The night's cold bite had faded away and would soon give way to the desert's dry, blistering heat, but the sun had yet to emerge from the gray horizon. No one had risen at this ungodly hour. No one had left their house to tend to their farm or animals. No one had awakened to give thanks and praise to the gods for another day.
No one except for Hadwai.
Hadwai stumbled along the rocky trail. No one would find him. No one would interrupt him. His filthy nails grated against his arm, adding to the already raw furrows in his skin. He had plenty of time to do what needed to be done. He had already set up the place and the tools he needed.
Everything was in order. He had to do it.
He dragged a scrawny girl behind him. Her hair in the early morning sunlight reminded of his purpose. His vision swam in front of him, and the little girl's form distorted and twisted into a small, squat, horrible, little monster. The tales about red-haired children and all the bad luck they brought were true. He had seen enough proof.
He shook his head, trying to clear his vision and his mind. He couldn't afford to make this a failure. He had only one chance. Hadwai tried to ignore how the girl stared at him with her wide, golden eyes. She couldn't possibly know...could she? The path grew steeper as it went up the cliffside. The girl slipped, but Hadwai yanked her to her feet, not caring if he hurt her. They had to do this quick.
"This is our last chance, you know?" Hadwai said, more to himself than to the girl. Hadwai's stained fingers fumbled in a small pouch and returned with a few red withered leaves. With a quavering hand, he put them in his mouth and began to chew. "Riverside Village isn't much without the 'River' part, huh? We've got to get out before we dry up too."
The girl said nothing as she was dragged up the trail.
"Your mother hates me, you know," he said. Though his saliva had turned into a thick red paste frothing at the corners of his mouth, he didn't notice or care. The leaves did their job to calm him, and he felt better than he had when he had first waken up. "And I can't say I blame her. I popped her a good one last night, but I just couldn't deal with any more of her complaining. I know we have to leave. I know we have no money. I know we can't afford any more red lotus."
Together, they reached the top of the cliff and could see the village laid out, calm and peaceful. Soon the inhabitants would awaken and the few people who remained would go about their lives as best they could despite the hardships. The river was dry, so there was no more fishing to be had. The cotton came up bent and sickly, with just sick black bolls if they even grew at all. The wheat didn't even bother to sprout this year. Everyone's livestock took ill and all that remained in his family's pen was one decrepit goat. Miha, his sister-in-law, tried to do her best with him, but he still looked like he was withering away like everything else.
They walked to three long flat granite rocks, one set longways over the other two. Hadwai worried about his table. The rocks hadn't been easy to find, and the gods tended to be picky about their altars. He cursed, realizing he should have brought some incense with him, but there was no going back for it now. Hadwai was no priest, but he hoped his earnestness would lend to his offering. He had tried to leave with the last caravan, but they wouldn't allow the red-haired girl with them. She was cursed by the gods, the leader had said, and Hadwai was inclined to agree with him.
The caravan was scheduled to come by the village in a few days. He couldn't let the girl ruin their last chance of getting out of the village. If the grisly deed was going to be done, he may as well offer it to the gods.
The little girl kicked a pebble and watched it tumble down the cliff, unaware of any danger. Hadwai grimaced. May as well get it done. He couldn't call out to her; she wouldn't be able to hear it. He didn't want to talk to her or even look her in the eyes, but he had to get her on the altar. Taking her by the arm, he led her to the stones, and after a few patient gestures, he got her to lay upon it. Though she couldn't have understood anything, her eyes were wide with fear.
"Niri, I'm sorry. I hope things will be better for you in the afterlife," Hadwai said, "I never wanted it to be like this. I never figured I'd stick around in the village. Never thought I'd actually get married, especially to a woman with a child already. I guess I wasn't ready for all this. But things just happen, you know? It's too late to change anything now. At least there will be one less mouth to feed."
He pulled the knife out from under his tunic. Niri squirmed and thrashed, but it was easy to hold her down. She was so small, but she kept struggling, and he wanted to do this cleanly. He didn't want too much bloodshed. He raised the knife.
"Is this the way to Riverside?" a raspy voice from behind asked.
Hadwai whirled, dropping the knife to clatter down the cliff. The girl wriggled out of his grasp, leaped off the table, and ran to the stranger in a wordless panic. The man was abnormally tall, nearly seven feet, a pale lanky fellow with a shaven head. Black greasepaint stained the skin under his eyes. He held a long black staff that looked too thin to be a weapon. The stranger gazed at him, waiting for an answer.
Hadwai’s tension seized his voice and all he could do was stare at the stranger. His offering to the gods had run away, and he had no hope of catching her. She was too fast, and he could barely walk straight. He could only think of his hidden stash of red lotus back behind the pen. It would make him feel better, but it was too far away.
Then he saw the jar strapped to the stranger's back. It was bound shut with many lengths of rope. It was large enough to hold a sleeping lamb, and it glinted even in the dim dawn light. Hadwai fought to get enough of his head together to reply.
"Yes sir, Riverside Village is just this way," Hadwai said. "I run the inn there and I would be happy to give you a very reasonable rate! I'm Hadwai, at your service."
"My name is Desh." Mwarthes said. "Could I get a room?"
"Absolutely! Come right this way." Hadwai turned to lead, but Niri would not move from her place behind the stranger.
"Niri! Come!" He grabbed her arm and dragged her behind him.
"Wait a moment," Hadwai said. "You stopped by not too long ago! Ended up not staying with us. Had that chubby girl with you, right?"
"You have a good memory," Mwarthes said. "What were you two doing so high up on that cliff?"
"Just praying." He clawed at his arm and opened a crusty scab. Blood trailed unnoticed down his forearm.
The rest of the journey went in silence. As the sky changed from the muted pink of dawn to a hazy white-blue of day, they came upon the dry, wasted village and arrived at a large, two-story house. A sign in front declared it had been called 'The Hawk Spot' until the owner changed his mind, crossed it out and changed 'Spot' to 'Inn'. A few tables were arranged through the room but there were no paintings, no wall scrolls...not a hint at decor throughout the inn. It was as neglected as the rest of the village.
"So..." Hadwai stammered, "It'll be three denarii a night. How long are you staying?"
The stranger glanced around the room like he was looking for something in particular. Hadwai was not sure the man was listening to him.
"So, uh...how long are you staying?" Hadwai asked again.
"I just need a night."
"Yeah, good," Hadwai said. "It's been a while since we had guests. We're preparing to leave. We’re selling everything we can."
Mwarthes nodded, reached into his cloak, and pulled out a fat money pouch. He handed over three coins.
"Will there be a meal?" the stranger's question jogged Hadwai back into focus.
"Meal? Uh, yes. My wife and her sister left this morning to sell the goat, but they should be back in time to make supper. We got some soup if you're hungry right now though," Hadwai said. "It's left over from this morning so you won't get poisoned."
"Everything will poison you in the right amounts," Mwarthes said.
Hadwai laughed, in case it was a joke. "Right, yeah. I guess so. Here, I'll show you to your room."
The flight of stairs had never seemed so long to Hadwai before as they made their way to the first guest room. It was a simple arrangement, but it was kept with pride. A low bed covered in brightly colored homemade blankets lay against a wall. A tarnished lamp stood on an old wooden dresser. A stone washbasin sat in the corner and a small stack of towels was placed nearby. A new rug of woven rushes lay on the floor, and the room smelled freshly cleaned.
"You're the last guest at The Hawk Inn, did you know? I don't know how old this place is, but I guess it really doesn't matter. It's not like we were getting that much business even before the river dried up," Hadwai said. His eyes couldn't stay focused on one thing and darted around like manic flies. A fine sheen of sweat covered his face and he kept rubbing his hands together. He turned to leave but jerked with a sudden thought.
"Your key!" Hadwai handed the guest a large chunky key. "Haha, I'll forget my own head next."
"Many thanks," Mwarthes said. "Soup sounds good, but I'll be going to bed now. I've been traveling all night."
"I hear it. We got some hard traveling to do ourselves. Once the caravan comes back, we'll go with it using the money my wife gets from selling the goat," Hadwai said. "Sleep well. We'll have soup when you awaken."
He went downstairs, hoping his smile wasn't too broad. The stranger was already going to sleep! He could not believe his luck! He could probably get it done and over with before his wife returned and then it wouldn't matter if she sold the worthless goat or not!
He went outside, spat a gob of red phlegm and walked into the empty goat pen. Hadwai felt behind a post, reached inside a knothole and pulled out a small pouch. Red lotus. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he took the last pinch of the herb. Relief flooded into every facet of his being. Thank the gods he had left himself enough for today. He chewed with the rapt expression of a man enjoying a fine meal, thanking his past self for showing restraint.
Things could be worse. He could always repair the damage done to his marriage. Niri couldn't tell anyone what almost happened in the desert today. He still had a goat. He had plans to get out of this ruin of a village and, best yet, the gods had given him one last fool.
Hadwai blinked. Somehow, the sun had raced up the sky, showing him he had been sitting in the pen for hours. He cursed himself for losing track of time, but then realized it was a good thing. The stranger must be in a deep sleep now. Hearing his knees pop, he walked back inside the inn. Hadwai retrieved a plain cooking knife, but it was kept sharp and keen by his wife. It could do the job. He crept upstairs.
He stopped at the stranger's room and held his breath as he twisted the key in the lock. The noise the tumblers made as they moved seemed to be as loud as a lion's roar, but no sound of stirring came from the other side of the door. He pushed the door open and let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
The golden jar sat in the corner of the room, still bound up and undeniably full of riches. The woman's head on the lid smiled at him, as though she was happy to see him. The pouch on the bed made his heart leap into his throat. It was just lying there, unattended, full and bulging. Some golden coins had even spilled out of the cinched opening and glittered on the blanket. Unable to resist, he crept to the pouch. Why did the stranger carry around so much money? Where had he gotten it? He reached out and plucked up the bag.
Knives stabbed into his ankle and burning agony shot up his leg. He clutched his leg and fell to the floor, dropping the money bag, spilling coins on the floor. With trembling effort, he removed his hands and inspected his ankle. It was swollen to the size of a grapefruit, with two small pinpricks to reveal what had happened. A long slender shape slipped under the bed.
"A snake? In here?" His heart thrashed in his chest and he fought to pull in a breath, but his throat was too tight to permit any air. He tried to stand, but burning torment seared through his leg and he fell back to the floor.
"Please, try again."
Hadwai craned his head to look behind him. The stranger stood there as though he had been there the entire time.
"What...what is..." Hadwai said, but his words came out slurred. The left side of his face refused to move with the right.
Mwarthes gathered up his fallen money and sat on the bed.
"Help...a snake..." Hadwai said.
"I know." A thin silvery snake slithered up the bed and into Desh's cloak.
"It, oh gods, it bit me," Hadwai said.
"Did you see what kind it was?" Mwarthes asked.
Mwarthes leaned over Hadwai. "It was a black-tongued asp. They aren't common around here so I'll tell you all about them. They're terribly fast and are extremely aggressive. Their bite is lethal. Partial paralysis has set in, I see. Soon you won't be able to move at all. I bet you feel like your leg is burning. Well, let me tell you, that leg will turn black and begin to rot before your very eyes."
Hadwai could only let out a feeble gurgle. Panic built up in his chest like a pot threatening to boil over. He couldn't move, he couldn't stand. His skin was both on fire and covered in ice. The venom coursed through his veins on its way to his heart.
Mwarthes smiled. "You have a very short time left in this life. I know you can't do much with it, but I'll at least keep you company." He rose, stepped over Hadwai, and locked the door. "I would prefer it if Niri didn't have to see this. I wouldn't want to give her nightmares."
Hadwai was unable to writhe in the pain that consumed his body. He would cut off his own leg if he could move, but he felt every muscle in his body contract beyond the point of pain.
Mwarthes watched every moment in fascinated silence.
"Should I go ahead cut your throat?" he asked. "This is getting tiresome."
Hadwai's vision flickered in and out of focus.
"It looks like you're having a hard time." Mwarthes squatted by him. "Tell you what, just say 'yes' if you want me to end it for you."
Hadwai could barely pull in a ragged breath.
"What's that? Can't you speak? Not even one little word?"
Hadwai struggled, but could only turn his head to the side. The glorious golden jar sat in the corner. The beautiful face on the lid smiled down at him, giving him his final judgment. The jar shook, first a little, then harder. Angrier. More insistent.
"I may as well let you have him," he said, untying the ropes and lifting the lid. "Less work for me."
Swiftly, in an eager flood, the blackness came for Hadwai.
Image Source: Pixabay.com