Excerpt: Peter Darling

James Hook was bored.

The woods had grown rather tame, he thought. Time was, he and his pirates would have been fending off tigers, wolves, and little boys with swords; they would have been snarled in thorns and clinging vines, beset by swarming fae, ambushed by roving crocodiles. Nowadays, though Neverland was still overgrown, it was no more threatening than an unkempt lawn.

It was the morning after a powerful rain, but the sun was shining, and dew gathered like jewels on the leaves. From where Hook was reclining, in the velvet cushions of a sedan chair carried by four straining men, the forest had a fresh polish and smelled like the coming of autumn.

There were even sweet little birds singing. It was repulsively saccharine.

“Which way at Eagle Pass, Captain?” called Samuel, Hook’s bosun since the retirement of old Smee. Samuel was walking ahead, where Hook could admire his arse.

Hook glanced listlessly at the treasure map on his knee, lifting his lacy cuff so he could see the twist of the path. “East,” he said, and the party veered east.

They had liberated the treasure map from One-Eyed Jack, captain of the Devil’s Pride, after a brief and unsatisfying battle. The Devil’s Pride was currently sinking to the bottom of the sea, and Hook had sent all of One-Eyed Jack’s loyalists off the plank, but it hadn’t sated him. He was bloodthirsty, and he had nothing to vent his bloodlust on.

The pirates followed his directions into a tight thicket, where the trees grew close to the narrow path. The sedan chair was almost too wide to fit through, but the men knew better than to suggest that Hook get down and walk. They struggled gamely on until the trail emerged into a wide gulch shaded by birch trees. An enormous log had fallen across this ravine, leaving a shallow space just tall enough for a man to crouch under. And there, beneath the log, was a boulder carved with a particular sign—the sigil with which One-Eyed Jack had signed his letters.

Hook sighed, unable to muster much enthusiasm. “Down,” he commanded, and his pallbearers set the sedan chair down to rest on its base. “Roll that boulder aside and start digging.”

It would be dirty, sweaty work to squat beneath the log and dig up the fortune of gold and jewels rumored to be buried there. Hook was looking forward to it; the sight of other men toiling usually made him feel better. Samuel, especially, had a way of making sweat and grime look appealing. It would at least soothe Hook’s soul, if not solve his boredom, to watch Samuel roll up his sleeves and grasp his shovel with those bulging forearms.

Therefore hopeful, Hook settled in for the show.

Half an hour or so later, he began to think that a book would have made for better entertainment. He could only watch the shovel go up and down so many times, Samuel and the others disappearing behind a growing mound of dirt. The temperature increased as the sun climbed higher; the lesser insects of Neverland grew hungry and agitated as they hovered over the ravine, attracted perhaps by all the sweat. Hook swatted the bugs away with the treasure map, glaring at his men as they dug.

“How much longer?” he demanded.

Samuel stuck his head out of the hole, his brown hair slicked down with sweat. “Hard to say, Captain,” he said apologetically. “There’s no sign of gold yet.”

“Hurry up,” Hook said. “If that treasure isn’t unearthed within the hour, I’ll flog every one of you till I can show you your own spines.”

Samuel blanched and ducked back into the hole. Hook sighed, fanning himself.

From behind him someone said: “What’s the rush, Captain?”

Hook twisted around in his chair, startled.

He hadn’t heard the stranger approach, yet there he was, sitting on a rock at the edge of the ravine. The young man wore baggy clothes and carried no obvious weapons, which was unusual for Neverland.

“Well, hello,” Hook said. The stranger was quite handsome, in a lanky sort of way—his face was bony and angular, his limbs narrow and long. His hair was curly, and as raggedy as if it had been hacked off with a knife. “What have we here?”

The stranger leaned forward. “You don’t remember me?”

There was something familiar about this young man’s coloring and his clear, arrogant voice. “Now that you mention it, I do believe we’ve met. Where?”

“Here,” the stranger said. “In Neverland.” He rose, swaying slightly. Hook watched as he picked his way down the ravine. He carried himself like he was half air, as though a mere breeze could lift him off his feet. At the same time, something about his movements raised the hair on the back of Hook’s neck. They were not just familiar—they were the footsteps of a cat slinking casually toward a wounded bird.

“Who are you?” Hook asked, curling his fingers around the hilt of his sword.

The stranger paused and gave a slow, cold smile. “I’m the prince of runaways,” he said. “The rightful king of Neverland.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Samuel shouted. “Tell the captain who you are!”

“Be quiet,” Hook snapped without turning his head. He stepped down from the sedan chair, walking to meet the stranger as he descended into the ravine.

The nearer he went, the more handsome the stranger became. His eyes were clever, green, and restless, constantly darting about to take in his surroundings; his mouth was a whimsical line. Recognition tugged again at the back of Hook’s mind, but he couldn’t place this man anywhere in his memories, and he thought he would’ve kept a record of that smile.

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