Haike appeared as silently as a ghost, stopping Valila short. All the blood seemed to rush toward her face. Her eyes clouded. Dropping to her knees, she gathered him against her, squeezing hard. The boy touched her hair, leaning his bruised cheek against her shoulder. She could feel the cool of his machete against her thigh, something he'd gained since he'd gone with the Dolgur. It was all she could do not to weep, though she'd thought those tender emotions long dead within her. Aware that he couldn't breath within her clutching embrace, she relaxed, pulling Haike down to the earth with her. They sat close, between the huge roots of an ancient tree.
He reached out, touching her face with his fingertips. "Do you forgive me?" he whispered.
The breath caught in her throat. She turned her eyes downward. "You did all I asked. It was I who couldn't strike."
"I'm glad you didn't."
"It was weakness, and oathbreaking on my part."
"Better the small dishonor of letting the Great Mother go free than the great shame of laying her low. Besides, it seems that we are also betrayed with a death order." He smiled, those steady, fearless eyes flashing with vigor.
"I see you've armed yourself," Valila said.
"Only because men are fools, and the unlooked-for strike hurts the worst. The other scout is up ahead, following your false trail, Mistress Namira."
She leaned close, her lips at Haike's ear. "It is not done, but I will nonetheless do it, for I owe you this. Do not speak it until I'm gone, but my real name is Valila Farrah. Do you understand me?"
Haike held her face in his small hands, kissing her gently on the lips. "I understand. Now, we may walk the wraith-chill verge of death together. No others shall know us as we know each other."
Valila smoothed his hair and pushed it behind his ears, unable to say anything. He looked gaunt, half-starved and exhausted. His eyes, though, were like a wolf's, undiminished though all his struggles. He took far too many liberties with her, and his mind raced far ahead of his body. Still, her heart clenched with pride and just a bit of fear. Despite all her efforts, she loved him.
"The Dolgurs will be coming upslope, Mistress. We had best kill the other scout and make our exit before they are all mad with blood scent and hunger."
Valila's eyes widened. "Dolgurs? How many?"
Haike shook his head. "Pehaps as many as six. I didn't wait to meet them all. The wind is carrying the death blood from the other scout down into their lowlands. I'm sure they'll come."
Valila pulled free two of her throwing knives and put them in Haike's palm. "Then you'd better go and kill that other scout, eh?"
Haike tucked the throwing knives into the back of his trousers, brown with collected dust, mud, and blood. He turned back, grinned, and was gone. Some moments later, there was a surprised exclamation, then a wet gurgling noise. Haike returned to her, handing the throwing knives back. He now had a long, thin dirk, as well as a sling and a pouch with smooth stones. He opened his mouth and spit forth nine silver coins, giving them to Valila. She looked at them, heavy and worn in her hand. She couldn't tell what country had minted the coins, so long had the rubbed together in a succession of pockets. She gave Haike back three. "Until you're grown, I'll keep two of your three. Acceptable?"
The boy nodded. "So long as I am able to remain busy."
She ruffled his hair. "Come on. Let's away before the Dolgurs appear." She handed him a stick of dried meat as they went.
One returned from death
back from the horizon's end
With a kiss, these pacts
binding as manacles, sealed;
two now walk the verge
These nine silver coins
payment for a death order
bounty for cheap blood
The war camel laid its head low and allowed Haike to rub behind its ears. It made low grumbles when he hit an itchy spot. They were five hundred paces beyond the war party that had come to kill them, waiting. They had been loud in the afternoon's waning, but with the gathering dark, they fell silent. The moment when the harsh words and agonized screaming started would shake the forest. Haike's belly finally felt full, and his eyelids hung low. The fatigue of the previous days weighed upon him.
"I grow weary, Mistress. I don't know if I can stay awake."
"Sleep. The noise of battle will rouse you when it's time."
Haike settled back, cradling his face against one arm, and immediately fell asleep.
In dreams, he sat sat astride a Dolgur, watching as the hillmen attacked his people. Men, half asleep, pulling their trousers on yet, were sent to the earth, blood spraying from livid wounds. Women cried. Camels and oxen broke free of their bindings and ran wild, knocking over tents and turning wagons on their sides. A hillman with only two fingers on his shield hand held a women down and raped her until her thighs were slick with blood. The bravest of his kin formed a knot between the multitude of hillmen and the remaining children and old folks. The hillmen released spears and sling stones, wounding many.
His uncle screamed and went to his knees, a bronze-tipped spear through his groin. His father ran forward, dashing the head from a hillman and kicking another one down. His mother drew back her horn bow and shot a charging hillman in the throat. Furious fighting raised the dust high and hid much. As his close kin fell, his mother and older sister raped and assaulted by many filthy hands, the scene was but vague. He saw himself, only a shadow in the dirty gloom, as he kicked and bit at his captor. The many raised something, perhaps a short club, and beat him to the ground, turning the scene dark.
He yet remained, though, still astride the Dolgur, now riding through the destruction of the village where he'd been kept to thrall. The ravens and vultures had only the wild dogs to concern themselves with, fighting over the rotting corpses, roosting on the charred skeletons of houses burned to ash. For a moment, he saw himself, pinned by the Dolgur's chin, there by the fallen-in woodpile. He saw himself rise, then Mistress Namira--Valila. He followed her upslope.
His dreams filled with a vision of the sky, full of stars. The sounds of fear and dying filled the ears of his dream. Just as when the Dolgur had found the refugees upon the road, there was the sound of token resistance, then the ripping crunch of flesh parting, bones breaking, and life escaping from the wound. It all came back 'round to death, the beginning, the end and the material between. All life was a wild gambit, a pitched battle within the clouds of risen dust. When, at last, all that dust fell to earth and settled, his journey would be over, his soul re-joining the argent whirlwind of the Coriyat.
Haike's eyes snapped open. The dream sounds were still there, now real death, echoing through the forest air. The Dolgurs had come.
"Ready yourself, Haike,"
"As you say, Mistress." Haike slid the thin dirk inside his waistband at his lower back, easing the machete where it was strapped to the outside of his right calf. He placed a sling stone in the throwing pouch and stood ready.
The sounds of a rout soon neared. Many of the soldiers were running blindly toward them, just as Namira had said. The first to appear took one of her throwing picks in the ribs, but the second one veered, hit a tree, and moved no more after Haike hit him well on the hip joint. The Dolgurs would feast tonight, and all the warlord Khalid's soldiers would breathe their last.
In dreams, they all bleed
all my folk like fallen leaves
seasons slipped away
I have watched myself
along this road of ruin
spat back from death's maw
Conclusions in blood
long march to oblivion
panicked steps their last