"You ended up quite lucky," Claude said.
Skri had taken three bands out of the castle to save the poor folk. They lasted a day and a night of battle thanks to three things. For one, the enemy cavalry hadn’t thought they would sally forth. They lost a tent before they even realised what was happening.
For another, Count Loirkad Bar Krilaus, the previous lord of the land, probably had ambitions of turning the castle town into a full-fledged city, and his abandoned construction works nullified the enemy’s advantage in mobility. The last of the construction works stopped far enough away to still be just within firing range of the castle walls. The Canasian cavalry attempted two charges, lost four men, and gave up.
Finally, Count Krilaus had been the most powerful noble in the region, and had not skimped on his projects. The town was built out of stone, rather than the hastily and shoddily built wooden shacks found in most of the region’s villages and towns.
Skri entered the settlement and immediately moved his men into the buildings, slaughtering the enemy as they went. The fighting in the buildings and the tight and winding streets made using horses impossible, turning the enemy into mere swordsmen and musketeers.
The smoke Claude had seen was from the buildings Skri had set alight as he’d slowly pulled back behind the escaping civilians. A cannon occasionally boomed from the battlements on the castle walls when the enemy tried to flank along the edge of the town and when they tried to storm the open gate as the crowds of peasants stormed through.
"It’s a little late to say this, but this was really too risky. They might not stand a chance at taking the castle, but they could easily have pinned you in the town and eventually wiped you out. At worst for them, they could just set fire to the village and watch you burn, or slip into the castle with your men and the peasants during the panic."
Claude glanced at the corpses littering every street he could see. Friend and foe, soldier and civilian became one and the same in death.
"I know, it’s easy to admit it after the fact, but I was impulsive," Skri admitted with a forced smile, "I couldn’t just let them slaughter the peasants like animals, at least, not the women and children. They were slaughtering their own people! How could they? Given that the youths and our troops begged us to save them, and our numbers aren't too different, how could I just hole up in the castle?"
Claude would have joined the battle as well had he been in Skri's shoes. His men would have mutinied had he not. It might have been a different matter had they been obviously inferior, but their numbers had been about equal. If he didn't fight, he would be labelled a coward for the rest of his life. He might even be court-martialed for cowardice or dereliction of duty.
The enemy didn't think the defenders would sally forth, so they weren’t prepared for it and had to retreat into the settlement. They were nothing but ducks in the open. They circled the settlement to come at the attacked from the sides, but were immediately set upon by the defenders manning the battlements. The only option left was thus duking it out in bloody street fighting. They lined up along chokepoints in the streets and fired at anything that moved in front of them. They attackers-turned-defenders had inferior firearms, however, and thus couldn’t match their enemy in such tight quarters where every shot counted. In the end, they were left only with setting buildings alight as they withdrew.
"It's my fault. I shouldn't have suggested we defend all four castles. If we had stuck to just one or two castles, they wouldn’t have dared to try a raid like this right under our noses, " Claude admitted honestly.
He’d stretched their manpower too thin, and it left their headquarters too poorly defended. His saving grace was that he reached the castle in time to turn the tide before they’d suffered irreparable damage. He couldn’t make effective use of the opportunity his little ambush made, however, because he did not have the speed to catch up to the enemy once they got moving. Just one clan had pushed the entire tribe of musketeers to their limit, if they were to fight an entire tribe of cavalry… it could not even be called a fight.
Had this been in the mountains, it would have been the perfect strategy, but on the open plains it was just asking for a massacre. The enemy could just post a tent of cavalry at each castle and send word to the rest the moment one of the castles showed signs of movement. They would always be fighting a well-prepared enemy. Had Claude not taken out the cavalry watching his castle at night, that would have been exactly what he would have found now. Four cannons or not, he’d have been out-manoeuvred and killed.
He couldn't really be faulted for his mistake, however. He’d not received any true military training in either of his lives, not in the intricacies of command and strategy, at least. He’d been just a sergeant when he’d enlisted with Bluefeather, and had such only been privy to basic combat drill training. He’d come up with everything he had thus far through sheer bloody ingenuity. That wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but he lacked the experience necessary to temper his ingenuity with realism.
While Skri had graduated from the war college, he hadn't specialised in tactics. He had focused on administration. When he had served under the first prince, he had done so as a manager of people and information. While he was a qualified military man, his actual combat experience was less than most sergeants a month into the war. He had seen even fewer engagements than Claude. Add onto that his instinctual referentiality towards Claude because of his guilt over stealing the boy’s promotion, and he could not bring himself to raise an objection to any of his plans even if he’d had an objection to raise. He hadn’t had one, however.
He’d believed in the strategy as much as Claude had. He’d only realised its obvious flaws after the recent fight. He thanked his blessed stars they still had a chance to fix it.
"It's not your fault. I didn't realise how bad the strategy was, either," Skri sighed, "We were too arrogant and thought too highly of ourselves..."
Claude smiled apologetically.
"They were all veteran elites. I suspect they’re the ones sent over from Rimodra, but I don't know what they want from this region. I wouldn’t have sent elites out to such a backwater. "
The 4th Clan’s clansman arrived as Claude finished his sentence. Claude recalled he was a transfer from the rear echelons. His name was Kurdwak, if he remembered correctly, and was a noble. His hands clutched a small piece of paper: the casualty report.
Half of the town’s civilians were dead. They had just 460 left. Just over twenty of the women were still missing, probably smuggled out with the enemy as they retreated. Skri’s forces had taken 61 casualties the previous day, 43 were deceased, 2 crippled, and most of the rest were still far from the woods out as well.
They had found 89 enemy corpses so far. The exact number was a guess, however, as at least 27 were supposed corpses, an estimate based on the volume of shredded and scattered body parts left by Claude’s cannons. Excluding the numbers Claude might have killed, Skri had only exchanged his men’s lives for his enemy’s one for one.
That was already an excellent exchange rate, however. Had this been a fight on the open fields, he’d have been lucky to get one cavalryman for every five of his own.
"I still don't get it. Why would these elites be so cruel to their own countrymen?" Skri muttered.
Claude didn't know either. Kurdwak, however, had a thought.
"Sir, I like to read when I'm free. I recently read a book about Canas. Canas has a very different power structure to the other realms. They haven’t fully stepped into modern feudal society. They’re still very much a tribal society, despite how feudal their settlements may look. The duchy itself isn’t that old, either. It was a loose conflagration of tribes mostly to keep any larger neighbouring state from having designs on them. They only became a duchy after Duke Canas beat down all the other tribes and became the recognised high chief.
"The idea of ‘landed nobility’ is also only as old as the duchy itself. An effort by the duke to lessen the oh-too-frequent tribal feuds. Many of the tribes believe it is their divine right to wander wherever they please, however, so he’d only been able to implement the system partially, in the areas where he could easily make an appearance to quell any unrest, which was mostly around the Viridian Mountains.
"The majority of his lands are still lordless and inhabited only by nomads. As for these conflicts themselves, it’s custom for the victor to take all the young girls and women as bedwarmers and relief, and the livestock as plunder. These tribes still don’t see themselves as fellow subjects under their sovereign, but, instead, see him as an unwelcome nuisance and the other tribes as rivals to be wiped out at the first decent opportunity."
Perhaps it was a cultural thing. Claude and Skri gave each other a look; no doubt, it was the most savage practice they had heard about. After a good moment, Skri asked, "Then what do we do next?"
Claude had considered it beforehand. "We have to gather the four clans here and give up on those three other castles. Count Krilaus' castle is huge enough to hold the whole tribe. However, I think it's best to have a band of men defend the mountain pass behind us. That's our escape route and the route through which we gain our supplies. We have to keep it in our hands.
"I've checked the terrain. It’s hard to navigate and the path through the mountains is narrow. One band of men and four light-infantry cannons should be enough to stop any enemy from breaching through. The only troublesome part of it is we have to construct defence infrastructure there. I wonder if the enemy will afford us that time. As long as we can keep that path and this castle secure, we wouldn't have to fear even a whole line of enemy troops.
"Next, we have to send the captives, the recruited youths and the elderly away. They can't stay here. If the enemy wants to surround us, they will only sap our supplies. They also present an unstable element in our midst. Also, it won't be safe for them to keep them here."
"Alright, that's what we'll do," Skri said with a nod, "Let's send out mounted scouts first to check if the enemy has left. If they have, we have to make the best use of our time to gather our forces and ship all the stored up food and ammunition back from the three castles. By the way, Claude, which band do you think is best for defending the mountain path?"
"Let Moriad's band go. He's quite reliable. Back then, he defended Blackstone Village with his own band, so all we have to do is to assign the four cannoneer squads to him." Claude thought it best to leave it to his minion. If Mazik was put in charge, he might flee as soon as the situation turned south. As for 2nd Clan, 3rd Clan and 4th Clan, Claude didn't know their bandsmen that well.
Soon, the mounted scouts returned and confirmed the enemy's departure.
Claude turned to Skri. "Have everyone withdraw into the castle and leave a band with me. I'll also need all the carriages you have. I'll go to 2nd Clan's location and transport the men and supplies back here."