Claude received good and bad news. The good news was that his superiors hadn't decided on a date for his deployment to the Great Plains of Canas yet. They just wanted him to be there before the rainy season started, five months from then.
The brass seemed aware that deploying the ranger tribes to the plains wasn't too practical. It was still the 1st month and the rainy season was ahead of them. Losing one's way on the endless plains was something that happened often, and there were too few places people could take cover from the elements from. Compared to a mountainous area, the endless plains were much colder.
The 2nd month was the time of melting, so it was ill fitted for deployment either. Mud and puddles were all over the plains and made it difficult for marches. There was not a single spot that would be dry, and they would have to bring their own fuel. During the 3rd month, it was the rainy season, and it was said that the plains practically turned into a swamp for its duration. It wasn't uncommon for horses and people to get stuck in the ground for days and die of hypothermia. It was only during the 4th month when the warmth returned to ground and weeds gave way to flowers. The herders would only be able to let their livestock graze during that time. Incidentally, that happened to be the ideal time to march.
The bad news was 1st Ranger Tribe wasn't able to procure enough war horses. They were the best method by which to travel around on the plains, but Canas very rarely sold war horses to other people. They exported livestock, workhorses and furs, but war horses were highly regulated. Private sale of war horses was forbidden. At most, they would sell neutered war horses to the Alliance.
After the war broke out, it wasn't as if Aueras' army hadn't obtained a single war horse throughout the campaign. However, those were treated as spoils and split among the other corps that had cavalry units that needed new war horses. In Eastern Freia, Canas' war horses were acknowledged to be the very best.
While Askilin neighboured the duchy on the plains, it was still exceedingly hard to buy fitting war horses in the three southern prefectures. The people of Canas rode only horses on a journey whereas those from Askilin preferred carriages. That was why workhorses were all too common in the three southern prefectures, but war horses were far too rare in comparison.
A war horse had to be able to get accustomed to the sound of firearms shooting and the smell of gunpowder so that they wouldn't be startled during a gallop and cause confusion in the ranks. Most fit workhorses didn't possess that capability.
1st Rangers was an infantry combat tribe to begin with, and was thus not assigned any war horses. They did, however, have many workhorses, mainly to transport supplies with. Claude's clan had ten plus war horses which he obtained back when he was defending his ground against the enemy mounted scouts and he was going to use it for reconnaissance and communication. However, if the whole tribe was to be deployed in the Great Plains, they would require a war horse for each soldier, or they wouldn't stand a chance in escaping if it looked bad for them.
The three other ranger tribes were deployed at the part of the plains near the border of Askilin. It was wide and expansive there and large convoys could be formed if they didn't have mounts. That way, even if they were attacked by the mounted Canas troops, they could defend with the carts they had with them.
But the mountain path through which 1st Rangers had to travel was narrow, and, while Claude had the captives fix up the path from the three southern prefectures to Squirrel Village, the path from the village to the plains was still unmended. Putting aside using carriages, he didn't even dare to ride a horse across that path in fear of falling off the ridge down to the valley. The safest way to travel through that path was still using one's own two feet.
Second Lieutenant Mazik didn't agree with using war horses, however. Last year when he snuck deep into the tiger's den to spy on the Canasian nobles, specifically, the dominion of Count Loirkad Bar Krilaus, the subjects in that dominion knew of the mountainous area as the Viridian Mountains instead of the Southern Mountains, as denoted on the Askilinian map. As the count's dominion's rear faced the mountains, his subjects worked both in agriculture and livestock. There were villages, barns, woods and a large castle in the dominion. That was one of the main reasons he ended up the leader of the noble army back then.
As the count's dominion was quite similar to the three southern prefectures in certain respects, Mazik believed that there wouldn't be a need for war horses. They didn't need the whole tribe to have good mobility to conquer the count's dominion. Those villages and barns wouldn't grow legs and run away, after all, and Claude could simply take them one after another without any rush. He could gather war horses after occupying the whole dominion. Mazik believed it would be a far easier task than gathering war horses in the three southern prefectures, not to mention the funds it would save.
Claude decided to adopt Mazik's suggestion, but that didn't mean he would sit there and do nothing during the wait till deployment in the 4th month. There was still much to consider, such as how it would be impossible to transport his eight light-infantry cannons using workhorses through the mountain path. Yet, not bringing the cannons posed yet another set of problems. Without scattershot, his clan would lose its insurance. At least, they would be able to keep the enemies firmly a hundred metres away with the cannons.
If he couldn't ensure mobility for his unit, Claude had to make sure he would be aptly defended against enemy light cavalry. So, when he submitted the list of materials he required through carrier pigeon to Captain Skri in tribe headquarters, Skri abided by Lederfanc's advice and didn't bother asking what they would be for and tried his best to source the items to be shipped to Squirrel Village.
Time passed quickly and after the rainy season, Claude began to send Mazik and the rest to the count's dominion for preliminary scouting. However, the results filled Claude with suspicion. They reported that not a single soul could be seen in that dominion. The scouts didn't dare to travel further in and only conducted observations from afar.
During the middle of the 4th month, tribe headquarters moved to Squirrel Village in preparation to take over once the tribe entered the Great Plains of Canas.
During the 20th of the 4th month, Claude and his clan set out for the plains. They were five days slower than the other three ranger tribes, but it couldn't be helped. The mountain path was far harder to traverse and they needed extra preparation to transport supplies across it.
The only thing Claude was happy about was Sheila's obedience. She didn't come to send him off as he told her. Not too long ago, she even expressed interest in going to the Great Plains with Claude after hearing that he would be leaving Squirrel Village. It took Claude the most effort to persuade her to stay behind. The battlefield was no joke. If she had the gall to toss a fireball on the battlefield, the gunners from both sides of the battle would not hesitate to shoot her down first.
He promised her that he would return safely and see her when he had the time and also reminded her that she had to brush up on her studies while waiting for her mother to return. In the end, he did manage to get her to promise to stay in the witch's forest without fooling about.
Apart from the difficulty of traversing the mountain path, Claude's clan had also brought along too many supplies. They had one horse for every three men. Claude realised, however, when they made it through to the plains proper, that he didn't have to do anything to occupy Count Krilous' county. He literally just had to march in.
It was just as Mazik said. There wasn't a single young lad in the area. Most of the people left in the villages were the weak and elderly, a very few of them at that. No young men or women could be seen. The flowers of spring had just started to bloom in the 4th month, but the county seemed to have absolutely no able-bodied young men. The only activity was old people carrying baskets out into the fields to forage.
When the unit finally arrived at the count's castle, the people within opened the gates and surrendered. There were only a few older servants within. He asked the surrendered butler where everyone else was.
The butler sighed and said they had all left. First, half the young men had been conscripted by the duke's army. The rest were gathered by the nobles for some raids in the three southern prefectures. Men ranging from teenagers to those in their forties were all taken away. But half a month later, the nobles returned with ten-odd men and said that they had lost the battle and those who weren't killed were taken captive.
After the nobles returned, they packed up all their goods and left with their families to Northbay without ever turning back. They left the old servants behind to help them sell off all the unliquidated assets they had here before bringing the sum of money to Northbay. However, word of their defeat had spread throughout the Land of the Free Nobles. They, including the count, had also packed up and fled to Northbay without a care for their domain.
The youths that were enlisted didn't return at all. The rest that remained soon left the derelict place. The old butler had witnessed a prosperous dominion die overnight. The farms were left unattended and nobody bothered to herd the livestock. Everything that could be taken away was. Even the sounds of dogs and other livestock could no longer be heard.
The dominion was on its way to certain death, the butler bemoaned.
"Where did you say the Land of the Free Nobles was?" Claude asked.
"It's here, the area at the foot of Viridian Mountains. There are more than ten fiefs here, with our lord's county being the largest. He's the leader of the nobles in the area and without his permission, even the duke's transport may not enter the area. That's why the nobles know this place as the Land of the Free Nobles," the butler said with pride while reminiscing its glory days.
Why's a slave like you proud of it? Your masters are the free ones, not you. Claude had Myjack bring him a map. "Is there any noble that stayed behind?"
"They're all gone, all gone..." the man said melancholically, "The taint of death has already touched this area. Extermination is a matter of time. There are only those who leave. None of them ever return. Young man, I advise you to leave soon too. Otherwise, you'll perish here as well."
Claude looked at the map once more and ignored the old butler. Calling it a dying dominion seemed like an exaggeration. The most that had happened was their youth being conscripted to join the duchy's forces or joining the army of the nobles on their way to the three prefectures. The nobles that returned feared the Aueran army's attack and hurriedly escaped.
Without lords and a young workforce, the other people who wanted to make a better living all left. It wasn't weird for a desolate dominion to deteriorate into such a state.
It was no wonder no peddlers from the Great Plains came after the victorious battle last year. They had all been frightened away by the rumours. Or, there simply wasn't any more business to be done in such a desolate place to warrant them coming over.
"Mod, Dyid, you two take your bands and search the two sides of the county. Make sure to check through and through and bring anyone you find on the way here, understood?" Claude said as he pointed at the map.
"Understood." The two left after a salute.
"Mazik, take your band to the centre of the plains for scouting. If you notice any herder or nomad settlements, bring the people back here if you can overpower them. If not, mark their location on the map and don't be discovered."
"Yes, Sir." Mazik left with a skip in his step. The orders Claude gave him afforded him lots of freedom of movement. He could capture and raid if he found any settlements as he pleased. It would be a good chance to make an extra buck.
"Sergeant-Major Langst, your band will be in charge of defending this castle. Sergeant-Major Lokid, remove the parts of the eight cannons from the horses' back and have them installed on the castle. I believe we'll have to defend this location in the coming days," instructed Claude.
It was a surprising and unexpected circumstance that the nobles would abandon their dominions in favour of escape, allowing Claude's men to take the area without resistance.
The Great Plains of Canas covered a large area, and the Land of the Free Nobles only took up a seventh of its area. While Claude's mission was to survey the might of the duchy's troops, there was no way he wouldn't take the free land they offered. He believed Captain Skri would be of the same opinion. Secure the area first. It was a strategic location filled with farms and pastures, after all. It would be a great base from which the kingdom's campaign in Canas could be conducted once developed.