He felt a stinging sensation at the back of his skull, and what he assumed was blood now trickled profusely down his neck. A concussion most likely, thought Wulfrik, and a severe blow too. And the young tree which had snapped beneath his weight, he initially believed to have been his broken back. Thankfully, his spine was unaffected.
However there was no time to lick his wounds, nor was there any to even think about them. Unless he moved, he was about to die.
Tearing up the earth and the snow underfoot, the manticore hurtled forward; looking like it might breath fire it was so intent on destroying Wulfrik.
Out of time and under pressure, Wulfrik frantically searched his mind for either a way to escape or kill the beast. And then he saw it. Or rather felt it. The sapling stump painfully digging into his back.
With his one free hand, Wulfrik reached behind him for the broken stalk, and tried to lift it up as the manticore drew ever closer.
Its face was aimed at Wulfrik’s neck, as it ran toward him. First moments, and then seconds away. Wulfrik’s heart pounded as he grappled with the baby tree.
The beast roared again, this time only inches away from severing Wulfrik’s jugular. When at the last possible instant, the Roktarian lifted the bent and broken sapling, and shoved it down the monster’s wide open maw.
Much to Wulfrik’s surprise, it kept moving, with a makeshift lance driven deep down its throat, whereby it was nearly standing on top of Wulfrik. But Wulfrik could tell it was dying, as blood dripped out of its jaws, staining the white powder on the ground. Ultimately, it backed away and collapsed. Cold and lifeless.
Wulfrik watched for a minute as the red pooled around the manticore’s body. Certain it had finally perished, Wulfrik tried to reach for his sword again, but it was no use.
Eventually he started to feel drowsy; the bump on his head taking its toll. Soon his eyes grew so heavy, Wulfrik thought he could do nothing but sleep.
When Wulfrik finally stirred, he felt weaker than before. A death of cold crept up on him. Fallen on his face and coat was a true blanket of snow at least an inch deep. It made him shiver.
As he went to brush off the precipitation he found his right hand was released. In fact the trees that once surrounded him had moved completely away. Leaving a great wide space for the snow to land on him, the felled logs and the frozen manticore corpses unobstructed by the forest canopy. So all around him was white.
Wulfrik suspected he had been unconscious for at least an hour, but he couldn’t be sure how much time had elapsed as the clouds were so pale and wan, and covered up all the sky. All he knew was that an inch of snow had covered the earth since then, and that it was starting to pick up.
Slowly Wulfrik was able to get on his knees— which were stiff and raw and soaked through like all the rest of his body— so that he might search for his sword. Sure enough, it was where he remembered, but buried under even more snow than he had been. And he was relieved it had not gone missing like Reuben’s had.
Hmm, Reuben. Where is he? Wulfrik wondered. Is he still alive?
“Reuben,” said Wulfrik barely aloud. And then he coughed, and felt the crack in his skull tingle.
He touched the back of his head, which wasn’t all that painful, but he could tell his blood had frozen to his scalp.
Yet he fought through the dull pain and yelled louder, “Reuben!” Wulfrik regretted it shortly after doing so. A loud noise could attract more beings than just Reuben to his location. How could I be so stupid? How could I throw such caution to the wind?
Regardless of his unwise decision, he listened for his friend’s reply. Although all that came was a gust of wind, and Reuben’s voice wasn’t on it. Squinting into the treeline proved just as useless. It was so dark in the deep of the woods, there was nothing to be seen.
Aching all over, Wulfrik managed to get on his feet, using his sabre to support himself. But only for a moment. Wulfrik’s leg had swelled to such unnatural proportions it made it impossible to put any of his weight upon it for long. He wondered how he didn’t notice it when he first woke.
Instantly he realised what had happened. The manticore’s poison barb which had supposedly grazed his trousers had broken flesh. It was a miniscule cut, barely tearing the fabric. Nevertheless, a small cut was all it took.
Once the manticore’s venom enters the bloodstream, a man’s energy is drained, and the affected area swells and become necrotic. If the man manages to stay awake, he contracts fever, and crippling seizures grip him until he loses the will to live, or his heart explodes. That is, if a man is able to slay the manticore, and is not devoured by it.
Wulfrik had seen many a man killed by a manticore, and its poison. But never had he seen a man recover. Even those who had their limbs amputated before it spread throughout the rest of his body, lived on for no more than a day.
I will die before the day is out, thought Wulfrik. He smiled. My battle is over. Death be fine, death be near, death be mine… but without fear.
Circling overhead, a black bird below the cover of clouds only made Wulfrik certain his death was imminent, and that to resist was pointless. He wished only that the icy cold would take him before the fever. Before the scavengers.
Then came the howling of timberwolves growing louder and louder. Wulfrik couldn’t help but laugh, and he said aloud, “My rotting corpse will be fought over by crows and wolves. How nice. If I must be eaten, so be it.”
The euphoria which Wulfrik felt only lasted so long, and he soon drifted in and out of consciousness. Transported to a realm where he hovered between a state of dreaming, and life and death. A dreamscape. A hell. A paradise. Purgatory.
“Do not be afraid…” said a quiet voice. But Wulfrik saw no one.
All he could see he could never describe; shapes and colours beyond imagining, and constantly changing. He wasn’t even sure his eyes were open. And at the same time he could see everything. Past and future. Here and there. And everywhere in between.
First he saw darkness, and fire, and black walls about him, closing in, ready to crush him. The stygian veil of night descending upon him. And he smelled coals and ash, and burning flesh. But then the walls gave way and he could see all around him. Looking down he saw the ebb of autumn give way to a white winter. A body sleeping in the snow. Him. And he felt the cold; tingling in his toes and in his fingertips.
Suddenly he was transported away from the winter, and brought to a spring both far from Pytham and long ago. To a place that was familiar. And below his feet, which he no could longer feel, he saw a roaring campfire and six brothers laughing and playing.
Then he flew to a summer where a boy rode with his father.
Then another where he saw a young woman expend her last breath to bring a child into the world.
Finally he saw one final scene in Roktar. One where two lovers courted and danced with one another. A black-haired boy, and a girl with brown eyes that changed to green and brown again.
Wulfrik flew again with his arms outstretched along a clear blue sky. And he no longer felt his fingertips, but his feathers, ruffling in the wind. He had come to another forest, which looked nearly identical to the Timbers of Pytham. Therein was a young brother, a prince, as well as a black-haired man, and his lover, a woman with green eyes that changed to brown and green again.
Then the voice returned. Not as a whisper, but it was soft and calm, and kind and it said to Wulfrik, “We walk out on our own two feet but we’re not free.”
And Wulfrik was high above the clouds where the sky was dark, and he looked on into the moon.
Wulfrik wondered if it was a full moon that spoke. So bright and luminescent. And he wondered if he could speak in response, and so he tried, and he said, “Who are you?”
Repeating itself, the moon, whom Wulfrik thought sounded feminine, said “We walk out on our own two feet but we’re not free.”
Patiently, Wulfrik waited for the moon to speak again, as he contemplated the meaning and the importance of the phrase.
For a second time, the moon said, “Do not be afraid,” before she added, “Get up, Wulfrik. Open your eyes.”