In this world nothing is certain, except death and taxes.
Every traveler on the road knew this and every traveler tried to avoid both.
Sable had dodged death. She was about to encounter taxes.
It was midday when she saw a checkpoint in the middle of the road. At the edge of the forest were two stumps of freshly felled trees. A hastily built hut lay at the side of the road. A long plank supported by two sets of branches tied together to form an X acted as a toll barrier.
How strange, Sable thought. It was rather uncommon to have checkpoints in this area of the kingdom and especially on this road—which was why she chose to travel on it.
A guard stepped out of the wooden hut. It was easy to recognize that he was not a proper knight; knights would wear steel chainmail and iron leg platings, while this man wore leather armor.
Sable narrowed her eyes. This guard had the white flower insignia stitched to his leather chest armor; he was a servant of the Eisen Kingdom. He was remarkably young; to Sable he appeared like a boy and yet the bags under his eyes carried a sense of weariness that made him appear older than he actually was.
He held up his hand.
Sable pulled the reigns and Oats neighed. Steam hissed out of his bracegear legs as the gears strained to stop the leisurely momentum the beast had gained.
“Who…who are you? What is your purpose ‘ere?” the guard asked. He was not able to keep a sliver surprise out of his voice. After all, it was so rare to see lone female travelers.
“My name is Sable. I am a traveling bracegear technician.”
“A bracegear technician?” the guard frowned incredulously. “An’ what is a lone bracegear technician doing ‘ere?”
“I seek to provide my services to those in need.”
The guard’s frown turned into a cynical smile. “Hah! A noble soul like you won’t last in times like these.”
“That is for me to decide.”
The guard snorted with derision. “You have to pay a tax to pass. Do you have food in your cart?”
“Stay where you are.”
The guard circled around the cart and lifted the cover. He climbed on and examined the crates. Sable swallowed. She hoped that he would not inspect the back of her cart.
“How come there is a guard post on this road?” Sable asked. “I thought travelers are only taxed on major roads and when entering towns and cities.”
Behind her, Sable could hear the young guard opening some of the wooden crates. There was the sound of him reaching in and examining the spare parts she carried for bracegear repairs.
“The Eisen King has increased taxes,” he said. “All the major towns and cities had their taxes raised, but it’s not enough to support the war that is being fought—so smaller roads like this ‘ere are also taxed.” He took out shiny metal gears and held them up against the sun. “This’ere some fine work. Where’d you get this?”
“I sourced these from the hinterland of the Eisen Kingdom,” Sable said. “The backcountry has a major river that connects it to—”
“Dwarf country,” the young guard spat.
He continued to rummage in her cart, pushing past the wooden crates and stepping into the middle. Sable’s heart beat wildly—just a little more and he’d be able to see the chest she had tucked away in the corner. He’d wonder if there were any taxable goods in it; he’d open the chest and then he’d see what was in it—what she was trying to hide.
He took another step. His eyes fell on a chest with a rusted lock and heavily scratched wooden surface. “What’s ’n ‘ere?”
“Food is on the left,” Sable said. “In the barrels.”
The young guard’s attention went from the chest to the barrel.
He reached into a barrel and pulled out a slab of dried beef.
“Next time someone asks you if you have food, you better say that you don’t have a food on you.”
Sable breathed out silently. “There is plenty for everyone.”
“Hah!” The guard threw his head back and laughed. “You are too good for this world.”
The door to the wooden hut opened.
A second guard came out of the wooden hut along with a bold priest in worn brown robes behind him.
“Gregor, what’s taking so long? I wantsa finish this game!”
The second guard came to a stop when he saw Sable. His eyes fell on her lustrous blonde hair and wandered down to her bosom and her thighs.
“What do we have here?” He smiled and stepped forward. “Young lady, as the appointed guard of this checkpoint, I will have to ask you to step inside for a moment so that we can ask you a few questions.”
Sable drew a sharp breath. She knew coveting eyes like his too well.
“Why?” Sable asked. “I simply wish to continue with my travels.”
It was the priest who answered. “Young lady! It is highly inappropriate for you to be traveling alone—and with such clothes! You might be mistaken for a witch. Comere inside so that you can change into clothes that have our Lord’s approval.”
The second guard snickered.
“I am not an ordinary woman; I am a traveling bracegear technician.”
“You? A traveling bracegear technician?” The second guard raised a dubious eyebrow. “That is highly unusual!” He turned to the priest who concurred with a vigorous nod. He drew his sword. “Now young lady, by the authority given to me by the Eisen King, I order you to step down from the cart on the suspicion that you are a smuggler.”
The priest and the second guard closed in on her cart. Sable could feel their eyes caressing her body. She shuddered with disgust.
She reached behind her back for her daggers, but she only felt her metal gloves. She had never collected her weapons after fighting off the bandits the day before.
Her eyes fell on the second guard.
Clearly he was of the highest rank out of the three of them. He carried himself with assurance in his authority. In addition to the leather armor, he wore chainmail sleeves and his chaps were steel studded.
He was older than the first guard and clearly he had more experience. The way he approached did not give her any opening to attack. His expression was casual, but his eyes were trained on her every move. His sword was held at chest level, ready to defend or attack.
The priest was no fool either; he stood behind the second guard so that he was protected from any attack.
This won’t end well, Sable thought. This man was no half drunk, half starved forest bandit she could surprise with an unexpected combat technique.
“Come now,” the priest said. “You will have to confess and pay your taxes.”
The priest and the second guard grinned. They already knew what tax they wanted to collect from her. It wouldn’t involve any money or goods.
“Hold it, Morgan.” Gregor the younger guard put his hands on his superior’s shoulder.
Surprised, Morgan, the second guard and the priest turned to him. Gregor had been quiet the entire times—until now. “I’ve already inspected her cart; she’s indeed a bracegear technician.”
The second guard clutched his sword. “And the tax?”
“Here.” Gregor tossed him the slab of dried beef.
Silence. The second guard looked at the meat and then at his younger subordinate.
“All right.” He sheathed his sword and turned his back to Sable. “Gregor, finish the inspection and come back inside. I want to finish this game.”
The second guard went back inside the wooden hut. The priest lingered for a moment, hesitant about what he should do. His eyes were fixed intently on Sable.
“You heard him, I have a duty to perform,” Gregor said.
The priest spat on the ground and returned to the hut.
Sable let out a silent sigh of relief.
When the door closed, Gregor turned to her. “Only main roads like these have guard posts on them. You can avoid inspection and taxes if you travel on the forest paths, but there are many bandits in dark times like these.”
“Are you telling me to travel on the main road or through the forest?”
Gregor shrugged. “Guards are men, bandits are also men.”
He turned his back to her and lifted the toll barrier. When Sable passed through, he put his hand on her cart. “About half a day’s journey down this road, there will be a village called Ellensheim. They might need your help...the Eisen King's demands have hit them hard.”
Sable murmured a word of gratitude.
Death had come and she had managed to avoid it.
Tax had come and she had paid it.
Death would come again.