The spell was of a particular sort: namely very old and very specific, and not the sort of magic Norrell strictly thought of as respectable… but considering the situation as a whole he had finally talked himself into performing it, for it was - if nothing else - an extremely practical sort of magic.
The author was an Aureate magician, and had only written one book that anyone knew of, and most people did not know of it or the author at all, for the magic he wrote of was very complicated and often produced only the most mundane results. (One spell called for over fifty disparate ingredients and required the magician to stay awake for a full twenty-four hours of casting, and its ultimate intention was merely to prevent birds nesting in the chimney.)
Norrell had his eye on an equally practical and only marginally simpler spell that called for far fewer ingredients (gathered in particularly specific ways) and would result in the magician's improved concentration.
Concentration had never been difficult to come by before. Even in his youth, Gilbert Norrell could sit for hours and hours studying his various texts without break for food or drink. And in his adulthood, his ability to focus on magic was not exactly suffering, for nothing held his attention so well as the thought, study, and practice of magic.
But: he was not infallible.
So, with Childermass gone on some far distant errand and the household all abed, Norrell laid out everything he had so far gathered (for the spell dictated that nothing could be fetched by servants or purchased; all must be obtained by the magician's own hand):
Firstly, a three-pronged twig of bitter herbs or leaves for focus. (Norrell had decided upon the blooms of the carob tree, several of which had been planted in the gardens in his youth along with other such ornamental plants from the Mediterranean. He also supposed its rather unique scent would compliment the distraction he was attempting to correct.)
Secondly, a pure white beeswax candle for the duration of the casting and the final banishment. (Norrell had inexpertly crafted this himself, and while it was not a pretty thing, it was still a perfectly functional pure white beeswax candle.)
Thirdly, a quill to dictate the minutia of his request. (This he had cut from the largest raven feather he could find. Ravens were common enough on the Hurtfew grounds, and he had found a very serviceable and neatly kept feather not too far from the old summerhouse, which had fallen into disuse over the years of neglect. Raven feathers were not ideal for writing quills, but he supposed it was as apt as could be, even if he had tried to ignore the Raven King in his most recent studies.)
Fourthly, paper or parchment. (Norrell decided upon a fallen piece of birch bark, for spells of this sort often leaned toward the simplest and most natural parts of the world, and it was very little work indeed to find a suitable piece of bark.)
Fifthly, blood to write with. (Now: this was not the sort of thing Norrell generally approved of. Blood in a spell often indicated a personal and powerful kind of magic that he shied away from. But needs must, and Norrell had come closer and closer to deciding that he must. He would use his own blood, of course, and he had taken it from the inside of his forearm earlier that day, afraid that waiting to the last minute might weaken him. Surprisingly, it was often the thought of blood that jarred him more than the actual sight of it, and he had let it drip into the little glass vial with a removed curiosity before stoppering the vial and wrapping a small clout about his arm.)
All this he set out on the floor in a space he had cleared in the center of the library. But he was lacking one more thing. For focus, the spell required twelve white stones gathered from a river or stream at midnight just before the casting.
Norrell had his carob twig, his candle, his quill, his birch bark, and even his blood, but he still needed to gather the stones if he was to have any hope of success.
It was a quarter of twelve, and it was pouring.
Norrell gave into a moment's practicality. He went up to his room and placed his wig safely on its stand, and then he went back downstairs to fit on a pair of boots. They were Childermass's extra pair, so they were overlarge, but they were well cared for and therefore sure to be proof against the mud and the wet he was sure to find out of doors. He put on a muffler and a knitted cap and his cloak and he was sure he looked very foolish. But determination had set upon him, determination enough to brave the very dark and wet night to fulfill a spell he was not even sure would work.
He took up a bag to place the stones in and in his other hand he held a lantern, and he forced himself through the back door into the night and the wind and the rain.
It was not at all pleasant.
His cloak whipped around him, providing very little protection against the rain. He soon found himself wet through from his elbows to his knees. At least his shoulders were well covered and the boots did their job, though he had to take his steps carefully, for they were looser than he thought they would be, especially as he squelched through the mud of the gardens toward the stream at the back of the property.
It would have been a very pleasant walk on a sunny day, for those who enjoyed such things. Norrell did not enjoy such things and he found this far worse a trial than he had expected, with the wind whipping rain like little darts into his face at every gust, and the lantern of very little aid when there was no moon nor stars nor anything else to help it.
He could look only at where he was next to place his own feet, and so he ran into innumerable low hanging branches that he did not remember being quite so low, and realized the rain had weighed them down considerably.
Norrell was breathing hard and barely able to see anything at all by the time he reached the stream. He was only thankful that there was an abundance of white stones here, as he had noted to himself in previous days' researches, and they glimmered wetly in the light of the lantern.
Having given up most of his current wardrobe as a lost cause, Norrell fell to his knees, not realizing the ground really could be wetter than the rainy air, and he felt the cold like a shock to his knees as they pressed into the freezing, wet ground. He wobbled with a slight yelp and threw one hand out to catch himself lest he fall face first into the rushing stream.
His little bag was flung to one side as his palm caught him on a small collection of sharp rocks. He cursed.
Norrell was more cold and miserable than he could ever remember being in the whole of his life, and only the memory of the slow torture of temptation kept him from turning from his task.
He set the lantern as close to himself as he dared, half-draping his cloak around the comfort of it. He carefully snagged the bag and eased open the mouth of it. He reached out and inspected the small white stones that lined the stream. He was meticulous, taking only those that showed no imperfections-- no spots of color nor cracks nor any other flaw. It took an hour, on hands and knees at the stream's edge in the midnight storm that waxed and waned in its evils but never stopped.
By the time Norrell stumbled back into the nearest door of the Abbey, he was truly soaked and shivering uncontrollably, and hardly aware of it.
He kicked off Childermass's boots, slung his cloak over a chair with the hat and muffler, and then shuffled along to the library in his stockinged feet and muddied breeches, the bag of pure white stones collected at midnight clutched in two dirty hands before him.
In the library, he built up the fire immediately, but he did not dare to waste any time at its inviting hearth, for the spell should be done at once.
He laid out the stones like the numbers on a clock face, and imagined the circle he was making for himself as he set the carob twig to the southernmost rock and the pure white beeswax candle to the northernmost. He lit it with a word and a touch to the wick and then sat cross-legged and freezing wet in the center of the stone circle, with the birch bark and the raven feather quill and the little vial of blood.
Focus. Concentration. He gave a small, distraught laugh, unsure if he had enough of either to shape the spell he needed for both.
He sat there and thought of Childermass, and his looming form behind Norrell as he worked at his desk, of his rough hands at their worn cards, of his dark eyes more intense than flame, of his rough voice more intoxicating than wine. The candle had begun to burn in earnest and Norrell chanted the small plea of the incantation as his trembling hand wrote out his wishes.
Banish the weakness of desire.
Focus on magic, not on fire.
Rhyme had more power, sometimes, he remembered.
He wrote it over and over and over in his own blood on the curling white bark like paper with the too-thin raven quill.
He fainted before he could finish the incantation, before he could hold the bark to the flame to burn his will into reality.
Norrell collapsed on the stone floor in the center of his stone circle, shivering.
He was not found until the morning.
= = = = =
The scullery maid woke first, scratching herself irritably as she shrugged off her nightclothes and tugged on her work clothes and shuffled off to the day's duties.
After putting on several pots to boil, she woke the kitchenmaid, who later woke the cook. She woke the chambermaid, who later woke the housemaids. And she woke the stableboy, who later woke the footmen, Lucas and Davey.
In truth, Lucas and Davey served as more than footmen, being at turns valets and men-of-all-work at Hurtfew Abbey, and more besides when Childermass was gone.
Lucas and Davey flipped a coin to decide who would check on Norrell to see if he wished for breakfast yet.
Lucas lost, so up he went to the bedroom, but was disturbed to find the bed not only empty but without sign of having been slept in. He was just coming back downstairs to spread the news, when the scullery maid came running in to exclaim that there were muddy boots - and Norrell's cloak and things beside - all in a puddle of water at the back door.
Norrell was not in the dining room. He was not in the study, nor any other place the servants were willing to look.
Finally, Lucas knew he must make his way to the library, even though he avoided the labyrinth that led to it at all costs, for the way was sometimes hazy and could be provoked to have a certain attitude with its travelers if those travelers did not show it the kind of respect it deserved.
But when Lucas lit his candle and stepped through the door that would allow him entry to the labyrinth, it was almost as though the way opened to him willingly, almost as though the labyrinth was helping him. So even though he had never successfully navigated it alone before, he found his way at the first try to the library, and there he found Norrell curled up on the stone floor.
Lucas let out a cry and fell to his knees beside his master, scattering twig and stones and such as he knelt. He discovered the man's hands to be freezing cold, his forehead disturbingly hot, and his eyelids fluttering in disturbed sleep.
It was a good deal of work to summon Davey to his aid and to get the master upstairs, out of his wet things and into his nightshirt and into his bed, in which the chambermaid had placed the copper bed warmer.
They did everything they could, from stoking the fire to sending the stableboy for the doctor, and then the only thing the servants could do was wait.
They tended to their work, it was true, but only with half a mind as they kept an ear out for the sound of the doctor's carriage.
They had to wait only an hour, though it did feel so very much longer, and all the time they took turns sitting with Norrell, for though he was not the most approachable man, they all liked him in their own way, and were sorry to see him suffer so, and to suffer for reasons well beyond their understanding.
When the doctor was shown up, Lucas stayed in the room to explain what had happened, or at least what they could presume had happened.
The master had gone out in the storm on some foolish errand in order to cast some foolish spell and had nearly expired in the attempt.
The Doctor was a serious old man with an undercurrent of dry humor. He peered into Mr. Norrell's oblivious eyes, felt his head and neck and hands, listened to his lungs, and inspected the wounds on his arm, hands, and face.
One palm was viciously scratched and already pink from infection, as though scraped across a rough surface, likely the ground. His face showed sign of doing battle with a forest that had whipped at him. But the wound on his inner arm was self-inflicted and self-bound.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders and shook his head and told Lucas that, "The damn fool magician must be cared for as well as you can, given water and food if he will take it, and kept neither too warm nor too cool." Beyond that, it was the fever and infection that must be battled and that was largely in Norrell's own hands.
The doctor waited awhile longer, but as there were no immediate signs of improvement nor worsening, he bid the household good day and promised to return that evening at about dinnertime to check on him.
The servants were a bit flustered. Having cared for one another through various illnesses was one thing, but to care for a Mr. Norrell who was so sick as to be unconscious with fever - and worst of all, with no Childermass to help them - that was another thing altogether.
The housemaids did the brunt of the physical work, coming and going with hot water and cold water, with tea and with bread, with more coal and more wood, but it was Davey and Lucas who sat in the master's room and applied cool cloths to his head and changed the bandage on his wounded hand and tried to get him to drink the weak tea and who shared worried looks with one another as the master's sleep became obviously disturbed with whatever nightmare the fever had inspired in him.
They added blankets when the master shivered, and took them away again when Norrell kicked and struggled as though over-hot.
This went on until the dinner hour, when the doctor finally returned and found the man much as he expected.
"Good," he told Lucas and Davey and the rest of the eavesdropping servants. "He is fighting it. That means he wishes to be well again. Keep on with your attentions; I see you've taken very good care of him so far." He shook Lucas's hand, clapped Davey on the shoulder, and went away again.
One by one, the servants finished their duties, cleaned away their work, and went to bed.
Davey and Lucas had agreed to take turns sleeping on the sopha in the master's room, so that they would be on hand in a moment should they be needed.
Davey took first watch, and he fell asleep quickly after the day's worries and with the hot fire going strong, burning a cozy sweetness into the room. The master was quiet in his delirium as the night came on, and all was well until about three o'clock in the morning, when a shout woke Davey like a thunderclap.
He was on his feet before he even remembered where he was. As soon as he got his bearings he was at his master's bedside in a flash, grabbing hold of the flailing hand as the man cried out insensibly.
Davey made soothing sounds he was not aware of as he tried to calm the man.
Norrell returned the grip of his hand, but gave no other indication that he had any true awareness of his surroundings as he made pained little noises and tears leaked onto the pillow.
If Davey had to guess, he thought the man was being chased by some dream figment, and Davey hoped with all he was worth that the man could escape it.
This went on for some minutes until Norrell calmed and slipped into a more restful kind of dream for a time.
Davey did not sleep again that night.
At first light, Lucas crept into the room to find that Davey had pulled a chair up alongside the bed and kept a hold upon Norrell's uninjured hand as he stared blearily about himself.
"Oh Davey, straight to bed with you. I'll take over here."
"Yes," Davey muttered as he slowly got to his feet. "He's been having horrid fits and calling out--"
"Why did you not wake me?" Lucas demanded.
"Well, I would not leave him," Davey admitted, "And besides, what more could you have done?"
Lucas did not answer, because of course there was nothing more could have been done.
"When will Childermass be back?" Davey asked then.
"Today, I hope," Lucas answered. "Not that there's anything he can do either."
"Only the master was calling for him," Davey said with a yawn as he slouched out the door.
Lucas sat in the vacated chair, none too rested himself as he watched Norrell's sweating brow and dancing eyelids.
Norrell turned his face toward Lucas, and his eyes fluttered as though desperate to pull himself to wakefulness. "Childermass?" he mumbled.
"No, sir," Lucas said. "It's just me. But… he'll be home soon, sir. He will."
Whether the man understood him or not was debatable, but he did seem to calm, at least for the moment, and Lucas did not move from his place until the doctor came that day.
The doctor brought no new remedies nor hopes, but said in his calm way that all they could do was wait, and then they heard a clatter on the stairs and Childermass burst into the room, greatcoat flaring around him as he glared at all of them before turning his attention to the bed.
"What happened?" he demanded in a thunder as he stalked around the bed to take the chair like a throne as he bent close to the master and examined him like a scholar would an ancient manuscript.
"Bit of a stroll in the storm," the doctor said, unimpressed with the man's dramatics. "Bit of a fever and infection. He'll likely be fine in a few days."
The doctor shrugged and left, muttering about thankless servants as Davey showed him back to his carriage.
"Lucas?" Childermass demanded as the rest of the servants dismissed themselves at the man's warning look.
Lucas closed the door and stood at the foot of the bed and tried to explain what had happened.
Lucas had barely started his explanation of the wet things by the back door and Norrell not in bed when the man himself twisted in his sleep and fearfully whispered, "Childermass?" as though he were alone in a very dark place and would never see another living soul again.
"Don't fret, sir, I'm here," Childermass said gruffly as he quickly pulled off his gloves and laid one hand on the man's glistening forehead.
Norrell did not calm, but only flailed outward with an uncontrolled twitch of his arm. Childermass grabbed the hand that reached out and said, "Calmly now sir, or you're like to give Lucas a fine scare." With his greatcoat draped all about him and his gloves forgotten on the floor and his boots still dragging mud along the floor, Childermass again ordered Lucas to tell him everything.
Lucas did so, though he was unclear on what exactly Norrell had been doing, and only then remembered the things he'd disturbed in the library.
"What things?" Childermass asked harshly.
"Ah… stones. There were stones in a circle I think. And a candle. That's all I remember."
"Has anyone been in the library since?"
"Watch him," Childermass said, standing abruptly and darting from the room like an angry shadow.
Lucas blew out a sigh and sank shakily into the chair. "You've got very bad timing," Lucas told his master. "Wait for him, next time, will you? For he's such a temper when you're unwell." Lucas closed his eyes and waited, half-asleep already, despite a fretful day and still no dinner to be had.
In the library, Childermass stalked towards the remnants of the spell, examining what remained of the layout. He counted the white stones and inspected the carob tree blossom and scrutinized the poorly made candle and studied the expertly cut quill, and then he picked up what remained of the blood-smeared birch bark, squinting to read Norrell's tiny, familiar hand, though the letters were poorly made compared to his usual writing.
Banish the weakness of desire.
Focus on magic, not on fire.
Written out thirteen times and then cast aside, likely when he had fainted. Childermass did not know this particular spell, but he understood the way of it, how the magician's words could be transmuted by the candle's flame, burned and changed into truth. It was not Norrell's typical sort of magic. None of this situation was Norrell's typical anything.
He tucked the bark into a deep pocket and returned upstairs, where he curtly dismissed Lucas for the night. Childermass only barely thought to remove his greatcoat, which he threw over the sopha in the warm room before he took up his seat beside the bed, dark eyes on Norrell's restless form as the man fought the fever and infection and twisted in the sheets like a lost creature.
Childermass glanced at the closed door, at the chattering fire, and back down at Norrell - so small in the wide bed in his disturbed delirium - and Childermass cautiously reached out to scoop up Norrell's hand in the gentlest clasp he was capable of.
"Sir," he whispered. "You must get well."
"Childermass," Norrell sighed and calmed and slept.
Childermass did not. He did not sigh, could not be calm, would not sleep. He sat and held Norrell's hand and watched him throughout what remained of the day.
= = = = =
Lucy came in to tend the fire and to bring a late dinner for Childermass. He quietly thanked her, and then requested fresh water.
Once all had been attended to, as night was coming on, after he had eaten only enough to ease his hunger, Childermass took up the duty of wiping Norrell's brow with the clout, wetted and wrung again and again to keep it cool.
The later it grew, the more fitful Norrell became until he clawed at the sheets and his eyes fluttered open and he made sounds that made Childermass's mouth sour with fear.
Childermass kept a firm hold of one cold hand, not knowing if he was doing any good or not, and repeatedly thinking of the way his stomach had dropped out from under him when he had turned Brewer into the Abbey yard and seen what was unmistakably the doctor's carriage at the front door. What strange fear had seized him as he'd run into the house that seemed so empty, empty because it did not exude the familiar aura of Norrell's magic-- an aura that was more home to Childermass than Hurtfew itself.
He'd nearly succumbed to mourning before he could make it up to the bedroom and see that Norrell was not dead, not dead but still suffering in a fever the likes of which had never taken him before, his own magic drawn in so close to himself as to be undetectable.
Childermass barely knew what he'd done in those first moments, trying to hide his relief, trying to fight through the fear.
But now here he was at Norrell's side and here he would stay until the man awoke; Childermass was resolute.
But it was very difficult to watch throughout the night as Norrell only worsened; it was a trial for Childermass to sit there and do nothing, nothing useful at any rate. He could only feel extremely foolish as he spoke quietly, as he would to a disturbed horse. Norrell remained insensible, but continued to turn toward Childermass, toward his rough hands and rough voice, the same way a flower turns toward the sun.
Childermass's hands shook when he gently laid them along Norrell's over-hot face before quickly withdrawing to tend once more to the wet cloth on his brow.
Norrell had been mumbling insensibly for a while, but now there were words amongst the mumblings, and Childermass could not stop himself from bending closer to hear.
"No…" Norrell was saying, and then, "Stop!"
Childermass ground his teeth in frustration. What could he do?
"Not the teapot…" Norrell muttered.
Childermass let out something like a broken laugh, and then he softly agreed, "No, sir. Not near the books."
"Good," Norrell softly answered and quieted then for about half an hour.
Sitting up in the chair, his eyes closed, one booted foot upon a low stool, one hand curled loosely on the bed, Childermass was nearly asleep. What remained of the fire flickered against his closed eyelids. Norrell's breathing was a steady pulse at his side. Sleep beckoned.
But then the bed shook minutely as its occupant flinched and shifted.
Childermass woke from his doze to the sound of his name being called, quietly as though from far away by one who could not draw breath.
"Childermass," Norrell was murmuring with every exhale. A sharp breath in as though fighting for air, and then the wheezing breath out, Childermass's name on his lips.
The man he called to leaned closer and found his unbandaged hand to hold in a firm clasp. "I'm here, sir," he vowed. "I'll not leave you again. Can you hear me?"
"Childermass… I need him."
"But I'm here, sir."
"Please," Norrell begged, the fever raging on his brow as he winced against the pain that wracked his body, "Please…"
"Anything you need, sir."
Childermass bowed over him, his hands clutching Norrell's, his forehead to Norrell's chest as he whispered a stream of barely audible promises, "Yes. I'm here, sir. I won't go. I'll stay as long as you need me. So long as you stay, too. Fight this, Norrell. Whatever it is. And I'll be by your side for the whole of it, I promise, I promise…"
Norrell's pulse was too fast and weak at his wrist where Childermass held him. His breath was too wheezy.
Childermass prayed as he had not since childhood.
= = = = =
Before dawn, Norrell started again with his tremblings and murmurings and soon enough it turned to raving, Childermass's name intermingled with pleas and cries of pain.
Childermass willfully toughened himself to the sound of it, sternly keeping to the regimen of cool cloth and gentling touches as best he could, though he knew he was not himself a gentle man.
"Childermass, you must fetch Childermass…"
"But I'm here, sir," Childermass responded without much hope, for Norrell did not seem to know him, no matter how often he calmly answered the increasingly desperate pleas.
"But I have to tell him," Norrell said, his eyes blinking open. He was neither awake nor asleep in his delirium as he reached blindly out before him.
Childermass clasped both his hands and tried to settle him as he leaned into the magician's field of vision, trying yet again between clenched teeth, "I'm here, sir."
"Yes. You are ill, sir, and I beg you will fight to be well again."
"But I must tell you…"
"Yes. You must tell me what?"
"I… I have such great depth of feeling for you, I cannot… I cannot..."
Childermass leaned closer yet and gripped the man's hands harder as though he could ground him in the here and now.
"You can," Childermass cajoled.
"It… why does it hurt? Everything hurts…" Norrell whined and twisted in the bedding as though to escape it.
Childermass peeled back a layer of the blankets and removed the wet cloth from the pillow where it had fallen. "It is the fever," Childermass told him. "Aches come with it, and difficult breath. You must be strong, sir."
"No," Norrell said, blinking up into nothingness as he pressed a fist against his own chest over his heart as though to still the sudden, clenched pounding of it. "Why do I love you," he asked, sad and lonely and lost, "when you cannot love me back?"
Childermass froze in the act of reaching for the man's face. His nostrils flared as he sucked in a shocked breath.
"It… It is no matter," Childermass tried, and then settled the back of his hand on the sweating brow, even hotter than before. "Nothing matters but your health, sir. You need to drink when we give you water and you need to rest so that you might fight off this fever." He then reached out to steal his fingers into the fist clutched over the heaving breast. "Easy now, sir. I've got you. I've got your hand. Do you feel it?"
"All's well," Childermass promised, wondering if Norrell would live another day as his sheets and nightclothes were soaked with sweat and his face red with the contagion, his breath shakier at every inhalation, and his words less coherent as the night pushed into morning.
= = = = =
When Lucas stuck his head in the room at first light, he found Childermass asleep in the chair, bent at an awkward angle so that his head rested on the bed and his hand clasped Norrell's. Childermass snored lightly and Norrell slept relatively peacefully. Seeing as there were no immediate needs, Lucas slowly backed out and sent the servants to their duties, ordering fresh water and breakfast as soon as may be and a change of bedclothes to be ready. He snuck in to build up the fire himself and only then did he gently touch Childermass's shoulder.
Childermass jerked to wakefulness in a moment and looked first to Norrell before turning his attention to Lucas.
"Food's on its way," Lucas offered. "And fresh sheets. We'll manage between the two of us to change him out of his things?"
"Yes," Childermass agreed, reaching out to Norrell once more. "He's soaked through, poor dear."
= = = = =
With the windows firmly closed and the fire roaring, Norrell was removed to the sopha while Lucy and Dido changed out the bedding with swift efficiency. After the girls left, Lucas and Childermass stripped Norrell of his nightshirt and gave him a very quick wash. Childermass wrapped him in an oversized robe to dry him, just holding him close while Lucas grabbed up another nightshirt. They worked together to dress him and return him to the bed, and he was rather more pliable than when he was awake, though heavier.
Norrell looked more himself when he was finally returned to the bed - now warm and dry - with soft, short hair curling over his brow, and Childermass left him only briefly to attend to his own needs before returning to the chair, now in his shirtsleeves as the room was so warm, and determined to stay there for the foreseeable future.
Childermass changed the bandage over Norrell's hand, examining the scraped palm carefully, but it had been well-cleaned and there was nothing to do but cover it up again with a fresh dressing.
Then, from a hidden pocket, he withdrew the birch bark with its bloody writing to examine it. After tracing over the words innumerable times until the entirety of it was burned into his mind's eye, Childermass read it out: "Banish the weakness of desire. Focus on magic, not on fire."
He watched Norrell's slack face as he read it, but there was no response. Whether sleeping or unconscious, Norrell did not hear him.
= = = = =
Norrell fussed quite a bit throughout the day, eating and drinking only sparingly when Childermass pressed him with tea and water and wine-soaked bread.
He reminded Childermass a bit of a newborn pup: blind and weak and unable to do much but to call out for its mother and search in desperation for sustenance.
Childermass stayed close, as Norrell seemed most calm when he was near, with a hand clasping Norrell's atop the bedclothes or simply laid upon his arm or shoulder as he fretted in his sleep.
The doctor returned again that day and - when he proclaimed there was nothing to be done - was chased away by Childermass's dark looks and uncouth words.
But before he left, the doctor was determined to say his piece, even if speaking to Childermass felt a bit like bearding a badger in its den.
"The fact of the matter is: you and the other servants here are taking very good care of Mr. Norrell. You've all shown a depth of feeling and devotion in your attentions to his every need, and there is nothing I can add to your regimen to improve his chances. Right now, I give him the best possible odds to make a full recovery. Good day to you."
The doctor gave Childermass a nod of pompous self-possession and let himself out of the bedroom.
Childermass had no reason to be suspicious of the doctor or his intentions (the man had been healing people across a good portion of Yorkshire for the better part of forty years), so even though he tried not to let temptation best him, he could not ignore the hope blooming in his chest.
As evening drew on, Childermass used the flattest part of the bed to lay out his cards. He asked question after question of them, but they refused to be very forthcoming, and while Childermass could read a change on the horizon, he could not see if it be for good or ill, or what any of it boded for Norrell.
Childermass took himself down to the kitchen to eat a hearty dinner, leaving Lucas to keep an eye on Norrell, but as soon as he was done he returned to the sick room to retake his seat at his master's side and wait for the full of night to draw down.
As it did - as the sun put itself away for the day and the stars bloomed across the inky blackness and a chill wind wrapped itself about the abbey - Childermass watched as Norrell's breathing eased, as his trembling stilled to calmness, as a hint of pink returned to the pallid face.
"You will be well," Childermass promised, "and I'll not leave you until you chase me out, sir."
Norrell gave no reaction, but he looked so healthful compared to the previous days that Childermass could not help but smile and watch and wait, even as the darkest part of the night came on and there was not a single thing in all the house that moved.
= = = = =
Childermass slept on and off throughout the night and whenever he woke, it was always to find Norrell sleeping peacefully, quiet in the equally quiet house.
When dawn peeked into the room with the rosy tips of its fingers, Childermass roused himself for the day. He tended to the fire and rang for breakfast and saw to it that Norrell was as comfortable as may be.
He found that his master had something of a frown upon his face, as though seeking a way out of a problem (so familiar an expression that it was a comfort to Childermass in and of itself), and so Childermass sat with him and snuck both of his hands into Norrell's-- ostensibly to warm them, but Childermass might admit if only to himself that it was primarily for his own comfort, for while it was true that Norrell's hands were cold, there was still a warm thread of life in them that reassured Childermass far more than any doctor's proclamation.
Childermass bowed his head as he felt the sun ease further past the curtains, illuminating both of them in dusty halos around their hair and tucking its warmth about them like a loving mother.
With his head so bowed and his thoughts turned as inward as they were, Childermass did not notice the flutter of eyes, the quickening of breath, and the slow awakening that was taking place right in front of him.
"Childermass?" Norrell asked, his voice little more than a croak and his expression utterly befuddled in the growing light, "What are you doing in my room?"
Childermass gasped as his head shot up and a smile broadened his rough features. He barely registered the content of Norrel's question, overjoyed as he was by the lucid light in Norrell's eyes, the healthful tint to his cheeks, and the calm, fussy manner of his speech.
"Sir! You are well!"
"Have I not been?"
"You've had a fever and worse these last three days. Don't you remember? You braved the storm in the midst of a bad night and paid dearly for it."
"Storm…" Norrell asked, and his expression showed plainly how he struggled to remember, to put a firm grasp round his own memories.
"For a spell," Childermass clarified. "For some magic."
All at once, Norrell's pale face flushed and he sucked in a breath. "Ah, yes," he remarked in a falsely casual tone. "Perhaps I should have waited for a more seasonal night."
At this, he looked down to avoid Childermass's intense gaze and found their four hands entwined atop the bedclothes.
"Childermass, why are you clutching at me?"
Childermass slowly withdrew, careful not to jar the man or show his own sudden insecurity. "It seemed to calm you," he said, "in your delirium."
Norrell looked at his empty hands and said nothing.
Childermass's hand twitched, as though thinking to take up their handhold again, but then Childermass withdrew completely, standing and striding to the door in his loping strides to call for tea and food and every other good thing he could think of.
The servants could be heard calling joyfully the news to one another throughout the halls of the place before Childermass closed the door again and informed Norrell, "You will be weak yet. You've hardly eaten for days. You need to get your strength back up and--"
"Yes, yes," Norrell said, flapping a hand as though to wave him off, "I can see already you'll be a worse mother hen than any nurse. Bring me whatever you think is best and I will eat it, but I will not have you hovering over me while I do. And I cannot be expected to sit here and do nothing while I 'get my strength up'. I'll need books. Some Pale to start with, and if you could be so good as to fetch the three volumes on my desk, as well as the new one just come from Edinburgh, that will suffice for now-- and why are you smiling at me?"
Childermass's wild grin was quickly tamed down to a more customary smirk, but he only said, "No reason, sir. As soon as the food is brought up, I shall fetch your books directly."
"See that you do," Norrell said and set about righting the blankets so that each was turned down the same length and lay as crisply as possible over him as he smoothed away the wrinkles. "I cannot imagine you will let me out of bed until the wretched doctor comes and if I do not have food for the mind as well as the body, no recovery can be hoped for at all."
Childermass only asked if he was too cold or too warm, and then built up the fire accordingly, smiling all the while.
As soon as could be, Dido and Lucas brought up the food and Childermass ensured everything was to his master's satisfaction - it rarely was - and then took himself off to the library to fetch the requested volumes.
Norrell ate with gusto and was so hungry that he could not think of a single thing to complain about. He even thought to thank Lucas when he took the empty tray away and then reached out for the books that Childermass was holding at the ready.
Within ten minutes, Norrell was asleep, the book open on his chest as he drowsed, and Childermass watched him all the while. When it was clear that Norrell was truly asleep and would not be disturbed by such small motions, Childermass retrieved the book and set it carefully aside before lowering the lights and sitting once more at his master's side.
He hesitated, but then slowly let his hand cover Norrell's where it lay on the blanket. Just for a moment Childermass sat there, looking all his fill, before finally leaving for his own bed, his own sleep, and his own dreams.
= = = = =
If the old Yorkshire doctor thought Childermass was a trial to tolerate, it was nothing to Norrell in full form.
"…And you do not need to tell me to keep myself in bed-- I will stay in bed as long as I like and when I am ready I shall return to the library. It is not so very trying to sit and read. I shall do so here and then I shall do so in the library, and the moment between the two will not be determined by you, Doctor."
The doctor turned to look at Childermass, who wore a knowing smirk, and the doctor said simply, "I see I am no longer needed here. You shall make your recovery in your own time, Mister Norrell… I am sure the servants shall see to that." This last was said with a pointed look to Childermass, whose smile was distinctly wolfish.
Then Lucas showed the doctor out and nothing was said until they heard the sound of the carriage moving off along the drive.
Norrell was sitting propped in bed with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
"The Pale, then?" Childermass asked. "Or the Pevensy?"
"Stokesey," Norrell said, just to be contrary.
So Childermass went down to the library and when he came back, he'd brought a small office with him: lap desk and ink and paper and all such paraphernalia that either of them might need.
Then Childermass handed over the Stokesey before making himself at home upon the sopha with some of his own work.
"What are you doing?" Norrell asked suspiciously.
"Can you not do that in the library?"
"And how long will it be, sir, before I am needed? To fetch a book perhaps? Or cut a new quill? Or reset your lap desk?"
"All right, all right," Norrell said, waving his hand to cut him off. "You've made yourself clear." Norrell generally knew when he'd lost. Then he raised a warning finger and declared, "But I'll not have you disturbing my studies."
"No, sir," Childermass drawled in a voice laced with insolence, a cocky smile on his face as he merely glanced toward his master, as though barely paying him any mind at all.
= = = = =
Childermass proceeded to disturb him a great deal, and enjoyed himself immensely. He brought water and tea, bread and butter, bed warmers and cool cloths -- and when Norrell would have absolutely no more of that, Childermass took to tucking his blankets more securely about him, fluffing his pillows, and adjusting the curtains to ensure the light was just right.
"Lucas!" Norrell finally shouted, "Lucas! Childermass will not leave a poor sick man alone! Take him away and make him do some other work, for I cannot concentrate!"
Lucas and Childermass finally left Norrell to a bit of peace, sure that he was well on the mend. In the kitchen, they enjoyed a robust meal comprised primarily of mutton while they flirted with the maids and waited until the bell chimed for Norrell's room.
"Almost an hour," Childermass remarked as he stood and wiped his mouth with a careless sleeve. "Not bad."
Lucas only laughed at him as Childermass trotted back upstairs.
At Norrell's door he gave a perfunctory knock before letting himself in.
"Childermass, where have you been? You did not put nearly enough ink in the well, and this quill has become quite useless."
"I'll see to it at once, sir," Childermass said, all professionalism as he came around to take away the lap desk and attend to all its many necessities while Norrell lost himself in whatever book he'd decided upon for the time being.
"Cook will be sending dinner up shortly," Childermass told him when he returned the lap desk to its place.
"What, already?" Norrell asked, looking sharply up at him, the tassel of his little cap waving frantically.
Childermass smiled gently. "It's gone six some time ago, sir. Are you not hungry?"
"Well… yes, I suppose I am."
"Then I suppose you shall eat when it comes."
"You think you are very amusing," Norrell told him. "It is not so. You are insolent, Childermass. It's unbecoming a servant."
Childermass ducked his head to hide his smile. "And yet you cannot do without me, sir."
"There is that," Norrell softy acknowledged. Recovering himself, Norrell went on, "And after dinner, more books."
"More, sir?" Childermass asked, with a glance askance to the desk and dresser, each by now housing several piles of various texts. "Will you not be sleeping sometime tonight, then?"
Norrell tried his hardest glare, likely to hide the flush of his cheeks as he said, "There was a book I was using. A gray calfskin cover…"
"On the floor?"
"The floor?!" Norrell cried.
"When you fainted--"
"You will continue to remind me of that…"
"I did remove it to the desk," Childermass said, somewhat conciliatory.
"Well, that's the one, then. After dinner."
"After dinner," Childermass agreed, trying to sort out the half of the conversation that wasn't being said.
= = = = =
After dinner, Childermass slipped into the room as Lucas was departing with the tray.
Norrell was staring at the fire, his fatigue obvious as he appeared rather drawn and weary, despite the day's lack of exertion. Since the morning, he'd done nothing but read and complain-- rather less of the former and more of the latter than usual, but Childermass supposed that was only to be expected when a fastidious gentleman was confined to bed and recovering from such a sickness.
Childermass pulled the curtains to keep the night-cold at bay as he went about the room, tidying things in the manner that Norrell most approved of.
Lastly, he drew the chair up alongside the bed and this finally caught Norrell's attention. The man gave him a mistrustful, sidelong look that Childermass wasn't entirely convinced he hadn't earned.
Norrell tried twice to ask a question, and gave up both times, perhaps worried that no matter what order he put his words in, they might give something away.
Sighing, Childermass withdrew the book from the depths of his outdated jacket. "Is this it, then?"
"Yes," Norrell said, but made no move to take it.
So, Childermass gently set it on his lap. Then, knowing that Norrell was paying very close attention without actually looking at him, Childermass slowly withdrew the birch bark with its bloody writing, and this he placed atop the book.
Norrell's hands skittered backward as though Childermass had daintily placed a large spider on the bed. Norrell tucked his hands under the bedclothes and swallowed audibly.
"Do you remember aught of your illness?" Childermass asked.
Norrell shook his head no, his eyes resolutely fixed on the birch bark.
"You spoke out in your sleep."
Norrell stilled completely, as though even the breath had gone out of him.
"You were asking for me even before I'd returned. You don't remember, do you?"
Norrell gave something like a twitch, perhaps the most he was capable of in that moment.
"It is not my intention to discomfit you, sir. But you said something to me in your sleep… and I think it be true, and I would know if it is so."
Norrell ducked his head further yet, like a turtle pulling into its shell.
"You declared that you loved me."
Never had a silence settled so thick and syrupy over a place. It was as though the air itself had congealed with some heavy sludge that tasted like a sour fear and Childermass was suddenly determined to breathe some sweetness back into it.
"I would know if it be true, sir. Because…" Childermass had to fight to find his own words this time, and he was not sure if Norrell's inaction was a help or a hindrance to him, for he could find neither encouragement nor censure in the bowed head and still form.
"Because my feelings for you are rather more than a servant's ought to be." And even though Norrell would not look at him, Childermass could not look away. Unseen, he pleaded with his eyes even as he explained the best he could what he meant. "You hired me on when no one else in all the Riding would have me, and you earned my thanks. You treated me the same as any other of God's creatures, and you earned my admiration. When I proved myself competent, you entrusted me with words and deeds you did not trust to any other, and you earned my affection. You infected me with your passion for magic and looked at me like I was a man, and you earned my love then, sir, you did." Childermass stopped to breathe then, desperate, and still Norrell did not look at him. "And so, I ask to know if be true, sir. If you tried to cast a spell to quell your own feelings for me. If you love me like you told me you did in your delirium. Because if we feel the same, sir…"
"It-- It is true," Norrell said. His voice was small, like a fearful creature hiding in some corner, but it was also determined, as though that same creature held an untested fierceness inside it. "I should never have dared to say anything about it to anyone, you least of all. I thought it… wrong."
"Some may call it so," Childermass agreed.
"And what do you call it?"
"I see little need to call it anything. I love you. That's all."
Slowly, hesitantly, Norrell withdrew a hidden hand from the covers and eased it toward Childermass, as though he happened to just casually decide to lay his arm out alongside him on the bed for no reason.
Slowly, but not at all hesitantly, Childermass clasped it in his own hand, rough and warm.
"John," Norrell said.
"Oh," was all Childermass could manage then. Never had Norrell so easily silenced him with a single word.
"John," Norrell said again, as though trying out a foreign word, unsure of its pronunciation or even if he was using it correctly. "If we do feel the same… then I do not need these anymore." He casually brushed the book and birch bark away. They fell to the floor with a thump and Norrell finally looked up to see those intense, deep-set dark eyes still pleading with him.
"May I kiss you?" Norrell abruptly asked. "Only, I know I won't have the courage to ask later," he said quickly, his watery gaze darting down to their tightly clasped hands and back up to Childermass's eager expression again.
Childermass's smile was very small, but so real as to be blinding in its sincerity. His rough hand squeezed Norrell's gently as he asked with a hint of amusement, "What do you think? Gilbert?"
"I… Well, I suppose it unbecoming of a gentleman to take advant--" but his words were stopped by Childermass's kiss, rough lips pressed warm and sweet to Norrell's mouth in something that felt very much like a beginning.
= = = = =