A/N: I am SO SORRY for the long wait! I swear, I was working on this chapter the whole 3 weeks I was gone. I had, like, 6 different versions, and none were right. I finally got grooving into this version 4 days ago, and it's done! I'm terribly sorry it took so long, and I'm working on the next chapter right-now right NOW, so hopefully it'll be up much faster!
All reviews are very much appreciated! ^_^
Ryna chewed absently on her stale bread while she kept tabs on Sergeant Corr. Leto's warning about him had been entirely too accurate, and she was now sporting a rather nasty and extremely painful bruise on her side to match the one still coloring her cheek. In fact, she had quite the collection of abrasions on her body, all in some way or another a gift from the Sergeant over the last two weeks.
Clearly, she had been too obvious in letting him get revenge on her terms.
Beside her, Leto shifted, stirring her from her reverie. She knew he wanted to check on her wounds, and also probably berate her for getting on Corr's nerves again. Those arguments were best left for the morning, though, when most everyone was asleep and their voices stayed low.
Leto didn't seem to want to wait though.
"Do you think you're done taunting Corr today, or do I need to just gag you?" He didn't look at her, merely muttered under his breath.
"It wasn't my fault this time! All I'd done was laugh at Torpa. You did too, so you can't say it wasn't funny."
"Did you have to do it so loudly?"
"I can't help it." She also couldn't help how whiney that sounded, apparently.
"Learn to. While it was amusing to watch you evade Corr's practice sword with your arms tied behind your back, it interrupted my own exercises."
Ryna grunted at him and took another bite of her bread. In retrospect, she didn't need to worry about keeping up the appearance of a new slave; she did just fine without even thinking it. What did the magister need with such base things as cheerful laughter in his household? He had gold-inlaid doors.
Corr finally settled down to eat with the other Sergeants, his attitude self-satisfied after dealing with Ryna. She could practically see the trainees all relax without him prowling around. It wasn't like they hadn't come under his scrutiny, just because Ryna had taken the brunt of his distaste.
Hopefully he was done for the day.
Both she and Leto looked up at the address, surprised. Not many spoke to Ryna, treating her as a piece of the background if they spoke to Leto. Even then not many bothered Leto; he seemed to command an amount of respect Ryna didn't expect to be directed towards a trainee.
"Captain wants to see you." Brekle, one of the dual wielding guards, waited for her response.
At the same time Leto hissed under his breath, Brekle's eyes squinted dangerously. Ryna sighed, realizing her mistake and cursed herself for something so simple. She lowered her gaze and her tone to a more respectful cadence.
"I'm sorry, of course. Right away."
Once Brekle turned away, Ryna shoved the last of her bread in her mouth and chewed vigorously. She wasn't about to miss out on her meager meal, even if the act of chewing somehow aggravated the pain in her side. That Corr had been able to get through her defenses to her side bothered her almost more than the wound itself.
Leto stood and shrugged his greatsword into a more comfortable position, his rations already long gone. He must have noticed her extreme level of discomfort, because he surreptitiously offered a hand to help her stand. With a grunt and a whimper, they managed it without making asses of themselves. Standing and still chewing, Leto handed Ryna her cup of water. She nodded her appreciation and drank while Leto waited a tad impatiently for her.
When she was ready but a moment later, he gave her one his almost nonexistent smiles. Ryna smiled tentatively back, surprised to see it in the middle of the day. He must have seen her pleasure, and dropped back into his usual scowl.
"So, Corr's lessons are finally getting through that thick Ferelden skull of yours."
"No, I just like Goreth better." When he turned back to look at her, she gave him a sly smirk.
Leto groaned at her obstinacy as they fell into step, but Ryna didn't miss the small twinkle in his eye.
A few faces turned their way as they wove through the gaggle of trainees clustered in the shade in front of the barracks. Ryna kept her head down and her eyes on the door, wondering why the Captain wanted to see her and hoping no one noticed how she slightly favored one side. Without even looking, she could feel Corr's suspicious gaze, likely wondering the same. This was one of the few times Ryna was glad for Leto's constant presence; it wasn't like he would allow her to blatantly break the rules.
Ryna almost sighed aloud as they stepped into the barracks. The air was blessedly cool after the heat of the training yard. Maker, but she missed the more temperate climes of Ferelden. Her appreciation was cut short by Orel, who scurried his way past them before the door had fully closed. It seemed his dislocated shoulder - courtesy of Corr, again - wasn't bothering him anymore.
"Yes, Captain?" Leto gave her the semblance of a shove, and Ryna hurried to enter Goreth's office.
Again, the Captain stood behind the desk, though this time it was covered in what she recognized as various health potions and poultices. Sitting beside him was a bald man in simple robes, his face weary as he downed a tiny vial of glowing blue liquid. Instinctively she looked for a staff, though found none in evidence. A slave mage, then.
"With all due respect, Captain, I don't think Sergeant Corr will be all that pleased to see me hale and whole after all the effort he took to make he black and blue."
"I doubt Sergeant Corr would care to face my or the Master's displeasure if the Master's orders were belied for his amusement."
The mage started shuffling around, eyeing her. "Hm. So, you're the one that's been taking the brunt of the Sergeant's temper? I had hoped he had learned to reign it in, but, alas."
"Well, let's get you fixed up. Strip, please."
Behind her, Leto growled low in warning, but Ryna stood her ground. She wasn't going to dress down in front of three strangers, even if she did trust two of them. And she most certainly would not let them find the boot knife tucked into a rip in her leggings.
"I'm not stripping. I don't have any open wounds, so there is no need."
"The Master has demanded I examine and heal every guard and trainee on the premises, young lady, and I will do as he has commanded. Now, strip."
"I'm sorry, are you the Master? No? Then I will not be stripping unless he tells me directly." Ryna paused for a second, just to add effect to her next words. "So, will we go to him, or will he be forced to come down her so you can see me naked?"
There was a heavy lull while everyone took a moment to wonder if she truly had threatened to displease the Master. If anything, she would get the brunt of the punishment, but everyone in the room would suffer. Ryna hated bullying them like that, but it was a bluff she was sure they would not gamble on, if only to save their own hides.
"Captain, if I may…" Ryna almost jumped at the sound of Leto's voice. She hadn't forgotten him, but he tended to be a silent presence. Odd, that he would choose to speak up now.
The Captain, with some visible effort, turned his gaze to the man at the door. "What is it, Leto?"
"I think she has a few cracked ribs on her left side. Other than that, there's the bruise that won't go away on her right calf. Everything else you can see, and aren't of much consequence. "
"And how do you know that, boy." The mage shifted his attention to give Leto a dubious look.
"I was with her for every injury, and check them every morning."
"What of the times she's not around you, eh?"
"She is rarely out of my line of sight, mage. I take my duties seriously."
Ryna suddenly felt out of place. They were talking about her as if she weren't there, and the way they did it made her feel as if she shouldn't. That Leto felt entitled enough to argue against a mage, even a slave mage, surprised her to no end. She had gotten the notion that Danarius favored him, but even slave mages were considered higher class than non-mage slaves.
Before the power struggle could escalate very much further, Goreth spoke up and ended the argument. "Just heal her, mage."
"I need to see her side to heal those ribs."
"No, you don't. Any competent healer can knit bones without having to see flesh." Ryna stared at the mage, daring him to contradict her. She may not be a mage herself, but she had seen her father work many times, and dressed wounds herself.
"She will remain fully dressed. Heal her."
The power struggle transferred to between the mage and the Captain, but that was one easily won by Goreth.
"Very well, Captain. But if she is found to have injuries after I leave, it will be on all of your heads."
The mage, while distinctly unkind in his treatment as he healed her, was efficient. He bypassed any old or mostly healed bruises, concentrating instead on the fresher injuries. It was painful, but the healing was welcome.
While she didn't like it, she managed to hide her discomfort at having the mage so close to her. The mage, however, was unable to hide his disappointment at being thwarted in his attempts to let his hands roam. In retribution, the mage yanked her leg out from under her to reach the bruise on her right calf.
Ryna was not expecting the steadying hand between her shoulder blades as she tried to breath through the agony of keeping her balance on her damaged core. She looked back at Leto, who gave her a small nod and nothing more. Giving a small nod in return, Ryna bit back the grunt of pain as her calf was released.
It was a mixture of pain and pleasure as the mage healed her ribs. She was thankful for it, and the fact it took all his concentration on mending the bones. His hands stayed where they were needed. It was also comforting to have Leto's hand at her back, and she felt oddly bereft when the mage was finished and Leto withdrew.
"Three cracked ribs, and one of them close to breaking completely. I'm surprised you managed as long as you did." The mage was shaky, and a bit ashen, but there was a spark of genuine interest in his eyes as he stood and reached a hand out to her bruised cheek.
In her old life Ryna might have slapped his hand away. But she was a slave now, and slaves took their handling without comment. Leto should be proud.
Just as the mage's hand was pulling away, Ryna's face newly fresh, there was a bang and a screech. Seconds later the door slammed open, sending Leto to Goreth's side and pulling Ryna with him. In the doorway stood a pasty woman not much older than Ryna, carrying an ominous white staff.
"Yannic. What is taking so long."
The mage named Yannic began stammering, and Ryna felt just a tiny bit sorry for him. If this was the kind of woman he had to deal with on a regular basis, it was no wonder he had such poor bedside manners. Ryna pushed away the thought of the mage beside her bed and concentrated on the newcomer.
"Mistress. I am, ah, just about done. Just finishing up the girl." He pointed at Ryna, and the woman turned.
Ryna rarely gave sway to fear. She was a protector, and always would be. But the moment the scary mage turned to her she wanted so very much to hide behind Leto's back. She stood her ground however and was inordinately surprised to see Leto inch in front of her, angling his body to protect her.
The new mage noticed this and leered at them both. "Out of the way, elf."
Leto stepped grudgingly aside. Of all the warning signs, it was his reaction that alarmed Ryna the most. Goreth stood straighter, his face an impassive mass of hardness. Yannics she'd already taken to be a sniveling twit. But that Leto wanted to shield her but couldn't was a telling sign that this woman was not to be crossed. There would be no getting into her good graces.
"So, this is the new trainee." The woman grabbed Ryna roughly by the chin. "Hmm, pretty. I might ask Danarius if I could borrow you sometime."
Everyone in the room stiffened at those words, and Ryna suddenly found a lump of apprehension in her throat. The mage gave a satisfied chuckle and shoved Ryna's face away from herself. She caught herself against the wall as the mage turned away, shrieking at Yannics to hurry up.
"J-ust take this potion and you should be f-fine." Yannic shoved a health potion into Rynas hands and scurried after the woman as she stormed out.
Rynas hands fumbled as she broke the seal on the flask. By no means did this mage scare her nearly as much as Danarius did. She was too angry, too belligerent to be very powerful. But the fact that she had command of Danarius' slaves was concerning.
Ryna didn't even notice her leftover bruises healing as she turned to look at Leto and the Captain. They both looked shaken and grim. It was clear mages rarely ever came to the barracks, and their presence possibly never a good thing.
"Who was that woman?"
Ryna looked at Leto with concern, and he was unsure if he had succeeded in keeping the venom out of his voice. He himself had never suffered her… attentions, but his mother had, as had a few of the guards. Most never spoke of what the witch did to them, but it was never anything remotely pleasant.
"Mistress Hadriana is apprentice to the Master, and a woman to be cautious of." The Captain's voice was strained, and Leto remembered two guards had died when Hadriana had first become apprentice. "I suggest you keep as far away from her as you can."
"That… seems like an understatement. Though I think I'd pick her over Da-the Master anytime."
"This is no laughing matter, Ryna."
"Will we be laughing when Corr gets ahold of me, Captain? I don't think he'll be happy to see all his hard work wasted."
Leto was somewhat surprised at the urgency in Ryna's tone. She didn't sound scared, exactly, more… frustrated. He didn't think he had ever met someone who would regret being healed, especially fractures to her ribs.
"Sergeant Corr is simply attempting to instill upon you the necessity of doing as you're told and not asking questions." It wasn't often the Captain's temper was tested, but the clipped tone made it clear Ryna was pushing her luck. "Cracked ribs make you useless, however, and so you were healed."
Ryna opened her mouth, and Leto could see the arguments forming on her lips. For someone as observant as he understood her to be, she didn't take many hints unless forced to. As Goreth moved to stand behind his desk, Leto caught Ryna's gaze and shook his head in a slow, deliberate manner.
She stared back at him for a long moment, then nodded as she closed her mouth.
Goreth turned and gave them both a searching look. He must have found nothing of great consequence, because he waved them towards the door. "Dismissed."
Leto kept close to Ryna's heels, barely giving her room to walk. He wouldn't outright confront her now - he would save that for the morning, as usual - but perhaps she would respond better to his displeasure. Why, he wasn't sure, but it was better than watching Corr lay in on her just for breathing.
Once back outside, Leto guided his truant shadow to a group of trainees waiting to spar, far away from Corr. He mumbled back the sparse greetings, ready to let loose the tension the midday break had settled on his shoulders. When he had first taken on the obligation of keeping an eye on Ryna, he hadn't realized it would be such work.
"Thanks for staying away from Corr; I am not looking forward to his reaction."
He scoffed at Ryna's whispered thanks and turned away, even more annoyed because of it. Today was supposed to have been a good day, a day that would pass by quickly so the dinner hour would finish and he would be free for the night. He had done well this month, and Leto would not allow a bratty girl ruin his reward.
His anger soured into guilt at Ryna's expression of self-reproach, tinged with hurt. All girls must have learned that look from the women in their families; there was no way it was natural. Leto grimaced in her general direction and was rewarded with a flash of cheer in her eyes. He wasn't sure why he bothered to win those, particularly from her.
"Ready to go?"
"Calm down, Orel. The mage healed you, he didn't give you skill." Ugo guffawed at his own joke, and Leto refrained from pointing out he hadn't landed a touch on anyone in over a week.
"Hey, you can't underestimate the refreshing feeling of a fully functional body, eh, Ryna?"
Caught off guard, Ryna simply nodded. Leto was not the only one to catch the slight blush on her cheeks at Orel's unintentionally risqué comment. He was simply thankful Torpa wasn't around to take advantage of it.
"Right. Let's get to it, then."
With an inward sigh, he drew his greatsword and settled into a defensive stance. He didn't see her, but he felt Ryna fall back and watch him, waiting to strike. She had yet to land a hit on him, but she'd gotten very close several times.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a blur of blades and, on occasion, Ryna's fists or feet. In truth, he found Ryna the best test to his defenses. She was quick, wily, and not above trickery. That she could hold her own against him without her blades was testament enough to her potential.
It felt like moments later Leto was rushing through a bath. As usual, Ector had his eye on Ryna while Leto took care of his own needs. The two of them got along well, though Leto was sure it was only because Ector didn't have to deal with her on a near constant basis like Leto did.
"I don't know why you're so excited to be away from that delicious piece of-"
"Suit yourself, friend. I'll help Ector keep an eye on her." Torpa gave him a salacious smile and laughed as Leto shook his head in forbearance.
Dressed and ready to go, Leto stopped at the entrance to the main hall of the barracks and sought out Ector, and by extension, Ryna. He saw them both at a table of cards, Ryna watching over Ector's shoulder.
Before Ector could try to catch his eye, Leto slipped out the front door and hurried along the gravel path to the slave quarters in the basement of the estate. He didn't want to explain why he hadn't told Ryna he wouldn't be there this evening. For one, it wasn't any of her business, and for another, he didn't want her to insinuate herself into any other part of his life.
He was only a few steps down the stairs when he heard a high-pitched squeal followed by the slap of feet against stone. Leto resigned himself to his fate and braced as best he could for the coming onslaught. No one could hope to dodge it; better to get it over with.
A warning octave was reached right before Leto was hit full force in the chest by a young elf girl. Arms wrapped around him even as he stumbled with a grunt. The girl tried to jump up and down while still holding on, and Leto couldn't help how his heart hurt as it soared.
"Ah, Varania, you're lucky I'm not so easy to knock down as I used to be."
"I could if I wanted to." Varania squeezed another grunt from Leto before pulling away.
"Is that so?"
You may be six years older, Leto, but I still know how to take you down."
Leto grimaced as his little sister began poking at his underarms, the one place he was ticklish. He was soon saved by their mother, who took him into a tight embrace. It held more sorrow than the one from Varania, and he accepted it gladly. It was a reminder of why he worked so hard.
Mother leaned back and eyed Leto. "How are you, son?"
"I am well."
"You seem older."
"I feel older."
"Come, I made your favorite."
"Yay, baked artichoke and fish!" Varania ran ahead into the small room she shared with their mother.
A part of Leto wanted to tell his mother he had stopped enjoying the dish a long time ago, but she worked hard to get those scraps for him. It was almost a tradition, now, for them to sit together around the platter, a picnic of sorts laid out on their bed pallets. They would speak of the few joys of their work, and gloss over the painful memories and frightening moments.
Stepping into the cell his women slept in, Leto helped his mother sit on one of the bedrolls.
"How are you, mother?"
"As well as can be expected."
Leto's back stiffened, though he smiled and poked at Varania as she poked at him. It was code, that sentence, one that had been silently established long before Leto had moved to the barracks as a trainee. The Master had either used his mother or loaned her body out to one of his guests. It was how Varania had come to be.
He loved his sister, but Leto so very much wanted to kill the man who had caused his mother such conflict and pain, whoever he was.
"And you, sister? How are you?"
"I'm okay. Mistress Hadriana tried to take me today, but Isaak caused trouble and got picked to help her."
Mother squeezed Leto's hand to keep him from shouting at Varania, and it worked. Barely. It was bad enough that this Isaak seemed to always be around to save Varania. That was Leto's job, and he didn't need Varania getting tied up with a slave boy, no matter how young they both were.
Having Hadriana sniffing around his sister was worse than Isaak taking the fall for her.
"Varania, have you by chance been… special in the household, lately?"
"Of course not! I'm not stupid. I sometimes watch the Master and the Mistress do their simpler studies, and it helps me control them. Watch." Varania jumped up and grabbed a rag from a pile by the door.
"No!" At the sad look on his sisters face, Leto swallowed the lump that had lodged in his throat. "No, that's all right, Varania. Just keep practicing, in private. Control it, and don't use it."
"But the Master says magi-"
This time it was Mother who silenced the young girl. It was difficult for her and Leto to accept Varania as a mage, especially after years of living in this estate. All they could hope for was that Varania would learn to use her magic and still maintain her kind heart.
"Why don't you serve us, Varania? This sausage pie looks delicious."
Varania thankfully perked up and forgot she had just been reprimanded. "I helped make it. Can I serve it, Mama, can I?"
Mother shot Leto a bemused look, laced with a touch of trepidation, but handed Varania the knife. Tongue between her teeth in intense concentration, his little sister carefully cut and served him a large slice. Too large. He tried to cut it up and put some back, but neither of his girls would allow it.
For whatever reason Leto could not divine, Mother waited until he had a large spoonful of sausage and artichoke in his mouth before asking what had clearly been on her agenda.
"So, is the new girl pretty?"
Leto choked a bit, trying to swallow his mouthful and maintain a pretense of dignity at the same time.
"Oh, she has a name?"
"Ooooooh." His sister let out a giggle as she covered her full mouth with her hand.
"Shut up, Varania."
"Tell us about her!"
"It's just a girl who'll be a guard if she doesn't get herself killed learning how to be a slave."
Even when she wasn't here, that blasted woman found her way into every part of his life. Why women were so much work, Leto would never understand. He was about to launch into a tirade over the new girl, and how she was making his life difficult, when he noticed the dead look in Mother's eyes.
"It must be very hard for her, having to learn to live like we do."
Leto took a bite of pie and chewed, shifting uncomfortably. Mother's melancholy moments were disconcerting. There was little he could do to help her, other than simply be in proximity. Since joining the guard trainees, that wasn't really possible.
With visible effort, Mother turned to Leto and gave him a shaky smile. "How is she doing? This Ryna?"
"She's a good fighter; best I've seen in awhile." Leto thought for a moment on Ryna's testing and chuckled softly. "I'm sure she could even teach the Captain a few tricks."
"What color are her eyes?"
"What?" Leto turned to Varania and could see his little sister was not joking. "Why."
"I heard she's a dog, from Ferelden. Most of them have blue eyes."
"And how do you know she's Ferelden?"
"I heard the Steward talking to Delora about the new girl. Apparently she's quick."
"She is. And I can assure you, she's not a dog."
"So she's pretty." Mother gave him a wink. "I hope we'll get to meet her."
"Oh hush, it's my job to embarrass you, even if it's only in front of your sister."
Leto groaned, but let them bother him about Ryna. They seemed disappointed that he didn't know much about her, though Varania was keen about Ryna's mage friend. Though the evening was awkward, talking about a girl he barely knew, it was less so than dancing around the many taboo subjects in their lives.
It was late by the time Varania allowed herself to be ushered into her pallet and be put to sleep. Leto settled down beside her and began reciting from memory one of the stories his father used to tell him at bedtime. He barely remembered the man, let alone the tales, but Mother would still tell him the same stories at bedtime, even if she was bone tired from the day.
His little sister fell asleep in his arms, and he found himself dozing off, wondering if Ryna's eyes were indeed blue.