I apologize for the long delay. I've had this finished, but life got in the way, as per usual. I hope people haven't given up - we're so close to the end, and I intend to finish strong!
As usual, Fire Emblem © Nintendo. Enjoy!
Update: My lovely beta has come through and fixed all of my mistakes! It reads much better now. Please enjoy!
The rain had started again. The grasses outside the fortress rose and fell against the weight of the water. No thunder sounded, but the sky lit up at intervals and wind swept across the plain in ripples. The ground below had turned to mud that swallowed up anything unfortunate enough to rest in one place. The mire tried to take the very boots off of Lon'qu's feet, but he trudged along without taking heed. He was soaked to the skin, his hair plastered to his forehead from the rain, but still he walked on, away from the fortress.
He was going mad. That could be the only reasonable explanation. He was fighting a war he had no business taking part in, protecting a little girl he should never have met. He certainly had no business being upset that he had scared her yet again. As much as he didn't want the little princess to end up hurt, physically or otherwise, through her association with a dark witch, the choice was hers to make and live with. On her head it could be.
In any case, it was not his problem. None of it was his problem. Not at all.
He stopped walking, and the sludge greedily slurped at his feet. The rain produced an uncomfortable kind of cold sensation as it struck him. Lon'qu was acclimated to the cold – the Feroxi snow bit and stung until one's very skin ceased to feel at all. The Plegian rains, though, were incomparable. There was no comfortable numbing sensation, nor was there reprieve. He would have taken the burning earth and the merciless sun of the Plegian dry season to the dismal black rains that pelted him now.
Lon'qu's shoulders sunk. He had hoped that a walk would clear his head. It usually did. Try though he might, though, the problem of Lissa refused to go away.
The princess was a plague. He knew that he was being ridiculous, that none of it was his business. It seemed, though, that she could not be wished away. Lon'qu supposed that nobility was like that, even when they were not even trying. Was she trying? Lon'qu did not believe she wished him ill. Why, then, could she not make herself scarce?
The sky lit up again, and Lon'qu diverted his attention upwards. A storm might be interesting — but the flashes did not resemble any natural lightning. A chill went up Lon'qu's arms and he thought to turn back to the fortress. He waited, and the sky flashed again. The light originated from one of the upper towers of the fortress. He twisted his mouth; he knew what was happening.
With nowhere else to go and the threat of sickness of he stayed out any longer, Lon'qu started the long, painful walk back.
Lon'qu walked the halls alone; none of Chrom's Shepherds seemed to be awake. Lon'qu thought he heard a distinctly Feroxi laugh down a corridor, but it led away from the path to his quarters and so he did not investigate. The lack of people bothered him. Someone should have been doing the rounds. His left hand traced the embossed patterns of the rough shagreen grip of the sword at his side. He thought that there ought to be someone—
She appeared out of nowhere, lurking just outside the door to his designated quarters. Lon'qu stopped, scowling. His right hand moved across his body on instinct.
"Easy, there," Tharja said. "Wouldn't want anyone to get hurt."
Lon'qu didn't agree. "Step aside."
"Just a second," she said. "Robin told me to find you. We march at dawn, so be ready."
"Is that it?"
"Pretty much," Tharja said. "You weren't at the meeting."
"Right." Lon'qu stood where he was, willing Tharja to move. The dark witch rolled her eyes and moved away from the door.
"You know," she said, "your girlfriend's got guts. I like her."
Lon'qu's scowl deepened, and he turned to face her. "I do not have a girlfriend, witch, and I pity whomever you determine is worthy of your attentions."
The sorcerer's giggle disgusted him. "Oh, that's not very nice. I knew you didn't like me, but even to a girl like me that's just cold."
Lon'qu eased the blade from the scabbard at his side. His patience was thin.
"Touchy, touchy," Tharja said, stepping back. "Robin asked me to play nice with you, you know. That's the only reason why you're not dead." She smiled thinly. "In fact, if you ask me nicely, I might be willing to lend you a little hand."
"What are you talking about?"
"Little Lissa, so in love," she said, her voice disgustingly sweet, "but with whom? Not with you, I'll wager." Tharja's smile widened. "But affections are fickle. Anything can change."
"Be silent," he said. "You will do nothing to that girl."
"Won't I?" she asked. "What are you going to do? Oh, maybe it's just that you'd rather have me hex you instead. It is always so nice to have willing vict— volunteers."
"You will do nothing, so long as you feel like living," Lon'qu replied.
Tharja's smile refused to disappear.
"I'd say someone's got feelings. Too bad. They're nothing but trouble." She sighed. "Oh well. I suppose Robin wouldn't want me hexing Miss Pretty Princess anyway," she drawled. "Everyone's always so defensive about nobles, and there's nothing special about them. They die just like the rest of us, and they're so much fun when they squeal.
"But maybe that's it. I'll just focus on Mr. Fanatical Fitness. It's a little more direct of revenge than I usually take part in — and cleaner, too, because killing royals always has consequences — wouldn't you say?"
Lon'qu took a deep breath. "I'm no accomplice to your deeds. Leave me out of them and in peace."
Tharja shrugged. "Fine, be that way. I'd wish you good dreams, but I can't guarantee it without a hex." She left, muttering to herself.
Lon'qu wanted her leave before he checked his room. No signs that she had been inside or done anything untoward. His right hand was shaking, though. So much for composure.
Then, for the first time in weeks, Lon'qu did not do the rounds. He bolted the door to his designated quarters and endeavored to sleep. He turned his back to the window, ignoring the sporadic flashes of light that periodically illuminated the sky. Tharja certainly made tracks. She must have used some foul means to get back to the tower so quickly.
He shut his eyes. Not his problem.
Just as Tharja told him, the army began to march at the break of day. However, as Lon'qu was helping several Feroxi soldiers saddle their horses, unacquainted as they were with the beasts, he realized something odd: the army appeared to be marching in the wrong direction.
"What's got your panties in a bunch?" Lon'qu looked to Khan Basilio and inclined his head in deference. There was a man Lon'qu respected.
"We're continuing north? Why do we flee from Plegia so soon?" Lon'qu questioned.
"Robin's got some funny ideas in that head, but I promise you, all this rain hasn't turned our strategist's brain to mush. The plan's solid." Khan Basilio laughed effortlessly. "Don't worry, you'll be reaping Plegian corpses soon enough!"
Lon'qu didn't ask for details, nor did he care to receive them. Khan Basilio still thought of him as the go-to man for the battlefield. That was good. Nothing important in Lon'qu's life had changed. He wanted to go beyond that one day, perhaps to challenge the Khan himself—
But that was for some other day. Lon'qu mounted one of the horses. It had been left without a rider before because it had a surly attitude and a fiery streak. It was growing on the swordsman. He guided the beast out into the torrential rain and joined the army caravan, marching to the north.
The Feroxi-Ylissean army made it as far as the midlands of Plegia without incident. Though it rained ceaselessly for the first few days, the rainy "season" as Khan Basilio had termed it ended not long after it began.
"We'll have an easier time of it," the Khan said, "now that the blasted rain has gone. We couldn't have prayed for better luck." Lon'qu didn't think that the changing weather could reflect at all upon the army's collective luck, but he kept those thoughts to himself. He kept a good deal to himself now.
The army had been briefed several times over on the state of affairs. Lon'qu was now well acquainted with the fact that the Plegian wastelands were not as empty as they seemed: tunnels below stretched for miles on end, connecting the entirety of the nation via military outposts. Apparently, Khan Flavia had made the discovery when searching for good grog in the storeroom of the fortress they had just left, only to stumble over a rug that had concealed one of the trapdoors leading underground. Most likely, that's how the assassins in the village not so long ago had been able to get so close without attracting the notice of the army.
Lon'qu put it out of his mind. Still not his problem.
The tunnels, though, made things interesting. According to Tharja's inside information, the Mad King's army intended to stalk Chrom's forces underground, coming on them fast and hard when they least expected it. Ideally, the Plegians wanted to fake a siege, then attack with the real force from within. The dark witch informed them that the Plegian army would have done so much sooner, but Gangrel had not counted on them finding the fortress, and only a small scouting force, too small to enact the plan, had been able to make it there in time.
That had been the battle the princess's brother had missed, Lon'qu remembered. Lonqu had heard that the lord had lost his wits. The noble was certainly becoming a burden.
According to Robin's maps, there was a trio of fortresses practically within arm's reach of one another, in Plegia's midlands. A fourth was at a further distance but still visible from any of the three. If they occupied the trio the Mad King's army would attempt to split, one in each of the tunnels leading inside the fortresses.
However, if the army could stop up the tunnels, or perhaps only block the entrances, the Plegian army would be forced out into the open and Chrom's Shepherds together with the warriors of Ferox could have a fair fight on the plains with the advantage of the fortresses to fall back on if the battle turned sour. In addition, because of the split nature of the tunnels, the army would like as not only face one wave of Plegians at a time, greatly improving the odds of success. Lon'qu thought that, as plans went, it was as good as it could get.
To make it work, there needed to be three separate forces, one in each fortress. Prince Chrom and Khans Basilio and Flavia divided the command between them, picking squads as equitably as possible. Chrom took the Shepherds and some of the Ylissean battalion, Khan Basilio took a joint Feroxi-Ylissean division, and Khan Flavia commanded the rest of the Feroxi army. Lon'qu considered asking Khan Basilio to be switched to his command in private, but he held his tongue and followed Prince Chrom when the time came.
Orders were orders, and this time they were coming from the top.
The Plegian plains were silent. Each of the three divisions had plenty in the way of resources, for they raided the tunnels below for foodstuffs and supplies before fortifying the entrances, but none were inclined to celebrate. No one knew quite when the Plegian forces would arrive but they knew that, though Robin's strategy would help lessen the blow, the battle would be fierce still. There was a long fight ahead.
Lon'qu sharpened one of his blades at a grindstone at one of the fortress's lower levels. He worked the pedals so that the stone wheel spun quickly, and he worked the blade nearly as fast to keep a level edge. He turned often, honing both sides each edge of the blade. He wanted the finished product to cut through bones.
Though his attention was focused completely on the work before him, he was aware of the sound on the stairs. Someone in full armor from the sounds of it, was descending and at no great of a pace. If Lon'qu had to guess the walker meant to be heard. No enemy then, and someone of good common sense: disrupting someone working a grindstone generally entailed some lost limbs afterward. Lon'qu stood off the pedals and admired the blade as the walker came to the bottom of the stairs. The swordsman wiped the newly sharpened edges on his sash, careful not to tear the fabric.
"I hope I haven't disrupted your work," Frederick said with a short incline of the head. "One of the sentries told me that I might find you down here."
"Is there something you need?" Lon'qu questioned.
"I was about to ask you the same," Frederick replied. He looked better than he had in a while. Lon'qu wondered why he had ever pitied such a man, someone who seemed to be better characterized by wrought iron than by flesh and blood.
Frederick cleared his throat. "You've been distant. Aloof. More so than usual. Milord was concerned that something had happened."
"It's nothing. I'm fine." Lon'qu's hands fidgeted for lack of anything to do.
"I've no mind to call a fellow Shepherd a liar, but I cannot help but think that you are not being entirely truthful."
Lon'qu chuckled. "I'm no Shepherd of yours, I'll tell you that. My business is my own. My time here is nearly finished. Now is not the time for niceties."
Frederick's frown was visible even in the darkness. "Milord considers you one of us," the knight said — carefully, Lon'qu thought — and continued, "and therefore so do I, and it is not like the Shepherds to ignore one of their own."
"Are you justifying yourself or chastising me? Because I care to hear neither case."
Frederick's frown deepened. "Be that as it may, it is my duty to ensure that you are well."
"I'm fighting a war I don't care to be a part of with an army that I bear no relation to. I have been guarding a charge that is not my own, and not by my choice. I fail to see how that can qualify as 'well'."
"If you scorn your task of guarding Milady—"
"To hell with it," Lon'qu interrupted. He was so angry, so very angry, and tired of everything. "To hell with it all. I don't grudge her a guardian, I grudge her impertinence and ongoing idiocy. She's a noble and yet she insists on seeking out trouble. This isn't some vacation where she can traipse about like a merchant on holiday; this is a war, and if she's not more careful, she's going to get herself killed."
"I'll thank you to remember that you speak of the Princess of Ylisse, and were your skills not so valuable to the cause, I might have reason to take your words as an assault on the halidom." Lon'qu closed his mouth. Frederick's voice was tight. "Further, Milady takes no more risks than the rest of us," Frederick said. "As you so kindly reminded us, this is war."
"Whose bright idea was it to bring her along? Women don't belong in war."
"No one belongs in war." Frederick's thin smile spoke volumes of his rage. "I must admit, though, I'd be more than happy to see Sully's reaction to this conversation. Perhaps you need someone to put you down a notch or two. Would that I could be such a challenger."
Lon'qu's voice dropped a register. "I do not doubt your prowess, nor your ability to defeat me in single combat," he spoke. He meant it. He had no desire to make an enemy of the fearsome knight. "I simply believe she should not be here. This is no place for royalty, particularly those who cannot bear arms."
"And I would give more to see Lady Maribelle's reaction to that." Frederick's countenance became thoughtful. "As to the matter of Milady, the princess was adamant. I could not sway her from her course."
"So that was her lightning I saw in the towers," Lon'qu said.
"Aye. She's a fast learner."
Lon'qu thought Frederick seemed proud. "And the witch? I take it she meets your standards as a teacher, else you would have smote her where she stood."
Frederick paused, then said, "Oh, no. Milady does not study under the Plegian witch. When I saw that I could not change her mind, I thought to suggest that perhaps Miriel and Ricken might make finer instructors. Milady could not have been more pleased, nor I suppose could Miriel in particular. It was a winning arrangement."
Lon'qu could think of no response. "Good," he said. He did not mean it. Frederick's frown soon returned.
"I ask you to think on matters, and come find me when you think you have something to say," Frederick said finally.
He shifted his feet for many long moments, then said, "Milady asks after you, you know. You would do her a kindness to speak to her from time to time." Frederick hesitated yet again. "I believe she misses your company."
"Does yours not adequately fill the absence?" Lon'qu questioned. It was a dark barb, and he knew it had struck true by the brief hurt expression that skittered across the knight's face. "Her fancies are no longer of my concern. The princess is your charge. See to it that you do your duty."
Lon'qu sheathed his blade, satisfied that the edge was sharp. He left Frederick to blow out the torches, and if he missed the sound of light feet pattering up the stairs — well, he could not have felt much lower than he already did.
Throughout the time that followed, Lon'qu did his best to avoid everyone – he could not be polite, or even civil. Thankfully for his temper he saw neither Chrom nor Lissa nor Frederick, and when he did, he made sure to bypass each party without saying a word. He doubted he could have contained himself if he had been obliged to engage in conversation with any of them.
Even so, he took up a post as a sentry when he was sent for. He patrolled the walls, one hand resting on his sword, never shifting his eyes from the lone fortress in the distance. Any signs of life, either within or without, and he was to sound the alarms.
It would be any time now; the Plegians must have reached their position. The joint army had made no effort to disguise its movements, nor its resting location. According to Robin's educated guesses there were wyvern patrols that kept watch, and they would report to others who would relay news. Lon'qu himself had not yet seen one of the riders, but many of the Plegians soared at high altitudes. Lon'qu doubted that even he could see so high from the ground.
His watch ended when night began to fall. He had not yet descended back to the depths of the fortress, loathe as he was to go inside when the night air was just beginning to turn fresh and sweet, when to his relief the alarm sounded.
"Lights!" the man called. "Lights in the fortress!"
Lon'qu ran back to the wall as the word spread like wildfire. Indeed, there were flames within the lone fortress, candles that appeared and disappeared rapidly. Whoever was inside was trying to move quickly and without drawing attention.
The sentries alerted Chrom. He in turn began mustering the troops, instructing those with bows to man the ramparts and aim for any riders that dared take the skies. The rest would prepare to march.
As per Robin's plan, the other fortresses were to wait until Robin gave the official signal before charging out — one of the archers was to shoot a flaming arrow on Robin's command when the moment was right. They had been notified of the Plegians already, if they had not seen the lights themselves.
For the moment, though, the army waited, watching for their enemy's next move.
Nothing happened until morning. Just before dawn, the gates to the lone fortress opened. A Plegian force, clearly too small to be the fully army, marched forward with the Mad King himself at the head. Robin gave the signal, and a flaming arrow hit the skies. Chrom took to the field just as the sun began to peek over the horizon. With the aid of wind magic for projection, the king and the prince spoke to each other across the field.
Lon'qu's eyes scanned the battlefield as he stood beside Vaike. Robin had determined that they worked well together. Lon'qu could not complain — though he knew that he was the better fighter, Vaike was growing steadily stronger. Lon'qu wanted to see just how far he could get.
Now, though, Lon'qu's mind was otherwise occupied. The most of the Plegian force had to be underground, preparing to infiltrate the fortresses. They would be in for a rude surprise – all of the tunnels had been successfully barricaded, and even if they did find some way to blast through, there were a handful of soldiers remaining in each fortress. They were well armed, but they had several horns between them in case the infiltrators proved wily.
There came a cry on the part of the Shepherds. Swords and lances and Lady Lissa's healing staff were in the air. Lon'qu drew his blade but gave no battle-yell. He was not far from Frederick and his young charges, and the plan had him sticking close at hand. Lon'qu took a deep breath and set his gaze across the field. One way or another, it would all be over soon.