THE INNKEEPER’S WIDOW
by K. H. Koehler
The Innkeeper’s Widow put her feet on the crosspiece of the bow and gritted her teeth, the salty saliva burning on her broken lips. The crank turned over for the first time in five years, the old weapon working as Jonathan long ago at a rude workbench had intended it work. The lock clicked—a sound too big in even this vast, airlessly hot field that rose and fell into hills of burning sand. The bowstring caught. The weapon was primed. Four feet of death, trapped and barely held in place.
Face flushed with work and windburn, cords of wayward hair slapped to her cheeks like lassos, the Innkeeper’s Widow raised the crossbow to her shoulder and steadied herself, feet a shoulder’s width apart. No fear. Jonathan’s words from long ago.
She felt the shrieking whirl of wind beating birdlike against her face. She felt the dull burn of salt in the scars of her hands, the dull ache of calluses on her feet. She tasted red sand. Deadpan. The taste at the end of the world—salt and bone-grit and machine-oil. Her finger caressed the trigger, a rounded black steel claw that slid, slid further.
Nothing happened, nothing that she could feel. She stood absolutely still, breathing through silence and saliva and time and the slow, clockless ticking of her own human heartbeat. There was an ache in her back that reached to her heels. It reminded her of childbirth, though no children remained. None that lived properly. She lowered the crossbow, a sickle-thin, savage smile tugging the broken, sandburned corners of her lips apart. She brushed at her hair, casting forth a halo of dust.
A steel quarrel jutted from the center of an old oak’s eye. Upon the quarrel shivered the dead thing. It wormed around the quarrel like an epileptic, pouring out the mealy white stinking contents of its body.
The Innkeeper’s Widow tilted back her head until her neck cracked and the wind skated her gritty hair off her shiny crimson face. She found the ghostly spherical light of the satellite spinning far above. Offworld, they called it. Omega Star. Wormwood. Years, decades, lifetimes ago, it had been lifted with godlike precision into the sky. Travelers had gone to the Star to sow colonies. They returned with the contagion.
Now the toymakers and machinemakers were gone. As a child, she had imagined angry bones chittering hungrily within the steel hull hanging high above, unable to find flesh, turning on their own like scorpions at the bottom of a tank. Yet the uncaring Star carried on like the living below, heedless of death or of life.
Let it go, the other Frontiersmen in her village had said. Let it be. Sheep were a commodity. They could be purchased a hundred head on any market day, if only you had the money and the nerve to raise them. She had the money; Jonathan had taught her nerve. No one traveled these lands anymore. No one slept in her beds. But still…it was a matter of pride with her. The sheep fed her, their wool kept her warm when the night turned to ice. In return she protected them, hand-raised the young, watched over them continuously. Obviously not enough or they would be alive now instead of strewn across her land with their bellies rent like melons, tongues lolling stupidly in death. A necropolis of sheep.
She had burned them all. And Shep.
The night before, Shep’s carcass had stained the rug before the hearth. She had felt her resignation build then, like a migraine. Shep was a worker like she. He was one of the alive. He hadn’t deserved this. Shep had crawled home, hindquarters smashed like a giant insect, to warn her. She had found him panting at the back door, kissed his nose, and then hammered him into silence with Jonathan’s work mallet. There were no bullets, no guns not jammed with red sand.
She bit her lip until her mouth turned to metal. Jonathan had taught her well, shown her how to move on, beyond death, beyond his leaving, beyond the end of the world.
She hooked the crossbow over her gelding’s saddle, reached into the roughly-sewn saddlebags, and found what she needed. The thing on the tree looked at her. It looked through her. Perhaps it remembered. It raised one black-bloated hand to her, outstretched, like a man begging alms.
The Innkeeper’s Window considered the gesture. Then she decided she was a Star and the Star carried on. She sucked sand in with her sob. She planted her feet and coiled her aching muscles. And with the small, well-oiled woodman’s axe, she cleaved the dead hand from the dead thing. It fell like a stone at her feet, Jonathan’s wedding band embedded in the bloodless meat of the ring finger. “I love you,” she said before the second swing chunked into the thing’s head.