The Boy and the Dead Man
There was before now a great city, and her name was London. The city had one son, a fiendishly clever boy with verdigris eyes, and she loved him very much and gave to him everything he asked.
At first, he was small and he was odd (like many children), until he began to grow taller and stronger like all children do. But he also grew solitary and strange (though ever more clever), and although the she loved him with every shimmer of smoke and twist of alley that she could muster, her boy never had any use for a friend, save one.
But one, the city thought, was much better than none, and so she opened her great brick-red heart and the three of them lived very pleasantly together, all considered.
Until one bright morning, the boy awoke and said, "I had better go and seek my fortune. I am grown and will find my own way.”
The city was sad to hear him speak this way, but then, she had always known this day would come.
"I had better bake you a bannock, if you’ll be going," she told him, and she gathered the fog about herself like an apron. "Now then: would you like the small bit and my blessing, or the big bit and my curse?"
The boy scoffed and tossed his dark head. "What do I need with your blessing—"
"Sher-lock," warned his friend, voice warm and tweed-solid behind his newspaper.
"—or your food? Give me problems, give me work, and the devil take the rest, old woman"
“Now really,” huffed London, but she loved her boys dearly and so she measured out the flour with no word of complaint. When her baking was done, she knotted the warm loaf up in the boy’s blue scarf and, with a mother’s kiss, she shooed him out from under her skirts.
So the boy set out that day, warm parcel in hand and steam rising up behind him in the gaslight. And as he walked, he saw many things and thought on each one at length, but, being alone, he said nothing at all. It wasn’t until the familiar murmur of the cobblestones had faded away behind him that he thought to remember his stomach and his bannock and to wonder whether he’d left with the blessing or the curse.
With the night wreathing ‘round him, he stopped walking and settled at the foot of an apple tree to eat. There he saw before his eyes a pair of kicking legs and he followed them up and up to the smiling face of a dark-haired stranger, dancing by his neck from the biggest bough.
“Good evening, there," said the man, swinging in the wind. "Give us some of your bannock, won’t you?"
"I will not," said the boy. "I haven't half enough as it is."
"Just a bite, then,” the man pleaded. “Give us a bite of your bannock, there’s a love.” His voice was hoarse and the wind rose up to echo after him.
"Give us your bannock, your city, your friend."
But the boy was fastidiously stubborn and once decided, he could not be convinced. Again he refused, wrapping his scarf all the tighter around his untouched supper.
"Fine, then," said the stranger, and the creaking ropes wove webs around his brogue. "I see that we are a pair matched in stubbornness, and so I shan't ask you again. Only, cut me down from this tree, if you please - the night is cold and I would warm myself by your fire."
It was indeed cold and the sky growing darker and darker, and the boy remembered the old tales of barrow-wights and brollachans and dread creatures that walked the night. It might be pleasant to have a companion again, even a strange one, and as there was room enough around his fire, he agreed.
He got his knife to cut the rope and soon found the man’s limbs to be hard and unyielding with the night’s chill. When the rope finally gave, the man sagged woodenly downward and the boy staggered under his sudden weight. They both tumbled gracelessly to the ground.
The boy dusted himself off, harrumphing. "You could be more help, you know." His voice was petulant and childish in his ears, though he thought himself a grown man.
"I really couldn't," said the man, and laughed.
He made no effort to move, lying still where he had fallen, arms reaching dumbly toward the fire. The boy watched as sparks jumped like fleas, almost catching the cloth of the man's sleeve (which belonged to a fine coat - a very fine coat for one who used it so ill).
"Mind yourself," cautioned the boy. "Have a care or you'll catch fire." He’d heard words like these before, but never said them - they were his friend's, not his own. He felt a catch in his gut.
The man ignored him entirely. "Do you know my lady?" he said, and then he began to sing, high and sweet, face pressed into the cold soil. "O, do ye know my lady fair? The ropemaker's daughter, with long, black hair."
At this he laughed again, and although the boy did not understand, he liked the sound very little. "Oy!” said he. “If you can't mind yourself, I'll have to string you up again.”
But the man could surely hear the fear in his voice because he moved not at all, only kept on laughing and singing. And so the boy picked him up, careful to avoid his sparking sleeve, and with great effort, he returned the man to where he had first found him.
"That will show you," he said, dusting his hands on his trouser legs.
The man smiled down at him. "We will see which one of us burns, Sherlock."
The boy didn't care to hear any more of this talk, and so saying, he gathered up his few things and made a retreat. He did not look behind him until he was well out of sight of that cold man and his empty dark eyes, and he tried to forget his fear and the fire he had left burning beneath the tree.

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