For all his efforts, Claude had horrible luck. He'd gotten injured yet again. Things never went perfectly, but he'd gotten the short end of the stick too many times, he complained.
The men charged with him, following him as their de facto commander, and he guided the fight from the front. Even second lieutenants obeyed him without question.
As a result, however, he quickly became the enemy's main target. An enemy first lieutenant rushed out of a corner waving a scimitar at Claude. He was caught off guard and didn't even think about dodging. In a panic, he used his musket to block the slash. While he managed to stop the sword, the enemy pushed it forward and pierced through Claude's thigh.
The officer tried to pull his sword out and give it another go, but he was struck down by the men that had been accompanying Claude. The damage had been done, however, and Claude was rendered inoperable as he lay on the ground clutching his bubbling leg. He didn't even have any of his potions left as he'd just used the last one on Dyavid.
Though fort fell soon after, more bad news came with the battle's end. Aboyev had been killed. He'd been struck down by the first musket volley. His head had been turned inside out by a round that had gone through his left eye and burst out the back of his head, taking half his brain with it. Berklin spent most of the next two hours clutching his corpse as he cried. They had joined the army together, and become brothers in all but blood since.
The fighting had died down not too long after Claude had charged in, and the rear elements were starting to come in and occupy the fort. Amongst them were the medical trains to treat the wounded. Claude and Dyavid were packed up in a carriage and shipped off to Eimis for more extensive treatment.
The hospital was quite big, but it was filled to the brim with the injured and mending. Quite a few were rangers. Moriad was one, and he would be there for another month.
Lederfanc came by a week later.
Claude noticed his rank insignia had been switched to a single silver crescent-moon instead of three green stars. He was now a major.
"Your luck is horrible," the major said, "the prince went to Wilf Stronghold to look for you only to learn you'd already been shipped away for treatment. He wasn't very happy. Of all the battles you could have chosen to get injured, why this one? I can't even count how many people would and have died for the chance to show off their talents or skills, and you go and piss it away after getting it..."
"Come to think of it, my promotion is thanks to you," he said when he noticed Claude's interest in his insignia, "His Highness believes our tribe played a key role in the battle. He's ordered all the tribe's officers promoted by a rank. You're a second lieutenant now. Too bad... If you had met the prince right after the battle he might have bumped you up to first lieutenant."
As Lederfanc spoke, he took a cardboard box and a new insignia, one green star, and plopped both in Claude's hands.
"The arrangements have already been made. All you have to do is rest and recuperate. Report to me once you're healthy again."
Claude played around with the insignia as he mulled over the major's worlds.
"Are you in charge of the tribe now?"
"Yes. I was rushed in as acting tribesman for now," Lederfanc sighed, "The lieutenant-colonel's death caused quite a lot of chaos."
"Chaos? What do you mean? Come to think of it, there was this weird bubble around the lieutenant-colonel before he died. What the hell's with that?"
Lederfanc glanced around and leaned in to Claude's ear.
"What I'm about to say is never to be repeated to anyone, you hear? Not even to yourself. It was magic. His Highness has watchers guarding him and they said the bubble was some kind of barrier for ranged projectiles. They scoured the battlefield but couldn't find a trace of anyone using magic...
"They concluded the lieutenant-colonel must've bought a spell scroll somewhere and thought it could help him survive against rounds. He must have activated it when he realised he was going to be in the middle of the enemy volley. Single-use scrolls like that usually turn into ash the moment they're used, so they're impossible to detect after the fact.
"I heard the prince cursed Rosley for being a fool who thought too highly of himself. If spells were useful against muskets, the magi wouldn't have been chased off Freia. He said it was fortunate a fool like Rosley attracted enemy attention and was killed for his stupidity. Otherwise, the rest of the rangers would have died and we wouldn't have been able to retake Wilf."
Claude breathed a mental sigh of relief. He only recalled he was the one who set Rosley on the path of death using a spell. As casting spells left ripples in the surrounding area, the prince, who no doubt had watchers around him, might send them out to inspect it. If traces were detected, it wouldn't be impossible to track Claude down through witness accounts based on where he was at the time. He had been nervous about it the whole time.
He didn't think he would receive such good news from Lederfanc. He realised that this meant mana had to be like some kind of gas. When it was used it coagulated into a mouldable mass which dispersed over time. Since the battlefield was racked with the shockwaves of musket- and cannonfire, and all the smoke that went with it, the mana dispersed much quicker and thus became untraceable.
"How many are left?" Claude asked.
The major smiled bitterly.
"I'm acting tribesman, but I barely have thirty men under my command, and most of them are from logistics."
Claude stared at him.
"What's going on? Didn't we have a hundred men after we took Wilf?"
"The prince ordered the formation of three more ranger tribes, so the men have been split between the three," Lederfanc explained, "We are now officially the 1st Ranger Tribe. We have to wait for new recruits to fill our ranks again. They're still being trained, so, for the time being, we're just thirty strong."
"I've come to give you your insignia and ask for a favour."
"Major, you are my superior and my friend. I will do whatever I can to help."
Lederfanc didn't hold back and told Claude that he worried that the new recruits wouldn't know the tactics Claude had used and hoped he would submit a training manual.
It wouldn't be difficult, nor too much of a hassle for Claude, so he agreed. The manual's first draft was finished three days later and handed over. Most of it pertained to training the recruits to reload on the ground, anyway. He did, however, ask for Lederfanc to transfer Berklin back to 1st Ranger. The two had been together for so long and he couldn't trust anyone but him as his second. On top of that, he was the best instructor out of the ones still alive that knew the tactics, and Claude was not about to hand him over to another unit.
Lederfanc happily agreed.
"By the way, you're now a commissioned officer, so by regulation you'll need a guard and orderman. I had them sent over. They'll take care of you while you recover."
He waved at two soldiers, who entered as he left.
Claude smiled when he saw the two: Myjack and Gum.
Claude wasn't that surprised to see Myjack. He had left the youngster with Lederfanc to hand over the captives, so he'd not fought in the battle. He was, however, surprised to see Gum still alive. The big guy had marched in the first rank with Claude, not far away from Aboyev, in fact. He'd not seen him after the battle before he'd been shipped to Eimis, so he'd presumed him dead.
The thought of Aboyev sent his mood spiraling into depression again. He was the first good friend this war had robbed of him.
Myjack and Gum's insignia each had a line more than before when last Claude had seen them. Both were now corporals.
Gum told Claude his battle story. He had tripped and fallen, and managed to avoid the first volley. Just as he was about to get up, the two men on either side of him were shot and they fell on him. Somehow, the musket held in the one's hand also fell on him and knocked him out. After the battle ended, the cleaners trying to pull him into the corpse cart were startled when he woke up.
"I really fainted. I wasn't playing dead. Just look at the bump on the back of my head! It's only shrunk halfway. It's still there," Gum said desperately.
"I believe you. But why didn't you stay in the tribe? Why insist on being my guard?"
Usually, only officers with actual command positions were assigned guards. In a full band with 53 men, apart from the 48 from the four tents, the rest were ordermen, signallers, healers and guards. The ordermen and guards were usually picked by the bandsman personally. Only his trusted confidants could serve in that capacity.
Most second lieutenants serving as bandsmen in peacetime didn't have guards and they only kept one orderman around to deal with miscellaneous matters. There would be more pay and provisions to go around for fewer people. They would only pick soldiers close to them to serve as guards when war broke out. As for signallers and healers, they were assigned by the tribe.
Gum scratched the back of his head tenderly.
"I can't eat my fill in the tribe. I can only be full when I'm with you..."
He really only ever thought about food... He could eat four men's worth of food. While he would've been a fierce and mighty warrior in older times, there was no longer room for him to flex his potential in the age of firearms. No matter how great his strength, he wouldn't be able to take a single shot from a gun. Since Gum wasn't able to get enough food in the tribe, Claude resigned himself to allowing him to stay.
His thigh was pierced through by a riding sword and he would have to spend a while recovering. It would also be rather inconvenient to move, so having Gum and Myjack around was convenient. Claude was thankful for Lederfanc's consideration.