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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
(takes place in Venice, after Strange and Norrell have parted ways. Drawlight, a servant of Mr Norrell's has come with foul intentions, either to abduct or murder Strange. But Strange, obsessed with the Raven King, has other plans…)
"I will show you," said Strange, "and then you will understand. If you perform these three tasks, I shall take no revenge on you. I shall not harm you. Deliver these three messages and you may return to your night-hunts, to your devouring of men and women."
"Thank you! Thank you!" breathed Drawlight, gratefully, until a horrible realisation gripped him. "Three! But, sir, you only gave me two!"
"Three messages," said Strange, wearily. "You must deliver three messages."
"Yes, but you have not told me what the third is!"
Strange made no reply. He turned away, muttering to himself.
In spite of all his terror, Drawlight had a great desire to get hold of the magician and shake him. He might have done it too, if he thought it would do any good. Tears of self-pity began to trickle down his face. Now Strange would kill him for not performing the third task and it was not his fault.
"Bring me a drink of water!" said Strange, suddenly returning.
Drawlight looked around. In the middle of the Venetian square there was a well. He went over to it and found a horrible old iron cup attached to the stones by a length of rusting chain. He pushed aside the well-cover, drew up a pail of water and dipped the cup into the water. He hated touching it. Curiously, after everything that had happened to him that day it was the iron cup he hated the most. All of his life he had loved beautiful things, but now everything that surrounded him was horrible. It was the magicians' fault. How he hated them!
"Sir? Lord magician?" he called out. "You will have to come here to drink." He showed the iron chain by way of an explanation.
Strange came forward, but he did not take the proffered cup. Instead he took a tiny phial out of his pocket and handed it to Drawlight. "Put six drops in the water," he said.
Drawlight took out the stopper. His hand was trembling so much that he feared he would pour the whole thing on the ground. Strange did not appear to notice; Drawlight shook in some drops.
Strange took the cup and drank the water down. The cup fell from his hand. Drawlight was aware—he did not know how exactly—that Strange was changed. Against the starry sky the black shape of his figure sagged and his head drooped. Drawlight wondered if he were drunk. But how could a few drops of any thing make a man drunk? Besides he did not smell of strong liquor; he smelt like a man who had not washed himself or his linen for some weeks; and there was another smell too—one that had not been there a minute ago—a smell like old age and half a hundred cats.
Drawlight had the strangest feeling. It was something he had felt before when magic was about to happen. Invisible doors seemed to be opening all around him; winds blew on him from far away, bringing scents of woods, moors and bogs. Images flew unbidden into his mind. The houses around him were no longer empty. He could see inside them as if the walls had been removed. Each dark room contained -- not a person exactly -- a Being, an Ancient Spirit. One contained a Fire; another a Stone; yet another a Shower of Rain; yet another a Flock of Birds; yet another a Hillside; yet another a Small Creature with Dark and Fiery Thoughts; and on and on.
"What are they?" he whispered, in amazement. He realised that all the hairs on his head were standing on end as if he had been electrified. Then a new, different sensation took him: it was a sensation not unlike falling, and yet he remained standing. It was as if his mind had fallen down…
He thought he stood upon an English hillside. Rain was falling; it twisted in the air like grey ghosts. Rain fell upon him and he grew thin as rain. Rain washed away thought, washed away memory, all the good and the bad. He no longer knew his name. Everything was washed away like mud from a stone. Rain filled him up with thoughts and memories of its own. Silver lines of water covered the hillside, like intricate lace, like the veins of an arm. Forgetting that he was, or ever had been, a man, he became the lines of water. He fell into the earth with the rain.
* * *
He thought he lay beneath the earth, beneath England. Long ages passed; cold and rain seeped through him; stones shifted within him. In the Silence and the Dark he grew vast. He became the earth; he became England. A star looked down on him and spoke to him. A stone asked him a question and he answered it in its own language. A river curled at his side; hills budded beneath his fingers. He opened his mouth and breathed out Spring...
* * *
He thought he was pressed into a thicket in a dark wood in winter. The trees went on forever, dark pillars separated by thin, white slices of winter light. He looked down. Young saplings pierced him through and through; they grew up through his body, through his feet and hands. His eyelids would no longer close because twigs had grown up through them. Insects scuttled in and out of his ears; spiders built nests and webs in his mouth. He realised he had been entwined in the wood for years and years. He knew the wood and the wood knew him. There was no saying any longer what was wood and what was man.
All was silent. Snow fell. He screamed...
Like rising up from beneath dark waters, Drawlight came to himself. Who it was that released him—whether Strange, or the Wood, or England itself—he did not know, but he felt its contempt as it cast him back into his own mind. The Ancient Spirits withdrew from him. His thoughts and sensations shrank to those of a Man. He was dizzy and reeling from the memory of what he had endured. He examined his hands and rubbed the places on his body where the trees had pierced him. They seemed whole enough; oh, but they hurt! He whimpered and looked around for Strange.
The magician was a little way off, crouching by a wall, muttering magic to himself. He struck the wall once; the stones bulged, changed shape, became a raven; the raven opened its wings and, with a loud caw, flew up towards the night sky. He struck the wall again: another raven emerged from the wall and flew away. Then another and another, and on and on, thick and fast they came until all the stars above were blotted out by black wings.
Strange raised his hand to strike again...
"Lord magician," gasped Drawlight. "You have not told me what the third message is."
Strange looked round. Without warning he seized Drawlight's coat and pulled him close. Drawlight could feel Strange's stinking breath on his face and for the first time he could see his face. Starlight shone on fierce, wild eyes, from which all humanity and reason had fled.
"Tell Norrell I am coming!" hissed Strange. "Now, go!"
Drawlight did not need to be told twice. He sped away through the darkness. Ravens seemed to pursue him. He could not see them, but he heard the beating of their wings and felt the currents in the air that those wings created. Halfway across a bridge he tumbled without warning into dazzling light. Instantly he was surrounded by the sound of birdsong and of people talking. Men and women were walking and talking and going about their everyday pursuits. Here was no terrible magic—only the everyday world—the wonderful, beautiful everyday world.
Drawlight's clothes were still drenched in seawater and the weather was cruelly cold. He was in a part of the city he did not recognize. No one offered to help him and for a long time he walked about, lost and exhausted. Eventually he happened upon a square he knew and was able to make his way back to the little tavern where he rented a room. By the time he reached it, he was weak and shivering. He undressed and rinsed the salt from his body as best he could. Then he lay down on his little bed.
For the next two days he lay in a fever. His dreams were unspeakable things, filled with Darkness, Magic and the Long, Cold Ages of the Earth. And all the time he slept he was filled with dread lest he wake to find himself under the earth or crucified by a winter wood.
By the middle of the third day he was recovered enough to get up and go to the harbor. There he found an English ship bound for Portsmouth. He showed the captain the letters and papers Lascelles had given him, promising a large fee to the ship that bore him back to England and signed by two of the most famous bankers in Europe.
By the fifth day he was on a ship bound for England.
Excerpted from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Copyright © 2004 by Susanna Clarke. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.