Claude received a carrier pigeon message the next afternoon. 1st Rangers' tribesman, Major Lederfanc, hadn't made any decisions about Claude's report. He left him in charge of the situation at Squirrel Village. He was free to decide whether to stand their ground or retreat. He also told some news about the situation faced by the other units of 1st Rangers across the three southern prefectures. Claude was easily able to conclude that the major hoped that he could secure a crucial check point like Squirrel Village so that the nobles' forces won't be able to cause trouble in the prefectures.
When the 3rd month had come along, Aueras' forces scrambled to construct a road through Pikleit Mountains to transport heavy cannons and other heavy supplies. According to the plan, Bluefeather and the two irregular corps were to be stationed in the three southern prefectures to ensure the transport of supplies went on smoothly. Unfortunately, that road they built was flooded during the rainy season and neither goods nor people could use it. Repairing the path would take around a month and a half.
Currently, all the Auerans in the three prefectures were isolated troops with no way of procuring supplies and reinforcements from the rear. They had no choice but to endure for two months. It was possible that the Alliance's forces in Rimodra could wipe them out. The problem was that the Alliance was growing a little restless. They sent scouting parties out nonstop to the frontlines and launched probe attacks on the Aueran lines.
What remained of Askilin in the east side still persevered. They knew that the moment the forces of the Alliance numbering a few hundred thousand was surrounded by the Aueran forces, Askilin's demise would be inevitable. So, they gathered all their local garrison soldiers and launched a huge recruitment drive to form two temporary corps and prepared to attack the three southern prefectures. The irregular corps stationed in Eastern Askilin had begun fighting the enemy with full force. So far, they were still able to hold their defences.
As the two irregular corps and Bluefeather were concentrated at the frontlines, the three southern prefectures lacked the troops to maintain order. After some casualties were incurred from youths who were recruited from the area to repair the road in Pikleit Mountains, dissatisfaction towards their Aueran oppressors began to foster among the populace.
Four months later, Askilin sent a large number of spies into the prefectures to sow seeds of insurgency and gather supplies, leading to one local revolt breaking out after another. The units stationed in the towns were criminally understaffed and weren't able to stifle all those revolts.
The town of Rosa where 1st Rangers was based was in a similar situation. Thankfully, Lederfanc's neglect of securing unimportant checkpoints allowed headquarters to retain three bands of men to keep the populace in check. Lederfanc told Claude in his letter that they wouldn't be able to maintain order with less than a band of troops. In other words, the three southern prefectures were like a volcano waiting to erupt at any moment.
Even though the major had left the decision on how to deal with the enemy presence to Claude, he still expressed that he hoped that Claude wouldn't retreat for the time being and have Sergeant-Major Mazik gather the troops to defend the entrance to the three-pronged path. If possible, they ought to set up a defence line there and only retreat when pushed to the tipping point by the enemy.
Lederfanc emphasised an important fact in his letter: there were three bands of rangers defending the mountain paths. The one at the frontmost part was Claude, followed by Moriad and his band in Blackstone Village and one band at the mountain pass situated at the far end. If Claude decided to retreat, there would be no point in defending that mountain path anymore.
The reason for that was Moriad's band wouldn't be able to defend Blackstone Village if Claude chose to retreat given the terrain that was ill-suited for holding their ground. Squirrel Village was far better for the task. The enemy could easily circumvent the hills to attack Blackstone Village. Additionally, Moriad's band was tasked with ensuring the enemy wouldn't circle around Squirrel Village and attack Claude's camp from the front and rear to surround them.
As for the mountain pass leading to the three southern prefectures, there was a band stationed there. However, the terrain of the pass was even more unsuited for defence as it was easy to travel through. Even if they defended the enemy's attack head-on, the enemy could still pave a new road nearby to circumvent the defences and enter the three southern prefectures. The entrance of the pass had nothing more than a sparse forest and small hills, so even if Claude managed to gather three bands of troops, he wouldn't be able to secure such a long front.
If they wanted to keep the mountain pass sealed, they would need at least a tribe of men. But given that 1st Rangers was scattered all over to take over defence at strategic chokepoints, Lederfanc didn't have any other option. He didn't have many men himself and had to make sure Rosa was defended and kept.
So, he hoped Claude would be able to fend off the attack from the noble troops. Naturally, it wasn't that he wanted Claude to end up sacrificed there. He gave him the right to make the decision. He could choose to stand and fight or retreat. If he chose the former option, it would be ideal and Lederfanc would try his best to scramble together a band of men to be sent to Claude along with supplies in the form of food and ammunition. The only thing he regretted was not being able to give Claude more than one light-infantry cannon.
He put the letter on the table, tapped on the table and said, "I've decided to defend this place and fend off the enemy attack. Notify the signaller to sent a letter by pigeon back to headquarters about my decision and request for support as soon as possible. Sergeant-Major Mazik, you shall take control of 1st Tent and scout out the enemy's forces on both sides. I want to know their numbers, armaments and the date of their attack.
"2nd Tent and 3rd Tent will be in charge of further fortifying our defences. I want you to dig until the mountain path is cut off. We'll bridge it up with wooden boards temporarily. That way, if the enemy attacks, we can delay their advance a little. Even if they can fill up the hole in the path, they will be within our firing range the whole time. I want to see what kind of price the enemy is willing to pay to fix the path.
"4th Tent will be stationed in the trench between Squirrel Village and our campsite to prevent the enemy from attacking us from the rear of the village. Cannoneer squads, get your cannons in place and ensure that they're hidden and protected. Myjack, go to Blackstone Village this afternoon and ask Sergeant-Major Moriad to come to me immediately. I want to discuss troop placement with him. If we are unable to hold our ground against the enemy, I want his band to ensure that we have an escape route."
Mazik stayed behind after everyone left. He looked at Claude in despair and said, "Sir, are you really not going to retreat?"
The enemy numbered more than two thousand after all. Even if headquarters sent another band to back them up, they would only have 120 men tops. It was a disparity of almost twenty to one. An old veteran like Mazik believed that Claude's decision was suicidal. The countdown to their demise had already begun.
Claude smiled and patted his shoulder. "Even if we retreat, we'll be heading all the way to the mountain pass. Do you think there's a spot along the way with better terrain than this? No. Since we're going to fight, either way, might as well do it here. At least we have the advantage of the high ground here. Even though the enemy is numerous, most of them are private soldiers of the nobles who can't fight well. I believe that there's a good chance we can fend the enemy off. Perhaps after this victory, your shoulder mark will be the same as mine."
Veterans like Mazik would always be terrified by numbers. In his experience, the side with ten times the numbers to the enemy's would no doubt win. Yet, now their odds were twice as bad. He believed they would no doubt be overwhelmed and wanted to retreat. It would be futile, however. He wouldn't be able to avoid the fate of fighting defensively down the line. Claude had decided to stand his ground because of the terrain they occupied. Even if they were to retreat, they would only do so after giving the enemy the biggest blow they could.
Mazik grit his teeth.
"Whatever. I'll join you on this insane trip. If I'm to die here, that means it's my fate. Who asked me to meet an idiot second lieutenant superior like you..."
He then turned and left for his scouting assignment with 1st Tent.
Claude smiled and shook his head. "Gum, let's go to Squirrel Village and see the chief."
With the battle on the horizon, Claude believed that the villagers wouldn't want to stay. He planned to get the chief to evacuate the village and lead them to Blackstone Village only to return after the battle. The village chief was rather reasonable and agreed to Claude's evacuation request. However, he also offered to provide some manpower to help with the construction of the defences. Claude was overjoyed and provided the villagers with some rations as compensation before they left.
The schedule was hectic, but work was being done nevertheless. But as time passed, not a single trace of the nobles' private troops could be seen. Angered and embarrassed, Mazik went to their makeshift dungeon and interrogated the spy once more while giving him a good beating. The spy swore that the information he gave was true. Before he left, his lord said that they would march after he returned. Perhaps something had changed to alter that decision.
Four days later, the band from headquarters arrived at Squirrel Village. Claude was surprised to see Dyavid leading the band as bandsman. Dyavid said that he volunteered to go after hearing about it.
Claude had two bands of hundred-odd men. Dyavid's company wasn't fully staffed, having only 45 men. His unit suffered nine casualties throughout the revolts in the three southern prefectures and six were still healing in the infirmary at headquarters. Mazik's band had a full 54 men and another three cannoneer squads numbering fifteen more. Claude, Myjack, Gum and the signaller headquarters prepared for them included, there were 118 men in camp, further bolstering his confidence of fending off the enemy.
But after all the preparations were finished, the enemy didn't show. Mazik gave up on the notion of retreating and instead manned up and took the initiative to infiltrate Count Loirkad Bar Krilaus' fief to gather some information. He returned with two pieces of news for Claude: one good, one bad.
The good news was that Count Krilaus' troops were a hodgepodge and unruly bunch. Apart from two of his bands that comprised proper garrison soldiers and could put up a decent fight, the rest of the troops were farmers and herders. Their weapons were antiquated and not standardised, with the better-equipped ones armed with old hunting muskets while the remainder used large blades and spears. There were also some who had nothing but pitchforks.
The bad news was the count's men numbered near four thousand. They were closer to a line of troops than a tribe. The reason for that was the nobles of Askilin came over to join the fray after hearing that Count Krilaus was going to the three southern prefectures for raiding. They wanted to make themselves a quick buck. As for the reason they hadn't attacked yet, some nobles hadn't finished gathering their troops and would require a bit more time.
As for the Askilin side, the nobles had a back and forth with their nation's military and caused a delay in their plans. It was said that the Duke of Askilin demanded the nobles to hand their private forces over to defend the eastern lines and take back the three southern prefectures as soon as possible. However, the nobles weren't willing to send their personal forces to the battlefield in the east to be sacrificed. So, they submitted their own proposal to form their own coalition to enter the three southern prefectures through Pikleit Mountains to drive the Auerans away.
With the enemies on both sides missing their date, Claude had no choice but to wait anxiously until their arrival.