A Continuing Haibun Cycle
At the top of the valley, they squatted and watched the road. It wound toward them as if the crew who'd lain it had been drunk on wine. As with many things at the bare edges of civilization, it had been done without supervision, and done badly by uncaring hands.
Haike and Namira had seen a few people, trudging by an overloaded ox cart or toting all they could stack upon their own shoulders. The road no longer led beyond the ranks of hills. It hadn't gone through for twenty-odd years. The way came to an abrupt end with three fallen trees and a following profusion of new brush. Desperation drove the refugees down the dead-end trail nonetheless. Into the mouth of a Dolgur home range, to walk those silent forests for a few weeks perhaps, before the mother Dolgur came home at last, her ravenous babes in tow. They all marched a forlorn road to nowhere.
“Is it better to run and live, or stand and die?” Namira looked back at him. She'd said that she would teach him, but she'd asked questions far more than giving answers. Haike reached for the easy response within him, the trained answer, but hesitated. He was supposed to think about things. Her questions were meant to focus his mind and challenge his notions of the world. He had to find the difference between what he truly knew and what he only thought he knew.
“Run or fight, you have to know why you're acting as you are. If you're running from a fight that can gain you no glory, a fight that spends life to no purpose, then so be it. If you're running because you lack the courage to fight a just battle, then it's an ill deed. Though it hurts my heart to say, there are times when battle is not the answer, boldness not the clever path. There are times when even a brave man must run. Whether you decide to run or fight, you'd best do it well once you've put your feet upon the path.”
She nodded. “And what of these folk?” She pointed down into the valley. “They could not have slain the Dolgur.”
Haike sighed. “No. At first I wished them ill because of their essential nature. They are not fighters. Fighting, for them, is folly. It's better to run. In running, their only recourse to danger, they have shown no cleverness. Had they a brain between them, they would have doubled back and followed the river along the bottom lands. They'd have lost their possessions and oxen, but their lives would have been safe enough. Now, only a few sturdy woodsmen among them have a slim chance to survive as they strike out across a rough wilderness.”
“Perhaps, were we to dispatch the Dolgur, some of them could be saved,” Namira pointed out.
Knotting his brow, Haike looked down at them, mere specks upon the ascending road, toiling ants. “Is that the business we're in? They are not ours to rescue, I don't think. They have chosen their road, and must walk it.”
“Your soul doesn't overflow with compassion, Haike.”
“These are people who have held me to thrall. Though I blame myself as much as them for that, I yet dislike their ways. I feel sorry for them, dying without renown, doomed as much by foolishness as circumstance, but that's as far as it goes. If it's your task to save them, if that is what you wish to do, I'll help, but I won't plead for their lives.”
Namira smiled at him. “In this tornado of souls, we did not meet by accident. We two are meant for each other.”
Haike nodded. Coming to her side, he sat on the edge of the ridge and watched the oncoming stream of refugees until the dusk hid them. In the shadows when the sun had gone away, he could hear the roaring of the Dolgur and the answering screams of camels, oxen, and men. Looking away from their fire, he listened as souls were ripped from flesh and sent upon their journey.
“Second thoughts?” Namira asked. By firelight, she was even more beautiful, the sparks dancing in her dark eyes.
“I fight for only you, Teacher. My heart doesn't beat for them.”
“We will hunt the Dolgur tomorrow. It's possible that we shall both be slain.”
“Perhaps she will find us in the night, and we won't see the dawn. It's fruitless to worry.”
“May we both sleep soundly then.” She reached out and ruffled his hair before pulling her sleeping roll up to her chin.
Haike looked at the stars, uncounted pinholes in the velvet of the night. The faces of the honored dead, the Leonen folk back to the first generation, swam out of the endless profusion. Under their gaze, he curled closer against Namira's bedroll and closed his eyes. In dreams, he heard folk speaking of him as they speak of long-dead heroes, of how he freed the blood of many warriors, of how his mind was a blade as sharp as any steel, of how his resolve could not be turned by anything short of death.
The fire died low, and the noise of the Dolgur moving ever closer did not rouse them.
These meaningless steps
ill taken, down dead-end roads
into gray autumn
There is no rescue
fools and kings die equally
alone and forlorn
Onward beckons death
run to greet him, worry not
spring fades like stars at dawn