The people travelling through the mountain path gradually decreased after the major left. The ones that ought to leave had already done so and the few people who did come were peddlers who braved the cold weather to sell some goods. They came with their donkeys hauling two large baskets each filled with all sorts of goods, going through one village after another in the mountains to earn the villagers' hard-earned coppers.
However, they were willing to use their own goods to exchange a kind of medicinal paste from Squirrel Village. The paste was a dark green colour. It was said that the paste was really effective for treating colds. Claude believed it was some kind of folk remedy the villagers used to treat ailments since they didn't have an actual apothecary. The remedies were usually made by crushing herbs found in the mountains into paste.
It was already the middle of the second month. The snow had begun to melt. The hard ice that froze over the mountain path slowly gave way to wet, muddy ground. It was weather with which nobody was pleased. Even though it was still rather chilly, the heat that melted the ice on the ground caused it to be incredibly moist. It was easy for people to get fevers during those times.
Claude had no choice but to decrease the number of soldiers posted on duty outside. Mazik and his band's checkpoint had been making good money at that checkpoint he set up. After handing up the lion's share to tribe headquarters, and Claude's share of two crowns or so, the rest of the soldiers in his band got a little more than one thale. Naturally, Claude didn't really need that small amount of money and he instructed for it to be used to buy a few pigs and goats and kegs of blackwheat ale for his men.
Upon thinking about the matter of linen sacks, Claude asked Myjack to summon the village chief and told him about it. Initially, Claude thought that the village chief would be overjoyed to hear about the opportunity to make some money. However, the village chief disappointed him with news that they didn't have much linen in stores. The chief did suggest they could use old vines to make grass sacks instead of linen ones, which Claude approved.
As promised, the ammunition and supplies Lederfanc said he would get had been delivered. There was the additional light infantry cannon. It was one produced in Askilin which could fire rounds approximately the size of fists for around 300 metres. It couldn't fire scattershot and was phased out because of it. The only benefit it offered was its ability to be disassembled and carried around on a workhorse to wherever it was needed.
Bluefeather couldn't care less about a firearm that could only shoot normal rounds over short distances, so Lederfanc sent it along with the other supplies since there was no harm. The one in charge of the shipment was Moriad. He was tasked to set up camp in Blackstone Village, some ten kilometres away from Squirrel Village, with his band of men after finishing the shipment so that they could respond to any call for help should battle break out at Claude's position.
The moment he saw Claude, Moriad began to complain endlessly about how hard the mountain path was to traverse. The mud was one thing, but having to clean them off the workhorses' hooves and the carriages' wheels near constantly was a huge pain. Fortunately, most of the snow on the path hadn't completely melted and two-wheeled carriages could still pass through.
The supplies they transported was estimated to last sixty-odd men for two months. Even if there was an enemy attack, they could use the terrain to their advantage and hold off for a long time with sufficient ammunition. They could also rely on the backup provided by Moriad's band of men. It wouldn't be too difficult to seal off the mountain path to ensure that the enemy wouldn't use it to enter the three southern prefectures.
Moriad said that Major Lederfanc ordered for some ten-odd unimportant outposts to be abolished after inspecting the checkpoints across Pikleit Mountains. With the extra men, he fortified a few other strongholds and there were two extra bands of men in the tribe. Even the former outpost Moriad was defending was taken down and his band was sent to Blackstone Village as backup for Claude. He would be setting up a second line of defence there as well.
Additionally, the initial phase of repairs for the transportation routes through Pikleit Mountains was completed. Bluefeather's heavy equipment and large calibre cannons were being transported through it nonstop. The corps was transferring all available personnel to set up a defence line at the border between Rimodra and the three prefectures. They forced countless civilians from the prefectures to help construct those fortifications.
Rimodra and the Alliance's army had also gotten wind of the loss of Askilin's three prefectures and were beginning to show signs of crumbling. The Aueran forces managed to break through a few of their defensive lines. A folk of light-cavalry troops from the forces of Canas was sent to the three prefectures to inspect the situation, but it was almost completely annihilated. Only a few hundred of their men managed to escape. The top brass of the Alliance's army concluded that they were encircled heavily and didn't dare to leave Rimodra. That gave Bluefeather the time they needed to construct the fortifications.
Bluefeather's legendary arrival in the three southern prefectures and their occupation thereof was the most attention-catching part of the war. Aueras attacked at an opportune time in winter and understood the terrain of Pikleit Mountains well enough to mount that massively successful offensive.
Usually, winter was a time when not much activity occurred. The Alliance's army in Rimodra didn't do much apart from maintaining their defences. Most of their men were resting in their camps and they weren't able to respond effectively to sudden changes. When they first received word that the enemy showed up in the three southern prefectures of Askilin, some of them even thought it was a drunken prank.
It took a month for them to verify that it was true, which was more than enough time for Bluefeather to prepare. By then, the top brass of the Alliance believed it was merely a small unit of Aueran troops engaging in harassment attacks in the three prefectures and weren't willing to send a large unit to mount a counterattack during winter as they were worried that a large portion of their forces would be diverted.
On the other hand, the Aueran attacks at the Rimodran frontlines also put a lot of pressure on the Alliance. Most of their high command believed the occupation was merely propaganda disseminated by the Auerans to divert the Alliance's attention and drain them out during winter by depriving them of rest. After days of discussion, they finally decided to send a folk of light cavalry to the three prefectures to check things out.
By then, Bluefeather's position was already strong and secure. When their scouts at the frontlines realised that only one folk of light cavalry was sent out, Bluefeather emerged from their nest and set up an ambush at a path the folk would no doubt pass through to enter the three prefectures -- Columbo Valley -- and managed to obliterate the folk. The Alliance, however, got the wrong message and believed that Bluefeather was on a full-on offensive from the three prefectures. So, they didn't send any more units to counterattack and gave Bluefeather enough time to further fortify their defences.
Claude was quite interested in how quickly the irregular corps had renovated the routes to allow for the transportation of heavy equipment. 1st Rangers had to go through thick and thin to find their way through Pikleit Mountains, so Claude knew well about the condition of the route. It was one thing to cross it while travelling lightly, but attempting to go through with heavy equipment like cannons was exceedingly difficult. There were many places that had to be climbed over which were impossible for four-wheeled carriages to cross.
However, Moriad was quite up to date with the latest information and had heard quite a lot about what was going on behind the scenes. He told Claude that Bluefeather's passage through Pikleit Mountains, the reconstruction of the route through the mountains as well as the extermination of the enemy folk came all from the plans of a major-general in the kingdom.
He was called Miselk Priest, a man of common birth. He was 48 eight years old and used to be a war history lecturer in Stellin War College in the royal capital. He followed the first prince to the frontlines and joined the staff and was the one who drafted those strategies. He earned the prince's favour as a result and was promoted to be a new staff officer in Bluefeather.
Ever since crossing Pikleit Mountains, Major-General Miselk instructed the two irregular corps to fell trees and use the wood to overhaul the route. In a short two-odd months, a wooden route through which heavy equipment like cannons could be transported was built. After receiving word of the enemy light-cavalry folk heading their way to the three southern prefectures, the general rushed back to Bluefeather and convinced the top brass to set up an ambush at Columbo Valley, which led to the complete elimination of the folk and giving the enemy a false impression that Bluefeather was going to launch an all-out offence, prompting them to take hurried defensive manoeuvres and earning Bluefeather much needed time.
Moriad's eyes shone when he spoke and his voice was filled with admiration. "The latest word is that Miselk Priest was promoted to lieutenant-general thanks to his contributions. There were also rumours that the first prince had requested His Majesty to confer upon him the title of viscount and the sobriquet 'Kor'. If that is true, then Miselk Priest would be the first soldier to be ennobled through participating in this war."
It was apparent that the lieutenant-general was a rising star in the Aueran military. What made Claude wonder was why a major-general like Miselk was only of common birth. Usually, general-rank officers were nobles. Even if he was a dignitarian, he should've been given noble status while receiving the major-general rank. Yet, Miselk didn't have that. Was there a story behind it?
It was too bad Moriad wasn't Berklin. That fellow was an expert when it came to looking deep for more information. Nothing he was interested in, whether it be what colour pajamas someone liked to wear, was beyond his reach. Moriad's admiration, however, was normal and expected of a soldier to have towards a general. No soldier wouldn't wish to be able to serve such an accomplished and capable general.
Moriad stayed for a night before leaving with his men. The rest of Claude's days passed uneventfully. While he wanted to assemble his men for training, that kind of weather would defeat the whole purpose. Having nothing better to do than to watch the dark clouds above, he went to the village for a walk to check on how the vine sacks were coming along.
He had heard the village chief mention a waterfall and a plunge pool nearby, so he decided to pay a visit. The chief, on the other hand, grew anxious at being asked where it was located and hurriedly said that there were water demons in the plunge pool as well as wolves and bears in the mountains. Given that the rainy season was almost upon them at the end of the 2nd month, the hibernating black bears would've awakened and would be searching for food in the wilderness. It would be dangerous for people to travel there.
Almost every villager attempted to dissuade him from going into the mountains, which only served to stoke his suspicion. They were trying to hide something. Naturally, he pretended to accept their suggestion and appear as if he decided not to go to the mountains, much to the villagers' relief.
"Myjack, pay attention to the villagers and report to me if they are up to anything odd. I suspect they're hiding something from us," he instructed after he returned to camp.
A day later, Myjack reported with bloodshot eyes. "Sir, I noticed that the old woman from the village chief's house went out at ten in the night to the mountains. But she didn't go far and left a small basket she brought there on a slope of the before returning. This morning, I saw her go up the mountains again to retrieve the basket, but it seems to be a different one. I recall that the one she took there the day before was a rectangular shaped one, but the one she returned with this morning was oval shaped."
Claude nodded. The villagers <i>were</i> indeed hiding something. "You haven't slept the whole night, right? Go get some rest. Get Gum to take your place tonight and report to me immediately if the villagers go up the mountains again."
Two days later, just after Claude lied down for some rest, Myjack called out to him. "Sir, the hag is going up to the mountains again..."