“Run faster, damn you!” Robin shouted, leading the way through the dark forest with a decent fire crackling just above his fingertips.
“We need to… keep track of… where we are!” Gaius huffed, eyes everywhere as he studied landmarks. “I’m not getting lost… in this forest…”
“It won’t matter if we’re dead!” Robin shouted, skidding to a halt and brining his sword up as a shape leapt out of the trees at the two Shepherds.
Gangly arms and dark features flashed past Robin as he neatly bisected the creature with Sol, the two separate pieces vanishing in a cloud of purple smoke before they even hit the ground. Robin made a clicking sound as the rustling around them died down, growls and moans fading as the Risen retreated for the time being.
“What the hell’re Risen doing here?” Gaius asked, marking a tree with his sword.
“Don’t know,” Robin answered, scanning the trees around them.
The Risen had come out of nowhere, attacking the duo while they were inspecting the tracks at the small creek earlier. Now the sun hand set and the forest was in darkness, and they had completely lost track of Panne’s trail.
The tactician glanced at where the Risen that had attacked them had fallen, asking the same question as the ginger thief that was currently gulping down water from his waterskin. These Risen were similar to the hooded ones that he and Lucina had encountered in Regna Ferox when they had found Morgan, but they were smaller, lighter; and they attacked from the trees, swinging from branches and attacking from above, moving effortlessly through the thick forest. This was the third time they had attacked and retreated, like they were testing the two Shepherds, seeing how they reacted and adjusting their plans accordingly.
They were being hunted, and Robin didn’t like it.
This wasn’t a battlefield; this wasn’t a place where his tactics could outsmart an enemy commander, where he could use crafty deployments and guess at the enemy’s reactions and decisions; this was the wild, where his intelligence counted for little and it was survival of the fittest.
“We need to find Panne and get the hell out of this forest,” Robin muttered.
“Seconded,” Gaius agreed with a nod. “But we lost the trail.”
Robin shrugged, starting to walk in a random direction with his sword at the ready, holding his hand with the fire spell above his head.
“Then we walk until we find her or she finds us. Either way, we’re not leaving her behind.”
“Remind me again which one of us is married to her,” Gaius chuckled, following the tactician. “Besides, you’re forgetting one other thing.”
Robin looked back to the thief, quirking his brow in silent question.
“Well, Yarne followed us too, didn’t he?” Gaius added with a grin.
A large rabbit-form Taguel hopped gingerly through the twilight forest, raising its twitching nose to the air as it followed a familiar scent. Aside from the creature’s quarry there were many other things in this forest; dark, ancient smells that didn’t matter to the Taguel at present as it followed the one scent.
The forest was at once familiar and alien to the Taguel; memories of its childhood spent racing through similar forests closer to its home with its parents flashed through its mind, causing it to pause and look around, basking in nostalgia for a few moments before pushing the precious memories back down and continuing onwards.
Dry leaves rustled softly as the Taguel pushed through the undergrowth, its danger-sense telling it that something was coming. Ducking down low the creature heard violent rustling from above as more of the dark forms that populated this forest swung from branch to branch, the acrid stench of Risen flesh lingering in their wake once they passed.
Usually the Taguel wouldn’t hesitate to attack and destroy such weak creatures as these, but from what it had seen there were many in the forest, many more than it could handle alone.
The coast clear, the Taguel began silently bounding forward, soft thumps and the light whisper of leaves caressing its dark fur the only sounds in the forest as it passed through the old trees.
The Taguel stopped, coming across a marked tree and sniffing it a few times before heading off in a slightly different direction.
The trees were still and the forest was silent as the Taguel bounded through it; no other animals were making noise, there were no night birds singing in the trees, the wind stopped…
The Taguel dug its heels into the soft, loamy earth suddenly, every instinct screaming, every fibre of its being telling it that if it proceeded, it would be killed. As it skidded to a halt three of the thin, lanky Risen dropped from above, claws and short blades raking the space that the Taguel would have passed through had it kept going. The Risen moaned as they realized their prey had caught on to their trap, but the Taguel reacted much faster, snarling and rearing up, bringing razor-like fore claws down and shredding the first of the creatures to ribbons. The next went down as the Taguel snapped its jaws shut around its neck, the Risen disappearing to ash even as the Taguel hopped back a step from the third Risen. The Taguel leapt forward with all its might, crushing the final opponent beneath its shoulder and rolling back to its feet in its human form, shifting through the roll as its last foe evaporated behind it.
Yarne gasped heavily, the shock of reverting forms always hard to bear after a fight, but his senses were still keen in this form, and he needed to conserve his energy in case more of the Risen found him. Setting his features the young Taguel started off after his father’s scent again, following it past a small creek where it looked like he and Robin had been ambushed. The destruction from Robin’s spells, small craters in the sandy shores and scorch marks everywhere were evidence to this, not to mention the dropped and discarded weapons of the Risen the two men had felled.
Yarne knelt, anxiety uncharacteristically forgotten as he sniffed the hilt of one of the daggers, wrinkling his face in disgust and spitting in distaste as he tossed the dagger aside.
Standing, Yarne let himself fall forwards, shifting back into his Taguel form, and set off at a dead run through the darkening forest. They were still close… he could catch up soon…
Besides, if Yarne came back without Robin he’d never be able to look Morgan in the eye again.
Robin poked at the small fire he and Gaius had lit with a stick, resettling the logs before sighing and looking out anxiously at the forest. Night had fallen some time ago, and the persistent feeling that they were being watched just wouldn’t abate. Gaius was sleeping, allowing Robin to take the first watch as he curled up beside the fire in an attempt to remain warm. Neither man was dressed for travel; while Robin had his coat Gaius was still only clad in his sleeveless vest and his cape. It probably wouldn’t snow so far south so early in the season, but it was still bitterly cold at night.
Robin sighed again, settling back against the great tree he was leaning against; it was a giant oak tree, ancient like the rest of the forest. In the darkness Robin let himself become distracted, wondering what the tree had seen in its long life; the wars of men and the sundering of the old continents, the rise of empires and the fall of dynasts, lives of people just like Robin passing in the blink of an eye to the ancient tree.
Robin was no druid; he didn’t feel any affinity for nature magic beyond the spells of his tome, and he couldn’t commune with nature the way that the secular spellcasters supposedly could. But, even if it was just his imagination, the tactician thought he could feel the warmth of life from the bark his back was pressed against and hear the reassuring whisper of the leaves of the great oak that he rested against.
More rustling made Robin perk up, glancing back out to the forest and cursing himself for dozing off as his hand wrapped around Sol’s hilt. He strained his eyes in the glow of the fire, looking beyond the little bubble of light that it cast and starting when his gaze locked with two golden blood-red staring right back at him from the darkness.
“Gaius!” Robin shouted in warning, unsheathing his sword and standing in one fluid movement.
The orbs disappeared as six Risen leapt into the firelight from different angles and directions; some came from above while some came along the ground, but none dropped out of the old oak tree above them.
Robin swung Sol laterally, lashing out to deter the Risen while Gaius clambered to his feet and drew his own weapons; his dagger-like short sword in one hand while his other spat throwing knives into the dark, staggering the Risen pressing in on the two Shepherds. Robin was a blur of motion, striking with his sword and moving on so fast that he didn’t even have time to concentrate on casting a spell. The tactician and thief had already felled the first six of the creatures in a manner of seconds, but more came crashing through the tightly packed trees and into the firelight almost as fast as they could beat them down.
Robin spun and whirled, wincing every time the heavier, as yet unfamiliar sword in his hands took too long to return to a ready position or to execute a manoeuvre; Gaius was there to fill the gaps, though, flowing around Robin like quicksilver as he lashed out with the small dirks he kept strapped to his body or with his favoured sword, striking in small, precise movements with little or no flair.
There was an artistic simplicity to Gaius’ fighting style, Robin thought in a brief respite. The thief never wasted a movement, his attacks short and blunt, rough yet refined to be as fast as possible rather than flowing through forms the way Lon’qu had taught Robin to do. The tactician shifted his grip on Sol as more crashing sounded through the trees, resolving himself to follow Gaius’ example.
“Stay under this tree,” Robin muttered to the thief.
“What? Why?” Gaius asked, looking around.
“I get a good feeling from it,” Robin shrugged.
Any further conversation was cut off when more dark forms burst into their firelight, howling with hatred for anything living beneath leather hoods as they brandished wicked looking black steel and hooked claws.
Robin and Gaius both made to surge forward to meet the encroaching Risen, but hesitated when something even bigger than the thin creatures burst into the clearing, barrelling through the smaller ones with one sweep of it’s thick, sinewy arm and hooting a challenge at Gaius and Robin from beneath what was quickly becoming a familiar style of leather hood.
“I guess that’s the leader,” Robin heard Gaius mutter with a slight waver in his tone.
Robin gulped, finding himself agreeing with the thief’s sentiment as they stepped back from the massive Risen and stared up into its baleful, glowing red eyes visible beneath the leather hood it wore. More of the smaller Risen crowded in behind it, but unlike its smaller counterparts the Risen chieftain stood at least eight meters tall, it’s thin, malformed limbs long and gangly, ending in dangerous looking claws or wrapped around curved and barbed weapons. Robin blinked a few time as the firelight reflected off the slick, dark flesh of an extra set of arms just below the chieftain’s first set, just as long and sickening, bending and waving in the still night as it let out another hooting challenge from beneath its hood.
“It has four arms,” Gaius muttered, his voice beginning to rise in pitch as he started to panic. “It has… four arms…”
“It’ll have none when I’m done with it!” Robin snarled with conviction he didn’t feel, leaping forward and bringing Sol up offensively.
The chieftain answered his roar with one of its own, bringing all four arms down on Robin at once. The tactician caught two curved daggers almost as long as his arms on Sol’s blade, letting the creature’s claws rake down the shoulders of his coat and praying Miriel and Tharja’s spells would still hold. With another shout he shoved the Risen back, lashing out with a harsh kick at one of its lower limbs before dancing back as the smaller Risen surged forward. Before Robin could backpedal very far Gaius was at his side, hacking and slashing like their lives depended on it, and soon the two Shepherds were lost in a vicious melee. Robin lost sight of the thief in the press as he was forced backwards again, dodging a blow from talons that would have torn his throat open and swinging his sword blindly. Although it wasn’t a properly aimed hit he felt the blade strike true and bite flesh, the familiar sound of dying Risen momentarily overpowering the moans and grunts of its compatriots.
His victory was short lived, though, when he saw the chieftain barrelling back through the press, one arm, no doubt the one Robin had kicked, held defensively at its side as it charged at Gaius, heedless of the underlings it was crushing in its hurry to attack the thief. So far he was still standing, but Gaius wasn’t a soldier. He was no stranger to combat, but he wasn’t cut out for front line fighting like this, and every strike wore him down until he fell onto one knee, the chieftain tossing its smaller brethren out of the way in its haste to descend on the thief.
Robin judged the distance between him and his fallen friend, breathing heavily and leaning on his sword as the chieftain drew nearer and raised its own weapons. The tactician’s attacks grew frantic as he struggled to get to Gaius, ignoring the blows sneaking by his guard and landing on his exposed chest as he pushed and shoved. He was going to be too late, though…
The chieftain stopped mid-swing, as did every one of the Risen present as a piercing and mournful howl echoed around them. The smaller ones began chittering in a way that Robin had never heard the creatures do before, milling about as the chieftain rose up, sniffing the air experimentally, the thief beneath him now forgotten.
Without warning creatures the colour of stormclouds burst through the forest around them, tearing into the Risen with claws and fangs the length of daggers, snarling and growling as they worried the Risen in their mouths viciously. The Risen began to keen a high-pitched wail, and as Robin watched the creatures began to panic and scatter, the chieftain the first one back into the safety of the forest and the trees. Those that were too slow were crushed beneath the feet of the creatures that had come to Gaius and Robin’s aid, or were snapped up in jaws that closed with sickening crunches around throats and limbs.
Robin lowered his blade, breathing a sigh of relief as the Risen were routed. He counted nine forms tearing through the Risen with reckless abandon, massive wolves the likes of which he had never seen before. However before he could relax properly he was thrown to his back, a snarling maw of teeth and drool filling his vision as a giant wolf bigger than a horse beared down on him, pinning him with one massive claw and breathing fetid carrion breath directly into his face.
“Robin!” Gaius called in desperation as the jaws filling the tactician’s vision began to descend.
Robin shut his eyes reflexively, preparing for the pain of death to claim him a second time, instead finding himself being rolled along the ground as the weight was violently lifted off of him. He opened his eyes and instantly began to crawl to Gaius as fast as he could, hand wrapping around Sol’s hilt as an afterthought when he passed it.
Coming up on his knees next to the ginger thief, fortunately completely unharmed, Robin beheld something that made even his mind stop.
There, in the shadows cast by the fire, both rearing up on two legs and batting at each other with claws like razors was a giant wolf and a giant rabbit. They separated as two smaller wolves darted in, and the rabbit threw itself forward beneath the jaws of one and barrelled directly into the other, striking upwards with a powerful kick from its hind leg at the first. The larger wolf closed again, snapping its jaws at the rabbit’s neck, but the rabbit struck faster, smashing the wolf’s face to the side before nimbly hopping back out of its reach to defend the fallen Shepherds.
“Panne?” Gaius muttered in amazement, shaking his head as he rose back to his feet.
The wolves in the small clearing growled low in their throats, the largest one that the Taguel had beaten down shaking its head and sending droplets of blood flying in every direction before taking another menacing step forward.
“Enough!” the Taguel roared in a masculine voice.
“Yarne!?” Robin said, his own astonishment clear on Gaius’ face, too.
The wolves hesitated as Yarne reared up, reverting to his human form and cutting a hand through the air before him.
“We haven’t come to fight!” he said in a much stronger, deeper tone than Robin had ever heard from him before.
The smaller wolves looked to what was obviously their leader, still bleeding from the gashes on its face as it reared up, too, transforming into the largest man Robin had ever seen, easily as big as Walhart was. He stood with his massive bare, barrel chest heaving, blood running down dark flesh into his ornately braided beard, long brown hair falling wildly around his shoulders.
“Then why do you invade our forests, half-blood?” the wolf-Taguel snarled, sharp wolf-like fangs still preeminent in his mouth and a large, dark tail swishing agitatedly behind him.
One by one the other wolves all emulated their leader, transforming into human forms. They were all lean and covered in well-defined muscle and not much else. Rough loin cloths made from animal hide hung from hips, but no other clothing was present, even on the three females in the pack.
“Answer!” the bleeding wolf roared, baring his fangs when Yarne didn’t respond immediately.
“We’re looking for someone,” Robin said helpfully, stepping forward.
“Silence, human,” the wolf-man growled, glaring at Robin. “I will treat with this Coney and no other, even if he does reek of man-flesh. Your kind are not welcome in our forest.”
Robin blinked, stunned by the ferocity of his dismissal.
“It is as he says,” Yarne said, stepping forward between Robin and the wolf-man. “We’re looking for another like me. Another Taguel. Have you seen her?”
The wolf-man growled before spitting into the grass at their feet. Before he could answer there was rustling from the trees behind them, and Panne stepped into the firelight.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” she said in a dark tone as she moved to stand beside the wolf-man.
“You shouldn’t have left the road, man-spawn.”
Robin resisted the urge to sigh as he followed at the rear of a procession of creatures distinctly inhuman with Gaius along a moon-lit, winding forest trail. They were being taken to the wolves’ Queen, deep in the forest. Apparently none of them had ever seen a Taguel before, and they were bringing Panne for an audience when they had caught the scent of Risen.
Panne had said a few hushed words to the pack leader, Kowrowa, before he had snarled and acquiesced to the ‘man-spawn’ not being killed on the spot. Instead they were being subsequently ignored and led to wherever the pack was staying in this forest. Yarne was travelling up front with his mother and Kowrowa, seemingly being afforded the same level of respect by dint of being her child, although Robin and Gaius were still being eyed by the other wolves travelling around them.
“She beat him,” Gaius muttered to Robin after a time.
“The big one,” Gaius said, pointing to Kowrowa. “Panne beat him in combat, and they don’t know how to take it.”
“How can you tell?” Robin asked, watching the big wolf push some branches aside, heedless of the way they snapped back into the face of the smaller wolf behind him.
“Because she’s at the front with him,” Gaius explained. “If a member of his own pack had beaten him they would be the new leader, but she’s not a member of the pack, so…”
“Be silent, human,” one of the females snapped from just ahead of them, turning to glare at them. “Your talking is like the screeching of iron on stone to my ears.”
She continued to silently glare for a moment, her scraggly auburn hair being blown about in a breeze across her bare pale flesh as her eyes locked with Robin’s, blazing amber eyes shining in the moonlight. He narrowed his gaze, keenly aware of the inherit challenge in her words as his muscles tensed for another attack. She was one of the ones that Yarne had fought with, and had a great bruise along her chin and jaw where he had kicked her; obviously she was still upset and looking to vent. Robin’s neutral gaze turned into a frowning glare, and the wolf let out a ‘tsk’ of irritation, turning to his challenge.
“Ita,” Kowrowa growled in warning from the head of the pack without even looking back.
The wolf-woman, Ita, growled wordlessly as she turned and picked up her pace, hair waving in the wind and tail swishing irritably.
Gaius shrugged at Robin, and the tactician had to resist the urge to sigh again as he went back to silently observing their ‘hosts’ as they walked, feeling a little childish at rising to Ita’s obvious baiting tactics.
Robin didn’t question where Gaius got his knowledge; as far as Taguel experts went, the thief was probably the closest thing they had to one. He had lived with Panne for quite a long time now and was surprisingly observant, so Robin trusted the man’s judgement on matters such as those.
Stepping over a large root partially hidden in shadow Robin marvelled at the lithe grace of the creatures leading them, particularly the mostly naked women in the pack before feeling almost instant stabs of guilt and staring at the path beneath his feet.
It was late now… the Shepherds would have stopped to make camp and eat dinner… Robin wondered what Lucina and the others were doing right now, what they were eating…
“Pay attention, man-spawn,” Ita growled irritably from before him, causing his gaze to snap back up.
Robin stifled a gasp as he looked up at the fort before them, torchlight leaking out from within it along with bestial sounds of revelry and chaos. Ruined stone walls covered in ivy and lichen stood tall with the moon behind them, numerous eyes looking up from small fires and watching as the pack led the strangers through the over-grown grounds.
“Best stay close,” Ita muttered in Robin’s ear in a low, sultry tone. “I’d hate for you to get eaten by one of the others before I get the chance…”
“Get out of my personal space before I give you a matching bruise on the other side of your face,” Robin growled in a low voice, glaring over his shoulder as the she-wolf stepped away, chuckling as she grinned threateningly at Robin.
They stepped into the fortress through a hole smashed into a wall, entering a world of firelight and body-heat, a lingering musky smell making Robin’s face flush uncomfortably with heat as he followed the Panne and Yarne, ignoring everything else around them. They passed through numerous chambers and hallways, the other wolves, some shifted into animal forms and some not, always stopping whatever they were doing to watch the strangers pass as they were led by, before finally emerging into the central chamber of the fort.
There, resting lazily on a pile of bones and furs above the others in the chamber and picking her teeth with a sliver of bone as she watched the procession enter, was what was undoubtedly the wolves queen.
“What have you brought me this time, Kowrowa?” she drawled, sitting up and flicking the small bone away.
Robin wasn’t ashamed to say she struck him breathless, a feat that so far only Lucina and Cordelia had managed; long white hair fell around her well-toned shoulders and intelligent green eyes stared coldly at the humans and Taguel standing before her from a strikingly beautiful face. Where most of the other wolves went about pretty much naked she was clad in leather wraps, covering much of her flesh; what was exposed was either covered in intricate paint or jagged scars, the worst of which was a rough trio of claw-marks leading from her jawline just below her right ear down past her bare shoulder and disappearing beneath her clothes. She was somewhat of a cross between what Emmeryn had been and the way Panne was in her bearing, calm and obviously in power, regal to behold yet at the same time animalistic and dangerous.
“Strangers, my queen,” Kowrowa said with more deference than Robin had heard so far from the wolf-man. “A Coney, a half-blood and two man-spawn.”
“And why have you brought them to me?” she asked softly, leaning forward and staring at Robin.
“We have never caught Conies before,” Kowrowa said, bowing his head a little. “And the woman is a fierce fighter…”
“She is the one that ruined your pretty face?” the Queen asked in a mocking tone.
Kowrowa growled, looking down. “It was the half-blood, my queen.”
The wolf queen let out a deep, shocking laugh as she slapped at her knees. Kowrowa frowned and grit his teeth as the other wolves already in the chamber followed their queen’s example.
“So, half-breed,” she said, eyes locking on Yarne. “Quite the feat for a Coney, especially a half breed, defeating a wolf in combat. I commend you. You are obviously not at all like the prey you resemble.”
“Er… thanks,” Yarne muttered.
“And you,” the queen said, eyes turning on Panne. “You, too, bested Kowrowa. What is your name?”
Panne sniffed, crossing her arms defiantly. “Is it not polite to offer your own name before asking another’s?”
The atmosphere in the chamber changed instantly, murderous intent flooding it before the queen burst into laughter again.
“Perhaps to humans,” she said grandly, a note of laughter still in her voice. “But you are far from the lands you have come to know. Very well, Coney, I shall grant you my name. I am Nirath, and I have been named queen of my people through my own strength and cunning.”
“I am Panne,” the Taguel answered with a slight nod. “And I am the last of my kind.”
One of the other wolves sitting just beneath Nirath scoffed, rising to his feet and tossing the large bone he had been chewing on aside.
“The last?” he asked condescendingly. “Perhaps if your race is so weak we should end you, here and now and do nature a favour?”
Before anyone else could act something inside Robin snapped and the tactician stepped forward, registering a split second of shock on the young wolf’s face before his fist came down, knocking the wolf flat.
“Don’t threaten my friends,” Robin said, flexing his bruised hand.
The chamber had gone silent, every eye watching to see what the wolf would do in the face of such disrespect under the gaze of his queen.
“Filthy man-spawn!” he growled, launching himself from the floor at Robin and transforming mid leap.
Robin was ready, though, and pulled the broken end of Chrom’s rapier from his belt behind his back, ramming it into the wolf’s shoulder and pushing him down to the ground before pinning him with his boot.
“Nice doggy,” Robin deadpanned, bringing a fire-spell to life at the end of his fingers mere inches from the wolf’s face. “Stay.”
Nirath burst into laughter again, and Robin stepped away from the fallen wolf, extinguishing his spell but keeping the broken sword in his hand. The other creatures around the queen eyed the tactician warily, as if sizing him up.
“I like this human!” Nirath laughed gleefully. “You brought that upon yourself, Una. Be gone from my sight.”
The younger wolf, Una, limped away without even shifting forms, and many of the other wolves in the room now looked at Robin with either new respect or wariness at the least. Robin glanced over his shoulder, noticing the big wolf Kowrowa grinning approvingly, a look of grudging admiration briefly flitting across Ita’s features.
“What? ‘When in doubt, punch it out’,” Robin shrugged at Yarne and Gaius’ shocked expressions. “I learned that from Chrom. And I’m getting sick of being ignored.”
Panne chuckled a little from his opposite side.
Nirath laughed again before rising to her feet and descending to the stone floor to stand just before Robin. The tactician couldn’t help but note that up close she was actually quite short, the top of her head barely reaching his chin.
“Tell me, man-spawn,” she asked as she regarded the human standing before her. “Why did you choose to make camp under that old oak?”
Robin quirked a brow, reminding himself that with her heightened senses it was probably no big deal that she knew where he had been resting.
“I had a good feeling about it,” he answered truthfully, repeating what he had told Gaius.
Nirath nodded, sniffing at him a few times.
“You are strange,” she said, crossing her arms and sinking to a hip. “But I find myself curious about you. I have never smelled man-spawn like you before.”
“Er… thanks?” Robin said confusedly.
“For now, go and take rest in the upper floors of this building,” Nirath commanded. “Take the half-blood and the other man-spawn with you. I would speak to the Coney. Ita will see you there safely and make sure Una doesn’t dishonour himself by attacking you. Kowrowa, get your face looked at; the scent of blood is making me hungry.”
“Of course, my queen,” Kowrowa said with a restrained nod before disappearing into the crowded press that had built up behind them.
Ita’s response, however, was much more visceral.
“Why must I watch over the man-spawn!?” she whined, glaring dangerously at Robin in particular. “Why do we not just throw them to the packs and watch how long they struggle!?”
Nirath glanced over her shoulder as she climbed back up to her resting place, grinning and showing off fangs much longer than the younger wolves’ around her.
“Because you speak their language, and the white-furred one makes me laugh,” she said truthfully, throwing herself back down to her furs and smiling predatorily at Robin.
“Through here,” Ita huffed in an unhappy tone as she threw a seemingly random door open.
The she-wolf had been sulking the entire trip upstairs, not speaking a word, even if spoken to. It was plain to see she wasn’t in favour of keeping the humans in her people’s territory alive.
“Thanks,” Robin said as he followed Yarne and Gaius into the small room.
Ita hesitated for a moment, before sniffing as if something foul were being wafted beneath her nose.
“I do not like you, man-spawn,” she growled, slamming the door in Robin’s face.
The tactician waited for a moment, shaking his head and grinning when her presence on the other side didn’t fade. It appeared as if she was going to follow her queen’s orders after all.
“Do all your family outings end up like this?” Robin asked as he undid the heavy belts around his waist and set them aside with the long sword he had slung over his shoulder. “Because, really; this is the most fun I’ve had in years.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Gaius yawned, sitting down with his back to a wall. “Haven’t actually had any family outings yet. ‘M havin’ a sugar crash. Gonna sleep for a bit.”
The thief’s head nodded forward, and within moments Robin could hear the soft snores of his resumed slumber.
“It never ceases to amaze me how he does that,” Robin chuckled, moving to sit near where Yarne was leaning opposite his father.
They were in what would once have been a storage room, although now it was as empty as the rest of the fortress. A single, empty window sat high on one wall, allowing fresh air and ample light from the full moon into the room.
“That was pretty bad-ass back there,” Robin said after a few moments silence. “You really saved my neck. Thanks.”
“D-don’t mention it…” Yarne stammered.
“Can I ask you something?” Robin said after another brief silence. “You seem a little… different around these wolves. Why is that?”
“D-different… how?” Yarne asked, scooting away from Robin a little.
“Oh relax already,” the tactician said, rolling his eyes. “You’re all confident and alpha in front of them. Just like your mom. It’s kinda impressive, actually.”
“Really?” Yarne asked hopefully.
“Like I said, relax,” Robin repeated with a chuckle. “I meant what I said in the mess tent last night. I don’t care anymore, so it’s not me you have to convince. Somehow I don’t think that Say’ri’s going to be as graceful in her acceptance as I was.”
Yarne moaned dejectedly, deflating a little against the wall and no doubt imagining having to run that particular gauntlet in the very near future.
“Stop tormenting my son,” Gaius muttered sleepily, readjusting his position before nodding off again.
Robin burst into a fit of hushed laughter moments before Yarne joined him. In the darkness Robin could have sworn that he saw Gaius grinning a little.
“While I’ve got you awake,” Robin said once his laughter subsided. “Can I ask you something?”
“No; I left my stash on Olivia’s cart,” Gaius muttered with a smirk.
“Not that,” Robin laughed. “I want to ask if you’re… you know, worried about Panne.”
“Should I be?” Gaius asked with a great yawn.
“I just mean… these are other shape-shifters; they’re not Taguel, but aren’t you afraid she’ll want to stay here?”
“The thought never crossed my mind,” Gaius answered honestly. “I know how much she cares about us. She’s not about to abandon us now. We may have to come back on vacation, though.”
Robin nodded, unconvinced but trusting the man that knew his friend best.
After that they settled in to sleep, confident that Panne wouldn’t let any harm befall them, and that in the worst case scenario Yarne’s advanced senses would pick up any danger.
Robin woke a few hours later when Ita kicked him in the ribs.
“Wake up, human,” she sneered, obviously happy to have gotten to kick him.
Robin bolted upright instantly, hands going for his sword as he recalled he was still in what was tentatively hostile territory. His movements slowed, however, when he realised that Yarne and Gaius were watching him react with big smiles on their faces, chuckling to each other.
“So his reflexes aren’t as good as everyone makes them out to be,” Gaius snickered.
“Don’t mock the tactician,” Robin grumbled, stretching one arm above his head as he rubbed at his bruised ribs. “It’s still dark out; what’s going on?”
Robin cast a withering glare at Ita as she snickered at him.
“And I don’t like you,” he added, still massaging his ribs; she had quite the kick on her…
“Apparently Panne’s got us a job,” Gaius drawled, yawning wide and stretching. “It’s important, too, or else we’d just be left to sleep here while she went and did it.”
“Did what?” Robin asked, still glaring at the shape-shifting wolf woman that had kicked him, who was still grinning back at him.
“You are going hunting, man-spawn,” Ita said with relish.
Robin grumbled irritatedly to himself as he found himself tromping through the night-time forest again.
“I am beginning to notice a trend,” he muttered. “Why do I always get dragged into these little escapades? Why me? As if I don’t have enough of my own problems to deal with…”
“Oh be silent already, man-spawn,” Ita growled exasperatedly from behind him. “Your constant moaning is getting on my nerves. None of us are happy about this either, least of all me. So be silent.”
Panne, along with Yarne, Gaius, Robin, Kowrowa and the wolf-man’s pack, were walking through the forest in the direction of the old oak tree that Robin and Gaius had attempted to camp under. Apparently, without the men there to stop her, Panne had sworn to hunt the four-armed Risen that was leading the smaller ones in the forest, starting immediately.
Robin was doing his best to remain peppy and chirper, but he’d had maybe four hours of sleep, not to mention he hadn’t eaten since lunch, so he was beginning to get a little irritated. But, he reminded himself, this was a golden opportunity to do something that few other humans had in past; he could talk to other shape-shifters besides Taguel or Manaketes! It was a rare opportunity, and he was wasting it.
“Er… Ita?” Robin asked, making good on his sudden change of heart as they walked through the trees and brush. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
“No,” she answered curtly.
Kowrowa chuckled from the front of the pack, glancing over his shoulder at the sour face that Ita made.
“Oh, come on,” Robin pestered. “I’m just curious.”
“I do not care,” she said, staring straight ahead and continuing to walk. “Bother someone else. I do not like you.”
“And that’s exactly why I’m bothering you,” Robin said with a grin. “You won’t sugar-coat any answers. C’mon.”
“C’mooooooon, one little question.”
“No, man-spawn,” Ita repeated, growling in irritation now.
“Er, Robin…” Yarne started to warn, being ignored by the tactician.
Robin didn’t get the chance to finish his pestering, as he was tackled and pinned against a tree by a furious looking Ita.
“What!?” she roared, fangs bared inches from his face. “What do you want, human!? Why do you pester me incessantly!?”
“I just wanted to ask why you seem to hate us so much,” Robin managed as the air was pressed from his lungs, unable to stop himself from thinking that she was a lot stronger than she looked.
He grinned in the darkness, staring into the amber orbs full of hate that were glaring up at him.
“Ita,” Kowrowa growled menacingly.
The wolf-woman sighed, stepping back and letting Robin fall to land on his feet from where she’d been pinning him.
“Thank you,” Robin said pleasantly, returning the broken sword in his hand to its position on his back.
Ita blinked a few times before making a ‘tsk’ noise and turning away again.
“I have some theories,” Robin persisted, the scholar in him taking over his common sense. “But I want to hear it from you.”
“Me specifically?” Ita asked over her shoulder, almost begging him to irritate someone else.
“Hey, you started this little fight,” Robin chuckled. “C’mon.”
“Say that again and I will tear out your tongue,” Ita warned before sighing. “If it will shut you up I will tell you. The humans made us slaves and hunted us to the brink of extinction. What you saw in that building was the last of our people. That is why we hate, and that is why I do not trust. Are you happy now?”
It was Robin’s turn to blink this time as he stopped, staring at the wolf-woman’s scarred back as she continued walking.
“What in the world would make you think that would make me happy?”
“This is where you were camping,” Panne said, sniffing around the roots of the old tree.
Robin glanced around, finding the remains of the fire pit he and Gaius had set up, cold and burned out now.
“Yeah,” Gaius muttered. “So?”
“This tree is important,” Kowrowa explained. “Throughout the forest there are three more of its kind that we know of. Ancient spirits are said to dwell within that protect the forest and-”
“This has what to do with our current predicament?” Robin asked, cutting straight to the point; he was tired, and the sooner they finished with this, the sooner he could go back to the Shepherds and sleep.
“The monsters are gathering at points like this,” Kowrowa grunted, clearly put-off by Robin interrupting him. “They appear to be drawn to places of great power.”
“Then we know where to start looking,” Panne said with a fire in her eyes.
“But how do we find them?” Gaius asked, looking to Kowrowa. “Do your people know where they are?”
“Not all of them,” Kowrowa answered. “But we will start with the ones we do know of.”
Robin sighed, ignoring the discussion going on and bending to poke at one of the fallen daggers that the Risen had left behind, before a gentle sensation on the back of his head made him glance up. The boughs of the great oak tree were hanging low, but it was as if none of the others could see the phenomena besides Robin. As he stared up at the branches the leaves rustled, sounding like an almost feminine laugh as the caressed the tactician’s head and shoulders. There was no malice from the tree, though, and soon images began to flash before Robin’s eyes, locations of the other great trees accompanied by emotions of calm and friendship, before they were replaced by images of Risen hacking at other trees, draining energy from the forest and feelings of cold anger and wrath…
As he looked up in the silvery moonlight he watched a beautiful face made from bark and leaves look down at him from the branches and smile tenderly, before the tree returned to its previous position, leaving Robin sitting on his rear, blinking up at the tree.
Well at least someone wants to help me… I’ve heard of dryads, but never thought I’d actually see one. I guess this wasn’t a wasted trip.
“I… I think the tree just spoke to me,” he called to the others.
“I think that the man-spawn might be insane,” Ita said for the hundredth time as Robin led them confidently through the forest.
“Did the magic tree talk to you? No? Well then shut it and keep up,” Robin said sarcastically over his shoulder, earning a glare from the she-wolf and a couple of guffaws from the members of the pack that seemed to be warming to the human, Kowrowa included.
However it was true that Robin was leading them in a… strange direction. The tree had shown him the path to take, true, but it hadn’t exactly been specific about the seasonal issues they might encounter; namely a dry river bed that wasn’t quite so dry. The whole party was soaked and shivering as they splashed along behind him, up to their waists in icy water, but Robin kept leading them without hesitation, silently bemoaning the fact that he constantly seemed to get stuck in this position. He was tired, he was cold, and all he wanted to do was curl up next to a fire or something similar; the sooner he finished this weird little quest, the better.
“We’re almost there now anyway,” Robin added over his shoulder.
“You have been saying that for nearly an hour!” Ita growled, shaking out her wet hair like a shaggy dog.
“Well I actually mean it this time,” Robin chuckled, climbing up onto the bank and reaching back down to help the others out of the water.
They were deep in the forest now, and Robin shuddered to think of how long it would take them to reach the road again, but their destination was close at hand. There were no paths in the forest this deep, so Robin merely pushed through the foliage, trusting the others to follow him and hoping he didn’t wind up getting hypothermia. He was navigating solely on instinct now, trusting his feelings to lead him the way the tree had shown him.
Robin scoffed. He’d done a lot of weird things in the last few years; he’d bonded with his time-travelling daughter from the future, spent about as much time with shape-shifters as humans, fought wars, lost his entire memory, he’d fallen in love with his best friend’s time-travelling daughter, but asking a tree for directions was now at the top of that list.
“What’s so funny?” Gaius asked, catching up with him.
“The absurdity of the situation just dawned on me; we’re taking directions from a tree,” Robin chuckled. “This is weird, even for us.”
“So your pack does things like this… often?” Kowrowa asked curiously, towering over both of the smaller men.
“More often than I’d like to admit, yes,” Robin sighed.
“He loves it,” Gaius said, nudging Robin playfully. “He’d get bored without the constant weird stuff that goes on around us.”
“And it always seems to centralize on me,” Robin added, rolling his eyes. “What about you? Your… er… ‘pack’ seems oddly familiar with this kind of thing.”
Kowrowa shrugged. “We are not. We simply do not question the will of our queen.”
“So this kind of thing is all new to you?” Robin asked, holding a particularly large branch up and allowing Gaius, Panne and Yarne to pass beneath it; just to be antagonistic Robin let the branch snap back down in Ita’s face.
“We are familiar with hunting in this forest,” Kowrowa corrected him, trying not to laugh at the murderous glare Ita was shooting the tactician. “However this prey is new to us. We have not faced these dark creatures before, and they have invaded deep into our territory.”
“Like some foolish man-spawn present…” Ita muttered under her breath, just loud enough that Robin had no doubt he was meant to hear it.
“They’re called Risen,” the tactician explained. “They’re servants of the fell dragon Grima. He’s probably using them to steal the magical energy from the great trees in this forest, come to think of it.”
Robin mentally kicked himself. That explanation really did make a lot of sense; why hadn’t he thought of it before?
Kowrowa snorted, thinking for a moment.
“I do not know of this ‘fell dragon’,” he admitted after a time. “The only dragons we know of are the lady Tiki and her kin.”
“Oh, you know Tiki? She’s travelling with my friends as we speak,” Robin said conversationally.
Kowrowa and the other wolves stopped, shocked looks crossing their faces as surprised muttering broke out.
“The… voice of the divine dragon?” Kowrowa asked. “You speak of Naga’s voice? You… are her comrade?”
“Are you kidding?” Robin snorted. “I shared a tent with her! She snores like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Unbelievable,” Ita muttered. “Absolutely unbelievable…”
“The queen tells us tales of the Voice when she walked beneath the trees with our kind,” Kowrowa said as they started to walk again. “She was a friend of our kind when few others would claim that title.”
“Yeah, she is pretty benevolent,” Robin snickered. “Until she gets a brush in her hands. Then it’s ‘run for your life!’”
Kowrowa stopped walking again, as did all of the other wolves present, their faces dropping and many baring their fangs.
“What?” Robin asked, looking up at the big wolf. “Did I say something bad?”
“No, it is-” was as far as Kowrowa’s explanation got.
Dark shapes dropped out of the trees, weapons trained on the wolves and the Shepherds. Robin cursed, dropping Sol with no time to draw it and pulling the broken rapier out again as two Risen descended on him, moaning and growling demonically. A few pained yelps went up as two members of Kowrowa’s pack were too slow to react and were cut down, but the rest transformed and began to fight back. Panne and Yarne, too, transformed, laying into the seemingly endless horde of Risen descending on them.
“How close to the tree did you say we were!?” Gaius grunted, kicking out at a Risen and knocking it directly into the path of Yarne’s charge.
“Apparently a lot closer than I thought,” Robin replied calmly, cutting down the two Risen threatening him before bending to retrieve Sol and placing the rapier back in his belt with the same movement.
The tactician unsheathed the long sword, tossing the sheath to one side and turning the blade over in his hands. He didn’t really have time right now to dwell on the fact that it was an alien weapon in his hands… he’d been using it all evening anyway, so it was time to show off a little in front of the wolves.
Robin spun the blade, flourishing it at three Risen leaping through the underbrush at him and neatly bisected them in a single movement. He spun, bringing the blade up across his shoulder and whirling through four more of the creatures without stopping, using attacks he’d seen Lon’qu favour. Robin stopped, switching his grip as he moved to Chrom’s style and struck downwards on one Risen attempting to defend itself, knocking its guard away and slicing it in half before lashing out with a brutal side-kick at another, launching it into the trees.
He stopped to look at the positions of the others before marshalling his mana and casting a thunder spell above them, golden bolts of light raining down with pin-point accuracy on the Risen pressing the group.
“They know we’re here!” Panne shouted, her voice strangely flanged in her Taguel form. “Keep moving! Fight while we run!”
Kowrowa let out an excited howl, echoed by the other members of his pack as they started racing through the forest in the direction Robin had been leading them.
“There should be a clearing just up ahead!” the tactician called, struggling with Gaius to keep up with the shape-shifters easily outpacing them. “That’s where the target is!”
The charge was halted dead when the four-armed Risen creature dropped out of the trees, directly atop one of Kowrowa’s wolves. With a sickening twist of the chieftain’s lower hands and an audible snap the wolf went still, the Risen chieftain letting out a victorious shout before more of its smaller brethren once again descended on the party.
“Kill it!” Kowrowa roared, tearing through the smaller Risen.
Robin was forced to agree with the wolf-man; without their leader the smaller Risen would be a lot less dangerous. Robin went to cast a spell, flames dancing in circles around his hand before he caught himself, making a fist and extinguishing the flames, reminding himself that he was standing in a forest. A fire spell would most likely be a bad idea.
Before he could complete casting the wind spell he wanted to use instead he was forced to duck beneath the swinging blades of a Risen angling for his throat, throwing himself back into the melee and hoping that Kowrowa was strong enough to take the chieftain alone. The big wolf roared in irritation as the chieftain hopped backwards through the forest, forcing him to follow.
“Is there no end to these things!?” Panne roared in frustration, barrelling through a group of Risen to stand at her husband’s side.
Robin’s witty response was lost in his throat when a high-pitched cry of pain came from behind him. With barely a thought he turned and held out a hand, releasing the half-primed wind spell he’d been preparing and knocking several Risen off of one of the smaller wolves. He charged in, swinging Sol around in long arcs, flowing through the movements the way that Lon’qu had taught him and felling the stunned creatures. Robin wasted no time, lifting the wounded wolf up by the scruff and dragging it to where Gaius, Panne and Yarne were standing back to back, creating a rough triangle around the other wounded.
“Release me, man-spawn,” the wolf half-growled, half whined in a familiar voice. “I do not… need your charity…”
Apparently Robin had just saved Ita.
“Don’t make me regret saving you,” he chuckled by way of answer, throwing her the rest of the way as gently as he could before turning to rejoin the fight.
I hate this job sometimes, Robin thought to himself as he ran back through the forest to where he’d seen Kowrowa going after the chieftain, ignoring the others shouting his name and calling him back.
Robin burst into the clearing, taking a moment to blink in surprise when he realized that the sun was already rising and the sky had gone from the inky purple colour of night to a grey and red-streaked pre-dawn.
Robin broke into a run, ignoring the bodies of the fallen wolves that had followed their leader and the encroaching Risen, angling instead for where Kowrowa and the chieftain were wrestling at the base of what Robin assumed was a miniature version of the Mila Tree.
The wounds on the big wolf’s face had opened again, as well as a multitude of new ones from the Risen surrounding him; his dark grey fur was matted with blood, and it looked like one of his eyes had been put out from a distance, but he still whirled and tore at the creatures around him relentlessly, teeth and claws killing everything that came in reach while the Risen chieftain hung back, letting the smaller ones tire the huge wolf out.
Robin hesitated a fraction of a second, wracking his tired brain as the last verse of Elthunder momentarily eluded him, electricity sparking around his arm when he remembered it and muttered the full spell beneath his breath. An arcing, jagged stream of light shot from Robin’s outstretched hand, leaping from Risen to Risen and causing them to erupt into clouds of ash around Kowrowa. The big wolf glanced curiously over his shoulder, nodding once to Robin before renewing his attack. Sword in one hand and spitting nearly continuous spells from his other Robin advanced on the tree where the Risen Chieftain was cowering.
A few more of Kowrowa’s pack leapt out of the trees, struggling to help their wounded leader despite their own wounds, Panne and Gaius doing their best to try and shepherd the nearly berserk shape-shifters and keep them from getting separated and picked off. Robin glanced around, looking for Yarne.
Robin spotted the Taguel racing through the battlefield that the small clearing had become, ripping through the knots of Risen and heading for the chieftain like Robin and Kowrowa were doing.
“Yarne! Box it in!” the tactician shouted, moving so that he, the wolf and the Taguel would catch the chieftain in a three-pronged attack.
The Taguel didn’t respond, but shifted and began to slow, matching his pace with the slower ones of Robin and the wounded Kowrowa. The Risen chieftain let out an almighty below, reaching up to the tree above it with the obvious intention of fleeing, but it fell back to the earth with a surprised honk, looking up at the tree rustling and swaying as if caught in a strong breeze. Robin grinned a little as he advanced; even the forest itself wanted the Risen taint gone.
The chieftain hooted angrily, looking back and forth between the three men assaulting it and trying to back up further, only to run into the trunk of the tree behind it. Robin risked a glance over his shoulder, seeing that Panne and Gaius had marshalled the other wolves and were safely holding the other Risen at bay for now, but that could change as soon as-
“Robin! Look out!” Yarne shouted in warning.
The tactician’s eyes snapped back in time to see a pale-purple blur racing towards him, his vision full of crimson eyes intent on his death. Somehow he managed to get Sol up in time, but his single-handed block was weak, and the creature was twice his size, forcing his sword down and gripping his neck firmly with two hands, the other two holding Robin’s arms pinned. All it would have to do was apply a little pressure and his head would pop right off. Robin struggled vainly, his eyes meeting the Risen Chieftain’s as he kicked and fought against its grip, managing to slap Sol against its side a few times awkwardly.
The chieftain brought its masked face in close to Robin’s, blinking its vile red eyes a few times and tilting its head as if confused. Before the tactician could linger on what the hell it was doing and why it wasn’t killing him Yarne barrelled into it from behind, sending the three forms tumbling to the dirt. Robin took a deep breath, no longer being strangled, and crawled on all fours away from where Yarne and the chieftain were wrestling, no longer caring about how foolish he looked as he climbed hastily back to his feet and took stock of the situation.
Kowrowa was once again struggling against numerous smaller Risen, the wolf’s movements becoming slow and sluggish as his wounds took their toll. Gaius and Panne were still leading the other wolves in a distracting attack, but there were only about six left, and all were wounded. The older Taguel was breathing heavily, and the thief looked like he was about to keel over, but they both still had sharp eyes and strong movements whenever one of the Risen came too close.
Yarne struggled to keep the chieftain from wrapping its massive hands around his form-shifted neck, ears flying back and forth as he fought and kicked at the creature holding him up by the shoulders. The young Taguel winced as he was bodily slammed to the ground, the chieftain finally getting a grip on his neck and starting to squeeze, raining blows with its other set of arms on the Taguel’s midsection and ignoring the razor-like claws digging into its torso. Yarne’s vision started to cloud, his struggles growing weaker and he began to accept the fact he was about to die, when all pressure on his neck ceased and he was coated in a rain of thick purple ashes.
The Taguel looked up, blinking as he stared at Robin standing over him, broken Rapier in hand as he smiled victoriously.
“Oh I am so keeping this,” the tactician muttered, turning the damaged weapon over in his hands a few times.
Without the chieftain to give the smaller Risen its intelligence they scattered, the least wounded members of Kowrowa’s pack taking off after them now that they were no longer a threat.
Robin bent down, retrieving Sol and leaning it against his shoulder, looking back to the trees and wondering where exactly he’d dropped the sheath, wincing as the first rays of the new dawn caught his eyes.
Robin resisted the urge to sigh with relief as his feet once again found the hard, compacted dirt of the road that he and Gaius had chased Panne off of the previous day. He momentarily forgot that the convoy was a day ahead of them; he momentarily forgot that he was tired to the bone from the ordeal in the forest; he even managed to block out the wet-dog smell from the six wolf shape-shifters following after the four Shepherds as guides. All he wanted to do for a moment was stand and bask in the glory that was man’s one conquering force over nature, the thing that set them apart from beasts. He just wanted to look at the road.
“It’s so good to be out of that forest!” Gaius exclaimed, stretching his arms above his head and echoing, far less eloquently, Robin’s thoughts before popping a candy of some sort into his mouth.
“I thought you said you were tapped out,” Robin pointed out.
Gaius shrugged. “I don’t share well.”
“This is as far as we go,” Kowrowa said in his deep, gravelly voice. “Follow this road east and you will reach your destination. It will most likely take you three or four days on foot.”
“We’ll get there in half the time,” Robin said with a grin, wrapping his arm around Yarne’s shoulders. “After all, we’ve got Taguel to ride!”
‘Not bloody likely,” Panne snorted, crossing her arms and shooting Gaius a ‘don’t even think about it’ glare.
“I wish you well, my friends,” the wolf leader added, bowing his muzzle low to the ground. “You have done our people a great service that can never be repaid.”
“Sure it can be,” Robin said with a smirk. “When we call for help, all you have to do is be there.”
“I will pass your request on to our queen,” Kowrowa snorted. “But even if she does not agree, when the time comes to fight your ‘Dark Dragon’ know that I and my pack will stand with you.”
“Sweet,” Gaius muttered, waving farewell and starting to walk down the road with Panne and Yarne.
“Goodbye Kowrowa,” Robin said with a respectful nod. “I wish you all the best with your… er… forest.”
The wolf chuckled as he and his pack disappeared back into the shadows of the forest, leaving Robin to jog to catch up to the other three. One set of golden eyes lingered in the shadows, watching Robin a second longer before vanishing as well.
“Argh! I can’t believe we have to walk all the way to Chon’sin!” Yarne moaned, hanging his head.
“Well not all of us have to walk,” Robin pointed out glibly.
“Indeed,” Panne deadpanned, grabbing the tactician’s arm and twisting, forcing him to lean forward and yelp with pain. “Now hold still while I bridle you.”
“Gaius! Calm your crazy wife!” Robin shrieked as the Taguel’s grip tightened.
“No way, man,” the thief laughed. “Better you than me, right?”
“Traitor!” Robin shouted, struggling to get free of his friend’s iron grip. “Mutiny! Mutiny!”
They all laughed as Panne finally released him, cuffing him over the head for good measure as she moved to walk beside her husband. Robin discretely rolled his shoulder as he laughed, wincing and marvelling at the strength that Taguel possessed.
“Hey!” Someone called from the distance. “Need a ride!?”
Robin looked up, shielding his eyes from the morning sun and feeling his spirits rise when he spotted a familiar looking young man waving his sword in the air from the back of a wagon just around a bend.
“Inigo you glorious bastard!” Robin cried as they ran to meet the wagon, suddenly reinvigorated. “I could kiss you right now!”
“Please,” Inigo said, holding out his hands defensively as he hopped down from the wagon to stand beside Libra, patiently waiting to treat their wounds. “Please don’t. Or I will see to it we leave you here.”
“’Sup, Padre?” Gaius said, raising his hand in greeting before walking right by the priest and climbing into the back of the wagon. “Not wounded. Just tired. Gonna sleep in the wagon. Wake me up when we get where we’re goin.”
“That is a three day journey from here,” Libra pointed out, his tone as soft as ever as he inspected a small gash to the back of one of Panne’s arms.
“So don’t wake me for three days!” Gaius called, making the others chuckle again.
“You all look like you’ve been pulled through the eye of a needle,” Inigo chuckled as Yarne sat back against the wagon, waiting for Lira to finish with his mother.
“It was brutal,” the half-Taguel complained.
“It was awesome,” Robin chuckled, leaning back himself but remaining standing. “But I’m so grateful you and your parents thought enough to hang back for us.”
Inigo tilted his head quizzically as he passed Yarne a waterskin.
“Parents?” the younger man asked. “It’s just me and dad, here. Mom’s with the convoy.”
Robin felt a familiar unsettling sensation form in the pit of his stomach, dreading the answer to the question he was about to ask.
“So if this isn’t your mom’s wagon…” the tactician began, stopping when a single white hair drifted down in front of his nose to fall on the ground.
“Look at what I found in the back of my horribly vandalised wagon,” a voice like a combination of the most sickly sweet honey and the harshest growling said from behind Robin in the wagon’s bed, making his blood freeze.
“I almost missed it, too; I almost blamed it on scavengers or saboteurs. I mean those things do happen in wars, right?”
Robin gulped as he felt something cold press against his neck and Anna leaned close to whisper into his ear.
“But I did finally find the culprit.”
“Anna, please,” Robin begged, to terrified to move. “I… I can explain! There’s a good explanation, I swear!”
“Good,” the red-headed merchant smiled, like a promise of imminent death as she drew her knife away from Robin’s throat and sheathed it. “Because it’s a looooong ride to Chon’sin after all, hrm?”
Robin chuckled unconvincingly as she moved to ready the horses, jumping to the dirt and brushing past him. His hand inadvertently reached up to rub at his neck where she’d held the knife.
“I’m so dead,” he muttered, watching her stroke her horse’s neck affectionately. “So, so dead.”
Inigo and Libra both looked up sharply as a long howl echoed around them from the forest, repeated a number of times. Anna reacted instantly, already up and on the driver’s seat of the wagon.
“We should probably get the hell out of here,” Inigo said, a rare quiver in his voice.
Robin shook his head, leaning against the wagon and crossing his arms, smiling into the forest.
“Don’t worry,” he said over his shoulder. “They’re just saying goodbye.”