Black smoke rose to the heavens some distance away. Myjack barged into Claude's study, anxious.
"The enemy is here, Sir! I saw a smoke signal!"
Claude put down the book he'd been reading.
"They were going to come sooner or later. Why are you so excited? I would've thought your relatives had come if I didn't know better."
"Ugh..." Myjack groaned, "I'm just happy, okay? We've been sitting around waiting for them for too long. The men's nerves are shot. They can't wait any longer."
Claude had to admit the enemy were just too slow. He had finished all his fortification works some time ago. Mazik, who had finally given up on retreating, followed into the study. He asked for permission to sneak into Count Krilaus' land and find out what was going on. Claude acceded, and the man departed.
He returned two days later to inform them that the delay was due to a disagreement between the nobles regarding how the spoils should be split. They believed that, since they had the most men, they were the army's backbone and as such deserved better terms. Amongst their demands was to not be put under anyone's command, and to be given more freedom in choosing where they wished to raid.
While the Askilinian nobles hoped the Canasians would help them, the three southern prefectures were still their territory. Even if Canas wanted a share, they shouldn't go overboard. They knew that if they agreed to the renegotiation, they would be letting a pack of wolves into the midst of their sheep. They couldn't give them free reign. Their people would not forgive them.
If the Duke of Askilin wasn't dissatisfied enough with his own nobles not handing control of their forces to him, he certainly would lose it if they let friendly foreigners sack his duchy.
That was why the Askilin nobles gathered at Count Krilaus' fief sternly insisted that the Canas nobles raid orderly after entering the three southern provinces. In other words, they could raid public storehouses, but not kill people casually, not burn down buildings, and also not enter private residences. An enforcer unit for military regulations also had to be sent out to supervise their movements.
As for the Aueran troops defending the mountain pass, not a single one of those nobles took them seriously. They heard from those escaping the three southern prefectures that there were only three Aueran bands defending the path at three separate locations. They numbered less than two hundred in total. Even if the spy they sent didn't return, which probably meant that the Auerans had picked up on some of their plans, it didn't matter. There was no way they'd be able to put up any resistance when the two nations were gathering their forces and had numerical superiority. Doing so was akin to bashing an egg against a rock.
Mazik now knew how ridiculous the retreat he had in mind previously was. Even he felt annoyed and thought that the disorderly bunch wouldn't win even if they had the numbers. That was especially the case now that Claude had perfected their defensive fortifications. Mazik couldn't wait for their attack to start and see them run into their defences and bash their heads on it.
Claude stood up, opened the window of his study and looked at the towering smoke. Soon, three riders dashed across the path. After they passed, a few soldiers at the side of the road lifted some wooden boards used as temporary bridges on their workhorses and returned. Even though the path looked normal, the Aueran soldiers knew that it was a huge trap which could kill and maim any enemy that fell within.
Claude went downstairs and saw Mazik rushing to him.
"Sir, the enemy is here."
"I saw the smoke signal."
"The three soldiers on scout duty today saw the enemy vanguard advance and made the smoke signal before returning. According to their marching speed, it's estimated that the enemy will arrive in another four to five hours."
"Are they only coming from Canas? What about Askilin's side?" Claude looked at the eastern sky and saw no smoke.
"Perhaps they still haven't finished negotiating," Mazik guessed.
"Well, notify the scouting soldiers at the front to retreat. Since the Canasian nobles have already sent their forces here, we won't have to wait for the Askilinian troops to come. Remove all the wooden boards on the roads to set the traps beforehand. If we only do so when the Askilinian troops attack a few days later while the Canas troops are attacking, we'll be shot at and suffer unnecessary casualties."
"Yes, Sir. I will send someone to notify them." Mazik turned to leave.
Soon, the three scouts stationed at the path leading to Askilin were called back. The wooden boards on the ground were transported back on workhorses and erected on the mountain road behind Squirrel Village. Every twenty-odd metres, one such board around six metres in height was erected. Five of those were erected in total. Currently, all the soldiers had retreated into the mountains.
"Myjack, when the enemy shows up at the curving path ahead, light the smoke signal to notify Moriad in Blackstone Village to execute the plan," Claude instructed.
The road leading to the Great Plains of Canas was built halfway up a hill and directly opposite the camp. It was roughly 150 metres long. However, that road curved around Squirrel Village before connecting to the three-pronged path. There were only roughly 300 metres between the turn and their camp. In the middle of the turn was a very steep slope. The distance between the very bottom of the slope and the normal road height was more than seventy metres. In other words, even a lucky person would get hurt from a fall of that height if he didn't die outright. There was no way anyone would be climbing out of it.
Claude used gunpowder-loaded jars to create five dips along 300 metres from the turn to the three-pronged path. He then had the soldiers dig five large traps and covered them up for wooden boards while they were not in use. Now that the enemy was coming, the boards were removed and the traps were covered up. If the enemy was careless, they would fall to their demise.
Using traps to kill a few enemies was child's play. Mainly, the traps holes were there to hamper enemy progress. If they wanted to go through, they would either have to use wooden boards like Claude did or fill the traps up with earth. However, Claude had ordered his troops to fell all trees within the vicinity of the path during the extra days they got when the enemy was dallying. Any rock the enemy could use to fill the holes were tossed into the deep mountains. If the enemy wanted to fill them up, they would have to source rocks and wood from far away. Most importantly, the whole path was within firing range of the camp. When the time came, the Aueran troops would shoot down the enemy soldiers trying to fill the holes one after another like they were shooting targets.
"Sergeant-Major Mazik, I will leave command to you later. If the enemy shows up at the turn, you may give the order to fire the cannons. My only demand is for the enemy to be kept at that turn today so that they don't appear on this path. I will go to Dyid's side for a look. I can't help but worry now that the enemy didn't show up on Askilin's side."
"Roger that, Sir. I promise I won't let a single enemy on this side of the path. Please rest assured."
Claude brought Gum and Myjack with him to Dyavid's defence line which was set up at the mountain behind Squirrel Village. The slopes there were gentle and connected to the mountain path. There was a high probability that the nobles of Askilin would march their private forces through that part to occupy Squirrel Village first before attacking the camp.
However, the place was fine. Not a single enemy could be seen. Dyavid was gnawing on a grass stalk with his chest flat against the trench walls. He was shocked to see Claude arrive. "Why are you here, Sir?"
"The enemies from Canas are coming, yet there's nothing going on here at your side. I've asked our scouts on the Askilin side to retreat and remove all the wooden boards on the road. I wanted to check if there's anything amiss here."
"What can go wrong? I'll see the enemy if they come this way," Dyavid said as he pointed at the winding path ahead. It was as he had said. The path was in full sight and any sign of the enemy would be easily detected.
Claude shook his head. "I'm not worried about the day. The key is the night. The enemy might take advantage of the darkness to attack at that time. What I want you to do is to move your troupe ahead just like how we ambushed the mounted scouts back then. If you notice any enemy troops coming, engage immediately and make a slow retreat before reaching here to defend. Light bonfires on the path during the night so that the enemy wouldn't be able to launch a surprise attack."
"Alright. I was bored without having anything to do anyway. I'll take the troops ahead like you said," Dyavid said with a smile, "Relax. A few soldiers of nobles aren't as good as you think they are. Didn't Mazik say that they're a disorderly bunch who wouldn't be able to stand a single attack?"
Claude didn't have a choice. The battle was about to break out and he would be fully responsible for whatever happened. Both in his past life and this one, he had always been one to worry too much. He was paranoid about missing out the slightest detail that would lead to failure. Not to mention, an enemy with numbers ten times their own was terrifying, even if they were a bunch of helpless sheep. The disparity weighed heavily on him. This was real war, not a game. Dead people won't respawn.
After returning from Dyavid's station, he checked the layout of the defenses around the village once more. The villagers had all evacuated to Blackstone Village. Nobody was left behind. Claude had set a trap inside the village to bait the enemy.
After returning to camp, he found that the Canasian troops hadn't arrived at the turn yet. Further along the path was a long line of marching troops. Taking a peek with his telescope, Claude couldn't help but laugh. It seemed like Mazik was right. The enemy didn't seem the slightest bit capable at all. The weapons they wielded were all sorts, ranging from hunting bows, spears, axes, shields, hacking blades and even pitchforks. They were dressed horribly and only a few guns could be sighted. Instead of an army, they would be more aptly called a gathering of vagabonds.
Even more dumbfounding was how they weren't even in proper marching formation. People would step out of line and rest on the roadside from time to time and even gather together in groups of five to talk and chat. They only returned to marching when a supervisor came to them with a whip. They were a flock of ducks taking a leisurely walk, not the slightest bit nervous about the upcoming battle.
It was no wonder they took so long. Claude suddenly felt relieved. If all his preparations weren't able to stop that kind of enemy, he would jump off a cliff out of embarrassment. Those 'soldiers' seemed like they were heading to witness a show instead of going to war.
Half an hour later, a messy tune that could barely be argued to resemble a song could be heard. It seemed like a kind of vulgar folk song that was sandwiched around bouts of laughter. Finally, a squad of well-dressed musketeers appeared at the turn. They should be the personal guard of some noble instead of some random drafted farmers. Just like a fruit stall owner who displayed his best fruits in front, the nobles brought their finest men to the forefront.
The Canas nobles were probably aware of the kind of men among their troops. So, they let the ones who were at least dressed presentably lead the way at the front to bolster their fearsomeness. It was too bad they had forgotten that they were marching in the territory guarded by Aueran troops instead of the safety of their dominions.
"Fire!" Mazik ordered with angry fervour. His patience had run out completely.
A light infantry cannon that had long taken aim let out an ear-shattering boom, launching a fist-sized metal round that covered the 150-metre distance in a flash and rammed into the ranks of the marching troops. A cloud of dust, blood, and broken limbs was beaten up.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The muskets at the camp fired in unison, covering the area in a cloud of smoke. Any soldier that remained standing at the turn following the cannon shot was wiped out by the musket volley that followed. All enemies at the turn had been struck down and nothing but agonised cries could be heard.
The sudden shock had stifled the enemy. After a long while, panicked shrieks, heated arguments and vile curses could be heard from the back of the line. A few gunshots and cries were enough to reinstate silence. It didn't take long before some soldiers sneaked about around the turn and looked towards the camp.
"Sir, the enemy is crouching low on the ground and collecting the bodies," Mazik reported.
"Let them collect all they want, but don't let them stand up."