Scene 05: Expendable
Bobbin may have been quite the flute player, but a storyteller he was not; getting a tale out of him required a lot of stop-start and interrogation as he searched for suitable words and had a habit of leaving large chunks unsaid. But with Knickers supplying extra details from his first conversation, Mara interrogating, and Paddywhack ... eating ... they were able to piece together something to the effect of this:
The Regimental Quartermaster had sent Bobbin up to get something from Coronel Hartford. He'd knocked on the Coronel's office door and didn't hear anything, so he opened it. For some reason it either wasn't locked, or wasn't locked properly. As he entered, he saw the Coronel and "someone important" — he could tell because her rank insignia had the crown and stars marking her as a mareschal of some kind, though he wasn't sure which or who. He never got a good look at her face. They were busy talking, and neither one of them seemed to react to, or notice, his presence. He did remember seeing something like strange eyes floating over the womens' heads, but the eyes never turned to look at him.
Grand Coronel Heyanna Hartford, who was a tall, thin woman of tan complexion and short-cropped dark hair, had pursed her lips. "So this is why you wanted Sergeant-Major Seule in charge."
The mareschal then nodded her head; she had a neat, unornamented updo for her gray hair, and pale, weathered skin, at least on the back of her neck. "If she succeeds, it could change this war."
"Permission to speak freely?" The coronel asked. Her superior assented with another subtle nod. "This operation is in enough jeopardy; if it fails, we'll have an endless stream of Imperial reinforcements on our weak flank. We need to assign this squad an easier target, let them focus on taking out the enemy regiment and destroying the railroad to slow further reinforcement. That will be difficult enough, all things considered."
"The covens have specially requested our help on this one, Anna," the older officer reminded her gently.
"With all due respect, ma'am, we don't bow to the demands of covens. They haven't helped us one time. "
"Not... militarily, no. But they stay out of military matters entirely. Until now, anyway."
"They have no prior training together, mostly second-rate soldiers who lucked into commendations... This is a suicide mission for everyone but the Sergeant Major, ma'am." Hartford's eyes were piercing. And angry.
The older woman did not seem to flinch or be cowed in the slightest. "This is also the only squad in the entire corps — scratch that, the only unit in the entire Aerie — that has a witch of its own. Not only are they the only ones with a shot, that may mean something to the covens if they succeed. The rest are, sadly, expendable — so long as the mission is done."
It took the coronel a long time before she spoke again. "We're bloody butchers, Stasia."
"In defense of liberty, Anna. This is a volunteer military force. We all knew what the costs would be."
"So um, after that, I ran away." As he murmured, Bobbin turned his palms up skyward as if to say he had nothing else. "I had to tell Knick before bad stuff happened again. Like..."
"...No one else dies, Bobbin. Don't worry about it." Knickers gently patted the other boy on the back, but — for a moment at least, Mara thought she saw a genuine flicker of fear in those bright green eyes of his. That strange bunny of his ran down his arm to groom and bop the other boy's cheek gently.
Mara looked between the two boys beside her; didn't act like it sometimes, but they were both about the same age, she'd guess; late teens, maybe early twenties for the Sergeant. Same age she'd had to make it on her own. Which wasn't that long ago, even if it felt like it. Still... Some things didn't quite make sense here.
"And you didn't get caught the whole time. Until the Sergeant here popped you out the back of my wagon."
"No ma'am," Bobbin said softly, shaking his head.
She wanted to call bullpucky, but the two were so earnest, she couldn't bring herself to do it. Something had made a Fifer decide to tag along on a mission that, well, was pretty much a suicide mission. Everyone knew it.
"Bobbin, sweetie," Mara suddenly called out, her voice light and honeyed. He looked up with curiosity.
"Can you go down the slope a little and keep watch to see if there's anyone else nearby?"
The pigtailed piper frowned with the obvious question of 'why', but before he could, Knick cut in.
"Yeah, someone's prob'ly looking for us from downslope," the sergeant offered. "You're light and I don't want to use up all my aerosene."
"Yes, sir!" Bobbin said, fired off a little salute, and then went skipping through the snow. He was so light, he didn't even leave footprints somehow.
"Thanks," Mara offered.
"No, good thinking," Knick said, waving it off.
"So I'll be honest, Sergeant Shortpants," Mara said, allowing herself a little grin as Knick winced, "I don't know that I want to tell the others yet. Everyone already knows this is not an easy mission anyway. He seemed to think that was the revelation, but I wager... you, me, Polly, Survival Guy, the Witch, we all knew we were getting at least a one-way ticket to hell. I plan on making the round-trip, but the Aerie doesn't suddenly pay out that many zeroes in hazard pay for nothing. Only reason I didn't pitch a fit when the Coronel asked me."
Knick rolled his eyes. Didn't take her for a mercenary. "Okay, Bloomers," and the look on Mara's face told him he scored with that, "but I still don't get why you want it to be a secret."
"...Two reasons. One, I'm not sure I believe the kid." She held up a finger as if to catch Knick's protests and shook her head. "I'm not saying he's telling tall tales on purpose, but ... The floating eyes? Just accidentally waltzing into a senior officer's room and no one noticed him while they're playing mum's the word? I'm sorry, but seeing is believing, and I didn't see it. No reason to send half the group into a tizzy over something we don't know is reliable."
"...Fair," Knickers conceded through gritted teeth.
"Two, I don't trust witches. If your buddy's telling the truth, I want to see what it is that this coven wants us to help with, without giving the Sergeant-Major time to pull a fast one on the rest of us."
"What if she already knows? For all we know, the Coronel already told her extra. She is the mission leader, after all," Knick pointed out.
Mara crossed her arms over her chest. "Okay, that's a good point. So I'm gonna ask you to keep it hush-hush as a favor to me. Just call it a hunch." She managed a wry smile over at Knickers, and arched a brow.
"...I don't like the idea of keeping secrets like this. Keeping secrets from your allies is how people die," Knick said, and there was a dark archness to his voice that said he spoke with experience.
After a moment of hesitation, Mara switched to a more serious expression. "If it turns out to be relevant, I'll say it myself." Couldn't keep up with this kid's mood, she thought.
"...Fine. For now." Knick relented. "But-"
Before Knickers could get any further, he was cut off by the highest, shrillest whistle note he'd ever heard in his life — he, Mara, and even Paddywhack hunkered down with their hands — or paws — over their ears. It lasted a few seconds, which was many seconds too much, and then ended.
It belonged to Bobbin, standing at the edge of their view; as they turned to look, he waved at them, a big smile dimpling his freckled cheeks; then he started to run back, snow flying up in his wake.
"What in the blue hell is wrong with him?" Mara's voice shot daggers.
"He found someone!" Knickers hissed back.
Mara squinted. "...I don't see a thing."
"Just give it a few. Our angle's bad, kid's pretty sharp!"
Sure enough, about five seconds later, coming up over the edge was the broad-shouldered form of one Gerald Lonz, holding a canteen in one hand (for some reason) and a rope in the other.
"You were all th-the way up here?" Gerry's face was a sight to see; red and sweat-drenched from climbing and absolutely incredulous as he looked over the three of them.
Mara winked at him. "You could say I got high standards, sweetcheeks."
That just made his face redder still, though he looked off to the side to at least avoid the strain of making eye contact. "We got mmaybe two hours of real daylight left. Should hurry. C-climbin' down mmountains in the dark is d-dangerous."
"Sure doesn't sound fun, beautiful." Knickers just couldn't resist; he blew Gerry a kiss. The hermit was now red up to his ears, burning bright enough to melt through the snow.
"C-cut it out and come on!" Gerry drew himself back up to standing straight and nodded back over the edge, before disappearing over it. For some reason, he dimly registered in the back of his mind that something was strange about the canteen's behavior but although he could quite literally put a finger on it, he wasn't sure what it was. All of the flirting was making it hard to think.
"Hold on!" Mara shouted. "I'm no spring hare!"
"Wait up for me, Mister Redface!" Bobbin shouted, dashing after him.
"His name's Gerry, Bobbin!" Knickers called after him, then turned back to Mara. "His feet were lit up like torches. Come to think of it, did you ever even use your boot enchantment? You were riding the wagon."
"Huh. That's a good point, boyo." Mara clicked her heels together and immediately shot up a few inches, as a glowing, warm-colored disk of light sprang up under her feet. However, other than that, she remained stationary.
"...Right, these are just made for hauling stuff around normally. We're not falling anymore." Knickers rubbed his cheek. "How'd he get his to be snowshoes?"
"Good question, but! I have an idea that should solve all our problems quick as you like." Mara grinned over at Knickers. There was a devilish light in her hazel eyes.
"...I uh really don't like the way you're looking at me, Specialist."
"Well, you know how you and pixie sticks owe me a wagon?"
Mara was peacefully seated cross-legged on her disk, holding onto a bit of rope in both hands — the rope led forward and around Knickers' ankles, the flyboy flapping awkwardly between rocket bursts to stay airborne.
"Mush!" Mara cackled.
"Mush? Ooh, what are we mushing? Potatoes? I love potatoes!" Bobbin bounced up and down excitedly between lumps of broken ice and snow, flute in one hand.
"It's something th-they do up in the Vencht Mmountains," Gerry explained. Was he smirking? He was smirking.
"This is your fault, you know," Knickers tossed a sour look at Bobbin. Paddywhack popped out of the back of Knickers' collar and jumped on his head to echo the maneuver.
"Awh. I'm sorry, Mister Knickers!"