No Land For Heroes
by Cal Black
Published: May 10, 2022
Series: Legends & Legacies
Genre: Fantasy Western/Gaslamp Fantasy
Intended Age Group: Adult
Publisher: Bearberry Studio (Self Published)
Shown on Page (things clearly told to the reader):
Civil era warfare (but with magic) managed PTSD symptoms (insomnia, triggers), Animal death: dragon facing former abuser, Violence (similar to a 14AA or light R for mention of blood), drug use (medicinal, recreational)
Alluded to (things only mentioned in passing or hinted at):
Physical Abuse, Psychological Abuse, Domestic violence, Death of older children during war, Child abandonment, slavery, mild sexism, fictional racism (humans vs elves vs orcs, etc)
Mildred Berry is down to her last four bullets…
In a wild west where the only things more dangerous than outlaws are dragons, Deputy Berry is struggling to protect her town and keep her family fed. As a last resort, she robs a train for ammunition only to find that the cargo she needs so badly was owned by war hero Frederic Rousseau.
The same Frederic Rousseau whom she served during the Amelior Civil War. The same Frederic Rousseau she’s been hiding from for the last five years.
Millie knows a secret that could ruin Rousseau’s life, and he’ll stop at nothing to keep her from telling the truth. With her violent past bearing down on the life she’s built for herself, Millie has to decide how far she’ll be willing to go to keep her town safe.
Chapter 2: Red Hands
The train was still burning when the sun peeked over the horizon, painting the ugly clouds of smoke golden. The four women had offloaded the crates of ammunition and horses before the fire reached them. But now, exhausted and standing in the middle of a scorched patch of prairie, they watched what remained of the famed Blue Bullet burn.
“You’ve outdone yourself, Mildred,” Annie said, sucking on her teeth. The dark-skinned elf rested her hands on her hips as she studied the wreckage. “I used to think Auntie’s stories about you were made up, but destroying a whole train? Impressive.” Annie’s braids were pulled back, though one had caught a stray ember and smouldered where it rested against her broad shoulder. The smell of burning hair was masked by the heavy sulphur-musk of dragonfire and the far more pleasant scent of burning prairie. Either Annie hadn’t noticed, or she didn’t care.
“You shouldn’t believe everything your aunt says.” Millie winced as Sweetpea worked the piece of shrapnel out of her back and the elf scraped the heel of her moccasin against the crate she sat on, trying to get rid of the maker’s mark branded into the wood. The stylized initials ‘F’, ‘A’ and ‘R’ were ones she’d hoped to never see again, but kept turning up like a bad penny. If she were younger, the feeling of ‘getting back’ at the owner of those initials would have been the best thing in the world. Now, a tired, scarred, weary, Millie wondered if she was inviting more trouble into her life. The town needed those bullets. It didn’t matter who Millie had to steal them from.
“Now that’s not fair,” Sweetpea said, continuing to work on Millie’s back. The arroyan woman’s tail swished against her skirts as she concentrated. Somehow, despite all the fire, Sweetpea’s ruffles remained unscathed. “Millie didn’t ask the dragon to come attack the train.” She paused and leaned around to look at her patient with her big mismatched eyes: one blue, one gold. Sweetpea’s expression was warm and kind, despite the smear of Millie’s blood across her pink nose.
“You didn’t ask the dragon to help, did you?” she asked, lifting her eyebrows. High arroyans were interesting if you’d never met one before. They looked a little like elves and a little like orcs until you saw their horns and tails. Sweetpea’s horns were delicately curled, like her hair. Other than her eyes, Sweetpea was entirely pink: her skin was rosy, her freckles a shade or two darker, and her hair was the softest shade of blush.
“No,” Millie said slowly. “I did not plan on the dragon attacking the train while Ryan and I were on it.” She looked over at Ryan. The human was no help, grinning at Millie from where she sat on another liberated crate with the massive dog leaning into Ryan like he hadn’t seen her in years. His massive head rested on her shoulder while he was still sitting on the ground, his tail sweeping ash back and forth.
Fyodor was unnaturally big, even for a mastiff.
“In hindsight,” Ryan said, patting her oversized baby of a dog. “It’s a good thing the distraction went off early. Otherwise, things could have been much worse.” Fyodor whined when Ryan stopped petting him and he shoved his face into her shoulder, nearly knocking her off the crate she sat on.
“It went off too early?” Sweetpea asked, mismatched eyes going wide. “What happened? The spell starts when you set it. Was the train late?”
“I thought West-Colfield always ran on time,” Annie said, sarcastically. She was still staring at the tangle of metal that had once been the locomotive. Millie wondered which stories her aunt had told her if the other elf had thought they were just stories.
“New ownership,” Ryan offered. “The train was late leaving Plainfield. They added the horses at the last minute and they had yet to update the manifest.” Ryan glanced over at where the horses waited a safe distance away, grazing on what grass survived the flames. “Do you have enough room for them at the ranch, Annie?”
Annie’s ears flicked at the question. Turning, she studied the new herd with pursed lips.
“Should be fine for a while, though we’re not going to keep them all, are we?”
“It was fine, ‘Pea. The charge worked like it was supposed to.” Millie said, letting Ryan handle the horse issue. Right now, Millie was mostly concerned about the fingers that were still working on her back. “Could we please finish pulling that metal out?”
“Oh! Yes, sorry!” Sweetpea said, disappearing from Millie’s sight. “It’s caught a bit on an older scar, sorry Millie. This is going to hurt.”
“I’ll be fine,” Millie said. She winced as Sweetpea dug her fingers in a little deeper to grasp the shard of metal. The pain of Sweetpea wiggling the shard loose from Millie’s back was enough to make the elf suck in a breath and hold it deep in her chest. She compressed the air in her lungs until she felt the last bit of metal give up its hold on her flesh. A warm trickle of blood ran down her back, but at least now the metal was out and Pea could stitch her up.
“Here you go,” Sweetpea said, cheerfully dropping the twisted piece of metal into Millie’s palm.
“Oh,” Millie said, staring at it. Whatever it had been, the metal was now twisted beyond recognition. It’d felt larger than it looked, too. “Thank you?” She tossed the bloody shard aside. Soon this would just be another scar, another story. She didn’t need to keep a memento.
“You’re welcome,” Sweetpea chirped, settling in to stitch up the wound. She poured something over it that made Millie’s eyes water from how much it stung. Whiskey, from the smell of it. Millie wrinkled her nose.
“This will stop the bleeding, but you should see if your grandm—”
“She’s not my grandmother,” Millie corrected. “It’s her title. Like ‘Sheriff’, only ‘Grannie’. I figure I’ll stop by in a few days to see if they want any of our new horse friends. And get Grannie to look at my back while I’m there.”
“Well, what do we have here?” a male voice called out. “The Scorched Bluffs ladies having high tea?” Millie’s ears perked and twisted toward the sound. Dressed only in her camisole and with the wound in her back still open, she was not eager to entertain guests.
“Now if you’d all turn around real slow-like and put your hands up,” the man continued. His voice sounded familiar, but it took a moment for Millie to place it. The strange drawl was something she heard most often at Plainfield. Usually in the saloon ordering drinks.
“I’ll be taking them horses,” Isaiah Willard said. Isaiah was the youngest and dumbest of the Willard Boys’ gang. Millie waited a moment to see if any of his older, more dangerous brothers were around to interrupt him.
Ryan sat, calmly holding back Fyodor, who had stood and raised his hackles at the new arrival. His growl was low, warning the stranger to behave. Annie sucked on her teeth and watched Isaiah, hands on her hips. She didn’t look impressed. Sweetpea, living up to her name, had lifted a bloody hand to wave hello.
Turning on her crate to stare at the Willard, Millie let out a tired sigh. Isaiah had gotten a growth spurt, most of it going to the Adam’s apple at his throat and his legs, which ended in mismatched boots. Whoever had given him the confidence to try stealing the horses had done him a great disservice. But there he was, in his moth-eaten jacket and with a clunky revolver pointed their way.
“That won’t be a problem, will it, Sheriff Collins?” Isaiah asked. He grinned, his attempt at a beard made him look like he had mange. “You keep your attack dog over there with your furry friend, and I’ll be happy to pay you with a good time.” He reached down with his free hand and wiggled his belt buckle suggestively. Ryan made a face at the suggestion.
“You bring a babysitter with you?” Millie ‘the attack dog’, asked.
“One man against four women. Odds are still good,” Isaiah said. He looked at her and pulled a face as he noticed the heavy scarring on her back. “Messiah’s tits, Deputy, do you fight bears for fun?”
“Not bears,” Millie said, deadpan.
In a heartbeat, her revolver was in her hand, and firing a round straight into Isaiah’s skull. The man staggered backward and crumpled out of sight into the grasses, mouth agape. One bullet left until they could unpack the crates back in town.
“Millie…” Ryan said reproachfully. “Was that necessary? He was just a kid.”
Annie bit her lip, though her shoulders shook with quiet laughter. Sweetpea whistled softly, impressed at the accuracy.
“He knew who we were,” Millie said with a one-sided shrug. “Isaiah’s not smart enough to realise we were stealing this, but his brothers would be. Do you really want the smart Willards telling all of Plainfield that the sheriff and deputy of Scorched Bluffs were looting?” She tucked her gun back into her holster and reached for her shirt only to have Sweetpea slap her hand away, leaving a bloody smear on Millie’s skin. A moment later, the arroyan was back at work, sewing Millie’s wound closed.
Ryan sighed and rested her chin on her hand, fingers tapping at her cheek. She looked at the grass where Isaiah had fallen. After a moment’s thought, Ry sighed again and her shoulders drooped.
“No,” the sheriff admitted, patting her dog’s neck. “You’re right. So much for ‘no fatalities’, though.”
“I mean,” Annie said, still trying to keep a straight face. She coughed into her glove. “The Willard wasn’t on the train, so technically he doesn’t count?” When Ryan shot her a look, Annie cleared her throat. “Sorry, Sheriff. I’ll go get the cart so we can load it up.” She pressed her lips into a tight line whose edges wiggled as she hurried away, heading toward the hill with the crooked tree.
Fyodor had finally soaked up enough love to let Ryan go so he could sniff at the scorched ground. Blinking, Ryan stood and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.
“The smoke?” Millie asked. Her own eyes were stinging from it, and while Annie’s cough had been a poor attempt to cover a laugh, they would all be glad when they left the wreck.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I’ll be glad when we get out of here.” She picked her through the burnt grass over toward where the Willard boy had fallen.
“All done!” Sweetpea said, patting Millie’s shoulder. “Make sure not to tear them out before you visit your Grannie.” The pink woman stood up with a swish of ruffles and wiped the blood from her hands with her handkerchief. Somehow, she’d managed to not get any blood on her skirt or blouse. Millie suspected there might be magic at play given how much red the arroyan had on her hands.
“Thanks ‘Pea,” Millie said, pulling her shirt back on, careful not to pull out any of the fresh sutures. Standing, Millie headed over to where Ryan stood. Fyodor trotted over, neatly intercepting her, and nudged Millie to the side. She tried to step around him, only to have a furry shoulder block her path.
“Fyo—” she said, trying to get around the dog. He licked at her chin and stayed stubbornly directly between her and the body in the grass. Millie could push past any normal dog, but this was Fyodor, a fancy breed of mastiff almost as tall as she was. Taller, if he stood on his hind legs.
“Ryan,” the elf said, exasperated. “Your dog.”
The sheriff glanced back, and Millie saw a smile crack through the worry on her face.
“He can’t help it. He was bred to herd animals,” Ryan said, laughing. “Especially with your hair right now. He probably thinks you’re a sheep.” The smile faltered and Ry called Fyodor to heel, finally allowing Millie to join her.
“Isaiah was a bad person, right?” Ryan asked, looking down at the dead Willard. He looked younger now that he was dead. His ‘beard’ was still pathetically patchy and the acne on his cheeks and chin was still angry and red even in death. One could easily forget what he and his brothers did for a living.
“He stole food, horses and anything he could sell for whiskey. He was not a good person,” Millie said, pulling her gloves back on. She wouldn’t lose sleep over a Willard, but Ryan was made of better stuff. If Millie could help her friend’s conscience, she would.
“Did he deserve to die?” That was a different question entirely. “Maybe not yet. A smarter man would have left us alone.”
“You don’t think he did?” Ryan asked, raising her eyebrows. “You’ve told me what the Willards do to farms.”
Nothing survived when the Willards visited a farm. Animals that weren’t mounts or packhorses were slaughtered for meat. Food was stolen and crops were set alight. If the farmers were lucky, they were killed before the fire was set. If they weren’t, the Willards just locked them inside the home. It wasn’t the worst outfit Millie had seen operate, but it was needlessly cruel.
“You’re right, he deserved to die.” Millie nudged the body with her foot. “We could hang him up by Oak Creek. It’d be kinder than leaving him to the animals.” Sooner or later, the other Willards would come looking for their idiot younger brother. It would be best if they found him far from Millie’s corner of the frontier. There were plenty of people who’d shoot a Willard given half a chance. The sheriff and deputy of a tiny town in the badlands wouldn’t even make the list of suspects.
“You okay?” Millie asked. Usually condemning a kid to death would elicit an argument, but today Ryan just looked thoughtful. Millie nudged her with an elbow, jolting the human from her fugue.
“Sorry, the dragon shook me up,” Ryan admitted, running her fingers through the tail of her braid. “It had to be the blue cow from the canyons. Nothing else out here is that big. Why did she come so far out this way?”
Millie looked up at the western horizon. The sea of grass and shrub was beautiful this time of year, but the badlands beyond were a tangle of canyons and dusty mesas. That was a good question. Why had the Blue come so far out of her usual hunting grounds?
“Did you see the stamp on those ammo crates?” Ryan asked, changing the topic to something much worse than dragons. Millie scowled and crouched by the body, checking it over for anything useful.
“Yes,” she said through her teeth. The Willard kid had a flask of rotgut whiskey Millie tossed aside, some bullets that she pocketed. What had he planned to do with all those horses? And where had he left his own? There wasn’t a town nearby, and Isaiah’s boots wouldn’t have survived travelling from Plainfield on foot.
“Are you sure?” Ryan asked, crouching next to her, shoulder bumping into Millie’s as she checked Isaiah’s revolver. “You didn’t plan this specifically to rob him, did you?” She asked in a low voice.
“Sure didn’t.” Ryan was unconvinced, and Millie couldn’t blame her.
“No, I did not plan to steal from Rousseau,” she snapped. “I didn’t know who owned the crates and it wouldn’t have mattered! We needed bullets, or we’d starve. I took the best opportunity we and now I feel sick knowing where they came from.” She closed her eyes and sighed, pressing her thumb to her forehead. She’d kept her temper through a dragon attack, a train crash, and a Willard. But just a mention of Fred Rousseau and she lost it.
“I’m sorry,” Millie mumbled. Ryan didn’t deserve that.
“I wanted to make sure,” Ryan said, pulling the elf into a gentle hug. “We’ll burn the crates once we get home. You won’t have to see them for long.”
Millie leaned into the hug, resting a hand on Ryan’s arm. The idea of watching Fred’s insignia go up in flames helped. Ryan always knew what to say to make things better.
“I keep thinking I’m over everything, then I see his damn initials and realise I’m not. Is that how you feel about…” Millie trailed off and tilted her head back to the burning train wreck.
“A bit,” Ryan said. She glanced back at the tangle of steel that had once been the Blue Bullet. “All the time, actually.”
They stayed like that for a while.
“Let’s put Isaiah into the fire,” Millie said. “He might have deserved to die, but it’ll be kinder to his family to find bones instead of buzzards.”
1. Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma, or something else?
The story behind No Land for Heroes actually starts with Netflix releasing the teaser trailer for Godless. I was on the bus home from work and watched it, immediately sent it to some friends to yell about how exciting a women-led western would be. The premise of a women-run town that’s seen as a target was extremely My Thing, and then the mini series was released and it was all about the usual male hero struggling with father figure issues.
So I decided I would write a western that fulfilled the promise of that trailer for fun. The original version of the story borrowed characters from some friends, and was written with zero expectations. I put it up on Wattpad to make sharing easier and entered a contest that site had that was called the Wattys. (The Wattys is the company-run and judged contest, a big deal on Wattpad, as I’d learn.) A few months later, I was shocked to learn my story had won one of the fantasy awards.
I decided I wanted to rewrite the book and publish it, so despite the pandemic beginning around that time, I pulled the story from Wattpad and started on extensive rewrites. Two years later, I hit the big scary ‘publish’ button.
Not bad for a fun experiment about elf cowboys.
2. What, if anything, did you learn when writing the book?
I ended up doing a fair amount of research into Plains First Nations and specifically the history of the Lakota people. In No Land for Heroes, there are settlers and colonies, but the presence of indigenous people is much stronger. There was no smallpox pandemic that decimated the indigenous population, and with magic at play, the guns and steel of the settlers mattered less in conflicts. I wanted to show a thriving nation that could maintain a significant portion of its original culture, which meant researching what I could.
I also learned a surprising amount about steam locomotives and train cars from that era, which order they would be hitched to each other for transport and more. Naturally, I only used that information for one chapter. It felt important at the time, though!
3. What surprised you the most in writing it?
I think what surprised me the most was how easy these characters were to give voice to. They all had their own quirks develop, and only one or two required me to actively plan what they would be like. Everyone else, including the Willard Gang, appeared to show up fully formed.
4. If it’s not a spoiler, what does the title mean?
“No Land for Heroes” refers to a few things. Superficially, the town of Scorched Bluffs is hostile to outsiders, and has questionable motives. There are no heroes out on the frontier, other than Fyodor, a dog. If we dive a little deeper, the title also refers to the fallout of the Amelior civil war and how Frederic Rousseau became a celebrated War Hero and achieved fame from his actions during a decisive battle. Frederic is also deeply in debt, a drunk, and not the kind of guy you’d like to hang around. If Frederic is an example of what a hero is, then why would you want heroes at all?
5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people? If so, do they know?
Nope, I’ve never been interested in using real people as inspiration for characters. Sometimes I’ll steal a turn of phrase, or a habit, but the characters are all their own selves, for better or worse. Early drafts borrowed characters made by friends, with written approval, but I overhauled a lot of personality and traits on them during the revisions.
6. Do you consider the book to have a lesson or moral?
Aside from questioning the kind of person who labels themselves a hero, and what being heroic actually means, No Land for Heroes is a book about facing your past. Everyone past a certain age has made mistakes, and while we might want to pretend those mistakes never happened, the only way to grow as people is to accept them and learn from them.
7. What is your favorite part of the book?
Oh, this is a hard question! I think my favourite part is the friendship between Millie and Ryan. They’re ride or die, and their friendship gets tested in many ways over the course of their history (and in the book). I wanted to show how strong and how meaningful friendship can be in hard times.
8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Hal Stratton. Poor Hal. I think he went through 4 variations before I found him as the thoughtful ex-priest detective who helps Gilbert track down missing cargo from the train wreck. He’s personable, friendly, and uncomfortably good at getting people to tell him secrets.
9. What are your immediate future plans?
Right now I’m working on the sequel to No Land for Heroes, No Port in a Storm. I jokingly call the planned trilogy “The Milliad” as it follows Millie’s personal journey. I have a bunch of other stories in the wings, just waiting to get written, so after ‘No Port’, I’ll have to decide what order to tackle them in.
There’s also all the personal stories of the supporting cast of No Heroes that deserve to get told, so it will continue past three books, but maybe in more of a Discworld ‘each novel is mostly standalone’ format within a shared universe.
About the Author:
Cal Black is a Canadian writer based in Ontario who enjoys writing about messy people who make an effort to improve their situation. Cal has a short story published, was a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and won a Wattpad Watty award in 2019 for Fantasy. After realising she prefers to write novels instead of short stories, Cal shifted gears and is now writing gaslamp fantasy, cosmic fantasy, and has a bad habit of ‘trying out new genres’ when already full up on projects.
Starts: September 8, 2022 at 12:00am EST
Ends: September 14, 2022 at 11:59pm EST