Invisible Ties

Chapter 56

Tharja let out a breath, sitting upright and stretching her tired back. She had been sitting in her tent, leaning over the lock of Robin’s hair she had been given with a quill and a piece of parchment and stretching out her sixth sense to catalogue the lingering effects of curses that had been placed on Robin over his lifetime.

“A curse for good fortune,” she muttered, going back over the list. “A curse for increased awareness; a curse to increase his muscle and bone density…”

The list went on; a list of curses to improve the tactician in every way that had been placed on him at or very near to birth. Someone had expended considerable amounts of time and effort on making him as perfect as possible. And, in her opinion, they had been successful; but the amount of sacrifices it would have taken to make him so powerful would probably make Robin hate himself, even if he had been cursed unwillingly.

By her calculations at least ten people would have had to die to power the curses she had identified so far, and she was far from done.

She delicately ran her fingers over the strands of hair, feeling a shiver run up her spine from the thought of the sheer amount of blood that had been spilled to make Robin the man he was.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought by any means; it didn’t match the man she had come to love more than she ever had any members of her own family.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of her tent opening, followed closely by the familiar sounds of beating wings and Henry’s chuckling.

“Still hard at work?” he asked, perpetually excited. “You know I might be able to help.”

Tharja shook her head.

“And you know that you would just contaminate the sample. I can focus past my own energy, but I always find yours… distracting.”

“You know, I like the sound of that.”

Henry burst into his loud, distinctive laughter, more a cackle than anything else, but it sounded strained. He ended his laugh by doubling over and coughing into his hand, making Tharja look up at him.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he chuckled, waving her off as he shuffled over to the cot on the other side of the tent.

“Let me see,” she said, the words coming out as a command as she stood and set her writing implements to one side, her task of studying Robin’s curses instantly forgotten.

Henry sighed as he went to sit, turning instead and shedding his robe and pulling off his traditional clothes until he was standing topless. Tharja clicked her tongue, prodding softly at the bloody bandages wrapped around his torso.

“You shouldn’t have come with us,” she repeated for the twentieth time. “You should have stayed in Ylisstol with the others. We still don’t know-”

“Yes, yes, so you keep saying,” he chuckled, sinking to sit on the edge of the cot with a tired groan. “That Risen thingy definitely got me good, but I’m not about to leave my lovely death-blossom’s side for a second. So you can forget that idea. Besides, she got you too, and I notice you haven’t told anyone about that yet, either. Besides, they’re only flesh-wounds.”

Henry laughed again, the chuckles turning into a hiss of pain as Tharja started unwrapping the bandages around his chest. True, she had her own wrappings around her slim bicep where the Deadlord had cut her, but it was literally only a scratch, especially compared to Henry’s wounds.

“At least we never want for medical supplies,” she muttered, gently rolling the bandages away from Henry’s skin and reaching for the bag she had ‘appropriated’ from Libra’s stores.

She resisted the urge to wince and look away when she peeled back the soaked gauze patches and revealed the other Dark Mage’s wounded torso; he had been hurt in Ylisstol, but compared to Panne his wounds barely warranted any attention at all; a few light gashes from the Risen’s sword he’d shrugged off at the time in his haste to see if the creature bled. In fact neither of them had thought anything of them, binding the wounds and intending to have one of the healers look at them once the Taguel woman was out of harm’s way and going to sleep; however when they had woken and Henry had bled through the bandages Tharja had recalled the scar across the bridge of Robin’s nose that had been impossible to magically heal.

Henry’s wounds from the Deadlord’s cursed sword were healing slowly, but they wouldn’t stop bleeding. Twice a day Tharja was being forced to change his bandages and burn the old ones so that there was no evidence of his wounds, all because Henry had sworn her to secrecy so he could join them on their quest to stop the Fell Dragon.

“This is foolishness,” she repeated, beginning to clean the blood off of his torso a little rougher than was necessary in her irritation. “We should tell the others. We should send you back.”

“Nope, not happening,” Henry snickered, wincing a little at the other Mage’s ministrations.

“You’re going to end up bleeding to death,” she growled, watching the angry red lines across his chest continue to weep fluid. “At least stop with active duty. I’ll talk to Robin, have him ensure you stay with the rest of us on lighter duties.”

Henry’s laughter turned bitter as he caught Tharja’s hands and held them to his chest.

“As tempting as that sounds I don’t think the others would go for it,” he sighed. “I was serious about not leaving you and Noire alone here. And… I have to see it, too. I have to make sure it’s not actually… him.”

Tharja nodded as the white-haired man trailed off, shaking free of his grip and finishing cleaning the wounds, pressing fresh gauze patches to his chest and silently beginning to wrap him again.

Henry was referring to Grima; they had talked at length about this topic after a summons had reached them both. A black-clad Plegian messenger had met them on the road while the Shepherds had been returning to Ylisstol from Valm, silently handing over twin vellum scrolls before disappearing into the night. They had never even seen the man’s face, and none of the others had even caught wind of him, not even the sub-humans with heightened senses.

Inside the sealed rolls were orders from the head of the Order of Dark Mages and the King of Plegia for all Dark Mages to return to Plegia and report to the Dragon’s Table for orders or face excommunication and death. Neither of them had even entertained the idea of actually heeding the summons; in fact Henry had laughed himself hoarse after opening his. But the fact that the entire order was being summoned boded ill; it was something that had never happened before, and with Lucina’s warning hanging over their heads, there was only one reason they could think of that the Dark Mages would be summoned.

Their creed, the Dark Mages and the Grimleal owed its very existence to Grima; but both of them knew that his arrival would spell the end of everything they cared about.

“You know, you’re a lot more gentle than the others give you credit for,” Henry giggled as Tharja finished.

With a frown the Dark Mage prodded Henry in the ribs, her finger grinding painfully close to one of his gashes. But only close to, Tharja reflected as he yelped and jumped backwards; she didn’t want to undo all her hard work, after all.

Robin groaned, shielding his face from the dust and grit in the Plegian wind as he walked through the camp.

“There’s no way I’m Plegian…” he grumbled. “I hate the desert so much.”

“Ever consider that’s why you left?” Tiki chirped from his shoulder, her perpetual smile in place as she was seemingly unfazed by the wind and sand.

“I probably would have left a lot earlier,” Robin sighed. “Unless there was something keeping me here. Like being the son of a crack-pot sorcerer that can control my mind.”

Tiki quirked her head as they walked through the small camp.

“What was that?” she asked. “I can’t hear you over the wind when you mumble.”

“Just wondering why the voice of Naga is coming on a scouting mission,” Robin said over his shoulder.

Tiki beamed excitedly. “I like the desert, and it’s been forever since I’ve been to one.”

“Yeah, but you like everything.”

“That entirely depends on who I’m with,” Tiki winked.

She laughed when Robin rolled his eyes, the duo coming out onto the periphery of the camp to meet with Lon’qu and Severa, the other two members of the scouting party.

“Frederick?” Robin asked, coming to stop when he noticed the big knight standing with the other two. “What… what are you doing here?”

“You’re going on a scouting mission into the wilderness with my Lord’s brother-in-law, the voice of Naga and my daughter,” he deadpanned. “I thought it prudent to ensure their safety.”

“Okay,” Robin sighed, pinching the skin between his eyes as he felt a headache brewing.

“While there are a number of things wrong with that statement, I’m going to focus on two of them and ask you this; if I somehow manage to kill two of the best swordsmen in the Shepherds and a thousand-year old manakete on my own, what hope do you think you would have? And, perhaps more importantly; have you ever in your life actually gone on a scouting mission?”

“Come on, Daddy,” Severa said, walking over to Robin. “He’s harmless as a kitten. See?”

She punctuated her statement by slapping Robin in the back of the head, much the same way she usually did to Owain. Tiki burst out laughing and even Lon’qu chuckled a little, but Frederick didn’t look convinced even as Robin yelped and rubbed the back of his head.

“Regardless,” the Knight Commander insisted, crossing his arms. “I will be joining you.”

Robin sighed. They just then lost an hour of time because Frederick wasn’t properly equipped for scouting in the desert.

And I just spent all morning explaining to Lucina why she shouldn’t come… he groaned internally.

“Not dressed like that, you’re not,” the tactician told the other man, giving in and indicating the ornate heavy armour he was wearing and the huge axe and sword strapped to his back.

A few hours later they were nearing their goal in the southlands of Plegia, close to where the sand dunes became hard-packed badlands around the mountain plateau known as the Dragon’s Table, where Validar’s new stronghold apparently was. Robin was grateful to almost be at their destination so fast, but not everyone in the group seemed to share his optimism.

“This is absurd,” Frederick grumbled as he followed at the end of the line of Shepherds. “I am the Knight Commander of Ylisse! My armour is a mark of my rank! To have to go into battle dressed in these rags is-”

“Quiet!” Lon’qu hissed angrily, glaring back at the Knight.

Robin and Tiki both snickered as Frederick clammed up, Severa rolling her eyes again. The Knight Commander was wearing light leather armour similar to the training gear Chrom often wore, only his big sword slung over his shoulder as they skirted dunes and crossed the desert. He had grumbled the entire time, a job that Robin usually did himself and was surprised to admit that it was really quite irritating when it was somebody else.

I still hate the desert, though, Robin thought, doing his best to spit the sand out of his mouth silently.

“There’s the first outpost,” Lon’qu whispered into Robin’s ear as the two men lay flush against one of the last big dunes, looking through a spyglass.

Robin nodded, collapsing the little tube and sliding back down the slope as carefully as he could. To absolutely no one’s surprise Miriel’s little invention had been a huge hit, and were being mass-produced and handed out to scouting regiments in both Ylisse and Regna Ferox. It was useful, Robin had to admit; especially with his aversion to hostile arrows.

“Well?” Severa asked in a quiet voice as he and Lon’qu hustled back over to the others. “How’s it look?”

“Not great,” Robin admitted. “They’re pretty smartly set up; we could maybe sneak by them no problem, but the Knights and the less ‘stealthy’ of our members would attract too much attention.”

“There are three more outposts,” Lon’qu muttered, pointing to the positions on the map he was holding. “Each one of them much the same.”

Robin sighed, nodding.

“Ideally we would use lightning-raid tactics and simply overwhelm one of the outposts then charge through, but we lack the numbers.”

“And we don’t have time to wait for reinforcements from Ylisse,” Tiki added sombrely.

“So it is hopeless?” Frederick asked, frowning.

“I didn’t say that,” Robin muttered, tapping his chin in thought. “I… uh…”

He shook his head, suddenly beset by a familiar headache.

“Robin?” Lon’qu asked, stepping closer.

“I’m fine,” the tactician said quickly, reaching for his waterskin. “Just thirsty.”

“As I was saying, it’s not hopeless,” he repeated. “We just need to-”

“Down!” Lon’qu hissed, throwing himself forward and tackling Robin and Severa to the ground.

Up on the small rise behind them a lone black-armoured figure turned from the group and disappeared over the back of it.

“It’s too late, he’s seen us!” Tiki snarled, already starting to transform.

“Tiki, stop! You’ll alert the whole camp!” Robin shouted as he darted past her, halting the woman mid-transformation as he lifted himself back up and darted forward. “Lon’qu take the girls and circle round, make sure there’s not more of them! Tiki, don’t transform unless there’s no other choice! Frederick, make yourself useful and help me run him down!”

“Watch your tone, tactician!” Frederick growled, drawing his sword from over his shoulder and following the other man up the dune anyway.

Robin scrambled ungracefully up the slope, completely heedless of the cloud of dust he was kicking up. Frederick followed him, struggling in the loose sand more than the lighter tactician. At the top of the dune Robin stopped, shielding his eyes and spotting the Plegian scout not far from the base, running as fast as he could in the opposite direction to the outpost.

He’s probably just trying to put distance between us and him, Robin theorized, casting a quick fire spell and throwing it at the man’s feet.

There was a small explosion, the sound muffled by the soft earth and the dunes around them as the scout went flying through the air, laying still when he hit the ground.

What? Robin wondered, glancing down at his hand. I… I didn’t put that much mana into that spell. What the hell? A question for later, I guess.

Robin looked back as a huffing Frederick finally reached the top of the dune, sword held ready and looking around vigilantly.

“Too late, I took care of it,” Robin grinned. “Shall we see if he’s still alive? Maybe we can get some intel.”

“Knights don’t resort to torture,” Frederick growled, keeping his sword in his grip as they began sliding down the other side of the dune. “Unlike Plegians.”

“Neither do I,” Robin shrugged. “I was just going to ask some questions. He has no idea where we’re camped, and they already know we’re skulking about. I’ll just let him go if he won’t talk. Just because I’m Plegian doesn’t make me a monster.”

And you should know me by now; it’s not like you spent the better part of the last four years following me around the world or anything, Robin added in his head, rolling his eyes when Frederick grunted noncommittally.

The black armoured soldier was groaning as they approached, rolling onto his stomach and struggling to rise.

“Hi there,” Robin said, kicking the man’s weapon away and squatting down next to him.

He blinked up at Robin a few times, confusion still evident on his soft-featured face before his eyes went wide and he threw himself away from the tactician.

“Stay away from me, Grimleal scum!” he shouted in a shrill voice. “You’ll get nothing out of me!”

Frederick sighed behind Robin as the tactician scratched the back of his head, watching the soldier, obviously very young from the pitch of his voice, hyperventilating on the sand a little way away.

“Even the Plegians don’t like you,” Frederick snickered after a moment, the weight of the boy’s outburst sinking in.

Robin rolled his eyes before looking back to the soldier.

‘Grimleal scum’, huh? Robin thought, cupping his chin and staring intently at the terrified young man. This could be interesting; if the Plegians are divided we may be able to find some allies and get some more bodies without waiting for reinforcements from Themis or Ylisstol. And Frederick will hate that. It’s win-win!

“You don’t serve the King?” he asked seriously.

The soldier remained silent, staring up at the two men defiantly.

“This is getting us nowhere!” Frederick growled, eying the soldier.

“We’re Ylissean, not Plegian,” Robin said as brightly as he could. “We serve the Exalt and we’re here to stop… well, another insane King, apparently.”

The Plegian soldier hesitated, looking like he was about to say something in response before Lon’qu appeared at Robin’s side, a frowning Severa and giggling Tiki at his back.

“Could you two possibly have made any more noise?” he asked sarcastically. “Did you forget what stealth means?”

“I assume we should be running?” Robin sighed, standing up without missing a beat.

Lon’qu just rolled his eyes.

“Take me with you!” the Plegian burst out suddenly, rising to his knees. “Please! Don’t leave me for the Grimleal to find!”

“We don’t have time for enemy deserters,” Frederick said bluntly, turning away from the boy and starting back in the direction of the camp.

Robin cast a glance to Lon’qu and the others before turning back to the soldier.

“Ignore the grumpy one. Keep up, stay close, and don’t make any noise,” Robin said in a low voice. “And I’m keeping your sword for now. If you stab anyone or give our position away I will personally deliver you back to the Plegians with the word ‘deserter’ carved into your forehead. Understood?”

The boy nodded, jumping to his feet and falling in with the others as they started running back to the camp.

“A deserter?” Chrom asked thoughtfully as he went about trying to get his armour on without Jake or Sumia’s assistance. “I didn’t think that the Plegians were divided over this.”

Robin snickered as Chrom growled, shaking his gauntlet around in an attempt to get it to sit properly.

“Are you going to help me or sit there laughing at me?” the Exalt groaned after a few more seconds of struggling with his armour.

“Do I look like I wear armour?” Robin asked with a chuckle, tugging his collar down a little and pointing to the scars on his chest.

“And yes, apparently there is a resistance movement,” Robin added when Chrom finally got the catches in the right position. “He wouldn’t tell me any more without talking to you first. So… what’s the armour for?”

Chrom turned to face Robin as he crouched, doing up the buckles on the back of his greaves by touch.

“We are in enemy territory,” the Exalt said with a grin. “I would expect you to be a little more worried about your own personal safety.”

“What, with my indestructible coat protecting me? Not likely!” Robin laughed, holding the sides of his coat up like wings.

As soon as they had arrived back at the camp Tiki and Severa had taken the Plegian to the mess tent where they would still be watching him; Lon’qu had gone to do whatever it was the stoic swordsman did after a mission, and Frederick had disappeared, no doubt to put his armour back on. The Knight Commander had been quite vocal about his protests to the Plegian’s presence, but Robin had been adamant that they needed allies.

As soon as the scouting party had disbanded Robin had beelined directly for Chrom’s tent to relay their findings. As he’d arrived he’d noticed Frederick lurking nearby, having changed back into his armour in record time to keep his constant and irritating vigil over the tactician.

Said tactician’s musings were interrupted when he accidentally lowered his guard and the yawn he’d been holding back all day slipped out.

“Robin, are you working through the night again?” Chrom asked with a wry grin. “Didn’t we have this conversation once before?”

“No,” the tactician said defensively, crossing his arms. “I’ll have you know I’m getting at least four hours of sleep every night now, thanks in no small part to your daughter clobbering me if I don’t.”

“Yes, she takes after her mother in that respect,” Chrom chuckled. “So why do you look like you haven’t slept in a week, then?”

Robin shrugged, running a hand down his face.

“Dreams,” he said with another shrug. “I’m having these vivid dreams. They’re almost like memories, which is supposed to be impossible. Unless somehow they’re slipping back into my head. I don’t know, but they’re wreaking bloody-havoc with what little sleeping pattern I actually have.”

“That is ominous,” Chrom said, growing serious. “Anything particularly worth note?”

“Other than the fact I apparently have a sister and my father was an arse-hole to me my entire adolescence? Not really, no.”

“I see… my mother,” Robin added in a quieter voice. “At least, I think she’s my mother. But I can never make out her face. It’s… upsetting.”

The two men grew silent, the moment stretching out between them. Robin had never said a word about getting his memories back besides a few joking complaints; he had never made a single complaint about his amnesia. To see him like this was disquieting for Chrom.

“Sister?” Chrom piqued, raising a brow and attempting to diffuse the melancholy atmosphere.

“Er… can we talk about it later?” Robin asked apologetically, hastily trying to change the subject. “It’s not really important, and we seem to have gotten side-tracked.”

“Very well, but you won’t be able to weasel out of this conversation. Do you think the deserter’s story has merit, then?” Chrom asked, rising and attaching his cape to the shoulders of his chest-plate.

“Sure, why not?” Robin shrugged, leaning back in the Exalt’s camp chair. “We need allies. The Ylissean Army is too far away, and we’re not getting through the little blockade that Validar has set up on our own; not without heavy casualties. It’s a good opportunity. I was honestly expecting you to be a little more apprehensive about this, though.”

“Why do you say that?” Chrom asked, nodding in satisfaction after checking the straps on his armour one last time and strapping Falchion to his hip.

“Well, you did get kinda pissy when we had to ask for the boats for the Valm campaign,” Robin shrugged.

“Because I don’t like Plegian royalty,” Chrom admitted without a second thought. “We’re dealing, hopefully, with people that feel the same way this time. Besides, I can’t let my bigotry be the reason the world ends.”

“Don’t worry,” Robin said, standing. “If the world does end, I’m pretty sure your lousy attitude won’t have anything to do with it.”

“Who has a lousy attitude?” Chrom laughed, punching Robin lightly in the arm.

“Gah! Chrom! Armour!”

Lucina looked up from her daily Falchion maintenance as she heard Robin shouting and her father laughing. A weight lifted off her mind as the knowledge that he had returned unharmed sunk in and she let out the soft sigh of a breath she hadn’t even been aware she was holding.

The future Princess was sitting in one of the bigger supply tents with Owain and Laurent as the mage tried to do an inventory and Owain tried to ‘help’ him, making more work for the frustrated older boy in the process.

The excitable swordsman perked up as Robin gave another, louder shout in the distance.

“Sounds like they have returned whole,” Laurent muttered, taking advantage of the other man’s distraction to pluck the staff Owain was holding out of his hands and put it back in its crate.

“Indeed!” Owain said with a familiar flourish, striking a pose. “For nothing of this world could hope to stand before the master of Owain and live!”

“Yes, now only if we could get something to interpose itself between my ears and your voice I would be most pleased,” Laurent grumbled. “Perhaps that is an experiment I can look into… I believe there were some cotton swabs nearby that I might make use of.”

“And how would you do that?” Lucina asked with a chuckle as she watched Owain peeking out of the tent like a child, hoping to catch a glimpse of Robin and make sure he was safe.

Laurent stopped to think, tapping a finger to his chin and running a hand through his hair.

“The only means to put said items to use would be to insert them into my ear canal to halt the sound waves, or-”

“It appears our fears were unfounded!” Owain shouted, leaping up onto a box and striking another, grander pose. “Our undefeatable tactician is alive and well!”

“Cram them down his throat,” Laurent growled, glaring at Owain and letting out a sigh.

“Excuse me, Princess,” he said, his usual composure slipping back into place. “I just recalled there was another chore I was meant to be attending to.”

Owain and Lucina watched the irritable mage leave, the blonde swordsman chuckling and dropping to sit on the box he was standing on.

“People just don’t appreciate the effort I put into my performances,” he chuckled.

“Oh? So you can still talk like a normal person?” Lucina asked playfully as she set about cleaning up the supplies Laurent had been cataloguing and left lying out in his haste to escape.

“I… do try to act a little more… subdued around you,” Owain admitted with a shrug.

“Why?” Lucina asked curiously.

“You're a princess, Luce,” Owain shrugged. “I figured it wasn't exactly appropriate for addressing royals.”

“Well, you realise you’re technically a Prince, too, cousin,” she added, stressing the last word.

“Yeah, but I’m third-in-line. You and Cyn are the important ones. I just stab things and look dashing and heroic while I do it. Besides, Mom would tan my hide if she ever found out.”

“Lissa would object to you spinning yarns for royalty?” Lucina asked; she hadn’t really had a lot of time to get to know her Aunt yet, even if she was technically a few years older than her in this timeline.

“Not just royalty!” Owain assured her. “Anybody! She gets really upset whenever I do it. Heh, actually, I suppose most everyone does. They think I'm a bit batty.”

“Do they now?” Lucina commented absently, stacking the daggers back in the order Laurent liked them in. “That's a shame. Personally, I find it quite intriguing.”

“What, really?” Owain asked.

“It's no simple feat to speak as you do when fantasy grips your mind,” Lucina explained, a small smile on her face as she went about cleaning up the supplies. “Inventing weapon names and such requires a rich vocabulary and quick thinking. And of course your stories demand a particularly active imagination.”

“I guess they do, don't they? Thanks Lucina!” Owain said excitedly, jumping to his feet with fists clenched.

“Perhaps you might even consider demonstrating how you do it sometime?” she asked over her shoulder. “I've oft been told that my manner of speech is somewhat... formal at times. If I could learn to adopt your tone, it might prove useful to my own.”

“Heh, you sound like you're asking me to teach you a foreign language,” Owain chuckled before stopping to think. “I'm not sure if this would be such a good idea...”

“And if I were to pledge never to speak of it to Aunt Lissa?” Lucina laughed, sliding the last of the crates back into its place and turning around.

“Then so be it!” Owain declared. “Prepare yourself, young Lucina! Your destiny cometh!”

Owain burst into a fit of excited laughter, eyes practically shining as Lucina decided to not remind him that she was actually older than him.

“Aw, this is gonna be so great! I’m going to go and find Cyn and get her in on this as well!”

“I look forward to it,” Lucina laughed as Owain darted out of the tent.

Just as Lucina was making to exit the tent herself Owain’s head popped back through the flaps, a big smile on his face as Lucina stopped short of the flaps.

“You know, Luce, I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, but we’re all really liking the new upbeat you,” he said before disappearing again.

Lucina stopped for a moment, wondering what he was talking about before shrugging and stepping into the dry desert air. She hadn’t really thought much of her attitude lately. Perhaps she would ask Robin about Owain’s comment later.

Robin and Chrom both sat facing the young Plegian soldier, whose name was apparently Sahiri, staring back at them with a look of awe on his face no doubt directed more to the regally dressed Chrom than the shabby Robin.

“So this General Mustafa is leading a resistance movement and wants us to meet with him in hopes of forming an alliance?” Robin stated, summing up the interrogation so far.

“I’m not going to lie,” Chrom said with a pointed look at Robin. “What you’re saying seems very… convenient.”

“Like a brilliant amnesiac tactician falling into your hands?” Robin muttered, earning a not-so-subtle nudge from Chrom’s armoured elbow.

“You don’t believe me,” Sahiri said, looking crestfallen under the brow-ridge of his black helmet.

“It’s not a matter of believing you or not,” Robin shrugged. “We’re simply saying it solves too many of our problems. It seems too good to be true.”

“The General knew you would need aid, though!” Sahiri insisted. “We’ve been moving in hopes of finding you! I was actually sent out to scout the Grimleal positions, but I’m not going to look a gift-horse in the mouth!”

“Admittedly, we have gotten a lot better at hiding lately…” Robin muttered, recalling all the sneaking around that the Ylissean League had done in Valm.

“I remember Mustafa,” Chrom said, rubbing his chin in deep thought. “He was a good man. An honourable man. If this is truly a message from him, then I believe we can trust it.”

“And if it’s not?” Robin asked.

“We do what we always do in a trap,” Chrom said decisively.

“Spring it and almost die,” Robin groaned. “Right. So business as usual, then.”

Sahiri giggled, standing with the two other men and extending a hand.

“It is good to know that my General’s faith in the honour of the Exalt was not misplaced,” he said, bowing lightly.

“Please, there is no need for that if we are to be allies,” Chrom said, indicating the boy rise. “Why don’t you get cleaned up and have something to eat before we move? Severa and Tiki will look after you.”

And keep an eye on him, Robin thought to himself, looking the boy over again. Although why Chrom doesn’t put someone like Inigo or Owain on that job… no, forget Owain. He’d convince this kid we’re all nuts and spoil any chance of an alliance. And this guy is kinda effeminate, so Inigo would wind up just hitting on him. Yeah, let’s go with the girls.

Sahiri nodded, pulling off his helmet and allowing a waterfall of long, straight black hair fall out of it over his perfect dark skin, giving it a light shake to get it out of his-

“Holy crap you’re a girl,” Robin said, eyes widening. “Suddenly I feel worse about throwing that fireball at you.”

Sahiri stopped, blinking up at the taller Robin a few times in confusion. Chrom, however, burst into laughter.

“You are really bad at that!” he chuckled, holding his armoured sides.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Robin said sarcastically. “Which one of us picked out your disguised daughter as a woman first!?”

Robin groaned, face-palming as Chrom roared with laughter. He could hear Severa and Tiki snickering at him from outside the tent, too. Sahiri was obviously trying to decide whether to be amused or offended, leaving Robin standing in the middle of the tent as his ears turned red.

Brilliant, he bemoaned. Just... Brilliant.

“Don’t we have a world to save!?” Robin shouted, storming out of the tent.

Which apparently had the opposite effect he had desired, he realised as Chrom practically doubled over in laughter.

Robin grumbled wordlessly to himself as he stomped along at the back of a small group being led by Sahiri to wherever it was the Plegian Resistance was. He’d stopped paying attention; this part of the desert all looked the same to him, and he had no problem admitting he was hopelessly lost.

There were featureless dunes in every direction. Everywhere Robin looked was sand, sand and more sand. It was driving him nuts. He hated the desert at the best of times but this… this was just torture.

Sahiri called the area the ‘Shifting Sands’, and apparently unless one was a local like she was they were doomed to wander until they died of thirst.

So in other words it was a perfect place for the Resistance to hide.

Chrom walked up the front with their guide and Lucina, both Ylissean royals apparently unaffected by the heat and the glaring sun, despite wearing their silver plates. Severa and Tiki followed, the manakete similarly not bothered by the climate, but the fiery red-haired swordswoman had begun to fan herself a little. The only other person having as tough a time as Robin was Vaike, shuffling along beside the tactician and moaning.

“The Vaike’s gonna die!” he groaned. “Heat-stroke… heat-stroke!”

Robin silently agreed with the man as he tried to use his coat’s hood as an impromptu hat. All of a sudden Vaike’s manner of dress didn’t seem too silly. Until he burned to a crisp in the sun, but then Robin would just laugh at the man as he prodded his sunburn.

“Aren’t you afraid of burning?” Robin asked curiously as they began to climb another of the endless dunes.

“Nah. The Vaike’s lovely little miss is makin’ some kinda anti-sun-burn stuff,” he said proudly. “Apparently I complain about getting burned too much… heh. Take a lookit’ this!”

The axeman dug a small container out of his waist pouch, tossing it to Robin who caught it out of the air reflexively. Opening it he found a strange white paste that smelled like coconuts.

“Smells nice,” Robin commented, tossing it back and subtly glancing over his shoulder.

There in the distance he spotted the forms of Cordelia and Cynthia flying just above the dunes, knowing that Inigo and Lon’qu were riding tandem with the two women. Robin had decided he was growing tired of springing traps without having any back-up, and had organised for a tail. As unpleasant as Lon’qu found riding a pegasus with a woman not Lissa to be.

“Yeah, just don’t try to eat it,” Vaike laughed, bringing his attention back. “It’ll make you sicker than when Robin has cooking… duty… ah…”

“You forgot who you were talking to again, didn’t you?” Robin drolled.

“Nope! Teach wants you to know yer skills need improvin’!” he countered quickly, crossing his arms and grinning.

And dropping his axe in the process.

“Vaike, you… uh… your axe…” Robin managed to say, somehow holding his laughter back.

Cursing, Vaike spun and grabbed his axe from where it was sticking up in the air, halfway up the dune.

“I’ll have you know I gave up on cooking a long time ago,” Robin said as he and Vaike finally reached the top of the dune. “I’d say it was in everyone’s best interests.”

“Yeah, no argument here,” Severa muttered with a smirk, just loud enough for him to know he was meant to hear it.

“Don’t worry, bro! I can’t cook neither!” Vaike laughed, throwing an arm around Robin’s shoulders.

Chrom cleared his throat, a small grin of his own on his regal features.

Robin looked past the dune and the swirling sand in the wind, his eyes coming to rest on a small oasis village like many of the others he had seen scattered across the desert; a few clay buildings around one side of the pool’s shore, palm trees and sparse grasses waving lazily in the wind. The only difference was the difficulty in finding the place.

“This is a pretty isolated place,” he commented idly. “And it seems kind of… quiet.”

“Too quiet?” Vaike asked, grinning and waggling his eyebrows.

“Hey, I’ve only said that one time, and I was right. It was a trap.”

“Uh, the majority of the soldiers will be in hiding at the moment in the sands on the other side of the oasis,” Sahiri said helpfully. “It’s mostly the senior officers and mages in the village. The General didn’t want to put any undue strain on the villagers.”

“How do we get down there?” Tiki asked curiously.

“We slide,” Sahiri explained. “It’s easy. Just lean back and go slow and you’ll be fine.”

Chrom nodded, stepping forward and beginning to gracefully skid down the other side of the sand dune. Vaike let out an excited laugh, swinging his axe and leaping after the Exalt.

“Yes, because now we don’t look like marauders or anything,” Severa huffed, glancing at Robin. “Really, how do you put up with that buffoon?”

“He’s saved my life more than once,” Robin said with a small grin. “And he’s fun to drink with.”

The redhead rolled her eyes, following the other two men with Tiki and Sahiri.

“This looks fun!” the tactician heard Tiki say just before she disappeared over the edge.

Robin glanced over the edge, raising one eyebrow in trepidation.

“Ever get the feeling what you’re about to do is a really bad idea?” he asked Lucina, who had come up behind him.

“I did once,” she admitted, leaning over and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. “But then it turned out to be one of the best decisions I had ever made, so I tend not to listen to those feelings now.”

With that she was gone over the lip, skidding down the slope in a flash of blue and silver and leaving Robin standing alone at the top smiling to himself stupidly. He gave his head a small shake and slapped his cheeks in an attempt to make himself focus.

“I am going to regret this,” Robin muttered under his breath as he stepped backwards to get a running start.

About half an hour later Robin let out a little cough, giving off a puff of fine beige dust, the same colour he was coated in, as he followed Chrom, Lucina and Sahiri through the small village. The other three had gone to the oasis to officially refill the group’s waterskins; however from there, if this was a trap, they would be able to respond quickly to any point of the town.

“I did say lean back,” Sahiri said, trying to stifle her giggles.

“You are the worst Plegian ever,” Chrom laughed over his shoulder at the frowning tactician.

“I’ll take that as a compliment, thank you,” Robin deadpanned, glaring at the Exalt and giving off small clouds of dust with every movement.

Chrom snickered, Lucina doing much the same as she turned to Sahiri.

“He means no disrespect,” she explained. “It is complicated.”

“The crown prince doesn’t like the desert!” Robin exclaimed grumpily. “So what!? I don’t mind the Plegian people, but Gods I hate the sand! That’s it! I’m moving to Regna Ferox!”

Chrom burst into another full-blown fit of laughter, leaving Sahiri to look back confusedly.

“Yeah,” she muttered, shaking her head a little as Lucina tried to lightly dust the tactician off to no avail. “Complicated. Clearly.”

“Trap,” Robin breathed, just loud enough to ensure Chrom heard him.

“Trap,” he repeated, drawing the word out.

The Exalt glanced back at his dust-coated tactician and raised one brow. Robin shrugged in response, as if pre-empting his habitual ‘I told you so’.

Chrom rolled his eyes, his code for ‘you think everything is a trap’.

The tactician quirked his head to one side, the movement signifying ‘and I’m usually right’.

“It never ceases to astound me how the two of you can communicate without actually using words,” Lucina muttered, interrupting their wordless conversation and stepping past them to follow Sahiri.

The young Plegian woman had led them through the village to the biggest house, no doubt belonging to the village elder. Robin had been watching everything, every subtle movement in his peripheral vision. He had seen the standard villagers, watching from the safety of their homes as the armed strangers strolled through their village; he’d seen the not-so-subtle glares from the village’s young men as they stopped their daily chores to watch the strangers; he’d even noticed the Plegian soldiers hiding in shadows and watching their progress, not with malice or ill intent, but just with curiosity.

He didn’t actually think this was a trap; it didn’t feel like one. He just liked to irritate Chrom.

Without further hesitation the two men followed the women past the thin curtain in the doorway and into the clay building.

Robin felt a spike of anxiety as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the comparative gloom of the building, the bright glare from the open desert sky making him momentarily blind as he stood next to Chrom. Once his vision cleared he was treated to the sight of quite possibly the largest man he’d ever seen in his life; bigger even that Frederick or Basilio.

“Greeting, your Divine Exaltedness,” the dark-skinned giant said, rising with one hand over his bare chest and bowing low. “It does my old bones good to see you well.”

“General Mustafa,” Chrom said in his best court-voice, offering his hand as the big man rose. “I wish we could be meeting under less dire circumstances.”

Robin carefully watched the man’s reactions; it wasn’t an over-exaggeration to say that his bald head nearly brushed the ceiling, and the thick, chest length beard he sported made it difficult to read his expression. Robin noted that the General’s nose had been broken sometime in the past and reset improperly, giving his face a lopsided look. The man’s bulky bone-coloured shoulder plates, the only actual armour he wore, would have looked comically large if any normal solider were to wear them, but Robin noticed a distinct lack of weaponry in the small house.

“I do not believe we have had the pleasure,” Mustafa said cordially, turning to Robin once he had finished greeting Chrom.

“I am…” the big man trailed off, his face going slack and his eyes widening as he looked properly at Robin.

“It cannot be,” he muttered, freezing up.

“Er… hi there,” Robin said meekly, keenly aware of just how much bigger than him Mustafa was.

“I’m Robin, the tactician to the Shepherds,” he said, deciding to try and break the strange tension that had suddenly descended on them.

Sahiri looked back and forth between her general and the tactician, clearly wondering if she had done something wrong, while Lucina and Chrom looked on anxiously.

“I know who you are,” Mustafa said levelly. “But I must ask if your companions do, as well.”

Oh. He recognizes me, Robin realized. Well, it was bound to happen. Damn. This really does mean I’m Validar’s son. I was hoping he was just playing me, but…

“We are aware of Robin’s parentage,” Chrom said, stepping between the two men. “And he has been nothing but the staunchest of allies and friends for the better part of five years, General. Whatever he was in his old life, he is no longer. I would that we spoke of our common enemy, rather than my tactician.”

Mustafa seemed to relax a little, casting Robin another leery glance.

“Very well, sir Exalt,” he said at length, indicating they all sit. “I shall defer to your judgement. Although I will admit I was not expecting to find the missing Crown Prince of my homeland in your company.”

“Wait, so he’s really-” Sahiri began, being cut off when Mustafa raised a hand the size of a dinner-plate.

“Sahiri, you have done well,” he said in a stern, yet gentle tone. “Take rest and see to the other Shepherds. I will call for you if I have need of you.”

Sahiri nodded once, her stunned expression that had been pointed at Robin a few moments ago becoming one of military precision as she saluted and left the building.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Robin said, hoping to regain the initiative after the rocky start to their meeting. “You have men. We need men. Let’s work something out.”

“Subtle,” Chrom chuckled as Mustafa raised a brow at them.

“Subtlety is for when we’re not all about to die,” Robin said empathetically.

“I agree,” Mustafa said, casting another sideways glance at Robin before turning to Chrom.

“We face a common enemy, milord, and my intelligence tells me that time is short. Let us not waste time with pointless pleasantries.”

Aversa strode boldly up the steps to the Sanctum of Grima, the grand pathway perfectly smooth, cut magically from the stones themselves. There was a slight groove in the middle of the path, made by generations of the passing of pious Grimleal feet over the years.

She had travelled from the capital herself; Validar having teleported without her. The Royal Guards she had brought with her were already being spread out among the four outposts blocking the approach to the Dragon’s Table, and the few lingering Dark Mages she had been able to round up hiding around the capital were at her back, following somewhat reluctantly.

And who could blame them, really? To be a mage of any denomination, Anima, Dark or even the rarer Druids and Light-Magic scholars, was to be obsessed with answers to any and all questions. None of them were being told anything about why they were being summoned, and no doubt that was vexing for them. To make matters worse there was a pervading sense of ominous dread hanging over the Dragon’s Table of late, something even the most inept Dark Mage would have picked up on like a lightning rod.

A flash of movement in the distance from their flank caught the woman’s eye and she glanced up at the higher balconies of the Sanctum, spotting a black coat billowing in the wind. For a moment she hesitated; her breath caught and her eyes widened, but it barely lasted a second before her usual calm veneer was back in place.

There was no way he would have gotten past her defences; she had designed them to exploit every weakness that she knew Robin had, not just tactically given the current situation, but personally as well. The Shepherds would easily break through the weak blockade that they had set up, but there would be casualties. He would find that unacceptable, which meant his hands would be tied. The blockade wouldn’t stop the Ylisseans once their numbers were gathered, but the time for Grima’s awakening was close at hand; the rabble had only to hold the Ylisseans a few more hours, a day at the most, and in case Robin did get a little bolder and charge the Plegian positions she had another plan in place to counter him. She would use the greatest of Grima’s servants to crush him once and for all.

In a way, she actually hoped he did try to force his way through to them so she could destroy him personally. She found herself excited by the idea of commanding the Dark Dragon’s most worthy servants instead of the mindless Risen or the weak human Plegians.

She could feel Grima’s strength gathering, now, almost like a physical presence.

She allowed herself a small smile at the thought of their impending victory, but somehow it felt hollow. She hadn’t actually bested Robin yet; she hadn’t set her skills against his own. Until she did so her victory wouldn’t be complete.

Aversa glanced up at the balcony she had seen the watcher on as she and her followers neared the sanctum, finding it to be empty now.

It didn’t matter even if it was her; their victory was all but sealed at this point.

Not even divine intervention could save the world from Grima now.

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