The coach rumbled along the path.
"Uncle Oask, aren't you going a little too fast? It's too much for the coach!" Claude yelped as he hopped out of the coach and sat beside Oask, the coachman.
"Go, go!" Oask croaked as he cracked the whip again, "We have no choice. We delayed our departure too long. If we don't hurry, we'll have to camp in Blackforest. Wolves infest the place. It's not safe to spend the night in the forest. We need to make it to Blackwood before nightfall. We're not a convoy, we don't have an escort."
Claude sweated coldly. There was no choice. His departure had been delayed because of the prolonged send-off.
It was the 20th of the 8th month, and Claude was on his way to Kafreizit. It would take him a week to get there, but he left early to have leeway for delays along the way. He would also have enough time to get used to his new surroundings by reporting in a few days early and ensure that he didn't arrive late because of some freak accident.
He hired Oask's long-distance coach service for the journey and paid a high price of two crowns for the man to send him all the way to the city of Gourneygada within the prefecture, where the base on Fokby Hill was located. However, he only got to leave at eleven despite having planned to depart at nine thanks to the sheer number of people who were there for him. Only after bidding each and every relative, friend and associate farewell was he able to leave.
His mother had gotten up first thing in the morning to make him one last breakfast, wiping away tears all the way. She saw him come out of the laboratory with Kefnie practically dangling off his shoulder. Her smile nearly split her face when she heard the girl had stayed the night. She practically started planning the wedding and picking baby names that very moment.
Neither Claude nor Kefnie could get the red out of their faces for the rest of the morning.
It took them nearly an hour to get her to calm down, though they couldn't get her to stop insisting Kefnie move in the very next day. They did manage to finish breakfast, however, and Claude vanished to his room to finish packing. His mother saddled him with yet another bag, which he discovered had a complete winter wardrobe for him.
He nearly died at the thought of showing up at the camp with those obviously mother-made things. He'd probably never live that down. He had to explain to his mother that he was joining the army and that such things were really not appropriate for nearly another hour before the finally took the bag back. Besides, the army would issue him with everything he needed.
The morning had nearly all gone by by the time he finally made it to his meet-up spot with Oask, family in tow. He found a crowd of friends and business associates waiting for him, and saying goodbye to everyone took another hour.
Oask was a dignitarian and had served in the army for fifteen years to earn his title. He became a guard for hire, spending most of his time with convoys. He eventually bought a coach and started his own personal transport business. It didn't make a lot of money, but he didn't have any grand ambitions of wealth. It was enough for a modest living, and it kept the boredom away, so he was happy.
The trip cost Claude two crowns, one of which would be pure profit, quite a bit more than he would usually make, so he was happy to take the job. That didn't mean he was too patient about the delay, however. He couldn't say much, however, since most of the people who'd come to say goodbye to his customer were elites from the town.
"Why are there wolf packs in Blackforest? I haven't heard people mention them for quite a while now."
There was only one hilly path to the east of Whitestag and it was the only exit for the whole of the three southwestern prefectures so far. The path crossed two large mountains before leading to the prefecture of Ambruiz. But before arriving there, one had to first traverse the area covered by Blackforest. Fortunately, the path that led to Blackwood Town was at the sides of Blackforest and it would only take around six hours to traverse, instead of having to go through the endless core of the jungle.
Before reaching Kafreizit, he had to first pass through five prefectures, namely, Ambruiz, Kugria, Chanyalar, Krusig and Limasosya. As Oask would put it, if the journey was smooth, they could arrive at their destination within six days. Apart from Limasosya, the four other prefectures were mostly flatlands and transportation was well developed there. The roads were maintained well and easy for coaches to traverse.
"Blackforest has always had packs of wolves living in it. It's just that they don't approach areas densely populated by humans," Oask said, "Around seven or eight years ago, the garrison of Blackwood Town launched a large-scale wolf elimination operation and hired near four hundred hunters to wipe out the wolves inside Blackforest. More than three hundred wolves died from that operation, nearly all those roaming at the edges of the forest have been killed. Children could finally go into the forest near the streams to pick mushrooms without any danger.
"But some two months ago, a trading convoy reported the presence of wolves in the area, around seven or eight of them. They only observed the convoy from far away and didn't dare to approach. After that, some other traders would report hearing their howls. While there hasn't been any case of injury yet, Blackwood Town already released a notice to traders journeying to cross the forest not to travel alone in case they got into trouble."
"Weird... Why didn't Whitestag receive any such notice?"
"Simple. Whitestag mostly sends large trading convoys to Ambruiz. Even lone peddlers or journeying merchants would join up with one such convoy or go to Port Neru. There are seldom people who travel alone through the woods," Oask explained.
"What if we do meet a pack? I knew I should've brought my crossbow."
"It's fine. I have my arbalest, longbow, hunting musket, shortsword and handaxe here. Packs of six or seven wolves aren't anything to worry about. What we can't do is to camp in the forest. It'd be hard for only the two of us to defend the horses and the coach too."
Claude, however, was shocked to hear that. "Uncle Oask, why haven't I seen a single weapon you brought with you? Where did you hide it?"
"It's all under my seat. They're for keeping me safe on my trips. I have to store them well, don't I?" Oask said plainly.
"So long-distance coaches have to bring so many weapons along... Is our kingdom that unsafe?"
"It's not a matter of the kingdom's safety. The cities, towns and villages are quite safe, but the cross border checks are really strict. Since you have a conscription order and a passport, there's nothing you have to worry about. What we have to watch out for are bandits, deserters and escaped convicts on the way. Those people won't be admitted into settlements, so they prey on rushing trading convoys or travelers. Some of them would even set up an ambush in more rural areas to rob supplies.
"Last time, I sent a whole family to the city of Mariak in Tamurus. That area is infested with bandits. Most of them had escaped from labour camps and robbed in the mountains. The local garrison and the Tamurus keepers raided them many times, but always failed to eradicate them. That's the reason travelers or convoys passing through that area must hire security escorts. But when I returned, I saw the Griffon corps build a base in the hilly areas where the bandits operated. I believe it won't take long before the bandits are exterminated."
Griffon was one of the four standing corps of Aueras. It specialized in mountain combat.
What? Why would it take a whole army to deal with some bandits? He'd never heard about that before.
"Is this common?"
"No, and thank goodness it isn't. It's only really a problem on that scale in the mountains. That kind of terrain makes it all but impossible to hunt them down efficiently. Too many hiding places and secret passes.
"Of the five prefectures we have to cross, only Limasosya is decently dangerous. The mining industry dominates, and it's never been known to attract the most savoury people. Miners have infamously short tempers, and the people in Limasosya are even shorter tempered than most. Not to mention they are pretty hard drinkers and love to fight.
"I haven't been to Kafreizit before, so I have no clue what it's like there. It was still in Nasri's hands when I was in the army. Come to think of it, I never actually walked on foreign soil. Kind of embarrassing, really."
The biggest worry when traveling with only two people was the lack of good conversation. Since Claude took the initiative to sit at the front instead of the cabin, Oask was glad to share his experiences on the battlefield, as well as a hired guard. Claude himself rather enjoyed hearing those tales as well.
When they finally reached the end of the mountain path, Oask parked the coach near a stream for a half-hour break. He had to feed the horses and let them take a breather to replenish their salt and water.
He also took out the seat of his coach and asked Claude what weapon he wanted to use. Claude gave it a look and saw that the weapons were in fact hidden right under where he sat. The man had quite the arsenal hidden away.
"I'll take the arbalest and a shortsword then. It's too bad you don't have a two-hander here. I'm more accustomed to using those. I see that your double-barrel hunting musket is custom made... It should be quite troublesome to load it up, right?" Claude took the arbalest out of the box and assembled it properly together. He then strung it and tested the tension of the string.
Oask picked his musket up. "I had this order-made. It's a spread shot, doesn't fire far though, only about seventy meters or so. But it has great coverage and you don't really need to aim with it. I can counterattack with this musket while driving the coach. It's perfect for what I do. But you're right that it's troublesome to load up. You have to do it for both barrels, you see, but you can fire twice after it's ready. The first for a warning and second for a threat. That would usually be enough for me to lose any pursuers.
"We're already within the borders of Ambruiz now. Further ahead is the path that crosses Blackforest. We're still about six hours away from Blackwood Town and apart from some rest stops we make on the way, we also have to be on high alert and be ready to defend ourselves. If nothing happens along the way, we should arrive in town around eight at night. We can even lodge at an inn to get some good rest."
Claude nodded. It was always a good idea to listen to someone with experience like Oask when travelling instead of doing as he pleased just because he paid the man to take him to his destination. That would be nothing but courting trouble.
"Alright, I'll take your word for it, Uncle Oask. Let's have a meal first. It just so happens that they gave me a small keg of blackwheat ale to drink on the journey. Do you want a cup?"