Claude thought he had long since become used to this world's barbarism, but he had only just discovered its true, horrific extent.
"Lord Militant, the sweep is complete. We found more than 1300 sets of goods belonging to the town of Machalin. Many of the goods reported missing are also bloodstained. We even found some things taken from the town hall with the nightingale emblem of Machalin. And the abducted townsfolk, but..."
Masonhughes paused for a good, tragic moment.
"The women are still alive. The men in the tribe need to vent their pent-up energy and have them give birth to new young for the tribe. However, only a few young men were kept alive as slaves. The captured elderly were all killed the moment they were brought to the tribe as the tribe needed to use their skulls as drinking bowls."
There had been a bandit raid on the town of Machalin near Ligmada Hills a few days earlier. The bandits were gone by the time Thundercrash finally reached the town. Machalin was left in ruins, less than half its population of three thousand still alive. All in all, 400 were missing or dead. Without a doubt, the bandits had taken them away.
Enraged at his territory being so blatantly violated, Claude immediately sent his best men after them. After half a month of searching, they finally found the middle-sized tribe, some thousand strong. After a rather anticlimactic battle and paying for their victory with three deaths and a hundred injured, the line of cavalry troops took the settlement.
Claude was initially quite curious why the list of missing people from Machalin included old men in their fifties and above. Were the bandits going to feed the elderly? He didn't expect their skulls were considered kitchenware.
"I recall there are travelling merchants all over Northbay selling daily necessities. This tribe can definitely trade for wooden and copper bowls with furs and leather. The bowls are cheap and well made. Why would they do something so cruel?" an officer asked.
"I've interrogated the captives. They said it's a tribal custom," Masonhughes replied, "The nomadic tribes on the Great Plains think the older a person gets, the wiser they became. So, they kill the elderly in their tribes as they near death to use their skulls as bowls. They believe they will inherit their knowledge and become wiser.
"However, they don't have that many old people in their tribes to begin with, so they love to kidnap elderly from nearby towns. The victims have to be alive while they make the bowls. Apparently the pain is supposed to infuse their knowledge into the skull bone."
"What a disgusting and foolish custom. Do they think they can inherit knowledge without any effort? How abhorrent!" another officer yelled.
"Actually, not all nomadic tribes on the plains share these barbaric customs. For example, the Kemdo tribe is among the first to live in permanent settlements. After they occupied the business sector of Northbay and developed the mining centre in Ligmada Hills and agricultural centre near Beaumarisburg, they also introduced basic education. Half the other nomadic tribes have also abandoned such old, pointless customs.
"Perhaps only the few that kept their nomadic lifestyle would keep such a barbaric custom. They believe that the settled nomads were traitors to their wolf god, thinking themselves as wolves that had to travel the plains nonstop instead of sitting and watching their homes like normal guard dogs. That's why they don't see the settled tribes as their own, but rather, as sworn enemies. They won't show them any mercy," explained Masonhughes.
Claude stood up and stepped out of his tent. Smiling to his officers, he said, "Back then, the tribal chief of Kemdo, Jamiarde Dolbaji Kemdo, had travelled much through Freia in his youth with merchants to develop his knowledge before he returned to institute those reforms, making Kemdo among the first of the major tribes.
"After three generations, around six decades, the Kemdo became civilised like us in stark contrast to their barbarian brethren. Now, however, we are the victors. We don't have six decades to civilise these barbarians, so we can only tolerate what they did. Masonhughes!"
"Lord Militant, what are your orders?!"
"I heard the tribes kill the elderly and only take the women and children after swallowing up smaller tribes. Is that custom commonplace?" Claude asked, narrowing his eyes to look into the distant plains.
The battles there had ended. Thundercrash's men could be seen gathering the captives, with some of them dismounting and delivering a stab to the enemy corpses on the ground.
"Yes, Lord Militant. The nomadic tribes only keep captives useful to them. Young women will be kept to birth and nurse their young. Young children shorter than a wheel will be kept and raised into loyal slave warriors, for they won't remember much and won't hold grudges. Children taller than a wheel are deemed to be able to hold grudges, so taking them in is akin to sowing seeds of hate for the tribe and nurturing them, so they kill most of them off," Masonhughes explained.
"Good. As newcomers to the plains, we have to respect their customs. Give the order to deal with their captives the way they do theirs. Men taller than a wheel are to be beheaded, no, shot. It's more civilised. As for women and children, hand them to the victims of Machalin as reparations for their suffering," Claude ordered coldly.
"Uh... Lord Militant... I..." Masonhughes seemed to want to say something else, but he snapped alert when he saw Claude's expression. "Yes, Sir!"
The atmosphere was tense, with Claude having just given such a merciless order. Even his officers found it a little out of character, as Claude had always been one to treat his captives fairly. During the colonial wars, Claude had said that fighting and dying in battle was the duty of a soldier, but after the fight, they should be tolerant of their captives as the victor. They should do no more than what was minimally required of their duties.
But the report of the skull drinking bowls made the officers understand the rationale behind that order of his. One simply had to speak the same language of cruelty the barbarians did to strike fear in them. Otherwise, one would be seen as weak. They wouldn't remember what tolerance had been shown to them and would only double down on the bullying and deception.
"I really don't know why the nomadic tribes would come here to attack Machalin. According to the town's survivors, they haven't been raided in more than three decades, so they were completely unprepared," one other officer said.
Claude turned to him and said, "I have an answer to that. Look at the map and you'll see how the shape of the Great Plains of Canas look like a large, green scar stretching outwards. Its area alone isn't any smaller than Nasri.
"The Duchy of Canas isn't a kingdom because the duke only really controls the coastal areas and the tip of the green scar. He doesn't hold control over the whole of the plains nor its depths.
"Deeper into the plains are where countless nomadic tribes roam. Duke Canas forms a trading convoy to trade daily necessities with them in exchange for the tribes to not attack the area under the duke's control.
"But ever since the duke fled, the agreement is as good as void. This tribe probably came because they thought the duke defaulted on the agreement, so they wanted to vent on the duke's subjects.
"Looks like we have to strengthen our defences and supervision over the area. I think there will be attacks from more tribes like this. If we don't give them a few harsh lessons and teach them fear, they will never give up on their riding blades. Only when they feel the hurt will they surrender and request peaceful trade talks with us."
"But Lord Militant, the bandits we deal with aren't all nomadic tribes. The more troublesome ones are the duke's former subordinates who hide among the populace and attack our isolated troops. It's really hard for us to sweep them out," one officer said.
"Let's take things step by step. That's another kind of battle not fit for soldiers like us. While the hidden bandits are harder to deal with, that doesn't mean we're helpless against them. The reason Thundercrash is stationed here in Northbay is to increase security and our control over traffic here. Haven't you noticed reports of bandit attacks have been decreasing?
"It's simple. The spies of the bandits within Northbay can't send information out thanks to our checkpoints, so the ones on the outside can only attack blind. Secondly, the smaller bandit bands are afraid of our military might and don't dare attack carelessly. We're temporarily ignoring the smaller bands because they only target out troops, not the civilians. We'll just sit and wait for them to come to our door for target practice.
"Additionally, this isn't our home turf. If things are going well in the kingdom and this part of the Canasian region becomes our fiefs, our region will invest a sum of money to develop this place. By then, we'll be able to transfer a few constable branches here for them to take out the covert bandit informants. With their help, there's no way the bandits can escape."
Upon mention of the fiefs, three riders could be seen approaching from afar. The one at the front dismounted quickly and handed a small leather bag to a guard that stopped him before heading for the stables with his other two comrades. They had to feed and water their worn-out horses.
The guard inspected the leather bag and handed it to Claude. Within it were two small, silver tubes containing eagle messages.
News from the royal capital came. Claude was three days on horseback away from Canpast and the letter from the royal capital was first delivered to Polyvisia and then Canpast by eagle. The whole delivery took around four to five days, so it was rather old news by the time it reached Claude.
However, he would be returning a day later now that the bandits responsible for Machalin's raid were dealt with. He relaxed and read the letter. The first stated that Prime Minister Blancarte had already heard the demands of the council members and soldiers. Bernard had also handed the list and map of the fiefs to him.
The letter was dated on the 28th of the 10th month of Year 601. It was already the 7th of the 11th month. Oddly, the letter was late by four days. However, he understood why when he looked at the second letter. It wasn't the fault of the receiver, but rather, the signaller waited until a response from the court was given before sending it along with the first letter.
The second later stated that Fredrey I and the ministers had a secret conference across three days and agreed to the fief locations. The commercial Northbay sector near the Canasian coast, the mining sector of Ligmada Hills and the agricultural Beumarisburg sector, as well as a part of the Great Plains of Canas, would be given to the region's nobles as fiefs.
However, the king stressed that it was an exception for the region's contributions in helping unite Eastern Freia. But to punish the council members for disobeying the king's orders and marking out their fiefs, the king decided to double the fief-picking fee.
Bernard said he decided he would start negotiations with the king during the grand summit on the 10th of the 11th month, because the king had refused to make concessions for the fees. A new estimation saw that the region would have to pay nearly 100 million crowns to get the fiefs they picked.
Not a single council member was willing to pay those exorbitant fees, angrily calling it a huge scam. On the 10th of the 11th month, Henderman would bring the 60 chests filled with gold crowns to dazzle the nobles and officials attending the summit.
Claude was aware that Bernard had no choice but to do that when he felt that the king and his ministers wouldn't easily agree to the discount. In essence, he was expressing that it wasn't that the region didn't have the money, but the kingdom's asking price was too ridiculous. So, they would rather forget the fiefs and leave after showing them the shiny 30 million crowns out of spite.
If the price was only ten or twenty million crowns more than the agreed amount, they only had to bring another 30 million crowns there to make up for the price. But asking more than three times that amount was going overboard. Even the region couldn't afford to take out a sum of that amount.
It appeared that they could just forget the fiefs. If he really wanted the Canasian coast, it would be better to turn against the kingdom. It wasn't that the kingdom could afford to punish them, given the state of their military might. They wouldn't dare risk another civil war with the region.
The only issue was both the soldiers and civilians of the region still considered themselves Auerans. None of them would be willing to fight the kingdom. Some soldiers might even execute Claude for turning traitor...