Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 261
"How?!" Major Lederfanc jumped in his chair. The letter he held was sent by Claude through carrier pigeon. The report stated they had eliminated more than four thousand enemies and only a few hundred of the invading forces of the Askilin and Canas managed to escape. They also captured six landed nobles, more than 200 captives and countless spoils while losing around eight soldiers and having nineteen injured.
Anyone would find the report hard to believe, especially Major Lederfanc. He knew Claude only had less than three bands and three cannoneer squads. They totalled less than 170 people. While the nobles' forces weren't that strong, even an elephant could be killed by too many ants. The enemy had a line and a tribe of troops, around five thousand in total, whereas Claude only had less than 170. Major Lederfanc only hoped the enemy could be held back at Squirrel Village for a time so the nobles' forces would retreat after they ran out of food and supplies. It was an ideal result.
The major was counting down the days anxiously, but it didn't take more than ten for Claude to report he had wiped out more than four thousand and captured two hundred. It was incredible. Were the five thousand nobles' troops nothing but mindless cattle? Even then, Claude couldn't kill more than 400 animals each day so easily!
After calming down, Lederfanc read the report through properly once more. Fortunately, while carrier pigeon deliveries had to be succinct and clear, Claude did briefly describe how he achieved his feat. He had baited the enemy into Squirrel Village, in which he had left lots of easily flammable materials beforehand. All he did later was set the whole place alight.
The major instructed the scribe and strategist of the tribe to send the officer in charge of the enforcer tent to travel with his band to Squirrel Village post haste. Such a feat had to be witnessed and officiated. He believed the top brass would be utterly shocked upon receiving the report and use it to greatly boost the morale of the kingdom's frontline troops. And as Claude's direct superior, Lederfanc would no doubt get a taste of the sweet merit the top doled out.
Claude felt queasy. In fact, he wasn't alone in feeling so. The other soldiers' faces were pale and some vomited so badly they could badly walk. Mazik, on the other hand, swore off smoked and roasted food for good. There was an almost appetising scent of roasted meat wafting above the camp, making anyone exposed to it crave for food. But the soldiers, who understood where such a smell came from, were only filled with disgust and the urge to balk.
Nobody was willing to enter the village reduced to ashes. The fire the night before had been as strong as strong as Claude had anticipated. It was stoked along by a stiff breeze as well. It didn't help that the masses of shield carts the nobles had built had caught fire as well and blocked any hope of escape from the village.
No one had imagined their enemy would set their work alight. It was not doable, either, as far as the nobles were concerned. The defenders had turtled in their camp and fortified it like a fortress and even sealed their only escape route.
The camp was also located a few hundred metres away from the village and if the enemy had tried to burn the shield carts down, the nobles' private soldiers would definitely discover it. Even though the muskets they were armed with were subpar and obsolete, they were far from glorified sticks. They could still be used to repel an enemy advance. The defenders, limited in number as they already were, would surely not dare take such risks.
Claude had planned to burn the village long before the fight had started. He had initially only wanted to keep the nobles on the road to Askilin. He hadn't thought the Canasian nobles would join up with Askilin's forces after they were stuck. It forced Claude to have no choice but to retreat to the camp behind Squirrel Village and slowly wear down the enemy forces. He was worried that the many enemies would expose the fire starters he left in the village eventually.
Fortunately, the nobles had settled on building shield carts and kept themselves really busy for three whole days. That was when Claude decided to push back the plan to set the village on fire by three days. He let them block the village entrance with shield carts and lined them up all across the village since it was nothing but suicidal.
Usually, using heated cannonballs to attack the enemy was a tactic employed in naval conflict. Soldiers seldom used it on land. The reason was that ships were made of wood and heated shots stood a chance to ignite the enemy ship and sink it quicker. As most defensive armaments on land was created with stone, heating shots up was not only troublesome, but it also decreased the impact the shots would have.
But Claude used them to start the fires instead of sending his men out for the same purpose. His constant bombardment of the shield carts desensitised the enemy to any movement in their camp. The nobles didn't mind having the shield carts destroyed anyway and wanted to use them to make Claude waste gunpowder.
So, most of the soldiers went into the decrepit shacks of the villagers to sleep instead of paying vigilant attention to the cannon fire. The peasants, on the other hand, rested right after a good meal. They had toiled hard for three whole days and were severely worn out. Felling trees and dragging them back to the village was no easy work, so they all slept early and soundly. They would have to attack the enemy camp early the next day, after all.
When the first burning hot cannonball soared through the skies of the village, the soldiers merely looked up and ignored it and were even apathetic to whichever unlucky fool who would be struck by it. They didn't know Claude was, in fact, aiming for the trenches at the back part of the village and the wooden fence surrounding it. The soldiers were preoccupied with checking whether the enemy would emerge from the camp to attack.
When the run-down wooden fence and the trenches began to burn, the peasants and soldiers were completely oblivious to it. They were wondering why the cannonballs didn't strike the shield carts instead to produce the thud they were so familiar with. Only after some peasants sleeping near the outer rim were roused from their sleep and cried 'fire' did Claude start shooting at the old shacks in the center of the village. A few heated cannonballs through the roofs of the shacks set the whole place ablaze, and the soldiers and peasants realised far too late.
The winds only got stronger during the night, carrying the flames from one straw roof to another and setting other spots alight. There were almost no stone buildings inside Squirrel Village, with most of them being constructed from shoddy wood. It had been two months since the rainy season and there was only a small rain more than a week back, so the shacks were incredibly dry. The sawdust and wood chunks left behind from the construction of the shield carts as well as the dried straw and firewood left throughout the village covered in oil and gunpowder only accelerated the burning.
The soldiers and peasants had tried to put out the fires by dousing the wood near them with water or trying to beat up the small embers near them, but the wind rendered their efforts useless. The whole village was burning and by the time they realised there was no hope of putting the fires out, it was too late. The 20-odd rows of shield carts barring the village's exit had started burning and trapped everyone in the village.
Had the soldiers near the village entrance rushed out the moment they noticed it, the worst that could happen to them was being captured. But the only thing on their minds was that the enemy base was outside the village, so their first thought was to head to the back with the intent on leaving from there.
But that was where the flames started. It was so thick nobody could run through it and expect to survive. The shield carts piled up and the panicked peasants buzzing about like flies, and the burning shacks around them blocked their escape.
By the time the soldiers and peasants thought to escape the village, the shield carts strewn across the empty spaces in the village started to burn and block the way. The rest of the logs felled began to release smoke and delivered yet another fatal blow to those trapped within.
The speed at which the fire spread was beyond Claude's wildest predictions. From more than a hundred metres away, he could feel the heatwave. Everyone who heard the cries and shrieks from the village felt rather distressed, but they couldn't rescue them even if they wanted to. There was no way to approach the burning village at all.
A few burning wheat stalks were blown by the wind to the wooden rain shelters on the camp's walls. Claude immediately ordered his troops to douse it with water. He couldn't let his camp burn too.
He then had Mazik lead a band of men to remove all the wooden boards they stacked over the trap holes on the mountain path. By the time his men splashed the entirety of the camp with some water, the ones who weren't injured set out to attack the alternate enemy camp and even brought two cannons with them.
The noble forces in the alternate camp also noticed the burning village. The night sky was practically entirely red. Apart from a few nobles too drunk to be awoken, the remaining nobles gathered at the entrance of their camp and looked towards the village.
Apart from sending people to check what was going on, the distraught nobles were squabbling about how the fire could've started. Most of them believed either someone accidentally let a fire spread or that the enemy started setting fire to the shield carts. They didn't really care whether all the carts were burned up or not. They had the numbers and could easily fell more trees to build new ones.
But when the troops sent to check on the village returned with a few hundred survivors, the nobles were made aware of the state of the village. There were more than two thousand more of their own trapped in the village and their men said they couldn't approach the village at all. The fire burned too strongly and all they could do was listen to the agonised cries for help coming from within.
The nobles felt as if a lightning bolt had struck them on the head. A few of them passed out from vomiting blood, and those who didn't lose any blood didn't feel too well either. They were completely dejected and broken, mumbling nonsense while plastered on the ground. They all knew their attempt to raid the three southern prefectures had ended in their complete bankruptcy.
Claude and his men dealt the final blow before they could come to their senses. Had the shield carts lined up beyond the large trap hole not alerted the enemy of their presence, Claude was certain he could've captured all the nobles there.
But when the soldiers of the nobles noticed Claude and the others placing wooden boards over their trap holes, they dragged as many of their despairing masters they could with them into the camp and shut the door.
By the time he blasted the camp entrance open with the two cannons, the noble's forces knew it was all over. They gathered up all the mounts and workhorses in the camp and helped the nobles who snapped out of their stupor on their mounts and destroyed the rear end of their fence so they could escape.
When Claude and the rest bust through the camp, they only caught some tens of servants and hundreds of injured soldiers who couldn't escape in time, as well as the six nobles still dead drunk in their tents. The others had left without a trace.