Chapter 1: Beasts
Jonathan Strange & Gilbert Norrell for the prompt "Yes, but what about a unicorn?" from Prompt Set #559
“Yes, but what about a unicorn?”
Norrell sighed deeply and, taking off his spectacles, cast a look at Strange which was both exasperated and pitying. “Have you taken leave of your senses, Mr. Strange?”
“No sir, I am simply saying-- You said no to a manticore and you had not yet given me your opinion on a unicorn--"
“I did not think you were serious and, therefore, did not think a response was required--"
“Of course I am serious! Surely you can no longer argue that they are mythical, we saw a herd of them just yesterday--"
Strange froze in his pacing, brow furrowed. “I’m sorry?”
“The correct term is a flurry of unicorns, not a herd,” Norrell explained in his most pedantic tone. “It is in Pevensey.”
“Very well, we saw a flurry of them just yesterday, so you can no longer argue that they are merely mythical. Why, then, do you refuse to take my proposal seriously?”
“My objection, Mr. Strange, has nothing to do with the existence of the creature in question, it has to do with the practicality of keeping such a beast as a pet! We have no stables! Where would you put it? Would you have me consent to converting one of the spare bedrooms into a paddock? No, sir. No. If your heart is set upon a unicorn, by all means - keep it in your own house of Ashfair. But when we manage to extricate ourselves from this Darkness I do not think Mrs. Strange will thank you for what you have allowed to happen to her carpets and furnishings.”
Strange fell silent then. He had to concede that Norrell had a point. Arabella had taken great pride in choosing the new furniture, rugs, and curtains for Ashfair and it would not be fair of him to allow any creature - even one as magical as a unicorn - to nibble on pillows and sharpen its crystalline horn on the banisters.
“Very well, sir, perhaps you are right. But I still believe that it is not healthy for the two of us to exist in this-- this prison of shadows without having some other form of life around us to observe and care for. I believe that having a pet of some kind would do us both good.”
Norrell sneered. He was not convinced. “I have spent over forty years in this library, Mr. Strange, and I have never felt the need to share the space with any other creature--"
“You had Childermass.”
Norrell reddened slightly. “Childermass was not a pet!“ Strange arched one eyebrow as if to say that he was not entirely sure about this. “Oh, very well, Mr. Strange! But not a unicorn and not a manticore and not any other kind of faery creature which is large enough to devour my books - or one of us, for that matter!”
So the next time they found the Pillar set down upon a faery land, Strange ventured out to find a pet small enough for them to accommodate within the walls of Hurtfew. Norrell was, as usual, reading in the library when Strange entered with a triumphant smile and brought something furry out from inside his coat.
The cat sith was, to Strange’s eyes, a rather adorable creature: resembling a normal cat except for its rather larger size, the tufted tips of its ears, the white mark in the middle of its chest, and its gleaming red eyes. But it was its close resemblance to mortal cats that, ironically, doomed it in Norrell’s opinion. It had to go back. Over the course of the next few days Strange brought in several other faery creatures seeking Norrell’s approval, but all of them were rejected for various reasons. The phoenix posed a fire risk to the books, as did the salamander; the bird of paradise with rubies and emeralds embedded in its feathers could speak and Norrell feared it would remember their conversations and report them back to some malevolent faery master. And the miniature kelpie had a unsettling look in its eyes which convinced Norrell it would turn on them and murder them some night in their beds.
Only one possibility remained.
When Strange next entered the library he was whistling and something resembling an Irish wolfhound was following close on his heels. But, of course, it was not an Irish wolfhound. It was a cu sith, a faery dog, as was obvious from its bright pink ears and gleaming red eyes. But its long, bushy tail wagged much like a mortal dog’s was wont to do, and at a word from Strange it went to the side of Norrell’s armchair and politely laid down, its large head upon its paws. Norrell watched it silently for a moment, then sighed and looked at Strange.
“I have never been overly fond of canines, Mr. Strange,” he said, grimacing. “But if you insist I suppose I shall have to make an effort to get used to it.”
“You were not always very fond of other magicians either, Mr. Norrell,” Strange said with a smile that made a flush of bright pink appear on both of Norrell’s cheeks. “But I rather think you’ve gotten used to me.”
Chapter 2: Caged
John Segundus/Emma Pole for the prompt "He doesn't have the necessary self-control" from Prompt Set #559
He had made a miscalculation. A very great mistake.
When the letter from John Childermass had first come to him - when he had first had reason to imagine himself as a madhouse keeper - he believed he could do it, because in his mind all of his potential patients had been male.
His concerns had centered on the physical strength of those hypothetical patients: could they overpower him? Could they break their restraints, escape their chambers?
But now-- she was here. She. With her skin as pale and smooth as cream. Her eyes as dark as walnut bark in winter. Her unbound hair like a thundercloud about her head. The mysteries of womanhood clinging to her every move, every gesture, like a subtle, sweet perfume.
John Segundus sat upon the edge of his bed, hugging himself, shivering. He had not thought it through. He had not considered his own weaknesses before, so he considered them in that moment and came to a few disturbing conclusions. He could put them in a letter of resignation to Sir Walter Pole thus:
He no longer possesses the necessary impartiality towards his patient.
He doesn’t have the necessary self-control.
But he would not write that letter.
His original concerns had been justified, for he had been overpowered since the moment Lady Emma Pole entered Starecross Hall. Seized, possessed, bent head over heels, tied in an inextricable knot around her ladyship’s finger. Instead of escaping her own confinement she had taken him by the hand and locked him into a small chamber inside his own heart. He heard its thundering constantly in his ears when he was near her. Its pounding echoed around him, driving the madhouse attendant towards a madness of his own.
He dared not touch her, not if he could help it. Because he wanted so badly to touch her. To hold the hand with the maimed and missing finger gently enfolded between his own. To brush against the faintly scented halo of her hair. To venture, trembling and terrified, to taste the honey softness of her lips. To feel the warmth of her within his embrace and to know that she did not just tolerate his presence, did not just respect him, but that she needed him and wanted him and depended upon him: not as a patient, but as a woman. Not as a madwoman, but as an equal.
A proper madhouse keeper would want his patient to improve, to leave his care and return to the wider world without. But he had failed as a madhouse keeper, as he had failed as a tutor and as a magician, as he had failed at everything else. If Lady Pole improved she would leave Starecross, leave him, return to her husband and forget the poor madhouse keeper who sat in silence beside her when she did not feel up to speaking, who laid a shawl gingerly over her shoulders when she evinced the least chill. Who watched her with the same pleasure he took in seeing a rare migrating bird pass overhead against an overcast sky, or the first wild rose blooming in the hedge in spring. It was wrong, and yet he could not help it. The bird should remain outside the cage, flying in freedom; the rose should be allowed to grow, unplucked. But he could not deny the desire to bring them both inside and keep them safe beside him.
He could not deny his desire to keep her, if she would ever deign to have him, as his own.
Chapter 3: Confession
Jonathan Strange/Gilbert Norrell for the prompt "Today is a strange day" from Prompt Set #545
“Today is a strange day.”
Gilbert Norrell turned, curiously, from the bookshelf where he was replacing Lanchester’s Language of Birds. “In what way?” he asked.
Jonathan Strange smiled from the sopha where he lay, propped up on one elbow. He had removed his neckcloth some time ago and, with his shirt partially undone and hanging open beneath his long blue housecoat, he had the look of a man perfectly at ease despite the perpetual darkness glowering outside the library windows. “The way that I feel, sir. Ever since I rose this morning - if it was morning - I have felt an inexplicable sensation all through my body, through every limb, to the tip of every extremity.”
Norrell’s brow furrowed and he took a few steps nearer to the other magician. “You concern me greatly, Mr. Strange. What do you mean by sensation?”
“Just what I said, sir. An inexplicable - almost indescribable - feeling. A sort of-- lightness, I suppose…”
“A weakness?” Norrell asked, a fearful squeak in his voice.
“Somewhat, yes. And a warmth, too, that seems to course through my blood.”
Norrell gave a small gasp. “You are feverish, Mr. Strange?”
“Feverish?” Jonathan smiled so broadly that he bared his slightly crooked front teeth, then nibbled a little at the end of his finger as if thoughtful, deliberating. “Yes, I believe that is indeed the word, sir. Feverish.”
Norrell stared at Jonathan, wide-eyed, and shook his head. “A fever is nothing to be trifled with, Mr. Strange! It is invariably a symptom of a most serious ailment! It could be a human illness that you have carried dormant inside your body since before the Darkness, but then again it could be a fairy plague of some sort, of which we have no conception--" Wringing his hands in clear distress, Norrell drew closer to Strange until he stood over him, peering down at his face. “No, no-- I do not like the look of your eyes at all, they have an odd sheen to them--"
Jonathan was still grinning. “Do they indeed, sir?”
“Yes, they are positively gleaming. And there is a flush in your cheeks, too, which I do not care to see--"
“I’m afraid you are fated to see much of it, sir,” Jonathan said.
“No, indeed! Do not say such a thing, Mr. Strange. We have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips here--"
“Indeed we do, sir.”
“--and there must be something in all of these many books which can aid us in diagnosing and treating your present malady--"
Norrell broke off suddenly as Jonathan grasped both of his hands and held them. “You truly believe I may have contracted some kind of fairy ailment, sir?” Jonathan asked him.
“I do indeed. These feelings that you describe: the sensation of lightness, feverishness, the brightness of your eyes, the flush in your cheeks--"
“You believe I may have an unknown, possibly dangerous fairy ailment, sir, and yet you have drawn this close to me, and allowed me to take and hold your hands?”
Norrell paused, looking down at his hands where they rested in Jonathan’s gentle grasp. “I-- of course, Mr. Strange. I--” Norrell wet his lips nervously. “I cannot lose you, Jonathan.”
“Then be comforted, sir. I am not ill.” Jonathan drew Norrell’s hands to his mouth and placed several soft, lingering kisses upon his fingers and knuckles, glancing up at the older magician through his thick, dark eyelashes. “Or, rather, I am quite ill indeed, but it is no fairy ailment that afflicts me. Do you not know, sir, what it is that causes my fever, my present sense of euphoria despite this darkness we find ourselves in?”
Norrell gazed down at Strange, who was pressing his hands to his face, rubbing them softly against his cheek, all the while gazing up at his former tutor with sparkling eyes. Norrell swallowed, seemed to consider; then, all at once, the only words his tongue was able to form came tumbling out:
“Come here, sir.”
Jonathan sat up and pulled Norrell down onto the sopha beside him. He reached out and stroked the older man’s cheek. “You know what the cause of my ailment is, sir?”
Norrell’s face was flushed a bright pink; he could barely meet Jonathan’s eyes, but he was smiling. “Oh Jonathan,” he whispered again.
“You are, sir,” Jonathan said, and he drew closer to the other magician. “And you hold the cure to my suffering.”
Norrell raised his eyes, shining now every bit as brightly as Jonathan’s. “Oh my dear Jonathan. Is this real?”
Jonathan grinned. "Kiss me, sir.” He ran his thumb over Norrell’s lips, a touch that urged, pleaded. “Kiss me now and know how very real it is.”
And Norrell leaned forward and Jonathan closed the space between them. Their lips touched and they both forgot about the Darkness outside.
Chapter 4: Denial
John Childermass/Gilbert Norrell for the prompt "He used to be good at it" from Prompt Set #559
He used to be good at it: the dissembling, the disguising. The covering over of his instinctive impulses with gruffness, hardness, the way a traveler shields his head from the rain with a heavy woolen hood. In those early days he had worn his disinterest with ease, without conscious thought: it came naturally to him, a remnant of the invisible armor he had strapped upon himself in childhood in order to survive. But the years had elapsed and something of his resolve had weakened.
For a long time he beheld his own softening with curiosity, like a disinterested observer. He noted the way in which he would glance across the library and see Norrell shiver and immediately get up to stoke the fire, to add more coals. The times he would observe the exhaustion in the older man’s eyes when, in the small hours of the morning, he sat with hunched shoulders over an open book or basin of water, weariness and frustration in the tenseness of his posture, the firm set of his lips. Then Childermass would go softly to his side and suggest - with mild, soothing words - that the work would keep, that Norrell’s health was more important than any obscure spell. He found himself anticipating Norrell’s fears and heading off situations before they could cause the magician distress; and when he could not prevent such difficulties, he discovered himself responding to Norrell’s anxieties with less secret amusement and more genuine empathy. And perhaps the greatest change was in his own reactions to those eccentricities of Norrell’s that had, in the first few years, inspired only irritation and impatience. Had he seen something scurry across the library out of the corner of his eye? Was there an errant draft coming from under that windowpane? Was that pen-and-ink vendor on the street spying upon him? The detached observer in Childermass’s mind was surprised to note the smile of fondness that curved his lips upward in these moments, the vague sense of warmth that flooded his limbs.
But it was the increasing frequency of the impulses that made him realize how truly bad he had become at hiding his feelings, from Norrell and from himself. The impulse to fasten the man’s cloak at his throat, to straighten the drape of it upon the magician’s shoulders. The urge to grasp his master’s arm as he climbed into his carriage, and to keep a hold upon it longer than he needed to. The desire, when alone with him in the library, to simply lay a hand upon Norrell’s shoulder, to clasp his fingers where they lay beside his book. The need, the demand - of mind and nerves and skin - to trace the line of the older man’s lips, to feel his warm breath exhaled upon a sudden exclamation of surprise. And pleasure.
Yes, he used to be good at it. Good at denial. Good at pushing away and ignoring these feelings, feelings that had been creeping up upon him for much longer than he cared to admit. Good at refusing mind and body the sharp demands they made in the darkness of his private dreams. But no longer. The next time those impulses arose, he would not try and fail to conceal them. He would indulge them. He would take that small, soft white hand in his. He would lay his brow against the stiff fibers of that wig. And he would place his lips over those others, and for a few moments give them something better to do than complain about drafts and mice and vagabond street magicians.
Chapter 5: Distraction
Jonathan Strange/Colquhoun Grant for the prompt "Why don't you ask for more?" from Prompt Set #559
“Why don’t you ask for more?”
Grant turned, a look of genuine surprise widening his eyes. “I beg your pardon, Merlin? More of what?”
Strange lifted his hands from his thighs in a helpless gesture. “More magic. I hardly feel I’m earning my keep here, I’ve done so little. It’s been two months since I was last called upon to make a road, three weeks since I was last asked to use my dish to look for anything--"
“I thought you said such magic was imprecise and impractical?”
“Well, yes! Yes, indeed, it is! But-- I would rather be asked to do something imprecise and impractical rather than sit around camp doing nothing and being absolutely useless.”
“Now, now, Merlin, you are being entirely too hard on yourself! Nobody here would deem you useless! When you got lost in the woods yesterday you drew the French fire quite admirably. And just between us, De Lancey has far too many pairs of boots so you did him a great service earlier this week when you accidentally knocked that spare pair into the campfire.”
Grant said all of this in a loud, cheerful voice, his characteristic wide grin lighting up his features. But his good humor had gone amiss. The look that Strange gave him, raising up his downcast head, was one of pure misery.
“I feel like a fool.”
Grant sighed, regretting his light and teasing words but too proud to walk them back. He put his hands on his hips, paced a few steps in one direction, and turned on his heel to face the magician.
“Merlin-- Mr. Strange,” he began, “you are not a soldier, so--" Grant paused, shook his head. “No, I do not mean to dwell on your lack of military expertise. It is, in fact, immaterial. All that I mean to say is that we - the Army, I mean - we are in a period of regrouping, if you will. Of making plans, strategies. This must be done from time to time: armies must pause to assess what has been accomplished and what must still be done. Generals must consult maps, quartermasters must requisition new supplies. And none of this work requires magic, so therefore there is nothing that is required of you. Which is not to say that a request may not come again at any moment, and certainly will as soon as Lord Wellington orders us again to the march.”
Strange nodded but his expression was still dour. “So I am, in fact, an encumbrance without value at the moment. A piece of useless baggage, like some malfunctioning cannon that can’t be fixed right now but must be hauled around nonetheless.”
Grant sighed again, louder this time, exasperated. “Mr. Strange-- do you really believe that?”
“Yes I do.”
“You really believe that you have no value here?”
“At the moment? Yes.”
“You do not consider that you may, in fact, be providing a very real and important service to us at this very moment?”
“I do not--" Strange looked up suddenly, bewildered. “Sorry?”
Grant paused for a moment, then went and sat down on the cot beside Strange. He did not look at the magician: like a good soldier he kept his gaze focused forward, his tone even and matter-of-fact.
“Soldiers are, Mr. Strange – on the whole – a very odd set of fellows. The things that normal, sensible people run away from – gunfire, cannon fire, bayonets pointed at one’s head, lines of galloping horses, death itself – we run towards. Or, rather, we march towards, in brightly colored uniforms and perfectly symmetrical lines. It is, I suppose, a form of madness to seek out the possibility of one’s own destruction every day, and in quieter moments the reality of that-- well, it can wear awfully upon a man’s mind. People who are not soldiers can never truly understand how much their own occupations and interests, their conversation, their very presence can aid a soldier in distracting his thoughts away from the realization of how present - and how fragile – is his own mortality. It is comforting, Mr. Strange, to poor soldiers to have such people – such happy distractions - at hand. It is like a breath of fresh air to a man on a dry, dusty march.”
Grant’s voice trailed off and Strange turned his head to study the man. “Are you-- are you saying that I give you comfort, Major Grant?”
Grant still did not meet the magician’s gaze. Instead, he merely reached down and grasped the edge of the cot, letting the side of his hand brush the side of Strange’s. “That, Merlin, is exactly what I’m saying.”
Chapter 6: Ghosts
John Childermass/John Segundus for the prompt "Can we get him out?" from Prompt Set #545
Several months after the return of magic, John Childermass rode from York to the lands of Hurtfew Abbey.
He did so at least once a month, in the hope that he should find the Abbey returned to its proper place and his masters set again at liberty. On this occasion John Segundus accompanied him.
They were near to Hurtfew when they came upon the Faerie Road, gaping open in the line of trees across the bridge over the river. Childermass reined in Brewer and sat a moment, staring at it.
“Whatever has taken your attention, Mr. Childermass?” Segundus asked, nudging his mount closer to Childermass and then grasping the reins hard. He did not consider himself a good horseman, though Childermass had been helping him improve his skills of late. “You look as if you’d seen a ghost?”
Childermass nodded in the direction of the Road. “I ventured in there, once. Before my masters disappeared.” He seemed reluctant to say more, but Segundus was intrigued.
“And what did you see?” he asked.
Childermass shook his head. “Ghosts.” But, to Segundus’s surprise, Childermass spurred Brewer forward towards the gap in the hedge and motioned for Segundus to follow.
They had only to ride a little way along the avenue of grey twisting trees before there was that strange, sudden shift in the air, in the fabric of being, that indicated they had left the mortal world behind. A shiver ran through Segundus’s extremities and he looked about him in horror, noticing all at once the tattered corpses swaying in a nonexistent breeze from ancient gibbets. Though his horse neighed and shied sideways, seeming reluctant to go forward - and even the redoubtable Brewer rolled his eyes in trepidation - they soon passed the statue of a maiden holding a plucked eye and disembodied heart. Beyond it, a stone tower pierced the darkness of the woods.
Childermass reined in Brewer suddenly, laying a hand on the horse’s neck to still and calm him. Segundus came up alongside and glanced at Childermass. The Yorkshireman’s gaze was transfixed by some sight before him and his face was pale, paler than Segundus had ever seen it before. There was an emotion there that Segundus had never before observed in the stalwart Yorkshireman, and it seemed as strange as the atmosphere of this other world.
He realized, trembling, that it was a kind of fear.
“Ghosts,” Childermass whispered again and nodded towards a space some few yards distant.
A tall, lean man was pacing back and forth across an ancient courtyard, its cobblestones overgrown with clinging weeds and tangled vines. His fine clothes, of fashionable silks in vibrant colors, were contemporary to Segundus’s time, yet seemed oddly out of place in this dim, shadowed world. The man was very pale: paler than Childermass’s unusual pallor, a moon-white bluish shade as of someone frozen: not to the bone, but to the soul. Yet his eyes were wild and frenzied, full of a sharp, splintering light, and his gaze was constantly roving about him, though he had not yet noticed Childermass and Segundus where they sat their horses some yards away.
He was mumbling something beneath his breath, the same phrase over and over. I am the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart…
“You never met him, did you?” Childermass said quietly to Segundus. “Henry Lascelles?”
“Lascelles?” Segundus turned, staring at the forlorn figure in amazement. “Do you mean to say-- That is Henry Lascelles, the editor of The Friends of English Magic?”
“The very one.” Childermass shook his head slowly. “I had the oddest feeling… I laid out the cards before we set out and, from what I read, I thought I’d find him here.”
“Well, should we not say something? Should we not greet him? Whatever is he doing here?”
Segundus had moved to spur his horse forward but Childermass reached out suddenly and gripped the horn of his saddle. “No. Leave him be. He will not know us. He is enchanted.”
I am the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart, Lascelles murmured, still pacing, oblivious to their presence.
Childermass explained to Segundus what he had seen before: the young man who had confronted and challenged him, the barely discernible face in the lit tower window.
“He must have strayed in here before the Darkness took Hurtfew,” Childermass concluded. “One prison traded for another.”
“Surely this is a fate far worse than that which has befallen Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell,” Segundus said. The trembling in his limbs had increased, and there was a heaviness in his head that made it feel as if it would roll off his shoulders and tumble to the ground. He wanted desperately to leave this accursed place but he could not take his eyes from the sight of the pathetic, pacing man. “Is there nothing we can do? Can we get him out?”
“We are both magicians, Mr. Segundus,” Childermass said, shaking his head slowly, “as I’ve had cause to remind you before. But neither of us have yet the knowledge or experience to challenge the will of a faery. I wish it were otherwise. I have no cause to love Mr. Lascelles, I admit it. Yet I would save him from this fate if I could.” Childermass turned away from the sight of Lascelles and regarded Segundus, his dark eyes bright in the gloaming of the courtyard. “But we do not have the power to end his enchantment. And there are things… There is that which I dare not risk endangering.”
It took Segundus a moment to understand what Childermass was trying, awkwardly, to say, and when he did he felt his face flush with more warmth than that cold courtyard had ever contained. His heart was full to bursting and yet, even so, he spared the unfortunate Henry Lascelles one last look before they rode safely back into England.
Chapter 7: Intoxication
Colquhoun Grant/William De Lancey for the prompt "Please, seduce the right person" from Prompt Set #545
The sun was descending, the shadows lengthening in the camp, but the lamps filled the tent with light. De Lancey leaned upon the table, studying the map spread out before him; he supported his weight with his left hand and turned the glass in idle circles with his right. He heard the flap of the tent lifted behind him with an impatient snap and he glanced over his shoulder to see Grant, his coat and boots liberally covered with dust.
“Where have you been this fine afternoon?” De Lancey asked, returning his gaze to the map.
“To the other side of Spain and back,” Grant grunted, removing his gloves and slapping them against his thigh. “Or, at least, that’s what it feels like. What have you got there?”
“Hmm? Oh, this?” De Lancey lifted the glass with a look of complete innocence and turned it, letting the lamplight glint in the crystal, glow in the amber-colored liquid. “Brandy. Newly requisitioned from the personal baggage of a French colonel.”
Grant came up and leaned against the table beside where De Lancey stood, still studying the map. “You might offer me a glass,” he said, in a low, cajoling tone.
The very tip of De Lancey’s mouth quirked and his eyes sparkled, though they still did not turn in Grant’s direction. “I might, mightn’t I?” But instead of doing so, he lifted his glass to his lips and drank slowly.
“Oh. So you’re going to be like that, are you?” Grant stood up straight. De Lancey remained in the same position he had been in when Grant had entered the tent: left hand upon the tabletop, leaning over the map, the knee of his left leg bent, glass of brandy in his right hand. His coat was draped over a nearby chair and in his shirtsleeves and tight breeches, he presented a target too delectable for Grant to resist. He slapped the colonel upon the backside with his gloves.
“Oh!” De Lancey was caught by surprise. He lurched forward a little, the glass tipping in his grip. “Damnation, Grant-- you’ve made me spill some!”
Grant pressed himself up hard against De Lancey’s back and nestled his face against the colonel’s shoulder. “I seem to recall having made you say that before,” Grant whispered, letting his lips tickle against the edge of De Lancey’s ear. “But you certainly weren’t referring to brandy.”
De Lancey bit down on the smile that was breaking his facade of disinterest. Grant was nibbling on his earlobe and one of his hands had snaked around to the front of De Lancey’s body and was toying with the bottom button of his waistcoat.
“It isn’t going to work this time, Grant,” he murmured, his voice breaking despite himself when Grant pressed the tip of his tongue to the tender place behind his ear.
“Mmm, and why would that be, my lovely William?”
De Lancey shook his head. “And now the flattery. I know all your tricks, Grant, but you’re plying them on the wrong man this time. Please, seduce the right person.”
Grant pulled back a little in surprise. “And who do you presume that to be?”
De Lancey had just enough space now to be able to turn and face Grant. He grinned and took another sip of his brandy. “Come now, Grant, don’t play dumb. It isn’t convincing and it isn’t particularly attractive on you, either.”
Grant tried for a moment to seem offended, gave it up, and laughed instead. “I suppose you mean Merlin. Yes, well-- there’s just one problem with that, my dear De Lancey. Merlin isn’t the one with the brandy.”
Grant drew close again and De Lancey let him, even as he continued his argument. “He’s a magician, Grant. He could probably conjure up some brandy for you out of tree sap. And given your… talents, and the way Merlin looks at you already-- I’m quite certain he would.”
“Perhaps,” Grant said with a smirk. “And my supply of brandy will be provided for me elsewhere on another night. But this evening--” He brushed his lips against De Lancey’s, ran a hand over the colonel’s hip just firmly enough to make the other man shiver, “I’ll take my refreshment right here.”
Chapter 8: Maelstrom
Jonathan Strange & Flora Greysteel for the prompt "You can't save him" from Prompt Set #545
They were surrounded by a maelstrom of Perpetual Night, and ravens - uncountable numbers of them - flitted from shadow to shadow in every room. Doom and Despair hung as heavy in the air as smoke, and magic - dangerous, incomprehensible - sizzled against her skin.
But Jonathan Strange wanted to tell her a story.
“There was once a man, Flora. A foolish man who thought very well of himself, for no good reason.”
Flora shook her head, a teardrop escaping her eye and rolling haphazardly down her cheek. “I do not think I want to hear this--"
"But you must hear it!” Strange cried, gripping her wrists. His hands were unusually cold. “This man thought himself very clever. He thought he understood what he proposed to do. He thought he knew the risks and he laughed at them, for what danger could they hold for him, the great and powerful magician? He mocked all those who tried to warn him against his folly: he scorned and dismissed them. And he rushed forward, into the darkness, into the very mouth of Hell.”
“He was a fool, Flora, an impetuous fool. And his foolishness led him to torment and ruin. He got what he deserved, and well did he earn it!”
"No.” Flora was crying openly now, not trying to resist the fall of her tears. “No, he did not. He did not deserve this! He is a good man, a brilliant man, who did what he did out of love--"
"No, Flora, not love,” Strange interrupted. “Pride. Ambition. Hubris. The torment that he stays in now, the torment he endures-- that he does for love. But it’s only because of his pride and ambition that the torment exists at all. If he had not been so reckless… If he had listened, if he had only tried to comprehend--"
“He could not have known,” Flora sobbed. She took Strange’s face in her small hands, turned it so that his gaze met her own. “He was lied to, misled…”
“Not about everything. He heard only what he wanted to hear, and everything else - everything that contradicted what he wanted to believe - he ignored. And now he reaps the fruits of his inattention. But that is not the worst of it. Because of his folly others suffer. And even more might yet be trapped.”
Flora shook her head, a stubborn expression on her face. “No. No, do not think to push me away with dire warnings! I am not afraid.”
“Then let me fear for you!” he cried. “Let the fool fear, as he should have feared for others! For he knows now, Flora. He knows the things that move silent in the darkness. He knows the terrors that exist out there, on the borders between sanity and madness, between wakefulness and dream. He knows now the harm they can do to those who are unwary.” Strange reached up, touched the tip of Flora’s chin gently. His smile was sad. “The fool is lost. He does not want you to follow him down into the abyss. Flora – you cannot save him.”
Flora’s lips quivered; she could barely force the words from her tongue. “But I-- I have to try.”
Strange shook his head. “No, Flora. It is not for you to try. The fool must save himself.”
Chapter 9: Resurrection
Jonathan Strange & Colquhoun Grant for the prompt "I thought it'd only take a few days" from Prompt Set #559
“I thought it’d only take a few days.”
Major Colquhoun Grant shielded his eyes against the sunlight streaming through the broken boards in the walls of the windmill. He could just see the magician, huddled in the furthest, darkest corner of the narrow walkway. He was hugging his knees, swigging occasionally from a half-empty bottle of spirits. His face was pale, drawn, and there was a glinting, wild kind of light in his eyes which Grant did not like at all. Strange resembled nothing so much as a cornered animal, miserable and ill but still dangerous in its desperation.
“The spell,” Strange said in reply to Grant’s unasked question. He motioned with the bottle towards the Neapolitans, shambling about on the other side of the windmill. Their dead limbs uncoordinated, their dead eyes unfocused, they bumped into the walls or one another as they walked in circles, purposeless, muttering. Grant heard snatches of their running monologues: reminiscences of the last moments of their lives, pieces of popular Italian ballads, names: of wives, sweethearts, mothers, children. A shiver ran through the major despite himself and he turned away from the corpses and back towards Strange, from one miserable sight to another.
“I thought it would end in and of itself, you see,” Strange continued. “I thought its effects would only be temporary. For even with magic, how can a-- a-- how can dead flesh continue to perambulate, and speak and-- remember?” The magician took another long gulp of the liquor. “What have I done, Grant?”
“Your duty,” Grant replied firmly, but Strange only laughed: an odd, hollow sound.
“Oh yes. My duty.” His tone was bitter, hard like chipped stone. “I have perverted the laws of God and nature for-- for what? A few cannon? Well, good. At least Wellington is happy.”
Grant bit down on his tongue, stopping himself before he corrected the omission of Wellington’s title. Strange was in no mood to look favorably upon His Lordship at this moment. Instead Grant climbed upon a nearby crate and hauled himself up upon the walkway to sit beside Strange. The magician flinched slightly at his nearness, as if the past few days shut up in the windmill with the corpses had caused him to forget that any other living beings existed.
“You did what you were asked to do, Merlin,” Grant said quietly. “Sometimes that is all one can do in war.”
“But that is the very thing of it, Grant. It was not what I was asked to do. I was asked to find some Neapolitans. Wellington never said I had to resurrect some dead ones.” Strange’s eyes flashed brightly in the shadows as he peered at Grant. “What I did I did because-- because, God forgive me, I wanted to.”
Grant shook his head. “I don’t understand you, Merlin. Why should you want to?”
“Because it is magic that belongs to the Raven King. Because it is magic the like of which has not been done since he left England. I wanted to do it because-- because I wanted to know if I could. I wanted to know if I were truly a capable enough magician to do the kinds of things he had done.”
“And now?” Grant asked, genuinely curious. “You succeeded. Does that not please you?”
Strange hesitated. “I thought that it would. But instead I find-- It rather frightens me instead.”
Without thinking, Grant reached out and laid a hand on the magician’s shoulder. He wanted to comfort Strange, wanted to give him something solid and warm and living to lean upon. But Strange twitched at the touch and batted Grant’s hand away.
“Listen to me, Grant,” Strange said in a hoarse, rather high-pitched whisper. “For your own sake heed my words. I know that out of the goodness of your heart you are here, offering me your friendship. But you would be better off running as far away from me as you can go. I tell you this because I care for you. I have learned something about myself in these last few days. I have learned that I am a dangerous man. And anyone who gets close to me – and everyone who is already close to me – I am very much afraid I will end up destroying you all.”
Grant wanted to deny this, wanted to say something to discourage Strange from thinking such bleak and desperate thoughts. But he found that his mouth was dry and he could not say a word. There was a creaking over their heads, and a kind of sharp, high-pitched scream from the rusty gears of the windmill as the blades outside began to turn.
It was a still and windless day.
Chapter 10: Trickery
Jonathan Strange & Jeremy Johns for the prompt "It felt weird" from Prompt Set #545
It felt weird, to be seriously considering it. But the man beneath the hedge had been so very insistent. And so oddly certain. As if he had seen Jonathan’s face before, as if he had been laying in that exact place, at that exact time, with the sole intention of meeting Jonathan, knowing - somehow - that Jonathan would be taking that very road at that very hour. As if their meeting were not an accident, but something predestined long ago, foreordained before the hedge had taken root, when the stones of the hills were still sliding into place and the rivers sang, one to another.
“What do you make of it, Jeremy?” Jonathan asked abruptly as they rode along.
“The man, the one under the hedge. What he said-- about my being a magician or becoming a magician. What do you think he meant?”
“Meant, sir?” Jeremy considered this for a moment. “Well, I suppose he could have gotten very drunk the night before, which would account for his being asleep beneath a hedge. And drunk men are known to say some fairly odd things--"
“You don’t mean to say you think it was nothing but the ravings of a drunkard, do you?” Jonathan asked, rounding on his servant.
“Well, sir-- I only mean that is not a common occurrence to happen upon a man laying beneath a hedge who claims to know something of you and your future. It does not seem like the actions of a man in his right mind. Strong drink might be responsible…"
"Or magic,” Jonathan suggested.
Jeremy inclined his head, albeit rather reluctantly. He knew a little about the history of English magic - that is to say, he knew that magic had played a part in English history - and he knew that there were still some men and women who professed to practice the magical arts. But he could not quite imagine his master being one of them. Then again, he could not quite imagine his master doing much of anything.
“I mean to say, Jeremy, it’s possible,” Jonathan continued. “After all, where would one expect to find a magician destined to deliver news of one’s fate? Asleep beneath a hedge seems like as good a place as any to me.”
“I suppose that is true, sir.”
“And to be honest, Jeremy-- the notion of farming…” Jonathan said the word as if it had an unpleasant tang upon his tongue. “It’s never held any great appeal for me.”
“All that mud, caking one’s boots so. Tramping out in all manner of foul weather. Laying awake at night fretting over rot and drought and the price of grain…”
“Just so, sir.”
Jonathan gave a great sigh. “I don’t know, Jeremy. It just doesn’t seem like a very satisfactory profession. Perpetually stuck out in the country, away from the pleasures of the city. Rough hands and cold ears and dirty clothes. So very uncouth.” He rode in silence for a few minutes, then said: “There must be other honorable choices besides the dullness of farming. You are in service, clearly, but - just out of curiosity - what is your father’s occupation, Jeremy?”
Jeremy Johns was a good man and he had quickly grown quite fond of his new master. But he would not be a credit to the working classes if he did not, from time to time, take an easy opportunity to needle his employer. Suppressing a smile, he cleared his throat and answered:
“He’s a farmer, sir.”
Jonathan coughed loudly, as if an insect had lodged in his throat. “I-- dear me, I didn’t-- I suppose-- I spoke rather hastily-- farming is-- you know, I often think when I sit down to breakfast, what would we do without farmers--”
Jeremy felt a bit guilty, but at the same time Jonathan’s fumbling efforts to take back his criticisms of farming life only worked to endear him further to his manservant. It was good to know, Jeremy thought, that he now worked for a good-hearted master.
Perhaps one day, when this incident was forgotten, he could tell Jonathan Strange that his father was actually a blacksmith.
Chapter 11: Wanderer
John Segundus & Mr. Honeyfoot for the prompt "Who would believe that?" from Prompt Set #545
They had just sat down to a meager supper when there came what sounded like a pounding at the door. Mr. Honeyfoot looked at Mr. Segundus over his spoonful of soup.
“Thunder, do you think?”
It was raining heavily outside, lightning cutting across the night sky. But Segundus shook his head.
“I do not think so. I believe there is someone at the door.” Segundus wiped his lips with his napkin and rose. ““Another traveler, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Poor wretch! I don’t envy anyone caught out in this maelstrom,” Mr. Honeyfoot said. “See them inside, Mr. Segundus. I’ll fetch another soup bowl.”
Such were the generous and caring hearts of the two gentlemen at Starecross Hall that more than once they had opened their doors to lost or rain-lashed travelers on the road to York. It was such an out-of-the-way place that, in truth, it was not a wholly selfless action. With Lady Pole as their sole companion, both Mr. Honeyfoot and Mr. Segundus were more than glad to welcome a new face into their midst, for oftentimes such travelers brought news of the outside world that had not yet reached them in their isolation.
Segundus unbolted the door and opened it to a blast of chilly air carrying rain and dead leaves over the threshold. A man stood just outside in the shadows of the porch. In the sputtering candlelight from the hall Segundus could just discern a hard, pale face framed by black hair and layers of black clothes from which the rain ran in rivulets.
“Good evening,” Segundus said cautiously.
“Evening. This storm has caught me on my way to York. Might I beg the kindness of being allowed to step inside for a time and warm myself by your fire?”
“Of course, my good man, of course. And you are very welcome to rest your horse awhile in our stables--"
“I have no horse. I travel on foot,” the man said. Segundus stepped aside to allow the stranger to enter. As he brushed past, the end of his long black coat whipping about Segundus’s legs in the wind, Segundus caught the scent of rain-sodden moors, the decaying loam of a forest floor, and a hint of something animal, like wet feathers. The candles in their sconces danced as the man walked by them, their flames for an instant going a pale blue.
The man went straight to the hearth in the great hall and stood before it, his hands outstretched towards the flames. Segundus drew nearer slowly, staring at him. It was odd, the way the light and shadows in the room seemed to be behaving around the stranger. No matter which way Segundus stepped he could not seem to get a good look at the man’s face. It was as if he wore an aura of shadows about him which the firelight could not penetrate.
Mr. Honeyfoot entered the room then carrying a bowl of soup and a bit of bread. “Will you take some food while you warm yourself?” Segundus asked. “It is poor fare, but--"
“I am grateful to you,” the man said, turning to take the proffered bowl. Segundus watched his friend squint as he peered at the man, apparently unable - as Segundus was - to clearly discern the man’s face. The stranger settled himself in the armchair nearest the fire. “Such hospitality is a rarity in these days, even in the north.”
There was the slightest trace of an accent in the man’s voice, like the remnant of another tongue - perhaps French. “May I inquire as to your name, sir?” Segundus ventured.
“And you will be well rewarded for it,” the stranger continued, disregarding Segundus’s question as if he had not heard it. For a time he was silent, eating the bread, ladling up the soup, and Segundus and Honeyfoot stood and stared and exchanged glances with one another. Then the man spoke again:
“Your youngest daughter is unmarried, Mr. Honeyfoot-- yes?”
Mr. Honeyfoot jumped. “Yes-- yes, sir. But how did you--"
“She will soon be betrothed. And the match will be highly advantageous to the whole family.” The man extended a long, pale finger. “And you, Mr. Segundus. You will have your heart’s desire.”
Segundus was aware of the color flooding into his face and the way in which Mr. Honeyfoot’s gaze turned inquiringly towards him. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Sir, I do not-- I-- I-- I am not even sure what the desire of my heart is--"
Segundus thought he saw a sparkle of light where the man’s eyes were in the shadows that enveloped him. “I think you are, if you have the courage to admit it. And lastly-- you have a woman in this house who is ill in her mind, or so you believe. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Segundus and Honeyfoot murmured in unison.
“She will soon be freed of her affliction.” The man rose suddenly, setting his empty soup bowl on the seat of the armchair. The shadows clustered around him like a voluminous cloak. “My gratitude to you again, gentlemen,” he said and, turning on his heel, he walked out of the hall.
Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot stood still for a moment as if dazed, then - coming suddenly to their senses - they rushed to the door. The rain was pounding the earth viciously outside, the wind was howling, and there was no sign of the departing stranger.
“Mr. Segundus,” Mr. Honeyfoot began in a quiet, trembling voice, “do you think-- do you-- do you suppose it could be possible that-- that we have just fed white soup and two-day-old bread to-- to-- to--“ Mr. Honeyfoot did not seem to have the strength to say the name.
“Perhaps, Mr. Honeyfoot,” Segundus whispered. “But-- oh! Who would believe that?”
No one, as it turned out: not even Honeyfoot and Segundus. For not long afterwards the two of them fell into an unusually early slumber in front of the fire and when they woke, neither had any memory of their strange guest.
Chapter 12: Whirlwind
John Segundus/Jonathan Strange for the prompt "Pay attention to the past" from Prompt Set #545
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He returned to the Shadow House that evening, after Mr Honeyfoot had retired to his room. Something he did not understand drew him back there in the cool, fragrant dusk: a tingling that ran over his skin and through every nerve like traces of lightning clinging to the air after a sudden storm. It was not fear he felt when he walked inside and felt the presence of another: it was exhilaration, an excitement that stole his breath and warmed him through like the richest of wines.
The magician was there already, standing by a window. Moonlight fell through a pane of broken glass, glazing silver over his dark curls. He turned as John Segundus entered the room.
“Pay attention to the past.”
Segundus stopped, squinted through the shadows. “I-- I beg your pardon?”
Jonathan Strange raised his arm and pointed at the woodwork above the hearth. “It’s carved there, below the image of the raven. At least-- I believe that’s what it says. My Latin is a tad bit rusty. It was never very good.”
Segundus joined Strange before the hearth. The moonlight picked out the contours of the words hewed out in an even line beneath the feet of the raven. Segundus’s lips moved as he read the Latin, seeming almost like an incantation on his lips.
“Indeed, Mr. Strange, that is what it says. But what do you think it means?”
Strange smiled. “I was rather hoping you might tell me that. I think it might be why I called you here.”
Segundus stared. “Called me?”
“I can only explain it thus. I was standing just there, staring out at the moonlight falling through the branches of the trees, and I thought of you. And now-- here you are.” Strange peered at him closely through the shadows. “Or do I dream it? The way I dreamed up the image of Maria Absalom?” He took a step closer to Segundus, lifted his hand. “Are you even really here at all?”
Segundus was just about to assure the magician that he was when Strange touched his lips. Segundus shivered despite the warmth that flooded through his every extremity. He felt like a specimen beneath a scientist’s glass, a caged animal being studied by a creature of greater power. There was such magic in Strange’s touch. And yet Segundus was unafraid. He wanted to submit. He wanted to feel himself filled with the scintillating white-heat of magic that radiated off of Strange like a fever. He wanted to be lost in it completely, a single flake of snow enveloped in the blizzard, a leaf carried far adrift by the whirlwind.
How that first kiss began, Segundus could never afterwards say. He could not remember the details, only the sensations. The press of Strange’s body, the soft curls of his head that Segundus’s fingers found and twined, the strong grasp of Strange’s hands upon his back. And the intoxication of magic, stronger than any drug, more powerful than any wine, pulsing through him, loosening his mind from its moorings, stealing his heart irretrievably away.
And then he woke, laying upon the floor of the Shadow House in the weak morning sunlight. Cold and alone.
My thanks to all my Tumblr friends who requested these fills!