By Gerry Torbert
Daaigh Leaf bent over to grab one of the succulent tubers growing along the edge of his garden. One of many farmers in the Azure Forest rim in Forntol, he specialized in the tight-wrapped, thick plants that had been tamed generations before him. The plants were sweet, high in fiber and nutrition, and very prolific. He could expect to get four distinct crops before the cold weather cut his livelihood short for the year. Luckily for him, he could spend the winter months in the shop he had built in the thick, overhanging chestnut tree he called home. He would normally stockpile several hundreds of pounds of the roots each year, frequenting the market on the second level of Kassanyacta (Greentree, in his native Kassa), throughout the winter. This year was no exception, as his crops had swelled his storage bins to their fullest. Now, the only trick was to keep his stock free from the ferals and rodents on the ground.
The Leaf family was one of the oldest Kassa clans, having one of the simplest surnames. One of the original seven, they dated back to the Awakening, and as is the case with the saved orcs, lived with a deep reverence toward Nature and their surroundings. Daaigh himself had devised a method of stockpiling horse and other animal manure, composting it with leaves, tall marsh grasses from nearby streams, and other dying matter. He used these fertilizers to replenish his farm with natural ingredients while impacting the balance of life to the least extent possible. Such are the teachings and the way of life in Kassanyek-k (the Azure Forest, as known in the trade language).
Daaigh smiled as he tasted the root, rolling it around on his tongue, sampling the sugars and juices. Not more than a few weeks, this batch. Good for an old-fashioned Pig stew, I'd say. Just a few cloves of onions, some sweet herbs and ribs, just what a growing boy needs, he thought to himself. He nodded in approval, his long, traditional dreadlocks waving. He brushed the remaining crumbs off his brown ape-hair shirt, woven by his grandmother, and grabbed the hoe to continue his cultivation.
He was engrossed in his work when he was interrupted by a familiar voice and a traditional Kassa greeting: "Ogok doopock-oogoot" ("What good do you bring?"). He looked up and noticed the lanky figure of Molk-k Leafbright, a distant cousin and constant wandering soul. Standing almost seven feet, he was only slightly less bulky than many of the Kassa adults, but one of the tallest. He sported green trousers and his ever-present boar-skin longcoat, an item he wore in any weather. Daaigh had thought to ask him many times where he got such a luxury, but each time he thought better. Molk-k was known to travel a lot and frequent taverns and inns, searching for a good laugh, a trade, and an edge. Some said he could talk a gnome out of his pants. Daaigh didn't doubt it, since he always had some sort of item on hand that cost more than a wandering pitch-man should have. Daaigh smiled and extended his hand, palm upward, just beside his cousin's extended hand, a show of good faith and peace, and then they clasped hands at each other's elbows. It was a greeting common among Kassa, meaning "I come as a friend, my hands and arms are here to help you." It used to be almost expected of outsiders, and mandatory for clans, but had lost much of its meaning over the last dozen generations. People were just too lazy, too casual now, Daaigh thought. "What could bring you home from your travels, cousin?"
Molk-k smiled, only slightly, as evidently there was something on his mind. Daaigh was already reaching down to pick a meg-gh root to offer to him. "Yes, I have been away quite a while. I hope your family has been well." And in the hope of a tasty snack, added, "And it appears your work on the farm has rewarded you kindly, Daaigh."
He brushed the dirt from the root and handed it to Molk-k. "Good words will get you fed. I guess that's the first thing you learn on the road. I heard you went to Ropbadden Hill. Any news on the fighting going on in Sal'Baran?"
Molk-k's smile turned to a frown, evident even beside his mouthful of meg-gh. "Yes, news of the unwanted kind, I fear. The battle has been met, and the dark folk are beaten."
Daaigh watched the lines on his face. "That is good, is it not, climber?" He used the word "climber" as a compliment, but most farmers used it with a sneer. They were proud of their heritage and their calling in life, and dwelling in trees seemed so counterproductive to them. "Any time an orc army loses, there's a little less anger in the world."
Molk-k chewed on the root and looked off toward the road to the south. "Usually, I would agree. But they will come back through here, on their way northeast to Darktongue, I'd lay a bet. And they'll be wanting to lay waste to anything that moves. They won't want to skirt to the foothills to the west, as that road is windy, and they'll probably want to pillage and rape something, someone, anything. That's the way they are." He looked back to Daaigh. "I wouldn't want to be tending your roots when they get here, my good farming friend." That was worth a smile to Molk-k.
Daaigh stopped and leaned on both hands, over the hoe handle. He stared at the ground, then back to his kin. "Have you told others of this?"
"Yes, and there is a meeting at the hall at Kassameetzak tonight, an hour past sundown. Everyone will be there."
Daaigh looked the taller Kassa in the eye and said, "Molk-k, one thing I never asked you - where and how did you get that coat?"
Molk-k laughed aloud, then settled down. "Let's just say there's a naked dwarf that has his tongue stuck to a frozen sword, somewhere near Walin's Cap. It was one of my best bets."
Daaigh laughed at the mental picture, then lifted his hoe and held it as if it was a sword, sighting down its shaft, at arm's length. "I hope I can still heft a sword," he said.
THE LONG WALK
It turned out to be a crisp, cool night, with very few clouds to obscure the stars. High above the great hall, through the overhanging branches, the Rose of Bestra shone bright, enticing those who noticed to crane their necks, close one eye and move their heads back and forth to catch all seven of the stars lining up, starting as a single point and spreading in two parallel rows. Easily the most visible constellation in the northern sky, they ended in a circle like a bulb. It was a good sign. This will be an important night.
All bridges led to the great hall. It was so decreed by Barg the Branch, the wise ruler of the first Kassa nation, many generations removed. During the great expansion soon after he stepped down, the number of "huts", or clan towns, multiplied rapidly, as the population spread all across the Azure Forest.
Necessarily so, the number of bridges and their lengths increased dramatically, so much so that his successor, Glim of the Twig (the first elected ruler of the Azure Forest), ordered the funding of eleven bridges, laid out as spokes from the future site of the Great Hall. They were designed to pass between the largest of trees, usually in a straight lin, but in some cases bending to accommodate hills and large spans over sparser growth. As the bridges were constructed, clans gathered and built their own huts in groups of "dens," or single units, surrounding the den of the patriarch of that clan. It was from each of these clans that a glemak-k, or "ambassador," was selected, and he or she spent time in the Great Hall, representing his particular clan and electing a glemakmeetzak, or Grand Ruler. He would then represent the deciding vote and serve as the spiritual leader, going between Bestra and her saved orcs.
Workers gathered throughout the day to build supporting members and lean-poles to help prevent the grand old tree, known as Bestra's Snout, from breaking with the strain. The great tree was one of a few of a special variety known as Kassamasteeka, literally, "eating tree." A huge plant in its own right, it spread for hundreds of feet in each direction by assimilating other trees. Its branches grew nearly horizontally toward others, and as it met them, grew around each "child" tree and merged its xylem and phloem tissue with that of the captured tree. Those branches that could not reach another tree simply bent down under their own weight and re-rooted once they hit the ground. Over the period of thousands of years, the tree system grew to encompass acres of land, each new tree being transformed to take on the same hauntingly beautiful azure tint to its leaves. Even though the forest was composed of different types of wood, the Kassamasteeka's dominance spread to mostly all vegetation.
It was to this storied and fabled place of government and worship that the eastern nation of Kassa gathered this night, swelling the pegged and slotted timbers to their weight limit. Hundreds of young Kassa, a few visiting the hall for the first time, were treated to an exercise in pure unity and fellowship, but over a very serious and grave concern.
Daaigh had finished his chores for the day as early as possible. The roots could wait a little while longer for cultivation. He climbed Kassoomgloo(snort), the third tree in the Leaf hut, and told Emm, his wife of seven years, of the news. They had made plans to revisit the Great Hall again, hoping to re-affirm their vows, but they hadn't expected to return on such a somber note. Elok-k and Gekkt, their two young girls, climbed on Daaigh's back after dinner, and the family made their way down Leafowraka, or Leaf Bridge, to what they knew not.
The bridge, made sturdily of interlocking planks, reed ropes and blacksmithed nails, held the weight of a lot of woods folk this day. Leaf families blended into one mass, children walking hurriedly ahead, then lagging back to wait in answer to their parent's shouts.
The talk of the evening's walk was of concern over such an all-encompassing call by Pairk of the Branch of Light, the leader of the nation. Mostly all of their meetings with Pairk had come at his coronation by the sea, as he dutifully greeted and listened to each and every citizen's wants and concerns over a period of time that extended for a week. Few had seen him for more than a few minutes over the last two years, although he made attempts to visit each hut. The entire populace stretched some twenty-five miles in each direction, necessitating him to ride to the king tree of each hut by horseback, just to cover the nation.
The dark folk had not bothered the Kassa for quite a long time. Their armies passed the Kassa's beloved forest a few times in the past but had steered clear of them by using other roads that wound through the foothills of Garakesh. The Kassa's immense prowess as vicious fighters, one with the forest, was sufficient to prevent contact.
And this isolationism was reinforced by Hairoot the Large, the Kassa ruler of Daaigh's grandparent's generation. He grandpapa would tell him stories of the giant warrior, standing almost eight feet high, stopping a division of dark soldiers as they ventured too close to the edge of the woods. He glared at the much-smaller orc general and drew a line in the dirt with his seven-foot broadsword. This line, now marked as a place of solitude and reverence, was known as the famous schmooelk-k, or Line of Blood, which, Hairoot simply stated, is the limit of living dark folk. They had skirted this line ever since.
But there was something about this latest battle for Sal'Baran that stirred suspicion and caution in their minds. From all accounts, the orcs, hobgoblins and kobolds were itching for some sort of victory, stinging from a serious land defeat, not to mention the loss of much of their navy. What better way to save face than to lay waste to the forest and extend their reign? And one of their battle strategies seemed to be tailor-made for the defeat of forest folk - they used fire-the one thing Kassa feared most-in all of its forms, to the fullest.
The Great Hall loomed in the distance, finally.
The walls of the Great Hall were already swelling. The unmistakable dialect of the Kassa rang though the trees - its whimsical, singing tones, punctuated by clacks, snorts, spitting, gags and grunts and accentuated by the ever-present waving and thrusting of hands, smacking of butts, flapping of arms and stomping of the feet, offered quite a sight to the uninitiated. It has been said that a Kassa will never talk in his sleep, nor sneak up on anyone.
Daaigh recognized and grabbed elbows with quite a few friends. Narg Barkbite, a well-known woodworker, met him with a flourish of waves and snorts, happy to see Daaigh's children for the first time in a year. Monk-Gick Leafbright smiled and waved as well. His farm was situated near the marshes to the south, and his yearly crop of reeds made for a booming rope-making business. Pettska Ironbeat was present, quite a successful and well-honored blacksmith, who made at his hut many of Daaigh's tools and quite a few of the fine swords seen among the Kassa fighters. Wandering down low, few were those who did not know of Kacko Laughing, a much shorter, stockier (some would just say "fat"), entertainer and bard. Daaigh met him with a smile and elbow, but was always surprised by Kacko's slap on his buttocks. And many were those of whom he had no knowledge, new faces, new voices, all tinged with a hint of concern...
The walls were steadily filling with climbers reaching the top, swinging a leg over the edge and pulling up the rest of their families. A crowd that easily approached two thousand people talked, waved, grunted and spat at those they knew not, those they had forgotten, and old friends separated by the great distances of the Forest.
Suddenly, amid the ear-piercing din that accompanies more than two Kassa gathered together, a very regal-looking figure easily and deftly climbed the central trunk of Bestra's Snout to reach a level higher than the rest, just below the third level of the building. He was dressed in a fine silk sash over his traditional green trousers, with a buffed and shiny copper chain mail shirt and the official wooden hat of the ruler of the Kassa nation.
Pairk of the Branch of Light was an imposing being. About six-foot ten and three hundred pounds, mostly climbing muscle, he moved with the ease only a true leader could possess. And as he sat down between two branches and turned to see his followers, talking, grunting, even spitting stopped. Only the quickly-hushed talk of the children broke the silence. A genuine smile crept across his wide face, soothing most of the children. He raised his left hand to the crowd, closing and opening his hand in the traditional call for quiet. He bowed his head, and the crowd, in unison, bowed as well.
"Meetzak Bestra, dooplo OOM eelock-k, Ok glemkik ek oomodglOO. Oomopt ok gkooptpt oom ikkYYnah gkoo, ok (click) ek ok eeEOOotook! (Long grunt, click)" (Great Bestra, giver of life, we trust in your leadership. Steer this ship through rough water, we ask of you, we children.) The crowd grunted long, and clicked, an Amen.
The crowd hung on to his every word. "Fellow Kassa, we have long lived on our reputation. From Barg the Branch, to Glim of the Twig, to Emno of the Swaying Elm, to Haak-k-k the Wise, to Gkktk-Aah of the Sea, to Hairoot the Large, and other great rulers, now on to my tiny shoulders, we have lived our lives to the fullest, to serve Bestra, to help our brothers, and to make a better place for our children. We have done this to further our people, and to give us hope."
"Now, Forntol has become a small place. It is not uncommon for us to greet a Halkassa'ruukil or a Gnome, a Dwarf or a Human, a Terragnaven, or even our brethren from Melkuul Wesfar in the cities we frequent. And with this comes the unwanted of this world. The dark folk may be on our doorstep in a few days. They are making their way from the south, from a loss in battle to forces of Sal'Baran, raiding towns as they travel."
"This is a new breed of violence. It knows no bounds. We must be prepared to stop them at all costs. Bestra has asked that we do not start a war or a battle with them, but that we be prepared to protect ourselves. And protect ourselves, we will."
"I will be sending out advanced ranger scouts to track their locations, to let us know their temper, their direction. I ask the blacksmiths to build more weapons; I ask the farmers to prepare for a long siege; I ask for the teachers and mothers to prepare to retreat our precious children to the safety of this hall if needed; I ask our young men to prepare for fighting. We have not forgotten how to fight. We are as strong as any Kassa nation has ever been. Now we may have to prove it. We must re-draw the Line of Blood. Remember the schmooelk-k."
"Schmooelk-k! Schmooelk-k! Schmooelk-k", the crowd began to chant.
Pairk continued. "I shall ask three elders from each hut to stay behind tonight to discuss plans. The rest of you, prepare, starting tomorrow. Get sleep tonight. Hug your children tonight, and every morning. They need you. We all need you. May Bestra speed you."
The crowd began to speak again. They left in a more somber mood, but just as potent, moved even more by their leader. And they hugged their children and told them stories before putting them to bed.
Daaigh worked hard through the next day. He covered his crop with a thin layer of leaves, added stakes all along the edge of the garden, and generally made sure his farm was secure for a few days. He gathered his tools and hauled them to their den in Greentree. He looked in both of the storage closets, buried deep under the clothes and other sundries, and found his sword. Dakak, his father, had given it to him soon after coming of age, and although it was bulky and very heavy at the time, it fit him just right, now. He found his mail shirt, a little tarnished, but serviceable. Alongside it was a set of thigh and arm pads given to him by his grandfather. They were slightly moldy, but he figured a little time with some oil would bring back the luster. Grandpa told him they came from the back of a snow ape, and judging from the size and demeanor of Grandpa, he didn't doubt it.
As he turned, he met Emm. She had a worried look on her face, one he had never seen. He dropped his armaments and held her for a while. Emm knew she might lose him but was proud of him nonetheless.
"You need to take the children to Mamaa's tomorrow. After that, you shouldn't need to move them any farther, because her den is further into the woods. But keep an eye on how everything progresses. These devils are wicked with their fire weapons. Take some extra food and share it with the children."
"It's already done, Daaigh. I moved food over there today. The children put their toys into a sack, especially the wooden dolls you carved for them, one of you and one of me. Do not let that be the only thing they will have to remember you by." Her eyes were welling up.
"I will be back. We will make short work of these demons. I don't think they know what they're getting in to. Besides, it may all be for naught, and they may pass." They held each other for quite a long while. He was late getting to the training session.
At a meeting later that night, Pairk of the Branch of Light sat in his chair at the head of the table. The table was lowered from its hanging position of earlier that night, as there was now enough room to rest it on the floor. He drank some herbal tea from his skin bag and waited for the elders to finish their own discussions and gather at the table.
He could hear just about every conversation occurring in the main gathering room of the Great Hall. The acoustics were very efficient, as the floor plan was based on a circle, and the plank walls were cut, planed, and carefully edge-notched in a male-female type of joint, sealing them from the elements. They extended fifteen feet up from the floor, which was painstakingly smoothed, leveled, jointed, and pinned in place. This was to be the showplace for the Kassa government, a fully functional room made to house discussions of various areas of concern and to carry out the business of what has proven to be a healthy, thriving community.
The main trunk of Bestra's Snout, a several-thousand-years-old tree, thrust up from the center of the floor and branched only once in this room. The roof structure was ingeniously pinned and supported, in the center, by vertical planks surrounding the main trunk, going from the top to the floor. The planks then continued beneath the floor to the ground, supporting these interior planks and the floor itself. It was a house built around the tree, held together by the tree, and encompassing the tree itself. This was standard construction used throughout the Azure Forest, for dens, hut-master dens, and shops, but on a much grander scale.
Pairk sat in front of a parchment of about eight feet square dimensions. On it, in fine detail, was drawn the map of the entire complex, at a minute scale of about three hundred feet to the inch, and showing all the latest construction, bridges and family huts. Below this was a stack of dozens of other parchments, each at a more manageable scale, and each showing a detail of the arrangements of the individual huts and dens. The Kassa has a keen eye for city planning and understood the need for this type of information. The time spent by the many survey crews over the years will prove to be well spent, tonight, thought Pairk.
One by one, the elders noticed their liege's demeanor and curtailed their discussions to sit at the table. One, Pktpak Whining Wind, sat and placed his earthen tea jug on the table. Pairk looked sternly at him, then at his own bag, and moved his bag to the floor beside him. "Take the mug off table, please. We must protect these maps." Pktpak, embarrassed, moved the mug, causing Pairk to smile.
Ment Mole, discussing with Rangoo the Bent Tree the worthiness of old battle plans to this situation, noticed that their conversation was the last and quickly stopped in mid grunt, rushing to take a chair. "Please pardon, we were distracted." Pairk nodded.
Rising to his full height, Pairk began. "Gentlemen and ladies, we need to make plans for what may be a very important event. I think we can expect the dark ones to come north on this road", pointing to the main road passing the limits of the forest. "And that leaves these huts the closest to the possible fighting", he said, pointing to two huts, that of the Leaf and the Knarlybark.
A worried look furrowed the ample brow of Doo-ook, Daigh's great-uncle and one of the leading Leafs. "I think maybe we leave our huts, move inward farther, leave the huts for soldiers to fall back into, what say, Lorg-pk?"
Lorg-pk Knarleybark, the patriarch of his hut, nodded in agreement. "We can both fall back to next, maybe to Suntree hut, if you will have us, Narumm." He looked to the rather short, older Narumm Suntree, another elder.
"Whatever you need, brother; we will leave our doors open."
"Good, this will help", said Pairk. "Let us carry water bags and buckets to the highest dens of each of the two huts, and stock them there. Leave one young adult in each, with the instructions to put out fires. If he is overrun, he must still have an escape through the trees. Can this be done?"
Narumm and Lorg-pk nodded.
"Good, that will take care of those huts. Now we must focus on fighting. Mek(snort) Longstick, have you began assembling fighters?"
Mek(snort) stood to take the floor. His grayish dreadlocks were extraordinarily long, almost reaching his waist. They were further tied into seven spikes, representing the Seven Kassa Virtues. This indicated his standing in the military as one of a leadership role. His chain mail robe was knit of tightly triple-woven iron rings, designed to stop all but the strongest attack of a broadsword. There were a few links missing, something he had intended to repair but never seemed to get the time to do. They had been shorn in battle, and some Kassa thought they were intentionally left un-replaced for effect. It was quite an impressive coat, considering it reached from the hood to six inches from the hard wood floor that was seven feet below.
"I have good and bad news, your greatness. I have almost four thousand males and a thousand women training as we speak, about a mile from Schmooek-k. That's the good news. The bad news is that they are training with hoes, sticks, hammers, branches, even throwing rocks. There is simply not enough steel to go around."
A chuckle came from the right side of the table. All eyes turned to a medium-height Kassa, sporting short, thick dreadlocks, slightly graying and not even to his shoulders. Or were they? His shoulders were almost hidden by the massive neck that transitioned into huge deltoids, then into insanely immense biceps. (Gag)neEE Pounding, the chief elder of his hut, smiled, slowly standing as his thick, leather blacksmith's apron unfolded. "Need steel, soldier-man?" he asked, keeping his slight distrust of the military in check. "Maybe I have what you want - Gloek, climb down to my horse, bring up the big scabbard, not the little one." The hut's second elder left, dashing through the door.
"Been stocking up on pig-stickers. I found a new way to beat the steel, to fold it over many times, and it makes for a tougher sword. I was going to sell these, maybe take to Nopolitus, where there are bigger fighters. Halka and gnomes can't lift them. But maybe I can see what they do in battle, Oom?"
Gloek returned with a large scabbard of ten swords, each at least five-foot six inches long, polished to dazzling brilliance. The Kassa blacksmith hut had done itself proud.
Mek(snort) breathed deeply, almost reverently, at the sight. "Excellent, (Gag)neEE, for ten men. How many more do you have?"
The smithy sheepishly replied. "Almost embarrassed to say, General. About a thousand." Then, shrugging, he turned to Pairk. "I just haven't had time to get them to market."
The ruler and the general, smiled. "That's fine, (Gag)neEE, at least we know where the extra steel has been going to. I assume you will be retuning a portion to the general funds?" said Pairk, hinting at a tax investigation.
The elder blushed, quite evidently, even with his grey skin. "I was always going to do that, your greatness. I have always kept up with my share. I have..."
Pairk began to laugh. "I know, old friend, I know. We will return these to you, and with their help, we'll be able to scavenge more from what's left of the pigs!"
(Gag)neEE relaxed, visibly so, and managed a smile. "These are for the general welfare, sire. We will know how the new steel works, and maybe it will be a boon to trade!"
Mek(snort) inspected one of the blades closely, speaking now more to the blade than anyone else. "I think maybe, if His Kindness agrees, some of the general fund could be diverted to arming and training a stand-by force. Then your swords would have a home, and you could expand your own home with the money!" Laughs broke out around the table.
Pairk stood, clasping and unclasping his left hand to calm the group. "Good, that part is settled. We all have bows and arrows; that should be no problem. General, please set up a net of perimeter sentries to watch their advance. We'll meet back here tomorrow morning. Until then, train well."
A FINE FIGHTING FORCE
Daaigh woke in the morning and prepared breakfast. He poured some of the nyek-k maspkt (azure grain) into an earthen bowl and took some fruits from the bag near the shelf. Yak milk completed the meal. It was this sort of staple that the Kassa relied upon for their sustenance. The ynek-k maspkt was grown in the expansive, beautiful grain fields to the south of the complex, by large-scale farmers, then cooked, dried, crushed and bagged for sale. His root business and part-time woodworking paid for weekly trips to the market, where he made the necessary purchases to assure his family was well fed. He checked on the children and awakened his wife long enough to say goodbye. He then grabbed his pack and set off down the bridge to a cross-tree, where he turned to the training grounds, then to the ground itself to join many others.
He greeted many, meeting a few new faces as he wandered through the crowd. Shortly, a tall soldier dressed in full mail clothes walked to the knoll in the middle of the gathering, put a yak-horn to his lips, and began to speak.
"Listen, everyone. We have four poles set up, to the four corners of this field. Archers, to the yellow. Swordsmen, to the blue. Staffers and hammermen, to the red. Hurry now, we don't have time to waste. Your leaders will be by their staff. You are an army now. Act like it."
The terse call to arms awakened Daaigh to the grim reality, and obviously affected the others as well, as they quieted down and walked directly to their places without much confusion. Upon reaching the blue staff, Daaigh looked around at the assembled soldiers-to-be. Most were dressed in chain, the traditional garb of ancient Kassa warriors, over some sort of shirt. Most were of huge Kassa stock, well over six feet tall, with grim looks on their faces. Not many understood the art of war, but each knew his part was to defend their way of life and send a message to the rest of the Dark world: This is ours, and we intend to keep it.
The leader, a massive Kassa known to some as Elk-noo Strongroot, began speaking into his own horn. "You are in the Azure Army now. For the next few days or weeks, you will forget what you did before. You will remember only what you need to know to defend our way of life. The training will be tough. You are woodworkers, farmers, blacksmiths, and of other backgrounds. That does not matter to me. You are all soldiers now. If you don't think that you can do this, leave now, for I don't want you. I give you two minutes to decide. The rest of you, follow me."
With that abrupt introduction, he pulled up the pole, turned and marched away from the group, not pausing to look back, and walked a hundred feet to a point where he slammed the pole into the ground, to make a new gathering location. He turned back to see the crowd stop three feet from him. He looked over the crowd and saw no one walking away. A horse-drawn wagon was making its way from the south, meeting up with the group.
"This is good. You will do as I say, without question. Hold your swords high in the air."
The soldiers held them up. There were all sorts of weapons, from a five-foot broadsword to scimitars; from rusted hunks of iron to shiny death-dealers; from rapiers to fatter cutlasses. "Look around you. These are what you have to work with. Now you can understand why I have a bad temper. Those of you who do not have a weapon, go directly to the wagon. The rest of you-broadswords to my left, over by that mossy rock." He pointed, then continued. "You will be trained by that man, Kelmuk of Redbark. Cutlasses, scimitars, to that first tree." He pointed to the right, to a Kassa standing there. "That is (Snort)Gak Threebranch, a former fighter for a king to the west. He will train you."
He then pulled out a rapier from the scabbard on his belt. "Rapiers, fine swords, knives, stay here with me. I am Elk-noo Strongroot captain of the sword. We will eat at high noon. We are cooking wild boar and a cow now. You will not go hungry in the service of our lord Pairk. We will camp here, at night. The King's hut will provide tents. I see most of you have brought a roll, that is good. Place your packs and rolls here, for you will not need them for the training. And one thing more: remember the schmooelk-k!"
The crowd chanted back, "Schmooelk-k!" Thus began training for five thousand warriors, the hope of the Kassa and Azure Forest.
Daaigh had never worked this hard on his farm. Many days his work consisted of constant moving, first cultivating the soil to remove the weeds, then working composted matter back into it, then tilling up the soil, planting his roots, weeding, feeding the plants, weeding several times during their growth, harvesting, splitting roots, then repeating the whole process for the next crop. There was always something to do, but it was light-duty work. He had built stamina throughout the growing season, which extended from the first of Thros to the first of Belos, nearly ten months.
But this was a different type of stamina. He was not used to the power it took to deflect a strike or to bring the sword back up to a ready position. As it consumed even more energy to go on the offensive, he felt more at ease in the defensive posture. But he knew that type of fighting would eventually wear you down and create a situation whereby every move you make has to be perfect, so he fought his inner fatigue and surged to the offensive whenever he got the chance.
Much of the training was beginning to come back to him. Earlier in his youth, each Kassa male was taught the art of fighting, with the intent of creating a reserve fighting force during peace. They were taught the fine art of staying alive, while in the background, instructors constantly preached the horrors of war. It was a frightening experience at first but became exhilarating to mostly all of them after a few weeks. And now, faced with an actual situation of life or death consequences, he was beginning to remember.
He could see that several of his companions were much farther along than was he. Some Kassa routinely drifted throughout the continent, offering their services to aid in special projects and adventures. Quite a few had come home with the news of the impending battle and were now training alongside him, offering suggestions.
But no one could offer him strength, nor stamina, nor will. He was finding that these must come from within. Slowly, they were beginning to surface. There were only a few days. Or less.