The mess hall was right in front of the storage area. It comprised several connected gable-roofed sheds supported by log pillars beneath. Though it looked simple, there was a primitive, rugged look to it. Under the sheds were long wooden benches for the eating soldiers to sit.
Claude estimated that it could seat around 900 or so men, a little more than a tribe of troops. He could more or less tell from the number of long benches and tables. The military didn't seem as well-equipped as those from old Earth.
They didn't have any regulation on who could dine at a certain time, or whether they had to wait their turn or not. Instead, everyone simply ate at a certain time. Apart from some who stood guard on duty outside, most people could go to the mess hall. The meal time was also rather long, being at around two hours, and the number of benches there could only fit around half the men in the base. It wasn't hard to come to the conclusion that this base was quite under-manned.
The militaries of the various nations on Freia largely shared the same structure. Aueras, for instance, didn't split their units into squadrons, platoons and companies. Instead, the units were simply organised into tents, bands and clans. A tent had around ten to twelve men, just enough to fill up a tent. The leader of a tent would sometimes be known as tentsman and usually bear the rank of staff-sergeant, the lowest rank for an officer, or sergeant-major.
Four tents made a band, which, when fully manned, would number 54 people. The band leaders -- bandsmen, as they were called -- were usually sergeant-majors or second lieutenants and the units were also staffed with signallers, healers, guards and logistics troops. Four bands formed a clan that had a maximum of 320 people and was led by a second lieutenant or a first lieutenant who would be helped by a right-hand, ordermen, signallers, healers and more guards.
Four clans formed a tribe, the smallest independent combat unit of the kingdom's army. They could act independently to execute missions assigned to them. The role of a tribesman would usually be given to captains or majors. A tribe had a second-in-command, right-hand, staff officers, a tent of signallers, a tent of healers, a tent of enforcers and a band of guards. A full tribe numbered around 1200 men.
Due to the line-and-shoot nature of warfare, the militaries of the various kingdoms employed a four-four hierarchical structure. Four smaller units formed to become a larger one. Above a tribe was the line, and beyond that was the folk. Four folks formed a corps that had around 50-to-60 thousand men. In peacetime, that number was almost halved, and they only had to maintain a certain level of combat ability.
It was still rather early by the time Claude and the others reached the mess hall. There were only 200 or so soldiers there. Everyone got into four tidy queues since there was only four points where they could collect their meals. The other one was for officer use only and normal soldiers weren't allowed to use them.
Claude picked one line with fewer people and joined it. Surprisingly, nobody rushed him away because he didn't have a shoulder mark. Even the soldiers that joined behind him kept their quiet and didn't make the slightest move to harass him.
The cook in charge of dishing out food worked quickly, taking only ten or so seconds to deal with each soldier. After taking a look at the other eating soldiers, Claude came to understand why the cook was so fast. There wasn't much choice for food. Everyone had their canteens filled with meat and potato stew, two pieces of black bread sandwiching a piece of bacon, a fist-sized baked apple and free-fill red tea available for the taking at one side of the hall. Many soldiers used the cover of their canteens to fill it up with tea to use as a dip for their bread.
The food served there wasn't much better than what he had at his middle school cafeteria, but at least the amount was larger. It was enough to fill his stomach, but he had no idea about the taste. Claude despaired at the thought of having to eat the same food over and over again for half a year. It was quite torturous for a food lover like him.
The queue advanced quickly and by the time there were only seven to eight people left, another wave of soldiers entered. They chatted loudly as they approached. Claude gave them a glance and didn't really mind them, but his bare shoulders attracted quite a lot of attention.
Soon, two soldiers from the crowd approached Claude.
"You, come out here!" yelled a horse-faced soldier fiercely.
Claude ignored him and stared ahead. There were only three people left.
"Hey, I'm talking about you! Can you hear me?" said the other round-faced soldier as he gave Claude a push. The other soldiers nearby looked at them. Even the cook stopped all movement.
Claude rolled his eyes. "What? Do I know you? Or do you know me?"
"No, no I don't," the round-faced one said with surprising honesty.
"Then why should I bother with you?" Claude turned back and remained in the queue.
"Hey, kid, where are you from?" The horse-faced soldier came closer.
"Why's that your business? Are you the boss here? Are you in charge of this base?" Claude was feeling rather annoyed. They were the ones that bullied the four nobles. The two before him had rather high ranks. The lanky, horse-faced one was a sergeant and the round-faced one was a corporal, denoted respectively by the two red lines and one red line on their shoulder marks.
"You're not part of our base, so you can't eat here!" The horse-faced sergeant refused to back down and pointed at Claude's shoulders.
"Oh? This is weird. I didn't think that permission to dine at the mess hall was up to a sergeant like you to give. I think you ought to wash your face and freshen up. I'm sure you're half asleep. Buzz off and stop bothering me while I queue up," Claude snapped back without restraint.
The onlookers were getting more heated. Some said, "Jem, show him!" while others laughed mockingly and said, "Oh, I didn't think you were in charge of our meals, Jem." Some other soldiers asked Jem to wash his face like Claude suggested. They didn't seem to mind letting it escalate and couldn't wait to see the fight break out.
"Step out here now!" The round-faced soldier lost his cool from hearing the commotion and made his move, trying to pull Claude out from the queue by his collar.
Claude held his canteen in his right hand and tried to stop the two hands of the other, but it was pointless. The round-faced soldier had more force, and he pulled Claude out of the queue with a tug.
Angered, Claude dashed forward, lowered his body and harshly squatted down.
Snap! The round-faced soldier's scream reverberated through the whole mess hall. A few others were completely stunned from the sound.
Nobody could withstand the intense pain from a sudden snap of the wrist and the round-faced soldier jumped around in pain with his wrists hanging loosely down.
The horse-faced soldier snapped out of it and raged. "You dare hurt someone?!"
He rushed at Claude with his fist clenched, striking his left cheek. Claude shook and only stopped after taking two steps back. Snapping out of it, he tussled with the horse-faced soldier.
Claude himself was shocked at the cry of the round-faced soldier. He only intended to get the guy to loosen his hands, yet he didn't expect his action to be so powerful as to cripple both the poor guy's hands.
That move was something he learned in his past life. There was once when he went to the gym with his boss and met an instructor of self defense, so he listened in to the class. The instructor happened to be teaching how one ought to react when one's collars were grabbed. Without panicking, one should grab the opponent's hands back and squat forcefully with the body leaning against the opponent. The other would have to loosen their hands or risk dislocation.
Claude himself was taken aback by what transpired and wasn't able to react to the other's attack. He only snapped out of it after taking the punch and launched into a tussle. The mess hall was like a pot of boiling water. The soldiers that were there to eat surrounded the two as they cheered for the fight. As for the poor round-faced soldier, he had gotten used to the pain and finally stopped squealing, looking at Claude from the sides with his hands hanging weakly.
The horse-faced man wasn't Claude's match at all. In front of the cheering soldiers, Claude gave his opponent a chin uppercut and a suplex, smashing the poor guy into the ground harshly. He didn't fare too well himself, however, with his left cheek bruising and swelling and messy hair. Two holes were also torn in his new uniform.
After seeing his opponent remain on the ground unmoving, he breathed a sigh of relief. Just as he was about to look for the canteen he dropped, the soldiers in the area moved aside and six more came in. One was shocked to see what happened and asked, "Jem, Enk, what happened?"
The round-faced soldier was already tearing up. He acted like a woman complaining to her parents about being bullied by her mother-in-law. After a quick explanation, the soldiers pointed at Claude and roared. "Beat him up!"
Fortunately, only four of them rushed in with great vigour. The other one helped the beaten horse-faced soldier up and one more checked on the round-faced soldiers injuries. The crowd nearby cheered for the encore.
If Claude could use magic, he could easily take down the four with Magic Missiles. However, he couldn't afford to let himself be discovered, so he relied only on brawling. The soldiers of Bluefeather were harder to take down compared to the Blacksnake thugs. Claude beat one down, kicked another flying, but was eventually subdued by the other two before the remaining four pummelled him nonstop.
That was when the onlookers complained about how unfair it was and that it should've been fought one-on-one, and how embarrassing it was for the four to gang up on a single person. Claude was already dazzled from the repeated hits. He couldn't take on all four with only two hands and had suffered a few punches to the face. The corners of his lips cracked, and he tasted blood.
Even so, he didn't surrender and beg for mercy. He doubled down and ignored the other three and grabbed one of them to beat him down no matter how many punches or kicks landed on his back. When he was about to pass out, he saw how close the necks of one of them were and bit down on it without a second thought. Blood spilled all over and the scream once more shocked everyone in the mess hall.
Claude heard the voices around him die down. The light from the glass oil lamp hung on the roof looked white and round as it swayed above his head before it scattered into countless spinning stars of light. He swayed weakly before falling to the ground unconscious.