The skies turned dark and black clouds loomed over the horizon. The chilling winds blew through as feather-sized snowflakes danced their way to the ground, covering the flat plains in a thick white coat.
Myjack propped his horse a few steps ahead and blocked Claude, waving a hand signal at him. Some ice had precipitated around his brows and hair and he was wearing a thick mask to stave off the cold, in addition to the hat and shawl he wore. It wasn't convenient to talk in such weather so simple hand signals carried the day.
Claude knew what his orderman was trying to convey: they could not go ahead and had to find shelter and wait out the snow storm.
Claude nodded, pointed ahead, and signed three-and-a-half, pointing at the ground with his thumb. A town lay three and a half kilometres ahead.
It was the 9th of the 1st month. Claude, Myjack, and Gum were on their way to the royal capital. Before their break, Major Skri had told Claude to report to Kleibon right after his break ended before the 15th of the 1st month as that was the day the semester officially began.
Skri showed quite a lot of concern for him and wrote him two letters after he arrived at the royal capital and set up camp. He had someone deliver the letter personally. The first one arrived during the 8th month and informed Claude of the address of the tribe's camp and asked how his break was while also sending him a map with the address of the war college so that Claude wouldn't lose himself in the royal capital.
Claude replied that he was doing well and his family was fine too. He also wished Skri would be able to come to Whitestag to attend his wedding before the 12th of the 9th month. But he didn't receive a reply for that letter even up to the date of his wedding, much to his disappointment. Naturally, Skri wasn't present.
During the middle of the 11th month, Skri sent another reply and apologised for not being able to attend the wedding. He didn't have a choice as he was asked to go on an excursion by Prince Hansbach and only returned to the royal capital during the 10th month. Alongside wishing Claude a happy newlywed life, he also informed Claude that he would be resigning as tribesman of 1st Ranger Tribe for another post.
Apart from that, he sent Claude and the other two their winter gear as well as allowance with his authority before his resignation. Usually, soldiers on a break to visit their families like Claude would also have allowance and winter gear, but the logistics department wouldn't be able to deliver it to them as they weren't in camp. Skri was aware of the usual proceedings in the force and used his authority as tribesman to have someone explicitly deliver the three their goods.
Additionally, he also sent Claude a wedding gift. It was a pair of gold and silver vases with intricate artwork depicting a legendary tale of a knight killing an evil dragon. Claude knew that they came from the spoils of the count's manor. He didn't think Skri would be giving them to him, though. Madam Ferd was quite shocked to receive it and all too happy that the family had another heirloom to pass down.
It was thanks to the map Skri provided that Claude realised Kleibon Royal Army College wasn't located in the royal capital, but in one of the 56 villages near it, Kleibon Village. The map showed the village to be at the borderlands of Ibnist Plains. Half of the village's farmland crossed over to the mountainous area.
Claude wondered why their college would be situated in a village and even be named after it. Either way, since he had received a notification, the three of them would have to report there before the 15th.
It took around seven to eight days to travel from Whitestag to the royal capital. Given that it was winter, much of the highways were frozen and hard to traverse. With that factored in, the journey was estimated to take more than ten days. Coupled with the fact that Kleibon Village was another 40-odd kilometers from the royal capital, that would take an additional day. So, Claude prepared to leave right after the new year's celebration.
Initially, he considered going there by sea from Whitestag to Port Neru. That would take two days off their journey at least. But his mother didn't agree as maritime travel came with quite substantial risks and there was nowhere to run in the event of danger. Apart from that, not a single ship was willing to sail out from the city during the new year's unless Claude was willing to pay a huge sum, which wouldn't be worth it.
It ended with him settling on traveling by land. They had to set out latest by the 3rd. After bidding his mother, sister and brother farewell and kissing his newly pregnant bride goodbye, Claude left with Myjack and Gum on horse.
The start of the journey was blessed with good weather. The three of them traveled quickly at a leisurely pace and managed to save a day's time since their departure. They thought it would take them seven days at most to rush to the royal capital if the weather conditions stayed the same, but a snowstorm brewed all of a sudden with the passing of a night. The three of them struggled to make any progress for the first half of the day, but they didn't even cover a quarter of what they had planned to.
However, Claude remembered seeing a town on the map not far away from their current position. They traveled for a little more and finally reached the town, got an inn, and slumped on the tables of the dining hall.
The town was called Sulin and it was about the same size as what Whitestag used to be. The inn was called Fang, named after the gigantic beast fang hanging on the walls. It was said to have been dug out of the ground when the inn was first built and the first owner hung it up and named the inn after it.
When the three entered, there was only a few customers inside. Only three tables in the hall were seated and apart from some customers who were there to kill time. The other four at two other tables were dressed like peddlers. It looked like they also had no choice but to lodge thanks to the snowstorm.
The ones attending to the customers was an old fellow and a limp youth. The youth appeared to be the old owner's son and he was instructed to take care of the three's mounts. The old fellow poured the three of them cups of heated blackwheat ale and cracked a bright smile. "Drink some to warm up. It must've been hard, traveling in such weather. Don't worry, they're on the house."
There were four braziers at the four corners of the hall and it was much warmer inside. The cup of blackwheat ale finally warmed the three up from inside out. They stood up and removed their black goatskin robes, beastskin windbreakers and leather gloves to reveal the red-black military uniform beneath. It was only then that the owner knew that the three were soldiers.
"Boss, one cup of blackwheat ale for each of them. My treat," a rough-looking peddler said as he raised a cup at them. "Don't worry, friends, I used to be in the force and had to be discharged for my injury. I'm just looking out for a fellow brave warrior of our kingdom!"
The other customers raised their mugs to join the toast. "To the brave warriors of our kingdom's invincible army!"
The owner poured the three another cup of warmed ale each. Claude didn't think twice before gulping it down. Then, he dropped a thale on the table. "Boss, one cup of ale for everyone here, my treat. Let's toast to the darned snowstorm that allowed us to meet here! I guess fate comes in all forms! No need for any change. Just cook us some warm food to fill us up. I'm famished."
The burley merchant tapped the table in agreement to Claude. "Nicely said. This snowstorm truly is darned. I would've reached home had it not come. My poor wife will surely be letting her mind wander and think I was seduced by some other woman. If I don't go home on time, she would start to overthink things. I wonder how hard it will be for me to calm her down when I get back..."
His other merchant pals broke out in laughter. "What are you? A wuss who's afraid of your wife?"
The atmosphere in the inn livened up immediately.
The owner picked the thale up with a bright smile and served the other patrons their ale, before telling Claude to wait a bit for their food.
After finishing two cups of ale, Myjack and Gum stretched their bodies and unfurled some cloth to remove their muskets before they started maintaining them. It was crucial to keep a musket in good working order in cold conditions. The serpentine, gunstock and flash pan could easily freeze and they had to be constantly checked to ensure they're in working condition.
The burly merchant on the other hand seemed rather curious. He came over to look at the guns and asked, "What mission are you guys on?"
Claude shook his head. "We're going to report for duty after our family visit."
"That doesn't sound right. I thought soldiers weren't allowed to bring their weapons along on family visits."
Claude burst out in laughter at the question he was asked all too often at home. "We're not just average soldiers of the army. We're from 1st Ranger Tribe and we must carry our muskets with us constantly until they become extensions of our bodies. These are precise-shooting guns and we are expected to hit our mark from a set distance. So, all soldiers have to be familiar with the quirks of their own muskets as a minimum requirement."
"I see." The peddler nodded. "I seem to have heard of your unit before. Oh, are you the ones who are stationed near Kristo in the royal capital? I happen to be on a return trip for a delivery there. I heard a ranger corps is currently being formed."
Kristo was one of the four citadels of the royal capital. Skri mentioned in his first letter to Claude that all four ranger tribes were stationed there and the corps would be formed there as well.
Claude nodded. "Oh, you've been there?"
"That's right. I was there for a delivery. At the end of last year, an order was placed for us at the town of Greatwood and we only barely managed to rush there within the deadline. Fortunately, the snowstorm only occurred on our return trip. Otherwise, we would have to pay astronomical sums in reparations," said the burley peddler carefreely.
At that moment, the owner came to serve large plates of food. Claude didn't doubt that the peddler would continue to ramble on about his stories if not for the owner's interruption.
The dishes weren't that great. They were served normal white bread, honeyed wine, potato and beef stew, roasted chicken and grilled steak. It was enough to fill their stomachs. When he finished, Claude went outside to look at the skies. The clouds were still looming over them and the snowstorm might last another two to three days.
That meant that they might not be able to make it to the college in time. Being held back for three days wasn't really the issue. It was travelling on the snow-covered roads that would be the problem. The date was currently the 9th and it would be the 11th if they spent two days there. Had Kleibon been located in the royal capital itself, three days would be enough for them to make it. But it was in the other direction and they still had to continue traveling after reaching the royal capital. That made their schedule really tight.
"You want to go to Kleibon Village?" The burly peddler came over to their table once more when the three were looking at the map troubledly. He seemed to have been listening in to their discussion.
"That's right. We're going to be trained there," Claude replied.
"Oh, Kleibon Royal Army College, right?"
"How do you know about it?" Claude asked with his guard up.
"Haha, nobody but I, Donoby, know the four city sectors, nine towns and 56 villages near the royal capital better! That's where I carry out my trade, you see. You might not know this, but the wooden furniture we produce in Greatwood are highly sought after in the whole of Ibnist Plains. Apart from the rich nobles, everyone in the villages love the furniture our town produces."
The peddler who introduced himself as Donoby continued on a long boast. "During the 11th month last year, I sent a batch of office furniture to Kleibon Village. The college was the one making the purchase. I was wondering why they were building a college in a village. To think that I'd actually meet someone going there... Now, I understand that it's to train military officers like you."
Since the man was in the know, Claude asked him with a sense of hope, "The snowstorm has delayed our journey. We might not be able to reach Kleibon before the 15th. Mister Donoby, do you know any route we may take to reach the village sooner?"
The peddler cracked a smile. "There is one that will only take you two days to reach Kleibon Village."