Claude's group only reached Whitestag the following afternoon and their arrival sent waves through the city.
All the bandits, including their leader, One-eyed Lambak, who had terrorised the area, had been dispatched by the three. Even their lair had been ransacked. Not only did they bring back all the corpses of the dead bandits, they even took the eight captives back, saved three kidnapped women who were used as their toys, as well as two other hostages. They returned with three carriages full of robbed goods.
Claude and the two were quite lucky themselves. They originally didn't have any way of bringing back all the stuff from the lair, but they happened to run into a merchant convoy that just departed from Whitestag for Ambruiz. When the one in charge of the convoy heard of the bandits' extermination and asked the five rescued and eight captured about the goods and 20-odd corpses that were left behind, they decided to turn back to Whitestag and lent Claude four transport carriages.
The three didn't think the bandits would be that useless. When Claude warned them to surrender with his emptied shotgun, the seven remaining bandits didn't even spare a thought and dropped their weapons to kneel on the ground. Perhaps they were aware that they wouldn't be able to escape pursuit on foot with Claude being mounted, so they might as well save some energy. Additionally, the tactics the three used to kill them off one by one had already terrified them to the core.
Claude initially wanted to collect the corpses and take the seven captives back to Whitestag. But when they finished tying the corpses to two trees and were about to head home, Myjack heard some of the bandits whisper away that they shouldn't have come out that day and that Pieck and the others would benefit from the goods left behind in their lair.
When they were interrogated at gunpoint, they instantly revealed everything they knew. Their lair was only half a day's travel from their current location. It was a cavern near the mountains and three bandits were left behind to watch it. There were three women, two hostages and lots of robbed goods there too.
Upon hearing about it, Claude decided to head to their lair to get rid of the bandit plague for good. They travelled on their carriage with the captives in tow and the corpse-covered trees towards the base. It was too bad that the three bandits that remained thought their comrades managed to return with lots of goods at the sight of Claude's troupe and ran towards them happily. Two fell from two gunshots and the last remaining one loosed his bladder from the fear and joined the other captives.
The goods in the lair weren't that valuable in the first place. There was porcelain and some other peddlers' goods and the worthwhile rugs and furs were more or less ruined by the bandits. They used them as normal bed sheets. Food wasn't aplenty either and they had two donkeys left, probably also stolen from unfortunate merchants.
As for money, there was a deerskin pouch containing more than 170 crowns. That was the hard-earned money saved up over the years of robbery by their late leader, Lambak. Lambak distributed most of the copper coins they got with his men generously. Though, there wasn't any way to spend the money in the wilderness, so the bandits merely used them for gambling. Myjack managed to gather half a sack of copper coins by searching the bodies and the cavern.
As it was getting late, the three could only rest for the night in the cavern. They only departed with the five rescued and eight captured initially, but were lucky enough to run into a convoy that just left Whitestag. When the person in charge heard that Lambak's bandits were exterminated, he generously offered four carriages to help transport the goods and corpses back.
All that busywork made it so that they only arrived in the afternoon. The citizens of Whitestag gathered at the main gates when they heard of the commotion. Claude, Myjack and Gum were hailed as heroes and many young and beautiful women tossed them rings of flowers from time to time. Perhaps in their eyes, the three young soldiers fit the image of their ideal lover perfectly.
Claude found that the city was now completely different from the town he remembered. So much had changed and he didn't even recognise the company of the merchant convoy that helped him. He only found on their way back that the company was formed four years prior and had a firm background. The owners behind the scenes were nobles from the royal capital and they dealt with business that spanned both continents.
It was no wonder the convoy supervisor didn't think much when he heard Claude's name. The others in the convoy weren't locals either and hadn't heard of him before. They were just mildly curious someone so young like him managed to become a captain of the kingdom's army. The supervisor did recognise his knighthood badge and shifted into a more respectful tone.
Claude and the rest went to the constabulary of the city guided by the supervisor. Registering and recognising the bodies and captives were their responsibility. There were tons of onlookers all around and when the constables confirmed Lambak's death, the crowd let out excited cheers.
The bandits really did cause a lot of trouble to both merchants and civilians alike in the area. It wasn't that Whitestag hadn't tried to send out a force to wipe them out. The bandits simply didn't dare to face them and would escape deep into Blackforest to play hide and seek. After the expeditionary force returned, they would continue to harass the farming folk living at the fringes of the city like annoying and hateful flies.
Claude still had to give testimony there and discuss the process of the bandit extermination. They also had to hand the goods retrieved to the constabulary. The missing goods mentioned in reports had to be returned to their owners, and those that weren't could be auctioned off and Claude would keep two-thirds of the earnings with the other third going to the constabulary as a processing fee. That was standard procedure and if the owner of the returned goods wanted to thank Claude somehow, that had nothing to do with the constabulary.
The rescued women and hostages were given the same treatment. Those with families to return to were let go and those without homes would be dealt with by City Hall. The bounty earned by Claude and the other two would be paid out at a later date since it was rather large at a total of around four hundred crowns. Lambak's and a few other more well-known bandits' bounties amounted to more than half of that.
Claude found it quite weird that he saw few familiar faces in the constabulary. Back then, he knew almost every single constable in town, but those in the headquarters seemed foreign to him. He asked one constable tending to him about it and heard that most of the old constables were drafted into Whitestag's keepery and sent to the frontlines and had yet to return. The current constables were mostly transferred from the royal capital. After all, the city was under royal capital administration and most of the officials were similarly transferred from the capital.
It was only when Claude finished his dealings and left the constabulary that he was stopped by a familiar face. He wracked his mind for a good moment before finally recalling the person to be the supervisor of Borkal's family business, Rublier's trusted aide.
"Master Claude, our master has been waiting for you in the carriage over there. He's here to invite you for a meal," the supervisor said with a polite bow.
Claude motioned Myjack and Gum to follow behind before he followed the supervisor into the carriage of Borkal's father.
"Uncle Rublier, I didn't think you'd be the first relative I know to see me back." Claude saluted formally before entering the carriage.
Rublier laughed heartily and seemed quite happy to be called a relative. He patted Claude on the shoulder.
"My boy, you're really making quite a name for yourself. Not only are you a commissioned captain, you even exterminated One-eyed Lambak's band of rascals as you returned. I'm sure those you know in town will be proud to know you. Let me treat you to dinner. We have to get drunk."
"Sorry, Uncle Rublier, I've been in the military for five whole years and haven't been home even once. I appreciate your offer, but I'd like to go home first," he earnestly said.
Rublier slapped his own forehead. "That's right, you ought to go back home first. I was just too happy to hear you're back and it totally slipped my mind. I'll send you home then, and treat you to another meal a few days later."
Send me back home? I live in the wood. It wouldn't do for him to send me that far... Claude hurriedly refused, "There's no need, Uncle Rublier. My home is in the wood and you'll have to leave the city to go to the mountains in the outskirts. It's better if I go back myself. I have a mount and carriage too..."
Taken aback, Rublier said, "The wood? Claude, didn't your mother or sister write to you? They no longer live there. They've moved back into the red-bricked mansion your father left behind three years ago."
Back in the mansion? What does that mean? Why didn't they stay in the wood? Completely puzzled, he said, "No, they didn't. I haven't received a single letter from my family for the past year. The letters I received during the first half of last year were sent out three years ago too. Back then, the forces were constantly being transferred around and it was hard to receive letters from our families on the frontlines. The postal system is rather inefficient, after all. Most soldiers loathe it. Yet, the postal department complains that they don't have nearly enough manpower. They say they can't possibly send family letters to the million soldiers on the frontlines."
Not to mention, the letters all had to be checked by the postal department first. In peacetime, that task could be handed to normal disciplinary officers to check, such as the enforcers or judiciary officers. But in wartime, those units didn't have the time to do such bothersome work and the letters piled up in the postal department. Sometimes, they would receive up to ten thousand letters a day. The department would no doubt be overwhelmed if they had to go through every single one of them.
So, many letters were returned with the standard excuse of being unable to locate the recipient. The postal department couldn't be faulted for that as many combat operations were classified and they couldn't find out where the recipients were even if they wanted to. The family members also understood that having their letters returned in that manner didn't mean something happened to the recipients in the military. They were just currently unreachable. It was far better to get letters back than to be informed of their relatives' deaths through an official notice.
Borkal nodded understandingly and opened the hatch in the carriage. The coachman turned back and asked, "Master, any instructions?"
"Go to Madam Ferd's residence," Rublier said.
"Yes, Master." The coachman shook the reins and the carriage started to move.
Claude looked outside and waved for Gum and Myjack to follow.
"By the way, is Boa doing well?"
Rublier smiled. "Not bad, I'd say. He's a second lieutenant now and is currently posted in the port city of Carmentoll in Rimodra. Last year, they repelled an attempted pirate raid on the city, and my son was promoted to second lieutenant because of his contributions. He even wrote to me last month that his tribe might be on their way back at the end of the year."
Claude sounded rather envious. "Boa did really well. He can retire five years earlier to help you with your business with his rank."
Usually, one would have to serve a whole fifteen years in local keeper tribes, but Borkal's promotion shortened his term to ten years. That meant he would be able to return to the family business after serving another five years.
Compared to Claude, however, a second lieutenant in a keeper unit wasn't that impressive. However, he would be free after he received dignitarian status. Even though a commissioned officer like Claude had clout, he wasn't exactly free to resign and had to obey the top brass' arrangements for him.
They soon arrived at the red-bricked mansion. Unlike what he remembered, a three-metre-tall wall was erected outside the building and surrounded all four of its sides, leaving only an entranceway of three metres in width. There was a smaller entrance next to the main gate.
The carriage didn't enter directly and stopped outside the entrance.
Just as Claude was about to bid the man goodbye, Rublier said with a solemn look, "Claude, currently, your sister, Anna, runs the household. The three of them live in the suite on the left. I had wanted to tell you about a lot of things today, but now I think it's better to find out much of it for yourself back home. The changes in Whitestag over the past few years have been massive and your mother and sister had no choice but to make these choices. Given the situation, we old folks of the town aren't able to offer much help. If your father were still here, it might've turned out far better."
There seemed to be more to that, but Rublier didn't continue. He waved and bid Claude farewell, leaving him a little distraught. But that didn't stifle his excitement to go back home. He motioned for Myjack and Gum to follow him to the entrance.
"Hey, who might you be, Mister?" Claude heard a familiar voice call out to him.
He turned back and saw a familiar face. "Huh? Uncle Pegg, why are you here?"
Pegg was the man put in charge of the pier of Eriksson's family years ago. He had helped Eriksson refit a small fishing boat which symbolised the friendship of the four back then. But after Eriksson lost his father through the trading fleet incident, he blamed Claude's family for it and turned against him. Not long after, he heard the pier was bought by someone else. Claude didn't hear what happened to Pegg before he joined the military.
He didn't expect to be able to see the man in this fashion. With the passing of five years, Pegg seemed far older and more than half of his hair turned white. However, he did recognise Claude. "You... you're Claude! That's wonderful! You're finally back..."