“Textbooks, focus, summoning tools…Check, check, check…” Cat said, as she went over the contents of her bag on the walk towards Albion’s manor. Her bag was stuffed with all the different tools he required of her for his lessons. Especially lately, as Albion had begun to accelerate her lessons. Cat would have fallen behind if she hadn’t given up her early mornings to devote to magic.
This of course meant she had less time to get to the field to train before noon, so she had to stay at the field later. Cat was often not home until the sun had long since set behind the hills. Even if she wanted to stop going to the training field, something of which she had no intention of doing, Albion would hardly accept it. Her magic required her to be in excellent physical condition to handle the stress it produced on her body. The downside was that her body ached every second of the day and by the time she laid down for the night, she simply collapsed.
Albion would choose times that were deliberately difficult for her to meet, so that she’d have to run from the field to his manor if she had any hope of making it on time. It drove her wild to have to leave the boasts and goading of that red haired jerk unanswered, but if she was more than ten minutes late for any lesson, Albion refused to teach her. He was much too busy, he would say, to have his time wasted. So she ran with her heavy bag that weighed nearly as much as the recruits to the Legion carried during their training.
She could see the gate ahead of her, already open, as it often was when Albion was home and expecting company. That was a good sign, though lately he had been more reliable, if far more strict and demanding on her. Cat slipped inside and headed up the stairs into the manor proper. The door was unlocked, which meant she might avoid his demon maid. Cat’s body felt all weird just thinking about her.
Upon entering the study, Cat saw Albion standing behind his desk. His assistant, Suty, stood behind him. Cat did her best to avoid looking directly at her. “I’m here! I think I’m early too!”
“Mm? Ah, of course.” Albion said, looking up at her with a barely registering face. “Oh, of course. I’m afraid I will need to postpone the next few lessons, Miss Aldobrandini. You see, given that I will soon be managing a campaign to run for Consul, I’ve decided to take aa brief vacation to see the country.”
“Eeh? A vacation?!” Cat said, her bag sliding off her arms with a heavy thump as she lost the strength to carry it.
“Yes. My manor will be heavily warded by both my magic and Suty’s so I would suggest you stay away until I return. I will send Suty to find you when we have returned to Rome.”
“You’re taking her with you?” That was odd. If it was just a vacation, what use did he have with a demon? Also, for all the years her family had known him, Albion had never simply ‘vacationed’. He never did anything without at least three different reasons. “When are you coming back?”
“Ah, well, that all depends on how much there is to see.” He said indifferently, considering the matter settled. He was already back to making preparations for this trip.
“Well…alright…” Cat sighed. “I guess I’ll just…go home…”
“Thank you for your understanding, Catarina.”
“Yeah…Have a safe trip.” She said, picking up her fallen bag and trotting out.
“Do you wish for me to walk you to the door?” The demon asked.
“No! I’m fine!” Cat said quickly, as she sped up her pace. The faster she was away from the familiar the better she’d feel.
Cat hurried out of the manor and started off for the training field again. This wasn’t the worst turn of events. Her lack of time for sleep and rest had her feeling run down and short constantly. Even when Hanne was home for dinner on those rare nights, she’d need to call Cat’s name several times before the young girl would even register that she was being called. Now she’d have more time to catch up on the reading Scheherazade had for her and to train on the field. She’d be better than Rosa someday! A clear superior, but she’d need to train hard for that.
As she arrived at the field, she could hear voices cheering and shouting, most calling out Hildegard’s name. In an instance, Cat’s eye lit up as she started running faster. Hildegard was there and dueling? Could it be…?
As she pushed her way to the front, past the crowd that had gathered, Cat let out an elated gasp. Hildegard had finally taken the field against Rosa, the first time in weeks, and was fighting the champion of Ares. Her face was far more serious than it was when she fought Cat, which meant she wasn’t holding back.
“Go, Hildegard!” Cat joined in the cheering, her smile beaming. She didn’t know if Hildegard could hear her, but she prayed she did. Hilde had been feeling sick these last few days; it was good to see her in a better form.
“They’ve been going at it for a few minutes now.” Turi said from behind her. Cat looked over her shoulder at the other champion.
“Hey, Turi! That’s not unusual. My duels with her have gone on for almost half an hour sometimes.”
“I’m just worried she’s going to push herself too hard.” Turi said. He had been spending the last couple of weeks by the Ranger’s side, trying to help her overcome whatever illness she had caught.
“She’ll be fine, she’s the best of the best! And she’s going to kick Rosa’s butt! Yay, Hildegard!”
The two fighters circled around the field, their weapons moving faster than most had ever seen. Rosa was clad in her full champion armor, her spear utilizing its chain. Hildegard’s sword would swing almost three times at once with every twist of the blade. It was a flurry of attacks and parries.
It didn’t take too long for Rosa to be knocked out of the bounds of the ring, landing with an unceremonious plop as she fell on her butt, her spear being knocked out of her hands.
“Ooooph…” The red head said, wiping her lip where she had bit in during her fall. Her eyes were gleaming as she smiled widely, her hair and voice wild with excitement. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. Ya, you win that one. But tomorrow, you’re mine!”
Hildegard just stood there silently staring, not moving. The crowd cheered, but Cat frowned. Usually, Hildegard wasn’t afraid to banter. And she’d usually offer a hand up. Turi seemed to notice Cat’s confusion.
“I think she pushed herself too hard again. You can see how heavily she’s breathing. She’s going pale. Come on, I’ll need your help.”
“Right,” Cat said. Despite her worry, she put on a fake smile and yelled over the crowd. “Alright, you guys! Fight’s over, let’s get back to training!”
The people all started to disperse slowly, giving Hildegard and Turi room as they walked together out of the center field. Cat followed behind them as they turned a corner.
As soon as they were out of sight, Hildegard began to cough, growing more and more violent with every rasping breath she was forced to take. She fell to the ground on her knees as Turi sank down with her, doing his best to get her to stop.
“Deep breath, Hilde! Here, have some water.” He held her shaking hands as she sipped the bottle slowly, helping her regulate how much she drank at a time.
“Th-thanks, Turi.” She sputtered out. “By the end, I…I felt like I was about to pass out…Everything was spinning.”
“Sounds like you overexerted yourself. We need to get you back home to bed, to drink up and rest!” He said. He looked over his shoulder at Cat. “Catarina, I need your help. Go get some water, some towels, and then run back. I’m going to take her home.”
“R-right!” Cat said, before hurrying about refilling the water bottle and gathering towels as quickly as she could. She ran back, easily catching up with the pair who were making their way slowly back to the house. “Here you go. Let me help.”
Cat started to pat at Hildegard’s brow and face with the towels. Her breathing was still short and raspy and she looked very pale. Cat couldn’t hide her worried frown as she wiped the sweat off her sister.
“I-I’m fine, Cat, I just need rest, that’s all!” Hildegard said, before descending into a coughing fit again. “Oooh…”
“It’s fine, Hilde, just don’t talk for a bit, okay? Come on, let’s get into bed, here’s some water…” She said as Turi helped lay Hildegard on the mattress. The two of them helped to get Hildegard comfortable, putting some blankets over her as Cat continued to wipe off her sweat, holding her hand.
“I don’t know what to do!” Cat said, whispering to Turi as Hildegard began to sleep. “She’s getting worse, not better. I don’t have the magic to take care of this. Turi, I think we need to get her to a doctor.”
“Agreed. I’ll go, you stay. If she wakes up, I think she’ll want to see her sister more than anything in the world.” He said, putting a hand on Cat’s shoulder to reassure her. “She’s strong and a fighter in spirit, Catarina. She’s not going to give this up without a fight. We’ll help her through this!”
“I-I know.” Cat said, choking back tears. “J-Just please hurry.”
Turi headed off, grabbing his coat and running towards the river, where the hospital was. Cat hoped it wouldn’t take too long. Hildegard looked so ill. She fell to her knees beside the bed, taking the sick girl’s hand in hers. “Oh, Hilde…what am I going to do? Hanne’s not here, she’d be the one to take charge of this if she were.”
Cat just softly patted Hildegard’s forehead with the towel in her free hand. “You can’t be sick on me, Hildegard. You’re all I have left with Hanne away. Please, I can’t lose another family. You have to get better, okay?”
If the sleeping girl heard her, she gave no response. Her breathing was steadying, which was a good sign, but she was still so pale. Cat lifted her head up a bit and held some water to her lips, letting her drink a little before putting it down. She sat there in silence, feeling very much alone.
Turi came back with the doctor and Cat watched and listened to what the magical healer (Turi had a sixth sense when it came for what was needed sometimes, as granted to him by his patron goddess) had to tell her. The sickness was magical in nature, which made sense to Cat. Hildegard was a mage and mages didn’t usually get sick with common colds or flus.
The doctor gave a few potions to help keep her fever down and address some of the more severe symptoms, but at the end, he didn’t have a cure or even a proper diagnosis. He promised to bring it to the others so that they could try to determine what was causing this. The more he talked, the less Cat heard as she lay her head against Hildegard’s stomach. She wouldn’t lose Hildegard. She couldn’t. She was a hero, there had to be something she could do to save her sister. The more she struggled for an answer the less she of an idea she had.
Soon enough, the doctor left to return to the hospital. She felt Turi’s hand on her shoulder again. “Catarina. I’m going to go to see Nora Newstar. If this is a magical problem, then she’s both a mage and the Pontifex. Maybe she can get some answers from the gods?”
“Y-yeah.” Cat said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Good idea. I’m, I’m going to stay here with here until you get back. Then you can take the shift for watching…okay?”
“Okay.” Turi said. What else was there to say? She didn’t look away from her sister as she heard his footsteps head off, the door opening and shutting again behind her.
She was alone. Hildegard was sleeping and Cat felt completely alone. Albion and Hanne were away somewhere in the country, Hildegard was sick, and she didn’t have anyone to really talk to. Left to herself, Cat finally broke down in tears.
She didn’t know how long she sat by Hilde’s side before Turi returned. He talked to her, but she was too tired to hear a word. He relieved her of her watch and she headed across the hall to her own room, collapsing on her bed.
There was an odd lump in her mattress. Cat rolled over and felt the lump. Casting a bit of light in the palm of her hand to illuminate the room, there appeared to be an old tome on her bed, bound in leather. A note was on its cover.
“To Dear Catarina…Who is in need of a friend…?”
Scheherazade had left her a gift.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=14&sl=4