Since it was formed, one hundred and seventeen years ago, the Gorman League has controlled the fate of the cities under its rule. They were years fraught with several outbursts of rebellion and disobedience, being the most recent a declaration of war between the cities of Gorland and Montha.

At this moment both city Wards are maneuvering to begin the conflict…

Rand woke with the same indisposition he had felt the other mornings. At fourteen years of age, recently completed, waking at the break of dawn was not something that pleased him, even though that had been the routine for some time. He was having a difficult time not only growing accustomed to that but to the hardships of life in times of war. Then he stood, yawning and shielding his eyes from the sun because he had slept near a campfire far from the apprentices tents. Meanwhile, he thought about his recent birthday, how he had felt happy on that day and about how, in a short while, his life had changed so much.

After he had breakfasted on a piece of hard bread and some water, Rand joined the other apprentices of his company, who were waiting outside Commander Julians tent. The day had dawned without a cloud in the sky and by early morning it was already hot, as was common during summer in the grasslands located between the rivers that bordered Gormian lands.

Rand looked at the commanders tent, which bore the colors of Gorland, his home city. It was surrounded by guards and was the same size as the tent the apprentices shared, the difference being that only one person slept in this one. Not noticing any movement inside, he glanced over and regarded his peers. Towards them Rand was disdainful and felt disgusted to count himself as one of them.

Days ago they had left Gorland to reinforce a fort in the east, where they would be close to Montha. They were to join the invading force which was to attack the enemy lands. Up until then they had been marching on the road and now had to make an important decision: if they would continue on the same road or take the longer but safer route by the river.

The apprentices waited for a good while before Commander Julian came out from inside his tent. Rand could see an aged man passing from under the cloth. His bald head gleamed in the sunlight and, to compensate for the lack of hair growing on his scalp, he wore a wide gray beard and a thick mustache which hid his lips from view. His eyes had a penetrating power and his voice could be heard from afar in crucial moments. Julian was one of the few men of the Gorland Ward that Rand admired.

After he had left his tent, he remained still for a moment as he looked at the boys assembled before him. Then he abruptly started to speak, ”Apprentices, apparently we have yet another warm and humid day ahead of us and to start off this fine day I want to hear your opinions before I make a decision. ”

Everyone knew that the commander had already decided. That was just another way for him test his students.

”We have another two days of marching before we reach the fort, ” said Julian, ”and I need to decide which path to take to get there. So should we continue on the road or go north and follow the river? Any suggestions? ”

Rand remained silent. He already knew the answer, but wanted to wait for someone else to take the bait first. He didn have to for very long before one took the initiative and naturally, it was one of the flatterers. Silas took a step forward and said, boastfully, ”Commander! I think we should continue going by the road so that we can arrive when planned, avoiding the loss of time. Deviating from our course now would be imprudent and could harm our strategy. ”

Silas was an old rival of Rands. Because of this, without taking the time to think about what he was doing he took a step forward and replied, ”Commander! Staying on course is too risky from this point on. Last night we received no reports from our scouts and that might indicate that enemies are in the region. Going by the northern route might delay us but surely it is safer for our ultimate goal. ”

Julians face did not betray his thoughts to Rand. But the anger in Silas was apparent and Rand quickly regretted his impulse.

”This certainly isn an easy decision, ” said the commander. ”But it is just one among the many hundreds youll have to make in the future when you
e in my shoes. There are few certainties in this type of situation and all we have to trust in is limited information and our intuitions. Thus, going by road is guaranteed to avoid delay, which is crucial to our success. On the other hand, getting to the fort is what really matters and the lack of information from the scouts has left us in the dark. At times like these the easiest or the safer don apply and we must follow our instincts. And mine lead me to choose the path by the river. ”

As he said this, a smile appeared under the white bushy hair that covered his mouth. Then, in a friendly voice he said, ”You are all dismissed. Go ready yourselves for the march, we will be leaving soon. ”

Rand along with the others took leave and went to prepare to decamp. It wasn long before the entire company was on the move again, except this time they turned to head northeast.

While advancing Rand couldn help but notice that Silas and his friends did not seem too happy with what was happening. Since he did not have any friends to talk to, he distanced himself from them towards the back of the column.

Halfway into the afternoon they reached the forests edge and there the soldiers could feel the relief the trees provided on that hot day. The cool wind carved between them, making the scorching heat leave the present and become a phantom of the past. After they had walked a bit further into the vegetation they could begin to hear the sound of running water, which made Commander Julian decide to pause the march so that they could perform a reconnaissance of the surrounding area and hydrate themselves.

Rand chose to do the same, but decided to sever himself from the others and head in a different direction. He wanted some time for himself and did not regret going off on his own when he reached the brook where the noise was coming from.

It was a quiet and peaceful place, with a small stream flowing in a stony bed. A tree stretched over it, huge roots forming a bridge till the margin, offering an easy route of access above the muddy banks.

As Rand crouched to wash his hands and splash his face he felt a slight pain in his left arm as if some insect had bitten him. He immediately reached for the area where the pain was coming from and was startled to find an object stuck there. He pulled it and upon inspection he became alarmed to see it was a dart, one that had also possibly been poisoned.

Rand looked closely at it. It was of the same type the soldiers of the City Ward used. That intrigued him and, before he could come up with a hypothesis to explain what was going on, the sound of laughter and human speech gave a clue.

From behind a bush five boys appeared, all were his colleagues. Standing in front of Rand were Silas and his friends, who were watching him and laughing at his predicament. Rand saw that one of them was carrying a blowpipe and appeared to be praising his own aim.

Silas approached Rand with an air of satisfaction and said, ”Looks like mister know-it-all doesn know what to do now. Awkward, isn ? ”

”Silas! What bloody dart you guys shot at me? ” Rand asked.

”Don worry; it will just shut up your mouth for a time. You
e not going to die, don need to ruin your pants, ” the boy holding the blowpipe answered.

Silas pushed Rand from atop the roots and he fell into the water. Just as he did the boys encircled him with Silas standing in front, facing him. He wore a triumphant smile as he looked at Rand and said, ”Lets see what the old man says when he hears that you lost the group because you were sleeping back here, you lazy slug. Will your idiotic retorts help you then? ”

But he didn wait for an answer and shoved Rand backwards. Up until that point Rand had not reacted but at that moment he resolved to do so and fortunately his body responded well to his commands. He dug his elbow into one of the boys, who was ready to grab him by the back, but Rands reaction surprised the others. Seizing the chance, he took a swing at the boy holding the blowpipe, but punched at empty air when the other anticipated it and got out of the way.

Rand tried to make the most of the gap that had opened in the circle around him to escape but after taking a few steps he felt that something was wrong with his legs. Before he could do anything the poison had begun to take effect and his body tumbled to the ground. He heard laughter coming from his peers again as he struggled to get up, but this time his efforts were curtailed by a foot jab which soon turned into a hail of kicks.

They beat him, and when that was over he heard Silas say, ”Lets leave. We can overdo it otherwise we will put ourselves in problem… ”

But before he could finish his sentence a sound echoed through the forest, a potent sound which set a flock of roosting birds into flight. It was the sound of a war trumpet.

It meant that their company were under attack and so the five boys bolted back the way they came without so much as looking back, leaving Rand lying on the ground.

Rand heard the trumpet blow and his feelings of personal misery dissipated, being replaced with a near superhuman will to know what was going on. He derived from it the strength to haul himself up and make for the direction the noise was coming from. It was far from an easy task because Rand would fall several times and every successive effort to pull himself back up again was becoming increasingly difficult. He could already feel parts of his body tingling and his vision was becoming blurred. Despite all this he came near to the location where his company had stopped and there he could hear the sounds of battle. He heard the loud clanging of clashing metal and screams of pain and horror ensuing from that place. What frightened him most however were not those but other noises, ones that sounded like they were coming from a furious animal in frenzy.

These in particular sparked his curiosity. Rand dragged himself to an elevation in the terrain and squinted to catch a glimpse of what was happening on the battleground. His vision did not help him in any way; it was already too blurred to be certain of anything he saw. Smudged figures moving in the forest and gray blurs moving were all he could make out. The smudgy figures also seemed to be bigger and more numerous than the gray ones. During one brief moment of lucidity, however, Rand was able to discern a black creature slicing a man in half. When he saw that he cowered and retreated in fear behind a tree next to him.

Rand started to tremble in his hiding place, he was delirious and his breathing was becoming increasingly shallow and strained.

Then, everything went dark.

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