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Reaching for Empyrean

Chapter Text

 

                                                                                                             Grima's Mark/Fell Brand

 

The dungeon reeked of damp and mould, but at the very least the torches in her cell had been kept burning for hours, and she was provided with bedding -- old and threadbare, but bedding nonetheless.

And though she had spent the last several hours flitting in between consciousness and delirium, the knowledge of her imminent death brought her some form of clarity. 

Stifling a pained groan, she settled her hands on her hardened stomach. The manacles clamped to her wrists had grown sweaty and hot and proved an insufferable hindrance to her movements. As another contraction ripped through her back, she fought to stay silent; she would not give the robed figures who watched impassively the satisfaction of seeing her pain.

 

This wasn’t supposed to end like this, she thought bitterly. I’m so sorry .  

 

Her plan was supposed to be foolproof...she had gone through it for months, reviewing every possible gap in the fortress’s defences, every crack and crevice the ancient structure hid beneath bone and rubble. She had studied the surrounding terrain and weather for patterns and trails, hiding caches of food and weaponry on previous outings, when she was still free to move. The possibility of a betrayal was inconceivable because she had tested the mettle and loyalty of her allies several times over in increasingly gruesome trials.

 

She had begun to think of an escape for years before and had developed her plans accordingly, discarding and reinventing as needed. Her calculations were faultless, and they dictated that this had been the best opportunity she had to execute a successful getaway.

 

So why did she fail?

 

Her stomach tensed as a particularly hard contraction hit the place lying between her back and hips. The woman she was propped up against murmured half-hearted assurances and wiped the sweat off her brow -- her agony was temporarily soothed by a flash of annoyance and a desire to bite the hand holding the slimy, slimy cloth.

“So you say her fever has not broken,” a dry, reedy voice spoke from between her legs.

The woman hummed an affirmative as she returned the rag to its bowl of water. “Milady has been like this throughout the night, I’m afraid.”

She recognised the voice through her hazy thoughts. Oh, don’t you ‘milady’ me Gulnaz, you little bitch. You would have ratted me out for less if it meant a space in his bed, and you would have done it gladly .

Then again, he never needed an excuse to bring other women to spend the night with him, did he? It was the first of many problems that plagued their marriage: back then, when she was young and stupid, she lamented his many infidelities and wondered if it was some terrible flaw in her looks and character, resolving to better herself as a devoted wife. Now? She marvelled at the fact that Validar’s unfaithfulness was what alerted her to his less than ideal personage.

 

As though sensing her turmoil, the elderly doctor placed his hand on her knee and squeezed reassuringly. She didn’t care about the blood on his fingers smearing -- there were more pressing things to worry about. Noam was one of the few people loyal to her in that wretched place, and his presence after days of isolation and struggling to stay conscious had been a godsend.

“How far along are your contractions now?” he asked, wiping down her bloody front with a refreshingly cold rag. His hands returned to their position below her, cupped and waiting for the new arrival.

“Th-thirty seconds --” she sucked in a hard breath as her pelvis throbbed, and pressed down hard on the wave of pressure; a low moan ran throughout the cell eerily until she realised that it was hers. Noam’s eyes, though they had begun to show signs of his glaucoma, were still clear enough to convey his encouragement and she pressed harder.

Noam exclaimed in surprise. “The head is crowning!” She felt his wrinkled skin against her inner thighs, slippery and warm, and though her torment was becoming nigh unbearable at this point, she shared his excitement all the same. “Push, push hard.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing!” she panted miserably, and her legs kicked out with a sudden spasm. A foot connected satisfyingly with a cultist’s face and she took pleasure in hearing his muffled yell from under his hood. He was not so amused and jumped to a stand with his dagger drawn.

“You bitch!”

“Careful now,” she sing-songed, grimacing mockingly up at his bloodied nose. “Wouldn’t want to do something you regret, would you?”

“Yes, it’d be a pity if he followed your example and managed to throw himself in the dungeons as well,” a silky, sinister voice rang crisply throughout the darkened hall.

 

Everyone assembled jumped to stand immediately and bowed low from the waist as Validar appeared at the grate; she grunted as Gulnaz scrambled to her feet and let her fall hard onto the thin mattress. Noam turned and lowered his head respectfully, but he stayed with her and focused on the tiny head inching out of her body.

She met her husband’s eyes with undisguised loathing, ignoring the dozen or so guards behind him observing her bared lower half with interest. With every blink, she made an effort to display as much hatred as she could in her expression, and he returned her gaze with a sort of cool, detached amusement as the men and women returned to their positions.

He was still handsome, yes, but his good looks were tempered by her knowledge of his cruelty and vanity. Validar was dressed as though returning from another ceremony: an enormous golden ring shone on his bared chest, oiled and supple like the rest of his body. His thick, woolen hair was circled by an elaborate crown resembling antelope horns, and costly purple robes billowed from his waist. Golden necklaces and chains were looped around his neck and hips, gleaming and marvelous. Quite the contrast to her: sweaty, dishevelled, delirious.

They stared at one another in silence for a time, the cultists waiting for his next move with bated breaths. Had she been less disoriented, she would have scoffed at them for their simpering attitudes. She had forgone pitying them long ago and had no qualms directing her hate towards them as well, cursing their single-minded dedication to their leader.

 

“You know,” he said, his low voice breaking the lull with those brief, hypnotic syllables, “when I was younger, my first test of manhood was to capture a falcon with my bare hands and train it for the hunt.” His lips curled into a smirk. “How fitting it is then, to have you back here with me just as I am to pass into a new stage of life, dearest Shahin.”

“Fuck you!” she spat, the insult echoing loudly in the cell. She couldn’t feel the doctor’s hand pinch her thigh warningly and ploughed on, spurred by a rush of hormones and contempt.

“You are hardly in a position to speak such crude words so freely, need I remind you.”

“Like I give a damn! We all know you will kill me soon enough, why not just go ahead? You would be doing yourself a favour and I would finally rid myself of you forever.”

“So eager to leave our child already? I never did take you for the maternal sort, but this is a new low for you.”

She had no reply for that. The best she could manage was a glare, even as her short, forceful breaths became louder, more ragged. That insufferable gloating smirk was still plastered to his thin face, and a guard opened the grate with a loud clank. Shahin’s head swam feverishly while the cultist with the broken nose rushed out the cell as Validar and his replacement stepped in. He sat cross-legged by her side, and she almost turned to slap Gulnaz for visibly swooning in his presence.

 

The hot steel bit into her wrists and kept her arms down.

 

They all sat in another tense period of silence; she, stewing in rage and pain, and he, peering into the space between her legs with a razor sharp stare. Occasionally, Validar would exchange words with Noam, too low for her to eavesdrop, or rest a hand on her belly to feel the baby’s progress.

Had she been younger and more gullible, she could have pretended he was concerned for them and simply acted out on that, and all she had to do was beg for his forgiveness and pray in penance for her misguided actions. Things would go back to normal, and they could play at his pretenses of a perfect family while he tended to his Grimleal, and she would be a model wife and sit obediently at his side.

But that was then, and this was now, and Shahin knew that had she settled for such a meagre existence, she would have resigned herself to a life of constant misery; her every move under intense scrutiny, their bed occupied by a parade of equally deluded girls while she was shunted to the side; bearing witness to the unspeakable atrocities committed on Grima’s behalf, and their child --

 

-- No, her child, wrestled out of her arms and into the bosom of a stone-faced nursemaid, raised on another’s milk and lies (of Validar, of Grima, of all that was good and warm in this world), raised in fear and away from the protection she should have been able to provide.

“Most of your companions are long dead,” Validar stated matter-of-factly, “and while a few have escaped, rest assured; I will find them sooner or later.”

She fought the urge to dart her eyes towards Noam. “You underestimate them, dear . And you cannot simply abandon your life’s work to go traipsing about the continent for them your entire life, can you?”

He shrugged, unmoved. “I have many willing to spill blood for me...they will be glad to take this cause in my name. And besides, I am in no hurry at all...even should they avoid me, their grandchildren will suffice.”

Validar suddenly regarded her intently. Shahin kept her lips in a stubbornly tight line, until his own curled up slowly in a disturbing, freakish smile. His eyes widened in tandem, and she was reminded of a snake sizing up a bird before the slaughter.

“Did you really think,” he whispered, and his hot moist breath crawled over her skin as though it were a spider, “that you had any chance of success? That you could play me for a fool and believe that I would never discover your little schemes?” He chuckled darkly. “To think that the greatest tactical mind in all of Plegia would fail so spectacularly! I am almost disappointed in you.”

Her arms shot forward with a shout, determined to claw at his face, his clothes, anything she could reach. Her chains kept her pinned down and writhing pathetically, and he leaned closer to taunt her further.

“You owe such a loss to your little friends...they held you back. You could have reached the border had you not had to mind the incompetence of others. You were always too soft as a leader, too forgiving...”

“My bonds are infinitely more valuable than the sorry excuse of the ‘flock’ you lead. Spineless, white-bellied cowards, ready to bend over and curtsy for any measly scrap you might throw out. I’ve seen beggars and drunks with a better sense of dignity and self-respect.”

“But not strength or fighting spirit, I’m afraid. Tell me,” Validar inquired, stroking his goatee and aping thoughtfulness. “What was that Ylissean sellsword’s name again? Robert, was it?”

 

A cold frisson of horror ran down her spine, and Shahin forgot her labour pangs for a single, terrible moment. Validar’s grin widened cruelly, triumphantly, when her mask of composure broke down and fat tears scorched humiliating trails down her cheeks.

“Tell me,” her voice wavered brokenly, “tell me what you did to him, you miserable bastard!”

“You need not know the full account...it is of no use to you now. However…,” his volume dropped in register, “you can rest assured that I’ve kept a little something of his to remember him by.”

She was wailing now, crying and defeated and so full of despair and loathing for the wretched creature responsible for her life’s misfortunes. Said creature just sat there with a smug smile of victory on his face. And oh, what she would have given to be able to scratch it off his face. If only she had the energy to face him and tear him up into a thousand pieces like he deserved. Yet she could barely lift a finger, and all she could do was cry, loud and full of anguish, not caring that she could be heard several stories up.

Validar took in her suffering with utmost relish, stroking her stomach tauntingly. Powerless to do anything, Noam kept his face down, but she needed him like that, small and unassuming so that he would not be taken from her too.

“Perhaps the blame does not lie entirely with you. After the incident with the merchant, I should have paid closer attention to your... questionable taste in partners.”

“You’re one to talk, you disgusting --” Shahin was unable to finish, having to gulp in trembling breaths and fight off a wave of dizziness. His thin lips pulled back into a jeer.

“Even so...it amazes me, to think that you could have entertained such fantasies of playing house with that man. Tell me, did you have a darling little cottage picked out yet? Was he to support you with his delusions of a life as a sellsword? Names chosen for the children you had planned, hm?”

 

His derisive cheer dropped faster than a dead fly as he seized her hair and wrenched it back hard .

“Don’t think for a second that I wouldn’t have dashed the little thing’s brains out on this very floor should I have seen a scrap of red hair.”

 

It was then that she realised with a jolt that the child was almost out: the knees were still buried deep inside her, yes, she could feel its tiny kicks. Somehow, she managed to push Validar away and struggle up into a seated position, watching as Noam cleaned the mess from the small grey body and tried to coax it to breathe. With a shout, she gave one final push, one final manifestation of her single-minded determination to get it out , and its legs slid out with a gush of blood and water and the veiny pink cord. A towel was wrapped around it to scrub it vigorously while a cultist descended upon it with a knife, clamping and cutting the cord with speed and efficiency. Noam soon had a clean, soft baby wrapped in good fine cloth in his hands, and he placed it reverently into her open arms.

“I give my warmest congratulations, my lady. She is a beautiful child.”

“A girl!” Shahin exclaimed.The baby was not crying yet, but no matter, she was at least gasping and blinking and squirming, her tiny fingers latching on quick to her mother’s outstretched finger. Soon the baby was butting her head into her mother’s bosom, who laughed and laughed deliriously while she was assisted into pulling down her tunic. She watched peacefully as she nursed, and caressed her newborn’s fine white locks, very much like her own. Shahin hoped that it would grow longer than hers and wondered if the infant would resemble her grandparents when she was older. Perhaps she would become freckled like her aunts and uncles, or develop light eyes like her cousins.

Sitting with her was enough to make her forget her troubles and pretend it was just the two of them, wrapped up in each other’s warmth and gentleness. Shahin’s entire world was reduced to that single, joyful gift.

 

It was not meant to last. Validar grew irritated, and curled his talon-like hands over the newborn. Shahin braced the girl tight against her, screaming  “No !”

“You have already outlived your usefulness, and at this point I am tiring of you.”

“You will not deprive my child of her mother, not when she needs me the most!”

“Rima shall take over from you, gods know that she is much more suitable than an apostate traitor.”

“Her twins have just died, how could you? Dumping another’s child on her like that? My baby is not their replacement, and Rima is not a broodmare!”

“She still has plenty of milk.”

 

The cultists watched their twisted tug of war, knowing it was only a matter of time until he triumphed over the weakened, feverish woman. And so he did, planting the heel of his sandal into her face and kicking her back onto her soiled bedding. The baby had already started to whimper loudly when it was pulled back and forth, and now began to cry in earnest in response to her mother’s shouts. Twisting and writhing in Validar’s grasp, her blanket was loosened enough for her to manoeuvre out of it, and the torchlight threw her skin into sharp focus.

Validar immediately snatched her right arm and stretched it out for everyone to see. His eyes took on a delighted, crazed gleam, and his madness only seemed to be intensified by the baby’s wails.

 

For on her miniscule hand, a purple, six eyed sigil flickered in the light.

 

“Yes,” he breathed.

 

No , Shahin thought, as her heart sunk into a dark, bottomless chasm. No no no no no --

 

“Do you see now?” he exhaled forcefully, and began to pace the cramped cell with a purposeful stride, “DO YOU SEE NOW?”

 

He stopped abruptly, and lifted the shrieking baby high above his head, his body shaking with absolute ecstasy. As though on cue, his worshippers all clamoured and wept and dropped to their knees, and the sick mother’s shouts for her daughter went unheard as their throaty, ominous chanting rose and fell in an eerie cadence.

“For centuries, it has been foretold that our Lord’s spirit would cease its wandering in the Outer Realms when a vessel suitable to contain His power would be found. For centuries, we have toiled and laboured for our Lord even as our land has been overrun with heretics, faithless, and Naga’s spawn.”

Validar licked his lips greedily and cradled the little girl close to him, tracing the mark on her hand with a tenderness that was entirely uncharacteristic.

“And now...our centuries of living beneath the earth, as though we were common worms, as though our devotion is meant to be hidden away while those liars and hypocrites rule Plegia from our throne, have come to an end. For Grima is patient, and Grima shall reward our services once He razes this earth and cleanses it of its filth and decay. And thus He spake, ‘when my slumber ends and my ascent shall be heralded by the skies, thine memory shall live on amongst the stars and the New Folk.’”   

“Hail!” the devotees roared and beat their chests.

“Our new age has just begun,” Validar crowed, “and you are the lucky few to have witnessed its birth!”

So consumed were they by their state of rapture that their tears flowed freely and more than a few began to froth at the mouth. Among the general sense of hysteria, Shahin stood alone in her rage, spitting and yelling for her daughter back. She screamed herself hoarse and kept at it as she saw her husband hand over her child to the physician and sent him to wait outside the gate, then turned to her with triumph outlining his every step, and bade Gulnaz to leave them be.

 

“What a joyous day this has turned to be...how it pains me to see you do not share our sentiment,” Validar’s hiss was a sibilant and deadly as a snake’s.

“I’ll not see you turn my daughter into a monster, at least not over my dead body!”

“Not a monster, but a god . A new being destined for greater things, for heights higher than any of our puny mortal souls could ever achieve.”

“‘Destiny?’ She is as mortal as you and I, and no amount of falsehoods you plan to feed her will ever change that!“

 

Hush.” He drew a beautifully engraved knife and held it to her throat, strangling her voice with its edge. “You can count yourself blessed by this day as well, my love. The very blade before you has been privileged enough to dedicate that Ylissean to Grima, and now, it will reunite you two in his service.”

 

As he carved through her throat with deliberately slow strokes, Shahin thought regretfully of her life’s mistakes, and the fantasies she would never able to fulfill flashed before her eyes: a little tumbledown cottage to call her own tucked into the mountains of Ferox; plaiting sweetgrass into her baby’s braids while they waited for Robert to return from the muster, her darling little girl meeting her family, with brothers and sisters of her own to play and grow up with.

The pain was tempered somewhat by her hallucinations, but soon the blood loss from the birth caught up to her fever and the knife -- her hands scrabbled uselessly at his as blood bubbled and frothed from the gaping wound and splashed onto their skin, and the sensation between her legs and neck built up into a terrible wall of agony. While Validar delighted in the arterial spurts staining his face and the feel of sinew and muscle snapping apart between his fingers and blade, Shahin’s final moment was of excruciating torment and a debilitating, all-consuming sense of loss.  

 

I’m so sorry, she mouthed to her baby as her life bled out.  

 

Noam would later be plagued by nightmares of how her screams had been masked by her newborn’s.   

 

 

                                                                                                          

                                                                                                                  Grima's Mark/Fell Brand

 

 

Chapter Text

                                                                      Grima's Mark/Fell Brand

 

 

 

Most would not have been out willingly during that time of day. The sun was furiously hot and bright, and, along with the gritty sands blowing across the landscape and the dearth of clouds, the Saqqara made for an absolutely inhospitable environment.

Validar, of course, was uncaring. The heat was merely a minor nuisance to him, having been born and raised in that same desert.

No, the real issue was whether or not he could expect more of a delay for his vessel’s return.

How long had it been since he had last seen her? Five, six years? His last glimpse of her was of a disappointingly scrawny, frightened girl being bundled off and spirited into the night. If Mustafa kept to his usual standards, then Validar could expect to see a strong young woman in her place, and the past few years of waiting would not have to be written off as a total loss.

Life since her birth had been fraught with danger. Shortly after her naming ceremony, one of his apostate wife’s crazed followers took a knife to the babe; he was slaughtered on the spot. Someone had almost smuggled poison into her breakfast -- since the kitchen was either harbouring the would-be assassin or incompetent enough to miss such a dire threat, everyone and everything from the butcher to the milk was condemned to the pyre. When the slippery bastard agents of the Walled City discovered her and were nearly successful in taking her back with them to their bastard child-king Gangrel, he knew drastic measures had to be taken.

Thus, she was sent away from the base with Mustafa, one of his most seasoned generals, to have her training intensified. She was to be taught to master the arts of combat and self-sufficiency to ensure that she would be far from helpless again. To fully realise her potential as Grima’s vessel, it was required of her to have a mind as sharp as a sabre and strength as mighty as a dragon’s.

Perhaps, Validar mused fondly, she would even come to surpass her mother on both terms.

He smirked to himself. For all their professed devotion, many members of his flock were content to wait under the shade afforded by the maw of the gigantic skull that housed their settlement. Despite being desert born as well, it seemed they were too delicate for the heat. Save for a few of his inner circle...and Tharja, of course.

Tharja, Validar admitted, was a peculiar case. Her mother Gulnaz had once been one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting; as one of his more devoted followers, the sorceress had been more than willing to play the part of bed warmer when he required it, and was present for the vessel’s birth. That self-same devotion compelled her to attempt to strangle the vessel out of jealousy shortly after the girl went through her first monthly bleeding.

Young Tharja was curiously unruffled when her mother’s execution was carried out. Her reasoning -- that a threat to Grima needed to be removed, and thus merited the woman’s death -- pleased Validar, and he permitted her to continue to serve the child. The same obsession Gulnaz possessed was present in her daughter. It was wholly directed to her charge, so Validar deemed her harmless enough unless a second pruning of her family branch was needed again.

He ignored the way said woman stroked her luxurious black hair, and the stares of some of the men in favour of the dark shape descending from the sky. The sole wyvern rider he sent had circled high enough to be mistaken for a lone bird should any nosy capital agents be on the lookout. The scout bowed deeply after he dismounted. “They’re not far now, my lord. No trouble to report -- they have passed through all the checkpoints undetected.”

“Excellent,” was Validar’s satisfied response.

                                                                                      Grima's Mark/Fell Brand

 

 

Father?”

Mustafa remembered a traumatised, injured girl who had difficulty looking him in the eyes, and who curled inwards like a dead leaf the night Robin had been entrusted to his care. It had taken time to coax her out of her frightened shell -- even longer when she became a willful brat who refused instruction on the pretense of her superior status as Grima’s vessel. Even then, the defensive glimmer had not left her eyes.

A year had almost passed until that fateful day when bad weather forced them to take refuge in a high mountain cave. By nightfall, conditions had improved and he was guarding the cave’s mouth while Robin slept. He was so lost in thought that he almost missed her stumbling out, dishevelled and distressed in the dark, and she had called out to him plaintively in her high, clear voice.

For the first time in many years, Mustafa was taken aback. Her improvised nightshirt hung off a shoulder, and the raggedy toy he had made for her in an attempt to console her night terrors was gripped loosely in one hand.

“What is it child?”

“I had another bad dream.”

So he invited her to sit with him and watch the stars race across the sky.

They spent many happy years together. Robin proved to be a quick study and took fast to the weaponry Mustafa instructed her on: by her next growth spurt, she could throw a knife with deadly accuracy while blindfolded. Tomes went from being a tedious chore to her greatest asset. And soon, he was no longer able to knock her flat on her back, having been defeated in what became an impressive winning streak for her.

He made sure to teach her other skills as well: plucking crayfish from rivers without suffering a pinch, which berries were safe to eat and which ones could kill, and how to navigate by starlight. He passed down the knowledge of his father, and his grandfather before them, and thus she was his heir in all but name.

Mustafa loved Robin as though she was his own -- a sentiment she reciprocated.

Robin thrived and blossomed in the sun and fresh air. Gone were the darkness and gloom and stale air of the Grimleal hideout. Gone were the nightmares and visions that had plagued her since infancy. Out in the wilderness, there were no fanatical crowds clamouring for her every word -- just Mustafa and her, fed by the land’s bounty, free to roam its domain. When they found Henry all alone in the woods, the mage was welcomed into their little fold without a second thought. Robin could pretend that the previous years of her life were only another nightmare, that her true place was with a father and a brother. She could dream that she was free.

Reality was not so kind as to grant that wish.

Somehow, a writ found its way to Mustafa’s hands during their brief spell in Regna Ferox. It demanded their immediate return to the Saqqara as Robin’s 19th year was fast approaching, and its commemoration was to be celebrated amongst the most devout of the flock.

The ugly truth of the Grimleal’s presence reignited a fresh wave of terror. She wanted to protest, to argue for an escape, anything to leave the cult behind and continue with their idyllic way of life. Mustafa’s hard-set jaw and melancholy gaze told her what she knew before.

They stole away in the dead of night and made the trek under the watchful sight of the stars. The transition from the frigid alpine forest to the arid inner desert furthered Robin’s dread; not even Henry’s happy chatter was enough to distract her from the threat looming over their heads. Soon, they had the titanic dragon’s skull that was the bone field’s most prominent feature in their sights, and the walls of Plegia’s capital city towering higher still behind it. The slow climb up the promontory began in silence, though Henry, bless him, could not stay quiet for long.

“That a real dragon skull?”

“Yes,” Mustafa grunted.

Cool! Does that mean the rest of the body is underground, or it’s just the head? Oh, wait -- this is a bone field? Nice! I’ve been needing fresh stock since Tenmaa -- wow, that one over there is really well preserved!”

“Henry,” Mustafa warned in his deep voice. “This is the time to be on our best behaviour. You need to be seen and not heard. And Robin has a headache and would appreciate some quiet.”

“It’s alright,” her reply was terse. “He’s not drawing attention to us.”

“See, Robby’s tougher than some old headache,“ said Henry with his typical cheeriness.

They continued their journey up with Henry’s running commentary and the harsh wind being the only sound. Mustafa’s worried eyes hardly left Robin, until the crumbling stone ramparts surrounding the skull greeted them ominously.

 

                                                                                 fell brand grima mark

 

Triumph outlined every crease on Validar’s face as he observed them step up to the dragon’s maw. His flock grew restless behind him, several going so far as to prostrate themselves on the sand and mutter prayers when the cloaked travellers approached them.

His arms spread gracefully in welcome and his crisp words carried out clearly over the breeze. “Your return pleases us, Fated One. We have awaited this day with longing, and we have watched the skies for signs of your presence. To have you amongst us again is truly a great blessing.”

The clamour grew louder when the travellers removed their hoods.

Validar’s smile widened. He always reaped what he sowed, and the fruits of his labour were never less than perfect. Centuries of carefully selected individuals and painstakingly monitored breeding had indeed produced a vessel worthy of Grima: snowy white hair, youthful skin, a curve of the face pleasing to the eye. Not a single mark of disease or deformity marred her perfect form. It was incorrect of him to think of her as his child, for she was the vessel and therefore above him...yet, he could not help but feel proud to see how much she had grown in his absence.

Yes, she had been well-bred, and Validar was more than a little smug that his Lord’s return was the product of his seed.

“Your words please us.” Robin’s voice was soft. “It has been far too long.”

Validar’s lips almost dropped into a glower.

His flock was too wrapped up in emotion to notice. The lowered eyes, the hushed tone...all unbefitting his Lord’s vessel. Where was the confident greeting he had been expecting? The straight spine? Her attitude was suited to a bride, not their fated herald.

He would have a word with Mustafa over this.

“We have prepared a feast in your honour.” Validar’s steepled fingers and unctuous grace belied his displeasure. “It is only fitting for such a joyous occasion. Allow us to attend to the remaining details as you and your...guest,” he said, and his eyes slid over Henry, “change into more appropriate attire.”

The dismissal was a moment of rare indulgence. Robin’s ill-concealed surprise soured his mood further.

Bowing her head slightly, she murmured, “Your devotion to us is valued.” She took her leave in a swirl of bruise-coloured robes; several cult members tried to touch the hem reverently even as they parted for her. Validar did not miss how Robin pulled the boy protectively to her side, and he watched them descend into the darkness of the mouth with Henry babbling all the way down.

“You are all dismissed,” Validar announced coolly after a beat of silence.

Cultists began to trickle back into the skull after bowing respectfully. Tharja, who had been watching the proceedings greedily, tried to follow Robin and Henry until Validar clenched her shoulder in an iron grip.

You are assigned to the kitchens until the day ends,” he hissed.

He allowed the annoyed roll of her eyes -- occasional acts of insolence on her part were allowed due to her relatively high rank and because he knew Tharja would never actually show defiance.

When she slunk away grudgingly, only Mustafa remained.

Validar faced him with the wind roaring in their ears. Mustafa had changed little throughout the years, grayer but still as tall and muscular as ever. If he feared consequences for dissatisfying his leader then it was not apparent.

He regarded his general intently. “Your lack of correspondence was concerning.”

Mustafa was not stupid enough to miss a direct accusation. “It was risky to reestablish contact with our circumstances.”

“Oh?”

“A horde of bandits chased us over to Ferox for a good part of the year. Had we attempted to send a missive then it would have been seized and a foreign nation would have been alerted to the Fated One’s existence.”

“You give those lumbering beasts too much credit. You sound almost fearful of them…”

Mustafa grunted and inclined his head deferentially. “Their borders are more heavily fortified than ever -- soldiers are brought and sent over from the Longfort to Labacum on a daily basis. They are now as suspicious of our movements as the Ylisseans, my liege, and exposing her when the Feroxi talk of nothing but skewering members of the faith on lances would have been no less than treason on my part.”

Validar was less than satisfied by his answer.

“We have known of their mobilisation for years now...as we should. The question is how you were routed by mere thieves...has her training been for naught?” he whispered silkily.

Mustafa knew to tread very carefully with his next words. “My lady cared for Henry when he fell ill, and she succumbed after our supplies ran out. Facing them would have been suicidal in their state.”

Red eyes narrowed venomously. Validar thought back to the boy, looking around with that smarmy little grin of his, stuck to their vessel’s side like some parasitic outgrowth...an unknown, unvetted factor completely unworthy of her presence yet acting as though the space beside her belonged to him.

“So I am correct to have thought her behaviour was completely out of sorts, and the boy is responsible .”

“My liege --”

“Tell me, Mustafa. How is it you came by him? What can you say to justify a total stranger’s entrance to our hidden sanctum? Or exposing Grima’s vessel to such a lowly influence…?”

Lesser men would have groveled. Mustafa was wiser and knew standing his ground was the only way to defend his actions.

“We found him some three years before, in the wood north of Ter-Akkhan. He had been brought up in one of the schools of the area before its... untimely closure. He claimed that a she-wolf fostered him with her litter soon after until frightened villagers killed them, and he had been wandering since. We have tested him in combat, logic and survival skills: not only has he demonstrated a remarkable general aptitude in all areas, he specialises in hexes and curse breaking. Our lady has taken a shine to him, and they have proved to show a reliable group dynamic in combat scenarios.”

Validar listened while stroking his goatee mutely. Having pointed to his origins at one of the orphanages that doubled as a school had piqued his interest; they were useful inasmuch as they were able to produce young recruits for the faith, so the boy having had previous exposure to the Grimleal was mollifying. And he did recall a report on one located in Ter-Akkhan having burned to the ground…

“I’ll allow it.” His robes snapped and fluttered in the wind, “his skill will be useful to the younger acolytes. But I will not have him near our vessel, do you hear?”

“Understood, my liege.”

“Good. And do not think that you are free to leave just yet. I am still expecting the rest of her assessment,” Validar said as they descended into the skull’s darkness.

 

 

                                                                                  fell mark brand grima

 

Since there were no guards in the dungeons, Robin assumed it was free of prisoners as well. Her suspicions proved correct as they moved through the halls, keeping her hand cupped protectively over the spelled flame to avoid the light from travelling too far.

Henry loved the cavernous space, remarking on the darkness, the bones littering the wet floor. Robin kept shushing him even as they squeezed into an alcove for privacy.

Their white hair shone as the little ball of fire hovered over them and Henry looked to her expectantly.

Robin licked her lips nervously. “Remember what Mustafa said? We need to keep it like that, alright?”

He cocked his head quizzically. “What for?”

“Because it’s not safe for you here.”

“Wait, so we were safer when bears and bandits were trying to kill us?” he giggled loudly.

She clapped a hand over his mouth swiftly. “ Henry .”

When she removed it, she could see his cheery façade slipped the tiniest bit, with his smile flatter than usual. It pained Robin, to know that her fear was so obvious if it managed to make Henry drop his act.

Smoothing his fringe back softly, she held his hands and delivered her words carefully.

“Henry...there’s something I need to tell you. I’m not so sure how to say it so...please, listen closely.”

Pardon me ,” an oily voice echoed in the gloom.

Robin quickly stifled a despairing groan, and turned to the little pop indicating someone’s apparition -- an entirely annoying little trick favoured among top-ranking Grimleal within the confines of the base. Ardri, one of the senior men of Validar’s inner circle, was accompanied by a hulking guard and had not changed in the slightest since she last saw him: a too-satisfied curl of his lips and the eyes of a snitch that were still evident within the wrinkles of his face. He took in their dirty appearance with relish and gave a simpering little bow to the pair.

“I do apologise for the interruption , but my lord insists that the feasting is to begin soon and your ladies await with more appropriate garb -- we prepared a wardrobe for the young one as well. It is a great pleasure to see you returned safely to us, o Fated One.” Ardri wrung his ancient hands in apparent supplication.

Robin straightened her spine and adopted an attitude of total indifference, looking down at him coolly.

“I expect that this will not turn out to be an utter disappointment...what a terrible homecoming it would be.”

 

                                                                      fell brand grima mark

 

Grimleal halls had the peculiar characteristic of managing to be both brightly lit and shadowy at the same time -- the fires in the copper braziers burned fiercely and cast long black shadows that danced and shied away from the feasting multitude.

The most important seats had been reserved for Validar and Robin. An enormous dragon’s skull hung from the wall behind them, its head adorned with curled ram’s horns and its jaws open in a perpetual roar. Ancient, musty tapestries depicting gruesome rituals and apocalyptic events covered the walls and matched the woven rugs and cushions that seated the cultists and the dishes that broke their usually spartan diets: goat, rice pilafs coloured with saffron and rare delicacies such as candied winefruit and wyvern heartstring. The sombre notes of the liturgical music played daily were replaced by the frantic, gurgling notes of the water flute while dancers dressed in see-through silks entertained.

Henry’s dusty travel clothes were traded for the grey and black tunic of Grimleal apprentices, and he was seated at the far end of the proceedings. Mustafa had finished eating and had left the generals’ middle seating to rotate guard duty with an older subordinate of his. Robin had barely touched her food, but justified it as needing to pay full attention to the goings-on around her. She knew that her performance at the skull’s entrance had hardly been stellar, so she became conscientious of the extra effort she had to put into a convincing facsimile of a person raised to be the vessel: poised, cool, and indifferent to her surroundings as though she was above it all. Robin knew that it was more than effective to the congregation since several members came as supplicants: touching the hem of her clothes in awed reverence, begging her for favours and advice, endless compliments and kowtowing, even from those too fearful to do more than stare from a distance.

Validar, on the other hand, was more than pleased. He attributed her initially disappointing appearance to travel-weariness -- such were the limitations of her mortal shell -- and watched approvingly as she received worshippers from her cushion. Despite the time away, it seemed as though she still fit into the role she was born for. The sway she held over the Grimleal was indisputable. Conversation between Validar and Robin was formal and brief. He too had forgone feasting, as he was completely absorbed by her actions.

His observations turned to pride and satisfaction. Was it not a great show of his wealth and power if he could afford to adorn the vessel in the finest offerings of the Grimleal’s coffers? The purple silk and gauze of her dress floated, almost dreamlike, around her frame, cinched by golden belts and tinkling with dark opals and amethysts. Her heavy golden collar complemented the tiara that circled her brow with a fat, teardrop ruby that hung between her eyes. Grima’s vessel deserved only the best and, in turn, accentuated the natural elegance of her vestments as only a perfect being like herself could.

Yes, Validar thought. The vessel was the glorious culmination of generations’ worth of breeding, and it showed despite her taking more after her dam rather than sire. Her kohl rimmed lids drew attention to finely shaped almond eyes, and the white hair he fondly remembered obscuring her face for most of her childhood was swept back into an elegant and maturely styled braid. It was draped over her collar and drew his eyes up the soft slope of her neck and exposed shoulders.

As he finished admiring Robin’s features, he stood and the entire assembly fell silent. Validar raised his golden goblet with all the importance of a stateman’s staff.

“Fate has smiled upon us this year. We welcome ten fine, healthy children to our flock; blessed be the wombs that hath nurtured them. Our mages have reported excellent progress with their spell crafting, and our new apprentices have become the first to memorise the entirety of our scripture in less than a decade. Our agents have managed to penetrate every major settlement of the nation and assure me the utmost loyalty from the lowliest chieftain to the highest amir -- the only thing standing between us and our rightful dominance is the apostate capital that dares to claim our throne.

Last, yet certainly not least ,” his voice rang with smug pride, “Grima’s vessel has returned to us after six terrible years of yearning. It pleases us to see our Lord’s essence carried safely in a strong body deigned worthy of His presence; how it fills us lesser beings with envy, to not be afforded that same privilege!”

Some members of the congregation began to weep at his words.

“With our dearest Aversa entertaining the jesters of the Walled City--” Boos, hissing and laughter echoed throughout, “--we can rest assured that the eyes of the unworthy will dare not set upon our sanctum. Our celebrations shall continue uninterrupted, and the moon shall set on this 19th year of our vessel’s existence. In a fortnight’s time, Grima will smile upon us all and usher in a new age as has been fated since the beginning of His slumber. That, I guarantee: glory be to Grima!”

Robin recognised the unspoken cue, and rose to lead the hall in prayer. Amidst the rise and fall of collective chanting and undying oaths pledged to their vessel, to him, to Grima, Validar felt more vindicated than he had ever since Robin’s birth, certain that his life’s labours and the centuries of his predecessors’ backing were finally coming to fruition.

 

 

                                                                   fell mark brand

 

Misery ate at Robin’s gut as the mass of worshippers filed out of the hall in an orderly fashion. Hands plucked at her gown and bodies grovelled at her feet as she and Validar exited, guards shadowing their steps and clearing out the foyer as those who were lesser ranked were commanded to return to their quarters for the night. Soon the only ones left were Validar, the members of his council, and the silent cadre of handmaidens assigned to her and her chambers.

Gold and rubies glittered on Validar’s splendid robes as fiercely as his eyes as he stepped to her with a purposeful smirk stretching his narrow face.

“I sincerely hope this has all been to your approval. Anything less would be more than unacceptable for one of your calibre; if so, do tell me, and I shall work diligently to correct it.” Bowing low at the waist and holding out his cape revealed a richly lined interior darker than night.

Swallowing discreetly, Robin surveyed the assembled party with a feigned half-heartedness. It worried her to witness how easily she slipped into the role of their prized possession so effortlessly, as though her years in the outside world had been but an afterthought, that she had been stuck inside the foetid dragon’s cadaver all that time. “Better than I had hoped for. It honours me to see such devotion and effort. You have done well by me, and our flock shall be justly rewarded for such attention.” A yawn racked her frame unbidden. Tamping down her panic, she scrambled for an excuse. “It seems that travel has sapped more of my strength than I thought. I will take leave now; if I am to rise early then I need to rest undisturbed.” She made sure to emphasise that last word with a subtle narrowing of her eyes.

The present company all bowed before her. “Of course. I have seen to it personally that not a single one of your effects is out of place. Everything as befit your rightful station,” said Validar, dismissing his councillors with a lazy flick of the wrist, and a snap of his long fingers sent a maiden fetching a torch for him. A sudden downturn of his brow alerted her, too late, of the sharply shaped nail tracing a path from her cheek and brushing a stray hair gently past her lobe and back to its spot behind her ear.

Validar’s carefully positioned smile returned and Robin fought the urge to shiver.

“All perfect,” he whispered. “I bid you a good night’s rest. We shall meet with the council after dawn.”

As though he were a chilling midnight breeze, he swept out of the foyer with a woosh of robes that left the area darker and colder after his departure. Robin stared dumbly at the spot where Validar stood until she snapped out of her reverie and began to make her way to her quarters. Her servants trailed after mutely, bearing long crimson candles that wept bloody wax and gave their faces a gaunt glow.

Deeper and deeper they travelled into the earth, winding through several dark passageways. After traveling through a particularly complex and confusing set of doors, Robin was able to give her attendants the slip after she sent her spelled fire some ways before her as though she had grown impatient with them. Watching carefully to see that the last girl picked up the pace and trailed behind the rest, she waited a few tense seconds before she slunk into a storage alcove. She reached into the folds of her dress and pulled out the diminutive white mouse that had waited diligently until she was alone, watching its stubby limbs stretch grotesquely until Henry’s transformation was complete and he blinked at her with his human eyes in the low light.

“Nipping me is in poor taste,” Robin remarked tiredly.

“Yeah, but I have something I gotta show you. When I was sitting down for the feast this old man next to the apprentices said he knows you. He looked really ancient! He’s got this really long beard and more wrinkles than that Ardri person you told me about…”

She allowed Henry to lead the way, surprised yet pleased that he seemed to have a remarkably good grasp on the bearings of the Grimleal base. Genuine pleasure bloomed in her enervated body when the rosy glow of torchlight revealed a decidedly elderly figure waiting patiently for their arrival.

“Noam!” she threw her arms around him, mindful of the torch held in his weak grip -- Henry made himself useful and took it from him, steadying the light’s shakiness.

“It has been too long, my child.” The doctor’s voice had cracked and dried over the years, his beard had turned as white as her hair, and she saw how heavily he leaned on the simple walking stick he now used. “I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to hear your voice after all this time,” Noam quaked as though from ague. “Come, let me see how much you’ve grown.”

Kneeling carefully before him, Robin helped position his spotted hands over her face; he was careful not to smudge her makeup as his fingers moved softly over her eyes, tracing the shape of her nose, pinching her cheeks affectionately and tweaking her shoulders. Delight infused every movement of his, and Robin was overjoyed to be reunited with her former tutor.

“You have grown so strong and tall, love. So pretty too! Have you had to fight off many suitors while away? Or is this strapping young man suitable enough?” Much laughter was shared as she smacked Noam’s chest playfully and Henry’s giggling threatened to tip over the low-burning torch.

The mood took a more sombre turn, as did the physician’s memories. Tears leaked out of his milk-white eyes as he drew his hand across her face once more.

“You truly are your mother’s daughter. She would have been so proud to see you now...alive and well and so accomplished. Robert and her. I cannot deny how your presence brings me such joy, and yet...you do not belong here, love. Your rightful place is in the sun and enjoying the world’s bounty. Not shackled to its burdens. You do not deserve such a fate.”

Despite not having been being spared the details of her mother’s (and her mother’s lover’s) life while with Mustafa, hearing of them always brought Robin pain. She had Mustafa and Henry and Noam, yes, but to think! A mother and father who would have loved her had they survived, a mother and father to give her a home and siblings and a birthright.

A birthright to call her own and not having to fulfill a prophecy of death and decay simply because it was foretold before her time.

Such longing always filled her mouth with iron. Shame always followed. How could she think of entertaining such fantasies, Robin wondered, and not preoccupy herself with the very real, very tangible beings standing before her? She was not indebted to phantoms. She was not raised by thoughts or fantasies of people. And yet, she could not help but dream and feel such a yearning .

Robin was brought back to reality by the feeling of Noam pushing something into her hand. It was a square of parchment with fuzzy frayed edges, as though it had been carefully opened and folded several times over.

“Keep it close to you. Only read it when you are alone; I fear the consequences should Validar find it,” he warned.

She nodded, once, twice, and, fearfully conscious of the late hour, kissed his bald pate in farewell. Henry stole after her into the dark earthen corridors, leaving the warmth of the torch behind in the doctor’s hand.

She arrived to her quarters’ doorway with her usual feigned nonchalance. Her maidens stood obediently in waiting, as though she had never left them, and followed her inside. A few others were already preparing her rooms for the night, fluffing pillows and lighting gently scented incense to aid her sleep.

Tharja was the real surprise. The sorceress sat curled in the vanity’s wicker seat like a satisfied, satin-draped panther. Her secretive smile widened, and she ceded her position to Robin. The latter said nothing as her accessories were removed and laid gently on the sideboard, as alcohol was rubbed tenderly into her skin to remove her makeup. Worst of all was feeling the comb’s passes through her hair and Tharja’s spidery hands following it, making sure to unravel every snarl and tangle found, lovingly braiding the snowy tresses and then perching her chin on Robin’s shoulder. Doesn’t that feel better? she asked with that smile of hers. Robin brought herself to nod mutely and yet somehow found the strength to decline Tharja’s offers to assist her disrobing.

The cotton of her nightgown breathed easily. She could not let herself sleep until she was sure that the sorceress -- who slept at Robin’s feet on silken cushions -- had stopped staring at her with those beetle-black eyes. The parchment she had hidden in her bosom was secreted into a hole kept safely within her bedframe, under her mattress, and stoppered with a chunk of wood she had painstakingly carved out in her youth to make the hole. Henry was much more patient. He waited until even she was half-awake, and crawled out of her dress to sit by her pillow to the tune of a few quiet snores; his little mouse ears swivelled to and fro with each breath.

She could hardly bring herself to look at him. Looking around at her old room brought back some of the worst memories. She could tell that, despite the change to adult-sized accoutrements, it had hardly changed. It was effectively a tomb, she reasoned, resurrecting things that were better left forgotten and yet were preserved in all their dusty, subterranean glory to laugh in her face and remind her that she was trapped again. Robin missed camping with the starry skies. She missed the delicious scent from the cook-fires dying down after supper and hugging the toys Mustafa made for her to sleep with. She missed the scary stories Henry would tell, and giggling naughtily together when Mustafa would scold them for staying up late. There would be no more rising with the sun again. How could she? They were closer to the rotting dead than they were the heavens.

“You alright?” Henry’s whispery whiskers tickled her ear.

“No,” she replied. After a pregnant pause spent staring at the wall, Robin continued. “I never wanted you to find out. I’m so sorry Henry…”

“For what?”

“For...being this .”

“You mean the harbinger of the end times and the devourer of the sun and moon? The wings of despair and the breath of ruin? The Lord of boring prayers I had to write down a couple thousand times when I was still at that dumb school?” The practiced flippancy of his response was highly reassuring, but not enough to stop the tears pricking her eyes. Henry’s now-human hand closed over hers as he curled around her back and stroked her hair with all the affection he could muster. He was never the best at expressing himself, Robin knew, but choosing to discard his cheery mask for her sake proved how fiercely his devotion ran.

“You’re still you , Robby. Those geezer scholars don’t know what they’re talking about because the lack of sun turned their brains to mush. Validar doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s too busy being a gigantic creep issuing dumb orders. Maybe I could buy it if you were bloodthirsty enough, but who’re we kidding? I’d make a better death god. I should just take over this whole place, you know? I’ll be Grima, and I’ll dub you my lieutenant so we can turn this whole place to bone, and we can have all the skeletons we want to experiment on!”

To hear him speak such heresy so casually, to blaspheme in her name and reject all that he had been taught for most of his life in a show of his loyalty was a relief and deeply touching. Both were crimes worthy of execution, but in the dark of the night she thanked him for it and turned to hug him as tightly as she could and bury her face in the crook of his neck. 

The bed began to creak ominously under their movements.

“Shhh.” Robin held her breath as Tharja stirred sleepily. One beat, two beats, three beats, and her body stilled in the throes of slumber. Robin and Henry sighed quietly and the friends squeezed their hands in relief.

“Go to sleep Henry. It’s going to be a very long day tomorrow.” An eternity , she did not add, as Henry crawled up the wall in a scarab’s form and reemerged, very much human again, at the highest point of the rafters. He settled down in a shadowed corner and waved goodnight to her before draping his dusty lavender cape over him. Soon, he was snoring just as deeply as the women below -- Robin envied how easily sleep found him, and failed several times over long after she had blown her meagre candle out.

When sleep finally claimed her exhausted form, it was fitful and far from restful. The same dream plagued her thoughts like a monstrous running commentary: a pitifully thin songbird, trapped in a corner by an immense serpent. The ending was always the same too, as the wretched creature could not fly away and was always snatched up into the beast’s gullet, down, down, down.       

 

 

                                                                                grima fell brand mark

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Validar’s study was part of an area so deep below the earth that only a few of the higher echelons knew of its existence -- much less how to find it. It had been willed to him along with his position as archpriest of his flock. Unlike his rather austere predecessors, he chose to fill it with objects that reflected his learned disposition: an extensive library filled with tomes so rare and ancient that half of them were threatening to crumble into dust at any moment; a well appointed laboratory filled with weird and complicated glassware; and an enormous collection of items ranging from weaponry to jewellery gathered from all corners of Plegia throughout his life.

When she was alive, his wife had jokingly dubbed him a magpie due to his almost obsessive need to collect and categorise. As her love for him faded and morphed into hate, her affectionate teasing became razor sharp jabs, and she began to refer to him as a thieving, hoarding snake.

What she meant was about his tendency to collect personalised trophies from enemies he had vanquished. Often, they would be as typical as a battered war-helm, showing a sizeable split where his sword had cleaved through the metal. Less common were the more obscure objects, like dented wedding rings, cracked childrens’ bowls, and a set of divining stones spattered with a curious black substance.

His favourites by far, however, were bones. He possessed everything from knuckle bones to ribcages, and those prizes had been won from those he had loathed the most. Consequently, they were afforded places of importance in his study, especially where guests could see them from the door’s threshold. A particularly prominent example of this macabre practice was the full skeleton sitting behind his handsomely carved desk. It was used as a placeholder for Validar’s preferred weapons, barring the use of tomes. Knives were stuck in precise intervals along its arms, and its hips supported a pair of khepesh while two large spiked maces were grasped firmly in its hands. The literal crowning piece was the shockstick bequeathed to him since the beginning of the Grimleal’s history, rammed firmly into the skull and down its hollowed out spine.

Should he feel the need to assuage any episodes of anger, Validar would come to this cold, dark place to admire his trophies, and his mood would be restored. Nothing of the sort could have helped for this occasion, however.

As he brooded over the small mountain of books he had scattered around the floor, he thought back to the utter disappointment (was that word even adequate enough to describe the depth of his feelings?) of the past week.

The moon had set on the 19th anniversary of the vessel’s birth -- as was promised, as was calculated . The event had been celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance befitting their Lord’s vessel as all renditions of their tribute should be. And for all his years of planning, what was the end result?

Nothing. No sign of their draconic overlord threatening to burst from His vessel as a butterfly would from its chrysalis. No sign whatsoever of the great being shedding its mortal shell to deliver them from this wretched, wretched world. Centuries of studying scripture, of breeding failed vessels, of guarding the Dragon’s Table for His feast once He returned...was it all for naught?

Validar refused to believe so. He had locked himself in his study and, once his fury had subsided, had collected himself in order to begin searching through his library for an answer.

The vessel had been submitted to many examinations under the auspices of several physicians during the course of her young life. Since birth, she had been poked and prodded with more instruments than he could count to see if she had perhaps sprouted wings, if her nails had sharpened into claws, or if she had begun exhibiting a preference for bloody meat and human flesh. With each passing year of her body growing into that of any normal girl, his disappointment and ire grew.

Be patient, Noam and his assistants had said. Her breasts have not yet budded. She is still a child and has not bled yet. There is still time.

Her first menstruation coincided with her former maid, Gulnaz, attacking her out of jealousy and spite. Soon after, she was nearly kidnapped to the Walled City by Gangrel’s agents, who had somehow been able to sneak into the skull undetected until it was nearly too late. Both events had precipitated investigations, trials, and beheadings. The vessel was sent away for her safety almost immediately. Both events had delayed further examinations of her body, and her absence worsened Validar’s apprehensions of her growth and Grima’s rebirth.

Now that she had returned, he had been assured of his Lord’s Awakening as it was predicted by their holy scripture; the number nineteen was auspicious, and consequently the 19th year was when the typical Plegian youth came of age and could thus start a family, own a house and till their own soil. For Grimleal, the number represented the number of great deeds Lord Grima had committed in the mortal plane, just one short of the even holier 20th -- his purging of the earth -- before being sealed by the first Exalt, Naga’s first Branded and the loathsome progenitor of her line.

The vessel still moved and looked infuriatingly human. Validar had spent days working through his books to see if something could explain the Awakening’s delay -- he had already exhausted all scriptural sources, eventually moving to his texts on magic, and then the occult. By the time he had finished poring through the latest moth-eaten bestiary, he had taken to brooding and pacing once more, as seemingly nothing could explain his predicament.

She had been born with the strongest Heart of Grima ever: the Mark on her hand attested to it. He had passed on the Dragonskin and Anathema skills to her, and Mustafa confirmed their lethal usage in combat, albeit being rarely activated. Better still was the degree of clairvoyance she exhibited, as it allowed her to See multiple paths on the battlefield and when in danger; it was was saved her from Gangrel and what allowed her and her companions to cross into Ferox to escape the horde.

Was that not enough?

Validar stopped pacing and sat in the desk’s armchair. It did not escape unscathed from his wrath and his nails tapped impatiently on the gouges he had made in its upholstery. He was mindlessly leafing through random publications now, half lost in thought and half with the hopes it would point him in the right direction. He was currently in the chemistry section (after tearing through biology, medicine and philosophy) reading a dull treatise by the doctor Amenemhat-Har on the proper care of beakers and tubes:

To thofe who wish to hus Peripatetick Elements one mufte prepare thine glafswork with the utmoft Care and Skil required of any man who dubs himselfe a Master of Physick and Chymist, for even the mofte ftudious mufte always be certaine that his beak’rs and tubes are thufly maintained as wouftd his corse. As the glafs is juftly like the flesh in yond ‘t wilt at each Moment beest did tend to and revis'd f'r leakage and breaks. To summarise: bethink of the childing dameth, wouldst thee not beest conc'rn'd f'r the babe within fhouldst his brood beest p'rous and vuln'rable to the outside Elements? The Chymist w’rth salt fhouldst treateth his cautel as wouldst precious Progeny -- thusly, the Chymist Vessels fhouldst beest bethought of as the moth'r yond carries those children, taketh fuch Cares ov’r as of equal Wonder and Grand Creation. This is Efsential to those of Magickal Inclination as only the moft wondrous and strongest of Vessels art able to enwheel the moft wondrous and strongest of spells and potions.

As careth of yon children goeth, fuch require meticulous Cleanliness and Attention. Soak in a bath of muriate, or as as the Fr’oxi knoweth of ‘t as acidum salis, Mischievous spirits of salt --

Validar shut the scroll with a loud snap after having gone through the passage at least three times. A pregnant pause overcame the dusty, stale air of his study and he let the motes settle over him.

 

                                                                                                fellbrand

 

As with his study, Validar progressed to his meditation chambers and spent many days in seclusion as well. While he had conserved his looks over the years, his predilections for darkened spaces turned his once warm brown skin ashen and gray.

His chambers were built directly over what would be identified many centuries later as a gas vent, whose hypnotic vapours gave him glimpses of the future, and a link, if an uncertain and unstable one at that, to attempt to commune with Grima. As he breathed in the fumes, visions of fruit peeled open and melting into juice, of eggs being cracked and their yellow yolk hardening into gold coins swam around the edge of his vision. To his utter delight and confusion, a dragon’s grinning face joined them, flickering in and out of existence, but if it was his Lord’s true visage, he could not tell. It certainly did not match any of the descriptions he had seen depicted in tapestries and idols.

Validar thought back to the revelation he had experienced in his study. Despite his initial elation of having found a solution to his search, he was, truth be told, conflicted. It was a shameful admission to even make. Even so, he could not help but think of the ramifications of such a conclusion...and of his own experience as a parent.

Had he had more than a shred of self-awareness, Validar would have admitted that he was an inattentive father at best. His own father had been what most would call exemplary, and devoted much time to teaching his only son of the duties that would be his once he came of age.

But they were both failed vessels, Validar reasoned, and thus undeserving of the respect and reverence that came with that status. They were to grow and live as any mortal would -- in Grima’s service, yes, but mortal all the same. Such was not the case with his daughter, whose Heart of Grima was proven by the Fell Mark on her right hand. It would have been unspeakably insulting, profane even, to think himself as her superior even though she was technically the product of his seed. She was raised as befitting her position as their herald, as their god, and it was Validar’s duty to distance himself accordingly and act as her faithful servant.

Validar remembered how her tutors and nursemaids would report her asking after him, if he was available to attend her lessons in arithmetic and reading (he never was). Once, a sparrow had somehow flown into her quarters. Gulnaz had insisted on killing it, fearful that an outside animal would contaminate their vessel with disease. The child had scarcely been able to reach his knees when she sought him out, crying and whimpering over the ragged thing, and begged him to save it for her. He remembered her dripping nose and her attempts to climb into his lap while at council; in the end, he had removed her firmly, but not unkindly, from the premises and explained that he was not to touch her in such a manner. The girl was handed off to her nurses and the bird was dealt with.

Had he been wrong all those years? Validar wondered as his thoughts danced and writhed within his trance. Had so much time been wasted on an erroneous conclusion? Would she even comprehend the magnitude of her task now, of what would be asked of her? Was their Lord’s return a dead promise once more?

No , voices replied, male and female, and young and old, and sly and soft all at once. Just a different opportunity. The voices stroked his ears with their misty whispers. Another path to the same destination. Everything was foretold as everything should unfold.

The voices prompted him to move out of his meditation chambers and into seclusion once more in the temple. He had nothing to eat or drink except water and gruel, and he spent unmoving hours seated before Grima’s death-mask. The clay effigy’s stare was blank -- yet the voices grew louder and stronger the longer he gazed upon it.

It cannot be, Validar argued with them. He had studied sufficiently, had prayed, taught, schemed, and calculated all in his Lord’s name. How could such a thing even be possible, when all the evidence he needed was to be found on his daughter’s hand?

Ah, a deeper voice scraped his hearing, yet you recite from a book crumbling under the weight of its own age. Outdated. Perhaps even a touch irrelevant...

The very foundations of our faith! Any deviation is blasphemous and should be treated as such. Validar’s shock and anger were palpable through his hazy mental link.

And? You make it sound as though change is unnatural. Does the sun not fall from her lofty perch night after night? Does the worm not emerge a butterfly after spring’s end? Change is what transformed you measly creatures from the nasty, base insects you were at the world’s birth to proud, upright beings.

As though the Presence sensed his discomfort, he felt it grin and twist around in his brain almost amusedly. He fell silent and listened.

Such consternation would almost be enough to entertain us. Poor thing! You are much too old to have a crisis of faith. You should put that brain of yours to use and think of the multitudinous opportunities this offers you.

How so? he asked. This is not what our scripture has ordained.

And? Your inability to comprehend the simplest things never fails to irritate. If you are so concerned over your precious scripture, then recall this: there are several paths that lead to the same destination. Such is the nature of the world! A hare will either escape the hunter’s snare or live to ripe old age, but he will still die. Your world was birthed through the placement of cycles and structures that dictate the passage of time and the movement of life. Death and creation are irrefutable constants. Everything you know of your existence follows that very rule, be it meat , blood or a figment of your thoughts. And you, in your silly human ignorance, panic at the very notion of losing that knowledge when it is impossible to do so in the first place. Think, fool!

Exactly how are such assertions able to support centuries of the faith? How can they explain the deliverance of our fated herald after generations of failures? Validar questioned. We are no fools to sully our pages and our lips with errors, and yet everything we have waited for has yet to arrive, it seems!

Validar felt a shift in pressure throughout his body. An air of ponderance filled them before being sucked in deeply in preparation for another reply.

Thou art truly mortal enough to be so put-upon by the mere thought of imperfection. How quaint, it sneered, adopting the gravelly persona of his father’s voice before dissolving into laughter. Sorry to disappoint! You have said it yourself: you inhabit filth, overrun by filth, which spawns more filth. And yet it is you who agonises over such a trifle while Naga’s dirty spawn bask blissfully in their ignorance beneath her sun. Mistakes happen. Imperfections happen. And just seems as though your own interpretations and whatever readings and studies you may have completed have brought you to an incorrect assumption. Centuries of incorrect assumptions, in fact, which has translated into scripture that gives you incorrect affirmations in return.

Validar swayed unsteadily on his thin cushion as he began to process the information sluggishly. Comprehension dawned upon him slowly, but surely. So you say all those years have been a mistake, he almost seethed.

No, it sing-songed through a razor-sharp hiss. She possesses the Heart of Grima your ancestors have so yearned for...it more than exceeds expectations. It is your own comprehension skills that are in need of an amendment, as well as your books and your hymns. Fear not. Cull them from your mind, and all shall be well. Eliminate the imperfections from your knowledge and allow the strongest facts to progress. But enough about you...if we are to discuss the role that her fate plays in the Awakening and the Feast, then we must also review your relation with her as her progenitor and the way she must pass on Grima’s legacy, just as her own mother did. As we said -- there are but many paths that lead to one sole destiny. No matter whatever you and your predecessors may have thought, it holds the same for her fate.

When Validar came to some hours later, the black had finally receded from the whites of his eyes.

 

 

                                                                                                  grimabrand

 

He left his seclusion shortly after and emerged from his quarters fresh, clean, and renewed; it brought to mind the parable of how desert snakes shed their skin. The comparison strengthened his resolve.

Validar found Robin training in the arena with the usual small audience allowed in her presence. Mustafa and his generals watched from the terraced seating, as did his council and a few priests charged with the tutelage of the acolytes. Tharja and some of his spellmasters sat at the very forefront of the proceedings.

Robin’s sparring partner was Jamil, the youngest of his council, and the weakest in terms of magical strength. The assassin favoured speed and throwing knives, which Robin knocked aside with her kepesh, a fast blur as she moved in a wide circle around him to gauge an opening for a return strike. She found it soon after, catching one of his knives and throwing it back to him, her sickle-sword following. Jamil dodged his returning weapon, but, upon seeing the heavy blade aimed at his head, dropped to the sandy floor to avoid it. She was immediately over him, pointing one of his thrown daggers to his throat.

“I yield,” Jamil chuckled lowly. He raised his lanky body upright with a push of his hips and back, landing neatly on his toes and offering a deep bow to the victor. A smattering of polite applause echoed in the arena.  

Despite his protracted absence from his flock, Validar joined in, his bejewelled fingers clapping almost delicately against each other. A swell of pride buoyed him to see that not only had Mustafa trained her well in the art of combat, but her own natural strength was clearly superior to what some of the strongest men of the Grimleal could offer. One could tell with a single glance that the lines and cuts along her physique had been honed through years of training. Her body moved in perfect sync with her intended actions, the very picture of discipline and power, and of the health and shapely looks inherited from her forebears.

Grima had truly blessed her.

Robin bowed her head slightly to Validar after returning Jamil’s knife and performing the usual after-training ablutions. He attended briefly to his councilmen and generals before dismissing them with a lazy flick of the wrist. Tharja attempted to hang about, hoping for another glimpse of Robin before Validar’s penetrating stare sent her on her way with a last, lingering glance at her mistress.

Now completely alone, he turned to her.

 

                                                                                                  fellbrand

 

Robin knew immediately that something was wrong -- or at least very, very different, and not entirely favourable -- when Validar did not bow to her. Courteous, yes, but certainly not as obsequious as before. Instead, he beckoned to her, as they apparently had an important matter to discuss...in his study. Her stomach twisted into knots as they descended into the lower levels of the sanctum. When they arrived in his study, her nerves were ready to snap apart from the sheer anxiety of it all. Perhaps the cold beer or wine that was usually offered to her whenever she was attended to might have helped, and yet there was no such offer as Validar sat behind his desk. He observed her fixedly, all steepled fingers and satisfied, reticent smiles.

“I have to inquire as to the purpose of this meeting,” she stated cautiously. Robin noticed that there was also no rush to procure her seating either.

If anything, the corners of his lips pulled up higher, and a drop of fear ignited through her veins with the memory of a nightmare. “A matter that requires your utmost attention. It is crucial that you take it to heart...for it concerns the very future of Grima. After years of waiting, it seems as though the answer has finally surfaced at the perfect time.”

“Answer to what? What issue do you speak of?”

Silence stretched tensely between them. Validar, still with a pleased expression that worsened her suspicions, and she, keeping her own schooled into neutrality. When he spoke again, he had pulled out a slip of paper and a finely shaped stylus before writing. It would have been in bad form to lean over to peek, so she stood still.

“Recall the text penned by the sages and sorcerers of the Dragon’s Table...could you enlighten me as to the signs they proclaimed would announce Grima’s return?”

“A mighty rush of wind as had not been felt since the time of the dragons’ sealing; a sky as dark as winter seafoam; the crack and howl of thunder and lightning to rival the emergence of the volcano of Origin Peak.” She allowed a small, annoyed frown to be seen, perplexed by the question. “It seems a tad strange to be summoned all the way down here if we are to discuss old school lessons. Are you perhaps worried that my absence requires a refresher?”

“Nothing of the sort...it is good to see that Noam has obviously been up to snuff.” She did not miss the tiny trace of annoyance that had leaked into his inflection. “However, the eldest sage, Manetho, had written a more... scientific account in his later years. It is of great personal regret that you have not read it yet. He describes several stages of what is the life cycle of draconic beings, and his work has been rigorously backed by the dissection of several specimens of wyverns and manakete. It is of utmost importance that you respond correctly to the prompts...understood?”

Paranoia had settled in fully by this point, but Robin’s feet were planted firmly on the floor. “...Yes.”

“Good.” Validar did not blink for the entirety of the bizarre questionnaire, and Robin thought back to her recurring dream. “Have you noticed any change in appetite? Perchance a newfound affinity for flesh? Blood and sinew, mayhaps?”

She had grown to love game meat during her time with Mustafa, and the memory of cooking boar at night around the campfire hurt. “No.”

“Elongation of the nails and canines? Strange aches and pains in the gums and fingers?”

“No.”

“Hardening of the skin? Scaliness and dryness around the elbows and knees?”

“No.”

“Fluctuation in power? Newfound abilities that seem to have developed overnight?...What have your dreams been telling you of late?”

“...Nothing of importance.” She scowled. “What exactly is the matter that concerns you so? If you have dragged me here to discuss trivialities, then I would do better to take leave to where I am actually needed,” Robin’s voice came out with a snap harder than she had intended, and she silently pleaded that it would not anger him.

Validar regarded her curiously. For the first time in his life, he wondered: how seriously did she take her role as Grima’s vessel? How conscious was she of the magnitude of her duties? ...Or was she perhaps wearing a cleverly painted façade? Had she known, all along, the true extent of her divinity? His kohl rimmed lids narrowed the tiniest bit. He stood with a loud tinkle of gold and onyx, beckoning her again as he lead the way to the temple with an eerily sprightly spring to his step.

When they reached Grima’s Altar, he dismissed the attendees, who scattered like insects revealed under lamplight. The hollow echoes of their voices within the hard-packed sandstone walls underscored how isolated they were, and if the intent of his interrogation was not made obvious yet to Robin, then the sucking emptiness of the temple, with its stale air and menacingly tight corners, did. He gestured her to sit upon one of the black silk cushions directly below Grima’s Mask, and he too lowered himself down with an air of expectancy.

“Your negative responses seem to confirm what was once but an inkling before...truth be told, I had difficulty in accepting it myself. And yet, to hear it from your own lips...is rather a relief.” Validar’s carefully measured words sent a chilling frizz down her back.

“And yet you continue to allude to it with caginess and insinuations. My visions only see so far -- do not mock me so and be forthright with your intentions.” Bringing herself to a commanding stature usually yielded positive results. This time, however...Robin noticed that Validar was unable to mask the annoyance that leaked onto his slightly lined faced. To see him not immediately defer to her, to know that he was not being his usual pandering self...it was their reunion at the entrance all over again, and Robin braced herself for the worst in the face of such damning facts.

He stood. She noticed how he towered over her, with his black satin and golden regalia adding to his sharp height. How unbalanced was the power between them, exactly?

“You have reached your 19th year, and the moon has set on the night of the promised date,” he lit a few candles and a censer, bathing the area in a thick, soporific scent as he began to pace evenly. “By all accounts, a feast should have been set at the Dragon’s Table to welcome Grima’s emergence into this world; leaving behind His mortal husk to reign supreme once more.” His long, gold-capped nails began clacking pointedly on the marble countertop holding the lights. “It has been foretold since a time immemorial. The stars and planets have aligned just so...and yet, no such sign of His has appeared. Initially, I was rather...preoccupied. How could this be, I wondered, despite our most learned men giving assurances to the contrary?”

Grima...might not be coming back then? Despite knowing the hope that she felt was false, Robin could not help but grasp at it.

“My...absence was a necessary evil. However much our flock needed me, our need for answers was far more urgent, you see. It was difficult, rest assured; though the path was arduous, there were facts that were made for me to learn in due time.”

“You are being much too cryptic again,” Robin pointed out.

Validar did not even try to hide his irritation this time. His frightful scowl made Robin quail in her boots and promise herself to keep her mouth shut.

“Very well then...since you are so eager to get to the point…” he murmured. “I have received a message. Whether it was from our Lord or a different source, I cannot say for certain. What I am sure of is that it has revealed to us the folly of our mortality...our tainted flesh makes us unfortunately prone to errors of logic.” He heaved a languorous sigh, contemplating his next words carefully. “And it is, apparently, a fact that you yourself are not immune to.”

“How so?” Robin asked, genuinely confused.

“It means that your soul is as unfortunately human as your body,” he pronounced gravely. “Grima may not be residing within your flesh as we have thought.”  

Shock stunned her into silence. Did that mean that she was...not Grima? Years of being kowtowed to, of being told that the world’s destruction lay in her hands...it was all wrong? Not only was His return not assured, but she was now... normal?    

Normal. What a strange word. How strange it felt to even consider it. Her life so far had been anything but normal...and yet, the notion of being no better than the lowliest apprentice...that her true origins lay in the mortal realm, and not with all the pressures and burdens that destructive divinity entailed...again, she knew her hope to be false. And again, she could not help but try and hold it close, to warm her heart and comfort her briefly.

“At least, not yet.”

There it was. That however that bookended every sentence of Validar’s. Robin willed her tense body to be calm as she leaned closer, feigning consideration. “What do you mean?”

Validar smirked cockily, again, jarring compared to his usual simpering. He sat down cross-legged on his own cushion, and when he spoke, Robin had the strong impression that his slower inflection was due to him believing she would not be able to comprehend him fully.

“Our elders and sages were in the wrong, yes...but not entirely. For you see, what they understood as a vessel’s role has turned out to be something more in the...literal sense. For Grima cannot simply occupy a mortal body and emerge from it like some common insect cocooned away from the world...no, our Lord needs to be born first. Born from His vessel like any other physical manifestation of this realm. The sages described what they believed to be the signs of a manakete’s coming-of-age...what they did not notice was that such occurrences are also common of expectant mothers...vessels of the human race. Why, the 19th year is when all Plegians become men and women...I myself married your own mother shortly after she came of age. When she was with child, she had quite the prodigious appetite for antelope and goat blood.”

To her utter embarrassment, Robin’s mouth flapped like a fish’s: silent and useless. The consternation and shock she felt robbed her of her all too short hope. What he was saying...what he was saying of her as a vessel. ..   

“You seem to be having trouble with such information,” he remarked as though amused. It was a terrifying thought.

“How can I not?” She clenched her fists in her lap."I've been told that I'm Grima's vessel my entire life, and now you expect me to believe that I'm...only a human? If anything, this seems more like the rationalising of a man who becomes desperate when he does not receive what he expects on time,” she stammered, trying to leverage what little authority she could muster over him. “I am your superior, and yet you expect me to bow to you in the blink of an eye.”

“I apologise. It is rather difficult to take in, considering how you have been brought up,” Validar said, not sounding apologetic at all. “But I do not speak the ramblings of a madman or a drunk. I speak the words that have appeared to me after days of meditation and study. I have prayed and fasted in search of answers...and they have appeared to me in a glorious vision.”

“You should have consulted with me to see if I could have mustered up a dream or two.”

“And yet you told me that they were ‘nothing of importance’ when I questioned you,” he scoffed patronisingly. “This has been foretold of you for centuries, and you have been more than complacent before with you duty...why balk now?”

“Because my duty never entailed me as a broodmare! ” Robin cried desperately.

SILENCE.”

Robin cowered in her seat as Validar rose to his full height again. He loomed over her, tension coiling every limb, and anger colouring his face with terrible force. For a moment, it looked as though he was poised to strike her. The moment passed quickly enough, and his face returned to its normal state.

“Again, I apologise for such uncouthness. But now, you are in no position to attempt to issue orders. I can only imagine the difficulty it must be to unlearn years of your education, but it is for the good of the flock and for Grima’s glory. As unfortunately mortal as you have been revealed to be, you are still Grima’s vessel...destined to produce Him as though you would any child for us, and fulfill your purpose as you have been fated to. You have Grima’s Heart, after all.”

His dark robes swished gracefully as he began to glide out of the temple, leaving her behind in all her torment and confusion. Validar stopped, suddenly, and turned to her. His face twisted minutely with an expression that could have been pity. “Do not fret. The path is not without its obstacles, but we have confidence in your ability to traverse it. And we will be sure to seek out a worthy enough husband for the task.”

Robin stayed alone for an amount of time she was unsure of. When she was able to snap out of her stupor, she ran out of the temple blindly until she reached her room, knowing that her servants were not present at the time, and tore out the chunk of wood out of her bedframe until her fingers closed around the folded letter.

 

                                                                                                    fellbrand

 

She had felt numb and humiliated for the entire duration of the ceremony, but the blankness of her visage was unable to broadcast any of that. She entered the temple with her maidens, dressed in the costliest robes of silk, jewels, gold and silver thread. The entirety of the skull’s occupants were gathered, but their collective stare felt inconsequential compared to Validar’s eyes, fiercely proud and smug, as she reached the dais.

Torchlight and hundreds of candles flickered unbearably hot on her skin as she was disrobed completely and anointed with a stream of precious oil. Robin mused that, perhaps, she should have been more grateful for her past, chained to a fate she never wanted, but fêted as a god and awarded luxuries and leeway. Now? Her life was more restricted than ever, with an arranged marriage looming over her and with her body being planned as an incubator for the resulting monster.

The depth of her depression allowed her to block the sensation of hands washing her with plain water, and clothing her naked body with rough burlap as Validar led the Grimleal in their hymns and psalms. Robin was stripped again, and wine was poured from a golden ewer over her head as another set of robes were prepared for her. They were grand and elaborate, in the style of the highest of Grimleal, though not as splendid as her vessel’s robes.

When she was seated by Validar’s side, it was as a human woman -- as the Grimleal’s new hierophant, but human all the same...and now answering directly to Validar. It was bitterly funny, considering Robin never really had much of a say in drafting decrees and orders in the first place. She was barely able to recite the words of her assigned passage in the book of Grima’s Truth, numbness stinging her lips as the unintelligible mass of darkly clothed adherents swayed to the cadence of her voice.

The next few months passed in a blur. Robin was downgraded to smaller quarters and her staff reduced. It was a small blessing at least, given the way most had taken to gossipping about her.

From what Mustafa and Henry had gathered, the cultists found themselves divided: the first camp, still as reverent of her as before, and the second, incensed at having to serve a person they deemed a liar and a cheat. She faked her identity as Grima for power, they whispered between gritted teeth. For attention. Our faith has been used against us by an imposter and a fraud.  

Don’t take it too personally, some of the more salacious busybodies would reply. With a father like that, and the rewards of her lifestyle, it’s no wonder a girl of her age would act out. And they would say this all while smiling to her face and groveling at her feet. Snide remarks, hidden behind long sleeves, personal items dropped accidentally with increasing frequency, a snub or two. These became commonplace.

Apparently, Mustafa had discovered, the majority of the councilmen pertained to the second grouping.

Robin was grateful for Mustafa and Henry. Their support had never wavered, and they made sure that their presence was always felt. In Henry’s case, the small consolation of her new position being that she was now charged with the overall supervision of the acolytes’ education, even if they were still not allowed much familiarity. And Tharja -- well, Tharja was as obsessive as always, but her continued loyalty was nothing if not reassuring, as twisted as it was.

In any case, Robin felt as though her body was on the receiving end of better treatment than she was. The old women who formed the bulk of the healers gave her increasingly complicated instructions, foodstuffs, and remedies: no very cold or hot baths, tea and honey to soothe any hint of anxiety, oral supplements and an assortment of strange roots and meats to keep her weight constant, her skin clear, and to thicken the lining of her womb. Nothing but the best for their god’s birth. To have to become a mother so suddenly after a barely-there childhood...

She thought back to her own mother, and of the letter she had stowed away in the new bedframe in her new room.  

 

                                                                                                    fellbrand

 

My darling , the neat script read, I cannot begin to say how I longed for the chance to hold you in my arms. As unlikely as it is, I can only hope that this has made it into your hands. I do not care what lies your father may have told you about me, or what you may believe about the Grimleal, as long as you are reading this.

A few words had been blurred and smudged by watery drops on the page.

As I write this to you, I am trapped with nothing but the clothes on my back and the paper for this letter. My allies are few and far between; I pray that you do not suffer my same fate, and that you have friends who care for you and who are willing to do what it takes to see you safe.

Pay close attention, for what I am about to write is of vital importance. It could be the key to finally getting you out of there. Perhaps your life is happy, and you want for nothing, and you may think my words to be falsehoods. Rest assured that they will turn on you soon enough. They are nothing better than a nest of vipers and scorpions who will bite you and bleed you dry.

Keep this safe and hidden away from prying eyes, my love. You will be freed soon; that I promise.

 

 

                                                                                                   brand

 

Validar found himself in his study once again. The golden sheaths capping his nails tapped irately on his desk. The depth of his annoyance was revealed by the mess strewn before him, insulting his desk’s previously immaculate state: fawning letters of recommendation, unimpressive pedigree charts, even personal pleas appealing directly to him, all vying for his daughter’s hand and all equally worthless in their standing.

In what manner did any of them find themselves even remotely worthy to try and stake a claim? The entitlement those buffoons displayed over his daughter would have been laughable had Validar not have been more inclined to be infuriated. The vast majority were insignificant fools, of low enough rank to convince him that they were simply deluded, and he made his dislike of them apparent. The only thing some had to offer her was a proximity in age. He recalled one middling dark mage who, blinded by his good looks and self confidence, strode forth arrogantly with the intent of declaring his suitor’s candidacy. That one had been pitifully easy to dispose of. Others were dismissed as insufficiently devout or weak.

To his complete disgust, the entirety of his council had placed their own bids as well. Validar had hand-picked them for the positions they occupied, and they were more than capable of fulfilling their duties to perfection, but keeping a seat and keeping a wife, however, were very different things.

Jamil, despite being the youngest, was greedy and overly attached to his material possessions. Algol was violent and possessed a temper he was unwilling to control. Nelson’s Valmese origin was an immediate disqualification, besides suffering from delusions of grandeur that included him overthrowing Validar (not that he would succeed...and it was laughable, really, how he thought Validar was unaware). Chalard was a simpering dunce and the weakest of them all, and Ardri was much too old and lecherous.

Validar knew that discontent ran freely through his flock. There were whispers of purposefully delaying the selection of a suitor and keeping his daughter away from them to prevent an ascension in ranks. Which was true...though not the real issue. Rather, the complete inadequacy of the men who offered themselves was. Did they not care how important such a task was? That the one destined to bring about their god’s birth needed to be a man who did more than exceed expectations?

He was loath to give access to his daughter’s body to men who would only sully it with their inferiority. Now that she was human, it was upon him, as her father, and as her legitimate legal guardian, to decide such things. Her own mother had been selected for Validar in the exact same process, as Shahin was the best and brightest of her generation. It was only natural that the product of their union resulted in perfection, despite her tainted mortal flesh. Validar could not permit the same rigorous standards to be ignored if Grima was to emerge.

And so he repeated his isolation in the temple. And he fasted, and prayed, and asked, Who possesses the wit and might to please a god? Who is brave? Who is sound of body and mind? Who is of a pleasing face? Who has a skill with magic such that it might as well be the blood running in his veins? Who is a root of a family tree that is free from blight and disease and mediocrity? Who is worthy of Grima?

Why, I do believe you already know the answer, the shadowy whisper teased slyly.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

No sooner had Validar’s bewilderment barely dissipated did his lips open to speak. “...I do not understand.”

I had forgotten how much of a simpleton you are . The voices briefly melded into a single Presence, united in their distaste. Shall I fetch some paper to spell it out for you?

“Forgive me. I am but a mortal fool. I have spoken out of turn,” Validar reassured hastily.

Grima’s clay mask seemed to blink red at him. It is only natural for a creature as puny as you. Especially with how desperate a state you seem to be in.  

“That is my unfortunate point. I am not lacking for want of a suitors’ list...but so far all of those who came forth are nothing short of a parade of washouts. Arrogant, spineless, dim-witted, reckless, weak...have I, as their archpriest, failed so terribly when it seems I have produced a flock whose male half is plagued by incompetence? Is it merely the reality of the shortcomings and ugliness of our race?”

All of them so far have proved to be dissolute, licentious churls, yes, they agreed. And that is why there is only one logical choice for the position.

“Who? I would gladly abase myself at his feet, for I am nearly at my wit’s end. Why would such a man hide himself from us, from a task entrusted to us by Grima Himself? Does he not harbour any love for his Lord and Master?”

You are very stupid, their collective irritation bounced around in his head and hurt his inflamed brain with their racket, to have to be explained to when it is YOU that I speak of.

Shock was not even close to half of what Validar felt. In his silence, the voices buzzed expectantly in his head, faint yet alert. Had the temple always been so cold and large? Since when had that stain dirtied the corner of his robes? He would scold his chamberlain for it later.

The news seems to displease you, the voices observed with great relish.

"How could it not?" Validar confessed with great alarm and distress. "What you ask of me goes beyond any capital sin."

What I ask of you is for Grima’s sake.

“Tis a man’s shame to humiliate himself in such a manner, and the basest of creatures shall scorn his flesh. The father’s inheritance shall be rendered unto his next or forswear his right as patriarch.” Validar recited the passage from memory, in the chapter of Grima’s Truth that discussed unforgivable crimes, sins, and the appropriate penance and punishments for each. He remembered, on his tour of Plegia with his own father when he was younger than his daughter, witnessing a man’s execution in a dusty village square for such a transgression. The desperate herdsman had lost his wife, two sons, and half his goats to tainted well water. In the throes of his grief and extreme poverty, he had attempted to wed his eldest daughter in the hopes of extracting a dowry from his mother-in-law’s family; instead, the terrified girl had fled to the headman’s home for refuge, and her father’s headless body had been burnt the next day.

What have I said of your books? Your overreliance on them blinds you to the greater issue.

“Grima’s Truth is a pillar of our faith and a cornerstone of our way of life -- it guides us and speaks to us the words of our Lord as recorded by the Table’s sages and sorcerers. You were correct about the vessel’s truth, undoubtedly so, but to require such an abominable action on my part would mean to commit blasphemy and heresy. I am the archpriest!”

A bloody fool is all you will ever amount to if this keeps up! the Presence roared. The ceiling shook and showered him in dust from the force of its anger. A sudden billow of incense-purple smoke clouded him, and curled menacingly around his wrists and neck, threatening him with the scent of a dragon’s breath. It smelled of burnt stone and rust and sulfur and fire, an ancient and terrible essence that cowed him into muteness. Satisfied that it would be challenged no further, the smoke seemed to stroke his skin in satisfaction, and Validar’s vision swam.

Think about it, their whispers were misty soft and sent shivers crawling down his back. You are the only man of your stature amongst your entire flock. A pedigree of your calibre -- stretching back to the very first days of the Grimleal -- is unmatched by any. Your knowledge of scripture...your skill in the arts of magicks and the sword...unparalleled. Such a pity that you are but a mere mortal, for your noblesse and devotion to Grima are not only the perfect vehicle for your Lord’s return, but are rare qualities to find within humanity’s putrescence.

Validar thought back to the incident with the bird. How the child had cried...she said she had picked a name for it already. Micaiah. “But...she is my daughter.”

All the more reason to do so, the voices had taken on an urgent, furtive strength, and they leaned in close and spoke in his ear as though they were confiding a critical secret to him. Can you imagine...your prized possession...in the hands of those who would sully her. You have seen it yourself: most have no love for her, at least, not like you do. They are craven, wicked beasts, and they will not treat her gently. No...they will paw at her incessantly...they will mount her like the filthy dogs they are until she is too battered and bruised to protest...the children she might bear from their sick blood will be too deficient and malformed to even qualify as Grima, much less human. Those little parasites will suck at her breasts until she is exhausted and spent, and the unworthy man she would be shackled to will tire of her and turn his evil roaming eye to whichever willing harlot would be desirous of the vessel’s husband. Is it not your duty as a father to protect what is yours?

I will not allow such a thing to pass. Red-hot anger coursed through Validar’s veins and clenched his hands shut over his robes. The Presence delighted in how persuasive it was, and its voices goaded him further.

To think that your entire council has nominated themselves for her. They derived a malicious pleasure from seeing how effectively they were able to get through to him. Their smoky vapours caressed his bearded chin and pulled him close, as though they were confidants. How disgusting! You should think of cleaning house. They will not permit her happiness and will only use her to depose you and take away your strength if any of them were to be selected. Men like them are the reason why the balance of power must not change within your lifetime. Suddenly, their pitch dropped; from ethereal to almost demonic. Do you remember how Nelson had his eye on your dearest Shahin? How little jealous Ardri sulked throughout your nuptials?

The Presence smiled and prodded and stoked his slow-burning ire. Validar burned at the memory of henna staining their hands. How sweet the taste of the wine they drank was, though not nearly as much as the winning smiles she had for him. How fake the well-wishing of his councilmen had sounded, how dare they, how dare they

Remember the days when Shahin was beautiful and yours, they breathed into his ear. Your daughter is still yours, and you can keep it that way...you will not have to give her up to anyone...you should not. You are the only one more than worthy of her...you alone deserve her. United as hierophant and archpriest, as husband and wife...Grima’s return to this world is more than assured.

Validar sat, listening and taking it all in through the smoky haze of incense wrapped around him. Yes, it spoke truthful words, it spoke words of logic and fact...and yet…

“What is required of us is not what should happen between a father and his daughter. It is unnatural,” he said quietly.

It is of no concern, they waved away his thoughts easily. Sacrifices and exceptions must be made for Grima’s good. She is of age. Your seed is potent...she was a product of it, she possesses the Heart of Grima...imagine what you could birth from it. Its is only natural to enjoy her beauty, so much like her mother...it is your right. And besides, it continued with perverse enjoyment, what better person to initiate a daughter into the realities of womanhood than a parent?

When Validar left the temple once more, he noticed, idly, that his beard had grown longer. He would need a trim and a new set of robes soon. The thought reminded him of the soft curve of Robin’s neck and bare shoulders when she had returned to him. Her dress had fitted her well.

 

                                                                                                 brand

 

Curiously enough, Robin was also to be found in the training arena when he found her again. She had been scheduled that day to help teach the apprentices in defense with magic. She was sparring with one of their teachers, and despite the significant age gap between them, she seemed to fare much better. The children oohed and ahhed with undisguised admiration as flickering sparks jumped off between the hands of the tomeless fighters; the elderly master had years of experience backing his wielding of magic, and yet the slight grimace and sweaty sheen on his bald head was enough to demonstrate Robin’s superior skill as she absorbed the bolts of lightning with ease. Her palms glowed slightly from where they had made contact with the electrical force, and they flashed with light as she brought them together to release a booming thunderclap.

The acolytes cheered as their teacher was brought to his knees, defeated. Robin helped him to his feet and they bowed to each other. The other master supervising the proceedings thanked the combatants, and directed the youngsters to do the same and pay the proper respects. “Glory be to Grima!” they shouted with their little childish voices as they filed out of the arena obediently in pairs.

Robin had known of Validar’s presence from the moment the hairs on her neck began to prickle hotly at her skin. She had a dream the night prior -- of the same snake and songbird, though the beast did not devour it; rather, it grew to a tremendous size, and wove itself into the shape of basket, blocking out the light and keeping the bird trapped. It bore ill tidings, and she wondered what message could he have to bring this time. But there was no smile upon his thin face, no eager spring in his step. Her sense of dread intensified.

“My liege,” she bowed stiffly at the waist. She still found the new word to be chafing and strange on her lips.

“At ease,” he said dismissively.

“What news?” she asked dully.

“It concerns your wedding.”

The silence was uncomfortably cramped and awkward. Robin wondered what sort of issue was so pressing that it required a private audience between them, even though he had not summoned her to his study.

“So far,” he began, the very words seeming to leave a sour taste on his tongue, “the suitor’s list has more than an adequate number of candidates. The inadequacy, however, lies within the men themselves. Weak, astoundingly entitled, lacking self control, hardly any with a family standing to boast of...perhaps the ease for which your mother was chosen for me has rendered me ignorant of the difficulties behind such a process. My heart was not strong enough to be selected...so naturally, the standards for your betrothal must be set to a higher bar.”

“What could this possibly mean?” She was grasping at straws by then, but it was better than nothing. Could it be that he meant to expand the search outside the Grimleal, that she might be taken from this place? That -- gods willing! -- the whole thing would be called off? How she yearned...

Validar thumbed the gold thread of his cuffs almost regretfully, a resigned and entirely uncharacteristic gesture of him. What could be troubling him so? Perhaps it could be to her gain. He sighed, raised his eyes as though pleading with the heavens themselves, and met her own. Something...hardened in them.

“It means...that I must take drastic measures if we are to ensure our Master’s revival. Believe me when I say I do this for the greater good.”

Don’t shake, Robin.

“I shall take this burden upon me... I shall assume the mantle of your husband.”

A strange pressure she could not quite place built up in her throat, her ears, her nose, her eyes. As though her mouth had been wired shut by shock, the statement had rendered her mute.

Had she heard correctly? She knew that this contract would never have been for love, she knew that it was merely another weight added to her chain, that it was part and parcel of her life trapped underneath the earth. But --this? To not only be married off against her will...but to her own father? What sort of terrible deed had she possibly committed in some astral plane or former life to accrue such a punishment?

Her only answer was the silence of the sand and the pillars caging her in.

She would not allow it...she could not allow it…

“I-I don’t understand,” Robin wobbled and faltered through her words. Oh, how pathetic she sounded with her little squeak of a voice. “Are you serious?”

“Had I not been, would I have sought you out?” Validar countered brusquely. A sigh had him bent over as though releasing a load of ballast, and he brought his long fingers to knead his forehead. “Forgive me. I understand how this must sound to your ears...but do not think I have not taken this decision lightly. It is one that has been made after careful consideration and deliberation --”

“Only on your part, I imagine. I can’t think the council would condone this -- I can’t imagine how any of this would even be supported when it goes against so much that I’ve been taught, that you preached to us --”

“Our current circumstances call for emergency measures. It is for Grima’s sake that this must be done...for I am the only one who is worthy of you and your title.”

“Are you now?” Robin knew she was pushing him with her outburst, and words still flew out anyways. She was too alarmed and afraid to stay quiet.

“I am,” Validar ground out. His fingers unfurled testily, flexing around the thick rings shielding them. “All of those who have volunteered themselves are completely beneath you, they are vain and selfish creatures who would want nothing more than to use you as a way to bargain against me and undermine Grima’s will. They have no outstanding skills or anything else to boast of, nothing that even hints of their use for our Lord.” He inhaled deeply. “...Are you calling my judgement into question?”  

“I am,” Robin said. “It seems too convenient for you -- you marry me and get to keep your station and all the power that comes with it -- passing judgement against a sin and then allowing it for yourself. That doesn’t seem devout at all, that seems selfish.”

“I will not tolerate insolence in my own abode, not as long as I hold power here. This is not a decision that was taken lightly, it was one that was took days of prayer and fasting...our great Lord sent me a sign...it is one that I accept with total faith in Him and His Plan. And you would do wise to act accordingly, as fate is not something you could ever hope to change.”

She clutched his clothes pleadingly and allowed herself the humiliation of kneeling before him. “Father  --”

Her cheek felt tender and stung from the slap. Surprise rendered her unable to act before she could bring her trembling hand up to touch her skin. Her ears buzzed. 

Validar sank to Robin’s level and cradled her face tenderly; she wondered, vaguely, why his rings didn’t cut her as she averted her eyes to his sumptuous clothing. It glittered marvelously as it gathered around his legs in a pool of crushed velvet and gold.

“Forgive me,” he spoke softly, thumbing her abused cheek lightly in such a manner that made his earlier violence feel all the stranger to recall. But he did not sound sorry at all. “I acted out of brashness...it was cruel of me to do so.” He pulled Robin up by her hands, and her body followed with all the compliance of a mare led by a rope; tame, quiet, obedient. “This is not of my own doing...Grima’s will demands it. I act only out of love for Him...it is only natural that your heartfelt faithfulness would compel you to defend our beliefs, and I commend you for it...but me must be able to discard what is unneeded and make sacrifices in His name. It is for the greater good.” Validar smoothed her hair back.

He sighed at Robin’s carefully blank face. He took her hands up again and stroked the backs with his jewelled thumbs. “I am no brute. And so I beg your forgiveness for such uncouthness. But you live under my say now...and you must learn to control yourself if you are ever to serve our flock attentively. You are as mortal as I am...and thus your fate, and your duty to Grima, cannot be altered from its given path.” Validar took his leave with his long hem whispering as it brushed against the sand of the arena floor. Robin could only stare after him and the receding line of his embroidered sleeves. “I shall inform the council of this. Dinner is at the usual hour.”

With him gone, the air felt even staler than usual -- the silence she breathed in was dusty and heavy. There was no pain now, at least, not with her face.

And so she stood, alone, bewildered, and mute, for an amount time she could not determine. It was too much to take in all at once, and just when she felt there could be a thread of reason to the events, it always slipped away, and left her confused and scared and paralysed.

Robin did not believe in reincarnation...even so, what other explanation could there be for this, if not punishment for a truly heinous crime?

“Robby.”

With a start, she was alerted to Henry’s presence as he shook her elbow insistently. She was unaware of how long he had been there --or how much he had witnessed-- but, judging from the fright on his face, it had been enough.

“He didn’t cut you, did he?” Henry’s bony fingers skimmed her cheek uncertainly. “I’ll kill him if he did.”

And risk losing him? No, Robin would never allow that. She had to suck in her shaky breaths and put on a brave face, at least for his sake. She could take care of herself better than him. She needed to keep him safe -- keep him protected and far, far away from Validar. She owed him that, at least, for bringing him here and compromising him in the first place.

“I’m fine.” Robin hugged him reassuringly.

“No you’re not. Robin, I saw --”

“What you see or didn’t see isn’t important now,” she stressed.

Robby,” Henry said again, more urgently. “Yes it is. What -- what are you gonna do now? You’re not safe here anymore.”

Was she ever, though? But she could not afford to dwell on regretful thoughts of her past, not with the situation at hand. She needed to be brave for the both of them. Dilly-dallying and talking of what...happened would only mean time lost. Lost for what, Robin was still unsure of. She needed to think of something, and quick , in spite of her brain feeling as though it was swimming through molten lead.

Robin took his hand and pulled them to the exit; her legs fought her every step of the way and trembled as though they were water. “W-we’re wasting time here,” she stuttered. “We need to find the letter again. Maybe it can help us.”

 

                                                                                                mark

It always delighted Validar to remind his councilmen that they answered to him, and not to base their hopes on some silly notion that they would somehow rise above their given rank as his successors. Their arrogance always needed to be dispelled with the reality that they were fated for one task -- and Grima had chosen him and his line alone to lead them.

The chamber traditionally allocated for their meetings was as dark as ever, lit only by the large fire that blazed furiously in the centre, and it cast long dancing shadows over the faces of the men. The inner circle all sat on lavish aging cushions while Validar reclined on a sturdier legless chair. There was satisfaction to be felt in their silence; the reassertion of his power over them, the indication that he was the final word, was a vindication of any lingering doubts he might have had over his announcement.

Their silence was mostly due to the shock, yes, though Validar could not help but feel that delicious twinge of satisfaction upon being able to catch some men sulking or even showing their displeasure openly. Jamil in particular looked personally offended, and Ardri looked as though he was sitting on a bed of horned lizards, and failing to conceal his revulsion.

“If I may, my liege,” Chalard ventured cautiously. “What you say could be interpreted as an endorsement of incest. Have the sages been informed of this?”

“At ease, Chalard,” Validar acknowledged with a tilt of his gilded head. “They know, and have given their full blessing...this is not a matter of personal want, but rather, for Grima’s sake. Naturally, I recognise the fears there could be behind this...rest assured, they will not come to pass.”

“And how can we be certain that this will not spur some of the lesser men of this flock to the dissolution of our values and a push to sinful actions? Some debase acolyte could cite your actions. We know that you are the most devoted to our well-being and Grima’s interests, but this is a dangerous precedent to set.” Nelson’s words were polite enough, but the fire in his eyes was unmistakable.

Validar narrowed his eyes and curled his lips in an indulgent smile. “That is why this is an exception, Nelson...this is not concerning whatever silly designs a failed priest might have over his children to satisfy his lust...no, this is Grima’s Will. Despite our respect for our traditions, sometimes change is needed if we are to survive and avoid stagnation.” He spread his arms out and threw his head back, almost euphoric. “For the vessel was born of my seed, and as His humble servant, I have been chosen as His Awakener.”

Ardri indicated his desire to speak. “That may be, my lord, though I must question the provenance of the visions you say told you of this revelation...n-not that they themselves are invalid,” he tried to explain hastily.

“The result of days of prayer, fasting, and meditation, as is expected of men of our calibre,” Validar replied with a smooth grin.

“Ah -- yes,” Ardri gulped at his mistake and began to grovel immediately. “Before any congratulations are in order, I must inquire as to the logistics of the wedding! Surely an occasion as momentous as this would mean summoning most of the congregation once more — the amount of mouths to feed is concerning.”

Validar was pleased at the show of deference. “Well...if we could do it for the vessel’s birth, I imagine it won’t be too difficult again.”

And so the meeting continued into a discussion of logistics and adulation, fretting over squeezing thousands of faithful members into the sanctum for the occasion, praising Validar for his consideration of Grima, inquiring after Robin’s reaction and the possible dress code for the event. Mindless drivel, really, but it occupied Validar all the same. It was rather gratifying — and a bit of a relief — that he did not have to twist any arms tonight to pass his measure.

They were halfway to adjourning after a lengthy debate on appropriate wedding gifts. There were musings of food, and they agreed that a few more topics were to be tabled before going on to sup. Beyond the stone doorway that cloistered them, however, hints of a loud scuffle were heard. Noam suddenly burst into the meeting chambers, waving his stick about and spitting with such a fury as though a desert cat had possessed the tiny old man, with generals Mustafa and Kazem trailing almost helplessly behind him.

“We tried to stop him — ” Kazem explained.

“Scoundrels! Knaves! Ill-bred levereters!” Noam threw off the hands that tried to hold him back and shuffled as best as a man of his age could to the fire.

“This is a private gathering — ” Chalard snarled.

“Do my ears deceive me? Are the evil murmurings that have passed through these walls words of truth? That this man, ” Noam jabbed his walking stick in Validar’s direction, “this villainous fiend means to take his daughter for himself? His own daughter!

Jamil flicked the case of the knife strapped to his hip open. Validar, serene of face, stopped him with a raised hand.

“How could you, you learned men, you warriors, who take pride in the supposed morals we are to keep, allow this? Is this not the height of hypocrisy?” Noam railed.

Chalard breathed in angrily. “This is of no consequence to a mere physician.”

“It is when it concerns my former charge. Do not insult my intelligence by playing along with this farce, Chalard. How is such a heinous act to be condoned?”

“It is to be done in Grima’s interests, it is of Grima’s will —”

“No! The only interests I see served are of a selfish man unwilling to part with his throne and who thinks himself above the law; a fraud who was unwilling to accept new books out of fear of heresy but who now crosses out the words when it suits him! The very gods themselves are being disgraced for the sake of one man.” The assembly bristled at those words, as Grima was regarded above all. “Have you no love for your own child? This will ruin her further than anything else...Shahin was right to raise arms against you if this is what the Grimleal have become --”

There was a great hue and cry as Validar’s finger shot forward, ropy and black like a terrible tree root, straight into Noam’s head, impaling him on the wall. A thick tarry substance began to pour out of his orifices as Validar looked on impassively. Before the old man succumbed to the wound, his trembling finger curled into an obscene gesture pointed to Validar’s face.

 

                                                                                             

                                                                                                brand

Mustafa could tell that Robin had heard the news by the time he stepped into her room, judging by her tear-streaked face. Her maids had been dismissed for the meeting, so it was safe to take Henry out of his pocket and set him on the settee. The bulging package was produced reverently from inside his clothing and placed onto Robin’s lap. He watched, with great regret, as she untied the strings holding it together slowly and shuffled the letters, maps, and notes she found by chronological order. Her mother’s second letter was a little bleached and torn, but still legible.

Constant vigilance, it said, is a must. Stall for as long as you can, let only the right people know of this. Be confident in your skills; crossing the desert is a task that only the sound of mind and body can hope to accomplish. Pack your supplies early, make sure that your are in want of nothing, and keep whatever you bring in a hidden space. The little alcoves in the third floor granary worked perfectly well for me.

When I was in my seventh month with you, Robert was very insistent on picking your name, did you know? He wanted to name you after either of your grandparents, but the custom is strange to us Plegians, so we had to arrive at a compromise. He even made a list, and was very convinced that you are to be born a girl! Said paper had been enclosed along with the letter, and the writing was of a man who had become recently literate. The uneven wording spelled out: Zabua, Dayyah, Brangwen, Gwawr, Iolair. Yonah had been circled several times.

 

                                                                                       brand

A couple of months passed. Robin was in her sitting room, reading her daily psalms as the maidservants dusted and rearranged her bed linens in the neighbouring chamber. Try as she might, it was difficult to ignore the gossip floating in.

“...absolutely disgusting,” one of her former nurses muttered.

“This is for Master Grima’s sake,” a younger voice insisted. “She’s the hierophant, she knows her duty. Why else would it be allowed?”

“Girl, you forget that some women happen to be natural-born hussies. For a man with lord Validar’s fortitude to be swayed into such a sin reflects very badly on her and speaks of wiles beyond our knowledge, duty or not. It seems her new duties keep them apart more than the spoilt little thing is used to and she believes this is the best way to seek out his attention.”

Speaking of the devil....Validar strode inside with only a courtesy knock to announce his arrival. The servants filed into the sitting room dutifully and, along with Robin, bowed in acknowledgement.

“At ease. I am here to discuss private issues...your presence is not needed now,” he dismissed them calmly.

When they were alone again, he directed them to her couch, rearranging his frock around them fastidiously. “Are you well?”

“Yes,” Robin replied dully.

He studied her suspiciously, seemingly wanting to pry further, but mercifully letting that possible thread of discussion drop. Instead, Validar took her hands in his delicately and began to stroke the backs. “It is of great personal regret that your involvement is not...more present in planning our nuptials...but it is important that you keep to your duties.”

“Thank you for your consideration.”

“...Of course. However...we have still not broached the subject of your dowry, or the gifts I am to offer you. My coffers are yours...you can pick whatever your heart desires.”

That would be very convenient, would it not? To give others more of an excuse to exchange insinuations and accusations behind her back (she could already hear the phrase “mineworker” being tossed about. It made little sense considering how many riches she had been showered with as Grima before, and she was not lacking in decorations even now); to give this horrid spectacle a veneer of respectability over its crude workings; to attempt to bribe her out of her misery with whatever pretty baubles and trinkets were fashionable aboveground, because that was what girls her age liked, did they not? It could be worse, a little voice growled snidely. Take the necklace and the earrings and be grateful that it might not be worse.

Robin lowered her eyes demurely, knowing such a display would please him. “I would rather keep things to simpler standards, my lord,” she enunciated carefully. “I would not want to drain the treasury for whatever silly request I might have in mind. Material rewards would only diminish the importance of the event and take away the focus on Grima.”

Wrong answer. His clay smile looked as though it was marginally close to cracking, and his hands tightened over hers subtly.

“I insist,” his cloying words froze her. “It would be rather callous of me to leave my bride destitute, would it not? And I’ll not break tradition, however benign your intentions are. It is simply how things are done, and it is our duty to uphold such values. Please…” Validar’s nail dug into her knuckle softly, “what would you like?”

Robin slumped forward, very close to abandoning whatever resolve she thought she could show against him. Validar was simply too much to handle all at once, and his very presence drained her.

At the very least, she could allow herself a final request.

“Mustafa tells me the moon is lovely and full tonight,” she murmured, remembering his people’s tales he shared under the night’s dark cloak so many years ago, of how the moon was a white boar who had been chased up into the sky by hunters, and whose periodical birthings yielded stars that were really shimmering drops of milk to nourish the gods above. “Please...if I could just step outside for a moment and see it —“

“Nay, it is much too dangerous,” Validar interrupted with a tone of finality. “The bastards from the Walled City have eyes and ears...do not think that I have forgotten the incident that pushed you away from our arms so long ago,” he made a motion as though to trace the long, tough scar that ran down her body, and Robin shivered at the thought.

Well...she tried, didn’t she? But no, she couldn’t just resign herself to accepting the scraps of her future life this early, she couldn’t give into his hands and the threat of the destiny he held over her just yet --

The idea was so sudden, so lightning fast, it almost knocked the wind out of her lungs. Robin was sure that what she was thinking was too outlandish, too hare-brained and desperate to possibly save her at this point.

But she had to make the leap.

“Then --” Robin started, then held back. Her plaintive sigh seemed sufficiently dramatic without overdoing it, if the change in his Validar’s eyes was any indication. To her amazement and unease, he moved closer.

“What is the matter?”

“You would think me frivolous for voicing such a thing. I’d rather not, it’s much too vain and trivial.”

“Nonsense. I am yours to serve...tell me what you wish for.”

“A sliver of moon so that I may gaze upon it forever.”

“It shall be done then...in what manner shall it be presented to you?”

“A dress,” was her immediate response. “One that glows like the moon and shares its wonderful looks. I could wear it for the ceremony. Wouldn’t that be such a splendid sight to behold?”

“But of course,” Validar agreed, satisfied that her despondent pall seemed to have lifted. Robin shook off the urge to recoil at his touch when he tucked a stray hair behind her ear and allowed his hand to linger. As he neared her door’s threshold, he turned for a final address. “Only the finest tailors shall be allowed to work on it...as you deserve only the finest of cloth to touch that beautiful skin of yours.”

When she was sure that he was finally gone, she wrapped herself in several blankets to ward off the chill.

 

                                                                                          brand 

Leave only when you are sure you will not be discovered easily. With all the drunken revelry there is to engage in around winter, I suggest it as a secondary option. Summer, despite the murderous heat, offers the safety of less people stationed above ground. Memorise the layout of your surroundings, learn the guards’ timetables and where the supplies are kept. Non-perishables should be the last things you pack.

My mother had the most beautiful amber eyes, love. I hope they are passed onto you. Robert says his mother’s are blue -- what a curious fact! I’ve never seen blue eyes before. His are a bright green, I was so fascinated when I was allowed a closer look. And he’s also very freckled, like your cousins Alona and Sirak.

 

                                                                                           brand

A year came and went. As was typical, problems with the Walled City and the neighbouring countries of Ylisse and Regna Ferox waxed and waned. The occasional flare-ups often necessitated her work, as Validar had grown to appreciate, perhaps even become a bit dependant, on her talent for strategics. Presently, scouting parties sent by Gangrel out to the desert and to the borders to flush out suspected Grimleal bases required drafting new emergency instructions, as they were better equipped and far more aggressive than previous forces. So while Aversa was dealing with the king behind the city walls, Robin was in the library creating diagrams of pincer manoeuvres and wedges. Apparently teamwork was lacking in their outside divisions.

She was so engrossed in her work that she failed to notice the people leaving quietly until it was too late. Validar’s strides were imbued with the utmost confidence and he sat down beside her gracefully.

“How goes it?” He was much too cheerful to be good.

“Slow, but sure.” She showed him the diagrams. “My biggest concern is the Kashykk base. I’m unaware of what kind of personal dynamic the soldiers there have, except to know that if they refuse to work together, their deaths are inevitable.”

“If only my council was half as competent as you.” He stroked her hair with genuine pleasure, and revulsion sucked in her guts in response. “You have been working so hard, dearest...I think you deserve a suitable reward for your services,” Validar said as he produced a thin white thornwood box from his cape. “You may open it.”

Robin willed her hands to keep themselves steady as she pulled the lid off slowly. To her utter dismay, the dress she pulled out and spread across her lap was not only perfect, it shattered whatever expectations she had, and hopes of stalling the wedding died a bit inside her: the fabric was a silvery, pearly white with short capped sleeves; the heart-shaped neckline and the empire waist cinched beneath it were trimmed with small fragments of opals and pearls; larger bolts of ivory grey cloth tucked beneath the bust formed slight panniers of sorts, and below this a semi-transparent outer skirt that hung over the inner one and were cut long to trail behind her. Not only was the finished product astoundingly beautiful, Validar had kept true to his word as it glowed just like the moon itself.

He smirked to himself as he presented the rest of the package to her: accessories of chased silver, pearls, opals, and soft white slippers. “Might I hear your thoughts?”

“It’s gorgeous,” Robin gulped. “How -- how was this even possible?”

“As I said...only the finest artisans were allowed to touch this...and, well, with the proper magic and motivation to rally them behind this project...it came through in the end.”

If his words were not ominous enough, then the fact that she had lost a lifeline was sufficient to remind her that the wedding was scheduled in two month’s time. To be able to fulfill what seemed an impossible request and recreate the moon almost literally on cloth...she and Henry still had to map out the kitchen floor-- but how to stall?

Perhaps she could try to play his arrogance off him again. It wasn’t as though he backed down from a challenge easily, and he did so love his displays of wealth. Could it be worth a try?

“I feel rather ashamed of myself,” Robin whispered modestly. “To think that I could own a thing like this...I have been humbled.” She forced herself to place the tips of her fingers over Validar’s hand.

“Now now,” was his preening response. “You are more than worthy of it...your grace and your labours have earned it. And besides…” he gestured magnanimously to the library, “I am not some spendthrift who empties his purse on mindless pursuits...as my bride, you are more than welcome to ask for more.”

“Truly?” Robin hoped she sounded convincingly breathless. Her routine had worked well for her before, and she feigned a bashful pensiveness. “Please -- might I not be allowed outside? One of my scouts tells me the sky is clear tonight. I miss the fresh air, he says it is so cold and pure outside that his very breath burns his lungs. He says he can see the entirety of the Celestial River from the entrance, and each star is simply dazzling.”

His laugh was low and made her skin crawl. “Of course I cannot allow that. Especially not with Gangrel sending more forces out now. But fear not...you wish to see the stars, you say? I can give you more than constellations...another dress, perhaps? You would look so lovely in it...I can just imagine the looks of envy that will be cast your way.”  Robin kept quiet and tried to plaster a tiny, grateful smile on her face. She ducked her head in deference as Validar rose. His fingers slithered through her loose hair before he left.








Chapter Text

 

 

 

An escape is always tricky; there will always be suspicions over your true motives, there will always be questions over your movements and your activities. With people as nosey as the Grimleal , take care to create plausible reasons for absences and “unexplained” actions. Faking illness is not advised in the cold darkness of their quarters. Instead, seclusion under the excuse of fasting and prayer — especially effective if you claim a trance — are the best methods.

 

                                                                                 fellbrand

Another year brought their map closer to completion, as Henry now spent many nights as a mouse or a bat crawling through the vast underground complex. They had finished gauging the larders, kitchens, library, arena, and workshops. They were missing places such as the temple and dining hall, which were hard to find unoccupied. Henry’s frequent shapeshifting brought him much too close to being stuck in animal form for Robin’s liking, so she took him off that duty in spite of his protests. Mustafa would have provided them with more, but he was constantly sent away to keep Grimleal bases from being discovered by Gangrel’s forces.

She was to deliver Mustafa’s reports to Validar in his study that day, a prospect that made her have to take a moment to collect herself before entering.

“I have the reports that you requested,” she said quietly after she was permitted to sit. “And the latest session of dream reading progressed smoothly.”

“Excellent work, as always. I will take a moment to review these later...but that is not the only reason I have summoned you, my dear.”

Robin bristled. It did not take him long to progress to those kinds of names, did it?

She snapped out of her brief thoughts as another box was slid delicately across the desk to her, this time made out of doom palm. Her heart sank down to her stomach when she saw that another task had been realised, and braced herself as she took the lid off.

It was worse than she had imagined. The very stars twinkled back at her from the handful of cloth she picked up hesitantly. What she recognised as a kalasiris had been painstakingly dyed a deep blue-black, and the entirety of the bust was covered by diamonds and crystals. The collar and shoulders were crowded with the precious stones too, and they were fastened to each other by thin chains of studded platinum with smaller filaments of gems. The long, transparent sleeves hung from the shoulders and had been slashed open to display her arms. The back had been left bare to show off ropes of crystals that hung down, matching the belt that tied the diaphanous outer layer over the inner sheath; the dress winked and glittered all on its own and not by some trick of light, and Robin swore she saw comets fly by on the cloth.

This one took a bit longer to assemble...and I’m afraid that our stock of diamonds has been slightly...diminished.” With a start, she realised that he had drawn his chair close to her — his peevish voice was uncomfortably close to her ear as he presented the earrings and circlet that came with the dress. Its ruffled tone suddenly smoothed out into a low purr that pricked at her skin and made it gooseflesh. “You would look so radiant in this...like the princess you deserve to be.” His hands were cold as they fastened a sheer, starry mantle around her shoulders.

When Validar finally stood back, it was to evaluate the entire picture. Robin’s smile must have been rather weak, as his scowl returned.

“I do hope you appreciate the effort that went into this...it was not simple to procure the necessary materials. And it seems I must replace quite a number of craftswomen after this…” his dark, brooding face lightened into another easy smile, but the change was enough to keep her nailed to her seat with her heart pounding fast. “Will I not receive thanks for my gift?”

“If the last one was beautiful, then this one is simply stunning,” Robin said, sugary sweet; the words tasted metallic in her mouth. “I am so honoured. Thank you,” she murmured with a slow bat of her lashes.

“To know that you value it so is reward enough,” Validar answered with his chest more puffed up than usual. He sat down beside her again, and, to her horror, slithered his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, as though in confidence. He was moving much too fast for her liking, but she could not afford to let it show. “I know that we have little time until the wedding...though I cannot help but wonder if you feel lacking in some respect. It seems that my council,” he practically hissed, “has been withholding their own contributions...under some excuse that they need more time to find appropriate gifts.”

Thank the heavens for such a miracle, she wanted to cry. Maybe, just maybe, it would work to put forth another impossible petition — one that would, gods willing, take a century to complete.

“I do not think I should worry much, not when I have your kindness,” Robin admonished gently. Sitting there like a stiff board would have ruined her performance, so, with great dread, she turned to him and forced her hand to rest on his chest. Goodness, if that arrogant sneer that crawled over his face was not enough to make her nauseous…”Let them be. I have more than enough. I should not allow myself to be vain and greedy when I have already been given so many fine presents.”

“Fine indeed...but they are simply not enough for my bride. Tell me, is there nothing else your heart desires…? Gems? Land? A horse? You were always so fond of them as a child...we have many studs and mares available.”

She heaved a long, drawn out sigh and turned her head away delicately, downcast with sadness. “...you will refuse if I ask again.”

“Because you know the risks, my sweet...I simply cannot allow it. The desert is crawling with roaches this time of year...and the borders with rats and lice. But you are so gracious in your virtue...perhaps I can make an exception...and it should not be too difficult to find a good replicate for the colour of the sky.”

“Oh, I did not mean the sky,” she said, a little too quickly, and forced herself back into something more coy, but not too much or it would seem like flattery. “The sun brings death and heat but...I cannot help but admire it so. Its radiance is unmatched, and it reveals everything under its light. I have not seen it for such a long time, and I miss its warmth.”

“Are the fires not enough here…? No, perhaps you are right...a mere torch is nothing compared to the sun. But the sun, my dear, is nothing compared to you…” Validar pronounced as he slid a nail down her arm.

 

                                                                                    fellbrand

When it was so late at night that even Tharja had fallen asleep, Robin and Henry huddled by the crates in the third floor larder with only a few balls of magicked fire to light the space.

“The hole in the dungeons —  is it wide enough now?”

“Nope! Someone found it and covered it up. And because they found it, they increased patrols down there, so sorry Robby. It’s a no-go now.”

She swore under her breath. “Then that only leaves us with the main entrance or the emergency tunnel behind Validar’s study.”

“Well then why don’t we go ahead and just pick the tunnel? Sounds great to me if it’s already dug out and everything, getting dirt out from under my nails was hard, ha ha. And didn’t ya say that he’s got all sorts of really dangerous stuff down there? We can just pick out whatever we want from there before we leave! Like a market trip.”

“I don’t —” Robin started, then stopped. Henry was right. She should not hinder what was their best chance at an escape just because she was afraid . Being afraid would mean she was nothing but a handicap.  

Even so, the very thought of returning to that place made her feel sick.

Three quick raps on the doorframe alerted them to Mustafa’s presence, and they shifted to make room for his hulking body. Another bulging package was placed on the crate between them, along with a pair of small silver knives and tiny vials of a purpled substance that bubbled sinisterly.

“Keep these on you at all times. They’re easy to hide in clothes, the backs of sandals, inside a cuff or what have you,” Mustafa instructed in his deep voice. “There’s enough poison for a few uses and it sticks cleanly to the blade without much of a stain to cause suspicion, so use sparingly.” He leaned back to check the entrance for possible eavesdroppers, but returned when satisfied there were none. “These maps of the outside are updated versions, so you can discard your old ones. Are you finished packing?”

“We can be now that Robin says we have a way to get some big stuff without people getting all hissy once they see the armoury’s missing some gear,” Henry replied cheerily.

“Good.” Mustafa drew two small and hideously leathery pouches from his belt and passed them on. “These bags are made from mokeskin. They can fit anything inside them and won’t weigh at all. Use them for the heavier items, but not food or potions — it’s very difficult to organise in there and things tend to get crushed or damaged on the journey. And yes, Henry, I know from experience.”

“Thank you.” Robin whispered and tucked one into her shirt.

“I cannot stay for long, so please, be cautious when trying to find me. That goes especially for you, Henry.” Mustafa sighed and gathered them up into a tight hug. “At this point, I can only pray that the gods are merciful and find it within themselves to grant you success.”


                                                                                    fellbrand

With the passage of another year, the furtive whispers of discontent became mutterings. Why should we surrender part of our treasury, they asked, for the frivolous whims of a silly girl? It has been years since the betrothal was announced. She should get on with her given duty, be grateful that she was chosen, not drain our coffers for trifles. But they kept quiet, because to displease Validar meant to be disciplined, and so they went about their daily lives despite their discontent.

It was after a long day of reviewing the apprentices’ capabilities on their divining test and of discussing border reports — an Ylissean garrison unit had come dangerously close to discovering them after a foolish guard wandered across the border, and he was swiftly punished — that Robin could finally let her hair down for the night. Tharja had removed her jewellery and brushed rose water into her skin before braiding her white locks. She was currently helping Robin into her nightdress just as they were alerted about a visitor.

“My lord, the hour is very late —” they heard the old nurse begin to protest from beyond the screen. She was cut off, there was some murmuring, and then, “Come, Tharja. We are not needed for the moment.” The sorceress scowled bitterly but did as she was told, sparing her mistress a questioning look before leaving.

Robin was very conscious of her state of undress and held her arms over her chest as she received Validar. “I mean no disrespect, but I must ask the reason for the late meeting, and in my bedchambers, no less. Please, I am tired...could we not schedule this for the morning?”

“I’m afraid not, “ Validar said, striding to her mattress and bidding her to sit with him, as though it were his. “This is a momentous occasion, my sweet...I simply could not bear keeping this to myself. It has finally been completed...and I wanted you to be the first to know and to witness it in all its glory.”

The final box was carved from blonde yew, a wood foreign to Plegia whose purchase was the equivalent of several year’s tilling wages. Robin could care less; the fine white grain was more reminiscent of touching a bleached corpse than anything else, and she did not even try to disguise the trembling of her fingers as the lid came off.

“Glorious” was a woefully inadequate word for the ensemble. The inner chainse was a soft cream; the outer robes were tied together by a girdle of molten fire that echoed the magnificent brocade that lined the hem, sleeves, and breast, dazzling bronze and gold that reminded Robin of the shapes that ink mixed with too much water made on paper. The outer sleeves hung over her wrists and were slashed to reveal fitted mamelukes inside. The entire affair was festooned with rubies, spinel, and carnelian, there were so many colours (blood, amber, rust, sand, copper, wheat) that it was dizzying. Most astonishingly of all, it emitted its own light and heat.

It must have cost more than ten lifetimes’ worth of fortunes to finance. There was no way that Robin could ever hope to surpass such a work, there was no way she could hope to ask for another after it — her mouth went drier than a desert drought at the realisation.

“Yes?” Validar prompted eagerly. He had been looming over her the entire time and had lost the patience that was present in the previous dresses.

“It’s beautiful,” Robin choked.

“... and?”

“I...I’m sorry. I have no words to describe this. Truthfully, it feels as though the very breath has been stolen from my throat.”

“No, ‘tis quite fine to hear...the looms have been groaning and crying for a year, and they have earned their rest...I regret those who have been laid low for it, but they have served their purpose well, and Grima shall reward them for the wondrous cloth that their fingers have spun. Grima is just, yes, but He is also most Glorious...it is only fitting that the one destined to be His Mother should surpass the sun’s radiance.”

Foul words, bitter words. Robin turned away from Validar as though in deep contemplation of the dress; the reality was her fighting back the wave of bile that surged against the roof of her mouth. To think that it was but a few years ago that he claimed to bring her such news with a heavy heart... and now, he was all too eager for the future he was picturing. She could not show weakness in front of him. Weakness was for victims, and she was no victim.

Right?

A sharp sensation in her consciousness barely alerted her. When Robin turned, it was to see Validar worming closer, and closer, and closer, with his eyes half-open and his mouth —

She turned away abruptly, conscious of the mistake and bracing herself for the worst of it. The tense silence that curdled between them was deceptively short.

“You would deny me, then?” he breathed dangerously soft. “You should learn to be more grateful for all that you have received...should you not?”

How to explain such a blunder? Had she not learnt anything in the few years she realised she needed to be an actress?

“Forgive me,” Robin said quietly, immediately apologetic, demure, and yielding, just as Validar liked it. “I...I know nothing of those things — I was frightened. I cannot excuse my ignorance, and I can only ask that you be patient with me. Please, can we not save this for later? I want to enjoy the wedding night.”

Please, please, please.

He seemed to be considering her very carefully, though the hardness was still present in his eyes. Then, the creases in his face smoothed out, and she stopped herself from breathing a sob of relief. “Yes...I have been rather hasty. Do not fret; there is nothing to fear from it...it is quite natural, and your own mother was more than aware of her responsibilities.” Validar’s frown was imperceptible enough to be missed by most. “Your lack of knowledge is concerning. Have you not been instructed in such things?”

“I was told such things are sinful for the unwed.”

“...Indeed they are.” Did he sound the least bit irritated by that admission? Robin did not want to spend any more time speculating on the meaning of whatever body language he exhibited rather than simply wishing for him to leave immediately. “Forgive me for my impatience, pet...but, you are right, clever girl. And besides...I trust there will be more than enough time afterwards to learn together.”

Oh gods.

“But I must go now, for the hour is late...and I can always return to you once our schedules are more permitting.”

“Yes milord.” Robin bowed her head deferentially.

Validar’s long fingers slithered up to her shoulder and then to her neck, pushing her into his chest and cradling the back of her head. She was so repulsed, she wanted to throw him off and run into the desert forever and never look back, but she reciprocated by tentatively holding onto his shoulder.

“However, when I ask something of you, it is in poor taste to refuse me. I am your lord. Remember that.”

How long ago was it that he had expressed such discomfort over what was transpiring, even referring to it as a “necessary evil?” And now, to be hinting that he expected more than just an embrace on their next meeting? The thought kept running over and over in her head as she emptied her stomach into a small chamberpot long after her maids had fallen asleep. The acidic stench of vomit was enough to to distract her, at least. She did not jump when she felt the bony hands pull her hair away from her face and begin to braid it neatly.

“What did he do this time?” Henry whispered.

“I don’t want to tell you,” Robin muttered, bitter and sad.

Thoughts of their plan, of finally running away and securing their freedom far from the suffocating darkness of the crypt they lived in, away from cruel eyes watching them from within the walls; away from the legacy of blood and pain they expected her to uphold and the future of death and destruction they wanted her to create, kept her sane. Henry was younger but had experienced as much hardship, and as such was a useful reference for learning how to pretend. From their time together, Robin could tell he hid as much hurt as she did, but the fact remained that even he found it difficult to reveal his true self to her. Still, they found solace in each other, bided their time, and learned: for really, wasn’t acting nothing but choosing what to hide and what to show?

But this twisted chess game of being on constant lookout, and being afraid of the right way to smile and the right way to make insinuations drained her. It was something that she could not fly away from even in her sleep.

Robin was dreaming of the bird and the snake again when the terrain melted abruptly into an even darker realm. A deep, sinister mist curled around her and breathed horrid things into her ears.

You’re a liar, the Voices said. You don’t really want to leave this place. It’s all you’ve ever known...what would such a weak little thing be able to do out in such a big world? You’re only human, and you only have two legs to try and cross it.

“I’m not a liar,” Robin gasped on the acrid mist. “I’ve been outside. The world has the sun, it has light and warmth and rivers and forests and so much more to see and do than this place. I could never wish this even on people I hate.”

Oh please, They snapped. You’re not that kind...you’re just a nasty, stinking bag of flesh, bones and blood like any other person, and you’ll die like any other person too. But then the Voices spun sweeter words, words laced with as much honey as venom, and the thick fog suddenly rose to tie itself tightly around her neck and limbs. But when you do die, it will be in service of anything mightier than the average mortal could ever hope to achieve. Not many could say they birthed a god, They purred.

“No — no, please, I don’t want to,” Robin whimpered. Mist was supposed to be incorporeal, and yet the thing that kept her frozen in place had as much strength as though she had been locked into iron stocks.

It is not a question of what you want, but what you are destined to do. Why do you insist on fighting against a purpose that is greater than your insignificant desires?

“I don’t want it — what we’re doing is wrong, there’s nothing about this world that deserves its death, there’s so much good to be saved. And Validar — Validar is my father, this is a union that should have never been legitimised in the first place.”

Sacrifices must be made for the greater good...you of all people should know this. Why struggle against a fate you have been destined for? What is there but futility when accusing the author after the ink has dried on the page?  The future is set...its course shall never change…

Robin began to struggle and writhe in terror as more ropes of mist squeezed up around her stomach, her calves, her arms; her mouth was wrenched open and she choked on the vapours — or were they Validar’s spidery fingers? She could not tell —  that forced their way in, reeking of blood, decay and vomit. Tears stung her eyes and nose, but her fighting was in vain. Her windpipe felt as though it was being crushed under the immense pressure.  

Destiny is and will forever be your master, one way or the other!

The dream changed, but it was no less horrifying: she was a child again, scared, in tears, trying to stifle hiccups and sobs as she watched unfamiliar feet tread before her from under the settee, but they had slender, angry dogs who sussed her out and pulled her from her hiding place. This must be it , their voices were quiet but still rough and hard, like the hold their hands had on her scalp when they pulled her up by her hair. This must be the one Gangrel told us to find — yes, don’t you see, it’s got that beastly Mark on its hand, the Fell Brand, it’s as clear as day. Kill it, kill it before they can try to fulfill that prophecy of theirs. Kill it so we can save the world from the Grimleal scum.

And then they were out of the sanctum, in a world so vast that her imagination had barely scratched its surface, but Robin was in no position to marvel at the first time she saw the desert, not when she was being jostled over the back of the horse they had thrown her over. Then there were the shouts — shit! I thought you said you took care of the guards and those servants! I did! There’s no way they could have known about this, we came out through that tunnel! So she was thrown to the sand and a dagger pressed to her neck as a pair of dark, crazed eyes stared squarely down at her own and said “No hard feelings, kid. Just following orders.”

The fire that erupted from her shoulder down to her hip was intense. Its burning seared her skin, there was nothing else on her mind except the sheer terror at being cut open and how to escape it. Robin’s attacker died instantly when an arrow plunged into his back. She scrambled away immediately, having no idea of where to go other than anywhere that was far from the skirmish. But a dog saw her, a dog saw her master killed and seized Robin’s wrist and sent them plummeting down the face of a dune, and when they reached the bottom it tore into her savagely. A Grimleal soldier had followed them and snatched the dog by the scruff of her neck and stabbed the animal repeatedly. Robin flinched at the dog’s screams and yelps and recoiled when its hot blood spattered her face, there was so much pain and violence and gore strewn about the sand that her mind blanked out.

“Mother! Mother, oh mother, please, help me! Mother, HELP ME!”

When she she woke, Robin was still thrashing around on the bed, and sweat was pouring down her skin and soaking her mattress. The maids had tried to hold her still, but there was only so much they could do, not when she had started screaming for her mother in her sleep. Robin could only gasp uselessly and stare at the ceiling with glazed eyes as the crushing weight of her nightmares refused to budge from her chest.

“Fetch milord at once!” the old nurse ordered.

Validar appeared in a swirl of dark robes and settled onto the bed gracefully. “Leave us,” he commanded. When they were alone except for Robin’s harsh breathing and the flickering of the torch that had been lit, Validar pulled her up into a seated position and rearranged the pillows to accommodate her. “What did you dream?”

She considered the situation, weak, bleary, on the edge of defeat. What was there to say? That she relived one of the worst moments of her life? That she had been told that she could not fight against a fate of her having to wed her own father, be bedded by him, and conceive and birth a monster? Really, what was there to say?

Was now the time to just...give up?

No, was the sudden thought. Never. You’re so close Robin, you’re so close! Strategy Robin, it’s what you’re good at. How can you turn this around in your favour? You’ve strung him along this far, what else have you got?

Henry’s fakest smile suddenly came to mind. She remembered the first time she was able to tell them apart, and how he confessed that “Every good performance is based on a kernel of truth.”

Yes, she did have something to go by.

“I dreamt of the men and the dogs again...oh, it was so horrible…” Robin squeezed out a few more tears while trying to compose herself. Validar kept his dark eyes trained on her face attentively.

“Your maids have told me that you called for your mother in your sleep. I was not aware that you had any memory of her.”

“Did I?” she sniffled and dropped her head back onto a cushion as though drained. “Oh, I wish I could remember more, but all I can think of is the sand and all that blood.”

Suspicion still coloured his face, but thankfully, Validar dropped that line of inquiry. “It has been years since that...incident. And Mustafa has done more than enough to harden your body and teach you the ways of the sword...to still harbour such fear after all this time, and all for what should have been a matter of inconsequence by now...I am concerned.”

“You do not understand,” Robin explained tiredly; he bristled at the implication of ignorance. “It was not just a dream...I — I fear it was premonition. To remember that of all things so close to the wedding, and when Gangrel keeps stirring up trouble for us...those are ill tidings.”

“Aversa is competent enough to keep that dog on his leash.”

“Aversa is trying to play a game of charades by pretending she has no ties whatsoever to us and cannot keep herself from being exposed if Gangrel wises up and wonders why she suddenly wants to stop his incursions. She has barely spent three years there, I am still impressed that she managed to seduce him into marrying her. Let her make her move once she is made queen.”  

That’s right... I’m the tactician here. I do have something to go on, even if it might only be grasping at straws.

Validar was tense. He stewed in unease while Robin reposed, her brain working in a thousand different directions. She had forced him to listen and be quiet. The unfortunate part was that to assuage his impending anger meant more ego stroking on her part.

“You are more than safe here, my pet.” She repressed a shudder when those long, terrible fingers of his enclosed her hands in a bony, cold cage. Those fingers were of a man who pored through blood-stained tomes and directed from a dais, not one who comforted at a bedside and who knew how to hold others. “Our men are among the strongest of the continent, and the skull is well guarded...Gangrel is but a gadfly who shall be squashed in due time. What is there to fear?”

“Everything.” Closing her eyes helped with avoiding his own, helped with her performance and helped to mask the pain. “You are still as human as he, you cannot stop the wheel of fate from taking its course down the path it decrees. And if it is Gangrel’s destiny to capture me successfully this time, what will you do?”

Robin felt more than a little sick to see how easily her words stung him. It hurt to have her fingers trapped within the vise his own made. “Such a thing shall never come to pass.”

“How do you know?” she pressed, willing herself to face Validar. “I have not yet had the time to read my dream fully, but what I saw was enough to frighten me. Gangrel’s had years to strengthen his soldiers, to stock his armoury and cook up new magicks with his mages; to bide his time and learn more of us and how to enter the sanctum before planning a final strike. If not soldiers, then sorcerers who can outwit our own. If not humans, then dogs who can scent me and drag me out like a rabbit from its hutch, or wyverns impervious to sword and spell...and if not beasts, then perhaps the Risen folk you have told me of.”

“They will never succeed, not while my body draws breath!” Validar growled.

“Then prove it to me,” Robin breathed. She placed her hand on his shoulder — he had taken the bait wonderfully and now was the time to reel in the catch. “Prove that my premonition shall not come to pass. Prove to me that you can protect me.”

No matter how hard she tried to convince herself, Validar’s proximity was always an unwelcome sensation. His pupils were blown wide and dark, his lips thinned out tightly. Was there something about her presenting vulnerability that attracted him? The thought was beyond unpleasant. Robin’s breath hitched when Validar pressed his face into the crook of her neck, trapping her in her bed as his impossibly long arm travelled up and under her side in a cold embrace.

“You are my greatest treasure,” Validar’s breath was moist against her ear. His long nails pricked her chin, needle-sharp. “I would never give you up to someone as loathsome as Gangrel. Let him come...let him come with his dogs and his men...and I will remind him why no one returned the last time.”

The depressingly familiar feeling of bile pushing up against Robin’s throat resurfaced when he pressed his lips to her cheek: much too hard, much too wet, much too close to her mouth for her liking. To her horror, she felt Validar thumb at the collar of her nightdress and then loosen a sleeve.

He (miraculously!) pulled away quickly. She sighed in relief, not wanting to think about how she looked, with her salt burned eyes and her shoulder bared to him. The soft sound was pleasing to Validar, and he reached out to drag a nail from her brow to her lower lip.

“What a little minx you are...to be speaking of such serious matters, and yet look so tempting with naught but a sigh.” His laugh was low and foreboding as he finally left her bedside. “Fear not. I am a man of my word, and I shall... attempt to keep my hands to myself until the wedding. I am sure it will be more than pleasurable to the both of us...and with you by my side, Grima shall rise to His full glory once more.”

Robin never slept again for the entirety of that night.


                                                                                       fellbrand

Another delay in Validar’s schedule (Robin did not know why) saw their maps finished, the guards’ rounds memorised down to who yawned at what hour, and the wedding looming close at the end of the following year’s summer. Robin, Mustafa, and Henry made a final bag check:

Changes of clothes, including sturdy pairs of boots and sandals, shirts, trousers, capes, gloves; leather armour reinforced by strips of linseed cloth and bronze plates; their maps of the skull, of the continent, of the stars they would need to follow; potions, salves and bandages hastily nicked from the sick ward lest their absence would arouse suspicion.

Other items such perishable foods, rarer weapons, and medicines would have to be secured on the day of their escape. Robin lovingly tucked in her mother’s parcels in her satchel. After a moment’s hesitation, the dresses and their accessories, still in their death-white boxes, were packed in too — they could be used to barter for food in a pinch — and the bulging packs were carefully hidden behind the flour bags in the third floor larder.

“Henry and I are not to be allowed by your side in the coming week,” Mustafa warned. “You are a capable woman, Robin, but I cannot help but fear.”

“I know. Frankly, I’m terrified,” Robin replied.

“Lucky you, to have me then! I’m not afraid of anything,” Henry laughed, and the others could not help but smile at the warmth his usual cheer brought. “You two can hold my hands whenever you feel scared. But if your hands get sweaty, wipe ‘em off first ‘cause that’s just gross.”

“Henry...you like to play with dead body parts and bones...and you think that sweaty hands are a problem?”  

“Robby, you know I always appreciate your honesty, but sweat’s either hot and gross or clammy and gross. There’s no inbetween, I tell you! And I don’t have to worry about a perfectly preserved specimen getting grossness all over my clothes.”

“Corpses leak blood and putrefaction,” she deadpanned.

“When you two are done,” Mustafa harrumphed, “leave separately. Make sure that the halls are empty before you proceed.”

“...Right.” With their bubble of lightheartedness having been popped, Robin was the first to exit the larder, leaving her friends and their brief moment of respite behind as she returned to her quarters and feeling of heightened dread.

After another night of half sleep, she rose early for her morning ablutions and her first temple visit of the day. Usually, she was the first to arrive, as her absence would have raised questions, and those precious moments of true solitude were soothing. To her dismay, Validar was waiting.

Robin acknowledged him briefly before lighting her offering of frankincense and kneeling before Grima’s mask as though in prayer. Not once did he say a thing throughout. Just when she thought her heart would burst, a dark, gloomy bale of mist materialised in his outstretched arms.

“Open it,” Validar commanded.

The pitch black ribbon holding it together fell apart as soon as she touched it. As though some deranged chemist’s idea of a liquid, the vapours flowed down and solidified into something syrupy thick and slow, morphing into a sombre robe once the hem touched the floor.

The hairs on the back of Robin’s neck bristled in alarm. There was some serious dark magic at work in the garment. Shadows had been knitted together to make it, shadows...and other components she was not sure she wanted to learn about.

To appear interested, she took it from Validar’s hands and studied it further. The robe was a handsome deep purple, almost black: in fact, several shades of the colour were present, from the medium lilac stripes running up the lapels, to the rich wine of the interior and the inner hood. Silky thick grape threading binded the sleeves to the body. A great deal of gold was used for it, with an almost absurd amount being for its cuffs; appliquéd in triangular designs along the hem; making up the buttons and braided aiguillettes used to close it; lining the hem, the sleeves, the hood, the lapels in a continuous shining cord.

Grima’s six eyes looked menacingly at her from where three had been woven into each sleeve in the same lilac as the lapels. Horror iced her bones when, for a split second, they seemed to blink teasingly at her.

“What are you thoughts?”

Broken out of her reverie, Robin schooled her face into something more acceptable. “I am sorry...what was that?”

“I said...what are you thoughts? On the robe?” Validar gestured magnanimously, but there was a current of menace in the line of his arms that he did not hide.

“Magnificent,” she said without skipping a beat. “I must ask — is this another gift? I enjoy your presents, and I know the wedding is soon, but I cannot help but feel a bit spoilt with all this attention.”

“You deserve this and more, my treasure...yes, it can be displayed as part of your dowry, but its importance lies with your safety.”

“...is it spelled, then? To protect me?”

“Yes. When you had that dream, I was understandably worried...for you to feel unsafe within my domain is never permissible. Despite our layers of defense...you can forgive me for worrying when you mentioned the possibility of Gangrel preparing himself after his last attempt failed . It is not a suit of armour, you see, but what my women have crafted has...other talents.”

Robin was silent, prompting him Validar for an explanation. He moved to her side, pressed himself to her shoulder and hip. His outstretched hand fingered the sleeve fondly, close to where she was holding the robe up.

“I had a few prototypes made during the war...regrettably, I never had the opportunity to test them for my intelligence units...until now.” His arm looped under hers to point out the different details of the outfit. Their skin brushed together far too many times, though she tried to distract herself with how prettily the gold shone in the low light, how soft the hood felt. “The weavers spun the cloth from many different sources...but I am most proud of the leather it was combined with. For you see, the hides of a thousand different beasts went into its production...I would like to see any dog try and find you when it cannot even distinguish the scent it needs to follow.”

She offered him a weak smile and returned her eyes to the robe quickly. For a thousand animals to have been slaughtered and used for sorcery of this kind was cruelty. No matter how seamlessly each patch of skin had been joined into one smooth bolt, the very thought was agonising.

Validar’s nose poked Robin’s ear. If that was not enough to send a shiver down her back...

“For each pelt, a spell was woven into it to reinforce it. Unfortunately, enough time was lost on your pretty dresses, so testing had to be cut short...so while it might not stand against swords and axes, it can stop petty daggers well enough.”

His thumb was rubbing slow circles onto hers now.

“Only the highest of magicks were employed for your benefit. It has cost me quite a few elders, unfortunately...but they understood the dangers well enough. Low level tomes will not even scratch this.”

Oh gods, where did his other hand go?

“As this is to keep you safe...to keep Grima’s vessel intact...it was only fitting to imbue it with fragments of His power as well. No less than a thousand of Grima’s feathers live within this robe, taken from the single pair of wings our ancestors could preserve. No matter how much filth it encounters, no matter how burned or destroyed it might be on the battlefield...it will always repair itself, and no impurities shall sully its surface.”

It was on her back, and it was crawling down.

“Once you put it on...it will bind itself to you forever.”

Spinning out of his grip, Robin prostrated herself on the floor before Validar as though in gratitude. She pressed her face to the floor as tears trickled hotly down her face, burning her skin with tracks of humiliation and despair.

“Oh, thank you!” She sobbed, wanting nothing more that to fly away and leave her body behind. “T-this is truly more than anything I could ever hope for — you have been so busy, so preoccupied with everything, and yet you still make the time to think of me and m-my needs. What have I ever done to warrant this kindness?”

Deep black fabric bunched against her head in a pool of cool silk as Validar kneeled and collected her in his arms, pulling her up and resting her against his chest and stroking her dishevelled white hair. How she hated this performance.

Henry would be impressed.

“Your issue, my dove, is that you are not forgiving of yourself,” he crooned.”You work tirelessly, thanklessly, to the bone...and yet the thought of your just reward is somehow inconceivable to you.” He pulled back, smiling magnanimously, wiped her tears with the corner of his cape. “You deserve this. This is more than your birthright...it is your destiny. So take it, my sweet, take it and revel in its glory...once you bring Grima back into this world, you shall be worshipped as you should. Grima is just.”

                                                                                           fellbrand

Another nightmare woke her in a cold sweat. Washing herself with the water the marble basin provided to her offered little comfort; it did not dull the steely bite of the words those horrid Voices taunted her with in her dream.

Selfish girl, spoilt girl, They mocked. You squander gifts most would kill to have. Admit it...you know you are the true heir, you possess Grima’s Heart for a reason. You are destined for better than being the cowed little broodmare Validar wishes you to be. You have the skill, you have the tools...his room is not too far away...you can save yourself. Their words were little snakes slithering wetly on her skin. Kill him in his bed before he can fuck you in it. Kill him before he plants his seed in you and you are forced to grow it.

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” she cried and curled into a pathetic little ball on the floor. They were too insistent, prodding Their snake tongues into her ears. “I don’t want more bloodshed. Just...leave me alone!”

Yes you can. Once you kill him, you can take your rightful place on the throne he seized from you. You are Grima...it is your fate as the breath of ruin that will sweep over the land. The Grimleal belong to you, they will worship you as you should be worshipped.   They melted into her, They were not snakes anymore, but a thousand flies that crawled over her and each other. Robin was suddenly naked, completely exposed to their bites, feeling them inside her ears and probing her mouth and her nose. She could not swat them all!

“No! I’m not Grima to them, not anymore, they’d just as soon as flog me for trying to say that! I don’t want to be Grima! I just want to get away from here!”

If you cared so much, you little hypocrite, then why did you not try to leave sooner? The Voices were no longer oily smooth, but demonic, red-hot, echoing with pure evil. Why stand around idly all these years doing nothing? At least your mother had the courage to try. It’s a pity that she birthed such a stupid, spineless twat. 

Fire ants streamed out from everywhere and formed ropes of stinging fury, trapping her and raining hellish bites everywhere they could reach. Robin wanted to scream, but as soon as she opened her mouth her tongue and cheeks were under assault.

Mustafa gave you a poisoned knife. Use it. Do you not trust Mustafa? Do you not love him? The ants were mercifully gone, and there was silence again. Robin, in fact, could not say a thing. A roiling mass of mist that was barely in the shape of a man had her pinned to the floor and covered her mouth with an inky hand. Where a face should be, there was nothingness.

Noam is gone because you did not love him enough to protect him...your mother suffered the same fate. If you do not do anything, Mustafa and Henry will be next. So...what’s your next move, tactician? A bone white grin suddenly materialised on the face, square teeth large and gleeful as the mist transformed into Validar, just as naked as Robin was, reaching a hand between her legs.

                                                                                      fellbrand

Two days before the wedding, Robin read a letter she had taken out of her satchel. She knew that the faded parchment was not a substitute for the mother she never knew. Even so, it was a small pocket of warmth against her impending doom.

If you can, avoid dwellings of any kind. I fear that the Grimleal’s power has grown too much; they have expanded almost all over Plegia despite king Morza’s best efforts. Anyone from a simple beggar to a powerful amir could turn you in. They have eyes and ears in places you could not imagine.

Cover your tracks. No trace of you should be found. And don’t risk trying to set up traps: that’s how Meroë was captured, that’s how they could trace a path to her. Have a fast horse or a camel at the ready. A wyvern or a pegasus would be the best choice, if you can get a hold of one.

It hurts me so much to think of how you will grow in such a place. I was young and foolish once. I thought I was working in the service of this glorious higher power and could be something better than a goatherd’s child. I wasn’t born into the Grimleal like everyone else, and my war record meant nothing to them unless I proved myself further. I did horrible things…

When Robert was hired as my guard, it was the first time I ever talked to an Ylissean. I’m sure they’ll feed you nasty things about them as you age. Grima appealed to him, and the fact that an Ylissean wanted to convert was so tasty, so delightful...until he got his first look at a sacrifice, then he got cold feet, and cried about returning to Naga’s church. And I laughed in his face, and I taunted him, I reminded him of what his bishops and his exalt preached about Plegians during the war. Even though what I said was true, it was not kind.

When we started to love another, we decided to run away together. No more gods to march us into battle or dictate our lives. We could be free to do as we pleased. Such a novel concept for poor folk like us! There was a sentence that was scratched out and illegible after this.

And then I fell pregnant. Forgive me for being disappointed when I learned who your father is; we love you regardless, but the thought of him having anything to do with you is , truthfully, repulsive. But we can forget that, love. We had everything ready to whisk you away and have you safe and sound. We have a little cottage in Regna Ferox, near the eastern border with Ylisse. It belongs to friends of Robert’s parents. We could have raised sheep and goats like my family does. You would have grown very fast on the good food and the fresh mountain air — Robert says the sea is close by there, so we could have taken you swimming. Wouldn’t that have been so lovely?

My love, my little bird, I’m so sorry. I’ve doomed us all with my failure. I was not able to protect you. The only thing I have left to offer you is my love and my fantasies — as I write this, I am imprisoned in the hellhole I used to call home. I was unable to give you the future that you deserve.

I hope, with all my heart, that you are able to succeed where I have not. Godspeed, my love.  Fly far where you can make your own destiny.

 

 

 

 

   

Chapter Text

 

 

 

                                                                                                           

 

As so many craftswomen and mages had succumbed to the dangers of the weaving process, there was a shortage of ladies to attend to the wedding preparations and the bride’s toilette. Fortunately, it was easily remedied, as small groups of women who had foolishly gone to collect water from the wells near the outer perimeter of the Walled City at night were snatched without a fuss. Robin could tell they knew what had happened to them, that a sudden recognition kept their mouths shut and their eyes down. She wanted to comfort them. It was easier said than done when she had to think about her own escape.

“I thought you said the Grimleal were just stories to make me behave,” a little girl whispered fearfully to her mother as they were forced to card through piles of silk and cotton scarves.

“Hush, child.”

The entire day before the wedding was spent in a beauty regimen that could be described best as a lighter form of torture. Robin could not show weakness. She did not cry when boiling wax was spread over her skin and ripped off every hair it could reach; she did not cry when she was submerged into several baths, freezing and scalding, and then scrubbed raw; she did not cry as her hair was pulled in all directions by the comb; she did not cry when dragon tree oil was rubbed into her skin until it burned a bright red; she did not cry when her nose was pierced for the ring and her brows were meticulously shaped and plucked.

Validar almost pitched a fit of epic proportions when he discovered the dresses were missing. “Three years...three years in the making, three years of my accountants slaving away, three years of dead weavers...where are they? How am I to marry my bride if I cannot present her dowry myself?”

So there was groveling, there was pleading, there were promises to find them. When they were unable to locate the precious garments (safely hidden in the larder), there were hasty assurances of finding a suitable gown for Grima’s vessel. After all, she had been worshipped as Grima before her situation was rectified, and as such the wardrobe reserved for her use in those times still had hundreds of pieces of clothing she had not even worn yet.

All the while, Robin was secluded in her quarters with her ladies and the rest sent as... supplements.

“Red henna would look better for your colouring, little bird.” A feeble elder woman clucked over Robin with the term of endearment usually reserved for family members.

“That is not your place to decide,” a servant hissed.

“I rather like the red,” Robin rebutted in her own quiet way. The servant spluttered indignantly, then grumbled in resignation as she returned to lighting sticks of incense. Robin felt Tharja smirk behind her as she tied her hair into several small braids, twisting beads of turquoise, gold, and lapis lazuli at the ends while leaving a longer plait flowing down her back and weighted with a costly pin. It wasn’t a form of rebellion, not really, but the act felt buoyant in its own way. And it helped to temper the rush of anxiety that had her tingling with the knowledge of what was about to happen.

“Hands please,” the old woman croaked. Robin’s nails were trimmed neatly and her hands washed again before the henna was applied in several fantastical designs: scorpions for protection, lions and dragons for strength, bees for industry and perseverance. Flowers and water were added for fertility and the process was repeated for her arms, legs and feet. After a moment’s hesitation, the already existent Mark on her hand was circled to emphasise it.

Robin remembered that the people of the Walled City did not worship Grima, but that was only one of the reasons why the Grimleal scorned them so.

She grimaced, but did not cry, as the heavy jewelled ring was eased into the hole in her nostril after it was cleaned with ash paste. “That’s a good girl. Lucky that your ears were already done.”

“You are not to be so familiar with her ladyship. She is far beyond your miserable station,” the old nurse spat at the cowering elder. “Get back to work. Do it properly this time.”

So the rest of that afternoon was spent silently applying makeup and perfume. They were just about to begin the long and tedious process of dressing before a knock on the door interrupted. Robin was ushered behind a screen with Tharja.

The nurse returned with a package of filmy paper, unfolding it to reveal a vibrant dress, palatinate purple. “The thief has not yet been found, I’m sorry to report. Luckily, we were able to find a substitute and hope it is to your liking.”

The flimsy thing was as revealing as it was stunning. The top was quite literally only held together by golden strings, while the middle was practically a glorified loincloth to preserve her modesty. Robin was thankful for the veils that would conceal her lower face and her hair, even if they were transparent. And so her sandals were tied, the necklaces and bracelets and cuffs piled onto each other, the rings slipped onto her fingers and the earrings fastened. As a final touch, a mask of solid gold with dragon’s teeth and enormous antelope horns shaped into the metal was slipped over her face and strapped onto her scalp. It was uncomfortably reminiscent of a muzzle.

“Good luck.” Tharja drawled into her ear as Robin was left alone to meditate before the ceremony.

Being alone was still something of an oddity for her. It did not help to calm her, but at least it helped to organise her thoughts. Her final moments in this wretched place would not go out in a blaze of glory. Silence and subterfuge were the keys to success.

She hoped.

A noise at the door alerted her; she relaxed a bit when she saw it was Mustafa, dressed in his military finery. When their eyes met, his eyes softened in sadness.

“You look beautiful, love,” Mustafa held her elbows in his giant hands. Robin remembered how much smaller she used to be when they had more time to each other, and pain stabbed her heart.

“For all the wrong reasons,” she whispered bitterly.

“I know. I would have loved to give you away to someone more deserving of you. But now is not the time, Robin. Now you have to go and be brave with Henry. The world awaits.”

“Don’t leave me,” she pleaded, tears shining in her kohl-rimmed eyes. Mustafa carefully wiped them away with a thumb and pressed a kiss to her forehead.

“You will smudge your makeup if you cry. And I know it will be difficult—gods, do I know—but you are courageous, and you have a clear head and a strong body.” He enveloped Robin in a tight hug and cradled her head as he heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You are the daughter I never had. For that, I must let you go.”

“You can come with us.”

“Someone has to stay behind to clean up and cover your tracks.” Mustafa kissed her again and, with great reluctance, made for the door. “Perhaps, in a few years, when I am able to return to my village as I have dreamed, I can send for you two.”

And so he was gone, and Robin felt truly alone.

 

                                                                                                              

 

The cavernous temple burned with torchlight and heavy incense. No expense had been spared: every inch of stone had been draped in garish garlands and crimson pennants. The walkway to the dais had been carpeted in ash flower petals, soft under Robin’s feet as she was passed along to the platform by each of Validar’s generals.

As was the custom, the groom’s attire had to contrast with the bride’s, and he shone in a bright white and yellow shendyt. A thick leopard skin was draped over his impressively muscled chest, with onyx jewellery and a golden nemes adorned with curled ram’s horns completing his ensemble. His smile was wide and pleased as he helped her to sit on the lavish bench prepared for them.

The priestess tasked with marrying them was heavily veiled and hunched under an enormous purple cape. It seemed strange of her to opt for such clothing when it was so hot and stuffy inside. Validar’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. The old crone—for really, who else walked that way unless bent with age?—turned her head for a surreptitious hacking cough that, while it seemed to mollify his wariness, visibly annoyed him further to learn that she was not in good health and could spread her disease to the couple. Robin would have laughed if she could.

No matter. There was no time to be concerned over such things when they were finally at the altar. A solemn hush fell over the proceedings as the lights were dimmed.

“We are gathered to bear witness to a union most holy,” the priestess wheezed in a strange voice. “For it has been decreed that, on this day, Grima’s entry to this world would be assured with His vessel to be filled with the seed of all life.”

“Hail,” was the automatic response from those gathered.

“On this day —” her voice cracked, and then she dissolved into a fit of coughing that had Validar scowling hard. “On this day, we celebrate our High Priest Ahmose Henuttamehu, tenth of the name of Validar, and his binding to our Lady Hierophant, Ahmose Iset, eleventh of the name of Validar, given the name of Robin.”

“Hail.”

“We ask our Lord Grima to bless this man as He has blessed His vessel. We beg Him to cleanse them of their impurities so that they may be allowed to serve Him faithfully and without the taint of this world hindering His cause. We plead for them to aid His righteous fury and smite His enemies across this wretched land.”

“Hail.”

An eerie ululation hummed throughout the temple as the people began to pray. Out of the corner of her eye, Robin glanced at one of the exits, noticing that the women of the Walled City had been forced to attend the ceremony, with the young mother from before gripping her daughter’s hand tightly.

A large ram was led inside by a golden rope. When it saw the kepesh that one of the men was carrying, it panicked and bucked ferociously. A minor scuffle ensued when it rammed a cultist, requiring other men to subdue the animal until the blade was shoved into its windpipe and twisted; rusty hot blood shot out in powerful spurts, spraying everyone within its reach as the ram, still alive, was pushed to the floor and held there until it stopped twitching and the channels carved into the stone ran red. The hieroglyphs glowed a hellish scarlet, imbued with the power of sinister magic.

Cheers and shouts echoed loudly throughout, as the priestess collected some of the ram’s blood in a golden chalice and mixed it with wine and oil for the couple to drink. The foul mixture had a distinctly coppery stench, but Robin could not refuse to drink it because the cup had already been shoved under her nose. It was tied to her and Validar’s hand with a rope of white cotton.

“May this elixir grant you the strength and health needed for tonight,” the priestess intoned, and bade them sign the contract that would bind them together.

There were more prayers recited, mostly of the variety that Grima smiled upon their union, and — disgustingly enough — that their marriage bed was blessed and would produce the Son they had longed for a thousand years ago. Amongst the cheering and the shouts, Robin spied the young mother gather up her daughter from the corner of her eyes and slip out of the nearest exit as the congregants began to throw petals at the couple. A guard followed silently behind her with a naked knife. 

A lone tear dripped silently down Robin’s cheek as the priestess smeared honey on their foreheads for sweet thoughts of their night together. “It pleases me to see you so overcome with emotion,” Validar said pleasantly enough, but the way his hand squeezed hers tightly indicated the opposite.

And so the night progressed with much gaiety for everyone except the bride. The most time-consuming and expensive dishes had been prepared. Validar was especially pleased with the little pageants the children put on for them, his favourite being the one where Gangrel died a violent death to the tune of the lyre, sistrum and flute. Well-wishers offered them congratulations and gifts: Jamil, ever the bootlicker, presented Validar with a wyrmslayer sword (“smuggled in from a Feroxi convoy, milord”), and Robin soon had a puppy sleeping peacefully in her lap. It was strange to see him all smiles when he was one of the men who had wanted to marry her those three years ago.

When the last of the drummer’s notes died down, and after the cones of perfumed oils distributed to the party-goers had melted, an air of expectancy fell upon the already ostentatious atmosphere of ceremonious decor. The priestess led the couple out of the temple and back to the residential quarters.

Robin was disrobed and her skin oiled in total silence and total dread, ignoring her nudity and trying to drown out Tharja’s roaming hands and the heart-stopping terror she felt at what was to come for her soon, Validar’s dark eyes and white toothed grin looming over her panic-fevered thoughts. Robin had a plan, Robin had a map and Henry and her mother’s notes and a poisoned knife, and yet, and yet, and yet —

The maids filed out suddenly, obediently, and Validar was there at the door with obvious intent. He took in her loose braid-curled hair and the sheen of her oiled skin under her menat, her golden cuffs...and nothing else. He stalked toward her, eyes aflame with hunger, and pulled Robin up to his chest, groping her bottom powerfully, pushing her hips between his legs. Something was rock hard within his shendyt, it hurt as she was rubbed forcefully against it and as Validar bit his way up her shoulders and her neck, everything hurt as his iron hands clamped her arms to her sides and he pried her mouth open with his tongue —

“As gratifying as your enthusiasm is, milord, there are still matters to be discussed before you are to lie in your marriage bed.”

Validar’s expression was beyond murderous; the old priestess could not care less as she stared him down coolly from the doorway. The two goblets from before shook precariously on their golden tray as she walked to the couple unfazed.

“What I do with my bride is none of your concern. Leave immediately, ” he snarled and caged Robin possessively between his arms and naked chest.

“What you do with your bride will most likely leave her black and blue before she is even made to lie in a proper bed after her own wedding. Even though she has already passed the cusp of womanhood, she is still a virgin, is she not? And as the officiant, it is my duty to pass on my knowledge of the mysteries of her sex and what is expected of her before she is to conceive, as I did for your first wife, and your mother, and her mother before her. It would simply not do for Grima’s vessel to be handled in such a manner if she is to be bedded.”

Suspicion, still glinting in Validar’s face, was mercifully not enough to make a case against the crone’s words. She offered up the goblets to them.

“Drink...it shall prove most beneficial to you both. Though I can see that it has already made an effect on your lordship,” she nodded pointedly at his crotch.

Robin was jolted out of staring dumbly at the priestess and accepted the foul brew with trembling hands. She tipped it back, nearly coughing it up, still disgusted the second time she tasted it. Validar’s response was much more measured, though his dislike was evident.

The old crone stood with her face trained expectantly on Validar’s, and he soon tired of her silence. “Anything else?”

“You are to leave as we speak. Women’s mysteries are not for mens’ ears.”

As clear as his desire to defy her was, he had no grounds for it, and so he departed from Robin’s quarters after leaving her with the remains of a wet kiss on her brow. When it was certain that he was long gone, the woman’s skin melted into Henry’s face and he straightened his back with a loud painful crack from having to have been hunched over for such a prolonged time. Robin fell into him with a sob.

“It’s okay Robby, he’s gone now,” Henry crooned as they sank to the floor and he paid no mind to her nakedness as he stroked her back. “He’s vile and disgusting and I swear I’ll kill him for you. Just...not today. Right now, we gotta go. Remember, Robby? We have almost all our stuff packed and ready, we’re gonna leave this place and never look back.”

Robin hiccupped. His words were a soothing balm, the shining promise of freedom just at their fingertips, and it was welcomed after the treatment she was subjected to. She rose on unsteady legs, leaning heavily on Henry and holding an arm over her exposed breasts as she was made to sit on her bed. He began rifling through her wardrobe for clothes: trousers, a sleeveless shirt, sturdy boots, bracers and a bolero. She dressed quickly and gratefully. A sudden nagging sensation gave her pause...looking up, the thousandfur robe hung in her dresser with an almost foreboding air to it...and yet, something about it beckoned to her.

Robin remembered Validar claiming that it was magicked and a useful defensive tool. But no, could something made from components as evil as Grima’s feathers be of any protective use? The very recent and all too fresh memories of being groped, being pushed about and having his hands all over her…it was the last thing she wanted to remember at the moment. Without even thinking, Robin grabbed the robe off its peg and slid into it, hooking the closures together and pulling the hood over her eyes. The garment seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, settling itself tighter around her body.

“Before I forget, and since it’d be a real shame if you got your clothes all yucked up, you need to eat this,” Henry produced a puce coloured pastille and handed it to Robin.

“What for? It smells terrible.” She wrinkled her nose.

“Look, if I didn’t drug you, then Validar would have known. Since he could tell that you tasted the weird flavour too, then he didn’t really have much of a reason to suspect being poisoned, did he?”

“What did you put in the drink?” Robin said, horrified.

“Just a little something I cooked up! It’s not lethal, I promise. The guy looks like he does a line of stronger stuff for breakfast with that gross grey skin of his. But I did put a ton of it in your cups, so hopefully he drops dead in bed — hey, that rhymes! — instead of just falling asleep. But since we gotta go fast, you’re going to need to back it all up, like, now .”  Henry grinned as he held a bowl up to her face.

Robin was dry heaving and red-faced from vomiting, so it was a relief when Henry checked the fouled contents of the bowl and declared her “fit for travel!” They made sure to stuff Robin’s jewellery into the satchels Henry brought back from their hiding place so they could barter for food and supplies if need be. Another quick bag check, and they shouldered the heavy packs before setting down the torchlit halls.

“Oh hey, I almost forgot about you!” Henry giggled as he picked up the puppy. Robin had forgotten about it as soon as she set foot in her bedroom.

“No.”

“But Robin, it —” he checked quickly between her legs, “she was a present! It’s rude to refuse presents.”

“We don’t have the time or the resources to take care of a dog, Henry. She’ll slow us down.”

“No she won’t! We’ll take good care of her and she’ll take good care of us!” Henry wheedled in his most persuasive voice as the gangly thing licked and licked at his face.

What was he thinking, giving her that look? This was not a part of their plan. They had directions and maps that they needed to stick to, not adding more worries on to their already precarious journey.

But Henry, always the animal lover, raised by wolves, for the love of the gods, would never forgive her if they left without it.

Robin sighed. “Fine. But we have to keep her quiet .”

With the dog safely strapped into Henry’s pack, they moved deeper into the darkness of the inner earth. Thank goodness that most were still attending the celebrations.

“I already swiped some stuff from the sick ward,” Henry said cheerily as he scratched the dog behind its ears and minded his step. From the way he carried himself, she would have expected to be going on a picnic, not escaping from the Grimleal stronghold. “So we’re good on that.”

“Nicely done,” Robin whispered.

She pushed him to the wall abruptly and peeked around the corner: the patrol stationed outside the tunnel that lead to Validar’s study showed little signs of fatigue and were heavily armed, never mind the fact that the squad leader looked as though he ate entire camels in one sitting. Robin had no desire of killing anyone tonight...but what to do? Fighting them would possibly mean alerting someone to the their movements. Sneaking by was not possible given that they had yet to master cloaking spells, and they had virtually no way of coming up with a distraction because there was only Validar’s study behind them, and the wall hiding her and Henry before them. Unless they had a tonic at hand to knock them out…

“Do you have the poison Mustafa gave you?” Robin asked. She found a small amount of paper and foil in her satchel and balled them up, making sure to leave a small hole in the centre, and dug up a small amount of soil from the floor, remembering that it was treated with saltpeter.

Henry produced the vial and she poured some in after grinding up the dirt and a small charcoal writing stick into a fine powder. The poison was left in liquid form so that it would not burn too quickly, Robin having timed its flash point. The final touch was a bunched up loose thread that would act as a fuse. Henry stretched out his hand wordlessly for the smoke bomb and snapped his fingers a few times until a spark was produced and the fuse lit. He grinned cockily, left the dog with her, stowed the ball in the pocket of his coat, and walked out boldly to the bored soldiers.

The men frowned at the sight of him. Their leader, a hulking mass of flesh with a bald head that shone in the torchlight and numerous scars crisscrossing his bare torso rose to his full height, nearly brushing the tunnel ceiling. “Oi, runt. Don’t you know acolytes ain’t allowed down here? You’re up past yer curfew.”

Henry took their bad mood in stride. “First off, I’m not a kid! I just look small for my age. I don’t need a curfew to tell me when I should be sleepy. And today’s a celebration! On the other hand, I did get tired of all that partying, so I just thought I’d have a little walk and explore the place. Walking is a good way to get the stomach settled after dinner. And lemme tell ya, that was some feast up there! I hope you guys got something at least; that marinade on the gorgon heart was delicious! I love sweetbreads, even if the littler kids get freaked out when you wave some tendons and stuff in their faces. I like my meat rare; what about you guys?”

Well, if there was one thing that was certain, it was that the grunts did not expect Henry’s chattiness, especially at so late an hour. They glanced back uneasily to their leader.

“Look, kid,” he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “We already ate. Just...go back to sleep. We’re not planning on gettin’ in trouble just because some runt wandered into a restricted area.” He made to shoo him away.

Little grey spirals of smoke began to puff out innocently out of Henry’s pocket, stopping the men in their tracks. “Kid...are you smoking?”

“Now that is something I think I’m a little too young for. But it’s not for me!” The young mage cheerfully produced the smoke bomb and plopped it into the leader’s open palm, dropping to the floor and covering his face as it burst into a cloud of enormous toxic purple fumes. Robin heard some of the foot soldiers retching and coughing violently. Others howled in pain as the poison undoubtedly assaulted their open eyes, and then there was only the sounds of heavy bodies dropping to the floor.

After making sure the smoke dissipated, she walked to him tentatively, keeping the dog wrapped securely within her robes lest it breathe in some residual poison, and tugged on the back of Henry’s collar to prompt him up. The pair wove their way around the collapsed men lying in pools of their own blood and vomit, with the heavy door to the study soon in sight. Robin was surprised that stronger magicks were not employed in the protection of the lock, but who was she to complain? Barring the entrance with a treasure chest and a pair of stools, they set the dog and their belongings down for a brief rest, and to survey the darkened room quickly.

“Hurry. We have to grab as much as we can.”

“On it!” Henry grinned as he tossed a Thoron tome into his mokeskin pouch.

They collected a fair amount of swords, lances, potions, tomes, staves, axes, bows, arrows, what-have-you from the macabre miscellany that was the study. Henry strapped a pair of dark books of Mire to his belt and tucked them under his cape. Robin almost decided on the shockstick that was impaled upon the skeleton mounted behind the desk. But there was something sad and dark about it that gave her pause and bade her look elsewhere, until the chest underneath the desk revealed a rarer prize still: a levin sword.

“Hurry, hurry,” she urged as she tucked the sword into her belts. Robin directed Henry to the other end of the cabinet behind the desk, and together they tried to slide the heavy furniture off to the side. For a few tense moments, it seemed as though nothing happened, and the puppy’s whimpering only added to the suspense.

And then, she felt the earth underneath give way.

Bit by bit, the cabinet slowly, agonisingly, opened up hints of the passageway it concealed. What Robin felt was nearly indescribable, an almost unbearable lightness of being that threatened to carry her off into the clouds, buoyant, hopeful in a way that she had never experienced. When the stairs behind the tunnel came into view, her hands trembled as they gathered up their bags, closed their robes tightly, and slid the cabinet back into place.

Their spelled fire lit the way as they raced up the damp stairs. This is it, Robin thought, this was the moment they had been waiting for all those years. If hope was the burn in their legs as they climbed higher and higher, she could only imagine what freedom felt like again.

Bursting out of a rocky crag tucked under the skull, the desert opened up around them, infinitely vast as the stars glittered all around them in the black sky. It had been years since they had been outside. To return to the open, to the world itself, was like returning from the dead, no longer buried deep under the cold earth. They were faced with the dizzying immensity of the land around them. The night air seared her mouth and lungs with its purity. Robin wanted to taste more, and she gulped down deep breaths with a fierce desperation, the sudden weight of her reunion with the outside world crushing and liberating all at once.

Her heart soared.

“Come on!” Henry took her hand and launched them uphill towards the Walled City.

 

 

 

                                                                                                     

 

Their short trek was deathly silent. Even the pebbles giving way to their feet sounded oddly muffled as they tumbled behind them. Fear and excitement pounded hard in her bloodstream and rushed painfully to her head as they approached the city gates: the sounds and lights of a grand festival bubbled up joyously from behind the colossal walls, manned by heavily armed soldiers that paced along its parapets and surveyed the desert from the loopholes set into the stones. There was little time to think up a way of somehow avoiding them all, so it was agreed that hiding their weapons in the mokeskin and making themselves known was the best choice.

Robin turned her robes inside out, wisely hiding the three-eyed sleeves, and bade Henry do the same with his own clothes.

HALT,” the magically amplified command boomed out as Robin and Henry stepped into the light illuminating the doorway. The creak of bowstrings drawn from above was audible in spite of the music. “STATE YOUR NAMES AND PURPOSE. YOU WILL BE SUBJECTED TO A REVISION BY THE GUARD IF YOU WISH TO PASS THESE WALLS.”

“Henry and...Iset.” Robin replied complacently. “And yes, we do wish to enter the city.”

“FOR WHAT PURPOSE?”

Robin stumbled, but Henry caught her sentence just in time. “We’ve come a long way for the party. It sounds nice from here!”

A long pause. There was a sudden, loud clanking from cantankerous mechanics pushed into action as a smaller set of doors built into the larger gates groaned open. Four men stepped out, two to the door and two to inspect Robin and Henry. She noticed, with no small amount of trepidation, that the edges of the throwing axes harnessed to their belts were sharp.

“Stand still,” a man a little older than her ordered. “Your bags open and on the ground.”

Henry was remarkably composed and only moved once to bounce the puppy in his arms as another guard swept his hands over his body and under the hem of his clothes. Thankfully, the mokeskin was kept well hidden in his trousers.

Robin presented a problem to the men. She shed her robes and kept her face respectfully lowered, conscious of the discussion between the soldiers.

“We still have to check her too.”

“We don’t have time to make them wait while we fetch Rania’s squad to look at her for us. They only have the dog and a bag with travel supplies and no food or water, no weapons. The papers they carry don’t look to be too sensitive. And besides,” the elder of the pair argued, “look at them. They seem to be around my childrens’ age.”

“Your kids are practically babies. And she looks very much a woman to me,” the younger muttered.

“And yet they are still very young. Coming all the way here unsupervised, not part of a caravan...is their family nearby?”

“Maybe they’re not blood related...might be married. If so, then her husband looks a little too young for my tastes.”

“If they are married, well, they do things differently out in the sticks. I think they look to be siblings. Probably got ahead of their caravan because they got too impatient to wait for the festival.”

Mollified, the guards beckoned them and escorted them over to the gates. The man who had argued on their behalf was about Mustafa’s age and had kind eyes. “Have fun,” he told them as they passed through several inner walls before finally reaching the city entrance.

The Walled City was bursting with colour, music, and cheer, delicious scents wafting from the numerous food stalls lining the streets and people throwing confetti and flower petals from their terraces. Children shrieked and ran between the adults as they played with their toy swords and wooden dragons. A few sat by the doorways to eat with their families while watching the numerous dancers, musicians, tumblers and magicians entertaining them. A fire-breather nearly singed their hair as Robin and Henry ducked beneath an arch to survey the proceedings. They had never seen such festivity, at least not one related to the Grimleal; the very sight of such good-natured chaos was new and exciting. Staying to watch was out of the question, no matter how badly they wanted to enjoy themselves.

“What’d you think they’re celebrating?” Henry had to shout his question.

“Kid, you been livin’ under a rock or something?” A street peddler standing by them caught his words and gave him an incredulous look. “The last harvest festival of the year is always the biggest.”

“And King Gangrel is to be wedded soon?” Robin asked cautiously. Henry almost slipped up badly with his ignorance: it would not do to mark them as outsiders given the circumstances.

“In a fortnight. That Aversa of his is a real beauty, she is. Likes to take morning walks around the promenade if you ever want to get a look at her. Say...you two feelin’ hungry?”

Scarfing down the sticky-sweet marchpane they had purchased from the peddler (who had been amazed at the large golden coin they produced as payment), Robin and Henry sat at the lip of an enormous public fountain to fill their waterskins and rest their aching feet. Henry was laughing at the spouts shaped like hippopotami that poured water from their carved stone nipples and vulvas that they held open with lioness paws. Children were being scolded by their parents for attempting to cool their feet in the fountain, a cat groomed itself lazily by a stall selling fortunes...for a brief moment, Robin pretended that this was their life. That they were perhaps the children of craftsmen, or farmers, or builders visiting the city to enjoy the festival and toss petals and coins to bless Gangrel’s marriage like the other citizens were doing. That her mother and Robert, whatever they looked like, would round the corner any moment now with treats for them, Mustafa close by and not trapped behind in the Grimleal’s hideout.

Instead of normalcy, she was rewarded with the threat of future ruination.

“Come on,” she muttered, distracting Henry from his task of shredding stray flower petals that had floated in the water. “It’s time we get a move on and search for more food.”

“Good idea! Let’s start with the omelette stand first—it looks eggscellent, ha ha.”

After collecting a veritable feast sure to last them some time at least (merguez sausages, jerky, dried and fresh fruit, bread, olives, sorghum, wine, purple carrots and cabbages) feeding the dog and then indulging in honey feteer and more marchpane, the pair set about finding transport. Stealing horses from the heavily guarded barracks would have meant a one-way trip to the dungeons, so they decided on finding taverns along the main street and hoped that at least one would have stables attached. The third time proved the charm and they snuck into it from the back.

“I’m not going to lie: doing this makes me feel incredibly guilty,” Robin admitted as they stripped the animals of any distinctive badges and saddled them. The puppy was strapped into saddlebag and her head lolled out curiously.

“It’s not stealing if you pay,” Henry said wisely as he left a pair of necklaces in their place.

Leading them out through the alleys and back to the city gates, Robin was relieved to find that the guard had been changed, meaning that they were not familiar to the new faces and thus had no reason to be questioned as to why they suddenly had horses. Her heart pounded with fear, trepidation, and hope as they passed the inspection and were allowed free passage back outside.

Feeling lighter than she had for the longest time, Robin spurred her horse into a gallop with Henry close behind. A course was set for the western port of Tel Kharra, with the stars as their map and their dreams of freedom guiding them to a new life.  

 

 

                                                                                                 

 

Chapter Text

                                                                             

 

 

                                                                                              

 

 

Tel Kharra was a bustling port city boasting the largest economy in the nation after Zuhsa (which was the proper name for the Walled City, Robin later discovered). Its main products came from the rich sea surrounding the peninsula that the settlement was built on, selling anything and everything from pearls the size of her fist to fish with skin that glowed at night. It was also the main port from which Plegia did trade with countries from across the ocean, such as Chon’sin, Rosanne, Valm, and the island kingdoms of Axum. From there came silk, spices, lacquer and gunpowder in exchange for Plegian ivory, gold, and wheat. Though commerce with Ylisse was forbidden outright and Regna Ferox only sent merchants from a few city-states, Robin and Henry saw people of many different complexions and manners during their brief stay.

Their plans to board a boat bound for the Valmese continent were dashed upon learning that Grimleal agents had been dispatched to inspect every moored vessel and building in the city. The official explanation was that they were searching for a pair of criminals who needed to be turned over to their council immediately. It was a depressing realisation, to see that Zuhsa was practically the only place in all of Plegia free from Grimleal influence. Not that Gangrel had not noticed, for despite Aversa’s subtle influence, there were frequent street brawls between Grimleal and government forces, though the line between them was not very clear at times.

Only officials were allowed the use of wyverns. Fortunately, a kindly merchant from Chon’sin traded some of his horses for theirs and allowed them to spend the night in the stables adjacent to the consul’s home. Unwilling to implicate him (and by extension, the Chon’sinese embassy in Plegia) in their plans should the Grimleal come knocking, they left before dawn without saying their goodbyes.

They began their journey joyously after having left the vicinity of the skull, talking, singing, marvelling at the open world around them. The sun and the heat made sure that they soon lost the energy for much except to find shade and a place to rest. Though they were able to reach the edge of the country without much incident, the reality of life in Tel Kharra forced them to turn back much more cautiously and draw up new travel plans.

Robin and Henry were to follow her mother’s original course, travelling to Regna Ferox’s eastern mountains. Going to the Great Lakes region of the north was out of the question due to it being located on the border and heavily inhabited, no doubt with many powerful Grimleal cells. The border with Regna Ferox was heavily fortified due to soured relations between the two countries—Gangrel was doing a fine job of antagonising their neighbours even without the influence of the Grimleal—but Ylisse was a traditional ally of the Feroxi and crossings between them were said to be much more relaxed. If passing into Regna Ferox was difficult, then it was impossible for Ylisse, given how much bad blood there was between them after the war some twenty-odd years ago and another conflict Gangrel tried and failed to spark. But seeing as they were being hunted...their best bet was to hope for a miracle. Once inside Ylisse, they could breathe easy and continue their way northeast undisturbed.

Circumventing the foothills of the Nwewero volcanoes was by far the easiest leg of the trip; the jungle was rich in water, fruit and game. Once past the savannah and back into the desert, the tougher ordeals began.

Despite autumn giving way to the rains of the winter season, the sun still proved an unforgiving presence, white-hot and cruel in its lofty perch and scorching the shifting sands. Robin and Henry were forced to veil their faces and protect the horses and the puppy (“Neferi, Robby, you gotta call her by her name now,” Henry kept insisting) with rags soaked in the water that they had to ration even more due to the winter sandstorms and wind.

The puppy—“Neferi, Robin,”—proved to be much less of a burden than Robin had previously thought she would be. She was friendly, eager to please, and an excellent hunter who was skinny enough to slip into crevices in search of hares, snakes and lizards. They were roasted by wrapping the meat in the foil they brought and left to cook in the sun to avoid lighting fires at night. Once, she was able to find a pheasant sitting on her nest hidden within a rocky crag, and that night they dined on the delicious bird and its eggs. Robin did not mind that Neferi showed a marked preference for Henry as long as she carried her weight; still, Robin would be lying if she said she did not enjoy it when the gangly thing, growing faster every day, would sometimes come to her and expose her pink belly for a rub or beg for a good scratch behind the ears. Dogs were kind like that. Robin could see why Henry often preferred animals to other humans.

Henry served as a lookout by transforming into a vulture or a hawk, buoyed by the strong winter winds as he surveyed the landscape with his piercing eyes. Normally, Robin would urge him to not stay up for long, fearful of him being trapped in animal form should he stay transformed for too long a period, and sometimes he insisted on flying for hours on end. In light of a recent and very troubling development, today was not one of those days.

“They’re back,” Henry muttered as he landed back on his horse. “I have no idea how they got this close without me noticing.”

Bandits were a common enough occurrence across the continent after the war left many desperate people turning to a life of crime. Many were former soldiers and mercenaries who found the thrill of bloodlust to be intoxicating and did not wish to lay down their swords, forming small armies and bands that pillaged their way across the three nations. The fighters who originally forced them and Mustafa into Regna Ferox were such an example. The people who had been tracking them numbered far fewer, though their presence was no less troubling.

“I hope this doesn’t mean they have a warping stave at hand...or a far-seeing mage,” Robin replied.

“What if they have a spyglass? Or two?” Henry was referring to the magicked lenses capable of amplifying sight across several thousand meters, or even between two completely different points on the earth. They were popular when in use for scrying or less savoury work such as espionage. And if that was the case…

“Then we can only hope we’re fast enough to outrun them,” Robin pronounced grimly and pulled the hood of her robe low. “Come on. The map says there’s an abandoned village we could rest in for the night.”

The thousandfur robe was a curious thing that made her uneasy, and yet she was surprised by how it continued to defy her expectations. Wearing artifacts of dark magic usually resulted in the bearer becoming evil, insane, or deathly ill through the loss of vital energy. Sometimes the thing would turn out to be the vessel for a djinni or a similar spirit that would then attempt to possess its wearer. The robe did none of those things—while Robin felt a surge of malicious thoughts and whispered insults, they were not hers: rather, she sensed them coming from the robe, and they were not directed towards her specifically but rather the world in general. After a time, it became similar to having a mean-spirited travelling companion and she learned to tune it out. The thousandfur robe, as though insulted from the sudden lack of attention, learned to behave to some extent.

For some curious reason, it also helped to keep some of her nightmares at bay and often alerted her to danger nearby. In fact, it had sensed the bandits several days before Henry had even sighted them; at first, Robin could not understand the little zing of worry she felt whenever the fabric stood on end like a frightened cat’s fur, though she now knew to take its warnings seriously even if she found it difficult to understand at times.

The small party watched the bandits from inside a small high cave overlooking the village. True to her suspicions, it had proved wiser to move on ahead with the only warp staff they had and avoid the settlement entirely. No matter how much of a pain it had been trying to coax the two horses up the rocks and into the cave, seeing the thieves go door to door searching for them made it worth their while when it was clear they would leave empty-handed. Robin and Henry allowed themselves the small luxury of waking late the next day. They waited another cycling of the sun before peeking out from the cave entrance to see the village abandoned once more. Thus, they took stock of their belongings, resaddled the anxious horses, and set out on their way to the Midmire. The Dragon’s Table (the most sacred of all Grimleal sites of worship) was never even approached even though it would have been far easier to snatch a camel from under a sleeping pilgrim’s nose.

She dreamed very little and almost no visions came to her during that time.

The weather turned progressively colder and wetter the farther east they travelled and the closer to Ylisse they managed, and avoiding inhabited settlements became much more difficult. On several occasions, the duo found themselves having to skirt caravan routes from miles away or turn tail and run if nomads and their flocks of goats came by the stretch of land they travelled. Larger cities came into view again and they were nearly caught more than once while switching horses under the cover of night.

Poor, salty soil and higher terrain signified their arrival at the Midmire, a large stretch of marshland that had been the site of arduous combat years ago; it was here that her mother led numerous campaigns to victory with Mustafa as her capable lieutenant, and even now Robin could see the thousands of bones and discarded armour and broken chariots half-sunken into the mud. More impressive still were the remains of an enormous dragon’s rib cage enclosing a vast amount of terrain.

“We cross this, and the gorge, and then there’s only the plains left before Ylisse,” Robin panted as she coaxed and cajoled her skittish horse down the slippery mountainside. Lightning flashed and cracked across the sky, and hard sheets of icy rain pelted them as they reached the bottom and began to tread mud. To make matters worse, Neferi would not stop barking at the lightning from her saddlebag, and the thousandfur robe was most definitely not waterproof.

“Hey, hey Robby! What’s the difference between a horse and the rain? One is reined up and the other rains down!” Henry laughed. Perhaps he thought some jokes would lighten the mood, but all they did was give her a headache.

“Ooh, wait, I got another one — what do you call scary water? A — “

Robin spun to face him and her wet hair smacked her in the face. Henry giggling at her made her mood sink lower and she rubbed her aching temple. Though she loved him dearly, his persistent lightheartedness and banter throughout their entire journey had left her cross, then annoyed, then downright angered and she was finally unable to tolerate it any longer.

Henry. Not. Now.

She stomped ahead with her boots making disgusting sloshing noises. Henry whispered “a rain of terror,” a little dejectedly to himself.

Sinking in the mire was a very real threat. Most of their energy was spent pushing and pulling the horses through the muck, who pushed and pulled back with just as much vigour to avoid crossing the waterlogged terrain and the booming thunder above. Not that Robin could blame them, but there was no shelter to be seen anywhere close and night was almost upon them.

Bones crunched underfoot as they finally found a small rise with a mushroom rock where they could protect themselves from the rain to rest, if only for a short time. Most of that period was spent wringing out their clothes and hair, and emptying water from their shoes and their satchels. Robin was relieved that the tomes and her mother’s notes had been spared damage from the rain, and with her mood a bit lighter, she allowed Henry to joke all he wanted while the horses nosed through their bags of feed gratefully. At least Neferi had stopped barking.

Somewhat restored, they continued the rest of the trek in silence.

When the gorge was distantly sighted through the thick fog, the dog began to growl and whine from her saddlebag.

“What is it girl?” Henry patted her worriedly.

“Henry,” Robin warned calmly. “Get on the horse.”

They were on the saddles in a flash and dug their heels into the horse's’ sides—they too sensed the danger and did not complain as they were urged into a strong gallop, despite almost sinking in the marsh. The rain obscured their vision but they stayed on course, and soon the rotten bridge connecting the land separated by a gaping chasm came into clearer view.

A warp circle opened up right before them and the startled horses reared to a stop. Though only five bandits stepped into the mud, it was of little comfort seeing as they were obviously battle hardened veterans, armed to the teeth and hunger ablaze in their eyes. The woman who was presumably their leader was enormous. Her head was half shaved and her lip was cloven from an old injury, splitting wider as she grinned triumphantly.

“You two are slippery little eels, I’ll give you that,” her voice was soft and mocking, yet it still carried clearly over the rain and thunder. The four men moved unbidden to surround them from all sides.

“Henry...what do you have on you?” Robin whispered.

“Uh...Mire. I think it might get wet though.”

“In a way, you should be flattered,” the woman continued, completely unworried by their talk. “I’ve never seen a fatter meal ticket before in my entire life. You know how much they’re offerin’ for you?”

“Since it’s raining, better stick to thunder magic. You think you can flash them?” Robin’s eyes never left the bandit.

“Might hurt the horses’ eyes though,” Henry said.

“Twenty thousand in gold bullion,” the leader smacked her lips. “And that’s just for the boy.”

Robin swore under her breath. “Then I guess we’ll just have to do it the old fashioned way then.”

“My mama always used to scold me for playin’ with my food.” the woman circled them appreciatively, predatory, muscles bunched and sinewy under the dirty sodden pelt draped over her painted shoulders. “But I hear a bit of exercise is good for buildin’ up an appetite. So,” she said, stopping before the bridge. With a sudden, brutal swing of her axe, a post holding up the ropes and planks was destroyed and the whole rotting structure was sent falling down to the bottom of the gorge. “Who wants to play catch?”

Robin surged forward with a bronze sword she had pulled from the recesses of her robe, cutting a long shallow wound into the bandit’s exposed torso. Blood sprayed into her eyes along with rainwater, but she could care less as she freed a leg from a stirrup and delivered a satisfying kick to the leader’s face; the bandit woman, caught unawares at the very end of her sentence, staggered back, but to Robin’s astonishment proved resilient to the attack and made to grab her leg. Thus their fight was relegated to a game of keep-away as the thief repeatedly lunged for the reins and Robin parried her axe and kept the panicked horse circling.

Time became impossible to tell as the lightning, wind, and clang of metal on metal drowned out all else.

Henry was occupied fending off the other men and keeping them from Robin with increasing difficulty as his mount repeatedly slipped in the mire and made his movements sloppy. At the rate he was going, it was only a matter of time before one of the bandits either pulled him off the saddle or landed a lucky strike, whichever came first.

So Robin made the decision to break away from the leader and came barrelling to Henry’s aid, knocking two bandits aside as she pulled on the reins to his horse and led them back in the direction they came from, the thieves in hot pursuit yet unable to keep up with the horses in the rain and the mud.

“Henry!” she tried to shout over the tempest. “We’re going to have to make the jump!”

“Robby, I know you’re real good at planning and stuff but I think dying is best left to types like me!”

“It’s the only way to get rid of them! Do you honestly want to spend more time in the storm here with no shelter to hide us from them?”

Though he was still grinning widely, Henry had no reply.

“Henry, we’re going to have to do something now!” The horses were tiring, the bandits were gaining.

“...I mean, since you’re the expert and all, I just hope that dying will feel as good as I imagined it.”

The duo turned their horses abruptly in the hopes that their speed would gain them enough traction in spite of the water and mud, throwing down two men who had stopped in their tracks in total surprise to see their return. The others slipped in their failed attempts to catch them, and soon the gorge loomed through the mist once more.

“Oh no you don’t!” The bandit woman, strong and infuriated, powered through the storm on her tree-trunk legs and pulled up to Henry’s side. “This is the last night we go hungry!”

Urging their horses through the rain, they took the leap and sailed off the rocky edge with the wind at their backs and the terrible vastness of the chasm yawning open as though anticipating their fall in the hopes of swallowing them whole. Robin’s pounding heartbeat was the only thing she could hear. For a single, terrible moment, she was rendered blind by the fog.

A crow’s shriek pierced through and Robin craned her neck behind to see the bandit woman clinging to the rump of Henry’s horse and dragging them down due to her sheer mass; Henry quickly took flight in spite of the rain weighing down his feathers and the bandit grasping at him, and the last glimpse they ever had of the woman was surprise softening the lines of her hardened face before she and the horse were lost forever to the bottom of the gorge with one last scream.

Their landing was swift, brutal. The horse’s legs buckled under their combined weight as it crashed hard onto the lip of a shallow cave jutting out of the face of the rock and Robin flew off the animal and rolled onto her side painfully, stars bursting in her eyesight as her head bounced off the wet floor with a loud crack. Judging by Neferi’s furious barking, the landing had not hurt her—a quick check after releasing her from her saddlebag revealed no injuries other than just being shaken from their jump. Henry had landed shortly after them, soaked to the bone and laughing hysterically. Upon a closer examination, she realised that the water pooling at his feet was mixed with blood and she patted him down worriedly until reaching his neck. The bandit had left small but deep gashes at his nape with her blunt nails and, having taken his shirt off, a long ragged wound that was no doubt made with the edge of a sword was revealed. Robin could glimpse the pale grey-lilac of bone peeking through the mess.

Henry gasped when he was touched. “Ow! Shit! Robby, that really hurts!” His laughter quavered.

Robin froze. “Henry—I’m sorry I hurt you, I—you’ve never cursed before,” she stammered.

“That’s ‘cause I prefer hexing, nya ha ha—“

“Henry, stop laughing and be serious for once!

Her scream echoed loudly. Henry’s smile faltered just the tiniest bit at the edges; now it did not look so natural on his face, now she felt guiltier than ever. He was only trying to help, his entire reason here was to be at her side, and all she had done recently was treat him like a nuisance when his wounds were the result of taking on four armed men for her sake, when it was not his fault that the weather was so uncooperative, nor that bandits had nearly succeeded in ambushing them…

With one horse gone, they had lost half their supplies. Whatever they had left in the other packs was dwindling fast, and though spring was approaching, it meant little unless they could find more food and water to get them through the end of the season. To her dismay, rummaging through the bags only turned up two bottled potions and a single healing staff. Robin cursed her stupidity: if she was supposed to be charged with the logistics of their journey and had several years of experience under Mustafa’s tutelage in the wild, then how could she have missed something as dire as no medicine? How could she be so ignorant as to assume they would have been able to cross the Midmire safely and be able to restock before arriving in Ylisse?

Stupid, the robe agreed maliciously.

“Don’t use it on me,” Henry said. He was too serious, too soft, and Robin remembered the first year they had in the company of this frightened, feral child who only spoke in growls and grunts until they had proved their trustworthiness to him. His purple brown eyes were fixed on the prone horse. The poor beast was very quiet and its eyes were glazed over from the pain of its shattered legs.

“Oh, Henry...you know staffs and staves can’t heal broken bones.”

“Please…”

“Gods Henry, I wish I could, I know you especially do. Even if they did...there’s no way he can climb out of here.”

The storm roared outside. Henry refused to look her in the eyes, instead focusing on the horse’s shallow breathing and scratching the small of his back where the dried blood had begun to itch.

“Sometimes, I really hate it when you’re right.” He would still not look at her. “Just...give me some time—alone.”

She fetched their remaining bowl from the pack and left the safety of the cave’s interior to collect rainwater, soon filling it up and giving it to Neferi to drink before gathering more to clean Henry’s wounds. He sat with his torn back to the cave entrance with the horse’s head in his lap. His whispers were soft, crooning, and he stroked its muzzle with so much love that it broke her heart to see their pain. Robin did not look away as he used a hex to slit its throat quickly and soon his trousers absorbed so much blood that it seemed as though he wore scarlet.

Robin sat beside him quietly and set to work by mixing in the contents of one bottle into the water. She used the saddle blanket as a rag to dip into the solution and clean his mangled skin before using the staff to knit his body closed. Her next task was to remove the rest of his clothes and set them out in the entrance to soak clean as she mopped up the blood from the stone floor, divesting the dead animal of its carrying packs and organising what little contents they had left, if only to take inventory and calculate how long they had until they ran out of food. The last of their fuel was used up for the fire and Robin sat close to Henry in their last change of clean clothing wrapped snug in the only blanket they had left.

She tried to break the silence. “Those men are still waiting for us out there.”

Henry stared into the fire and allowed Neferi to crawl into his lap. He did not respond.

The rest of the night was spent in such a fashion. Their belongings (two waterskins, the Mire tome Henry had in his robes, twine, foil, a quarter loaf of bread, a parcel of dried fruit, oil, wheat, and their mokeskins) were scattered about in an attempt to have them dry quickly by the crackling fire. Soon their stomachs were growling in protest, but she was loath to use up what little they had at the moment.

“Cut him open,” Henry said dully. The puppy had stopped whimpering, having fallen asleep by his side. “He can do one last thing for us.”

There were no flies that could have swarmed over its corpse, thankfully, and though the horse was stiffening up in its journey further into death, its hide proved malleable enough as its belly was sliced open and its cold, marbled guts spilled over. Both stuck their hands inside and channeled fire magic to cook it thoroughly. Robin felt extremely guilty to admit that it smelled incredibly appetising as its innards began to steam, and pulling out her hands revealed them to be soaked in its blood and juices.

Henry simply put his mouth to the flesh and tore strips off (as though he were a wolf, Robin mused), sharing the liver and the intestines with Neferi. The trio gorged themselves on the dead animal in the anticipation of lean days ahead, as there was no possible way to cure and preserve anything when they had no more salt and not enough kindling to smoke meat—however appreciative they were of the opportunity afforded to them, the circumstances of the Midmire and the horse’s sacrifice weighed heavily on their minds. After managing to crack a few ribs open to suck the marrow out, Henry presented her with its heart.

Robin bristled. The last time she eat heart was at her wedding banquet. Every new mother needs to be well nourished, Validar had explained with that predatory smile.

“For all of us.” She closed her hands over his, holding onto the bloody organ. “We all need to keep out strength up.”

However well-fed she was, her heart was heavy with worry. The fire had died down to its last embers and the three had curled up by its side after pushing the carcass out the cave and off into the abyss to join its companion and the bandit woman. Several times, Robin had ventured out to the lip of the cave to scout briefly now that the rains had cleared and the moon shone bone-white over the bleakness of the marsh, with the forms of the thieves waiting for them back on the other side starkly illuminated.

Returning to sleep was difficult when she was plagued by nightmares of falling into the gorge.

They left the very next morning, climbing up the steep rock face with the rising of the sun at their faces. Pushing a horse up, much less two, would have been impossible, yet the weight of their satchels on their backs proved as cumbersome as the stares of the thieves burning into them as they finally made their way up and continued farther east.

Without the horses, the trek was very difficult, and tripping over the wet stony land became a common hazard, often having to carry Neferi on their backs due to the rocks and pebbles cutting her paws. Within the week, they ran out of food and resorted to trying to snatch lizards, sparrows, and soon smaller and smaller game as the terrain transitioned to scrubby plains with not even a rabbit in sight. With the arrival of spring, the winter rains no longer filled their waterskins and the threat of thirst so close to the border jeopardised their safe passage. Robin and Henry grew lean and weak and nervous.

On the second week of spring they found themselves hiding behind a large rock and peeking out over the large border post that stood between them and freedom. Blooms of poppies and cosmos that grew after the rains made for valuable cover in the meadow as they ducked low and watched soldiers in blue armour file in neatly after a roll call.

Henry licked his parched lips. “They don’t look to be too many...maybe we can try to sneak by.”

“With that watchtower of theirs, not likely. And they’ve got at least three pairs still outside.”

Hunger and thirst made them sluggish and despondent. They were this close to leaving the Grimleal behind...the promise of a new life was just within their grasp, and yet, fatigue sapped the strength not just from their bodies, but from their morale. Despite the wealth of arms within their mokeskins, fighting in their state would have been suicidal.

“I don’t suppose we can just take a nap and wait until night? Maybe dying in my sleep would feel better,” Henry yawned and leaned against the sun-warmed rock.

I’ll take you up on that offer, Robin almost wanted to say. And yet...the voice she had conjured up for her mother’s reassuring words spoke to her. You can do it darling. It’s just ahead. Don’t give up yet. And she remembered the sacrifices Noam and Mustafa made for her sake, and her longing for them turned her heartache into the tiniest bit of courage.

“We can’t give up yet, not when it’s just up ahead.” Robin held his hand in hers. “Even if we have to wait a week until they change the guard, we’ll cross somehow. We came all this way, didn’t we?” She smiled wanly.

“...Yeah, we did. If I don’t die first, this’ll make for a great memoir to sell.”

The incident at the gorge had taught Robin, too late, that water cancelled out the effects of the thousandfur robe (which, in retrospect, came as no surprise, seeing as rain or running water was often employed against dark magicks or dangerous creatures such as vampires or wraiths), explaining why it had not warned her of the bandits nor had she sensed the robe’s presence afterwards. Now, the sharp tingle she felt all over her skin coincided with the loud blast of a horn from the border post.

“Henry!” Robin warned and pressed him further into the rock with an outstretched hand. To the west, a rising dust cloud heralded a horde of at least forty strong—barbarians and myrmidons, all heavily armed and the bloodlust in their faces evident even at a distance. The man who was obviously their leader was draped in an enormous bear pelt, bare-chested, heavily scarred, burly with muscle. Another, presumably his second in command, stopped dead by his side.

A spyglass glinted in the sunlight from where it was attached to his hip. Very slowly, very deliberately so that they could see him, the bandit pointed straight to their hiding place.

Pegasus dung.

Hiding was no longer an option. Grabbing the back of his shirt, Robin hauled Henry up to his feet with all the strength she could muster and scooped the dog up in her arms, sprinting as fast as they could to the base, Ylisseans be damned.

A hellfire of arrows rained upon the meadow with the hoots and shouts of bandits streaming eagerly down the hill, with an answering volley from the Ylisseans barely touching them as Robin urged her legs to keep going, to not fail her at such a crucial moment and get them across the border. Henry’s sweaty clammy hand was clamped over hers and in constant danger of slipping away as they managed to sidestep more than one close call from the arrows and from stumbling down their steep climb.

Horsemen and infantry from the border post were released onto the field with a mighty roar from the horn, brandishing spears and axes that gleamed in the sun and responded in kind to their adversaries before them, twisting, stabbing, slashing—blood sang in the air and the thousandfur robe pulsed in greedy anticipation. Tactician! it crowed to her.

Robin threw them to the grass just as a horse nearly trampled them underfoot. The soldier astride its back pulled his lance from a barbarian’s neck with a loud gush of blood. “Watch it!” he yelled before diving back into the fray.

There! With the battle underway, the border fence was yet guarded, though the soldiers manning it were focused on the rogues and not on them.

“Hurry!” Robin shouted. Just a little further and—!

Icy horror killed her train of thought as the trio found themselves surrounded by a tight circle of bandits. The smirking rogues were not great in number, but Robin and Henry were in no condition to fight them all and win. A small opening was created and their leader stepped in to face them, murder in his face. “I don’t care if the bounty asked for you little punks alive,” he cracked his jaw and spat threateningly into the grass. “All the gold in the world won’t pay for what you did to Freda.” He snapped his fingers. “Tie ‘em up. Once we got ‘em, we can leave this shithole behind.”

“No!” Robin shrieked and bit the hand that touched her, raking her nails across another’s arm and drawing blood. “Don’t touch him! Don’t you dare touch him!” Fire lit her veins in spite of her weakened state, anger burned her skin when they tried to pry Henry from her and kicked Neferi away when she threatened to bite them as well. “Henry, you can’t let go!”

“We don’t got time for this,” a wiry man grumbled and smashed his club into their hands: once, twice, three more times before their fingers buckled, and he swung it into her face for good measure. Robin choked on the blood that filled her mouth.

She screamed and kicked uselessly into the air as she was lifted onto her back. An order was barked out to restrain her, dozen of filthy, scabby hands swarming over her, carrying her farther from Henry and silencing her pleas. Everything ached under their rough touch. Ropes were tightened over her stomach, around her wrists. A hand dove between her legs to secure a knot and—

And she was suddenly on the ground and running so fast that the wind and her heartbeat roared in her ears and drowned out the sounds of dying men and barking and the smell of ozone burning the air, the land blurred through her tearful eyes and she could distinguish nothing but colour and light as her shaking legs carried her far, far away and her body felt unbearably light through it all.

Robin’s surroundings were immediately unfamiliar when she came to a dead stop. Long gray-green grass, sparse trees, and a few white flowers had replaced the beautiful meadow and its carnage. Neferi had somehow managed to keep up with her. Both panted wearily, realising with dread that they had left Henry behind...it was too much in too little time. Soon, the lack of nourishment, the months of hard travel, and the jarring loss she felt with Henry’s absence caught up to Robin, who promptly keeled back and fell unconscious to the ground.

 

                               

                                                                                             

 

 

She was back in the darkened arena under the desert. She dreamt of Validar, with his wicked, predatory grin, laughing. He demeaned her and demanded her return in the same breath, parrying her magic with almost effortless cruelty.

And yet...she was not alone. Robin was hard pressed to tell if she had ever seen the swordsman before in her life, yet his blade was sharp and his strikes rang true as the blessed sword repelled Validar’s magic. Are you alright? his voice was concerned, yet his smile reassuring, warm against the chill of their stony prison. We’ll get through this. I know we can, he declared confidently before rushing back to face Validar head on. Their shouts and bursts of light echoed throughout. Robin was in a daze, recognising that none of that was real—and yet, it was no dream either.

Why am I seeing this? she thought, and the environment soon melted into soft, dark warmth that cocooned her injured body. She wondered if this was what a womb felt like.

Saw them, the voice of the thousandfur robe spoke out. Saw them close. Help coming, it said vehemently. Help coming soon. Friends.

Friends, Robin repeated tiredly before she slipped back into a brief sleep.

And then:

“Chrom, we have to do something!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

                                                                                                  

 

Chrom loved spring—it was his favourite time of the year. Spring meant tender young grass and flowers peeking out shyly from the frozen earth, and barren trees blooming with the promise of new life in the months to come; it meant new foals in the stables and new puppies in the kennels. Warmer days meant no more of those bulky, horrendously scratchy wool underthings Frederick insisted they wear lest they catch cold. Spring meant sun and blue skies replacing the icy gray bleakness of winter.

Best of all, spring meant that his birthday was to be celebrated soon, with delicious treats coming back in season for a much anticipated feast, where he would be surrounded by all of his dearest friends and comrades in merrymaking and good-natured revelry lasting for days on end.

"Ouch!"

A sharp needle pricked Chrom out of his reverie, and he rubbed the sore spot with a grimace.

"Beg pardon, Your Highness." The elderly tailor did not sound sorry in the slightest and was attempting to thread his needle through a cuff in spite of Chrom's constant fidgeting.

The tailor. The valets. The unravelled spools of silk and linen sitting innocently at the base of the standing block he was made to wait on. He was currently at a fitting.

For his ball attire.

Right.

"Chrom, have you been listening to anything we've said just now?" his younger sister Lissa asked obnoxiously from her settee as she devoured a plate of pear tarts and sprayed crumbs all over her clean pinafore and the couch. Their knight Frederick scowled at the sight and immediately brushed the offending particles into his open palm and out the window.

Flushing a bright scarlet at having been caught daydreaming—again—Chrom tugged at his too tight collar as the increasingly exasperated clothiers tried to stitch and sew him into an appropriately princely doublet. All that gold thread was making him itch. "Maybe I'd be able to hear you better if you weren't stuffing your face right now."

"Maybe you'd be able to sit down and enjoy some delicious tarts with me if you weren't spacing out all the time. I was done ages ago," she added smugly. "Honestly, what's gotten into you lately? You've been so weird the entire week."

Chrom stifled a pained yelp as a small army of needles descended upon his upper thighs with a vengeance. In-between the fitting, the chafing, and the questioning, he was rapidly sinking into a rather foul mood. Could he not have a moment of respite? His attempt at a gruff "none of your business" came out petulant and dismissive instead, embarrassing him further.

"Is this about the council decree?" Emmeryn inquired sagely.

Chrom winced; whether it was from another pin prick or the accuracy of her words, he could not tell.

His elder sister Emmeryn sat on Lissa's right, resplendent in her gold and cream gown and with her beautifully soft blonde curls falling down her narrow shoulders. Even without her state decorations and the green mantle he had become so used to seeing her in, she looked every inch the exalt she was, serene and unbothered by worldly trifles. Her knight Phila stood behind the couch in reticent silence, yet her eyes also betrayed an interest in his preoccupations. In times like these, Chrom wished Emmeryn would play more the part of his exalt and less his sister, if only to deflect the attention and usual worries that came his way.

"Emm," he tried placating her, "it's nothing. Really."

"Admitting your worries is not a shameful thing, Chrom." She sipped smoothly from her cup of mulled cider and set the fine white crockery down on the sideboard—Lissa's hands gripped hers as the two women leaned forward, their green eyes alight with sisterly concern. Gods, was it hard to ignore those eyes. "And I daresay that you're not the first prince to feel uncertainty over his future. Please, do not shut us out when you fret so. You have an entire castle willing to open their ears to hear your problems." Emmeryn spoke with her usual wisdom beyond her years. It reassured him to have the counsel of someone as patient and knowledgeable as she.

Perhaps the general atmosphere had become too supportive as the entire dressing room had gone silent with expectancy. Even the tailors (one of whom was gazing raptly up at him from the rather awkward position of adjusting the points of his trousers) were quiet. What a way to put him on the spot…

Chrom's sigh was deep, bone-weary. "It's just—" he began, feeling rather foolish, and then he pushed himself to just get it over with already. "I feel...I...I had never really wanted to find a wife like this."

In the silence, Lissa arched her brow while Emmeryn did not so much as blink.

"And...and on my birthday, no less," he finished lamely. On one hand, he felt very stupid for having phrased it thus. On the other...well, he finally said it, at least.

"Chrom," Lissa said, not unkindly, but without Emmeryn's finesse, "did you honestly think that you'd find someone by rescuing them from some ogre's tower like in Sumia's books?"

Yes, he thought, and prayed that particular fantasy of his would never come to light or else he would never hear the end of it.

Frederick cleared his throat politely. "If I may be so bold as to speak, milord, it might do well to remember that as the heirs living under the current Exalt's reign," he bowed his head respectfully towards Emmeryn, "you are quite lucky to have escaped the fate of your female forbears."

"What, paraded in front of older men like some prize horse at the fair before being sold off to the highest bidder and then being forced to have a million babies while hubby dearest goes off gallivanting with some girlfriend of the week?" Lissa deadpanned.

"Well, yes, though perhaps phrased in a less crude way—"

"That's the thing, Lissa," Chrom grumbled. "I do feel like a prize at the fair." He turned to look at himself in the enormous lead-glass mirror and took in his image with undisguised revulsion. "I even look like one!" he exclaimed at the enormous puffed sleeves with long trailing edges, the ghastly patterned hose, and the too-pointed toes of his shoes. "I look foppish. No, better yet, I look like one of those giant squashes the farmers come to exhibit."

"Your Highness, I assure you that your current attire is quite fashionable—" the outraged tailor protested.

Lissa groaned loudly. "Chrom, you totally missed the point on that one."

"What Lissa meant to say," Emmeryn intervened, diplomatic as always, "is that few people born to the court are afforded such opportunities." The room, barring Chrom, found themselves nodding in agreement. "I pray to Naga that I should never again have to see a girl married off to a stranger's house out of obligation to a father or a desire to build political alliances. That she should have the liberty to marry for love." At this, Phila lay a hesitant hand upon her exalt's shoulder. A rosy blush painted the apples of her cheeks when the touch was reciprocated by a delicate hand squeezing it in return, and those assembled were gratified by the (admittedly small) display of affection given the knight's fame for stoicism.

"And though you are most certainly not a girl, Chrom," Emmeryn continued, turning those knowing green eyes back onto him, "I prayed that I would never see the day where you both were to be shipped off to some far-off place and married to a person you had never even met before your wedding, never to come home and see us except on a feast day. Or perhaps even to one of our own courtiers, to be used as a bargaining chip against me should the desire to stage a coup catch someone's fancy."

"Never!" Lissa cried and held tight to her sister's sleeves. The statement had upset her, and Chrom could not blame her, considering the very thought not only hurt him as well, but it had come dangerously close to being fulfilled in the past. The very memories brought bile rushing up to his throat.

Emmeryn stroked Lissa's hair soothingly. "That is why, as Exalt, I am committed to seeing you two having a choice and a voice in the matter. Someone who will love you as much as you will love them."

Chrom felt small in comparison to her magnanimous words. He felt selfish for complaining given the generosity of his sister and the fact that he could have been worse off. And yet, he could not completely dispel his anxieties. "I don't doubt that, sister, it's just…" he sighed again. "I don't know if I can actually be able to find someone for me just like that. And—does it have to be at banquet?"

"Whatever could be wrong with that?" There was a teasing glimmer in Emmeryn's eyes.

With the somewhat heavy mood lifted, Lissa rolled her eyes and laughed. "For a prince, you sure do seem to hate feasts and dressing up. What's so bad about getting to eat fancy food and changing out of your dirty Shepherding clothes once in a while?"

"We already eat nicer food compared to everyone else. And there's nothing wrong with my normal clothes! I just don't see what all the fuss has to be about, with all the courtly posturing, and the etiquette, and being mobbed all the time by people wanting to foist their daughters off on me."

"Oh no, Chrom's popular with ladies? I never would've guessed." Chrom shot Lissa an annoyed glare and she stuck her tongue out in reply.

He turned to Emmeryn, his next words pleading. "I can't connect properly to my comrades and my friends if all they see is this pompous castle brat strutting around in velvet who only talks to other nobles. Can't we host something smaller? Something more informal?"

Frederick tutted. "Milord, as it is the first celebration of Naga's Year since the end of the war, would you not agree that a populace weary of famine and rationing would find dancing and tables full for feasting a welcome sight?"

"Yes, but—"

"And if you are so concerned with, ah, 'being able to connect to others,' then I think you will be pleased to know attendance has been extended to the peasantry as well as the nobility," Phila said.

"That should give you a wide enough pool of ladies to choose from," Emmeryn winked at Chrom.

"At least that means their expectations might be lowered if he's so concerned about looking too well-mannered," Lissa smirked.

Mercifully, the barracks' bell rang, signalling the beginning of practice drills for the day. Chrom practically tore off his clothes in his haste to escape, leaving behind a trail of gaudy yellow fabric and the fading echoes of his hurried "goodbye!" bouncing off the walls of the tower. Frederick and the valets sighed and began the chore of collecting the discarded garments off the floor and returning them to their hanging stand as the women enjoyed a laugh at the flustered prince's expense.

"It's a shame," Lissa gasped and wiped the tears away from her eyes, "that you didn't cart him off to the spring vegetable fair, Emm. You could have submitted him as a lovely squash and he would've won us a ribbon!"

 

                                                                                    

 

 

Today was going to be a very good day, Chrom assured himself as he rose from bed and washed in the nightstand basin. It was going to be a very good day because today was the start of his annual hunting trip. Usually, it was planned for the week before his birthday, but given the circumstances, he had ceded to the council's pestering (and Emmeryn's gentler prodding) and rescheduled it two months earlier.

But! It would be of little importance, he decided. It would be a wonderful few days of nothing but the thrill of the chase through the meadows and the wood, feasting on the results of the hunt and sleeping under the starry skirts of night's black mantle. Yes, he enjoyed his Shepherding duties, he loved his friends dearly, and he took his princely devotion to his people and his family with utmost seriousness. But, he was a man, and he found it perfectly within his rights as a man and as a prince to find some time away from it all and lose himself to the wind in his hair and the rush of adrenaline in his veins.

No more of Vaike's well-natured but increasingly annoying ribbing about a wife, Chrom thought as he flung open the doors to his balcony. The leaves on the oak that stood guard over his room were budding anew and he was immensely satisfied to see that the shoddily built birdhouse he made as a boy had withstood the snow and the mated pair of jays that came, without fail, every spring to raise their babies greeted him with happy chirps.

No birthday punches from Sully, no Maribelle fussing over the state of his clothes. An entire few days to himself of not having to be the third wheel in Stahl and Cordelia's relationship. Chrom's cheer increased with each thought as he mowed through an excellent breakfast of ham and eggs.

Yes, it would be a fine trip indeed. It would give him the strength he needed on his return to deal with Emmeryn's insufferable cabinet and his rowdy, but entirely lovable Shepherds.

"What took you so long?" Lissa asked as she crawled out from under her mare, satisfied that the saddle girth was steady and tight. "I wear more layers than you and even then I still got here before."

"Remind me again why she's coming?" Chrom pinched the bridge of his nose.

"As a healer, her skills are quite remarkable, and you would very much miss them should you have foolishly decided to ride out by yourself and then fall into a ditch and risk dying of exposure," Frederick said as he picked off imaginary specks of dust off his horse. "Or perhaps by being mauled by a bear."

"Thanks," Chrom replied drily.

"And," Lissa added smugly and threw straw at him, "I'm one of the few women that can be around you right now without the council pitching a fit."

"I don't know about calling you a woman…"

"Hey!"

They made up swiftly after they mounted their horses and Chrom tidied the bits of straw out of Lissa's dress and hair out of Frederick's sight. With a final bag check, they bade the stable hands to open the gates for them just as they were intercepted by a few of the Shepherds.

"Thought you could escape from us without saying goodbye?" Sully punched his leg from where she stood. Chrom had to hold back his grimace of pain or risk being laughed at by her.

"Hey, from the way you all were acting up at supper yesterday, I don't blame him," Stahl yawned and ran a hand through his perpetual bedhead. "Severa kept Cordy up all night. But she sends her regards." Stahl waved sleepily and left almost as quickly as he came.

"Soon that'll be you, Cap." Vaike added his own punch. Now Chrom was not so sure if he was right to call them lovable. "Married off to some pretty little thing and complaining when the kids won't let you catch some shut-eye. Or...you could always use that as an excuse," Vaike grinned and waggled his brows suggestively.

Sully groaned. "Ugh! Is there a moment where you can actually not be such a perv for once? And I'm the only one who gets to punch him, ya meathead!"

Before they could be treated to the completely common, completely loud spectacle of Sully and Vaike quarreling, a crash and a shout from the direction of the stables revealed barrels and hay strewn everywhere and Sumia running as fast as she could to them. Adding to the sense of general amazement was that she managed to do so without tripping over her own feet.

They allowed her a moment to catch her breath. Sumia recuperated quickly enough and smiled nervously through her lashes and long ash-brown curls that had fallen into her pink face. "S-sorry I'm late Captain, I didn't want you to think that I wasn't interested in seeing you off—not that it's any of my business if you wanted to leave by yourself—oh, never mind." She held out an impeccably wrapped parcel to him. "I remember you said that old Nan used to make you rhubarb and fiddlehead pie...I thought you might enjoy it as a special treat, even if it isn't your birthday just yet."

Sumia's presence was a balm that saved their small send-off from potential disaster. Chrom accepted her package with utmost gratefulness. "Thank you Sumia. I'll be sure to remember you once I get around to eating it." He refrained from mentioning that he hated rhubarb.

Pink soon deepened into a strong cherry red that spread from her cheeks to the tips of her ears. "I—I hope you like it, Captain." Without further warning, she turned abruptly and ran back to the stables, before turning again to wave shyly, and turning once more to a sprint and promptly falling flat on her face when the toe of her boot tangled with her shin. The amused stable hands were completely used to her clumsiness and helped her up.

"Well, now that we've settled our goodbyes…" Lissa teased. Chrom rolled his eyes at her before waving once more to his friends. He snapped the reins and was soon off with Lissa and Frederick close behind.

Past the castle gates, down the stone bridge and into Ylisstol proper, the city was alight with anticipation for celebrating Naga's Year. Rows of cheerful pennants were being sewed onto sturdy ropes to hang over the roofs in a month's time. Housewives and their children pulled old clothing apart at the seams and set the scraps of cloth into a collective tub to be washed before their reuse, for it was customary to purchase or make a new wardrobe for the festivities. Grocers in the square haggled with farmers over the size and price of their crops, girls laughed and sang as they painted a maypole, and the rich scent of ham and ale floated out of the pubs as they opened up shop for the morning. There was nowhere Chrom loved more than Ylisstol, and he greeted the citizenry with as much joy as they did for him.

It was still hard to believe he would come to view the city as such.

They rode out of Ylisstol in a companionable silence, focused more on the small collection of villages and farmland that surrounded the city walls before reaching the mighty forest that separated the city from the southwestern province of Themis. Chrom was completely lost in thought to the chain of events that brought them to where they stood.

Gangrel the Mad King was beloved by the Plegian capital he ruled over, yet he struggled to unify the nation surrounding his walled city under his banner. Despite opposition from his subjects in key areas in the east and the south, most pledged their loyalty to him when he proclaimed his intention to steal the Fire Emblem—Ylisse's most prized treasure, passed down from the legendary Hero-Kings Anri, Sigurd and Marth—to restore Plegia to its former glory. While Gangrel was not universally beloved, the Ylisseans were despised by all.

Chrom used to hate them for it. His grandfather poisoned his son's heart with his increasingly toxic religious fanaticism, and upon his deathbed after the hateful old man died attempting to subdue a Plegian border town, his newly Exalted son took up his cause along with his crown. The heathens, he would declare at each mass, have death and decay dwelling in their hearts. They are not children of the light as Naga's Will has declared us to be. Grima's breath of ruin has darkened their flesh and corrupted their earthly souls—if they refuse to accept Naga's light, if they continue to spurn Her Truth and Her Love as they submit themselves to Grima's whims, then we shall cast them down and smite them as Naga sees fit.

What followed was a bloody war as his father penetrated deeper into Plegia and terrorised the populace under threat of conversion or the sword. In the end, he, like hundreds of conquerors before him, failed to even reach the walls of Plegia's fabled capital, but not before cutting a swathe of torched temples, ruined villages, and leaving thousands orphaned, injured or dead. Adding to Plegia's woes were a terrible drought and pestilence that struck soon after and left their farms scorched and their cattle barren; those who had survived the war either succumbed to starvation and disease, or could only watch helplessly as their entire community died around them. Chrom could only recall so much from his history and geography lessons. What he did remember was growing up with an embittered father who bullied his court and his servants and who had neither the time nor inclination for his family. When he was bedridden in his final months and died in his sleep soon after, Chrom could only think of it as too lenient a punishment.

What Chrom remembered was a man who tormented his firstborn in his attempts to mould her into his own image. He remembered his unyielding obsession with passing down the Falchion to her in the hopes that she would finish what her grandfather had started. He remembered, just barely, the councilmen who either resigned in disgust, or were stripped of their posts for voicing any opposition whatsoever, soon replaced by fawning, simpering sycophants who could care less as the treasury was drained in fevered attempts to reorganise their army for another campaign.

After his death, mother followed him after birthing Lissa. His Halidom passed onto Emmeryn, and she shouldered all its grief and troubles that came with it as though a stately mantle, never once shedding a tear in public despite the rocks and the hate thrown the way of the Exalt's daughter.

Chrom hated the aftermath of the war, and thus hated Plegians for being part of it. Most of all, his deepest anger was reserved for the countrymen who heaped abuse and resentment on his sister, his sister who was not yet ten years old, whose crown barely even fit her head and yet was viewed as nothing more than an extension of his father's legacy. His anger simmered for years after, until one day where Emmeryn was due to give a speech in Ylisstol's square. She came back to the castle with blood pouring from her forehead—a well timed rock, from someone who was never caught. In the sick ward, where she was patched up and reassuring little Lissa, who fretted over the inevitable scar that would form, Chrom let his pent up fury explode.

"What's peace anyway? It's just empty words! What's real is that you've been hurt! Can't you see?!" He had cried, and screamed, and kicked at his nurses and at Frederick when they tried to restrain him. Emmeryn, poor, sweet, patient Emmeryn had nothing but kindness and understanding for his outburst.

"Chrom...one cannot let hatred ruled their heart. I must speak of hope!" she said softly. Lissa was huddled worriedly at her side. Despite the pallor of her face and her bandage, she still had a smile just for them. "See? Just as my head will scar and heal, so too will Ylisse. But like any other who is hurting, all they need is patience, care, and time."

Even at the tender age of 14, Emmeryn was no less wise than she was today. Her words, spoken with such conviction, became a reality when her steadfast dedication to rebuilding the Halidom and the unflinching love she had even for her harshest critics earned her the support of the nation. The fields turned golden with barley and rye once more, towns previously razed to the ground blossomed like the poppies planted to commemorate the dead, and the people bustled and thrived as Ylisse came to know peace once more.

And yet, the gods seemed to loathe their happiness, and with a carefree toss of the dice, hardship rolled onto the gameboard once again.

Emmeryn had shuffled her cabinet several times in the first few years since her ascension to the throne and Naga's acceptance of her in the Awakening ritual. The courtiers in her employ three years ago knew of Phila's long years in Emmeryn's service: her loyalty, her strength, her devotion to Ylisse and to Her Grace. The rumours of her intimacy with the Exalt were brushed off as mere girlish flights of fancy: "what care I if a lady devotes her spare time to courtly romances?" But when their bond deepened, the council fell into a panic. Having lovers and indulging in bodily pleasures and gestures of affective caprice were a mainstay of any self-respecting court. An Exalt spurning the attentions of suitors in favour of her knight—her inferior—was not to be tolerated.

Fearful of losing another Exalt and triggering a dynastic crisis with no heirs to succeed should Chrom and Lissa be endangered as well, the council prepared a squad of the Halidom's noblest sons to try and woo their reticent Exalt: all spoilt, pompous brats to whom humility and toil were foreign concepts in their gilded existence. Chrom had grown accustomed to being disappointed by many men in his short life, but his cousin (his mother's nephew, once a close confidant) suddenly seizing the chance to proclaim his suitor's candidacy was nothing short of a betrayal.

With the threat of Gangrel looming close, wedding preparations were hastily made. Phila was brutally separated from her lady and forbidden in her presence by the overzealous council. They admired his cousin's acceptable pedigree and his father's status as a prominent clergyman of Naga's church and selected him as their future prince consort. Thus, a quietly resigned Emmeryn and their preening bastard of a cousin were bundled off to be married in the eastern palace and spend their honeymoon there.

On their way across the aptly named Breakneck Pass, the couple and their retinue were ambushed by a company of sellswords under Gangrel's pay, having been tipped off to the Exalt's movements by a traitorous hierarch who had once been one of Emmeryn's greatest supporters. Instead of the court position in Plegia he was promised, the elder was executed on the spot. Chrom was informed that his cousin did not even attempt to come to Emmeryn's defense and the coward ran off from their litter and fell to his death with his expensive white wedding clothes streaming behind him like a banner.

What arrived at the eastern palace was a ransom note instead of a royal couple: Bring the Fire Emblem with you, or your Exalt dies.

Chrom did not trust the council after their astounding level of incompetence and inability to take action. He summoned his Shepherds, his militia formed by some of the strongest, most courageous people he knew, and they set off across the border and into Plegia's sands with the Fire Emblem in tow. He could care less for whatever fabled properties the shield may have possessed in the past; an heirloom was nowhere near as valuable to him as his sister. Through scorching air and snarling brigands, they soon reached the walls of Gangrel's stronghold, where they were almost killed in a neatly set ambush under the watchful eye of Gangrel's smirking betrothed. Their mission would have ended in total failure had it not been for the Pegasus Knights.

The traditional guardians of their monarch since the times of Queen Caeda, Phila led her squadron in a noble and gallant rescue as they cut down the archers in their paths with the use of their own arrows and wind magic. Emmeryn, who had endured ignoble imprisonment and was made to stand on the city ramparts, was pushed off by Gangrel, furious that his plans had been thwarted. Phila performed a daring jump and caught Emmeryn in mid-air. The fall was hard, and left them both permanently injured and disfigured...but Emmeryn was not killed that day. Their return to Ylisse was triumphant and heralded with much fanfare and joy. The council had no choice but to award Phila her lady's hand after she had won the hearts of the nation and had proved her devotion to her Exalt at the risk of her own life.

To Chrom and Lissa's glee, Emmeryn decided to shed her pacifism for a day and performed a thoroughly brutal excision of her cabinet once more, choosing from a wide variety of lawmakers, soldiers, nobles, and even lay peasantry for her new council. Ylisse had prospered under her rule before, yes, but much of it had also been the result of extensive tampering and delays by the old guard. "Now," she had proclaimed with much optimism, "we can hope for an even brighter future for our people."

"Wouldn't having so much power to dismiss a council just like that be a little too close to a tyrant?" he had teased her.

Her reply was measured but equally mischievous. "Perhaps."

Three years after the new council appointment, Ylisse was coming into the spring of its glory. Of her many reforms, her decree of freer marriages benefitted youth who would have otherwise been shackled to a house not of their own desire, and children who would have been born into unhappy families now grew and thrived with much love and care. Best of all, Emmeryn's council could not give two damns over her choice of spouse.

"But," they had still reminded them. "The previous council was not entirely wrong. Should you wish to pass on your throne, you will need heirs."

"Is adoption not acceptable?" a more progressive courtier had inquired to the panel.

"The Awakening ritual calls for a blood relative of Deidre's line. Unless our ladyships suddenly develop an interest in men, then it is out of the question."

Truth be told, Emmeryn had no desire to conceive a child of her own. She had admitted to her siblings that their mother's death during birth had traumatised her and left her less than desirous for the same experience of blood, pain, and nursing. Having a baby, she felt, would impede with her duties to the Halidom. "The people are my children," she had declared with a sense of finality. "I should be no less devoted to them as a mother to her babe."

Chrom and Lissa had no qualms with her aversion to childbirth. For their sister, who had raised them, nurtured them, protected them and given them so much love during times of darkness, they would gladly play the part of the spares to her heir.

However, there was still the issue of the council breathing down their necks for them to find appropriate spouses during the festivities ("of your choosing, Your Highnesses") and making babies with them.

"I'm not a stud and my wife won't be a broodmare," Chrom grumbled into his sleeping roll after they had made camp for the night.

"What was that?"

"Uh, nothing Lissa. Go back to sleep."

Their entire trip had been unproductive thus far. It was still early in the year for the deer, fox, boar and pheasant they caught during their usual May hunts, along with a wealth of berries and fish and whatever else of the forest's bounty caught their fancy. Still, the landscape was undeniably lovely. Hoary white frost still decorated the grass and the trees and made a beautiful contrast to newly budding leaves. Birdsong was a constant, uplifting tune.

Exiting the massive forest led them further south, close to the meadows, the coastline, and settlements such as Southtown. Frederick was preparing their usual travel breakfast of pine needle tea and quail eggs when one of their hounds began to whine.

"What is it?" Chrom asked, setting down his drink to try and reassure the dog. "Did you scent anything?"

The dog's wrinkled jowls flicked anxious drool at him as it continued to cry and paw at the ground, sniffing furiously and begging to be released. Soon, it had the entire pack howling and straining at their leashes alongside it.

"Allow me." Frederick loosened them free. The hounds took off immediately with a scandalous cacophony of barking that nearly spooked Lissa into falling off her seat. Silence. Then, they returned with confusion evident across their plaintive faces. They had indeed managed to catch a whiff, but were somehow unable to track it.

"Odd," Frederick mused. "The terrain should be clear enough for a scent. No winds to blow it away, either."

"Maybe it's old and they just lost it?"

"I highly doubt that, milady. Old scents would not pique their interest in such a manner."

"Wait a moment," Chrom said as the dogs' ears pricked up again. Distantly, barking could be heard.

The dogs took off once more. Chrom, Lissa and Frederick waited in patient curiosity for them; it was a strange turn of events, to be on a hunt in the company of some of the finest animals bred specifically for such a purpose, yet for them to be unable to find their quarry. If they ended up bringing back nothing or perhaps something as equally useless—a discarded shoe, perhaps?—they could all at least enjoy it as a lark.

Instead, they brought back a smaller, much weirder kind of dog back with them. It was clearly a puppy: short and bright sandy brown fur, very long legs and snout. It possessed a pair of enormous bat-like ears that were pinned to the back of its head and it had a very prominent limp along with a collection of bruises and cuts.

"Oh, you poor thing!" Lissa ran to it and scooped it up to her chest. It yelped when some of the more obvious bruising was touched. "Don't worry, I'll fix you up right away!"

"Milady, it would be highly imprudent to use part of our items convoy on a stray—"

"Too late!" Lissa had already mixed the contents of a potion bottle into a dish of water, which the wounded animal gulped down gratefully. The last dregs of the potion were poured onto a clean sheet of gauze that Lissa rubbed onto the puppy's skin to dissipate the bruising and close some of the cuts.

"You look so much better already! But what happened to you?" Lissa scratched behind its ears.

The dog wriggled out of her arms and began tugging and scratching at the laces of her boots, spinning in place and barking and whining and wagging its tail with the other dogs joining in to bark as well. It would run to the edge of their camp and return to them still barking and pawing at the dirt.

"I think…" Chrom said slowly, "that it wants us to follow it somewhere." Chrom kneeled closer to its eye level. "Can you take us?"

"Milord, it is—" Frederick was unable to even finish his sentence as Chrom quickly saddled his horse and set off with the sandy dog leading the way, Lissa following and Frederick catching up soon after. The din of hoofbeats and barking rang in their ears as the puppy led them deeper into the grass, looking over its shoulder periodically to make sure they were still on track, and continued further into the plains.

The dog stopped and looked back at them knowingly, seemingly having arrived at the location it remembered. It led them up a grassy knoll after the horses were left behind and the rest of the dogs followed. The curious sensation that Chrom had been feeling since they left camp grew stronger and stronger still...it was as if the Brand on his shoulder and Falchion, strapped to his hip, were tingling in excitement.

"Oh no!" Lissa gasped and pointed. Safely nestled within the tall grass was a robed figure who lay flat on (his? her?) back. Their breathing was soft and untroubled. Peaceful even. Despite being very much alive, they were also gravely injured and weak.

The duo ran to the person and the puppy bounded over and started licking and licking at their slack face, partially masked by the large hood of their robe. Blood that had been trickling out of their cut lip had crusted over into a scab. The siblings hovered anxiously over the mystery person, unsure of how to help, and Chrom wondering just what on earth was about this person that prompted such a reaction from his sword and from his Brand.

 

 

                                                                                     

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

                                                                                           

 

"What do you suppose we do?"

The deep voice roused Robin from unconsciousness. The sudden presence of light and redness beneath the cover of her eyelids hurt her and made her stir uncomfortably. And wherever she was, it smelled strongly of grass.

All of those details became inconsequential as she registered the pounding ache in her head. She tasted blood in her mouth and blinked blearily awake. Robin could barely make out two figures: one male, and another female.

"I...I dunno…" the girl's high, clear voice responded anxiously. At this point, Robin's eyes had fully opened, and the people standing over her turned away from their discussion to face her at the sound of her dull, pained groan, realising she had awoken. Now, their images stood out in sharp contrast to the sun lighting them up from behind.

"I see you're awake now," the man spoke. His was the deep voice she had heard.

"Hey there," his blonde companion said softly, almost shyly.

Robin decided that she liked them. Their words were kind and their intentions seemingly good.

She hoped.

"There're better places to take a nap than on the ground, you know," the young man—he must be the one called Chrom—teased. He leaned down closer and held his gloved hand out to her. "Give me your hand," he prompted.

Robin never quite knew what it was about this man that instilled such a deep sense of confidence in him, and despite her years of being trained to mistrust strangers, nothing stopped her from reaching out and taking his hand. As soon as their skin touched, the Mark on the back of her hand pulsed sharply—not with pain, but with a sensation that made Robin's heart race and her breath hitch at the back of her throat.

The thousandfur robe prickled and stood up on end excitedly in response.

As she was pulled up, Robin looked very carefully carefully into his eyes. She had seen red, purple, even black and yellow eyes before—but never blue. And even though she felt unsteady and dizzy on her feet, all she could think of was that his eyes seemed even bluer than the sky itself.

 

                                                                                           

 

Chrom threw an arm out to steady the hooded person as soon as they were up. They did not look too balanced on their feet, and were very clearly injured to begin with. "You alright?" he asked, and then mentally cursed himself. Of course they did not look alright.

"Y-yes," they replied. "Thank you, Chrom."

Well, that was surprising.

"Ah, then you know who I am?" Chrom asked, arching his eyebrow.

The person froze. "No, actually." The response was an odd one, but Chrom allowed them to continue. "I...it's strange...your name, it just...came to me…"

Chrom was somewhat disinclined to believe them, but the circumstances of their encounter, coupled with how evidently injured the mystery person was, convinced him to cut them slack. The last thing they needed was an interrogation session. However, certain things needed to be cleared up first.

"...Hmm, how curious," Chrom murmured. The hood obscuring their face was making it hard to discern their appearance and their voice; he had to lean in closer to be able to hear what they were saying. "Tell me, what's your name? What brings you here?"

The person paused, wracking their brain for the answer. The very process seemed to hurt them, as they winced and swayed precariously. Chrom kept close in case they needed to be supported again.

"My name is...it's…" They brought a hand up to their head uneasily. "Hmm?"

Their legs buckled from under them, with Chrom diving swiftly to catch them. Though the person was shorter, pulling their slack weight back up was no easy feat, and Lissa hovered anxiously at their side. The little dog began to paw and whine at the person's boot.

"Easy there," Chrom said. "You don't remember your own name?"

The person's hands, protected by tattered gloves, suddenly seized his biceps in a vicegrip. Frederick advanced on them warningly, but Chrom stopped him with an outstretched palm. Despite the obscurity of their hood, the desperation in their voice still carried over well enough.

"They took him," they whimpered.

"Who?"

"Henry! They took Henry! Please, you have to help me—"

"Wha—who's Henry? Who took him?"

"I...I…" They struggled to calm their breathing, turning this way and that, seemingly unable to make sense of their surroundings. "I'm not sure if...I'm sorry, but where am I, exactly?"

Lissa gasped and snapped her fingers together in realisation. "Hey, I've heard of this! It's called amnesia!"

"What?" Chrom was completely baffled by the term.

"Am-ne-sia. Loss of memory due to traumatic events, physical trauma, or powerful hypnotic spells and drugs. There are two types—"

"I think we can skip the medical lesson for now," Chrom interrupted. "And besides, how are you so sure that it's this…'amnesia'?"

"With a person all banged up like that and unable to remember their own name, what else could it be?"

"It's a load of pegasus dung, that's what." Frederick stood by his side and sized up the stranger with undisguised suspicion. "We're to believe you remember milord's name but not your own?"

The stranger, though their hood hid their eyes, looked as though they were a deer caught by a hunter's torchlight. "But—I…"

"Frederick," Chrom rounded on the knight, chiding him. "I understand your concerns, but what if it IS true? Look at them. We can't just leave them here, alone and confused. What sort of Shepherds would we be, then?"

The knight's distrust was not completely unfounded: on previous patrols, they had encountered several bandits and brigands who had attempted to feign injury and beg for the help of passersby (preferably merchants), only to hold them at knifepoint and demand their valuables in exchange for their safety. And though he did not like to admit he could be entirely too trusting at times, the circumstances did not smell of a plot to Chrom. The mysterious person's dog had come to them wounded and distressed. And unless that person was so dedicated to trickery as to hurt their own dog and themselves in such a manner, then he had no reason to suspect them of ill intent.

Even if it was more than a little strange for them to know his name.

Frederick sighed. "Just the same milord. I must emphasise caution. 'Twould not do to let a wolf into our flock."

Chrom took a good, long look at the stranger. They were still watching them back just as warily as Frederick, though they had kneeled stiffly to take up the dog in their arms and was accepting its worried licking. They looked about as threatening as a wet piece of paper...but Frederick did have a point.

"How far is Southtown from here?" he asked the knight.

"Not very. But I advise against Southtown just yet—the border post is around the same distance."

"Right then—we can take them to the post and sort it out there."

"Wait just one moment," the stranger said. Lissa had helped them stand up and she placed her hand on their elbow to steady them. Even in their sorry state, their voice managed to convey some amount of boldness. "Do I have a say in this?"

Chrom laughed at the unexpectedly defiant answer, and at Frederick's responding scowl. "Peace, friend—" They deflated visibly at the use of such a word. "I promise we'll hear all you have to say at the post. Now come."

With Lissa's gentle encouragement, the person hesitantly took Chrom's outstretched hand and allowed themselves to be led to the bottom of the hill to where the horses were waiting.

His mind dwelled on the way his Brand had pulsed in response to their touch, and he wondered.

 

 

                                                                                       

 

Robin took in the grassy scenery as the horses walked down the well-trodden dirt road. She was riding with the unfriendly looking man (Frederick, she reminded herself) at his insistence, arguing that if she was a threat, then he would be the one to keep the closest eye on her. He had even made sure to bind her wrists together with rope, should she attempt to draw a dagger on them or something equally nefarious.

While she understood the gesture, it was still bothersome.

"Fred," an exasperated Lissa had groaned when she saw the rope. "Isn't that a little too much?"

"We must not take our chances with this one, milady."

"What're they gonna do? Keel over and die on us? That'd be soooo threatening."

"Sarcasm aside, Lissa has a point," Chrom agreed. "If you'd have tried to rob us, wouldn't you have made your move by now?" He addressed Robin directly with a friendly smile, but she recognised the underlying appeal to her: to give an affirmation that she was not, in fact, a danger to them.

However nice that was, she doubted that an actual thief would answer honestly. Their kindness was disconcerting after months spent with only Henry and Neferi for company, so the best answer she could give was a noncommittal shrug.

Given her injuries, they allowed Robin to ride on horseback rather than force her to follow them on foot, much to Frederick's displeasure. Horses she was fine with; however, their large hunting dogs had surrounded her, curious and uneasy because the robe was scentless. Memories of the time when she was mauled years ago made her shrink back in fear.

Chrom noticed. "Oh, don't worry, they're all quite friendly, I assure you. See?" He grabbed her by the wrist without further warning and stuck it out to the dogs, who snuffled and licked at the skin exposed under her torn glove. Satisfied, they wagged their tails and went back to Frederick, who had watched the display with a scowl that never seemed to have left his face from the moment he saw her.

While she appreciated Chrom's gesture, she did not like being touched so casually by a complete stranger. The rope was tight, but her bracers kept her skin from being rubbed and chafed. "What will you do with me? Am I to be your prisoner?"

Chrom's loud, easy laugh carried over from where he was riding at the front. "Hah! You'll be free to go once we establish that you're no enemy of Ylisse."

Robin's heart stopped. "Is that where we are? Ylisse?"

"You've never heard of the halidom?" Frederick uttered incredulously from behind her on the saddle. "Ha! Someone pay this actor. They play quite the fool! The breathless tone is especially convincing..."

Chrom pulled his horse around to face them, looking cross over such words. "Frederick, please," he chastised. When he addressed Robin, his speech was much more patient as he began to explain. "This land is known as the Halidom of Ylisse." He gestured to the wide open sky and the long grass swaying in the wind.

The land of heathens and degenerates, Validar's intrusive words rang inside her head.

"Our ruler, Emmeryn, is called the exalt. I suppose proper introductions are in order...my name is Chrom—but then, you already knew that," he teased. Robin flushed hotly under the safety of the robe's hood. "The delicate one here is my little sister, Lissa." He squinted a bit before asking, rather embarrassedly, "uh...can I ask if you're a man or a woman? It's kind of odd just thinking about you as a 'they.'"

Robin arched a brow under her hood. "...I'm a woman."

Lissa frowned and pulled her horse to join them and smack her brother's arm. "I am NOT delicate!" She humphed, irritated. "Ignore my brother please. He can be a bit thick sometimes. But you're really lucky that the Shepherds found you!" She exclaimed brightly. "Brigands would've been a rude awakening!"

As they resumed their way down the path, Robin timidly ventured a question. "Shepherds? You tend sheep...in full armour?" Ylisse must have been much more dangerous than she had previously thought, if shepherds had to protects their flocks outfitted as though they were knights.

Chrom glanced back at her with an amused smile. "Heh. It's a dangerous job. Just ask Frederick the Wary here."

"A title I wear with pride," the man sniffed. "Gods forbid one of us keeps an appropriate level of caution. I have every wish to trust you, stranger, but my station mandates otherwise."

Robin relaxed slightly in the saddle. Of course he did. She felt rather bad for judging him to be unkind. "I understand, sir. I would do no less myself."

"We're here," Chrom announced suddenly, as they arrived to the sight of soldiers treating their wounded fellows on what was clearly the site of a recent battle.

The soldiers immediately stood at attention when they spied their small group riding towards them. "Milord Chrom!" the commander all but shouted. He hastened to them as Chrom and Frederick immediately dismounted.

"What happened here? Who did this? How many dead?" Chrom demanded.

"Brigands, sir," was the reply. "At least some 40 strong. We tried to fight them off, but some managed to make their way past the border. And...five dead so far."

"Damn them!" Chrom swore.

A young man of presumably lesser rank walked up to them holding his sweaty helmet under his arm. "Sir, Garrett has—"

His words died on his lips as he spied Frederick and Lissa helping Robin to dismount. "Hey, that's—that's one of the two! Sir! One came back!"

"Indeed they have," the commander replied with narrowed eyes. "Milord, might I ask how you came to be in this person's company?"

"We found her by the roadside. Unconscious and injured." Chrom furrowed his brow in confusion. "She seems to be a person of interest, I take it."

"A woman, eh...she is. She came here in the company of that dog over there, and a boy. The bandits were in hot pursuit of the pair, there was a scuffle...they made off with the boy and immediately had no further interest in engaging our forces once they had him. This one," he jerked his scarred head roughly in Robin's direction, "I don't know what kind of tricks she employed to escape, but it's like she struck the bandits with lightning or something...we have a couple of charred bodies out on the other side of the border."

"Lightning? As in magic?"

"Smells more of witchcraft to me, sir," the commander glowered darkly.

"You know Emmeryn disallowed convictions for witchcraft. If lightning spells made someone evil then we'd have to discharge more than a few mages from the crown's service."

"Be that as it may, something about your mysterious rescuee had those men very interested, and they were willing to face us head on and cross the border for her. We need to take her in for questioning so we can get to the bottom of this."

"I concur, milord," Frederick agreed. "Something about the whole situation is amiss."

Chrom glanced back to where Robin was, standing a little ways behind with Lissa. She had heard the entirety of the exchange. And she was now waiting, with bated breath, to hear what his judgement would be. Would he turn her in and leave her, to be the soldiers' burden? Would he stay?

"Alright," Chrom conceded. "But if you can guarantee her medical attention, then please see to that.

 

                                                                                           

 

She was in Ylisse.

The revelation should have been one of relief. One of triumph. It was a giant step closer to their goal of reaching Regna Ferox and leaving Validar and the Grimleal far, far behind.

Instead, Henry had been abducted by bandits, and Robin was now at the mercy of a garrison full of Ylissean soldiers, all armed to the teeth, and all eyes focused on her as she was being interrogated.

She kept trying to tell herself that the people who brought her here—Chrom, Lissa, and Frederick—most certainly did not do it out of malice. She out of anyone understood the importance of protocol being followed and the need to adhere to standard procedures.

And yet, all Robin could think of was how none of this was supposed to happen. She was supposed to cross safely with Henry and Neferi, and the rest of the journey was supposed to have been like an easy spring breeze compared to the tumult of their travels across Plegia.

What was worse was running into any Ylisseans at all. They had planned the trip to avoid all inhabited settlements, hunting and foraging for supplies on their way to Ferox so they would not attract any unwanted attention. As isolated as the Grimleal base was from the rest of the world, Robin had been fed a steady diet of the supposed evils and blasphemies of the heathens who worshipped the dragoness Naga and gave themselves to lives of hedonistic debauchery and filth. Nevermind the religious aspect of it—the stories she had been told since childhood were more than enough to terrify her: that Ylissean soldiers stole babies from their cribs to cook alive or cut open to drink their blood, that they had poisoned wells during the war; that their priests were trained to steal souls should one make the mistake of looking them in the eye.

As much as she knew those were half-truths at best and outright myths at worst, as hard as Mustafa tried to show her how much the Grimleal had lied to her, those fears still lingered now that she was up close with Ylisseans for the first time in her entire life.

Worse was the utter terror she felt over the possibility of her circumstances and identity being discovered. It was fellow Plegians who had kidnapped her from her bed and tried to kill her all those years ago; and yet, she had no reason to not suspect Ylisseans to react just as badly, if not worse, to the knowledge that she was not just a Plegian, but one who had been raised as a vessel for a god she had been told was diametrically opposed to Naga. That she was the heart of the Grimleal and thus an abomination.

Would she be safer if she told them the truth? If she divulged her secrets and her fears, and begged them to take her in and go after Henry? Chrom and Lissa seemed kind, but she could not be sure of the same of their countrymen. Then again, she could not be sure that they would maintain such an air of altruism should they be privy to the truth.

So she stayed silent, stewing in her dread and playing along with Lissa's sudden diagnosis of amnesia as the thousandfur robe hissed and growled in her ear.

"You understand that we shall be checking the veracity of your statements, stranger? We don't want any lies being told," the grizzled commander said threateningly.

"Sir, I think that's a little too much pressure on someone who's being bandaged as we speak," Chrom protested. Lissa had rubbed a healing salve onto her cuts, as Robin had begrudgingly let her roll up the sleeves of the robe and her trousers to treat her. Though she had raised an eyebrow when Robin had snatched her Marked hand away and out of sight, the blonde seemingly took pity on her and allowed it. The salve was followed up by Robin having to swallow a potion that burned as it went down, and then Lissa using a staff to heal any bruise that she might have missed.

"Just following protocol, milord." The commander never took his eyes off Robin. "If she remembers as little as she says she does, then we can be done with this soon."

Robin swallowed.

"Do you know any of the men who were pursuing you earlier this day?"

"No."

The commander turned to a middle-aged woman who held a curious glass orb in her hand; they evidently kept mages on hand for this purpose. When the glass did not so much as roll in her palm, the woman turned to the commander. "She's telling the truth, sir."

"Hmm."

The glass orb was making Robin nervous. Truth be told, it was still a yet untested form of magic that would not be perfected until several centuries later, and thus its method of determining facts from falsehoods was half-accurate, at best. Even so, the prospect of being found out had Robin's insides tying themselves into fevered knots.

"Did you know the boy that was with you?"

"Henry," Chrom interrupted suddenly. He looked sheepish for his sudden outburst and returned to his state of quiet watchfulness.

"Yes. We...we travelling together."

"For what purpose?"

"...To enter Ylisse."

"Why?"

"I...I think to just cross, sir."

"You think?"

"Commander," Lissa chided softly.

Robin was sweating heavily under the cover of the robe. It did not help that the robe's thoughts were a jumbled, nervous mess that clashed with her own train of thought. She could not keep up this mumbled string of half-truths and evasions without slipping soon from the stress and the lack of nourishment.

The commander mulled over a question, drumming the table top from where he stood across in a jarring, arrhythmic motion that was grating to the ears. "Do you know why you were being chased?"

Robin swallowed. "...No."

The glass orb flashed bright red in the mage's palm, and it was the excuse the commander needed. "Now see here—I've got five soldiers dead, at least some 15 more seriously wounded, and all because you and your friend and that dog of yours got mixed up with those bandits."

"Please, I'm not involved with them at all—"

"Then why are you a target to them? Why did they take that boy? Don't you realise how badly this is looking for you? Strangers coming to us from the Plegian side, running from a horde of barbarians who weren't even interested in engaging my men once they took the boy with them, and you killing others with magic? What are you not telling us?"

"That's enough," Chrom ordered imperiously.

One could have heard a pin drop with how silent the tiny room became, but to her utter mortification, the only sounds were of her own quiet sniffling; she had not even realised she had begun to cry during the interrogation, and now she felt like a fool on top of being a liar.

A pathetic, lying fool who was in a strange land and whose chances of recovering Henry were growing slimmer as time passed.

Chrom kneeled at her feet from where Robin was seated, trying, in vain, to get a glimpse of her full face. Of course, part of the thousandfur robe's enchantments was that it hid her face under a shadowed veil, but even without the use of magicks, it was easy to see how upset she was. Her first experience with Ylisseans was being held in custody, and for them to see her crying as though she were a child.

"I know this must be difficult for you," Chrom said slowly and reassuringly. "And I promise, on my honour as a Shepherd, to help you in any way that I can. But please understand that we also need your help, too. You said that your friend's name is Henry, right? Those men have him. And we need to know all we can so we can get him back safe and sound."

She would not tell them the truth. She could not.

And yet Chrom's words were gentle and persuasive. Like in the field where she was found, Robin felt that at least she could judge him to be trustworthy, even if she was going to lie to him anyways.

But she did not want to be seen as someone unworthy of that same trust.

"Can we know your name, at least? Do you remember that?" He prompted softly.

Robin tried to reign in her shuddering breath. "Yes, I remember. It's...it's my true name."

Lissa and the mage raised their eyebrows. True names were rumoured to be the very essence of a person's nature, and knowledge of them greatly valued in the use of dark magic and sorcery when casting curses and such. Most folk did not commonly go about taking pseudonyms because true names were only of concern to wizards and those who wielded magic. Even then, using true names to curse was said to be extremely difficult to master and was thus not a popular field of sorcery.

"Take all the time you need," Chrom said.

She sniffled from under the relative safety of her hood. "...Robin."

"Ruban? Is that foreign?" Chrom asked.

Lissa groaned and rolled her eyes. "She said 'Robin,' dummy. She's just got a bit of an accent."

"'Robin' is an Ylissean name," the commander murmured suspiciously. He turned to the mage to confirm if it was a lie. She shook her head in negation.

"Please...I'm just a person with no mother and not much else except the clothes on my back," Robin whispered pitifully. The others in the room had to strain their hearing to catch her words. "I just want Henry back."

"And we will get him back for you," Chrom assured. "But every little bit of information helps, and the more we know will help us track him down more effectively."

But Robin, feeling tired, pathetic, and emotionally exhausted, shook her head in denial. "I'm sorry."

"That's ok. You did a good job," Lissa soothed and helped Robin to her feet. "I'll ask to see if they have a spare cot for you so you can lie down, and something to drink."

"Thank you for your cooperation," the mage patted Robin sympathetically on the back. She was led to a smaller side room where she was handed a cup of water and a small roll of bread. Robin drank and ate quickly and automatically, without even registering the taste except to acknowledge that it was the first bit of food and drink she had received in a long time.

Lissa then pushed her down gently onto an offered cot, and left to reunite with her brother, Frederick, and the others.

Though she did not want to, Robin's eyes closed and she slept anyways, flitting in and out of consciousness to the sound of people talking and to memories of Henry's face. She slept fitfully and for a very short time.

"Chrom, look! The town!"

Lissa's shriek woke Robin and she tore herself from the cot, sprinting to the garrison's entrance. Lissa had her hands to her face, and Chrom, Frederick, and the soldiers stood bathed in the hellish orange glow of a town put to torch.

It was not very far away at all.

"Damn it! The town is ablaze! Those blasted brigands, no doubt...Frederick, Lissa! Quickly!" Chrom immediately went to his horse and saddled it as fast as he could, with Frederick doing the same for his own horse and Lissa's.

"What about her?" Frederick questioned with the briefest of glances to Robin.

"Unless she's on fire as well, then it can wait!"

Frederick, already astride his mount, nodded in agreement. "Aptly put, milord."

"Let's go already!" Lissa urged, and spurred her horse into a desperate gallop with Chrom, Frederick, and a detachment of soldiers following close behind until the din of hoofbeats faded off into the distance.

Robin watched them leave. The sight of the flames was fearsome, even from the distance between the town and the border post. It was a surefire sign of the presence of those bandits, and where the bandits were, it was a step closer to Henry. She did not know whether they kept Henry alive per the instructions of the bounty, if he had managed to escape them, or, worst of all, had died.

But it was a chance she had to take if she ever wanted to see him again.

"Can you watch my dog for me?" Robin asked a young trainee who had been staring numbly at the flames.

He jumped, startled at being addressed. "Your—uh? She's safe inside, ma'am—I mean, miss, I mean—yeah, don't worry about her."

"Thank you." And with that taken care of, she ran up to a soldier who had been readying his horse to go and follow the others, pushed him off the saddle, and led the horse onwards to the town.

Ignoring the shouts of the commander, growing fainter as she left, Robin focused on getting to the town as fast as she could. No matter how weak she still felt, no matter how dangerous the encounter would be, she was going to get Henry back or die trying.

 

   

                                                                                      

 

The scene was one of utter chaos as the brigands ran amok through Southtown, kicking down doors to drag screaming civilians out, looting whatever they could get their grubby hands on, and revelling in the chaos they created. Chrom had ordered some of the others to dismount a little ways outside of the town to avoid detection; they would come in with him to scout out the scope of damage, and then call in the rest of the mounted reinforcements to storm the place and liberate the townsfolk. As part of the first unit, he was currently hiding behind a wall with Lissa and a few other men.

His thoughts were divided between a hundred different places at once: a skirmish was bad enough, but for it to happen right on the border (what with Plegia having stayed unusually quiet for the past year), and now bandits having entered Ylisse to pillage? The implications had dread weighing him down.

And what of the mystery woman, Robin? She claimed to not remember much, yet she confirmed that it was she who the bandits were after, and that they had taken her friend (Henry, he reminded himself) hostage. She had evidently come to Ylisse from the Plegian side of the border, but with an Ylissean name, as Lissa and the commander had noted, what did that say about her origins? And what of the fact that she had evidently killed some of the barbarians with the use of lightning magic? There was clearly more to Robin than meets the eye...but what?

His inner monologue was interrupted by a soldier pointing to the church's entrance. A man, evidently the raiders' leader from the looks of him, laughed maniacally amidst the wreckage burning around him. A screaming girl's wrist was held tight in one hand and a bottle in the other as he took in the destruction with undisguised glee.

"Get to it, lads! Grab anything shiny, and put the rest to the torch! We gots an example to set for these Ylissean types! Ain't that right, lass?" He leered at the terrified girl.

"S-stay away from me!" she shrieked and clawed fruitlessly at his hand.

"Chrom, we have to stop them!" Lissa grasped her staff tightly as anger burned in her eyes at the sight.

He shared the sentiment. "Don't worry—after today, these bandits won't be bothering anyone ever again." He promised himself, as a Shepherd and as a prince, that those vile men would face justice for daring to raise a hand against Ylisse.

"Your Highness!" Another soldier pointed behind them. To his utter shock, Robin had followed them all the way from the border post despite needing to have stayed behind to rest, still swathed in bandages from the little amount of skin he could see under her robe. Frederick was close behind, but was forced to keep his horse to a canter lest the noise from its hooves alert their enemies to their location.

"Robin, you followed us? Why?" Chrom kept his surprise to a harsh whisper.

"I tried to stop her," Frederick sighed in frustration.

She ignored the knight, keeping what little Chrom could see of her face trained on his own. "I'm armed, and I know my way around a fight, if you'll have me," she said resolutely.

They had apparently picked up an amnesiac warrior, of all things, from the roadside. The day kept getting stranger and stranger, though Chrom was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth at a time like this. "Of course—strength in numbers. Just stay close!"

"Remember, Robin, we face practiced thieves and murderers," Frederick warned. "They will grant us no quarter. It's kill or be killed."

She nodded in understanding. She then crouched down lower along the wall to draw back her robes: a bronze sword was strapped to her side.

"I see you wear a sword," Chrom said, but then he felt very foolish for stating the obvious. "Is it—" her hand burrowed deeper into the recesses of her clothes and pulled out a thick book with brown cover, a golden bolt of lightning shining on its front. "Wait, is that a tome?...You know magic?"

"I believe so," was the amused reply.

The commander's words of how she had killed some rogues with that lightning of hers rang in his head: burnt them to a crisp, if he remembered correctly. "Perhaps I'll just keep a few paces behind you for the time being…"

"I can control it."

Chrom turned his attention back to the men's leader, still manhandling the terrified girl, and the brigands who jeered at some of the townspeople who threw themselves into the canals below the bridges to escape the flames. They had a limited amount of time before Southtown burned to the ground; some homes and businesses were beyond salvageable, but the sturdy stone church looked as though it had been barricaded from the inside, as a few marauders were attempting to break the doors down with little success. Not only that, but they had to rescue the townsfolk as well, some of whom were treading water in the canals, others corralled by the bandits, and the rest presumably dead or still trapped inside the burning buildings.

What to do first?

A young soldier, who was probably on his first assignment and feeling rather gung-ho, tried to make a dash for the town square, only for Robin to grab him by the collar and pull him back harshly.

"Another step from you, and not only would that mage over there have vapourised you instantly, but you trying to play the hero would've alerted them all to our position," Robin scolded.

"Mage? What mage?" the young man demanded.

"Behind that stone barricade on the square."

"Ummm...Chrom…?" Lissa ventured uneasily.

The prince saw the reason for her discomfort, as well as the others of their small company: Robin's eyes, hidden as they were under the darkness of her hood, had begun to glow a fiery, hellish red. She had not even turned to the address the soldier—rather, she kept her face trained to the front at all times.

Chrom's Brand pulsed again.

Just what in else, Naga's name, was this woman packing up her sleeves?

"Still with us Robin?" Chrom asked her cautiously.

She noticed their agitation. "Don't worry. It's just...here on the battlefield, I...well, I can 'see' things."

"See things? Like what?"

"The enemy's strength, their weaponry, the flow of battle…"

"So, you're saying you can size up the enemy at a glance?"

"Yes, it would seem so. And perhaps more, if I apply myself…"

Chrom's breath hitched in his throat. He had heard of people with such abilities: controlling the weather, animal speech, clairvoyance, increased stamina and strength...few and far between as they were, their presence was highly coveted (and feared) by rulers and peasants alike. This went beyond normal magic. A single person was often the deciding factor that could sway the course of a battle for better or worse.

It seemed as though not only had they picked up an amnesiac warrior from the roadside, but an amnesiac warrior who was also somewhat omniscient.

"Look," Chrom glanced around the corner of the wall to make sure that no enemies were close to their hiding place. "Seeing as you're already here, and possess such an ability...we could really use your help. There are civilians trapped here, and we need to find the best way to get them all out before everything burns down. Not only that, but we have to face these brigands sooner or later. Can you do that?"

"Milord—" Frederick started.

"Can we count on you?" Chrom ignored him.

"Like you said: I'm already here," Robin replied.

Chrom exhaled a sigh he had not realised he had been holding and grinned. "Good. We just might find your friend around here, too."

Robin nodded. "Alright everyone," she announced. "Gather round. I can't shout unless anyone wants to be found out."

Frederick, discontented as he was, assisted Lissa in herding the rest of the soldiers around Chrom and Robin in a tight huddle. "Okay," she said. "Here's the plan: out on the square I can count a mage with a wind tome behind that barricade; to his immediate left, a barbarian with a bronze axe; on the bridge leading up to the cathedral are two myrmidons with bronze swords. Their leader is behind them and he wields a hand axe: do not engage him. From what I could see from before, there is a very loose perimeter of axemen around the southern entrance to the town, and some myrmidons to the north."

"But most of us use lances and spears…" a soldier noted with dismay.

"Don't worry. We can plan for that. Have the mounted units stayed in place?"

"Yes," Frederick confirmed. "Most use lances, though they have a few axes and swords in their midst."

"Alright. Then we can safely move a few north to deal with the myrmidons; they have to corral them between them to keep any from escaping to alert the others, you hear?" Robin said.

A soldier stood and nodded. "I'll get the message to them right away."

Robin shook her head in disagreement. "Not by yourself you won't. It's crucial that no one here fights alone, as there's a tactical advantage to fighting side by side: working in pairs or more improves strength, defense, speed…" She stood to scan the small crowd until she found someone satisfactory. "And if you can't go any further, someone else needs to be there to save you or get the message across." She nudged an older man towards him. "Now go."

As soon as the pair left the scene, everyone's eyes returned to Robin. "Now where were we…? Ok. Have a few mounted units deal with the axes, but for every two lances there needs to be a sword. Once they're done with those, have them move towards the town's centre." She sent another pair towards Southtown's southern entry point.

"What about us?" Lissa asked.

"Don't worry, I'm getting to that." Robin ran her eyes over them critically. "There were 40 of them, right?"

"The townspeople managed to kill three," Chrom said.

"Good," was Robin's response. "What some here lack in experience, they make up for in numbers. Alright then...how many healers and mages do you have?"

"...Two of each with the mounted units, and four of each with us right now. The mages have wind tomes." Chrom pointed to the heads of said soldiers, huddled amongst their comrades.

"We need to do this as quickly as possible. Two lances and a mage to take care of their mage; move along the barricade's right side, attack first with magic and then have the lancers move in. Before the barbarian guarding him can come to his aid, I need another mage and a swordsman to move to his left, strike first with magic and then subdue him with the sword. Keep low to the ground before you strike!" She sent the next teams off quickly.

"Two teams of three lancers each to move among the houses: you need to keep your shields up to guard yourselves from the five archers patrolling on the roofs of the bakery and the three consecutive houses next to it. A mage to each to deflect their arrows before the lancers can pull them down." Another team was dispatched.

"Yeah, but what about me?" Lissa was bouncing with pent up energy. "I may not be able to attack like Chrom, but when you get injured? I'll be the one stitching your bones back together, care of my trusty staff! You just tell me where to go, Robin."

"That's excellent, Lissa." Chrom could sense the warmth in Robin's words, and the genuine sentiment made him smile. "And you look pretty nimble too. What I need you to do is to ride with Frederick and go around looking for any survivors. Take them outside of town before you get to treating them. Take three more lancers with you, and have the rest disperse into teams of three to deal with townsfolk or brigands around the east and west."

"Roger that!" Lissa immediately jumped onto the saddle of Frederick's massive destrier. The man himself looked none too pleased, but complied with the instructions and gave Robin a curt nod before riding off with the others.

Soon, it was just Chrom and Robin, alone.

"You have a quick-thinking mind," he praised quietly

Robin shrugged. "I must have studied this somewhere, I guess."

His hand tightened around the Falchion's pommel. "I take it that leaves their leader and the rest of the myrmidons to us, then."

He could feel the anger simmering in her words and her fiery eyes, just as hot as the flames surrounding them. "Of course. But first...we wait."

They stayed hidden and crouched uncomfortably by the wall for what seemed an eternity. Chrom was starting to get restless. Every second wasted meant an increasingly small chance to save the townsfolk from the raiders, and the increasingly weakened structural integrity of Southtown's buildings. The men at the church entrance had given up trying to break down the doors, and were now piling wood and debris around it as fuel for fire.

Though her apparent calm in the face of such injustice was downright baffling, he was very sure that he was right to trust Robin and hand off the strategising to her. He had...a hunch about her.

At least, if the way his Brand reacted to her was anything to go by.

A sudden scream rent the smoky air—the first team, unable to subdue the mage, had killed him.

"Now!" Robin urged him to his feet, and both were sprinting across the town square's cobblestones.

The first team had joined the second to fight the barbarian, and were doing a fine job of keeping away a reinforcement of myrmidons, leaving Chrom and Robin free to get to the bridge connecting the square to the church. Out of the corner of his eye, Chrom saw an archer try to aim at them—a powerful gust of wind blew her arrow off-course, and a lancer clambered up on the roof and threw them both off into the canal below. The roar of battle was everywhere, and soon the blast of a horn from the rapidly approaching cavalry added to the chaos.

He jumped over a fallen rogue's body and sidestepped a live one who was promptly stabbed by Robin. Chrom then pulled her aside and slammed the Falchion's pommel into the face of an incoming axeman who went down with a bloody, broken nose. They left their own mage and swordsman to deal with him.

"Watch out!" Robin jerked him back by his collar, and Chrom narrowly missed a faceful of magic. The furious mage's book was in tatters, yet did little to deter his dizzyingly fast attacking speed. Robin immediately stepped forth to shield Chrom, trying to block most of the blasts with her bronze sword; on the fourth strike, the magic shattered the blade, and he heard her cry out in pain as a shard embedded itself in her skin. Angered, Chrom rushed past her and slew the enemy mage in a single stroke.

"Are you alright?" He pushed them behind the safety of a wall. From behind them a cavalry unit had two young children on her horse and was herding them and their parents away to safety.

Robin spat blood off to a side. "I'm fine...just a little cut…"

"'A little' can become a bigger problem later. It's foolish to leave a wound untreated, not to mention that we found you under less than ideal circumstances." Chrom dug into the small convoy pouch Lissa always insisted he carry and produced a vulnerary from it. "Here."

"Use it on yourself."

Chrom shook his head. "Don't rush into danger. You've lent us your strength, and that makes you a friend. Having an ally by my side gives me courage."

If she wanted to say something else, Robin could not seem to vocalise it. "Thank you," she said in a tiny voice, and gratefully uncorked the vulnerary and downed it in one gulp.

They turned to watch the violence spilling out across Southtown. Despite the glaring type disadvantages, they did have superiority of numbers, and Robin's planning had ensured that the brigands were being pushed out of Southtown at a slow, yet steady, pace. The fires still raged around them, and Chrom had to resign himself to the fact that they would have to be dealt with as soon as they had defeated the bandits.

Robin nudged Chrom and pointed: the brigand's leader was squinting into the distance. As soon as he spotted them, he cursed, spat, and threw the girl off to a side. The fire the swordsmen started at the church had successfully weakened the doors enough to allow for a small hole to be made, and he ducked into it as the myrmidons took positions on the bridge.

"Ready?" She asked Chrom. She steadied the tome in her hands despite their slight shaking.

"On your mark," was Chrom's response.

"Now."

They took off with smoke burning in their lungs and the rush of their blood in their ears. No sooner had they reached bridge were they set upon by the company of myrmidons, eager for their blood; Chrom and Robin dropped simultaneously to the floor to let the enemies' weight and momentum take them down, with some falling off the bridge and into the water. The rest were unlucky enough to be blasted with Robin's lightning and then swatted to the side by the flat of the Falchion's blade.

"Milord!" they heard Frederick galloping up to them. Lissa dismounted immediately to check them over for wounds, and the lancers that came with them set upon tying up the defeated myrmidons. "The south is ours. We have gathered up as many of the townsfolk as we could, and the north is being secured as we speak. The men have started putting out the fires."

"Excellent work, Frederick." Chrom was relieved to see them alive and well, and the news of their impending victory was tremendously satisfying.

"Does this mean it's finally over?" Lissa fretted.

"Not quite," Robin said through gritted teeth. "Their leader's in there, he just might have more hostages with him. And I'm not leaving until I see for myself what happened to Henry."

"Robin, wait!" Lissa cried. Robin ignored her as she ran up the bridge and slipped inside the church.

Chrom's heart dropped. She had proven to be more than a capable fighter—but she said, with her own words, that it was far better to fight alongside others. And he would be damned before letting her run off on her own. A single vulnerary would not be enough to undo the damage he had seen when they found her.

"Your Highness!" He ignored Frederick's shout as he plunged into the smoky church, hot on Robin's trail.

Save for the sound of burning wood, it was eerily quiet inside. Chrom found Robin surveying their surroundings with those glowing eyes of hers. She stopped him with a palm to the chest.

"He's behind there," she pointed to the templon separating the nave from the sanctuary. "He has six people hostage."

"Henry included?"

"Yes. And he's hurt, too."

"I CAN HEAR YOU!" The brigand's voice echoed and bounced all over the sooty walls of the church. Chrom jumped where he stood, and Robin steadied him with a sure hand on his arm.

Holding a finger up to her lips, she motioned for them to split up between the rows of half-ruined pews. "He has a higher vantage point over us. We'll still be able to see each other," she reassured. "But keep low to the ground, and try to keep quiet."

They began crawling amidst the toppled pews and smoking debris. Chrom noticed, with a pang, the lovingly crafted details like the soft blue tassels sewed onto the slightly burnt cushions, and how the jewel-bright stained glass windows still shone despite being shattered by rocks.

"THINK YOU'RE SO CLEVER, SCURRYING AROUND LIKE RATS?" The brigand's mockery grated his ears. "ON SECOND THOUGHT, I THINK YOU LOOK BETTER ON YOUR HANDS AND KNEES LIKE THAT." From across the aisle, Robin shook her head at Chrom, urging him not to give in to such provocations...but there was something hurt in her body language that only made Chrom angrier.

"IT WAS BAD ENOUGH THAT YOU GOT AWAY FROM US, GIRLIE...BUT COMING BACK WITH SHEPHERDS? THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH A CHALLENGE, NO SIR…"

Chrom and Robin were now at the foot of the altar. He could hear faint murmurs and frightened voices from behind the large templon. Slowly, he unsheathed the Falchion from its scabbard and held it at the ready as Robin flipped open her thunder tome. They nodded to each other, positioning themselves each to a door.

"...BUT ALL THE GOLD IN THE WORLD ISN'T ENOUGH TO PAY FOR WHAT YOU DID TO FREDA AND THE OTHERS. SHE DIDN'T DIE JUST SO SOME BRAT COULD RUN OFF AND WHORE HERSELF OUT TO YLISSEAN SCUM!"

With a mighty shove, the doors were broken down and Chrom and Robin found themselves facing an enormous, belligerent bandit who had pressed himself against the wall and forced the bound hostages to sit before him as a shield. Chrom saw Robin's hand curl into a fist at the sight of the man: cocky, swaggering with pride, and holding up a bruised and bloodied white haired boy up by the neck.

Chrom nearly staggered at the pain and white-hot fury that erupted in his Branded shoulder.

"Here, sheepy, sheepy," the brigand cackled. "Come to the slaughter!"

"COWARD!" Chrom roared and surged forth with a swing of his blade. He was forced to stumble back to avoid chopping a weeping grandmother's head off, and Robin could not find an opening fast enough; the man was far too close to the captives.

"You can't use that fancy lightning trick of yours in here," the bandit leered at Robin. "Unless you don't mind striking a spare head off or two? You can pick which one first!"

"Chrom!" Robin pulled him to a side yet again as the rogue threw a red, curved hand axe at his head. When they tried to advance on him, it returned to his hand after destroying a massive chunk of the doorframe and he held it up to Henry's neck threateningly.

"Or maybe his? You never struck me as the altruistic type," the brigand sneered.

"Chrom," Robin whispered. "Try attacking him again."

"Are you insane? I don't want to risk hurting anyone!"

"Haven't you trusted me this far of the way?"

Chrom exhaled sharply. "Yes."

"Then please, please trust me on this too. I...I think I might have a plan."

"...Alright. I trust you." He leaned in closer to hear her plan.

"It's rude to whisper in front of others," the bandit mocked in a sing-song voice. "Care to share with the rest of the class?" His hand squeezed Henry's windpipe, and the young man, barely conscious as he was, managed a groan and his black eye opened the tiniest bit.

Chrom lunged again, and the brigand responded with another throw of his axe. As they still had a few seconds before the axe came flying back, Chrom and Robin took the chance to grab onto some of the hostages, cut their bonds, and throw them in the direction of the doors. "Keep your heads low, and whatever you do, keep running and don't look back!" Chrom shouted.

In the split second that it took the raider to realise what they were doing, the ugly smirk on his face morphed into a snarl of pure rage. "You little bastards!" He tried to grab the remaining pair of hostages with his free hand, but the axe chose to return in that moment, clipping his hand and leaving a deep cut that had him howling in fury. Chrom made a move for the penultimate captive—a young girl—and practically launched her clear to the door before the bandit could reach for her.

Now it was just him, Robin, and the bandit with Henry in his sinewy hand.

"You want 'im?" he said in a dangerously low voice. He set Henry down behind him, then tore a strip of leather from his skirt and wrapped it tightly around his bleeding hand before picking up the axe. "Come and get 'im."

Chrom had no idea what compelled him to do so, but when he moved, it was almost as though he had silently agreed to follow on Robin's mark. They both ducked simultaneously under the axe's path, but their moment of startling synchronisation was broken as Robin, yet again, pushed him out of harm's way—the brigand had hidden a chain weapon under his sooty pelt, and Robin took the brunt of it as the blade at the end of the chain sliced into her chest.

"Robin!" Chrom shouted and pulled her to his side. From what little he could see under her robe, the cut was thankfully not too deep and would not scar terribly. But it pained him to see that in the short amount of time that they had known each other, Robin was constantly taking blows for him.

And they still had to rescue Henry, too.

"I'll be fine," Robin assured with a shallow breath. "We need to focus on the mission."

And you need to start taking better care of yourself, Chrom did not say. They had to quickly sidestep more throws of the axe and swing of the chain, stalling their attempts at getting in a good hit, but at the very least he was no longer hiding behind Henry and other civilians.

Chrom sucked in a breath as the chain-blade narrowly missed his eye and lightly nicked his cheekbone instead. Silver, he noted as it retreated to its owner's hand. Where bandits and thieves got such good quality metal for their weapons, he would have liked to know. Then, in an unexpected flash of clarity, he called out to Robin.

"Do you think you can get a hold of it?" Chrom shouted at her.

"Yes!" she responded, seemingly having understood his unspoken realisation. "But I need you to take care of the axe!"

"Understood!"

"Just try me!" the brigand bellowed and kept up his attacks.

Mercifully, their fighting drew the rogue further away from Henry and closer to them instead in an attempt to press them to a wall and eliminate any protective distance between them. Chrom jabbed the Falchion wildly at the brigand, but was temporarily distracted by Robin having to shield her face with her tome; the book was instantly sliced in half by the chain-blade.

"Chrom, now!"

The prince thrust the blade into the axe's path and successfully knocked it aside, rendering it earthborne once and for all. Raging, and screaming, the bandit began to swing the chain erratically and much more aggressively, causing the duo to have to evade constantly to avoid it as well as over two meters of solid muscle.

"Stay still!" He screeched and threw the chain in a particularly hard swing.

Robin saw her chance and took it. Letting its edge cut into her forearms, she wrapped her hands around the chain and, without the use of a tome, used it as a conduit for a bolt of lightning.

Seeing a man being electrocuted so violently was a truly horrendous sight, and not one that Chrom would ever forget: the skin around the victim's hands began to blister and peel off in bloody strips and burn; the strength of the shock stiffened his muscles and made them spasm uncontrollably; tree shaped scars began to form on the length of his arms, and, unable to fight the muscular rictus that did not allow so much as a scream, the bandit's eyes melted in his sockets before the strength of the bolt flung him clear to the other side of the room.

The flash of light subsided. And then—silence.

Chrom gasped for air when he realised he had been holding his breath. It had taken less than ten seconds for Robin to kill the man. The repulsive scent of burnt flesh permeated the sanctuary, and the sight of the corpse, bloodied, smoking, and slumped against the wall, churned the prince's stomach.

Robin ignored the carnage completely as she ran to Henry's prone body and knelt to take him up in her arms. Holding his head close, she stroked his hair and murmured softly until the boy cracked his eye open with a groan. "Robbie...was it your turn to cook again? Smells awful."

Robin choked back tears as she laughed. No matter how disgusting and inappropriate it was, to laugh in the vicinity of a dead body, the sight of their reunion warmed Chrom's heart.

She turned to face him, still holding Henry tight to her chest. "Well...I guess that's the end of that."

No. Chrom still had far too many questions.

 

                                                                                     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

                                                                                         

 

 

When Validar woke, he was groggy, his vision was fuzzy, and his mouth had a thick, metallic taste to it—blood.

He had vomited blood and passed out on his wedding night.

Yes, what he remembered of the reception after the ceremony had been wild and filled with dancing and drunken revelry, but he would never be so uncouth as to drink himself to a stupor, much less disregard his wellbeing to the point that he would be coughing up blood.

That meant that someone poisoned him.

Sluggish and weak as he felt, Validar managed a healthy scoff. He had years of preparation behind him to build up immunity to even the toughest of toxins. He had survived several assassination attempts before...what difference would another one make? Though in this case, he begrudgingly had to admit that the author behind the plot was rather skilled; not many had the expertise to mix a brew potent enough to leave him feeling this weakened.

The guards and cooks deserved a stern talking to and a round—no, three rounds of lashes for this. Someone had snuck poison into his food and drink and they had completely missed it despite being trained for such a specific task. Were they so stupefied by the celebration that they forgot? The excuses and explanations they would have to supply once they were tied to the whipping block had better be worth his time. Then, they would have their tongues cut out for wasting their breath, their ears lopped off for failing to heed instructions, and their hands chopped off for not performing their duty.

And yet, there was the lingering preoccupation that, somehow, he could have died. And he would be damned if he passed before fulfilling his obligation to Grima.

A sudden realisation turned his blood to ice. What if he was not the assassin's target?

What if the poison was meant for Robin?

Struggling to focus his eyesight and sit upright in bed, panic gripped Validar's heart and made it hammer out a maddening beat to a steady stream of gruesome thoughts. He had hoped to wake to the sight of a beautiful bride, greeting him with a morning smile; instead, the grin would belong to that of a corpse. She was not the failed vessel that he was; it made no sense to train her in poison resistance when her body needed to be kept pure and free from such substances.

Forget him—the loss of the vessel herself would mean an end to Grima's chances of resurrection once and for all.

His chambers were still dark, as Validar preferred to not give assassins an easy way of navigating his quarters. The darkness and the poison circulating throughout his body dulled his usually sharp senses, and he cursed the vile chemist who dared dose him on his wedding. As he did not trust the strength of his limbs to fetch the dark tome he kept on his bedside table, Validar forgoed the use of the book, crooking his fingers in the air in a come-hither motion while his other hand rested on his thigh, upturned and open. "Resire," he said through gritted teeth. Strength flowed into him as it pushed the toxin out and restored his vitality, and he gasped for breath as soon as the spell's effect faded. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Validar felt around the bed carefully.

Not only was her side of the bed done, she was not even there.

His heartbeat pounding out a faster rhythm, Validar clapped and brought the torches in his room to life.

Robin was nowhere to be found.

Breathe, he tried to reassure himself as he began to pace wildly. If she has been poisoned, she would have the good sense to try to rid herself of it. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps she's not poisoned at all and has gone to relieve herself, or fix her toilette, or—

Panic spiking to unbearably high levels, Validar went from room to room in his suites in search of his bride: the drawing room, the sitting room, the fountain, his personal baths. All of the servants were asleep in their cots, the guards' late shift kept to their posts. Everything was were he had left it as remembered, untouched and in its rightful place.

Everything except for her.

"My liege." A guard walked up to him and knelt deferentially. "If I may be so bold as to ask, what troubles you? You have been pacing with such a worried countenance—"

The man was unable to finish his sentence as Validar shot a hand to his neck and squeezed as though testing the ripeness of a fruit. The helpless guard was lifted from the floor, and the commotion soon woke the servants and the soldiers not on watch duty.

"Find her!" Spittle flew from Validar's mouth. "Search everywhere! The kitchens, her quarters, the temple—I don't care if you have to overturn each stone of the sanctum, I don't care if half the place ends up destroyed!"

"Milord, what is the matter?" His generals rushed into the room, alarmed and weapons at the ready.

"She's gone! You incompetent fools have lost her!"

"Milord—"

"What are you doing, standing there so uselessly? Start searching! Find her! FIND HER!" he screamed.

And so the very young hours of the early morning laid the stage for a scene of utter chaos. Validar practically tore the place apart in his haste and panic with nothing left untouched: crates of fruit and pails of milk were overturned in the kitchens; books and cushions in the library, shredded; the entirety of the skull's perimeter was searched with the help of keen-eyed wyverns in the pale grey sky that came before dawn, yet no crevice or corner revealed his missing bride.

"Milord," General Kazem knelt apologetically before him. "We have searched every inch of the sanctum, but I am sorry to report that we have found nothing." Kazem bowed his head until it touched the sand. "We have failed you."

Validar barely heard him over the frantic pounding of his heart and the sound of his blood rushing in his ears. How...how could this be? More than a millennia of preparation leading up to this moment...more than a thousand years of painstaking prayer, breeding, and experimentation...gone like the morning dew before the sun. Had it all been for naught? Were the hopes of bringing back Lord Grima to be left unfulfilled?

Was he the one to betray the generations before him and have failure resting upon his shoulders?

"NO!" Validar's roar of fury was heard throughout the land, and he tore off Kazem's head in a single movement as bloodlust soon overcame him and took over his senses.

 

 

                                                                                       

 

The stench of blood filled the tunnel with its thick, coppery scent as Validar trudged to his study. His clothes were soaked in it, leaving behind a rusty trail as the hem of his robes dragged over the sand—he could care less. In fact, he mused rancorously, there was not enough blood spilt that day. Not enough to teach the others of the consequences of failure, nor enough to satiate his need to inflict punishment.

His thoughts were interrupted by the discovery of the bodies guarding the door to his office, all recently deceased, yet they had all gone cold long before he had chanced upon them. Validar's anger was only stoked at the sight of them, lying in pools of their own blood and vomit.

"How long have they been here like this?" His question was softly spoken and silky smooth. "Did it occur to no one to come and change shifts?"

A guardsman blanched in fear. "My liege—"

His head was torn off as well, for good measure. Validar enjoyed the scarlet fountain that gushed everywhere and added to the stains of his soiled robes. To his utter delight, even the unflappable Mustafa flinched at the sight.

Validar had to break down the door when it would not yield to his touch; a closer inspection revealed, once he crossed the threshold, that someone had attempted to barricade it from the inside.

And that someone would pay dearly indeed.

He took a seat behind his desk and began tapping away, resting his chin on his hand, deep in thought. Validar lost count of how many he had killed that morning—he had mowed his way through the temple, the arena, the dining hall...while he did not deny that the sensation of taking away a life was intensely satisfying, it would be much more prudent to put such thoughts aside for the time being, and think about the factors that had led to the morning's events in the first place. For starters: his own office having been blocked from the inside, and the dead guards at its entrance. Few knew of its existence, save for the slain men, his council, his generals...and the vessel herself. For a single, terrible moment, he thought that perhaps Gangrel had smartened up and had found a way to infiltrate them after all.

No, Validar reasoned, Gangrel was not one to keep his mouth shut should he have succeeded, and Aversa would have alerted him immediately if the vessel had been taken to the Walled City in the first place. That meant this was most certainly the work of someone within their ranks.

Validar wanted to smack himself for his stupidity. He had seen the signs, he had been witness to the strange goings-on within the sanctum: the hole dug in the prisons before it was reported to him and he ordered it sealed shut...the missing dresses of the vessel's dowry. He had initially attributed the theft to a jealous woman (and he had taken time to torture a few as an example to the rest, in an attempt to coax out the location of the dresses)...but in light of the recent events, it was clearly not the case.

This meant that anyone was a suspect. And he had a certain acolyte in mind…

"Mustafa," he beckoned.

The tall general had to bow his head to pass through the doorway, kneeling at Validar's side. "Milord."

"Do you remember that boy you brought back with you, three years ago? The one I had placed with the apprentices?"

"You mean Henry, milord?"

"So that's the little leech's name," Validar said. He tapped a bloodstained finger to his temple. "Tell me, has he had a history of any...incidents during his stay here?"

Mustafa carefully mulled over the words in his mouth before responding. "...He was initially defiant of his teachers and would make mischief during his lessons, my liege, but he was subdued quickly enough."

"Was he...? Tell me, Mustafa...is he still here?"

"...I—"

Validar interrupted him and rose from his seat. "Don't answer that. I'll go see for myself." Before leaving his office, he turned to face the general once more. "And Mustafa? As it was you who brought him here, and exposed our vessel to his influence...consider your place here carefully. You will be watched very closely from now on."

 

                                                                                  

 

Validar was back in his office again, only this time, he had brought something back with him: he tossed a white-haired child's head back and forth between his hands, until he tired of toying with the grisly souvenir and threw it aside. The fear on the acolyte's faces had failed to satisfy him in any way as his suspicions had been proved correct—the boy he sought was long gone. Validar could hedge a guess that it was he who was responsible for the hole, for the missing dresses...not to mentioned that a quick search of his study revealed that several weapons had been stolen, most worryingly the levin sword. It was an old, powerful artifact. Its loss alerted him to the fact that it had been taken by someone who was clearly conscious of their actions and who expected to fight along their escape. A deliberate, premeditated theft.

An examination of the infirmary revealed that medicines and potions had been stolen. When he returned to the vessel's quarters, what he did not touch showed that no resistance was evident in the space, no overturned furniture or signs of a struggle. The thousandfur robe was also gone. That insect of a boy was clearly not old or skilled enough to bend people to his will. That meant that he had either persuaded the vessel to come with him, or they had planned their flight together.

The thought that she would choose to do such a thing...that she chose, of her own free will, to betray him like that, to go against her very destiny

A third round of carnage was spurred that day. By nightfall, Jamil had succumbed to his wounds along with the woman he was found in bed with, while Chalard's ashes had to be scrubbed from the walls themselves.

 

                                                                                       

 

First, Validar ordered a search of the Walled City by the agents he had placed inside with Aversa's help. Despite them having successfully infiltrated the capital, the public's opinion of them was incredibly low compared to the regions surrounding the city, and they had to tread carefully or else a nosy citizen would have turned them in in a heartbeat. The agents returned empty handed anyways. It was Aversa herself who, in one of her rare visits, came bearing documents from the gate authorities showing that a young man and woman had indeed entered the city.

"What's this?" Validar said disgustedly. "They were allowed inside carrying the dog, and they were let safe passage out with horses? And those same horses were reported stolen from a tavern that very night?"

Aversa rolled her eyes in annoyance. "Don't be so upset. I keep the gate authority purposefully lax because that's how I was able to get your agents inside in the first place, remember?"

"...Fine," Validar growled. "But I am still placing that lack of oversight on your shoulders, Aversa. Keep me informed. And remember: that betrothed of yours had better be kept on a short leash."

Validar placed a bounty that he knew would be irresistible: 20,000 in gold bullion for the boy, and the astronomically high price of 200,000 for the vessel. Every bandit and their grandmother, not to mention the desperately poor majority of Plegia, would have wanted to claim that prize for themselves. That amount of wealth would guarantee a stable life for their family for generations thereafter. Soon, reports of sightings flooded in from all over the country, but they were often unreliable, conflicting, or outright lies. Validar despaired, fearful that the vessel would be lost to him forever.

One day, a horde was spotted at the perimeter of the skull. A wyvern rider was sent to parley with them after it was determined that they were no enemies of the Grimleal, and their leader was allowed safe entry inside the vestibule.

"The name's Garrick." The scarred and cocksure sellsword was all toothy grins until a guard warningly pointed a spear at him for his boldness. Validar watched the proceedings from behind a screen while his generals took care of the conversational end of the meeting. "I'm sure you've heard of me."

"We have," was General Sula's curt reply. "What business do you seek from us?"

"Heard you've got a sweet little bounty set up for a pair of ne'er do wells."

"If you want to participate, there's no one stopping you. Why go through the trouble of contacting us in the first place?"

"Now this is where it gets interesting," Garrick leaned forward on his cushion. "I know you Grimleal have got your hands and eyes everywhere—not to say there's anything wrong with that, no sir—but I figured it'd be nice if us humbler folks got a taste of that cake."

"What are you talking about?" Mustafa queried.

Garrick spread his meaty arms. "I control thousands from all three nations," he boasted. "I've commanded raids on everywhere from Corvinium to the borders of Ylisse itself."

"You and everyone else," Mustafa shot back. "So much for humility."

"AND we got ourselves some fancy new tools like them spyglasses and such," Garrick continued. "We know yous don't wanna get out and get your hands dirty. So how's about this: we do the dirty for ya. Like I said, I got people anywhere and everywhere. Much like your venerable lordship here," he bowed his head slightly in Validar's direction. "And it seems like it'd be a real benefit to ya if I were to give you a hand—spread my men out so we can grab these two for you. Combine our forces."

Validar called Sula to him and whispered in his ear. While Garrick presented a seemingly generous offer, the reality was that no one in his realm did things out of altruism. There was only fealty and dreams of wealth to be had. Validar said as much and Sula relayed it to Garrick.

The bandit licked his lips. "Ah, but you see, this IS humble me pledging myself to your lordship." Another exaggerated bow. "It wouldn't be wise of us to be the competition, so I'm simply offerin' our strength to you."

"And what are you expecting to receive in return?" Sula countered.

"I like to have my cake and eat it too," Garrick grinned. "You see, we've been having a bit of trouble with some of Gangrel's dogs in the western ports—makes it hard to get ahold of all those nice imports from Chon'sin. Our offer, ya see, is to get those two for you AND secure the ports...and in exchange, we get a cut of that bounty and get management positions under you in the west. Sound good?"

Validar contemplated the proposition. In all honesty, he had heard of Garrick's exploits, but gave them little importance because he and his barbarians stayed clear of being a threat to the Grimleal's power. The army of brigands he commanded was substantial and often proved a nuisance to Plegia's neighbours...and if he was as powerful as he bragged he was, then surely he could muster a few forces to wherever and aid the Grimleal in their search. And besides...there was nothing wrong in having gained the allyship of so willing a man. Validar relayed the information to Garrick through Sula, and the bandit was pleased as well.

"Those two are dangerous," Mustafa warned Garrick at the skull's entrance once their meeting was concluded. "You will need better equipment than what you have if you ever hope to subdue them." The general, with Validar's expressly stated permission, gave them sturdy and valuable silver weaponry to aid them in their task. "But even then, tools alone will not be enough against them. Keep your wits sharp. And you shall keep us updated on your movements through your spyglasses."

"Please," Garrick scoffed. "A boy and a lass. What's the worst they can do?"

 

                                                                                  

 

It had been months since the pair had last been sighted, and Validar was at his wits' end.

He had to keep face for his flock. Despite his public persona being one of cool, detached rationality and piety, he was despairing inside. The two could be anywhere by now, perhaps even in Valm itself, where he had no power. The loss of the vessel had sparked a devastating crisis of faith in some of their congregants; lost and unsure after the vessel had gone missing, and thus unable to fulfill her prophesied destiny of bringing about Grima's return, the Grimleal's tides turned and shifted for the worse. The focus was now on damage control. His sermons discussed the importance of keeping faith and the immutability of destiny, while his priests put out increasingly fervent pageants and displays of zealotry. And yet, it was sometimes all for naught. Two members had to be executed for apostasy, and their deaths had Validar fearing that it was a repeat of his first wife's rebellion.

He turned to prayer and fasting more often and desperately, in the hopes that the trances he would be submitted to would yield answers, any answers, to his plight. Breathing in the poisonous fumes of the vents would only summon the Voices' scolding in the temple.

How could this happen? Validar constantly asked. Why did she leave me? Did that little insect turn her against us? His influence has always been one of treachery...Mustafa must be punished for that—

And yet you allowed him to stay for three years under your roof, the Voices snapped. What does Mustafa even matter? In the end, it's all your fault. Stop complaining.

How can I not despair? was Validar's wretched response. Our Lord's return has been jeopardised. All the signs— the blood moon, the Mark itself on her hand—have been nothing but auspicious. And yet our vessel, our one hope for Grima's revival in this world, has abandoned us. If the vessel herself has been disloyal, if the vessel herself has chosen to turn her back on her very purpose in life, then what is there left but the ashes of our hopes? Have those centuries of toil been for a trifle? Has our devotion yielded nothing?

The wind from their angered roar pushed him back. We are not some piddling childminder to be summoned every time you come mewling in want of reassurance, they snarled. Nor is this the last time that you will encounter hardship in your sorry excuse of a life. You think that just because you had the vessel within your grasp that everything else would go smoothly? Pathetic.

My apologies, Validar grovelled.

The Presence sighed in exasperation. Listen closely. You've gotten this far...and while the vessel's disappearance is a setback, it is not a threat to your mission...not entirely. No matter how many complications you may find, destiny is set in stone...it can never be changed.

I am listening closely.

Good. See here...you already proved your devotion to Grima well enough...you committed yourself to even do the unthinkable in His name. Who's to say this is not a final test of your resolve?

A...final test?

Yes. A display of your loyalty, your faith, and the strength of your resolve and dedication...you must prove that you are worthy of Grima by showing that you are willing to go above and beyond to retrieve what is rightfully His, before His return to your mortal world.

Such words filled Validar's veins with a new sense of fire and determination. They were right: it had been foolish of him to wallow in his self pity rather than simply power through it. Thanking the Presence over and over again, Validar set himself to work.

 

                                                                                      

 

So far, no sighting—neither from the Grimleal, unaffiliated citizens, or the brigands—had been of importance. Validar kept track of them through the scrying mirrors he kept in a special wing of the skull, in accordance to the different mirror shards the Grimleal distributed to their agents and a few others; they allowed for multiple points of view in different places, and he had a squad of far-seeing mages at his disposal to enhance the mirrors' effectiveness and to help keep an eye on them.

"I am sorry, my liege," he heard for the millionth time. "There seems to be no sign of them so far."

Their luck had turned for the better when a woman in Garrick's service sounded the alarm one day: the runaways had been spotted crossing the plains that came immediately after the western jungles. Validar, feeling a rush of vindication he had not felt in ages, wisely ordered the group to keep tailing the duo and follow at a distance. It would not do to preemptively spring a trap lest the vessel's wily ways alert them to it.

It had almost seemed as though they were about to succeed the closer and closer they got without the pair turning to look back. Validar was practically salivating at the thought of victory so close, just barely in his grasp...seeing their horses struggle against the wind and the sand made the thoughts of their punishment all the sweeter…

"We've been spotted, sir." The woman's disgruntled complaints came through staticky and unclear, the sand interfering somewhat with their scrying. "Seemed like they were just here not too long ago, and now the damned bugs have scurried off."

Validar nearly broke the mirror she was speaking through. "I don't care. You'll find them and you'll bring them back to us. Understood?" he ground out.

"...Yessir."

A fortnight of restless sleep and obsessively monitoring the scrying chamber yielded nothing until one dark, stormy night over the Midmire revealed a soaked pair of runaways, fighting against the gale and trying to pull their horses through the muck.

His mages scrambled to summon their field units, alerting them to their targets' location. Few were still fit enough to answer the calls.

"We're on it, sir," the woman's gravelly voice cackled through her mirror. "Lucky for us, we didn't waste our last warp stave like the other chumps."

Validar watched with bated breath as they opened up a portal to face the startled duo. Finally! Trapped, surrounded at last...there was no way they could hope to win at that point; they were hopelessly outnumbered, their terrain a hindrance, and their stamina lowered. Like cats that had cornered a couple of sparrows…each strike of the bandits' weapons filled him with incredible glee and excitement, each swipe of a blade was a step closer to finally having them within his grasp.

Until the damned girl had to snatch his victory out of his hands.

He should have seen it coming, really. Validar had been nothing, if not proud, of how she had been instructed in tactics and combat throughout her entire life. As Grima's vessel, it was only natural that she be taught such things, to inherit a mantle of leadership with nothing but the best skills afforded to her with her upbringing. But that was then, and this was now, and now meant that her sudden manoeuvres—that damned, foolhardy jump across the canyon—put them out of his reach once again.

Validar could do nothing except watch helplessly, hundreds of miles away, as she and the boy flew through the sky, and the bandit woman he had communicated with scarcely a few minutes ago now plummeted to her death.

That night resulted in his bedroom's near destruction.

We are sorry, my liege, his mages cowered and rent their clothes before him. We will do better. This failure is no one but ours.

More sleepless nights and bouts of fury followed, as the implication of the pair's trajectory finally dawned on him: they were travelling eastward, towards Ylisse.

That filthy, deplorable land of wretched heathens.

Validar had decided that the bandits were of no use to him, not with all their failures and their one chance of getting close to the two nothing but a hopeless blunder. When he was contacted by a desperate Garrick, he told him so, ready to dismiss the man with naught but an airy flick of the wrist.

"Naw man, don't ya see? I got them right in my sights! Just now!"

Validar rushed to the mirror and gripped it tightly. "Where?!"

Garrick pointed a beefy finger to a grassy hill. Hidden in the long grass and large boulders that dotted the landscape was indeed a pair of darkly dressed people. Without his trained eye, it would have been easy to miss the markings of Grima's Eyes along the vessel's sleeves.

Validar's nails cracked the mirror's edge from the amount of force he was applying to it. "They are right at the border pass...so help me Garrick, they are not to cross into that godforsaken country! A single step closer from either of them, and I will personally assure that your lifeless body joins that wench of yours at the bottom of the gorge! Do you hear?"

"I heard you," was the surly reply.

"Then what are you waiting for? Don't just stand there so uselessly—DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!"

In the end, it was all in vain, as Validar could only stand by and watch as the horde barely managed to put a dent in the contingent that Ylisse sent forth. With each barbarian that fell to foreign lance and sword, Validar's ire only grew. A brief spark of hope ignited within him as the spyglass showed the pair of traitors surrounded at one point—all they had to do was take them and warp back, Ylisseans be damned. They already had that wretched worm of a boy in their clutches, there was no way he would be able to escape, all they had to do was take the vessel now that she was so weak and easily overwhelmed—

The last Validar managed to see was the lower half of Robin's face, screaming, as she summoned a blast of lightning against her attackers, striking everything in its path and burning up the field around them. The magic destroyed the spyglass along with its user, and all further contact was lost.

The next few days were of nothing but Validar being consumed by sheer fury. To think that he had not only lost the vessel herself, but that she had chosen to fly off, and that she had reached Ylisse of all places...

The very thought of her in a land full of such degeneracy, surrounded by loathsome, debauched vermin, mewling for Naga as they wallowed in their own filth...it repulsed and infuriated Validar to no end. She was supposed to have been kept pure for Grima, and now, she had landed in sin itself.

But how to retrieve her? The bandits had clearly failed him on all fronts and were of no use to him now. His Grimleal held power within Plegia, yes, and he had agents placed inside of Ylisse since the beginning of the war...but who was to say that they stayed loyal to him and to Grima? How many had turned their backs on them in order to make a new life in that horrid realm and breed with its disgusting inhabitants? And even then, it was hard enough contacting those who stayed committed to Grima without having the crown breathing down their necks. Validar's agents usually stayed hidden well enough, with most Ylisseans blissfully convinced that, while worship of Grima was widespread throughout Plegia, the Grimleal were naught but a fairy tale, cooked up to scare small children into obedience.

Even then, was that enough to guarantee her safety? She could be found out. They would discover her for what she was and she would be at the mercy of those infidels…and Grima's return would be doomed for sure.

So lost was he to his brooding that Validar even once forgot to hold mass one day. And it was on one of those days where Validar's foul mood had intensified that his generals had informed him that some bandits had returned from Ylisse.

"Oh?" And what do they bring to us? Something useful, I hope."

Sula shook his head. "They claim to have information, my liege."

Validar welcomed a pair of bedraggled, battle-weary thieves who had a number of open wounds and had the look of scared rabbits cornered by a hungry jackal. He received them with open arms and a smile, and bade them wash and treat their wounds before changing into fresh clothes. "How fare you on your journey back?" he asked them graciously.

"Whaddaya think? Like shit," the taller of the two snapped. His shorter partner winced.

Validar's smile dimmed only slightly. While he most certainly did not appreciate being talked back to in his own domain, he had an image to maintain. "I imagine," he replied. "You are both just in time for the evening meal. Please, come and sup with us." He stopped and turned to the man who had dared to speak back. "As I can see that you are still in need of a bit of a wash...kindly see to your hands before you join us."

It was a personal affair, much small than his usual suppers with the rest of his congregation; it was only Validar, his councilmen, his generals, and the shorter bandit. The man had clearly never seen so much food in one place in his entire life, and when their meal-time prayer was finished, he rudely began to eat first, shoveling bread and fruit into his mouth as though his life depended on it.

"If you continue at such a frantic pace, you may not be able to enjoy the subtleties of the dish." Validar pushed a plate of cooked entrails in a bid for the man to taste. He accepted it eagerly and devoured the meat savagely before remembering his position.

"Sorry," he spoke through a full mouth. "Haven't eaten in a while." He burped. "Thanks so much for all your hospitality and everythin'."

"Understandable," Validar waved away the apology airily. They all sat in reticent silence, with the only sounds being the bandit's crude table manners as he slurped and chewed noisily throughout the entirety of the supper. At one point, Nelson winced as the man loudly threw back wine from a finely wrought silver goblet.

Validar cleared his throat politely to gain the thief's attention. "I had understood that you came bearing important information for us."

The bandit choked on a grape. "Huh? Oh, right." He cleared his throat boorishly. "Me 'n my friend—" he looked around. He scowled at seeing that his partner was taking much too long in the washroom. "...Anyways. So me and Rahm here were at Southtown. During the raid."

Validar raised an eyebrow. "What raid?"

"Well, see, we were with Garrick—Boss—over there, and he was in a real pissy mood after we missed the target. Then again, we didn't got none of the targets in the end," he admitted, shamefaced.

"...What do you mean, 'none of the targets?'"

"Well—we made it to the border pass, see, and the boss said our job was to nab a boy and a lady if we wanted to make a real pretty mint. So we got to the border with Ylisse, and those fuckers were real tough to fight, with their horses an' fancy armour and shit. So we wanna run, see? But boss said nah, we couldn't leave unless we wanted that bounty, so a retreat didn't matter, s'long as we got 'em. So they're kinda sluggish, see, and we had 'em surrounded."

Through steepled fingers, Validar studied the brigand. He was clearly not finished, so he signalled for him to continue his tale.

"...Right. So we got the boy, see, he didn't put up much of a fight after we got a few good hits in. Felt like lugging around a ragdoll, didn't weigh much. But that girl...I dunno where the hell she came from, but she was a freak. Some kinda witch or sorceress I bet—called down lightning outta nowhere and completely fried some of the others. So she booked it real fast, like the wind were pushing her or somethin', and we couldn't follow coz those Ylisseans were blocking the way. Boss was furious—said the kid's bounty was nowhere near as big as the one on her head, see, and that the Grimleal guy who took him on for it would have his head if he didn't come back with them both."

So they failed, Validar concluded. The vessel was still at large in Ylisse. And yet…"You said 'targets.' Plural."

In spite of the braziers lining the room, it seemed as though the temperature dropped by several degrees. The change in atmosphere was not lost on the bandit.

The man gulped audibly. "Sir…?"

"Go on," Validar prompted. "I want to know the reason behind Garrick's failure."

"Oh...o-ok," the bandit shuddered. "Like...he really wanted to go after the lady. Said it'd be a matter of time 'till she collapsed in a ditch somewhere since she was so weak. But we couldn't with the Ylisseans around, so he...he broke off a part of the group to block 'em so the rest of us could get around them and pass the border."

"Wait, if that was possible, then that means their borders are much more porous than previously thought!" Ardri interrupted. Validar silenced him with a glare, and the councilman shrank back into his seat.

"Go on," Validar turned to his guest again.

"...so we were gonna track her down, see? Boss said failure wasn't an option. But we had to treat the wounded first and restock, and there was this little town some ways ahead where we could grab some stuff. Boss said the plan was to recoup there before headin' off to track her." The man wrung his shirt nervously, hyperconscious of the now oppressive air of the dining hall. "Uh...we...we really had it in the bag...didn't seem like it'd be much of a setback, all things considered, but—"

"But what? It was clearly 'something' if it means you are here in such a state."

The brigand sunk in his seat. The display was distasteful to Validar, more akin to a child being scolded than of a grown man reporting back from a mission. A failed mission.

"Answer me."

Hanging his head in shame, the bandit could only manage a mumble. "The Ylisseans found us...and they brought Shepherds with 'em."

A terrible, icy silence froze the dining hall, and even a few braziers blew out ominously. That familiar sense of anger was rising from deep within Validar again. "How many?"

"T-three, sir," the man squeaked.

"And how many soldiers accompanied them?"

"N-not more than ours b-by too much—I mean, forty, no, l-like—around forty or fifty, give or take, and we used to have m-more guys, but we lost a bunch back at the border—"

"If there were only three Shepherds with a force that you admit did not have a great advantage in numbers over Garrick's...then explain the failure to me, please. I have heard of the Shepherds and their exploits...strong opponents, yes, but three hardly sound overwhelming. They barely had an edge over you. And yet the result was failure...why?" Validar's voice was soft and silky smooth.

The man's veins in his neck began to pulse visibly, as sweat beaded on his closely cropped hairline. Validar's disgust grew at having to bear the presence of such a coward. "I—I—I—"

"If you don't simply spit it out now, I'll have your tongue ripped out, if it might make your pitiful words flow all the more freely. Tell. me."

"They had a tactician with them—she had 'em way better organised—gave them instructions and told them where to go—I dunno what that freak did to corner us like that, but the next thing I knew, I was all tied up an' they put us in the town square and—"

He said their tactician was a woman.

Their tactician.

Validar literally flew from his seat at the other side of the table, in a whirl of red robes and venting fury, to land squarely on the man's end, hoisting him up into the air by the collar of his borrowed shirt. The brigand shrieked and kicked uselessly, and Validar ignored his councilmen fleeing the scene in fright.

"So you mean to tell me," fire licked at Validar's tongue, "that she was with the Shepherds."

"It wasn't my fault!" the thief cried. "I swear, please, please, put me down—"

"How came she by them?"

"I don't know! I don't—"

"She was with them and it was thanks to her interference that your defeat was at hand." Validar lifted the man up higher, if only to see him squirm and cry harder. "And you lost the boy as well."

"I swear—"

"You swear what?" Validar suddenly dropped him back into his seat. The bandit scrambled away, panicking, sobbing, as Validar advanced on him at his own leisure. "Your master Garrick swore fealty to me and my Grimleal, promising me results...and yet he delivered nothing but failure. Better yet...he drove her into the clutches of not just any Ylisseans, but Shepherds."

"It wasn't my fault—" the man bawled and cowered before him.

"I'm sure it was not…" Validar said lightly. "Though I have to assume that, as Garrick is not the one who is on his knees before me, he is dead." He cocked his head to a side, and a slow grin, full of sharp incisors and violence, slithered up his face. "You will act as his substitute."

Validar seized his victim and slammed him, chin first, into the table's edge, relishing the shout of pain. He pinched the bandit's cheeks, forcing his mouth into fish lips, and used his free hand to pull the man up by the hair so that his collarbone was level with the table's edge.

"The food was to your liking, yes?" Validar cackled and slammed the man's cheek onto the tabletop, breaking his cheekbone. His hand shot out to grab a handful of intestines from their serving tray, forcing them into the brigand's mouth and staining his previously impeccable nails and skin. But grooming was of no importance now, not when he could relish the thief's muffled screams through the meat. "Everything was prepared especially fresh...only the best for my guests, you understand…" Validar's tone dropped in timbre, and his previously soft intonation was replaced by a vengeful, even demonic, voice. "And because of your utterly disgraceful failure, I don't see why you shouldn't join your friend here on your plate."

How deliciously Validar laughed, as his victim realised the source of the entrails he had enjoyed only a few moments ago and writhed in his grasp. Validar only let him go when the man began to vomit and choke, the disgusting contents of his mouth spewing all over as Validar's hold was released. The respite was too brief, as Validar snatched him by the hair and rubbed his face onto the fouled tabletop.

"I swear I can make it up to you!" the man shrieked. "Please, just let me go!"

"And let you escape like that? No, that is much too lenient for you," Validar snarled.

"P-please," the bandit whimpered pitifully. "Please, I got a family to support, please—"

"So I've seen," Validar chuckled. "A wife and a young daughter. Very sweet." He leaned in closer to whisper darkly into the thief's ear. "The shack you live in has been much improved by the remittances you send back. Your little girl is especially happy with the toy horse from Ferox...if only her dearest father would come home to them, once in a while…"

The bandit stilled. Then, he began to cry in earnest, finally breaking down in tears. "Please," he moaned in pain. "Please...they didn't do nothin'...my wife's a good woman," he pleaded, "and my girl's just a baby...please…"

"Give me one good reason why I should not crush you at this very moment. Why, I would be doing you a favour, putting you out of your misery." Validar ground the man's face harder onto the table.

The bandit gulped in a shuddering breath. "I—I got some info—"

"Which I have heard already," Validar reminded him testily. "There is an old Feroxi saying, not to kill the messenger...but to hell with the Feroxi and their useless platitudes. Much like you: quite useless."

"It's new, I-I swear," he sniffled. "I heard their plans...said they was gonna take the men left alive to Ylisstol, for questioning...said they was gonna take the girl and the boy with 'em...offered them a place to stay and everything."

Well...that was new. New and useful.

Validar released the thief, who immediately began gasping and coughing for air, reaching for anything to wipe the blood and vomit from his face. Validar ignored him and paced calmly around the table, deep in thought.

The bandit watched him warily, clearly unsure of whether to run or stay.

Validar stopped. "Pray tell...you said they took you and some others for prisoner and had you restrained...how did you escape?"

"H-had a knife on me...a good silver one. Used it to c-cut me 'n Rahm free. And we h-had a last warp staff."

"Well...you are not completely useless or brainless, it seems." Validar tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Were you two the only ones that made the journey back?"

"There was o-only one other gal...an archer shot her in the back 'fore she could make a break for it, though."

Validar sighed in annoyance. "You will have to do then, seeing as you are literally the only one left."

The bandit sniffled. "Sir…?"

He whimpered and curled in on himself, pathetic and meek, when Validar approached him. He was truly a vile, cowardly worm in all senses of the word, but he was the only one of Garrick's horde to have returned...and he knew the whereabouts of his bride, or at least a close approximation of them. Thus, as Validar was loath to admit, he needed him. "...How long ago was this failed raid on the town?"

"It was a-around three, four days ago. In Southtown," the man mumbled.

Validar calculated quickly. He was confident that Ylisstol had not decided to uproot itself and move elsewhere in the past few years...from his geographical studies, he had learned that Southtown was fairly close to Ylisse's capital. And if the bandit spoke correctly, it meant that the vessel and the Shepherds were but two days away from reaching it.

"Let me make myself very clear..." Validar spoke as he stood over the man. "Your life has been spared by virtue of that single piece of information you have brought back. That does not mean, however," he enjoyed the flash of fear in the bandit's eyes, "that it will keep you safe. Should you attempt to desert this last mission I have for you...then the consequences for your family will be very ugly indeed."

"I'm listenin'," the brigand grovelled at his feet.

"Good," Validar smiled. The placid expression vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. "It was bad enough that those two had entered that wretched, abominable nation...but for Shepherds, of all people, to find them…?" He spat the word out, as it had a foul taste upon his tongue. Mindful of the man's vomit and bloodstained shirt, Validar lifted him up by the collar once more as a reminder of the power he held over him, ignoring the bandit's terrified pleas. "You must prevent them from entering that miserable city at all costs. You must rally your captured brethren and bring back the woman and the boy, alive. Should you manage to kill any Shepherds and Ylisseans...then consider your reward significantly doubled."

"C-crystal clear, sir."

Validar dropped him unceremoniously to the floor, uncaring as the brigand hacked and coughed roughly, spittle flying everywhere. He motioned for Mustafa to take the man off his hands, as Validar had grown tired of them and wanted to dismiss them. But before he did, he had some matters to clarify. "My mercy has limits, thief...you would do well to remember that. If you do not make yourself useful, then there is little reason as to why I should even allow you the scraps from my table."

And with that, he took his leave.

After a quick recess, and an even shorter meeting with Mustafa—who was still under probation—Validar made haste for his study. He left Mustafa with very clear instructions: to give the hapless bandit a new warp staff, a map of Ylisse with his destination clearly marked, a spyglass shard...and a reeking box.

He had been specifically instructed to not open it until he had his quarry in his sights. Validar had very little confidence in his survival...though he could care less.

As soon as he entered his study, Validar barred the door with magic quickly, making sure that he had no eavesdroppers on the other side. Once he was assured that the safety of his space was not compromised, Validar went to a sheltered corner of his lab. From there, he pressed a switch hidden in the wall; with a loud rumble and scraping of ancient stone, a slab in the floor moved to reveal a staircase winding down deep into the earth. Summoning a ball of spelled fire to light his way, Validar descended the stairs, and behind him, the slab moved back in place, hiding all traces of him and the very bowels of the dark.

 

 

                                                                                      

 

 

Chapter Text

 

                                                                                   mark

 

Robin and Chrom exited the church singed and injured, but otherwise completely safe and sound, much to Lissa and Frederick’s relief. As Robin was still feeling weak from finishing off the bandit leader, Chrom offered to carry Henry for her. He had him cradled safely in his arms; Robin was beside herself with relief and kept a hand on Henry’s as they crossed the bridge to the town square.

Lissa ran to them. “Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed. “He looks really bad—I can have a bed set up for him quick.”

“Thank you, Lissa,” Robin said gratefully.

“You should join them,” Chrom admonished. “You just jumped right into a skirmish after she treated you at the border.”

“I’ll have you both fixed up in no time!” Lissa promised brightly.

Robin chewed her lip. They were being so kind to her, so friendly and eager to please. They were clearly good allies, willing to look after others and extend a helping hand to them...but Robin feared that she was being a burden on them. “I thank you for your kindness, but...others would be better off using resources meant for them.”

“That’s a load of pegasus dung!” Lissa protested with a scowl. “We don’t have a shortage of medical supplies—there’s enough to go around for everyone!”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Robin,” Chrom added. “You were a great help to us here. And as an ally, I think you’re more than entitled to receiving your fair share of treatment.”

Surprisingly, Frederick was the one to drive their point home. “Though your circumstances may be suspicious, I concur with the need to provide you with the necessary medical attention.”

Robin knew when she had to concede a defeat. “...Alright.”

Henry was set up in a snug bed in the makeshift infirmary that Lissa had quickly taken command of. She fed him a mix of tonics and potions, she passed her staff over him, and chanted incantations to knit cuts together and fade bruised skin. The final touch was to make him drink a foul-smelling liquid that Lissa explained was for broken bones, and she had his damaged arm supported in a cute blue sling. By then, Henry was wide awake and happily eating the soup Lissa spoon-fed to him by his side.

“You should eat too Robby! Keep your strength up,” Henry said through a mouthful of bread. Frederick scowled in distaste at the crumbs flying out of his mouth and onto the coverlet.

“Henry’s right.” Chrom sat on a stool by her own bed—Robin had refused to lie on it and simply sat, fully clothed, over the sheets. He pressed a mug of hot milk and a roll of bread into her hands. “Here. Have a little something at least.”

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“Lucky for the town that we were close by,” Lissa babbled. “But holy wow, Robin! You were incredible! Swords, sorcery, AND tactics! Is there anything you can't do?”

“You're certainly no helpless victim, that much is for sure,” Chrom agreed.

Frederick’s eyes narrowed in his usual display of mistrust. “Indeed. Perhaps you might even be capable of an explanation for how you came here?”

Henry, mercifully, kept mum and leaned back into his pillow as Lissa excused herself to tend to other wounded fighters. Chrom shook his head in disapproval and was about to reprimand Frederick until Robin tapped his wrist reassuringly and spoke.

“I understand your skepticism, Sir Frederick. And I cannot explain why only some knowledge has returned to me. But please, believe me. I have shared all that I know,” Robin demurred cautiously, yet apologetically. Frederick exhaled heavily through his nose.

Chrom turned to her with a determined set to his jaw. “You fought to save Ylissean lives. My heart says that's enough.”

His and Lissa’s unbidden, continuous praise warmed her unexpectedly. She had no reply for it.

Frederick kept pressing. “And your mind, milord? Will you now heed its council as well?”

“Frederick, the Shepherds could use someone with Robin’s talents,” Chrom insisted. “We've brigands and unruly neighbors, all looking to bloody our soil. Would you really have us lose such an able tactician? Besides, I believe her story, odd as it might be.” He clasped his hand over Robin’s wrist; she choked on her drink under the safety of the robe and Henry stifled a snort.

“Th-thank you, Chrom,” she mumbled awkwardly.

He turned to her with an enormous, brilliant smile; Robin swore his eyes were practically sparkling. “So how about it? Will you join us, Robin?”

She considered him very, very carefully. She and Henry were in a foreign land—in Ylisse—where the people were said to be godless and immoral and violent. She knew of the bad blood between Plegia and Ylisse. She was more than certain that some people would have been willing to spill hers and Henry if they knew what they were. Frederick was clearly not a bad man, but Robin could not know for sure if he would only remain disapproving and not something far more threatening should he know the truth about them.

Chrom and Lissa were clearly another story. They were outgoing, considerate, kind hearted, and charitable. Robin barely knew them, yet their warmth was evident from the moment she opened her eyes on that field. Yes, she and Henry were in a foreign, potentially very dangerous land—-yet she doubted that Chrom and Lissa would let harm befall them.

At the very least, it was wise to make allies and stay close to them in unfamiliar places.

“I would be honoured,” Robin assented. For what, she did not know exactly, but Chrom’s brilliant grin helped to melt some of her misgivings away.

Frederick sighed a long-suffering sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “...Very well, milord. But the matter still needs to be seen into, as well as the boy’s own circumstances.”

Chrom and Frederick took her out to the town square to survey the captives and to allow her some fresh air. Robin saw that they had bundled them back to back in groups of three, with a soldier each to keep guard over them.

“We’ll be taking them back to Ylisstol for questioning,” Frederick announced. “As tempting as it is to take justice into your own hands, we must place our faith in the rule of the law and give these brigands a fair trial.”

“How is that fair?” a townsperson complained.

“Fair in the sense that they will most certainly be punished for their crime, and Southtown will be justly compensated for the damages.”

As Frederick discussed this with Southtown’s leaders and the commander of the detachment assigned to them, Chrom turned to Robin. “You and Henry will be coming with us, so I hope you don’t mind spending a lot of time on the saddle.”

“Coming with you? What for?” was her very foolish reply.

His loud, deep laugh made her cheeks burn, conscious of how silly she must have sounded. “Well, since you agreed to join us, that means coming with us to Ylisstol. And besides, it wouldn’t do to have you and your friend not having a place to stay.”

He was offering her room and board...goodness. He was really going above and beyond to accommodate them. Robin was deeply touched.

“I...thank you, Chrom.”

A sudden ruckus tore their attention from each other: a bandit had somehow managed to cut himself free from his bonds; he had hidden a knife when they restrained him. He was certainly fast, given that he had freed two others and was now making a break for it with them in tow. A civilian archer unslung his bow and shot the woman of the trio in the back, who died instantly, while the others managed to slip under the grasps of the soldiers. Somehow, they had a warp stave with them, which they used to open up a portal and escape.

“Damn them!” A soldier swore.

“Search everyone!” Frederick commanded. “If anyone else is hiding weaponry, it needs to be disposed of immediately. Though why it was not followed through before reflects a failure on our part to not be more vigilant.”

“Yes sir,” the soldiers responded, ashamed.

Robin excused herself to return to Henry. The bandits’ escape made her blood run cold. Their leader had mentioned that a bounty had been placed on them...20,000 in gold bullion for Henry alone. How much more were they offering for her?  

Henry met her eyes even though he was unable to see her full face under the robe’s hood. He took her hand and squeezed sympathetically. “Don’t worry, Robby,” he chirped brightly. “Those Shepherd people seem nice. And tough! I don’t think we’re in danger with them around.”

Not yet, anyway, Robin did not say. The thought of how long it would take the escapees to return to the desert loomed over her.

The rest of the day was spent either by Henry’s side or accompanying Chrom and Frederick at the former’s insistence to survey the beginnings of the rebuilding efforts: overseeing the reconstruction of the damaged roofs, the pockmarked cobblestones, and fishing timber and stones out of the canals. For the houses and businesses that had been destroyed completely, a ledger was written up promising new materials from Ylisstol as well as monetary compensation for the damage. Neighbours took in those who had lost their homes, and promised to help feed and clothe them as well. From the corner of her eye, Robin saw the few dead wrapped in simple shrouds; they were placed at the centre of the town square as a priest recited the final rites to them, their family and friends sobbing over the corpses. Thankfully, those killed were not great in number—most had been sent to the infirmary to have Lissa help treat them.

They were back with her, attending to Henry’s broken arm as she prescribed a routine for him, promising to have it completely healed in a week. Frederick stood guard over them from the door frame with the scowl Robin knew was customary for him by now.

“Did you notice, milord? The brigands spoke with a Plegian accent,” he said lowly.

Henry, who had wisely caught on to Robin’s ruse, turned to him innocently. “Plegian? What’s that?”

Chrom raised an eyebrow. “Plegia is Ylisse’s westerly neighbour. They send small bands into our territory, hoping to instigate a war.”

“And it's the poor townsfolk who suffer! Totally innocent, and totally helpless…” Lissa growled as she readjusted Henry’s sling.

“They do have us, milady: Shepherds to protect the sheep,” Frederick reassured in that deep voice of his. “Do not be swept up in your anger. It will cloud your judgment,” he chided gently.

Lissa sighed. “I know, I know...don't worry. I'll get used to all this.”

A girl, who Robin recognised as the one being manhandled by the raider’s leader before they killed him, nervously walked to where they were all gathered from Henry’s bedside. “Milord, please...you must stay the night! We are simple folk of simple means, but we would gladly toast your valour with a feast!” She spoke solely to Chrom and fluttered her eyelashes shyly at him. A man who was presumably her father joined her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“We would gladly host the Shepherds and your brave men, milord.”

“A most generous offer, sir, and no doubt your hospitality would be grand... But I'm afraid we must hurry back to Ylisstol,” Frederick declined politely. “Night encroaches upon us, and me must make haste in light of the recent developments.”

“Dark meat only for me, medium well, and no salt in the soup. I simply—wait, what? We're not staying?! But Frederick, it's nearly dark!” Lissa’s initial excitement at the offer turned into a complaint. “We’ve already been on the road for most of the week—my butt hurts from being in the saddle all the time! And I was hoping to get some rest in a real bed…”

“When night falls, we'll camp. Eat off the land, make our bed of twigs and the like...I believe you mentioned you would be ‘getting used to this’?”

Lissa groaned. “Frederick? I sometimes hate you,” she grumbled and buried her head between her arms on Henry’s bed. Henry laughed uproariously.

“Sounds like someone was really bedding on him being in a better mood! Nya ha ha!”

Ignoring the atrocious pun, Robin turned to Chrom. “You’ve quite the stern lieutenant here,” she said.

“Yeah, well, ‘stern’ is one name for it. I can think of a few others!” Lissa glared at Frederick.

Chrom laughed. “Frederick only smiles when he's about to bring down the axe.”

“Duly noted,” Robin gulped.

Frederick ahemed pointedly at the present company. “You do realise I AM still present?”

“Oh, we realised,” Chrom deadpanned. He looked gratified when Robin failed to conceal her snicker behind her hand.

Frederick sighed and rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Milord remains as amusing as ever.” His attention on them was distracted; the setting sun cast a fiery orange blaze over the room from the window, indicating that night was not too far off. Frederick clanked in his armour on the way to the entrance, strapping his lance to his back. “Now then, shall we get going? The sooner the better...unless you insist on travelling at night.”

“All right, all right.” Chrom left his stool and heaved Henry over his shoulder like a sack of wheat. He graciously ignored the high-pitched cry of ‘wheeee!’ in his ear as he bade Lissa to gather up their convoy pouch. “Ready to go, Robin? The capital isn’t far.”

He cut a gallant figure, with his deep blue hair looking almost black in the sinking sunlight. He had a hand stretched out to her in a painfully friendly gesture.

A day ago, Robin would never have believed that this was going to happen. Now...she felt as though on the precipice of something much larger than she could conceive.

“Alright,” she conceded. She helped Lissa gather up the rest of their belongings as they exited the building. The girl from before had timidly given Chrom a basket of fresh produce and food, which was handed off to Frederick to be stored in their saddlebags. Henry was seated on Frederick’s enormous horse, looking for all the world like a caterpillar who had not yet finished its cocoon with his head poking out of the blankets he was swaddled in. To Robin’s relief, the cadet from before had kept his word—Neferi had been brought to them, safe and sound, and was wrapped up in Henry’s blankets, licking him furiously. The hunting dogs the Shepherds had brought with them were barking and straining at their leashes from where Frederick held them all.

“Everyone ready?” Chrom shouted. He sat astride his horse holding a lit torch.

“Aye!” the soldiers responded. The men in charge of overseeing the prisoners snapped the ropes and chains restraining them, forcing them to a stand.

“We march to Ylisstol!” Chrom yelled back as he spurred his horse into a canter.

 

 

                                                                                         

 

No one else knew of the labyrinth’s existence save for Validar. It was a closely guarded secret, passed down only to those who were born carrying Grima’s blood; his father told him of it, as his grandfather did, who was brought here by his great-grandmother and all the way back through generations of failed vessels who traced their origins to the first carrier of Grima’s Heart.

They called him Forneus, the Demon Alchemist.

Validar would have brought her here, too, but her abandonment of them all but dashed his plans.

The labyrinth lay deep within the earth, far deeper than the skull sanctum. It was all that remained of the ancient Thabean civilisation: a highly learned people, gifted in magic and knowledge of the arcane, who communed with the stars to know of the future that lay ahead. When the destruction of their people was foretold, their sages advised their senate to order mass evacuations, and thus their emptied cities were left forgotten and buried under the desert sands. Their dispersed people eventually settled once more, and became the nation now known as Plegia.

However...that was only but a heavily revised fraction of the tale.

The true beginnings of the Grimleal’s history lay when Forneus was born in a continent named Jugdral, to a cult of dragon worshippers: the Loptyrians. Following their god’s destruction at the hands of Prince Seliph, the cult collapsed, and the Loptyrians were scattered in one fell swoop. Most remained in Jugdral, but some amount fled overseas to the continent of Archanea, and thus Forneus and his parents were taken in by the Thabeans and he spent his boyhood in their capital city, deep within the Marmothod Desert. Ironically, the god Loptyr was said to have originated in Archanea before uprooting himself to Jugdral following a great war between the dragons.

Unbeknownst to anyone, a few refugees had taken precious relics with them before their families escaped to Archanea: they had somehow managed to acquire blood from the deceased Loptyr, and kept it hidden on their person for many years after.

Forneus was a brilliant child, and he grew to become a brilliant man who was accepted into a most prestigious institution to study alchemy with the capital’s elite. He was nothing short of a prodigy. Under their tutelage, his skills knew no peer, and he was inducted into the highest ranks of the Thabean alchemists.

Yet for all the peace that his life with the Thabeans afforded, for all the adoration and praise that his knowledge brought him, he craved for the return of his god and the destruction of the Loptyrian’s enemies. He despised the Thabeans as a weak, submissive nation who sought to compromise with their words and their magic, rather than smite their power-hungry neighbours through the force of the sword. Their world was one of filth and impurity, subject to the forces of nature and the eventual degeneration of the dragons...yet for all their knowledge, the Thabeans refused to push themselves to greater heights, and squandered their talents when they could have been using them to conquer the earth and the heavens. They refused to challenge the gods and establish themselves as the new rulers of their world. Thus, Forneus committed himself to two goals:

To create a singular, perfect being, and to achieve mastery over death itself.  

Under the pretext of a personal project, Forneus threw himself into research, with all the tools he needed at his disposal and with the encouragement of his teachers, pupils, and the Thabean Senate itself. But as time flew by, his interest in the outside world dimmed; so great was his obsession that the darkness within his heart began to spill forth, and soon the people who had initially loved him grew fearful.

It took years before his experiments yielded tangible results. The precious few logs that Validar’s predecessors managed to find and preserve described, breathlessly, his first creations: the death eaters, his thanatophage insects. With them, Forneus swore, he would raise an army of undead and use them to conquer and control the enemies surrounding the Thabeans. With them, he would have no fear of losing troops when he could simply summon them over and over again. His thanatophages were but a step in his planned conquest of death. Controlling the dead was one thing; it had been done before, and was a staple of dark and forbidden arts. But true reanimation of a corpse long dead was unheard of. Any decent sorcerer who had the knowledge and the will for it could command the dead...but only a god was capable of defying the rule of time and mortality over soft, weak flesh, and thus prove his might over them.

Forneus’ obsession stemmed from his firsthand witnessing of the demise of the Loptyrians, as did his desire of recreating a perfect being in Loptyr’s image. Humanity was a filthy, weak creation that sullied the earth with its mere existence, and necessitated a destroying force to keep them in check and renew the earth to avoid them from defiling it completely. But then, Forneus realised, that Loptyr was not truly perfect if he was himself not free from the permanent grasp of death...he had truly been a god in all senses of the word, yet died no differently from any other mortal.

That meant that Forneus had to create an entirely new being...one that would be incapable of dying, an avatar of destruction, and thus a true master of death.

As the years went by, and Forneus became all the more reclusive, his associates voiced their concerns to the senate. They understood their worries, yet reasoned that Forneus was simply neck-deep in work. They sent politely worded messages. All went unreplied. As their unease grew, and Forneus virtually ceased all contact with the outside world, they began sending envoys, well meaning colleagues of his.

None returned. And disappearances and violent crimes began occurring near his workshop.

The darkness around his domicile only intensified, terrorising his neighbours, and soon the entirety of the capital, fearing for their lives as terrible magic manifested around his workshop, begged the senate to take action; the evil soon threatened to overtake the capital in its entirety, attracting wicked creatures to their walls and endangering their safety as neighbouring nations took note of their turmoil. The few people descended from manaketes that lived amongst the Thabeans had many children of theirs snatched, and they left to protect what was left of their tiny community.

The senate then sent soldiers. They too were never heard of again.

Now resolute in their certainty that they had to stop whatever it was that manifested in Forneus’ laboratory, the senate sent their best mages and warriors to storm his home. What they found was nothing short of an atrocity: Forneus had experimented with the darkest, most evil forms of magic, and had combined his blood with that of Loptyr’s to birth his creation. To feed it, while simultaneously invoking the dark rites that gave it power, he had snatched his neighbours and other Thabean citizens from their homes and off the streets to use as human sacrifices. It had grown incredibly strong, and had taken possession of his body for its own use.

Forneus, once beloved and admired, was rebranded a demon, his workshop containing the creature sealed by the senate, and a labyrinth built around it to prevent it from escaping. The city was completely evacuated to flee the evils he had unleashed.

Over time, the Thabean civilisation grew weak and collapsed, as their new capital lacked the authority and centrality of its last version. The Thabeans dispersed and married into other countries and tribes until they were all unified under the first Plegian queen’s banner. But their previous capital, with all its glories and wonders, was soon buried under the sands of time and forgotten, with naught but a lone tower remaining to mark its position.

Centuries later, before the loathsome Prince Marth became king, a band of Valmese, perhaps seeking treasure and adventure, broke the seals placed on the labyrinth. They ventured deep into its bowels, and, instead of finding riches at its very lowest point, had found the creature, who had grown much larger and stronger in all its years in the dark. Their timely appearance allowed it to escape its imprisonment.

It lay low after its release. It bided its time to grow and accumulate more power, to learn more of the world around it. It became so large that it nearly rivalled the continent in size, so powerful that flapping its wings could destroy enormous swathes of land. It began to wreak destruction upon the continent. And thus it was named the wings of despair, the breath of ruin...the fell dragon, Grima.

A descendant of Marth, like his reprehensible ancestor before him, took up a mantle of heroics in a bid to stop Grima once and for all. But Grima’s might was vast, and Forneus’ experiments had truly achieved his goals: Grima could not be killed, and He made use of Forneus’ insects to raise an army of the undead that kept reviving itself and pushing its enemies back. It had truly seemed as though Grima was to surpass Loptyr, and become the force of destruction that Forneus made Him to be.

But Naga, meddlesome, impertinent Naga, heard her people’s mewling cries for help, and tried to stop Grima herself. To her surprise, they were incapable of killing one another...but as they were both dragons, both were still capable of harming each other. Using the blade made from her fang that had been entrusted to his ancestors, Naga bade the prince to seal Grima away with its power, in the hopes that they could at least buy time to shore up their forces before his return.

What those fools did not know was that Grima’s seed had established a foothold in their world.

Before His power grew too great, Grima could shift forms between that of a man and a dragon, and it was during His time in a man’s body that He found a woman who admired His strength. She submitted to forming a blood pact with Him, becoming the first of His Grimleal, and the child that resulted from their mating was the first in a millennium long line of worshippers that gathered to hear Forneus’ words, preaching for the destruction and renewal of a sinful earth. Robin was the latest direct descendant of that line, and the first since Grima Himself to possess His Heart.

Had she not decided to betray them and run away, she would have had another descendant—Grima’s new form Himself, as was foretold—growing strong and fast within her warm womb by now.

Validar dismissed his ball of fire to snap his fingers and bring the enormous braziers in the labyrinth to life. The warm yellow stone flickered in the light, revealing the carvings and statues of dragons and monsters as he made his way down. Navigating the labyrinth was second nature to him—he had done it for many years now, and knew all its twists and turns like the back of his hand, just as he knew of the skull sanctum’s. Due to its vast size, and the array of creatures placed inside to defend its secrets and treasures, any other traveller would have gotten lost very easily and died from starvation or from a monster attack. Even then, it would still have taken days to reach the very bottom of the labyrinth, which Validar solved by placing warp pads every few areas. What would have been a trip lasting days was now reduced to a few hours’ time, and the monsters had already learned to stay well away from him by now.

Still much too long, Validar fumed as he practically flew to the tenth level. The entirety of the floor was the remains of Forneus’ workshop, which Validar used to store the darkest, most dangerous things he possessed, such as the thanatophages. He gathered up a reeking box that contained exactly one insect, as well as a copy of Grima’s Truth and an obsidian dagger before proceeding to the last chamber of the floor; the very heart of Forneus’ workshop.

It was a cavernous space: the door led to a walkway that opened up to a circular platform, with nothing but a yawning emptiness between them and the walls. A small shrine to Grima sat at the back of the platform, with an enormous scrying pool filled with black water occupying the centre; a modest dais and podium rose before it, and stone torches circled the very edge of the platform, lighting immediately when they sensed his presence. That, coupled with the ceiling that was not visible and seemed to stretch into eternal darkness, made for a place that would have been deeply unsettling to anyone else.

Validar kowtowed to the shrine, throwing his arms out in supplication: “Mighty Lord!” he cried out. “I bid Thee to lend me Thine Eyes, so that I may be able to locate Thine Vessel and return her to her rightful place!”

He took out a set of prayer beads and recited his six psalms fervently. Numerology dictated that 19 and 20 were sacred numbers, but those were mostly due to Plegian custom: multiples of six dictated Grima’s power, reflecting the number of His Eyes, and thus, His abilities to See into the future, to witness past events, to gaze upon the present at any point on earth; to peer into the hearts and minds of other creatures, to discern dreams, and to always find those who would try to hide from Him by lurking in the shadows. His Sight was All-Seeing, All-Powerful, and completely unavoidable.

Validar set to work immediately, ascending the dais steps quickly. He stretched out his arm, and used the knife to inflict a shallow cut in his wrist; blood immediately began to trickle out steadily, a few drops landing in the water. He sealed the wound and watched as the previously tranquil and glass-smooth water began to ripple and change. It shifted in colour from pitch black to brilliant, blinding white.

He opened his copy of Grima’s Truth and began to recite:

By the power vested within me, and as Your loyal servant, I humbly beseech Thee to lend me Your Strength; lend me Thine Eyes so that I may find what I seek!

The spell called to the night sky itself, the black mantle that stretched out over the world and thus saw all under its cover. The magic circle on the page began to glow as a larger version of it manifested on the ceiling—the glyphs representing the 12 zodiac houses appeared as a shining golden ring, circling slowly above him.

The water changed again; a blurred, jumpy image of grass and a leaf-littered forest floor could be seen, just barely, due to how dark it was there. It was night, then. The bandit’s laboured panting echoed throughout the chamber most annoyingly.

“Thief,” Validar’s voice resonated much more strongly. “I trust that you have not failed me this time and have located them.”

The image in the water jumped along with the bandit bearing the mirror shard. “O-oh! I-it’s just you,” he sighed in relief.

“Who else, you idiot?” Validar replied testily.

“I mean—thing is, the warp staff got me a little lost—had to really bust my ass off, tryna find ‘em in this huge place—”

“Have you found them or not?”  

“I—y-yessir, I have! I...I been trackin’ ‘em for a while now.”

The water in the pool changed as the mirror shard was moved accordingly. The bandit had lifted it to show a small encampment; the captured brigands were being held a little ways off while two guards kept watch. A small fire that was not yet put out, but instead had its embers burning lowly, warmed the ring of people sleeping around it.

Validar’s breath hitched at the sight of the purple robes on two of the dormant figures.

“Whatever you do,” Validar warned through gritted teeth, “do not alert them to your position. Keep quiet. Get as close as you can to them without being seen. And I trust that you have the reeking box at the ready.”

“Yessir.”

“Good.” Validar waved a hand over the pool—the water shifted once more, this time with a grid overlaying itself over its surface. A forest grew on it, showing every tree, every stone, every being inhabiting the place the mirror shard was transmitting its connection from. Creatures unaffiliated to his side registered as blue units; the brigand he had working on his behalf was a lone red unit in the green terrain. Now that the scrying pool was being used as his game board, an eye manifested at the centre of the zodiac circle floating above, growing in size and opening until it showed a complete view over the forest camp.

Most important were the red dots that showed on the grid, pulsing in anticipation under the earth’s surface.

“Take out your box...and do not open it until I say so.”

“O—ok, sir.”

With great care, Validar opened his own box. To the untrained eye, it was a simple, even dull looking brown thing, with no remarkable traits to distinguish it in any way...save for the scent of rotting flesh that emanated faintly from it. A long, iridescent green beetle lay inside. It screeched furiously upon seeing Validar, who plucked it out of the box. Upon contact with his skin, it calmed, and its large compound eyes began to glow a hellish red.

“On my mark…” Validar was practically licking his lips. He held the thanatophage over the water. On its surface, he could see the bandit’s red unit hold his own box in his hands a little uncertainly.

Validar lifted his eyes to the zodiac circle. He recited:

I implore Thee, as Thy Might reaches all that Thine Eyes behold, to open the gate and allow me passage.

He let go of the insect. Instead of falling into the water, the zodiac circle exerted a pull that sucked it into its vicinity, and the insect passed into the portal that opened in Ylisse.

In light of the harsh journey she and Henry had travelled before arriving in Ylisse, the way to Ylisstol was strangely idyllic in comparison. The weather had turned very pleasant—Lissa explained that while the calendar showed that spring had begun a month ago, it was only until recently that the snow had begun to melt, and traditional Ylissean folk wisdom held that it was not spring until the snow and cold were gone. Robin enjoyed the explosion of wildflowers and warm blue sky as they rode north. The smell of new life and greenery, as well as the sight of birds flying high, breathed a sense of relaxation and freedom into her lungs that she had not felt since her time with Mustafa.

She and Henry often rode together on Frederick’s horse; he insisted to do so as a precautionary measure and would lead the destrier himself, but his attitude mellowed slightly the closer they got to Ylisstol. If not, Lissa or Chrom rode with either of them on their own mounts.

“Her name is Stormchaser,” Chrom said proudly as he presented his mare to them. She was a pretty thing with a steel-grey mane and a stunning white coat dappled with grey and black spots. “Don’t worry, she’s very sweet and loves making friends.”

“He picked that name when he was twelve,” Lissa taunted from the seat of her own palomino.

“There’s nothing wrong with it!” Chrom spluttered and blushed an embarrassed red.

The siblings (and Frederick, to a certain extent) were keen on their love of animals. When they took breaks to rest, they would often gambol in the grass with the dogs. And though Frederick was usually tutting at them from a distance, he was never one to refuse when a hound came up to him for attention. They caught him carrying Neferi and scratching her belly more than once.

Their friendliness extended to Henry and her, in spite of Frederick’s suspicions. They would go out of their way to talk, point out interesting things they saw on the road, and share anecdotes of their friends, family, and Ylisse. But truth be told, Robin had developed a slight fear of them, despite their kindness towards her and Henry. She had thought something was amiss from the moment her Mark pulsed around them, but it was the thousandfur robe’s ceaseless chatter that confirmed it.

Fellow dragonspawn, it hissed in her ear. Dragon’s blood in their veins. Like you.

She had suspected as much since they first met. Chrom had freakishly high stamina and strength that was simply not human. Lissa herself had healing abilities that went beyond what any normal healer could do; fusing broken bones together in a week was completely unheard of altogether. In fact, while Lissa had no discernible Brand on display, Chrom’s large, stylised emblem was emblazoned over his bared right bicep. Every time that Robin was close to them meant the now familiar thrumming sensation coursing through her veins and tickling her skin. And while Noam had taught her much about other dragons besides Grima, the symbol on his arm was unfamiliar, not like anything in her textbooks. Though the blue hair and the simple iconography—not to mention the large sword at his side that always had the robe shrieking—had her at a guess that filled her with dread.

“So what do you say? Since you basically agreed to join us as a Shepherd back in Southtown, anyways.”

Robin felt very foolish. While she thought that Chrom had requested her presence as aid to the Shepherds, she failed to understand that he had basically hired her as a member of his militia. A permanent position.

“I-I’m sorry,” she apologised. “I never thought Henry and I would actually stay in Ylisse that long.”

“We were hoping to reach Regna Ferox. I think,” Henry added, barely remembering that their official story was that they had amnesia.

“But we’ve never had a tactician under our service—and we could always use another mage. I promise you that the pay will be more than good. You’ll always be guaranteed room and board at the castle, as well as food, clothing, and medical attention. We could use the talents of people like you,” Chrom pressed. “The Shepherds would be the stronger for it. And Ylisse would be much safer, too.”

“Milord,” Frederick sighed.

His offer was very, very tempting. It meant having a place to settle along with a guaranteed form of income. It meant a chance to start a brand new life far, far away from Plegia and the Grimleal.

And yet, all Robin could think of was her mother’s notes, promising a cottage for them at the very eastern edge of Regna Ferox. It was a location that was much colder, inhospitable even, compared to a temperate region like Ylisstol...but it was still her mother and Robert’s promised place. Perhaps their family and friends were still waiting for them now, even after all these years later. The thought made her heart ache.

Lissa, perceptive of Robin’s inner turmoil, pulled him away slightly while shaking her head. Not now, she mouthed.

Chrom sighed. “We can discuss this later, once we’re in Ylisstol. But...I sincerely hope that you consider my proposition.”

After a few days on the road, Frederick announced that they were barely two days away from entering the vicinity of Ylisstol. As much ground as they had covered, he insisted to keep on going, to the annoyance of most, especially the prisoners. Their exhaustion and vociferous complaints almost matched Lissa’s for volume.

“I told you—it's getting dark already!” Lissa whined. She jumped in her saddle as a fly flew close to her ear. “Ech! And now the bugs are out! Noisy, disgusting bugs that buzz around and crawl all over and bite you when—agh! Won goph in mah mouph! Blech! Ptooey!” She spat into the ground, sticking her tongue out and fanning it in a panic.

Chrom rolled his eyes in annoyance.“Aw, come on now, Lissa. Hardship builds character. Want to help me gather firewood?”

“Tpht! Tpht! Yeeeeeuck!...I think I swallowed it...I'll pass on finding firewood, thanks. I think I've built QUITE enough character for one day!”

Robin smiled to herself at their antics from where she was sitting with Henry. Those two were certainly a lively pair. The sudden grumbling of her stomach interrupted her train of thought. “We should probably think about food. I don't know about you, but I'm starving.”

Frederick glanced up at the sky as he helped Henry to dismount. A few stars had begun encroaching upon them, making him realise how late the hour was. “Yes, I should think a little hunting and gathering is in order. Now, who wants to clear a campsite?”

The soldiers and the siblings suddenly were very interested in trying to divvy up food and firewood duties. A few had begun to uselessly try and grab at the songbirds that had begun nesting for the night, while others were picking berries from a nearby bush.

“Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick meee!” Henry waved his arm desperately and tugged on Frederick’s arm. “I LOVE campsite duty,” he grinned.

“...Very well,” a bemused Frederick accepted his help.

Chrom volunteered for the hunt with a few other men. “I’ll try to see if there are any animals still out.”

“I’ll find some berries,” Lissa grumbled, then did a double take at the bushes. “Hey!” She shouted to the soldiers. “Those are poisonous!”

As the rest were guarding the prisoners and horses, Robin decided to take on campsite duties along with Frederick and Henry, digging a pit for their fire as well as improvising cots made out of leaves. By the time Lissa had gathered a respectable amount of (safe) berries, and Chrom returned with his latest kill, a fire was flickering warmly from where Frederick started it.

“Mmm...It's been too long since I last had bear meat. Delicious!” Chrom spoke around his cooked haunch of meat. He noticed his sister had not even touched her portion. “...What's wrong, Lissa? Dig in.”

She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Pass! Gods, couldn't you spear us an animal normal people eat for once? I mean, come on! Who eats bear?! You're meddling with the food chain. Right guys?” She turned to Henry and Robin, expecting their support on the subject, only to falter suddenly. “...Uh, Robin?...Henry?”

The two were deeply engrossed in their food, munching, tearing, and slurping their meat frantically. Though they had been fed in their short time in Ylisse, it had been much longer since they had meat. That, and Chrom (with Robin and Henry’s agreeance) had insisted on giving the basket of produce gifted to them to the prisoners, under the pretext that they needed to be kept well-fed on their way to the capital.

Lissa sighed in defeat. “I suppose a person would enjoy just about anything after not eating for days…”

“Just eat it, Lissa. Meat is meat.”

“Since when does meat smell like old boots?! Wait, I take that back—boots smell better!”

“Every experience makes us stronger, milady,” Frederick said sagely. “Even those we don't enjoy.”

She raised an unimpressed brow in response. “Really? Then why don't I see YOU eating, Frederick?”

Said man blanched and broke out into a rare, nervous sweat; Lissa had him cornered. “Me? Oh, well...I'm not hungry,” he stammered unconvincingly. “I...I had a large lunch! Yes, quite.”

“Yeah right, Frederick!” Lissa howled with laughter, and soon the infectiousness of the sound had almost everyone else joining in at Frederick’s expense. Robin felt herself relax in their company. No matter her fears and misgivings over them, no matter the fact that they were now in Ylisse...at least she could trust them to keep Henry and her safe for the time being.

“Hey, if you don’t want it, mind passing it over?” Henry asked Lissa.

She immediately handed it to him without a second thought. To the surprise of most, he then walked to the group of prisoners and offered the meat to them. While some refused, others took it, and began to eat with a few hesitant bites.

 

                                                                                      

 

Robin woke to the robe screaming bloody murder in her head. Up! Get Up! it shrieked. Worryingly enough, the dog was also pulling at her sleeve, growling and whining in her ear.

“Robin?” Henry whispered to her from his cot. “You feel that?”

She looked around. The fire had gone out while they were asleep, and some of the soldiers were still resting...but something was off. “...Yeah. I feel it.”

The night was too quiet, too dark. Not a single bird’s call or insect’s buzz could be heard, with the exception of the hounds, huddled in a terrified bunch and whimpering softly. One of them had urinated out of fear. A few of the more sensitive prisoners had woken as well and turned uncertainly to try and find what was it that provoked such a feeling of dread in the air.

“Chrom and Lissa aren’t here,” Henry pointed to their empty spots. Frederick was sound asleep, like a log. “...Wanna take a look around?”

“No,” Robin said. “That’s what they probably set out to do. And since we both feel it, we can’t just leave everyone here completely defenseless.”

“Ok.”

They drew tomes from their mokeskin pouches and flipped them open, ready to face whatever was lurking in the forest. The went from person to person, rousing those who were still asleep, and urging those who were already awake to be alert for a possible skirmish.

“Keep the prisoners safe,” Robin instructed.

“Why should we?” a soldier griped. “They’re prisoners.

“Because Chrom and Frederick promised them a fair trial in Ylisstol.”

“Yeah! Don’t be a meanie,” Henry slapped the back of the man’s breastplate with a loud bang.

“Shhh!” Robin said. “Listen.”

For all the lack of noise, they had to strain their ears to actually attempt to listen to anything at all—the deeply unsettling sensation that blanketed them did not help matters. At the very least nobody seemed to be on the verge of panic. Yet.

Suddenly, there was a rustling from behind the bushes.

“Everyone get behind me,” she warned as the feeling of danger exploded in her veins.

A lone man stepped out from behind the cover of the trees. He certainly looked worse for wear, as though he had been travelling for days on end with no food or water. Even in the dark, she could see there was a hollow, scared look to his eyes.

The horses wanted to bolt at the very sight of him, and it took six men, along with Frederick, to restrain them safely. “Sir! Have you lost your way in the woods?” Frederick called out to the stranger.

“No,” was the man’s response.

“Frederick!” Robin shouted. She noticed the box in the man’s hands much too late. “Take everyone and run! This isn’t someone we want to fight!”

The man shook his head. “I...I can’t fail this. So please...don’t make this any harder for me, alright?”

He opened the box. A black, inky mist bubbled and roiled out until it touched the ground, with the horrible scent of rotting flesh filling the air and spreading out all over the forest floor.

 "Frederick!

“You’re not goin’ anywhere,” the man said.

The ground beneath began to shake violently, fire splitting the earth’s seams apart and trapping them all in a flaming ring that began to lick at the trees and leaf litter, with the darkness now chased away by the violent blaze. As if on cue, a golden light began flashing in the sky, gathering strength until it formed a shining ring floating above them; a zodiac circle.

To her complete horror, the mist flowed into the ground; limbs then began to claw their way out of the soil, with greying, rotting bodies hauling themselves out. The corpses were stooped before them, heaving dry, laboured breaths as they stared back at the terrified living. Though they were dressed in older versions of Ylissean armour, crude metal masks hid their faces from sight.

Risen.  

 

 

                                                                                                  

 

 

Chapter Text

   

                                                                                    

 

"Noam!"

He turned from his bookshelf at Robin's childish little shriek. His eyesight had begun to steadily decline from this point in his life, and his beard had not yet reached its prodigious length.

She, however, had not completely mastered self control and manners—but why should she? She was revered as the Vessel, Grima's living Avatar, and the worship and adulation she was raised with removed any consideration of such topics from the minds of her sycophants. It was a horridly restrictive environment, to be sure, yet the praise lavished upon her turned her into a screaming, willful brat when she was not caged within silence and confusion. There was hardly an inbetween.

"What is it, child?" he said patiently.

"What's a Risen?"

A long, uncomfortably pregnant pause filled the cramped classroom. Even with her relative lack of self-awareness due to her age, Robin recognised his fear.

"Who told you about that?" he asked slowly. Cautiously.

Robin chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Hennutawy said that if I didn't finish my food like I was supposed to, then a Risen would do it for me. And then it would eat me."

Noam expelled a hard, shaky breath as he climbed down from the rolling ladder—organising his books and scrolls could wait. His bare feet made a raspy, leathery noise on the dried oxblood flooring as he drew a stool to take a seat next to her. Robin had been slacking off on her arithmetic in favour of scrawling inane doodles in the margins of her papyri, but he graciously chose to ignore that.

"What's a Risen?" she pressed.

"A folk tale. Something old crones threaten children with when they feel they are misbehaving."

"Was not," Robin pouted petulantly. "But you're lying to me."

"How so?" Noam tried to play it off a little too innocently.

Robin could not quite articulate the reasons why she could spot his lie; as she grew older she came to understand it as another property of her Eyes (albeit a skill that was only unintentionally activated, and rather infrequently, too), one that let her home in on the subtle way his body froze at the use of the word. The way his lips hitched on a breath as he tried to form a suitable response. Sometimes, she could even catch snippets of his thoughts. "I just know," she shrugged.

"As our Vessel, of course you do." Noam patted her hair as he usually did when they were alone. But there was no warmth in the gesture. It was done absentmindedly as he mulled over her latest questioning. "But why do you want to know about them?"

"If she thought they're scary enough to say they'll eat me, then what are they?"

Noam had always told her that even as a toddler, she displayed an unnaturally clear understanding of some things. She often delighted him with the simple, innocently pointed questions she would bring up.

He said that she had always possessed a lovely mind—but that, sometimes, he was afraid of peering into its depths and shining a light inside.

"Stay here," he said.

The solemnity of his tone awed her. She nodded obediently, watching from her seat as he stood with a great groaning and creaking of his old bones and shuffled off to a side room. He returned with an ominously ancient tome: dusty, decrepit, and practically falling apart at the seams. It would not have been an exaggeration to say a worm or two crawled out of the moth-eaten pages.

"You have to promise me that you will not mention this conversation to Validar. And should you ever mention anything related to the subject at all…be extremely careful."

"I promise."

Noam's eyes never left hers even as he turned the fragile pages, evidently having memorised the location of the relevant entry.

Thinking back on it, Robin was not entirely sure she wanted to know why.

He finally opened on a well-thumbed section. It showed a two page spread featuring a crudely drawn humanoid at the very centre, surrounded by a complex and nigh incomprehensible web of diagramming, formulae that had been bleached by time, and notes in differently coloured ink squeezed into what little remaining space there was.

Though she understood none of it…something dark stirred inside her.

It felt awful.

"Risen—" Noam's tongue was hesitant to form the phrase—"supposedly are named so because they have risen from the dead."

In spite of the fire blazing in the hearth and the braziers stationed in the corners, the room was cold. Or was it just her imagination? She could not tell. She simply wanted to know out of genuine curiosity. Now it felt like she had made a terrible mistake of some sort.

"Grima—" hereNoam raised his eyes to the ceiling and stuck his thumb between his forefinger and middle finger and thumped his chest with his fist "—was said to have used them in His armies. Either stitched together from different bodies, or using the deceased—"

"What's 'deceased?'"

"It is another way to say 'dead.'"

Robin mulled over his explanation very thoughtfully. What he was saying not only sounded frightful—the hairs on the back of her neck rose as spoke.

Noam sighed quietly. "They were made to keep His armies everlasting: should one fall, He could simply bring them back, over and over again. Relentless, undaunted, there to do Grima's bidding as He pleased."

The only sound that could be heard was the fire crackling; Robin realised she had held her breath unintentionally and released it in a heavy exhalation. Biting her lip, she reached out tentatively towards the book, skimming the brittle page's worm-bitten edge with her finger. "But why dead people?"

"What do you mean?"

She shrugged again. "Why not just…keep on healing people who're already alive? Why do they have to be dead?"

Noam's brow furrowed deeply as he reached out to stroke her hair. There was something… sad about the gesture. "I do not know myself, child."

 

 

                                                                             

 

The thing before them was human, once. Its armour was in surprisingly good condition for having been buried; it wore trousers, boots, and carried an axe as though it were a common footsoldier. It must have been at least somewhat recently deceased (or at least remarkably well preserved), for its gray skin still showed defined muscle tone and relatively little decay.

Robin wondered vaguely if it had a family still awaiting its return home.

But the awful stench rolling off it and the jerky, lurching movements it made as it stared them down from behind its mask provoked such an instinctually deep fear, such a visceral disgust, that it was instantaneously clear that it had lost its humanity a long time ago.

The man who had summoned it lost his composure immediately; he evidently had no idea what he had been roped into in the first place and tried to flee, but it was all in vain as the thing snatched him up, lightning quick, and tore savagely into his soft flesh. He did not even have time to so much as scream—all that was left was a fine red mist and his shredded clothes tossed to the side.

The Risen's eyes glowed a hellish red from the eye sockets in its mask, matching the blood around its mouth, as it threw its head back and roared.

 

                                                                                       

 

 

"Are such horrific creatures commonplace in these lands?" One of the prisoners cowered as Frederick and the soldiers closed ranks on them in a protective ring. The horses snorted and stamped in terror, yet thankfully held their ground as their riders readied their shields and arms against the three Risen.

"They're not from Ylisse, I promise you that." Frederick hefted his heavy silver lance to point directly at the monsters. His horse was not so easily spooked and pawed at the ground defiantly.

And thus a long and terrifying game of keep-away began. The Risen circled the encampment slowly and deliberately, cocking their heads at unnatural angles as they assessed their enemies and searched for an opening they could exploit. Occasionally they would take experimental jabs, retreating just as quickly when their strikes were parried, and they were back to their stalking once more. But no one was fooled; their weapons seemed to have little effect against the Risen, and there was a lot of force behind their hits, meaning it was only a matter of time before they put their full strength into a devastating blow.

The tension running through Robin's body almost felt like static, crackling and sparking as she swept her eyes over the Risen with her tome at the ready. They were lucky to be in the company of trained soldiers, but they were fighting a threat no one in their group had ever prepared for; uncertainty in combat could lead to costly mistakes.

Thankfully for them, she at least had an idea of what they were up against.

"Everyone," she kept her voice low, her eyes never leaving the Risen. "Be very careful. You didn't notice, but as they kept circling, they managed to press us into a tighter ball to make it more difficult to move once they pounce. Put a little space between yourselves."

Frederick was wise to match her tone. "With all due respect, we have to keep the prisoners and the dogs safe. We cannot afford to let them slip through."

Robin shook her head slowly. "Look closely." She pointed to the magma that had broken through the earth: it bubbled ferociously, thick and deadly like a witch's brew ready to be served from its cauldron. The heat from it was intense and a great swathe of forest had already started to burn.

Frederick's eyes widened in realisation. "They're staying away from it."

"Because they're vulnerable to fire."

He nodded. "Understood." He straightened up in the saddle and turned to address the soldiers. "Everyone! Be mindful of the flames—though they pose a danger to us, they can also be of great help. Spread out and try to push these abominations towards the fire!"

The Risen acted immediately on his words and rushed forward, with more of that dense, syrupy black mist streaming from their bodies as their blades met the soldiers'. Guttural growls rattled forth from the open mouths on their masks as they strained against the humans. The fact that over ten soldiers spread out across three monsters were struggling attested to the creatures' unnaturally high strength.

Worse still was the sudden, terrible feeling that overcame Robin as she stole a brief glance at the zodiac circle hovering in the sky, the large golden eye at is centre staring them down.

She immediately knew that Validar was watching them from it.

A loud blast from a horn rallied the soldiers as they manoeuvred deftly out of the Risen's reach, blocking their attempts at grabbing the prisoners as the dogs barked furiously and nipped at the monsters' heels. Unfortunately, the heat from the fire was beginning to take its toll on the humans, with the Risen completely uncaring so long as no stray ember managed to burn them.

"Robby!" Henry yelled for her.

She ran to his defense at once, blasting the Risen with a faceful of lightning as Henry, Neferi, and the prisoners behind him scrambled to the safety of a large pine. She saw what he meant: the magic, though enough to push the creature back, did not even manage to damage it significantly as its grey skin knitted itself back together.

Pegasus dung.

Frederick, in a jaw-dropping feat of strength, came to their rescue; he kicked his horse into a gallop, ripped a burning branch off the tree, and thrust it so deeply into the Risen's exposed chest that the flaming wood burst out the other side in a shower of sparks.

The Risen screamed, clawing fruitlessly at itself, until the fire spread throughout the rest of its body and dissolved it into a puddle of black mist. They all watched with bated breath as it faded into the smoky night air.

"Don't breathe it in!" Robin warned them. Any loose spores could travel into their bodies and attempt a takeover of them as a new host to use.

Henry stared up, awestruck, at the brave figure Frederick cut astride his massive steed. Power seemed to exude from his very pores as he stared down the remaining two Risen brazenly, defiantly, challenging them to try their luck with him. Incredibly enough, they hung back uncertainly. Cheers erupted at the sight.

"Wow!" Henry breathed.

Their sense of victory, unfortunately, was short-lived.

The zodiac circle pulsed and began to shine ominously. The eye, previously nothing but a silent, stationary sentinel, blinked—and as it opened once more, a glistening, jewel-bright tear dripped down to earth.

Robin saw too late what it really was.

"Don't let it touch the soil!" She barreled forth in an attempt to catch it. The tear burst into shimmering water as it reached the ground, freeing the emerald beetle trapped within. The insect scurried away into the safety of the burning brush with a loud screech.

No! she and the robe thought simultaneously.

The zodiac circle pulsed once more. A deeply unsettling vibration filled the air and echoed down to her bones.

Horrifyingly enough, the Risen seemed to make chuckling noises as the earth next to them churned and cracked—a grey hand stuck out and patted around until it was satisfied with what it felt, pulling the rest of its torso up. This latest Risen bore no mask. The demonic red glow of its eyes lit up its smooth, young face as it hoisted its quiver higher up on its back and began to string its bow.

More of that terrifying noise came from behind the burning treeline. Robin spied another swordsman and an axeman to replace the one Frederick killed circling the fire, looking for an opening they could use to cross over and join their ghoulish brethren.

They already had enough difficulty slaying one, let alone the two left over.

"Hey Freddie? I don't suppose you could shish-kebab those other ones like you did the last?" Henry clutched Neferi closer to him as the foolishly brave little dog barked and slavered all over his cast.

"Unless some of your friend's magical prowess extends to making copies of others, then I'm sorry to admit that it will be rather difficult," he replied without taking his eyes off the Risen.

"We have to get to higher ground," Robin muttered. "Call everyone back!"

Frederick blew his horn loudly. "Fall back! We need to reach higher ground! Secure the prisoners!"

Henry used his tome of Mire to split a flaming tree, bringing the burning structure down in a tumble of embers and creating a barrier of fiery debris between them and the Risen. The creatures howled in indignation as their attempts to break the burning branches failed, leaving them with scalded palms and no currently discernible way of reaching their targets.

"Hurry!" Robin urged as she hoisted Henry and their dog behind Frederick on the saddle. "We can't hold them off for long!"

The horn sounded off on a long, drawn out note as some of the prisoners were put on horseback, and the rest made to go on foot with the rest of the soldiers as they abandoned camp.

Crossing the forest was like a scene out of one of her nightmares: a flaming hellscape filled with smoke that choked their lungs and ash that stung their eyes. Flying embers burned exposed skin as they raced past smouldering trees and charred earth. The passage itself was extremely dangerous in its own right, with the rich mantle of undergrowth and dead leaf litter making for excellent kindling to stoke the flames. The fire roared in their ears as loudly as the blood rushing through, but to her horror, she realised that she also heard the not too distant sound of Risen; they had somehow found a way around the flames and were gaining on them.

"You said they were vulnerable to fire, but I don't see them having too much trouble managing themselves around it!" Frederick shouted over the whooshing sound of the air being sucked out of the atmosphere. "Tell me that something else can kill these wretched beasts!"

"Extremely powerful magic!" Robin tried to shout back, the sooty air blocking her windpipe. "But our best hope are holy weapons, so I'm really hoping you've got one of those on hand, or at least have an ordained priest close by to bless a stick or something!"

He gave her a strange look over his shoulder in response.

Their legs soon began to fail them as the noxious air, coupled with the oppressive heat, sapped their strength greatly. They had at least managed to venture into a somewhat safer and greener part of the forest, but it would not remain so for long given the rapid spread of the fire and the terrifying tenacity displayed by their undead pursuers.

"Look! Are those—" A soldier pointed to somewhere behind the treeline.

Robin squinted through the haze. She could make out the vague silhouette of what appeared to be a building of some sort.

"Yes, abandoned forts!" the company cheered in exhausted relief.

"Then we should all take shelter in them! Everyone inside, quickly!" Robin cried.

The prisoners were marched inside first, and, discovering the multi-leveled interior, were sealed into the cellar to keep them out of harm's reach. Those with bows on hand were stationed on the roofs and made to gather fuel and use their rations of ale to fashion flaming arrows. The infantry and cavalry rested briefly, catching their breath away from the toxic atmosphere outside before taking up battle positions around the two forts. They wrapped rags around their weapons in preparation to set them on fire. The horses were rubbed down as quickly as possible and doused in what little water they had before they were mounted once more.

But something was wrong. The Risen's freakish, metallic groans and shrieks where nowhere to be heard; in fact, other than the roar of the fire encroaching upon their position, no trace of the foul creatures was to be found.

They're still out there, somewhere. Robin's gut told her so, as did the robe's subtle vibrations running along her body. They're hiding. They're trying to pop out from behind somewhere and scare us.

Then try to See where.

Who—what?

You know what I mean, the robe said.

Robin was unnerved. Did its access to her mind mean it knew how her Sight worked?

Nevermind. It did raise an important point—one that Robin felt embarrassed that she did not think of it sooner.

Just as she was opening her Eyes, a soldier screamed. "Incoming!"

The eye in the sky had followed them and was staring at them from above the trees. An otherworldly moan issued forth as it blinked again, and when it opened, its asymmetrical iris had gone from an eerie blue to a furious, bloody red.

Robin scrambled inside the fort. "Everyone, duck!"

Enormous flaming meteors began to rain down from the sky, mercilessly pummelling the ground below and deeply cratering the soil. More trees fell to the fiery onslaught, filling the air with ash and smoke as they splintered and crashed around the forts, terrifying the horses and choking the men as they struggled to gulp in breaths.

"Henry!" Robin called to him and pulled him inside just as an ancient oak crashed outside the entrance. Loose dirt and soot rushed into the fort.

"Wait!" Frederick coughed as he assessed the damage. "Sound off! Is anyone hurt?"

A chorus of no echoed and bounced off the stone walls, and the call was carried up to the rooftop where the worst injury was from a fallen branch scratching a man's face. So far, so good. No one had died and everyone seemed to be in one piece.

So then what had been the point of such a terrifying display?

Robin stuck her head out tentatively. The landscape was absolutely devastated: fire towered above them as the trees burned in the infernal heat; large swathes of once tall and proud pines and oaks now lay scattered, dead, and in pieces before them. The sky was lit up by a bright orange-gray glow as the fire beyond them raged and consumed the rest of the forest.

It truly seemed as though hell was now a place in heaven and earth.

But the meteors themselves had left the forts unscathed. They were marked with soot and dirt, yet they bore no damage from the fiery projectiles like the ground now did, cratered and smoking. It seemed like an awful lot of effort taken simply for the purpose of scaring them.

No, Robin thought as a terrible chill raced down her spine, an awful contrast to the blazing heat. Validar likes to draw things out and…savour them. This wasn't just to spook us, she realised.

She had believed that the forts would afford them a measure of safety and a tactical advantage against the undead, that it could help shore their defenses up a relentless, implacable enemy. And she was right. But Validar had seen right through it and turned it around in his favour. By felling the trees around them, he had effectively kettled them inside their own defenses, and they now had no visible way of escaping; he was going to take his time and watch as they were torn to pieces, like letting cats loose in a warehouse full of caged birds.

The eerie grins of the Risen's masks greeted them as the the ring of fire died down to let them inside before the flames sprung back to life, trapping the humans in with the undead.

"Naga save us!" a man began to sob at the sight.

Robin could not breathe. All she could do was watch as the Risen advanced slowly, casually, relishing their fear. All that she could focus on was the way her limbs locked up in seeming defeat. She felt completely powerless—useless, even.

Is this how am going to die? she thought.

Not today!

The robe's sudden vehemence, the viciousness of its tone, surprised her. Wha—

You heard me. Don't give up.

I don't know how much magic I can use up against them, Robin argued. I can't even breathe! The odds are not in my favour, no matter how much I try to pretend.

If the robe had a head to shake, she pictured it doing so. Not helpless, it insisted. Not useless. Just stuck.

Alright then, Robin snapped. Tell me, if you're so convinced that a pep talk will help me kill these things, then what am I missing? What am I not thinking of?

Friends to help. Not alone.

We're all just human, she wanted to cry. We've already tried fighting them and only brought one down. And now we're fighting five!

You have twenty two. Lots of fire all around to use!

We tried that already!

THEN TRY AGAIN!

She wanted to rip her hair out and scream. They were not at a crossroads where they could comfortably pick and choose between multiple paths—they were up against a stone wall and waiting for a large rock to crush them. How on earth did the robe think they could simply "try again?"

Well, Robin thought, I don't want to die. I want to live.

In spite of her fear, the resolve hardening her heart gave her a drop of courage.

"Men!" she yelled over the fire. "I know this looks very bad—but we can't give up just yet!"

"How?" the soldier who had cried to Naga looked up at her through his teary eyes. "We're surrounded by fire, with no way to escape, and those—those things are nigh impossible to hurt!"

"Difficult, yes, but not impossible! You all saw what Frederick did back there with the branch!"

"But he's a monster to begin with!" Laughter erupted throughout, strengthening with Frederick's customary scowl in response.

The mood suddenly felt a tonne lighter after the burst of lightheartedness. And the fear and the heat were no longer as oppressive as before. They were facing unholy abominations—but they were not facing them alone.

Maybe there was some truth to the robe's words.

"If we do die," Robin said, a little more softly, "then we die with each other. I really don't know any of you…but I can say that it has been a pleasure so far."

Henry hugged her tightly. The soldiers, a little awestruck at her words, returned the gesture with small nods. She turned to the beasts lumbering before them, waiting, mocking them with their seeming patience, and tightened her gloved hand over her tome.

"Five men each to the axes," Robin ordered. "Three to the archer. And the nine left to the two swordsmen. Frederick will go with the latter team while Henry and I accompany the first ones. The goal is not to try to pierce them; we've seen that doesn't work. The best we can aim for is to push them towards the flames and keep them there. Tell the archers to aim for their heads and their necks. And remember: watch each other's backs. We're all we've got at the moment."

The weeping man nodded, wiped his tears, and stood up, drawing his sword. "Godspeed, tactician." He ran back inside to carry out her command.

Having lined up in formation, it seemed like an eternity as the humans met the Risen's red-eyed gazes. But where there used to be overwhelming terror in the face of unknown foes, there was now a sense of resolve to at least kill as many of them as possible.

"Remember!" Robin called out. "Though the flames hurt us, they can also help! We can use them on our own arms to pierce through their defenses!"

"Aye!" the company shouted in response.

They fanned out in their assigned groups to meet the Risen head on, ducking and weaving under their long reaches to try and corral them against the ring of fire; for if there was a silver lining to being pitted against creatures whose size had been magically augmented, it was that they could at least gauge some of their attacks, even if their speed was also supernaturally high. A roar of triumph sounded as a man managed to swipe his lance across a Risen axeman's face, making it stumble right into a flaming pit left behind by a crater.

Unfortunately for them, the thing was not so easily defeated: it managed to grab the lancer's comrade and rip his hand off before it was consumed by the fire.

"Get him back inside!" Robin grunted as she sidestepped a Risen sword.

Henry seemed to be holding up rather well in spite of his broken arm, using his Mire to create long, acid green feelers to strike from afar. The creatures, confused that dark magic was being employed against them rather than in their aid, circled them nervously, giving the soldiers ample enough terrain from which to start pushing them back.

A volley of flaming arrows whistled past from the rooftops. One managed to strike a Risen right in the eye socket, and the wretched thing screamed as it only managed to break off the shaft but not pull out the arrowhead.

Robin cheered internally. Yes! Only three to go!

Told you! the robe spurred her on.

Though their early victories provided a much needed boost to their morale, there was only so much effort they could give. Their flight from camp earlier, coupled with the agonising heat, began to slow them down more than ever.

Robin hailed Frederick from where he had stopped to gather dry twigs to wrap around his lance. "Call them closer to the forts! We need to bring them closer to the archers' range!"

"And if we risk bringing them too close?" he shouted back.

"Then I'm counting on you to use that monstrous strength of yours to stop them!"

He blew his horn to signal the change in position to their forces, and they began to fall back accordingly.

"Robby!" Henry shrieked. "Watch out!"

When she turned, it was like time had slowed down. A Risen had somehow run up to her without her noticing and was bringing his blade down on her head.

Oh, she thought vaguely. Her gaze followed the decorative grooves running from the corner of its upper lip to behind where its ears should be. They were stylised much in the way of how stitching looked, perhaps a callback to the creature's nature as a corpse soldier. The teeth were eight rectangular insets with a lot of space between them and gave the mouth a jagged look. I guess that means I will die today.

The robe yelled at her to run, but she was completely rooted to the spot.

But, as if through a miracle, a piercing blue light burst from behind the Risen just when its sword nearly finished its descent. She dropped to her knees and brought her sleeve up to shield her face from the flash.

As the light subsided, Chrom was revealed: he stood, soaked in sweat, heaving long, laboured breaths, as his sword shone that lustrous blue. The robe and her brand began to thrum in a now comfortingly familiar rhythm.

Well. So they have holy weapons with them ,  after all.

 

 

                                                                                

 

"Are you alright?" Chrom asked after catching his breath.

"You saved my life," was the only thing Robin could say, rather dumbly.

A crooked smile lit up his face. "Ha! More like I was just returning your favours from Southtown."

"Your sword though…"

He glanced down at the blade; it was still ablaze in that beautiful colour, rather like the sky on a very sunny day. "I've no idea what's going on with it, though: it's the first time I've seen it do anything like this," he confessed.

Frederick rode up to them, visibly relieved. "Milord! Milady! Are you hurt?"

"Frederick! Robin!" Lissa sprinted to them, just as winded as her brother. The bottom tip of her staff had been broken off and hastily sharpened into a point. "W-we're alright."

"No one is injured then? Thank the gods…"

"Thank Vaike for rescuing me! If it wasn't for him, I'd be…hey, where did he go?" Lissa's blonde pigtails bounced as she swivelled her head to and fro in search of the eponymous character.

Frederick audibly groaned. "We can worry about him later, AFTER we put these...things...to the blade. Eyes open, now. We know very little about this enemy," he turned to face Robin with an almost accusing stare, "though it seems our mystery companion has an idea of what these things are."

Chrom raised an eyebrow. "…Right."

Robin gulped at the attentioned focused on her. "They're weak against fire," she explained, feeling sheepish under their eyes. "Strong magic also works. But holy weapons are the best things against them," she nodded towards Chrom's sword, "and apparently you've got one."

A strange look came over the sibling's faces, and they stole a quick glance at one another.

"Look closely," Robin pointed out. "They fear it."

It was true. The Risen's attention had been caught by the light; when they saw its source, they elected to hang back, the hateful, hungry look in their eyes still present, yet they dared not approach the humans with the blade in their midst. The robe had not been able to keep quiet ever since Chrom and his sword turned upon the scene, for that matter, flooding her mind with a constant, garbled stream of chatter.

"There are only two left now," she continued. "Having you around is a great help against them."

"You say that strong magic works, yet I haven't seen you do much more than shock them," Frederick criticised.

"Not now," Chrom warned him. His eyes softened when he turned to Robin again. "I'm sorry we got separated; I promise it wasn't intentional." He knelt beside her and pulled out a vulnerary from his convoy pouch. "Doubly for taking the vulneraries with me instead of leaving some behind for you all."

"Milord, there is nothing wrong with you carrying—" Frederick attempted to interrupt.

Robin gulped the potion down gratefully. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it. Anyone would be exhausted after directing others through their paces in battle, not to mention the heat. I'm pretty well-cooked myself," Chrom tried to joke, and he grinned when Robin cracked a tiny smile. "Now: what are your orders?"

She shook her head. "Whatever it is you did back there, keep on with it!"

A loud crash stole their attention back to the battlefield. They had foolishly allowed their attention to stray from the Risen, and the foul things, capitalising on their distraction, had taken advantage of it to corral three soldiers between them. The noise was from the bang their breastplates made against one another as they cowered in a huddle below the Risen's grasp.

A terrific whoop pulled the monster's crimson gazes away as a pure white horse barreled straight into one of them. The rider who initiated such a brave (and dangerous) manoeuvre was a woman who seemed to blend into the fiery background: everything about her, from her armour to her shock of wild curls and even her eyes, was a bright red. She swung a lance at the Risen with savage vigour.

"All right, you ash-faced freaks! Which one of ya wants to try my lance on for size first? I know just the spot for it: shoved right up your—"

"SULLY!" Frederick was scandalised even in the literal heat of battle.

"Huh? OH! Captain Chrom! Wait! I'm coming!" She turned and spotted them just as she plunged her lance into a Risen. In a magnificent display of strength, she bent backwards over her saddle, using the creature's weight against it to throw it to the fire. She crowed victoriously over its dying shrieks.

The soldiers gratefully took their chance to escape.

Robin sized the newcomer up nervously as her horse cantered to them. Though short, she was incredibly muscular and well-built. This was not a woman to trifle with, even jokingly.

"You had me worried for a moment when we lost sight of you!" Chrom sighed in relief as she approached.

"You know me, Captain; I'm too tough to die!" Her laughter was clear and strong, even through the smoke. To Robin, her tone was far more critical; suspicious, even. "I'm Sully. I'm a Shepherd. You must be the new gal Chrom was talking about."

"I'm Robin," she said, feeling suddenly very small and shy.

"Hm. Nice to meet ya." Sully's tone sounded the complete opposite of her words.

"Robin's been a fantastic asset to us ever since we found her," Chrom raved. The heat of Robin's blush felt worse in the fire, but the flash of annoyance she detected from Sully's thoughts was even less gratifying. Something told her that the cavalier was not going to make it very easy to get along with…

Lissa's abrupt gasp interrupted them. "Hey, Sully! What happened to Vaike? Wasn't he with you?"

Sully groaned in annoyance. "Agh, I knew I shouldn'ta left 'im! The idiot forgot where he left his axe. Again!"

"Sounds like Vaike!" Lissa tittered.

"Nevermind that!" Frederick snapped. "We still have one left to kill!"

The remaining Risen was the archer, bereft of a bow and slowly succumbing to the fire surrounding it. Robin could at least credit it for some show of bravery, or at least dedication to Validar's orders, as it stood its ground and met their gazes evenly.

Chrom's jaw clenched determinedly. "You said these…things are afraid of Falchion, right?"

Robin snuck a glance at it. When her eyes fell upon the blade, her Mark pulsed. Chrom seemed to notice it as well. "Yes."

"Then leave this one to me."

He hefted the large sword in his gloved hands and took off with a running start. Its glow gained strength as Chrom approached the Risen.

The archer instantly leaped high into the air, using Chrom's head as a springboard just as he began to swing the sword at its face, twisting into a neat landing before launching itself at their group. Numerous soldiers attempted to stop it in its path, but the undead creature, as though suddenly seized by a new sense of life, slipped past them like an eel in a riverbed.

Frederick and Sully poised themselves to strike, but they too missed it, their lances crossing with sharp clangs.

The Risen tackled Robin and the pair rolled to a painful stop some metres away. She realised, too late, that it was Validar powering it from the eye; she was his true target, after all.

"Robin!" Chrom shouted. He picked himself up from where he had lain, stunned, and rushed to her aid.

She was fighting hard to keep it from biting her face with the horrendous fangs its afterlife seemed to have bestowed upon it. Robin's knuckles were white as her fists held the thing's wrists and strained as she kept its clawed hands away from her. She drove her knee into its gut but did little to actually wind it when there was no breath in its lungs in the first place.

Worse was the sinking feeling in her gut when a light shone from below them—a warp circle was being opened directly beneath.

Should have used Sight before! the robe scolded in a panic. Get us out of sticky situations faster!

Do you have any idea how taxing it is to See? I can't use it continuously! And if I'd have used it during the worst of the battle, then the heat would have gotten to me faster!

How have you not died before?!

Wish I knew! Robin grunted and twisted, quickly tiring from the exertion of keeping the Risen away from her face and her belly. The alarm she shared with the robe grew unbearably feverish as the warp circle was nearly completed.

Now is good time to use it, the robe suddenly took on a very solemn tone. I will lend you my power.

A wonderful cooling sensation flowed into her back, up her neck, and into the rest of her limbs, clearing her mind and allowing her to better assess the situation at hand. Amazement and gratitude was conveyed to the robe before she closed her eyes and Opened them again.

What she Saw revealed quite a lot of the true nature of Risen: they had no real heart or brain to speak of. In the place of where their organs should have been, a mass of dark magical energy was collected, which explained why magic, fire, and holy weapons worked where traditional weapons were ineffective. By keeping them alive through dark magic, their "organs" could simply move out of the way or even around an enemy strike and then repair themselves; but with the former three, there was no stopping the spread of any damage incurred.

With that knowledge in mind, Robin closed her fingers tightly together to make a spade shape, and plunged a handful of lightning right where its "heart" was located.

The archer's scream was dreadfully high-pitched. It rang uncomfortably in Robin's ear as the beast was finally destroyed, and she clapped a hand over her mouth and nose to prevent any stray mist from attempting to use her own body as a host. She launched herself out of the warp circle, safe from Validar's grasp once more.

"Robin!" Chrom shouted once more, reaching for her. "Oh gods, you're alright!"

He gasped when she laid her gaze upon him. Robin was suddenly hyper-aware of the way she must have looked in that moment, with her glowing red eyes showing through the shadow of the robe's hood.

Nevermind him, the robe chided. Remember who is left to fight!

The eye in the sky, robbed of its earlier grasps at victory, began to echo with horrible metallic shrieks and moans. Everyone's relief at finally having defeated all the Risen turned to palpable dread as they attempted to discern what this latest threat was.

They would soon find out as it began to call its last chess piece.

The ground shook. The remaining trees quaked in place. An enormous, shadowy silhouette was revealed through the smoky haze as it stalked closer, and closer, and closer.

Robin, naturally, Saw it before everyone else, though it did little to quell her fears. The Risen Chief was a monstrously large beast, towering above them all with a height that nearly rivalled that of the forts. Its skin was not grey, but a decaying, ashen black; it wore no clothes save for a tattered loincloth draped over its groin; a huge flowing mass of wild black hair trailed behind it; it carried no weapons either, as it did not need anything beyond its obvious strength and wickedly long talons. The emerald beetle from before was nested right in the centre of the mask. It shone a dark red in her Sight, for it was from there that Validar could use its eyes from the mask to spy on them at a closer level.

Her knees would have buckled had it not been for the robe.

Courage, was all it said. But it sufficed.

"Everyone," Robin announced. "That thing's weak spot is right in the middle of the mask. Striking anywhere else would be useless."

"If you got any idea on how to actually get up to the damn thing, that'd be great!" Sully's sarcasm did little to disguise her obvious trepidation.

Robin ran another analysis on the Risen Chief. Yes, it had no other "organs" save for that single red spot the beetle represented in her Sight. And its power was distributed evenly throughout its body, which would mean that toppling it through more conventional means would be more than difficult.

But not impossible

"We attack with magic," Robin concluded. "Henry and I will take this one from here."

"Robin," Chrom spoke up. "You struggled badly with that last one." He placed his hand on her shoulder. "Please. Don't fight this one alone."

His heartfelt sincerity and concern touched Robin deeply. She felt like embracing him right then and there, but refrained. "Don't worry," she smiled. "We know what to do."

"Milord," Frederick said. "I think it best for us if we stayed back."

An expectant hush fell over the battleground as the two mages strode forth to meet their enemy. The soldiers who had taken refuge in the forts peeked out uncertainly at the latest development. Lissa covered her face with her hands in fright as the lumbering beast took two loud steps and growled.

They stood, stony-faced, with nothing but the roar of the forest fire to be heard.

"Henry," Robin whispered. "Remember how we used to practice for bear attacks with Mustafa?"

"Yeah."

"Let's try that. Only you run defense for me this time. Sound good?"

"…Ok." Henry shifted his tome in his free arm. The book was clearly going to break and become completely unusable after this fight. "Robby?"

"Yes?"

He gave her a smile in reassurance. "Try not to die on me. I'd rather die on you."

"No one is going to die today except that thing. I promise."

The Risen bellowed, spitting a cloud of acidic black mist in their faces, before taking a lightning fast swipe at them.

Henry raised a wave of Mire to trap its fist in place while Robin shot lightning bolts at its face; unlike a bear, which would have been stunned or killed by a faceful of electricity, the damned thing did not so much as blink. Robin attributed its supernatural resistance to its puppet master. The mages jumped back as another swipe barely missed slicing them open.

Robin gulped—its talons shone wetly with what looked to be a poisonous substance. Or at least some kind of dark magic she did not care to become acquainted with.

"Next move!" Henry yelled.

Robin threw more magic at its face, then feinted to the right and moved directly in front of it as Henry dove between its legs to emerge from behind it. He summoned two clouds of Mire around its legs and feet, stopping it in its tracks and prompting a cheer from their audience.

"Oh my gods Henry! Be more careful!" Lissa screamed.

Robin, taking advantage of the fact that it was trapped by Mire, ran up to it and slapped her palm to its skin, forcing a large bolt to race up against its body and into its mask with a sharp bang. She kept up her barrage of lightning with her other hand.

"Next!" Henry grunted when he saw it was beginning to break free from him.

They switched positions and rolled to dodge another swipe, with Robin now firing a web of electricity to paralyse its head, while Henry wrapped Mire around its hands. The screams and whoops of encouragement from the forts invigorated their efforts and pushed them to fire faster and faster at their enemy.

But it was not enough: the cursed creature kept breaking free from their restraints and seemed to shake off their strikes almost casually. It bellowed contemptibly of them, bringing down its fist in a sharp blow that shattered the ground beneath it.

"So, what next?" Henry panted as he regrouped with Robin. "Nothing we try seems to be work much."

"Hold on a second," Robin wheezed back. "Let me try to See."

She Saw that powerful magic on Validar's part was keeping the mask protected; not through a barrier, but rather because the power behind their attacks was being siphoned off to the eye before it could even really reach the mask. So that meant—

"—we have to close the eye to kill it," she concluded.

"I hope you've got some pegasi hidden somewhere so we can fly up to it!" Henry cackled. "Wow! We look like total goners here!"

She groaned. "That's very helpful of you."

The crowd watching gasped as they performed a series of hair-raising jumps to avoid the Risen's rapid-fire claw attacks. Robin tackled Henry to the ground and rolled them out of the way just before their previous location was pounded into a deep crater, and he grunted in pain as his broken arm was pressed firmly between their bodies. She shot a bolt as high up as she could, but it petered out just as it reached the middle of a tree's trunk. She tried again twice, three times to no effect.

"Ok, so you're saying it's the eye making our job difficult!" Henry coughed from the soot. "I can't reach it with Mire. I feel like it's just being sucked away before the hit can connect. Like if it's stealing our power for itself or something instead of actually shielding Mr. Big over here."

An admittedly half-baked idea, but still an idea, bloomed within Robin's mind. "So we've established that the eye is sucking away our attacks, yes?"

"Yeah!"

"I have two theories: either it's stealing our power for itself to build up for an attack or shore up its own defenses…or because Validar is getting tired and needs to in order to keep the eye open. How do we test them?" They had to roll again to avoid being skewered by the Risen's deadly, sword-length claws.

"I say we stop attacking Tiny Tim and send our regards to Daddy Fearest instead!" Henry giggled. "A little present for him since I didn't get him any last time."

But how? Robin thought desperately. Henry's already pointed out the obvious—that we can't touch the thing because it's in the sky. What attack could we possibly use that can reach an airborne target that's so high up?

Henry clapped to regain her attention. "Let's play a game!"

"Oh? What kind of game?"

"Let's see how far we stretch and see if anything touches Blinky, of course! Let's take turns distracting Magnum, too."

Well…it's better than nothing.

"Hey!" she screamed and waved her arms. "Over here!"

The behemoth seemed to become increasingly annoyed with the stalemate the opposing parties had essentially reached, and its swings became sloppier and less coordinated as a result. Though Robin's Sight allowed her to predict its movements all the better for it, the power behind its jabs increased, and thus so did the danger. Behind it, Henry kept trying and failing to extend his Mire more than a few metres off the ground.

Robin saw their crew watching from the sidelines with heightened desperation and worry. Chrom's face caught her eye in particular, lit up by his sword's azure glow.

Her distraction nearly cost her her stomach as the Risen's talons barely grazed it.

PAY ATTENTION! the robe snapped.

I'm trying, but nothing we do seems to have any effect on the blasted thing! she retorted. And we don't have anything that can reach the eye all the way up!

Yes you do! Don't be stupid!

What on earth are you talking about?!

Lightning! Obviously!

Robin gasped as Henry's Mire finally broke in a burst of green sparks, rendering him defenseless before the beast. She threw him bodily to the side just as its fist came down to try and grab him. I've already tried that! The most I can stretch it to is a couple metres, hardly anything able to reach the sky!

Don't be silly! Done that before!

I what?

Literally days! Two days ago!

It was referring to the strike she called down from the heavens to free herself from the bandit horde at the border crossing. The acrid stench of burning flesh and ozone came to mind, unbidden, as did the awful memory of them being surrounded by bloodthirsty brigands when they were still very hungry and weak. But…that was completely involuntary. I have no clue how I did it, she confessed meekly.

I show you how.

Robin's breath hitched in her throat. Something about its wording felt different now. It sounded…deep. Ancient.

Open yourself to me.

She accepted.

Her vision went black. It was soothing, almost. Like the darkness before slipping off into a deep, well deserved sleep. Though incorporeal, the robe's presence could be felt extremely closely, as though she was still wearing it.

The robe peeled back the darkness. Look closely.

It was amazing. Robin peered down into a bottomless chasm that stretched on infinitely; but instead of inspiring fear, she found herself basking in an endless eddy of warm, golden light. Motes of glitter flickered brightly around her as she watched the river run its course to a destination far beyond her sight.

All yours, the robe said.

Really?

Yes. Don't know how to use yet, but fear not. I will show you. First you need to call it.

Like this? She stretched her hand out to the light, a little uncertainly.

In her mind, it seemed to shrug. Works fine. Now get feel for it.

What do you mean?

You need to feel it inside. Need to internalise it. Need to feel like when you cast tomeless, but that all this is really yours. Dip deeper inside than you have before.

Robin took several long breaths, and stretched her mind out to the shining river. To her amazement and delight, it brushed hazily against her, only to retreat. She was suddenly aware of how exhausted her physical body was at the moment.

I'm sorry, she apologised. I can't do much right now…I'm so tired.

Forgot how annoying bodies are, the robe replied. Its amusement had a tinge of sympathy to it. No worry. I will help you now. The teaching can come later.

What felt like a massive pair of callused hands attached to leathery, muscular arms took her hands from behind and pushed them into the river. A dizzying rush of energy soaked her body like a plant's roots drinking water, electrifying her senses and flooding her being with raw power.

Tell it what you want to do.

I call the Heavens to do my bidding, she thought in a voice that was hers yet not hers at the same time, reciting a spell that she did not know yet had apparently memorised. I call the sky and the clouds and the rain to send me a pillar to smite my foes and dazzle them with Light. May the gods guide this vengeful hammer of mine, and may my enemies fear my might.

Robin suddenly snapped back to her physical body. Her arms were stretched high above her head in supplication. Her allies had huddled into a tight ball, shouting, pointing at the sky above them incredulously. A massive bank of black thunderclouds had formed, churning and rolling above them, growling, snarling. Their calls were loud enough to drown out the eye's furious screams.

Her eyes filled with light. Mjölnir, she mouthed.

And heaven came crashing down to earth in a column of thunder and lightning.

For a very long second, there was total silence. There was nothing to be seen except a flat screen of pure white. And just as immediately as it happened, so too did it end.

The first thing she noticed was that there was no trace of the Risen Chief to be seen. Not even a circle of ash with its imprint, or even anything else to indicate it had ever existed. But the biggest relief was seeing that the eye in the sky was finally gone.

I did it, she thought giddily, prodding mentally at the robe. I mean…We did it. I couldn't have without you.

She received no response. Her magic, or whatever that was, had triggered a massive downpour that drenched her from head to toe instantly, dousing the forest fire's flames and turning the ground to thick, soupy mud as the scorched earth drank in the rain gratefully.

Robin registered Chrom's shouts vaguely, yet she did not quite understand them as her hearing and eyesight began to fade. She was exhausted. She wanted nothing more than to just curl up and sleep for a year. Maybe even two.

So she did, smiling at the young man who was somehow closer to her position than he was before, and the last thing she saw before giving in to the darkness was a blurry impression of his face.

This world teeters at the brink of a horrible calamity, an unknown woman's voice echoed before Robin's hearing dimmed as well. Though her tone was calm, even soothing, her words spoke of dire things to come. What you saw tonight was but a prelude. You have been warned.

 

 

                                                                          

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

                                                                                 

 

Chrom lay on his back, heavily winded from being thrown as though he were little more than a rag doll, and his eyesight slowly returning to normal from being blinded; he was sure that his eyebrows had been partially singed as well.

What he had just witnessed went beyond any kind of magic he had seen so far in his short life. Nothing came close to the raw power and fury of the storm that Robin had called down.

Robin!

He scrambled to his feet in a near-blind panic, worried sick over her and his comrades, only to find himself slipping and sliding in mud as a sudden downpour drenched them all and doused the flaming forest in a cooling rain.

"Milord!" Frederick was right by his side to steady him. Lissa was already on her feet and her dress was soaked right through.

"Where's everyone else?" Chrom gasped through the water sluicing down his face and plastering his hair down flat.

"All accounted for," Frederick assured. His grip was iron-tight and his armour had become unbearably cold in the rain. Henry was treading mud and barely hanging on tight to him with his one good arm.

"And Robin?"

Henry let go to point forward, falling bottom first into the muck with a loud splash. "She hasn't moved from there! For a captain, you're not a very observant one!"

Ignoring Frederick's instant rebuke of the young mage, Chrom whipped his head around, finding Robin right where she had squared off with the Risen Chief.

She had not moved from her spot at all. Chrom had to squint through the rain to focus on her dark form, which the storm obscured further, but he was deeply relieved to see that she seemed to have not suffered any damage or blowback whatsoever from her ferocious attack. He took a step forward.

Robin instantly snapped to attention and her entire body whirled around to face him in a tense battle position. That terrifying red glow of her eyes shone through the dark like a pair of demonic beacons.

"It's me, Robin!" He held his hands up. "The battle has been won! Those things are no longer a threat!"

She seemed to have not heard him. She swayed unsteadily on her feet and took a step back.

"Robin, please." Chrom reached out to her, pleading. "It's me. We're safe now."

His words finally seemed to have gotten through the haze clouding her thoughts; she walked, slowly, to his open arms, until she began swaying and staggering drunkenly. Chrom was already running as the last of her strength failed her and she collapsed face first into the mud.

He slid to his knees and rolled her on her side, pulling her into his arms. "Robin!" He shook her, alarmed. "Robin! Wake up!"

Frederick splashed through the waterlogged earth, hot on Chrom's heels, dragging Henry by the arm and Lissa trailing behind. They huddled closely around the pair as Chrom removed his glove and pressed his hand to the exposed skin of her neck.

"She's ice cold," he said anxiously, "and she's not waking up."

"Look." Henry pointed and leaned over Chrom's head in a gesture that had Frederick, scowling, pull him back by his shirt collar. "She's breathing."

Though her breath was soft, shallow, and barely discernible over the rain, her chest rose and fell in a tell-tale motion of life. Chrom exhaled a sigh of relief, wiping water out of his eyes. Lissa squeezed his shoulder supportively and reached out to touch Robin as well.

"We better get inside quick," she warned. "This rain doesn't look like it's going to let up anytime soon. And catching a cold won't help whatever injuries she might have."

Carefully holding the back of her head, Chrom heaved themselves both up, grateful for Frederick's support as the knight kept him from slipping. Now that he had Robin secure and in his arms, they began the clumsy, painstakingly slow trek to the fort. Had it not been for Frederick, Chrom would have toppled straight into the mud and taken Robin down with him.

He shuddered at the sudden change in temperature upon entering; the soldiers had built a small fire with some fuel they had managed to salvage, and were now feeding it branches in an attempt to help it grow. Though the wet wood would manage to burn longer, having it burn at all was a struggle.

"Everyone alright?" Sully, soaking wet, immediately stood at attention from the corner she had been occupying to tend to a scrape on her arm.

"So far, so good," Chrom replied. "Help me with her, will you? We need to get her dry and check her for any damage."

Sully frowned. Chrom wondered at the reaction, but said nothing as she helped to lower Robin carefully to the floor and close to the fire. Sully's glower deepened when Chrom unfastened his cape and balled it up to pillow Robin's head.

"Those who are unhurt, gather round—we shall attend to those who need our help with lady Lissa, and we will then clear the surrounding area of debris once the rain has stopped," Frederick announced to the packed room.

Chrom surveyed their surroundings. They were all spilled haphazardly across the fort's anteroom, with many more piling in from the roof and the cellar. The prisoners had been kept safe, and were now eyeing the flurry of tired activity with a mix of wariness and awe. Frederick divided their forces thusly: a third to patch up the fort's leaks, a sixth to watch over the prisoners, another to stand guard around their encampment, and a final third to treat the wounded. The little dog Henry had with him was huddled in the corner, soaking wet and shaking.

Lissa was right in the thick of it, with her hands buried deep into a soldier's gut—a nasty slash sustained from a Risen claw—and uncaring of the amount of blood spilled onto her previously pale white and yellow dress. She directed a terrified prisoner in helping her stitch the wound up as she healed it with her magic, the light from her hands a soft and warm glow in the midst of such gore. The soldier, filled with her warmth, soon stopped his feverish thrassing and fell into a deep sleep as Lissa and her impromptu assistant closed the wound up. She thanked him and immediately moved onto her next patient. The prisoner hesitated before following after her.

Henry fixated upon the magic lighting up Lissa's hands with undisguised fascination, even as he hovered over Robin. Something about that gaze made Chrom uncomfortable. "Uh, Henry?"

"Mm, yeah?" he replied, his eyes never leaving Lissa.

Chrom shifted closer to Robin and began pulling her boots off. "I'm going to need you to help me get these wet clothes off Robin."

Sully shot him a cross look. "I don't know if you've noticed, Captain," she said slowly, irritated, "but it's not like she's got a lot of privacy here for that."

Embarrassingly enough, it took a few moments for her words to sink into his rain-addled brain, until his face flushed with understanding and he scooted back from them as though burned. As an added insult, Henry began giggling. "I was—I was just—I mean—" Chrom sputtered pitifully. "I-I'll go outside now to check on the others and stand guard," he finally managed to stammer out, fleeing the fort red-faced and with Henry's cackling chasing after him.

The chill cooled the heat in his cheeks as he stepped out. Though the storm had yet to subside, the roaring fury from before had settled down into a gentler tune, with only the occasional roll of thunder and flash of lightning to disturb the rain's steady rhythm. His breath formed a cloud of warmth in the icy air.

What exactly happened back there? he wondered. First there was the border standoff, with reports of Robin having blasted bandits into ash. Then there was her admirable performance in Southtown, the level headedness she displayed as she directed their forces into battle, and the bravery shown against the brigands' vile leader. And now, he had borne witness to feats of magical strength he had never known possible. It was clear Robin and Henry had extensive combat experience—through training with others, self tutelage, or a more arcane source, Chrom did not know, and it only added to the mystery surrounding them.

Where did they come from? Why were they here? Why were brigands and monsters chasing after them? What happened to their memories? His questions burned fiercely within him with nothing to quench his thirst for answers. And from the little time they had spent travelling together with them, they were cagey and vague over what little they were able—or willing—to share.

What are those two hiding?

Chrom sighed. From the moment they had come across the pair, it seemed as though they were destined to run into trouble time and time again.

It was a troubling thought that struck a deep sense of unease in his heart.

"Sir!" a soldier called out to him from the roof, snapping Chrom out of his musing.

"What is it?"

"I see something moving in the treeline! And it's coming closer!"

Another Risen? No, it couldn't be! He was so certain of having seen their defeat, especially after Robin's final attack. He motioned to the men stationed around the perimeter draw their weapons and be on the ready for whatever it was that was out there.

"Ah, wait!" Chrom shouted. He noticed that the Falchion had not turned blue like it did when they were fighting, a trait that surprised as much as frightened him. "It's no Risen!"

"A deer then?"

"No. It looks like it walks on two legs," another one of his men pointed out.

A nervous youth bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, gripping his lance with trembling hands. "Well, whatever it is, we have to be ready for it."

The seconds crawled by agonisingly slowly, thick with tension, as they all assembled into battle formations and watched the rain-soaked treeline with dread. As the mysterious creature stepped out of the fog into the fort's perimeter, they all lowered their weapons with a markedly unanimous groan.

"Vaike." Chrom sighed and pushed his wet fringe out of his face. "Where on earth have you been?"

The (unreasonably, infuriatingly cheery for their current situation) blonde warrior smiled cheekily and waved enthusiastically as he casually strolled over to the company. Chrom noted the amount of leafy debris tangled up in his hair and cloak. "Yo! Sorry I'm late, everyone! Just had a bit of a mix-up back there with my axe, is all!"

"A bit of a mix-up?" Chrom sputtered. "Vaike, you missed the entire battle."

Vaike laughed uproariously. "Now see here, Cap!" He gave Chrom's shoulder a hearty slap that sent him staggering two paces back. "Ya can't have a fighter in a battle with no weapon to fight with! I was just lookin' for my trusty axe." He patted the enormous double-headed blade strapped securely to the back of his waist.

"What do you mean you were looking for it? How did you lose it in the first place?"

Vaike's face dropped sheepishly. "Ah well…ya see…" he lowered his voice and cupped his hand to his mouth, leaning closer to Chrom's ear. "Turns out it was…in its holster the whole time?"

"You're hopeless," Chrom groaned. "And here we were, worried sick that you might've gotten yourself lost in the forest, or worse, run into a Risen."

Vaike quirked a scruffy eyebrow. "Risen? The hell's a Risen?"

"It—" Chrom was not able to finish his sentence; a soldier emerged from the fort, murmuring his apologies, yet requesting his presence inside as Lissa had asked for him. "I'll explain soon."

The two ducked into the fort's entrance, blissfully warm now that the heat from all the human bodies packed within it had settled, and thanks to the fires that Henry had been able to feed to life. The white-haired boy was currently tending to a small one next to Lissa as she held one of the modest pots Frederick packed for them over it and used it to boil water. Lissa wiped the sweat off her brow with a grunt as she dunked a rag into the pot.

"Oh good, you're back!" she said. "And I see you brought Vaike with you."

"And I see these are the two newcomers you were tellin' us about," Vaike interjected.

"What's wrong?" Chrom immediately got to the point. "You wouldn't have called me back from guard duty unless something happened."

Lissa, biting her lip apprehensively, wrung out the grimy cloth. "It's Robin."

Henry scooted over to make room for Chrom as he kneeled before her, concern furrowing his brows. "What is it?"

"I don't really know…I'm almost done cleaning the few wounds I've seen, mostly around her legs and her stomach…but it's like that robe she's wearing's got an enchantment on it or something because I can't take it off to check the rest of her. It's like it…clamps down on her every time I touch it. But what's worrying me is that she's developed a low-grade fever and started twitching and mumbling to herself."

Chrom inspected their enigmatic new ally close. Her skin remained frosty to the touch in spite of the fine layer of sweat coating her shivering body and the fire burning close by. Robin's uncovered feet, along with her gloved hands, spasmed and fluttered fretfully every few moments. Her head tossed and turned and her ashen lips formed barely coherent sentences as Lissa set aside the pot of boiled water and dabbed at her neck with a wet rag. Robin looked as thought in the midst of a terrible nightmare, he thought with a pang. Chrom stretched out a tentative hand, hesitant, before attempting to hook a finger under the collar of the robe.

The cloth immediately trapped his finger under a tight seal, and it was only through a brief struggle that he was able to free it. The strangest sensation suddenly came over him…it felt reproachful, almost.

"So what do we do now? Want me to try a hex?" Henry piped up.

"I don't know," Lissa said. "At this point, I'm open to trying anything."

Sully's surprised yelp and Vaike scrambling back in shock were the only warnings Chrom had before a soothing wave washed over him. Astonished, Chrom saw that the teardrop-shaped hole in the Falchion's crossguard had begun shining a lustrous sky blue, bathing the room in light and piercing his eyes, forcing them shut with its brilliance. Everyone was silenced immediately by the sight.

The light dimmed into a softer, more tolerable level of brightness, and Chrom was able to open his eyes to inspect this astonishing new development. The crossguard cavity pulsed as though in tune with his heartbeat, and the script around it glowed as well—Chrom was far too mesmerised by the fact that his sword had seemingly come to life to bother remembering what the words said.

"Chrom…?" Lissa ventured timidly.

Draw the Falchion, an unknown voice spoke to him.

He started. Who was there with them? And where? Eerily enough, it seemed to have come from the recesses of his own mind, as no one else had given any indication of having heard anything, too focused on the sword as they were.

Hold it over her. It will help to dispel what ails her.

It was giving him advice? After fighting through Risen, enduring a night's worth of waiting for a rainstorm to end, still trying to puzzle over the mystery surrounding Henry and Robin, and now hearing voices in his head, Chrom was sure he had gone mad.

And yet…there was nothing about it that read as overtly malicious to him. Odd and suspiciously timed? Yes. But evil? He was unsure of what to make of it. Robin's shivering, feverish state was the most pressing issue at the moment. Strange disembodied voice or not, he wanted to ease her pain, and if following the instructions of some cryptic, unexplained presence was the way to do it, then he would take that chance.

Chrom drew his sword slowly, noting the metallic peal of the steel sliding out from the scabbard, and held it aloft, amazed at the blade's pale blue glow. Doubt gripped him for the longest second ever before he released it in a shaky breath and lowered the sword to hover parallel over Robin's body.

The Falchion shone white-hot, searing his eyes; he very nearly would have dropped it were it not for Henry steadying him with a hand on his shoulder. His entire body shook from the sheer newness of the sensation coursing through his veins: powerful weightlessness paired with an intense, simultaneous pressure, and then anodynic refreshment as the light dimmed and faded into nothingness.

Robin released a ragged, shuddering breath, and then settled down with a soft sigh.

Chrom watched as the colour was restored in her brown skin. The only emotion he could currently process was utter bewilderment as he raised his head to meet Lissa's confused and disturbed gaze.

He knew the Falchion was a special thing. He never knew just how much.

 

 

                                                                                      

 

 

The sound of rain had finally ceased, giving way to the nighttime harmonies he had grown fond of during previous hunting expeditions: owls hooting from above; wood chirpers whirring away the second the temperature rose even slightly; even light steps crunching over loose debris that thrilled him, hoping that it was a doe passing by. The scent of wet earth and leaves cooled their surroundings and blanketed the forest in a crisp calm. Life always found a way even after a calamity.

Chrom wanted to enjoy that calm. He wanted to experience the same feelings as when he camped with Lissa and Frederick around a banked fire during the hunt, pointing out the constellations and shooting stars or giggling away naughtily over some joke of Lissa's until Frederick hushed them or they were all too happily exhausted to keep their eyes open.

He had not been able to rest the entire night, as he kept a disquieted vigil over his sleeping company. Lissa was dozing softly next to the bulk of Frederick's body, who of course had given her his blanket to use along with hers when she had become too tired to protest over his overbearing insistence. The prisoners slept in an uneasy huddle at the back of the fort, their fitful stirrings most likely nightmares produced by the Risen attack; the soldiers rotated their activities between sleep, guard duty, and clearing fallen branches and logs to ease their return to Ylisstol. Vaike and Sully had slept back to back, but the blonde warrior's intense snoring had awoken and annoyed Sully so many times she had kicked him awake and stormed off to join the soldiers outside in an annoyed huff. Vaike had merely scratched his head and resumed his sleeping in response before. She returned later, though.

The mysterious duo—and the reasons for his sleeplessness—lay curled up in a ball around each other, clinging tightly in such a manner that Chrom thought their knuckles would have turned as white as Henry's hair. The boy supported his broken arm between their bodies on the blanket Chrom offered to him, and though Robin had not woken up since fainting in the rain, her hands had gone around Henry's neck to cradle his head the second she felt his touch.

Henry had been frustratingly cagey and evasive when anything even remotely hinting at a question was brought up. Not anything, from Lissa's patient wheedling to Frederick's straightforwardness, Vaike's boorishness and Sully's aggressiveness and even his own persuasiveness could wrest anything from Henry's lips other than his original story.

Far be it from Chrom to accuse anyone of being a liar to their faces unless the lie was blatant enough or he lost his composure. He was certain that the majority of their story (memory loss and an inexplicable need to travel to Regna Ferox) was true. And yet…

Chrom leaned back into the wall with a sigh. Since bringing the two into their fold from Southtown, running into constant danger had become a common theme. Even the way they were found was due to violent circumstances…but stranger still was the immediate reaction his brand and the Falchion had to Robin. The skin-deep pulse, the feeling of his blood humming in his veins, he had grown used to it around his sisters. Robin provoked a similar sensation, but there was something…different about it that he could not pinpoint. Adding to his questions was the memory of the voice echoing in his head, teaching him of an innate power of the Falchion's and how it told him to use the sword to heal her.

Robin had recovered well from her fever, and, despite Lissa not being able to dissuade Henry from keeping Robin's right glove on and the curious reaction the robe she wore had to the touch of strangers, she slept well and with no sign of infection or fever so far.

She was strong. Intelligent. Reserved, yet not unwelcoming to their presence. She presented the biggest mystery of the two by far and Chrom burned inside with unsaid questions.

What are you hiding? And why? he thought as he watched Robin. Why won't you let us help you?

Why don't you trust us?

"Chrom?"

He blinked slowly and refocused. Robin had finally awakened: her eyes were still bleary with sleep, and her voice rough and scratchy from all the screaming in battle, but nonetheless, she was awake. Chrom felt his worries slip away as he carefully padded his way to her, avoiding the sleeping bodies around them. He kneeled by her side.

"Did we win?" she asked.

"Yes." He removed his glove and held his palm tentatively over her head before lowering it to check for signs of her fever returning. "How are you feeling?"

"Like a bull ran into me from behind."

They shared a chuckle before falling into a companionable silence. Robin grimaced and groaned as she shifted in place, now uncomfortable with having stayed prone for so long, and Chrom eased his hand under her shoulders to help her sit up.

"Are we in the fort?"

"Yes. We tried to clear most of the felled trees around us, but we're going to pick it up again once it's light out. From there we're to proceed to Ylisstol."

"Ylisstol, huh?" The barest amount of illumination from the banked fire revealed a wry twist of her mouth. "I've never been there before."

Chrom briefly flashed back to his previous worries—how much of what she was saying was true or not, why they were hiding things from them—and quickly shook them off. Now was not the time. "You'll love it there. We're in the middle of preparing a big festival, and it's so beautiful now. There will be pennants, and stalls, and fresh flowers being planted, and everyone will be attending. It's the first one we've had in years, really."

Her response was a noncommittal hum. They fell into silence once more and sat together listening to the sounds of the night. When she spoke again, it was with a deep sense of melancholy.

"I owe you a debt, you know," she whispered.

"Wha—no you don't. What on earth gave you that idea?"

She adjusted her head to look up at him; he had the vaguest notion that if he could see her face, she would most likely be raising a brow at him. "You stopped that Risen from attacking me. You saved my life, so now, I owe it to you."

Chrom looked around surreptitiously, not wanting anyone to have suddenly woken up and started eavesdropping on their conversation. However effectively her robe muffled her voice (and constantly forced him to lean closer to catch any of her words), he felt uncomfortable discussing such personal things surrounded by their sleeping comrades.

"Why don't we take this elsewhere?" he murmured. "I think some fresh air would do us some good."

"Sounds fine to me."

Taking great care not to jostle Robin, he grasped her hand, looped her arm around his neck, and gingerly hoisted themselves up with a muted grunt. The pair spent a far greater amount of time wending and weaving their way around sleeping bodies than he would have liked, but they made it out in the end with naught but a single interrupted snore when Robin accidently touched a soldier's face with her bare toes. They giggled in nervous solidarity as they stepped out into the forest.

Thankfully, the men stationed outside on the current rotation of guard kept their eyes forward and their attention focused on watching the perimeter, making Chrom feel much more at ease. He chose a sturdy log for them and helped ease Robin down to her seat, keeping his arm around her as he stepped over the log to join her.

Chrom always thought that the night sky was especially beautiful after a hard, cleansing rain. The stars shimmered and shone with their white, untouchable beauty from thousands of miles away. Chrom wondered if the priests were right, and that the stars were in reality the souls chosen by Naga to reside with her in her heavenly abode, watching mortal souls from above for all eternity. The tale never did sit right with him—the stars seemed far too cold, too impersonal and amorphous to take interest in the lives of puny human beings. That, and he hated how they always seemed to bring up memories of after his father's death, and the fervent insistence of his supporters that he be officially canonised as a martyr and a saint.

He could never hate the stars in spite of his misgivings. It was not their fault in the first place. And he always did appreciate their icy, breathtaking elegance against the backdrop of their infinite, pitch-black mantle.

Chrom wondered if Robin thought so too.

"You don't owe me anything," he said, keeping his eyes on the sky. He failed to make out a few constellations—astronomy was one of his weakest subjects growing up. "I saved you because you needed rescuing, because you were in danger. And that's all there is to it. Not because I want you to feel some sense of…obligation towards me."

Robin hummed sleepily in reply. "Where I come from," her words were soft, even with the robe dampening them, "saving someone means that you now hold that person's life in your hands."

He snorted. "Sorry, but that sounds like nonsense. I bet it's an easily abused system, too."

"Perhaps," was her cryptic response. "But you certainly don't look like the type to do that. You're far too good."

Robin's praise coloured Chrom's cheeks in a faint glow. "Flatterer," he mumbled and bumped her shoulder playfully.

It was the first time he heard her laugh; it was a charming sound that brought a smile to his lips, pleasantly surprised that he was able to bring out that kind of reaction from such a mysterious character. "Well, aren't you?"

He fell silent. A lazy gust of wind rustled the boughs of the trees high above them, shaking a few leaves loose and sending them tumbling down leisurely. The cold air felt good in his lungs, sharp and refreshing, yet he still found it difficult to swallow against the sudden lump in his throat.

"I like to think that I'm a good person." Chrom hated how weak and uncertain he sounded to his ears. "But that's my own personal judgement. I have to be honest and admit that I'm a little afraid that what might seem right to me could be a catastrophe to others. Or that I'm simply deluding myself and I'm actually a horrible megalomaniac destined to wreak havoc upon the earth and someone will come and cut me down eventually." He suppressed a cold shiver that threatened to run down his spine, and the memories that came after hardened the lump.

Chrom heard her exhale, a low, pensive sound that was nearly lost to the wind. He felt her move against him and he was grateful for her human warmth to ward off the chill of his unhappy thoughts.

Wait. Why am I telling her this? We barely know each other. She doesn't need to be loaded down with with my worries. And even so, why does she need to know this? I'm not expecting her to tell me something about her life in exchange.

Then again…it could be useful considering how little we know so far.

"Destiny is a funny thing," Robin mused. "People put so much stock into it yet we fear and loathe it all the same."

Chrom shrugged. "That's life, I suppose. But I've never wanted to believe in something as grand and far-reaching as destiny, not really."

"And why's that?"

He struggled to find the words. Strange how deeply he felt over this, how much he toiled over his feelings on the subject and how much sleep he had lost to them, but when the time came to articulate his thoughts, the lump seemed to press against his tongue and render his efforts almost futile. "It seems cruel of the gods to preordain suffering in our life," he finally managed.

"Gods are cruel because holding power over others corrupts," Robin replied, bitter. "There's no reason to be kind to your playthings and tools."

He shifted in an attempt to peer into her face, genuinely surprised over the sentiment, and his curiosity was piqued again; what had happened to her to create such an attitude? "Well…you're not wrong," he ventured carefully. "But what I mean to add to that is that life seems much too, well, vast—" he threw his arm out and gestured to the forest, "—for something like destiny to be of importance. That all we live for is to be in pain. You get what I'm saying?"

"No?" Robin said.

Her tone made him laugh. "I mean, the gods gave their creations free will, right? What's the point of destiny, then, if we're also meant to do things according to our own free will? What's the point of free will if some stuffy old priest says we're meant to suffer?"

Robin pulled back to look up at him—he wished that the shadows shrouding her face could dissipate and satisfy his burning curiosity, that the hood could come off and reveal at least a trace of a human face that he could read. He settled for watching her clasp her hands and twiddle her fingers in a nervous rhythm as she processed his reasoning. She seemed, for a lack of a better term, stunned.

"From what little I can remember…I was told that humans are stupid, sinful, weak. That we need not only a strong hand to guide us to avoid causing any disasters, but that we need to be punished for being born…dirty."

"Dirty?"

"We're creatures born of mud and filth. We live only to eat, fornicate, and die in the end. We wage wars, spread diseases, and kill whatever we come into contact with. That we deserve—"

Chrom seized her hand and grasped it firmly in his own, vaguely noting the size difference, and the arm he already had around her pulled her in tighter. "I'm going to have to stop you right there."

"Chrom—?"

"I don't know where you've heard that," he continued, vehement, "but it's wrong you hear? All wrong."

She struggled against his hold and he released her, shocked at her reaction.

What was Robin afraid of?

"Look." Chrom chose his words carefully and deliberately. "We may not know each other very well just yet, but in the little time we've been together, I'm sure I can say with all certainty that you're not a person who deserves punishment for being born. None of us are, in fact." He swallowed, finally ridding himself of the lump, feeling anger rise to his face and helping to push words out. "And whoever told you that is a liar. A liar with something to gain over feeding you nonsense and making you feel afraid simply for existing. Whoever that person is, they're the evil one, you understand?"

"You don't know me," Robin snapped, but there was no real bite to it: only a deep sadness. "You don't know if I've done awful things and I deserve to be told all that."

"Does a bad person risk their life constantly to help strangers?"

"A bad person can put on as many masks as they need and want to. A priest can call himself holy while still preaching for the murder of innocents. A king can build great bridges and hospitals and poorhouses and do all that with the blood and sweat of slaves. Who's to say that my actions in the past won't guarantee I do something terrible in the future?"

Her logic, unfortunately, hit much too close to home for Chrom's comfort…but there was also something very personal about the way that Robin spoke that made him think that she was referencing something she did remember, or at least something too stark and vivid in her mind to not be able to forget. He wanted to allow his curiosity to probe further, but his rational side warned him that it was most likely something that caused her great pain and torment.

Please let us help you, Robin.

Chrom reached out to her slowly, cautiously, as though approaching an injured swan—one wrong move and he feared pushing her away, or even being on the receiving end of her lashing out. He wanted to take no risks. He held his hand out, pleading for hers, and relaxed when she acquiesced. Robin stiffened when he followed through by pulling her in for a tight embrace, clearly shocked, but then softened after a few tense moments.

Emmeryn often did the same for him when he used to suffer from his bouts of anger. Sometimes it felt like the only way he could find an outlet for the rage and heartache that ate at him, deep inside…but Emmeryn and Lissa's love and support, while certainly not a cure-all, often felt like it. It felt so soothing to know that he had them by his side and ready to comfort him when he hurt, and he reckoned that, for now at least, Robin would do good with someone to fill in that same position for her.

"Do you see yourself doing something terrible? In the future?"

"Gods, I hope not." Her voice was small and muffled in his arms.

He shook his head. "You know that's not what I meant: do you see yourself consciously doing something that would cause harm? Do you think that you would deliberately seek out the pain and suffering of others? Do you want that future for yourself?"

"…No."

Chrom pulled back with what he hoped was a brilliant smile. He vaguely took note of the darkness receding with the sun's encroaching light, banishing the night to the confines of the past. It felt very fitting for how their conversation had progressed. "See? I think that makes you a good person—because you care about the impact of your actions on others. That you care about not causing harm." A warm, gratified zing raced through his skin when, finally, the barest hint of a wobbly smile was spied through the shadows of her hood. "'Destiny' is hogwash. Only you can decide how your future plays out."

They sat together in satisfied, reticent silence as dawn finally rose and heralded the start of a new day.

 

 

                                                                                         

 

 

Clearing the area of burnt logs and other debris took up a good part of the morning, with breakfast (pine needle tea and a few charred rabbits found in the undergrowth) served just as the sun was beginning its ascent higher into the sky. Robin was quiet and kept to herself, more so than usual, which puzzled even Henry. The two sat closely together to eat and survey the goings on around camp. Now that a passage had been successfully opened up, the first order of business was to leave immediately and head back to Ylisstol. Frederick, naturally, had placed himself in full charge of the preparations: barking orders left and right, fretting over their dwindling supplies, and breathing down the necks of whatever unfortunate souls dared to cinch a saddle even an inch off his desired length.

They set off the moment the last horse was ready, spurring them into a quick canter with those on foot—the prisoners and the rest of the soldiers—doing their best to keep up.

Everyone was eager to leave the forest as soon as possible.

Chrom did his best to keep the journey pleasant, if at least to dilute the horrors of the previous night; Lissa and him regaled the mysterious duo with wondrous tales of Ylisstol's magic and grandeur, of the upcoming pageantry and celebrations, in the hopes of raising their spirits. To his relief, the soldiers joined the conversation and shared their excitement over the festivities. Even the prisoners, after spending most of the march in silence, ventured a few questions before a few shared stories of how they celebrated: most were from the southwestern coasts of Ferox and detailed the songs sung after the daily catch was hauled in, while a few from the border between Plegia and Ylisse discussed harvest parties. The lone man from Chon'sin remained studiously silent, but Chrom guessed that it was due to an inability to speak in the continent's common tongue.

He told them of Emmeryn, too, uncaring when Vaike pointed out he was gushing—he had every right to fawn over such a wonderful sister.

The atmosphere turned pleasant as the day went by. The sun shone, yet the trees that remained after the fire were unscathed enough to shelter them from the worst of the heat. Sounds from assorted wildlife confirmed that the damage had thankfully not spread as much as he feared, and he thanked the timely intervention of the rangers who were on patrol with Vaike and Sully to stop the spread of the flames…along with the rain from Robin's spell.

Speaking of his fellow Shepherds, however, made Chrom want to groan aloud in annoyance. While he was grateful that Vaike's natural garrulity and curiosity made him all too eager to meet the newest additions to the group, what started off as friendliness now bordered on harassment. Henry had an immediate grasp on Vaike's attitude and was able to skillfully deflect his attentions through a combination of reciprocity and playful obfuscation. Robin, on the other hand, was not as attuned to Vaike's quirks—due to still being exhausted over the night's events or simply because she was overwhelmed by him, Chrom could not tell—but it came to the point where Lissa had to physically intervene when Vaike reached for Robin's hood to pull it off after pestering her incessantly over it.

Sully stood firmly on the other end of the spectrum: whereas Vaike hovered like an irksome gnat, she preferred aggressive avoidance by riding at the front. She answered in monosyllables, grunts, or nettled mutters when Lissa, Vaike, and Frederick spoke; towards Chrom, Robin, and Henry, however, she barely even deigned to breathe in their direction. She had been irritable since the battle against the Risen, and her annoyance seemed to have increased upon emerging from the fort at dawn looking for Chrom.

As the sun began setting, the party gratefully settled down to rest and set up camp. Robin, citing riding weariness, announced her decision to turn in early, with Henry following soon after. Chrom would sneak intermittent glances at the duo, curled up around their dog by the banked fire, and could only worry.

"What's gotten into you two?" he found himself hissing lowly at Sully and Vaike over their supper of spit-roasted rabbit. Even mopping up the gravy with a stale biscuit (one of his favourite things to do at mealtimes) failed to raise his spirits as he scolded his friends across their own little fire.

"Aw, Cap." Vaike threw his hand up dismissively and spoke around his mouthful of meat. "You're actin' like I kicked a puppy or somethin'. All I did was be my usual friendly self! There anything wrong with that?"

"Being your 'usual friendly self,'" Chrom emphasised pointedly, "shouldn't involve trying to pull someone's clothes off and being an invasive nuisance."

"Sorry, Vaike, but I have to agree with Chrom on this." Lissa had stuffed her face and spoke with a completely full mouth—Frederick, of course, loomed closely in the background, ready to swoop in to wipe her face and catch any stray bits of food before they could even have the chance to stain his lieges' clothing. "Sometimes you have to learn to buzz off."

Sully snorted. She had been brooding over her own food, picking at it more than she actually ate, and staring moodily into the fire rather than join the conversation.

"And you," Chrom turned to her, "you've been nothing but plain rude. Avoiding us and not wanting to talk—did we do something wrong? Was it something I said?"

"No," she muttered.

"Then what is it?"

Sully threw her rabbit-stick away with a loud clatter—Chrom glanced back to see if it disturbed Robin and Henry, but the pair did not so much as stir—and crossed her leg and arms, scowling fiercely into the fire. "I don't like pussyfooting around, so I'll just cut the crap and get straight to the point: I don't like the feel of 'em."

"Sully—"

"You pick up a couple of strangers from the roadside and you're now best chums all of a sudden?" Sully's eyes met his, surprising him with the strength of the emotion behind them. "Even after some bullshit story about being amnesiacs?"

"Sully—"

"I ain't done," she cut him off tersely. "This reeks, Chrom. It seems too damn convenient that you find some—some 'runaways' or whatever when you're out right before the festival. Not only that, but those two definitely know more than they're letting in on. They were armed when you found 'em, they know more than a thing or two in a fight, and that girl especially…" Sully shot a distrustful look at Robin's sleeping form. "She's pretty dangerous."

Chrom scoffed and set down his gravy stained tin. "You say this as though you're expecting them to murder us in our sleep or something of the sort. I already had enough of this with Frederick—"

"Well, this time, I agree with Frederick," Sully interrupted once more.

"Agreeing with Frederick? Now that's something I didn't expect to hear from you of all people."

"Think about it. You find these two and they say they don't know where they're from or they don't wanna, or even elaborate on their vague as hell plans to go to Ferox…why? And how convenient is it that we run into those…those things, and she not only knows how to kill 'em, but she does that freaky thing with her eyes and squares off against the boss and wins? What was that magic, even? Miriel's the smartest person I know and I don't think even she can do that! Or what about that eye in the sky?"

He hated admitting how sound her logic was. How strange, how inexplicable, even, were the circumstances surrounding the pair, not to mention all the bizarre events that followed soon after. Pursued by bandits. Fighting off those so-called Risen. The Falchion healing Robin in the storm's midst.

He did not want to tell them that the latter was the result of a strange voice in his head, nor was he too keen on revealing his Brand's resonance with Robin.

Chrom sighed heavily and looked up to the stars. "I know that all sounds pretty bad. And I don't disagree with you. But they've been good to us so far. They've fought alongside us. They helped save the people of Southtown, and now they helped us defeat the Risen. And…I have a good hunch about them."

"Chrom. You're telling me you just wanna ignore all that based on a hunch?" Sully raised her eyebrow.

"I don't know how else to explain it, alright? All I can really say is that…that I have a good feeling about them."

Sully heaved herself up from her seat on the tree stump with a loud sigh. Her gaze was tired and the line of her lips grim. It was a look Chrom saw rarely, and, to be honest with himself, it was a worrisome sight to behold.

"You're a good man, Chrom," she said after a tense few moments. "And we all think it's pretty admirable of you to always want to see the best in others. But sometimes…it doesn't work out, you know? You have to remember that 'good feelings' can be misleading. And with hair like that—" she jerked her chin roughly in Henry's direction "—I think I speak for everyone when I say I don't exactly share your sentiments."

Sully left the campfire for her sleeping roll immediately after, and Vaike followed shortly; Chrom could tell she was still awake, sulking and ignoring Vaike's attempts at rousing her. Lissa was the next to go, leaving Chrom and Frederick alone with the last of the fire's embers, with Frederick taking it upon himself to feed the fire some more kindling before banking the ashes over it to preserve it for the morning. Chrom watched him quietly as he removed his breastplate and gauntlets—he kept his boots and greaves on.

"You already know my thoughts on the matter, milord," Frederick said before retiring for bed, a rarity for a man as dedicated as him. "And I urge you to report all this to her Grace as soon as we step foot in Ylisstol."

Believe me. I already will.

 

 

                                                                                           

 

 

They set off as soon as dawn approached. Robin stayed pensive and quiet throughout, and though her replies were polite enough whenever Lissa and Chrom and Henry engaged her, there was a detachment to her that signalled a heavy weight on her mind. Chrom did not blame her for it.

Thankfully, they approached the edge of the forest soon after the late morning came, the treeline stopping to reveal small farms and the town of Palenorda nestled up against Ylisstol's mighty walls. The curious name was a combination of the capital's former designation as Pales, after the shepherd god and the city's patron deity after Naga, and Norda, the market town infamous for its role as a hub for the slave trade after Pales fell in the War of Shadows. The loud calls of merchants advertising their wares and the scent of smoke from the kilns grew stronger as the procession approached the town. Robin pulled her hood tighter over her face and slumped in the saddle as she rode with Frederick. Chrom motioned for Lissa to do the same for Henry and she threw her blanket over him haphazardly—the boy took it in stride and wrapped himself snugly until only his smiling face was visible, and Lissa laughed.

"Ho there, milord!" A woman's voice caught Chrom's attention. It was Aldeth Reeve, captain of the border guards tasked with protecting Ylisstol's perimeter. She rode to them from the castle gates after the drawbridge was lowered over the massive moat separating the city from the town, with her subordinates alert, yet thankfully not suspicious over the two strangers at their doorstep. "We saw the fire all the way from here—I was just about to send a rescue party after your Shepherds left, but I'm glad to see that's no longer needed."

Chrom smiled appreciatively. "We thank you for your concern, Captain Reeve. We've a few injured in our party, but we're all still alive and well, thank the gods."

"I'll say! We're lucky that rain came along, or else I'm afraid we would've been burnt to a crisp! Amazing what nature can do, don't you think?"

"…Yes." His smiled turned tight. "I'd rather not dawdle for too long though. We got caught in the middle of a border skirmish that spilled over to Southtown, and we're bringing the bandits we caught there to be questioned and detained."

The prisoners, so subdued throughout the journey, now looked defeated and utterly spent; though they were arguably treated well, being brought into foreign territory in chains, and thus broadcasting their status as criminals, had to be not only humiliating but demoralising as well. In spite of his rage at Southtown, Chrom's heart was moved by a stirring of pity.

Aldeth looked over the raggedy collection of men with a critical eye. "And I suppose they did that, too?" She motioned to the soldier with a newly missing hand.

"No. That…that will be explained, but it'll have to wait until Emmeryn hears it first, I'm afraid."

"I see." The severity of the situation having dawned on her, Aldeth shouted for her deputies, sisters who rode astride a pair of stocky duns and wielded impressive looking halberds. Orders were relayed, and soon they too called for the next in the chain of command, and a decent amount of guards corps were deployed to bring the prisoners into Ylisstol safely through a secret passage east of the city.

"Why aren't we taking them?" Henry asked with his usual curiosity.

"Because they need to be transported to the dungeons, and we need to go somewhere else," Lissa answered.

"Awww, but dungeons are so much fun! They have bones, and dead people, and torture devices, and a lot of times you can find really neat hexed and cursed items and creatures in them!"

Lissa blanched and quietly mouthed 'what the heck?!' to her brother. All Chrom could do was shrug; he had no idea where on earth Henry had visited to form such a morbid and dark view of dungeons, which was not to say that dungeons like that were nonexistent, but still.

As the prisoners were escorted out of sight, Aldeth whistled to the gatekeepers watching from the twin towers built into the wall and on either side of the drawbridge. The sound of ancient chains groaning to life grated terribly on the ears as the colossal steel gates opened to allow them entry to the capital. Thanking her, Chrom waved to his companions and nudged Stormchaser into a leisurely walk into the city.

Ylisstol looked even more beautiful now that they had spent some time away and the preparations for the festival progressed: rows upon rows of irises, the state flower, had been planted along the streets and in charming little window boxes in the shops and houses. The maypoles, finally painted, were installed for the upcoming dancing; matrons wove intricate ropes of ribbons for them with their children on their doorsteps. Framework for booths were being hammered and nailed into place in the city square and gay pennants were being strung across rooftops and walls. There was so much colour, so much excitement and joy and magic in the air that Chrom could not help but breathe in deeply to try and take it in all at once.

He was so proud to see that Robin and Henry thought so too. Their expressions were of pure awe as they craned their necks and marvelled over the sights the city had to offer. He took it upon himself to point out his favourite parts of the city and other sites of interest: the bakeries, the butcheries, the public library, the guild headquarters, the cathedral, the shops…

"So this is Ylisstol, capital of Ylisse...I've never seen so many people!" Robin breathed.

"It appears the capital was spared the chaos we encountered, thank the gods. I see no evidence of the great quake. It must've been limited to the forest," Frederick said.

"Well, that's a relief!" Lissa chimed in.

The people immediately rallied round their horses and clamoured for their attention, calling out to them in the realisation that they had now returned from beyond the city. Unfortunately, now that their presence had attracted the attention of the citizenry, their stares and pointing were most definitely not of the welcoming variety where Henry and Robin were concerned. There was anxious muttering and whispering over the ominous pattern on Robin's robe. A few wisps of Henry's hair began to peek out from under the cover of Lissa's blanket, and Chrom feared that they would soon notice his hair was white instead of a towheaded blonde.

"Excuse us! We need to get to the castle soon. I'm sorry if we're causing any delays in the middle of the street like this." He flashed a brilliant grin at the throng.

His request was met with beaming smiles. "Oh, of course—"

"Forgive us, Your Highness—"

"We're all so glad to see you back—!"

"Thank you. We're all very happy to see you all as well." He clicked his tongue and raised the reins so Stormchaser would take one of the smaller passages behind the main street, away from the prying eyes of the public. "And we'll be sure to come soon to see how the preparations are shaping up!"

The urban commotion became muted as they wended their way through narrow back alleys on the way to the castle. The lake could be seen beyond the walls now that they were proceeding higher and higher up the steep hill that the city had been built on, hoofbeats clacking in a pleasant, rhythmic beat against the cobblestones. The occasional laundress would stick her head out to check that her items were drying well on the clothesline, or a cat perched on a windowsill would watch as a dog pawed and barked fruitlessly at the air in an attempt to get them to play together, but for the most part, they were thankfully alone.

Chrom turned to see how the others were doing: Henry was talking quietly to Lissa and bounced his dog between them and made her wave her paw to the strays they saw. The soldiers kept to their usual disciplined taciturnity while Sully and Vaike were engaged in a hushed, but evidently heated discussion all the way at the back. Robin, however, was of the greatest concern to Chrom at the moment. As she rode with Frederick, who always made it a point to ride as closely to his charges as possible, he could spy her chewing the nail of her thumb from under her hood.

He pulled Stormchaser closer to Frederick's enormous steed in order to safely lean closer to them without toppling off. "Something the matter?"

Robin started in the saddle and immediately withdrew her thumb, embarrassed. "I—I—no. Everything's fine."

"Doesn't sound like you mean it. What's wrong, Robin?"

She swallowed and looked down into her lap, where her gloved hands gripped tightly at her trousers and their leather made a sharp, creaking noise. "…It's just…what was all that before? About the people…they called you 'Your Highness.'"

Chrom balked. It was not a subject he had hoped to touch soon. "Well…I—"

Loud trumpeting blasts from the town square jerked their heads up in search of the source of the sudden commotion. They had an excellent view all the way up from their vantage point, and thus could see the enormous crowds queueing around a small procession of women snaking their way through the people. A woman garbed in familiar shades of pale yellows and greens caught Chrom's eye.

"Oh! That must be the Exalt on her daily outing!" the soldiers exclaimed, their usual stoicity gone.

Robin kept her gaze trained on the tiny green figure. "The Exalt is your ruler, yes? Is it safe for her to walk among commoners like this?"

"The Exalt is a symbol of peace—Ylisse's most prized quality." Frederick began reciting in a practiced and presumptuous intonation. "Long ago, at the dawn of our age, the fell dragon tried to destroy the world. But the first Exalt joined forces with the divine dragon and laid the beast low. Exalt Emmeryn reminds us all of the peace we fought for then."

"With Plegia poking at our borders, the people need her. She's a calming presence, when some might otherwise call for war," Chrom added.

There was something…melancholic about the way Robin watched the joyous scene on the streets below. Something about her slumped form spoke of a very deep heartache and desolation as she observed the Exalt wave to the people, shake their hands, answer their questions, and kiss the babies handed to her for her blessing. Something that confused Chrom's own heart in a way he could not quite place.

Robin twisted back to her proper seat in the saddle with sigh. "Then the Ylissean people are indeed lucky to have her." Her voice was heavy with dejection.

Chrom and Frederick exchanged worried looks, but said nothing and snapped the reins for the horses to keep on moving.

Just as soon as they were rounding the corner and almost up to the bridge connecting the castle to the city, Lissa, who had been engaged in a battle of giggles with Henry, burst open with a loud exclamation: "She's also the best big sister anyone could ask for!"

Robin banged her head on Frederick's breastplate with a loud clang as she whipped around in place to stare at the young woman, her mouth agog in surprise. "You said your sister's name is Emmeryn…wait, what? She's your...but wouldn't that make you and Chrom…" Her head snapped back and forth between them, disbelieving.

"The prince and princess of the realm, yes," Frederick said drily. "You remember Chrom's name and not this?"

"You said you were 'shepherds!'"

"And so we are...in a manner of speaking. We just have a LOT of sheep." Chrom scratched the nape of his neck sheepishly.

Robin, aghast, blubbered and stammered almost incoherently. "C-Chrom...I mean, Prince Chrom! Sire!" She swung herself out of Frederick's saddle and onto the street, bowing rigidly at the waist in a show of begging for his mercy. "Forgive my dreadful manners! I can't believe I was so presumptuous as to ride with you like that—I-I'll just walk from here on out!" She began speeding away hastily in the wrong direction.

"Ah, wait!" Chrom kicked his heels into Stormchaser's belly and the horse cantered quickly to block Robin before she could leave their sight.

"Your Highness—"

"You know, I didn't want to share this right away because I was afraid of intimidating you." Chrom sighed. "This is precisely the thing that I wanted to avoid."

"I shouldn't have treated you so casually! I knew you're someone important given everyone's insistence on 'milord' and 'milady,' but I didn't know just how much! I-I apologise. I shouldn't have taken so many liberties with you and L-your sister."

He climbed out of the saddle to stand as levelly as he could with her. Hard as it was to look into her eyes, with her hood keeping her face in perpetual shadow and whatnot, he hoped that she could at least comprehend the depth of his gesture. "No. I should be the one apologising. I shouldn't have kept this a secret from you. I just…I just wanted you to treat me as normally as possible. I don't want you to feel indebted to me or anything of the sort."

She snorted a very unladylike snort. "If I wasn't before, then I have good reason to now."

"Oh, please don't. We've fought together. I wouldn't want a comrade-in-arms to feel like they should keep their distance from me over some silly rank and title."

"Your 'silly rank and title,'" Robin reminded, "means you have privileges and a status that I don't."

"I—so? That doesn't mean that we should be kept apart over it. I…I want you to feel as comfortable around me as any other Shepherd would, because, in the end, we're all human. We've seen each other bleed. And if not for that, then at least because I'm asking you as a friend." Chrom stretched his hand out to her in an entreaty to accept it.

The sounds of the procession grew louder over the brief wind that cooled them. Stormchaser stamped at the cobblestones impatiently as Chrom waited for Robin's response; he feared that she would reject him.

But to his delight, she accepted the gesture and closed her hand over his shyly. "…Alright."

"And just Chrom is fine. I've never been much for formalities."

He caught the barest hint of a smile under her hood.

He beamed at her. Without any further delay, Chrom heaved her up and sat her firmly on his horse's saddle and clambered up right after. He snapped the reins briskly and directed the party to stay on their designated route. "It looks like Emm is returning to the castle. If we keep to our pace, we should arrive before she does along with all the crowds. Would you two like to meet her?" he called back to Henry as well.

Lissa pulled her mare in close to ride at her brother's side, eagerly anticipating Henry's response. The boy was clearly in agreement and reached out to tug Robin's sleeve restlessly. "C'mon Robby! Say yes! It's not everyday that we get to meet a real life queen!"

"Exalt," Frederick corrected snappishly.

"It doesn't have to be right now if you don't want to," Chrom said gently.

"No, I think it's better that we not delay it," was Robin's answer. "And besides: considering all that's happened, and since we are strangers to this realm, I think she would want to question us over a thing or two."

The ride continued in an amiable silence, with only the briefest of glances behind them to verify that Emmeryn's parade was still a ways behind them. Chrom felt the familiar thrill of homecoming as the slate blue roofing of the gatehouse beyond the bridge came into view.

"The prince and princess...that explains why Frederick tolerates all the teasing, eh?" Robin spoke with a dash of wryness.

Frederick sighed as though he was some 20 years older. "Indeed. Oh, the sacrifices I make for the good of the realm…"

Henry and Lissa's burst of laughter was as sunny as the sky above them, and Chrom felt very optimistic about their future prospects. He had a good feeling that they would fit in just right with them all here in Ylisstol.

 

 

 

                                                                                 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

                                                                                               

 

 

Hoofbeats clacked pleasantly as the horses were led up the stone bridge that linked Ylisstol to the castle proper—beyond its massive walls, lofty white spires and towers with slate blue roofing soared into the sky. Robin and Henry had spent little time in Zuhsa and the thought of sneaking a peek at its own castle never crossed their minds while there, meaning they had no point of comparison between the two cities; even so, the structure was so grand, and everything gleamed just so, that Robin could not help but marvel at the sight.

The blast of a horn announced their presence. Waiting patiently for the guards to raise the gates, the company then advanced into the castle's entrance.

A small army of pages and groomsmen descended upon them, ready to receive their lieges. They began assisting the soldiers and helping down those who had been injured in the forest battle by setting down footstools and steadying them as they dismounted. Those who needed immediate attention were taken to be seen to, and their horses then led away to be stabled. Robin was highly impressed by the liveried servants and the speed and efficiency with which they carried out their duties.

Moreso because she had just learned that Chrom and Lissa were royalty scarcely but a few moments ago.

From the little she had seen so far, the castle gave off an indelible air of grace and strength: though weathered, the white stonework of the structure was still immaculate, with long blue and green banners streaming down the windows (the servants sported yellow along with a crest identical to what Robin strongly suspected was a Mark on Chrom's arm); and the courtyard they were currently in was separated from a sprawling green lawn by an archway fitted with a second set of gates, which the tactical-minded Robin approved of as a defensive feature.

Chrom hopped nimbly off Stormchaser and rubbed her neck fondly before turning to Robin. "Let me help you down."

Robin was about to decline the kind gesture, but apparently he said it as less as than offer and more as a statement. She was stunned into silence by the feeling of strong hands settling down on her waist and pulling her off the saddle, and her own hands shot to his shoulders to stabilise herself. He set her down on the flagstones very carefully.

"I know she's a little tall for you, so it was the least I could do." Chrom smiled.

"T-thank you kindly," Robin stammered, still a little dumbstruck at how casually he touched her—oh gods, her hands were still on his shoulders.

Loud hoofbeats were their only warning as Sully's white horse nearly barrelled into them. Chrom called out to her, shocked, and was rudely blown off as Sully threw down the reins and launched herself off the saddle. She ignored Chrom and stormed off after the horses, her face unmistakably darkened with ire.

"What's up with her?" Lissa had Henry by the hand and tugged him along as she regrouped with Robin and her brother. The boy's blanket had slipped off his head and the light created a shining halo around his pale hair.

Chrom sighed, watching Sully's receding figure. "She's been like this since the forest…I'll have to take her aside and have a word."

"That's an if," Lissa reminded him. "If you make it sound like she's being lectured then she'll give you the cold shoulder for weeks. Months, if she's really feeling dedicated."

Robin had a hunch about the root cause of Sully's state, but decided to keep it to herself.

"If you'd like, I've got a spell so that she'll be smiling in no time!" Henry offered cheerfully. "And if she's still feeling like a grumpus wumpus, then I can just change it into a hex and keep her smiling forever!"

Lissa's mouth dropped slightly. She exchanged a look with her brother, and turned back to Henry with a slightly forced and uneasy grin. "Uh…thanks, Henry?"

"Don't mention it!" He beamed.

A groom approached Chrom with the utmost deference, bowed, and made an inquiry that was too low to be heard. Chrom himself only made a small exclamation, thanked the groom, and sent him off with a request to attend to the rest of the men in their company. "It seems Emm still has some more babies to kiss and hands to shake before she arrives. Since I'd rather not keep everyone waiting around, how would you all like to meet the rest of the Shepherds?"

Robin swallowed nervously. If Chrom and Lissa themselves were of any indication, then their comrades surely had to be as friendly as them. But if Sully was anything to go by…

"Oh, please come!" Lissa grabbed Robin's hands and jumped excitedly in place, her face lit up with excitement. "Everyone needs to get acquainted and we just have to tell them about what you did in Southtown! You'll get to meet Maribelle, and Cordelia, and Stahl, and—"

"Give her some breathing room!" Chrom separated the two, but was laughing all the same.

"Robbie! New friends!" Henry whispered to her. "Isn't that just super exciting?"

No. No, it's not. Robin's heart leapt into her throat, pumping out an awful, unsteady rhythm, making it difficult to breathe, much less reply. Chrom and Lissa were safe. They were warm and kind. But Frederick's reception of them had been cold, and Sully was downright hostile. She and Henry were smack dab in the middle of Ylissean territory—in the capital city—and they had no way of knowing if those other Shepherds Chrom and Lissa wanted them to meet would be anything like them. What if they were worse than Sully? What if those awful stories she had been told back at the skull were true?

She could use a bit of advice from the robe now, insults or not, but for some baffling reason, it had been unreasonably quiet since their arrival. Robin gave it the equivalent of a mental nudge, but to her shock, it complained over the encroachment into its personal space and went back to being silent.

It was ignoring her? What the—

"You alright, Robin?" Chrom's voice pulled her back out of her head.

She realised with a start that all eyes were on her. Frederick himself had joined their small group, and his stern eyes were watching her with his usual disapproval. "I…I'm fine." Her faltering speech did not feel very convincing to her. "Just a bit tired from the ride."

Chrom, evidently concerned, grasped her shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "You don't have to meet them right now if you're not up to it. Don't push yourself."

There she went again, jumping to conclusions and letting her catastrophic overthinking get the better of her. Yes, she was afraid of being in the midst of Ylisseans. She felt small and defenseless in foreign territory; she had little idea of what new perils awaited outside of Plegia, and she and Henry needed to learn to navigate this strange land and its customs and peoples in order to survive. Though the most rational position to take was to always maintain a healthy level of precaution and suspicion (as Frederick was doing), Chrom and his Shepherds had been very gracious and welcoming—well, most of them, anyways. Trusting them had worked out well for them so far…surely she could allow herself to have a little hope and let herself believe they had allies now?

After all, they were long out of Plegia, far from Validar and the Grimleal's clutches.

"It's alright." Robin forced a shaky smile onto her face. "I just needed a little time to recuperate."

"If you say so," Chrom said, giving her a look that very plainly stated that he did not fully believe her.

Well, if anything, there was Chrom. Kind, unassuming Chrom who had been nothing but supportive in the little time they had known each other, and his sweet sister Lissa, too.

And Henry, of course. They had been together through thick and thin, with Mustafa and without, and Robin was so grateful to have him by her side. He slotted his hand through hers, and she understood the silent message behind his cheery smile. "Ready when you are!" he exclaimed.

"I think I am." Robin held his hand tightly as Chrom took the lead to the barracks.

They entered the second gateway into the courtyard with the beautiful rolling green lawn; a large flower bed of blue and yellow irises shaped like the mark on Chrom's shoulder dominated its centre, with neatly kept hedges separating the grass from the pavement. More of the blue and green banners Robin saw at the castle's entrance lined the walls of the colonnades enclosing the lawn. Servants were laying out immature potted flower buds of some kind in the same blue and yellow scheme as the central flower bed, sure to bloom beautifully in the months to come. The castle itself was of the same white stone Robin had seen from the bridge, its blue roofing far more lustrous up close, and the glass windows—glass!—set into its façade shone like bright jewels in the sun.

Everything was so marvelous that it seemed taken straight from the stories Mustafa used to tell around the campfire. Robin resisted the urge to pinch herself, allowing herself the luxury of feeling as amazed as she was back in Zuhsa.

They turned a corner into a long passageway lined with torch brackets and manned by armoured guards, who all saluted smartly at the sight of Chrom, Lissa, and Frederick. Emerging back into the light, they came across another courtyard housing a smaller lawn and two adjoined buildings of roughly the same make, but of different size; though composed of a pale greyish brickwork that looked older than the rest of the castle's white stone, one was smaller and lower. A brief whiff told Robin that the stables were right behind those buildings.

"Here we are," Chrom announced proudly. "The Shepherds' barracks."

"I can't wait to introduce everyone to you guys!" Lissa squealed.

Robin managed a shaky smile in response. Henry squeezed her hand again, and they followed the siblings to the smaller structure's doors.

Just then, a page sprinted quickly across the lawn, calling Chrom's name. Skidding to a stop, the sweaty, panting boy haltingly explained that Exalt Emmeryn had just arrived at the castle—and that she had requested Chrom's presence in her audience chamber as soon as possible.

"I'll be there at once," Chrom promised. He took a step forward, but then, remembering their guests, turned back to Henry and Robin with a torn expression. "It's…Emm's here."

Robin shook her head. "It's fine. Your sister called for you."

"You sure?"

"Y-yeah. Don't worry about us. We have Lissa here for us."

"I just hope she remembers to take care of you!" The corners of Chrom's lip quirked up into a slight grin when Lissa stuck out her tongue in reply. He waved a short goodbye as he followed the page to the castle's main ward, with Frederick trailing closely behind.

It's going to be fine, Robin mentally steeled herself as the doors were opened. Lissa's here. It's fine. Lissa's here and so is Henry, and she's just going to introduce us to the Shepherds. Sully is a Shepherd. Wait. What if she's here? She's obviously not too happy about us, so her being here would most likely mean that she told everyone else about us. Stop it, Robin. It's going to be fine. Lissa and Henry are here and everything will be just fine and you have to calm down, just calm down and everything will be fine and nothing bad will happen because you're just overthinking and jumping to bad conclusions as usual—

"Welcome to the Shepherd's garrison!" Lissa crowed. "Go on. Make yourselves at home!"

The interior looked roomier than its exterior appearance suggested: the ceiling was a tall, pointed barrel vault that gave the place an airy feel; large circular windows high up at each end of the building allowed light to pass through along with smaller windows set into recesses in the walls at human height. Below the window at the end was a large map of the continent, neatly stacked crates and burlap bags of some kind pushed up against the wall, and a hefty console desk holding up a fastidiously detailed diorama of the same map. A few doorways—one next to the map, two on the leftmost wall, and one on the right—were set into the walls in a similar fashion to the windows. Some cabinets were organised in equal number along the walls as well, and three tables with matching seating arranged at the centre of the barracks.

Two women were seated at one of the tables and speaking very quietly: one had very long ashen curls and a sweet winged hairpin perched on her half ponytail, but, curiously enough, her hair was mussed and full of straw. Perhaps she was from the stables, though it was hard to discern more as she had her back to the entrance. The other woman was dressed in rather expensive-looking frilly pink finery, and her blonde hair was arranged into thick, tight ringlets framing her face. Large white bows on either side of her head completed the impression of a noblewoman with tastes leaning heavily towards the fanciful.

As she was facing the doorway, the blonde was the first to spot their entry. "Lissa!" She shot up and sent her chair skidding back with a loud screech, running straight to the princess and crashing into her with a strong hug. "My treasure!"

"Oh hey, Maribelle!" Lissa returned the gesture with equal vigour.

Maribelle pulled back from their embrace, red-faced and spluttering. "'Oh hey' yourself! I've sprouted 14 gray hairs fretting over you!"

"Aw, you worry too much."

"I wo—Lissa! Here I am, absolutely frantic over your wellbeing as we watched a wildfire rage all the way from here, and you say that my worrying is excessive?"

"Cheer up! It could've been way worse."

"Short of you telling me that you had to do battle in that fire, or that you were accosted by rogues, or attacked by wild animals, then I fail to see how that is supposed to be of any consolation."

"Well, that would be two out of three you got there—"

"LISSA!"

"Aw, Mari." The princess pouted and shifted her hands to hold Maribelle's waist. "You know me! I can handle a battle or two! Although I could do without the bugs and the bear barbecue…" she muttered that last sentence under her breath.

"Don't you worry your pretty little head, Miss Maribelle!" Vaike swaggered his way to them and swung his muscular arms over their shoulders. Maribelle looked distinctly displeased with his presence and gingerly removed his hand with a scoff. "They'd have had a rougher time out there if it weren't for ol' Teach and his trusty axe!"

"Oh, so you're "Teach" now, Vaike, is that it? Hee hee! And here I thought people were just born lacking wits. It can be taught?" Lissa giggled.

Vaike laughed heartily. "Ha! Never doubt the Vaike!...Wait, was that an insult?"

"Beg pardon, but when might we see the captain?"

The soft, hesitant voice belonged to the lady with the winged hairpin. Her brown eyes flickered uncertainly between Lissa, Maribelle, and Vaike, only for her to quickly lower her gaze to the ground when Robin and Henry looked back at her. Her gloved hands moved in a perpetually fretful motion, and Robin felt a bit sorry for the young woman.

Maribelle sighed. "Poor Sumia. She's simply been beside herself with concern...her eyes were scanning the horizon all day during training. She might have earned fewer bruises fighting blindfolded."

A distinctly cat-like grin curled the edges of Lissa's mouth. "Aw, Sumia, that's so sweet of you to worry about Chrom," she teased.

Pink bloomed across Sumia's pale face, colouring every inch of her skin until not even the middle of her neck was spared from her obvious embarrassment. "Worry? Well, I...he's our captain and our prince—of course I'd worry!"

Sumia's stammering suggested that her interest in Chrom lay far beyond mere loyalty.

"So!" Maribelle's ringlets tossed spiritedly in the air as she snapped her head forward (a rather intimidating motion if Robin said so herself) to inspect the pair of newcomers. "Might I ask who these strangers are?"

Lissa beamed. "Allow me to introduce Robin and Henry! They just joined the Shepherds. You should see all the tricks they've got up their sleeves!"

Maribelle sized them up in a manner not dissimilar to an elegant crane deciding that certain prey was far too meagre and poor to be worth its time. "Oh? Chrom made them Shepherds?"

"Yup!" Vaike produced an enormous wineskin seemingly from out of nowhere, popping it open and offering it to everyone, inadvertently sloshing part of its contents over his hand. "I say that's cause for celebration, so drink up, everyone! It's been a while since we got some fresh blood in the mix."

Sumia scuttled away to procure small silver cups, lest Vaike spill more than they could drink, and took it upon herself to serve the small group. Thankfully, she poured a reasonable amount for them all. Vaike decided to chug straight from the skin; Maribelle wrinkled her nose and moved away, lest stray droplets from Vaike's boorish gulping stain her fine pink and white clothes.

"What about him?" Robin asked. She was referring to a very tall, thickset man who had been sitting in the corner the entire time. He kept to himself and made little noise, so little that one would have thought no one was there, and he was engaged in whittling some small wooden animal of some sort.

Surprised, the man lifted his soft, doughy face from his work and pointed to himself. "You…talking about me?"

"Yes? Why wouldn't I be?"

The man blushed bashfully. "Well…no one seems to pay much attention, so I just mind my own business and try not to get in anyone's way."

"Ah! Kellam!" Vaike grinned widely, seemingly haven completely forgotten that he had been totally unaware of the man's presence until Robin had pointed him out. "Just in time! C'mon and get over here for a drink."

"T-thank you…"

Kellam joined their group and waited patiently for Sumia to fetch him his own cup. When she finished pouring him wine, he whispered his thanks and took a tiny sip. The group then fell into an awkward silence.

"I have to ask about your…qualifications for having made the cut." Maribelle eyed Robin and Henry critically. Frowning. She peered closer at Robin's face in an attempt to discern her features, but thankfully, the robe prevented further scrutiny. "As Vaike so eloquently put it, our last recruitment was some time ago."

Robin sipped nervously at her wine. "Uh…funny you should ask that…"

"What was that? Speak up! I can hardly hear you under that enormous hood."

"I, uh—"

"We found her passed out in a field," Lissa answered in Robin's stead. "It was so weird, too! She was all banged up so we took her in and patched her up at the border post, but then we saw that Southtown was on fire because some bandits crossed over! Lucky for us that Robin knew exactly what to do and helped us kick their butts!" She pumped the air excitedly and spilled a bit of her wine, much to Maribelle's chagrin. "And then in the forest—wow! Like I said, she and Henry really know their stuff!"

"You say that now Lis, but can they do this?" Vaike let rip with the loudest, longest burp Robin had ever heard. Henry cackled with laughter.

"I'm sure I have much to learn in the belching arts, 'Teach.' In any case, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintances," Robin said.

Unfortunately, it seemed as though that was the wrong answer: Maribelle's reaction was nothing short of indignant. "Ugh, Vaike! That was abhorrent! Must you baseborn oafs pollute even the air with your buffoonery?" She turned to Robin with a fiery disapproval in her ruby-red eyes. "And you, Robin! Don't encourage him! I had hoped you two were cut from finer cloth." Tossing her beribboned head back with a loud sniff, she marched herself out of the garrison in a humph.

Robin visibly deflated. She had thought that, in the absence of Sully's animus, then perhaps she and Henry had a better chance of getting along with the other Shepherds. But now it seemed as though there was another entry to the list of people who were anything but happy with their presence.

A tentative hand on her shoulder startled her into looking up, meeting Sumia's shy, concerned gaze. "Don't take it to heart, Robin. Maribelle warms to people slowly."

"Or burns too quickly! Hee hee! But yeah, just give her time," Lissa added.

Well. If there was a list of unhappy people…then there was also a list of sympathisers. Robin's heart unclenched significantly at the thought.

The doors opened again to reveal Chrom and Frederick, with an armed escort keeping close pace with them. He waved genially and walked leisurely to the group. "Glad to see you're all getting acquainted here!"

Sumia's face burst into flame at the sight of Chrom, and her previously gentle and comforting demeanour took a turn for the bumbling and flustered. Robin was amazed at the sudden change. "Ah! Captain! You've returned! I was—I mean, we were so—"

In her haste to greet Chrom, poor Sumia pitched too far forward, her foot catching on a raised corner of flagstone and sending her plummeting face first into the floor. Chrom immediately raced to see that she had not hurt herself, with Henry helping him to pull her up. "Sumia! Are you all right?"

"I-I-I—"

"Those boots of yours again?"

"No! I mean yes! I mean—" she stopped herself mid sentence and heaved a heavy sigh.

"Whew! That was a super close call," Henry said mildly as he dusted her off. "Once I saw that happen to a guy, and he fell so hard that his nose smashed into his skull and bits of it went into his brain and he died."

Sumia's mouth fell agape at how casually Henry recounted such a gruesome story. Swallowing nervously, she looked around questioningly at the members of their small group, blanching just the tiniest bit when Lissa merely shrugged and shook her head at her. "I…thank you, Henry…?"

"Oh, don't mention it," he replied cheerfully. "I'm just glad to see that you're a-okay!" He suddenly leaned in closely to Sumia's face, prompting a frightened squeak from her, and he gave three quick sniffs at her hair.

"Is…something wrong?" she ventured timidly.

Henry inhaled a long, drawn-out breath. "You smell like a horse." Sumia sputtered and Lissa stifled a snort at his bluntness. "And you've got horsehair on your clothes." He plucked a long, thin white tendril off her chest, prompting a new blush on her face at his touch. "Do you have a horse?"

"W-why yes, I do, but I also take care of several. I'm a Pegasus Knight, so my mount is a pegasus."

Henry's face split into a wide, enchanted smile. "Wow! A real live pegasus? I like horses, but I've never seen a pegasus before! Can you take me to see them soon?"

"Henry, you mustn't pressure her like that when you've just met—" Robin chided him gently.

"Pleaaaaaaaaaaaaaase?" he begged.

"It's fine, Robin." Sumia, though bemused by Henry's quirky, morbid nature, was able to compose herself quickly enough, gratified to be discussing her line of work. "Not a lot of people seem to be interested in the pegasi beyond the pageants and the aerial exercises, so I'd be very happy to take him for a look some time."

"Yaay! Thank you, Sumia!" Henry grasped her hands and jumped excitedly in place.

She blushed again. "Y-you're welcome."

Chrom cleared his throat. He was clearly amused by the exchange and grinned widely. "Although I'm very glad to see everyone is getting along well so far, I'm afraid I have to interrupt. You can come meet Emmeryn now: she has requested your presence."

 

 

                                                                                             

 

 

Robin gulped for the thousandth time as she and Henry were led by Chrom, Frederick, and Lissa to the throne room where Exalt Emmeryn received audiences. What she had seen so far of the castle's interior was just as grand, if not more so, than its grounds; however, contrary to the exterior white stones, the building blocks inside seemed to have faded into warm, buttery earth tones. The flooring was tiled into charming patterns of flowers and pegasi statant. Light streamed in from the tall windows set high up above them; at the end of the hall was an enormous stained glass window that shone in rainbows and threw shards of jewelled light onto the floor. Below it lay an enormous, intricately carved doorway guarded by a pair of statues of warrior women, and a small troop of guardswomen dressed in similar costume to the statues awaited them.

"Exalt Emmeryn will be seeing you now," one of them announced, "but animals are not allowed entry."

"What animals?" Chrom asked.

The guard pointed to Henry. He guiltily produced Neferi, who had been cleverly hidden in the recesses of his cape, and pouted.

Lissa cooed to the dog and scratched her ears delightedly. "Aw, I was wondering where you went! Such a cutie!" She happily accepted Neferi's kisses, to Frederick's exasperation.

"Why can't she come?" Henry whined.

"Rules are rules," was the guard's cool response.

Chrom intervened on Henry's behalf. "Please make an exception for the time being. She can be carried in so she won't make a mess, and I promise that we'll remove her if she begins to fuss. And besides, I don't think Emmeryn will mind much."

Frederick began to protest. "Milord, protocol must be followed in accordance—"

The doors opened a smidgeon to reveal another guard peeking through. "Her Grace said she heard her brother at the doors. We are to let him in at once," she said.

The first guard sighed. "Fine then. But the dog stays with the boy—carried."

"Thank you, scary lady!" Henry waved back to her as they were led into the throne room.

"You're welco—what?"

A viewing gallery for those who wished to look in on the proceedings had been built above the entrance—no wonder! The throne room was made to receive large audiences, and was the very picture of magnificence. Twelve banners much like the ones Robin had seen outside lined the twelve columns standing between the entrance and the dais at the end of the room, all a bright leaf green stitched with real gold, and emblazoned with what was obviously Naga at their head. The carpet was a lush, rich pomegranate red, and led directly to the dais housing the throne where Exalt Emmeryn sat.

Robin's stomach dove, turned flips, and somersaulted as they approached the dais. Her heart went back to her throat and blocked the passage of air. This felt so much worse than her initial fears of meeting the Shepherds—they were about to be greeted by the ruler of Ylisse and the leader of Naga's faith. She had heard nothing but evil things about this woman on the few occasions Validar deigned to mention her at all: his hatred for Gangrel paled in comparison to what he felt for Emmeryn. So great was his loathing for the Exalt that the mere mention of her name would send him into a cold, fearsome fury that Robin had only witnessed once, and never wanted to see ever again.

"Say that whore's name again," Validar had pronounced icily to the unlucky general who had merely been reporting on the then child's ascension to Ylisse's throne, "and I promise you that it will be the last thing you hear."

Robin had heard the Exalt being named directly more times this week alone than she had in the 16 years that passed after that incident. And now, they would meet face to face.

Why was the robe so silent? It had been infuriatingly chatty and obnoxious crossing the damned desert; it had screeched obscenities and sang annoying songs into her ears and muttered nasty things at the Midmire and it had helped her tap into a great and strange inner power in the forest battle against the Risen. But she had not heard a single peep from it from the moment they set foot in Palenorda. As much as she had wish it would have shut up before, Robin felt far more anxious without its running commentary keeping her company.

Hey, she mentally nudged it again. Something the matter?

Total silence on its end.

Please don't ignore me.

Still no response.

Fine. Have it your way.

Heavily armed guards stood watch right before the dais, lowering their lances in a perfectly timed salute as Chrom and Lissa approached. Their uniforms were blue and burnished bronze and silver, and their helmets intimidating visored creations with wings extending from the head down to their jaws. A lady Robin assumed was their superior, as she was dressed in a manner similar to theirs, watched attentively from her post by the throne. She was a formidable looking woman with powder blue hair pulled back into a severe bun and a white and gold eyepatch covering her scarred left eye socket. Her remaining eye never left Robin and Henry.

Exalt Emmeryn was a vision of pure radiance. Her hair was the same blonde shade as Lissa's, but instead of the winsome, haphazard pigtails that her sister preferred, Emmeryn's was coiffed into two perfectly arranged curls. They enhanced the golden glow of the headdress perched at the back of her head, and the effect was such that Robin thought she was looking at a sunbeam.

"My dearest siblings!" Emmeryn extended her arms open in warm greeting. "Welcome back home."

Lissa practically threw herself into her sister's arms with loud cries of happiness, and babbled away over this and that. Though Chrom had previously greeted her before, he had no problem crossing the steps of the dais to enclose them both in a tight hug, and Emmeryn kissed his cheek softly and ran her hand through his hair.

Seeing them all so affectionate with one another made Robin's stomach hurt.

Lissa pulled back and turned to the newcomers with a wide grin. "Emm! I don't know how much Chrom told you, but they're Robin and Henry! Chrom decided to make them Shepherds."

Robin had grown somewhat accustomed to the pulsing, tingling sensation in her Marked hand whenever Lissa and Chrom were nearby…but with the addition of Emmeryn's presence, it turned into a strong, full-bodied hum that buzzed in her ears. The regal woman's forehead bore the same icon that her brother's right bicep did, and now Robin was completely certain that they too were Marked people. Dragon's blood ran through their veins just at it did hers. Just like the robe had said before.

With Naga's blood.

Emmeryn regarded Robin and Henry with a vague, gentle smile on her lips, but did not reply to her sister. Robin was torn between feeling sick with something—fear? uncertainty?—over meeting the Exalt of Ylisse in the flesh, and feeling awed that such a celestial being was in fact a mortal. This was the lady that Chrom and Lissa had heaped endless praises on, and she certainly looked like the saint they made her out to be.

Robin suddenly choked on a wordless gasp—something was probing deep inside her heart. Whatever it was searching for, Robin could not tell, but the sensation was a terrifyingly unwelcome one. Robin was frozen in place, helpless to do anything as whatever it was rummaged around inside her.

"Robin? What's wrong?" she heard someone say, distantly.

The robe reacted for the first time since entering Ylisstol, forcefully pushing the intruding presence out with a snarl. Curiously enough, the thing, whatever it was, did not seem to take it very personally, lingering for a moment before bowing out.

Sucking in a big gulp of much-welcomed air, Robin noticed that all eyes were on her; Lissa and Chrom looked very worried, while Frederick and the guards regarded her warily.

Emmeryn, strangely enough, did not look very concerned or suspicious at all, her smile widening ever so slightly. Robin had little time to dwell on the oddity of her reaction, but shelved her doubts on it for later. "I'm f-f-fine," she lied. "I—I just haven't had anything to drink in a while and I'm afraid I'm feeling a bit faint."

"We'll get you something right away," Chrom promised. He bade a guard to fetch a servant from the kitchens for them.

"I am sorry that you're feeling unwell." Emmeryn's voice was soft and sweet, smooth and deeply pleasing to the ear. "Please, let me help, if at least to soothe some of your discomfort." She began to stand from the throne.

"Your Grace—" the blue-haired guard started.

"It's quite alright, Phila. Don't worry."

Phila, relenting, stood aside and kept careful watch as Emmeryn leaned heavily on the recover staff she evidently used as a scepter, raising herself to her full height. She began a somewhat laboured walk down the dais steps to where Robin and Henry stood.

She only had one leg.

"Chrom told me a little bit about you two," Emmeryn intoned in that calm, careful voice of hers. "But I daresay that what I did hear was quite intriguing." She raised her hand to Robin's throat and pressed down lightly on her skin. Though Robin had lied over the cause of her little episode, whatever magic Emmeryn used on her did, in fact, soothe her parched throat somewhat and cleared some of the pain that had settled into her stomach. "It has been some time since their latest recruitment."

"That's what Vaike said!" Henry piped up.

Emmeryn's brilliant green eyes slid to him. Her attention prompted him to fall into a bashful, even nervous silence. "I do seem to recall him calling himself 'Teach.' He was ever so excited about welcoming new members to the Shepherds. I think that he will be very happy to have, ah, new 'students.'"

"Emm," Lissa groaned, "please don't encourage him."

"Why not?"

"It's not that he's bad at being Teach, it's just that he gets super insufferable about it."

Emmeryn laughed; the sound was rather like the peal of a new bell. "I thought those kinds of complaints were reserved for Frederick's level of fastidiousness."

The throne room broke out into boisterous laughter at the man's expense, and Robin finally felt herself relax. Whatever it was that happened before felt long forgotten, and it was reassuring to see that Emmeryn had a sense of humour about her. She was beginning to trust the woman a little bit.

"I see that all my efforts and my position are well-rewarded," Frederick grumbled.

"Cheer up, Fred!" Lissa was doubled over, wheezing and teary eyed. "Sometimes you need to get knocked down a few pegs."

"How very kind of you, milady."

Emmeryn watched over the scene with an expression of obvious pleasure. Why did Robin feel so afraid of her before? She was the very picture of warmth and kindness that her siblings painted on their way to Ylisstol. "Well! I'm very glad to see everyone has fared well on their journey. Robin, Henry."

The two stood attentively, waiting to hear what Emmeryn had to say to them. Henry bounced Neferi in his arms with anxious energy.

"It sounds as though Ylisse owes you a debt of gratitude. Our people are safe thanks to your help." She stepped closer and placed her hand under Neferi's chin. "It is my hope that Chrom will make fine Shepherds out of you."

Stunned, Robin dropped into a jerky, awkward bow, prompting Henry to do the same. "T-thank you, Em—Your Grace."

Still sporting that gentle, secretive smile of hers, Emmeryn inclined her head ever so slightly in response. "The pleasure is all mine. But I am afraid I have to take my leave now." She reached her hand out to her brother. "Chrom. We are about to hold council. I was hoping you could join us."

"Of course." He held his arm out to her so that she could lean on him.

"Lissa," Emmeryn added.

The tiny blonde perked up at the mention of her name. "Yeah, Emm?"

"Be a dear and do show our newest Shepherds around, would you? It wouldn't do for them to get lost. I'm sure you'll be the perfect guide."

Lissa gasped. "Oh my gods! Yes!" She ran up to her sister for another tight hug, which was gladly reciprocated. "I won't let you down Emm! I promise to be the best castle tour guide ever!" Dashing over to Robin and Henry, she pulled them with her without so much as the slightest chance to say proper goodbyes. "Come on! There are so many places I have to show you guys!"

 

 

                                                                                                       

 

 

Emmeryn chuckled as she watched her lively younger sister practically drag the newest additions to the Shepherds away. Such youthful excitement was always such a sight to behold, and she hoped Lissa would always retain her joyful spirit.

Those two were certainly mysterious…but Robin presented the biggest mystery of all, shrouded in that dark, foreboding robe of hers. Emmeryn was thoroughly intrigued, wondering what exactly lay under that robe and what it would take to uncover the secrets she undoubtedly carried with her.

But, first things first.

"Shall we?" she prompted Chrom. He nodded in understanding and helped her patiently. Though she was able to get around on her own with her staff, having to rest her weight on her remaining leg did get tiring at times, and she was always grateful for the extra help. Stairs presented the biggest challenge.

Phila, Frederick, and her pegasus knights followed after them, with the latter fanning out to form the protective formation they maintained at all times when she was on the move. They exited the throne room after Lissa's small troop and began their trip to the council room.

"Forgive me, Your Grace, but I must speak," Frederick finally burst out as they crossed the gardens to reach the castle's upper ward. "Robin and Henry claim to have lost their memories, but it is only that: a claim. We cannot rule out the possibility that they are brigands themselves or even Plegian spies."

"Frederick!" Chrom rebuked him.

"Milord, with all due respect, you need to consider the facts. They crossed over from Plegia, as did the bandits who attacked Southtown. Why, with that hair of his, Henry is undeniably Plegian."

"So what if they are?" Chrom challenged him, terse. "They fought bravely against those bandits in defense of Southtown, and they fought again in the forest. They helped keep Ylisse safe."

"Be as it may, it still does not negate the fact that they crossed the border."

"Look, I know we need to keep a closer watch on the borders, but we're stretched out thin as we are with so little Shepherd membership. And we don't want to antagonise Plegia further by amassing our official standing military forces at their doorstep."

"Forgive me, milord." Phila bowed her head apologetically. "My pegasus knights should have intercepted them."

Chrom waved away her concerns. "No, Phila. Your duties were here, with the Exalt."

Emmeryn listened to them all very closely before adding her own thoughts to the conversation. "You claim to be so wary of them, Frederick, yet you allowed them into the castle."

"I…" Frederick turned pale when Emmeryn pointed that out. "Forgive me, Your Grace."

"As did you, Chrom." She regarded her brother carefully, wanting to see how he reacted. "In spite of acknowledging Frederick's worries, and perhaps even validating them a bit. Do those two have your trust?"

Chrom fell silent. He squared his jaw tensely and lowered his gaze to the floor, thinking hard about his response. Though Emmeryn loved that he was always so open, so eager to befriend the people that he came across, his naïvité had hurt him more than once. She prayed that this would not end up becoming one of those moments.

"They risked their lives for our people. That's good enough for me," he finally said, resolute.

Emmeryn beamed. "Well then…it seems they have earned your faith, and as such, they have mine as well."

"Milady!" Frederick was rendered aghast by her judgement.

"But thank you, Frederick, for your prudence, as always. Chrom and Lissa are blessed to have so tireless a guardian. I do hope they remember to mention that from time to time…"

Frederick sighed and rolled his eyes ever so slightly, the closest display of informality they ever managed to see in him. "They occasionally express something akin to gratitude, Your Grace."

The day was a pleasant one. The gardens hummed and buzzed with life in the sun, bees and butterflies beginning to be sighted once more now that the snow had begun its retreat, and the scent of flowers filled the air. Emmeryn felt a bit sorry that she could not stay outside longer, if at least to enjoy the sight for a little more. But duties were duties.

"Phila." Frederick's tone shifted to something far more serious as they approached the council room. "I assume you've heard about the deathly creatures we encountered, yes?"

"Yes, milord. They've been sighted all across Ylisse," she assented.

Frederick swore under his breath. "Only a day of having seen them ourselves, and now we learn that they have spread across the halidom."

"All the better for you to present your findings at the council," Emmeryn pronounced. "As Chrom asserts that Robin holds knowledge on how to defeat those things, then their cooperation is of utmost importance. Perhaps their arrival, and the sudden appearance of those 'Risen' as Chrom said they are called, is no mere coincidence."

It was time to see whether her guesswork about Robin proved to be correct.

 

 

                                                                                                 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

                                                                                       

 

"Okay, so like, I know I promised you guys that I'd give you the grand tour, but I also want to introduce you to the rest of the Shepherds." Lissa slurped noisily at her cider, a sweet and slight salty concoction that Robin took an immediate liking to. A servant had intercepted them with a trayful at the entrance of the audience room, and the little group was now huddled around, sipping their refreshing drinks. "So is it alright if I can try to do both today? The place is waaaaay too big to explore in a single day, and maybe the others are busy or out of the castle right now, but I'd like to try if it's alright with you two."

Henry smacked his lips when he finished his drink. "Sounds good to me! What about you, Robbie?"

Though she was still nervous over her less than stellar encounters with Sully and Maribelle, Emmeryn's warm reception put her more at ease. Robin shrugged nonchalantly. "I think it sounds fine. Lead the way, Lissa."

"Great!" the blonde princess cheered. "Since you've already met Chrom, me, Vaike, Sully, Frederick, Maribelle, and Sumia, we're only missing Stahl, Cordelia, Libra, Miriel, Panne, and Ricken."

"We've met Kellam, too," Robin reminded her gently.

"Hm? Oh yeah, Kellam too. Anyways—Miriel's the easiest to find. If she's not in the library, then she's in the mages' lab, usually with Ricken. And sometimes Libra's with her, on account of them being married and all."

Robin and Henry followed Lissa up a very narrow, winding staircase that led directly to the viewing gallery above the audience hall. The view they had was excellent, allowing them to see practically every nook and cranny of the place. Behind them were large windows outfitted with thick glass panes, giving them a slightly warped look outside, but not so warped that they could not see the beautiful green lawn from before. Lissa vaguely gestured to the entrances on either sides/ends(?) of the gallery with a brief statement about

how they led further inside the castle, before taking them down another narrow staircase and out of the main building.

"The lawn and the gardens were designed by my great-grandmother, Queen Yda," Lissa informed them. She pointed out the several varieties of plants and flowers, and how each bloomed at certain points of the year, so that the castle would never look barren. They passed a fountain of pegasi taking flight that was apparently a gift from Regna Ferox. Finally, a small courtyard guarded by an ash tree led to the massive library doors.

Inside, the pleasant smell of old books and wood filled their nostrils. Robin admired how warm it all looked, with sunlight streaming in through the tall windows much like the audience room and the hall before it, and the rich colour of carefully maintained bookshelves and desks. The sound of quiet bustling and pages turning as the library's visitors read or searched for particular texts was soothing. Robin noted that Ylissean books resembled tomes; back in the Grimleal's base, multi-paged texts were strictly used as magic tomes, meant to be accessed and carried with ease, whilst religious, military and academic subjects that required long periods of reading and introspection were designed as scrolls.

Lissa motioned for the two to keep close to her. "Follow me and keep quiet," she whispered. Henry immediately sucked in a dramatic breath, to which Robin put a stop to by yanking on his ear with a pointed look. She motioned for him to hide Neferi as well. They trailed Lissa as she wove in between the bookshelves, searching this way and that until she came across Miriel and Libra huddled over an enormous book.

It was hard to tell who was who at first glance—both had a rather feminine look to them—until Lissa spoke. "Hey you two!" she accidentally exclaimed, then clapped her hand over her mouth sheepishly as the loud echo of her voice carried over to the deepest recesses of the library; the redhead of the pair shot her a brief, censorial look. "A lot has happened over the past few days but the gist of it is that we made new friends while we were out and Chrom wants to make them Shepherds," Lissa said more quietly. "This is Robin, and he's Henry."

The redhead nodded in understanding. "So we have heard. The news travelled fast upon your arrival. We are glad to see you returned safely after the great quake." Leaning slightly forward to stand, Robin spied a small, but noticeable pregnancy bump, and was so focused on it that she nearly missed Henry shaking her in order to pay attention. "I am Miriel," the redhead stated. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"And I am Libra. Better known as Miriel's husband." The blond smiled slightly when Henry snorted at his little joke (to which a passing library patron responded by shushing them).

"Libra is one of our head priests. And Miriel one of our top mages. Or at least they used to be before they decided to abandon us," Lissa pouted and sniffed.

"Why, we are certainly not abandoning you—" Miriel said.

"Aw Miriel, you know what I mean—"

"—and our decision to withdraw from castle life stems not from any sort of perceived desire to eschew yours and Chrom's presence, or of disapprobation towards castle life itself, but rather because we have, after careful research and deliberation, concluded that the countryside presents a restful and harmonious environment to raise a potential child in compared to that of the urb. In addition, our leave does not mean a renunciation of our Shepherd duties or even of Libra's title or my practice: as you know, the establishment of a school and orphanage to service needy children in the areas unable to access Ylisstol's resources has been Libra's ambition since we have known him, and I believe my talents would be of great use to Ylisse's youth. As such, while we understand that you are feeling overwrought over our future departure, we can assure you that it does not constitute an abandonment. Please feel free to visit and initiate a chain of correspondence."

Robin gaped slightly in amazement. Did Miriel not feel even the tiniest bit out of breath after such a burst of…verbosity?

"Wow Miriel!" Henry laughed (and was shushed again). "I don't think I understood half of that, but I guess it means you're super smart!"

Lissa giggled. "Yeah, she always did sound like she swallowed a dictionary! The Shepherd's resident genius–that's Miriel for you!"

"Your flattery is kind," Miriel responded in that curiously academic tone of hers.

"So these are our newest recruits?" Libra's inquiry sounded polite enough, but Robin detected a flash of suspicion from him as his eyes settled onto the patterns on the sleeves of her robe. She gulped nervously.

Lissa grinned widely. "Yeah! We'll tell you guys the whole story over supper, but they were amazing against some bandits that crossed the border from Plegia, and then against these super scary monsters called Risen in the forest!"

Miriel, adjusting her spectacles, raised a brow questioningly. "I daresay that we are all rather intrigued over their origins; it has been some time since Ricken was inducted into our ranks, and our members so far have all been Ylisseans of previous acquaintance. In light of that, it is most curious indeed, as they are complete strangers whose qualifications we have yet to assess ourselves. Most importantly, Robin's appearance is one of mystery and perhaps of ill-boding, given that rather dark robe, and Henry's ashen hair points to indisputably Plegian stock, and since you mention doing battle with Plegian brigands—"

Lissa gulped. "Ahaha, would you look at the time! We'd love to stay and chat some more, but I did promise our new recruits a tour of the castle! So if you two will, uh, excuse us, we gotta go now! Byeee!"

The princess yanked Robin and Henry out the library at an impressive speed, ignoring the library patrons who came forth once again to hush them, and rushing out the doors until they were all way past the library and she was thoroughly out of breath.

"Everything all right…?" Robin asked haltingly.

"Y-yeah! Everything's perfect! Just a little behind s-schedule." Lissa's wheezing prompted Henry to rub her back with a cheery 'there there!' Straightening her dress up, she avoided Robin's gaze and beckoned them to her as they continued the tour.

Robin shot Henry a brief glance, but chose to stay silent. He, however, seemed unfazed over Lissa's reaction to Miriel's comments. "Hey Lissa," he said, "if the Shepherds are so important, then how come there're so few of you guys?"

Robin winced at his bluntness. "Henry, that's not a very nice thing to ask!"

"It's okay, Robin," Lissa assured her breezily, her panic seemingly forgotten. "I have to admit, we really oversell the whole 'serve your country' angle, and Fred is especially keen on making us look super prestigious and elite and all, but the thing about having him be our lieutenant with a say in how we operate…means we have a hard entry barrier. And between you guys and me, we also don't have the biggest budget to go on."

Robin was surprised. "I don't quite follow. If Chrom is your leader, and you have backing from Emmeryn herself, then surely that would mean more resources? And more people trying out for positions as Shepherds?"

Lissa pondered over her next words very carefully. She was cautious and deliberate. "We're only a volunteer force and not an 'official' military branch, if you catch my drift. And besides that, I did mention that making the cut is really hard. Frederick is a huge stickler for detail and makes up these incredibly difficult tests, and he has the final say over who gets to join, even if Chrom is our leader. Not only that, but you have to earn his trust for you to be able to be a Shepherd."

"I take it that us becoming Shepherds is impossible then," Robin mused.

Henry laughed, seemingly untroubled by such a thought. "Yeah! When he looks at us, his face turns all funny, like if he smelled something bad."

"Oh you guys, don't worry!" Lissa suddenly embraced them in a tight squeeze. Henry seemed very happy to reciprocate, but Robin was so caught off guard by the gesture from a relative stranger (that is, people who were not Henry, Mustafa, and Noam) that she merely stood still with her arms dangling uselessly by her sides. "I know Freddy is such a killjoy, but I promise he's nice! He's just…very hard to please."

"If that's him being 'nice,' then I'd hate to see him in a bad mood," Robin groused.

"We like you just fine, so I don't think it'll be too hard to convince him to let you in. And once we do, he'll be singing your praises in no time! Oh, and speaking of nice Shepherds—we're still missing a few introductions!"

The pair followed Lissa dutifully, paying close attention to her running commentary on the various parts of the castle they passed through. They stopped again when they came upon the Shepherds' barracks for the second time that day. Robin, confused, turned to Lissa questioningly.

"Ah…" Lissa grimaced, apologetic. "Sorry guys. I wanted to take you to the stables next, to meet Stahl and Cordelia, but I just remembered that Sumia promised you that tour."

"So…where will we be seeing them? Or are we to wait until later?" Robin asked.

"No no—I actually remembered that they don't spend as much time here as they used to, so that's my bad. You see, they have the cutest little girl, Severa, and since she's old enough to walk and talk now, they've changed their schedules so that they can give her private lessons."

"But surely a castle has more than enough tutors and nurses to help? Since I'm assuming they still have Shepherding duties to attend to."

"We thought they'd want that too, but they say they want to take a more involved and 'hands-on approach' to raising her. Fine by us, but we do miss them on the training grounds from time to time. And with Libra and Miriel having their own baby and leaving us soon…"

Henry's stomach chose that moment to interrupt with an annoyed growl.

Lissa grinned. "I'm feeling a bit peckish myself! Why don't we go to the dining hall for a snack?"

The party retraced their route to the throne room, but instead of heading straight down the hallway, Lissa redirected them to a side archway that led to a cloister. Another fountain cooled the space to the point of chilliness, an effect immediately dispelled once they entered the dining hall.

Robin inhaled the myriad of scents in deep appreciation: roasting meat, baking bread, sun-warmed wood and beer teased her nose and made her mouth water. From the snuffling noises coming from within Henry's cloak, Neferi felt the same. The kitchen was evidently located at the back and separated from the dining area by a fancifully decorated wooden screen, and though the hour was much too late for breakfast and still a bit early for dinner, the hall was still crowded with hungry patrons. Much like the hallway leading to the audience room, as well as the library, light streamed in through grand windows. Having so many glass windows pointed to considerable wealth and impressed Robin.

Lissa gasped, bouncing excitedly and pointing. "Speak of the devil!"

The trio pulled up to a table occupied by two elderly mages in deep conversation and a small family. Stahl had a long, kind face and messy olive hair, but his wife Cordelia was so stunning that her looks alone made Robin feel self-conscious. Though evidently running on fumes from trying to calm down their daughter—bits of shredded paper littered Cordelia's fiery red hair, her tunic was smeared with pencil marks, and her expression was haggard—Robin still felt like a mess in comparison.

"Robin and Henry, huh? We heard about you two the moment you stepped foot in here. Word travels fast in the castle." Stahl's smile was congenial and the hand he stuck out hardened by calluses. Robin stared dumbly before it registered that she was supposed to shake it.

Cordelia, far more cautious than her husband, was slower to present a greeting of her own. "Glad to make your acquaintance. So Chrom wants to make you Shepherds? It's been a while since our last recruit came into the fold," she said, with a slight tinge of suspicion to her words. Her eyes rested on Henry's white hair too long for Robin's comfort.

"Oh, speaking of that!" Lissa smacked her palm with a closed fist. "Have you seen Ricken?"

"Still helping the party committee I'll bet. He's absolutely ecstatic that Chrom gave him the job." Cordelia pulled a face as she attempted to keep Severa still in her lap.

"Aw, that's so sweet to hear! And Panne?"

"She took Yarne to the forest to train or something of the sort in your absence."

A sudden wail from olive-haired Severa distracted everyone. The little girl, none too pleased with having her parents' focus being stolen from her, began to fuss and whine in Cordelia's arms. She pouted and threw down her pencil with a loud "NO!"

Cordelia heaved a mighty sigh and bounced her toddler tiredly. "We were in the middle of teaching her letters and reading in the library, but we had to come here before they kicked us out. She's been like this the whole day." She sighed again as Severa began to shred her worksheets into tiny bits of jagged confetti. "Darling, please don't. Paper doesn't come cheap."

"We usually keep her riding lessons to the afternoon to tire her out and to make sure she sleeps soundly, but at this point it'll be a miracle if we even make it to dinnertime without another tantrum." Stahl reached out to his daughter with a coaxing, wheedling tone. "Come on Sev. You want to sit with daddy?"

"NO! I want Yarne!" Severa shrieked.

"Yarne's out with his mother today, he'll be back soon—"

"I WANT YARNE!" The little girl's face turned red as she began to cry and kick in earnest, earning her a few disapproving and pitying glances from bystanders. Stahl and Cordelia groaned under their breaths as they renewed their efforts to soothe her.

To everyone's surprise, it was Henry who saved the day; handing Neferi off to Robin, he boldly plucked her out of Cordelia's arms, to her absolute astonishment, and swung the little girl around in a wide arc that startled her to the point of silence.

"Hey-o!" Henry said brightly. "What's your name? I'm Henry."

Severa stared at his hair. "…Severa."

"Why so sad, Severa?"

She scowled fiercely in spite of the tears pricking her eyes. "Yarne is gone."

"I bet he's off having an adventure! That sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it? What's your adventure like?"

"'M not having an adventure."

"No? Learning is always super fun! And doing it with your family is even better! I bet that's how Yarne feels right now with his mother. When he gets back he's gonna have a lot to tell you! And you'll have a lot to tell him too, right? About all that you learned today?"

Severa sucked her thumb contemplatively, considering Henry's words with as much care as any toddler could manage. "Yeah."

Henry beamed. "Great! I bet he's gonna be so amazed when you tell him!" He tweaked her nose playfully and deposited her back into Cordelia's arms.

Little Severa stared at her worksheets, concentrating hard, before turning to her parents to ask them, very politely, what they would be covering next. There was a lot she wanted to share with her friend, after all.

"Wow, Henry!" Stahl was completely taken by his daughter's miraculous transformation from screaming hellion to mild-mannered pupil. "That was amazing! You've got to share your tips with us."

"It usually takes quite a lot of effort to calm her down," Cordelia added. Robin detected a hint of jealousy in her eyes.

Henry giggled and winked cheekily. "A magician never reveals his secrets! But if you're nice, I just might make an exception."

Lissa seemed pleased by how much better this introduction seemed to be going—no awkward questions about the mysterious new recruits' background, and a surprise twist to their interactions that put Henry in a very good light with Stahl at least. She flagged down a passing maidservant to fetch them a round of beer and pretzels for a quick toast. "Glad to see we're all getting along! Here's to new Shepherds!"

"To new Shepherds," the group echoed.

Ylissean beer was sweeter than Plegian beer (or at least the variety served back in the skull) and the pretzels were these curiously twisty, thick pieces of bread with a delightfully crunchy crust that hid a chewy and fluffy interior. Robin decided she rather liked them and timidly asked Lissa if she could have some more.

"Have as much as you want!" the princess obliged. "Feel free to have your full of anything."

Stahl wiped a bit of beer foam off his lip and cleared his throat. "So, Lissa," he began, "not to be nosy or anything, but you did mention taking Robin and Henry to meet the rest of the gang. I'm not sure Ricken might be available right now—ever since you left, he's kind of been in the middle of this planning frenzy."

Cordelia sighed yet again. "Oh, Ricken. He's been going on non-stop about the lighting, the food, the dress code for the servants, booking rooms in the castle for the guests—"

Lissa's bright, sunny cheer drained from her face as though a thirsty man was quaffing beer from his stein. "Ah. Rooms, you say?" she squeaked meekly.

"…Yes…? Is everything all right?"

"No it's not!" Lissa clutched at her pigtails in a sudden fit. "I totally forgot!"

"About what, Lissa? What's wrong?" Robin reached for the princess' shoulder tentatively.

"The rooms, Robin, the rooms!" she wailed.

"What about them?"

"We were just so excited about having you guys here that I totally forgot that we don't know where to put you! We need to find Frederick now!" She yanked Robin and Henry out of the hall in a repeat of the library scene, and all the pair could manage to do was wave sheepishly goodbye at Stahl and Cordelia as Lissa raced them away.

"Lis-Lissa! Lissa! Slow down! What's going on?" Robin forcibly braked them to a halt, digging her heels into the tiled flooring and squeezing Lissa's arm.

"Remember when I said that we're having a big festival?"

"Yes, but—"

"Okay, when I meant big, I actually meant huge. Like, enormous. It's been years since we last celebrated it, so now that we have the money and time and energy for it, we went a little crazy planning it, and, uh, the guest list is really nothing to laugh at. I'm being totally serious when I say that the entire city is invited, and a bunch of other people from all over Ylisse, and a lot of Feroxi and Rosannois and some Valmese too! So a lot of people means a lot of lodging is needed. I'll have you know that there aren't any inns with a spare room for miles. And now that you guys are here, we can't just put you in an inn or in the city since we want you to be Shepherds, so you'll need space in the castle, but I don't know if there's any oh gods—"

Robin grabbed her firmly by the shoulders. "Calm down. Everything will be fine."

"Robin, you don't understand." Lissa shook her head; Robin was dismayed to her see eyes had turned teary and her nose twitching with the beginnings of a sniffle. "It's been super stressful enough planning it, but we really, really need more Shepherds. And now that we've found you two, we can't just toss you out just to make room. What kind of people would be be?"

Feeling her heartstrings tugging uncomfortably, Robin tried to comfort the princess as best as she could with an awkwardly short hug, still very much unused to friendly contact that was not with Henry and Mustafa. "You've already done so much for us, so don't feel bad on our account. We'll take the stables if we must."

"I always did like horsie sleepovers," Henry said.

Sighing, Lissa, swept them up in another bone-crushing embrace, leaving Robin wheezing and breathless. "I don't want you to…I'll ask around to see if we've got any space." She brightened up considerably in the blink of an eye. "If we don't, how about you bunk with me?"

"Oooh, that sounds like so much fun, Lissa!" Henry was positively bouncy with joy over the prospect. Robin decided to curb their enthusiasm before they let their ideas get the better of them.

"Let's not get carried away n—"

Lissa had them both by the scruffs of their necks before Robin could finish her sentence. "C'mon! Let's go see if Fred is out of council now!"

Robin, wondering if Lissa's running holds were a habit, resigned herself to yet another run as the princess carted them back to the entrance of the throne room.

As if on cue, Frederick was seeing Emmeryn and the rest of her retinue off, though Chrom was nowhere to be seen. Lissa barrelled into the knight and he sighed with his customary dourness. "Milady, may I remind you that—"

"Hey Fred!" She completely ignored him. "This is super bad on my part, but I just remembered that we haven't thought of where Robin and Henry are gonna stay!"

"Milady, that's—"

"Can they stay in my rooms?"

Frederick shot her down immediately. "Absolutely not."

"Awww, come onnnn. Everyone else already has somewhere else to stay, and all the inns are packed. There's plenty of space for them with me."

"Need I remind you that they are only recent acquaintances? Having them lodge in your quarters, especially as you and your Lord brother are considering to have them join our ranks, would be the height of impropriety."

"Pfffft, everything is improper to you, Fred."

"As they are potential recruits, I have the final say over their status, your feelings on the matter notwithstanding. And as such, I will be enforcing my position and have them be subject to my direct orders—the first of those being to consider staying elsewhere. Do I make myself clear?"

"You wet blanket," Lissa whined and glowered. "Fine. But I'm not tossing them out to the cold, you hear? And since you have the 'final say' over them, then you better take responsibility and help me find them a place to stay while you're at it."

Frederick looked distinctly uninspired with the prospect of having to deal with Robin and Henry more than was obligated, but yielded to Lissa's wishes with nothing more than a thinning of his lips to indicate his displeasure. "As you will it, milady."

"Good. Now let's get a move on! Those rooms aren't going to find themselves you know! Hmm, but it'd be useful if they did…"

The now party of four journeyed to find a vacancy in the castle. As Chrom's second in command, Robin had deduced that Frederick wielded a considerable amount of influence, but to see him so fastidious over its more domestic side was mind-boggling. Wherever they went, he would bark commands at the servants to dust harder, straighten up their uniforms, correct their posture, and even to stop gossiping on the job. His actions were better suited to a castellan rather than a prince's lieutenant.

With Lissa's sunny disposition to take the edge of Frederick's dourness, they practically completed the castle tour simply by going round asking for a vacancy. They questioned the cooks, the servants, the gardeners, the grooms, and even the lesser nobility. Most were apologetic when they informed the small group of their unavailability. The upper classes, however, were positively insulted by the mere suggestion. Some cited an aversion to Neferi. Others claimed to be completely unavailable.

Robin knew that a good deal of it had to do with Henry's visibly Plegian looks.

"Awww man! At this rate, supper time will come, and we still won't have found you guys a room!" Lissa groaned.

"Lissa, please—we're no strangers to camping out," Robin reassured her. "If we must have the stables, or the lawn, or even the pigsties, then we'll take what we can get."

(Truth be told, she was also incredibly anxious of sharing close quarters with the Shepherds, most of whom they had only met that very day, and the negative experiences with Sully and Maribelle were still very fresh in her mind)

Frederick, surprisingly, took Lissa's side on the matter. "As much as I highly disapprove of your consideration for positions as Shepherds, it would simply not do to have possible recruits sleeping out in the open."

"How very kind of you to think so," Robin muttered under her breath.

Lissa gasped as an idea took hold of her! "Oh! Why didn't I think of this before? Let's ask the other Shepherds if they've got room to spare!"

"While that is a sound thought," Frederick said, "I'll have you know I am a man who values his privacy, and thus refuse to volunteer myself on the basis of that principle."

"Way to show your friendly side, Fred."

And so they made their rounds once again to no effect: Libra and Miriel were already sharing their room with Ricken and a couple of monks; Vaike was staying with some guardsmen; Panne, as one of Chrom's bodyguards, kept to his chambers; Kellam and his son Yarne were grouped with Stahl, Cordelia, and Severa; Maribelle haughtily announced her intentions of rooming with Lissa and some other young ladies. Sumia was staying with her fellow pegasus knights and some of the female cavaliers—including Sully.

"No way in hell am I bunking with those two," the redhead had positively snarled. "And if you try and make me then I'm hauling ass all the way to the city limits."

Sumia, distressed by her friend's nasty attitude, apologised timidly before running to catch up with Sully as she stomped away.

"That went well," Robin deadpanned.

Lissa was practically at the end of her wits, with frayed pigtails to match. "I'm really, really sorry, you guys. I didn't think this through and now you're paying for my mistake."

"Well, it's not as though you expected to find us while you were out in the fields. Don't worry yourself on our account," Robin replied as she tentatively patted the the princess on the back. "Like I said; we can always camp out on the lawn. We'll manage fine on our own."

Lissa reached out to hug her again. Is she always this touchy with the others? Robin wondered. She was torn between discomfort at such casual contact and being comforted in light of Sully's repeated hostilities. "But you shouldn't! Since we brought you here, and we want to make you Shepherds—"

"You don't have to."

"But we want to! So since you're here as potential Shepherds, then the least we can do is to treat you accordingly. And that means Shepherd-grade accommodations!"

"Milady," Frederick started, "there is only so much you can do. Short of placing them in the barracks, there is hardly any guarantee of 'Shepherd-grade accommodations' when the castle is struggling to manage such numbers. Now, I am confident I can secure them proper shelter in Ylissto—"

He was interrupted by a loud smack on his armour as Lissa hugged him tightly. "Oh Freddy! You're a genius!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"The barracks are the perfect place to keep them! Why didn't I think of it sooner?"

Frederick was left gaping as Lissa made a mad dash for the barracks. Since all they could do was follow after, Henry shrugged to the knight, all smiles and blithe, as Robin took him by the hand and started jogging.

Frederick's scowl had deepened when they arrived to see Lissa start pushing together chairs for makeshift cots. "Milady, while your enthusiasm and generosity are rather touching, you must remember that this is our meeting area. It simply wouldn't do to have them sleeping underfoot when Chrom is giving the morning report."

Lissa rolled her eyes. "Oh pooh! I'm not going to send them out of the castle, and I won't see them camping on the lawn."

"And what of their privacy? Would you have them stand at attention in their bedclothes? Their personal belongings out on display for all to see? I certainly don't think it's a solution the others would like, and we have to consider their feelings as well."

There was a point to his commentary that stopped Lissa in her tracks as she absorbed his words carefully. Her eyes and mouth widened into perfectly round circles with a small 'ohhhhh.'

Shaking her head ever so slightly under her hood, Robin motioned subtly to Henry in a bid to leave the barracks quietly. They would save the others—and themselves—a lot of time and arguments if they just pitched a tent out somewhere discrete.

"B-but," Lissa began to blubber, "there has to be some place!"

Frederick sighed and began laying out his final speech on the matter. "Lady Lissa, your gesture is quite kind-hearted, but you must accept that there is a limit, sometimes, to what we can accomplish. Take solace in the fact that your efforts have brought you this far. Short of stuffing them into the storage room or the wine cellars, I'm afraid that—"

"Freddy, you've done it again! I really should be listening to you more—here I am, moaning about not knowing what to do, when you've had all the answers from the start!"

The princess positively bounced to the back of the barracks, her step light and her smile cheery. Her words, however, seemed to have broken Frederick a little, and all the poor man could seemingly do was stare at her back with a slightly open mouth.

Lissa threw open the door to the storage room with a flourish…only to be engulfed by a sudden cloud of dust. Robin, Henry, and Frederick ran to her aid, blindly searching around in the grime until they managed to pull her out, and all of them ended up coughing and hacking as though their lungs were attempting a sudden escape.

"Phwah!" Lissa spat. "What the heck?! When's the last time anyone dusted around here?"

Frederick fixed her with a pointed look. "I believe that duty fell upon you, milady, as disciplinary action for certain failures in punctuality. 'Last time' indeed," he said drily.

Henry giggled at her public chastisement, earning himself a pout on her end. "You're supposed to be on my side," Lissa whined under her breath. She cleared her throat. "What's important is that we've finally found them a place to stay in, right? No more talk of having them camp out on the lawn or running around to get them a spot in an inn or the cellars. We're hospitable! So we should prove that we are and make sure our guests stay cozy and comfy!"

Her sentence was punctuated by a loud crash as a veritable avalanche of junk fell over and nearly buried them under centuries' worth of crates, forgotten knick-knacks, and who-knows-what. Robin pulled Henry and the princess back just as a heavy sack tumbled over and hit the floor with a loud thump. An uncomfortable, almost comically so, silence stretched out between them as Lissa peered into the storage room. Even picturing it without its mountains of stuff painted a distinctly old and cramped image; the dust blanketing the room in a brown veil did not improve that impression.

Raising his brow in his customary expression of disapproval, Frederick exhaled sharply. "I do believe that organising our inventory was also part of your past rotation of duties."

Lissa mumbled something unintelligible and scuffed her boots against the floor.

"Well, it's certainly a fixer-upper, but not anything impossible to tackle," Robin reassured them, even though she was not particularly enthused over the storage room herself. It was either this or spending the rest of the day with more doors closing on their faces. Beggars can't be choosers, after all. "With a pair of cots and a lamp or two, why, it'll be much cozier than camping out in the forest on a leaf-bed." Or in a cold desert cave after losing a horse and waiting out the bandits that chased you there.

"Okay then!" Lissa's exuberance was restored almost immediately. She made a grand show of rolling up her sleeves and saluting jauntily. "Let's get to it! We'll bring a mop and and broom, and we can start dusting, and oh! A rug will be nice too, and some pillows and a chair, maybe we can fetch a trunk for your things—"

"If only milady showed this much excitement over clean-up when assigned to her in the first place," Frederick grumbled, but pitched in all the same.

 

 

                                                                                         

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

                                                                               naga

The council meeting did not go as expected. Not to say that it went badly…but the relative lack of interest Emmeryn's cabinet showed over Robin and Henry was surprising.

Chrom told them everything about the events that transpired during his aborted hunting trip. He told them how they discovered Robin in the grass, unconscious and wounded; the questioning she was submitted to at the border post and her taking command of Ylissean troops in Southtown's defense; then their horrific encounter with the Risen in the forest and the awe-inspiring power she had conjured up to defeat the Chief and the skyborne eye controlling it.

(He did not, however, divulge their rather heartfelt conversation in the forest battle's aftermath)

"So you say that Robin and Henry know what these things are and how to defeat them," Minister Emerick said, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes," Chrom confirmed.

Phila added her thoughts to the conversation. "My Pegasus Knights, as well as our sources from the rest of our forces stationed around Ylisse, have informed us of more of those creatures appearing all over the nation. Thankfully, we have received no reports of them attacking anyone so far."

"Any sightings of that eye?"

"None that we are aware of."

The room dissolved into hushed murmurs, the scratch of quills on parchment stalling briefly as Emmeryn's cabinet discussed the news amongst themselves. Emmeryn leaned in closer and nodded every now and then as her ministers took turns whispering to her. Chrom, nervous, swallowed slightly as he watched from the other end of the table. He hoped that this would not mean some sort of punishment for Robin and Henry…Frederick's repeated warnings of possible treachery notwithstanding.

"You are dismissed, Chrom." Emmeryn smiled at him from her seat at the head of the table.

He blinked, confused. "Uh…is that all?"

"Yes." Her smile widened and the corners of her eyes crinkled. "Unless there is something else you would like to say?"

"N-no…"

"Alright then. I suggest you take some time to rest and freshen up before tonight's banquet."

After the meeting, a wonderful feast had been prepared to welcome them home, featuring delicacies such as lamb and chicken smothered in honey, spring greens, and barley porridge thickened with milk and almonds. Emmeryn watched serenely as the hall filled with chatter and laughter over the sounds of eating. Musicians playing flutes and lutes and drums added to the din.

As happy as Chrom was to be back in Ylisstol with his friends, he only picked half-heartedly at his food and barely listened to the Shepherd's conversation. His mind kept wandering back to Robin and Henry: citing travel-weariness, they settled themselves in the barracks and were currently resting, refusing Chrom's multiple offers to have food and drink sent to them. Even proposals to upgrade their modest current lodgings were declined.

Not only that, but the council's curious disinterest in the pair puzzled Chrom. They were usually keen on learning at least a little bit about possible recruits, even if the matter was out of their hands, but during the meeting they were mostly concerned with discussing the Risen and what to do with them. Though Chrom could not fault them, the situation was…strange.

"Helloooooo! Earth to Chrom! Is anyone in there?"

Vaike was knocking his head as though he were a door. Scowling, Chrom pushed him off with a scoff. "Haven't I told you that it's so annoying when you do that?"

"So? I brought your head down from the clouds, didn't I?" Vaike grinned.

"You're impossible," Chrom scolded in reply.

"How'm I impossible when I'm not the one spacing out in the middle of this delicious spread? Anyone else would'a stuffed themselves dead at this point and you're off somewhere in Daydream Land."

"I'm not—" Chrom cut himself off with a sigh. "I've just been thinking a lot…about Robin and Henry."

"Aw, not this crap again," Sully growled, annoyed.

Chrom was suddenly aware of the entire Shepherd table focusing its collective attention on him. He cursed under his breath. "Look. We can discuss this later—" he tried to say.

"Chrom, I know you like to think everyone's a potential friend, but sometimes you have to think with your brain for once. I don't like the smell of this situation, I don't like how you just 'coincidentally' happened to stumble across them, and I just plain don't like 'em." Sully punctuated her sentence with a long drag from her goblet.

"Sully—"

"I agree," Panne interjected. The taguel had recently returned from her short stint in the forest with her son, joining the rest of the Shepherds to welcome Chrom and Lissa back. Her rusty red eyes narrowed as she considered the prince. "To allow such strangers into the castle does not bode well for us. We cannot be certain of their intentions nor of their character when they refuse to discuss their circumstances with us. This situation does indeed bear an odd scent."

"And how!" Maribelle, in a rare display of agitation, brought her cup down on the table with a thud. "Not only are they unmistakably Plegian—and we were at war with Plegia barely some years ago—but Plegians with awful manners!"

"You should've seen that freaky thing she did with her eyes back in the forest," Sully added darkly. "And keeping her hood on like that all the time looks incredibly suspicious!"

To Chrom's chagrin, Frederick was nodding along to every single word.

"I-I don't think they seem so bad…" a small voice said timidly.

Everyone turned to stare at Sumia. The pegasus knight looked down at her lap, flushing a bright pink, and managed to continue. "They just seem a bit lost, is all. I remember how nervous I was when I was accepted into the Shepherds. A-and besides…if C-Chrom says he trusts them…then I do too."

Loyal as ever! Chrom beamed at her in thanks. Returning a tiny smile, she hid her face shyly.

"I like them too," Stahl declared. Sully shot him a dirty look and scoffed, incredulous. "Henry was great with our Sev. It's really hard to calm her down from her moods and he made it look so easy! I think we just have to give them some time to adjust."

Ricken, who had come late to the feast due to his involvement in the festival committee, sided with Stahl and Sumia. "What does it matter if they're Plegians? Chrom says they're strong fighters, and we need new blood in our ranks, especially if we're going to run into more of those Risen."

"The Teach agrees!" Vaike said with a belch.

The Shepherds devolved into a heated debate over the potential recruits. Chrom sighed and dragged his hands down his face as courtiers from other tables turned to stare at them and the chaos enveloping their table. To his eternal embarrassment, Emmeryn seemed to find it rather funny and giggled behind her hand. Stony-faced Phila was not nearly so amused.

"Well, they haven't said anything," Sully yelled, throwing her arm out towards Libra, Miriel, and Cordelia. "You agree with me, right?"

(Kellam was also present, but wisely decided to stay silent to avoid fanning the flames of the argument)

Cordelia swallowed and froze. She glanced awkwardly at Libra and Miriel.

"You all have valid viewpoints," Libra said diplomatically.

Another ruckus was raised, but this time, Chrom was quicker to put his foot down. "Let them speak," he ordered.

The table, though grumbling collectively, heeded his words.

"Thank you, milord," Miriel replied calmly. "While one side presents compelling concerns over the provenance and probity of these possible novitiates, the other cautions us against judging them based on inequitable parameters and disallowing them a basic degree of credence. Ultimately, however…the final conclusion is not ours to make. That responsibility lies solely within the hands of Lieutenant Frederick and Captain Chrom."

Miriel's careful observation was not quite well received by the other Shepherds.

"Just give them a chance," Stahl pleaded.

"A chance to what? Murder us in our sleep?" Sully snarled.

"You're not being very reasonable." Ricken rolled his eyes, peeved.

"And you are?" Maribelle retorted.

Chrom, thoroughly fed up and feeling the beginnings of a headache creeping on him, slammed his hands on the table. "ENOUGH!"

The Shepherds were shocked into silence.

"Like Miriel said, it's not your choice to take. You raised some good points, but, ultimately, the decision Frederick and I make is final, whether you all like it or not. Are we all clear on that?"

"Yes," they all chorused after a beat. Sully looked particularly sulky.

"Good." He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's late now. Let's try to get some rest before resuming our regular duties tomorrow. Shepherds dismissed."

Chrom slept poorly that night, tossing and turning in bed as much as his mind did. How were Robin and Henry, all alone in the barracks? Were they comfortable? Were they cold? If they refused his offer to make them Shepherds, what would they do? If they accepted, then what could he do, as their captain, to convince the Shepherds to welcome them? Sully and the others' open hostility towards them was upsetting. Chrom was no fool—he understood their worries, and admitted to himself that there was obviously more to the mysterious duo's situation than met the eye, but he firmly believed in their goodness and of the immense value they posed to the Shepherds. Their talents were needed during times like these.

Chrom exhaled loudly in the darkness.

I hope I know what I'm doing.

                                                                                naga

A three week observation period was imposed on Robin and Henry. Chrom argued against the usual physical tests, considering their performance in Southtown and the forest was enough proof in his opinion. Frederick, surprisingly, agreed. The pair was made to start off with basic tasks such as taking inventory, helping keep the barracks clean, and similar labours.

"I believe we are being too lenient on them," Frederick remarked as they oversaw them hauling massive tubs of wet linens to a clothesline.

"In what way?" Chrom replied.

Frederick gestured vaguely at the training grounds behind them. "They would do better to participate in activities such as combat exercises."

"Didn't you agree with me that they're in good enough condition? What's this all about now?"

"Their…outstanding fighting skills are not necessarily Shepherd material."

Chrom, groaning, ran his hands through his hair. "My gods Frederick, what else do you want them to do? They've cleaned out the barracks from top to bottom, they helped Miriel take stock of every item in the inventory down to alphabetical order and date, and now they're stuck doing laundry duty with you!" Chrom shuddered. Washing down filthy armour and uniforms with Frederick was one of his least favourite Shepherding duties. Between Frederick's constant nagging and Vaike leaving a rather distinct musk on his clothes, Chrom pitied Robin and Henry for bearing so well with it.

He offered them help several times and was constantly rebuffed. Frederick, naturally, disapproved of his gestures. He wondered why Robin kept her heavy coat on despite the sunny weather and tedious nature of their chores.

The two were currently struggling with a heavy padded gambeson. Robin and Henry squeezed out excess water and pinned it with the rest of the clothes, yet the line still sagged enormously under its weight. Robin scrambled for more pins, but it was too late—it dropped on Henry's head with a loud, wet plop. Cackling with raucous laughter, Henry tossed it back over the line without a care in the world and went back to sorting the rest of the items in the tubs, whistling cheerfully as Robin wiped him off.

Frederick merely hummed thoughtfully as he watched the scene. "I've received complaints that they're being sequestered from the others…and it seems like preferential treatment. There are petitions to have their, shall we say, 'people skills' tested as well. Not to mention that they've displayed some reluctance to even join us in the first place. While your generosity is well noted, some have voiced concerns that valuable time and resources are being wasted on people who do not even want the privilege of being Shepherds, not to mention we still do not know about their—"

"I get it!" Chrom raised his voice. Robin and Henry paused briefly to look over at Chrom, confused. He waved them off and went back to his conversation with Frederick. "We're not going to make them break their backs over chores just to prove some point. If you want to test their 'people skills,' then you should actually let them go out more for a change. Sequestering them was your idea in the first place."

"Milord—"

"And if you and the others are still so dead-set on their backgrounds, what's stopping you from asking them? I've had it up to here with everyone calling them 'mysterious' and yet it's never occurred to anyone to just talk to them about it. And even if they want to or not, why's that such a deal-breaker? Have they shown anything that makes them unsuitable to be Shepherds? Have they tried to hurt us in any way? Is there anything that makes them as bad as you think they might be?"

(Chrom acknowledged his own curiosity over the pair, but recognised that they were reluctant to disclose certain information. It was not his place to pry. He hoped that, by gaining their trust and their friendship, they would warm up to him and the rest of the Shepherds eventually)

Frederick, sighing, conceded. "Understood, milord. However, I still believe it to be prudent on our part to oversee their interactions with the others. And we shall look into their backgrounds, if at least to give the others peace of mind."

"You'll schedule proper interviews to do it. You won't be interrogating them as if they were criminals, you hear? And I'll be there to supervise you."

"…of course, milord."

And so Robin and Henry were allowed proper freedom around the castle. After a week of being cooped up in the barracks, Henry was positively bursting with glee, zipping to and fro with seemingly boundless energy. Robin was far more reserved. Chrom apologised endlessly for Frederick's strict 'quarantine period,' and Robin was quick to brush him off politely. And yet, Chrom could not help but still feel guilty. His way of showing his contrition was to attempt to be as friendly and supportive as he could: showing them around with Lissa, spending time together, and chipping in for thankless tasks such as laundry duty. Chrom hoped that, bit by bit, her guarded exterior would begin to melt, and she would once again show him that vulnerably warm side he had seen in the forest.

Not everyone was pleased with his attitude. Chrom found Sully to be as moody and sulky as ever, but, to his shock, Maribelle was beginning to take her cues from the redheaded cavalier. He would often find the women huddled together in deep discussion, narrow-eyed and muttering whenever Robin and Henry were afoot. Sully and Maribelle's distrust was hurtful. Chrom briefly considered taking them aside for a stern talking-to, but decided against it on Lissa's warning.

To his relief, the rest of the Shepherds seemed friendly and inviting, or at least cordial enough, to the newcomers. Panne, for all her misgivings, was behaving herself. Libra and Miriel were thankful for the additional pair of hands in as the main tome-keepers for the Shepherds. And Cordelia, brilliant, perfectionist Cordelia, called them satisfying sparring partners.

Chrom smiled to himself. If anything, no one could deny the power and prowess Robin and Henry displayed in combat.

One night, as the Shepherds were having supper (Robin and Henry still taking their meals in the barracks, to Chrom's frustration), Frederick presented Chrom with a gigantic stack of papers.

"I've taken the liberty to draw up the questions for the interviews," he said crisply.

"…Frederick." Chrom gaped. "A small report would have sufficed. You've written me a tome."

"Milord, the process needs to be as thorough as possible. Naturally, it entails covering as many bases as we can: full name, age, date of place, place of birth, previous occupations, family histories, marriage status—"

"Why on earth would we need to ask them about their marriage status?"

Frederick tsked tsked as though Chrom were a simpleton. "We have to consider these on a case-by-case basis. Some who are given to fits of irrationality and flights of fancy do well with a spouse to keep them grounded, while lustful and worldly personalities would simply be too distracted by marriage to pay mind to the duties of a Shepherd."

"And where do I fall in those categories?" Chrom remarked snidely.

The joke flew completely over Frederick's head. "Milord, you are still a bachelor."

"Nevermind…just give me some time to look over this, alright? I need to determine which questions are actually useful."

And so Chrom found himself sweating over a mountain of paperwork, crossing out and correcting and revising as needed, all while cursing Frederick continuously over his lost night of sleep. He was positively haggard the next day and still yawning by practice time.

"Robin?" Chrom knocked the door to her and Henry's room. He decided to stop by after supper, to inform them of their upcoming interviews—well, more like to warn them. Frederick had a rather unpleasant habit of coming down hard on those he distrusted…not that he tried to disguise it much. "Are you in here?"

After a beat of silence, the door creaked open hesitantly. Chrom spied Robin's shadowy hood from behind it. "Hello, Chrom. Is everything alright?"

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"When someone wants to talk so late at night, it's usually over something serious. Or do castle folk have enough spare time to chat?"

Though taken aback by her sudden bluntness, Chrom tried to laugh it off, albeit nervously, in an attempt to clear the atmosphere. "My apologies. It is rather late, isn't it?"

Robin bowed her head abashedly. "I'm…I'm sorry. That was unkind of me. I shouldn't begrudge you your visits, even if you're just here to chat."

"Unfortunately, you're right." Chrom sighed. "I'm here to give you a heads up about Frederick."

"What's he planning now? More pebble collecting? New items to take stock of?"

"He wants to interview you and Henry in a few days."

The silence, though not uncomfortable, was not entirely welcome as it blanketed it them under its thoughtful veil. What could Chrom say, really? Apologise over Frederick for the hundredth time? He reached out to Robin and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.

She tensed. Chrom swallowed; he kept forgetting that she was still uneasy over physical contact. He withdrew his hand.

"I know you're still undecided over joining the Shepherds," he said slowly. "But I think you two would be great for the team. You're strong, you're intelligent—I daresay you could teach us more than a thing or two—and you're clearly committed to doing good."

"I…I don't know, Chrom…"

Chrom blinked. "But—"

"I don't know if we'll be a good fit here." Her hands wrung the edges of her sleeves anxiously.

"Of course you would! And we're friends, right? What's a person who doesn't help his friends in need?"

"Are we, Chrom? I don't want to be ungrateful, but seeing you here with the others…it makes me feel like we're intruding on something. Like our presence threatens the balance the Shepherds have. What 'good' would new members do if we end up unravelling everything else?"

She must have overheard Sully, Chrom fumed. "You're not threatening anything. What happened to our talk in the forest? At the bridge?"

"That was then. This is now," she stressed. Robin kept her voice low, presumably to avoid waking Henry. "And besides: we had our plans to travel to Ferox, for…for whatever reason or another. Without our memories, who are we to dispute the few bits and pieces we do have? Chrom, we're very grateful for—for everything you've done for us…but I still don't know what on earth we're doing or what we're even supposed to do. Where do we go from here?"

Chrom, speechless over her misgivings, could not muster up an immediate response. It was so frustrating! They were obviously a perfect fit for the Shepherds, so what was holding them back? What was Robin so worried about beyond Sully's pettiness? He felt like reaching out to shake some sense into her, but then he remembered her touch-aversion, and felt guilty about his moment of anger. Robin and Henry needed kindness and reassurance, not temper and impatience. But how to convince them? How to persuade them—especially Robin—of their indispensability? Chrom would never dream of forcing the pair to do something they did not want, but he was adamant that they would make excellent Shepherds. Their skill on the battlefield, their presence, and the precision with which they conducted themselves was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

He tentatively stretched his hand out. Though Robin hesitated, he was relieved to see her slight nod, so he squeezed her shoulder again.

"It's your decision to make," Chrom reassured, "and we will support whatever you do decide in the end."

Robin's expression was inscrutable under the shadow of her hood. The temptation to simply push it up and take a peek burned holes in his hands, but it was a temptation that was easily refused. At the very least, he could see a wobbly smile forming.

"Thank you, Chrom."

The next two days passed uneventfully. Frederick insisted on holding the interviews very early in the morning of the third of the week so as to leave the rest of the day for deliberation. Chrom, dreading the thought of Robin and Henry being stuck in a room for hours with Frederick, was already praying for it to be over.

"Take a seat," Frederick said, sounding less polite and far more threatening as the candidates drew their stools up to the small table. Chrom grimaced apologetically at the pair from the side he was sharing with his lieutenant. Frederick shuffled the (much thinner now that Chrom had gone through it) stack of papers he prepared for the occasion. "Let us begin."

"Don't worry," Chrom mouthed to Robin and Henry. He hoped to deter Frederick from pursuing an overly aggressive line of questioning in his presence, and managed to strongarm his lieutenant into allowing the newcomers to be interviewed together.

Robin smiled wanly at him.

Frederick carefully dipped a pheasant feather quill into an ink pot and tapped its shaft to rid it of excess ink. His hand hovered over the paper, poised to write.

"Full names?"

"Just Robin and Henry." Henry grinned cheerfully in spite of his sleepy expression.

Frederick's eyes narrowed, though he stayed silent as he jotted down their response. "Age and date of birth?"

"She's twenty-two and I'm nineteen! But we don't know when exactly we were born."

Chrom espied Frederick's lips moving wordlessly to himself as his hand followed their interviewees almost word for word, at a writing speed that made Chrom's hand cramp up subconsciously. He pondered over the coincidence of being a few months younger than Henry—short, rail-thin Henry, who, to his eyes, did not look a day over sixteen. Perhaps malnutrition was to blame. They certainly were extremely ravenous when the Shepherds found them.

He wondered if the same youthfulness was true of Robin…but that blasted hood still shrouded most of her face in darkness, so Chrom was left with his curiosity.

"Place of birth and usual residence?"

"We don't know."

Frederick scoffed. "Come now. With that hair of yours, your place of origin is most certainly Plegia."

"And why's that?" Henry cocked his head to the side. Chrom, having experienced the exact same gesture from Lissa when she was being intentionally obtuse, knew that Frederick would be instantly annoyed.

As if on cue, Frederick spluttered. "Why—everyone knows. Everyone knows—it is common knowledge that the only nation of the continent where a significant amount of people who possess white hair before old age is Plegia."

"Huh. You learn something every day, I guess! Thanks for the new fact, Fred!"

His nostrils flaring widely, Frederick scribbled something quickly, betraying his annoyance.

"Calm down. We're barely starting," Chrom reminded him gently.

"Understood, milord." Frederick did not sound as if he understood in the slightest.

Chrom shot their interviewees a quick glance as Frederick wrote his thoughts down, noting, with some concern, that Robin's gloved hand had curled into a tight ball in the crook of her elbow.

Frederick cleared his throat a bit too loudly. "Previous occupations?"

"We don't know," Henry repeated.

Frederick exhaled, clearly exasperated. He rested a critical eye on the two, his jaw tightening ever so slightly, as he stared at them. His disbelief was evident and Chrom prayed that it would not be vocalised.

"Familial background?"

"We don't know."

"Social background?"

"We don't know."

"'We don't know, we don't know, we don't know…'" Frederick muttered to himself as his hand practically flew over the paper, his lettering becoming looser and quicker the faster his pace increased. Chrom heard the leather of Robin's gloves creaking as her hands balled into even tighter fists, discerning the outline of her neck underneath her hood moving in a swallow, and he attempted to smile reassuringly at them. The gesture went unnoticed.

Inhaling and exhaling deeply, Frederick set his quill down momentarily. He steepled his fingers and regarded the pair seated before him in steely-faced silence before he resumed his questioning. "How is it that you came to Ylisse?"

"We're not really sure! I don't even know if we started out here to begin with, but all we know is—"

Frederick interrupted him with an upturned palm. "I would rather hear from Robin now."

Like a deer in torchlight, Robin turned deathly still. Perhaps she was wracking her brain for answers, considering their claims of amnesia, but Frederick did not look nearly so convinced, clearing his throat testily in order to prompt her.

"Well…" she began cautiously. "As Henry said—"

"I am not interested in Henry." Frederick's dismissive tone bordered on callousness, and Chrom shot him a sharp glare to remind him to stay on task. "Henry has spoken enough for two. As you are on the docket as well, we need to hear from your side of the matter."

Robin gulped audibly. Chrom wanted to reach over to take her hand and reassure her that this was all standard procedure, but standard procedure also dictated no shows of favouritism or interference.

Even so…the current circumstances were rather extraordinary.

Robin shifted slightly in her seat. "I know as much as Henry does. All I remember is that we woke up in Ylisse and that we know each other."

"How well?"

"…We're close."

"Siblings, then? Family members?"

"I-I don't know if we're related, but I would definitely say that I consider him someone I trust."

"Awww, Robbie!" Henry grinned and hugged her tightly, but Frederick barked at them to return to a semblance of order, unamused.

"And why is it that you trust each other, given your supposed lack of memories?" Frederick's brown furrowed as he set his quill down, leaning forward.

"I…" Robin's gulp was not very loud, but still unfortunately distinct. "I…I just have a strong feeling about him."

"The same way you claim to need to travel to Ferox?"

"Yes."

"And why Ferox?"

"I—we have a hunch that something might be waiting there for us."

Frederick's eyes narrowed. He muttered to himself as he picked up his quill, its tip scratching quickly across the paper's surface; to Chrom's astonishment, Frederick tapped it against his last sentence, which Frederick normally abhorred given how he hated the look of 'misplaced ink' and took great care in keeping his documents fresh and pristine. Was his lieutenant so agitated over the interview? And what kind of thing was Robin talking about?

"What sort of thing?" Frederick continued.

"We're not quite sure."

"Family? Lands? Weaponry? Treasure? The key to your memories?"

"Like we said, we don't—"

Frederick interrupted her to abruptly change the subject. "You claim little to no knowledge of how you came to Ylisse, your origins, or even your destination. How is it then, that coming across you two revealed heavily armed warriors who have obviously received some sort of training in combat?"

"Frederick," Chrom warned lowly. His eyes flitted to Robin's hood, dismayed to see that she had already began to curl into herself.

Frederick ignored him. "Not only that, but training that has clearly imparted tactical knowledge. War veterans, lying about your ages, perhaps? Strategists sent to spy on us from Plegia and report back? Or mages who are to gain our trust and strike from within the castle walls?"

"Frederick, that's enough—!"

"Explain how is it that our first encounter is due to a highly suspicious border incident? Caused by bandits, of all people, chasing after you? From Plegia? More importantly, how is it that you not only know enough of those so-called Risen to know the term they are referred to by, but to recognise them on sight and the methods needed to kill them? Such as that display of magic in the forest?"

"STOP." Chrom's chair fell to the floor in a strident clatter as he stood up. Robin's quiet sniffle felt just as loud to his ears. Breathing in deeply, he commanded Frederick in the most authoritative voice he could muster. "Outside. Now."

To his credit, Frederick did not hesitate to follow as Chrom exited the room.

Chrom whirled on his lieutenant the moment they set foot outside. "What were you thinking?!" His shout attracted the attention of a few groundskeepers tending to some shrubbery. "What did I say about not treating this like an interrogation?"

"Milord, we simply cannot allow certain questions to go unanswered. We have to be as thorough as possible with every candidate that passes through the castle gates," Frederick insisted.

"So the best way to do it is to badger and corner them? Treat them like guilty criminals like back at the border?"

A challenging fire lit up Frederick's eyes. "And if they are? Milord, we found them as the target of bandits. Why on earth would that be so?"

"Does it even really matter? Bandits are bandits! They follow their own logic based on whatever they think they can get away with at the moment. For all we know, Robin and Henry could be merchants, or they offended them somehow, or those brigands just felt like killing some random innocents!"

"And how do you explain their knowledge of the Risen? No 'random innocent' can possibly conjure up that kind of power from thin air, can they?"

Chrom fell silent, sighing as he processed a reply. Frederick had a point, there was no denying that, but he was drawing the wrong conclusions. Robin and Henry had used their talents to aid Ylisse. Despite the awe and fear he remembered—being thrown back, blinded, and even having his eyebrows partially seared by the white-hot sheet of lightning summoned from the sky—it was due to their efforts that the Risen group was eliminated. Unknown past notwithstanding, nothing indicated to him that they were untrustworthy.

Why was that so difficult for others to see?

Chrom heaved a sigh. "I understand your concerns, but I don't know how many more times I have to repeat myself: mysterious or not, powerful or not, whatever else you want to call them, all of their actions so far have been for the good of Ylisse. We need new Shepherds, Frederick. We need their help now that a new threat is on the horizon. And as far as I'm concerned, they look more lost than sinister. We need them, and maybe what they need is for us to give them a shoulder to lean on."

Frederick's inscrutable brown eyes narrowed as he considered his liege with utmost care. Chrom swallowed as he awaited his response.

The older man exhaled heavily after a long and pregnant pause.

"Sometimes," he said, with a tiredness that seemed as though he was shouldering a large burden, "I think your heart is too big for your own good, milord. You should let your mind carry the same weight on occasion."

Had it been anyone else, Chrom would have guessed they were calling him stupid, but he let it pass in Frederick's case.

"I promise to…'behave' myself, as you said. I shan't be as aggressive as I would like, but I will complete the interview to your satisfaction."

"Thank you, Frederick."

They reentered the barracks to find Robin still sniffling. Henry's expression was as mild as ever, though Chrom knew he had spent the better time of their absence comforting her.

"I'm sorry for that," he apologised. "Forgive us. Frederick is just…trying to be thorough."

Henry remained quiet, his small eyes glancing briefly between them, his hand never leaving Robins'. When she finally did speak, her voice was slightly raspy.

"Please…" she said, meek and subdued. "We mean no harm to anyone. We may not know enough to tell you what you want to hear, but I promise that…" she bit her lip. "We are just two strangers with no mother and nothing else but the clothes on our back and each other. Whatever you decide to do with us, please…grant us some mercy."

Robin's sadness and fear pained Chrom. He rounded the table and knelt, taking her hands in his, ignoring the start of shock she gave, and peered up into her hood.

"I know you know that some here have their suspicions. It's natural, with the way we found you two…but I would very much like it if you became Shepherds. You're smart, you're strong; you're basically exactly what we've been looking for. You have such great potential. Whether you make the cut or prefer to leave on your way to Regna Ferox, please know that you're welcome to stay and at least enjoy the festival. It's the least we could do, as thanks for your help. We'll support you with whatever choice you make. All we ask is for you to trust us."

Chrom spoke with as much honesty and sincerity as he could stress in his words, hoping they would get through to them and soothe Robin's worries. He hoped to convey all his hopes for them, all his feelings, and prayed that they would understand.

What are you hiding? He wondered. What are you afraid of?

Please let us help you.

Robin's shaky smile returned, slowly, but surely. Chrom smiled back, gratified to see that small sign of progress.

She shook her head. "We can't promise much…but thank you."

To his disappointment, the pair did not give the answers he was looking for, but he did not call them out on it. They had enough to worry about at the moment. At the very least, Frederick was keeping to normal questions such as how well they saw each other in team environments, and what colour thread they used to darn their socks.

"I would still caution against this." Frederick brought up his doubts for the hundredth time as they went over his notes later that night. Chrom was adding his own commentary to them, to the older man's chagrin. "Their answers are a far cry from satisfactory. We still have no idea over what exactly could we be getting into should we decide to bring them into our ranks."

Groaning, Chrom drummed his quill impatiently against his knee. He ignored the spots of ink marring his trousers, too deep in thought to care. "I said what I said," he announced, resolute. "Whether or not you think they're liars or a danger to us, I believe that we're making the best decision we can by having them here. Talent like that doesn't just drop in out of nowhere."

Or, at least, you don't usually find it unconscious in a field.

Frederick sighed. "Duly noted. I shall be taking these to Her Grace."

It was highly unusual for Emmeryn to make input towards Shepherding business beyond assigning missions, and especially not when Chrom was absent, but he allowed Frederick that small concession.

Chrom spent a restless night of pacing and thinking as thoughts of the interview whirled around in his head. He honestly hoped that Robin and Henry would be allowed admission to their ranks as official Shepherds. Imagine all that they could accomplish with their magic, their strategic thinking and awe-inspiring strength! Frederick would truly be the biggest fool if he did not at least consider that. And for all his repeated warnings, Chrom could not simply find much reason to give them weight. They seemed like kind, decent people.

At the very least, keeping them close could possibly reveal the mystery surrounding them. Chrom would be lying if he did not admit that he too burned with curiosity over their canny refusals to discuss their backgrounds. Lissa did say that some forms of amnesia were only temporary, after all.

And if they were lying…then spending time together could persuade them to drop their guard and trust him and the Shepherds.

He was dying to know why his Brand reacted so strongly to Robin. Why the Falchion seemingly awoke from slumber and instructed him to use it to heal her. It usually only acted in such a manner around his sisters, fellow bearers of Naga's blood, but years of acclimatisation to their presence meant his brand only hummed faintly with them. Did that mean Robin possessed Naga's blood as well? Some other dragon he had not yet heard of? Or was it something else entirely?

What kind of coincidence, exactly, had dropped her into his path?

Those questions and more swirled around in his head in a feverishly dizzying dance until he realised that dawn was fast approaching.

 

                                                                                naga

To Chrom's utter delight, Frederick's expression was downright displeased. That could only mean one thing.

"I knew you'd see the light of reason!" He laughed and squeezed Frederick in a tight embrace. The exasperated knight extricated himself from the prince's abnormally strong hold as gingerly as he could.

"I assure you that this is not the product of an epiphany or some misguided sense of pity," Frederick said sternly. "After a…rather heated discussion, I took Her Grace's input on the matter and decided that the best course of action was to allow them membership."

Leave it to Emm to get through to the worrywart! Chrom grinned.

"However. I yielded to her logic on the basis of being able to monitor them. Their claims are suspicious and not entirely trustworthy in my eyes. Should that be the case, I would much rather be present to keep a close eye on their activities to be able to determine their intentions and possible actions. And rest assured, I promise to keep a very close eye," Frederick warned.

Chrom could not care less at the moment. He was far too excited and had begun stripping his nightclothes off in his haste to start the day, ignoring the knight's scandalised look. "Hurry, Frederick! I want to make the announcement as early as I can!"

"Before breakfast, milord?"

"Especially before breakfast! It'll be a celebration—I'll ask the cooks to make it special!"

He was positively vibrating with unbridled enthusiasm as the Shepherds dutifully filed into the barracks for an unusually early morning announcement. Stahl's bed head was more pronounced than ever, and Maribelle had taken great pains to attempt to style her own coiffure into something more presentable. Vaike showed up in his nightclothes (or the closest semblance to them, since it was more like a loincloth, really). Chrom's face felt tight from all his smiling as the assembled company finished assuming their positions and waited for him to speak.

"Wow! Someone's up and early today! And excited too!" Vaike whistled. "What's the news, Cap? Something good happened?"

Chrom went straight to the point. "I would like to announced that Robin and Henry, starting today, are officially Shepherds."

Silence befell the barracks. All eyes went to Robin and Henry, who only just now, in their sleepiness, understood why Chrom insisted they stand next to him. A loud cheer startled them as Vaike whooped vociferously, followed by the rest of the Shepherds' clapping and exclamations of congratulations. Lissa was the first to run up to the pair to shake their hands, followed by Stahl, then Cordelia, and finally a timidly blushing Sumia.

Chrom ignored Sully glaring daggers.

The breakfast was a great success. Music was playing, servants plied them with delicious dishes, and the good mood surrounding their table proved to be rather infectious, suffusing the dining hall with a happy warmth.

Henry seemed to be taking it all in stride, conversing amiably with his new comrades as he ate and drank. Robin, unsurprisingly, was far more reserved; she protested as Chrom piled her trencher high with sausages, eggs, thick cuts of meat, bread, and freshly sliced apples.

"Is he always like this when new recruits are announced?" He heard her ask Sumia as he tucked in to his own food.

"Well…" Chrom could picture her pink blush perfectly. "Ch—the captain always did love the occasion. He says that we should celebrate it, since it's so difficult to make the cut. But you're lucky…this was the hardest and longest trial period I've ever seen, so it makes sense that he's so glad."

"First new recruits, and then the festival! This is really shaping up to be an exciting year!" Ricken called over the clamour of chatter and music.

And so the three week period ended on a relatively high note. Chrom was floating by on a cloud, too satisfied to really pay much mind to Frederick's nagging, Sully's moodiness, or any other issue that came their way. Robin and Henry seemed to be adjusting well to their new roles as Shepherds. Despite not seeing any martial action at the moment, they proved to be diligent workers, sticking closely to their assigned tasks and performing them well enough that even Frederick had no qualms over the quality of their work. Even so, he hovered around them so obviously that Chrom had half a thought to smack him and remind him to have a care for subtlety.

Their tranquility ended on the penultimate day of the week as Emmeryn informed him of urgent business.

"All right, listen, everyone: next morning, we'll be marching to Regna Ferox," Chrom announced.

Whispers broke out among the Shepherds until Frederick hushed them.

"What's the occasion? Who do we gotta rescue now?" Vaike shouted uncouthly from the back.

Chrom, smiling to himself over Vaike's antics, shook his head. "Emmeryn has informed me that this is an escort mission. She requested aid from Ferox to help keep watch over our western border as we prepare for the festival, and a delegation is also planning to travel south to be in attendance. Typically, the Exalt would make that kind of visit in person, but given some recent events, and the fact that we've received news of Risen massing up north…that means the task has been passed to us. We're to eliminate the Risen and accompany the Feroxi delegation back with us to Ylisstol." He cleared his throat. "Now, this mission is strictly voluntary. So if, for any—"

Lissa, naturally, was one of the first to interrupt. "I volunteer!"

"Me too! You'll be needin' ol' Teach along for such a delicate mission!" Vaike added.

Kellam, not that Chrom was paying much attention to him, raised his hand shyly. "I'll go as well…" He trailed off as he noticed Ricken and Vaike gaping at him, astonished. "What? I've been here the whole time!"

As the Shepherds engaged in a raucous discussion over what to pack on such short notice, what kind of strategies they would need against the Risen, and how the climate would feel up north, Chrom noticed Sumia discreetly making her way to him.

"I...I, um…" she began hesitantly.

The prince was always concerned that she acted so skittishly around him. Did she find him intimidating? They used to be very close as children, but, upon joining the Pegasus Knights, Sumia's disposition took a rather odd turn towards him, and he could never guess why. "Yes, Sumia?"

"It's just that...I'm not sure I'm quite ready for a proper mission just yet. I'd probably just get in the way."

Oh! She was still nervous over being a Shepherd. It was normal to feel that way, especially given her newness to the group along with Ricken. "Well, you could stay behind the main group, and if a battle is met, just watch and learn? Your choice, of course. But some lessons can only be learned on the battlefield."

"W-well, if you think it wise, Captain."

"Just stay by me and you'll be fine."

Sumia's eyes widened, and a bright, apple-red blush overpowered her skin colour, spreading fast over her face and neck until it seemed that she was practically glowing. The edges of her lips twitched faintly in what Chrom hoped was the beginnings of a smile—she was always so shy in his vicinity, and he was glad to see the change in attitude. And besides, a smile suited anyone's expression.

"Oh, yes! I mean—yes, sir, I'll do that!" True to character, Sumia's feet entangled quickly in her newfound excitement, and she toppled face first to the ground. Henry cackled as he helped pull her up along with Chrom and offered the flustered pegasus knight a handkerchief to wipe her bloody nose, coupled with a rather morbid comment about keeping it, unwashed.

"We've a long march ahead," Chrom said to Robin, who had been standing silently by his side. "Will you be able to handle the journey?"

She hummed in consideration as her unseen gaze swept over the clamour and chaos of the barracks. "Seeing as how it's Risen we're talking about…you said you needed my help to clear them, so I don't think I have much of a choice in the matter."

"Ah, that's not what I meant." Chrom said hastily. "What I'm trying to say is that you don't have to come if you don't want. We found you and Henry in pretty bad shape. We won't fault you for wanting to recuperate some more."

"Chrom, it's been a month since then."

"Not all wounds heal quickly. And even so, maybe you'd like to take some time to get to explore the castle, see to the party planning with Ricken, or anything that isn't as strenuous as battle."

Robin regarded him in a manner he felt to be a bit intense; he could not exactly gauge the full extent of it, seeing as how her hood hid her, but the sudden throbbing in his Brand was the biggest indicator.

"You always have a choice here with us," Chrom said gently. "Please don't think you don't."

Later after supper that night, Robin quietly approached him, and expressed her desire to join the escort party travelling north.

Chrom's face hurt from the size of his grin.

 

 

                                                                        naga