One witch brew a spell.
A young woman sang this song as her loyal Iron Horse pulled her wooden cart.
Two witches cast a spell.
She wrapped her black cape tightly around her body to shield herself from the glacial wind and her hood hid her face from the outside world.
Three witches suffered a spell.
She was about to begin the fourth verse when she abruptly stopped. Ahead, at the edge of the road, she saw a wooden cart turned to its side. The contents of the cart were gone. The horse had run off. She sniffed; there was the faint metallic scent of blood.
“Stop! Please help us!”
A man emerged from behind the tree line with his arms raised above his head. Two other men followed behind him.
“Mister, we were attacked by bandits and lost everything!”
She pulled on the reins and her Iron Horse came to a stop. She pulled back her hood.
“Oh! A lady.”
The three men stepped closer. The young woman narrowed her eyes. These men wore leather chest armor with iron studs. Their hands were rough and dirty, their trousers covered in mud. These were not the hands of a merchant.
They surrounded her cart. One in the back, one on either side.
“Help us get to the next village, miss.”
She heard the sound of blades being drawn.
The young woman scowled. She had lost the element of surprise, she was outnumbered and she was surrounded.
“Come now miss, yeh are not a fool. Get off your cart.”
She smiled faintly. These bandits had not expected their victim to be a woman. She still had the advantage.
She reached behind her back and touched the hilt of a sheathed dagger tied to her belt. Above that were a pair of metal gloves. She felt the cold surface of the gloves, trying to decide which weapon she should use. She grabbed the daggers.
She rose. In a flash she drew her daggers and threw it at the man behind her cart. It pierced deep into his stomach—the easiest place to hit with little aim.
“Ahhhh!” He clutched his gushing wound and fell to the ground.
The other two were startled by her sudden movement. Without hesitation, she drew a second knife and sunk it into the eye of the man to the left side.
She touched her belt and stopped. She had no knifes left; she could only feel a pair a metal gloves.
“Out of tricks, ey?”
The third man climbed onto her cart with his blade gleaming in the afternoon sunlight.
Immediately she jumped off.
“There is nowhere to run!” He laughed sardonically. “You can scream and no one will hear you! Comere! Be a good girl and I won’t kill yeh when I have my way with yeh!”
She stopped at the front of the cart. The man got off the cart and followed.
“That’s right—you’re a smart one. Lie down right here.”
“Oats! Now!” she bellowed.
Behind the man, the Iron Horse neighed and stood on his hind legs. The beast crushed the man with the full weight of his body.
Without collecting her knives, the young woman jumped on her cart and grabbed the reins.
“Hurry,” she said to her Iron Horse, “before more of them come.” He neighed and his legs creaked and groaned. His bracegear needs oil, she noted, but she had none left. This mighty beast had its legs replaced with mechanical ones, giving it the ability to travel nigh unlimited distances. However this one needed oiling and a blacksmith—badly. The metal gears ground against each other, its occasional shrill cries demanding attention like a newborn.
She peered up at the sky. Night will soon fall and night revealed the secrets of the forest—secrets she did not want to find out. She tightened her grip on the reins and muttered a prayer. There was little a lone woman could do against the secrets of the night.
After another hour of travel—finally.
There at the side of the road was a lonely little inn meant for the weary traveler.
Horses and carts were tied up outside. A wall of trees surrounded the road on both sides, the infinite darkness of the forest striking fear in even the hardiest traveler. And that was why, under the gentle glow of the silver moon, merchants, traveling priests, craftsmen and any man who found himself on the road at sundown gathered under this little roof for the night.
But tonight, every man at the inn had his attention focused on her.
Her long blonde hair flowed freely and the light of the oil lamp caused its lustrous color to sparkle. A single braid hung beside her right ear, decorated with the wildflowers she had found during the day’s journey. Her eyes were one with the sky and every time she smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkled and the mole below her right eye vanished in her dimples.
Many of the men wondered what a young woman was doing out here all by herself. Beauties of her age were usually chaperoned by their mothers during the day and in the arms of their lover at night. Her clothes did not betray her surreptitious origins—a black cape with a hood, a simple cloth tunic and a skirt that earned the criticism of the traveling priest.
“I am a bracegear technician,” the young woman said when the innkeeper’s plumb wife could not hold back her curiosity and none of the other costumers were drunk enough to have the courage to approach her. “My Iron Horse is tied up outside. If you could give him some oats and oil his gears, I’d be most grateful.”
“You? A bracegear technician? Traveling all by yourself?”
The young woman ignored the surprise and disbelief in her voice. “Do you have any rooms left for tonight?”
Upon hearing the request for a room, the innkeeper heaved his bulging stomach over.
“I’m sorry Miss, but we are full tonight.”
The young woman let out a tired sigh. “I’ll sleep in the stables.”
The innkeeper’s wife gasped with such horror that her large breasts swung to and fro. “No! That cannot be allowed!” she exclaimed. “A young unmarried girl sleeping in the stables—good Lord, are we not decent people?”
The innkeeper tried to avoid eye contact, but his wife shot him a chilling glare. He succumbed to her silent demand, took out his ledger and arranged for some of the men to be squeezed into a single room, so that this lady could have a room to herself. In return, he had to return some of the gold the male patrons had paid.
“Thank you,” she smiled kindly.
The innkeeper needed to take down her name for the room.
And the last name?
* * *
It was a merry night. After a few pints of ale, tongues loosened and tales were told. Every man was enchanted with Sable. Here was a young woman who took on a man’s world and traveled alone, traded alone and counted her profit alone. Why she chose to be alone was a mystery to all of them, but all were so dazzled by her bright laughter that they forgot to ask.
At the end of the night, she took a merchant who had caught her fancy and led him upstairs to her room. When the door closed, she raised her chin and kissed him; the man was surprised by her forthrightness and was not sure how to react, however when Sable parted her lips, he gave into his instincts.
Her tongue and lips tasted of wine. He caressed her back and grabbed her hand. He felt her leather gloves—the gloves of a bracegear technician. They molded tightly around her hand to allow for delicate work. Each bracegear technician’s gloves are meant to be worn by only one person and could not be passed down from master to apprentice.
When their lips parted, did he ask: “It is rather uncommon to see a girl like you travel alone—much less work as a bracegear technician. ”
The corners of her lips turned into a slight smile—but he could not discern what kind of smile it was.
“It is safer for me to travel alone, truly.”
Her answer only made him raise an eyebrow in confusion.
“Say, why do you work as a bracegear technician?” he pressed her, his curiosity trumping over the demands of his instincts.
She sighed and felt the rising and sinking of his hard chest. “I work as a bracegear technician because I’m afraid of who I am.”
Her voice trailed off and silent words hung in the air. Her eyes met his and he saw not the dazzling maiden who had bewitched every man with that coquettish sparkle in her eye, but a lonely girl who was tired of being alone.
* * *
Later that night, they lay together in the darkness of the room. Moonlight shone through the open window and the merchant watched how it gave her blonde hair a gentle silver glow.
He then noticed that she had taken off everything except her gloves.
“Why don’t you take off your gloves, love.”
Sable balled them into fists, raised them to her chest and shook her head. She drew closed to him and whispered: “Don’t leave my side tonight. I don’t want to be alone.”
He put his arm around her shoulders and was amazed yet again by how small her back was. He wanted to ask her why she chose to face this harsh world alone; why she sought solitude when she needed company.
He was about to ask her all of this when saw her breathing softly, her eyes shut in a frown. It was the expression of someone who’s dreams were haunted.
The merchant buried his nose in her voluminous hair and breathed in her sweet womanly scent.
* * *
At first light, she left the room. She requested a mug of fresh goat milk from the innkeeper; when she brought it to her lips, it was still warm.
She stepped outside and breathed deeply. The chilly morning air cleared her mind. The morning dew glistened on the grass. The birds were still asleep. The first rays had just broken the horizon.
Sable closed her eyes and listened to the silence. She made a prayer.
The shuffling of feet spoiled the silence. Annoyed, Sable turned to the source of the noise, but her glare softened when she saw a girl—12 years-old perhaps.
“Ah.” She should be same age as…
The girl wore a dirty cotton dress that had been patched too many times. She put her hands under her armpit, shivering from the cold. She smelt of horse.
She must work in the stables, Sable concluded. The innkeeper had probably instructed her to feed breakfast to the horses so that the guests could leave anytime.
Sable looked down at her milk. It was already cold.
She held the mug between her hands and her gloves began to glow with a warm hue of orange. Then before the girl could notice, the glow vanished.
“Here, it’s warm,” she said and offered the mug to the girl. “Drink this and bring me my cart and Iron Horse?”
The girl hesitated, then took the mug and drank greedily—her first breakfast in days. Moments later, horse and cart were ready.
“The gears of your Iron Horse have been oiled, madam,” the girl said.
“Thank you.” She smiled kindly and the girl blushed. She gave her a copper coin and winked. The coin vanished in her pocket as soon as it touched her hand.
Sable rode down the road, her Iron Horse neighing with delight; the little girl’s work was rough but the gears had been soothed. She had already forgotten about the man snoring in the room and thought of a child this little girl reminded her of.