Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 468
It was rather dark inside the cabin. The only sources of light were the fine gaps between the boards above, through which sunlight bled through. One was only barely able to make out one's surroundings inside. Nearly three hundred people were seated in the squashed cabin. The wide cabin couldn't have felt more oppressive. Fortunately, a few air holes were opened up at the walls of the cabin before they departed. Otherwise, the stale air would've been even harder to bear.
Lieutenant-Colonel Drivick was standing at the side of the frontmost window of the cabin. The fresh air that came in from outside smelled frosty and salty like the ocean. From a distance, the monochromic brown of the sea and the dark crimson of the sky were met in the middle by an endless black horizon.
The winds and waves were rather strong that day, causing the ship to undulate quite strongly. However, it was no big deal for Drivick. He had experienced his fair share of stormy voyages. Back when the five-year war of Freia just ended, he could no longer serve in the kingdom's army, being a conscript from the colonies, so he was forcefully discharged and sent back to Anfiston.
In the next three years, he worked in the mining company his father, Weyblon, had founded, and learned some basics on developing mines as preparation for taking over the family business in the future. Back then, he often had to make sure the shipment of ingots could successfully reach Port Cobius at Tyrrsim, hence his extensive experience with sailing.
Not long after, the colonial conflict broke out. Drivick had wanted to enlist for the local garrison forces to be a warrior that resisted the Shiksan invasion, but he was stopped by his father.
Weyblon told him that it wasn't that he didn't know what kind of a mess their garrison forces were. Resisting the enemy wasn't something achievable through blind courage alone. Joining the force with that mindset would be nothing more than committing suicide. Thanks to his family's advice, Drivick called off joining the force in the end and packed up to move to safer places with his family and associates from the company.
Mid way through his move, he encountered the vanguard forces of Ranger folk. Claude was still a lieutenant-colonel and tribesman of his special independent tribe then. What Drivick found weird was how ever since his father got to know that young tribesman, he decided to return to Anfiston instead of continuing their escape. It was only after the fact that Drivick could truly appreciate the wisdom in his father's actions. Ranger folk soon won in the first and second colonial wars.
That only steeled his drive to serve in the force even further. This time around, his father didn't object and requested Claude, who had been promoted to a major-general then, to let Drivick join the newly formed Thundercrash folk. As a first lieutenant who joined after being discharged some five years ago, Drivick couldn't quite get used to military life initially. Even so, he persevered and formally became a junior officer of the kingdom.
Since the third colonial war up till the chaotic battle with the Shiksans at the northern mountains, Drivick had been quite lucky and survived. Due to his acts of bravery over the course of battles, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and was now tribesman in Thundercrash 1st Folk, Line 1303, Combat Tribe 123.
During the surprise attack on Cape Loducus, Drivick knew the contents of the plan, being among the ranks of the high-ranking officers. He couldn't help but marvel at Claude's sheer guts. They had to bear the gruelling seven-day voyage inside ship cabins. If the slightest flaw in their disguise was discovered by the Shiksan patrol warships, they would essentially be buried at sea. In such cold weather, there was nowhere to run from the fate of an ocean burial.
Drivick really wanted to take his pipe out for some smokes to calm his nerves -- a habit he picked up from the veterans that helped loosen the tension after battles and keep one from nodding off. But the moment he put his hand in his tobacco sack, he recalled the strict ban on smokes in the cabins. All he could do was bite on a few of the leaves, letting the bitter and spicy sensation fill his mouth.
Not long after, as he was about to doze off, he heard the sound of bamboo striking the deck above. A guard beside him pushed him to wake him before pointing up at the top. Drivick rubbed his face to refresh himself. "Is it nighttime? We can go air ourselves out, right?"
During the week-long voyage, the soldiers had to stay inside the cabins during the day. It was only during the night that they were allowed to go on deck for fresh air. In merely two days, the use of the phrase 'airing oneself out' spread throughout the ships. The soldiers thought of themselves prisoners of the ships, with the cabins as their cells.
Drivick clapped his hands and told the other troops in the cabin, "Same rules apply. Warm your hands and legs up first lest you lose control of your body when you get up on deck and fall into the sea. Nobody's going to save you in weather like this. You'll freeze to death before anyone notices, and I won't waste the lives of other warriors to save you. Quick, get moving and pay attention. Move your limbs..."
There were around 300 men in the cabin, leaving little space for warm-up exercises inside. However, Drivick's exercises didn't require that much space. The soldiers remained seated and hugged the back of their heads with both arms before kicking both legs in the air like rabbits hopping. They also almost seemed like they were riding an imaginary bicycle.
Those were borne out of necessity. During their stop on the first night, three soldiers whose legs were numb wanted to play tough to piss off the deck, only to lose balance and fall into the ocean. Two were rescued, but quickly died from the cold. One more was unfortunate enough to not even be found. Since that day, the soldiers would only be allowed to go up after they warmed up.
There were 165 near-shore transport vessels in total. It was one of the largest shallow-water fleets to come from the colonies. They stopped in a reef area at night that had a depth of no more than six metres. These ships didn't sink deeper than three metres, so all they needed to secure the ships were seven-metre-long bamboo stilts. As for the rest, they only had to nail a few planks together around the ship before dropping the anchor into the ocean.
The various units of 1st Folk were assigned their ships according to their units. Lines 1301 to 1304's ships were connected together and surrounded the centre of the fleet. The folk's direct units were put in the centremost ship that connected to the other ships with planks.
The reason for doing so was to ensure the stability of the near-shore vessels. As they weren't that deep into the water, most of the goods were placed on the deck and it gave off a sensation of imbalance. During the day, the ships wouldn't really waver no matter how strong the wind as the sails were stabilising the ships. But at night, strong winds could easily flip those ships, so connecting them together increased the overall base area and shifted the centre of gravity further into the centre, making them harder to topple. The only thing they had to pay attention to in that layout was preventing fires and pirate attacks.
The frosty air that assailed them caused them to shudder. The sailors on deck were anxiously securing their ships with the other ships. With the ships now connected, there was more space to move around.
The bearded Major Marylans wormed out of the cabin, saw Drivick and waved at him with his pipe. The two of them approached the deck of the rear transport ship -- it was the designated smoking area for the addicted sailors and troops.
Drivick and Marylans weren't the only ones taking a puff there. Many embers lit up across the many ships, making it seem like firefly season. The lights blinked in and out from time to time.
Dinner was a rather plain serving of meat sandwiched in black bread, a cup of ale, a bowl of mashed potatoes and beef and a carrot. At least, they were able to eat something warm for dinner, as opposed to breakfast and lunch. The soldiers could only eat dry rations in the morning as they couldn't leave. Some sailors on deck would bring down two buckets of warm water for them to drink to warm up. The cabin was rather cold, after all, and the straw that was placed all over still didn't stop one from shivering when in contact with the walls of the ship.
The voyage went on for two more days until they finally reached Cape Moroks. There was only a day and a half before the arrival at Cape Loducus. If they didn't stop at night, it would only take one day. However, it was rather risky to have a fleet of 165 ships sail at night. It would be too late to salvage the situation once things went wrong.
Two clear rings could be heard from above the cabin. That signalled the presence of patrol warships. Everyone was to be on alert and not make any noise as they readied themselves for combat. All air windows and holes were to be shut tight.
"Everyone, bite onto a towel. Resist any coughing or sneezing," Drivick ordered, "Close the windows and lock all the wooden trap doors. Shut the air hole as well."
Soon, the cabin was completely dark. The air started to grow stale. Only the walls of the cabin still smelled like raw seawater.
Around half an hour passed and Drivick felt the ship he was in slow down. They seemed to have pulled up the sails. He knew that the ship he was on was near the outer fringes. Fortunately, the shut windows still had really small holes, beyond which was a blurry layer of glass. Through that, one could see two Shiksan light-class patrol warships stopped around a hundred metres away as well as one class-two patrol sail warship.
It was obvious that the cannons on those ships had already been trailed on the transport ships. The moment they gave themselves away, Thundercrash 1st Folk would perish in the seas.
Drivick couldn't see that the warships were letting down seven lifeboats for the Shiksan marines to sail towards the transport fleet. Some ten minutes later, one lifeboat was close enough. A bearded Shiksan major climbed up the transport ship on a rope they let down.
"Haha, why's it you, my brother?" the nominal person in charge, Zeek, greeted with a warm hug.
The Shiksan major also seemed rather surprised. "Haha, Old Zeek, so this is your fleet?"
Zeek shook his head. "No, it's not mine. It's the wild-bull company's. If it were mine, I would be staying in my warm home beside the fireplace as I roast something delicious to go with my wine. Who would be willing to go to sea during such cold weather? Life is already short enough without all that!"
The major chuckled. "Then, why are you here?"
Zeek grimaced. "The goddess of fortune didn't look after her most devout believer, me. I actually lost three months' worth of salary in a night within the tavern! How would I dare to go home? You should've heard about my dragon of a wife, right? If she knows... she'll skin me alive and grind my bones down to fine dust. Thankfully, I got a job with the company as supervisor and don't have to stay home to get beat up..."
The Shiksan marines broke out in laughter at the wife-fearing man. The major couldn't shut his mouth either and slapped his thigh nonstop. It took him quite some effort to catch his breath. "Alright, Zeek, let's not joke around. Where's your fleet going and what are you transporting?"
"Where else? Your place, of course," Zeek muttered, before he turned to yell, "Lil' Puck! Get me the accounts book from the cabin!"
Puck was Claude disguised as one of the company's accountants. He hurriedly came over and handed a large book to Zeek. Seeing the major, he jumped and told Zeek, "Are they here to collect the goods? What are they waiting for? Go make an inventory, quick. Once you're done, we can go home sooner."
Zeek grabbed the book from him. "In your dreams. Just follow us to the spot and do your job. You can only go home after you finish making the inventory. Don't worry. Your wife's child won't be born just yet only because you're half a month late back home. Didn't the herbalist say there's still three months before her birth?"
Zeek turned around to hand the book to the major. "This is our company's accountant. His wife's pregnant and will give birth soon. This twerp didn't want to come no matter what and I had to tie him up to take him along. You really ordered too many goods this time around. I won't feel safe without this kid checking the goods properly. You know how bad I am at counting. Numbers above three digits will get me all confused. Thankfully, the boss decided to get him to help me out."
The major eyed Claude and saw him hugging his legs while shivering from the cold. The large glasses he wore was fit for the classic accountant he was playing, so the major paid him no more heed. Once he opened the book, however, he seemed quite shocked. "Zeek! Your boss must be rather capable to be able to get us so much good stuff. You even have blueberry wine produced in 76..."
Zeek chuckled and said, "Come to think of it, it's thanks to your forces from fighting your way to Lanu. The theatre was thrown into complete chaos. They no longer care about our businesses, so our boss used this chaos to get you a few extra warehouses' worth of goods, all to trade with you. Thankfully, that logistician of yours also seemed keen on it. So, we formed this large fleet to transport everything all at once. Even if the theatre forbids sailing later on, it would be pointless since what's done is done..."
"Your boss really is a sharp one. It's no wonder the wild-bull company grew so big. They even have a reputation on the western coast. Zeek, what do these three lines of red, blue, and black mean?"
"It's to differentiate the goods. The red ones are the orders your logistics department made. The blue ones are goods the officers in Cape Loducus City ordered. The black ones are goods we're going to store in the warehouses we have here."
"I see. Looks like this voyage of yours will become quite profitable," the major enviously said. He nodded to another soldier beside him. "There's no issue here. Inform the captain that they are transporting goods to our main supply base."
That soldier showed a small, red flag before flashing a green one to the warships in the distance. After a while, he reported, "Major, the captain instructed us to check the goods to ensure it's the same as the list."
The major cursed in the direction of the captain at his misfortune for encountering such a paranoid captain who loved to cause him trouble. However, he had to obey the order due to being the ship captain's inferior.
Zeek said, "It's fine. Our ships are numbered and you can see what we carry from the list here. You don't have to hop on every single ship. Just remain here and I'll sail from one ship to the next so you can check the accounts and the goods."
Drivick heard the call signal the sailors above used and felt the ship sail ever so slowly, before touching another ship lightly.
A voice could be heard saying, "Major, this ship only carries wheat ale, so is the cabin below. I'll have the deckhands help move the ale barrels aside before opening the hatch for you to see."
Sounds of ale rolling on deck could be heard before the trap door was opened up. However, the Shiksan soldier didn't seem too keen on checking. They merely looked down into the hole and said, "Major, the ship's full of wheat ale."
The matter got covered up just like that, much to Drivick's relief. If the Shiksan soldiers had come down to check, they would see that the ale barrels were empty. Pushing the barrels aside would reveal the nervous expressions of the three hundred soldiers inside.
The further back they went, the more careless the checks became. There were 165 near-shore vessels, after all. Checking every one of them was risky work in itself. The slightest misstep could lead to falling off the ship, and death. In the end, they merely gave the ships a glance and considered them checked.
The whole affair finished after two and a half hours. In the end, the major left with a carton of blueberry wine while the other soldiers left with Zeek's gifts as they set off in the lifeboats. Within three hours, the three patrol warships returned. This time around, however, they weren't going for another check. Instead, they wanted to make an order for high-quality ingredients. Zeek signed his name on the order to put in on the logistics officers' tabs to settle later.