The spot that had been scouted for overnight rest on the way to Zanado was reached just as the sun was beginning its descent. The forest they were travelling through was all gloom and shadows in the disappearing light, and a slight breeze had started to pick up.
The three mounted Knight's at the head of the column pulled up sharply when they recognised the clearing. It was marked by a prepared stack of wood for the fire and signs that some of the underbrush had been cleared away to facilitate their accommodation.
Byleth was pleased to note that it was a good spot in terms of defence, although she hadn’t really expected anything else. The western side of the clearing was lined with a sheer rock face thrusting well above the tops of the tree's which their tents were to be erected against, allowing some relief from the elements as well as protecting their backs.
The stream that they had followed during their march was just over to the east and was both broad and deep enough to make crossing it a risk - also serving to prevent an easy attack from that direction. They were vulnerable to the North and the South, but the knights were quick to set up a watch at both ends of the camp - sending out two to scout ahead and look for any signs of trouble.
'Oh, thank goodness.' Dorothea breathed when the group finally came to a halt. 'Honestly, I thought my feet were going to be worn away to nothing.'
'Didn't you spend hours stood up when you were performing on stage?' Caspar asked, poking the songstress on the shoulder.
'Well, obviously, but that didn’t come with copious amounts of actual walking and having to carry all my belongings with me.' Dorothea grouched testily.
'I'd have carried your bags if you'd asked!' Caspar declared. 'I could have carried everyone's!' He flexed his biceps with a cheeky growl.
'A bit late now to offer! I will employ you on the way home, though, so thanks in advance!' Dorothea beamed at him and winked, which raised a rosy blush to his cheeks.
'How do you expect your stamina to improve if you let others lessen your load?' Byleth commented with a frown. 'I don't hear anyone else complaining!'
'Bernie is too tired to complain.' Bernadetta sighed, flopping to the floor with a grimace.
'No time to rest yet.' Byleth warned. 'You have tents to put up, a fire to build, water to haul, and cooking that needs to be done.'
'Oh, Professor... you are so mean today!' Linhardt admonished her, but he was grinning, and not only was he looking surprisingly alert but also somewhat engaged. Fresh air obviously agreed with him.
'Yeah, Prof.' Caspar added. 'Tough and mean. Hey! Can I organise the tents? I've built loads of tents, it's so much fun!' He asked, enthusiastically.
'In that case, I place you in charge of the accommodation, Captain Caspar.' Byleth nodded at him, 'Do you think you can manage to keep Lin awake long enough to help you out?'
'Of course!' Caspar declared, pushing Linhardt so hard the lad nearly flew off his feet. 'He's tall as well so he can do the hard to reach bits!'
'Who wants to do the fire and start cooking then?' Byleth enquired next.
'Me! I want to!' Bernadetta squeaked, scrabbling back to her feet.
'Please allow me to help in your endeavor, Lady Varley.' Ferdinand stepped forward and bowed to the girl with a broad smile. 'Ferdinand von Aegir shall feed his companions the best dinner they have ever tasted!'
'Really?' Bernadetta looked skeptical. 'Ferdie, I don’t think I've ever seen you cook before...'
'That is true. I have never actually prepared a meal...' Ferdinand agreed, taking her arm gallantly and leading her towards the pile of firewood. '...But really, how hard can it be?'
'I want to go home now...' Bernadetta moaned piteously.
'I guess that leaves collecting water for us.' Edelgard nodded to Hubert, who went to the pack mule to collect buckets.
'Petra, please accompany them to provide a lookout. The knights are patrolling the area, but it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant.' Byleth requested. The girl nodded solemnly and drew her weapon, a look of fierce determination on her face as she followed the other two back towards the stream.
'So what do you want me to do?' Dorothea asked curiously as the others set about their tasks.
'Take a seat.' Byleth instructed, pointing towards a large log that had been rolled into position for just such a use. 'I noted that you were limping as we came into camp, I expect you have worked up some blisters on your feet which I should look at. I have brought a salve along, the one that my father and I use ourselves.'
Dorothea groaned miserably when Byleth helped her to remove her boots and rolled down the stockings that the girl was wearing.
'You need some proper socks.' Byleth told her, 'If you are walking any distance, you need to cushion your feet against the continual impact. I will lend you a pair of mine.'
'Hmm. Let me help.' Linhardt had observed what Byleth was doing and had wandered over to peer over her shoulder at Dorothea's battered feet. He directed a little healing magic, and Dorothea's expression immediately relaxed.
'That is so much better!' She exhaled. 'Thanks, Lin.' He nodded to her, then meandered back to Caspar, who was fighting to get control of a sheet of canvas three times bigger than himself and losing. Byleth searched through her pack and brought out a big pair of socks.
'Ah... yes.' Dorethea pulled them on and wiggled her toes against the rough wool. 'I am beginning to see I was woefully underprepared for this. I believe I have become far too accustomed to comfort and style to have retained any sense of practicality.'
Byleth shrugged. 'All good practice. Your blisters now will remind you never to forget the importance of a good pair of socks in the future.'
Dorethea smiled at the woman crouched in front of her. 'You are so skilled at making everything a good lesson, Professor, do you never... Oh!' The girl froze, and her eyes opened wide in astonishment. 'Well now... would you just look at that! What a surprise!' She practically purred.
Byleth raised an eyebrow and turned to see what had caught Dorothea's attention. It was Seteth, striding through the treeline from the south. Byleth turned back to Dorothea and squinted at her appreciative expression in puzzlement.
'Did you not know Seteth was joining us?' She asked.
'Of course, I knew!' Dorothea said quietly, her eyes still fixed on the man striding towards them. 'But just look at him! Who would have thought he was hiding all that muscle under his robes! Now I understand why Manuela has so lamented her inability to snare him.'
Byleth gazed back at Seteth again. He was dressed simply in Wyvern Lord garb and carrying a lance, and she had to admit that out of his formal monastery attire, he did look different - somehow younger and more relaxed.'
'Ladies...' He greeted as he reached them. 'I see that you are all arrived safely.'
'Alois and the Knights are ensuring that the perimeter is secure.' Byleth advised him. 'I didn't hear you land. Where have you housed your wyvern?' She asked.
Seteth was sweeping a measured look around the camp. 'He is off hunting. He will return either to my call or when he feels like it.' He shrugged, facing Byleth again. 'We have been partners for many years now. Once a bond has been established, there is no need to control their movement or keep them tethered.' He explained.
Alois was heading back into camp with two of the Knights. He welcomed Seteth enthusiastically and reported that everything appeared to be in order.
'We have a watch rota in place, so the evening should be peaceful!' He explained cheerfully.
'Err... excuse me!' Dorothea said suddenly. 'I think I should go and help Bernie before she throws Ferdie on the fire and cooks him instead!' She indicated to where the pair of students appeared to be having an impassioned disagreement.
'I will aid with the tents.' Byleth added. 'You can manage with overseeing the cooking, Dorothea?' She enquired.
'I'll get them both in hand. Never fear!' Dorothea laughed.
Once the ladies had moved to help out, and Seteth had stored his pack, he went back to where Alois was stood, watching over the camp with a practiced eye and a beaming smile.
'The journey went well?' Seteth asked, standing beside the Knight and watching as Edelgard and Hubert hauled pails of water back towards the fire.
'No problems at all.' Alois told him. 'There were a few grumbles, of course. The kids aren’t conditioned for the march yet, but Captain Jeralt expected that and allowed the time so that we could keep the pace relatively easy.'
'Thoughtful of him.' Seteth observed.
Alois chuckled. 'Well, he's a hard and dangerous man, of course, but underneath that gruffness is a whole bucket-load of decency. Not a surprise that Byleth is so protective towards her students.' He jabbed this thumb towards where Byleth was patiently showing Linhardt the best way to mallet the ground-pegs down. 'Mind you, her mother was just about the kindest and gentlest soul you could ever hope to meet, and her girl is the absolute spit of her.'
'Is that so?' Seteth's heart began to beat a little faster in his chest. A sudden wave of competitiveness swept over him. He would just love rubbing Flayn's face in getting more information out of Alois than she managed to get from Jeralt.
Alois was still chuckling. 'I can only imagine the Archbishop's face when she first clapped eyes on our Byleth. It must have been like seeing a ghost.'
'Rhea knew Byleth's mother?' Seteth enquired lightly. 'I assumed that it was only Jeralt that she knew.'
'Oh.... crap.' Alois's grin disappeared into a worried frown. 'I thought you knew, being who you are and all! Aw, Jeralt is going to kill me for opening my mouth.'
'Please don't concern yourself Alois.' Seteth said carefully. 'Rhea hasn’t been quite herself since Jeralt's arrival, and I haven’t liked to push her on why in case I stirred up unfortunate memories. It would be a big help to hear what you know.'
'It ain't much. It was sensitive at the time you understand.' Alois still looked nervous.
'I see. So Rhea knew this woman well then?' Seteth pushed gently.
'Jeralt's wife was originally one of Rhea's handmaidens.' Alois said quietly.
Seteth couldn’t prevent his shocked expression. Then unexpectedly he started to laugh. 'How extraordinary!' He said gleefully. 'Why am I not surprised that Jeralt managed to steal away a nun from right under the Archbishop's nose! Oh my days... that's priceless!'
Alois began to chuckle again too, his relief palpable. 'Yeah, totally a Jeralt kind of move.' He agreed.
'Did they have to leave the Monastery once their relationship was discovered?' Seteth enquired.
Alois shook his head. 'No, not at all. They were married quietly - no big deal made of it. I don't think many knew who she actually was; after all - the archbishop's intimate staff kept mainly to Lady Rhea and the church.' Alois scratched at his chin thoughtfully. 'Jeralt didn’t leave until after Byleth was born. Her mother died at the birth of course, and By was in a bad state herself, sickly and not expected to live.'
'That must have been difficult for him.' Seteth said quietly.
'Yeah, we were out on a mission when it all happened. He never got to say goodbye.' Alois replied sadly. 'Then there was the fire...' He continued. 'It was reported that the baby died in it.' He looked fondly over at the girl who was now adding something to the food that was cooking on the fire. 'That at least is proven to be wrong!' He noted.
'So Byleth was born at the Monastery.' Seteth sounded thoughtful. 'Then Jeralt stole her away with him when he left, letting everyone believe she was dead. I wonder why.'
Alois shrugged. 'If that's what happened, the Captain would have had his reasons.' He said loyally.
'I don't doubt that in the least.' Seteth agreed. 'I won't mention to Jeralt what you have told me.' He added. 'I am grateful, however. Given the situation it would have been harsh to have pushed either Rhea or Jeralt for the details. I don't need to now.'
'Well that's something at least.' Alois sounded relieved.
'Yes, it's quite something indeed.' Seteth murmured, feeling sure that he had outdone Flayn's inquiries by a mile.