After they ate dinner, Monica and her friends gathered some sleeping bags, a large tent, and a few days’ supply of food and water and took them to the caravan waiting outside the monastery’s front gate, leaving just enough room for all of them to sit in the back and protect any of their gear from falling out. Monica squeezed between Edelgard and Ingrid, and Leonie took the remaining seat on Ingrid’s right side.
“Everything ready back there?” asked the caravan driver.
“Almost!” said Leonie.
Monica double-checked to make sure her sword and sheath were properly fastened to her belt. She took a good look at her companions’ weapons, as well – Ingrid’s lance, Leonie’s bow and arrows, and Edelgard’s axe and shield all looked polished, sharpened, and battle-ready. “I think we’re good,” she said.
“Okay, then… Hold on tight! We’re about to take off!”
The caravan left its station with a sudden start, causing the team’s cargo to shake wildly. Things started to settle down once it had pulled away from Garreg Mach, as the roads were less rocky, allowing the girls to keep themselves steady.
“Sorry about the bumpy start,” said the driver. “I have to speed things up because we’re running a little behind.”
Monica felt secure sitting next to Edelgard and Ingrid. It was quite cramped, but at least she didn’t have to worry about falling off.
“So, Monica,” said Leonie, “who was that girl you were talking to earlier?”
“You mean Connie?” Monica responded. “She needed some help buying a rare book, so I gave her a little bit of money.”
“Not too much, I hope. You can’t be too careful with money these days, especially when Anna and rare goods are involved.”
“She gave you her name already? That was fast,” said Ingrid. “Are you really going to try to write her back?”
“Of course!” said Monica. “I mean, wouldn’t you do the same if you met someone you thought you might be interested in?”
“Wait a minute…why are you asking me that question? You’re the one she was talking to!”
Edelgard started to sink deep in thought. “The name ‘Connie’ sounds familiar to me,” she said. “Or is it really ‘Constance’? And that dress she was wearing… It looked almost like an academy uniform. Was she a former student here? I’ll have to look into this later.”
The caravan stopped at a clearing several miles northwest of the monastery. “Looks like it’s getting pretty late,” said the driver as he pulled his horses off to the side for feeding. “Let’s set up camp here.”
“I’m on it,” said Leonie as she unloaded the tent. Monica had to step back to avoid being hit in the head as the tent came out.
“Whoa! You actually have a tent that big, Leonie?” asked Monica.
“It’s not mine. Captain Jeralt let me borrow it for this journey. I don’t want to get yelled at if anything happens to it, so be careful.“
It took the girls some time to pitch their tent because they had to do it with only the aid of a lantern and a campfire to light their way. After a quick sweep of the area to ensure they wouldn’t get attacked in their sleep, they gathered around their campfire and ate some dried meat skewers. Ingrid and Leonie enjoyed them the most, while Edelgard and Monica, who were used to eating more refined foods, found them tolerable, but nothing special.
They all took their sleeping bags inside the tent and huddled up together, sleeping under the clouds. Monica had a good night’s sleep for the first time in days. She tried to weave her friends into her dream, but she forgot all about it by the time she woke up and the first rains fell.
“Just what we needed,” she complained.
The group tried to shake down some apples from the nearby trees, with Edelgard using her shield to push the tree more forcefully. After they had eaten, they packed up their tent and shoved it back onto the caravan as the driver readied his horses to move on to their next destination.
As Edelgard, Ingrid, and Leonie exchanged stories of the missions they had been on since the beginning of the school year, Monica felt sad that she had missed so many opportunities to experience them firsthand. When they passed by the mouth of a cave on the side of the road, they knew they were approaching Fódlan’s Fangs. It was at that moment that Monica felt a growing sense of dread.
She had been on this road before.
It happened on a rare break between missions. Monica and the other Black Eagles had been given permission to return to their homes for a week-long holiday. She planned to visit her father in his masonry in the mountains and aid him with the post-war reconstruction in one of the surrounding villages.
When her caravan had reached the cave marking the entrance to Fódlan’s Fangs, she heard something following them.
A half-dozen black-cloaked figures spilled out of the cave, chasing after Monica and her caravan on steeds of their own. She yelled for the driver to speed up and find a way to ditch them. He was riding as fast as he possibly could, but the cloaked horsemen were faster. They trailed the caravan for another mile or so without doing anything, but it turned out that they didn’t need to.
Three more black-cloaked mages emerged from the forest up ahead to cut off any possible escape routes. The caravan reared to a sudden halt as both groups of mages rushed Monica and her driver, incapacitating both of them before she had a chance to draw her sword. She wondered why they didn’t just kill her on the spot instead of dragging her all the way back to the cave from which the first group emerged.
It wasn’t just the memory of her ambush that made Monica feel uneasy… it was the smell. It smelled like… death.
Surprisingly, none of the girls had seen any fresh corpses along the trail. Edelgard noticed several unusually shaped dirt patches along the road…like something had recently been buried.
“I think we might be getting close to our target,” she said. “Ready your weapons, everyone.”
Edelgard’s suspicion was well-founded as the caravan came to a stop in the middle of a road near another cave opening.
“Honestly, boss,” said a voice from up ahead. “Can’t we move on to another spot?”
“Those sound like the bandits we’re looking for,” whispered Ingrid.
“For the last time, no!” shouted another.
“But we haven’t found anything but letters and books on this trail for the last week,” said a third voice. “Where’s all the gems? The coins? Stuff we can sell to buy a decent meal? I can’t eat paper!”
Did that bandit just say ‘letters’?, Monica thought.
“That’s your problem…you don’t appreciate the value of a good book,” said the boss bandit. “You can learn a lot about the world if you read the right books…what its cultures are like. How to cook your own meals instead of relying on the gruel they serve in the dungeons. The sound it makes when it connects with someone’s head for asking dumb questions!”
Monica peered around the side of the caravan to see if the boss would actually whack one of her subordinates on the head with the book in her hand. She didn’t, but they certainly cowered like they expected her to do it.
The leader of the bandits obstructing their path was a woman in tattered mage’s robes slightly older than Edelgard. She was flanked by a muscular woman with a rusted axe on her left, and a lithe man with a bow and arrows on her right. To take all three of them out would have been trivial for a group of four. The boss wasn’t about to make it easy for them.
“You there!” she said to the driver. “Hand over all your cargo, and I might let you scamper away with your tail between your legs.”
“I don’t have any cargo!” the driver yelped as he watched the archer draw his bow and aim it at his head. “You wouldn’t want what’s back there! Trust me!”
The mage bandit stared menacingly at the driver and motioned for the axe-wielder to slowly circle around the caravan to inspect it. “Oh, you wouldn’t be lying to me, would you? Because empty caravans don’t hold much value to me. They tend to catch fire easily… and so do their drivers.“
“I’m telling the truth! There’s nothing worth stealing in here!”
Sensing that the bandits had their caravan surrounded, Monica and her friends hugged the inner walls of the caravan and waited for the axe-wielding brigand to come into view. They had the element of surprise on their side. She was big and strong, but even she had to know she couldn’t take on all four of them at once.
“Well, wouldn’t you know…maybe the idiot was right after all,” said the brigand. “It’s just a bunch of academy kids.”
“How disappointing,” said the leader. “Guess we’ll just have to trash everything, then.”
The brigand raised her axe and took a crosswise swipe at the party, so fast that it threatened to split them all in two if they had only been a few inches closer. Monica drew her sword and brought it down on the opening between the brigand’s neck and her shoulder guard. A strike like that was just enough to disable Dorothea in practice, so she could only imagine how much it would have hurt with a real sword.
The brigand tried to ignore the wound and attack again, but Ingrid struck her in the face with the side of her spear, sending her reeling and opening her up for a finishing strike from Edelgard.
“‘Just academy kids’, huh?” Monica taunted as the first brigand breathed her last. She knew she had to stay vigilant, for there were at least two more bandits still standing in front of their caravan, threatening their driver’s life.
An arrow tore through the canopy of the caravan, causing the rain to leak on everyone’s gear.
“Whoops! My hand slipped,” said the archer.
As he prepared to fire another arrow, Leonie shot an arrow of her own toward the archer, only for it to be intercepted by one of three beefy brawlers who had emerged from the cave. “You ruined my shot!” she yelled, scowling at the bandit with an arrow stuck in his right upper arm. “And my tent!”
“We’re gonna ruin a whole lot more than that in a moment!” said another angry brawler.
The bandits formed a blockade on both sides of the caravan to prevent the party from interfering as they tried to rough up the caravan driver. The mage leader couldn’t follow through on her threat to burn down the caravan because of the rain, so she settled for blasting the driver off his carriage with a cutting gale.
Not one to let his charges do all the work for him, the driver rolled over and picked up the shield he had strapped to his back, using it to block the other bandits’ onslaught of arrows and wind blasts. Once he found his footing, he used his shield to stagger the brawler blocking Edelgard and Leonie. Edelgard took advantage of the opportunity and shoved the bandit again with her shield before cutting through his armor with her axe. She tumbled to the ground after a hard low kick from the brawler, giving Leonie a clear shot at his head.
On the other side, Monica and Ingrid had to deal with the other two brawlers, including the one Leonie had shot earlier. Ingrid and Monica kept their weapons close to their bodies to keep them from getting stolen. Neither they nor the surviving bandits were ready to drop their guards until Monica came up with an idea.
“Edelgard! A little help?” she shouted.
The brawlers took that as a sign that the girls were going to bring their heaviest-armored member to absorb the punches for them, and rushed to take the lightly-armored ones out before Edelgard could show up.
Monica didn’t intend on waiting.
She just needed one of them to make a mistake so she could create an opening and break the stalemate.
As soon as one of the brawlers raised his left hand to throw a punch, Monica dodged left and slashed him twice across his exposed arm, and then stabbed him in it for good measure. His partner smacked her in the face with the back of his steel gauntlet-plated hand in retaliation, prompting Ingrid to jump in and assist Monica by stabbing him in the side with her spear. Edelgard didn’t come to their aid, for she and Leonie had already closed in on the archer and subdued him, with the princess snapping his bow underneath her foot.
That left only the lead mage to deal with. She started to back away from the group, her confidence shaken and her allies lying broken and beaten on the road around their caravan.
“You may as well give up now,” said Ingrid. “I doubt you have enough magic to fight all four of us at once.”
“I would suggest a peaceful surrender if you wish to avoid the fate of your henchmen,” said Edelgard.
The mage looked around at the dead and dying bodies, realizing that she had been defeated when even the caravan driver, who should logically have been the easiest mark, had pitched in to help his passengers. “Fine…you win,” she said, tossing her magic tome at the party’s feet. It was a pretty valuable book, from the look of it – a tome called Howling Winds of Fódlan, with a cover similar to the book Constance had purchased.
“Where’s the rest of it?” Monica wanted to know.
“In there,” the mage said, pointing toward the cave where the three brawlers emerged in the middle of their fight.
There weren’t any guards nearby to handle their new prisoner, so Edelgard and Ingrid stood by and tied her up while Monica and Leonie investigated the stash hidden in the cave.
Inside, they found several bags and splintered crates full of weapons, letters, and books of varying importance and value. The items that caught Monica’s attention the most were a small bundle of letters in one of the bags, all addressed to her from her father. None of the letters appeared to be dated, but it was clear that her father had been trying to contact her multiple times, and someone didn’t want her to receive the message. She worried that the bandits that had been terrorizing the area had stolen some of her letters to the baron, and continued frantically rooting through the stolen merchandise hoping to find something.
“Monica, what are you doing?” asked Leonie.
“My father…” said Monica. “I need to speak to my father! No…I want to see him and let him know that I’m okay.”
“Well, you’re not going to find him in any of those bags or crates…I hope.”
Monica and Leonie grew more frustrated as their search for the missing letters continued to come up empty. “I know that! I just…I just…”
Realizing how much of a mess they were making, they put as many of the letters as they could find back into their containers for the guards to recover. “Maybe we’ll find him if we keep moving on ahead,” said Leonie. “Our mission only required us to defeat the bandits, but I have a feeling that there’s something fishy going on if these bandits went through the trouble of attacking couriers on this route.”
Everyone filed back into the leaky caravan, guiding the bandit leader in first so they could keep an eye on her as they continued up the road. Monica did her best to heal the cuts and bruises everyone suffered during the battle, and then drank a potion to ease the pain from her own wounds since she couldn’t use her healing spell on herself. The adrenaline rush from her first battle had worn off, leaving her in need of a short rest.
“How far do you think we are to the nearest village?” she asked the driver.
“Probably a couple more miles, if that,” he said. “You think they’ll be able to send someone to clean up those dead bodies?”
“I’m sure that even a small village has its own security patrol,” said Ingrid. “It would be nice if they had someone to guard this area to keep these bandits from coming back.”
Monica turned to the captured bandit leader, who found a way to sit herself upright while her hands were tied to her back. “Hey, you! What do you know about those letters stashed away in that cave, huh?”
“Search me,” said the mage. “It’s not like I read what’s inside those envelopes anyway. I just come along to rob whatever comes down this road.”
“What for? Who sent you?”
The mage sneered back at the others. “Hey! That’s none of your business!”
“We’ll find out one way or another,” said Edelgard. “The Imperial court won’t go as easy on you for your crimes as we did.”
“You think killing off my men is ‘going easy on me’? You academy chumps have a sick sense of humor.”
“You attacked us first!” Monica snapped.
“It doesn’t matter who attacked who,” said Ingrid. “All that matters is that this road is open for travel and commerce again.”
“And you’re going to stay far away from it!” said Leonie.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” said the mage as she struggled to undo her bindings. She really wanted to kick the red-haired one and send her tumbling onto the side of the road, but knew that the others would pounce upon her in seconds if she tried anything funny. “Just keep kicking me while I’m down, why don’t ya?”
The road beneath them had changed over from mud and gravel to smooth stone. Monica looked out of her side of the caravan and spotted a few brick houses and a windmill off in the distance.
“Hey, I know this place!” she said. “That’s Drachen Village!”
“Right you are, young lady,” said the driver. “This your stop?”
“Got it. I’ll pull in here and see if I can’t get this canopy patched up.”
The caravan pulled into a fenced-in section on the outskirts of the village, where Monica and the others jumped out to stretch. They even undid the bandit mage’s foot bindings and kept a close eye on her as they looked for whatever passed for a holding station.
“Don’t even think about running away,” Edelgard warned her.
She found a trio of armored guards with swords and spears and explained everything they encountered on their way to Drachen Village – the mage, the pack of bandits they killed, and the large stash of stolen merchandise containing weeks’ worth of shipments in a cave to the east. With the prisoner off their hands, they were free to focus on finding a contact for their mission.
“This place kinda reminds me of my home village,” said Leonie. “Is this where your father lives, Monica?”
“Yeah. He opened up a workshop here a year after our castle fell,” said Monica. “He said he wanted to help rebuild every last house in the area, even if it killed him.”
Leonie was surprised. Compared to her personal goal of repaying her tuition by sending back some of the money she made from quests and Monica’s goal of surviving long enough to graduate, the baron’s goal of literally rebuilding his war-torn land from the bottom up was impressive in scope. “That sounds like a lot of work for one guy.”
“Oh, he’s not doing it all by himself. He’s got plenty of talented stonecutters and miners to help him out.”
They walked around the village some more until they spotted a man wearing the same white outfit as Anna. “Are you the ones from Garreg Mach who routed the bandits?” he asked.
“Yes. Their leader is in holding and awaiting transport back to the capital as we speak,” said Edelgard.
The merchant hastily bowed when he looked at Edelgard’s uniform and realized he was in the presence of a princess. “Oh! Your Highness! I didn’t expect to see you all the way out here! Thank you all very much for your assistance.” He handed her a pouch full of gold coins, which she then split evenly among her comrades.
“Think nothing of it,” she said. “We were merely doing a service to maintain the peace for this area. I’m sure Anna will appreciate having this trade route open again so she can continue receiving her shipments.”
The merchant started to return to his stall when Monica tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me… Can you direct us to the Ochs Stonesmithing Workshop?” she asked.
“You want to speak to the baron? He’s a very busy man,” said the merchant, “and he doesn’t have much time to speak to just anyone.”
“Would he make an exception for his missing-and-presumed-dead daughter who just fought her way through a small pack of bandits to get here?”
The merchant couldn’t believe it. News of Monica’s return hadn’t made it to Drachen Village, or very far at all past Garreg Mach, for that matter. He knew he had to be wary of people pretending to be related to influential figures, but if word ever got out that he turned away the baron’s daughter from seeing her father, then losing his market stall would have been the least of his worries. “Wait…are you saying you’re…?”
“Monica von Ochs? Daughter of Baron Nicolaus the First, student at the Garreg Mach Officers Academy, and liberator of trade routes? Yes… Yes, I am.”
Monica wished she had a card with her portrait on it to show to the merchant, but until photographic duplication technology became a reality, her flowery self-description would have to serve as her proof of identification when it was clear that just saying “It’s me, Monica” wouldn’t cut it.
“My apologies, milady,” he said after finally shaking the “just seen a ghost” look off his face. “Right this way, please.”