17. Eavesdropping

Under his black mask Stanley’s lips curve upward, the secret smile twice hidden. Firstly, it is covered by the protective veil, and secondly, it is obscured by the thin wall of the hut whose glowing blue windows shone so brightly in the dim morning. Leaning against this, his ready ears invading the little cabin, he overhears their two voices.

“It’s better this way,” a male voice was concluding.

“But what if?” the feminine voice responds. “What if?” she repeats.

“You saw it yourself, what he was,” counters the first speaker.

The two are quiet. Stanley can almost see their postures, imagining her with crossed arms and hunched shoulders turning away from her companion, and her companion stepping forward half wanting to embrace this disillusioned woman while lacking the temerity. Reasoning this the end of some lover’s spat, a minor branch in the intertwining drama of living in a small secluded town, the hunter prepares to forget the mystery of the blue window-light, but their next words, faintly traveling to his ears, arrests him.

“Maybe we can help him, keep him from turning into a wolf.” Her pleading tones tell she knows his answer.

Stanley presses his ear against the wall, stifling his wanton tongue from betraying him with an excited exclamation. To the consternation of his pounding heart, the two seem wrapped in wordless debate. They had covered their points over and over again, and each knew the other’s objections to what would be said.

Finally, like the soft trickle of water through a crack in a dam, she says, “I have to try.”

“What are you going to do?” he asks.

“Go back to the cave.” Stanley can’t judge whether the quietness of her voice tells of resolution or irresolution. The effect, however, is less ambiguous to the man. Inside the cabin, oblivious to the villain’s listening ear, the shepherd nods, a touch of a frown just pulling at the edges of his lips.

“I lost my flock to that thing, every little lamb. It took my livelihood, my independence, my life—”

“You’re still alive,” she reminds him.

Without missing a beat, he continues, “Wool’s a natural defense against the moon, and with a little help, sheep are completely safe from her burning rays. I was their shepherd, and I heard my sheep bleating in terror. That monster was swallowing them whole—I didn’t even see where he came from—and I was afraid.”

Here he pauses, his trembling lip and furrowed brow a mixture of agony and terror, his face reliving that moment once again. “My flock was scattered. I had in my hand a staff, my only weapon, but my arms and legs waxed weak at the sight of that grizzly monster. I had to see it with my own eyes before I could move, before the spell was broken.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” her consoling femininity recites.

“I can’t blame anyone else,” he shouts. “I stood there as it plucked little Marry Bell, as she screamed, as he swallowed her. Heard her little bell disappear into its belly.” His large arms flexed with rage, his clenched fists turning white. “Well that did break the spell, I was moving. With my staff in hand I raced at the creature.” Turning toward her, he snarls, “It swiped me aside with one blow.”

“But that wasn’t him,” she reminds the shepherd.

“No, but he is it, so you tell me, that hunter.”

Outside, Stanley softly breaks his vows, whispering an unheard ill phrase. Inside, with his rage spent, the exhausted shepherd sits down upon the edge of his bed. “When are we leaving,” he asks.

“Soon—now—while the sun’s rising,” she tells him.

“Then let’s go.”

Yes, thinks Stanley, let us go together. Crouching round the corner of the house, he waits, listening to their footsteps as they traverse the main road. Walking behind the houses, the last swordsman follows them unseen.

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