Wesley Chambers ran out of the forest—the horse had died from exhaustion some ways back. The soft soles of his boots padded across the hardwood of the covered bridge. Between the floorboards he could see the dark water below; flowing like melted steel in the moonlight between the fjord walls. He came out the other side of the bridge and stopped. Crosswinds greeted him like an old acquaintance.
It had rained. The citadel glowed like a cloud through the foggy sky. Waning moon horns floated just above the clock tower. Fungal slums of poorly built houses had sprouted in the Kingdom’s shade. He’d lived in those slums; before the spires had been built so high that they eclipsed the late afternoon sun. He waded through a soupy fog that had risen from the dirt, following lost feet down sunken alleyways. With a chin raised to the clock tower, he navigated a bum-haunted city, till stopping to piss in an empty mule stall. He noticed a pale flower growing between the bricks in the path. Its petals opened to where the sun sometimes shined off the castle spire. He tied his pants and looked to the eave above, wondering if that flower had ever felt the real sun upon it.
A dull blade was thrust under his neck, just as he turned the corner to the next alley. Two dregs, one dumber looking than the next, stood on either side of him. It was Lou and Pete—the fishing shack morons. Wesley placed his hands on his head and could only smile as they outturned his empty pockets.
“Can’t steal something from nothing, fellas,” he said to them.
“Why are we robbin’ bums anyways?” Lou asked Pete.
With each step the castle grew taller, seeming to lean over him. A wooden sign reading “The Leper Child” clattered against a pub window in the breeze. His face was nailed to the front door on a wanted poster. He compared his reflection in the window beside it. The drawing was anything but the Wesley that walked this world; the artist had portrayed him much more sinister than the smiling bloke in the mirror. Regardless, he ruffled his hair to match the drawing, licked his fingers and rubbed dirt off his cheeks. He wanted to at least be recognized for the person they thought he was.
And then Wesley found himself short of breath in a way he never had before. Each step took him willingly to what he’d been running from for eight years. He imagined a black curtain dragging behind his heels, as if each stride closed away the world behind him forever. Yet what shook his chest was the thought of never seeing her.
“Here goes nothing,” he said to nobody.
A gas lamp sizzled through the mist, filling orange lines in water gathered between the gold bricks on the path. He navigated towards the light and clasped a hand around its post. Around and around he swung in purposeless circles, until the moon and torches dragged to streaks in his vision. What few stars burned through the fog above seemed to reel without effort from this distance. He stopped, raising a fist to the liquid towers slanting in his vision, then trampled onwards to the archway.
Two guards on the late watch slouched against the front wall. He knew they’d been watching his steps. He coughed into an elbow, a noise that echoed in the otherwise sleeping night. Once in proximity, the law’s ventriloquism pulled at their mouths.
“Aye—bum, you needn’t any trouble. We’re under orders to kill anybody who crosses this bridge.”
“What if I’m nobody?” he asked, still a drunken bum’s silhouette in the mist.
The other guard squinted above his mustache and beneath his metal visor, giving Wesley a double-take.
“You’re Wesley Chambers. You’re Wesley Chambers!”
Things were proceeding at the expected, redundant pace of bureaucracy. Wesley feigned a drunken stumble into their arms.
“The twit thought he could sneak in the front door, drunk of all hells. How daft do you take us boy?”
Fairly daft, Wesley thought. They hoisted him to his feet. Neither minded their holsters as they lead him into the archway.
“Son, the worst thing a bloke can do is under estimate an adversary,” one grunted in his ear as they set him against a dusty crate of moonshine. They both exposed their backs to him. Wesley gripped the hilt of the Sheriff’s blade in the back of his shirt.
But that wasn’t the plan. Wesley lost count of the amount of times he could have diced them to bits before one produced shackles from a nearby crate. He allowed them his wrists. The familiar cuffs of the shackles hugged the bleached skin on his wrists. One of the guards spotted the hilt of the sword.
“Ah, what’s this?” He plucked it from Wesley’s shirt. The two of them laughed at the Imperial Scale. “Fancy yourself some kind of nobleman? You’re a thief and a murderer,” the mustached one said. They pulled him deeper into the winding pathway, until the foggy air no longer clouded the torch flames along the walls. He stumbled in their grasp, but they steadied him, laughing all the while at his foolishness. Mustache twirled the sword in his hand. “Thought you could lull us into a false sense of security and smuggle in a weapon?”
“Very clever of you, Captain,” Wesley allowed, hobbling into the castle deeps with a letter opener stashed in his boot.