Invisible Ties

Chapter 12

Robin could see, as he wiped the sweat from his brow on his coat’s sleeve, just why the Plegians would be so eager to invade a country as rich in resources as Ylisse. Dry, cracked earth crunched under his feet as he walked along a long empty river-bed, dead water grasses and plants surrounding the banks with the wind whistling through dry stalks as the sun beat down on the small scouting party mercilessly.

Robin, Chrom, Lissa, Panne, Gaius, Vaike and Lon’qu moved silently through enemy-held territory, fortunately not yet having run afoul of any of the Plegian patrols that were constantly marching around. However, considering the amazing tracking skills Lon’qu was presenting them with, Robin amended his internal monologue that fortune had little do do with their current predicament.

In a vain attempt to keep the sun out of his eyes and off his face Robin had drawn his hood up, cutting his field of vision; considering the much more experienced eyes around him, he had no doubt it wouldn’t matter anyway. Frederick had almost had an apoplectic fit when Chrom had ordered him to stay behind, but he and the other knights would just be a liability in the desert terrain on a scouting mission like the one they were on; Robin wasn’t much happier about having the Prince and Princess accompany them, but had been much more graceful than Frederick in his acceptance. Even Cordelia had looked on to their discussion, frowning her disapproval silently the entire time. Chrom wanted to come, and that was that. Lissa had been much more argumentative about Robin trying to leave her behind, and he had eventually caved.

Mobility was the key for this mission, so Chrom had opted to forgo most of his armour, reverting again to the single shoulder guard and blue leathers he had been wearing when they had found Robin some time ago. Everyone else in their little group was accustomed to fighting without armour, and in Vaike’s case most of his clothes; Robin had chosen speed over strength for their party. Discretion was, after all, the better part of valour.

Frederick, along with the rest of the Shepherds and the majority of Ylisse’s standing army and Feroxi allies were camped in what was now the ruins of Themis, ready to move across the border on their signal. Maribelle had wept openly while her father silently raged as they passed through the ruined streets; the Plegians had simply sacked the city and retreated across the border, not even leaving a holding force. They had accomplished their goals when they had captured Exalt Emmeryn and pulled back en mass; after all, Gangrel now had his bargaining chip for the Fire Emblem.

The small group’s goal was simple; find where the enemy was, collect information so that the Ylissean-Feroxi army wouldn’t be charging in blind, and send the much swifter Panne back to Themis to summon the army, which was waiting for the order to advance. Kahn Flavia, Commander Phila, Dukes Themis and Aerir were all at the head of the various divisions with Frederick at the head of the Shepherds, waiting for Robin’s orders while Commander Cullen kept the final division of soldiers at Ylisstol in reserve. This was, honestly, what Robin had been hoping to avoid; having the entire armies of two combined nations under his control. But now that Chrom was in charge he had dragged the Tactician kicking and screaming up the ranks with him, for better or worse.

So no pressure or anything, Robin thought somewhat bitterly.

Robin winced as he stepped on a crack that made a particularly loud crunch as it crumbled, earning dirty glares from the stealthier members of the group. He sighed softly as the trudged down the river bed. Gaius was a thief; Panne and Lon’qu were expert trackers and hunters; Vaike was apparently exceedingly skilled at moving unseen, as Robin had found out a few nights previously; the only others moving with as much noise as he were Chrom and Lissa, and they were Ylissean royalty, so they got no glares.

Lon’qu called a halt with a raised fist as he slithered up the river bank on his stomach, checking the coast was clear.

“Clear,” he said quietly.

“We need to move further south,” Robin said, taking a peek himself.

“Too much open ground,” the Feroxi replied with a shake of his head. “We may be able to use the sand dunes to some effect as cover, but we’d still be completely exposed to aerial scouts.”

“Well we can’t keep sneaking forever,” Chrom grunted, kneading Falchion’s grip.

“I could,” Gaius pointed out.

“Yeah, but that’s in your job description,” Vaike said, trying to create some shade for himself with his axe’s blade, holding it above his head.

“Regardless,” Robin said, trying to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand, “The Plegian army won’t be camped near a dried out river; they’ll be close to water.”

“How do we find it, though?” Gaius asked drolly. “That’s the real winning question, ain’t it Bubbles?”

Before Robin could reprimand the thief for his irritating nickname, Panne bounded up the dry bank and stood with her nose in the air, taking deep breaths.

“Panne?” Lissa asked, an edge of concern in her voice.

“I smell water,” she said after a few more seconds. “I only caught it briefly as the wind shifted, but there is definitely standing water in that direction.”

“Problem solved,” Chrom said, climbing the bank and beginning to move in the direction Panne had indicated.

“Dammit, Chrom,” Robin muttered as the others began to follow the Prince. “What part of ‘stealth op’ didn’t you get?”

“Well, your nose was right on the money,” Gaius muttered to Panne. “Now what do we do?”

Spread out beneath their position on a high sand dune was a small village next to an oasis, palm trees and tall grasses swaying in the wind next to the large pond. Camped near the village, though, were at least two hundred Plegian troops; in the distance Robin could just make out more camps around other oasis’, each with no doubt similar numbers.

“There’s no way this is all of them,” Chrom muttered, looking through a long thin tube with a lens of glass at either end that Miriel had invented called a ‘magnifying lens’, which made objects far distances away seem closer. Robin took the lens, looking further off in the distance.

“I think I can see more camps at other oases, but I can’t be sure,” he muttered absently.

“I’ll go find out then, shall I?” Gaius asked with a sigh.

“We’ll wait here,” the Tactician said, handing the Thief a piece of paper and another small tube of Miriel’s invention. “If you get caught, point this at the sky away from your face and twist the top; it’s supposed to send a jet of green sparks into the air. We’ll come running while Panne gets the rest of the army, and we’ll just have to take our chances. On the paper is a map; mark the troop dispositions you find and their rough numbers on it.”

Chrom nodded in agreement, and in a small cloud of sand Gaius was off. Chrom and Robin continued to watch the small village in the late morning sun while the others rested in the shade of the dune. After about a half an hour Chrom broke the silence.

“It might make Gaius’ job easier if we made a distraction for him,” the Prince suggested not-so-subtly.

“Don’t even think about it,” Robin muttered back. “This. Is. A. Stealth. Op. So no one’s supposed to know we were here.”

“I just hate this waiting,” Chrom growled, snatching the lens back from Robin.

“Gods, you’re worse than Panne,” Robin muttered with a grin. “Don’t worry; we’ll get Emm back.”

“I know,” Chrom said, his voice softening somewhat. “How can we not with such a brilliant tactician leading us?”

“Ugh, don’t start,” Robin groaned, rolling his eyes.

“Wait,” Chrom said.

“No, I’m serious; you’ve already roped me in to leading your entire army, so let up on the--”

“No, I mean ‘wait, something’s happening in the camp’ wait,” Chrom said, his voice going hard again as he passed the lens back to Robin. “Look. What do you make of it?”

Robin watched as the Plegian soldiers began to move about more frantically, obviously searching for something. “Crap. Do you think they’ve found Gaius?”

Chrom shook his head. “We would’ve seen Miriel’s toy go off.”

“Well what…”

Robin didn’t finish his sentence; as he watched a man not wearing the Plegian uniform cut through the back of a tent and climb through, dragging a young girl by the wrist with him while he carried his sword in his other hand. She was resisting, clearly not wanting to go with him as he ducked behind the tents, obviously trying to not be seen. The man had dragged her to the edge of the oasis before two of the Plegians caught sight of him and began attacking, forcing him to release the girl so he could fend them off.

“I vote we save the girl,” Robin said, handing the lens back to Chrom. “By the oasis.”

“I see her…” Chrom muttered, before standing and sliding down the back of the dune to where the others were waiting, Robin right behind him.

“Shepherds-” Chrom began before Lissa cut him off.

“We already know, and we’re ready to move,” Lissa cut him off, a determined set to her usually soft features.

“How…” Robin began, but spied the look Panne was giving him, remembering her superior senses. “Never mind… Let’s move.”

“No strategy?” Vaike asked as they jogged around the dune in the direction of the Plegian camp.

“Sure,” Robin said with a shrug as he drew his rapier. “Find the girl, save the girl, kill the Plegians.”

“Simple,” Lon’qu said with a dark smirk. “I like it.”

As they rounded the dune they began to hear shouting.

“No! Go away! Leave me alone!”

“Shepherds!” Chrom shouted, all pretence of stealth gone, “Attack!”

The girl, a small thing in fairly revealing, strappy clothes with long, pale green hair looked up in shock as the Shepherds streamed around her, Lissa stopping to shield her and check for wounds. More Plegian soldiers had shown up, and now the mysterious man was backpedalling as he blocked and parried strikes from seven opponents. As Robin watched the man saw an opening and struck down three of the seven in quick, precise strokes that spoke of a lifetime of practice and some not inconsiderable skill. Shouts were coming from the Plegian camp, though, so Robin wanted to wrap things up quickly before they had the entire Plegian army breathing down their necks.

“Into them!” Robin snarled as they smashed into the surprised Plegians with the force of a cavalry charge.

Panne had changed shape at some point during the run and bit and kicked indiscriminately among the Plegians as Vaike and Lon’qu danced through them. Robin and Chrom skidded to a halt in front of the mystery man, swords up.

“Keep that creep away from me!” the girl shouted, hiding behind Lissa.

“Wait, I say!” the man shouted back in a strange, thick accent, ignoring the two swords pointed in his direction. “Why you no comprehending, wee one!?”

“Just get away!” the girl shrieked, clinging to Lissa’s dress. “Everyone just leave me alone!”

The man cringed and looked over his shoulder back at the Plegian camp. “Please, be keeping down with the voice! You give away position! Very bad!”

“Um, excuse us…” Robin tried.

“My throat is dry, my shoes are filled with sand, and some big weirdo is trying to kill me!” the girl cried plaintively.

“Oy, you break Gregor’s heart! Why you treat like villain?” the older man, apparently named Gregor, groaned.

“Enough, fiend!” Chrom growled, evidently losing his patience. “You will not harm this maiden!”

The other Shepherds were done with the Plegian soldiers now, and created a rough circle behind Gregor, weapons up. For his part, Gregor only seemed to notice Chrom and Robin were standing in front of him as Chrom spoke.

“Who is fiend?” he asked confusedly. “You mean Gregor!? No no no friend, you having wrong idea!”

“Yeah right, creep!” Lissa called, brandishing her staff like a sword before her.

Gregor cast another glance at the camp, his face falling, muttering. “This day being nothing but insults and blows to groin… Gregor is never doing good deed for free again.”

“Listen, friends,” Gregor tried again, “Gregor is only trying to-”

Before the older man could finish he was cut off by a blast of dark purple energy flying by his head.

“Oy!” he cried, ducking and covering his head with his arms. “Watching Gregor’s face!”

“They’re on to us,” Robin warned, stepping sideways around Gregor and the other Shepherds.

“You stupid mercenary!” an old, malnourished looking robed man was shouting as he strode towards them, a squad of heavily armed Plegian soldiers and mages at his back, his wrinkled hands flaring with dark energy. “Did you honestly think we wouldn’t notice the girl missing!? You will face Grima’s wrath, interloper!”

“Oy crap,” Gregor groaned, reaching into his pocket. “Is not good. Now they make with the catching of us!”

“Why are you all after this girl?” Chrom asked, sidestepping to the opposite edge Robin had as the other three Shepherds backpedalled to make a rough line.

“All?” Gregor asked, slipping into the line between Lon’qu and Panne. “Who is all? Gregor is not one of all! Look close; maybe you not see through heat haze, but Gregor is having innocent baby face!”

“Not how I’d describe it,” Robin muttered, flipping through his spellbook one handed as he drew his hood back with the other.

“Gah! Never be minding!” the mercenary announced. “Gregor will prove he is not enemy by slaying many Plegians! Will prove his innocence!”

“This is making my head hurt,” Chrom groaned as the Plegians advanced slowly through the loose sand. “We’ll sort him out later! For now, protect the girl!”

“You… you’re going to help me?” the girl asked quietly.

“Yeah, just stay behind me,” Lissa told her, smiling reassuringly over her shoulder. “No one can beat Robin and my big brother!”

“Oy wee one! Catch!” Gregor shouted, turning slightly and throwing a red gem the size of an eyeball attached to a golden chain towards the girl.

The girl’s eyes widened as she darted out from behind Lissa, catching the gem close to her chest. Before Robin could question what had happened another blast of dark energy threw sand up into the faces of the Shepherds, the Plegians being much closer now and closing to attack.

“Shepherds, fighting retreat!” Robin called.

“This guy has terrible aim,” he muttered to himself, throwing several fireballs into the charging Plegians with one flick of his wrist.

The Plegians reeled, but pressed on doggedly, at least twenty moving up at once. Chrom and the others braced themselves and pushed back as the Plegians hit their line, not giving an inch of ground. Vaike howled as a spear bit deeply into his shoulder, but he rallied and cut the haft with his axe before spinning and delivering a death blow tho the soldier that had been wielding the offending weapon, Lissa moving closer instantly to administer healing magic. Lon’qu ducked and weaved, his graceful style of swordsmanship never ceasing to impress Robin; the man was there one second, someplace else entirely the next, his sword a red blur in his hands. Panne was doing her best to compensate for the reach of the Plegian spears, but was having little luck and had been struck numerous times, Chrom coming to her aid and parrying, buying her time to move back. To Robin’s surprise, Gregor was a whirlwind of destruction; his fighting style was similar to Lon’qu’s, but heavier and blunt, relying on strength more than speed as he smashed Plegians aside with his sword in one hand, punching and striking necks and weak points in armour with his free hand. An arrow shot out of the fray, nicking Robin’s leg and ruining his pants, leaving a gaping hole in its wake.

It wasn’t looking good for the Shepherds as another wave poured into them, forcing them all back a few more meters, before…

“Go away!” the girl screeched from behind them, before a sheet of flame enveloped the foremost Plegians.

Shock evident on their faces, the other Plegians began to retreat, falling over each other to get away. Robin spun, expecting to see that Miriel or Ricken had followed them against orders and were engaging, buying them time to escape. He was not, however, expecting to see a rather large green dragon preparing to breathe another blast of flame. This one, too, flew over the Shepherds, wreaking more havoc amongst the Plegians, even going so far as to light some of the tents between the village huts on fire. Its wrath vented, the dragon lowered itself to the ground and began shrinking, turning back into the girl who was now kneeling on the ground, gasping and out of breath.

“Chrom, the little girl just turned into a dragon,” Robin called, voice quaking.

“What?” Chrom asked, spinning. “What’s happening? Did you make that fire?”

Robin shook his head, pointing to the girl.

“Fools!” the old Plegian mage shouted, readying another spell as his soldiers panicked, trying to put out the fires in the camp. “I’ll kill you all myself! For the glory of Grima!”

The mage lifted his hands, another spell primed and ready to fly, before jumping a little and falling forward, a man in black Plegian armour standing over him, a dagger in each hand.

“Can we leave now? This armour is really hot.” Gaius asked, pulling off the helmet of the suit of armour he was wearing.

“Nice disguise,” Robin said as he lifted the girl into his arms, retreating with the rest of the Shepherds. “Your sense of timing is also impeccable. Have you got the report?”

“He is really good at that,” Robin heard Vaike mutter as he held a hand to the wound on his shoulder.

“I aim to please,” Gaius said with a shrug, pulling a strap on the side of the armour and letting the breastplate fall to the sand before handing Robin a crumpled piece of parchment that might once have been rolled.

“Still up for that run, Panne?” Robin asked over the top of the gasping girl-dragon in his arms.

Wordlessly the Taguel took the report in her mouth before bounding off, easily outpacing the Shepherds and disappearing into the distance.

“We go to safe place now, yes?” Gregor asked, slightly out of breath. “Gregor is being too old for the running and fighting like this.”

“You still here?” Robin asked, looking over his shoulder to check for signs of pursuit; thankfully it looked like the fire was proving to be an efficient distraction.

“Yes!” Gregor said with a big, happy smile. “Is good you came! Gregor just added new name to list of angry former employers!”

“Well, you take care of her then,” Robin said, dropping the dragon-girl into Gregor’s arms and stifling a laugh from the look of surprise on his face.

“This is just the worst. Day. Ever,” the girl in Gregor’s arms sobbed.

“Ho now, wee one!” Gregor said cheerfully. “Do not make with the crying of tears! The evil people are now dead people! This is good, no?”

The girl quieted, before smiling a little as well.

“You’re right! And I’m sorry I was so mean to you before; I get nervous when I’m around people out of my age group. I’m Nowi,” she said, smiling over at Robin before looking back up at Gregor. “You can put me down, now.”

Gregor acquiesced, lowering the girl to the ground with a hearty laugh. “Is no worry! Besides, Gregor is being much closer to age group than others!”

“Less talking, more running!” Chrom called from the top of the dune they were at the base of.

When Robin, Nowi and Gregor made it to the top Chrom stopped Gregor, pointing to the girl. “Gregor, was it? Can you watch her? We can’t linger here.”

Gregor seemed to consider this for a moment. “Gregor is mercenary, yes? You hire Gregor to watch wee one. True, Gregor just finish killing former employer, but if you no harm wee one, Gregor have no problem with working for you.”

“Yes, fine, whatever,” Chrom said distractedly, looking back at the camp with the magnifying lens. “Just move and keep the girl moving.”

“The ‘girl’ has a name!” Nowi huffed angrily. “It’s Nowi!”

“Sorry, Nowi, but he gets distracted easily,” Robin said with a shrug, doing his best to forget the girl was really a dragon. “Why don’t you follow us to safety?”

Panne was waiting for them at the rendezvous point just inside the Ylissean-Plegian border, where the land was still flat dry badlands rather than sand dunes. Maribelle, Cordelia and Sumia were waiting with Panne, standing idly by their pegasi and horse as the Shepherds climbed out of the dry riverbed they had used to infiltrate Plegia.

“Oy, a welcoming party of beautiful women just for Gregor!” the old mercenary said, happily spreading his arms when he saw the three women. “Must be Gregor’s lucky day, yes?”

“Captain!” Sumia said, instantly by Chrom’s side. “Are you wounded? Let me help you!”

“Lissa, darling,” Maribelle greeted her friend, shading her with her ever-present parasol.

“Can you help me with Vaike’s wound? I’m a little out of breath,” Lissa asked tiredly, before the two of them set to work on Vaike’s wounded shoulder.

Lon’qu and Gaius wordlessly beelined right for the waterskins hanging off of Sumia’s pegasus’ saddle, Gregor and Nowi following them. Robin breathed a sigh of relief, finally relaxing now that they were out of danger.

“It looks like first blood of the campaign goes to you,” Cordelia said with a light smile, holding out a waterskin for Robin, who gratefully accepted it and drank deep.

“That’s one way of putting things,” Robin muttered, wiping his mouth with the cuff of his coat.

“What’s the other?” Cordelia asked curiously.

Robin cast a glance over at Nowi and Gregor, currently arguing animatedly with each other over the largest waterskin.

“Getting my arse saved by a little-girl-who-just-so-happens-to-be-a-dragon before picking up yet another eccentric addition to our ranks?” Robin said with a shrug.

Cordelia quizzically raised an eyebrow, but before she could speak a signal horn sounded in the distance, blaring out three clear, precise notes, followed by several more horns signalling in the same fashion.

Robin watched, conflicting emotions playing out in his head, as one thousand Ylissean cavalrymen and Knights began to charge down the road, led by Duke Themis at the fore, his banner snapping proudly in the arid desert wind, from the mountain pass where they had confronted Gangrel not so long ago. Wings of Pegasi flew overhead, their bodies all but blocking out the sun as Phila flew cover for Duke Themis’ charge. As the mounted soldiers raced past, Robin’s eyes were drawn again to the ranks of Feroxi foot soldiers, outnumbering the knights and pegasi five to one, led by Flavia who was easily distinguishable in her ornate red plate at the front of the force, as they charged after the knights, heading straight for the camps that the Shepherds had marked out during their scouting mission.

“I feel like I should say something,” Chrom said sadly as he and the others gathered to watch the procession.

“Wow,” Nowi gasped. “That’s a lot of soldiers!”

“Is good thing they rescue us when they did, yes?” Gregor said to Nowi sombrely. “Otherwise we be caught right in middle of what is to come.”

“Will it be enough?” Sumia asked tentatively.

“It had better be,” Robin said, crossing his arms and watching as a smaller group peeled off from the Feroxi and began to head their direction; evidentially the other Shepherds were now coming to meet them, too. “We didn’t really keep many of our forces in reserve.”

“It will be enough,” Chrom said with much more conviction than Robin felt.

Night was falling as Robin strode through the camp, barking orders and pointing between scribbling notes on a parchment.

“We need to dig in here!” he shouted to the adjutants following him. “Secure the oases and set up a more permanent foothold on this side of the border! Organize a rotation of new recruits building defences on the stable land; organize pegasi flights over the sand approaches!”

“Sir!” one of the men said, saluting and running off.

“You, you, and you!” Robin said, pointing at three men. “Check all the divisions and make sure they have adequate supplies; weapons, food, water, temporary lodgings; I won’t have even one man in this army sleep without a tent! I want full reports within the hour!”

“Sir!” the three of them saluted, running off in different directions.

Two men remained, and Robin turned on them next.

“You and you; I want reports on scouting rosters on my desk before lights out! Focus mainly on the fliers and specialist units like thieves and assassins! Don’t forget the mages; they’ll move easier through the sands! Go!”

Saluting, the last two men headed off, leaving Robin standing alone just outside of the circle of tents that the Shepherds had set up in the heart of the camp, next to one of the oasis’ that had been liberated by the afternoon’s fighting.

He tiredly shuffled into the circle, where a merry bonfire was burning directly in the centre, tended to by an ever-attentive Frederick. To one side Robin could see Lissa, Maribelle, Sumia and Stahl all busy at work preparing dinner while Nowi hovered around them like a fly; Robin decided to steer clear of that whole mess and opted instead to continue moving around them. Lon’qu and Vaike (mostly Vaike) were busy explaining to the rest of the Shepherds just what had happened on their stealth mission, and it looked like Sully was busily cleaning the sand and grit out of her armour.

“Is good group, yes?” Gregor asked, coming up beside Robin, a chunk of jerky in his hand.

“Gregor,” Robin greeted the older man. “Glad to see you approve of our little band of misfits.”

“Yes!” Gregor laughed, popping the last of the jerky into his mouth. “Is very misfit! Makes Gregor feel like young man again! And many beautiful women, too! Gregor thinks he is dying and gone to heaven.”

“Oh gods, not you too,” Robin groaned, rolling his eyes. “I get enough of this from Vaike.”

“Spiky haired man have appreciation for fine women, too? He and Gregor should talk,” Gregor asked curiously, pulling a vial out of his pocket and knocking it back in one gulp. “Blech. Never get used to such taste.”

“What was that?” Robin asked, eager to change the subject.

“Is special medicine,” Gregor explained, still making faces like something had died under his tongue. “Tastes like bottom of old well, but is very good for you.”

Gregor held out another vial of the brackish liquid to Robin. “Here; you drink, yes?”

“Uh… I don’t know if…” Robin started before the older man cut him off.

“Pah! Gregor not being so hasty to poison new employers,” Gregor said with a hearty laugh and a huge grin. “Is good for you! Makes Gregor fight like younger man; can only imagine what effect it has on actual young man!”

“Alright,” Robin said reluctantly, taking the vial and drinking it much the same way Gregor had.

And instantly regretting it.

“What in all of all the hells did you just give me!?” Robin coughed, the harsh liquid burning its way to Robin’s stomach.

“Give potion time,” Gregor laughed. “Will start to work soon. Tactician Robin fight like lion tomorrow!”

“Was there… Was there Feroxi firewine in this?” Robin wheezed, passing the empty vial back to Gregor.

“Yes! Am glad you recognized it!” Gregor said. “Is integral part of potion; alcohol is killing all bad things in stomach, making Robin feel much better. Potion also have roots and fruit juices, all kinds of fancy thingies! Does not come cheap.”

“Wait,” Robin said, stopping and looking wide-eyed at the big mercenary. “You’re charging me for it?”

“Hmmm… Consider first one gift from Gregor; free sample,” Gregor said, wrapping an arm around Robin’s shoulders. “Next ones will cost, though! Gregor even give Robin special employer discount.”

“What makes you think I’ll want more?” Robin asked, sagging under Gregor’s admittedly massive arm.

“Is addictive,” Gregor smiled. “Special kind of little brown bean is roasted, crushed and put into potion! Makes you feel like thousand suns burning inside, but also makes you want more.”

“Did you just drug me!?” Robin asked as he slipped out of Gregor’s embrace, terrified.

“No! No no no no no!” Gregor said, shaking his head empathetically. “Is all natural! Gregor is going to eat foods now. Was good talking to young Robin!”

As Gregor walked away Robin felt his awareness begin to expand as his tired limbs felt renewed. Looking around he could even see better in the dark, and easily spotted the first of the adjutants racing up to deliver their reports.

Maybe this stuff isn’t so bad after all? Robin thought tentatively, practically bouncing over to meet the men.

After three more hours of planning with exceedingly well-prepared soldiers and leaders Robin was exhausted, despite Gregor’s mystery tonic. He slumped into the small Shepherd compound for a second time, dragging his feet. The bonfire had already burned low, and many of the Shepherds were preparing to rest for the evening.

Robin had been buoyed enough to deal with the final preparations from the army officials, talk strategy with Chrom and the other leaders in a last minute meeting, and even tour the lines where the defences were being erected; spiked logs being buried in the earth facing outwards to stop cavalry charges was really the only thing they could do on short notice, but it would suit their needs just fine. He shuffled over to the table that had been used for the food-preparation, realising how late it was and hoping against hope that someone had had the foresight to save him some.

Finding only a stack of freshly washed pots and bowls, Robin’s hopes were dashed.

He opted to go and find the provisions they kept in the Shepherds’ private caravan, grabbing handfuls of jerky, dried fruits and a small wineskin from the crates piled up the front of the wagon. Safely cradling his spoils, Robin headed back for the fire. As the tactician sat he hissed in pain, remembering the arrow from earlier in the day. Setting down his burden carefully at his feet, Robin began rummaging through his pouch, looking in vain hope for a salve he knew he had used the day before.

“Dammit, I knew I shoulda restocked on that stupid thing…” he muttered softly.

Robin perked up as his hands closed on a small metal container nestled between some light bandages at the bottom of the pouch.

“What in the hell…?”

“I noticed you were out, so I restocked your medical supplies this morning before you left,” Cordelia said happily, coming up behind him and leaning on a javelin. “It probably would have been a better idea to tell you first, though.”

“Cordelia?” Robin asked, beginning to apply the salve to his injury. “You don’t miss a single detail, do you?”

To say that the Pegasus Knight was a godsend for Robin would be an understatement. In the week that had passed while armies prepared to march on Plegia Robin had found himself more and more thrust into the role of quartermaster for the expanding roster of Shepherds; a job that wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the task of organizing two nations’ armies almost single-handedly. Fortunately Cordelia had taken to caring for the Shepherds and picking up the slack that Robin was dropping, doing a better job than he could ever hope to.

“I just like to stay on top of things,” she replied with a slight shrug. “By taking stock of everyone's equipment, I know when anything needs replacing.”

“That’s commitment, right there,” Robin said distractedly. “Wait, you mean everybody’s equipment? As in all of us? In your head? Yeesh, Cordelia, even I need to keep notes for that kind of thing.”

“Of course,” Cordelia laughed lightly, her whole face lighting up. “Imagine the chaos that would ensue if our equipment ran out? Or, heaven forbid, that lummox Vaike didn’t get thirds of a meal?”

Robin tried moving his injured leg a little before putting the salve away, satisfied the wound was treated.

“Gods, I can certainly see why everyone calls you a genius,” he said idly. “You’ll put me out of a job at this rate!”

“Do not call me that!” the Pegasus Knight snapped suddenly.

Robin turned at Cordelia’s outburst. Her good cheer had vanished, instead leaving a pained grimace on her face as she clutched tightly to her javelin.

“Hey, I’m sorry, okay?” Robin said softly, trying to smooth things over. “I didn’t mean any offense by that; it was meant to be a compliment.”

“No, of course you didn't,” Cordelia sighed. “Please forgive me. It's just superiors called me that from the moment I joined the knights. It was so very hard sometimes... Little Lady Genius, they called me. They teased and taunted me... They mocked me, too... My appearance, and my javelin technique...”

“Wow, I’m really, really sorry,” Robin said, shifting on his seat to face her. “I had no idea. I mean, I guessed being a knight would be difficult, but that’s kinda harsh. You know I didn’t mean anything by it…”

“I know, I know,” Cordelia sighed, her mask sliding back into place. “I’m just overly sensitive about it is all; pay me no mind.”

“Well, if you ever need to talk…” Robin offered.

“I know, ‘your tent-flap is always open’,” Cordelia said with a tired smile. “Since you offered, though, I’d like to know what you think of this javelin. I’m not quite sure about the balance, myself.”

“Uh… that’s not what I… I mean… uh…” Robin stammered, confused by the abrupt change of topic before shrugging and stuffing a particularly large piece of a dried apple into his mouth. “Sure. I’m no weapon-smith, but why not? Hand it here.”

Robin groaned, stretching out his neck and rubbing his eyes. He’d been pouring over the strategy books Chrom had ordered brought from his quartes in Ylisstol, and the flickering candlelight he was forced to read by was giving him a headache. It was late now, and Robin knew they had to march early, but still he couldn’t sleep. Performance anxiety or something similar; he couldn’t help it, if he screwed up people would die and he was starting to panic.

“Where did I put that stupid Treatise on Tactics…” he groaned, looking through the pile of books for the tome in question.

Advanced tactics were adding to his headache. He would simply look up a few basic principles and retire for the evening. Much to his disappointment he hadn’t even gotten started on the books Sumia had given him…

Just as he found the offending tome, he was startled to hear a slight gasp from the direction of Chrom’s tent, which was the next one over. Robin instantly went for his sword, fearing the worst, before he heard a light giggle. Apparently Chrom and Sumia were still up, too.

“Oh for the love of…” Robin muttered darkly, putting his sword down and snatching up his coat as another giggle floated over, followed by a hurried shush.

There is no way in hell I am sitting here and listening to that all night Robin thought irritably, planning to put his tent much further away from the Prince’s next time.

Robin stomped away as loudly as he could on the dry and soft earth, hoping Chrom would get the message. Stopping some distance away he pulled on his coat; he found that the desert night air was particularly chilly, but it didn’t feel like a new revelation to him. Shaking such thoughts from his head, trying to replace them with ‘I’m sure there are plenty of other deserts in the world’ Robin made his way to where the fire was still fitfully burning, running low on fuel. Robin tossed a few more logs onto it, warming his hands on the renewed flames.

“I thought you would be asleep by now,” Panne said, sitting up from across the fire and making Robin jump a little at her sudden appearance.

“Not with Chrom and…” Robin started, before stopping himself. “I mean, uh… nerves. I’ve got pre-battle nerves.”

Panne nodded, moving to sit with Robin.

“I, uh, didn’t wake you, did I? Why are you sleeping out here, anyway?” Robin asked before he could stop his tired mind.

Panne shrugged. “It is warmer than in a tent next to the fire, and I find the horses do not lie down to sleep during marches. They tell me that they get nervous.”

“You can talk to animals?” Robin asked incredulously.

Panne nodded. “Not in the way I speak to you or the other man-spawn. We… understand each other, though.”

“Wow,” Robin breathed. “That’s impressive.”

“There is much I find strange about humans, too,” Panne said dryly.

“I’ll bet,” Robin chuckled. “We’re a pretty funny bunch.”

“Such as why the Prince and the clumsy one feel the need to hide their affections,” Panne continued.

Robin shrugged, surprisingly not as embarrassed as he thought he would have been about the topic. Maybe Vaike’s vulgarity was starting to rub off on him.

“It’s wartime, and Chrom’s the leader,” Robin explained. “People need to see him as level-headed, unbiased to the troops, undistracted. She was probably only in there to offer him comfort, anyway, considering the way things have gone for him and Lissa lately.”

“You speak of the Exalt’s sacrifice?”

“No,” Robin corrected quickly. “Not a sacrifice. Not yet. Not before we save her first.”

Panne chuckled darkly. “Your confidence is inspiring. Are you so certain it is not already too late?”

Robin nodded. “It would be a huge demoralization to all of the troops; Gangrel wouldn’t be able to stop himself from rubbing our noses in it.”

“I spoke with her before we separated,” Panne said after a moment of thought. “She seemed truly apologetic for what happened to my people. I came to the capital full of hate for all man-spawn; I still am full of hate, but…”

“Not for all of us?” Robin ventured as Panne trailed off.

“No,” Panne agreed. “Not all of you. She… opened my eyes.”

The two were silent for a moment before a thought struck Robin.

“Is there a reason you’re not bothering me to be your human-heater tonight?” he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

Panne looked away slightly. “I was under the impression it bothered you.”

“Urgh. Not as much as what’s going on in the tent next to mine…” Robin muttered, sure that Panne would hear him.

Robin stood, stretching his tired limbs a little as Panne laughed quietly at his bleak joke.

“Well, this man-spawn is tired. And particularly cold tonight,” he added, shooting a glance at Panne. “I could use a fluffy Taguel heater…?”

Panne shook her head as she stood, moving to her previous position by the fire.

"Clear heads, no distractions and all that, huh?" Robin asked a little sadly.

"I am trying to sleep, man-spawn," the Taguel answered him, a cross between amusement and sadness in her voice.

Robin sighed and shrugged as he walked away. "Just make sure you don't roll into the fire; I'm not overly fond of roast rabbit."

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