INTRODUCING WILL SPARROW, NOT YET THIRTEEN BUT ALONE AND ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
Will Sparrow was a liar and a thief, and hungry, so when he saw the chance to steal a cold rabbit pie from the inn’s kitchen and blame it on the dog, he took it—both the chance and the pie. But the innkeeper would have none of it: "And how did the wee dog open the door, scrabble onto the table, and fetch the pie out of the kitchen, all the while sitting on Mistress Grubb’s lap having his ears scratched, I would like to know?" He grabbed Will by the shoulders and shook him. Pie-crust crumbs fell like snow.
"Ye have stolen your last meal, boy. I paid too high a price for you," the innkeeper said with a spray of spittle. "Free drink for your lout of a father. I could easily hire me two boys for what he costs me in ale." Will struggled to escape, but the innkeeper held on tighter. "No, boy, you be liar and thief and not worth your keep. I mean to send you to the city. Sell you for a climbing boy."
Will’s heart thumped. A chimney sweep? "Nay," he said, still struggling. "Ne’er!"
"Aye, boy. There always be a market for such," the innkeeper continued. "Them don’t last long. They lungs go."
Will kicked his captor in the knee and, shoving the table aside, turned for the door, but the innkeeper stuck out a booted foot, sending Will tumbling to the ground.
"You be off with the carter in the morning," he said, lifting Will by the collar of his shirt.
Although Will struggled and kicked and tried to bite the innkeeper’s large and leathery arm, he could not escape and was locked in the stable—without his boots, lest he run. But it is difficult to keep a wiry, clever, sad, and angry lad locked up, and Will worked on the boards of the stable, making first a mousehole, and then a hole a weasel might fit through, and finally a hole large enough for a small but determined boy. He wrapped a blanket, prickly with horsehair and straw but not too tattered for warmth, around his shoulders. Exhaling loudly, he squeezed through the hole and ran into the night.
In the deepening dark, the boy could not see the road ahead, so he ran with his arms outstretched and waving wildly, lest he collide with a tree or a wagon or some unknown frightful thing. Such motions made running difficult and slow, but no one could follow him in the dark, so he ran.
Finally his arms and shoulders, not to mention his legs and feet, grew so tired and ached so fiercely that he had to take the risk and stop. Where he was he did not know. On the road or off, he did not know. The darkness and the strangeness frightened him, and his heart beat like a tambour. He moved forward until he felt something—a tree stump, he guessed—by which he could rest without fear of being overrun by a cart or trampled by a horse. Lying down, he snuggled into the blanket, his back against the stump, for that way he felt less lonesome and forlorn.
The night was full of sounds. Leaves rustled and whispered, the wind moaned, branches creaked and snapped. Will could not sleep. He lay imagining the innkeeper catching him, his father finding him, or—worse—trolls and goblins, ogres and elves and evil dwarfs, come out of the forest to bedevil him. When he heard the direful hooting of an owl, he pulled the blanket over his head. Finally, comforted by the familiar smell of horse, he slept.
Dawn comes early in summer, so before long he woke to the sound of a cockcrow and opened his eyes. Fie upon it! In the dark he had doubled back and was now not an hour’s walk from where he’d started. He smiled a sour smile. Leastwise the innkeeper would not be looking for him here, so near to the inn.
He rubbed his eyes, washed his face, and drank deeply from a stream running warm and shallow. "You, Will Sparrow," he said to his face shimmering in the water, "are a sorry excuse for a runabout. Now you must start again."
When folk heard his name, they smiled at first, it being a fitting name for one so small and brown, but then, thinking "Sparrow? Sparrow?" some would remember his father, the drunken fool who sold his only son for ale, and would turn away in disgust. So Will ran, from the innkeeper and the carter, from his ale-sodden father, from the disapproving faces of folk, from his very life.
Will’s stomach was empty, his head fuzzy, his legs heavy. He could go no more until he fed them all. Slowly he picked his way along the road, careful to keep the hedgerow between himself and anyone’s eyes. It being late summer, he found a thorny thicket of blackberries, shiny and plump and smelling of sunshine, which he picked until his hands were purple and ate until his belly threatened to give them all up.
He wiped his hands on his breeches and stretched. While he ate, the road had grown busy with travelers in fancy cloaks and threadbare linen, carts and coaches and hay wagons, horses and sheep, merchants and beggars. Even with the shelter of the hedgerow, Will thought himself too easily seen and found. But where might he go? To his right was ploughland, golden with ripened grain, and to his left deep forest. In the forest he might be hidden from sight, but it was a dark and evil place, filled with demons and beasts and men who lived like beasts.
"You, boy," someone called, and without stopping to see who called or who was meant, Will hitched up his breeches and his courage and ran into the woods. Brambles tore at his legs, branches whipped his face and tugged at his hair, but fear drove him on, away from the inn and toward he knew not what.
Was he running east or west? Toward a town or away? Was the innkeeper still looking for him? Had he sent the carter to fetch Will back? And his father—did his father care enough to search for him? Was the man too codswalloped to follow? Or had he lost his chance at free ale when Will ran, which would leave him sober and storming? Will shivered at the thought. Being sober enraged his father, as did honking geese, beggars, bill collectors, and Will himself.
The innkeeper had been no easier than Will’s father, but at the inn Will was fed somewhat regularly and many an extra sausage found its way under his shirt and into his belly, so he had stayed while wet spring turned to high summer. He slept in the stable behind the inn and each morning turned the spit on which joints of meat roasted, scoured the pots the mutton stew simmered in, and gathered up the rushes befouled with bones, grease, and piss, until that pilfered rabbit pie undid him.
He ran all morning, eager to put as much distance as possible between himself and the inn. By midafternoon the day was so bright that streaks of sunshine found their way even through the trees. He would have to hide until evening. He found a small hollow to curl into, pulled the blanket over himself for cover, and fell soundly asleep.
He awoke not long after to whistles and shouts. "I am certain he went this way," a rumbly voice called.
"I will go this way and you that. He cannot get away," said a scratchy voice.
Will crouched lower under the branches. How could they have found him so easily?
"Come, boy. Come out," Rumbly Voice said.
Scratchy Voice shouted in triumph, "There he is! I see him! Come out. You cannot get away."
Will looked about for an escape. He would not be taken so easily, not end up a climbing boy and die sooty and coughing in a chimney.
"Come on, boy. Be not afeared," Scratchy Voice said.
As he dove into the brambles, Will heard a soft nickering. "Good boy," said Rumbly Voice. "I have a carrot for ye."
Will stopped and peeked through...