EATW Chapter 1 – Run Boy, Run

EATW Chapter 1 – Run Boy, Run

CONTENT WARNING: Implied/referenced suicide, drowning

 Ellen wouldn’t have wanted this for Esko. She would’ve sobbed openly and kicked and screamed and punched every officer as Esko was lead to the city gates. She would’ve broken free and ran out there alongside him, promising that if he was going to die in the wilderness, she’d be there with them. Ellen would’ve never left his side.

 Except she had. No more than a week ago, Ellen’s body had been found alongside a note that Esko had barely been able to read through the tears. In a society that saw her only as a man, with no room for her inner femininity, she’d decided it was better to be dead than stuck in a cage. Standing outside the city walls now, Esko couldn’t help but agree a little.

 His long blonde hair whipped in the wind, getting in his mouth and eyes as the chill tried to bite away his skin. Mother had never let him cut it too short, afraid of him looking ‘boyish’ and being deemed Other by the rest of the city. She’d always been protective of him, albeit insistent that he never stray outside of what the world told him to be. He figured both she and Father meant well, but he’d never been able to be himself around them. They saw him as a daughter, not a son. Never a son. It wasn’t until the housekeeper found his personal journal that anyone even knew he wanted to be seen as a son. Only Ellen had known before then. Word got out that he was an Other, and two days later he was demoted to the Offering demographic and sent out into the wilderness.

 You were Other if you were gay or trans or supported birth control or didn’t agree with the government. If you were Other, you were more likely to be chosen as an Offering for the angry wild outside the walls. Offerings were sent out with nothing but the clothes on their backs and some meager provisions. If the Trolls didn’t take them as revenge against humanity, then the wild animals might, and if the wild animals didn’t, then starvation and dehydration surely would. Esko had never heard of anyone who had managed to survive for more than a week outside the walls. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t want to be the first.

 Pulling his scarf tighter around his neck, Esko set out across the meadow towards the towering pines in the distance. The thick forest would be either his refuge or his demise, but Esko didn’t believe in letting that stop him. Like hell if he was going to die out here that quickly. He was going to live at least until winter, when everything would turn to snow and frostbite would end his story.

 The forest was darker and deeper than anticipated. Maybe it was just the fact that he’d never been near this many trees before, but Esko felt a little claustrophobic in that verdant space. Ferns brushed his legs, birds called from the branches, and the trees closed around him like wooden prison bars. Panic tried to claw its way up into his chest, but he forced himself to shove it back and brave the unfamiliar path he was walking. Trolls didn’t tend to come out until dusk, being hyper sensitive to sunlight, so he figured he’d be fine for now. If he could just find a safe spot and set up camp for the night, he should be fine.

 How long he walked wasn’t exactly known to him. Esko knew he started at dawn and that now it was beginning to become dusk, of course, but exactly how much time that was completely evaded him. Hours melted and blurred into each other like frost on a window pane being hit by spring. Perhaps he would’ve continued going if he hadn’t paused at the lake and looked up at the sky.

 Esko was well aware that the light was dimming, but he hadn’t actually stopped to realize that the day was slowly turning into night. It wasn’t until he leaned his exhausted form against a tree that he took the time to look around and register that the stars were beginning to come out in the sky. Immediately, his eyes widened and he dropped his pack, looking around and scrambling to find a safe spot to settle in for the night. Anything would do at this hour. Maybe an abandoned animal den, or a nice tree to build a lean-to against? Esko didn’t really have any idea how to build a lean-to out of sticks, but he had plenty of experience making pillow forts from his childhood. It couldn’t be that different, right?

 Eventually, he found a relatively cozy-looking hollow of ferns and boulders by the lakeside. Feeling like a rabbit searching for the safety of its den, he wasted no time in flinging his stuff into a pile in the little miracle cave and quickly scrambled in after it. No time to start a fire, no time to cook his dinner, it was already too dark outside. Fear and paranoia kicked him into the furthest corner of his makeshift den and glued his eyes to the exit.

 Oh, how his heart ached in this still, dark silence. Also his stomach, feet, legs, back, arms, head, and just about every square inch of himself. He reached up under his shirt to undo the bandages binding his chest, trying to ignore the sinking feeling of dysphoria that crept out to join the paralyzed, animal fear and the deep grief that wracked his whole being. There, alone in the darkness with nobody but himself, Esko laid down and finally started to think about how messed-up every single part of this was. Ellen was dead, Mother and Father had been torn away from him, and now he was alone in the woods waiting to die. Every time he closed his eyes, he couldn’t help but see his brain’s renditions of what was going on back home… and what must be lurking out there in the darkness just beyond his sight. His parents sitting on the couch together, sobbing… Something with sharp teeth and almost human intelligence prowling the shadows… Ellen’s burial, where they’d mark her tombstone with the wrong name and her loved ones would cry for a man that never existed…

Who the hell is playing violin at this hour of the night? Esko thought sharply as he opened his eyes to a melody flowing across the lake. He was almost completely certain he was alone out here… or at least he had been. Now, with the sweet notes hanging in the air, he wasn’t so sure.

 Like some kind of horror movie protagonist, he sat up in his little nest, squinting bleary eyes at the moonlight streaming in from the outside. At first, he was only looking outside, but next thing he knew it, he was crawling towards it and poking his head outside.

Esko, don’t, he firmly told himself, trying to push his mind back into sleepy mode. Why was he moving? He absolutely should not have been moving. This was dangerous. He knew full well this was dangerous.

Come to the water, the music seemed to say. Sink in, it’s nice.


Let the reeds take care of you… Let the water make you sleep…

 Resistance was futile. He was on his feet now, kicking off his boots and tiptoeing through the grass and mud to the lake’s edge. He could make out a humanoid form standing there. Slimy, scaly, holding a fiddle and playing so sweetly, covered in duckweed and whatever plants were living at the bottom of the lake.

Let me guide you home…

 His feet entered the water, and whatever was in there dropped its instrument, turned to face him, and lunged. A powerful tail knocked the air out of his lungs and claws sunk him down below the water’s surface, plunging him into almost alien darkness. Esko’s eyes forced themselves open, only to come into contact with glowing yellow ones framed by scales and long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. The creature before him was like a cross between a man, a horse, and a fish, and Esko didn’t like it one bit.

 Regardless of his opinions on the creature’s appearance, however, there were far more important things to worry about. Like the fact that if he didn’t escape this thing, he was going to drown. He watched as it leaned its face closer to his, and everything went still for a moment. The thing looked… almost like it was around his age. Pretty, in a creepy, watery kind of way. It reminded him of the masses of lakeweed he used to see in his aunt’s turtle pond whenever he visited.

 Surprisingly gentle claws alighted on his waist, the figure leaning closer and inspecting him. Maybe he could get used to this… maybe this was alright…


 Ellen? That sounded like Ellen’s voice, but from deep within his head. He thrashed suddenly, fingers blindly reaching out and sinking into the beast’s gills, causing it to roar and yank itself away. Suddenly, Esko was above the water’s surface again, gasping for air and paddling towards the shore like a panicked animal. Out of the water. He needed to get out of the water.

 He almost made it when strong claws gripped one of his ankles.

 “YOU,” the voice of the creature roared. Esko whipped around to see it glowering at him, bleeding from the gills and gritting its teeth. “I’m not letting you get away.”

 Its voice sounded sharp, but not unlike the voice Esko had always wished he himself possessed. Just the right mix of deep and gentle, though it was filled with the rasp of intense pain.

 “Nobody puts their fingers in my gills and gets away with it,” it continued, wheezing softly. “Nobody-

 “Nobody gets away with trying to drown me, either,” Esko retorted, and the thing fell silent. The claws loosened, and he pulled his ankle free and scrambled backwards towards the lakeshore.

 “Clever,” the thing in the water spoke as it sulked. “You broke out of my hypnosis before I could kill you. That’s new.”

 “I’ve been through a lot. I’m not going to die just because of some slimy lake monster and a violin.”

 “It’s a fiddle.”

 “Shut up.”

 Surprisingly enough, the lake thing did. It just sat there and blinked its big, yellow eyes up at Esko, like some creepy fish-man-puppy.

 “This is a regular occurrence?” Esko asked with an unamused sigh, staring the thing down.

 “Mhm. Mostly with deer, foxes, and rabbits, though. Only the occasional human. My father used to be quite adept at catching them, but you’re one of the first of your kind to wander this way after his… passing.”

 Esko’s next response automated itself. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

 He was met with a surprised blink, then a burbling sigh and an “It’s fine.”

 “What even are you? Who are you?”

 It scoffed. “You want to know the name of the man who just tried to kill you? I can’t tell if you’re stupid or brave.”

 “Just answer the question, fish-boy.”

 The fish-boy raised his head a little further above the water, allowing the moonlight to frame his glittering scales. He reminded Esko of the trout he dissected in biology class once. “My name is Finner. I’m a Troll. And you?”

 “Esko. I’m a human, but you knew that.”

 A gentle head tilt. “Isn’t Esko a-”

 “I am a boy.”

 Finner put his hands up in a gesture of surrender and nodded, quietly retreating a little further into the water. “Noted,” he hurriedly said, apparently eager not to get into any further trouble with Esko. It was almost funny, considering that Finner had to be at least seven feet tall, while Esko was barely over five feet himself and definitely nowhere near as powerful as the former. Finner was built of lean, sleek muscle – a well-designed aquatic predator like an eel or a shark. The way he’d nearly killed Esko mere heartbeats ago was enough to speak that loud and clear.

 … He wasn’t totally terrifying, though. He wore this awkward, apologetic smile, almost like a person. Were Trolls people? Finner sure looked like one now that Esko could see him better. Eerie, scaly, glistening in the moonlight, but still ultimately like a person. Not a human, but a person.

 Dark rivulets made their way down Finner’s neck, blood from the injuries he’d sustained to his gills because of Esko. Without thinking, the boy reached out and ran a careful finger along the outside of the danger. “You’re bleeding. Stay there, I’ll go get disinfectant.”

 “Where are you gonna find-”

 “Shut up and stay there, you dolt. Do you want to heal or not?”

 Finner closed his mouth.

 Water lapped at Esko’s ankles as he sat with Finner, trying to heal the other man before sunrise came in and activated the Troll’s sensitivities. It wasn’t that the sun would kill Finner, no, but Trolls did have incredibly sensitive eyes and easily-burned skin, and Finner had explicitly stated that he was no exception. The sun could make a troll stiff, form sunburns that turned to stony scales which had to be flaked off after dark, harm their sight, and more. As such, the pair were working against the clock.

 Finner snapped his teeth at the air again, hissing in pain as Esko did his best to apply the little bit of disinfectant spray he’d been allowed to bring with him to its gills. Bandages weren’t an option, and the spray might wash off if he dipped his gills in water, which meant that Finner was going to have to stay high and dry until they healed. Needless to say, he was less than thrilled. Waiting to be able to fully submerge himself again could take weeks. Until then, no resting at the lake bottom like he was used to, no drowning prey, and no easy escape from the sun.

 “I guess we’re stuck together, huh?” Esko spoke dryly, using his slender fingers to gently rub the disinfectant into some of Finner’s wounds. It stung, but the Troll gritted his teeth and avoided lashing out.

 “I hope you know this doesn’t make us friends, human,” Finner snarled in reply.

 “Wouldn’t dream of it, fish.”

 “I am not-”

 The hands previously on his neck released their hold, and Finner felt himself suddenly able to breathe with ease again. His yellow eyes met Esko’s blue ones, and he closed his mouth. A sigh bubbled up through his chest.

 “… I’m sorry for trying to eat you.”

 “Sorry for sticking my fingers in your gills.”

 “No, no,” Finner insisted, suddenly feeling a tad alarmed at the fact that he’d somehow gotten the boy to soften. “Don’t apologize for defending yourself. You’re stronger than you look. I like that.”

 Strong? Esko had been called a lot of things, mostly intelligent and stubborn, but never strong. It genuinely shocked him, like suddenly being caught in the beam of a searchlight and realizing he was finally found. Strong… I like that. Strong.

 “You think I’m… strong?”

 Finner puffed out his chest, speaking in that haughty tone Esko was already getting used to. “Well, maybe not physically, but strong in spirit. Spicy, a little tangy. You’re definitely one of the most interesting people I’ve talked to.”

 “You don’t seem like you’ve talked to many people, but thanks.”

 Finner made a face like he’d just eaten a lemon, and Esko stifled a laugh. “Look, I’m just trying to say that you’re a human I can see some benefit in not drowning. You’re absolutely nothing like what the legends say about you.”

 Suddenly, everything was so stiflingly silent that the sound of a pin drop would’ve been considered a relief. Esko felt all the breath leave his body, along with his thoughts and the warmth and his pulse and all the (already lacking) color in his skin. He watched as Finner quickly shut his mouth, eyes darkening in concern. “There are… legends… about humans?”

 “Yes. Yes, there are. Mostly stories about how you ruined the world, how you killed animals and each other for no reason other than your own selfishness… The list goes on and on, really. That’s why the wild demands sacrifices,” Finner informed him as casually as he would if he was speaking about what he’d done last Tuesday. “We’re all mad about it. We want revenge.”

 Something sparked in Esko, a little shock in otherwise still darkness. “We’re worse than just what the legends say,” he spoke, voice unintentionally raising with his anger. “Now we don’t let people make choices anymore. No bodily autonomy, no option not to have children, no same-sex relationships or support for the gender nonconforming. It’s all about survival and reproduction, and if you can’t conform then you’re ostracized and thrown out into the woods to be eaten. Revenge by taking people one by one isn’t enough.”

 Rage roared in Esko’s chest now, flames flickering along his spine and ready to spew in screams from his mouth. This was the most empowered he’d felt since Ellen’s death. Maybe even before then. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right and Esko was sick and tired of it.

 “How are we supposed to do it any differently, then? We can’t get past the walls, for starters.”

 “We’ll find a way. I’ll help you.”


 “I’m going to get my revenge, whether or not you join me.”

 And Finner, cautiously at first, cracked a devious smile.

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