Once upon a time, in a tale much like the ones you've heard before, there was a merchant, named Joseph. The widower had three sons, all with hair of gold.
His eldest son held eyes the color of coal. Tiberius tinkered with gears and steam engines, building boxes that could show the viewer images of fantastic things etched in glass that seemed to move.
Then there was his youngest son with eyes the color of the sea. Clint, from an early age, had been able to hit any target be it with a cross bow or a fancy steam powered rifle.
But his middle child, with eyes the color of the brightest sky, neither showed military prowess, though he was fit and strong, or hunger for technological knowledge, though he was no less capable than his brother of learning.
Steve preferred a pencil and pad of paper to weapons or gears. For the most part Joseph allowed him, even encouraged him, often bringing his son new and interesting things… from clockwork toys to rare flowers. And his son loved to draw what his father brought him from his many travels, as much as his mother Sarah had. Steve would run the household, looking after his youngest brother and ignore the teasing of his eldest, while his father was gone.
And so things went quite happily for the family until one day the air-ships carrying shipments of new goods went missing. Without the goods, Joseph had nothing to show for the money he and his partner had sunk into a project. The family was left nearly penniless, all their servants left.
Gone was the pocket money to buy the newest gadgets, or the hope of a commission into the military, and gone were the art lessons and new bobbles to draw.
Tiberius berated their father for not using steam powered air-ships, which he pointed out were far safer and faster. Clint, who had just turned sixteen, tried to make the best of his old crossbow and rifle, but often wound up in tears with bloody fingers from trying to fix them himself. Steve simply told his father he didn't need lessons and he could draw things he saw out of his window.
He would remove the splinters from Clint's fingers and bandage his hands, then take which ever piece was broken and barter in the village for the parts. He would then badger Tiberius until the eldest fixed it in exchange for Steve taking his chores.
What little money the family did still have, Joseph drank or Tiberius wasted on pleasures and gambling.
Therefore, it was with great delight that Steve brought his father the telegram that read one of the air-ships had been recovered.
Joseph was overjoyed, and prepared to go meet the ship. Before he left he asked each of his sons what they would want from town.
"Clothes of the newest fashion," Tiberius told his father.
Clint expectedly begged for: "A new crossbow."
Steve insisted there was nothing he wanted, but when pressed by his father told him: "I'd like a rose. I've been trying to draw one and I don't think I'm getting it quite right."
Joseph's trip had been a disappointing one. The report had been false and he was forced to return home empty handed.
Half-way home, a snow storm forced him to take refuge in a seemingly abandoned manor. Only soon he found the manor was not abandoned. A voice echoed and a metallic sound welcomed in him. He found a warm fire, hot food, and a dry warm bed.
The next morning he thanked his seemingly invisible host. All appeared well and Joseph made his way from the manor, finding his horse. He paused by the gate when a white rose, fresh and alive despite the snow, caught his eye. Thinking of Steve's request, he thought to make at least one of his children happy and plucked it.
"This is how you repay my kindness?" The voice sounded as though carried by the metal speaking tubes Tiberius had demonstrated to him once.
The metal gates swung closed in front of Joseph and his horse reared back, throwing him to the ground.
"By stealing from me?" A creature seemingly made of metal stepped into view accompanying the sound of metal against metal and creaking joints.
Joseph screamed as a metal hand grabbed him and he was dragged back into the manor.
"You should go Steven. It is your fault father is in trouble," Tiberius snorted.
Joseph shook his head. "No, I will not hear of any of you going despite what I promised that iron monster."
Steve smiled and patted his father's hand. "You made a deal, father, and I'll honor it. The family needs you more than me anyways. At least this way there is one less mouth to feed."
"Glad that's settled," Tiberius said. "Maybe the Iron Beast won't kill you -- you could show him how well you can draw an apple."
Steve gritted his teeth, ignoring his elder brother's laughter. "I'll pack my bag and leave tonight."
Joseph patted Steve's face. "So much like your mother," he sighed. "Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?"
"No, father," Steve told him firmly and headed into his room.
His youngest brother found him there and threw his arms around Steve. "You can't go!" he wailed.
"Clint," Steve sighed patting his back.
"No! The thing will eat you or do something horrible. I know it will. Let me come with you and I'll shoot it dead," Clint promised.
"You broke your rifle yesterday." Steve shook his head and detached his brother from him. "Clint, I need you to stay here and help look after things until I come back. Can you do that for me?"
Clint crossed his arms over his chest. "You won't come back."
Steve turned from packing his sketchpad and what were left of his pencils, and put his hands on Clint's shoulders. "I promise I'll come back by Christmas."
"That's months away, almost a year!" Clint protested.
In the end, Steve had to sneak away after his father and youngest brother had gone to sleep. Tiberius, in an odd moment of brotherly guilt, or not wanting to miss a last chance to mock, Steve accompanied him to the edge of the forest.
"Don't worry, brother!" Tiberius called as he rode away. "If you flutter your eye lashes maybe it'll mistake you for its bride!"
Steve sighed heavily, shouldered his pack and started into the forest towards the manor.
Steve looked at the large metal beast in front of him. It looked like it had been patched together from scraps of metal and it wore clothes like a man, just like his father had said. "I'm here to exchange my life for my father's."
The Iron Beast made a rumbling sound and glared down at him. "When your father said he stole the rose for his middle child I assumed it was a daughter. Not an almost grown son. What use did you have for a rose?"
"I wanted to draw one," Steve said softly. "My father meant no harm, sir. It was my fault for making such a selfish request."
The Iron Beast made a sound of metal on metal, and Steve shivered from the sound as well as the cold. It was starting to snow again. "A bargain is a bargain. Your father upheld his word -- he sent his middle child. So I suppose I have no choice but to keep mine," it said gruffly.
The metal creature started to move and Steve flinched. He closed his eyes and waited for death to come, but it didn't. When he opened his eyes, the Iron Beast was standing to one side leaving enough room for a man to pass by it into the house. "Sir, Iron Beast?"
"Do you wish to freeze to death out here?" it demanded.
"No! No, I do not wish it." Steve protested. His fingers already felt frost bitten through his thread-bare gloves.
"Then enter, before I decide to leave you out here!" The words were bellowed from deep inside the Iron Beast.
Steve quickly darted past the metal monster and into the dark interior of the manor.
The Iron Beast led him up the winding stairs of the manor to a room that was far grander than any room in his family's home. It was far different from instant death or the cold dungeon cell he had imagined would be his fate.
"This will be your room," the creature told him.
Now that Steve was closer he could see that the Beast's clothing looked as if they had been fine and fashionable once but were now patched together to fit the iron body. "Thank you, sir."
"Dinner will be at precisely seven. Do not be late." The Iron Beast started to move off when it paused, its joints creaking. Slowly it raised an arm, and Steve heard the sound of steam being released. "The clothing in the armoire,” it pointed. “Should fit you well enough. Change before dinner."
Steve had nothing left to do but watch his host and captor walk away with lumbering footsteps. Entering his room he placed his bag on the bed and looked around. There were at least three clocks all ticking away in time with each other. "At the very least," Steve told the dragon craved into the post of the bed. "I will not be late for dinner. But I wonder who keeps them all wound. The beast certainly can't."
The dragon did not answer.
Steve's first dinner at the manor was a bewildering affair.
He had found a fine set of clothes that fit him in the armoire, though it was several years out of fashion. Still Steve had liked the older fashions better than the tights and silly shoes his eldest brother favored.
Though he arrived at the table at exactly seven, the Iron Beast was nowhere to be seen. Instead, moments after he sat, a delicate looking girl made of bronze entered the room carrying a tray of food. As she grew closer he could hear the soft clicking and whirling of gears.
"Good evening," she greeted him placing the food down. "The Master sends his regrets but will be late for supper. He bids you to eat and enjoy." Her hair seemed to be made of thin copper wires like he'd seen in his brother's workshop. She had green glass for eyes, and her clothing seemed to be a part of her body.
The food did look delicious and Steve hadn't eaten since the day before. "Thank you," he told her. "My name is Steve, what should I call you?"
The girl gave a metallic sounding giggle. "You may call me Pepper." Her green glass eyes darted towards the door. "I'm glad you kept your father's promise, I was sure no one would come. It will do him good to have someone of flesh and blood in the manor again."
"My father gave his word," Steve told her. "And there are worst places to be and I'm sure I can find many things to draw and paint to pass the time."
She gave him a smile. "Maybe you will paint me one day? Its been so long since I've been able to see what I look like."
Before Steve could ask more, and he would dearly have loved to ask more, a bell rang high and sharp.
She smiled at him again. "I have to go now. I'll see you again. Breakfast is at seven sharp."
Steve finished his dinner alone, pondering what he'd learned.
For the next few days, Steve remained in his room, leaving only for dinner and breakfast. He worked on his drawings and tried to pretend he wasn't hiding. Which he wasn't, he just wasn't sure if he was allowed to leave his room other than for meals. His host had yet to make an appearance. He came to look forward to talking with Pepper each morning and night. The Iron Beast never once made an appearance.
On the fourth day, Steve arrived at seven sharp and once again, there was no sign of his host.
"He was in his workshop until the early hours," Pepper explained, when he inquired after the Iron Beast. "He sends his apologizes but he has been at work on one of his projects. And he also says to not feel obligated to remain in your room; you are not a prisoner here."
Steve disagreed but didn't want to upset the clockwork girl.
When she heard Steve planned to explore the manor she encouraged him to visit the library and the gardens. "But do not go into the cellar or the west wing of the manor," she warned him. "The Master would be very angry if you did."
She looked so anxious that Steve promised he would not venture into either place.
He spent the day exploring the gardens and the many empty rooms of the manor. He couldn't imagine why anyone would have so many rooms only to leave them empty.
As the sun set, there was crackle throughout the house and then the soft glow which had come from all the lamps the night before returned.
On the second floor, towards the east end of the manor, Steve made a wonderful discovery. The room was dusty and obviously hadn't been entered in years, but near the large windows was an easel. Against the wall sat a canvas, ready to be painted. Steve would have liked to explore more but one of the ever present clocks chimed the quarter hour.
He barely made it back to his room to change to be in the dining room at seven sharp.
To his surprise his host was at the end of the table. "Good evening, have you found my home entertaining?"
Steve fought to hide his annoyance. He'd hoped to tell Pepper of his discovery. She'd liked several of the sketches he'd done of her so far and with a proper easel he'd be able to paint her as she'd asked. "I have, sir. Thank you for allowing me to look around."
The Iron Beast tipped his head as if to nod but it looked more like a bow. Steve realized that his head had very limited movement. The beast's whole body seemed crude and ugly compared to the delicate beauty of Pepper.
Pepper arrived carrying a tray of food, serving first the Iron Beast, and then Steve.
"Anything in particular?" the Iron Beast asked.
Pepper gave him a small smile, and Steve realized with a start that the creature was trying to be sociable.
"Ah - -yes. I found what must have been an art studio just before dinner this evening," he said before taking a bite of food. It was delicious as always, but it was hard not to watch as the Iron Beast's food laden fork disappeared into his mouth slot.
"You are an artist?" the metallic voice sounded surprised. Had he forgotten why Steve's father had picked the rose? Or were such details not important to him?
Steve dipped his head slightly. "I wouldn't call myself an artist, sir, but yes I do draw and paint."
"Feel free to make use of the room then," the Iron Best told him. "Perhaps when you are more settled you will show me some of your work."
"Even my finest painting is nothing compared to the works I've seen gracing your wall," Steve protested.
A sound almost like laughter came from the creature. "I'll be the judge of that. Now tell me, what do you like best? Painting or drawing?"
Despite himself, Steve was drawn into a long conversation about different artistic techniques and was surprised to find his host so knowledgeable. Sometimes he could almost forget for a few moments that the 'man' he spoke with was a thing made of metal, with no real face - just slots where eyes and a mouth should be.
The clocks chimed midnight and the beast rose stopping their conversation. "I think that is enough for the night. We can speak more another time."
Steve nodded and rose as well. "Goodnight, sir."
The Iron Beast paused in the doorway. "Will you come and sleep in my bed with me?"
"No!" Steve yelped startled and shocked beyond words. Then his brain caught up to him and he clapped his hands over his mouth.
The Iron Beast left without a word.
Steve barely slept that night for fear of what punishment he might have for refusing to --just what had the Iron Beast been asking? Steve was hardly a girl and the creature was -- made of metal, so he couldn't have meant it as that -- and he flushed just to think about such a thing. He'd only kissed Sharon once at Christmas when they'd been caught under mistletoe. And his kisses with James couldn't count -- they'd been children at the time.
And the Iron Beast couldn't need the warmth of his body. Metal didn't feel cold, heat or pain.
Steve thought of Pepper's metal perfection and wondered if his host was a member of the forbidden sect of techno-mages. They'd been banished from the kingdom years ago, but perhaps his host had been among their ranks. Perhaps he'd lured those still of flesh and blood to his bed and turned them to clockwork ---
When he opened his eyes, it was morning.
At breakfast, his host was missing… though that wasn't an odd occurrence.
"He was in his workshop until the early hours," Pepper told him when he asked. "He works far too hard sometimes."
Steve frowned faintly. "Pepper, can I ask you a slightly personal question?"
She nodded, her copper hair swaying with the movement. "If it is within my power to answer."
"Were you human once or have you always been -- " he hesitated not sure of the polite way to describe her.
"Gears and metal?" she finished for him with a sad smile. "I was human once, yes. Lord Anthony did all he could to save my life so I cannot hate him for what I am."
"Who is Lord Anthony?" Steve asked.
The high-pitched bell rang. "I must go. Oh, the Master bade me to tell you to visit your art studio today."
After Steve finished his breakfast he did just that. It was something to do other than turn over in his mind who Lord Anthony could be. Certainly not the Iron Beast, Pepper only referred to him as 'the Master'. So lost in thought was Steve that it took him several moments to notice the change in the room.
Gone was the dust and all signs of disuse. The curtains were pulled back and all the wood was polished and clean. A wall cabinet sat open, which revealed all manner of art supplies, from oil paints to pastels.
Steve barely knew where to start.
That evening his host waited at the dining table again. If he was angry over Steve's refusal the night before he said nothing of it and instead inquired if the new studio was sufficiently supplied. Then he asked Steve about his siblings and the profession of his father.
Steve found it easier to pretend he was speaking with a normal man if he didn't look directly at the Iron Beast as they spoke, but the echoed metallic voice was hard to ignore. Still, before he knew it, the clock chimed midnight.
As he had the night before, the Iron Beast rose and walked to the door before asking: "Will you come and sleep in my bed with me?"
Steve couldn't help but flush. "I thank you for all your hospitality, sir, but no I will not sleep in your bed with you."
The Iron Beast left the room with only the sound of his creaking joints and the sound of steam.