The howl of a wolf could be heard. Sheila had come to visit once more.
"You guys wait here. Don't follow me. I'll come back in a bit," Claude told Myjack and Gum before heading to the cherry blossom forest ahead.
The girl leapt at him and gave him a kiss. They locked their lips for a tense moment before Claude let go of the blushing girl. "Why are you here? Didn't I tell you not to come for a while? The enemy is here and a large battle will happen soon. I don't want you here now. I'm too worried something will happen to you."
"I know... but I wanted to see you," she said with a pout, "I worry about you too, you know. I saw you get hurt in a dream so I rushed here to see you."
He didn't know how to respond.
"Aren't I standing here, just fine, now? Don't worry, I won't get hurt that easily. I will spend as much time with you as you want after the battle. Don't come again for a while, please. I'll come find you once I'm done with them."
Sheila had visited him four or five times in half a month now. Now, everyone knew Claude had found himself a huntress girlfriend. Dyavid was so impressed he almost prostrated himself in front of Claude in awe. It was a shame she didn't have any sisters.
Sheila glanced at the people working in the hot sun nearby.
"What are you doing?"
Claude smiled bitterly.
"Nothing much, just building a couple fortifications. The enemy have mustered and are preparing march on us along this road. We have to prepare for them. That's why I didn't want you here. This will be a battlefield in a couple days. I'm afraid they'll discover you."
"I'm not afraid of them," she said contemptuously.
Claude shook his head.
"It's not a matter of bravery. I don't want to see you hurt even a little. You're a nature magus and you're in your element in the forest, but firearms have voided much of that. Even a five-ring magus can't do much against massed musketfire. You might be able to take out one or ten men, but you can't take out a hundred. They can deal critical hits well outside your casting range. Even Blackwind wouldn't survive. Don't play tough, don't be too curious, and don't take risks. Just listen to what I have to say, alright?"
"Alright, I promise. In return, you must promise you'll be fine. If push comes to shove, come to my place, okay?" Sheila asked, gazing into his eyes.
Claude nodded solemnly.
"I promise I won't play hero. If I'm really defeated, I'll definitely run to your place."
He meant what he said. What he was doing now was merely his duty. He had no illusions about giving his life for the kingdom like a hero. If he was going to be overwhelmed, he would retreat immediately instead of taking the enemy down with him in exchange for his life. That was a fool's errand. As the saying goes, 'while the green hills last, there'll be wood to burn'. The ancestral proverb did make quite a lot of sense. As long as he still lived, there would always be hope. It wasn't that Major Lederfanc insisted he had to keep Squirrel Village defended no matter the cost anyway.
Now the nobles from two nations had united and were marching for Squirrel Village with a force of four thousand. Dyavid tried once more to attack them only to suffer a slight loss of a tent of forces. It seemed that sneak attacking would no longer work to delay the march of such a large unit. With that, Claude decided to dig more trenches at the rear mountain of Squirrel Village at which to wage battle against the enemy.
After spending a little bit more time with Sheila, he sent the unwilling girl off. He returned to the base and saw Moriad come with his men. "Chief, I'm here."
"How many men did you bring?" Claude asked.
"Three tents. I left one to defend Blackstone Village." Moriad seemed really excited. He was probably a battle maniac. "I can finally fight again. Staying at Blackstone Village for so long is super boring."
"Have your men help with the trench digging first. Dig one that leads to the back which we can use to retreat." Claude didn't wait and put them to work immediately.
"Retreat?--" Moriad eyed the terrain. "--The ground's good here. We can definitely stand our ground here. We have the high ground and the enemy are perfect targets."
Claude shook his head.
"We won't be able to hold. The disparity between our numbers is far too large. We may be able to hold during the day, but the night will be different. The enemy will arrive afternoon tomorrow and we will retreat by the time night comes. Even though the terrain looks fine, there are too many positions where the enemy can flank us. They can simply go to a further hill or slope and attack us from the rear."
Boom! A loud explosion could be heard from behind the mountain.
"What's going on?"
Moriad's eyes darted around alertly.
"Calm down. I had Mazik set up some traps and used gunpowder to destroy some of the mountain paths so that the enemy won't be able to attack us using those routes at night."
Claude sighed heavily. He had too little manpower. Moriad brought three tents here and Mazik had four tents. Dyavid, on the other hand, had two. The 9 tents numbered 108 men, not including the 15 cannoneers. Not including himself, Myjack and Gum, they only had 123 fighting men. currently, the camp was defended by the few signallers, healers and ten or so injured troops. They were really stretched that thin.
If not for the hope he could still win against a pathetic army of peasants, Claude would've run with his subordinates long ago. But now, he still had to try to stop their advance and take advantage of their terrain and firepower superiority to shave away at the enemy's numbers and drag the battle on. His original plan was to cut off the route of the Askilinian nobles, but he didn't think that would cause the two sides to join up instead. His original plans were completely dashed.
Dyavid returned with his men in the evening and told Claude about the losses he suffered from the nobles' troops. After the nobles from the two countries joined up, they rested for one night and resumed their march for Squirrel Village the next day. Dyavid tried his same tactic on them.
What he didn't think would happen was that the Canasian soldiers that stood near the flanks of the ranks chased them down without letting up after they were attacked. Even though they were merely armed with blades and spears, their numbers were too many and they would be swarmed by the peasants after firing a single round of shots. Reloading was pointless as there were more peasants chasing them than they did bullets to shoot them down. A few groups of soldiers were forced to fight the peasants in a melee and perished after taking two or three men with them.
Dyavid had thought about luring the enemy away into a trap, but the ones that pursued numbered a few hundred and came from all directions. The 20-odd men Dyavid brought with him could only fire once and run or be surrounded and done for. He suspected the nobles probably promised them grand rewards. Otherwise, the peasants wouldn't chase them down so desperately without regard for their own lives.
He also came with some bad news: the traps laid on the way lost their usefulness against the enemy. With the Canasian nobles with them, the enemy knew better to test the roads ahead by letting some workhorses walk in front of them. Dyavid said that the two traps they dug over the past few days were discovered easily. The enemy didn't suffer any casualties apart from losing three workhorses. At the rate they were marching, they would reach the camp by noon tomorrow.
Moriad suggested that they attack the enemy camp that night. However, Claude refused to go through with it after giving it some thought. There were too many enemies and the most they could do was to cause some chaos and discord. They wouldn't be able to completely obliterate them. Dyavid had also attacked the enemy during the night a number of times in the past few days, so the enemy would definitely be on guard. Additionally, even if they could return without losing any men from the attack, they would spend the whole night rushing back and the troops wouldn't be able to gain any rest to prepare for the full-scale assault the next day.
Noon the next day, the enemies could be seen slowly trudging along the mountain path. As Dyavid had reported, three workhorses were beckoned to move from behind. There was around a clan's worth of scouts. Apart from forty-odd musket-wielding soldiers, the rest were badly dressed peasants using melee weapons.
Five gunshots resounded in the distance. Moriad and four other soldiers jumped and ran with their guns in hand. The three workhorses of the enemy struggled as they died as the peasants gave chase to Moriad and the rest.
Dyavid smiled bitterly and said to Claude, "Look, just like that. They aren't afraid of dying at all. At least two to three hundred of them give chase each time! We can kill a dozen of them at most, but the rest would continue to chase us to the end of time. The three groups of soldiers I lost were chased just like that to a dead end. We had to watch them beaten to death by the swarm from afar."
The tent of soldiers waiting to meet the rest shot at the peasants from the grass, causing some eight of them to fall. But that only aggravated the rest of the peasants further. About half of them split up and chased down the tent, with the other hundred still on Moriad and the others' tail. There wasn't any opportunity for the soldiers to reload at all. The distance of a hundred plus metres could be closed with tens of seconds easily. Even if that was enough to reload once, only one enemy could be killed and the rest wouldn't stop at that.
The tent of soldiers turned tail and ran as well. Fortunately, Moriad and the rest met with the tent and the two swarms of peasants united back into one, still relentlessly giving chase. Claude now understood why Dyavid complained so much about them when he arrived. Running like that all day was extremely exhausting. But this time around, Moriad was intentionally luring the enemy towards the defences.
"Ready!" Claude said.
The soldiers passed on the order and everyone was ready to fire. One black gunbarrel after another poked through the camouflaging shrubs and took aim at the mob behind.
Moriad jumped into the shrubs immediately and panted nonstop. "I... I can't run anymore!"
"Fire!" Claude ignored him and gave the order. The pursuing troops were only some seventy metres away from the trenches.
Gunshots resounded and smoke wafted up from the line of shrubs along the slope. Nearly sixty of the peasants in front fell face-first into the ground and became the first sacrificial lambs.
The rest were completely stunned. They didn't think there'd be such a large-scale ambush. Gunshots, blood, corpses and the cry of injured melded together in an overload of information that stunned them all.
But not all of them were sent into a stupor. The first one to react cried out, "Quick! Give chase! Don't let them reload!"
There was only around seventy metres to cover. They needed only ten seconds to close it and fight in a melee. That was the plan of the owner of the voice. The stunned peasants snapped out of their daydreams and gripped their weapons tight before rushing up the slope. They still had around 200 of them. What was there to be afraid of? All they had to do was to get into the camp.
Sixty metres, fifty... Claude reloaded his own musket without the slightest haste, as if he didn't notice the savage expressions on the incoming peasants' faces.
"Fire!" Mazik roared.
Boom! A light-infantry cannon hidden in the shrubs fired countless small pellets that covered the battlefield almost entirely.
After the smoke dissipated, a dozen of soldiers couldn't help but puke. The scattershot had wiped out more than a hundred peasants at once. The slope was littered with severed limbs, corpses and flooded with blood. Hellscape was the only word fitting to describe it.
There were only thirty or so peasants surviving, but they were completely shellshocked. The weapons in their hands were nowhere to be seen. They shivered in the midst of corpses as if their souls had left their bodies. The dozen or two peasants behind them that still had their bearings were scrambling down the slope the fastest they could.
Lifting his musket up and taking aim, Claude fired at an escaping peasant and hit his target. He instructed Moriad, "Go capture the ones who are still standing."
"Why? Can't we just kill them all?" The thought of being chased down so haggardly before made him bear a grudge.
"Just do as I say. We need more manpower, you see."