She wasn’t opposed to raucous laughter, the smell of booze, and the stench of sweat. But there was a limit to how close she let it get to her. At the moment, the leering sailor stumbling towards her with the cheers of his drunken friends pushing him forward was encroaching on her space. His weaving path came to a fumbling stop at the tip of her dagger. If he blinked his eye, he would lose eyelashes. The raucous laughter urged the sailor on, but the sailor, despite his booze addled state, was beginning to think his friends were assholes. Shealtiel smiled as the sailor retreated with slow unsure steps. She replace the dagger with the same sly grace she had drawn it with. You had to be watching to even see the move, and even if you had hawk’s eyes you would miss the grim cheerfulness in her dark eyes. It was a good bar for shady deals and filthy jobs. She was in the mood for a filthy job, something that made her blood pound and her blade drip blood. Her lithe body slouched against the wall, coiled muscled disguised by loose fabric that covered hidden blades. She wanted a job, and she had a feeling she was going to get one tonight. A smiled played across her face, it was directed at no one but it still made the three remaining sailors sober a little. It wasn’t a pleasant smile, no, it was the smile a jackal makes before it rips your throat out. That was fitting in a way, that’s really all she was. A jackal of war.
I watch the foam and spittle fling from his mouth as he rages. This thing that is my father. I wonder if my own madness comes from him and his blood, or circumstances. He spins back towards me.
“I will be remembered and revered for centuries! I will be the god king of the desert, eternal ruler of the Ohadi! People will bow at the mere memory of me!”
He raises his face to the sky as it rolls with thunder and lightning. I strain against the ropes binding my hands.
“And you daughter, you will kneel before me. You will swear your loyalty. Or you will stain the sands with blood.”
“I’m not your daughter. All I have is your blood and ink. But I’ve never been yours. I’ll kneel to nothing, be it men or gods or death.”
His face twists and I feel the ropes give against my pressure. “I am a god! And you will kneel before your lord. You will worship me.”
I’m on him in one long stride and my hands rip his own dagger from its jeweled sheath. It slips into flesh gone soft with disuse. As he sinks to the floor I look my father in the eyes, “Even gods can bleed.”
hell is within us
it is why we all have
that can turn bitter in our mouths
we are all monsters
of our own sort
we all are born
to end lives
and some of us
are better at it than others
What will you do
I will break this city
stone by stone
I will burn its histories
with my wrath
I will salt its fields
with the tears of your children
I will drink the blood of your king
from a goblet of gold forged from his crown
I will be the end
of your world
You are a beast they cried
you’re a gorgeous disaster
he murmured into her hair
then why do you
because I can only love
the mad ones
because I have within me
a beast that only calms
for your touch
you’re going to kill me
then why do you
because I love the broken shards
of your soul
because you have been my love
in this life and the last and eternally
will be mine
you could destroy this place
my dark souled gypsy lover
then why do you
because I love the fury
within your eyes
because I long to dance in the flames
and scream at the moon
I will never let go of my memories of you
even though they bleed me dry
then why do you
because once you were soft and unbroken
but not anymore
I am drawn to your indescribable darkness
the way you love me in the night
even as you kill me
Do you remember
We were set upon each other
We hit to kill
Sliced to maim
The blood trickled down your face
My broken ribs moaned
And we kept on
Doing the job
That was each other
Do you remember that night
It was the first time I loved you
Weaving on your feet
Hands at the ready
Waiting for the next round
I loved your fire
Your skill with a blade
You vicious instinct
The twist and punch of your body
The sheer heartlessness of your attacks
I loved the way those green eyes gleamed after a solid hit
And how they would flame after you took one
I loved you
With all the blood and sweat and bone in my body
I would have died for you
But you died for me instead
And I’ll never love another
With the same fire that I loved you
I feel you sometimes
In the dark under the stars
You will always be my Ghost in the night
I sit in the late afternoon heat and focus on one thread of sweat as it trickles down my neck, between my breasts to sink into the fabric of the pants that ride low on my waist. In the Ohadi camp, servants scurry. The hive is near to exploding. Sand rustles next to me and Raef rumbles a raspy greeting to Rellik without opening his eyes. I pick another thread of sweat to focus on, “If we do this, it must be tonight. Something has happened to make prepare to break camp. It’s too late for them to leave tonight, but they’ll ride when day breaks. After the moon rises, Nessa and I will clear the guards. You get the Seer and her precious brothers from their tents; Lataf and Evals will wait with the horses over the dunes.”
Rellik lifts to his feet, leaving a dimple in the sand, “I’ll spread the word.”
I watch him ease into the camp to find the others and fight the restlessness inside of me. With a sigh, I rise and enter the tent with the hopeless wish to sleep before the long night begins.
In the darkness, I rise and touch Rellik on the shoulder before she and Nessa ghosted from the tent. With the ease of practice, we slide through the inky murk towards the first tents at the edge of the Ohadi camp. The sentries set to watch die silently, leaving two wives and six children behind to mourn their loss in the morning. Nessa and I split up each taking a path around the camp to meet on the other side. I don’t worry about alerting the guards, I know my talents and I know Nessa’s. In less than ten minutes, we meet on the far side of camp. The horse guard lays slumped in death, Lataf’s doing so that Carid and Reyals could catch their horses and the horse of the Seer. Taking the catch ropes from my waist, I ease through the main herd to the Edalb section. My eyes are accustomed to the dark as I move into the smaller herd looking for the mark I made earlier in the day using a small smear of paint between their forelegs. Now, after the day’s heat, the paint has hardened and shows like dull smudges of white in the darkness. I move from horse to horse until I have the nine I want. A stampede would be too loud and killing the rest would startle the herd into noise so we have to settle for taking the best as spare mounts. Nessa and I lift ourselves from the sand to mount two of the chosen horses. Others in hand, we make our way to where the rest of the group waits over the rise of the dunes.
Without dismounting, we slide from the spares to the backs of our own saddled and ready horses. We walk our horse for a mile, then lift them into ground eating trots. The spare horses, no strangers to night rides, pace themselves to the riders. Dawn breaks with the first glorious rays of sun at our backs. Ahead of us the lava hills loom, a twisted shadow on the horizon that already dances with heat waves. We continue at a walk, now riding our spares. Sweat rises on the horse’s hides, and I go back to focusing on sweat slide down my own body. None us speak, there is no need to waste words and moisture into the sand’s leeching heat. Slowly the lava hills rise higher in our sight, becoming more distinguished.
When we reach their edge, we dismount. Nessa leads the way into the labyrinth of up-thrusts and weird formations, her small body testing the strength of the hardened surface. The hard surface can give way to parchment thin rock that breaks and throws the victim to the jagged rocks below, the Sand Belt is a place to be respected. Slowly the lave hills rise, until we look down at the desert we had traveled in the morning’s relative cool. Nessa stops the procession with a raise of her hand and disappears into the black landscape for several minutes, before returning with a small smile. “Water-hole.”
The last in line, I look back at the desert before we move on in the new direction, far way in the shimmering distance a smudge rests among the brightness of sun on sand. I catch up with the others as they enter alcove. On the far side the spring bubble merrily, small tufts of grass struggle in the shade of the alcove walls. We all drink, and then let the horses drink. Water botas filled, we take a moment in the shade. Restless, I wander off to explore our little slice of cool heaven. I find a tunnel in the lava that leads to another alcove. In this one, the sides rise tall, and the only exit is back the way I came. I return to the others as Nessa flits down the canyon walls,
“We are followed. hours and they will be here.”
Rellik strokes a hand down his bay’s nose, “This place is a good spot to rest, we could wait for them.”
Lataf smiles and twirls an earring. Evals nods his agreement. Carid looks up from his spot beside the Seer. “Where do we put the horses?”
I nod my head to the opening in the lava walls. “Through there, grass and another spring. We can unsaddle and let them rest. Once we start this, we finish it; there will be no running, not among the lava. We’ll meet them head on, and see if you three are worth anything in battle.”
Reyals, Lataf, and Rellik rise to push the horses through the opening and unsaddle. In the stillness that follows our preparation a fly buzzes through the air. The little spring gurgles happily, unaware of the blood waiting to be spilled. The hours pass in silence, and then, we hear hoof steps on the lava bed.
I feel a smile spread across my face when the Edalb riders enter the opening to the small sanctuary. The others spread out to my left and right. As it always does for me, the world slows down and everything moves in slow motion. I see Nessa creep along the top of the cliff behind the wary riders. The last rider swings his horse broadside to the opening to watch for any surprises from behind. He does not look up until too late; Nessa looses an arrow into his horse’s throat. The animal goes down with a gargled scream and thrashes upon the ground. There is a split second pause where I can see the Edalb riders hesitate before they charge. The charging animals make it twenty feet before the leaders go down in piles of blood and flailing limbs. The tripwires slice into the horse’s legs, instantly laming them. Some of the riders realized the trap and managed to jump free of the falling horses, others are not so lucky and are pinned beneath the animals they’d been riding.
From a motionless stand, I move. Swords become silver arcs as I slice my way through horse and rider. Out of the corner of her eyes, I see Carid and Rellik do the same. I focus in on the man in front of me. He lunges and I slide away, the smile on my face never wavers, this is what I was born for. He spins and lunges again. I slide under the lunge, slicing through the tendons of his legs with a deft twist of my sword. He hits the ground and turns in time to see my sword slash towards his throat. His body sprawls motionless in the sand that slowly turns red. When there is no one standing I stop, and let my swords drip blood onto the earth. With cool ease, Lataf moves among the pinned riders and ends their lives while Evals does the same for the fallen horses. Nessa and Lopa gather the remaining mounts together. We can sell them when we reach the Grasslands. Ohadi horses are coveted.
Carid walks towards me, disgust in his eyes. “There was no honor in this.”
From behind him the Seer speaks, “Honor is for the dead men and fools. We are neither.”
I eye the odd girl for a moment before I nod my head. “Strip the bodies of anything useful. The vultures’ll be here soon. We need to be gone before that.”
“Hey, the rings are mine, I need some more.” Lataf twirls his ring-studded fingers.
I laugh, “If you find a new tent please gods grab it, that damn gypsy tent is going to shame me to death.”
Reyals and Carid pause from cleaning swords, “Do we bury them?”
Nessa laughs, the bell-like ring of her voice a little deadlier to the ears of the newcomers now that they’ve seen her kill. “No my new brothers, we do not bury them. The buzzards need to eat, as do the sand cats and all the other beasts of the wild.” Behind her Raef tears a chunk of hide from a dead horse.
Within the hour, we fade into the twisted rocks, leaving the sanctuary silent but for the gurgling stream. Once I see the Seer look back at the dark spots in the sky. The buzzards had already smelled the blood. I smile to myself as we ride, in the Sand Belt death is a fleeting thing, one-hour bodies, the next bones, the next nothing but shifting sand. Gods I love this place as much as I hate it.
I feel my heart beating, trying to pound its way out of my chest. My breath comes in tearing gasps. My muscles quiver in exhaustion as I stand, swords in hand and wait for the next in line.
“Sheal, it’s done.”
I force breath through my teeth as I turn and look at Rellik. He has a bleeding slash down his right arm and a cut over his left hand. Beyond him I see the dust of retreating horses and my heart starts to slow. Around me bodies bleed into the sand and the sun shines down without mercy. I come back to myself a little more and feel the aches of a hard fight, the sting of cuts and nicks, the sharper stab of true wounds that will need to be stitched or cauterized.
“Sheal, it’s done.”
I raise my eyes to Rellik’s and I can’t stop the sadness in my voice, “I know.”
He grins, an easy expression across a tired face splattered with blood. “The problem with courting chaos is that when the dance is done, it leaves you empty and craving more.”
I nod and bend to wipe my swords clean on a dead man’s shirt. I rise slowly. “This has always been my place. A sword and blood and letting the fire burn me out. But after it does…”
Rellik nods and slings an arm around me, “When it does, that black gaping hole begs to be filled with something. Since we’ve killed everybody we can for the day how about we get drunk and have wild sex in the tent? We’ll get another chance to dance with our demons soon enough.”
“I have loved you for so long. You grew on me, I guess. It started slow and built until, until I realized how hard it would be to watch you die.”
I smile my cold smile and feel the ice and fire meet in my veins. I’ve always had a lot of internal conflicts but the devil always seems to win. My fingers release the bow string, and even though the bow isn’t my weapon of choice, the arrow strikes true.
“You of all people should know, I’m more of a fighter than a lover.”
His hands curl into the sand and a trickle of blood oozes from the corner of his mouth as he topples to his side. I feel no remorse: once you make the decision, once you’ve struck the killing blow, a body is just a body. Even if they told you they loved you only moments before. I shiver a little, love is a scary thing, I’ll stick to death.
I watch Carid pace and hold back the laugh. Now isn’t the time. Not after he has realized he is capable murder, of ending a life for money. His hands run through ink black hair and he faces me, faces us, and his eyes are lost. “You do this, all of you. Kill and betray and lie and steal. You do everything that is against human nature. How do you live with it? How?”
I’ve seen people despair like that before but it fades in time, it fades or they die. There is no room in our job for regrets or shame. You get a job, you do the job, leave the emotion out of it. But that takes awhile for some to learn. “The trick is, to keep breathing. Even when you want to stop. Just keep breathing until it fades away for a time. Then you continue on.”
“That’s your coping advice? Just keep breathing? Gods, no wonder you’re so fucked up.”
“I never promised your sanity, just that you’d see tomorrow and maybe, if you’re lucky, the day after that.”