Arthur and William take the drive back to the airfield slowly, stopping for lunch at a village pub. Neither of them say much; they don’t need to. When they do arrive they split up, like friends who just happened to share a lift. While William goes to unpack, Arthur goes to the main hut and bangs on Grant’s door.
“Arthur! You’re back. Good leave?” Grant smiles at him, looking more relaxed than he had the last time Arthur saw him.
“Yes, thank you, is Childermass back yet?” He closes the door behind him.
“He’s due back tomorrow. He won’t be cleared for duty for a while but he sent a message to say he wanted to come back earlier. Is this about the meeting you wanted?”
“I’m afraid it is. We should talk as soon as he gets here. A closed door meeting, I don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be.”
Grant frowns at him. “Are you afraid someone might talk?”
Arthur chooses not to answer that. “I’d ask Sir Walter to attend if I could but people will notice if he arrives. Let’s keep it to the minimum to start with, people we can trust without question. You, me and Childermass.”
“What about William?”
“I’m afraid this is need to know Grant: only the three of us.”
Grant finds William in the canteen that night, prodding at a lump of something covered in what is allegedly custard.
“Did you get better food on your leave, then?” Grant asks him as he drops his tray down and slides onto the bench.
“I did indeed,” William replies, “I cooked actually.”
“You cooked?” Grant carefully lowers his voice. “I thought you went to a hotel?”
William shakes his head. “He took me back to his place, actually.”
“He did, did he?” Grant turns to look at Arthur, standing in the line for food. “Well I hope he made sure you were well compensated for your domestic drudgery then.”
“Don’t Colley!” William actually looks a bit uncomfortable. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Then what was it like?” Grant tries to keep his voice even so nobody else has a reason to eavesdrop.
“We… talked. I met his neighbour and she took me shopping, so I cooked. We listened to the wireless for a while, went for a walk the next day. It wasn’t like… you know, Arthur’s usual weekends.”
“Or at least his usual weekends according to rumour. But you did…” Grant coughs significantly.
“Ah, yes,” William actually blushes, “we did. Very thoroughly in fact, but that wasn’t all of it. It was… nice.”
“Nice? Oh God, Will.”
“I know, I know, you told me this would happen.”
“May I join you?” Arthur is standing in front of them, holding a tray. Grant believes it is only his SOE training that keeps him from flushing, jumping, swearing or otherwise giving the game away to the sneaky bastard. William is less lucky, twitching violently with his spoon and sending custard flying.
“Of course,” Grant says, “take a seat.”
Childermass returns to the base looking like he needs another week in bed, but he shrugs off Grant’s concern and the three of them lock themselves in Arthur’s office.
“Childermass, if you can, will you shield the room? I want no interruptions.”
“Yes, sir.” Childermass closes his eyes for a moment and the edges of the room darken. It’s like being cocooned in shadow and it makes the hairs on the back of Grant’s neck stand up.
Arthur fetches one of the maps of France and lays it flat on the desk.
“This shows our current area of operation in France. You’re aware, of course, that recently we have had certain difficulties in conjuring visions. It would appear that this area is… there is…” Arthur coughs alarmingly. “Childermass, this is when I need you to take over.”
“It appears there’s something blocking our magic in France. That much we knew. Now it looks as though it’s been affecting our agents. Anyone who tries to talk about it while they are in France has their words stopped in their mouths. If you don’t try to talk about it, you can speak when you’re out of the area of influence, but once the spell has you the effect is permanent.”
“You mean that our agents are under enchantment? That Arthur is under enchantment?” Grant looks at him as though expecting him to sprout wings.
“I don’t believe it has any other effect, but I can’t be sure. You’d need John for that, he’s better than I am at seeing spells. You can feel it when you’re there though. I thought at first it was the adrenaline or because I’d been shot but the air is humming with it.”
“How far does it extend? Have we tested it?”
“Not yet, I don’t want this to become general knowledge.” Arthur frowns at the map, “Going by our current difficulties I’d say that this… anomaly now covers the majority of our area of operational interest. Worrying to say the least.”
“I’ve had a few conversations with Sir Walter recently,” says Grant. “The other units are in a panic. They’ve started to rely on our visions to tell them when agents have arrived or drops have been made. We can no longer verify when a target has been destroyed. It’s slowing us to a crawl and our radio operators are getting more radio traffic. The more radio traffic, the sooner they come under fire. We’re going to start losing agents.” Grant wraps his hands around his mug of tea to warm them. The official line is that he and Arthur are having tea and a debriefing with Childermass about his return from medical leave but no doubt the rest of the unit will guess that something else is going on.
“I want to know what it’s going to mean for us,” Arthur says. “We have no reason to assume it’s an enemy magician. You’ll have to trust me on that Childermass, I can’t tell you more.”
He scribbles a note on a pad and shows it to Grant.
Station X still monitoring all known magicians, no transmissions suggest operation on this scale. Nothing to suggest magician unknown.
“Got it?” Arthur asks. He takes the note, lights a match and burns it.
“I wondered if it might be faerie magic,” Childermass says. “It didn’t feel like anything our magicians produce.”
“But who would have been stupid enough to make a deal with a faerie? Or annoy one this much?” Arthur drops the remains of the note into the ashtray.
“Norrell? Might he have done something, made a bad bargain? He’s the one who made our spells to block enemy magicians from seeing us.” Childermass gives a one-shouldered shrug as if he feels uncomfortable with suggesting the idea.
“Norrell hates anything to do with faerie magic. It seems more likely that the problem originates with the enemy.”
“We can’t be sure it’s faerie magic at all,” says Arthur.
“Our protection spells are small, compact. They cover offices and buildings. The largest area we have covered is this airfield. The anomaly in France is vast and it’s unbroken. No English magic I know of could do it.”
“It’s not unbroken. Strange broke through while you two were in France,” offers Grant
Childermass frowns. “That’s another difference then. It’s still a constant cover over the area but it’s thinner. It can be broken. Did it break fully or was the image distorted?”
“Distorted, the vision was blurry and Strange couldn’t move away from the first spot he saw. There was no sound either. I think it took a lot of power to do that much and nobody else has got close,” answers Grant.
“Powerful magic then, diffuse and broad. I still think faerie magic is more likely.”
“Are we sure our own spells are holding? You made the assumption that their protection can be broken but ours can’t. I’d like to be sure. Perhaps the two are related.” Grant gestures to the remains of the note in the ashtray and asks, “Do we have any reason to assume we’ve been compromised?”
“I’ve no reason to suspect a breach. What I don’t like is the overlap between this…” Arthur waves at the map, “and the area where we are working. I believe we should look more closely at that and I want to keep this quiet. No talking outside this room and anyone we choose to bring in. Nor do I like the idea of enchantments that may or may not affect our agents.”
“You’ll need another magician,” Childermass says, “This goes beyond my skill. I wouldn’t ask Norrell though. You might need someone on the ground.”
“True,” says Grant, “we need information and we need it fast. We can’t deal with this if we don’t know what we are dealing with. Do we bring in Strange? He’s the best magician we have and the only one to break this spell, even partially.”
“Can we trust him?” Arthur leans back in his chair. “I know he proved his worth in France but this anomaly began shortly before his arrival here and we haven’t known him long.”
“If you put me on the spot, I’d be inclined to trust him.”
“I’d rather be sure. Childermass, I know you have your cards and I know you read true. I want you to ask them.”
Childermass looks wary. The Cards of Marseille are, strictly speaking, French magic not English magic and therefore under suspicion at present. Not that they have ever been respectable: Mr Norrell will not hear them mentioned in his presence.
“Do it,” Grant tells him, “we have to be sure.”
Childermass removes his cards from the pocket of his uniform and shuffles them. They feel warm beneath his hands, almost alive. He deals and turns them.
“The cards say that he is trustworthy. He is our best chance I believe. They also speak of death, or change, but they say that every time I read them now. The war makes all futures uncertain.”
Grant and Arthur nod at each other. The decision is made.
“I’d like Sir Walter in on this too, if we can,” says Grant. “He’ll have to talk to the other units and we may need to borrow some agents.”
“I’ll telephone later and ask him to visit. If Strange goes to France he’ll need someone to work with. Childermass, who would you trust? I can’t send you until you’re fully healed.”
Childermass strokes the stubble on his chin and says, “I think Jeremy would be a good choice. I trust him and he’s got a clear head. I think he’d work well with Strange too from what I’ve heard.”
“Sir Walter, Strange and Jeremy then. We are agreed, gentlemen.” Arthur drains his mug and stands. “Let’s get out of the shadows and go back to work.”
William knocks and then calls through the door. “Arthur?”
It takes a moment before the door opens but when he sees who it is, Arthur holds the door wide and invites him in.
“I thought I’d come and see if you needed help with the dressings again,” William offers by way of an excuse.
“It was fine thank you, it’s healing.” Arthur sits on the bed, leaving the chair for William.
“Actually, that isn’t entirely true.” William entirely ignores the chair in favour of the bed and crowding into Arthur’s space. “I came to see you. It’s strange, being together all the time and then I’ve hardly seen you today. You’ve been locked up in your office for hours. I missed you.”
Arthur brushes the hair off William’s forehead. “I didn’t mean to neglect you. Do you have time for me to make it up to you?”
“No, I have a night flight to do: a supply drop. Very boring stuff. Were your meetings as boring?”
“William, stop fishing. If you’d needed to be in that meeting you would have been.” Arthur tugs at William’s hair in a gentle rebuke. “When do you fly?”
“Soon,” William shifts forwards, his mouth very close to Arthur’s. “Won’t you give me a kiss to keep me warm while I’m gone?”
“This is why they tell the girls to stay away from the RAF boys, isn’t it? You’re insatiable.”
William makes his move and Arthur suddenly has a lap full of demanding RAF pilot doing his best to kiss him senseless. They tumble backwards on the bed, Arthur’s hand sneaking under William’s shirt.
“Can you come back to me later? After you get land?” Arthur nips at William’s lower lip, enjoying how it makes him squirm.
“It’ll be late, you’ll be asleep.”
“Mmm… I know, but I’ve missed you too, and I know how you are after flying. You’re worth waking up for.”
Sir Walter Pole arrives at the airfield two days later, attended by his aide Stephen Black. Jonathan has met him before, in London, but he isn’t a particularly close acquaintance. He shakes Jonathan’s hand though, asking after Arabella.
Sir Walter makes a small tour of the hut, nodding at people and shaking hands. His political career is growing in London and he knows how to work a crowd. He has a pleasant manner, but Jonathan gets the impression that his eyes don’t miss much.
Arthur eventually invites him into Grant’s office and they close the door firmly behind them. Strange expects that to be the end of it, but after an hour or so, Grant emerges. He finds Childermass and Jeremy, then catches Jonathan’s eye and crooks his fingers to summon him. Nobody told him to expect a meeting and it makes him uneasy. He sees De Lancey give Grant a questioning look but the only reply he gets is a quick shake of the head.
The office is rather cramped already, with Arthur behind the desk and Sir Walter in the best visitor’s chair. Jonathan is given the other chair, but Grant has to perch on a filing cabinet and Jeremy and Childermass are left to stand.
“Sorry about the lack of space but my office is even more crowded. Childermass, if you could make the room secure again?” Arthur is clearly running the meeting, despite the location.
Childermass does something, like a low, sad tune that Jonathan can’t quite hear, and the room fills with shadows. Jonathan assumes it must be for security, for secrecy, and resolves to ask Childermass about it later. The man knows all kinds of spells that Norrell has never shared.
“So,” says Arthur, switching on the desk lamp against the sudden gloom, “you’ve been asked to join this meeting because we have a problem in France, a serious problem, and one which cannot under any circumstances be mentioned outside this room. Any breach will be considered as an act of treason and punished accordingly. We are not playing around gentlemen; this could put our work in France in the balance. Childermass, if you could begin.”
Jonathan listens to what Childermass says with a growing sense of horror. From being a useless addition to the unit, responsible for nothing more serious than correct filing, he is now in the middle of a magical crisis and, given the lack of other magicians in the room, likely to be responsible for fixing it with only Childermass to help him. Not that Childermass is a poor magician, but he has only recently been shot and is less and less subtly leaning against the wall as the meeting progresses.
“Merlin,” Grant says, “do you understand what we are asking of you? If you think it’s likely to be beyond your power to break this enchantment or you have some other reservations I’d rather you spoke up now so we can alter our plans accordingly. We are rather relying on you though. There aren’t many men we could ask to potentially work against a faerie.”
Grant looks deadly serious, his brown eyes concerned. It makes Jonathan want to forget all reasonable considerations of self-preservation and say yes, just to please him.
“We need time to gather information before you do anything,” Arthur adds, “there’s training we can give you and we should get your French up to speed if we can. You won’t go alone, Jeremy will go with you and Childermass when he’s back on active duty.”
“I’ll look after you, sir.” Jeremy smiles warmly at him, and Jonathan remembers him bringing tea and biscuits after the vision spell. He does seem like a good man.
“Merlin, I’m afraid I need your answer.” Grant leans forward and, under his gaze, Strange briefly forgets the other people in the room. He thinks that Grant could easily convince a man to walk through fire.
“Yes,” he says, “I understand and of course I’ll do what I can to help.”
The meeting progresses at some speed after that, with plans that rather leave Jonathan behind. Sir Walter agrees to extra agents, borrowing from other units to make up the shortfall and able to get them more information. At least, Jonathan thinks, they are trying to make sure he won’t go in completely blind. Even Jeremy is vastly more experienced than Jonathan at this type of planning and Jonathan feels guilty for dismissing him as only a soldier before. Childermass too makes more contributions on the topic of magic than Jonathan feels capable of. It makes him feel rather inadequate for the task he has been volunteered for.
Arthur winds up the meeting and Childermass drops the shadows. Suddenly the room is bright again, less oppressive. Jonathan feels like he is the only person for whom the meeting has had any lasting impact. Grant, perhaps noticing, catches his eyes and mouths ‘thank you’. It shouldn’t be comforting, but it is.
Merlin lingers in the office as the meeting breaks up.
“Is something the matter?” Grant asks him. Merlin doesn’t exactly answer, he just perches on the edge of Grant’s desk, slightly too close for comfort and fiddles with the pen he is holding.
“I suppose,” he says eventually, “I didn’t quite expect this. Rather outside my usual experience.”
Grant takes the pen out of his hands. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, Merlin. Jeremy is a good solider and an experienced one.”
“Yes, I’m sure I’ll be in safe hands. Do you have any advice?”
“You’ll get some training before you go. That should help and we won’t let you go out there alone.” It’s what Arthur said before, but it bears repeating.
“I suppose so. I just wondered if perhaps we might take another walk some time, and you might tell me what it’s like in France.”
“Merlin, it’s hardly safe to go walking around the countryside discussing what we do here. Unless you are trying to break the Official Secrets Act so thoroughly that they won’t let you go!”
“Of course, forgive me, I had not considered.”
Grant starts to wonder whether they have made the wrong choice, regardless of what Childermass’ cards said, when Strange tries again.
“Perhaps then we could find somewhere else to talk, somewhere more private. There’s never any privacy in the barracks, but since you have a room…”
Oh damn, Grant thinks, this was not part of the plan. He had assumed that Merlin would stay silent unless given an obvious invitation, but he should have known better than to assume. He stands, just a little too fast, gathering papers into his desk and locking the drawer.
“I’m not sure that will be necessary Mr Strange, or appropriate. If you will excuse me, I should…”
“Oh, of course. Forgive me, I did not mean to cause offence.”
“You didn’t, of course, no offence is taken.” Grant looks up at Merlin who, damn him, looks unfairly attractive while being contrite. Grant swallows hard. The man is married, under his command and entirely off limits. Married, under his command, off limits: maybe if he repeats it often enough it will stick.
“Are you going to the canteen for dinner?” Merlin asks tentatively, as though expecting to be rebuffed.
“I was, if you will excuse me?”
“I was going in that direction myself actually, I hope you won’t take it amiss if I walk with you? I promise I have no other intentions or agendas beyond the fact than that I’m hungry and would be glad of some company.”
Merlin looks so apologetic and company would be preferable to eating alone. Surely dinner can do no harm?
“Of course, Merlin. It’s only dinner.”
Grant travels to one of the SOE training schools by car. The chauffer is an army driver who salutes and calls him Captain Grant, which makes him feel vaguely uncomfortable. While he is still officially part of the army he’s grown too used to SOE and their disregard for rank.
The training school, located in a requisitioned stately home, is busy. Packs of recruits are running laps around the house, being bawled at by the agents in charge when they start to flag. Inside he is directed through a maze of corridors to the briefing room where his borrowed agents are waiting for his orders.
There are two rows of them, a dozen people pulled from other units and given enough training in magic to make them useful. They will have to go out and gather the information they so desperately need: the extent of the enchantment and its nature. He recognises some of them from the files of new agents he was given a while ago: one of the Frenchmen and the woman he thought was too pretty to be an agent. She smiles at him with a hint of flirtation and it makes his mouth dry. This is the part he hates most. Some of the men and women in this room will die, and they will die on his orders. He knows first hand the danger they will face, what he is asking them to do, but he no longer has any part in it. Instead he must stand here and tell them what to do and hope that his orders don’t kill too many of them. When they flirt or joke with him it makes it that much harder.