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Chosen Paths

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Caspar's turn on watch came an hour after midnight when he was pushed awake by Linhardt, who had completed his own duty covering the first section of the night. 

'It's all so quiet, I could barely keep my eyes open.'  Linhardt reported as he climbed into the warm blankets that Caspar vacated, humming happily to himself.

'Can you please keep it down.'  Hubert huffed in annoyance.  'Some of us are trying to sleep.'

Caspar stepped over Ferdinand's slumbering form and pushed his way out of the tent, heading over towards the fire where Byleth, Alois, and Seteth had laid out their own bedrolls.  Edelgard joined them.

'Caspar, can you take the North point and Edelgard the South, just at the edge of the camp.'  Byleth requested quietly.  'There are Knights in place a bit further out, so if you hear any disturbance, report at once.'

Marching himself swiftly to the spot that the Professor had indicated, Caspar stared out into the trees, trying to adjust his eyes to the gloom and see if he could spot the Knights that were out there.  He could see nothing except the trunks of trees.  A glance back into the camp showed him that the Professor had laid down again, her eyes shut, although he was sure that she was awake by the tenseness of her posture.  He could just make out Edelgard's form stood at the other end of the site.  Aside from that, there was nothing of any remark to take his attention.  It was going to be a long few hours of boredom he realised.

Despite the peace, Caspar's enthusiasm and focus never wavered.  He amused himself primarily by counting the paces from one side of his watch post to the other - first in massive strides, then in mini-steps, and once that became dull, he tried to imagine what wildlife it was that was making the noises and the rustles he could hear. 

It was probably around halfway through his watch when Caspar heard something very different from the other sounds he had been listening to.  It was distant - but he would have bet anything that the incongruous ringing he could just about make out was the clash of weapons against each other.  He strained both his eyes and his ears so intently that he didn’t notice the Professor coming up behind him with a frown on her face.

'Wake the other's.'  She told him quietly, making him jump.  'Start with Seteth and Alois.  'Ensure that everyone stays silent, but gather them by the fire and be ready.  Let Edelgard know too.'  She added, just as a distant shout of warning echoed through the trees.  'Hurry!'  She urged, drawing her weapon.

Casper nodded and stumbled across to the fire, shaking Alois first and then Seteth. 

'Trouble.'  He told them - pointing towards where Byleth was stood frozen and alert.

Alois swore under his breath and dived for the tent where his off-duty Knight's were resting.  Seteth rose quickly and sprinted, lance in hand, towards Byleth.  Caspar headed to the boy's tent.

'Guys!'  He kicked indelicately at Ferdinand, who was closest to the entrance.  'Wake up!'

'Ouch!'  Ferdinand sat up.  'What the hell Caspar?'

'Shh!'  Caspar urged as Linhardt and Hubert blinked wearily at him.  'Looks like we have incoming.  Prof says to get ready and group up by the fire.  Gotta stay quiet.' 

'Edelgard?'  Hubert hissed as he swiftly stood, his sleepiness gone and grabbing for his boots.

'She's the lookout to the south.  The threat appears to be from the north.'  Caspar replied as he let himself out to go and get the girls.

In the short time it took for everyone to get together, the unmistakable sound of fighting had grown much louder and distinctly closer.  Byleth and Seteth remained on the edge of the camp, heads together, deep in conversation, and there was no sign at all of Alois or the Knights.  After a few moments Seteth looked up at the students, nodded to Byleth, and gave her a reassuring grip to the shoulder, then he hurried over to the fire.

'The Knights are dealing with the problem.'  Seteth said shortly.  'We will remain here and engage with any hostiles that get past them.  The Professor wants you to adopt your defensive pairs - Petra and Dorothea, you are to keep a close eye to the East and raise the alarm if you spy anything - Edelgard and Linhardt, the same but stay closer to the fire and look South.  We believe that any threat will come from the North, but it pays to be wary.'

'Shouldn't we go and aid the Knights?'  Casper asked excitedly.

'Alois will signal if help is required, but in honesty, given the denseness of the forest, everyone would end up split.'  Seteth frowned.   'Since Alois has placed Knights to cover the route along the river, the only place left for anyone to go is this camp.  If they do, you are to keep defensive.  Only engage if you are ordered or if it's completely necessary.'

Bernadetta let out a piercing scream of alarm, making everyone jump as two armed men suddenly burst from the trees and into the clearing a few yards in front of where Byleth was waiting.  Caspar grabbed Bernadetta by the arm and put a finger to his lips before she could cry out again.  She choked back a sob and nodded at him.

Caspar's attention swung back to the Professor.  She had retreated a dozen or so steps, to bring the interlopers further into the light and away from the cover of the forest, then with a single slash to one and a thrust at the other - both went down under her blade.  There was a ripple of shock that ran through the students, but Seteth quickly motioned for their silence.

Byleth placed her foot on the chest of the man she had impaled to pull her sword free of his body, and just about managed to jump out of the way of an arrow that sped at her from an unknown location.

'Seteth, take my position, Caspar and Ferdinand in behind him, and Bernadetta stay in range.  Hubert with me.'  Byleth turned to beckon the mage.  'We need to take out the archer, I want you to stay behind me as we run into the tree's and keep your sights up in the branches.  You see any movement you cast.  Got it?' 

Hubert nodded and trotted forward.  When he reached Byleth, they took off together at a run. 

Casper watched as they disappeared, only to hear a loud shout and a lot of cursing then a scream from an unknown voice.  Weapons rang, and there were several flashes of purple and violet magic.  Caspar started hopping from foot to foot, anxious to join the fray - then several bandits, all carrying large sacks ran out from cover and charge directly towards them. 

'Hold.'  Seteth ordered as Caspar twitched with the urge to run forward and meet them.  'Make them come to us.'  He added, raising his lance and firming his footing.  Caspar and Ferdinand followed his lead and prepared for the onslaught.  As the men ran forward, the one at the front stumbled unexpectedly.

'Oh... oh, dear... I think I hit him... time to go home, Bernie.  Yes, time to go home...'  Bernadetta didn’t move, however, but she did loosen a second arrow at the afflicted man which hit him squarely in the chest.  'You have really gone and done it now.'  Bernie reflected mournfully as the man fell face forward.

'Nice one Bernie!'  Caspar congratulated her.

'Oh, yes.  Nice one, Bernie!'  The girl replied, sarcastically.

Byleth and Hubert were already back, Byleth running up behind the group of men before they had even reached Seteth and the students. 

Caspar could only watch in stunned amazement when his Professor cried out a vicious taunt as she plowed into the attackers - her blade whirling faster than he could follow.  Her face was a mask, her eyes completely void of anything even remotely human as her entire body moved as intuitively as if she were simply taking an evening stroll.  It wasn’t pretty; her maneuvers were robust and functional rather than graceful, but there was a beauty in her economy, and to a fellow brawler, her efficiency was like poetry.

'Truly the Ashen Demon.'  Ferdinand breathed as the last of the five men was cut down, spraying arterial blood in a dramatic arc, covering the woman that had ended him.

'Petra report!'  Byleth shouted to the girl on the east side of the camp. 

'Quietness here, Professor.'  Petra called back.

'Edelgard?' Byleth barked.

'Nothing, Professor.'  Edelgard confirmed.

'Good.'  Byleth murmured her eyes sweeping around the campsite and the students.  'Everyone okay?'  She asked hoarsely, some light re-entering her eyes.

'Bernie killed one.'  Bernadetta suddenly sobbed and collapsed to the ground.

'All's clear!'  Alois came jogging back into camp with a Knight at his side.  Byleth's shoulders relaxed noticeably.  She joined Bernadetta on the ground and pulled the girl to her.

'You are covered in blood, Professor!'  The girl wailed.  'E...e...even your hair!'

'None of it's mine.'  She reassured.  'Do you think you could come and help me get cleaned up at the stream Bernie?  I think I will need a bit of help.'

'Y...yes, Bernie can help.'  The girl hiccupped.

Byleth gazed towards Seteth.  'Can you manage here?'  She asked.  He nodded.

'Take your time.'  He said.  'We'll get the mess sorted.'

Seteth organised Ferdinand and Caspar to help with searching and then moving the bodies while Hubert tended the fire and made tea.

'Looks like these fellows were running off with their loot.'  Alois commented, after opening one of the sacks that the bandit's had been carrying.  'A couple turned once they saw us and appeared to be heading back to the canyon, but I sent some lads after them.  They won't have made it very far.'

'There are five here, two by the tree's... how many did you deal with when you went to get the archer, Hubert?'  Seteth asked.

'We took the archer out from a tree, and the Professor took down another melee on the ground.'  He replied.

'And the Knights?'  Seteth queried.

'Two that I'm sure of, and the two that scarpered back towards the camp.'  Alois reported.

'So that's twelve.'  Seteth stroked his chin thoughtfully.  'That's over half of the men that were reported to be in the canyon.  I wonder what happened to make them leave.'

'Odd time for them to go too unless they were sneaking out.'  Alois agreed.

'It's only a couple of hours till first light.  I'll do an aerial sweep as soon as I can, see if I can spy what's happening.'  Seteth decided.

Caspar's concern over Bernie was eased when he saw her arrive back at camp hanging on to the Professor's arm in a death grip, but appearing calm.  He grinned at the girl and sent her a cheerful thumbs-up.  She smiled back, wanly at him, and seated herself next to the Professor, then laid her head in the woman's lap and closed her eyes after declining a mug of tea.  The Knights had also arrived back in dribs and drabs and were reorganised efficiently by Alois after taking tea and exchanging reports.

'Definately all clear as far back as the canyon.'  Alois eventually declared.  'You kids need to get some rest.'  He added to the students.

'As if we could.'  Caspar groaned.

'I could and will!'  Linhardt declared.  'Far too much excitement for one night.'  He complained to the Professor as he curled up with Bernadetta adding his own head to Byleth's lap and falling immediately asleep.

'Bloody hell!'  Byleth grouched. 'Do I actually look like a pillow?'

'More like a comfort blanket I think.'  Hubert smirked, but without malice.

Byleth looked up at him blankly for a second, then she smiled.  'Your reflexes were excellent tonight, Hubert.  It was good to have you at my back.  Thank you.'

Hubert looked genuinely surprised, then covered it by scowling.  'No need for flattery, Professor.'  He murmured.

'Pfft.  Take it as you will.'  She retorted.

He bowed slightly to her, then took himself off to his tent.  Ferdinand followed, but Caspar camped down a slight way away from Linhardt.  Edelgard and Dorethea also said goodnight and headed for their beds while Petra was still stalking around the perimeter of the camp.  Alois joined her, chatting to her quietly.

'You aren’t going to be able to lie down like that.'  Seteth noted to Byleth, indicating the two heads on her lap.

'I know.'  She sighed, but her eyes were soft, and he saw that she had an arm protectively around Bernadetta's shoulders.

'You really should get some rest, you know.'  He added, sitting himself down by her other side.  'Feel free to use my shoulder if you'd like.'  He offered.

'I'm fine.'  She asserted, but she did lean in against him lightly.  'If I use you, you won't be able to lie down either.'  She pointed out.

'I'm not the one who took down seven men by myself.'  He replied.

She gave a little snort.  'Slacker!'  she whispered.

'Oh, really!  Are you issuing a challenge, Professor?'

'Once you get on that magnificent beast of yours I doubt I'd stand a chance.'  Byleth admitted.  'In honesty though, those bandits were woeful.  They wouldn’t even throw down their loot to protect themselves, so it was hardly difficult to best them.'  Her head landed gently on his shoulder.  'What is it about shiny stuff that makes a person willing to give up their life to protect it?'  She wondered aloud.

'Damned if I know.'  Seteth responded with a heavy sigh.