A Gift

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A Gift

Post by Oblivion on Tue Jul 24, 2012 11:03 pm

Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick.

Frowning, she plucked up the object and rewound the loose spring. A few rotations were all that was needed to reset the mechanism, and a few whispers would do the rest. It was incomplete, which was the problem; until it was truly finished, no amount of requests or even pleading would set the gears to life perpetually. Sooner or later it would tire out, the gears would wind down, and it would go silent again until she turned the peg once more.

Ferra sighed and set the half-finished contraption back in its wooden box, listening to the dull echoes of its lively clicking first dampen then silence as she slowly lowered the top panel then locked it in place. It wasn’t meant to be seen yet, so any time she wasn’t actively working on the last phases of construction she kept it hidden away, safely guarded from damage and hidden from sight. She would need more materials to finish the job; though normally her reserve of parts was never exactly overflowing she rarely required excess effort to obtain the necessities, but this seemed to be an exception to the rule. Not only had she run short partway through the construction, there were a few requisite pieces she hadn’t had to begin with. Obtaining them was her top priority for the moment: her time to finish this particular project was limited.

She pulled her cane from its place on the wall and murmured another request, causing her manacles to hiss to life with a gust of warm air as she pushed her way to her feet. From there she began the meticulous process of ensuring all her necessary tools and supplies for the journey were in their proper places. Tools and spares in her belt, pistol in its scabbard, daggers in their hiding places, pack following obediently as a well-trained hound at her heels. Ensured all things were in proper order, she fished her key from the bag and headed for the study exit.

The little three-room den had been Ferra’s home, or the closest thing to it, for the past three years now, ever since the Council’s edict had brought her to Ora Lunata in the first place. For legal purposes she was merely a tenant on Philip’s land, but he charged her no more than necessary upkeep and for practical understanding the building and the immediate surroundings were effectively hers. This was obvious on sight, as much of the land within her fence was littered with the remnants of her various projects or, more often, the scars of their faults. She made an effort to clean them up about once a month, more often if someone offered to assist. Inside however, was meticulously clean and orderly, save her study and workshop when in the middle of a project; the instant she ceased working, however, everything was returned to its proper place.

As for the cottage itself, it was relatively spartan, consisting of little more than a chair and a cot in the common room that also served as Ferra’s residence, and a sparse collection of dishware along with a single basin for washing, an icebox, and a wood stove was the entirety of the population of the kitchen. She didn’t need much to survive comfortably beyond food and shelter from the elements save something to entertain her attentions, and the immediate shift between the organized chaos and clutter of the study and the bare space of the rest of the cottage showed the differences in distinct contrast.

Ferra gave the small room a satisfied sweeping glance, then stepped aside to allow her supply bag to trundle out of the lab. The little vessel rolled comfortably on interlocked treads around its wheels, allowing passable transport of her belongings over nearly any terrain without having to carry them personally, a requirement her waifish frame would never be able to sustain for any extended period of time. She tugged at the drawstrings at the satchel’s top and tied them securely, then shut and locked the study door before retrieving her coat from the hook above. The weather was warm as usual during late spring, but breezy enough that she dared not risk the chance of catching cold. If it became too warm removing the coat was simple; discovering a mile down the trade road that the wind was insufferable without one was significantly less so to remedy.

She paused at the cottage entrance one last time, hiking her skirt to her knees to give her manacles one last examination. The machinery was primarily magically-fueled, operating of its own initiative by her request, and thus had no necessity for fuel to provide the assistance she needed to stay mobile. It did, however, need the attention of proper oiling for the pistons and gears to retain working condition. Thankfully all appeared to be in working order, and spare oil canisters were properly packed in her satchel in case of roadside emergency. Nodding once more to herself, she brushed the loose strands of her pale straw-yellow hair back and tucked them haphazardly into her ponytail then nudged the door open with her free hand.

She found herself greeted by a glossy black coil of what at first looked to be leather or rubber tubing piled on her doorstep like discarded piping. Ferra had lived in Ora Lunata long enough to recognize a beetle snake when she saw one, and while the creatures weren’t venomous, their bites were painful and they had a tendency to latch onto their prey not just with their fangs but their mandibles as well, making them all the more difficult to remove. Her immediate flinch back and reflexive grasp for her pistol put her on immediate alert, but she managed to reign in her panic quickly after noticing the reptile had already been deprived of its head.

“Hello Sandy,” she muttered with a sigh, tucking the gun back into its place at her hip and knocking the dead snake aside with her cane.

Amidst the rock-, scrap-, and scrub-strewn, vaguely circular and vaguely pentagonal fenceline of Ferra’s demesne were a few piles of loose silt and soil, common on farmlands for concealing burrowers’ tunnels. One of these had deigned to make her little plot its lair, and had since the second or third month of her residency striven to appease itself to her. She surmised it subsisted primarily on pilfered eggs from Philip’s henhouse and perhaps the occasional stray newborn lamb or piglet, when it wasn’t snatching up its fellow pests and rodents to present to her as offerings. Attempts to capture or corral the creature had proved fruitless, as it wouldn’t allow itself - or herself perhaps more accurately, Ferra was fairly confident she’d seen kits amidst the mounds at least once - to be picked up or caged and would only occasionally submit to petting, and would never emerge as long as Philip was in the vicinity. At the moment however she did arise, popping up out of one of the tiny dirt hills and scurrying over toward its would-be companion, shaking loose soil from its pelt at random intervals.

Sandy, or so Ferra had come to calling the creature much to Philip’s frustration, was a foxopher of about two feet in length if you included the bushy colorful tail that composed about a third of her size. She was primarily grey-brown in shade, save for a few streaks of white and red dashing down her back and through the tail, much like the darker soil of the farmland pastures. The long narrow muzzle and sharp ears were obviously traits of the head of a predator, but much of the rest of the body was stockier and low to the ground, with wide paws and shoveling claws designed for burrowing. It scampered rapidly along the weedy earth, pausing at the foot of the ramp descending from Ferra’s door to snatch back up the discarded beetle snake then resuming its trek to place the dead reptile back at her feet.

The inventor sighed and rolled her eyes at the display, then plucked the snake up again with her cane and moved it aside. “I can’t take your gift at the moment,” she muttered. Despite knowing full well that Sandy couldn’t understand a word she said she still found herself talking to the creature out of habit. “I’ve places to go and as much as you might appreciate a headless beetle snake I can’t say the same for most merchants.” Sandy gave a sharp yap in reply, then plodded to the side of the ramp before circling and curling up, resting comfortably in the midmorning sun against the warm foundation stone. “Sleep on,” Ferra muttered with a dry chuckle, shaking her head as she slowly maneuvered down the gentle incline and headed for the fence gate, her motorized bag following obediently just behind.

She judged it to be a few hours prior to noon, no more. If she made steady time and didn’t get distracted or otherwise delayed she presumed she could make it to the city and have her business done in a matter of hours, and be back home well before sunset. She could ride the whole way but while the bag cart was convenient for when she was too sore or tired to walk and could traverse most terrain it was slow going, not really any faster than walking. More importantly, Ferra was as stubborn as the metals she liked to work with and proud of it. She would walk as far as her legs would carry her, and not a step less.

The well-worn walkway descending from her cottage wound snakelike through the fields and pastures of Philip’s land, fenceposts and barbed wire flanking its sides and keeping the occasional frolicking cattle from veering too near the more fragile pedestrians. Green waves of fresh grass danced in the breeze, the field on her left at significantly higher tide than the cow-tended pastures to the right. The occasional tree often served as a makeshift fencepost, with the spiked wire wound about the trunks in loose loops before continuing on down the line, bearing the occasional visible scar where it had healed over from a barb’s gouging or been tended by a florist. Most were old oaks and maples, but Philip had his share of apple trees amidst the bunch and Ferra helped herself to one of the dark golden fruits as she passed beneath its branches. Dragonflies and hummingbirds buzzed about the blooming foliage, and she even thought she saw a garter lark coiled in a nest in one old oak’s trunk, recently stirring from its winter burial and hibernation.

It was a noticeable change in her life from her years spent in the cities, after leaving the mines, and her recent relocation to the more rural parts of Ora Lunata. Barely a year ago she would have been incapable of tolerating the presence of so many wild creatures so near for more than a moment’s span; now she passed them on a daily basis with little more than a noticing glance and a calm step aside for the more dangerous natives, like the whistleweb spiders or scorpio locusts. Thank all the stars the latter ones only showed up in semi-decadal sweeps and were generally predictable; she hadn’t seen one since she’d arrived, but she’d heard the horror stories from the locals of the last swarm, about six years prior.

Five minutes passed before she reached the end of the path, where it met back up with the main traveling road that crossed through Philip’s ranch. The fields had become more and more populated as she neared the ranch house, where Philip and a few hands were seeing to the last of the feeding. Ferra stopped and leaned on her cane at the side of the fence, and a few of the hirelings waved and called greetings in return. Some of the dogs bounded over, yapping happily at the newcomer, and a few pigs even wobbled over in her direction, apparently hoping for a scrap or two from the passerby, only to be corralled back toward their troughs by the hands.

“Mornin’ Fer,” Philip drawled once the commotion had died down.

“Still is, for a little longer,” she observed, glancing up at the sun still a couple hours short of high noon. “Not an unpleasant one either. Good day to you as well.”

The rancher shook his head with his traditional dull rumbling chuckle and tossed a handful of seed behind him, sending the chickens about his feet scampering off after it. “Analytical as ever. What’s got you up an’ out today?”

“Short a few necessary apparati for my latest automaton,” she replied, staring off toward the horizon distantly. She was trying to calculate how much the necessary equipment would cost, double-checking that she’d be able to afford what she needed with the spare coin she’d managed to save or if she’d have to rely on bartering away something to pick up the slack.

“The apples on the doormat?” one of the hands, a freckle-faced redheaded young man standing a few inches shy of Ferra’s own meager height, piped up. “Come again?”

“She’s talkin’ machine,” a black-haired, darker-skinned girl behind him replied sardonically. “She needs parts for a thing she’s makin’.”

“Oh.” The boy stared blankly, then turned his back on Ferra and Philip, muttering under his breath.

“Don’t badmouth my guests, Harold,” the rancher barked. The guilty party jerked upright and fell silent immediately, then scrambled about trying to find something to occupy himself with. “Don’t mind him, he ain’t the sharpest plow in the field but he means well more often’n not.”

“Never do,” Ferra replied with a shrug. One boy’s halfhearted attempts at muttered mockery were hardly the worst thing she’d ever had to endure, and the incident would have gone unmentioned if Philip hadn’t intervened of his own accord.

Philip returned the shrug then tossed the seed sack into a nearby storage bin, swinging the lid shut and twisting the seal into place in a single deft movement. “So where you headed?”

“Trade post in Ora, more likely than not they’ll have what I need. If not I can head up to the guild outside the west factory, sometimes they have spare equipment for sale.”

The rancher nodded, then leaned against a fencepost. Ferra wasn’t sure how he did that without getting stabbed by the barbs, but she’d never seen him flinch away from them and she passed him in this position at least once daily, often more so. “Not plannin’ on walkin’ the whole way are you?”

“Likely not,” she said with another shrug. “Will probably tire and ride some of the way.” She gestured behind to the bag cart, sitting silently at her heel awaiting further instruction or for its master to resume her journey.

“Not a trip anybody should be makin’ alone without a horse,” he muttered.

“Don’t start, Philip. I can handle myself just fine, and you’re more than aware of it.”

“Yeah, I know,” he replied, not backing away. “But ain’t safe for a healthy, full-grown man to make that trip on his own.”

“Much less a half-crippled woman?” she retorted. Her tone was sharp enough to cause some of the nearer hands to pause in their work, expecting a verbal scuffle, but a slight grin still played on the inventor’s lips. “So are you saying you wouldn’t make the trip yourself in solitude?”

“Not without Inci.” His voice was flat and final, broking no argument, but his smirk mirrored hers despite being hidden from their observers between the shade of his hat and his ever-present unshaven stubble. “Don’t mean ya gotta. Ain’t my daughter, ain’t my wife, ain’t my hand. Ain’t my place to make th’ rules for you. Just givin’ some advice. Know you ain’t good for horses, take a hound at least. Somethin’ that can run for help if’n you fall off a ledge or somethin’.”

“Maybe I should fish Sandy back out of the tunnels and put her on a leash,” Ferra offered, her grin broadening. Philip’s smile broke and he pushed off the fence, standing back upright with a grunt and a disgruntled mutter. “I’m jesting, relax. Not that she’d let me even if I weren’t.” She waved her free hand dismissively. “A dog is fine. Whichever you think best for the task.” The rancher nodded, then barked a stern command back to his hands to continue their work before bounding over the fence using only the aid of one hand on a post. He motioned for Ferra to follow and she took up her steady gait in his wake, her bag clicking back to life and following in turn moments later.

Philip led her to another of his wide corrals, this one located around the front of his home where the ranch hounds were kept when not busy at their tasks around the establishment or taken indoors for shelter against the weather. The canines were of various breeds and mingled bloodlines, as dog raising was not one of Philip’s business foci and his only concern about the ones he owned was that they were well trained and well behaved. Many leaped up and bounded over toward the fence as they rounded the corner of the house, some of the younger beginning to bark and yap happily at the sight of their master and his guest; most of the elder hounds either offered the arrivals a spare glance or didn’t rouse from their midmorning slumber at all. Once more Philip vaulted himself over the fence rather than bother with the gate, and began shooing his way through the delightedly-congregating beasts while Ferra stopped at the border and resumed her restful pose.

The companion he eventually returned with was visibly of heavy northern bloodline, resembling in shape and size the wolfhounds and husky breeds of the lands across the ocean toward the polar regions, even in color with its icy blue eyes and grey-white belly. The main oddity was that the rest of its coat was rusty red and slightly thinner than tradition depicted, though the latter could be due simply to the warmer climate of Ora Lunata during the spring from its native homeland. Philip opened the gate to release the animal, shepherding the rest of the pack back with a sweep of his leg before stepping out the narrow gap and closing it behind him; the dog eagerly bounded over to Ferra and began sniffing eagerly at the stranger’s dress and boots.

“Russa,” the rancher said, gesturing at the eager animal, which turned knowingly at its name and dropped into an obedient sitting position without further command. “She’s been through the route before and gone huntin’ in the lands about. She’ll get you there’n back. Won’t ya girl?” Philip knelt at the dog’s side and scrubbed gently at her ears, earning himself a happy bark and affectionate lashings from Russa’s tongue before he stood again.

“No tether necessary, I presume,” Ferra stated, though the rise of her eyebrow suggested it more question than comment.

Philip shook his head. “Should obey well enough it ain’t necessary. Might do more harm than good if’n you did.” Ferra frowned, but she had to concede that he was probably right. Her frame was light and her strength meager, even with mechanical aid; she had no doubt a working dog of Russa’s size could easily pull her off her feet. “Give ‘er a try. You mind, hear me Russa? You mind Miss Gaiuslass, hear?” The dog barked twice, seemingly in affirmative, and shuffled in place with tail wagging eagerly.

Ferra tapped her cane thoughtfully for a few moments before reaching into her satchel and withdrawing a small wrench, then tossed it across the yard into a tuft of grass at the side of the path. Russa eyed the object intently as it moved, but remained sitting in her place between Philip and Ferra, tail still dusting the ground in its rushed wagging. Ferra counted out a full minute in her head, expecting the animal’s eagerness to get the better of her, but about halfway through Russa simply appeared to lose interest in the tool and turned back to looking between the two humans, as if expecting a new command or simply waiting to be given further attention. “Bring me that,” she finally stated, gesturing vaguely off in the direction she’d tossed it, and without hesitation Russa bolted off towards the path, snatched the wrench out of the grass, and trotted back to her new mistress to drop her prize obediently at Ferra’s feet.

The inventor plucked the item off the ground and tossed it back into her bag with a nod. “She’ll do.”

---------

It was slightly less than an hour before noon when Ferra departed Philip’s ranch, her pack following behind and Russa a few yards in the lead. Occasionally the ranch hound would pause to glance back as if wondering why Ferra couldn’t keep up, but thank the stars she never got more insistent than that; Ferra wasn’t sure she’d be able to take three or four hours of being ushered to move faster by an animal. Blessedly, she seemed content for the most part to entertain herself, chasing squirrels and bushmice and the occasional sparrow or nymph hopper through the grass. The dog’s welcome good behavior gave Ferra plenty of time to dedicate to running through her list of necessities and giving her schematics one last look-over.

The trill of a merlin on the hunt above stirred her thoughts from the page; about an hour and a half had passed, judging from the slight descending of the sun from its noontide zenith. She had, as was common, meandered about the road though not yet lost her track nor wandered off the well-worn path. She couldn’t allow herself to become too distracted, though, so she rolled away the blueprints and tucked them back into her pack.

Call it fate’s blessing or simple luck, but if she hadn’t stopped at that moment to kneel she might not have noticed the odd reflection of light up ahead. Russa had been staring off in that direction for some time but Ferra had paid it no mind, presuming another pest had twigged the canine’s sensitive nose. Now though she suspected it wasn’t mere field vermin the dog had sniffed out, but rather something of more human nature. Murmuring a request beneath her breath, Ferra twisted a latch on her cane and turned to move slowly in that direction, gesturing for Russa to lead on. She kept her gaze on the road, attempting as best she could to keep her posture from revealing she’d spotted however or whatever might be lurking there. “Come Russa, enough chasing mice,” she called, perhaps a bit louder than usual, ensured her voice would carry over the field.

The lurkers moved when she was within ten to fifteen feet of their hiding place, springing from the grass and leveling pistols in her direction. Both were garbed as highwaymen tended to be, in tough leathers and concealing colors, browns and dull reds and greens, the hoods of their cloaks pulled up to shroud their faces despite the relative warmth of the spring afternoon. Russa snarled and bared her fangs at the newcomers, but Ferra merely stopped and stepped slightly back, then leaned forward on her cane.

“Alright missy, you know the routine,” the first, the gangly taller fellow to her left, barked, wagging his gun between her and her bag. “Empty the pouch and step back, and we all walk outta here without any holes.”

“Same goes fer the mutt,” the other, a shorter fellow with significantly more musculature, chimed in. Ferra saw he had a scabbard at his belt holding a longsword, whereas the taller fellow seemed unarmed outside his pistol. She filed the information away for later.

“Seems somewhat unfair,” she mused aloud, as she patted her leg a few times to signal Russa to return to her heel, “for two healthy young men such as yourselves to gang up on a crippled traveler.”

“Life ain’t fair, m’lady,” the taller replied, gesturing again with his pistol. “‘Course, not opposed to helpin’ out the infirm. Just leave the bag if you have problems bendin’ down to turn ‘er over, and we’ll just take the whole shebang and save you the trouble.”

“Well, when you offer so generously, how can I object?” She began gingerly stepping backwards, going as slowly and evenly as possible so as to not force her manacles to assist, wanting to keep the presence of such unusual mechanisms a secret. She wasn’t so much worried they’d strip the metal from her legs if they knew of them, these two didn’t seem quite that desperate. But it would differentiate greatly between some mere traveler and a skilled inventor, and that might tip the pair off that something was afoot. She was sore and more tired than necessary for the effort, but if the ruse worked it would be worth it for their expressions alone. Ferra tapped the ground with her cane as she went, and Russa retreated with visible reluctance, switching with uncanny ease between whimpering and pouting at her escort and snarling at the interlopers.

The taller brigand gestured again with his gun, sending his partner forward to inspect and retrieve their ill-gotten gain. Ferra waited until the highwayman had begun squatting to pick up the bag, then murmured her request beneath her breath. Levers and pistons inside the belly of the mechanism suddenly surged to life, propelling the top of the motorized cart rapidly upward on coiled springs and swiveling steel arms. The sudden change in height caught the bandit just below the jaw with the iron base, jerking his head upwards and back and forcing him to stumble away a few steps. The impact was solid enough to initiate reflex and when the man’s hands flew to cradle his injured mouth, his pistol slipped from his grip.

“Petitioner!” the other bandit snarled, swiveling his gun back toward her. Ferra rattled off another request, this time turning her supplications to metal, drawing her own pistol from her cane as she did. The bandit’s gun contorted, the barrel twisting in on itself and knotting in inconvenient shapes. Alarmed, he too discarded his weapon in the dirt, and after some slight scrambling replaced it with a quartet of daggers retrieved from somewhere up his sleeves.

Ferra cursed slightly at underestimating the bandit’s deceptive nature, but held her own pistol steady regardless. The other thug was back on his feet, but hadn’t yet moved to retrieve his discarded weapon or draw his blade, apparently waiting to see the outcome of the current standoff before stepping back into the fray. “Well well well,” the first said with a chuckle, “seems we got us here a rare breed. Don’t much see petitioners who like workin’ with machines.” The grin fell from his face and one of the knives wagged slightly as he adjusted his grip. “Drop th’ pistol, girly. You got one shot out of that there popgun and I got four o’ me straightblades. Odds be a bit in my favor. Last chance t’ get outta this without losin’ some blood.”

“I very much doubt it,” she retorted, unwavering.

“Thinkin’ you’re that good a shot, hopalong?” The grin returned, and the man’s fingers flexed slightly, grinding the knives together.

“Whether or not I am is irrelevant,” Ferra stated with a shrug. “You forgot something.” The bandit raised an eyebrow, but his partner filled in the gap before he caught the meaning on his own.

“Th’ dog, Serge! Th’ dog!”

Russa pounced on Serge from the grass, throwing the brigand to the ground and sending the daggers scattering. Ferra shouted another petition to the metal, magnetizing the air around herself and sending the blades flying in her direction; three skidded harmlessly along the ground, not quite strongly enough pulled by the minor evocation to gain the altitude or speed they’d need to be a threat, but one hadn’t quite hit the ground yet and slashed against Ferra’s left leg through her dress before falling harmlessly to the side. She winced at the minor wound but could ignore the pain for now. Serge was unarmed, and Russa would keep him occupied long enough for....

“Stick ‘em up!” That would be the shorter fellow, who had now retrieved his pistol and was pointing it at her once again. Ferra raised her hands obediently, but at the same time muttered another inquiry. Nothing happened at first, but the simple act was enough to goad the man into pulling the trigger. There was a dull clunk, a puff of acrid black smoke, and a mechanical hiss from the pistol in response, but no bullet.

“Oh dear,” Ferra replied with mock remorse, “it appears your fire isn’t feeling very cooperative today.”

“Shoot her, Herman!” Serge roared, shoving Russa aside and scrambling back up to his hands and knees in just barely enough time to block the dog from pouncing back at his throat. “Just rottin’ shoot her - ACK!” Russa snarled and latched onto his hand, eliciting a yelp from Serge followed by a growl as he wriggled his limb free of the glove held clenched in her jaws. Russa shook it violently then tossed it aside into the road before resuming the assault, keeping herself between him and Ferra and thereby preventing him from retrieving his knives.

Herman, for what it was worth, gave it an earnest try. His only reward was that repeated dull clicking. “Powder’s dead, Serge!” he moaned defeatedly, turning to look at his partner and his canine opponent while leaving the weapon leveled at his target.

Ferra grinned again. “My apologies. Let me fix that for you.” She whispered another suggestion, and moments later the barrel and hammer of the pistol began to glow with sudden heat. Herman screamed and not only dropped the weapon but kicked it away into the grass, then began blowing feverishly on his scorched palms. A bit of smoke rolled up from the side of the causeway, alerting Ferra to quickly douse the request to burn before the gun exploded or the field was otherwise inadvertently set aflame. Philip and his neighbors would have her head on a pike for that, and she wasn’t quite persuasive enough with fire to put down an inferno once it had begun to blaze.

A high-pitched yelp drew Ferra’s attention back to the headman. Russa had been tossed bodily aside, and now lay on the far side of the street nursing a twisted leg; it didn’t look broken or torn to her, from this distance at least, but was probably painfully sprained. The dog would be of limited assistance until she was tended. Meanwhile Serge was on the march again, tromping heavily toward her and looking eager to do with his hands what his knives and gun had failed to accomplish. Ferra turned her posture to face him and leveled her own pistol back down. “You hurt my friend’s hound,” she observed, almost casually. “I doubt he’ll take it kindly. Then again, you are lurking on his road, so it’s not as if you’ve much care.”

“You talk too much,” Serge growled, not stopping his advance.

Ferra shrugged. “Perhaps I do. Petitioner, remember?” She thumbed back the hammer and uttered another supplication, steading her aim.

The brigand at last did stop, as if he hadn’t considered the raised gun a threat until it was made obvious his quarry would shoot if pressed. He exchanged a glance with his partner, who was standing a few yards further back with his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“I advise you not to do that,” she said, nodding in Herman’s direction. “It will be much simpler for all involved if you just cooperate.” A smirk tugged at her lips, then Ferra whistled for her bag, which came rolling obediently up to her side. “It’s quite nice of you to be so willing to aid the infirm. Take this,” she reached down with her free hand and after a short rustle of loose objects retrieved a thick wire cord with interlocking fasteners at either end, “and bind his hands behind his back.” She tossed the tether to Herman, who caught it despite the incredulous look on his face, and after a few moments moved to obey, quickly binding his partner as requested. Ferra pulled out a second and moved to approach the pair, pistol still drawn, once he was done. “Now turn about and let me do the same. Then once I’m done, both of you on your knees, backs to one another. Cooperate nicely and we all walk out of here without any holes.” With the aid of her petitions Ferra was easily capable of manipulating the object one-handed, and once the brigands were in position she was able to interlock the two bindings with little difficulty.

Once her would-be assailants were properly bound, she returned her pistol to its place in her cane with a nod of satisfaction and finally turned to deal properly with Russa. The ranch hound was back on her feet, though she was visibly limping on the injured forepaw. “How badly did he mangle you?” the inventor muttered as she knelt to examine the wounded animal; as suspected the injury was nothing major, likely a pulled muscle or sprain, and a short journey with no further excitement would hopefully limber up the area and soothe some of the pain.

She glanced back once at the inconveniently-bound robbers and made a mental note to have them dealt with once she reached town, then turned her gaze back to the road ahead, continuing on her path as if never having been interrupted, Russa at one heel and her satchel at the other.

---------

Her timing was fortunate, at least. It was late enough in the afternoon that most of the midday crowd had come and gone, but early enough that evening travelers had not yet begun to congregate. Making the journey in the hours it took her both ways was bad enough; dealing with the crowd of the busy hours would have been all the more irritating and yet further delay. She was pressed enough for time as it was.

The first thing, however, was to notify Philip. Outside the local militia, he was the closest thing that road had to an official enforcer, and he liked to keep up to date on bandit activity. So before moving on to deal with the purpose of her visit, Ferra took a detour first to the militia barracks to pass on the news of her assault and fill out all the appropriate paperwork. That complete she moved on to the telegraphist on the main trade road just inside the town’s border and sent a quick message back to her host.

PHILIP
HIGHWAYMEN ON ROAD APPR THIRTY MIN BY HORSE FROM RANCH STOP DISARMED AND BOUND STOP MILITIA EN ROUTE STOP RECOMMEND MORE FREQUENT VERMIN EXTERMINATION IN FUTURE STOP
FERRA G

She probably could have been more concise, if at the expense of specification, but precision was something she held in higher importance than cost. It wasn’t as if she was particularly short of coin, either. While not nearly as well off as Philip or even Avner, she had her fair share of spare wealth stored away for things like this.

At the last, that necessary sidetrack finished, Ferra resumed her steady trek down the streets of Ora Lunata’s markets, hugging the right side of the thoroughfare with Russa a few steps ahead. Horses trotted at odd intervals down the center of the lane and passing pedestrians stepped aside or darted down branching roads to reach their destinations or avoid the oncoming traffic. In a mere couple of hours the throng would easily double or triple in population - factory workers being let off their shifts, farmers and ranchers finished with their daytime duties and doing their shopping at dusk when land work was impractical, merchants on their evening or dinner leaves petitioning their fellows who saved their breaks for later or used them up earlier in the day.

She paused in front of the inn and tavern, one of the few reliably unchanging landmarks in the marketplace, and made a quick scan of the area to help her retrieve her bearings. The street’s arrangement was different on a daily basis, mostly due to the seafaring traffic, and it always took Ferra a little while to reorient herself and discern her destination each time she made the trip. She had to admit a slight envy of Iris and her uncanny ability to go from utterly lost to immediately on track with no visible material or petitioned aid.

A soft scraping sound behind her roused Ferra from her thoughts. Russa was quicker on her feet, and padded around her to get a better view of the approaching stranger. When Ferra had at last managed to turn, she was greeted by the plump smiling face of Dora Booker, co-owner of the inn along with her husband Aaron, sweeping the deck of her establishment clean in the cool spring afternoon. “Good day to you, Miss Ferra. Don’t see you around these streets all too often.”

“Not the easiest journey to make in my shoes, ma’am,” Ferra replied nonchalantly, but she did offer the innkeeper a polite bow at the waist.

Dora nodded, more studious than sympathetic, and rotated the broom in her hand to dust out between the larger gaps in some of the boards. “What brings you into town then? Out shopping or just visiting for once?” She paused to scratch Russa, who had approached and began sniffing curiously at the fringes of her dress.

“Supplies,” the inventor said. “Parts specifically. Out of a few small necessities for my latest project.”

“Ah.” Dora probably couldn’t tell a grinder gear from a chain sprocket, but she knew her clientele, and many of them were factory men and women. “Heading to Gerry’s then.”

“If I can find it,” Ferra grumbled.

Dora laughed as she set the broom aside, her work completed for the moment. “She’s in the same place she always is. Honestly dear, it can’t be that difficult to navigate a town as small as Ora. You’ve been to the capital, haven’t you?”

“The capital has maps,” she contested, “and did not rearrange the streets every morn with new carts and stands.”

“Such is life in a port,” Dora replied, smiling and raising her arms in a defeated shrug. “She probably won’t be closing up for another couple of hours. Unless you’re planning on staying the evening? I can set you up a room.”

Ferra shook her head. “Kind of you, but I need to return to the ranch by sunset at the latest. I surely hope they’re not closing their doors before then.”

“Nay, never. Too many factory folk who need her supplies and she needs their business.” She tapped on her chin thoughtfully then gestured to the southeast. “Just follow the straight lane until you get to a big cart across the road. I think it’s full of flowers and pottery today, though they may have sold most of it since I went down that way this morn. Turn left, then right when you reach the next thoroughfare. From there you should be able to see and smell the Smith’s, and from there you can’t miss it.”

Ferra nodded, plotting down her course in an orderly mental checklist as Dora laid out each waypoint. As long as the market hadn’t rearranged itself in the past eight or so hours - not too unlikely, she mused, somehow managing not to groan aloud - it should be relatively simple to make her way to the forge. She could stand to step in and speak to Terrence while she was there. After she got what she needed from the trade depot, though. She’d have to pass back on her return trip regardless. Ferra gave a polite nod of thanks to Dora and set off on the indicated path.

Thankfully, the route was straightforward and thus far unaltered from Dora’s instructions. The massive wagon still blockaded three-quarters of the main road with its bulk, utterly packed with an immense variety of hand-sculpted and oven-fired pottery most of which was further filled with packed soil and potted flowers of all shapes and colors. Ferra saw only one of the Potters, neither of whose names she could recall, but spared the man only a polite nod as he glanced in her direction as if expecting another inquiring customer. Instead she turned immediately to the road branching leftward, and from this vantage point Ferra could easily spot the next market road, from whence a right turn would swiftly lead her to the Smith’s and just beyond to her destination.

She spared the various carts and stalls she passed a momentary glance, just long enough to gauge their contents and the quality of the goods, in addition to whether or not they would be of any use to her. The majority were typical of Ora’s still mostly rural community: early-growing small vegetables that sprung up immediately after the last frost abated, fresh flowers, home-baked breads and small desserts, young cattle, pups or kittens from housepets or local strays who had late winter litters, and any sort of easily-made handcrafted tool, trinket, or trapping. Plus of course all the various wares that came in from port, which could be anything from fresh fish to silks from Debar depending on which ships were in. Very little of it interested the inventor; the one exception was a knit scarf from a tradesman of the north, who was doing good business despite it being too late in the year for scarves to be of much use in Ora Lunata. Ferra’s gaze lingered on a sash decorated with a vibrant rendition of a starry midnight sky, and it was several moments before she pulled her gaze away and resumed her trek without purchasing anything. Russa seemed more interested in the man’s boots, Ferra theorized because they probably still smelled of fish.

The smell of ash and hot metal was always strong around Smith’s place, but for Ferra the scent was welcome and almost pleasant, reminding her of the scents of her first apprenticeship, working under a metalforger and fire petitioner who worked art simultaneously magical and mundane at the anvil. She still intended to stop in and speak with Terrence, and Ivy his wife if she happened to be present, on her way back provided she had the time. He sometimes provided Ferra with spare scrap if he had any he couldn’t otherwise make use of, and even if not it was the chance to talk shop with someone who at least had an inkling of what her field was like. Other than Nicholas her options for such were few here, as most of the factory workers were less interested in the “how” and “why” of their jobs and more the “when”, “where”, and “how much am I being paid”.

For the time being however she continued past, turning right as directed and spotting Gerry’s Corner less than a hundred yards ahead. Like the rest of the market the traffic was minute, but Gerry’s was - as almost always - still populated by enough browsers and buyers that getting through to the merchant herself without being knocked over or shoved aside would be a challenge of itself for the most hardy of men. She made a point of never coming after early evening or during the midday rush, when there would barely be enough standing room between the racks and tripods to form a line to the safe.

Ferra stopped at the tradepost’s porch and turned so she was facing her hound and her satchel at the same time. “No running off,” she instructed sternly. “Stay.” Russa obediently retreated a pace or two then spun in place before lying on the porch in a position that allowed her to soak up the sun without getting too warm. The machine merely buzzed and clicked, locking mechanisms around the wheels and inside the bag itself setting into place to prevent theft while its owner was unawares. Theoretically someone could pick it up and run off with it, as the highwaymen had threatened, but the machine itself was not light; nevertheless, Ferra had for some time considered constructing a hook, hitch, grapple, or anchor of some sort to its underside to fasten it in place when she had to leave it unobserved like this.

Gerry’s Corner was, as predicted, busy as it could be at this time of day. Ferra counted no less than seven heads bobbing amidst the various shelves, and she was certain at least two were women who probably had their children along. Given a fair estimate of three or four that were hidden from view, that put the total probable population at around fifteen, herself included. Thankfully, the main path between the counter and the door was mostly clear, and Gerry offered a friendly wave as her latest customer arrived.

Geraldine Trader was just shy of forty and had the tanned skin, wavy dark hair, twinkling eyes, and plump build of an islander. She had come to Ora Lunata about twelve years prior after separating from her husband (of whom she declined to give details) and had brought with her two daughters and a keen mind for mercantile. Whereas Ora had plenty of merchants willing to create and sell their own specific wares, it hadn’t at the time had a general store or trade depot, and Gerry had seen the opportunity to claim her niche before anyone else. Within a few years she had picked up the spare trade from most merchants, taking discarded or undesired wares that hadn’t sold well often for almost nothing, sometimes refurbishing them, and always selling them for a reduced price. The quality was never as good as buying directly from the creator or collector, but Gerry had an eye for fixing up minor flaws, and even then lower quality was fine with some people if the price was right. It was that kind of enterprising mindset Ferra appreciated, and it was in hopes of finding a deal that she’d come in the first place. That, and because when it came to raw spare parts there wasn’t anyone else in Ora who sold them without having to make them first.

“Your lucky day, Miss Gaiuslass,” Gerry said brightly, turning to a rack of hanging objects on the wall behind her and retrieving an interestingly-carved wooden cane. “Your walking stick is getting a bit worn. Might be time to look at getting a new one, aye?”

Ferra chuckled softly and shook her head. “Metal only for me dear, I’m no florist.”

“Ah aye aye, forgot all about the petitioning. Of course, of course.” She returned the cane to its hooks on the wall then turned back to her customer. “Well then, what can I do for you today? Or are you just browsing before the evening tide comes in?”

“I was hoping you might have a few spare parts I need.” Ferra withdrew the schematics from her vest pocket and unfolded them on the counter, then pointed out a few components to the merchant. “These ones here, here, here, and all these here specifically.”

Gerry studied the sheet carefully, scratching her head with one hand and tracing the outlines of the requisite parts with the other. “Might be, let me see. Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” She relinquished the blueprint to the merchant, who scooped it up and disappeared into a door behind the counter. Mechanical parts were often small, easily dropped and lost, and even more easily stolen, and while their use was rather limited one could always melt them down to their component metals and sell them as scrap. So they were kept behind the counter, where they could be better watched and kept in proper order and volume. It was an efficient system and Ferra very much approved; things like this were reasons why Ferra trusted the beaming entrepreneur more than most with her schematics.

“A-hah!” came an echoing shout after about five minutes’ wait, pulling Ferra back out of her reverie. Gerry was returning arms loaded with small boxes and her papers in hand. “Again your lucky day, if due to a bit of poor fortune on the part of others. Factory fellows had one of their bellows burst. Wired in to the capital for a replacement, but no need for the parts from the old one they say. So the bellows itself gets thrown out with the rubbish, no good for anything but burning with a hole in it the size of a man’s fist. But all the bolts and gears that hold it together? Still good for bolting and winding. So they sell the lot to me, and now I sell to you. How about that, aye?”

Ferra looked the contents of the boxes over with a studious eye, quickly discarding the three-quarters of the lot too large for her purposes; these Gerry snatched back up and returned to the storage closet, leaving her customer to examine the rest in greater detail then returning about a minute later. As hoped all the requisite pieces were here, and in more than sufficient quantities. Ferra debated momentarily whether or not to take simply what she had come for, then discarded the idea. Running low on her supplies had been the catalyst for this entire visit, and as much as she might enjoy the chance to talk with Gerry or Terrence the trip was not one she could make on a regular basis. “I’ll take the lot of it. How much?” The shopkeeper dug out a bundle of loose papers covered in notations and began reading off amounts, to which Ferra retrieved and laid down the appropriate coinage in return.

Gerry took the money with a nod and smile and turned back over the schematics. “What’d you use for the outside?”

“Brass, mostly, all around. Getting brass scrap is simple and a small amount did plenty at this size. The designs are in polished glass.”

Gerry whistled. “That’d look pretty fine, especially on a sunny day.”

Ferra nodded, managing a faded echo of the merchant’s smile. “That’s the idea.”

---------

“Halt right there. Yer money or yer life.”

Ferra sighed. The day had been going so well, minus the slight distraction of the first highwaymen. She had gotten what she needed from town, taken some time to speak with Terrence Smith and arrange for the transport of the next batch of scrap, and even gotten some in a small basket she’d had tied off to her satchel-cart for the journey back. When she’d heard the stamping of hoofbeats and the rumble of wagon wheels on the road behind her she had dutifully moved off to the side, ushering Russa alongside her, to allow the traveler to pass. Then the approach had slowed to a stop just behind, followed by the voice. Though gruff - possibly deliberately so - and obscured by something, perhaps a mask or bandana, it was undoubtedly feminine.

“Really, I’m quite not in the mood,” she replied exasperatedly, though she raised her arms dutifully. “I’ve already been held at robber’s point once today and had to deal with them soundly, and I am quite anxious to be home before the sun fully sets. It’s not a short trip by foot you know. My patience is worn quite thin already. Perhaps you should take this opportunity to move on and pick another target elsewhere or perhaps rethink your occupation completely lest I have to revoke your weapons of their right to existence.” She paused, somewhat perplexed that the brigand had let her talk so long without interruption.

There was a dull thud, followed by a girlish giggle. “Well stars Ferra, if I’d known I’d have given you a lift.” The voice was no longer obscured, by obstruction or intent, and Iris’s mirthful tone unmistakable. Ferra dropped her arms and turned, seeing the redheaded vagabond seated atop a ramshackle cart she’d acquired from skies-know-where, pulled by one of Philip’s old grey workhorses and transporting a pair of barrels in the rear. She’d just lowered her cloak, suggesting it had been pulled up over her face for the purpose of the act. “Surely wouldn’t have tried that particular joke, that’s for sure.”

“The sentiment is appreciated,” the inventor replied, waving a hand dismissively. “However, I will take that offer of transport, if it’s still on the table.” As much as her pride hated to admit it, she was well worn and the ride home was all the more attractive an offer for it. “Though I’ll need to stop off at my cottage and finish up a little task before we head to the ranch house.”

“Sure thing,” Iris replied as she hopped down. A lever beneath the cart’s seat lowered a series of steps, allowing Ferra to board mostly unassisted; Russa simply hopped into the back with the cargo without need of command. Iris took care of boarding the satchel and its companion, spilling much of the scrap in the process.

“Don’t lose too much of that,” Ferra chided.

“Didn’t lose any of it!” she replied brightly. “It’s all in the cart. Just in different places. I’ll pick it up when we get where we’re going.” She bounded over the barrels and back into the cart seat, snatching up the reins as she dropped into place and whipping the horse back to action.

The remainder of the journey was uneventful save the discussion between the passengers, which as always was mostly Iris talking and Ferra listening, occasionally interjecting comments when given a chance but otherwise content to remain silent. She did however make a point of getting in one question before being overrun. “What’s in the barrels, Iris?”

“One’s mead, the good stuff from overseas. The other’s something for the cows.”

“Which is which?”

“I dunno!” Iris giggled.

“Heavens preserve us.”

Less than an hour later they had arrived, passing Philip’s ranch house and winding up the narrower pasture road leading to Ferra’s little plot. If Sandy was present she was keeping herself well hidden with Iris present, and any new gifts had been removed from the ramp before their arrival. Russa had hopped off when they approached the house, leaving the two women to unload the purchases on their own. Ferra and the bag headed inside the little building, leaving Iris to clean up the spilled scrap alone while she worked.

Completing the project took only a matter of minutes, less than half an hour, once all the pieces were acquired and unpacked. By the time she finished Iris had completed her task as well and brought the little cart into the laboratory, and spent the rest of her time meandering about trying to find a place to put it. “Ooh. That’s pretty. Is that for tonight?”

“That would be the intent, yes,” Ferra said, placing the completed object inside its case then closing it and turning the latch. “I believe that’s everything. Shall we? We’re late as it is, I do hope they haven’t gone looking for us.”

“Especially since your dog came back alone,” Iris replied. She was grinning, but Ferra didn’t much see the humor. The pair reboarded the cart and turned back down the path, this time coming to a halt to the side of Philip’s home. In the early dusk, they could already see candles and lamplight glowing through the windows and the shadows of people moving about inside, and the low murmur of conversation joined the constant ambience of farmyard noise. Iris helped Ferra down then passed her the container and her cane, then bounded over to the door and rapped firmly on the frame several times.

It wasn’t Philip who answered but rather Avner, with a blank look on his face that managed a small smile at the sight of the pair. “Well then, looks like you ladies finally showed up. Didn’t get lost again, did you Iris?”

“Me, lost? Never. I just had to pick up a little stowaway.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Ferra, who merely rolled her eyes.

“Come on in,” he said with a dull chuckle, and stepped aside to hold the door open. Philip’s common room, rarely used by the rancher himself, had been left open for the presence of guests. Avner’s entire family was here, plus Nick and his pet lizard, as well as Philip himself and a few of the more veteran hands. Seated in the center was Lana, who despite the discomfort of being the focus of all this attention was smiling brightly and offered a small wave to the pair as they entered the room.

“‘Bout time you two showed up,” Philip drawled. “Iris, where’s my pickup?”

“Out in the cart.” She again jerked a hand over her shoulder, this time nearly hitting Ferra in the process. Two of the hands immediately moved to exit, and Iris was quick to claim one of the abandoned seats.

“Let Ferra sit,” he scolded, shaking his head. “You got a perfectly healthy pair o’ legs.”

“I’m quite fine,” Ferra said calmly. “Iris was kind enough to give me transport back so I’m not as worn as I would be otherwise.” She shrugged, then turned to Lana. “Well. This is your little celebration, and I’m told such things are traditional here, so....” She offered the wooden box with its brass hinges and bolt to the seated woman. “A gift for your lifedate, Lana.”

Lana, for her part, looked more perplexed than anything, but took the offering with a smile. “Thank you Ferra,” she replied quietly, turning the box over a few times.

“Don’t shake,” the inventor said quickly. “It’s quite fragile.”

Lana nodded, then found the bolt and turned it free; once unlocked the top swung easily open. Lana’s eyes widened as she spotted the contents. She reached in and pulled out a small construct of polished brass and glittering colored glass, hanging from a hook and ring and resting on a circular pedestal. The design resembled a perched robin, wings spread and beak open in song. “Ferra, this is beautiful. Where’d you find it?”

“She made it!” Iris cut in, grinning broadly over a half-empty mug. The two hands had returned moments earlier, and Iris had helped herself to the first of the mead.

Ferra nodded to Lana’s questioning glance. “I did, though the construction of the shell was a simple task for any metalsmith. Press the lever.” She gestured to a peg on the side of the pedestal, and Lana pushed on it as requested; at the same time, Ferra closed her eyes and whispered a single spell of her own. There was a soft click, followed by a dull buzz, then the bird began soft melodic notes in mimicry of a tiny piano.

“It plays music?” Nick asked, eyes widening slightly. Lana turned to give him a better look at the object as he moved back to her side.

Ferra nodded. “Just push the lever back and forth to silence it as needed. The spell should keep it playing so long as the lever is in place, without tiring until it begins to wear down. If so, I can always repair it.”

“You didn’t need to,” Lana muttered, though her smile hadn’t faded.

“Perhaps not,” the inventor replied, shrugging but also still smiling slightly. “But I chose to. And it seemed incomplete to just give you the shell. That would be like having a bird who cannot sing.”
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