The River’s Daughter and the Gunslinger God

Matthew Claxton

 

 

            The river’s daughter heard the new sounds in early spring, when the passes into the valley were still mantled in heavy snow. Hooves crunched through rotten ice, and a voice cursed. The intrusion woke her, in her little hut of birch and pine branches. She waded through the river, catching a fish in one hand for her breakfast, whispering thanks to her father as she bit into silver scales and white flesh. She clambered up the far side of the riverbank and crept through the fern and huckleberry, her footsteps silent as the falling dew.

            The voice belonged to a dwarf, the hoofbeats to his red-eyed mule.

            He was an unlovely creature, with the pale grey skin of his kind, mouth set in a scowl, nose bulbous, teeth like granite. His foul temper was stamped on his features plainly. His clothes were as rough and work-worn as his hands and face, but the pistol he wore at his belt was a fine piece of craftsmanship, gleaming steel with a carved ivory grip. On one finger, the dwarf wore a ring of gold that was as fair as anything to be found in the great cities of civilized lands.

            As the river’s daughter followed him, the dwarf paused from time to time to draw air into his wide nostrils, or bent to sip from the cold river.

            He followed the scent to a sandbar, and swirled a pan in the creek water. He ignored the glacial bite on his pale fingers, and kept swirling until he saw the bright gleam.

            His kind don’t smile easily, and this dwarf less easily than most, but he allowed himself a satisfied grunt. He scooped out the gold dust with a callused finger and spread it across his tongue. He closed his eyes for a moment and let the cold metal work its way down his throat, into his guts, his blood, his marrow. He opened his eyes and there was a glint of gold in the brown of his eyes. He packed up his gear and continued upstream into the valley. He had the taste of it in him now, the flavor of the gold, and he would find its source.

            The river’s daughter followed.

 

            In the long age before the dwarf came through the pass, a giant had been struck down by the blows of a fellow immortal. The jotun’s death throes had gouged deep ravines, his flailing fingers had scraped out box canyons. His stony flesh had sloughed away as sand and gravel, his jagged, shattered bones had formed the mountains through which the dwarf had journeyed. At the far end of the valley, his skull still loomed, a mountain topped by the cavernous cliffs of the dead jotun’s brows.

            In death the giant gave life to the valley, like a fallen tree that nourishes the forest. His sinews had mated like snakes, his skin had swollen to beget monsters like man’s flesh begets maggots. A great motherless river roared out through his teeth, and the river in its turn had fathered its own children.

            The river’s daughter had hair as long and green as eelgrass, and skin the livid white of a fish belly. Her teeth were sharp, and through her thin lips, she sometimes whispered spells and curses, for her mother had been a sorceress.

            Since her mother’s departure, swathed in furs in the middle of a winter storm, the river’s daughter had not seen a single outsider to the valley. She spoke to the winds and her siblings the creeks, and she amused herself by practicing charms to change her shape – spending a season as an otter, another as a bird.

            She had little past and less future. Destiny had put no stamp on her.

            This dwarf, this outsider who moved with such purpose, fascinated her. She watched him for days, from silent concealment in the forest.

            The dwarf’s name was Brokkr, and if he had vices, sloth was not among them. He followed the taste of gold on his tongue to a bend in the river, and by a broad sandbar he made a tidy camp. While his red-eyed mule cropped the ferns and scanty grasses, he panned the gravel, up to his knees in the water, trout scattering as he flung away useless rock and sand.

            He found a dead tree, lightning-blackened, with a deep hollow at the base of its trunk. In the hole, Brokkr stored his gold dust in tightly-woven sacks.

            It was three weeks before Brokkr realized someone was watching him. He squinted his eyes and glared at the silent forest. His hand strayed to the butt of his pistol.

            The river’s daughter rose from the ferns, head cocked to one side, arms slack.

            Brokkr put down his hand. He laid his pan down on the gravel bar.

            “Who are you, and what do you want here?”

            “I was born in this valley,” the river’s daughter said, in a voice like water coursing over stone. “My father is the river over yonder. Who are you and what do you want here?”

            Brokkr bristled at being challenged on his own claim. But he was civilized, and for all that his manners were rusty, they yet endured.

            “A visitor, and one who would be your neighbor,” Brokkr said. “May I offer the poor hospitality of my camp?”

            They ate hard tack and drank coffee, and said little, neither being made for conversation.

            “I’m called Brokkr,” said the dwarf, before she vanished back into the woods. “What are you called?”

            “Sigrun,” she said.

            She returned each day. Sigrun stayed longer and longer, sitting on a fallen log, tin mug clasped in her hands, watching Brokkr pan and shovel, watching him hammer together a sluice where a fast-rushing creek met the body of her father. She began to help him, guiding Brokkr to the best sandbars, warning him of places where the river coiled around hidden snags, pointing where its richest beds lay.

            In his turn he gave her knowledge, of tool and craft.

            While he built a sluice, he showed her how to hammer a nail straight, the use of plane and chisel, level and plumb bob and carpenter’s square. Along with the skills carried in hands, he taught her the charms and quiet words that shaped metal and wood.

            He could be gruff, on the rare days when she did not immediately grasp his lessons. But he was not cruel. He would simply repeat himself, show her again, and guide her hands until she had caught the trick of the thing. She took to the new craft like a hawk to an open sky, and before long even the stern dwarf was forced to admit that she had learned well.

            Sigrun watched every day the care the dwarf took with his work, the way he combed out his mule and checked its hooves, the way he grunted in satisfaction at a board cut straight and true.

            By inches, the river’s daughter felt the flickering flame of fascination grow into a bonfire within her breast.

            The dwarf smiled at the gold in the bottom of his pan, and Sigrun smiled at him, and neither of them understood the depth of the other’s infatuation.

            One day Sigrun did not leave Brokkr’s camp. She went into the canvas tent with him, and lay beside him in the night.

 

            It was the dawn of summer when others began to trickle through the high passes around the valley. They came alone or in small bands, men and dwarves, elves and trolls, things with three heads or lashing tails, bald as ivory or furred like a bear. They dragged their supplies on barrows and drove teams of snorting oxen hauling heavy carts.

            The valley echoed with the sounds of saws and the crash of falling trees. The newcomers also took to the streams, and if their efforts were less fortunate than Brokkr’s, they were not fruitless. Gold came forth from the river and the stone, gold that had once flowed as blood in the jotun’s veins and salted his bones.

            By late summer, there were three hardware stores, seven saloons, and two whorehouses in the valley, clustered together less than an hour’s walk from the cairns that marked Brokkr’s claim.

            “I suppose it doesn’t seem right that the first man in the valley should live in a tent,” Brokkr said one evening, when the warm wind stirred the cottonwoods.

            The next day, he began felling trees. The River’s daughter helped him saw the planks and level the foundation.  

            By the time the summer was at its height, the house was finished. It was a fine thing, oak-boned and roofed with fragrant red cedar shakes. The powerful words Brokkr and Sigrun had bound to its beams made it proof against storm, against heavy ice or snow, against rot and the gnawing teeth of vermin. But it was not finished until the day Brokkr built window frames.

            “Come,” he said to Sigrun that evening. As the sun sank, he led her to a clearing, where he set the frames out on the soft meadow grasses and flowers. The sky was cloudless and bright with more stars than there are stories.

            Brokkr spoke a few words and reached up with one rough hand to grasp at the sky. He tugged, and into his empty window frames, he laid falling dew and starlight. He smoothed it and spoke to it, and coaxed the cool clear light into shape.

            Sigrun had caught the words, mouthed them silently along with Brokkr.

            “I’ll try,” she said, and she too poured a handful of silver light into a window frame. The glass was as clear as meltwater.

           They set the windows into the house that night. Sigrun stayed up until she saw the dawn break through glass for the first time.

 

            Winter fell on the valley like a wolf, and carried off those too weak or foolish to prepare.

            For a fortnight, no one came through the pass. Anyone there should have been dead, a larder for the bears when they awoke come the spring.

            Yet the stranger appeared out of the howling gale.

            His buckboard was drawn by two black bison, the wooly hair of their backs clean of snow, bronze rings through their noses, madness in their eyes. The stranger wore a broad-brimmed hat and a long, fringed coat. The handles of his two pistols and the knife in his boot were carved from black horn. His skin was pale, his eyes black. He stabled his animals and walked into the nearest saloon and ordered a drink. He paid with an old coin, the portrait of a long-dead king worn to smooth anonymity. He produced more coins as he finished each drink, and he didn’t get up from his stool for three days, exhausting the saloon’s stock of whiskey, one glass at a time. Then he moved on to the next bar.

            Word began to circulate that a god had entered the valley. The barmen took his money. Everyone else gave him a wide berth.

            “He’s waiting for something,” Brokkr told Sigrun one night. “When it comes, maybe he’ll move on and leave us in peace.” Something about the stranger bothered Brokkr, put an itch between his shoulder blades.

            She arrived in the spring, with the first warm breeze.

            The woman alighted from the stage in the muddy thoroughfare before the Serpent’s Head Hotel, and ferns sprang to life around the soles of her white boots. Her hair was bright as molten copper, her eyes the golden brown of wild honey. Her teeth were even and white, and they spread into a smile so glorious that the poor bellhop of the Serpent’s Head fumbled the coin she dropped into his palm. He rushed out to get her bags, hands shaking, the faint floral scent of her skin working its way deep into his mind. When he died, five score years later, that scent would drift through his final dreams.

            The name she wrote in the hotel register was Inkeri, and she said nothing about her business in the settlement, but went straight up to her rooms and closed the door.

            In a saloon at the far end of the muddy street, the stranger sat up straight in his chair and took in a heady lungful of air.

            He laid a coin on the counter and walked straight to the Serpent’s Head. He marched up the stairs to Inkeri’s room. He rapped on the door.

            She sent him away.

 

            Brokkr heard the tale when he came to the town the following day to haggle for supplies.

            “The dark-haired man, the one with the bison?” said the owner of the general store. “Someone had the iron-blooded courage to send him packing. A woman!”

            Brokkr grunted and grudgingly paid for his flour and lard and pickled cabbage. He was outside loading his supplies on the mule when the shutters of the Serpent’s Head opened wide to let in the fine spring air.

            Inkeri turned away from the windows, and Brokkr’s glance caught her in profile, the curve of her brow and nose, lips and chin. He saw her reach up and unpin that copper hair, and watched it fall down her back, like a river of liquid fire from the earth’s own heart.

            She moved away from the window then, and Brokkr took a step forward, as if drawn on a line. He stood there for a long moment, dumbstruck.

            That night, while Sigrun slept at his side and the moon poured light through the thin curtains of his fine home, Brokkr fretted and tossed, and he arose having slept not at all.

            He returned to his diggings and chipped away with pick and shovel, he sluiced the golden flakes and nuggets from the soil, and for the first time in his long life, the sight of gold could not fill the gnawing desire in his heart.

            By the fine house and the rich vein of his claim, Brokkr built a forge.

            In the town, the nameless stranger returned each day to Inkeri’s hotel room. He knocked and stood before the door, until a servant opened it and gave him a single regretful shake of her head. The stranger stomped down the stairs, his boots burning holes in the carpet runner, his gaze hot enough to catch the hotel register alight. The staff of the Serpent’s Head scattered or ducked behind the desk when he arrived, and when he left they cleared up the damage.

            “I wish she’d see him,” muttered the hotel manager, who was no fool and feared worse to come. “Gods!” he said. “There’s no trouble like godly trouble.”

            After nine days and nine refusals, the stranger hitched his bison to his buckboard and followed a rough track into the hills. His pistols were at his side, a long rifle slung behind his back, and chains and ropes coiled like snakes in the buckboard.

            When he returned that night, tethered to his wagon was a bear larger than any the settlement’s inhabitants had ever seen. Its claws were like bayonets, its paws the size of skillets, and its heavy shoulders supported two monstrous heads. It was exhausted, breath heaving from its red mouths, tongues lolling. Two brass rings were set in its noses, two chains leading from them were joined into one leash.

            The stranger took the chain in hand and led the creature down the dusty main thoroughfare as though he were taking a dog for a walk. Everyone passing by suddenly remembered pressing business that must take place behind closed and locked doors.

            The stranger stood in front of the Serpent’s Head. Wordlessly, he raised the leash in offering.

            The curtains of Inkeri’s room twitched open a finger width, then closed again.

            He stood there while the sun advanced across an eighth of the sky, but when there was no answer, he led the beaten beast into the woods.

            There was a terrible roaring then, which no one was inclined to investigate. A young girl fetching water would find the bear’s body the next day, stabbed more times than was strictly necessary to deal out its death.

            At dawn the stranger visited the town baths, and cleaned stinging black blood from his body. He dressed again in clean clothes. He drove his buckboard out of town.

            So it continued for another eight days. The stranger returned with animals the likes of which few in the town had ever seen. On the second day he brought in a white stag with curling horns of solid bronze, that knelt before the Serpent’s Head as prettily as a trained pony. On the third he drew a leashed wolf with eight legs and black fangs dripping venom, on the fourth a snake thick as a telegraph pole with a forked, rattling tail.

            No wild prize, it seemed, was suitable for the woman who kept her rooms in the Serpent’s Head. Each refusal enraged the stranger. The air stank of blood and magic.

            A young witch who had come to make her fortune at the card tables abruptly paid extra for the first stage ticket back out of the valley. “You don’t know the half of it,” she said when the bellhop at the Serpent’s Head asked her if she’d seen something. “There’s more than him and her at play here.”

            She tugged at the blindfold that covered her eyes, and turned her face down the valley for a moment, then shuddered.

            At his claim, Brokkr heard the howls and screams of strange beasts, but he paid them no mind. He hauled heavy beams and flagstones to build his forge. His sinews were strained and his hands bloody with ceaseless effort with axe and adze. From the upper windows of the house, Sigrun watched him. She had offered to help, and he had angrily refused.

            Finally the forge was ready, and Brokkr stole to his hoard of gold by starlight and weighed out a precious store of dust.

            For three days, Brokkr labored in his forge, and when he emerged he carried a round broach. It was a circle of pure gold, gleaming and still warm as blood. Brokkr stood on the porch of his home and blinked smoke-reddened eyes. Sigrun stepped onto the porch next to him, carrying a mug of strong coffee, and he took it without a word. He never took his eyes off the broach.

            The circle of gold showed leaping trout and chinook, sleek otters, foaming rapids. The scales of the fish gleamed in the dawn light, achingly close to real.

            Sigrun stared at the broach, entranced. Brokkr had never made anything that wasn’t useful. His craftsmanship was impeccable, but all the beauty in his house, in his tools, came from the clean lines of a thing well fitted for its task. He could no more have built an ugly house than he could have built a cold, drafty one.

            Yet here was a thing of great art as well as great craft. She reached out her slender hand, and Brokkr finally met her eyes.

            “No,” he said. He tucked the broach in the pocket of his apron, and the light on the porch dimmed a little, that golden gleam hidden away.

            Sigrun let her hand drop to her side, limp. She searched Brokkr’s face, and found nothing there. His eyes already sought the path that led towards town.

            He went inside, leaving Sigrun on the porch. When he emerged he wore his newest clothes, clothes she had mended and cleaned for him, boots she had shined and left by the door of their bedroom. He walked past her without a word.

            In the river, trout leaped wildly and the rapids lashed the stones and gravel. Sigrun’s eyes were dry. She knew where Brokkr was going. The winds of the valley had been her friends since childhood, and they had shared the gossip with her, the story of copper-haired Inkeri’s arrival in town. Even the southern breeze had spoken of her beauty.

            The winds had also told of the black-clad man, and his efforts to court Inkeri. He knew her of old, the winds whispered, and she knew him, and this was some long game played by immortals, the likes of which creatures who were born and lived and died could scarce understand.

            Sigrun wrapped her arms around herself then, and shivered with rage and sorrow.

            She went back into the house, a house she had thought built for the two of them. But now she feared she was little more than another tool to Brokkr. He fed and curried his mule, he cleaned mud from his picks and pans, he rubbed the gleaming steel of his pistol with oil and kept it clean. When he had a woman, he built a house and gave her its keys. Was there no more than that?

            She walked up to the upper floor and peered out through the starlight windows, and she saw the scorched tree that concealed Brokkr’s hoard of gold. Sigrun’s nails dug into the soft wood of the windowsill.

            He was walking to his death, and it’s true that a part of Sigrun dearly wished in that moment for the arrogant dwarf to bleed out into the mud.

            But he was the first man to have held her heart, unworthy vessel though he had proven.

            An instant later, Sigrun was gone and a small grey bird sat on the windowsill. It fluttered into the sky.

 

            Brokkr caught himself on the stairs of the Serpent’s Head hotel, his course uncertain for the first time in many a year. He drew the broach out from the pocket of his jacket and felt its weight, the smooth fine features of the work, and it seemed to him the merest trash to lay before the woman.

            But it was all he had, and he could make nothing finer. Brokkr steeled himself and took the stairs at a steady pace, and rapped on the door. A servant girl peered out and demanded to know his business.

            “A gift, for your mistress,” Brokkr said, and he held up the broach like a talisman.

            “I’ll give it to her,” said the girl.

            Brokkr’s arm drew back. “It’ll go into no hand but hers,” he said.

            Even in the dim light of the corridor the girl could see the shine of the thing, feel the heat of forge and magic still radiating from it. She nodded and shut the door.

            Inkeri stood there when it next opened.

            Brokkr stammered out some rough greeting, while she smiled serenely, then he thrust the broach at her.

            She took it, her fine white fingers brushing his coarse callused ones for a brief second.

            He barely heard her prettily-worded thanks, the suggestion that perhaps they might run into one another in the tea room downstairs some day, the entirely polite dismissal as she had pressing appointments.

            The door closed, and Brokkr found himself standing in the street, mouth hanging open like a dog’s on a hot day.

            In the distant woods, hunched over the spoor of an elk, the stranger smelled coal smoke, hot metal, and the reek of the forge. And behind that, a fine floral scent. He ran to his wagon. In a fury he lashed his bison to a gallop, heading back to town.

 

            The coffin maker perked up his ears at the first gunshot. He allowed himself a feral smile. Business had been slow, what with folk leaving town. Those who remained spoke politely, drank alone, and played cards honestly, all of which was bad for his business.

            But the second shot was louder than the first, the third louder still, and the fourth a thunderous crash like the cleaving of mountains. Wood splintered, and men and women and animals screamed. The coffin maker ran to the window in time to see the facade of a saloon collapse into the street, a pile of splinters. Standing in front of the ruined building was the stranger, a smoking pistol in each hand.

            Bleeding drunks pulled themselves from the rubble and fled.

            A shattered table shifted, and from under it came a dwarf, the one from down the river who scowled at everyone like he had the toothache. A gun was in his hand.

            The stranger waited. He still had bullets in his guns, and the coffin maker judged that one of them would finish off this dwarf, and then some.

            “We’ll bury him in a matchbox, that’ll be how much is left of him,” muttered the coffin maker.

            But the god in the broad brimmed hat stood stock still, pistols at his side. He smiled, as if at last he had found some true sport, and he did not want it to be over too soon.

            Brokkr raised his gun.

            The river struck the god off his feet.

            Sigrun stood on the top floor of the livery and whispered the charms her mother had taught her, mingled with prayers and pleas to her father. The river had burst its banks upstream from the town and flung itself down the thoroughfare. It tore away porches and painted signs. It picked up wagon wheels and water troughs, saddles and stones and mud and logs. All of them struck the god with the force of the spring freshet, the hot time when the snow melts and flings itself at the sea with all the abandon of first love.

            The god could stand against bullets and jotuns, but a river was another matter. He was swept away, gone in an instant.

            Brokkr stood before a wall of water, jaw slack. He looked up at the livery and met Sigrun’s eyes, as the wave receded, and left the street a muddy slough.

            The dwarf holstered his pistol. He looked down the street. The manager was fleeing the Serpent’s Head, the bellhop on the back of his horse, a carpetbag of cash slung next to the saddle. The buildings that had not been destroyed by the god’s gunfire and the flood were smoking, threatening an inferno. Somewhere in a pile of refuse down near the livery, the god was buried in shattered timbers.

            On the upper floor of the Serpent’s Head, Brokkr saw the light catch on copper tresses for an instant. The curtains twitched back.

            He started down what was left of the street, and turned his face away from the river’s daughter.

            In the distance, the river rumbled.

 

            The coffin maker was sensibly leaving before he had need of his own wares. He had packed his money and saddled his mare, and was urging her for the pass.

            He rode past the Serpent’s Head, and saw the two women staring at one another, the green-haired witch on the livery roof, the copper-haired woman on the hotel’s porch. Inkeri’s servant girl was loading luggage onto the last stage out of town.

            “You should stay to see how it comes out,” said Sigrun, a challenge in her voice. “Stay and see if your man can kill mine, or mine yours.”

            “He’s not my man,” Inkeri said. “Nor is the other one yours, I think.”

            Sigrun was too proud to let her hurt show.

            “And in any case, I know how it all turns out,” Inkeri said. “It’s happened a hundred times, in a hundred lands. It always ends the same.”

            Sigrun shrugged. “Your man’s killed a lot of folks, I expect. But he might find the dwarf tougher than he supposes.”

            The corners of Inkeri’s mouth twitched. She stepped down off the porch and onto the mud. Mountain flowers sprang up around her boots, a whole season’s growth in seconds. They withered and died just as fast, petals scattering on the breeze.

            “He’ll die, a bullet in his belly,” Inkeri said, calm as if she was discussing the weather. “We all play our roles.”

            “I ain’t playing,” Sigrun said.

            “But you have played, my dear, a delightful bit part.” Inkeri said. “Shall I tell you your future?”

            “No.”

            “You will rule this valley. You will be its witch-queen, its forest hag, lurking in the shadows of the pines, wise and terrible. Your kin the jotuns will come to you seeking knowledge of the worlds beyond death, and you will give it to them, dragging wisdom from the cold places beneath the bones of the earth. You will live long, and wax powerful.

            “But you will never know love again.”

            Sigrun felt the woman’s words trying to grab hold of her, like burrs greedy for purchase.

            “Is that a true fortune, ma’am?” Sigrun said. “Because I don’t think you can catch me in any cheap street corner prophecy. Not here. Not in my valley.”

            Sigrun vanished for a moment, and a bird fluttered down to the street, and then the river’s daughter stood before the goddess, heavy square-toed boots inches from delicate calf skin.

            “I think you just want to snare me into a story because you hate what you can’t have.”

            Inkeri’s lips curled in a pretty fair imitation of a smile.

            “You envy me,” Sigrun said. “The way stone envies fire. I’ll die, but I can make my own way before I’m snuffed out. You… you play your part, the same part, over and over. Courted but never caught. Followed by him. Always refusing. Must get tiresome. Lonely. Nothing to do but play your game and watch us mortals die, and wait for the end of all things.”

            Inkeri’s mouth was a thin line. She opened it to say something, but Sigrun held up a hand. Anger mingled with sudden pity in the heart of the river’s daughter.

            “Shall I make a prophecy for you now?” Sigrun said. “Fair’s fair, after all.” Her voice rose, old power inherited from her wise mother and the stone bones of her grandfather filling her, hot in her very marrow. “Your long chase will end, before the world burns to a cinder. Maybe he’ll catch you, and maybe you’ll slip away. You’ll have your heart’s desire, or you’ll weep until you’re wrung clean out. But it’ll be an ending. And a chance to make your own choice.”

            The power went out of Sigrun, and she couldn’t tell if her prophecy, her curse, would be a true one.

            The goddess looked at her, and something in those perfect, empty eyes flickered. Fear or hope, or both twined together like close-growing pines.

            Inkeri climbed into the carriage, and the driver flicked the reins.

            A moment later, Sigrun was gone, too. A grey bird fluttered away into the smoky chaos.

 

            It was mid-day by the time Brokkr reached his claim. The fine house was gone. Its timbers and cedar-shake roof were a jumble of waterlogged trash amid the pines. Its starlight windows were smashed to pieces, the shards shrinking, turning to curls of silver mist in the sunlight.

            The forge, built of thicker timbers, still stood, but its roof was torn apart, silt and gravel ankle deep on the floor.

            Brokkr trembled, let go of the mule’s lead and ran to the lightning-struck tree.

            The tree had toppled. The hollow beneath it had been scoured clean. Not a speck of gold remained.

            “My father is quick to anger in the spring,” said Sigrun. She stepped from behind a fir tree, quiet as a fawn.

            “You did this,” Brokkr said.

            Sigrun shook her head. “No,” she said.

            “Why did you interfere?” Brokkr snapped.

            “Thought you might like to live through the day,” she said.

            Brokkr shook his head and patted the butt of his pistol.

            “I made this gun,” he said. “The bullets are the first gold I ever mined. I etched them with runes, powerful charms. Told these bullets to fly true and pierce what stood in their way, to find the heart’s blood and drink deep. I could have killed him myself.”

            “He’s a god, Brokkr.”

            “I know it,” the dwarf said.

            “Come with me.” She held out one hand, beckoning, in invitation and forgiveness. “We can go away together. Build another house, somewhere far from here, hidden.”

            But he turned and looked over his shoulder, at the distant dust cloud raised by departing horses and mules and wagons. His eyes sought for the copper-tressed woman from the Serpent’s Head. Then he glared at the hollow tree, emptied of the gold that could have adorned Inkeri. What gifts could he bring her now?

            “I’ll not be chased out of this valley without what’s mine,” Brokkr said. “Not by some damned foolish girl!”

            It was that last part, being called girl, that sliced through the last strands of affection binding Sigrun to him.

            “Your gold? It’s still here,” she said. “It’s in the gravel bars and the rills. You could smell it out well enough. But you won’t. You’ll take your mule and leave.”

            Brokkr’s fists were clenched in fury. He wished to all the gods, all the powers in all the worlds that he had a rock in his hand to bash in Sigrun’s skull. But even fired up with rage, he feared the moment after that, the rush of vengeful water. No mortal could fight a river.

            “I can dig it free again,” Brokkr said. “I can build again.”

            Inkeri shook her head. “He’ll come for you, Brokkr.”

            “He’s dead,” the dwarf spat.

            “No. Even my father couldn’t kill a god. Even I couldn’t, I don’t think. He’ll come for you. He’ll whisper your name to the winds, send them to seek for you across plains and over mountains. He’ll speak to the streams, ask if you’ve drunk from their waters. He’ll find you.”

            “I could have beat him,” Brokkr said. “I still can. You’ve no idea what I can do.”

            “Maybe,” Sigrun said. “Maybe you can even take away Inkeri and lock her up in a tower and keep her for a time. But not here.”

            She held her chin high, and no hurt showed in her eyes.

            “I should never have taken you to my bed,” the dwarf said, his words sour as vinegar. “I should never have given you the hospitality of my fire.”

            “Your fire? Your bed?” The pines shook and the ground trembled beneath them. “This is my valley, my home, my birthright!”

            Brokkr braced himself as Sigrun opened her mouth, waiting for a curse to fly and find him. She had the strength and cunning, more than he’d guessed.

            But Sigrun lowered her hands and looked away.

            “I’ve no spell to lay on your head,” Sigrun said. “Nothing I could do would be worse than what you’ve brought on yourself.”

            Brokkr nodded grimly. He salvaged some tools, bridled his mule, and started walking.

            Sigrun turned away before Brokkr was out of sight.

            When he was gone, she cried at last. She wondered that she had been such a fool. She wiped tears from her eyes, and the south wind rustled through her long, stringy hair and wrapped itself around her shoulders like a shawl.

 

            A fortnight later, the valley was empty again. Ferns pushed up through the blackened rubble of the little town. When winter came, sluices collapsed one by one on the hillsides under the weight of snow. The river rose and washed away the bones of men killed for the love of gold.

            Sigrun retreated to her little hut, cleaned out the cobwebs and dust, and slept again on the bed she had built for herself. She added a few new tools – pots and pans, new knives, a hatchet. Over her bed she hung a long saw, and at night she whispered the words Brokkr had taught her, for shaping wood and metal to call down starlight.

            She thought for a time of staying, of letting Inkeri’s prophecy come true. Witch of the woods, prophet of the pine forests. It could be a life, one she could make her own.

            But summer brought the creak of oxcart axles in the pass, and Sigrun found herself pacing the ridge lines, looking out over the distant peaks. The valley began to feel small, too small to share again.

            By the time the first prospectors waded into the creeks, Sigrun was gone. She left upriver, leaping one last time in the rapids in the skin of an otter, then flying overhead on grey-feathered wings. In her own shape she walked past the skull of her grandfather, skirting the cliffs of his cheekbones, a simple pack on her back.

            Maybe Inkeri’s prophecy would still catch hold of her, and draw her back to the valley like a steelhead on a line. Maybe she would never know love.

            But she would craft her own tale, before she returned.

 

 

∼  End  ∼

 

“The River’s Daughter and the Gunslinger God”  ©  Matthew Claxton
Matthew Claxton is a reporter whose career has allowed him to encounter magicians, con artists, philanthropists, lemurs, robots, stunt pilots, Mounties, live bears, and politicians. His stories have previously appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Mothership Zeta. He lives near Vancouver, British Columbia.

 

“Wild”  digital painting by Fran Eisemann
Photo reference for pose: “Wild Spirit” by Polish photographer Justyna Wrzeszcz 
Stock used:  “Close to the Waterfall”  by Austrian photographer Bernhard Siegl
Twenty Thousand Leagues” by Stephan Anderson

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