Claude and Skri were in a huge rush. They couldn't tell if Canas' forces would return soon. So far, only a clan of light cavalry had been sent to investigate them. The two believed the enemy already knew only a tribe was defending the area. If they were to send more troops after that, they would no doubt send a whole line.
But even after Claude gathered the tribe, had fortifications constructed by the pass' entrance, and sent the civilians, captives and youths away, the enemy still didn't return. The mounted scouts they sent had to head out on the plains for three whole days before spotting a trace of the enemy.
The 9th month came and went. Claude and Skri didn't know what was going on. It was as if the enemy had completely forgotten about them. The plain had been very busy that month. 2nd Rangers, which had planned to join them on the plains, were being harassed all the way. They had suffered too many casualties and were forced to withdraw.
The 3rd and 4th tribes were suffering the same fate. They couldn't send out scouts because they never returned. Their report said they were conducting a controlled, fighting withdrawal from the region, but the rate at which their position was changing suggested they were just a smidge slow of an outright flight.
Frontline command sent a report at the end of the month that they had deployed Bluefeather and its two accompanying irregular corps. They'd had enough 'r' and 'r' and were busy moving on the Great Plains. Bluefeather's commander, Lieutenant-General Edbak, was confident he could turn the recent tide of defeats and finally shove the enemy out of Canas.
Bluefeather's chief strategist, Miselk Kor Priest, had gotten into a bloody argument with Edbak. Miselk believed it was too risky to deploy Bluefeather on the Great Plains. Edbak dismissed his concerns as mere cowardice. The Alliance was barely hanging on and now was the time to shove them off the cliff.
The two generals differed so violently in their opinion that a mutual hatred had settled in between them. The first prince was forced to intervene. He relieved Miselk of his post and let Edbak do what he pleased.
It had been a week since that particular bit of news had come. Claude and Skri thought it was likely that Canas would give up on their land in the region and turn their focus on this new threat. They might just get some good rest for once.
Bluefeather and company marched on Northbay not long after. 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Rangers had joined them there as well. The increase in numbers finally relieved the three tribes of their constant attacks. The enemy cavalry instead just kept an eye on things from a safe distance.
Claude headed back to Squirrel as soon as things settled down enough. He blabbered a quick excuse of having to sort out a supply chain issue, though his entire clan knew he just wanted to lighten his load with his lover's help. He returned to the castle the next day, and nearly turned around and went back, thinking he'd gone to the wrong one. The place was in an uproar. He found Skri in his office, literally shaking in his chair, a letter's pages strewn across the desk in front of him, half on the floor.
"What's wrong?" Claude asked.
"They lost... Bluefeather and the rest were defeated..."
"What?!" Claude swiped the top page from Skri's desk and scanned it anxiously.
Indeed, Bluefeather and company had marched into battle just half a day after departing for Northbay. The enemy was far better prepared than they'd thought, and had crushed the two irregular corps in less than three hours. The flanks fell and Bluefeather was surrounded and all but entirely wiped out. Barely a twentieth of their original number had escaped.
The survivors were still on the run, trying to make it back to friendly lines while avoiding open terrain, roads, or populated areas. The first prince had mobilised his other irregulars already to head out and find the survivors before they, too, were found and killed, and had brought his guard out of relief early and pushed them to the border to fill the gap left by the irregulars he moved out.
"How?!" Claude half-shouted as he dropped the sheet of paper.
Only four corps could be transferred from Rimodra to Canas. The first was Nasri's standing corps; while most proficient unit in the Alliance's forces, they were only as strong as an irregular corps of Aueras. There were two other Canasian light-cavalry corps and one corps of soldiers the Askilinian nobles gathered. The four corps were relatively inept to begin with, so how was it that they managed to defeat Bluefeather and the two irregular corps?
Two days later, Skri got some more detailed information from his associates at frontline command. In the battle on the plains, the Alliance used nine whole corps. What caught the Aueran forces most off guard was the two Canasian light-cavalry corps fighting on the Nasrian side of the war had actually returned to Northbay without anyone noticing. They brought along with them one more Nasrian irregular corps to boot.
The Nasrian standing corps that was recently transferred to Northbay fought in conjunction with the two irregular corps that just arrived to block Bluefeather and the other two corps. When both sides encountered each other on the plains, the Nasrian corps got into formation and advanced towards the Auerans.
Aueras hadn't expected to suffer any losses at all in the initial clash. However, Bluefeather soon got their feet together and stopped the Canasian forces' two-pronged attack with their two irregular corps by their flanks.
Bluefeather's response was almost perfect. The flanks of the winged formation was attacked by Canas' cavalry as expected. However, Canas put all they had into the battle and mobilised seven light-cavalry corps. Apart from the two they summoned back from Nasrian soil and the other two that came from Rimodra, they formed three more temporary ones.
Fighting in the vanguard were those three newly formed light-cavalry corps. Those three corps comprised the nomads who had come of age. They were sent to charge into their deaths or face the consequences of being executed on the spot. Just like that, those three newly formed corps attacked the Aueran irregulars on both flanks relentlessly and broke their formation. The swarm of countless riders began their frenzied slaughter among the ranks of the irregular corps and soon, their formation was completely dispersed.
After that, the Canasian forces began to close in on Bluefeather from both sides. Bluefeather was faced with enemies on all four fronts and fought the bloody battle till the last officer that offered up resistance perished in the evening. Apart from the logistics and infirmary units of the corps, the rest of Bluefeather was completely slaughtered on the Great Plains. Lieutenant-General Edbak had near 50 thousand men killed and more than six thousand captured.
Bluefeather, when fully staffed, numbered around 60 thousand men. The two irregular corps also numbered up to 110 thousand. In the battle that eventually came to be known as the Triumph in Canas, Aueras suffered up to 150 thousand casualties. While the two irregular corps weren't completely exterminated, the soldiers that managed to survive weren't able to escape pursuit from the Canasian cavalry. In the end, less than five thousand of them managed to make it back.
For the kingdom, that was high on thoughts of victory, that defeat was a harsh strike to the head. The whole kingdom was shaken by it. When Stellin X heard about the news, he vomited blood, collapsed immediately and ended up bedridden since then. The first thing he did when he regained consciousness was send a letter to admonish Prince Hansbach harshly and reminding him to learn from the lesson so as to never repeat it again. The kingdom no longer had enough forces to suffer a few more such defeats.
"Berk's in 2nd Rangers... I wonder if he managed to escape," Dyavid said worriedly. He referred to their mutual friend, Berklin, one of the four noble minions of Claude. After the occupation of Wilf Stronghold, the first prince decided to have three more ranger tribes formed and Berklin was transferred to the 2nd. They were deployed on the Great Plains as well and there was no news on him yet.
"Don't worry. Berk's no idiot. He'll be fine. Don't forget the veteran Sasri. That fellow is top-notch in escaping back in our old tribe. He's been transferred to the 2nd as well and is in the same clan as Berk. With him around, Berk will be fine," Claude console.
At the end of the 10th month, signs of Canasian troops appeared in the area once more. Additionally, they dared to approach the castle in groups of three or four daringly and loudly clamoured that it was over for the Auerans and they had better surrender. Infuriated, Claude led some men out in ambush personally during the night and attacked the cavalrymen when they returned the next day. He managed to kill three to four waves of enemy mounted scouts before they wisened up and stopped approaching the castle casually.
Though they managed to score some kills, Claude and Skri knew that the appearance of scouts meant that they would soon be under siege.
"Now I know why the enemy wanted to scout this place out thoroughly during the 9th month," Claude said as he slapped his forehead in realisation, "The enemy doesn't want to reclaim this area at all. They only want assurance that we have few men posted here so that we won't affect their plans on the plains. That's why they never came even after all the preparation we made."
Skri made a bitter smile. "We didn't receive any orders to retreat, so we must hold our ground in this castle, no matter how many enemies come. We might not be able to make it back..."
Captain Kurdwak of the 4th Clan said, "We have enough supplies to last us three months. I hope the enemy will retreat on their own accord during winter at the end of the year. I doubt they'd be able to last long outside."
"Let's hope so," Skri said, "The scouts are getting more and more numerous. I believe the main force will arrive in another two to three days. Make sure to check your clan's equipment and stoke their morale. We don't want any holes in our defences."
Skri's prediction turned out to be quite accurate. On the 2nd of the 11th month, the main force showed up outside the castle.
"By the gods, there's a line of Canasian cavalry and a line of infantry... Wait, I'm not seeing things, am I? The infantry line is carrying the flag of Askilin... Wasn't Askilin exterminated by us?" Mazik mouthed off with a telescope in hand.
"What's weird about that? After Duke Askilin surrendered, the Askilinian nobles in Rimodra aren't willing to let their nation die just yet, so they got the soldiers that didn't want to surrender together and reformed the Askilinian corps to help the Alliance. It's said that Duke Rimodra who escaped to Northbay did the same and formed his own exiled corps, aiming to retake the nation. However, he only managed to form three corps and wasn't able to sustain even more. Negotiations are going on between him and the Alliance for funding support," Claude said, describing what he read from the reports. He also asked Skri to contact his associates to inquire about Berklin.
After looking around with his own telescope, Claude said, "It seems that the new Askilinian corps is on a very tight budget. They're being used by the nobles like mercenaries... I'm sure it's bleeding the nobles dry to even send one line of troops here. Myjack, help me check if those fourteen noble insignias over here are among the Askilinian troops."
Myjack received the telescope and took out a book from his backpack. He flipped it open and compared them and soon reported, "Sir, the fourteen insignias do indeed correspond to the flags in the Askilinian line. It's as you said. These nobles hired the Askilnian foot soldiers to reclaim their fiefs."
"Sir, look. That's our army-issue light-infantry cannons!" Mazik pointed into the distance.
The Canasian cavalry line was split into four tribes, each dragging along two units of Aueras-made light-infantry cannons as they set up camp in all four directions of the castle. Askilin's footmen, however, had chosen to camp out around a kilometre away.
"They got them as spoils, perhaps. Looks like they won't be attacking today. Our showtime is tomorrow, then. Let our men rest well tonight for the battle to come."
"Yes, Sir," Mazik said.