Chapter 12: Delicate Dragons

Allen sat perched on his horse to one side and watched the long procession of men trudge forward along the mud churned frost of the high road. Another two days of this and they would break away from common means of travel and cut across the plains that bled into Zaibach's wastes. Today however the Third Regiment with Vionella would be departing. At this point most of the 3rd were actually in their guimelifs, testing out their maneuverability and looking for any quirks before they hit the wastes.

The ground began to shake as the guimelifs drew closer to his present location. He could see them about half a mile back, the thirteen suits headed by Vionella. His was a magnificent piece commissioned by the General himself in memory of Vionella's skill and dedication. It gleamed an ethereal white with the great three headed dragon emblazoned across the chest in royal purple, something Vionella had done himself in honor of the Hydra troops accompanying them. It was a dazzling piece of work and Allen knew that the hand controlling it was as precise as the owner was peculiar.

The closer it came Allen was able to make out the figure standing on the shoulder, one hand keeping her steady. With her shoulders thrown back and her usual scowl in place Darjah looked every bit a terrible war goddess. In the outdated military coat handed down from her brother and perched as she was on the gleaming white of Vionella's guimelif, they very well could have been ghosts from the previous war.

Matthew and Darjah finally traversed the half mile and while the other guimelifs turned off to cut through the still wooded area beyond the road, Vionella stopped before Allen. He placed a hand over his heart and bent imperceptibly so that Darjah wouldn't slide off his shoulder.

"Knight Schezar," Vionella greeted him pleasantly.

"You'd better be careful Vionella, there seems to be a buzzard perched on your shoulder," Allen teased. Vionella chuckled as the chest piece slid up and the cockpit popped open.

Stepping out of his gear into the sunlight he still looked a mess, unshaven and wild haired. His uniform was rumpled and not properly buttoned as he held a hand up to ward off the sunlight.

"Come my beautiful buzzard," he summoned Darjah and extended his hand to her. In an expert movement she slipped down the shoulder, caught his elbow, and he took her by the waist to control her fall onto the opened chest piece beside him. "I'm certain I'll see you on the battlefields again soon," he smiled his charming, disconnected smile.

"I'll bring the party favors so just don't start without me," she instructed as they embraced.

Allen couldn't see Darjah's expression but Vionella had a look of peace. If he hadn't been watching closely he would have missed the minute shift and tightening of the guimelif prodigy's muscles and the flicker of longing that made his eyebrows pinch together for a fraction of a second.

"Look after your brother," Vionella advised here as they pulled apart.

"Look after yourself," she answered very softly, smoothing hair back from his face. She lingered a few seconds before scaling down the side of the guimelif to land in the mud. Vionella had already strapped back into the white armor and this time bowed much deeper.

"I leave the army in your hands, Darjah. Knight Schezar," he nodded to each of them in parting and turned with a flurry of his purple cape. The shuddering footfalls of the enormous guimelif resonated all the way through Allen's horse and trembled in his marrow. Darjah to his right stood with her arms crossed tightly and a pinched expression making her look concerned.

"He's an excellent soldier," Allen consoled softly.

"All the more danger they'll put him in," she answered flatly. Allen couldn't argue the point. Instead he offered her one gloved hand so he could take her back up at least as far as the healers rather than at the far trailing end of the march. She accepted without protest and swung up behind him, one arm looping around his waist.

"So I hear you've taken an apprentice," Allen said by way of a distraction as he directed the horse towards the front of the march.

"I only ever seem to find idiot salve makers," Darjah blew out an exasperated breath. Allen laughed.

"I think you like finding worthless salve makers," he accused playfully as they made their way along the muddy road. The horse's hooves made loud squish and pop noises as it labored forward. Chattering and laughing despite the cold and mud the soldiers filled in a pleasant background of heckling and boasting.

"What Dragon doesn't like damsels in distress? They're like veal - delicious and defenseless," she replied as her ill humor was properly restored. Allen preferred it to that lurking vulnerability that made him want to capitulate and treat her like a lady. In her proper mood she was decidedly not a lady and in some way that made him feel comfortable.

"Only a true Dragon would talk like that," Allen chuckled. "Speaking of damsels, a messenger came today." He reached into his coat and withdrew an envelope with Mink's seal on it. Feyhaln had been more than happy to pore over his letter four or five times already since breakfast. If Darjah was around more - and for some reason Allen had expected to see her at their campfire much more often - he would have already provided her with this precious link home.

Darjah snatched the envelope with something akin to eagerness and released his middle long enough to open it. Her fingers settled back at his side in a moment as he could feel her attention leave him to dissect the letter.

"Commander!" Gaddes' voice took his attention from the rustle of pages and the pull of his hair caught between them as they picked their way down the road. "Commander! Orders from the General!" His dark haired, scruffy second came at a full tilt gallop towards them. Chunks of mud were torn asunder in his wake and he looked ruffled, which meant something unusual had happened.

"They must disagree with you," Allen observed as Gaddes managed to rein to an abrupt stop, salute, and fish a map out of his saddle bags all at once.

"The scouts came back with the location of what they believe is a den of brigands," Gaddes practically growled as he snapped open a map and searched it.

"They want our unit to go in to clear them out and establish a base. Intel says it's only about 30 brigands."

"Our unit huh," Allen sighed as Gaddes found the location and stabbed at it with an irritable finger. "I'm sure he felt it would be a perfect opportunity to showcase our exemplary discipline and teamwork."

"He said something along the same lines," Gaddes snorted.

"What precisely did you do to the general to win such favor?" Darjah sighed as she leaned around him to take a look.

"Laying siege to the fort will be the most difficult," Allen ignored her. It was only about a day's ride from the present location. If they moved fast they could be there by nightfall and strike in cover of darkness.

"Sorry, I didn't see you Red," Gaddes bobbed his head in an unusually familiar acknowledgement. Allen noted this with a mix of surprise and wry amusement but did not question it. Meanwhile Gaddes' eyes in turn flicked between Allen and Darjah suspiciously but he said nothing. "We can easily make it by tonight but it chaps my hide we're the ones they pick. This just means we'll be the advance force at the forefront the entirety of this war."

"Gather the others and have them pull aside from the main army. I'll be there shortly," Allen instructed as his cobalt stare sharpened with his own machinations.

"Sir, Red," Gaddes saluted again and turned his horse in an abrupt about face. It snorted before hop stepping indignantly into a canter and leaning into a full gallop.

"Are you taking the Schezardes?" Darjah asked behind him as she craned around him to look at the map too. He lifted it so she could see more easily.

"No. It'll be too easy to spot and they want a base, not rubble. We'll have to move quickly and silently."

"What's the point of taking the thing if you're not going to use it?" Darjah snorted and he wondered if he detected a trace of concern in her voice.

"I'll leave that for a more difficult battle. Brigands, even thirty of them, won't give us much trouble," Allen promised. "Particularly since we can blindside them. My unit and I are well versed in assaulting 'superior' forces."

"Take me to Huron," Darjah seemed to scoff as she took the map away from him to fold it herself. Allen merely lifted his eyebrows at the bite in her tone. They stepped up into a canter, making short work of the muddy stretch. When they were coming up alongside the senior healer Darjah performed an impressive dismount before Allen had even reined to a halt. She slid onto the ground, jogged with the momentum, and alerted Huron to her presence with a hand on his leg.

"Wilks," he greeted with his rough voice. "Saw Vionella off did you?"

"I did," she nodded. "Knight Schezar and his men have been assigned to take a small brigand fort alone by our good general."

"How far?"

"A day's ride, main army should be there in about three."

"Three days...this close to Zaibach I'm not keen on letting my second go," Huron rubbed his chin as his eyes squinted towards the head of the army. "You're set on yourself as the assigned healer?"

"You have good healers but how many of them are combat trained?" Darjah cajoled as Allen's eyebrows rose in further surprise.

"What of your apprentice? She's barely learned how to walk."

"Unfortunately this is not something I can take her along for. May I leave her in your hands?" Darjah asked. Huron grumbled something as Darjah kept up at the side of his horse.

"You were the one who insisted she stay," he growled.

"A good dragon bite and here transformation will be complete," Darjah replied as her eyes flicked back towards the veteran healer. "I'll administer it upon our return to the main body of the army. Besides, she's classically trained if inexperienced. Keep her up to all hours salve making and she'll have no time to hiss and spit her blue veined complaints."

"I'll remind her the name of her benefactor," Huron assured her. Darjah nodded once and slipped past him, vanishing amidst all the other horses. In a moment she reappeared cutting across the steady current of marching horses until she was able to rejoin him. In her sharp blue coat with a shock of red hair over her gray eyes she cut a striking figure with her good posture. She had a better seat than most of the palace blue bloods vying for his attentions.

"Come to keep an eye on us?" Allen prompted as they urged their horses up further in the line.

"If the opportunity should arise I'll be happy to claim your crow picked bones as my prize, Knight," she replied. Allen smiled.

"Not bold enough to claim them for yourself then?" he jibed.

"Sally has a taste for blue veined marrow. She just hasn't decided whether I'm to feed her your arm or your leg, and a dragon must never forget her friends."

"You may yet have to bring Sally to tea. She sounds like charming company," Allen laughed openly. Darjah patted her saddlebags in something between a threat and good humor.

The rest of Allen's men were waiting for them with Gaddes moving between them, inspecting saddles and barking orders between the rowdy group of ragtag soldiers. As always their ability to conform to standardized uniforms was lacking and the diversity of their colorful backgrounds had always led to skepticism in the higher ranks. Of course the moment they laid eyes on him they snapped to attention.

"Well gentlemen, I assume Gaddes informed you of our present objective?" Allen inquired politely of his rough crew.

"The usual sticking of our necks out for the upper crust?" quipped Kio, his ruddy nose twitching in a disdainful sniff as he towered above his fellows.

"Our precise task is the liberation of a particular fort from around thirty brigands. Additionally I'm sure you all recognize Miss Darjah Wilks. She has volunteered to accompany us and to tend to any wounds acquired in the line of duty."

"Only the ones acquired in the line of duty? 'Cuz I've got a few scratches some magic kisses would do away with," cajoled Riden with a coy smile.

"You mean that sweet last kiss I give the damned before a mercy killing?" Darjah prompted. "I judged you healthier but who am I to argue with a man's sense of mortality?" For emphasis she extracted the small killing knife and turned it in the chill morning air so the light gleamed cruelly off its edge.

"I imagine I'll pull through," Riden laughed, ruffling the curls of his hair and busying his slight, energetic and expressive form immediately with his saddlebags. Allen couldn't help but shoot a crooked smile her way as the men mounted up. For her part Darjah merely put away her knife and adjusted the gray scarf so much darker than her cutting eyes, awaiting patiently the orders to move out.

"When the fighting starts we'll have to hide you with the horses," Allen told her as a more serious thought of her mortality came to mind. She was tough as nails and capable of thriving in the Hydra but that didn't mean she was capable of fighting brigands.

"We'll have to see. I assume a smart man like you might come up with something better than simply storming the gates, depending on the situation," Darjah shrugged. "A demure looking decoy might come in useful."

"My dear Dragon, I cannot in all my extensive experience with women picture you as demure under any circumstances," Allen chuckled.

"Better for your personal well being then," Darjah nodded.

"So Red, you're certain you can stomach riding with us?" Gaddes asked as he pulled away from the other horses. "I know you're the Hydra Queen but we're a different kind of ugly," he teased with a good natured smile.

"I'd be more concerned for your wellbeing than mine Gaddes. I've the decided advantage of being considered 'delicate' at first glance."

"Delicate?" Gaddes snorted. "Mangy Red the Huntress has never been delicate to me."

"You've always been admirably savvy Slim," Darjah graced him with a smile that actually sparked a flicker of familiarity and friendliness.

"Thorny old crone, don't talk to me like some wise old woman," Gaddes laughed.

"Dare I call you friends, Miss Wilks?" Allen had to ask over the din of men swinging into saddles and doing last minute checks, gloating and challenging each other in anticipation of the work ahead.

"My first job in Palas was guarding a fat old merchant's goods when they went to sell grains and cloth in the Hydra. Red here was the ringleader in most of the urchin raids that befell the overpriced buffoons back during the shortages about ten years ago. She gave me the runaround for some sixteen months before prices came down with a better harvest the ensuing year and I quit for other, more colorful means of employ."

"Somehow it doesn't surprise me," Allen remarked.

"I bet you still run like a girl," Darjah goaded.

"And I bet you still run like a beast," Gaddes launched back. A slight twinge touched Allen as the pair of them fell to posturing. There was something that struck him about their closeness, the way Gaddes could talk to her so familiarly and the softening of her eyes towards an old friend. The rarity of her smile seemed to shower down on Gaddes in a way that not even Feyhaln merited. It was different than her smile at Van, the elicit glimpse he'd caught. This was friendlier, more conspiratorial, almost childish as it harkened back to times long gone.

To assuage the bizarre feeling of being left out Allen took his place at the head of his troops, small a team as they were, and led them past the rest of the army. They bolted out ahead and veered into the woods making good time with their light baggage and the expertise of their riders. Eating in the saddle and breaking only twice to give the horses time to drink and catch their wind they made good time, leaving the trees in late afternoon as they approached the windy, blistering cold of the open wastes in late fall.

By dusk they had spotted the small fort on the horizon, a ghastly remnant of Dornkirk's era of technological supremacy. As it was now though it stood a shabby, ramshackle excuse of a building. Allen surveyed it and saw numerous openings ripe for the storming but considered his options. That many openings meant a number of men could escape or return with reinforcements.

Out a ways to the right he saw a small cart trundling towards the fort. It was barely a speck and if they rushed to take it they could overcome it long before it was particularly visible to the fort.

"Miss Wilks," Allen asked and she appeared beside him, following his line of vision.

"Certainly," she nodded in tune with his thoughts.

"Gentlemen, we have a cart to catch," Allen instructed.