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Blood and Milk

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Grant enters the mess tent in the early evening to find his fellow officers in high spirits. Someone has returned from Lisbon with a dozen bottles of good champagne, and it is being swigged by the mugfull as if it was beer. The air is thick with tobacco smoke, and MacPherson is playing a jig on a fiddle.

He joins De Lancey and Fitzroy Somerset, and De Lancey passes him a bottle, slaps him on the back, and tells him to get it down his neck.  

A short while later, the magician arrives, his bag over one shoulder, and his basin on his back. He fills his plate from the communal pot, and carries it to the next table, and Grant pays him no further heed until a sharp exclamation, accompanied by the clatter of a spoon being dropped onto a tin plate, makes him glance towards its source. It is Strange. He is standing, with his hand clapped over his nose and mouth.

“Mister Strange?” he calls. “Is something wrong?”

Strange darts a panicked look at him, his eyes wide. Grant is alarmed to see that his hand is dripping with bright red blood. The front of his green coat and his shirt and neck cloth are also splattered with it. “Mister Strange?” Grant stands too.

“What’s wrong with him?” asks De Lancey. “Lord, where is all that blood coming from? Mister Strange, are you injured?”

Fitzroy Somerset laughs. “He can’t be - he never sees any action!” This occasions a low chuckle from the company.

“I think he’s got a nosebleed,” says De Lancey, frowning at Strange.

Grant ignores Fitzroy Somerset’s whisper of, “Oh, leave it, Grant, let him sort himself out,” and goes to him, offering to help him back to his billet.  

“I’m perfectly fine,” Strange retorts testily, his voice muffled by his hand, but he lets Grant guide him out of the mess tent with one hand on his elbow, pausing to pick up Strange’s bag and fling it over his shoulder.

 

Grant helps him duck into his tent without banging his head, lights the oil lamp, and sets it on the little folding card table Strange uses as a desk.
“Are you in pain?”, he asks, concerned.

“No, just dizzy…”

“Do you know what caused it?” He helps him out of his coat one arm at a time, Strange with his head tilted back awkwardly, pinching his nose.

“Probably the magic,” he croaks. “Lord Wellington asked me to move a church and everything in it, living or inanimate, and it took an immense amount of concentration.”

Grant grunts in response, quickly unbuttoning Strange’s waistcoat, which is also stained with blood. It looks black by lamplight.

“I have never done such complex magic before,” he continues, as Grant unties and draws off his neck cloth. “Moving living things – people – is very difficult, as well as nerve-wracking. I did not want to make a mistake because… well, I’m sure you can imagine the consequences.” He sits heavily on his cot.

“I understand. Lie down now. No, not on that: you should keep your head down for a little longer.” He whisks away the makeshift pillow as Strange lies back on his cot, still holding his nose.

Grant pours some water from the bucket into his washbasin, and wets his washcloth. “Does this happen frequently?”

“No, thank God. I sometimes get a headache, but I have not had a nosebleed since... well, not for some time.”

Grant passes the dripping cloth to him, and Strange bunches it against his nose while Grant takes out his own flask, and pours a generous nip of brandy into a small tin cup. “Here, drink this.” He sits beside him. The cot creaks under their combined weight.

“Thank you,” Strange says despondently. “I’ll be quite alright, you do not have to stay.”

“Has it stopped?” asks Grant, taking another swig of brandy from his flask.

“I think so.” Strange wipes his nose and chin, and sniffs gingerly, then sits up, swinging his long legs off his cot. He drains the mug, reaches for his bloodstained coat, and examines it, holding it close to the lamp. “Do you think the washerwomen will be able to clean this? Mister Norrell did not teach me any spells for laundry.”

“It’s easy enough to remove blood from woollen cloth. I can do it for you now, if you will allow me.”

“That is very kind of you, Grant, but I do not wish to impose upon you any further.”

“I do not mind,” Grant replies, meaning it. “Do you have any milk?”  Of course he does not; Grant puts his head out of the tent, calls over a passing infantryman, and asks him to fetch some. While they wait, he takes off his belt and sword, and lays them on the ground beside the cot.  "In any case, it's best to deal with the blood stains now, before they dry."

Strange says tonelessly, “I expect you have done this before.”

Grant glances up, an ironic response dying on his lips: Strange’s eyes are red-rimmed and shadowed, and his mouth is set in a thin line. He suddenly notices how bone-tired the magician is, and feels a pang of sympathy for him. “A few times, yes.”

“Not because of a nosebleed, I’m sure,” Strange adds in an undertone.

“Do not pay any heed to Fitzroy Somerset. I know that the execution of magic is not an easy thing: I have seen the toll it takes upon you first-hand. He has not.”

A respectful cough from outside the tent indicates the soldier’s return. It’s not the man he sent, but Winespill.

“Your milk, Major Grant?”

“Thank you, Winespill.”

“Is Mister Strange unwell, sir?” The little man looks anxious. “Is there anything I can do?”

“He’s just tired. He’ll be fine after he’s had a good night’s sleep.”

“Will you ask him to call for one of us if he needs anything? We’re camped under that hedge just over there.” He indicated a small group of men sitting around a small fire about twenty yards away.

“I will.  Goodnight.”

 

Grant uses the milk to wet his own handkerchief, which he presses firmly against the largest stain on Strange’s coat, letting the milk soak into the fabric. “How are you managing without a manservant?” he enquires gently.

“Some of the soldiers have been helping me, when they have had time. Ned looks after Egyptian, and when we’re on the march, Winespill makes sure I know where my billet is, and takes my baggage there. The others bring me food if I am not dining in the officers’ mess, or with Lord Wellington.” Strange wraps himself in his blanket, and watches Grant work with interest.

Grant is encouraged by this: it is difficult to gain the respect of the common soldiery, and they are particularly suspicious of civilians. No doubt they were won over by the combination of Strange’s magical abilities and his genial charm. He soaks and reapplies the cloth, and the stain begins to lift. “Lord Wellington keeps you very busy, doesn’t he?”

“Yes: I am rarely idle during the day, and he often has me looking into my basin into the early hours. I do not mean to complain: his demands are not frivolous. But I do not always want to be…” He stops, as if unsure whether to continue. Grant casts him a questioning look. “That is to say, I have taken to going off alone whenever I can, and hiding where I cannot be found.” A small, embarrassed grin. “I try to catch up on my sleep.”

Grant nods in acknowledgement as he rinses out the cloth in the water bucket, then uses it to give the faded stain a final rub. “Your secret is safe with me, Merlin, but please be careful that you do not wander off too far. At least make sure you do not leave the camp.”

“I am well aware of the risks,” says Strange, with a hint of petulance. “It has been made clear to me several times that I am too valuable a weapon to be allowed to fall into enemy hands.”

“I am not talking about your being abducted: you are just as likely to be shot. Either way, I would regret your loss. We all would.”

Strange does not say anything, but Grant sees the magician regarding him with a soft expression.

Grant clears his throat. “Here, what do you think?” He passes over the coat for inspection.

Strange is delighted; his toothy grin lights up his face. “Capital! Thank you, Grant: this is my favourite coat.”

“Not at all. Give me your shirt and neck cloth; I will add them to my own linen in the morning.” Grant puts on his belt and sword again. “Are you hungry?”

“Not really,” says Strange, yanking off his blood-stained shirt and passing it to him. He kneels by his chest and rummages in it for a clean one, sniffing and rejecting three in turn.

Grant glances down disinterestedly at the magician’s lanky, pale body, assessing his untrained musculature. “I suppose this will do,” Strange mutters, retrieving the first shirt from the pile. He stands, pulls it on over his head. As he does so, Grant finds his attention drawn to his soft flat belly and the fine brown hair across his chest and down his stomach. He catches the scent of him too: sour sweat, brandy, and a faint muskiness that is all his own. When Strange’s dark, tousled head emerges from the neck of his shirt, he is smiling, apparently at some secret joke.

“What?” Grant finds he is smiling in return: Strange’s good humour is infectious.

“Nothing, really. It’s just that… well, you have been very good to me since that day in the woods with Jeremy,” Strange says. “I had thought you were my biggest critic. Now I am starting to wonder if you are my only ally.” He delivers the sentiment without bitterness, and Grant finds himself warming to him a little more.

“Give the officers time to get used to you. They will come round eventually. And Lord Wellington thinks highly of you, even if he does not say so." He gives Strange’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. "I will find you another manservant. You will not always be able to rely on the men, although I am glad they have taken you under their wing.”

“They have been wonderfully patient, especially Ned and Winespill, but they have their own duties. If it would not be too much trouble, I would be very grateful.”

“I will do what I can,” Grant reassures him. “Try to get some sleep. Will I see you at breakfast?”

“Yes. Goodnight, Grant. And thank you again.”

“Good night, Merlin.”

 

As he walks back to the mess tent, Grant finds himself reflecting on Strange’s predicament. He is starting to appreciate how isolated he must feel. In the absence of his wife’s letters, the taciturn Master Johns had been his only link with home, and now he was completely alone. However, rather than sinking into despair, as any ordinary English gentleman in his position might have done, he has proved to be resilient, resourceful, and remarkably free from self-pity.

To his great surprise, Grant finds he has started to like the man.