"This freaking weather... It's so damn hot even though it's only the 6th month. Who can even stand it?" complained Carmen weakly. He was drenched in sweat and used his mithril spear as a walking stick. His helmet hung on his back. He couldn't wait to strip off his armor.

"Have the scouts not found any water yet? We're dying here! Carmen, give me some from your water," said Bell, sticking his spear into the ground in the shade of the tree. He looked even more haggard than Carmen.

"No. It's your fault for sipping yours non-stop. I gave you half of my water already. I don't even have enough left for me."

"We grew up together. We help each other out. I even stood up for you a number of times. Can't you give me a few mouthfuls?"

"Fine, fine... You always bring this up. Don't you ever get bored? And it's not like your help made us win the fights. You'd just end up getting beaten with me. If you didn't join the fights, they might've beaten me less. They only hit so hard because you're so huge... Only two mouthfuls. Open your trap," said Carmen as he carefully poured a set amount of water into Bell's mouth.

Bell immediately looked better. He soon stood up again and leaned against the tree. The two watched the other men trudge up the hill.

"I thought we would charge into battle courageously. That's everyone here's dream too. But all we've been doing for months now is marching. Those Nortons scared everyone away. The closest we get to battle is scouring the battlefield, gathering the corpses and sorting the loot." complained Bell.

"Fool, don't involve others in your deathwishes. Don't think you'll survive a battle. Fool like you are usually the first to die. And why are you always half-jogging? I thought something happened to you when I lost sight of you," said a bearded middle-aged man.

"Uncle Good," Carman and Bell greeted.

The man was their commanding officer, a lieutenant named Good. He was in his late forties and an experienced two-star silver mercenary. He quit when the mercenary guild was dissolved. But when the new Free Union issued a call to arms, he picked up his sword again.

"Make space, I need a rest," Good said as he wiped the sweat off his face, "I'm getting old and useless. Hills like this were nothing to me ten years ago, but now? I'm pooped after just half a day's march."

Carmen and Bell moved aside and gave the old man some space between them.

"Come, Uncle Good, sit here. It's cool and the breeze blows from time to time. It's real good," Carmen said, trying to curry favor, "Did you come to pick us up?"

"Yes. Who else would I look for? Your parents asked me to look after you two monkeys when you enlisted. Who asked you two to be my neighbors?"

Good took a few gulps of water from his canteen. Bell stared at him jealously but he didn't dare ask for some. Good noticed, however, and handed his canteen to the man when he finished, who almost swallowed the canteen whole.

"So why did you charge off like you were chasing something? If you were goofing around I'll cane you when we set up camp!"

"Bell forgot to refill his canteen this morning. He's already drunk half of mine. We were hoping to get to the next stream quicker, but no luck yet," explained Carmen hurriedly.

"Idiot, why didn't you tell me?" Good said as he knocked the two on their heads, "I've walked this path many times. We won't reach a stream before nightfall. I doubt we'll camp there, though. Our schedule's too tight. I've got two buckets of water on the ass. There's enough for a hundred people, so stop worrying."

"What do we do now? Head back?"

"Rest here for now. They have to come by us anyway."

A sudden boom blasted in from the distance.

"Are their cannons really that amazing?" Carmen eventually asked, "The fort was in shambles. I don't understand why they had us come along if they're so strong. They could've won everything on their own. It's not like we've been used in battle or anything. We could've just stayed home and kept on training."

Good laughed.

"Foolish child. They dragged us along so you greenhorns can get a taste of what war is like. Training won't teach you that. We might just be marching, but even that is important. You're learning what it's like to be on the campaign trail in enemy territory. I heard we'll finally get our chance tomorrow, anyway. They're going to have us take the fort after they're done bombarding it."

"They're just looking down on us!" Bell complained, "What's so amazing about them? It's all just the cannons. I could kill five of them if we fought fair and square."

Good flicked a finger at Bell's head.

"What are you saying, dumbass? You and Carmen are three-star iron ranks at just 23. But you'll die the moment the fight begins. Battles are nothing like fights in the streets, or even small skirmishes between mercenaries. You don't win with above average strength if you're fighting ten thousand enemies. It's all about teamwork! The average Norton soldier is nothing special, but put ten thousand of them in a line and they'll beat anything you can throw at them. The can take the Free Union five times over with just their infantry alone. Did you already forget how many of the old Union's legions they took out without cannons?"

"But didn't Colonel Husk say we shouldn't have joined House Norton? He said we broke away from the old Union to get rid of nobles, but now we're fighting alongside one. We should be against the Nortons. They don't believe in freedom and liberty. We should be working with the old Union to drive them out," said Carmen.

Good's face turned red.

"Didn't I tell you not to listen to that madman?! He's sick in the head. The Nortons are aristocrats, but the Trade Union is as well! They put us through three years of suffering because they wanted to be nobles too!

"Use your brains. Why were your parents so against you joining the army when the guilds were recruiting, but were fine with it when it was the new Union? Even an old guy near fifty like me wants to join. It's simple. The Free Union protects our freedom and liberty. We made it and we rule it. In its army, we aren't just cannon fodder for someone else's ambition.

"I am an old mercenary. I've lived in Morante for thirty years. I've seen everything and know this clearly. We think we're so proud and free, but in the old Union we were slaves by another name. Think about those last three years. Is that something a free man should have to go through? They restricted even what we could eat and we had to work more than 12 hours a day! You call that freedom? I'd rather not work and have my whole family starve to death if that were the case.

"Stop listening to that fool. Think about this: if it weren't for the Nortons, you two would still be hunting rats in the sewers. Why should we chase the Nortons away? Did they take anything from us? No. Not only did they not hurt us, they even gave us free food and brought new products to us and loaned us money. They rebuilt Morante and put us back in our golden age. And they're not even trying to rule over us in return!

"We must know gratitude and tolerance. So what if the Nortons are nobles? They've been nothing but good to us and haven't forced their system on us. We would still be under the guilds' heels if not for them. Why should we make enemies of them? Just because their political system is different? They haven't taken our lands, and they didn't take our money. Exactly the opposite. They're making us rich and helping us take care of the old Union. Is chasing away our benefactors something a sensible person should 

"Only fools would say something like 'make peace with the Trade Union'. I am certain that if we do as they say, we will suffer the greatest loss. The old Union would still treat us as traitors and if Morante is ever returned to them, they will kill us all. Best case, we will be made into slaves and sent into the mines to work until we die.

"Seriously, I wonder how a fool like Husk made it into the military. Is he trying to cause trouble? Carmen, Bell, tell me when Husk said that. What else did he say? was there anyone else when he said it?"

Seeing how anxious Good was acting, Carmen and Bell looked panicked.

"It isn't that serious, right, Uncle?" Carmen muttered, "It happened the night before last. When Bell and I were on night duty and Cad was leading the patrol, we complained how tough the marching was. Ten Colonel Husk passed us and told us that, as well as a lot of other things that mocked the Nortons, mostly jokes about how nobles got toyed with by their subjects. We were only releasing stress, nothing serious."

"You're overreacting, Uncle. Colonel Hask doesn't mean ill. He's just a little loose-mouthed when he rants and doesn't think about what he says. Didn't you evaluate him back then?" Bell said, "His parents died on the battlefield during the last Krissen invasion and he was raised by his grandparents. That's why he hates everyone from the empire so much.

"Everyone knows how much he hates all northerners, the Nortons included. Also, Colonel Husk is only mouthing off. I bet he doesn't have the gall to actually go against them."

Good sighed.

"Whatever. I won't say anything else. Just don't spend too much time around him. If he continues what he's doing, he's bound to be killed, best not associate with him. The Nortons and their duke must not be crossed lightly. Think about it. Many of the duke's top subordinates are old Morantians, that's why they're so good to us."

"How can you know? Tell us!"

"No, I don't know the duke's subordinates very well, but I know the duke. He spent the last half of his childhood in Morante, and was a mercenary and instructor at Dawn Academy for many years. He lost contact with his family because of the empire's civil war and pretty much became one of us before he went back. Those bags you're carrying, the duke designed them himself. I was the first guy to buy one of them from him before he left."

A regiment passing by greeted them. Good picked up his stuff and prepared to leave.

"Come, the boys are here. Time to go. I'll tell you more stories about the duke as we march. I'm sure you know the name Iron Locke, Silver Undefeated..."