Friday, November 4, 2016

#FlashFictionFriday! The Burden by Liam Hogan #Fantasy #FFF

The Burden

by Liam Hogan


The traveller shouldered his burden and carefully adjusted the straps. The load was unforgiving and he had a long day’s walk ahead of him.
Other than the weight wrapped in thick cloth and fixed to his back, he carried little. The road would provide. A small water skin, an empty purse tucked into his sleeve, and, of course, his axe.
He took his lunch--a bowl of rice and a bean stew reheated too many times to tell what beans they once were--with an old woman, who welcomed him into her roadside shack, offering him sustenance in return for chopping her firewood.
Her prattle slowed and then died as he lowered his pack and briskly set about his task, the close grain pattern of the ji chi mu making the wood dense. The old woman was lucky to have such off-cut pieces, too gnarled or split for the local carpenters to use. It would burn slowly, so he cut the lengths short.
When there were no more logs to chop, he warmed down by steadily honing the sharp edge of his blade, a sheen of sweat matting the gray hairs against the cord-like muscles of his arms. They ate in silence, the old woman’s wooden spoon rattling in her unsteady hands.
“Who are you?” she asked as he got up to go, looking in fear at the stone slab he hefted onto his back.
He smiled in return. “Really. You wouldn’t want to know.”
#
Salt stung his eyes. The water skin he’d refilled at the old woman’s was empty and he felt himself start to stumble on the uneven path as it snaked upwards. The coast was a long way distant and these hills were not cooled by the breezes that stirred the chimes and swayed the lanterns of Fuzhou, the life he had left behind. Ahead, shimmering in the distance, a stand of bamboo promised at least some respite. He’d rest a while, wait until the heat of the day had eased before continuing his journey.
But as he approached he saw that the stand was already occupied and when the three men there rose with languid ease, he heard at his back the soft shuffle of the footsteps of a fourth.
“Well,” said their leader, all swagger as he took up position in the middle of the dusty road. “What is it that weighs you down so, granddad?”
“It is of no value to you,” the traveller replied.
“We’ll be the judge of that,” the leader said, his voice hardened. “Let it drop!”
So he did, tugging on the knots that set it free, stepping forward as it slammed into the baked earth, drawing a sharp yelp from the bandit who had been creeping up behind him. As the weight was lifted from his shoulders he stood up taller and felt the lightness that comes when you release a great burden, felt as if he could float away from the ground. A sensation that would not last long, he knew, but which always seemed to last as long as it was needed.
“Fancy axe, old timer,” the leader said. “Where did you steal that from?”
“I was given--”
“Ah, you know what? I don’t care. Just hand it over.”
He heard the sound of ripping fabric from behind him, heard the sudden intake of breath. Heard the fourth bandit’s tentative: “Erm... boss?”
“I can’t do that,” the traveller said.
“No?” The leader cast dagger eyes at the bandit crouched behind the impudent traveller, wondering what he was waiting for.
“No,” the traveller agreed.
The bandit laughed a hollow laugh and drew his ox-tail sword, the wrap on the grip faded and uneven, the curved surface dull and pitted, a blade older than the man waving it angrily in the air. “You’re crazy. We have swords! We outnumber you,” he said.
“Still.”
“Are you so prepared to die, old man?”
“My tombstone is ready,” the traveller said. “Is yours?”
#
When it was over, the traveller tapped the blade of his axe on the shoulder of the fourth man, who was still bent over the engraved slab of gray stone, still tracing the deeply cut characters. He looked up, in fear and wonder.
“You... were the Emperor’s executioner?”
“Yes,” the traveller said, feeling the stretch in his shoulders and arms, just as he had in the courtyard of the Winter Palace, as the gong struck to announce the dawn and the end of a man’s life. And, just as it had that mist-shrouded day, his axe measured the distance to the bandit’s neck. He nodded at the tombstone. “He had that made along with his own, had it sent to me the night before. I think he hoped I would not be able to go through with it, that it would unnerve me. But it did not. I did my duty.”
“So... now?”
“Now I travel,” he said. “I walk the roads and paths of Minyue and keep them clear of bandits such as you. Men stupid enough to prey on an old hunter, such as I. This is my penance, a small deed to negate the chaos of these troubled times. One day, I will be too slow, too old, and it will be me who falls. When I do, I ask only that the Emperor’s parting gift be mounted at my head.”
The bandit lowered his eyes, a splash darkened the stone, whether sweat or a tear the traveller could not tell. “And me, laoshi?”
He lifted the axe, leaving a red triangle on the bandit’s flesh. “You were not fool enough to draw your weapon, not fool enough to attack me from behind. So. Perhaps you will go home, spread the word that this is no country for bandits. Perhaps you will live to a ripe old age. Perhaps. If you run.”
The bandit ran.
The traveller cut a large square from the thick cloth of the leader’s cloak and wrapped it around the tombstone, replacing the one that had been torn. With the material that remained he cleaned his executioner’s axe, carefully wiping away every trace of blood. Then he knelt beside each of the fallen men, whispered a few words into the hot stillness, before patting them down and half filling his purse from their pockets. He did not take it all, little though there was: even bandits have families, even bandits deserve a decent marker for their graves.
He looked around the stony plain, wearily peering into the haze filled distance. It would not do to linger, not here, where the three men now lay. He sought out their water skins, felt their lightness, turned them over one by one, draining the scant drops before casting them aside with a sigh and once more lifting his burden.
No water, but still.
The road would provide.

~~~oOo~~~

About the Author:

Liam Hogan is a London based writer, winner of Quantum Shorts 2015 and the Sci-Fest LA's Roswell Award 2016. Find out more at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/

~~~oOo~~~

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