The Broken Castle

“War is coming.”

These words did not disturb many shepherd boys. Truly, the old words of the prophecy did not disturb many at all - but Albrecht was not like many other shepherd boys.

Yes, he wore the tattered, smelly rags of one born into the peasantry, and, yes, he wandered with the sheep in the wind and rain, faithful dog ahead on the roam. But when winter’s eve shut all the living up in whatever shelter they could find, Albrecht would sit and listen to the words of his Gramma.

Gramma Vorse had been blind ever since Albrecht could remember. Much like the other elder women, she spent her days knitting the wool yarn the sheep gave and caring for the family. Unlike the other women, however, Gramma Vorse had spent her maiden years as a scullery maid in the kitchen of the chief scribe at the Grand Library.

During those years, young Miss Vorse listened to the scribe read many a tale from books few had even heard of. True tales that most passed off as fable and myth: of Sagia & her brothers and the songs that took them far across the seven worlds, of the wisdom written by kings and sages, and of course, the tale of the lost princess.

These stories were retold to Albrecht over the last embers of winter’s dying fire.

As the wind stirred the cold about the stone cottages, Gramma Vorse’s retelling stoked the gentle kindling within Albrecht’s mind.

Spring days came, and Albrecht walked the partly melted snow, watching over the thoughtful sheep while pondering the old tales.

“If war is coming, why does no one rebuild the castle?” Albrecht asked himself. Hundreds of years had passed since Sagia gave the prophecy of war, and yet the castle lay in ruins. Yes, the city council had ordered the construction of the upper wall of Old Hartford, but Albrecht doubted its usefulness five miles in from the sea.

The white granite newly discovered in the distant valley was more likely the reason for the addition, as well as the city council’s ability to have it hewn. Many had broken their backs and lost their lives in the addition - including Albrecht’s own father. But the ocean remained unwatched.

“No one shall ever come by the sea,” they said.

Indeed, it was not known if any country existed beyond the gray eastern horizon. The few ships which had gone out seeking foreign lands had never returned. Not even a message in a bottle.

It perplexed Albrecht greatly that the city men took no great concern with the unwatched water, when Sagia herself had helped her husband lay the foundation of the now ruined castle.

“Who cares about the words of an old prophetess?” said the other shepherd boys, who laughed at Albrecht’s when he spoke of wishing to build a watchtower.

The idea of building a watchtower lookout clung to Albrecht more tightly than the cockleburs clung to the wool of his sheep. He began to walk the ruins of the old castle, studying where he might lay a foundation.

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor, labor in vain.” Those were Gramma Vorse’s words when Albrecht shared his plan to gather and rebuild the charred stones.

Albrecht did not discuss these things with his uncle.

Uncle Broder was the family patriarch and had looked out for Albrecht ever since Albrecht’s father died. An extremely pragmatic man, his chief focus in life was getting the best coin for the sheep at market and playing the best coin at the weekly cockfights in the village. Unfortunately for Albrecht, he agreed with his Uncle Broder almost as often as sheep washed themselves.

Uncle Broder had invited him to the cockfights when Albrecht came of age. While he had grit enough to watch the screeching and pecking and clawing, his hungry stomach saw it as a waste of good chicken. Not to mention the coin.

Albrecht had learned to keep his wild, boyish thoughts to himself when he was around Uncle Broder and his friends. However, that did not prevent Albrecht from studying the architecture and visible stone-laying technique whenever they went into Old Hartford. As Uncle Broder haggled customers for prices, Albrecht guarded the merchandise, be it lambs or ewes, wool or felt, and was free to study the buildings.

“Mama, look at that dirty boy! He’s smelly!”

A pale, blonde child pointed and stared while her pristine mother tugged and scowled at the little one’s rudeness.

Albrecht’s face clenched with sullenness, even as his heart pumped blood through aching veins. His fists curled and his nostrils opened. He breathed in deeply and was reminded of the scent of the sheep which he’d spent his whole life caring for. As he watched the child and her mother mingle into the market crowd, Albrecht stiffened.

He did not need to look to remember the condition of his pants and shoes. He saw them when he put them on that morning. The tattered canvas edges rose higher than they had two weeks prior. The rip in his shoes now stretched from his big toe to his third. He looked down at his shirt and saw half a dozen stains from caring for the sheep. He’d never minded before, but now his awareness throbbed like the freshly cut ear of a marked lamb.

When Uncle Broder finished haggling with the last customer, he found Albrecht sitting on an empty crate with arms crossed shamefully. Uncle Broder’s smile deflated into irritated perplexity at the sight of his downcast nephew.

“I need shoes.”

Uncle Broder scowled.

“What’s wrong with the ones you have?”

Albrecht stretched his feet out and gestured towards his big toes.

“You can’t make those last another season?” Uncle Broder asked.

“You just sold Big Mama for fifty coin. We’re in town now. Can’t we visit a cobbler?”

Uncle Broder rolled his eyes.

“If you insist.”

Albrecht scootched off the crate.

Together, they walked through the market, towards the nearest cobbler.

The sign outside creaked slowly. The slight breeze above did not reach those standing on the cobblestones. Heat pressed down and sweat dripped along the inside of Albrecht’s arms.

“What can I do for you?” The cobbler rose slowly from his seat, tired from a restless day spent arguing with unreasonable customers.

“He needs shoes.” Uncle Broder pointed towards Albrecht’s feet. “How much do you charge?”

The cobbler looked over Albrecht and his feet.

“It’ll cost twenty for his size feet.”

“Nay! I only have fifteen.”

Albrecht furrowed his brows and glared sideways at his uncle. The cobbler caught Albrecht’s look, much to Uncle Broder’s dismay.

“I said it will cost twenty for his size feet. A young man his age, with a few more inches to grow, needs shoes with room.”

Uncle Broder grimaced. The cobbler continued.

“I use the best leather, thick cowhide. Strong enough to withstand briars and thistles and whatever else he may run into tending your livestock. And by the looks of it, he spends most of his time tending your livestock.”

The cobbler tilted his head, as if to assess Albrecht’s full garb.

Uncle Broder glanced towards Albrecht, realizing, for perhaps the first time, how tattered and worn Albrecht’s clothes were. In contrast, Uncle Broder did not wear any noticeable stains.

“You can walk around and find another cobbler who will make him shoes for fifteen. But I promise you, they will not last as long or wear as well as mine.” He picked up a scrap of leather and handed it to Albrecht’s Uncle.

“Over the years, when you count the price per step, my shoes have the best value in all of Hartford.”

Uncle Broder passed the leather sample to Albrecht. An oddly shaped cutout, the hide was as big as Albrecht’s palm and thicker than boiled wool.

“Very well then. Twenty coin it is. But I want them done next week.”

The cobbler sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Uncle Broder grunted. Albrecht tugged the leather.

“Do you need this back?” Albrecht asked.

The cobbler looked over the sample, gauging the size. He shook his head with pinched lips.

“No. You can keep it.”

Albrecht shoved the gift in his pocket, not knowing when he would need or use it but confident he would. His resourcefulness could never be too watchful.

“Do you need any coin before we go?” Uncle Broder asked

The ever-patient cobbler glanced at Albrecht before replying.

“Yes, I’ll take half up front, thank you.”

Uncle Broder smiled with a grimace towards Albrecht before reaching into his money bag. After counting out the first ten coins, he went to tie it up again when the cobbler interrupted him.

“You can give the other ten to him now,” gesturing to Albrecht. “Unless you plan on picking them up as well.”

Uncle Broder dropped his head back, heaved his chest, and closed his eyes. Then reaching into his money bag, he turned to Albrecht.

“If I give you the ten coin now, you won’t lose them, will you? You won’t go off and start buying satin ribbons to give to all the girls?”

Confused, Albrecht hesitated. Then he shook his head.

With a sigh and grand sweep of his arm, Uncle Broder counted out ten coins and set them in Albrecht’s hand. Albrecht pulled out his scrap of leather and wrapped them up as best he could.

Confirmed to the work, the cobbler sat Albrecht down and made tracings of his feet.

“Come see me in a week. I’ll see if I can get them sewn by then,” he said.

Albrecht nodded sharply, his throat choked at the thought of wearing new shoes for the first time in years. The cobbler shook hands with Uncle Broder, who coughed grimly before shuffling to the door.

Albrecht walked behind, then turned back as the cobbler sat on his stool and reached for his tool.

“Thank you,” Albrecht’s voice squeaked the tiniest bit. His left hand shook at his side.

“You’re welcome, son.” The cobbler looked at him and smiled.

Meg Davis