They heard it long before it was close enough to see through the haze. The screeching of the mechanical limbs carried across the cornfields, occasionally punctuated by the hiss of escaping steam.
The smaller children, inquisitive even in the face of danger, poured out of the cottages, climbing on hay bales or up into the loft of the barn to get a better view as the monstrosity lurched through the tall plants. The eight legs stabbed down into the earth heavily with each step, causing slight tremors as it drew closer to the small gathering of thatched shacks.
The older children, Danny among them, also paused in their chores to watch as the colossus entered, although most of them wore frowns rather than open-mouthed stares. Danny laid down the blacksmith’s hammer and stepped away from the forge, making sure to first quench the sickle he had been pounding out.
From the building across from the smithy, Elder Jonah emerged, somehow remaining on his feet as his cane clattered down the stone steps in front of him. The white-haired man glared at the approaching machine, and Danny heard him mutter “Reaver” under his breath.
“What is it, Elder Jonah?” Danny asked, having to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the mechanical noises.
The elder didn’t take his eyes off of the machine. “Reaver,” he replied, huffing into his scraggly mustache. “Leftover from the war, long ago. They used to be sent into battle, but after the war ended, most of them were left to roam.” He spat into the dust at his feet. “Don’t trust it.”
Danny squinted as he tried to make out the details of the great machine. “Is it made of metal? Or is it some sort of armored beast?”
“Nah, ‘tis metal through and through,” the elder replied. Danny was glad that Elder Jonah wasn’t treating him like a child. His ceremony of adulthood had only just passed a month ago, but he was already beginning to feel the respect of the village’s adults. “Great beast, all wires and pipes, driven by steam and the Devil himself. Near unstoppable, especially against mere foot soldiers.” Elder Jonah’s eyes gazed past the Reaver as memories rose to the surface.
The Reaver was closer, now, and Danny could see that it was no longer fully operational. Several large pipes attached to the legs were bent, and steam was rhythmically escaping through cracks in the shell. The long legs, like those of a spider, moved heavily and slightly out of sync, the rusted joints protesting as they scraped open and shut. Some sort of complex machinery with several long, straight pipes protruding from it hung askew from the underbelly of the Reaver. Despite the damage, however, the machine still looked hulking and unstoppable.
Elder Buie had wandered over to join Elder Jonah in gazing out at the Reaver, and several adults had also gathered around. Danny saw fright, confusion, and worry painted across their faces. “What do we do? Should we evacuate the village?” asked Cenn, the baker. His wife, always appearing small and slight next to Cenn’s girth, was huddled in his shadow as if she feared to leave his protection.
No answer was immediately forthcoming from the elders. Jonah raised his stick to point at the Reaver, slid it off to one side, and then spat again thoughtfully. He turned to Buie at his side. “Think it’ll change paths?” he asked.
Elder Buie shook his head. “The thing’s pretty far gone,” he commented. “No crew, or they would have sealed those joints. It’s a fossil, nothing more.”
The other elder nodded in agreement. “Reavers don’t change course much,” he said to the assembled adults. “This one’ll miss our village, sure enough, and once it’s gone then someone else will have to worry about it.” He waved his hands in a shooing motion, and the throng of adults slowly wandered away. Danny saw that most of them still shot fearful looks over their shoulders at the mechanical mockery of a spider.
After they had dispersed, Danny looked sidelong at Elder Jonah. “You’ve seen those Reavers before,” he said, carefully adding only the slightest of a questioning lilt to the end of his sentence.
Jonah nodded. “Brought one down, once,” he replied. “Killed most of our men, but we had revenge, smashed the whole thing to bits of clockwork with our sledges.” He adjusted his grip on his walking stick.
“We could bring down this one?” Danny asked. He had no idea where such an audacious idea had come from. The adults had always praised him for keeping a cool head. However, as he watched the rusting colossus wander across their cornfields, he envisioned smashing the legs out from underneath, watching it topple helplessly into the dirt, unable to regain its feet as he brought the hammer down on the body…
Elder Jonah whacked him with his cane across Danny’s knees, startling him out of the daydream. “You keep away from those, you hear?” he said sharply. “This one may be banged up a bit, but they got all sorts of fancy tricks programmed in, combat subroutines that’ll strip your hide clean off.” He squinted out at the Reaver. “Looks like the minigun is broke, that’s good, but they still aren’t to be tangled with. Thing’ll kill you without remorse.”
His knees still stung from Jonah’s swing, but Danny didn’t fire back. He wondered what a minigun or a subroutine was. He had heard bits and pieces of tales of the Great War from the elders, but they never shared much, and asking usually earned a smack or two about the ear.
Elder Jonah, grumbling, turned back to his cottage. “Probably ruined half the crop,” he muttered, as he slowly climbed the steps. “Damn things will be around a hundred years after the war, mark my words.”
The Reaver was already starting to move away from the village, still continuing in a straight line. Danny picked up his blacksmith hammer, but he waited to resume work until the Reaver had faded into the distance, lurching unsteadily across the fields.