It took half a month for Captain Skri to get the entire tribe, logistics staff and supplies included, to Count Krilaus' Castle.
Claude briefed Skri on the dominion's current state when he finally did so.
"This all used to be 14 different nobles' dominions. Count Loirkad Bar Krilaus has the biggest portion. Of the rest, three are viscounties and nine baronies. We only caught three of them, however. The rest bolted to Northbay before we arrived, families in tow."
He poked and jabbed a map on the table as his explanation continued.
"2nd Clan is currently at Viscount Vikdor's castle, and 3rd Clan in Baron Kraft's castle about ten kilometres this way. We've been surveying this area here in detail and have collected about a thousand subjects. Most are elderly though. There are fewer than a hundred youths. We have them settled in the village outside the walls. They've been foraging and fishing, but that's not enough to sustain them, so we've been forced to give them a portion of our supplies.
"I had wanted to get them farming, but all the equipment is gone. Those bastards took everything when they ran off."
"I brought the seed and equipment you requested from Squirrel. We can have several farms up and running in no more than a week. How are there so few people in all of the 14 fiefs?"
Claude picked up an old folder and flipped through it ceremoniously.
"These are all the documents we managed to find in the castles. Most are census records from five years ago. A quick count puts the population at 50 thousand, 20 thousand of which should be youths. The war took most of the young men, eight thousand in all.
"The rest joined the nobles on their march south. The old butler who stayed behind had wanted to join, but after the defeat they suffered at Squirrel, the nobles returned and darted for Northbay. The peasants knew they had little future without the nobles to keep the peace, so those that could, packed up and followed them."
"I'm not surprised. Without the men, all that's left is the elderly and the widows. The nobles know better than anyone they can't fight us, and they're not about to die in a battle with a predetermined outcome not in their favour. Oh, that reminds me, I brought the captives we have with me. They should help shore up the labour force."
"I'll leave that to you. I need to move to Castle Landes. It's in the barony by the river cove. Any push this way has to come through there and it's the best place along the way to stop it. Tribe headquarters will be here."
Skri's expression shifted.
"You think they'll attack?"
"It's hard to say--" Claude shook his head. "--The nobles have abandoned their fiefs, but that doesn't mean they've given up on them. The only thing nobles are holier about than their honour is their land. Peasants belong to their lords as much as the land on which they live does. Just as we would abandon old tools for newer ones, they probably used this as a good chance to rid themselves of the elderly. At the same time, this lets them avoid the responsibility for the losses they've incurred and look after the families left behind. They're ducking their responsibilities and pushing them onto us.
"Either we look after them until they're able to come back and take back their land from us, then blame us for the bad condition of their lands while letting the elderly starve, or we are unable or unwilling to feed those left behind and they die on our watch with all the blame on us.
"They can't fight us on their own, but they're almost certain to pressure the duke of Canas to take back their land for them. He's the one that conscripted so many men out of their fiefs and left them underpowered to fight us.
"Some of our scouts reported hearing horsemen not long after we arrived. I checked out the location and tracks were circling in from and back to the north. I sent a detachment out to see if they could catch anyone, but they returned empty handed. I wouldn't be surprised if they bought a mole or two while they were here though.
"I suspect they abandoned their fiefs with the intention to return also because they left servants behind to look after their castles. If they'd really given up on their lands, they'd have taken them with them. I also noticed that all the title deeds are missing. They left in such a hurry after returning from their defeat, but not one noble forgot any of his title deeds."
Skri wore a solemn expression.
"Your conjectures sound reasonable. We have to prepare. But after I submitted your report to frontline command, they ordered us to continue scouting towards the centre of the plains to see whether Canas is gathering an army. Since you're going to defend the fief, I'll leave that assignment to you."
The Landes barony was at the border between the lands they currently occupied and the Great Plains. So it made sense they'd be the ones given the duty of scouting the plains. Even if Skri hadn't given the order, Claude would have scouted the region.
"Another thing," Claude said, "We'll be stationed there alone, so I hope you can support us with more supplies. The nobles and subjects of the area have all left and while the land is big, there isn't much we can appropriate for our use. We have to rely on support from the rear. Additionally, 2nd Clan and 3rd Clan are stationed at the castles of Viscount Vikdor and Baron Kraft respectively. I had them check whether there are any hidden rooms or pathways, which we can find useful for defending the area. Please remind them not to gloss it over. I found two secret paths that connect to the outside and one hidden room in Count Krilaus' castle."
"Got it. I'll make sure they search through the places thoroughly. As for supplies, I'll get the rear to send what we need as quickly as possible, rest assured," Captain Skri promised with a nod.
After staying a night at Count Krilaus' castle, Claude wished the captain goodbye the next day and left with Sergeant-Major Langst's infantry band and Sergeant-Major Lokid's cannoneer band towards Castle Landes. While the distance in a straight line between the two locations was around three kilometres, it took them the good part of a day to travel there as there was a river cove that Claude and his men had to make their way across before they arrived at the simple wooden bridge they used to cross the river with.
Castle Landes was located on a hill near the large cove. It was much smaller than the count's castle, with the walls being made of wood and stone. The lower part of the castle was made out of cobblestone while the upper half was made from logs. Count Krilaus' on the other hand was made entirely out of large stones. The walls of Krilaus' castle was two metres taller than the four-metre wall of Castle Landes.
However, it was constructed upon advantageous terrain. There was a large cove next to the hill it was built on. The baron had dug a seven-metre-wide moat around the hill and connected it to the river, making it seem like the river separated the hill from the rest of the plains. As the herders on the grasslands weren't good at traversing water, the moat proved to be quite a tough obstacle.
Claude and the rest noticed there were white and fluffy sheep herds all over the cove and the hill when they arrived. Dyavid then let down the drawbridge over the moat with his tent of men to welcome Claude's arrival.
"From where are these sheep?" Claude asked.
"Mazik and Mod captured them from the plains with some men. We already captured more than 20 herder households and have more than a thousand sheep," Dyavid replied.
Shocked, Claude asked, "Don't the herders have any youths?"
"Well, not really. There are some older herders above the age of 45 and younger ones under the age of 12. The rest are all women," Dyavid said after some thought.
"Bring the herders and sheep to Krilaus' castle and hand them to Captain Skri. Let him deal with it. We can't leave them here at the frontlines," Claude instructed.
"Sir, are we going to hand over all the sheep?" Dyavid appeared unwilling. The herders were the Canasian subjects and the sheep were spoils of the troops. It was a way they could make a quick buck from.
"Leave a hundred or two here for the men to get a taste. Send the rest away. Are you going to sell sheep here? Who would buy any during a time like this? You can't herd them yourself, can you? Leave it to tribe headquarters and you might get a second or third-class merit instead. They lack fresh meat over there."
"Alright, Chief. I'll do what you say."
Claude continued towards the castle. "Have you searched the castle yet? Found any hidden compartments?"
"No, Chief. There was a hidden room and I believe it was a vault. It's empty now. We didn't find any hidden paths. I doubt there could be any, since the cove is just over there. If they really dug a path outside, they'd risk water spilling into the castle. If they don't want that, they'd have to spend a large sum to fix the place up. Given the derelict state of this castle, I doubt the baron would be willing to construct a hidden waterproof path outside," Dyavid reasoned.
Claude nodded. "Have there been any difficulties defending this place?"
"Yes, Chief. We lack fuel," Dyavid hurriedly replied, "I've already had the men gather all the wood they could find in a two-kilometre radius, but only managed to fill half a small house up with firewood. I think we'll run out if we camp here for less than half a month. We won't be able to boil water and cook then. The herders use cow and horse dung as fuel, but we don't have many war horses nor cows with us..."
It did present itself to be a huge problem. After some consideration, Claude said, "After taking the herders and sheep back, tell Captain Skri to send a group of captives to collect firewood to make charcoal. I need a stockpile that can last us at least half a year. Also, when are Mazik and Mod returning?"
Dyavid scratched his head. "I think they'll be back around tomorrow. They're searching further and further and spending more and more time. During the past ten days, their excursions lasted around three days. Mazik left the day before yesterday after lunch and Mod left yesterday before noon."
"Alright. There's no need to have them go out to scout after they return. We'll use war horses for scouting next time. Leave the infantry here to fortify our defences."
"There's no need to fortify it, is there, Chief? I think it's working fine as it is."
"It won't do. We will all have to hide in this castle if the enemy comes. We'll be trapped in that case. If the enemy brought cannons, this castle won't last. We won't be able to escape even if we want to. Baron Landes built this castle to defend against other nobles. While it works against noble armies, it won't be able to stand for long under siege from a proper army."
"Alright. You call the shots."