Cat shot up out of the cot she had spent the night in upon hearing the familiar and demanding plea for morning food from her four legged companion. “Nn…” She moaned softly as she stretched. “I hear you, kitty!” Basil meowed again, putting his paws up on the frame of the cot, his furry little face telling her he was starving, as if he hadn’t eaten in days. “Oh don’t give me that look. You’re not a mage too, Basil, you’re not even a familiar!” Basil just jumped up onto the fabric, his tail swishing.
“I have your food in my bag, hold on.” Cat said reaching for the spot she had dropped her backpack, only to find it missing. Instantly, all the grogginess left her limbs. “My bag!” She looked around the refugee tent frantically. It wasn’t that large of a tent, in fact the cot took up most of it. She checked under the cot, but all she found were dirt and bugs.
All her belongings were in that bag. Had she been tricked by these people? Were they really as noble as they had seemed, or were they just bandits seeking to make away with whoever was gullible enough to trust them? She could feel her stomach turning in worry. She had to find her backpack, and make sure none of these villains had-…
“Looking for this?” Cat’s head shot up, hearing the familiar German accent from the night before. It was Hildegard, holding her bag towards her. There were a few patches messily sewn onto the fabric.
“I went back to find it early this morning, when the horde of dead was thinner. It had some tears, so I thought I’d patch it up for you quickly. Apologies, my needlework is not the best…” The knight said. She tossed the backpack towards Cat, who caught it, letting out a sigh of relief.
“No, no, it’s fine. Really. I was just worried it had been stolen…” Cat blushed as she remembered they had actually left her bag there the night before. It was hardly a surprise she couldn’t find it.
Hildegard gave her a light smile. “I can vouch for almost everyone here. We’re not going to take your cat food and books. You’re not the only mage here, after all.”
Cat dug through her bag and pulled out two plastic bowls, a can of cat food and a bottle of water. Basil, recognizing the sounds instantly, hopped off the cot and started circling around Catarina’s legs, meowing incessantly. “Alright, alright! Here’s your food, you little pest!” Catarina said, in mock annoyance, as she put the bowls down on the ground for him. She looked up to see Hildegard’s amused smile had changed.
“So cute~!” The previously serious knight said as she bent down to pet the cat. Of course she had seen him the night before but that was in a combat zone. Now she could shower him with attention in safety. Basil bristled at first, but when he realized that she wasn’t trying to grab him or take away his food, he relaxed. “Soooo soft~”
Cat watched the older girl, not having expected such behavior from someone who just moments before had seemed so cool. She fished out a breakfast bar she had stashed away in the pocket of her bag and took a bite. Her hunger caught up with her as she did. She had been so preoccupied with getting her cat breakfast, she hadn’t realized she was starving as well! Though she doubted Dame Hildegard would find it as cute if SHE started meowing nonstop.
“Mmph, so where are we, mmph…?” She asked between bites.
“The Capitoline Hill. We’re behind the barricade so the dead can’t reach us.” Hildegard said. “I wanted to tell you the story last night, but you passed out as soon as we got you into the cot.”
“I was exhausted!” She exclaimed defensively “But what makes this place safe?”
“Heh, get dressed, I’ll give you a tour.” Hildegard gave the cat one more pet before standing up. “I’ll be outside when you’re ready.”
Cat nodded at the other girl as the redhead left the tent. She was feeling a lot stronger after that rest than she had for a while, always keeping an ear out even in her own home. She quickly pulled on her skirt and undershirt, then her armor. Clasping her blue cape around her neck, she summoned a quick sheet of ice over her hand to get a look at herself. She still looked like a mess…no, wait, she couldn’t think like that. She looked like a hero who was ready to face the world.
She pushed the flap of her tent up and stepped outside, her eyes quickly getting used to the daylight. There were dozens of people here, all moving about. Some were dressed in armor like Hildegard, some were wearing army uniforms. Some were just in civilian clothes. Everyone was working though, carrying lumber and tools or pushing carts carrying stone.
“We are still working on the walls. The barricade keeps the skeletons out, but we want to be ready for if the dead start coming in more massive numbers. Though even then, I believe they’re discussing plans to put up a magical field to keep them from even coming close to the barricade. Still, there are more dangerous things than just simple skeletons out there.”
Cat followed behind Hilde silently, just looking around in awe. She hadn’t known there had been any group of survivors, let alone one with enough leadership to organize such limited manpower to build anything.
She was still taking everything in when she saw a slim figure with black hair and a blue scarf directing others. What was striking wasn’t her size, as she was rather short, it was the black furry ears and black tail that poked out of her shorts that made Cat gape. She turned to Hilde, about to ask, when she saw the knight was just looking at her with that curious smile she had the night before. “You will see soon enough.”
Cat still looked back at the strange girl with the lupine features, and so wasn’t paying attention to what was ahead of her until she felt an arm stop her. She turned around and saw she had nearly walked straight into a tall woman, with broader shoulders than most who stared down at Cat with a stern face as she stammered, “S-sorry…” in apology.
“Catarina, this is Commander Hanne Jazheil. She oversees the defense operations we undertake. Such as my patrol last night. Mother, this is Catarina. She’s a mage as well!”
The taller woman simply nodded and held out her hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Catarina.” Cat shook it nervously, still embarrassed from almost tripping over Hanne.
Hanne turned to her daughter. “Capitolina is ready. Come.”
Hilde seemed to beam at this, though Cat wasn’t sure what ‘Capitolina is ready’ could possibly mean. How could a hill be ready for them? And weren’t they already on the hill. Hildegard quickened her pace and headed into the command tent, Cat following curiously behind.
Her mouth dropped open at what awaited her inside the tent. Namely, there was another woman with wolf ears and tail, just like the other outside, standing behind the desk with a map of the city laid out in front of her. She was relatively short, but she had an aura about her that made her seem to be the tallest person in the room, an air of command that was almost tangible despite her casual attire, dressed lightly as she was in what would likely be called “work-out clothes” save for the red cape hung loosely around her shoulders. The woman looked up at their entrance. Hanne and Hildegard both saluted.
“So is this the girl from last night?” The lupine woman asked as one of her ears flicked up. Cat could not help but stare.
“She is, Capitolina.” Hanne spoke, dropping her salute. “Hildegard said there were no others in the area last night or when she returned this morning. …Living or dead.”
“You were all alone?” The wolf woman looked at her, her eyes suddenly full of concern. Cat didn’t trust herself to speak, feeling like a little girl under such a look. She had been forcing all the fears and sadness she didn’t want to deal with down, but standing in front of this person, she felt safe. Safer than she had in a long time. Cat nodded her head, so as to not let them hear her voice break.
“For how long?”
There was no way to get around speaking there. “A-a few weeks now. I ran out of food at home…”
“Are you hungry now? When was the last time you had a good meal? Do you need water? Are you hurt?” The wolf woman walked around the table, firing off question after question while looking Catarina over for injuries.
“Uh, uh…I-I’m fine, I had a breakfast bar this morning…”
“Capitolina, you’re overwhelming her.” Hildegard said, stifling a giggle. “Catarina, this is Lupa Capitolina, our leader at this camp.”
“Are those real…?” Cat blurted out before covering her mouth. She hadn’t meant to actually ask, since nobody else seemed bothered about it, but it just came out. “S-sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, Catarina, I’m not offended. Everyone asks that at one point or another.” Capitolina smiled at her warmly, putting her arms on her shoulders and squatting down to reach her height.
“Yes, they’re real. I am a wolf, a very old one. Old enough that I’ve learned how to take human shape.”
“Okay…” Cat said weakly. She had read about such things in her father’s books, but she hadn’t heard of any being seen in Italy for over a century. “You look different from your statue…”
Capitolina laughed and stood up. “I always did think that statue was kind of ugly. But if you’re with me, you don’t have to worry about anything. I’m the Wolf of Rome, and I’ll keep all those inside of my city safe.”
Cat looked at Hanne and Hilde to her sides. Hanne seemed completely unfazed as if this was perfectly normal. Hilde on the other hand just grinned even wider and nodded her head at Cat, as if to say, “Yep, this is totally real and it’s totally amazing.”
“Are there any more of your family still around, Catarina?” Capitolina asked.
“No…My father left and took my mother with him before this all started. I don’t know where they are, or even if they’re still alive.” Cat swallowed the lump in her throat as she could feel the tears she had refused to shed trying to fall. “Though there is still Basil, my cat.”
“I thought I had smelled a new cat around the base.” The wolf gave a smile. “We’ll make sure you have to food to feed him. If you need anything at all, come to me, okay? I know it’s hard to be on your own without your parents, no matter how old you get.” Without any warning, Capitolina hugged Catarina. Cat squirmed in surprise at first, but once she got used to being held, she hesitantly hugged her back. The wolf was very warm, and it felt good to bury her face into her neck for a bit, as if to hide away.
“Ahem…while this all very touching, I do believe we had an appointment, Capitolina.” A familiar voice came from the entrance of the tent.
“L-Lord Nassar!” Cat said, spinning around to look behind her. Lord Albion Nassar was standing in the front of the tent, looking none the worse for wear given the chaos that surrounded the city. He looked, in fact, exactly as Cat had always seen him when he visited her father’s study or in the association’s meetings. She had almost never spoken to him alone, but she had heard enough to know that he was one of the most renowned mages in Italy, and that he was not someone to be crossed.
“Miss Aldobrandini. It is good to see your family lives on.” He said, with formality but without any sense of earnestness. “Now if you don’t mind, there are matters of this barrier you wish to erect, yes? I do believe that has priority over another survivor.”
Capitolina glared at the man, yellow eyes seeming to gleam under her furrowed brow. “Of course, though it doesn’t hurt to comfort a girl recently orphaned. And it doesn’t kill a person to show kindness and tenderness.” The fur on her ears and tails was standing straight. Capitolina’s distaste for the man was obvious, particularly to Catarina. She didn’t really like him either, but he was a powerful mage and her father had always said he was perhaps the most brilliant member of their circle. There was etiquette to observe.
“Ah…Your father and mother did not survive…?” Lord Nassar stared at Cat. Where a normal person would express their condolence and personal grief, Catarina could almost see the wheels turning in his head. This was simply information to him, to be processed and analyzed for its usefulness. “I will stop by later this evening, Miss Aldobrandini, to check on you. Your father was a friend of mine, I owe him that much to look after his daughter.”
“Hmph. We have a meeting, so if that’s all Hanne, you’re dismissed.” Capitolina said, looking at Cat, Hildegard and Hanne. Hanne saluted again before ushering the two younger girls out.
“That is all, Catarina, you are free to go. Hildegard, we should be off as well.”
“Where are you going?” Cat asked. Not knowing anyone else, she didn’t want to be left alone in this camp.
“It’s time for Hildegard’s training. She may style herself as a knight but she still has a lot left to learn.”
“Mother!” Hilde shouted, her face red. “D-Don’t say things like that! I’m allowed to go on patrols by myself now, aren’t I?”
“I didn’t say you weren’t a skilled fighter, but that you still have things left to learn. If I didn’t think you were capable, you wouldn’t be allowed to partake in patrols, even if I am raising you as my daughter.”
“Hmph. I’m absolutely a knight. I’m Dame Hildegard Jazheil.” She muttered to herself, though her cheeks stayed crimson.
Cat nodded at Hildegard’s protestations though. Hilde WAS cool. And she fought so well! Cat wished she was half the hero Hildegard had been the other knight. She wished she could fight with a sword and be a knight herself.
“Can I come with you?!” Cat said quickly, pleading with her eyes to not be refused.
Hanne stopped and looked at Cat. She seemed hesitant about letting this young teenager with no training at all pick up a sword, even a training one. “I am not sure…”
“Please, I want to learn to be a knight too! I want to be the one to save the next survivor and protect them! I want to be a hero!”
Hanne’s brow furled at that last statement and her face grew very serious. She looked down at the girl firmly. “Heroes are dangerous people to be around. They do reckless things and bring danger onto themselves. A hero is likely to get themselves and others killed. It is best to always avoid those who want to be heroes.”
Cat shrank under her words and gaze. “I-I, I didn’t mean…That is…”
She felt a hand on her shoulder, as Hildegard came to her side. “Ease up, Mother, she’s a teenager. We’re all stupid, aren’t we? Plus we all have dreams of being a hero. It’s training that teaches you to be a soldier, not a fool. I say we train her.”
The older woman was silent for a few moments. “I suppose you have a point. But it is not entirely my decision to make. It will require Capitolina’s approval.”
“What will require my approval?”
Cat turned her head to the warm voice of the wolf. There was Capitolina, standing with her head tilted, looking at the trio with curiosity. Her tail was peaking up, but Cat could tell she had been drooping it just moments before. She wondered what happened in that short meeting with Lord Nassar.
“Catarina wishes to be trained alongside Hildegard. Presumably to join patrols when she is ready. Should I train her, sir?” Hanne said, standing at attention. Apparently she had not heard the wolf’s approach either.
“She can do ice magic, so she can be trained to fight as a combat mage like me!” Hilde said brightly from her side. Cat imagined herself with a sword made of ice, bringing it down on a skeleton’s head to save a helpless damsel like she had been. It was with a touch of relief that she realized she didn’t have a tail like Capitolina’s, because if she did it would be wagging for all to see.
The wolf herself seemed to brighten a bit at the idea. “Well, I don’t see why not. I think it’s a good idea and she’s still quite young so she should adapt quickly to it! I’ll help catch her up on the basics so she can reach Hilde’s level without slowing her down too much. Hanne, you have my approval to start training her.”
Cat looked at Capitolina with wide eyes and a big smile before jumping in the air. “YES!” She was going to be a knight, just like Hildegard, and she was going to get to train with the cool older girl too! Nothing could make her happier.
“Hehe, come on, little sis, the training field is this way. We’re going to need to get you some armor and a wooden sword to start with.” Hildegard said as she grabbed Cat’s hand, leading her off.
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=4&sl=170 ))
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa