My lips are riddled with cracks and hardened patches of skin, like flakes of mud in a dry riverbed, splintering with sparks of pain as I press them together, trying not to think about the raging thirst thickening my tongue and making it nearly impossible to swallow. My hunger, once torturous, has faded to insignificance compared to my thirst. The merciless sun has covered my body with blisters and dead, peeling skin, irritated by every movement. With every step my knees threaten to collapse, occasionally making good their threats at the worst possible moments. The shaking in my hands is constant, and my broken, filthy nails are ringed with blood and torn skin from clawing my way up one steep, rocky hill after another.
I struggle to another hilltop only to stare out at more countless miles of wasteland. Rising heat waves act for a moment like a lens, magnifying the far distance, where lush grass clothes the hillsides like emerald velvet, waving softly in a breeze that I’m certain must be cool and damp, since gray clouds veil the sun’s harsh glare and the land is laced with splashing streams and misty waterfalls.
Any hope I feel at the sight is weak and broken, like the efforts of a moth with shredded wings. I have seen this same view from many hilltops, and walked many miles without coming any nearer. There is no end. I am lost in the middle of a brutal wilderness from which I cannot escape.
To make things worse, I am being followed.
My pursuer is known simply as “The Hunter” by all who dare speak of him—and they are not many. He is little known but greatly feared, said to possess unspeakable powers of his own, besides using the king’s complete trust and favor to secure the authority and resources of the entire kingdom for his disposal. His appointed task is tracking down lawbreakers and bringing them in, dead or alive, “so that justice may be done.”
Yes, the kingdom loves “justice” above all and descends like a hawk upon the smallest infraction of one of its ordinances, dispatching The Hunter to seek out the offender, and conducting trials in which the king and The Hunter serve together as lawgiver, judge, jury, and executioner (for no matter the crime, the sentence is always death). Then they make a show of benevolence, offering convicts (they never fail to find a defendant guilty) bizarre and outrageous ultimatums in exchange for what they consider mercy—namely, an alternate sentence of life in unending slavery to them, who wear jewels and silks and rule the kingdom from their sprawling palace while the rest of the world scrounges through pathetic hovels in search of rags to cover themselves and food enough to hold back starvation—but we are not fooled.
We see the king and The Hunter as they are: egomaniacal tyrants obsessed with power, who delight in oppressing the common people for their own gain. Little wonder, then, that they have written the laws of the kingdom so that no one, however good and sincere his intentions, could ever hope to keep them. There is no question of whether you will violate an ordinance and bring The Hunter seeking you; there is only the question of when.
That is why I am here, lost in a barren wasteland: like everyone, I have broken laws of the kingdom—how many, which ones, how many times, I could not say; they are so detailed, so far-reaching, so invasive even of thoughts as well as actions, that no one could keep track of their own offenses.
At first The Hunter merely passed by on the street, calling my name and offering me the chance to surrender without a fight. When I ignored him he began coming to my door with the same offer. The day he kicked the door down was the day I fled.
I hoped to find somewhere beyond his authority where I could live in peace, but each time I tried to escape he was waiting for me. He knew every road and anticipated my every move as though reading my thoughts, until the only course left to me was the dark, uncharted wilderness outside the kingdom. I was ill-prepared for such an expedition, but he left me no choice, and I was willing to brave a bit of heat and sun for the sake of freedom. I was not willing to sacrifice my life to the whims of an egomaniacal despot.
And that is why I am here now, struggling across mile after mile of burning gray sand and rock, The Hunter still on my trail. Even when I cannot see him, I know he is there. His presence once felt is unmistakable, unforgettable. He is following me, waiting for my surrender—for if he wanted me dead he could have overtaken and killed me long ago.
I press on, my thirst growing ever more maddening. In the gulley between two hills I find a half-withered plant, tear it up by the roots, break the stem, and suck the broken ends. The juice is thick, slimy, and bitter, but for the moment I have some relief.
It doesn’t last, though. By sunset I am reduced to crawling, dragging myself through the rocks with my arms, tearing away the few rags of clothing that remained and covering my already-tortured skin with bruises and cuts that instantly clot with dirt. A layer of sticky mud coats the inside of my mouth, and I’ve no saliva left to spit it out.
And then my body stops obeying. All at once I am left without the strength even to reach for another handful of dust. Ironically, only now do I realize that I am dying, that I will never reach freedom. The Hunter has won.
As if he has read my thoughts, The Hunter appears and stands over me, silent and still. My hatred of him, of what he has driven me to, tries to rally, but I am too weak. What is the point anymore?
His shadow falls across my back and my burning skin cools, soothed by the shade. Strange, cruel irony.
“Last chance,” he says. “Will you surrender?”
Again my hatred tries to rally, but the simplicity of his question penetrates through the haze of loathing and pain to the tiny part of me that is still cognizant. Surrender. Surrender means justice, the trial, the ultimatum: death or slavery. What kind of choice is that?
But then... the kingdom’s slaves aren’t dying of thirst, starving, naked, dragging themselves through the dirt by their fingernails, all in pursuit of a mirage.
What am I doing? Have I been blind and mad all this time? Slaves they may be, but they are better off than I am. I don’t want to die, to let this horrible thirst be the last sensation I feel. For even one drink of fresh water, I am willing to give my life in servitude to the kingdom. Yes, I am willing.
Now in the throes of final desperation, I manage to turn my head to the side, just enough to see The Hunter from the blurry corner of my eye. It is all I can do to draw the raspy breath to whisper:
“I... surrender. Please... take me back.”
I have not even finished the words before The Hunter is on his knees beside me, turning me over onto my back. Pain screams from every cut and bruise, but I am too weak even to flinch. The Hunter cradles my head and shoulders in one arm, brushing the dirt and bits of rock from my face with his other hand.
“Th—thirsty,” I manage around my dry, swollen tongue.
Instantly there is a flask against my chin and The Hunter lets water trickle through my lips.
At first I can’t feel it—my mouth is too parched, too full of dust. But then cool water touches a place in the back of my throat where I still have some sensation, triggering my instinct to swallow. I choke instead, spewing most of the water back out in a spray of gritty mud. The Hunter lets me finish coughing and then pours more water into my mouth. I swallow some, I cough some out as mud, and we repeat the process. Finally, my throat is clear enough that I can swallow unhindered, and The Hunter lets me drink my fill.
Finally I am forced to stop for breath, and as I lay panting The Hunter astonishes me by leaning down and pressing his lips against my filthy forehead. When he pulls away I can only stare up at him in silent shock.
“You will never be thirsty again,” he whispers. Then without waiting for me to find something to say, he produces a sheet from somewhere and wraps it around me. It is smooth and cool, and its touch lessens the pain of my cuts and blisters.
The Hunter gathers my broken, emaciated body into his arms and rises to his feet. Then he draws a deep breath—a sigh of contentment?—and as the sunset fades to darkness and the stars shine over the desert, the man who hunted me down begins carrying me back towards home.