A Continuing Haibun Cycle
The scout held his long knife close to his thigh, creeping forward through the underbrush. His garb, close-fitting, quiet fabric in dun colors and light greens, made but a whisper. Escaping notice, however, didn't depend on moments. It depended on being, over the course of a whole afternoon, deadly silent.
Valila watched the scout, the second that had passed this way, creep away, with his soldier's best imitation of stealth. A moment later, he put his hand against a branch so that it shook. Soon after that, he swore as he knocked against something. Birds erupted from the foliage in that area.
This one, as the first had done, would find her camel, foot-tied to a tree and eating placidly. They would find her small fire pit and those sundries that occupied her saddle bag. The scout would find the track she had purposely left for them, the one that came to the edge of the Dolgur's domain and then curled in upon itself until it faltered and faded to nothing. She had made much of that trail while walking backward, but these scouts were likely too dim to realize that from the dim impressions her boots had left for them.
Valila caught a droplet of sweat as it fell from her chin, wiping it on her opposite sleeve. Most, even when they tried, couldn't be silent for long. They didn't have the mental or physical energy to do so. Keeping silent took more patience and fortitude than they could summon. It was difficult work. One had to become inured to it.
So, she thought, Kahlid sends his troops to be sure that I don't live to speak of the deed. She was not terribly surprised. Her old teacher had warned her of this betrayal when she'd told him of the work she would accept. No matter. It assuaged her soul to some extent, really. Neither side, it seemed, had shown honor in the bargain. She'd defaulted on her oath, yes, but the pretense had been there from the start on the warlord's side. In the end, there'd only be one of them alive to argue the magnitudes of those malfeasances.
With the scouts well past her, she slipped down from the high branch of the tree. It felt good to stretch her legs at last. It would feel all that much better to get back to the job she knew well—darkening the eyes of men and freeing their souls from that fleshy prison of the body. A Ka'Javiila in her hand, she moved downslope and circled outward. She'd have to see how big a complement they'd deemed necessary to finish the job.
From just a few feet away, she heard the noise of liquid hitting the ground from a short drop. Valila halted, waiting. A third scout? She hadn't expected that. Perhaps they were more respectful of her than she'd imagined. Like a dark wind, she knifed through the brush to the source of the sound. The man, holding his mating stick in one hand, jumped backward at the sight of her. He didn't have enough time to open wide his mouth and give voice, nor time even to stop his stream of urine. The Ka'Javiila spun through the air and gave a sharp crack as it penetrated the center of the scout's forehead.
The scout toppled, twitching. Urine sluiced up through the air in wild arcs. His hands beat at the earth for a moment, then he quieted, his soul gone from the turmoil of life and returned to the argent cyclone of the Koriyat.
Valila stood over him for a second, considering her options. She hadn't intended to kill any of the scouts. It was far too great a clue, too much of a risk. Now, her options were curtailed. Pulling her weapon free, she pressed her lips together, making a decision. It was clear enough. Her tool had been surprise. Now, with this kill, fear became her new weapon of choice.
The scout wasn't a large man. No more than Valila's weight. Still, his dead form made it hard for her to travel with her accustomed silence. The booming of her heart crashed in her ears. Her muscles strained, and she soon sweat all her garments damp with the effort. In a tiny clearing just within earshot of the squad of men, she put the scout down. She squatted in the tall brush, waiting for her body to calm itself.
From hearing, there were no more than twenty men. A few camels, but only enough to carry supplies. No fire, but these were normal warriors, and they couldn't keep quiet. Idle, they bickered, laughed, kicked stones, coughed, and knocked about. The volume of sound made it easy to gauge the distance. Still, she crept closer, just to be sure.
Her eyes merely took in a visual confirmation of what she'd heard. A platoon of warriors, traveling light, but with blades and axes aplenty. Perhaps enough to kill a lone assassin. Probably insufficient for a Dolgur, though they would not know this or accept the fact if it were told to them.
Valila went back, cutting the scout's head free from his shoulders with her killing dagger. By now, the blood had settled and thickened in his veins, and wasn't so much of a mess. Back at her lookout, she smiled faintly. This might be her last mission. Each one held poisoned flowers that could kill. She was, however, proud of what she'd done, in the end. If killing had to be done, let it be visited upon these war-men, or herself, even. Companions in the breaking of an oath, perhaps they deserved each other.
She gripped the greasy braid at the back of the disembodied head, spinning it like a sling, letting it fly. The head came to rest with a plopping thud, bouncing through the clearing where the warriors idled. After its first rolling bounce, it was greeted by shouts and the noise of blades coming free of scabbards. The thump of running feet began, then a stentorian voice called for order. This all faded as Valila abandoned stealth and ran with all the haste she could claim, up the rise and over, into the shadowy realm of the Dolgur.
Long journey of blood
new season yielding up death
back to work at last
We have lost our grace
the anger of broken oaths
darkens the forest
Let these wounds sing out
let the cage of fear hold them
just as night holds me
Haike watched the scout for several minutes. The man had become wholly involved with ground tracking, and it would have been easy enough to pick up a stone and throw it at him. The soft ground made it simple to follow him and to wait for his moment. In following the man, it was clear that he was tracking Namira's steps, not the Dolgur's.
Haike squinted, wondering why she'd left such distinct markings. He had been with her for some time, and she left little behind her in most instances. Haike's own trails were dim and hard to follow, provided that he could move with care. He didn't think she'd been careless. This had to be a false trail.
The man was dressed as a woodsman, in simple browns and greens. He carried a machete, though it hung idle at his side. He dragged one foot slightly, so that he was never totally silent. The tell-tale of his track was clear, a deep ridge at the outside of his left foot, a worn boot heel, the uneven length of his stride, always turning slightly toward the bad leg, favoring it. Haike guessed that the man had an old and stiffened wound, so well entrenched that he was no longer aware of its effect on his progress.
Haike looked at his small, dirty hands. He held up two fingers together, stiffening them like a little blade. He suffered a moment of doubt, but only a moment. Easy enough to slip past this tracker, easy enough to remain hidden and safe. Easy choices would not lead a man to any destination of distinction.
Haike cleared his throat. “You, there. What are you doing?” he asked.
The tracker spun around, his machete at the ready. He was an ugly man. His pocked cheeks were florid and filled with broken veins near the surface. A scar ran across his lips, and it had healed badly, giving him an unsettling half-smile. His eyes were a weak brown, almost yellow. He continued in his tense crouch for a moment, then relaxed.
“Just a brat,” he breathed to himself. “Just a life-cursed brat.” He wiped his palm against his leg and spat on the ground. “You gave me a start.”
Haike stood there. It occurred to him that he could feign fear, act as normal children would act. He determined that he lacked the guile to properly show an emotion he couldn't feel. “You didn't tell me what you were doing.”
“Never mind that, you little piss pot. It's me who's gonna ask the questions. You seen a woman around here?” The tracker approached, standing straight, unguarded, confident.
“You're the first person I've seen in days. I've only seen Dolgurs.”
The tracker's face froze for a moment at Haike's proclamation, but he laughed it off. “Dolgurs! Sure. I seen magic mountains of gold stacked to the ceiling of the sky, too.”
“It's true.” Haike stepped even closer.
“Shut up about that!” The tracker lashed out with his left fist, slapping Haike to the ground.
Haike's face burned and sang with pain. Blood trickled at the corner of his mouth. He rose up from the ground. “You won't do that again.”
“Oh, won't I? Who's to say what I will and won't do, you little seed-squirt?”
“Me.” Haike shot his hand forward, fingers tensed as hard as he could manage, and hit the scout as he leaned inward to threaten. The soft place in his nerves gave way before Haike's strike, though his fingers nearly bent backward with the impact. The man's eyes widened, suddenly aware that something had gone awfully wrong. His legs slumped under him, and Haike stepped aside, letting him fall to the moist earth. A weird sigh passed his lips as the ground's impact forced the air from his longues.
Stepping to the tracker's outstretched and nerveless hand, Haike scooped up his machete. He gripped the hilt with both hands and swung with all his strength at the scout's neck. It took two swings to fully dislodge the head. Blood thundered out of the body for a moment as the heart raced against the inevitability of death. Killing was quite easy. Simple. A matter of nerve and proximity.
Haike bent and untied the man's belt pouch. It contained a handful of dried meat, which the boy needed in the worst possible way. There had been precious little for him to eat since he entered the Dolgur's forest, and smelling the food now caused his hands to shake with the desire for it. He tied the pouch to his belt, inured to the pain of waiting.
Haike stood next to the body as the last of the death blood soaked into the loam of the forest. The enemy was overcome, and lay upon the earth. He was of the Ghost Society now, and this was the expected outcome. No element within him quivered or looked away from what he'd done. Accepting the truth, he became yet more like what he knew he must be.
Haike wiped the blood from his hands and his new blade. He walked on the roots of the big trees, obscuring his tracks as he followed the false trail further on. The scent of blood would bring the Dolgurs up from the lowlands, and he wanted to be well away from their dinner.
Swallowed by the task
forever looking downward
all our roads walked blind
Harbingers of flesh
giving way before the blade
future gone to black