Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 265
Joint Investigation Committee
The weather that day was good. Blue skies, fluffy clouds and golden rays of sunlight were all in place. The wilderness looked lush and green and the breeze that blew by carried with it the smell of life.
However, the officers in the joint investigation committee formed by frontline command seemed to have their hairs standing. They felt a deep-seated, eerie chill. They had just dug up the body pits per the orders of the top to verify the number of corpses stated in the report.
Lederfanc coldly ordered his men to carry the order out. There was no choice. The fact that Claude fended off the nobles' armies from both duchies with only three bands of men was hard to believe. Most, if not all, doubted he had achieved that much. The numerical disparity was far too large, and even those officers that denied Claude's achievements didn't dare to claim that they could win. It was said that the staff officers at frontline command tried innumerable times to simulate the battle based on the map of the terrain, but the ideal result still ended with the death of all Aueran troops after half a month of deadly resistance.
That was why many people had a lot to say when they heard Prince Hansbach regarded the report seriously instead of ignoring it. Some even objected to his decision and demanded the alleged false-reporting be punished, or it would set a bad example for the rest of the force and the consequences were immeasurable.
But the prince ignored his subordinates' suggestions and waited until the path through Pikleit Mountains was repaired. After reinforcements were sent to the three southern prefectures, the prince held a military council and formed a joint investigation committee to investigate the claims of 1st Ranger Tribe.
It was worth noting that most of the officers in that committee were the ones who doubted the report the most. The prince only sent Captain Skri as his representative to ensure that the other officers didn't pull any tricks. Who could tell what the men had in mind? Perhaps they would try to cover the truth up if it contradicted their beliefs to avoid loss of face.
Back then, the path through Pikleit Mountains was still in disrepair and Lederfanc had no choice but to use a carrier eagle to send that report to frontline command. As the four ranger tribes were formed in a time of war by the first prince, they reported directly to frontline command. Even though the three southern prefectures were held by Bluefeather, they didn't hold any jurisdiction over the ranger tribes.
Carrier eagles were just like carrier pigeons in that any information sent had to be summarised and succinct. That was why Lederfanc had to exclude a lot of details, covering only the most important and basic facts. The documents of proof for the battle were still in tribe headquarters. He knew that the summarised report would surely earn the doubt of others, but he didn't think frontline command would be thrown into such a huge commotion over it and send over an investigation committee to dispel doubt.
The moment the joint investigation committee arrived at 1st Ranger Tribe's headquarters, they flipped through the evidence and detailed battle reports and tried to seek any sign of forgery. However, Major Lederfanc's compilation was thorough and perfect. There was nothing the investigators could nitpick.
They tossed the documents to one side, having been unable to find any proof of deceit, and decided to use another method. First, they interrogated the six captured nobles, then the 100-odd captives, before checking the spoils of battle and finally inspecting the scene of battle: Squirrel Village itself.
When they reached the village, Claude took the staff officers from the committee on a tour throughout the locations where the battles were fought. It took him three whole days for the tour. He repeated his recollection of those battles in as great detail he could. Even though Squirrel Village was being rebuilt, the burn marks were present all over the place. Claude had to rewrite one battle report and draw a diagram of the original map of Squirrel Village, complete with the placement of traps and the method with which he baited the enemy into it.
After three long days, it was finally Mazik, Moriad and the others' turns. All soldiers who had participated in battle couldn't avoid the questioning sessions. They were basically done to record the recollections of the soldiers and cross-check them for lies or fabrications. Even Dyavid, who left for town to suppress local revolts, wasn't exempt from it. He brought his band back to the village to go through the same process.
Next was the turn of the 130-odd captives Claude used as labourers. Claude took the opportunity to ask Lederfanc to send the twelve captives who had recovered from their injury at tribe headquarters to him. Since they had nothing better to do there, it would be better for them to contribute to the work in Squirrel Village.
The reconstruction of Squirrel Village caused some of the villagers' relatives in Blackstone Village and Carmen Village to want to move there. There were 20-odd households in total. But there was a problem: there wasn't sufficient farmland in Squirrel Village. The village chief and Sergeant-Major Mazik came to Claude with the request to borrow the 130-odd captive labourers to cultivate new farmland. Lately, the chief's tavern business had been going well and he saved up quite a bit of money. He was willing to hire people for work.
Claude was all too glad to hear that. More farmland in the village would definitely be a good thing for the officers stationed there in the future, as there would be more variety of food and vegetables. At the very least, they would no longer have to travel one whole day on horseback to the nearest town to purchase fresh vegetables and fruits. Given that the villagers had started rearing livestock, they would require additional food to sustain themselves. Perhaps Squirrel Village might become a town if it was allowed to develop like this further.
The village chief also wanted to start a brewery, mainly to brew wine from wild fruits in the mountain and blackwheat ale. The alcohol served in the tavern were mostly sourced from the other folk living in the mountains and the cost of travelling that far to buy from them made alcohol considerably more expensive. That wasn't a good deal for the village chief, so he felt it best if a few hectares of farmland could be used to plant blackwheat for the ale.
Claude agreed to that request. The gunpowder he got from the noble army wasn't of much use to him anyway, so he decided to use them to blow up a few hills and use the earth and rock to fill up a few gallies to make new farmland. The captives would be doing all the work anyway, and the village chief could hire some soldiers if that wasn't enough. The soldiers would definitely welcome the extra income they could spend at the village chief's tavern.
Lederfanc quite admired Claude's plan to rebuild the village and encourage them to develop their agriculture. On one hand, it could make up for the damage done to the village. On the other, it would earn the kingdom loyalty of the mountain folk in the area. Should another war break out, the folk would definitely side with Aueras instead of being swayed by informants from the two duchies again. Revolts would also slowly begin to die down.
So, Lederfanc decided to have all the captives in tribe headquarters sent to Squirrel Village as labourers. Apart from the recovered captives, he also planned to give Claude custody of the insurgent captives. But he reminded Claude to not only focus on the village itself, but also revamp the mountain path to allow for quicker transportation of resources.
After another three long days of interrogating captives, the verdict was that the report was believable. A few officers of the joint investigation committee who stubbornly refused to admit it used their final move: they requested to see the corpses of the enemies to ensure the number buried was consistent with the reports.
Claude couldn't admire Lederfanc more for his thoroughness. He even felt so touched he almost cried. The first time Lederfanc checked the battle results, he foresaw such a situation and made sure to make a detailed map with grave markers. He even had the corpses transported and lined up properly before burial.
It had been two months since the burial and the weather gradually turned hot. The unearthed corpses let out a rotting stench that caused everyone there to puke. Claude got a few clean linen cloths out of the warehouse and cut them into smaller pieces for the soldiers and captives to wear to mitigate the stench and also instructed Myjack to prepare sanitising products for the men to use during bath after they were done to prevent a plague.
When Lederfanc ordered for the corpses to be buried, he had them stacked up neatly and aligned their head and feet. Each pair of layers was separated by a grass mat. Every grave was marked with the exact number of corpses buried there and each grave pit was separated by a two-metre distance. As such, the number of graves and their sizes could be approximated without accounting for every corpse. But that fact was cited by the joint investigation committee as possible proof of fabrication. Despite that, nobody was willing to unearth every single worm-filled, rotting corpse.
So, they settled on only digging up the top layer of mud to reveal the first corpse beneath the ground and digging out the dirt from the two-metre separation between the mass graves so that the stacks of corpses could be seen from the side. The number of corpses in each mass grave was clearly recorded in the reports and after verifying more than ten mass graves, even Captain Skri couldn't take it any longer and declared Lederfanc's report to be trustworthy. There was no need to continue digging out the mass graves. The members of the investigation committee that went down between the graves to count the corpses lost all appetite and couldn't stomach anything.
Despite that, Major Lederfanc refused to call it off. He insisted each and every mass grave be checked and accounted for so that no further doubt of the victorious battle could be cast in future. This matter was something that had to do with the pride and reputation of 1st Ranger Tribe. Under his insistence, the joint investigation committee could only continue to clench their noses as they worked away, vomiting from time to time. They managed to finish verifying all the mass graves and each and every one of the staff officers signed their names to acknowledge the miraculous victory.
After half a month, the committee that had arrived in such an imposing manner left like sick quails with their heads down the entire time. They were unable to find the slightest bit of proof that the battle was forged and didn't eat well after unearthing those graves. The soldiers who participated in the battle on the other hand absolutely couldn't stand the self-absorbed staff officers who all thought themselves to be military geniuses.
One such soldier told the staff officers during the interrogation that just because their simulations couldn't achieve the same result, that didn't mean others couldn't. He said he didn't believe Claude could hold Squirrel Village when faced with so many foes either, but he witnessed it happen before his very own eyes. Every one of the soldiers respected Claude deeply because he held their safety as paramount instead of using them as cannon fodder to further his career.
It was from that moment onward that the staff officers from the committee noticed the berating look the soldiers cast on them. Their blatantly cursory salutes and silent whispers seemed to suggest the staff officers were being mocked for their envy and jealousy, much to their distress. They quickly left after they wrapped up their investigation.
Captain Skri personally handed the results of the investigation to Prince Hansbach.
"So this victory is undoubtedly true?" the prince asked.
"Yes, Your Highness. It is indeed a miraculous, undoubtable victory. This is the detailed battle report. Second Lieutenant Claude had clearly explained the tactics and plans he used throughout the battle."
Prince Hansbach took the report impatiently. "I see... So he used the terrain to his advantage to stop the Canasian nobles from attacking from the mountain path. The plan to set fire to Squirrel Village was initially only a countermeasure for the Askilinian nobles' forces, but the Canasian forces unexpectedly joined up with the Asklinian forces, so he had to adjust his plans to set up a defence line at the rear mountain of the village to wear down the enemy troops before retreating back to base to lure the enemy into the village. Then, he used heated cannonballs to start the fire...
"Not bad. Not bad at all. Claude really is a talented fellow. His plans really were out of the box. It was a happy coincidence that the nobles went along with it by constructing so many shield carts to lock themselves in. They really did a number on themselves." Hansbach turned around. "By the way, Skri, how does the ministry of the army plan to reward this Claude?"
"Your Highness, according to military regulation, an officer of his rank can earn one first-class merit for every thousand enemies eradicated. Based on this battle, Second Lieutenant Claude would earn five first-class merits. His success of securing his base despite such a huge numerical disparity also affords him two first-class merits. Together, Second Lieutenant Claude might be promoted all the way to major."
Captain Skri paused, before he continued. "But this promotion and reward has incurred the objections of many other officers who think him too young. He's only 21, and they believe him unfit to serve as major. Additionally, the enemies he exterminated were only conscripted peasants and private soldiers of the nobles. They number a lot, but they are relatively weak. So, they request for the merits to be decreased so that Second Lieutenant Claude will only be promoted to First Lieutenant. He still has many opportunities ahead of him, according to them, since he's still young."