Friday, January 02, 2009

The Settled Dust, Part Twenty-One

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

"Dawn is coming," Mima said. "Were this a normal night, I would be getting ready to awaken the morning workers for the kitchen."

"How long?" Haike asked.

"Long enough to sweep and mop this room, were it empty of barrels."

Haike ducked his head out of the room, listening. It was dead quiet yet. The high, small windows were still dark as obsidian. "If you don't wake them, will they rouse on their own?"

Mima shrugged. "A few might. Others would remain in their cots for a while longer. My absence won't hold back the day, though. As soon as full dawn comes, the fortress will become active again. This place is a huge and terrible stomach, and letting it go hungry is no good for any of the common people. If you hope to make an escape, it will have to be soon."

"Yes. Soon. If we're to survive, we will have to be gone by daylight. What I need from you now is a quick sketch of the main floor of the fortress." Haike fished out a lump of hard charcoal from his pocket. "Draw it out with this."

Mima frowned, marking rooms and hallways on the floor. "I'm bad at drawing. I can't see how this will help you."

"I'll need to know where I'm going when I get up there," Haike told her. He studied the sketch on the floor carefully, ignoring Mima's shocked expression. He asked her a few pointed questions. How many paces from one place to another? How many guards would be here? Would the fire be burning high at this time of the morning?

Mima frowned, but answered to the best of her ability. "But why would you go up there...when freedom is so near?"

Haike smiled, touching her face with the palm of his hand. "Do you know what a Dolgur is, Mima?"

She blinked, not understanding the question. "A mythic beast of some sort. Huge and terrible, one of the Dragonkind. They say that they have long since gone from the world, if they ever existed."

"They existed, Mima. They yet survive, mighty as an army and perfect as clear water. I have seen them, smelled their scent, touched them, just as I touch you now. I have looked into the eye of death and returned unharmed.

"When you asked me before if there was ever anything I couldn't stand to kill--I couldn't bear to kill a Dolgur. There has to be something greater than we are, has to remain some wonderful force that can cast our works asunder and doom us. There has to be that pinnacle, that natural element that can effortlessly be what we can only dream of."

"I still don't know what that has to do with going up there."

"Perhaps nothing. Probably everything. I'll return in shortly, or not at all. Should I not, I would advise escaping. There is enough coin in this satchel to give you a start." Haike gestured to the weapons satchel, where a small cache of money lay. "There are a pair of camels stabled at the drinking house called the Ebbing Moon. You could leave this town, find a place for yourself."

"I would rather that we both come away from this place, that we both have a chance," Mima whispered.

"That was never the likely outcome. Nothing's impossible, but don't hold out a foolish hope, lest you be marked a fool."

"What will you do...up there?"

Haike shrugged. "Nothing nice."

The world continues
no force can hold back the dawn
or the morning's work

We cannot know peace
after what we've seen and done
blessed, dragon touched

If given the choice
I choose to meet the dawn's light
with weapons in hand
*****

Valila was some distance from the stairway yet, and the sleeping fortress came alive with alarm bells. A bleary-eyed man appeared at the door to his chamber, bare to the waist. Valila punched him in the throat with all her strength, dropping him to the stones. She grasped the door, battering it against his skull until it made a wet sound.

A fully armed soldier came around the corner. She pulled free a dagger and threw it, piercing him in the meat of the thigh. Grunting with pain, he tried to rush her, but his wounded leg wouldn't hold him. He went to a knee, and she caught him across the face with a snap kick, breaking his nose and teeth with her hardened shin. Blood splashed up the wall as his head flung backward.

Valila leaped over his insensate form, running for a short burst and then ducking into a dim alcove to see how the soldiers would respond to the alarm. A few booted feet clattered on the stone, but the time of the morning--at the dead end of a long, seemingly pointless night shift--made the response listless at best. At least one voice from the front of the castle shouted, as if in awful pain. Valila's brows knitted. What could be...

A half-dressed warrior squatted on his haunches, trying to lace up his boots at the entrance to the alcove where Valila waited. She put a jambiya to his throat and pulled him into the dimmer recesses of the hall. One of his boots slid free, standing on its own in the hallway. Sloppy work. She chided herself. None of this had gone as it should. Had she been smarter, less motivated by a foolish sense of the theatrical, she and Haike would have been long gone from here.

"What raises the alarm?" she asked into his ear, her voice an icy whisper. "What have they discovered?"

The warrior grasped her wrist, trying to escape her grasp. Valila used her off hand to slam a thumb into the nerves in the man's underarm, simultaneously kneeing him in the groin. His weight sagged against her, his gorge rising and spilling across the back of her hand.

"Some...some madmen attack us. They are at the great doors, shooting men down with bows."

Valila's air departed. Haike. She had been too slow, and now he had thrown his life away. Her first thought was to do the same, to have her blood feed the same stones as his own, to make an ending of it and call all debts forfeit. She wanted to with all her being. Without her special gift, what was life?

Distractedly, she punched the warrior in the kidneys, then smashed his forehead into the wall. He toppled, but she registered none of that. She stepped out of her alcove, tears standing in her eyes. All roads led to twilight, all to the moaning, formless Coriyat. That had never seemed sad to her until now.

I have wasted time
on elaborate revenge
and now I am damned

The one precious thing
this life has ever given
slips from me in blood
*****

Liquid agony. That was the name of the poison. Mistress Namira had told him that. "Valila," he allowed himself to whisper. Her true and secret name, the name she should have only told to him after long and stringent training. She had honored him, despite his failings. He had never, in fact, been any good at following orders. If he met his death tonight, his mistress would at least be spared the ordeal of forgiveness.

A pair of warriors charged into the room. He had six arrows, and he gave them three. One missed, smashing against the wall. The other two found their mark, one high in the chest of the lead man, the second driving straight through the knee joint of his comrade.

Both warriors dropped, screaming out in abject pain. They writhed on the floor, shivering with the poison, begging their comrades to pull them back. Haike, hidden behind an overturned table, waited. As the first had been, they'd be incapacitated with the pain. Unlike last time, he wouldn't allow their friends to safely pull them back. This time, he'd let the arrows fly, and shoot to kill.

Behind the table, he wiped his sweaty hands against his pants and waited. He squatted on a wooden box that gave him the semblance of a tall man's height when he stood to fire. They had no reason to suspect he was just a boy, as he didn't give them long enough to get a good look at him.

The screaming continued. The poisoned men rolled about on the floor, foam starting at the corners of their mouths. Liquid Agony wouldn't kill them right away, perhaps sparing them altogether. That reprieve would only come after a long ordeal of indescribable pain, followed by a deep swoon and high fever. The fight, for them, was over.

A man ran into the room, still wearing only smallclothes and hair standing out in all directions. He held a clumsy bronze blade in his hand, his flabby belly heaving from his sudden run. Haike shot him low in the gut and he dropped between the two men he'd hoped to pull to safety. Three more men burst into the room, these fully dressed and grim of face. Haike launched his last two arrows. One caught a man through the left buttocks, the other skittered harmlessly across the floor.

One man hunched, grabbing wounded men and pulling them across the floor to safety. The other reared back and threw a javelin. The edge of the overturned table blew inward with the heavy impact, splinters showering all around Haike's feet. The man drew forth a heavy axe and ran forward, whooping a war cry.

Haike reached into the belt pouch he carried. He gripped his final trick, his one last gamble.

He hurled the bulbous ceramic flask at the feet of the charging warrior. There was a cavernous boom and a flash of fire, then the whole room filled with cloying, acrid smoke. In the chaos of alarm bells, screams of the wounded, and pounding boots, no one heard the light pad of a boy's fleeing footfalls.

Perhaps she is dead
and I save no one this morn
with my fool's hope

The bold always dare
holding nothing in reserve
deadly to the last

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks once again for giving this reader a quick follow-up on the last installment. May the new year bring you lots of recognition for your delightful writing. How I would love to see "Settled Dust" in a book format. M

Anonymous said...

Vengeance complete. Now for the next hurdle: escaping with their hides intact. I'm hopeful.
Bobby-T

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,

It is always good to see some new Dust. You've been busy since christmas. It's not at all clear what you have planned for our heros but I look forward to each new installment.

Let These Reflections Be Hidden From My Sight

The recognition of our own cruelty that glance into a darker mirror than we would ever willfully meet, our eyes gone feral within fa...