Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Settled Dust, Part Seventeen

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

The warlord's soldier pulled free his blade and stepped into the barracks. "What goes on here, boy? Where are the men? At this hour, the barracks should be crowded with the ill-tempered lot of them, yet here is quiet, and a strange boy eating at our table."

"A strange event, I'll give you that," the boy said. His smile was cheerful, if tinged with a hint of chilly fatalism.

"So, explain yourself. I call you to account, rascal!" the thick-set soldier boomed. His dark, wide face formed a scowl, his forehead knotting around a deep, whitened scar.

"The men of the barracks stood to cause me difficulty later, so I killed them. It was not personal, and I take no glory in the deed. Such are the bloody ways of men, eh? I'm sad to see your face, my friend. Had you remained absent, you may have lived through the night yourself. Now I must kill you, as well." Haike slid out of his chair and grasped his machete, careful to keep the table between he and the soldier, who was a big man with rippling arm muscles.

The soldier blinked several times, the strangeness of the scene too gigantic for him to grasp. "You..."

"Yes. Just as if the very hand of death swept across their eyes," Haike agreed.

The big man shook his head, his laugh ringing forced and false against the quiet. "A strippling lad? Killed these evil louts and brigands? A likely story! Did they leave you here to play me for the fool?" The soldier moved quick, trying to come around the table and close with Haike. The boy slipped away, keeping his distance.

"I play no jokes today, but remain here to speak for the departed," Haike said, overturning a chair to slow the soldier down as the man lunged for him.

"Quick little bastard, you are, but I'll have you, and I'll use you like a woman for this foolishness." The soldier's face grew dark with wrath, and he abandoned trying to snare Haike with his off hand, instead swinging his short, broad blade through the air. He connected only with the corner of the table, shearing off a chip of the grease stained wood. Haike led him on a frantic chase back and forth across the barracks. Ragged breath, heavy footfalls, and the screeching of chairs against the hard floor drifted up into the vaulted reaches of the basement room. Wild brawls and grim oaths were not uncommon noises in the dim recesses of the fortress. No one appeared to ask about the current troubles.

"You can't seem to catch me, you lumbering oaf. I can't see how you'd pin me down long enough to rape. The way you're panting, I doubt you'd be able to produce the requisite timber to get the job done, anyway," Haike taunted as he leaped over a chair, skittered across a table, and kicked a plate of cold, greasy porridge at his assailant.

"I'll cut your hands off and geld you when I catch you, you wicked little creature!"

Haike grasped a bronze flagon and threw it at the soldier, hitting him on the knee. He turned and dashed away again, and the soldier slewed into a table, crashing to the ground. He scrabbled up, covered with the remnants of a dead man's dinner, swearing so vigorously that Haike stopped for a moment to look back.

"Well, if you're that upset, I suppose it would be cruel of me to keep goading you." The boy flourished the machete. He'd been traveling with Namira for many weeks, and he had learned much about handling a blade.

Wiping oily gravy away from his face, the soldier shook himself. His whole frame vibrated with anger. He gave an inchoate roar and launched himself toward Haike, sword arm cocked high and fists clenched to paleness. Haike stood his ground, his foot hooked on the leg of a chair. At the last moment, he kicked the chair across the floor and into the soldier's legs.

The big soldier almost managed to vault the chair, but one foot caught on the obstacle, and he fell, tumbling and sprawling past Haike. The boy slashed at the back of his leg as he slid by, giving him a nasty, bleeding wound. Not enough to cripple the leg, though. Shrieking in almost inhuman wrath, the soldier surged up again, now bloody about the mouth and wet to his boot with his own red life. He hoisted a chair and threw it at Haike.

Haike flinched away, but part of the chair caught him on the off shoulder, knocking him back and over one of the tables. He let the momentum carry him, rolling beneath a second table and out of sight. The soldier came nearer, cursing wildly and kicking chairs and tables out of his way. His left foot came down no more than a hand's breadth from Haike as he raged and bellowed through the barracks.

Haike slashed across the top part of the man's foot with all his strength, cutting through boot leather and down to the ankle joint. A scream of pain shot through the barracks, loud enough to hurt his ears. The table above Haike disappeared, and the man's face, now purple with madness, leered down at him. With both hands, the soldier reared back to swing a cleaving strike to the boy's head. The soldier's gulped breath came free at the same moment that the rope of his guts felt the outside air. Haike surged up, having sliced him low on the belly, and jammed the razor-honed blade into the man's neck.

Slaughterhouse gore sprayed across him, blinding his eyes, flooding into his mouth and nose. Something hard and unyielding smashed against Haike's forehead. Filled with peals of crimson thunder, his head reeled. He wasn't aware of taking blind, halting steps away from the dying man, or collapsing to his knees, or slapping against the filthy floor of the barracks.

Amidst the squalor
we two toil unto death
falling blind, nerveless


The fine-boned woman's wavy hair showed the first frosty signs of age, but her figure had not deserted her. She held a wide, curved jambiya in her left hand, cradled close against her belly. "I know all the servants. You are no chambermaid."

Valila nodded, releasing the last of her facade. She stood straight, letting the clothes and bed sheets fall at her side, leaving only the dagger. "Few are so perceptive."

"I haven't lived this long in the jackal's den by luck alone. I suppose you're here to kill him, then?"

Valila gave a faint smile.

"You've nearly left it too long, assassin. He has journeyed down death's road apace already. Slaying him now would probably be more mercy than vengeance."

"I dispense neither. He made a mistake. I need to show him the gravity of that error."

"So you have been used badly in his service, is that it?"

The savage sparkle in the woman's eyes told Valila that she'd ingested some powerful drug. Red spice, she imagined. "How I am treated, in itself, is unimportant. How this reflects upon the Ghost Society, however..."

The warlord's mistress gave back a step. "He never told me that he would have dealings with ones such as you." Her eyes searched the floor at her feet. "Then again, Kahlid always thought he could control everything."

"This does not have to mean your death," Valila told her. "If you were to leave now and never look back, I would turn my hand aside from you."

"The father--him you cannot deprive me of. He is all but dead. My son, though, must live. It is only for my son that I must strive. If you could..."

Valila shook her head. "From the root to the branch, the tree must fall."

"Then I can't stand aside. I couldn't stand to walk the dust of this earth while my son is sent into the Dark Hereafter."

Valila gave a slight bow, dropping into her practiced fighting stance. The warlord's mistress did the same. They circled, tested, and finally leaped together, barely a whisper rising from their movement. Valila caught the jambiya before it fell from her adversary's nerveless hand. She cradled the woman's head as she whispered her last few words in blood. "My son..."

"Will soon join you in the Coriyat." Valila pulled the mistress back into her bedroom before too much blood pooled in the hallway. She hoisted her up onto the thick feather bed, pulling the sheet up to her chin.

"Such a woman as you was wasted upon Kahlid." Valila eased the door closed continued down the hallway. She stopped before the final door, a thick portal with a crude image of a bear carved into its surface. Kahlid's personal chambers. She exhaled and pushed the door inward.

Before the darkened
portal, we strive for one half
rotten from within

All these blood-made works
the lies and damage rendered
let it fall this night

Will we never wake
the fevered madness fading
with the coming dawn


Anonymous said...

I hate to quit reading. It's been a long but most enjoyable journey. M

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

This tale is rich! Action, romance and raw emotions blend to make a very captivating adventure.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,

Two new Dust editions in quick order! It is good to see that you've returned to this story. Another good read.


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