A Continuing Haibun Cycle
“This will require some courage on your part, Haike.”
The boy blinked at her, waiting. Somehow, she had found him, this anomaly, this marvelous spirit. Perhaps once in a generation would there be someone like him born. Even looking at him—still small and lacking the rugged muscle he would grow as he came to be a man—she found it difficult to think of him as a mere boy. To one with eyes to see, he was far more than that.
Namira clenched her teeth, momentarily losing her resolve. Her technique, her plan—she wanted to change it now. Putting Haike in so much danger wasn't strictly necessary. It was the easiest way, but she hated contemplating what would happen if things didn't go to plan. It wasn't her job to shield him from all dangers, but this...a Dolgur? If she lost a student with such limitless potential, one of such keen perception, one that knew nothing of fear, she'd search forever without finding his equal. All her other mistakes would pale in comparison.
“What is it, Namira?” He reached to her, putting his hands against her ribs, looking up into her eyes. “You have only to ask, and I will do your bidding.”
He smiled. His pale eyes, incapable of showing kindness, encompassed her soul. Haike's gaze felt like sharp ice pushed through tender skin, and she felt that he knew her to the core, deeper even than her master ever had. He could no more gaze into her with empathy than a falcon could, but he could see inside her and feel her indecision. He was too familiar, too forward, too much her equal in resolve. If he lived, Haike would be a man people would obey. He would be a man people would fear more than the pain of a bad death. For the sake of the Ghost Society, she had to keep him alive.
“My life is borrowed from the Dolgur. If she wishes to take it back, this is her privilege. I have many shames to atone for in this life, and I would prefer to live long enough to wash them from my soul. If I cannot, dying well will have to suffice.”
Namira sighed. It didnt' fall to her to keep him alive, perhaps. Already, Haike did that for himself, standing or falling on his own. “Very well. Listen to my plan and remember it well, for timing is of the essence.”
With a sharp stick, she drew out the flow of action upon the dusty earth. Haike squinted, asked a few questions, and nodded. She asked from him that which no seasoned warrior would agree, and he merely accepted.
This marvelous thing
so full of promise and skill
The untested steel
is worthless, its gleam and edge
pale dreams in the dusk
Onward and into
fire, spend out the stolen
gold and set the odds
The Dolgur dipped her head low and turned her small, baleful eye to him. She scented the air, then chuffed out a low roar. Fifty paces down from Haike's position on the crest of the rise, she still seemed tremendous in size. Still, seeing him, recognizing his scent, the Dolgur didn't immediately charge. Better, she didn't launch one of her chin barbs and impale him on the spot. He had sufficient courage to do this much—he'd stood and watched her approach. He'd done it before. He'd been closer. He'd felt her chin press him to earth and nearly crack the bones within him, and yet he lived.
Now, however, would come the difficult part. “Talk to her. Keep her attention for as long as you can. The longer, the better.” Namira's words.
What to say? He clenched his teeth and tried to think of something. Namira was the only one who understood him, the only one he had ever spoken to without feeling clumsy. With so many others, he didn't express his thoughts, knowing that they wouldn't understand him.
The Dolgur turned side-on to him and walked to the edge of the scanty trail. Tender ferns grew in the shadow of the old trees, and the Dolgur pulled most of them up in a single sweep of her mighty jaws. She continued to regard Haike from that distance, the grinding noise of her fist-sized molars clearly audible.
Haike cleared his throat, collecting his resolve. Anything but talking to the creature would have been easier. His tongue moved easily only for Namira. He imagined that he had fallen in love with her, and that explained things. No matter. He needed to do this because she had asked it.
The Dolgur's head swung up from sniffing at an old stump, her eyes baleful.
“I want to commend you for destroying the village back there and casting the hill folk to the winds. I had no love of them, since they had killed my kin and kept me thrall.”
She swung to face him, head held low. With one huge claw, she tore a furrow in the sward. The depth of the trench could easily have sufficed for burying a dog.
“Namira tells me you're leading your little ones back to the hunting grounds up here. She tells me that it's not uncommon to see a Dolgur clear a swath of territory before her cubs come through. I think you could have probably slipped through without it, but I've never had young ones of my own. I haven't been...”
The Dolgur started to trot toward Haike, the distance between them evaporating in a moment.
“...Never been a Dolgur, is what I mean say, and so I can't advise you on the best course. All I know is that they've sent Namira out here to do you in, and that's probably a bad sign, even for something so...”
The Dolgur slowed, but she stood close enough to smell, nearly close enough for Haike to feel her heat. She moved to the side, her great maw open just enough to see the blunt, arm-width tusks.
Haike smiled. “I hope to meet the Dark Hereafter well, Dolgur. You've had a chance at me once, and you'll surely crack my bones this time.”
Knowing it to be madness, he reached out, stepping closer. The Dolgur's hide was rough and warm, unyielding as the corner of a stone wall. At his touch, a growl built low in her, shaking Haike to the entrails, but he didn't step away. He closed his eyes and waited for the moment when her head would surge toward him and he'd be torn asunder.
“It's said that the first of the dragons, back in the old times before men stacked two stones or plowed a furrow in the earth—that they were Superbeings of the Coriyat. They came to this world, spun off from the Tornado of Souls at the center of all things. The lore-tellers say that they changed the earth and sky, that they gave rise to society of the Reptians, who have now fallen to the dust of ages.”
Haike felt her relax, felt the Dolgur begin to calm. He didn't open his eyes, but he started to stroke his palm across the rough mountain of her flank, trying to calm her as one would calm a camel or an ox. He continued to talk, speaking out the words of lore-tellers, wise women and old mariners of his people. The Dolgur's breath sounds changed, forming something that could have been a pleased noise.
Haike told the Dolgur of the attack that had destroyed his family's encampment and sent him to thralldom. He'd resolved to never speak to anyone about the events of that day, but he supposed that the Dolgur would not hold him to his oath, nor would she divulge any secrets they shared.
The Dolgur's head nudged him and knocked him from his feet. His eyes opened and his gaze locked with the Dolgur's. If such a creature could give a kindly look, he saw it there. It reminded Haike of the leaping whales that frolicked in the bow spray of the Leonen ships at sea, their sense of being absolutely alive, not mired in the doubt and foolishness of human toil. In that moment, he didn't want the Dolgur to die. He didn't care to be a part of it, even were it to gain him the glory that men need in life. He wondered why Namira had not struck the creature already. He didn't think she would change her mind. Perhaps the killers of the Ghost Society were not allowed to do so. Haike only knew that his mind had shifted, and he had ever listened best to the whispered voices from within.
He rose, touching his palm to the top of the Dolgur's huge snout. She had an outcropping of iron-hard scale at the edge of her mouth, and he could get his fingers under the edge of one big furrow. Gently, he pulled her, as if to lead her over the hill's crest and beyond. She made a low noise, almost quavering. A small noise for so great a beast.
“Come on, Dolgur. You gave me my life when you could have taken it. Let me do the same for you. There are no more villages out here, no more people to trouble you. All in your way have been defeated.”
He pulled again, not expecting her to respond. She did. Together, they walked over the rocky cleft. The old forest beyond was open, filled with echoing vaults of dappled light. He hadn't done what Namira had asked him. Not exactly.
He would have to ask her forgiveness if they ever met again.
Wolves and braver lambs--
gone beyond the killing floors
at last, awakened
Let's be away now
into the darkened arbor
and the secret realm