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Bits and pieces

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Jonathan Strange winced as he watched the regimental surgeon stitch the wound on Major Colquhoun Grant’s left shoulder. Grant of course insisted that it was only a flesh wound and did not hurt one bit, but Strange could not help imagining what would have happened if the bullet that had grazed his friend had ended up closer to its intended target.

Colonel De Lancey, who was leaning against a tent pole sipping a glass of the brandy that the surgeon had brought with him in case Grant actually admitted to needing any pain relief, seemed to read his thoughts.

“This will not do, Grant,” he said. “I know Merlin here has saved our lives on more than one occasion but you must take more care and stop thinking of him as some kind of lucky charm that will protect you from the enemy’s bullets.”

Strange tore his eyes away from the surgeon’s work and stared at De Lancey as if this was the most amazing thing he had ever heard, grabbed his coat from the chair where he had left it and ran out of the tent. The Colonel shrugged. “I do not expect I will ever understand that man.”

As he walked briskly back to his own tent, Strange mulled over the idea that De Lancey had inadvertently planted in his mind. A lucky charm, he thought. Yes. I’m sure I could do that. Although luck should have nothing to do with it. I will make sure he is protected. Telling himself that this sudden urge to ensure Major Grant’s safety in particular was due solely to the impact that the exploring officer’s death would have on the campaign, he began to search the tent for something that would make a passable amulet.

It would have to be something small, something that Grant could wear under his uniform without drawing attention to himself. Strange rummaged though his belongings until he came upon a neatly wrapped package containing a small pendant he had bought for Arabella in Lisbon. Good, he thought, this will do nicely.

Thinking back to all the time he had spent studying in Norrell’s library, he recalled a spell that might work to endow the pendant with the magical properties required to afford Major Grant at least some degree of protection and was about to proceed when another thought occurred to him.

A few weeks earlier he had been called upon to rescue Grant from the French when the Major had uncharacteristically managed to get himself captured. He knew that Grant was still refusing to wear anything other than his ridiculously conspicuous scarlet uniform so he decided to add a spell that would enable a person to go about his business in an unobtrusive manner.

The next morning, Strange returned to Grant’s tent, pulled the amulet out of his pocket and eagerly held it out in the palm of his hand.

“This is for you.”

Judging by the look on Grant’s face at the sight of the heart-shaped pendant on its golden chain, he immediately realised that perhaps he should have offered a more thorough explanation.

“I mean to say … that is…it is to protect you,” he stammered, his cheeks reddening. “It is enchanted, you see, it will prevent you from coming to any harm.”

Grant’s expression did not become any less incredulous. Although he had witnessed Strange’s talents first hand and come to expect astonishing feats from the magician, this was something he had failed to anticipate.

“And what proof do you have that it would be effective?”

“Well, none, I suppose. I imagine it would be impossible to say whether your continued survival would be due to the effects of the magic or just good luck.”

Grant raised an eyebrow.

“Oh come on Grant,” said Strange, “surely it cannot do any harm” and then “no one need know of course” as he sensed that Grant’s reluctance was due more to his fear of losing his reputation than to any actual concerns about the amulet’s powers.

Seeing that he had no way of winning the argument and telling himself that he would remove this silly trinket as soon as the magician left his tent, Grant begrudgingly accepted the pendant from Strange’s outstretched hand and placed the chain over his head. The air around Grant seemed to ripple and Strange stared open-mouthed at the sight of a fox with fur the colour or burnt amber and a bushy, white-tipped tail standing in front of him and attempting to extricate itself from the Major’s uniform, which lay in a crumpled heap on the ground. The fox stared back at him for a moment then turned and bolted out of the tent.

Strange dashed after it, yelling “Stop that fox!” and immediately regretted his choice of words as half a dozen men drew their pistols and began firing on the fleeing animal, drowning out his horrified cries of “No! Wait! Hold your fire!” However, although at least some of the men must have been hitting their target, the fox continued to race through the camp, stopping briefly to look back before disappearing into the woods.

Well, thought Strange, at least I got the protection part right.

His pleasure at the success of that spell was quickly extinguished by the realisation that this was NOT GOOD and when De Lancey approached him with a puzzled look and a “What on earth is going on?” he found himself trying to explain that Grant was not supposed to actually change form but only to be perceived as a natural part of the environment by any enemy who should happen to look in his direction.

At first, De Lancey seemed like he was about to laugh but then the severity of the situation appeared to sink in and he assumed a more pragmatic attitude. “Right,” he said, “Lord Wellington is not due to return for another two days so we will just have to find a way to get him back before then.”

Strange had not even thought about Wellington’s reaction to the news that one of his best officers had vanished in so unexpected a manner. He was consumed with the appalling notion that he would never see Grant again and it took him a while to realise that De Lancey was asking him something.

“What was that?”

“Is Major Grant still in there or does it just have the mind and instincts of a wild animal?”

“I do not know,” sighed Strange,”does it make any difference?” But he knew it did. As much as he was fervently wishing that Grant was not gone, he also hoped that the fox was just thinking whatever foxes think and was unaware of its past existence, as he imagined it would be most disconcerting to suddenly find oneself trapped in the body of another type of creature.

“Well, if some part of Grant’s mind is in there, he certainly will not stray far from the camp and we may be able to get him back before anyone notices he is gone.”

Strange let out an exasperated sigh. “Since you seem to be the expert on the subject, perhaps you could tell me how we should proceed?”

“I do not know,” replied De Lancey with a smirk that suggested perhaps he was not taking the whole thing quite so seriously after all. “Maybe you could set a trap and lure him back with magic. Or just stand in the woods and shout his name, I am sure he would come if you called.”

Strange did his best to ignore this remark, decided that De Lancey was going to be no use at all and returned in haste to his own tent. He stayed awake for hours, going over and over the spell that he had cast on the pendant and trying to work out why it had gone wrong and what he could do to reverse it but eventually he fell into a fitful sleep.

He was awakened by the feeling of something warm nudging against his arm, which was hanging off the edge of the cot. He turned his head groggily and, to his amazement, found himself face to face with the fox, which was sitting there watching him with its head cocked, the amulet around its neck glinting in the early morning sunlight that was creeping in through the gaps in the tent.

He moved his hand slowly to avoid startling the animal and carefully felt around for the chain in the soft fur, stifling an inappropriate giggle when the fox pushed its head into his hand as dogs tend to do when their masters scratch behind their ears.

This, it turned out, was actually a good way of distracting the creature. He reached out his other hand and gently stroked its head until he managed to get a grip on the necklace and lift it up over the black-tipped ears, only to find himself confronted with the spectacle of Grant kneeling on the floor beside the cot entirely devoid of clothing. Unfortunately for Strange, his hand seemed to have a life of its own and continued to stroke the Major’s head for a good few seconds until he noticed and pulled it away sharply.

The corner of Grant’s mouth twitched and Strange lowered his head, bracing himself for the inevitable outburst of anger and derision, but what he actually heard was a familiar deep chuckle. He met Grant’s eyes, which sparkled with barely suppressed mirth, and the two of them burst out laughing uncontrollably.

“Well,” said Grant when he managed to catch his breath, “that was quite an adventure!”