A boy called Wesley Chambers
A naked boy ran through the forest. His bare feet slapped on the dirt path as he tried to untie rope around his wrists. Peacock blue leaves glowed around the trail. They smeared in the sides of his vision as he sprinted down a hill and through brush to where the trail opened. He ran until the leaves didn’t shine anymore, and kept running until they were dull and green and matched the darkness. The forest opened. Sheep wandered along foothills with silver moonlight on their backs. His heels crunched dry grass as he zigzagged between the animals. He looked back once. Orange torchlight filled the space between trees at the forest edge. The boy’s knee hit a bulk of wool. He flipped sideways over a baby lamb and tumbled down the far side of the hill. They splat, one splash after another, in a lily-choked seam. He sat up out of the water and peeled a strand of sea grass off his face, then wiped brown hair from his eyes. The lamb pinned its ears back and moaned, splashing hooves all around itself. An arrow went through its head.
“Outlaw!” echoed twice to the stars above.
Mud sucked at the boy’s heels with each step through the water. He loosened the rope at his wrists and pulled a hand free. A pale band of skin circled his wrist. Red light reached around the hill like the tentacle of some great monster. The boy laid chest-down in the water and let the ripples go smooth as bugs skated past his eyes. The bog tasted salty; he was almost to the sea.
An oaflike son-of-a-bitch sloshed around the bend, pointing a wooden crossbow that looked tiny in his hands. A lantern swung from the end of the crossbow with dead flies stuck to glass.
Sloshing water rolled against the boy’s face. He blinked salt from his eyes and slowed the breath through his nostrils. Firelight crept through slats in the reeds then fell on a bullfrog mulling beside him. The bullfrog’s eyes sheened gold on top of its head. For a moment the frog was still, just a fixed part of the lilies, and then it plumped beneath the water.
The hunter spun around. He panned the torch over the inlet. A drone of crickets and bullfrog croaks filled the night. The hunter’s eyes, freshly convinced the noise had been a bullfrog, fell on the boy.
“Are the whispers I hear about you true?” the man asked, pointing the arrowhead between the boy’s green eyes. “They sing rumors in the Vesper Forest about a boy that can’t die.”
The boy rose from the water, green eyes crossed to the arrow tip. He stood, naked and pathetic, with wisps of steam rising off his shoulders into the moonlight. The bowstring snapped and hung lamely on both sides of the trigger. The boy pulled the arrow forward off its nock and thrust it into the scruff under the man’s jaw. The man placed fat hands over the bald spot on his head and knelt, dousing the torch in the water. The seam went cold dark, again. Even on his knees, the man was almost as tall as the boy.
“Are you Wesley Chambers?” the hunter asked.
“That is what everyone on this continent seems to call me,” the boy answered. “Are you a bounty hunter for Gallows?”
The boy snapped off the arrow’s tail.
“Liar.” He held the arrow’s fletching in front of the man’s face. Its fins glowed a lightening shade of blue. “This fletching is twilled from Vesper Locust thorns.” He held the glittering blue arrow in front of the man’s nose. “This vegetation only shines lambent in the deepest parts of the Vesper Forest. Nobody goes that deep into the Vesper Hollow and survives, unless they work for Jimmy Gallows.”
The man chuckled from his knees, rocking all the sea grass back and forth from the waves his belly created.
“You think you can outrun Jimmy Gallows?”
“I just need to outrun you to town,” Wesley smiled.
Over the man’s shoulder, a small fishing village shined in the valley between two mountains. Yellow lanterns twinkled between timber framed homes and smoke dragged from brick chimneys out over the sea. A stopped waterwheel dipped into a canal cutting in from the ocean just behind it. The boy eyed the harbor, watching the moon glisten all the way to the horizon.
The man smiled.
“You’ll be arrested in town unless you can outrun the Sheriff.”
“Why did Gallows send you after me?”
The boy pressed the arrowhead further into the man’s neck.
“Easy with that—Gallows doesn’t tell us, he only pays us. But we wonder why the leader of the Vesper underworld posted a higher bounty on your head than the King of Librae.”
The boy lifted the crossbow from the water, but realizing the strung hung lamely at its side, held it like a bludgeon over the man’s head.
“Give me your boots.”
The man sat back with a groan. He lifted a foot from the water and began unlacing a black boot.
“You think you can outrun the world? There’s nowhere left for you; the Vesper wants your head on a spike, the whole continent of civilized Librae wants your head under a guillotine; you got nowhere left to exist.”
The boy stepped into the boots with an awful squelching noise, they were a little big. He fumbled with the laces.
“Never learned how to tie shoes?” the man asked.
“Never worn shoes,” the boy said.
“I’ll tie your boots if you don’t club me.”
“Deal.” The boy raised the crossbow off the man’s head.
The man pulled the laces tight and looped them around each other.
“Do you have children?” the boy asked.
“If I did, I wouldn’t raise ’em to be like you.”
“Neither would I,” the boy laughed. “So, why are you hunting Wesley Chambers?”
“My name is Oscar Fenwick,” he said in the midst of a sigh. “The only reason I took this bounty contract is for my newborn girl.”
“Now you’re making me feel bad.” The boy slicked muddy locks of brown hair over his scalp. More torches shined red around the bend. He put the wet boot on the man’s shoulder to admire the floppy bow. Oscar Fenwick sat back as moonlit water stilled around his elbows—he looked like a man cut in half at the waist. “Oscar, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting off this continent tonight.”
And Wesley ran off, leaving Oscar Fenwick sitting bootless in the mud. There was shouting and splashing and a field of moaning sheep behind him that he wanted nothing to do with. Wearing only boots, he burned towards the coastal village of Hastings, as though he could outrun the world beneath his feet.