[x] Greatsword

Of the dozen-or-so dryads, there is a near-even split amongst the apprentices present who choose either some form of heavy melee weapon or magecraft; you yourself fall into the ranks of the former, with another dryad apprentice also deciding to choose the greatsword. Only one dryad chooses a weapon requiring more finesse, opting instead to take up archery.

Being herded into groups based on weapons, you soon find yourself and the other dryad apprentice who chose greatswords being called over by an aseri instructor: "Greatswords over here." As soon as the two of you stand at attention before the instructor, she drops her voice to a more conversational volume, holding up her own very real greatsword and explaining, "Alright, so you've chosen one of the more versatile weapons that are available to you here." She makes motions every now and then to emphasize components of her explanation, pointing to her weapon's parts at times and making controlled swings at others. "Like all swords, it's basically a long blade, so you have a lot of offensive options right off. It doesn't quite have the reach of a poleaxe or a spear, but it's close enough, and where only the end of a poleaxe or a spear inflicts lethal wounds, you have the entire length of your greatsword. It's heavy, but congratulations: You're dryads. This will be like a broadsword to you, except where broadswords are found in more urban situations, greatswords will be of great use on a chaotic field of battle as well. A greatsword is a good weapon against cavalry, something you'll be expected to work on before I allow you to move onto your next weapon."

The instructor goes through a few more minutes of the basics of the greatsword, how to maintain one, and what she expects out of the two of you before the year is out. All in all, you're pleased with your choice; a greatsword seems to play to your strengths, and while it doesn't necessarily excel at any one area relatively to other weapons of its length, weight, or dimensions, it can accomplish a large variety of tasks and fulfill a great deal of roles that would otherwise be impossible for other weapons.

Soon, the instructor is beginning to guide you all through practical exercises. "You can find your own preferred styles further down the year, but for now, we will begin by introducing you to the most basic stance and swing," she declares, and the two of you listen intently to her instructions even as she demonstrates the proper stance and movements. "Feet held perpendicular to each other and spaced somewhat apart, you hold the sword at rest with your dominant hand highest, and your other hand by the bottom of the grip, wherever you find most comfortable. Now to strike, simply push your dominant hand forwards in a straight line, almost as though punching someone. The sword will sweep down and stop roughly where you might imagine the head of your opponent might be." She relaxes her stance, gesturing with her sword once more. "One of the great strengths of the greatsword is its weight, which will become your strength. Until you're ready for it, you will rely on an up-down form of attack. Predictable? Yes. But I'd like to see prediction stop four kilograms of steel coming down." She strikes the basic stance again as an example and commands, "Alright, swords up in my position."

The other dryad raises her sword with little difficulty. You do the same, feeling the weight of the blade without too much of a struggle. But your fellow apprentice is of an average height, whereas you're vertically-challenged, and so you almost have to catch your balance as you lift a sword that is almost as tall as you are into the air. The sight is apparently amusing enough that a round of giggling goes about the dryads, including from those who have chosen other weapons and just happen to see you raise your greatsword.

But despite a furious blush that rises up onto your face, your instructor looks on with a mixture of amusement and approval. "A tiny dryad with a huge sword," she observes, nodding. "I'd hate to be whoever has to fight you by the time I'm done training you."

[x] Sieglinde Corrina Ravenhill

Your impression of Sieglinde doesn't lend easily towards the idea that she's easily tracked down, but the elven spearswoman in question isn't hard to find on this particular weekend. Not necessarily because she's tall or that she has long dark hair against pale skin - although those help - but because the sound of wood clashing against wood attracts attention.

This weekend sees many of the apprentices taking it easy in their rooms or going into town, so the small gaggle of people gathered in the training field doesn't actually consist of many more than half a dozen people, faces you recognize vaguely as being part of Aphelia's social orbit. Looking in the direction of the focal point of their collective attention leads you to the elf in question; Aphelia is already on the field, making quick, dance-like steps across the dirt as one hand skillfully wields a slender training rapier at blinding speeds, while her other hand glows with magecraft. And you are hardly surprised by the identity of her opponent.

You've seen Sieglinde train on one or two other occasions, and you've heard all about how she's supposed to be ridiculously talented with a spear, but this is the first time you've seen her fight, and it only serves to underscore the gulf between the two of you where your abilities are concerned. Watching her and Aphelia duel is an experience you've never witnessed before, even as you stand riveted in silent awe, staring at the fast flurry of exchanges in between the two elves, fast-paced back-and-forths that defy both your capacity to understand what's going on and your ability to keep track of their movements. Even to your amateurish observations, Aphelia moves with grace and purpose, her sword strokes fast and her steps fluid, each motion with all the precision and deliberation of a dancer. Her blade constantly tests Sieglinde's guard and parries the latter's own incursions into her lines of defense, and she compensates for her rapier's lack of reach relative to Sieglinde's spear with bursts of magecraft that keep her rival elf at bay when things start getting too tight.

But where Aphelia resembles a precision dancer performing on a tightwire, Sieglinde comes across as a force of nature. Her movements do not lack speed or skill, but they come with a sort of ferocious momentum that's almost frightening to behold, guiding her spear in a veritable whirlwind of powerful jabs, strikes, and swings from every direction that chain together into an incomprehensible flurry. Her polearm is a blur, and you have no idea how Aphelia even manages to hold her own against Sieglinde as she swings, slides, and lunges from one salvo of attacks to another, sidestepping Aphelia's magecraft and countering with the superior length of her spear.

It is sobering and terrifying to remember that Sieglinde and Aphelia are no more than one or two years older than you; even as their practice duel dies down, you can scarcely imagine yourself achieving anything close to this level of skill.

Quietly - certainly unintelligible given how far you are from the two - Sieglinde and Aphelia stop in their spar and begin talking with each other, quite possibly about tactics and techniques, even as one of onlooking girls rushes forth with a towel for Aphelia to wipe off any sweat she may have. The manner in which the two elven ladies talk seems cordial enough, although you cannot help but note that the manner in which they interact possesses only a sense of respect and courtesy. There is no impression that the two dislike each other, but even the barbs that Sieglinde trades with Elizabeth are charged with wry wit. Here, there's only a sense of formulaic politeness, however genuine it may be.

Aphelia turns to take the towel from one of her admirers, and in the process spots you over the shoulder of the latter. Noting that you are an unfamiliar face and looking like you're waiting for someone, she calls out to you, "Do you need us?"

You prepare to stammer out some sort of coherent response - you were admittedly mesmerized by the spectacle you witnessed just now - but Sieglinde speaks up first and explains to her fellow elf, "Neianne's in my squad."

"Ah," murmurs Aphelia thoughtfully, looking you over once more even as you curtsy awkwardly and she gives a dignified nod in return. She then swivels her head back towards Sieglinde, offers, "We'll wrap up here, then?"

Sieglinde nods her assent, and the two exchange silent farewells as Aphelia steps off the field, followed by her small group of friends and admirers. This leaves only you and Sieglinde, who seems little worse for the wear, showing no real signs of fatigue. Her hair, previously tied into a low ponytail, is set loose once more as she steps to the sidelines of the sparing field to pick up a goblet of water. "Did you come to train?" she asks you before taking a swig of water.

"A-Ah, no," you hurriedly shake your head, slightly horrified. This is not why you're seeking Sieglinde out, and considering that you're only beginning to learn how to use the greatsword, the prospect of even testing your mettle against Sieglinde is a preposterous - and mostly likely painful, physically and psychologically - proposition at best. "I-I was...just w-wondering if you wanted to grab a bite."

Sieglinde seems a little surprised at this proposal, and actually seems to think it over for a moment. "Well," she concedes after that moment is over, "I suppose I could use something in my stomach."

It doesn't take too long for Sieglinde to stow away her training weapon and change into something a bit more relaxing, and the two of you soon find yourselves in the sparsely-populated Great Hall. You're right in time for lunch, and although only a few other apprentices congregate here, food is still offered in generous servings, and Sieglinde helps herself to a hearty meal to make up for the energy she expended in the spar.

With both of you working your way through the food on your plates, your table is relatively silent. Sieglinde in particular doesn't seem to be in any hurry to talk, so you find yourself mentally stumbling all over yourself to try to find a way to start a conversation. "Y-You fight very well," you observe, feeling a little proud of yourself; it sounds like a natural ingress into a conversation, and an honest observation about someone else at that, even if it sounds a tad bit obvious.

"You'd fight just as well if you had as many years of training as I had," Sieglinde points out; she isn't done chewing yet, so she covers her mouth as she speaks so as to not be impolite in treating you with either rudeness or a front row seat to mushed food in her mouth.

"I-I wouldn't think so," you murmur self-consciously. And when Sieglinde raises an eyebrow at you, you quickly add, "T-They say you're a prodigy, so..."

Swallowing her bite of food, Sieglinde stoically asks, "Then why become a mercenary at all, if you've already given up?"

"I...I-I haven't given up," you quickly answer a little defensively. Although you less-than-quickly struggle to come up with a decent follow-up to that statement. "I just...d-don't think I'll ever be as good as you."

Shrugging, Sieglinde concedes, "I suppose it's arguable that some people are more naturally talented or inclined towards some things over others." She munches down another bite of her food before continuing, perhaps in quiet reassurance, "I won't insult you with false modesty, but training has a way of compensating for any weaknesses you have before 'talent' begins to matter. Motivation is what you require." She settles a cool gaze on you. "I believe I posed a similar question when we first met."

You do remember that question, yes. Well, no, it wasn't really a question insomuch as it was an open statement about the possible reasons that a freeholder may have for training to become a Caldran mercenary. You didn't tell Sieglinde your reasons at the time - it seemed to be a strange and intrusive thing to dump on a stranger - but you feel a bit more comfortable about it now that Sieglinde is actually your squadmate...and someone whose friendship you admittedly seek. "I...want to ch-change myself," you tell her, trying to put some force into your voice, but faltering as you continue, "I-I don't want to be like this forever. Q-Quiet, unsure, unimportant..."

As expressionless as ever, Sieglinde merely murmurs, "I see."

You do feel self-conscious about your answer. What does Sieglinde think of it, as someone who has likely enrolled in Faulkren Academy for more high-minded and noble reasons? "D-Do you...d-dislike my answer?" you venture timidly.

"For every five mercenaries, there will be six answers as to why they fight," Sieglinde says easily. "There is no 'right' answer. Aphelia is training to become a mercenary to save her home region of Elspar. I suppose Elizabeth is training because the magecraft she wields against her foes gives her some form of self-fulfillment. And you are training because there's something about the mercenary ideal that you wish to embody. All these answers are acceptable."

You suppose you feel a little relieved; your shoulders certainly seem to relax a little. Comfortable with refocusing attention back on Sieglinde instead of yourself, you ask, "Do you f-fight for your country?"

Again Sieglinde shrugs. "I was born into my responsibilities, but that's one way of putting it." She returns her attention to her meal, and it takes a few moments before she looks up at you and realizes that you don't quite understand what she means by that. Placing her fork and knife down on her plate, she elaborates, "I don't fight for Caldrein in the same way that Aphelia fights for Caldrein. For her, the enemy are at the gates, and she needs to defend it from invasion. She rushes to put out a fire. As for me, I seek to address deeper issues than that of the Huntress' War, ones that will still remain when the war finally ends." Her expression shifts ever so subtly, as if she has thought of something vaguely amusing. "I seek to put the country on a diet, so to speak."

"Oh," you intone thoughtfully. You do suppose that's easier to understand, if a little...unusual, somehow. "D-Do you mean...what you s-said last time? W-Working on diplomacy with Ornthalia?"

"That's one thing," she gives a small little exhale, "but foreign aid can only do so much." She finishes another bite of food before setting her fork and knife back down on her plate. "There is much to like about Caldrein. Its people value freedom and self-reliance, but are community-orientated nonetheless. Compared to our neighbors, the highborns of the land are not so high that they are beyond reproach or isolated from the commons. We embrace a culture that values the character of a person moreso than the riches she possesses, insomuch as such is possible. But we are also stubborn and proud, often unable to see our many faults. We cling onto traditional roles and old hierarchies, recognizing merit in some ways but ignoring them in others. We remain strongly distrustful of our neighbors beyond the borders, something that would be more tolerable if they were for the right reasons. We overvalue our ways and our culture, blind to the fact that we are stagnating in various ways." Picking up her utensils once more, she works on cutting a particularly stubborn piece of meat as she concludes, "The state of Caldrein is not defined only by the Huntress' War or by a hypothetical alliance with Ornthalia or even by our centuries-long animosity with Tenereia."

As much as that sounds like a laudable goal - at least from a layperson's perspective, as you doubt you have much more of a perspective than that - you certainly get the feeling that Sieglinde is probably alone in her sentiments. "I don't s-suppose that it's a..popular opinion? I-I mean...with other h-highborns."

"Maybe one day it shall," Sieglinde shrugs. "When governors, magistrates, and diplomats are celebrated in Caldrein as mercenaries are amongst our people. It's not as if the Confederacy has gone out of its way to construct academies for them."

"You', though," you point out hesitantly. And then when Sieglinde raises an eyebrow at you in curiosity, you quickly stammer an elaboration, "T-That...d-doesn't sound like something you'd go to a mercenary academy to accomplish."

"No, I suppose not." Sieglinde gives a small but wry smirk; the lilt in her voice may even have been a tiny, nearly-unnoticed chuckle. "But, then again, you may have noticed that I'm not much good at anything beyond reading and killing people."

Sieglinde spoke against the possibility of false modesty on her part previously, so you wonder now whether or not - when she says that she's "not much good at anything" - she's using some kind of arcane and terrifying standard exclusive to elven nobles.

At least until Sieglinde gives a soft chuckle and admits, "That was a joke." You are about to feel a little relieved until she clarifies, "I haven't killed anyone." A pause. "Yet."

That really doesn't help matters.

Sighing slightly, the elf continues with a sudden sense of somber quiet, "Being a 'prodigy' is a strange burden. Aphelia and I have carried it as well as we could, whereas I suspect Elizabeth ignores it entirely. There are always expectations we have to meet, regardless of whether or not our skillsets are actually relevant in meeting those expectations. So, for the lack of other options, I simply play to my strengths. It is not within my means to command affection from others in the way Aphelia does. I must then strengthen the ways in which I may command respect. Becoming a Caldran mercenary is one way of doing so." And then, as you absorb her words, she adds, "On a related note, being able to smack the daylights out of everyone else in the room is another way of doing so."

You make a face that you think conveys sincere apprehension, hoping that it won't be interpreted as a pout instead. "You...won't a-actually do that," you murmur hesitantly. Then, cautiously, you add "...W-Will you?"

"I'm not in the business of making enemies," snorts Sieglinde. "Like it or not, I will have to live with my enemies and rivals. And a scenario where I have to kill them openly means matters have taken a very dire turn."

That sounds reasonable, save for a single word. "'O-Openly'...?" you repeat.

"Some specific problems require specific solutions," notes the elf wryly. "It's just better sometimes if some things are kept a mystery."

The awkward silence that ensues leaves you to wonder with a muted sense of horror whether or not Sieglinde just implied that she's fine with assassinations as a political tool. It also gives her a chance to finish her lunch.

It takes a few moments before she speaks again, and when she does so, there's a strangely quiet and maybe almost awkward quality to it. "I may not seem it, but I...appreciate your talks with me. I certainly wasn't expecting it."

"Oh," you intone, being caught by surprise by this rather frank admission. "W-Well, um...I l-like talking with you?" You feel like this sounds inadequate, so you quickly add, "You s-say a lot of interesting things."

"Is that so?" chortles Sieglinde. "I had feared I was little more than an earsore." But she shrugs, looks you up and down for a moment, then asks, "You use a greatsword now, yes? If you wish, I can help you train in your spare time."

"D-Do you know how to wield a greatsword too?" you ask, surprised and quickly wondering if there's anything Sieglinde can't do.

"Passingly. I only know the basics, enough to show a beginner around; my specialties are still the spear and the bow, the former moreso than the latter. But I suppose that shall be enough for the first few weeks, before we focus instead on the greatsword's strengths and weaknesses against other weapons." A pause. "That, or tactics, foreign cultures, those kinds of things. It's not as if I can offer you much more beyond that."

"No, no, th-that's more than I can ask for." You bow your head gratefully; at the very least, you seem to be developing a good rapport - maybe even a real friendship - with Sieglinde. "Thank you. I-It'd be nice to learn under you. U-Um, I mean with you." You fidget a little before adding, "And know what books you like. I-I mean, that'd be nice to know too." Too often have you seen Sieglinde reading something, after all.

Giving this a moment of thought, Sieglinde eventually suggests, "I suppose if you're going to start reading, start with The Belltower of Brycott by Annelise Elanos."

Blinking in blank surprise, you take a moment to process Sieglinde's words before murmuring, "Th-That's...a Tenereian novel." At the very least, you recognize Brycott as the capital of the Tenereian Union; you've also heard Caldrans disparage the novel and its author as a symbol of everything wrong with Tenereian society and culture.

"I hope the meaning of the adage 'know your enemy' is not lost upon you."

"W-Well, no..." you concede slowly, hesitantly. You're admittedly thinking more along the lines of what others may think of you if they catch you reading this.

"It shouldn't be too difficult," shrugs Sieglinde; this is clearly not a concern of hers. "No language barriers, and the novel was written within a generation of the revolution, before the Tenereians completely butchered our shared culture. If you've read Caldran historical fiction before, The Belltower of Brycott shouldn't seem too foreign. It's no treatise on Tenereian history or culture, but it's certainly an accessible one that provides some decent insights. The library has a copy."

"It does?" You are genuinely surprised that a library in a Caldran mercenary academy - one of the great cornerstones of the war efforts against Tenereia - has a copy of that novel.

To that, Sieglinde only offers the ghost of a smirk. "It is not only with arms that a Caldran mercenary fights."

The Belltower of Brycott, as you soon learn after checking out the book from the Academy library, is a piece of historical fiction featuring an artist in the capital of the Tenereian Union during the final years of the Rose Revolution and the years afterwards, written by an author who lived through that period of time and eventually - at least so it is said - disappeared without a trace months after the novel was published. Shifting between almost absurdist sociopolitical satire and harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed during that historical period, The Belltower of Brycott chronicles the artist's journey through one of the most violent periods of Tenereian history as a hapless bystander to events far beyond her comprehension to a clueless participant of events still far beyond her comprehension.

All and all, it's a rather riveting read, although still something you're only comfortable reading in the privacy of your room, and preferably when Stephanie isn't paying too much attention. But while Stephanie perhaps doesn't look closely at the title of your book, she certainly notices the change of pace in your daily activities: "So you do read."

"O-Of course I can read!" you protest defensively, flushing red as you snap shut your book and hide it further under the pillow of your bed where you've been reading it. "There was a school in my village!"

"Well, yes," Stephanie agrees from where she is seated at her table, working on a paper on applied tactics. "But I mean that you...actually read in your spare time." She shrugs. "I'm just a little surprised, I guess. It seems a little...I don't know. Not Neianne-ish. More Sieglinde-ish."

Stephanie's words aren't something that really requires a reply, so you turn back to your book, presenting your back to Stephanie with a huff as you do so. And you do try your best not to betray a nice feeling of satisfaction from showing on your face at Stephanie's last comment.

[x] Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine

Relative to your expectations for Sieglinde, Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine is not a particularly difficult person to track down. She doesn't quite radiate or bask in attention in the way Aphelia or Lucille do, but neither is she one to eschew attention altogether, and can generally be reliably found around the Academy. Still, there is generally always someone courting for her attention, and so the challenge is trying to catch Azalea when she doesn't have other people around her.

You think you find your time on the weekends, when the students are freer to pursue their own interests and are thus spread out across the local area. You attempt to pursue Azalea after lunch - fewer and fewer apprentices are eating their weekend lunch in the Great Hall, with those who have the financial means to do so beginning to find their own favorite eating spots in town - but when you think you catch her in the corridor, you find her instead in a conversation with another face you recognize: Wilhelmina Adelaide Marienberg.

You are quickly considering whether or not to duck back down the hallway you turned in from, but Wilhelmina quickly spots you, and although she doesn't smile, there is an amused wryness in her voice as she nods in your direction and says to Azalea, "You have another admirer."

Azalea turns around to see who is there, and your flinch is moderated by the fact that she at least offers you a warm-looking smile in greeting. "As if there's no reason she isn't here for you," the dryad teases back at the elf.

Wilhelmina gives a quiet little snort that sounds almost like a chuckle. "Trust me," she says, point at her own eyes, and you are reminded that Wilhelmina is supposed to be an excellent shot with a bow. "she was looking at you." She nods curtly to Azalea before leaving her with you, giving her parting words, "I'll see you around." She nods to you again as she passes you in the hallway, this time moreso as a sign of acknowledgment rather than pointing Azalea's attention in your direction; you curtsy awkwardly in response.

Azalea doesn't wait for Wilhelmina to leave the area before she addresses you politely with a short bow and a smile of her own. "Hello, there," she greets. Compared to the other ladies here at Faulkren, there is a certain subduedness in the style in which Azalea dresses, not at all dissimilar to Sieglinde. Lucille constantly manages to pull off a look that's both casual but fashionable, Aphelia tends to look reasonably regal and poised in her own attires, and Wilhelmina dresses in a style that seems minimalistically elegant, but Azalea seems to pivot towards quiet but serene colors, pretty but simple designs, and graceful but uncontroversial cuts. Her blond hair with green leaves is let down in a manner similar to yours, but in pretty cascading waves instead of uniformly straight. And there's a hint of playfulness in her eyes that speaks of a strangely quiet daring.

"I-I'm sorry," you feel compelled to apologize as you bow your head sheepishly, giving a furtive glance at Wilhelmina's disappearing back, "I didn't mean to interrupt..."

But Azalea waves off your apology explaining, "Mina and I were just exchanging pleasantries. You haven't interrupted anything important."

"Oh," you intone politely, although you're not sure of the veracity of the claim; Wilhelmina was the first person you ever saw with Azalea on your first day here, and they've mostly been together since. " you were close friends..."

Giggling, Azalea clarifies, "We were just childhood playmates while being tutored at Stengard, along with around a dozen other children. Not to say we aren't friends, nor that we have no history...but it's not as if you can instantly transplant a childhood friendship years into the future and expect it'll all work out. We're still re-figuring each other out, so to speak." She shrugs, takes a breath. "I'm sorry, I'm droning on again. I saw you at weaponry orientation, but I don't think we've been acquainted yet." She gives a graceful-looking curtsy; you half-expect her to add a twirl in there, wondering if this fellow dryad has studied dance before. "Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine."

Obviously, she saw you from earlier than that, on the day you arrived at the Academy. Still, you politely introduce yourself: "N-Neianne." Then, perhaps a bit inadequately, "Just...Neianne. F-From Caelon."

Thankfully, Azalea seems to think little of your self-conscious introduction as she politely answers, "Charmed to make your acquaintance."

You manage a small little smile as you try to push the conversation on. "I'm...s-surprised you remember me," you admit; even though she doesn't seem to remember the time you were both in the Great Hall, at least she seems to recall you from weapons orientation.

Azalea smiles. "Watching you pick up that greatsword made an impression." You try to hide a blush, wondering if she's referring to the difference in size between yourself and the greatsword you now wield. Azalea, at least, has the grace to pretend she doesn't notice - or perhaps she really doesn't notice - as she gestures towards the main gate of the Academy. "Shall we take a walk? I had been thinking about about doing so with Mina, but truth to be told, she'd much rather shoot arrows, and I'd feel very sorry for the birds if I told her we could do both at the same time."

There's an old path in the borough that runs alongside the riverbank, back from the days when unwieldy, fragile boats carrying a measly amount of cargo were the standard for maritime trade. Now, the locals - and each generation of Caldran mercenary apprentices - largely use it as a scenic hiking path. There aren't many out here on the path today, though, and no one you recognize as apprentices; chances are that most non-dryads have had their fill of the wilderness outdoors after their survival training exercises. For you, though, the walk mostly feels pleasant; you haven't been so exhausted by the week so as to shun stretching your legs, and the weather feels great.

"To what must I thank for the pleasure of your company?" asks Azalea happily; she playfully hops from stone to stone, locating the larger rocks on the path in graceful, twirling motions that look pretty when she does it, but - at least in your imagination - would probably make you look childish if you did it.

"I...was th-thinking of talking to another dryad," you admit, fidgeting a little. "A-And you were the first one I saw here."

"Ah, yes," smiles Azalea understandingly, although with a hint of a sigh. "Well, we do have to look out for each other out here, yes?"

You blink, trying to think about what she is trying to telegraph with that statement, wondering if she's alluding to possible tensions dryads may or may not have either other people. "I...w-wouldn't know if things are that...t-troubling."

"I'm not saying that we're mistreated," Azalea assures you with a small giggle, "just that they're so few of us. It would hardly be improper or illogical to get to know each other better." You're not sure if that sets you at ease, but the lady dryad continues, "Were you born in Caldrein or in the woods?"

"In the woods," you say, blinking but catching yourself. "M-My family moved into the plains when I was five or six."

"That must have been nice," observes Azalea, sounding a little intrigued. "I was born in Fulwaite, although I've visited my ancestral woodlands of Arlon."

"D-Did you like it?"

"I thought it was very charming, very pretty. The people are certainly different from us, I think. Proud, self-reliant, almost a little..." she trails off, looking for a word that isn't coming to her, before allowing, "...well, that there are differences in mentality and culture between peoples is hardly surprising. But then again, the dryads of the woods are a nomadic people with the family as the primary social unit, whereas we of the plains are more...settled and integrated into our communities." A particular hop from one stone to the next sets her a few paces in front of you, so she starts walking backwards, and you suddenly find yourself worried that Azalea may trip on a stone she doesn't see. "Which do you prefer?"

"U-Um," you stammer, struggling to think of an answer all while trying to keep an eye out for any intrusive stones creeping up on Azalea's heels. "I-I think I left the woods too early for me to really say. I-I thought it was nice...but I was...five or six?" You shrug helplessly. "I-I don't think I really knew what it was like even then...a-and I left mine ten years ago."

Azalea hums thoughtfully, pondering upon your words before conceding, "You do have a good point. Alas, I do think I like the plains better." She smiles in a way that looks almost apologetic. "There's a stronger sense here. People are more ready to help each other."

Only your earliest, faintest memories are of the woods, so you don't feel particularly attached to your birthplace, but you still feel at least a little compelled to speak up in defense of the dryads of the woods. "I...d-don't think the dryads of the woods don't help others."

"Forgive me, I spoke poorly." Azalea slows her pace to fall back in line beside you. "What I mean to say is that the definition of a community for woodland dryads are quite different from ours. Woodland dryads keep to smaller family units by default, and are relatively isolated from one another. They congregate, of course, and provide aid to each other, but it is seen more as an...undertaking. An effort that must call for those nearby for aid, just as an effort must be made to come together." And here she gestures towards the locale in general and the town of Faulkren in particular, concluding, "But the people of the plains, the towns and cities they inhabit, are inherently interconnected. Mutual reliance is built into the way we live everyday. Helping your neighbor is less a rallying cry as much as it is part of life. The environment, I suppose, affects the mentality."

You do wonder how much this actually changes things, how valid Azalea's statement is. "I...h-haven't thought of it that way, milady," you allow. Not that you would really be able to tell either way.

But Azalea only smiles and pokes at your cheek playfully, causing you to make a small, startled sound. "Call me 'milady' if someone prone to jealousy might overhear," she pretends to whisper in a conspiring manner, winking as she does so. "Between us dryads, I'm Azalea."

Still recovering from your surprise, it's all you can do hesitantly stammer, "Y-Yes...A-Azalea." You are increasingly on a first-name basis with a number of aristocratic daughters.

"See?" beams the dryad cheerfully. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Mentally stumbling for something to say, you murmur, "Lady R-Ravenhill has asked me to call her by name."

"Sieglinde Corrina Ravenhill?" blinks Azalea before looking a little...sheepish? It's a complicated expression. "Well, I suppose she has always been a bit of a strange one. Or, no, perhaps strange is not it. Rather...out-of-place? She has always felt strangely mature for her age and yet strangely misplaced in her position. But, then again, I do not know her very well." You're not sure if Azalea is supposed to mean that as a compliment or a slight against Sieglinde, and you begin to wonder if you should feel compelled to speak up in Sieglinde's defense. But before you get any significant headway in thinking this over, Azalea points in the direction of a nice-looking tree on the riverbank, an elegantly-shaped tree that nevertheless stands lonely beside the river, and declares, "We've been walking for a bit. That tree looks like a nice place to sit down beneath."

Less than a minute later, you two dryads are comfortably in the gentle shade of the aforementioned tree, sitting against its trunk on the soft grass. It's an unambiguously beautiful spot; the grass around you is green, a few pretty clouds drift idly across the sunny sky, and you command a beautiful view of the river and the woodlands not far away. Further out is the town of Faulkren, and even further distant mountains threatening to blend into the sky.

"This is a beautiful place," sighs Azalea contentedly, and you don't disagree; this is the kind of landscape that seems to put dryads naturally at ease. "I hope the people of Apaloft know how good they have it."

"Is F-Fulwaite not...beautiful?" you venture curiously.

"Oh, it isn't awful," Azalea allows. "But the region has never quite recovered from the famine and blight. Crops are growing again, thank the Spring..." which sheds light on her faith as a Primordian, a curious choice given that you've heard that most urbanized dryads gravitate towards Indigenism or keep their Gaianist faith, "...but its still a struggle. Parts of the region are growing green again, while others still feel a little dreary and bleak, little more than hills of discolored grass, in spite of our best efforts."

"You mean...wh-what your family did for Fulwaite?" you ask, remembering the story of how House Charmaine gained their barony. That was two decades ago, so Azalea was born into the nobility that her parents have earned.

"It wasn't just House Charmaine," giggles Azalea, before conceding, "although we did get a barony from it. We only advised and did a bit of coordination." For some reason, you think this sense of humility seems a little misplaced somehow, but it doesn't stop Azalea from continuing, "It was still something that required the assistance of the noble houses of Fulwaite and its people." She smiles. "Like I said, community is important to Caldrans."

You again reflect upon the fact that you have no real basis of comparison; moving into the plains was an undertaking of no small effort to begin with, and although your family is fortunate enough to be freeholders, that doesn't mean the effort of visiting your birthhome is something to be made on a whim, and you haven't been back ever since. It's hardly a topic that lacks intrigue; although you are young, you are at least peripherally aware of the social dialogue with regards to the transition of dryads from the woods into the plains - like the elves did before you centuries ago - and how this factors into racial, national, and cultural identities. How much of Azalea's views are influenced by her biases, and what will be your biases should you ever meet woodland dryads once more?

But you don't get very far in your thoughts, although the one to snap you out of it is not Azalea. "Oh," comes an unfamiliar voice from a few meters away, and both you and Azalea turn in the direction of the road, watching two young elven women - at least half a decade older than you, although it's sometimes hard to tell with elves - approach from over the small hill. "Good day," comes the friendly greeting. "I see someone has found our favorite spot." By their appearance and dress, it's clear that they're not of the Academy, but from town; they wear plain common clothes that give you the impression of freeholders, and one of them carries a basket in her hands. "Are you from the Academy?"

"Yes, we are," Azalea answers, even as you are hurriedly wondering whether or not you should vacate their "favorite spot". In fact, you're already beginning to rise to your feet. Your fellow dryad is possibly thinking the same thing, for she asks, "Are we intruding?"

"Hardly," laughs the first elf as she gestures for you to stay seated, the two of you finally stopping next to you beside the tree. "It's just a good spot for a picnic. Would you like to join us? We have a bit more food than is really good for us."

"Thank you," Azalea bows her head politely, "but we wouldn't think about imposing..."

"Oh, come off it," snorts the second woman good-naturedly. Already, the first woman is beginning to lay down a picnic cloth. "In three years' time, you're going to be risking your lives to save our country. A few sandwiches is the least we can spare for you. Come, please."

Before you know it, the four of you somehow find yourselves sitting on a blanket unfurled upon the grassy riverbank under the tree, and a sandwich has materialized in your hands. Introductions are made, with elves Nicole and Tiffany making every effort to make you feel welcome, although you notice that your fellow dryad introduces herself only as "Azalea", with no hint made towards her own lineage. Your own puzzled look at her is met only with a furtive, playful wink in your direction.

"We don't seem to get many dryads at the Academy," Nicole observes after the self-introductions are done.

"We don't get a lot of dryads anywhere," Tiffany amends for her partner, but quickly adds to both of you, "It's very good to see you here, though."

"It's good to be here," smiles Azalea sincerely. "Apaloft is a beautiful region. I'm from Fulwaite, so Faulkren is a breath of fresh air."

"Fulwaite!" exclaims Tiffany happily. "Do you happen to know the Charmaines?"

It's almost amusing to see that even out here in the Apaloftian countryside, freeholders here have heard of the only dryad noble house in the Confederacy. Even more amusing still is the fact that they are asking this question to a real Charmaine sitting on their picnic blanket. But either Azalea is used to this kind of question or at least is just used to mischief, because she smiles without a hint of duplicity and answers, "Why, yes. I speak with them from time-to-time as well."

For better or for worse, Nicole and Tiffany don't interrogate this much further. Unfortunately, this is because you have managed to choke a bit on your sandwich, and you're pretty sure Azalea is to blame for that. As the two elven adults pat your back and pass you a bottle of water, Azalea - sitting right behind them where neither can see - turns to you and, mischievously and a little apologetically, sticks her tongue out a little at you.

"You're welcome here anytime," Tiffany beams at Azalea after making sure that you've learned to swallow without asphyxiating yourself. And then to you, "And you too, Neianne."

"O-Oh," you fidget, hurriedly correcting Tiffany's perceptions, "I'm from Apaloft."

"Well, then," scoffs Nicole good-naturedly, "you need to show her around more often! The Academy has already been open for quite a bit now, and this is the first time we've seen you! Where have you been taking her on your dates?"

This assumption is so sudden and so unexpected and frankly so alarming that you actually have a few false starts - enough for all three other picnickers to watch you with mild alarm, especially just moments after you choked on a sandwich - before you finally manage to blurt out a stutter, "W-W-We aren't dating!"

"We aren't?" Azalea suddenly gasps in mock hurt, overdramatically clutching at her chest. "Then what have you been treating me as all this time?"

The more reasonable part of you knows that Azalea is joking, given her theatrics and the giggling coming from the two older elves, but that doesn't stop you from panically sputtering, "A-A-Azalea w-what?"

Giggling at how red your face must be turning, Azalea looks humored as she apologizes, "Sorry. You're so easy to tease."

You pout at being on a constant barrage of teasing from your fellow dryad, although Tiffany isn't helping when she observes, "There's nothing wrong with dating. Both of you are very cute girls."

"Tiffany also used to be so easy to tease," Nicole points out, prodding Tiffany's side, eliciting a small gasp from her. "And then she grew up."

Tiffany swatted Nicole over the head. "And I still married you, you big dummy."

You and Azalea share a small giggle, although the latter gives a moment of polite quiet before interjecting, "Sadly, we've come here to fight a war, lest I get ahead of myself."

"What's wrong with love and war?" Nicole demands.

Azalea shrugs. "Angry hate sex?" she offers. There's a surprised pause that's eventually punctuated by you making an ungraceful surprised sound that resembles a mix between stammering and choking on your embarrassment at Azalea, of all people - she a lady of noble lineage, talking about "angry hate sex" - which in turn triggers unrestrained laughter from the other three at both Azalea's joke and your reaction.

"True, that," Tiffany concedes, but her voice softens quickly. "But we are sending you and many of our young to fight in a war that you may not return from. It's good to enjoy what youth you have to yourselves."

"And while you're still here," adds Nicole, "when the people at home have a chance to help you spice things up."

"You cannot fight for a country when you cannot remember what it is you love about it. Or so my mother used to say."

"Besides," snorts Tiffany, noting that both of the dryads before her still look a little hesitant and conflicted, "many girls who've come and gone from the Academy have dated and made no secret about it. Yet here we all are, nine years later, in a free Caldrein. Our mercenaries - lovers as they are - haven't failed us yet."

Azalea is polite enough to allow a weighty moment to pass before politely promising, "I shall take your counsel to heart."

The topic of conversation soon drifts over to the Huntress' War, to which the prevailing attitude here at this picnic - and likely all across Caldrein - is that of cautious optimism. No one has ignored the fact that the Confederacy fights against a continental power many times its size, nor that the Confederacy has suffered a string of strategic defeats over the years. But good news still comes from the minor victories that the Caldran mercenaries have been able to produce against all odds, and there is also the fact that in spite of every logical prediction foretelling Caldrein's doom within years or even months, its people have thus far stood against the Tenereian juggernaut for nine whole years, and all Tenereia has to show for it is having conquered only half of Elspar.

"I have a cousin who used to live in Elspar," mutters Nicole in between bites of her sandwich after the bulk of the latest news and rumors to come out of Elspar is expended. "Managed to get out of Wynholm with Countess Cenoryn just before the city fell."

You wince. "How b-bad was it?" you dare to ask.

"Could've been better, could've been worse," grimaces the elf. "The Tenereians fought without mercy, but the countess had been prepared for the possibility that she would have to give up the capital, and had plans drawn up accordingly." She sighs and shrugs. "Many chose to stay, but for those who evacuated the city, things went as well as these things could."

Nodding solemnly, Azalea raises the cup of tea previously offered to her and quietly murmurs, "To the countess' health." It isn't alcohol, but the others - yourself included - raise your cups in toast before sipping. "Where is your cousin now?"

"She's started a new business over in Lindholm. She lost pretty much everything in Wynholm, so it's not like business is booming. But even when we can't send any coin over, she and her kids aren't starving, you know? She's making ends."

Azalea nods thoughtfully, although she then speaks in a hesitant, quiet, but kind tone, "I know some people back home who may have jobs for her. I don't mean to pry, but if she ever needs help..."

"Thank you," Nicole gives a curt bow of her head gratefully, "but I think they're doing alright now. And after all that running away from the Tenereians, it's probably better for the kids if they get a stable place to live in for now instead of having to move again."

"I understand," nods Azalea sympathetically. "In times like these, it's all we can hope for."

In the meantime, Tiffany turns her attention to you and asks, "Do you have any friends or family in Elspar?"

You shake your head in the negative; everyone you've ever known - at least until you've arrived at the Academy - has been from Apaloft. Azalea, however, murmurs, "Some friends are still in Elspar. They may even be in Halissen as we speak."

You wonder if this is a complete fabrication, or if Azalea is referring to her highborn peers from Elspar. Perhaps she even has family fighting there as part of the army sent by Fulwaite for the Confederate defense.

Nodding sympathetically, Nicole asks, "Is that why you've come to Faulkren?"

"In part, yes." The dryad pauses thoughtfully for a beat before adding, "But beyond that, I think it important that I, as a dryad, join in Caldrein's proudest traditions. After all, the Tenereians aren't likely to leave the woodland dryads be should they overrun our lands. That we fight for Caldrein - and as mercenaries of our people - will hopefully serve as an example for others to follow, as proof that dryads, too, can help shape Caldrein's destiny."

Tiffany smiles warmly at that. "Elves and dryads were close allies of old once upon a time," she murmurs. "It's good to have you with us again."

Time passes, topics are expended, the idle chat dies down, and sandwiches disappear into content stomachs. After helping Nicole and Tiffany pack everything away, it is clearly time for the two groups to part ways. It's a day well spent: You've finally become more than just passing faces in the hallway with Azalea, and you now know more about the people of the town that you live beside.

But before you part, Tiffany sees fit to inform you, "We run a cafe in town, the Aroma. Caldran mercenaries and apprentices get a big discount, so feel free to drop by."

Although you're not sure when you'll ever get the chance to spend coin in town, you nevertheless try to sound grateful by taking the offer for what it is: "T-Thank you."

"You're too kind," Azalea murmurs.

Nicole laughs, "We'll talk about kindness when you save us all from the Tennies, yeah?"

The four of you share farewells, and soon, you and Azalea are on the way back to the Academy, feeling better than you when you left. That sadly doesn't do much for your loquaciousness or lack thereof, but your observation has a touch of cheeriness where it lacks confidence: "Th-They were very nice."

"Caldrans tend to be so, yes," agrees Azalea readily. The quiet that comes afterwards makes it seem as if she has nothing else to say, at least until she adds, "Thank you for accompanying me today. It's easier to talk with strangers when there's someone you know around."

Blushing, you mutter, "I-I should be thanking you." After all, Azalea would've gone with Wilhelmina if not with you. You do have the tact - or perhaps you simply lack the courage - to not actually say that.

But Azalea doesn't actually seem to mind, even as she seems to delve into a moment of thoughtfulness. "I was actually pondering the idea of having these little tea parties on the weekends. I thought of just doing such a thing in the courtyard of the Academy or maybe out here by the riverside, but having a cafe offering us discounts doesn't sound like a bad thing after all." She beams warmly at you. "I would hardly mind saving an extra spot for you."

Astounded, you are vaguely impressed but also terrified at the idea of you sitting with Azalea and her friends - most of them probably being highborns or other apprentices vying for her favor - and quickly stammer, "I-I wouldn't think about imposing!" Then, fearing that this sounded incredibly impolite, you quickly add, "I-I mean, don't you already have many...friends?"

"I have friends," shrugs Azalea, "but I would hardly mind counting you as one more." She smiles kindly. "It's nothing so intimidating. It's just some of us getting together in our free time to sit down, talk, and have some tea. You shouldn't feel unwelcome. If anything, you'll get to meet new people and practice talking to them."

In spite of your reservations, it does sound tempting. Azalea seems to be naturally at ease around people, and this is a skill that yourself covet, stuck as you are in your shyness. Granted, it seems that this is just another daunting, intimidating challenge on top of everything else, but it's not like you came here expecting everything was going to be easy. "I...I-I'll think about it," you promise cautiously.

Azalea beams. "There's a good girl."

Your curriculum continues to be an ever-dizzying list of training, learning, and practicing. The study of the history of strategy and tactics sees an increasing number of reports, group exercises, and graded discussions on practical applications. Calisthenics increase in both length and intensity, as all of you grow increasingly fit, slowly increasing both your strength and stamina. Lessons in fieldcraft no longer consist of just survival lessons, but are slowly expanding to include setting up camps, standing guard and manning watchposts, and stealth maneuvers. Weaponmasters continue to drill everyone in the use of their weapons of choice, and most apprentices manage to achieve a level of proficiency that spars between those wielding the same weapons - amateurish though these efforts still are - steadily begin. Though life moves hectically, much of what you are experiencing at the Academy slowly becomes routine as the first few weeks turn into the first few months. Before you know it, autumn slowly begins to grow cold as it marches on towards winter.

If you were worried about stagnating into the steady rhythm of the year, however, those assumptions are blasted on one particular afternoon when the Academy is worked into an excited fervor at the arrival of the Faulkren warband.

News is that the Faulkren warband was previously deployed in clandestine missions beyond the defense of Halissen, and are being brought back from the front for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. For the duration that they are in Faulkren and its Academy, they are the object of wonder and admiration of the apprentices and the townspeople alike. Like the instructors of the Academy, they instantly attract awe and respect in the confidence in which they carry themselves. It is not necessary to see them spar to understand why they are some of the deadliest warriors in Iuryis ever, although the duels that they have in the courtyard certainly help; the spars they have never fail to draw crowds of apprentices into watching with admiring cheers, their skills and prowess beyond anything you can even imagine right now, never mind achieve. This is a reminder that these people you now see here - with all their skill and prowess and confidence and swagger - are who you want to be, why you have come here to train and toil.

But those who thought that they could simply ogle at the sight of fully-fledged, battle-hardened mercenaries come in for a surprise when it is announced days after their arrival of that there is going to be a major three-day field exercise for the apprentices, and that everyone is to make "all due preparations".

Of course, no one really knows what "all due preparations" even means, and anyone who may know - the instructors themselves or the mercenaries seemingly in on the exercise - clearly aren't telling, so "all due preparations" end up being being mentally prepared for sudden surprises, being careful about your diets...and lots and lots of speculation and gossiping. Everything from having to fight through a gauntlet of Caldran mercenaries to climbing a mountain naked is proposed, often with alarming frequency.

The seriousness of the field exercise is punctuated when it finally comes, preceded first by half a day of fast-marching westwards with your weapons towards the distant forests kilometers beyond the woodlands where you apprentices have gone through survival training before, stopping only once for a midday meal. It's not hard to imagine that you've already left Faulkren and into another borough. If nothing else, you are impressed at how much your endurance has grown in the months since you've arrived here at Faulkren; while you are hardly weak or frail, it's hard to imagine yourself being able to manage hours of fast-marching while carrying a greatsword just months ago.

Eventually, the rolling plains and sparse woodlands of Faulkren give way to dense forests and daunting mountains, and it is here that your march finishes. It is clear upon arrival that preparations have been made beforehand; a few tents have been erected, crates of supplies have been gathered, and members of the faculty and even the Faulkren warband are already here. Rather curiously, you also spot a number of coach wagons with horses to pull them to the side of this fielding area. They remind you of the classic form of transportation that some of Iuryis' highborn take, although these coach wagons look much older and more worn, as if the Academy had procured them from noble families getting rid of aging assets.

Even more curiously, there are also a number of dryads that you don't recognize, but some of the telltale signs - the style of their clothing, the way they wear their hair, even the way they stand - tell you instantly that these are woodland dryads, those who have not yet left their ancestral homes for the towns and cities of the plains.

After a few minutes of rest, one of the lead instructors stands on a crate and speaks in a booming voice to command the attention of more than a hundred apprentices. "Listen up!" she calls out, and the chatter amongst the apprentices dies within seconds. "Welcome to Roldharen Forest, the site of this three-day field exercise." Gesturing to the imposing landscape around you, she explains, "Hidden in forty square kilometers of woodlands are fourteen flags. After you are deposited to random locations in the forest, your objective is to find a flag, hold onto it, and bring it back here at the end of three days, and only at the end of three days." She pauses to let this sink in before adding, "Naturally, there are a catch. There are twenty-eight squads present here. Squads are not allowed to share flags. You have brought and are allowed to use your weapons. Do the math."

With mounting anxiety, you understand the unspoken statement here: That twenty-eight squads will be fighting - literally - for the possession of fourteen flags hidden throughout the forest. At least half of the squads present are thus doomed to fail in this competition that will pit your combat and survival skills against each other.

"This field exercise will be supervised by Academy faculty," continues the instructor, "our own Caldran mercenaries," then she gestures to the woodland dryads watching from the sidelines, but especially one particular dryad standing only a few steps away from her, presumably the representative here, "and our dryad friends of the Roldharen Forest. We are responsible for three tasks: Overseeing the exercise to see that no one gets lost and starves to death out here, assessing and judging squad activities including combat while making sure you don't kill each other, and acting as aggressors. In the event that there is mock combat, a supervising member of the exercise will judge who emerges victorious and who is a casualty. Casualties will return here and sit out the rest of the exercise. Furthermore, a squad must have at least two members left for them to claim victory with a flag. If you have a flag but can't find any of your squadmates because they've all been taken out, tough."

In other words, this is a team exercise. Apprentices like Sieglinde and Aphelia - or, perhaps more pertinently, Elizabeth - will be motivated to protect their own teammates to increase their odds of success. You sneak a covert glance in Elizabeth's direction with this thought in mind, and notice that she doesn't seem annoyed or disappointed. Is she fundamentally fine with teamwork? Or has she realized - with a slight upset at the bottom of your stomach - that so long as she and Sieglinde "survive", they'll still win, and that you and Stephanie are thus expendable?

But you can't maintain this line of thought for long, not when the briefing continues without pause. "Supervisors wearing a red armband are to be considered hostile fighters, and will attack apprentices that they see. Of course," the instructor clarifies loudly at a cacophony of alarm and dismay amongst the apprentices upon realizing that they're going up against legendary professionals, much to the amusement of Caldran mercenaries in question, "they will be fighting at a level considered appropriate for apprentices at your level, but they'll probably make it challenging. You can fight them or you can run, and the supervisors have the last judgment call as to the outcome of such a battle. You're carrying real, deadly weapons, so exercise restraint and be careful. If you are badly wounded, if you are starving or dehydrating and can't find food or water, if you're in serious trouble in any way, you call out for help, and a supervisor will come and help you out, but you thus withdraw from the exercise and are counted as a casualty." Again, she pauses to ensure that the apprentices understand this safety guideline. "Aside from what I've explained, however, none of the supervisors are here to help you or to assist you in this field exercise. With the exception of supervisors wearing a red armband, or unless you intend to withdraw from this field exercise, you will pretend the supervisors don't exist."

Murmurings erupt amongst the apprentices, mostly by squad, as they process and discuss this information. Doubtlessly, they are already trying to discuss potential strategies, figuring out how they will orientate themselves in light of these conditions. Some of the faculty and staffers begin to pass out what looks like small pieces of paper, one for every apprentice. Looking at the small piece of paper handed to you, you note that it looks almost like something from a map...but it also seems like it's obviously not a map, because while it has cartographic symbols, the piece of paper is too small and too scarce to really be of any use.

Or, at least, so you think. However, the complications erected in your way only piles up as the instructor declares, "Ah, yes, another catch. You will not be with your squads." She waits for a few seconds for the sudden outburst of confused murmurs and whisperings to die down before clarifying, "At the end of this explanation, you will be put into pre-selected randomized groups of four from different squads. You will then board your assigned wagon, which will then take you to a pre-selected random location in the forest. You are also all being given one piece of the map of the forest each, which you can all piece together into a larger whole." That explains the piece of paper in your hand, at least, it being only a tiny part of the map. Or maybe even less than just a hundredth of a map, seeing how everyone is apparently getting a segment. "How you want to work together, how you want to plan to get back to your squad, how you intend to find and retrieve a flag; that's all up to you."

The resurging murmurs through the crowd of apprentices reflect this change in paradigm as the squads desperately attempt to come up with ways to improvise and compensate for these unexpected twists. You certainly don't have a good idea, and while the rest of your squad looks thoughtful as they consider the implications and possibilities, no one has exactly proposed a stellar solution.

Not that you're given much time to think this over. The instructor speaks again, and now there is both a hint of respect and edge in her tone. "We are here with the blessings of the dryads of the Roldharen Forest," she declares, gesturing towards the woodland dryads present, "who have graciously allowed us to use their lands for years, and are assisting in supervising this exercise. Through the course of this exercise, you will remember that people live in this forest, and that you are to afford their homes every respect you can afford to it." She glares dangerously at the crowd of apprentices. "Anyone who does anything unforgivably stupid here will be kicked out of the Academy. You have been warned." A nervous hush settles through the crowd, and to drive the point home - or to give it dramatic effect - the instructor waits for a long moment before finally turning to the dryad beside her and politely prompting, "Lauren?"

The dryad being addressed clears her throat before speaking. Lauren's voice is calm and dignified as she speaks, touched with an accent that's distantly familiar. "There have been bear sightings to the northwest corner of the forest," she explains. "We have extra huntresses in the area who will warn you away should you get too close, but do try to stay away from that area if it's all the same. Use the sun to your advantage, and keep track of the time so you're sure where it's supposed to be."

Nodding respectfully to Lauren, the instructor turns back to the apprentices again, declares, "If you have any questions - any smart questions - I'll ask now."

"Yes," comes a familiar voice far too close to you for comfort, and you instinctively cringe as you realize Elizabeth is speaking with her usual laid-back amusement, a tone that sounds so strange from an otherwise angelic voice. "So what motivation do we actually have for trying to smack the living daylights out of each other in the wilderness other than super special imaginary gold stars?"

The instructor narrows her eyes at Elizabeth - the faculty understands that Elizabeth is very powerful but also very troublesome - but she seems to have been prepared for this question as she sniffs and points in the direction of the onlooking mercenaries, some of whom are chuckling at Elizabeth's candidness. "You see those mercenaries that will be supervising the exercise? Impressing them is, in fact, an excellent way of becoming first picks for leadership, pay bonuses, and special contracts when you finally graduate from here."

An excited chatter stirs up amongst the apprentices at this answer, even as some of the mercenaries cheerfully strike impressive poses in response to the attention. Elizabeth looks amused but satisfied, as if mildly impressed by the answer. Stephanie grimaces but also looks a little eager, although Sieglinde simply sighs a little.

Suffice to say, either way, motivation has indeed been provided in ample amounts.

That seems to be all the explanations you are getting, because almost immediately afterwards, instructors are grouping you into aforementioned pre-selected groups. Stephanie, Sieglinde, and Elizabeth are all steadily being called away, and your turn is announced by an instructor calling out the following grouping: "Aphelia Meredith Treiser, Vesna Rainer, Neianne, and Penelope."

You gulp. The good news is that while you haven't kept up with her as well as you could've, you and Vesna have remained friendly ever since your first meeting in the Great Hall days before the year started, complete with greetings and small talk in between classes. While you wouldn't be so arrogant to suggest that the two of you are close friends, your experiences with Vesna - limited as they are - suggest that you can get along perfectly well with her. The same, unfortunately, could not be said with Aphelia, with whom you have no experience with, for whom all your impressions suggest that she is extremely talented and proud, and of whom all the rumors suggest is a perfectionist. And that's still more than you can say for Penelope, who - judging by her hateful glares in your direction - has not forgiven you for your guilt by association with Elizabeth.

Any strategy you may have discussed with the rest of Squad Four is sadly shunted to the wayside as instructors usher your newly-formed groups into your respective carriages. You notice that the carriages have boards nailed to the windows, obviously in an attempt to obstruct any view that its passengers may have of the outside world, meant to disorientate apprentices when they disembark from their wagons and forcing them to rely on their map-reading and orienteering skills.

The ride across the forest proceeds in awkward silence. You have no doubt that all four of you are sizing each other up, trying to figure out who can be of use in this temporary alliance, who is the greatest threat, who is mostly likely to betray one another. It's hardly the type of thinking that you're good at, but that the need for it exists at all put you ill at ease.

It's quite some time later when your wagon finally comes to a stop, and the faculty member responsible for bringing you here orders your group to get out of the wagon. Deposited into the unfamiliar forests of Roldharen, the four of you compose yourselves even as you try to get a feel for your surroundings under the watchful eyes of the faculty members who are clearly assessing your performance right now, but also functionally nonexistent to you for the duration of your participation in this field exercise.

"So, um!" pipes up Vesna, putting up a smile as she looks beseechingly but kindly at all the members of your group. "I was thinking that we can maybe, um, not pretend to kill each other until we've found our respective squads?"

This is a sentiment you heartily agree to. Sadly, however, Penelope clearly disagrees as she cocks a thumb in your direction and snaps, "I'm not promising anything while she is in this group."

Blinking, Vesna asks, "What did Neianne do to you?"

"She knows," scowls Penelope.

"I-It wasn't me!" you protest, struck by how unfair it feels to be pegged with guilt by mere association with a squad member whom was not even really of your choosing in the first place.

"It was your squad," counters Elizabeth's victim. "Your responsibility." She narrows her eyes at your tauntingly. "Or are you just going to cozy up to that bitch for her wealth and power?"

"Excuse me," a cold, commanding voice suddenly cuts in, and startled attentions swivel in the direction of Aphelia, who was looking on with an intense air of cold authority and pride. "Miss Rainer was being polite. I, too, shall be courteous in my warning: I shall not tolerate in-fighting in this group for however long we must work together. Those who wish to leave shall have their fair chance to do so. Any who does not give that chance - or chooses to inflict harm even before then - shall face my displeasure." The regal elf narrows her eyes dangerously, and with it projects the implicit threat of her rapier and magecraft. "And I do not forgive easily."

Penelope fires a glare in Aphelia's direction so intense that you're almost surprised that the former doesn't snarl, but the elven lady holds her imperious glare at her nonetheless. You can see anger in Penelope's expression...but also hesitation and fear. She remembers the last time she, a human, underestimated an elven highborn. And she remembers that Aphelia - while hardly as volatile as Elizabeth - is one of the Academy's brightest stars, versed in fencing and magecraft well before she ever arrived at the Academy.

While Penelope is unwilling to initiate hostilities but also unwilling to back down, Aphelia clearly does not care for shows of bravado as she ignores Penelope entirely and declares, "Until we find our own squads, we're going to have to rely on each other. We may as well figure out if our map segments mean anything right now."

No one objects to this, despite the unspoken self-interest in keeping their advantages and secrets. Like it or not, the pieces of paper that you carry are functionally useless without some form of cooperation, even if it's with a potential enemy. You can't help but wonder if the uncertain and fickle circumstances that you find yourself in now is precisely what the Academy is attempting to test you with.

But despite your cooperation, it doesn't seem like four pieces of a map out of perhaps a hundred pieces is doing you any good. And even though some of the symbols on your map suggest geographical features that may be good landmarks for navigation, these are also useless if you have no idea where you actually are.

"We're not going to get anywhere without getting our bearings straight," Aphelia concludes to general agreement. "We should find some high ground and get a better view of our surroundings."

"High ground" turns out to be a steep forested hill rising up from the local landscape. It isn't quite tall enough to be a mountain, but it still reaches a considerable height with a sharp incline, making the climb a great feat of youthful endurance. Aphelia remains alert and vigilant, her rapier in one hand and a tome of magecraft in the other. Vesna takes up a scouting position of her own accord - a somewhat curious choice, given that she uses a staff and should traditionally be in a support position - and disappears and reappears every now and then. You and Penelope - wielding your greatsword and her daggers respectively - stay alongside Aphelia on your march up the hill.

It is while you ascend the hill that Aphelia finds a moment to step a little closer to you, keeping Penelope out of earshot as the group increases their spacing, managing the ascent at everyone's separate but similar paces. "Are you alright?" she asks you curtly. Her voice doesn't carry the kind warmth of Azalea or the cool thoughtfulness of Sieglinde, but there's something about how she talks with you that seems to at least suggest she is genuinely giving you all of her attention.

"Y-Yes," you answer feebly, "I'm fine." Sure, Penelope may look for an opening where she will stab you with daggers, you suppose, but she doesn't seem like she's a threat right now...or, at least, for the time being.

Aphelia doesn't look entirely convinced, but her nod is polite enough. Then she narrows her eyes at you ever so slightly, connecting you to a memory from so many weeks ago. "You're that girl in Ravenhill's squad, yes?" she asks, remembering you from the time you caught Sieglinde after she sparred with Aphelia. Then, with a bit of distaste, "And Zabanya's."

Aphelia's unpleasant tone at the last name catches you off guard as you stammer, "Y-Yes."

With a sigh that somehow still manages to come off as poised, Aphelia sounds almost like a schoolteacher as she advises, "Don't blame yourself over it. Elizabeth's behavior was disgraceful, and you have no obligation to be responsible for her." She flips her long hair in a manner you can only describe as proudly. "And if Penelope gives you trouble over it, then her behavior is disgraceful, and you have no obligation to assume there is anything respectable about her objections."

You aren't sure you have anything to say to that right at the moment. At the very least, you appreciate Aphelia willing to say something on your behalf, or at least willing to check up on you. But it is perhaps not with such scathing words that you'd necessarily regard Elizabeth or Penelope, and so you wonder if Aphelia is simply being too harsh in her judgment of the two.

But the moment passes, and during your ascent, you pass by a Caldran mercenary who keeps a lookout in the area. The four of you breathe sighs of relief upon realizing that she isn't wearing a red armband, and that you will not have to do combat with one of the deadliest warriors of the land. The four of you simply give small, polite bows of your head as you pass her, which she returns with the faintest of nods. Otherwise, as per your instructions, you do not interact.

Considering how much these mercenaries - upon whose shoulders so much of this war burdens - have fought and toiled on the front, that majority of the warband is spending their rest and relaxation on a field exercise for the benefit of a bunch of first-year mercenary apprentices is something that impresses and humbles you more than just a little.

As you are halfway up the hill, Vesna - who once again peeled off from the group to scout ahead - reappears from the curtain of trees that seem omnipresent in the surrounding landscape. She looks a little excited as she declares, "Um, I think there's another group coming in from that way." To punctuate her point, she points in the direction...of a lot of trees further down the hill on the other side. You can barely see it from this angle, but you have a hard time imagining anyone - even an archer - can see past that canopy of trees, branches, and leaves, especially at that distance.

"That way?" Aphelia repeats with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes," blinks Vesna awkwardly, as if only now realizing how strange her claim seems under the circumstances. "Well, um...we can't be the only group thinking about looking for higher ground, right? So there's probably definitely someone else climbing this hill to get a better look at their surroundings. Probably."

Aphelia looks halfway between being skeptical and finding some sense in Vesna's explanation. Penelope does not even give the courtesy of the latter, instead simply rolling her eyes and scoffing. It's not as if you don't understand their reactions; while Vesna's thinking isn't exactly illogical, it's also somewhat unprompted and also weirdly specific.

"Very well," Aphelia nods with what you suspect to be a statement born of mustered patience. "Do you recognize anyone from that group?"

"Um...I don't know," Vesna admits. Then, more hurriedly, "I mean, I didn't really see them..." an unnecessary pause, then even more hurriedly, "...clearly."

Aphelia sighs this time, but instead of dismissing Vesna outright, Aphelia instead closes her eyes and concentrates. When she opens her eyes again, her gaze seems strangely distant, as if focusing on something far away...or not quite of this world.

"Do you see any groups nearby?" asks Aphelia, but it's clear that she's not asking any of you. "Group. Of four. Four people." She frowns, as if hearing something that's strange or puzzling or incomprehensible. "Yes," she murmurs, although hesitantly. Then, "No, no, people. Like me." A long pause, as Aphelia's expressions slowly twist to one of bewilderment. "What? No, that's not..."

Although you obviously have never seen the fae before, you have seen elves communicate - or at least attempt to communicate - with the fae before, and have always understood that they exist in spite of rumors bandied about by fringe groups, who claim the fae are a religious fabrication of the elves to keep other races down. Watching Aphelia attempt to communicate one certainly makes one wonder why anyone even actually believes that such is a fabrication, given how inefficient it seems to you. You understand through hearsay that while the fae never seem to actively lie, communication with them - even with elven mages spending their whole lives researching the fae - has always been difficult, to the point where some of your elven neighbors back home regard trying to communicate with them as a complete waste of time. The fae never seem to truly understand mortal thinking or language, and their thinking seems equally incomprehensible to elves. It's as if the fae reside in an entirely different world where everything that exists in your world is absent in theirs and everything that is absent in yours world exists in theirs, where up is down and left is up and right is also up and down is green and directions are actually used to describe food.

And frankly, who is to say that this is wrong, when every elf - all of whom agree on the presence of the fae, incomprehensible as they are - says that the fae exist on an entirely different plane of existence? And how can the people of Iuryis and beyond ever hope to truly understand beings who supposedly experience a completely different reality from you?

After several moments - moments that seem somewhat frustrating for Aphelia - the elf eventually ends her inquiry, and her eyes regain focus before turning to the remainder of the group, but to Vesna in particular. "You may well be right," she tiredly concedes after a moment.

"Does the fae say so?" asks Vesna with a surprising amount of excitement.

"Possibly," Aphelia allows slowly and cautiously. You understand her apprehension, given how difficult communication was with the fae, and especially since Aphelia looked like she was completely lost more than half the time.

"W-What do we do now?" you ask, eager for a plan after having spent some time trying to figure out whether or not this new piece of information is even true.

"We'll move to avoid them," Aphelia declares. "It's too early in the exercise for confrontation, I think. We'll double-march up the hill, get a better understanding of the forest, then withdraw as soon as we're done."

Vesna doesn't seem very happy with that answer, pointing out, "They could be thinking the same thing. I mean, thinking that we don't want confrontation. We could just ask to share map pieces. Pool resources for as long as we can."

"Four more pieces of a map out of a bit more than a hundred is unlikely to help us by much," Aphelia replies; already, she is marching up the hill quickly, and the rest of you are pulled along by her authoritative pace. You suppose highborns naturally command that sort of presence and compliance. "Given that squads are split amongst groups to ensure there's no overlap, I also don't see much benefit of teaming up when half of us will fail this field exercise."

"There are twenty-eight squads," presses Vesna. "Even if both of our groups are eight apprentices representing eight squads, that's still...just a bit more than half of half." Then, perhaps realizing that "half of half" makes her sound stupid even though it works to emphasize the point she's trying to make, she awkwardly amends, "Um, a quarter of all squads." She shakes her head of the thought, concludes, "I don't think there's necessarily a conflict of interest."

"At least until you've found out that your other squad members have chosen to team up with other groups," Aphelia points out, already looking ahead. "Will you have them join us or go to them instead?"

"How about we just beat them and take their map pieces?" Penelope interrupts tersely and impatiently, drawing a measured look from Aphelia and a startled one from Vesna. "Seeing other people's map pieces is gonna do us a fat lot of good unless we actually hold onto them and get to put them together when it matters. Cozying up with each other for pieces isn't gonna do much good when we have to split and can't look at those pieces when we actually need them later on. And you're betting on them not beating us instead. So I say we get more map pieces and take out the competition." She shrugs. "Simple as that."

"We're really going to attack someone?" demands Vesna in disbelief. "Really? This early in the exercise?"

"It's gonna happen," Penelope snaps. "Sooner or later. I'd rather it be sooner, before groups get bigger and harder to deal with."

"And, praytell," Aphelia asks coolly, "what are you going to do when one of the groups has someone from your squad in it?"

Penelope freezes and stares at Aphelia, betraying the clear fact that she has not considered this. It is only after several moment of thought that she irritably concedes, "Fine, we'll do it if there's no one from our squad in that group."

Displeased with the direction this conversation is taking, Vesna insists, "You do realize that we can talk our way out of situations, right? Talk our way into having other squads ally with us instead of fighting them into submission?" She grimaces. "That's going to be a lot harder if we took out other members of their squads."

"That's stupidly naive thinking," scowls Penelope. "You just want it to be true, and don't care about if it'll actually work."

Although she isn't angered by Penelope's accusation, Vesna is clearly flustered as she exclaims, "There are enough flags for half of us! What makes you think those are bad odds?"

"It's because of how fluid the groups are now," Aphelia explains with a taut edge in her voice, once again already looking ahead. "This is a big forest with a lot of challenges. The chance that we'll find other members of our group, overcome all challenges thrown at us, and then find a flag are hardly guaranteed. There's a lot of uncertainty now. Trying to form ad hoc alliances on the fly that will probably break apart once we find other groups with other squad members only adds to that uncertainty."

You have not spoken yet, nor has your opinion been solicited, so it's possible that you can sit this conversation out to avoid drawing the ire or annoyance of anyone in this discussion, an option that is hardly unappealing, given some of the more charged characters in this group. But with the choices presented evenly split - Aphelia for avoiding contact, Vesna for trying to form an alliance, and Penelope for defeating them - it's not hard to imagine your vote of support will help force this group into a decision.

[x] Support Aphelia's plan to climb the hill as much as possible to read the terrain and then disappear as soon as possible.
[x] Support Vesna's plan to seek out the possible incoming group in an attempt to form an alliance with them.
[x] Support Penelope's plan to defeat the possible incoming group in an ambush so long as there's no one from your squads in it.
[x] Stay silent avoid confrontation with your group members.


Support "On the Road to Elspar (Book 1)"

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