Lucina woke to a peculiar flapping sound outside her tent; years of half-sleep waiting for the familiar groan of the Risen seeing her awake and alert in an instant, hand already reaching for Falchion's nearby hilt.
"Dammit, get off my head!" Robin's shadow cursed as he walked by her tent. "If you want to ride on me, you ride on the shoulder, got it?"
A loud squawk answered his complaints, followed by more flapping and cursing.
The princess let herself relax, releasing her held breath as the tactician's cursing grew distant.
He's up early, she thought with a small flood of warmth as she glanced out the small slits at the top of the tent that allowed for airflow.
The light streaming in from outside had the peculiar grey-yellow tint of pre-dawn, so Lucina decided it wasn't worth going back to sleep, stretching her arms high above her head as she did with a light groan and yawn.
Being the daughter of the leader of the army, even if she wasn't from this particular time-line, still saw her treated with enough respect that she got her own tent. The small canvas prism had shocked her at first; in her time they had most often braved the elements and just slept outside; a tent was only used by the civilians and wounded, or during particularly bad winters when as many people as possible would crowd into the tiny spaces. But there were so many soldiers constantly keeping watch over them now; men from Ylisse, from Regna Ferox, and now the soldiers of the Valm dynasts that still valued their own freedom, the majority hailing from Chengshi that if she got up high enough all she would see as far as the horizon were tents.
Lucina sat for a moment, simply allowing her mind to go blank in the way Robin had insisted she continue trying every morning, even just for a few minutes. His 'slacking off' training turned out to be something very close to meditation; all she was supposed to do was sit and concentrate on her breathing, letting all of her other thoughts float away. She was surprised to admit that she found it enjoyable, and even more surprised that it was working and making her more relaxed.
Taking one final deep breath Lucina finally drew the covers completely off and set about pulling on her clothes, preparing for the day's marching and fighting.
An hour later Lucina panted, sheathing her sword, utterly spent.
"Good work," Chrom said, just as out of breath as she was after their sparring session.
She nodded numbly, not trusting her mouth to speak properly until she'd at least caught her breath a little.
Training with her father had also become a regular morning affair. She had felt guilty about it at first; her training with Chrom took him away from important duties he should have been doing, but she had justified it by saying to herself that it was in both of their best interests to train together and become stronger. That guilt had evaporated the moment she had found out that he saddled most of his work on Robin back in Port Ferox, anyway.
Still, it was nice to bond with the father she had lost, even if it was technically a 'different' Chrom. Her father had taught her how to use a sword and how to fight, but he hadn't nearly been the warrior that this Chrom was; not just because of the nearly two decade age gap. Her father had walked with a limp her entire life, a remnant of an assassination attempt before she had been born; the very one she had foiled in Ylisstol three years ago.
"Why don't you go get some breakfast?" her father suggested, wiping his face off with a towel. "I'm going to go make sure your mother's awake. We'll meet you there, okay Lucina?"
She nodded, smiling a little at the casual conversation as she made for the mess tent.
Academically she knew that the man she trained with and fought alongside wasn't really her father; he was the Lucina of this time-line's father. But knowing it did nothing to quash the selfish urge to get to know the man a little more.
She had reached the mess tent while lost in her thoughts and stepped inside, lifting the flap and instantly being struck by the sheer amount of movement and life in the early morning camp life.
The Shepherds were autonomous from the military proper, despite many of their members claiming to be part of both groups. As such they were responsible for their own upkeep; making and breaking their own camp every night and morning, cooking their own meals, caring for their own armour and weapons and everything in between.
The addition of the merchant Anna had apparently been a huge boon to the group; her contacts had seen a proper armourer, a man named Jake, join them; not to mention boosting the quality of the materials and provisions they had been getting.
Cooking duty was shared out among the Shepherds that didn't 'burn water' as Robin described his own skills in the field. Apparently her father wasn't much of a chef either, and she knew from experience just how bad Kjelle's cooking was. Robin had even set up a roster that saw those with lesser cooking skills paired with the more accomplished chefs so that they would learn; a stroke of genius that often went overlooked.
Fortunately it seemed that Olivia and Lady Cherche were in charge of the kitchen duty this morning, meaning decent food.
Lucina took her share, exchanging pleasantries with the two women before turning to look for a suitable place to sit, her eyes coming to rest on a familiar black and brown coat.
It was interesting to note, when she thought about it, the little things that Robin did or organized around the camp to make everyone's lives easier. It was he that had organized the chaos in the cargo trains almost single-handedly, even if he had passed the duty of maintaining them to Morgan; before Jake and Laurent had started on with the Shepherds Robin had personally been in charge of all quartermaster duties, keeping an eye on which weapons would need repairing or smithing himself; at least now the blacksmithing duties fell on Jake and the quartermaster duties on Laurent.
Many other numerous, nameless little things were taken care of by the tactician before he had realized he was drowning himself in his duties before they had set out from Port Ferox and he had started relying more on the tacticians from Ylisstol. Lucina had only known him properly a few months, but he was still a far-cry from the man that had been so kind to her during the war with Plegia.
Lucina realized she had been standing at the end of the serving counter for some time now and shook the thoughts from her head; most of the tables were full, either in space or in personality. She liked most of the Shepherds, but many of them were much more eccentric than the stories had suggested. Especially Vaike.
Well, mostly Vaike.
Lucina was surprised to see Robin sitting at one of the sparser populated tables with Lady Cordelia and Nowi, staring intently at the Manakete while she sat with an easy smile, staring right back. Lucina approached the table hesitantly, watching the strange spectacle unfold.
"Er… good morning, Robi-"
She was cut off when the tactician held up a finger, indicating she not speak to him for a moment.
With a tired sigh he looked away from Nowi, rubbing his eyes.
"I totally win again!" Nowi shouted, pumping a fist into the air before reaching over to Robin's plate and snatching at his bacon.
"And to the victor goes the spoils!" she giggled before running off, strips of bacon held above her head like little fried streamers.
Lucina took the dragon-girl's place at the table, grinning as Robin glared down at his plate.
"This was once a glorious meal of bacon and eggs," he groaned piteously. "Now it's just eggs on toast. Look what that girl's reduced me to!"
With another sigh, Robin looked back up.
"Sorry Lucina; good morning. Nowi doesn't leave me alone until I 'play' with her, and staring contests are quick and quiet. Usually."
Lucina chuckled a little, instantly put at ease by Robin's small grin as he greeted her. She almost missed Lady Cordelia's greeting, but responded in kind to the red-headed Wing Commander.
"It is alright," she replied to Robin. "I am still growing used to the various eccentricities of the army. This is a normal occurrence I take it?"
"Something like that," Robin groaned, poking at his eggs with a fork disinterestedly.
"You do know that Nowi has a clear membrane she drops over her eyes so she can see during flight," Cordelia said matter-of-factly over the table, spearing a small piece of diced fruit and bringing it to her smiling lips.
Lucina actually burst into laughter as the tactician's jaw dropped, his eyes widening.
"All this time?" he asked, shock and outrage tinging his voice. "We've been having staring contests for months! That little cheat! I am so ratting her out to Chrom for setting the camp on fire that one time!"
"What?" Cordelia laughed as Robin let his face fall forward onto the table with a soft thud.
"Never mind…" Robin groaned into the tabletop.
A thought occurred to Lucina as she watched the tactician's lamentation.
"Here," she said, nudging the strips of bacon off of her plate and onto his. "Maybe this will cheer you up. I don't really like bacon anyway."
Robin perked up instantly, his head snapping back up while Cordelia tried not to laugh at the expression of awe on his face.
"Okay, first," Robin said, holding a piece of the fried meat in front of his mouth and savouring the smell.
"How can you not like bacon? It's, like, an essential food group all of its own!"
"If one doesn't mind getting fat by eating nothing but," Cordelia muttered as Robin took a tiny bite from the strip.
Lucina shared a quiet laugh with the Pegasus Knight as Robin's face turned to one of rapture, his eyes rolling as he moaned with delight.
"And second…" the tactician said, downing the rest of the bacon in one bite before wiping his hands clean on his pants.
All of a sudden Robin was across the table, Lucina wrapped in a tight hug around her shoulders as the tactician shouted "thank you" over and over again, her head pressed to his chest.
The Princess' mind went blank as Cordelia dragged the tactician off of her and back across the table, trying not to laugh and to look suitably annoyed at the over-familiarity of the man at the same time.
"Breakfast has gotten strange since you started joining us again," Cordelia laughed, slapping Robin lightly in the back of the head once he was seated again.
"You all missed me and you know it," he responded, popping more of Lucina's gifted bacon into his mouth.
Lucina sat silently, poking at her breakfast as the other two laughed, doing her best not to blush at the casual contact and savouring the feeling of the tactician's brief closeness.
The conversation returned to something resembling normal after that, Robin and Cordelia talking about the scouting role that her Pegasus Knights were to play in the greater campaign.
Cordelia's Knights had a much higher range of movement than Frederick's or even the Feroxi trackers, and while Lady Say'ri's spy network could move unseen, there was always the risk of them being delayed or found out. The problem with spies was that they had to blend into their surroundings. If they were disguised as civilians and civilians weren't moving, they couldn't move either.
"We need to get a better idea of the enemy disposition," Robin was saying around a piece of toast.
He stopped for a moment to chew and swallow, before throwing the charred bread back onto his plate.
"Why are we talking about the war at breakfast time? This is supposed to be our downtime! Naga knows we could use more of it."
Cordelia chuckled a little.
"Well, we are soldiers," she said, sipping from her cup.
Lucina resisted the urge to sigh. For all of the zany eccentric behaviour around the Shepherd camp one glaring reality remained the same between the past and the future; no matter where Lucina went she was in the middle of conflict. In the future the entirety of the survivors had looked to her for leadership, just because she was of the blood of Naga's divine line of rulers; she had been thrust into an early position of power that she had never been prepared for. Now the Ylissean army relied on her as a sort of 'sounding board' for their tactical plans; the only tacticians that hadn't approached her for insight into the future were Robin and Morgan, and only because they knew she didn't know any specifics about the war with Valm.
Her mind began to wander, thinking of her lost family and friends, including those that had followed her to this timeline. Did her sister and cousin yet live? She had purposely omitted their existence from any talk with the present Shepherds to avoid getting their hopes up, Aunt Lissa and her Mother's especially. They were both so much more fragile than she remembered; perhaps the seemingly endless strength of will that the two women possessed came from age? If so, then how was she to compare? She was barely the same age as the Robin and Chrom of this timeline.
"Bleh," Robin groaned, snapping the Princess out of her maudlin thoughts. "Tell me about whatever trashy romance novel you're reading right now instead. That's always good for a laugh."
The Pegasus Knight Commander blushed the same colour of her hair, glancing embarrassedly at Lucina before hastily excusing herself, claiming the need to prepare her mount for the day's march before practically running out of the tent.
Robin chuckled victoriously, Lucina resisting the urge to join in.
"Works every time," he said under his breath, leaning back in his chair, resting his hands behind his head.
Lucina took the moment to observe the tactician as he relaxed.
He looked tired; no, he looked exhausted, as if he wasn't sleeping at night. His skin was pale beneath the thick stubble on his jaw, and there were huge dark rings around his eyes. She hadn't see him look this bad since before their little sojourn in Regna Ferox; only now he looked worse.
They were all tired; it was just one of the realities of marching and camping during a war. But the tactician seemed particularly out of sorts. He was hiding it well, but she had watched him for months now and was beginning to pick up on the subtle nuances of his behaviour. The way his eyes twitched around his surroundings; the way he ran his hand through his long hair; even the fact that he had forgotten to shave that morning pointed to some deep level of stress that he was trying to avoid.
Perhaps Gregor's death still weighed on his conscience and he was bottling up his emotions again?
Not that she was one to talk of keeping her emotions bottled up; aside from the initial conversation with her parents about her true identity and purpose in Plegia the only other person she had truly relaxed and spoken to was Robin, and only then because he kept persisting. It was difficult to refuse him, though.
"Why are you staring at me?" Robin asked tiredly, cracking open one eye. "Did Huginn crap in my hair again? I should really find out how Tharja convinces him not to 'go' anywhere near her…"
"No," Lucina said quickly, shaking her head. "You just look… tired."
Robin sighed again, leaning back over the table as he picked disinterestedly at his breakfast.
"That obvious, huh?"
Lucina nodded, starting back in at her own food.
"I guess I've got a lot of, er, personal stuff going on in my head right now," Robin said hesitantly in a low voice.
"You know you can talk to me," she offered, looking up from her plate.
Robin sighed and nodded.
"I know," he said. "It's just, well-"
Whatever the tactician had been about to say was cut off when her mother and father made their entrance into the tent, Chrom practically shouting good morning to all those assembled.
"He seems to be in an irrationally good mood this morning," Robin said with a light chuckle as Vaike returned her father's boisterous greeting with one of his own.
"I appreciate the offer to talk, Lucina," he added, leaning in close as the two other men laughed raucously. "But I have a lot to do before we can march. Maybe some other time? It might be nice to get all of this off my chest."
"Of course, Robin," Lucina said. "Any time you wish."
"Thanks," Robin said, reaching out and giving her shoulder a light squeeze as he rose.
Lucina nodded silently as he stood, slipping out of the tent before her parents saw him, a fact that was not lost on the Princess. She watched worriedly as his shape grew smaller in the distance before finally rounding a corner and disappearing from view as her parents sat down at the now vacant table with her.
Without thinking she reached up, fingertips brushing where his hand had lingered on her shoulder.
Robin glared at himself in the mirror, his reflection sighing tiredly in tandem with the tactician. The men's bathing tent was thankfully empty at the moment; Robin didn't much fancy the company of the others at present.
Huginn had woken him early for some ungodly reason, and then prevented him from eating the dried fruits and nuts he kept in his tent. The bird obviously thought it was being clever, forcing him to go to the mess tent for breakfast to socialize.
He ran a hand over the stubble on his face, replaying the morning's conversation with Cordelia and Lucina as he did, smiling a little.
It had been some time since he had spoken to Cordelia, even if all she wanted to do was talk about his love-life. He had missed their time in Ylisstol at the little café off the markets, missed the conversations about trashy literature and rebuilding the Pegasus Knights. Hell, he even missed listening to her harp on about how unlucky she was in love. Although now that Robin had love-life troubles of his own she had zeroed-in on him like one of Virion's arrows and was being relentless, which was exactly what was going on before Nowi had interrupted them. He had been about to spill, too, just to shut her up.
And then Lucina had shown up.
Every time he watched the Princess from a distance she looked so serious, so joyless that all he wanted to do was make her smile. Of course, Robin liked to make everyone smile, but with Lucina it was different. With her it felt less like something he usually just did, and more like something he had to do; it was something that the little voices inside his head demanded he do.
Chrom had commented in passing once that she always seemed to smile a lot more when everyone was together, but Robin had watched her interact with the others while he wasn't around. At the risk of letting his own imagination and desires run away from him, he liked to think that the smile she used around him was her true smile.
Lucina was right, he thought with another sigh, poking gently at the skin under his eyes. I do look like crap. I'd better not let Morgan see me like this, she'll never let me hear the end of it. And knowing her, she'll start drugging me to make sure I get some sleep, or she'll make Tharja start hexing me to sleep.
The tactician ran another hand up and down the side of his face, groaning. The thought of shaving just didn't appeal to him that day. He gave in, splashing the warm water from the basin he was leaning on onto his face and putting his shaving blades away, dressing himself and mentally preparing to face the day ahead. He had a mountain of paperwork to do that he simply couldn't palm off to Morgan this time, and…
With a start Robin realized that he no longer chided himself for thinking romantically about Lucina.
Is this a good or a bad thing? He wondered as he stepped out into the bright daylight.
The leaves of the great Mila Tree, so high above, cast long shadows over the majority of the camp, but the light was still beautiful and bright, making Robin want nothing more than to shirk his duties and go sit by a creek and sort through his thoughts.
The tactician cursed his luck as he spun on his heel, walking determinedly to his tent.
I can get this paperwork done, I can talk to Say'ri and then I can go and relax before we march tomorrow. Be a man, Robin; get it all over and done with.
Morgan hummed a little as she skipped through the Shepherds' camp; it was just after lunch, she had taken care of the troop reports for the eighth and twelfth divisions of the Ylisstol army while the other 'desk tacticians' worked away on the rest of the reports; troop rosters, shipping manifests, storage lists… The army didn't need tacticians, it needed a squad of dedicated clerks.
Makes me wonder what Dad got saddled with… Morgan thought with a shudder. That was a pretty big pile Frederick dumped on him last night.
It appeared to Morgan the dour Knight Commander didn't much like her father; she got along with the man well enough, more like a working relationship than anything else, but Morgan had noticed him glaring at her Father for no apparent reason, or looking for fault in his reasoning just to rebuke him.
Morgan guessed it was the way her Father had simply up and left the military; for men like Frederick it wasn't a job, it was a lifestyle. The Knight Commander was exactly that and nothing more; he existed solely to serve the Royal Family of Ylisse. Unlike Robin, the free-spirited tactical genius that apparently had leave to come and go as he pleased. Perhaps it was a simple personality-clash, or maybe even-
Morgan glanced up as a flash of fluffy brown fur distracted her train of thought, her mind instantly switching tracks as her friends appeared from the command tent.
"Morning Severa! Morning Bunny!"
The other two looked up as Morgan jogged over to them.
"Morning," Yarne muttered, eying Morgan suspiciously as he protectively held his ears to his shoulders.
"Morning sunshine," Severa said in a tone that made it difficult to tell if she was being sarcastic or not.
"We've got orders," the red-head added, holding a sheet of paper out to Morgan. "You're taking your Father's place on today's scouting mission. Thirty minutes, camp's western perimeter."
Then Severa turned and left, Yarne shrugging before following her, leaving Morgan to hurry alone and get her gear.
I wonder what Dad's doing that's so important today? Morgan thought curiously as she returned the way she had just come, angling for her tent.
Maybe Prince Chrom just wants to give him some down-time? No, he's probably buried in paperwork again. I'll see if he needs help with any of it when we get back.
Morgan pulled back the flap to the tent she shared with Noire; the other girl was absent, though, no doubt practicing hexes with her Mother. Noire was a great roommate – tentmate? - to have, even if she was a little messy. She was quiet, and always busy, so she was never just lounging around and getting in the way. Morgan grabbed her sword from where it was leaning on the camping table across from her bedroll; like her Father she had a horrible habit of falling out of cots, so she opted for the bedroll, too.
The long, thin sword was strapped securely to her hip, Morgan giving the sheath a few tugs just to be safe. Her pouch, containing her newly minted spellbook, went on her other hip next, opposite her sword. The spellbook was a little heavier than her last one, but she had adjusted quickly enough during the weeks' worth of training while Prince Chrom and her father had been in Chengshi. She had tried to improve her handwriting a little this time, too, but had gotten over-excited when she'd gotten to the super-powerful spells her Father kept in the back of his own spellbook and… well; at least she could read it.
Satisfied, she was about to exit the tent when something glittering in her spare shirt, tossed carelessly to the side of the tent near her bedroll, caught her eye.
Oh, right! Morgan thought quickly, bending to retrieve Noire's amulet and slipping it over her head to rest around her neck, tucking it securely beneath her shirt. I can't believe I almost forgot that! Aunt Tharja would've killed me if Noire would've found that!
Satisfied that she was ready, Morgan stepped out of the tent and back into the crowded hustle of the war-camp. She dodged around soldiers on patrol and slower moving men and women that were obviously off-duty as she neared the western periphery, spotting Yarne surrounded by a team of Feroxi trackers.
"That was quick," the young Taguel commented as Morgan approached. "I thought all girls took forever to… you know. Primp?"
He looked nervous, but that was hardly unusual given his timid nature off the battlefield.
"For a stealth mission?" Morgan asked, falling into step with him. "Honestly? Does anyone actually… never mind. I'm sure I know the answer to that."
Obviously Severa takes her physical appearance very seriously, Morgan thought, supressing a giggle.
The team of Feroxi trackers barely glanced up as Morgan arrived completely engrossed in checking their equipment. Some carried bows while others carried bladed weapons, but they all wore thin, dark leather armour that would blend in with the forested surroundings beneath mottled green and brown cloaks. They all had dark skin, the obvious leader having flesh the same hue as Khan Basilio; in fact the younger man actually kind of looked like the Khan.
"So these are the Feroxi trackers?" Morgan asked Yarne conspiratorially.
The Taguel nodded.
"Apparently chosen by Khan Basilio himself, so you know they're good."
Morgan crossed her arms and sunk to a hip, watching the men in their silent last-minute preparations. Bowstrings were checked to be taught while leaves were gently dropped onto sword edges; bandoliers of pockets were secured while ropes and climbing hooks were rolled up and placed in pouches.
"Are we underequipped?" Morgan asked the Taguel quietly.
"No," the Feroxi leader said in a quiet voice eerily reminiscent of Basilio's. "We just like to travel prepared. Never know when this junk may come in handy."
Morgan nodded as the other man stood, coming over and shaking their hands. His bare arms were covered in spike-patterned, winding tribal tattoos that Morgan had seen on a few of the other Feroxi, and his long black hair was tied away from his face in a tight braid at the base of his skull.
Okay, he doesn't 'kind of' look like Basilio; he looks exactly like him!
"I'm Lari," he introduced himself. "I'm leading the trackers, but we're supposed to be deferring to you Shepherds for this mission."
"I'm… I'm Yarne," the Taguel stammered as he shook the Feroxi's hand.
"Hi Lari, I'm Morgan," she said cheerily as she grasped his rough, calloused hand and pumped it up and down vigorously. "Are you related to Khan Basilio by any chance? You look just like him! Except, you know, with hair and two eyes."
And giant sexy arms and mysterious tattoos and… and he's gorgeous! Oh gods Morgan, don't swoon, don't swoon, don't swoon…
The dark skinned man blinked a few times at the speed of Morgan's question before breaking into a huge grin and laughing a little, his perfect white teeth sparkling as his eyes crinkled with mirth.
"Maybe," he said with a dry chuckle. "It's a possibility. We don't really keep track of stuff like extended family in Regna Ferox."
Morgan nodded, mentally making notes about the customs of Western Regna Ferox concerning family and making another to write it down somewhere when she got the chance and doing her best to discreetly ogle the Tracker.
"Where's Severa?" Yarne huffed impatiently. "We're going on a scouting mission, not a shopping trip! What could possibly be taking her so long?"
Is Bunny jealous? Morgan wondered curiously.
Lucina looked up from her clipboard as Severa rushed into the supply tent with all the subtlety of a hurricane.
She and Laurent had been working for the last hour on taking inventory of their healing surplus; a boring task to be sure, but a necessary one, and after seeing how hard her Father and Robin worked she had decided to assist in any capacity she could with the mountainous clerical work involved in running the army.
"Oh," Severa said, noticing the mage and the Princess as she reached into a crate full of small containers of healing salve.
"I didn't see you guys there."
"Are you injured?" Lucina asked instantly, moving towards the red-head while Laurent muttered to himself about people undoing all his work before he could even finish it.
"No, just going on a scouting mission," Severa replied with a sigh. "It's a real pain, but I guess someone has to do it."
"Well, why don't I join you?" Lucina offered, placing her clipboard down on a nearby crate. "Laurent and I were almost done here anyway."
She glanced back at the mage, who silently waved her off, already squatting down next to a box of dried herbs used to make healing poultices for the smaller injuries.
"Well, come on if you're coming," Severa huffed. "I'm already running behind."
Lucina nodded, falling into step with the other woman as they exited the tent. The camp was quieter near the supply tents, armed guards patrolling the area. Even in an army as dedicated as her father's apparently greed and avarice could still take root; fortunately they had quickly stomped out any theft of supplies, thanks in no small part to Morgan's meticulous rostering.
"We're scouting the Western flank; Robin thought we might be able to make use of a dry riverbed to send some lighter units along, so we're checking it out, seeing how far exactly it runs, that kind of thing," Severa explained. "He seems to think that it runs all the way to Fortress Steiger and we can use it for a flanking team during the battle."
"It's pointless busy-work, though," she added icily as they paused to let a squad of soldiers jog by at an intersection of tents.
"If Robin has decided it warrants investigating, then we shall investigate," Lucina said in reply, matching Severa's tone and frowning.
"Yeesh, lighten up," the red-head said with a roll of her eyes. "I'm just kidding; I know how important this crap is. Why so defensive?"
Why indeed? Lucina wondered as she lapsed into silence.
Robin had yet to lead them astray; he worked himself to the bone to ensure the safety of everyone involved in his plans, including the non-Shepherd personnel. She had only borne witness to it once, but watching how he planned, how he made massive leaps of logic that left her struggling to understand how he could put the pieces together the way he did was awe-inspiring. Listening to Severa complain about his tactics, even in jest, rubbed the Princess the wrong way.
But is it just because of his dedication to the cause? Lucina asked herself as she followed Severa. It must be. He is our tactician and I am a soldier here; nothing more.
She quashed the little voice in the back of her mind whispering otherwise as the duo came upon the Western barricades.
Morgan and Yarne were already waiting, speaking with a Feroxi man that could pass for Basilio's younger brother. The Taguel said something and the younger tactician and Feroxi man burst out laughing while the other trackers relaxed nearby.
"There you are!" Morgan cheered when she spotted Severa.
Her look changed to one of confusion as she spotted Lucina.
"What's up, Luce?" she asked, adopting her pet name for the Princess. "You coming too?"
"I had intended to accompany you," Lucina agreed, glancing at the Feroxi man.
He shrugged, pointing to Morgan.
"She's in charge, not me. I'm just a seat-filler. Name's Lari."
"Well met, Lari," Lucina said with a nod. "Are we ready to depart?"
Morgan nodded enthusiastically, and the group began to hike towards the western mountainous area without any further delay.
"Geez, this is kind of weird," Morgan commented as they left the camp behind. "I've never ordered Royalty around before. I wonder how my Father feels about doing it?"
"You worry about the strangest things," Severa muttered from behind them.
Lucina shook her head and smiled; Morgan truly was just as eccentric as her father.
Robin bolted through the camp, his pack held in one hand and his coat in his other, dodging around soldiers and doing his best not to run into any inanimate objects as he ignored the burning ache in his legs from yesterday's climb up the Mila Tree.
"Where are you going?" Chrom called to him from the mess tent as he passed.
"Scouting mission I forgot about!"
"Wait! Stop!" Chrom called, bringing the tactician up short.
"Chrom, I'm really late for this mission," Robin panted.
"You don't remember? We gave your position to Morgan so she could get some more field experience and you could finish that paperwork. It was your idea."
Robin ran a hand down his face, willing his heartbeat to slow.
I… did I suggest that? I don't remember.
"You really don't remember? It was during last night's war council."
"Ah," Robin said, comprehension dawning. "I'm sorry, Chrom, but last night I was barely conscious after those stairs. I guess I kinda blanked out a little."
"Good thing Virion takes notes, then," the Prince said with his easy smile, clapping the tactician on the shoulder and leading him to the mess tent.
"While you're out here, why don't you break for lunch? You can't work all day."
"Can, have, and will again," Robin said in short breaths.
I really am exhausted today, the tactician lamented as he let Chrom lead him to the head table.
Lissa and Sumia were already sitting with sandwiches in front of them as Robin was forced into a seat, letting his gear fall to the floor out of his hands either side of him.
Why am I so tired? Robin wondered as Chrom set a plate in front of him, before sitting down next to his wife.
"How's the paperwork going?" Lissa asked with a big Cheshire smile.
Robin quirked a brow at the young woman, bringing his sandwich to his mouth and hesitating before his first bite.
"If you're really curious I could give you a front row seat," he offered, returning her smile. "There's plenty to go around."
Lissa chuckled, holding up her hands in defeat.
"I'm almost done anyway," Robin said around a mouthful of sandwich. "Just a few more little odds and ends to wrap up that I shouldn't have let sit for so long."
"Gotta keep up on that paperwork," Chrom said nonchalantly as he took a bite of his own food.
"Exactly," Robin said with a light laugh. "Which is why I made a nice big pile of the work you were supposed to do that 'accidentally' got mixed up in my pile."
Chrom gagged on his food as Sumia shot him a glare.
"That's very considerate of you, Robin," she deadpanned, still glaring dangerously at her husband as he tried to work the obstruction from his throat, pounding on his chest with one hand.
"I'll swing by later and make sure he gets it."
Robin and Lissa burst out laughing while Chrom took a deep swig of his cup of water, before chuckling ruefully as he put it down.
"I regret nothing," he said to his wife with a sheepish grin. "It was worth a try."
"Yes, and very sneaky of you, slipping it into the reports about reserve supply numbers; you knew I'd barely be paying attention to those. Somebody's spent too much time around me, I think."
"Well, not recently, anyway," Chrom scoffed a little. "Lately it's all we can do to get you to eat with us."
"I've been busy," Robin shrugged.
"And now we know why," Sumia said, shooting another dirty look at Chrom, who was doing his best to look innocent.
"Alright, I'm sorry already," Chrom said, placing both hands flat on the table. "I hereby swear I will never try to offload my own paperwork to my tactician again."
"Even I can tell that's a lie," Lissa said in the silence that followed.
Robin's response was lost when he noticed Say'ri enter the tent, his words catching in his throat as she walked directly to the serving counter, the laughter of the other three at the table going unheard by the tactician.
He caught her gaze as she turned from the counter, the look she gave him enough to freeze the blood in his veins as she sat at the other end of the tent.
"Well, I should get back to work," Robin said quickly, standing and grabbing his things, studiously avoiding making eye contact with anyone.
"But you just sat down!" Sumia exclaimed. "You haven't even finished your food yet!"
Robin reached down and stuffed the entire sandwich-half he hadn't touched yet into his mouth and waving to the others as he retreated.
Tactical withdrawal, he mentally corrected himself. I'm not ready for that particular conversation with her yet.
Ooh, big man, running like a little girl from a woman scorned.
Robin resisted the urge to groan as he mentally crushed his inner voice, trying not to wince as a fresh wave of exhaustion overcame him.
Hell hath no fury… Gods I'm tired. Just a little more work today. Then I'll take a proper break.
"That is a big fortress," Morgan whispered from between Lucina and Lari.
They were crouched in a small gully just off of the main riverbed that Robin had ordered the group to scout; fortunately they had avoided detection and managed to proceed without having to silence any of the numerous Valmese patrols.
Lucina had resisted the urge to scoff at the poorly trained conscripts as the Shepherds and Feroxi had snuck around them. Truly that was one of the biggest points in their favour; the Ylissean League was a highly-trained force of light and heavy infantry divisions, cavalry, mages, and support units. So far it appeared that the only properly trained Valmese squads were the cavalry they fielded. The battle at the base of the Mila Tree with infantry had proven just how inept the Valmese forces and leadership truly were.
Lucina was no tactician, not like Robin was at any rate, but she could easily see the disorganization in their forces and had watched the way that any unit cohesion had crumbled the second that General Cervantes had fled the field.
"We got the intel we needed," Lari said, making some marks on a map with a stick of charcoal. "We should be getting back."
Lucina nodded her agreement and the trio slipped back into the gully, backtracking as they made their way to where the rest of the group was waiting in the shadow of a large rock formation next to the dry riverbed.
"Well?" Severa asked impatiently when they reunited. "Are we done here?"
"Yeah," Morgan said with a definitive nod. "But I'm not too sure about returning the way we came in."
"Why's that?" Lari asked curiously.
"Well if we get caught now we can beat the patrols no problem, but the plan will be ruined before we can even use it," Morgan explained. "We should bypass the riverbed, follow the main road posing as mercenaries and pass through the town we saw on the way here as we head in the direction of the Mila Tree."
"That… actually made sense," Yarne said.
"Can we at least take a break in the town?" Severa asked, crossing her arms.
"I guess," Morgan shrugged. "If we're really, really fast about it."
"Towns have beer!" one of the Feroxi trackers whispered before the others all started muttering excited agreement.
"Which you're not touching," Lari said in a warning tone. "We refill our waterskins at the well and we keep moving unless Tactician Morgan says otherwise. Get ready to move out."
Morgan nodded to the Feroxi tracker appreciatively as he drew the hood on his sleeveless vest up over his long black hair, shrouding the majority of his face in shadow.
"Cloaks on," Morgan ordered to the three other Shepherds, drawing up her own hood. "Yarne, you've got cute bunny ears, and Lucina, you look too much like your Father, so we wear disguises."
They all followed Morgan's instructions, Yarne muttering about not being cute as he tucked his ears beneath his hood, eying Lari crossly as the Feroxi man stifled laughter at the Taguel being referred to as 'cute'.
"Good to go?" Morgan asked the Feroxi from beneath her hood, the only visible part of her face now her grinning mouth and chin.
Lari nodded. Impressively enough the Feroxi had managed to hide the majority of their weapons beneath the cloaks they had thrown on, looking like little more than lowly and down-on-their-luck mercenaries. The only exception was Lari, who's vest had a hood attached to the back of the collar. The majority of his face was obscured, but his muscular brown arms and dark tribal tattoos would give him away as a Feroxi warrior, not to mention the fact that he was festooned with weapons and equipment.
Morgan didn't mention any of these facts, so Lucina decided to let them go.
"I want two of you on each side of the road," Lari ordered confidently to his men. "Keep quiet and keep out of sight; do not engage unless we do, understood? You are strictly backup. Meet up again in the town."
The Trackers moved silently into the forest alongside the river, disappearing into the trees with all the skill of one of Say'ri's spies as the rest of the group walked to the road. The four Shepherds followed, Lari sticking close to them; more specifically, sticking close to Morgan.
Lucina grinned underneath her cloak; Morgan seemed to be completely oblivious to the looks that the young man was giving her.
The forest in this part of Valm was similar to the one that Lucina had passed through when the group of Shepherds led by Robin and her Father had travelled to Chengshi, but it was warmer, and the trees were smaller and sparser placed. The forest felt the same, though; overflowing with life and greenery, enough to take Lucina's breath away.
In the future the landscape had been barren and desolate; little had grown as the Risen had spread, Grima's taint spreading with them and sapping the life from the very earth itself. This lush, verdant landscape was still new and enthralling to Lucina; even the deserts of Plegia had felt alive, in their own way.
They came onto the road, travelling in a staggered line and doing their best to appear nondescript. A few times during their march they had tensed as red-armoured Valmese troops had marched by, completely ignoring them.
A group of more than ten armed people march around during wartime and are completely ignored? Lucina thought incredulously. Are these people untrained or simply stupid?
She watched carefully as another squad of soldiers passed the Shepherds fifteen minutes later, shuffling apathetically and barely paying attention to where they were marching, let alone their immediate surroundings.
Conscripts, Lucina decided. Farmers and craftsmen not interested in fighting but given no choice.
She had seen the look often enough in her own time as the last towns and villages had been swallowed by the horde of Risen, forcing the survivors to join with the caravan and take up arms.
They eventually came upon the small town a short while later, the four Feroxi stationed in the forest alongside the road emerging as silently as they had disappeared, re-joining the rest of the group and pulling camouflage patterned scarfs and balaclavas from their faces.
"Not a very lively place, is it?" Yarne asked under his breath as they warily walked into the town, making for the well in the centre crossroads.
A few sallow-faced villagers watched them from doorways of windows, always closing them or looking away when one of the Shepherds or Trackers attempted to make eye contact.
"The Valmese army has them terrified," Morgan pointed out.
Lucina frowned as she attempted to get a look at a woman watching them, only to be met with closing shutters as she retreated into her home. She had yet to see a single man above the age of a child or below the age of an elder.
She looked back ahead, noticing Morgan staring intently at her.
"Alright, fill the waterskins and lets move," Lari ordered his men quietly, who all began bustling for the well in a tide of camouflage capes.
He tossed his own empty skin to one of his men as he turned to Morgan.
"Feel like taking a look around?"
The tactician nodded, turning to Yarne and Severa and pointing in two opposite directions.
"You guys go that way, we'll go this way; just a quick scouting trip, don't engage anything. We're looking for fast-exit points if we need 'em."
"Here," Lucina said before the two duos could depart, holding out a hand. "Give me your empty waterskins. I will see that they are refilled."
The four others nodded appreciatively, leaving their empty skins with Lucina and separating their different directions as Lucina began moving for the well. Filling waterskins was hardly a task for a Princess, but it needed to be done, and she had done far more mundane tasks in her future.
The Feroxi Trackers were quickly and efficiently filling their own skins, one man pouring water from a bucket as another held the skins, the rest lounging about in such a manner as to look inconspicuous. Lucina had no doubt that the men were actually in carefully chosen positions to cover the other two if they were attacked. Some even rested their hands on the hilts of their weapons or kneaded the hafts of their axes restlessly. They may act at being buffoons as all warriors from Regna Ferox were wont to do but they were truly skilled in their arts.
"Here, milady," the man pouring the water offered, seeing her waiting.
The other man stepped back with a respectful nod, beginning to distribute the already filled skins as Lucina set to filling her friends'.
It was harder than the two men had made it look, most of the water poured for the first skin splashing to the dusty earth at her feet.
The Tracker grinned and chuckled a little as he lowered the bucket back into the well, drawing up more water.
"Hold the skin from the neck and the bottom," he advised. "You get more control that way."
This time Lucina fared much better, and was able to fill three of the other skins without spilling much.
She stepped back once she was done, cradling the now-full skins in one arm as she scanned the empty town square-crossroad. The town was small; no doubt Morgan and Severa would get to one end and back before long. The buildings were shabby, shabbier than she had seen so far from many of the other places she had visited in her time in the past. The nameless little town made her wonder if the entirety of Valm looked like this; sucked dry for resources for the war and left to wither and die. In hindsight even Chengshi had seemed a little rough compared to the cities of Ylisse, although not on this level. There were no holes in walls covered by tarps in Chengshi, no doors hanging off hinges or terrified faces waiting and hoping for the visitors to leave.
Some children ran into the main intersection, laughing and chasing each other before quickly being grabbed and pulled indoors by their mothers, being scolded in hushed tones.
"They are afraid," one of the Trackers said in a thick accent reminiscent of Gregor's. "They fear soldiers and warriors. This 'Conqueror' has left his mark on his people."
A few of the other Trackers muttered assent, and Lucina silently agreed with them.
What manner of warlord would so thoroughly ignore his subjects? Lucina had watched her father in the two year peace as he rebuilt Ylisse after the war with Plegia; he had personally ridden out numerous times to assist the aid workers in delivering supplies to small villages, or assisting in the rebuilding efforts every chance he got. In fact after the wedding he'd spent little more time in Ylisstol than Robin had.
She decided that was the mark of a true ruler; a person willing to get dirty alongside their subjects in the aim of making life a little easier for them.
Lucina glanced up again as Morgan and Lari sauntered back into the intersection, the tactician hiding something behind her back as she walked.
Lari nodded a brief greeting to Lucina as he passed, angling directly for his men and speaking to them in hushed tones.
"Here you go!" Morgan said happily, a small bundle of flowers appearing beneath Lucina's nose.
Lucina took the flowers, not sure how to respond.
"Er… thank you, Morgan. They're lovely. But what's the occasion?"
The other girl shrugged. Lucina caught sight of one of the small white flowers tucked behind Morgan's ear beneath her hood at the movement.
"No occasion," Morgan said breezily. "Some kids were picking them out by the edge of town. Those are your share."
Lucina glanced back down to the bunch of small plants in her hand, momentarily allowing herself to become distracted in the bright colours.
"I've honestly never seen such vibrant colours."
"Did you forget your dress already?" Morgan asked with a cheeky wink.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" she asked after a second of silence. "Even in the middle of a war the flowers still bloom. Can you imagine what the world will look like when it's finally at peace?"
Lucina laughed a little at Morgan's unflappable attitude.
"I've not known anyone so optimistic in all my days. I'm a bit envious, honestly," she admitted, tucking the flowers carefully into her hip pouch.
If nothing else they would liven up her tent's interior a little, so long as she could avoid crushing them on the return trip.
"It's a gift," Morgan replied with a grin. "But why would you be envious? Is something bugging you?"
"Not a specific concern, so much as a grim memory that refuses me peace," Lucina admitted.
"I apologize," she added quickly. "I have no place to complain when you've lost your entire memory. You must carry your own set of woes, do you not? Living in a strange time, without a firm grasp on who you are?"
"Eh, it's not as bad as you might think," Morgan said with an over-exaggerated shrug. "True, it can leave you feeling a bit untethered, maybe? Afloat? But that's just another word for free. Every experience is brand new! The smell of the air, the colour of those flowers—it's all so fresh and intense!"
Lucina wondered if that was how Robin had seen the world when they had first met; he had seemed much happier and far more similar to Morgan two years ago. Perhaps they were both blessed to not remember their pasts. She surely wished that she could forget her own sometimes.
"Plus, I know who I am," Morgan added as an afterthought. "I'm Tactician Morgan of the Ylissean League. That's enough for now."
"I'll say it again," Lucina said with a sad grin. "I envy you. I arrived in this era with a heart already blackened by painful memories."
And to add insult to injury the only man that I would have heal my heart I cannot be with for fear of disrupting the natural time-flow further.
Lucina started as the grim thought slipped through her usually carefully guarded mental walls, grateful when Morgan continued to talk and distract her.
"But your father's alive in this time, isn't he?" Morgan said helpfully. "And so is everyone else! We'll beat Grima and usher in a new era of peace and flowers!"
Lucina chuckled as Morgan struck a pose, her response lost as she glanced up at movement in the corner of her eyes and noticed Severa and Yarne hurrying back to them.
The Princess went on alert instantly when she caught Severa's gaze from beneath the hem of her cloak.
"Cavalry unit incoming," Severa said quickly once she and Yarne reached the well. "We need to be somewhere else, now."
The Trackers were all instantly on their feet, looking to Morgan for direction.
"Head east," Morgan said quickly, already walking. "We'll make for the farmlands and circle back north once it's safe. Hopefully the cavalry are heading south to the fortress and will completely ignore us."
It amazed Lucina the speed with which Morgan could go from her usual carefree self to the all-business troop leader. One second they were talking about flowers, the next she was leading them from danger with a firm confidence belying her years.
Lucina had to admit that the warning had come as a timely distraction from her current train of thought as she glowered at the ground, focusing instead on moving quickly and quietly.
They emerged from the town into sprawling farmlands, the forest well and truly behind them.
"This wasn't a great idea," Yarne muttered as he hurried behind Morgan and Lucina, glancing around at the seemingly endless fields of young, knee-high wheat swaying in the breeze.
"There's nowhere to hide if we get caught."
"You worry too much," Morgan said with a grin over her shoulder.
Robin groaned, stretching out his arms above his head as he shuffled out of his tent into the harsh daylight.
He had just passed his finished paperwork off to some unlucky runner that would deliver it to Frederick; Sumia had collected Chrom's paperwork hours ago; he was finally free to relax, and he knew just the place to do it; at the base of the Mila Tree, nestled between the roots there was this crystal clear pool that he'd been eager to get another look at after-
Aren't you forgetting something?
Crap, Robin thought, groaning and letting his hands drop onto the top of his head. He watched a squad of Liung's soldiers march by, wearing a very familiar style of exotic armour as he ignored the cruel laughter in his head.
I wonder if I should get Tharja to come and back me up, Robin lamented as his feet started moving of their own accord. It would be nice to know if I get stabbed help isn't far away.
As if summoned by thoughts of his master Huginn landed on Robin's shoulder with a burst of downdraft and a familiar wing-slap in the back of his head.
"Okay, you're my backup," Robin said to the raven. "If I get stabbed, you go get help."
The bird cocked its head, looking at Robin curiously.
Robin sighed. "Don't ask. Just… If I have an extra hole or two in the next few hours, get help. Preferably before I bleed to death."
Huginn cawed, fluffing his feathers and getting comfortable.
Gods I'm talking to a bird now. I really need a good long break. Or a nap.
Robin took a few more trudging steps before he hesitated.
Think. She's still pissed. She's not going to just take our word that Morgan's hers. You need solid proof to convince her.
Robin stopped dead, understanding dawning.
I need Morgan's sword.
Robin turned on his heel, making for the western barricades and mentally forcing his thoughts to be silent. His head spun and his vision blurred for a moment as he walked, but at least he was content in the knowledge that he'd be able to rest soon.
Morgan laughed as she pulled her hood back.
"See? Told you they'd ignore us."
True to the tactician's prediction the Valmese cavalry had blown through the small town, ignoring everything else and continuing south towards Fortress Steiger.
She had noted that their standard wasn't the same one that had been flown by the men following General Cervantes at the Mila Tree, though, so she could safely assume that they were reinforcements from another of Walhart's armies.
"Yeah. Great," Yarne muttered, pulling off his own hood and shaking his ears free.
"You almost sound like you wanted them to attack us, Bunny," Lari joked as the group stopped to take a quick breather.
They'd been travelling at a brisk jog, hoping to put some distance between them and the town before the cavalry passed through.
"Don't call me that," Yarne warned, reaching for his waterskin only to realize Lucina was still holding it.
Lucina silently handed out the waterskins, and everyone began to drink.
"I think we should just cut through the farmlands," Lari said after a short time. "We need to get off the roads if the Valmese are moving troops; we might not get as lucky next time."
"It's pretty much a straight line from here to the camp anyway," Morgan agreed with a thoughtful nod.
Already they could make out the shape of the Mila Tree in the distance, like a strange, inverted mountain on the horizon.
"Alright," Morgan said with a more definite nod. "But try not to do any damage to the crops. These people have suffered enough."
Lari nodded, squatting down next to one of the sitting Trackers and speaking to the man in hushed tones, making more quick notes on the map he had been marking before.
Morgan stopped to think for a moment, resting her chin in her hand the way she'd seen her father do. The fact that Steiger was being reinforced meant that the Valmese Tactician knew it was their next target; the plan to lay siege to the fortress wouldn't work. They would have to adapt it into a lightning-strike before the soldiers in the massive edifice could seal the gates. Failing that, an infiltration team could sneak in and open them again, but it would be a high-risk assignment, one that her Father would never sign off on unless he was leading the team.
Morgan's gaze snapped up as the Trackers scattered in different directions, some heading in the northern direction of the camp while others just disappeared into the fields around them.
"They're going to run interference," Lari explained. "They'll be our decoys. A few are heading right back to camp with our reports; they can move faster on their own. I'm staying with you guys, though."
"A little warning next time, maybe?" Severa huffed, crossing her arms.
"Sorry, but it was kind of a snap decision."
"It's fine," Morgan said. "As long as they're careful and the intel gets back as soon as possible there's no problem."
Severa scoffed and turned away, obviously not agreeing with Morgan's sentiment but keeping quiet about it all the same. As quiet as Severa got, anyway.
"Well?" Yarne said after a moment's silent inactivity. "Are we going to get back to camp or what?"
Robin leaned against the wooden railing that had been set up to mark the boundary of the camp proper, looking into the light forest that surrounded the western periphery as he waited for Morgan's group to return.
I should have brought a book or something, he thought for the umpteenth time. I feel like I'm wasting time here.
The afternoon was growing late, and the sun had actually begun to descend in the sky, the shadows created by the massive tree above them growing in length and covering everything in light and dark striped patterns.
A few hours ago two Trackers had shown up at the barricade with Morgan's reports, gasping and out of breath before handing them off to the duty message runner, who had spirited them away to wherever preliminary reports went. Robin wouldn't hear about what was in them until the evening war council, which didn't happen until after dinner. At his insistence, of course; who could think on an empty stomach?
That Morgan had chosen to split her team had worried him a little, but he trusted her to make the right decisions in the field; she'd never improve if he sat around second guessing her.
As if just thinking about her had called out to her, Morgan's distinctive black coat appeared between the trees next to a dark-skinned Feroxi man, shortly ahead of Severa's bright red twin-tails and Yarne's dark fur. A flash of blue caught Robin's eye, confusion setting into the tactician's thoughts.
There was nothing in the reports about Lucina joining the mission, he thought.
She was a capable soldier, and there were few others that he would have trusted to watch Morgan's back, but the fact that no one had mentioned she had joined the team grated against Robin's thoughts. What if she'd been injured? She wasn't cleared for stealth operations and could have been a liability.
Robin shook his head a little, trying to clear his thoughts.
Severa wasn't stealth-trained either, but she had gone on the mission all the same. Maybe Robin was worried about nothing.
And maybe I’m just worried about someone's safety in particular.
Robin grimaced, refusing to let the little voice in the back of his head get the better of him.
He ran a tired hand through his hair as Morgan's little team reached the barricade, greeting them with a little wave.
"Afternoon," he said as they filed into the camp.
"Hi dad," Morgan beamed.
She had found the time to pick flowers, apparently, judging from the little white petals sitting wedged behind her ear. She'd obviously chosen a good colour, too, the way they stood in stark contrast to her dark coat and hair.
"How'd you go?" he asked, pointedly looking at Lucina.
"No problem!" Morgan said excitedly. "Total success! Lucina even offered to come along for the walk; it was so easy it was almost boring!"
Robin nodded, relaxing a little as Yarne, Severa and the Feroxi man melted into the camp. The mission had been a success. All his worrying had been pointless.
"So what's up?" Morgan chirped curiously, hands behind her back as she leaned from the hip towards her father. "You don't usually come out to meet me after scouting missions."
It's now or never…
"I need your sword," Robin said, holding out his hand for the weapon.