Robin stumbled, losing his footing on a tree root and falling flat on his face with a yelp. The Shepherds had been walking through the woods with little rest for nearly three days since their defeat at Themis, trying to get back to Ylisstol without using any of the main roads. They were all exhausted; even the horses refused to bear riders any more. They couldn’t risk being spotted by making a campfire, so they ate whatever fruits and nuts that they could forage, something thankfully simple to accomplish in the abundant Ylissean countryside.
Many times had they been forced to hide under thick foliage to avoid the airborne Plegian wyvern riders passing overhead; something that had thankfully become less frequent as time had gone on and they had gotten safely further and further from Themis.
Twice now they had passed farms that Plegians had razed to the ground in their search for the Shepherds and twice now Robin and Frederick had needed to physically restrain Chrom from going and getting himself killed by hunting for the bandits. Signs of the Plegians were everywhere; abandoned campsites and discarded refuse dotted the thick forest. Robin was concerned by the sheer numbers the signs pointed to; obviously King Gangrel had been planning this invasion for quite some time.
Vaike stumbled over to Robin, the normally jovial man wordlessly helping the tactician to his feet before trudging on with a light slap on the shoulder, a wordless form of encouragement that actually made Robin feel a little better. They were all in this together; when one fell down another picked them back up. It was a comforting thought.
Fortunately it seemed like Sumia, with her cargo of Maribelle and Lissa on her lone pegasus had managed to evade capture and escape ahead of them. Robin thanked the gods for small mercies.
Stahl, Frederick and Sully were moving slowly and leading their exhausted horses by the reigns, not used to prolonged marches on foot. Frederick was faring best out of the three knights, being almost fanatical in his fitness regime, but was obviously as exhausted as the rest. Duke Themis, too, wasn’t faring well; the city of Themis and its surrounds were well known for producing some of the best horses and cavalry in Ylisse, so it was no surprise that the older cavalier was having trouble hiking through the thick forest.
Vaike alternated between supporting Miriel as they marched and limping ahead with Lon’qu to scout their path, the stoic swordsman doing by far the best out of the group, having been brought up in the harsh frozen forests of Regna Ferox.
Virion somehow kept pace, the dandy man showing impressive reserves of strength. He had even stopped complaining after the first day, due in no small part to Sully threatening to use her lance to pin him to a tree as a sacrifice to the forest spirits if he didn’t shut up.
Robin was far too tired to look for Kellam; a task that was difficult given the best circumstances. He just had to hope that the enigmatic soldier was keeping up in his heavy armour.
Ricken stumbled along, somehow managing to match their pace. The mage had collapsed the day before, and Frederick had coerced his mount into carrying the lighter boy for a time while he regained his strength.
Chrom had been silent for the entire march, besides the two instances where he had tried to confront overwhelming Plegian forces. He wasn’t taking the retreat or foreign occupation well.
Robin sighed. Hopefully they would make it to Ylisstol soon, and be able to move on in recapturing the ground they had been forced to give up.
The next day preceded much as the last one had; endless hours of walking, falling, getting back up and walking some more. Everyone was nearing their limit. Miriel and Ricken had been reduced to riding the knights’ mounts, the mages nowhere near fit enough after a lifetime spent studying magic rather than training. Everyone else simply trudged along in near silence, Robin and Chrom at the head of the group. The tactician looked up, tensing, as a shadow passed overhead, ready to call for the Shepherds to scatter and hide from another flight of wyvern riders, but he relaxed as his tired eyes recognized the shape of a pegasus, followed by at least nine more. The beasts circled for a few moments, and the more spirited Shepherds began laughing and shouting, waving their arms above their heads in greeting to the airborne knights as they descended.
“Prince Chrom!” their leader called, landing in amongst the Shepherds. “Milord! Where are you?”
“Here,” Chrom grunted, pushing himself forward.
Five of the other pegasus knights landed skilfully among the trees, the remaining four flying reconnaissance in an expanding circle around the Shepherds on the ground; a smart plan, Robin noted with satisfaction.
“My name is Capitan Erin and I’m here as your rescue party,” the older-looking pegasus rider said urgently.
It wasn’t until Robin noticed the stunning flame-haired pegasus rider from his first day in Ylisstol that the fact that these were the same veteran warriors he’d seen at the palace. Robin breathed a sigh of relief as everyone else sagged the same way.
Quickly they began organizing who would be evacuated and who would continue to march with the horses. Robin and Frederick had to force Chrom to acquiesce to being taken back by pegasus, while Duke Themis merely nodded silently and moved to the woman that would bear him safely to the capital. Robin was surprised to find that he, too, was going to be flown out; by the red-headed knight, no less. Ricken and Miriel were the others that would be evacuated, while Lon’qu and Vaike volunteered to remain with the knights. Virion, too, which had surprised Robin. Kellam spoke up that he would walk, as well, which made Robin jump out of his skin, much to everyone else’s humour. At least spirits were starting to rise again.
The exhausted tactician stumbled over to where the red-haired knight was waiting for him after ensuring that Miriel and Ricken would be okay for the return journey. Miriel had cast a very strange glance toward Vaike once his back was turned; strange even for the eccentric mage-woman. Ricken just about passed out as soon as he was on the pegasus, the knight bearing him laughing a little and moving to sit him in front of her rather than behind.
“Are you ready to go?” the red-head asked.
“I am,” Robin answered wearily, taking one last look around at the others.
The other six knights would accompany the remaining Shepherds back to Ylisstol, which was only one more day away by land. They had brought special rejuvenating tonics for the Shepherds to ease the progress, and proper food for the horses. Robin nodded, satisfied that there was nothing else he could do as Chrom mounted up behind Captain Erin. The woman kicked her pegasus into the sky and was reduced to a dot on the horizon in a matter of moments.
“Good,” the red-headed knight said with a smile that instantly reinvigorated Robin. “My name is Cordelia; have you ever ridden a pegasus before?”
“Yes, numerous times,” Robin said without thinking.
“Then hop on and hold tight; I’ll be flying fast and high, so you don’t want to fall off.”
Robin did as he was told, blushing slightly as he took hold of Cordelia’s waist. With a kick they were in the air, soaring much faster and higher than Robin ever had before. The wind whistling in his ears made conversation impossible, and Robin had to fight to keep his tired mind focussed on things besides the lithe beauty he was clinging to for dear life.
Ah, death by falling. There’s a great distraction, Robin thought sarcastically to himself.
It was going to be a long flight, Robin realised as Cordelia’s lightly armoured form ground against his chest as she steered her mount higher.
When they touched down in the pegasus roost of Ylisstol’s palace a few hours later, Robin practically fell of the pegasus, trying in vain to push his wind-swept hair back forward. As it stood, he felt like he showed far too much forehead.
“That’s a good look for you,” Chrom joked weakly as he steadied his friend. “Very dignified.”
“Sure,” Robin groaned, stretching out his back. “Can I go and sleep now? Or perhaps I’ll just pass out here. That pile of hay looks comfortable. So does the floor.”
Chrom chuckled, a light smile breaking through the stormclouds in his face.
“Of course; we could all use some rest. Cordelia, could you carry Robin to his room?” The Prince asked.
Robin instantly shot to attention, blushing heavily. “I’m more than capable of walking there myself, Chrom.”
“Ooh, so shy,” Chrom laughed, poking at Robin’s shoulder. “I’ll remember this is your weakness next time I want something from you. But all the same, I’d feel better if Cordelia escorted you. In case you actually do pass out again.”
“Fine,” Robin grumbled, doing his best to walk upright, a stone-faced Cordelia in tow.
The walk to the barracks was a blur; as soon as Robin left the roost he felt his strength wane, and he was sure that on multiple occasions Cordelia had needed to steady him before he fell. Before long Robin came to his senses, just outside the Shepherds’ barracks, one arm slung over Cordelia’s shoulder as she practically dragged him to the building.
“Sorry,” he muttered, successfully managing to put his weight back on his own feet without collapsing. “I’ll be fine from here.”
“My lord bid me return you to the barracks,” Cordelia said in a manner very akin to Frederick’s. “And that is what I shall do.”
“Well, if you insist,” Robin muttered, leaning back on the woman’s deceptively strong frame. “I appreciate it.”
Robin barely noticed when Lissa and Maribelle came running out to help carry him. He vowed not to pass out this time, though, and clung to consciousness like a drowning man to driftwood.
“Robin! When did you get back?” Lissa asked, taking his free arm over her shoulder, carrying him inside with Cordelia and depositing him in the chair it was hardest to fall out of.
Maribelle was already preparing a medicinal tea of some sort. It smelled horrible, but Robin surmised that that was how he knew it would work. With Robin safely out of danger of falling down, Cordelia said her quick farewells, merely a formality to the noble-born Maribelle and Princess Lissa, and left. A sight Robin wasn’t ashamed to admit was just as pleasing as when she was walking towards them…
Robin shook his head, forcing down some of Maribelle’s tea. It was terrible, but with just one sip he could feel his strength returning. Sumia chose that moment to come in from the stables, still favouring her wounded side.
“Robin!” she asked in surprise. “What are you… where are the others?”
“Don’t worry,” Robin said, leaning back and smiling tiredly. “They’re fine. Chrom, Ricken and Miriel are still at the palace with Duke Themis. The others are only about a day away, and they’re surrounded by pegasus knights now, so they’re out of danger, too.”
“Oh, Naga be praised,” Sumia sighed in relief.
“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, too,” Robin said, glancing at the unusually quiet Maribelle.
“Yes,” she answered, looking sheepish for a brief second; a look Robin never thought to associate with her. “Exalt Emmeryn insisted I get the finest healing in all of Ylisstol; and with no one else here in dire need, the process was expedited immensely. You said my father was safe?”
“I did indeed,” Robin said, draining his cup.
“Very good, then,” Maribelle nodded, pouring him another cup.
“Yeah, you’re welcome for the rescue by the way,” Robin teased lightly, sipping his fresh cup.
“Am I not serving you tea like a common waitress?” Maribelle snapped, her usual venomous tone somewhat muted by the small smile quirking the corners of her mouth.
“Of course, my lady, thank you, my lady,” Robin joked, laughing and bowing slightly before draining his second cup.
The tea really had worked quickly; he already felt like he had the strength to resume working on strategies before the others got back and-
“Oh no you don’t,” Lissa said, grabbing his arm and dragging him towards his room. “You’re way too easy to read when you’re tired; you’re going to rest for at least eight hours and then eat a decent meal, mister. No strategy books for you. That’s an order from the Princess of Ylisse.”
Robin sighed, chuckling a little. “I suppose there are worse abuses of power…”
While Chrom and Duke Themis remained at the palace, Ricken and Miriel had returned to the barracks by the time Robin managed to force his weary muscles out of his cot the next morning. Miriel looked more gaunt and thin than usual, but her colour was returning and she was beginning to talk in those exceedingly long, indecipherable sentences again. Ricken, too, had regained much of his strength, and spent the majority of the morning talking happily with Lissa and Maribelle, and attempting to communicate with Miriel.
Maribelle, for her part, was almost like a different person than the spoiled brat she had presented herself to be when they had first met. She was much kinder, and even spoke to Robin at length about his involvement in the battle that took place in Themis, seemingly concerned for her home. She assisted Lissa with healing magics on Robin and the others, and even assisted with making lunch. It was enough to make Robin’s tired brain spin, so he put off thinking about it. She still had some of the snark and pomp that had characterized her before; that was simply part of her upbringing as a noble, but she was much more grounded and approachable now.
Much to everyone’s collective relief the rest of the Shepherds returned that evening, all of them in much the same condition Robin had been in the previous day and being supported by their pegasus knight escorts. He and the others all rushed outside to help as soon as they realized what was going on, and with Vaike leaning heavily on his shoulder Robin re-entered the barracks.
“Thanks, bud,” Vaike groaned as Robin set him down on the floor close to where Miriel was setting down Stahl.
Robin grinned and gave the man the same kind of light shoulder-slap he had given him the day before, looking around at the others. All the other Shepherds were set down around the table, and Lissa and Maribelle set about using their staves healing magics. Ricken and Miriel went about making more of Maribelle’s tea that had rejuvenated them the day before, leaving Robin and Sumia standing off to one side, a little out of place.
“I…” Sumia began before trailing off.
“I’m worried… about the captain,” she said at length. “He probably hasn’t taken any rest since we returned.”
“Knowing him you’re probably right,” Robin nodded. “Maybe we should go check in on him while things are quiet here.”
“We can handle this,” Ricken chirped as he passed, arms laden with tea cups.
Robin and Sumia looked at each other, and with a shrug Robin led them out of the barracks and into the military ward.
“Wait!” Lissa called, running up to the duo, a small bag in her hand. “Give these to Chrom when you find him; tell him I said they’re a treat for working so hard.”
“That,” Robin said, accepting the bag of sweets and placing them carefully in his pouch, “is quite possible the cutest thing I have ever seen or heard. Ever.”
“You have a month’s worth of memories,” Lissa mumbled, blushing and retreating to the barracks. “Don’t make fun of me for loving my brother. That’s an order from the Princess, too.”
Robin and Sumia shared a light laugh before they began walking to the palace at a leisurely pace; Robin was still wiped-out from their trek through the forest, and Sumia’s wounds had to still be bothering her. They passed through the quieter night streets quickly and before he could gather his thoughts Robin was stepping through the doors into the palace’s Great Hall.
Sumia managed to trip on the top stair of the entry, snapping Robin out of his haze as he rushed to catch her by the elbow before she fell flat on her face, earning an embarrassedly mumbled thank-you and weak assurance that “it was the boots”.
I have really got to start paying more attention to my surroundings Robin thought to himself as they passed through the abandoned hall and into the busier back areas, keeping an eye on Sumia in case she tripped again; something Robin was realizing she was incredibly prone to doing.
Once they got to Chrom’s quarters and realized that they were empty, Robin stood, stroking his chin.
“We should split up to cover more ground,” he said after a moment’s thought. “You go and search the other royal apartments and the war room, I’ll check the grounds; if we know Chrom he’s either planning or training.”
“Right,” Sumia agreed empathetically.
As the pair separated Robin made his way down to the walled palace grounds, making sure to stop by the kitchen and make sure Chrom wasn’t pilfering the larder. The fact that Robin was starving and that the palace’s pastry chef was known and talked about all over Ylisse as the highest authority on desserts was completely irrelevant. Exiting onto the carefully manicured lawn behind the castle while stuffing the last of his third éclair into his mouth, Robin saw Chrom standing under one of the great oak trees near the wall, arms crossed and gazing at nothing.
Wiping his sticky fingers on his jacket, Robin approached. As he got nearer, he heard Chrom let out a deep sigh.
“At last,” Robin remarked drolly, “I’ve found your hiding spot. I understand even the Prince needs a hobby, but isn’t it a little late to be tending the lawns?”
Chrom turned, chuckling.
“I could promote you to head tactician of the royal gardeners if you wanted,” he replied, matching Robin’s tone. “In fact after the war I think I might turn the entirety of the Shepherds into a gardening-force. Sounds a lot more peaceful, right?”
Robin was shocked to admit that, despite his glib tone, the Prince looked like crap; dark circles were under his eyes, and the skin on his face looked pale and sallow, like he hadn’t seen sunlight in days. Well, perhaps not that shocked, considering his penchant for stubbornness coupled with their current situation.
“Have you slept at all since we got back?” Robin asked, plopping down on the ground beneath the tree and next to Chrom, leaning back and supporting himself with his arms back.
“A little,” Chrom conceded, sitting down cross-legged much slower next to Robin. “I will admit; I am beginning to grow exhausted.”
“And here we all just thought that Royals could keep going forever without breaks,” Robin remarked with good natured sarcasm. “My everything hurts, but you’re still going strong.”
“You obviously haven’t seen Emm lately,” Chrom snorted. “I swear she hogged all the genetic political endurance.”
“Like you hogged all the stubborn pig-headedness?” Robin asked.
“Perhaps. I also managed to hog all of the devilish good-looks,” Chrom said, his mouth quirking into a grin.
The two were silent a moment before bursting into laughter.
“Gods I needed a good laugh,” the Prince said as their laughter subsided, wiping a tear from his eye.
“Well, if tactician and gardener don’t work out I guess I could look into a career as court jester. That, and running errands for royals. Here; a gift from your sister,” Robin said, passing Chrom the bag of sweets. “Something about a reward for your thankless hard work and sacrifice for the realm. I dunno, I was too busy making fun of her.”
Chrom sighed, smiling wistfully, before popping one of the sweets into his mouth; a piece of crystalized honey if Robin wasn’t mistaken, before he sunk back into the same reflective look he was wearing when Robin found him.
“Well? Are you going to share?” Robin asked, eyeing the bag.
Chrom laughed again, holding out the bag for Robin. “Are you sure you need this? I can see the crumbs from those éclairs you were sneaking all over your collar.”
“Really? Damn,” Robin muttered, dusting himself off before popping the sweet into his mouth.
“So whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout?” he asked around the candy.
“Honestly?” Chrom asked with a sigh as he leaned back into a similar position as Robin. “I was thinking about what Gangrel said. He may be a crazy warmongering madman, but that doesn’t stop him being right about the war my father perpetrated against Gangrel’s Great Uncle fifteen years ago. I barely remember it, I was so young… It was hellish, though. We had just lost our mother, and I realize now that father was using the war as an outlet for his grief. It was brutal for both sides, though. We lost almost an entire generation of young men, and Ylisse’s economy all but collapsed. And then our Exalt died from wounds sustained in the final battle. They spun the story, telling the citizenry that he fell in single combat against the Plegian Tyrant-King, but… in the end his life was claimed by a simple infection.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Robin said as Chrom went silent.
“Father left Emm with uncountable problems to fix, but with the help of Phila, Cullen and Franz she pulled it off and brought peace to our nation,” the Prince went on. “I still remember the hate she bore for simply being the daughter of our Father… The people of Ylisse needed someone to blame for the war, and she became their target. They hurled stones at her, for Naga’s sake; she still bears the scars. But she never once complained, never once blamed them. She has never shown anyone anything but patient kindness. And for what? So the bastard son of one of the last Plegian King’s nephews could claim the throne and instigate a war of revenge?”
“I know this is important, and I appreciate the history lesson,” Robin said as Chrom lapsed back into a brooding silence. “But who is this Franz I have yet to meet?”
Chrom chuckled absently, grinning. “He is the head of the Ylissean Council of elders; a statesman that taught Emmeryn everything she knows about leading a country. Hierarch Franz of Ylisstol… He tried teaching me, too, but I was more suited to the lessons Cullen and Frederick were giving me.”
Chrom shook his head, still grinning, and stood, dusting off his pants.
“Come on,” he said, helping Robin stand. “Let’s head back inside. There’s still work to be done, and since you’re here you may as well help.”
“Hey, Sumia came too; rope her into doing your dirty work,” Robin muttered petulantly.
Chrom chuckled as they began walking back to the palace.
“But she lacks your tactical brilliance,” Chrom said in an unmistakably mocking fashion.
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Robin said, pretending to shine imaginary rings on his chest.
They laughed some more, before a voice called out, stopping them in their tracks and killing the jovial mood.
Both men spun, hands dropping to their weapons. Standing in the shadows by the wall was none other than the masked-man Marth.
“You really are stalking us, aren’t you?” Robin asked as they warily stepped towards the enigmatic man.
“Good evening to you,” he said casually, ignoring Robin, hands held clearly away from his weapons.
“How did you get in here?” Chrom asked warily.
The palace guards wouldn’t let a stranger in a mask into the palace during a time of war. Robin surmised it was probably lucky they had let him and Sumia into the palace so late at night, despite his being the Shepherd’s tactician and Sumia a Pegasus Knight.
“The cleft in the castle’s outer wall. The one behind the maple grove,” Marth said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, indicating back over his shoulder to the dark copse of trees off in the northernmost corner of the palace grounds.
Chrom reeled as if struck, head flicking quickly back and forth between Marth and the grove in question.
“There? But how would you… who in the hell are you?” the Prince stammered.
“I’m obviously missing something here,” Robin said, just as casually as Marth was speaking, eyes never leaving the intruder.
“It’s a hole I bashed in the wall while I was training with the Shepherds,” Chrom explained. “But I know I hid it very well, and no one ever told anyone else about it.”
“You bashed a hole in a stone wall!?” Robin asked incredulously, eyebrow shooting up.
“Your secret is safe with me. It’s not important at this time, anyway,” Marth said, becoming serious. “I’ve come to warn you against a plot on the Exalt’s live this very evening.”
“What do you know?” Robin asked dangerously, all fatigue forgotten as he drew his sword.
Chrom remained still though, before holding up a hand to forestall Robin’s advance. Marth, for his part, watched the Tactician with what he assumed was open interest. It was hard to tell while he wore the mask, though.
“That’s absurd,” Chrom insisted. “The Exalt is under constant guard, day and night. No one could even get near her. I’m her brother, and it even takes me fifteen minutes to see her right now.”
“What if I told you I’ve seen the future?” Marth said slowly, obviously choosing his words carefully. “Would you believe me? A future where Emmeryn is murdered here, tonight.”
“No,” Robin answered flatly, earning a raised eyebrow from Chrom.
“Have you lost your mind?” Chrom asked, despite his look at Robin.
“Yes, I expected you wouldn’t believe me,” Marth sighed, drawing his sword; an exact copy of Chrom’s sacred blade, Falchion. “So allow me to prove it.”
Chrom and Robin instantly fell back into defensive positions, Robin raising his beautiful rapier while Chrom made ready to draw Falchion.
Marth smirked at their reaction, indicating to the bushes off to the side with a nod. “I’m going to save your life. From him.”
At his words, a man in a black hood, his face painted grey with wode wielding a long, razor-sharp dagger the colour of storm-clouds burst from the bushes that he had been hiding in, aiming straight for the Prince. Chrom and Robin had no time to react before Marth skipped forward on one foot before leaping into a flip, slashing downward into the assassin’s neck as he flew through the air and landed neatly behind the fallen assassin.
“Skilfully done,” Chrom remarked, letting his hand drop as the assassin at his feet gurgled and went still. “How did you know-”
Chrom was cut off as a second assassin, dressed identically to the first, leapt out of the tree they were closest to, angling for Marth. Chrom’s hand flew Falchion’s hilt with lightning speed as Marth backstepped, but the masked man let out a small gasp as his foot caught on the fallen assassin’s discarded knife and he fell backwards, the second assassin’s blade missing his face by millimetres and cleaving the dark blue mask on his face in two.
Robin had time to notice a flash of long, dark blue hair falling to Marth’s shoulders as the tactician became a blur of motion, interposing himself between the assassin and the fallen man, striking high. They traded blows for a few seconds before the assassin dropped his guard for a fraction of a second, and taking advantage of the opportunity Robin ran him through. The Tactician kicked the lifeless assassin off his blade as he and Chrom, whose sword was now in hand, turned on Marth, who had just returned to his feet.
Uh… Make that her feet, Robin thought with some confusion, seeing the unmasked Marth for the first time.
“You… You’re a woman?” Chrom asked in a tone reflecting Robin’s thoughts.
“Called it!” Robin said triumphantly, pointing at Marth. “Back in Regna Ferox I said he looked a little effeminate, and I totally called it!”
“Robin, please try to focus,” Chrom said, rolling his eyes in exasperation.
“Yes, I am a woman,” Marth said, her voice raising a few octaves to what Robin guessed was her normal tone of voice. “And apparently I’m quite the actress, too, seeing as only your Tactician figured it out.”
Robin had to admit, her voice was rather pleasant; as was the rest of her face, now that he saw her unmasked. Strong lines spoke of a life of hardship, although she bore a striking familiarity that Robin couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Any further conversation, and admiration on Robin’s part, was cut off as an explosion rattled the windows in the palace, smoke spilling out of a new hole in the palace roof.
“Dammit!” Chrom cursed, breaking into a run for the doors. “Emm!”
“Stay where I can see you,” Robin ordered Marth, before hurrying to follow the Prince, Marth wordlessly following hot on his heels.
They caught up to Chrom at the large staircase behind the Great Hall, breathing heavily over the corpses of four more Plegian assassins.
“Wow, you’re getting really good at this,” Robin remarked, amazed at the speed with which Chrom was dispatching his opponents; he had only been out of their sight a few moments…
“This wasn’t me,” Chrom said, bewildered but obviously wanting to press on.
“Those kills are mine,” another new, strangely flanged, voice said from the shadows under the stairs.
Robin had to blink a few times to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him as the voice’s owner came into the lamp-light.
“Chrom, there’s a giant talking rabbit walking towards me. What do I do?” the tactician asked, his voice wavering a little as he raised his sword uncertainly.
The rabbit, easily as tall as Robin’s chest and as long as a horse, was covered in soft looking dark brown fur, its eyes glinting the same red as the blood on its wicked looking fore-claws.
“What fresh hell is this!?” Chrom shouted, practically jumping into the air as he levelled his sword at the creature.
“Peace!” Marth shouted, putting herself between the two men and the creature. “Lady Panne is not your enemy!”
The rabbit, ‘Panne’, sat up on her hind legs, sniffing at Marth.
“How do you know my name, man-spawn?” Panne asked curiously and not without hostility.
“I… know of you,” Marth said cryptically. “And I knew you would be here tonight.”
The three people and one giant rabbit all looked up at a loud crash from the top of the stairs followed closely by a woman’s scream.
“We don’t have time for this,” Chrom said decisively. “Lady Panne, if you assist us in driving off these assassins I will see to it you are rewarded greatly.”
“You may keep your human trinkets,” Panne said bitterly, moving to the bottom of the stairs, past a flabbergasted Robin. “I owe your Exalt honour for my kin; once it has been satisfied, I will leave.”
“Good enough,” Chrom muttered, charging up the stairs, the rabbit in tow.
“You’re quite the prophet, aren’t you?” Robin asked Marth suspiciously, matching her pace as they climbed the stairs.
“Indeed,” she said with a light chuckle, before turning serious again. “But I swear to you, Panne is your ally.”
“Like you are?” Robin prompted.
Marth didn’t have an answer for his question and looked away.
They came upon the first of the living assassins as they passed through the servants’ ready area, just off of the royal apartments. Seven assassins dressed identically to the ones they had seen so far stood around the room over the bodies of the servants too slow to escape. Panne was on the bulk of them in a heartbeat, her powerful legs launching her through the air like a bolt, claws extended. Chrom pealed left, looking to engage two assassins on that side, while Robin and Marth pealed right to where four more were trying to break open one of the pantry doors; probably mistaking it for passage into the apartments. Robin had to laugh at the absurdity of defending a pantry in such a fashion, a sentiment that his partner apparently didn’t share as she silently and grimly set to engaging the bandits.
Fortunately a giant, blood-coated rabbit was apparently a big distraction, and Robin and Marth found their foes to be easy to deal with. In a manner of moments the Shepherds and one skinny ginger-haired assassin were all that was left.
“Whoa there!” the skinny man said, throwing down a short, thin sword and raising his hands in surrender as three of the warriors advanced on him. “I didn’t sign on for this assassination crap! I’m just a thief!”
“Wait, so you can pick locks and stuff?” Chrom asked, his mind already working as Marth beat futilely on the door they needed to pass through on the opposite end of the room.
“Uh… yeah?” the thief answered uncertainly.
“Then by the authority granted to me as the Prince of Ylisse consider yourself conscripted for tonight,” Chrom told the thief quickly.
“Are you serious!?” the ginger-thief shouted.
“Tell me I didn’t just hear that,” Robin grunted, joining the conversation while he cleaned the blood from his sword on what he assumed was a napkin.
Panne sat off to one side, head tilted quizzically as her nose twitched, watching the humans.
“Fine, but I don’t work for free,” the thief said, recovering quickly and crossing his arms, leaning back against the wall.
He would make quite the salesman, Robin had to give him that.
“I don’t have time for this! You help us or you die like the rest of the Plegian-” Chrom shouted, scything his arm through the air to make his point. As he did, he knocked the bag of sweets Lissa had given him from his belt.
The thief’s eyes lit up as he dived to scoop up the candies that spilled out of the pouch, cutting Chrom off mid-rant. “Alright. Sold.”
The thief, while simultaneously stuffing as many candies into his mouth as it would hold, wordlessly set to work on the locked door as a Chrom and Robin watched the man, shocked to the point of silence.
“You can’t be serious,” Robin groaned as the thief worked. “Did you just buy a man with… candy?”
Within seconds the thick door was wide open.
“Name’s Gaius,” the thief said cheerfully as the other three passed him.
“Consider yourself hired, then,” Chrom deadpanned.
“Are you sure?” Robin asked.
Before Chrom could answer, though, the Tactician held up his hands. “Forget it. If you trust him, that’s good enough, and we’re in kind of a hurry, right?”
“Good call, Bubbles,” Gaius said off-handedly around a mouth-full of sweets. “You guys lead. I’ll just, you know, hang back and play support. Do thiefy stuff in the shadows, that kind of thing. Do you have any more of these candies?”
“Did he just call me ‘Bubbles’?” Robin asked Panne as Chrom and Gaius moved forward.
“Is your human hearing really so weak?” Panne asked in response.
“Never mind,” Robin sighed, jogging to catch up with the Prince and the thief.
Gaius jumped slightly when Panne moved up to him, but funnily enough took her appearance in stride as they tore through the servants quarters, Chrom at the fore cutting down the few lone assassins they came across. When they came to the passageway to the apartments Chrom cursed, slamming his fist into the heavy wooden door.
“It’s locked, too,” the Prince growled, shooting Gaius a look over his shoulder.
The thief huffed, rolling out his neck and pushing Marth to one side to get to the door.
“I suppose this is the part where I earn my keep? Stand back and let the master work,” he said disinterestedly, pulling lock-picking tools out of a pouch on his thigh.
Along with another sweet that made it into his mouth faster than Robin could identify it.
“I would hate to see what that man’s teeth look like,” Robin muttered, crossing his arms and leaning back against the wall as the thief worked.
Marth chuckled slightly at Robin’s comment. Panne, too, obviously heard him, but just wordlessly tilted her head in confusion.
My companions are getting stranger every day Robin thought to himself with another sigh, wondering if his life had been this interesting before he lost his memory.
“Aaaaaand that’s just about… got it!” Gaius said, putting the lock-picks away. “You stuffed-shirt types really don’t mess around with the locks, do you?”
“Come on,” Chrom said, ignoring Gaius’ comment and throwing the door wide open, charging through.
Robin shrugged, pushing off the wall and shaking out his sword arm. They hadn’t really seen many assassins yet; Robin assumed that would change soon.
“Me and my stupid interior monologue just had to jinx it,” Robin muttered as he ducked back around the corner he had been sticking his head around, magical fire and arrows ricocheting off the heavy stonework.
As soon as they had entered the Royal Apartments they had been almost overwhelmed. Gangrel had obviously sent every assassin at his disposal to kill the Ylissean royal family; Chrom, Marth and Panne were all coated in blood from the constant fighting, a lot of it their own; Gaius proved to be quite adept at combat, but kept to the rear, darting forward to strike under or around a guard before dancing back; Robin, for his part, made great use of his magical superiority in the tight confines of the hallways. With a gesture he sent a wall of flame around the corner, which Marth and Chrom followed as quickly as they could, hacking and slashing at the surviving Plegians as the other assassins screamed, burned by magical flames.
“You guys really don’t mess around either,” Gaius huffed, out of breath. “Think I could ride the rabbit for a bit?”
“I will pretend I didn’t hear that, man-spawn,” Panne growled, making the thief step back. “But please, don’t let that stop you from trying; the amount of sugar in your blood would make you taste extra sweet.”
“Enough!” Robin interjected. “Move up!”
Panne bounded up the hallway after Chrom and Marth after shooting Robin a withering glare without a word; Gaius just rolled his eyes and took off after her. Obviously the thief and the bunny had authority issues. Chrom kicked down the door to Emmeryn’s bedroom, shouting his sister’s name and entering the room sword-first, Marth close behind him.
What they found made Robin sigh and sag with relief. Emmeryn stood in the corner, perfectly poised, unarmed, but smiling at her brother.
“Thank Naga you’re safe,” Chrom sighed, pulling his sister into a rough hug.
“Family reunions later!” Gaius called in warning from the door. “More baddies incoming! Whoa-crap!”
The thief rolled away from the door as purple-black fire exploded through it.
“Kill the exalt! Leave no survivors! For the glory of Grima!”
Robin’s blood ran cold as he heard the voice from his dream, the dream when Chrom and Lissa had found him in the field; sure enough, surrounded by sword-wielding assassins, the Sorcerer from his dream came striding through the doorway. Chrom, Marth and Panne roared battle-cries as the dove into the assassins, the sorcerer hanging back in the doorway, eyes locked with Robin’s.
The sorcerer, Validar, was smiling at him.
“Hello, Robin,” the lanky man sneered, his face twisting into a cruel grin.
Robin froze, his eyes wide and his limbs unresponsive. Everything about the man screamed ‘danger’ to the tactician, and his eyes darted around the room looking for a way to escape from-
“Bubbles, wake up!” Gaius shouted as he dragged Emmeryn behind the relative safety of an upturned table.
Robin shook his head, and grunting with effort shot an elthunder bolt at Validar. The man laughed, casting another spell of dark fire, matching his strength with Robin’s as the two spells met mid-air, colliding with enough force to send some of the assassins sprawling from the impact’s shock-wave. Robin lost sight of the battle the others were fighting as he rolled forward under the flames from Validar’s follow-up spell, sending his own fire spell at Validar with a flick upwards of both of his wrists. Robin didn’t see the effects, having to roll to the side again as his opponent kept throwing that damned dark fire at him.
When Robin looked up he could see that he hadn’t touched Validar; he hadn’t even made the man move. The sorcerer just stood where he had started, a charred black ring around him on the floor and walls, utterly untouched. Robin shook off his growing unease, summoning as much mental strength as he could, before sending out a blast he had learned called Thoron. Several lances of white-gold lightning shot at Validar, and Robin was rewarded when Validar’s smile finally faltered and he was forced back a step.
“Impudence!” Validar snarled. “You dare raise your hand against me again!? I will make you suffer!”
Blasts of dark fire erupted all around Robin, making him throw himself around and use the shockwaves from the spells to gain momentum as Emmeryn’s fancy apartment was destroyed. Taking cover behind another upturned table like Gaius had Robin winced, flames dancing around the expensive wood and scorching the edges of his coat.
Before he could summon a retaliatory attack, a ginger blur appeared behind Validar, knife in hand. The sorcerer gasped once, convulsing, before falling face first to the ground as Gaius stood over him.
“That,” Gaius said, sheathing his dagger with a look of contempt on his face, “Was free of charge. Son of a bitch ‘conscripted’ me, too. You guys just offered a sweeter deal.”
Robin snickered as he rose slowly. Again, he had managed to drain most of his body’s mana supply, which hadn’t fully recovered yet after the battles at Themis, and he was feeling weak. Fortunately for him, it seemed that Chrom and the other two didn’t have any problems with the rest of the assassins, and were just finishing the last of them.
Robin popped open the small gourd he had prepared for just such an occasion in the brief lull, filled with Maribelle’s rejuvenating tea, and drained it quickly.
Chrom grunted, stabbing downwards with Falchion into the prone assassin under his foot, marking the end of the last of them. As if on cue, they could hear the shouts of the royal guard and the clanking of their armour as they charged through the halls, followed by the shouts of the assassins calling a retreat.
“Phew, glad that’s over,” Gaius said, falling into one of the plush chairs in the corner of Emmeryn’s room.
“Is anyone wounded?” Emmeryn asked, coming forward, an ornate healing staff in hand.
“I’m fine,” Chrom said, waving her off.
“I will be fine,” Panne said, wiping some of the blood from her face with a great taloned fore-claw.
“Me too,” Robin said, still catching his breath. “Marth? You okay?”
Robin turned to where the woman had been, finding only empty space.
“Dammit, not this time she doesn’t!” Chrom growled, spinning and charging out of the room. “Robin, stay with my sister! I’ll be right back!”
Robin shrugged. “Sure, fine, whatever.”
He was going to say more, but his train of thought was thrown way off when Panne sat up and transformed, shrinking considerably into a rather normal-looking woman. Well, normal if one didn’t count the large, floppy rabbit ears sitting on top of her long dark hair and the fur covering the backs of her arms; and as she turned Robin spotted a fluffy white rabbit’s tail, too. Her face was as severe as Robin had guessed it would be, though; even if she was moderately attractive in a ‘warrior-woman’ kind of way, all hard lines and toned muscle. She would probably be very popular in Regna Ferox.
“That’s definitely something I’ve never seen before,” Gaius commented, going still, mouth hanging open in shock.
Robin just raised an eyebrow and shrugged as armed soldiers piled in and secured the room, Cullen at their head with Sumia close behind. Half of them instantly began dragging the bodies out, as the other half set up a wall of bodies around Emmeryn. Robin had no doubt the scene was similar outside the door.
“My lady, are you alright?” Cullen asked, sinking to one knee before her.
Sumia came up to Robin, standing silently next to him while the superiors talked.
“I am fine, Cullen” Emmeryn said, smiling her unflappable smile. “Please, direct your men to secure the rest of the castle and tend to the wounded. I am safe here with Sir Robin.”
“When did I become a ‘sir’?” Robin whispered to Sumia, who responded by shushing him.
“Of course, my lady,” Culled answered, rising and retreating. As soon as he was in the hallway Robin could hear the man barking orders, and two men in heavy armour plate took up position inside the door, one on each side.
After he left Sumia made a sort of strangled noise before she turned and threw her arms around Robin’s neck.
“Thank Naga you’re okay!” she cried into his shoulder.
“Gah! Yes, I’m fine! Let go!” Robin said, dangerously close to losing his balance.
“Aw, ‘aint that sweet,” Gaius cooed mockingly from his corner.
“I was so worried about you and Prince Chrom and then I heard you guys almost single-handedly pushed all the assassins back and now we still can’t find Chrom and…”
“Sumia, you’re babbling again,” Robin said, extracting himself from her iron-like hug.
“I see you and Chrom have made new friends,” Emmeryn said, her voice like wind chimes as she approached Robin.
Gaius groaned weakly, waving once as his head lolled backwards.
“And my thanks to you, brave Taguel,” Emmeryn said, turning to Panne and bowing deeply.
Panne seemed conflicted for a moment before her scowl returned.
“You call me by my people’s ancestral name,” she growled, narrowing her eyes, “and yet stood idly by while my people were slaughtered by your kin?”
Emmeryn seemed prepared for this, and bowed low again. “I know my words mean nothing, but please accept my apology and condolences for your brave people.”
Panne snorted, crossing her arms and turning away.
“And, uh, thanks for your assistance tonight, too,” Robin added.
“Honor has been satisfied, human,” Panne said shortly, turning to leave.
“Wait a sec,” Robin said, stopping her. “Why don’t you stick around for a while? You’re skills are, well, nothing short of phenomenal, and we’re kinda short on man-power right now. Er… rabbit-power? We’re short on bodies.”
“So you wish to make me your pet!?” Panne shouted, turning and advancing dangerously on Robin.
Sumia took a step back at the woman’s tone; her eyes practically blazed red in the dark room as she advanced.
“No,” Robin said, trying to placate the Taguel. “I wish to make you our ally. Completely different thing. No collars. Unless you’re into that kind of thing, but I’m not.”
“And why would I assist the people that slaughtered my entire race?” Panne growled, stopping just short of the tactician and glaring at him.
Robin shrugged. “Honor?”
Panne stopped, quirking her head to one side, eyes narrowed.
“Explain yourself,” she demanded.
“Think about it,” Robin said quickly, grasping at straws. “You say you want to fulfil your people’s honor? What better way than killing lots and lots of humans? Which we will, uh, be doing once the army moves out. I assume.”
Panne stopped, quirking her head slightly to consider this. Emmeryn made a small disapproving sound as she watched Robin’s reasoning, but he wasn’t about to let such a powerful ally slip out of his grasp.
“Your point is clear,” Panne said after a moment of intense thought. “I will accompany your army.”
“Great! Ah, you will need to take orders from me, too…” Robin added.
“Fine,” the Taguel growled, obviously taking a lot of effort to get the word out. “But only yours. I will suffer no other man-spawn’s orders, am I clear?”
Robin nodded profusely, looking at the others.
Sumia looked terrified of the woman; Gaius had fallen asleep, probably from a sugar crash. Emmeryn looked like she wanted to reprimand Robin for his train of thought, but realised that he had gained them a powerful ally, so stayed silent with a slight frown on her face.
Chrom took that moment to re-enter the room, and Sumia launched herself at the Prince without a second thought, in much the same way she had Robin. Suddenly, while Sumia was busy babbling into Chrom’s shoulder, Robin had a thought, and mirrored Chrom’s earlier exit.
“I’ll meet you back at the barracks!” Robin called to them as he raced down the hallway.
Robin leaned against the stone post holding the archway on the western side of town, slowing his breathing and gathering his thoughts, resting in the small circle of light the entrance’s lone torch gave off. In one hand he was holding a small bag, everything he could grab on such short notice. He had run straight there, hoping to catch Marth before she disappeared again, operating more on a hunch than anything. The streets were deserted, the army having put a strict curfew into effect after the debacle at the castle.
Before long he spotted the woman’s blue hair in the distance. She froze for a moment when she saw Robin, but continued her approach.
“It’s good to see my skills in reading people are still sharp,” Robin said conversationally, crossing his arms as Marth drew closer.
He could see that she was frowning. She hadn’t been expecting this meeting.
“I had a hunch you’d head for one of the smaller exits,” Robin explained when the woman stopped before him, just outside of the circle of torch-light. “One of the ones pointing west, considering that’s the way that we’ll be marching.”
“Congratulations,” Marth deadpanned. “You have caught me. Now what?”
Robin shrugged, uncrossing his arms and putting his hands out palm up. “I wanted to thank you.”
Now it was Marth’s turn to cross her arms and look incredulous. “You went through all of the trouble of racing to an exit you weren’t even sure I would be taking just to thank me?”
Robin shrugged again.
“I’m sure Chrom already thanked you for helping us save the Exalt,” Robin explained. “So I won’t give you another big long spiel about that. But when we first met out in the forest, you saved my life. I wanted to finally than you for that.”
Marth looked uncertain for a moment, uncrossing her arms and looking at Robin with confusion clearly writ on her face. Finally she sagged a little and looked away.
“You’re welcome,” she said quietly.
“Here,” Robin said, placing the burden he had so hastily prepared on the ground and stepping away. “I know asking you to join us is pointless, but I pulled some provisions together; dried food, a waterskin, a blanket you can use and some silver coins I had lying around. It’s not much, but it’s my way of saying thanks.”
Robin smiled, nodding once, and began walking away.
For some reason he thought he heard Marth sniff like she was about to cry, but looking back over his shoulder he saw that she had picked up the bag he had left, and her stance was as strong and composed as ever as she walked away.
Robin put it up to his over-active imagination as he walked back towards the Shepherds’ barracks.
But first I should probably make sure that the cake pantry is still properly secured, Robin reasoned, turning and heading back to the palace.