Claude entered Skri's office again ten days later and relayed the information he had.
"The corps on the front are exhausted. Nobody is willing to invade Canas. The officers had apparently discussed the matter of a ceasefire. When I was at Squirrel Village, I used Captain Duriaulo's carrier eagle and sent a report to the frontlines about our situation to request for supplies and reinforcements. Three days later, their reply came and requested us to hold on. They'll arrange for tactical support for our tribe. Here's the letter."
Claude put the letter from frontline command on the desk. Skri gave it a read and it was just as Claude said. After he saw the signature, he couldn't help but fume with anger, given what he knew about the internal situation of frontline command. "What's the point of this? Look at the signature. They're from the staff department of frontline command. That means nobody took our report seriously. The report didn't even make it into the hands of any proper departments. This reply just means they've acknowledged your letter, but we'll have to wait until they report to the top brass and await a decision on how to solve the problem.
"It's the most common delay tactic. Who knows how long it will take the top brass to hear our concerns? The staff can claim that they've reported the matter to the top and won't be criticized for not doing their duty. But the first prince isn't at frontline command now, he's back at the royal capital. Frontline command requires the first prince's permission to take our four ranger tribes under their command. Who knows which of their many folders they stuffed our report in... It's not even certain if the report will reach the eyes of the one who will be taking Prince Hansbach's place..."
Frustrated as Skri was, there wasn't much he could do about it. If 1st Ranger Tribe was posted in Squirrel Village, they could afford to wait a little longer. Eventually, their turn to be heard would come. But now, they were encircled and running out of supplies. They wouldn't last two weeks. Wasn't asking the tribe to hold on the same as asking them to kill themselves? If they stayed in the castle, Skri was certain they would've been long dead by the time frontline command got to their report.
Had they still been in battle, they might get a quick reply from frontline command. At least, they'd have clear orders to fight or withdraw. But now, it seemed that both frontline command and the rest of the troops had their minds on the ceasefire negotiation. It was almost certain for 1st Ranger Tribe to be ignored.
The reply also criticized the tribe for not getting in touch at the first moment. Even if their carrier eagles were useless before the goldeagles, they could've sent someone to barge through enemy defences to make the report. Frontline command had sent them five carrier eagles to ask about them and not a single one returned, so frontline command was under the impression their unit had been completely wiped out just like Bluefeather.
Skri could only scratch his head with a bitter smile. He finally understood why the prince didn't take too kindly to the officers of Frontline Command. Though many of them were supposed talents and hailed as geniuses, the first prince didn't like to promote them. Instead, people like Skri who dabbled in their businesses without making big deals out of them caught the first prince's eye.
That was the divide between officers sitting behind their desks talking strategy and soldiers who fought on the frontlines. It was no wonder the first prince loved to mingle among the lower-ranked officers and talk to veterans. Only then could he get a better grasp on the situation of battle. It was easy for the officer who wrote the reply to make that kind of criticism, but it was easier said than done. Being surrounded by overwhelming numbers of enemies and having to fend off intense attacks while sending out some elite soldiers to break through enemy lines was a fool's errand.
"Are they really holding the ceasefire negotiations?" Skri asked.
Claude didn't know whether it was a rhetorical question, but he still replied. "Yes, at least that's what Captain Duriaulo said. According to him, Prince Hansbach rushed back to the royal capital to advise His Majesty to refuse the peace talks and let him lead troops into Canas to avenge Bluefeather and the other two eradicated corps. But His Majesty summoned Prime Minister Duke Cryus to the palace in the middle of the night immediately. After a long discussion, the first prince returned to his quarters and refused to leave, citing illness as an excuse. That was when the kingdom started to negotiate with the ambassadors of Nasri and Canas.
"Now, it's said that the soldiers on the frontlines were made aware of the negotiations and are waiting for the announcement of the end of the war. Their fighting spirit is gone and morale is at an all-time low. Even the royal guard officers who ordered their men to scout the Great Plains were refused. The soldiers said the war is about to end anyway, so scouting around would be a waste of time. Nobody is willing to give their lives away at this point and a mutiny almost broke out."
Skri could only sigh helplessly. First came the great defeat. Though returning the humiliation to the enemy could've been used to stoke the troops' morale, the news of a ceasefire negotiation made it ever so much harder to light their fighting spirit. Not only that, the war had lasted for four whole years and many soldiers were starting to hate it. Every one of them wanted to return home to see their loved ones. The ceasefire came as good news for them.
Now, Skri finally understood why Claude only returned with Myjack and Gum and left the tent of veterans with Moriad. He was worried they would spread word of the ceasefire around and cause the troops to lose their will to fight and endure.
"In other words, we're the only one who's still fighting among all of the frontlines?" Skri asked.
"We're down to 13 days of food remaining," Skri said, "No matter how we ration it out, we won't be able to last through the rainy season in the 3rd month. The rear isn't able to supply and reinforce us in this short time either."
Skri waved the letter around and looked solemnly at Claude. "Are you certain this route is safe?"
"I can guarantee it."
Skri nodded and made his decision. "Let's hold on for another week as we make preparations to withdraw. We'll use the food left behind for the journey. We have to spread the enemy scouts out thin so they don't notice any trace of us breaking through."
Claude didn't understand how hard it was for Skri to give the order to withdraw. He only nodded as a subordinate would to a superior officer's command. "Yes, Sir."
Claude was swarmed with work. They had to bring back the hundred plus injured as well as the 200 plus jars with the ashes of the dead. Claude had no choice but to request Skri to allow Mazik's band to depart three days earlier with Myjack and Gum leading them for the temporary camp they set up in the mountains prepared to receive the injured and the remains.
Four days later, Kurdwak left during the night with what remained of 4th Clan and 2nd Clan's troops along with the logistics and infirmary staff. They took some crucial supplies with them. Skri's 3rd Clan and Claude's 1st Clan continued blasting away at the enemy forces at the castle walls. They would defend for one more day and depart during the dark.
Night passed and day came. Claude led Dyavid and his band on a probing attack on the settlement. Using Aubass Mark 3s, they aimed and fired at the enemy troops in the lookout towers and caused quite a bit of panic. The enemy believed that the whole tribe was about to mount an offensive on their base and greatly increased the number of people on night duty.
During that time, 1st Clan's troops used the side doors of the castle and secretly left the castle they had been holding for nearly eight months, leaving behind an empty building as they headed for the mountains under the cover of night.
Skri was the last one to leave the castle. He opened his notebook and wrote a large row of words in it: On the 11th day, 2nd month Year 581 of the Sacred Light Era at one in the morning, we had to withdraw from Count Krilaus' castle due to food shortage.
The enemy only noticed something amiss the next day. A few daredevils approached the castle and spent an hour to confirm 1st Ranger Tribe's withdrawal. They sent out a tent of mounted scouts to seek out trails on the snowy ground to find where the tribe had escaped to, but when they found the mountain pass, they were attacked by Dyavid's band from the rear. Only two of them managed to escape despite their injuries. By the time they returned with a clan of men, it was the evening and all that was left was an empty temporary camp.
The enemy commanding officer looked at the skies and back at the snow-covered mountain wilderness before sighing and ordering his men to retreat. He was certain the enemy already found a route through the mountains to escape. Otherwise, they wouldn't decide to completely withdraw their men.
The 2nd month was snow-melt season. But in the mountains, the snow took a little longer to melt than they did on the plains. The tribe was travelling along the route Claude and the rest surveyed and had to stop to reinforce the roads and bridges from time to time so workhorses could cross with their supplies. It took seven days and nights, but they managed to reach Moriad's camp with not a single one of the injured dying along the way.
"Give us some food first. We're already starving." The first thing Claude asked for when he saw Moriad was food. They had finished the last of their supplies yesterday and they had to cross the last stretches of the mountain path on empty stomachs.
Moriad had sent some men with food to receive them in advance, but the food was all taken by the soldiers in front. Claude and the rest at the back had to destroy the temporary passages they made and advanced much slower, losing out on the food as a result.
Though, Moriad had been prepared for just that situation. After finishing a large bowl of hot meat soup, Claude warmed his body up. Following that, he downed two bowls of meat gruel and one steak before he fell asleep on Moriad's bunk bed. He didn't even bother to wash up before catching up on some good rest.
He slept for nearly ten hours before waking back up, energised. Just as he was looking for some warm water to wipe himself down, Myjack entered to report that Skri had something to discuss with him. Skri had been waiting the whole time as Claude slept too soundly.
He got a handful of snow to wipe his face with instead of a proper wash to refresh himself.
When he reached Skri's tent, he found Captain Kurdwak there too. After the salutes and greetings, Skri said he was about to set out immediately with 2nd Clan, 3rd Clan and 4th Clan to the old tribe headquarters in the town of Rosa. He heard that the location was undefended, so it would be the perfect place to stay put through the rainy season.
Claude's 1st Clan, on the other hand, would be stationed in Squirrel Village and aid Captain Duriaulo in defending the mountain path to prevent the Canasian nobles from invading the village again. The tribe's withdrawal meant Moriad's band would have to withdraw from the mountain pass as well as that place wasn't suited for spending the rainy season at. There was no longer any need to defend the place anymore either.
Claude knew Skri was intentionally allowing Claude to be stationed in Squirrel Village. it was no secret that he had found himself a young huntress as a girlfriend there. Claude was more than happy to accept the gesture.
However, the camp they used back in the village had new occupants. He wasn't in a mood to fight them for it. The village was rather big nowadays anyway, so he simply appropriated some of the houses in the village and built even simpler houses and sheds in the village two weeks before the rainy season came. They only needed to be enough to last through the rainy season.
During the days when rain poured endlessly from the skies, Claude either stayed indoors to read the books he borrowed from Sheila's or went into the forest to meet her when the rain wasn't as heavy. He spent his days in relative luxury. When the 4th month came around, good news of Aueras, Nasri and Canas signing a ceasefire and peace treaty finally came. The war that lasted more than four years and saw the extermination of three duchies finally came to an end.
The soldiers all cheered; the keepers and the rangers of 1st Clan hugged each other in celebration as they tossed their hats into the air. Just as Claude was witnessing the happy sight, Captain Duriaulo rushed to him and told him something he couldn't believe. "Major Skri, the tribesman of 1st Ranger Tribe, was arrested and charged with malfeasance, desertion and for losing the kingdom's territory!"