Lord Wellington regularly demands the impossible from his engineers and generals. He sees no reason to make allowances for his magician.
Strange seems a decent sort. He's laughably unaccustomed to war of course, but adapting quickly, and adaptability is a quality that Lord Wellington admires in a gentleman. Adaptability wins battles, the sorts of battles where direct assault is impossible due to enemy numbers but a shrewd tactician may yet prevail. Those of his men who fail to adapt to a soldier's lot live short and unhappy lives.
Prior to his arrival in the Peninsular, Strange's reputation preceded him. Lord Wellington doubts that news of Portsmouth has reached the lower ranks but gossip in the officers' mess is of magical horses drawn from the very sands of the ocean. Strange is said to have harnessed the packet ship False Prelate to these creatures, thus freeing her from the shoal whence she had run aground. Lord Wellington would not have believed it, except that this morning he had witnessed the very stones of Santa Maria del Porto walk themselves, and their disgusting excess of gold, clear across the valley and out of temptation's way. He is not opposed to flogging as a disincentive to looting amongst his men but dislikes finding himself obligated to hang repeat offenders.
Lord Wellington had deliberately mistaken Strange for the other magician, Norrell, upon their first meeting but Strange's feathers had remained modestly unruffled at the slight, and thus had he passed Lord Wellington's first test of character.
Character testing is important where trust is to be placed, and when the lives of so many hang in the balance it is essential. The usual process is gradual and far more natural: an officer earns his stripes; a politician demonstrates diplomacy and thus bolsters his reputation. Unfortunately, time is short and Strange has been thrust upon them, as fresh-faced to society as he is to battle. Those fools in London are either naïve or desperate, and probably both. Drastic measures are called for.
Honestly, Lord Wellington would prefer not to. He feels like one of the detested school masters at Eton, caning a boy for something that can't be helped; stuttering perhaps, or forgetting his sums. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the budding tyranny of Napoleon's French must be brought to a timely halt. The Empire herself is in jeopardy, and a good portion of her defences reckon upon his command. He will not allow them to be compromised by an illusionist, no matter how refined his manners. Grant was quite correct to counsel him against blindly trusting the man.
Strange enters the tent in the same shirtsleeves and breeches he wore for the relocation of the church. Lord Wellington approves the lack of a wig and finds the unruly curls rather charming. Still, the man could benefit from a good hat. He has the bearing to carry off many of the more elegant fashions. “My Lord,” Strange replies. He is only a little on edge, non-threatening in his demeanour but quietly confident nevertheless. He ought to be more wary.
“Can you liberate us from our long-range audience?” Lord Wellington asks, getting immediately to business. “I would consult with you in private this evening.”
Strange raises his eyebrows but nods and immediately begins the incantation, fingers at his temples. Lord Wellington had been expecting him to go running for one of his books, as he does for any and all other spells. He might have realised that this one incantation would already have been of interest. All men feel the need of privacy from time to time.
“Leave it in place at all times,” he tells Strange, “And be a good fellow and extend it to my person. I have no wish to be spied upon by London, and dogged by politicians wherever I go.”
“As you wish.” Strange hesitatingly takes hold of Lord Wellington's shoulders to cast the spell, apologising with his face for the necessity of touch. The poor man has no idea how intimately acquainted they are about to become.
“Is it done?” Lord Wellington asks, when the chanting has ceased. There is no discernible shift in ambience but Strange appears satisfied by the result.
“Yes My Lord. I cannot attest to the efficacy of the spell for other magicians, if indeed there are any, but Mr Norrell and London can no longer see us.”
“Remove your waistcoat.”
Strange does as he's told, curious but compliant, placing the garment on the back of a chair. The evening is balmy and better suited to his shirt in any case.
“Are you a religious man?” Lord Wellington asks.
“My brother-in-law is a minister,” Strange replies. It is hardly an answer and they both know it.
He takes Strange's hand in both of his own and holds on tightly. Strange is obviously uncomfortable but does not try to pull away. “You will tell me everything,” Lord Wellington states. He does not add a proviso but the threat hangs between them unspoken. “Are you a religious man?” he asks again.
“I- I do not regularly attend church,” Strange says. “Which is not to say that I never attend, only that I am not the most religious of men.”
Lord Wellington releases Strange's hand. “Unlace your shirt,” he instructs, and when Strange hesitates he says again, “Unlace your shirt, I wish to inspect you.”
He watches realisation dawn on Strange's face as he follows the order; the need for privacy and the personal questions an indication of where their meeting is headed. It should not be so invigorating to have the magician at his mercy, and yet this man inspires enthusiasm where almost nothing else does any more. He is keenly aware that there is nobody within a thousand mile radius who outranks him.
“Are you a Satanist?”
Strange looks shocked. “No! I-”
“It would go hand in hand with black magic. One may be forgiven for assuming...” he points to the chair and Strange lays the shirt atop his already discarded waistcoat, letting go of the garment gingerly.
“Please, My Lord, I assure you I am a good Christian, or at least as good of a Christian as most English gentlemen may claim to be.”
Lord Wellington has no doubt of it, would indeed be more worried by religious dogma than religious indifference, but he wants Strange on the back foot so he makes no comment.
“And your finances?” he enquires. “Arms out please,” he adds.
“What of them?” Strange asks, defensively, “My Lord.”
Lord Wellington traces the contours of Strange's body with his fingertips, knowing that a light touch will be more unnerving. “Might our magician be corrupted by the lure of enemy riches?”
“No, My Lord,” Strange protests. “I have inherited my father's estate, which is substantial I assure you.” He bites his bottom lip when his nipples are pinched and tugged.
“How much?” Lord Wellington demands. “There must have been an estimate written upon your inheritance of the estate.”
He tugs at Strange's underarm hair and the man looks scandalised. It's all he can do to keep a straight face.
“I'm not sure. Really, I don't see how the details can be relevant,” Strange says, only adding, “My Lord,” when fixed with a glare.
He guides Strange's arms down to his sides. “What might you be corrupted for?” he asks. “Is there anything that you would put before King and country? Is there anything worth committing treason for? Anyone?” They are rhetorical questions, of course; only an idiot would confess to contemplating treason, but they put Strange suitably ill at ease.
“Nothing, My Lord. I am an Englishman through and through. King and country.”
Lord Wellington steps in close, so close that there is barely half an inch between them. Strange is backed up against the desk with nowhere to go but his nerves show no sign of giving way to panic. Lord Wellington is accustomed to the stench of unwashed soldiers. Every man has a smell, even the well washed generals in the Portuguese sun. He is grown so accustomed to close quarters that mostly, it passes without his notice. He is once again surprised to find that Strange smells enticing, that he would not mind closing the distance. “Tell me,” he says, “What is it like to wield the power of the elements?”
Strange barks a surprised laugh, forcing Lord Wellington to step away. “I'm sorry, My Lord,” he says quickly. “It's just- I don't think of myself that way.”
Lord Wellington is very pleased to hear it. He wants to smile with Strange. The man is infectiously agreeable. He tries to compose his expression but maybe Strange sees through him this time because Strange's small smile lingers.
It is another flicker of pride from Strange, not so much as to cause concern but it is always there. Pride, narcissism, arrogance; a beast of many names, it bubbles just below the surface of Strange's self-depreciating facade. When he is pushed there is a golden outburst of defiance, and Lord Wellington acknowledges his own matching character flaw that makes him want to push Strange, harder until the facade is all but forgotten.
He took a hit to the knee at Seringapatam. It's perfectly functional but late in the day it aches. Lord Wellington is a practical man who sees no sense in standing around and making it worse when he could be sitting, so he sits. “Are you married Merlin?” he asks. “I think you are. Tell me about her. Her name if you please.”
“Arabella,” Strange says, wary now. Not that it will do him any good.
“Arabella,” Lord Wellington repeats, patting his lap. “Is she beautiful? Kind? Virtuous?”
Strange is staring at Lord Wellington's lap with a look of utter disbelief, and Lord Wellington may be at a height disadvantage, seated as he is, but he stares Strange down all the same. Lord Wellington once stared down the Marathan Army at Assaye. Strange is no great challenge by comparison.
Strange begins to lower himself and Lord Wellington turns him, guiding him down into the age old position of a child about to receive its punishment. “Arabella is all of those things,” Strange says in a strangled voice.
“Do other men desire her?” Lord Wellington asks, resting his hand upon Strange's lower back.
“I have no doubt that they do, My Lord,” Strange replies stiffly.
“Will she remain faithful to you in your absence?”
Strange is silent for a long moment. “Yes, My Lord,” he replies eventually in a carefully controlled tone.
“Lower your breeches.”
Strange is clearly head over heels in love with his wife, lucky woman. It is a state of existence that is exceedingly rare in the modern age. Lord Wellington hopes, for Strange's sake, that his affections are returned. It would be a pity for a man such as Strange to be broken by the whims of a fickle bride.
The baring of his behind, in combination with the line of questioning, has Strange vibrating with anger but he remains compliant and his reactions are well within the realm of acceptable conduct. It bodes well for being able to control his temper. A magician with a short fuse would be a liability, to understate the case.
The first crack of Lord Wellington's hand against Strange's buttock flesh startles both men to stillness.
Strange says, “Please, must we-” and Lord Wellington strikes him again, harder than before. He sets a rhythm of regular, predictable blows. There is much to be learned from the way in which a man handles pain.
“What, I wonder, would Arabella make of this?”
Strange makes no reply. He tries to remain stoic and still under the onslaught, as expected. Lord Wellington is loathe to use a belt or cane, since Strange has done nothing to deserve punishment, but he hits Strange hard, reddening Strange's flesh so that his hand stings with the effort. When Strange can no longer stand to be immobile, his body twists away from the blows and reacts predictably to the friction from Lord Wellington's thigh. Hand delivered blows are insufficient to cause Strange to cry out however, and Lord Wellington halts the spanking when he judges that Strange's backside, and indeed his own hand, have undergone quite enough abuse. He does not want to break Strange after all, only test for weakness of character. He touches the raw flesh lightly in apology. Interestingly, this does provoke a verbal response from Strange, in the form of a low and broken moan.
“Pass me the grease. It is on the desk, just in front of you.”
There is another delay, a tense moment wherein Strange's pride is sorely tested, but he reaches up finally, without comment, and does as he is asked. The muscles tense and flex in his jaw. In all probability he is grinding his molars.
Lord Wellington spreads the grease, over and around Strange's opening, making no concession to the rude incursion upon Strange's most intimate place. Long minutes pass this way. Strange's manhood lies trapped and erect, dampening Lord Wellington's thigh through his infamous white linen breeches. His opening begins to relax, muscles twitching in anticipation.
Finally Lord Wellington says, “Tell me Merlin, do you wish to be penetrated?”
Strange shudders, head to toe. “No, My Lord,” he says. His body says otherwise.
Lord Wellington smirks, since Strange can't see his face. He continues the focussed massage for another minute and then asks again, “How about now?”
“No, My Lord?” It sounds very much like a question.
“Elaborate please. What do you want exactly Merlin?”
“I would be grateful if you would-” Strange shudders again but soldiers on, “-let me up. I am, of course-” he gasps at a fresh application of yet more grease, “-at your service, but given the choice I should like to return to my quarters now, My Lord.”
It is a most pleasing outcome. Lord Wellington is delighted to find that he can easily detect when Strange is lying. “Stand up,” he says. Strange gets shakily to his feet and Lord Wellington presses him back against the desk. “Hold onto the desk,” he instructs, parting Strange's thighs and pushing his fingers into Strange's body.
Strange has conducted himself with decorum in the face of cruelty, pain and degradation. If he can also keep his composure at the height of arousal then Lord Wellington will be suitably impressed.
“The strength of character required to trust unquestioningly in one's superiors is sadly lacking in many English gentlemen,” he says into Strange's ear, curling his fingers and seeking Strange's pleasure. Strange whimpers when he is discovered but his hands remain obediently at the desk. “It is my great pleasure to find that you are naturally inclined to follow orders.” His words, although undoubtedly humiliating for Strange to hear, are honest enough. Strange needs to understand that he must go through this ordeal, and it would not do to be thought excessively cruel. However, Lord Wellington is surprised to find just how great of a pleasure Strange's capitulation is; his own breeches are tight to bursting with it.
Strange bucks and moans, surrendering to his pleasure when Lord Wellington closes his free hand about Strange's straining member and begins his stroke. There is some hedonism then, he thinks: a likely bed fellow to Strange's pride. There is also a little too much enjoyment of the intimacy between men: Strange's reactions to him are too strong to be explained by the purely physical. However, these quirks are also Lord Wellington's own, and so he cannot fault the man without committing an enormous hypocrisy. He has an idea that Strange is only now discovering these small deviances that lie buried within himself. Lord Wellington is a firm believer in knowing oneself, lest one is surprised by an unexpected weakness that may be extorted by one's enemies. In this sense, he is doing Strange a service. No doubt he is also teaching Strange a lesson that will not be easily forgotten.
“I wonder, could magic intensify the intimate pleasures of the flesh?” he asks.
Strange blushes and turns his head to the side, which is lovely to behold. His fingers grip tightly on the wood of the desk.
“Or would that be a dishonourable use of magic? Not respectable or modern enough for you?”
Bringing Strange off will serve multiple purposes. The man is clearly desperate for release, straining in Lord Wellington's hand and on the verge of completion. All the information that he had hoped to gather has been satisfactorily collected, and Strange will remember this part most of all: how this little death was stolen from him. Furthermore, a darker part of Strange's mind will remember that he wanted to give it up. There is really no call for mockery but Lord Wellington cannot help wanting to strip Strange down to his naked arrogance. He never claimed to be perfect himself.
“I- would not-” Strange manages, breaking off into a groan as the pleasure is wrung from his body.
“Yes Merlin, I'm sure you would,” Lord Wellington says with affected disinterest, as the magician's seed spills over his hand and onto the floor.
He turns away afterwards, allowing Strange a moment of composure, taking the time to clean his hands and adjust himself in his breeches.
When he judges the moment to have passed he turns back and engages Strange with his most kindly regard. “It is not my intention to alienate you or to make an enemy of English Magic,” he says.
Strange straightens his clothing, although he is already back together, and nods at the ground to show that he is listening.
“On the contrary,” Lord Wellington continues, “I hope that, in time, I can earn the trust that I must now demand of you. I believe we could enjoy a most fruitful camaraderie.” He waits for a moment of eye contact before continuing, the better to convey his sincerity. “There is at least one English magician with a well deserved place on the battlefield,” he says, hoping that Strange will know it for the high compliment it is. “Only allow me one further confidence and believe me when I tell you that this meeting was necessary. And forgive me for it.”
Strange looks awkward, unable to hold eye contact for long, but he tries valiantly for a smile and murmurs, “Yes, of course,” attempting to put his tormentor at ease despite his own discomfort.
Lord Wellington feels a rush of fondness for the man, quite unlike anything he usually allows himself to feel. It is tinged with nostalgia for the boy he had once been, the boy who had wanted to be a musician, before he had burnt all his violins. “Whatever must you think of me?” he asks.
“Truth lover,” Strange immediately intones, shaking his head a little as though puzzled at his own words. “Commander in Chief.” Strange raises a hand to cover his mouth and his eyes hold the near-panic that Lord Wellington had been quite unable to provoke throughout his various trials.
“Well now,” Lord Wellington says, thinking to make light of the situation, “Don't hold back.”
He had meant it in jest, not as an order, and he certainly had not intended to send Strange into a prophetic trance, or whatever is taking place. Strange's eyes glass over and he stands rigidly to attention. Recent events having been admittedly trying for Strange, Lord Wellington supposes that allowances must be made, and as such he steels himself for judgement.
When he speaks again, Strange's voice is unmistakably that of a woman, clipped and imperious in the fashion of the nobility, and yet heavy with solemnity, like a bell tolling of the ages:
“Here, in streaming London’s central roar.
Let the sound of those he wrought for,
And the feet of those he fought for,
Echo round his bones for evermore.”
Strange slumps and Lord Wellington catches him, fighting off a shiver. He has clearly unbalanced the poor man more than he had realised. Strange needs private refreshment and a good night's rest. He holds the man firmly until he can stand unaided and then calls for a servant to escort Strange to his quarters.
Alone with his thoughts, Lord Wellington considers every facet of the man who can now accurately be described as his magician. When he had been impoverished and hopeless, a valet or secretary had seemed like an exuberance, forever out of reach to the young Arthur Wesley. Sometimes, in more outlandish musings as he climbed the ranks, Commander Wellesley had imagined employing a war poet, much as the Ancients did, so that these wars too might be immortalised and romanticised down the ages. Never once in his illustrious military career has Lord Wellington imagined that he might claim the services of a battle mage.
It is the man behind the magic who has been most surprising, however. Lord Wellington is not a stupid man. He knows that the unbridled power of a sorcerer who can raise the seas and reshape the very earth should be an intolerable danger. And yet Strange is the perfect gentleman. There is a growing connection between them and his instincts tell him that Strange is a good sort; that he can be relied upon.
Some time later, Thornton creeps into the office to clear away their mess, which is to say that he interrupts Lord Wellington's thoughts about as unobtrusively as a flock of pigeons might interrupt a picnic.
“Despatches from Lisbon was asking for Mr Strange, My Lord,” Thornton says. His eyes trouble him in the dry heat, and he dabs at them as he speaks. “Something about Mr Norrell an' not being able to find him by scrying, Sir.”
Lord Wellington curls a delicate lip at Thornton's dirty 'kerchief. “And did they give away Mr Strange's location?” he asks.
“No, My Lord. They told 'em that Mr Strange is in the lines.”
“Did they indeed.” Lord Wellington seldom smiles but the corners of his mouth twitch. Strange has surpassed all expectation, and it is gratifying to find that the men recognise it too. Indeed, Jonathan Strange has turned out to be a very fine fellow and in another lifetime they might have been friends. “Prepare a hearty dinner Thornton,” he says, eyes dancing with amusement. “Hot meat and vegetables. Tomorrow we have a forest to move.”