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Blood and Fire, Family and Meaning

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Jeralt and his men were gathered around a fire in Fódlan’s Fangs in the Wyvern Moon, up in the mountains to root out a bandit den that made its nest up there to prey upon a thoroughfare below.  It had been four years since he had left Garreg Mach with his infant daughter in tow, intending to forever keep her from the clutches of the Church of Seiros.  Thus, it had also been four years since he once more took up mercenary work.  He knew that everyone from his old band that he led before he was knighted would be either dead or far too infirm to lift a blade, so he started from scratch.  Or, as much as one can start from scratch when one has a full knight’s armor, arms, and skills honed over a lifetime that went well beyond normal human limits. 

 

Despite this stronger than usual foundation, the band of mercenaries Jeralt founded, the simply named Jeralt Mercenaries, grew necessarily slowly.  He was technically on the run, after all, though Archbishop Rhea never actively hunted him as a criminal or a heretic.  After the initial search parties were called off, there were never any wanted posters with his name and face on them in taverns.  And he checked, too, his first jobs being simple bounties that could be carried out by one man on a horse.  But no, no bounties for him or her, his daughter, one Byleth Eisner.

 

A very complicated daughter, one that must be hidden, but his daughter just the same.  Since she must be a secret, however, recruitment had to be kept to people that were both at least fine with children and not prone to being loose-lipped.  This, combined with the basic requirement of combat skill, meant that recruitment only really began to pick up recently, as he could afford to be less stringent in his recruitment.  Still, it meant that the group gathered around the fire this Wyvern Moon was just about a dozen in number.  Byleth, despite her quietness, was an otherwise active and healthy child, playing by herself near the fire, running around as the sun set.  Jeralt had intended to carve her a wooden sword to play with soon so that she would have an outlet for her energy and the barest foundations for her training.  It was during this play, however, that Byleth accidentally demonstrated just how complicated she could be.

 

Perhaps she just got too excited, or perhaps it was just Byleth’s time for this, but one moment Jeralt was about to tell her not to run directly towards the fire and the next a ball of dark gray fluff tumbled into it.  For a moment, everyone froze except the fluffball as she tried to reorient herself, speechless they all were.  After what seemed to be an eternity, she apparently noticed that she stood in the middle of a still very much blazing fire and bounced away from it.  It was after she landed on four legs, downy wings uselessly flapping to steady herself, that everyone’s words came tumbling out at once.

 

“What is that,” one merc wondered aloud.

 

Another merc, after having picked her jaw up off the ground, responded with “I think that’s the Captain’s daughter?”

 

“Last I checked, his daughter ain’t, uh, whatever that is,” still another said.  Furrowing his brow, he continued, “I think it’s a dragon?”

 

“Wait, a dragon?  Like a fire-breathing terror of the skies dragon?”

 

“You got a better reason why it just stood there in the fire, easy as can be?”

 

“No, it’s definitely the Captain’s daughter.  She’s just a dragon, it looks like.”

 

“Kid could have turned into a demonic beast... somehow.  A small one, ‘cause she’s a kid, but still a beast.  It’d explain why she always acted so creepy.”

 

“No, that’s a dragon.  My ma used to tell me stories of the Goddess and how her true form was that of a magnificent, fire-breathing, dragon.  The Captain’s wife was a nun, wasn’t she?  Maybe the daughter’s blessed?”

 

“And my pa told me stories about how there used to be evil dragons and brave heroes used to kill them to protect people!  We should get rid of it now while it’s easy to kill.  If we let it grow up, who knows what kind of damage it could do.”

 

Part of the problem of recruiting people that weren’t friendly with the Church was that they usually didn’t care about the Church’s taboos.  Devout reverence for the dragon Goddess was often at war in the continent’s collective psyche with Fódlan’s common folktales about dragonslaying heroes who, according to legend, slew evil dragons before the Church was founded.  Among those who lacked faith, those who Jeralt specifically sought, the latter was more commonly the stronger of the two.  Especially for the combat types who may have once harbored childhood dreams of becoming dragonslayers themselves.  Jeralt, who had been staring at his child in a stupor, came crashing back to reality when talk of killing her came up.

 

“Hang on a second, we are not killing my child just because she’s… whatever she is,” Jeralt managed to get out, silencing his crew.  Byleth was an inexpressive kid, but he felt that he understood how to read her subtle cues.  While her now clearly non-human countenance did not help matters, Jeralt was able to read his daughter’s body language and she did look increasingly nervous, having started to sidle over to her father as the chatter grew. 

 

“Jeralt, look at it!  Her!” the merc most ardently in support of murder exclaimed.  So Jeralt took a better look at his daughter.  Most of her was covered in dark gray down, but the lower portions of her legs, her tail, and her face were covered in lighter gray scales.  He glanced briefly at her talons before taking a closer look at her face.  What he saw was blue eyes that were still very much Byleth’s.  Further, he saw that she seemed to be aware of what they were saying, and saw that she looked scared, so he moved to protect his daughter.

 

“I am looking and all I see is my kid.  If any of you have a problem with that, you’ll have to go through me,” he warned, earning a relieved look from Byleth who was completely behind her now standing father.

 

“So, you’re serious then?  About defending,” the mercenary gestured towards the girl, “that.”

 

Before Jeralt could affirm that, yes, he was, the camp once more exploded into chatter, “I’m not staying with that around, look at its talons!”

 

“Keeping it around would be a curse!”

 

“Look, I ain’t being paid enough for this.  Bandits I can handle, but not whatever is going on with this.”

 

And so on.  Most of the band were against keeping her, and the ones that weren’t were more bound to ones that were against it than to Jeralt.  “So, it’s a mutiny, then,” he said, reading the atmosphere.  “I’m being kicked out of my own band.”

 

“Seems like it, Captain,” one replied, and a chorus of murmured agreements followed.

 

Jeralt sighed, he might very well have been able to take them all on in a fight and win, but he wasn’t sure he could do it and also protect his daughter at the same time.  Since that was what mattered, he acquiesced, “Fine.  But we’ll be staying the night, it’s too late to set up a new camp.”

 

“That’ll work, but you’re to be gone in the morning.”

 

Jeralt clenched his jaw and nodded before turning to his daughter.  “Can you, uh, change back?  Or speak?” he asked.

 

Byleth, to her credit, seemed to genuinely try to do… something.  That something involved tightly closing her eyes and feeling around for, well, whatever would let her change back.  When that failed, she tried to tell him so but all that came out of her mouth was a chirping sound.  Which, again to her credit, did sound like a negative chirp, but she settled for simply shaking her head no.

 

“I’ll take that as a no to both,” he said.  Jeralt squatted down and gently patted his daughter on the head, then continued, “Are you hurt at all?  You were in the fire for a while.”  Byleth seemed to consider the question before slowly shaking her head again.  “Really?  Huh.  Well, come on, let’s figure out a sleeping situation for you,” he responded, leading her to their bedrolls.

 

Byleth trotted along after him and simply crawled in between her wool blanket and fur bedroll.  Jeralt briefly considered trying to rejoin everyone by the fire but that thought was dashed by the tension that would most assuredly be there and the twinge in his heart at the lack of energy his daughter displayed compared to earlier.  He sat down next to her on his own bedroll and made a promise to them both, “I won’t leave you alone, and we’ll find a way for you to turn back.”

 

Though, turning his mind to solutions required turning his mind to causes.  The similarities she shared with the depictions of the Goddess couldn’t be ignored, especially in light of whatever Rhea had done to her as an infant.  He wondered if this was connected at all to her lack of heartbeat, then wondered further if it was connected at all to some of Sitri’s stranger features.  Regardless, he knew in his gut that Rhea would know something, and out of a lack of other options, resolved to bring his daughter back to the one place he swore he would never take her, Garreg Mach.  As she closed her eyes and began to drift off to sleep, he prayed that he was making the right decision.

 

*****

 

Having found Byleth to be much the same as the previous night, Jeralt and his daughter began their way back to town after a tense breakfast.  At the back of his mind, the betrayal by his group continued to sting, but it was drowned out by the worry he had for the ball of fluff sitting in front of him as he rode.  He knew that if she was seen by more people, that would only bring trouble for them, so he wrapped her up in her blanket before putting her on Palahorse and setting off.  Since Byleth seemed perfectly content with this arrangement, he worried if she was cold.  It may have only been Wyvern, but the chill was still strong in the mountains.  Was her down enough?  Lizards needed to be warm, right?  Or was she more like a baby bird?  No, those needed to be kept warm too.  Jeralt furrowed his brow and made note that his daughter wasn’t shivering, at least.  He decided that he’d give her his blanket if she started to.

 

They travelled through Adrestia swiftly, preferring to camp on the road than to stay at an inn.  This was done both to keep a low profile, and to save what money they could.  They were running low when Jeralt took the bandit job and without that their money depleted rapidly.  Luck or providence was with them, however, as they only ran out at Remire Village, a short ride away from the monastery.  It had been a week by this point with no physical change from his daughter, and he worried that she would never be able to change back.  She was in brighter spirits, having begun to play like normal again, and that eased some of his concerns as he prepared for the final stretch to Garreg Mach.

 

Nothing was to be done for his trepidation, however, as the walls and spires of the monastery came into view.  What if he was making a horrible mistake?  What if he would face a reprisal for running in the first place?  What if Rhea viewed his child as a threat as well?  Or, what if that raw, intense want that lay in her eyes when she looked upon Byleth was still there?  He couldn’t place why she looked at her like that, but he didn’t trust it then and still didn’t trust it, but he had little choice.  The only leads he could think of take him here, after all.  Having steeled himself, he came upon outmost gates.

 

“State your name and bus-- Jeralt, is that you,” the gatekeeper stammered out, eyes bulging.

 

Jeralt grunted, expecting that sort of surprise.  “It is, I need an audience with Rhea.  I, uh, have a problem that I need her help with,” he explained, glancing down at Byleth.

 

“I’ll send someone to check if she’s available.  Do you need any help with your horse or whatever’s in that blanket there?”

 

“No, I can handle myself.  I’ll be waiting at the stables.”  With that, Jeralt was admitted back into the monastery to lead his horse through the marketplace over to the stables.  He wasn’t sure how he’d keep Byleth from being seen, but he would try.  “You need to keep yourself hidden, alright?  I don’t want anyone to raise a fuss until we get to the Archbishop,” he whispered to her.

 

She simply looked up and gave a curt nod.  The strangest thing about this to Jeralt was just how little things had changed.  Byleth was acting the same as ever, just a little bit quieter.  Palahorse wasn’t bothered by her new form and he supposed she must’ve smelled the same.  Once at the stables, he slid off his horse got to work unburdening him while Byleth waited on top.  By the time he was done and had his daughter scooped up in one arm, a squire came by to let him know Archbishop Rhea was waiting for him in the audience chamber.  It was time.

 

*****

 

“Jeralt, I must say that it seems like you were here just yesterday, but I am glad that you have returned once again,” Rhea greeted him.  “However, is everything alright?  The messenger from the gate said that you had a problem you needed my help with.”

 

Jeralt’s unease grew, now that he was here, in front of her, with his problem.  A problem that for all he knew, she probably caused.  As he struggled to even begin to explain the situation, the Archbishop continued, “Does it have to do with whatever is in that blanket?”

 

He sighed, he’s been doing that a lot lately, and nodded.  He didn’t like the look in her eyes she had while looking at the blanket that concealed his daughter.  Like she knew what—who—was under there without even seeing.  “Yes, it’s, well, it’s about my daughter.”

 

“Your daughter?  Did she not die in the fire four years ago,” Rhea stated.  The things she said were phrased as questions, should have been questions, but were said in a flat inflection.  Dammit, he thought, she knew.

 

“No, I, uh, hid her away after the fire and left with her.  Having said that, I’m not sure if the fire would have even hurt her.”

 

“Oh?  What do you mean?”  She sounded like she was actually curious that time, which gave Jeralt enough courage to finally unveil his daughter.  Rhea’s reaction was immediate.

 

“Guards shut the doors, we are not to be disturbed,” she commanded, and they obeyed.  “Come, let us discuss your daughter’s state in the advisory chamber.”  She said this all without her eyes leaving Byleth for even a second.

 

Jeralt wanted to bolt, but he came too far to give up now.  He became even more uncomfortable when Rhea closed the advisory chamber’s doors, too, once everyone was inside.

 

Rhea made her way over to one of the couches and sat down before gesturing to the one opposite it.  “Please, have a seat and tell me how the dear girl came to be in this state,” she said.  And so, he did.

 

He filled her in on her sudden transformation, her apparent immunity to fire, the reaction the rest of his former mercenary band had to this, and the present predicament of his daughter being stuck in this form.  Rhea’s mood soured from the hungry sort of curiosity she had worn since he revealed Byleth to outright anger when he retold the words and intentions of the mercenaries.  However, it quickly softened to, confusingly to Jeralt, empathy by the time he had ended with “Please, I don’t know what you did to my daughter, but I don’t know who else to turn to.  What’s wrong with her?”

 

“Simply put, there is nothing wrong with her,” Rhea stated, composing herself once more.  “Indeed, Byleth appears to be most wonderfully blessed by the Goddess.”

 

“Blessed,” Jeralt incredulously repeated.

 

Rhea nodded, “Blessed.  You did the right thing to bring her back here, as she will need to be taught how to handle her power.  For example, she will need to be taught how to control her transformations or speak in this form.”  Speaking to Byleth directly, she continued, “Would you like that, dear one?”

 

When Byleth enthusiastically nodded to Rhea’s offer, Jeralt knew that there was no leaving the Garreg Mach again.