Training: Endurance

August 4, 2015

Original

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her credits include Analog, F&SF, and Strange Horizons. She has an antiquated website at https://www.marysoonlee.com and tweets at @MarySoonLee.

In humid heat,
up and down a low hill
along a goat track,
carrying shield and sword,
sweating, ran King Xau,
his guard Li at his side.

Another town burnt.
Nothing Xau could do.

Stationed along the way,
his other seven guards
and twenty of his cavalrymen
(horseless, standing guard).

Another town burnt—
How many heeded the warnings and left?
How many stayed and burned?

Up and down the hill;
Tsung, captain of his guards,
watched from the summit,
gave Xau and Li water
each time they crested the hill.

Demon signs left on stonework.
Demon fire sighted from afar,
indigo flame leaping like lightning.

People gathered on the hillside,
wide hats shading their heads,
casting circles like demon signs
onto the short grass.
They bowed as Xau passed,
a swaying wave of men and women.

Men and women who looked to him
to save them,
who trusted him,
who thought him more than he was.

An hour and a half in,
sweaty, sweltering, smelly,
his arm chafed raw by the shield straps,
his calves protesting each stride,
Tsung said to him, “Stop if you wish.”
Xau shook his head,
ran on, Li at his side,
past the growing crowd.

Would have run until he fell
if it would help,
but he couldn’t fight demons,
couldn’t even find the demons,
couldn’t find anyone who had seen a demon
and survived.

Men and women stretched in continuous lines
either side of the goat track,
bowing as he passed,
their shadows slowly lengthening.

The demons woken out of story,
out of nightmare.
A hundred dark legends, but no mention
of how to defeat demons,
of what Xau could do.
Or try to do.

Up and down the hill,
Li at his side, sweating,
but Li’s gait, Li’s breath as easy
as when they began.
(Xau gasping.)

Another town burnt.
Xau’s soldiers, Xau’s people, Donal’s people
all looking to Xau
as if he were King Nariz himself
come with a hundred dragons to save them—
A dragon—
Maybe.

He glanced at Li,
saw Li’s steady gaze on him.
“Better?” asked Li,
the first word he had said all that afternoon.
“Maybe,” said Xau.
Li touched him lightly on the shoulder
as they reached the top of the hill,
as Xau stopped, bowed to Tsung.
Stretched. Drank. Considered.

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© Mary Soon Lee

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