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Blue Bottle Belle And The Haunted Road

Legends of the lands
By: Merion (2013 Halloween Writing Contest Winner)

Once upon an age there was a magi of great skill in the art of healing, who traveled about the land with a horse and wagon. She was known as Blue Bottle Belle, for the stock of potions she stored in cobalt jars.
      One day, late in the harvest season, Belle was journeying to a remote village on the edge of the Silva Forest. She was just approaching a fork in the road when she came across an old woman walking, carrying many parcels and a bundle of twigs. Belle stopped to see if the elder needed any help.
      The woman told Belle that she and her village were fine, but that the village on the far side of the wood was not, for there was rumor of an early winter ague there. Belle said that she would go at once, but the old woman told her that the road between the two towns had been haunted for several years by dark and frightening Wilds, and that neither magi nor beast would set a foot upon it anymore.
      And indeed, when Belle tried to steer her wagon down the north-side road at the crossing, her usually placid cart horse balked and fussed and refused to go.
      So Belle declared that she would go herself. She wrapped up her potions and put them in a satchel, and pulled on her heaviest blue cloak against the autumn chill. She told the old woman to take the horse and wagon, and Belle would be back to town to collect them later.
      The woman was pleased to borrow the wagon, and gave Belle a gift of a parcel of food to take with her, but warned her not to take a single bite of it before she reached the other side of the forest. Belle thought this a strange request, but she agreed.
      And so Belle set off alone. The road had obviously not been used in a long time, and she had to watch for broken stones, and duck under tree limbs and hanging moss.
      Belle walked until night fell, but she was reluctant to stop for rest. It was All Hallow's Eve, dark and cold, and besides, there were people waiting for her help. She could make out the road by the light of the fulling moon, and so she kept on.
      She was just beginning to think that the stories of Wilds haunting the road had been quite exaggerated, when an enormous black wolf, with red glowing eyes and a flowing tail, leaped onto the road just a stone’s throw ahead of her.
      Belle was sure she would be set upon in an instant, but then she remembered the food in the satchel. She quickly rummaged inside, and found an apple, a loaf of bread, a carrot, and a leg of mutton.
      She seized the leg of mutton and flung it on the road in front of the gaunt wolf. The night was so quiet she could hear the creature sniffing curiously all along the fallen meat. Then it picked up the mutton in its great jaws, and sprang away into the forest.
      Relieved to still be alive, and wanting to be well out of the wolf's territory, Belle continued walking, hour after lonely hour. It was just past midnight when she looked up to find the road blocked by yet another fearsome-looking creature. It was a hare, but none like she’d ever seen before. It was black as pitch, and stood on its back feet to glare at her with blue glowing eyes. The moon shone through its paper-thin ears, and it had very large teeth.
      Again, Belle reached into the bundle, and this time found the carrot. She threw it on the road in front of the apparition. It, too, sniffed at the food, then picked the carrot up in its mouth, and bounded away into the trees.
      Belle hurried on. Things were quiet for a long while after that. When the sun finally began to lighten the sky before her, heralding the first day after All Hallow's Eve, Belle thought maybe that was all the forest had to throw at her in the way of frightening creatures. But just then something else clattered onto the road ahead.
      It was a goat, dark as night, with two sharp horns, and green glowing eyes. It pranced up and down, snorting mist in the cold morning air, looking like it might charge her at any moment. Belle could see in the daylight that it looked terribly thin. She quickly reached in the bag and found the loaf of bread, which she threw at the goat. The goat devoured the bread on the spot instead of carrying it away, and Belle was afraid that it might still come after her, but the creature was apparently satisfied with the offering, and clopped noisily on its way across the road, and disappeared into the trees.
      Hours passed, and by the time the sun reached noon in the sky, Belle was very tired and footsore. She was just considering lying down in the shade of a tree to get some rest, but before she could start looking for a good place to settle, a shadow fell upon her.
      This creature was bigger than any of the others had been. It was a great black horse, tall and lanky, with yellow glowing eyes, and mist rising from beneath its hooves.
      "I liked the mutton, and the carrot, and the bread," said the horse. "Is there any more food you have to offer me?"
      Now Belle realized, of course, that she was talking to a shape-shifter, and that it wasn’t a host of creatures haunting the road, it was just one.
      This one.
      Belle reached in for the apple and brought it out. But she didn’t throw it. Instead she held it out in her hand, where it gleamed brightly. "If you please," she began, as politely as she could with a shaking voice, "I gave you the mutton, and the carrot, and the bread. Would you trade me for the apple?"
      The horse snorted, and Belle thought it might trample her down then and there, but after a moment, it flicked an ear, and asked "What do you want in trade, audacious human?"
      "A ride to the end of the forest. It’s important I get to the village there as quickly as possible."
      "Such an arrangement can be made," the horse agreed.
      "And you can’t throw me off at the end of the ride!" she added quickly.
      "I won’t throw you off but staying on will be up to you," said the horse.
      Belle didn’t see that she had much choice - there were days of hard travel ahead of her by foot, and there might be people in the village who wouldn’t last the wait.
      She climbed onto a rock by the side of the road, and from there onto the wraith-like horse. She barely had time to grab its mane before it leaped forward, straight into a full gallop.
      After that Belle could only hold on for dear life. She’d never been on a horse so fast or so agile, and the forest passed by her in a blur of green and brown. All she could hear were hoof beats like a never-ending tumble of thunder, and the creature’s noisy breaths.
      The horse leaped over trees that had fallen in the road as if they were matchsticks, and jumped over rivers where the bridges had washed out as if they were trickles spilled from a tea cup. But Belle held on, and so a journey of days was clipped down to a matter of minutes. When the horse finally stopped at the edge of the forest, the roofs of a little village were visible in a valley below. Belle jumped to the ground, not sure for a moment if she’d survived the trip or not.
      She had twigs in her hair and her blue cloak was full of brambles and snags. But the horse had been true to its word, and not only was Belle unharmed, not so much as a single potion bottle had been broken. After she’d made sure all the jars were safe, she handed the apple to the expectant horse, and watched it crunch the fruit away until only the scent remained.
      "Do you have a name?" Belle asked.
      "I am a Mohrior, but I myself am nameless. Be careful if and when you name me, for I would not change shape again."
      "I’ll leave you nameless, then, and think of you as a Wild."
      "I’ve been wild for a very long time," the horse agreed. It sounded rather wistful.
      "You know," Belle said carefully, "there are shops in villages. Soon I will have more mutton, more carrots, more bread, and more apples."
      "And what is it you suggest for trade, bold magi?"
      "Perhaps we could travel together, and you might haunt this road no more."
      The horse considered this a while, and agreed in the end, and that is why today some people say Blue Bottle Belle traveled with a big black wolf, and some say she had a fey pitch hare for a companion, while others say a goat dark as night trailed after her wagon. But most of the legends tell of a great ebony horse, and to this day villagers that live near Silva leave a portion of their crops unharvested, and that is for the Mohrior.
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