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A Spiral of Moths and Madness

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It is not widely known and has never been legally recognised, but for precisely seven days in the early winter of 1817, the absent Ashfair House did have an heir.


For a long time Mrs Strange’s condition is not apparent, as her figure is such that the babe nestles very neatly within her and makes scarcely a single move or complaint. Arabella’s understanding of the truth of the matter is the impetus for her return to England, and Lady Pole and the Greysteels are happy to accompany her. Arabella Strange disembarks at Portsmouth in June in the close company of Lady Pole and Miss Greysteel. The three take up residence together in a little house on the outskirts of Lewes, close to where Flora’s father and Aunt live.

On a bleak, blustery morning on the last day of October, assisted by Lady Pole and Flora, Arabella gives birth to an elfin, sickly little wisp of a thing. Fearful, yet uncertain why, she nurses and watches over it for seven days and seven nights without sleeping, a soft corona of silvered light playing about her brow and smiling down at the babe like a star all the while…

She awakes with a start on the eighth morn to the tolling of the bells at St Tomas-a-Becket. When she looks at the babe cradled upon her breast it is pale and perfect and beautiful - and dead. She begins to keen and hug it closer, whereupon the little corpse turns into moths the colour of the moon which scatter: a flock of tiny, fluttering ghosts.

Strange has remarked frequently to friends that when magic is being done nearby there is an inch of skin at the back of his neck that in response tingles and itches like a gnat bite. He’s told in passing too how rowan berries and salt cellars set his magic a little off kilter… But he never mentions that when Arabella is unhappy, the mourning ring he wears on the fourth finger of his left hand becomes uncomfortably cold.

Its presence is usually cool even in the balmy climes of Faery, and Strange has recognized its chill as a twin of his own dull ache and sorrow that Arabella is not by his side. On the once or twice the ring has cooled further he has always found a quiet room in which to scry with his silver dish, as if by looking upon her and murmuring, “Oh Belle, please don’t cry my love,” he might soothe her despite the fact she can neither see nor hear him. When he has gazed upon her he’s seen her supporters also - Flora, Lady Pole, Dr and Aunt Greysteel… He always tells himself sternly to take comfort in the knowledge she is amongst friends. But it is a very bleak comfort; abruptly he quits the room, the moonish light of the scrying spell winking out as the door closes behind him.

On the thirty-first of October, Strange is alarmed when the mourning ring manifests ice.

That night, from within a mirror, Strange sees his wife weeping in her bed, surrounded by a scattering of dead moths. He cannot see any cause to explain either her distress or the dead moths - and yet he feels they are of significance. He performs Seeing Through The Eye of the Daughter of Heaven - a very odd little spell that requires one to meditate upon the sun and a feather set upon the pan of a weighing scale. Done in a slip-shod manner, it can tell a forged item from its genuine brethren - or vice-versa. Done correctly and meticulously, it will show the true and entire heart of a matter.

The heart of Arabella’s matter splits his own in two and casts both into dust to wither and die.

Jonathan Strange cannot go to his wife, he cannot even comfort her: he is locked within the darkness in the Other Lands on the far side of Hell on the marchlands of Agrace. The Raven King rules in Agrace as he does in swathes of Faery and England, but for his own reasons he has not seen fit to build roads from Agrace to the other realms - least of all England.

Strange is not even there to hold Belle’s hand, let alone the babe’s. How might it have been different had he been there? He could have helped - he could have saved the child and stopped this misery, he is certain - what else was magic for?

WHAT ELSE WAS MAGIC FOR?

His eyes become rivers he does not know how to stop. He strikes his fist upon the silvered glass in a rage born of misery the depth of which he has not thought possible and is ignorant how to bear.

In Arabella’s room, the looking glass on the dressing table cracks with a sound like thunder. Startled, she looks up, but sees nothing but shattered fragments of her own raw-eyed reflection staring back at her.


“Mr Strange, sir! What on earth are you about?” Nothing as such has happened, but the kick of magic as it gathers is so strong it has woken Norrell and sent him hurrying in his nightgown, banyan and cap to the library.

Strange is standing at the hexagonal card table where his silver dish customarily sits. The dish is discarded on the floor and the table is covered in books, open and scattered around a large candelabra. There is ink and quills also and a decanter of brandy that is missing its stopper. “I must return,” Strange says without looking round. He drains his glass of brandy, pours another and continues to scribble notes.

“I beg your pardon?” Norrell blinks at him owlishly.

“England - we must return.” Strange’s voice is strained as if he has to push the words past something within him and the effort is very taxing.

The Abbey within the Darkness moves as the Pillar of Night dictates - it is possible to move it purposefully, but it costs the caster a good deal of vitality. “You know how arduous it is to move Hurtfew by will over such great distances - and we are a great deal further away from England than Venice is. I am not certain such a thing has ever been attempted.”

“Then I shall be the first,” Strange grinds out flatly, his words coming like salt from a mill.

Norrell is bewildered. “What is there of a sudden in England, sir, that generates a need for such action?”

The book Strange is skimming over displeases him: he casts it to the floor and grabs another. “There can be no delay - I must return at once.” He paces about the table: a predator - knowledge his prey.

“Mr Strange,” Norrell says reasonably as he goes to the fallen book and picks it up as if it’s a bird that has tumbled from its nest. “I am not at all certain it is possible in our present state and place. Indeed sir, I do not believe it can be done. The King’s Roads do not stretch as far as Agrace, and it would still be a devil of a journey if they did!” He looks at Strange to see if the other magician appreciates the humour in his phrasing - Agrace being situated on the far side of Hell. He is disappointed to realize the words are barely acknowledged.

(It has been noted that Mr Norrell is a gentleman who would not know a joke if it came up to him and shook him by the hand. This is still broadly true, however he voices very occasional and scholarly bon mots that only he finds any entertainment in.)

Still perplexed and more than a little unhappy, Mr Norrell returns to his bedchamber. There is no danger of Strange completing the magic by morning, indeed there is (he thinks) very little danger of Strange completing the magic at all. Move the Darkness from Agrace to England? It simply cannot be done. He does not understand why Strange is attempting it, nor does he understand the wildness that seems to grip the second magician. He cannot account for where it might have come from, and this troubles him a good deal. He wonders if it is a snarl in the magic the rain did not wash away when it transformed the Darkness from Executioner to mere Gaoler. Or perhaps it is a remnant left over from whatever disastrous and foolhardy magics Strange attempted in Venice.

9th November 1817
This will fare very ill, Norrel writes in his daybook. I do not quite know how to limit him.

He stares at what he has written for a long time, as if the act of writing his fear can still it, or owning his ignorance can relieve it. It does neither.

All things taken within consideration, it is lucky for Jonathan Strange that he does not know how to move Hurtfew from the marchlands of Agrace; although it is not a fortune he appreciates. If he possessed the correct spell, the magic would allow little splinters of the Darkness to take root in his heart and his mind like two small black worms - and every day they would gnaw away at their new habitat. Within a season he would feel sickly and absent-minded, within two he would be unable to do magic, within three he would forget his own name and take to his bed, and within a year he would die.

Strange knows nothing of this however, so he does not see the futility of his actions - although, from what we know of his character, it is likely that even if Strange did know it would have made no difference at all to his activities.

He studies all night. He sleeps very briefly, slumped over the books on the table, smudging ink on his shirtsleeves. On the morrow he wakes, sore and miserable. He drinks the rest of the brandy in the decanter: it seems to help. Once he starts he finds himself reluctant to stop. Imbibing allows him to concentrate on the spell whilst at the same time fogging his mind against the particulars of why he is seeking out such magic in the first place. He needs the brandy because without it, he sees little white-furred bodies with pale grey dust-speckled wings every time he closes his eyes. He sees Arabella, hunched and stricken, hugging her shawl about her and silently weeping. Neither image will quit his head: it as if they have both been painted on the inside of his eyelids.

10th November
Brandy - three bottles.
11th November
Wine - three bottles.

These are the notes Norrell leaves in his daybook, frowning at the quill in his hand as if it has displeased him.

By the end of the third day, Strange thinks he has the shape of the formula. He has not eaten and neither has he slept again, but he has consumed several bottles of brandy and several more of oak-leaf wine. The faery vintage is usually a delight to him, it smells faintly of sherbet and tastes a little like crisp Conference pears. Now it might as well be water or vinegar for all the notice he takes of it, pouring it down his throat in an attempt to drown the misery dwelling inside him.

Somewhen in the night (a little past 3am as a clock would mark it) the world slips away from Strange. Even a magician set to his purpose must sleep eventually.

Norrell finds him in the morning, still unconscious, sprawled amidst books, split quills, splattered ink and empty bottles. Absently the older magician closes some of the books and stacks them in a pile on the table. Likewise he gathers stray papers that have fluttered to the floor; whilst he is there he tidies Strange’s long legs under the table too. Norrell reads the pages and his brow furrows. He carefully pulls out the papers from beneath the cradle of Strange’s arms as his head rests on the table. These final pages he likes even less: his eyebrows slant down so sternly it is a wonder he can read at all. He shakes his head. “No, this will not do,” he murmurs. “This will not do at all.”

Mr Norrell is a cautious man by nature and has a tendency to dislike new or radical things: as a consequence he has frowned at a good many things that the average person should not waste the time to even acknowledge. But in this instance, Mr Norrell’s concerns are valid and pressing: it is impossible to tell the exact side-effects of the magic Strange’s notes describe, but Norrell is able to discern plainly they would be very strenuous for the caster - indeed they might well kill him. Mr Norrell is not big-hearted by nature; many individuals have commented how they find him to be a very dusty, peevish and irritable man. But the few things he loves he loves with all of his small and owl-ish heart: it is inconceivable to him that he should allow Strange to do such a dangerous piece of magic.

He places the pages of notes in the grate of the large fireplace and watches as the flames (tinged with turquoise) devour them. For good measure he takes up the poker and nudges the ash until it crumbles. Satisfied, he replaces the poker and returns to his former pupil. For a moment he closes his eyes: one hand makes a small and complicated gesture, the other touches Strange on the shoulder. Norrells’s lips move as he recites something almost silently. There is a flicker in the air; all the shadows within the room for an instant face the other way. When they have righted themselves, Strange and Norrell have vanished.

They reappear in the Ash Tree bedchamber - which is Strange’s. The magic has been obliging enough to land Strange upon the bed, although he groans and half-wakes with the impact. Norrell snatches up a neckcloth that is hanging over a chair and loops it very inexpertly about Strange’s ankle and the bedpost.

The younger magician struggles to rise, groggy, his head sore but for some moments blissfully empty: when memory and misery return they do it so suddenly they knock the breath from him in a huff. He runs his hand through his hair, trying to brush it back from his eyes. He is uncertain why Norrell is standing beside his bed. “What is it?” His voice sounds raw and uneven.

“I cannot allow you to do it.”

“What?”

“The magic. I cannot let you do it.”

Somewhere deep within the crater of pain, anger is boiling up. “I’ll do any magic I damn well please,” Strange growls, all but flinging himself off the bed. Norrell hastens back a step, but he needn’t have bothered. Something is caught about Strange’s ankle: it snaps tight and stops him so violently that he pitches to the floor.

“What the devil?” Wildly Strange is looking about him - he cannot miss the cord that is knotted about his left ankle and the bedpost. The tether is a peculiar thing: it is almost as thick as his wrist and deep indigo in colour. It looks to be made of numerous skeins of silk woven around a neckcloth. He pulls upon it pugnaciously with his leg, seeking to snap it or shake it off. He looks up at Norrell. “What have you done?” There is a note in his voice, nine parts wonder to one part hate.

“I cannot let you…”

“Release me, sir, this instant!” Strange bellows and snakes out a hand to grab Norrell and force him.

Norrell, startled, manages to skip out of the way by a whisker and backs to the door.

Dishevelled and in his wild and lowly position on the floorboards Strange is every inch the madman. Anger and misery combine into something caustic that burns his throat. “You meddlesome old bastard!” he roars, trying to spit the poisonous feelings out.

Norrell is outside the door now, fingers tracing a pattern upon the latch. There is a light like fireflies for an instant before the door to Ash Tree closes and the magic locks it as securely as a castle.

“No - no! Come back here! Norrell! You bastard - Norrell!”

The two spells Norrell performed were Carlyle’s End and Hindrance, and Hellingly’s Ward of Forlorn Hope. (The name is a mistranslation from the Dutch ‘verloren hoop’.) Carlyle has proven time and again to be ineffectual against people: Norrell made it work by casting it not upon Strange directly, but upon the neckcloth. Hellingly’s Ward was well known to the Aureate magicians who used it to protect abbeys, keeps and castles - it is notoriously hard to break.

Norrell leaves Strange locked in his own room and raging for the rest of the day, but visits him the following morning, bringing with him a plate of toast and eggs and a pot of tea. He finds Strange sitting on the floor beside the bed, a bottle in one hand and another uncorked beside him, both summoned up from the cellar. A glass is full, but the younger magician appears to have forgotten about it and resorts instead to swigging from the bottle in a ragged manner. Norrell has never seen him behave so uncouthly and is a little shocked by it.

Shadow-green eyes flicker lazily up to meet Norrell’s startled blue ones. Strange takes another pull on the brandy as if it is insult and challenge combined and he would have it out with the bottle. “It died,” he slurs, addressing the bottle with a little shake. “Don’t even know which it was. And now it’s dead.” He rocks the bottle ponderously on its base; his lips are curled up in one corner in a look of disgust - although for what or whom is impossible to say. “Why was it moths do you suppose? Damned inconvenient - moth corpses are no good at all…” He does not appear to expect an answer, and the bottle gives him none. “No good at all,” he repeats quietly.

Unsettled, Norrell places the breakfast tray upon the bed and leaves again.