Ewan had never seen an army before, although he had read about them in books. There was no army in the Safe Territories. It was one of the founding principles of the country. People who wanted to live without violence came to the Safe Territories to escape the brutal world out there, be they refugees or criminals. No one asked any questions. Everyone was welcome, as long as they swore to leave their former lives behind and start afresh.
People were given a shelter to live in. They were given jobs that fit their skills. Some were even given new names. All sins were forgiven. It was like being born again. And in return, the newcomers promised to live by the Code for the rest of their lives. A fair bargain, by far.
The long train of soldiers was trundling down the Old Road, raising a huge cloud of dust that looked like a sandstorm. It was what had drawn Ewan’s eye in the first place.
“Ewan, you fool, get down here!” Ayrton called in a subdued hiss.
Ewan spun to see his friend standing some twenty paces away, tense and poised to flee, hidden below the top of the hill.
“What’s wrong?” Ewan called back.
“If those soldiers see you, we’ll be in a lot of trouble. Come on. Stop playing, and come here!”
The lad did not leave, but he slowly knelt and blended into the high summer grass. He kept his eye on the jangling snake of men and animals moving ever deeper into the Safe Territories. It was hard to tell details or their exact numbers, but they were numerous. You could feel the heat emanating from that huge train, a collective sweat of thousands of soldiers and pack mules. A solid hum of chaos pervaded the landscape, almost like a fog.
“They won’t hurt us,” Ewan recited.
Ayrton rolled his eyes. “A beast does not care when it steps on an ant. Come here.”
Ewan turned back to see his friend crouching behind him, his face dark. The old, puckered scar down the side of his cheek was whiter than ever before.
The older man was one of the Outsiders. He had come from one of the surrounding kingdoms one day, wearing torn clothing and bleeding from a dozen wounds. He had never spoken of the world he had left, but it was obvious that he knew what armies were. He had been a soldier once. Ewan knew that.
“For the last time, boy, let’s go, or I’ll have to hit you on the head with this.” He shook his quarterstaff.
Grudgingly, Ewan withdrew from the hilltop and let the magnificent view of the army slide away. He was curious and wanted to know more. Never before had he seen something like that. Life in the Territories was peaceful and uneventful.
“What shall we do?” he asked.
Ayrton shrugged. “Nothing really. We’ll let them pass and then get back to the village.”
Ewan pointed behind him. “We should inform the patriarchs. They must know about this.”
The man with the scar smiled softly, as softly as his hard, scarred face permitted. “Son, trust me. They already know.”
Ewan was shocked to see his friend among the dozen or so men readying to leave the next morning. Coming out of the monastery after the Morning Prayer, he found Ayrton in the village square, packing. Dozens of bewildered people, mostly young brothers, stood and stared at the twenty or so men strapping bags and tools to their horses.
Questions rushing like a rapid inside his head, Ewan approached his old friend. Ayrton had been almost like an older brother to him for a decade. A mentor, really. He had taught him so many things about life. And now, he was leaving.
“Good morning, Ewan.”
That seemed to unlock his tongue. “What are you doing?”
“Readying to leave. The patriarchs have issued the Call to the Cause. I have decided to go.” Ayrton closed another bulging saddlebag, fumbling with the straps.
“But you do not have to go.” The Call was voluntary.
“Son, you have so much to learn about life.” Ayrton tugged on one of the straps twice. “When you come to a new place and they welcome you in, give you a home to live in, give you food, treat your wounds, give you a new life, give you a future…do you really think it’s all for free? There’s always a price to be paid.”
Ewan was not really sure what Ayrton was saying. “I’ll go too,” he said after a long pause.
Ayrton did not raise his eyes, but he gave the second strap a powerful, sharp yank, so that it snapped like the tip of a whip. “Ewan, you are a young brother. You have spent your entire life with the clergy. You have already devoted your life to the Cause.” He looked up at Ewan with his sharp, squinted eyes. “Besides, you’re no warrior.”
“But neither are they.” Ewan pointed at a secluded group of about ten men on the far side of the square. “No one is, in the Territories.”
Ayrton smiled. A tooth he was missing made for a macabre grimace. “Look better.”
The young brother shielded his eyes from the morning sun and stared at the other men. At first glance, they appeared to be ordinary people. But then he spotted the same signs that adorned his friend: scars on faces and arms, a slightly crooked gait of people who had spent too much time riding, bearing weapons, and fighting. Just like Ayrton.
“They are Outsiders, too,” his friend spoke in a distant voice, his eyes locked on an old, faraway memory. “And now, it’s our chance to serve the Cause. We must answer the Call.”
“Where are you going?” Ewan’s face fell. He felt devastated. He was confused. Life had seemed so simple only yesterday.
“To the Grand Monastery in Talmath. The patriarchs are assembling the Call there. It’s about a three days’ ride from here.” Ayrton bent down and picked up a bundle from the ground. A sword hilt stuck from one end.
“Is that a sword?” Ewan asked, his voice trembling.
Ayrton pursed his lips and tsked. “Might be. And before you ask, I can’t show you. It’s forbidden, until the patriarchs declare otherwise.” And they will, quite soon, he added to himself silently.
Ewan looked around him. Some of the villagers had dispersed after the initial curiosity wore down. But most of the children and brothers hung around, their eyes gleaming. Never before had they seen anything like this.
Ayrton tied the bundle to the back of the old harness, making sure it did not clink. He lifted the last item still unfastened, a pair of goatskins. “Help me fill these.”
Leaving the small dun behind, the two men walked to the well. They hauled the buckets up, and carefully filled the two bags.
Ewan stood aside, staring at his friend from the corner of his eye. He had never seen Ayrton wear such an outfit before: leathers, boiled and hard and covered in coarse hide on his shoulders, elbows, and knees. It must be some sort of uniform, he thought. The other men were garbed in much the same fashion.
Ayrton laid a hand on Ewan’s shoulder. It was a friendly pat. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I’ll be back soon. Probably no more than a moon or two. You stay here in the monastery. You’ll be safe. Do your chores and studies, and we’ll meet again sooner than you expect.”
Ewan nodded heavily. He wanted to believe his friend, but he knew Ayrton did not believe his own words either. And there was a lump building up in the pit of his stomach, one of anger, a rare feeling that he had felt only a few times before. The quivering hypersensation of tension that slowly imbued him was almost toxic.
“Don’t do anything foolish,” Ayrton said and squeezed him. He had strong arms. Ewan deflated a little.
Ayrton mounted. He waved once, a short, spartan gesture, and wheeled off to join a growing assembly of men at the outskirts of the village. Flowing from several directions, like the fingers of a great river, the riders coalesced into a solid company. They milled about for a few moments and then rode off, leaving a cloud of dust behind him.
The village square soon emptied. Ewan stood and stared.