Siples's tale centers on Madame Katja Pomeroy—a spy in the service of von Buquoy—and Lieutenant Sebastian Maibach—a young officer from a noble family that has fallen on desperate financial circumstances. Sebastian is the first-person narrator of the story. He performed heroically in a previous battle but may now be suffering from post-traumatic stress. He does not seem to have a heart for war and killing. Von Buquoy asks Sebastian to assist Pomeroy with a sensitive mission, a commision that Maibach gladly accepts. Their task is to transport a locked crate to Sablat in advance of von Buquoy's army. Katja and Sebastian spend their first night of the journey together in a barn and become lovers, although Katja insists there is nothing in their relationship beyond the physical. A disturbance during the night leads them outside. They find myriad forest animals gathered around the crate. Katja gives Sebastian the key to the padlock. When Sebastian opens the crate, a strange-looking man with an iron shackle on his ankle leaps forth and then falls.
“When von Buquoy told me,” Katja said quietly at my side, “I took it for a jest. A misfired shell, exploded in the wood; a man who was not a man, found dazed beside the crater. When the count insisted on his story, I feared him mad. The pressures of his post, you see. But then I saw—” Her hands jerked toward our cargo. “I saw for myself.”Sebastian's first inclination is to insist that they release the erlenman but Katja insists that they are taking him to Seblat as planned and threatens Sebastian with a pistol. Katja refuses to tell Sebastian why von Buquoy wants the erlenman. A rider from von Buquoy catches up to them with a message and a change of plans takes them to Bulgravad, where a friend of von Buquoy lies dying from a gunshot wound. Sebastian sees firsthand the horrible fate that awaits the erlenman, whose blood, which "appeared luminous in the glass cylinder, like quicksilver," has miraculous healing properties. As they ride in the cart on the way to Seblat, Katja explains von Buquoy's plan.
“What you are saying…” I began. It was inconceivable.
“The erlenvolk. They’re real. They’re real, Sebastian.”
“Emperor Ferdinand’s army marches at our back. We’re headed toward the front, toward a mighty battle. Many men will be wounded. Theirs will perish, Sebastian, but ours will live to fight another day. Don’t you see? We’ll set up a surgery in Sablat. In the cathedral perhaps, or under tents upon the main square. We’ll be well prepared. The erlenman will be well milked—”Sebastian faces a hard choice: free the erlenman and betray his country, family and doom his future or allow the mission to continue and betray his conscience.
"The Battle of Sablat" features beautiful writing and imagery as well as a compelling plot, but the study in contrasts between Katja and Sebastian is the story's most intriguing element. Both characters are trapped in their own ways by their respective circumstances and positions in society. The futures of both are in the hands of von Buquoy.
“What is it von Buquoy gives you?”Katja urges Sebastian with her words and body to follow her lead and play along with von Buquoy's plans. Nothing good can come from opposing him, but Sebastian's conscience will not rest easily.
“A certain amount of freedom, Sebastian. More than someone in my circumstances should expect.” [Katja's] face grew solemn. Her eyes dipped to my mouth. “If you let me, Sebastian, I can help you.”