An Ostrich-Horse with No Name
The tumbleweeds blew in the late afternoon breeze, a small respite from the scorching desert sun. In 1879, in a world very much like ours, but just a little off-kilter, a young woman, barely more than a slip of a girl, rode into town on the back of an ostrich-horse.
The ostrich-horse had a gait like the waves of an ocean. The woman swayed up and down in time with the rocking of the animal as she rode it into the gates of Hel, a small town that was the edge of the world, the last bastion of the last frontier of the dying days of the wild west.
Her son held tightly to her as he slept. He was a frail-looking boy with a shock of curly black hair and a jagged scar that zig-zagged across his face.
The woman was tall, with skin the colour of dark copper, and short, closely cropped dark-brown hair. Her eyes were half-shut and as she led the animal into Hel, the gates parted like the red sea before her.
She sauntered up to an inn where a faceless man was holding a phoenix-hawk in his left hand and a broken longsword in the other.
He looked up with unseeing eyes as the woman remained on her ostrich-horse.
“What brings you to town, stranger?”
The woman gestured to the boy who was beginning to stir from his slumber.
“Got room for me and my boy?”
The faceless man cocked his head.
“Don’t hear no man with you. You sure you wanna be stopping around these parts, in these times?”
The woman waited a beat, then said evenly “don’t need a man, friend. I got everything I want. I ask you once again, got room for me and my boy?”
The faceless man whistled and what sounded like a laugh floated from him.
“Got room for you both, barely, but I hear trouble is a-coming to these parts, so y’all better get in quick.”
The boy was now fully awake. He disentangled himself from the woman and they both disembarked. The woman hitched the ostrich-horse to a pillar, took out a small bag of feed and left it for the animal.
She held the boy’s hand as he limped beside her. The faceless man led them into the inn through doors that flopped on their hinges and up a rickety set of stairs to their modest room.
The scorching desert sun was setting by the time the woman and the boy returned downstairs. The faceless man had set out a simple meal. Just before their first bite, the doors to the inn swung open and three men walked in.
“We need rooms, innkeeper.”
The faceless man scurried over.
“I’m sorry”, he said obsequiously, “we have no rooms left.”
“Then make us some.”
The leader of the group, a tall man with flowing locks of blonde hair puffed out his chest.
“Your guests will have to leave.”
The woman gestured at the boy and he went upstairs.
The ringleader watched the boy leave and turned to the woman.
“I suggest you leave, girl,” he said with a hint of menace.
The faceless man bowed low before the ringleader.
“I am sorry, traveler, but she is my guest and I cannot turn her out. I swore the innkeeper’s oath. I follow the way, as my father did, and his father before him.”
The ringleader struck at the faceless man, but before his blow could land, the woman closed the distance between them and stopped his hand mid-strike.
“You have two choices, friend. You and your men move on, or me and you have a duel of the magicks.”
The ringleader laughed a deep booming laugh that radiated from a sunken place far beyond the boundaries of the known world.
“So, you know the dark arts? Well, if it’s a duel you want, if it’s your own demise you seek, then I shall give it to you.”
The ringleader materialized twin revolvers from the air.
“Choose your weapon and meet me outside.”
“Your sword”, the woman said to the faceless man cowering in the corner.
The faceless man took his longsword and threw it at her. She caught it in one fluid motion.
“But it’s broken.”
“Don’t worry. I can fix this.”
She ran her hands across the length of the broken shaft, and it transformed into a pair of broadswords.
She held them almost reverently as she flowed through the doors of the inn where the ringleader was waiting for her, his twin revolvers twirling in his hands.
“Do you have your weapon?”
“You know the rules.”
The woman said nothing.
They stood with their backs to each other. The ringleader walked 20 paces, turned around and fired his twin revolvers. In a motion that scarcely seemed human, the woman sliced the bullets in two with her broadswords.
He emptied his chamber and the woman deflected each of the bullets with superhuman speed.
She stretched out her hand and the ringleader froze in place. He struggled at the invisible bonds holding him while the woman walked slowly towards him.
“I could kill you”, she said calmly, “but that is not my way. I curse you to walk this earth until you die a hero’s death.”
The ringleader smirked at her.
“Is that all you can do?”
“And I gift you immortality from all the weapons of man.”
He smirked again.
She paused a beat. “And all the weapons of the gods.”
As the true horror of the life that awaited him dawned on him, the ringleader’s sanity slowly slipped away, and he crumpled in a heap on the desert sand.
The woman turned to the faceless man who was now prostrate before her.
“Trouble follows us wherever we go. I should never have stopped here.”
She reached out and cradled his head in her hands and his features slowly began to reappear.
“A gift…for your hospitality.”
The woman returned to the inn where her son limped toward her, all their possessions in tow.
“Come, boy. We must be going.”
The woman loaded the ostrich-horse with their belongings. The desert sun had fully set, and with his now all-seeing eyes, the innkeeper watched the woman and the boy glide through the gates of Hel, into the unforgiving desert night.