A puff of white smoke burst out of the gun barrel. Blood spurted from the last mounted scout, staining his blue uniform on his way to the ground. His mount reared, then crashed to the ground nearby.
Gum couldn't hold back his curiosity and shot up to have a look.
"Sir's shot was amazing! It passed right through him and hit the horse's head! You killed both with one shot!"
It was merely coincidence, however. Claude hadn't tried to do the horse at all. It was hardly surprising he did, however. His angle did make it rather possible, and the Mark 3's power at that range certainly could shove the round right through a man with enough power left over to do a lot of damage to the next hit.
The other soldiers reloaded nervously while Claude handed his musket to Myjack. The three had brought five muskets. Gum usually slung three over his shoulders so Claude could fire thrice without having to wait for a reload.
Claude had the men clean the area once they'd finished reloading. They had just ambushed a tent of Canasian mounted scouts. He'd suffered no casualties. It was a rare achievement by 1st Ranger standards. The tribe had suffered several dozen serious injuries and fatalities in the last couple of months. Most engagements sent back one or more on stretchers.
It wasn't Claude's fault, however. Most of the casualties were in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th clans. Most got hit because they made stupid mistakes no veteran would have, but that couldn't be helped since they were mostly greenhorns. They had never fought mounted scouts before. The only members of the original tribe left were Claude, Gum, Moriad, Dyavid, and Mazik. They were very much the 'old guard'.
The Battle of Wilf Stronghold had done the worst to thin out their numbers. Rosley had marched the men, men whom Claude had trained for months into the most capable musketeers in the kingdom, maybe even on the continent, to their deaths, shoulder to shoulder. Most of the survivors were then moved out to form the cores of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Rangers when they were formed shortly after. In fact, Claude seriously doubted any of his original comrades would still be in 1st Rangers had they not been in the infirmary with him at the time.
The men transferred out, while occupying senior positions in the other tribe, were still too few to truly affect their doctrines, so Claude and his clan were the only ones in the army capable of effectively engaging the enemy scouts. Not even Mazik could stand as their equal.
The situation could not be allowed to continue as it was, so Claude had little choice but to send Moriad and Dyavid to the 2nd and 3rd Clan to train them. He didn't have enough experienced men, however, so the 4th Clan would just have to wait. It took more than just doctrine to effectively ambush, however, it took an eye for it, a feel for it, both of which took time and experience to develop, and neither of which any of the other tribes possessed. As a result, all their attempts thus far had still done nothing but add to their death counts.
The prime suspect in 2nd Clan's failings was Captain Hamocklin. The clansman didn't have the head for on-the-spot decisions and adapting to actively developing situations. He simply hid is men in the brush and had them take potshots at the enemy. If it were that easy, the original ranger tribe wouldn't have to recruit new members to make up for the casualties constantly back then. The troops Canas sent out to scout were all veterans who had fought for years in the war. As mounted scouts, they were really sensitive to the fishiness of situations and could easily detect ambushes. The red of the Aueran uniform didn't help either; it made it far too easy for the enemy to detect them amidst bushes or shrubs.
Claude would always come up with a detailed plan before he headed out on an ambush. Factors he considered included where the enemy would be interested in, which terrain would be suitable for an ambush, how they should camouflage themselves to decrease the risk of being detected as well as how to deal with emergency situations on the battlefield. Even the order of the troops to fire first and what to do if they ran into the enemy before arriving at the designated ambush location were things officers should consider.
Unlike what Claude imagined, the locations where the tribe got into conflict with the enemy mounted scouts were the places Canas was most interested in. They sent more and more scouts into the area, starting from small, three-to-four-people groups to a whole tent. After losing up to three bands' worth of mounted scouts, Canas' military decided to send out a whole clan to investigate. They split the clan into four bands to scout the area in four separate directions.
Claude wasn't able to ambush the enemy under such circumstances and could only allow the 300-odd enemies to roam freely in the area. Where the terrain was advantageous, Claude would fight them openly. But such places were far and few between on the Great Plains of Canas, where light cavalry was free to roam. All 1st Ranger Tribe could do was guard their castles.
It took only two days for Canas' light-cavalry clan to find out that only a tribe of enemy troops was defending the area. They sent out a tent of scouts each to observe Castle Landes, Viscount Vikdor's castle, and Baron Kraft's castle from afar and had the rest of their clan to Count Krilaus' castle where the tribe headquarters was situated.
It didn't take long for Claude to spot black smoke wafting into the skies from afar as musket and cannon fire reverberated nonstop. Claude wasn't too worried about Count Krilaus' castle falling, as the whole of 4th Clan was stationed there. The light cavalrymen that numbered less than a clan wouldn't dare attack a castle with fewer numbers than the enemy, unless they were fools. How, then would he explain the signs of a battle taking place?
During the 9th month, Claude obtained more than thirty war horses throughout his many excursions. Coupled with the war horses they already had, he could make more or less a band-sized cavalry unit. However, the enemy had one tent of light cavalrymen observing Castle Landes. If Claude sent men out, there was no escaping detection. Claude wasn't certain he could make it out unharmed if he ran into the rest of the clan that was returning. Not to mention, his troops were mostly infantrymen. They couldn't compare to Canas' trained cavalrymen.
It was then when he realised the mistake of arranging the four clans of the tribe into a rhombus-shaped defence array. The first error was 1st Ranger Tribe was an infantry unit that didn't have much mobility. The other three clans wouldn't be able to adequately provide support to the clan that was being attacked. They simply didn't have enough men and if they didn't gather together, they wouldn't be able to pose much of a threat to their enemy.
The second error was while taking four different castles made it seem like they controlled the area, their forces were also spread thin. In fact, the castles 1st, 2nd and 3rd clans defended didn't have civilians living nearby. There was no need to keep the area defended in the first place. Back then, all Claude had in mind was to keep four castles occupied so that the enemy would have to divide their forces into four to take four different castles. He had made the elementary mistake of treating the enemy as a fool. They could just as easily ignore the three other castles while they focused their forces on one. All they had to do was attack Count Krilaus' castle.
Currently, the enemy had around three hundred cavalry troops and their mobility was enough to render the other three clans' reinforcements useless. Claude wasn't even able to find out what was going on in tribe headquarters. Losing Count Krilaus' castle would mean losing the escape path of the tribe's other three clans. All that would await them was surrender or extermination.
The more Claude thought about it, the more frustrated he got. He really wanted to give himself two square slaps on the face. But now, he could do naught but watch the tent of light cavalrymen as he anxiously awaited the skies to turn dark.
The tent of enemies didn't leave as he expected. They lit a few bonfires in the distance to illuminate the area . Claude knew that the enemy mainly had their eyes on the drawbridge of the castle; if anyone were to leave the castle, they would have to use it, and lowering the drawbridge caused quite a huge commotion that was detectable even from a distance.
What they didn't expect was that the river that was seen as a natural barrier by the enemy would actually be used as a route to attack them. The seven to eight soldiers Claude picked had readied themselves. Each of them carried an inflated leather float and placed them inside the moat-river of the castle before lightly getting on top of it and floating towards the enemy camp in silence.
The best place to set up camp on the plains was beside a water source for ease of watering the mounts or livestock. The tent of enemy cavalry had set up camp near the river some six hundred metres away from Castle Landes. They were veterans and also very disciplined. They would always have half the men on night duty while the other half slept. Every twenty to thirty minutes, they would send two horsemen near the castle to check for any movement. The ones on duty beside the bonfires would also pay attention to the river moat and drawbridge. To the riders of the plains, the moat was a natural barrier they wouldn't even imagine crossing.
Claude and his tent of men reached the shore some 50 metres from the nearest bonfire. If they got nearer, the sounds of their emergence might alert the enemies. Everyone was careful not to make any unnecessary sound. They used the shrubs near the river as cover to carefully check on the oiled cloth that wrapped their muskets. They lit their slow matches and prepared to shoot.
Hoof sounds could be heard approaching from the distance. The two riders had made their rounds and were on their way back. They spoke cheerfully and loudly when they neared the bonfire, reporting that they saw nothing of note. The enemy, they supposed, were obediently hiding within their castles and they spotted not a single person around the drawbridge either.
One of the riders, still mounted, unintentionally turned to where Claude and the others were. "Weird... Why are there fireflies during this season..."
That was indeed how the lit tip of the slow matches appeared to him.
"Fire!" Claude ordered.
Gunshots rang out and six enemies, mounted, standing and sitting, all fell after one volley. The remaining six enemies were stunned awake and hurriedly armed themselves, though they were far too late. The soldiers that had fired leapt into action with their bayonets on towards the bonfires. It took only a few seconds for them to cover the 50-metre distance. Before the enemy even got a grasp of the situation, they had been impaled to the ground.
Bang! Claude fired once more and shot down the one enemy that tried to mount and escape. The tent of enemy light cavalry had been completely wiped out.
"Clear out the battlefield and dry out your clothes. Let's return to the castle and get a good rest. We'll head to reinforce tribe headquarters first thing tomorrow morning." Claude sighed with relief. With the pesky tent of enemy troops out of the way, they could get good results during the battle tomorrow.
And things played out as he expected. Afternoon the next day, Claude appeared near Count Krilaus' castle abruptly with two bands of men and four large carriages and took the Canasian light cavalry by surprise as they were raiding the nearby settlement. The enemy hurriedly sent out two waves of men to respond, intent on capitalising on their mobility to wipe out the reinforcements.
But Claude used the four carriages to defend his flanks. He had his men push two light-infantry cannons out and made some thirty corpses of the riders that came his way with two scattershot blasts.
Seeing that there would be no advantage in holding back, Claude had two more cannons pushed out as the former two were being reloaded. The enemy quickly blew the horn signal to retreat and the whole clan left in a flash.
In the settlement, Claude found the injured Major Skri. One of his hands was hanging from a cast. He said his arm was grazed by a passing bullet and that it was no big deal.
"Why didn't you hole up in the castle?" Claude was fuming.
Skri shook his head and teared up as he croaked, "I... I couldn't bear watching..."
When the clan of light cavalry arrived, Skri had all the members of 4th Clan and the captives retreat into the castle, but left the elderly and women in the settlement. He believed they would be fine, since they were subjects of Canas in the first place. He didn't think the Canasian light cavalry would be so merciless as to start killing them off.
They even publicly violated some of the female refugees at the foot of the castle. Those were the families of the youths they recruited. The youths begged for Skri to send troops out to save their family, and the soldiers who couldn't bear to let the violation continue also angrily demanded to be allowed to fight. In a rush of impulse, Skri decided to fight the light-cavalry troops in the settlement.