“Stop here, Oats.”
She got off her cart. She stood on a gentle grass hill and looked down upon a small village of twenty or thirty stone houses with roofs made out of oakwood. Judging by the building materials, this village was somewhat wealthier than most and thus a good target for merchants—but that wasn’t what caught Sable’s eye.
There were barely any men in the village. From what she could see, it was women working in the fields, women taking care of the livestock and the only men in the village were either too young or too old to work.
She continued on the sinuous road, took a right turn at a fork and found a way down into the village. Once she got closer, she was struck by the true state of the people; the women had patches in their dresses and what the children wore could barely be called clothes. Both adults and children were thin from meager nourishment and their gazes were gaunt.
How pitiful. This must be Ellensheim. That guard was right—taxes have hit this village hard.
“Right, I think we will stay here for the night, Oats.”
She directed her Iron Horse to the center of the village. The adults did not pay her any mind; there was too much work to be done. The children, hungry as they were, surged forth with innocent curiosity, but were afraid to come closer.
However there was one scrawny little girl who dared to come closer.
Sable got down to her knees and drew a candy from her pocket. “Here, don't be afraid—take it,” she said. The little girl took it without hesitation and devoured it. “Now, can you go tell your mother and all of your friends that a bracegear technician has arrived?”
The little girl’s glazed eyes grew bright.
Sable smiled. All children liked to feel useful.
The news spread faster than the rumors of a husband’s infidelity. Soon Sable’s cart was surrounded by eager villagers. Villagers brought their Iron Horses and dogs, bulls and cows. All of them had one or more leg replaced with a full bracegear limb, and all of them were in dire need for maintenance.
The villagers pushed and pulled each other around Sable’s cart, each of them trying to be the next one to have their animal examined.
“That’s enough!” Sable bellowed. “Form a line! There is no need to push!”
The villagers didn’t move. They blinked with blank eyes. Most of them had never stood in line before; they didn’t know what Sable meant.
Sable sighed and gave out steadfast orders.
“You go here, you are first.”
“You behind her”
“And you are third, you will be fourth. Yes, that’s right.”
Once this was done, Sable began to examine the animals’ bracegear one by one. She was surprised by the very decrepit state of the machinery; many of the animals had chipped and rusted gears in their legs and while such extensive damage was not beyond fixing, it would be difficult without access to more than just the parts in her cart.
“I am so sorry, but I don’t think I will be able to fix this,” she said to a middle-aged woman who was still quite pretty and had most of her teeth.
“What? Why? You fixed hers!” she said and pointed at her neighbor.
“The axel at the knee joint is internally cracked,” Sable pointed at her bull’s leg. “I could insert a temporary replacement, but you will need to find a blacksmith who can make a new axel part.”
“But—why can you do it?”
“I’m afraid that this is outside my area of expertise.”
Dismayed the woman pulled her bull away.
By the afternoon, Sable had examined every bracegear in the village and had made a detailed list of repairs that needed to be made. It would take her at least a week to make all the repairs. A week of work meant a week of food and pay.
However a traveling bracegear technician could not survive solely on making repairs. Her cart was filled with various goods and this village seemed to lack in everything.
She unloaded the barrels and crates. Immediately the eagle eyes of the village women eyed the things they so direly needed.
The first product to go was the dried and preserved food. Immediately after that, they asked for leather and sheepskins. Winter was coming and they needed to make coats and shoes; and the village had nothing left after the tax collector had made his merciless rounds.
To the villagers of Ellensheim, Sable was an angel. She sold everything at the lowest prices and even gave out credit.
“Please, take this,” Sable offered a roll of cloth and a large cut of leather to a withered woman who obviously did not have money. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes sunken. Her children—a boy and a girl with gaunt green eyes—clung to her worn skirts.
The woman blinked with disbelief. Sable nodded with reassurance. “Are we all not decent people? You can pay me back when I come back next summer.”
“Thank you...thank you. Oh! You can’t believe how much I need this. Ever since my husband left, I– “
Before she could continue, she was pushed back by a surge of women who too wanted another roll of fabric or leather or a bag of salt.
When the sun hovered above the horizon, Sable made camp at the edge of the village.
“Wasn’t that a good day’s work, ey Oats?” she said to her Iron Horse. She patted his mane and filled a bucket with oats and water and he unceremoniously buried his nose in it.
“Right.” She unloaded her chest and dragged it to her tent. From the chest she pulled out several sheepskins and a pillow stuffed with geese feathers. These were the two little luxuries she could not live without; a soft bed and comfortable pillow. No matter where she was, she swore to herself that she could always sleep comfortably.
A black hat lay at the bottom of the chest. She pulled it out and felt its faded edges. It was a tall black hat with a curved pointy top and a large rim. Or at least it was what remained of such a hat; parts of the edges were burned away and the pointy top was shredded.
Claire should still be wearing hers…
She felt an aching pain in her chest. She clenched her hands into fists and could feel the restraint of the leather gloves; a constant reminder of her sin.
Be safe, wherever you are.
Sable put the hat back with a profound sigh. She closed the chest and went outside to see the children play. Already some of the children wore new clothes—she was impressed by how fast the women worked. They had no toys, no father—only their imagination and each other. They chased each other with imaginary swords and ran from imaginary monsters. They pretended to be afraid.
Tired of their imagination, the children switched to kicking a rock between each other, until one child accidentally kicked it towards Sable. She picked it up and gestured for one of the children to come over.
“Don’t you have any toys to play with?” she asked.
The boy pointed at the rock in Sable’s hand.
“Let’s make a trade.” Sable got up and went into her tent. She came back with a metal bird that fit snugly into the palm of her hand.
“Here you are,” she smiled and handed him bird.
The boy took a step back, afraid to touch it.
“It’s a toy, see?” Sable threw the bird into the air and catching a gust of wind, it flew ahead until it turned an arch and came back.
Open mouthed, the boy and his friends watched the bird return to Sable’s hand.
“Take it, it’s yours.”
He took it, but his green gaze was fixed on her gloves.
“What happened to your hand?” he asked.
Their eyes met and Sable’s heart thumped. Just like Claire’s.
“It’s my punishment for being bad,” Sable said curtly. She withdrew her hands. “Say, where did your father go?”
“Well…,” he fidgeted with his hands, his eyes darting left to right. “He said…I mean the priest said— “
“Aaron, get back here!”
A woman strode over. “How many times do I have to tell you— “ She avoided Sable’s eyes and quickly took her son away.
Sable wondered why the mother wanted her son to stay away from her; after all, to these villagers, she was an angel.
She decided to explore the village. She watched the women busy themselves with making new clothes, measuring each other’s feet for new shoes and preparing dinner.
And at the edge of the village, did she see a stone hut that was smaller than all the others. A grey haired hunchback woman sat outside the hut, stirring a dented pot above a small fire.
“You must be the traveling bracegear girl,” the old woman rasped when Sable approached her.
“Ah, look how pretty you are,” the old woman smiled a toothless smile and got up with a groan. Her right leg gave off a metallic creak when she stepped closer. She looked up at Sable and touched her hand. “What a pretty braid, did you do that yourself?”
“Yes.” Sable pointed at her leg. She thought that she had seen every bracegear in the village. “Does your leg need adjustments?”
The old woman sighed and nodded gravely. “Aye…my leg hasn’t been adjusted in a while an’ it got wet during the last rainstorm—what a storm it was, many of our roofs couldn’t handle it.” She sat down again and rubbed her leg. “An’ all the men are gone off an’ no one’s here to help me fix me leg.”
Sable glanced around and wondered why none of the younger women helped her. “Should I help you repair it?”
Her old eyes glistened with gratitude. “Truly? Child, you are so kind! But I have no money. In return, would you like to have dinner with me? I’m cooking a stew right now...but it’s got no meat.”
“I would love to,” Sable replied. “No one has asked me yet.”
Sable returned to her tent to get her tools and moments later, she was on her knees, examining the old lady’s leg. She knocked on her right leg with a small hammer, listening to the sounds with her eyes closed.
“Where did all the men go?” Sable asked. It was a question she had been wanting to ask ever since she came to the village, but she never got the chance until now.
“It isn’t just our men; all the men in the nearby villages have gone off,” the old woman said. “We have been left all alone, fending for ourselves an’ times are hard...and it’s all because of that priest. That priest I say…”
She fell into silence again, her thoughts lost in her memories.
“A priest took away the men?” Sable prompted her.
“Aye...aye. See, a priest came to our village some weeks ago and rallied all the men. The King of Eisen needs your help, he said. The city of King’s Pride has betrayed him. God has given the Letter of Heaven to our king an’ we need to fight for him…”
She let out a profound breath. A tired breath. “In m’old age...I have seen this happen too many times; the priest delivers a sermon that brings passionate fire to the hearts of young men—a dangerous fire. They go off t’war...dreaming of glory and riches, adventure an' they never come back.”
She pointed at some of the young girls who now wore new dresses. “And even some of the young girls went off with the priest. He said the front line always needed maidens to soothe the pain of the selfless warriors. They never come back...or they come back with all the hope an’ light gone from their eyes an’ refuse to speak of what happened—but I know what happened. It’s always the same.
“I told everyone not to listen, but the priest beat me and told me to shut me old mouth, told everyone that I was mad.”
“Is that why you are alone?”
“My children left with the priest. I begged them not to, but they pushed me away. It’s our duty to fight, they said. I pray every night that no harm will come upon them.”
Sable nodded empathically and continued with the examination of the leg. She moved the leg up and down, concentrating on the shrill grinding of the internal gears. Fortunately, Sable found that this old lady’s leg was a simpler construction compared to the bracegear legs her Iron Horse Oats had. His were full bracegears meant to replace the entire leg. This old lady’s bracegear however was more of a glove that support her real leg.
Sable removed the outer protective metal shield and found the reason for the grinding gears: sand and dirt had gotten into the gears, preventing them from turning smoothly. It was a simple problem that required time to fix; every gear had to be taken out and cleaned individually before it could be put back in.
“I will need to take off your bracegear,” Sable said.
“Do what you must,” the old lady smiled ruefully . “I have nowhere to go.”
Sable undid the combination of leather and metal fasteners that held the bracegear in place at the thigh and deconstructed its internals. She went down to the local river and washed the gears carefully, then dried them with the hem of her skirt. She reconstructed the bracegear at the riverside, and returned to the old woman when she was finished. She saw her sitting still, stirring the stew. The fire flickered in the evening breeze, her old body embraced by the gentle glow. In that moment, she appeared so weak and fragile, as though a strong gust could blow her away. Her old gaze was somewhere in the past, thinking of a time when she was not alone and condemned to the edge of the village.
“Your leg is fixed,” Sable announced.
The old woman blinked and smiled. “Bless you, child. Good Lord, I have not asked you for your name.”
“I’m Sable—just Sable.”
“You can call me Grandma Gartha—everyone calls me that. Sit, sit. Let us eat. You must be hungry.”
The stew itself was plain and rather tasteless, but for the two women, it was a delicious meal, for it was the company that made the food good. Grandma Gartha told her many tales, but it was obvious that the thing that was on her mind were her children and grandchildren—all of whom were enraptured by the sermons of the priest.
“Where is the priest now?” Sable asked.
Grandma Gartha shook her head. “He must have moved on to the next village. There is always a throng of young‘uns marching behind him, singing the Eisen King’s song...one can always hear them from miles away. The priest is dangerous…he will bewitch your mind with his words and— “
Her story was interrupted by a burp and she wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
“But why has the priest come now?” Sable asked. She had not heard of such a war before encountering the checkpoint on the road; she had spent too much time doing business in the hinterlands of the Eisen Kingdom. She also knew that common village folk would not know why such a war was being fought—who would tell them? But the priest, yes, the priest might have left a few pieces of valuable information.
“There have been so many wars before, but this is the first time that I have seen the priest speak with such devilish persuasion—Lord forgive me. He said that King’s Pride has betrayed the Eisen King. Once we were two allied kingdoms, two kingdoms ruled by blood brothers, but what has come between the two brothers for them to wage war on each other? The Old Queen must be crying in her grave to see her sons like this.”
So it’s a civil war, Sable thought. King’s Pride is ruled by the Eisen King’s brother and whatever the brothers are squabbling over is something that a merchant can’t provide—otherwise a merchant would have sold it for a profit already and there’d be no war.
She glanced around herself. This also explained the disparity between the quality of the housing and the poverty; war taxes had turned a prosperous village into a starving one.
“I wish that my grandsons would return,” Grandma Gartha said with a sigh.
* * *
The next day, Grandma Gartha had her wish fulfilled. At noon, two young men walked into the village with nothing but the dirty clothes on their backs.
Sable was selling things from her cart when she noticed the commotion. One man had raven black shoulder length hair and the other had his bright blonde hair cut short. Both had dirty faces and cuts and bruises all over their bodies, but the women of the village gasped as though they were fatally wounded.
Sable caught one of the children who was running towards the crowd that had formed around the two men. “Who are they?”
“They are Grandma Gartha’s grandsons!” the little girl squealed. “They’ve come back!”
Sable watched as the crowd parted to make way for Grandma Gartha. Her frail body was supported by a walking stick, but her steps carried a renewed vigor. She felt the faces of her grandsons with shaking hands. Her body shook violently with deep sobs.
“Tonight, let’s celebrate!” a voice in the crowd announced.
* * *
It was a night Sable would never forget. Hogs were slaughtered and even the chickens hidden away from tax collector were brought out from the forest and made into a feast.
A large bonfire burned in the middle of the village and the people of the village danced around it as though spring had arrived. And even though Sable liked to keep to herself during such celebrations, she too got swept away by the boundless joy and ended up dancing and singing.
No one asked why only two had returned. No one wanted to spoil this night.
It was during this night that Sable earned the ire of the many young girls of the village. She threw her head back and laughed as she danced. She caught the eye of both of the brothers who returned and soon they began competing for a chance to dance with her. Who was this strange girl they had never seen before? Her beauty made their hearts leap to their throats; her brilliant hair glittered in the light of the flames; her braid was a like whip that caught their every breath.
Sable danced and danced and found that the young man with shoulder length black hair was the only one who could match her step. His name was Raven, and pressed together by the celebrating crowd, they explored each other’s bodies as they danced around the fire. Sable found that he had many scars and half healed cuts all over his body; he truly had come back from the battlefield.
“Come with me.” Raven pulled her away from the celebration, into the dark corners behind the stone huts, hidden from the jealous eyes of the village girls and his brother Hens.
She expected for him to kiss her, to embrace her, but instead, he got down onto one knee and held her hand.
“Life is short,” he said. “I have been to the battlefield and seen many deaths and many companions go without living their lives. Let us marry and go—go from this village, this godforsaken war.”
Sable was surprised that he was willing to abandon his village so easily. She gestured for him to stand and put her head against his chest, giving him a surge of hope, but she sighed and shook her head.
“There is someone I need to find,” she said in a whisper so quiet that he could barely hear her. “And as long as I have a breath left in my body, I must protect her and I can’t give myself to any man.”
“I can help you— “
Sable put a finger against his lips and smiled wistfully. “No...you wouldn’t want me if you knew what I’ve done.”
She removed her finger and kiss him. She could feel his heart pound. He put his arms around her waist and pulled her close.
“Why have only you and your brother Hens come back? Where are the other men?” she asked.
“We…we were separated from our troop and…,” Raven paused for a long time, his eyes fixed to the ground, “we had nowhere to go and we only had each other…”
His voice trailed off. Sable saw that his eyes were filled with guilt. Clearly he did not want to speak of this matter.
“You and your brother must have suffered a lot,” Sable said.
Raven kissed her again. “Yes, the front line is terrible and everyone is afraid—afraid of death, afraid of everything.” He breathed in her scent and continued. “But we all do what we must.”
“Tell me,” Sable smiled up at him, “what are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of dying without a wife and children to remember me.”
Sable smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry, I can’t become your wife.” She pressed herself against his hard body. “But I can give you one night.”