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Published on Friday, May 22, 2015

Remember Me in the Halls of Valhalla

By Kenneth Mark Hoover

 

Before John Marwood became a federal marshal in Haxan he rode with a band of killers on the Mexican border. These violent men were led by Abram Botis, an apostate from the Old Country. This brief story is from those days....

Marwood rode alongside Abram Botis. The other men were strung out behind them as they left the arid lowlands and the smoking remains of the Pecos Valley, never to return.

Ten miles on they guided their winded horses through Castle Gap, a mile-long pass of rimrock and limestone. For the next several days they rode through deep mansions of hot dust and rising wind. Rattlesnakes lay coiled under cat's claw and rock. Marwood never saw them, but heard their buzzing when the ground trembled from the passage of the horses.

In a dry wash five miles south of a settlement Botis reined in his big horse, a blue roan named Acheron with corn marks scarring its flanks.

   

"Another Double-Barred V ranch ahead," Botis said. "I say we kill them all." He cut his eyes to Marwood. "Mar?"

"I agree," Marwood said. "They sold us out and put a bounty on us. They deserve to die." He shrugged. "It's the world."

"See to your weapons, gentlemen," Botis commanded.

Marwood pulled his gun, a cap-and-ball Colt's Dragoon with full loads. Spaw, Lovich, and Ed Gratton, along with the other men in the gang, took out pistols, knives, and rifles. Some had souvenirs like teeth or scalps hanging from them.

"We taking the cattle, too, Captain?" someone in the back of the group asked. "We can rebrand them."

Botis turned his heavy body in his saddle. His black galero shaded his eyes.

"This red day has come upon these people by their own making," he said. "We are but the instrument of their destruction. Any more questions?"

The man shook his head. "No, Cap."

Botis leaned forward and whispered into Acheron's ear, "Let us ride among the heathens."

They drove into the colonia with murderous intent, firing guns into the fleeing backs of farmers and ranchers, tradesmen and cattlemen and coopers. A dozen settlers formed a ragged skirmish line against these barbarous men with powder-blacked faces, ruffed out beards, and clothes more raw leather and stinking animal skins than anything store bought.

Marwood led the vanguard of Botis's company into the defensive line, black powder guns blazing. A preacher met them with a raised Bible. Sporadic gunfire chunked him apart. When everyone was dead Botis used ropes to pull down the skeletal frames of half-finished houses and tossed a flaming brand into the shattered woodwork.

Canvas tents they burned, and wagons all. They scalped and docked ears, and they shot branded cattle and poisoned stock tanks with bags of lime.

When this was done they built a huge bonfire and burned the bodies while a starry night rolled out of the scarred earth and quieted the land with long, tired fingers. As the sun set heat lightening lit up the northern sky, spooking the horses. The Tonkawa spies, Red Thunder and Little Shreve, mounted their ponies and left out, looking for water on the trail ahead.

The dozen or so men left behind hauled out their pipes and makings and sat around the fire, smoking and listening to the blackened bones of the settlers crack, and the red marrow sizzle. After a while a black shape rode up on them out of the dark.

It rode from the north.

Botis watched it approach. Behind the stranger the summer heat lightening flared and sheered along the broken horizon.

"Daniel," Captain Botis said low. "Who is this gomer riding up without a call."

Lovich was the unacknowledged lieutenant of the outfit. In as much as military rank had any bearing among the rough and wild men loyal to Botis. For all his faults, Marwood recognized his talents as a tactician.

"I expect he's bringing trouble, Captain," Lovich said. He thumbed the hammers back on his sawed-off shotgun. The red light from the bonfire highlighted the arrow points and bits of fluted bone tied to his beard.

"I agree with Dan," Marwood said. "Man that crazy, riding on a war camp at midnight, no telling what he might bring."

One of the horses in the remuda snuffled, and two or three shied as the stranger neared.

"Hold it right there, Mister," Botis called out. "We've got a couple guns on you."

The stranger pulled rein at the edge of the firelight. Marwood saw he was seated on a blood bay and dressed in brown and black and stained with the dust and sweat of long years. A man like any other in this empty country. He had a broad face, with a dirty blond beard, and shale-blue eyes.

"Saw your fire." The traveler looked at the men standing apart with their guns and rifles much in evidence. "Thought I might stop for the night and share it."

Captain Botis smiled. "We have tug if you are hungry."

The stranger considered this offer. "I come in peace," he said. "You have your man take his gun off me?"

Botis hesitated, perhaps weighing options. He made a small gesture and Dan Lovich lowered his shotgun and pointed both barrels at the ground.

Marwood put his own gun away. The rest of the men holstered their weapons and resumed their seats about the fire. The stranger unsaddled and hobbled his lathered horse and wiped it down with a sugar sack.

When he came into the firelight with his bedroll Marwood could see he was much older than first supposed: pale blue eyes, and a white scar running from scalp down the side of his face. Marwood had the impression this scar was the result of some deep, perhaps ancient wound which ran the body complete. Down neck, across chest, stomach, loins, and ending at the soles of the feet. As if the man himself were but the embodiment of the scar's thunderclap.

Marwood was not an imaginative man by rights, and found himself struck cold such a thought could be.

Behind the stranger the sky broke with long flares of light that washed out the witch scrawl constellation of Cassiopeia. A slow rolling boom shook the ground.

Dan Lovich peered up at the night sky. "Sounds like a norther coming up on us, Cap," he said.

"Yes." The stranger threw down his blanket beside the fire. "A cleansing wind does ride upon this day."

"Have a seat, Mister," Botis said, "and keep your hands where we can see them."

The man squatted on his long shanks beside Marwood and accepted a tin plate of charqui, stewed corn, and a cup of black coffee this side of syrup. Marwood noticed he was not wearing a gun. But that didn't mean he didn't have one hidden.

"I think you for the food," the man said, chewing. "And I haven't had a cup of coffee in a long time."

Lovich grunted. "Sorry we ain't got a dainty napkin to make your supper more enjoyable."

"I didn't ask for it," the stranger said. He looked up from his plate, blue eyes glittering. "Now did I?"

Botis laughed, for it seemed to Marwood he had found a man much like himself and had instantly taken to him. "Where you from, stranger?"

The man hooked a thumb over his shoulder. Marwood saw the thick white scar ran down his arm, under the palm, and back to the armpit.

"North. Rode out of that hell and lightening three days ago. It's followed me ever since."

"You look like a man on the run," Lovich said.

The stranger did not speak.

"We had a tussle with Texas Rangers a while back," Botis said. "Ran into a mean patch of Buffalo Soldiers, too. Lost a good man. You meet any of them on your way here?"

The man continued to eat and did not answer.

Lovich turned his head and spat. He stared at the man with mud brown eyes baked hard into his face. "When the Captain asks a question we answer it straight off, stranger. Might be you learn our ways since you're quick to eat our food. Now what's your name, anyway?"

"I have a habit of wandering from name to name. Never settled on one I much like. But you can make it Magnus Gorm if you feel an itch."

"Sounds like a summer name," Botis said.

Gorm drank his coffee off. He rubbed his hands on his thighs. "You called it right, mister." He looked around. "All of you did. I am on the run."

"Posse after you?" Marwood asked.

"No." The light from the bonfire gave Gorm's face crimson highlights. "More like," he hawked and spat, "angels of death."

The men sitting around the fire looked at one another. Ed Gratton, an older black man out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, smiled and scratched his salt-and-pepper beard. "I ain't heard a ghost story that got me crawly since I was between hay and grass." Someone else laughed and passed a bottle.

Botis, however, was not smiling, and when the bottle came to him, he did not drink.

The sky to the north continued its wild fireworks. The distant thunder rolled between the bald hills and echoed until it sounded like thunderous hoof beats.

"Our horses are getting nervy, Cap," Lewis Spaw said, a youngish man with warts and boils on his face. He wore a Kossuth hat with an ostrich feather. "I think we're in for black weather."

"I think the weather's already rode on us," Marwood said, "and it's bringing more weather with it. How about it, Gorm?" He jerked his stubbled chin toward the lightening and thunder drumming out of the north. "What's out there you're so afraid of?"

"Mayhap you have eyes that see deeper than these other boys," Gorm said. "But that doesn't mean I owe you any explanation, mister. We ain't kin."

Botis stood up with a look of finality on his face. He was a long, slab-sided man. His sun-browned face was heavily bearded, the hair on his forearms thick and matted. His muddy leather boots stopped below his knees with drooping mule tugs on either side.

He walked with purpose around the fire. A few of the men shuffled aside. Dropping into a squat, Botis took up position beside Gorm. His gun was cocked out from his hip.

"You know who I think you are," Botis said, his voice even. "I think you're someone who thought he could ride up and get a bounty on us. Now tell me who's out there. Take a look around you. Smell those charred bones splintering in the fire. See the bloody scalps hanging from that wire. This is what we do to our enemies."

Gorm faced Botis. "No," he said, "this bonfire and the destruction you caused today is but a clarion call to the nine witches who are following me. All you did, Botis, was bring them to this world, and to this time." He waited a beat while Botis absorbed that news. "All you did was trap yourself, and your men, in a killing-bottle."

"Witches," Ed Gratton snorted. "More spook stories. Man's addle-brained, Captain. He ain't no lookout."

"I don't believe in witches, old man," Botis said.

"I've heard tell some of the best Indian trackers are women, Captain," Lovich said with uncertainty.

"That's true," Marwood said.

Botis looked up at them. "That's not Sacajawea out there in the dark. Is it, Gorm?"

"Belike they are more death-maiden than sorceress," Gorm explained, "but take it as you will. I tell you true, Captain Botis, those women are coming. They were coming for me. Now, they are coming for you, too."

"No night posse would ride without torch and lantern," Botis said.

"Do you not see their glittering lamps in the northern sky?" Gorm answered.

"Mister," Lovich said, as the men around the fire checked their guns, "we've wrangled with Buffalo Soldiers and gotten away near clean. I think we can take on an impossible posse of ghost women."

"He's trying to put a scare into us so his pards can ride up out of the dark and shoot us in the back," Spaw warned. "Kill him quick, Cap, and let's show this night posse how we ride the river."

Botis watched the lights in the sky. "There is something out there," he said low.

"You can't ride away from this, Botis," Gorm warned. "These death-maidens ride through the air following the fodder of crows. No matter where you go they will always come after you now."

Botis frowned. "I ain't never met nothing or nobody I couldn't kill."

Lovich lifted his shotgun to his shoulder and pointed it at Gorm's head.

"Let's do for him, Captain," Lovich said, "before he signals that posse."

Botis continued to watch the approaching lights race across the black horizon. They grouped severally together out there in the dark. Marwood felt a chill.

"Calm yourself, Daniel," Botis said, watching the strange lights.

"Maybe we can lose them in the back hills," Spaw suggested.

Botis shook his big head. "No, the night is too much upon us. We will break the legs of our horses if we try and ride hard."

"Now you understand," Gorm said, getting to his feet. Botis followed. "Now you understand what has come upon you."

Botis looked at Gorm. He gave a short nod. When he turned back around the women rode up through the shattered remains of the colonia while the smoke and burning ash blew into their closed faces.

"Lo, there do I see my father and mother," Gorm said under his breath, "with my sisters and brothers lying dead beside them."

Spaw turned to shush him while Ed Gratton stared open-mouthed, his gun half-drawn. "My stars," he said. Many other men took up firing positions behind saddles and clumps of nopal.

"There do I see the line of my people back to the beginning," Gorm said. "As a river of blood does wind through the barren hills of my childhood."

"Goddamn, somebody shut him up," Spaw called from behind a rock.

"My God, it's true. Here they come." Two men stood and melted back into the darkness among the horses. One of them was Spaw.

Marwood watched with fascination at the posse that rode upon them: nine women in waist-length mail drenched with blood and carrying long metal spears. Rays of light shone from the iron points. Red-eyed bats, no, black ravens, hundreds of them, flared above their heads in and out of the waning firelight. It was a writhing flurry of coarse black feathers, and hollow bone, and it stank.

The faces of the women were cold as swords, and they did not speak as they approached. Their long hair was pulled back, and drenched and clotted with gore, and their eyes sparkled like bright stars, and they all reeked of carrion.

Eight of the women dismounted horses wearing barding of human skin. The champron and criniere of each horse was fashioned from human bones.

The eight women stalked through the desolate remains of the colonia carrying wooden shields. They knelt and planted their shields into the earth and through these devices they did drain the blood which was spilled that day. Marwood watched the round edges of one shield turn red as it drank the blood from the ground.

When this arcane work was done they turned as one and mounted back up and approached the dying fire with its quaking coals, and the men who waited.

"They call me to take my place in the Halls of Valhalla," Gorm said, "where the brave may live forever."

"What are you talking about?" Marwood whispered.

"Do you not know what family of things has ridden among you this night?" Gorm answered.

Marwood pulled his gun and rolled the hammer back.

"That's not going to help you," Gorm said. He grabbed Marwood's arm. "Listen to me. That won't kill them."

Marwood jerked away. "Let go of me."

The Nine Women were led by a tall chieftain riding a black stallion. She pulled up on reins cut from man leather with the other women flanking behind her.

"I am called Kara Wind-Travel." As she spoke her words sounded like breaking glass.

Botis did not move. "My name is Abram Botis."

"We have come for the man you harbor."

Botis turned to Gorm. He faced back around.

"I lay no personal claim on this man," he answered. "But neither do I give something in my camp to a stranger without reason. What call have you upon him?"

"We but have come for him."

"I can see that," Botis said. "And after you take him?"

Kara's white face was hard as stone. She leaned forward in her saddle. The rancid clothes under her mail blew around her limbs as the night wind from the crows buffeted the air overhead.

"Then will we ride for you and your men, Captain Botis, and take you home."

"I can't let that happen," Botis told her. "These men belong to me." He hooked his thumbs through his belt. "I ride with demons, sister. They are mine, their souls bought and paid for."

Kara shook her head. "You cannot change the weft and warp of fate, Captain Botis. The threads are woven. We have ridden into this hidden world seeking the man who escaped us. So, too, has he brought us to you. Whether by chance or design it matters not to me, or to my sisters. We have but one charge laid upon us, and it does not matter which world or time we ride into, or through."

Kara lifted her spear into the sky. The heat lightening stopped, and a deep quiet rushed over the world.

"In the name of the All Father have we come," she said, "and here will we complete our task."

"Then we are at an impasse," Botis said.

"Who is this wayfarer to you?" Kara asked.

"Nothing," Botis said. "But when you take him you come for me and my men. I cannot let that happen."

Kara leveled the point of her spear at Gorm's chest. "This man's fate is sealed. He doth carry the white mark of the draugr. He fell in battle, and when we came for him he ran from his destiny. Over deep rivers of time and fields of mourning have the valkyrja chased his shade. Now have we found him on this barren world, and so must bring him to the bright realm of gods where he belongs."

Gorm shook his head. "I don't want to go, Captain," he said. "I ride with you now."

Botis thought. "Belike this man found reason enough to live," Botis told Kara, "as men do in whatever time they find themselves. But enough of this. I will not give up this man because it leaves myself and my men open to capture. That I will not have."

"You cannot stop what my sisters and I are destined to do," Kara said. "So I call them now to aid me and we will complete this task which has troubled us far too long."

Kara motioned for her sisters. In unison they took up their reins and gripped the shafts of their spears.

"Shall we take them all?" one of the women asked, gripping her reins.

"Yes," Kara said. "Take them all."

Botis held up his hand. "I ask you to wait," he said, "for you do not know who you ride upon."

"Debate me not, mortal," Kara said. The ravens circled her. "Your day of judgment has come. I will take what is legally mine."

"Then I must meet you on equal terms." Botis turned and met Spaw leading Acheron out of the dark. Spaw and the other man who had left earlier had saddled and bridled the big horse.

Botis stepped into leather. Sitting tall, he walked Acheron toward Kara and her black mount. Acheron's bridle was made of human hair and cured human skin. Dried ears and fingers hung from a wire scapular from the throatlatch. Scalps, both fresh and old, were like moss on the saddle gullets. Rattling skulls, many with a single hole through the cranium, clacked from the cantle and saddle horn.

But it was the horse Kara watched most intently. From fetlock to withers a winding blue-black coloration like a long river with tributaries and rills, channels and estuaries, flowed over the animal, coursing a dark and ancient magic throughout. Acheron stamped his hooves. His black eyes reflected the starry night, and his nostrils smoked like fumaroles.

Both man and animal passed by Marwood. Marwood fancied he felt a hidden power emanating off them both. A pulsing connection to his own distant past, perhaps, and the nameless thing he carried coiled inside. A key which might one day unlock the unknowable of life.

Death and mystery, both distant and thunderous.

"What's going to happen?" Gorm asked him.

Marwood shook his head with uncertainty. "I don't know. Do you want a gun?"

Gorm looked at him in wonder. "I told you guns won't do anything against these women. They are beyond mortal events like death. They are death, mister, and the only thing that can ruin death is a more powerful death. No offense, but I don't think you boys have that in you tonight."

Botis stopped Acheron a pace or two away from Kara's horse. Her sisters were mounted on their own horses, their manes and tails blowing in the foul wind caused by the circling ravens.

"Honored sister," Botis said, "as I told you, I ride with demons. Valkyrja you may be, but my Horsemen ride through this barren land bringing death and destruction as I will. It is on my word they live and die. We will not back down."

"Every animal doth has its own nature," Kara agreed.

Botis paused to consider this. "Yes. When a man or woman sets foot on a long road it's hard to step away."

Kara nodded in agreement. "There can be but one outcome to this battle. That you must surely know."

Botis looked up at the night and the ravens and the cold beauty of the starry welkin. He smiled to himself and found Kara's eyes.

"Any man not ready to die the moment he is born remains a fool about the world."

"You are a brave man, Captain Botis. I will sing a great song over your broken body," Kara said.

"And I shall spit upon yours." Without another word Botis reached for his gun belt, but he did not pull his six. Instead he brought forth a knife with a staghorn handle. A fresh scalp hung from the tang. The long blade gleamed like ice.

He thrust it into Kara's breast. Her mail turned the blade easily. She swung the iron point of her spear in a loop and drove it toward Botis's face. Botis spurred Acheron and pulled back on the reins. Acheron reared up with a scream, lifting Botis out of reach, and when the big horse came down he raked his sharp hooves alongside Kara's off leg catching the mail and almost pulling her from the saddle. The other women, silent and grim in their determination, closed in on Botis with a collective scream and he went down under them.

Ed Gratton was stationed behind an outcropping of limestone. "Looks like the string has played itself out, boys," he told the men.

"Kill them," Lovich cried and brought his shotgun to bear.

"No!" Marwood swept his hand up as both barrels touched off, firing harmlessly into the sky.

Then, without warning, Marwood tossed his gun to his left hand in a road agent's pass and shot Magnus Gorm straight through the head.

The old man collapsed to the ground at Marwood's feet. Blood drained from the head wound. His brains were splashed across Ed Gratton's shirt.

Kara raised her head from the melee and called for her sisters to cease. They pulled away, long hair straggled across their faces, revealing a bruised and bloodied Botis sitting atop Acheron. Botis clutched a bloody hand against his side and wheezed in pain.

Kara dismounted in the sudden silence and walked up to the dead man lying at Marwood's feet. As she did the ravens broke apart and flew away into the night.

Kara poked Gorm with the haft of her spear. She raised her eyes to Marwood.

"You wanted him," Marwood said by way of explanation, gesturing with his smoking gun, "you've got him. Now get the hell out of here and leave us alone."

"Why did you do this?" she asked.

Marwood watched her. "The Captain was right. A man not ready to die the moment he is born is a fool. But that doesn't mean he should go looking for it, either."

Kara remained like a statue. She stood close beside the fire, and Marwood could see her eyes were green with shards of gold embedded in the pupils, and coal-black lashes. Of the whole woman standing before him, the eyes were the most human thing she possessed.

He watched them widen as if she saw something in Marwood which escaped her earlier.

"Who are you?" she asked. A note of doubt crept into in her voice.

"I'm not anyone," he said.

Kara glanced at Botis who was helped off his horse by Spaw and Lovich. She faced Marwood again.

"I did not notice you until now," she said. Her pointed eyebrows drew together. "You have a power hidden deep within you."

She reached out and touched his hand which held the gun. Her long fingers were cold and hard like ice, and they burned his skin.

Kara snatched her hand back as from poison. She drew back and lifted her shield in a defensive posture and stared at him over the iron rim. When full realization came, her eyes widened.

"You carry an ancient thing inside," she said. "A nameless winter that swallows worlds when unleashed. Except, this beast is more afraid of you, than you are of it. Yet mortal do you remain." Kara breathed heavily. "Again I ask, who are you?"

"I'm not anyone you know," he said. "Like you, maybe I'm just passing through this world, waiting for the day I am called home."

She nodded briefly, lowered her shield. She drew a breath. "You are the real power here. A reality I nor my sisters can best. Immortal as I am, now do I understand for the first time the mortal touch of fear."

"I simply don't want to die here tonight," Marwood said. "That's all."

"But yet this man you killed...."

"What is he to me," Marwood told her. "What is any man to me when my life is in danger?"

Kara started to say something else, changed her mind. Two of her sisters came forward. "Shall we take him?" they asked.

"Yes," Kara said, "he has been given to us as a gift."

They picked up Gorm's bloody body and laid it across the withers of Kara's steed.

"You need to go home," Marwood told her. "Now."

"Come with me," Kara said. "I will take you to a great place of light and smoke and endless courage. I will sing for you at the foot of our bed. I will be your queen."

"You need to go home where you belong," Marwood said.

"Yes," Kara agreed, "we have been absent far too long. Valhalla awaits." She looked back at him. "But so will I remember you within those great stone walls where the shades feast on wine and raw beef. Standing alone before a hearth there will I remember and sing of you. Every day I will do this thing. And, come the day you fall, I shall weep." She raised her spear in final salute. "Farewell, Nameless One."

"Goodbye."

Kara joined her sisters. They rode off into the night carrying Gorm's limp body. Marwood and the remaining men watched the lights gather in the black distance, and disappear altogether.

The desert around Marwood was quiet. All the world was quiet.

He went to his mare and saddled it. Botis sat beside the dying coals, clutching his side.

"I didn't give you call to leave," he told Marwood.

Marwood checked his horse beside Botis and looked down at the big man.

"I didn't ask for your permission, Captain."

"I'll put a ball in your back. No man quits me."

"I've got his gun, Mar," Lovich said.

Botis slapped a hand at his empty holster. His knife had been taken, too.

"So long, Captain," Marwood said. "You are welcome to ride with me if you've a mind. But I am moving on."

Marwood chucked his mare forward. A few of the men called their thanks. Marwood didn't turn around or acknowledge them.

Botis stared at the smouldering coals. A few men left to get their horses. They led their animals past Botis, mounted up, and followed Marwood out. One by one, the rest of the company did the same.

At the last, Lovich brought his own horse beside Botis.

"Come with us, Captain," he urged. "The world changes on a pin sometimes. But that doesn't mean it's not the world we know."

Botis did not look up. Lovich saluted, and kicked after the rest of the men.

Acheron stood behind Botis. Botis rose to his feet and climbed aboard the big horse.

A lone breeze blew across the desert. There was a long red band of light in the east.

He slowly turned the big horse and followed his men and Marwood out of that place, and they were never to return again.

THE END

 

Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold over sixty short stories and articles. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, The Western Online, and others. He is a member of SFWA, HWA, and WWA. His latest novel, QUATERNITY, is a dark western published by CZP. You can find out more about Mr. Hoover and his work from his blog kennethmarkhoover.me or his website kennethmarkhoover.com.

 

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