"Sir, this is the training routine the department of strategy issued. We are instructed to meet these requirements and make sure all the men pass the tests," Major Schnak said as he handed Claude a document the moment he set foot in his office.
Claude flipped through it and shook his head. It was nothing short of overambitious. As Ranger had been assigned 20 thousand war horses, folk command hoped the soldiers could fight both dismounted and mounted. Unfortunately, most of the horses assigned to 131 were war horses, so all the men were required to have some riding ability.
"Let's stick to our plan for now. I'll consult the general for some revisions. Folk command is well intentioned, but they don't understand our capabilities and strategic aims. We can't help much in direct battle. We don't use war horses just for surprise attacks. They have far more uses than that. For one they make us far more mobile on a strategic level."
Claude plopped the plan onto his desk.
It had been nearly two months since the match against the royal guard. Nobody had expected Claude to lead 131 to four successive victories, making the three remaining war games unnecessary. The royal guard was completely humiliated. Claude, on the other hand, was welcomed back to Ranger a hero. Even Miselk welcomed him personally and praised him like a beautiful flower. He also announced the entire tribe was awarded a first-class merit.
Nobody disliked a commander who led one to victory with minimal casualties. Claude had the unquestioning loyalty of his men. Even Major Schnak, Claude's right-hand, had nothing but praise for his commands.
The newspaper on his desk, Capital Chronicles, had 'Ambassador Returns to Shiks, Intent on Restarting Friendly Relations' as its headline. This was at least the third attempt to patch things up between the two kingdoms, and Claude suspected it would be about as successful as the last two. Shiks had so far refused to so much as fart that they had indeed violated Aueran territory. They were even claiming Aueras was the one doing the violating. They were demanding a public apology from the king and reparations.
Myjack put a steaming hot cup of red tea in front of Claude as the latter paged to the relevant page. The labourer bill was dead. It had not been killed by the House of Dignity, though Claude did not doubt the House would have killed it had it gotten that far, no, it had been killed before it even made it to the house floor. Nearly every kingdom of note on the continent had sent messages via their ambassadors protesting the bill, and the less notable countries sent official letters of protest. There'd even been a protest in the capital, something which had not happened since the civil war. Kings and commoners alike had the same objections. They refused to have Freia's soil and people tainted by the demon spawn.
The deputy speaker's manor was even ransacked by the protestors while the constables supposed to keep them off the estate watched on passively. People in the know said the protest was secretly supported by some of the shrines. The religious lot were even more outraged by the bill than those with more pragmatic concerns. Nubissian beliefs were considered evil demon worship. They would never abide such an unspeakable evil to be brought onto the holy soil of Freia.
Religion had once again become the cause of unrest. If Claude's recollections were accurate, the Freians were in fact the ones guilty of heresy. Freians and Nubissians used to believe in the same gods, but the Freians found new gods and abandoned the old. Nubissians still worshipped the original gods, great spirits which they believed could reside in everything, stones, rocks, boulders, trees, hills, mountains, streams, rivers, the ocean, the wind, the clouds, you name it. They had been driven off their land by the colonists, however, their shrines burnt to the ground, their sacred trees cut down, and their holy rocks shattered. Freian shrines also dispatched missionaries to convert the heathens.
Instead of converting the heathens, however, the missionaries spawned a new religion among the missionees. They worshipped a single god, called Sunidat. It was the all-creator. The other gods were considered nothing but incarnations of it, avatars of particular aspects of Sunidat. It might have been possible to accept Sunidat into the fold among the accepted deities, in time, if not for a particular idea in the religion. The idea that Freians were apostates, unbelievers who'd gone astray and disavowed Sunidat and should be eradicated, at the very least wiped off Nubissia.
It didn't take long for the believers in the new religion to begin taking action. Within a couple years they started killing any missionary across whom they came and burning every shrine they found. The shrines, representatives of the true gods, their vicars in the mortal world, would of course not stand for such blasphemy, and so they launched crusade after crusade against the heathens and devil worshippers. The war had been raging more and less intensely for over three hundred years now.
The hatred between the two sides had grown as deep as the marrow and was as natural as breathing to Freians, an instinct bred into them through the generations. They could not allow some short-sighted, faithless politician to bring the demonic savage to the holy land.
Naturally, such an immense bill was not proposed by a single man, but Deputy Speaker Aubnite was the perfect scapegoat. He was one of the new nobles, so the established forces had no interest in protecting him either, leaving him without a backing. He'd not been removed from his position as deputy speaker and member of the house, but everybody knew it was just a matter of time. His political career was over.
The column section of the newspaper had nothing but gossip. Scandals after scandals of young nobles. The first was about a couple lusty young nobles getting too upsy over a famous actress. Two even duelled illegally. Both were sent to hospital. As was too often the case, while the two hopeful hornies were fighting it out, the object of their affection hooked up with a rich old minor noble.
News flowed much quicker and more frequently in the capital. Gossip concerning nobles was often reported. Several papers had even begun specialising in such stories. They were quite popular amongst the poorer peasantry.
Nothing else of value passed in front of Claude's eyes. He tossed the newspaper aside once he'd finished with it and sipped his tea. He finally greeted Schnak, finished his tea, and went to check on the training with his minions. Of the four combat clans, Moriad, Dyavid, and Berklin commanded three. He was not concerned about their performance even without seeing any of it. He was more inclined to keep an eye on the 4th clan. Captain Cashmille was a greenhorn. He did at least have an affable personality -- eager to learn and very obedient.
The only real worry for Claude was the light cavalry. He'd struggled to retrain them as dragoons; much in the vein of Canas' scouts. Their routine consisted of aiming and firing from horseback at other mounted scouts a hundred metres away before turning to run. If the enemy pursued them, they would lead them into ambushes. Claude believed those who'd rather engage in melees were fools.
It was too bad their clansman was one of those fools, a stubborn old nail who drilled his men in charges every waking moment. He had acquiesced to Claude's authority after considerable argument, but the results of their training had been less than encouraging. Myjack had reported that the clansman personally called Claude's shoot-and-run tactic cowardly and said that real cavalrymen should be able to face their enemies no matter the number and charge towards them with blades drawn.
Claude had made up his mind to have the clansman transferred, but he didn't have someone to replace him. He didn't want folk command to send another old fogey and start the whole fight all over again.
Cavalrymen weren't that much of a threat anymore, nor were they much of a force. A clan of light cavalry was just 280 men, and two tents were coachmen. The actual number of combatants was just 250. A unit of that size stood little chance of making a convincing charge. They would just be throwing their lives away. Their only real function was post-battle mop up and the occasional charge at the artillery. Aside from that, they were still decent scouts between battles.
Claude wanted to pick Moriad, Dyavid, or Berklin as the old fogey's replacement. However, he needed to consider which of his friends was most suited to the role.
A fortnight vanished while he struggled with the choice. Claude headed to folk command to see Miselk with his dilemma. First Lieutenant Michael from communications came with an eagle message just as he was preparing to depart. Miselk was summoning him.
What could it be about? Claude wondered. Surely there wasn't another challenge?
He rode to the castle and found an usher waiting for him. He was lead straight to the general's office. It was not another challenge. They were deploying. 131 was being sent to Whitestag.
Claude was more than happy, but he wondered why they were being sent so far from HQ when not on training. There was little in Whitestag as far as the army was concerned. Their orders were to head to Whitestag, ready a barracks for the rest of the folk, then spread their men around the city in key locations.
"What happened?" Claude asked, an ominous feeling of foreboding clawing at his stomach.
Miselk sighed deeply and leaned into his chair.
"I have some bad news. We're at war again."
Again? With whom? He'd not read anything about it in the papers!
"Not on Freia. It's the colonies. We're fighting on Nubissia," the general said with a pained smile, "Shiks' colony has moved against us. Shiks is demanding three colonies; Cromwell, Balingana, and Robisto. The king naturally refused, so now we're at war."
"Is the folk being deployed to the colonies?"
Ranger was supposed to be the royal family's personal army. They were supposed to stay close to them as their hands. Why would they be involved in a Nubissian conflict?
"The ministry of the army said that, with the last war just three years cold, we have no men otherwise. We're the only unit not already on assignment. We're being sent ahead as the vanguard. We're ideal for this if you think about it. We're designed as a rapid response force. This is exactly what we were made for. We can get there faster than any other unit in the army and, more crucially, faster than any major reinforcements from mainland Shiks. The forces in the colonies are small enough that our presence can make a major difference, enough to be the decider between whether we win or lose. At the very least we can hold out until the kingdom can send more substantial reinforcements." Miselk looked up at the ceiling as if there was nothing he could do.
"How can there be no one else to send in the entire army? We have four standing corps and three more that just finished training!" Claude said exasperatedly.
"I know. But like I said, they are already on deployment. It'll take time for them to be pulled back, if they can be at all. The three new corps are holding the 29 new prefectures, they will certainly not be going anywhere. And Reddragon, Bluefeather, and Griffon are holding on the border with Nasri and Canas in case Shiks makes a play for the mainland kingdom. It'll take months to pull one of them back, if the brass even decide we can risk weakening the border."
"What about the royal guard? Aren't they free?"
"Haha, the royal guard..." Miselk snorted dismissively. "They're adamant they're still recovering from the war and will be of no use. I doubt they'd be worth anything even if they were ready and willing to go, anyway. You saw their performance during the war games... Speaking of which, they had the gall to say that since we could trounce them in war games, we should have no problem taking on Shiks' colonial forces on our own. They were the bastards that suggested we be sent.
"That's... that's shameless..." Claude gasped, his jaw dangling loosely by his side.
He didn't think his great performance during the training exercise would end up being used as the reason to send them to Nubissia.
"Do it, Claude," Miselk said as he tapped on the formal order on his desk. "We have no choice but to make the trip. The enemy has occupied half of Cromwell already and are heading for its capital, Wickhamsburg. The brass have decided to keep this under wraps and limit the war in Nubissia to prevent civil panic.
"Our folk's objective is to give the forces of Shiks a harsh lesson and let them understand that all-out war between us will end badly for both sides. We'll force them to sign a ceasefire and a peace treaty. The ministry of the army has also pledged to elevate us to corps status after the war ends."