The Color of New Things (April prompt for [community profile] nexus_crossings )

Apr. 28th, 2017 10:55 pm
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The mage’s face is as green as his hood when he stumbles down from the ship. It’s showering hard(the third time today) and near the bottom he loses his footing on the rain-slicked planks. Salatia steps in as he comes tumbling down and catches him smartly, knees bending under his sudden weight.

“Steady, there. I know you’re eager to kiss dry land, but let’s not go smashing that handsome face into the cobbles,” she chides. A big fellow for an Imperial, this one, and built mostly of bone by the feel of him. Strong jaw, broad features. Northern Colovia is written all over him, and that’s before he opens his mouth and lets out an accent so solidly Brumese you could brain trolls with it.

“Thank you.” Soft voice, though. It hardly rises above the patter of rain on her helm. For a moment he looks rather pathetic, then he pulls himself up deliberately. Salatia watches him with sharp eyes and grants him a measure of respect for the determination with which he meets her stare and salutes. He actually is quite handsome.

“Battlemage Caelus, First Cohort of the Seventh Legion. My detachment was ordered to report to Legate Duloraine…?”

She salutes in return. “Quaestor Avita, with the Fifth. We’re here to escort you to her. If you wizards think you’ll make it.” She glances at the motley collection of legionnaires descending after him on unsteady legs, shivering and pulling their hoods up over their ears.

“We’ll be fine on solid ground. The crossing was rather… tempestuous, that’s all.” Something about his seriousness makes her realize he can’t be any older than her. There’s a kind of fellow-feeling at that, even though he’s technically from a rival legion. She’s been quaestor for barely a week, and he looks hardly out of apprenticeship. It’s probably his first time on detached duty.

“That’s spring in this boghole,” she says, not unsympathetically. She waves a hand at the rain, the foam curling on the grey-green sea. The wind isn’t bitter; after three winters in High Rock she recognises that for Kynareth’s mercy. It’s still cold enough to make a legionnaire feel her bare knees, and she adds sharply, “Let’s get moving, then. It’s a couple of hours’ march: plenty of time to find your feet.”

She turns on her heel and announces to her men, “Good news, boys. They’re finally here to scry out where the Blades spent all our pay!”

It’s an unexpected pleasure to hear the mage chuckle along behind her. The first of many, where Nereus Caelus is concerned. 

The green is a rising tide enfolding them as they come down from the Jerrall foothills. Stratos seems more agog every time he wriggles around to peer over the cart’s edge, little hands clinging to the painted boards. Nereus shifts around to watch with him, a quiet hand on the back of his son’s tunic for fear he’ll tumble out. He's never had the sole charge of his son for half this long. 

Stratos doesn’t even notice. It’s the first time he’s been allowed to travel with one of his parents and they’re going all the way to the Imperial City. Nereus watched him explain it with great solemnity to the guards on both sides of the town gate. But the destination’s been forgotten, for the time being. By the third day they’re nearly down and turning east into the northern fingertips of the Nibenay forests, following the curve of Lake Rumare. 

“What kind of flowers are those?” He points out the clumps of flax plants flowering vivid pink and soft blue. There’s nothing like them up in the frosted grass and bare rocks of the mountains.

“Those are flax plants, Stratos. Farmers and weavers make the stems into linen, like your good tunic, and oil from the seeds. And we use the same seeds in alchemy to brew potions that restore the strength of a mage’s magic when he exhausts himself.”

“Can I learn to make that?”

“Of course you will, when you begin your alchemy studies.” Nereus wraps his arm properly around his son and gives him a loving squeeze. He explains the difference between oak and alder trees, the rows of maize in the gardens they pass, names the dragon’s tongue and viper’s bugloss blooming at the wayside. Everything he can’t answer he promises to look up in their books at home; he finds himself immediately obliged to write it all down in a list, Stratos leaning over his elbow to make sure nothing is forgotten. He wishes Salatia was here. She’d laugh herself silly.

By the fifth day, the breeze is humid and rich with the smell of forest, the undergrowth around them lush and brilliantly green. When they stop to relieve the horses (never mind themselves) some of the other travellers take up the game. An elderly Altmer woman fusses over Stratos when he recites back the plant names she teaches him; not to be outdone, her Bosmer friend sets about teaching the boy all the bird calls around them, though Stratos proves too shy to mimic them back.

The afternoon draws on as they travel, the world around them growing warmer and more colorful by the hour. When Stratos becomes sleepy he burrows against his father’s side and Nereus pulls the boy securely onto his lap.

“This is the start of your mother’s country,” he murmurs, feeling his own heart beat faster at the thought. “She’s going to meet us in the city for a little while. But soon we’ll both come home to stay, she and I. We’ll all be together for a long while.”

“For weeks?” His son’s voice is small and muffled, but hopeful.

“For years, I should hope.” Time enough to raise their child, for a change. Perhaps even two or three more, before one of them has to go back to the Legion. He kisses the top of his son’s curly head and decides the rest of the world can wait.

Of course this happens months before the war.

“All right, you’re the very first person I’ve shown this. Are you watching?”

“Yes!” Felix hops up and down with excitement. The magic plays over Stratos’s fingers, flickering wisps of cool green light escaping from the spell cupped in his palm. Their voices are hushed for the secret, each trying to contain his excitement. Nobody’s listening to two boys playing behind the blacksmith’s house, though. “Come on! What does it do?”

Stratos lets the spell fly at the eaves above them. Then he scrambles onto some barrels and up beside the low wall – he’s gotten good at climbing, since he started learning the stars. When he comes down again he does it carefully, mindful of the swallow nestled in his hands. It perches there quite calmly as he shows his little brother. His chest is warm with pride.

“How did you do that?” Felix’s eyes are wide. “You’re like a Wood Elf! Even better! Can I touch it?”

“Of course. I put him under a calm spell. He won’t peck you.” Stratos grins as his brother pets the tiny dark head. The bird is a soft warmth in his hands, its claws scratching a little at his palms. He can feel its heart fluttering steadily like the spell that soothed it. He’s never seen one up close. The feathers of its back and head are dark blue, a slash of bright red at its throat and its belly snow-white, all crisp and smart as an Imperial messenger. On the dark feathers he can make out a faint shimmer of green.

“He thinks you’re his friend now,” he tries to explain.

“I am his friend,” says Felix earnestly.

“Yes, but…” Stratos thinks for a minute. “It’s an illusion spell. That means it’s not real. When it wears off he’ll be frightened of us again and fly away.”

“Oh…” Felix looks disappointed, but only for a moment. The wonder is still there. They admire the bird for a little while, talking about how much longer the swallows will stay, before it begins to stir restlessly and Stratos lets it go. He’s happy to have held it, it seems cruel and ungrateful to frighten it in return. They go down by the lakeside, Stratos quiet because performing the spell is tiring work.

Felix is quiet because he was thinking. “Does it work on anything? You could catch rabbits and imps and- and anything like that.”

“Maybe.” He’s thought about it. “I don’t think it’s very fair, though. I’d feel bad killing something I charmed. And you shouldn’t use that magic on people,” he adds conscientiously. “Not good people, anyway. They’d hate you for it.” That will get the point across to Felix. His little brother always wants everyone to like him.

Although, Stratos thinks, if I really had to…

“Okay. …Could you put a mudcrab in Neminda’s garden?”

“We’d get in trouble!” Stratos tries to keep a serious face. Neminda’s always rude to Ushug because she's an orc. She’s rude to the two boys and their cousin Marcella because Ushug is looking after them. She’s even sharp with Felix, and that stings. And she definitely has no place disrespecting Ushug, who was a legion smith for years and was in the Great War. Not to mention a good friend to their family.

Ushug says her people have always been the Pariah Folk and she doesn’t care. But it isn’t fair.

“We wouldn’t. Ushug said she’s a priest-hounding window-licker with a stick of incense up her-“

Felix!” He gives his brother a stern look and a shove on the shoulder. “Just because people say things doesn’t mean you repeat them!”

“What if they’re true?” Felix sticks his tongue out. He isn’t stupid but he still doesn’t understand how careful you really need to be, with words. It worries Stratos sometimes. But today he doesn’t care so much, and they can see the closest people are a trio of Argonians fishing way along the shore.

Especially when they’re true.” Stratos tries to sound sage. He winks, mimicking their uncle to make Felix laugh. Then he lowers his voice. “Fine. We can do it. But we have to plan it all out properly, because the spell won’t last long…”

In the event, nobody even suspects them. No-one else imagines it’s magic, and that proves an important lesson itself.

He had high hopes for the night. For once Skyrim doesn’t disappoint. The stars are veiled by streams of green and blue auroral fire. Between one and the other loom the moons: Masser vast and red in the east, stars showing through its darkened half; Secunda pale and full in the south. The air still prickles a little in their throats, but Felix has waited long enough to show this to Jim. And personally he doesn’t think there’s any better time than in these dying days of winter, with the skies still clear and cold. He can’t think that any world Jim’s seen has a sight to match it. (It wouldn’t even make sense – there’s no magic in Jim’s realm, logically there’s nothing to light the sky under the influence of celestial powers.)

That assumption goes off the mountainside in a hurry, but at least Jim is kind about it. And easy to please with a night spent together beneath the stars, comparing notes on magical – or strangely non-magical – natural phenomena. It’s hard to feel put out when they’re curled up together.

“So if that’s all magical energy, what happens if you get up there and touch it? Can you use it?” As always, Jim asks the question Felix wouldn’t dream of. As always, he doesn’t even make it sound hypothetical.

“I… don’t know. I don’t think anyone’s ever tried.” He hesitates – thinking fast, wanting to show he’s not so hidebound and provincial he can’t handle a new idea. “It would be easier to try and tap into it somehow. You could try that. We have stones that channel the stars’ magic, and that’s much fainter…”

He glances at Jim, to see how he’s doing. It’s not easy to see the man’s face in the pale, shifting light but Felix knows that smile by heart.

He has a feeling this will end in something foolish. He can’t wait to find out what. It’s the first night of spring and there is no better time for plotting together, and dreaming of things to come.


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Felix Caelus

September 2017

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