"Our reward for conquering Blackmaple Castle is finally distributed," Lederfanc said as he lit a pipe he took out of nowhere, took a puff, and blew a smoke ring in the air.
Claude was just reminded.
"Why did they delay it for so long?"
"I'm not too sure myself. Maybe they threw our report aside cause they were busy attacking the three southern prefectures of Askilin. Since that just wrapped up, they finally had time to reply," he guessed.
"This time around, only you in our whole tribe got first class merit for minimising casualties. There are 20 or so others who got second-class and the rest all got third-class. Other than that, our whole tribe got first-class for leading the way for Bluefeather through Pikleit Mountains to Askilin," Lederfanc said happily.
Huh? There was only one first-class merit awarded for conquering Blackmaple but everyone got first-class for climbing through the smuggling path?
It didn't take long for him to understand what was happening. Conquering Blackmaple Castle didn't affect the war much as a whole, while Bluefeather's surprise attack on the three southern prefectures during winter completely overturned it. Nobody was against 1st Rangers being given first-class merit thanks to their vanguard efforts.
"You only need one more first-class merit to be promoted to first lieutenant," the major said a little enviously, "And you're only twenty-one. When I was your age, I was only working hard as a sergeant-major. I was only promoted to major this year, at 36. I'm still unsure whether I'll make general before I have to retire. You, on the other hand, get promoted almost monthly. If the war carries on, you'll catch up to me soon."
The Aueran military awarded three kinds of merit. Officers beneath the rank of captain required three first-class merits to be promoted. Conversely, first-class merits were equivalent to three second-class merits, and second-class merits were equal to three third-class merits. Logistics officers, like Major Lederfanc used to be, were awarded second-class merits for working one year without making big mistakes or causing disciplinary problems. It was one of the ways the kingdom awarded soldiers with promotions during peacetime.
Claude smiled bitterly.
"Don't say things like that. I'd rather serve as a logistics officer at the rear and slowly climb my way up than risk my life on the battlefield. There's no telling when my luck will run out at the harsh frontlines. If the war goes on, even if I get promoted, I'll still get sent to the frontlines. What's the point of getting glory if I'll die eventually anyway?"
Lederfanc was a close acquaintance, so Claude didn't have to put up any pretense with him. The two of them could talk about anything. While Bluefeather wasn't willing to let 1st Rangers have a share of their merit by letting them attack Askilin with them and had them posted at various checkpoints in the three southern prefectures, the rangers were rather pleased with the assignment as that meant that they wouldn't have to go on the battlefield. They would also be able to make a little something on the side.
The war had been going on for two and a half years now. Aueras currently had the upper hand, but the end still wasn't in sight. The Alliance still had some fight in them and there was no saying how long the war would last. Low-ranked officers like Claude worried more about whether they'd survive it and be able to return home than their promotions.
Lederfanc also understood that train of thought. He sighed and changed the subject. "I brought you your prize money, too. Two first-class merits come with six crowns. Sign here to claim it. Be sure to treat us to a meal tonight."
Claude signed his name and asked curiously, "Major, why did you come personally to give the prize? You could've just asked the guys from finance to do it."
Lederfanc shook his head.
"You might not know this, but most of the guys in the logistics department have some kind of backing. Even though it's wartime and they won't do anything to our supplies and weapons, it's not weird for them to pocket some of the prize money before giving them out. I used to be one of them, so I know.
"Our tribe is a new combat unit and as the officer in charge, I'm responsible for all of you. I decided to give the reward out myself to make sure none of it's pocketed along the way. I can also use this opportunity to check on our other units that are posted far away instead of sitting in my office signing things day in and out without any understanding on their status."
Claude shot him a thumbs-up. Major Lederfanc could exert real control over 1st Rangers by gaining some information about the other units as he went to distribute the prize money. That would also help reinforce the fact that he was the one who held true charge over the unit.
The major took a linen sack filled with coins out of his briefcase and tossed it to Claude. "How are you doing here? Anything odd happening at the two mountain paths leading to the Great Plains of Canas and Eastern Askilin? Come to think of it, your post here is a hot zone. If I were to guess where our tribe will be sent next, it would be here.
"Nothing out of the ordinary so far," he replied after some thought, "I questioned some refugees from the three southern prefectures and a few of them who crossed the paths said that they belonged to nobles and had to pay a toll to pass through.
"It's winter now and the paths are frozen hard. So, we can take two light infantry cannons with us. The two paths can also support carriages filled with passengers. According to the villagers here, carriages won't be able to pass through the mountain paths after the rainy season. The muddiness of the road is one thing, but the potholes all over them are the main problem. Large units won't be able to cross, but perhaps some workhorses may be able to travel through.
"As these two paths lead to noble domains, I believe the enemy won't attack us before the rainy season. The enemies and the landed nobles should take some time to gather their forces. And after the rainy season, there's nothing we have to worry about since the condition of the two paths would prevent any large unit from travelling through it, unless large-scale repairs are made beforehand.
"However, the two paths are connected to private noble fiefs. I believe the military of those nations won't be so generous as to pay for the repairs of the paths owned by the landed nobles. So, as long as they aren't able to bring any large cannons into battle, we'll be able to fend off a tribe of enemy forces easily with our two light infantry cannons."
"What if the enemy sends a whole line of troops here?"
Claude shrugged. "They won't be able to. The most they can send is a clan to attack us. Let me take you there to see. This is the junction of three different paths. Our encampments are located above the junction by about 20 metres. The enemy can only attack us if they go up the path leading to Squirrel Village. There's no way they can climb up at any other location.
"Our defences are set up at the upper left corner of Squirrel Village and we have the high ground. As long as we can defend the entrance to Squirrel Village, it doesn't matter how many troops the enemy has. However, I will need you to send more ammunition and food to us. I don't want to have to retreat because we ran out of supplies in the event of a drawn-out battle."
Lederfanc nodded. "Noted. I will have more supplies shipped over to you. Also, I'm going to set up another encampment on the path behind you and station a band of troops there. If a fight breaks out, our band can swiftly come to your aid and seal the path for good. Also, Claude, better make some preparations for being stationed here for longer than we initially thought."
Claude began to worry.
"Huh? You mean you're not sure how much longer we have to stay here? Shouldn't the keeper tribes be taking over soon? When did 1st Rangers become keepers?"
Lederfanc seemed rather troubled as well.
"The current situation necessitates we take over the keepers' role. Bluefeather moved through Pikleit Mountains relatively lightly and used the element of surprise to take over the three southern prefectures. Now, they're planning to build a defence line that can weather the attacks of a few hundred thousand troops after the rainy season. We'll require a large number of cannons and other heavy equipment.
"The three southern prefectures is the industrial centre of Askilin, but now, their production has been completely halted. Additionally, Their cannons are inferior to ours. Even the calibre is different. Bluefeather's logistics officers only managed to find some compatible ones, but there's still a large hole that needs to be filled. They keep rushing the rear to transport their cannons and other equipment there.
"You're someone who crossed the smuggling paths yourself and you should know that it's really hard to bring cannons and the like through them. But the top gave us the order to expand the paths before we transport the goods. We have to get the heavy equipment to Bluefeather before the rainy season in time for them to begin setting up the defences.
"The top plans to have Bluefeather lead the two irregular corps into the three southern prefectures and seal off the rear of the Alliance's forces in Rimodra to mount a coordinated pincer attack with the royal guard corps. As long as they can keep the 100-thousand-strong forces of the Alliance in Rimodra and force them to surrender, the backbone of the Alliance would've been broken by us for good. There's no way that they'd be able to rise again.
"Bluefeather believes that they won't be able to resist the enemy's attempt of breaking through their line with their muskets alone. Currently, those two irregular corps haven't entered the three southern prefectures and are still repairing the roads in Pikleit. The rear and Bluefeather are also forcing the captives to work so that a path through which the equipment can be transported can be built quickly.
"So, the keepers at the rear can't take over for us. The top is only using the bare minimum from their ranks to keep the pressure on the Alliance by attacking them on the frontlines. The rest of the people are sent to Pikleit Mountains for road building so that the plan to trap the Alliance in Rimodra can be carried out after the rainy season to seal the deal for good."
Having understood the plan, he mulled over it and said, "Defending our position here should be fine, but you need to provide us with some linen sacks and digging tools. It's winter now and I believe our enemies won't attack yet. But it's a whole different story after the rainy season. I want to construct a defensive stronghold just in case."
"Linen sacks and digging tools?" Lederfanc shook his head. "These two objects are lacking everywhere. Most of them have been assigned to the road construction effort. You can't find any more of them in our warehouses. I heard all such items in shops across the three prefectures have been appropriated by Bluefeather. Oh, doesn't Squirrel Village have some? I'm sure they'll lend them to you."
"You mean to say I should borrow them?"
He needed dozens of shovels and hoes, but the only metal objects Squirrel had were two iron woks. Most of their farming tools were made of wood. What good would they be?
Looking at the run-down sheds in the village not far away, the major more or less understood Claude's predicament. After some thought, he said, "How about this... I'll try to get you some hoes and shovels. But I won't be able to get you any linen sacks. Perhaps you can have the villagers make some and buy it from them."
Claude nodded. "Alright, we'll do that then."