Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Foundling
    by Christian K. Martinez

Foundling
Artwork by James A. Owen

Evens' hobs set fire to the ship, and the Bad Men died.

He watched, rolling six tiny coins between his fingers, each one smaller than the iris of an eye.

It was bizarre that an army would pay its general to work, he thought, looking at the hob-gold in his hand. If he could call his crabby guard an army, that is, if they were even still alive.

The hobs were clever and keen, kind and mean, terrifying and absolute, foolishly wise. He hoped the Bad Men couldn't catch them, not like he could. He liked them, and there wasn't too much he liked anymore. Not since he'd started growing tall.

Evens waited for the Watcher to come, as the boy must. He didn't wait long. The never-'dult came flying in his arrogant way, with two zigs and a zag and a little hoot in the air, settling onto the ground with hands on his hips. He looked meaner than usual, in a sword cutting mood.

Watcher wasn't supposed to get afraid of the lost, not ever, but this one made him nervous. Evens could tell. It was just a sort of twitch, when big old men would be pacing and yelling, but Watcher wasn't used to being nervous. He didn't understand.

"Gonna get you gone, little Evens, little odds. Gonna take you away and make you say and pay and pay. I don't like this one bit. Not even one bit and less than that," Watcher whispered, ever-boy's eyes narrowing like little imitation daggers as he sneered -- nodding towards the ship. Little boys shouldn't sneer, even when they're tall, but sneering came naturally to him anyways.

"I don't like you anymore, Evens, so you've got to go away."

Evens, almost as tall as the Watcher himself now, was a lot calmer than most other boys when they'd been sent. He didn't fight, or scream, or hide till he slept and the Watcher killed him anyways. He didn't do anything but stare, and Watcher twitched again.

"Why?" Evens' voice was quiet. He'd never used it for anything but whispering hobs and shouting at pirates so it had no in between to it.

"You're growing up, almost growed already little mister general with the hobs and the bobs and his crazy crabby guard. Growed up and leading armies! I'm the only 'body gonna lead anybody, and anybody saying different's gonna go. The growed up leave. You're growing up," cocky words followed by crossed arms and a nod, shadow facing in the opposite direction like it had his back.

"So?"

The strut in Watcher almost faded at that. So? Who'd ask him something like that! Because, that's so, that's why! You grow up, you leave, and only he stayed forever. Those were the rules. Or at least that's what Evens saw in his face. Evens liked watching people. He was good at it.

Sometimes he could watch so hard that he almost heard them thinking, but not often. Watcher didn't bother to hide much at all, sneaky was he, but never subtle like a liar. It wasn't hard to read him. This time the twitch wasn't nerves.

Evens ran, ran fast as he could and maybe even flew, all the way to the hanging trees past the dead horse pond and the tomahawk hill. Watcher caught him anyways and Evens started fading. Fading fast as a flash out of the tattered-lands that never were, till they were a lost-before and he was found-after. Clutching at the little coins his hobs had given him, he didn't care.

Evan didn't like the way the mountains smelled from the yellow bus, like mulched fruit and hopeless trees and, strangely, just a little bit like greed. That rubbed together scent that came from coins. He hated it so much he almost bit his lip in a fidget before taking a deep breath. Good.

He tried not to fidget these days. Sister Martha told him not to and she reminded him of the faeries, from before; so he listened to her more than most 'dults. She had that way of saying things without words, like the faeries, though it never felt like magic. Not like -- no. Don't think of the lost place, he reminded himself. Don't do it.

Don't fidget, don't see the glow worms or the curebones or the hobs, don't mumble, don't punch first, don't climb things, don't spit on the table, wear shoes, listen to the Sisters and don't ever, ever think of the Never. The list rattled off in Evan's mind. He ignored the pink and berry colored worms wiggling outside his window, they were faint, more like traces of monsters than the actual things. He convinced himself he didn't see them, closed his ears to the hob-whispers that followed them and stared at the black plastic of the seat in front of him. Black as certain flags that might fly above certain ships, or of certain capes that might cover certain backs, but he wouldn't think of things like that. Not today. Or no, could he? Bad guys were okay to think about, just not Bad Men. All boys thought of bad guys, though he hadn't in weeks. It was the smell of greed, he figured. Which was a strange thing to smell in the mountains, things didn't smell like they should here-found. Not all the time, at least.

He nodded to himself, playing with the spare change in his pocket and barely noticing the glances from his classmates. Or what amounted to barely for him, so that he only knew there were five sets of eyes, four of them belonging to the older boys and one to that girl Carol who was always upset.

They were just glances, though, nothing else. And they'd stay that way. They saw him standing over Bradley, the bully's face red and bruised as it hit the desk. Don't punch first, Evan thought, but even if you turn the other cheek -- punch last.

He was the last one off the bus at Apple Hill. Carol lingered almost as long, pretending to play with the single braid of hair that dangled from the side of her blond head, twirling it around her fingers in little loops like she was making rope. Carol would have made a good Weaver. Weavers were always making ropes, the Bad Men were too, but he couldn't think of her like that. She was too delicate, for an evil girl, for an evil anything. The Bad Men were rough. They made coarse, heavy, ropes and Carol's hair was nothing like that. It was, nice. Yes. That was the word. Nice. Though he wasn't sure why.

". . . Evan?" said somebody, Carol, pulling him out of the thought. She was looking at him, he was standing there. Stupidly. Awkwardly. He tried puffing his chest out like a lost -- no. No. He lifted his chin up just a little bit, like the bishop-men 'dults and tried to look proud, but she was ignoring him already, jerking her head in a pointing. They'd been lagging behind when he spaced out and now he could see them maybe fifteen feet away from them, standing in two straight lines; one for boys and one for girls.

Sister Martha cleared her throat, gesturing for Evan and Carol to join the class in that nun-way that didn't have much to do with movement at all. The class sniggered, stopped. This was Evan, they thought. You should be careful of Evan, after how he did Bradley in for nothing at all. Not that it had been nothing. He'd been insulting Carol and some other girl in the class and Evan didn't like that sort of thing. You don't pick on girls. Nobody seemed to remember it though, except the girls themselves, and they kept quiet about it. Don't stand out was one of their rules, probably. If they kept rules like he did.

Evan stepped up to the back of the boy's line, avoiding the elbow thrown his way without really thinking about it. No hard feelings, their malice was a little thing, like babies learning how to hate. He could do it harder with his little toe, if he wanted, but he didn't. It wasn't their fault.

They'd never learned to be all together as boys, didn't have anything to make them. He was different, unknown, almost dangerous like a -- oh. No. That couldn't be. He leaned forward, whispering. Carol looked at him sideways around her hair, she did that a lot. Sister Martha was talking about the history of Apple Hill as the class walked. She wasn't looking back.

"You don't think I'm a pirate, do you? Or like a thief, or a murderer? A Bad Man? Because I'm not. You can trust me, 'kay? Double trust me twice and all, done swear it." The old way of speaking crept up a lot. It was why he didn't talk so much.

"Uh, errr. Okay . . . weirdo, I mean, I mean! Okay Evan, you're not a pirate. Now shuddup, shuddup please?" the boy mumbled, trying not to turn his head back and look like he was talking, though he did a bit anyways, near the end.

"Weirdo? You guys call me that sometimes. Is that like a nickname? That's fine then if it is. I like those, those are good. You can call me Weirdo. I like it, jumping, skipping, dancing like it. 'Kay?"

The boy didn't say anything, so Evan figured it was, though he didn't know what weirdo meant. He didn't remember much of the before before with mother and things except there hadn't been guns or lightbulbs yet, but he remembered a little. Weirdo? Sounded like a wyrd, like the wise.

So they figured him clever? He could be clever. He could be wise. He'd always been that and that was good, like nicknames were good. Nicknames were playing with words. Playing was what you did to be together. Maybe he'd call the boy and be his friend. He didn't have friends here. Not like Jumper, or Nobbins, or Carter and Dose. Not even like Watcher and the hobs. He was just on his own and that was dangerous.

Evan's brow wrinkled, a little angry at himself. He'd been really dumb, now that he thought of it, the other boys probably did think of him like a Bad Man. He hadn't played with them the way they knew and they didn't know how he liked to play, lost boy games and wrestling. They didn't fight to a bloody nose for fun, not them. It made sense.

Hurting Bradley was like a gunshot not like a yo-yo. Scary.

He'd thought he was acting like Watcher, which was a good way to act with boys, but everyone knew the Watcher was your friend, till he wasn't. They didn't know Evan from when he was Evens, didn't know him at all. All they'd seen was the bad things, but they were wrong. He wasn't no Bad Man, and he'd show 'em. Without thinking he puffed his chest out, rolled his gait a little. Carol seemed to like looking at him like that, she always paid extra attention. This time she nearly tripped. Girls were strange.

As they got closer to the brick and stick buildings on the edge of the parking lot, he started listening to Sister Martha again. Teachers liked that, especially nuns.

"Everyone remember their tents and sleeping bags? Over there between the buildings and the rest of the forest is where we'll be camping tonight, after the tour. First ones to finish setting their tents up on their own will get first go at the cider. And believe me, children, the cider here is delicious. But that's later, first we'll be --"

Evan's tent was made up mostly of a half missing, rusty frame and some canvas, but he was still done first. The Apple Hill 'dult helping the boys shook it doubtfully, surprised when it stayed up on its own. It earned him a woodsman's grunt of approval before moving on. Evan liked him.

Sister Martha came over to him right after, shuffling in her habit and bearing the promised cup of cider. He shook his head, wanted to turn away, but that'd end with a ruler for sure.

"Don't think refusing the cider will make the other children like you better, dear. Give them time, they'll grow used to your, your strangeness. It's a little cold out and it really is delightful," she said to him, in a low voice, pressing the tiny foam cup at his fingers like she was soothing a wild dog. 'Dults were like that sometimes. He shook his head again.

"Thank you, ma'am, but I don't like cider," he lied, and scurried off. He had things to do.

When someone's tent was about to fall, he caught the shifting pole, or tapped a loose spike into the ground. He helped Carol with hers twice, though the second time he could have sworn she'd undone what he already fixed. She blushed when he pointed it out with a patient smile. He'd picked that smile up from the bishop-man at the orphanage, when he was first Found. Six months ago. Seemed longer.

As it got almost dark the glow worms he was ignoring started to thicken at the edge of the woods, tiny cure bones and other, wilder things peered from tree branches and out from under the dirt. During the day he'd barely seen any, not like the gangs he'd gotten used to on the drive through the mountains. But this, this was like being back in the before, almost. He couldn't ignore this many.

Evan's heart started to the beat of a song instead of pumping and he watched without looking straight on, trying to give them numbers in his head. He couldn't.

They got closer as the stars came out, and he could feel them in the buildings and the tents and all around him. He felt blurry and strong, like laughter. His steps slowed with their swarming, like he was sedated, or like time wasn't worth paying attention to anymore, and his feet tapped or arched instead of just stepping. A few worms raced in circles around the big pot of cider on the fire, and he wondered when that'd got there. Or when they'd lit the fire. It was dark now, really dark, almost black. He was sitting next to Carol, who was brooding. She was talking to him about the different kinds of apples and how cool they were; he'd been ignoring her. That was rude. Why'd he done that? He started slipping into the good feeling again. He wanted to wrestle, or dance around and shout, maybe Elbows would wrestle with him. Except he'd already hurt Carol, which was a bad thing. What was wrong with him?

He saw two sneaking little hobs playing hide and go behind the girls and wanted to join. No. Forced himself to focus. Breathe, don't fidget, breathe. He laid his thoughts out like a cross from the bishop-men 'dults, almost like a prayer. He was Evens, Evan, he didn't loose his cool over a few little hobs and sparklies. Or even more than a few. Steady like a rock, like a lock, like the tick to a tock. Good. This had happened before, he knew, near the river -- only not as bad. This was muddying him up, getting in his brain. He didn't like that. His head was his own, like it should be, no glow worms and fey creeps were gonna lose it for him. Evan started counting seconds, reaching for the pouch the bishop-man had given him to stop his ranting. He always kept it in his pocket.

Sal Sapientia, the 'dult said, wise salt. Wise salt for the Weirdo. Wise salt to keep bad faeries away, though only the 'dults thought they were bad. Evan liked them, he'd friended with the hobs hadn't he? His crabby guard. But just 'cause he liked them, didn't mean they'd take his head. Not even The Watcher of Shadows was up for that. No. Evan was himself. He pinched some salt between his fingers, braced himself for the taste, and dropped it on his tongue.

It hit him like a belly flop and a blast of wind at the same time, and would have made him shudder if it didn't make him smile with the sheer raucous joy of being himself. He let loose a crowing, a big ole rooster shout that startled his classmates, made Carol smile and made Sister Martha level one of her ruler-length frowns at him.

He tried to look repentant, as she settled into him for a long scolding about proper decorum, but felt afraid instead. Somewhere in the woods, a deep voice answered him with something almost like a rooster call, but more like a wolf's. It was not a good sound and Evan didn't mind going to bed early at all after hearing it. Except he knew himself, he wouldn't stay there very long.

The Bad Men were coming, and the wind smelt just a little like greed.

"I know what you're doing."

Carol's voice was loud against the sound of crickets and stars. Not that the stars sang here, or made noise at all. He heard them anyways, sometimes, like he heard the hobs whispering. Whispering all around him about the big bad men that could See, that kicked little Jecke-blue all the way to a creek where he hit his head and cried. Those bad men were walking this way, they whispered, whispered so loud he couldn't quiet it with salt, though it didn't muddy him like it had at first. He breathed it in, and felt quick.

"Oh?" Evan asked, not turning around at all but bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, twisting his neck just enough to see her from the corner of his eye. He'd left his sneakers in the tent, they'd be a nuisance. The ground was wonderful; all hard and soft, fuzzy and cutting in different places. He had to forget some of the rules for the more important ones. Don't be a Bad Man, be good. Those were the best rules, what all the other rules were about.

"Yeah, I mean. Yes. I do," she said. Which was just a way of saying that she didn't at all, except that he was sneaking him and she knew he would. She watched people too, especially Evan.

"You need to go inside, I, I --" he faltered, she waited. How to explain without sounding crazy? Most people didn't believe in the truly Bad Men, or that boys should be fighting them. Evan knew that was the way of it though, only a boy could fight the Bad Men and just 'cause he was found and growing now didn't mean he'd stop. The only thing he ever ran from had been the Watcher, and that's how it'd stay. That sound had been a dark sound, a Bad Man sound. They were coming, and nobody here could do anything but him. And because he could, he had to. You fought the Bad Men because they were Bad Men, with no good in them. That was the way of it.

"There are people coming, like Bradley kind of people. Mean and bad and nasty, without even a little love in their hearts. I need to make them go away, run away, be gone and get. Understand that Carol? I know it's odd, everyone thinks I'm strange. But it's very important that I make them go away, away, away cause I'm the only one that can right now. None of the rest of you was Lost, and I don't want you hurting, not at all." It was the most he'd spoken in months; his voice ran the words together into something that wasn't quite a whisper but was just as quiet. It felt like carrying rocks up a hill, like hard work. There was a little bit of sparkle to it.

"I, you've never said my name before. You know that? I didn't know you knew it. I mean I know your name, you're Evan and you're brave and I know lots of things about, but oh . . . that's creepy. No I don't mean it that way! I just watch you sometimes, I mean. No! That's not what I mean --" She was getting flustered, louder, and even in the dark he could tell she was blushing. He made a shhhing motion with one finger and his lips. She stared straight at it, stopped. They both stayed like that for a little, her bright red against the night, him smiling out of nowhere.

"Of course I know you, you're Carol. You stay quiet 'cause you don't wanna be teased, but you're clever and you watch people, places, things. You watch so hard sometimes you fall down, and whenever you're thinking you play, tug, tease at your hair. And I like how you did done up the little just one braid in it 'cause it's just like you and you shouldn't ever cut it 'cause it's pretty!"

The last bits came out all rushed together and would have been a shout if he wasn't whispering. Even so, all the hobs and the worms around them turned and looked. They stared straight through him like he'd dropped a pebble in their pond, then looked away. He was out of breath, body tense like he'd been running, and heart going on like a big fat drum - boom boom.

"You think I'm pretty?"

That question was as dangerous as a crocodile, or a mermaid's song or a bullet in the air. Even a little boy knew that, but it was okay. He knew the right answer. It was in him, for some reason.

"There's nobody prettier, Carol. Now please, please go back inside? I don't want you hurt by the bad men. Please?"

"Promise you'll be safe?"

That was ridiculous. How could he promise a thing like that if he was going in to battle and there were Bad Men and he was just one boy against who knew how many? He didn't even have a knife. Just the buttery one from supper. Safe? Evan was hoping for alive. Except he wasn't the only one depending on him now, not even just Carol. If he wasn't safe, if they got him and stuck him and bled him and killed him, would they hurt everyone else too? These were Bad Men, or what would pass for Bad Men here. He wasn't sure, but he didn't have a choice.

"I promise."

One of his hands squeezed the spare change in his pocket. Hob-gold would always be spare, sparse as it was in the hands of boys.

The hobs whispered him, the sounds of their gossip pushing him through the grass, over and under branches into the forest and away from the clearest spaces. By the oak, by the creek, by the pebble, it's a stream, by the twig, by the old bookby the penny gleams, where the moon hits, is where the Bad Men go, towards the moon's tilt, where cider brews. Towards him, Apple Hill. They were almost there, said the hobs, and he could tell it by the way they scattered. Those that hadn't gone to the Hill, did now, running out of the woods and packing themselves in closer to tents and under buildings, betwixt trash. Evan kept walking, tree jumping.

He found himself clambered up into one of the big old trees, with branches going out that could support his weight. Like a goblin, or a lost boy, he slid one foot off the branch and leaned forward -- letting himself fall. His hands caught wood and bark, supported him. He twisted his body and swung, kicking legs up and hooking them on something higher, stretching up so he could pull onto another branch and shift his weight. Evan was good at hiding like this, between branches. Readying himself with his knife, with her knife.

Carol'd given Evan her pocket knife, before going back to the tents. It wasn't a fancy one with lots of gadgets, just a blade. It wasn't a big knife either, only three or four inches with a pink and metal hilt, but it was a good knife. It'd cut. Having it in his hands made him feel less indistinct about what he'd do once he found them, hob kickers and wolf howlers that they were. He'd knife them in the neck, in the throat, in the groin, in the ankles. Anywhere he could. You didn't wait to see what Bad Men did, you stopped them first.

After maybe two minutes of waiting, or maybe five, the whispers died and Evan was left listening to the muteness of the stars and the growing pains of trees. It left him taut, pulled like a bownstring with his tiny pink knife notched as an arrow in his fist, but it didn't leave him nervous. He'd once waited for Watcher to come and kill him, even if killing wasn't how it went. What were Bad Man, even in the after, compared to that? He crouched between branches, watching patiently until the rustling began.

Anybody but a lost one would have thought it was the wind, or a deer, or maybe only a rabbit who'd had a bit too much for sup, but it wasn't any of those. It was three men moving silent as you could in a place you didn't know, and because they snuck like lost boys and moved in a three like the wood-weavers and not fives or sixes like Bad Men might -- he almost relaxed. And then, just before he could see them, he smelled them. They didn't smell of dirt so much as greed and sweat, old liquor and meanness. It set his teeth in a snarl.

They entered his vision all of a sudden and gradually at the same time, so well that it took him a whole second to realize they were there, in patchwork jeans and tattered green ponchos that matched like a uniform. Bad Men. Hungerers. Hobkickers. He wanted to hoot and scream, swing down with his knife and paint the ground bloody with them for daring so close to Carol and Sister Martha and even the whole class. But he didn't. As soon as he saw them, they stopped. They looked around and took the air in deep, nostrils flaring and ears twitching. He froze.

His eyes weren't as good as theirs, he thought; theirs caught the moon just like a faerie glow and you could see it in the way they stepped, like it was bright out, when he had to squint just a little to be safe. They were older and taller, into the first one or two of their man years, which was twenty, but might as well have been thirty for all the difference in size. They each had a long cutlass you could see poking out of their ponchos just a little, and two of them carried little heaps of plastic and metal that looked like crossbows but were probably some sort of gun. Of them with the guns, one had a smudge of blue on his boot from something he kicked, and the other had red hair so bright Evan thought he might be a candle. He called them Kicker and Gunless and Red.

Red's eyes were brightest, so that when he looked straight up they almost matched his hair instead of being brown, and after looking at every tree, even the one Evan was in, he nodded and shook his head at the same time, looking to Gunless in the way a little boy looks at a big when he doesn't know what to do.

"I smell him Bose, but the lil prick's fresh good on the hide. Can't see him, figure he hears pretty fine though."

So Gunless was Bose, but might as well be Gunless. Evan liked it better and the lean of his face was far too clever and a bit too scary when seen on a man named Bose. So Gunless he'd stay, which was safe. Evan flicked his tongue quietly over the blade of his knife, sprinkling a little salt along its edge after every lick. He was extra cautious, because they were right down beneath him and might see a loose grain of salt if it fell, but none did.

"Can you hear us then, boyo? Very clever to hide, but I'm a glimmer-man. Know what that means? No, you wouldn't, would ya? Still new found." Gunless's teeth looked like they should have been crooked and his mouth bloody from ugly gums, but they weren't and it wasn't and his smile was just like Dose's, full of laze and might have been charm. Not just like, the same. The same smile. Evan's heart thumped loudly twice. Boom boom.

They were found boys, found men, and Bad Men at the same time, or now that they were after. Or something. It didn't make sense. But that was Dose, and it wasn't. He was Gunless now, and Bose, and a man with a cutlass. It was all confusing.

This, this strangeness made Evan angry. The man kept talking as he stewed, smiling in a way that didn't belong to him. Or didn't anymore. Evan would take it from him, for the boy that had been Dose. For what was a friend. Seeing Dose was Bose was Gunless didn't make him soft like it might make some, it made him sharp like a knife, angry like steel.

"A glimmer man finds you, feels out the other-ness like tappin' for hollows in a wall. And let me tell you, you don't have much kid, not like us, It's quiet all around you like it has to work to remember what it was. Now," he held his hands out like a peaceman or a dog catcher, quieting the quarry, something so much more threatening than when it came from the Sisters or a bishop-man. "I won't lie, I'm no liar, and with the way you feel -- you'd see me lying anyways." Dose never had been either, and Evan probably could.

"We're looking for blood, but only yours. You're brave right? We were brave when we were young, and you still like feel it. Like you have the caring in you. You wouldn't want anyone else to get hurt, now would you? 'Cause, that could happen. The people out there could get hurt real bad. You wouldn't like that, would you?" Gunless' voice was slimy, and he wore a sneer. As if a boy couldn't tell a sneer from a smile, or like he was stupid for caring. It made Evan arch his back like a cat and want to spit.

There were three of them, and they were stronger. He had a knife, some salt, some coins, a belt. They had guns, swords, height, everything. But he had his mind, he was Evens and he was Weirdo, he had his head. They must be muddled and fancied with all the fey here. They looked it in the way they twitched a little with the swaying of the trees, at that not-quite-here sound just behind the Red's voice. Easily excitable. Maybe stupid, but quick and stupid is still quick.

"I --" He let his voice warble and squeak, it was easy, though he wasn't quite afraid. He would die or he would not die, but he didn't see the point in worrying. There were plans and sometimes they didn't work, but sometimes they did. "I'm coming down. Please don't hurt anybody, I messed my ankle up, gimme a minute? And, and tell me why? Why me?"

Whys were important. He took three of the coins from his pocket, setting them precariously on the bark in different places, having to stretch a little for one of them. He gripped his belt, which was a little too long for him anyways, and wrapped it around the branch one lower than himself. Using the belt like a rope, salt bag pressed flat between the leather and his palm, he dropped to the ground on just one foot, and did his best to seem pitiful. He did not put the knife away, looking middling at their chins to exaggerate his fear and puffing his chest out to exaggerate his bravery. He could tell they were cocky, because even though he was close, none of them moved. Kicker sniggered, coughed a little, and grimaced. He was ugly, but only in the eyes.

"It's us, not you. You get the bad luck got caught by our glimmer-man's nose. Wanna get back, can't be boys. But Bad Men . . . You wouldn't get it. Still new found. But why we need your blood? Bad Men kill little boys, lost ones. You're still close nuff to count," said Kicker, greed on his voice like butter on toast. Gunless was looking at Evan strangely, head almost tilted and lips a little apart like he was thinking. Like he might remember something.

Maybe it was that that made him move, or maybe it was how their naked greed made him afraid and with just one twitch fooled himself into moving, but move he did -- like a snap dragon or a crocodile or a sword coming down. Red was closest to him, not Kicker, though Evan would have liked the second better.

So it was Red that caught his belt in the face when he let it go and the branch snapped up, with the little bit of salt still on it burning his cheek as it slapped. Then Evan was on him with the knife, grabbing his gun, pointing it away, and stabbing in the chest and the lungs and the gut -- ripping him up and stepping on his shadow in case it moved.

Kicker would have fired then, because his gun was up quicker than Evan, but there were coins falling; each sounding like three or four as it hit the ground, slowing him a fraction of second as he figured what they were. He pulled the trigger once, squeeze and release, but there was Red in the way and staggering. The bullet tore through his chest, and Evan was gone -- but no.

The boy leaped from the ground on all fours, using the falling man like a shield, letting his bag loose in a spray of salt directed vaguely at Gunless and hitting Kicker in the knees with his shoulder. Tendons screeched as they were cut with a little pink knife, they fell together, and Evan nearly buckled as the butt of the gun came down twice on his back. He felt bones creak, and a feralness took him. He screamed.

"Hob-killer! Pirate! Thief! Bad Man!"

Evan couldn't follow his own arm as the knife traveled up the pirate's shape, ripping and tearing and feasting like a living thing on flesh. But Kicker was one of the found men, older and meaner than any feral boy could ever be, and he spit up the pain almost enough to fight back. That almost broke Evan's left arm with an elbow and cracked a rib at six stabs, at ten it gave him a bloody forehead and bruised eye, at fifteen the found man was shaking-weak, then still.

Evan's free hand, the one with the broken arm, gripped the gun and snapped it into position just seconds too slow to meet the whisper of a cutlass drawn and the pinprick of steel against the back of his neck.

"Evens? Is, that's' your name, right? We were friends. And just. Wow. Wow, are you good. Slower than any of us and still --"

Evan felt Gunless was looking at Kicker and Red. Neither breathed. Hearing a voice, thinking in words, pulled Evan out of his wildness a little, and as it left, the pain came. It made him wretch, cough a little, spit. He shook, it was done. His hand was played.

"Shut up and stick me," he growled, "just promise to leave. Go back to the first place, get killed. Hope the Watcher does you in. Just get it done."

"I . . . Evens, it's me, Dose --"

"I just see a Bad Man. I'm not one, and not friends with them. They're the evil and the wrong, the unkind. I call you Gunless."

"You could come with me, maybe, Evens. We were friends. And you're so young, but, but I can't stop. We can find somebody else -- you could go back. Don't you want to?" There was pleading and that same greed. Naked and needy and throbbing.

Evan did want back, why would he want anything else? The Other place, the First Place, Before. That was home. That was where everything was right and clear and glowing. Evan thought of Carol, Elbows who might be his friend someday, bishop-men that'd cared enough to give him salt even when they thought he was crazy. No, that was before, this was after. And after was good too.

Gunless couldn't see. He'd just do it to someone else. So only one chance. Evan sighed, sounded almost like a sob and the cutlass pulled just the slightest back. Either he killed him or he didn't. Probably he died, but Evan wasn't a Bad Man, or a lost boy, he was found. That meant something.

"I'm not a lost boy anymore, not Evens, I'm found." Confusion behind him, did the sword pull a little more away? "And now --" This was gonna hurt, he hoped the bishop-man 'dult was right and his God liked brave little boys.

Tense and spring, twist, move fast and trap the sword. How? He had a body. Evan slammed himself backwards. The steel slid into his chest, there was blood in his lungs, drowning him and the sword banged on his cracked rib. He screamed.

"They call me Weirdo!"

Gunless' face was where he stuck the gun, limbs already spasming too much to aim more than a little. For safety Evan stabbed the knife in his belly too, but only once. His strength was gone. He squeezed the trigger. A Bad Man died.

Hobs-gold is freely given and even then, only to some. This boy had six pence of it and he was dying. He was a defender of hobs, and a hobs-friend and a good boy who found himself, but still dying. Laying on a sword and trying to crawl, till all the selfness of him drained out red on the grass and it was like he was sleeping. That's when they came.

From the trees and the burrows, out of the tents and back to the woods is how they went. Till there were a hundred more hobs whispering together than there had ever been in this part of the world and it all started to slow. A decision was made in the whispers when a tiny teal hob, bleeding from his head and calling himself Jecke, lurched around picking up coins till they piled on the found-boy's chest, adding his own at the top. Heal a boy, seal a boy, sew a boy, friend.

A big old one with a monkey's face and a white beard and a big blue cap rushed at the boy with a needle and some grass. A few others followed, some with packs of mud and leaves and one with a whiskey flask full of reddish goop that smelled of oranges and sockberries. They had at him, and pulled out the sword, and sewed him tight, and bound his bones till he could breathe, and examined their work.

He would live. He would wear gashing-scars, and the flicker-me stitches of the hob folk that just sometimes gleam in the light, but he would live.

They rushed off their ways and fled to shadows in the dawn when a little girl and a little boy and a Nun came bustling like boars through the wood. One of them, and it might have been Jecke-blue and it might not have been too, whistled like a bird to the humans-were-never-lost; and with that help, a boy named Evan was found.

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i34&article=_002

  Copyright © 2022 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com