Chapter 1: enter freely of your own free will
Childermass closed the door to Segundus’ study quietly behind him, his boots making no sound on the floor. As quiet as a shadow, like he had trained himself to be, even before ever learning a lick of magic. The air inside the room was cold and sweet, smelling of long-burned candle wax.
Childermass sealed the door with a minor protective charm he had devised a long time ago- one that allowed those inside the room to hear what was going on outside it, but not vice-versa. The door also couldn’t be opened from outside without the person beyond first knocking, and then speaking their intention. The apparatus that allowed this charm to function was a simple white ribbon tied about the doorknob, and a murmured word activated it. It was a remarkably useful little spell, and he had certainly put it to work often over the last year.
Segundus didn’t seem to notice him at first, hunched over his desk with his face hidden behind a stack of books. Childermass could hear him muttering to himself, and paper rustling. The window before the desk was slightly ajar, and the chilled evening imposed itself on the room- Segundus had probably opened it for a fresh breeze during the afternoon, and then forgotten. He was liable to do that, and it was a bad habit, considering his propensity for catching chills.
Childermass watched him fondly for a moment, and then crept up behind, putting his palms on Segundus’ shoulders. Segundus started an instant before relaxing, allowing the touch to slide down his arms into an embrace. He sighed softly, a contented sigh that was one of Childermass’ most favourite sounds in the world.
“And how goes it, headmaster?” Childermass asked, taking advantage of their privacy to kiss the nape of Segundus’ neck where it was available to him. The skin there smelled especially sweet.
“Oh, busy,” replied Segundus a little weakly. He dropped the paper he was holding as Childermass took his hands. “There is quite a lot of accounting involved in running a school.”
“Then you should hire an accountant,” Childermass said, loosening Segundus’ cravat to give him access to more skin, which made Segundus squeak and Childermass chuckle.
“You are in a mood tonight,” Segundus gasped, and he made a move to stand, but Childermass pushed him back down into his chair. Perhaps he was in a mood. It had certainly come upon him quite suddenly- but then, Segundus always had such a strong effect on him, it was hardly unusual.
“Tell me more about the accounting,” he said, putting on a voice of grave seriousness as he pulled down Segundus’ collar, undoing buttons on his shirt one by one. He could feel, rather than see, the heat rising to Segundus’ ears and cheeks.
“Well,” Segundus began, his voice shaking in his throat. “I do plan to hire one- an accountant, that is- but to do so I must find someone with good references and recommendations. I, erm…”
Childermass bit lightly at some newly-exposed skin on Segundus’ shoulder, which caused him to wriggle quite enjoyably in his seat. Still, the man soldiered on, not to be deterred from a task when he was set to it.
“...I should ask Mrs. Lennox, she would know someone, but...I ask so much of her already...ah!”
Childermass stopped his indecencies for a moment to say: “Nonsense. She is your benefactor, so let her benefact.”
Then he reached up and closed the window before the desk, quieting the sounds of the trees shifting outside. Segundus turned his head back to look, something glittering deep inside his eyes, and Childermass blew out the stout candle keeping the room alight.
“Enough work for today, wouldn’t you say?” he murmured. At this angle Segundus’ pale lips were quite available, so he took them, a kiss lingering lightly on the soft skin. “Headmaster,” he added, just to tease. He was corrupting the word, Segundus would blush now whenever he heard it. Lovely.
Segundus’ bedroom was located off the study, deeper into the healthy collection of rooms allocated to the headmaster’s apartments. It was here that Childermass led him, their fingers just entwined, and the bed welcomed them with all the familiarity of a homestead hearth.
Then there was no reason for either to maintain any such decency as clothing, and the time melted away in little sighs and moans and soft white skin and the steady, rising pleasure of two bodies moving together.
When it was over the mood stilled, taking on the same chill blue as the moonlight creeping in the bedroom window. Segundus was out of breath, and Childermass lay there in the embrace long enough to listen to him catch it before forcing himself to sit up again. Well, the discomfort was more than worth the pleasure that came before it, even if Segundus’ fingers trailed over his skin as he stood- not quite grasping, but still an obvious bid to keep him there.
“Can’t you stay?” Segundus asked in a very tiny voice. “Can’t you stay just once?”
It was a familiar question, and the answer was familiar, too.
“It is one thing for two colleagues to often stay up late discussing their work together,” said Childermass, as gently as he could. “It is another for one of them not to emerge until morning.”
Segundus sighed, and this time the sound was cold and clear, like crystal. Childermass knew that he wouldn’t fight any harder. Truth be told, it was more difficult to leave him when he was so accepting, so understanding, so resigned to the nature of their situation. It was more difficult still to look at him lying there, painted in such pale shades of white and blue by the moonlight, barely covered by the blankets.
“I have to leave for London tomorrow,” Childermass said as he pulled on his jacket, and Segundus sat up instantly, distress obvious on his face. Childermass cursed himself a little for that.
“What-? No! I mean…you didn’t say anything.” Segundus bit his lip, perhaps ashamed of his protest, and Childermass (now fully, if roughly, dressed once again) sat down on the bed beside him.
“The letter was delayed, and I only received word today. There is a council there that needs to see Vinculus,” he said, another familiar explanation. “Apparently one of them has found the key to an old script which might help some in deciphering him.”
“I see,” said Segundus, and he sounded honest, but he didn’t quite look Childermass in the eyes.
“I will be gone a fortnight at most,” Childermass told him.
Segundus nodded, folding the blankets around his lap to keep away the chill. Then he added quietly:
“I just...you are gone so often. The students always miss your lessons. And I...I miss you.”
Childermass took one of his hands where it was folded anxiously across the blankets and raised it to his lips to kiss the knuckles- dry and silvery things approached by roads of the most apparent blue. There was nothing he could say that had not already been said.
“I love you,” Segundus murmured in the softest voice he could muster, the sound little more than an exhale. He finally looked back at Childermass, the dark curls across his forehead obscuring the pained contraction of his brow, and Childermass leaned in to kiss his lips again instead. He felt Segundus shiver when he did, and he allowed himself to enjoy the sensation despite the ache of it all.
“I love you, too,” he replied.
But then he pulled away and stood, taking his hat in hand to make his way back out the door. His own room was downstairs, a butler’s quarters, though Segundus frequently expressed his wish to put Childermass somewhere nicer. Childermass didn’t need nicer. He barely deserved what he had there at all.
“Goodnight,” Childermass said at last. “I do not think I shall see you in the morning, so best of luck- perhaps you will have that accountant by the time I have returned.”
“Goodnight,” Segundus echoed. He smiled, but there was an edge of melancholy under its warmth. A bittersweet parting. Well, that was the usual.
Childermass undid the charm on the door as he left the study with another word, and made his way down the stairs feeling heavier than he usually did.
I love you, too.
Childermass knew it was an unbearably selfish thing to say. He was already selfish enough as it was, taking such liberties. He had been too weak, all those months ago in summer, when Segundus had kissed him- he had been too weak, and had kissed him back. Now what was he doing? The longer it went on the worse it would be, and yet Childermass was unable to let him go. Back when this had all started, he could have finished it with a minor heartbreak, a small embarrassment- that would have perhaps done Segundus better in the long run. But it was too late for that now.
Childermass could weather the dangers of such...relationships. He was a rogue, and no one expected anything of him but roguishness, and if he were to be caught he would not be too worse off. It would not be his first time facing a gaol. But Segundus was different- he was a gentleman, one who held a very important position in the post-Restoration society. He stood to lose very much. Childermass wouldn’t be the one to take his school from him a second time, and the thought of Segundus disgraced filled him with such a bitter chill it made all the smaller aches bearable in comparison.
So he should have broken Segundus’ heart and left it at that, but he hadn’t, and now he was crawling from his lover’s arms with his tail between his legs, going to sleep in a dusty room with a small, cold bed that smelled only of pipe-smoke, not of wildflowers.
(Because Segundus, human man though he was, smelled of wildflowers.)
Childermass sighed. He hadn’t the time to be moaning to himself over nonsense like this- he needed to sleep. There was a long journey ahead of him, beginning early in the morning, and he would joined by a famously cantankerous companion.
Chapter 2: for the dead travel fast
The following morning Childermass and Vinculus set out from Starecross just after dawn. Vinculus was on the edges of a foul mood from having been woken so early, and so he road slightly ahead on his unshakable bay mare (who Childermass had selected for him precisely because of this- she barely needed steering and didn’t care about his poor posture). The rising sun was golden in colour, and turned all the edges of the sparse spring grass to figures of precious metal.
On their way up to the bridge, Childermass turned on instinct to look back at the house. One of the high windows- the window that Childermass knew was situated in the headmaster’s bedroom- cracked open, and the man himself leaned out, wearing nothing but his nightgown. The light made his hair gold, too, especially the small veins of colour that would have been gray in another light. He was quite the vision.
Segundus folded his head in his arms on the windowsill and waved lazily with one hand. Childermass, in spite of himself, waved back. He could only half see it from this distance, but he was sure Segundus was smiling.
With that smile in mind the journey suddenly seemed much brighter than it had only moments before, and Childermass caught up to Vinculus with a lighter heart.
The first day of the journey did indeed go well. The sun stayed for most of the day, only turning to cloud in the evening, and they stopped where Childermass had expected they would stop. Vinculus certainly talked a lot, but in a decent mood he wasn’t the worst of companions, especially since he didn’t actually expect Childermass to listen to him. Of course it would still have been easier with a typical leather-bound book, but, well.
On the second day, however, the weather took a foreboding turn- the sky became filled with ominous clouds, and winds slithered across the moors, promising storms. Still, they made it as far as Childermass hoped.
On the third day the rain began. It was the worst kind of early April rain, falling as hard as bullets and so cold it was nearly snow. The landscape- where not enough plants had yet regrown from winter- turned bleak. There was a decent case for delaying their journey, and Vinculus certainly made it, but Childermass insisted they continue a while anyway. He had traveled through worse weather than this (and he didn’t doubt the same was true for Vinculus, no matter how accustomed to a cushy lifestyle he was becoming). And besides, Childermass didn’t want to prolong this trip any more than was necessary. He had his own studies to conduct in York, and students who apparently would miss him, and a headmaster who certainly did.
But no matter how fierce his determination there was only so far one could go in weather such as that, especially given that it grew worse over the course of the day. By the afternoon the sky was almost as black as night, and the rain hit them sideways, for so high were the winds. Vinculus had been giving Childermass dirty looks for some time, but now Brewer started to do the same, picking at the ground as he walked and tossing his head. No, it did no good to exhaust the horses. Childermass relented to settling in at the next inn they came across, even if it was not the one he had planned to reach.
The next inn, as it turned out, happened to be one Childermass hadn’t stayed in before- a place called the Black Duck. It was unusual for Childermass not to know a place, and so automatically he was wary, but as they approached he figured it looked Christian enough. The place did not smell of magic in the slightest, and the lamps set out to mark it had a very ordinary orange light.
As the horses came down the path a pair of servants darted out the door, holding their jackets over their heads. Childermass dismounted, handing over Brewer’s reins.
“I take it there’s room enough inside?” he asked (needing to yell over the wind) and one of the men replied:
“Aye, I suppose so! We’re not turning anyone away in this weather anyway- we’re the only spot ‘round for miles!”
Childermass scoffed at this, assuming the worst, and sure enough as they entered the establishment itself they found the main room crowded with patrons. Still, it was pleasant enough to be standing somewhere out of the wet, and with the wind absent Childermass realized just how much its incessant blowing had bothered his ears. The inn itself, however, was slightly strange- part of the crowding, Childermass soon observed, came from the fact that the taproom was actually rather small compared to the building from the outside (hopefully this meant there were more rooms). The air of the place bordered on dingy, some sections lit by too many candles and others by too few. The ceiling was low, and what Childermass smelled most strongly was layers upon layers of old pipe-smoke and spilled ale.
But he was able to secure a room for himself and Vinculus (just the one, but that would do) as well as an early dinner. He did not suppose that either of them would be making any more progress until the storm let up, and though his heart still rather wished to hurry on, his aching ears and water clogged boots disagreed.
So the evening passed slowly. Childermass and Vinculus ate, and then Vinculus wandered off to make friends (or enemies) as he would, Childermass paying him only a loose attention- though he wouldn’t leave the man alone entirely, having learned that lesson through various misadventures already. He had himself an ale he nursed slowly, and perhaps another, and perhaps another (only because it was put down before him by the innkeeper without his saying anything). The time on the old clock mounted above the bar passed very slowly, and the world outside did not seem to change at all, the wooden walls rattling with the fury of the storm outside.
At one point, Childermass became aware that he was being watched.
Just about everyone in the place had given him a once-over, and either they hadn’t liked what they saw or he had made them nervous, for he had been left alone. But he felt eyes on him anyway- it was a trained awareness, but for some reason what he felt then was a sensation stronger than most. His neck prickled to the extent that it was actually uncomfortable, and he reached up with one hand to rub it. Using this motion as a disguise for his own eyes, he looked around the room, and very easily found the source of this sensation.
There was a man sitting in the northern corner of the room, huddled about his own little table much as Childermass was- though perhaps ‘huddled’ wasn’t the right word, though he was alone he looked very comfortable. When had he come in? Childermass hadn’t been paying attention, but there was a pitcher before him, still full. From just a glance Childermass couldn’t say if he was a young or old man, but he was slender and clean-shaven, his face standing out against his dark clothes (gentleman’s clothes, though they were out of fashion, and looked a little worn) the way the moon stood out in the night sky. Childermass tried to pretend he wasn’t looking, but the man caught his eyes and held them, turning his head to the side with an almost satisfied looking smile. Childermass scowled at him.
The man was not deterred. He stood and left his own table, coming over to sit quite uninvited in the space opposite Childermass, where the remains of Vinculus’ dinner had been cleared away. With less distance between them Childermass supposed he was young, and something like handsome, but there was a gauntness in his white face that made it almost skeletal, and since he was unwelcome Childermass was predisposed to disliking him.
“Excuse me, sir-” Childermass began in a tone that toed the line of disrespect, but the man spoke over him.
“You are a magician, I think?”
He had a thick accent, if Childermass had to guess he would say French, but he wasn’t incomprehensible. Childermass glowered, but the man only smiled, another taunting close-lipped smile. He suspected the man was some tourist, an eccentric gentleman coming to England in search of a spectacle, for there were all too many of those these days.
“Is that what my friend told you?” Childermass said ‘friend’ with some degree of sarcasm, and of course he meant Vinculus, for he supposed there was no other way this man could have come to learn of his profession. Childermass turned to look around for him, to see if this was some piece of mischief. “Whatever you’re looking for, I can’t help-”
The man took Childermass by the arm, which made Childermass look back, seeing that the man’s hand (also very white and very thin) ended in long, pointed yellow fingernails. Childermass tried to jerk his arm away, resolving to move to another table (or drag Vinculus to the room to retire) but he found he couldn’t. The man had a grip like a vise, and even through his jacket Childermass felt his touch as cold.
“I am interested in magicians,” the man said. “Can you show me a spell?”
The gentleman met Childermass’ eyes, and suddenly the world turned. Childermass thought he wanted to refuse this man, in fact it was only natural he should do so- or was it? He found he couldn’t make his jaw form the words. The man released his arm, but Childermass didn’t get up, even though he was sure he had wanted to just a moment ago. The room around him seemed to spin, a little like he had taken too much drink, and the voices of the other patrons quieted to a dull hum. It was as if the stranger and he were the only men left in the place (or possibly, in the world) that were real. It was impossible to look away from those dark eyes.
“A spell,” Childermass repeated dully, without realizing his intention to speak.
“Yes, a spell,” said the man in his rough accent. His voice sounded like a whisper, right against Childermass’ ear. “Any little thing would do.”
A few possible spells flashed through Childermass’ mind- something simple and charming, he had impressed men (a man?) with them before- but he did not move to cast them. His teeth were grinding together in his skull. In the back of his mind, he was sure that something was wrong, but he could not say exactly what, he felt too dizzy to think straight- and possibly too dizzy to properly execute any magic, even if he had really wanted to. Did he want to? The problem was, he wasn’t sure. The man hadn’t been quite so handsome just a moment ago, he was sure of it, but in this new state of mind the stranger became infinitely more attractive. His black eyes seemed quite large and liquid, his dark hair sweet where it curled about his face, his white lips soft and his delicate visage charming. Exactly Childermass’ favourite features on a man. The stranger leaned in to him, so close Childermass could count the long, dark eyelashes on his face, and find that he smelled of wet earth. Childermass’ jaw clenched, but he felt himself shiver, his own body both too hot and too cold.
“If not a spell, then I will take a kiss,” the gentleman said, words penetrating his skull, and Childermass felt a cold hand entwine with his under the table. Now, (Childermass thought dizzily) this was very bold, and risky in such a populated place- Childermass knew from his youth that men looking for trysts with one another had to be more careful than this- but still he had trouble moving away. He had a sense that he was in danger, but he wasn’t entirely sure if it was true. The man’s nails scraped at his wrist, and Childermass realized he was breathing very heavily, the dim candlelight in the inn making his vision blur.
“Come away with me,” the gentleman murmured, and this time the words flowed across Childermass’ skin. He was attractive- indeed, suddenly very attractive- and he was offering himself. Childermass’ body was suddenly flush with desire. Shouldn’t Childermass go with him? Didn’t he want to go with him? Yes, surely he did- he wanted to take his hand and lead him away, slip into the bedroom behind the study, kiss the pale man with the dark hair and dark eyes until he was senseless, tell him the truth, tell him he loved him-
Childermass came back to himself quite abruptly with the following realization: this man was not John Segundus.
Disturbed, he jerked away, but there was a chill in his limbs that stopped him from standing all the way, even though he was certain now that he was in danger and certain that he wanted to. What was this man? What had he done-?
The stranger made a sound which could have been an animal hiss, and turned Childermass’ cheek. Looking into them now, Childermass had no doubt that those were not Segundus’ eyes- for indeed, suddenly he could not stop thinking of Segundus. Segundus smiling at him, Segundus flushing to the ends of his ears, Segundus arching his back in a climax, Segundus intent in his focus on a spell. The visions- memories- burned before his eyes almost as clear as reality, and paralyzed him still, keeping him in that chair. He could feel the cold touch of the stranger on his cheek, but all he could see was Segundus, in all the different shades and temperaments he had fallen in love with.
“Oh, I see,” said the stranger. “How pretty. You have good taste. Where?”
The answer flashed across Childermass’ eyes before he could stop it: The house behind the brook, Starecross, the school of magic.
The gentleman released him, and it was like being lifted into air after being trapped underwater. All the sounds of the inn came clamouring back, all the lights increased their brightness, and Childermass returned to full awareness of himself seated at the booth, gasping for air he hadn’t realized he was losing. He had a sense of motion before him and he lashed out, but he struck only the wood of the table. Blinking furiously to clear his eyes Childermass stood, but he was alone- a few of the other patrons looked his way at his outburst, but his pale companion was nowhere to be seen. He had been real, hadn’t he? Childermass had a very bad feeling about this. It was a feeling he had learned to heed over the years- the feeling of enchantment.
Childermass found Vinculus harassing one of the inn’s maids in the kitchen, and dragged him into the room he had purchased, closing and locking the door behind him.
“What’s all this about, then, Reader?” Vinculus complained. “It’s not even yet midnight-”
“Did you tell that man I was a magician?” Childermass snapped. Vinculus didn’t reply, only looking at him with a curious tilt to his head. “Did you?”
“I’m not in the habit of telling people things,” said Vinculus, scratching his chest over his jacket. “Least of all useless tidbits like that.”
Childermass exhaled. He felt deeply unsettled, and his heart was beating too fast. He needed to think of what to do next- of wards or warnings. Were the other people at the inn in danger? If the gentleman had been a fairy, then they certainly were.
“Did you see him come, or go?” Childermass asked, his tone of voice calmer this time. “A young man, very pale, very thin. Wearing dark clothes, something...threadbare, out of date. A gentleman.”
“Saw something like that come in,” he said. “Ugly fellow, I thought. Looked entirely ordinary to me.”
“What did he do?”
Vinculus shrugged again. As Childermass calmed he seemed to be losing interest in the whole situation.
“I dunno. Stopped looking- wasn’t much to look at.”
Childermass sighed, covering his eyes with one hand. He found his fingers were trembling. Something very bad had happened back there, he knew that, but exactly what he couldn’t quite say. He thought he had given the man something- or rather, that something had been taken from him, something very precious that should not have been given away. But what that was he couldn’t recall. The entire interaction was obfuscated, taking on the misty quality of a dream in his memories, decaying more by the minute.
“Do you think,” Childermass asked again (because what else was he to do). “That this man might have been a fairy?”
Vinculus snorted immediately, and there was no doubt in his voice as he replied:
“No way. Had a funny walk- not graceful- not the right kind of face. Even that piece of work that put me in the tree was nicer for the eyes than that.”
Childermass nodded, and considered this. Then he found he had to sit, for his legs were also shaking, and his entire body felt like it had gone through much greater an ordeal than he could reasonably account for.
Vinculus made his bed and settled down despite his previous protestations, and after a while Childermass stood again and went back out into the taproom. He made a few inquiries about the pale gentleman, but though some vaguely recalled seeing him, no one seemed to know him personally. The patroness did remember giving him a beer.
“I collected it from that table after he left- hadn’t had a sip of it! I wonder where he went in this weather.”
Childermass ultimately concluded that there was little chance the man had been a fairy. The people in the room would not have remembered him at all, if that were the case, and the inn did not have any sense about it of lingering magic. Still, he warned the patroness to look out for possible signs of enchantment- things out of place, an increase in unusual visitors, muddled memories or frequent nightmares- and to send word to either the York Society or the Starecross School of Magic if any such things began occurring. The woman (who had lived in the North all her life) took his warnings quite seriously, and thanked him.
Childermass then returned to his room, where he tied a white ribbon about the doorknob, setting that small protective charm. He doubted the gentleman would return, but if he did there would be some warning.
When undressing, Childermass noticed something- there was a long, thin cut on the inside of his wrist, shallow and very clean. It had stopped bleeding a while ago, and Childermass hadn’t felt any pain. He did not know where he had gotten it. He did not remember being injured, nor most of what had happened that evening at all.
Despite his exhaustion, it took a while for sleep to come that night.
Chapter 3: there is nothing to explain
The morning brought nothing unusual, and by daybreak the storm had settled. There seemed to be nothing else Childermass could do at the inn- he did take a peek at the surrounding wooded areas before leaving, but nothing was magically amiss- so he and Vinculus resumed their journey. The remaining days to London passed with clear weather and good speed, and there were no more incidents with unusual gentlemen in dusky taprooms.
The collection of magicians in London- all of whom had apparently tried and failed for positions in the recently instituted Petty Dragownes- met Childermass as planned, and they all had much to say about Vinculus, even though most of it was fluff and nonsense. Only the former linguist- the one who had proposed a new translation method, based on old scripts recorded in Wales- had anything valuable to bring to the table, and with his permission Childermass made copies of his notes to bring back to the York Society (he also invited all of the magicians there, as he always did). But most of these magicians were gentlemen of a sort, and most again had a certain sense of entitlement to them, and the meeting ended up lasting a few days longer than Childermass had anticipated and desired. He did manage to use the time to some advantage, however, including putting a job notice out at the more well-renowned accounting houses and buying a small present for Segundus.
(Silly, but he couldn’t help himself.)
By the end of it, he figured he had more than done his duty as Keeper of the King’s Book, and Vinculus had plenty enjoyed his time off visiting old friends and wives in some of the nastier parts of the city, and so with perfect satisfaction the horses were readied and the pair set off again for York. This time, the weather obliged them all the way.
“In a hurry, are you?” Vinculus complained on the last morning of their voyage. “I don’t think a Keeper should be so bound to his hearth. You’re always rushing about, ‘cept when we’re there.”
Childermass ignored him.
The weather was bright but grey that evening when they made it back to Starecross. There was no sign of rain, but a thin layer of cloud covered the sky, giving the same impression on the landscape as a minor chord. Childermass let the horses in and let Vinculus go, free to content himself with a bit of wandering (the students had realized quickly that a gift of food or alcohol could give them almost unfettered access to the most important magical document in England, and so they often scooped him up outside of class time, a habit which the teachers neither encouraged nor forbid), and made for the house himself.
To his surprise he was greeted at the door by the manservant Charles, who gave him a slightly anxious smile.
“Welcome back, Mr. Childermass,” he said. “I suppose- I wonder if you received our letter?”
“Letter?” Childermass had received no such thing, and his tone seemed to show it.
“Oh, it must have just missed you in London then,” he said, stepping aside to let Childermass in, though Childermass didn’t let him take any of his bags. He seemed in good enough spirits, and the kitchen smelled of a good meal halfway ready, so nothing dire could have come to pass.
“What was in it?” Childermass asked, and Charles shrugged, only replying thus:
“Oh, it doesn’t matter now that you’re here, but...I suppose you should talk to Mr. Segundus about it. He took ill, you see.”
Childermass frowned. That was not something he particularly liked to hear.
Now, it was not exactly rare for Segundus to take ill in one sense or another. Childermass had learned this- fail to feed the man, or get him exerted when the weather was too hot, or perform great magic in his presence, any of these things and he was liable to faint (quite prettily, Childermass had often privately thought). When it rained too heavily Segundus would become fatigued, when the sun shone too bright he might have a headache. Childermass had known him to catch cold twice since the beginning of their relationship, and both times the solution had been a few days rest and some sturdy tissues. Segundus bore such things very well, with all the dignity of a man whose constitution had been frail from birth, and who saw no sense in complaining over mild discomforts. But still, Childermass didn’t like him having discomforts, even if he wouldn’t complain over them.
“I suppose I will, then,” he said.
It was also strange, Childermass mused as he took his bags back to his little butler’s room, that a letter should have been written to him about such a thing. He wasn’t a doctor. He wasn’t Segundus’ husband (a laughable impossibility). There was really no sense in writing about it- he was only a few days delayed- unless, that is, Segundus was very sick, but surely Charles would not have been at ease if this were so. Still, Childermass felt something like discomfort in his chest at the whole affair, and he resolved to find Segundus at once (as if that hadn’t been the plan anyway).
It was an easy enough task. Segundus was in the west-facing classroom, leading a discussion about the cardinal directions and their effects on certain magicks (locating spells, pathfinding spells, summoning spells). Childermass slipped in the back of the room, unseen by the students, and sat down to listen.
Segundus met his gaze and smiled, the lines along his eyes crinkling, but he said nothing, continuing the flow of the lesson. Childermass had to school his expression, for how easily it had slipped into a smile of its own.
Segundus looked well enough, he supposed- perhaps a touch paler than he might be usually when talking about magic (a subject that invariably excited him to pink cheeks and glittering eyes) but that could be explained by the grey light coming in the window, or a touch of fatigue. Childermass let his heart settle.
The lesson ended- Childermass found he had enjoyed it, even if he had only caught the last few minutes- and the students were instructed to try making an internal compass in the evening, and read over each other’s notes, and bring questions to the next lesson. For now, dinner would be served in the dining hall, and they were to go enjoy that.
“I myself will stay behind a moment to speak with Mr. Childermass,” said Segundus sweetly, and a few of the students looked around at him in surprise, not having noticed his return. Childermass raised an eyebrow at them, an expression clearly terrifying enough to send them scattering, and Segundus laughed.
“I hope your journey went well,” Segundus said, sitting down on the edge of the desk at the front of the classroom. He wrung his hands before his chest almost anxiously, and if they hadn’t been in a public place Childermass would have taken them in his own.
“Well enough,” he replied. “I got a few interesting things out of it. We can discuss them after dinner, if you’d like.”
“I would,” said Segundus, with another dazzling little smile.
“What’s this about a letter, then?” Childermass asked, and instantly Segundus blushed, looking down at his shoes. “I did not receive it. Charles said you were ill.”
“Yes- I was, yes. It’s silly.”
Childermass just looked at him, until Segundus could give his words strength enough to take their leave from his lips.
“A few nights ago, I developed a fever- it wasn’t very bad, I don’t think, but apparently I was quite delirious. I don’t remember, but, erm, Charles said I asked for you- said I needed to tell you something very important. I must have been so adamant about it they wrote to you in the morning. It...it was very silly.”
“Do you remember what it was?” Childermass asked him.
“What?” Segundus looked surprised.
“Do you remember the important thing you wanted to tell me?”
Segundus blushed again, another pink wave lapping at his cheeks before receding, but he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I doubt it was anything at all. I’m sure I was only imagining things. I must have made quite a fuss.”
“Oh, you certainly made a fuss, if they actually wrote to me,” Childermass said with a chuckle. Segundus gave him a slightly exasperated look at this, which made him chuckle again. “Well, are you feeling better now? I hope there were no lasting effects.”
This was a more serious question, and Segundus recognized it, the embarrassment in his posture fading a little.
“Oh, I am quite well now,” he said gently. “Only a little tired. I can only suppose fatigue is what brought it on in the first place, and everyone has been making sure I am well rested.”
Childermass nodded, and Segundus gave him a sly little smile.
“You mustn’t worry,” he said quietly, his tone implying that he would be rather pleased if Childermass did worry, if only a little bit.
“‘Tis a pity I wasn’t there,” Childermass replied, pitching his own voice low so that the words would not travel beyond the room. “I would have slayed your imaginary dragons for you.”
Segundus laughed and reddened and bid him come to dinner, and Childermass realized as he always did that he much preferred to be at Starecross than away.
The evening passed quite contentedly, and the matter of Segundus’ illness did not come up again.
That night they were in bed, and Segundus sighed comfortably into the bare crook of Childermass’ neck, wrapping an arm about his waist. Their bodies both were slick with sweat- and other things- that cooled in the dark air. Of course, Childermass had returned after over two weeks absent, so his welcome had been quite pleasantly exuberant. It was exceedingly delightful to rest his nose in Segundus’ soft dark hair- the Segundus who was swiftly drifting away, still wrapped tightly about Childermass to keep him there, his chest apparently making a comfortable enough pillow. Childermass watched him- his breathing, the tiny movements of his eyelids, the occasional twitch of thin white lips- and remembered suddenly that he had purchased Segundus a present in London, and that this present was in his saddlebags, which at the moment may as well have been miles away. He tutted to himself, and the sound made the candle on Segundus’ bedside flicker.
“What?” Segundus asked sleepily, the sound stirring him enough to wrap an ankle around Childermass’ leg, clinging to him the way that underwater plants clung to unsuspecting swimmers. “Do not go yet. It is not late, we did not spend so much time talking.”
“It wasn’t that,” Childermass murmured to reassure him, rubbing Segundus’ lower back with one trapped hand. However, instead of being relaxed back into a state of sleep, Segundus opened his eyes and looked up.
“What was it then? Talk to me, I have missed your voice.”
Childermass felt something a little like lightning touch his heart hearing that- perhaps it was still unbelievable, that Segundus returned his feelings- and inhaled deeply, looking for something to say. He did not want to give away the surprise just yet, gifts were better given in person.
“I met a strange man at an inn,” Childermass said. “On the way out, the day it stormed. Did it storm here?”
“Well...” Segundus mumbled, settling back down on Childermass’ chest. “That day I was doing a lesson in weather-magic, and…”
Childermass scoffed in disbelief.
“That doesn’t seem like you. I have seen your rain clouds and they are very sweet.”
“Not me,” Segundus said, and Childermass saw how his ears had turned pink. “Young Jack Tailor- he’s only about eleven, but his talent can be quite...explosive.”
Childermass laughed to himself. Amazing, how this man could warm even sour memories. He supposed he should have appreciated the thunderstorm a little more on that day, seeing as it had come from home.
“You were meeting a strange man,” Segundus prompted bashfully, squeezing Childermass about the middle. Childermass allowed the subject to be redirected- perhaps he had embarrassed Segundus a few too many times that day, cute though he was in such a state.
“Yes, a strange man,” he continued. “A Frenchman, I think.”
Segundus made a little noise of surprise.
“A strange coincidence!” he chirped, looking back up at Childermass with a smile. “I believe I dreamed of a Frenchman recently.”
“What did he do, your dream Frenchman?” Childermass asked.
“I do not remember. I suppose he demonstrated his French-ness. What did your Frenchman do?”
“I thought…” Childermass considered. In truth, he did not entirely remember the encounter, only that it had bothered him. There had been some air of magic about it, perhaps, but he could not say if that had really been the case. “I thought he enchanted me. But now I think I may only have had too much to drink. Oh, he did proposition me, though.”
Segundus gasped, sitting upright in Childermass’ arms, cheeks pink and eyes wide. He looked entirely scandalized, and so the remark had been more than worth making.
“He did not! That is- that is extremely bold, Mr. Childermass! It is quite indecent!”
Childermass raised an eyebrow at that, gesturing between the two of them, both men and naked and red from each other’s kisses and sore from each other’s touch. Segundus understood without his saying anything.
“It is indecent because you are spoken for! I-”
Segundus broke off, seeming to realize what he had said, and he flushed so hard and so hot the colour even appeared on his neck. He clapped a hand over his mouth and looked at Childermass with an expression quite shocked indeed.
“Oh, so there it is,” Childermass said lowly, taking Segundus’ wrist to peel his fingers from his lips. “You think I belong to you? You think you own me?”
Segundus just stared at him, hand forming an anxious fist in his grasp, body warm against his.
“Well, of course you do,” Childermass finished with a touch of a smirk. “And I belong to you completely.”
Segundus glared at him, eyes hot with some mix of frustration and adoration and arousal, and in recompense for the teasing Childermass kissed him passionately for quite some time. He forgot entirely about the tale of the strange Frenchman and any concern he had over it, for such things as horror stories paled in comparison to a lover’s warm embrace and soft lips and quiet moans.
The candle in the room flickered out at the time their passions cooled again, and Childermass realized with the same, familiar regret that it was time enough for him to take his leave. Segundus seemed to realize it at the same time, and carefully he sat up, exposing much of Childermass to the cooling air in the room.
“I suppose I must bid you goodnight,” Segundus said softly, and Childermass nodded, patting the back of his hand as he stood to dress himself once again. Segundus did the same, pulling his nightgown over his head, for indeed the night did seem to be cooler than others lately. Segundus relit the candle and led him to the door, murmuring in pretence that he did not want Childermass to trip, and then at the door he kissed Childermass once more. A chaste, goodnight kiss.
“Tomorrow we shall bring your translator’s work to the older students,” Segundus murmured thoughtfully. “I think Miss Redruth will be particularly excited.”
“I shall look forward to it,” Childermass replied, not dishonest, and he slipped into the hallway.
The last thing he saw as he closed the door behind him was Segundus with his head turned, looking thoughtfully out the window in the study. The candle he held made his face shadowy from beneath, like the teller of a ghost story- but then the door was closed and he was gone, and Childermass left him to return to his own bed.
Chapter 4: the little things may teach us most
The next morning Childermass woke a little after dawn (as he had trained his body to do) and made himself useful about the house. Mr. Honeyfoot arrived from High-Petergate just before breakfast, and greeted him quite warmly (something Childermass would never have anticipated in his years of Norrell’s service- he had wronged this man, too). Childermass told him of the new research being conducted on the Book, and Honeyfoot agreed to come to the meeting-lesson that afternoon to explore it. Childermass kept expecting Segundus to appear and welcome his friend, but he did not.
Breakfast was served both in the student dining-hall and the faculty dining-room at 8:00, and while Childermass joined with the latter, Segundus again did not. The seat at the head of the table was left empty as the food was served.
“That is unusual for him,” Honeyfoot remarked blandly around a mouthful of toast. “I wonder if he got caught up in his study.”
The image of Segundus enraptured in a new magical idea and forgetting to feed himself was not exactly unbelievable, but still Childermass resolved to go and seek him out personally, if nothing else to remind him of his morning lessons. Childermass began debating whether it was proper to request some breakfast be sent to Segundus, or if he should slip some of Segundus’ preferred breakfast foods (buttered rolls and peach preserves) into a handkerchief and do it personally. But before he could reach any conclusion on the matter Segundus himself finally appeared in the dining-room doorway.
Childermass knew instantly that something was wrong. Segundus was dressed, but sloppily, the blue silk cravat about his neck in disarray, the curls in his hair out of place. His skin was as white as snow on his cheeks and darkened to gray under his eyes, a sickly combination. He stood in the doorway for a moment, looking like he had forgotten why he had come, and then wavered- putting one hand over his eyes and the other on the doorframe, sinking into what was undoubtedly a faint.
Childermass stood, his chair scraping rudely on the wooden floor, but he was on the far side of the table and hence it was the attending servants who reached Segundus first, helping him catch his legs and reach his chair. He hadn’t entirely passed out, then. As Segundus sat there was instantly much fuss, many voices crying out in confusion and concern, and Childermass wished he could quiet them without overstepping himself because he knew the noise would not help Segundus, who still covered his eyes with the palms of his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly, and it was proof of the respect and affection everyone at the table had for him that they all quieted to listen. “I do not know what...I felt dizzy coming down the stairs, but…”
The maid Hannah (who Childermass knew of old) immediately set to pouring Segundus a cup of tea and piling his plate with as much in the way of fortifying things as she could find, which gave Segundus a moment to compose himself.
“I did not mean to concern any of you,” he said when he had, and already he looked more like himself, light returning to his eyes. However, Childermass noticed that his hands shook a little as he picked up a fork, and then anxiously put it down again. “I am not sure what came over me- I did not sleep well last night, a-and I made up for it this morning...I suppose I simply rushed too much coming down the stairs.”
Segundus looked like he very much wished the table would stop looking at him, and his gaze fluttered over to Childermass for just a moment, in which Childermass tried to put on his best expression of firmness and support. He did not know if it translated, but Segundus blushed a little faintly, and mumbled:
“Thank you for your help,” before tapping the shell of the egg put on his plate as a signal to end the topic of conversation.
“I think Mr. Honeyfoot will be joining us in the discussion this morning,” said Childermass to bring about the beginning of a new one. Segundus started, and then looked over at Honeyfoot properly for the first time, turning even redder than before. Good, if he looked like that there could be nothing too dire that was the matter with him.
“Oh my goodness! Dear Mr. Honeyfoot, you have returned! I did not see you there!” This morning was clearly turning out to be more embarrassing than Segundus had probably hoped for. Childermass suppressed the smile that slipped onto his face with a bite of bacon.
“Well, you were a little preoccupied,” Honeyfoot said good-naturedly, and the two entered a happy conversation.
The rest of the day was spent very busily. The older students had much to say and debate on the subject of the King’s Book, and some did quite passionately, seeing the text as something like a magic Bible- a stance which was becoming reasonably common, despite Childermass never bothering to promote it himself (he was not a salesman). After lunch the younger students had lessons scheduled, including the continuation of the direction-lesson from the previous day, and so Segundus was kept engaged well until dinner- and Childermass did not get to spend all of the time with him, having his own duties and discussions to lead (and irate Vinculus to attend to). Though when he was there, he found himself distracted, thinking too often of how Segundus kept sitting instead of spinning around the room the way he would when especially excited, of how his skin kept a pallor even greater than its typical state, how sometimes he would close his eyes and touch his brow as if to dispel an ache there. He did not look entirely well. Childermass imagined the things he could not do- hold him, kiss his temples, tell him it was alright to sleep and that he needn’t fret, let the gentleman drift off in his arms. Perhaps tonight.
After dinner, the teachers and other researchers attending the school at any time would often sit down in the drawing room with a glass of sherry or a cigar, discuss matters of the day or of their interest while the students performed their duties. Tonight, however, the headmaster begged off, claiming he would prefer to retire early- and none begrudged him, most having seen his little spell that morning. As Segundus left he looked back into the room only briefly, catching Childermass’ eyes- and in his dark ones there was a summons that no part of Childermass could ignore.
After that, it was a matter of waiting out the torturous period of time before Childermass could make his own excuse without seeming suspicious- in this case, being that he had some letters to attend to- and follow him. It was good to always be cautious, but Childermass also knew he would be little missed- it was not that all disliked him, but he knew his presence was a disconcerting one, he who was a man born of one class and slowly climbing above it (neither gentleman nor servant, not anymore).
Before Childermass went to Segundus, however, he returned to his own little room, and from within his partly-unpacked saddlebags took the wrapped gift he had purchased back in London. No one was in the corridors when he left this room, nor on the second floor where Childermass went next, bypassing the chatter in the dorms and the clatter in the kitchen. It was quiet indeed, outside the headmaster's door.
Childermass slipped inside and closed it behind him, marking that familiar charm, and only once it was set did he allow himself to look into the room- when he did, he was sure he made a noise, something outrageous like a gasp or a grunt.
Segundus was seated at his desk as he often was, but he was not looking at his papers. He leaned across the back of it with his head resting in the crook of his elbow, fixing Childermass with a very intent stare.
More importantly, he was only wearing his nightgown.
Childermass stared back, his eyes traveling over the length of Segundus’ body, admiring how it met so well with each fold of white fabric. He wore no stockings, his feet and legs were bare stretched out on the floor of the study, and Childermass felt far too warm at the sight. It wasn’t that he was unused to seeing Segundus in his nightgown- indeed, he was used to seeing Segundus naked- but to see him seated there at his place of business in such a thing (with so wanton an expression Childermass felt he might die) was highly titillating indeed.
“Well,” Childermass said dumbly, “Good evening.”
“Good evening,” replied Segundus with a smile, and it was such a warm and sweet smile it took some of the erotic intensity out of the scene (though none of the pleasure.) “What is that there?”
He gestured with his eyes to the package Childermass was carrying, which reminded him that it was there. With a touch of exasperation (directed towards himself) Childermass held it up.
“A present,” he said. “For you. I got it in London.”
“Oh!” Segundus looked quite surprised, blushing a little, and he stood to receive it (Childermass admired how the nightgown fell across his body as he did so.) “Thank you! I mean, I did not get you anything here…”
“You did not need to get me anything here,” Childermass told him. “It is for no occasion. I saw it and thought of you.”
Segundus gave him a very unbelievable look when he said that- all glittering dark eyes, pink cheeks, bitten lower lip- and took the package quite delicately, bringing it back to his desk. Childermass followed him there, feeling not unlike a puppet drawn along on a string.
The thing was only wrapped in rough brown packing paper, and when Segundus undid it a light flashed briefly from within. Segundus gasped.
“Oh, that is wonderful,” Segundus said. He lifted from the package a small, ovular mirror, only about a foot in length. It was decorated by an ornate wooden border- hawthorn wood, a wood that was conducive to certain kinds of magic. Indeed, the same kinds of magic as mirrors generally were. The shape was also helpful- flowing curves were superior to sudden angles in such matters. The surface of the thing was quite clean, not warped nor spotted from time, and in all it looked quite magical and magician-like. Childermass had in fact purchased it at an otherwise silly shop of magical ‘curiosities’ (mostly useless)- but though this could not do any of the ridiculous things the proprietor had promised him it was, in fact, quite a useful little tool for a magician to have.
“Thank you very much,” Segundus repeated, admiring the mirror from a few angles. “I have been meaning to get a proper one of these. I shall have to find a place for it immediately. Oh!”
Segundus stuttered for a moment at his cluttered desk, pushing stacks of books this way and that, before abandoning it and instead moving to the other side of the study to the sturdy wooden table where he kept his silver scrying bowl. As he did so Childermass realized that the window before the desk had been left open a crack- cold night air slipped in beneath the part in the wood- and Childermass closed it the rest of the way, thinking nothing of it.
He turned and saw that Segundus had found a very neat little home for the mirror behind the silver bowl, where it reflected the darkness of the room and the view out the window in a very mysterious way. Yes, with this and all the books and all the unlit, forgotten candles, the room looked every part a magician’s den. Childermass chuckled to himself.
“There. I shall be sure to make use of it tomorrow,” Segundus said happily, folding his arms behind his back.
“Why not now?” Childermass asked. Many a pleasant night before this had been spent doing magic with one another, sometimes on the floor of Segundus’ study, sometimes on the bed.
“Oh, well…” Segundus shifted his bare feet on the carpet. “The truth is, I am quite exhausted. I do not know why, I did nothing very strenuous today. Tonight, I just wanted…”
He blushed a little then, and Childermass knew he would do absolutely anything that was asked of him.
“...I just wanted you to hold me.”
Segundus said this shyly, and Childermass felt like a warming stone had been placed just above his heart, a burning weight that was unimaginably fond. Childermass removed his outer jacket immediately, which caused Segundus to laugh, opening the door to his bedroom where they naturally went next.
Once there Childermass lay back on the pillows and Segundus curled against his chest, seeming to prefer that as a space to rest his head. Childermass kissed his crown and Segundus sighed sweetly, and for a little while there was nothing so warming or comfortable as simply holding him. Neither needed to say anything. What had Childermass gone and done to deserve this? Nothing came to mind, and he had memories of a long and quite varied life. John Segundus was a precious creature, he knew, he had known that from the first time he had seen him, all those years ago in York, when he had been so alone and so brave and all his clothes threadbare.
“Are you taking ill?” Childermass asked softly after a while. The question had begun eating him at breakfast despite all his better judgements, and now his tongue was weakened in a moment of sentimentality, letting it loose. “This morning, you...that was unlike you.”
Segundus sighed again, his fingers shifting on Childermass’ chest, the clearest betrayer of his nervous energy.
“It was strange,” he admitted. “I felt quite weak today. And chilled.”
“You said you didn’t sleep well,” Childermass prompted, wrapping his arms closer about Segundus’ waist in response to the second complaint. Segundus did not look up at him, instead cuddling closer under his chin, and replied:
“I did say that. It was not the entire truth. Actually, I had terrible nightmares.”
That hurt an honest part of Childermass’ heart. Oh, he was such a fool when it came to Segundus- even if there was realistically nothing he could do about bad dreams, he wished he could spare Segundus from them.
“Would you tell me what happened?” Childermass asked. He remembered that in his childhood this had been the common solution for nightmares- Black Joan had called it ‘drawing the poison’. Childermass had never really had nightmares of his own, at least not ones that bothered him when he woke, but at the moment he figured he’d probably do anything to stop Segundus sounding so sad.
“That’s the thing,” Segundus said, looking up at him plaintively. “I don’t remember them at all.”
“What I do remember,” he continued, before Childermass could say anything, “was that they weren’t usual nightmares- they couldn’t have been. Those one wakes from shaking and sweating, heart beating fast. When I woke this morning I was not sure if my heart was beating at all. I felt so cold, and so slow, so still...like I was underwater, or like I had died…”
Segundus’ voice became increasingly terrified as he spoke, and Childermass kissed the top of his head over and over again to soothe him. He took one of Segundus’ hands in his own- a hand that did, he thought, feel a little uncomfortably cold- and guided it to Segundus’ own throat, so he put two fingers to his jugular, just under the hem of his nightgown.
“There,” Childermass told him gently. “Do you feel that?”
Childermass felt it against his palm, pulsing in Segundus’ wrist. A heartbeat. Proof of life that strained against the thin blue veins that trapped it, eager to be heard.
“Yes,” Segundus said, eyes a little watery, and he smiled seemingly in spite of himself. “I know. It was a silly thing to think.”
“Not silly,” Childermass murmured. “That was a horrible dream.”
Segundus hummed, and he kissed Childermass for a moment, but only chastely for the effort of raising his head far seemed too much for him. After a moment he settled back down, wrapped close around Childermass’ body, comforted into silence. He did not cry anymore. Childermass held him and rubbed his back and before long Segundus had fallen asleep, his staggered breathing turning smooth and peaceful. Childermass did not blame him for this in the slightest. He was clearly exhausted, and it was better he rest than otherwise- regardless of the content of his nightmares, something was clearly amiss. Perhaps the fever he had gone through during Childermass’ time away had not fully left him, or was springing up again- hadn’t he said that one was due to stress and overexertion? He should sleep.
Childermass held him for as long as he could, careful not to slip away himself, and before the clock turned to midnight he went through the slow and arduous process of extracting himself from Segundus’ arms without waking him, and wrapping his sleeping body in the many plush blankets on the bed.
Goodnight, Childermass thought, and he kissed Segundus’ temple lightly, feeling quite silly but figuring it did no harm. His own eyelids were becoming heavy, it was time enough to return to his own bed.
Childermass closed the bedroom door behind himself gently, and once in the study he noticed with some surprise that the window before the desk was open. Hadn’t he closed it? That was no good- perhaps something was the matter with the hinges. Childermass crossed the room and closed it again so as not to let in the cold air, and resolved to ask Segundus about it in the morning.
As he did this, he felt something very queer- a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, the familiar sensation he associated with being watched.
Childermass turned around.
It was foolish, of course, for there wasn’t anyone there- there couldn’t be anyone there, the door was locked and charmed, and who would sneak into the headmaster’s study at this hour anyway? The room looked entirely ordinary, everything in it was still where it had been left, and the only eerie thing for the imagination was the darkness that came from the room being unlit at night. Nothing was amiss.
Childermass rubbed the back of his neck to settle the gooseflesh that had risen there, and rolled his eyes at himself. Then he undid the charm on the study door and left it closed behind him, descending to his own rest once again.
Chapter 5: as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean
The next day began much as the previous had- Childermass rose, did what pleased him, and joined the other faculty for breakfast at 8:00. Once again, Segundus was not on time.
This morning, however, he did not come down at all.
Childermass’ concern rose with the murmurings at the table and, before he had finished his own meal he stood, beckoning to Charles (who was attending).
“Let us see what has become of him,” he said gruffly, and he couldn’t say if his rough words disguised how fast his heart was beating. Segundus had dreamed of his own heart stopping- should Childermass have paid more attention? Had he been worse off than either of them guessed? This was catastrophizing and unlike him, but when it came to Segundus-
The headmaster did not respond when Charles knocked on the door to his apartments. There went any hope that he was in his study, perhaps caught up in a letter or a fancy in his silver bowl. The door was not locked either, through magic or metal. Childermass found himself passing through the empty study to the bedroom door ahead of Charles and, brashly, he opened it without knocking.
“Mr. Childermass-” Charles began, his tone scolding, but it fell away as he continued, “Good Lord.”
There was a frightening sight waiting for them. The room was in disarray, almost as if a small hurricane had passed through. All of the blankets and pillows had been stripped from Segundus’ bed and lay scattered about the floor; the candle on his bedside table had been knocked over, the books he kept there thrown about the room, their spines bent where they lay open, pages smushed against the floor. The contents of the dresser were left untouched, though the doors to them stood ajar. The man himself was on the bed (at least), dressed in his rumpled nightgown. It was too strange how he lay there- square in the middle of the stripped mattress, lying strewn out on his back and as white as the abandoned sheets.
He did not look like he was breathing.
Childermass bolted to him, all instinct and animal panic, not a rational thought in his head. He could not care for propriety or appearances, not then. He found he could only care about one thing.
“Fetch a doctor,” he growled to Charles, and the only way he knew the man had gone was by the sound of his footsteps on the wooden floor, and that he barely attended.
“Segundus,” he said through gritted teeth, taking one of those white hands in his own and finding it as cold as ice. “John. John, can you hear me?”
Segundus did nothing, and Childermass almost snarled, putting his ear down over the left breast of Segundus’ chest. Desperate, his own heart was pumping high in his throat, and the instant that followed was one of the worst dread and deepest anticipation, and seemed so long that for a moment he almost despaired-
-but no, there it was. A slow-moving, steady rhythm. Childermass closed his eyes and let out a long, shuddering breath, feeling almost sick, his body suddenly covered in sweat and his hands shaking. Remembering himself a little, Childermass sat back on his heels, still holding Segundus’ hand. His face looked pinched and drawn, the black circles under his eyes so large and dark it was almost like someone had struck him. Carefully now Childermass took his shoulder and shook it lightly, and then a little more firmly when this did not bring him about.
Finally, Segundus’ eyes flickered back and forth behind their lids and he let out a low moan, chest rising as though his previous breaths had not been enough. Perhaps they hadn’t been. Slowly one eye cracked open, and then the other, drifting over the ceiling before focusing on Childermass’ face.
“Oh,” Segundus said quietly, in a voice that sounded broken from exhaustion. “It’s only you. I...ugh…”
He started to shiver suddenly, and Childermass saw his lips were almost blue from cold. He looked so pathetically confused, and why wouldn’t he? He had woken under absurd circumstances. Childermass grabbed a handful of blankets from his side of the bed and dragged them up, helping Segundus into a sitting position to wrap him in them. Segundus licked his lips a couple of times, as if they were dry (or as if he tasted something unpleasant there), and Childermass lamented that he didn’t have any water to offer.
“What happened?” Segundus asked quietly, clinging the blankets to himself as Childermass brushed some hair away from his forehead. They were stuck there with cold sweat that made all of Segundus’ skin shine, gaunt and glittering.
“You did not come down for breakfast,” Childermass told him gently. “You...you did not wake.”
Segundus shook his head. He was shivering all over now, perhaps from shock as much as cold, and his glassy eyes wandered around the room like he did not know what he was looking at.
“No,” he mumbled. “I mean...what happened to me?”
Childermass found his own eyes mirroring Segundus’, following them about the room. That was a good question. Segundus seemed unimaginably weak. What could have possessed him to throw his things about, to completely unmake his bed and then lie down upon it again? Did he have a fever? A very cold fever, if that was so, unless it had come upon him and burnt itself out within the same night.
“Were you dreaming?” Childermass asked, the idea coming to him only as he spoke it, and Segundus turned to look at him helplessly. He started to shake his head, a motion of confusion rather than true denial, and then they both were removed from their considerations by the sounds of approaching footsteps and concerned voices. Childermass gave Segundus’ hand a squeeze and then let him go, even though the anxious look on Segundus’ face almost broke his heart. To busy himself he began righting what had been disturbed overnight- closing the dresser doors and putting the books back on the table.
“Goodness gracious, Mr. Segundus!” said Mr. Honeyfoot, who led a pack of concerned faculty members into the room (including Mr. Hadley-Bright, Mr. Purfois, and Tom Levy), all who looked quite shocked at the state of the room, and of their headmaster. “Charles popped in to say he was going in town for the doctor- what in the world has become of you?”
“I don’t know,” said Segundus, pulling his blankets even closer around his body and curling his toes like he wished to hide himself. His voice was almost too quiet to hear. “I just woke up. I...I don’t remember anything.”
The other gentlemen all began to talk, debating the meaning of what they saw before them, comparing it to cases of distant family members or friends, or distant family members of distant friends. Levy, at least, made himself useful by heading down to the dining-room to have a tray fetched. Childermass tidied the bedroom, and with some shuffling was also able to restore the bed to order, so Segundus sat back against a stack of pillows and had his blankets to warm him. Childermass would have liked to kiss his head, perhaps, but that wasn’t possible in his current company.
“You cannot hold your lessons today,” said Mr. Honeyfoot, sitting down on the side of the bed once it was made. “You must rest, and wait for the doctor.”
“Oh, but…” Segundus murmured, and Childermass gave him a stern look to say he agreed. Honeyfoot was insisting on this, and he hadn’t even seen Segundus at first, just...lying there, so cold, so still...Childermass’ own heart hadn’t entirely slowed yet.
“Yes, you must! I will take over your teachings today,” Honeyfoot continued. He puffed his chest up in a show of good humour, which made Segundus smile. “I may not have quite your sensitivity, but I’ve been in the profession longer! I can certainly manage.”
“Longer?” Segundus asked teasingly. “If you count all the years Norrell put you out of commission, I am not so sure.”
They both laughed, and it was a relief, for Segundus seemed to be getting back to himself more and more as time passed. His eyes brightened and his hands smoothed the covers that lay across his lap, and as Childermass had tidied the room the nightmare image he had walked in upon seemed very distant indeed.
The next order of affairs was the arrival of breakfast- one of the maids (probably Hannah) had stacked up a tray with every possible source of comfort and nourishment, and so what was put across Segundus’ lap was far more than he would ever eat even in the best of health. He did not seem to have a large appetite either, though he drank a fair amount of milk tea. People came in and out of the room- Honeyfoot requesting the lesson-plans, Hadley-Bright expressing a variety of unusual treatments for any malady he had learned during the war under the Duke of Wellington, Miss Redruth to check Segundus’ health when she heard the kerfuffle. Childermass settled himself by the window, leaning against the frame, fairly certain he would be forgotten there by anyone who might wonder what his business was. Segundus occasionally smiled at him, an acknowledgment that his presence was welcome, and appreciated.
The doctor and Charles arrived roughly an hour-and-half after, when the breakfast dishes had been cleared. Segundus remained in bed at his friends’ request, but it was true that he did not seem up to the task. Though he had eaten some, and did speak when spoken to, he lay his head back against the pillows and his chest moved as though breathless, and he generally seemed too weak to do much with himself.
The doctor was a decent enough older fellow named Swain. He was somewhat acquainted with Segundus- Childermass supposed he would have to be, undoubtedly he had been contacted when the school had started up- and without complaint he settled into a regular examination, checking Segundus’ pulse and temperature and breathing while Segundus explained his condition.
“That is all?” the man asked when Segundus finished. “Chills, exhaustion, shortness of breath, and faintness after exercise?”
Segundus started to agree, but Childermass spoke over him, which startled the doctor quite badly- perhaps he had not realized Childermass was there. That was fairly typical.
“This morning, his room was in disarray,” Childermass said. “When I- when we found him all his things were thrown about the room. He was freezing to the touch.”
Perhaps his words did not adequately convey the horror of the scene, for the doctor seemed only mildly concerned by this- but then, he was not in love with Segundus. He had a little more objectivity, perhaps.
“Do you remember this?” Swain asked his patient, and Segundus said he didn’t, looking to one side like he was embarrassed by the revelation.
“Do you have a history of sleepwalking?” was the next question. Segundus seemed surprised by this.
“Oh- well, when I was a young boy I wandered at night occasionally,” he said. “I caused some trouble for my mother- but I grew out of it. I haven’t had any such incident for years.”
“Well, sometimes these things come back when we least expect it,” the doctor told him, his attitude making it clear that as far as he was concerned the matter was resolved. “I will give you some laudanum to help with sleep disturbances.”
Segundus accepted, though Childermass was not entirely happy with this conclusion- it was hard to picture Segundus doing anything so violent as tearing his own room apart, even if he was sleeping. Unless, perhaps, he was having an especially horrible nightmare? But what would cause such nightmares? Perhaps the laudanum was a good idea, if it would make his rest easier (though Childermass knew first hand that this drug did not always result in the most pleasant sleeping experiences).
“Apart from that,” the doctor continued, “based on your testament and my examination, I diagnose you with anaemia.”
“Anaemia?” Segundus echoed, pulling his blankets more tightly about himself.
“Yes, you have all the classic symptoms,” the doctor replied. “Not to worry- it is not terribly uncommon, and easy to treat- rest and eat lots of meat, especially organ meat, like liver. I’m sure you’ll be back to yourself in no time, and if you’re not, feel free to call upon me again.”
He smiled and took his hat, leaving Segundus looking slightly stunned in his bed. Childermass stopped the doctor before he could leave with a question and a step into his personal space.
“What could have caused it, sir?” he asked gruffly. “The anaemia, that is.”
Segundus is not a pregnant woman or a pubescent girl, was what he didn’t say, these being the two groups most susceptible to the disease in question based on his knowledge (and both for very understandable reasons).
“Oh, well,” the doctor said somewhat uncomfortably, shuffling away from Childermass. “A poor diet would be the most likely cause. That, or severe blood loss. But I doubt you have been in a knife fight recently, hmm, headmaster?”
“No, no, of course not,” Segundus called feebly from the bed behind them, his voice wobbling as it made its way through the air. “Thank you very much for your help, doctor.”
The doctor bowed and took his leave, directed back to the front door by Charles. Hannah was then fetched and instructed to have dinner made with cow’s liver, which when upon hearing that the instruction came from the doctor, she took with great seriousness and determination. Perhaps someone had overheard and conveyed the doctor’s remarks about the ‘poor diet’ and she was taking them personally.
Then, once she had gone, Segundus and Childermass were left alone for a moment.
“He seemed a rather useless fellow,” Childermass grumbled, speaking of the doctor Swain.
“Why, because he did not wave a hand and cure me instantly?” The remark was mild and good-humoured, Segundus smiling at him gently as he spoke. “I suspect he is right. I haven’t eaten much recently, my appetite has been low.”
“Hmm,” was all Childermass said to that. It wasn’t that he disagreed- rationally, he supposed the doctor was right. Perhaps he just didn’t like how flippant the man had seemed, after Childermass had seen Segundus that morning without his blankets, looking every part a fresh corpse. The chill of the image had still not left him entirely.
“I do not know about that, though,” Segundus said, gesturing leerily to the sample laudanum bottle now sitting on his bedside table. “I have never fancied it.”
“Well,” Childermass said in a way that made it clear he agreed, and would leave the fate of its contents up to Segundus, who of the two was (admittedly) the better at taking care of his own body, having done so for half a lifetime already.
The rest of the day passed without event. Childermass only left Segundus to tend to himself or fetch his own paperwork which he did at Segundus’ desk, taking up the unofficial vigil of a servant watching a sickly master. No one remarked upon him there (save Vinculus, who left happily when he was told he could manage himself for the day) and Segundus did not mind much, though he seemed to think himself on the rise. He listened attentively to the reports the other teachers provided on the students throughout the day, a few of whom even came to wish him well. He is well-loved, Childermass thought fondly. It was the least that Segundus deserved, but still true that good and kind and gentle people were often overlooked and suffocated in society. Childermass had done some of that suffocating. He was more than glad that Segundus was flourishing now- if in every way save his health.
That night a rich dinner was served, featuring most prominently a fat liver pie. Segundus was able to dress himself and come to the dining-room but he clearly struggled with the meal, disinclined to eating such heavy things even at his best, but though the conversation at the table did drift to magic or the school it continuously returned to the state of the headmaster, and whether he was eating enough, and if he had taken another bite since he had last spoken, and would he like some spirits to warm him? Childermass knew Segundus did not handle such attention comfortably, but he managed well enough, and once all had been devoured he was ushered back to bed quite attentively.
“You must take some of that laudanum and sleep the night away,” said Hannah, who seemed to figure herself an expert in care, the way that some women did. “You can’t disturb yourself sleepwalking- that was it, wasn’t it, Mr. Childermass? He was sleepwalking?”
Childermass grunted to reply, which could have meant anything, and Segundus assured her that he would do everything she suggested. His manner was ever so honest she believed him fully, and turned to leave, holding the study door open for Childermass expectantly. Ah, he was caught. It would be too strange to linger here, and he couldn’t claim he wanted to talk business if the headmaster was to be sleeping. Curse their hearts that had led them so astray, or better yet curse the world that made it so Childermass could not just marry the man and claim the nuptial bed.
“Goodnight then, sir,” he said roughly, and Segundus smiled at him a little sadly. He looked too translucent standing there alone in the doorway to his bedroom- insubstantial, much like he had on that day when Starecross had still been a madhouse, when Lady Pole’s enchantment had been broken. As if his presence was not fixed entirely in this world.
“Goodnight. And don’t fret,” Segundus told him, slipping away into his room to let Childermass go. “I have been spoiled enough already.”
Childermass returned to his own room then, not in the mood to chatter with the faculty or with the servants, and Hannah seemed to understand. She knew him well enough from before, in Mr. Norrell’s service.
Childermass didn’t find sleep easy, and more than once in the early evening he poked his head out, wondering if he could manage to sneak back to Segundus- if nothing else, to kiss his sleeping forehead- but the halls were always busy and with no good excuse he couldn’t chance it. Eventually the hour became too late, he knew he should resign himself, as there was no sense in disturbing Segundus then.
When he lay down on his bed, Childermass realized that he was actually exhausted- a weight manifested in his limbs and dragged him down against the mattress, and in little time his consciousness was enveloped in the black.
The next morning Childermass woke slowly. He felt like he had drunk too much last night, even though he knew he hadn’t drunk at all. When he finally broke the seal on his eyelids and checked his pocket-watch he was shocked to find the hour had grown late- and as soon as he did paranoia set in. He was not accustomed to having his own functions put out of place. Was he really so exhausted? And what could have happened while he was sleeping? Segundus’ rooms were so remote, what if he had slipped into a state like he had yesterday morning? Would anyone have bothered to check on him?
Childermass dressed himself quickly, barely caring to retie his hair against the nape of his neck, and made his way for the stairs. Halfway up them, however, his fears were assuaged, as he nearly bumped into the man in question.
“Oh! Good morning!” Segundus said. His voice was rather breathy, but he smiled, and he was dressed and seemingly steady on the steps. “I...did you just wake up?”
Childermass made a dumb noise, and Segundus laughed rather sweetly, which revealed Childermass was terribly obvious- unwashed and running up the stairs like a madman. Well. He thought he was perfectly justified.
“Come to breakfast when you are a little more presentable, sir,” said Segundus in more bold a voice than before, and as he passed Childermass on the staircase he whispered very softly in his ear: “I love you.”
Childermass turned and looked down at Segundus’ back as he made his way to the dining-room. He seemed perky enough- perhaps all he really had needed was a liver pie and a good night’s sleep. Strange, but hardly unfortunate.
The next few days did nothing to dampen the assumption. Segundus was on time for breakfast the next morning, and the morning after that. His energy wavered- he still seemed weaker than he should be, sitting down rather than standing when he could, often out of breath, the darkness under his eyes still deep. He resumed his duties in waves, and refrained from performing magic in his lessons, for that always tired him and put him out of sorts (no one begrudged him this). But steadily he seemed to be improving.
By the end of the week, Childermass allowed his heart to settle, for Segundus was quite firm in the belief of his own recovery.
“Tomorrow, let us go out on the moor,” Segundus said contentedly to him Friday night, snuggling into his blankets as Childermass prepared for his departure. “I believe some fresh air will do me good, after being an invalid this last week. And there are no lessons in the morning.”
“Very well, if you’re up to it,” Childermass said, pulling on his boots. Segundus gave him a very self-satisfied little smirk, and that was that. Fresh air would do him good at this stage of recovery. It would be very pleasant a pastime, especially if the weather was warm- no one would be there to overhear their conversation, and so they could be as cordial as they wished. Childermass didn’t doubt Segundus’ strength- he was nearly back to himself entirely, if tonight’s activities had been any indication. Childermass even had a small stinging mark under his collar where Segundus had nipped him (fancy that! he could be a wild little thing, sometimes). Yes, whatever wrong had befallen Segundus, he had surely surpassed it by now.
Childermass went to bed that night with a light heart.
Chapter 6: we men and women are like ropes
But the anticipated trip never came about- it couldn’t. Saturday morning, Segundus woke (if one could call it that) in a state of complete relapse. Charles was in fact the one who found him- the morning sun had risen with a chill, and he had gone to see if Segundus needed any coal for his fire, only to find him unresponsive, as pale and cold as death, just as he had been all those days ago. Childermass had been tending to the horses, and had not heard until he was called- until Hannah poked her head out the front door and called for him, and the panic that sounded so clear in her voice turned his hopes to dread.
By the time he got there Segundus had been roused and returned to his bed- for yes, according to what Childermass had been able to prise from Charles he had not been in it. Segundus had been found sleeping at his desk, still wearing only his thin white nightgown, the window before him thrust wide open and morning dew decorating his hair and papers.
Segundus looked up at Childermass from the bed as he spoke with Charles, and it was not a look Childermass was accustomed to- it was not an expression that Segundus ever wore. His eyes were ringed in black again, his face so pale it resembled a skull, and there was absolutely nothing in the dark colour of his irises- no interest, no concern, no affection. Never did Segundus have such lifeless looking eyes. It was this that scared Childermass the most.
“Should I fetch the doctor again?” Charles asked uncertainly when he had finished explaining.
“Yes,” Childermass snapped, which was ungrateful maybe but at the moment he had no room left for patience, when so much of his mind was taken up by worry.
“No, don’t go, Charles,” said Segundus, which surprised both of the other men quite thoroughly, for it was the first thing he had said that morning. His voice was strong but harsh, sounding like it scraped something on the way out. “I doubt he will have anything new to say, it is best not to bother him. Please...fetch me some tea, I feel I need it.”
Charles bowed out immediately, treating the request with as much urgency as if he had been sent to the doctor, which left Segundus and Childermass alone. Childermass was not convinced.
“You are ill, sir,” he growled. “You should see a doctor.”
Segundus sighed coldly and lay back on his pillows, fixing Childermass with another strangely expressionless stare.
“I do not want to see him,” he said mildly, rubbing at his neck with one hand. “I see too many strange men.”
“What?” Segundus echoed, and he laid his hand to rest against his chest. He blinked distinctly and light returned to his eyes in that moment, his expression shifting suddenly into one of simple confusion. He looked around the room for a moment as if he was not sure how he had come to be there.
“What do you mean?” Childermass tried again. Segundus sighed in a much more familiar way, looking quite pathetically at Childermass, all alight with discomfort and unhappiness and something a little too like shame.
“Oh, the doctor will only say it is my fault,” he said miserably. Now his voice was soft, breathless, much weaker than before. He sounded like himself. “He will say I overexerted myself. I know I must have.”
Childermass sat down slowly on the bed beside him, brushing some black curls from his forehead. Segundus closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, and between his eyelashes Childermass was sure he saw a gathering of tears.
“It is not your fault you are sick,” he said, as gently as he could. “Perhaps it is all of ours, for assuming you cured before you were.”
Segundus opened one eye to look at him- sure enough, there was a tear, and it slid down his temple at the prompting of a blink.
“I’m sorry we will not get to go out,” he said. “I was looking forward to it.”
Childermass turned to look back out the bedroom door and, neither seeing nor hearing anyone, leaned down to kiss Segundus’ forehead.
“Easy,” he told him, smoothing his hair back. “Don’t worry yourself over little things.”
Segundus gave him a watery smile, but who was to say how convinced he was? Childermass knew first hand how skilled Segundus was at putting on a brave face. Poor thing. Poor, strong, wonderful, beloved thing.
They were interrupted by Charles returning with the tea tray, some early breakfast laid upon it to boot, and Childermass retreated to his sulking spot by the window while Segundus forced himself into a sitting position. It looked like a great effort. Childermass knew in a background kind of way that Segundus was probably right about his illness, but Childermass still wished he could call the doctor anyway.
It wasn’t long before the whole household knew that Segundus had fallen ill again. This time, the buzz and murmurings were far less good-natured than before- the affair now had a sense of real danger to it. Mr. Honeyfoot called to mind the truth that Segundus had been sick since before Childermass had returned from his trip to London- a matter that now seemed so long ago Childermass was dismayed to hear it. People died from smaller things, and Segundus had ever been too close to frail...but to think of that was to think of the worst despair, and Childermass could not bear it.
Segundus did not manage himself as elegantly as he had the first time. He did not make any protest to being declared bedridden, and fell in and out of sleep as the hours passed, eating small amounts of food and drinking hot tea, only leaving his bed to attend to himself in the water closet. His skin stayed cold to the touch, and he complained lightly to Childermass (who again, did not leave him) of the sunlight coming in from outside giving him a headache (to which Childermass immediately closed the curtains and explained this curtly to anyone who asked him about it). Dinner was served early and brought to his room, Childermass having made the conclusion that Segundus need not trouble himself by struggling down the stairs- a feat that looked too difficult for his shaking limbs. Segundus said nothing to the contrary. He had been very quiet that day, barely saying anything to Childermass (or anyone) when he was not sleeping. Of the rich meal he only managed a few mouthfuls before he was too nauseous to continue.
“Drinking is easier,” he said by way of apology as the tray was cleared. A thin sheen of sweat had formed across his brow, and Childermass would have dabbed it away if he had a clean handkerchief on him. “My throat hurts- it is too tight to eat.”
“You need to eat to cure your anaemia,” Hannah told him, her brow half-stern and half-worried. “That’s what it is, right, Mr. Childermass? You need lots of red meat. When I was a lass I had a similar problem.”
“If I could drink that then I would,” Segundus murmured, and it was such an odd thing to say that Childermass looked over at him, but Segundus didn’t meet his gaze. He was looking past his shoulder at the window in the bedroom, like he was attempting to peer through the curtains, an intensity in his dark eyes that wasn’t usually there. He picked at the collar of his overshirt with one hand and didn’t even seem to notice when Hannah took her leave, the plates on the tray clattering as she backed out of the bedroom door.
“How do you feel now?” Childermass asked him selfishly, all to bring those eyes back to his face. Segundus’ focus was broken, and he sighed, putting his head back down on the pillows.
“How many times have I been asked that today?” he said instead of answering, and Childermass laughed softly in reply, which rewarded him with a thin, wan smile and an arm that flopped out of the bed to reach him.
Childermass took the offered hand and (after a cautious peek down into the study) kissed the soft white palm. Segundus’ skin felt dry in a way that made it strangely silky, and Childermass noticed that his nails had grown out a little further than he usually let them (no doubt having not had the time for such concerns lately).
“You are so warm,” Segundus said weakly, and Childermass kissed the inside of his wrist. “Everyone...everything else is so cold.”
Childermass couldn’t help but sigh when he heard that- the tightness in his chest that was anxiety rose up again and clutched at him. Those were not the words of a healthy man. Those were not the words of a man who was only mildly ill. Those were not words Childermass wanted to hear Segundus say.
“You’ll be alright,” Childermass told him, a prayer as much as a consolation; “You just need to rest. You’ll be better again in no time.”
“I do not mean to complain,” said Segundus rather sweetly, smiling, perhaps, at the undoubtedly distraught expression on Childermass’ face. “But it is so tiring to assume oneself well and then be proven wrong again. I-”
He coughed dryly then, drawing out of Childermass’ reach, and as he did so someone called out from the corridor- Charles, who made his way into the study, quieting his voice only when approaching the sickly atmosphere of Segundus’ bedroom.
“Mr. Childermass, sir,” he said, “you must come down to the kitchen- Vinculus has got himself into some trouble.”
“What?” Childermass growled- not necessarily at Charles, but rather at the man who could not hear him. What was he doing, making messes at such a time as this? Truth be told, Childermass had been surprised at how docile Vinculus had been lately, neither demanding any attention nor causing his regular mischief. Well, perhaps the dry spell had worn off.
“Stay with Mr. Segundus,” Childermass told the messenger, which was unnecessary since the man was already pulling up a chair. Segundus gave him a slightly rueful little smile and then closed his eyes, turning his head to the side on the pillow. At least he was safe.
Childermass made his way down the stairs to the kitchen in something of an ill temper. He did not feel he had time to be cleaning up after Vinculus, Keeper or Reader or whatever he was regardless. Most books could be shelved for a few days while their master handled some more pressing business without difficulty. Most books did not entertain themselves by stealing from the pantry and hiding people’s things, or harassing guests with ill-thought or lewd parlour tricks. But then again, most books were not written by the Raven King.
Childermass found Hannah and some of the other maids in quite a state in the kitchen. There were signs that something had been spilled, and quite a lot of high-pitched shouting, and no sign of his errant charge.
“He put a rat in here!” one girl called, and upon spotting him Hannah gestured furiously out the back door towards the garden, which Childermass took as his direction.
Vinculus was found outside, crouching by the bins, seemingly picking through the dirt at their base. The pre-twilight air was chilled, signs of sunset pink in the clouds above them, and Childermass realized how warm and stuffy the inside of the house had become for the first time since...well, many hours had passed since he had last stepped outside.
“The girls were complaining about a rat,” Childermass told Vinculus’ hunched back. “That is a mean spirited prank. They are the ones who feed you, you know.”
Vinculus shrugged, and he turned around, holding up a long, fat earthworm pinched between his thumb and forefinger for Childermass to see. The thing wriggled in the air, testing for its escape, and for some reason the sight made Childermass nauseous.
“Wasn’t my rat,” Vinculus said. “Like this isn’t my worm.”
“I don’t care if it wasn’t your rat,” Childermass told him. “Don’t be causing trouble.”
“This isn’t your worm either, Reader,” said Vinculus, standing up on one leg and bringing the squirming thing closer to Childermass’ face. “Look at it- do you really think this is a proper English worm? Or that it was a proper English rat? There are all sorts of unbelonging things wandering about Starecross these days.”
“What are you on about?” Childermass asked, and Vinculus dropped the worm, taking Childermass by the arm in his dirty grip.
“Come,” he hissed, breath hot and sharp in Childermass’ face, and then they set off deeper into the garden. Childermass did not try to pull away. Vinculus said useful things sometimes, even though he was no longer a prophecy- and his demeanour did not suggest that this was one of his regular games. The colours in his eyes had been far too bright.
At this stage of the year, most of the things that would be grown in the garden were still covered in their winter protections, and fresh grass was only starting to peek its head through the soil. Dead leaves from the previous fall could still be seen, tucked into corners where they had been missed by the groundskeepers, rattling in the breeze like bad omens. Vinculus did not stick to the path, instead raising his gangly legs to step over bushes and would-be flowerbeds, stopping abruptly once they reached the shadow of a particular tree.
“Look,” he insisted, yanking Childermass forward by the shoulder, and so Childermass did.
They had stopped before what appeared to be a rat path, though it was wider and deeper than Childermass would have considered normal. He could see paw prints fixed in the torn-up earth, and they had all the distinctive markings of a rat’s feet, only they were much larger. In the indents a certain darkness gathered- spots of something like mud, only blacker than the soil that surrounded it.
At Vinculus’ prompting Childermass followed the path North, past the garden into the small woods that bordered the edge of the Starecross grounds. A quarter of an hour at least went by as they walked, and the sun dipped ever lower. The black mulch grew more frequent in occurrence along their path, and as darkness fell Childermass began to see other strange things- huge earthworms that shifted in the dirt, beetles with hard shells the size of his thumb that crawled lazily across the ground, weeds with limp, dark green leaves that sprung up and had been devoured by the insects. It was too early in the season to be seeing insects yet, nevermind weeds, and all were of a nature Childermass knew to be foreign to Starecross- if not foreign to England.
Vinculus made a show of not stepping on any of these strange creatures, and so Childermass did the same.
Before long they approached the edge of the grounds, and as they did so a new sound reached Childermass’ ears- rustling and squeaking, fervent high-pitched noises that increased in volume and intensity as they approached, until the sound seemed to be coming from all around them. The shadows of the trees were long and dark, the wind cold where it rustled their leaves, the earth beneath their feet transfigured to a black and sticky mulch that smelled like peat.
...was this really Starecross still?
The thought chilled Childermass to his bones. But then, no- with a casual look about he could see that it was. The woods behind them did not shrink away, and through the branches the roof of the house could still be distantly seen, clear and steadfast in the last light of the setting sun. He could see candles being lit in the distant windows. Before them, through the shadowy trees, the simple English moor so properly situated beyond it was visible as well. There was no sense of enchantment in the air- Childermass felt quite level-headed, if a bit unsettled, and though the air smelled faintly sour it predominantly smelled of England. In short, this did not seem to be a matter of fairy magic...which was a relief, though it did not necessarily mean that no magic was involved.
“Oh, it is not what you think,” Vinculus told him, confirming this. “But it is certainly something, is it not?”
With a few more steps, in a hollow at the edge of the woods they found the source of the squeaking. There was a pit in the earth, perhaps five feet wide and at least three deep, which was absolutely teeming with rats. Fat, black-furred rats, rats with bald tails like malignant little whips and eyes that gleamed red when they caught the light, rats that chattered in voices louder and more insane than typical beasts. They did not seem to notice the two men in their midst- too busy were they writhing around in their hole, all seemingly desperate for something, their cries echoing against the trees. Upon closer examination, their black pelts were revealed as ragged, their sides glistening with fresh and old wounds, occasional flashes of white or yellow appearing in places- sickeningly, Childermass realized that these were exposed bones.
“Are they...eating each other?” Childermass asked. Vinculus did not answer. He scratched at his cheek with a dirty nail, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he said this:
“I am requested to join them. There is a voice in the moon that asks for me.”
Vinculus looked over in amusement at the tone of his voice, a familiar little smirk curving his lips up under the matted hair on his face.
“Oh, do not worry, Reader,” he said. “I do not listen to it. I like to do things my way. And besides, it is not the King giving orders- so why should I obey?”
Childermass let out a long breath hearing this, leaning against one of the trees. Vinculus tittered at him, which was the least he deserved, and then they both went back to looking at the pit of cannibal rats- still, the animals did not seem bothered in the slightest by two men standing before them, which was an even greater relief- Childermass did not like to think of what might happen if the beasts suddenly decided they wanted a taste of larger game.
“Has anyone else seen this?” Childermass asked, and Vinculus shrugged to say he didn’t know. Well, probably not- they were a ways out from the house, and there wasn’t yet much reason to be here, the days still too cold for outdoor lessons or gardening.
“How long has this been happening?” was the next question.
“Oh, a few days at least,” said Vinculus. “Started pondering it myself at twilight yesterday.”
Childermass nodded, accepting this. It was good that no one seemed to have been harmed yet- and he was pleasantly surprised that Vinculus had chosen to tell him about it, seeing how oblivious he himself had been, wrapped up in other worries. Still, he found himself deeply unsettled by his own ignorance- shouldn’t he have noticed something like this already, something that reeked of black magic right outside his home? Shouldn’t he have felt it, or smelled it on the air?
“And how is your prince, Snow White?” Vinculus asked suddenly, and Childermass started, not understanding at first- though when he did he felt a sick kind of anger stir inside him, an anger fueled by fresh fear.
“That’s a fine name for the man housing you,” he said, mouth numb despite the sarcastic cant of his words. Vinculus shrugged, offering another self-pleased smirk, picking at his ear with his pinky.
“But it's the truth. Skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony, and lips as red as blood.”
“Segundus has gray in his hair,” Childermass told him, as if that made the moniker any less unreasonable, the implications any less dreaded. But Vinculus did not seem convinced.
“Are you sure, Reader? Look at him again. Maybe he’ll surprise you.”
Vinculus turned away then, heading back to the house, and after a moment’s contemplation Childermass followed him. There was a lot to think about here. He would need to warn the residents of Starecross, look into setting up protection spells- or curing spells, if this was some kind of curse. Whoever would be inclined to curse them he could not say- even whose magic this was, and what kind, he could not say. He would need to follow up with Vinculus on the matter of the voice in the moon, learn exactly what it said, if it truly spoke words at all…
Entering the garden again, Childermass found the sun had set, the last line of pink on the horizon faded to darkness. Vinculus was long gone, and standing there Childermass was struck for the first time with the thought that this might be Segundus’ magic. He was not suited to cruel or filthy things like this, not in the slightest, but always had the venue of magic most responsive to him been those of flowers and gardens and other growing things. Insects too- just last summer he had accidentally charmed a swarm of butterflies so that they followed him around, nesting on his shoulders and in his hair. He had been terribly embarrassed, but to Childermass he had been the most beautiful thing in the world.
If Segundus was sick, perhaps his magic was running wild with it- perhaps in the nightmares he couldn’t remember he turned the garden to decay, and made all the wild things that listened to him mad. It wasn’t the most unlikely idea. Childermass had long suspected that Segundus was more powerful than he thought he was.
So there were plenty of reasons to go to him at once, and Childermass reset his feet on the familiar path to the headmaster’s chambers. He was stopped, however, just upon entering the kitchen at the sight of Charles at the cupboards clearing away the last of the dishes from the evening meal with the maids.
“Why aren’t you watching Segundus?” Childermass asked, even blunter than usual, finding in himself neither time nor energy for graceful words. Charles startled guiltily, surprised to see Childermass there, returned from a long walk with black mud on his boots and no cowed companion to show for it. Well.
“He sent me away,” Charles said nervously. “He said he needed to sleep.”
“Alright,” Childermass said, the closest he could come to a mollification. It would be better if Charles wasn’t there, anyway. If Segundus was already resting, well, Childermass had no problem staying awake the night to watch him- and to spend time searching his own memory and the school’s limited historical resources for information on disturbances resembling what he had seen in the garden. If there was black magic at work- and Childermass had little doubt of that- then he didn’t want to leave Segundus unattended for a moment (even if the magic was his).
The hall was quiet as Childermass made his way through it and up the stairs, leaving the flustered Charles behind. Segundus’ apartments were quieter still, and unlocked. Childermass did not call out when he opened the study door, assuming Segundus to be asleep, and did not knock on the entrance to the bedroom, knowing he would not be unwelcome if he simply slipped inside. But the bedroom was also quiet- impossibly quiet, without those soft sounds such as breathing made by the sleeping human form. There was no one in the room to welcome him- the bed was empty, and the window thrust wide open.
Segundus was gone.
Chapter 7: souls and memories do strange things in a trance
Childermass turned on his heels and was running in an instant. The urge to leap down the stairs- to throw himself to the four winds, plunge into the night like a vandal- was powerful, but he contained it with reason, and snatched Segundus’ silver bowl from its little table on the way out. He did not need to examine the bedroom further, to see if Segundus was hidden away in some secret crook of the blankets, resting under his own bed like a buried thing- he knew instinctively that Segundus was not there.
It would be better if he was. No good came to Englishmen who vanished from their beds at night.
Childermass was in the kitchen again before any of the staff there could cry out, slopping water from the basin into the silver bowl and steadying it on the table. He could hear someone speaking to him in a loud, alarmed voice, but he did not attend to the words. The water in the basin sparkled, and Childermass held up his fingers before it, drawing upon the surface a shimmering circle to begin the spell.
The urge to cross the lines in a way that distinguished England and Faerie was strong, but once again Childermass quashed it, fighting to remain practical. He couldn’t afford to get caught up on emotion in a situation like this, not when it could mean the difference between finding Segundus and failing him. So first, Childermass divided the circle into four narrow categories- Starecross House, Starecross Village, Starecross Gardens, and Starecross Grounds.
It was in this last quarter that a small light appeared.
Almost shuddering with relief Childermass tapped on this quarter to enlarge it, and divided it again into the cardinal directions, and this told him that Segundus was on the walking paths to the West of the house, the ones that his own rooms overlooked.
“He’s outside,” Childermass said to no one in particular, though when he looked up he rediscovered that he was not alone- Charles was staring at him with an expression squarely between alarm and wonder, hands hovering above the table Childermass was using like he was afraid to touch it.
“...is that magic, sir?” he asked, and Childermass ignored him, leaving the basin behind as he spun out into the night for the second time, unminding of the cold or the dark.
Childermass ran around the garden, turning not North the way he had to follow the rat-path with Vinculus, but West, into the pleasantly paved and bush-lined walking paths that filled this section of the grounds. Some trees grew here as well, but they were managed ones, planted and pruned in specific shapes and locations to be soothing to the eye. In summer, Segundus often taught lessons out here, in the small stone courtyards one could find throughout- but the weather was too cold for that yet. The fog of his own breath obscured Childermass’ vision.
“Mr. Segundus!” Childermass called, but there was no response. What if he had fainted out here? It was cold, and he would not be able to respond. Childermass was considering that perhaps he should have enlisted help back in the house- but before he could think on this too deeply a flash of white caught his racing eyes, and he turned towards it.
Segundus was walking down one of the narrower paths between the trees, not ten yards from Childermass. He was wearing only his damnably thin nightgown, which was why Childermass had spotted him in the first place. Childermass made some noise- a cry of relief he himself didn’t hear- and closed the distance between them, until he could catch Segundus by the arm.
For a moment, it did not seem that Segundus knew he was there. Like that morning, there was no expression on his face, and his eyes were vague and unseeing, looking ahead of him as if in a dream. Sleepwalking? What a good and simple answer if it were true-
Segundus snapped to attention suddenly and his expression twisted into an unfamiliar one- an expression of raw fear and rage. He yanked Childermass’ hand away, his own grip ice cold, and took several wavering steps back on the path.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” he shrieked, and so great was the panic in his eyes Childermass was struck dumb. “Get away from me- get out of my head! I know what you are doing you, you devil, you thief-”
He broke off coughing, a dry cough that wracked his body with each spasm and he took a few more stumbling steps away before falling on the flagstones, legs too weak to hold him up under the stress. Once there he struggled to catch his breath, but when he looked up at Childermass there was something quite different in his eyes- the fear was still there, but now it was accompanied by recognition, and as such Childermass assumed it was safe to kneel down before him, holding his hands up as a proclamation of innocence.
“John?” Segundus said weakly. He began to shiver, the cold finding him at last. Like this, it was all too apparent how fragile Segundus was- he looked like he had lost weight (having started out rather small already) and his skin was sickly pale, shining with a sweat that stuck his hair to his forehead and made his eyes wild. He did not belong out here in the dark.
“Yes,” Childermass told him, still inching closer like he was an injured animal (because, well, in a sense he was). “Yes, sweet. It’s alright.”
“Oh, John,” Segundus repeated, and he held up one hand to reach for him, the palm of which Childermass now saw had been scraped bloody catching his fall on the stones. “Please- something is terribly wrong.”
“I know,” Childermass said, and Segundus looked up at him with an expression of incredible relief, the first in a large gathering of bright tears spilling onto his cheeks.
Childermass embraced him then, unable to resist, and Segundus did not pull away. He buried his face in Childermass’ neck and began to cry, so that instead of coughs it was sobs that made him shudder.
“I can’t remember,” he choked out between them, and Childermass could feel his chest fluttering, lungs struggling for air. “I can never remember- it’s being taken from me- already I can’t...I don’t know how I got here.”
“Do you remember...who you thought I was?” Childermass asked softly, and for a moment Segundus froze, and Childermass knew he had hit on an important question.
But, “No,” Segundus whimpered, and then his crying devolved into wordlessness, hot tears soaking the fabric of Childermass’ shirt.
For what felt like a long time they sat there curled on the cold stone, Childermass doing all he could to keep that slender figure warm while Segundus let out his poison. He became very glad that no torches appeared in the night, no calling voices- the last thing Segundus needed was to be put in the spotlight, even if it was by concerned friends. He kissed the top of Segundus’ head, smelling panic in the sweat between his follicles, and discovered that his forehead was warm to the touch, even though his extremities were chilled- he had a fever, then.
“Let’s get you back inside,” Childermass murmured when Segundus’ sobs trickled out into silence. He had a feeling that it was because Segundus was too tired to keep crying, not because his feelings had been eased. Segundus pulled back enough for Childermass to see his face- his eyes and lips were swollen, his nose bright pink, cheeks mottled white and red from the effort. His eyelashes were stuck together in clumps. Childermass kissed him on the cheek.
Segundus seemed even too tired to speak, and he let Childermass pull him to his feet, guide him back towards the house. As they walked he looked about him, tensing at the sight of the shadowy trees, clutching at Childermass’ shirt with bloodied hands. Childermass winced at that- those needed to be cleaned up properly, and fast.
When they reached the stoop of the kitchen door Segundus turned suddenly, looking back into the night behind them with a frightful intensity in his eyes. Childermass felt a prickling at the back of his neck, a strong one, all the hairs there raised and a small army of beetles ran down his back in a chill.
“What is it?” Childermass asked, turning back to look. The garden behind them was very dark now, for a cloud had covered the moon, and he saw nothing- but this did not dissuade him from the feeling that something was out there, standing just between the unseen trees- something was watching them.
“Please,” Segundus whispered, his voice harsh and breathless, and he clutched at the collar of his nightgown. What he meant- and who he was speaking to- Childermass did not know. What he did do was usher them inside and close the door tightly behind them, forbidding the gaze of whatever presence was out there in the night.
“Oh, good heavens, Mr. Childermass!” the voice was that of Hannah, who seemed quite shocked by his return. The kitchen was warm and well-lit still, smelling of dried herbs and former meals and other entirely wholesome things. “And- but Mr. Segundus is supposed to be in bed!”
“Well, he’s not there,” Childermass said dully, and he guided a dazed-looking Segundus around her so he could sit in a chair. “But he will be soon. Fetch some warm water, Hannah, and bandages.”
She did that, and gathered Charles from somewhere too, and the pair helped as Childermass cleaned and dressed Segundus’ wounds, washed his bare feet and dabbed a cool cloth on his feverish forehead. Segundus barely seemed to notice, his eyes often slipping closed, and thankfully neither needed to be told much- they knew he was ill, and that he had somehow taken up sleepwalking, and so all explanations were already given.
“I’m sorry I did not stay with him,” Charles said. “I could have prevented his leaving. And I’m sorry I did not understand what you were doing, Mr. Childermass, when you came in here with that basin…”
Childermass told him to think nothing of it, and as they were speaking they were joined by a third nighttime visitor- Tom Levy, who also had a room on the first floor. He was still dressed, and no doubt the commotion had called him.
“What’s happened here, then?” he asked, and the servants explained. When they were finished, however, Childermass added:
“We will need to talk about something in the morning. With everyone- faculty first, and then the students and staff. It is...a matter of everyone’s safety.”
Levy nodded carefully and, after it was determined no more help was needed, took his leave. Segundus did not watch him go- it seemed as if he was too exhausted to even attend to the other magician’s presence.
Childermass took him back to his room and dismissed the other servants at the door.
“Are you sure, sir?” Charles asked- perhaps he felt guilty for his failure to keep Segundus indoors earlier. “You have done enough tonight…”
“I will be fine,” Childermass told him. “I have some thinking to do anyway.”
At last, then, Segundus was returned to bed, a place he collapsed into so weakly it seemed that where his limbs first fell was where they were fated to stay. Though he asked for no help- and indeed, said nothing at all- Childermass tucked him in and kissed him, and debated lying down there himself- but that could be dangerous. If he overslept someone could find them- and he was worried that if he became too comfortable he might sleep deeply, through any disturbances. Arabella Strange had been stolen from her husband while he slept in the same bed- fairy magic or not, Childermass wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to Segundus.
Thinking this, he closed the windows in both the study and the bedroom quite firmly, and also tied shut their curtains. Whatever had been watching them outside would not leer in on Segundus while he slept.
Childermass settled himself in the room’s armchair, thinking Segundus was already deep in sleep, and went to blow out the candle- but before he could Segundus spoke, and Childermass saw that one of his eyes was open, peering darkly out from under the covers.
“Leave the light on,” he whispered, his voice cutting through the air like a blade. “I’m afraid of what will happen in the dark.”
Childermass agreed, and the eye closed, Segundus sighing in a way that made his voice sound like a winter wind. His posture relaxed, and Childermass watched his breathing become even, his face smoothed by peace in a way that made him look much younger than he was- even with the shadows collecting against his skin, he looked more like a man of twenty than thirty-five. Strange- was that merely an aspect of the state of innocence?
Childermass remembered then what Vinculus had said, and he leaned over the bed, inspecting Segundus’ hair where it lay- black curls on a white pillow. Segundus had a few veins of very obvious gray in his hair, and they had only increased over the time that Childermass had known him (privately, Childermass had always liked these small decorations- on another man they might be aging or stately, but somehow on Segundus they were pretty, like most things were). Childermass knew he did. Was that not how he saw Segundus in his mind? Was that not featured on the Segundus in every one of his memories?
...why could he not find a single one?
Childermass ruffled through Segundus’ hair (gently so as not to wake him) but there was no gray in it to be found. His hair was all black, raven-black, a pure black without any hint of dustiness or fade. Had it ever been this dark? Childermass began to doubt himself. Under the brightest summer sun, he had thought it was made clear that Segundus’ hair (like his eyes) was really brown, hidden and dipped into the illusion of ‘black’ by lesser lighting. This wasn’t right. Or was it?
Childermass sat back down on the armchair and covered his eyes with his hands. It was late, he was exhausted, and the flickering candle was a poor companion for middle-aged eyes. Perhaps his memory was playing tricks on him.
...but he did not think Vinculus was wrong.
Something was deeply amiss- Segundus had said so himself. In the morning Childermass would set to work on righting it, and hope he was not too late. That was the most he could do- in the end, he was only a man.
What else was it, that Vinculus had said? Segundus’ hair had turned black as ebony, and now he certainly was as white as snow- he had always been to some extent, but in his illness he did not blush and glitter so readily, his complexion stuck fast to pale and drawn. Childermass uncovered his eyes and looked over at Segundus’ sleeping face again- his lips looked dry, but they too were white.
As red as blood? No, that much wasn’t true. Blood was very red. Childermass knew that.
The night was long, and in it a number of strange things happened- things that solidified the urgency with which Childermass now viewed the predicament at Starecross, and Segundus’ illness.
In the hours before midnight it seemed little was amiss, and Childermass drifted in and out of sleep in the chair, waking to the sounds of Segundus’ nightmares. Segundus did not wake himself, nor did he ever try to climb from the bed, but he whimpered and shifted back and forth, his hands clutching the blankets or the fabric of his nightgown in fear. At these times Childermass felt the presence of something rise by the window, and then ebb with the tide of the dream, always disappearing whenever Childermass took Segundus’ anxious hands in his own or kissed his too-warm forehead.
After midnight the fever in Segundus became worse, and so did the forces outside, and Childermass dared not sleep. He considered that this malevolent-seeming thing might be a projection- that, like he had first thought, this might be an accidental act of corrupted magic from Segundus- but the more he observed the less this seemed so. Segundus did not feel like he was doing any magic, even when his nightmares were the worst, when he cried out and arched his back and moved in ways that uncomfortably seemed to toe the line between torture and ecstasy. In these climactic moments something rattled the glass in the windowpane, as if threatening to break it, and Childermass wondered if his own mind was slipping in the fluttering half-light from the candle. He did not feel well, did not feel like himself, felt like he had caught Segundus’ fever and it was smearing his vision and turning his brain to muck. He spent the hours before dawn casting warding spells from memory, flimsy things that he had never been adept with, but anything was better than nothing, right? It was hard to tell if what happened around him was of the waking world or a dream.
Eventually the sun rose, and the window was not broken. Segundus’ fever, on the other hand, did precisely this, and he fell into a deeper sleep that lasted all throughout the morning, one without the nightmares.
Childermass was not given the same luxury. As soon as the rest of the house rose they came to check on Segundus, and Tom Levy ensured he was set to explain his comments from the evening previous (such a distant time ago now!). Childermass, unwilling to leave Segundus alone entirely, moved them into the headmaster’s study, where he was (at least) given some tea and a seat to begin his tale.
He told all of the magicians of Starecross about what Vinculus had said, and what he had been shown in the garden. He told them of Segundus’ night fever, of the malevolent force felt at the window, and of Segundus’ strange comments- comments that suggested he feared someone, though he could not remember who. The faces of the men in the room darkened as he delivered his tale, and he knew they felt the same as he did- what men were they, what magicians, to not have seen such a trespass on their home for so long?
Before breakfast was served the matter was out of Childermass’ hands. Tom Levy and Mr. Hadley-Bright both went into the garden to find what there was to be found, while Mr. Honeyfoot and Mr. Purfois went down to Starecross’ diminutive library (and the libraries of their memories) to search for anything of relevance regarding curses and curse-breaking and other unwholesome magicks. The students were told about what the faculty had learned in lesser detail and were instructed to keep out of the grounds for their safety, which generated quite a lot of talk, but it seemed that the dangers of black magic superseded the desire to play about outside on a day without lessons- proof that they had been taught well. Some of the older ones even joined the others in the library to research, where they were welcomed- something that, Childermass thought with exhausted giddiness, Norrell would have been appalled to see.
“But do take care, Mr. Childermass,” Honeyfoot told him earnestly as the other men left the study on their missions. “You did a hero’s work last night, I’m sure. If you hadn’t been there, who knows what would’ve…”
Honeyfoot blinked a couple of times, as if to clear his eyes of a surprising touch of emotion, and then gave Childermass one more “Take care,” before making his own leave.
Childermass bowed to Honeyfoot’s back, and he supposed it was silly to be surprised. Honeyfoot had known Segundus longer- had been a dear friend to him for many years when Childermass had been his enemy. Segundus had told him once (when Childermass had brought up this unfortunate fact) that Honeyfoot was rather like a father to him- his own sire having passed away when he was a boy. Childermass was sure the feeling was returned in reverse. Yes, it would do well to remember that he was not the only one here who loved Segundus, who would be lost if he were to...no, that wouldn’t happen. Childermass would make sure.
Feeling drunk on his own tiredness, Childermass plodded back into Segundus’ room. He was still sleeping peacefully and deeply, wrapped so tightly in his blankets only his bruised eyes could be seen above them. Precious thing- Childermass resolved himself to protecting him, even if he had to wear his own body thin to do it. Whatever this ‘problem’- this ‘curse’, this ‘enchantment’- was, it had taken hold of Segundus for far too long now. Any further trespass was unforgivable.
Thus fortified by his own determination, Childermass left Segundus in the care of one of the maids and went downstairs to breakfast properly. The sun outside was shining weakly but clearly, and Childermass knew instinctively that Segundus would not be in danger during the day- there was evidence to prove it too, for every time he had taken ill it had been after a night spent alone.
Well, then. It was time to get to work.
Chapter 8: the blood is life
This is a long one- in fact, originally this and the previous chapter were together! But at last we get to the reveal...(if you haven’t already figured it out from the title!)
After Childermass had eaten (a rash of bacon, more tea, a large hunk of cheese) he went outdoors in search of Vinculus. The air smelled fresher than it had the evening previous, and the light cleared his head despite the restless night behind him. This was good, he needed his wits about him- and he had no excuse, having survived worse before.
On a hunch he went to the stables, giving Brewer an absent-minded pat on the nose as he passed by, heading for the last stall on the left- a stall which was never occupied by a horse, as there was space aplenty for guest riders closer to the entrance. It was a preferred haunt for another kind of animal, though.
Vinculus was sleeping on the hay, his worn hat lying across his face. Segundus had bought him new clothes, of course, and he had a room to stay in, but everyone had their preferences. It seemed that Vinculus, even with his newfound importance and prestige in post-Restoration England, preferred to be a vagabond.
“Hey,” Childermass said, and he let himself into the stall, tossing a package of cheese and cured meat onto Vinculus’ stomach to wake him. Vinculus woke (if he had really been sleeping- Childermass hadn’t heard his distinctive snores) and put the hat back on his head, curling around the package appreciatively.
“I want you to tell me about the voice you heard,” Childermass said bluntly, leaning back against the stall door.
“Now now,” Vinculus chided him, picking out a piece of cheese to eat. “Give a man a minute. This is a fine breakfast.”
Childermass gave him perhaps half of that before pushing forward:
“Come on. What did it say to you?”
“I do not remember exactly what it said,” Vinculus told him once he had swallowed. “And that is unusual, don’t you think? I am very good at remembering what people tell me.”
“Go on.” Childermass cursed silently to himself. There couldn't be much progress made if Vinculus’ memories had been muddled the same way Segundus’ had.
“It wanted my help,” Vinculus continued. “My obedience. With what I don’t remember- but it brushed me the wrong way, I know that. I think it supposed I was some kind of lunatic- I am not a lunatic.”
“That’s right. You said the voice came from the moon?”
Childermass had no explanation ready for that aspect of the enchantment (if this was an enchantment). The moon was a powerful force to use in magic, but usually for disenchantment- though its force had a special pull for madmen.
“Well, that’s what I thought,” Vinculus said petulantly. “But I am not a magician.”
Childermass thought about this for a while, allowing Vinculus to continue his breakfast.
“Can you tell me anything else about it?” he asked after he reached no conclusions. “Anything else at all?”
“I think it was a man’s voice,” he said. “Far too demanding to be a woman. And I recall quite distinctly thinking that it had an accent- a French accent.”
Vinculus laughed to himself at the absurdity of the image, but something in his words snagged on a hook in Childermass’ memory. Hadn’t he run into trouble with a Frenchman recently? He had a memory that was awash with dim candlelight and the scent of spilt beer- but it was a hazy thing, more like the memory of a dream, made of cobwebs and lacking crucial pieces. For an instant he saw a white face flicker behind his eyes, and then it was gone.
Well, then. It seemed he had been ‘enchanted’, too.
“Let me know if you hear it again,” Childermass said to Vinculus. “Or if anything else...unusual happens.”
Vinculus didn’t answer, absorbed with his meal, and Childermass left him.
At least now he could put some kind of figure behind this mischief. ‘Someone’ was doing this to Starecross, to Segundus- a man, a man who Childermass was sure he had met, even if he couldn’t remember his face entirely. What was he, then- a magician? He must be. This was not fairy magic, it was both too blunt and too ineffectual. Starecross was blighted but it was still itself, its grounds did not border on other worlds. Why, then, would a magician be interested in cursing a school for magic, for putting a plague upon the headmaster? And this was not typical English magic, neither of the Strangeite nor Norrellite variety. There was still too much he didn’t know.
Disquieted in his own thoughts, Childermass did not realize where he was going until he was halfway up the stairs, and then with a sigh he figured he might as well. Inside the headmaster’s apartments Charles was taking a turn at watching Segundus, who was still sleeping very deeply, not having stirred in the slightest with the steady rising of the sun.
“I will watch him very closely this time,” Charles said nervously to Childermass. Clearly he still felt guilty about the sleepwalking incident from the previous evening. Childermass shrugged.
“That wasn’t your fault,” he said honestly.
“Are we really...cursed?” Charles asked, the last word spoken in a hush, as if he did not know if it was safe to say. Childermass couldn’t help but chuckle a little at that.
“We’ll see,” he said, and then he took his leave. Segundus looked perfectly peaceful lying there. There was no reason to disturb him.
Childermass ought to have gone to the library to assist the other magicians in their search for ‘something’, but he didn’t do that immediately. Instead he went down through the servants’ quarters, into Starecross’ winding basement where all the typical (and some atypical) things were stored. He dug around in the dust until he found what he was looking for- boxes of holiday decorations, kept aside until the season came around again. From these he took a string of sleighbells and cut away two of their number, for these bells were made of silver, and hence were designed perfectly for the kind of magic he wished to do.
The spell itself was simple, and Childermass performed it in his own room, having easily snuck his stolen materials up the stairs. It involved placing the two bells in a spot of sunshine and mimicking the act of tying a bow in the air between them. As Childermass did this, a string of red light appeared between his fingers, and once the bow was tied this string flashed for an instant before disappearing. In the wake of the spell the air smelled of rain and icing sugar. Childermass picked up one of the silver bells and rang it- and, as expected, when he did so the other bell rang as well, despite sitting unmoved upon the windowsill.
To finish off his plan he tied one of the bells to a string (regrettably having no jewellery chain on hand) so it could be easily kept close, and then with this mission complete, he put both bells in his pocket and went to the library to help the other magicians.
The rest of the day passed in this way: Childermass told the congregation of what he had learned from Vinculus, and of his recollections, and then they resumed their research. Little was found in the library, for though some historical publications (books about magic) made reference to curses that blighted crops or livestock, and all historical publications discussed enchantments that made people do things they wouldn’t usually (most often in the context of fairies) there were no accounts that matched the situation at Starecross very well. Purfois spent his time setting up a spell to purify the disrupted gardens, but it was only a general charm, based on forms used for reversing damage done to plant and wildlife from ordinary causes (such as frost or blight). Perhaps it would work, perhaps it wouldn’t- it did not address the source of the problem, for that source was not yet known.
While they were at it, Childermass also refreshed his knowledge of wards and other protective spells, in preparation to use on Segundus’ windows that night- he had a feeling that whatever (or whoever) had come by would not be so kind as to leave him alone after being foiled only once.
Levy and Hadley-Bright returned in the evening with a collection of specimens from the grounds. They had found the strange weeds and the corpses of some of the insects Childermass had mentioned- they had even found the pit with its black mud, though it had been empty of rats in any state. They said they had gone across the entirety of Starecross’ grounds, and found evidence of this corruption in lesser forms throughout it- and even some down in Starecross Village, where it had concentrated most highly in the graveyard and some of the back paths that led from it.
“We warned the minister,” said Levy, shooting Childermass a look before he could open his mouth to speak. “He’s sending people door to door to warn the town. I don’t think he blamed us, but we have yet to see about the other villagers.”
Childermass laughed harshly at that, and more questions were asked, but Childermass barely attended to them. The sun had not yet set, but still he felt exhausted, and his eyes blurred from spending too much time looking at pages.
“Let us retire for now,” Honeyfoot offered, and the others all agreed. “Tomorrow we can examine those specimens further. I wonder if Mr. Segundus has woken yet?”
As it turned out, he hadn’t- though he did wake in time for a late supper, and was strong enough to dress himself and come down for it. Childermass was entirely shocked when he saw him on the stairs- for a moment he was almost unrecognizable. Pale and sickly though his complexion was, he really did look younger, so much so it was startling. What kind of curse or sickness took away fifteen years?
(And by God, had Segundus ever looked so rawly beautiful?)
“How are you?” Childermass asked dumbly. “You...you slept the day away.”
“I know,” Segundus said, smiling a little wryly. “And now I feel I do not want to sleep at all.”
He gave Childermass’ hand a squeeze in passing, and his touch was upsettingly cold, but there was too much in the way of company for Childermass to pursue the matter further. At dinner the faculty informed him of what they had discovered in varying detail, voices piling over one another, and Segundus listened but made little input. Childermass wondered if the others saw the difference in him- he had a feeling Honeyfoot did, for his face had grown pale and his eyes wide at the sight of Segundus’ stepping through the door. Once more, though a very rich meal was served, the headmaster did not eat much, spending more time picking at his plate than chewing. He did, however, drink more than his typical share of the red wine which had been served with the meal, and yet did not appear to become intoxicated in the slightest.
Childermass watched him for the whole meal, but Segundus did not return his gaze. Childermass supposed the best way to describe his expression was ‘sullen’, which was unusual, for ‘sullen’ was not really an aspect of Segundus’ character. Perhaps he was mistaking it for discomfort or exhaustion.
After dinner, the rest of the magicians offered to continue their discussion in the parlour, but Segundus refused.
“I think I will return to bed,” he said quietly. “I suppose it’s better not to overexert myself yet.”
“I will come with you,” Childermass said, which (finally) got Segundus to turn and look at him again. “I will cast some wards to keep the night out.”
“Oh, but Mr. Childermass,” Honeyfoot protested. “You have already done enough- one of us should take over tonight, you deserve to rest.”
“It’s alright,” he said. “I have something to discuss with the headmaster anyway. If, that is, it is not disagreeable to you, sir?”
This second remark he directed at Segundus, who shook his head, and smiled rather faintly. In the end these seemed excuses enough, and they parted ways with the rest of the house around nine o’clock, allowed to return to the solitude of Segundus’ chambers just as the sun began to set outside.
Childermass followed Segundus’ back up the stairs, and then they passed through the study without so much as a word, Segundus leaving the bedroom door open behind him. This was a little strange, but Childermass didn’t pay it much mind, concentrating once he was inside on setting protective wards- these were spells that required no apparatus, only focus and a few whispered words, and the air in the room shifted solidly once they were in place. Childermass looked out the window into the walking paths- there was nothing unusual there that he could see. He closed the curtains.
When he turned around he was quite surprised to find that Segundus was already undressed, in the process of folding his clothes away into the dresser. Having been focused on the act of spell-casting, Childermass hadn’t heard the rustle of fabric on fabric, the sounds of buttons being undone and stockings pulled down over slender white legs.
(Segundus had not yet put his nightgown on.)
Suddenly weak, Childermass sat down on the bed, unable to gather his thoughts around the sight of so much bare skin. He could feel his heart starting to beat rather quickly. Oh, what was he, some blushing maiden? This was ridiculous, he was more than accustomed to nudity, the nudity of this particular man most of all, and yet-
The balance of the bed shifted as Segundus joined him on it, crawling over the blanket on all fours until he was flush with Childermass’ still-clothed figure, curling around his body. Childermass raised an eyebrow, but found he could say nothing, his tongue nailed to the roof of his mouth by those dark, glittering eyes.
“I fear I have been cold lately,” Segundus said, and he loosened Childermass’ cravat, and Childermass figured he was dizzy because all of the blood in his body was flowing in a direction decidedly away from his head.
“You haven’t been cold,” he managed as Segundus began to lay kisses upon his cheek and jaw, his lips chilled upon Childermass’ too-warm skin. “You’ve been ill.”
Segundus hummed, and then he kissed Childermass on the mouth, a gesture which Childermass returned properly, burying his fingers in those too-black curls and deepening it, lips and tongues moving together until they were both breathless. Segundus- in a move bolder than he usually was- began to undo the buttons on Childermass’ waistcoat, tugging at the fabric of his jacket until the message was properly delivered and they broke apart so Childermass could expedite the process. He only managed to rid himself of the coverings on his chest, though, before Segundus grabbed him again and pushed him back onto the pillows, crushing their lips together. Where had that strength come from? Hadn’t Segundus been too weak to sit up just yesterday-?
Segundus pulled away and bit down suddenly and sharply on Childermass’ neck, a gesture which made Childermass cry out, but he didn’t linger there. He kissed and licked his way down Childermass’ chest, his tongue inexplicably as cold as his lips, and the little noises he made were full of such wild desire Childermass was overwhelmed. He felt like he was on the back of a bucking stallion, every motion hard and intense and completely out of his control, and this was not what it was like to make love with Segundus normally, he could be mischievous but never this rough good God-
Segundus flicked open the fly on Childermass’ trousers and took another part of his anatomy into his mouth, and subsequently there fled anything resembling rational thought from his head.
He could not even say how long it took- but he suspected it wasn’t long. He found himself tugging on Segundus’ hair and Segundus was moaning, the sound reverberating in his bones. He had taken it all the way down his throat and with such vigour, the world was melting and if this kept up Childermass was going to catch fire, he would burn to ashes and there would be nothing left-!
When the orgasm had destroyed him Segundus pulled away and licked his lips, having swallowed it all. His eyes looked black in the lamplight, unreadable, and he lay himself languidly across Childermass’ body- he was still cold to the touch, he hadn’t even broken a sweat, while Childermass was panting like an animal and soaked with it. The fabric of his trousers clung to his legs, still covering them.
“Aye, love,” he said when he had enough air in his lungs to do so. “I don’t know where that came from, but I’m not complaining.”
Segundus laughed quietly and licked his neck, tongue smoothing over the sting where his teeth had been earlier. Childermass let him do this and then tried to sit up.
“Let me see if I can return the favour,” he said, as charming as he could muster, but Segundus put a hand on his chest to hold him there.
“Don’t,” he murmured in a chilled little voice. “I...not now. Just stay here.”
It was then that Childermass noticed that Segundus’ own manhood had not risen in the slightest where it pressed against Childermass’ thigh. Segundus said nothing of it, wrapping around him in a tight embrace, face buried against his throat so Childermass could not see his expression. Childermass took several deep breaths in the quiet that followed, forcing himself to relax, tracing circles on Segundus’ back in slow, soothing motions.
“Are you alright?” he asked when his sweat had cooled. Segundus did not answer immediately, and so for a moment Childermass thought he had fallen asleep, before he replied:
“I do not feel like myself, and it...it is frightening.”
Childermass hushed him and kissed the top of his head, wondering if Segundus could have possibly spoken in a sadder sounding voice.
“Don’t worry,” he told him firmly. “We’re going to fix this. Whatever’s causing this, we’ll stop it, you understand?”
Segundus did not say anything, but he did sigh, and Childermass sat up to reach for his discarded jacket, desperate to convince him. From within the front pocket he pulled the pair of twin bells, and he gave the one on the string to Segundus, who cradled it in an open palm. His eyes looked rimmed with pink as well as black, wet from the strain of holding something back, and Childermass saw his throat move as he swallowed.
“Listen,” Childermass said, and he rang his bell, watching Segundus’ eyes widen as the one in his palm let out a little chime, motionless within his grasp. “It works both ways. I want you to keep this on you at all times- I will do the same with mine. If you start to feel that anything is amiss, no matter how small, ring it, and I will come for you.”
“My personal serving bell,” Segundus said with a watery laugh, and Childermass kissed his forehead.
“Precisely,” he said, and he helped Segundus tie the string around his neck so the bell could rest against his chest, where it would lie under his clothes when he was wearing them and safe from wandering eyes. As he did this he noticed for the first time that some of the skin around Segundus’ jugular was bruised- little shadows stood out against the white of it and the blue of his veins, looking too much like lovemarks, which was what they couldn’t be because Childermass did not remember putting them there.
“What’s this?” Childermass asked, touching the delicate skin with one finger, and as he did so Segundus recoiled, jerking back as though the touch had been a branding-iron. He was suddenly breathing heavily, eyes wide with fear, and Childermass released him completely, holding up his hands to show they were empty.
“Woah,” Childermass found himself saying, like Segundus was a spooked horse. Absurd. Segundus began shaking, but he seemed to come back to himself, recognizing Childermass once more.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, and Childermass shook his head.
“Don’t. It's alright. What happened? ...do you remember?”
“No,” Segundus said, his lips forming a thin and miserable frown. “I don’t know why it frightened me. It- it was like you struck me, or, or your touch was a lightning bolt…”
Segundus rubbed at the offending skin with one hand, and slowly Childermass was allowed to reach out again, stroking his back this time to comfort him. Neither said anything more for a little while- Childermass watched Segundus, and Segundus watched the window with glassy eyes.
“Thank you for the bell,” Segundus said after a while. He tugged on the string about his neck, and the two little bells rang.
“I hope you won’t need it- not for anything serious.” Childermass said this honestly. Segundus smiled at him, and then stood to find his nightgown, pulling it on over his head.
“If you’re staying tonight, you’d best get comfortable,” he told Childermass with a bit of his regular humour. Childermass obliged, taking off his sweat-damp trousers and putting back on his undershirt which (he noticed with some amusement) was missing a button from Segundus’ earlier...passion. He didn’t mention this though. No need to go about embarrassing the man.
“I’d best try to stay up, though,” was what he did say. “To make sure you’re safe.”
“I’ll feel very safe if you hold me,” Segundus said, flushing weakly- and yes, there was an expression that was very like Segundus, and it was so welcome Childermass hadn’t the heart to deny him.
Once they were both under the covers and Childermass’ chest was reinstated in its regular role of ‘pillow’, Segundus fell asleep very quickly, his last words a murmured goodnight and a request to leave the lamp burning. Childermass listened to him breathe for many hours as the night turned deep, determined not to take anything for granted.
The force at the window came and went sometime near the witching hour- the only time when Segundus had a bad dream, his brow furrowing and his body shifting uncomfortably against Childermass. It did not seem to rattle the window with quite as much ferocity as it had the night previous, and once Segundus settled in again it did not return.
That’s right, brute, Childermass thought spitefully. He’s mine.
Sometime shortly after dawn Childermass woke and realized he had fallen asleep, but a quick and panicked squeeze confirmed that Segundus was still where he was supposed to be- wrapped up safe in Childermass’ arms. Childermass watched him for a long moment, admiring how the pale light coming in the window touched his face. The circumstances leading up to this were all terrible- but the silver lining, it seemed, was that Childermass at last had an excuse to wake up in bed beside him.
Before the time stretched on too long Childermass reluctantly withdrew himself from the warm bed, redressing in his wrinkled clothes that had spent the night on the floor- making sure to put his silver bell in a secure jacket pocket. He watched the sleeping Segundus a while longer from the armchair, and at the sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor beyond rose to attend them.
That day, Segundus woke in time for breakfast, likely due to the better night previous. As he ate- managing more than he had for dinner before- Childermass saw that a touch of colour had returned to his cheeks- his hair was still oddly dark, his features had not been given back their years, but still he looked a little more like himself.
The others no doubt saw this improvement too, and it pushed the whole house into a passion for magic and mystery-solving. Classes were still on hold (something which Segundus expressed regret over) but the students were eager to bring Segundus well wishes, and to try their own hand at ideas for curse-breaking (which were encouraged if not actually applied). Purfois attempted his spell over the garden, which did seem to clear up the weeds, though no one could say if the other pests were affected or not, as they did not seem to appear during the day. And what a bright day it was! The sun shone so brilliantly it made everyone squint and despite the chill in the air many attitudes began leaning towards hope for a warming spring.
In one of the classrooms the faculty did a few experiments on the beetle corpses from the night previous- all of which had decayed at an unusually high rate overnight in their glass jars. Many spells of revelation were cast upon them (to no avail- there were no links upon the beasts that led to paths of human magic, or even fairy magic) and then dissolution, though whether the reduction of the bodies to ash had any effect on those not held as specimens, they couldn’t say.
Segundus was sent about from place to place to see their progress until he was quite exhausted (the bright sun giving him a headache), and then he was confined to the library, where a number of magical tests were done on him as well, in between fortifying cups of strong tea. This, too, had few results. There were no signs that Segundus was enchanted through typical means- and no attempts to restore memory or lift fog from the mind succeeded.
In the end, though everyone had started the day with high hopes and strong wills, come dinnertime they were all thoroughly stumped and exhausted.
“We can put it to rest for now,” Segundus told them. “You have all done far more for me than I could ever ask.”
This prompted much in the way of protests and assurances, but in the end they all went to a late supper, and then retired for the night without any further work, to refresh their minds for the coming day.
But not all was fruitless- with only minor convincing (and a censored explanation of events the night previous) Childermass was able to ensure his place in Segundus’ bedroom again that night. Hannah helpfully set up a cot in the corner of the room (which would not be used) and Childermass was allowed to bring some of his things in to tuck beneath it, lest he need them during the night. He demonstrated to the other faculty (and to some of the older students, who had all day taken the situation very seriously) the protection spells that he set up around Segundus’ room, and when all were satisfied they were left alone again, the curtains closed and Segundus’ arms open, a sweet smile on his face.
That night, though Segundus shifted and sighed with nightmares, there was no presence felt at the window. Childermass slept through many of the peaceful hours, waking at his usual time and feeling better rested than he had in weeks (if not years- it was a marvel what the presence of a loving body could do for the mind).
The next few days passed in much the same rhythm- every morning there were new ideas, new paths to explore, and by every evening the researchers retired frustrated. The corruption in the garden seemed to fade over this time (though it did not vanish completely, despite their best efforts), but that in Starecross Village did not. In particular, the unnatural weeds that were flourishing about the graveyard only grew greater in presence despite their best efforts, for reasons neither magic nor faith (for the minister made sure his opinion was heard) could explain.
Segundus’ condition improved, but only gradually. Whatever strength had returned to him after his previous ‘bouts’ took its time. Even on the second morning after his sleepwalking he could only walk for short distances unaided. By the third he was at least participating in the discussions surrounding the mystery, though he always retired early. Every night he had bad dreams. The only comfort was that his smile was bright (at least when around company) and perfectly familiar- his eyes retained their familiar expressiveness, and he did not slip into strange or tempestuous moods.
As Segundus’ health changed slowly, the weather did the opposite- it worsened very quickly. The warm sunshine did not stay long, replaced by gray clouds that filtered the light and made it dim. On the second day these clouds started to leak, letting out a steady, cold drizzle that made the air smell of stone- a drizzle that crept through even the thickest of greatcoats and soaked down to the skin. A wind picked up on the third day, one that tugged at people’s clothes when they walked outside, and chose to carry voices far or whip them away to nowhere as it pleased. Perhaps voices not belonging to any seen speaker could sometimes be heard- but then, it was very possible that was a natural illusion, wasn’t it? Vinculus hid away on these days, and said nothing more about the voice in the moon, the voice of the unseen enchanter who was not found in any pub or inn for miles around (though Childermass, with the aid of some of the brave young men in Starecross’ company, had searched for him).
Segundus spoke only of good spirits and ‘feeling better’, though his blackened eyelids and too-slim figure betrayed him, and after sundown he was restless. Childermass insisted to the faculty that he stay by his side a few more nights, and while there were perhaps some odd looks no one ultimately denied them.
On the fourth day the weather shapeshifted into a thunderstorm. The clouds turned the sky black and rain fell in sheets, so thick it obscured all the windows of the house, and wherever there were secret drafts in the walls (as was inevitable with a house as old and strange as this one) a wind as cold as winter crept through and caressed the skin through slips in people’s clothing.
“Are you sure this doesn’t belong to one of the students?” Childermass asked Purfois, who stood with him by the dining room window where the faculty had taken their lunch. Segundus was with them, but he looked miserable, holding some one-sided discussion with Honeyfoot and staring into space with glassy eyes.
“Even they would have trouble coming up with something like this,” Purfois said spitefully, cheeks clearly warmed by an early glass of sherry. “I assure you, this is entirely natural...nature can be quite mean.”
“I am going to my study,” Segundus said suddenly, his airy voice surprisingly sharp on the air. “I...I have a headache.”
“Do you need any help?” asked Childermass and Honeyfoot at more or less the same time, and Segundus looked at neither of them, standing on his own power and waving a hand as he walked to the door, as if warding off annoying guests made of cobwebs.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, seemingly to no one in particular, and then he was gone.
Childermass grit his teeth and struggled for a moment with a very strong urge to follow him, for he didn’t like to think of Segundus alone, even when he was safe during the day- but he didn’t have time to grapple with this for long, for almost as soon as Segundus vanished Charles took his place, appearing like a spectre, hair and clothes plastered to his body from the rain.
“Come, someone,” he gasped. “The horses!”
Childermass followed him (for what else was there to do?), along with Tom Levy, and he only had an instant to brace himself at the front door before he pushed through it, out into the tempest. The rain was so heavy he felt for a moment like he was drowning- the earth under his feet had turned to slippery mud, and he barely caught himself, squinting to search for landmarks in the obstructed landscape.
He caught Charles’ back, and followed it, and before long his senses adjusted enough to the onslaught to pick out the stables up ahead- and catch ear of the problem. Even over the thunder (which seemed to boom constantly in the sky) and the sounds of the rain pouring over the grounds in buckets, he could hear the horses screaming.
For undeniably, they were screaming. That was not the typical sound that such animals made. Childermass did not think he had ever heard anything quite like it.
Once inside the stables the rain was off their heads, and the assault of the senses now came from the sight before them. There were four beasts being kept at Starecross then (Brewer among them) and all were in a vicious state of panic, bucking in their stalls and shrieking, throwing their heads uncaringly against the wooden supports that held up the roof. Purfois’ gray steed rolled its eyes at Childermass, thick foam dripping from between its bared teeth, and the building reeked of horseshit and terror. Childermass looked about for smoke, or the fire that would cause it, but there was nothing- nor was there any threatening presence, like a hungry wolf or a strange man.
Still, the creatures writhed in their compartments, kicking at the walls with strength enough to break bone, attempting at times to run and only succeeding in slamming their bodies into the wood. Childermass had never seen anything like it before- and he had lived a life full of many strange and horrible things.
‘Tis said they ate each other,’ he thought wildly. Was this the sight Shakespeare had envisioned when writing his black play?
“Open the stalls,” Levy said from behind them, his voice out of breath and hard to hear over the raucous made by the animals. “They’ll kill themselves if they're left here.”
Childermass agreed reluctantly- he was never in a mood for being trampled- and they opened the doors one by one, flattening their bodies against the wood paneling as soon as the animal was free. Thankfully, the creatures seemed to take little interest in them, even when they were usually loyal companions- all they did was take off into the storm at a gallop, their hooves louder on the stone than the thunder outside. There was no saying where they would go in this weather- the stable was near the front of the house, so there was a good chance they’d follow the road, either into Starecross Village or out into the lonely, winding paths that connected this place to the rest of England. Hopefully they wouldn’t slip and break anything, hopefully they wouldn’t be shot. Hopefully they would be found again later- but four lost horses were better than four dead and mangled ones still inside their stalls.
The three men stood inside the empty stables together in silence after the last horse was freed, out of breath and ears ringing from the animals’ wild screams. The rain was still pouring outside, and in the distance flickers of sheet lightning could be seen changing the colour of the sky.
Childermass was going to propose they examine the stables to see if there was anything that might have caused the disturbance- but as he opened his mouth another sound caught his ear. A faint, shimmering chime, a gentle sound amidst all the roaring nature. Where was it coming from? Childermass looked around him, and then on instinct opened his jacket, from where the sound rang clear.
The jolt of fear that struck him then was more intense than any lightning. Without a word to the others he ran from the stables, back across the rain-slick yard, his heart the loudest thing in his ears.
By the time he reached the front door, however, the bell had fallen silent.
“Is everything alright out there?” Hannah asked, for she was standing inside with a pack of blankets in hand, but Childermass ignored her too, bolting through the foyer and main hall, hand on the banister before he could draw a second breath, up the stairs before his thoughts could catch up to his heartbeat.
Segundus’ door was closed, and when Childermass took the handle he discovered it was also locked. He was sure he swore something then, but he didn’t hear the words. Every dwindling second seemed like too many gone, especially after the eerie sight in the stables- how could anyone have thought this storm was natural, how could he have let Segundus go off on his own-
Childermass braced his shoulder to the door and slammed against it, feeling the wood strain but not break. Again. He didn’t even feel the pain of impact over the twisting in his stomach. Again- nothing. The door was reinforced with metal, he knew that, what was he doing? Childermass bent down beside the keyhole and whispered into it a spell, a series of words that sought out the teeth inside and bent them this way and that, in just the way a lockpick used a piece of metal. A very old spell. A spell Childermass had known before meeting Norrell.
The door unlocked. Childermass threw it open.
Inside, the first thing he saw was that Segundus’ study window was ajar- rain soaked his books and letters, turning the wood dark, and the whole room smelled of electricity and ice. The chair at his desk had been turned over, tossed against the wall.
The next sight Childermass lay eyes upon was Segundus himself- and for a moment it was hard for those eyes to understand what they were seeing. Segundus was lying on the floor surrounded by shards of something glittering, his eyes were closed, was he sleeping? And he looked so pale, and his clothes were torn, and, and…
...and he was covered in blood.
Childermass kneeled down beside him, suddenly feeling as though he was in a trance, cold from his heart to the very ends of his fingers. Distantly, he realized that the shimmering pools he saw on the floor were in fact shards of a broken mirror, the mirror he had bought for Segundus in London. He could not see Segundus breathing.
His lips were smeared with the stuff, his cheeks splattered, and he looked like his throat had been slit, for it was there that the blood pooled, staining his chest in the imitation of a spring robin. Childermass touched his cheek and found it cold as death- cold because he was dead, no, because this was his blood, because someone had come in here and taken him away, because it had all happened too quickly…
Segundus stirred under his touch, letting out a very delicate little moan, and Childermass felt his own heart start beating again.
“Come on,” he hissed to himself as much as Segundus, his silenced mind suddenly racing again, nauseous with the flip from panic to despair and back to panic again. He needed help- but it was too late to call for help. What did he know? Would Restoration and Rectification fix this? Segundus was better at that one, he was better at fixing things- damnit, wasn’t there a spell to stop bleeding, why couldn’t he even remember its name-?
Childermass’ fingers fumbled with the collar of Segundus’ torn shirt, trying to expose the wound to better see what he was dealing with- and Segundus, his eyes flicking back and forth behind their lids, rolled his head back to further expose his throat- like he was offering it- but what Childermass saw there he didn’t understand.
Segundus’ white skin was slick with blood, but the flesh there was whole- there was no tear, no knife-split from which his life spilled. Where was it all coming from? How had this happened? Why couldn’t Childermass remember any decent spell? Something is terribly wrong, Segundus had said it himself, and now Childermass couldn’t even help him-
-then he saw it.
Segundus did have a wound.
Childermass hadn’t seen it because he had been looking for something greater- something proportionate to the blood spilled. His grasping fingers had slipped over the source, but he saw it now, an imperfection in Segundus’ otherwise unbroken skin. Such a seemingly innocent sight, yes, for how could such a tiny thing cause so much trouble- and yet another bell was ringing, one from deep within Childermass’ memory, calling forth old stories from the street and muddled pages from Norrell’s blackest books, read by candlelight in secret on the darkest of nights. Something he could never have guessed at, something he had not even entirely believed was real…
On Segundus’ jugular, there was a pair of twin puncture marks, as thin as a needle’s point and as evenly spaced as a snakebite.
Childermass sat back, feeling numb, and around him suddenly there was commotion- he had been followed inside, of course, and there were others here as well, drawn by the panic as moths to a flame. People were shouting, a woman screamed, and Segundus’ brow furrowed where he lay on the floor, proof of life as well as discomfort. Childermass turned away, searching the crowd with all its faces and voices until he came to one.
Honeyfoot was standing back against the rain-wrecked desk, one hand over his mouth. His face had turned gray and his eyes were wide- dizzily, Childermass supposed he must look the same. He approached, holding up his hands before remembering that they were red with Segundus’ blood, and then he put them behind his back.
“Mr. Honeyfoot, sir,” he said raggedly, hardly able to hear his own words. “You have been a magician for quite some time. You have studied much, haven’t you?”
Honeyfoot did not reply, but he did look over, and now Childermass saw that he was trembling.
“Have you heard...I mean, what do you know…”
Childermass grit his teeth and gathered himself, summoning strength from the very dregs of his reserve to say the word he could barely conceive of, the word hanging in the fog before his mind.
“How much do you know about vampires?”
Chapter 9: i will not let you go into the unknown alone
The next half hour passed in a strange blur of too many voices and too many colours. Segundus, though he did not entirely wake, was taken to bed and washed, where it was discovered that he had sustained wounds in other places as well- shallow cuts along his back and left arm, no doubt inflicted by the shards of the broken mirror. A broken mirror was seven years bad luck- but they already had enough bad luck.
The weather was still too black for anyone to make it to Starecross Village for the doctor on foot. They had to make due with the mixed medical knowledge of the people living at the school already- which was at least enough to clean and bandage the cuts, which perhaps did not bleed as profusely as they should have, which perhaps showed signs of healing faster than was usual. The puncture wounds on Segundus’ throat were entirely gone within the hour, sealed and replaced with faint, shadowy bruises, and what this meant Childermass did not want to imagine.
It was hard to watch Segundus like this- so limp and feeble, being moved around like a doll, too much of his skin bared to the eyes of other men (even if they were trying to help, and affording him all the dignity they could). Childermass had a selfish urge to kick them all out- leave him alone, let him be- but he knew that was ridiculous. They weren’t the trespassers. Childermass had failed to keep out the real threat, and wasn’t that truly what was bothering him?
When all was done it seemed like Segundus was going to wake properly for a moment- his eyes opened and he looked around, and Childermass instantly was at his side, taking up as much space in those bruised black eyes as he could. But Segundus did not seem happy to see him- his expression was disinterested, indifferent. His fingers curled at his throat like claws, tugging at the fabric of the high collar, and he looked like he wanted to say something- his chest rose, shuddering with new breath, and his lips parted, revealing behind their white seal a line of red saliva, bloodstained teeth. Had he bit his cheek when he hit the floor? Or- there was another possibility, the thought of which made Childermass sick to his stomach-
Segundus did not say whatever he had wanted to say. He let out all the air in a toneless, disappointed sigh, and his head fell limp back onto the pillow, his eyes sliding closed. Childermass felt like a light had been turned off somewhere, and suddenly he was in the dark, without anything to point out the proper path.
“Mr. Childermass,” said a voice. Childermass turned and discovered it was Honeyfoot, who looked just as wide and gray as he had when Segundus had been discovered. He was wringing his hat in his hands. Childermass gestured roughly to the armchair beside the bed (upon which Childermass sat then, unwilling to move to a place where the minute pressure of Segundus’ body against his would not be felt) unable to force his own throat to any words, and Honeyfoot accepted, making his way over to sit shakily on the cushion. Childermass saw he was looking at Segundus, and turned to do the same- that white face looked drawn in the dark gray light coming through the window, where the storm still stirred outside. At least it was easy to see that he was breathing.
They both watched Segundus in silence for what felt like a long while, ignoring the occasional bustle from out in the study or the corridor beyond it, as the servants finished fixing up the room and exchanged words. Very distantly, Childermass realized he was still wet from his excursion to the stables- but that felt like yesterday, at least. Childermass barely felt the chill, his mind stupefied and his body numbed by the much greater horror of the scene he had returned to.
“You said...why did you say that?” Honeyfoot asked him softly. “That is...what you said before.”
Childermass reached out to perhaps pull down the collar on Segundus’ nightclothes, but decided better of it, and sighed.
“It’s gone now,” he said, his own voice dull in his ears. “There was a wound. A puncture wound...a bitemark.”
He tapped at his own neck to indicate the placement of the thing, and Honeyfoot covered his mouth, his eyes somehow going even wider.
Childermass laughed without any humour. He understood Honeyfoot’s sentiment perfectly well- in fact, it rather reminded him of Norrell. Wouldn’t it better, if this simply wasn’t true? But it was true, and ignoring the truth never did anyone good.
“It would explain much,” Childermass told him. “The way nature has been behaving. The sleepwalking. The anaemia.”
Honeyfoot nodded slowly, and for a while longer they both looked back at Segundus. Childermass realized that he did not feel quite like himself- his mind was moving too slowly, still numbed by the frozen shock that had been this revelation, and his worry and fear were so exhausted he didn’t even feel them anymore.
“I know…” Honeyfoot trailed off, and seemed to catch himself. “The truth is, I don’t really know anything. This isn’t a subject of magical study that is...orthodox. I don’t mean that it is not respectable- I don’t think even Mr. Strange spent any time on it- it is not English magic in the usual sense.”
Childermass looked back at him, and in his silence Honeyfoot seemed to warm to the subject. He was shivering, but his eyes had a light in them now, and in comparison to the too-still sleeping Segundus he seemed a creature of great motion.
“It is almost not a study of magic,” Honeyfoot said uncertainly. “That is, of course, if it- if it is real-”
-his tone of voice suggested that, like Childermass, he had not entirely believed such things to be real until this very day-
“-then there must be magic involved, but it is not like English magic, not like fairy magic, either. It seems more closely connected to- well, to the Church. Heaven and Hell. Temptation and corruption.”
Segundus shifted suddenly in his sleep, taking in a tiny and painful sounding breath of air, and Childermass saw his brow furrow. Was he dreaming? On instinct, Childermass looked out the window over Honeyfoot’s shoulder, but he saw nothing ominous. In fact, the sky was becoming lighter outside, the rain that stained the windows thinner in its torrent. The thunder was intermittent, and seemingly distant, not booming constantly overhead.
Childermass found the reasons for this were as sickening as they were obvious: it already got what it wanted.
“That’s all well and good,” Childermass said, his tone harsh and, perhaps, uncharitable. Honeyfoot looked a little startled to be broken from his reverie. “But what can we do about it?”
I don’t remember anything, was what he did not say. Again, he was uncharitable, for this fact was his fault entirely. Why hadn’t he paid closer attention, all those years ago, when he had had a text on the subject in his hands? He could recall the look of the book- it had been a tome, huge and leathery and cracked, worn from decades (or perhaps even centuries) of indelicate handling before coming into Norrell’s possession. Back then, it had not yet been rebound. A book on black magic- a book on Hell magic. He remembered reading it by candlelight. He thought he remembered noticing that the text was in Old English. He did not remember what the text had said...or at least, nothing useful.
“It’s dead,” he said, partly to himself. His mind’s eye strained to read the ragged scrawl on the stained and yellow pages in the vision of his memories. “The- the creature. It might have been a man before, but not anymore, it doesn’t have a soul. Unlike fairies, though, nature turns away from these things...it doesn’t love them...they make it sick…”
The garden, he thought vaguely. The horses. It hadn’t been a ‘curse’ after all, at least not a ‘curse’ in the sense of something more deliberate and ritualized than a cruel thought or a violent instinct. This was ultimately bad news, for it was not something that could be fixed...or at least, not fixed easily.
Childermass felt his own words dry up, and his voice trailed off. The image in his mind wavered and disappeared. He swore quietly. He was a fool! Was that really the best he could do? This was the time of greatest need, and yet he could not recall what was needed. Oh, he had a million memories of Lascelles’ useless periodicals, or the domestic letters from Mrs. Strange to her husband during the war, but he could not remember this!
“When I was a boy, I knew a woman,” Honeyfoot said in his silence. Childermass now saw that his expression had changed- he had begun to look quite determined. “I cannot now remember her name. She worked for my family, and she came from some small country in the East of Europe- something like Wallachia, or, or Transylvania, I believe.”
He paused, and Childermass gestured for him to continue.
“It was from her that I received my childhood education in horror stories,” he said. “And many of them were about creatures such as these. Blood-suckers that came in the night- people with pale skin and no reflection…”
Childermass ground his teeth together as he listened. Did they really have nothing concrete, nothing they could use? He could not bear to be useless, not now. Not when Segundus was lying beside him unconscious and vulnerable, having been fed upon, with blood between his teeth.
“She had children of her own. I don’t know where they worked. When they fell ill, I remember she would always check them for what she called ‘devil’s marks’...around the neck. She tried it on me too, sometimes, but my parents didn’t like it.”
Honeyfoot sighed. Outside, the storm had transformed into a gentle rainfall.
“And she would give them something- what was it? Oh, yes- garlic. She grew an inordinate amount of garlic. She would give her children the flowers, or rub their necks with the cloves, and she said this would keep bad spirits away.”
Honeyfoot suddenly smiled the smile of a man enamoured with old childhood memories, ones that he had not taken time to look through in years.
“Again, my parents didn’t like this, but I admit I found it very interesting. I think it was part of the reason why I wanted to study magic when I was older- to understand the truth behind all the supersitution, the history behind the myth.”
Honeyfoot came back to himself, and folded his hands on his lap. He looked more grounded than before, no longer did he tremble. Childermass understood the new solemnity in his posture. Perhaps it was time for superstition and myth.
“Garlic, you say?” Childermass considered this. He did not know much about the plant by way of English magic- it was not one associated with specific elements or magical properties, and he could not think of a single spell that would use it if something better suited was available. It was a common, inert plant- or so he’d thought.
“Garlic,” Honeyfoot repeated. Childermass looked out the window again. The rain was steady, but he could not hear any thunder. He stood.
“Then I’ll go fetch some,” he said. “Mr. Honeyfoot...take care of him.”
Honeyfoot agreed to do so, and Childermass (with some surprise) realized that he trusted him. With one last look at the sleeping Segundus, he left those chambers again, ignoring the paranoid twinge in the pit of his stomach that appeared. He went down the stairs to the kitchen, where he found some of the women working, and was swamped in an instant with questions about Segundus’ wellbeing- from some of their words it became clear that rumours had spread wild across the school during the hour or so since the horses had been set loose. Childermass assuaged and confirmed and dismissed as was needed to fulfill a basic obligation, and then he returned to the matter at hand:
“Hannah, do you have any garlic in the pantry?” he asked.
“Garlic?” She went through the kitchen to check, and came up with one head and a few loose cloves, enough to fill the palm of her hand. “We have some- is there a dish you wanted made with it? I’ve heard that Italians use garlic very often, but…”
“Bring it up to Mr. Segundus’ rooms,” Childermass told her. “Mr. Honeyfoot will tell you what to do with it.”
But Childermass wasn’t going to go back there himself, not with so paltry an offering. He shrugged on his still-damp greatcoat and left through the front door before anyone else could stop him, out into the rain- the simple, honest, English rain.
Childermass’ first instinct was to saddle Brewer, but he stopped himself, and with no better alternative he headed across the packhorse bridge on foot. He had faced worse than a little rain.
Down in Starecross Village, most things were quiet. The storm had raged through here just this morning. Childermass still went to the grocer, who was surprised to see him, and purchased the single half-head of garlic they had in stock, leftover from a previous season. The woman who took his money looked like she wasn’t sure what to do with a man who walked through rain only to buy garlic, but Childermass didn’t care.
None of the other shops or stalls had anything of the like. Starecross Village was a small place anyway, hardly a booming market, and the crop in question was unpopular and with few uses. Childermass swore to himself, looking down at the mud on his boots. He did not know if what they had was ‘enough’- he didn’t know what ‘enough’ could possibly be, under the circumstances. Perhaps if he had a horse he could ride to York and look for more, but he didn’t have a horse- where in Starecross could he buy a horse? Would there be anyone about whose own animals hadn’t gone mad during the thunderstorm? He could go check at the inn-
Childermass started to walk with this intention, when something caught his eye- the head of a single white clover, sprung up in the mud. A surprisingly gentle natural sight, after all Childermass had been exposed to recently. That’s right. It was spring.
Childermass changed his course, and walked out of the village instead, heading along the path that continued North, away from the school, to where lands would eventually become Scotland. There were some woods here, not especially dense, that gave way in turn to moor and peat and long stretches where all that grew was heather. They were surprisingly green- leaves were budding on the trees, and grasses growing long underfoot, untouched by the corruption that affected Starecross- a corruption that, now he saw, was likely stunting the return of green things for the season. The air smelled fresh in a way that told him he was accustomed to breathing air that was stale. These woods may, once upon a time and perhaps again in the future, contain roads to Other Lands- but there was no such thing here now. There was, however, what he was looking for.
Gathered at the base of a birch tree he found a cluster of ramsons- fresh white flowers in the shape of a star, small and unimpressive, nestled in flat green leaves. ‘Wild garlic’, it was sometimes called- would this do? It had better.
Childermass gathered armfuls of the flower, tucking them into every available pocket on his coat. His first instinct was to take them all, as many as he could carry, but he realized he didn’t know if freshness would be important, and he couldn’t say how long the protection would be required, so he restrained himself, leaving some to be fetched later, to grow and be plentiful. When he was satisfied with his bounty he made his way back through the woods toward the village- a decent forty-five minute walk- and in this time the rain gave up entirely, the clouds gray and empty of any more tears. The fury of the storm from that morning- and all the horror it had brought- seemed very distant indeed.
Childermass spent much of his time walking looking at his mud-stained boots, but when he reached the crossroads that marked the Northern border of Starecross Village a sound caught his attention- the rumble of a horse’s voice.
He found Brewer standing just off the path, looking at him. The great beast was covered in mud, his mane and tail in tangles, his head held at a weary angle. There was no indication of where he might have come from, or where he could have gone in the storm- but that much probably didn’t matter. Having got Childermass’ attention, he nickered again.
“Come along, then,” Childermass said to him, beckoning with one hand, and with a dull snort the horse picked his way onto the path, and the two made their way into the village together. While they walked, Childermass checked him for injuries, but he did not seem to have sustained anything beyond fatigue- though of course, a more thorough examination would need to be conducted later, by someone with more skill.
The village was still mostly quiet when Childermass returned, and those who were out and about only paid him and his mud-stained beast the mildest of suspicious looks. Childermass did not think to say anything to them, intending simply to return to Starecross, until he found himself on the road outside a certain central building- the church.
The building itself was far from the height of architectural excess, but against the gray light of the late afternoon clouds its face was transformed into something dark. The patterns in its windows could not be seen, and so they less resembled windows so much as peering, sullen eyes. The spire stood out against the sky, an imprint, and Childermass felt something inside him stir at that sight in a way it never had before.
Childermass, for lack of rope, left Brewer by the fence of the churchyard, where he figured the animal would stay, content to munch on some of the new grass cropping up around the wood there. Looking and feeling incredibly silly with his mud-splattered boots and damp jacket and pockets full of wildflowers he went up to the church’s front door and, finding it unlocked, slipped inside.
He had never been especially fond of the Church- it wasn’t the kind of place for men like him, what with all the things he had done, the ways he had lived his life. He had always felt more loyalty for the King. But still, he removed his hat once inside, folding it in his gloved hands. Besides, he wasn’t here for himself. Whatever ‘trespasses’ Segundus might have committed (such as lying with another man) Childermass couldn’t believe that any sort of God could find him guilty or wanting. He was simply too good.
The minister approached Childermass from a room at the back of the main area, clearly having heard the door open. He looked somewhat perturbed at the sight of Childermass standing there, but not overly so, and he rubbed his hands together with the attitude of an energetic older gentleman getting ready to dig into some work as he spoke:
“Hello! Pardon me, child, but I do not remember your name- you are from the magic school, yes?”
Childermass was somewhat taken aback by being called ‘child’, but he confirmed that he was, indeed, from ‘the magic school’.
“Has the trouble there increased?” the minister asked. “I have been keeping a close eye on the village myself- and I certainly have seen the symptoms that were described- tell me, have you made any headway in discovering the nature of the problem?”
“Yes,” Childermass replied before he realized he might not have the strength to tell this man the truth- and that even if he did, he might not be believed. He grit his teeth. “I do not believe anyone in the village is in danger.”
That was true enough, wasn’t it? Unless any other beautiful men or women here were bedridden, with cold fevers and missing memories, bite marks on their throats.
“That is good news,” the minister said. “Though I will continue my prayers anyway.”
“Father,” Childermass interrupted, finding he did not like the atmosphere in the room (this room that he never visited). “Do you have a cross that I could borrow?”
The words sounded harsh with the way they fell off his tongue (as heavy as riverstones), but Childermass knew no other way to say them. The minister fell silent. For a moment, Childermass thought he was going to be refused- but perhaps the man saw something in him, something like desperation, a man with flowers growing out of his clothes and shadows under his eyes and unshaven cheeks. A man who’s beloved was dying before his eyes.
Though, that wasn’t entirely right. Segundus wasn’t dying, he was being murdered.
The minister lifted from around his own neck what Childermass had asked for- a simple wooden cross, comparable in size to a woman’s hand, hung from a long wooden strap. It was in Childermass’ hands before he could say anything in protest, a smooth and mild weight, and the sight of it in so unfitting a place made something catch in Childermass’ throat.
“Do not be afraid,” the minister said to him gently. “Evil cannot claim that which is most important.”
“Thank you,” Childermass said dully. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to explain himself, but thankfully the minister didn’t ask any questions- perhaps whatever Levy and Purfois had said to him before, whatever he had seen, had been enough to take away such needs.
“Thank Him,” the minister said, and then he rubbed his hands together again. “And be sure to keep me informed- many people are worried about what’s going on up there. And moreover, I am here to help.”
Childermass nodded, and without another word took his leave, walking back out into the sweet smelling spring air. It felt very good to breathe after the wooden smell of the church walls, the unwelcome feeling of being looked in upon, the too-charitable eyes of the minister.
Would he still be so charitable, if he knew the truth?
Childermass shook himself. He did not mean to be so ridiculous- he was not sure what had come over him. He shouldn’t have asked the man for his personal belongings, he did not even know if what he was holding would do any good- but the sight of the black spire against the pale gray sky had put a sense of superstition in him. Honeyfoot had called it Hell magic. A magic even the infamous Jonathan Strange, with his so-called Black Letters and even blacker tower had never even looked at. A magic that histories of the Raven King ignored.
What a horrible word.
Brewer was where Childermass had left him, and he was content to leave his resting place with a pair of clicks from Childermass’ tongue, and the pair made the rest of their way up the long dirt road to Starecross proper. Childermass found that on the way the sweet spring smell faded, replaced steadily by something flatter, bleaker- a smell like mould or old stone. The grass did not grow as liberally as it did down in the village (which, even then, had not been so abundant at all) and there certainly were no flowers. The water in the brook below the packhorse bridge moved sluggishly, and Childermass saw nothing of life in it- no weeds nor minnows nor early insects. The entire place really was sick.
Childermass returned Brewer to the stables, and set the servants who came to greet him to the task of his care. The horse seemed content enough to settle back in, unbothered by the old panic-smell that clung to the wood- but he had always been a reliable animal in that way.
Childermass went inside, intending to go straight to Segundus, but when he arrived in the study the image was not so peaceful as he would have hoped- the room was full of faculty, all in grim discussion, though they fell silent when they saw Childermass standing there. Not one of them said anything regarding his jacket, overflowing with flowerheads.
“We have decided to close the school for the time being,” Honeyfoot said to fill the air. Everyone watched him- perhaps some expected him to protest, or hoped he would, but he did not. He bowed his head to Honeyfoot in acquiescence.
“The students have already been told,” Honeyfoot continued, seeming relieved that Childermass had not questioned him. “Some of the boys who live nearby will be out by tomorrow morning, the rest by the end of the weekend. The faculty will stay. It is best for everyone’s safety, given the...circumstances.”
We will wish we had that accountant, Childermass thought, suddenly feeling dizzy with the magnitude of it all. He sighed, and no one said anything else to him.
“I’ll be with the headmaster,” he said, to escape the air in the room as much as anything, and he passed through the study (too small a place to share with so many men) somewhat awkwardly to the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Conversation started up again in the room behind- the voices sounded resigned. Childermass understood. There would be a lot of work to do following such a decision. There would be a lot of work to do when it came to the problem that lay before him.
Segundus was asleep on the bed- or at least he appeared to be, but when Childermass sat down on the armchair beside it (surprised at the falling weight of his own body- he didn’t deserve to be so exhausted) he opened his eyes. There was no distinction between his pupil and iris in this light, as though they had combined and become a collapsar, where nothing bright still shone.
“How are you?” Childermass asked at the same time as Segundus said “Where did you go?”
There was a fumbling sort of quiet on Childermass’ end, and when Segundus made no move to say anything he replied:
“I went to get you something. Now, I’m hardly a romantic, but…” he pulled some of the ramsons from an assortment of pockets and gathered them into a bouquet, holding them up in offering. Segundus smiled wanly, brushing the edges of the white flowers with his fingertips.
“You are more romantic than you think,” he murmured, conscious of the men gathered next door, and leaned in (his neck straining to rise from the pillows) to smell them, though once he did he instantly recoiled.
“Goodness! What is that?”
“Wild garlic,” Childermass said with a chuckle (though he did not think the flowers smelled so very strongly himself). “Honeyfoot thinks it will help you. I have some of the typical kind, also.”
He pulled from his pocket a few of the loose cloves from the shopkeeper, and Segundus waved his hand away with a weak laugh.
“How dreadful! You’ve resorted to kitchen remedies to save me.”
These last words somehow sobered them both, but perhaps in Segundus’ case it was simply that he had tired himself out, for when he blinked his eyes stayed closed for a long time.
“How do you feel?” Childermass asked, trying again.
“I am very tired,” Segundus said. “And cold. That is all.”
“How are your wounds?”
Segundus shrugged. “They itch,” he said mildly.
“Are you hungry?” Childermass tried to remember the last time Segundus had eaten- could it have been before the storm? If he had slept until now, perhaps no one had brought him dinner, and if this was so Childermass would seek to rectify it at once-
“No,” Segundus replied. “I am not hungry in the slightest.”
A quiet passed over them for a moment, while Segundus’ eyes drifted over the ceiling. It looked like perhaps he had had something to say, and now could not remember it, or even simply did not have the energy to.
“I have something else for you as well,” Childermass said, and Segundus turned his head back to look.
“Another present? I am spoiled.”
Childermass lifted the minister’s wooden cross into the light of the candle by Segundus’ bed (for now, the sun was near setting outside) and Segundus’ face gave a peculiar twitch at the sight- a brief narrowing of the eyes, a downturning of the lips that was gone in an instant. He reached for the thing with trembling fingertips, and Childermass gave it to him, wrapping white fingers around the wood so that for a moment both of their hands held it. Segundus bit his lower lip.
“Put it on me,” he whispered, his voice harsh on the edges of his throat. “I am not sure if I can do it myself.”
Childermass helped Segundus sit up and lay the leather strap around his neck, so the cross fell down to his chest, joining the silver bell that he still wore. At first Segundus seemed to shiver at the sensation, but then he settled, and perhaps it was an illusion but his eyes seemed to become a little brighter.
“All decked up now, aren’t I,” he murmured bashfully, plucking at the pair of strings.
“The least you deserve,” Childermass told him. A tiny touch of colour appeared high on Segundus’ cheeks- far from the intensity he usually achieved- and the sight was reassuring.
“The mirror you bought me,” Segundus added, “it is broken, isn’t it? I confess I...I cannot entirely remember.”
“Yes,” Childermass told him, and Segundus frowned, looking down at his lap.
“It is alright,” Childermass continued, because it was likely Segundus was feeling guilty on that point. “It wasn’t so very expensive.”
“I just lied to you,” Segundus said suddenly. His voice sounded very harsh again, and his fingers twitched on his lap, too weak to form fists. “I don’t know why, but I just did.”
Segundus’ jaw clenched. Childermass watched him, not daring to say a word.
“I do remember what happened to the mirror. I remember thinking I could use it- that I could keep him away somehow- but I looked in it and…”
Segundus lifted his hands up to his eyes, and Childermass saw he was shaking terribly, his chest rising and falling like he was struggling to breathe.
“...and I couldn’t see my face. I threw it away, then, I couldn’t bear it. I broke it, not him, he came after...it was like the sound of the thing smashing summoned him, but I think he was there the whole time. Watching me.”
In what looked like a Herculean effort Segundus closed his eyes and lowered his hands, inhaling through his nose to compose himself. Childermass noticed then- something about the light did it- that Segundus must have lost more weight somewhere in the last week, for his face had turned sharp, his jaw and cheekbones jutted forward in his white face in a way they hadn’t before. With his eyes closed, the dark lids touched the dark circles beneath them, and he became the illusion of a solemn skull.
“You do know what I mean, don’t you,” Segundus said quietly, opening his eyes again (a small relief). “When I say ‘him’?”
“Aye,” Childermass replied. “That I do.”
Segundus sighed, a long, cold sound, and he rested back on the pillows, not saying anything more. Childermass suddenly couldn’t stand being seated, being motionless, and he stood, pulling the day’s bounty from assorted pockets in his clothes. He put cloves of garlic in all four corners of the room, the way Black Joan had taught him to use chestnuts to ward away spiders, and used the water in the ewer by Segundus’ nightstand and any empty jar or penholder to set vases of the ramsons on every flat surface. Some of the flowers he lay out dry across the windowsill, and once he had he set the regular protective spells also (though so far, these hadn’t been as proof as he would have liked).
Segundus watched him with half-lidded eyes. The downwards turn of his lips was unbearable.
The discussion in the room over came to a stuttering end, and eventually Honeyfoot poked his head into the bedroom. Segundus did not address him, looking down at the wooden cross on his chest (it somehow looked too big for him) and so Childermass did the greeting in his stead.
“We’ll be retiring for the night,” Honeyfoot told them. “There will be much to do in the morning. How is everything here?”
“What do you think?” Childermass asked. “Is this how your serving woman would set it up?”
“I think so,” Honeyfoot replied with what was clearly supposed to be a reassuring grin. “Just don’t forget-”
-he gestured, rubbing at his neck with pinched fingers-
“-and be sure to ring if there is any disturbance. We’ll...we’ll stop this thing.”
With that pathetically uncertain declaration Honeyfoot took his leave, and Childermass sat down in the armchair again, pulling out another clove of garlic to finish the task. Segundus eyed it with distaste, but still he undid the top button of his nightgown, baring his slender neck. Childermass saw his heartbeat pulse in the thick blue line of his jugular. Segundus couldn’t have had any time to shave in recent days, and yet no stubble had appeared, neither here nor on his cheeks- his skin was smooth and faintly translucent, in a way that reminded Childermass of the day Lady Pole’s enchantment had been lifted- how very frail he had been then.
Segundus grit his teeth as Childermass began to rub the peeled clove over the skin on his neck, and Childermass ensured he was as gentle as possible, for fear of breaking that too-delicate skin. Being touched in such a place was also clearly distressing to him, for he shivered, his chest rising too steeply to catch air.
“I’m sorry,” Childermass said when he was done. At first, he only meant for the discomfort, and then he realized it was much more. “I’m sorry I did not realize it sooner...I’m sorry I am of little help now.”
“It does not matter,” Segundus said in a surprisingly un-Segundus-like tone of voice- his usual nervous tension was gone, and along with it his sweetness. Perhaps he was too tired even for that. “He won’t come tonight.”
Childermass could guess why- the thing was already full. The thought was so perverse that for a moment it was him with the clenched jaw and fists. He closed his eyes, and for the span of a breath the world behind them spun in white, and while he was angry at the monster that was hurting Segundus, he knew he was also angry at himself.
“That isn’t what I meant,” Childermass said quietly. “I have not done well by you.”
Segundus gave him a rather sharpish look, though this too was not of the customary variety of Segundus’ sharp looks- he did not seem indignant, perhaps, so much as cold, and Childermass couldn’t help but assume this meant he agreed. This thought turned something sour in Childermass’ stomach.
“Kiss me,” Segundus said suddenly, and he reached out with one white hand, his fingers trailing the lapel of Childermass’ jacket. Childermass accepted the offer and brought Segundus’ knuckles to his lips, and then he turned the hand over to kiss his palm, the swell of his thumb, the violently apparent blue veins at the joint of his wrist. Segundus smiled a little, but it wasn’t a Segundus-like smile.
“Kiss my mouth,” he commanded, and Childermass obeyed. Segundus’ lips were still soft to the touch, the way they always had been- and the kiss was gentle, accompanied by cold air on Childermass’ cheek where Segundus exhaled through his nose, and cold fingertips on the edge of Childermass’ jaw.
They held this kiss for some time, Childermass trying to put as much warmth as he could into it, as though through such contact he could give Segundus some of his own strength- his vitality, a thing Segundus had ever been somewhat lacking. But when they fell apart, Segundus’ lips were as cold as they had been before.
“I love you,” Childermass murmured- for once, saying it first.
“I love you, too,” Segundus replied, and then he closed his eyes, rolling his head to the side on the pillow. “Goodnight.”
Segundus fell asleep very quickly after that, but Childermass did not. He sat in the armchair and watched the candle flicker, and tried not to think of the worst thing that could happen- if after everything Segundus had survived this would be his last, losing battle. It had been easy for Childermass to crush him down- take away his colleagues, his livelihood, his dreams- so why was it so hard to lift him up, to save him? The question of this injustice burned circles in his brain by the dancing light, for there was no solution.
When Childermass was finally sick of himself (sometime not so long before the witching hour) he undressed and joined Segundus in bed. Even in sleep, Segundus’ arms welcomed him readily, and Childermass returned the embrace quite surely- if he was going to close his eyes, he didn’t dare leave Segundus lying beyond his grasp.
Against his collar, he could feel Segundus’ cold breath- but there was breath. That much was reassuring, wasn’t it?