Het and the Rakshasa

(Part 3)

        Resolute that she could find some new information for the Sergeant (and perhaps impress him), Het struggled down the muddy slope into the land below. And when she arrived there, she saw a strange and terrifying sight indeed.

In the square there was a great gathering of the dwellers of that land. A long and warped table had been laid out, and all the dwellers were all gathered around a terrible fire, which threw ghastly light upon their dark and white-eyed faces. Het saw there the fire-stoking woman, and the junk-sifting man, and the bundle-bearing youth. The entire gathering was giving forth an unearthly wail, their hands outstretched in claw like shapes, their faces upturned and monstrous. A great lightning bolt of fear struck Het about the heart and she fled at once back to the palace.

In the morning, she told the Sergeant of what she had seen, and he congratulated her for her find, and promised to redouble his investigation given the new evidence of wrongdoing. So it was that even though Het’s boots and uniform were already muddy from the night before, that morning she set out warm with pride and her chin thrust in the air, the Centurion ahead of her with his sword hand flexing.

Het’s discovery seemed to invigorate the Sergeant. He set about questioning the dwellers at twice the speed he had before, and very shortly they had a suspect, who the Centurion cut down with incredible speed before they could even ask him a question. He did not have a Rakshasa inside him, but, in fact, turned out to be simply a bad debtor. So it was with the next person the Centurion slaughtered, a woman who turned out to be a forger of the king’s coin. “We’ll have a very busy day,” said the Sergeant, cleaning his perfect fingernails.

Het was roiling with frustration and guilt. How could they have been so misled? Petty criminals were not what they had come for. Surely the dwellers of this land had some awful secret they were hiding away, especially given the dark gathering Het had stumbled on the night before. Perhaps there was an entire clan of Rakshasa, scheming away at their demise. The mud-daubed faces of the hunched and twisted people around Het looked more similar than ever. They seemed to be laughing at her.

With great intent, Het excused herself from the Sergeant and Centurion, and rushed to the hut of the fire-stoking woman, knocking her door open with the butt of her stave. “You there!” said Het accusingly, “What are you doing?”

“I am making bread,” said the astonished woman, “For this land is harsh and scarce, but it gives to us all the same. It’s what we have.” Het was suspicious and took three fine steps into the room, in the way she’d seen the Sergeant step. But the woman showed her the oven, and the way it was stoked, and the thin and flimsy looking bread that she was baking there. And since Het could find no fault with baking bread, she left and ran to the dwelling of the junk-sifting man.

“You there!” she said as she reached his dwelling. She gripped her stave tightly, for she feared trouble. “What is your business?” The junk-sifter turned to her, astonished. “I am preparing amulets, made by the townspeople,” he said. “For this land is harsh and bleak, but its people are resourceful.” Het took two great steps inside the dwelling and saw that he was telling the truth. The amulets weren’t terribly well made, but they had a certain crude beauty to them that was undeniable. Growing increasingly uneasy, Het took up her stave and fled to find the bundle-bearing youth.

It took her very little time, for Het was in a great hurry. A terrible suspicion that she was being deceived had taken hold of her, and she began to walk square shouldered and narrow-eyed, like the Centurion. Her hand even hovered around her sword handle, but never touched it, for she was terrible with the sword.

She accosted the youth, who turned to her wide eyed. “You there!” barked Het, and she took a single step and grasped the youth’s shoulder. “What are you scheming? I know there’s something your people are hiding from me!” The youth gaped at Het and said, “Please! I’m carrying the burial cloths! For this land is harsh and its rulers cruel, but it’s people are resilient.” It was then that Het realized she was crushing the youth’s shoulder and let go. The trembling youth unfurled the cloth, and explained how the cloth was dyed and folded. Het saw it’s intricate pattern, but still her suspicions were not quenched. She shoved the terrified youth aside and ran in a panic to where the Sergeant and the Centurion were executing a root seller who was selling their produce over-price.

“A terrible shame,” said the Sergeant, and wiped his brow.

As Het approached him, she told him of her suspicions. “ A conspiracy is boiling here!” she said, breathless. “I am certain now the dwellers of this land are hiding the Rakshasa!”

“I thought as much,” said the Sergeant, “Which is why I have stepped up our investigations once again.” The Centurion said nothing, but only cleaned the viscera off his sword in well-practiced motions. He had butchered seven dwellers that day and was exceptionally happy for it.

Het told the Sergeant of her plan. She would stay behind and follow the dwellers to their night-time gathering, and get to the heart of the matter. Part of her daring plan, to be certain, was a desperate final bid to win the Sergeant’s affection. But the large part of it was a deathly fear that the demons of this awful, muck-ridden land would surely get the better of them and they would be ripped apart.

“If you stay behind,” said the Sergeant, matter-of-factly, “You shan’t get in the palace in time. You will miss your bath and you’ll be terribly filthy. I would think you’d have to sleep outside.” He looked pointedly at Het’s boots and uniform, doubly soiled with both the filth of that day and of her exploits the night before. Het’s heart sunk, but she was resolute.

So it was that the Sergeant and the Centurion abandoned Het and returned to the palace. Het found a thin and dead tree and huddled under it, filled with fear and trepidation, and even touched her sword handle at some points. The bleak sun grew low in the sky and darkness swept across the land. Het crawled forth from her hiding place, trudging through the muck, until she saw the light of the great fire start up again in the distance. Her heart jumped as she grew closer, as once again she saw the dark forms of the dwellers gather together and lay out their table. But fear had made her feet unsteady, and all of a sudden she slipped and tumbled through the muck until she lay battered in the street, in plain view of the gathering.

Het struggled to her feet, and gathered her staff close to her, and prepared to die. But the white eyes of the dwellers held looks of sadness and compassion, not of hate. “Come closer, stranger,” they said, gathering her in and soothing her. And Het realized that she herself was so covered with filth at this point that she looked no different from anyone else standing around that great fire. Dazed, she was pulled into the gathering, and given water. And there, Het saw the fire-stoking woman. She was laying bread out upon the table, in roughly woven baskets.

Her mind racing, Het looked around, and found the junk-sifting man, and she saw him laying amulets upon the eyes of someone lying on the ground. The person was so still at first, that Het thought they were acting, but then Het saw the bundle-bearing youth wrap them in a burial cloth and realized it was one of the dwellers that the Sergeant and the Centurion had slaughtered earlier that day. That she had slaughtered. And she looked to the fire and saw the bodies burning there, and the wailing started, and there Het began to cry.

After Het had finished weeping, it was as though the tears had cleared her eyes of something dark and terrible. The people, who had looked so alike in their covering of dirt and their rough clothing now stood out stark as day. Here was a kindly woman with a lined face pulled tight in grief for her lost son. Here was a young and sun-worn man beating his chest for his dead sister. They were simple faces, dirty and weather-beaten, but in that moment, sublimely beautiful.

After the fire and its grim contents had burned down to coals, they sat around the great table and ate the thin bread that had been laid out there. As each person bit into it, they bowed their heads and loudly praised its fine taste. Het didn’t touch it at first, but was urged on by the mourners. To her surprise, the bread was bitter and dry. “How can you praise this bread when the taste is so poor?” said Het, astonished. The dwellers looked at her strangely and said, “This land heaps pain and indignity upon us. We are small people, so we must be grateful for the small things. Otherwise, what do we have?”

Het was sickened by her own blindness. “In truth,” she said, “I am a watchman come to town to hunt for the Rakshasa.”

“We know,” said the dwellers. “The Rakshasa has plagued us for some time. It steals what little livelihood we have and inflicts pain and malice upon us. At first, our funerals were only for those that it took in the night. Now we must work twice as hard to mourn those the Law takes as well. We resent it, but what can we do? It is the way of things.”

Het thought of the Sergeant and his perfect fingernails, and felt a sudden and strong revulsion. “It is not the way of things,” she said. An idea struck her then, as pure and clear as a bolt of lightning.

“Do all attend these gatherings?” she asked the dwellers. “No,” said the dwellers, “there are some who stay silent in their grief, or resent our mourning.” Het thought a moment, then planted her staff and stood up. “I will find this Rakshasa for you,” she said, speaking to those assembled. “Are there dead that are not yet burned?” The dwellers showed her that there were, and Het bade them delay their final rites. There was a great clamor among the dwellers, but Het planted her staff again, and they listened, partly in fear, and partly in awe.

“The Sergeant will start his investigation again tomorrow,” said Het in a voice she didn’t knew she had yet. “You will burn your dead when the sun is high, instead of at night, and you will bid all the town come to the funeral. Those that are not at the gathering will surely be in danger, for the Sergeant has promised me he will step up his investigation. You will bake the bread, and make the amulets, and prepare the burial cloth, just as normal, and in turn, I will reveal to you a secret way to draw out and kill the Rakshasa.”

The dwellers were in turmoil at Het’s suggestion, for it was a grave breach of custom. But the Rakshasa had plagued them for a long time, and the suggestion of relief from its scourge was just enough to motivate them. They set about finishing their funeral rites, and preparing for the next day. Het, for her part, trudged in the cold and dark back to the palace. But, as promised, the palace gates were closed to her. She slept in the mud and awoke cold and wet, but full of purpose.