Despite her hurried exit, Catryn waited just outside the cavern for Ric to join her. They walked together silently for a few minutes before she finally gathered the courage to admit “I’m surprised you brought Rynir here.”
“Galen is the best healer in the city.” Ric replied simply, as though it was the most logical choice.
Catryn hesitated; the world she knew did not accept mages so naturally. Regardless of their skills and useful talents, they were only seen with fear and suspicion. She had watched Ric closely when Galen had been healing Rynir, and there had been no sign of the usual disdain, but her experience made it difficult to believe. Eventually, she said “He’s also a mage.”
Ric paused, sighing deeply, and admitted “I won’t say I trust all mages. The same way I don’t trust all mercenaries. Powerful people are dangerous, without exception. But dangerous isn’t the same as evil.” After a moment, his light tone not matching his determined gaze, he said “You taught me that.”
Catryn knew that her desperation had leaked out in her question, but she couldn’t find the energy to be worried whether he would read into it. Instead, she stuttered to a halt and stared at Ric’s back as her mind frantically struggled to find any falsehoods in his words.
Feeling her gaze, he slowed his pace and glanced back at her. He couldn’t quite meet her eyes, but his tone was one of concern when he changed the subject. “Are you in any pain?”
Numb, she shook her head and muttered “Like you said, he’s the best healer around.”
His expression stiffened, and Catryn hung her head; she knew what happened in the Catacombs weighed heavily on him. She just didn’t know how to convince him that it wasn’t his fault. Before she could gather the courage to approach the subject, Ric murmured “We should hurry and meet Jared. If we’re lucky, the high priest will have been there already.”
The silence washed back over them as they travelled, though Ric walked slowly in consideration of her previous injuries. His sensitivity to her condition always made her feel fragile; most people didn’t try to take care of her. That was her job. But Ric was always thoughtful and attentive, and a familiar warmth prickled in her chest at the small gesture.
It was a long walk from the under city to the main city gate, where the Southern barracks lay. At the entrance to the courtyard stood the pristine shrine to the Judge. The statue depicted the perfectly balanced scales that symbolised justice, and it exuded an aura of authority. It was unpleasant. Catryn couldn’t help but marvel that even a simple shrine could have such an overpowering pressure.
The barracks were bustling, as always. Guard shifts changing, new recruits in training; it was a hub of activity at the edge of the Steel Quarter. In the training grounds there were groups practising shield techniques and halberd forms on one side, and the sparring matches on the other. As Catryn watched curiously, she barely noticed Bryce approach them until he was already greeting Ric.
Each time she saw Bryce, his warm brown eyes were only filled with suspicion. He didn’t trust her; whether it was really because she was a mercenary, as he said, she didn’t know. It was different with Ric, though. “Ahren!” He exclaimed, an unconcealed smile beaming on his face. “I wasn’t aware you would be visiting today. Should I call Captain D’luran?”
“That won’t be necessary. We’re here to see Jared.” Ahren’s professional mask was back on his face; a polite smile that never reached his calculating eyes.
“I see.” Bryce’s enthusiasm for his hero couldn’t be curbed, and he continued candidly, “The Ambassador is currently indisposed. A member of the Grey Temple is meeting with him. They’ve been there for a while, so I doubt you will need to wait for long.”
Ahren nodded calmly. “Thank you, Bryce.”
“As you’re here…perhaps you could give the recruits something to aspire to?” The young guard paused, his eager expression faltering slightly as he finally glanced Wolf’s way. Reluctantly, he added “Both of you are something of legends among many of the newer members.”
“I’m not sure that’s…” Ric paused when he saw the sparkle in Catryn’s eyes as she looked up at him. He imagined the shadow of the bruise on her throat and forced a pained smile onto his lips, shaking his head. “Not today, love.”
She hid her disappointment quickly, and suggested “Why don’t you spar with Bryce? I’m sure he could do with another lesson. I can always find Sebastian; I would take any excuse I can get to put him on the floor.”
Ric’s expression tightened, leaving Catryn puzzled, and he muttered “You and I both.” He considered her suggestion and relented, turning to Bryce to say “Find that ingrate if he’s available, would you? I’m sure he’ll come running if he knows Lady Catryn is here.”
As the usually stoic guard hurried to comply, Catryn shook her head, baffled. “What did you do to him? I thought he hated mercenaries, but he treats you like a bloody hero.”
“I am a bloody hero.” A smug smile tugged at his lips, and he tapped her forehead gently before faltering. Troubled, his hand slowly moved to her chin, and he lifted her face to get a better view of her throat. Though the bruises his hand had made were gone without a trace, the memory lingered. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
Catryn’s heart ached at the deep anguish in his eyes. “I don’t know the words to say to make you realise it wasn’t your fault.” She murmured, touching his hand gently. She looked steadily into his shaking eyes and softly declared “No matter how long it takes, I will keep showing you that I trust you until you believe it.”
“Don’t go making promises you can’t keep, love.” He whispered, his voice uncharacteristically weak.
“I can be as patient as you need me to be, Ric. You didn’t hurt me. I know you never will. I trust you.” She swore quietly, praying that he would feel her sincerity the way she always felt his.
“Is that why you wanted to spar?” He realised; it would have been obvious any other day, but he needed to know. Rather, he needed to hear it from her. “To prove that you’re not afraid of me?”
As the strength returned to Ric’s silver eyes, her confidence started to falter. Cursing her cowardice, she evasively said “Actions always did mean more to you than words.”
“Was that the only reason?” The hand that had lifted her chin moved to the back of her neck. His fingers moved to tangle in her hair as if they had a will of their own, but he didn’t have the power to stop them. To resist the hold she didn’t know she had over him.
“I miss you.” She said simply; it was the truth. It was exhausting to pretend she wanted to be anywhere but with him. Throwing caution to the wind, she added “Besides, can you blame me for wanting an excuse to get closer to you?”
The shadow of guilt on his face dissipated in an instant, and Ric’s eyes widened, focusing on her feigned nonchalance. As he stared openly at her, she shrank under her hood to hide her flaming cheeks and abandoned her desperate attempts to keep eye contact.
For the first time since meeting him, Catryn was relieved to feel that Sebastian was approaching them with Bryce. The two guards were opposites in every but their drive to reach their goals. Even the way they walked across the courtyard: Bryce was rigid and uniform, like he was marching in formation instead of walking casually, while Sebastian strolled, waving and winking at anyone they passed with his most charming smile.
Cat distracted herself from her racing heart by turning to the two, raising a simple hand in greeting. Sebastian’s dazzling smile somehow brightened; even Catryn couldn’t deny that he was a handsome man. Most of the recruits, she had heard, would act like fools around him. Catryn was immune to his particular charms, which only made him more determined to change her mind.
On a sigh, Ric murmured that they would finish their conversation later and turned to greet the approaching guardsmen. As they approached, Cat noticed Ric take a deep breath, to centre himself, and a professional smile was back on his face. Only she would notice the tension in his jaw, the only sign of his discomfort that remained.
With a fluid movement, Sebastian flicked his shocking white hair off his face as knelt in front of Wolf. He swiftly reached for her hand, bowing his head. “My lady called for me?”
“Did she? You should run along then, lest you keep her waiting.” She replied tartly, pulling her hand from his grasp.
As always, Sebastian didn’t miss a beat. His perfect smile didn’t falter for a moment. “Lady Dyn-íthorn, you wound me. I have eyes only for you.”
Irritated, Wolf responded by using her boot to push the guardsman away from her. As he fell awkwardly back onto the cobbles, she growled “Fight me.”
“I would be thrilled to tussle with you in private, my lady, but here? I’ll have to disappoint you; I cannot embarrass myself in front of our new recruits.” Brushing himself off, he threw a curious smirk at Ric and added “Would it not make more sense to make your demonstration in the situation you can shine the brightest: against a group?”
A harsh, clipped voice behind them declared “Article 31, section 4, in the Training manual states that you must seek approval from the Captain of your district before allowing outsiders to influence the regime in any way.”
“Captain.” Sebastian squeaked in surprise, and leapt to his feet. “Guardsman Irenust, requesting approval for two renowned mercenaries to give a demonstration that will benefit our fresh recruits, sir.”
“Granted. On one condition.” Blue eyes, so pale they were almost devoid of colour, locked on Catryn’s and a booming voice declared “Remove your hood and mask.”
With the full force of his gaze on her, Catryn knew one thing for certain: this man was like the sun. Not the soothing sun that warms in the Winter and nourishes crops in the Spring. Captain D’luran was the harsh, cruel sun that shows no mercy during a drought. The overpowering sun that scorches the earth and can only be broken by a thunderstorm. The pressure she had felt passing the shrine was nothing in the face of this man.
“What do you think you’re doing, old friend.” Ric growled; everyone in the courtyard could feel the sudden rush of authority that filled the vicinity.
She held out a hand to Ric as he took a step forward to lock horns with the Guard Captain. He halted, turning his full attention to look at her, and Catryn lifted her chin. Her immediate instinct had been to run and hide, but she knew that fleeing would be an admission of guilt. Only the unlawful could not withstand a greeting from one with the power of a Priest of the Judge.
“For what reason do you make this request?” She asked calmly, putting enough power in her voice for it to carry. Her words were meant to remind him that she was not a subordinate that had to heed his commands.
“I do not allow disguises in my domain. Those are my rules.” He replied finally, that terrible gaze burning into her. His tone made it clear that, in his view, she needed no further reason than his word.
Catryn bit down her irritation and stood her ground; she refused to bow to another Caretaker’s influence. Considering the day she’d already had, even she was surprised when her voice came out like honey. “Your opponents out in the city won’t much care for your rules.”
Captain D’luran’s jaw clenched; he was clearly not used to being questioned. Catryn could tell from the steely glint in his eyes that he didn’t care for it. However, to her surprise, his answer was quite reasonable. “I cannot trust someone that refuses to show their face with my men.”
“Very well.” She couldn’t hold that against him, and she knew that those close to the Caretaker of Truth and Justice would be unable to lie. Removing her hood, she channelled Arabella and grinned, saying “Your standards for trust are very low indeed, Captain D’luran.”
His expression, intense yet emotionless, did not waver. Scorching eyes analysed everything from her messy black hair, escaping the pins she had used to keep it out of the way, to her clear amber eyes. She was tall and well built, so it was no surprise to him that many would mistake the legendary “Wolf” to be a young man. It was their first meeting, but he had studied her abilities through reports for some time. As he did with all threats to his city.
“Guardsman Th’yrolen, bring the recruits.”
“All of them, sir?” Silence was his only answer; Captain D’luran did not repeat himself, as a rule. With a salute, Bryce signalled his understanding. “Yes, sir.”
While Bryce and Sebastian approached the recruits, Wolf quickly pulled her hair back up and pinned it in place. She had been keeping it short since starting mercenary work until Arabella eventually convinced her to grow it out. It was just starting to reach her shoulders, and just long enough to get in the way if she didn’t have it secured somehow.
Wolf looked through the training weapons for suitable daggers, in preparation. She couldn’t very well kill any of the recruits, but her style wasn’t the most suited to sparring. Even with blunt training weapons, she would need to be careful not to do any lasting damage. That was one reason she loved fighting Ric so much; there was no possibility that she could hurt him, even going all out.
As if summoned by her thoughts, Ric appeared at her side and brushed the last unruly strand of hair behind her ear. “Are you sure about this?”
“I’m not exactly Wolf with just a hood either way.” Catryn knew he was referring to her fighting without her mask. She shrugged, doing her best to put on an air of indifference despite the uneasiness prickling in her throat. “These people…don’t have expectations of this face. They don’t know who I am supposed to be without Wolf. Besides, the legendary Aryll D’luran is just as terrifying as I’d heard; I’m not getting on his bad side.”
“I can protect you.” He vowed, and his aura sparked around them with sincerity, dazzling her.
Warmth spread in her chest at his words, especially knowing that he was capable of following through with them. As always, he knew exactly what to say to loosen the knot in her stomach. Still, she carefully dismissed his pledge with a small smile. “Then who would protect the city? I’m not going to let my discomfort put strain on your relationship.”
“We can talk about this later.” He muttered, and Catryn was surprised to see his face darken.
“I’m seeing all kinds of expressions from you today.” She murmured with a smile. It wasn’t that she was pleased he was troubled. Ric only ever showed people his professional face; he would laugh easily, but his smile never reached his eyes. “I’m…happy you’re not hiding from me.”
Taking advantage of the surprise on his face, Catryn quickly slipped her bag onto his arm and shrugged out of her heavy coat. Her usual weapons were already in the bag, as daggers would have been no help in the catacombs. Bouncing on her toes to warm up, Wolf slipped the training daggers into place and welcomed the chance to burn through her anxiety.
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