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Writing Ritual Magic

One of the things a number of people have commented on reading Lost Things is the ritual magic, the system of lodge magic that seems both familiar and unfamiliar. I've had quite a few questions about it, and several very precious compliments about how well done it is. I do have to say those were some of the parts of the book I enjoyed writing most.

But hardly for the first time! In the Age of Revolution books, The General's Mistress and its sequels, there is also the same magical system in play a century earlier. For those who enjoyed the magic in Lost Things, and for those looking forward to The General's Mistress, I thought I'd share this piece from the third Age of Revolution book, The Marshal's Lover.

In Lost Things we're looking at classical Hermetics in a post-Golden Dawn tradition, reduced in scale to what can be done with a small group of people on the fly. Other than the festival at Henry's house, what we see are very modest workings, adaptations of the grand style for at-home use. In this scene we're seeing High Hermetics at its highest! This is as formal and fancy as it gets. The other big difference is that this is a pre-Golden Dawn style, without the deliberately syncretic elements introduced in the last decade of the 19th century. Also, as is mentioned in the scene, this is before Egyptian heiroglyphics have been deciphered. This is fifteen years before the Rosetta Stone is read. Egyptology is a brand new science a decade old, pioneered by men known to the participants in this scene. Lannes served with Denon ten years ago, when Denon conducted the first comprehensive scholarly survey of archaeological sites in Egypt. But many things that are known in 1890 have not yet been discovered. The language of ancient Egypt is a mystery. And all the stories are lost....

The entrance hall was filled with mirrors and gold leaf, a magnificent lifesize statue of Venus in white marble in the very center. I had only a moment to consider whether it was a Hellenistic original or a Renaissance copy when Lannes himself came around the corner. He was of medium height and whippy rather than heavily built, with light brown hair and a classically handsome face. Lannes looked as a knight ought to look, I thought, with a face that ought to be carved on the magnificent Charlemagne Sarcophagus in Aix la Chapelle. He held out his arms and Michel came and embraced him, kissing him on the cheek. "Good to see you on this happy occasion!"

"Let us hope so," Michel said, more soberly. "And I've brought Madame, as you see."

"Madame St. Elme." He bent over my hand quite properly, his eyes twinkling. "You will be happy to know that I have procured a proper robe for you and shan't make you wear a sheet this time!"

"I'm grateful for that, sir," I said, more reticently than is my wont.

He glanced over to include Michel in his words. "I've sent Louise off to the theater and the beasts are in bed, so other than two dozen servants or so we have the house to ourselves."

"The beasts?" I asked. "You have children?"

"Five of the little creatures," Lannes said cheerfully. "Age six on down, but they won't bother us. Duval, kindly show Madame St. Elme to a room where she can change."

I left Michel talking with Lannes in the foyer and followed the footman upstairs and down a long corridor, trying to act as though I visited dear friends who happened to own palaces every day.

"This way, Madame," he said, opening a door to the right. "I trust that you will ring if you require anything."

"Thank you," I said, and went in and closed the door. For this house it was no doubt an ordinary guest room, and not the best one, thoroughly splendid in the style of the last century, with an enormous bed draped in azure satin and mirrors of Venetian glass in gilt rococo frames everywhere. A painted screen showed shepherdesses dancing in a bucolic landscape, little lambs frolicking beside them, while tiny fat cupids stooped overhead with pan pipes and strategically placed clouds. If this was Lannes' taste I was utterly flabbergasted.

Lying across the bed there was a white robe and I picked it up. It was thick Lyon silk satin, heavy as a church vestment, the collar facings done in white velvet, long sleeves cut full rather than fashionably tight. I undressed and put it on, acutely conscious of wearing nothing beneath it, the whisper of heavy cloth against my body sensational, though it could not have been more modest. I turned and looked in the mirror. It did indeed cover me from neck to ankles, the pointed neckline coming down only just below my collar bones. It was loosely cut, as of course Lannes had not had my measurements, flaring like a medieval gown from the waist into a fuller skirt, the material thicker by far than any fashionable dress. And yet I was intensely aware of my nakedness beneath it. I ought to have been wearing acres of petticoats beneath something like this. It reminded me of my first days with Moreau, and how humiliating and arousing I had found it to wear ordinary clothing with nothing beneath.

And that was a train of thought that was inappropriate in the extreme. This was supposed to be filled with deep spiritual purpose, not one of Lebrun's fake séances designed as much to titillate as enlighten. With that in mind, I composed myself and went downstairs.

Barefooted. The contrast between wooden parquetry and cool marble, between marble and thick carpet, was fascinating. At the bottom of the stairs I heard voices and followed them through one salon into another. The scene that met my eyes was strange in the extreme.

The salon was more or less round, half of the room defined by tall windows draped in gold satin curtains now closed against the night, matched on the interior walls with tall mirrors framed in gold. The ceiling was painted azure and trimmed lavishly with gilt, roundel paintings of the Olympian gods around the room between the tops of the windows and the ceiling, nearly a century old and still drawn as bright as when they were painted. There was an enormous chandelier, but it was not lit. Instead the diffuse light came from twelve massive gilt candlestands each holding three pillars that looked as though they belonged in Notre Dame set about the room in a circle that mimicked the shape of the chamber. Gilt side tables stood at each of the cardinal points, and on a bronze tripod a gilt and glass censer smoldered. There was no simplicity, no making do here. This was high ceremonial at its highest.

Nearly twenty men stood about gorgeously robed, most in pure white as I was, but a few with sashes in bright colors like the ones worn with a sword belt, marks of their rank within the circle. Michel's was scarlet, a Journeyman in the service of the Archangel Michael.

Jean-Baptiste Corbineau turned about from a little knot of men gathered near the door and his face lit. "My dear sister!" he said, winking at the old joke. "Come and meet one of our partners in crime that I don't believe you know. This is Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, a rascal and a rakehell after your own heart."

He bent over my hand as though we were in the drawing room rather than a rather stranger situation, dark hair, blue eyes and a very prominent nose. "So you are the amazon Jean-Baptiste speaks of so often! He did not tell me that you were beautiful." He gave Jean-Baptiste a look of mock reproach. "I confess that I am enchanted."

"The pleasure is mine," I said. The game always was intensely fun to play. "And what do you do, besides behave as a rascal and a rakehell?"

"I'm one of Marshal Lannes' brigadiers," he said. "And he's had me to some hot dances."

"I imagine so," I said. Lannes did like to promote flair.

One of the other men in the group was better known to me, and Gervais Subervie came forward to kiss my cheek rather than my hand. "It's so good to see you," I said, giving his arm a squeeze. "How is your family? How is Nestor?"

"Nestor is quite well," Gervais said. "Jean has decided that he is the best horse that ever lived, his own Bucephalos. They trot quite credibly around the ring, which is to say that Nestor does his business and Jean stays on him, but what can you expect at his age?"

"I'm glad to hear he's happy," I said.

Lefebvre-Desnouettes looked from one of us to the other. "Do you know Madame well?" he asked curiously.

"A bit," Gervais said. "She kept me from falling over a cliff once."

"She did not," Jean-Baptiste said indignantly. "I kept you from falling over a cliff! She only helped haul you back up."

"You both kept me from falling over a cliff," Gervais temporized. "And I appreciate your efforts, both of you."

"Dare I even ask how this happened?" Lefebvre-Desnouettes asked.

"Probably not," I said. I had been on the Emperor's service at the time, something that was not widely known even in the Lodge.

A very young and very pretty young man in a plain white robe came up deferentially, standing about in the style of an aide who has quite a lot of practice at politely interrupting generals. "Sir?" he said to Gervais. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but Marshal Lannes wonders if you might assist with the preparations in the inner chamber?"

"Of course," Gervais said. "Got to finish setting up. I'm coming. Give me a hand, will you Jean-Baptiste? You'll be wanted too."

They trailed off after the aide, and I looked after them. I didn't know the boy either. "Who is he?" I asked.

"Another Charles," Lefebvre-Desnouettes said. "De la Bedoyere, a lieutenant by rank. He's Marshal Lannes' new maid of all work. A good boy."

"Ah," I said. I thought I'd seen the gleam of interest in Corbineau's eyes, but had no idea whether or not there was any hope in it. Probably not, as Jean-Baptiste ranked him by far too many grades, and that would be distinctly injurious to discipline. Lefebvre-Desnouettes, on the other hand….

"And how did such a beautiful lady find herself in such bad company?" he asked. "A dangerous thing, for a mermaid to venture among so many sharks."

"Say rather an amazon," I said, "and one quite adept with pointy arrows. It is an unwise huntsman who mistakes me for prey."

His smile broadened. "Never that, dear lady. If half the stories Jean-Baptiste tells about you are true, I should be in mortal terror!"

Michel cleared his throat behind him and came around to take my arm. "Are you ready, Elza? Lannes is trying to begin."

I nearly laughed aloud. Lefebvre-Desnouette's eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. "I'm quite ready, dearest," I said.

We were twenty strong in the circle, de la Bedoyere running about like a proper aide telling people where to stand. I was one place to Michel's left as he stood at the southward quarter while people milled about talking and finding their spots. "What in the world does Lannes' wife think we're doing?" I whispered.

Michel leaned over and replied, "Drinking vast quantities of Armagnac, refighting Marengo, and eventually pissing in the cuspidors."

I looked at him sideways. "Really?"

His mouth twitched. "I generally spare the cuspidors."

"Can we get started?" Lannes shouted, his voice pitched to carry over a melee. "It's nearly nine."

At that people began to quiet down and Subervie went to shut the doors so that the servants could not look in, nor the curious "beasts" if they weren't as snug in their beds as their father thought. There were many familiar faces around the circle. Max Duplessis gave me a cheerful nod and pantomimed coming over to speak with me after, and I happily pantomimed talking back. Charles Dery was also present, conferring with de la Bedoyere before they both took their places. Honoré-Charles Reille stood two places to Michel's right looking nervous and adjusting his collar again and again. The one I did not see was Noirtier, which surprised me as I thought he was the master here. But he was not, nor was there any space left for him as at Lannes' nod Subervie extinguished all but the guide candle set upon the side altar and stepped silently into his place.

For six long heartbeats there was nothing but silence, the sound of each of us breathing into the dark. Michel reached for my hand and I thought it odd until I felt the tentative fumble on the other side, de la Bedoyere stepping into the place beside me and reaching for my left hand. I took them both, realizing belatedly that we had all joined hands around.

It was like a jolt of electricity, like standing in the middle of a storm, energy running through me from right to left, as though the circle were a mighty river and I were caught in its current. And yet it flowed. It was powerful but benign. It was like the moment before a charge, all energy held in check, all tamed by discipline. And, like that, it was an incredible rush.

"Raphael, Angel of Morning, Angel of the bright light of the mind, illuminator and friend to humanity, grant us your benison!" It was Max Duplessis at East, beginning the first calling, the guide candle in his hand as he lit the pillars in the massive candlestand, his face transformed and filled with brightness, his glasses reflecting the flames. "As we prepare to witness the oaths of our friend, Honoré-Charles Reille, please grant us the very great honor of your presence this night."

He reached for the censer, taking it up with a practiced hand so that the smoke of the incense rolled over the sides in a vast wave, a tide of frankincense and myrrh through the room, and a shiver ran through me. I had never heard angelic presence called before, except for that once with Lebrun. This was like a silent wind, the hairs on my arms standing on end as Max slowly and carefully trod the circle, passing behind each of us as we faced the center. When he returned to his place I felt it close like a clap of thunder.

And then it was Michel, turning in place as precisely as if he were in drill, going to one knee to light the pillar like a knight before his lord. "Michael, Angel of Bright Noontide, Captain of the Hosts of the Most High, defender and friend to humanity, grant us your benison!" From the floor beneath the candle stand he lifted up his own sword, not the fine dress sword he wore for court occasions, but the saber he'd had for all the years I'd known him, its hilt wrapped with cord long since stained with sweat and blood. He drew it still on one knee and held it up so that the bar of the hilt just touched his lips, as though kissing a cross of steel. "As we prepare to witness the oaths of our friend, Honoré-Charles Reille, please grant us the very great honor of your presence this night."

With that he stood, graceful as a fencer, and began to trace a line about the room, walking the same path that Max had trod, the light flaring off the blade. It was Michel and not Michel, a presence not fully enfolded but about him, a numinous shimmer just below the threshold of sight. I caught my breath in wordless wonder. That was what it looked like, a glimpse of the divine in each of us, a glimpse through the veil at our souls unmasked.

A tear ran down my face as he stepped back into his place, laying the bared sword on the altar.

Lannes' voice was grave, his head bent as he poured clear water into a silver goblet. "Gabriel, Angel of Evening, Annunciator and Font of Compassion, comforter and friend to humanity, grant us your benison! As we prepare to witness the oaths of our friend, Honoré-Charles Reille, please grant us the very great honor of your presence this night." He lifted the water as though it were the Host, his eyes never leaving it as he paced the outside of the circle, and the scent of the sea followed him.

Thus we came to North, and Subervie took a deep breath, his face stilling as he reached for a gilded dish filled with salt, its elaborate lines proclaiming a treasured antique. "Uriel, Angel of Night, Angel of Death, final guardian and friend to humanity, grant us your benison! As we prepare to witness the oaths of our friend, Honoré-Charles Reille, please grant us the very great honor of your presence this night." I saw it settle about him like a cloak, impenetrable and infinite, as though he wore the night sky in his face. It transformed him, this ordinary man I had known in Boulogne, and it was all I could do not to sink to my knees and bow my head. On your knees to Death. To serve that would be to be consumed.

Or not, something whispered beside me, as though Michel had spoken, though he had not, a voice like his and yet unlike. It was like a warmth at my back, a touch of fire that did not burn. Welcome home, Elzelina.

At that my eyes overflowed, tears streaming down my face. Welcome home. This was where I stood, in the circle of my friends, beside my lover in the heart of the world. I had weathered every storm to come to this moment where I rested, complete and whole, at the bosom of my master.

You are my master, I said in my silence. You are who I serve in this life, here and now, with a full and grateful heart. Michael. I will put myself in your hands and fight as you show me, that I may be your instrument on earth.

You have been for a very long time, he said, and I thought that he smiled.

"The Lodge is open in the First Degree," Lannes said solemnly.

I did not remember much of what passed next, lost in something of a haze of wonder. There were many passages and responses and a short dramatic story about the building of Solomon's Temple as a metaphor for perfecting the world acted out by Lefebvre-Desnouettes and Corbineau with much feeling but little acting ability. Lefebvre-Desnouettes did have a nice, clear speaking voice though. "Once, in that time, there was a young man who was the son of a widow, and when he was an infant his mother had taken him away to dwell alone in the marshes, for she feared that his father's enemies might also harm him. And in that time when he was grown he stood before his mother and he said, 'Let me go now unto the kingdom of my father, for its people suffer beneath the lash and the blood of the slain cries out for justice!'"

I felt that I had heard this story somewhere before, but I could not place it.

You knew this story well in times long ago, He said behind me. Often you have told the story of the Son of the Widow and how his mother bore him in secret and raised him to save his people. Often you have walked the paths of this story with one or another. And perhaps you will again.

I don't understand, I said.

I know. His voice was contemplative. But perhaps within this current lifetime you will read the story again and it will be told in its original form, not as these pieces of lore transformed and transfigured through many peoples. The keys are in your peoples' hands, and for that matter in your own. Perhaps someday soon someone will read those words again. They have been waiting for you for a very long time.

Lost stories, I said keenly. Lost stories that have been waiting for me….

But for now listen to the retelling, He said. Learn the story so that you can tell it.

To whom? I asked.

There was a flicker to his voice, as though there were something he did not want to tell me. To a child yet unborn, He said. For whom, if all goes well, you will open the gates of the Underworld.

"Honoré Charles Michel Joseph Reille," Lannes said clearly. "Are you resolved to walk the path of the Widow's Son?"

"I am," Honoré replied.

"Know that you will be tested, and if you are found wanting you will not go on as you have been," Lannes said.

"I consent to the testing." Honoré's head was high, his dark eyes bright, and for a moment I thought I saw someone else standing there, some shadow of another -- or another and another and another.

"Then kneel." Honore sank to his knees, his white robe about him. Subervie stepped forward with a black kerchief in his hands and bound it about Honoré's eyes. He did not flinch, not even when Michel stepped out of his place in mirror and seized Honoré's wrists, binding them roughly and tightly behind him,.

"You are the sacrifice," Michel said. "Your life is forfeit."

"My life belongs to my country, to my friends, and to the service of the Most High," Honoré said. "And for those things it is gladly forfeit."

Subervie reached down to drag Honoré to his feet none too gently. "You will be taken from this place to a place of trial, and there you will suffer." Holding Honoré by the arm he led him from the circle, Michel and Lannes and Max and two others following, all the ones who wore colored sashes over their robes. Max slipped ahead to open the doors that led from the room into some adjoining one, and they hustled him through and closed it behind them.

I looked at Corbineau with something like astonishment. "What now?"

"We can't go," Jean-Baptiste said. "We haven't achieved the degree ourselves. Obviously if we saw it now it wouldn't be any suspense to us when we get there."

"Ah," I said. It wasn't that I thought they would really hurt him. At least not in any physical sense. And yet what they did was real. This was a true testing. "So what do we do?"

"We wait," Lefebvre-Desnouettes said. He leaned back on his hands. "We wait."

I did not know how long it was before they returned. There was no clock in the room, and the pillars burned slow and steady.

When they did, the doors were thrown open in triumph and Honoré led the way out, a scarlet sash about his waist weighted with heavy gold fringe like the sashes of the Army of the Republic. He seemed lighter, as though buoyed up by a delight he could not contain.

"The candidate has been tested and found acceptable," Lannes said solemnly. "Welcome to our fellowship, Journeyman."

"Thank you," Honoré said, and he stepped back into his place with a smile.

Michel reached over and clasped his arm, and he bent his head to Michel's shoulder for a moment in embrace. "Well done," Michel said. "So well done."

"Are there any here who wish to make a Profession of Apprenticeship?" Lannes asked loudly in what was no doubt intended to be a ritual question. "Are there any who wish to set their feet upon the path that Reille has already walked?"

De la Bedoyere swallowed and stepped forward, no doubt prepped for this part. "I do," he said. "I wish to pledge myself to stand amid this fraternity in our service together."

Lannes looked about the room. "Is there any person who objects to the inclusion of Charles Angelique François Huchet de la Bedoyere in our fellowship?"

Of course there was none. They must have all known that he was going to say this.

"Then welcome to our fellowship," Lannes said warmly. He looked about. "Is there any other?"

"I do," I said.

Everyone stared at me, not the least Michel.

"I do," I said more strongly. I could feel the flame at my back, feel the rightness of it. "I wish to pledge myself to stand amid this fraternity in our service together."

Subervie's jaw dropped and Lannes looked nonplussed.

"What?" Max said.

"She's done as much as any of us," Honoré said. "And more than some. We needed her in Boulogne and she came through. I don't see why not."

"She's a woman," Lannes said. "We've never…."

"Then it's time we begun," Jean-Baptiste said. "And hang the traditions of the Pleiade! My vote is for Madame."

"Noirtier will have apoplexy," Max said.

"Is Noirtier the master here?" Michel asked, his eyes meeting Lannes' across the circle, as though exchanging some thought of their own. "Or are we?"

"We're not his damned Jacobin club, if that's what you mean," Gervais said. "It's time we decided which drum we're dancing to."

Lannes didn't look away from Michel. "And you're for this?"

Michel shrugged unapologetically. "Yes. I've seen what she can do." He looked around the room. "We're going to need a Dove again, and where do you think we'll find a better one? If we turn her off, then what?"

"Point," Max said.

"We ought not be having this conversation in front of the candidate," Honoré pointed out.

"Better in front of my face than behind my back," I snapped. "I'd like to see who doubts my honor."

"I'm in then," Lefebvre-Desnouettes said. "I don't know Madame St. Elme as some of you do, but I like the sound of that."

De la Bedoyere looked spooked, and I doubted he would vote at all. But then Lannes was the one who had to be convinced, as apparently this would occasion a break with his own Master, a breach of discipline and possibly a breach of orders.

"Does anyone seriously doubt she can do the work?" Jean-Baptiste asked. "This isn't about that. It's about whether we follow the rules or make the rules. I think it's time we grew up and made the rules."

Lannes' eyes flicked to Corbineau and then back to Michel. "Is there then any person who objects to the inclusion of…." He stopped, suddenly realizing that he did not know my full name.

"Elzelina Johanna Versfelt," I supplied. I would never claim my husband's last name again.

"…in our fellowship?" Lannes concluded.

Of course not a person answered. Which was not to say that they all agreed, but none objected enough to stand forward.

"Then welcome to our fellowship," Lannes said, but it was Honoré who took my hand and embraced me like a brother.

I'd be really interested in hearing what you guys think -- both in terms of Elza's story, and the comparison to the magic in Lost Things!


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 31st, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC)
I love this version of the "Calling of the Quarters". As you said this is pre-Rosetta stone, and would have less of a pagan feel.

This type of testing is part of most religious teachings: Christian Conformation, Bar/Bat Mitzvah are modern versions. It is strange to compare Gull's testing and the testing/consecration of the King to these modern "Rites of Passage".

Gods! I wish I knew more.
Aug. 1st, 2012 01:27 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it! Yes, pre-Rosetta stone,so none of the Egyptian elements.

The other big thing is that this is not British. Most modern neo-pagan traditions tend to trace their roots to the British isles, to the work of Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders, drawing on the folk traditions of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. This is absolutely not that! This is a continental tradition in a different culture.

In the second book, The Emperor's Companion, there is a look at specifically English folk magic in this period, and it's an entirely different kettle of fish!
Jul. 31st, 2012 10:01 pm (UTC)
Oh man. I love that Elza is not Gull, that she is afraid of being consumed in service to Death. And that her service would be to Michael instead.

And yes, this is familiar-and-not-familiar. And it fits in my heart well, this odd Judeo-Christian form of magic.
Aug. 1st, 2012 03:15 pm (UTC)
Elza is definitely not Gull! And yes, her service has changed, though it's not exactly unexpected that she should serve Mik-el, is it? And after all, he spoke for her in the Court of Amenti long ago.

I'm glad it fits your heart. The idea that magic had to be outside a Judeo-Christian framework is very recent, very late 20th century, really. There are many older traditions that blend the two.
Aug. 1st, 2012 01:51 am (UTC)
You have a beautiful sense of ritual. This really feels like being there - the combination of the words of the ritual and the inner ebb and flow of power that stands behind them is exquisite.
Aug. 1st, 2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! I'm very glad that works. One of the things I enjoy most is putting together these workings in different times and places.

What do you think of this one -- this tradition in this time?
Aug. 1st, 2012 01:55 pm (UTC)
You know, I really like this. I think I'd really love Elza :)

I love the comparison of this ritual to the magic in Lost Things. I think it's interesting to look at the actual passage of time. In Lost Things, it's such a different era and place. Even though cars and planes are just coming to the forefront, it's so completely different than when everyone just had horses to ride or walked places. It's a faster paced way of life and it's reflected in the magic I think as well.

Your description of them sitting around, just waiting for Honore to come back, with no idea of the passage of time. I can't imagine people today doing that (heck, within moments, they'd all be playing words with friends on their smartphones). And I can't imagine our quartet doing that either in Lost Things (what was the 1920's version of smartphones??? lol)

Aug. 1st, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
I think you'll really love Elza too! :)

It really is a different time and place. I think part of that is as you say a faster paced way of life, and also the difference in terms of cultural influences that don't yet exist in Elza's time. We were talking above about the Egyptian elements so present today -- which can't be here at all! There is no living person who can read heiroglyphics, and hasn't been for nearly fifteen hundred years. All the tombs that so fire the imagination, all the discoveries, haven't happened yet. They are quite literally lost stories, and Michael so much wants to give them to her, her own stories put away for so long!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )