It was the smell of Hurtfew library, where the twilight was at times shattered by a lone ray of sunlight, which stirred up the golden dust, slowly twirling in the stillness, the dust of time itself, of lost knowledge and magic.
Segundus heard Childermass draw a hasty breath and his hands took a firmer grasp of Segundus’s shoulders, as if he didn’t know whether to push Segundus away or pull him closer.
“I think it would be best for you go to bed. I promise that I’ll still be here in the morning.”
Segundus shook his head. He was busy taking in Childermass’s scent and at that moment moved his cheek from Childermass's neck to his temple in a caress. The movement made him scratch his clean-shaven chin against Childermass’s stubble. It was a pleasant sensation, like a light sunburn after several months of cold and darkness.
“I don’t want to. I’m busy with an important experiment. The most important of them all.” Segundus’s fingers had without his knowledge crawled their way under Childermass’s neckcloth.
“And what could that be?” asked Childermass, restrained. Segundus felt how Childermass’s body tensed, as in a wild animal preparing to flee.
“I’m trying to understand where the magic comes from.”
Segundus got a new idea. With the tip of his tongue he traced a line on Childermass’s skin, right at the vein that was trembling so fast He took to the taste of salt and bitterness and he wanted to do it again, when his position suddenly changed.
The floor beneath him disappeared. Childermass rose up with Segundus in his arms. At any other time Segundus would not have accepted such treatment, but now he could think of nothing but Childermass’s closeness. Segundus would gladly have spent months, maybe even years, in this position, and pressed his nose to Childermass’s temple, but Childermass quickly put him down. Segundus squinted in annoyance and wobbled.
“Forgive me, Mr Segundus, we have to go upstairs,” said Childermass softly and put his arm around his shoulders. “I could have carried you, but I don’t think it’s a proper way to treat a gentleman.”
He gave a wry smile and embraced Segundus with utmost care and then took a step forward. Segundus on the other hand could move no more freely than when he moments before had found himself in Childermass’s arms. He therefore had to lean on Childermass, putting all his weight on him at the same time as he was pushed against Childermass’s body.
“You have nothing against coming with me upstairs?” asked Childermass once they’d reached the stairs. With his free hand he took a secure hold of the arm Segundus had placed across his shoulders.
Segundus considered this.
“If you are there, and not here, I will agree to be there.”
Starecross Hall lay dormant. No one but the two magicians could disturb its rest. Furthermore they ascended the stairs so slowly that the house almost didn’t feel their footsteps. The light from the drawing room barely reached the stairs and in the long hallways rested impenetrable darkness. Mr Segundus had taken the farthest room as he knew that the headmaster of a school occasionally needed his solitude, and he’d never imagined his choice of living quarters would cause him any difficulties.
He stumbled, but Childermass did not let him fall, instead taking a firmer hold of him. Something happened to Segundus’s breathing. He felt Childermass everywhere around him, in the darkness and a soft dizziness; it was as if they were in a dream. He heard a whisper close to his ear. Segundus couldn’t hear the words, but suddenly he felt a warm gust of wind rush through the hallways and his body was at once warm and shaking with euphoria - abruptly and uncontrollably. He couldn’t help but give a quiet groan. This was magic: the candles that were placed along the walls lit up, like strange flowers. Yet Segundus didn’t only see their light, but also another, unworldly light which was drawn to Childermass - his face, hands and hair. Segundus’s lips parted, his breathing heavy and his cheeks burning red. Childermass’s magic had always had this effect on him but they had as of yet never been this close together when he’d cast a spell.
“Are you all right, sir?” asked Childermass.
Segundus nodded, because he didn’t trust his voice. The eerie light faded away, but even then he could not take his eyes off his friend.
In the bedroom, Childermass first removed his boots and then helped Segundus sit down on the bed.
“I do not wish to dirty your room with road dust,” he grunted, while he got down on one knee.
Segundus stared in astonishment at the top of Childermass’s head and hesitantly reached out with his hand. He’d for such a long time wanted to touch the matted brown locks. In the meantime Childermass pulled his shoes off and then placed a hand on his calf. He raised his head at the same time as Segundus touched his hair and the motion turned into an accidental caress.
“You need to take these off. Both your breeches and stockings are wet.” Childermass’s face shew no expression, as if someone had closed a door.
Segundus lowered his hand and said plaintively:
“I’m not sure I can undo the buttons. The room is spinning.”
“I can assist you, if…”
“Yes,” Segundus interrupted. Thoughts of Childermass undressing him seemed rather interesting. “If you’d be so kind.”
Childermass, with the same unreadable expression, began to unbutton his breeches. Segundus regarded him a moment, bit his lip and said without being able to stop himself:
“When you do magic…”
Segundus blushed and fell silent. Childermass’s fingers stiffened, but then continued to work on the buttons. He removed Segundus’s breeches and stockings.
Segundus gasped and then quickly continued:
“Ordinarily I can see magic. But when you cast spells I can for some reason also feel it. Only…only with you. I don’t know why. I’ve never experienced anything akin to this. It’s probably never crossed your mind, but it is really something of interest. It’s as if the magic is everywhere in everything but at the same time it’s in you, it is you. And it is as if my skin is gone, but it doesn’t hurt, there’s just nothing separating me from the magic, and I feel I can find answers to all my questions.”
Segundus drew a deep breath. The words clustered together in his mouth and wanted out. Segundus wasn’t sure that he could get them out in an intelligible manner, but could no longer hold himself back. Childermass gave no indication that he was listening. He got up and touched Segundus’s shoulder. He said:
“The waistcoat as well.”
In smallclothes and shirt alone Segundus shivered and looked down at his bare feet.
“Your magic is one of the most pleasant and strongest sensations I’ve ever had. And I think that means something.”
He fell silent. The words ran out. He didn’t know how to explain what he felt in any better way.
“I understand what you mean, Mr Segundus.” Childermass said this so quietly that Segundus almost didn’t hear the words. All of a sudden he saw that Childermass looked at him with an inexplicably serious gaze that always took him by surprize.
“Lie down now. Your feet are taking a chill,” Childermass said and drew the covers aside.
On a whim Segundus took Childermass’s hand and drew him closer.
“I’ll go to bed if you stay. Don’t go.”
“What are you to do with me? Do you wish me to tell you a bed-time story?”
“I don’t want you to go,” Segundus said stubbornly. For some reason he wanted even less for Childemrass to be alone than for himself to be so.
“It is the wine speaking. You’ll have regrets in the morning.”
Childermass gently tried to free himself from Segundus’s grip, but Segundus held on tightly.
“I will not.”
“I do not wish to quarrel with you,” Childermass sighed tiredly.
“So go to bed,” Segundus smiled victoriously and embraced him.
Childermass relented. But he was wrong to think Segundus would release him once he’d laid down.
“Beneath the covers, please, Mr Segundus,” Childermass said dryly.
“I’m not going to let go of you.”
“As you wish.” Childermass loosened his neckcloth and reached for the covers which he then threw over himself and Segundus. Segundus kept his word and did not back off to help Childermass in this. Instead he hid his face against Childermass’s throat to keep himself in the warmth.
Childermass stiffened, like a stone figure, hard muscles and sharp elbows. The thought crossed Segundus’s mind that this was what animals did when forced into a corner. He did not like this thought. He knew it didn’t have to be that way and tried to find a different position that would be more comfortable for Childermass.
“Stop squirming about or I’ll tie you to the bed.”
Segundus gave a sound that by no means could be likened to fear. Childermass cursed under his breath.
“Will you lie still if I tell you a story?”
“About a man that had no home.”
“How unusual, but let’s have it. I like unusual stories,” Segundus said, muffled. The warmth had begun to make him drowsy, but Childermass always told exhilarating tales and he readily wished to hear this one.
“Some time ago, a man was born,” Childermass began. “Nothing special could be said regarding his character, skills, intellect or other qualities which heroes often have. If this man was good or evil does not matter. That is for other people. What actually says something of him, is that he had no home.
“He opened his eyes and saw cold and darkness. He was passed from hand to hand. The walls around him often were replaced by new walls, at times there were no walls at all. He learned to walk, learned to talk and see. He looked out at the world and saw windows radiating light and warmth. Other people lived behind these windows, they had somewhere to go, somewhere to return. At first he was far too young to understand why he couldn’t have what everyone else had. Then he became far too grown up for it. The man believed that people such as he - who from their first breath scream into the darkness without anyone coming to their aid - had no place behind these windows in these clean and bright homes. He learned to live and get what he needs and pretend that he didn’t want anything. But wherever he went he felt incomplete, like a snail without a shell.
“He decided then to build a home. Only for himself.
“He built a house of dirt and the spring flood washed it away.
“He built a house of willow branches and lightning struck it.
“He built a house of stone and the stones crumbled.
“He built a house of books and the books gave him knowledge, but the wind blew them away…”
The rhythm of the tale had a sedative effect on Segundus that he couldn’t resist. His breathing evened out and his lips opened. He fell asleep.
Childermass fell silent. Only Starecross’s walls saw how he carefully tried to break free from Segundus’s embrace but then quickly gave up. Even fast asleep Segundus kept a tight grip on him.
Childermass allowed his eyes to close and continued softly:
“The man didn’t know that a home isn’t a place. And even if one finds it, one cannot always enter it.”
Starecross Hall had its own opinion about this. But no one ever asked to hear it. Not even magicians.
Segundus was awakened in the middle of the night by the rain rustling against the leaves outside. He often woke in this manner only to go back to sleep and dream of shadows of decaying towns, winding dark paths where he was alone and trying to find something. This time was different. Without opening his eyes, on the brink of a dream, he listened to himself. His head throbbed, something like a whirl at the back of his eyelids, but behind the foggy veil of sleep he could feel pleasure spill over him for each breath he took and which radiated all the way to his fingertips and forced his lips to part in anticipation and yearning sharp and desperate. In his sleep Segundus had turned and Childermass, who had tried to maintain distance between them before, lay spooned against his back as well as having laid a heavy arm across Segundus’s chest. Segundus could feel each heartbeat, each breath that tickled his neck and felt shivers run down his spine, his warmth - where their bodies connected. And something else, something that made Segundus breathe quieter and lie stock-still. The pleasure this gave him shamed him as if he were a brash thief. Childermass was, like Segundus himself, aroused, and the fabric of his breeches made no effort to prevent Segundus from feeling Childermass’s cockstand press against his buttocks. It felt like the most natural of reactions was to press against him even harder and slightly move his hips as if he still were asleep, as if it was allowed. Childermass muttered something in his sleep and breathed a gust of warm, moist air at the back of Segundus’s neck at the same time as he pressed closer. Segundus stiffened and prevented himself from moaning. He was afraid to wake Childermass and lay waiting while blood pulsed in his ears until he fell into deep sleep, soothed by the rain and Childermass’s even breaths, overcome by the night’s events.
In the morning the rain had stopped. When Segundus woke up he chose to lie still without opening his eyes. He wanted to remain in this strange world where nothing is yet decided and nothing, no matter if it had been come by undeservedly or unintentionally - had yet been taken from him. He felt strangely alert, and even if he didn’t understand the purport of his actions or words and a burning sensation of shame began to bubble up towards the surface, he remembered the previous evening in detail. Childermass was still asleep and their bodies were no longer tightly entwined, but Segundus could feel his warm breath against his shoulder and the weight of his arm. When Childermass didn’t hold back he seemed to give Segundus no chance to escape from his grasp. Segundus smiled. Such a thing should not have made him so happy but he could see something indescribably honest and sweet in it, all that Childermass was so careful to keep hidden by daylight.
He was suddenly afraid. What would Childermass do once he’d awakened and understood that he’d shewn this side of himself? Would he still want to speak with Segundus after all that had been said and done night before? Segundus was not sure he could survive without their letters and meetings, long discussions in the library and glances exchanged from behind dust jackets - all that they’d had across many long years. To his mind came the day that their spells had worked for the first time, how the light of belief had lit in Childermass’s eyes and his words: “You and I are two magicians, Mr Segundus,” that faith in his skills which Segundus needed. He thought of the story that Childermass had told him - of a snail without a shell. He was suddenly struck by the thought that it was very important, that it contained some sort of clue, and he hadn’t heard its ending. Could it be that he wasn’t alone in lacking something when he was alone? He also understood that he wasn’t sure if he could live on without all the things they hadn’t had before: a hand resting on his chest, the head resting against his back, the warmth emanating from his relaxed form. When you don’t have something but do not know how it could be otherwise it’s simple to be satisfied with less. But if you sow a seed of knowledge of how things could be, it will take root immediately, crushing the carefully constructed lie between yourself and the thing you wish for most in all the world.
He opened his eyes.
Childermass’s expression radiated calm. Segundus shuffled to better be able to see all that he hadn’t noticed before: the long eyelashes, small wrinkles at the corners of the mouth, deep shadows that had settled under the eyes. Childermass looked tired. Just a moment ago Segundus had been afraid that Childermass would awake and break their unintentional closeness, but now he just wished for Childermass to get some rest. Gaze resting on Childermass’s thin lips, Segundus was surprized he hadn’t thought to touch them the previous evening. Now he wanted that more than anything, that and to pull away the lock of hair that had fallen across Childermass’s face and feel his scent again.
He lost all sense of time, but after some of it had passed Childermass began to move. He wrinkled his nose and sighed - and slowly opened his eyes. Segundus was struck with how calmly he awoke; it was so unlike Childermass but at the same time he felt it was him at his most honest, outside the enclosed shell he showed the world. Segundus waited, with aching patience, to see how the shell once more would close around him - and it did.
Their eyes met.
“Good morning,” Segundus whispered.
Childermass’s hand twitched as if he now understood where it rested. He made an attempt to flinch away, but Segundus caught his hand and put it back.
“Mr Segundus, I…” Childermass frowned and his eyes sought something in Segundus’s expression without finding it, turning his gaze uncertain.
“You said I’d have regrets in the morning. I have none. I wished for you to know that.” Segundus blushed at his own boldness and lowered his eyes.
Childermass’s hand curled into a fist. He said nothing. When Segundus dared look at him again Childermass’s expression was hard-set, almost fierce. Childermass had never, not even when they’d just gotten to know each other, looked at him in such a manner. Segundus gave an involuntary shudder and that did not pass unnoticed.
An unsavory smile spread across Childermass’s face and he edged closer.
“You know not of what you speak, Mr Segundus. It’s very dangerous to not understand such things.”
Segundus caught his breath. He wanted to protest, to say that he understood everything precisely and that he wouldn’t let himself be ruled, but Childermass pushed himself up on his elbow and took a firm hold of Segundus’s chin, turning his face towards his. All words died in his throat; with wide eyes Segundus looked at his friend without recognizing him. Childermass’s thumb pressed roughly along his lower lip and he flinched once more. But Childermass grabbed his wrists and with a swift, precise movement pushed them into the bed, and slowly sat himself astride him. Heart pounding so hard it felt like it would explode Segundus completely forgot to breathe. The worst part was that he didn’t know if this was due to fear or excitement.
“Is this what you wanted, Mr Segundus?” Childermass made a sudden movement with his hips and pressed his hard cock against the bulge Segundus’s thin undergarments couldn’t hide. Segundus couldn’t help but moan and rise up against him, gasping for air. It was incredibly wrong, it was not at all what he wanted, but his starved body was now as strange to him as Childermass’s. “Do you dream of a man’s touch?”
The fabric of Childermass’s breeches needled Segundus’s naked leg. Childermass lifted Segundus’s arms above his head with one hand and harshly pushed his wrists together, while his other hand ran across Segundus’s chest towards hips and the prominent bulge. One finger slowly found its way under the fabric in a perverse attempt at a caress.
“I am just a vagabond, sir, but I am also capable of certain things. Shall I give you what you so wish for?”
Childermass’s face came closer, as if moving in for a kiss. A desperate thought entered Segundus’s mind - that their first kiss could not happen like this, it should be special and mean something. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head to try and break free.
“Exactly as I thought,” said Childermass and held him there, his grip even harder.
Segundus tried to calm down. What Childermass had said hurt more than his harsh grip - but in another way. There was so much bitterness to his words and it eclipsed all the other cruel words. And suddenly Segundus realized it was not with him Childermass was angry.
Childermass was angry with himself. A vagabond, he’d said. Someone not worthy of their own home. He was the person in the story, thinking Segundus would not remember in the morning.
But Segundus remembered. He felt a sting of pain in his chest. He knew there was nothing he wasn’t prepared to give to Childermass. Let it be forbidden and wrong a thousand times over - it didn’t matter. So why hesitate?
He drew a breath and stopped struggling. Then he opened his eyes.
Childermass stiffened and pulled away. He’d expected more resistance and wasn’t prepared that Segundus should relax under his unrelenting touch, and neither at seeing the open gaze filled with emotions. His cruel mask melted away as snow before sun. He swiftly pulled his hands away as if burned.
“You understood my wish, but not its cause,” said Segundus, trying to project calm. His voice trembled.
Childermass leapt out of the bed and stood beside it with balled fists. Segundus rose up and grimaced at the pain in his wrists. They were always very sensitive.
Fear and guilt shew in Childermass’s expression.
“I…” He fell silent, trailing off as he saw the red marks around Segundus’s wrists. “It’s best I leave.”
Childermass looked as had he been cuffed across the ear.
“You promised not to.”
“Please.” Segundus sat up and rubbed at his neck. “I am hungry. Let us eat.”
It was cold in the kitchen. While Segundus dressed, Childermass had time to light a fire in the fireplace, but the flames couldn’t chase the damp out of the drafty air. When the students returned to Starecross there would always be a fire burning in the kitchen, but Segundus didn’t wish to waste fuel with him alone there. At least not before winter. He regretted his decision now - it wasn’t cozy inside the house, not in a way that invited to stay inside, at least to hide from the gloomy autumn day at the chilly moors, if there were no other reasons left.
They ate in silence. The quiet felt as a splinter inside the chest, settling deeper for each minute that passed. It seemed the only way to make it go away was to reach across the table and bury his hands in Childermass’s hair, embrace him and assure him that all would be well, that it was all passed, that he was forgiven, and always would be forgiven no matter what he did. But he couldn’t. Segundus knew that if he were to touch Childermass now, Childermass would stand up and leave without ever returning. He waited and understood that it would be necessary to tell the truth. The whole truth, without holding back.
Childermass left his plate. Now, thought Segundus, now he’ll attempt to run away; not from me but from himself. From all he’d never had. From what he does not know. That which is destroying his world as it has destroyed mine. But it’s good, this way something new and beautiful could be born. I have witnessed this already in myself and should not fear. Now it is my turn to believe - for us both.
And before Childermass could give his reason for leaving, which he undoubtedly would have invented by this time, Segundus said:
“Please, listen to me.”
Childermass gave him a long look and then nodded. His hair fell across his face and obscured his expression.
“I owe you an explanation. No!” Segundus held up a hand to stop Childermass from contesting this point. “Let me speak my mind before my courage leaves me.”
He gave a doleful laugh and brushed his hand across his forehead. He trembled but pretended it was not so.
“I said and did many things yesterday which I usually never would have. Rather, I’ve never had the courage to do so. I remember all that happened and I want you to know: I would do it all again here and now, because though the wine gave me valor it did not alter my feelings. I only regret I couldn’t explain the true reason for my behavior. If you thought I wanted you just because I am lonely and have an inclination towards men’s company, this is my fault alone.”
“You are far too kind, Mr Segundus,” said Childermass.
“No!” exclaimed Segundus. “It is you who are too kind, Childermass. But not to yourself. You are worth more than thinking yourself as someone to warm another’s bed once. You’re one of the most distinguished persons I have met and I know life hasn’t been fair to you, but that doesn’t make you less extraordinary and worthy. It makes you even more so. Whatever you have done before, whoever you were, you are a good person. And you have always been good to me. Even when I was an unfortunate and impudent fellow opening a school - you didn’t tell Mr Norrell, though you could have - you gave me a chance. And later you gave me the opportunity to partake of your knowledge, your time and your friendship - and you think this isn’t a generous gift? What idiots you’ve surrounded yourself with! Idiots, who weren’t capable of seeing you.”
Segundus paused to catch his breath. Childermass was no longer trying to speak, only looking at Segundus, stunned.
“You must not think I’m deluding myself in regards to you. I know you are a complicated person with a vicious temper. But I’m not much better - and look how much we’ve accomplished together. I said nothing because I didn’t want to risk our friendship. I didn’t dare hope… But we’ve reached the point of no return - and I am glad for it. Those days you spend at Starecross are the days most joyous to me. I do not expect you to share my feelings, I just wish for you to know how much you mean to me. Wanting to be intimate with you is only a small part of it. I wish to understand you, get to know you - both the bad and the good. I wish to go to sleep and wake up next to you. To work, do magic, discuss books. I would share all I have with you. I know it’s not much. But if there’s the smallest hope…”
He reached out his hand and took Childermass’s, leaning his cheek against it and looked up at him.
“You are as precious to me as magic, John. If you find me inappropriate or foolish you can go, but Starecross’s doors will always be open to you. I hope you will want to stay.”
Childermass did not pull his hand away and did not leave.
He looked at Segundus with an entirely new expression, like a man who’d had a new door opened before them and behind this door something beautiful and fantastic and fragile shew itself. He looked as a man who wanted to believe, but at the same time didn’t dare to step across the threshold. A shiver ran down Segundus’s spine when he saw that look but he did not lower his gaze.
“I would like to stay,” said Childermass.
And so they sat for a long time, looking at each other without daring or wanting to do more. Then Childermass carefully let go of his hand, as if waking from a dream, and asked:
“How are you feeling?”
“Splendid. I feel like I could climb a mountain! Does one always feel this way after drinking wine?”
“I fear an unpleasant surprise awaits you this evening.” Childermass smiled slightly.
A thought suddenly struck Segundus.
“Oh! Where are my manners? I haven’t even offered you a bath after your long journey. I apologize, I only cause you trouble. You’ve just arrived, and at once had to take care of me even though it should have been the other way around.” Segundus at once lowered his eyes.
“No worries. You have nothing to apologize to. It is I who should…” Childermass frowned and cut himself short.
Segundus did not wait for him to continue speaking. Instead, he tried to sound unconcerned:
“I must insist that you be allowed to take a bath. I forced you to sleep in your clothes and gave you no chance to truly rest.”
“I am used to worse discomfort.”
“Isn’t it nice to be rid of those from time to time?”
“That may be, but your servants are not here,” said Childermass with a grin.
“That doesn’t matter,” said Segundus. “They must be given time with their families before the students return. My parents were rather poor, I am used to tending to myself and can assist you. It might be best to set the bath up here in the kitchen - it’s much warmer here than in the other rooms.”
“I accept your offer but on the condition that you use it first. Trust me, it will do you good.”
“But you are…” Segundus gave a laugh. “No, I shan’t call you a guest. Starecross is your home in the same way it is mine. It seems I must obey you.”
He thought he’d said something obvious, but Childermass again wore a stunned expression, like Segundus just had performed a miracle. While they heated the water and placed the large tub before the fireplace, Segundus tried to hide how confounded he was by this simple observation: he liked to be a person that Childermass looked at this way but at the same time it felt unbearable that any human being would be so much surprized by simple care. He wondered how much time Childermass would need to get used to it.
During the time they’d spent preparing the bath the room had grown very warm. Segundus wiped sweat from his brow and looked about himself uncertainly. Childermass didn’t seem intent on leaving and Segundus didn’t want to ask him to, afraid to be misunderstood. That something that now existed between them was far too fragile yet.
While he thought of this he began to untie his necktie and looked about for a place to put it. Childermass approached him soundlessly and reached out a hand. Something about his serious manner made Segundus blush furiously.
“Will you allow me to assist you?” Childermass asked quietly.
There were many reasons to decline the offer. Segundus found his body to be far too pale, thin and homely - not at all such a body that simply could be laid bare. He didn’t know what to expect, what Childermass actually meant by these words, but his low voice echoed in his chest with a force that spread in his blood. He felt a little aroused and knew he couldn’t hide it. But there was something more: there was something tense to Childermass’s posture, something like guilt deep in his eyes. Sometimes, thought Segundus, it’s so easy to confuse offers of help with appeals for help.
He let his necktie fall into Childermass’s hand and turned around to discard the rest of his clothing.
He thought he’d feel uncomfortable when he’d taken his clothes off, more uncomfortable than ever in his life and raised his chin as if challenging Childermass. But this was not necessary. Childermass’s steady gaze didn’t linger anywhere, but neither did it avoid anything. His abstemious touch was more soporific than the warm water which enveloped Segundus as soon as he lowered himself into the tub. Childermass carefully swept his fingers over Segundus’s hair, then the rough washcloth was pulled over his shoulders and downwards. Segundus obediently held out his arms and opened his eyes and saw Childermass go to his knees. It could’ve been for the sake of comfort so he wouldn’t have to lean over the edge, but to Segundus he looked like a man performing a magical ritual or who, if he dared think the thought, was preparing for worship. For the first time in a long time he thought of the church his mother took him to as a child; the dark-haired archangel with lowered head and a sword held in absolute humility towards the divine - with the weapon’s edge turned towards himself. As a boy he’d found that this statue held more power than the others with their straight backs and enlightened expressions. He couldn’t explain why it was so but now thought he was beginning to understand.
He wished to stop Childermass and say that there was no need… But he couldn’t finish the sentence, not even in his mind, and therefore he instead tried to breathe deeper, calm his heartbeat and swallow down the lump in his throat. His eyes stung.
When Childermass was finished he threw the cloth aside and caught his hands again - lightly, just touching them with his fingertips. Segundus noticed absent-mindedly that the ash which had gotten caught under Childermass’s nails hadn’t been washed away, he thought about breeches that surely had gotten wet. A fire should be made in the bedroom so Childermass wouldn’t get cold in the night. Anything, if only he wouldn’t have to see, to think about the haunted look in Childermass's eyes when they turned to his wrists; how he brought his face ever closer…
Warm lips were pressed against the fading marks on his skin. Once, twice - Childermass touched each of them and then said without looking up:
“I don’t know how to beg for your forgiveness. No words can rectify what I’ve done. Why didn’t you tell me to go away?”
“I’d never make you go away, John. Only if you would wish to leave.” Segundus tucked a lock of hair behind Childermass’s ear and put a hand on his cheek. “Will you believe me if I say all is well?”
He hesitated and then quietly said:
“Will you look at me?”
Childermass met his gaze. And so intense was the naked desire in his eyes, the regret, and somewhere deep within - hope, so wide-open, that Segundus’s hands found Childermass’s shirt collar on their own, grabbed and drew him closer, into the splash of water, into the droplets falling from his hair - he didn’t exactly know where this was going until their lips met and everything suddenly became clear and right, exactly like magic. Childermass hesitated a short moment, caught off-guard, his hands trembling without anchor and immediately tangled into the wet hair. He put one hand on the back of Segundus’s neck and kissed him desperately as a shipwrecked sailor reaching for a breath after swimming for the surface, as if everything else in the world had ceased to exist. It was desire, prayer and revelation all at once; Segundus had not known it could be this way, but now that he had a taste he knew there could be no stronger magic than this.
They broke apart breathing heavily, looking at each other as if they saw the other for the first time.
“I got your breeches wet.”
“That is only good.”
Segundus raised his eyebrows in surprize and smiled.
“I wish to say - I brought with me a change of clothes.” Childermass got up and helped Segundus out of the tub.
The smile didn’t want to leave his lips. Childermass looked splendid with tousled hair, dripping wet shirt and dark spots on his breeches.
Childermass turned around to allow Segundus to get changed in peace.
“If you have nothing against it, wait for me in the library. I wish to show you something.”
Right then Segundus would rather have remained there, but from the tone of Childermass’s voice he understood that it was something of import.
“Is it related to your long absence?”
Childermass gave a curt nod and began to undress. Segundus hurried out before he no longer would be able to make himself leave.
Of all the rooms in Starecross, which Segundus loved and saw as his own home, the library was the one he was proud of the most, the living heart of the Hall. Of course it wasn’t at all as grandiose as Mr Norrell’s but Segundus had nonetheless managed to collect a considerable amount of books here - not without help from Childermass, who had astonishing intuition regarding the matter and many contacts. Here, all was arranged in a way that appealed to Segundus; high windows to the north so the daylight never got too sharp; dark bookshelves along the walls, a couple of sturdy tables and a few comfortable armchairs. Some days Segundus didn’t leave this room at all - there were far too many magical secrets hidden here! With great diligence he’d tried to categorize the knowledge into some kind of system, but always ended up with new finds. And even though it gave some manner of satisfaction he felt that he was missing something of utmost importance, while time was disappearing through his fingers. There was something no magician could identify; he could not find the answer or even think of which question he should ask.
The book he’d been working with the previous evening and from which he’d copied whole paragraphs to go through with the students lay open on the table. He came closer, while his thoughts still strayed to what was happening on the floor below. How unbelievably soft Childermass’s lips had been! Segundus tried to imagine what was happening in the kitchen right at that moment, then immediately decided to disperse those thoughts; even when he pictured the tense muscles shining with drops of water it was too much for him to bear. He thoughtlessly observed the smooth calligraphy and stroked a finger along the edge of a page, gaze lingering on one word which he in his hurry had translated wrongly. His hand reached for a quill: he wished to correct it before he forgot.
He fell into the familiar rhythm of work al and did not notice how, line by line, he dove into the text. This was his element and refuge. He smiled when he found a particularly good English analogy for a Latin phrase - then started when he heard a polite cough next to him.
“Did you know you chew on the quill when you’re wholly entranced by your work?”
Segundus looked up and saw that Childermass watched him without a trace of mockery; just a small flicker of mischief crackled deep within his eyes.
“John! Have you watched me long?” Segundus put the quill down sheepishly. The tip was still a little wet.
“For ten or fifteen years.”
Segundus opened his mouth to answer, but then shut it again. It was of course just a joke; Childermass used the pause to settle down in one of the armchairs, radiating mischief. But the joke was strange in every possible way. Luckily Childermass saved him from having to answer:
“I was curious to see how long it would take you to notice that I was here. But I realized it’d sooner end up with my hair turning grey. It is futile to get between a man and his book.”
The last words he spoke while expressively looking at the ceiling. Segundus blushed.
“I think what I have to say actually would interest you, however, as it is a book I wish to discuss.”
Childermass produced an old and worn book. Despite its appearance - the cover was almost completely torn - one could sense arcane power emanating from its pages. Segundus thought he saw a pale halo, like moonlight enveloped in mist. Excited he reached for the book, but Childermass raised a hand to stop him.
“I promised to tell why I didn’t answer your letters.”
Segundus sat back down and made ready to listen.
“It is a lengthy and peculiar story, but I shall attempt to keep to the essential facts. For a long time, I’ve searched for the answer to one question regarding magic. A question so important to me that other questions has had to bow aside for it. Therefore, when I finally thought I had found something, I departed at once.
“My journey took me to a hill here in Yorkshire. On the rocks around it I could see unknown magical symbols. I understood I was about to step in Faerie, but could not turn back.”
Segundus frowned. Childermass threw a quick look his way and softly added:
“I came to a strange land where there was nothing but stones, bare trees, bones and a colorless sky. Stones formed a path under my feet. Sometimes I arrived at a crossroads but I always sensed a dark shadow at the corner of my eye, and it guided me. The moment I tried to look at it, it vanished. When I looked away it came back. It’s hard to describe. Like a sweep of black wings or the darkness that appears fleetingly when you blink. We walked for a very long time and at last arrived at a clearing filled with piles of bones. I no longer saw the shadow but felt that I had to combine the bones into a gateway - it was not my own idea but a command from someone. I don’t know what creature these remains belonged to, but it was difficult to make them fit together.
“I think most of my absence was spent on this task. Finally I managed to build something that looked like a door frame which I stepped through. And of all the places I could have ended up…”
“Where did you arrive?” Segundus asked, entranced.
“Do you recall the name of Matthew Parker?”
“The archbishop of Canterbury? Of course! Such a key figure for the reformation. He had a very interesting fate,” Segundus nodded excitedly.
Childermass continued in a bored tone:
“A close friend and chaplain of Anne Bolein, who somehow didn’t suffer the king’s wrath after her execution, vanished without a trace during Maria’s time on the throne and reappeared during Elizabeth’s reign and at once became the head of the church, even though he wasn’t as much as a bishop…”
“I think you’re trying to tell me something.”
Childermass raised his arms. The book glowed softly on his lap.
“I do not wish to speak of things of which I have no proof. I just wished to remind you of this. But you likely know his name for another reason.”
“His magnificent book collection,” smiled Segundus.
“What we actually know is that Parker was shrewd and liked to take such things that did not belong to him. To the great joy of Corpus Christi College, which inherited it all after his death.”
“But what has Norwich to do with this? Parker’s library is still in Cambridge. And as far as I know it consists mostly of religious texts.”
Childermass rolled his eyes heavenward.
“That man was obsessed with books. He even had recipe books in his collection.”
“I didn’t know that,” Segundus said with a laugh.
“You would have liked it. But that is not what I wish to get at. Parker was born and spent all of his youth in Norwich, before he moved on to Cambridge. And nothing prevented him from coming back afterward.”
“So this book belonged to him?”
“This book here,” said Childermass, “has an even more mysterious fate than the archbishop. It bears his mark. But it didn’t show up in any of the catalogs. I discovered it when I looked around in the ancient and decaying mansion I arrived at from the King’s Roads.”
He got up, walked over to Segundus and placed the book on the table.
Its whole history looked at Segundus from the binding which was almost wholly separated from its pages. It nearly looked as if someone had been chewing on its edges. There was no title, only deep gashes in the middle as if someone wished to erase it, which very well could have happened if the title had been engraved in gold - but who would treat a book in such a fashion? Segundus felt pity as he carefully turned to its first page.
“Some pages are missing.” He raised his eyes and looked at Childermass with uncertainty.
Childermass leaned on the edge of the table and nodded.
“And a fair share of them, I’m afraid. I don’t think they fell out on their own.”
“Someone tore them out?” asked Segundus, shocked.
“It’s happened to books throughout history.” answered Childermass vaguely. “Read it.”
Segundus’s eyes wandered across the lines. He frowned.
“The Magician’s Hunger.” He turned the page. “The Boney Woman, The Golden Bird. Are these…fairy tales?”
“Magical fairy tales.”
Segundus got the impression that Childermass was waiting for him to reach a conclusion, that he savored Segundus’s confusion like a hunter awaiting his prey. He had nothing against this - it felt like a game, and Childermass’s faith in that he would arrive at the right answer himself gave him assurance.
“They are nothing like the fairy tales I was told as a child,” Segundus said thoughtfully.
“That’s right. But they’re very much like the tales one can hear on the streets and out in the villages. They are the original versions that have been diluted, rearranged and rewritten to make more pleasant stories.” Childermass moved away from the table and inspected the book spines. He usually did this when he was thinking. “But they’re not just stories. Though we’ll discuss that at another time. Continue.”
At about the midway point in the book the fairy tales ended and a long text begun instead. It was hard to make out the words, at times they flowed together into a single splash of ink, and in other places pieces or whole pages were missing. They also didn’t look to be written in contemporary English.
“Going by this writing, this book has to be at least 500 years old!”
“That was the conclusion I reached as well. No wonder it looks like it’s about to fall apart. Like the only thing keeping it together is…”
“…magic,” Segundus completed the sentence. He found a paragraph he could read. “Magic does not make errors. Magic does not bargain. Magic is not created. It existed before time and will always exist. It is an element that holds the world together, the unity of light and darkness, the core of all living things, the underside of nature, the underside of humanity. The magician that casts a spell can only feel for this unity. He could use it to his own will but remain as blind as before as he does not know what he is doing. But this is…”
“The book of where magic comes from.” Childermass turned around. Segundus had never before seen him smile like that; so openly and playful; like a boy who’d managed an excellent mischief. However, Segundus didn’t think Childermass ever had smiled so even as a child.
Segundus found himself smiling back like a fool. But he did not mind.
“Magic is the source enclosed in each of nature’s creations. Everything from a grub to a human. From a drop of water to a tall mountain. It is indivisible and unchangeable.
“Those who can find it within themselves and not around themselves can become great magicians. Those who can see the magic within another will understand the meaning of magic.”
He fell silent. The palms of his hands at once felt heavy, too heavy and too warm to touch this fragile paper. The air was stuffy like before a storm. In this sultriness effort was required to say:
“You said you sought the answer to a question. Did you find it?”
Childermass leaned against a bookshelf. He spent a long moment not looking at Segundus.
“That book told me I was looking in the wrong place.”
“And you came back here.”
Segundus got up. Childermass nodded with an uncertainty that Segundus didn’t like. It seemed as if their only kiss, though wholly dizzying and fantastic (Segundus fervently hoped that Childermass thought so too), hadn’t been enough to convince him.
“I think I’m beginning to understand,” he said as he moved closer. “The innermost essence of magic. But I need help.”
“Are you sure I’ll be able to help you?” Childermass said hollowly.
Segundus sighed deeply and covered Childermass’s hands with his own. He took a step closer and slid his touch along Childermass’s fingertips up to his forearms and without warning pressed them hard against the shelves behind his back. And then said, looking straight into his widened pupils:
“I wish for no one’s help but yours.”
Slowly, so Childermass would understand his intentions and be able to stop him, if he wished to, he closed the distance to Childermass’s lips, touched them lightly with his own and drew back. Childermass shifted closer to him without trying to free his hands and met nothing but empty air. Segundus trailed his nose along Childermass’s cheek, his earlobe, and quietly repeated:
He wasn’t sure what it was he was doing. A person such as he rarely find themselves in such situations, if ever. But a kind of feeling, which he always had just within his reach, but never could find a name for and which, going by Parker’s book, could not only be the source of an urge to get closer to Childermass but the source of all magic, helped him forward. Segundus just had to close his eyes and trail his lips along the tender skin under Childermass’s ear, taste it with his tongue, bite the earlobe, draw closer to the quickly pulsing vein on Childermass’s neck - become an empty vessel, allowing all that he’d previously denied himself to enter him, kissing again and again, until Childermass’s eyes reflected the same madness and hunger and his lips whispered Segundus’s name.
And then - to press his whole body against Childermass, let him feel it, not able to contain a moan himself, withdraw to undo his breeches, not bothering with anything else. Stop Childermass’s hands just with a glance, not allowing him to touch, not yet. And then, after pulling the breeches down, go down on his knees and press a cold cheek to Childermass’s warm thigh, look up, grasp his wrists again and press them together yet harder than earlier.
Childermass was breathing heavily and looked at Segundus as if he didn’t see him. He tensed his arms lightly to try how firm Segundus’s grip was: Segundus held tight. They both knew that if Childermass truly wished to free himself Segundus wouldn’t be able to hold him in place, but that just made everything more exciting and real. Segundus took a deep breath to feel the scent of warm skin and arousal mixed with old books, and trailed along Childermass’s inner thigh with wet lips, lightly bit the pale skin and asked, at the same time as his thumbs massaged Childermass’s wrists:
“You blame yourself for doing so. You think you were cruel to me. Maybe I should stop and apologize as well?”
He pressed his cheek to Childermass’s cockstand and trailed his lips along it, suppressing a shiver. He looked up at Childermass and froze.
Childermass’s hips pushed forward with a quiver and he gritted his teeth as he moaned.
“No?” Segundus whispered. “Then you must forgive yourself.”
He touched his lips to the head and circled it with his tongue without letting it into the humid warmth of his mouth.
“Please.” Childermass’s voice was a husky whisper.
“Yes,” answered Segundus.
He wanted to say so much more but the time for words had passed. He at last allowed his hands to release their grip on Childermass’s. Childermass didn’t make use of his newly won freedom but instead frantically gripped the shelf’s edge. Segundus didn’t hesitate: the wait was already too long, the plea so desperate, and he wanted to do all in his power to answer it. He ached to give and to take, to drive Childermass to the edge, to mark. To wreck in order to gently create anew, himself or Childermass - he no longer knew. It no longer mattered and he lowered his head to allow Childermass within himself and begun to move fast and hard.
Childermass’s hands flew up and laid themselves on Segundus’s head. Fingers tangled in his hair and pulled - he probably didn’t understand himself, whereto - away or closer, deeper. His hips trembled with restrain and Segundus pushed them hard against the books, feeling some sound of protest deep in his throat, and then repeated it again and again, delighting in the deep moans that Childermass no longer could hold back.
Childermass’s hand pulled at Segundus’s hair, so hard that tears came to his eyes. But Segundus did not comply, just closed his lips even tighter, continued the steady rhythm of his tongue. He wanted it all, all the way to the end. Childermass let go of his hair and blindly gripped a shelf to steady himself; a couple of books fell to the floor but neither of them paid attention to this. Childermass’s body tensed and Segundus’s mouth was filled with bitterness and heat. Segundus squeezed his eyes shut and felt wetness on his cheeks but didn’t let go until it was over.
Childermass gasped for breath and slowly slid down to the floor, right onto the fallen books. Segundus felt burned by his wild, stunned look and was suddenly squeezed into the heat of his body. Childermass’s hands felt as if they were everywhere; he caressed and gripped Segundus hard, as if to make sure he was there, as if he still needed an affirmation. Dry lips touched Segundus’s eyelids and brushed against his tears, tongue touched the corner of his mouth; when Childermass kissed him Segundus could do nothing but press his whole body against him and grip his shoulders. He understood, through the fog that enclosed his mind, that he’d seated himself in Childermass’s lap and that this would have been incredibly inappropriate if Childermass’s hadn’t slid his hand into Segundus’s breeches and grasped - so good so right. It took only a few swift and precise movements for Segundus to give a cry, his eyes wide open to the blinding light.
Childermass slowly brought his hand towards his face and licked it. Segundus reflected in quiet wonder on the fact that his heart still remained in his chest and hadn’t been ripped from his ribcage, overwhelmed by a feeling - what Childermass did was extremely vulgar but at the same time disarmingly innocent and he didn’t know what he should do. Childermass solved this for him by embracing him and pressing his face to his hair like a great sleepy lion.
They sat like this among piles of books as if in a magical circle until the shadows beyond the windowpanes grew longer.
“I would not be able to let you go,” said Childermass.
“Good,” answered Segundus.
They sat in silence. Then Segundus raised his tousled head and asked:
“Who wrote this book?”
“That is unknown. The name can’t be discerned, nor the title. It is amazing it has survived as it is, despite being so unorthodox.”
“And it fell into your hands. What more have you found out?”
“The author tells the forgotten meaning of fairy tales. He writes that magic exists in everyone, and magical fairy tales were once used to find the source of magic within oneself. He spent a lot of time collecting them - a strange occupation when war and disease plagued the world.”
“Maybe not so strange after all,” said Segundus thoughtfully as he first caressed Childermass’s jawline with a finger and then, without being able to hold himself back, with his lips. “When there is no other salvation.”
“There is one more thing.” Childermass caught his hand, kissed it and looked at him. “At the end of the book there are some pages with notes. They appear to have been written some time later.”
“I think so, but I must verify the handwriting.”
“What does he write?”
“That’s what I’d like to ask you about. The old fox used ancient Greek. I cannot read it.”
Segundus’ face expressed surprize.
“Very strange for a person who gathered evidence for the superiority of the English language.”
He reluctantly freed himself from Childermass’s embrace and moved to the table to fetch the book. Childermass remained seated but grasped the opportunity to adjust his breeches. Segundus impatiently turned the pages until he got to the last ones and sat back down on the floor. He was at once pulled back into a warm embrace and given a firm kiss. Like Childermass could not restrain himself anymore. Segundus’s head began to spin and his breathing lost its rhythm.
“Read,” whispered Childermass.
Segundus glanced through the sentences and frowned:
“England is surrounded by fires. The she-wolf keeps it gripped firmly in her teeth and wishes to drag it back to her dark den. The other works of magic are not threatened by this, but this one I will hide from the people, before I set off on my journey. It has already suffered enough at the hands of those who veil themselves in the cloth of the learned and the pious. The name of its maker is unknown to me, but this is only one of the books that derives from the time when the Raven King ruled the North.”
Segundus lost his place. Childermass’s lips touched his temple, his hands caressed his back and he pressed against him, at the same time as he almost dropped the book.
He steeled himself and continued:
“The magicians nowadays are all fools. They believe that magic no longer exists in England. They don’t even attempt to look around themselves. They think it beneath them to examine the mud under their feet, the trees, the stones and say again and again the words they’ve learned and of course get no results. They will soon stop trying. And that is just as well. The secret exists on the surface and is available to all…”
“It reminds me of what Jonathan Strange said.”
Segundus gave a serious nod.
“And he managed to make them all see it. This book shows the way for those not afraid to look deep within themselves. We all have different paths. But if you are reading this you already know where your journey begins. This is not romanticized nonsense, I have truly put effort into making sure this book goes to a worthy person. I apologize for taking such liberties. And let me advise you, as a person who lost many years in vain and hid myself from the truth that I saw in the eyes of the most beautiful of women, at the same time as I shrouded myself in the vestments of a priest and the garb of the learned. If you already have been allowed to feel the rush of recognition, when your magic reaches through all obstacles and fears and sees itself in another - do not turn your back on it. Face it head on and embrace it with arms open, give it your heart without inhibition. In this and not in spells is the source of magic. I understand this now. Do not try to choose between love and magic. And then you will understand the words written on these pages.”
He fell silent and carefully put the book on the floor, next to the others. His cheeks were hot; Parker’s words mirrored what he felt when he spoke of Childermass’s magic. But he’d thought he was talking only of his own inner passion. This was now instead a whole new theoretical and practical approach to magic, and everything known to him. Segundus gasped. He’d never thought… But no. If he now should be honest with himself, if he shouldn’t shield himself from the shameful and scandalous idea and its greatness - did this not confirm that which he’d already suspected? Somewhere at the edge of his senses dwelt the question he didn’t know how to ask, or to whom. Wasn’t it so that he felt there was something more, something greater? Was it not the same feeling that surrounded him every time he looked at Childermass? Oh! at last he’d received the answer that explained everything! Segundus wanted to laugh.
Instead he touched Childermass’s cheek and asked:
“Do you now know the answer to your question?”
And Childermass answered:
“Yes. Now I know.”
“It is cold in here,” complained Segundus as he entered the bedroom.
Strong arms enwrapped his chest and pressed him to the warmth that emanated from Childermass. Like the last rays of sunlight from the summer sun on the falling leaves in an overgrown garden. Segundus closed his eyes and felt this spreading warmth with the whole of his being. His fingertips prickled in anticipation for touch. He had himself suggested they move here through saying it was uncomfortable to sit on the floor. He didn’t know what to expect and feared they’d both feel awkward. The library was known territory and it felt natural to discuss Parker sitting on Childermass’s lap, like nothing had changed between them. Would it feel the same in another place? But now he felt no need to be worried about that; the only thing left was a hunger that forced him to lean his head back and expose his throat to warm lips and shiver when hands were laid on his hips and pressed him closer.
“Shall I light a fire?”
“I’ve changed my mind.” Segundus turned toward the soft-spoken question and took a step back, eyes meeting eyes. He noticed how Childermass’s pupils widened making the warm color of his irises disappear almost completely. Childermass stepped after him. Closer. And closer - until Segundus’s feet stumbled over the edge of the bed.
Everything froze, to fall upon them just a moment later in a jumble of trembling hands, buttons - too small to be undone swiftly - and wrinkled fabric. They undressed themselves, trying to catch the other’s eye every time it strayed away, as if there was a connection that made it possible for them to speak without words, without touch. There would be a time to undress each other slowly, to pause for a kiss, or to tear each other’s clothes apart impatiently. But now they just wished to be naked, so after all these years of waiting nothing stood between them, to see, to take a breath and then, finally, embrace each other.
Segundus pressed his fingers to Childermass’ cheek and carefully followed the pale scar; he’d not dared do it earlier since it felt too intimate, as if he were touching not the skin but something that lay hidden from the eyes, concealed in dreams and the dark corners of memory. Vulnerable. Childermass, thought Segundus, would sooner laugh at the whole world and at himself, than ever let anyone see this vulnerability; now his eyes were earnest.
Segundus let his fingers trail lower, until they touched another scar, right above Childermass’s heart. The bullet had left a strange pattern behind - like a crystal of snow. He shivered at the thought of how little was needed to make this even rhythm under his hand cease, a rhythm which rose in intensity as he touched the scar with his lips. Childermass grabbed his shoulders hard, but he didn’t stop until he had kissed every line, every spot, imprinting his compassion for that day, for the pain and the darkness that no one should be made to meet alone.
Without saying a word Childermass cupped Segundus’ face in his hands and pressed their foreheads together. They were both breathing heavily; Segundus felt how exalted his body was. His blood seethed like whirling seafoam which first, tenderly, lays itself softly over sand and stone and then grabs you with endless force. He felt how this force reached for Childermass, wanting to go under his skin and tie their souls together so there no longer would be the need to seek, call and only be part of one whole.
It didn’t matter who was the first to give in. The kiss was neither greedy nor desperate, not exploring - it was a recognition, perfect and deep, greater than the touch of their lips, the determined movement of their tongues, light bites and muffled moans as their bodies caressed each other. Childermass carefully lowered Segundus down onto the bed and leaned over him while bracing himself on his arms. His gaze was dark and flowed slowly down over the skin of the tender neck and narrow collarbone, down toward the birthmarks on the chest, to the stomach and the hands grasping the covers. He lowered his hips, deliberately slow, and pushed, the movement all too light, inadequate, but his cock slid against Segundus’s and Segundus moved up and gasped for breath.
Childermass leaned on him and trailed his nose along Segundus’s cheek, touched his tongue to the small hollow between his collarbones and gently sucked at the skin. The weight of his body which pressed Segundus into the mattress made Segundus grab Childermass’s still damp hair and pull at the tie that held it back. Segundus pulled at the brown locks in a silent prayer and Childermass kissed him again.
Segundus lost all grasp of time and no longer knew where Childermass’s hands touched him; everything flowed together into one wave of heat. The only thing left to do was to follow it, hold on to his shoulders, hips, and hope it would never end. As if in a fog he felt Childermass roll over and pulled him up, so that it was Segundus’s turn to look down at him, to kiss his throat, press down harder and catch every moan that left the half-open lips. He didn’t at once understand that Childermass was no longer leading the way but instead only accepting what Segundus gave him - without impatience or anticipation opening to him to meet his hunger, which grew stronger and stronger, fueled by Childermass’s stronger body's compliance.
When he understood this, he paused and looked at Childermass. He smiled, softly, and met Segundus’s eyes with a look that made Segundus tremble. He never thought he could be a person someone could look at that way - as if observing something fragile and invaluable. Childermass kissed him slowly and then took his hand. He first kissed the palm, the folds of skin between the fingers and then, without warning, took his index finger into his mouth.
Segundus could not stifle an exclamation of surprize, which transformed into a moan; he had not known his hands were so sensitive; that the sensation of this tender and tight heat could make his blood seethe and flow to his already hard cock, as if that was what Childermass’s lips enclosed instead. Segundus’s hand was wet and Childermass released it.
“What do you want?” whispered Segundus.
“Everything. But now…”
Without taking his eyes off him Childermass bent his legs and spread them apart. Segundus drew a sharp breath. He’d never thought... Never fantasied…
“But I don’t know how… I’ve never…”
“I can show you. If you wish it.”
He had to squeeze himself hard to keep from climaxing right that second and then because of the image which appeared inside his mind. The pain made his head clear for a moment. Oh! How he wished it. To come together, to feel Childermass around himself and inside himself; he wanted everything one could do with a body, with the heart and with the soul. He hoped Childermass wanted the same.
“I didn’t anticipate you could get any more red than you already were,” said Childermass keenly.
“John! Do not torment me.”
“That was not at all my intention.”
Childermass kissed him yet again and gently pushed his hand downward. He guided him and showed him exactly how fast and how strong he should move his fingers, meeting his motions halfway, until it got easier and something changed. Childermass sank back into the bed and bit his lip with his hair damp across the pillow. Segundus looked at him with wide eyes and couldn’t believe that it was him causing this - he repeated the movement again and again until he was burned by Childermass’s gaze, dark like a lake on a moonless night. Childermass licked the palm of his hand and closed it around Segundus’s cockstand and bit his shoulder suddenly. The pain made Segundus feel something other than pulsing desire. He kissed Childermass’s forehead for a moment and whispered a few words as thanks; Childermass caressed the mark after the bite and then tried to turn over onto his stomach.
“It will be easier this way.”
“No, please-” Segundus immediately grabbed his shoulders. “I need to…”
He breathed out and continued:
He felt foolish having said this. But Childermass just looked at him with the same wonder and pulled him closer.
Segundus felt the tremble of every muscle in his body; he feared doing something wrong and causing Childermass pain. But while he moved - painfully slow without daring to close his eyes - Childermass hoarsely whispered that all was well and that he was doing everything right and caressed his arms, chest and jaw. Then Childermass thrusted upwards, till the end, and it was almost painful but it was all that Segundus wished for. Childermass spoke of the color of the heat in Segundus’s cheeks which spilled across the pale skin and spread downward across the collarbones and flourished on his ribs. He spoke of all the days he’d been jealous of a stray beam of sunlight that touched Segundus’s cheek, the book under his fingers, even the dust that settled on his shoulders. He said: you are so beautiful, so pure, so bright that I couldn’t believe there could be something so perfect in this world. I couldn’t touch you, I feared I’d sully you with my bitterness, but look what you do to me. Look - you took my heart and made it anew. You are everything - you are life, you are death, I won’t ever be able to let you go, stay with me.
He then fell silent and they looked into each other's eyes as if the heavens and the earth would perish if they turned their gaze away from each other, and Segundus was no longer afraid and he didn’t hesitate. The only thing left was that which was between them, and he wanted it faster, deeper, harder until he forgot where “I” began and “you” ended, until all boundaries were erased, and only an exhale - one for them both - and then the light and then - the silence.
He fell forward and pressed his wet forehead against Childermass’s shoulder. The world was once more beginning to appear around him: twilight and wrinkled bedsheets, cold, rapidly cooling their bodies, familiar walls of his bedroom. He was once more himself and tried to learn how to breathe again, while Childermess caressed his damp hair. Time flowed slowly past, moved around them, so as to not disturb them.
At last, Childermass carefully tried to free himself. Segundus gave up a sound of protest and embraced him yet harder. The quiet laugh tickled his ear.
“I must clean up this mess.”
“I shall not release you,” murmured Segundus. He felt warm and content and he didn’t wish to lose the source of all that warmth. “I’m terribly possessive.”
Childermass kissed his temples and stroked slowly along his spine, circled around the small indents by the hip bones. It was impossible not to respond to his touch and to refrain from tracing his lips against Childermass’s throat. There was something new to it: a certain purity, without passion, without expectations for something more, a movement just for this movement’s sake.
“I shall remember that for the future. But it is quite necessary. Allow me to take care of you.”
Reluctantly Segundus looked up at him.
“I don’t know what one is supposed to do…now.” He wrinkled his nose when he heard how unsure his voice sounded. “You are not leaving? I will grow cold if you do.”
“No,” said Childermass and touched his cheek. “I will not leave until you yourself wish it.”
Segundus let go of him and rolled onto his back. With half-closed eyes he watched as Childermass went over to the basin, wetted a piece of cloth, and began to clean himself off.
“I don’t know either.”
For a moment Segundus thought he’d misheard.
“What?” he said in surprize.
Childermass splashed water from a jug down into a bowl and brought it to the bed. He sat down next to Segundus, began to wipe his skin with the wet cloth, and then said:
“I don’t know either what one is supposed to do on an occasion such as this one.”
He put the cloth back into the bowl and looked away.
“My experiences are of a practical nature and have never been more than that. I’ve never wanted more.”
“But now you do?”
Childermass lingered as if he was reconsidering. Segundus’s heart squeezed painfully tight, but when Childermass raised his eyes he forced himself to meet his gaze only with warmth and patience. The time for fear and doubt had passed.
“Yes. If only you’d known how much.”
“Then leave everything on the floor and come back. We’ll make up what is right ourselves.”
Childermass caught his hand and brought it to his lips.
“I should probably still save us from accidentally stepping into cold water.”
He took a few steps away to place the bowl on the table by the window. Segundus closed his eyes, swayed by the calm the promise had presented him, and the sudden strange noise literally caught him off guard. He frowned to try and understand what the sound was before it struck him: Childermass was laughing.
Segundus had gotten to know Childermass well during all these years and he’d never heard him laugh in this manner before - so honest, without traces of irony or bitterness. He rose onto his elbows just to see Childermass quickly put on his shirt and breeches.
“Just a moment. I promise to return quickly.”
Segundus didn’t have time to answer - barefoot and wearing an unbuttoned shirt, with a queer smile on his lips, Childermass rushed out the door. Segundus did the only thing he could in this situation: leaned back against the pillow and closed his eyes.
In his sleepy haze he felt a cold gust of wind and in it - the scent of autumn soil, the sweetness of heather and wild apples and the sharp bitterness of leather, of old books mixed with the entwined scent of their bodies. He waited for it to fill everything around him and opened his eyes.
Childermass stood over him with the same queer smile. Segundus felt an acute desire to kiss him, so strange keeping in mind what they’d done just a moment ago. But before he could do anything Childermass reached out his hand and opened his closed fist.
“Look here, magician. This came into bloom in your garden.” A handful of thin, almost translucent flowers fell down onto Segundus’s chest. He carefully picked up one of the flowers and held it close to his face. White petals shaped like a small cup, fragile serpentine stems…
“Snowdrops! But it’s October!”
“October. As if your flowers would follow any rules.”
Segundus’s face brightened.
“They aren’t mine alone, magician. They weren’t here yesterday.”
And Childermass kissed him.
Segundus was brought to wakefulness by a queer feeling. The lightness he’d felt earlier was replaced by stiffness of his whole body as if someone slowly was pulling out his veins. To that was added a painful pulsing sensation at his temples and vertigo at the mere thought of moving.
He opened one eye carefully. Childermass had not left but was reading the paper in the oil lamp’s glow. His long legs lay upon the covers, crossed at the ankles. Segundus edged closer to him, careful to not let his head leave the pillow, hesitated at first but then put his head in Childermass’s lap.
“What has happened to me?” he asked unhappily.
Childermass looked away from the paper to throw an evaluating glance at him.
“Hangover, a consequence not even magicians may escape.”
“You mean this is not because of what we did?” It felt as if someone had put sand in his eyes and Segundus could barely keep them open.
“Oh no, one doesn’t get headaches from such things.” Childermass’s jestful tone didn’t cohere with how carefully his cold fingers brushed against Segundus’s forehead, temples and hair.
“I’ll never drink again.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Never. Wine is expelled from Starecross. If it tries to return I have a rifle and nuts.”
“Hmm.” Childermass made a movement with his fingers that made Segundus shudder and the pain lessened. “Such a shame. I’d begun to like it. One can find out many interesting things through it.”
They fell silent.
“Yes?” Childermass’s hand froze in its movement.
“Yesterday, when I spoke of your magic. What did you mean when you said you understood?”
“So you remember that.”
He put aside the paper, took Segundus’s face into his cupped hands and said:
“I feel it too. From the very start. When you are with me it feels like coming home. It’s as if your magic receives me, speaks to me. I wished to know why that is. But the answer has always been here. It is you.”
He placed his arms around Segundus’s waist and Segundus asked:
“Does that mean you’re going to stay?”
“Parker’s book is invaluable. Someone has to interpret it.”
Segundus hid a smile in the creases of his shirt.
“I will still have to travel a lot. The rebirth of magic is our responsibility. You have a school while I must deal with tasks no one else can undertake. If you have nothing against that… If you wish it, I can from now on always come back here, to you.”
“I have nothing against that at all,” answered Segundus.
Evening slowly turned to night. In the garden the flowers closed their petals to open them again in the dim morning light and cold autumn dew. One day they will fall to the ground and come back into the earth but then something new will grow under the wild blackthorn - such was the nature of places so overflowed by magic. Starecross Hall could have told so much about this, it had seen so many generations of magicians. Everyone knows that houses such as this, where magic emanates from the walls, like cracked paint that has been covered by a new fresh coat - are peculiar. But no one understands what makes them special. Ordinary people see them as eccentric old men, or fear them even. Those who are adept in magic feel something they cannot explain and brush it aside like an irritating insect. Rarely one meets a person who can truly hear and believe. It could be that the current master is such a person, his eyes are open wide and his soul is pure - the house had liked him from the start, and that is why he's remained. Now he’d learned one of the most important lessons: one has to face one’s fears to get anywhere. He is the heart of the house but his heart doesn’t belong to him alone. It is bound to another and fills everything around him with power, beating evenly and fierce in his sleep and doesn’t just stir the blood in his veins but also his magic - in each shadow and corner of the house. And Starecross Hall creaks its steps, rustles dry leaves and whispers forth a story for two - the most important and most secret story of them all. A house is not a place, but those who dare cross its threshold receive so much more than they’d ever expected.
The magicians sleep. Their bodies are entwined in such a way that one cannot see where one of them begins and the other ends, but that is not at all necessary. Their magic is one, as are their dreams. And somewhere, among the eternal reflections and the rustling of black wings that one only can see at the corner of one’s eye, a new day awaits, and a new world. The first thing they’ll see in it will be each other.