For weeks, they had stumbled through the wilds. The screams of her mother and sister ringing through her ears, Catryn had focused only on keeping the twins alive. None in Beystone would lift a finger to help the mages’ brats. As the only one of the children to have inherited their father’s unearthly amber eyes, she could not and would not hide who she was. Each door slammed firmly shut the moment they laid eyes on the blood-soaked girl. Cursed.
Perhaps they were right. After all, she was the reason there were only three of them left.
Unable to pick up provisions, they forged on alone. Driven by rage and desperation, Catryn learned to shatter the shackles of society. Women did not hunt. Did not kill. Did not slaughter those who dared threaten their family. Catryn became what she needed to be to ensure their survival.
Before he ran back to their home, for his wife and firstborn daughter, their father tasked her with protecting the twins. If nothing else, they must survive. Keep living. For him. Catryn had never realised how cruel and selfish her father was until he abandoned them that day with naught but a city and a name. Mar K’Shinta. Jared Th’yrolen.
His face haunted her. Stricken with fear, tears that told he knew they were lost already streaking down his face as he pressed his amulet into her hands. No time for farewells. No empty promises. He willingly went to his death, choosing the vain hope of salvaging the lost over cherishing the lives he could still protect.
Still, there was nothing she could do but carve a path through the mountain to the Crystal City. She befriended the more willing beasts and dominated the others with her aura. It was dangerous to use it so openly, to let the harness on her magic slacken, but she would risk much to keep her family safe. If the blue cloaks came, she knew the twins would have a home in Anthoralyn. Though, with her magic, she might be deemed too dangerous to remain alive.
Vigilance was exhausting. Catryn came to relish the attacks; the twins were shaken but it was worse for her when she was left alone to think. To remember. They hadn’t been close enough to smell the fire. They didn’t realise that the blood she wore was not her own. They hadn’t felt the squeezing, suffocating feeling of magic being smothered. In the darkness of the nights, all Catryn was left with was her rage.
The daggers, stolen from the bandits foolish enough to think a group of three children would be easy prey, hung at her hip. Some hidden, and some worn boldly to deter attackers. Each night, while the twins slept, she practised until her hands were calloused and bloody. Her soul was already soaked red; she had no qualms tainting it more if it meant keeping them safe. Still, if not for the Great Wolf she knew they would never have made it through the forest.
When they finally reached the edge of the Variden Mantle, Catryn hesitated at the edge of the open plains. Not far to the city walls, but the lack of cover made her fearful. To give herself time to muster her courage, she steered Lissa and Owain to the edge of a stream branching from the Ivantess’r river. If they were to be taken seriously, they could not look like street rats.
The journey had been difficult, but the twins looked upon the walls with the light of hope in their eyes. Shedding the dirt from the journey was enough for Lissa and Owain to look for a new start. Catryn couldn’t help but envy their youthful optimism, but she did not share it. She knew they were waiting for their parents to return, so they could start over again in a new city.
Catryn had not hidden the truth from them, by any means. But they stubbornly refused to see any other possibility. At twelve years old, they were certain they knew the world and its dangers, and they still believed their parents were invincible. She didn’t have the heart to break that illusion. Not when she was struggling with the realisation herself.
When the twins were cleaned up, Catryn spent as little time as possible washing her face before turning her back on the sparkling water. She did not want to see the monster staring back at her. Confidence would be imperative to get into the city and find the person their father had told them to find. She had repeated his name over and over to herself, to make sure there was no mistake. It had become a mantra she fell back on when the road was quiet.
It was jarring to see merchants lined up outside the city wall. Bright colours, music, and laughter surrounded the gatehouse. The sudden influx of energy and emotion around her, after so long in the wilds, made Catryn dizzy. Too late, she fortified her mind against the onslaught of scents and sounds, but her mind was ringing.
“Stay with me.” She barked at Lissa and Owain before they gave into the summons of the merchants. At Lissa’s pout, she growled “You can explore later. For now, trust me. We stay together.”
“But we’re hungry.” Lissa whined, her wide blue eyes pleading. Catryn’s heart twisted; she wasn’t a great hunter, nor an accomplished cook. Their meals had been pitiful, especially compared to what they were used to. Clenching her jaw, against her better judgement, she hung her head.
Digging into one of the pouches she had relieved from their unfortunate attackers on the road, she handed them each two silver crescents. That would be more than enough to keep them out of trouble while she negotiated their entrance into the city. “Stay together, and don’t wander off.”
Owain, the more serious of the two, nodded curtly and stuck to Lissa’s side like glue as she skipped off to the stalls. Catryn’s heart constricted in her chest for a moment; they had not left her sight since she found them after the attack. Since their father had left them in her charge. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself that there were guards everywhere. Even outside the gatehouse, there was a high ratio of guards to common folk.
Manoeuvring smoothly through the rabble, Catryn approached the gatehouse. Though she could not see the twins, she focused on their energy to settle her anxiety at the separation. She waited with as much patience as she could muster for the guards to finish checking the papers of a colourful merchant. The excess energy around her was making her agitated, and she was relieved that she did not have to wait too long.
“Can we help you, little lady?” A guard, wearing a pristine uniform and shiny boots, looked at her expectantly as she approached.
Ignoring his condescending tone, Catryn lifted her head and cleared her throat, asking “How do I gain entrance to the city?”
He scanned her haggard appearance with a pitying look. With a firm but gentle tone, he explained “I’m afraid we cannot accept refugees into Mar K’shinta at this time.”
Her eyes darkened angrily, but the young guard at his side startled her by boldly taking her hand and bowing. His green eyes locked on her as he said “Surely we could make an exception for such an enchanting young woman, Guardsman Tanyth.” For good measure, he lowered his face to brush his lips across the back of her hand.
At sixteen, Catryn was tall and slender. Her build was that of a Lady, not of a killer. Though her frame was not as delicate as her older sister, nor her face as beautiful, she still had her share of unwanted attention. Her eyes, with their unnaturally vibrant amber colouring she had inherited from her father, were usually enough to unsettle her suitors.
This one, it seemed, was not so easily scared. As a guard, she could not risk offending him. But neither could she gather the energy to return his attention. He had a pretty face, certainly, and distinctive white hair. He must be a skilled fighter, to be a fully qualified guard at his age; he could not be older than eighteen. Still, she could not feign any modicum of interest. Instead, she forced down the anger that bubbled up her throat that he would dare touch her, and simply stared at him blankly until he released her hand.
As he stepped back, wearing what should have been a charming smile, Catryn balled her fists at her sides, hoping to remove the lingering sense of his touch. His essence left her with an unpleasant prickling sensation, which only served to heighten her nerves. There was nothing malicious, but the feeling of another invading her senses was too much for her to handle.
“Sebastian, enough.” Guarsdman Tanyth muttered, seeming embarrassed. Sure enough, his ears were pink as he turned back to her, clearing his throat. “My apologies for my colleague, miss. The rules are the rules, as I am sure you understand. The young guardsman sometimes forgets his duties in the presence of pretty girls. We cannot allow just anyone into the city.”
Catryn bristled at his patronising tone, but clenched her jaw in a vain attempt to keep her temper in check. “We are not refugees. There is a man in the city I must meet.” She paused at the knowing look that passed across his face, irritated that he looked down at her as some frivolous girl. “If he can vouch for us, will you allow my siblings and I entry into your city?”
“The name?” He asked, sounding bored. Clearly, they had been through this game before.
“Jared Th’yrolen.” Catryn stated, hoping that the name her father gave her would at least be of some use. If not, all she could hope was to pick up supplies to reach one of the outposts of Anthoralyn. It was a difficult trip, near impossible for them to attempt alone, but Mar K’shinta was their only other option.
Huffing, Guardsman Tanyth looked at her incredulously. Even the unruffled Sebastian lost the smoulder he had been flashing in her direction. Tanyth spluttered “Miss, you cannot just expect to see the Captain because you ask for him. He is a very busy man.”
“Then I will wait.” She replied, schooling her expression as best she could before the relief could show in her eyes. The Captain of the guard?
“I do not expect to repeat myself, Guardsman.” She snapped, drawing herself to her full height. She’d had the upbringing of a noble at the mage tower, and she knew well how to exert influence over others. Even without using her magic. Though it crept around the edges of the barriers she enforced and pushed forward, curling and pressing in on Tanyth.
Fixing her eyes on his face, Catryn lifted her chin and stated “First of all, you assume I am a refugee without the slightest care to ask even a simple question such as my name. Now you speak to me as though I am some crazed young woman. I would not have anticipated a mere guardsman to decide what information his superior should or should not receive. Captain Th’yrolen was a close friend of our father. He will not appreciate you neglecting to inform him of our arrival.”
The guard paled, shrinking under the pressure of her aura with each word she uttered. Swallowing, he bowed his head. “I mean no offence, miss. I am merely doing my job.”
“Are you, Guardsman Tanyth?” Catryn did not raise her voice, yet it reverberated through the courtyard, laced with authority. Her fingers twitched automatically towards her daggers, but she forced them away. Violence would only harm their chances of entry.
He flinched at the sound of his name coming from her lips and pressed his fist to his chest. Keeping his eyes on the floor, he said “I will personally contact the captain, on your behalf. May I take your name, my lady?”
“Catryn Nalaea Reylir Dyn-íthorn.” She declared, her voice faltering as she added “Daughter of Loren Dyn-íthorn.”
He hurried away, the large iron gate opening just enough for him to enter. Catryn watched him rush through the courtyard on the other side and disappear into a building before she allowed her energy to rush back into her. Even without the pressure around his spirit, she was certain he would remember the feeling.
As Sebastian opened his mouth to speak, looking thoroughly amused, Catryn turned her back to seek out Lissa and Owain. The scene that met her made her blood run cold as she heard her sister scream. A hulking man had her by the hair, a knife to her throat, and another had Owain on the ground, pressing his face into the dirt.
There were others, traders and customers, in similar positions but Catryn only had eyes for her siblings. With a curse, Sebastian rushed forward but froze as Lissa yelped again. His sword was drawn but he knew it was useless at that range. The leader of the bandits grinned as the guards stood firm, knowing they were powerless.
Catryn did not hear his words as he shouted his demands. Ignoring Sebastian reaching to stop her, she strode slowly forwards, locking eyes with the crook that dared threaten her family. “Release them.”
“Well aren’t you a feisty one.” He laughed, his gruff voice booming through the courtyard, drowning out her quiet demand.
Catryn’s eyes went red, the rage boiling over inside her. As her magic battled for control, the bandit’s smile faltered as he felt her alarming presence sweeping over him. Her hands shook but her voice was strong. “You get one warning. Release them. Or die.”
Under the full force of her stare, his chest was tight and sweat coated his brow. As his men continued to snigger, scorning the little girl who dared stand up to them, he forced a laugh. “I am not afraid of children.” Gesturing with the knife that had been pressed at Lissa’s throat, he exclaimed “Take her.”
Yet, with the immediate threat removed, Catryn moved. The moment the blade was away from her sister, she threw her daggers. One found its mark in the throat of the man pressing her brother into the ground. The other, through the eye of the man she assumed was the leader. Before any of his men could react, she darted into his space as he released Lissa and doubled over. Ignoring the grinding of the gate behind her, she rushed forward and drove her knee into his face, pushing the knife to the hilt, through the back of his skull.
As others approached her, running in to avenge him, she tore the dagger out and drew another. Her attacks were not merciful as she slaughtered her assailants in the most effective manner she could. She had first learned to wield a sword at a young age, taught by the knights that protected Anthoralyn. They would be appalled at her methods, she knew, if they ever saw her again. She had become more like a wild animal than anything else, and she tore them apart like one.
Once the men around her had collapsed in the dirt, she called the twins to stay behind her. She was vaguely aware that the sounds of fighting had stopped, but her senses were on high alert. Through hazy eyes, Catryn saw an older guardsman wearing a cloak take a step towards her. A growl escaped her throat; she would not allow any threats to her family.
She could see that he was speaking to her, but she could hear nothing over the blood pounding in her ears. She could no longer distinguish them as anything but danger; her instincts were in overdrive and her head pounded. Her perception was saturated with red. Anger, blood, fear.
At the guardsman’s side was a warrior. There was no other word for the aura he radiated. As he moved, placing a hand on the guardsman’s shoulder, her senses honed in on him. There was no doubt that he was the strongest person in the courtyard. Her vision sharpened as he slowly placed his sword on the ground before slowly walking her way. Despite her ragged breathing and the snarl she wore, his silver eyes did not falter.
Her energy was a tornado raging inside of her, feeding on the fear in the air around her. Her brother and sister clutched her back, she knew, but she could not feel them. The moment he moved in her direction, he was all she could feel. Wind, earth, and steel. He reeked of power, his sharp gaze was that of a predator, and yet…the mingling scent he brought was somehow soothing.
As he drew closer, she felt no threat. Staring helplessly at him, his silver eyes like sunlight on a sword, she could not bring herself to attack. Even as he stood within range of her dagger, and knelt in front of her, she could only watch him. The familiarity she felt in his endless gaze.
“Easy, wildcat.” He murmured, his voice sliding over her like cool water. “The danger has passed. Your family are safe.”
Catryn tried to lower her weapons, but her muscles would not obey. Something inside of her, something feral, refused. The warrior waited calmly as she shook, and slowly touched her arm. He lowered his voice, so only she would hear his words, and whispered “Rest now, wildcat. I will keep you safe.”
She relinquished herself to the gentle pressure he put on her arm, helping her lower her weapons, and the energy dropped from her. Her daggers clattered loudly against the flagstones and she fell to her knees in front of him, bowing her head to hide the tears stinging her eyes. He would keep her safe? She had no right to hope for that, but the words brought her comfort she didn’t deserve.
The twins launched at her, hugging her tightly. Catryn flinched as pain scorched her side, but she pushed it aside weakly and checked Owain’s face. Brushing the dirt away, he didn’t appear hurt. Lissa also seemed more shaken than injured, but Catryn wouldn’t be satisfied until she could check them over properly.
The guards were rounding up the bandits that had surrendered and getting the merchants settled. While Catryn sat with the twins, the silver-eyed warrior silently by her side, the older guardsman that had tried to approach earlier made his way over.
A gentle, rumbling voice greeted her. “Catryn, I presume?”
“I know you.” She murmured tiredly, looking up at his face. She had seen him before, in Anthoralyn, visiting her father. His hair held more grey and his features were weathered, but it had been a long time. It was the sense more than the sight of him that brought the memory.
“It has been many years. I am surprised you remember me.” He bowed slowly, saying “My name is Jared Th’yrolen. I am the Captain of the guard here.” His eyes were strained as he took in her condition. Even before the fight at the gates, she had scrapes that needed treatment. Cautiously, he asked “Why have you come here alone?”
Catryn swallowed a lump in her throat and glanced hesitantly at the twins. She gently put her arms back around them with a heavy look, and the lines on Captain Th’yrolen’s face deepened. He held up a hand, brushing the subject aside. “Where are my manners. Please, come with me. Ahren, will you accompany us for now?”
Ahren, the silver-eyed warrior that had remained at her side, looked to Catryn for permission. When she nodded gratefully, he held out his hand to her. Captain Th’yrolen helped the twins stand and directed them forward as Catryn took Ahren’s hand. She could feel an unfamiliar heat rising in her cheeks as he pulled her to stand, and his silver gaze burned through her.
Conflicted, she dropped her head and murmured “Thank you, Ahren.”
“Call me Ric.” He replied, his eyes narrowing curiously at the change in her. He slowly released her hand and she turned from him, hiding her face as she retrieved her daggers from the ground. He collected his sword as they followed Captain Th’yrolen. Catryn expected to feel relief, but the towering gates were anything but welcoming. Their hardships, she knew, would not end just because they had arrived in the city.
With Ric at her back, and the Captain leading them, she caught up with the twins and gently took their hands. Together, they stepped through the gates and into the crystal city.