Rainy day lessons.
IT WAS RAINING, something Arien had noticed happened a lot in Wrystan. After so many years in the desert, followed by several on the dry Callisuni coast, he found the whole process fascinating. He particularly liked watching it while he was inside, warm and dry. Being outside in it was somewhat less of a gift.
Rowan took one look at the sky as his mage stepped onto the back terrace, and vanished down the front of Arien’s rain cloak. He then tunnelled under his tunic for good measure. Whatever else happened this afternoon, Rowan clearly had no plans to get wet.
“Try this.” Mara dropped a broad-brimmed hat over Arien’s curls and adjusted her own so that it kept the drizzle out of her eyes. “There. Not ideal, I’ll grant you, but you work with what you’re given at this time of year. Come along.”
For a small woman she was surprisingly fast when she wanted to be. At first Arien had to jog to keep up, until he managed to match his strides to hers. Even so, he was breathless by the time they’d trotted down the steps and skirted the formal gardens. Beyond that was a long, sloping lawn, before the hedges popped up again, enclosing a beautiful water garden.
Crossing the wooden bridge that spanned a lily pond filled with iridescent fish, Mara stopped at a little summerhouse. Painted dark green to match the bridge, it was little more than a roof supported by four poles, but it did offer some shelter from the rain. The fact that it was raised off the ground also gave them somewhere dry to sit.
Which Mara did without hesitation, waving for Arien to do the same. “Settle down and catch your breath,” she advised. “A calm heart and a clear mind work wonders.”
Shifting to sit cross-legged, as she was, Arien loosened his rain cloak, took off his hat and ran a hand through his curls. Rowan slithered onto his lap, looking tousled and grumpy.
To Arien’s surprise, Nia hopped down onto the wooden boards and scuttled over to eye Rowan in a very jackdawish way. The pine marten snuffled and tucked his nose under Arien’s bent knee, showing every sign of tacking a nap.
Nia chucked, flicked her wings and vanished. One moment Arien was watching a black and grey bird with intelligent blue eyes, the next there was a sparkle of foggy-grey magic and a slender stoat appeared. Dark brown with a white chest and belly, with a black tip to its tail, it was much smaller than Rowan, but its face was every bit as sharp and intelligent.
Arien jumped, startling Rowan out of his nap. The pine marten peered at the stoat suspiciously, then gave a delighted chuckle and the pair of weasel-cousins started wrestling. Smaller Nia might have been, but she was faster and much nimbler. Within heartbeats she had Rowan’s tail in her mouth and was dancing around, avoiding snaps from the infuriated pine marten’s teeth.
“Is that normal?” Arien asked, as Nia released Rowan’s tail and went into a series of twisting leaps, rolls and wiggly-jigs.
Watching the pair of them, Mara loosened the ties of her cloak and smiled. “Stoats have been mesmerising their prey by dance for thousands of years.”
Rowan wasn’t mesmerised. After a few frustrating attempts to catch the jigging beast, he gave a pointed yawn and curled up in Arien’s lap again. Nia wiggled victoriously, skittering close enough to nip Rowan’s tail, then bopped away in a triumphant dance.
“I meant the changing,” Arien said, stretching out a hand for Nia to sniff, while restraining his marten from retaliating. “Isn’t Nia a jackdaw?”
“She is,” Mara agreed, patting her pockets and bringing out a series of pebbles, twigs, a seashell and a handful of peanuts. The stoat fell on the last with a greedy chuckle. “Or rather she was. Nia was a jackdaw when we first found each other, but that was a fair few years ago now. I know mage-beasts look and behave like real animals, but magic has its price.”
Arien frowned as the stoat finished the peanuts, fastidiously cleaned her paws and shifted through another shower of foggy sparks back into the jackdaw. Hopping onto Mara’s shoulder, she shoved off her mage’s hat and started preening her grey-streaked hair, looking as smug as a small crow-cousin could.
“What kind of price?”
“Unless injured or worse by outside forces most mage-beasts renew their form every eight to ten years.” Mara picked up her discarded hat and set it aside. “This Nia lasted until I was twenty, but her stoat cocked up her toes after only seven years. Then she became a plains hound, but she mostly keeps that one for travelling in summer. Or night hunting.”
It was hard enough to imagine the cocky jackdaw turning into a stoat, although Arien could see a resemblance between the two animals, both being too cheeky and clever for their own good. Throwing in a rangy plains hound, bred for size, intelligence and endurance made Arien’s head spin. “I don’t understand. If the first Nia died, how come she’s still a jackdaw?”
“Because she isn’t a real jackdaw. The same as Rowan isn’t a real pine marten. They’re our magic given physical form by some strange quirk of the Rythen Mountain’s influence over this land and Firthen. But once formed they take on a life and personality all their own. Even after one body dies the spirit of the mage-beast stays the same. It remembers what it was before, and more often than not it’ll choose to switch back to that form once its new one is strong enough to take it. I think they feel more comfortable that way.” She tickled Nia’s head and the jackdaw ruffled her wings.
When Arien looked at the pine marten in his lap, wondering what he might turn into one day, Mara chuckled. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s mage-beast magic and best left to them. Before he gets a chance to show off his skills, you need to learn yours. So if you’re ready, Ari, close your eyes, listen to the rain and open your magic.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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