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A Tenuous Partnership

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Robert's heart sank at the arrival of the new recruits from the outer villages. They were a rag-tag bunch, with some of them looking very underfed – as was common in this day and age – and several of them looking barely even fifteen. This wasn't a good bunch.
They had been fighting to stop the troops from Swynness – up north a ways – from coming through the mountain pass that divided their two countries and taking them over for about a year now and the fight showed no signs of abating. Swynness' troops seemed to double every time he went out in the field and they were having to harass the small townships that were scattered about their country of Prybourne for new soldiers every few weeks or so.
And this bunch seemed to be the worst of the worst. Maybe the recruiters were getting desperate. Robert certainly was. He, being no such recruiter, was a squad leader, and a trainer. The boys dragged out of the villages had little to no combat skills and Robert was there to try and teach them how to stay alive – although that didn't really seem to be working very well at the moment.
He'd lost a lot of men – if you could call them that. Sure, he was only three or so years older than most of the recruits that came in, but he'd seen a lot more than them. And he was still alive.

“Men!” Duncan came striding out of the command tent, looking pissed off. As usual. Duncan was a sarky son of a bitch commander in his late thirties with all sword and no heart. There was rumours that he had lost someone very dear to him which caused the devil may care attitude, but no-one really had the balls to ask. He was usually quite angry, but this time his anger wasn't directed at Robert. It was directed at the recruits. Good. Perhaps it would scare them into shape.

“You are here today to help save your country. I know many of you don't really want to be here, but you're here now so you're just going to have to live with it. With us you'll probably get better fed than at home anyhow.”

There was a smattering of laughter with Duncan quickly curtailed with a glare. “You'll be split into squads for training and for going into the field. Your squads are your life, but I'm sure you'll learn that during training.”

He started directing reluctant boys into groups and pushing them towards the trainers standing around the edge of the group. Robert's group arrived last and he stood for a moment, examining the offering. He supposed it could have been worse. There were two blond boys – twins at a glance, a skinny ginger kid with skin that looked like it would burn off the second he stepped into the sun, an olive-skinned youth with dreads down to his shoulders and a short brunette with a presence that seemed to demand attention. He supposed it could have been a lot worse. Strange though. Catchments generally had younger kids in them nowadays – they had gotten all of the older youth earlier on – but he had two people who seemed at least sixteen which was a good start.
He addressed the brunette with presence first. “You, boy, how old are you?”

“Seventeen.” The youth said with a cocky smile.

“You don't look seventeen.”

“Yeah well it's my good looks-” Robert stopped the kid's absent chatter by slapping him hard across the face.

“What the hell was that for?!” The kid held his cheek, looking almost wounded.

“We're. In. A. War. There's no time for absent chitchat.” He stated plainly. “That sort of shit could get you killed.”

“Sir, yes, Sir.” The kid's words were biting and he stared Robert right in the eyes, almost in defiance.

He fought the urge to roll his eyes. “None of that. I'm Robert and I'm your squadron leader. What's your name?”

“Jonty.”

“Well, Jonty, we have drills to do, so you and the rest of you-” He waved a hand towards the rest of the group, “-need to get over to the training pit over there. By running.”

“But-” The ginger kid looked like he was about to protest.

“No buts. Move.”

Three days later, when Robert was trying in vain to teach his new squad how to ride horses (for the love of everything, did twins not possess any sort of BALANCE?) and they were out riding on one of the ridges that encircled the area of their training camp just after dusk, he began to reflect on how this squad was going compared to how his last squad had been.
All but one of them had ended up dead at the hands of the enemy and the one that had survived had run off into the desert never to be seen again after their last battle (hence Robert's new post strictly in the training camp), but they had been a good squad.
This squad was turning out better than he had hoped. The twins, whilst being awful at any sort of horse riding could climb up rock faces faster than anyone he'd ever seen; the ginger kid, Jerrard, could actually cook (which made a change) and Valentine, the guy with the dreads, was a brilliant fighter with blunt objects and would be moved up to actual swords soon. All that left was Jonty. Damn Jonty. He had hoped that the kid would be able to harness some of his snark into fighting, but that didn't seem to be happening. He could ride, sure, but riding wasn't everything. A good fighter had to be able to handle a sword and there had been little to no progress with the practise swords as of yet. Plus his temperament was just not good enough. He would get killed because he would be distracted by someone or something attractive in the distance.
Jerrard wasn't out on the ride because his presence was wanted in the cooking tent. As per usual.
He was drawn from his thoughts by one of the twins falling off his horse again.

He sighed and made a wild guess. “Francis, hurry up and get back onto May.”

“It's Frank.” The kid whimpered, “And I think I've hurt myself.”

Oh if his day couldn't get any fucking better.
He slowed the group to a stop and slid off his horse. “Jonty, hold onto Alcippe. I have to deal with this.”

“Yes, boss.” A somewhat-insolent tone came floating out of the darkness, but Jonty clambered off his own horse, Colby, grabbed both of their makeshift reins and started talking quietly to both of the horses.
Robert picked his way through the darkness towards where he had heard the call from Frank. He didn't need this. They were in a group, so they should be safe from raiders, but you never knew. They could come out from anywhere.
Riding in the dark wasn't very safe but it was all they could do. The sun was a major problem during the day and most of the land was quite flat and safe. Emphasis on most. They didn't stay out too late when they were training and when they were travelling they were in a big group so it wasn't so dangerous.
If they had an injury though... they had to get back inside as fast as possible. Off their horses, it wasn't very safe out of the reaches of the camp.
Robert found Frank lying in a ball about three feet from his horse, a gentle and very nonchalant bay called Duke. The kid seemed to have something spiky and quite large sticking out of his right leg and Robert had a fleeting thought to how thankful he was that it didn't end up in Duke.
He peered through the darkness trying to get a proper look at how badly the kid was injured. It wasn't that far back down to the camp, but it still would be a mission getting back there. This was a bad place to be stuck. There was a ridge and a sharp drop to their backs and the wide expanse of the desert in front of them. They were cornered in an ambush.
It was when he placed his hands on the thing in Frank's leg that he realised. Holy shit.

“Boys, there's raiders about.” He said, quietly, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.

The spike trap was favoured by the raiders – they dropped them to ensnare riders and humans alike in the darkness, then would come back and loot their corpses later on.
“Raiders?” Francis, the other twin, sounded on the verge of hysteria.

“Francis. Calm down.” Robert ordered, still trying to keep his voice low. “We need to get out of here, but we can't do that if you're panicking. Get off your horse. Your brother needs your help. Valentine, can you please hold onto his horse.”

He said all this while moving his hands around the spike trap and trying to find out where it was anchored in Frank's leg. There only seemed to be perhaps one point in his leg, but it seemed quite far in and when he removed his hands they were sticky with blood. Fucking hell.
He knew he shouldn't remove it, but what other choice did he have? Couldn't get the damn kid back to camp with the thing still stuck in him.
Francis by this point had gotten off his horse and was hovering awkwardly by Robert's left side. “What do you want me to do?”

“Hold your brother's hand.” Robert instructed as he removed one of his headscarves and tugged a strip of leather off the edge of his boot where it had been peeling off. “Frank. Please do not cry out. Sound travels in the desert. Bite this.” He gave him the leather as Francis grabbed his brother's hand tightly.

He steeled himself. “Deep breaths, Frank,” he said and pulled on the spike trap.

Frank let out a horrible whining noise and he pushed away from Robert's hands, but then the trap came free and he went limp, eyes wide and panting.

“Francis, make sure he stays awake.” Robert hissed as he used his headscarf to tightly bind around the deep punctures in Frank's leg. It wasn't great, but it'd do until they could see a medic. Francis was talking softly to his brother and by the looks of things the boy was still awake. Good.

“Robert, I think someone's coming.” Jonty called. “The horses are getting edgy.”

Okay. Okay. They would get out of here alive. They would.

“Francis, help me boost him onto Duke.” And the kid, to his credit, did what he was told without question. Duke was dependable, and would follow his sister, Duchess, who Valentine was riding.

“You three, start heading back. Jonty, take Alcippe with you and go back as well. I don't want her running off. She's a good horse.” Robert ordered, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. There was only one way that this would end and it wouldn't be with him still alive. Those four needed to live. They had the potential to be brilliant.

“What about you?” Jonty asked.

“I'll stay here and hold them off.”

“But you'll die!” Francis looked positively devastated.

“We all die in the end. Go.” Robert shooed them away, and drew his sword from his holster. It wouldn't hold them off long, but hopefully it'd give the squad enough time to get away.
After a few seconds of indecision between the squad Robert said, “Go!” and they moved away.
All except Jonty.
“What are you doing?” Robert asked. Now was not the time for one of Jonty's moods.

“Staying with you.” The youth was stubborn.

“No you're not. Get out of here before you get killed.”

“I'll help you.”

“Jonty, look, you're a good kid, but you're shit at swordplay and good at looking after the horses. They need you more back at camp than dying with me on this ridge. Go!” Robert sighed. It was the truth, after all. “We'll lose two good horses if you don't go, so get out of here!”

Jonty shot Robert a glare that would kill a raider at twenty paces, but without a word took the horses and got the hell out.

Robert looked up at the sky. This would definitely be the last chance he saw it, unless there was some kind of star-related afterlife, but after twenty-one years in this hell-hole of a world he wasn't hopeful. He looked back down to real life when he heard footsteps running towards him.

"What have we here? A madman with a sword? How cute."

There was a group of five people, all dressed in black from head to toe carrying swords. Not a typical raiding party, but Robert didn't exactly have license to be picky.
"I'd say you're the mad ones." He said then immediately chastised himself. Good job, harass the people who are going to tear you apart.
"Welllll, we have a feisty one here!" The leader said. He was massive and sounded like he was from Swynness.
Then, as though they were obeying some kind of silent signal, three of them charged straight at him in a triangle formation. He backed away, remembered there was a gorge to his back and instead ducked under the leader's sword as it came towards him. He took a mad swipe at the leader's legs but missed by a mile.
Doing this, he had let himself get encircled by the three. That was fucking smart. He was going to die here.
He blocked a few stabs and managed to disarm one of the raiders, sending the sword skittering away over the edge of the cliff.

"You're fucking going to pay for that." The person, it sounded like a woman (!), seemed angry as she stepped back and left the two encircling him to try and fight.
Robert swiped at the sword of the leader as it came for his throat, but his disarming tactic didn't work twice and the sword bit into his bad shoulder, his right one.
There was a white hot pain and he sucked breath sharply in through his teeth. That hurt worse than the first time.
He spun, trying to catch them off guard and managed to clip the leader in the gut with the point of his sword. Something ripped, but in the dark he couldn't tell what it was. He hoped it was flesh.

"Bastard." The leader muttered. Robert finished him off with another slice to the gut, and got around his guard to slice him casually, across the throat. The leader fell away, and with a yell, one of the other people who had been standing back watching the fight replaced him.
One down. Four to go.
He could feel the sweat trickling down his chest as he fought on when he realised it wasn't sweat. The shoulder wound. Fuck. In the melee he had forgotten about it. He tried to hold them off, he tried to get away. He tried to lead them away down the path that led away from the camp, but there was too many and then he was at the edge of the cliff, sword too far away to reach.

"Thanks for the sport." The new leader of the raiders said and pushed Robert off the cliff.
He fell for a foot or so until he managed to scrabble wildly and grab onto a protruding rock, hands slipping and pain arcing across the front of his chest.
"Let's leave him there boys. The shoulder wound will take care of him soon enough." It was the women whose sword he had pushed off the cliff.
They walked away from the edge and Robert heard one of them say something like, "-hit Keonidas tomorrow."
Keonidas? That was one of the... nearby.. towns.
He breathed through the pain and tried to pull himself up. He was only just off the edge dammittt! He was going to die because of his own incompetence.
He fought to to find a foothold. If he found one he could pull himself up... but no. There was nothing and his arms were burning and he couldn't think and -
"Robert!"
Then there was relief as he was hauled from his perch and deposited on the flat land of the clifftop.
Oh. Oh he was alive. Oh he could cry for the relief. But he was a soldier. And soldiers didn't cry.

"Robert. Can you hear me?" It was - it was Jonty?

"I told you to go back!" Robert hissed, trying to calm his breathing.

"Yeah well I did and then I thought we shouldn't abandon each other." Jonty said simply.

"It was a direct order."

"Damn your direct orders! You were going to die!"

Robert rolled over onto his back and could see Jonty and the sparkling night sky. Oh how he'd thought he'd never see it again. "We don't disobey orders."

"But we don't leave each other behind." Jonty grabbed Robert by his good arm and hauled him to his feet. "The horses are tied just down the path."

"You are such a fucking egg." Robert said, shaking his head in disbelief, "but... thank you. Don't disobey me again."

"You're welcome... sir." Jonty said, smirking.

Chapter Text

They were searching an abandoned town for supplies. Robert knew it must have been occupied, once. But it could have been a lifetime ago. He remembered a time before all this desert, just, but he had been very young when everything happened. He remembered when towns actually existed – when the sun wasn't the killer it was now, when people had parents and when women were people.

It was a long time ago.

Now it was just the infinite desert with people clinging to the surface, trying to survive.

It was just after dusk, the heat from the day drifting away. They'd have to get somewhere tonight, then set up camp. They'd come out for a scouting mission – to find supplies to get them by until the Queen would provide the soldiers with more – but so far they weren't having much luck. Abandoned town to abandoned town, they'd been searching for days, getting further and further from the places they knew. They were so far out from the well-worn paths they hadn't even seen a raiding party for a day or two, which was rare.
He laid his sword down on an old, wooden table and started searching through a series of cupboards. Perhaps they were far enough out that they would find something of use, perhaps the place hadn't been picked over yet. He hoped so. He didn't want cat again for dinner.

Stretching up to open cupboards with his right hand still hurt. It had been almost three months (at least to his count) since he had almost fallen off that cliff and he doubted that he'd ever get proper use of the arm back again. It wasn't crippling, but it did pull at his shoulder uncomfortably whenever he tried to work with that arm.
There wasn't much in the cupboards. He did find an old tin pot without a handle that might suffice for a new cooking pot and something that might have been edible in a jar once upon a time, but there was no damn food. He picked up his sword and the pot and left the building.

Most of his squad was outside, looking about as disheartened as he felt. Francis was patting his horse (after a lot of coaxing he'd finally learnt how to ride), Jerrard was drawing patterns in the sand with his sword and Frank was sitting on something half buried in the sand and looking up in the sky.

“Men!” Robert said as he got closer (to be fair, they were hardly that). “What are you doing?”

They looked up as he approached, but none of them seemed too chastised.
“There's nothing.” Francis said, then went back to patting May.

“It's another dead loss.” Frank looked irritated. “Will we ever find things, Robert?”

He supposed honesty would be best in this situation. “I don't know. But we won't find anything if you keep sitting on your arses doing nothing, will we?”

Before the boy could reply, there was a shout from one of the other buildings.
It was Valentine, “Robert!”

With a moment of shock to hear one of his team members actually wanting his presence, Robert followed the direction of the shout.
Inside a building that had massive holes in the roof and ceiling and foot-high sand lining the floor he found Valentine staring down a square gap in the floor.
“Jonty's down there.” Valentine said with a predictable roll of his eyes.

“Colour me surprised.” He looked down into the hole and found Jonty looking up at him from about three metres below.

“Oh hey boss!” Jonty looked pleased to see him. “So I found this trapdoor, right? There's some crates and stuff down here that don't look too disturbed. Only problem is that I don't think I can get out of here.”

“It would be you, wouldn't it...”

After hauling three large crates up out of the hole with a lot of moaning and groaning by Jonty and the rest of the recruits alike and then managing to get Jonty out of the hole, at last they were able to break the crates open. Or, try and break the crates open. Seemed like years of being buried hadn't faired well for the padlocks on the exterior of the crates and they were forced to eventually attack them with their swords until the wood boxes broke open.

Bottles, packages and jars rolled out and went all over the floor of the room.

“Holy shit...” Robert breathed. “No way! We've done well this time, guys.”

The bottles and such in question were packages of food. They looked commercial and must have been buried down there for quite a while. The world had gone to shit about fifteen years ago now and the things couldn't have been made after everything had happened so they would be at least fifteen years old... But surely some of them would be alright?

“Robert, what is this?” Francis was holding up a can of tomatoes and staring at it intensely.

He had completely forgotten that this bunch of kids wouldn't have been around when society still somewhat existed. He had only been six when it all went down – so Jonty would only have been two and Francis and Frank wouldn't be born for another two years. He didn't know Valentine's age, but by the way the boy was looking at the tin with curiosity suggested that he was pretty young or not even born when the world ended. Ditto with Jerrard.

“They're tomatoes.” Robert explained with a queasy sort of feeling in his stomach. Sure, he didn't remember much from life before the desert but at least he remembered something. “Vegetables. They grew on plants that came out of the ground.”
“No way!” Jerrard seemed confused.

Of course, the boy probably hadn't seen actual real life vegetable plants. They managed to get some semblance of plant-like food from the Queen, but they'd never found out exactly where she'd gotten it from.
“Yes. They did. Look, what else do we have here?” Robert pawed through the rest of the goods from the three boxes. Some of these things wouldn't be very good – fifteen years was a long time – but there was a decent bunch of dried goods that looked to be still properly packaged. “Jonty was there anything else dow -” He trailed off as he spotted something that would make their evening very good indeed. “No way.”

“I saw a couple of skeletons and some empty wine bottles.” Jonty said slowly, “Robert, what is it?”

He pulled a jumbo package of marshmallows out from underneath a plastic package of pasta. “We're bloody lucky boys. Holy shit, these must be the only damn packet of marshmallows left in existence.”

“Marsh-mallows?” Frank said, very confused. “What?”

Fifteen fucking years and these marshmallows didn't look a day over a few months. Whatever preservation technology was in these crates, he wanted it. “They're brilliant. Tell you what, we'll pack up this stuff and then I will blow your minds.”

“Blow our minds? Robert!” Jonty sounded scandalised. “At least kill a couple of raiders for us first.”

“Shut your yap and get going you lot.” He held the marshmallows up in reverence. Fifteen fucking years and he could still taste them. He hadn't had anything in the way of candy since he'd found a chocolate bar hidden on a high shelf when he was eight and scavenging a house for food.

They packed the rest of the food into their backpacks and Robert led them back to a shell of a building they had found about ten minutes back. The structure seemed solid and was about as safe as they could get considering where they were. There wasn't anywhere truly safe any more, but this place had walls and was at the top of a hill so he presumed that they would be able to hear and see any raiders trying to get the upper hand over them.

They started making a fire. That was another benefit of this place – it had no roof so smoke would easily escape, but there were walls to stop the light from the fire spilling out across the landscape and drawing raiders to their location. They really couldn't have gotten a better place to spend the night, in fact.
When the fire had almost burnt down to coals and they had had what passed as food – Robert didn't want to think about what it was and he'd been playing the food roulette for almost sixteen years – he dragged the marshmallows out of his pack and held them up, almost in reverence. They were a bit dented, but still, fifteen years? Damn.

“So.. should we sing songs or something?” Jonty said, with an easy grin that he could only just see in the half-light.

“How- how do you know about singing songs over a campfire, Jonty?” Robert said. He could only vaguely remember what it was like being able to make camp, have a campfire and sing songs around it. Sure, he wasn't actually much of a fan of singing, but the sentiment still counted.

“Family...” Jonty muttered, everything suddenly turning sour. “Thing we did when things got bad. Made the kids feel better. Didn't help when we were raided.”

There was a pause so pregnant that Robert was sure that he could hear Jonty's heart beat, despite sitting a good three feet from him.
“So... The marsh-mallows then?” Frank said, still insisting on pronouncing the name wrong.

“Yeah.” The mirth of the evening had almost vanished, the lightness in his heart from finding the marshmallows disappearing in a dose of cold-hard reality. They were out here to do a job and really, they could still be doing it. It was a couple of hours to dawn and they were here, dicking about, instead of being on the road finding food to sustain the camp.

“Marshmallows?” Jonty said, touching him on the arm and pulling him from his thoughts.

Then again... they could possibly just wait it out. They had been working their arses off for days now and they hadn't had a break. Finishing a couple of hours before the sun came up once wouldn't make a difference.
“Okay.” He tore open the packet, hoping they wouldn't just disappear into a cloud of dust as things in dreams often did – he still wasn't sure that they were one hundred percent real – and the over-processed, sweet smell almost did his head in. “Damn.”
“Sugar?” Valentine asked.
“Yeah. You lot can have it. Just this once.” Robert smirked, “Keep these from the Queen though. I heard she has a bit of a sweet tooth and I bet she wouldn't be happy if she heard that she'd missed out and that we'd gone off patrol early.”
“So do we just eat them or what?” Francis, being his usual intelligent self, reached across the fire to grab from the package of marshmallows.
Robert slapped his hand away in a movement that he'd been doing more and more lately. (It wasn't his fault that the twins were constantly grabby for anything out of the ordinary and Jonty wasn't much better). “No.” He grabbed his thinnest dagger and speared a marshmallow on it. “Like this.” He put the marshmallow package on the ground and held the point of his dagger over the glowing coals.
“You cook it?” Jerrard seemed surprised.
“Yes. It makes it so much better.”
“I wouldn't be so sure.” Jonty said, his words muffled by a handful of marshmallows he was trying to shove down his throat.
Robert looked at him. Really looked at him until he was forced to look away, almost awkwardly. “Last package of marshmallows in the universe, Jonty, we are not about to waste them. You can wait before you get any more now.”
“Yes mother.” Jonty said snidely and sat with his back to the fire, chewing his marshmallows sulkily.


It was later, when all of the marshmallows were gone and there were five recruits slumbering around the edges of the barely-lit fire that Robert was able to reflect. They'd done so well. They were better than the last two groups he'd led combined and he'd known them for just over three weeks. They got on and that was better than anything he could ever have hoped for. He begged to the universe that he wouldn't lose this group as easily as he had lost his last one. Sure, they had a proficiency for swordfighting and worked together as a group well, but he knew that they wouldn't properly be tested until they were up on the front line, fighting for their lives. Bandits couldn't compare to Strachan's well-trained soldiers in any aspect, especially their blood-thirsty nature, and he knew they'd be tested. He had never, truly, thought this before, but he didn't want to lose them.

“Sir, are you okay?” It was Jonty. Of course it was.
The fucking kid was everywhere he looked.

“Shouldn't you be sleeping?” He said, gruffly, though there was no heart in it.

“Couldn't. It's too cold.”

“We're in a desert. It doesn't get cold here.”

“It does for me.” Jonty complained, pouting. “I don't like it.”

“Better get used to it, kid. You've just started with us. You've got a long time in this desert left.”

“Can I sit by you, sir? We can share blankets.”

It took him a moment to come up with an answer. That was surprising nice - for a recruit. They often didn't think about others. He wasn't cold, he'd gotten used to the desert a long time ago, but he did need the recruits at their best later in the day. It looked like it'd be a grey one and they'd have to leave earlier. “Fine. But don't call me sir. I don't deserve a title.”

“I think you do, Robert.” Jonty moved from his position right next to the fire to lean against the log that he was leaning against. “You've kept us alive and together for three weeks. That's more than a lot can say.”

He wanted to laugh, to let Jonty drag the truth from him in a tumble of words and held back emotion, but he didn't have time or cause for that. He hardly knew this kid – if he could even call him that. He relented. “Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you.”

They sat together in an almost comfortable silence, listening to the occasional cry of some horrifically mutated bird or creature off in the distance.
“Can I lean on you, Robert?” Jonty's question came out of nowhere. “I'm cold.”

Oh what the hell. What did he have to lose. He couldn't deny that he got on a lot better with the kid than he did with the rest of the group. He suppressed a sigh, “Fine.”

And Jonty did lean on him and dragged his blanket around them both. Robert felt a lot warmer than he had for a long time, but of course, he didn't say that.
“Fucking hell, you're so young.” He said, almost to himself, “You weren't even alive when the world ended.”

“I was actually.” Jonty moved his head, sounding almost smug. “Three months. My mum and dad went on the run and managed to keep me alive. I have no clue how they did it, but I turned out okay.”

“Yeah, well, I was six and one day my parents went out and didn't come back.” Robert said bitterly, trying to hold his tongue, but as usual, his capacity for speech control went out the window at night. “They worked for some company that monitored space or something and when the bomb warnings came through they had to go into work. Left me with a babysitter and I never saw them again.” It was so long ago, but he could remember it as though as it was yesterday.

“Shit...” Jonty breathed.

“Yeah. Babysitter ditched and I was left alone. Been alone ever since.”

“How the hell did you survive? You were alone – and six!” Jonty spoke much louder than was necessary and Robert glared at him.

“Luckiest six year old in the world. God must have been smiling on me or something. I was swept up with a refugee group – I think – some man named Jackson looked after me as we retreated east and I grew up with him. I was still pretty much alone for the first couple of years and I don't know how I did it.... Fucking hell, Jonty, why am I telling you all this?”

“I'm a good listener.”

“Yeah, well you're also good at going to sleep.” Robert cleared his throat a couple of times, “Go to bed, Jonty. You and Jerrard have a watch in a couple of hours and need to rest. I need you all on top form.”

“Think I'll stay here and sleep.” Jonty snuggled more into his side and seemed almost surprised when he made no complaints.

“Fine. Just... when you get up from your watch, move, will you? I don't... think I can be a.. heater for five of you.” He was lying through his teeth as he spoke, but as he heard Jonty let out a loud snore, he was fairly sure he wouldn't have picked up on it.

Chapter Text

He and his team had been living together for about a year and a half when they were called to do a very special mission. He'd seen the boys grow up and everyone mature far more than he thought they would. They were a tight knit bunch, and Robert had been grateful for their presence more than he'd like to admit.

Duncan called them all into the command tent. He seemed reluctant to send them into the front line – they should have been deployed at least once by now – but he was more content to send them gallivanting around the entirety of the country collecting things.

“Men!” He said, since they were all men now. “The Queen has decided to send you all on a different mission.”

“What sort of mission?” Valentine said, always being the one who had to be suspicious of everything.

“There has been rumours of a completely unharmed township down south that hasn't given people up for the war quota yet. You need to find it.”

“But... down south? That's right near the palace. Why can't the Queen send her own troops?” Robert questioned. It seemed like a bad idea to him.

“Are you really going to question the motives of the Queen, Robert?” Duncan fixed him with a beady-eyed stare.

“No...” He sighed, “It just seems like a waste of time. Why send us scouting when we could be fighting on the front?”

“Do you want to be fighting on the front again, Robert?”

“No but -”

“Go on then! Get out of here. You have a job to do.” Duncan ordered, cutting him off completely.

They left, sullenly. What Robert wouldn't do to have a day free of travelling? But they were in a war and that was the main problem here.

--

The trip took several days. It took them six days to travel down the narrow safe zone between the desert and the mountains where bandits roamed the lands and they were nearly accosted more than once. Robert instantly regretted the trip when they were first hit - losing a good supply of their food and coming away with injuries that would get worse over the long sunny days and cold desert nights. They were a rag-tag bunch when they reached the turn off that would lead them to the palace if they went one way and to the rumoured ‘town’ if they went the other.

“Can we go to the palace?” Francis whined, using one hand to wipe away the sweat on his forehead. It was just after dusk, the sun’s heat still having an impact on their travel. “Surely they’ll let us stay there for a bit.”

“And tell the Queen what?” Jerrard scoffed. “Tell her that we’ve been surprised by sand bandits every day and we’re tired of travelling? She doesn’t care. She just wants to have her damn parties and perhaps hold the country for another year before she relents to that snake, Strachan.”

“Don’t say th-” Robert began, but was interrupted by Jonty.

“He’s right. She doesn’t care about us. I don’t even know why we’re still fighting.”

“Why we’re still fighting?!” He was outraged. They’d been at this for almost a year and a half and they were questioning it now?

“We’re fighting for our future. This life has been shit and all, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Before you all were born life was good. Women were people, there was food every day and pregnancy wasn't such a risk. Now look at us. If Strachan takes over we’re fucked. Our lives won’t get better, they’ll get worse.”

He was almost puffed from his outburst, all the anger at the court he had been holding inside flooding out in a torrent of rage, “I know you’re all pissed off, and so am I, but if the court can’t help us, we have to help ourselves. Now shut up, all of you. We might be able to make this ‘town’ or whatever it is by daybreak if you all stopped your yammering.”

And surely enough, they did. Just.
The sun was just coming over the ridge when they reached a wall of shade cloth, absolute in its height and structure. There was one entrance that was just high enough so they could ride down it comfortably with their horses and it led down a further tunnel of shade cloth.
“This is… weird.” Jonty commented, looking perplexed.

“Yeah… I guess it’s a good thing, though? Out of the sun.” He said and urging Alcippe towards the entrance. She balked at it for a moment, but with some words of encouragement he was able to calm her and they rode into the tunnel.

“Robert, this could be a trap.” Valentine said, sounding worried.

“And that is the exact reason why I’m at the front of our group. If anything goes wrong, get out of here. I doubt that the Swyness troops would have bothered to put an outpost out here, so far away from their country.”

“Your self-preservation skills are outstanding.” Jonty said, dryly as he urged his horse down the tunnel behind him.

“You know it.”

--

The end of the tunnel widened out into a large building, shadowy and cool. It looked to be in better condition than any building that Robert had ever scene, minus the palace, of course.

“What is this place?” Frank said, his voice echoing around the large room.

“What indeed.” Someone, someone female(!) emerged from the darkness. “We weren’t expecting you boys until at least tomorrow, but I’m sure we can accommodate you.” She was wearing less clothes than Robert had ever seen since the end of the world had happened.
The wars had ruined the atmosphere, making the sun deadly, so they had to wear layers of clothes whenever they ventured out during the day and people just generally kept them on at night as well. This woman (well she was hardly that) was wearing very short shorts and a short sleeved blouse, leaving a lot of her insanely pale skin exposed.

"What is this place?" Robert found his voice for the first time and echoed Frank's sentiments.

"You mean that you actually came all this way and you didn't know what for?" The woman laughed, a high, almost scary sound,"well I'm sure we can make it worth your while. For a price, of course."

He laughed awkwardly. Had they honestly been sent out to -

“A brothel?” Jonty breathed, “Holy shit!”

Good job Jonty. Very perceptive, he thought. “Do you mind if we come in?” He said, awkwardly, “It’s almost dawn and I believe there may have been a little misunderstanding.”

“Oh of course!” The woman looked almost delighted at the thought.

Great. He would have trouble restraining the boys, but it’d be too late to try and head back to some place of cover before daybreak.
Valentine practically threw himself off his horse and Jerrard followed suit. Frank and Francis, the two youngest looked somewhat perplexed, but they climbed off their horses as well and followed the woman who was heading down a corridor.

“Hey - just leave me here with all the work, why don’t you!” Robert yelled after them.

“Boss, can I go?” Jonty asked, looking very excited.

He fought the urge to roll his eyes. It wasn’t very manly. “Yeah… Go on. Just don’t touch anythin-anyone. Okay?”

And Jonty rushed off as well.

 

You’d think that they missed women or something… Robert mused as he tied the horses up to very convenient poles attached to the walls of the room. He wasn’t nearly as motivated as his squad was, something about six years in a male-dominated camp probably had something do with it, but it would be an interesting experience. It wasn’t that he didn’t find women attractive and such, he just didn’t care as much as he could. The overarching threat of death and disease pretty much put that aside for him.
Wandering down the tunnel he was confronted by another woman, this one wearing bright blue, a colour he hadn’t seen for several years. She was very pretty, with long, dusty blonde hair and high cheekbones.

"Need some help?" She asked, in an entirely non-sexual manner. It was somewhat of a relief to Robert.

"No, I'm just trying to find my men?"

“Oh yes.” Her voice dropped in a manner that suggested to Robert that his men were off doing sordid, dastardly deeds with the nearest wench available. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get them back by the end of the day. And there was also the matter of payment…

“Ah… About the payment thing?” He said, awkwardly. He wasn’t exactly used to doing that. He hadn’t seen a woman for three years for pity’s sake.

“It’s all covered.” She smiled at him, “Duncan thought you all needed some time off.”

“Duncan -” He cut himself off. The cheek of that man! He had sent them all the way down here under a pretence so his men could get time off. He supposed they had earned it… but it seemed a little bit too nice for the other man. He suspected they may be encountering some danger when they got back.

“Speaking of time off, I’ve got a woman waiting for you just around the corner.” She said.

“Uh.. I don’t even know you.” Robert was getting a little bit panicky. It was just a little bit unsettling. He felt like he was walking into an ambush.

“Oh yes. I’m Esther. I run things around here.”

“You?” Robert couldn’t help but point it out. “You’re pretty young.”

“Yeah well I was younger when I was brought here, wasn’t I? I was younger when I was told I couldn’t have a sprog so I was no use to the kingdom. Age is no guarantee of anything in this world.” Esther said, completely no nonsense.

“...I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Not your fault. I don’t care much for children anyway. Now. Wouldn’t you like some time off?”

“I… uh…” He couldn’t really phrase what he was thinking without sounding incredibly rude. He just wasn’t up for it.

Esther smirked, “Oh… are you a bit of a fruit then?” She was challenging him - he could feel it, but he wasn’t going to back down.

He could feel his face getting hot and his pulse starting to race. Although she was clearly unaware, she wasn’t going to find out how close to the truth she actually was. “No!” He snapped at her, without entirely meaning to. “It’s just that I want to stay clean, alright? There’s enough crap around already without us adding to it.”

“Fine, fine.” She held her hands up, almost in defense. “It’s fine. I don’t blame you, okay? It’ll give our girls a bit of a night off anyway.”

“Good.”

“I’ll take you through to one of the lounge rooms. It’ll give you a chance to rest up - it’s a long journey from your encampment.”

“You’re telling me.”

--

Robert didn’t see much of his men for the next few hours - aside from a point where Valentine rushed through the communal lounge followed by another woman carrying a whip - an image he was desperately trying to block from his memory.
He had almost dozed off when he felt someone settling on the somewhat-comfortable seat next to him. He opened his eyes. It was Esther.

“I really don't get you.” She said, noticing that he was awake.

“Shouldn’t you be working?” He groaned blearily, brain only half awake.

“I’m going to leave that to your imagination.” She raised her eyebrows at him, “I really don’t get you.”

“That’s good considering I only told you my name about four hours ago and I’ve never seen you before today.” He really wasn’t the most tactful when he was tired.

“How do you deal with that lot?”

He didn’t really want to know how she knew about that lot or how obstreperous they were. “It’s my brilliant people skills and ability to save them from certain death.”

“Yeah, about that. Just wondering, would you be looking for someone to come with you and save you from certain death? I’m pretty handy with a sword.”

Robert looked at her. Really looked at her to the point where most would have gotten uncomfortable. Not Esther though, she stared right back at him. “I met you about five hours ago and you’re inviting yourself along with my group. Tell me why you should be allowed to come with my group.”

“I can fight. Can cook too, and I’m probably used to cooking with less food than you.”

“How do you mean?”

“You do know that soldiers get a massive food ration compared to what everyone else gets, right?”

Robert didn’t, in fact, know that. He filed the information away for later thought. “Fine. Can you do anything else?”

“I’m a medic.”

“And how do you know how to do that?”

“I’ve had to patch the girls up when the men have gotten too rough. It’s standard.” Esther said, bitterly.

“You mean -” He was cut off by Esther speaking loudly.

“Yes. Assault is a thing that happens, Robert.”

“But not here. That only happens in Swynness!”

Esther drew away from him. She looked disgusted. “Do you really believe that? My god, I thought you were smarter than that.”
“What do you mean?”

“That’s absolute bullshit. Soldiers are all the same. You come into town and take what you want and leave behind a trail of destruction.”

Robert felt that he had to offer some sort of defense. “That’s not true! I wouldn’t.”

“Yeah, maybe you wouldn’t, but can you honestly say the same of your men?”

He thought about it. He didn’t actually know them all that well, but he had been trained to treat civilians well and he hoped he had impressed that on the recruits. Dodging the question, he changed the subject. “Fine. If we’re all so barbaric, why do you want to come with us then?”

She answered immediately. “Because I can help. Because I want to help. Because I’m a woman I immediately get cast aside and I fucking hate that. I know what it’s like out there and I hate it. Let me come with you and I won’t be a hindrance.”

He made up his mind. They didn’t have a medic and if she was a good fighter she’d be useful. “Better not be. If you slow us down we will leave you behind.”

“Fine. Perhaps I can become your conscious.”

---

The rest of his squad - once they finally resurfaced - were both happy and disgruntled about this new occurrence. Valentine was the first to come up to him to question his conclusion.

“Boss, she’s a chick.”

“I’m quite aware of that.” Robert hadn’t ended up getting much sleep and was tired and grouchy.

“But she’ll slow us down.” Valentine said, echoing the thoughts that Robert had had earlier.

“Do you know that? No. If she works out, she can stay with us. She says she can cook and that’s one thing better than you lot that she has already.”

“She'll get us killed.” Valentine said, looking petulant.

"She's probably a better fighter than you." Robert didn't know why he was defending Esther, he hardly knew the girl. He liked her no-nonsense attitude and how she didn't skim over anything. And perhaps she was right. Perhaps he did need to focus on the bigger picture.

Jonty came up to him as he was saddling Alcippe and getting ready to leave. The rest of the team were off ‘saying their goodbyes’ to the other occupants of the brothel and Esther was leading a sandy mustang out into the main area of the ‘stables’.
The youth looked more than a little dishevelled with a string of love bites running down the side of his neck. He winced as he pulled his neck covering up over them. "She's coming with us?"

"Yes, which you would have known had you listened when I was talking."

"Shuddup." Jonty whined, "I was preoccupied."

"Yeah, by your dick. She's coming with us. Don't harass her, don't hit on her and don't be an arse. Okay?" Robert asked.

"She's a whore though! She likes it!" Jonty said, looked almost confused.

"Tell you what." He indicated to Esther, who was saddling her horse. "Go over there and say what you want to say to her. We'll see how that goes."

Jonty, looking smug, as though he had won some sort of competition, headed over to Esther. Robert heard some muffled conversation and then a loud, resounding slap. Alcippe huffed and he patted her on the neck while he tried not to burst out into laughter.

Jonty came back, looking wounded and holding his cheek which was turning a violent shade of red.

"I'm guessing that went well?" Robert snorted, burying his face in Alcippe's side to muffle his laughter.

"Why'd you tell me to do that, Robert?"

"I think you know exactly why. Don't be an arsehole to Esther, okay?"

Jonty huffed. "Yes Sir." Then he stuck his tongue out at Robert and went to saddle up his horse.

Chapter Text

"Hey Esther? What is this?" Frank rubbed his stomach contently. They were all relaxing around the fire after a long day on the road to an outer settlement.

"It's cat." Esther's voice was muffled as she finished her dinner, "I think. The origins of this meat were a little bit questionable."

"Oh." Frank's voice dropped with the realisation. "Oh well. Still good."

Jerrard agreed with a muffled sound as he continued to stuff his face.
Robert smirked. The kid - well, he wasn't really that any more was right. The food had been good. Esther had been a worthwhile investment with her cooking skills and her ability to get the boys in line. She'd even saved Jerrard's life when they had been surprised by a bunch of raiders several days ago.

"Robert!" Jonty came running up from where he should have been on watch.

"Get back to your position, Jonty." Robert said. "I don't care how pressing the issue is."

"No, but sir! I saw something!"

"What - where?" He sat up, all warm glow and comfortable feelings gone.

"Out to the eastern side. Where Francis and Valentine are scouting."

"Raiders?"

"I don't know. Lights."

"Fucking hell." He clambered to his feet and grabbed his sword. Anyone knew that lights at night were a no-no. They were sheltered by rocks so the light of their fire wouldn't travel but those who showed lights knew that they had the power to fight off anyone as the light would draw anyone in.
"Jerrard, stay with Esther and extinguish the fire. Jonty, Frank, with me. They could be bandits and we need as much help as we can get." Robert ordered.
They were plunged into somewhat darkness as Jerrard and Esther threw sand over the fire. People probably wouldn’t see it, but it was always best to be careful. “The signal is the usual, okay? Stay safe. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

They rushed off across the desert - Robert leading and Jonty and Frank following close behind, swords drawn. He felt anxious. These night scouts were never safe, but they’d been lucky so far. They were nearing the lights - about four hundred metres or so off when they stumbled - literally stumbled - across Valentine who was crouched over a body on the ground.

Frank dropped to his knees when he realised who it was. “Francis!”

“I’m sorry.” Valentine said, his voice low, “I found him like this.. and I… I tried.”

He stepped back to reveal Francis on the ground, blood pumping out of a wound on his neck that was barely covered with torn-off material, staining the sand around him.

“Oh god. Francis.” Robert knelt down next to the boy, his gut twisting uncomfortably. There would be no recovery from this one. They were too far out and had no proper medic.

“He’ll be okay, won’t he? Robert - tell me he’ll be okay!” Frank cried, his hands clasped over the wound in his brother’s neck.
He could feel the physical weight of the boy’s sorrow pressing on his shoulders as he clasped one of Francis’ hands in his own. His skin was clammy and he was still breathing but not for long.

“I’m sorry, Frank.” He said in a voice hoarse with his own guilt.

Francis stirred under the motion of Frank’s hands on his neck. His eyes opened slowly and he looked up at them, gaze unfocused. “B-b-brother?”

“See, he’s fine!” Frank gasped, sounding more and more like he was trying to convince himself. “He’s fine.”

“So.. sorry…” Francis wheezed, “I.. was surprised.”

“You don’t need to talk.” Robert said urgently, “Please. Save your strength.”

“It’s...okay. Knew it...was...coming.” He coughed and blood spilled out from between his lips.

“France, you can’t leave me here alone!” Frank sniffled, pressing his forehead to his brother’s.

“S..sorry..sorry -”

“Don’t say sorry!

“S..s..stay safe, Frankie. For me...” Francis’ words trailed off into a whine as he struggled to take a breath.

Robert turned away. He’d seen enough members of his teams die already.
He heard some muffled wheezing and Frank talking.
When he turned back, Francis was gone.

Frank had his hands fisted in his hair and was sobbing.
Robert felt detached from the world. This had happened so fast. He thought this day would end up being a gentle trip back the encampment but now this… He had sworn he wouldn’t lose any more men…
He stood up. “Valentine. What happened?”

“We got separated. Found him like this. Sorry.” The man was quiet, staring down at the ground. “Think it was them.” He jerked his head towards the lights in the distance.

“Bandits. The fucking bandits.” Frank stood up slowly, his face covered with blood. He picked up his sword. “Oh…”

A spear of abject realisation went through Robert. He knew what Frank was going to do. “Jonty! Grab him.” He hissed.

Frank made to take off towards the lights, sword drawn, but Jonty caught his arms and pulled him back. The boy was sobbing, pulling and scratching like a wildcat at Jonty.
“Frank, don’t do this. Please.” Robert’s heart was pounding in his ears. He’d lost one person today and if Frank went tearing off into a group of bandits, passionate and unfocused, he’d get slaughtered for sure. “It’s not worth it. Please.”

“I - think it’s worth it - “ Frank said, struggling against Jonty’s and now Valentine’s - who had moved into help - grip.

“Your brother wouldn’t have wanted you to go tearing off like this.” Jonty said from behind Frank.

“He would have!”

“Look Frank, you know this is true. If you go running off, none of us are going to follow you. We’ll head right in the other direction. We can’t run off into an ambush and lose seven people today.” Robert said, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “If they see you they’ll come for us as well.”

“I… d-don’t.. care.” He choked out mid-sob. “F-f-francis would want me to.”

“He wouldn’t!” Robert pleaded with the boy. “Don’t do this.”

“He would!” And with an almighty shove fueled by some sort of manic-aggression, Frank threw off the arms holding him and charged off through the desert towards the lights.
Robert felt his heart thud deep in his ears. Valentine and Jonty both looked at him. He slowly shook his head and took off back towards they had left Jerrard and Esther. It wasn’t worth it. He was desperate, but not that desperate. Charging off into a situation where he had no clue to how many enemies there were was dumb. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t.

Justifying it to himself didn’t stop him feeling guilty.
He couldn’t not feel the rush of pain and guilt that hit him as he heard - clearly across the wide expanse of the desert - a gruff male voice yelling, “LOOK BOYS! WE'VE GOT ANOTHER ONE!” and a horrible series of screams.

The guilt didn’t stop. It didn’t stop on their breakneck ride across the desert back to relative safety. It didn’t stop when he’d washed the blood off his hands. It didn’t stop when they were in their bunks back at the encampment after a long and drawn out debriefing that none of them could stomach. It. Just. Didn’t. Stop.

Three days later Duncan assigned a new recruit to his team. Gavin was blonde and resembled the deceased twins in more ways than one.
Robert cried in his bunk that night.

Chapter Text

He didn't want to do this. It wasn't any sort of anxiety or compulsion that made him hate travelling so - it was literally that it was such a journey from his palace in Swynness to the palace at the sea in Prybourne. It had to be done though, for peace to be achieved, sacrifice had to be made. Besides, it would be worthy sport to see Isabella again. She did provide a challenge.

"Strachan!" One of his new captains, Luke, emerged from the convoy and approached his horse.

"What have I told you about using my name?"

"Sorry... sir." The boy blushed, "I have been sent to tell you that we are ten minutes ride from the castle."

"Good." He waved the boy off.

He turned to one of the men walking next to his horse. "John, take that child away and slit his throat. No man should ever use my name."

"Yes sir."

He was escorted into Isabella's castle in a surprisingly gracious manner. He expected a sword drawn welcome, but instead he got a bow and a "Welcome Ambassador Strachan," from a petite woman dressed in red. Good, just the way he liked them.

He was led towards the Queen's quarters by another woman in red. As they approached he heard two women, one of them being the Queen he knew and loved, arguing.

"Oh, so what, are you scared of him?"

"I am not scared!" The Queen yelled back.

"Then why-"

Then he was there, pushing the door open with his cane and effectively ending their conversation.
The Queen was there, all fiery passion and a head full of curls. Standing next to her, dressed in the same purple palace colours was someone who resembled Isabella, at least in the eyes and the hair colour. Of course... he'd heard rumours of Isabella having a daughter but last time he'd come he hadn't seen anything of her.

"Ambassador." Isabella said, dryly, clearly not that pleased to see him.

"Isabella." He limped forward, bent as low as he was able and kissed her hand, "I take it this must be your daughter. You two certainly share some common traits..."

He trailed off but let his gaze wander between the two of them. He' d had Isabella before, but he was certain this new conquest would spice things up.

"Why are you here?" The daughter interrupted his perverse thoughts before he could go much further.

"Caroline!" How sweet. Isabella was trying to show him that she had at least some control over her child.

“Oh sorry mother, it’s just that this man that you don’t like has swanned up to our castle for an unknown reason and is looking at me like a bandit. I must go. I have matters to attend to.” And then Caroline stormed off out of the doors that he had just come through, glaring at him like he’d murdered her boyfriend.

“Why are you here, Strachan?” Isabella said, after a moment of careful consideration.

“Peace.” He simply said, “Amongst other things.” He dropped his voice, but anyone would be clear on what other things were at that point.

She laughed, but there was bitterness in it. Wandering over to the ornate dresser that seemed to cover a hole in the castle wall she said, “Drink? Then we can discuss business and how you’re lying through your teeth to me.” She opened a cupboard below it and brought out a bottle of wine and two goblets.

“Of course. But I don’t see how I’m lying. I wish to negotiate a peace treaty.” Of course, said peace treaty was a cover to help his troops infiltrate the country in a safer way, but she didn’t need to know that.

“Our countries have been at war for three years, Strachan. Don’t offend my sensibilities. What are you really here for?”

“I do like it when you say my name.” He purred, trying to keep his libido somewhat in check. They did have to talk business first. “A war isn’t fought on only one side. I’ve had losses too.”

Isabella shoved a goblet of dark red wine at him. It splashed across the front of his shirt. “May I remind you that it was you that started this conflict?”

He took a sip. It was decent enough, and certainly better than the absolute shit they had been feeding him on his trek down south. “Where did you get this? It’s surprisingly not awful. May I remind you that it was you that invaded us first? It wasn’t retaliation, it was self-defense.”

“It’s pre-apocalypse. None of that moonshine shit for royalty.” She raised her eyebrows at him and drank a large portion of her wine in one mouthful. “I gather that retaliation line is what you tell all of the girls.”

“Only for you, your majes-Isabella.” He leaned in closer to her, “I swear, on my life, that I am only here to make things right. A treaty. That’s all I ask.”

She seemed to consider his proposal for a minute or two, “And what do I get out of all of this?”

Oh now this he could work with. “Your country has peace. It’s not in pieces. Isn’t that enough? Oh… Unless there’s something else you want. The apathetic queen, jilted at the altar. No-one wants to come near you, do they?”

“Stop it.” She was trying to change the subject. He could feel it.

“Oh I’ve hit a nerve, have I? The powerful ruler of the country who refuses to give over to a much superior force. Your power scares everyone Isabella. Together we can make a treaty that'll give us both what we want. To be seen as someone who'll win the war and save your country - don't you want that?”

“Get out of my head.” As was her way, she didn’t back down, but he could feel her getting pissed off at him.

“I’m only saying what you want to hear - it’s the truth.” He stepped back, leaving her a way out.

She didn’t move. “The truth in my eyes or yours?”

Okay, so now it was time to actually try. He wasn’t getting the response he wanted and talking was so tiresome when there were better things to be had. “Both. Give me a chance, Isabella.”

“Give you a chance? Three years, Strachan, three years of conflict!”

Honestly. You’d think she didn’t want peace. “It’s my final offer, Isabella. I would like this to end nicely, but then again… I could just let my troops pour down here and take the palace and everyone within it. How would you like Caroline and yourself to live out the rest of your lives in my cells because that can easily be arranged.”

She stared at him in such a way that made him think that she was planning his untimely death. “Fine. We’ll discuss it.”

"Good."

"Now will you go? I have matters to attend to. I'm sure someone will find you some lodgings." She said, already dismissing him.
"I also have matters to attend to. They're right here."

His expression was clear. It had been a couple of years and he wasn’t going to miss out on her again. Despite the travel, he did enjoy these visits.
“Not again, Strachan. We’re not starting this again.” She was staring at him, defiantly, getting right in his face. “We’re negotiating a peace treaty. It’s not a fucking game.”

“On the contrary, I think it is.” He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “We’re very similar people, Isabella.”

“I am nothing like you.” She spat.

“We’re both leaders of our countries, powerful but alone. I think we’re quite similar Isabella. Now come here before I’m forced to do something drastic.”

“You’re a fucking bastard.”

“You know you like it.”

Chapter Text

It had been a month since he had arrived and a majority of his time was spent on enjoying the hospitality of the palace women and not really doing much peace treaty construction. They really did make women better down in Prybourne.

One day Isabella stormed in in the midst of one of his sessions, startling both him and the woman underneath him. She squealed and dug her nails into his back.
“Do you mind?” He said mildly, “I am a little busy here.”

“Get dressed and come with me.” Isabella said, purposefully not averting her eyes from the scene in front of her.

“Why?”

“You. Get dressed. Come. Now.” She spelled out the words very plainly, glaring right at him.

“Oh I do like it it when you dominate.”

“Hurry up you fucking horndog.” She shoved his shoulder, nearly causing him to lose his balance, and no-one would have wanted that.

He would have raised his hands in defense, but they were a little bit busy. “Fine. Give me five fucking minutes would you?”

--

Still shrugging on his jacket, Isabella dragged him along a corridor towards Caroline’s rooms.
“Oh where could we possibly be going?” He mocked her as she walked.

“Shut up.”

“CAROLINE!” She yelled as she pulled him through the curtain that divided Caroline’s rooms from the hallway.
Caroline and her positively insufferable boyfriend, Henry, were huddled together by her bed. He was reciting something that sounded awfully romantic to her.

“Henry, get out of here.” Isabella ordered.
The boy looked terrified and moved to go, but Caroline grabbed him and pulled him to her side. “No. Henry, stay.”
“Shouldn’t you be studying?” Isabella said.
“Oh yes. Studying. Unfortunately, I had an audience.” Caroline smirked and winked at Henry, who smiled slightly back at her.
“Henry, get out!” Isabella said in a voice that would have scared the most fearsome warrior.
The boy climbed out from under Caroline’s arm and ran out of the room, with a slightly terrified glance at Isabella’s fearsome expression.

“Mother!” Caroline complained, “I was enjoying myself.”

“You. Should. Be. Studying.”

Strachan began to wish that he was still back in his quarters. It wouldn't be hard to snag a serving wench along the way. He backed towards the door and -
“Don’t wander off, Strachan.” Isabella said, with her back still turned to him, “You need to stay.”

Oh fine. He would indulge her, just this once. Perhaps she’d be in a better mood later.

“Oh yes, spending hours pouring over my books so one day we can win this ridiculous little war.” Caroline vehemently rolled her eyes. “Mother, it’s getting old.”

"Ridiculous indeed. So much blood spilled between our two countries."
He joined the conversation. He didn't really want to get in the midst of the two arguing women, but it was ridiculous.

Caroline stood and glared right at him. Her gaze was so similar to her mother's, it was insane. "You've been here for weeks now, playing with your precious treaty. Just sign the damn thing and get out of here."

"Caroline." Isabella warned. "Oh don't you start." Caroline hissed, "He has! And all you're doing is sleeping with him! You don't give me a damn about this country or the war."

Oh he wanted to leave. "Alas, it's a bloody nose, whichever way you turn." He muttered and tried incredibly hard not to interrupt their argument.

"You really should drop that fling of yours, Caroline." Isabella said.

“He’s not a fling.”

“He is a fling. You are set to marry Prince Christian, to unite our countries and stop the war.”

“I will not.” Caroline said, her gaze set right on her mother.

"Oh, just GET OUT!" Isabella yelled, her patience clearly gone.

"Fine. I'm going to find Henry. He understands!" Caroline stormed out of the room.

Isabella looked like she was going to go into a massive rant, so he walked over to Caroline's bed and brushed the dust off it that had fallen from the rickety ceiling above. "Damn that girl! Why does she test me like this?"

He sat on the bed and raised his eyebrows at her. 'Because she's her mother's daughter."

She looked like she was about to punch him, "Was that a compliment? Your eyes and tongue are so seldom in agreement that it is very difficult to tell.”

On the contrary, his eyes and tongue were often in agreement, just not in this sort of business.

“Perhaps we should forget the wedding. It is a rather outdated ritual after all.”

The wedding? Oh yes, somewhere through the haze of booze and sex that he called his mind he could remember her mentioning it. She had said something about Caroline… marrying a fellow called Christian from his country. It was to be a partnership. Right…

He cleared his throat, “Not for royal families. It’s the cornerstone of this treaty.” Just to spite her he added in, “You of all people should know that.”

She bit back immediate, “Don’t patronise me, Strachan.”

Oh he did like it when she got feisty.

“Perhaps we should forget the so-called treaty. Screw it up and settle it once and for all on the battlefield.”

He could laugh at how ridiculous that one remark was. Isabella, normally known for her intellect was being insane. She must be desperate. He stood up and walked towards her, using his sheer presence to back her up against one of the roughly-hewn walls of the room. He brushed the back of his hand along her cheek. “Your army has dwindling numbers and no faith in itself any long. We both know it.” He raised his eyebrows again, “Maybe you should enlist the help of the Virgin!” He laughed. The Virgin was a popular tale that the citizens of Prybourne told each other to keep their morale up. Unfortunately for them, it was completely false. It was a legend, nothing more.

She mimicked his eyebrow raising, shoving his hand away. “So you’ve heard the tale. The legend of the Warrior Virgin.” She pushed him away with an expression that suggested that his very presence was tiring to her.

“Warrior Virgin? A young girl can be neither. The very thought is seditious.” He stepped right up into her space again.

“Legend says that a young girl was come from a lowly village and lead my army to victory.” She pushed past him and walked over to the other side of the room.

He scoffed. “It’s village prattle. Folk nonsense. And illegal.”

Virginity was a crime in Prybourne due to the low birth rate. It wasn’t so in Swynness, but it was something that he was keen on enforcing whenever he was in the area and saw a virgin girl that he took a fancy to.
“Scoff all you like Strachan, but just ten days ago a village girl won the legal right to remain virgin.” She smirked at his, predictably slightly shocked, expression.

“There’s no such right.”

“It’s an obscure community law. She has defied both her father and her intended partner by going to court.”

He tried desperately to remedy the situation. He’d come so far with Isabella and he didn’t want to lose the lead he had. “Oh surely, just a girl exploited by others for their gain.”

“She’s fifteen!” Isabella shut him off. “She defied her father and her partner and won her case. Impressive, don’t you think?”
He was actually at a loss for words and had to pause for a moment to collect his thoughts. “So… so you believe that this girl could be your legendary warrior?” It wasn’t the best response, but he could still learn something from her.

She smirked at him, a wicked smile that didn’t reach the coldness in her eyes. “I only believe in death and disappointment, Strachan. You disappoint me.”

She was in for it. He’d heard numerous rumours about her all the way from the north of Prybourne to the palace and it was time for him to use them to his advantage. “Has no-one told you the other half of the story?” He stood up straighter and walked towards her. “About the aging Queen who has outstayed her welcome and destroyed her country… It might be unwise to believe everything you hear, your majesty.”

He bowed mockingly.

Her smile had disappeared.

“Oh, aren’t they delightful, these modern young women, so assertive, so strong… Of course, there’s one scenario in which Caroline would agree to the marriage I suppose we both want…” He trailed off. The unspoken question hung in the air between them, tension so thick it could be cut with a knife.
“Your abdication, Isabella.” He pecked her on the cheek, conveying all of his hate and passion towards her in one movement, and strutted out of the room.

He had business to attend to.

Chapter Text

The year hadn't been kind to Robert or his squad. He’d lost Jerrard and Valentine to a group of raiders six months before and now he was down to Jonty, Gavin, Esther and two other boys who were younger than any he’d had on his team before. They were getting desperate and he and his team were sent on recruitment drives almost every week.
Strachan had been negotiating a peace treaty at the palace for over five months, and no-one really knew if said treaty would ever come about. It had taken too long and in this case, no news was bad news.

The desert was hotter than before, the winds more powerful, the bandits stronger. It may just have been his imagination, but things seemed to be getting worse, not better. They’d doubled the war effort, but it just seemed like there were more from Swynness and less from Prybourne. They had nothing left to give.

His squad were milling around the camp one day, waiting to be given something to do.

“Ever heard of the Virgin story, boss?” Jonty asked him.

He looked at him. “Everyone’s heard of the Virgin story.”

“Virgin?” Esther came over to them. “What’s that?”

“I thought everyone would know about it…” He trailed off, “Storytime, I guess, then.”

They all sat down on a rough grassy knoll.
“Alright, I’m shit at telling stories, but I’ll try or whatever.” Robert began, “You know how everyone tries to enforce that virginity is a crime and we must have children to survive sort of thing? Even to the length where they force people into it?”

Esther nodded, looking grim, “It’s an awful rule.”

“Yeah, well, legend has it that one day, a Virgin will come along and refuse to do all of that. She will fight against authority and become someone special. She’ll save us all from Swynness.”

“How?” Gavin asked, wide-eyed.

“Rumour has it that she is being guided by voices that help her find her way.”

“Really?” Jonty seemed curious. “How? That seems.. strange.”

“Oh don’t ask me. I have no clue. It’s just a story. I’m sure someone else around here would know though.”

--

Duncan sent his scattered team off to Keonaidas to hassle them, yet again, for more men to send up to the pass.

“Why are we doing this again?” Gavin whined as they went to saddle up their horses.

“I don’t know.” Robert sighed. It was getting more and more hopeless and he couldn’t see the point of fighting any more. Perhaps if they let the Swynness troops take over - but no! Strachan was a powerful, powerful man and for all he knew their lives would get worse if Swynness took over. There was too much at stake.
He was so tired…
“I’m sure we’ll get some new people this time, boss.” Jonty said as he strapped his sword to his back. Over the last year, Jonty had filled out and grown both physically and mentally. He’d become a really decent recruit and Robert was almost eternally grateful to have him around.

“I’d like to think so.”

The ride to Keonaidas took five days. They’d just arrived back from their rotation at the pass a day before their deployment to Keonaidas, so needless to say, they were all pretty exhausted.
Keonaidas was one of the towns to the east of their encampment. It was fairly close to the ocean, and had more grass and trees that Robert had ever seen anywhere else in the country bar the grounds of the palace, but it was also in a shoddy state. The majority of the buildings had massive holes in them and everything was covered in a light shade-netting, to keep out the poisonous sun. It wasn't the nicest settlement and Gavin said so.

“Yeah, well, we have to get men from them, so don’t say that too loudly.” Robert hissed. They rode their horses through the main street of the town towards a slightly larger house at the edge of the village. This house was the home of the recruiter, Jackson, and his three children.
There were several villagers out in the street as they rode past, and from the looks they were getting, they must have thought they were bandits. Robert had never seen so much hatred towards his squad since they were last in Keonaidas.

They tied their horses up to trees by the river - it was more like a stream - and Robert beckoned to Jonty.

“You come in with me. In case I need back up.”

“Okay. What about them?” Jonty waved a hand towards the rest of the squad.

“You lot… just be on your guard and don’t piss anyone off. Okay?”

He got a chorus of somewhat-committed yeses as they strode off towards Jackson’s house. The others slumped down on the grass behind them.

 

“What are we going to do, boss?” Jonty said, “I don’t think we’re going to get many from here.”

“We just have to try, I guess.” He was getting to a point where he was just so tired. He didn’t care anymore. The war had gone on for so long.

He knocked on the door of Jackson’s house and almost splintered a piece of the wood off. Oops.
He heard some frantic shuffling and speaking from inside the house and within seconds the door was opened by a man. He had scruffy blonde hair and looked to be in his early thirties. Robert of course knew him. This was Jackson.

“Robert.” Jackson nodded to him, not in any particularly friendly way, but just as an acknowledgement that he was here. He beckoned them inside. “What’s the catchment like at the moment?”

“It’s not the best.” Robert said as Jackson led them through a scruffy hallway. “We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, farm boys mostly. I -” His words stuck in his throat as he and Jonty were led into a communal living area and he spotted two women - more like girls - standing stiffly in the corner of the room. One of them was alright to look at, she had dirty blonde hair and was wearing the red fertility dress so common in the outer settlements. The other had bright white blonde hair and was tall and lithe. She held his gaze in such a way that made Robert want to drop his eyes, but he couldn’t. He never took much notice of women before but she was beautiful… and then Robert remembered she was probably about eight years younger than him.

Jonty elbowed him hard in the ribs. He cleared his throat. “Sorry?”

“Do sit.” Jackson smiled, although there was no warmth in it.

Robert sat, feeling all the muscles in his butt and thighs twinge. Ah yes. Horse riding.

He indicated for Jonty to sit as well but Jonty shook his head vigorously. He fought the urge to laugh. “Forgive my offsider here if he chooses to stand. Five days in a saddle and standing becomes a luxury.”

Jonty glared at him.

He shrugged and directed his gaze back to the woman with the steely gaze. She stared back at him, almost uncomfortably so.

“Here’s the list.” Jackson said, handing him a short scrap of paper with six - seven! names on it. “I’m sorry, but it’s all we have left.”

“I understand.” Dragging his gaze away from the bleached blonde, he realised that they looked somewhat similar.

Hang on… Jackson did have twins. He’d heard about them… The one who adhered fully to the township’s rules… and the one who didn’t. Ah yes. “So this must be the famous twins?”

“My daughters. Joan and Cate.” Jackson said, stiffly.

“Yes…”

“Cate, go and fetch some wine. And find Peter, he’s on the list whether he likes it or not.” The twin with the darker hair left. Good. There was nothing to distract him now.

“There are some contracts I need to go to the palace.” Jackson broke the silence, “I will go and fetch them and you can take them next time you’re there.” He left. The room was quiet.

The wom-girl(!) was still staring at him.

“So which one are you? June?” He asked, his throat dry.

“Joan.” Even in that one word he could feel the power behind her presence.

“What are you -”

She interrupted what he was going to say, “What you’re doing won’t help.”

“What, we have an expert here, do we?” Robert looked at Jonty, who laughed. Really? A woman? With opinions? Sure, he’d come to expect them from Esther, but she was different.

“Fighting won’t help. We need to restore the land, not destroy it. We’re not going to get anywhere unless we turn this dust back into farms.”

He wasn’t sure what made him say it, but he said, “Well what lucky farmboy has this to deal with?”

Joan looked outraged, but didn’t have time to say anything as her sister came back in carrying a flagon of wine and some cups and dragging another boy along with her. She poured some wine for the two of them. and gave it to them in a sullen manner. Honestly, did no-one in this family ever seem to crack a smile?

Jackson brought a bunch of contracts in. “Ah yes, Robert, this is my son, Peter.”

“How old are you, boy?”

The boy looked at his feet, “Eleven.”

Then all hell broke loose.

A loud, piercing whine split Robert’s head in two. Through the complete and utter bafflement he was feeling he heard Jackson yelling, “Raiders! Cate, Joan, into the cellar!”

The door burst open, “Raiders! They’re here! They’re torching the village!” It was Gavin, sword drawn.

Robert climbed to his feet and drew his sword. “Jackson, keep inside!” He yelled over the bedlam that was taking place. He and Jonty rushed outside, following Gavin.

Thick grey smoke filled the air outside and made Robert cough madly. Visibility was so low and he could barely see three metres ahead of him. He could just see figures in the distance fighting madly with swords.

“Jonty, keep with me!” He called over the noise. “We’ll try and run them out of the town. Look for townspeople who can fight.”
Jonty called his assent and they waded into the battle.

It was a pointless fight at best. Robert didn’t know how many raiders he had dispatched but they kept on coming. He was covered in dust and blood and he had no clue to how much of it was his. His vision was hazy, his arms were tired and he was fucked, but they had to keep going. They had to go and report this development to Duncan. Never had a group of raiders attacked a settlement in the daytime, no matter how early in the day it might be.

He wandered through the grimy, smoky settlement, trying to find someone he recognised. Everyone was covered in the thick, black smoke and faces just didn’t seem to pop out to him.

He wandered into a three sided structure. There was two people sitting with their backs to him and one person wearing a soldier’s uniform, complete with face covering. He briefly wondered where they had gotten it, but then he decided that he didn’t really care.

“You, boy! Who are you?” He called, his throat hoarse with smoke and grim. He really hoped they weren't a raider because he wasn't sure that he had much energy left to deal with them.

“One to join you. From the list.” The boy in the uniform had a strange voice, but he didn’t take much notice. It was a relief to find someone who knew what was going on.

“Good. Do you have any weapons?”

“No.”

Blast. An extra sword would have been helpful. “Fine. Come with me and we’ll check these houses. Fix you up later. What a mess.”

He walked off, not caring if the boy followed him or not. After a few steps, the boy ran up and walked next to him. They didn’t talk, Robert too tired from the almost-pitched battle and the boy obviously not feeling up to conversation. He almost felt sorry for him. With a town this small and the death toll that had just happened, this boy had almost-certainly lost someone. Then again, everyone had lost someone in this world. It probably wouldn't be his first death.

He clicked his neck and stretched out his muscles. Soon he’d be back on his horse, leaving the dead loss that Keoniadas now was. He hated having to write off a town like this, but there was probably only twenty or so people left in a settlement that would have had at least a hundred fifty. Raiders were brutal, culling the herd and taking prisoners that they could enjoy later.

They checked the rest of the houses, finding very few survivors and scaring off a couple of bandits. The boy still continued not to speak, only remarking when Robert asked him direct questions and hardly even then.

Chapter Text

They were sent by Duncan to the palace. It was a long ride, especially off the back of days up at the pass and then the disaster at Keonaidas. He was exhausted both mentally and physically and just wanted a chance to rest.

That chance came three days into their journey, four days from the palace. They had to stop for the day at an old, crumbling church that marked their passage into unshaded land. If they travelled through there during the day their flesh would be melted from their bones. It wasn’t safe so they had to rest until night fall.

Robert was out in an overhang just outside the main area of the church where they had put their horses checking on them. They seemed fine from the long journey, aside from a little exhaustion, and he could smell Esther cooking something. Good. A meal would make the day perhaps a little better for him.

He climbed through the hole in the side of the church and walked down a passageway. Even from his position away from the group he could hear them bickering about something.
“I wanted chicken!” Gavin whined, sounding more and more like the child he still was.

“Alright, it’s chicken then.” Esther said.

Really? They were all exhausted and this was all they could talk about? He entered into the main room, “Just shut up and eat. Whatever it is, it could have cooked itself in hell twice over the time you’ve taken.”

Esther glared at him. “Yeah, but some things are worth taking a little time over. Like you’d know. Eat it for fuck’s sake.” She shoved a bowl at him, full of the chicken/animal/meat type thing.

“Take some time over? Like this bloody war?” Gavin had stopped stuffing his face and was making opinions. Really? Now was not the time. He really couldn’t be arsed giving another rousing speech to half-convince his troops that carrying on was the only option.

“We’ll finish it. I know we will. We’ll take the pass back and then we’ll be fine.” He said, tiredly, barely being able to spoon the meat(?) into his mouth.

“No way. The Queen won’t send enough men to make a different.” Jonty agreed with Gavin.

Robert lifted his head just enough to glare at the man. Honestly? It was not the time for this. They just needed to rest and then get back on the road.
Then, the new boy, the one that didn’t speak actually said something. “It’s got nothing to do with numbers.”

Oh, right, so the new kid knew what was happening? Great. That made one of them. “Is that right? Military expert, are we?”

“It’s about faith. No-one believes in themselves any more. They don’t think the Queen is behind them and they have no support. Isabella should abdicate.”

Robert laughed harshly. Faith? It had never been about faith. It was about pure, death-defying survival. “Going to tell her that, are you boy? March right up to the palace and tell her yourself?”

“It’s the royals. We could have had the pass years ago but the queen’s gutless.” Oh great, now even Esther was chiming it.

When had a rest stop last meant a rest stop?

“Yeah, she just ponces about in her palace by the sea.” Gavin adopted a posh accent and tossed his head. “Shall I send more troops? Possibly. Shall I negotiate? Possibly. Shall I have another party? Oh yes.”

“What about Caroline?” It was Jonty’s turn again apparently. Could Robert’s day get any worse? “Oh dearest mother, how goes this tiresome little war?”

“What war child? Oh, that war! I have no idea. Oh dearest daughter, how goes your tidings with your tiresome little Henry?” Gavin tossed his head maniacally.

“My Henry, mother, why he goes here, and he goes there, but mostly he goes to sleep.” Jonty raised his eyebrows at him.

“Yes, you’re all hilarious. Now, Jonty, you can go and keep watch if you have so much energy.” Robert waved him off.

“I’m eating.” Jonty pouted at him. Oh he was not going to let him get away with something like this again.

“Take it with you.”

Jonty glared at him and stomped off down the corridor, carrying his plate in one hand and his sword in the other.

“Caroline is the key to all of this.’ The strange boy piped up again.

“Oh, can we just eat?” The words came out a little harsher than he intended.

“She is!” The boy insisted, his food completely forgotten.

“Nah.” Esther interjected, labelling out a spoonful of food for herself. “She just parties. It’s the Queen’s fault. And that arsehole, Strachan.”

Gavin laughed, “Old brown nose. Licks more arses than a dog. He tries too hard.”

“What’s he doing at the court anyway? He’s from Swynness.” The boy asked.

“Supposedly he’s negotiating a peace treaty. Seems there’s a lot more than peace going on in the Queen’s rooms though if this time is any inclination. He’s been there for months!” Robert added about the only piece of information he knew.

It was no secret that Strachan and Isabella were carrying on together. Everything about that relationship scared him. Isabella was a powerful woman and Strachan an especially powerful man. He wondered how they got on together. He would hate to be in the middle of that 'partnership'.

“It doesn’t make any sense.” The still yet unnamed boy said after a slight pause, “Why negotiate when Swynness is winning? Soon they’ll take the pass and pour down here and take everything they want. He’s buying time. He must be the one who is stopping the Queen from sending a proper force.”

Although the kid had some good points, Robert didn’t want to acknowledge them. It wasn’t his place to question the Queen’s motives, however bad they may be.

“...Just.. shut up and eat.” Gavin muttered and went back to stuffing his face.

“Not hungry.” The boy who hadn’t spoken much said.

Really? Did he really have to get one of the ones that couldn’t handle themselves? “We’ve been riding all night. You eat.” He ordered.

Then in a mere second, before he could even blink, the boy had snatched up Robert’s sword from where it had been lying on the ground and took off into the darkness. What the hell? “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Bring it back!”

He did bring it back, but he wasn’t alone. He dragged a boy back in, slightly smaller than him. In the gloomy interior of the church, Robert couldn’t quite see who it was. The chokehold that the new recruit had the kid in was decent and he had Robert’s sword drawn. “So you can handle a sword.”

“He took him for a potato.” Gavin laughed.

“Well he took him while you sat stuffing your face. Go and check on Jonty. He may be hurt.”

Gavin walked out of the room, dragging his feet.

“You boy, finish it. One sweep, windpipe to artery.” The blood would spill over their living quarters for the night, but it would be better if the boy learnt how to kill when they weren’t on a battlefield.

The captured kid cried out. “No! Joan! It’s me, Peter!”

Joan? Peter? Oh fucking hell. The kid… oh.

The recruit dropped the kid to the ground. She pulled her hood off to reveal mussed-up bright blonde hair. “Sorry, Robert, but it’s my brother.”

He tried so hard not to be distracted by her face. He knew something was off about that recruit and now he knew why. Oh they didn’t need another woman on their squad! Especially someone who had lied blatantly to his face. “Marvellous! I’ve signed up a girl.”

“What is this, some sort of joke?” Esther, who had calmly been sitting there up until this point looked pissed off. “You’re from a rural township and you’re a girl! You don’t know how to fight.”

“Oh, so what, because I’m female it means I’m entirely useless? I can fight. I heard Peter coming when none of you did. If he was a raider, someone would be hurt by now - and it wouldn’t be me. You know how to fight, Esther.”

“It’s different!”

“How is it different?” Joan was looking at her, steeling herself for a fight.

“It’s not a game!” Peter cried, “We risked a lot to get here.”

We? Oh no. “We? There’s more of you?”

“Just Meg.” Peter said, sitting up.

Robert hadn’t heard of a Meg, but he guessed that she was someone the siblings knew. He briefly wondered where the Cate girl was, but it wasn’t the time to ask.

“Meg? You brought her along? She’s pregnant! She should be at home, resting.” Joan looked outraged, and the expression she held would have looked awful on anyone else but her.

Gavin dragged another woman in into the confines of the church. She certainly didn’t look pregnant. She had dark blonde hair, was quite short and was wearing the red fertility dress. “There’s no need now, Joan.” She muttered, almost under her breath, “I lost it. I lost my baby. And home? That’s all gone too.”

Oh. Oh this wasn’t good. Gavin let go of Meg and Esther ran over to help her to the ground. A miscarriage was bad at any point in life, but for someone as young as Meg?

Robert felt immediately guilty.

“I’m.. sorry.” Joan whispered, “I.. didn’t know. I ran off.. I..” She trailed off, looking despondent. The fire that had been in her eyes had gone, and was replaced by something else.

Robert hurt just looking at her. But… she was a woman, and they were on a mission. He didn’t need anything like this ruining his reputation or his standing. “We don’t need you here, Joan.”

The fire returned to her eyes almost immediately. She dragged him aside. “I can handle a sword. You’ve seen me.”

“You have to go home. Your father and sister need you.”

She smashed him across the face with her hand. “How dare you. My sister died in the raid and home is all gone. There is nothing left for me.”

His eyes were watering. That was one hell of a slap. “I should run you through.”

“I have your sword.”

“Yes. Give it back.” He roughly tugged it from her grasp. “Why do you want to come with us?”

“I need to get an audience with the Queen.”

“No-one but her soldiers talk to the Queen. Listens, perhaps. Why?”

“Not Isabella. Caroline. My voices tell me I must speak to her.”

Voices? Oh he had a headcase on his hands. As if his day could get any better. “Voices?”

“They come from God.” She looked insistently at him. “Please, Robert.”

“God isn’t real. Now, tonight, when it gets dark, you and Peter and your little girlfriend are heading back the way we came. You’re not going to the palace.” His word was final. He didn’t need three under trained, under-prepared people on his hands. It just wasn’t worth it.

“My voices are real. I’ll prove it to you.”

Oh, she would, would she? “Go on.”

“I won’t be needing your sword. I have one of my own. In this church somewhere.” She glared at him, defiant.

“Well, you can look for it tonight, when we leave. Then you can go home happy.”

Joan looked around at the assembled group, who had stopped talking and were watching them fight. Her gaze alighted on Esther. “Esther, could you please look behind that altar?”

Esther, looking a little irritated stood up and clambered over piles of rubble to the altar. She searched behind the altar for a moment, and then her gaze changed. “It’s a sword. Just like you said.”

What? It couldn’t be!

“Does it have five stars on the blade?” Joan asked, in a voice that suggested that the battle was already won.

Esther nodded, looking at Robert in shock. He shrugged. He didn’t understand any of this.

“My voices have never lied to me.” Joan’s voice was full of triumph as she collected the sword from Esther and showed it to Robert. Sure enough, there was five stars on the blade. Just his luck. He had gotten a psychic who actually was a psychic and not a liar trying to make some easy food. That had happened enough in his life already.

Peter jumped to his feet, grinning. “So, how far’s the palace?”

“Four days ride.” He dropped his head, resigned to the fact that they had two more people on the trip with them. He really hoped they had horses with them.

--

Later, while everyone was sleeping and him and Jonty were keeping watch, he had a chance to muse over the events of the day. He thought he’d recruited a boy, but she was a girl and he was following her damn wills to go to the palace. He hoped she wouldn’t cause trouble. The Queen wasn’t known for her leniency, and he really wasn’t keen to go back onto the front line as soon as they got back up north. She was a strict enforcer of the ‘men at war’ rule, and he wasn’t eager to be court-martialed for misconduct, despite how ridiculous said conduct was.

“Boss, are you okay?” Jonty asked, interrupting his self-deprecating train of thought.

“I’m fine, Jonty. Keep on watching.” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He was so tired. It was putting him and his fighting off, but he wasn’t going to tell anyone that. This new development was just at the end of a chain of insanity that had been his life since he had gotten the new team of recruits a mere two years ago.

“You don’t seem fine.”

“And you don’t seem to be the type who would appreciate small talk so we’re even.” He yawned. It was about noon, the sun high in the sky. He wanted to sleep.

“Try me.”

He glanced at Jonty, whose face was open and earnest. “You really don’t seem the type.”

“Oh but I am. Small talk can often make rendezvous better.”

“On second thoughts I don’t really want to know.”

“Oh come on, Robert. Try me.” Jonty almost pleaded, “If anything, it’ll help pass the time until Gavin and Esther’s time to watch.”

“Fine. Fine.” He would have held his hands up in defense, but he really didn’t have the energy. “Am I doing the right thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Letting Joan and her pack come along with us. She’s just going to cause more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Well I think you’ve answered your own question there.” Jonty smirked at him. “Do you have another reason for letting them come with us?”

He looked away. “No.”

“Oh come on, Robert, don’t lie to me. I’ve known you for two years and you’re shit at keeping things quiet. You into her?”

“If it’s that obvious…”

“Oh it is.” Jonty laughed, making Robert shush him and gesture wildly to the sleeping team. “Bit of a surprise really, didn’t think you were into that.”

“What?”

“Into women.” He gave him a serious look.

“Why does everyone think I’m a fru-”

“Look Robert, you were very not into it at the brothel and I thought -”

“I’m surprised you noticed considering how engaged you were.”

“We are not talking about me here.”

“Just.. don’t.” Robert turned away from him and stared out into the sand dunes and spiky trees around the church. He didn’t really want to get into this now. He didn’t understand what was going himself, and he really didn’t have enough mind space to make sense of anything he was thinking or feeling at the moment. He’d get to it later. When they’d won the war.

“Fine. Don’t talk to me. But I’m here, bro. If you.. yeah.”

They sat in what almost felt like a comfortable silence for a few minutes.

“Do you think she is the Virgin?” Jonty asked.

“What?” The thought had never occurred to him. “The Virgin? She’s.. what… sixteen?”

“So?”

He thought about it for a moment. She did have the voices… and she did have a desire to change things. But she was so young… “Oh don’t get your hopes up.” He said, snidely, still sore from the ‘fruit’ comment earlier.

“Fine.”

Chapter Text

They were mere minutes from the palace and Robert was very tense. He didn’t like being in the company of the royals any more than they presumably liked to be in the company of soldiers. Especially with that Strachan guy lurking about. It just rubbed him the wrong way.

He had gone to the palace a little earlier to see if Joan could see the Queen, and surprisingly, at least to him, she had been granted access. He guessed it was something about her visions and her virgin status that interested the Queen. It was the tests that they would do to her that really got him, though. He wasn’t at all squeamish, but it just didn’t seem right. Violating her like that just didn’t seem right. He didn’t want to tell Joan what they would do to her, hence his lurking about outside.

“Oi, Robert!” Gavin called from behind him. “What did the Queen say?”

“I’ll tell you soon - after I’ve told Joan. Stand here and keep watch.” Robert ordered, pushing past the boy and into the broken building the women were in.

He had been given some clothes at the palace that he had been told were for Joan - something about how the Queen didn’t like what the commoners wore or something. Personally, he thought she had better things to worry about.

He rushed around the corner to see a mostly-naked Joan being washed down by Esther and Meg. Oh gods above. “Sorry!” He stuttered. “Sorry Joan!” He turned his back, but couldn’t keep the image of the barely-clothed Joan out of his mind.

Oh this was a problem. A very big problem. He cleared his throat and held out the bag of clothes behind him for someone to grab. A second later they were taken from his grasp. “It’s today, by a miracle. You have an audience today.”

“Good.” Joan didn’t sound good, though. Her voice was shaky. “I hoped so.”

“What’s the matter? Are you sick?”

“No. Just scared out of her wits. I would be too, facing up to that bitch Isabella.” Esther commented.

“Cut it out, Esther.” So she was scared. Robert couldn’t blame her for that.

“You can turn around now, Robert.” Meg said quietly.

He turned. Joan was dressed in a flowing white dress which he knew wouldn’t stay white for long. Her hair was loose and she looked gorgeous. He cleared his throat again. “You’ve.. uh.. had a good.. scrub down?”

“Best we could manage.” Esther’s voice was harsh, like she knew exactly what he was thinking.

He didn’t want to think about it - about the planes and curves of her body and the - no he was not going to think about it.
“Ju..just as well. Isabella says she’ll only see you if you’re the Virgin you claim to be…. The women of the court will examine you.”

“That’s barbaric!” Esther exclaimed, looking horrified.

Yes, it was, but he had no control over that. The court decreed what the court decreed and he couldn’t fight them over it. It had been a lucky break that she had decided to see Joan at all.

“I.. I can’t.” Joan said quietly.

Despite that he felt bad for her, he knew he had to make it clear. “You have no choice.”

“You told them I was a virgin, right?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean anything. They’re not going to believe my word, despite my usefulness to the Queen. Don’t bail out on me now, Joan. They kept me waiting for two hours, and I made a fool of myself for you.” He indicated for Meg and Esther to leave. They went, but Esther glared at him in a way that suggested ‘don’t do anything stupid’ as she left.

He took a deep breath. “Of course you’re scared. They’ll keep you waiting. Watch out for Strachan. Do you know about him?”

“The women back home used to talk about him with a degree of caution.”

“Yeah, he’s probably the worst of the worst. Are you sure you want to go through with this?” He stared at her earnestly, willing her to back out, but also wanting her to stay committed. If she really was the Virgin, they could be on the edge of a life changing event.

“Of course.” Joan said, although her insecurity showed in her face, “I’ve got my sword. And my voices.”

“The Warrior Virgin!” He sighed, “Well.. good luck to you Joan!” He stepped forward and went to hug her. She didn’t step away from him and accepted the hug, although he could feel that she was tense and shaking. “You’ll be fine. I know it.” He said the words to calm her, but he didn’t really believe them.

Chapter Text

They had been welcomed into the palace, at least when they had Joan tagging along with them. As soon as she was whisked away by guards wielding impressive swords, they had been quickly shuffled away into a small anteroom off to the side of the main entry hall. Despite the protests they had made - he wanted to accompany Joan - they had been locked into the room.

There was a table spread with a wide assortment of food in the centre of the room and Jonty, Peter and Gavin, slowly followed by Esther, went to tuck in. Robert had no appetite. He had no clue to what they could be doing to Joan, but he knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t good. He didn’t want to eat the splendour laid out in front of them. He didn’t want to owe the palace anything, and also, out in the outer settlements there were people starving. It figured that the palace had extra food though.

Wasn’t that always the way?

“Boss, you hungry?” Jonty, his mouth stuffed with grapes, was holding out another bunch of grapes to him.

He waved them away. Even if he didn’t have the inhibitions stopping him from eating the palace’s food, he wouldn’t have eaten anyway. The queasiness in his stomach, probably stemming from the anxiety he had from being right in the enemy’s lair - if he could call it that - completely made him lose his appetite.

“You okay?” Jonty said, swallowing his handful of grapes and sitting down beside him.

Damn him! He didn’t need someone coming to try and clarify what he was thinking.
“Yeah.”
“You seem preoccupied.”

“Well, we’re in the palace! Of course I’m preoccupied!” He didn’t want to have to quantify himself. This situation was making him uncomfortable.

“Is it Joan?”

Robert glared at him. Of course it wasn’t Joan. Of course it wasn’t. “No! ...If.. it was you in there, I’d feel the same way!”

There was a pause. With a somewhat-strange, slightly sad look Jonty asked, “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” He said firmly, not even stopping to consider what that meant to him, “I would.”

“You are a liar.” Jonty said. ‘But I will agree with you because you look worried.”

He was. He was worried. He was so worried but he couldn’t show it because of his team. He needed to be strong, even if it was just for them.

It must have shown on his face because Jonty added, “Plus, if I agree with my boss surely I get favours later on, sexual or otherwise, right?”

It was probably the right thing to say. He tried not to smile, “Might want to hold on the sexual ones bro, I am your boss… and there really hasn’t been much of that going on lately.”

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

Chapter Text

The fools from the military encampment were here. And they had brought the girl who had won her case in Keonaidas weeks before. Could his day get any better? She said she was the Virgin of legend. Of course, they couldn’t verify that without checking she was intact, could they? His only disappointment was that he wasn’t permitted into the chamber where she was being checked. Isabella had forbidden it. He probably could have pressured her into it, but she’d come so far and he didn’t want to ruin the influence he had over her already.

The Joan girl had been dumped in a windowless chamber not far from the entrance to the palace. He decided to pay her a visit. It would be interesting to see what she said. It appeared that she was intact, and she seemed to exhibit some of the qualities of the Virgin of lore… He would have to miss out on Isabella’s celebratory party, but the only good things there were the wine and the women, and he could get both of them elsewhere.

He took his cane and limped his way into the chamber, paying off the guard with some of his wine on the way. The Joan girl was sitting incredibly still, facing away from the door. He knocked his leg against the wall on the way in - these chambers really weren’t made for cane use and she glanced back at him as he spilt half of his wine over his shirt.

“Blast!” He hissed, and it echoed around the room.

She looked back at him. “I’ve an audience with the Queen. I’ve been waiting over an hour.”

She thought she was going to see the Queen? How ridiculous. The Queen never saw visitors. They were simply too boring for her.
“Rather.. inconsequential… for someone who aroused such interest in this town. I expected someone more striking… someone altogether more imposing. Would you like a glass of wine?” He offered his to her, not really expecting her to take it.

“No.” She was sullen, facing back at the wall. Ugh. He expected the woman of the tales to be more.. expressive.

“No sins then? Besides arrogance and false pride. I’m sorry I had to miss your examination.” He put extra emphasis on the word and was rewarded with a visible shudder from the girl.

She was younger than he would have expected, sixteen at most, with long blonde hair and an elegant physique, despite her dirty exterior. If she was back in the pre-apocalypse days, many would have called her beautiful.

“I gather the ladies of the courts have declared you virgin. Extraordinary! To be so old and still be pure. Are you the virgin of legend? If you are we must declare each other foes. Swore enemies.” He laughed.

The lines between enemy and friend were especially thin in a war such as this. He knew of many who had crossed the boundary between Swynness and Prybourne to seek a new life in either country.

"From what I have heard of you, Ambassador, that won't be hard for me." Oh so she did know who he was.

It appeared that his reputation had preceded him. Good. "And what have you heard?"

"That you're not to be trusted. That you're here playing games." Her voice was flat and she resolutely continued to stare at the wall.

He limped closer to her.

"I'm here brokering for peace!" The words sounded false even to him, "I daresay that would be distasteful to someone who just joined the army. I'm not playing games. A treaty negotiation takes time."

"But the delays must please you, Ambassador." She said slyly.

She was trying to be clever! He could strike her down, just like that.

"Why?" He feigned innocence, just to see what she'd say.

"Perhaps you can invade us before the treaty is signed."

Oh she was in for it. "Oh dear. What an evil thought from such a pretty little girl." He turned and started walking out of the room. "I must inform the Queen of this immediately. She shouldn't keep you waiting." Joan tried to interrupt him, to get him to stop, but he was at the door. "I shall insist she attends upon you out here."

He exited the room and sent the guard to get the Queen and the Court. He really couldn't be bothered making the walk from the cell to Isabella's party. His leg was really playing up lately. He supposed it was the colder temperatures in the south.

The Queen and the Court arrived far faster than he would have expected considering they were coming from a party. By that point he had drained his wine goblet and the throbbing in his leg had dulled to a rough ache. Damn that wound. It really didn't help matters.
"She wants to see you." He jerked his thumb at the room, "She has some interesting ideas about this country. Where's Caroline?"

The Queen was not accompanied by her daughter, but by a woman of similar height and a group of other girls wearing purple hooded capes. Isabella, instead of answering, walked over to one of the girls and pulled her hood up. It was Caroline.

"Oh a jest!" He was pleased, it appeared that Isabella wasn't taking the Joan girl seriously.

He led the Queen and her accompaniments into the room.

Joan bristled as they entered.

"May I present a legend made flesh, the Virgin." He said, sarcasm lacing his words.

"Turn around, girl." Isabella drawled, sounding drunk and slightly bored already.

Joan turned, her face a badly-constructed mask with a hint of fear coming through. "Your majesty." She bowed.

Isabella walked past him and right up to Joan. She gently stroked her hair, marvelling at how grubby it seemed, "my child, what have you done with your hair? My daughter, Caroline." She indicated, not at the masquerading Caroline, but at the woman who walked past Strachan to stand next to her 'mother'.

The woman spoke, holding her hand out for Joan to kiss. "My child, I do love your choice in dresses. I must order some immediately."

Joan was wearing a white dress, torn at the bottom with blood and dirt stains on it. It was fairly obvious that the woman didn’t like her choice in dress.

“You are not the Queen’s daughter.” Joan’s disgust was immediately evident.

“But I-”

Joan whirled around and went to the group of girls dressed in purple. She pulled Caroline’s hood down. “My voices don’t lie to me. I will always know my rightful Queen.”

Isabella shouted at him from across the room. “You put her up to that, Strachan.”

“Indeed not, your majesty.” He was still stunned at the powers the girl seemed to have at her disposal. This warranted further investigation.

“Ugh, I’ve had enough.” Isabella clearly wanted to get back to her partying. “This girl is clearly not the rightful Virgin. She has some talent, true, but to lead a country? Ridiculous.” She stormed out of the room and her entourage followed her. Good. Isabella wasn’t intending to listen to the lies that this girl would have spouted.

Joan moved back to her chair facing the wall. He would have thought that that would have gotten a rise out of her, but clearly not enough of one. He soon would remedy that.

He limped closer to her. “Dear, dear… how our dreams do forsake us.” The words dripped off his tongue like honey, but he was entirely sure she wouldn’t appreciate them. Good. “Perhaps I could be persuaded to look after you. In this world you’d be lucky for a man to protect you.”

She bit back at him, “I can protect myself. I’ve got my sword.”

“Not in here you haven’t.” He walked forward until he was standing right behind her. He could feel the heat rising off her body. “Have you ever skewered a dying man, hmm? A helpless man… or boy? Would you enjoy it, do you think?” He walked around her and knelt down to her height, forcing her to look at him, “Slicing defenseless skin, piercing flesh… almost like rape.” He was right in her face. She lurched back.

“Ooh Ambassador. Is this how you treat all the ladies?” They were interrupted. By Caroline who was standing over them, glaring right at him.

He stepped back, stumbling a little as his cane caught his heel. She could tell her mother and all his careful planning would go to shit. Dammit. “I-I-I didn’t see you there.”

“Oh just get out.” Caroline ordered.

“Fuck you.” He walked towards the door, staring her down. He would not be the first to break.

“You wish you could.”

He was dragged back into the room after twenty or so minutes by Isabella’s incredibly loud shout of his name. Honestly. There were times for screaming and this wasn’t one of those times. The court was gathered in there, along with that little prat Henry, Isabella and Caroline. He gathered that there had been some animosity between the women whilst he was away, just by the feeling in the air.

“I have an announcement to make.” Caroline said, standing on Joan’s chair, presumably just because she felt like it. Isabella’s line was always one for the dramatics in everything.

“I’ve agreed to get married.”

The prat child squeaked, “My darling!”

Hang on… get married? Wait…

“Not you, Henry. Prince Christian.”

Prince Christian? Well now this was a turnup for the books. Isabella must have had a say in that considering how opposed to the union Caroline had been previously. Her using her power turned him on more than anything. He stepped up to her, “Well done, your majesty.”

She smiled at him. It was a cruel smile, that had barely any warmth to it. “That’s not all. I’ve agreed to abdicate if Joan is victorious.”

Holy shit. Abdicate! But she couldn’t! He’d lose all the power he had gained being in the palace! She couldn’t abdicate. It’d ruin things. He-he’d just have to make sure she wasn’t victorious.

“What?” The word was spat.

“I’ve given Joan command of the army. My daughter will be Queen and Joan will be the general of my forces. Simple, don’t you think?” Oh she knew she had won. Her grin told the world that.

Damn the peace treaty. Damn everything! He stormed out of the room, not giving a damn about the knighting that was happening behind him. He would get her back for this. He’d get that Joan child back for this. He’d get everyone back for this. Peace? He wanted war.

Chapter Text

They were thrown back on the front lines as soon as they got back to the encampment. Joan’s title as leader of the army seemed to rub Duncan the wrong way a bit, but there was nothing that he could do about it. There was a shortage of soldiers on the front line and what Joan was doing seemed to be working. The men fought harder and longer with the blessing of the Virgin on their side, even if some of them didn’t believe fully in the tale.

He was sitting in the grass, under a tree at daybreak, stretching out his sore muscles. The night before had been hard and he hadn’t had much sleep. Everything hurt. Hopefully, though, if the sun kept up they would have to spend the day inside. The sun at full height was dangerous to all and could sear flesh off bones. Gavin, Peter and Jonty were lazing by him. Peter and Gavin were throwing handfuls of grass at each other and it hurt him right in his heart because they were both still kids and they shouldn’t have been getting the play they needed on the edge of the battlefield. Damn this war.

He noticed Duncan striding over, looking far too angry. Oh this wasn’t good. Joan was hurrying behind him.

“Right, we attack at sundown. That’s the order. Apparently she -” He cocked a thumb at Joan, “-will bring us victory. Call me old fashioned, but I’d be more grateful if we’d been sent a platoon of fine, upstanding men.” Duncan was clearly directing his last words to them, but he really couldn’t be bothered standing and by the looks of things Jonty, Gavin and Peter couldn’t either.

“Fine. Upstanding. Men.” Duncan repeated, almost shouting, and booted Robert in the leg.

Robert gasped at him, but stood up all the same. Commanders. They were all the same.

“I’ve been thinking, Duncan.” Joan said, arriving at last.

“Oh great, I bet that terrified the bastards.” Duncan said dryly, glaring.

“We shouldn’t go up the main valley. It’s suicide. We should take them from the high ground, up there on the north edge.” She pointed at a spot on the mountains that looked far higher than Robert could be bothered climbing, especially with no rope or handholds.

“No. We press forward.” Duncan insisted.

“No, we go up the ridge.”

The conversation looked like it was going to escalate into an argument so Robert just coughed and said, “Just give her a chance, Duncan.” He wasn’t particularly keen on going up the ridge, but it was a new tactic and it might work.

“I’ve thought about it. We should take the ridge, but we can’t. It’s too high and we’ve lost six men already trying to get ropes up during the night.”

“And we can’t climb by day, we’ll be fried like eggs.” Jonty added.

“I prayed for cloud cover!” Joan growled, “There will be some.”

“You prayed? You prayed! Oh wow, well I pray that Jonty turns into a winged unicorn that can fly us up there because that’s how well your prayers work.” Duncan scoffed.

There was silence.

“Unicorn?” He was still, “Oh really? Nobody? You’d think we’re in a war or something. Anyway. I command the army. Not you, Joan.”

“The Queen gave command to Joan.” Peter interjected, sitting up.

“Wrong.” Duncan’s words had an air of finality to them, “Joan leads the army. I command .She leads them when and where I tell them to go.”

“Attack from the ridge, Robert!” Joan barked, directing her powerful gaze right onto him. He fought to not agree straight away. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, sure, but Duncan was his commander…

“They won’t take that order from me.” Duncan said, firmly.

“They’ll take it from me.”

“Will you stop lecturing me. Robert, you take the left flank with Joan. I want two lines of sun shields and…” Then his words ground to a halt as the sky clouded over with thick black clouds that almost seemed to precede rain, except it hadn’t rained in the desert for weeks.

Duncan was at a loss for words. For someone who hadn’t seen him lose his train of thought in the entire seven years he’d known him, it was almost funny to Robert. “There’s your cloud cover, Duncan.” He tried so hard to keep a straight face.

“So this is your doing then?”

“I prayed about two hours ago, from the top of the ridge.” Joan was victorious. There was nothing more to it.

“You climbed it?” Duncan’s voice was incredulous.

It may have been the lack of sleep and the combination of bad food and alcohol diet that he was on, but the situation was very funny to Robert. He snorted into his hands.

“That rockface isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. If I can climb it, so can the men. It’s about half an hour up.”

“I don’t believe it.” Duncan sighed, “I must be getting soft. Did you set a rope?”

“Of course.”

Robert struggled to his feet, the aches and pains of the night before making themselves blindingly noticeable. “Well I’m with her, Duncan. Who else?”

The other boys got to their feet, grumbling quietly.

“I guess we are.” Jonty said. “Let’s move then.”

And so Joan led them off towards the cliff to face the enemy yet again.

Chapter Text

War was hard. Anyone could say that, but in a world where they were not just fighting against the troops from Swynness but also the sunlight, war was even harder.

Joan’s magical cloud cover, or whatever it was cleared up about three days in and all the troops had to take cover under whatever quick shelter they could put up. Robert himself was burnt badly because his hand was sticking out from under the sun shade when a ray of light hit it. Any longer and he’d have hardly any flesh left on that part of his hand. The sun was deadly.

He was crouched under a makeshift shelter made almost entirely with sun shields with Jonty, a young soldier named Norm and Duncan when it hit him. This entire war was incredibly pointless and he said so.

Duncan glared at him, “You’re beginning to sound like Joan.”

“Well it is!” He continued, “Why are Swynness and Prybourne fighting? We both have a common enemy - the sun - yet we keep up this stupid battle. It’s so dumb.”

“Don’t -” Duncan continued but Robert interrupted.

“We lose countless men every day fighting the people up north and neither side gains anything. It’s suicide. Absolute suicide.”

“It’s not.” Jonty said. “Don’t give up hope.”

“Hope for what?” Robert said, “It’s all pointless. We’re going to win and we’re going have more bodies to clean up. Hooray for more death. There’s no end to this.”

His words seemed to stun them all into silence, aside from Norm. “It’s pointless.” He parroted, trembling.

Duncan shot him a glance that seemed to say ‘well look at what you’ve done’.

“It’s so pointless… Pointless.” Norm’s eyes were wide.

Jonty reached out to touch him. but Norm jerked away. “Don’t touch me!” He shuffled back towards the opening into the sun-free cave. “I just want it to stop!” He started to sob. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t!”

Still trembling, he pushed himself out through the entrance, nearly bringing it down on top of all of them and into the bright beam of the midday sun. His screams were piercing and went right through Robert. He’d done that. He’d made the kid do that. Holy shit. It was his fault! It was always his fault. He shouldn’t have said anything. He shouldn’t have…

“And that’s why we fight.” Duncan said, his glare burning the way through Robert, “We fight for those who don’t deserve a world run by Swynness. We fight for the kids who can’t fight for themselves. Don’t even look at me.”

Robert buried his head in his knees and sobbed, for the kid, for Duncan, but most of all for himself.

---

Two days later, they’d make more headway into the pass than they’d made in six months of trying. They were victorious with good reason. The war seemed like it was in its last few weeks at most. It was a good day.
“We’ve won! It’s over!” Joan screamed, dancing into their tented area, carrying her white standard that was stained red with blood. Her hair was wild, face covered in dirt and grim and she had never looked more radiant.

It wasn’t quite over, but it was close. From his position on the ground he offered the beaming Joan a jar full of wine. It was bootleg, but at least it was something. “Here you go! The sweet taste of victory.” He nodded at Duncan, “Must really hack you off.”
Joan drank all the wine in one go and threw the jar into the sand.

“I’ve been in this damn pass for years and she takes it in a few weeks with her voices and her magic wand.” Duncan sniffed, but didn’t look too mad.

“It was my sword, Duncan.” Joan laughed and sat up against the chunk of concrete Robert was leaning against, “My magic sword.” She lay her head back against the concrete and closed her eyes.

“Hey, what’s that, one lousy glass of wine?” Duncan said sourly.

“Hey boys!” Gavin laughed from a few metres away where he was sitting with Peter passing a bottle of wine back and forth. “Look at her! The wine is mightier than the sword. Over the ridge and under the table.”

“Why not?” Peter said, “You deserve it sis.”

Robert seemed to be the only one who noticed as she slumped over. It must be tiredness. They were all feeling it, and gods willing, he’d actually be able to get a sleep at last. “Oh, she’s exhausted. I’ll take her to one of the beds.”

He refused to acknowledge the innuendo in his words. Even if he wasn’t tired enough to pass out where he stood, he wouldn’t treat her like that. She’d been through enough already.
“Ooh yes, give her one for me, boss.” Jonty whistled at him.

He clambered to his feet, shot a dirty look at his oldest recruit and bent to pick Joan up. As he lifted her, though, his arm brushed her neck and it came away sticky and wet with blood. Joan’s blood. He noticed darker blood seeping through her tunic.
Oh she wasn’t exhausted, it was blood loss and she had passed out. He put her down against almost immediately. “It’s not exhaustion, she’s hurt! Look!” His cries could probably have been heard miles away.

“What? Joan?” Peter shrieked and came running over.

He couldn’t quite see in the semi dark, but it looked like a neck wound. He put a hand over it, to try and stop her bleeding out. Jonty, Gavin and Duncan rushed over. “Help me! Someone get a medic! Gavin! Now!”

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the boy run off.

‘Get some water too!” Duncan yelled, “You were with her, Jonty. Didn’t she yell out?”

“You heard her. God for Joan and the Queen’s army!”

“Joan, Joan! Wake up! She’s dead!” Peter screeched, shaking Joan’s arm.

“No she’s not.” Jonty seemed unconcerned considering the circumstances.

He felt around on Joan’s neck. Something must have cut it… Then he felt something that definitely didn’t go with the smooth skin. “What the hell’s this?”

“I don’t know! Pull it out!”

“Where is the damn medic!” He was panicking, unduly so, but he had no idea what he would do if she died. “There… got it. A piece of rock, sharp as a knife. Hold the edges together.”

“I am!” Peter was yelling back at him.

“Hold it!”

“I am!”

“If she bleeds to death…”

“She won’t.” Duncan interrupted him. “It’s not an artery. What the hell’s gotten into you, Robert? Got the hots for our miracle girl, have you?”
He didn’t want to think about it - to agree.

Gavin ran back to the group. “The medic won’t come. Says he’s got real soldiers to attend to.”

Oh enough was enough. He indicated for Peter to take over and stormed off to find the medic. Joan was the only chance they had and they were going to let her die?
Jonty caught up with him a few steps down the path. “Bro, you need to chill. She’ll be fine.”

“She’ll be fine?” He grabbed Jonty by the lapels, pure rage making him shove the other man up against the rockface they were walking past. “She’s our only hope! Without her we’re fucked. The men have no drive anymore and neither do I and you’re hedging her life on a guess?”

“Why the hell are you so worked up over this, dude?” Jonty was pushing back, fire in his eyes, clearly over his shit, “You see men get hurt every day and now, just because she gets hurt you’re losing your mind? You need to calm down.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down.”

“Don’t tell you to - Oh Robert, you just don’t get it, do you? You’re stuck in a stupid rut and it’s messing with your head. Wake up!”

He dropped his arms. “Whatever. I’m getting the medic.”

“You’re not going to yell at him, are you?”

“I’m going to do what I damn well like.”

“Yeah, cause that’s gonna make things so much better.”

Chapter Text

Isabella, Caroline and himself had been summoned to check on the progress of the Prybourne troops. Or rather, Caroline, the most powerful woman in the country and so on, had been summoned, Isabella was going with her because she couldn't bear to give up her influence and he was going because Isabella was hot and he wanted to keep an eye on Caroline's meddling.

He had no doubt that he was going to end up taking the country, but he felt that overseeing proceedings was a good idea.

The 'Warrior Virgin' had come out of nowhere and he didn't like her influence, but she would fall, in time. Just like all of them would.

They were also going to meet Prince Christian – halfway from Swynness, as he was to marry Caroline soon and they had to meet before then. He really disliked Christian and his family, but he was keeping his mouth shut. Perhaps the little tyrant could help him out. He doubted it, though, the child was ambitious, but really lacked the drive to be a leader.

He and a platoon of soldiers were keeping watch outside the keep where Isabella and Caroline were holed up, waiting for Christian's escort. It was early evening, the moon high in the sky and Isabella and Caroline were arguing so loud that he could hear them from outside the keep.

Now there was a surprise.

He couldn't believe that they even got on for the amount of hours that he heard them yelling at each other each day numbered at least in the teens. He supposed he should go and break them up.

Isabella would have to be civil for Christian's arrival. His father was indeed the man who had jilted her at the altar many years before and he was interested to to see how the whole affair would play out.

He limped into the building. The two women were sitting in the corner of the room on chunks of rock, talking. Their voices had dropped from when he was outside. He supposed that was progress.

“Well, get rid of her as soon as the wedding is over. She's no longer just a novelty.” Isabella hissed as he limped closer.

Joan? Was she talking about Joan? Good. He hoped she'd see things his way at some point.

They both spotted him at the same time, Isabella sneering and Caroline rolling her eyes. He indicated for Caroline to move off her chunk of rock as he wanted a seat and there was no other rocks in sight. She did, albeit reluctantly, after a push from her mother. He settled himself down.

“Ambassador. What a pleasure. Have your good manners abandoned you along with your troops?” Isabella was snide.

He was going to reply with an equally as biting remark when one of the soldiers poked his head in the door and said, “Prince Christian has arrived, sir. Should I send him in?”

He nodded his assent.

Within a moment a blonde boy ran in. He was the same age as Caroline, sixteen, but he was far shorter than a man ought to be and rumour had it that he was at least seven eighths a fruit.
He knelt in front of Strachan. Did this child know anything? He shook his head and indicated towards Isabella.
“Your majesty.” He said dryly, as the boy stood, ran over to Isabella and knelt in front of her, “May I present the Prince Christian.”

“Your majesty.” Christian said taking hold of Isabella's hand and kissing it.

Oh, of course his voice was squeaky too. Even if he had wanted this marriage to go ahead, it had been dead since the beginning.

“As handsome as her daughter.” Christian directed his gaze towards Caroline who had her back turned and was very clearly ignoring him.

“As you are so like your father.” Isabella said sourly, physically removing Christian's hand from hers like it was the hand of a corpse. “Except that he was always late for everything. I suppose you came with your parents?”

“We rode ahead.” Christian said, looking mollified, with an anxious look at Strachan. “They'll arrive at midnight.”

“Yes. Clearly your mother's influence has been minimal. I look forward to meeting them.” Isabella couldn't sound any less enthusiastic. “My daughter is... not well... We will take a respite outside and rejoin you closer to midnight. Caroline!” She screeched and dragged her daughter off.

Strachan looked at the still kneeling Christian, who seemed a bit stunned, and guided him to the chuck of rock that Isabella had just vacated.
“A country led by women?” Christian seemed less than enthused.

Strachan decided to tell him all of his plans and see what he thought. Despite his abject lack of intelligence, the kid could perhaps be a useful ally. Or, at least, his parents could be. He and the Beauparlant family had never really seen eye to eye, but this child could be the bridge he needed.
“Not for much longer, Prince.” He schmoozed. “Caroline, you'll find wayward but teachable. She won't trouble you, with her mother taken care of by me and the devil girl up on the battlefield.”

“I talked to some of our troops on the trip through the pass, Strachan. That's not what they believe.”

Oh, so the troops were losing faith? Honestly. “Terrified of a deluded girl in battledress.” He drawled, “How quaint.”

“From a comfortable bed, that's easy to say.”

So the kid was trying to get in a jab at him? Please, his bed wasn't that comfortable. “I keep in touch.”

“Then you must know it's much worse than that.” Christian said earnestly, leaning forward. “They believe this Joan girl is a witch, and those who don't believe she is a miracle.”

A miracle? Hardly. She might have thwarted the authorities in her home province and have Isabella and Caroline wrapped around her little finger, but that was no guarantee of brilliance. Hell, he'd partially done that.
“She'll be quickly dealt with when the power is in your hands, Prince. Our troops are only two days march away. Their blood is up.” He wasn't too comfortable to share that particular bit of information with the child, but he'd come too far now.

“They were ordered to retreat. To pull back to our lines?” Christian seemed worried with that piece of information.

“To pull back certainly.” He was coming to his trump card, “But only so far. Tomorrow we have the wedding.” He smirked.

Christian jumped up off his seat, looking excited, then seemed to reconsider and sat down again.

He watched him with a degree of amusement.

The child turned to him, a look of fear in his eyes. “The wedding? I should never have agreed to it. This is your doing, Strachan, and my damn fool parents for listening to you.”

He sensed that there was something rocky within the boy's relationship with his parents. Interesting. He could perhaps use this to his advantage. “Relax.” His voice was reassuring, completely contrary to how he was feeling inside. “It's a temporary arrangement only. They believe this union will buy peace! How ridiculous. The wedding and the coronation are a sideshow. A distraction. My troops will move in under the guise of support and then we will have their palace at sunset the following day.” He mock bowed, “My wedding gift to you, Prince.”

“And the treaty?”

Wow. Strachan was almost impressed. The boy knew more than he should. “The Queen, in her infinite wisdom, chose to set that aside. Poor dear Isabella! I fear your marriage to Caroline might end much as did her engagement to your father.”

The child smirked. It was more evil than he was expecting. “But how will you end it? I don't want to be left tied to that family.”

“You won't. Caroline herself has sown the seeds of annulment.” His choice of words was no accident. “Trust me, Prince. You will have their palace, unencumbered by pesky in-laws. I'll show you around myself, in the course of time.”

He stood up. He had better things to do than be stuck inside this room. The child could stay if he wished. He moved slowly out of the room, and looked back. Christian was still sitting there, looking confused. He shook his head and left him to it.

Chapter Text

He was off his face. He was out of sorts. He was pissed. He was completely fucked over by booze and he didn't even care. They were so close to winning, he'd kissed Joan and he was totally jubilant. He wasn't sure if she was even into the kiss, but he was happy and he was drunk. Drunker that he'd ever been, but he wasn't going to say that to anyone.

Jonty, Duncan and Peter and himself were sitting under the shade cloth with Joan. Esther and Meg were there too, but he was almost completely sure than none of them had had any sort of drink.

They were singing, loudly. He was sure that noise was a problem or something, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

“I'm burning through the sky, yeah! Two hundred degrees that's why they call me Mr Fahrenheit. I'm burning at the speed of light!!!” The song came to a climax. It was one of those songs from before the apocalypse and Robert really liked it. “I wanna make a supersonic man out of you!”

“Oh shut the fuck up you lot!” Esther yelled over their singing. They stopped, surprised, but Jonty continued on, albeit in a quieter manner, rolling over onto his side on the ground.

“You look better today.” She said to Joan.

Robert rolled his eyes and took another swig of his drink. Women. They never knew how to have fun.

“My neck's alright.” Joan replied. “Now it's my ears that are burning.” She directed a pointed glare at their party.

“That's what you get from three days solid drinking. They'll pass out soon.” Meg said, looking at them critically.

Shit had it been three days? He really couldn't tell. It had all blurred into one. He squinted at them. The light was hurting his eyes. “Oh don't bet on it. We can sleep it off tomorrow, eh boys, while Joan's playing at coronations.” He slurred, “Then you can go home and boast about it to all the village girls. Returning hero.”
Gods above what was happening with his words? They didn't make any sense.

“Not us, eh Robert. The army's our home.” Duncan drawled, drinking and spilling half of his bottle over himself.

It really was. He'd spent so much time in it he didn't know how he would cope out of it. “Yeah, can't see myself pushing a plough. Or Joan washing David's socks.”

David was the person Joan was betrothed to back in Keonidas. He thought that they would be an awful match. They'd gotten a summons that said that he'd be turning up at some point that day to talk to Joan, actually, but they hadn't seen hide nor hair of him yet.

“Socks!” Jonty stuttered, almost tipping over again. Everyone else echoed him.

“I could go home.” Joan said quietly.

This seemed like the worst thing in the world that could ever happen to him. “Don't kid yourself. You're a warrior. I saw it on the journey to the palace and on the battlefield. We're the same, you and me.” He could hardly comprehend what he was saying but he felt that saying anything at this point was what he had to do to keep Joan with him.

“Leave her alone, Robert.” Esther snapped, glaring at him.

“You've got this – I don't know what it is – something. Something very special...” He waved a hand, trying to grasp what he was meaning. It floated away without him catching it. Damn.

“Whoa, slow down, the drink's talking.” Duncan said, punching him lightly on the arm and nearly losing his balance.

“Maybe.” Then he thought of a great idea, “Hey Duncan! There's not a rule about two soldiers kissing, is there?”

“Kissing!” Jonty echoed and then said quietly, “I wishhh I had mooore kissing in my life.” He crawled towards them across the sand.

“I can soon write one up.” Duncan said, pushing Jonty away without even looking.

“No hurry.” He dragged himself over to Joan's bed and grabbed her hand.

“Robert, please.” Joan said, craning her neck to look down at him. She winced. That must have hurt.

“Oh, come on. Get out, all of you.” Esther pushed him away, “She needs the sleep.”

“Big day tomorrow, eh.” Robert was wistful. If the coronation... thing... happened, there'd be no more war... thing. He hoped. He couldn't really understand anything he was thinking right about then and words were confusing to him.

The other troops tried to get onto their feet at the urging of Esther. He didn't really feel compelled to move, and when he tried to, he found that his arse seemed to be stuck to the sand.

“Robert!”Esther screeched, or at least it felt like screeching. “Come on!”

“I'm coming. One sec.”

Esther left, after a careful look back at him, following the path of the others back to their tents for the evening.

“You know... I wouldn't have.” He looked down at his hands, considering.

“Wouldn't have what?”

“Kissed you... uh... I mean... If it wasn't what you wanted.” He stuttered, trying to get the words out. He found romantic situations awkward at the best of times. He stroked his fingers over her palm.

“I've got everything I want, Robert.”

“Have you?” Suddenly he was angry, but he couldn't muster the energy to get loud. She was lying to herself. “Beware of the day... You're just going to walk away, are you? You think you can, but you can't.”

“Robert.” Joan said, trying to stop him.

But he was on a tirade. “I saw you. I was watching. Blood in your hair, the thrill of it, the rush. You never come down from it. A victory is the best thing in the world.”

“Robert, please, stop!” She pleaded with him. She sounded like she was trying to desperately ignore the truth.

“That's what this is.” He held up the bottle still clutched in his hand and took a mouthful. “Keeps the brain quiet until next time. I understand you, Joan. I'm the only one. That's why you wanted to come to the war. For the thrill. It's incurable.”

He was so close to her and she wouldn't move. He stared into her eyes, trying to gauge what she was thinking.

“Joan!” A man's voice. He dropped back. A man with dirty blonde hair and a puzzled look emerged out of the darkness.

“David!” She sounded... relieved? How could that be?

David? Oh shit. That guy... that guy she was betrothed to... He stumbled back.

“They said you'd been hurt.” David said, coming to crouch beside Joan's bed.

He pushed himself away. This wasn't his place. He'd been rejected and he had to deal with it. For now.

“I'm fine.” Joan said, almost at the same time as he said, “You should have see the other guy.”

There wasn't just one guy, there was guys. It had been a positively epic fight.

“Peter?” David asked.

Ugh, that kid.

“He's alright.”

He got to his feet. The couple were staring at each other, deep into each other's soul. It wasn't his place. “We pulled a sliver of rock out of her neck – this long.” He greatly exaggerated the size of the rock. Neither member of the pair turned to look at him. “Ah.. well... I'll leave you to it.”

He stumbled off awkwardly, to find the canvas tent that he would share with Jonty for the night. After accidentally falling into the tent where Duncan was doing something he was sure he didn't want to remember in the morning, he found it.

Jonty was outside, leaning against the tent door, looking up at the sky.
“Aren't the stars pretty, Robert?” He mused, gazing wondrously at the world above them.

“Yeah... yeah, whatever.” Robert slurred grumpily, “Move your arse.” He shoved Jonty out of the way and clambered into the tent, almost falling face first onto the ground more than once.

“Take it that the shit with Joan didn't work?” Jonty followed him inside.

“Don't want to talk about it.” He pulled his sleeping bag half on and collapsed onto his sleeping mat, cradling his bottle. He wished it was a real person.

“Well, I'm here, y'know.” Jonty yawned.

“Fuck up.”

Chapter Text

The day of Isabella's abdication and Caroline's coronation.

He didn't really like the former and didn't care about the latter, but he could feel anticipation in the air. He hoped that the people of Prybourne didn't realise his troops were regrouping until too late. He was certain they wouldn't, but it helped to be hopeful.

He would have this court by the end of the night. They were conducting the ceremony at an old church about halfway between the palace and the pass. It was a strange place to have a serious ceremony, but Joan was needed on the battlefield and apparently couldn't spare a few days off for travel.

Isabella went through the boring ceremonial stuff of placing the crown on a kneeling Caroline's head, saying a few words and so on and then it was done, with far less fireworks than he would have expected – in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

Joan, who was there for some strange reason, was dismissed, along with the rest of the people present (mainly soldiers) aside from him, Christian, Duncan (who apparently was there for Joan's sake) and Caroline, under the guise of 'family'. He was almost pleased to be counted as family. He didn't realise that Isabella liked him that much.

“I told you she was dangerous.” Isabella hissed, presumably trying to keep her voice down as Duncan was still standing in the corner, facing away from them but still in the room. “Perhaps you're now convinced. By the uproar, anyone would think that the crown had just been placed on her head.”

The crowd had been especially vocal about the ceremony. It was strange.

“She does have a certain innocent charm.” Christian observed.

He shot him a glance. His words weren't necessary. Him even speaking, ever, wasn't necessary. “From the applause, one might be forgiven for thinking she was commander, queen and saint, all rolled into one.” He drawled. It was true, but it didn't mean he had to like it. He appreciated how powerful Joan was – he always had found power to be a massive turn on – but as a person? She was abhorrent.

“A dangerous package. She must go immediately.” Isabella declared to the room at large, but it was obvious she was speaking to Duncan.

“Wait a minute? Go where? I need her here.” Duncan insisted, turning to face them.

He was angry. It seemed like Duncan wasn't believing his 'peace' ruse. He hobbled over to the taller man and stared him right in the face. “The war's over, Commander.”

“Not until the treaty is signed, Ambassador.” Duncan stared right back at him, not breaking his gaze, “And not until every one of your troops has withdrawn. For good. I want Joan to stay until that's actually happened. We've waited for a long time for this moment.”

“I want her gone, Duncan.” Isabella insisted. They finally broke their gaze and he turned to look at the former queen. “You speak of her as though she is some sort of miracle.”

“Her voices told her...” Duncan trailed off, obvious that what he was saying sounded odd.

“Ah yes, her voices.” Isabella said disparagingly. “Forgive me for not taking much stock in the part of her personality.”

“We can see that she is sent home, quietly!” Christian piped up.
Oh would the boy never learn?

“You keep out of this, Christian.” Caroline was angry, that much was clear. She hadn't spoken all day and her outburst was like a sword point to the heart.

The boy stood from from where he was kneeling next to her and scuttled over to between him and Duncan. He almost laughed. It was funny how he thought that he was the safest person to be beside. “Oooh, a first tiff! How delightful!” It was like sport. He wondered how long the marriage would last. Somehow, with what he knew about Caroline, he doubted that there'd be much of a honeymoon period.

“Joan stays here. Duncan's right. I want to go home, but not until everything is secure.” She turned around and looked right at him, “And not until your troops have withdrawn. For good.”

He rolled his eyes, “Of course. The treaty was quite clear on that point.”

“Where is the treaty, Strachan?” Isabella barked, like he'd forgotten it.

“Here, your majesty.” He stuttered on 'majesty', “Uh.. pardon, Queen Mother.” He winked at her and she looked like she would have castrated him with her bare nails if she could. He pulled the rolled up piece of parchment out of his robes.

“Arrest Joan. Send her home. Let's be done with her.” Isabella ordered at Duncan, walking over to him and snatching the treaty from his grasp.

“No Duncan.” Caroline said, coming to stand with them. “It's a funny thing, Mother, because someone just put their crown on my head, not ten minutes ago.”

She was playing her! Oh this was brilliant. He wouldn't have missed this for a couple of bottles of '00 and several of the country's finest whores.
Well, maybe he might have. He would have to think on that later.

“You need my advice... my experience!” Isabella said, looking downtrodden. This was brilliant. She tried to give the treaty to Caroline, but Caroline wouldn't take it.

“Duncan, do we need Mother's advice and experience?” Caroline said wickedly, looking at Duncan.

There was silence. He looked between Caroline and Duncan like he was at a tennis match. He really wished there still was tennis – it had been fun while it lasted – but the apocalypse had curtailed that sport somewhat. “Ahem.” He said ostentatiously. “Your majesty, the Queen Mother is aware of the terms of the treaty... they are detailed, but -”

He was interrupted by that army bastard Robert, and another one of his small friends running into the room, looking anxious and worried. They went to Duncan and whispered to him, casting odd looks at Strachan.

Ah. He thought that perhaps the jig was finally up.

Chapter Text

They had been kicked out of the church where the abdication/coronation had been taking place by Isabella, along with the rest of the soldiers. There wasn't much to do outside, it was a cloudy day, but they were in the middle of nowhere with only a few scrubby trees to keep them company.

He slumped down against the church, trying to hear what was going on inside.

Joan was sitting with David about ten metres away and they were talking quietly. He shaded his eyes with his hand and thought about going over to talk to her, but the presence of David was making him antsy. It wasn't just David, though. This whole coronation reeked of duplicity. There was no way that Strachan would want peace after such a long time at war. He had to be plotting something, but he couldn't figure out what it was and he was worried that he wouldn't be able to get it before he was able to stop it. Whatever it was.

“Hey bro.” Gavin came and stood over him, blocking out most of the light.

“If you could just stand there for forever, that'd be great.”

“Hmmm?” The man seemed confused, “Oh yeah. But nah, mate. Want to come and do a press-up contest with me over there?”
He pointed to a spot next to a tree where a group of Caroline's ladies in waiting were sheltering under.

“It couldn't possibly be because of the proximity to those lovely ladies, is it?” He smirked. Good to know that the boy still had some fun left in him.

“Not at all. Just thought we should do some training – ya know.” Gavin's voice was innocent.

“Oh fine.” There was no harm in it. “Help me up.”

Gavin offered him a hand and he grabbed it and was pulled to his feet. “Are you really trying to get laid during a very serious coronation ceremony?”

“Oh course. Why wouldn't I?” Gavin peeled off his shirt as they walked.

He fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Bro, overkill much?”

“It really isn't.” Gavin said, “It's just all a drawcard. Just all of this.” He waved the hand not holding the shirt over his torso.

“Yeah, I'm sure it's your massive personality that gets all the ladies.”

Their competition wasn't much of a competition. It was more of Gavin trying to show off his body in front of the women and Robert doing forty press-ups and stopping because it was so hot outside and his shoulder hurt. That damn wound from years ago wasn't ever going to leave him alone. The sun wasn't out and the sky was blanketed with a thick wall of grey clouds, but it was still stifling. He had no need to expend his energy and he told Gavin so.

“Your loss.” Gavin managed to shrug whilst still doing press-ups.

He shook his head in amazement. The fitness of youth.

“Hey boss.” Jonty came walking up to them. “Can I talk to you? Away from here?”

That was weird. Jonty, whilst being the talkative type didn't exactly do it during the light of day. “Yeah, sure.” He said, clambering to his feet and letting himself be led away from Gavin and his quickly growing crowd of fans.

“What is it?”

“I was just thinking, after last night... I have something I need to say to you.” Jonty looked nervous, which was odd for him.

“Shit, you remember last night? I don't. What is it?”

“Well... I've known you for a long time and all and -” He was cut off when a horse came galloping into the settlement, with its rider yelling loudly. “Duncan!”

He and Jonty looked at each other and ran over to the horse. The rider jumped off. He was wearing the Prybourne uniform but Robert didn't recognise him. “Where's Duncan?” The rider said, getting hold of Robert's uniform and shaking it violently.

“He's in negotiations with Isabella and Strachan. What is it, man? Tell me.” Robert said, urgently, not even prying the man's hands off his clothes.

Then the rider told the pair of them something that made his heart thud deep in his chest and his gut run away screaming.. Oh fuck.

They ran into the church, not giving a damn about any sort of rule or protocol. All the rules had been broken now. The traitor, Strachan, was in the middle of a sentence, but stopped when he saw them. Robert wasn't concerned with him in that moment. The only thing they had to do was get the news out that the rider had brought. He'd get his penance later.

He and Jonty told the news to Duncan in quick, scared whispers. They'd left the rider outside. Duncan's face dropped and he paled. “I should have known.”

“What is it?” Isabella ordered.

“I'm sorry... your majesty... but...” He cut himself off. He couldn't bear to say it with Strachan looking at him like he was about to go for his throat.

“Speak up!” She continued.

“They're regrouping.” It was all that he could choke out. He had thought it was over.

“Your troops, Ambassador.” Duncan supplemented.

“But they've been ordered home!” Strachan lied. He could tell it was a lie. Everyone could.

He would kill him. He would. If his feet weren't frozen to the floor he would have done it right now.
“They're two days away and preparing for battle!” He spat.

Isabella turned to Strachan. Her expression was one of complete and absolute fury. She smacked him in the chest with the treaty. “I trust you, Strachan. In the matters of the treaty, if nothing else, I trusted you.”

“Ambassador, you have deceived us?” Caroline said, looking worried.

“Deception, your majesty?” Strachan's expression was one of pure, heartfelt evil. “That fainting sickness yesterday? Maybe a cause for celebration? A cry from the belly so to speak?”

Oh no. If Caroline was pregnant, that'd completely invalidate the wedding. And if the wedding was gone, so was the treaty. So was the end of the war. Shit.

“What are you saying?” The child, Caroline's new husband, Christian or something, trembled.

“What a wonderful package for you, Prince.” Strachan turned away from the fuming Isabella, “A job lot. A country, a wife and now she throws in a baby as well.” He practically shouted his final words, throwing them back at Caroline.

“Caroline, if this is true I'll kill you!” Isabella pushed her daughter back, fire in her eyes.

Caroline snatched the treaty off her and tore it in two. “Let your troops come, Strachan. Joan will be ready for them.”

She wouldn't be ready. She wouldn't be. There was no way that she would be. And even if she was, they wouldn't. A Commander was only a commander. She had no power unless she had soldiers behind her and they were so tired and so sick and so robbed of the absolution that they had been promised. They were going to lose this war.

“Is it true? Are you pregnant?” Christian looked terrified. He didn't blame him. He was terrified and he wasn't even married to the daughter of a maniac.

“I don't have to answer to that. You married me under false pretences.” Caroline hissed.

Strachan looked triumphant. Of course he was. He had won. “I think -”

“Don't you fucking say anything, you bastard.” Isabella punched him, square in the face. “Get out!”

He left, clutching his bloody, probably-broken nose, dragging Christian behind him. The boy looked back at his wife sadly as they left.

Caroline pulled her wedding ring off and threw it after them. “I'm going home. I hate this place. Just you and Joan make sure it stays in our hands this time.” She stormed towards the door.

Isabella yelled after her. “Caroline, if you think you're getting anywhere -”

“Oh get lost!”

Isabella looked at Duncan, pleadingly, like she wanted help. She shook her head at his expression and followed her daughter out.

All was quiet.

“How long can we hold this place?” Robert asked.

“Holding it isn't the problem. We can't keep supply lines up to the pass open more than a few days and if they go down so do we. Best we take the fight to them, while they're still chasing their arses.” Duncan said, rubbing a hand over his forehead.

“I'll tell Joan.” Jonty went to leave, but Robert grabbed him.
“No, she's not fighting fit.”

“We must go now.” Duncan said.

“Without Joan we have no chance. She won't stay behind. We'd have to tie her down.” He didn't want to have to leave her behind, but she was injured and they had no choice. She'd just be a hindrance to them in this time of crisis. He sighed, “Look, I can have the men ready in half an hour. Maybe even earlier. We urge her to head back to the palace – say negotiations are dragging on and we leave for the pass before she finds out.”

“Spare her the decision.” Duncan agreed.

“Something like that... She won't like it.”

“I won't like the consequences if we don't go now. Betrayal, invasion and defeat.”

“She's not fit for battle but...” He trailed off.

“Cruel to be kind, eh? Give the orders, Robert.” Duncan headed out of the room, and without a word, he and Jonty followed him.
He would have to lie to Joan and he wasn't keen to do that.

The aforementioned woman ran up to him as soon as he came back out into the bright light. “What's going on?” She asked, hurriedly. “Strachan and Isabella and everyone took off back towards the palace.”

“Yeah... negotiations are dragging on a bit.” Robert said, fiddling with his hair. “Can you take a team back towards the palace with you and we'll follow once everyone else is ready?”

She looked suspicious. “Dragging on? How?”

“I don't know... It was quite jargony and such... but I think it's one of the clauses in the treaty that they're arguing about. You know Isabella and Strachan.” He was lying through his teeth but he hoped she would buy it.

“Yeah.” Jonty said, chipping it, “Isabella doesn't like the passive aggressive language or something. She invited Strachan back to the palace to fix it.”

“What?” Joan looked outraged. “We've come so far and they're arguing about wording? I'll take a team now – see if we can catch up to them. For all we know this could spark another month-long debate.”

“Thanks Joan.” He nodded. “We'll catch up with you.”

She rushed off, collecting some men along the way and leading them towards the outbuilding where their horses were tied up out of the heat.

“Can't believe she bought that, boss.” Jonty said, clapping him on the shoulder.

“I know.” He was weak and shaky. “I don't want to go back to war, Jonty.”

“Neither do I... but it's something that has to be done. Hey, maybe Joan will catch up to all of them and get them to change their minds and stop the invasion!”

Robert laughed. There was no humour in it. “Maybe... Hey, what was it that you wanted to tell me earlier?”

“Oh.” Jonty looked stunned that he had remembered over the fracas that had been going on, “N-nothing. It's not important now.”

“Tell me.” Robert said, walking towards a group of soldiers and gesturing that they should also go and saddle up their horses.

“Nah, time's past.” Jonty forced a smile, “You'll just have to wait till we've won this war.”

“That's never.”

“Well, next time we're somewhere safe I'll tell you? Deal?”

“Deal.”

Chapter Text

It didn't feel right, doing this without Joan.

She was the one that had propped them up when they had fallen, had given them reason to live when there was no reason available and had just cared. Cared so much that she was going off, riding away from them because she needed to be kept safe, and she didn't even know that.

They were riding to the camp near the base of the mountain pass.
There, their troops would be gathering, preparing for a battle that they had no hope of winning. He hoped they were preparing, at least, but he wouldn't have blamed them if they weren't.

Swynness was powerful. They had far more power than he had ever hoped for them to grasp.

They out numbered the Prybourne troops five to one, had far more weaponry than they had, and even had weaponry that Prybourne didn't have a hope in hell of creating.

Perhaps it was their destiny to fight this war, but it sure as hell wasn't their destiny for them to win it. 'The Warrior Virgin would win the war and bring peace', but perhaps, peace could only be brought by them crumbling to a vastly superior force. It was hard to admit, but it was most likely true.

He didn't want to leave Joan behind. He was trying to get over whatever feelings he had for her, but that wasn't the only reason.

The woman had the power that a lot of men couldn't have and she'd helped with the war effort a lot. Also, when (and it was definitely a when) she found out that she'd been lied to, by one of her most trusted lieutenants, she'd come rushing towards the lines as fast as she could and would demand respect and to be put on the battlefield.

They couldn't let that happen.

Belief in her powers was fading fast, after her public degradation by Isabella and other members of the court. If the soldiers completely lost faith in her – and thus in themselves, the war would stop and they'd be overcome. He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't let her back on the lines.

Dammit! Why did everything have to be so hard?

They'd been fighting for years now, over one small bit of land that just wouldn't fall to one side or the other. It was so frustrating that it nearly made him cry at times.
It was a pointless war.

Even when Swynness won, what happened after that? They'd take the country over and celebrate in the victory. It was pointless. They were all fighting the sun and lack of food and fatigue and general loss of drive. If they worked together, perhaps they'd be able to counter all of the crises that they had gone through. Perhaps they'd be able to fix things.

But no.
The rulers of both Swynness and Prybourne were too strong, too stubborn. They both didn't know when to give in. He desperately wanted to become the leader – to take things over and set things right. He could remember a world before the apocalypse, before the bombs and the sun had destroyed things. A lot of people wouldn't be able to, Jonty included, but he could. Duncan could. Strachan and Isabella could too. Why did they refuse to lay down their weapons and make a truce?

Well, they did, for a short time, but then Prybourne had to go and ruin it. He wished that Strachan would just stop. He was power hungry and out of his mind with madness.

He needed to die. But he wouldn't.
He had masses of soldiers protecting him and a will that seemed able to enslave anyone. He didn't know why people would follow him. It was clear that he was a maniac, yet he had the power of an entire country on his side. He wondered if there was more people back in Prybourne, like a ruling family. It seemed like there should be, but he hadn't heard anything about one. Perhaps Strachan just ran everything using his magical enslaving powers.

It made him sick.

The man just seemed to enchant all who he came across, with both women and men falling to his will. It just didn't make sense.

He didn't want to fight. He'd been at war long enough and he thought it was over. But it wasn't. Typical. Served him to get his hopes up. This bloody war would never end and he'd be stuck on the battlefield until he died.

Chapter Text

It was the roughest fighting of his life. He couldn't count how many injuries he got and how many lives he'd taken.

He fought with a desperation he'd never had before - because this time it seem so much more real. If they lost this, they lost the country. No going back. No resets. The country was lost.

He could feel the same energy in his opponents, but they didn't seem to tire. Every person he cut down, there was another in their place. It was horrible, and tiring and he didn't know how much longer he could last.
They all seemed faceless to him - facsimiles of people who just existed to swing a sword, and maybe they were.

He couldn't take it.

Joan had turned up a day after they had left her, angry and upset. She claimed that they wouldn't be able to win without her, and maybe she was right, but maybe she was wrong. The lines between both were blurred for Robert now, and he could hardly understand anything.

He came off the field one sunny day when it was too sunny for everyone to fight. They retreated under shade nets or into tunnels to escape the sun. His shoulders burned.

Morale was down.
Everyone was scattered.
What was the point?

He lay down under the shade net next to a crate that held medical supplies and dozed off for a bit, waking when a soldier was dragged in and dumped next to him. He didn't personally know the man, but he was cut up badly and incredibly worse for wear, with burns all over his torso. He must have been caught out in the sun.

"You'll be alright." Meg soothed, "Robert, get out of the way."

He jumped up and moved. He was surprised that Meg still had some bones of kindness in her body. If he had her job he would have lost his niceness weeks ago.

"You're under cover now, safe from the sun." Meg continued.

The soldier was squirming in pain. Esther ran over. "Hush, now. Hush. Robert, bring me some water, and Meg, you get my sewing kit."

Robert rushed off to get some water from the massive barrel in one corner of the tent. He was glad to be of some use even though he didn't really want to have gotten up.

Meg was back with the soldier when he got back to the pair. "Make it your best stitches." Meg said, "He was an ugly fellow to start with."

Robert reneged on what he had thought previously. Perhaps she had become cynical like the rest of them.

Esther threaded a needle in record time and started sewing up one of the soldier's wounds - a gash that ran across his lower thigh.

"Very funny, Meg." The soldier whined amongst the pain, "Ow!" He squirmed.

"Belt up, you silly sod. You'll make it worse." Esther hissed, as she kept on sewing.

"I'll do it." Meg said, trying to take over. "You should disappear. Joan thinks you're long gone - retreating or something."

"She can't order me about. I'm not army."

So they were badmouthing Joan? At this rate he would be badmouthing her in a few days. Her last executive choices hadn't been the best and they were losing men faster than they were gaining any footholds. He tried to interject, "She's doing what's best."

"For who?" Esther spat at him, "For Joan the Legend? It's not the best for these poor boys, is it? She's lost it, Robert. She may think she's an angel, but these ones are flesh and blood."
She had a point.

Robert kept his mouth shut.

"That's why she wants you gone." Meg insisted, "How can we win this war if you -"

Esther interrupted her. "We can't win it! Joan's pushed everyone too hard and too far for too long. You two believe it. I can see it in your faces."

"It's true." Robert said, quietly. He didn't want to give her that victory, but she was right.

"We've been trying to make headway for months, even when the palace tries to drag us out to 'make things right'. We've gained nothing. We've lost more boys from sunstroke than from pushing forward. Duncan knows that but Joan knows best!"

"She's praying for a miracle." Meg said quietly.

"Miracle? She should wake up. The other side call her a witch. They used to be so scared of her, but now they want her dead. She has no power any more." Esther wasn't wrong.

Jonty ran up. "Robert! It's Gavin! Help me carry him."

Gavin? No. He couldn't lose any more men from his immediate troop.
Oh please let his injuries be treatable.
Please.

He stood and followed Jonty to another area of shade cloth. Gavin was there, blood coating his entire body. He had also been burnt. His condition was one of the worst that he had seen that day.

They grasped hold of his arms and legs and tried to carry him back to the women without causing too much more pain. The soldier didn't make much noise, which was a sure sign that something was very wrong.

"Esther, here!" Robert yelled as they carried Jonty towards the medical area.

"Argh, go easy." Gavin cried. It was the first proper noise he had made.

"Shut up." Jonty ordered, "I will take you back and dump you."

"Get his gear off." Esther said as they put Gavin down, none too gently, on the sand.

They tried to strip Gavin's gear off without it hurting too much, but it got a point where Robert had to cut some of it off with his sword because the blood had dried and made it into a stiff, matted mess.

Gavin cried out again.

"Will you shut up!" Jonty said, "Don't be such a girl."

"Girl?" Meg interjected, rinsing her hands, "Joan didn't make that racket when she got it in the neck. Where is she?"

"Think she's somewhere down the shade cloth, arguing with Duncan, last I heard." Jonty said, "Push on, she says. Dig in here, says Duncan."

"Dig in?" Esther was outraged, "Solid bloody rock under us, when it's not being dropped on everyone's heads."

Meg examined one of the wounds on Gavin's chest. "This doesn't look good and smells worse. When'd you get this, Gav?"

He didn't have time to answer as Duncan rushed up to them.

"Where's Joan?" Robert asked, anxiously.

"On her way. We're getting out."

"About time." He sighed, "Where too?"

"Two clicks back that way. The sharp bend." Duncan explained.

"They're all sharp. More than can be said about the stupid bitch who got us into this." Jonty huffed.

Robert smacked him in the chest and for a moment, it looked like it was going to turn into a fight.
Joan had done some good. Some.

"Caroline!" Jonty covered his tracks, "Left us holding the baby, eh? She should send more troops, get us out of here, but I don't think that's gonna happen."

"She wants us back, all right." Duncan said, "Got orders to pull back. How's are they?" He gestured at Gavin, who seemed fairly lucid and the other soldier who really didn't look like he was going to pull through.

"Gut." Esther pointed at Gavin, "And he's not going to make it." She waved a hand at the other soldier dismissively, entirely focussed on Gavin.

"Meg! Meg!" Joan ran into the tent. "Get me a needle. I need this sewn up." She waved the binding on one of her sun-protection scarves in their general direction.

"In a minute." Esther bit, "Gavin needs us more."

"Oh Esther, I thought I gave orders for you to go." Joan glared.

"Yeah, well going's not going to work in this light, despite the fact that it may have just clouded over. They need our help, especially if the fighting's going to start again."

Joan drew her sword and advanced on Esther.

Robert leapt up. They didn't need infighting and he would stop it if he had to.

"No harm done!" Meg pleaded, "They need the comfort and I need the help."

"They need to fight!" Joan insisted, "They can hardly stand as it is. I thought you understood."

"So that's it?" Esther stood and moved away from Jonty, "That's what this is really about? Joan the Virgin won't sleep with her soldiers so nobody else can. Real pinnacle you are for the female sex, Joan. One soldier you won't sleep with in particular, ay Joan?"

She was talking about him? But he thought Joan didn't reciprocate his feelings. He had to quickly grab the back of Joan's shirt as she lunged at Esther, sword held right out. "Joan, don't lose it. It's not her fault."

She tore herself free, shirt ripping and swiped her sword over Esther's backside. In front of his eyes, her sword blade snapped, right in two. Oh shit. This wasn't a good sign.

"God's left you, girl." Esther hissed, "Left you to the devil."

Any more fighting was interrupted by Peter stumbling into the tent, breaking apart the tight group.

"Oh my God, Peter!" Joan dropped her sword handle and helped the boy to the ground.

"It's not my blood." Peter gasped, "They've regrouped. The clouds are out and they're coming for us. Half the army."

"We'll go now." Duncan said, panicked, "Try and make it back to a town."

"And then what?" Joan cried, looking up from Peter's face, "Duncan, we pull through."

"No."

"Who's with me? Robert?" Joan looked to him now.

He couldn't. He just couldn't. Even if the boy was exaggerating, they didn't have the resources or the skills or the time or the abilities to make it through. "I'm sorry, Joan. It's going to take more than your voices to get us through this one."

"Bloody madness." Duncan looked at him. "Christ, Joan... I hope to God..." He pulled in a long breath. "Alright. Jonty, Esther, take whoever you need and get the injured out of here. The rest of you, with me."

Esther, shaking her head, dragged Gavin up with the help of Jonty. They walked out the tent, moving far slower that was safe.

Duncan left the tent too, heading to the right.

"You heard the man." He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to go back out there. "Let's go. You'd better take this." He dropped his sword onto the ground next to her.

He left the tent. He could grab another sword from the collection further along the shade cloth. He'd better do it fast too, because the Swynness troops were already in the encampment. He saw an enemy at the barrel of swords and turned around. He was unarmed and he wasn't going to make it. He started running the other way. There was another sword barrel in the other direction, just a little further away. He saw two enemies enter the tent Joan was in. Shit. If she hadn't got out of there...
He ran even faster and stopped at the entrance to the tent. Joan was in there, looking up at two enemies advancing on her.

"What's wrong? Scared to fight me?" One of them sneered.

He looked for a weapon. He could see a sword handle poking out from behind a box, if he could just grab it... He ran inside just as the enemies dragged Joan away from her brother's corpse. "Sorry witch, but Strachan doesn't want a martyr on his hands."

The other enemy said as he started to lead them towards the door, and towards Robert.

Joan spotted him then and screamed, "No Robert! Get out, get out!"

"I'm with you, remember!" He yelled back, doing a dive for the sword. He picked it up without looking. It felt oddly light. He looked down. It was Joan's sword hilt. Crap. Now the enemies were in front of the door and he couldn't get out, shy of sawing through the tent itself.

"What are you going to do with that? Pick my teeth?" The first enemy laughed, dragging Joan out of the door. He ran straight for him, not knowing what he was thinking. He could perhaps use the handle or his close combat skills. He went for the enemy's neck, swinging what was left of the sword madly. There was no hope.

The enemy easily battered the hilt away, drew his sword and before he could move away, stabbed him right in the stomach, holding onto his shoulders so he couldn't move away.

The pain was white hot and he felt himself fading. He wouldn't get out of this one alive. His vision began to blur.

“Robert! Robert!” Joan was screaming but it sounded very far away. He struggled, trying to get back to save her. He had to save her... why did he have to save her?

“Say goodbye to the witch... Robert.” He was dropped, but he didn't feel himself hitting the ground.

There was pain in his chest. He didn't remember what from. He coughed.
There was something stuck in his throat... what was it? He felt another slice across his torso, but it didn't hurt. It was just there. He coughed again, blurry world swirling around him. He spat something out onto the sand. It was red and wet but he didn't know where it came from.

Everything was so light. Where was the light coming from? It was too sunny. He thought the clouds were out...

A shadow fell over him and something mumbled something but he couldn't make out the worse. He felt more slices over his body but there was no pain. He fell back and looked up at the sky. It seemed to be blocked by some kinda of green material but he didn't know what it was... Maybe it was grass. That made sense. Grass in the sky.

A smudged figure leaned over him. They seemed to be saying something but he couldn't hear anything. There was whining in his ears. He wanted to stop it, to block it out, but he couldn't move. Why couldn't he move? The whining was getting louder and louder and he wanted desperately to block it out but he couldn't.

It got even brighter. The sun was getting brighter and bright, whiter and whiter. It didn't make sense. He wheezed, couldn't stop wheezing and then his vision just completely went.

Everything was mercifully quiet.

Chapter Text

He was surprised he was still allowed in the palace, and not locked in a jail cell somewhere, but he was able to walk about wherever he wanted. It was strange.
He decided to visit Joan. After his troops had overcome the Prybourne camp at the base of the pass, they'd captured Joan and brought her to the palace without a scratch on her. He didn't really believe their grandiose tales, but couldn't be bothered following anything up. She was here, in a cell and that was all that mattered.

He grabbed a chunk of bread from the kitchens on the way past. It was incredibly stale, but he didn't know how long it had been since she had eaten and he knew she'd just eat whatever was given to her if she was that hungry.

The cell was down the end of a long corridor. It had shade cloth covering a small portion of the ceiling, which was ridiculous.
Honestly, couldn't they put their distinguished guest in better accommodation?
He supposed the luxury cells were set aside for him if he ever decided to make a break for freedom. He wasn't going to. He was enjoying watching their resolve crumble.

He bribed the guard off with a bottle of wine that he stole from the kitchens on his way through. They didn't need it. They had an excess. He had no clue to where from. Perhaps they were growing vines somewhere.

He went into the cell. Joan was wrapped in a sheet and chained by her feet to the wall.

He leered at her for a moment and then decided to speak, “Dear, dear. How the mighty are fallen. No word from your God yet? No angels riding to the rescue? No voices today? Your story could make an interesting little epic.”

The look she gave him when she realised who it was was of barely disguised malice.

He drew his hand along up in the air like he was trying to spell out a movie title from before the apocalypse. “The Legend of the Warrior Virgin.” Wheeling around, he spoke right at her, “The virgin. How every girl must burn to be so pure. But it's not quite like that, is it Joan? Is vanity pure? Is ego pure? You flatter yourself with the highest motives, but in truth you came for the glory.”

She had. Watching her fight, he could see that she was far too into it for someone who just claimed they were there to end the war. She enjoyed the fight, the leadership, the power, the following. She enjoyed it.

“You judge me?”

He enjoyed the bite in her words. She still had some fight in her yet. He would have her. Just not... yet. Not until she was thoroughly destroyed mentally. “Oh no. I came to bear witness to your motives.” She was an interesting case. He would try and take her back to Swynness when the country had completely fallen to his troops. He would like to study her.

“What I did, I did for God.” She insisted.

He laughed. God again. “God's gone. God's been dead for years. After they dropped the bombs and destroyed the country, they destroyed your pretty little God too.”

“No.”

“God's children have always been slaughtered in his name. It's how history works, my dear.”

“I came to stop the war.” Joan said, sitting up and throwing the sheet off her. She wasn't naked, as he had been hoping, but had been dressed in a flowing white slip that really did nothing to hide her assets. She saw where he was looking and defiantly refused to cover herself again.

“You really believe that, don't you?” He stepped closer, and took a seat on the one seat in the room, a carved wooden number. She dropped her gaze. “That's what makes this all so desperately sad.”

He leaned forward, reached out and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. Her eyes were wide. She was scared. Good. “Lift your eyes from the damn prayer mat for one second and you would see it. Does your God deserve you? Your fierce loyalty? If you really wanted to end this tiresome war, you could.”

She pushed away from his hands. “Get out! Your words are evil and ugly and I won't listen to you any more.”

He leaned forward even more. He really was in danger of falling off his chair. “Why? Because the truth is ugly, not like those sweet little voices you hear?” He waved a hand, “One word from you and your farm boys all go home. They worship you, God knows why.”

He sat back. She looked completely scared enough for the time being. He took the bread out of his pocket and offered it to her. Now was the time to try something he had read about when he was in school, that a fellow called Pavlov had pioneered.

She battered it away without a thought, “My food is prayer.”

Oh would she never stop? It was positively tiresome and he didn't understand her constant faith. “Spiritual masturbation. It's time to wake up. Finish this little fairytale...” He tried to bait her, “Perhaps I can arrange for the court to be lenient if you do a few things for me... One word from you, Joan.”

She glared back at him, defiantly, but not speaking. He was going to say more, convince her to his side, when his pattern of thought was interrupted by a loud clanging at the door.

“I don't care who's in there! Open up!”
Fucking hell. It was that twit David, Joan's lawyer or something.

“Get out of here!” He yelled. What had happened to the fool guard outside?

“I'm here on the court's authority.” David came running in and held out a sheath of papers to him. He refused to take them. “You? Whatever happened to senior council?” He had no choice, “Very well, prepare your client.” He picked up his cane, pushed himself up from his chair and stormed out of the room, not looking back.

He walked down the corridor, fuming. The trial would have been easy, but now she had a lawyer it would be considerably less so. Dammit. It'd take months now that she had a defence. He supposed he should go and prepare some sort of statement.

Then again, there were women to attend to, and with his lack of attention from Joan, he was feeling a little bit needy.

Chapter Text

The room he was in was too white.

The brightness hurt his eyes, hurt his soul. It wasn't something he could just get used to. He briefly wondered if he was residing in the place that commonly was known as the 'next world', but then his vision flickered and the room wasn't as bright. He recognised the light as what desert in the daytime looked like and would have breathed a sigh of relief had he possessed the fine motor skills needed to do so.
He wasn't ready to die just yet, as much as it pained him to think it, not after he had discovered that he had so much to live for.

He wondered where he was. It certainly didn't seem like the palace – there was no windows there for a start, and after all that had happened with Strachan he wasn't sure if the palace was safe any longer.

The ceiling moved as though some invisible hand was tugging at it... wait.. was he... in a ten- then his vision faded out again and he was lost.

He woke again some time later, staring at the same material. It wasn't nearly as illuminated so he reasoned that it must be night or later in the day. Why couldn't he move? It was like his soul was detached from his body or something. He tried to move, to see where he was. For all he knew he could be caught in the enemy's grasp because he had survived. He didn't really think they'd care enough about him to warrant them catching him though. He tried to open his mouth – to speak. His head was spinning, the view swishing and undulating in front of him. Then, he passed out again.

It was the abject, insane pain that woke him the third time. His torso was on fire, white hot flames coursing through his body. He twisted, trying to relieve the ache. His eyes were open, he could see and boy, he could feel.

“Get him under again!” Someone yelled, there was a sharp prick somewhere on his leg and he passed out for a third time.

His dreams were restless, filled with fire and blood and the heat of battle. He thought of Jonty and of Joan and of how he didn't understand what he felt about either of them. He thought of the war and how it had changed so much within him.

He thought of blood and battle, of girls and soldiers, of war and glory.

He woke up screaming.

His eyes flew open and he sat up, and arc of pain running through his torso.
He couldn't see. Why couldn't he see? He glanced around furiously, trying to understand what was going on. He could see faint shapes in the darkness so he wasn't blind, but he didn't know what was happening.

The shapes in front of him shifted as someone came running in. "Ssshhh! Robert! Shhh. Look there's a lantern in here if I can just find it. Just shut up!"
He hadn't even realised he was still screaming. He took in a panicked breath, chest pulling painfully at the movement.

"Good." The voice was hissing urgently and it took him a moment to realise that it was Jonty. "Close your eyes for a second while I turn the light on okay?"

He nodded, remembered that it was dark and Jonty probably couldn't see him and said, "Yes." His throat was dry and hoarse from under use, but his voice was still working. That was a start.

He closed his eyes, but could still see when the lantern was lit. He opened them slowly, expecting his eyes to be blown out with the sheer brightness, but instead only encountering a warm light that barely lit the room. Jonty was peering down at him, concerned, his face marred with cut and scars.

"Shit, what happened to your face?" He said, trying to remember how to speak in real words.

"Pretty much what happened to your entire body, bro. Strachan's troops surprised us.
Jonty spoke quietly, clearly remembering events past.

"Huh? What happened?"

His voice was low, "You don't remember?"

"Last thing I remember was Joan telling us we were pulling back."

Jonty laughed. It was a harsh, bitter thing. "Lucky. Cause what happened next wasn't pretty. They surprised us, wounded a few, stole Joan away and took her to the palace and pretty much just royally fucked us all up the arse."

"Joan? Palace?"

"Shit, your memory is bad. The healer said you'd be a bit foggy because of the cure you've had to keep you knocked out for a bit so you could heal.. but I didn't think your head would be this bad."

"Joan?"

"Strachan got her. She's being held at the palace. Something about her committing treason or something."

"What did I do?"

"You, being an absolute fucking idiot decided to run back and check on Joan. I ran in and saw only bits of what happened but you engaged them - there was two of them by the way - as one of them was dragging Joan off. You grabbed a sword off the ground but it was Joan's broken one." Jonty took a deep breath, his tone changing from something quite clinical to impassioned. He took a step closer to Robert, setting the lantern on the bed beside them. "He got you under the ribs, here." He gently touched a bandage in Robert's lower torso, maintaining eye contact with the older man.

Robert shivered, and it wasn't just from the cold or the fact that they were in a tent.

He slid his hand up Robert's chest to his breastbone where there was another particularly thick wad of fabric. "Got you here too. Spose they thought it'd finish you off."

His throat was even drier still as he spoke. "How-how'd I... survive?" Why couldn't either of them seem to drop their gaze?

"I got him." Jonty drew in a sharp breath, "Held your head in my lap as you bled out."

There was a lump in his throat as he spoke again and he could feel tears threatening to make their way out to greet the world. No! He would not cry! He was a soldier and he was meant to act like one, "Thank you."

"I'm just happy to feel a pulse under my fingers, Robert."

Oh gods above. He'd probably died on Jonty's lap and he'd spent the last forever passed out. He covered Jonty's hand with his own, although the movement did cause him a considerable amount of pain. "You feel that? I'm alive. I didn't bleed out fully in the desert floor thanks to you so thank you."

"Robert." Jonty breathed, "I-"

And then, almost thankfully since Robert was nowhere awake enough to consider what Jonty was about to say next and how to deal with it, his words were interrupted by a woman barging into the tent.

She had deep brown hair plaited neatly at the back of her head, dark skin, and looked incredibly happy to see them."Oh yes!" She said, "Good to know my two lads are finally getting a chance to get reacquainted with each other."

They both dropped their hands. The tension in the air had been replaced with the worst emotion of all - awkwardness.

"We were just-" Jonty began, but looked as though he didn't really know what to say.

"I'm sure you were." The woman smirked, "Now, Robert, darling, my name is Suzan. I am your primary healer."

“As I don’t really get to say it enough, thanks for keeping me alive.” Robert said earnestly. He really was thankful. Despite the world they all lived in being quite shitty, the next world (if there was one) could be worse.

“It was no trouble.” Suzan sighed, “Well, actually it was quite a lot of trouble, but since you’re probably one of the only people who can save us it was worth it.”

Robert shot a questioning look at Jonty who looked away.

“Anyway, how are you feeling?” She questioned.

“Like I was sliced with a sword and sewn back up.” He tried not to seem too grumpy, but his body hurt and he was suddenly so tired.

“Good. Do you know how long you were under?” She asked.

"Couple of days?"

"Robert - it's been just over a month." Suzan explained, looking at him piteously. "We had to keep you under for that long so you wouldn't tear anything. It's been a long month."

"A month! But - Joan!"

"She's fine." Jonty was quick to reassure him,"ish."

“Ish?”

“She’s in a cell. Like I said. Held on trial for treason. The actual trial isn’t for a couple of months though. Think they’re going to draw it out - keep her in there for as long as they can until they build up a plan to get her convicted.”

“Well surely there’s time to get her back?” He cried. She was their only hope. Their symbol was keeping them alive and motivating their troops. Without her they were lost.

“I.. I’ll leave you alone.” Suzan headed for the door. “Make sure he gets plenty of fluids.” She departed quickly, almost like she was trying to avoid a conversation she didn’t want to be part of.

Robert was suspicious. “What is it?” He asked Jonty as soon as the woman had gone.

"Do you want some water?" Jonty said, grabbing a canteen from beside the bed and offering it to him. He was clearly trying to divert the subject of the conversation.

"No.. Yes." He said. His throat was rather dry, "What happened?" He took the canteen.

"You drink and I'll talk."

He drank, mainly just to get the younger man talking.

“Things… uh.. went a bit downhill after you… did your thing. It wasn’t the best month of our lives. Strachan and his troops ran us all out of the area and we’ve had to hide out here.”

The news hit Robert hard, like his greatsword had been stabbed through his chest. “Where is here?”

Jonty looked like he didn’t really want to answer, “It’s an island… off the shore of the palace.”

“An island?” Robert had never even set foot in the ocean. It was too poisonous and rumour had it that it could melt skin off a human in mere seconds. No-one had the guts to test that rumour out though. “How’d we get here?”

“Isabella has taken a shine to you or something. Or perhaps she just likes disobeying Strachan. There’s tunnels running from near the palace to here. They’re pretty weird - full of bones and things, but they’re safe. They’re pre-end of the world apparently.” Jonty explained.

“No-one knows we’re here?”

“No-one. It’s a hollowed out mountain or something that we’re in. We can’t be seen from shore.”

“Good. We can get going now then. The tunnels will be valuable in helping us gain back control of the palace.” Robert bent forward and swept his legs off the bed. He ignored the sharp, tearing pain that flared up across his chest - he’d had worse (he actually hadn’t, but he was trying to ignore that fact). He went to stand, but his head spun and the room swam in front of him.

He stumbled and would have fallen had Jonty not grabbed him across the shoulders and dragged him back onto the bed.

The two men caught their breaths.

Jonty had a funny smile on his face. “Are you not going to run off now?”

“Did you let me do that on purpose?” Robert retorted grumpily.

“You deserved to be taught a lesson. Better you try and be a hero while I’m here than while I’m not.”

“A lesson? Oh kid, you could never have the skills to teach me a lesson.”

“Oh you wish I wasn't brainier than you. Go to sleep, Robert.” Jonty gently pushed him down so he was lying back on the bed properly. “The faster you heal, the faster you can go and save Joan.”

“But I don’t want to wai-” He was asleep before he could properly finish his sentence.

Chapter Text

It was the eve of the trial. It had arrived at last - after countless weeks of interviews and testimonials, the Warrior Virgin was going down. She would be broken. He, along with the help of some slightly biased witnesses, would destroy her.

He didn’t really think he needed to give a testimonial in front of the court, but he was called in along with Isabella and Georgina - the community secretary from Keonidas to give his statement. It was unprepared, but it would be good.

Joan was in a cage alongside one wall. It looked hastily erected, but it was about four metres high and reached the roof. She was curled in a ball and didn’t look at any of them.

Georgina gave her piece with more than a hint of bitterness in her voice. He wondered if Joan was one of the girls who she looked after and just went off the path.

Isabella, who seemed to be half out of her mind at this point talked about how she wanted Joan to be broken. Good. They still got on about one thing. They hadn’t been together since his troops had taken over the castle. He supposed he could have taken her by force, but things would be over soon enough and then he’d have his opportunity. He had been sating his appetite with the women of the castle, but none of them were really fiery enough for him.

He wanted her back. And he would get her back. But not yet.

He was called up to the altar give his piece. They were conducting the trial in the castle’s church, most of the other large rooms too destroyed and sun damaged to keep people safely in. A church was to be the site of Joan’s demise. How very ironic. He cleared his throat and tried to think of what to say. “There’s much more at stake here than one young life.”

Good start. He almost would have patted himself on the back, but that would have been a foolish thing to do in a serious court.
“We must destroy the girl, but avoid creating the legend. We must… show Joan up for what she is. Not blessed or saintly… but arrogant and self serving.”
That would do. He hoped.

The Judge disappeared out the door. He wondered if that was common court practise in Prybourne, it certainly wasn't in Swynness. He looked at the other two. There was no witnesses in the court aside from them at this moment which seemed strange to him, but he supposed it made their presence ever more dramatic.

Isabella, her hair as wild as her fury stepped up to the cage. “The eve of the trial, Joan, alone at last.”

Oh, so that’s what they were doing. He’d wondered why the Judge had left. “No soldiers… no friends… no dreams of glory! No God.”

Georgina stepped closer to the cage. “Just the sun, beating down on you.”

Joan looked up at the ceiling. “No, Robert! Get away!”

Robert? Rumour was that that man had been killed. She was hallucinating. Just another reason to let her rot in a cage somewhere.

“God’s left you girl. Left you to the devil.” He didn’t know what made him say it. There was no God.

“Cate! Please!” Joan was still crying out - to all that she had lost.

“I always knew you were evil.” Georgia stepped right up to the cage and leaned over Joan. “Ever since you were a child. And now look at you. A traitor. Just think about what pain you’ve caused your father!”

Her father! Now this was an interesting development. The woman could be of some worth after all.

“I know father loves me, Cate! But what can I do?!” Joan cried again, still talking to the dead.

“That male dress offends me. You dress in style. As a commander.” Isabella almost spat the word, leaning against the cage herself.

“Even when you were shown up for what you are. A dirty and degraded girl, stripped of her dignity.” Georgina’s words were harsh, but true.

“Peter! Oh I wish you hadn’t come! I was to be the soldier, not you!” Joan called, tears streaming down her face.

“The Warrior Virgin.The legend made flesh. The village girl who would end the war all on her own.” And if he wasn’t mistaken, Isabella almost sounded regretful. He would have to do something about that.

He stepped up to the cage and looked right down at her. She stared back at him defiantly, eyes glassy. “Did you really believe it? Did you? When did it all start? A chance remark, a cruel word from some young boy? Has it all been an elaborate hoax you played upon yourself?”

Joan dropped her eyes, obviously stung from his words. “Don’t believe in me, Robert! I don’t know if I can do it! Please!”

Oh so this was new.

She stood and grasped onto the bars of the cage.

He wanted to stop her, he didn’t want her to get away this easily, but the cage was locked and he bet than none of them had the key. Fine. It was her destiny. “They will cook you, witch.”

“You can change the ending, witch.” Georgina.

“You can fly out of here, witch!” Isabella.

As though Joan was heeding their wishes, she began to climb up the bars of the cage, kicking at their hands as they tried to grab her feet. “I’m not taking the easy way, Robert! It’s the only way!”

“Spread your wings. Spread your wings and fly.” She was going to do it. He could have a little fun with her along the way.

“Oh, Robert, well the Virgin is jumping!” Joan cried, climbing higher.

Their words came thick and fast.
“Finish it, child! Stop the pain now.”
“You've done enough damage already.”

Joan was at the top of the cage, head touching the uneven ceiling.

“How many more people have to die to feed your monstrous ego?!”
“Finish it - finish the pain now!”
“You’re not the legend, so finish it!”
He shouted, “God’s left you girl! Left you to the devil!”

Joan jumped.

Chapter Text

A couple of days later, Robert found that he could actually stand without wanting to pass out which he counted as progress. He wasn't in the best shape of his life, but he had just been in a war and been slashed to pieces so it wasn't too surprising.

His days were spent walking around, trying to regain the essential things that made him him. He didn’t feel like himself. He still wanted to get Joan back, but he had been informed that there was a plan in place that he could have no part of until he was back to proper strength. They were going to get Joan back, they just had to wait. Wait a couple more days and then they’d do it.

Morale was scattered.
Everyone was scattered.

He’d been told that they’d lost a lot of people during the last assault.

Joan’s brother, Peter, had died.
Gavin had too.
Meg and Esther had fled, to where, he had no clue.

There were about forty troops on the island plus a few women, and he hoped there was more elsewhere. The squadron he was part of was supposed to have at least a hundred fifty men. He hoped they’d got away. He’d prayed and hell, he wasn't even sure if there was a god or any sort of deity around in this fucking world, but he’d damn well put his thoughts towards the safety of his men.

He climbed up the hill that dwarfed them all on the island, chest heaving, every breath hurting. He still managed it, though, reaching the top in about fifteen minutes.

He sat on the edge of the cliff that overhung the sea and gazed out across the ocean. He could just see the palace in the distance, the thick cloud cover blocking his vision but also keeping him from burning to death. It seemed busier than usual. The palace, of course, didn’t have to adhere to the no-fire rule and was burning a large fire on their roof, probably to act as a beacon.
But for what?

Duncan, who had just managed to survive the last raid, wouldn't tell him anything that was going on. Wouldn't show him the tunnels back to the mainland either, and had forbidden anyone else from doing the same. Sometimes Robert really hated him.

He tossed a pebble off the edge of the cliff and watched it tumble towards the sea until he couldn’t see it anymore. The waves crashed against the rocks below him and he wondered how long he would survive if he just let go and fell into into the churning sea below. Probably not long, he reasoned. The sea was poisonous and the drop was huge. He’d probably be dead before his head even went under the water.

“Considering chucking yourself off?” A voice from behind him.

He turned. It was Jonty. Of course it was. He had a habit of appearing when he really wasn't needed.
“Just a little.”

“After we’ve just patched you up? Ungrateful.” He came to sit on the edge next to Robert. He was far too close to both Robert and the edge for his liking. He was warm and he was fighting the desire to get even closer.

“Be careful, bro. Can’t lose one of our finest recruits.” He raised his eyebrows at the younger man.

“Finest? Hardly.” The man settled his head on Robert’s shoulder and Robert jumped. He couldn’t help it. It was the proximity and the cliff and oh…

“Do you actually mind.” He said, but there was a smirk in his words. This felt right. He didn’t want it to feel right, to indulge the rumours that had been floating about since fuck knows when, but it did feel right.

“Not really. Do you mind?”

Oh it was as if he knew. “No.” His answer was short. Why was he so nervous? This was ridiculous. It was just the edge of a cliff… and the cocky, smug bastard who had been equal parts awful and wonderful the whole time he’d know him.

"Look, Robert." Jonty hesitated, "I.. Uh... Came up here to talk to you about something I couldn't say the other day when Suzan came in."

He seemed starved of words which was strange considering the man was usually never starved of words. He had a mouth that could talk a raider to death.

"I'm so sorry if you don't like feel this or anything.." He said seriously, lifting his head from Robert's shoulder to look him smack in the eyes.

His heart was thrumming in his ears, his mind completely blank. He couldn't mean, could he... "Feel what, Jonty? Feel what?"

"Like it's only you. It's not other guys.I don't -"

"Don't what?"

"Oh Robert don't fucking make me say that I-"

"Say what?" He was goading him, he knew it but he just wanted to hear him say...
"-that I have a fucking crush on you okay? That I have since I met you!" The words came out in a rush of air but were barely above a whisper.

Oh yes. Oh yessss. He had finally found someone who reciprocated what he felt!

Jonty was looking at him strangely, clearly waiting for a response.

"Oh Jonty." He breathed through his complete brain fog. He didn't know what made him do it, whether it was the sheer feeling of being alive on the edge of a cliff-top or something, but he closed the distance between them and kissed him. It was the simple press of lips, nothing fancy, but it felt so right and when he pulled back Jonty was smiling at him.

"My bro, I have been waiting for that for three fucking years."

"Oh yeah?" Perhaps the sheer happiness from kissing someone after at least five years without doing so was making him cocky but he said,"Tell me, have you been waiting for anything else?"

"Oh, just let me show you."

-

After a lot of hair tugging, some muffled groans from Robert when hands went when they shouldn't have in terms of his bandages and some muffled groans from Jonty where hands definitely went where they should have, the two men made their way down off the cliff face.

They entered the encampment and were immediately assaulted by one of the soldiers, a silver fox captain by the name of Ernest. "Whey hey ladies and gents we have a new pair of fruit on the camp!"

"Oh shut the fuck up Ernest." Jonty muttered, tucking his hands into his pockets.

"I'd go that way myself if everyone around here weren't so ugly." Ernest winked, "I'd give anything to have a bed to share with someone again. Best of luck anyway, boys. I think Duncan's looking for you."

They thanked him and wandered off across the encampment. After a few metres of walking they came across Duncan, who was standing firmly in one spot, looking at them with the most bizarre look. “Lads, do you mind?”

“Mind what?” Jonty asked, and Robert shushed him.

“We have a meeting about the raid. And you two are both late. Need I ask why?” He was looking at them sternly.

“Uh… I-”

“Save it. If you want to get your friend back, we need to organise some things. Come on.” He indicated for them to follow him. “Oh, and boys?”

“What?” Robert said grumpily.

“It’s about fucking time. I’ve been waiting so long to win this bet.”

A bet? On… them? Oh the smarmy bastard.

Chapter Text

She had jumped.

It was the day of the trial and she had been left in her cell overnight, battered and bleeding.

They’d all quickly escorted themselves out of there as soon as she had done so, but no reparations could be taken against them so he didn’t know why they had bothered. They were the literal rulers of the world and the court had no control over them.

The court was called into session for the trial. Alongside Joan, there was Georgina - looking slightly rattled but still somewhat well-pressed, Isabella - who had totally lost her mind, himself - the picture of pure innocence and David - Joan’s lawyer. The rest of the court was filled with people from the palace.
There was no soldiers from either side in sight. He wondered why that was, but it probably was because they had died in their last assault or been run to ground. He didn’t really care. It was better that way. Now they had taken the pass they could get over the ridiculous bureaucracy of war and fix this country up. And by all gods, it damn well needed it. Joan would go down. He knew it, because he had found out something that had happened to her a few months ago and every month since then. She wouldn’t be able to hold a defense against it.

It wasn’t so much a court as an argument.

“She jumped for it. She did it herself! She climbed up that cage and jumped herself. Trial proceeding, the little bitch wanted to kill herself.” He hissed to anyone that would listen.

“She was trying to escape!” Joan’s defense, David, spoke. His argument was tenuous at best. “Can you blame her? She’s been questioned for months. Even in her cell she gets no peace. The prosecution keeps on hassling her.”

“It’s obscene. A girl in the role of a front line soldier. A young woman’s role is to create and cherish life, not destroy it. She had weapons and she used them to kill!” Georgina spoke passionately to the room at large.

“I never killed anyone.” Joan, moving for the first time in almost six hours, whispered.

He snorted. He couldn’t believe it. He’d like to see her say that to all of the parents of the Swynness soldiers that had been killed in their last assault.

“In a time of war, whether you did or not is of no consequence to this court.” The Judge spoke firmly to Joan. “It has come down to four issues. Firstly, the defendant refuses to accept that her voices are false.”

Oh well that was no surprise.

“Secondly, she believes in the right of the individual to make decisions for his or her self. There was a time where this could be so, but now is not that time. The State cannot afford it.”

Joan had always been rather tenacious and clearly this time was no exception.

“Thirdly, she is intractable about her male dress.”

And it was that that really annoyed him. Trousers were for men. Skirts were for woman. It was always that way, and it really made things easier for people like him.

“And fourth, she remains virgin.”

Oh she wouldn’t be. Not for much longer.

“Joan, don’t you realise that you are in terrible danger? Is your belief in your voices, your male dress and your virginity so important that you will risk your life for them?”

There was a pause. The air was so still, so silent.

“Speak, girl.” Isabella growled.

“No.” Joan’s voice was hardly higher than a whisper.

He felt he should step in. He had another thing he held above the girl. “Your Honour, with your permission, there’s one final question I’d like put to the accused.”

“Regarding?”

“It’s the simple matter of her readiness to bear children. Her council -” He waved an unconcerned hand at the slightly mollified David.” -has cited an obscure community law stating that this girl is not required to bear children until she is able to bear children. And so wise.”

He slowly let his lips creep into a smile. Oh she was going to be destroyed but the end of this. “How could we ask a sailor to put to sea without a boat?” He could have probably gone without the airy language, but he was enjoying this moment. “But if the boat is ready? What then? Is your vessel ready, Joan?”

David tried to stop him, shooting a scared look at the Judge and urgently saying, “Your Honour!”

He stepped closer to the cage. “Are you ready Joan? Do you bleed? My guards say that you do. My guards will testify that you bleed monthly.”

He forced back a feeling of revulsion. The topic of menstruation really unnerved him. It was just so disgusting and the women he spent time with became simply insufferable when it was their time.

The trial was still going on, outside of his thoughts.

“It’s true.” Joan’s voice was low.

He smirked wildly. The trial was won. He would have her and this country by daybreak.
The crowd from the palace booed and shouted insults, as well as Isabella. She was clutching onto the cage at this point and at this point and swaying back in forth. He would have stood by her, but he didn’t care enough. He would have whoever he wanted when this country was his. She was old news.

“Joan, by your own words you have condemned yourself. I ask that you confess formally to your crimes against the State and your sins against God.” The Judge quieted the uproar with his speech.

“I have done nothing wrong.”

“Sign the confession.” The Judge ordered. His face was red. Strachan guessed they really weren’t paying him enough for this.

Joan sat up - her face blazing with fury - and he could actually see why people followed her. Why she was such a leader. They were all misguided, but she had definite power in her face. “I will not! You may say that I am a traitor or a witch, but I know my voices and I know God. I wear a soldier’s clothes because I was destined to be a soldier and I remain Virgin because God chose me to finish the war and bring peace.”

So that was her defense? He bet her lawyer was fuming.

The Judge looked like he just wanted to leave. “I sentence you to death by exposure.”

What?
“You will be taken to the courtyard, stripped of your garments and your dignity and left to the mercy of the sun.”

But - but - no! She wasn’t supposed to die! “Your Honour! This is a mistake! We need a confession, not a martyr.” He was shaking. He was so close to his victory and the fucking State decided to ruin it for him. He would take her and this country. She wouldn’t burn.

Joan’s lawyer spoke up, quietly. “I can persuade her.”

The witch’s gaze shot to him. “No David!”

“I need to speak to her alone. Away from the gaze of the court.”

The Judge sighed. “Fine. The rest of you get out. We’ll restart soon.”

Strachan stormed out as fast as his cane would take him - looking for a stiff drink and a quick fuck to calm his nerves.

It wasn’t long before he was told that Joan had signed the confession under the bequest of her lawyer. His roar of rage was heard across the palace. She would have more time to build a better defense. He wouldn’t have the country that night after all.
She wasn’t going to die that day, but she would have more of a chance to counter her. Dammit.

But he would have his way with her. Something good would come out of this damn day.

Chapter Text

He walked along the corridor to Joan’s cell a couple of hours after the ‘trial’ had happened. He was reluctant to even call it that.

There was no justice shown at all and no-one was really put to trial. He heard voices when he was a mere few steps from the opening that served as a door to the cell. The guard posted outside - one of his men - nodded at him. He would have gone in, but the voices stopped him.

It was the lawyer - David. He was talking to Joan in a low hiss. “-there’s still hope. You said ‘I want your baby, David, but not yet. There’s something I have to do first.’ Don’t you think you’ve done enough, Joan?”

“What are you saying?” Joan’s voice was crackly and very suspicious.

Was the man-child saying what he thought he was saying? He had a good idea.

“You’ve done everything your God has asked of you. You’ve stopped the war.”

Hardly.

“Tonight, I’ll come to your cell.”

Oh David was saying what he thought he was going to.

“A baby. An unborn child. That’d save you. They can’t execute you if you’re pregnant.”

“NO!” Joan’s cry was anguished - followed by a rush of sobs.

“It’ll buy us more time. Please, Joan.”

He thought he would be the one to take her first? He was wrong.

“I can’t.”

“You’ve confessed, Joan. It’ll have to happen soon.”

“I can’t!” She cried.

“Please Joan.”

It was quiet - so quiet - for so long in the cell that Strachan was thinking about sending the guard in to rouse the up pair himself.

“Fine.” The agreement was quiet. So quiet.

“Joan, I love you, but I have to go. I’ll be back tonight.” David’s voice was soft. He was trying to calm her, but it didn’t seem to be working.

He had seconds to formulate a plan. The lawyer came out of the cell room and Strachan indicated with a flick of his head for the guard to grab him.
“Shut up, David or I will slit your throat.” He then addressed the guard. “Put him in a cell. Somewhere - out of the way. And don’t come back for at least fifteen minutes.”
His words were quiet. He didn’t really want Joan to expect anything. Or perhaps her voices would tell her. He doubted it. They had seemed to desert her in her moment of crisis. Wasn't that ironic.

The lawyer looked enraged, but Strachan just smirked at him. The pair walked off down the corridor, David struggling, but still not making any noise.

He went into the cell room. It was small and the roof was covered in layers of shade cloth, presumably to keep the sun out.
Joan had her head down and was facing away from him, curled in a ball in the far corner of the cage. She stirred as he walked in.

“David?”

“Oh, I wonder why you’d be expecting David back after the ultimatum he just gave you." He purred.

She looked at him in horror, her eyes widening. “Strachan!”

“That’s my name. I don’t want you to say it unless you’re screaming it.”

She completely ignored him. “The Judge said I’d get women's clothes. Where are they?”

He didn’t know what she was talking about and also didn’t particularly care. “The Judge is a mere cleric, a paid lackey of the State.” He limped closer to the cage. She shuffled back, as far away from him as she could, but there was a wall to her back and the cage was only about a metre wide. “You’re going to burn, Joan. They’re going to stretch you out and cook you.”
He didn’t know why he was milking it. It wasn’t as though he particularly wanted her to burn to death. A lifetime in his cells on the other hand…

“I confessed. But they can’t!”

“Oh but they can and they will. With your confession they’ll feel more righteous.” As if the wicked, twisted courts had any desire to be righteous. The courts had been rigged and flawed even before the apocalypse. “It’s a mistake of course. Burning will just turn you into a shining beacon of hope.” It was time to drop the facade. “I, personally, think that your faithful David has the right idea.”

His words hit her straight in the face. She tried to inch away, but she was right up against the wall. “D-David?”

“I’m not stupid.” He bent down, right down to her level. His leg twinged in protest, but he ignored it. “What would save you? An unborn child? Oh gosh, how sweet. Even he’s using you in the end.” And he was. Clearly they had some relationship that he had no idea about, but he just seemed like he was trying to get his ins right at her end. “Not David’s child though. Mine.” He reached a hand through the bars and ran a finger down her cheek.

She shuddered.

“I think I deserve it.” Oh he did. After dealing with this bitch and her problems for the last year or so, he wanted some payback. “I’ve worked so hard for this. I deserve to be the first to punch a hole in your precious halo.” It was crude, but he got the shocked groan he wanted from her.

He could have taken her right there. He could have. He was half-hard already at the promise of things to come. But it was late afternoon and the palace still had lots of people in it. He could have been stopped mid-everything and he didn’t want that. He wanted to relish in it. He would have had to wait for nightfall. Get rid of her little boyfriend and take her how and when he wanted. “Until tonight, my precious virgin. My legend made flesh.”

He withdrew his hand and struggled to his feet, pain shooting through his upper thigh. She had her eyes closed and was shaking. It was an image he would remember. “Until tonight, my darling.”

Then he turned and limped out of the room, taking one last glance at her cowed position on his way out.

Chapter Text

“Lads, swords at the ready! Anyone who falls back we’re leaving behind!” Duncan ordered over the general cacophony. It was the day of the raid. Rovert had begged to be allowed to come on the raid, despite his poor health, and Duncan seemed reluctant to let him come. Jonty was, surprisingly on his side and together they had managed to convince Duncan to see things their way.

They would take the palace and then figure out what to do. It was a shonky plan at best but they hadn’t been able to get much more intel on the situation. Getting Joan was a secondary objective, which Robert wasn’t too happy about. They needed her back.

He, Jonty and a few seasoned veterens were allocated to find Joan once they had taken over the palace. She would be alive. She had to be alive.

The mass of soldiers - about forty odd - were eerily quiet as they made their way through the tunnels, lit only by a few flaming torches which they shouldn’t have been burning.

An feeling of anticipation hung in the air. Robert was twitchy. Something about this didn’t seem quite right to him. He didn’t like investing so much trust in Isabella, she who was notorious for not planning ahead.

All seemed fine when they reached the exit of the tunnels, though. Duncan - who, as a commander, was at the front of the pack - pushed the hatch up and light flooded in, making Robert squint. It was a semi-cloudy day, and near nightfall and he hoped that they didn’t get a sudden break in the weather whilst they were outside. Sunlight at this point would mean certain death for all of them.

When he finally dragged himself out of the hole, shoulder protesting at every movement (which he was vehemently trying to ignore) he realised they were in the shell of a building. There was a sign on the ground, paint peeling off it, and he could barely make out words on it that read ‘upermarche’ or something like that one it. He supposed it was leftover from before the war but he didn’t know what it meant. He’d ask someone later when they weren’t about to raid the most secure place in their world.

There was a short run from the building that they were in to the palace. He worried that Isabella hadn’t send an envoy. He worried a lot. The palace towered over them, positively dwarfing them with its sheer size.
This looked harder than he thought it’d be. The palace had always seemed a lot smaller when he wasn’t raiding it.
Their boots crunched through the loose gravel scattered across the hard-packed dirt of the ground. He hoped that no-one in the building could hear it. Their plan hedged a great deal on their stealthy entrance and eventual overcoming of the palace without alerting too many guards. With the element of surprise gone, they’d almost certainly be lost.

The gates to the palace were manned by two bored looking guards who went down without a sound by some men near the front of the pack. The gates to the palace were already open… like they were expecting guests or something!

Robert’s stomach did a nervous flip. He felt like they were walking into a trap. It didn’t make sense.

Then they walked into the shade-cloth-covered intermediary area between the outside world and the palace and then everything was cleared up. There were at least a hundred horses tied to stakes around the perimeter of the room, many of which that balked at the arrival of the men.
Shit. This couldn’t be - Isabella couldn’t be holding some sort of gathering, could she? He thought she was on their side! Oh he hoped that she still was. If she had let it slip to Strachan then there was no doubt that there were enemies lurking around every corner.

Duncan bid them to halt. “Alright you lot.” He said, looking at them tersely. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I think we should continue with our original mission.”

There was a murmur of discontent that came from one side of the group. Duncan frowned. “Look, if you want to go back, by all means go back. No-one will think any less of you, but make up your mind now.” He paused.

Everyone looked around, but to the credit of everyone in attendance, no-one moved.
“Fine. Come on then. Stick to the original plan and we will have this palace. Tonight. And we’ll get Joan back if we’re lucky.”

They took the palace by storm, coming out of nowhere and overcoming the guards that came to attack them. Robert was almost surprised with how well it was going but he knew it wouldn’t last. He’d taken to never having a positive frame of mind because in a war, something was always hiding around the corner to turn your good day into a bad one.
He still felt sick and anxious. They had found a room full of guests, wining and dining to their hearts content, but they had found no Strachan, Isabella or Caroline. They were the ringleaders and they needed to get them. They hadn’t found Joan either.

They took control of the room with the guests in it. They didn’t kill them, but instead Duncan set about getting some of the men to process them and sort them - to decide what they were going to do with them. They weren’t going to be keeping their horses, that was certain. He ordered, “Okay, now, Robert, take your team and find the Virgin.”

With his commander’s blessing, Robert pushed his team to scour the palace for the Warrior Virgin.
He had fallen back, chest heaving - these injuries really made living hard when they reached the end of a corridor. A man, clad only in black was standing, with his back to them staring through a cutout in the wall. He was silent.

“You. Turn around - all weapons on the floor.” Robert ordered.

The man turned.
It was Strachan.

Oh it was about time he’d come face to face with that bastard.

“Grab him.” He said, his voice gruff. The man was going to get the penance he was well over due.

Two of the members of his group went and frisked the enemy, then restrained him.

“You’re too late.” Strachan said, victorious. “Your little friend is gone.”

“How do you mean, gone?” Robert said, curious despite himself.

Jonty, by this point, had walked through to the hole in the wall. He looked in, staggered and leaned against the wall. “Don’t - don’t listen to him boss.. Just - we’ll just go.” He had paled dramatically and looked like he was going to pass out.

“What is it?”

“She’s gone. Burnt to death. Sorry!” Strachan sang, smirking wildly. “Shame I didn’t get a go with her first.”

Robert - absolutely burning with fury strode over and shoved the man against the wall. “What the fuck did you do?!”

The older man grinned down at him. “Nothing. She offed herself. The Warrior Virgin - dead at the impasse. Isn’t it ironic. Go and have a look.”

“I’ll fucking deal with you later.” He punched the man in the face for good measure and walked towards the doorway.

Please. No. Please let him be lying. Please let this be another one of the enemy’s ruses. He would take being locked up in a foreign prison if Joan wasn’t -

“No.. boss. S-s-stay back.” Jonty held up a weak hand to stop him but he pushed past him and -
There was a heap of bones on the floor and a pile of white clothing nearby. White, soldier’s clothing. Joan’s clothing. Joan. Joan. Joan.
He turned and retched, staggering onto whatever would hold his weight. The bones - that had been Joan once. A living, breathing, thinking human being once. Their idol, their icon, their friend. No no no no no no. No. No. He wouldn’t. Strachan! Strachan would pay.

He clambered off the floor, his world swinging around him, disjointed and out of focus. He would pay. He drew his sword. “What. Did. You. Do?” He growled, his throat hoarse. He hadn’t even realised he was crying. He drew the blade right across the enemy’s throat, the sword razor sharp. If he pressed down, the man would be dead in seconds.

“Nothing.” Strachan held his gaze firmly. “I saw her a couple of hours ago. Suppose it was that burst of sun we had earlier that did it.... Might have been the fact that I was going to come back and get her pregnant tonight as well y’know.”

Oh that fucker. “I will do it.” He sobbed, whole body shaking. “I will kill you.”

“Go ahead. Death won’t bring her back.”

“I will!” He cried, nearly dropping the sword. “You won’t see the-the-the morning.”

Then Jonty was there, dragging him away from the murderer. “Don’t, Robert. Don’t put this on your conscious.” He was calm. How was he calm?

Robert kicked and scratched, trying to get away. “Please. Please let me kill him.”

“I won’t. Let the courts deal with him. Let him rot in a cell for his life. Let him feel what she felt, I don’t know. Just don’t do it yourself.”

He fell to the ground, sending shooting pains through his lower body that he hardly felt. Jonty fell with him and he pulled him into his arms. “I-want-I…”

“I know.”

He wept into Jonty’s shoulder as his entire world fell apart.

Later, when he wasn’t composed, but at least he could talk, he stumbled his way back into the main meeting hall of the palace, looking at no-one and keeping his gaze firmly on the ground. The image of those bones would haunt him for the rest of his life and he just felt so guilty. If they had gotten there a little earlier - if Strachan had been taken care of y someone else - if the sun hadn’t come out - if - if -if.
Isabella was there, in chains. There was no sign of her daughter.

The bastard from Swynness was there as well and shook his chains as Robert passed him by. He didn’t have the energy to retaliate, to even try. He collapsed onto a crate near the edge of the room and wrapped his arms around his knees. He just wanted to world to disappear.

“The palace is ours!” Duncan yelled over the general noise of the men. There was a halfhearted cheer.

“Not for long.” The Ambassador spoke quietly, but his words were definitely loud enough for everyone in the room to hear them.

“What is it?” Duncan said, looking completely over Strachan’s shit.

“My troops. There’s a bunch who are going to be here in about… oh ten, fifteen minutes? Funny how you can prepare when someone tells you a top-secret plan of your enemy.” The man scoffed, casting his gaze around the now very angry and scared soldiers.

Oh he hadn’t. First Joan and now this?!
“You’re lying.” Duncan said, folding his arms.

“You wish I was. Isabella, darling, who isn’t very much in control of her mental facilities right now told me everything. About your secret tunnels and island and such… Some of my men are probably destroying your safe route back right about… now. Hey look, I’ve won again.” Strachan sneered.

There was a feeling of indecision about the room. No-one knew whether to believe him or to think that he was lying. He had lied a lot already - but then again, who hadn’t?

“You should believe me.” Strachan raised an eyebrow, “I’m telling the truth. He would know.” He nodded his head towards Robert.

All the eyes in the room turned to him. He responded with the only energy he had - a slight shrug.

“Look, just send a scout out.” Jonty sighed, coming to rest on the box near Robert. “It’ll save time and we won’t have to deal with his crap.”

That was a good suggestion and Duncan did exactly that.
Robert stared at the floor. He couldn’t stop seeing those bones. The bones that’d been a living, breathing person nigh on three hours ago. It hurt so badly. He felt so guilty that he’d left her here, that he hadn’t come earlier, that he hadn’t saved her, that he HADN’T DONE SOMETHING.
He couldn’t think, he couldn’t feel time, he just couldn’t feel anything.

It could have been hours or days for all he knew, but the scout rushed back in, interrupting the uneasy chatter in the room.
"Strachan's right!" He screamed, "Swynness troops! Thousands of them!"

Robert looked straight at Strachan who was laughing mockingly. "You're all going to die." He crowed, "The palace will be mine."

Before he had even realised where he was going and what he was doing, Robert had his sword drawn and was standing in front of Strachan. "I should kill you." He growled, his voice rough from crying.

He was rewarded with just a sliver of fear in those brown eyes that was quickly covered by a mask of indifference. "You wouldn't."

"Oh I would. I really would. Don't test me, Strachan."

"You don't have the guts." The man sneered.

And then he was yelling. He didn't even know why. "You killed the woman I loved, Strachan! You're sending in troops to slaughter the rest of us, including the man I love."

There was a pick-up in the noise around them, but he didn't react.

"This is not a vendetta, Ambassador." He drew out the word, "Your death would save the world so much heartache."

Strachan's eyes were wide. It seemed as though his little outburst had had some impact on the man. "You can't."

"I can." He was trembling so much that he could hardly left his sword, but he managed to and pressed it against the Ambassador's neck, not hard enough to break the skin, not really, but just as a reminder.

"How does it feel now?" He shook, pure emotion running through him, "How does it feel not to be the one holding all the cards?"

"Do it, boy." Duncan yelled over the general hubbub in the room, "If you're going to, do it now!"

He must! He must! The Ambassador must die! He had taken so many lives before, why couldn't he do it with this one? It would be simple, just one press down and then the Ambassador would be gone. He willed for his arm to move but it wouldn't react. It just wouldn't. Fucking hell. Why couldn't he get it to move? He had killed so many people before but why not now?

"Robert." He felt a hand on his shoulder. Jonty. Why did it always have to be Jonty? "Don't."

He felt his resolve completely go at any sort of resistance. "I can't." His arm trembled as he let the sword drop to the ground. He stepped away.

"I knew you wouldn't have it in you." Strachan scoffed, his lips curving into a spiteful smile. "I knew you were a coward. Ever since I first met you."

He turned away. He couldn't handle admonishment right now.

"Robert's a good man." Jonty said. He heard him picking up the sword from the ground and he turned just in time to see Jonty slash Strachan's throat and blood pour down his opulent palace robes. "I am no such man. I hope you rot in hell, Ambassador." He spat the title.

"Fuck you... Prybourne... fuck all of you..." Strachan croaked and then his head dropped to his chest.

All was still.

"I didn't know what to-" Jonty said, turning to face Robert with an odd look on his face, but he didn't get a chance to finish his sentence as Robert was kissing him - all his thanks and relief and THANKS pouring out in that one movement.

"Thank you so much." He breathed, breaking the kiss and pressing their foreheads together.

Jonty's eyes were shining. "Robert... do you really... love me?"

"Since you were just a recruit. You're annoying, and crazy and you care way too much about me, you egg, but I love you."

"As you should."

Chapter Text

He would have kissed the younger man again had Duncan, from some place that seemed a whole country away not cleared his throat and said dryly, "Well now he's dealt with, which is all well and good, but boys, do you think we could leave the marriage proposals till later? We're about to have a whole army come down on our asses."

Ah yes. They were still in a room with a bled-out corpse of one of their greatest enemies and about fifty other soldiers on their side. Awkward.

Robert cleared his throat. He really hoped he didn't looked as thoroughly debauched as he felt. "Right. Orders, sir?"

"It's past the point where we can run." Duncan said, after a short pause.

"Is it? Because if it's as bad as he said," Jonty pointed at the scout, "then I am ALL for running."

Robert elbowed him.
Jonty responded by grabbing his hand and clasping their fingers together.

Duncan looked like he was about to roll his eyes. "There's a whole bunch of horses out there. We take this one," He pointed at Isabella who had been remarkably quiet during the whole scenario, "and fight our way out. Leave the party guests here as they'll be pretty useless without their horses. Try and confuse the Swynness troops and then run for the hills. We know the terrain far better than they do which'll give us a headstart. Then we head back for camp and try and work out what to do."

"If it's as bad as the scout said then the entire country will be swarming with troops." Ernest noted. “How do we know that they won’t have gotten to the encampment?”

“How do we know?” Duncan said, “We don’t. But I’m not hearing any other plans from you lot, and at least if we get back to the encampment there might be some more troops there.”

It seemed like it wouldn't work, but hell, he hoped it would. He'd come so close to death that he was beginning to wonder whether he was part cat, but his immunity didn't seem to extent to others around him. He didn't want his squadron to die, or the platoon he was part of. He didn't need or want more death, but that seemed to be the only way out.

"Robert, you take the lead." Duncan said, but didn't seemed too happy to be saying it.

"What?"

"You lead the squad. If you can't fight your way through them, just run. Just take as many and get out of there. I'll take the back and if I tell you to go, you go, okay?"

Duncan was telling him to leave him behind? What? "With... respect... I can't do that, Sir."

"You will." Duncan snapped. "You have the wits to get a group out of here alive, and if that means leaving me behind, so be it."

"But -"

"No buts, Robert. Don't jeopardise what you've got because of me. Perhaps it is time for me to die. I've been fighting long enough."

"Fine." He was resigned to it. How could he argue? He had so much to live for and this time, he didn't want to die. He wanted to fight through them and escape. With Strachan gone and Isabella captured, how long would the palace and the monarchy last? Perhaps they were at the beginning of a new era. Perhaps they'd be able to restore the world.

"Go on. Take twenty and the rest of us will follow." Duncan ordered.

"What about Isabella?" He asked.

She glared at him and spat on the floor in front of her bonds. Wow. Gone was the impassioned, rational queen that he used to know so well.

"I will take her." Duncan sighed, "We'll deal with her properly when we get back to the encampment. If we get back to the encampment."

So he took twenty men and led them out to the horses that were tied up in the intermediary area. He was still not sound of mind, but he had to get them out of there alive. He had to. He'd lost enough already.
The guests that had arrived for Isabella's party had been slain or left tied up for the mercy of the Swynness troops. He didn't want to know what would happen when they found them. Something about getting the spoils of war rubbed him the wrong way.

The horses were - predictably - not too happy to meet them. Some were skittish and some were just plain pissed-off. He knew the feeling. He wondered what had happened to his own Alcippe. She had been so much help to him over the years and he hoped that she had escaped when everything had gone wrong. That horse deserved so much better than him or some Swynness soldier.

After they had all managed to saddle their horses up to some degree, Robert ordered them all to mount up and said, "Look, I don't know what's going to happen when we leave the palace grounds, but I really hope we all survive. I've had the pleasure of fighting for what's right with you all and I thank you. You've done a lot for a cause that may have seemed hopeless at the start, but look where we are now. It's time for us to lead the rest of the troops to victory and it may seem bad, but we can do it. The Virgin said we'd have victory and we will." He threw the last part mentioning Joan in at the end, although it hurt his heart to do so. The men hadn't been the happiest with Joan in the last few days of their campaign, but it had been obvious to all that she was beneficial and had helped them. They needed any sort of morale booster at this point.

"We fight, we die. I've had the honour of fighting with all of you." He said firmly, "Now we move out."

He urged his horse forward. His horse, a bay that looked the closest to Alcippe that he could find, tossed his head, but started to walk towards the gates of the palace. His stomach twisted. This could be the end. For all he knew this could be the end.

The gates of the palace were thankfully, not overcome by soldiers yet, but he could see horses in the distance, not too far off, and it looked like a lot of them too. Their numbers were at least quadrupled, perhaps even more. Shit. He took a deep breath.

"Swords up, men!" He yelled, and drew his sword. "Forward!"
And so they went forward. Despite the difference in armies, their first assault was strong and they managed to hold the first wave, a group of about a hundred men and horses. He didn’t know how they did it, but the Swynness troops went down almost without a fight. It was when he spotted the sheer mob that was coming towards them through a somewhat narrow pass that had the sea running along the left side and a sharp drop off cliffs on the right, he knew that they were screwed. That army was much bigger, had much more power. But then… hang on. He knew that there was some way that they could defeat them. They had more power, sure, but that didn’t always mean anything. These men were the best of the bunch if they had survived this far and surely they must have skills. The cliff on their left side wasn’t the steepest, it seemed to be some kind of man-made basin in the dirt, but it’d suffice for his plan. Hopefully.

“Alright.” He yelled over the general din. “Who here can ride properly? And by properly, I mean really well. Really well. If you can, go to my right.”

He managed to gather a group of ten or so people, including Jonty, who said that they could ride fairly well. By this point, Duncan and the rest of the platoon had ridden up to them.
“What are you doing?” Duncan asked, curiously, but not in an overly hostile manner.

“Saving us?”

“Fine.”

“Look, we’re going to use a split manoeuvre, I’ll find their leader, and me and them,” He pointed to the people who said they could ride well, “will charge their ranks and get to the leader. Hopefully that’ll scatter them enough and drive some of them into the sea. You take the left flank and hold defense - try and get them off the cliff. That way we’ll be able to scatter them and drive them off. Hopefully.” Robert basically explained his plan to both Duncan and the general group around him.

Duncan was looking at him with what looked almost like appreciation. “Good plan.” He said, begrudgingly. A compliment? Wow. He’d worked with the man for many years and it was the first time he’d ever said anything nice about Robert.

“Yeah, if it works.”

He told the others of his idea and assembled them into some sort of group, in a triangle formation with him as the leader. He was putting himself right in the middle of the action, but hell, with troops like this they needed some guidance. “We have to stay together!” His words were firm. It was imperative that they stayed together. “Like an arrow. This isn’t going to work otherwise.”

“Arrow?” He heard one of the soldiers ask.

Oh hell. These young people and their lack of knowledge. “You know, like a triangle?” He called back.

He heard more signs of confusion. “Look, just stay staggered in the way I put you and stay together and it’ll work. Don’t get near the sea and follow me.”

“Hey boss, you’re a poet and you didn’t know it!” Jonty chuckled from somewhere behind him.

“Fuck up. We have a job to do.” He was a little short with the man he had confessed his undying love to several minutes previously, but they were about to fight the biggest army he had ever seen. A little peace and quiet - hell, even the quiet, because he wasn’t expecting any peace, would have done.

Nearby, Duncan was lining the rest of the troops up in lines, about six across. They didn’t look happy, which would have been a surprise to nobody. Almost certain death did that to a man.
The Swynness troops were getting closer. Robert could feel the hoot beats from the ground and he was sitting on a horse. Not good. Not good at all.
“We’re going to have to… you know, get ready?” He yelled to Duncan, anxiously.

The Swynness troops were about three hundred metres away and gaining. But they… seemed to be slowing. What? They stopped, a mere fifty metres away. They were so close that Robert could see the whites of some of their eyes.

“You!” A voice from the Swynness side.

“What?!” Robert yelled back. He couldn’t help himself. Perhaps the power was getting to his head.

Duncan, now on his horse, shot him a dirty look.

“You have two choices - to surrender now or we will slay you all.” The voice was coming from the middle of the pack. He squinted. The man seemed to be wearing some kind of elaborate headdress. Really? Was this their leader? Was it going to be this easy - if easy was them fighting their way through at least a hundred troops to get to said leader.

“I really don’t feel like being slain or surrendering today, thanks!” He was almost giddy with the power. This was becoming a problem.

“Where is the Ambassador?” The voice called.
Ah. So this was something they held over the Swynness troops. That was good. Perhaps this’d get them to back off. “Dead!”

There was a murmur of discontent from the Swynness side. Ah. Judging by the way they were grasping their weapons and looking somewhat angry, he thought he may have made them a little bit more mad. Bad idea.

“You will all die tonight.” The voice was loud and mocking, in a very Strachan-like tone. He wondered if the person was a relative. It wouldn’t matter. He would soon be dead on the ground like his compatriot.

“Not really feeling that, actually.” Robert’s last words to the man dropped off as he directed his small squad to get into position.
There was an even louder discontented noise coming from the other side. He waved at Duncan. “May God help us.” He whispered and then gave the signal to charge.

It was damn scary making their way into the midst of the group. They were clearly very surprised by their ad-hoc rush tactics, but they weren’t surprised for long. Robert managed to drive at least one rider into the ocean on his quest to find the leader of the group, and said rider started screaming as soon as he touched the water. Hmm. Seems there was some truth in the ‘poisonous ocean’ myth.
The horses weren't happy, completely losing their minds when they came so close to the horses of the other side. He fought to keep his mount in line, as he bored down on the man who was wearing a massive headdress.

Was this some kind of Swynness custom? He didn't know. The man's eyes widened as his triangle formation came ever closer to him, defending attacks off from all sides. He looked as though he would try and fight them, but when they got about five metres away, he urged his horse around and took off back the way the Swynness troops had come.
The lack of a proper leader was obvious to the Swynness troops. They seemed to lose all guidance and even some tried to turn their horses around and follow their leader back to relative safety.
It wasn't too hard to pick off the rest of the troops who were scattered and confused. They'd been in a war for so many years, everyone was tired but the Prybourne troops were used to fighting with reduced numbers.
Robert thought he might have tore something in his chest when he lent down for a final slash at an enemy who was in the process of falling on the ground, the pain was so great. But no! He didn't have time for this, despite how much it had hurt. He had had worse. Much worse. Pretty recently too. Honestly, it was like battles came to a climax or something. Ugh.

When all of the Swynness troops had scattered or been killed, Duncan called them all to a halt. "I don't know how you lot did it, but it appears we survived. That's a surprise."

"Famous last words?" Robert asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I hope not." Duncan urged them forward, "Come on. We'll see if we can get to a decent stopping place before night fall. I hope they don't come back."

So they rode on.

They would have reached a decent stopping place by nightfall had they not rode around a corner about twenty minutes later and been stopped in their tracks by a roadblock that was metres high that spanned the entirety of the pass. There was a gate in the middle that was heavily guarded and there was no doubt that there was other troops inside, ready to kill them without a thought.

"Ah... knew it was too good to be true." Someone said out of the group from some point behind them.

"What do we do now?" Robert asked, looking at Duncan.

He looked even more perplexed than he felt. He rubbed a hand over his forehead. "I don't really know."

"You don't know? You're the commander here!" Shit. If Duncan didn't know, then who did?

"Yes... but I haven't encountered this before. They must have run back here to get behind the barricade. Dammit. These things always come in threes."

“Don’t start with that bullshit, Duncan.” Jonty interjected, “What are we going to do?”

Duncan looked uneasy. That wasn’t a positive sign. “Just fight our way through. What else can we do?”

He was going to say something, to protest, but then some troops emerged out of the massive gate and started making their way towards them. Fine. “At arms, men!” He yelled.

The fight was brutal. He got knocked off his horse and had to spend the rest of his time on the ground, trying to gain a foothold despite the obvious height difference between him and the people he was trying to fight. They were struggling, he could see that. They weren’t going to win. It was as plain as that, although he didn’t really want to admit that to himself. He wiped a splatter of blood out of his face and sniffed. There was so many of them and so little of their own troops. Even with double the troops they wouldn’t be able to make it. It just wasn’t possible.

He was backed into a corner, flat up against some rocks that he had no hope in hell of climbing with enemies advancing from every side. He had no hope of survival. He couldn’t beat death another time. He was no cat and he’d used up his chances. The war would be over for him at least. Now he would be free.

He scrunched down into the corner, nowhere to go. He wished - he wished that he could see the faces of those he had lost one more time. Esther… Meg… Joan.

He heard a battle cry from the distance. Probably more Swynness troops to come and get them out of the way. The war would be over soon enough and they weren’t to be on the winning side.

“Please.” He begged for his life. Six months ago he mightn’t have done it. Six months ago he wasn’t the man he now was. Six months ago he didn’t have a partner and he hadn’t had hope. Now his hope was gone again and he would die.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He was no coward, but he didn’t want to see yet another blade coming towards his face. He’d had enough of those for one lifetime.

He heard the sound of blades, of hooves, of screams and of slicing. He clenched his eyes shut as tight as they could go. It would be his turn soon. He wondered how it would feel. Would it be a complete lack of awareness like last time? Would it hurt? Would it-

Chapter Text

“Robert, you absolute numpty. Stand up.”

What?
He slowly opened his eyes. Above him there was a figure on horseback. He squinted. It couldn’t be… “Esther?” He croaked.

“You’re damn right. Get up.” She said, but he could see that she was smiling.

He staggered to his feet. Around him, the battle still raged, but the enemies who had been coming for him had been slain.
She offered him a hand. “Come on. We have to go.”

He clambered onto the horse, who wasn’t too pleased at his presence. Around him he could see his troops getting mown down by the people of Swynness, but there were also others - others he vaguely recognised helping Prybourne troops to their feet and onto horses.
“What is this?” He gasped. The Swynness troops were looking stunned at the sudden rush of new people on horseback.

“We’re saving your lives.” Esther said, “Now hold tight.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist as she urged her horse to a gallop. The Swynness troops were trying to fight back as a sheer amount of horses and Prybourne troops got the hell out of dodge.

“Where have you been?” He yelled.

“Shut up and let me ride, would ya? You’ll get your answer soon enough!” She replied, looking straight forward.

They rode through the gates that were now open, scattering Swynness troops as they passed. He cried out in absolute joy and relief as they escaped. Oh, he had thought it was the end. It wasn’t and the relief was so encompassing that he couldn’t help but make noise.
The only thing that worried him was Jonty. They’d gotten separated during the last charge and he hoped he was okay. The man was a serious part of his life now and he couldn’t - he didn’t want to escape that.
The wind rushed through his hair. It really needed a cut, getting to the long and shaggy point where it was getting in his eyes during battles. It just was that he hadn’t had the time or energy to do something about it.
He laid forward, putting more of his weight onto Esther’s back. He could have drifted off there and then, despite the constant movement of the horse, but he was afraid that he would hinder their progress because of his weight.

They got out of the most dangerous part of the route between the palace and anywhere else in the country. Esther slowed her horse to a halt and Robert could hear the pack behind them stop too.

“What’s going on?” Robert said, bleary eyed. He couldn’t really concentrate. He was just so tired.

“We’re letting the rest catch up.” Esther said, “And now that they have, we’re going this way.” Instead of going straight forward, towards the way that would lead them back to their former encampment, she guided her horse to the left and when Robert looked back, he could see the rest of the group following. He couldn’t make out faces in the group behind him, but he hoped that Jonty… and the rest of the troops were there. He didn’t want to lose any more men today.

“Where are we going?” Robert asked, then realised. Hang on… he recognised this route. They’d gone this way… so many years ago when Duncan had sent them to find a ‘town’ and instead they’d found a… brothel. Seemed like Esther had returned to her old haunts.

“I can feel your judging.” Esther said, “And yes, we are going to the brothel. Or former brothel. It’s a pretty good place to hide out, and since we made so modifications, it’s been even better. Is Joan with you?”

He was suddenly hit with a flood of memories. “She’s dead. Burnt.”

“Oh…” Esther’s response was quiet, apologetic. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing you could have done.” He was firm. He wouldn’t get worked up again. He couldn’t. “Have you just been hiding here since Joan was taken?”

“Yeah.” Her tone was regretful, “I wish we could have done more, really, but we’ve just been trying to fix the place up, get the resources we needed to make a proper attack on the palace… but we saw the Swynness troops arrive this morning and then we decided we should make our move.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Looks like women can fight after all, ay?”

“Don't...” He remembered his comments from so long ago. Women could fight. In a world like this women were the best fighters. They had to deal with their rights constantly being threatened and still survive. They were the fighters. Joan had been the strongest person he knew and she was a woman. Speaking of women... “Meg isn't with you, by any chance is she?"

“Just wait.” Those were the only words she spoke.

The ex-brothel didn’t resemble its former self at all. The shade cloth entrance had been changed to one that seemed to be made entirely out of rocks and stone, and only by squinting could Robert see a gap past them. “How?” He asked.

“Days of work. It made it easier to hide. We got a lot of refugees coming to us and they helped.”

The entrance was small, barely high enough for them on horseback to pass through. When they got past the rocky wall, Robert couldn’t see as they were plunged into almost absolute darkness.
“Sorry!” Esther called, not sounding sorry at all. “The wall blocks out light and we can’t really use torches because y’know… it’s lighter in a minute.”

A curtain was pulled back and then they emerged into a larger room, the stable like room that Robert remembered from his previous visit. There was a couple of horses tied up inside within small enclosures. Esther rode into one of the enclosures and urged for him to get off the horse. He did, with an air of somebody who really hadn't had enough sleep.
She lead him through a door into the long corridor that felt familiar. He could almost have sobbed with relief when he saw the couches and the open room at the end. Oh he could sleep for a week.

“Not yet.” Esther nudged him when he went to sit down on one of the couches, “You can sleep later.”

She dragged him up some stairs into another large meeting room. Jeez, how large was this place. It was a massive complex! The strange thing about this room was that he could see outside. There was strange, clear, hard material covering the openings to outside. He seemed to remember something like it from his past... perhaps before the apocalypse?
“What's this?” He asked.

“It's glass.” Esther said, looking at him strangely. “It's pretty great stuff actually. Keeps the outside out and reduces the sun risk. It's way better than shade cloth. Look, how about you sit down and then we'll get to discussions when everyone gets here.”
He sank wearily down onto one of the stools. It wasn't nearly as soft as he would have liked, but hell, he would have taken anything at this point. Fighting really took a lot out of anyone, him especially.

His eyes drooped and they were half closed when he was rudely awakened by a large group of people coming into the room and collapsing on chairs, stools and the floor.

He looked to Duncan anxiously when he came into the room and the man said, “Yes... yes... your boyfriend's alive. He's just being brought.”

Being brought? Being brought?! How injured was he that he couldn't bring himself? What did 'being brought' mean?

He looked at Duncan again.
The man rolled his eyes and said, “Calm yourself, fruitcake. He's fine,” before sliding down the wall to sit on the ground, looking more than a little bit out of it.

He's fine. Oh. Right. What did fine mean?

As he was staring at the door, Jonty was brought in, stumbling a bit with a rag tied over one calf. Oh thank fuck. He wasn't bleeding out somewhere. He collapsed onto the floor next to Robert.

“Sup boss.” Jonty said, cheerily.

“You okay?”

“I'm fine. It's nothing but a scratch.”

“You better not damn well say that and die on me here.” He grabbed his hand. He felt a little bad for sitting on the stool while Jonty was on the floor, but there was nothing he could do about that now.

“Boss, it's my leg. I'm not going to bleed out from my leg. Suck it up, dude.”

He wrinkled his nose at the younger man, who responded by sticking his tongue out up at him. “How did it happen?”

“I'm a dumbass.” Jonty said, looking a little bit ashamed. “I was... running for the most epic slice in the world and I tripped over a rock and sliced myself open on an abandoned sword. I am truly the most intelligent soldier in the world.”

He looked at him. “Seriously?” He bit back a laugh.

“Yep.” Jonty's expression was mischevious. “Like I said. Dumbass.”

He snorted and burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. “I'm sorry.”

“You mock my pain...” Jonty moaned, clutching at his leg.

He stopped. “Seriously, are you okay?” He wouldn't be all over-protective boyfriend over this.

Jonty winked at him. “I'm fine. Honestly. Flesh wound at most.”

“Don't do that you bastard.” He punched him on the arm, but only gently. The kid was hurt already, he didn't exactly want to make it worse.

“Alright, you lot.” Esther said, standing on a box at the end of the room. She was about five metres away – the room was crowded with mainly men – but Robert could feel her control. She'd become the leader of her little refugee group and he was so proud of her for that. “I'm Esther and you're all safe now.”

“How the fuck do you know? You're the whore who used to work here, aren't you?” A man near the front of the crowd yelled out.

Robert couldn't see the man from where he was sitting, but he knew with every fabric of his being that the man wouldn't be talking for much longer.
Esther bristled, but forced a smile. The smile had no warmth in it and her words were cruel when she spoke. “Oh honey, didn't you realise that we whores have all the power right about now? You're here, under our protection, in our building, instead of rotting out there in the desert right about now. If you want to stay here, you shut the fuck up and listen to me. Okay?”

There was no answer from the man aside from a quiet “eep” and Robert fought not to laugh. That was the Esther he knew and loved. She hadn't changed one bit.

“We've got a bunch of rooms, but there isn't enough for all of you. Some of you will have to bunk together.”

“Can I bunk with you?” Someone else from the crowd yelled out.

“No.” Esther's answer was short, “But you will be bunking outside in the sun if you don't shut up.”

Would they never learn? Honestly.

The room seemed mollified. “Any takers for sharing rooms?”

Robert yelled out, really just to give Esther a break from the catcalling. “The cripple and I will bunk together.” He indicated with a nod of his head towards Jonty. He hadn't even thought to ask the man – it was exactly the same as sleeping in a huddle out in the desert – but now they were in what people of lore might have called a relationship... The thought made him twitch a little.

Esther raised her eyebrows and said, “That's one. Come on, anyone else?”

A few other people yelled out.

“Alright. That's one thing done.” Esther said, “Now. There's a strict meal time and work schedule, which is posted in your rooms. We have a small collection of books, which reside in a crate next to the kitchen, which you all should take and read because you might learn something.”

Ouch. She was right though.

“My girls will direct you to your rooms. If those bunking together could go to the left side of the room, your left, and those sleeping alone could go to the right side that'd be great.” Esther jumped off her crate and got lost in the crowd as everyone stood up.

He looked at Jonty. “You don't mind, do you?” He asked shyly.

“Mind? Please. No, I'm ecstatic.” He, with some help from Robert, struggled to his feet.

They walked – well, he walked and Jonty stumbled – over to the left side of the room. A familiar face was talking to some of the men avidly. It was Meg! Oh she'd survived too. Thank the gods for that.
“About time, you two.” Meg teased, “Everyone else was here at least five minutes ago.”

“Shut up.” Jonty said at the same time as Robert said, “It's nice to see you.”

“Good to see you too, Robert. Now come on, you lot. I'm betting most of you want to have a sleep and when you get to your rooms you're free for at least a couple of hours.” Meg led them off down the corridor.

The men were looking at each other warily. Things were so much easier during a war, when talking wasn't really necessary. Now they actually had to be sociable? Wow.

Meg stopped at a curtained off door. “You two can go in here. They're a bit of a squeeze but at least they're something. Appropriate sort of place for bathroom type necessities is just outside this corridor. It's marked.” She pointed to a pair of men, one of which had quite a bad injury to his left side.

Robert vaguely remembered one of them being called Sam and the other being called Michael.

“Medics will be along in a tick when everyone is settled. You're not going to bleed out in the meantime, are you?” She asked.

Sam screwed up his face and said, “Nah. It's not that bad yet, but sooner rather than later, yeah?”

Meg nodded her assent and lead them further along the left side of the corridor. She stopped to drop other pairs off to other rooms and at the final door, it was just Robert and Jonty left.

“Sorry, Jonty, for the long walk.” She apologised, “But I wanted you two in here because it's right next to Esther and I's room. We need to talk about what we're going to do from here.” She pointed at the door across the corridor from them. “That one. Don't come barging in, yeah? I know it's just a curtain, but knock first, would ya?”

Robert's mind went to a whole bunch of dark places where it definitely shouldn't have been going. “We'll keep that in mind.”

“Go on through then, gentlemen.” She waved them into the room. “Have a sleep, relax. You know the drill. I'll get a medic for you -”
“I'll do it.” Robert interrupted her, “I can sew things up, nobody's business. Plus, I've got some stuff already.” He pointed at his pack, which somehow had managed not to be lost in the fracas of earlier. "Don't waste medical time on him because he's a dumbass."
His words weren't meant to have any sort of bite to them, but Jonty elbowed him in the side anyway.

“Alright, if you're sure.” Meg didn't look convinced, but she waved them off again. “Onwards, gentlemen!”

They went into the room. To call it a room would have been an understatement. There was a couple of chairs, a window that had a thick shade cloth to one side of it, and two sleeping pads on the floor. There was a list drawn on the wall and a pile of something that looked vaguely linen-y in one corner.

“Well...” Jonty broke the silence. “It's really lucky we're close.”

“Yeah. Jeez... wonder what the brothel must have used these for? They're tiny.” He sat down on a chair, pulled out his pack and started sifting through it.

“Think they've been partitioned off.” Jonty poked one of the walls as he settled down on one of the sleeping pads gingerly. “Yeah, these don't look like they came with it.”

He found what he wanted. His slightly-rusty tin full of field medic supplies. He also chucked his sleeping bag down on the other sleeping pad.

“Dude, that doesn't look safe. Do you even have anything to numb the pain?” Jonty asked, unwrapping the rag around his leg carefully.

“Good old fashioned alcohol.” He brought his jar of moonshine out of the pack and placed it gently on the ground. It wasn't very strong, but it'd serve its purpose. Plus, it was also an antiseptic. Wounds really festered in the desert.

“Nice.” Jonty opened the jar and took a decent swig. He winced. “It really doesn't get any better, does it? Wish I hadn't lost my pack... I had some whiskey in there that I was saving for a special occasion.”

“Whiskey? Where the hell did you find whiskey?” He threaded a needle, holding the needle and thread up to the light coming in through the window to see properly.

“Courtesy of the palace. I wonder if any of the other boys have any more... there was quite a stock and I only took a bit.”
“So we were riding for our lives and you were weighed down by whiskey bottles? Typical.”

He unrolled what passed for a bandage nowadays and pulled Jonty's leg onto his lap. He winced and Robert noticed. “Bro, this is nothing. I'm going to splash your …alcohol on here, okay? It'll sting.”

Jonty nodded. He grabbed the jar of questionable alcohol and poured some over the gash to clean it. Jonty sucked in a breath and grabbed onto his arm, eyes bulging out of their sockets. “Fuck.” He breathed, “That hurt worse than the damn slash itself.”

“Well if you weren't such an egg we wouldn't be going through this, would we?” He examined the wound. There was quite a nasty gash and he told Jonty so.

“Swords, bro.” The younger man said, “They're pretty sharp.”

“You're telling me. So I'm going to sew this up now, okay? Try not to move or I will injure you more.”

Jonty grabbed the jar and took another couple of perfunctory swigs of booze.

“You all good?”

“If I told the truth I would be lying, so yes.”

Robert tipped some more of the booze over the needle and then wiped it off. It wasn't that clean, but it would have to do. It was likely that the medics didn't have any better equipment anyhow.

“Grab onto something.” He instructed, “I really can't have you lashing out and messing me up, okay?"

Jonty nodded, looking pale, and grabbed onto a chair leg. As Robert pushed the needle in for the first time, he moaned, a low keening sound and tensed up.

He closed the first part of the gash and looked up at Jonty. The younger man was bright white, muscles tense. “You okay?” He asked. “Not going to pass out on me, are you?”

“On you is a relative term.” Jonty replied, gritting his teeth. “Hurry up before I do, okay?”

He sewed up the rest of the gash, trying to ignore the fact that he was pushing a needle through someone's flesh and it was helping them. He wrapped Jonty's leg in a 'bandage' and looked up at him again.

“You're alive?”

“It appears so. Don't know how though. Jeez, where did you get your medical training from?”

“You could thank me.” He said, mock put out. “And the battlefield. I was on there before you were even of age.”

“I know. Thank you.” Jonty said.

“I was joking, but whatever.”

"You know what we could do?" Jonty said, thoughtfully as Robert packed away his kit.

"What?" He asked, not even looking up.

"We could pull those mattresses together and share a bed. It'd be more comfy."

He looked up. "Do you perhaps have an ulterior motive, recruit?" He raised his eyebrows at him.

"None at all, aside from the fact that you have a sleeping bag and I don't and I want one. A lot." Jonty teased back, "No ulterior motives here, sir." He mock saluted at him.

"Fine... fine... whatever. We'll do what you want. Or, I suppose I will do what you want since you're incapacitated."

"I knew I tripped on that rock for a reason."

"Bastard." He packed away the last of his kit and stowed his bag on one of the chairs. As he stood up, he got a glance out of the window. The building seemed to overhang the pass and down below, far in the distance he could see the tents and flags of a Swynness camp. They were always the ones that showed off. He supposed they had no need for secrecy. They had the clearly superior force.

"What are you looking at?" Jonty asked, still on the floor.

"Swynness troops down in the pass to the palace. How do you think they're not seeing us?" He turned to face him.

"Well I don't know. Presumably some form of camouflage. I mean, you know that route well and you've never seen this building from the outside before, have you?" Jonty shrugged.

"No. Oh well, I'll ask Esther whenever I see her later."

"Do you think she and Meg are shacking up together?" The younger man asked as Robert dragged one of the sleeping pads over next to the Jonty-occupied mattress.

"What?" He had considered it, he supposed, but he thought that if they were doing so it was none of their business. They'd tell the world if they were so inclined, whenever they wanted to. He said as much to Jonty.

"Yeah, I guess. That's hot if they are."

"Hands off." Robert warned, settling down on his sleeping pad. "I don't want to have to make you stay in here. If they want their privacy let them have it. They'll get enough from the other men, just for being chicks."

"I guess." Jonty didn't look convinced.

Robert was almost ninety percent sure that if Jonty could walk he'd be over at the door to the other room in a heartbeat. Pervert.

He started pulling off all of the gear that constituted standard field wear. The head scarves and hat went, as did the vest. Most of it was stained with blood and he didn't know whether or not it was his. Considering he didn't seem to be bleeding from any obvious places, he supposed it wasn't his. That was a start at least. He got rid of his jumpsuit and was left in the standard issue shirt and shorts that every recruit got given. He looked down at his chest. His near-death wound had pulled earlier, but it seemed like he hadn't torn anything visible, which was good. It was a start. He rubbed a hand over the scar that marred most of his upper torso. The skin was rough, and would probably never heal any further than it had. Shame. He could never be a model of human perfection. What a shame for everyone in the world.

"Dude, I'm not sleeping with you if you're covered in blood." He said, words coming out harsher than he intended. He wasn't going to. Being covered in blood for the majority of the day was enough - he didn't want to spend his rest time doused in the stuff. He would have liked some kind of water-based cleaning, but as he sat on his mattress he realised that he couldn't be bothered standing up again. Fatigue did come on quite easily in these parts.

"Oh, gosh, Robert!" Jonty had a hand over his heart and was swooning. “How on earth could I – a chaste maiden sleep with you, a big burly soldier without some sort of protective covering! You wound me, good sir.”

“Oh shut up, you moron.” Robert elbowed him, “You wouldn't know chastity if it bit you on the arse. Remember what you were doing last time you were here.”

“Yeah, I was undressing in front of a woman. Now I'm undressing in front of you. How times have changed.” He winked, “You should be thanking me for this.”

“Oh you wish.”

“What were you doing when I was otherwise indisposed at our last visit to this lovely establishment?” Jonty asked curiously, ditching his vest somewhere on the other side of the very small room.

“I was moping in the meeting room and trying to ignore Valentine's various conquests when they occurred in my vicinity.”

“Valentine. Oh yeah, I remember that guy. A bit freaky, was he?”

“Well I don't know. Are whips and naked chasing on your particular fetish list?”
Robert tried to keep a straight face. It was the truth, but Jonty didn't need to know that.

"Depends whose doing the whipping and or chasing." Jonty winked again.

"I will murder you if you wink at me again, I swear." He said.

"Oh you wish you could. I have all the skills and you would never best me in a fight."

Was that so? He tried to stand, but his legs wouldn't work. Something about fatigue probably. He suddenly felt very tired. "We can have it out another day. I want to sleep and I can't put this damn sleeping bag over you if you are still sitting up, so hurry up, would you."

Jonty hurried up, ditching his also blood stained and quite torn jumpsuit on the pile of his other clothes. They both lay down, facing each other and Robert dragged the open sleeping bag over them after undoing the zip on the side.

"Just think of how different this visit has been to the last one." Jonty said sleepily.

"I've certainly had more company than I did last time."

"And I have had less. What a pair we are."

"I don't think I want to know."

"It was pretty decent actually... like for a free brothel I had the best -"

"Stop!"

"I'll tell you another time."

"There will not be another time."

"Oh please, you wish you knew all the juicy details." Jonty grabbed his hand. "There was this girl who had red h-"

"And this is the point where you shut up. I'm really not into girls."

It was quiet for a few moments, the only sound being the wind outside and all his senses concentrating on how Jonty was rhythmically stroking his fingers over his palm. “Did you love her?”

Oh it was that question again. He had no choice but to answer truthfully... but somehow he knew it would be alright. “Yeah.”

“I don't get you.”

“I don't get myself either. What don't you get?”

“You said you don't like girls but you said you loved Joan.”

“Are we really going to have this discussion now?” This sort of thing made Robert anxious. He didn't know why, but he just felt like he couldn't really discuss it.

“Yeah, just answer the question and then we can go to sleep.”

“Look... it wasn't like I was in love with her because she was a chick. I was in love with her because she was a person. Same as I'm not in love with you because you of your giant dick – like I'd know - but more because you are a giant dick. Personalities, not skin suits.”

“Are you thinking about my giant dick, Robert?”

“Oh bugger off, you arsehole. I want to sleep.”

“You just wish you could get a piece of all this.” He waved his hand over his general crotch area.

“You just wish somebody could get a piece of all that – regardless of whether it is me or not.”

“How could you think such a thing?” Jonty teased.

“You know it's true. Go to sleep before I'm forced to gag you and tie you up somewhere that isn't here.”

“Now who's the one with a fetish?”

“Shut the fuck up Jonty.”

Chapter Text

When Robert woke up the careful distance between the two of them had gone. He'd been careful to maintain said distance, due to the fact that their relationship - or whatever the hell it was – was only just starting out and he was afraid to give Jonty too much leniency because who knew what that guy would do given free reign. But when he awoke he found that he was facing away from the younger man and the man had his arms draped over his chest. He didn't feel too uncomfortable with the situation either. It was nice to have someone to be with after so long only being occupied by his thoughts.

But he had to get up.

Garnering by the fact that the room was gloomy and darker than it had been, he thought it must be near night time. They were only supposed to sleep for a few hours and go and help out with everyone settling in, and he was much more able-bodied than some. He reluctantly dragged himself out of the man's embrace, shivered in the slightly-cooler night air and went about getting dressed in some semblance of clothing that would be appropriate for outside the room.

He tugged on his jumpsuit – would really need to get the bloodstains out of that - and left the room, pausing to cover Jonty back over with the sleeping bag before he left. Didn't want the kid to get cold and possibly get his wound infected. That wouldn't do in their world. He didn't have any ulterior motive about it either. Nope. Not at all.
He wandered down the hallway towards the meeting room that they had all been in earlier. It was remarkably silent for such a large place and it was too eerie for him to cope with. He was so used to noise – to spending time with people who were rowdy and violent every moment of the day. It'd take him some time to get used to the sheer silence.

He went down the stairs that they had been led up earlier. At the base of the staircase there was a handwritten sign on the wall that said 'kitchen', with an arrow pointing down another corridor. He followed it, curiously. He really hadn't eaten a proper meal for days and his stomach rumbled just thinking about it. He couldn't even remember when he had last eaten a meal, full stop.

He entered the kitchen. It was deserted, aside from Meg who was sitting at a roughly-hewn table, spooning some sort of liquid into her mouth. She swallowed and said, “Hi Robert. There's soup in that pot over there.”

The pot in question was massive. He lifted the lid and a delicious smell wafted out. He was so hungry. When had the last time he had eaten been? Surely not for hours. “What is it?” He asked, whilst spooning out a bowlful.

“It's some kind of meat veggie thing. I don't know. I don't cook.” Meg answered, “Come sit.” She pointed across the table with her spoon.

So he sat opposite her at the table. They hadn't really seen eye to eye during the war and he felt a little bit awkward.

“So you and Jonty, huh?”

He spluttered on a mouthful of soup. “Does everyone know?”

“Thank you for confirming my suspicions.” She grinned at him, “And the fact that you volunteered to bed together pretty damn quick was an inclination.”

He hadn't realised that she was in the room. He felt like he should defend himself, “Others did too.”

“Yeah and by the looks of things those others were also getting pretty cosy when I looked in on them.”

“Also?” She'd come into the room? When he had been... cuddling? “You didn't?”

“I had to check that everyone was still alive and functioning. Medic's duty.” She held her hands up in defense. “That bandaging looked pretty good, by the way. I'll check his stitches and stuff tomorrow.”

“Thanks.”

“Don't mention it. So, you're up when everyone is asleep. What's up?”

“I don't want you to be my therapist.” He felt embarrassed.

“What?”

Ah yes. Post apocalypse baby. “I don't want to dump all my problems on you.”

“I'm a good listener. It's a medical talent.” She looked at him earnestly, “You did a pretty good job of getting them out of there.”
“Yeah, and that's the thing!” He cried, “I left a lot behind. I left Joan behind.”

She stiffened and then grabbed his hands. “Look Robert... It's awful what happened, and I was her best friend for so many years. It's not your fault.”

“If we were faster -”

“No!” She ran her fingers over his hands, as if she was trying to convince herself as well. “It's not your fault. If you were faster, perhaps Strachan would have gotten to her faster. Perhaps you would have saved her, but she might have been killed on the way here.”

“I don't-”

“You can't live life dwelling in the past, Robert. It doesn't help. You could get hung up over her death for years and not move on, or you could accept it, mourn and move on. We all have to grieve, but it isn't your burden. We all have a part to take in this.” Meg explained, looking at him earnestly. “We need to rebuild and that means our minds as well. We need to fix ourselves from the inside out.”

He paused, trying to consider her words. “You speak a lot of truth Meg -”

“Deangelio.” Meg said, finishing his sentence.

Her eyes widened. Sharing last names wasn't a thing that anyone did nowadays. You could do a lot more damage without a full identity. It was a matter of self preservation.

“I didn't mean to do that... I-”

He cut her off. “It's fine. I'll keep it secret.” He tapped his lips.

“It's funny.” Meg said, “It means angel. It's the sort of name that Joan would fit better than I would.”

“Now who's getting hung up?” Robert teased, “I think someone who helped out as much as you did and went through as much as you did in the war is some sort of angel.”

She blushed, “Oh don't! I was only doing what was right.”

“You were doing above and beyond what was right. And now, look at this place. I'm guessing you had more than a little share in what happened here.”

“Yeah. It was a lot of work.”

“See? Angel. Now, want to know my last name?” He reached back, way into his past when full names were actually needed. He'd always tried to keep it secret, but Meg had given him hers and it was only fair. The reason he kept it secret wasn't entirely because of self-preservation, though.

“Sure.”

“It's Humbert.” He said, a tad shamefully.

She snorted, and it within moments she was full-blown giggling. “Humbert? Really?”

“Don't laugh! It's not that funny.”

“Oh it is.”

"Whatever." He let her win, just this time.

"Humbert." She was still giggling. "Must be why you kept it secret. Jeez, I thought mine was bad."

"Okay, you can shut up now."

"Fine, fine." She took a breath, "So, I'm guessing it wasn't just your stomach that led you down here. What is it that you want to know?"

He wanted to know a lot, but his first question was one of just general hygiene. "What about cleaning and such?"

She answered immediately. "There's a river that leads down from the mountains. No poison. It runs out the back. We get water from it and that's how we clean ourselves. That's actually on the roster thing on your wall, but I'm right in guessing that you didn't read that, correct?"

"Yeah." He could have, but he was otherwise occupied.

"You get specific times to get clean and so on. That's also on your wall roster. Might pay to read that at some point."

"Okay. Well.. where do we go from here on? The Prybourne troops wouldn't have thought that we disappeared into thin air, you know."

"That's what we wanted to talk to you about." Meg said, "We being Esther and I. She's more of the leader, but we both have concerns about it. We would have talked earlier, but you lot seemed exhausted and now she's passed out on our-the bed and I didn't have the heart to wake anyone up."

"I'm not the leader here. Duncan's our commander."

"Sure didn't seem like it. We could see the battle from our windows, right up high, that's why we knew where to come and get you from. You seemed to be leading the charge."

"Well..." He didn't want to think about it. He suddenly felt very tired. His question from earlier came springing into his consciousness and he felt that he should ask it. "I was meaning to ask someone, how come we couldn't see you? How is this building hidden?"

"It's very simple." Meg answered, "That pass isn't used as often as it could be. We've had plenty of time over the last few months to camouflage this building within an inch of its life."

"What about the windows?"

"We found that they glinted if the sun hit them, so we covered them with a sort of paint. The layer's thin enough to see through, but the glass can't be seen from so far below."

"And the building itself?"

"Lots of mud and dirt. There already was a hill around it, but we just made it bigger. Simple."

He looked at her, impressed. "You women really are something."

"We're not just walking utereses." She said, plainly, "I'm not just a... baby maker." If he wasn't listening properly he wouldn't have noticed the pause in her speech at the word 'baby'. She wasn't nearly as mended as she said she was. "There's a girl here. Her name's Jamie. She does the best drawings and helped us plan the entire thing out. Just because these women were declared barren by the State and sent to be prostitutes doesn't mean they're useless." She was almost defensive.

"I totally agree. Honestly." He did. His tone had changed since he'd first met Esther. Women were so powerful and not just in the way that the State said. Sure, procreation was something that had to be done, but that didn't mean that it was entirely the use of these women. "You lot are brilliant."

"Thanks." She said, "Any other questions?"

"Not really... I just think that we should carry on one of Joan's wishes." He thought of something that he had heard her say more than once. He didn't know if it would be possible, but she had been right in her thinking of it, and she was dead now so he wanted to at least try.

"What is it?" Meg asked, curiously.

"She wanted gardens? And farms?"

Meg let out a breath. Clearly what he was wanting wasn't as outlandish as she had expected. "Yeah. I've been thinking about it. There's another girl here - she's called Danny and I'm going to introduce you to her later - who is a bit older, slightly older than you. She remembers life before the end of the world and has some ideas on how to fix things. Farms included. Only problem is that down here, things won't grow because of the lack of rain and it's too hard to get up the mountains. I don't know what we're going to do about that."

"Rain, huh? When was the last time it rained here?"

"Two months maybe? I don't know. It was a long time ago. We need far more than that."

"Okay. Look, we'll think about it later when we've got a larger range of skills at our disposal." He felt compelled to ask her, "Are you and Esther..."
He trailed off, not sure how to say 'shacking up together' in female-appropriate words.

Meg blushed. "I think it really isn't your place to ask, Robert. We're roommates."

"Roommates... or...?"

"That is all you're getting, Robert. I don't want you to get too excited."

“Please. Women and I – generally – aren't the best match.”

“All you're getting.” She laughed, “Oh I wish you could see the look on your face. You look so disappointed. I really didn't take you for a gossip queen.”

“I'm queen of nothing.”

“Yeah.” She didn't look convinced. “Well I'm going to get myself some more soup. Want some?”

“Yes please.” She took his bowl over to the counter and refilled it with soup, as well as refilling hers.

“Where do you get all the food from?” He asked. There seemed to be a lot of cans about, as well as fresh things that he hadn't seen for a few years.

“We're pretty good at raiding. The palace also didn't seem to miss anything when we snuck in there. Turns out trial proceedings gets people out of the kitchens and into more important rooms of the palace. There's also a steady supply of rabbits up on the hills. I'll take you up there later if you like.”

“I would.”

She put his bowl back in front of him. “You lot are going to become a real asset. If we can get back into the palace and get more food without them realising, it's going to be even better.”

“I don't know if that'll happen. It's probably pretty locked down with Swynness troops by now.”

“Oh, you never know.” She said, stirring her soup, “You never know until you try.”
“Yeah, I guess.”

She looked up at him. “Wait a minute. Where's Isabella? Someone said that Strachan's dead but where's Isabella and her daughter?”

He shrugged, “Don't know. Guess you'll have to ask Duncan. He was with her last that I knew. And Caroline? Not a clue. I haven't seen her since the 'coronation'.”

“That's really interesting...” Meg mused, “Well if they've got her we're never going to see her again. With her and Caroline missing and Strachan dead, there's no leader. I wonder who's going to take over...”

“It's a massive power vacuum.” He said, “Guess it'll be someone from Swynness.”

Esther came walking in, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Good to see that someone isn't sleeping their life away.” She yawned and kissed Meg on the top of the head.

Robert raised an eyebrow. Roommates, his arse. He knew they were up to something.

Meg looked away, but she was smiling.

Esther went and fetched a bowl of soup. She spooned a couple of spoonfuls into her mouth before she even sat down next to Meg. “Jeez, this is decent. Who made it?”

“One of the girls?” Meg said, “Think it might have been Natalia, while you were out on your whole rescuing crusade. I wasn't in here, I was sorting our medical supplies.”

“Oh yeah? She's done well. I'll have to thank her later.” Esther slipped an arm around the more modest Meg. “How are you Robert?”

He was completely stunned at their plain normality. They'd just come out of a war and those two were carrying on like it was another day. He didn't know how they did it. He wanted to know how they did it. “F-fine?” It came out more like a question.

“You don't sound sure.” Esther slurped some more soup. “How's that boy toy of yours?”

“Fine.” He said shortly, “Wait, boy toy? He's not my boy toy! He's just a... friend.”

“Yeah like Meg and I are just roommates.” She said dryly, “He healing up okay?”

“Think so. I might have just abandoned him a little.”

She looked at him, stunned. “My God, Robert, you are entirely useless at intimacy, aren't you?”

“Define intimacy?”

“You looked like your eyes would fall out when I hugged Meg. My God, man, have you even fucked him yet?”

He drew back from the table. “It's not – It's not a thing...” He tried not to stutter. Okay, so he might have a problem with intimacy, but that wasn't his fault! He'd been in the army so long that all he'd ever had was a couple of drunken fumbles and one or two celebratory blowjobs. It wasn't his fault that his formative years were in a military camp or running for his life. People didn't exactly grow on trees.

“Christ, are you still a virgin?” Esther asked.
He didn't really want to answer, but he was guessing his face was really the thing doing all of the talking for him at the moment.

“My God, you are. That's so weird.” She breathed.

“Thanks.”

“I'm sorry, but it is... At twenty five too. Wow.”

“Oh leave him alone, Esther. It's fine.” Meg shushed her girlfriend(?), partner(?), occasional pillow(?).

“That's why you were so awkward when you came here a few years ago!” Esther looked like she had just cracked a master riddle, “Man, I knew something was up.”

“Something's not up.” He said, stiffly. “It's just a thing.”

“I'm sure he'd be gentle with you.” Esther mused, “Like you're a couple now or whatever. And from what I've heard, he does have talents.”

“Could we not talk about this?”

“Fine. Fine,” She drained her soup bowl, leaving him with his thoughts and a bowl of soup he really didn't feel like eating now. “Serious conversation.”

“Thank you.”

“Eat your soup. We don't waste things here.”

He supposed that was wise. Despite his sudden lack of appetite, he picked up his spoon again and began to eat. “Not the serious conversation I want. What are we going to do now?”

“That is a tough one.” Esther rubbed her chin.

He was getting the feeling that Meg was the quieter one of the pair.

“I don't know if your men would agree, but I want to set this up into some sort of proper base and then go about getting the country back.”

He spluttered again, this time managing not to spill his soup everywhere. “Get the country back? We're pretty scattered, as I'm sure you're aware.”

“It's not impossible.” Esther insisted. “We know the terrain a lot better than they do. We can best them if we just plan it out. All we need to do is blow the pass and then we're trapped here. Then we can take them out.”

It sounded like a good idea, but honestly, after so many months at war, all he wanted to do was to just sit down. For several years if possible.

“Can we leave this scheming for later?” Meg asked, “There's things to be done around here first.”

“Ah yes. How good are you at whipping your men into shape, Robert?” His mind went immediately back to a particular whipping conversation he had had with Jonty a few hours ago. He gulped. Not appropriate. Not appropriate at all.

“And since I've seemed to throw you into a hole you're having trouble climbing out of...” Esther said, “I'll change my words. How easily can you get your dickbag recruits to listen to a woman?”

Was he honestly so transparent? It was awful, having a face that was so easy to read. “Uh... I don't know. Most of them seemed pretty happy to listen to Joan, but then again, she i-was the stuff of legend.” He stumbled on the was. It didn't seem like it was real life. Her death seemed so close.

Meg squeezed his free hand again. “Not your fault.” She mouthed and although it didn't really help, it was the support he needed.

“I'm going to pretend that didn't indirectly insult me.” Esther continued, “Because I need your troops to listen to me, and all of the girls. We've planned out a system, but it's only going to work if your lot gets their heads out of their collective sexist arses and realises they're going to have to listen to women.”

“They're not that sexist...” He trailed off. Most of them were.

“Yeah, says the two comments I got when I was trying to direct you lot to your rooms later and the variety of colourful language I got along the lines of 'I'd tap that' as I ran around trying to help with medical issues. I'm betting everyone else got them too, eh Meg?” Esther's expression was one that suggested that she got that sort of treatment a lot.

“Yeah. It's a little bit annoying, especially if you're trying to sew someone up and they keep patting your arse.”

Robert closed his eyes. Honestly? He knew it'd been a while since they'd seen woman, aside from the women on the island, but this treatment wasn't on. “I'll speak to them about it. Get them to lay off.”

“Thank you. Now. We've got several things we need to build in order to...”

Chapter Text

It had not been long when a woman turned up at their gates. A baby on one arm and a sword in her hand, she spoke with the tones of someone born in wealth. Robert was sure that if he wanted to, he could remember that face, that voice. But he didn’t.
She was one of them now.
Her past was her own.

Isabella was never found. Whether her body was trampled underfoot by colonisers from the north or she was holed up somewhere in a pit of despair, he didn’t care.
She was gone.

Strachan’s troops flooded down from the north, doing what their dearly departed leader had not managed.
pass was guarded, the small towns taken over, the country lost.

The dust reeked of blood, a memory of times not long past.

They fled to the east, taking a barely sea-worthy vessel that couldn’t fit them all.
They travelled south and then east again, the poisonous sea leaving burns and welts in their skin that no amount of comfort or treatment would remove.

The vessel leaked.

The heat climbed and then receded.

They came to a country free from the threat of war. It wasn’t left barren from a violent past.

Their cities rose far above the toxic waves, mutant limbs tethering them to the ground below. Shielded from the sun, they were safe.
The city-dwellers took them in, treating their wounds as best as they could and giving them refuge.

Their party had survived. Prybourne was no more, but its inhabitants still struggled on.

It wasn’t an end, or even a beginning. It was a place of transformation, a state that drifted past like sand around his feet.
Their history was fresh in their minds.
There was to be no forgetting, no consolation.

It was done, it had been done, it would always have been done.

But, he mused, from a bed with his lover curled beside him and those who he valued above anything sleeping soundly nearby, it was a place to start.