Claude initially thought he would have some time to rest after conquering Blackmaple Castle since they were to clear the area at the base of the mountain range for the time being. All the towns and the seven villages in the area accepted their conquest with remarkable composure.
Neither Claude nor his superiors expected to be ordered deep into the mountain range to find and close the numerous smuggling routes.
It took just one look at the map to figure out the intentions behind those orders, but they were absolute, so they had no choice but to don their winter gear and head out. Bluefeather arrived at Billie half a month later and relieved the 1st Rangers.
The 1st Rangers had to serve as their scouts and guides. They even spent new year's in the wilderness. Lederfanc took out a bottle of fine wine he carried around with him and allowed each officer to take a single sip as a makeshift celebration.
On the 7th of the 1st month, 579, Bluefeather appeared in the three southern prefectures of Askilin and occupied the three prefectural capitals. 1st Rangers was stationed on the pass' entrance to keep the enemy's informants from escaping or launching a counterattack.
"Lieutenant Claude, I think it'll be best to take a band with you. I won't be at ease otherwise," Lederfanc said with a frown, staring at the map.
Claude nodded. He knew what the major was talking about: a hill at the very outer edge of the mountain range. A path straight to the Great Plains of Canas passed by there, and another branched off from it towards eastern Askilin. The two paths met at the base of the hill. The path was narrow, but it was a crucial smuggler's route. It made perfect sense for the major to pay attention to it.
"I will assign two light cannons and two cannoneer squads to you as well as a carrier pigeon and a signaller. Take Mazik's band from 3rd Clan as well. I'll send supplies every week."
"Roger. I'll set out this afternoon."
Mazik was a veteran soldier who had joined the ranger tribe because he craved the reward money formerly offered by Rosley. He started out with quite good luck, even managing to ambush four enemy scouts with his comrades and getting a decent reward. His fortunes turned thereafter, however, and he didn't make much until Rosley died. Instead, he was pursued to no end by the tents of mounted scouts and the three comrades that he usually worked with were decapitated. He also suffered a cut and just as he thought he was done for, he was rescued by another group of incoming rangers.
It took him three months to heal and he suddenly found himself promoted to sergeant-major. He later found out it was because the tribe had performed magnificently in retaking Wilf and had received a commendation and rewards from the first prince. Even someone who didn't take part in the battle itself was rewarded.
When he recovered, Mazik reported back to the tribe and it so happened they were in need of experienced men to train and lead the new meat. He was thus made an acting bandsman and given a small band. However, as a seasoned member of army, he would often slack off and mess up his missions ever so slightly. Lederfanc had Claude take them along because he didn't have much confidence in Mazik.
For all his faults, Mazik was obedient, at least he had few qualms following Claude. While he was seven years the youth's senior, he had a lower rank. He also admired Claude's plan to take Blackmaple Castle. For veterans like him, minimising casualties was the most important thing -- screw timetables and strategic objectives!
Actually, 1st Rangers was supposed to be deployed with Bluefeather in Askilin's three southernmost prefectures but Bluefeather didn't want to share the glory. It was common knowledge that Askilin was not anticipating an attack and was defenceless. The corps would storm the rest of the duchy before attacking the Alliance's troops from behind in Rimodra and obtain unparalleled glory.
They intended to erase the shame of being cornered on Amilia Plains and sharing the glory would not help that cause. So, they treated the rangers like local keepers and assigned them to defence duty. While Major Lederfanc wasn't shy with his protests, he was outranked and outnumbered, not to mention the first prince had ordered them to cooperate and follow their directions.
Unlike the unwilling officers, the grunts were happy to be put on sentry duty. It meant they would have an opportunity to make a quick side buck safely.
Claude learned quite a lot of money-making techniques from the veteran Mazik. The easiest way was to collect tolls, a portion of which would have to be shared with their superiors, naturally. The unwritten rule was for thirty percent to go to their superiors. Claude, as the leading officer, would get twenty percent, and the other officers would share twenty. The remaining thirty would be distributed between the rest of the men.
This tradition, if not these exact proportions, was common on Freia. Whether it was collecting tolls or raiding, the spoils were always divided thusly.
They arrived on the hill a day and a half later. According to the information they obtained from the prefectural capital, there was a village in the mountains in the trail's bottleneck. It had a hundred inhabitants and was called Squirrel Village. It was the fief of an Askilin baron by the name Norwelik Wey Frinslan. Currently, the baron was spending winter in Swansburg, a large city in Askilin, so his dominion and the village had fallen into Aueran hands.
Mazik livened up as they entered the village. He sent a couple men to get him the despairing village chief and requisitioned young labourers for the construction for their camp. He also demanded their food stores. Then there was the tax he announced. Every household had to pay for the war. Finally, he demanded a census of the townsfolk.
The old chief's reply infuriated Mazik. The town didn't have a single youth. They'd all been drafted into Rimodra's forces. As for food, they didn't have any. They were within the baron's territory and all of the food belonged to him. They didn't even have enough for winter and had hoped to ask for aid.
The tax thus had to be scrapped. Besides food, no one had anything of monetary value either. They didn't even have enough wood and manpower to fix their old, dilapidated houses. The village had two widows; one in her fifties and another in her forties. There weren't any younger ones.
Claude wondered why Mazik wanted widows. Since the village chief didn't budge, Claude took Mazik outside with him and asked for the reason.
Mazik said that it was another custom of occupying a locale. When setting up camp in a foreign nation, nearby villages ought to provide widows. They would help out with daily tasks such as laundry, cleaning, and cooking, and help relieve the troops' pent up frustration so discipline wouldn't falter.
Towns would at least have inns with company girls, but places like this were too small for even that. Being the good soldiers they were, they would pay the women, of course.
Squirrel Village only had two, however, and they were both already well past their prime. Mazik accused the chief of deceit, but the old man's reply was simply that any young women in the village had gone to the cities to find work.
Claude's horizons had broadened yet again. It was the first time he had seen such things in practice. Those were things nobody could teach him, or be willing to talk about openly. He only found out about all these unspoken rules by experiencing them first hand.
Mazik wanted to set up camp in Squirrel Village before sending some men to set up an outpost in the mountain path. But Claude refused the suggestion and instead rode around the village on horseback and found a suitable spot.
On a small cliff that stretched out quite far was a stone warehouse around five or six metres in height. There was a row of four double-storey wooden buildings nearby and the direction facing the village was fenced. The cliff was roughly 20 metres above the three-pronged route. On another side was a mountain with a rather steamy river flowing down nearby which would save them the trouble of finding a water source. On the next side was a path uphill which was wide enough for a carriage to travel on, something they didn't notice when they reached Squirrel Village. The last side faced the village and was fenced up properly. The elevated terrain was rather optimal and easy to defend.
"Whose houses are they? What is this place?" Claude asked the chief.
"This is the vacation house of the lord baron. That stone warehouse is where he stores our food and mountain produce. Every autumn, they will be stocked up and sent to the city. The row of wooden houses is for the guests of the baron to stay in when he brings them hunting. They would come to hunt once in a while every year before shipping the goods away," the chief replied.
Claude smiled. "Then there'd be no problem. We'll be appropriating this for our own use. Have someone clean it up. We'll set up camp here."