The sky threatened to rain some more that morning as they set out. They climbed the steep switchbacks that led to the top of the waterfall. After passing the stone shelter they had meant to reach the day before, the path leveled and followed parallel to the creek. For the first ten miles, the path never moved beyond sight of the creek. But then they began to ascend again and the creek fell away from them as they climbed, eventually disappearing from sight.
Leela began to feel uneasy. “Raizo…it’s quiet.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
Leela stopped. “Is—is it supposed to be this quiet?” She listened. There was no breeze, no rustle of the trees, not even the distant whisper of the creek. Raizo’s footsteps halted and now Leela heard only her own breathing. That, and something else: a distant rustling like walking through leaves. Leela tried to discern which direction the sound was coming from, but it ceased a moment later.
Raizo’s eyes were wide. “It’s stalking us!”
Leela drew her knife. “At least we can hear and see it coming now. How much farther?”
“We can get to the temple before nightfall.”
“Good. Let’s go, but keep quiet.”
The path came to a deep ravine, over which spanned an ancient, stone bridge that had crumbled away in the middle some ages ago.
“How are we supposed to get across?” asked Leela, peering over the edge of the ravine. She could barely see the creek below.
“There’s supposed to be a rope bridge right…here. Oh no.”
Leela started at the dread in Raizo’s voice. She hurried over to where he was standing. There where two sturdy wooden posts near the edge of the cliff. Smooth grooves had been worn into them where thick ropes must have once been attached. Leela looked across the ravine. Sure enough, the rope bridge hung useless on the other side.
Leela sighed. “How—”
“Look,” said Raizo, pointing at the wooden posts.
Leela’s stomach tightened when she saw it: claw marks. “That damned wolf! Why? What does it want with us?”
“I don’t know.” Raizo looked around nervously. “But I think we’d better find a way across sooner rather than later.”
“Agreed. What about the old bridge?”
They examined the stone bridge. Leela crept to the edge of where the middle had fallen away. Raizo stayed on solid ground.
“The gap might be short enough to jump.” Leela called back to Raizo.
“That’s a long fall if you’re wrong!”
“We can use safety ropes to—” Leela turned to look at Raizo. “BEHIND YOU!”
Raizo turned around, but it was too late. The wolf had pounced and was on top of him. Leela sprinted towards them, drawing her knife. The few seconds it took to close the distance felt like an eternity. She collided with the wolf’s flank, driving her knife into its flesh with all her weight behind it. The wolf, large as it was, barely stumbled. But it was enough. Raizo scrambled out from under it as Leela yanked the knife free.
“Jump the bridge!” she yelled.
Raizo obeyed without second thought. Cradling his bleeding arm, he sprinted towards the bridge. Leela stood her ground, squaring off with the wolf. The wolf growled and bared its blood-stained teeth, but made no move. Leela kept her eyes fixed on the wolf. Behind her, she could hear Raizo’s pounding footsteps on the stone bridge; then came a sharp grunt, a soft crash, and a shout: “I made it! Hurry!”
Leela did not move. She knew the wolf would attack if she turned to run, so she waited. The fur on the wolf’s flank was now saturated with blood and began dripping on the dirt. Leela raised her knife a little higher and took a cautious step backward. The wolf did nothing but stare at Leela through its vast, black eyes. She took another step. This time it stopped growling and assumed a calm expression. Leela, puzzled, took a third step and the wolf sat down, now regarding her with a serene demeanor. Slowly, Leela lowered her knife to her side. The wolf remained motionless.
Leela had a sudden suspicion. “Are you going to let me go?”
The wolf was still. Then…nodded.
Leela turned slowly, watching the wolf. As soon as she took her eyes off the wolf, she broke into a hard sprint over the bridge. Raizo beckoned her on with his uninjured arm. Leela launched herself across the gap and collapsed on the landing. Raizo helped her to her feet. Looking back across the bridge, Leela caught a glimpse of the wolf’s backside walking away.
They put a good distance between themselves and the bridge before they set their packs down. Leela helped Raizo with his pack since he only had one good arm. Raizo was oddly silent while Leela helped bandage his arm.
“Raizo,” said Leela, “There’s a question that’s been nagging at me.”
Leela took that as an invitation. “Why did the wolf attack you? Especially in the same way it did to me. I mean, I don’t want to imply anything—”
“You just did.”
“Your suspicions are correct. It was a blood toll.”
Leela said nothing.
Raizo sighed and looked at his bandaged arm. “I suppose this proves it. I have to confess. I am not a guide. There are no servants of Motakke. I lied to you.”
“I was scared.”
“A lot of things, I suppose. The wolf was one. But Yasuko—I was afraid of what she might say to me. I didn’t want to go alone.”
Leela looked down. “You didn’t have to lie to me, Raizo. I would’ve gone along with you.”
“Would you have?” Raizo looked skeptical. “You didn’t exactly seem friendly when I first saw you.”
“Well…I suppose. But why would you be afraid of Yasuko? The wolf I get, but your own wife?”
Raizo paused. His lips moved silently as if considering his words. “I lied about Yasuko too. She didn’t die of illness.”
“You’re not saying you—you didn’t—”
“No! I didn’t kill her. Not directly anyway. But she is dead because of me.”
Raizo tugged at his mustache for a moment, then pulled out his pipe and started smoking. “I wasn’t always this lowly and humble.” He gestured at the simple tunic he was wearing. “I came from a powerful family, and like all noble sons I was meant to marry the daughter of some other noble. But then I met Yasuko.” An absent smile spread across Raizo’s face. “I first saw her passing by on the road. She was taking a cart of chickens to the market. I don’t know what it was about her that caught my attention. I had seen dozens of village girls like her before. But our eyes met for the briefest of moments…and she had me.”
Raizo’s smile faded and he looked down at his lap. “My father was not pleased. Well—that’s an understatement. He was furious. I had ruined all his plans by marrying a mere farm girl. He tried to order me to get rid of her, but I refused. I feared his anger would turn murderous. So I took Yasuko and fled as far away from my father and his mercenaries as I could.”
As he was talking, Raizo’s pipe had gone out. But he did not seem to notice.
He continued. “The first few years were bliss, for sure. It took me some time to adjust to life on our new farm. But with Yasuko, I could have lived in a pig sty and every minute would have been pure joy.”
Raizo sighed. “But as the years went on, Yasuko began to miss her family, her home. She wanted to go see them. But I forbade her. It was too far and too risky. Who knew what my father would do to her? Who knew what he had already done to her family? I couldn’t risk it.”
Raizo fiddled nervously with the edge of his bandages. “The isolation took its toll on her. As time went on she grew more and more distant. Until—” Raizo dropped his head and began silently sobbing. “I see her…every night. This damn mountain! Every dream it’s the same. I see her there, but I can’t move. I’m on the shore, she’s—she’s walking toward the river with—with a millstone tied to her neck. I scream, she keeps walking. She steps into the water. No matter how hard I try, no matter how hard I yell, I can only watch as she disappears.”
Unable to continue, Raizo put his head between his knees and wept full force. Leela, unsure what to do, sat silently.
It was several minutes before Raizo regained control of himself. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “If only I hadn’t been so afraid of my father. Maybe she could have seen her family. Maybe she wouldn’t have—”
“Raizo,” said Leela, “You can’t blame yourself for that.”
“But I do. I try to see it any other way. But I can’t stop feeling she did it because of me.”
“You can ask her yourself when you see her.”
Raizo nodded, but said nothing as Leela helped him to his feet.
“Come on,” said Leela, “We might still be able to make it before dark.”