(This story is part of a book I wrote, called Gunlaw. You can find it on free Wattpad.)
Mikeos danced away from the minotaur’s lazy swing. He ducked beneath a busboy’s arm, nearly taking out a tray of ales, and fetched up amid the tatter-robes of a hunska sex-woman.
“Not for you, boy,” she husked.
A quick struggle saw him clear of soft breasts and musk-laced velvet. He pressed on, through the throng, making for the bar.
A hand, huge as a chair, took him about the shoulders, lifting him from the floor.
“You looking to get ate?”
Mikeos dangled six inches from the wet snout of another minotaur, a clansman in bull hides sewn with iron plates.
“Hey Grum!” Mikeos grinned; he liked the big warrior, except when he got to drinking his whiskey by the bucket of course. Taurs make for roaring drunks, it’s the woodkin that get maudlin.
“You’ve come for the gunslinger,” Grum said. He didn’t have to raise his voice above the hubbub. He spoke so deep it just rumbled through a man.
He set the boy on his shoulder. From his perch, across a sea of heads, Mikeos could see the hearth and the tables set around it. The Frostral had yet to blow in earnest and the hearth lay cold, but the people who counted sat around the fireplace. No elbowing for space there.
Grum was half right. Mikeos had been looking for the gunslinger’s arrival every day for a week. Today, however, he’d actually been running from trouble. Even so, now he really was here to catch sight of the gunman.
“Which one is he?” Mikeos felt a twinge of disappointment. He should be able to tell. The fastest hand under gun-law should look like something. Something important.
“The dude in the black hat,” Grum said. He buried his snout in his tankard and seemed to inhale about a gallon of beer.
Mikeos could see him now. He had missed the man at first, a dark figure at the table to the left of the hearth, his back to the wall. Beside him the stairs, leading up to Miss Kitty’s room and the Kitty girls behind their doors along the long corridor.
“He doesn’t look so much.” Mikeos heard the whine in his voice and hated it.
Grum snorted out beer foam and grunted an aside to the girl with him. He had to lean over so far that Mikeos nearly lost his seat.
“Who’s that with him?” A child of six, maybe seven, had the seat to the gunslinger’s left, and a robed figure sat opposite, back facing Mikeos.
“Some hex-witch from Ansos.”
Grum shrugged Mikeos to the floor and ran a hand over his girl, a blonde from Kitty’s collection. Grum liked blondes. Mikeos hoped he wouldn’t break this one.
“What about the little girl?” Mikeos asked.
No reply. From knee height it’s hard to command a taur’s attention, especially when the competition is alcohol and women.
Mikeos fought a path toward the fireplace, squeezing through a tight knot of prospectors, burly men in hemp and cheap hats. They smelled worse than the dogmen by the bar. Something wet spilled down Mikeos’ neck. He hoped it was just beer.
He won free of the crush as the hex-witch rose from the gunslinger’s table. She had the bloodless beauty of her kind, and the crimson hex sliced across her forehead. Mikeos didn’t want to look at that. The symbol made him cold inside his bones, but it hooked his eyes.
“You should deal with us, gunman.” She watched Mikeos while speaking. “You can’t win this time. Not alone.”
And she was gone. The crowd opened for her, and shut behind.
The gunslinger sat with the child, his eyes flicking over Mikeos, just the once. His companion looked to be a girl, but with hair cut short like a street-boy. She studied Mikeos with open interest. At ten he was by far the closest to her age of any in the tavern.
Mikeos ignored the girl. He had come to see the gunslinger, Remos Jax. Legends didn’t blow into the Five-Oh-Seven every day, or even every decade, and Mikeos was damned if he’d let this one slip through the outpost without a look-see.
Close in, Remos Jax looked a more like a fast hand should. Mikeos had thought he might be a bit younger, but leather-skinned and flint-eyed would do. His gear was still a disappointment, but at least all that black-skin and mole-hide drew attention to the revolvers at his hips. Colt 45s. Silver handled seven-shooters. Mikeos knew it all from the ‘Oh-Five Herald. He had the newsprint folded into a neat square in his back pocket.
“How come you’re in here?” The little girl had gotten beside him somehow. “You’re just a kid.”
“I’m ten,” Mikeos said. “Besides, my mother—” He bit the words off and shot a quick glance up the stairs. “How old are you anyhow?”
The girl smiled. “Old enough.” She had strange eyes, pale, with a draw to them. “Why’re you here?”
Mikeos looked back at Remos. “Is it true he’s going to fight? They say the sect are sending a champion.”
“He always fights.” The girl smiled again. She turned back to the gunslinger. “Here, Remos! You’ve got an admirer. Aren’t you the hero of men!”
She didn’t sound like a kid. Mikeos looked down, feeling the blood rising in his cheeks. Before he could turn away, something cold seized him from behind, lifting him by the neck.
“Hello Mikey.” A dry voice hissed into his ear.
Shit. He’d forgotten about the corpser. He hadn’t thought it would follow him into the tavern. He stopped kicking and tried to think. The grip on his neck hurt like hell.
“Hi.” His flesh crawled under the corpser’s fingers. He wondered how quick the rot set in.
“I chased you halfway across the Oh-Seven, little boy. Did you think I was just going to stop?”
Around them the conversation had muted but the tavern still bubbled with chatter. It would take more than a corpser to put a damper on the evening.
“I’ve got the dust.” Mikeos tried to reach for the pouch under his shirt. His arms wouldn’t work. “You can have it back.”
“I’m going to need a little . . . interest on the loan, boy.” The corpser stank worse than the dogmen and prospectors both. Mikeos felt his stomach heave.
“Look, she just needs a bit more.”
“She can pay a bit more then,” the corpser said. “She can whore a bit more. Can’t she? Boy?”
Mikeos couldn’t answer. His lips felt numb. His mother would be upstairs. Working, or sleeping off the last of the dust. During the day she lay with whoever or whatever had the money and the inclination. By night the dust took her off to the deadlands and she’d lie with his father. At least that’s what she said. She saw his father in the dryland and they’d do the things they did back when Mikeos was just a babe. And every day she’d wake a little more grey, a little more thin.
“Put him down.” Grum’s deep rumble reached into his daze. Grum had been sweet on his mother once upon a time.
The corpser let him drop. He drew a long white knife from within his trench coat, the blade as narrow as a finger. Hush spread across the tavern fast as a gunshot.
“Go play with your human, Bull-boy.”
Grum frowned, his face rucking up into ridges and folds. The corpser might not be able to reach from one of his horn tips to the other, but it doesn’t pay to mess with dead-kind.
Mikeos managed to sit, sensation making a slow return to his limbs.
“Leave him be.” Grum opened his cape to reveal the axe at his side.
The corpser flung out his empty hand, quicker than any dead thing should move. A scatter of dust hit the taur’s snout.
“Eich.” The corpser spoke the death-rune as Grum reached for his axe. The taur fell, like a mountain falling, and the iron plates on his robe clashed when he hit the ground.
He didn’t move. No-one moved. Death-runes aren’t spoken lightly and the corpser had the room’s attention.
Grum’s girl screamed once into the silence, then shut her mouth.
“Now, Mikey, we can settle our account. A tongue or an eye will suffice. Both make good voodoo. Child blood is always sweet. You can keep the dust, your mother’s slate will be clear, and we’ll be even for the chase.”
Mikeos tried to scramble away but his legs were still uncoordinated and he got tangled in a chair. He’d never had a day go so spectacularly wrong so fast. The corpser bent toward him, the skin around its mouth cracking into a grin over yellow teeth. An animal horror filled him and he felt his bladder go as he howled.
“Don’t do that.” The little girl stepped between them.
“What?” The corpser straightened. “What are you?”
“I’m older than you, thing that was Elver Samms,” the girl said. “And I’m meaner than you. Better run now.”
And to Mikeos’ amazement, it did.
Mikeos scrambled up the stairs to his mother’s room. He crashed in, forgetting to listen first for a client. She lay under a heap of covers on the bed, alone and sprawled out in the death-sleep. A bar of dusty light from the gap in the drapes crossed her arms and face.
He went to the clothes chest and rummaged for his other pair of leggings. The wet pair he threw into a corner. The room stunk of sweat and old sex; a bit of piss wouldn’t make much difference.
“Mikey? That you?”
He jerked upright at her voice, still jumpy from the business downstairs.
“Yes, Ma.” Mikeos tied off the laces at the front and turned to the bed.
She watched him in a half daze, blinking, not lifting her head from the bed. “Is it night time?”
“Three past noon.”
“I . . . I dreamed about your father,” she said. “He told me you were in trouble.”
“No trouble, Ma.” He put his fingers to the back of his neck. The skin there felt dry and blistered.
Her eyes found sudden focus. “Did you get it?”
Mikeos sighed. “I got it.” He tossed her the little pouch. He wouldn’t tell her about Grum. She probably didn’t even remember him.
She sat up, cross-legged, and took the pouch from the bed. White fingers fumbled at the tie. “You’re a good boy, Mikey.” She didn’t look up from her work.
“I gotta go, Ma.” She looked so old, grey in the blonde, hair thin on her scalp. “The gunslinger’s in the bar.” He remembered her strong and laughing, a time when she could throw him in the air. And catch him. But that was . . . how long? Two years? Before Jim Bright put a bullet through his father. Before his Ma found her comfort in dead dreams and the dust that gave them.
“I gotta go.”
She didn’t hear him.
Mikeos came down the stairs one slow step at a time. Grum had been removed. The crowd was as packed as ever.
Take someone away and they don’t leave a hole, not in the Bullet and Rye. Not anywhere maybe.
The gunslinger sat where he had been before, the child with him. Mikeos looked away when she turned toward him. She left her table and met him at the bottom of the stairs. He tried to walk past.
“The clan took your friend away.”
“He wasn’t my friend.”
“He died for you,” she said. “They’ll put his skull up by the pillar. A warrior’s right.”
“He died because he was a bull-head. A stupid cow-brain that never backed down, ever.” He pressed his hands into his eyes, hard, and looked away from her.
“Maybe he knew when to back down. Maybe he just knew that this wasn’t the time to do it.”
Mikeos sniffed and watched the crowd for a moment. He turned to answer, but the girl had gone back to the table. All of a sudden he wanted to be out of the heat and the noise, out of it all. He dived into the crowd and fought a path toward the street doors.
The street lay empty save for a lone cart heaped with barrels, and a few prospectors straggling in, dust grey and trailing picks.
“Move it!” The carter lashed at his straining mule. It looked too small for the cart, and the cart looked too small for the load.
“Pesh!” Hemar sat with his back to the saloon wall and his legs stretched out across the boards of the raised sidewalk. “Man doesn’t know mules from mutton.”
The dogman had an empty whiskey bottle clutched protectively to his chest. A long line of slobber ran from his jowls down into the matted fur of his stomach.
“Hey, Hemar.” Mikeos had time for Hemar, when he wasn’t too drunk. Most of the dogmen were vicious and best avoided, but Hemar was OK.
“Heyah. I saw them pulling Grum out. Bad business, that.”
“Yeah.” Mikeos looked toward the pillar, towering over the roof of the Grand Hotel at the end of the street. It looked close, like you could hit it with a stone.
“Bad business. He was alright, Grum was.” Hemar gave out a little howl of misery that showed several dozen big yellow teeth in jagged array along pink gums. “A good taur. Free with a drink for an old friend. Always free with a drink.” He gave Mikeos a sideways look. “You’re not packing a bottle there are you, Mikey boy?”
Mikeos shook his head. “No.”
“Never mind.” Hemar slumped back against the wall. “Never mind.”
Mikeos stepped down into the street. “I’ll see you later, Hemar.”
The dogman leaned forward, resting on his knuckles. “Hey, wait up. Where you off to, little man?”
Mikeos nodded toward the pillar. “Guess I’ll see where they put him.”
“Hey, hey, that’s quite a walk. Couple of miles outta town. Be dark before you get back, Mikey.”
Mikeos shrugged. “I feel like a walk.”
Hemar sniffed the air. “Me too.” He growled to himself and rolled up to his feet. He looked to be just bone and gristle under all that lank and greasy hair. “Guess I could do with a stroll too.”
Mikeos shrugged, and they walked on together. He kept two steps ahead; Hemar smelled rank.
They walked in silence, past the Grand Hotel, past Gore’s Smithy, past the stockades and the lowing steers.
Hemar paused at Jonan’s Lodgings on the corner of West Way. “That’s where the trouble came from.” A yellowed claw picked out the window of the room where Parker Hale, the Oh-Seven’s much loved gunslinger, bled out three weeks earlier. “Heard she slit him from gut to gills with a letter-opener.”
Mikeos nodded. Sharra Leo did the cutting they said. A lover’s tiff taking on too sharp an edge. Rumour put Sharra on a southbound train, outpacing the law. That was rumour – ‘fact’ left the Oh-Seven without a gunslinger, an open town where anyone with the price of a ticket, or legs enough to arrive under their own steam, could show up to challenge for the slinger title.
Homesteads gave way to dusty scrub and grey shale. The dogman paused, sniffed the air with suspicion, and moved on.
“I never go to the pillar,” Hemar said.
Mikeos shrugged. “I’ve been. It’s big.”
“The pack talk about it,” Hemar said. “Out on the plains. We meet under the full moon, you know?”
Mikeos knew. How could you not know, with the howling rolling in off the plains every month?
The dogman looked over his shoulder, sniffing and sniffing again, harder. “There’s a hundred of them pillars, a thousand. You know that?”
Mikeos’ mother used to say the pillars were there before man, before the taur and hunska, before dogmen or corpsers. Even before the woodkin. She said they met in the middle of the world, made by whoever shaped the lands and set the gun-law above all magics.
“You know what else?”
“What?” Mikeos asked.
“Remos Jax is going to meet the sect’s champion there, tomorrow noon.”
“They’re going to have their show-down by the pillar?” Mikeos remember the gunslinger’s eyes. Flint. He almost felt sorry for the sect man.
Hemar woofed in agreement. Adding, “He’s going to lose.”
“Jax? No way.” Mikeos shook his head.
“No-one’s ever beaten Jax,” Mikeos said.
“D’uh!” Hemar snorted. “That’s why he’s not dead.”
The dogman ran his tongue over his teeth. “This sect champion is something new. Locust-born. He’s not flesh and blood. It’s all chitin and acid-reflex. It draws its gun and you hear the crack, like a whip breaking the air. A man can’t measure against that. You didn’t wonder why only Jax showed up to the challenge?”
“So why would he go, if he can’t win?” Mikeos asked.
“Why did I fight the pack leader ten moons back? Why does a taur make a stand? Sometimes, right or wrong, you know it’s time.”
The sun hovered above the horizon as they drew up to the first of the bone yards. The last light reached them across the wild plains, rippled by the dust-laden wind. It shimmered crimson across acres of clean-picked bones. The black finger of the Oh-Seven pillar loomed ahead, huge though still a quarter mile off, its shadow reaching to the east.
Mikeos stopped by the picket fence and looked out over the confusion of bleached skulls, ribs reaching like claws, leg bones half covered by wind-blown sand.
“Hunskas. They just leave them for the vultures.” Hemar panted and lolled his tongue. “They don’t care. A dogman can crack a bone or two, suck the marrow, the hunska don’t care.”
“If they don’t care, why do they bring them out here?” Mikeos asked. “It’s a long way to haul a body.”
Hemar licked his teeth. “Maybe they think the corpsers won’t come this near the pillar. Who knows with them? The hunska look like men, but they smell different.”
Mikeos looked up. The pillar stood black against a paling sky. “It’s just so damn big.”
“But it is,” Mikeos said. “It makes me feel . . . like nothing.”
“The world is big.” Hemar filched an arm bone from the hunska yard. “But you don’t see it all at once. The pillars, well they’re just there in front of you. A billion tons of stone piled up to make you feel small. To show you that the Old Ones could do anything.”
“And what they chose to do was leave?”
“My father left.”
“Everyone leaves in the end.” Hemar put the bone between his teeth and strained to crack it. “One way or the other.”
Mikeos looked away. Old corruption hung on the air, a sick sweet smell that turned his stomach. Back among the long shadows on the path to town he glimpsed something, something moving. Tumbleweed, probably.
The wind felt cold now. “Let’s keep going,” he said.
They found Grum’s skull as the very last of the sun’s rays skimmed the plains. The clan had worked fast. It sat on a flat rock less than two hundred yards from the base of the pillar. Dust clung to the damp white bone, but the polished horns were unsullied.
“They honoured him,” Hemar said.
The minotaurs framed their cemetery as a wedge, narrowing to a point that almost reached the pillar. Mikeos had thought to hunt for Grum in the wide expanse of the far end, but they had placed him close in, where the yard narrowed so that ten skull stones could span the wedge. Grum had been more important to his kind than Mikeos ever guessed.
“A corpser’s out there.” Hemar nodded back along their path. “Reckon I know which one, too. Been shadowing us a while.”
They turned and watched the path together. For a few minutes the Frostral wind made the only sound, whispering through the forest of horns. At last the corpser stepped into view, emerging from the shadow of a crypt.
The dogman made a soft growl in his throat. “Elver.”
She’d called it Elver Samms. The thing that had been Elver Sams. How long ago had that been, Mikeos wondered.
The corpser moved toward them as if wading through a deepening mire. Some said the pillars held a magic that kept corpsers from ever reaching them, and it seemed to be true. But Elver looked ready to try anyway.
“They knew he’d come for the skull,” Hemar said. “That’s why they put it so far in.”
Mikeos glanced over at Grum’s skull. He imagined Elver crouched over it, scraping and cutting. The corpsers took from the dead, particular parts to match their needs. What would he have taken from Grum?
“That dust your mother snorts – ever wonder what the corpsers make it from?” Hemar asked.
Mikeos shook his head. He didn’t want to know.
“At least whiskey is clean,” Hemar said.
Elver came closer, taking each step as if held in the jaws of a gale. Mikeos could see the hollows of his eyes now, the motley flesh of his cheeks, rectangles stitched in a dry patchwork, pale here, dark there.
“You owe me, boy.”
Mikeos could hear the strain in the corpser’s voice.
“You owe me.” Ten yards separated them. The corpser struggled to take another step and failed.
The same terror that had run through Mikeos at the bar raced in his veins again. He felt the ache of the corpser’s touch on his neck. Hemar couldn’t save him. A cur like Hemar couldn’t even save himself.
“I can pay you.” Mikeos sounded like a frightened child, even to himself. “If you give me time, I can pay.”
Elver shook his head. Dust fell from the grey straggles of his hair. “Bring me bull-boy’s skull.” He pointed at it. “Pass it to me, and we’ll be quits. I’ll even discount your next bag of the good stuff.”
Frayed lips scraped back over dead teeth, and Mikeos realized Elver was smiling.
Mikeos woke to a persistent grinding sound. He had a crick in his back and felt cold in every limb. It took several moments to get his bearings. Morning light reached him down a set of stone stairs. His feet rested against iron gates barring the way into a crypt.
“Will he still be waiting?” he asked.
The grinding noise stopped as Hemar abandoned his bone to consider the question.
Mikeos groaned and sat up. He felt like he’d been awake all night. Even out of the wind it was cold, and just as he fell asleep at last, it was morning.
“I should have given him the skull.”
“You did right, Mikey.” Hemar growled. “Besides, I didn’t believe him. He wanted more than that. He wouldn’t chase you into the Bullet, kill a bull taur, just for a dust-debt.”
Mikeos hugged himself, staring into the shadow. There had been a hunger about the corpser, something more than rage when he refused Samms the skull, refused to go near. “This is you and me now, boy,” the corpse had said. “Fuck the Walker and his master. I’m doing this for me.”
Mikeos didn’t know any Walker. Didn’t want to either. He went up the steps on his hands and knees, blinking at the dawn as he emerged. The crypt lay almost at the pillar’s base, one of hundreds, some elaborate, some plane, dozens of different styles, most housing some forgotten gunman from yesteryear.
“You’re sure he’s coming?” Mikeos asked.
“Yes.” The grinding started up again, back in the gloom down the steps.
When Remos Jax and that girl came, Mikeos and Hemar would have a chance to leave in safety. Even if the sect champion killed Jax, they could go back to town with the girl. She seemed to have some kind of hold over the corpser.
“Damned if I’d come to draw on someone if I knew they were faster than me,” Mikeos said.
He walked away from the crypt, hugging himself against the cold. At least the wind carried the bone yards’ stench away from him. He watched as a flock of ravens took flight from some high niche on the pillar.
Mikeos found a place by the path and waited, crouched, his face in his knees. It didn’t take long. The sun hadn’t yet cleared the horizon when two figures showed in the distance. One tall, one short.
Mikeos waited until they drew level.
“Hello,” he said.
Remos Jax looked at him. The girl kept her eyes on the pillar.
“Here for the showdown?” Remos asked. He had a gentle voice. Mellow.
Mikeos shrugged. “I guess.” He stood up.
“There’ll be a crowd by noon,” the girl said. “Everyone from town, and some from around and about.”
Mikeos frowned. He looked Remos up and down. Dust didn’t seem to find a hold on all that black like it should.
“So how fast are you, mister?” Mikeos asked.
Remos gave a slow smile. “Fast as I need to be.” And Mikeos found himself looking down the black eye of a Colt 45. There hadn’t been an in between. One moment the gun had sat in its holster on Remos’ hip. The next moment it had been an inch from Mikeos’ nose.
“Damn!” Mikeos shook his head. “Hemar says the sect slinger is faster’n you.”
Remos put the gun away. “Hemar might be right.”
“So why did you come?”
Remos started walking again. Mikeos fell in beside him and the girl followed. “Sometimes you have to make a stand.”
“You’re not worried you’ll get killed?” Mikeos cast a glance at the crypts.
Remos smiled again. “When you make the right stand, you’re bulletproof. Fast or slow, that bullet won’t harm you.”
Mikeos stopped walking. “You can’t be killed?” He felt betrayed. The gun-law could never allow such a thing.
“I didn’t say that,” Remos said. He holstered his gun with a spin. “When you pull a gun for the right reason, that reason remains right whether you live or die, that choice remains justified. That’s what a gunfighter is. He’s a set of ideas, he’s a list of things worth dying for, and the will to do just that if need be. That’s the gun-law, son.”
Mikeos almost rolled his eyes, Remos sounded like a preacher from the Church of the Three. He looked back at the girl. “Can we go back to town with you after? Me and my friend, Hemar?”
“Sure,” she said.
She took his hand and stopped walking. “Stay with me. Remos likes to see the ground where he’s going to fight, and wait there until it’s time.”
They watched the gunslinger go on ahead, tiny against the bulk of the pillar.
Mikeos remembered his hand and pulled it back from hers. “What’s your name?”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Th . . .” Mikeos broke off, then started again. “Thanks for, you know, back in the Bullet’.”
“Why did you do it?” he asked.
“I don’t like corpsers.” She grinned. “A thing should know when to die.”
“Remos had better hope the sect gunman does,” Mikeos said.
“What time is it?” Mikeos asked.
Hemar patted his legs. “Do I look like I own a pocket watch? I ain’t even got pockets.”
“It’s about eleven,” Lilly said.
The three of them sat atop a marble sepulchre with a good view of the ‘high street’, a strip of clear ground running between the tombs closest to the pillar. People from town packed the way, more coming by the minute, some in their holiday best, bonnets and morning suits.
“Looks like the sect man’s here.” Hemar pointed to a disturbance in the crowd back along the road to town.
Mikeos looked out across the hats and horns, and squinted. He couldn’t make it out.
“Yes,” Lilly said.
“Ever seen a sect man, Mikey?” Hemar asked.
“Saw one once when Ma took me to the fair in Oh-One.”
“Scary fellas,” Hemar said. “Armour all over, like those old taur knights, only it ain’t ironwork, it’s part of them, like a beetle. Sect been breeding them up, tryin’ to get something that can hold a gun.”
“I remember the eyes,” Mikeos said. “Bug eyes, like a fly. Hundreds of little windows.”
He could see the black gleam of the sect man now, the crowd surging around it. “What about you, Lilly?” he asked. “You seen a sect man?”
“I’ve seen sect worlds.” She said it softly.
“What?” Hemar seemed to notice her for the first time.
“The sect hold worlds by the score,” she said. “Only the gun-law keeps them from swarming this world too. Something to thank the Old Ones for.”
“And if Remos loses?” Hemar asked.
“The sect get their first toe-hold here. The sect fighter becomes the Five-Oh-Seven’s gunslinger and controls who comes in on the world rails. All of a sudden you’ll have sect swarming in, along with as many fighters as they can breed, and the trains will take them to any other pillar they like, long as they’ve got the fare.”
“Hey! There’s Remos!” Mikeos pointed to the far end of the high street.
Remos strode out into the center, a lone black figure. Somebody followed him from the crowd. A woman in a red cape, her skin too pale for the midday sun.
“That’s the hex-witch from the bar,” Mikeos said.
“Yes.” Lilly got up and started to climb down from the tomb. “She’s Jenna Crossard.”
“Hey, wait up, where’re you going?” Mikeos followed, scraping his chest while he slid down to the ground.
He tried to keep up as Lilly slipped between legs and twisted through any gap that presented itself. “Wait up!”
“She wants Remos to take her help,” Lilly said.
Mikeos dodged an elbow. Panting. “That’s good? If he wins it keeps the sect out.”
“If he cheats the gun-law won’t hold.”
“Why would she want that?”
“Jenna thinks her magic will fool the gun-law.”
“Will it?” Mikeos squeezed between two prospectors and suddenly he was out in the clear, stumbling into the high street.
“No,” Lilly shouted over her shoulder, and ran for Remos.
Mikeos ran after her, glancing back at the far end of the high street where the crowd had parted to let the sect man pass.
They reached Remos and the hex-witch together.
The hex-witch inclined her head. “Lilliana, you honour us.” Her voice cold.
“Let her finish, Lilly,” Remos said.
“When the sect champion prevails, it won’t negotiate like gunslingers do,” the witch said. “The gun-law won’t save us from war. With the sect the gun-law will only keep us from defending what’s ours.”
The witch kept her eyes on Remos. Mikeos could feel a cold energy flow from her. His teeth and sinuses ached as if he stood naked against the winter might of the Frostral. What would it be like standing dead centre of that stare?
“Besides,” the witch continued. “the gun-law will remain intact. I’ve walked the deep places, visited the foundations of the pillars where dark-wurms gnaw, and read the oldest runes. My hex will pass unseen. Only the sect man will feel it.”
“Sounds tempting.” Remos pursed his lips.
“Remos!” Lilly snapped.
“But, as we say in the trade, I’ll stick to my guns.” He patted his seven shooters.
“You’re a fool, Remos Jax.” The hex-witch seemed to go paler. Mikeos hadn’t thought that possible. “You’ll die here.”
The murmur of the crowd rose to a roar as the sect man advanced along the high street. He moved with quick steps, a flurry of them, then stopping, then another flurry, as if any kind of slow were anathema to him. His knees bent the wrong way on ball-joints that clicked as he went.
The fight master elect stepped out between the gunmen, an ancient woodkin in barkskin robes edged with dry moss.
“Clear the street. Clear the street.” The woodkin issued the order and the crowd took it up.
Mikeos and Lilly moved to the edge of the onlookers. The hex-witch hung at Remos’ side for a moment, still arguing.
“What will happen if Remos loses?” Mikeos had to shout into Lilly’s ear to be heard.
“The sect gunslinger will be the high-law in the Five-oh-Seven,” Lilly said. “He’ll have the right to evict folk, and to move sect in from off-world.”
Mikeos had a sudden vision of his mother, lying weak on her bed. He tried to imagine leading her across the dust plains with the Frostral icy howl all around them. They hadn’t the money for the train. And if they reached the Oh-Six, would they find a place there? And how long ‘til the sect followed?
Remos strode away from the hex-witch, one hand tugging down the brim of his hat. She stared at his back and then took her place among the onlookers. A space cleared around her.
“I hope he did agree,” Mikeos said. “I hope she does help him.”
A hush fell as the gunmen approached each other.
“If Remos Jax doesn’t hold to the gun-law then who else will?” Lilly said. “If his honour fails then the gun-law is broken. After centuries it would be broken.”
“You don’t think she can fool the law? Like she said she could?”
“She can’t,” Lilly said. She sounded sad.
The silence became complete. Remos and the sect man faced each other across fifty yards of dirt. The fight master bowed his head and backed toward the platform from where he would observe.
He found his place. It was time.
Mikeos wondered if it would be like the free fights he’d seen out on the fringes. Would they stare each other down for—
The shot rang out. He blinked. Neither gunman had seemed to move, but both now had their gun in hand, aimed at the other, smoking.
Mikeos’ heart pounded, but it felt like a slow beat, like the boxers’ count down.
Three. Remos half turned.
Four. And started to fall.
Five. A groan rose from the depths of the crowd.
Six. He crumpled in the dust. One hand out, reaching.
Seven. The groan became a roar.
Eight. And the sect man toppled.
They were close to the Oh-Seven before any of them spoke.
“What happens now?” Mikeos asked.
“Will the sect come?” Hemar asked. He growled. “The pack will fight them if they do.”
“The sect won’t come,” Lilly said. “Not yet at least. The gun-law is unbroken. The Old Ones’ protection remains. There will be no war.”
“But what happens now?” Mikeos asked. He shook away the memory of Remos being carried from the street, grey and limp. Nobody had wanted to touch the sect man, lying there in the dust at broken angles with black ichor leaking from a shattered head.
Lilly stopped and looked at him. “Another gunslinger will take Remos’ place, one will be appointed from the free-fighters or several will come and there will be challenges. The wild sect will breed more champions out in the dry lands but it will take them time and they will have to reach this place on foot. No journey is easy out in the empty spaces, nor safe. But in time the sect will return to make more challenges, as is their right under the gun-law. And life will carry on.”
Mikeos’ eyes prickled. “I’m sorry about Remos.” He wanted to say more but his voice wavered.
Lilly nodded. “I know.”
She reached into her skirts. “Remos asked me to give you something. He said you would know what to do with it. He said he knew your father, and thought you had his spirit.”
She pulled out a silver handled revolver, a seven shooter. Loaded. A shiver of recognition ran through him.
“How did you know the hex-witch couldn’t fool the Old Ones?” Mikeos asked. He took the gun – heavier than he had imagined. He knew this gun, twin to one his mother hung in the closet the day his father died. The one she didn’t hang high enough. “How did you know?”
“Call it a hunch,” she said.
“Come, Hemar.” A touch of command entered Lilly’s voice and the dogman followed her without a word.
“How old are you?” Mikeos called after her.
“Very.” She didn’t turn round.
Mikeos watched them go, until they vanished against the houses of the Oh-Seven. He looked at the people straggling back toward home. The column stretched from the pillar. Weary and silent men, dogmen, taurs, the occasional hunska woman. All the creatures under gun-law, making for home, or for a glass at the Bullet and Rye.
His gaze wandered out among the crags to the west, following the tumbleweed. The corpser waited out there. Grinding bones, fermenting ichors, making the death dust, and other poisons less subtle.
He thought of his mother, turned the gun over in his hand, and over again. A thing of gleaming precision. They say twins share a mind. The gun held no mark to set it apart from his father’s. It weighed the same in his grip. More heavy than it looked. He’d taken that gun, still a child, unknowing, wrapped in a hot grief, and turned it on the world. His mother had smith Hallum break it on his anvil and Mikeos had thought never to see another. The last link to his father gone, the final nail hammered into his coffin lid. And without that link, that tie, they’d slipped, Mikeos and his ma, slipped from their old life, slipped from each other.
Mikeos lifted the gun and sighted along it at the top of the pillar, dark against a bright sky. Remos had said . . . he’d said a lot of things. About when to use a gun, about when not to. Mikeos couldn’t properly remember the words. He remembered the man. A good man. He shrugged, pressed the gun into his belt, and set off.
Mikeos pushed into the room, trembling.
“Ma?” He found the oil lamp by the bed and pulled off its hood. A turn on the wick-twist and the light came up.
She lay curled around herself, like a dogman sleeping, one hand stretched out. The hand reminded him of Remos, sprawled after the sect man’s shot.
He pried her fingers open, one by one, as white as the witch’s. The dust pouch she had been gripping felt little more than half full.
The place stunk. Mikeos went to the window and hauled the sash up half a foot.
“Mikey?” Her voice sounded so weak.
He turned and she uncoiled, slow like an old man.
“Mikey? Are you alright? I dreamed of your father. He said you were in trouble.”
“No trouble, Ma. I’m fine.”
“You’ve been to Elver? Got me some more dust? Have you Mikey?”
“No Ma. Elver’s not mine to fight. Not today. He ain’t the real problem.”
She frowned. “Your father said—”
“That’s not my father. That’s not my father you speak to when you take this.” He held up the pouch.
“W-what’re you doing, Mikey?”
Mikeos held the pouch at window.
“I’m making a stand, Ma.” He shook the dust out into the sunlight. “I’m making the right stand.”