The woods ended abruptly to Oliver’s dismay. But he kept running. There was nothing else to be done. The one who pursued him would not easily give up the chase. But his dismay was only to grow. The land began to rise beneath him, imperceptibly at first, but steeper and steeper until Oliver was forced from his long-legged sprint to a much less graceful hand-flailing scramble uphill. He glanced back once and saw his pursuer (and shouldn’t he be farther away than that?) following with relentless resolve.
Panting, Oliver scrambled on. But then the incline flattened, just as abruptly as the woods had ended. And now Oliver truly was dismayed, for this new predicament was by far the worst of the lot. He stood, breathless, upon a strip of barren mesa. What grass braved the wind-blown plain was short and scraggly; the rest of the ground was covered in red dirt. And there, not half a hundred yards from Oliver, was the finale of the mesa. At its discontinuation, a sheer drop-off of thousands of feet terminated any thoughts of running farther.
So, Oliver chose the only tolerable choice of the two that remained. He unsheathed his sword and turned to face his pursuer.
Thus, the two, hunter and hunted, dueled long beside the deadly drop-off. Oliver had learned well the lessons of humanity. He stubbornly refused to release his white-knuckled grip on the sword, the hard grimace of his sweat-streaked face. But the one who pursued him also did not yield.
And they fought.
But they were unmatched, and Oliver knew it. Even as his mind raged to fight on, his arms wearied. Then came the inevitable blunder, surrender’s irresistible pull, an instant’s wink of uncertainty. Seizing the opportunity, the Hunter swiftly twisted his sword, not to pierce, but to strike with a blow that brought Oliver to his knees. The boy’s sword fell with a dull thud to the ground, coming to rest finally in the dust just out of Oliver’s reach. He was powerless.
Now the Hunter, standing still, raised his sword and brought its gleaming blade to rest upon the back of Oliver’s neck.
The sound of heavy breathing cried where sobs yet resisted their revealing.
“You are vulnerable, Oliver,” said the Hunter at last. “Do you deny your wound?”
A sword, more real than the one resting on the nape of his neck, slashed Oliver’s heart, yet his head remained obdurately upright. “You win then, alright?” he shouted angrily. “Have done with it and kill me. I can do no more good in this world.”
But the Hunter would not kill him; neither would he release him. “You have been made to kneel,” the Hunter said. That resonating tone knew no refusal. “But that is not what I want from you. I want you to willingly kneel.”
“What’s the difference?” Oliver demanded bitterly. “You’ve torn my heart to shreds. I can’t want anything anymore - leastwise humiliation before the one responsible for this death. What you ask is too hard.”
“Yet that is what I ask.”
“Ask or demand?”
The Hunter did not answer.
“I don’t have a choice, do I?”
But still the two remained thus posed, the boy kneeling upon the hard ground and the Hunter with his sword upon the boy’s neck. Suddenly, the boy’s shoulders slumped; his head fell to his chest. Dirt-encrusted hands covered his face as Oliver let out a cry of exhaustion. “You win,” he sobbed. His eyes rose to the heavens, and in them was seen stark surrender, defenseless defeat. “You win. Whatever you want of me, I’m yours. However you choose to humiliate me, however you choose to stab at my heart. I can’t fight you anymore. You’ve got me . . . I lose; you win.”
The Hunter lifted his sword.
Presently, two swords lay in the red dirt side-by-side, silent. Gently, the one whose name is sometimes Hunter helped Oliver to his feet and embraced him until the boy’s tears were dried. Then the Master and his child started off through the woods in search of the Road Home.
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