Many of them looked sad and forlorn, and dressed like him in simple clothes, fellow farmer’s boys who had the misfortune of being conscripted. There was one young lad at the far end who quietly cried to himself. He thought he should feel sad too, but he was too excited about the new life ahead of him. He turned to his right to see a boy right next to him staring at him. This caught him by surprise. At first he just stared, which was making Martin feel squirmy. Finally he spoke.
“Hey” he said.
“Hey to you.”
“I’m Oren.” He was taller than Martin, and ganglier, with short black hair and a narrow face.
“I saw you coming across the field out there. What are you, stupid?”
Martin didn’t know how serious this was going to get, so he decided to take it in stride. “Yes, I’m stupid. So stupid I chose to surrender myself rather than let my parents get in trouble.” He then turned straight and crossed his arms in defiance.
“No you didn’t. I saw you. You waited until the wagon pulled up and then came out. You know we’re going to war, right?”
Martin hid his shock, not wanting to let Oren see how stupid he really was. “Yeah, I know” he said. “But somebody’s got to fight it, right?”
Oren stared at the side of Martin’s head, which he felt like a bore driving it’s way through his skull. But he refused to look back. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of an answer. He also didn’t want to give away how stupid his decision really was. Martin hand’t thought of the repercussions of his decision, and now that they were laid bare he began to feel butterflies in his stomach.
“I’m not afraid to put my life on the line for my country” he said with much conviction that belied his true feelings.
“Yer stupid” was Oren’s reply.
This made Martin a little upset. He turned on Oren and said “Yeah, well if you’re so smart what are you doing here?”
“The soldiers pulled up to my house first thing in the morning as me and my pa were coming out the house. Didn’t get a chance to hide. But I can tell ya, if I did I would have.”
“So” Martin said, feeling he got the upper hand, “you don’t want to defend your country?”
“I don’t want to die” was all Oren said before turning back in his seat.
Martin felt those words fall on him like a winter’s snow. The sudden chill and the realization of his future made him want to gulp. He couldn’t without giving away his feelings, so he sat there and tried to think of something else.
“Don’t worry about it kid” said the boy sitting across from him. “We’ll be okay. Might lose a limb or two, but we’ll survive.”
“Martin looked up to see a shorter version of himself grinning back at him. “Hi, I’m Grabel” he said with his hand out. He wasn’t exactly like him. Besides being shorter his hair was a dirty blonde and his nose was sharper. Martin took his hand and found that he had a stronger grip too.
“Hi, Martin” he said. “You don’t look like a farmer.”
“Ahh, you noticed. I worked with my father, the blacksmith.”
“Oh, Mr. Wharton?”
“That’s him. I’ve actually met your dad a few times when he needed his ploughs repaired.”
“Oh yeah, well I guess you had to. My bro…” Martin caught himself at the last second. “I always wanted to go with him, to at least see the town and get off of the farm for a minute.”
Grabel gave him a narrow look. “Yeah, he always came alone.” Then he winked. Drake usually went with Dad to the blacksmith’s. Grabel knew this but kept quiet about it. Martin felt he just made a new friend, someone he could trust. But he had to be careful. If he slipped like that in front of the wrong person there would be trouble.
Martin looked around, then asked “How many more kids like us are they rounding up, do you think?”
“Well, I think we’re on the last leg of this round-up. There’s maybe two more farms over the hill and then we head for the castle.” He looked evenly at Martin then said “You really are stupid. I saw you too. Let me guess, you got tired of being a farmer?”
“Something like that.” He looked at Oren, who was looking straight ahead, showing no emotion. Looking back at Grabel he asked “Do you think we’re going to die?”
“Not if you’re not careful. Tell you what, you stick with me, we’ll watch each other’s back. Deal?”
“Deal” said Martin. He hoped it wasn’t as bad as the two of them let on. But if it was it would be good to have someone watch his back. Right there and then he decided to make as many friends as he could. Losing a limb was bad enough, but he didn’t want to die. Especially as there was a whole world for him to see. And he wanted to see it so desperately.