A group of cavalrymen rode along the jungle trail.
"Big Brother Locke, how far more do we have to go?" asked an impatient boy.
"We'll arrive soon," Locke said, scratching his head; he wasn't sure himself.
Locke and his platoon were on their way back home. To be precise, they were all going back to Quarryton.
They'd finally met up with Cardoj's unit two days earlier. The baron had each of the platoon jarls lead their platoon back to their hometowns.
This group consisted of about ten young men -- all from Quarryton.
They were accompanied by an infantry platoon roughly a hundred strong led by Yoshk, Karl and Hans.
Locke's men had slowly pulled ahead as the footmen grew tired. They couldn't wait to meet their family.
"If I had known earlier, I would've brought someone familiar with the route," said Locke frustratedly.
The platoon was quite young. Locke had been one of the youngest in the camp when he'd started his career, but now he was the eldest among them. He'd been away for so long and he could only vaguely remember the way back home.
"Let's speed up our pace. I'm sure we'll reach after one and a half days!" said Locke confidently as he slapped the boy's head.
They must be on the right path. Locke had a decent-enough sense of direction after being a soldier for so many years. Since they were heading in more or less the right way, they would definitely reach Quarryton eventually.
Meanwhile in Maple Village...
"Tia, Tia!" Aunt Mary screamed at the top of her lungs. She'd woken her neighbour up early in the morning.
"What's the matter, Mary?" Tia opened the door with her eyes still dropping and looked at Mary curiously.
Mary squeezed herself into the courtyard and said, "I've heard that Locke, Hans and the others are coming back. Let's go to Quarryton and wait for them! Why are you still chopping wood? Quick, follow me!" said Mary as she grabbed Lia and walked out.
"What? They're coming back?" a muffled voice came from the house. Locke's father donned his clothes and rushed out.
"Yeah! The word spread all over town. My old man has already taken our sons there," said Mary.
"Then, let's go!"
Locke's father and Tia got out immediately. Lia stopped chopping firewood, but didn't follow Mary right away. Instead, she ran back to her room and changed into the clothes that her mother had made for her during the new year's. She then took off her headscarf, letting her long, flowing hair down.
"Lia! What are you doing? Hurry up! Tia and the others are already gone!" urged Aunt Mary.
"Coming!" replied Lia. She picked a white headscarf over her green one from the drawer, put it on hurriedly, tidied her clothes and ran out towards the entrance of the village.
Mary didn't know what Lia was up to at first and was complaining about it, only to be surprised by how different she looked.
Lia, who had a pretty face and donned a set of clean clothes and a white headscarf that most rural women didn't wear, dumbfounded the forty-year-old Mary. "Lia, all the boys in town are going to forget to breathe when they see you!"
"Oh, Auntie, stop making fun of me. Let's go." Lia gave Mary a nudge. They then ran to catch up with Locke's parents.
When Mary saw how beautiful Lia was and thought of how good a housewife she would make, she said, "My son, Hans, is back and he is no longer young. I should find a good wife for him soon."
Lia only had a vague impression of Hans. She could only remember him as the kid who had a runny nose that would always follow her little brother around when they were kids.
"Yeah, Hans is coming back. Auntie Mary. It's time for you to rest and enjoy a luxurious life." Lia didn't know what Mary was implying, so she just agreed to what she'd said.
"I'm looking for a daughter-in-law who is as beautiful and virtuous as you." Mary smiled.
Lia understood her intentions this time. She refused tactfully and said, "Hans is now a platoon jarl. He can definitely find someone better than me."
The news of Hans being promoted to a platoon jarl spread throughout Quarryton two months ago before Audis was captured.
Mary also knew what Lia meant, but she didn't mind it at all. Ever since Locke had been promoted to a platoon jarl, a lot of families had gone to his house with marriage proposals, but they'd all failed. Aside from wanting to marry off their daughters to Locke, most wanted to ask for Lia's hand in marriage thanks to her beauty.
Locke Senior and Tia had rejected all of them. According to them, their daughter was still young and they didn't want her to get married so early.
Mary had been neighbours with Locke's family for many years, so she knew that the real reason was something else.
Many girls married at the age of sixteen in their village. Lia was twenty-one, so she was considered relatively old. Her parents weren't in a hurry about this matter, but Mary was. Mary stopped thinking about hooking Lia up with her son and grabbed her hand before pacing quickly towards the village entrance.
They weren't the only ones who'd received the news. Every family whose sons were soldiers were heading to the town to welcome their sons back.
When Mary and Lia had arrived, many villagers were already gathered there.
"Everyone is here, right? Let's go!" said the hunchbacked village chief. He waved and the villagers began their journey towards the town. It was even livelier than when they were going to the market.
There was a hundred-year-old maple tree next to the boulder at the entrance of the village. The withered leaves fell as the wind blew, revealing the new leaves that sprouted on that tree.
At night, a dozen soldiers in Faustian uniforms sat around a bonfire as they grilled their food. A young man with grey hair sat in the centre; the other soldiers around him considered him their leader.
"I recognise this forest!" blurted a young man who was grilling a hare.
His words attracted the attention of the other soldiers around him. "Big Brother Locke, where are we?" asked a soldier as he approached Locke.
"I think we're in the forest near Quarryton. I've passed through here before I left Quarryton," replied Locke.
The soldiers suddenly recalled having passed through this place when they marched to battle six years ago.
"Oh, it was true!" shouted the soldier who spoke just now.
"If it is true, then we'll arrive at our destination soon. We'll probably reach Quarryton tomorrow," said Locke.
The soldiers smiled after hearing that. All of them couldn't wait to meet their family.
"Where are Yoshk and the others now?" Locke asked a soldier next to him.
The soldier thought for a while and replied, "Yoshk and the others are not far off from us. They still have half a day of the journey at most, they'll probably be able to reach Quarryton tomorrow too."
Locke felt relieved. It seemed like the soldiers led by Yoshk were also homesick, as they weren't that far behind from the cavalrymen who came on horses.
When the baron allowed the soldiers to return to their hometowns two days ago, all of them did whatever it took to hurry on with their journey.
Locke had Glace, Suzanne and the others stay in the town outside of the baron's castle. Unlike the Shalorian nobles who liked to build their mansions in the town, the Faustian nobles preferred to build fortresses.
Every noble's castle was a small stronghold, which was probably one of the reasons why Faustian's military strength remained strong for hundreds of years.
The town outside of the baron's castle was comparable to a small Shalorian town. Locke gave Suzanne a large sum of money and booked them an inn temporarily. He'd also asked the soldiers who lived in that town to take care of them.
Most of the soldiers from the cavalry platoon lived in the town outside of the baron's castle, so the place could be considered as Locke's home turf. If anyone dared to mess with Suzanne and the others, the soldiers there would definitely do something about it.
The reason he couldn't bring them along was that it was hard for Locke to explain who the four of them were. Plus, he didn't know how to introduce them to his parents and the villagers.
Currently, not many Faustians had favourable impressions on the Shalorians as many Faustian families were broken apart due to the war with Shalor. Locke had already repeatedly ordered the four of them to not reveal their nationalities.
The hare that was being grilled sizzled above the bonfire, filling the air with a savoury aroma. Locke blew on the roasted hare and took a bite out of it. He felt that the hares in his hometown were more delicious than the ones in Shalor.
The forest wasn't huge; it only had an area of two or three miles squared. From a decently high vantage point, one would be able to see the boundaries on all sides of the forest.
Despite its size, there was a complete ecosystem in the small forest. Locke and the other cavalrymen foraged all their food from this forest and they didn't even need to touch the rations they brought along. Why would they eat bread if they could eat meat?
Although there were a lot of wild animals, Locke didn't find any minor monsters nor felt any elemental fluctuations around them. There weren't any magic plants in this forest, let alone minor monsters. It seemed like minor and major monsters only appeared in places like the Morphey Forest and the Bering Mountains.
After finishing his last bite of meat, Locke said, "Take a rest after you finish eating. Rusco, it's your turn to be on the lookout. We'll all go home tomorrow!"
"Yes, Sir!" replied all the soldiers.