Qurong, general of the Horde, stood on the tall
dune five miles west of the green forest, ignoring the fly that buzzed around his left eye.
His flesh was nearly white, covered with a paste that kept his skin from itching
too badly. His long hair was pulled back and woven into dreadlocks, then tucked beneath the
leather body armor cinched tightly around his massive chest.
"Do you think they
know?" the young major beside him asked.
Qurong's milky white horse, chosen for its
ability to blend with the desert, stamped and snorted.
The general spit to one
side. "They know what we want them to know," he said. "That we are gathering for war. And
that we will march from the east in four days." "It seems risky," the major said. His
right cheek twitched, sending three flies to flight.
"Their forces are half what
they once were. As long as they think we are coming from the east, we will smother them
from the west."
"The traitor insists that they are building their forces," the
"With young pups!" Qurong scoffed.
"The young can be crafty."
"And I'm not? They know nothing about the traitor. This time we will kill them
Qurong turned back to the valley behind him. The tents of his third division,
the largest of all Horde armies, which numbered well over three hundred thousand of the
most experienced warriors, stretched out nearly as far as he could see.
in four days," Qurong said. "We will slaughter them from the west."
Twelve of the forest's strongest and bravest young fighters crouched in
their brown battle leathers at each end of the grassy stadium field, waiting for the
command to stand and fight for the hairy ball sitting at center field. Five thousand
spectators stood in the stands carved from the earth, holding their collective breath. Four
squad leaders were to be chosen today, and each one given a house to own, the choice of any
horse, and an emerald-handled sword-making them the envy of every man, woman, and child in
All of this would be decided by one man: Thomas Hunter, supreme
commander of the Forest Guard.
Johnis stood next to his father, Ramos, shivering a
little. It wasn't cold, but the breeze dried the sweat on his neck and made him cool. So he
told himself, anyway.
He had dark hair to his shoulders and, according to his
father, a strong jaw that was sometimes best kept closed. His nose was sharp and his lips
full, giving him the appearance that he was fourteen, not sixteen.
He stared at the
hairy Horde ball at center field. His mother, Rosa, had been responsible for that lump of
Scab hair. Three months had passed since she'd been killed by the Horde at the forest's
edge while searching for a special plant, the catalina cactus, whose herbal power might've
healed a fever that had come over Johnis. The Forest Guard had been to the north in battle,
but she'd refused to wait for an escort while her boy suffered.
His mother had
always been like that, dropping everything on his account. Sweet Mother, with her long,
dark hair and ruby lips.
Mother, why did you go? Please forgive me, dear Mother.
Johnis had thrown himself on the ground and wailed for the whole village to
hear. His father had left the forest in a rage and returned with the long, tangled hair
from ten Horde he'd killed that very afternoon-the makings of that hairy Horde ball on the
But nothing eased the pain in Johnis's chest.
Two weeks ago
Thomas Hunter had announced the decision to lower the Forest Guard's recruitment age from
eighteen to sixteen. He was looking to boost the fighting force by one thousand. The
forests had erupted in debate.
Those who had protested had cried in fear at the
thought of their sons and daughters entering battle against the Horde. They all knew that
the Forest Guard was outnumbered ten to one. They knew that every time the Guard went to
battle, many died. They knew that the weakest, their sons and daughters, would die first.
But the people of the forest also knew that the Horde had sworn to kill them all.
All living followers of Elyon knew, whether or not they admitted it publicly, that the fate
of the Forest Dwellers rested squarely on the shoulders of the youngest fighters now
joining the Forest Guard.
All sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds worth their salt had
then signed up to be considered. With his mother's death fresh in his mind, Johnis had been
one of the first in line. The Guard had dismissed all but two thousand, from which they
would select the final thousand fighters.
Johnis was one of those who'd been
dismissed. Too small, they said. He was just barely sixteen and still too wounded from his
mother's death. Maybe next time, if there was a next time.
"What do you say,
Johnis?" his father whispered. "Who is the strongest?"
Johnis scanned the players
in this game Thomas Hunter called football-a name that supposedly came from his dreams of
another land. All twenty-four were already mighty fighters, even though none was older than
seventeen. Roughly half were women, and of those Johnis thought maybe Darsal was the
strongest. Not the largest, but the strongest. And very quick.
She crouched fewer
than fifty feet from where Johnis stood on the sidelines. Her fingers were wrapped tightly
around the same three-foot fighting stick they had all been given. Muscles rippled up her
arm, glistening with sweat. The side of her sleeveless tunic was stained with a little
blood-it was, after all, a full-contact sport. Within thirty days the recruits would be
swinging razor sharp swords in full battle against the Horde. No one dared enter the Forest
Guard fearful of a little blood when so much more was at stake.
Her long, brown
hair was tucked under a leather helmet and had been pulled back into a ponytail, showing a
strong, smooth jaw line to her ear on the right side of her face. A terrible scar marked
her left-a burn that forced Johnis to stare and wonder what had put it there. It made her
more fearsome than ugly. Whatever had caused the wound had also gotten her left shoulder,
although her leather armor covered most of the scar there.
The Horde had killed her
father. Johnis could practically see the thirst for revenge in her squinting eyes. But
something else had happened to make her stick close to Billos, another fighter in
contention for the top spot today. They were from the same forest and were clearly very
close. At first Johnis had assumed they were brother and sister, but no.
you say, lad?" his father asked again.
"Darsal," he said, in a whisper that sounded
His father grunted. "Now there's a choice. She'd make any man a fine wife."
He glanced down at Johnis. "A little more muscle on those bones and you could make a play
for her yet, boy. Though she seems a bit stuck on the other youngster."
nudged him, and Johnis gave him a weak smile.
Father could not know that his
frequent comparisons with those who'd been selected to try out for the Forest Guard
bothered him. The honor of wearing the hardened leather breastplates, wielding the Guard
swords and whips, riding the best horses, being watched by everyone else as you walked down
the path on your way to battle-who wouldn't trade his life for a chance to be called one of
the Forest Guard?
Who, besides Johnis? Truly, he wasn't sure he would make a good
fighter in bloody battle. In fact, he was quite sure he wouldn't.
small comments made Johnis feel weak, reminding him that he stood on the sidelines because
he wasn't worthy. He shifted on his feet and crossed his arms over his chest, hugging
Thomas Hunter paced across the field. There wasn't a man or woman among
them who wouldn't be honored to kiss the commander's hand. The Forest Guard had saved the
forests many times, and Thomas Hunter was the reason for it all.
He slid his
emerald-handled sword from its metal sheath, filling the stadium with the sound of steel
scraping steel. Perfect silence settled on the crowd.
Thomas swung the sword
absently, neatly cutting the grass at his feet in an arc.
"Is this all I can expect
from you?" his voice rang out. He jabbed the air with his sword. "I'm looking for four
leaders to step forward and show they are worthy to stand by my side."
responded. What Thomas could be looking for that he hadn't already seen was beyond Johnis.
"Take a look around," Thomas shouted. He slowly swung his sword across the stadium.
"The fate of every man, woman, and child in this arena will be in the hands of the Forest
Guard. And you say you want to lead that Guard? You are all either mad or complete fools,
because I don't see a leader in the lot."
He paced back to the sideline, studying
the line of twelve on his right, then the line on his left. Behind him the ball of hair lay
To win, one team had to run to the middle, pick up the ball, and cross
the other team's goal line. What seemed simple enough was made very difficult by the fact
that the other team was armed with fighting sticks.
The day had started with a
hundred of the most promising recruits. Seventy-six had been dismissed, seventeen of them
It was down to these two teams of twelve each.
his sword high, then swung it down hard. "Go!"
The two lines of recruits silently
bolted from where they crouched and raced toward the ball on a collision course.