The trio spent the night in Eimis before heading for the Audin Mountain Range. It took them a day and another night to cross it, but the journey was uneventful. They arrived in Gourneygada the following evening.
The sight of the city took Claude back five years to the day he'd enlisted in this very city, then to a couple months later, his training complete, when he marched off to war. He'd been a part of Bluefeather then, but now he was part of 1st Rangers, soon to be part of the Ranger corps, and Bluefeather had been all but annihilated. If not for him being abandoned in Eimis as part of the keepery, he would most likely have shared the fate of so many of the people he'd known back then. He had been abandoned, however, and it had done more for him than just save his life. It'd put him in the perfect place to meet the first prince, a meeting which was now so pivotal in his career he almost felt dizzy when he thought about it. Following it he was eventually moved into the 1st Ranger Tribe, where he'd won all his accolades, promotions, and his knighthood. Nobody, not even he himself, had imagined any of those coming his way.
The trio rested in the city for two days. Uneventful as their mountain crossing had been, it was equally tiring. Troublesome was another thing it had been. The general recall of forces from the former frontlines saw every metre of road, from main thoroughfare to tiny mountain path, packed. Everyone was going somewhere and each person was just as eager as the last to get there. Which also made them equally unwilling to stand aside to let the other pass. Claude's trio had to step aside on the pass on several occasions to let larger convoys, mainly the new keepery forces and various other relief forces moving to the front to occupy the territory the standard forces were leaving behind, pass and it had held them up for several hours.
Bluefeather may only have played a minor overall role in his career in the end, but it was still his first step down the military road, so he felt at least some nostalgia for it. Not to mention it would be nice to be surprised by a couple faces that he hoped had survived the corps' decimation. He'd heard that whatever was left of the corps had limped back to Kafreizit and had practically sealed themselves in the headquarters while they worked to rebuild the force to its former glory.
Claude had asked Duriaulo about his old unit -- Bluefeather's 1st Folk, 1st Line, 11th Tribe -- as well as 2nd Rangers. 2nd Rangers had suffered about as much as Bluefeather, but Berklin was among the survivors. The little fox had had an escape route prepared and ready and didn't hesitate to take it the moment the situation became untenable. The tribe overall had few left, but most of them were from his, largely unharmed, band.
As for Claude's old unit in the corps, not one man in the combat section had survived. The combat portion of the tribe had fought to the last man during the rearguard action to hold down the Canasian light cavalry while the rest of what was left of the corps tried to escape. The medical portion of the tribe hadn't been near the frontline, however, and they'd made it out largely unscathed. Doctor Perunt was among the survivors. The apothecary had bumped into Berklin on the way back and the latter had carefully shepherded him to safety.
Claude wanted to visit the apothecary. The man had taken a fair amount of care of him during his stints in his infirmary. He had also travelled halfway across the theatre to treat him after Wilf.
He couldn't find him, however. He did run into Second Lieutenant Most, at least; though he supposed he should call him First Lieutenant now. Neither had expected to run into the other, and it took most several long moments to notice the rank on Claude's epaulette, and another dozen or so after his hasty salute to notice the order of merit pinned on his chest.
The two chatted away most of the afternoon in the corps' favourite tavern.
Most had survived the corps' destruction because he was far behind the frontlines in a field hospital after getting himself shot several weeks earlier. He was discharged from the hospital two weeks after the corps' demise, and was told to head back to headquarters 'somehow'. The corps' severe lack of experienced personnel led to his promotion despite a dearth of merits -- something the brass quickly remedied by awarding him a series of merits for his injury and subsequent survival of the battle -- and he was tasked with training and commanding the new 11th Tribe.
The conversation eventually turned to Perunt, but Most informed Claude that the apothecary was no longer with the corps. He and all the rest of the corps' medical personnel were transferred to whatever units they happened to be at. Medical personnel were always in short supply, and higher command saw no point in letting them sit by idly for however long Bluefeather needed to refill its ranks. The unit would not need them, not as much as the frontline, while it was busy getting itself back in order, so they might as well be put to use elsewhere. The last he'd heard of the apothecary he'd been in the hospital that had handled most of Bluefeather's retreating wounded. He didn't know what happened to him after that, but he suspected he'd been sent to a string of different facilities so he could be just about anywhere in the theatre, and, given the war was now over, he might just be on the other side of the kingdom.
Claude was disappointed, but he didn't let it keep him down. The conversation continued lively for another hour before Claude bid the first lieutenant adieu and returned to his inn. The trio set out again the next morning.
A week later in the prefecture of Ambruiz...
"There's the town of Blackwood. We'll rest there for the night and set out again tomorrow morning. We have just another day of travel left. We should arrive in Whitestag by nightfall. It'll be good to be home," Claude said to Myjack.
"Are the two of us not intruding, Sir?" Myjack asked, "Are you certain you have room for us?"
He and Claude were riding their horses out front while Gum brought up the rear with a wagon filled with the faux war trophies Claude had bought in Efenasburg.
"No worries!" Claude said laughingly, "You've been with me for years now. You're practically my brothers! The family will be only too happy to play host to you two. And don't worry about space. The one thing of which we have a surplus is space. I bought a three-storey building for the family before I left. The rent from that alone is dozens of crowns a year. We have space for you somewhere. If not, we'll just build some!"
Blackwood came up not long after. The guards were surprisingly strict. The trio had not had to go through such a thorough check yet, however. He supposed that was to be expected. The lands closer to the frontlines had been stripped of their keeperies and the security details had been filled with retired veterans, most of whom just wanted calm days, so they just avoided trouble. Blackwood still had some of its original keepery, however. They didn't have any trouble getting into the town, however.
Claude stopped at the inn at which he and Oask had lodged the last time he'd been in town and asked for a guest room and storeroom. Myjack and Gum took turns guarding the carriage; they had to be cautious since the carriage had more than 500 crowns' worth of goods.
A couple of Blackwood's keepers stopped by during dinner. Their leader was a man in his fifties and had a nearly bald head. His apparent second-in-command was a second lieutenant. Despite his age, the old man's salute was crisp and natural. Claude supposed he was probably an army veteran.
"Respectful greetings, Sir Claude," the second lieutenant said after he checked their identification and passports yet again, "Do you mind if we ask if you're heading for Whitestag?"
"Yes. I'm on leave for a couple months, so I'm going back to visit my family. It's been five years since I've seen any of them."
The second lieutenant hesitated for a moment.
"If you would forgive my rudeness, Sir Claude, I would suggest you remain here for a couple of days. It would be safer to travel in a larger group and one is currently amassing to travel to Whitestag."
"Huh? Is the path to Whitestag still unsafe? Have you not dealt with the wolves yet?"
"It's not wolves. We took care of that five years ago, I was part of the hunting party myself. One problem's solution only makes space for another problem, unfortunately. A sizeable gang of bandits took over where the wolves left off not long after we'd dealt with them. Their leader is someone called One-eyed Lambak. I heard he escaped from a labour camp near Whitestag. He's gathered about forty people and they've been terrorising anyone who travels along the path to the city. They don't have any weaponry, not that we've heard of, but they are a large enough band to take on small groups. If you three travel alone, they will go after you."
"So they don't have the guts to go after larger groups, eh?" Myjack asked, "Have you not tried to chase them off?"
The old man shook his head.
"We still have some of our original men, which is why we can keep up reasonable security here -- and the bandits are why we have to -- but we don't have the manpower to do any more than hold down the fort in the down until the rest of the keepery returns.
"Luckily they don't seem to have the metal to come after the town. They've kept their activities to the hills between here and Whitestag. Even if we did have the strength to deal with them, they're not operating within our area. We have no authority where they are since that's Whitestag's territory, so they are the ones that have to deal with them.
"I've not heard of them even trying an attack on a group larger than them, especially not if they're armed. On top of that, since most of them are escaped criminals, they all have bounties on their heads. Even the cheapest one is 5 crowns.
"Because of that, a lot of the merchants want to hunt them down and turn in their belongings for the bounties. They had sixty men when they were at their peak, but a heist a year ago went very south, and now they've been reduced by a third.
"The convoy later sent the corpses to Whitestag and claimed 200 crowns in bounties, which shocked the city. The bandits haven't attacked larger convoys since. They've instead kept to Whitestag's outskirts. The city has sent keepers to hunt them down, but it has been almost entirely futile. They've been unable to track them in the hills, even less so when they pull back to Blackforest."
The bandits sounded a little too pathetic. Usually, a large merchant convoy consisted of around 200 people and 50-odd carriages, with only 40-odd guards. The 60 bandits that weren't able to take on those numbers and even lost 20 of their own didn't sound like much of a threat.
"What weapons are those bandits armed with?" Claude asked.
"I'm not too sure. I did hear some merchants who encountered them say that they're mostly armed with arbalests and bows, mostly self-made ones. They should have a musket or two which they plundered from the farms, so they should be of really old make. As for the rest, they use simple bladed weapons like knives, axes and spears," said the second lieutenant.
"How many others want to head to Whitestag now?" Claude asked.
"It's too bad that you came a tad too late. A group just left for Whitestag this morning. Now, only the three of you are on the list. But if you wait for four to five more days, a group above 50 people can easily be formed."
Claude shook his head. "There's no need. I won't be waiting for people to gather here and will be departing tomorrow. As soldiers of the kingdom, we don't fear these bandits, and we're armed with muskets. I couldn't be happier if they choose to attack us. Maybe we can even earn some extra cash from their bounties."
"Sir Claude, I hope you will reconsider." The old keeper tried to talk him out of it, but soon saluted and left after seeing how steadfast the three of them were.
Morning the next day, Claude and the rest left against the persistent advice of the Blackwood keepers for Blackforest.
Before he left, he told the concerned second lieutenant that in the event they couldn't beat them, they could just ditch their carriage and turn back. Though, he was confident he would make the bandits pay a huge price before it came to that.
The carriage was pulled by two workhorses and Myjack and Gum were in the driver's seat with their own muskets at their side. The two race horses were tied to the rear of the carriage and if there was a need, Myjack and Gum could abandon the carriage to escape on the race horses.
As for Claude, he was riding on his own race horse alone with two muskets sheathed in his saddle. One was an Aubass Mark 3 and the other was a shotgun he bought from the black market in Efenasburg. The shotgun was said to be looted from a noble family and sold into the market. It was custom made and could kill wild boars within a range of 20 metres. Apart from its short firing range, the other weakness it had was its high recoil, though that wasn't a huge issue for Claude.
The reason he bought the shotgun wasn't the intricate golden markings on its stock. Instead, it was the name engraved on it: Liboyd Milowski. This was the famed firearms craftsman and father of Claude's first lover in this world, Baroness Sonia Lou Vaskiri.
The shotgun was personally crafted by Sonia's father and Claude bought it without a second thought. It would serve as a good reminder of the baroness and he didn't think he would be able to put it to good use.