Soaking in the sun’s rays, he stands in the middle of the road, letting the blood dry on his legs. The wolf is quiet, curling up after its last remark—its subtle threat—like a lazy dog. In his mind’s eye it lies dormant. Looping his thumb under the shoulder strap of his crossbow, Richard takes a tentative step forward. In response sharp pains race up his skin-stripped legs. He stands still. Closing his eyes, he imagines Stanley.
Many years ago, still more boy than man, Richard held back his sobs. The warm throbbing in his hand pounded with an ever swelling intensity. Large blobby tears fell from his reddening face. He looked at it again: the finger bent backward at an unnatural angle along the back of his hand, the joint between the digit and his palm popped in an incautious moment. Grimacing, he stifled his sudden broken cry.
The last swordsman knelt before the child, and reaching out his hand snapped his fingers in front of the boy’s face. Following the hand with his eyes, Richard watched as it drifted back toward Stanley. The man grabbed his own finger, slowly inhaled, exhaled, and then snapped it out of place. Stanley’s finger was twisted in the same gnarly way as the boy’s.
Transfixed by this display, Richard immediately looked into the man’s face. It was empty. Drawing another long, deep breath, Stanley closed his eyes, and in one swift jerk, replaced his finger in its socket. Breathing in deeply, or as deeply as he could, Richard wrapped his hand around the misplaced finger. The knots in his stomach twisted and writhed as he imagined snapping the digit back into place.
Over the panicked crescendo in his mind, Richard heard Stanley’s nearly silent exhale. Following suit, he let his breath go. Inhaling again, he filled his lungs until they burned. Softly allowing the air to flow from him, he felt the pain drift away as well. Again, in and out. Farther away now, he found himself disjoint, separated from the mindless fear and pain of his body. In one quick motion, he pulled his finger forward, resetting it.
Closing his eyes, Richard breaths slowly, separating himself from the pain. His arms grow limp at his sides as his face relaxes into a dead solemn. Gradually his eyes open revealing a glazed emptiness. Stepping forward, he marches toward the hill.
The pain fights for his mind, reaching out for him as if thousands of black tentacles coming up from imperceptible murky depths. They grab at him, trying to drag him into the dark waters of panic and pain, but he floats above. In this dazed method, Richard comes over the slope’s peak.
“And what do you want down there?” the wolf mocks.
Richard pictures the young girl who met him in the darkness at the mouth of the cave, the priestess in tattered slave’s rags. The faded cloth hung from her like a repurposed bag, obscuring any feminine trait but that saintly voice with which she sang. Then he reminds the wolf: envisioning the old legends of Priestly Hunters, Richard recalls long uncounted tales.
With a terrible snarl the wolf screams, “You’ll not step a foot in there!”
Within sight of help and salvation, Richard feels his legs once more possessed by the savage mind of the wolf. Teetering on that height, in contest neither succumbing to the other, luck decides the victor. With swaggering unwieldy steps, Richard sways, sometimes falling toward the village and at others tumbling back into the forest.
By chance, a loose stone undoes all of Richard’s plans. Sensing the ground shifting under him, and knowing what way he falls, the hunter gives one last longing glance toward his fading hope. A moment passes as he flies weightless through the air, and then hitting his head upon the ground, all fades away into black.