Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 5
The violet Bluebird gave a disappointed sob as it wheeled into an air current to pick up speed, passing right over the Adam Bridge as a stack was traversing it. The stack had a clipboard carrying Alfred in the lead with stabbers and a couple Shady Elves escorting almost half a dozen black burnt prisoners. Alfred had learned to hold back on his experimentation to preserve his subjects a while ago, but it seemed like he'd croaked at least one this turn.
The survivors were probably pondering Turning right that moment.
Grey's eyes were pulled away from Alfred's stack as the wind rose from behind and the Bluebird sharply gained altitude and speed. The loft brought Grey and his mount high enough to get a good view of the buildings in Everclear past the initial skyline and the layout of the streets and parks. And in between two roosting towers, Grey saw Lydia at such a distance that only two unit types in the side would be able to clearly see who it was. Scouts, and Shady Elves.
Lydia looked straight at Grey, and gave a single half turn wave of her hand as a wave meant only for Grey. Grey returned the wave in kind, and then their view of each other was cut off. Grey's eyes ended up lingering in the general direction that Lydia had been, seeing nothing more than the walls, buildings, and battlements of Everclear now.
She had been disappointed. When Grey had run into Lydia on his way to the aviary again and had to tell her he was leaving right away, she was disappointed. She'd hidden it well, but Grey's eyes caught that slight twitch at the corners of her own. Lydia pretended it was not a big deal and that she'd expected it all along, but the truth was that she'd been looking forward to spending time with Grey. And Grey had felt likewise, ink or no. Grey had been dispatched to a high profile client to the south and been gone for a good many turns, and then received the order to begin teaching a new bunch of recruits in Everglade just as he was returning to Everclear's territory. So today was the first chance they'd had to see each other in a long time. But Lydia had followed Duty and worked hard to make it easier for Grey to leave.
Which, of course, made it harder for Grey to go.
A part of Grey wanted to turn the Bluebird around, even if only for one more pass of Everclear to give Lydia a more proper goodbye. She meant that much to him and more. But a blend of Duty and conviction prevented him from doing so.
And then Grey passed the hex border, and his chance to turn around was gone. Somehow, that point of no return made it easier for Grey to leave Lydia and Everclear behind, and the part of Grey's mind that was taken up with turning around was freed to ponder other things. Duty and Loyalty primarily, and his mind returned to the Map Room when Grey had volunteered for what may very well be a Suicide Mission. He hadn't hesitated to volunteer, and his own wants hadn't been involved in his thought process. Grey would have loved to stay in Everclear for one turn. Have a chance to catch up with Lydia and get that cursed ink off his chest. But the thought of delay hadn't been in his mind at all.
It wasn't Duty that made him choose service over convenience. Nor was it what had caused him to volunteer himself. Hyde was the best Farstrider at concealing himself, he'd have probably been a better choice for the mission. But he wasn't in the capitol at the time, as of the reports sent to Grey ten turns ago his post was the Stopgap border, watching for signs of another invasion. It would have meant a possible delay to get him on sight. An acceptable delay. No, it wasn't Duty that made Grey instantly throw himself into harm's way for this, it was Loyalty. Everything he cared about, everything he... it was all in Everclear.
Grey crossed another border. A natural sort of Findamancy told him the grid number he had moved into, and a subconscious part of his mind instantly translated it into topographical information. Wide river, deep water, fast current, no active traps, no patrols. The complete information flowed directly into Grey's mind, and back out, like a wave of surf at the shore, unnoticed and not disturbing his active thoughts at all. Just natural background noise.
The Map Room had been awkward after the king had left, so resolute and unhurried. The king had been deathly serious, but hadn't seemed worried in the slightest, despite the unprecedented events of the past few turns. Everyone who had remained was grave, and worried though. Dame Montoya had been the first to speak to Grey, an act different from her usual behavior he hadn't overlooked. She thanked and congratulated Grey on his dedication, so admirable for one of his station, and that she would remember his bravery. Maple's sweet voice was hard to withstand as it was obvious she was saying such pleasant things because she was certain she was having her last conversation with a croaked man. Grey could only smile stiffly and nod, he had no idea how else to react to such terrible good intentions being a common unit at heart. Thank the Titans that Art stepped in when he did.
Art had reminded Maple of the logistics she'll need to see to for the Knighthood to move out. More like guessed at their existence, really, but it was enough to get Lady Maple to excuse herself and stop her kindly intended stupidity. Dame Montoya was an excellent Warlady, and had been an excellent Chief Warlady during the last lengthy change of power, but she could be as thick as a tree's trunk sometimes. But Lady Maple had made eloquent, though blunt, farewells and left the Map Room, Art following close behind. And with that, Grey had been left alone in that room with Chief Warlady Sasha, Heir Princess of the Side. She had taken that opportunity to give Grey her goodbyes, her words of comfort. Such well worded intentions that he'd actually been comforted by them. Really, the Nobles are so... compared to common units like himself, Royalty is just so much more...
Hex change; heavy forest, regrown from Ash Hex, no traps, occasional patrols, current main thoroughfare to Fortress Everbilt, no enemies spotted just now, probably safe for column traversal.
Grey knew just how powerless he was in the larger design, but Princess Sasha had given her sincere praise concerning, and confidence in, his abilities for this mission. Citing her first hand experience, which she did have.
King Shindig was a bit peculiar.
Grey had heard one of the Knighthood describe Everclear as being... what was the word again? A memo... merry... meritocracy, yeah. Grey had had to ask Art what the word meant later on, after he'd sobered up from the night of conversing with the knights, but it was pretty much spot on. King Shindig would only have one child at a time, barring extenuating circumstances, and would always pop them as an Heir. But upon being popped, he always assigned the Heir to subordination to his Chiefs and Captains instead of designating them Chief Warlord immediately. Which meant that since the founding of the side, every Heir of Everclear had been assigned to Grey's command as a student as he walked them from one end of the kingdom to the other, making sure they understood the nature of the Farstriders and scouting from the eyes of a scout. It was the same for Art, teaching the nature of magic and it's current and past roles for the side. And the captain of the Montoya Knights, with finer war strategies and replaying the more important battles with figures in the map room. They teach the new Heir for the span of time they are given by the King, and then secretly submit their opinions on the new Heir to the King.
Princess Sasha's predecessor was... disappointing. Prince Bretl held his designation as Heir for only the short time he was being educated. He chose not to understand the Farstriders, couldn't care about the side's use of magic, and was always correcting Dame Maple even when he was actually wrong. King Shindig stripped him of his designation as Heir and put him in the lowest ranks of the Knighthood. Bretl was croaked in the fighting against Stopgap, Dame Maple claiming a lack of attention to training as the cause. And while Princess Sasha had popped while Bretl was alive, the two had never met, such was the Kings disappointment of his son. Both emotional and status-wise, Grey supposed.
Princess Sasha was the complete opposite of Bretl. She had been attentive to learning the ways of scouts, magic, and tactics. She was also gifted and diligent in training herself and her body. She hadn't been squeamish in the slightest to camping outdoors without any comforts. And Grey had seen her first battle as a level 1 Warlady. It had been a wild Jag, black as pitch and with a powerful roaring growl. The black Jag had stalked them well past end of turn, waiting for them to let their guard down to pounce. Grey had been able to make a false opening after setting a tripwire trap, but the Jag had only been wounded by it and came roaring into the campground. That was when Grey saw how Sasha fought. Her footwork was marvelous, causing her to flow out of the way of the Jag's attacks like she was sliding around on ice, landing blows as the beast passed her, exploiting openings for attack almost as if it had been scripted out in advance. Grey had been so spellbound by the beauty of Princess Sasha's fight that if the Jag had turned on him at that time, he may not have survived the predator's first blow. When the beast fell, and Princess Sasha had earned her first level from it, as she invited Grey to teach her how to treat and cook wild game, Grey knew she was something special. He knew that-
Hex change; moderate rain hex, heavy forest, trapped, light and easily spotted anti-personnel traps to funnel enemy, constructed pathway leading through large area mudslide trap, light patrols.
Grey pulled the cowl of his cape over his head to protect himself from the rain. The Bluebird made a deep sigh of disgust. King Shindig could have chosen a better route, one without the rain. But realistically, this flightpath was made on the fly, having to connect mount to mount without the luxury of being able to fly into a city for a mount switch. Perhaps if some mounts were dedicated to the relay the paths could be made a bit more comfortable with the option of stopping inside a city for a warm meal. Grey had already had a long day, longer than it ever should have been, having traveled farther than any single unit on Erf ever could without this unnatural system set in place. He had been looking forward to the prospect of a warm meal, warm bed, and after running into Lydia, perhaps a warm companion.
Friends with benefits, huh?
That was what they were, solidly and completely. Grey cared about her. He loved her as well, but they couldn't be more than friends. They tried, a few times, and it never worked out. There was some sort of disconnect, some sort of mismatch between Grey and Lydia that prevented the two of them from being able to be happy being more than just friends with benefits. But at the same time, they absolutely couldn't be anything less to each other. They'd tried that, too.
It was like an addiction. They were addicted to each other. And too much or too little left them crippled. But they were okay with that. Lydia and Grey had known each other for about as long as two units could know one another. They had fought side by side since they had been popped, fought through many a battle, many a war, many a skirmish, whatever words you can use to describe fighting, they had gone through it depending on one another. They had a whole and complete trust for one another. They knew everything about each other, and their twisted sort of love could accept all of each other. Lydia knew everything about Grey and she still loved him.
Lydia knew Grey was completely in love with Princess Sasha, and she still loved him, exactly as she did before.
Grey didn't have the words to convey how much that meant to him. Literally, he didn't have the vocabulary to describe his feelings, which was just another one of the pile of things he was ashamed of in his life of constantly being placed above his station as a common scout. Even if Everclear was a meritocracy, he was not meant for the position he had been given. Cam was popped as a Warlady, she could easily replace him. Even a Courtier, properly educated about Scouting tactics could replace him. Grey was a unit meant to exist in the field, dirt under his boots, knives whipping from his hands. He had no business giving orders. He had no business being at the same table as Nobles and Royalty. He had no business being near the Princess...
Grey was fulfilling Duty. His king had requirements of him. His side had requirements of him. Of him and the position he held. His Loyalty though, that had him perform his Duty without questioning the decisions of his king. Well, not out loud. Not to anyone but Lydia, and Grey was mostly sure she hadn't told anyone else. She wasn't above painting crude words like "Flip me upside down" on his head while he slept, but she would never betray him with anything important, at least.
And here he was, fulfilling both Duty and Loyalty. Best case scenario, Grey discovers the underlying truth of what has been happening to his side and King Shindig would come up with a plan to solve it. Worst case scenario, Grey croaks, a Lookamancer is the one to give his king the exact same information, and a more suitable Captain of the Farstriders is installed. It's pretty much win-win for his side, Grey supposed. Lydia would probably call him a nitwit with that disappointed stare of hers if she heard-
New hex; heavy forest, no traps, patrolling Farstrider croaked, two turn(s) Move from Whatever. Targeted hex has been reached.
Grey had been so deep in thought that he hadn't bothered to count the number of mount changes in mid air he'd performed, or the number of hexes he'd traveled through. He was tired, hungry, cold, and his cloak was still damp from the rain hex he'd passed through. But as he dismounted and his boots struck the dirt, he felt invigorated. Grey took a deep breath of air through his nose, smelling the forest's sweet fragrance of fresh air intermingled with feral life.
And all thoughts and worries washed off him.
After ordering the Bluebird to sleep in the trees this turn, to protect against wandering predators, Grey turned and lightly sprinted in the direction he had to go in order to prepare for hunting an army. His footing was solid with every step, he bounded off roots, leapt over small rocks, and hurtled with a supporting hand over large ones. His senses existed only to provide him with information about his surroundings and his mind was occupied with nothing more than keeping up with those senses. Grey moved on instinct and sensory interpretation. No doubts. No fears. No shame. No hesitation.
Grey was in his natural habitat once again, and he had a job to do.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.