While I reported to Prince Rufin, two scenarios had formed in my head.
In the first, the column safely passed the base in the hills and set up its intended bivouac beside the Great Trading Route. In the morning, Rufin’s brigade would send out its cavalry elements on sweeps of the surrounding hills. Our party would depart at that time according to plan, ostensibly as one of the adventurers corps groups also performing sweeps, except we would not return to base at the end of the day.
Our planned ‘sweep’ was back north, then turning westward into the mountains to explore for the Berado mine, which everyone except me was assuming to be close to the southern side of the border, since they thought the massive space they had heard about could only extend that far. Only I knew the reality that the network of giant spaces beneath these hills actually wound through the entire length of the Dragonsbacks.
This meant that we would pass the Berado base a second time, this time as an adventurer party rather than a uniformed Arelian force. It was hard to say whether they would let us pass or stop us, but they would have to know we were associated with the Arelians invading their land. Even if they didn’t stop us, they would probably begin keeping tabs on us.
In the second scenario, the Arelians couldn’t resist heading into the Giant’s Fortress to kick Berado posterior, and a big battle ensued. I was pretty sure the prince wouldn’t go that far, but I couldn’t be certain.
Executive summary: either our cover would be blown, or we would end up in the middle of a battle. We had planned to stick with Rufin’s Brigade down to their first bivouac specifically so the Berado scouts keeping an eye on those coming into the Tabad wouldn’t take note of us. This problem completely nullified that plan.
By the time the prince and a map-bearing aide finished with me and trotted forward, returning to their positions, the wagon with Dilorè was getting close. I walked her direction, but instead of boarding the wagon, I waved for her to follow as we passed each other. She hopped off and we went to see Allia. Fortunately, the column was only proceeding at walking speed, thanks to their supporting infantry company.
We didn’t have to discuss much. It was pretty obvious, our only choice was to split away from the Brigade immediately.
Allia rode forward to report to Rufin. Dilorè hopped on to the tailgate of the wagon our team was following, but I continued walking alongside the horses.
As we waited, Bruna declared, “This totally sucks.”
Ceria nodded. The other Hero’s party members were somber, but Melione apparently didn’t understand. She wondered, “What’s the problem?”
“The rest of the adventurers around us are going to hate us,” Brigitte told her. “It’s going to look like we’re abandoning the job. It’s bad business for adventurers.”
“We should wait and split off after they tackle the Berado force,” Ryuu declared.
“Wrong,” I and Arken both answered simultaneously. He smiled and extended his palm, ceding the floor to me.
“Two problems,” I told Ryuu. “First, we don’t know if they will actually confront the Berado. They may just marched right by their position, meaning we’ll have to pass it again by ourselves tomorrow, as we head back north. Second, if they do end up in a fight, they will put us on the front line. That’s where irregulars go, in military tactics.”
He frowned, then thought, then observed, “If we stuck through the battle before splitting off, the entire problem would be solved. There’s no way that small a force beats these guys.”
He totally wanted to get into the middle of a big battle with that sword of his, didn’t he?
I raised an eyebrow. “While that might be true, and while the rest of us are easily strong enough to survive the front line of a pitched battle, if you drag either Melione or Brigitte onto the front line, I will personally beat the crap out of you.”
Ryuu’s jaw dropped slightly. Yeah, that was definitely something the old Tiana would never have said to him, or anyone else.
“Why did you include me?” Brigitte demanded.
“Because you would die. Your fighting style works great in small fights, but it is too dangerous on the front line of a full-scale infantry battle, where everyone’s crowded into lines. You’ve never been in one, right?” I asked.
“Have you?” she challenged.
“Yes. Two years ago. The war in Lang Doria. I served with the King’s Own Frontier Guards.”
Brigitte stared at me with some shock in her eyes. This was something Tiana never told them about. Basically, she had let them believe she was just an inexperienced noble girl that the king stuck them with.
She asked. “How old were you?”
“Thirteen,” I told her. “I was in my second year as a squire.”
It was older than Brigitte and Melione had been, when they left their village to become adventurers, so she had to accept it. It just hadn’t been something she could imagine of me.
“If it came to us going into battle with them,” Arken told her, “We would try to keep you and Melione back with the mages and tell people you’re our runner, but My Lady is right. The commanders would normally force all irregulars to the very front, regardless of specialty, so we would be right behind the first line, not back with the military mages. It’s not a place for scouts or healers.”
I looked at Ryuu to make sure he understood. He scowled, but nodded.
Allia returned soon after that. “The prince has agreed. We’re going now.”
She didn’t get in line, instead ordering as she passed, “My company, turn out, to the side of the road, about-face and head back, single file.”
Our party contained only casual riders, not professional cavalrymen, so it was a little clumsy, but they all managed to work their way out of the ranks without causing too much havoc. Once they were all headed north on the side of the road, Dilorè hopped down and followed me as we trotted to catch up. Even though the horses were only riding two abreast, the path that the column was leaving us was narrow. Our horses could only walk, so it wasn’t difficult to join Allia at the head of our line.
Bruna’s prediction was right on target. Most of the adventurers in the corps were shooting us dark looks as they passed us.
Allia asked, “How long are you planning to walk with us, My Lady?”
“We’ll wait for the column to pass before we take to the air,” I answered. “I don’t want to grow wings and take off in front of everyone.”
The less advertising that the fairies had left the brigade, the better, I figured.
“You could stealth like you did before,” she pointed out.
“My ability to do that in daylight is limited, My Lady. I would like to save it for more important things.”
She nodded her understanding. Then asked, “You really can’t ride with one of us?”
“In order to take my equestrian training as a squire, my mother had to buy me a golden hind, My Lady. Mortal horses are too scared of us to let us on their backs. That beast you’re riding is getting a little skittish, you might notice.”
She nodded her head with a wry smile. I do understand how outrageous it sounds, but it’s true. Fairies can ride magical beasts and monsters, but mortal beasts will not tolerate us on their backs. Any attempt to do so will drive the animal into a frenzy. I understand Mother keeps a unicorn in Mona in order to ride around the estate.
Which of course proves that the thing about unicorns only submitting to virgins is baloney.
At last the rearguard passed us and we were able to use the road. The horses seemed quite relieved.
We didn’t have to wait long for the rearguard to disappear, since they left us in the middle of a curve in the road. We could see the head of the column farther down the valley, but closer eyes were screened by the rising ground next to us.
By our original plan, we were going to leave the brigade in the morning, and reach tomorrow’s campsite just west of the road near the border by evening. After a quick conference, we agreed that we could get to that same area at a trot by lunchtime now, and the horse riders took off.
Dilorè cast her optical stealth spell and took to the air. I followed, not bothering to stealth. In this region, if I didn’t hover or fly at high speed, I would be seen as a birdkin thanks to my wings. At least, from a distance. When they got close and saw hair instead of feathers on my head, the illusion would be lost.
Once we were high enough above the road and had made a quick survey to look for any dangers to our comrades below, I spent some time catching Dilorè up on my tentative success communicating with Lucy.
She was puzzled. “Four ways?”
It took me a while to figure out what she was saying. She had heard it in Ancient Fairy, a garbled form of the Elder Tongue, as “Lu si.”
I laughed. “It’s an Ostish name. And like all Old Ostish names, the meaning has been lost, so I don’t know what it means.”
It means Light, but Latin isn’t a thing in this world.”Well, it sounds cute, so it’s fine,” Dilorè ruled.
“It fits her voice,” I explained, then asked into the air, “Hey, Lucy, are you willing to talk with me?”
The tinny voice wasn’t audible enough to understand from my wallet.
“Darn,” I griped. “I was hoping I could hear you without taking you out of my wallet.”
She said ‘I talk’, My Lady, Durandal supplied.
I held up for a bit, letting my feet drop while I dug into the wallet.
Dilorè became visible and pointed down to a clearing away from the road. “Let’s land down there for a bit.”
She was descending before I could ask why, so I followed her down to what turned out to be the marsh ground around a mountain stream.
I landed and dug back into my wallet, finding the spirit stone at last. I brought it out in time to see Dilorè producing a little drawstring bag, just big enough to fit the stone. The drawstring was a long leather thong which she had knotted into a simple necklace.
“I made it while you were off on your spy mission,” she explained. “It occurred to me that digging that stone out of your wallet all the time would be a problem.”
“You made it in that short of a time?” I asked, a little surprised.
With a proud smirk, she boasted, “When you live out in the wild for decades, you become quite clever about such things. I’m a pretty handy lady.”
She tugged the mouth of the bag open and held it out, so I dropped the stone into it. Then she draped it over my head onto my shoulders. The thong was just long enough for her to tuck the bag inside my blouse.
“Ëi bianëo,” I thanked her.
“Innan cele ro,” she answered, which is sort of like ‘Your Welcome.’
I touched the bag. “Lucy, can you hear me?”
“Hear good!” the tinny voice declared, now nicely audible.
“Can you tell me how to find the lady I’m looking for?”
“Wind spirits show!” she declared, which was the same as she’d said before.
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. Dilorè raised her brows and tipped her head.
We’re still working on it, My Lady, Durandal apologized.