It was not until the affair with the Neapolitan corpses that Major Grant became very concerned about Mr Strange the magician. Before this time Grant had been satisfied that Strange's education in warfare, while doubtless a rude and abrupt one, was proceeding as might be expected. It is a hard thing to watch other men die around you and come out yourself alive, but it is a hard thing that every soldier must develop a tolerance for, alongside pot-holed roads and an empty belly.
Mr Strange had been most troubled by the death of his servant, which was to be expected of any one who had not yet been two months in the Peninsula and furthermore had not been expressly trained for war. Grant thought it prudent to shew him some kindness at this time, for his weather-magic during the French attack had been impressive, and had led Grant to believe that Strange may be of much greater use than he had first supposed. It would therefore not do for him to become so disillusioned with Portugal as to leave. However, it would also not do for him to imagine that this was the sort of incident to which one should attach great import or sentimentality.
That evening Major Grant made sure that Wellington intended to invite the magician to supper, which he did, and made sure that Mr Strange attended, thinking that it would not do him good to eat alone. Strange was silent throughout the meal, however, contemplating his rabbit stew with such intensity that Grant wondered if he was doing some magic to it, and half-expected the food to come back to life as a much put-out rabbit. But in the end Mr Strange just ate it.
"Major Grant tells me that your conversation with the trees was not entirely pointless," Lord Wellington said, towards the end of the meal.
After a short silence, Strange realized that he was being addressed, and looked up. He cleared his throat. "Is that so, my Lord?"
"Indeed. It seems that you succeeded in having some sort of dialogue with them before you were interrupted by the French. Does this mean that it will be possible for you to move forests in the future?"
"I cannot say," Strange replied. "I did not get very far in finding out the opinion of the trees on the matter."
"But you will be able to speak to them again?"
"Yes. That will be possible. Although without my books it will be more complicated."
"Very well," said Wellington, and pushed his empty plate away. "Major Grant, please take Mr Strange to a section of woodland with fewer French in it after supper. See if he has more success without being fired upon. I do not require any particular area of forest to be moved at this time, Mr Strange, so I leave it to your discretion as to how you might like to rearrange the landscape. I hope that this will make it easier for you to do as you are commanded upon the next occasion that the trees are so inconvenient as to stand in our way."
It was in Lord Wellington's nature to order a thing done at the soonest possible point after he had thought of it, since in his position a delay of days or even hours very often meant the life or death of any number of soldiers. However, there seemed no great hurry for Mr Strange to return to the woodland, and Grant believed it would make no difference if they waited until the morning. Indeed, a night's sleep would most probably do Mr Strange some good and improve his chances of success.
Grant was about to suggest this to Lord Wellington, with the reasoning that in the morning there would be better light for the magician to work by. But before he could do so the dessert was brought in and Wellington had already begun to address Colonel Murray on the subject of the disposal of the 43rd company on the following day.
On reflection, Grant decided that it might well do Mr Strange some good to press on with his magic that evening. After his first experience of violence his night's sleep would doubtless be much disturbed, and in fact the opportunity to concentrate his mind on some other thing was one he ought to receive gratefully. Grant smiled across the dinner table at Strange in a way that might shew him that the evening's assignment would not be so taxing as the afternoon's, but Mr Strange had returned his gaze to the tablecloth and did not see.
After dinner, Major Grant and Mr Strange rode some miles south to an area of woodland in which intelligence suggested no French soldiers were to be found. The moon shone clear in the sky and gave enough light for them to see by. Strange was very quiet upon the journey and Grant judged it respectful to leave him to his thoughts. Strange carried with him his silver basin held on by a strap across his back, but his saddlebags, usually weighed down with quantities of books, were empty.
When they had ridden a short way into the forest and tied their horses to a tree, Strange opened one of the saddlebags, and Grant saw that he had been mistaken. There were two books inside, but both were small, and had not been visible. One was the stout, squat notebook in which he had seen Strange scribbling from time to time with the stub of a pencil. The other was a slim bound volume. Strange put both of the books into the pockets of the coat that Grant had been obliged to lend him before they set off, when it became apparent that Strange had left his own overcoat covering the body of his manservant that afternoon, and that there would not be time to retrieve it. This was exactly the sort of behaviour that must not be encouraged if Mr Strange was to survive the war.
"We must find the oldest tree," Strange announced, and strode off in what appeared to be an indiscriminate direction. It was the first thing he had said in over an hour. Grant followed him, taking care that they did not lose sight of the horses. The moonlight through the tree-branches cast odd shadows upon the ground and the scene might have felt quite eerie were it not for the sound of Strange's boots crashing loudly through the undergrowth.
"What about that one?" Grant asked. He pointed to a huge, gnarled tree-stump that sat resolutely among its younger, livelier cousins. The bark was wet and covered in moss, and the surface of the stump was much obscured by dead leaves and creeping things, but he could see plainly that it was very much older than any other tree nearby.
Strange turned, and looked at where he was pointing. "That tree is dead, sir," he said, and began to walk away again. "I cannot talk to it."
Grant caught Strange up a little further on, standing before a tree that was thick enough that he could not have wrapped his arms around it. It appeared he had decided that this would do. But as to how to proceed he seemed at a loss.
"Can I help at all?" Grant asked.
"I have become very reliant upon my books," Strange said. He did not turn to face Major Grant as he spoke, but instead looked very intently at the tree in front of him. "Some time ago I did magic mostly without them. But through study I have come to appreciate the benefits afforded by book-magic. One of those is specificity. Very often when I first did spells they would be effective, but not quite in the way I had intended."
"Was that so terrible?"
"Terrible?" replied Strange, a little surprized. "No. Usually it was rather amusing."
"And do you think you can perform this spell without your books?"
Strange lifted one hand and placed it on the tree trunk. His fingers curled slightly against the bark. "Perhaps. Only I do not know that I want to."
"Then it is lucky that you do not need to consider that," said Grant. "You have been ordered to do so by Lord Wellington himself. And surely the trees won't mind so very much. I would have thought they would appreciate the change of scenery."
"We cannot imagine what it is they want. They have a wild consciousness not at all like ours. It is quite frightening," Strange said, rather matter-of-factly. "But I am not afraid of speaking to them again. I am simply not sure that I want to do something because it is Lord Wellington's whim."
This last was spoken with the arrogance and anger of a man who has received some slight at the hand of an acquaintance, since this was presumably the nearest comparable circumstance in Strange's life so far. While Grant was at first shocked, he was struck quickly by the difficulty of the situation in which he found himself. Strange was understandably very upset by the day's events and did not have full control of his emotions. Usually the only men to express such sentiments were young officers who had not yet mastered themselves, and it was appropriate to reprimand them. Strong discipline was of course the cornerstone of the army, and it was through discipline administered by others and by himself that Major Grant had become Wellington's most successful intelligence officer. However, it would be most irregular for Grant to speak to Mr Strange now as he would to a young soldier. Indeed, he did not think there were many years between them.
Instead, Grant spoke as firmly as he could without saying any thing he thought might cause offence. "I'm afraid that acting at the behest of Lord Wellington is something you will have to become used to. What may seem like a whim to you will most likely emerge as part of a greater plan. I strongly advise you to accept that he is your commander and should not be questioned."
"I find it very difficult not to ask questions," Strange said. "And I find it very difficult to respect those who will not have questions asked of them."
"That is a very noble attitude in England. But it is not one that will do in Portugal."
Strange turned to look at him, and in his eyes for a moment Grant saw something quite furious. But although Strange was not a soldier, he was an English gentleman, and as such had a greater degree of control over himself than many men the world over. After a moment the flash of anger was gone and he only looked very sad.
"You are right, Major Grant," he said, and turned again to the tree.
"I'm sorry about your man," Grant said, after a moment, to Strange's back. "The loss of those you are responsible for is a difficult thing to bear. But I think you will bear it with the knowledge that he died in good cause."
Strange did not reply to this, and Grant did not push the matter further. He watched as Strange placed his hand once more upon the tree, and for a moment closed his eyes. Then he opened them again. "Earlier I used rather a long Latin incantation that was set down in Pevensey. I do not remember it now."
Grant leant against the next tree to the one that Strange was examining, and folded his arms. He began to get the feeling that they might be there for a while.
Strange now pulled from his pocket the book that was not the one he used for writing notes, and began to flip through its pages. He was muttering under his breath, but in a way that seemed more like a man talking to himself than a magician casting a spell.
"What is that book, sir?" Grant asked him.
"It is the only one I have left," said Strange. "It is a children's book. But I remember it contains a particular verse about the magic of trees." He muttered a little more that Grant could not hear, and then he said, "Here it is."
"What does it tell you?"
Strange coughed to clear his throat, and then he read what was on the page before him. Something about his voice, which until now had been tinged with weariness, seemed stronger and more powerful as he spoke the words. Grant could not have described exactly why this should be, since his voice did not grow any louder, but it was Grant's very distinct impression that this was so.
"The ivy promised to bind England's enemies;
Briars and thorns promised to whip them;
The hawthorn said he would answer any question;
The birch said he would make doors to other countries;
The yew brought us weapons;
The raven punished our enemies;
The oak watched the distant hills;
The rain washed away all sorrow."
Then he lowered the book and looked again at Major Grant, and back to the tree.
"What does it mean?"
"It is a description of the contracts the Raven King is supposed to have made with various elements of the forest. Unfortunately, if such contracts were made, they would have been with English forests only. I am not sure Portuguese trees will believe themselves in any way bound to such things."
"Anyhow," said Grant, "this is an ash-tree, is it not? That was not in your verse."
"No," Strange agreed. "But it is said that ash-trees will mourn until the Raven King comes home again."
"Is that so?"
Strange shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps. Again, it does not seem likely that a Portuguese ash-tree has any interest in the Raven King at all."
But he laid his hand once again upon the bark, and closed his eyes. This time something happened. Grant could not say precisely what it was, but it was as if the brightness of the moon had been increased and as if every leaf in the forest straightened itself upon its branch, although he was not sure that either of these things actually took place. Grant stopt leaning against the tree next to him and stood upright.
Strange was breathing very deeply, his fingers digging into the damp bark, and then the tree before him began to make a similar noise to that emitted by the forest earlier that day. It was something like a cross between a creak and a groan. One by one, all the trees around them joined in, some louder than others, some more high-pitched, some rumbling so low that Grant could feel vibrations upon the forest floor. Before too long this noise was so loud that Grant would have covered his ears if the thought had not struck him that it might be very rude to the trees to do so. So he stood and watched as Strange began to tremble all over, and the cacophony of sound reached a crescendo; and then quite suddenly it stopt. Strange let his hand fall again to his side and opened his eyes.
Major Grant looked around. They were still most certainly in the forest, which was made up of the same sorts of trees as it had been a moment ago, but something about it was different. He felt like a man who has been spun around blindfolded and to whom a familiar landscape looks strange and disorienting.
"What has happened?" he asked.
"I have moved the trees," Strange said. "But not the forest. Each tree has simply exchanged places with its next-door neighbour."
This was quite true. Grant saw now that with the exception of the ash-tree with which Strange had first been communing, every tree in the forest was now a small distance to the north, south, east or west, replaced by another tree that had been close at hand. It was a most odd sensation.
"That is remarkable," he said. "Good grief."
Strange put the small book back into the pocket of his coat, and Grant noticed that he looked exhausted. Grant imagined that while doing magic was not quite like fighting, it might tire one in the manner of a long march or a sleepless night.
"It was not so very difficult after all," said Strange. "I think I will be able to do it again."
"Lord Wellington will be most pleased."
"I am glad," said Strange, and began to walk back towards their horses. He did not seem as discombobulated by the rearrangement of the forest as Major Grant, and headed in the right direction without hesitation.
"And was the tree mourning for the Raven King?" Grant asked.
"No," Strange said, over his shoulder. "But it appreciated the concern in that regard I shewed to its English cousins. There is a greater brotherhood between the trees of the world, it seems, than the men."
Major Grant was pleased to see that while Mr Strange could not be said to be enjoying the war exactly, he was certainly managing with it. He was settling into his new life with greater ease than many non-military gentlemen would have done. The camaraderie of the troops he found the most natural thing in the world, evidently being the sort of fellow who could talk and drink with any body who happened to be around him, wherever they had come from and whatever they might want to talk about. While many officers were still wary of his sudden-seeming influence over their commander, and many men were still wary of his magic, both classes of soldier found that they liked him very much, and so their wariness diminished. He had also stopt jumping at the sound of gunfire, unless it was unusually close by.
It was only the repeated and unavoidable fact of death itself that continued to trouble Mr Strange. One day he and Grant stayed an extra morning in the small deserted village which had served for the army's quarters the night before. Wellington had asked that Strange erase by magic all traces of soldiers having camped, eaten and slept there, as he hoped to confound some French spies known to be following their progress at a distance of around two days. The plan was for these spies to follow a false trail (also created by Strange) in utterly the wrong direction, causing them at least to send incorrect intelligence back to their headquarters, and at best to become lost and die in the wilderness.
Once Strange had performed the necessary spells to clear the night's debris, which took some time, he and Grant set off in pursuit of the column of troops. Since every other soldier had already marched or ridden along the road they were now taking, there was much here too for Strange to clear away so that the French spies could not pick up their trail. They came upon a broken baggage-cart, which Strange transported to the bottom of a river they had crossed the week before; a dead horse, which Strange transfigured into a dead mouse and hid among the stones; and finally upon two dead Englishmen. It seemed that they had perished upon the march of wounds inflicted in a skirmish a few days before, and that it had not been possible to bury them properly, as the ground here was sun-baked so hard as to make it impervious to spades. Instead, their bodies had been left a short way out from the road, behind a large boulder and covered by other stones, but the wheel and cry of crows above them meant that they were easily found.
"It will not do," muttered Strange, looking down at the corpses.
Grant said, "Can you turn them into mice too?"
"I do not think so," said Strange. "Animal transfiguration is a very different matter to that of humans. And even if it were possible – well. I do not think I have the heart in me to do it."
After a moment, Grant said, "I often find it helpful to fancy that these are no longer men. Whatever it is that makes us what we are, I do not think it remains after death. That part of them must be elsewhere now. And so do not trouble yourself unduly about the condition of their bodies."
The condition of their bodies was actually relatively good. It seemed one man had been killed by an infected wound in the leg, and one by a bloody injury to the stomach which had grown worse over time. But the bodies were not yet mutilated by carrion birds and other creatures. Perhaps it was the resemblance to still-living people that Mr Strange found difficult to bear.
"I will do something," he said, but as he raised his right hand, it trembled badly. Grant had noticed this affliction in Strange before, in the wake of the attack they had suffered in the forest, but it had not been so pronounced. Strange clenched the hand immediately into a fist, but this served only to force the tremor through his body, appearing finally in the other hand, which shook by his side.
Strange regarded his trembling left hand with some mixture of puzzlement and distaste. Then he raised it into the air, between himself and Major Grant, and looked at Grant as if asking him what on earth he might do about it. Grant knew very well that this was the sort of thing that ought to be curtailed as soon as possible.
"Merlin," said Grant, sharply, and grasped his hand to still it.
While Grant had expected this to stop the shaking, which it did, he had not expected the iron grip in which he now found his own hand. Strange clenched his fingers as tightly around Grant's as the fist he had made a moment before, and the expression in his eyes was so desperate and seemed to implore so much of him that Grant was quite taken aback by it.
For a moment, they stared at each other in this way. Then Grant felt the sensation he had come to recognize as magic being done. He thought at first that it simply felt as though the ground was shifting beneath his feet, and then it became apparent that it really was. Many tiny cracks were appearing in the hardened red soil, which joined together to form bigger cracks. Grant and Strange let go of each other's hands and stepped back to watch the earth open and swallow up the bodies of the two dead soldiers.
It was quite clear that Strange had not slept or eaten in any meaningful way since Grant had last seen him, and frankly Grant was surprized that his wits had not deserted him very much further than they had. He was surprized also to find that he was quite angry about the state that Strange had been allowed to get into. He could not very well rebuke Lord Wellington for it; neither could he rebuke any other officer, since none had been commanded to do any thing about it. So he settled for rebuking himself soundly for failing to make sure that Strange was looked out for in his absence. Then he wondered how, when and why he had accepted, even if only from himself, responsibility for the magician's wellbeing.
By the time Grant had overseen the destruction of the mill and the dead men inside it, Strange and Wellington had ridden many miles on to see to the matter of the bridge that Strange must move. Grant did not catch up with them until that night, when the army was quartered in another of Spain's seemingly endless supply of ghostly deserted villages on the road to Vitoria. He found Strange in the corner of the room above the empty shop in which he was billeted, slumped on the floor with his head in his hands. He looked up at the sound of Grant's footsteps on the wooden boards, eyes shot through with blood-red lines.
"How are you, Merlin?" Grant asked.
Strange ran his tongue over his lips, which looked dry and cracked, and swallowed. "Oh, I dare say I could be very much worse."
"Indeed," said Grant. "I cannot recommend highly enough the merits of actually using the bed, since you have one for the night."
Strange's mouth twisted into something that bore a very faint resemblance to a smile. "I cannot go to sleep."
Grant knew from experience the peculiar difficulty of falling asleep after many days of forced wakefulness. He nodded in sympathy. "I would lie down nonetheless. Sleep tends to come at the most unexpected moment, usually just as one decides that one might as well get up again."
"You misunderstand me," Strange said. "There is a link between certain types of magic and the dreaming world. It is something to do with doors in our minds being left open. I do not remember the details particularly well. But its only relevance at the moment is that I do not wish to dream about the corpses."
Grant did not wish to dream about the corpses either. In fact, on his long ride back from San Giacomo, he had been pleased to reflect that they were most likely long disposed of and he would not have to see them again upon his return. If the memory of them after two brief meetings was unnatural and unpleasant for Grant, their impact on Strange after three days was quite unthinkable. He began to entertain the notion that staying awake for ever might indeed be Strange's most sensible course of action, before eventually deciding that this would probably kill him.
"I am afraid it seems you must," Grant said. He sat down on the floor against the opposite wall and took off his tunic, so that the stone was blessedly cool against his back. "Or else you will begin to dream of them while you are awake, which is very much worse."
Strange jerked his head slightly in something that might have been a nod.
"Where did you learn that magic?" Grant asked.
"It is an approximation of something done by the Raven King."
Grant thought about this for a while. Then he said, "I do not remember learning about that sort of thing. One got the impression that the Raven King was interested in natural kinds of magic. Communication with the wind and the water, and so forth. Of course my knowledge of magic goes no further than the schoolroom and the playground. But I do not remember any thing like that at all."
Strange nodded, more slowly this time. "I do not think he did it often," he said.
"I do not imagine any one would do it more than once."
"It was different in his time. I think it must have been a very much harsher world. And of course magic was entirely commonplace. It is difficult to know how people then would have thought of something like this."
Grant privately thought that there could not ever have been a time in England in which men did not find the sight of half-living, half-dead bodies utterly repulsive, but he said nothing.
Strange's head had drooped forward from his exhaustion, but after a moment he twitched back into an upright position, his mind preventing his body from the sleep it was evidently trying to force from him. He saw that Grant watched him do this, and then looked down at the floor.
"Please go to sleep," Grant said. "You will be no good to any body at all if you do not. And I will stay here."
Strange looked a little confused. "I do not suggest that there will be any danger. I will be quite all right. It will simply be very unpleasant."
"Yes," Grant agreed. "I will remain here throughout the unpleasantness."
Strange opened his mouth as if to argue, and then seemed to think better of it.
Grant pulled towards him the baggage he had brought and began to look through it for a blanket he might lie down upon. "You had better get into that bed," he said, but when he looked up, Strange was asleep where he sat on the floor.
Lord Wellington, however, had begun to believe that the key to success lay not only in the physical destruction of the French troops, but also in the destruction of their spirits and mental faculties. "Buonaparte has stoked a fire in their bellies and made them mad for fighting," he told Strange. "I would have you strike fear into their hearts and doubt into their minds. What can you do about that?"
Strange experimented for a while with dream-magic, but, as he explained it to Major Grant, it was one thing to get into a fellow's dream and walk around in it, and another thing entirely to have any influence over what that dream might be. "I suppose it might unnerve them a little if they find they have all been dreaming of the same man," he said, "but I am not sure I am the man to do the unnerving. Probably they all wonder why they are dreaming of a tired Englishman who looks only as if he would like to sit down and have his dinner."
So Wellington and Strange together hit upon the notion of attempting to frighten the French in battle, rather than simply slowing their progress or damaging their arms. With a little experimentation Strange was able to conjure phantasms that flew at the enemy soldiers, sending many of them fleeing in terror. Great dragons that appeared to breathe fire, angels with wrath blazing in their eyes, and black-wreathed skeletons seemed to be the most effective. Any brave French troops that remained found that the dragon or angel or skeleton, when it reached them, had no substance in it at all, and could not hurt them. But enough of their fellows had retreated that it hardly mattered.
By now Buonaparte's forces were on the run from the British Army, who pursued them doggedly across Spain. But this did not mean that whenever Wellington's soldiers caught up with the French the fighting was quick and easy, for their desperation made them fierce: the English magician scared them, but the thought of their defeat scared them more. Wellington respected this attitude, and doubled his efforts to destroy every last man.
They spent a particularly bloody afternoon on a farmstead a few miles outside of Avila. Such was the confusion in the French ranks that Strange was able to direct his horrors so that the enemy fled straight onto the English bayonets. Grant was on horseback, and circled the battlefield, making sure that no escape route for the French had been missed. There were still traces of the magical fog that had been called down near the beginning of the battle, and although much of it had faded by now, a French soldier appeared before him rather more abruptly than he might have done if the air around them had been clear. Grant drew his sword, expecting the man to surrender, but instead, wild-eyed and panting, the soldier drew his dagger and ran towards his horse. Grant cut him down before he had lifted his arm to attack.
In the place where the soldier had been before Grant killed him, now that the fog was drifting away, there was a clear view to the hillock where Jonathan Strange stood. He was far enough from the thick of the fighting to be able to see the lay of the land, although close enough that cavalry circled about him occasionally to dispose of any Frenchmen who had come too near. Grant thought that it was only at these times that Strange looked any thing like a magician in the way he had imagined a magician to look before he had met one. His coat whipped about him in the wind, he had one arm raised to direct his next spell, and upon his face, even at this distance, Grant could see an expression of determined ferocity.
Another officer was riding away from Strange and towards a group of retreating French infantry. One of the French soldiers turned about and pulled a pistol from his pocket, and with surprizing accuracy shot the officer dead. His horse reared up in fear and his body fell off onto the ground. Strange jumped at the noise of the gunshot, which had been very near him, and wheeled around to face it. For a moment he was again an English gentleman on a foreign battlefield, appalled at what he saw there. Then, with renewed fury, he made fists of his hands and pushed them upwards into the air. As he did so, the weeds and grass around the feet of the nearby French soldiers curled around their ankles, tripping them up and holding them down where they fell, and before very long some English soldiers came and killed them.
By the time the battle was over it was early evening. Grant was exhausted, and covered in grime and dust, but quite uninjured. Along with four or five others, including Strange, he was required to spend the next hour with Lord Wellington as they discussed what must be done next (which was that the field must be cleared of bodies, the army must rest, and then those French who had managed to escape must be pursued with all speed the next morning). While they were doing this they all ate bread and ham, and then Grant was dismissed to sleep.
The lonely farmhouse served as Wellington's temporary headquarters, and tents had been put up at a great enough distance from the battlefield that the bodies could not be seen or smelt as the burial details cleared them away. Strange had also been dismissed, and he and Grant walked together through the encampment, watching the men gathering around cook-fires, dressing wounds, and settling themselves for sleep. Although Grant was very tired indeed, his body seemed to quiver with the energy of the battle and his head still rang with its noise. Strange walked in silence beside him, but his fingers played fretfully over the cuffs of his coat, and Grant could tell he was afflicted with the same tense agitation.
Some of the officers, including Grant, had been billeted instead to small outbuildings. A tent had been erected somewhere for Strange, but when they reached Grant's sleeping-place for the night he invited Strange to come inside and take a drink with him before they retired, which he did.
It seemed that this had been a storage place for tools, and indeed some rusted rakes and scythes still remained propt against the wall, but it was quiet and sheltered inside and Grant was glad of it. He pulled a bottle of whisky from his baggage and handed it to Strange, whose hand shook only very slightly as he took it, and stopt shaking after he had drunk.
"Wellington is right," said Grant, taking the bottle back and drinking himself. "We are closing in. We catch them up ten times more often now than we did a year ago."
"I do not doubt it," Strange said. "I had not thought to use so much magic in a month as I sometimes do in six hours."
Grant nodded. Every body in the army was, as a rule, tired almost all of the time, but Strange's magic tired him in such a very visible way that it was almost disturbing. "I do not remember what we did before you were here," he said. "Or, in truth, I do, but it was not nearly so successful. You must be very proud."
Strange smiled at him, but it did not reach his eyes. "I do not think I am," he said, quietly. "Perhaps for the first time in my life I am not proud at all."
Grant felt a queer, deep sadness at the sight of Strange, who was still much dishevelled from the battle, and seemed to sag backwards against the grey stone wall. He put down the whisky and took Strange by the shoulders to pull him upright again. "I am sorry for that," he said.
Strange took a sort of stumbling step forwards, as if perhaps he was embarrassed and hoped to move away, but it seemed his body was not up to the task. He did not fall over, but simply slackened in the grip that Grant had on his shoulders. When he did not let go, Strange collapsed entirely against him, and Grant was left holding him up. After a moment, Grant moved his arms around so that they wrapped around his back, holding him very close, and Strange's head rested on his shoulder. They stood like this for what seemed an impossibly long time, but could not really have been so long at all.
"Merlin?" murmured Grant, and his mouth was now very close to Strange's ear.
Strange's arms had hung by his sides, but now he moved them up to hold on to Grant as Grant held on to him. One of his hands curled into the hair at the back of Grant's head and held on to him there too.
All of the restlessness and energy that had felt trapped somewhere beneath Grant's skin had found, most suddenly, an opportunity to expel itself. Grant pulled Strange's body as tight against him as he could, which was not very much closer than they were already standing, and when Strange came willingly, he began to move with rather more speed. Strange's hand in his hair gripped him very hard and Strange himself drew a shuddering breath against his neck as Grant pulled open his jacket and shirt. Then Strange took a step backwards so that he was propt up against the wall, but pulled Grant with him, and indeed moved both his hands down to his hips so that he might pull them together more particularly there.
For a few wild moments they simply writhed against one another, Strange's breathing ragged and heavy, until Grant could not bear it any longer. He moved backwards only a little so that he could open both of their trousers and drawers, spat into his right hand, and wrapped it as tight as he could around both of them together. Strange choked out a very desperate noise and closed his eyes, and Grant did not have to do much at all before Strange finished, pushing a hand over his own mouth so that he was silent. Grant thrust himself against him only once more, and then let him go so that he might pull more roughly, and very soon he spent himself with a quiet sort of gasp.
After this Grant felt much calmer. He wiped his hand clean on his uniform, which was dirtied enough already that it would not know the difference, and put himself to rights. He felt as if the cacophony of the day's events and the frantic rush of what had just happened had both fallen away, leaving him sated and drowsy, and he could quite happily have gone immediately to bed.
He expected that Strange would feel much the same. But when he looked up from buttoning his trousers, Strange had not moved from his position against the wall, and was looking at a point on the floor. It was not uncommon for one's partner to refuse to meet one's eye at this moment, but Grant had somehow not expected it of Strange.
"Are you all right?" Grant asked him, his voice soft in the dark.
Strange nodded, eyes still downcast, and then he raised his head. He seemed in some way ashamed, which Grant had also not expected. "I did not mean for this to happen," he said, after a moment's pause.
"Do not be troubled by it," said Grant. "It is quite usual."
Strange looked away from him again, and said, "I have never before betrayed my wife."
Grant was so surprized by this statement that he only just stopt himself from laughing aloud, for if this was the case, Strange's unhappiness could be easily assuaged. "Then really," he said, "you need not worry at all. In fact, this is generally supposed among soldiers to be the best way to prevent oneself from doing such a thing. It is different between one man and another. There is not the same sentiment. Even the men who go to the brothels mistake the girls' charms for something like their women at home. But in this way one need not think of such things."
Grant spoke all of this expressly for Strange's comfort. Strange had not talked often of his wife, but on the few occasions he had done so, it was in a tone of adoration and longing so profound that Grant had not quite known how to reply to him. Grant did not doubt that Strange was a most faithful husband, and that the chief reason he did not often speak of Mrs Strange was his unwillingness to expose her, even in imagination, to the things he must endure in Spain. But when he had done talking, Strange only looked at him with an expression of such abject misery that Grant thought he must somehow have said a very wrong thing.
But Strange only asked, in a flat, tired voice, "Is that so?"
"I have heard it said many times," Grant told him.
Strange nodded slowly, like a man in a dream. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, and when he took it away again Grant was still studying his face. And then, moving suddenly and with surprizing force, Strange grasped the sides of Grant's head in his hands and pressed their mouths very hard together. It was the most acutely human thing that Grant had experienced in so long a time that it was as if he felt it across every part of his mind and body all at once. And when Grant put his arms around him again and opened his mouth, Strange kissed him so harshly, so desperately, that Grant wondered if he had ever until now quite understood how wretched Strange was capable of feeling.
When Strange stopt, Grant held him where he was for a moment longer. "All right, Merlin," he said. "All right." Then he ran his hand through Strange's hair and stepped back from him again.
"You are very neat, Major Grant," said Strange, and there was a hint in his voice of the man that Grant spoke to every day.
"Yes," said Grant. "It comes with much practice. You are not." This was true. Strange had pushed himself forward from the wall and stood upright again, but his jacket and shirt and breeches were all open still, and he was flushed and messy. When the corner of his mouth turned upward in a smile, Grant had the odd sensation of knowing, in the moment of its appearing, that this was an image he would keep with him for a very long time. He said, "You will have to get better at that."
In Grant's newly-pitched tent, perhaps only a week or two after Avila, Strange had expressed some concern over the dangers of what they were doing. Grant was of the (informed) opinion that as long as one was discreet then one need not worry. The behaviour of officers was not questioned, especially one as highly respected as Major Grant, both as a matter of discipline and as a matter of course. Strange's behaviour was already an oddity and it did not seem likely that any one would notice any difference. And as for their commander, Grant supposed that if Lord Wellington had any suspicion that relations between his subordinates might improve their comfort and therefore their alertness and reliability, he would be bound to encourage it, his absolute practicality outweighing all other considerations. This last Grant said to Strange somewhat ironically, but the widespread blind eye turned to all manner of behaviour of this kind led him to believe that Wellington was, at the very least, too busy to be interested.
Strange was either happily convinced by all of this, or decided he did not care, and soon he had brought them both to a highly satisfactory conclusion while also pushing his tongue into Grant's mouth in a slightly surprizing, though not unpleasant, manner. The ease and immediacy with which Strange afforded Grant a sort of intimacy he had rarely experienced – and certainly had not experienced since he came to the Peninsula – rather charmed and rather concerned him. It seemed still a chink in the armour that Strange was at last managing to build around himself, even if it was a chink exposed only to him.
One night Strange came to his tent the worse for brandy and shaking uncontroulably all over, and asked quite politely if Grant would be kind enough to hold him still until it stopt. This Grant did, sitting Strange in front of him on the edge of his folding bed and clasping his arms down to his body, and after a time the tremors calmed and ended. Strange breathed out a sigh and, turning, pushed his face into Grant's neck, where he mouthed something wet and incomprehensible. Grant stroked his hair, stroked his back, and Strange pushed himself upwards and outwards so that he could lie down on the bed. Exhausted, fully clothed and quite drunk, he fell at once to sleep. Grant left him there and wandered around the camp in the darkness for an hour or two, inspecting the tents, but the men had already turned in and there was nothing very much to see. He spoke for a while with the officers on watch, and when at last he returned, Strange had gone.
Around this time Grant began to dream quite regularly of Strange. In many ways this was unremarkable, Strange being one of the people he saw most often, and indeed at rather closer proximity than any one else. However, it was unusual in that Grant did not tend to dream at all, or at least when he did he did not remember it, this being the most effective method he had found for avoiding the nightmares that plagued many other soldiers. How exactly he had trained himself to do this he could not have said, but he assumed that at some point he must have decided he simply could not go on without doing so.
His dreams of Strange were neither nightmarish nor everyday, and indeed were not so much dreams of Strange as dreams of a landscape in which Strange happened to appear. Grant recognized the barren red earth with rocky outcrops and occasional bursts of dry grasses as certain parts of Spain, or as an amalgamation of many parts of Spain. In his dreams, Strange was some distance from him in this place, striding away with such purpose that it was almost as if he believed he could walk himself all the way back to England. Grant followed him and called out his name, but Strange did not hear him, and after either a very long time or only a few moments (in dreams one could not quite tell the difference), Grant would wake up. Sometimes Strange was so far away as to be almost a speck on the horizon, and sometimes he was close enough that Grant was sure that he must hear his name being called, but he never gave any appearance of having done so and Grant never reached him.
In reality, Strange was not walking away from any thing. His habitual expression had become one of grim determination and, uniform apart, he could almost be taken for any other soldier in the British Army. When food was scarce he ate what he was given with good grace; when they came upon unpleasant sights he bore them without comment; and when they encountered the French he fought them. Indeed if it were not for the occasions on which they retired privately Grant might have believed that Strange no longer found it difficult to be at war at all. But when they were alone together it seemed Strange felt he at last had permission to expel all of the awful things he felt, and Grant found that he must do his best to help with them. Whether Grant experienced a similar catharsis was something he did not much consider, although he certainly slept very well afterwards.
There was a day on which some British soldiers drowned while crossing the River Douro. The bridge they were using was very old and it collapsed under the weight of so many men. Strange was called immediately to bring the current under control so that the soldiers might swim to safety, but by the time he had done so, a number of the men had already been dragged below. Strange's actions were nonetheless regarded as heroic, since he had saved many more people than would have otherwise survived, and throughout the day he received much congratulation from officers and men alike.
But Grant thought that he did not seem quite right about it, and so that night he came to Strange's little tent uninvited. Strange was sat on his camp bed staring blankly at the canvas wall, but he looked up when Grant came in and sat down next to him.
"I often think that I have gained a tolerance for this place," Strange said. He was looking ahead of him at the side of the tent again, although Grant assumed in his mind's eye he saw the plains and the villages and the rivers. "But there is always a new and surprizing way for that to be quite overturned."
"You will gain a more permanent tolerance," Grant told him. "Every body does. The amount of time it takes varies greatly from man to man and some men give up before they reach it. But I do not think you are likely to do that."
"That is very charitable of you," said Strange.
"No, it is not," Grant replied, a little annoyed. "I base that entirely on your own actions. You have done a great many brave and difficult things in the time you have been here and every body is very pleased with you. Except, I suppose, the French."
"And yet the war seems to stretch on for ever before us. Every body says the French are retreating but we do not seem to have any shortage of them to fight. And every time that happens a good number of people that I know and like are killed. In fact that was managed today even without the French to help us along with it."
Grant nodded. "I do not deny any of that. I think it is a question of perspective. There is a point at which one must submit to one's own helplessness. As a single person there is only so much that one can do. Even Lord Wellington's success is founded upon his ability to inspire and control such a great number of men. Of course each one of us must do his part, but there is some comfort in knowing that however big that part is, it is not the whole. What I mean is – do not despair because there is often nothing that one can do. In fact it is quite freeing to accept that."
Strange seemed to have followed this reasoning with interest. Grant hoped very much that he would find some comfort in it, for Strange appeared to feel a personal responsibility for many deaths that were really nothing to do with him. This was a state of mind often observed in men who wanted very much to be in control of the world around them, and when he had been younger Grant had been among them. He had received similar advice many years earlier and found it very helpful indeed.
"That is very wise," said Strange after a moment. "And I appreciate your telling me so. But I am afraid I do not think it applies to me at all. I cannot think of a single situation in which there is nothing I could have done. In all cases, if I had been faster or more observant or simply better at what I was doing, it would have been possible for me to have prevented every death I have witnessed."
Grant considered this. Then he considered it some more and decided that it might be one of the worst things he had ever heard. He could think of no argument against it and so he said nothing.
"But I own that my situation is unusual," said Strange. His voice had become quiet and angry, although Grant did not think the anger was towards him. Indeed with no clear thing or person to direct his anger at except himself, it seemed that Strange had become quite eaten up by it, and he continued to gaze at the canvas before him with such venom as if the tent had done him some great affront.
"I'm very sorry," Grant said, his voice soft. He reached out his arm and placed it around Strange's shoulder.
As he had done many times before, Strange seemed almost to loosen when Grant touched him, sagging backwards against his arm. "Do not be," he said. "I will just have to do better."
Grant did not imagine that Strange would be in any sort of mood to do any thing except rest or perhaps talk further, but he turned around into Grant's body and took hold of his collar with one hand and his face with the other. Grant held him while they kissed, and ran his hands along his arms and back, and tried in all ways to be gentle and kind to him. But it seemed that Strange did not want this treatment. He pushed Grant backwards with some force across his small bed and bore down on him with his legs astride his waist, and left off kissing him to graze his teeth over his chin and bite at his neck. Grant made no movement of protest (in fact all of this was extremely pleasurable), but after a moment Strange muttered, "Come on, come on," and at this Grant took hold of him by the hips and rolled them both over.
There was no fight for dominance in what they did, but Strange urged him on until Grant held him down quite firmly with one hand on his shoulder and thrust against him, although they were both still fully clothed. This Grant decided was not much good at all, and so he sat up to remove his tunic, and unfastened both of their breeches. Then instead, glancing momentarily and from habit at the flap of the tent (which he had fastened when he came in, and outside of which he could hear nobody for the time being), he moved backwards off of Strange and began to remove his trousers, underwear and boots. He tugged with one hand at the leg of Strange's breeches until he understood and did the same, and Grant then pulled him into his lap and kissed him much harder and more obscenely than before.
Strange by now was making a low noise into his mouth and was pressed up hard against his stomach. Grant lay backwards, pulling Strange down on top of him, and reached down to guide Strange between his thighs, which he parted slightly to make room and then closed tightly around him. Strange gave a small stifled gasp and then thrust into the space he had made, and then again, and again. Grant held on to him by the back of his shirt and his hair as he did this, and after a time Strange bit down quite hard on the join between Grant's shoulder and his neck, half on his skin and half on his shirt, and Grant felt him finish wet and hot but completely silent.
For a long moment Strange stayed where he was and breathed into the damp part of the shirt at Grant's neck, very warm against his skin. But then he sat up and moved back so that he could bring Grant off with his hand, which did not take awfully long. He studied Grant's face as he did so with such intensity that Grant eventually closed his eyes, although he could not have explained why he did this.
Afterwards Strange leant down and kissed him much more gently and carefully. Grant tugged at the front of his shirt until he came down next to him, and for a while they lay side by side with their bare legs tangling together. Grant could not remember the last time he had done any such thing. The aching feeling it gave him in his breast was so great as to be almost intolerable. But soon they heard the talking and shouting of other men moving around close by.
"What if you stayed here?" Strange murmured. His arm was thrown across Grant's chest and his fingers brushed against the side of his face.
"Mmm," said Grant, but then he gave a rueful sort of smile and shook his head.
Strange smiled too, in a similar manner. Then he pulled himself up and off the bed, and found in his baggage a rag to clean them up with. They both put on their trousers and then Grant sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his tunic and his boots.
Strange sat at the other end of the bed and watched him. "Thank you," he said.
"Don't," Grant said. "It is not a case of – don't."
Then Grant went back to his own tent. Aside from his dream of Strange walking on the horizon he slept like the dead.
In Madrid, Strange returned to headquarters one afternoon much excited. He had found a bookseller trading in a side-street, and through a combination of broken Spanish and evocative mime he had discovered that there was a book about magic for sale. This he had paid for and brought back with him, and all the officers present, along with Lord Wellington, crowded around the table to see it. It was called Magia blanca y negra de las brujas y hechiceros and looked to be in some state of disrepair, with a number of pages torn and some missing. While Strange had picked up some Spanish phrases, he could not read the language well at all, so the book was given to Major Grant and two other Spanish-speaking officers to see if they could make sense of it. Unfortunately their ignorance of magical terminology, along with the frequent discovery of a missing page, meant that they did not do very well either and eventually the excitement about the book died down.
Strange said that in any case his command over the Peninsular magic in the book would not have been as strong as it was over English magic. He told Grant that while the practice of magic must have at some time been universal, it was believed always to have been deeply rooted in the earth and stones and sky of the place in which it was done, and the magicians that came from those places were rooted there too, even if they travelled far and wide afterward.
"So even though we are abroad," Strange explained, "I am still an Englishman performing English magic. I daresay an Englishman could perform Spanish magic if he had to, and of course I would gain some assistance from having Spain right here under my feet to help with it, but I would have a tenth of the success of any Spaniard who knew how to perform it."
But Strange kept the book with him and said that some of the engravings might be useful. These chiefly depicted what appeared to be witches, who were variously mixing potions, dancing in circles, and carrying children away from their houses. Grant privately found these fairly unpleasant and did not see what relevance they might have to the defeat of Napoleon, but he did not say so.
Indeed Strange did not return much to Magia blanca y negra except as a curiosity, and Grant noticed also that he consulted his own notebook with less frequency now than he had before. His regular spells (the reorganisation of Peninsular geography, the management of the weather, and the conjuring of fearful apparitions) were all now second nature to him, and when he was required to expand or adjust these, he did so with confidence and without recourse to his notes. When Wellington asked him to do things he had never done before, such as to create a magical bridge out of the stones on a riverbed when no other building material was evident, Strange generally made an attempt on instinct alone – usually with moderate to significant success – and ironed out the details later. In fact magical bridges had become something of a speciality of his in the wake of the disastrous Douro crossing months earlier. In short, Strange was even more a practical and even less a theoretical magician than he had been at any time before.
Despite all of this, Strange very rarely went any where without his copy of A Child's History of the Raven King. This was almost certainly in part due to the inscription from Mrs Strange on the flyleaf, but he also continued to consult it long after he had left other theoretical matters behind. Grant by now had read this book from cover to cover more than once, the first time at Strange's suggestion, and the following of his own volition. Grant had been brought up partly near Elgin and partly in Berkshire, and never having lived within the bounds of John Uskglass's kingdom, the Raven King had not resonated in his childhood in the way that he evidently had in many other men's. But he recognized in the book some presumably historical information that matched his memory of things he had learnt: John Uskglass had been stolen away to Faerie as an infant, had returned in 1110 to claim the land between the Tweed and the Trent from King Henry, and after ruling for three centuries, had left England in 1434. All of this was presented in the manner of a story-book, which of course it was, along with traditional verses about the life and deeds of the King, and some illustrated accounts of notable pieces of magic he had done.
All in all it was a good little book that ought to interest a bright child and even afford some distraction to a bored soldier. But this did not quite explain the eerie feeling that came upon Grant when he read it. It was as if there were another story hidden behind the pages, one that seemed just beyond his understanding. Often when he put the book down he had the odd sensation that he was seeing England before his eyes, overlaid across or perhaps hidden underneath the Spanish landscape.
"That is very interesting," said Strange, when Grant told him this. "I have never had that particular experience, but I agree that one feels very keenly the otherworldliness of the Raven King and his magic when reading the book. But I would not be troubled by it. It is a book about magic rather than a book of magic, and so there can be nothing intrinsically magical about it – it cannot affect you other than by making you think about things in the manner of any book."
"I did not say I was worried," said Grant, rather defensively.
Strange was not only a different magician from the one who had arrived in Portugal, but a different man. He was browner, leaner and fitter, could move faster when a crisis occurred, and could sit more quietly and calmly when one did not. It was natural for the war to have altered him in this way and indeed he could not very well have survived if it had not. But Grant found himself often thinking of the course Strange's life might have taken and what sort of person he would be if he had not come here, and also of whether Strange himself was considering the same thing. Of course the progress of the British Army and their allies if he had not come would have been much slower and not nearly as successful, so it was on balance fortunate that things had worked out in the way they had.
One night Grant was in his tent on his knees before Strange, who sat sprawled on Grant's bed with his legs apart and his head tilted back in quiet pleasure. Grant had an ingrained and precise efficiency in this act, and Strange afterwards reciprocated in his own particular unskilled and erratic manner. It was presumably evident to both of them that Grant had very much more experience in performing this service, but Strange had never asked for instruction and Grant had not felt it would be very kind to offer it unbidden. Strange seemed instead to prefer to work out what best to do through trial and error, and by now he had gathered enough information to perform something that was part effective, part idiosyncratic, and peculiarly tailored to Grant. This combined with his absolute determination was quite enough.
When it was over Grant found he had made a very tight fist in the back of Strange's hair. He pulled gently, and Strange came backwards and then looked up at him. He looked very pleased with his efforts and for a moment he might not have been in an army encampment in Spain but any where at all. He gave Grant a wide smile with a spark of something mischievous in his eye that, when it occasionally appeared, Grant liked very much. It made him consider the man he might have known if they had met under different circumstances. He would not exchange the Jonathan Strange he knew now for another one, but nevertheless he expected they would have got on well with each other had they met in London or in some fashionable city not besieged by war. For a long time it had seemed certain that the unusual and specific circumstance of their acquaintance here was the only reason that they acted in this way together. But now and again Grant was not so sure.
Grant had stopt gripping Strange's hair so tightly but his hand was still at the back of his head. He ruffled his hair, a quick, affectionate gesture that he had not quite planned, and then put himself away. Strange was in good spirits and left shortly afterwards for his own tent, but kissed him lightly on the forehead before he went outside. Generally Strange seemed happier and calmer after these interludes than before, and Grant had always in the back of his mind the assumption that their arrangement was doing Strange some good. But in truth he did not think he would know how to stop it if he thought otherwise and he was not sure that Strange would either.
That night Grant dreamt again of Strange on the Spanish plain. This time Strange was quite near to him and as usual Grant called out and tried to attract his attention. Strange could not or would not hear him, but Grant kept following close behind, and then with a sudden burst of speed he actually came within an arm's length of him. So he reached out and put a hand on Strange's shoulder. "Merlin," he said.
Strange turned around immediately and he regarded Grant with considerable surprize. Despite the fact that Grant had been shouting very loudly it seemed he really had not known that any one was there. "Grant?" he said. "What are you doing here?"
"How should I know?" said Grant.
Strange appeared to be much confused. He looked around him at the endless landscape, and back at Grant. Then he made a movement in the air with his hand and Grant woke up.
Grant sat up in bed. He had come awake with such immediacy and clarity – none of the fog that clings to one after sleep was about him – that he knew at once that the dream had been ended by magic. He was also absolutely sure that the Strange he had just spoken with had been real.
He got out of his bed and opened the flap of the tent. It was still the middle of the night and a light cool breeze was blowing. He peered out into the gloom and saw the watch-fires and the ghostly forms of the other tents. Sure enough, after a minute or two, he saw Strange approaching.
"Hello," said Grant.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," Strange said. He seemed to have come in a hurry and was a little out of breath. "I wanted to apologise. I did not mean at all to trespass on your sleep in that way."
"It's quite all right," said Grant, who was more bemused than any thing else. He stepped back into the tent and Strange followed him.
"I honestly had no idea," Strange was saying. His words ran over each other in their rush to leave him and be heard. "I did not know it was you. I would not have persisted so if I had had the slightest understanding of what I was doing."
Grant frowned and tried to make sense of what he was saying. "Have you been always there?" he asked, and Strange's babble stopt at his question. "I have had that dream for almost a year now."
"Yes," Strange said. "I am sorry."
"There is no need to apologise. It has not been distressing."
"But I did not mean to intrude."
"Were you walking in dreams on purpose?"
Strange nodded. "I have been trying to refine the magic for a long time. It is very imprecise. I did not expect that I would be walking in yours."
"Whose dreams did you expect to reach?"
Strange did not answer for a moment. Then he said, "My wife's."
"I see," said Grant.
"But it is nigh on impossible to fine-tune the magic in such a way as to specify the dreamer. And physical distance also makes the connexion much more difficult. So I had to simply try my best. And I thought – the thing was this dream appeared so very often. So it seemed to me to be the most likely."
"What do you mean?" asked Grant.
Strange stopt himself speaking again and suddenly he seemed embarrassed. He looked at the ground and cleared his throat. "Well," he said. "One cannot specify the dreamer but one can certainly search for a certain object or idea and latch on to it in the conscious thoughts of others, and by that route enter their dreams. And so I had made the magic work in a way that – that was particularly effective towards any body who was already thinking about me."
"I see," Grant said, again.
"Naturally I supposed Mrs Strange would think of me a good deal. And so despite the distance I thought – you see, this dream was so very persistent. But I could not find the dreamer in it. Of course I was looking for somebody who was not there." Strange coughed again. "I did think the landscape was surprizingly accurate. But then Bell has always been good at making a picture out of one's description."
"I am very sorry," said Grant.
"Are you?" said Strange. "Whatever for?"
"Because you have worked so hard to reach Mrs Strange and it has not been possible."
"Yes," Strange said, after a pause, and sat down at the foot of Grant's bed. "Of course I had no luck whenever I did this for such a long time that I think I had stopt expecting ever to meet her. But I had to keep trying."
Grant had remained standing in the small space of the tent. It did not seem appropriate to sit next to Strange and it would seem odd to sit at a distance from him. But he studied the side of Strange's face until he looked up and over at Grant.
"Anyhow," said Strange. "I sincerely apologise for disturbing your sleep so very often."
"Do not think of it at all."
Strange was looking at him still. "You are very kind to me," he said, softly. "Always. I do not know that I deserve it."
This was not the sort of statement that Grant could very well answer at the best of times. Eventually he said, "You are Wellington's magician, sir. You deserve any thing."
Strange gave a short sort of laugh, and then he pushed himself to his feet. "I will leave you to rest," he said. "In peace this time."
Now that they stood face to face, Strange twitched as if he were about to make an instinctive movement and had then thought better of it. Grant thought it would perhaps have been a caress or a kiss. Instead he gripped Grant's upper arm in his right hand and Grant found himself doing the same in mirror image. They held on to each other for a moment quite tightly and then Strange said, "I will see you tomorrow," and turned to duck out of the tent.
Other than this things were much the same between them. Both Grant and Strange devoted most of their thoughts and conversation to the day to day challenges of the terrain and the wider strategy of the war. But then one day something extremely surprizing happened. Napoleon Buonaparte abdicated and the war was ended.
Of course this was not so surprizing as all that. Lord Wellington's forces had made such progress as to have driven the French troops out of the Peninsula entirely, and were now pursuing them across their own country. An allied victory seemed very possible and Grant had had many tactical conversations about such an outcome with Wellington and his other closest officers. But the fact remained that Buonaparte had been terrorizing Europe for over a decade, and Grant had now been in the Peninsula for nearly five years attempting to do something about it. The idea that all of this should end so abruptly seemed somehow ludicrous and not entirely real.
It was some days into a battle in the city of Toulouse that the announcement of Napoleon's surrender reached Wellington. He agreed with Marshal Soult, the commander of the French garrison there, that in light of this news it would be rather pointless to carry on fighting. So Wellington and his soldiers occupied the city and were apparently the victors.
Naturally there was very much business to be done in Toulouse, but there was still time that night for a great celebration among the British Army. Strange had been almost as good a drinker as any officer when he had first arrived and now he was better than many of them. He and Grant and a number of others were awake almost through to dawn, and in fact they only went to bed because the hotel they were in, which was thoughtlessly unprepared for a large delegation of His Majesty's soldiers, actually ran out of alcohol.
But the next morning Strange reported for duty at the appointed hour. He looked exhausted, faintly uncomprehending and extremely hung over, which was exactly how Grant felt, but having been a soldier for a long time Grant was much better at not appearing outwardly to be any of these things. Grant handed him a hip-flask of whisky, a mouthful of which Strange swilled around his mouth and then spat onto the ground. Grant did the same and then they went to Wellington's conference room to find out what would happen now that the war was over.
Lord Wellington's first concern was of course the occupation of Toulouse. After this had been properly established, Wellington and a select number of divisions would proceed to Paris, but the repatriation of much of the British Army would also begin.
In a manner of speaking, Major Grant lived in London. However, he had not set foot in England for many years, and could not in all honesty remember what living in London might be like. He had a notion that it had involved a quantity of leisure time that seemed rather improbable, and that he had enjoyed the experience. He supposed he would enjoy it again.
"We are going home," was all Strange said to him, over and over again, at the end of the first day. "We are going home." The idea seemed incredible to him too, but there was a wonder and a joy in Strange's tone that implied a knowledge and understanding of what this might mean, which Grant could not quite grasp hold of in his own mind.
Grant had thought a little about the conversation that he and Jonathan Strange would need to have if it became clear that they would both be returning to England. He had not thought about it in great detail up until now because this would have required him to assume not only that they would win the war but also that they would both survive to see such a thing, which taken together seemed dangerously optimistic. Nonetheless he had had these sorts of conversations before, and knew broadly how he ought to raise the matter and what they both ought to say. But somehow there never seemed to be quite the right moment. There were no quiet interludes in Toulouse and they were very rarely alone together.
Then about a week after Buonaparte's abdication there was an evening that, had circumstances been otherwise, might have ended in the way they had become accustomed to. Colonel Murray went very suddenly to bed after eating a bad oyster, and Strange and Grant were left by themselves. They walked together back to the house in which Grant was now staying. It was in a small side-street that was quite deserted as they approached. But when they got to the street-door Strange stayed where he was and seemed abruptly to stiffen, as if Wellington had called him to attention.
"Grant," he said, "I have been thinking recently about what will happen when we return to England. Well, I do not know what will happen. I do not know much of any thing any more. But I hope very sincerely that we will be friends when we are there."
Strange delivered all of this while staring so fixedly at a strand of ivy over the door that, considering his known propensity for talking to plants, Grant might well have assumed that the speech was intended for the ivy if it had not been prefaced by his own name. "I hope the same," said Grant.
Strange nodded, but still did not turn to face him. "I am glad you agree. Of course our conduct will have to be very much different there. And in preparation for that…" Here he faltered. It seemed that he had not quite agreed with himself what he wished to say, but Grant understood very well and found that he did not particularly want to hear the rest of it.
"You are quite right," said Grant. "I think it is a good idea for us to begin to behave differently."
Strange finally met his eyes, and smiled at him with a sort of awkward relief. Grant smiled back in a way that he hoped was reassuring. But he was surprized to discover that some part of him had been made deeply unhappy. Since he had been trying to find the right way to begin exactly this conversation himself, it was not at all what he ought to feel. He ought to be grateful that Strange was the sort of person he was. In this position many men would suggest that they ought not to see each other in England at all, and indeed in some particular situations in the past Grant had suggested this himself. After a moment of consideration, he realized that in this case the idea was quite intolerable. He did not know if it was the same for Strange.
"Then I shall leave," said Strange, "and see you in the morning."
Grant nodded. He was not much intoxicated but he was overcome with an unusually strong desire to kiss Strange, to push him hard up against the door and lick into his mouth until he buckled with want. He did not think this was only a contrary notion because they had just agreed that they ought not to do any thing of the sort. In truth he could not say why it was.
"Of course," said Grant. "I am very glad that we understand each other."
As he climbed the stairs to his room Grant was struck by the unreasonably dramatic idea that this had all so disquieted him that he might not sleep at all. But of course like all soldiers he was very tired indeed, and like all soldiers he fell asleep the moment he lay down.
"Goodbye, Merlin," Wellington had said, shaking his hand, when their parties diverged north of Toulouse. "Your acquaintance has been most thoroughly unusual. I hope to hear good news of you."
"Thank you, my Lord," said Strange. "I hope we will meet again under happier circumstances."
"Oh! What could be happier than this?" asked Wellington, as a musket fired accidentally somewhere in the ranks, followed by some distant, irritated shouting.
On the march from Toulouse, Strange moved between a sort of wild exultation at the knowledge that his ordeal was nearly over, and a deep exhaustion that had settled in now that he was no longer required to be ready to fight at any moment. This made him appear almost as unstable as he had been in the early days that Grant had known him. He and Grant remained often in each other's company, but there was something a little different about the way they spoke to each other, a shared lack of reference to whatever it was that existed between them.
Eventually Grant, Strange, and thousands of soldiers of the British Army arrived on a warm May afternoon in Bordeaux, which they proceeded somewhat to overrun. The ale-houses, wine-shops and brothels did exceedingly good trade, while a quantity of the citizens of Bordeaux retired in displeasure to the surrounding country until the army would be so good as to leave.
Strange was leaving the very next morning on one of the first ships to sail. Of course, since a good deal of other soldiers were leaving then too, there was something of a festival mood in the city, from which Grant and Strange were not exempt. It was well-known that the magician was sailing in the morning and so any man who saw him and knew him came to speak to Strange and to offer him a drink. The conclusion of all of this was that somewhere in the early hours Strange disappeared briefly among a cluster of the 14th Light Dragoons, and when Grant remembered to look for him he was nowhere to be found. Admittedly Grant was not in a particularly fit state for investigatory work at this point.
For perhaps an hour or so Grant remained in the company of the other officers who had been with them, until it was proposed that they move to another tavern. They all went out into the street, which was full of soldiers and other people, and began to walk down it in a direction that seemed as good as any. But after a little while Grant felt someone catch at his hand. He supposed it to be either a beggar or a whore and turned to shake them off, and found instead that it was Strange. He looked very still and dark among the noise and movement and red coats that thronged around them, and Grant was arrested by the sight of him in a way that he had managed not to be over the past few weeks.
"Will you come with me?" Strange asked, and Grant did not even answer. He just stepped towards him and left his hand in Strange's so that he pulled him through the river of people in whatever direction he chose.
They walked for a short time until they turned into a street that was no so well-lit, although just as full of bodies. Strange dropt his hand and Grant followed him to the door of a boarding-house. Inside it was almost as crowded as the street outside. Nobody paid them any attention as they threaded their way to the staircase, the parlour being busy with soldiers and women who presumably did not fit into the rooms available or could not afford them.
It seemed Strange had already taken a room. Once they had climbed the stairs he led Grant along a corridor, which was the first empty place Grant had seen all evening, and unlocked a door. Grant followed him in to a room that was small but not at all unpleasant. There was a grate with a fire, dying now, but the warmth of which was evident; a mirror on the wall that was plain but scrubbed clean; a table with a shaving-bowl; and an iron-framed bed that was probably not large by the general standards of beds, but was unimaginably luxurious by the standards of war. Strange's things were all in one corner where he had left them before coming to find him: his baggage, his overcoat, his silver basin. Grant looked about him in a sort of daze, and realized, as one often does when confronted suddenly with a quiet, calm place, that he was very much more drunk than he had supposed. But at the sound of the key turning he looked up.
Strange had locked the door and placed the key on the shaving-table. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry. I couldn't – "
Grant actually might have been interested to hear the end of this statement, but before he could stop himself he had taken Strange by the collar and kissed him very hard. Strange leant back against the door and Grant went with him. Indeed Grant only stopt and pulled back because he found he had to breathe. When he did so the sight of Strange – pliant under his hands, mouth open and wet – was so very arousing that he had to turn his face to one side. He could hear and feel Strange breathing heavily against his ear.
"Yes," Strange said. "Something like that."
Grant turned to look at him again. For a moment they stayed where they were, but then Strange pushed him gently away. Before Grant could protest at this, Strange took off his jacket and began to unbutton his waistcoat, holding his gaze all the while, and for the first time the significance of the locked room came to him. Grant began to pull at the buttons of his tunic and then stood on one foot at a time to pull off his boots. For a short while he became distracted from his own task by pulling Strange's shirt over his head for him, which Grant judged not to have been removed at all quickly enough.
While Grant had at some point or other seen every part of Strange's anatomy he had never actually seen all of it at once, and when at last he was naked, Grant was a little shocked by the sight. Although the war had given him callouses on his hands and feet and worn away any softnesses of his body, Grant thought as he looked at Strange that there was still something delicate there that the Peninsula had not entirely managed to destroy. Although delicate did not seem quite the right word. Perhaps it was simply the reminder of how very human he was. However, these thoughts were mostly overtaken by far baser ones, and Strange's expression as Grant removed his own underwear indicated something similar.
Strange took a step towards him and for the first time they kissed with every part of their bodies pressed together. Grant was so overcome with both the physical sensation of it and the knowledge that this would not ever happen again that he could do nothing of any use, and only held Strange against him until Strange began with small movements to direct him towards the bed. There they lay down, and Grant ran his hands once along the length of Strange's whole body, since this too was something he could do for the first and last time. Then he leant over Strange with his knees on either side of his hips and kissed him again. But it seemed the alcohol had loosened Grant's tongue and he found that he was saying, over and over, very close to Strange's mouth, "Please – please – please – "
"Please what?" Strange asked him. "What would you have?"
Grant swallowed. He did not know why he had been saying it. But as he considered the question a very clear answer came to him, and so without pause he gave it. "Would you do some magic?"
Strange did not look as if this was the answer he was expecting. After a moment, he said, "What sort of magic?"
"I do not much care," said Grant. "Only I would like to see you to do something that is not for Wellington or for the army or for the war at all. I would like you to do some magic for – " For me. "For yourself."
Grant moved to one side so that Strange had a little more space; he did not know if being on top of him would hinder any magic, or at least make it more difficult to concentrate. Strange had propt himself up against the pillows and appeared to be giving the matter some thought. "I do not know what to do," he said, with a half-frown that creased his face in a way that Grant found quite beautiful. "I do not think there are any spells particularly for this." Then an unwelcome thought seemed to strike him and he looked rather annoyed. "Or if there are, Mr Norrell has not let me read about them."
But then his eye fell upon the fire in the grate, which was by now down to its embers. As Grant watched, Strange held out his hand towards it, and then slowly brought his fingers together into a fist, as if he were crushing something he held in his palm. As he did this the remains of the fire went out completely. A queer chill came into the room which did not seem to be just because the fire was no longer there, but like all magical sensations, Grant would have struggled later to describe it.
Strange cast his eye around the room again, and then, slowly, he opened his hand. One by one, the candles that stood unlit on the table and on the window-sill flickered into life. The wider his hand opened the brighter they burned, until the room was lit with an orange glow and flooded with warmth. Like the chill that preceded them, it did not feel as though these sensations could have been caused by the candles alone. In fact the warmth seemed to sink into Grant's skin and mingle with the heat of the alcohol in his blood to tune his body to an absolute point of desire.
He felt suddenly desperate for touch, and caught the hand that Strange was still holding out. He brought it to his face, nuzzled against it, kissed the knuckles and licked the palm, and then moved it down to where he was by now quite hard. Strange took hold of him immediately, and at that Grant made a deep, harsh noise and began to move into his fist. All of the rather sad, complicated thoughts he had had since they had entered the room seemed to melt away and he was left shaking with a desperation and desire that he could not control. He had had some idea that since this was the last time they would be able to do any thing like this, and that they were unusually unlikely to be disturbed, he ought to consider carefully what should happen and indeed how best to prolong it. But Grant felt as hot and frantic as if he were being fired upon, with the same instinctive, single-minded determination. He found that all he wanted was for Strange to do exactly this, to kiss him and do this, until he spilled. So he pulled Strange by the hip until he straddled him, and pulled him downwards with a hand behind his neck to kiss him, and murmured, "Please, please, please," again. He did not let him go until Strange swiped a thumb over him and he spent, gasping and swallowing, his fingers tangled in Strange's hair.
After this Grant fell back against the pillows. Strange was looking down at him and breathing almost as heavily as if he were the one to have climaxed. He ran his hands carefully along Grant's arms, from his shoulders to his elbows, and then over the hair on his chest, and the stubble at his jaw. Grant took one of his hands by the wrist and kept it there, next to his face, and slipped the tip of Strange's thumb into his mouth. He licked gently at the rough skin at the top, and at the pad, and Strange groaned and jerked his hips slightly forward. He met with nothing, so Grant pushed the pillows higher behind him and sat up a little more so that when Strange moved, he moved against Grant's chest and stomach. Then he let go of Strange's thumb and instead put his index and middle fingers into his mouth, running his tongue along the length of them, sucking a little when he had put them as far in as they would go. Strange watched him with wide black eyes, his face flushed with arousal, rubbing gently up against him and letting Grant do whatever he wished.
Grant took Strange's fingers out of his mouth and moved his hand down between their bodies, between his own legs. "Go on, Merlin," he said, and Strange made a high, hard noise of surprize and want.
They had not done this very many times before: it was an act that generally required more time, care and privacy than they had been able to find during the course of the war, and Grant had also for some reason thought at first that Strange might find it distasteful. But he had been disabused of this notion when eventually he did suggest it, and so he had taught Strange, slowly and carefully, in the dark, how best to prepare him so that it did not hurt very much. Once Strange had had him for the first time he had shewn a surprizing interest in Grant having him in return, but this Grant summarily refused to do until they came to a town where he was able to buy a bottle of olive oil and prepare Strange much more thoroughly. This bottle had been lost some time ago, and since then, having become used to its aid, they had left off. But Grant felt as though every bit of tension in his body had fallen away, and thought that they would be able to do without; and besides he wanted it so very much that he did not care.
Nonetheless Strange put his fingers into his own mouth and made them very much wetter before he would put them into Grant, and when at last he took him, it was far more slowly and deliberately than Grant had imagined. Grant had put one of the pillows under his hips but kept the other behind him so that he could stay half-sitting, half lying where he was, and so that when Strange pushed as far forward as he could they were very close together. Strange stayed near him, not moving, and gave Grant a kiss that started off very tenderly but soon turned rough. Then Grant put his hands at Strange's hips and urged him to move. Strange did this until he started to make sounds that were very long and low, as if they came from somewhere deep inside him that he was not quite opening up on purpose.
When at last Strange finished in him Grant shivered so violently at the sensation that Strange held him tight by the arms. For a short time they stayed as they were, Strange resting against his body with his forehead pressed against Grant's and the sweat cooling on their skin. Grant felt very thoroughly used and glad of it, although when Strange removed himself and lay down by his side, he could not think of any thing they could possibly say to one another. Instead he rolled over and kissed Strange again, pulling their bodies together, and pulling the bedclothes around them. In fact they kissed for so long that at some point Grant fell asleep.
He woke at the sound of a bottle breaking in the street outside and some shouting that followed. The room felt quite different. The magic had seeped out of it and the candles were no longer burning, and while a faint sort of greyness crept in through the gaps in the shutters, it was not yet dawn. Grant judged that he could not have slept for more than an hour or two. After a moment of confusion he recognized what he had taken for the faint sound of pattering footsteps as rain falling into the dust outside.
He and Strange both lay on their sides, Strange in front of him, fitted against his body. Grant had one arm wrapped around him quite tightly as if in his sleep he had feared that Strange might try to leave. In Grant's defence, this was exactly what Strange was going to do. Grant loosened his grip a little, and shifted to ease the stiffness in his limbs. As he moved he felt quite odd. It did not feel like inebriation, but he was also fairly sure he was not yet sober. It was a very thick and fuzzy sort of sensation, as if his mind had not at all prepared itself to be used at this hour.
Either Strange had been dozing very lightly or he had not been asleep, for at Grant's slight movement he moved too. Grant removed his arm so that Strange might make himself comfortable, and Strange turned over to face him. Then Grant rolled on to his back, and Strange on to his, and they listened to the rain.
"What are you going to do when you return to England?" Grant asked him, after a time.
"I shall eat an enormous quantity of food," said Strange's voice. "It will all be of my chusing and prepared in the manner one might expect. I will also retire at any time I wish to a very comfortable bed in a very well-heated house. Those will be my chief pursuits."
Grant laughed, quietly, tiredly. "Good," he said.
Then Strange said, "I might go north for a while. I do not know John Uskglass's country as well as I would like and I think I ought to do something about that. And perhaps I will spend some time in Shropshire too. But whatever I desire, I suppose I will be bound to remain principally in London. You will be in London, won't you?"
"I imagine so. I do not know where else I ought to go."
"I mean it very sincerely when I say I would value your companionship there," said Strange. He spoke slowly, not as one who is loathe to say what he is saying, but as one who is saying it very seriously. "I do not think things can ever be quite the same for me and for English magic as they were before. You are somebody I would be very grateful to have as a friend during this time. Do you think that is possible?"
Over the past few weeks, which had been quite surprizingly difficult, Grant had been considering the same question. But his profound sadness at Strange's leaving him for even so short a time as a month rather answered it for him. He thought he could manage the difficulty in the future if it meant he would not be entirely without Strange's company.
"Of course we will be friends," Grant said. He turned his head on the pillow to look at Strange. "What do you think we are now?"
Strange seemed to find this very funny. A slightly hysterical laugh escaped from him and he rubbed at his eyes with one hand. "I cannot say," he said. "I have not the slightest idea what this is. I suppose it is a peculiarity of the Iberian Peninsula."
This made a kind of sense. There was something wild and ragged about the country they had travelled together, ravaged as it was by Buonaparte, that was very different from the solemnity of England. After all the things Grant had read in Strange's book of the Raven King about the influence of the trees and the sky and the earth on the people who lived among them, it did not seem impossible that this had had something to do with the way they had behaved. Although if Grant had been able to express in any way what he thought they were to each other, this probably would not have been it.
Grant sat up in the bed, which made his head feel very odd and muggy, but after a moment of stillness it cleared a little. He knew at once that he would have to leave. This was not really because there was a great possibility of their being discovered, but more because if he went back to sleep and remained here for the night, he would certainly have to accompany Strange to his boat in the morning and see him off at the port. He found that this was something he could not bear to do. It seemed very important that his last memory of Strange on the continent was not one of him leaving it.
Strange did not say any thing as Grant swung his legs out from under the blanket, turning to face away from him into the room; neither did he say any thing as he got up and looked about for his underclothes. But as he put on his shirt Strange said, "Surely you will not go out in the rain."
The hint of petulance in his voice made Grant smile. "It will not be a great hardship," he said. In a way it was pleasing to think that Strange imagined that despite everything they had both endured, bad weather might have any impact on Grant's wellbeing. There was an Englishman alive and well in Strange yet.
Grant found and put on each item of his uniform until he was quite pieced back together. When he faced the mirror and ran a hand through his hair to put it in order, the man looking back at him appeared to be the same as ever. Then he looked a little to the side and met the eyes of Strange's reflection. He was sat naked and cross-legged on the bed, watching him. Grant turned around so that they faced each other, and let the absolute focus of Strange's gaze rest on him in a way he had often found disquieting before. He willed it now to seep somehow into his skin, to mark him indelibly, so that if Strange no longer looked at him like this when they were in England, he would not forget how it felt.
"I will see you very soon," Grant said.
"Yes," Strange said. "You have my address. Let me know as soon as you are in London. I can meet you where ever you wish, and of course if you want to visit…"
Strange stopt abruptly and seemed unsure if he ought to continue, but Grant said, "I would be glad to. I would very much like to make the acquaintance of Mrs Strange."
This was absolutely true. Grant did not imagine that the woman who had won the love of Jonathan Strange could be any thing other than extraordinary. Indeed on the few occasions that Strange had given accounts of her that invoked her spirit or personality – rather than simply giving voice to how terribly he missed her – Grant had had the sense that they might get on well.
"I would like that too," said Strange.
Grant breathed out very deeply. He wondered if he ought to leave without further ceremony in order to cause himself as little difficulty as possible. But in the end he crossed the few steps of the room to the bed. He leant down and Strange leant up and for a final time they kissed, very gently, as if they had never done such a thing before.
"Goodbye, Merlin," he said.
"Wait," Strange said, "Wait, just for a moment." Grant felt something in his chest constrict, but Strange had closed his eyes and dropt both his hands to his sides. He gripped hold of the blanket there and muttered something under his breath. Grant felt as though the air around them breathed in and then out again, and his skin prickled with the spell. For a moment he did not know what had changed. Then he noticed that the sound of the rain had ceased.
"There," Strange said.
"Thank you," said Grant. "Although I think I would probably have been all right."
"I know," said Strange. "It was my rain to begin with."
"I see," said Grant. He was not sure he trusted himself to speak further, so instead he took Strange's hand in his and held it very hard, and Strange gripped back with equal force. Then he let go, and went out of the room, and into the grey, waiting world.