Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Along the Ashfold Road
by Robert Dawson

Big Boost
by N.E. Chenier

Ceres Beach Resort
by Paul Michael Moreau

by Michael Hodges

Space Squid!
by Myke Edwards

Dahlia and the Ronin
by Milo James Fowler

A Self-Digging Well
by Jay Fuller

World Without Rot
by Erin Lale

Water Finds Its Path
by Robert Lowell Russell

Turning Humans On
by Antha Ann Adkins


Biology of a Hyper-Evolved Theropod
by John McCormick

How Airplanes Fly, Really
by Eric M. Jones

You’ve Got Fantasy in My Science!
by Carol Kean




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Along the Ashfold Road

By Robert Dawson


A cracking slap cut through the market-day chatter, followed an instant later by a sharp, inhaled cry. I winced, and turned away from the herbs and gadgets of the Medicine Lady’s stall to see what was afoot.

Over by the rail fence, four people were facing off across a backsack that lay in the snow at their feet. Two of the women were dressed in heavy thigh-length coats of brown and white striped wool; one had her hand to her face, the other’s arm was around her protectively. I could not see the face of the third woman, but the voice, scolding like an angry squirrel, was that of my second cousin Debbie May. Her husband Tobias stood uncomfortably at the edge of the group.

I scanned the market square, from Seeger’s Inn on one side to the Watch-house on the other, hoping in vain to see the turkey-feathered cap of the Watch somewhere. Damnation! I was back on duty, then, only a few hours after the end of a long cold night shift.

“Any idea who those two are?” I asked the Medicine Lady.

“Way they’re dressed, I’d say they’re probably Sisters. A long walk, and poor return for their effort—I don’t think more than two people have traded with them since they got here.”

“I’d better go and break it up, anyhow. Keep this safe for me till I get back?” I put down the elidy handlamp that I’d just bought for five kilos of venison jerky. The elidy, scavenged in some distant Old Time city, was red; and though the lamp was bright, you could supposedly use it without dazzling your eyes at night.

“Just as a favor for you, Wolf, lad.” She tucked it away in a corner of her stall, behind another Old Time treasure: a metal bottle that would magically keep tea hot all morning. I went off to restore the peace, wondering what I’d got myself into. There were stories about the Sisters ...

I reached the little group. “All right, Debbie May. It’s over. Move on.”

“Wolf Delaney, you just keep the hell out of this!”

“Debbie May, this is Watch business.” I tugged my orange plastic Watchman’s whistle out of my pocket by its lanyard and let her see it. “Now, cousin, I’m giving you notice, official notice, to keep the peace, and to quit this place, herein fail not at your peril.”

“That creature was trying her whore’s tricks on my husband!”

“Tobe? What was going on?”

“Nothing ... all I did was, you know, ask them what they were trading.” He grinned weakly.

Debbie May spun onto him. “Tobias! Do you expect me to believe that? You may have been born stupid, but you know perfectly well what those sluts are trading.” She turned to me, thin-lipped. “Well, Wolf, since you’re so happy playing Watchman, I’ll leave you to deal with this.” She grabbed Tobias and marched him away. I cannot say that I envy him his marriage.

I turned to the other two women. The shorter one had the red print of Debbie May’s hand on her cheek, though her fur-trimmed hood had protected her from the worst of the blow. She looked to be twenty or a little older, with smooth pale cheeks and a tight, half-hearted smile. The other’s face had the lines of a few more winters; she looked angry rather than fearful. Both were clearly cold and tired; neither seemed dangerous.

Everybody in Stony Corner agreed that there were no men on the Sisters’ side of the White River; but there speculation took over. If a young man disappeared while hunting, the word in the tavern was that the Sisters had captured him to serve them like the town bull. Three years ago Lenny Dorleigh had gone across, having told his friends his intention of finding out just what was what with the Sisters. He had never been seen again. What happened to him, nobody knew; but few crossed the river from our side, and fewer came back.

There were other stories too. Old Pete Bluejay, for instance, swore that the Sisters had no need of men. They lived together, woman with woman, and bore their children—all daughters—using black arts from the Old Times. Others said that they bore both boys and girls, just like the women of our village, but sacrificed the boys to a she-bear that they kept in a cage in the village square. Or they bore no children at all, but stayed young forever by drinking men’s blood. If you listened for long enough, you could hear just about anything about the Sisters you wanted to.

Just break it up, that’s what the Watch Chief told me. Calm it down, move them on, and don’t waste the judge’s time. “Now, ladies, suppose you tell me your names and your business here?”

“Excuse me, ma’am?” said the older one, then frowned. “No, that’s the wrong word, in’t? Sir?” She pronounced the word hesitantly.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m Maura and this is Lissie. We came in to trade at the market.”

“Walked all the way here?”

“Yes,” she said, indicating two pairs of snowshoes piled beneath the backsack. “The Trading Pool’s frozen.”

The village of the Sisters was said to be not more than ten kilometers away from Stony Corner as the crow flies; but there had been no bridge across the murderous rapids of the White River for two hundred years. A man might row across below Loman’s Falls, three days downriver; a horseman searching for a ford would have to go much further than that. But sometimes in winter, during a hard freeze, the swirling waters of Ryder’s Pool froze over; and then a man—or woman—could cross on foot. In such weather, now and then, Sisters came to town.

“And what are you trading, if I may ask?”

“Maplesugar and embroidered moccasins, in’t?” She unlaced the bag. On top of folded clothes, there were a few neatly-sewn little birchbark boxes, each large enough to hold a couple hundred grams of sugar, and a fragrant bundle of smoke-tanned deerhide slippers, three or four pairs, tied with a leather thong. It seemed a mighty small amount to carry this far.

“Well, it’s time you were getting back to where you belong. But once we’re away from here, if you care to trade for venison jerky, I’m looking for maplesugar.”

Lissie started to say something, but Maura spoke quickly. “Yes, we’ll be glad to trade, won’t we, Lissie? We haven’t had much business so far today, have we?”

“Yes, a’ course,” Lissie said, though her voice sounded less certain.

Maura reached into the backsack, but I put out my hand to stop her. “I’ll just see you out of town, ladies, and we can dicker after that.”

Maura shouldered their bag, and we trudged through the market to the Medicine Lady’s stall to reclaim my handlamp. When we got there, the Medicine Lady was measuring a dipper of her white lightning into a yellow china mug with the puzzling words SMITH’S MUFFLER REPAIR, for Andrew One-Hand. She surveyed Maura and Lissie. “Good morning, my dears! A cold day to be walking far. Come here to trade, then?” She accepted a string of dried apple slices from Andrew, and hung it at the back of her stall, among the fragrant bunches of sassafras, tobacco, and cannabis.

“Yes—leastways, that was our plan,” said Maura. “Don’t worry, we won’t be taking your business.”

“Well, if there’s something you’re after, chances are somebody here will have it; but I doubt you’ll find much that you’re looking for in this stall,” the Medicine Lady said, and laughed. Maura looked at her sharply, but said nothing.

I said goodbye to the Medicine Lady and Andrew, and led the Sisters over to the hitching rail by the inn. Star stamped her feet and nickered when she saw me, her breath steaming in the cold air. The women put on their snowshoes, I climbed into the saddle, and we set off, following the old ashfold road upriver. The trail to Ryder’s Pool was about three hours away on foot; my farm, about an hour.

Snow covered the rough gray-black gravel of the road, and for a while the only sound was the crush of Star’s hooves and the creak and whisper of the snowshoes. I made Star walk slowly, but not long after we left Stony Corner, I noticed that Lissie was favoring her left foot.

“Your ankle all right, Lissie?” I asked.

“Reckon I twisted it a little on the way in. But I can walk on it, in’t?” She tried to smile. I said nothing, but it grew more and more uncomfortable to ride and watch her walk. A few minutes later, I drew up the reins and Star halted.

“Why are we stopping?” demanded Maura. Her right hand slipped under her coat, to the place on her hip where a sheath knife might hang.

“I think Lissie’d better ride,” I said, and slapped the saddle in front of me.

Maura relaxed, smiled, and withdrew her hand. “He’s right. Get up there, dear.” She knelt and untied Lissie’s snowshoes for her, then stood bent-kneed and made a stirrup with her hands. Lissie climbed up and took her place in front of me. I told Maura to sling the backsack and Lissie’s snowshoes behind the saddle.

When we came to the farm track, I had made up my mind. “Maura, this is where I turn off; but I wouldn’t feel right setting Lissie down to walk home on that ankle. I think you two had better stay with me and my mother for a night or two. Mother’s not the inquisitive type, and with her bad hip she doesn’t get around much to gossip anyhow; but if she does ask, you’re traveling from Loman’s Falls to Witten Swamp. The distance is about right.”

“I’m afraid that we cannot accept your hospitality, sir.” She paused, looked up mischievously at my face, and grinned at my perplexity. “Not, at least, until we know your name.”

I laughed. “Wolf Delaney of the Watch, at your service, madam. And I believe you did hear my name earlier, on the lips of my spiteful little cousin. But no doubt you had other things on your mind.”

Another ten minutes brought us to the warmth of the farmhouse. I showed the women in, and introduced them to Mother. When she heard that Lissie’s ankle was injured, she immediately took charge. “Come in here, child, and let me take a look at it,” she said, indicating her bedroom, the only one on the ground floor.

Ten minutes later Lissie emerged, bundled in Mother’s lamb’s wool house robe. For the first time I could see her face properly. Her skin was still pale, and her eyes were like a raccoon’s from weariness. The flush of the slap had faded. Her long black hair was still damp, but had been brushed. She smiled shyly.

Mother handed me an ancient glass jar, half-full of one of her homemade salves. I unscrewed the battered metal lid. The salve smelled of wintergreen and something acrid that I couldn’t identify.

“Now, Wolf, you’ve got strength in your fingers, and I don’t any more. You rub this into Lissie’s ankle, but not too hard now. Let her tell you how hard to press. And—wash your hands well afterwards with the lye soap, this has some powerful herbs in it. Maura, you come with me, dear, and I’ll find you something dry to wear. Then I’ll put on some wintergreen tea for all of us.”

Lissie smiled, sat down, and put her foot up on a stool; her ankle was red and a little swollen. I sat at her feet in the firelight, and cautiously did what I could to make the ankle better. Every so often she would gasp a little, and I’d rub more gently; but after a while I got the hang of it and she started to relax. I began to enjoy my task.


Mother told Lissie, firmly, that she would be fit to travel in three days and not before. Next day, when I rode home from my watch, Maura had already milked the cows and had started on the mucking-out. She was using our old steel pitchfork that never rusts; I took the wooden one down from its peg and joined in.

“Nice to have another pair of hands here.” I slung a steaming forkful of straw and manure out onto the dung heap.

“Least I could do. Lissie wanted to help too but your mother made her rest her ankle. Thank you for being kind to Lissie last night, by the way. She was being brave, but—I was afraid we’d be sleeping in a snowdrift.”

“So you really are from the other side of the White River?”

“Yes, we are.” She finished cleaning out one stall, and added clean straw. “You’ll pardon me for asking, Wolf, but do your friends always have such a warm welcome for visitors?” She paused, and spat thoughtfully on the floor.

“Ah, Debbie May has always been a hellcat. Believe it or not, when I was young and foolish—that would be about five years ago—we were engaged. Then my father died and we had a difficult year here at the farm, and I didn’t have much time for the dances and hayrides; and Tobias started hanging around her, and before I knew it she was engaged to him instead. For a few years now I’ve been thinking I owe Tobe a big favor.”

She laughed. “So’s there anybody else?”

“No; for a while I wasn’t interested, and these days my post with the Watch helps us get by, but it doesn’t leave me much time for courting.”

She made clucking noises. We cleaned out another stall in silence. Finally I got my courage up to speak.

“Maura, can I ask you something?”

“Your farm, in’t?”

“Yes, and so you’re a guest, and I should be quiet. But, look; yesterday, you had a few hundred grams of maplesugar and a small bundle of mocs in your pack. Hell of a way to walk just to trade those?”

Her eyes were guarded. “Wolf, that’s a fair question, and I’ll give you an answer. But not right now, in’t? Tonight, after I’ve talked with Lissie.” We finished the mucking-out in silence.


That night was a shift change, and I had the luxury of no watch for a whole day and a half, so I stayed up after Mother went to sleep. I went out for a last check on the barn, then paused for a quiet look at the stars, like points of burning ice. The frigid air made my chest tighten and my nostrils prickle, but I stayed outside for a few minutes anyway.

When I got in, Lissie and Maura had gone to bed. I sat by the greatroom fire, warming my hands, watching the embers slowly collapse, and listening to their hiss and rustle. After a few minutes, I heard a board creak. Maura, in a borrowed white nightgown, stood at the bottom of the steep enclosed staircase. “Wolf,” she whispered, “come here, please.”

She led me up the stairs, opened the guest room door, and gestured for me to enter. I stood near the head end of the bed, where the ceiling was high enough that I could stand without ducking my head. Lissie was sitting up in bed, a quilt around her shoulders; she smiled silently. Maura closed the door, sat on the bed beside her, and pointed me to the ladderback chair.

She spoke quietly and seriously. “Wolf, you asked why we walked all this way to trade a few hundred grams a’ maplesugar.”

“Yes. But you’re our guests, and it’s not properly my business.”

“Well, I’ll tell you, but it’s something of a long story. What d’you know about Alderlake?”

“Alderlake? You mean your village?”

“You don’t even know its name?” She laughed. “Then I can’t expect you to know too much else, in’t?”

“All right then ... you’d better start from the beginning.”

“Well, there aren’t a lot of men there.”

“Why? Have they moved away or something?”

She laughed. “No. But we don’t really know what is happening. It’s been going on for a long time, many generations. Once upon a time some of our women started only to have girls, and their daughters always had girls too. By my grandmother’s time there were still quite a few men, and their wives managed t’ work something out with the other women, the ones who were single or married to women, but wanted babies. Mostly, anyhow; there’s stories of some hellacious fights when some woman didn’t want to share. But by my mother’s time there were only a handful of boys born, and—how should I put this? It’s like that generation of men never grew up, they’re like little girls who haven’t learned to take any responsibility, in’t, Lissie? Paul the Smith now, he’d’ve done, but he died a few years ago when that horse kicked him. And Lissie and I have been married to each other for two years, and we want babies real badly; but we agreed this summer that we didn’t want babies from any of the men in Alderlake.” Lissie nodded firmly.

“Well,” I said, “there are plenty of men around here who would walk over to Alderlake for the privilege. Barefoot, I reckon.”

She pulled a face as if she had tasted something unpleasant. “Yes—every few years we get those. They think they can come and take us by force, and we won’t fight back. They don’t last long once they get across the river. Our Watchwomen are good hunters.”

So that was what happened to Lenny, was it? What had he said in the tavern the week before he left? “Show those dykes what a real man is like. Whether they like it or not,” and more filth like that. I had paid no attention: Lenny always talked that way when he was drunk. I shivered a little and decided he was no great loss.

Maura continued. “Anyhow, it’s not really approved of, but Lissie and I decided t’ cross the river ourselves and see if we could find a better father for our babies. D’you think that was foolish of us?”

I didn’t know what to say. “Don’t see why.”

“But we found—I suppose we should’ve known—that it’s not easy to just walk into a strange town and find a man. A decent man, that is, not a louse like your friend Tobias.”

“He’s not my friend. Got caught in a trap that I escaped, but that’s not enough to make him my friend.”

“I was joking, in’t?”

For a minute, the wind sighed around the corners of the roof, and now and then rattled the window. Finally Maura took a deep breath. “Wolf? Would you help us?”

“Help you with what?”

Maura’s face was neutral; she looked at the floor. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but we can’t go back into town. And Lissie and I like you, in’t, Lissie?”

I understood, and I felt my cheeks burn. They must have been able to hear my heart pounding.

Lissie nodded, shyly. “Yes, Wolf. Maura and I talked about it for a long time this afternoon, and we’d be proud to have babies from you. You’re a good man.” She smiled; it was an innocent smile, but with just a bit of playful come-on in it. ashfold road

That little smile somehow made my mind up. “Well, ladies, I wouldn’t like to leave you with a completely bad picture of Stony Corner hospitality.” If my voice was just a little shaky, well, the room was chilly.

Maura looked at Lissie and grinned triumphantly; Lissie smiled back. Without another word, Maura stood up as graceful as a doe, pulled the nightgown over her head, and stood there before me, arms apart, showing herself to me by the flickering candlelight. Her body was solid and muscular, but with enough feminine curves to catch the eye. Her breasts were high and firm, and her nipples stood up like raspberries in the cold air. Lissie hesitated for an instant, then let the quilt fall from her own shoulders; she too was bare beneath it. I gazed wordlessly, stood, and started to undress myself, conscious in turn of their stares. Lissie’s gaze was shy but curious; Maura’s, frank and hungry.

After an endless moment, Maura gave a low chuckle. “Well, then, lovers, let’s get under the quilt before we all freeze, in’t?” The spell was broken; I joined them as quickly as I could under the warm bedcovers, not quite believing this was happening. Maura licked her fingertips and pinched out the candle.

I thought of something I’d sometimes heard at stag nights at the tavern, when the groom-to-be had a bit of a history—or didn’t. “Around here, the men sometimes say it’s a mistake for two virgins to go to bed together. What would they make of three?”

“But we’re not virgins,” said Lissie.

In between us, Maura chuckled. “It’s the way they speak here, dearest. On this side of the river we are. For just a little longer. Come here, Wolf ... you’re ready, aren’t you, lover? Mmmm—yes, you are. Give me a baby.”


Next morning, there was a loud insistent knocking on the kitchen door. It was Tobe; behind him, still on horseback, were Red Dan and Zackry Seeger, the sons of the innkeeper. Red Dan had an old pistol, Zackry a heavy ox-whip. Both had battered hand-radios in their pockets. Tobe made as if to enter, but I stood in the doorway. “Sorry, Tobe. Can’t ask you in, Mother’s not dressed for company.”

“Fine, Wolf. Only wanted to ask you a question, anyway. Those two Sisters at the market: you were the one ran them out of town, right?”

“That’s it, Tobe; I reckoned it was easier than breaking up a catfight. Last thing I saw, they were headed up the ashfold road, back to where they came from. Told them not to stop even to piss till they got back to their own side of the river, if they knew what was good for them.”

“Well, in case they’re too stupid to take a hint, and they’re still hanging around, a few of us figured we could see them on their way properly. You could come join the fun if you wanted—so long as you leave your Watch whistle behind.” He laughed unpleasantly.

“Thanks for the invitation, Tobe, but they’ll be long gone.”

“Well, if you hear or see anything, just let us know. You needn’t bother to tell Debbie May, by the way. This is men’s business, you know what I mean?”

“Of course,” I assured him, thinking as I did so that he and Debbie May truly deserved each other.

When I walked back into the greatroom I almost bumped into Mother. She was looking thoughtful. “Wolf, do you think it would be better if Maura and Lissie stayed upstairs? If we keep the curtains drawn all day, people will wonder.”


I explained the situation to Maura and Lissie; from then on, they stayed in their room. Mother’s bad hip made it difficult for her to climb the steep stairs, so I brought them up their meals and (to Lissie’s blushes) carried their chamber pot down to empty it. In between farm tasks, I came up to visit them often; and though the room was small, we managed to pass the time pleasantly.

It was warmer during the day, especially in the afternoon with the sun streaming in the window. I remember Lissie’s slim body riding above me, her head almost brushing the low sloping ceiling over the bed, and Lissie saying: “Mama used’a tell me that if you did it this way you’d have a boy.” And Maura, squeezed in beside us on the narrow bed, asking mock-seriously: “And did it ever work for her?” And Lissie’s laughter.


The next afternoon, after my Watch shift, I was riding home along the ashfold road. As I approached the trail to the farm, Tobe’s horse appeared. I kept my face blank.

“Good day, Tobe. What brings you out this way?”

He smirked. “I just happened to notice snowshoe tracks on your trail here. Only going one way, too, that I could see. And up at Ryder’s Pool, there’s still none heading back across the pool. So I thought I’d do the neighborly thing and check if maybe you had any vermin in your barn. Reckon you should thank me.”

“I’ll thank you—thank you to stay off my land from now on. Now, if you’ve finished looking for squirrels in my woodpile, get back home before Debbie May wonders where you are.”

He glared at me as if he wanted to thrash me. I spurred Star past him, cursing myself for not taking a hemlock branch and dusting out all trace of Maura’s snowshoes on that first evening. When I got to the house, Mother was standing by the kitchen door, holding a skinning knife. Her face was grim.

“We’ve had company, Wolf,” she said.

“Yes, I met him on his way out. Did he get inside?”

“Not likely. Tobias Staghorn, I told him, I’m a respectable woman, and I’m not having the likes of you in my house. Then I let him see the knife in my hand—a woman has a right to use a knife in her own kitchen, doesn’t she?—and told him to get back to his own wife.”

I laughed. “I reckon he’s had Debbie May thrown in his face one time too many today. Probably explains why he took it so poorly from me.”

She smiled a little, then looked serious again. “But, Wolf—I’m sorry, but as soon as Lissie can travel, I think they’d better go. We can’t keep this up forever.”

After supper, she examined Lissie’s ankle and decided that she could leave in the morning. I stood there, watching Lissie pull her woolen stocking back on and wishing they could stay longer; but I had to admit to myself that the longer they stayed, the more chance there was of trouble.

That night, we made one determined last effort to ensure that Maura and Lissie went home with what they had come for. Afterward, lying spooned between them, I said to the back of Lissie’s head: “If by any chance this hasn’t worked, my dears, just come back and I’ll make good on the labor.”

From behind me, Maura laughed in my ear. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, lover. You seem to know your craft pretty well for a ’prentice, and both Lissie and I are fertile this week, in’t, Lissie?”

“Mm-hmm,” came the sleepy and contented answer.

“That’s lucky,” I said.

“Not really; it’s common for women who’ve been married for a while to share a month, and we did plan this visit carefully.” The moon was setting slowly over the barn, a fat crescent like a tilted silver bowl, following the vanished sun down the western sky. “So I’m guessing that come October we’ll each have a little girl with your pretty eyes.”

“Or maybe a boy, Maura?”

“Sorry, lover, but I don’t think so. It goes with the mothers. That’s why we had to come out here in the first place, in’t?”


We were up well before the late-rising winter sun. It was decided that we would saddle both Star and Blaze, and I would ride with the women as far as Ryder’s Pool and bring the horses back. We left in the dark; although the moon was down, I turned my elidy lamp off before we reached the ashfold road. Maura rode Blaze; Lissie had insisted on riding in front of me as she had done three days earlier, at which Maura had smiled indulgently.

We rode up the road in the dark, finding our way by the notch of starry sky between the trees that loomed on either side of us, and by the starlight on the snow, so faint that it faded when I looked at it straight on. After we had been riding for about a quarter of an hour, I thought I heard hooves behind us. I put my hand on Maura’s arm, and we reined the horses to a stop. For what seemed like an age, we listened, but heard nothing but the crackle of frozen branches and the far lonesome howl of a coyote. Eventually we rode on.

Slowly the sky lightened from black to gray. Heavy low clouds were moving in from the south, and the first flakes of snow were falling. By full dawn, we were at the little clearing by Ryder’s Pool. As Tobe had said, only two sets of snowshoe tracks marked the snow. Up by the rapids, steam rose from holes in the ice where the water flowed too quickly to freeze.

We tied the horses to a tree. Lissie took an Old Time compass, made of plastic as clear as glass, from inside her clothing and took a preparatory bearing. While the women prepared for their walk, I listened to the faint murmur of the flowing water, and tried to order my thoughts. Finally I found words for what I thought I was trying to say, and my voice broke the near-silence. “Lissie ... Maura ... I think I’m in love with you. With both of you. I wish you would stay.”

Maura looked up from the snowshoe strap she was adjusting, smiled gently, and shook her head. “Oh, I don’t think you are, Wolf. Hope not, anyhow—because we have t’ go, and unless you want to trade professional compliments with our Watchwomen, you have t’ stay. Now, kiss us goodbye, Wolf dear, and we’ll be off.” She stood up, opened her arms, and stepped towards me.

The silence was shattered by a loud guffaw. “Well, well, Tobe! What have we got here?”

I looked around. Three horses, their hooves and harness rings muffled in sacking, stood at the entrance to the clearing. Red Dan was on the nearest horse; behind him were Tobe and Zackry. I took a step towards them. There was an explosive crack, and snow and stone chips erupted from a boulder in front of me.

“Stay right there,” said Dan, quietly. He glanced at Tobe. “We don’t need this one for anything, do we?”

“That interfering son of a bitch? Hell, no.”

Dan raised the pistol, pointed it at me again, and squeezed the trigger. There was another explosion, and a burning pain in my upper left arm. I fell to the ground, hoping he’d think he’d hit me squarely.

I tensed my muscles, seeing if my arm still worked. My sleeve was soaked with blood, and I had to grit my teeth against the pain, but the bone wasn’t broken, and my fingers moved. Clearly Dan was no marksman. It made sense; while Old Time guns, even in working order, were fairly common, the cartridges for them came, a handful at a time, from the cities. Owners traded for them one by one, paying dearly. Probably he didn’t get a lot of practice; and, if I knew Red Dan, last night’s whiskey was not helping his aim.

There was a little hummock half a meter from my face, where successive layers of gently falling snow had patiently passed upward the shape of something on the ground. A rock, probably, maybe twenty centimeters down. I wanted that rock. But I could not get it while that pistol was pinning me down in the snow; I would have to be patient. I thrashed in feigned death agony, managing to level the tell-tale hillock. My rock would stay my own secret for now.

“Zack. See if he’s alive.”

I heard footsteps behind me and forced myself to lie still. A boot smashed into my right side. I heard a rib crack, and despite my best efforts could not restrain a groan of agony.

“Yep. For now,” Zackry said, and snickered.

“That’s all right,” said Dan. “Wolf, you just keep laying there.” He gestured with the pistol.

“I’ll stay,” I growled, making no effort to hide the pain. The worse he thought I was hurt, the better our chances were. How many bullets did he have left? Had he owned enough to fill all six chambers?

Tobe had also dismounted while I was feigning dead. Now he spoke up. “That’s good. Now, honey—yes, you, the tall one. Get those clothes off. Or we’ll put a bullet in Lover Boy’s knee. Just to start.”

With no change of expression, Maura turned away from the men and started to strip. Her wool trousers had buttons down the outsides of the legs, so she could remove them without taking her boots off. In a minute she turned back towards Tobe, holding her clothes in front of her at waist height. Her nakedness, that had looked so queenly in the little bedroom, now just made her look achingly vulnerable. I bit my lip and vowed to kill Tobe slowly if I got the chance. But right now Dan’s pistol, only a few meters away, pinned me to the ground, and I doubted if even he could miss at that range. I lay still, trembling with impotent fury.

Tobe stepped up to her, and casually slashed her across the cheek with his riding whip. The sharp crack of the leather on her smooth skin made me wince; Maura let only a choked whimper escape her. Lissie was weeping silently.

“Throw that shit away, bitch,” he said. “I want a good look at what I’m going to enjoy.”

For a moment she stood there, as drops of blood started to well on her cheek. Then, in one motion, she threw her clothes to one side. They landed in the snow, two meters away. I saw Tobe’s head move, as his eyes followed the bundle. Something green showed among the clothes. His gaze lingered, as if he was trying to decide what it was.

It was the dyed leather sheath of her belt knife.

It was empty.

Tobe was silent for one more heartbeat. Then there was a whimper of fear. “Oh my God ...”

Maura’s right hand flashed up, backhand, and passed in front of his throat. His last word ended in a terrible spluttering cry, his voice as thin and harsh in the severed windpipe as the death scream of a trapped animal. With each beat of his heart, his blood sprayed her. She did not step clear, but watched calmly, standing as naked and bloody as a newborn baby, while Tobe crumpled to the ground; and her face was terrible.

Red Dan turned in the saddle and clumsily reaimed his pistol towards Maura. Released from its black snake eye, I scrabbled under the snow for my rock. My fingers found it; it was fist-sized, and it felt better in my hand than any other weapon I’d ever held, better than my first bow. But it was frozen to the ground. I pulled as hard as I could, sending waves of agony through my broken rib, but it would not move.

Maura looked up at Dan with contempt. There would be no dodging at that range. I yanked desperately at the rock, wondering whether she could throw a knife.

Dan steadied his hand. At that moment my rock came free. I sprang to my feet, calling his name, and hurled the rock at his head, as hard as I could. He had only turned halfway when it hit his temple with a sick wet crack like a melon dropped onto a stone floor. The gun went off harmlessly as he slowly toppled from his horse.

Zackry snarled an oath and came for me, swinging his heavy club. I resolved to trade my life as dearly as, unarmed, I might; but while he was still five meters away, something flickered in the air. His expression of rage turned to shock and fear, as half the shaft of a hunting arrow sprouted from his chest. For a moment he looked at something behind me, in the direction of the pool; then he took one more step, dropped his club, fumbled at the shaft and collapsed at my feet.

I kicked the club away from his fingers and started across the clearing towards the women. But Maura screamed: “No, Wolf! Lie flat!”

I threw myself down, my rib screaming again as I hit the ground. Maura turned towards the pool, and called out, slowly and clearly. “It’s all right now. We’re safe. The other man is with us. Don’t shoot anymore!” A distant female voice answered from the other side.

I got cautiously to my feet, looking nervously toward the far side of the pool. Lissie ran to embrace Maura, but Maura waved her back and began to clean herself off with handfuls of snow, grimacing as she did so. “Friggin’ Allmother, it’s cold!” she gasped through chattering teeth. In a few minutes most of the blood was gone. She dressed again, still shivering; and then she and Lissie clung together and comforted each other.

Eventually they noticed me. “Are you hurt, Wolf?” Lissie asked. She came to put her arms around me; I carefully guided her, to keep the pressure up beyond the broken rib. It hurt anyhow.

“I’ll live, I think,” I said, and laughed weakly. That hurt too.


“Wolf?” asked Maura, as she bandaged my arm with a strip torn from her shirt. “This is going to be bad for you, back in the village, in’t?”

It was. I tried to explain the situation. Red Dan and Zackry may have been drunks and bullies when living, but they were well-connected; and Tobe’s family ran the mill. Dead and no more trouble, they were more respectable citizens than I was. My version of the story was not going to be believed. I stood there, slowly realizing that my life as I knew it was over. Perhaps I could leave Stony Corner and start again somewhere else—but what about Mother?

“I’m sorry, Wolf,” said Maura. “We didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Lissie spoke up. “But that’s supposing there ever was a fight here. Suppose they just kept going, following us?”

Overhead a crow cawed, spreading the news of spilled blood and fresh carrion. We looked at each other, and exchanged grins. It was perfect. Tobe and his friends were just the sort to go across the river looking for trouble. All that was needed was that their horses keep going, and that the bodies never show up. “Think we can get the horses across the ice?” asked Maura.

Lissie went and checked, scraping snow away down to bare ice. “It’s twenty centimeters or so” she called. “I think we can.”

She began to lead the three horses, one at a time, across the ice, talking to them gently as she walked to keep them calm. Meanwhile, Maura and I dragged the bodies up to the cauldron below the rapids where the water never freezes, and rolled them over the three-meter bank into the boiling eddy. Dan’s body went into the black water with hardly a splash, sank, and was dragged away by the relentless current before it could surface. Zackry went the same way; but Tobe’s corpse landed flat and drifted limply like a rag doll in a puddle, turning slowly for a minute or so before it, too, slipped under the ice and vanished forever.

We took branches and brushed out the most obvious traces of the fight, burying the already-frozen blood deeply. We found the pistol; it had one bullet left in it, and it joined Red Dan in Ryder’s Pool.

It was starting to snow in earnest now, and by the morning little sign of the fight would be left, just half-buried prints of hoof and snowshoe suggesting that the Sisters had finally gone home, with three bold vigilantes from Stony Hollow in hot pursuit. I would report at the Watch-house that I had met them on the ashfold road and tried to argue them out of it, but to no avail; and there, with luck, the matter would rest.

But the snow, while welcome, meant that Maura and Lissie could delay their departure no longer. We kissed goodbye, tenderly, though our kisses lacked the passion of those recent nights that were already starting to seem like a crazy dream, and our words of farewell felt formal and awkward. Then they turned, and hand in hand they crossed the frozen pool. They climbed the far bank, mounted two of the horses, and rode off leading the third, never looking back. I stood for a while, watching and thinking. Once I thought I saw someone move, deep among the trees on the far side, but it might have been a trick of the light. I shouted a few words of thanks anyhow, but there was no answer.

I hauled myself awkwardly and painfully onto Star, and led Blaze slowly back to the farm. For the first half hour or so, I was thinking of the strangeness of the last few days. Then I thought to the future, and decided that there were single women aplenty in Stony Corner, and no reason why I should not be able to attract a nice one; and that thought kept my spirits up for most of the way home.

Then, finally, as I neared the farm, with the blowing snow starting to freeze onto my eyebrows, I began to think of two little girls who would be born in October, only ten kilometers away as the crow flies but beyond my reach, two little girls with eyes maybe like mine. I wondered if, sometime when I was an old man, I would meet them.

I wondered if I would recognize them if I did. END

Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian university. His story “Time Zones” appeared last year in “Perihelion.” He also has had stories published in “AE” and “Niteblade.” His other interests include cycling, hiking, fencing, and music.


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