Claude returned from the forest in the tail end of the 4th month. Construction on Sheila's cabin was completed and only minor finishing touches remained, such as the curtains, door locks and handles, kitchenware, and furniture. He arrived at around nine-thirty in the evening. He pondered whether he ought to have Gum and Myjack get the materials he needed for the finishing touches. But when he got to the two-storey building, he was surprised to see Sergeant-Major Mazik and approximately three tents of men at the table. They were relieved to see him return. The way they saluted felt like a burden had been lifted from their shoulders.
"What's with you guys? Did something happen?" Claude asked, returning the salute.
"The camp is fine. Everything is in order. However, we captured an enemy spy," Mazik said.
"Enemy spy? Are you sure? I hope you didn't mistakenly capture someone innocent."
Claude wondered what reason there could be to send a spy to this desolate corner of the world. Yes, it had a road into the three southern prefectures, but it was hardly capable of carrying anything near the volume of traffic the kind of offensive necessary to break through to this point, would need.
"It's true, Sir. He confessed," Mazik replied solemnly.
"What's going on?" Claude asked, pointing at Myjack, "Get me a basin of water and a bottle of blackcurrant fruit wine. I'm treating you all to a cup."
"A travelling merchant from the Great Plains of Canas arrived in the village this afternoon. The men didn't think much of them initially, but as he hawked his wares, he asked around about our numbers and our defences. The village chief grew suspicious and reported it to me. I followed him around for a while. At one point he withdrew with the excuse of resting, but headed to the mountain pass instead. We knew he must be a spy when he started mapping it out and arrested him on the spot. We found another map on him detailing the fortifications."
Mazik pointed at the brown beastskin on the table. Light yellow streaks were just barely visible on the bleached leather.
"Has he rolled on his masters?" Claude asked, squeezing a wet cloth.
"This is why we were waiting here for your return."
If the information the spy yielded wasn't shocking, Mazik would never have been sitting there so seriously the whole time.
The spy had said that his master was a noble of the Great Plains of Canas, Count Loirkad Bar Krilaus. The plains could be reached by taking the left path of the three-pronged road. The count had received an invitation to partake in an attack on the Aueran camp from two nobles on the other side of the route in Eastern Askilin, Viscount Schoskby Lor Pasdor and the dominion lord of Squirrel Village, Baron Norwelik Wey Frinslan. The spy who disguised himself as a merchant was sent by the count to assess the strength of the Aueran unit posted there.
"Wait, you mean to say that the enemy the spy was working for are mere nobles and their private armies instead of the national force of Askilin or Canas?" Claude didn't appear panicked in the slightest.
"Sir, even though the spy said that the nobles are going to attack us with their personal forces, their numbers are nothing to scoff at. A few landed nobles in Askilin had formed a tribe of men and requested that dogshit count of Canas to provide another tribe of troops. They want to free up this route so that they can enter the three southern prefectures and make a huge killing there," Mazik nervously said.
It seemed that the landed nobles in the area already knew the main Aueran force that attacked and conquered the three southern prefectures were stationed at the borders near Rimodra and Eastern Askilin. The southern prefectures themselves were hardly defended. Apart from some large towns that had guards posted, the important choke points were defended by ranger tents or bands. Squirrel Village was one such place.
If those nobles' plan worked out, they would reap quite a lot of benefits by attacking the three prefectures. As long as they didn't attack the heavily defended towns, they would be able to make a killing without suffering many casualties by attacking the smaller villages. While the inhabitants of those villages were mostly Askilin subjects, that was a moot point. It could all be blamed on the invading Aueran forces who were supposed to have occupied the land after all. The Auerans were the ideal scapegoat.
"Sir, when do we retreat?" Mazik hurried Claude for an answer.
Claude looked him in the eye and knew why Mazik had waited so late into the night for him to return. If he wanted to leave the battlefield, he would have to wait for an order to retreat or be branded a deserter. Claude was his superior officer and if he didn't make a run for it, Mazik and his band would be forced to remain and wait patiently for their demise.
"What do you think would be the best thing for us to do?" Claude asked.
Mazik and the two tentsmen glanced at each other. He replied without hesitating, "Retreat and conserve our forces. We will bring all our forces back to the three southern prefectures and set up a defensive stronghold at the entrance of the mountain range and stop the enemy from entering the prefectures. Over there, we will be able to receive the support of headquarters and won't have to worry about being cut off from our supply line. It will take two days to travel from here to the three southern prefectures. All we have to do is to defend that chokepoint to force the enemy to give up."
Even though Mazik was pushing for a retreat, he wasn't known as an experienced soldier for nothing. His suggestion for a strategic retreat to defend the entrance of the mountain range was a really practical one. He had really given it good thought to come to that conclusion. His reasoning even made his retreat sound glorious. No fault could be picked from his response.
Claude shook his head. "We won't retreat."
"Won't retreat?" Mazik looked anxious. "Sir, there will be two tribes' worth of enemies! More than two thousand men! Even if they're private troops of nobles and aren't that capable, we only have 64 men with us. Even if we manage to take out ten men for each one of ours, we won't be able to survive their attack!"
Claude smiled and waved for Mazik to sit and calm down. "Even if the enemy has two tribes, can they really attack us with all their units at once?"
After receiving a bottle of fruit wine from Myjack, Claude poured Mazik and the two tentsmen a cup each. "Even though the enemy has two tribes of forces, they are all private soldiers who are uncoordinated and inept. It's true that our numbers are low. However, we can request for aid from headquarters. More importantly, we have the advantage of terrain. If you think about our camp's location, you'll know that there's no way the enemy will be able to fight their way to our doorstep."
Claude poured some wine on the dining table and used his finger to trace out the three-pronged path and three mountain entrances and marked the location of Squirrel Village and their camp.
"Look at this. This is the path leading to the Great Plains of Canas and this one leads to Eastern Askilin. The entrances and intersection of these two paths are really tight and within our firing range. If the enemy comes, you should know that they can only mobilise a band of forces at most on the narrow path. It would be lucky for them to still have a tent of surviving troops make it to the intersection here under the concentrated fire of our guns and cannons.
"Yet, the worst part for them is not over. After they reach the intersection, they will have to travel another 30-odd metres to reach the slope leading up to Squirrel Village. The slope isn't that easy to scale either. This 100-metre stretch of mountain road is right beneath our campsite. We can shoot them but they can't shoot us. If we set up barricades along the slope, they won't be able to come up to us and can do nothing but wait for their turn to be shot."
As expected, Mazik had his objections. "Sir, you are merely describing ideal circumstances. If I were those nobles, I wouldn't bat an eye when I send those farmer-soldiers to their deaths to drain us of our ammunition. It is still possible to execute suppression fire with volleys from far away to hurt our troops. They might even move a cannon or two here to attack us and slowly swarm us with pure numbers to wear us out. Taking our camp is only a matter of time for them."
Claude nodded and admitted that Mazik made a fair point. "I agree that our greatest weakness is lack of manpower. However, the area of our camp isn't that huge. All we need from headquarters is a band of men to bolster our defences. I believe they will at least be able to send us that much if we make the request."
Another tentsman stood up. "Sir, if the enemy uses wooden shield carts to for cover, our cannons won't be able to pose a threat to our enemies. Even if we can destroy those carts, the enemy's casualties will be low and they'll be able to pass the intersection of the three paths quickly. If you insist on defending this location, we will need headquarters to supply us with two more light infantry cannons. Only then can we defend the two paths adequately by firing in rotation."
The tentsman, a sergeant, had quite a bit of experience. He had probably participated in the attack on Wilf Stronghold. The Nasrian cavalry line that attacked the stronghold left a deep impression in everyone's mind. Even though it ended with the complete annihilation of the cavalry line, the four light infantry cannons they used greatly hampered Prince Hansbach's forces and caused a lot of trouble. The four cannons fired scattershot in rotation and covered the whole battlefield with shrapnel. Many a soldier fell within a hundred metres of the wall, leaving few standing and many corpses piled up on the hill. A line of cavalry troops that wasn't even fully manned was able to fend off the frenzied attacks of their attackers that numbered two folks.
"I will request support from headquarters," Claude promised, "There are three reasons I don't want to retreat. First, we already captured the enemy spy and we can't run just because he said they are going to attack. The words are coming from the enemy's mouth, after all. We can't be sure whether he's only making empty threats to scare us away. We don't even have information on the exact date they'll mount an attack, their exact numbers and what they're equipped with. We have to verify that ourselves first.
"Second, we have to report this information to headquarters. They will decide whether we retreat or not. We can't make the call ourselves. We already stocked up lots of ammunition and food here. If we retreat right now, we'll only be making our enemy's job easier as we can't move everything away in one go. Given the current state of the roads, we won't be able to travel fast with everything we're taking along with us and might end up getting chased down by the enemy instead.
"Third, I have already assigned our troops to build defensive fortifications around the camp. I thought that we would only be facing off against a clan or two of enemies, so those fortifications are more than enough. I didn't think so many people were invited to this party. Thankfully, these 'guests' can only enter the banquet hall one at a time. If we act quickly enough, we'll send the guests who came early home before the others arrive. Hopefully, the uninvited guests will notice that what awaits them inside the banquet hall isn't an all-you-can-eat buffet of delicacies."
Mazik gave up.If Claude agreed to retreat, he would have to bear the responsibility of the decision while Mazik wouldn't be affected at all. But if Claude wasn't willing to retreat, he couldn't escape either. If a sergeant-major and tentsman like him shirks on his duties, he would be blamed for everything to come and given a one-way ticket to hell according to Aueran military regulation.
"Sir, I want to remind you that our enemies from Canas might attack us along the left side of this mountain path. However, the enemies coming from the right are from Askilin and the original lord of Squirrel Village is among them. He should be aware of the terrain of the area and I believe he'll have his men trek through the mountains and attack us from the mountains behind Squirrel Village." The other reason Mazik believed they had to retreat was that he didn't think he could count on the advantage of terrain they had.