(A/N: This short story's a sort of prequel to another fanfic idea I have which is in the planning stages and won't be up for a while yet. It's not really a prequel, but the incident in this story becomes important in the fanfic itself at some point. The story will take place three years after this one. Anyway. Oblivion doesn't belong to me, it belongs to Bethesda, you know how it goes.)
"Mother!" the nine-year-old boy admonished. The needle glinted in the gloom as he pushed it through the papery skin beneath in neat, uniform stitches. "If I didn't find you, you could have bled to death!"
"I know, sweetie," murmured his pale mother. Her dark eyelashes rested against her pale skin. Her son's hands felt warm on her chilled arm, and she couldn't stop shaking.
"We need more thread," said the boy, tying it off. He grabbed a stained rag and wiped off the last of the blood. "There, done."
"Thank you, Magnus," his mother murmured. She looked down at her forearms. Twin scars, beaded with blood and stitched up expertly, stretched along their white length. "I'll have to get some more."
"Where do you get the thread?" said Magnus. He returned the needle to the box on the table and clicked it shut. "I've looked everywhere, and it doesn't grow on bushes or underground. I checked."
"Put out the fire," said Celine.
Magnus dropped the question like a hot coal, and his chair scraped the worn floorboards. Celine closed her eyes again so she wouldn't have to see the sky veined with red and yellow as the heavy door creaked open. She could hear the crunching of leaves, a bitten-off swearword as Magnus tripped over the harrada root by the well. She really had to dig up that thing… she listened to the scraping of earth and rocks, the creak of the door, and the footsteps and the grunt as Magnus hauled in a bucket.
She opened her eyes. "Good, you got earth."
"You said water causes a lot of smoke," said Magnus, tilting the bucket over the fire. And he was right – the fire was risky enough as it was, but for Celine's wounds to be infected could mean disaster.
Getting hurt in the first place had been beyond stupid. Already, Celine flinched at the memory. If Magnus hadn't come…
"I'll clean that out tomorrow," said Celine. Dirt rolled onto the floor.
Once upon a time, boys his age could play with toys, thought Celine as she watched her son. His dark hair hung over his eyes as he finally stamped the last of the dirt into place. He swept up the empty bucket, leaving the door open behind him. A breeze heated Celine's face, drying the tear before her son could return and see it. The sky cast an orange glow on her skin, leaving her arms looking demonic.
Magnus flitted back in, closing the heavy door with no effort. It was testament to the strength that boys his age shouldn't need – not even farm boys from the old days worked as hard as Magnus. Farm boys never had to forage for themselves. Farm boys never had to look over their shoulder for trouble if they strayed out of the house.
Guilt tugged at her. His father would not have approved. He would have demanded that Celine keep him locked up, where he would be safe. And he had been one of the most gentle people Celine knew.
But Celine knew better than he had. She knew that if Magnus didn't grow up embracing the new world, it would kill him. Every day, she shooed him out of the door to gather ingredients and wild-growing food, every day she crossed her fingers and prayed to Talos he would come back. As she had since he was seven and a half.
And every day, she would sigh with relief when he returned, usually with a couple of new scratches and scars. If they were lucky, it had only been the wild harrada roots that caused it – plants from Oblivion whose razor-sharp blades clawed at whoever wandered too close.
It was risky, letting him roam. Too risky. Daedra prowled out there, and in the dark they scratched at the boarded-up windows, and Celine heard their scratchy calls on the hills. A lone child wouldn't stand a chance in the wild.
No, she told herself. A child whose parents were anybody else would not have stood a chance.
Magnus had survived three weeks ago when a daedroth had chased him with unnatural speed for its bulky form. Magnus had survived when he was five and a scamp snuck into the house. Magnus had survived when the clannfear broke down the fence when he was seven and almost killed him.
That had been the day Celine realised she couldn't shelter him anymore. She'd already taught him everything she knew, and every day she took him gathering herbs and food with her, because the house wasn't safe. Every day he crept with her and watched – and sometimes helped – when she had to fight something. He knew more about sword fighting than men five times his age, even though he still was a boy and possessed only a boy's strength. He knew that daedra typically ate only each other unless they were beyond starving, because no people lived on the planes of Oblivion.
But how could he learn to survive, if he relied on her too much?
He'd been delighted that day, when she told him to look for ingredients himself. But she'd followed, keeping her distance, keeping hidden. He'd been so careless, but after the third scamp almost gouged out his eye he learned. He learned when a daedroth rose its head from where it had been drinking at the stream, and he remembered his mother wasn't there to protect him. He learned when a clannfear caught up to him…
It had killed Celine to stand there and watch. But he had to learn. And he had – he'd dropped and played dead for over an hour when the daedroth spotted him, he'd taken out the clannfear's legs, killed the scamp with only a burn on his cheek to show his trouble. When he'd found out his mother watched over him two months later, he'd been indignant.
"I can take care of myself," the boy had insisted, with white scars stark against his face and a bleeding scratch on his chin.
Celine missed the old days, where he would have grown up without knowing what part of a sword was the pommel, where he didn't have to know about the poisonous plants of the highlands and wouldn't have a clue about starting camp fires. Days that existed ten years ago, a world with a bright blue sky and grass that was actually green and lush, instead of the stunted brown blades that struggled for life.
Those days were gone now.
But not forever, thought Celine, looking to her son. He sat on the floor by the door with his forehead creased into a deep frown. One day, the heir will save us. He will take the Amulet of Kings and relight the Dragonfires, and banish the daedra. It'll… it'll take time, that's all. We just have to keep waiting.
All the same… it was thanks to Magnus's stubborn attitude, eagerness to learn and sheer luck that the boy hadn't died yet.
"Mother," he suddenly cut into her thoughts, his dark eyes meeting hers. A faint, white film spread over them, the cause of his poor vision. She hoped he wouldn't go blind… "I've been thinking."
"No furniture has been disturbed," said Magnus. "The windows we boarded up are still boarded up and have no more scratches on them that weren't made last night. There is no possible way you could have dropped a dagger and sliced both of your arms that deeply. How did you get those injuries?"
In the other world, nine year olds had been dumb as bricks and didn't need to be smarter.
Celine sighed. Closed her eyes again. How could she be so stupid?! Already she'd fucked up the rest of his life – he'd never know what it would be like to have a playmate his age, he didn't even know what his reflection looked like, and he thought the only human being in the world aside from him was her.
And she'd got depressed enough about it to almost fuck it up even more and leave him. In the other world, she'd cover up her behaviour. Tell him to mind his own business.
But in this world, not asking questions could kill him.
"Sometimes," she said carefully. "when people get very sad, they want to hurt themselves."
Okay. Perhaps not the whole truth. But she had to treat him like an adult.
By lying, like a normal parent would?
Guiltily, she shoved the thought aside.
"Why?" Magnus blinked at her.
"It makes them feel better to feel physical pain instead of mental pain," she said, and Magnus nodded in understanding. But she said, "Remember what we discussed about that?"
"Yeah," Magnus said. "Mental is what you think and physical is what you feel with your body."
She nodded. "But it's a very stupid thing to do."
"Then why did you do it? You're not stupid."
"Sometimes I have stupid moments," she forced a smile.
"Were you sad?" the boy went on, tilting his head. He looked so unworried.
In another world, that would have been alarming. Even now, it saddened Celine that her son felt no concern for her. But she'd trained him that way, trained him so that he knew that one day she might fall and never get up, and that he would have to ignore it and get on with his own life and live. If he allowed himself to be upset, his focus would lapse. And something could kill him.
"Yes," said Celine. "And it was stupid of me to."
Magnus's face split into a smile and he nodded. He loved to think he was better at her at something. "Well, you'll never do it again, will you?"
"Of course not," said Celine. Magnus grinned.
"So it's okay now," he said.
"Yes," she lied.
But the feelings were always there. The despair, the fear, the nightmares and the terror. She hadn't had a good night's sleep since the old world, when the only daedra she knew were the ones the mages summoned, before Magnus was even conceived. She hadn't had a happy dream since two years before even that.
Fear dominated her days. She feared for Magnus's health and safety, she feared the cultists would find them and kill her son, she feared the clannfear that clawed at the door at night would finally shred it apart, she feared that her son would grow sick with an illness that could only be cured with herbs made extinct by the Oblivion crisis, she feared…
She hated being alone.
She had Magnus, but she was alone. His father didn't stand beside her, and hadn't since the Hero of Kvatch failed Tamriel. On that lonely day, Celine gave birth alone with no midwife or herbs. Exhausted, she'd cleaned herself and the squalling baby up, thanked Talos the birth had gone as smoothly as it could.
She'd panicked every time Magnus caught a cold in those early days – he'd been such a sickly baby that worry disrupted her sleep more than his crying did – she fretted at her loneliness and she missed people. She missed safety. Missed not having to strap a sword to her belt each time she stepped outside the house. Missed being able to buy potions from an apothecary, missed the annoying guards who'd made her life hell, missed animals and green grass and blue sky –
Magnus, attuned to this world, never realised he shouldn't have to live in a place where he feared for his safety even as he slept at night. He had no idea that living in the middle of the wilderness in fear of the Mythic Dawn didn't have to be normal. He was oblivious that most children grew up with two parents whom they wouldn't bury until past their twentieth birthday.
He didn't know the beauty of green grass, blue sky, a butterfly, a white-coated wolf, the snuffling of a puppy, the smile of a father. He didn't know what snow was, what the ocean sounded like, he'd never shivered in his life when not stricken by a fever because Tamriel was so warm that he could stand outside, soaking wet, in the middle of the night and not be cold.
But that wasn't the worst thing.
The worst thing was that one day, he might go out and never come back. And yet, she couldn't afford not to. Damned if she did, damned if she didn't. If she didn't, his reflexes would dull, his memory would forget how to survive and his mind would gloss over the importance of keeping alive. Any day now, the Mythic Dawn would find them, and Magnus would have to hide. Any day now, he'd curl up in that tight hiding space, barely breathing with fear. Any day now, she would die screaming and bloody at their hands.
It would come, too. Their luck would not last forever.
And when that day came, she would die knowing she'd made damn sure her son would be able to survive without her. She knew that however young he was, he would be able to fend for himself.
When it came, she would die knowing that one day, he'd live in a world where he could hear the gulls calling on the wind, taste a melting snowflake on his tongue and lie in a field of green.
And that night, he would go to sleep in soft, linen sheets, without a single nightmare awaiting him.