Everywhere ached on Sam’s body, he was a physical wreck. In the six weeks he’d started his training he’d already been subjected to a rigorous exercise regime coupled with seemingly never ending close order drills, and the daily run through the obstacle course.
He, along with all other trainees, had been introduced to the track filled with a plethora of tangled ropes that were overhanging the major paths, sharp rocks that were littered haphazardly, and foul smelling muck in pits, to name but a few. On the first day, they had been given a demonstration run of the course by an older student, before they had been led by one of the younger instructors through the track, seeing the many routes of the course for themselves. There were many groups going through, but it was only a one time guide through the track, the instructor took the time to show the boys through the most difficult way to the finish. He smiled as he watched the concern evident in the boy’s body language. It was a particularly dangerous circuit, devised by several of the senior staff at the academy, it was laid out in such a way that it took more than just skill but teamwork and strategy to get through the course unscathed.
Once the instructor had finished his rounds, the class of twenty-two trainees was sorted into groups and each in turn tried its hand at getting through the course. Sam was one of the unlucky few who would be a part of the first group to run the track. It would mean that the others would be allowed time to watch how they addressed the situation, and made them more likely to snigger and laugh at Sam’s group as they scraped their way through. However, being the first group wasn’t without its advantages, they had been taken aside and shown a map of the course, many of the key points in the course were marked and the tutor gave them some not too subtle hints on how to proceed through the maze.
They were also given a time reduction meaning a portion of their completion time would be removed to help even the playing field. Sam and his companions took some time to navigate safely through the middle section of the course, seeing how the paths were shaped and progressed into the heart of the maze. Their instructor had told them it was always vital for a battle commander to scout the areas they’d be passing through to gain a general overview of the environment, enabling them to plan ahead. As he had reached the middle of the course, his teacher’s words were ringing in his ears. In the final moments, they had added some final words of ‘encouragement’ to them, stating that that not only would the time be recorded and compared for each recruit throughout the duration of the semester, they said that only the winning group would escape the punishment of another run through. Grinning mirthlessly, they had been turned out into the course, without so much as a “good luck”.
It was important that this harsh schooling was incorporated into their learning right away, many wouldn’t survive to the end of the semester and the obstacle course was one of many ways that helped to distinguish the average from the mediocre. Few people did well in the early days of the course so the first tasks were crucial in defining where each member stood in the ranks. It wasn’t rare that some of the weaker students were removed from the program, though this was avoided where possible as it was found perseverance shone through and many made it through after all.
While each group was making their run through, the other groups would watch and learn from a slightly elevated look-out position. Understanding why something succeeded was often as important as why it failed, and giving the recruits this opportunity to see the numerous strategies employed by other students added to their development. For the first run, the first two groups were given no such opportunity, as they had to go by their instincts. It was, however, always interesting for the staff to watch those first groups to gauge their raw skills.
Sam’s group had performed adequately, they weren’t the fastest group on that first day, but they were far from the slowest. When it was revealed later on those groups were to be their cabin groups, Sam was pleased to find they could begin to learn how to work better as a team in future runs as their successes and failings further added to the camaraderie that would be essential in their later years.
In their latest run, Sam’s group were the worst of a bad bunch, the record being one-minute and twenty-two seconds, the best of the class was two-minutes and forty-eight seconds, with Sam’s group being a further sixteen seconds back. Many attributed it to the continual downpour of rain over the previous days that rendered the track slippery and unstable underfoot. Their instructors however, were less than pleased, citing extra practice being necessary and sent the entire class through again simultaneously.
Sam was quick to find several shortcuts in their first few runs. These added a risk and reward element to the course, while some chose to take on the hazards, as they were the most direct route, Sam had found that there was a course that, while it was much longer than the other routes, it appeared to be a much safer route. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving, as he had found out today. After successive days returning to their cabins bruised and scratched up, they’d opted for the easier track, however that was another scheme incorporated into the track. As Sam had been crossing a bridge, there was a slight jump down to a lower platform, deeming it to be secure and strong, Sam unwittingly led the way, jumping across the gap to land directly on purposely damaged sleepers underneath, breaking through them and landing in a small room below. He had landed awkwardly and struck his head on one of the sleeps which rendered him unconscious.
When he came to, he had an irrepressible headache and was told he had bruised a bone in his left arm, just below the point of the elbow, and cracked a couple of ribs. He was duly informed that he would miss out on a fortnight of training and would need to move as little as possible while he mended in the confines of his cabin. This gave the boy plenty of time however to concentrate on his class work, attack and invasion tactics and defensive fortification tasks were handed brought to him daily, along with accompanying notes on formations and rulings that he had to follow in order to complete the tasks.
After ten days in the cramped space place, he was eager to get out and learn more combat techniques, he wanted to run and have the freedom to move around. While he found some interesting facts on strategy, he wanted to take action, not lie in bed waiting for his body to recover from his mishap.
There was a sudden knock at the door. Sam placed his books on the bed-side table, grimacing at the slight pain from his healing ribs. He went to rise and thought against it, thinking it could be one of the healers from the infirmary coming for a checkup. Instead, he called gently to the visitor, “Come.”
It was one of the battlemaster’s chief executives, a head of the school, who was now greeting him. “Sam, how are you mending, son?” Sir Dunstan asked, Sam noticed the man’s reasonably casual wear, with a light shirt and breeches of a dark navy.
“I’m getting there, sir” Sam replied. He had no idea why someone with the caliber of Dunstan would visit a lowly first year cadet. It hinted towards an occasion of a serious nature, the boy thought. And he wasn’t wrong. As if sensing the boy’s puzzlement at his appearance, Dunstan decided he might as well get on with the details.
“I take it that you’re wondering why I’m here tonight.” Dunstan said, Sam sat on his bed, suddenly worried that he may have done wrong, that perhaps some of his work was sloppily completed. He racked his brain, trying to find where he might have gone wrong with his work, for the life of him, he couldn’t see it..
“Having seen what you’ve done since you arrived here a short time ago. I figured that we could have you…’delay’ a little more of your training” Dunstan said.
Sam nodded slowly, he didn’t know to what Dunstan was referring, however, he thought it was better that he feigned knowing just to avoid any potential backlash. He looked down at his hands, placed in his lap, looking his still bruised arm. That was when Dunstan said something he’d never expected to hear, “I have a job for you, Sam.”
Sam’s eyebrows shot up, a look of astonishment written on his face as he looked up at the man. “Job? What sort of job?” Sam asked excitedly.
Dunstan sat down at the end of the boy’s bed, Sam watching his every move. “It will involve some of the tasks that you’ve been completing since this accident of yours.” Dunstan said, seeing that Sam was going to interrupt, Dunstan raised his hand to forestall the boy, “Let me explain” he began, predicting the boy’s accusation, “I just want you to know that your little mishap was not planned for. Yes there are meant to be pitfalls and risks involved in the course. Despite our best efforts, it appears those wooden sleepers have been overlooked, we know that few recruits go through that part of the course, there’s meant to be no sense of danger associated with it. Given how adventurous you all tend to be, we thought you’d all go for the more interesting paths, we didn’t think we should worry about it…” Dunstan stopped as he realised he was rambling. Truth be told, Dunstan had been berating himself for the boy injuring himself.
The youth nodded, noting the man’s concern for him, however there was nothing anyone could do now for him, he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the only thing they could do was replace the timbers and set them right again. Dunstan considered the position Sam was in now, he knew it was hard for any new recruit to come into the academy and adapt to life here, it was even worse when you were laid up, with your training put on hold. This was why he had chosen Sam for this job, with his physical training lacking, he’d been putting in extra time on the theory, gaining a leg-up on the others, this was probably more important, it was difficult for them to teach the new recruits these important points, this was perhaps a blessing in disguise.
“Now, I won’t give too many of the specifics tonight,” he said, getting back onto the topic, “you’ll find out in due course. I simply wanted you to know that I’m going to need you once you’ve healed. I took the liberty to check in with the medical staff, they said that you should be able to start your training again another day or two” Dunstan said.
“Until that time, I want you to rest up, you’ll need all of your strength in the coming days. To keep you busy, I’ve brought you these.” He added, handing the boy half a dozen small books, a quick scan told the boy they were text books, he screwed his face up at the thought of more theory work.
Dunstan continued talking as Sam skimmed through the book, ambush scenarios, tracking and camping in enemy territory were sections that jumped out at him. “I figure we might as well make the most of this time by giving you some advanced texts on strategies. It’ll put you a fair way ahead of the others, and it should have you in the right head space when we’re in the field. You’ll need this of course, to make it a little more official.”
‘This’ was a letter Dunstan produced from his pocket. Dunstan handed the envelope to the boy, who hastily opened it and skimmed over the note. The letter was a basic outline of the task he’d been set by the school, though the details were broad, Sam had a good idea as to what it entailed. Several key words stuck out from the letter to Sam as he read.
He frowned as he noticed their destination, “Azarowa?” it was more of a statement than a question. Dunstan smiled encouragingly, “Yes” he confirmed, Sam still craved more answers, the letter itself only said that he was requested to assist in the mission and where he was going, “Why Azarowa?” he asked.
“Thought you might ask that” Dunstan stated, grinning at the boy, “We’re planning a rendezvous with a squad of light infantry and scouts just to the north-east of the capital. Before that we are to escort one of our diplomats to the king’s castle for some important discussions there. Once we’re there we’ll assist with monitoring the negotiations to extend our treaty with them, then we’ll be meeting with the rest at the rendezvous point.”
Sam tapped the letter on his knee, thinking through some of the theory he’d read about in his texts, “If we’re there for the added security during the negotiations, wouldn’t it be better to keep the others close by, in case something goes wrong.”
Dunstan fingered his chin, considering the suggestion. Sam read over the letter again to see if there was anything he missed. “I didn’t want to get into the specifics now, seeing how eager you are I think it best that I tell you.” Dunstan looked around the cabin, looking for something in particular. By regulations, every student was required to keep a hold of a map of the known world. Dunstan searched through the top draw of Sam’s supplies, coming to the map and pointing to the layout of the kingdom.
“Our true purpose for the mission is to deal with the rumours surrounding some of the towns over there, the Azarowans are constantly tied up in politics with a minor nation of Normlieth,” Dunstan was pointing to the south of Azarowa, along its borders with Normlieth, there was a more troublesome nation, “they need all the men they can to ward off any attack that may be launched.”
Sam looked back at Dunstan uncertainly, a worried look on his face, he’d knew vaguely from some of his history classes about an uprising in Normlieth, but this business with the east was new to him, information had a strange way of being able to spread with little effort required, and most of the time, word would reach other countries faster than it took to physically travel there. So now it seemed odd that something as potentially serious as this was going unnoticed.
Thoughts were rushing through the boy’s mind again, and he asked before he could hold his tongue, “Couldn’t we be killed”. Dunstan had watched Sam as he thinking over things, though this wasn’t exactly surprising, there was always danger in missions, and he made no attempts to hide that fact.
“I would think that we’d be relatively safe, but you can never be too careful. Even routine missions can go disastrously wrong.” he replied, silently Sam breathed a sigh of relief, he had no ambitions of being wounded or killed on his first mission.
“Don’t forget though, that we’ll have some of the most highly trained men of the country on our side, scouts who can help us hide, and the treaties in place mean we shouldn’t find ourselves in the middle of any wars.” He said grinning at the boy.
“When do we plan on leaving?” The boy asked. He knew it was getting late, Dunstan had been here for a while, the evening meal would have been over by now and his cabin-mates would soon be returning for the night.
“The plan is to be on our way at the end of the week, we’ll get you fitted with armour and assigned a horse to ride. Most will leave the night before to scout out the area ahead of time. We’ll go with Maddox and a few others before we head out, someone by the name of Read from the Commission is set to be joining us too. I guess I should be going, I’m sure you need your rest.” Dunstan said.
Sam swung his legs out the side of the bed and rose slowly, he couldn’t enjoy quite the same feeling of free movement that Dunstan did, but regardless he showed his superior to the door, and wished him well. Dunstan put on his coat, but before he left, there was one thing he still needed to say. “Sam,” he called to the boy, making sure he had his attention.
“Don’t say anything to anyone else about our meeting or the assignment.” Sam looked up at his teacher, “Things have a habit of getting out, and before you know it, things can get out of hand, this will be more of a delicate mission.” He told the boy, stepped out of the room into the night air.
“I think it were better that you weren’t in the company of your companions, they might get wind of things and that could make things awkward for you. I’ll head to the sick bay now and tell Sir Bryan that you are to be moved there until we leave.” He said over his shoulder, “And see to it that you also visit the blacksmith for a sword, that pecker you’ve got there won’t do much good against a real one” Dunstan joked, pointing at the wooden practice sword that lay beside Sam’s bed.
Leaving Sam to ponder his thoughts, Dunstan made his way out, there were still things for him to organise before they were on their way, but he had no doubt Sam would get little sleep tonight.