Friday, January 09, 2009

The Settled Dust, Part Twenty-Two

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

Valila's breath came rough and desperate. She put out her hand, steadying herself against the door frame. She'd just killed three more warriors, but she was cut and bleeding freely from her shoulder, her ribs, her thigh. The light lulled and guttered in her vision. So tired, so hopeless. She had lost him. Only her own life remained, and that prize had never seemed so cheap as now.

A shout, the rush of some missile turning in the air. Sudden pain. She looked to her off hand, now pinned to the wooden door frame by a slim dagger that pierced through the center of her palm.

Running footfalls, coming ever closer. She gripped the knife's handle, wrenching it from the wood. Blinding agony, then the turn, pressing her back to the wall. Valila ducked, and the stone wall scored with the impact of the heavy mace where her head had been.

A sudden surge as her attacker suffered the mindless overswing of his heavy weapon. His eyes, suddenly wide as the blade tore through his skin, his liver, his lung.

The strength withered within his eyes. He asked a question in blood, and the language of his own decent to the floor answered. Valila, cupping her pierced hand close against her chest, faded away and down into the dimness of the cellars.

Winter of failed dreams
icy winds blow across me
in wordless lament

In blood I escape
turning from the reeling fight
a backward dawning

Valila staggered, the effort to lift her feet and take another step all she could manage. Down in the cellars, the servants cut her a wide berth, in no mood to tempt a bleeding warrior who yet carried a crimson blade. Never mind that she was lost now, without the strength to do them any harm.

She came to the doorway of the storage room. A woman's strong hands grabbed her. Valila gazed at the woman's face, ruined by beatings on the one side, her beauty robbed by hardened knuckles of mean men. She felt that she should remember this woman, but couldn't.

"Where is he? Where is the boy assassin?" the woman asked.

Valila's head hung on her neck, she felt the darkness rise from the floor like clawed shadows, pulling at her, stealing the last pale vestiges of her strength. She no longer cared enough to stop her tears. "He's gone. He came to save me, damn him, and he's gone," she whispered.

"Then we'll have to go without him, sorceress, and we'll hope that he died in a way he thought worthy. Though he was but a boy, he was mightier than anyone I've ever met, perhaps too much for this faded world."

Valila could only sag against the wall, losing blood and tears, broken.

The woman hoisted up the weapons and got her shoulder under Valila's arm. She leaned on her, and no one they passed dared to look long upon their faces. Through the kitchen, and out into the dusty allyway behind the fortress they went. A cook was slaughtering chickens and did not look up from the chopping block as they went by.

Valila could no longer isolate the movement of her leaden body, picking out her own footfalls. The woman held her up, keeping her going. Finally, she was dimly aware of being dragged, heels scuffing in the dirt and over rough stones.

When she dreamed, she pictured Haike, pierced with arrows, hacked apart, his small body destroyed by the implements of war. Even so, his eyes, those pale orbs that held such quiet strength, continued to regard her. There was no damnation, no blame, only the stolid regard that even after death would not be broken. At last, he opened his mouth, but his voice spoke only the grumpy complaint of a footsore camel. Utter dark took her, and she lingered in oblivion.

Wither goest thou?
these empty, wounded questions
this aching regret

She who has been least
gives her shoulder unto death
and becomes mighty

As leaves, he's fallen
speaking in a beast's language
consumed by the fray

Heat and smoke burned his lungs. His eyes stung, nearly swollen shut against the assault of the wet wood fire. Haike's hands, arms, knees, and lower legs were abraded to the flesh, and every upward inch cost him wicked torment. The ascent had long since lost its grander meaning. This was no longer a chimney, but a wicked tunnel into some unimaginably horrid afterworld.

Blind, choking, diminished by agony, he kept on. When his hands closed over the lip of the chimney, he scarcely understood that the trial was at last at an end. He swung a leg over, finally collapsing on the tiled roof of the fortress.

Each time he coughed, the contraction of his body sent a shiver of dull fire through his bone and muscle. Blood filled his mouth, his windpipe tortured and torn, his lungs ablaze. Haike tried to rise, but his body wouldn't respond. It had given all it could. No discipline of the mind could make it rise and go further.

Out of his one eye that had not swollen utterly shut, he watched the dim lamp of the sun behind iron clouds. His whole body was blackened with the sharp pitch of creosote, and every place it coated a scrape or wound, the pain radiated outward like poison in his flesh. He wondered if the escape had only been an empty gesture, if he would sicken and die up here, unknown to anyone. Had he forgone the sudden and irrevocable death of battle for a slow and fevered passing, his flesh torn away by the carrion birds, his bones adorning a roof where no man would walk?

He lay there, the pain too great to simply fade into sleep. Sometimes shouts drifted to him from the residents of the fortress, but they were weak, distant, and meant nothing now. The darkness of the clouds grew ever deeper, and a chill rain drizzled down on him.

Shivering, Haike held close to the slight warmth of the chimney. The rain fell freely now, huge drops pelting him, small rivulets running beneath him on the roof. He let rain fall into his mouth, but the pain of swallowing was so sharp that he could bear to do it only a few times.

After the first eternity of smoke and fire, this second of chill water and swirling wind threatened every fiber of Haike's being. Echoing vaults of madness opened within him. For a time, his fondest hope was gaining enough strength to crawl to the edge and throw himself from the roof. The pavement below, he knew, could save him from the trial. It was the only thing capable of such a feat. The strength was gone, though. There was nothing.

Haike, still clinging to the chimney, fell into himself, into a deep black cauldron of hopeless pain.

Upward into hell
this agonized ascension
this road of the torn

She swam upward from the depths of a maddening well. Opening her eyes in the shadowed confines of the caravansarie room ranked among her most difficult trials. The spirit within Valila was dead. Only the dumb urge for continuance made her heart beat, her chest rise, her fingers twitch.

Her limbs were all attached. Dull pain coursed through her from all quarters, but her body had been adaquately bandaged. She sensed that she would be hungry and thirsty at some later time, though her body had yet to admit that it might recover from its punishment.

The other woman, whom she now recognized from earlier, stood over her, wet cloth in hand. "You're awake."

Valila moved her head in the smallest of all gestures of acknowledgement. Her voice was still locked tight, and would not make a sound.

"I am Mima, in case you wished to know. Though you sent me away, I came to help the boy in your absence." She reached down, gently wiping the cool cloth across Valila's face and neck. Mima smiled vaguely. "You see...he enacted a vengeance I could never hope for. The pale eyed boy killer--a savior to me, laying low all those who had tormented me and ruined my dreams. And though I felt that kindness was not natural to him, he hoped, perhaps, to save me in the end. He...loved you. It is not a bad reason to lay down one's life."

The tears returned to Valila's eyes. The roaring emptiness within her brought pain she had never imagined. Mima gave her small sips of water until the grating croaks of her dessicated voice began to resemble the sobs of a normal woman.

"He was my one hope...for real purpose in this world," Valila whispered. "I spent him on a fool's errand, and now I'm forever cursed."

Wordlessly, Mima stroked her hair and cooled her brow. Her sturdy, prosaic hands brought the twilight of unconsciousness again, and a respite from the pain.

The dead leaves gather
all bright colors departed
'neath uncaring skies

We cannot know love
till it is sundered and torn
born through agony


Anonymous said...

Even though I must, it will be difficult for me to wait for the next installment. You've taken this reader into unimaginable directions. I continue to enjoy every segment that you post. M

Anonymous said...

This has turned into quite a grim battle for our heros. I guess vengence too has its price. But alas they are still alive and have at least one ally.


Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

I knew it wouldn't go easily for our champions, but this is excruciating. I ache for Valila & Haike to reunite and make good their escape.

Patrick M. Tracy said...


You won't have to wait long. I'm almost ready to post the next one.


Our two protagonists have put themselves in harm's way, and there are always consequences for those choices.


Thanks! I'm hoping to go back through the "dust" myself, forging it into an even stronger story.


It's a mean old world, but they may yet come through intact.

Thanks, everyone, for coming over. I expect to post part 23 very soon.

Across Inconstant Breath

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