Wesley balanced on a tree branch, mindful not to fall one way or the other from his perch. The chapel was a smoldering orange crater below. People crawled out of the collapsed staircase and out over blocks of broken marble. He watched a woman holding her apron up off her ankles as she limped off into the Vesper night. Two eyes blinked just beside his ear. A baby owl leered at him from a nest of shriveled milk-pods in the tree. The tips of its feathers had just molted the luminous blue. It shot into the sky, banking away as a tiny blue dot in the night. It paid him one last backwards glare before disappearing. Wesley smiled. He was free at last.
Black water passed in silence below, carrying pink dots of pollen around the far bend. The drop into the river was only about twenty-feet. He’d done higher. Adrenaline filled his chest as he leaned forward, but he didn’t jump, remembering the water was only ankle-deep. He bent at the knees and sat on the branch. His legs dangled off the edge. One fist beneath the other, he climbed back down the noose until his boots rested on the hangman’s shoulders.
Wesley hopped off the hangman, landing with a splash that seemed to shatter in the night. He stood up straight in the river, infinite pink bits of pollen splitting around his knees, as he stared forward against the darkness they came from. Beside his ear, fat little feet swung gently like a pendulum, slower and slower, until coming as close to stillness as they would get. It was a boy.
“They tried hanging me when I was your age,” Wesley said. “Actually, they still are. The King asked me to kill traitors, and once I did he labelled me a traitor for doing it.”
Wesley stood in the river’s constant tug at his legs. He turned and watched the pink drift away into nothing. Nobody was that way. Freedom was that way. He reached into the front pocket of his pants and took out a photograph—the top corner was charred to a flaky brown but most of it was still there. His eyes went, only once, from the little boy in the photograph to the boy hanging above him.
Wesley Chambers walked into the forest. Nobody chased him. Nobody waited for him. Thick lines of pale skin coiled around his wrist where shackles had been for seemingly half his life. It was eerie knowing he’d never wear them again. He bushwhacked through thickets of burr and twisting mesquite trees. One foot in front of the other, until the light from the grove was nothing more than a distant glow of the charred wagon behind him. He turned to see the burnt wagon one last time.
He paid her a dog’s respect and she pulled him from that burning wagon.
Wesley let the thought leave his head as he continued walking. There was nothing to stop him, nobody to stop him. So he wondered why it was that he stopped. There was nothing in front of him but the black trunks of trees.
He remembered the first time she smiled at him in the sunny edge of the Hastings forest when he’d fallen in his own piss. Golden rays had shot down from behind her head and a little strand of hair had blown in front of her face as she giggled at him. He’d hated her. He still hated her now—he just kind of couldn’t stop thinking of her.
His legs turned around and carried him back to the grove. In some hypnotic lapse of judgment where his heart beat too loud for his mind to think, he bid freedom adieu, scowling at the shackle lines still burned into his skin.
“Wesley Chambers what in the seven hells are you doing?” he grumbled to himself, tracing back through the burr and into the grove. Flakes of ash crunched beneath his feet as he walked towards the caravan.
The mules stood in place, swatting lazily at flies with their tails, unaware that they were no longer bound to the wagon. He untied their moors.
“You’re free now,” he said to them.
They didn’t move. They didn’t gallivant back into the wild happily ever after. They stood there, staring down the long bridges of their noses at him. “Yeah, didn’t work for me either.”
Just the ribs of the caravan reached up from the ground, around a mess of charred sundries. He kicked aside melted jars with a clink, and lifted one of the detached wheels off the grass. He slung it down the hill and watched it roll into the river. The current took it away to darkness. Stepping over a burnt frock coat, he found himself standing in what would have been the center of the cabin, looking down at the charred metal of the cage. She’d pulled him out of that coffin. His own black skeleton should be in that very spot. He sniffed.
Something shined through all the black. He knelt down and dusted away a heap of soot. It was the hilt of a sword. The blade was pinned beneath collapsed turrets of the caravan’s wood. He gripped the handle and pulled, hoping to free the blade from its holding like valiant knights of old. But it wouldn’t budge.
Wesley tore a strip of remaining tarp from the canvas and tied it around his head to keep his scraggly out of his eyes. He cleared shelves of canned items off the surface above it in one sweeping motion, cascading beans and radishes to the grass. Chewing cold bean pods in the corner of his mouth, he surveyed the heavy block of debris holding down his prize. He kicked a foot straight through one of the burnt panels and tore chunks of splintering wood away, piece by piece, until finally, lifting with his legs, he was able to thrust the last of the demolished sideboard off the sword.
The steel was pressed into the dirt. He pulled it sleek out of the mud and soot, seeing half a green eye reflected in the smudged metal. The Imperial Scale was etched in bronze filigree at the hilt. The drunk’s blade.
Wesley swung it in crooked slices through the air, scattering the pink motes of pollen that had just begun to resettle around him. It wasn’t a heavy sword, but sturdy in the hand, favoring a low center of gravity which Wesley preferred. He balanced the blade on two fingers, right where it centered to lateral stillness.
Careful footfalls sounded behind him. He dropped the sword, catching it with an overturned grip in the same hand and spun around. It was a small youth walking meekly out of the chapel, no older than five, with a burnt teddy clenched in her chest.
“What are ya’ doing?” the little girl asked, keeping a timid distance. Wesley gathered himself, shrugging his hands at his side and clapping them down on his hips.
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“Are you who I think ya’ are?” the girl asked from a crooked overbite. Wesley bit his bottom lip, staring into her little eyes green eyes.
“Who do you think I am?”
“A bad, bad man named Wesley Chambers,” the girl said, the pitch of her voice shuttering as though she were meeting a monster. “I heard they hung that man to death but he still walks and breathes. They say he can hold fire.”
Wesley shook his head, strapping a rucksack to the mule.
The girl looked to the sword. “What is that?”
“It looks like a sword.”
Wesley dusted ash off his shoulder. “Something is what it’s going to do.”
“So you’re a good guy?”
Wesley looked at the dirty metal. “That remains to be seen.”
“They sent me up ta’ ask if anyone above could help clear debris from the collapse. I was tha’ only one small enough to fit up tha’ tunnel.”
“Sorry kid,” Wesley said with a foot in the mules stirrup. “I’ve got things to take care of.”
“So much fa’ having virtue.”
Wesley swung a leg up over the mule and trot in a crescent around the girl.
“I’ve taken the virtues of half the dames on this continent! Trust me, I have no shortage of virtues.”
The dirty faced girl looked up at him with confused green eyes—she was a cute little runt, really, reminded him of his old self.
“You can’t stay here and help?”
Wesley tucked the sword into the back of his shirt collar and hooked thumbs in his suspenders. “I could, but I won’t. I’m no hero. I’ve got virtues, though, just none of the annoying ones.”
And with those departing words, he wrought back the mule’s reigns and burst forward along the path into the tunneled darkness. He pushed the best out of the mule, as if it were a stallion beneath him. It spit the bit and they ran as fast as they could in, what he hoped, wasn’t the wrong direction.