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In the Bleak Midwinter

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John Segundus had always loved hellebore.

As a child he patiently watched as the days went by, each growing darker and darker as Christmas drew near, waiting for the 23rd of December.

The day of decoration.

His mother was a bright, shining woman, with an imp in the heart of her soul, who had made it seem that it was the great joy of her life to have a timid and delicate son. On the morning of the 23rd, as soon as breakfast was finished, she would clap her hands in glee and pronounce that the time had come.

They would wade out through the snow collecting holly, ivy, hawthorn, rosemary – mistletoe if they were lucky and the people from the Hall hadn’t got it all first – and hellebore.

They call it the Christmas Rose, she said, because when Jesus was born there had been a little girl who had no gift to take to the stable and who had sat in the desert and cried because she could not visit her new king. But then, they say, a kindly practitioner of magic had taken pity on the girl and from her tears had conjured a rose to present to the new baby, charming it so that the flower would survive in all places, even, they said, the depths of an English winter.

They would clatter back into the house with their spoils and set about decorating the rectory.

The Reverend Archibald Segundus would sniff dryly at the sight of his wife and child decorating the hall and his mouth would turn down even further at the corners – if such a thing were even possible. His parishioners swore that if the Reverend Segundus were ever to smile then they would know that the end of days had come.

John Segundus’ father had held the Puritans in great esteem.

Once the Reverend was safely encased in his study, where he could mutter about heathens and the unworthy to his heart’s content, they were safe to continue their joyful decorating.

It had been the highlight of every year.

Then the September came when John Segundus had been in the world for nine years and his mother died.

There were no more decorations after that.

 

“Will you be wanting to decorate?” asked Mrs Honeyfoot.

It was on the tip of his tongue to say no. To say that it was nonsense and that the pupils would return home on Christmas Eve so there was very little point. After all, they had never decorated while Lady Pole was in residence, if for no other reason than one day was very much like another to a woman so sick in mind and body.

Besides, the Honeyfoots’ were promised to their married daughter in York for the festivities so he would be quite alone.

Lady Pole had, quite naturally, never returned to Starecross. She wrote often, though, and he was quite touched by the regular letters he received from his erstwhile charge.

Nor could he really imagine Mr Norrell or Mr Strange ever needing to visit to Starecross but even if he could, no one had seen either man since the day the Raven King had returned.

And he had not seen Childermass since the night that the York Society was resurrected, although he had heard of him, and from him, often. At present the news of an extremely unpleasant incident near Manchester, when some Norrelites had attempted to assassinate both Childermass and his charge, Vinculus, was all anyone in York could talk of.

They said in the taverns that Childermass had fought back, his face dark and terrible as he called on his faith and his king and the years of dark living that gave the guttersnipe magician such power.

They said that the assassins had been left broken men.

With all the furore it was likely that Childermass and Vinculus would be required in Manchester for the foreseeable future.

So, really, it would be nonsense to start gathering holly and festooning unsuspecting pieces of furniture with it.

“Yes, Mrs Honeyfoot,” he said, “I believe we should decorate. We are a school now, after all, not a home for the sick.”

“Grand,” she said with a smile. “I shall organise Mr Dawlish and the older boys into a foraging party. There is some fine mistletoe to be had by Devil’s Copse.”

Devil’s Copse. Locals said that this was where a Parson had murdered his wife because he thought her unfaithful. She was a kind woman, the story said, who would never betray her husband. Therefore, the devil must have put the seed of jealousy in the Parson’s heart.

When John was ten years of age, the day before he was sent away to school, he watched as his father denounced a young village girl who was with child and unmarried.

She was found drowned the next morning.

Men did not require the devil to perform acts of evil.

“That is an excellent suggestion, Mrs Honeyfoot,” he said, “I believe there is also some fine hellebore growing near Foxton’s Spinney.”

“That’ll help ward off any bad spirits,” she said, “I’ll make sure some is near the door.”

It will ward off evil spirits, his mother had said, it will protect us, John, and no matter what happens, it will always protect you, my love.

Hellebore. Helleborus Niger.

Helleborus Niger could also poison if misused or ingested.

A dangerous quantity which should not be underestimated.

 

It was Christmas Eve and the house looked… well, rather wonderful.

Segundus took in the holly, mistletoe, the great bunches of firs and the hellebore displayed either side of the front door.

The students had all departed for their winter holiday.

Mrs Honeyfoot had made sure all the fires were roaring before she and Mr Honeyfoot had left and there was supper laid out in the dining room in covered dishes.

In the larder she had left some cold ham and pickles for his Christmas dinner.

He was quite content.

The wind howled outside. Segundus crossed to the window and looked out across the moor. It had begun to snow again fiercely.

Unbidden, a memory of Childermass came to him. While Lady Pole had been in residence Childermass had visited fairly often and, as long as Lady Pole was resting, had been permitted to enter. One year the snow had come thick and hard keeping him there over the festive period. They had drunk some good claret that Childermass had supplied and eaten bread and cheese in front of the fire.

It was entirely possible that Segundus had never been as happy as he had been that Christmas.

But the snow had cleared, Childermass had been obliged to go about his business and the increasingly maddening actions of both Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had overtaken them all in the two years that followed.

And now the magic had returned.

It had returned and Childermass was spoken of with awe and fear and men who had talked of him with contempt before – for who could trust a servant with such eyes and such attitude – now whispered uneasily, in quiet tones, lest he be on the King’s Roads and hear their slander.

More than once Segundus had been forced into the unpleasant position of defending Childermass at the York Society. Some of the old men had begun to say that he was not a fit man to have charge of The Book; not only a servant but an unabashed Johannite and clearly a man of violence, perhaps, even, of murder? For who knew what had really happened to the two leading English magicians? And hadn’t Henry Lascelles, the man who had sneered and belittled Childermass, also disappeared without a trace? Were they, men of learning, men of science, really to believe that this was a coincidence?

He had held his ground and defended his friend because while he knew Childermass to be infuriating and close mouthed and unknowable, he would never believe that he was the base man that others proposed.

Segundus looked back out at the storm and blinked.

At the bottom of the path, by the gate, Childermass appeared to be dismounting from his horse.

 

“Where is Vinculus?” asked Segundus as he helped Childermass stable his horse.

“I deposited him with the only one of his wives that seemed pleased to see him. Although,” he confessed, “she were also the last that we tried so I would have been tempted to do so even if she had wailed at the sight of him.”

“Which wife was this?”

“The one in Bolton.”

“And then you came here,” he said faintly, “which is a two day ride.”

“Aye,” Childermass looked at him narrowly, “I can soon go again if you wish.”

“No!” said Segundus, “No, I did not mean… I am merely, surprised, Mr Childermass, that is all. I had not expected to see you.”

“That’s alright then. Give us a hand with this, will you?” he said, pulling two large bags off the horse who whinnied in reproach.

 

Childermass looked around as they came into the entrance hall, “I see you’ve been decorating, Sir,” he said, “I thought you might.”

Segundus frowned and looked at Childermass with suspicion. Had the man been delving into seer saying? If he had, Segundus was not at all sure he could cope, “Why did you think that?” he asked.

“Couple of years ago you said you’d not been in a decorated house since you were a bairn, I thought you might take the opportunity now you no longer have to consider Lady Pole.”

He blinked, searching his brain for the conversation in question. Slowly, it came to him. The year that Childermass had become snowed in, he had noted that the house did not mark the season.

Segundus had explained that Lady Pole grew distressed when the passage of time was marked and seemed to find greenery of any type alarming – which, now that he thought on it, might have been due to the association of roses - but that it was no matter as he had not lived in a decorated home since he was a young child.

“But… That is to say… I am unsure as to why you imagined I would wish to-“

“You sounded a little wistful, Mr Segundus. To me, any road.”

That Childermass had marked Segundus’ ramblings at all was quite extraordinary. That he had remembered them…

“I see. I…,” Segundus coughed, “That is, may I interest you in a glass of sherry, Mr Childermass?”

“You may indeed, Mr Segundus.”

 

The fire crackled merrily as they sat and drank their sherry.

“How does your translation of The Book progress?” asked Segundus.

The other man shook his head, “Slowly,” he said, “The Raven King’s ways are never straight. Often I believe I have found the thread he intended only to see it fork into another direction entirely.”

“I heard that there was some… trouble, in Manchester.”

Childermass snorted, “Bloody fools. Half-baked ‘gentlemen’ with no better idea of magic than a cat in a kitchen. I sent ‘em packing with a flea in their ear,” he looked at Segundus shrewdly, “I’ve no doubt that they’re telling tall tales in the taverns?”

“I do not place store in such stories,” he said, “and nor would any reasonable man.”

“World’s not full of reasonable men,” said Childermass, “I’ve heard all manner of things. That I consort with the devil. That I killed Norrell and Strange. That I am a whoreson. That I was a pickpocket. That I seduce young women with dark arts. That I am a sodomite condemned to hell. That in Manchester I grew eight feet tall and that I chased their wits away. Even heard I’d killed them.”

“I do not believe,” said Segundus quietly, “that you are a man of violence.”

“If that’s the case, mebbe you’re dafter than I thought,” muttered Childermass as he poked the fire.

Segundus frowned, “I do not believe it needs attending,” he said.

Childermass replaced the poker and leaned back into his chair, “Some of it is true,” he said, looking steadily at Segundus, “my mother was a whore, I were a pickpocket and I am a sodomite and perhaps condemned for it.”

“I believe, Mr Childermass, that you are one of the finest men I have ever met.”

His companion snorted.

Segundus tutted, “I do not say you are always an easy man to know, Mr Childermass. But you have never lied to me, even in those days when we found ourselves on different sides in this… war of magic that has been fought in England. And I trust you. Although not, perhaps, in a bookshop,” he said with a smile.

“Well, I shall give you my word, Mr Segundus, that I shall never compete with you over magical books again.”

“I would take that as a great kindness,” he said solemnly.

Childermass smiled, something that Segundus was not at all sure he had ever seen before.

“You are an unusual man, Mr Segundus.”

He blinked, “I do not see how that is, Mr Childermass.”

“I’ve told you things that would turn many a gentleman’s hair white. And you sit there and say you think I am a fine man.”

“That is because I do. And I see no shame in your Mother’s profession – my Father was a Parson but that did not make him a good man nor a kind one. Nor do I see that society has any right to judge how a child survives. And it would be grossest hypocrisy for me to condemn you for being a sodomite.”

“And why would that be?”

“Because I am one also.”

Childermass looked at him and it was like a thousand moments over the years: dark eyes tracking Segundus’ every move, taking in all and giving nothing away.

He shifted uneasily. Perhaps he should not have said anything? Perhaps he should-

“Mr Segundus,” began Childermass in a low tone, “I do not imagine that merely because we are two of a kind that you would wish to-”

“Yes?” asked Segundus a little too quickly and cursed inside as he felt heat upon his cheeks.

The corner of Childermass’ lips twitched, “What I mean to say, Mr Segundus, is that I have held you in great esteem for many years and that I would very much like to kiss you, if you would allow it.”

“I-” Segundus cleared his throat, “That is to say…” Feeling that words were deserting him he leaned forward and kissed Childermass on the lips.

The kiss was returned.

 

Christmas morning broke clear and bright. Segundus would have rejoiced in such a day if he had not awoken to find himself alone in his bed chamber.

For several moments he lay in the bed, willing himself to calm. He must remain calm if he were to go downstairs and find that Childermass had slipped away, back into the world.

Eventually he rose, dressed carefully and made his way downstairs.

The other man was not to be found in the drawing room or the kitchen or the hall.

He searched the part of the house that had been made into the school and eventually found Childermass by one of the classroom windows, staring out at the snow.

“Mr Childermass?” he said quietly and wished very much that the thinness of his voice was not as audible as he imagined it to be.

He nodded towards the window, “I do believe, Mr Segundus, that there is a Fae patch at the borders of your land. When the snow thaws we should close it off. It may not have done any damage yet but it would not be prudent to allow such a doorway to remain unchecked.”

Fae patch? He shook himself and followed the direction of Childermass’ eyes to the far gate by the orchard. Of course! That would explain the business with the stable hand and the turnips… He shook himself, “I… Yes, I believe that would be a wise course of action.”

Childermass took Segundus’ hand and brought it up to his lips, kissing it gently, “If you permit me to stay here for a while, that is?”

“I would like that very much,” he said. And in a reckless manner, that Childermass would tease him about in the years to come, he captured the other man in a fierce embrace.

Christmas, his mother had said, was above all things, a time of love.

And for the first time in many years, he believed her.

The End