The pieces sitting on the checkerboard weren’t anything special. Made of wood, there was only enough detail that you could tell which force they were meant to represent. Pegasus Knights and Wyvern Riders had the same shape, but with different heads. The only difference between swordsmen, lancers, and axe-wielders were the way their weapons were held. Archers had strings and rocks attached to gauge their range, while the differences between weapon-armed and magic-armed cavalry was the scratched paint that colored the horses’ heads.
Morgan walked into the tactics tent to find her cousin examining each of the pieces closely, holding them up to eyelevel before sorting them by class. What was so important about this set to have captured Morgen’s attention, Morgan didn’t know. There were dozens of these combat simulation boards between here and Ylisstol, usually in the command tent, her father’s tent, and her aunt’s tent, although Lord Virion was said to have a board as well. Morgan had memories from when she was younger of Aunt Miriam, Father, and Lord Virion gathering together in the evenings, running simulations for the enjoyment of it. Although she had her victories, Aunt Miriam would usually lose all of her forces first, with either Lord Virion or Father taking the victory.
‘You’re better than Auntie, so why don’t you lead the army?’ Morgan had asked once, clutching tactic scrolls to her chest. Father had simply smiled, ruffling her hair.
‘Your Auntie is better than me because she understands the bonds that make up the army. There are some things that faceless wooden figures can’t convey.’
Some things you just didn’t say to children. While it was true that Aunt Miriam did understand the army better, thanks to her being a Bond Tactician, Father and Lord Virion usually won because they weren’t afraid to sacrifice troops to secure the victory. Morgen, although he didn’t have his memory, was like his mother, and the few times he and Morgan had “gone to war,” Morgan had come out on top because she played her pieces better, springing traps at the cost of her own troops. Morgen was fit to be the Tactician to his sister Lord.
“What’s on your mind, cousin?” Morgan asked, shaking her head of the memories. Morgen blinked, looking up from what looked like a rather worn Mage.
“Just examining this combat board. Something about it...seems familiar, and I was hoping something would help trigger a memory.” Morgan raised one pale brown eyebrow.
“Does triggering a memory involve tasting it?” Just the other day she had caught her cousin banging his head against a hitching post in an attempt to knock some memory of Uncle Chrom loose. Thankfully that had been stopped before Ylisse’s prince suffered from a more permanent form of brain damage, but it was still ridiculous. Morgen looked affronted.
“Why would it be in my mouth?”
“Nevermind. So, why this particular board? Wouldn’t you have more familiarity with the one back home in the castle?” Morgen huffed, frowning down at the worn pieces and scuffed board.
“I’m not sure. When I look at these pieces, it’s almost like I can remember using them...but Mother wasn’t interested in running combat simulations.”
“A different use for the pieces?” Morgan hummed, trying to think of what you could do with these rough wooden figurines. “Like playing a game?”
“...maybe? But why would Mother be a game? Unless...” Her cousin trailed off, probably lost memory-searching again, so Morgan turned her attention to the worn pieces, and to her father’s words from so long ago.
“I’ve got it!” Morgan tensed, hand diving for her tome, but it was only Morgen’s voice, and he was grinning broadly. “Thanks, Morgan!” Leaping forward, he pulled his ‘twin’ into a hug, before bolting out of the tent like a madman. Bewildered, she could only stare as the tent flaps closed.
“Lucina!” Morgan burst onto the practice field, running to where Kjelle and his sister were sparring. “Lucina!”
“Morgen?” After making sure Kjelle had paused, the blue-haired princess turned to her brother, checking for injuries or other causes for alarm. “What’s the matter?”
“Hey Kjelle!” He called instead of answering Lucina’s question.
“Morgen.” The brunette greeted, resting the butt of her spear in the dirt. Morgen had reached the two young women and grabbed the hand that wasn’t holding her Falchoin.
“I’m stealing Lucina for a while! I need her help with something!” The young Tactician called, tugging Lucina towards camp.
“Morgen? What’s going on?” Lucina demanded, allowing her brother to pull her along. They weren’t in any danger as far as she could tell, although perhaps the alarm hadn’t been sounded yet.
“I’ll explain in a second, Luci!” He promised, navigating his way to the tent he shared with Owain. The tent was empty when they entered, Morgen releasing Lucina’s hand to grab an empty box that served as a table when not moving from place to place. Dropping the upturned box between the two cots, he slipped around Lucina to look around the tent. Glancing in all directions and assuring himself that neither parent was in sight, he snapped the fabric together, rushing back to his cot to dig out a pile of parchment and ink.
“Alright, Morgen, what’s this about?” Lucina had sheathed her Falchoin and watched as her brother practically flew around the small space. She hadn’t seen him this excited...in a long, long time.
“Mother’s birthday is coming up, right?”
“Well,” his sparkling blue eyes met hers, “I need your help to make Mother a tactics game!”
Three weeks to go.
“We’re not going to have enough time to make a completely new game in a few weeks.” Lucina pointed out over the piles of ideas Morgen had thrown out. “We have training, kitchen shifts, guard shifts, and on top of those, we never know when enemy forces might attack.”
“No, we just need to put our all into it! Like how Mother and Father do it! When they combine their might, nothing can stop them!”
Lucina sighed, resting her chin on her palm, looking down at the paper-covered box.
“How did you even get this idea, anyway?” It had come out of nowhere, and while Morgen jumped upon any opportunity to impress their mother, this one was different.
“I was talking with Morgan in the tactics tent, and when I made a comment about how the pieces of the combat board were familiar, but the , she thought maybe I was thinking of another game.”
“The combat board, huh?” Lucina hummed, gazing lifting to the fabric ceiling of the tent. She had used it once or twice before. While she was no Tactician, she took pride in the few battle strategies she had developed under her mother’s guidance in the future, and the ones she had been taught.
Once, when they had been children, she and Morgen had stolen all of the horse, pegasus, and wyvern figures from the royal combat board, hiding them around the castle for Morgan, Cynthia, and Owain to hunt down. Only a few wyverns never made it back to the board, and she and Morgen had been scolded for it.
“Hmm-?” The female Lord blinked, the tent around her coming back into focus. “What?”
“You looked like you had an idea.” Morgen’s eyes were sparkling.
“An idea? No, I was just thinking...remembering something...” Morgen’s smiled dimmed slightly, and Lucina grimaced internally, having poked an unwelcome topic. Quickly, she searched for another topic, and her eyes fell on the book of battlefield tactics that sat on Morgen’s cot.
“What if...” Morgen looked up at his sister, “there was a game that relied on rounds, and each piece had special qualities about them, like how far they could move and attack, like in a normal battle?”
“That’s...not a bad idea...” Like Lucina had hoped, Morgen jumped on the change of topic. “What if, each of the pieces only had one characteristic about them that stood out?”
“Like what?” He was starting to get excited, his Tactician knowledge kicking in at the idea of a battleground.
“Like how Pegasus Knights and Wyvern Riders can fly over their opponents to attack them, and archers can shoot from a long ways away, and Generals are really tanky, but can’t move very fast...”
“It doesn’t have to be extremely complicated.” Morgen shuffled through the parchment quickly, “but it needs to be balanced,” and Lucina realized that maybe her baby brother was onto something.
Two weeks to go, and they were starting to realize they were a bit overwhelmed.
“We just can’t leave the pieces as blocks, Lucina.”
“I know, Morgen, but I’m not good with delicate things, and neither are you. Creating spells is a completely different manner than carving something out of a material.”
“We could just use the pieces from a combat board.”
“We’re not stealing half of someone’s combat board, Morgen.” Lucina shook her head. “Look, we’ll just paint discs. That’ll work, and Mother will appreciate the work you’ve put in.”
“You’ve done just as much work, Luci!”
It wasn’t until Morgen had a plate full of food from the mess hall and sat down across from Gaius that it struck him. The orange-haired thief moved the lollipop around to the side of his mouth when Morgen shuffled around the campfire so he was sitting next to him.
“Hey, Blueberry. What’s up?”
“Uncle Gaius, I need your help!”
One week to go, and Lucina had to divert Chrom from discovering the game.
They had been working on painting the carved figurines (“thank you, Uncle Gaius!”) in Lucina’s tent, because Owain couldn’t keep a secret and Severa really didn’t care as long as she wasn’t in there at the time, when the Chrom’s voice reached their ears. The tent flap began to rise, and they had scat few seconds to panic and try to hide their work before Lucina lunged out, one hand clenching her Falchoin, the other hand looping itself with Chrom’s arm, tugging him towards the practice field with words of “I was just going to look for you,” and “you promised a duel, remember?” It was a miracle, or perhaps unsurprising, that he hadn’t noticed the smell of paint that clung to his eldest child or the white splatters on her hands.
Trying to divert Miriam was worse, because one wasn’t a Tactician and not recognize diversionary tactics. Morgen had tried to make her fall in a pitfall, and since then, she had only grown wiser to misleading actions. Several times, she had walked into the tent, claiming she mistook it for the supply tent or tactics tent. There was no way she could mistake a tent in the resting quarters for a supply tent. She had to be onto them, and her asking questions like “what have you been working on recently” felt too pointed. It was making both Lucina and Morgen sweat.
They couldn’t avoid them either. It would be too suspicious, and while Lucina could put up an act, neither she nor Morgen could outright lie to either of their parents. That was a trait passed down directly from their father, and Lucina was wishing she was more like her mother now.
“Who knew keeping this from Mother and Father would be such a battle?” Morgen groaned. Lucina didn’t answer. She was face-down on the nearest coat, her bunched-up cape serving as a pillow.
A few days to go, and the whole plan was nearly ruined with an inconspicuous rock in the middle of the path and a campfire. They had been transporting the pieces from Morgen’s tent to Lucina’s to work on when Lucina did a rather spectacular impersonation of her Aunt Sumia and the pieces went flying through the air, soaring towards the campfire. It had been by sheer luck that Laurent had been in the area and snuffed the fire out with a well-placed wind spell. Thankfully none of the pieces were too badly burned, and those that were singed could be fixed with a bit of paint. Still, it was too much for their already stressed minds.
“This will be the end of us.” Morgen sighed, staring at the completed pieces. There was only the board left, but with the lack of time, they were using a secondhand board acquired in one of the towns they had passed through. Still, there was all of the sanding and oiling that was needed to complete the project.
“You know what?” Lucina began, a grim look on her face. “Father’s birthday is in about a month.”
“We can’t just give him a common gift like a sword or lance.” Morgen picked up on her thoughts, and declared, “I’ll start researching how to find legendary weapons.”
“If this is a gift for your mother, then why do I have to be blindfolded too?” Chrom asked, keeping one hand on Miriam’s shoulder and the other in Lucina’s grasp. It was late in the night of Miriam’s assigned birthday, and the two royal children were leading their parents away from the festivities and towards the tactics tent.
“Because you’ll spoil it when you see it, Father!” Morgen, who was leading Miriam, made sure there were no tricky rocks in the path that might his parents to stumble.
“How could I spoil it?”
“Don’t worry about it, Father! When Mother sees it, you can see it too!” His son’s optimism was contagious, and the fact that Lucina had been trying to hide a grin when she had tugged him and Miriam away from the fire meant whatever this was, his wife would love.
The Shepherd’s Tactician was quiet, mind most likely at word to unlock the puzzle before it was revealed to her, but her children were giving her very few clues to work with.
They came to a stop before the tactics tent, Morgen and Lucina sharing a grin before pulling the blindfold off their mother first and pushing her in, pulling their father’s blindfold as he followed in.
The tactics tent was lit with a pair of oil lamps, something Miriam was sure they had gotten Frederick’s permission to use. They were set on either side of a gleaming checkered board that she had never seen before, and the pieces that stood on the side closest to her were all painted in light greys, browns, blues, and whites. The other side was painted in deep reds and blacks.
“They got you a combat board?” Chrom asked, his eyes having adjusted to the light.
“I looks like it...” She took a step forward, picking up one of the dark pieces. Blinking, she turned to piece to catch another angle in the light. “This is a Revenant.”
“What?” Chrom stepped forward, leaning over Miriam’s shoulder to see the figure more closely. “You’re right.” He reached forward, picking up another dark piece. “Another Risen...”
“This one’s a Wyvern Risen, though.” The figure mounted on a decaying dracolich had the death mask all Risen wore, complete with red eyes.
“What about the other side?” But instead of more Risen, the light-colored pieces were clearly human. But there was something more about them, something that was tugging at the corner of Chrom’s mind, but just wouldn’t come out.
“This...looks like Sumia!” Miriam gasped, picking up the Pegasus Rider he had been staring at.
“Gods, it is!” The likeness of the animal-loving woman had been carved into the wood with careful detail, even including the wing-clips she wore in her hair.
“Look, there’s Sully,” the Great Knight was mounted next to, “Robert?” Miriam’s brother was holding a tome, arm outstretched.
“That has to be Miriel.” Chrom pointed to a pointed hat that stood between, “Kellan?” There was no other person who wore that suit of armor in the Shepherds. “Frederick?” It was a toss-up, but Chrom could recognize the armor of his retainer anywhere.
“That’s Cordelia and Vaike.” Miriam stared down at the two figures that stood at the edge of the board, Cordelia’s pegasus ready to spring up at a moment and Vaike throwing out a taunt, by the looks of it. “And all of those figures in the front look like the castle guards.”
“Amazing...they did all of this...”
“Chrom?” The Lord hadn’t said anything, and was staring down at the board. “What is it?”
“Those two pieces in the middle,” he responded, voice soft, “who do they look like to you?”
“Hm.” Miriam picked up the two pieces that stood in the middle of the white group. “They look like...” One, clearly female, had the darkest outfit of the group, purple offset by gold, while the other held a sword between his hands. “...they look like...” They both wore crowns on their heads, the man’s made of gold, while the woman’s was silver. “They look like...!”
“They’re us.” Chrom carefully removed the Miriam figurine from his wife’s hands. The details were so on-point, it was if his wife had taken form in this block of wood. “They’re us.”
“The Exalt and his Queen.” Both turned to the entrance, to where Lucina and Morgen stood. Both were grinning, although Lucina’s was more strained, and there was a particular look on her face. Morgen was grinning like an idiot though, and stepped forward next to the board. “The two most important pieces of their group. Lose either, and the game is lost. They’re guarded by their Knights,” he pointed to the Sully and Frederick figures, “who run in straight lines to defend their leaders. The Advisors,” he pointed at Robert and Miriel, “cast their magic in diagonal lines, but cannot move as fast as the Knights. The Riders,” he nudged the Pegasus Knights, “can fly over both their allies and their enemies, but only three spaces to one side and one in another, all in the same turn. The Guards, while they can’t move quickly, cannot be broken through easily.”
“The same is true for the Risen. If they lose their tie to the mortal world, either of their Entombed leaders, they would lose the game.”
“This is a game, Morgen?” Chrom asked, but it was Lucina who answered, finally having moved from the tent entrance.
“Indeed, it was Morgen’s idea. A way for Mother to practice her tactics in a different way. Only one piece can be moved per round, so each move must be considered carefully. The more pieces you have remaining, the stronger your own forces are.”
“This is incredible.” Chrom reached out to ruffle Morgen’s hair, then place a hand on Lucina’s shoulder. “I’m certain you had some hand in this as well, Lucina. You both did well.”
“Yes.” Miriam finally spoke, and it was a broken sort of laugh. “Yes, I’m so proud of you both.” Placing the Chrom piece on the board, she pulled Lucina and Morgen into a hug. “Thank you. This is the best present I have ever gotten. You put all of your feelings into it, and they’ve reached me.”
“Happy Birthday, Mother.” Lucina whispered, followed by a much more exuberant one from Morgen.
Smiling, Chrom placed the Miriam piece on the board alongside the Chrom piece, and joined the hug, encircling his family as the figurine of the Exalt and his Queen watched on, equal, and ready to protect the other.