The sun cut through the layers of brisk Antarctic cold, warming my shoulders where I sat perched on the waist high stone wall of the servants’ courtyard. Some of the other girls were washing clothes today, as the sun was quite warm and the wind was still. They chattered as they usually did, talking about everything from happenings in the keep, to rumors passed on from the village, to making fun of Nadja, our mistress, behind her back.
I half-listened to their conversation as I sat there, mindlessly going through a basket of leggings and shirts that had been set at my feet, putting aside any that needed to be mended. It was another useless task, but at least it was something to make me look busy.
My eyes drifted over my shoulder, taking in the scenery behind me, letting myself draw from its familiar peace. The snow-swept courtyard wasn’t very big, only extending out from the edge of the keep’s walls by about thirty feet or so, all that the sheer cliff edge would allow. Though it did run for a good length along the edge of the cliff, making it more than big enough for all of us serving girls to congregate out here on the sunny days. Past the edge of the courtyard wall, the ground fell steeply into a craggy cliff, filtering down into the sheer, jagged valley below us, before the mountain peak rose again, about a mile away. It wasn’t so different from the view outside the infirmary windows, really; the terrain was just so much more hazardous here.
My eyes met the snowy mountain cliffs and I squinted, feeling the bruises tug at my cheek. The snow was harder to look at today because the sun was so bright, which was why I was sitting angled toward the keep instead. I drew my eyes away and bent, reaching toward the basket at my feet, using my good arm to draw out another pair of leggings. I winced a little as my bad arm pulled away from my body within its sling, and pulled it back tight against my chest. As I straightened, I eyed the rough stone walls of the kitchen, nestled into the snowy rock, and the tall columns of smoke drifting into the blue sky overhead from the kitchen fires. I absentmindedly wondered what would happen to me now. Not only was I useless as an archer, but I was near-useless as a servant. I was already limping around on one leg and one crutch. The only reason I had been of any use was because I still had one free hand to pour the warlord’s wine at his table. But now… I looked down at my arm, folded tight in its sling. Now, I was only another mouth to feed, only one more girl Nadja had to look after. Where could Seigan even send me that I could be of any use sitting down, with only one hand? From what Saoirse said, my arm would take at least six weeks to heal, if not more.
I gathered the waist of the leggings and clamped it in my slinged hand, and ran my other arm down the inside of one of the pant legs, feeling for snags or holes.
The kitchen door creaked open and Lio appeared. Ever since the attack, he’d gotten in the habit of checking in on me more than he really needed to.
He pulled the door closed behind him, eyes casting across the other girls in the courtyard until they settled on me, sitting at the wall off to the side. He crossed to me.
I smiled up at him. “Hi Lio.”
He nodded with a grin. “Enjoying the warmth of the sun?” He lifted his face toward the blue sky and smiled a little, eyes closed.
“I am, actually.” Lio spent even less time outside than I did, as he was always busy following the warlord around through the halls or standing guard at his chambers. “It feels lovely.” I retracted my arm out of the leggings, adjusted them to let my captive hand grasp the waist on the other side, and then began sliding my hand down inside the other leg.
He sat casually against the wall, and smiled at me. “You seem much more happy today.” He smiled broader when his eyes connected with mine, and I realized for the first time how contagious my positive attitude really could be.
“I guess I am.” I retracted my hand from the leggings, which had a tear in the knee, and then set to folding them along my leg, as best as I could with only one hand. “I suppose I realized that just because I’m damaged,” I eyed the other girls to see if they were in earshot, “and just because I’m a captive, doesn’t mean I’m not still worth something.”
He was silent for a moment, taking in my words, and watching my hands work.
“You did make a decent archer,” he said.
I looked up at him and cracked a sideways grin. We hadn’t talked about what happened the night of the attack, when the darkness took over me, but maybe we didn’t need to. Lio had seen the worst in me that night, and he didn’t treat me any different because of it. I only hoped I would never again be in a situation where the darkness could take over me like that.
“Everything gets repurposed,” I said, “even things that are damaged.” I glanced at the group of girls, of whom I had been a part of only mere days ago. “I just have to find out what my new purpose is.”
Lio grinned at my new outlook. His own bruises still looked dark today from the fight, but his eyes themselves looked much lighter.
I lifted the awkwardly folded leggings from my lap and Lio held out his hand. I hesitated, and then passed them to him. He tucked them down into the second basket at my feet, the one which held the clothes needing to be mended.
“You know they’re going to replace you if you keep coming to visit me when you’re not supposed to,” I said.
He laughed and stood. “Actually, I’ve come for a purpose. I’ve come to take you to the healer.”
I gave him a quizzical look. “I’m not supposed to see her for my arm until tonight.”
He turned to face me, grinning mischievously. “Who said this was about your arm?”
. . .
Lio told Nadja of my summons, and while she too, looked suspicious at my leaving during the middle of the day without explanation, she gave me leave. Not like I was really doing anything to pull my weight around the kitchen anyway. Lio and I made the long walk together toward Saoirse’s healer’s stall in the garrison, and Lio still refused to tell me what it was all about. Butterflies kicked up in my stomach. It was so unlike Saoirse to call me from work in the middle of the day when it wasn’t even about my injuries.
We arrived at the healer’s stall, which was a spacious room inset into the rock of the ground floor of the cavern, totally open on one side like most of the shop stalls were here. The walls all around the room held shelves of supplies, things I recognized from the main infirmary like herbs and bottles and linen cloths, and in one corner there was a partition made out of wood, behind which was a long, narrow bed.
In the center of the room was a tall table, scattered with jars and pieces of dried plants. Saoirse herself stood at the table, measuring herbs and separating them into their respective jars. She smiled brightly at me. “Hello Raine.”
“Hi Saoirse.” I limped toward her on my crutch, still slightly uneasy. “Why did you send for me?” I threw a brooding gaze in Lio’s direction. “Lio won’t tell me why.”
Saoirse laughed. “That’s because I asked him not to.”
My shoulders slumped. “You too?”
They both laughed this time. “I have something for you,” Saoirse said, “and I wanted it to be a surprise.” Then her eyes lifted past Lio and I, lighting up significantly. “Oh good, here he is.”
A young man was approaching the healer’s stall. He was about Lio’s height, though much broader of shoulders, and had russet hair that seemed to stick up in short, haphazard spikes all over his head, like he’d never used a comb in his life.
“Hello Saoirse,” he greeted brightly. He was smiling too. Tucked under one arm, he held a long, slender object that was wrapped in a thick layer of cloth and bound in various places with rope to keep the cloth secure. What was this all about?
“Kodn,” she nodded, “it’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” As he drew closer, I noticed he was covered in dark streaks of what looked like a combination of soot, ash, and black oil. It was even in his hair and all over his face, like he’d just crawled out of a collapsed mine. “And it’s good to be away from the forges. I’d almost forgotten what the garrison halls looked like.”
“I’ve brought what you asked.” He held out the bundle in his hands.
“Lovely.” Saoirse scooped up a few of the things off her table to make room, tucking them on the shelves and brushing the scattered pieces of dried herbs away. Kodn set the oblong bundle on the table and Saoirse nodded at me. “This is the girl here,” she said to Kodn. “Come, Raine.”
I hobbled nervously up to the table, and Lio came up behind me, hovering and watching as Kodn untied the rope.
“It was hard not being able to test it,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing.” He smirked at Saoirse.
Kodn laid back the fabric from the object and I blinked once, twice, so sure my eyes were only seeing what they wanted to see. I rubbed my eyes with my good hand and looked again. Lying in the fabric was a brand new mechanical leg.
Saoirse looked to me. “Your new leg.”
I looked up at her, stunned, and then back to the leg. It was a striking matte black color, streamline and smooth, so unlike the clunky plates of mismatched metal I wore now. And it was thin, so thin. It had just the right amount of sleek curves, and it actually looked like a leg that was meant for a woman. It was beautiful.
“For me?” I whispered.
Kodn nodded and eagerly slipped his fingers underneath it, lifting it off the table. “I’ve used an alchemical obsidian alloy this time, so it should be just as durable as your old one, but much lighter in weight.” He set it back down and knocked his knuckles against it. “It’s hollow on the inside, so that should help too.”
I dared to reach forward and stroke it. It was so smooth under my fingers, all the joints seemed perfectly formed, and there were no sharp edges of metal sticking out anywhere.
“You want to try it on?” he asked.
I nodded, too stunned for words.
Saoirse guided me to the side, where there was a bench against the wall, and she and Lio helped me to sit.
Kodn knelt in front of me, balancing the new leg on his own leg as he worked with the straps, pulling them out of the way. I reached for the buckles that kept my shortened pant leg pinned closed and Saoirse helped me to tug the material back, leaving just the wrappings I wore underneath.
“I left some weight to the new leg,” Kodn said as he angled the limb, preparing to fit it to my leg, “so that it has an equal amount of ballast as your human leg. It should help give you better balance.”
Just before he slipped it on, he looked down at the place that would cradle the human part of my leg. “Oh. And I’ve used leather on the inside this time, and underneath is a padding of wool.” He squished his fingers against it. “It should be much more comfortable now, especially for walking or running.”
Running. My heart skipped a beat in my chest. Did he really think I could run with this new leg?
I held my breath as the mechanical limb joined to the human part of me. It fit like a glove.
I watched with awe as all down the outer side of the leg, symbols came to life, glowing quietly, falling in step with my heartbeat. I couldn’t even see them when the leg was disconnected. There was a gentle nudge in my mind, and my awareness raced all the way down to the end of the new leg and back. I grinned to myself. I could feel it.
Kodn leaned to the side and eyed the runes and laughed. “Ah good! That means I’ve done something right!”
With a gentle push, he pressed the leg fully against me, ensuring that it was snug. “How does that feel?”
“It… it feels wonderful.” There was no metal digging into my skin, and the wool and leather padding felt like the insole of a shoe, so soft and pliable, forming itself to fit my leg in all the right places. Maybe I wouldn’t even need to wear my heavy wrappings like I had with the old leg.
Kodn worked to buckle the straps, one around my thigh and one around my waist. I stiffened a little at his nearness, but I let him work. “Because it’s so much lighter than the old one, you may not need the second strap at your waist, so I’ve made it so that it can be detached. Wear it for a while and see how it feels.” When the buckles were secure, he sat back on his heels. “All right, try moving it now.”
I placed a shaking hand on top of my leg, fingers feeling the cool metal, my mind abuzz with the sensation of the new limb.
I tried to flex my foot. Nothing happened.
I frowned and tried again, concentrating mentally on the tattooed rune line that ran down my side and my hip, connecting with the line on my new limb. Slowly, like a robot coming to life for the first time, the mechanical foot lifted, rocking back onto its heel.
A wide grin pulled across my cheeks.
“Good. Now try the knee.”
I lowered my foot and then bent my leg at the knee, drawing my foot toward myself so that it mirrored the position of my other leg.
I looked up at the faces before me, bewildered. Saoirse’s eyes met mine, totally speechless.
“How do the joints feel when you move them?” Kodn asked.
I bent my leg at the knee again, this time extending it so that it was straight out in front of me. I’d never even been able to do that much with my old leg, heavy as it was.
“Smooth,” I said. “And it responds so much faster.” I lowered my leg to the floor.
“That’s the absence of the heavy weight,” he said with a grin, tapping my leg at the shin. “Also the new joints I’ve designed. You want to try standing?”
I did, very much so.
Kodn stepped back and let Saoirse and Lio each take their place at my side. Lio stood on the right side, offering me his hand, and Saoirse stood on the left, hands protectively at my injured arm.
I gathered my senses, attempting to make both legs work together, which was something I hadn’t done in a long, long time. It felt strange to actually rely on my right leg for a share of the balance, instead of putting everything I had onto my left leg and using my right arm to carry the rest of my weight with my crutch. I faltered a bit, unused to pulling myself up without the aid of a crutch, and Lio and Saoirse reached out for me. Slowly, they helped to draw me upright, my mechanical leg bending in perfect alignment with my human leg, until both legs were straight and I was on my feet.
I kept both eyes on my feet, feeling my half-leg press into the cushioned sole of my new leg. It didn’t hurt.
“You all right?” Lio asked.
Cautiously, the two withdrew their hands from me, staying close in case I should fall. I purposefully rocked a bit on the toes of my good leg, searching for balance, and then drew my eyes upwards to meet three beaming grins. I was standing. Entirely on my own two feet without my crutches and without anyone holding me. Tears brimmed my eyes. Tears brimmed Saoirse’s eyes to match.
I looked back down at my feet, ready to go one step further — literally. With my free hand instinctively brushing my leg down near my thigh, I shifted my new leg forward across the stone. It came to rest a half a step in front of me, and I pushed it a bit farther. I dared to lean on it fully and scuff my other leg forward. Then I did it again. Lio stayed at my right side, hands ready to catch me in case I lost my balance. I did falter a few times, so unused to holding myself upright and creating my own balance, but Lio steadied me. When I reached the other side of the room, I turned around, having to use Lio’s hand, and then he let go, and I set to walking back across the room. I was even able to pick my feet up slightly instead of just scuffing them.
I returned to Saoirse, who was hastily brushing at the tears in her eyes. Her cheeks were blooming.
Tears filled my own eyes at the reality of it all. “I can walk,” I whispered. I looked up to Kodn and then to Lio, who was keeping a gentle hand at my elbow, and then back to Saoirse. I laughed, letting the tears slide down my cheeks, unashamed. “I can walk!”
Saoirse lurched toward me, wrapping her arms around my shoulders and squeezing me tight. I hugged her in return with my one good arm, overflowing with happiness. For the first time since the arena, I could walk on my own, and for the first time since the accident, I finally felt like I stood a chance at having a normal life again.
“I’m so proud of you,” Saoirse whispered.
Saoirse and I pulled back from one another and I swiped at my eyes. I looked to Kodn, at his proud grin, feeling like I wanted to hug him too. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” I looked down at my new leg, at how much more attractive it looked, and how much more free it had made me feel in just a few steps. “It’s perfect.”
Kodn nodded brightly. He crossed to a table at the back wall where my old leg was sitting, draped loosely in an animal hide, and carried it to the table. He laid it in the fabric that my new leg had come from and began to wrap it.
He nodded back over his shoulder at my new limb. “You should be able to wear boots now, if you choose.” He turned around, my old leg tucked under his arm, now concealed in the cloth. I was so happy to never have to see it again. “And a full pair of pants,” he chuckled. “Although the fabric might have the tendency to get stuck in the joints at your knee, so you might be better off to wear a shortened pant leg anyhow. Either way, it should suit you much better than this sorry excuse for an experiment.” He hefted the heavy limb in his hand.
“Thank you Kodn,” Saoirse said.
“Anything for you, Saoirse.” He placed a hand along her back. “Oh.” He reached into a pocket, passing her a folded parchment that was as covered in soot as Kodn was himself. “Theron sends his love.”
Saoirse looked at him with watery eyes and took the paper slowly, pressing it to her chest. “Give him my love in return,” she said softly, passing him a folded letter of her own.
“You know I will.”
Kodn waved a final farewell and disappeared into the halls.
“Now do you see why we wanted to surprise you?” Lio said.
I laughed. “Yes, I’m sorry.”
“Are you ready to walk back?” he then asked, handing me my crutch. I would probably still need it for balance until I was fully accustomed to my new stride.
I nodded, the first time I was truly excited for the long walk through the halls.
Saoirse’s hand brushed my arm. “I’ll see you tonight.”
We said our farewells and Lio and I left the room, heading back toward the kitchens. I was still slow on my feet, as it was a huge effort to realign my balance and remind myself how to walk on two steady legs, but my spirit felt lighter than it had in weeks. I couldn’t wait for the other girls to see.