Work Header

before the world was big

Work Text:






With the mill on fire behind him, only a little below the sunrise, Grant looks out at the men -- hats doffed, bandages dirty. He is glad of the six cannon. He is glad that -- God, and Strange-willing, the bridge will be moved soon, and the dead will be dead once more. Everything before him is golden in the light -- soft, cool to the touch. He does not look back.

But he can hear the fire, and smell it on his jacket when he turns his head. So he tries not to turn his head. He is used to it, anyway. This is one of the better smells of war -- like charcoal, like smoked ham, the time he’d travelled to the Suffolk as a younger man, with friends from London. One of them had had an estate by the sea, and liked to talk of mermaids, but they only ever saw seals. The smoke stuck to the roof of his mouth but the ham fell apart on his tongue. It had been so pink.

The sea outside had churned the whole time they were there, grey and pockmarked as the sky.

But now is not the time for any of that.

Better to smell the burning than the thing that it burns. He flexes a hand.

Maybe not. Maybe it is better, sometimes, to remember.




“Get away,” Grant says to the men who are hanging around the mill, trying to pretend that they weren’t trying to get a glimpse of the dead men. As if they hadn’t seen enough already. As if at least one of them hadn’t hidden from the sight only days before. “You have duties.”

It catches fire almost immediately.




Grant takes the gun from Strange, making sure that it is pointing far away from -- well, anyone who wouldn’t be able to bear the damage. He rests his thumb on the metal, and can’t -- for the minute -- tear his eyes away from Strange. He looks like he’s seen hell. Maybe they’ve taught him their dialect, maybe a handful of days is enough even for living men -- except, no. Now they know it again, they surely haven’t spoken anything except their native Neapolitan.

Naples is of course, very beautiful, but even if it was not, it would have to be very dismal indeed to not be a better memory than hell. He cannot blame the dead men for speaking its language once more, even though they will never see it, or those who live there, again.

What did Strange think he was doing, shutting himself away in here with them.

Strange doesn’t smile when Wellington mentions the wives and mistresses waiting for them. He has a wife. He has mentioned her before. He even seems to like her. His eyes are very pink, and Grant is very glad when he leaves. They don’t have time for this. Magic is meant to make problems go away -- it should not make them linger.

But perhaps getting to know the dead -- just by sight -- will help him in the end. Mutilated faces and their slowness, and everything else about them. What do dead men want? The same as the living.

Wellington asks Grant to shut the dead men in and to burn the mill with them inside. It’s not a way he’d choose for living men to go, but dead men? It should be fine enough for those who are dead. They are slow of body, slow of heart, and it seems that they do not feel it when they are shot.

They are easily shut away, and once the hatch is shut he flares his nose. He cannot smell them anymore. The smell is what you don’t get used to.

He allows himself a moment to think of the men -- to think of how they must have been when they were men. He allows himself to regret the burning, even as the fire spreads.

He allows himself to think, it would be better if there was another way. He thinks of the look in Strange’s eyes. He thinks of looking at Strange as he took back his gun, and how he will remember it whenever he hears somebody talk about magic

But it is war-time, and nobody can choose the manner of their death here or even back at home in England, or Scotland, or even, yes, Naples.




“I cannot, in any way, reverse it. I have tried everything,” Strange says. His hair looks damp with sweat. The men shuffle towards him again. It is probably very cold to be dead. No blood. The only blood they have is -- Strange’s. They come to him like moths towards fire at night, and wasps to sweets in summer.

“Everything?” Grant says. He thinks about Strange saying, over dinner, that a gentleman would never use magic to actually kill a man.

But the look on his face --

Strange takes the pistol from Grant’s pocket and, in a fluid motion, shoots one of the dead men in the arm. The dead man looks down at the wound, uncomprehending, because the small amount of blood that splutters out doesn’t mean anything. And then he starts to plead again, in the same tones as before.




“Set them loose and let them wander in the bushes,” Grant says. There is nothing else to do. Wellington is asking for Merlin -- he has a bridge that needs moving, hopefully one that is less stubborn than the trees -- and Lord Wellington is not a patient man. If he was, they’d all be dead too.

“Look at them, poor wretches,” Merlin -- Strange -- says. Apparently he has done nothing else these past few days. “What do they say?”

Grant pauses. It’s not an easy dialect for him to understand at the best of times -- but, yes. They say what he is sure they have said many times. “They... plead with you not to send them back to hell.”

The dead men surround Strange. If they were alive, and armed, in these clothes, it would be menacing. Now, it is -- unpleasant. It’s a wonder Strange is not choking on the air. “They ask you to send them home to their little sons and daughters.”

It will not do. Can they not see themselves? He supposes they cannot smell. It is for the best if they cannot smell. They would scare their own little children away. And how would they get there? They cannot spare horses, or men.

It is a shame that there was no other way to get the six cannon. But it is done, and if it cannot be undone -- well. There are ways other than magic to kill something. Even, he supposes, something that is already dead.




It has fallen to Grant to look for Merlin. His Lordship has decided that they are friends, and he is not going to bother to try and disabuse him of the notion.

Wars have made friends of stranger men than they.

He knows where Merlin is -- everybody knows where he is. It is not a matter of looking, but of persuading him to leave.

“What the devil are you doing up there?” he asks. Merlin has pulled himself up high, close to the ceiling. It looks like -- a hay loft, but there are no animals housed here.

“I do not know how to make them dead again,” he says. Grant looks at them. The jerky movements of their hands. They are -- imploring. He has heard tell of Sir Walter Pole’s wife, back in London, back from the dead, who is now never seen -- is she like these men? Only, has she been allowed to privately rot in some high-ceilinged bed-chamber?

Well, there’s no point in leaving Merlin to rot here with them. Lord Wellington has decided that he is useful, and so useful he has to be.

Besides, it does not do well to dwell on the dead, whether you can see them or not.




In truth, they do not remember their children very well.

When they close their eyes, they see hell. They taste spit, and volcano-ash.

They know this taste: it is of bad summers. But most that is good has gone. White dresses and brown skin. Ice in summer? Grapes with thick skin. But no faces. They don’t even have their own faces.

There are holes where they used to be.

They don’t really remember faces either.

Faces are made of holes.

They want to go home so that they might know it all again.




There is a once-popular Northern English folk-tale, collected with some later editions of A Child’s History of the Raven King, that concerns a quarrel between John Uskglass and one of his most trusted servants, William of Lanchester, that is known to have lasted for many years.

The tale concerns a bridge cast of fairy-silver, in a now-lost village some thirty miles away from the Raven King’s seat in Newcastle. The Raven King had been hiding beneath the bridge -- in some accounts from a marauding Scottish army, in others from an angry baker-woman whose tarts he had allowed to burn (it is the second that is more widely published, and which appears in A Child’s History of the Raven King) -- when his boots were spotted by a newly-married couple. They were of a very peculiar shade of black, and not difficult to spot. Being very young, and not being much accustomed to travelling, the couple did not know that the man they saw under the bridge was their king -- they thought him a vagabond who made a habit of spoiling tarts, and they gave his location away to his enemy.

John Uskglass, much angered by the actions of the newly-weds, put a curse on the bridge, meant to affect all couples who cross it on their way to get married. The desired effects of this curse are not recorded.

It is said in the tale that not long after this occurrence, William of Lanchester crossed the very same bridge with his betrothed, who was native to the area. His king had not warned him of, or recorded, the curse.

There are no other records of William of Lanchester’s wife having ever existed.

Because of similarities between this tale and other recorded tales of Medieval saints and kings -- most notably, that of Saint Edmund of East Anglia, and the gold bridge of Hoxne, many scholars have concluded that it has little to no historical basis.

The quarrel itself, however, is recorded elsewhere. A marginal note in a manuscript of Martin Pale’s says only that the two men had argued about death. Catherine believes that Lanchester’s argument was the correct one, he adds, in a later hand.




Strange does not know how he knew that it could be done. Just like he does not know how he knows to spit in the dead men’s mouths to allow them to speak languages of earth again, but he does know it, and so he does it. They are made of rot, and gouges, and now it’s his blood and spit as the sticky gum and the gunpowder that hold them together and make them move.

Sometimes magic comes to him like a fever, or like a word he had forgotten and has been trying to remember for a very long time. Like a persuasion, or a page more of a letter he thought he had finished reading. Waking up in the morning with the taste of a pastille already on his tongue.

This magic is sour. He puts a hand to his head, and almost expects to feel blood there.




They do not want to go to war. Who wants to go to war? But it is not their own country they fight for, and it is not their enemy they mount against, and it is not their decision to make.

They have had enough of their own fighting. Bonaparte has installed his own king, as a reminder of their own fighting. And now they are to fight English men, and probably they will die at the hands of English men. And all the while, their enemy stays at home, here, in Naples.

Their sons peel oranges with little blunt knives instead of their sharp fingers, and their daughters are allowed to try coffee for the first time, and they spit it out because it’s too hot, or it’s too bitter, and they wipe their mouths with the backs of their hands. “Papa,” their children say. “Do you have to go?”

“Yes,” they say, because they are very little, and it would take too long to explain.