Sometimes you can see the future coming at you with all the immensity of a train hurtling down the iron tracks without its conductor. Steam and fire pour out of its mouth and it gains speed with every mile and you know, you just know, that you can’t move yourself an inch from its path. It’s gonna hit you, and it’s gonna hurt, and there’s no way to prevent it.
Sometimes you can see the future coming down, but it’s not you it’s meant to hit, but the sister standing beside you who may see it, may not, and her boots are stood fast to the ground as if made from the bones of a mountain. You know it’s gonna be a spectacular and horrible collision, the future and the girl like mountains, and you know that if she won’t move then you won’t either, because leaving her to her own destruction has never been your way of things.
It was that way when Helios came into our lives. Dark eyes and sharp grins and just enough mean to make it through the world mostly whole, he and Fred were like each side of a mirror, maybe even cut from the splinters of the same dying star when their souls came to be. He was drawn to her the moment he stepped foot in camp. I heard Fred draw a harsh breath and whatever magic or chemistry or soul lay between them, she was caught from the very beginning.
I watched them exchange barbs and laughter and see the challenge light up in their hearts, and I heard the scream of that train in the distance.
Helios kept his past to himself. That wasn’t so strange to us at first. We were all of us coming or running from something painful we wanted to forget or make right. Over time he mentioned a brother he loved and lost, and bits about an old woman who taught him how to throw a knife dead accurate. He knew magic, but he said it was only a little, only enough to keep him safe in the wilds.
I didn’t believe him, but I had no cause to call him on it at the time. Sometimes I wonder if I had… But that’s no use. That train was coming, I doubt any such action on my part could have turned it aside.
We moved camp to stay ahead of the Rangers and the Army, such as it was, and Fred fell more deeply in love with Helios and he with her every day. They took to hunting together, coming back with their hair disheveled and their clothes in disarray. I moved into Dove’s tent after a while. There’s only so much of your sister you can share before you want to take a fork to your eyes.
Dove watched Fred and Helios, too, and his mouth slid deeper and deeper into frown.
“You’re getting too distracted,” Dove told her one day. “Love is a fine thing, but it’s making you lazy and stupid. You forgot three of the boundary wards last night.”
Dove could have worded it better, but I suppose it stung him something deep, seeing Fred go so completely wild for this stranger who did nothing more than walk into camp one day. I cringed as Fred coiled over on herself and rose up like a kicked rattler.
I don’t remember exactly what Fred shouted back, but every word was laced with venom and she struck deep into every vulnerable soft spot Dove had left. She’d have been kinder to bury a knife in his chest. They both left steaming, and something broke between them that day. They never did fix it. They worked around each other from then on out, never directly speaking, but they kept any other arguments under the surface.
The damage was done, though. In-fighting weakens any army, even one so small as ours. The Rangers caught up to us in a box canyon and we had it out. We lost nine under the fiery sun and left them in the sand where they fell. We escaped only narrowly with the help of a sudden rain storm and a landslide that took the Rangers’ ponies. We scraped our way to the high country and hid out for weeks subsisting on lizards, quail, and alkie water.
Four left us that night, preferring to go back to whatever was left of their families and tribes. Fred, me, Helios, Dove, and the Cayburr cousins were all who stayed. We still required vengeance or some sort of justice. We decided to ride for Antelope Head Junction. A risk, but we weren’t looking for a future beyond some kind of last stand against the coven alders responsible for our pain.
Helios started acting strange. He withdrew some of his affection and volunteered for solo hunts and scouting. It hurt Fred and she couldn’t see what she’d done wrong. She tried to talk to him. I would hear him brush it away with a smile and a trail of kisses. He was just jumpy, and tired, and hungry. He needed some time to himself. It was some kind of anniversary, though I never heard what kind, that had him out of sorts. Fred accepted it to his face, but she worried, and she chewed it over every time he left.
Then, two days before we reached Antelope Head Junction, the Rangers came upon us with three coven alders in tow. They took us by surprise, and it was so much like that night at Turtle River it felt we’d been kicked in the teeth. Within an hour we were trussed up tighter than a tangled net and set on our knees before the alders.
All except Helios. He stood behind them, gun still in his holster. One of the alders, a plump short man with gray robes and three gold rings pierced through his eyebrow that marked him as High Alder, gave Helios a wand.
“You more than earned it back. To think, the infamous Granny Ness’ grandson finally brought to heel, and the legendary Sisters who burned Great Falls to ashes. This is a momentous occasion.”
Maybe it was the late hour and the flickering torchlight, but Helios seemed pale in the face and all his usual charm and bravado had fled him. He was sent away.
“You are cursed, Helios! You betray your loyalty, you betray your friends, you betray your heart! You will never rest in peace above the earth or inside it. You will have a cluster of thorns in your side for the rest of your days and you will never love, never again, and never have the love of another for so long as I will it!” Fred’s voice was the crack of a rifle across an empty plain, and her voice struck Helios dead center.
He looked back at her, just once, and then he rode away, unable to withstand her fury.
The Rangers and the Alders took us to Antelope Head and lined us up on the execution platform after the trial. They took our boots and jackets and put the nooses around our necks. People cheered for our deaths in the crowd below. A few did not, but they raised no protest, nor staged attempt at rescue.
“I’m sorry,” Dove said as the mayor read out the charges for everyone to hear. “I wish it had not been this way between us. You both fought bravely for the cause. Granny is smiling on us now.”
“When you see her, give her our love,” Fred said, her voice hoarse.
“You’re family, both of you. Granny will be waiting for all of us at the docks to bear us over.”
The mayor finished the charges and signaled the executioner.
“It’s not our time to die,” I said as they sprung the lever. I don’t know if he heard it as an apology or not, but in that moment I almost wished it was the end for us.
Later, Fred and I dug our way out of the loose grave dirt and rose, breathing, under the light of a half moon hidden behind a skein of clouds. Dove was still buried, his grave marked with wood and a simple inscription of ‘Dove Traveller, Criminal’.
“What now?” I asked in a whisper as my throat healed from the severe wrenching.
“We finish what we started,” Fred said. She knelt by Dove’s grave and placed a hand on the mound, head bowed. “First the Alders. Then Helios. We right our wrongs and pay for them as needed. Life is not ours to live until it’s all done.”
I put my hand out to help her up. She took it.
Fred was never the same after that. Neither was I, of course, but it was more subtle with me. I remembered that night the story Granny told us of that mythical firebird that lived to the far east. How it burned itself to ash and rose from it once more. That night we both entered the fire and burned, fast and merciless, through the coven lands until we found those responsible for everything. I make no apologies for it, though I know it made us no better than the alders themselves for killing all we held dear. We made them fear the Sisters, we seared our agony and anger into every house, every fence post, and every field.
The smoke settled on our skin and wrapped its tendrils around our hearts to smolder beneath our ribs. We hit hard and fast and disappeared into the dark, pulling the shadows around us like old friends. We found the alders seven months later, and by then we’d broken the line of their ranches and freed the people they enslaved under false contracts. The alders surrendered. We hung them from their alter tree and watched the central stronghold burn until it turned the very sky dark.
We found Helios not long after. He had taken shelter in an abandoned homestead where shredded curtains blew in the warm breeze and the door hung ajar by its bottom hinges.
Fred’s curse struck deeper than I could have predicted. An infection had taken hold of him, leaving a track of dark lines to spider web his skin and cripple his strength. It covered his side, his chest, and his back. He had wandered, he said, delirious and weak, and no one would so much as look at him when he called for help. They dodged from his grasping hands and closed their ears to his cries. He burned while awake and he burned in his dreams. All he saw was Fred on her knees, her eyes empty pits of flame, holding his heart in her hands.
He asked for mercy.
Part of Fred wanted to give it to him. It was a small part, made brittle and frail by the fire.
She took his gun and wand. She tied his horse to ours.
“I have to live with what you did for so much longer than you do. You can suffer for as long as possible, it will never be long enough.”
We left him and ignored his shouting, his pleading. It did not bring Fred any peace, but then, neither did killing the alders. Peace is a thing of comfort and warmth. Justice is cold and hard, but it opens the door of peace for others, for them who come long after and don’t have the wreckage of their lives still at their feet.
That year we burned and died and burned again. We were reborn. I can’t say yet what we were reborn as. Maybe just older. We still have to figure that out. Until we do we have ashes and wreckage to sort through. Then, later, see what we can rebuild.