| Adjusting his coat for the tenth time, Richard examined himself in a full length mirror, usually reserved for medical purposes. However, no one else was using it, so it seemed fitting to take a quick peek. Though a quick peek had now turned into a few minutes. Appraising every inch of himself, with a scrutinous eye. He checked every part of his military dress, ensuring all was immaculate.
Footsteps clicked lightly on the floor, sounding a nurse’s approach. The nurse who had helped him to prepare for Esther’s visit, if you could call it help, crossed the medical ward.
“Do you require the wash-room for anythi- Oh.” She sounded quite surprised.
Richard twisted his head, checking down his back. Then looked down the length of his side. Then his front. Seeing nothing out of place, he turned to her, pleading with his eyes for an explanation.
“Well…” her face twisted with mirth.
Seeming to regain herself, she appraised him with a thoughtful smile.
“That certainly is quite the appearance,” she motioned towards his new moustache.
New for him, anyway. Bushy bristles wrapped prominently across his face, receding into his side-burns. Realizing her meaning, he relaxed, turning to face her properly.
“Well, it’s not particularly common,” he admitted. “I doubt most folks have seen anything quite like it.”
“Well, it suits you splendidly, Sergeant,” she approved. “Dare I say it’s a perfect compliment?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he felt pride swell in him. “That’s very kind of you to say.”
“May I inquire to its origin?” She looked genuinely curious.
“Well,” he searched for the best way to respond, “it’s a… very old fashion. I’m not even certain where it comes from.”
“Not something of the lost Annex, then?” Her curiosity grew.
“Well, not that I’ve seen, anyway,” he tried to shrug it off.
“Perhaps something seen in your dreams, then?”
Richard’s surprise spread across his face, and she smiled knowingly.
“Your dream reports are intended to monitor your mental well being, Sergeant. Therefore, they are considered a part of your medical records.”
Richard tried not to gape.
“They’re kept here?” His astonishment came in a whisper.
“Some very intriguing visions you have had, Sergeant. Did you know that we have several cases of individuals with similar dreams, on record?”
“Several, ma’am?” Richard’s brow furrowed slightly in curiosity.
She nodded, again.
“They do span quite the timeline, of course,” she admitted. “Though, if I recall, House Greyshat contributed a member from each generation in the last hundred years.”
“Each generation?” Richard’s confusion deepened.
That couldn’t have been right. That first night at Greyshat Manor, Nigel hadn’t heard Kazimir’s voice, nor saw the beautiful display of his reassuring words. He had only awoken to Richard’s calls, and a deep metallic thrumming.
The nurse appraised him, a hint of confusion in her own eyes.
“Well, surely you’ve spoken with the former Lieutenant Greyshat? Or does one simply talk about weapons techniques with their sponsor?”
Richard was stunned.
“Nigel?” he gaped.
The nurse’s knowing smile returned after a while.
“I suppose it can’t be easy discussing such things,” she observed. “Where does one begin describing such things as dragons and underground cities? Like something out of fantasy.”
Richard blinked in amazement. Her smile warmed.
“You are far from the first person to have such wondrous dreams, Sergeant. However, I don’t recall a single one of them wearing that facial style.”
Richard blinked in confusion. The nurse began pacing towards him.
“I have heard of various artifacts being present throughout our empire’s history. There are tales millennia old, that tell of the immense power they unleashed.”
She stood before him, and spoke more confidentially. Richard listened intently.
“I am not familiar with the nature of such artifacts, nor do I know how they work. Yet I believe you have a very unique bond with your shield. I believe it to be far greater than any other.”
Her face grew serious
“If you can, use its power to save our country.”
There was a hint of pleading in her eyes now.
“Please, protect us.”
Richard felt purpose swell into him. He seemed to stand taller, more determined. Kazimir’s pride resonated in him. He felt like a mountain. Unshakeable.
“I will, ma’am,” he pledged. “I swear it. I’ll give the Royals something to remember. I’ll send them back up north, to whatever holes they crawled out of. I promise. Kazimir promises.”
She smiled gratefully, nodding slightly in approval.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” she whispered, then her whole demeanor shifted back to her more lively self. “Will you require anything else before embarking, Sergeant?”
“No, actually, I’m all finished here.” He smiled appreciatively.
“I’ll see to the wash-room, then,” and she bid him farewell with a smile, before walking off into the wash-room beyond.
Richard turned back to the mirror, reappraising himself. Everything was sharp, orderly, and immaculate. His gaze settled upon his own mustache. Though it was new to his upper lip, it somehow seemed familiar. As if it had been there the whole time. As if it belonged there. He swelled with pride. He had made the right choice for facial style, after all.
Pushing the double doors open, Richard gazed out into the sunlight. Adjusting the straps over his shoulders, he hefted his pack, along with Kazimir. Feeling more comfortable, he stepped out into the day. Then caught sight of his bunk mates, gathered around the front of the infirmary.
“What the hell are you all doing here?” Richard called out to the twenty-odd members of his bunk, scowling in confusion.
They turned to address him as he approached.
“Major Brougheed gave us permission to see you off, Richard,” Catherden answered with an uncharacteristic shyness.
“See me off?” Richard came to a halt before the group.
They all shifted uncomfortably.
“Well,” Harding struggled with his words, “you were with us since the beginning, Richard. You’ve been in our bunk this whole time. We’ve gone through sergeant school together. We…”
“We’ve been through a lot together, already, Richard.” It was Catherden who took over.
Baldwin chimed in, perking up.
“Hey, you all remember the time when Sergeant Dawds had us practice on the new printers, and Richard asks one of them, ‘You want me to suck start you, or will my boot up your ass do?’”
They all laughed in memory. Even Richard couldn’t hold back a smile of mirth.
“I don’t think they had ever heard someone talk like that before,” Baldwin continued to muse.
“What about when we first took him to the Salsbury Theatre?” Neigh suggested.
More laughter, and Richard felt a flash of embarrassment. He shook his head good-humoredly, unable to hide his smirk, and waved his hand about in an effort to quiet them.
“How about the time you pushed me off of Tanburn Bridge?” Miles recalled.
The crowd burst into an even greater raucous. Baldwin hunched forward with his arms bowing out, stepping in place as though soaked through to his skin. Some members doubled over from the enactment of Miles' squelching his way back to base, while others wiped at jovial tears. Richard’s smirk broadened, as Miles smiled back with a hint of pain.
“Well, you deserved it,” Richard pointed out, after the mirth had calmed.
The corners of Miles’ mouth flashed upwards. For a while they all just stood there, unwilling to let this moment fade. Finally, Harding raised his head high.
“Take care of yourself, Richard. Good luck out there.”
Others voiced their best wishes, as well.
“And you,” Richard appraised them with pride. “All of you.”
Regretfully, they gradually began to disperse. Richard watched as his bunk mates made off for the remainder of their routines. All except Miles, who looked as though he might be sick.
“Cheer up, mate,” Richard consoled his friend. “It’s not like we’ll be off fighting different wars. Same damn Royals. Same damn front. Who knows? You might see me out there, as a more seasoned soldier.”
Despite his persistent color loss, Miles nodded absently, fishing in his own hip pouch. Withdrawing what looked like a dark cloth bundle, he extended it to Richard.
“I thought you should have this,” Miles offered the bundle. “Seems like the sort of thing that might come in handy out there.”
Curious, Richard took the bundle, inspecting it. Some kind of wallet? Feeling the fine quality of the textile work, he noted the broad clasp with something inscribed on it. Drawing it closer, he read Halfred Co.
“A smoking kit?” Richard was befuddled.
“I know some of your new line-men ended up there for theft. I thought you might have better luck holding onto your lights with this.” Miles motioned to the kit in Richard’s hand.
Richard gazed appreciatively at Miles, then smirked as he opened the kit.
“You know, technically, this makes it easier to lift all my smokings in one go,” Richard lightly pointed out.
Miles smiled guiltily. Kit splayed open, Richard examined the interior. On one side, a box of Halfred brand cigarettes sat nestled away. While on the other side was an empty slot where a matchbook could fit. Richard’s head shot up to glare annoyance into his friend. Miles stood there, wearing a massive self amused grin, while holding out a matchbook.
“Couldn’t help but notice, someone had already pinched that,” Miles indicated the matchless smoking kit.
Richard huffed in frustration, shaking his head in an effort to hide his smirk.
“So take mine.” Miles redoubled his offer.
Richard was completely stunned. He gawked in disbelief, while his friend held out the matchbook. Miles’ eyes seemed to insist, yet plead at the same time. Richard didn’t know what to say. So, instead, he accepted the matchbook with tentative fingers. He held it for a moment. Just feeling it.
“Thank you, Miles,” Richard finally managed, showing the appreciation in his eyes.
He tucked the matchbook into the kit, before folding it close, and clasping it shut. Then he tucked the entire kit into his hip pouch. With the kit secured, Richard regarded his friend one last time.
“Take care of yourself,” Richard bid farewell, extending an open hand. “You’ll do great out there.”
“And you,” Miles clasped Richard’s wrist, and they shook.
It wasn’t easy releasing Miles’ wrist, nor turning to collect his spear. Still, with a final nod of farewell, Richard marched off for the main gate. He could feel Miles watch him pace away. He could feel the regret in Miles’ eyes. Still, he stood tall, holding his head high, and marched forward. He continued out the gate without looking back.