Miss Fortune

As soon as Gzhegorzh was capable, he was put to work in the forge. His jobs consisted entirely of menial labor, but all things considered, it was light. The scrap haulers would bring in upwards of 60lbs of metal scrap per trip, and likewise the woodsmen would bring in around the same weight of wood. As Grzhegorzh worked, he was able to get a view of where he was being kept. It looked like a village, not too different from his own, but much larger. There were buildings of wood and cobblestone, with thatched roofs, again, much like home, but everyone here was different. He knew none of them. He had learned the name of his master, it was Ekaterina. To her, Grzhegorzh was a tool, like the hammer she used to shape metal, or the bellows she used to rouse the fire. He had been bought as one, and when he broke, he would be replaced like one. That’s just the way things were. It didn’t seem right, but she needed to stay in business, lest she fall into the same fate. Every morning, Grzhegorzh woke with the sun. It was an old habit, and one he was always grateful for. He could not eat solid food still, but broth and water were a good place to start if nothing else was available. The monks woke soon after he did, said their morning prayers, and got onto breakfast. They could chew, so they went about dividing their bread into equal parts. He watched as they prepared every morning, appearing gaunt, but not weak. In a place like this, showing weakness was a death sentence. If a tool broke, it was tossed aside if it could not be repaired. People were harder to repair, and there were no shortage of na├»ve young fools that could be purchased to replace the worn out old ones. When asked to, Grzhegorzh would complete a task. His day usually started at the crack of dawn. Ekaterina would wake him up. “Light the forge and get it nice and hot.” She would demand. With his jaw wired shut so it could heal, he could not talk back. With the threat of being sent off to scavenge metal or chop wood looming over his head, he dared not defy her orders. He cleaned out the ashes from the previous day’s fire out and dumped them on the ash pile. Then he stacked wood high in the empty pit. He lined it with dry grass, bark, and twigs. Just to ensure that it would light on fire, he often poured some fat rendered from the previous day’s meals on the wood. Then he took a piece of flint and a piece of iron. Striking the two together, he created sparks. The sparks would eventually catch. Most of the time it was the fat, the dry grass came in close second. Once the fire had caught, he got more orders “put together some breakfast.” was a common one, with it came specific instructions. Sometimes it was to fry up some sort of meat, others it was to boil oats into oatmeal. After that he had to clean the place up. That didn’t take more than a couple hours, and he would be able to help around the forge afterward. He did look forward to helping around the forge. During breakfast, Ekaterina would always tell him “I’m doing you a favor, you know. I figure that, by the time your jaw heals, I might have enough trust to call you my assistant.” and after he had cleaned and cooked, she would call him over “Take this and put it on that anvil, then turn the crank until the metal stops glowing. Remember to turn it over after every time the block falls.” She would say. It was a way to flatten out and stretch the scrap metal into blades. It was simpler than beating it with a hammer by hand for minutes on end, and produced roughly the same result. It was also the first forge skill that Grzhegorzh learned. He nodded, still unable to speak, and feeling quite tired. Afterwards, it was back to moving scrap metal from the stockpile to the crucible, or wood and charcoal to the forge. His meals were still liquid, and still contained a noticeable amount of alcohol. It sacrificed taste, but he found himself becoming dependent on it. Between Ekaterina keeping him out of the field, and supplying him with the alcoholic food that he subsisted on, he felt that he was growing to see her as a friend. He knew she had bought him, and he understood that she forced other slaves to gather metal for her to work with and wood to keep her forge hot. Slowly, though, he regained some semblance of strength in both his jaw, and indeed his whole body. Days blended into weeks, and then months. Eventually his jaw healed and the wire could come off. He was given a cup of what looked like water and told to drink it. It burned, a lot like what he had drunk from the bottle when his jaw was wired shut so long ago. By now the snow was deep and the days were short, so he was glad for Ekaterina’s offer, and wound up apprenticing under her through the winter months. On one morning he saw three of the monks passing by the forge along with a new group of slaves. These men were different. They looked rough, like anyone else that could survive here, but their hair was cut close, they were tall and muscular, and they had strange tattoos, depicting warlike emblems. He stopped one of the monks to talk. “What happened, where are the others?” He asked, since it was cold and food was scarce, the response should not have shocked him as much as it did. “They died. All of them. We prayed to God and heard no answer as the life left them. Now there are new workers to take their place. They call themselves “commandos”, though I have not met any travelers from their tribe before.” Grzhegorzh wanted to know more, but the guards hustled the monks along. The monks, he cursed himself for not looking in on them sooner. It should have been obvious that they would need more help than he did. He worked silently and methodically the rest of the day, carefully forging scrap metal into flat bars and rough shapes. Ekaterina still finished, sharpened, and hardened the pieces, but as she said “It helps to have an extra set of hands doing the grunt work.” That afternoon at lunch he felt compelled to ask her about his friends. “Why spare me?” He asked, still confused at her apparent mercy towards him despite seeming so nonchalant about the abject misery that everyone else he was brought in with had suffered through. “That raider, the one who brought you in, thinks he is important. He is strong and a very capable fighter, but he is not well liked. Everybody does what they can to screw him over in little ways. I could see plainly that he did not like you, that he held some sort of grudge, so I knew I needed to keep you alive at all costs.” Grzhegozh was stunned, but still curious. “I still don’t understand, though, why not spare the others, too?” Ekaterina shook her head and swallowed a bite of potato stew. “Too conspicuous. If I took them all, he would have known for certain that something was up. Why do you ask?” She replied, now suspicious of her apprentice. “Well, they saved my life, it feels wrong that I should abandon them.” He stated, confused as to what he should do. “If you get caught giving them anything, there is a high likelihood that you will be killed. So go to the market and buy some bread jerky, watch where they go when they are brought in for the night, and above all else, don’t get caught. You still owe me for what I spent on you.” She said casually. It almost felt disingenuous coming from her, but he did owe her for saving his life, and them as well. He would help as best he could.

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