To Create Something Beautiful from Nothing
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with, do you Miss Sparks?”
Childermass had an uncanny way of unfolding himself from shadows and corners, almost as if he had been lurking invisible there all along. His dark eyes peered at her from under his lowered brow, and his thick Yorkshire drawl was low--always a growl like a tiger or a wolf. That was it: a wolf. Catherine suppressed a shiver and broke his gaze.
Was he threatening her? She certainly didn’t know much about him, other than he was coarse, low-born, and a trusted servant of a great man.
“I don’t know what you are talking about Mr. Childermass.” She fought to keep her voice steady and stabbed at her needlework. She gasped and silently cursed the fear that made her careless. She lifted the bright ruby bead to her lips and sucked her finger.
His dark eyes shifted to the doorway. Mr. Norrell fussed in the next room, bustling about his books and papers. Assured that his master was well-occupied, Childermass continued. “You think you’re part of the family now. That he’ll accept you and nurture you like a magical father.”
Catherine forced herself to meet his gaze. “Mr. Norrell?”
He checked the door again and knelt close. “Aye,” he replied.
“He has been nothing but gracious to me.” She had been staying there for over two weeks now, and had been treated with the utmost care and respect. Her only anxiety had been this dark man.
“And now he’s seen your talents, hasn’t he?” he growled. He lifted a dark brow sardonically and rose. “Be careful, Miss.” He nodded and stalked off.
Catherine Sparks had been invited by the famous magician, Mr. Gilbert Norrell, to stay with him after he learned of her innate talents for magic. Catherine was born a witch in a long lineage of witches. It was Earth magic, as most witches practiced, and had little to do with the grand feats of illusion that had brought Mr. Norrell such notoriety. Witches could communicate with and borrow the powers of nature. They had, of course, been shunned or hunted throughout the centuries (except when their powers suited those in authority), but the rise of practical magic and its subsequent acceptance and adoration by the people thanks to Mr. Norrell and his former partner Mr. Strange, had allowed some witches to feel less anxiety about their position in society. Over the past several years, some of the younger generation of witches, such as Catherine herself, began to open up to their neighbors and communities at large.
Witchcraft was rare (likely due to the pogroms of the past) and witches varied in their power and abilities. Catherine hadn’t thought of herself as particularly powerful, but then she had little to compare herself to. Her parents had both died when she was quite young: her father at sea, and her mother several years later from a riding accident. Though her mother had been a witch and had taught young Catherine much about the healing arts, especially making various potions and poultices, none of which sufficed to save her mother who had died almost instantly, Catherine had learned little else of witchcraft. She had not matured into her own powers until after her mother’s untimely demise, and so she had had to make due floundering around and making her own discoveries as she grew to womanhood in the Somerset home of her paternal aunt and uncle. Those good people had been warily indulgent of her gifts, but having no instincts for magic and witchcraft could do little to help.
With the introduction to the masses of Mr. Norrell’s modern British magic, Catherine allowed herself to experiment more with her powers, first by assisting her village with minor healings and potions. Within a few months she was experimenting with horticultural magic, increasing the output of crops much to the happiness of the local farmers.
Unfortunately while her gifts were a great boon to her neighborhood, they did cause a certain amount of alienation. A young woman of marriageable age, reasonable income, and pleasant aspect should be a great attraction to many. However the local men were visibly intimidated by her, owing only to her magical gift. And her few friends had retreated by a combination of matrimony and the growing unease her powers produced. It was, therefore, a relief to her to receive the invitation to London. She was somewhat tired of the provincial life and certainly it seemed that she no longer fit in. Perhaps the city, with the aid of the illustrious Mr. Norrell, would afford her more appropriate opportunities.
But now what was this warning from the dour Mr. Childermass? Gilbert Norrell was an amiable, if tedious, older gentleman, not the sort that one would ever conceive to be intimidating. He had been patient with her and encouraging, eager to learn of her abilities. He had vast knowledge of witchcraft although his own magical talents were derived from a different source, and she was keen to learn more of the potentials of her kind. Her only complaint was that she had met no one of interest. Mr. Norrell was by nature not a social creature and he shunned fetes and cultural outings. She longed desperately to attend a ball or concert, but she was loathe to ask, imposing her interests upon someone who had been gracious enough to house her and tutor her free of charge.
Childermass, on the other hand, had given her nothing but apprehension. There was something inherently untrustworthy about the man, and he made no attempt to disguise his shifty manners. He was not impolite, but certainly could not be called a gentleman. He was almost cocksure about his roughness, which she found disconcerting. And she was confused about the relationship between the esteemed Mr. Norrell and this man. Was he a servant? He certainly did not act subservient and was very free with his opinions and advice to the gentleman. Catherine had grown up in a household that, while not as rich as the Norrell estate certainly, was financially comfortable and esteemed within its community. She had never experienced or witnessed a servile relationship such as that which existed between Mr. Childermass and his employer. Mr. Norrell referred to him as his man-of-business, but it was a mystery what that business was and why he thought Childermass suited to the the job. Yet the man was frequently there, eyeing her surreptitiously like a rook from a high branch.
“It galls me, Childermass,” Mr. Norrell muttered into his books, “It galls me that she is so careless with her magic.” He slammed a tome shut and began drumming his fingers agitatedly.
Childermass regarded Mr. Norrell from his perch by the window. What galls him, he thought, is the ease with which she does it. He witnessed it himself for the first time today. The elder magician had meticulously instructed her on the proper techniques and process to create a rosebush from nothing. He had sweated and strained, creased his brow in concentration, and gestured, composing a rather odd-looking but serviceable small shrub with red buds. Miss Sparks smiled pleasantly at Norrell, expressing appropriate admiration for the plant, then she closed her eyes for a few moments with a peaceful expression upon her pretty face. She cocked her head once, as if contemplating a minor detail. An eddy of dust quickly swooped before her feet and within seconds a finely sculpted topiary nearly two yards high of deep purple and pink roses in full bloom erupted on the spot.
Childermass had not seen the look upon his master’s face, but he could well guess that the man was shocked and dismayed. He remembered Norrell’s response when he heard the details of Mr.Jonathan Strange’s rescue of the ship run aground on the shoal--an impressive display of magic by all accounts, and rather impatiently performed by Mr. Strange--and he imagined a similar feeling. Mr. Norrell had no patience for those who could perform magic with greater ease than he.
“She has no respect for proper technique in magic,” Mr. Norrell fumed on. “She listened not to a single word I said and only did what she wanted without regard to the possible consequences. Careless, I say!”
“Careless or carefree?” John Childermass rarely spoke, but when he did it was to make a point. In the fashioning of the rosebush, he saw in Miss Sparks a happiness and ease that he had never witnessed in his employer. Even when performing trivial acts and divertisements, Mr. Norrell was always serious and staid. Although the man had spent his entire adult life studying magic, and occasionally practicing it, there was no joy in his craft. He was pleased only in the acquisition of new information (or new old information as was the case generally) and in the awe he inspired in those who witnessed his craft. Even that egotism was tempered by his shyness and anxiety. The young Miss Sparks clearly enjoyed her gifts and wanted to share her enjoyment with others.
Norrell scowled at him and began pacing about the room. “She didn’t do it the way she was supposed to,” he complained.
Childermass silently thought that her way must be the better way as her rosebush was certainly grander than that of Mr. Norrell. “So how did she do it?” he asked. Norrell shook his head dismissively, indicating that this, to him, was not a pertinent question. To him there was no reason that anyone would perform magic by any means other than his version of respectable modern magic. Childermass had been with Norrell for over twenty years now and as far as he could tell the definition of ‘respectable modern magic’ varied convenient to Mr. Norrell’s whims. The only respectable magician, therefore, could be Mr. Norrell himself.
John Childermass casually studied magic alongside his master, though Norrell knew little of it. He had instructed him in some spells to help further his own business, but Mr. Norrell was blind to how much Childermass had learned and was keen to learn more. Childermass was pleased with this. He had spent his entire life in a certain amount of anonymity, forever being underestimated by or downright ignored by those around him. It was not a failure but a finely honed skill that had afforded him many opportunities. Mr. Norrell may not be interested to know about Miss Sparks’ talents, but Childermass was.
A servant announced Mr. Lascelles. Childermass did not attempt to conceal it as he rolled his eyes when the dandy entered the library.
“Mr. Norrell, sir, how fares the examination of your charming young lady?” Lascelles, interested to no end by the idea of a lady magician, had regularly attempted to flirt and flatter Miss Sparks since her arrival. Childermass was frustrated by his master’s blindness to the obsequious and frankly untrustworthy nature of Mr. Lascelles, but he had to admit that Lascelles’ money and connections had benefitted Mr. Norrell and his quest to lift magic up to respectability.
Mr. Norrell had reserved a fresh scowl for Lascelle’s inquiry. “Ridiculous, Mr. Lascelles,” he grumbled. “She has no respect for the techniques of proper magic.”
Lascelles grimaced in sympathy and respectfully paused before continuing the interview. “I do assume that you tested her today as was discussed?” Norrell nodded curtly. “Well, what did she do?” Mr. Norrell ignored him and muttered softly to himself as he scribbled in his notebooks.
Childermass watched amused as Lascelles looked at Mr. Norrell, then around the room, then at Norrell again. “The rosebush,” he said. Lascelles narrowed his eyes at him and Childermass gestured to the topiary by the window. The late afternoon sun shown dramatically upon the velvety blossoms. The gentleman gasped in awe and Norrell looked up at him reproachfully; Lascelles quickly turned his response to a short fit of coughing.
“Oh dear,” he said when recovered. What else could he say? The room remained awkwardly silent for some time. At last Mr. Lascelles could bear the silence no more (he never could, and Childermass privately counted the minutes before the man would inevitably break any moment of quiet) and continued. “And do her skills lend to anything other than horticulture?” He guffawed at his own joke, but neither of his companions followed suit.
Gilbert Norrell put down his pen. “She says that she conducts ‘Earth magic’, that she gets her power from nature. Apparently this is common among witches.”
“You do not do magic this way, I presume.”
“I certainly do not,” Mr. Norrell replied indignantly.
“It is a limitation then, her magic?” Lascelles supplied.
“Yes, certainly. From my understanding in the literature, there is no reason to suspect that this so-called ‘Earth magic’ is anywhere near as powerful and useful as my magic.”
“And certainly a woman could never be as powerful as any man, especially one so formidable as you, Mr. Norrell.”
“That shows how much you know about women,” observed Childermass.
Lascelles glared at him. “Are you speaking to me? Sir, why is your servant addressing a gentleman in this manner?” Mr. Norrell glanced timidly at Childermass. Though he did not exactly respect Childermass he relied overmuch on him and was loathe to correct him.
“I was just leaving,” Childermass muttered. He gave Lascelles a long look as he casually strode from the room.
Catherine was desperate to get out of the house. Perennially cooped up in the admittedly grand townhome made her edgy. She needed to get out into greenery. She supposed many would feel the same faced with the day in day out inside the gray brick walls, but she guessed that her being a creature of Earth magic made it all the more potent an emotion. Frustratingly, her chaperone Mrs. Tweed (an elderly acquaintance of her uncle) was abed with a cold. When she inquired of Mr. Norrell if there was a suitable replacement so that she may go for a walk, he assured her that he would see her needs were met. She paced about the drawing room, restlessly waiting for her walk. Childermass appeared at the doorway.
“You requested an attendant Miss Sparks?”
She stopped in her pacing and stared at the man, her brow creased in concern. “I hardly think that a single man is a suitable chaperone for an unattended lady, Mr. Childermass.”
He leaned casually on the door frame and smirked faintly. “Likely. But that’s all you’re going to get from this house.”
Catherine huffed indignantly. Not only was this completely inappropriate, she was still somewhat stunned from their interaction on the previous afternoon. What was this threat he implied? “Mr. Norrell is constantly talking about respectability and yet he cares not for social propriety. I should speak to him.”
“Don’t waste your breath, Miss Sparks. He won’t listen. Propriety for him has only to do with magic, Miss.” She resumed her pacing. Childermass observed her patiently for a minute or two. “Do you want to go out, Miss?”
“I need to go out, Mr. Childermass,” she answered, her tone sharper than she had intended.
“Aye, that you do,” he said.
She stopped and allowed herself to meet his gaze. “Very well,” she said with a nod. He bowed his head to her deferentially and donned his hat.
At the open door her mood improved immediately. The sun was shining and a fresh breeze rustled her hair. She closed her eyes with bliss. Childermass considered her: she was pretty (he had already observed that), but the fresh air enlivened her, bringing her looks even more beauty. “There’s a park nearby, Miss.” She looked at him and he gestured to their right. She descended the steps and strode forth purposefully. When they arrived at the gate to the park, she smiled openly taking in all the verdant splendor. He couldn’t help but respond to her smile, his otherwise dour mouth turning up and his face softening. Catherine suppressed a blush as she noticed the change in him.
“I have always lived in the country, Mr Childermass. It has been trying for me to be enclosed in walls for the past two weeks.”
“There’s something else, Miss Sparks. I can see the change in you already. Something to do with magic.”
She smiled shyly at him and continued their stroll through the green. “I suppose you are right, Mr. Childermass,” she admitted. “A witch needs nature. I had always suspected it, but this confirms it. I would lie on that grass right there and soak up the power of the Earth if I could.”
“If you’re worried about being seen with the likes of me, than I hardly think you’d be rolling around on the ground in front of all these people.” They laughed at the thought. She settled at last for taking a seat on a bench under a large tree. She leaned her head back, exposing her delicate features to the breeze and the sun’s warmth.
“How did you do it?” he asked. She looked at him. “The rose.”
“Do you want to know or does he?”
“He doesn’t care. He’s just angry you did it differently. And that yours was better,” he added. “I want to know.”
She gazed out at the green around them. She spoke deliberately, carefully trying to describe the technique to which she had previously given very little thought. “I gather it all up, you see. The power from the elements. I let it flow through me and work through me. With the rosebush I sought out the dust, the moisture, the green matter in the air. I allowed them naturally to work together to create that which they always wish to create: beauty. I only worked with the elements, to coax them along and guide them into their form.” She turned to her companion and saw in him an intensity of interest, a desire to learn. “Do you practice magic Mr. Childermass?”
He pulled back some at her question. Rarely did he want anyone to know anything about him. His secrets gave him the edge and always had. But now that he thought about it, no one had ever really sought to know much of him, certainly not his master, and there was something comforting in her question. Her tone and her mien communicated her interest in him. Would it hurt to tell her how much he had gleaned over the years with Norrell? He decided on caution for now. “Some,” he admitted.
She peered at him more intensely and smiled knowingly. Could this witch also see his thoughts? Noting his nervousness, she graciously broke her gaze and looked out again upon the parkland. “Thank you, Mr. Childermass, for bringing me here. And thank you for your interest in my magic.”
He quietly watched her, almost seeing in her the elemental magic she had spoken of. It lit her up from within, not to the state she had been in during the rosebush creation--for now he recognized that joy in her then as being not merely happiness but power--but to a calm glow like the warm colors of the stained glass at York Minster at midafternoon. They continued their walk in companionable silence after several minutes. Occasionally Catherine would stop to touch the bark of a tree, study a bright flower, or listen to a bird singing. It was as if she was drinking it in, replenishing herself with each observation. At last, however, the need for real nourishment outweighed her magical needs and they returned to the house.
“Thank you again, Mr. Childermass,” she said. “It was much needed.” He nodded to her and retreated.
What an enigma of a man, she thought.
The next day brought a gray sky and cool, drizzling rain. Catherine was thankful she had taken advantage of the weather when she did. She had taken many a stroll in the rain while living in the country--it could be just as invigorating as the sunshine--but she was quite sure that a slate-colored London in the rain would not be as inviting. Not to mention, walking in the rain with no destination would bring upon her (and her uncouth companion, for Mrs. Tweed would certainly not accompany her) far more unfavorable attention than she was wanting.
Mr. Norrell had been called to meet with Lord Pole and several MPs. He reluctantly agreed to the meeting, leaving his young charge to languish inside doing mindless women’s work, the library at his orders having been locked to her. She sighed as she sat by the window of the front parlor, working on her embroidery, never a task she favored but which was expected. She looked up and was surprised to see John Childermass standing before her, though why she was surprised exactly she did not know. She should by now have expected him to apparate without the least indication.
“It was my understanding that you generally accompanied Mr. Norrell on his outings.”
“I generally do, but not today. He wants me to keep an eye on you, Ms. Sparks.” There was that growl again.
She raised an eyebrow. “What does he expect me to do, Mr. Childermass? Burn the house down? Break into his beloved library?”
He said nothing but slumped onto the settee opposite her. Unnervingly he watched her without a word, only occasionally breaking his gaze to peer at the dilapidated Cards of Marseilles that seemed to accompany him everywhere. She decided to pointedly ignore his stare and set back to work on her embroidery. Within the hour what little light the window provided was quickly obscured by a growing downpour. An observant servant soon entered to light the candles and start a small fire in the grate. Catherine was grateful for the disruption of the awkward silence that she was determined to not break herself. The servant left.
“Why are you here, Ms. Sparks?” His voice shocked her after so much time.
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you here, in London?”
What an odd question, she thought. But then was it? “I was invited by Mr. Norrell to discuss magic, to learn from him.”
“And what have you learned?”
She thought for a moment. “Nothing,” she admitted. “But Mr. Norrell is busy. Perhaps…”
He interrupted, “Perhaps he will finally treat you as the talented, powerful magician you are.” She blushed at this. “But he won’t.”
Her eyes watered in embarrassment and anger. “Then pray why am I here, Mr. Childermass?”
He leaned forward, hands on his knees. “He meant to test you.”
“But the rosebush was a simple task.”
“And the magic before that?”
“Simple as well. He has yet to provide any challenges where I could ever undermine his great talents,” she said.
“He doesn’t need to. It isn’t the spell or the task that was the answer to his questions about you. It was that you play with magic as easily as if it were a child’s toy. He doesn’t need to know any more.”
His tone chilled her. “And so what does he plan to do now?”
Pity crept into his brown eyes. “I do not know, Miss. But the changed man I have come to know since we have lived here in London will not stand for the insult to his craft.”
“But I have never insulted his craft, or him,” she protested.
“Of course you haven’t, but in his eyes you have.”
Her eyes darted nervously. She had never done mischief to anyone, and it pained her to think that Mr. Norrell, if this man was to be believed, would wish her ill due to some perceived slight. He was a respected gentleman of high society and the most lauded magician in the Kingdom. Why should her magical fripperies insult him so? She hadn’t meant to play with magic as Childermass had suggested; it merely came easy to her. Surely this was as much an accident of birth as it was a stain on her attitude toward the craft. Witchcraft had been in her blood.
“I must apologize to him,” she insisted.
He shook his head slowly. “Do not waste your breath, Miss Sparks. Your words will mean nothing to him.”
“But I have insulted a gentleman.”
He sniffed at the thought. “Go home, Miss. It is the best thing you can do right now. Maybe with time he will forget you.”
She was unsure what to make of his advice. She stared at him, a look of confusion and concern plain on her face. Was Childermass to be trusted? Surely a servant should not be speaking against his master, advising her to go against the man’s stated intentions of nurturing her gifts. However, who would know Gilbert Norrell better than Mr. Childermass? By all accounts he had been in his employ for years, and he clearly had an (at times unnerving) aptitude for observation. All those years of quietly lurking and listening must have paid off. She shook her head at the uncharitable thought: Childermass, despite his coarse ways, had been nothing but kind to her. Or so she hoped. Her head spun at the possibilities.
She looked up suddenly as his hand met hers. His eyes were kind, his brow creased with concern. “Go home, Miss.”
She acquiesced at last, nervously removing her delicate white hand from under his, and he instructed her to pack immediately. He assured her that he would make her excuses and apologies to Mr. Norrell when he returned this evening after dining with Lord Pole. Anxiety gnawed at his core and he would not allow her to delay her departure. Perhaps it was his keen perception, perhaps it was magic. There was something in Norrell’s attitude that alarmed him. He had changed in many ways, most notably since his introduction to Mr. Jonathan Strange. The man’s pride would ultimately be his undoing, but in the meantime he meant to undo all those he thought against him. His cards had confirmed it today. The High Priestess and The Magician, followed by a succession of Swords. Two powerful people in conflict.
Mrs. Tweed would have to find herself well enough to travel today.
Before the last light of day Childermass handed the ladies into a carriage bound for an inn across from the coach station. The rain continued to pour, dampening their clothes despite the cover of his umbrella. Catherine leaned from the open door.
“Thank you, Mr. Childermass.” They had arranged that he would tell of a letter she received from her aunt desperate for her help with a sudden ill-turn of health. Mrs. Tweed, nor anyone else, was to know of the suspicions toward Mr. Norrell. Catherine lowered her voice, “I cannot help but feel that I could do something more, try to remedy the situation.”
He shook his dark head sadly. “Travel safely, Miss.”
He motioned to the driver to move along and watched through the rain until the carriage rounded the corner.
John Childermass felt a pang of regret at the lost Mr. Norrell. Childermass himself had initiated Norrell’s introduction to London, society and the government. He had meant, much as Mr. Norrell did, to further the interests of practical magic. He had long felt that Norrell wasted his expertise in his vast library. There was so much that magic could do for England. And it had. But perhaps the introduction had been too fast; perhaps with a more gentle touch the esteemed magician could have blossomed (much as Miss Sparks’ roses had done) in London. But Childermass had never been known as gentle, was not a gentleman in any sense, and the current of fame had swept that old Norrell away. Instead, the man’s insecurities had hardened into a carapace of righteous indignation.
Dear Mr. Childermass,
I do hope this letter finds you well, and that your help several weeks ago did not cause you any complication with your employer. As you may have noted I did not note the sender on the outside of this letter in hopes that this will protect you from any suspicions he may have. I realized as I addressed the note that I never learned your Christian name, and so I apologize for that.
I am not sure why I write now, or if you are the person to help me. However as you were the one to warn me of possible troubles stemming from my time in London, and as you are the only other soul to know of these concerns, I find I have no one else to turn to.
I am beginning to believe that Mr. ____ has not forgotten about me and that your suspicions have come to fruition. Within days of my return home, countless problems have arisen. They began harmlessly enough: things missing with uncharacteristic frequency, and mild mishaps that were nothing but inconvenient. Within the past week, however, I have become distraught. What can only be described as a campaign of slander has swept through the streets of my small town and the nearby farmsteads. I cannot leave my home for fear of the stares and gossip. My poor aunt and uncle have suffered cruelly for it as well, and I pray their own reputations have not been permanently damaged.
And then this morning, while walking in the garden, an enormous tree limb broke suddenly from its trunk and plummeted toward my head. The only thing that saved me was my own connection to and awareness of the tree, having loved the dear old thing for years, which warned me of the impending doom and caused me to jump aside.
I am frightened Mr. Childermass. If you have any advice for me, I will take it. Or if you have any sway over the man in question, please help to stop this madness.
Childermass silently cursed himself for underestimating the man’s wrath. Although Norrell regularly dismissed witchcraft as a base form of magic, it had been more than clear that he envied the ease with which its magic flowed through the woman. He assumed that the recent success of Mr. Strange on the Peninsula was the real culprit compounding his frustrations and jealousies of Miss Sparks’ witchcraft. Norrell had cursed and slammed about the house as he learned of his erstwhile pupil’s clever and daring approaches to magic in aid of the war. Childermass thought that this would distract from the Miss Sparks problem, but apparently in between cursing each bit of news of Mr. Strange, he was secretly taking out his ire upon the witch.
He would not delay by writing a reply, instead packing a few essentials and setting out for Somerset. Rather than taking his horse from the stable, Childermass borrowed a horse from an inn on the far side of the city. Although he could slip easily from notice and enrobe himself in a spell of concealment, he could not risk Mr. Norrell tracking the great black gelding. Childermass often disappeared for a day or two on his own private errands, and Norrell would likely not take too much notice. He hoped it was enough time to get Miss Sparks to relative safety. How he was going to do that was the real question.
The silence, the waiting, the indecision was driving her slowly mad. Her aunt and uncle had left three days ago for Lyme, hoping that a holiday with their cousins would distract from the stress at home and the gossip die down with time away. They had begged Catherine to accompany them, but she was stalwart in her refusal. She would not have the ill-will of Mr. Norrell, for that is what she had correctly assumed was the cause of their current circumstances, follow them and spread to friends and family.
She chewed at her fingers and looked nervously out at the garden. She had not written to them of the latest threat of the tree: she knew it would only cause distress and there was nothing they could do to help. They were also unaware that the attacks had come from the magician. They were not of such a standing in society to make an impact upon his reputation, and again she wished to prevent them further anxiety than the slander had already caused. And so she sat within the house, distracted from her chores and habits, waiting helplessly for something to change.
Catherine was just finishing her lonely supper and was climbing the staircase to her room, when the heavy knocker on the door alerted the house. She hurriedly stepped to the landing and peered warily from a doorway. Who could be here? More threats? More slander? Harvey answered the door and a dark figure stepped across the threshold. Harvey politely attempted to deter the guest.
He looked up from under his hat as she emerged from her hiding place. She let out a sigh of relief and began to descend.
“You know this man, Miss Sparks?” asked Harvey, disbelief and disdain clear in his voice. She nodded and gestured for Harvey to see to the man’s coat and hat. He took them reluctantly and retreated hesitantly when she requested tea.
She remarked upon her visitor’s travel-worn appearance. “I’ve just received your letter this morning, Miss Sparks.”
She tutted over him and ushered him into a comfortable chair before the fire. When the tea was brought in she ordered him some supper and to have his horse looked after. She waited impatiently as he gained his breath and drank his tea. At last, “What news of Mr. Norrell, Mr. Childermass?”
“I had no idea you were in such peril, Miss,” he answered. “I thought you would be safe here with your family.” He looked around questioningly.
“My uncle and aunt are away. The stress was too much for them. I would not go for fear of it following me.”
“Aye. You are probably right.”
They sat quietly contemplating her circumstances as the maid entered with a tray of cold meat, cheese, and bread. He eagerly tucked into the food, and she thought to herself how remarkable and gallant the man was for riding all day to her aid. She was glad he was the one to whom she had appealed for aid, but what could he possibly do for her? Apparently his standing in Norrell’s household was not enough to sway his employer’s attitude toward her.
“What am I to do?”
“You must come away with me, Miss.” The simple sentence uttered was alarming, and she was not able to contain her surprise.
“Mr. Childermass, I hardly think it is appropriate,” she began, her eyes wide.
He bit back on the sharpness in his tone as he answered her, “Miss Sparks, you wrote to me for help. Mr. Norrell knows you are here, and by your accounts your neighbors conspire against you. Your best choice is to leave.”
“I left London at your advice, and it has done nothing,” she retorted. “Perhaps he would not have been so cruel had I stayed.” He shook his head.
“If you come with me, I can help to shield you from him. With magic.”
She looked curiously at the dark man before her. Her suspicions had been correct then: he could perform magic. She had felt it in him, simmering beneath the surface, since they’d first been introduced. She had not understood why he concealed it so until just now. After spending years with his master, Childermass was all too aware of the trouble that could be earned by his own magical potential. Perhaps he had even suffered some of Norrell’s wrath himself. Was this why he warned her? Had come to her aid? Maybe. But there remained to be answered the question of why she felt she could somehow trust him.
“Where would we go?” she asked at last.
“North,” he replied. “The magic is stronger there, more plentiful. It will be easier to conceal your presence. And to find more help if we need it.” She had never been to the northern counties, but she had heard the tales of old magic, and of the Raven King.
“Pitting magic against magic then.” He nodded. “Is that wise to do with the most powerful magician in England?”
“Do you have a choice, Miss Sparks?”
They were to leave as early as possible, setting out for Bristol from where they could continue their journey north. Childermass would have preferred to take horses, worrying that the family coach would attract too much attention and be too easily tracked, but Miss Sparks balked at riding for long distances. It had also been a struggle to restrict her packing as much as he had already done; a driving pace on horseback with a lady was too much to ask.
Catherine had written a brief letter to her uncle and aunt, but per his instruction left no details as to his identity or their proposed direction. She had fretted endlessly about this, knowing that those good folk who had helped raise her would worry endlessly about her safety and good name.
It took him some time to fall asleep, hearing her down the hall pacing nervously in her chambers; however, when he did it was a deep slumber riddled with nightmare. Despite the disquieting dreams, he was glad of the soft bed and other comforts of a good home. He had brought what money he had available to him, but he was not sure how long it would last and what conditions their travel would bring.
He descended the stair to find Miss Sparks arguing with the butler, Mr. Harvey. Though he caught few words, he was able to surmise that the lady was being strongly advised against the companionship of a man such as Childermass. Childermass silently agreed with the man but was glad that the lady saw the logic in proceeding with their plans, such as they were. Harvey scowled openly at him but retreated.
Childermass was pleased to see that the lady’s baggage was prepared for their departure. Miss Sparks, though dressed for the journey, was visibly tense. He gave her an encouraging nod and muttered a greeting. She nodded in return but said nothing. Seeing the carriage pull up to the front of the house, he grabbed her bags, along with his own and made for the door. Halfway down the steps she halted. “Wait.” She turned and fled into the house and up the stairs again. Childermass cursed quietly and loaded the bags. What was it with women? To his relief she descended soon after and was handed into the carriage. He raised a questioning eyebrow at her. She raised a gloved hand to display a bright gold band on her finger.
“If we are travelling alone together, Mr. Childermass, we cannot travel as ourselves: a single man and a single lady. We will attract too much unwanted attention. And I cannot risk any further discredit to my character.”
He choked down several distracting thoughts and emotions and renewed his nonchalant air. “And so you’ll be posing as my wife, is that it?”
She nodded, but averted her eyes and blushed. The color in her cheeks dispelled some of the worry and sleeplessness that was otherwise plain on her face. His mouth turned up in a sly smile. “Very well then Miss, or should I say Madam. It is sensible. Though I suppose we had best get our story straight before we get to Bristol. I hardly think that ring of yours will keep folks from asking why a lady such as yourself would marry a man like me.” He laughed at this, a short, mocking bark.
“Mr. Childermass, I…”her voice was meek, then trailed off.
He laughed again. “Don’t trouble yourself trying to think of something appropriate to say. I know where I stand in life, and I know where I come from.” She remained silent, but calmly regarded him. “Now who shall we be?”
She stammered some. “I don’t know, Mr. Childermass. I had not thought of the details or the considerations involving our stations. I have to admit that my only consideration was propriety.”
“Well, it should not be Mr. Childermass and Miss Sparks in any case. Though I will work to conceal us when we get to Bristol, it is best to leave our names behind and travel anonymously. If you agree, we shall be Mr. and Mrs. Black. I already have false travel papers with that name for myself. You can go without until I can get you papers in York.”
She said nothing at his revelation of bogus documents, but her face spoke volumes. Not only was she travelling alone with a man of questionable background and standing, but he a criminal as well.
He continued, a taunting smirk on his lips, “And what do you think has brought the likes of us together?”
“I can hardly say.”
“Nor can I, but surely you can think some upon those novels ladies read. Some romantic or desperate notion that would allow a couple such as us.” Again that bark of a laugh. She was quiet and glared at him. “I have done all the work so far, so I will allow you to think on this.” He shut his eyes and dozed the best he could in the lumbering carriage, while she continued to stare affronted at him.
Catherine could not rest, and despite her reluctance she did indeed consider their identities in more detail. As the carriage began its descent into the Avon valley and the city rose up before her eyes, she nudged her sleeping companion awake. They approached the center of the town in anxious silence. Here would begin their journey alone.
As they left the carriage and the curious but studiously quiet driver, Childermass pulled Miss Sparks aside. He said a few words in an alien tongue. The witch felt a surge of magic and a feeling like a blanket being slowly lowered over her. She could see no difference, and the ‘blanket’ did nothing to impede her senses. She looked questioningly at him.
“Tis a spell that will conceal you from him,” he said. She nodded her thanks, and they moved on to make arrangements for the next leg of their journey.
The carriage had arrived at Bristol shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, and both were glad to have a short while to break their fast properly before the coach to Gloucester, having not had time to eat before leaving the house at dawn. A small establishment across from the coach station was crowded but it was efficient, clean, and served a robust meal.
“And so what have you settled on for our story?” he asked.
She cleared her throat a little in anxiety. “The Blacks are recently married. She is from a good family, but all the family fortune is invested in her eldest brother. Mr. Black is a manager at a mill perhaps?” He shrugged his approval. “They have mutual acquaintances and distant family who produced the match as a way to save her from employment and spinsterhood.”
He raised his eyebrows at her and sat back. “Aye, that’s a good story. And it should work to ward off too many questions so long as folk don’t ask me too much about millwork and such.” She smiled faintly in response to his appraisal. “And now we return to the north, the happily married couple.”
She blushed deeply. “We hardly know each other, Mr. Ch--, Mr. Black,” she corrected herself.
“As is often the case with the newly married, I suspect, Catherine.” Her eyes widened at the use of her Christian name. It sounded so different on his Yorkshire tongue, almost exotic. “You may well get used to that,” he suggested.
“I suppose so…”
“John,” he supplied.
Catherine smiled at that. She was not sure why the name surprised her so. She supposed she expected his name to be something much more forbidding (though what she could not say). John belonged to someone who was approachable, down-to-earth. She regarded his pale face, his dark hair and eyes, his brooding features and forced herself to apply ‘John’ to them, repeating it silently in an effort to make it stick. It would be difficult to call him by his name. She could honestly not recall the last time she had referred to someone other than a child or her maidservant by their Christian name.
And here she was with this man, John Childermass (or Black as the case now was), with whom she shared no background or commonality other than a mutual distrust of Mr. Norrell. She could not say why she trusted him now, as she certainly had had no like of Norrell’s servant in London, but she allowed herself that their partnership for the near future was a positive one and much needed.
Nine of Wands: it did not bode well. He hastily put the cards away and glanced warily at his fellow passengers. John felt himself growing weaker, more fatigued as their journey progressed. Soon his spell of concealment would falter, and he could only hope that his former master’s attention and will was not focused upon them.
They had travelled from Gloucester and arrived at Coventry late the previous night. The trip had gone well, with reserved fellow passengers upon the stagecoach asking few questions of them. A clean small inn awaited them, and he and Catherine had managed to abide in the same room--which he was quite sure she found shocking--without much ado. He had collapsed happily enough on some blankets on the floor and was asleep in no time. It was a troubled sleep full of dreams of probing fingers and peering eyes.
The early morning found them aboard the stage to Nottingham, a longer journey than that of the previous day. The weather was hot and close, making for a trying trip, especially as one of their fellow passengers was stout and prone to heavy perspiration. The open windows of the coach provided little relief from the heat and malodorous passengers, merely allowing a fine layer of road grit to settle upon all inside, as they heaved and jostled about. John sensed the spell slipping slowly from his grasp all that hot day.
It was late at night when they arrived in Nottingham and stumbled from the coach into the nearby inn. The evening meal had long since passed, and neither had the desire for anything but to retire to their room. As they proceeded up the stair, John suddenly stumbled. He was able to stop his fall but barked his shin sharply upon the landing. It was enough to break what little concentration he had left. He gasped before falling to the floor.
Catherine turned at his desperate cry to see him collapse. He was barely conscious when she knelt to him. “John!”
She beckoned the porter to help her drag his listless form into the room. They managed to get him to the bed, and seeing him scrabbling at his collar, she hastily loosened the cravat of his shirt. He writhed in pain and fear. Catherine felt tears of desperation coming to her eyes. “Is it him?” she asked simply. He managed a nod.
I don’t know what to do, she thought. But she forced herself to calm, to breathe deep, to absorb the surrounding matter. She felt the power begin to surge through her. Her mind’s eye sensed a cruel shape wound about the man before her, like the tentacles of some demonic kraken. She used the magic within her to try to pry off the offending shade, but it only squeezed tighter, causing John to cry out before losing consciousness.
Catherine honed her magic, forming a glowing sinuous blade. She forced the power to pry between the shade and its victim, slowly curling like a corkscrew from John’s feet, around his body, and up to free his chest and throat. John drew in his breath hard, a drowning man come to the surface. When he was at last released, she allowed the corkscrew to burst out in all directions like a star, shattering what was left of the evil form and sending it to the nether.
She felt, rather than heard, the awe and fright of the porter whom she had completely forgotten was standing just behind her. She was unsure how much he had seen or understood, but explanation was useless. “Go,” she said sharply. He obeyed quickly, closing the door behind him.
John’s bloodshot eyes regarded her under heavy lids. She sat on the sagging mattress next to him and smoothed his damp hair from his weary face. “He is gone now,” she assured him. She helped him to some water and to remove his sweat-stained shirt. He gave her a tired smile before quickly drifting off.
Catherine was uneasy. What if Norrell attacked again? He clearly knew where they were, or at least where Childermass was; and he would not have attacked his favorite servant unless he knew the man were aiding his perceived enemy. She supposed it would take Norrell some time to regain his strength to renew attack. She did not know the concealment spell John had used or any other similar spells. In fact, she was completely unaware how she had combatted the magic that had nearly killed her companion. She had merely used instinct, but instinct had served her well. Perhaps, as John had said when they were still in London, perhaps she is in fact a very powerful magician. Powerful but unschooled. And unfortunately one of the most likely people to be able to school her was now her enemy. Ah, the cruelty and meanness of jealousy!
John awoke some hours later. The single candle on the table by the bed had burned down to a puddle, but the waxing moon shone through the window, its light falling on the sleeping form next to him. Catherine lay over the coverlet fully dressed and at such an angle to suggest that she had not meant for sleep to come for her. Her brow was furrowed, her lips in a slight pout: asleep but troubled. He shifted some to give her more room, and her blue eyes blinked open. She looked warily at him, but her manners gave way to fatigue and she stretched out and moved her head to the pillow.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said, his voice a rasp. She said nothing but concern showed plain on her face. He raised a hand to his throat, remembering the stranglehold of magic. He had no recollection of what she had done, but knew only that her witchcraft had swept away the pain and fear. “You saved me.”
“He will be back. He knows we are together and where we are.” His eyes closed wearily. His whole body ached and his limbs were leaden. “I cannot hide us from him now. And I don’t have the strength to put up a warding spell.”
“Then teach me the spell.”
He turned to look at her in the moonlight. “Can you do it?”
“I do not know,” she said timidly. “My magic is different from yours, I think. But I will try.”
Although his voice hurt, he had her repeat the spell one word at a time, as it was a peculiar language. Sleep tugged at him, but he resisted stubbornly, knowing that their safety depended on the delicate blend of her skills and his knowledge. At last she was able to recite the spell whole. She sat up and repeated them again, quietly this time but with an intensity that called forth her witch’s will. He felt the surge of her power, but it quickly settled into a light ripple like the waves at the edge of a pond. He detected the ward, a slight amber-colored glimmer at the rim of his consciousness. “It’s beautiful,” he said simply.
“It is working right?”
“Aye, I believe so. It feels different from my own ward, more comfortable, lighter. But it is strong, I think.”
She lay down again. Her eyes closed, but the ward remained steady. “I’m worried it won’t protect you,” she whispered. She lay her hand over his, and he felt the warm tingle of her magic travel up his arm. He laced his fingers through hers. Her eyes shot open and she twitched her hand, but he gently held her hand locked to his.
“I feel safe now. Do you?” She did not answer him and watched him nervously for some time before drifting off.
With hands clasped they slept.
While they both wished to continue their journey to York, they had slept late and had missed the morning stagecoach to Sheffield. John remained weakened and fatigued from the attack of the previous night, and so they decided to stay in Nottingham. That being said, they were not keen to stay at the same inn. Norrell knew exactly where they were, and despite the capable ward that Catherine had set in place, they were both wary of the magician’s watchful eye and fanatical jealousy. Another consideration was the attention roused by John’s collapse and Catherine’s witchcraft. They elected to decamp to a small inn on the far side of town.
The late summer weather still being hot they spent their afternoon outdoors in a shaded park. There they found a bench beneath a large oak where they could recover not only from the heat but from the arduous work of travel and magic. Catherine regarded her companion. Perhaps because he was so tired he looked less menacing to her now. Their plight had necessitated no small amount of trust and intimacy, and yet she knew so little of him.
“How did you come to work for Mr. Norrell, John?”
He looked at her, a slight discomfort plain on his face; it was not his wont to expose himself to others. But he sighed and began to explain, “I was young pickpocket working the markets of York. I was quite good, actually. He was my mark that day, with his worried air and his fine clothes. But he caught me by the wrist just as I was reaching for his purse, and he looked at me quite keen. I’ll always remember that look.” He paused, his eyes growing distant with the memory. “I suppose now that he knew I was using magic to help me, but at the time I had no idea why he offered me a job at Hurtfew Abbey.”
“Did he train you in magic?”
He shook his head. “No, not really. He taught me a few spells to help him with his work. But I think he was just trying to keep an eye on me, much as he had me do with you.”
“And so we are both victims of his jealousy,” she said. He nodded and shrugged.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I am ever grateful for him getting me off the streets and treating me kind. I would have been gallows bound were it not for him, of that I am sure.” He shifted in his seat and looked away from her. “I am not proud of betraying him. He taught me to read and write. He allowed me to rise far above my station. But he is a changed man and should never have treated you as he did.”
She touched him gently upon the shoulder. “And I thank you, John. For everything.” He turned back to her, and she smiled warmly at him.
“You saved my life, Catherine. If anything, I owe you for that.”
She shook her head. “I worry that that was only a fortunate accident. I felt like a child searching in the dark.. I am entirely too unschooled in magic, and it is not in my control as much as I would like.”
“That is one reason we travel North,” he said. “I have some thoughts as to how we can get you some proper learning in witchcraft.” She looked questioningly at him. “But I shall not tell you now. The less you know, the less likely he can find out should he discover some way through your spells.”
The night passed peacefully with no scratching of Mr. Norrell’s magic at the walls of her magic: the day at the park had done her energy a great justice. The new inn was somewhat dirty, but John dutifully resumed his position upon the floor, with Catherine resting somewhat guiltily upon the lumpy mattress.
The following morning they boarded a stagecoach to Sheffield. This day they were put upon by a talkative and inquisitive fellow passenger, a lonely widow travelling to meet her sister. While the woman was pleasant enough, the ‘newlyweds’ were forced to elaborate upon their fabricated story. John, as was his wont, talked as little as was polite, but Catherine seemed almost to enjoy the playacting. He shook his head and smiled at her quick answers to the lady’s questions. She knew just how much fact to interlace with her fiction to make it more believable. She made a clever charlatan, and he chuckled openly at the idea that this once naive and proper woman could almost compete with him in duplicity. She scowled playfully at him in response.
That night passed much the same as the previous. Sheffield was a gray city, as a whole as unmemorable as the inn in which they stayed. They were glad to leave it for the final leg of their journey...for now.
“I am glad to be free of the widow Millweed,” muttered John under his breath. Catherine smiled in response and looked out the window at the rolling moors. The hills were dotted with pinkish heather and the sky was wide. When she turned back to her travelling companion he was casually flipping his cards three in a row upon his lap. The Hermit, The Ace of Wands, The Queen of Cups.
“What do they mean?”
He was startled somewhat, thinking that she had not been paying attention. The couple across from them paid them no heed. He leaned close to her and kept his voice low. “The Hermit in this case means a refuge, where I am planning on bringing us.” She raised her eyebrows but he shook his head, still refusing to let her know his plan.
“And the staff?” she asked.
“Intelligence,” he said. “You need to learn more about your particular skills, and you shall.” He gathered the cards together and stacked them back into his deck.
“Wait. What about the other one?” He ignored her. She gently pried the cards from his hands and searched for the drawing of the queen. She quickly found it, a lovely woman holding a chalice, a dreamy look on her face as she gazed into the cup.
“Not sure,” he muttered and took the cards back from her. He placed them in the pocket of his coat and looked out the window.
“I don’t believe you,” she whispered into his ear. He looked askance at her before returning his gaze to the countryside.
The Queen of Cups. A generous and charming woman, fair of face. The kind of woman a man falls in love with.
They arrived in York that evening, the sky indigo behind the spire of the mountainous cathedral. John was right, magic coursed through the veins of the city. As tired as she was of travelling, Catherine was invigorated by that humming undercurrent. The coach deposited them in a central location, close to several inns; however, John did not move to check them into a room. Instead he directed her to mind their luggage and order some food, then walked out the front door of the establishment they entered. She did as she was told, resigned to the mysterious ways of John Childermass.
He returned shortly, bolted his stew and ale. “Come,” he said simply and took their bags. She followed him out of the back of the inn, to the courtyard. There stood two bay mares. He did what he could to affix their bags to the horses’ tack. “I hope you can ride astride.”
She looked down at her long skirts and shrugged, figuring there was no arguing at this point. She was glad for the waning light as he assisted her in the saddle, his strong hands gripping her about the waist and her skirts rising to her knees. She knew she blushed, but he gratefully said nothing and mounted his own horse.
“Where are we going?”
“We’ve a way to go, so keep up,” was all he said as he spurred his mount to a brisk trot.
It had been a long time since Catherine was in the saddle and longer since she had ridden astride, but she quickly found her seat. The travel was quicker and more comfortable by far than the jostling coaches they had been using. The fresh air was freeing and the night cooled their bodies as they rode westward. Although she preferred the sunlight, their proximity to nature again replenished her witch’s soul, and she felt the magic light within her.
The moon was beginning to rise as they pulled to a halt before a great stone manse. She was less embarrassed this time as John helped her to dismount, her focus instead on the stately house before her. She had her suspicions, which were confirmed as John produced a large key from his breast pocket. “Hurtfew Abbey.” He placed the key in the lock and turned. “Welcome, Catherine, to the home of Mr. Gilbert Norrell.”
She gasped. “How can this be safe?”
He entered the house and beckoned her in. “Hiding in plain sight. It will be the last place he looks for us.” He found a candle and lit it. The house was clearly abandoned, the furniture covered and not a soul in sight. “Plus there are so many obscuring spells on this house that not even he can see easily within.”
“And he cannot detect that we have entered his house?” she asked, whispering and tiptoeing despite John’s assurances they were safe.
He shook his head. “The spells were set up to admit only myself or Mr. Norrell. Or the warden who comes once per month to tend to the house.” He led her up the grand staircase. “You must never pass through that door without me,” he cautioned. She nodded.
He opened a bedroom door and handed her the candle. “Make yourself comfortable and sleep well.”
She awoke the next morning to find her bags by her door. She dressed, wishing she had hot water for a bath, and crept down the grand staircase. She discovered John Childermass in the front parlour.
“There’s not much food,” he said in an apologetic tone. He gestured at the porridge on the small table. “And I’m not much of a cook.”
She smiled and tucked into her breakfast. It was a poor meal, lumpy and gummy, but there was plenty of sugar and some hot black tea. “Are you sure we are safe here?”
“Why are we here?” He ignored her question and pointed to her porridge. When she had finished she asked about getting some hot water for a bath.
“Later,” he said. “You wanted to know why we’re here.”
He got up and beckoned for her to follow. He returned to the front hall, grabbed a candle, and opened a door that led into a dark passageway. “Stay close,” he said and reached out. Catherine hesitated briefly before placing her hand in his. He led her through a maze-like corridor that switched and turned, completely disorienting her. At last they came to another door. John turned to her and smiled knowingly before turning the handle. The room they entered was enormous with vaulted ceilings. The narrow high windows let in very little of the morning light and John proceeded to light several candles among the various candelabras in the place. Her eyes adjusted: books. Thousands of books.
“I thought he had his library with him in London,” she exclaimed, looking around in awe.
“Those are the books he deemed worthy to bring with him.”
“But if these are not worthy books…”
“Mr. Gilbert Norrell does not deem witchcraft to be a worthy magic. There are many books of witchcraft in his collection. They are here for your edification, Catherine,” he said, a sly, crooked smile on his lips. She smiled in reply.
They spent the morning sifting through the books, looking for anything related to witchcraft and Earth magic. Having found twenty-seven books in the time they looked, they left the library around eleven o’clock. John had pronounced that there was nothing but a few dry goods in the kitchen and would go out in search of some provisions. Before he left, however, Catherine convinced him to help her gather and heat enough water for a proper bath. It had been days since either of them had bathed properly and she had had enough of the stench and grime of the road. John promised to follow suit himself after their lunch. They set up the tub in the kitchen as that was the easiest access to the water. She was grateful for the efforts but was ill at ease bathing in the open kitchen. Luckily John left the house shortly and was gone long enough to afford her the privacy she required. After luncheon, he escorted her back to the library and returned to the kitchen for his own bath.
“What have you found?”
Catherine was startled from her concentration upon The Compendium of Celtic Witchcraft by Marcus Elderflower. John entered the library, his long dark hair hanging loose and damp. He had shaved (a rarity, she had noticed over her acquaintance with him), and had yet to tie the cravat on his linen shirt. He was rakish rather than shifty, and she realized rather uncomfortably that she found him, in that moment, handsome.
Certain she was blushing she returned her attentions to the book. He leaned over her shoulder to peer at what she was reading. “Well?”
“This one seems a bit silly,” she admitted, her voice hushed and strained in her embarrassment.
He reached out and plucked it from the table before her, his hand brushing against hers. “Then don’t waste your time on it. We cannot stay here at Hurtfew for very long, and I’m not carrying silly books with us when we leave.”
His words cooled her to him somewhat, and she felt like a scolded schoolgirl; but when she allowed herself to look at him, his eyes were soft. She barely repressed a nervous smile and bent her head to the books again.
As the late afternoon light waned in the great library, and their eyes were strained with reading John proclaimed an end to their studies for the day. He looked at Catherine, her face beginning to show that tell-tale look of frustration and fatigue he had come to know.
“You need to get outside,” he suggested. She looked up gratefully and nodded.
They began a slow turn about the overgrown gardens at the back of the house, but it seemed not to satisfy fully. He silently gestured beyond the hedge to the low hills and open countryside.
“Yes,” she said simply.
She was grateful for his quiet observation and intuitive understanding of her needs. They turned from the garden and crossed the slow currents of the Hurt by the little stone bridge. She paused, closed her eyes, listened to the subtle burble of the water and the chirps of the birds that dipped in and out of its cool depths before turning her gaze to the grass-covered hillside. John was always there, hovering just behind her and to the side. There was something reassuring about his presence, a protectiveness so different from the shadowy scrutiny of her time in London.
They achieved the summit of the hill and she surveyed her surroundings. It was beautiful, wild parkland, and she breathed deeply, letting it fill her spirit.
“You know no one’s watching this time,” he said. “You could have that lie down in the grass you always wanted.”
She was startled by his words, but then remembered their first walk together in London. She giggled. “You know I think I shall.” She threw herself down onto the gold-green carpet like a child, and he laughed aloud. Her arms stretched above her head and she closed her eyes dreamily.
John regarded her there relaxed, happy, the energy of nature coursing through her, and thought about the turn he had made in his life. He had been expecting, both because it was the nature of things and because his cards had foretold a change, that things could not stay as they were with Mr. Gilbert Norrell. He had believed initially that that alteration was merely the fact of their coming to London and releasing Norrell’s magic upon England. But as Norrell himself changed--or perhaps did not change enough to suit his new environment and expectations--and especially when Childermass met and came to better understand Mr. Jonathan Strange, he knew the time would come when their paths would diverge. He could no longer serve a man with whose ideals he did not agree. Mr. Norrell had done all he could to further the cause of English magic. He and Mr. Strange had perverted the legacy of the Raven King.
The Raven King. At the height of English magic those hundreds of years ago, all men were capable of magic. It was not segregated to the nobility, the gentlemen. Yet Norrell would keep it from the common man. He would be appalled to understand just how much his servant, born in the squalor of the city and never to know his own father, had gleaned in his years of service to him. He was even loathe to think upon Mr. Strange as an equal. And all that snobbery compounded by the Judas whispers of Mr. Lascelles.
Before him lay a woman (a woman!) capable of rivalling Strange and Norrell, and yet with the sweet demeanor that would not allow the perversions of power. Perhaps here was his ally in his personal quest to restore magic to the English people.
Her blue eyes opened. “What are you thinking about?”
He sat beside her, plucked at a piece of grass absently before answering her. “What do you want to do with your magic?”
She raised herself on her elbows, considered his question, understanding there was more to it than his mere words implied. “You know, I don’t really know. I suppose that is one of the reasons I had gone to London, to find out who I am and what I can do. I enjoyed helping people when I could back home, but no one really understood me. Or accepted me fully, to be frank. And yet here I am more ostracized than ever before: by my neighbors, and now by the most powerful magician in England.”
John stretched out beside her and watched the clouds meander lazily across the sky. He could sense her nervous gaze from the corner of his eye, but she remained where she was.
“When I was a lad I had a hard life. I remember a constant hunger gnawing at my gut. I remember the beatings, the cold. But I remember most keenly the one happy thing in my life: the tales of magic and the Raven King. The old folk in the city, the merchants, even my mother told the stories of England’s magical past.”
He turned to her, his brown eyes intense. “I have always wanted to help bring magic back to England. To all of England.”
“What are you trying to say?” Her voice was tense and she sat up.
“You could help me do that.”
“Is this why you have brought me here, Mr. Childermass?” The intimacy of first names was gone. “You want me to be a cog in your machine, your plans? I thought you wanted to help me.”
Two tears dripped down her cheeks. She was affronted at his assumption, disappointed in his selfishness, and embarrassed that she had trusted him against all better judgment.
He had the good graces to look away.
When he spoke, his tone was repentant. “You misjudge me.” He was used to others doing so, but this hurt more for what reason he could not say. “I do want to help you.”
He sat up and faced her. She remained wary as wildcat, but she remained, waiting for an explanation. Tentatively he reached out and took her hand.
“Hear me out, though I am not much good with words,” he said softly. She was as still as a statue. His words came slowly, deliberately.
“I am guilty of a great many wrongdoings in my life, and I have been...selfish.” She arched an eyebrow indignantly. He squeezed her hand slightly, and she held her words. “I have regretted little and always found some way to justify my deeds. But I cannot help but feel guilty at the mistreatment that has been wrought upon you by my former master.”
“What do you mean?”
“Were it not for my own ambition and greed, the world would never know of Mr. Gilbert Norrell. He would still be sitting in that library down there practicing magic for nothing but his own amusement. But I drove him to it, thinking he could bring magic to the masses and money and esteem to myself. He would not have met you if I had not brought him to London. I am sorry.”
“And so what brought you to my aid, your guilt or your designs to further magic?” she asked tartly.
He was stung at her words. Was he being selfish? Part of him wished to flee at that very moment, to give up on caring, but he remained, knowing almost subconsciously that this would never be the case.
“My guilt,” he admitted, “because it has finally made me do what is right.”
The sun was beginning to dip down to the trees, turning the sky the color of a fresh peach. Catherine pulled her hand from his and stood, brushed off her skirts. She looked first to the great house, considering its secrets, its history. She then turned her eyes to the surrounding hills undulating into the distance. At last she looked down upon the Yorkshireman.
“I forgive you...John,” she said at last.
He bowed his head to her in respectful thanks and stood. He hesitantly offered her his arm for the walk back to the house. She took it.
Catherine made it clear to him that she would make no promises about the future. She was deeply uncomfortable with the idea as she imagined it of becoming a revolutionary for the cause of magic. They agreed that their sole purpose at this point was to improve her understanding of her own powers and to thereby eliminate any potential threat from Mr. Norrell. They spent the next two days as they had the previous, studying and seeking answers to barely formed questions. Their goals were so vague it often felt they were stumbling in the dark.
They had, at least, returned, though somewhat hesitantly on her part, to the former comfort level they had developed during their journey. Sharing the vast house with no servants required them to rely upon each other again, and they even laughed at times at their stumbling attempts at basic household endeavors such as cooking a palatable meal or laundering their few clothes.
Though they did not realize it at the time, this shared responsibility and their common goals (no matter how vague) began to erode the walls that society had placed between these two people. His low birth and somewhat nefarious history meant nothing to her as he taught her some basic spell or helped her in the kitchen, just as her good family and polished ways did not impede her willingness to help him with tasks previously considered menial and dirty. Their cooperation was required for their success, and so the friendship blossomed.
The two planned to leave Hurtfew Abbey the next day, the fifth late summer day since their arrival in Yorkshire. Neither wished to leave the comforts of the great house and the sole companionship of each other, but John was uneasy that the warden of the estate, Mr. Humboldt, would arrive at any time. Though John Childermass had lived most of his life in the house, Mr. Humboldt would question their stay and feel it necessary to inform Mr. Norrell if he came upon them there. They could not risk it.
John warred with himself about whether or not to sell some of Mr. Norrell’s finer belongings in order to provide them with more money. They presently had enough for their needs, but there was no telling how long it would last. He hated to resort to his early days of stealing to survive, and he had prided himself on his one-time loyalty to Mr. Norrell. Additionally, he feared Catherine’s notice. He enjoyed their growing friendship and her trust in him and would curse himself should he meet with her disapproval. This was a new notion to him and his mind harkened back to the appearance of that card, The Queen of Cups. That made him even more uneasy. He settled for pocketing a few very small items, resolving on only using them in dire need.
As a final recompense for their troubles at the hands of Mr. Norrell, Catherine agreed with him that their last dinner at Hurtfew Abbey would be accompanied by the finest vintage in the well-appointed wine cellar. The exquisite red far outshone the poor meal and helped greatly to ease the uncomfortable feelings they were experiencing in anticipation of their move. By the end of the evening (with the help of an additional bottle of fine bordeaux) both laughed openly with flushed cheeks, and twice Catherine stumbled on the stair, requiring John’s strong hand upon her arm.
He opened her door and lit the candle just inside. Catherine swayed slightly.
“Will you be all right?”
His voice seemed less a growl to her now, and more a purr. She nodded.
As he passed her in the doorway, their bodies quite close, he laid a hand on her arm once again though she did not require his support. She looked up into his dark eyes. It seemed they stood there for an eternity, though it was only a moment, a strange blend of comfort, anticipation, and trepidation brewing within them both.
As if from a distance she heard herself wish him goodnight, breaking the spell between them.
John bade her goodnight in return and closed the door behind him with a terrible pang of regret. He stood for a long while looking at her door, trying to rally himself for the short walk to his room.
They left the next morning for York, both sad to see the end of their brief stay at Hurtfew Abbey. John felt it all the more keenly as he had spent most of his life there; though not his house, it was his home. He had always known that he would one day leave Hurtfew and that his path would diverge from that of Mr. Norrell. He felt sure he would never see it again and so resolutely stared forward and refused to allow the hurt of loss.
Catherine regarded him silently, easily perceiving his struggle. She had recently felt her own great loss at leaving her home, and each day since that leaving had brought to her a moment of tears and regret. She fretted at what she imagined her aunt and uncle to be thinking of her: their fears and shame. For all they knew she had eloped with some unseemly Yorkshireman (as she was sure John Childermass had been portrayed to them by the household staff).
And yet that unseemly Yorkshireman had proven his mettle, bringing her to safety, teaching her spells of protection and concealment, and being most importantly a friend. She realized at that moment that she did not recall if she had ever thanked him. Certainly not recently. She goaded her mare to a trot and pulled up alongside him.
“I want to thank you. For all you have done for me.”
He looked at her, tipped his hat, and gave her a small smile.
They said no more and continued on toward the city.
Once in York, they secured lodging. Here they were, once again, hiding and travelling. While at Hurtfew Abbey they had allowed the disguising and protection spells to lapse, only shrouding themselves when out of doors. Now again they were cloaked and furtive. John’s being a lifelong inhabitant of York gave them certain advantages, but it also might provoke more curiosity and interference should he be recognized.
John left her at the inn and disappeared into the city without explanation. He returned several hours later.
“What have you been up to?” she asked, bemused and slightly annoyed.
“Finding you a tutor.”
He sat in the small chair and propped his boots upon the bed. She narrowed her eyes at him, but he ignored her and remained reclined.
“Yes a tutor. By several accounts the most adept and knowledgeable witch in Yorkshire.” She raised an eyebrow. “You can only learn so much in books.”
She sat on the edge of the bed and eyed his boots with distaste. He caught her eye and smirked, a rebellious, crooked grin on his face. She rolled her eyes but couldn’t help but laugh.
“And when do I meet this…”
“Mrs. Pew, then.”
“The good lady has invited us to supper this evening,” he said. She was surprised at this. “I was very persuasive to her about your potential. She is rather curious.”
That evening they walked to the old witch’s house. John had described her some to Catherine, but she was still not sure what to expect. The house was in a modest area of the city, the old tudor frame leaning uneasily into the lane. The witch herself answered the door with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. She was not as Catherine had anticipated: though elderly, she was rosy cheeked and rounded, which diminished her years.
“Come in, come in my dear,” she entreated. The cozy light and enticing smell of a simple stew further enticed the guests. Catherine entered first, but John was close on her heels, protective and watchful.
“And so you are the talented young witch Mr. Childermass described.”
Catherine was a bit taken aback at hearing John’s name. She had grown used to him as Mr. Black (and in fact herself as Mrs. Black), and she was surprised that he had revealed himself to this woman in a city where so many knew his name. She looked back at John and he gave her a supportive smile, but said nothing.
“Catherine Sparks,” she replied nervously with a small curtsey. “Thank you so much for the invitation.”
Mrs. Pew laughed, it was a rich and boisterous sound. “Save your curtsies, Miss Sparks. I am a very simple woman in a simple house. But you are welcome all the same.” The woman had an infectious smile. She guided her guests into the small dining area.
At the end of supper, Mrs. Pew quizzed the young witch about her knowledge of plant lore and medicines, most of which Catherine had learned from her mother before her untimely demise. Mrs. Pew then requested Catherine to perform some creationary magic. Catherine was unsure what to do. Her initial impulse, with some encouragement from John, was to make another rosebush, but that act had been soured by her reception from Mr. Norrell. She looked about the room nervously and cleared her throat before finally calming her mind.
John felt the small hum of power as she focused her will. He waited impatiently, wondering what would unfold from her mind. As with the roses, it began with an eddy of dust and light, the colors growing and whirling in a delicate storm before them. Within moments, those motes of dust and sparkling light began to congeal, forming an edifice. When complete, a small castle, complete with ornate battlements and crenellations floated before them before settling softly upon the bare oak planks of the floor. It was beautiful--of course, for that which Catherine made with her magic always held a warm and sparkling beauty--and despite being only a few feet high, so remarkably detailed that one could almost imagine tiny knights and ladies residing therein.
The stunned silence as they regarded the castle was interrupted by the happy applause of Mrs. Pew. “Well done, Catherine! Well done.” Her face was beaming and slightly impish.
Catherine was proud of the creation but blushed humbly. Overcome by the strain of the spell and her emotions, she was suddenly tired, the room spinning slightly. She closed her eyes and gripped the arms of the chair in which she sat.
She opened her eyes at the sound of his voice. There was concern in his eyes, and he leaned forward in his chair, ready to assist her if needed. She shook her head lightly and smiled reassuringly.
She returned her gaze to their hostess. Mrs. Pew watched the exchange between her two guests, a shrewd look on her plump face.
“Young lady, Mr. Childermass did not underestimate you. You are quite the accomplished spell weaver. But I wonder what on Earth an old witch like myself could possibly do to help you?”
“I thank you for your compliments, Mrs. Pew,” Catherine said. “While I may have some talents, I fear that they are of little use in our current predicament.” She glanced at Childermass, not wanting to assume that he had explained the situation with Mr. Norrell. He nodded, though she was not sure how to interpret the gesture. “My parents died when I was quite young, and I have not had much instruction in general spells and witchcraft.”
“Well, I can certainly help you with that,” the lady assured her.
They agreed that Catherine would meet with Mrs. Pew each morning at ten o’clock for the next several days. The evening ended, they said their goodbyes.
Still somewhat winded by her creation, Catherine was glad when John offered her his arm.
John Childermass sat in the cramped front room of Mrs. Pew’s home, waiting for Catherine’s daily tutoring session to end. It was the fifth such day, and though tired, Catherine had returned from each lesson exhilarated and inspired. There was a small table in front of the lone window which let in what little light was available. John deliberately lay out his cards in a row. No matter how he shuffled them, or what layout he performed, the Two of Cups was presented. Love and marriage. He knit his brow in consternation.
“And how many times has that card come up, Mr. Childermass?”
He was startled by the sudden appearance of Mrs. Pew, but hastily regrouped from his reverie and provided her with a bland look. She returned his gaze with a curious mixture of humor and authority.
“Repeatedly, Mrs. Pew,” he at last supplied. “What do you know of the Cards of Marseille?”
She smiled knowingly. “Enough,” she answered. “And I dare say that if a card keeps returning to the spread, it is time to stop ignoring its implications.”
He allowed himself to appear chastened at her words, and she graciously changed the subject.
“Catherine is nearly done for today.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Mrs. Pew, you have evaded my questions regarding payment for your services. We do not have much to offer, but…”
Mrs. Pew stopped him with a raised finger. She took the seat opposite him, sighing, and looked out the window onto the little cobblestone lined street. He waited patiently and shuffled his cards wordlessly. At last she turned to him, her blue eyes keen.
“Catherine has revealed your goal of bringing magic to the masses once again.” He nodded. They had agreed to be vague with Mrs. Pew about their past. “It is a good idea. There are few who carry on the old ways. Witches, such as myself, have hidden for years. I have read in the papers that that local gentleman, Mr. Norrell,” John tensed at the name, “has done much to further the visibility of magic. But I am afraid that performing parlor tricks in London will only go so far.”
“My thoughts exactly, Madam,” he replied.
“Should you achieve that goal, of returning magic to all the people of England not just the nobility, that will be my payment.”
John smiled gratefully at her. “It is my sincerest hope, Mrs. Pew, that we can do that.”
“What are your plans, then, for achieving this goal?”
At that point, Catherine, having finished memorizing the required section of Mrs. Pew’s grimoire, entered the room. John glanced at her and smiled lightly. He offered her his chair, but having been seated at her studies for some time she decline.
“To be honest, Mrs. Pew, I have not developed much detail to the plan. There have been some...impediments,” he said.
“The man you mentioned, Mr. Norrell, was my employer for many years. He has made it is business to discredit other magicians to suit his own pride. Miss Sparks was a victim of his jealousy.”
Mrs. Pew tutted. “Oh, my poor dear.” Catherine smiled sweetly at her.
John continued, “I fear that Mr. Norrell will do all he can to prevent Miss Sparks’ magic and my...our goal,” he looked to Catherine, and she nodded happily, “of spreading magical knowledge.”
“And that is why you have the protection spell between you?” Mrs. Pew asked.
John was pleasantly surprised that she noticed the spell, but then she clearly was an experienced and able witch.
Catherine spoke up. “We have both been physically attacked by his magic in recent weeks. So you see, Mrs. Pew, that we need to protect ourselves and what little remains of my good name before we worry about how to spread practical magic to the people of England.”
“Ha!” Mrs. Pew laughed, a deep hearty sound. “The best way to spread magic is to do just that. Teach the people, open your mouths and demonstrate your craft. You too, Mr. Childermass, have much to teach I can tell.” He raised his eyebrows at this, and she gave him a knowing look.
“But how does that protect Catherine and restore her reputation?”
Mrs. Pew continued to laugh, her cheeks rosy in mirth. “You have no need of spells should you listen to those cards of yours, John. You have the greatest protection magic in the world already with no spells at all. And you can make an honest woman of her instead of all this sneaking around and pretending.”
John’s eyes grew wide and he sat back.
“What? What is it?” Catherine was confused. Clearly John was aware of something she was not.
Mrs. Pew stopped laughing and turned to Catherine, her face smug and amused. “Love is the strongest magic of all, young Miss.”
Catherine remained bewildered. Then suddenly it dawned on her and her face fell in shock.
Mrs. Pew acknowledged Catherine’s sudden awareness with a larger smile. “Ah, yes, see?” The old lady turned back to John.
He looked blankly at the floor, trying to piece together his thoughts. At last he looked up, first at Mrs. Pew, then to Catherine, his gaze intensifying.
“Marry the girl, John, and both problems will be solved.”
They continued to look at each other in stunned silence. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Mrs. Pew looked at John and Catherine, chuckled to herself and excused herself. Their quiet reverie was broken by the bruit of young children. They both turned to the door to see Mrs. Pew welcoming with open arms and loudly declared affections a family of several children and a young couple. The two oldest children, only about four and six-years old, ran happily to the old woman who pinched their cheeks and promised them sweets. John rose from his chair deferentially as Mrs. Pew introduced her niece and the woman’s husband. Catherine’s lesson for the day complete and Mrs. Pew clearly being occupied by her family, John excused themselves.
Mrs. Pew smiled mischievously as she bid them adieu. “I shall see you tomorrow Catherine. And, John Childermass, you mind my words.”
He said nothing in return, but nodded to the lady as he donned his hat.
The late morning sunshine greeted them in the lane as they exited the small house and the tumult inside. They said nothing to each other still, unsure of how to break the uncomfortable silence. In fact they took not a step, remaining just outside the door almost as if afraid of what the world would offer them.
John at last stepped tentatively out from under the shelter of the eaves. He turned to Catherine and offered, as he had so often done before, his arm to her. She hesitated and peered shyly up at him, only to find his warm brown eyes welcoming her with a nervous intensity she had not noticed before. Slowly, she placed her small hand on his arm. He took it in his own, raised it to his lips, and never breaking his gaze, kissed it.
Catherine stepped forward into the sunlight with him and walked arm in arm with him.