Friday, October 17, 2008

The Settled Dust, Part Sixteen

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

The presence of sickness is shunned. Valila had long known this. The old warlord lay in his bed now, noisome as the deep illness gnawed through his guts. Seeing the man of such cruelty and proportion reduced to the indignity of a slow death was an unwanted vision. It reminded them, from greatest to least, that they would all walk the same route. No earthly strength of arm or richness of coffers would stay the hand of death. The whole quadrant of the castle hung silent, muted with the nearness and reality of death. She walked boldly, allowing her feet to slap against the stone floor. Valila had shed her scanty dancer's garb for servant's dress. No one questioned her, not even when she stopped at the harem master's apartments. Snapping his neck was a mistake, but an enjoyable one. She would just have to work faster.

She rounded a dim corner, her arms loaded with random laundry she had grabbed to complete her disguise. A soldier paced listlessly there below a burning torch, spinning his mace by his side. Little more than a boy, this dull and seemingly pointless duty fell to him. She approached with the uncertain steps of a chambermaid in the midst of warriors. He spun on his heel as Valila made a small sound in her throat. This way? Would this way be the easiest? Complex plans were not her way. She took opportunities as they arose.

"It is late for laundry, maiden," the boy soldier said, a grin creeping onto his face.

"It's late for maidens, but laundry knows no time."

The soldier's face hung slack for a moment, then sparked with understanding. "A saucy one, then. Come here and let me disport myself if you're no maiden."

Valila bent, setting the laundry on the stoop where the soldier could rest his feet. "You're a handsome young brute, but I must serve at the feast later, and I can't be sweaty and covered with a man's musk. I'll please you, but we must be quick about it."

"I'll have no difficulty with that, wench." The soldier came closer, pawing at her, grasping at her dress and pulling it roughly upward.

Valila caught his wrist. "My way."

"Any way I choose," he responded, continuing to pull at her clothes.

She grasped his manhood, already awake with the prospect of action. "Hush now. You're young, and there are things I might teach you, if you're wise."

"Very well. Should I dislike your way, it will be mine. Mark me, wench, I'm young, but I am no boy to be led."

Valila knelt before him. He gasped, reaching out to hold the wall for balance. He would be led, and easily.

By muscle and hate
guile and pleasure given
dark victory nears

*****
Haike found it easy to slip away from the busy kitchen staff. They didn't know his face, and he scrubbed clean of the dirt that had veiled him at the start. A pilfered cap drew close over his ears and partially hid his face. A paltry disguise, but it would serve. He carried the bag full of weapons to a storage room crowded with barrels, hiding the package in a nook where it wouldn't be seen. He withdrew only an earthenware jug filled with fine peppered brandy, worth the price of a boy slave, as he'd once been. The boy he'd beaten earlier had told him about the lower barracks, and it took him only a few minutes to find it.

An old man with only one ear met him at the door, grimacing. "What's this? I don't know you, boy." His voice grated like a knife on a whetstone.

"I brought this." Haike hoisted the jug, which held close to a half gallon.

"What is it?" The old man squinted at Haike's pale skin.

Haike shrugged, not meeting the warrior's eyes. The old man wrenched the jug away with a curse. He removed the cork and sniffed the aromatic liquor.

"Very well, then. Be off with you. Thank whoever sent this. Perhaps we won't be there for the feast, but we'll have some merriment tonight." The old man kicked out at Haike, but he dodged the blow and skittered away.

"Look here, boys!" the soldier's voice echoed. "We'll drink like kings and conquerors tonight!" The rumour of shifting chairs and the clinking of cups followed.

"It's the good stuff!" someone bellowed. "Damn me to rot if it isn't the warlord's own! Perhaps the Kahlid the Younger will be more generous than his sire." The sound of men gulping down the fine draught and slapping backs and shoulders echoed through the deep parts of the castle.

Haike turned from them, satisfied that they would drink deep and, indeed, be damned. Back at the room with the barrels, he crawled into the same void where the killing tools waited. The poisoned brandy would take some time to weaken them and still their tongues. He closed his eyes and allowed his body to relax. If they were successful here, he could close the book of the past. No one who had wronged him would draw breath. Haike wondered what he would feel like afterward. It didn't matter. He and Namira...or Valila, her true and secret name...would go away together. He would learn her ways and always be near to her. It would be good. If they failed, it was only death. To die like an eagle--with talons sunk deep into your quarry's flesh--was nothing to fear.

When all of the soldiers had been given a chance to partake of their doom, Haike came back, looking in on them. A few of them struggled to rise, while others were already insensate. Haike hoisted a flanged mace from the table and stepped into the room, weighing it in his palm. Cleaner than his machete, if somewhat less efficient. The smoky air swirled as he swung a sharp downward stroke. The old soldier, poison sick, put up a weak hand in defense. One of his fingers snapped backward a moment before the mace fell upon his skull. With hardly a grunt, he fell to the floor. Haike hit him a second time, feeling his temple crush inward. All further movement on the soldier's part was only the clattering of the death-coach's wheels along the road to oblivion.

Putting an end to the warlord's soldiers was no more difficult than the slaughter of hens. Dragging the bodies back to their bunk room and hiding them beneath their beds wasn't so easy. Sweat coated his brow and crawled down the center of his back by the time the men were hidden and the worst of the blood sopped up from the untidy floor.

The mace was an imperfect hammer, but he managed to nail the armory door shut at four places along the casement. The enemy's flank was open, his gate unhinged. His mistress and he would have a way clear once their task here was completed.

Now, he'd just have to wait for any stragglers. He unsheathed his machete and set it beside him at a table near the door. Any he faced now would possess their full strength and wit. The slaughter, for him, had ended. The fight would now begin. Haike picked up a roasted hog leg and ripped off a mouthful. Its previous owner would have no need of it.

In sickness they fall
poison drunk and doomed to rot
within their sanctum

*****

The old concubines were already sleeping, but for one. Valila peered in at them. Chalking the door shut would have been sufficient, had they all slept. She didn't relish the thought of killing all the old hens here--they were not targets, and their deaths would merely mark the venture as sloppy. The wakeful concubine's eyes snapped to the intruder. The chambermaid's clothes did nothing to fool her, and she drew out a slim dagger, her teeth in a rictus of fear and determination.

Valila stepped all the way in, closed the door, and dropped the pile of linens against the threshold to muffle the noise. The concubine rushed her, dagger held high. "Intruder! Murderer!" she shrieked. The warning cry echoed about the room. Valila hoped the thickness of the walls would consume the noise.

The concubine had once been a beautiful woman, but her looks were beginning to crack like old pottery. She swung a clumsy stroke at Valila's neck. The assassin twitched to the side and caught her wrist, forcing the momentum into a deadly arc that ended within the old woman's heart muscle. Valila pushed her down, the light already fading from her eyes.

The other concubines surged out of bed all around her, five of them. They tried to grasp at her, to drag her to earth. They were strong in their panic, fierce. Valila felt one of them bite down hard against her wrist. They mauled her, and the strength in her legs nearly faded as one of them punched her repeatedly in the small of her back. The rough sound of labored breathing thundered in the quiet room. One of the concubines smashed something hard against Valila's head, and the dimness shook with vibrant colors.

The knife clattered to the ground beneath them. One of the concubines squeaked in pain as her bare arch caught upon the blade. She recoiled, and Valila regained the control of one of her hands. She punched a tall, fleshy woman in the throat, forcing her to relinquish her grasp. Valila bit down hard on the collarbone of another woman, this one so close she couldn't see anything more than a blur. One of them went for the door, but fell hard on the pile of linens, the breath coughing out of her as her body slapped against the floor.

Valila shrugged off the woman who'd been punching her, spinning an elbow back against her jaw. She lashed out at the hobbled woman, knocking her senseless with a fist to the temple. The big concubine hoisted a stool and swung it with grunting effort, but Valila ducked and the woman behind her fell to earth in a hail of splintered wood.

Several sweaty moments later, Valila surveyed the room, now a chaos of unmade beds, overturned furnishings, and senseless women. The dead concubine's blood pool was small. She'd expired in only a moment, the heart's action brief and weak. Valila hoisted her onto one of the beds and threw a sheepskin rug over the blood pool.

She used the dagger to rip free segments of cloth, binding the concubine's bleeding foot then tying the women together, back to back. She gagged them last, and none too soon, as they were beginning to stir. She found a mirror, examining herself for obvious injuries. None of the bruises were visible. She could cover the ones that her maid's clothing hid if she had to. She washed away the sprinkles of blood on her face and hands. She could do nothing about the torn seams on her shoulders or the dark stains of fight sweat across her torso.

"The darkness will have to aid me, for the killing's far from done," she told her reflection.

Valila knelt beside one of the concubines, whose eyes were wide and rolling beneath her dark brow. "You did yourself an honor, defending your master so well. I applaud your loyalty, though he doesn't deserve such consideration."

The killer reached out, smoothing the older woman's hair. The concubine screamed into her gag, trying to recoil from her touch.

"I'm not here for you. You'll be injured no further. Tomorrow, though, will dawn strange for you...for this place and for miles around."

The concubine's eyes clouded with tears, her chin sagging to her chest.

Sometimes they know, Valila thought. Sometimes they can tell when things are beyond saving, when no one can stop the bloodletting.

Loyalty too great
makes the tender hand grow fierce
in the damned's defense

The fist unlooked-for
an old man's tired harem
clings to hopes forlorn

Bound--hope scatters like leaves
in the Autumn of her eyes
only tears remain

By the felling of
one great and sickened timber
the forest must change

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very good reading! Well paced action and compelling imagery. The haikus sparating the episodes are marvelously descriptive with a thrift of words that is very impressive. This whole saga has been an extremely entertaing ride.
Bobby-T

Anonymous said...

uvzwuqI hate to appear greedy, but I just wanted to keep reading. I know that you feel you should end this soon, but because I'm addicted, I won't encourage you to do that. Continue until you feel it's done. Even then, I'm certain that I'll be disappointed to see that it's ended. Yikes! What a dilemma. M

Patrick M. Tracy said...

Bobby,

Glad you enjoyed the installment! There are more to come (in fact, I already have another one up). Every time I think I'm about done, I end up having more to say. Still and all, things are progressing toward the end. We only have a few more installments to go.

M,

I'll continue until the story's told, don't worry!

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