Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 490
After going to the kitchen ice box for a fresh cow leg, which they got after being resupplied at Dorinibla River's station, Claude tossed it to Blackwind. He gave it some thought and poured it half a bowl of milk before giving his head a slight pat. "Be good and stay here once you're full. Don't cause trouble for me."
Having dealt with Blackwind, Claude got another basin of water with a clean towel to wipe the grime off the pretty magus' face. Soon, he could once more see the beautiful face he remembered so well. Having not seen each other for ten years, he noticed that her beautiful visage seemed a little worn down by the hardships she had experienced. Her brows furled in a tired and alert manner while a few wrinkles could be seen on her forehead and the corners of her eyes.
He gave her a pained look and felt both regret and renewed joy. He had forgotten since when he stopped contacting Sheila altogether. He first left her for home to get married and went to the royal capital to join Ranger. Later, he went for training in a military college and became Miselk's disciple. Back then, he still wrote to her often, but there were no replies from her at all. In time, he slowly forgot about her and buried her in the depths of old memories.
After that, he went to Nubissia with Ranger and ten years had passed since then. He didn't think that his first proper lover in this world would show up once more before him under such circumstances. He had thought that he would never see her again his whole life and eventually buried the feelings of first love deep inside.
The skies brightened as the sun rose. Claude sat by the bed with his eyes trailed on her and the wolf perched by his side, looking up at him from time to time and stole a sniff or two from him but he was too focused on his first love. He ignored Blackwind entirely.
Someone knocked on the door, dragging him out of his head.
"General, we'll soon arrive at Haroldsburg's station. Look--"
Masonhughes stopped dead in his tracks and stared fearfully at the wolf before looking back at Claude. He only breathed a sigh of relief after seeing that he was fine.
Claude frowned, stood up, shook his numb legs, and rubbed his hands together to get the blood flowing. If he had a choice, he wouldn't let anyone interrupt his time alone with her. But due to the incident yesterday that saw a few of his guards injured, he had to deal with the aftermath as the highest-ranking person on the train.
"Let's stop the train for one day and notify the railway company about the robber incident. While most of them are eliminated, there may still be some on the loose. Have them send someone here to deal with this. We've suffered quite heavy losses. Reimburse the injured staff and passengers properly and make sure security in trains is heightened so that this never happens again."
Claude classified the dead Watchers as mere bandits, since dead men told no tales. That way, he could stop the matter from blowing up huge and involving his lover. What came next would be for the railway company to appease the passengers by reimbursing them at all costs. It would be best to keep the matter suppressed and make sure it was forgotten in say, half a year.
"I'll let you deal with it," Claude said. It wouldn't be appropriate for the commander-in-chief of the region to deal with a matter like this. In fact, it would draw even more attention to the matter. "As for her, keep it top secret. Don't involve her, got it?"
"Yes, General." Masonhughes saluted with understanding and prepared to leave.
"Wait. When we reach Haroldsburg, get me some fresh meats and a barrel of milk and blackwheat ale." He recalled that Blackwind loved drinking blackwheat ale.
"Yes, General." Masonhughes gave the wolf another glance and received a tail wag in return.
Half an hour later, the train stopped at Haroldsburg station. The whole station was alerted to the incident as corpse after corpse of both bandit and passenger was brought down and lined up on the station platform. The injured passengers cried as they described their experience. With so many people passing through the station, the local garrison force soon stepped in to maintain order.
Nobody came to disturb Claude. The two tents of guards had set up a defence perimeter outside the carriage while Masonhughes dealt with the stationmaster and local constable in Claude's stead, going over the incident in detail.
Gum showed up before Claude once more and brought news about the two bandits' unfortunate deaths. He also handed him a black folder containing the testimony of the drugged and questioned bandits.
"General, I've given a gag order," Gum said. He was shocked by the confessions of the Watchers. Prince Hansbach, the 'majesty' the two referred to, known to them as Hansbach I, was actually assassinated by that female magus. The Watchers had been trying to tail her for the past three years.
Gum had never imagined that she would be none other than Claude's lover, Sheila, from Squirrel Village during the five-year war. He had seen her before and helped her move building materials for her small home. He knew that if word of that got out, Claude would once more be embroiled in a chaotic storm. He immediately gave a gag order to forbid the guards who took part in the interrogation from bringing this up.
Claude nodded, not blaming Gum for doing it without his explicit instruction. All members in his personal guards were his trusted aides and carefully vetted to make sure they were absolutely loyal to him. The reason Gum could overstep Claude and give the gag order showed the level of seriousness of the matter they were dealing with.
When he read the testimonies, his expression instantly changed. How could Sheila actually be Hansbach's killer? However, he soon calmed down. Whether Hansbach died by her hands or not, she was already there with him. So, nobody was to take her from him. Given Claude's status, there wasn't much he had to fear. It wouldn't be too hard for him to protect her.
Once Gum left, Claude returned to the bed and gazed at her in a daze. He made up his mind to never let her leave his side again.
Sheila only woke up during the evening. She couldn't help but groan from her wounds.
"Sheila, you're awake. It's me, Claude." He came to the bed immediately and lit the candle on the bedside desk so she could get a good look.
"Claude, is that really you?" she asked with a daze, stretching her hand out towards him but drawing it back immediately.
Claude held her hand in his own and placed it on his face. "It's me, Sheila. I'm still your Claude from back then."
She stroked his face as she muttered, "C-claude... you've changed... I almost couldn't recognise you..."
He felt himself tearing up as he sandwiched her hand tightly between his hand and face. The young captain she had fallen in love with back then had become a general. How could he not change? His countless battles had shaped him into an iron-fisted commander. He was the always-victorious commander in the eyes of his subordinates. There was no longer the shred of naivete he possessed when they were still together.
Other things aside, he was the youngest general in the region and wasn't even 40. But to maintain a strict appearance, he now wore a moustache that gave him an air of maturity. Had it not been for his expressions, Sheila might not have recognised him at all.
"Let's talk later. I've made some egg porridge for you. Eat a little and I'll help you change your bandages. You must recover. We have more than enough time together later to talk." Claude unwillingly put her hand down and fetched the egg-and-wheat porridge he made her.
He fed her the porridge before switching her bandages out. Then, he used Clean on her to remove the remaining grime. After all that, she fell into a deep slumber again, still tightly clutching his hand. He knelt by the bedside and fell asleep himself, holding her hand tight.
Sheila woke up at two that night and let go of him. Claude got up and fed her more soup before helping her to the toilet, and back to the bed. She seemed to be quite energised and pestered him to tell her about what he went through all these years. Claude went through his battles, achievements, and continuous efforts to reorganise and improve the troops.
"It's no wonder I couldn't find you! You were sent here to fight a war for ten years!"
"What? You tried looking for me? It can't be that hard to find me. The Shiksan army's defeat on Nubissia drew the attention of many nations on Freia. Almost every newspaper here knows about our exploits. Even my name is published on the newspapers quite often," Claude said.
"Sorry, Claude, I always thought the General Ferd mentioned in the newspapers had the same family name you did. I didn't think it'd actually be you. Your given name was never published. Not to mention, the corps in the colonies were irregular, and you said you were part of Ranger, the royal family's own force."
Claude finally understood what she meant. All newspapers would only use the family names of the commanders of either side to show their respect. However, those in the region who knew Claude called him General Claude or Lord Claude to show familiarity. However, the newspapers used only his family name to prevent any confusion or conflict, choosing General Ferd to be more conservative. Those who didn't know him might not know that it was referring to Claude specifically.
"But I wrote so many letters to you. You didn't reply to any of them."
"I only received three," she said awkwardly, "At first, I hated you for leaving so casually and wanted to ignore you. By the time I received your third, two years had passed. You said you joined Ranger there. I had no way to write back, though, because the village chief died and Squirrel Village was no more. There was no longer anyone coming through the mountain path. In the end, I had to travel a few days to town just to do my shopping."
"Squirrel Village is no more? How did the village chief die?"
Sheila told him that two years after he left, the garrison unit at the village retreated to the kingdom. After that, a clan of people came to set up a checkpoint to collect toll at the path and occupied the village. The new clansman was really greedy and forced the chief to give him half the shares of the tavern and spent his days there drinking and fooling around for free.
That was how business in the tavern quickly deteriorated. The clansman blamed the chief for not running the tavern properly and forcefully sold his shares back, bankrupting the chief without spending a penny of his own. He later continued to drink and eat for free until the tavern shut down.
With the tavern gone, the clansman stretched his claws out for the other businesses in the village. He used the checkpoint to stop the mountain folk from going out on their own to trade. They could only trade his goods for a low price through his men. It was nothing short of robbery. Eventually, the villagers could no longer survive in the mountains and moved further away. The village chief died from a fit of anger as a result.
Once the chief died, the households of the village moved out one after another until nobody was left. The clan could no longer remain there and retreated in half a month, leaving the mountain path completely abandoned.
Following that, she didn't receive any letters from Claude any longer. She stayed in the deep mountains and seldom left. Oftentimes, she only bought some absolute necessities once every one or two years. Even with her spells, it took her a few days' time to leave the mountains. She had no way of writing back to him.
She stayed in the wilderness like that for seven straight years, training to become a five-ring magus and practising her mother's spells. The Enlighten spell used on Blackwind also reached maturity. Now, it had another form it could transform into: a three-month-old puppy, finally allowing her to take it into the city without worrying about frightening others.
Only then did she decide to leave the mountains. Her first move was to go to the royal capital to seek Claude out, but there wasn't any word about him at all. The moment she mentioned Ranger, she was given pitiful gazes, as if the trash stock at Ranger had ruined a naive girl like her.
It wasn't easy for her to get the truth that Ranger had a horrid reputation in the royal capital for being the unit where the members of the outer Stellin family went to frolic and party. They didn't train nor maintain any semblance of discipline and were almost universally hated in the royal capital for causing trouble for the populace nonstop.
So, she went directly to Ranger's campsite. A few quasi-royals tricked her into the camp and tried to force themselves on her, only to be beaten back with a single strike. To prevent Blackwind from biting all their limbs off, they gave her the rosters of the corps so she could verify that there was indeed no commoner captain or major by the name of Claude.
Given that they had joined the corps not long ago, they didn't know about Claude's exploits in the corps. By the time she left the mountains, Claude was already the field marshal of the theatre and major-general and folksman of Thundercrash. Had Sheila managed to find someone else in the royal capital that used to be in Ranger when it was still a folk, she would've known where he was.
Unable to find him, she decided to go to the western coast on Nubissia where her mother and some other magi went searching for ruins. After much effort, she finally got there and spent up to three years to find her. She did locate the ruins, but her mother had died by then.
Right after experiencing the loss of the last family member she had, she decided to go back to her hermit life on Freia. But when she reached Port Floric by ship, she ran into Hansbach and his escort that had just retreated from Whitestag. She had heard from Claude that the first prince once saw him as one who shows promise, so she wanted to get some information from him. She didn't have a hard time getting an audience thanks to her beauty.
Nobody could know what Hansbach had on his mind back then. Perhaps it was due to his hate for the five generals of the theatre. He didn't know Sheila was a magus and only saw him as Claude's old lover and committed the mistake that cost him his life.
He didn't tell her where he was and instead cursed Claude and the rest for betraying his trust right before her and mouthed on about how he would one day lead his armies to deal with the treasonous dogs.
Due to being a little drunk, he even tried to get touchy. Sheila, having gone adventuring for a good three years, had long gotten past her hesitation for killing and put a hole in Hansbach's head with Magic Missile before darting off with the prince's beautiful revolver.