Hello everyone! Wrote this up about three weeks ago, told myself I'd go back and review it but that just never happened. Hmm...
Uploading it anyway, because otherwise it's just going to collect dust in my folder. Hopefully it's half-decent.
If you've missed it last chapter, I've uploaded a one-shot companion piece to this some time back; do check it out if you haven't already (otherwise some minor details in this chapter might have appeared out of nowhere).
The ao3 version of this chapter has some added stuff, notably a map at the position labelled (*) in the text body. Check it out there if you want, or use the imgur link: i imgur com/vKFGqNx jpg - fill in spaces as appropriate.
Hope you enjoy!
Chapter 13: Irrigation
Irrigation: n. the supply of water to land or crops to help growth, typically by means of channels.
"The annual Battle of the Eagle and Lion will be taking place in a week," Seteth said, standing at the front of a packed classroom. "I have been kept abreast of each of your personal developments by your professors. While I have no doubt that each of you will demonstrate the utmost of your abilities in the coming battle, there will be a few changes in this upcoming battle compared to your peers from previous cohorts of students that you should be made aware of."
His declaration caused a wave of excitement to spread among the assembled students, particularly those who were more keen to showcase the fruits of their training over the past few months. Already, Byleth could see the competitive spark burning within Caspar and Ferdinand, no doubt wanting the chance to prove themselves and their House after their showing in the mock battle months before. Raphael sat up straighter, although Byleth had no idea whether that was because he was actually interested in what Seteth had to say or if he was just mimicking Caspar.
Byleth stood silently by the side, waiting with the other three professors in attendance at the briefing. For the past few weeks, Alois had been busy with logistic affairs, having had to take up the position that was once entrusted unto Jeralt in past lives. With Catherine and Shamir shortly returning, along with the bolstering of the Church forces with the continued arrival of mercenaries, he had been running ragged for weeks trying to organise them.
Byleth had offered to help, but Alois simply shook his head, saying that there was no need for a squire such as himself to concern himself with such matters just yet. Much of it was simply trying to make sense of their growing number, he said, and that once the recalled knights finally returned to the Monastery, he would call for Byleth to assist him in organising the logistics of patrols and defence of Garreg Mach.
The students were more excited than he remembered them being in past lives, if the chatter he was now witnessing was any indication. Privately, he wondered if this was because unlike before, he wasn't personally participating in the battle, which meant that for once this would be a true contest between students of each of the three major powers of Fódlan.
Seteth cleared his throat, a disapproving look in his eye. Caspar gave a guilty smile at that as he quieted immediately, and Byleth had to suppress one of his own.
"The faculty of the Officers' Academy has decided to increase the scale of the battle this year. While students previously commanded a small battalion of troops from each of their respective nations, we have decided that such an engagement is no longer satisfactorily able to prepare you for the uncertain times ahead."
Some students started at that, but most of them nodded grimly. After the string of mysteries – Lonato's rebellion and later assassination, the assault on the Holy Mausoleum and theft of the Sword of the Creator, and then Flayn's kidnapping just two months ago, it was starting to become clear even to them that there was something amiss in Fódlan.
Seteth nodded, satisfied that he now had their utmost attention. "Accordingly, we have decided that each House will be in command of not only those representing their nations, but will also lead members of the Church of Seiros and mercenary bands into battle. In total, you may expect leading a force in the range of five hundred to a thousand men in number."
"A thousand?" Annette gasped loudly, then blushed as all heads in the room turned to face her. "Sorry! Sorry!"
It was obvious that most people were thinking along the same lines of thought, however. Edelgard was now frowning slightly, a look that Byleth had come to recognise as the same one she wore during every strategy meeting with her war council.
Claude was still sitting nonchalantly as he leaned back into his chair, his hands folded behind his head, but Byleth could see the gears starting to turn in that mind of his. No doubt he was already starting to factor in how whatever schemes he cooked up would have to change.
Dimitri looked better than he did back at the training ground, thankfully, and seemed to be looking forward to the upcoming battle. He offered a quick word to reassure Annette that no one took offense at her interruption – clearly, that impromptu pep talk had helped at least slightly – but was soon just as focused as Edelgard in what Seteth had to say.
Seteth took a moment longer to stare down a squirming Annette, before shaking his head.
"Accordingly, the duration of the battle will be extended, to simulate an actual military engagement that I pray none of you will be forced to witness in our time. As before, you will each need to make your own judgment regarding the quantities of rations and supplies that you expect will be necessary. The battle may last for a matter of hours, just as your predecessors have experienced, or may stretch for a period of days."
There were mixed reactions at that. Clearly, students didn't expect to be thrown into a situation like that, despite having been told the importance of maintaining supply chains over the past weeks. Already, Annette was furiously scribbling down notes, more-so than usual even for her.
Byleth hated having to throw his former students into reality of war so early in their lives, but this was going to be necessary if his plan for this life to deter and delay the start of this war as long as possible had any hope of succeeding. So he told himself, at least.
"To ensure that fairness is strictly adhered to, we will be providing each House with a fixed sum of gold with which to procure the services of mercenaries or troops from the Church," he said. "Each House should carefully consider the number and composition of troops and equipment they requisition from the Battalion Guild and Church Quartermaster."
After the previous few weeks of lectures on military strategy, Byleth could now see how the students appreciated just what this meant for them. Whereas those who had come before them as Officers of Garreg Mach didn't need to make such considerations, having a fixed budget with which to allocate resources would shake things up greatly.
It had been one of his last-minute proposals to Seteth, just as the details were being finalised with Rhea. Beyond just a further extension of his plan to allow Claude and Dimitri to understand Edelgard's brand of military tactics before the war actually began, he was privately also curious about how taking an active stance in imparting military strategy to all three houses might have changed the balance of power between the three when left to their own devices.
Edelgard's hand shot up, and Seteth nodded.
"Instructor Seteth," she said respectfully. "How will the amount of resources required to request the assistance of a battalion be determined?"
"The Battalion Guild has a system of fixed prices for the procurement of services of those under their jurisdiction, as you are no doubt all aware of through past dealings during your missions," he replied, addressing the room as a whole. "There will be a similar system in operation for this mission. Both the Quartermaster and Officer for the Battalion Guild will have a list of prices for requisition of supplies. I would encourage all of you to acquaint yourselves with these lists post-haste."
"I see," she said, her brows furrowed, already thinking about how to make use of this information. "Thank you, Instructor."
Privately, Byleth wondered just what they would come up with. During wartime, they had no option but to turn to the strength of their own armies or their allies, but with access to the Church and the mercenaries that Jeralt had contacted there would be more room for them to adjust their respective strategies. Each power had their own favoured army composition: the Adrestian Empire, for example, was famous for the strength of its elite mages, while there were few who hadn't ever heard tales of the legendary strength and bravery of Faerghus Knights in their full battle regalia.
Claude didn't raise his hand before voicing his question. To his credit, though, he was not as flippant as he'd been back in Byleth's classes, or from what he had observed him being with Jeralt. Likely, either the excitement of the upcoming competition was getting to him, or he simply knew better than to cross the line with the notoriously strict instructor.
"Hey Teach," he said. "Do we get to know where we will begin fighting at? Or is that going to be a secret you'll be springing onto us?"
"An astute observation, Claude. Byleth, if you will?"
That was his cue. He stepped away from the wall he'd been leaning on, unfurling the map that he'd prepared for the occasion as the informal aide to Seteth in his free time, now that he was temporarily freed of squiring duties with Alois. Byleth stretched out the edges of the parchment, securing it firmly against the board as heads craned forward to take a closer look. Thankfully, he'd managed to find a decently-sized map from Anna's stock, even if the actual quality of the depiction left much to be desired.
"Each House will start from one of three designated locations. One will be at the base of the mountain range separating Gronder from the Airmid River. Two Houses will be placed across the bridge, to the south of Kyphon's stand. One will begin just east of the Gronder Ruins, while another will enter battle at the base of the mountains to the northwest of the Airmid Overlook, where we will be observing the battle."
From the nods going around the room, it seemed that the three house leaders had already made an effort to educate themselves about the geography of the battlefield, since they had already known about it many months in advance. That was good; Byleth had always stressed to them the importance of making full use of one's surroundings both in skirmishes and in a full-scale battle. It seemed his students had been paying attention, after all.
"Two sets of ballistae will be placed atop the fort at Kyphon's Stand, along with some rudimentary defences. You will have to make your own judgment call as to how you wish to make use of this information," he continued explaining. "The boundaries with which you may do battle extend northward through to just before the bend of the Gronder Tributary as it drains into the Airmid River; eastward to the point of Indech's Vigil, before the ravine of Pan's Crossing; westward to the edge of the Gronder Ruins and southward to the end of the Gronder Quarry."
Again, Byleth saw how his students were rapidly understanding the implications of this development. While a formidable position, the team that took hold of Kyphon's Stand risked themselves being subjected to an assault from two fronts. Equally, they had the option of waiting things out in the forested hills to the west of Pan's Crossing, moving across the two bridges to Airmid Base, or to retreat south to Gronder Quarry.
Maintaining control of the fort or baiting other Houses to commit to an attack were both valid options. Kyphon's Stand was so named precisely because it was the site of one of the engagements led by Kyphon himself. Outnumbered by enemies five to one, he and his men heroically maintained control of the strategic point that marked control of the Gronder Field until reinforcements from his liege could arrive. He had no doubt that Ashe and Ingrid knew of this legend, what with their interest in the knights of old, and would appreciate the value of this location.
On the other hand, Pan's Crossing and its forested vicinity were excellent for ambushes and guerrilla warfare. The exact details were debated among historians, but it was said that Pan, advisor and chief strategist for King Loog, had single-handedly defeated a small force of Adrestian troops that had been on his pursuit through the sheer brilliance of his tactics alone. Byleth doubted the veracity of those rumours, but it nonetheless highlighted how abusing the terrain had the potential to decisively alter the course of the battle.
Seteth allowed a brief moment for the students to continue staring at the map, and exchange quiet mutterings with each other as they pointed out areas of interest on the map. More than likely, as soon as this briefing was concluded, whatever plans they had devised would need a great deal of correction.
As far as battle plans went, having a week to prepare was a luxury, especially since they only had to make considerations for an army of up to a thousand men. More than once, he'd been forced to settle for the barest of strategies while commanding ten thousand soldiers in battle, hoping that experience would triumph where preparation was lacking.
"Are there any further questions?"
Claude didn't hesitate. "What determines victory or defeat?"
"An excellent question. You emerge victorious so long as the other two Houses forfeit, or surrender. You may withdraw from battle at any time. Beyond that, you are free to decide how best to execute the strategy of your choice. Protective magics will be in place to minimise the risk of any fatalities, but I will emphasise that you are to use your judgment as to what is deemed an acceptable limit."
"Gotcha," Claude said, his lips stretched in a smirk that revealed nothing of whatever scheme he'd just cooked up, "Thanks, Teach."
To the side, Byleth heard Jeralt groan. No doubt his father was already planning to interrogate Claude for what his plan was in their strategy meeting after the briefing, and to stress that his notion of an 'acceptable limit' was probably very different from that of others. He wished him luck, since he highly doubted Claude would tell him anything of value.
There were no further questions, it seemed. Either the other two Houses genuinely had a vague idea of what they would do with what information had been given unto them, or that they were keeping their cards close to their chest so as not to reveal any information to their rivals. Both were valid possibilities.
"If there are no further questions, then could I request for each of the House leaders to come forward?"
The three did so dutifully, although it was now clear that they would need to accommodate for many changes in whatever they had already prepared. Edelgard's lips were pursed, Dimitri was every bit the serious wartime commander he would later become, and Claude allowed just a little bit of the shrewd tactician to leak past his mask of joviality.
Seteth held out three straws in his closed fist. "We will now decide where each of your Houses will begin battle."
They already deduced as much. Without hesitation, each of them took one in turn. Byleth took a step forward from Seteth's side, glancing over at them to see just how things would turn out. Seteth collected each of the straws from them, before nodding and addressing the trio.
"Very well. The Blue Lions will begin battle at Airmid Base, the Black Eagles will start east of the Gronder Ruins, and the Golden Deer will be positioned at the foot of the eastern mountain range."
There were scattered murmurings once more, and Byleth straightened out the map for the benefit of the seated students. No doubt, Anna would soon find herself with much increased business as they adjust their battle plans.
"This briefing is now concluded. You are all dismissed to each of your House classrooms. You may convene with your professors for advice, but I suggest that you decide quickly on a plan of action and make haste with settling the necessary arrangements in terms of logistics."
One by one, each House exited the classroom, led by their instructors, exchanging hushed discussions all the while. Jeralt sent Seteth and himself a silent gesture, one that Byleth knew meant that they would soon have to discuss matters pertaining to the secrets shared between the three of them. As things were, they still hadn't decided how to move forward with the Agarthan situation, save for heightening the guard around Garreg Mach and its vicinity, and making known the fact that the 'unknown infiltrators' responsible for these past events were capable of morphing their identities into those of others.
"A most interesting turn of events, do you not agree, Byleth?" Seteth asked, as he removed the map from the board.
"I have no idea what you mean."
"There is no need to be coy," he scolded lightly. "I have heard nothing but praise from the other professors regarding the lectures you have carried out for the students."
"Really?" Byleth asked, genuinely curious.
"Indeed." Seteth nodded. "Professor Manuela was surprised, to say the least, when young Caspar raised a question pertaining to one of your lectures in class."
Huh. Good for them.
"Fine, then," he said, sighing. "From what I can tell? Each of their starting locations plays greatly to the strengths of their Houses."
Seteth waited patiently, and he felt obliged to continue.
"The Lions can hold a defensive position across the bridge. Position a few armoured knights of Faerghus at the chokepoint, and likely nothing short of a fully committed assault can break their position. On the other hand, the bridges force them to mobilise more slowly, which likely prevents them from seizing the fort from the start."
"That leaves the Eagles and Deer. If she commits, Edelgard probably takes over Kyphon's Stand, although doing so risks retaliation from the other two Houses. Meanwhile, Claude has the option of rushing down the encampment, or ordering a general retreat into the forest or further to the south to wait things out. If anyone tries pursuing, the forest cover and Alliance tactics heavily favour the Deer."
When the war came, Edelgard's strategy always revolved around the use of the fort both as offensive and defensive options. She would always begin the battle with a precise, pre-emptive strike, positioning a commander to take charge of it and control the general centre of the battlefield. Once her opponents finally began to storm the encampment, she would willingly set it ablaze, sacrificing her own men to take out a sizeable chunk of her opponents' forces.
In terms of pure utilitarianism, it was a sound strategy, but it always left a bitter taste in his mouth. It was something that Byleth had never forgiven her for, especially since the commander had genuinely been one of her close friends in most lives. It was only in the lives where he sided with her that he managed to convince her out of such a course of action, but doing so always closed other doors.
Thankfully, in this battle, she couldn't employ the same brand of tactics, due to the nature of the war game. There was no way she would tip her hand and reveal her willingness to sacrifice pretty much everything she had at her disposal to achieve victory in her crusade against the Church.
"A keen analysis," Seteth said, an eyebrow raised, seemingly impressed. "You almost remind me of Macuil."
"…do I look like I hate humans that much?"
That eyebrow remained raised, although he was now unimpressed. Byleth sighed.
"Fine," he said. "You exaggerate. Saint Macuil is said to be one of Seiros' foremost eminent strategists, one that turned the tide of the War of Heroes."
Seteth took a quick glance at the door, confirming that they were in private. "As his brother, I can assure you that this comparison is not without reason."
Byleth suppressed a wince. His past dealings with Macuil… well, they tended to end with him being chased away from the Sreng region while an Angry Wind Caller launched blasts of magical energy behind him. Indech was always much calmer and more level-headed, and Byleth still owed him greatly for his tutelage all those lives back, even if the Immovable couldn't directly assist with the war.
"It probably won't go that way, anyway," Byleth said, shrugging. "Even if Claude holds Kyphon's Stand, a continued barrage from Adrestian mages would probably force them to abandon their position. If they play to their strengths, it'd be hard to say who comes out on top after the initial engagements. For all we know, they could both wait for their opponent to make a move on the fort, in which case the Lions may even be able to fully mobilise across the river and make a bid for it themselves."
"Hmm," Seteth hummed. "That is true. It appears we will need to wait and see just how they decide to proceed."
"If that's all, I'll go check up on Alois," Byleth said. "Even if he says he doesn't need my help, it's probably best if one of us three give a quick inspection of the newcomers, just in case the Agarthans decide to send more infiltrators."
Seteth's face darkened at that, no doubt remembering just how he and everyone else in the Monastery had been fooled by Solon's act. He nodded, said a quick goodbye, and Byleth left the room.
The Agarthans had been strangely quiet for some time now, after the flurry of activity that had been the first four months, but he knew they were planning something. In past lives, they should have already begun working on their experiments at Remire Village, but thus far there seemed to be no trouble afoot, and Byleth didn't like that in the slightest. Was their silence because obtaining the power of Flayn's Crest made whatever they achieved there redundant, or were they simply waiting out for an opportunity to change their plans?
One way or another, he swore that he would be ready for their next attack, whatever it may be. The Church would soon be more fortified than ever before, and he would make damned sure to stop allowing the Agarthans to continue taking ground in their shadow war.
"Alright, team. Any ideas?" Claude asked, lazily perching himself on the desk at the front of the classroom. The teacher's desk. Jeralt's desk.
How far had he fallen, that Jeralt no longer cared about berating his student for failing to observe appropriate propriety?
It was almost funny. Decades ago, he'd been infamous among the rank and file of the Church of Seiros for being a strict disciplinarian. How was it that this one Alliance noble could continue keeping this up where thousands of Knights of Seiros had been forced to yield?
Falling in love with Sitri and having had to raise Byleth really had changed him, huh?
He shook his head, listening into their discussion from one side. He'd decided that he would act as a simple bystander, offering his input only when solicited. This Battle was supposed to be part of their own growth like any one of their regular classes, even if the lessons that could be earned from it were now more necessary than ever. From what Byleth and Seteth knew of these ancient enemies of Fódlan, it seemed that a storm was imminently brewing.
"Surrender?" Hilda quipped quickly. "Then we all get to join the Professors, nice and clean; no need for us to get all sweaty and dirty –"
"Excellent suggestion, Hilds!" Claude gave a thumbs up, ignoring the indignant protests from his fellow noble at the use of her nickname.
Jeralt sighed. It seemed like he would need to intervene, after all.
"You can't just surrender, Hilda," he scolded, although there really was no bite in it. His former men would have laughed at how the once-mighty Knight-Captain had fallen. "Take this seriously, all of you. It's rare for any of you to get the chance to participate in a mock battle of this scale in your Academy days." He grimaced. "Trust me, you don't want your first time leading a battle to be during an actual engagement."
Many mercenaries in his previous band had amicably parted ways with him before, stating their desire to start up groups of their own. Few actually managed to make a name for themselves. Most either returned to his side after failing to distinguish themselves, or simply perished with the men under their command after undertaking missions they were scarcely prepared for.
"Well said, Teach!" Claude said, ignoring the general gloomy atmosphere his words had created. "Anyone else? Ignatz? Lorenz? Leonie?"
"Uh… well…" Ignatz spoke hesitantly, and Claude urged him to continue. "I think we'll need to decide what kind of army composition we're going for first, right? Then we can settle the rest of the logistics around that?"
"True," Lorenz mused. "I believe it likely that the Blue Lions under the leadership of Prince Dimitri will favour their strategy around the use of mounted cavalry and armoured knights, as the Kingdom of Faerghus is renowned for. Likewise, Lady Edelgard will probably be relying on the Empire's expertise with Black Magic."
"The classic mage column protected by Fortress Knights, right?"
Heads turned toward Raphael, and even Jeralt had to bite down his surprise.
How, in all of Fódlan, had he managed to actually say something both intelligent and relevant?
"What?" he asked nervously, glancing around. "Why're you all looking at me? That's what Byleth taught us, right?"
…he'd actually paid attention? Jeralt really had given Raphael far too little credit.
"Of course, Raphael," Lorenz said. "Indeed. The annals of history is filled with records of military engagements where the Adrestian Empire emerged victorious through a magical bombardment at range, all while their enemies failed to break through the protective lines at the vanguard. Their masterful use of light cavalry complements this, as they chase down enemy lines that are disrupted by their initial assault."
"Their weakness lies in how long they can keep their bombardment up," Lysithea offered her own contribution. "We can either take cover from their spells, or try to maintain our own defensive barriers. Once the mages are exhausted, there is a window of opportunity for a counterattack. King Loog's victory against the Tailtean Plains demonstrates this vulnerability."
Jeralt had no idea what exactly happened to her, but she'd been looking more healthy as of late. The bags under her eyes had lessened, at the very least, and for once it didn't seem as though she was forcing herself to stay awake through the day.
If only the same could be said for Marianne. It had been months, but the girl was still as silent and meek as ever. He'd racked his brains for some ideas, of course, but even pairing her up with Claude for stable duties or to manage the greenhouse hadn't done much to break her out of her shell.
"So we'll need a team of mobile troops to take them out once that happens, then," Claude summarised. "Mounted cavalry, or a small group of Pegasus Knights or Wyvern Riders. We'll need to get our hands on the list from the Battalion Guild to see what we can afford."
"Won't it be difficult to face the Blue Lions if we do that, though?" Leonie asked. "If we want to mobilise quickly, we can't make use of heavy weapons or armour. If that's the case, then we can't punch our way through their armoured front-lines."
Jeralt was mildly impressed. When he'd first started teaching this class, most of them hadn't the faintest consideration for tactics. Even Leonie, who was now urging caution, had been eagerly charging into the fray, hoping for some bizarre reason that Jeralt would take her under his wing as an apprentice.
"We'll need to get some mages as well, of course. It'll be a balancing act." Despite his smiles, Jeralt could now recognise that ideas were starting to form in Claude's mind. "His Highness and Her Majesty know all about the tactics of their nation, and they'll probably be going with them. We're pretty handy with archery, but, well…"
There was a pause.
"It is true that the secession of the Five Great Lords of the Leicester Roundtable from Faerghus was not as heavily reliant on sheer tactical brilliance, and instead heavily influenced by the sheer necessity of putting down internal conflicts in Faerghus and Leicester than any actual military conflict on the scale of the War of the Eagle and Lion," Lorenz conceded reluctantly. "The Leicester Alliance does not have any formal military doctrine similar to those of the Adrestian Empire or the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus."
These kids certainly knew how to take a pessimistic view of things. Sure, neither the Kingdom and Empire would consider each other their biggest rivals if a war did break out in Fódlan, but the Alliance was nothing to scoff about either. Morale, for one, was higher among the rank and file, since there was slightly less of a divide between nobility and commonfolk there. Tactical flexibility also reduced the risk of making a blunder through falling back on traditional strategies.
"Well, then doesn't that just mean that we have the element of surprise?" Raphael said, shrugging. "If the Alliance doesn't have a plan, then they think that we won't have a plan, so when we do have a plan, they'll think that our plan isn't actually really a plan? It's like feints in grappling, right?"
Jeralt blinked, as he tried comprehending Raphael's statement, and found that it once again made sense, frustratingly enough.
"That's a good point, Raphael. They'll probably see each other as the biggest threat, and base their troop compositions and strategy around that fact," Claude said, gesturing for Hilda to jot down a few notes on the sheet of paper she had at the ready. "We can't take them on in a direct fight, but they won't know what we have planned, either. We'll need something that lets us adapt to an evolving situation."
"So, you're saying that we don't actually have a concrete plan?" Lorenz asked disapprovingly. "Claude, I respect your talent for unorthodox tactics, but this is irresponsible; especially so for one who would be next in line to lead the Leicester Alliance!"
"Woah, calm down there, Lorenz." Claude held both palms up. "We've got a plan. A plan so good, in fact, that we'll be dividing our forces into two groups."
"Our strategy relies on out-manoeuvring His Highness and Her Majesty. It's going to be difficult moving an entire army at once, even if it's only a thousand troops at maximum. If all three of our Houses end up fighting at some point, it's going to get chaotic. We'll need to make sure that we won't get lost in the mess."
Hmm. He did have a point. Though his former Knights had been trained to follow strict regimentation, he knew how easy it was for communication lines to be shattered during a battle and for troop organisations to be thrown into disarray. Sure, mobilising a thousand troops may not be that cumbersome in the grand scheme of things, but even that marginal benefit could provide them with a slight edge against their enemies.
"What are you suggesting, then?"
"What I'm suggesting, Lorenz, is for you to lead half of the army as second-in-command."
There was a brief moment of silence, alongside sharp inhalations of breath, and even Jeralt found himself surprised. He wasn't so blind as to fail to notice how the Gloucester scion heavily disapproved of the way that Claude behaved as the future heir of House Riegan.
"What?" The haughty tone in his voice was now lost. Lorenz seemed just as confused as his peers, who were only now beginning to realise what Claude had just said.
"You heard me," Claude continued, shrugging. "You take half of our soldiers. If things get chaotic and we get separated, you can take independent command of them. That way, we maximise our chances of seizing opportunities when we get them."
"That – Claude, you –" Lorenz said, his eyes wide, then cut himself off. He inhaled deeply for a moment, closing his eyes tight.
When next he spoke, it was with a tone Jeralt hadn't been expecting from the noble. "I'm afraid I must reject your offer, Claude."
"Huh?" Even Claude seemed surprised. "Why not?"
"I am not so arrogant as to believe that my skills in battlefield leadership are sufficiently developed for this task," he said, and now there was a trace of that noble air in his voice once more, although tinged with more honesty than Jeralt had come to expect from the brat. "Now, if we were talking about administrative matters, I would be more than happy to rise to the occasion."
"Huh." Claude said, blinking. Then, he shrugged. "Well, that's good and all, but I do need someone else to take charge. We don't need a fifty-fifty split, but I think having semi-independent groups is a good plan. Any volunteers? Hilda? Ignatz?"
"NOPE!" Hilda replied immediately, backing away. "You're already lucky that I'm not just giving up right away! Don't try to force more responsibility onto me!"
Ignatz was similarly shying away, making incomprehensible sounds. Claude sighed, looking over at his peers, before turning to face Jeralt.
"Teach, got any ideas?"
He was momentarily surprised, having only had to act as an observer thus far. They had quite some good ideas going, even if their overall strategy would truly shine only in a larger scale battle involving tens of thousands.
He glanced over at his students. Lorenz, Ignatz, and Hilda had already declined. Marianne wasn't suitable for the task, given that she was having trouble talking even to her own classmates. Raphael had potential, but he did have a tendency to pick fights wherever they may be found. Lysithea had talent for tactics, but he wasn't sure if she could easily lead a group of hundreds, especially since she'd only now just started showing signs of opening up to her peers.
Well, if she could just get rid of that ridiculous idea of hers that she needed to impress him, she seemed like a decent choice.
"Leonie," he said, and she practically jumped.
"W – what?" Her face was flushed, her voice pitched higher than normal. "M – me, Professor Jeralt?"
"You've got potential," he continued saying, ignoring how her embarrassment deepened. Goddess, how'd he ever gotten into this mess? "If you're going to become a mercenary captain one day, you'll need to start from somewhere."
"I –" she started saying. "I… I'll do my best!"
"Well, that's settled, then!" Claude clapped his hands loudly. "Leonie, you're second-in-command if things go south. For now, we'll need to decide troop organisations and supplies. We'll get a copy of the lists from the Quartermaster and the Battalion Guild, and see how best to allocate our resources."
…why did he have that gleam in his eyes?
Jeralt knew by now, after six months of teaching the kid, that that look was reserved for times when he had something especially cunning and unorthodox prepared.
"You know you can't poison your enemies' food supplies, right?" he said in precaution. He really didn't want to have to explain to Hanneman, Manuela, Rhea or Seteth just why the other students suddenly lost control of their bowels in the middle of a battle.
"My word, Teach! How your words sting me!" he cried dramatically, clutching at his chest. "Alas! My dastardly scheme has been uncovered!"
Damn it. Now that brat was just having fun messing with him.
"Don't worry about it, Teach," he said, recovering just as quickly. "Even I want to fight Dimitri and Edelgard at their best."
Why was it that that sentence seemed both truthful, and yet concealing some other plan he had in mind?
Jeralt glared at him for a moment longer, but Claude didn't even flinch. Finally, he sighed.
"Alright, then," he said. "Good work, kids. You seem to have a decent grasp of strategy, so far. You'll probably be fine on your own, so I'll head back and see if Alois needs any help."
"All thanks to the mini-you and his lectures," he said. "Say hi to little Teach for us."
Then, Claude turned back, and began organising his classmates.
"Alright, Ignatz. I need you to go find the Quartermaster. Hilda, you're in charge of the battalion guild. Lysithea and Leonie, give me a rough draft of five ways you think that the other Houses might approach the battle. Lorenz, you've handled Gloucester's logistics before, so I'm counting on you to figure out how much supplies we'll need for our army. Raphael, Marianne, can you two help with taking down notes just in case we need to refer to them some time in the next few days?"
Heh. They'd really come pretty far in six months, haven't they?
As he walked to the door, Jeralt found himself genuinely wondering just how the battle would turn out.
As she led her contingent of troops on the march from Garreg Mach to the Gronder Field, Edelgard would be lying if she said she felt confident about the upcoming battle. To Byleth's credit, her initial read of him back during the tea party all those months before hadn't done him sufficient justice. Through his lectures, he had revealed that he had a clear mind for tactics, and had considered aspects of his hypothetical battles that she hadn't even thought of.
Just as he had been back then, though, he still proved to be an enigma. It would obvious that she would have to cross blades with him at some point in the future, given that he had sided with the Church against Those Who Slither in the Dark. While her allies had been oddly silent as of late, they had told her to watch out for him, and revealed that he was, in fact, the vessel of the original progenitor Goddess, Sothis herself. His masterful use of the Crest of Flames was proof of that.
It surprised her when she had initially been uneasy with the thought of having to face him in battle. There were times when he seemed to be opposed to the way that the Church enforced its will over all of Fódlan, but he appeared equally unwilling to act on it.
Since the original plan of sneaking Kronya in under the disguise of a student was now moot, she had plenty of time to think about her next moves. Frustratingly, there was little that she could do until it was finally time for her to take her title as Emperor of the Adrestian Empire. Even in her guise as the Flame Emperor, there was nothing of strategic value that could be targeted at the moment. Thales had assured her that the time to act would soon come, but it was obvious that he was keeping certain things hidden from her.
The past few months had given her time to consider just how much of what Thales had told her was true. She knew, without a doubt, that it was his organisation that had been responsible for the suffering she had endured as a child, and for the premature deaths of all her siblings. For that, she would see that justice was meted out when the time came.
The rest, though? His version of the truth about Crests and how the Church had shaped and controlled the history of Fódlan were consistent with the records she had managed to uncover from the royal Adrestian library. Emperor Wilhelm I, her ancestor and founder of the Empire, had described how he had received his Crest of Seiros from Saint Seiros, whose description matched almost exactly with Rhea's appearance.
She did have some doubts of his other claims. What he said about Nemesis never being power hungry, and instead struck down by Seiros for his close relationship with the Goddess didn't align with her ancestor's secret records. It was clear that Thales was attempting to manipulate her, to find more reason to hate the Church, but she wouldn't call him out on it just yet.
It wasn't as though she wasn't planning on doing the same to him, anyway. She was certain that they both knew that once the Church was defeated, and all remaining resistance was crushed, each of them would turn against the other. Theirs was a unity at a common enemy.
For now, though, the Church had to fall. Fódlan had stagnated under their thumb. She'd heard the stories before: scientific advancements grinding to a halt by order of the Church, all records of experiments and observations vanishing without a trace. Certain avenues of study were prohibited by the Church, all in an effort to maintain the status quo in Fódlan. They were adamant on ensuring that Crests remained the sole source of power, that they could continue controlling Fódlan's future and this was not something that could stand.
"Everything alright, Edie?" Dorothea asked by her side, concerned. "You're looking rather intense."
"Everything is fine, Dorothea," she said, smoothening her expression. "I was just thinking about some things."
Right. Now was not the time for such thoughts. She needed to concentrate on the battle that would come at dawn the next day.
"You're nervous too, huh?" she asked with a sympathetic tone. "Try to relax a little. You've been planning this out for more than two weeks already."
The last-minute changes to the conduct of the battle had thrown her initial plans into disarray, but she had managed to adapt. She had studied the old battles, identified the weaknesses that had led to the Empire's defeat in the War of the Eagle and Lion. Though she still played to the Empire's strengths, she was determined not to repeat the mistakes of her ancestors.
Yes, she would emerge victorious in this upcoming battle. She would achieve victory here, no matter the cost. She hadto.
"Thanks, Dorothea," she said with a faint smile.
"No problem, Edie." Dorothea returned the gesture, before turning back and talking to Bernadetta and Petra, who was visibly nervous about having to participate in the battle.
Well, at least she wasn't hiding in her room anymore. For all that she distanced herself from others, she was willing to fight for the Black Eagles despite her discomfort.
Morale was high. Ferdinand was excited, even it was simply because he wanted to engage in yet another silly competition with her. She spied him together with Caspar, the pair of them having been talking with each other to pass the time ever since leaving the Monastery for Gronder Field.
Even Linhardt hadn't tried weaselling away from this to take a nap, for once. For some time now, he had been paying more attention in class. Hubert had reported him to be becoming particularly close with Flayn, which was a cause for concern.
She wasn't naïve enough to think that Flayn and Seteth wouldn't side with Rhea when they were finally ready to rebel against the Church. So long as they didn't interfere with her plans and relinquished the Church's hold over Fódlan, she didn't really care what they did, but she needed to steel herself in preparation for striking them down if necessary. She hoped that when the time finally came, Linhardt's loyalty would be to the Adrestian Empire, rather than with his fascination over her Crest.
Before she knew it, they had already reached Gronder Field. As they passed by the fort at Kyphon's Stand, the three Houses parted, making their way to their respective starting locations led by their Professors. There, they would set up camp for the night, and be ready for the battle at dawn.
"Everything is prepared, Hubert?" she confirmed once more.
"The carts are all loaded with supplies, Lady Edelgard," he said, bowing slightly. "We have brought enough to last two nights."
"Good. Set up camp, and see to it that they are distributed among the soldiers."
"At once, my Lady."
As he departed from her side, she was left alone once more, and had the time to think.
Swift and decisive was how she planned to play it. She had fielded an abundance of troops, hoping to crush the other Houses decisively. She didn't know what Claude and Dimitri had planned for, but if they were hoping to drag out the battle, they had another thing coming for them.
Light cavalry wasn't traditionally seen as the mainstay of Adrestian tactics, but she had chosen to devote more resources to procuring their services. Her plan was simple: the Lions would need time to cross the river. The Deer wouldn't be able to win in a direct battle. She would act quickly, rushing not at the fort, but directly toward the Deer, and seize a decisive victory. Even if they weren't completely eliminated from the battle, their morale would be crushed, and their numbers would be too few to stop her.
Once that was done, she would adapt her plans. If the Lions still hadn't fully made it across the river, she would take the fort. If they did, however, she would prepare for a fighting retreat, and attempt to separate the Faerghus cavalry from their foot-soldiers to take them out separately.
There were risks, she was certain. But if she was to achieve an absolute victory, she needed to be willing to make the sacrifices.
As dawn broke, Byleth made his way to the edge of the Airmid Overlook, observing as the assembled forces down in the field below broke camp and returned their supplies for battle and transport.
It was odd, watching them from up here. In all his lives that he had been part of the Monastery, never once had he been a mere observer in this battle. Even later on, when Gronder Field became the site of a brutal three-way battle, he'd always been in the thick of action.
"You're up early," Jeralt greeted, both of them the only ones looking down upon the students and soldiers below. "Can't sleep?"
"Could say the same for you," Byleth said. "Excited about how your House will do?"
"I wouldn't call it excitement, exactly," he said slowly. "But yes, I'm curious as to how they'll perform today."
Byleth understood that well. Call it sentiment, but he'd been reflecting on his past with more frequency as of late. This life had been one surprise after another, and he honestly couldn't say how this battle would go, despite having kept some tabs on how each House planned to conduct themselves during the battle.
…without their knowledge, of course.
"Who do you think will win?" Jeralt asked.
Wordlessly, Byleth handed over the rolled-up piece of parchment he'd kept by his belt, and handed it over to Jeralt.
"What's this?" he asked curiously, unfolding it. Byleth finally turned his gaze away from the field below, and saw to his immense satisfaction that Jeralt looked dumbfounded at its contents.
"Byleth," he said slowly, lowering the scroll slightly to stare him in the eyes. "How in the Goddess' name did you get your hands on this?"
He shrugged. "Bribed Anna with fifty gold. Turns out, she can do almost anything once you hand over the money."
The normally stoic man stared at him for a moment longer – in surprise or disbelief, Byleth didn't know – before he began shaking his head, and chuckled loudly.
"I don't know whether to be impressed that you thought of this, or worried that I somehow raised you to be this way," he said, still smiling faintly as he studied its contents. "A complete list of everything each House requisitioned from both the Battalion Guild and Quartermaster?"
"It's not as impressive as you think it is. I'm pretty sure that the students would have sent someone to try and spy on the vendors to figure out what they were doing. They could have just as easily done what I did." Byleth shrugged. "Credit to Claude, though. He'd sent Raphael to loudly request for two hundred foot-soldiers when Sylvain and Petra were in earshot, before quietly returning a day later to change his request to fifty of a mix of Wyvern Riders and Pegasus Knights."
"Anna told you that too?"
"Like I said, she's interested in the gold."
"Well, this does shake things up a little," Jeralt muttered, still staring at the list. "Edelgard's expecting this to be over quickly, Dimitri's taking a standard Faerghus approach of a slow but steady push, and Claude…"
"Seems to have a mix of everything," Byleth finished. "Honestly? It's just as likely that he makes a tactical blunder as he does a move of sheer brilliance with what he has."
Even now, he couldn't quite figure out what Claude had in mind. He favoured aerial units, probably due to his experiences in Almyra, but his ground numbers were noticeably fewer than those of his rivals. In terms of supplies, he had enough to last a few days – more than Edelgard, at least – but then oddly enough had requested for some obscure requisitions that didn't fit with a hit-and-run plan, as the Alliance had come to do against the Empire during their fighting retreat to Derdriu in the wars he'd fought.
"We'll have to wait and see, I suppose," Jeralt said, looking over the scroll once more. "There's another hour until it begins."
The battle had yet to start, but down on the field below, there was activity aplenty. Troop lines were being organised, soldiers were being rallied, and all his former students looked more excited than he remembered them being for this battle.
Somehow, it both warmed and ached him to see his former students from up here, knowing just how much potential each of them had, and yet the inevitability of the war that would come. Hopefully, with everything that he'd already set up, the start of the war could be delayed for as long as possible.
For now, though, he would observe from above. He didn't know who would emerge triumphant: Edelgard, with her conviction and willingness to sacrifice whatever it took to earn victory? Dimitri, with his bravery and courage? Claude, with his tactical genius? And then there were the other students in their Houses, each of them so entirely unique, with skills and talents so utterly irreplaceable.
Seteth and Rhea were now approaching, alongside the heralds and bannermen of the Church, and he knew it would soon be time for the mock battle.
As the cries of eagles soaring through the blue skies spread across the entirety of Gronder, Byleth readied himself to watch the battle unfold. Regardless of outcome, he knew he would be proud of them all.
Losing motivation to write this again, hopefully it'll pick back up soon... expect delays on the next chapter.
Played around on Inkarnate to try and plan the chapter with a map, figured I may as well find a way to dump it in the text (cough cough a big no-no for proper writers... good thing I'm not one).
See you next time!