Myjack and Gum returned to Squirrel four days later.
Myjack reported it had taken them 13 days to get to the capital despite their haste. They had found Normanley Manor and met with the baroness during the night. She read the letters he had written to her and the first prince and immediately sprung into action. She'd not told them what she would do, however. She'd just told her butler to show the two to the guest rooms and told them to wait there for news.
Gum made the most of his stay in such a luxurious place and became the manor's pig. He only ate and slept. He didn't even meet with the baroness. Myjack asked for a few books from the manor library and spent most of his time reading. Okay, Gum didn't just pig out, he did help the servants out a couple times, though it was always related to the kitchen somehow.
The baroness summoned them a fortnight later and told them the first prince had returned from the frontline and taken care of things. They could thus return. She also gave them five crowns for their effort. They set for the village the next day.
The trip back wasn't as smooth sailing as the one to the capital. Security kept getting tighter as they moved, even more so than it had been in the capital while they were there. They were stopped at least half a dozen times and told to present their papers. They were always passing one military convoy or another. Those were mostly troops returning from the frontlines, though.
Claude sent them off to their quarters with orders to rest, barely containing his giddiness at the thought that he would soon finally get to leave this place.
An eagle message from Skri arrived three days later. It ordered 1st Clan to return to tribe headquarters. It was time to leave Sheila.
He rushed to the witch's forest that very night.
"This is my address in Whitestag. Here are the names of my mother, sister, and brother. This is a bank account I made for you. It has 200 crowns. If you need money, Just go to the nearest big town and take some out. I told you how, do you still remember? Also, if you write me anything, just hand them to the village chief, I've told him where to send them. He'll also bring you my letters.
"...Sheila... Are you sure you won't come with me?"
The girl, who'd been sitting quietly while he'd gone over everything for the umpteenth time, leapt into his embrace, two streams of tears flowing down her face, but still shook her head resolutely. Claude could only breathe a silent sigh and hug her soft figure tightly.
When they finally separated, Claude returned to the village, packed up, readied his men, gave Duriaulo a bear hug, and marched out of the village.
"If you ever come to the capital, don't forget to visit my manor! There are barrels of wine waiting for you!" the captain shouted as he watched Claude's horse fade into the distance.
Claude waved back at him over his shoulder.
Tribe headquarters was in Rosa -- not far away from the pass. Claude's tent arrived to the three other clans packing up. Skri dashed to him and yanked him off his feet in a giant hug. The major had heard about him almost being accused of treason. The only reason he could possibly have been accused of such a thing was because he'd stepped up for Skri, so he was very grateful.
"Do you have the list?" Skri asked.
"I do," Claude said, removing the paper from his pocket and handing it to the major.
"Myjack and Gum are going, too? But they're just an orderman and a guard..."
"I'm moving to a new unit and they're my most trusted men; of course they're coming with me. Not to mention I can't abandon them after they've served me so loyally."
"New unit?" Skri started, then laughed, "You think I'm shipping you out?"
"Are you not? Captain Duriaulo said I'm certainly going to be moved to one of the new units."
"No. I want a list of men to send to training with you. Here."
Skri handed Claude a black leather folder.
Inside was a report from frontline command. All the tribes under their command were to nominate meritorious officers for a year-and-a-half-long course. 1st Rangers could nominate ten officers. Nothing about it was particularly strange; such courses were quite common in the army, especially after campaigns as promising new officers would have distinguished themselves and been ear-marked for training and future promotion. Claude had not, however, ever heard of 'Kleibon Royal Army College' before.
"Kleibon Royal Army College is brand new," Skri explained, "The kingdom's training four new standing corps, three specifically to occupy the new territory. The fourth will be a kind of... special forces corps focused on rapid response. It's headquarters will be just outside the capital. It's going to be the Ranger corps, and, as you would guess, it'll be almost entirely made up of rangers. Nasri will be providing us with 80 thousand horses towards their reparations over the next three years, and a big portion of them will be the new Ranger corps'."
Claude had not been surprised to hear about the four new corps from Duriaulo, but to hear that they were going to become an entire corps... that was something incredible. Did it have something to do with the new college? If it did, then he didn't understand why they had to attend a course of any length, nevermind a year and a half. They were the kingdom's greatest experts on ranger combat; Claude had quite literally written the textbook on the unit's unorthodox tactics. What could they possibly teach him in that regard, even more so, what could they teach him that would take a year and a half?`
"All the officers for the new corps have to undergo training at the college; sergeant or colonel, there are no exceptions. I should mention that only peasant officers have been accepted so far. I've not heard of a single noble among the warrant officers nominated being accepted, at least," Skri added.
Ah, so the king was trying to build a force which had no divided loyalties between the royal family and their own. And the new college was as much to offer them a prejudice-free education as to train them without any nobles to steel their loyalty.
"Prince Hansbach is the college's first dean. His Highness' most trusted subordinates will also be the senior lecturers. Miselk Kor Priest, the general, will be the senior chief lecturer. The first prince will only really be the ceremonial dean, as you would expect, so the general will also be the executive head of the college. He retired from Bluefeather after its destruction, so he's completely free. I heard they tried to peg him for the same position with the reformed corps, but he turned them down. He said his time for war is over and he would be of much better use to the kingdom as an instructor, training its future military leaders."
The general was a wise man, Claude thought. The war was over, so his chances of getting another promotion, or any other position again was practically nil. If he wanted to make a change, now was his only chance. Even if another war broke out in the next decade or so before he retired from the army entirely, he was getting on in years. He no longer had the mental fortitude and stamina to lead a corps in field, not for the long timeframes army campaigns usually lasted. And being Bluefeather's corpsman would be especially tiring. It was rare for entire new standing corps to be brought into being -- while Bluefeather was technically an already-existing corps, nearly all of its staff would be new, replacing the dead or infirm, so it might as well be a brand new corps -- so vultures from both the noble and commoner faction would be scrambling to get as much influence in it as possible. Being a lecturer certainly had its own challenges, but they were much more manageable for someone of his age
"Oh, that reminds me. You've nearly served five years right? Just two more months, if I remember correctly?" Skri asked.
Claude nodded. He had enlisted in Bluefeather when he was 18, completing his training and being officially commissioned in the 9th month. It was now the 7th month, and he was 23. In another two months he'd have served a full five years.
"You'd normally be allowed three months of leave every three years, but war tends to royally screw the leave schedule. Actually, I swear HR burns the registers and schedule the moment word of a war arrives... Anyway, the war's over, so leave is back on the table. You'd usually only be able to take your leave every third year, but since your three year cycle is overdue, I can give you five months for your five years. You can take it now and head home from here, or come with us to the capital first and take it from there. You'll only get three months if you come with us to the capital, though."
Something didn't sound right.
"Sorry, you said I can take my leave now?"
Skri nodded with a smile.
"B-but... Why five if I take it now, but only three if I go to the capital first?"
Skri burst out laughing.
"We have two months to get to the capital. We've been moved into Ranger corps and will be reorganised in the capital. If you don't want to go home immediately, you can come with us to the capital, but you'll have to stay until the reorganisation is complete before I can give you leave. I can't change the date the course at the college starts, so you'll only get the three months left at that point."
So it wasn't really a case of his cycle being overdue, it was Skri bamboozling the system to give him a couple extra months. He'd be doing nothing but marching, and then sitting in an office in some barracks outside the capital for the two months, so he might as well leave now and go straight home.
"Thank you, Sir!" Claude said as he saluted energetically.
"Your clan will be the first to cycle into their leave. Go get a hundred names for the first round. They have to file a request for leave, including an itinerary, and get a writ of permission from you. They can collect their salary and passports from the general staff once they've filed their request."
Claude nodded, gave another quick salute, and made for the door. Skri yelped him to a halt just as he reached the door, however.
"Speaking of leave, itineraries, and deadlines, you have to report for duty again by the 15th of the 1st month at Kleibon War College next year."
"Don't I need to report to tribe headquarters first?"
"No. I'll hand in all your and the other four's files, so just go straight to the college. You'll be back in 1st Rangers when your training's over, though I haven't the faintest clue what our name will be by then."
As much as Claude liked to be part of '1st Rangers', he knew the likelihood they would still be the 1st Ranger Tribe in the new corps was very low. They might have been the 1st Rangers, and they'd always be the true 1st Rangers, but the bureaucracy rarely cared much for sentiment.
Claude lifted Skri off his feet and swung him around a few times in a violent bear hug.
"Thank you again, Sir!" he said with yet another salute after he'd put him down like he'd not just broken almost every military rank protocol in almost all the guidebooks of every army on the continent.
It was currently the 25th of the 7th month. His leave was until the 15th of the 1st month, which gave him five months and an additional 20 days.
He returned to his barracks and called for Dyavid, Moriad, Myjack, and Gum. Once all four were lined up in his tent all properly like, he gave them the news.
Myjack and Gum didn't really care for the training. They only cared about sticking to Claude like flies on shit. The break even troubled them. They were orphans, after all, and had nowhere to go. They'd both just been drifting until they were drafted, Myjack hadn't even been sixteen, and Gum was just happy enough to be able to fill his stomach for once.
They'd struck platinum with Claude. He'd practically fashioned careers in the army for them out of nothing. They'd gone from near drop-outs only kept around to fill the ranks and march to their deaths to veterans and elites in the most modern of combat tactics. They'd both gone from grunts to a master-sergeant, in Myjack's case, and a corporal, in Gum's. And the only reason Gum was just a corporal was because he couldn't read. He'd be a master-sergeant as well if he could. Claude and Myjack had taken up teaching him how to read lately for that very reason.
It wasn't right to call the army their home, Claude was their home. If he left on break, they would be anchorless dingeys left to drift at sea, at the mercy of the currents. Their entire lives revolved around their captain; Myjack was his orderman and Gum his personal bodyguard.
"Why don't you take the two home with you? They don't have anywhere to go to, anyway," Moriad suggested.
It was settled there and then, almost without Claude's input. The two would accompany him back home. Moriad and Dyavid did not take leave, they were going back to the capital. They'd been all but disowned by their families, and they relished the chance to go back and rub their successes in the bastards' faces.
The one hundred spots could only accommodate a third of 1st Clan. The men nearly rioted when they heard it. Beside Claude and some of the other ranking officers, the other spots were filled by the drawing of lots. Mazik was amongst the ranking officers.
He had practically begged Claude to give him a spot before he'd heard about senior officers being guaranteed spots in the first round. He wanted to go home and propose to middle school sweetheart. She had been married before, but her husband had died in the early months of the war. He had not heard from her for several years, however, and didn't know if she'd since remarried.
It took Claude two days to calm the men and sort out all the paperwork for those who'd won spots. He left after handing over command to Moriad and Dyavid and thanking Skri again.