The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungles is alive. The Jungle is alive. The Jungle is alive! THE JUNGLE IS ALIVE!
Whew. Now that I've gotten that out of my system, let us start at the beginning. It is a very good place to begin. This is a story of adventure, a story of terrifying creatures and dashing heroes, a story of far off places and fantastical sights, a story of great passion and great truth. As these stories often do, the stage is set in a small town on the far border of a kingdom, a kingdom about to go to war with another kingdom. The kingdom in question is called Precia, home of the Precian people, marked by agricultural advances, just rulers, and small towns on the far borders. The people in these towns are proud, homely, farmers who prefer to keep to themselves, and would rather not be bothered with the games that politicians play. Such was the way of Precia, until the nation of the Federachi became a neighbor to Precia through the conquests of other nations. The Federachi had, up to that point, been of little concern to the Precians, who were an unquestioned super-power. Whereas the Precians preferred being farmers, the Federachi were more warlike, honorable, and there were a few hundred thousand more people within the Federachi borders. Tensions were high. One day a young Federachi man decided to take a drink from a Precian inn, not two miles from his home. One thing led to another, and the Federachi army invaded Precia. It was the beginning of a long and bloody war, one that would cause both sides to regret the war, and bring to bear soldiers whose feats had made them heroes within their nations. Or at least the sons and nephews of said soldiers, it had been some time since the last war.
The Federachi called upon one of their most decorated commanders, the Precians would attempt to call upon my uncle. I was living with my uncle at the time, I had been for quite a while. My parents had me when they were still very young, my father had only seen my mother as a fling, though they had known each other for years. They were thick as thieves, and as they grew older they decided that, as my uncle put it, "Why not?" and had intercourse with one another. As fate would have it I was conceived. While many men in the situation, still young and with futures ahead of them, would have left my mother, my father was no ordinary man. He put aside his entire life for my mother, stayed with her until I was born, and started a farm. I suppose that's were I got my sense of responsibility. I was still young when I moved to my uncle's farm, on the northern border. I remember there being shouting, a hiss of steel, and then I remember the sight of a burning home disappearing into the distance. I barely recall my birth parents, my aunt and uncle became my parents. They raised me on their farm, we grew wheat and potatoes. It was hard work, but I didn't mind. I tried my hardest to make my aunt and uncle proud. In return my aunt taught me to observe others rather than judge them. She taught me how to see a person's whole life from just a glance, noticing little things. Even with that knowledge, she said, I should meet a person before I make up my mind about them. She taught me to enter a room so that I was welcome, rather than attention drawing or unnoticed. My uncle taught me his lessons when I got older. He taught me how to find food in the middle of the forest, how to see a situation before and after it happened, how to fight with my mind, and my hands. I learned my lessons well. I was the most respected youth in the town within by my seventeenth name day. It just so happened that that was the same day that the Precian army arrived to recruit soldiers from my town. I could see the flags over the far hill, before even my aunt. They arrived in silence, one would think out of respect for the ceremony that was occurring. It was, in fact because the men who arrived at my village were far to beaten and battered to make any loud noises. That was the duty of the village headman, who loved to hear himself talk. It was on that day that I decided to not join the military, unlike my uncle. It was on that day that my uncle forced me to become a soldier. It was on that day that I made the decision which would change my life forever. Had I known, I would have avoided joining like the plague, but as I didn't know I simply sat and listened to the village headman.
"Greetings!" he called, "Greetings brave soldiers of the frontier! How goes the battle against the Federachi savages?" The soldiers groaned in answer, the best cheer they could muster, which, considering their condition, was little more than a pained groan. "Good, good!" The headman yelled, "These are the brave soldiers who met the foe head on in the deserts far to our south! They met them in glorious battle and have returned invigorated for the new fight!" The soldiers hardly looked invigorated. Three of them had their arms in slings, others had crutches, one of them was riding in a wagon with a bandage around his head. The only one who seemed unharmed had a plume on his helm, the commanding officer, probably a captain. I looked closer. He wasn't unharmed, there was a fresh scar over his right eye and his hand was bandaged, though tucked behind his back. A sharp eye would notice the linen strand blowing in the light breeze. The headman continued his speech about the bravery of the soldiers. I turned my gaze on him. What was holding this man together? He had little hair, rotten teeth, a big house, and-is that parsley between his teeth? Then he called up the commander to speak a few words. The commander walked up slowly, I caught an imperfection in the armor plating on his leg. A splint. I did not see any horses, save those pulling the wagon. This man had walked up to my village on a broken leg, and who knew how many other injuries but he ascended the stairs as calmly and cooly as any royalty. The headman told the captain to tell about the battle of Broken Ridge, the most recent victory. The official version was that the Precian military had found the Federachi dug in in the sandy hills of the northern desert and had routed them with little trouble.
"We found the Federachi encampment with a tip from a spy. We marched up in force, expecting to find an army waiting for us. There was only a group of ten men, surrounded by their comrades. But their comrades weren't an army any more…they were corpses. Rotting in the sun. We could've used the buzzards as a guide as much as we had the spy's advice. We nursed the Federachi back to health, then as soon as they were better we gave them a dozen water skins and sent them on their way."
The crowd was silent. This wasn't in the script. This was a report that no one had been expecting. As a result the crowd dispersed and the soldiers set up a recruitment station. I was invariably dragged over by the headman. Apparently, I was the "right stuff", as the village headman kept calling me. He introduced me to the captain who shook my hand and was civil enough despite his earlier outburst. During the handshake I noted that he had a dislocated finger. I squeezed a tad harder than was necessary and popped the finger back into place. The captain did not flinch, nor did he comment on the action. I also noticed that he did not apologize for what he had said. The captain waved towards a chair and I sat down. The captain gratefully took a seat as well. We were seated across from one another at a small wooden table which had been carried in the wagon. The man with the head injury was leaning against it. Every now and then he shifted and groaned, and another soldier gave him sips of water every so often. There was a scroll of parchment with twenty seven names upon it, nearly half of the young men in the town. The inkwell was nearly dry, and I noted that it had only been filled up a quarter of its full capacity, purposefully I guessed. This captain didn't want to take down many names. We stared each other down for a few moments, I could sense a practiced eye upon me, though I had a head start on the matter. He must have noticed the scar on my arm. I had gotten in from the plow when the draft horse my uncle owned, named Bill, spooked. I had been ten at the time. I noticed the captain had calluses on his arms. He'd been a blacksmith. Finally the captain spoke.
"Do you want to join the army?" He said.
"Not particularly." I replied. The headman gasped and took a step back.
"Shame. Truth be told I can't blame you. I didn't want to take down the names of fresh troops anyway. We were sent here for Terry the Lion."
"He's my uncle." The captain raised an eyebrow at that. I'd always known that my uncle had been in the military. I'd even known that his name had been Terry the Lion. That was all I knew about it, but to warrant a personalized recruitment he must have been something indeed. The Captain spoke again.
"If youre half the man he was, you'd be a welcome addition to the Precian army."
I shook my head and stood. "Thank you captain, but no. I'm needed here." The captain nodded in understanding and did not pursue the subject. He did not stand. I took no offense, due to his injuries. We shook hands again and I returned to my uncle's farm. I headed to the stables, as I often did, and started brushing Bill the draft horse. He whinnied in appreciation and bent his head so I didn't have to reach. I brushed him up and down his body, scratching the places he liked and giving him apples to munch on. Doing this I could understand the love the Had'ze people of the far eastern steppes had for their horses. It wasn't long before my uncle arrived, wondering how the conversation with the captain had gone.
"I didn't join up." I said. My uncle sat on a bale of hay.
"That was stupid." He replied. My uncle wasn't a man to mince words. When he had something to say, he'd say it, unless he was plotting something, which happened with disturbing regularity. Fortunately he had my aunt to cover his tracks when he made social a faux pas. I knew why my uncle had said what he had said. It was not out of any profound pride for his military service, or fanatical patriotism. He did not want this life for me. I could not understand why. I enjoyed farm life. I thought it the best thing to arrive on this earth since bread, a slightly ironic statement since bread came after farming. But for once, I did not want to make my uncle proud. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. If that meant not joining the military and surviving to continue the farm for the next generation so be it. The barn door creaked open and my aunt entered. She was more tactful with her response to my staying on the farm.
"Well," She tittered "If that is what suits you" and that settled the matter. Even my legendary uncle knew that he answered ultimately to his wife. We went back to the house, had the evening meal, and settled down in the living room for the night. My uncle picked up his medals and polished them, my aunt knitted in front of the fire, and I read a book. After an hour or so, my aunt decided to go to bed. Usually I went to bed at the same time my aunt did, but I was not yet done with the chapter and stayed up with my uncle. He continued to clean his medals. Then he picked up an old helmet. He studied if for a few moments then called me over.
"I recognized that captain today" He said. "This is his helmet. I borrowed it from him at the Salt Mounds Skirmish. Never gave it back. Can you do it?" He looked up, all innocence but I knew what he was planning. "I know I can trust you with it." He said. I sighed. I couldn't bring myself not to do it.
"You're a clever old dog, you know that?" I told him.
He smiled, "No boy. A clever old Lion"
The sun was just breaking over the horizon when I caught the captain and his men leaving the village. The new recruits were all there, though many had tried to escape I noticed, due to the large mud stains up their bodies from when they had been tackled, though who by I couldn't guess as none of the soldiers seemed particularly up to running. It had rained the previous night. The captain, still walking on a broken leg, looked over at me.
"Ah, my old helmet. Decided to join up have you?"
The captain had been in on the plot. I just knew it.
It took two weeks to reach the place where we would be trained. I had never seen such a dismal sight in all my life, though in retrospect the camp was in a rather scenic location and my disapproval of it was personal prejudice more than anything else. The camp was, in fact, based outside the Precian Capital of Xiangul, a massive and masterfully build city. From our location, we could only see the walls, massive stone constructs, with parapets and towers dotting the expanse. The Precian flag, A white tiger on a green field, fluttered above every tower proudly, proclaiming to any invading armies, "Here we are. Come and get us."
We were not the only recruits, but we were by far the newest. The moment we arrived we were in training. We entered the armory one by one, a doorway which led to a long hall and into another door. It seemed simple enough. I was the last to walk through the hallway. I could feel eyes on me as I did so. Right before I entered the armory itself did I notice it. The door, which opened inward, left a slight crack between itself and the wall. Through that crack, I noticed a man, arms raised. I stopped. The soldiers inside the armory beckoned me through. I said I'd love to come in, but only if the man behind the door stepped into sight. He did so, in his hands was a wooden practice sword. The soldiers inside looked impressed. I grabbed my armor and weapons, a chain mail shirt, bracers, gauntlets, a chest and back plate, a shield, a sword, and a helmet. I suited up calmly, I had learned from my uncle how to put on armor. Again the soldiers looked impressed. Perhaps I should try harder not to impress them. I exited the armory and joined the men I had been recruited with. We stood in a simple line formation, seven across four deep, and waited to be addressed. I noted some of the others fidgeting in their armor and though I was more comfortable than they were, it was very hot that day. Soon, and by soon I mean within two hours, the general of the Precian army arrived. His name was General Orik. He rode a beautiful black stallion and wore a rich mahogany brown robe over his armor. He addressed us personally.
"Greetings and salutations recruits! I hope your enjoying your first day as soldiers in the Precian army. Soon you will embark on a glorious campaign to defeat the Federachi menace once and for all! I'm not going to lie to you soldiers. It will be difficult. You will be fighting against the son of a living legend. You will be fighting Captain Fölcata!" The other recruits gasped and the veterans nodded sagely. I had never heard of Captain Fölcata. I'd heard my uncle mutter the name once in his sleep, but the one we were to face could not possibly be as fearsome as his father could he? General Orik continued.
"You will need to be absolutely stout in your task. Captain Fölcata commands total loyalty from his soldiers." He paused, and I noted that General Orik continued to refer to him as Captain Fölcata rather than just Fölcata. This meant that even he respected the man we were to face. Brilliant. The general continued. "Captain Fölcata has never been defeated because of this loyalty. We know not how he commands such soldiers as this, but we can assure you: He will not be victorious this time." The soldiers cheered. "The Federachi dogs, have dug in their booted heels and dared us to go after them. So after them, we shall go!" The soldiers cheered again. "We shall not fail! You, our soldiers, and your commanders will see to that." He looked around, as if to say, 'and speaking of which...' I had been looking forwards to the choosing of our commander, anxious to see which of my fellows would be promoted to such a responsibility.
General Orik looked over a list and began muttering to himself. I could make out the words, "Yes…" and "Makes sense…". Finally he looked up. He looked each man in the eye before settling on me.
"You." He said. I looked around to make sure there had been no mistake. "Yes. You." I was pushed forwards by the other recruits. I saluted hastily. The general nodded.
"You will lead this unit. What is your name?"
I took a breath, "My name is-" A sentry burst through the door and ran up to the general.
"News! News from the front!" The general grabbed the scroll the sentry handed him and read it quickly. He looked at me. "Captain," He ordered, "Get your men ready for a march. You're heading out with the army tomorrow." With that he wheeled his horse away and led his entourage towards the keep that dominated the area. I turned to my men. "Hi." Gods above, what had I gotten myself into?
We learned how to fight on the way. It isn't hard, swinging a sword, I learned how to do that when I was still very young. The trouble with sword fighting is swinging the sword so you hit your opponent without getting hit yourself. It's far more difficult that it sounds. Having mastered the basic skills while I was just a boy, I was slightly amused by the fumbling movements of my fellow recruits. As captain it was my job to help improve their skills. I'd never taught anyone in my life. I simply tried my best to remember my own lessons, and to pass them on effectively.
"Be quick! See your opponent's whole body, anticipate their movements! Make sure your first strike is also your last!" I called out to the soldiers under my command. I'd taken the time to get to know them all personally. I had also taken the liberty of dividing the unit into lines, the same lines that we'd form up into if we ever were in a battle. My personal line was, simply, the First Line made up of myself, Luke, Robert, Nathan, Jamie, Adam, and Chapman. The second line was called the Johnson Line, being made up of the seven Johnson Brothers, Herman, Jack, Rupert, Mayor, Bobby, John, and Bobbyjohn. The third line was Line Lads, sometimes called the Lad's Line, and this was Gavin, Ray, Michael, Micoo, Gavy-Wavy, X'Ray and Vav. The fourth and final line was the Rig Line because…I don't really know. This was Jakobre, Marina, Cook, Virgil, Thomas, Don and Ron. My soldiers may not have been the best fighters but they were loyal. I'd taken the lessons I'd learned about leadership from Captain Fölcata seriously. I'd give the men rewards if they performed well, I kept them well informed of our movements as a sign of trust, and above all I respected them as human beings. Roughly seven weeks of marching after leaving the encampment did I discover where we were headed. It was with a heavy heart that I delivered the message to my men.
I looked at my men over the fire. "We're headed to The Jungle." The men gasped. Everyone knew about The Jungle. No one knew what was inside it. No one who'd gone to The Jungle ever came out. It was in fact so dangerous that if you announced you were heading there your town would hold your funeral for you the day you left. So far, this tradition had never been wrong. Now we were headed there and a gloom descended upon my men. I almost wished I hadn't told them, but it would have been immoral to keep them in the dark. It was another seven weeks before we arrived at the edge of The Jungle. I could not help but hear Cook mutter, "Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games" as it reared into sight. I heard a roll of thunder, which confused me as there were no clouds above us. There was a horn blast, and I led my men into The Jungle. The journey within seemed fine until we were about seventy feet into The Jungle. By this point, most of the Precian Army had already entered The Jungle. I noted that night had fallen. Gavy-Wavy screamed and I whipped around. My soldiers turned as well, and murmured fearfully at what we saw. He was gone. Suddenly The Jungle itself sprang to life, vines reaching down from trees, roots coming up through the ground, tendrils reaching out from the foliage. "The Jungle is alive." I murmured before making a mad dash away from the attacking plants. I didn't even notice that I was running farther and farther into The Jungle, and deeper into trouble until I was snagged by a root. I screamed in panic as I was dragged towards the base a tree. It was still night, still black as pitch. I saw a bright flash of light, and the root released my leg. I rolled over to see what had happened. I saw a military man, though he was clearly not Precian, the armor was different and the colors as well. He had a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. He tossed me his sword and I caught it. He looked impressed. I would have to make a note to stop impressing military men. It was going to be the death of me. The man motioned for me to follow and I did so, quickly and quietly as I could. Again the man looked impressed. He led me to a small camp with a big fire. The tendrils, vines, and roots writhed at the edge of our view, but seemed afraid of the fire, or at least the light it produced. As I approached I noted that it was a motley crew of both Federachi and Precian troops, whoever had been saved I assumed. I counted only twenty of us. The Precians had brought twenty thousand men, the Federachi twenty-five thousand. I counted myself lucky. One of the Federachi soldiers approached my rescuer, who was obviously the captain. They spoke rapidly in Federachi. I understood only a little but I did catch one word: Fölcata. I had been rescued by Captain Fölcata. If I hadn't been so terrified, I probably would have been a bit excited.
That day we tended the fire, kept it roaring. I overheard Captain Fölcata and one of the Precian captains planning an escape, using one of the other Federachi as a translator. Captain Fölcata only allowed the men to use wood from the tent spars and the ground. He did not think that attacking The Jungle was going to make it any more friendly. I did not recognize any of the Precian soldiers. It seemed that my entire unit had been taken by The Jungle, though I did not recall seeing the Rig line enter The Jungle with the rest of the unit. Weird. We searched for remains to bury, but found none. It was a long day. Finally, night fell again. It was immediately apparent that The Jungle had gotten over its fear of the firelight. As soon as the sun disappeared over the horizon, the vines grabbed four of the men. Everyone took a torch from the fire and stood back to back, no one wanting to have a blind spot towards the demonic foliage. I wound up with my back against Captain Fölcata, which in hindsight probably saved my life. I was fast enough to see the vines before they struck, which allowed me to give them a solid whack with my torch. Captain Fölcata was just as fast. The other men, were not so lucky. Group by group they were snagged, and were dragged into the darkness screaming. A few moments after they disappeared the screams would stop. I decided I would rather not find out why. Within a few hours it was just Captain Fölcata and myself. The first rays of dawn broke over the horizon. The Jungle saw light first on this side of the world. We decided to make a run for it. We sprinted away from the camp, heading east towards the sun. We continued to whack at vines, tendrils, and roots, oh my, as the sun slowly crept up the sky. Soon the attacking plants were still, but I could swear I felt The Jungle shiver in rage. It had been three hours. It was another two before we saw the edges of The Jungle. But we never got there. The more we ran the farther away the edge got. The faster we ran the faster the edge got away from us. It didn't take long for me to figure out what was going on. The Jungle was growing ahead of us. It was chasing us, trapping us within its green embrace, hoping that the sun would go down before we escaped. I relayed this information as best I could to Captain Fölcata in my mangled version of Federachi. He nodded in understanding, I could tell that he'd already figured this out for himself. He grabbed my arm and quickened his pace. I struggled to keep up. To this day I still do not know how I managed to do it. I also thank whatever gods there may be that we headed east. To the east was the desert. Where the war had begun years ago, and now where it was to end. The push into The Jungle had been the last ditch effort for both nations. Finally, we passed over the edge of The Jungle, and kept running. I looked back, and saw The Jungle standing still, impassive. Then it quivered, and a high pitched wail went up from all the trees, a keening scream which was both the creak of branches and the cries of man. "Come back!" They seemed to cry. But we would not. We had escaped. We ran maybe a mile and collapsed, exhausted. We lay there for an hour. Perhaps more? I could not tell, time was of no import after what we had endured. After we recovered a bit, we straightened up to sit, and I passed Captain Fölcata my water skin, which fortunately had not been snagged by The Jungle. He took a long drink and passed the skin back to me. I drank as well and lay back onto the warm sand. Then Captain Fölcata rose, and drew his sword, which I had given back during the previous day. I stood and groaned. I looked him in the eyes and accepted it. Captain Fölcata screamed the Federachi war cry and I closed my eyes.
The blow I expected never came. I opened one eye to see the sword blade but inches from my throat. Captain Fölcata looked me in the eyes and dropped the blade. We'd done too much together. We made an agreement. We both knew that our nations would be at war again one day. We agreed that should we meet on the battlefield, we would not harm one another. But only the first time. The second time, was fair game. We shook on the agreement, and returned to our respective nations.