This tale started as an experiment in writing like a 19th Century nobleman. It’s loosely inspired by the totally amazing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
It’s featured in the 2016 edition of Rivulets. If you like it, please support my fellow Naperville area writers and buy a copy.
On the End of Magick
It is a sad fact of modern British life that there is no more magick. I am not referring to the kind of “magic” where your seldom-spoken-of uncle pulls sixpence pieces from behind your ear, or hooded priests commit dark acts on barren moors or in dark pine forests to summon slimy-tentacled gods. Both of those are, sadly, in abundant supply to this minute.
When I refer to magick, I of course refer to that ancient art unique to Britain, usually involving the help of faeries, sprites and other “small folk.” After a brief resurgence in the early half of the 19th century—where rumours abound that it helped defeat Napoleon and saved our Blessed Island from defeat and shame, demonstrations of the Art became all the rage in the parlors of Whitehall and Mayfair, then disappeared again forever. Those fantastic beings were never again spoken of seriously, except as the stuff of myth.
It is, indeed, gone, never to return. In point of fact, it ended at precisely 10:43 on the evening of October 20, 1854, in the drawing room of Lord and Lady Winthrop. I was there, and these many years later I have never forgotten. Nor have I spoken of it until now.
Magick was then the domain of the upper classes, since it took untold hours of leisure time in order to study the old texts in many languages. It also took considerable funds to pay for the books, and compensate the innocent in case something went amiss, which it frequently did. I know for a fact there have been small payments to household staff for minor inconveniences like cuts from flying brandy snifters and one instance where a valet’s left ring finger developed feathers and what looked for all the world like a beak.
On the evening in question, we were gathered for an evening of conversation, brandy and a demonstration of a new spell or two. The Winthrops were eager collectors of ancient spell books and fair practitioners as well, although they did little “practical” magick.
That was deemed at the time very dangerous. First, because the results were unpredictable, and secondly because a successful trick like having sheep grow wool already colored in tartan plaid, while amusing and cost-effective, would inevitably lead to requests for more and better examples of their art like ensuring a bumper crop every year, or making the weather in Scotland less miserable at least for a few days in a row. In short, it would lead to more work. No one in the Winthrop’s position was looking for anything resembling steady employment.
We had gathered, half a dozen of us, to see Lady Winthrop demonstrate her skill at “scrying”. Scrying, you may recall, is the art of using mirrors or water-filled silver bowls to see other places and times. Usually, this was used to locate lost items or see what people were doing elsewhere. Most times, this was a harmless amusement. The problem is, it enlisted the aid of faery folk, who were mercurial and often unreliable. For every time the lost keys were located, or the husband’s infidelities revealed, there was an instance where the small folk involved chose to play a prank.
A sprite named Steptoe was responsible for some minor unpleasantness with the Earl of Grundy. While showing the events on his estate, the little devil added a false vision of a large manticore devouring several of his Lordship’s prized Shropshire sheep. It was all in fun, of course, but led to a severe fit of apoplexy and the very public sacking of a completely innocent gamekeeper.
We waited while Lady Winthrop pulled down her favorite scrying bowl and set it in the middle of the drawing room table. Her pretty blond locks were tied back with a black silk ribbon so as not to fall into the water. She leaned over the bowl, giving us the added pleasure of a glimpse at her considerable décolletage and began murmuring the summoning spell. Lord Winthrop, a handful of years older than her, puffed on his pipe contentedly. He possessed some Talent himself, especially in the finding of lost objects. His interest in that evening’s events centered, as usual, on being seen as a good host, and his bride a source of amusement for his guests.
The water in the bowl began to fog promisingly, when a voice came from the doorway.
“There’s no need for that. I’m here. You can ask me directly.” At the entrance to the room stood the most extraordinary gentleman. He was tall, perhaps thirty years of age, with pale skin and the darkest hair and eyes. His clothes were of the finest velvet, a little gaudy and the lace cuffs a bit too wide, but a striking figure to be sure. His voice was smooth as whale oil and his teeth actually sparkled when he gave us a broad smile.
Lord Winthrop tried to maintain the ironic detachment for which he was renowned, but the sudden appearance of this foppish stranger on the second floor of his home concerned him more than he let on. He stood slowly. “I’m sorry. We haven’t been introduced. I’m Lord Avery Winthrop, and you are…”
“Willowbark. My title is quite unpronounceable, but I assure you, I outrank you.” He stepped into the room, and offered his hand to Lady Winthrop. “And this, of course, is the fair Alice.”
Out of reflex, Lady Winthrop offered her soft hand. Pale as she was, her skin was still pinker and a shade darker than that of Willowbark. The tall man kissed it gently and released it. Her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed red. The rest of us watched in stunned silence, although I heard a soft sigh from behind me. Whether the sigh-er was male or female, I couldn’t confirm.
Lord Winthrop gave an affronted cough. “May I ask to what we owe the pleasure, Lord… uh, Willowbark?”
“Straight to business, very good. I respect that. Very well. I have come as an envoy… a representative of my people.”
His Lordship didn’t ask what people those were. It was obvious the man was a Faery or serious rank. “And why come to us? Why not to Her Majesty, or Prime Minister Peel?” Like all Englishmen of the time, he believed there was nothing of importance that shouldn’t be shifted off to a government committee. This brought a musical, tinkling laugh from the guest.
“Victoria, a lovely girl, although completely magickless and thus unqualified to rule. We don’t bother with her type. Their power is illusory at best. We much prefer to deal with those who have at least a smidgen of the Talent. And a smidgen is all anyone has anymore. Which brings me to why I’m here.”
He strode to the middle of the room and casually perched his bottom on the table next to the scrying bowl. “You lot are the best we could do. You have access to the seat of power, while possessing enough magick to be worth our time. Especially, Alice, here.”
Unsure of how else to respond, Lady Winthrop offered a slight curtsey.
“We have come with an offer I suggest you accept. We are going to make one of you the ruler of Britain, and unleash full magickal powers throughout the land.” At this he turned to each of us, looking us in the eye and pinning us to the spot.
We all stared dumbly at each other. Finally Lord Winthrop asked the natural question. “That seems most….generous. But to what do we owe this… considerable….honour?”
Willowbark gave another short tinkling laugh, the light from the chandelier reflecting off his perfect teeth. “More of an honour than you know, dear Avery. In fact, there was considerable discussion about if you’re worthy at all, yet here I am. Frankly, you’re the best of a bad lot. And there is, of course, a price to be paid.”
There it was. As always when dealing with the small folk, everything was a transaction. This for that, tit-for-tat. Nothing comes without a price in this world, and it’s even truer in the Other world when dealing with faeries.
“We are tired of mucking about with you mortals. You have all the power of this and several worlds at your disposal, and you use it to make clouds look like your grandmother’s beagle or create silk hydrangeas out of tea towels. You have wasted these amazing gifts. Well the time has come to decide. You’re either going to utilize them to their fullest, and unleash magick, making this island the Paradise it was meant to be, in partnership with us, or we’ll desert you forever. We will pull all magick from this world forever, leaving you to your own devices.”
“And, er, in exchange?”
“Ah, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Yes I have two very simple demands. First, one of you will act as ruler of this realm. Under our regency, of course.” He gave Lady Alice a look as if she were the rarest, most perfect slice of roast beef on the platter. She gasped and brought a fair hand to her throat, her teeth parting in a smile.
“Now see here…” Lord Avery somehow found the gumption to step towards his wife protectively. I don’t know how he did it.
“Oh Avery, would you rather it were you?” He offered Lord Winthrop the same carnivorous roast-beef look, causing much the same reaction on his Lordship’s face. “It doesn’t matter much to me which of you it is. That’s not the important condition.”
I finally found my voice. I looked into those perfect black eyes of his and demanded. “And what would that be? What could possibly be the price for treason against the Crown?” Age has rendered my memory cloudy. I may well have simply squeaked out, “What’s that?” and then sat back down in a hurry. It really doesn’t matter now. What is important was his answer.
“We want you to abandon the steam engine.”
Lady Alice furrowed her brow. “I’m sorry. The steam engine?”
“Yes, that infernal contraption will be the ruin of you all, and we simply won’t be a part of it. You may maintain life in England exactly as it is now, forever, with the benefit of Faery Magick at your beck and call, or you can bid goodbye to our magick forever and muddle through on your own.”
“Why the steam engine? Why do you care?” she asked. “They’re noisy and vulgar, to be sure, but they aren’t without their uses. And they are making people’s lives better aren’t they?”
“Oh are they?” the faery snapped. “Are they really? You poor, blind, fools don’t know what we know. You can’t see what we see. From the Other World we can see the future and it’s complete rubbish.”
He stood and began pacing in front of us, running his long pale fingers through his perfect dark locks. “Do you know what this will lead to? Roads. Thousands of roads paving over green grass and the old Faery paths. You may think roads are all very well, a ‘sign of progress’ and all that rot. But you don’t have the foggiest notion of what comes next. Old groves full of perfectly harmless magickal beings will be mowed down and turned into wood for… for tract houses. And books—terrible things full of politics and logical, scientific ravings spreading horrible lies about where life came from, and how mortals can achieve greatness without depending on their betters. You just try finding good help when everyone can just up and move the moment they are unsatisfied with their lot. ‘Oh, his Lordship yelled at me for overcooking the lamb, I think I’ll move to Brighton’. And the crowds of people everywhere.”
Beads of sweat began to form and dark webs of matted hair stuck to that wrinkleless brow. He pointed his finger to the scrying bowl and waved it erratically. “You… you may well think you’re very special, my pretty, with your little parlor tricks but you won’t think so when every Tom, Dick and Harry can see what’s going on anytime they want. No lovely ceremonies, no help from us. You wait and see. There won’t be an inch of your precious London that can’t be spied on at a moment’s notice by anyone. Anyone at all. Is that what you want?”
We all stared at each other in silence, none daring to speak. Willowbark hardly seemed in the mood for rational conversation, anyway. He became more frantic as he paced the room, raving about the smoke, and the noise, and something about dead frogs, although why fewer of the slimy things was a bad thing was never made clear. He had little good to say about humans in general and the lower classes in particular. The Great Plague had nothing on what was to come because all those sick people would simply up and move somewhere else, taking their ignorance and vermin with them, and who needed magick when a simple pill would cure anything from the flux to a lack of manhood?
We had long since lost the thread of what he was trying to tell us, especially when he went into a tirade about never having to actually learn anything yourself because you could always ask a machine. It was the worst kind of raving, although it did sound perfectly horrid.
Lord Winthrop coughed softly. “Excuse, Mr.….. Lord… Prince is it? Willowbark? I certainly can see your point. But surely you mean we don’t have to do without the steam engine entirely. I mean, there are a lot of them out there. And they do rather come in handy….”
“All of them!” screamed the faery. “Immediately! Your first act will be to confiscate them at once, and smelt them down. Turn them into wagon wheels, or anvils, or better yet, drop them in the deepest part of the ocean. But they will be gone.”
Lady Alice lifted her head. “I’m sorry, did you say his first act? I thought you said I was to be Queen of England?”
Willowbark shook his head. “You. Him. It’s irrelevant who, only that it’s done.” He glared at me and pointed a long finger. My insides turned to water. “You, with the spectacles. If I make you king, will you carry out my orders without question? If so, the job is yours.”
I stood as if he’d slapped me, then asked him, “How long would I have?”
He looked to the ceiling and screamed, “Another question! Are you all imbeciles? I am offering you unlimited power and a chance to befriend us for good and all. Instead you pick nits and hem and haw.”
He paced back and forth. The only sound was the slow tick-tick-tick of the mantle clock as we looked at each other, waiting for someone to say something. Anything at all. Finally Willowbark ran his hands up the side of his face, grabbing handfuls of his hair. “Enough. You have five seconds. Five seconds, do you hear me? Or I and my kind will turn from you and leave you without magick or hope for all eternity. Go ahead, any of you. Say the word and it will all be yours. One little promise.”
We still stared mutely. He shook and sputtered. “One.”
“Two…” I looked at my shoes rather than let the Faery see my embarrassment. What could I, or anyone, say to all that? The creature was clearly mad, and in the presence of insanity, saying nothing always seemed the wisest course. It was the basis of a civilized society. I managed a glance at my fellow party-goers, who all examined their own feet.
Lord Winthrop, silently stepped beside his Alice and took her hand, shaking his head sadly. She looked from him to Willowbark and bit her bottom lip but said nothing at all.
“Four…. You fools…..”
His voice dropped to a sad whisper. He shook his head in disbelief. “Five, then. As you will.”
A window blew open, followed by a wind that stank of moldy leaves and coal smoke. We were once again just the six of us in the room.
The only sounds were the tick-tick-tick of the mantle clock. The hands showed 10:43. Then through the open window, from somewhere near the Thames, came the sad, slow, tireless chunk-chunk-chunk of a steam engine.