"'Winter is your worst enemy.' This is true enough under normal circumstances, but when the Nortons are involved it becomes gospel." ~ Duke Fisablen

The clouds filled the skies. Cold winds blew. Ice feathers fell from the sky, covering the plains and mountains in a white sheet. Winter descended on the world again.

I guess I'm getting old... thought Baron Abott.

No matter how brightly the flame burned in the fireplace, he still shivered in his chair under his thick blanket. His hands clasped it to him and he sipped fruit wine from his golden cup shakily as he stared at the pale world outside his window.

His thoughts went back to the day he would gather his mercenary friends at a local tavern and make merry. Ah, what good days! But, they were not to be anymore. The band no longer existed. Pale-eagle was no more. He still remembered how their leader used to announce he would make the band one of the best in the Union in his many drunken stupors. Everyone, none less drunk than him, would loudly swear their aid in realizing this ambition.

The one-eye owner of the tavern, Mot, would always smile at them kindly if somewhat helplessly. Everyone would cheer with them. No one mocked the young men's dreams. Everyone wished to turn their band into Morante's greatest back then, back when Morante still was the continent's home for mercenaries. It was the highest honor a band could get.

It took them two decades of walking on the edge between life and death, but, with great effort they made it into the twenties. They were just a few ranks from their goal, but that would be their end. Everything changed when the Union became a feudal society. The War of Glass came nearly immediately after. Pale-eagle's leader moved the band to Teribo. He wanted to carve out a small title for himself. To win a place he and his comrades could call home.

Everyone was in high spirits when they departed. They were no longer a small-time band. They were 21st on the rankings. All three leaders were gold-ranks and everyone in the band were silver-ranks, about a hundred of them stood behind the leaders. Things went great for them initially as well. They successfully raided three noble manors and got a lot of spoils. Everyone was convinced this was the right decision. Abott had even gotten to bed several of the noble ladies he could in the past only admire lustfully from a distance.

Their glory was fleeting, however. Ten days into their expedition, their leader caught wind of a massive bounty on a blademaster. He left their camp with forty men. Only three returned.

Pale-eagle was crushed in an instant. Rifts formed between the remaining members as everyone fought for control of what was left. Abott and the band's third-in-command fought each other tooth-and-nail. He suffered a severe wound to his arm whilst the other had an arm and a leg broken. Abott won in the end, but his opponent, unwilling to accept his loss, left with his followers.

Abott had skills, but lacked the charisma needed to hold everything everyone together. His men slowly slipped away one by one. With the band on its last legs, he called in a favor from one of Twin Dragon's deputy supervisors. He'd gotten acquainted with the man by a lucky twist of fate a while back. Through his connections with the guild, he used the band's funds to buy a small barony and its associated title.

The heavy wooden door to the room suddenly swung open and the cold wind burst in from outside. Abott snapped out of his reverie and clutched his blanket even tighter. He gazed at the door through squinted eyes and saw two familiar figures. A huge man stood in front — his chief knight, Adrian — he was an old friend and comrade from the Abott's mercenary days. Behind him stood a slender middle-aged fellow, Krigar — Pale-eagle's former logistics officer, and now his chief treasurer.

"We have returned from our patrol, Milord. The snow is piling up, it's almost to my knee. The livestocks are still fine, though, we've only had one death so far. The slave in charge of it will be punished accordingly," reported Adrian.

"You didn't have him beaten to death, did you?" asked Abott.

"I have not, Milord. Don't worry. I know how to punish. Those pathetics won't be obedient unless they're punished anyway. They're tough so they'll survive the winter regardless."

The baron nodded silently.

"You did well. Appropriate punishment is necessary. They'll slack off otherwise. Just… we spend money on them, so don't kill them. Every death is money down the river. The war is over now, so it won't be cheap to replace lost slaves anymore either. Slaves will become more expensive now again..."

"I understand, Milord."

The Union had caught hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the war. It could not afford to keep and feed them, so the big-seven sold them off as slaves. Well, they weren't technically slaves. The Union always made a big ruckus of individual freedom and condemned slavery. The slaves weren't sold as property, instead the captives' labor rights were what was sold. A civilian served a three year prison sentence and a soldier five. What was bought was the right to use them as labor for the time they were prisoners. They technically had to be released when their term was up. Few people expected this to happen though.

This was one of the Union's most profitable and successful policies to date. It got rid of the housing and feeding burden, sated the nobles' demands for labor, and made a lot of money in the process.

Anderwoff had 80 new nobles, one of which was Baron Abott. Unfortunately it had been cleaned by Andinaq's king just a few years earlier. It was barren of wealth and desolate of people.

When Abott came over seven years ago, there were less than a thousand people in his entire fief. And most of these were only there because they didn't have a skill they could sell elsewhere. He had managed to cobble together a few thousand people through recruitment efforts and wars with his neighbors. His barony had just over 10 thousand subjects now. His was the strongest territory in the region at the moment. The only problem was that the majority of his subjects were elderly and could not do much hard labor. To alleviate this problem he'd bought three hundred youths from the Union.

"Everything is good in the manor as well, Milord," reported Krigar.

"You two did well as well. Come, let's have a drink and warm ourselves up. There's a small cow leg over there, Adrian. Bring it over and we'll roast some."

Abott didn't put up any airs in front of his companions in private. He may be a noble by title now, but he was still just a common mercenary at heart. It made him beloved by his old friends and kept his old subordinates loyal, but left him isolated from noble circles. The other wannabe nobles from his region didn't like that he wasn't upholding their new, pretentious customs.

The three sat around the fire enjoying the warmth and food together.

"Now this is life," Abott groaned, "We should build a proper stone castle next year."

He wasn't troubled by the other nobles' mockery, but his lack of a stone castle irked him. This was his seventh year as a noble, but he had yet to put a single stone on top of another. Proper nobles had proper castles, but he lived in nothing more than a hut. It wouldn't even be considered a wooden castle — it needed a palisade to be a wooden castle, and it lacked even that.

"We need not defend the borders anymore so we'll have the manpower soon enough. But what will we do about the materials and costs?" asked Adrian.

Auguslo I attacked their neighboring duchies four years earlier. Word only reached them via an envoy from Duke Handra asking for help when they were all but overrun already. The nobles were utterly bewildered. Some immediately marched for the duchy to help defend it, whilst other packed up and prepared to run to Morante. Just as everyone was about to scatter their own way, Wessia's vice-president toured the region and calmed everyone down. They were all Union nobles, a superpower on the continent. Yes, most of their forces were caught up in the war to the south, but they were far from defenseless, at the very least they had a swordsaint. The king would not anger them even if he only had half a brain.

His words calmed everyone and time proved him right. After the dukes submitted, Andinaq ended the war and withdrew. They left Whitelion behind but they only took up defensive positions and stared at Anderwoff across the border.

Things weren't completely golden, however. The many minor nobles banded together and formed a 10 thousand strong standing army just in case. Several years had passed now, however, and Andinaq had showed no movement that indicated any intent to invade. People were beginning to ask whether the army should perhaps not be disbanded. The army cost the nobles most of their budgets, ones that were already strapped thin because of their lands' desolation.

They couldn't just leave the border undefended, however. What would they do if Andinaq did decide to invade? Their solution was to put everyone on a rotation of sorts. They would draw lots every three years and the losers had to man the border until the next round. To keep this from disproportionately affecting smaller, less populated fiefs, it was decided that each lord only had to contribute one twentieth of his population to this duty. This system only counted for the men, however. Everyone would contribute the resources needed to feed, clothe, and house the forces.

Abott, the lucky man, had drawn a losing lot. He could not refuse, so he sent out five hundred youths and Adrian. His term would be up this winter and his men would finally return. Their absence were why he had to buy the 300 slaves.

Abott smiled.

"You might not be aware, but Auguslo is rallying his forces. He's preparing to invade the Union. We're lucky, though. His forces are gathering in the southwest so we won't have to fight this time. He must be wanting to push straight for Morante, and there is much closer."

"No wonder Whitelion left the border. Their side of the border now only matches ours. I suspect they might even be greenhorns. That said, they haven't slacked, I saw no gaps in their defenses before I left. We couldn't sneak any scouts through." Adrain commented.

"At least we have nothing to worry about. We can watch other fight from the sidelines. We should focus on our own business when the war starts next year. Viscount Wamus must be the one who rigged the draw… He made me waste three years. We'll use the fountain as an excuse to start a war with him. He only knows how to talk, he can't fight. He only has 200 men and only three of them are silver-ranks. We can steamroll him easily. It's just too bad we aren't allowed to kill other nobles… We'll just strip his land and castle clean. The worst the Union can do is send someone over to keep an eye on us for a while. They might not even bother if the war gets serious enough.

"We'll take what we don't have from our neighbors. Haha... We didn't waste the three years we spent on the border. I should thank you, Adrian. You've trained our men into a strong force."

Krigar looked incredibly elated.

"It's about time we dealt with that prick. He openly mocked us last time we met… So what if we were mercenaries? They were just merchants!"

Abott laughed heartily but cut it short mid-laugh.

"I hear something outside."

Soft rustling broke through the winds lonely wails.

Adrian stood up.

"Let me check..."

A couple of people dressed in white capes and pelts rushed into the room through the door. Their eyes, swords, and spears glinted viciously in the flickering fire-light.

"Don't move!" one yelled, "Keep your arms where I can see them! Drop your weapons and kneel! Surrender and you'll be spared!"