Heart of a Lion

"Many centuries ago, the Arduk people lived in harmony with the other tribes of the Land. They looked after the Jungle and the mountains; they traded peacefully with the people from far away and learned from them as they did from the Arduk. The Arduk were a relatively peaceful tribe that rapidly grew into a nation. From the highest peaks of the Per Mountains to the rivers deep in the Jungle, they governed this part of the Land, cultivating their rich culture. But as time passed, other tribes from across the high mountains appeared. Hostile people that, even though they were few, were fierce and violent."

"Among the Arduk, there were some that thought that fighting was the best way to defend their nation, while others thought that it was best to block their passage through the mountains to stop them from coming. Years passed and the fierce tribes kept coming, each time in bigger numbers though they never really represented a threat. They were savage tribes, tough due to the harsh life their desert land gave them. Little by little, the Arduk people separated into those who wanted to fight and those who didn't. Some moved into the cities at the very mountains, establishing new villages and building fortresses were they could fabricate their weapons. Later, they would be known as the Arkani, the warrior tribe that lived all along the mountains, preventing the savage tribes from crossing to the Land. Those who chose to stay decided to build their cities high up the Forn trees that border the Jungle's heart. And for a time, things remained like that; until the Karanth appeared..."

"Stop gawking at Alba!"

"Ack! I was not!" the young man rubbed his arm where the young woman beside him had pinched him.

"You were. That is all you ever do." The young woman said lowering her voice as a couple of boys sitting in front of them turned around curiously. "If you can't face a woman, how will you ever face your enemy in battle?"

The young man turned from his agressor and faced the center of the circle they were sitting in. An old man stood there, telling the young warriors-in-training about their traditions and history. It was a story most had heard many times before, but people always welcomed the old man when he offered to tell it again.

"And so they conquered the brave Arkani! The whole nation crumbled under the rule of these savages. They stole their culture, their traditions, their technology. They took and inhabitated their very own cities, as they had had none before."

The youngest trainees, sitting nearest the center, shook their heads and murmured their disapproval. Most in the crowd were males, some were still children while others were nearing their adulthood already. Of the few females there were, most were among the youngest. Lately, more females were being encouraged to fight. The city needed as much warriors as possible and none who volunteered, regardless of genre, was to be turned away.

"And now, these wild men dare cross what little defense the Arkani left in the mountains and invade the Land. Our Land! For over a century, the Arkani fought bravely to keep the Land safe while we, the Araduk, grew as a nation. Now, it is our turn to fight! We owe the Arkani, our old brothers, as much. It is the Araduk's turn to defend the Land!"

The crowd agreed loudly. Small, eager fists were raised in the air; bold replies were made.

"Let us show these savages what our people can do!"

Near the center, the crowd responded wildly. Getting to their feet, the youngest ones shouted daring menaces. Their leaders, calm adults, hushed them and ordered them into formation.

While the crowd near the center had gone wild, further away, at the back, the older trainees sat impassively. They knew better how harsh the life of a warrior was and they prefered to spend the least energy they could while not in training.

The young woman named Alba sat against a gigantic tree root, resting her head against it. Her deep amber eyes surveyed the jungle ground, filled with bushes, vines and enormous tree roots. These very roots belonged to one of the three Forn trees that supported their training camp. They were at the edge of the Jungle, were the big trees that provided a deep darkness to the heart of the Jungle were few. Other, smaller, trees grew around here, making the terrain better for training excercises and mock battles. They were far away from home.

Alba posed her gaze on Talon and smiled. If only he were not so attached to his sister, she would choose him as a training companion. And perhaps more.

"She likes you."

Talon sighed, still looking ahead at the youngest ones.

"Maybe."

The leaders signaled them into formation and the whole crowd stood, scattering into smaller groups sorted by age and skill. Alba stood and went to join Talon and his sister. They were the oldest trainees in the camp, almost adults ready to join the army and defend their city. Yet, they were also the smallest group in number. Six years ago, when they had started their training, the urge to form a bigger, stronger army had not been as it was now.

Argos, their young but strong leader, gave them a few instructions before dismissing them. Divide into nine pairs, sneak up and fight each other. Talon knew his sister was ready to pair up with him again and so were his friends, but he had been gathering courage all day to ask Alba this time. He clenched his fists and cleared his throat.

"Go." Talon looked at his sister amused. Had she read his thoughts? "You've been waiting for this chance all day; go ask her before I ask her myself."

He smiled and went off.