ELF SAGA: PEACEMAKER [ amazon ]
Part One: Path of the Gunslinger
The elf in the white hat and long gray duster is waiting for me at the side of the trail, and in a way I’ve been waiting for him as well because it’s been a whole week since anyone’s tried to kill me. And that’s got to be a record.
“Hey you, stop right there. Yeah, I know you,” he calls out. “Winona Ocalla Marev, the girl with the golden gun. Lozen’s legacy, the hero of the Union. The great peacemaker.” The stranger squares off about thirty paces away, his eyes smoldering under the brim of his hat, his long coat tucked back behind his holster, his hand hanging by the butt of his pistol. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you. Everyone’s heard of you. And I know you’ve heard of me, too. Name’s Clay. Clay White Lance, fastest gun in the–”
I draw and fire. There’s a bang like a thunderclap and a flash of sapphire light, and the stranger spins sharply on his heel. Smoky blue threads of eldritch energy writhe and fade in the air around my gun as his body hits the ground like a sack of rocks.
For a moment I just stand there, staring at him, wondering if maybe, just maybe, he’ll be the last one. And then I holster my heavy pistol and continue up the trail by young Mister White Lance, tipping my hat as I pass. “Sorry, Clay. Never heard of you.”
He groans and grabs at his gun-arm. “What the hell did you do to me?”
“I shot you. Was that not obvious? I’ll let you in on a little secret. The first rule of battle is to always shoot first.” I squint at him. “So you should be very, very thankful right now that I carry a spirit gun instead of the usual sort. Because if I was slinging lead, I’d have split that ugly head of yours clean open like a grapefruit. And no one likes grapefruit, Clay. No one.”
“Spirit gun? What? What the hell’d you hit me with?” His face is all twisted up and red.
“Spirit energy, genius.” I shake my head. “Try not to think about it too hard because it gets real confusing, real fast. Right now, all you need to know is that it numbs you up and you knocks you out, so it’s all pins and needles for you, jackaroo. You’re welcome.”
“For how long?” he whines, clutching his arm. “How long am I gonna be like this?”
“Hard to say. Could be hours, could be days.” I keep walking. “So I hope that wasn’t your cheap date hand.”
The trail winds on up the slope through the sparse pines, and I pluck a couple of green needles to chew as I walk. As my bag starts to feel heavier, I shift it to the other shoulder, angling my head down so my hat can shade my face. I glance back once or twice, but he’s not following me. No one’s following me. But it feels like someone is following me. It feels like that a lot.
I stop cold. Really? Two in one day? Now that is definitely a record.
This new stranger is wearing a short leather jacket and funny-looking hat that I’ve never seen before. His gun belt is low on his right side, but he’s not making ready to draw down on me. A glance at his necklaces, the silver earrings in his long ears, and the bright beadwork on his jacket all say northerner, maybe one of the Cloudfoot from the Kirakaw province. I knew some Cloudfoot once, decent fellas, so there’s a slight chance that this one won’t be a complete jackass. I pause in the trail and nod at him. “Yeah?”
“Hi.” He smiles. It’s a pretty good smile. “You don’t know me, but we served together for a few weeks at the end of the war. I rode with you at Demon’s Hill.”
I blink. This is new. “Oh.”
“Name’s Sota Longarm. Call me Sota.”
“Okay, Sota. Nice to meet you.” I squint at him, my hand still hanging by my gun.
“We’ve never actually met, but I know you from your picture in the paper.” He smiles again, a bit awkwardly, a bit nervously. “You’re even more beautiful up close, you know that?”
Oh, he’s one of those. Groupie. Fan boy. Horny jackass. I roll my eyes, adjust the bag on my shoulder, and I start walking past him.
He turns to walk along beside me. I sigh. He can’t take a hint. Big surprise.
“Demon’s Hill. That was a hell of a day, wasn’t it?” he says. “And that gunfight, you and that Virakan prince in the mask, that was a hell of a thing.”
Brilliant conversationalist, this one. Pity. And I had so much hope for him. Hope is for suckers.
“For a while there, I thought the stories were true, that he couldn’t be killed. But you blew him away.”
“I didn’t kill him,” I mutter. “Ain’t killed anybody in years.”
“Anyway, I was just so impressed. Especially when I heard about you bringing down that flight of Tenjian shrikes. That was just… wow. Blasting those dragons right out of the sky! So I started asking around about you, and I learned everything I could. About your aunt discovering the lost city of Yas Yagaroth? About your grandmother saving the whole world at Doomsday?” He nods to himself. “That’s a hell of a shadow to grow up in, a hell of family reputation to live up to.”
My grandmother is a psychopath and my Aunt Gen was just trying to save her own life, and mine. Not that this idiot deserves to know anything about us.
“I know something about that,” he goes on. “My family is full of great warriors and famous artists. There was plenty of pressure on me too, growing up.”
I walk a little faster. He walks a little faster.
“And I just got to thinking, now that the war is over, that maybe you and I could get to know each other a little better, seeing as we have so much in common.”
I keep walking.
“Oh, come on, don’t be shy. Talk to me. I came all this way just to meet you. I took the train in all the way from Silver Lake.”
“Didn’t ask you to do that,” I say, my eyes fixed on the trail ahead.
“Please, a beautiful girl like you? At least give me a smile.”
“I so don’t feel like smiling right now.” I tighten my grip on my bag and keep looking straight ahead.
“Hey, don’t be like that. Just stop a minute.” He puts his hand on my wrist.
I yank my hand away and keep moving. “Listen, I’ve got things to do, so if you don’t mind…” And I walk on.
“Hey!” He stomps after me. “Hey, I’m trying to talk to you. What the hell? What’s your problem?”
“Right now? Lack of sleep, stress about my family, weird pains in my knee, and some guy who can’t take a hint, I guess.”
“Hey, I’m being nothing but nice here. Why are you being such a bitch?” he barks.
Oh, no you did not.
I stop. I turn back toward him, my hand resting heavily on the butt of my golden pistol. In a low voice, I say, “A bitch? I’m being a bitch? You ambush me in the woods alone like a stalker, you dig up my family secrets like an obsessive psycho, you interrupt my day, which was pretty crappy to begin with, to make me pay attention to you, which is just plain rude, and then you lay hands on me, which is assault, last time I checked… and I’m the one being a bitch?”
He glares at me, but doesn’t say anything.
“You think I owe you my time, just because you show up here? You think I have to give it up to you just because you want it?”
He puts his hands on his hips, still glaring, but still silent.
“Hey honey, want to hear about my day?” I mutter at him, low and gravelly. “Ten minutes ago, some asshole in a white hat tried to put a bullet in my head, just to prove he had really quick hands, while I was out getting the groceries. And half an hour before that, down at the store? Good old Takoda made me tell the Demon’s Hill story to some buddy of his, the same story that still gives me nightmares, the story about how twenty of my closest friends got incinerated by dragons, and I watched the man I love take three bullets and five arrows to save my life. I almost had a panic attack just trying to pick up the stupid squash when I left the store. Yeah, good times.”
“Well, I…” He’s still glaring, trying to be defensive, like all of that crap isn’t his fault and I should just get over it and do… whatever he wants. Which is sex, by the way. I assume he wants sex.
“What did you think was going to happen here, guy?” I ask him. My heart is pounding so hard, my skin feels hot and tight, and my palm is sweating on the warm gold and cool dragonbone of my gun. “You thought you’d just throw some nice words at me, and I would drop everything to screw you? Is that what you thought?”
He winces and shakes his head. “No.” Not very convincing.
“Is that what makes you such a nice guy? Stalking me? Harassing me?” I ask him. “Yeah, I guess that is so much nicer than just beating me bloody and raping me as I scream for help. Gosh, how nice of you. Not hitting me, not raping me. What a saint you are, stepping over that very low bar. I should totally drop my pants for you right now.”
“You stupid bitch, I’m not like that!” He lunges and grabs my left wrist again.
The instant he touches my skin, I draw and fire point-blank into his chest. The blast of blue light singes his shirt and he falls to the ground, twitching and gasping like a cold fish on a dry rock. I stare down at him, wondering vaguely what sort of things he’s said and done to other women in the past, and will do again in the future. My heart is still booming in my chest and my skin is on fire. I want to kill him. The world would be a better place without him. Heck, I’d take twenty more quickdraw punks over this trash any day.
I flip my gun around, gripping it by the hot barrel, and drop to one knee as I bring the butt of the heavy golden gun down hard on his hand.
I can’t remember how many bones are in an elven hand, but I know it’s a lot. I rise up to my full height again and slowly slide my gun back into its holster. My hand is trembling.
“I’ll be back along this trail in a little while,” I tell him in a low, steady voice. “You don’t want me to see you again. Ever.”
He’s still gasping and clutching his shattered hand as I turn and trudge up the trail with my bag digging into my shoulder.
I try not to think about him, about the way he smiled and the way that smile turned into a snarl the second he didn’t get what he wanted. I try not to imagine putting a bullet in his head, or setting him on fire. I really do try.
But by the time I get to the cabin, my head is ringing with more angry words that I want to scream into that bastard’s face, and I’ve imagined a couple dozen ways to torture him there in the woods where no one would ever find him. I’m walking fast, stomping up the trail, and not really paying attention, so when the cabin finally appears, the man in black takes me completely by surprise.
“Winona Marev!” He throws back his coat to reveal twin holsters with pearl-handled pistols. “I’m calling you out to avenge my–!”
My first shot smashes him right between the eyes, and the gunfighter tumbles back into the woods, staggering as he claws at his face and babbles meaningless sounds from his numbed mouth. I shoot him again in the chest, and then once in the leg, my gun roaring like thunder and flashing like lightning, and he drops to the ground and starts to roll down the slope.
I march through a cloud of twisting blue threads of spirit energy as I cross to the spot where he fell, and I take a good look to make sure that the man in black is still rolling and sliding down the steep hillside. And then I walk on by, yank open the cabin door, and toss my bag and my gun on the kitchen table. I pace back and forth in front of the table for a minute, digging my hands back through my hair. Every inch of me is shaking and throbbing with this heat, and I keep seeing their faces and hearing their voices.
I look up, hot and trembling, and stare out the window at the empty path, half expecting to see a fourth gunfighter hiking up toward me. Instead I see a dim image reflected in the glass. A man’s face. Chaske’s face. I blink and he’s gone.
“Yeeaaaagh!” I grab the edge of the table and flip the heavy old thing over. It crashes to the floor, along with my gun, and half the food spills out of my bag.
“Winny?” Grandpa staggers into the doorway across the room from me and stares. He was tall, once upon a time, but now he’s stooped almost to my height, with his thin shoulders and soft belly. The sun hasn’t been kind to his pale skin, leaving him spotted and blotchy, with only a few sad wisps of white hair swept back over his head. He looks down at the mess, and then back up at me. “Win? Are you all right?”
I nod and take a breath. “Sorry. I… sorry.” I carefully turn the table back over and pull up a chair for him to sit in, and then I gather up the groceries and holster my gun, and I sit down next to him. “Sorry,” I whisper again. I smooth back my hair and tuck my eagle feathers behind my right ear. I stroke the feathers gently, wondering why the hell I’m still wearing them.
“What happened?” He leans over to peer out the window, as though trying to spot some clue lying just outside.
I shake my head and exhale slowly. “Same old.”
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