Author's Notes: Thank you for the comments so far – they've been very helpful. :) If you don't mind my asking you another specific question, I played a lot with the order of events in this chapter, moving pieces around. Do you find it flows well? Is it clear as time passes or the scenes shift?
The Third Year
The winter came and went, and with the melting of the snows and the budding of the leaves, the little boys returned, as their adopted brother had promised they would. Though, in the case of the eldest, "boy" no longer seemed appropriate. With their father dead, he was now the head of his family – a duty he took seriously.
There are some, he told Justice with a pair of eyes too old for his face, who do not wish us to visit you. But this is not what our father would have wished. We are sworn to your service, Coyote. As our father was. As his father before him. We will honour that, if others will not.
All right, said Justice reluctantly, unable to deny this simple statement in light of the gravity in the young man's eyes. Jes don't go getting' yerselves in trouble on my account.
The young man watched the coal-eyed boy playing with the little girl in the rapidly dwindling snow, and did not reply.
In between visits from Wolf-Eye's great-grandsons, Justice set about teaching the girl in earnest.
By the end of that first year she knew how to set camp, how to track men and big animals, how to befriend a horse, and how to find her way home again from anywhere in their valley.
By the end of the second, she could shoot a rifle, ride a horse bareback, herd cattle, and trap, kill, and clean just about anything.
By the summer of the third, the man named Justice had decided she was old enough to begin learning his pistols.
You been practicin' with yer mama's sword? he asked her as he took the guns apart and set the pieces one-by-one on the kitchen table.
She watched his hands as he worked and nodded. Yes, sir, she said. Are you going to let me shoot those today?
He snorted and gestured at her with his cigarette. What d'you think?
I think that would make this lesson more interesting, and therefore no.
Smart girl, he said, replacing the smoke between his teeth and leaning back from the dismantled revolvers. He pulled a contemplative drag from the cigarette and considered the gun metal on the table and the dark haired girl across from him. Yer what, fourteen?
Fifteen, she corrected him.
He made a face.
Fifteen is old enough, she insisted. If you keep putting this off I will be old and grey and lack the strength to even pull the trigger. I have been patient!
He snorted, and she immediately abandoned the lie in favour of a sounder accusation: you promised!
All right, all right, he said, waving her off. He leaned across the table to put his crooked face closer to hers. But you listen to me – these guns ain't jes guns, you get me? They're my guns. And you ain't ready for 'em yet. So I'll show you how to care for 'em, and I'll show you how to load and shoot 'em, but you ain't to touch 'em, 'less I say so, understand?
For a moment he thought her eagerness might prompt her to just agree, but however the years had softened her arrogance, they had only sharpened her willfulness. I have wielded my mother's sword since I was old enough to hold it, she pointed out proudly. And like these weapons, it is not just a sword. It is her sword.
His expression hardened. A sword ain't a gun, and yer mama ain't me.
They stared each other down for a long moment, and he wondered if they were going to fight. But a loose ash fell from the end of his cigarette and drew her attention once more to the pieces on the table. Her wide mouth tightened into a thin line, and at last she said: fine.
He wouldn't let her touch so much as the grip until she could name all the individual pieces off by heart. Then she had to watch him disassemble, clean, and reassemble the guns until she could recite the order and method by which this was done from memory. The tedious drills were worth the hours she put into them, however, the first time he set one of the revolvers in her hand.
It's heavy, she said, surprised.
The man named Justice said nothing. Simply watched the sun glint harshly off the barrel as she held it up and admired it. He had expected the gun to look out of place in her small hands, but she had grown more than he'd realized, and when her fingers curled around the grip, and slid against the trigger, the motion seemed the most natural thing in the world.
The only thing that held him back from tearing it from her hand and burying both guns somewhere she could never find them was an old echo in his heart: we are late in the year and the war, my friend. Your time is running out as surely as mine.
One day, while Justice was away, the coal-eyed boy came calling.
He is hunting, she answered when asked where her father was, which is the lie he tells me when he wishes to smoke and drink and sate his paranoia by riding far enough to ensure no enemy draws near. He will be gone for several days.
They are hunting, he answered when asked where his brothers were. Which is not a lie at all and they will return with fat game and soft pelts. They have promised to save you one for your bed. It will keep you warm this winter.
Why are you here, then? Why not at your brothers' side?
My uncle leads the hunting party, he responded and that was all he needed to say.
He helped her with her chores, and they spent the afternoon on the bank of a river that ran through the valley.
Will he be angry if he finds I have been here with you alone?
She dangled her feet in the cold water and leaned back to watch him hang his shirt on the branch of a nearby tree. Does it matter?
I do not wish to anger him, replied the boy carefully.
Why? she demanded, a frown playing on her face as the sun on the water. Do you fear him?
The boy thought about it. I do not, he said at last, though I should. But I respect him.
She said nothing, simply turned her eyes back to the glittering water.
He said her name and came to sit beside her. Still she refused to look at him, so he touched her shoulder. Why—?
But she shrugged his hand away and slipped into the river.
He called her name again, but it was distorted by the water between them and she ignored it. She allowed herself to sink all the way to the bottom, enjoying the push of the current against her, the way it billowed her long black hair like a pennant on the ramparts of her mother's palace. She did not surface until she heard him enter the water above.
He met her eyes as her head broke the water and his face was serious. I do not wish to anger him, he repeated once he was sure she was listening. But that does not mean I won't if I have to.
If he tells you to leave and I tell you to stay, what will you do?
He placed a hand over his heart. I will stay.
The boy made of fire cares little for whether the Oni Princess is a true oni, or not. He puts no tests before her, and makes no judgment. Whether Oni or Angel, he tells her, you are ash and earth and sky. You are stone and wood and blood. You are beauty and fear and inevitability, and you are here, and you are with me, and I burn brighter for that simple fact.
And together they dance until the sun lays his head down once more, and the night returns, and the boy made of fire must go.
What do you mean I am not yet ready? she demanded, angrily shoving the firearm back into its holster on her hip. I can take those revolvers apart and put them together again in the time it takes you to light your smoke. I can load and unload them before most men could even open the cylinder! I can shoot a target from my hip at thirty paces! She scowled fiercely at him. What more do you want?
Yer still slow on the draw, he told her flatly, lifting his hand from the gun he wore on his own hip to flick the ashes from the end of his cigarette. Cain't hit a target at any range if you cain't get yer weapon out in time.
You would be hard pressed to find a mortal to beat me on the draw.
Ain't mortals gonna be drawin' on you.
Each met the other's stare, fire in her eyes and stone in his.
He took a long drag from his cigarette and let it out again through his nose. Draw, he said, and his weapon was out and the hammer snapped against the empty chamber with a hollow click before her hand was halfway to her gun.
Boom, he said. Yer dead.
The man named Justice lit a cigarette and wished a lot of things. He wished he didn't have a bug in his craw that kept him out on the road more often than he liked this year. He wished the girl wasn't so old yet, and he wasn't so old yet, and things weren't moving so fast. He wished, most immediately, that he wasn't drunk.
He stared down at the coal-eyed boy from his perch on the great horse. The road to the valley stretched out behind the young man like a wagging tongue. Justice shook out his match.
You comin', or goin'? he demanded, though it was clear enough which.
Going, great Coyote, said the boy, unable to mask a flicker of guilt through his eyes, like smelt in a river.
That girl ain't with you, is she? he asked with a dark frown.
She remains, as she has sworn to you she would, the boy said. It is just me.
They continued to stare at each other for a long moment. Justice wondered where his brothers were and how many times he'd been to the valley when Justice had not and what he'd been up to with the girl. But he was sure he knew the answer to all of those, so they didn't merit asking. He snorted and pulled his hat down lower. Git a fire started, he growled, climbing down off the horse. Too dark to ride soon anyways.
Did you find anything in your travels?
Matter o' fact, I did, Justice said, blowing out a long trail of smoke. He flicked the ashes from the end of his cigarette and dug around in his saddle bag for his flask. You know what the railway is? Trains and such?
The boy nodded, and Justice could see in his expression that the boy knew just fine. Not just what it was, but what it meant. It is here? he asked, his voice tight.
'S comin', said Justice. His mouth was hard against his cigarette, and grim. Saw the smoke east of here. Got close enough to see what I needed to. Big black engine and a mess of people layin' track. You got time, yet, but not a lot of it.
Justice considered the question carefully, taking another long drag from his cigarette and chasing it with a mouthful of whiskey. Year at most, he said finally. And that's fer them to lay the tracks right through your village. You can bet they'll be sending some folks to have a chat with y'all before that happens.
My people…. The boy trailed off. They had both seen what the railway brought for people such as his. There was no need to name it.
Last of a dying breed, boy, said Justice grimly. You best hope they listen to you when you talk.
The coal-eyed boy turned to look to the east, though he could see no trains or smoke from their camp. I will try, he said despondently, but I do not think they will hear me. Would you help? Surely the voice of a god—
Ain't no god can help you now, Justice cut him off roughly. And I got my own problems with that train.
Lissen, said the man named Justice as their fire died down, I reckon this is just gonna fall on a new set of deaf ears, but if you got a brain in that melon you'll heed me well.
I am listening, Coyote, said the boy, turning from his thoughts to face the older man.
Whatever's between you and the girl, it's gonna end bad. Yer lookin' at a best case scenario of me packing her on the road soon as I git home and we're gone long before that train ever gets a whiff of us. But given what I suspect's been goin' on while I been out ridin', I already know she ain't gonna let me do it that quick.
No, lemme finish. Yer worst case scenario I cain't even describe to you, because I cain't predict her shape no more'n anyone else can, you hear me? But it'll be bad. He took a long drag from his cigarette and the boy watched him in silence. That ain't a girl yer sweet on, boy. It ain't even a god or whatever it is I am. Jes 'cause the universe stuck her in that form don't mean nothin', and you'd be smart to keep yer distance.
The coal-eyed boy stared at him, puzzled. I don't understand. She is the daughter of two gods, yes?
Yeah, but, said Justice, and floundered. Hell. He set the flask on the ground, though it was far too late to undo the damage it had done to his thoughts. Folks like me, and her mama, and Lawmen and the rest of us…we ain't…we got power, sure, but it's contained and directed. We're part of a…part of a – dammit, Michael – part of a story. And ain't no one knows the ending, but there's a story teller sure as shootin', and he's tellin' us where to go and what to say and for the most part we're doing it. It's not a good comparison, but it's the best I got right now, okay?
And…she is not like that?
No, said Justice. No, that little one ain't got no storyteller, and she ain't no story. She's a…she's a wildfire. Storyteller might'a lit it, but he ain't got no control over it once it's there. And if she gets big enough she'll burn up everything around her, including the storyteller. Including you.
The strength seemed to drain out of him all at once as he considered his own words. He sagged back against his saddle and shook his head. That's what I been trying to warn her about, but she don't listen any better'n a flame in the end either.
I'm sorry, Coyote, said the coal-eyed boy carefully, watching him as a rabbit might, but I made a promise.
Yeah, Justice grunted, I'm sure you did. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry too. He turned away from the fire and stretched himself out on the ground. G'night, kid.
Good night, said the coal-eyed boy.
And they stared at the fire or at the darkness and did not sleep.
One more year, she said.
One more year! she begged. I am not yet done my training. There is more to learn in tracking and hunting. More to learn with your weapons. Your guns defy me still, I have not mastered them.
He said nothing.
One more year. Or I will fight you every step. You will have to strike me down and tie me to your saddle and still I will writhe and struggle and scream. You will know no peace! Not a day! Not a moment!
Still he said nothing.
One more year, Justice. Tears threatened in her eyes. I have lost one home to this war already. One family. I am not ready to lose another. Please.
He discarded his cigarette and scowled at her as he crushed it beneath his boot. Is this about that boy?
She did not answer.
He turned away from her and pulled his hat down low. One more year, he said.
By the end of the third year, with the ice-cloaked trees their witness, the girl drew on her father as he drew on her, and they pulled the trigger at the same time.
For a moment they stared at each other, startled. Then she gave a whoop and dashed across the space between them to hurl her arms around his thin frame, nearly knocking him over in her excitement. I did it! she cried. I did it!
And Justice laughed and set his hat upon her head like a crown and she crowed in delight at her prize.
He watched her dance in the snow, raven hair whirling, and buried the breaking of his heart beneath the cold truths of the winter wind, her wild eyes, and the black smoke to the east.
You have done well, says the Oni King in response to her question, but you are no Oni yet. No true Oni.
I have passed all your tests, she snarls. I have learned all your lessons. I can flay the skin from a goblin before it dies! I can wield sword and magic as though they were my own talons! I can stand against any in your army who wish to try my strength!
So can Fate, growls the Oni King harshly, but no Oni is he.
What is left? she cries, and drives her foot against the ground so hard the castle shakes. What have I left to prove?
That you are True, says the Oni King, and he leaves her to her rage.