After the destruction of the three siege towers, the Askilinian infantry corps no longer dared to launch fierce attacks. They were only forced to launch two during the month's end, perhaps under duress from the nobles of Canas. However, they were beaten badly before they even got to touch the walls and retreated after losing near four hundred of their men.
Ever since then, the enemy did naught but occupy the settlement and look at the castle from afar until the first snow came. Unlike the tribe's predictions, they didn't withdraw and instead fell more wood to fortify their base while shipping lots of supplies over. It appeared they were getting ready to spend winter there.
Claude entered Skri's office and saw First Lieutenant Mist from logistics just about to leave with a thick stack of documents. When he was gone, Skri sighed and directly told Claude that their supplies would only last them two and a half months. They had sufficient ammunition, but not enough food to go around. Two and a half months was already a rather generous estimate.
It was only the start of the 12th month and they would last till the middle of the 2nd month at that rate. The rainy season would come during the 3rd month. In other words, 1st Ranger Tribe had to be supplied once more or risk starving to death in the castle. They thought the enemy would leave during winter, but while they didn't attack, they chose to sit and wait, most likely due to the two goldeagles intercepting their letter and getting to know they had only three months of supplies left back then.
Skri knew that the leak came from the letter, but there was naught he could do about it. He saw from the walls with his telescope the complete facilities the enemy built at their camp. They dug trenches outside the wooden fence of the camp and even had lookout towers around. The lookout towers within the settlement itself were also equipped to spy on the castle to prevent the 1st Ranger Tribe from mounting a surprise attack.
"Our enemy has a most cunning commander," Skri said with frustration, "He's really hard to deal with. Though their only hope of attacking us are the towers, they don't have any holes in their defences, either."
Claude nodded in agreement. The defences did look complete to him and didn't seem that it could be picked apart easily. The lookout towers in the settlement, for instance, complemented each other. The shield carts they put all over the abandoned settlement turned it into a huge maze. If the Auerans wanted to attack, they might be exterminated by the enemy inside the settlement easily.
"You're right, Sir. But it's not surprising, if you consider their background. They've been resisting our kingdom's attack for one and a half years back in Rimodra, after all. That's why they're familiar with our tactics. Attacking them is the last thing we want to do. Given our numbers, we can't even send out men from the castle for an attack."
The castle only had two and a half clans. 2nd Clan was completely incapacitated. The injured filled the rear sector of the castle. The tribe was already doing more than it should've been capable of by defending the castle and they had no intention of attacking the enemy at all. Additionally, the snow only made it even harder to mount a sneak attack. They might not even be able to find their way back.
"Our largest problem now is still lack of food, and we're unable to contact the top. I heard some gunshots from the direction of the mountain pass and I'm worried whether the enemy managed to conquer it. Perhaps they intend to trap us here until we starve. I sent a few veterans out to scout, but they haven't returned yet." Skri was under lots of stress. As the tribesman, he had to maintain a confident air in front of the other soldiers so that their morale wouldn't suffer. He could only consult Claude for his real troubles.
Claude didn't have any easy way to deal with the matter either. His idea to use the lambs and smaller birds as bait for the two goldeagles didn't work out well. Perhaps, they would've fallen for the bait, had the gunshots from the enemy's attack on the castle not startled them and caused them to fly further. Even now, the tribe was unable to contact the rear or the top brass.
"Let's kill those workhorses to save food so we can feed the lambs. That might buy us a little more time." That was the best Claude had. There were still about a hundred workhorses in the castle, with which the tribe transported supplies.
Skri nodded, but shook his head again.
"I already ran some estimates with First Lieutenant Mist and we'd only be able to last another half month if we kill all the workhorses. If we're unable to get any more food before the rainy season, we'll have to give up on this castle and retreat to Squirrel Village before the 3rd month."
The door was knocked on and Skri's aide entered to report that the scouts had returned. They brought back one good news and one bad news. The former was Second Lieutenant Moriad and his band still held the mountain pass. The enemy tried numerous times to attack it only to be driven back after suffering around 200 casualties. The pass was narrow and the attackers weren't able to fight to their full potential, so they were forced to retreat after that.
The bad news was the enemy set up a defence line somewhere near the mountain pass and surrounded it. There was an estimate of two clans of men there. The veterans said they could see their tribe's flag still being flown from the distance, but weren't able to get close to contact Second Lieutenant Moriad. They had no choice but to return to make their report.
That news only depressed Skri further. It was indeed good that the enemy didn't manage to take the mountain pass, but the pass was just as useless if the route there was sealed off. Even if the tribe chose to abandon the castle, they'd have to break through the enemy defence line to be able to return to the rear. If they were attacked by enemies from behind during that time, they'd be eliminated completely all the same. Only a handful would be able to survive.
Claude wasn't too surprised, since he would do the same if he was in the enemy's position. He didn't worry that there wouldn't be an escape route, however, if Skri ever decided to abandon the castle. The mountains were far and wide and there definitely would be another way to enter. Crossing the Pikleit Mountains was no big deal for the 1st Ranger Tribe, given their experience surveying the terrain in the first place. Skri had been transferred later and hadn't experienced the survey they conducted during winter, so his worry wasn't unexpected.
The snow soon fell nonstop for a few days and nights. There was no worry that the enemy would attack in that kind of weather. The snow had already formed into a thick later about a foot long and it looked really soft; one's feet would sink through it with the slightest touch, all the way to the knee. The sky could hardly be called bright during the day and one could see at most 30 metres away clearly. At night, it was pitch black. Even with a bonfire, they wouldn't be able to see further than four metres.
If the enemy did attack, they might lose their way the moment they left camp before arriving at the foot of the castle and eventually freeze to death in the white wasteland. That was why the attackers and defenders both wisely chose to hole up in their respective camps.
It suddenly dawned on Claude that he had joined the military for four years already. This was the fourth new year's eve he experienced in the force. Fortunately, it was better this time around, at least much better than the one he spent last year in Pikleit Mountains. Though they were surrounded by enemies on all fronts and lacked supplies, Skri at least got the logistics unit to cook up a more sumptuous feast than usual for the troops to celebrate. For that, they slaughtered all the lambs and poultry they were keeping and each officer on Claude's rank was given the last bottles of fruit wine they had left.
The coming of the 1st month brought with it good weather. Though there was still snow, it didn't last a few days like before. While the snow-covered land was still hard to traverse, it was at least somewhat solid; one wouldn't sink halfway in. The enemy scouts also began to take action. They mainly surveyed around the castle to check whether there was anything off with the defenders.
Claude allowed Dyavid to lead his band for an attack. They camped outside of the castle in waiting for the enemy scouts. From time to time, gunshots reverberated through the snow-covered land. The mountless scouts who were armed with worse muskets suffered great casualties and had no choice but to loosen their scope of search -- giving Claude an opportunity to exploit.
During one night when snow fell rather heavily, Claude took a tent of elite veterans and left from one of the castle's side doors before disappearing into the winter wonderland. The snow was perfect in covering up the footsteps they left behind. Enemy scouts would have no idea of their presence.
The chilling winds clawed at their faces and soon, a thin layer of ice formed on their shawls, before being melted by the breath coming out of their noses before dripping onto their beastskin robes and refreezing into dew-like icelets.
Claude was quite numb to the coldness; he had experienced it last winter in Pikleit Mountains and gotten used to it. He tugged at the linen rope he held and the response he got made him breathe a sigh of relief. All fifteen of them were there. None of them separated from the group.
That route was set by Claude. They were about to travel diagonally to another part of the Viridian Mountains to find a way into the mountains so that 1st Ranger Tribe would have an escape route after they ran out of food.
After reaching the mountains, they found shelter from the winds and snow. The veterans were quite experienced and quickly built a few igloos using the piled up snow and pitched tents within them. It was safe and helped keep warm. They didn't have to worry about the tent being collapsed by the weight of the snow or being too thin and causing those inside to freeze. They only had to make sure they had good ventilation.
After around one hour of busywork, the skies began to brighten, though the snow didn't stop falling. Claude got some sleep after he had every soldier drink a bowl of hot soup and assigned their watch schedules. They would continue surveying for a route during the afternoon.
After finishing lunch, they packed up and made their move. The snow had stopped and the skies were clear. Given there was enough sunlight, it was ideal for them to seek out a route through the mountains. The fifteen split into groups of five before heading into the mountains until they reached a dead end and turned back. Claude took Myjack, Gum and two other soldiers with him as part of the support team as he marked out the routes on the map and left markers along the way they travelled.
While Viridian Mountains' terrain wasn't as hard to traverse as Pikleit Mountains', the place wasn't any much safer. There were many traps under what seemed like flat, snowy land. It was all too easy to step on a patch and fall through the thin layer of snow in the hole and almost impossible for individual travellers to make it back up.
Claude used the time-proven method of felling trees and making a simple bridge to be placed over spots he couldn't be sure was safe. They weren't trying to build a road there; making it suitable for a temporary crossing was enough. So, they saved quite a bit of time and managed to find reach the mountain pass in some five days.
Moriad and the rest couldn't be more excited to see Claude and the rest. They didn't have to worry about supplies since they were camped at the mountain pass. As Moriad ordered his men to attend to Claude and his men, he told Claude a huge development.
"What? The war's going to end?" He thought he'd misheard.
"It's true. Captain Duriaulo from Squirrel Village told me. His family has some connections in the army, you see. His relatives leaked that information to him. He was told to endure a few more months before he can return to the royal capital. He said our kingdom has already started negotiating a ceasefire with Nasri and Canas. Even Prince Hansbach returned to the royal capital."
Claude had heard of Captain Duriaulo. He was assigned to be the tribesman of the local keeper tribe thanks to the connections he had in the army. Serving at Squirrel Village would be recorded as serving on the frontlines and he'd be able to have a brighter career in army staff in the future. Claude was inclined to believe his words.
"I have to rush to Squirrel Village for a bit and confirm this information. This relates to the survival of our whole 1st Ranger Tribe. Get me a horse now. I'll set out immediately," Claude said without hesitation.