"Brother Locke, are we going to have any missions when we return to the town tomorrow?" asked a soldier named Mali.
He was also from Maple Village, but Locke only had a vague impression of him. He'd probably joined the army later on.
"I think so." Locke didn't give a specific answer.
"Are we going back to guard the southern border?" asked Hank. He was a recruit who'd only been in the army for a few months, and he was traumatised by the siege of Audis. He didn't want to be in a battle again.
"No," replied Locke reassuringly. Cardoj had already roughly explained why their unit would be at the southern border previously. Locke believed that his unit wouldn't be involved in trouble this time.
"That's good." Hank grinned. He was passionate when he first joined the army, but he then chickened out when he had a blow to his head.
"Don't worry, Hank, we won't be in a battle soon. But even if we do, I'll protect you," said Mali. He was obviously trying to curry favour with Hank.
Mali had joined the army two years after the war started. Though he had served for three years, it was a pity that he was still a third-rate soldier.
On the other hand, Hank rode off the reputation of his brother, Hans, and was under the care of Locke and the others, so he was promoted to a third-rate soldier in just two months' time. He was really privileged. Knowing that Mali was trying to please him, he happily joined him and the other soldiers.
Locke, Hans, and Caen walked in front.
"What's your guess?" asked Hans. He had been with Locke for the longest time, and he knew that Locke had probably figured out what their next mission was. Hans, who was now a platoon jarl, was less naive than before. He thought more about the future and became more confident.
"Probably the bandits nearby," Locke said. He didn't just slack off and enjoy life in the past few days. In fact, he paid attention to any news regarding the crooks' activities from the villagers.
Faustian had sacrificed the lives of countless young soldiers into the five-year war. Some of them were unwilling to die on the battlefield, so they turned to banditry and tried to take over some districts. That was why despite Faustian having achieved an outstanding victory, there was still chaos in the country. Even Cardoj's domain in the southern Dor province wasn't safe from these local bandit warlords.
When Cardoj was at the front line over the years, he would leave a platoon of soldiers to guard his domain, with a low-rank Knecht being their leader. Since the bandits didn't dare to start a fight the baron's troops, they frequently moved about in Cardoj's domain and caused trouble wherever they went.
Besides that, Locke heard from the village chief that a band of bandits called Wild Wolf was 'protecting' their village. Maple Village had to hand in a certain amount of food and money to them every month to prevent the villagers from being harassed.
If it wasn't for Locke wanting to bask in the warmth of his family for the first time in a long while, he would've immediately ordered all his men to kill the bandits.
Locke and the others had been fighting for their lives at the frontline, yet these cowards were causing harm to the people in their hometown. He would never tolerate this kind of behaviour.
As their opponent was just petty thugs, Hans wasn't afraid of them at all. Though he had only practised impetus for a short while and only knew how to stabilise his impetus vortex but he felt he could go against ten of them.
"I've already wanted to stretch my muscles a long time ago." Caen exercised his joints. He'd been hit hard in the past few days. If he could kill a few thieves who caused trouble in the village, perhaps Lia would look at him differently.
When they returned to the village, they parted and went back to their own houses. "Brother Locke, can I have a meal at your house?" Caen puckered his lips and widened his eyes, looking at Locke expectantly.
Locke was amused by his funny expression. "Sure!" Locke smiled and gave him a punch.
He knew why Caen wanted to go to his house for a meal. While he would've felt uncomfortable about it a few days ago, but he didn't mind it anymore.
Locke knew his sister well. Although she was kind, she was a stubborn and sensible person deep down like her mother. It was extremely likely that Caen stood no chance with her.
After getting Locke's approval, Caen grinned and threw the hares, pheasants, and other prey they caught to Hans while snatching the deer from him.
"Hey, save some for me," said Hans helplessly.
"No, I was the one who killed it, so it's all mine." Caen boldly claimed.
"I helped too, okay?" Hans facepalmed.
"Let me have it this time. You can have all of my catch next time, okay?" Caen didn't give in.
"Brother, Brother! Let's go," Hank immediately dragged Hans back home when he had the chance. Only a fool like Hans didn't notice Caen's affection for Lia.
Locke spotted the deer when they entered the forest this morning, but they only managed to catch it after tracking it for the whole morning.
Winter had just passed and this deer was really skinny. Even then, it still had the energy to run real fast. It was so vigorous that Hans had to use a rock to smash its head in to get it to stop struggling.
Caen knocked on the door of Locke's house excitedly with the deer on his back. Locke's parents welcomed him with open arms, but they cared more about the deer that he was holding. It was very difficult to hunt for deer during this period.
"This young generation is impressive," Locke Senior praised.
Caen was obviously flattered, but he desired Lia's compliments more. He walked towards her but she furrowed her brow and walked away.
Locke saw Caen's embarrassment the moment he walked in and couldn't help but laugh. His sister had never liked the smell of blood and Caen was currently covered in the deer's. Only Locke's parents didn't really mind.
"Give it to me, I'll take it for you," Lia walked towards the door and reached her hand out to him.
Of course, Locke didn't give all of his catch to his sister, handing only one or two of them over. They then headed for the woodshed with the catch.
It was mid-February and it was still cold, so they didn't have to worry about the food spoiling if they preserved the meat and hung them up in the shed.
They had roasted deer and congee for dinner that night. Locke and Caen set up a grill in the yard. Meanwhile, Lia and Tia cooked the congee. They added salt, star anise and pepper into the congee, filling the air with a savoury aroma.
Locke and Caen harvested the deer, leaving only the skeleton behind. They then skewered the meat and placed it directly on the grill.
Locke held a dagger in his hand and cut the venison once in a while. He then sprinkled some seasoning on it, enhancing its the flavour. His silver dagger with a red hilt was like a beautiful butterfly, dancing above the bonfire.
Locke's father recalled that this was the one that Locke had brought with him when he first joined the army. "It has already been so many years, yet this dagger still works well. It seems to be of good make."
Meanwhile, Lia stared at the hilt. Although it'd turned red, she could tell that it was the dagger that she'd given to him. A flurry of thoughts crossed her mind.
There wasn't much meat from the deer, so they finished two-thirds of it in just one meal. The meat was mostly lean and chewy, being right up Locke's alley. Locke and Caen ate the most as Locke's parents eventually got tired of all the chewing. Since Lia had a small appetite, she only ate a little.
At night, Caen left Locke's house and went back to Hans' to sleep. Locke also went to bed early after helping out with some chores.
Locke and his sister still slept in the same room, but his parents had also realised that it wasn't appropriate. They already planned to look for a carpenter and a mason in the village to build another room in their house. After all, they didn't lack money at all.
His sister entered the room not long after he laid down on the bed. Locke's breathing remained steady; he was probably asleep.
As Lia saw this, she took her clothes off gently. She had been wearing this undergarment for almost a week and couldn't change into a new one as Locke was always in the room.
When Lia changed her clothes, Locke held his breath and didn't dare to move. He was a low-rank Knecht with keen observation, so he was able to see things clearly at night. Of course, he noticed what his sister was doing.
He forced himself to not peek and circulated impetus in his heart quietly, calming his agitation. An eternity later, Lia finished changing and laid on her bed.
Locke let out a sigh of relief. He wanted to go to sleep but realised it just wouldn't come. He kept turning on his bed, thinking back at what had just happened nonstop.
Locke finally stopped moving on his bed when he heard it creak. This was the bed that he'd slept in since childhood. He was now 1.78 metres tall and had to curl up so that his feet wouldn't touch the ground. As the bed was pretty poorly made, he decided to go to the town and get a new one in the next few days.
At this moment, Lia suddenly asked a question. "You're going to town tomorrow, right?"
Locke didn't know when she found out that he wasn't asleep. After a pause, he replied, "Yes, it's an order from Yoshk. We have to report ourselves there."
When the troops returned to their hometown, the baron had appointed Yoshk and Locke to lead the soldiers in Quarryton. Since Locke was Yoshk's junior, he didn't want to steal Yoshk's thunder, so Yoshk was the one who made all the decisions.
"Are you coming back?" asked Lia. She didn't seem to care whether Locke was asleep just now.
"Of course," said Locke reassuringly. "I might even be back in the afternoon."
Locke was a cavalry platoon jarl after all. Although Yoshk was the one who decided the mobilisation of the soldiers, he needed Locke's approval too.
"Come back soon." Lia closed her eyes after saying this.
Locke turned sideways and looked at Lia. The bright moonlight shone through the window and onto Lia's bed. It was so beautiful it almost looked sacred.