The Secret Commonwealth

By Jane Stevenson

History and folklore collide when a 17th century alchemist discovers there are supernatural forces at work as England slides towards Civil War

‘Lord Arcas, how is the Work to be achieved?’ asked Andrew. They were talking while sitting together with the king and queen over their first meal of the second day. ‘When I made my attempt, the first and the second stage took more than seven weeks. But my books spoke in riddles of a third, swift way? Secret, and dangerous?’

Arcas nodded. ‘I don’t know if it’s the same, but our way is certainly dangerous and swift, and it doesn’t need your Gresham College cookery. But we do need you, Andrew and Christian. If you’re to wield the stone, you must help with its making, so it will know you and be part of you. We need your goodwill, but above all, I need your changeableness. Humans understand change with every fibre of your being because you’re short-lived and mutable creatures. We leluri are prisoners of our own stability. I know what I must do in the transformation, but my body doesn’t believe it. You must believe it for me. Intentions count for a great deal in the shadow world. My powers aren’t infinite, and much of the strength that I have has to be spent on defending our borders. Ilmatar and I could make the stone together, because her love for me is strong enough to call me back from death, but we can’t both risk ourselves at the same time –– the work carries a risk of destruction, even for leluri. But to help in the Great Work, you must be purified. Your books didn’t tell you to purge the dross from yourself, Andrew, and in that respect, they were gravely in error. You thought of yourself as something apart from the operation, and for this particular Work, that will not do. The Stone is living, in fact, it’s life itself, and it partakes of the character of those who bring it into the created universe.’

‘But how am I to be purged?’ Andrew asked. A line from the psalms floated through his mind, ‘Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be clean…’ he had sung it when he began his attempt.

‘It’s not a matter for priests. They may do well enough in your own world, but our magia needs more than words. It comes out of the blood and the bone. Have you ever seen Beltane fires?’

‘No’, said Christian, ‘but I heard tell of them from my dad. Northern folk light need-fires the night before May day, two together, and drive their beasts between them, to keep them from harm through the year.’

‘That’s so. It’s a very ancient custom. But you’re humans, not beasts to be driven. We light one need-fire only, in our world. Before you can do this work, you must walk through it, of your own free will.’

‘Do you mean us to die?’ Andrew demanded, aghast.

‘Of course not. The relation of matter and spirit here isn’t quite the same as in the world you know. You won’t be the first humans to walk through a need-fire. I warn you, though. You will know torment. But it will not kill you, and if you’re steadfast, it’ll do you no harm, though it will change you forever. You’ll always be able to recognise another person who has been through the fire, and they will know you. Believe me, Andrew. There is no great work of magia which we leluri perform without consequences. Magia is like childbirth. We make our magic out of ourselves, and we have to hazard everything. You will see.’

‘All of the Great Work begins and ends with purging the dross from matter’, said Andrew. He wondered at himself: his body accepted the proposed test as real, to the extent that his bowels were turning to water. His mind seemed to be quite separate from it, and unbelieving: to his surprise, his voice came out quite steady.

‘Can we pray down here?’ asked Christian abruptly.

‘Certainly, if you wish. Compose your minds in any way you choose. Pain isn’t an end. It’s a means to concentrate your will. It’s hard for humankind to be single of purpose.’

‘Excuse me’, said Andrew, and dashed for a stand of nearby bushes, fumbling with his belt as he ran. The liquid filth that poured out of him, hot and stinking, as he squatted seemed to take some of the fear with it. We’re foul creatures, he thought, wiping himself with a handful of leaves. How did I dare to imagine I could set about a work of perfection? When he emerged, he saw that Christian, similarly, was walking out from behind a rock, and he felt a rush of pity for her, and for humanity. Poor forked creatures that we are. Our ambitions are so great, and so many of them are foolish. He thought briefly of his attempt to make the Stone, and it seemed to him like the work of a child, playing at making a banquet with hedgerow berries and dirty water.

‘Your courage is great’, said Arcas, when they returned. ‘I won’t say, do not fear, but don’t doubt your strength.’ He stood up, a single easy movement from his cross-legged position, and led them downhill. As they rounded an outcrop, they saw the yellow light of a fire shining on the hillside, a friendly light, in any other circumstances. It was a sizeable bonfire, which had been burning for some time; the logs were black in the flames, collapsing into ash. They could see Ilmatar through the leaping fire, standing on the other side.

‘Take off your clothes, or the fire will have them’, said Arcas.

Andrew removed his waistcoat, and from the corner of his eye, saw Christian’s hands shaking as she began to unbutton hers. A fairy woman, human in shape but more than human in her beauty, with her long golden hair and pearly skin, came to stand at Christian’s side, her lovely face grave. As he removed each garment, it was taken reverently from him by Irusan, who stood by him, folding the clothes carefully over his arm like the esquire of a knight dressing for battle. Or undressing, Andrew thought dizzily, with an insane impulse to giggle, which left him abruptly as another image came into his mind. Thus went an execution. He’d never seen anyone burned alive, nor wished to, but he’d once seen a man hung, drawn and quartered. Had the victim felt thus, before his pains began, hollow and unreal?

They both stripped to their shirts, no further. If they came naked from the fire, so let it be; he thought. There would be more to think of than modesty if they came through. But for now, they were human and needed their human dignity. He knelt down to pray, with the heat of the fire beating against his face, but the grass blessedly cool and soft under his bare shins. The words flew up like the flames, meaningless. He tried his hardest to think about how long and fiercely he had desired the Great Work. ‘Lord, make me worthy’, he asked, and for the first time, felt that the prayer was a true one.

‘It is time’, said Arcas. Christian, he saw, was still on her knees. Andrew got heavily to his feet, and walked steadily towards the edge of the bonfire. The heat of it, close to, crisped his eyebrows and lashes. I cannot believe I am doing this, he thought. Through the crackling flames, he could see the pale eyes of Ilmatar watching him. Holding her gaze, he stepped forward into the fire.

Pain took him on the instant, a searing agony. His heart made a huge suffocating leap in his chest, and his eyes squeezed shut. Pain was the whole of him, blackish-red, beyond endurance. ‘Another step’, said a voice in his head. ‘Step. Move’. Teeth clenched, he took that step. ‘Another step.’ He thought his heart would explode. He had not drawn breath since entering the fire, but with the terrible effort of taking that third step, he dragged in a sobbing breath and breathed flame. He could not even scream, but as his mind blanked out, suddenly the pain was gone. I’m dead, thought some shaken remnant of himself. ‘Another step’, said the voice again. Obediently, he moved the body that seemed still to be his. He opened his eyes, if they were still eyes, and saw the steady bluish-silver gaze of Ilmatar. He went towards it, feeling the calcined boughs crumbling softly beneath his feet, took another step, then another, and he was out of the fire and standing upon grass, and there was Ilmatar. She took both his hands in hers, and kissed him on the brow.

He looked down at himself unbelievingly. It was still his own familiar body, entirely undamaged. Even the hair still stood on his chest, though all trace of his shirt had vanished, leaving not so much as a smear of soot on his skin. He stood uncertainly, with the fire at his back, feeling like a newborn foal first stood on its legs. Ilmatar’s gaze shifted from him, looking over his shoulder: he turned, and a moment later, saw Christian in the fire. Naked, with the flames rising about her, she seemed to him glorious and terrible as an army with banners. The firelight shone golden on her milky skin; she was a thing of gold altogether. She stepped out of the flames, her face blank with the same astonishment that was overwhelming him.

Ilmatar took her hands, kissed her, and greeted her in her turn.

‘Am I alive?’ Christian asked faintly.

‘Alive, but not unchanged.’

Her wondering eyes fell on him, as they stood there like Adam and Eve in Paradise. They seemed to have left shame behind them in the fire; he wasn’t abashed to be seen by her. And as he gazed back, he saw that she was beautiful; not with the rounded, soft, dovelike prettiness he had been taught to admire, but with a leggy, coltish beauty of her own.

‘You have another eye now you’ve been through magefire’, said Ilmatar. ‘You must learn to use it.’

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