The New Front
April 8th, 2023
It was mid-morning as Hanne checked herself in the small mirror that stood out in her otherwise spartan room. Vanity wasn’t one of her traits, but as the appointed commander of the Rangers, it was expected she keep at least her appearance trim. She was wearing her old military uniform and she’d kept it immaculate over the past few years, no mean feat given the recent months. She needed to cut an impressive figure today, as the day had come for the Rangers to march to the sea.
It would be the first time many of them had left Rome in almost half a year, herself included. The Rangers might venture out beyond the barricade wall, but even that was merely a portion of the city at this point. Today, they would be marching south, towards their launching point in southern Italy to sail to Catania on Sicily, and from there they would march to Mount Etna. The Rangers were nervous, most of them anyway, and in times like that soldiers would look to their leaders. Capitolina had wanted to come as well, but Angel had insisted she stay in Rome in her role as temporary Consul.
Finishing her check, keeping her uniform trim and hair bound tight behind her head, she set the mirror down and slung her bag over her shoulder. Her sword was hung at her hip, and she even had her old service rifle stowed in her bag along with everything else she needed. She was used to sleeping on nothing but the bare ground and she’d drilled the Rangers in it over the past week.
They would be moving light and sleeping light, trying to cover as much ground as they could as quickly as possible. The Rangers, enjoying the beds the sanctuary assured them, had been quick to gripe about sleeping with nothing but a thin bedroll on the hard ground outside…with the usual exception of Hildegard, who practically seemed more comfortable on the ground, and Catarina, who was always eager to please.
Hanne allowed herself a sigh. Catarina was far too young for this, she knew that. She was still a teenager; she shouldn’t be drilled as a soldier or used like one until she was at least eighteen. But they were short on able manpower, and Catarina had been both zealous and disciplined in her training. Hanne had worried at first that her eagerness would drag down her performance, but to her pleasant surprise Catarina had been quick to take to instruction. She did everything in her power to prove herself ready, and in doing so was already ranked as one of the best Rangers Hanne had. It did little to assuage her worries though, Hanne wondered if Catarina knew the full extent of what she was getting into. She was overjoyed to fight with the Rangers, and Hanne had brought her along on the last few city expeditions, even having her fight one-on-one with a Cacodaemon (with Hildegard close by to intervene if need be) and Catarina had done…remarkably well. Hanne had half-expected her to turn around completely, too gripped by fear to prove herself effective. In fact Hanne had almost hoped for that outcome, as it meant she could have pulled her out of the Rangers and the expedition. Catarina, however, had proven herself an amazing combatant, able to fight at her finest against a dangerous foe.
Speaking of which, Hanne listened for a sound elsewhere in the house and was greeted by total silence. She let out another sigh as she realized Hildegard and Catarina were doubtless already out the door. It was still another two hours before the Rangers were to meet, which could mean only one thing.
Hanne stepped quickly out the door, locking it behind her as she moved into the city. She took a few steps towards the piazza before pausing and turning on her heel to the training field instead. If they had left with zeal to get there first, they would be at the piazza, but if they had left at the same time…
It took her only ten minutes to reach the training field, the weight of her bag almost nonexistent on her shoulder, and her suspicions were realized as she was greeted by the sound of clashing swords that echoed louder the closer she got to the training field. There, surrounded by a small ring of spectators, Hildegard and Catarina had decided to expend some of their excess energy.
Normally, Hanne would have walked over, broken them up, and chewed them out over wasting all their strength when they had a day’s long march ahead, but experience had taught her by now that if those two wanted to duel there was little that would stop them. Interrupting them now would only postpone the competition to sometime later, which was a distraction she could certainly do without on today of all days. So instead she took her place on the outside of the ring of onlookers, keeping her distance so as not to make her presence immediately known.
Duels between Catarina and Hildegard always drew spectators; they were, after all, Rome’s premiere magic combatants at this point. Hildegard was still the better fighter, but Catarina’s rapid improvement showed that the gap was no longer quite as broad, and as Hildegard was now her favorite opponent, the younger girl was beginning to learn the older’s tricks.
The two of them moved with impressive speed, constantly closing the distance between each other, attacking, parrying, withdrawing, and renewing their attacks. Catarina had been in good shape when Hanne had first met her, and a decent diet combined with intense exercise was definitely improving her skills. Hildegard was, of course, in perfect form. Her movements were as elegant as they were efficient, no energy wasted, her sword swinging with practiced precision with which Catarina had to stagger to contend.
The magic, of course, added another layer of strategy to the fight and entertainment for crowd (though they had to stand well back). Catarina was an ice mage and Hildegard’s specialty was fire. That meant Hildegard usually had the advantage, but Catarina had become more liberal and strategic in her use of her frosty spells. Hanne watched, hands at her side, as the battle unfolded.
“The score is still one nothing, Cat.” Hildegard smiled, sword held tight in her fingers. It lacked its usual circuit of fire, but given her habit of destroying training swords with that enchantment, not to mention the ever-present danger of contact burns, that had been a demand on Hanne’s part. “If I win that’s the round.”
“That was a lucky shot.” Catarina complained, gripping her training “sword” tightly, though it was little more than welded steel roughly the weight of her actual sword. Hildegard’s sword was magic and virtually indestructible, whereas Cat’s sword needed regular treatment to keep it sharp. Thus, for safety reasons as well, Hanne had barred its use for training so as to maintain its edge. All her training would be of little use if the blade was dull when she actually needed it.
Catarina was the first to move, and Hanne’s eyes caught the ground before her slicking over with a thin sheet of ice, just enough for Catarina to glide on. As she slid to Hildegard, the swinging of her training sword sent Cat herself off at an angle precisely as she intended, allowing her to slide even as she followed through with the swing in order to move to Hildegard’s unprotected side, giving her less than a second to step back and parry the blow.
It was an unorthodox fighting style, and one that Cat was still in the process of mastering. As a result Hanne had banned it outside of their little duels, as she’d prefer Catarina stick to the easier and far safer fundamentals than a risky magic-dependent strategy. However she had to admit Cat was improving. She could use the same ice magic to lock herself to the ice, allowing her to stop and slide at will. It often left Hildegard distracted as she needed to step over or around the ice, or expend her own magical energy to melt it, turning the dirt of the training ground into a slick mud that was at times just as dangerous as the ice.
Hildegard moved in again, sidestepping the ice as she brought her sword against Cat in a powerful horizontal swing. Catarina flawlessly skated backwards before braking herself on the ice, the field she was generating almost to the edges of the onlookers. The smile on her face was obvious as she half-moved, half-skated around Hildegard’s advance, sliding with graceful ease across the ground in and out of reach, using her feet and the ice itself to propel herself rapidly around Hildegard.
Hanne had to admit she was impressed. On the rare occasion they had spoken Lord Albion had complimented Catarina’s tremendous potential. She was the last of one of Italy’s oldest bloodlines, which apparently had a lot of meaning for mages, and it gave her a lot of skill and power others her age would lack.
Hildegard, however, was not to be underestimated. Her blood was almost as strong as Cat’s, and she was a lot more experienced in utilizing hers for combat. With a single raised hand she let out a burst of heat through the ground, causing it to sizzle beneath her boots as she charged Catarina again. A little heat and the ice would turn to mud, a bit more however…
Hanne watched passively as a plume of steamy fog enveloped their impromptu combat ring. She could see the shapes of Hildegard and Catarina moving within, the sudden sound of metal on metal as Catarina barely parried a feinted blow from Hildegard, using the camouflage of the steam to her advantage. In such a situation, the quickest thing to do would be to retreat backwards out of the fog as it dissipated, but she knew Catarina. Cat enjoyed showing off (a bad habit she was getting from her adoptive sister), and would seek a magical solution for a magical problem. Sure enough, a moment later, and a pulse seemed to ripple through the steam cloud before it suddenly changed form, dissipating and condensing into a sudden flurry of snow that fell on the crowd.
Hanne smirked. It was pretty, if inefficient. The snow was not much of an improvement for visibility, though it dissipated more quickly, and Catarina had not gained much of a combat advantage in the process. When visibility was clear again, she was still on the defensive, with Hildegard’s fire refusing to give Cat another inch to spread the ice field.
This is where Hildegard’s decisive advantage began to show. In straight melee combat with no magic she was peerless warrior, and as she worked now to neutralize Cat’s magic, that experience was starting to show. Cat needed time and energy to spread the ice, neither of which she had now as Hildegard beat mercilessly against her defenses, Catarina’s sword constantly moving to intercept Hildegard’s swift and vicious swings, unable to find time to make her own counterattack. Catarina tried retreating, back stepping to give herself ground for reprieve, but Hildegard was always upon her with another swing to be deflected. Hildegard didn’t even need to try particularly hard. So long as she kept up the assault, the intention was much more to tire Cat out than pierce her defense.
The longer she kept it up, the more tired Cat became, and the shakier and more unsteady her defense. It would not be long before…
Another moment later, and Hildegard’s leg easily snaked around Cat’s, whipping back to slam the younger girl to the ground. Before Cat could even think to recover, the tip of Stahlzan was inches from her throat.
“That’s two for me and that’s the round.” Hildegard smiled triumphantly before sheathing her sword and extending a hand to help Cat to her feet.
“Fine…” Cat admitted defeat. “Though you had a huge headstart in training.”
“Not my fault.” Hildegard said, ruffling Cat’s hair. “You’re getting better though, with the ice in particular.” Cat beamed at the last few words, clearly quite pleased with herself.
The cheery attitude was disrupted, however, when Hanne cleared her throat loud enough for them both to hear. Almost in unison they turned and saluted to her, eyes wide with surprise and more than a little fear.
“Very well done, both of you.” Hanne said calmly, stepping forward, not letting them break from their rigid posture. “Catarina, your improvement is exemplary.”
Cat smiled, still holding her salute solidly.
“That said…” Hanne’s voice started to rise. “I thought I told you no dueling on expedition day!” She was more than a little pleased to see the pair of them shivering at her raised voice.
“Both of you! Piazza! Now! Double time!”
She watched, satisfied, as the pair of them scrambled to retrieve their belongings and head to the piazza ahead of her.
As she watched them go, Hanne could almost see the next few days ahead of them. The fight through Rome would not be easy, but if they moved outside the city before nightfall then the monsters shouldn’t be too bad. The scouts had reported that monsters were much thinner in the rural areas, and so the journey to the ships would be easier, mostly uninterrupted marching across the next two days to reach the docks on time. An evening spent there with the scouts and they would set sail for Sicily.
The boats would be ready, and it was half a day’s sail to Sicily for the five ships they had prepared. Hanne had no idea what awaited them in the waters of the Mediterranean, or on Sicily itself, but as she watched Hildegard and Catarina speed off, she knew that before anything else, she would bring both those girls home.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=45&sl=152 ))