The Knowledge of the Queen: Chapter Seven

By Juan Ersatzman

The Knowledge of the Queen is a serial novel, debuting with chapter one in January 2016 and slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

In this matter, as in almost all other moments of crisis and impending catastrophe in a life that consisted of little else, Lumi Maltin displayed her tragic flaw: incurable, incorrigible, willfully ignorant optimism. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she held unwaveringly to the belief that if only she pretended it was so, all would be well soon enough.

The strain between the Duke of Maltin and the young king continued to build, and express itself in skirmishes along lines of policy (both foreign and domestic) and protocol. The duke, endlessly proper in all he thought and did, at first weighed down the king with private audiences in which he implored the young man to conduct himself in a manner more commensurate with his office, as indeed, the duke repeated desperately, he had conducted himself at first upon his inauguration.

In their first meetings, the king agreed on every point raised by the duke, affecting a serious cast and assuring the duke that he would strive to improve himself, and that the duke’s experience and insight regarding policies were of tremendous value to him, and would be taken into account immediately.

Of course, neither policy nor performance was altered in the least as a result of the duke’s entreaties, and in short time, he became aware that the king was carrying on a grand game of humiliation — endlessly inviting his counsel in order to make a show of disregarding it.

Traditionalist though he was, the duke was an aristocrat from a long, long line of noble blood. He was no stranger to Machiavellian politicking. So he began to quietly spread rumors — some true, some less true — about the king’s excesses and incompetence, and at the same time, to display a great interest in the forms and systems of democracy.

In short, he began to undermine the king.

— From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave

 

MARIGOLD sprawled on the cold cobblestones, craning her neck to see past the bowed heads of kneeling mountain villagers and tourists at the specter of the madman who had declared himself their king. The reverent silence that had fallen at his declaration had begun to stretch to discomfort. King Hivelgott seemed to become aware that the power of the moment was fading with the comfort of his people’s knees. He placed the shining amulet back inside the collar of his white military dress suit, and stepped to the microphone.

“My dear Trevenlanders,” he began, and Marigold was surprised at both the gravity and warmth of his voice, “doubtless it shocks, it astounds, it overwhelms you to process the events of this night. I understand.”

He allowed himself a small smile. “I, too, am overwhelmed. It beggars my faculties to stand before you, bereft of youth, vigor, wealth, and the weight of law which were my one-time advantages by birthright.”

The sky was now faded almost wholly to black, and Hivelgott’s eyes glittered in the brilliance of the floodlights. Marigold’s elbows and torso ached against the stones, but she found she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the spectacle of Hivelgott. Only a scratching and puffing at her side alerted her to the prophetess’s presence.

“Damn,” whispered the older woman, “damn it all to hell.”

“I chose, two endless decades past, to forsake those advantages to which I had become accustomed,” went on Hivelgott, “believing it to be for the good of my people, my nation, my world, and even myself.”

“Liar,” said the prophetess, so loudly that Marigold was afraid she’d be heard again, “mellifluous conniver.”

“In an effort to separate my person from what glittering triumphs, stirring advances or bitter failures would be the denouement of popular rule, I resolved that I must reject all invitations of continued luxury and title, and must live out my life in the guise of the lowest of the low — in short, my dearest subjects, to become to you as a madman.

“In the two decades of my pilgrimage, I have continued to hope, I have clung to my deepest wells of optimism, and I have been …” his voice now rose to tenor quaver, “… in all ways bitterly disappointed.

“I had hope, such hope, such innocent, endless, naive hope that in time the ship would right, and I could see the sons and daughters of my beloved land navigate the treacherous seas of turbulent times to land on the limitless shores of prosperousness. Alas. I see those charged with the care of all my people concerned only with the care of themselves and those whom they took to be particularly useful. For twenty-two years, I held hard to hope as the wind rose and the sails strained. But in that selfsame time,” he went on, darkly, “I knew all along that could and would the grim day come, that I must keep about me those evidences which should prove in uncertain times the truth of my identity, should indeed, the ship of state begin to list, and sink.”

“The nautical metaphor,” hissed the prophetess, “sweet heavens. He hasn’t changed.”

Marigold stole a moment from staring in disbelief at Hivelgott to stare in disbelief at the prophetess.

“You —” she started.

“Shh!” answered the prophetess, waving down the queen.

“I know that my appearance has changed in the intervening years, I know that my manners are those of a man who has lived by stealth and secrecy, not in the comfort and ease of royal living. I have come to know in a new way how a king depends on the kindness and charity of his loyal, benevolent, generous, kind, guileless and goodhearted subjects.

“It is,” he said, wheezing a little in the crisp air, “from a desire to repay that magnanimity with certainty of trustworthiness that I present these little proofs, these trifling, small, incontestable evidences of my royalty.”

“Oh …” breathed the prophetess, beside Marigold, as though the fragments of a thought were coalescing in her mind.

“First, the amulet of succession, that magical metal medallion, whose lights leap to life at the touch of the royal hand.”

“… shit,” finished the prophetess. Somewhat cryptically, she drew back the hammer on the revolver.

Marigold ignored her, trying to fathom what was taking place before her eyes.

“Second,” said Hivelgott, his voice receding into his nasal passages, and taking on a tone of pompous self-importance, “I present to you the incontrovertible evidence of personal reflection, I present to you … my wife.”

The people were still kneeling, and as the speech carried on, had begun to shift uncomfortably in search of relief for their hard-pressed knees. At Hivelgott’s announcement, the distracted shuffling of knees stopped.

Lumi Maltin had been a popular favorite of the people as the daughter of the Duke of Maltin. Her sympathetic personality, optimism and beauty had endeared her to the nation. Indeed, Hiram’s treatment of the people’s favorite — although the details were known only in the form of grim rumor — was a primary factor in his precipitous fall from grace.

More to the point, it had been widely assumed, and indeed, published, that the long-suffering royal consort was dead. It was astounding, though not perhaps, so astounding to a market square full of sore-kneed subjects whose village idiot had revealed himself as their exiled king.

A waifish figure was ushered up the stairs and onto the stage. She hesitated, shrinking back from the crowd, her hands clenched into fists.

To most onlookers, as noted, the declaration that the king’s wife was alive and among them was little more than a startling footnote to the supremely staggering surprise of his return. An unexpectedly living king can bring almost anyone back from the dead with him without exciting much additional comment.

To Marigold, though, this was the true moment of disorienting shock, even as disparate pieces of impossible reality clicked into a cohesive whole.

It was her mother.

“Oh, shit,” said the prophetess again, gritting her teeth, “oh, shit.”

Marigold had often wondered what it meant to have eyes that flashed — eyes do not in themselves have the power to do anything but reflect light, not produce it. But she could’ve sworn in that moment that the prophetess’s eyes flashed. Marigold herself was numb, unable to cope with the volume of questions without answers and answers without explanations she was witnessing in the square.

If Hivelgott was the king and Ma Gnowker was Hivelgott’s wife … she refused to countenance the thought. But if the prophetess’s eyes were flashing on Ma Gnowker’s behalf, and if she said “he hasn’t changed” about Hivelgott … Marigold turned to the prophetess, whose eyes were narrowed to slits. Marigold thought better of asking a question. She turned back to the stage.

Ma Gnowker stepped hesitantly forward, her eyes wide, looking around in terror. Marigold’s heart pounded against her sternum, which was, itself, creaking on the cobblestones. Beside her the prophetess was growling.

“Many of you, my dearest villagers and tourists — many of you have known me,” said Hivelgott, delighted in the stir he was causing, “known me, and mistaken me for a vagabond. And just so have many of you taken my dearest, most beautiful and precious wife Lumi for a simple seller of vegetables and singer of sweet songs. A farmer’s wife, a simple woman.”

Marigold was breathing in gasps. For the second week in a row, she was reeling in the marketplace, staring at the leering face of Hivelgott.

“My dear,” he said, his voice as soft as he could contort it to be, “tell us. Reveal to us the truth — are you my long-lost and forgotten and thought-to-be-dead wife Lumi Maltin?”

Ma Gnowker looked right and then left. Her eyes were large. She appeared to be weighing her options,

“Come on,” murmured the prophetess, “come on.”

“Yes,” said Ma Gnowker. Her harsh, shrill voice was subdued.

The prophetesss let out a rush of breath. Marigold drew a gulp of air in.

“Thank heavens,” whispered the prophetess.

“Thank heavens?” asked Marigold.

The prophetess was unequal to any response stronger than a nod. Her eyes, recently of the flashing-and-glittering variety, were now dull. She let her head fall to the cobblestone, and she lay there for a moment.

While it was apparent that the strings that bound the prophetess up tight had been cut, Marigold felt no corresponding easing of tension. Nor, it seemed, did Harrison. He’d said nothing throughout Ma Gnowker’s appearance, but his face was pale.

The prophetess raised her head.

“We need to go.”

They scrambled out from beneath the wagon, and crawled on their hands and knees backwards through the alley. Once, Marigold blundered into an abandoned fruit crate that scraped and bumped and rattled. They froze in the frigid shadows, staring into the luminescence of the square that spilled over the wagon and into the alleyway, but no one in the square, it seemed, had been listening for would-be queens bumping into fruit crates in the dark. When they reached Louisa at the far end of the alley, all three were panting.

“Okay,” hissed the prophetess, turning to her companions imperiously, “this is what we’re going to do —”

She stopped for breath, and then continued to breathe, somewhat loudly. Finally, she said, “Damn.”

“What?” asked Marigold, panicking. “What’s wrong?”

“No plan,” sighed the prophetess.

“What do we need a plan for?” asked Louisa.

“We’ve got to steal her mother from a village madman-turned-king who’s supported by the K,” said Harrison.

Louisa nodded, and thought for a moment.

“Wait!” hissed Marigold, “wh-”

“No.” The prophetess regarded her with stern seriousness.

“But what —” started Marigold, inflamed by the prophetess’s unblushing hypocrisy.

“No.”

“But I’m —”

“You’re entitled to answers, highness, yes,” said the prophetess, “but not now. You can wait fifteen damn minutes while we save your Ma. Your peace of mind isn’t worth her life.”

Marigold bit her lip, feeling — neither for the first, nor the last time — badly mistreated and deeply misjudged.

Louisa had said nothing in the interim, but now she spoke, addressing her question to the prophetess.

“We can’t wait?” she asked.

“We have no idea when she’ll outlive her usefulness to him,” said the Prophetess. “I won’t see her with them for a moment longer than I can help.”

“Too many of them for us to take on?” asked Louisa.

The prophetess nodded.

“Okay,” said Louisa. She mulled the problem over for a moment, eyes unfocused.

“Okay,” said Louisa, snapping back. “We need a funnel, a diversion and a getaway that’s reliable and fast.”

“Diversion I can do,” said the prophetess.

“I believe it,” said Louisa, “but I need you fighting. You —” she said turning to Harrison, “— you’re our diversion.”

If the prophetess was piqued at not being permitted to stage a diversion, Harrison seemed wounded by the implication that the prophetess was a superior fighter.

They both scowled, and Louisa ignored them. She turned to Harrison. “Can you drive a bus?”
MUCH later, Marigold was able to piece together a rough account of what took place in the square.

Despite his seemingly warm reception from the people of Valeview, it was apparent that Hivelgott wasn’t sufficiently confident to take up residence in easy-identified and targeted locations. Immediately following the speeches, a tight posse of his Kemizeze bodyguards — it was confirmed through the events of subsequent days that the black-clad bodyguards were, in fact, members of that dreaded anarchist deathmob — gathered around him and began to usher him through the press toward the parking meadow.

They proceeded toward the edge of town along King’s Avenue, followed by a crowd made up partially of curious villagers, and more of tired tourists and bus drivers who were following not so much out of curiosity and respect as out of a desire to go home and sleep. The crowd was silent outside of the occasional whimpering child, and the king was silent, loping along in the center of his heavily armed posse.

The foremost group passed through the arch at the end of King’s Avenue into the wide, flat grassy space on the edge of the buspark. There, they came to an abrupt and wary halt. The tall pole lights along the hedgerow that divided the buspark from the village were out, and the whole parking meadow was concealed in darkness. Somewhere in the murky obscurity, a bus engine was idling.

One of the K barked an order — or, given the group’s anarchist antecedents, a suggestion — and a gaggle of flashlights flicked on. The lights scanned randomly for a moment, and then came to rest, across the grill of a bus, some twenty yards away.

A loud exclamation went up from the crowd, followed by a collective shriek of terror. With a blare of its horn, the bus’s headlights flashed suddenly full on the crowd, and the enormous vehicle lurched forward.

For a moment, the king and his entourage were frozen in astonishment. And then, springing to life, they turned and scrambled backwards toward the safety of the arch, slipping and scuttling, dropping guns and flashlights as they careened through the frost-slick grass. The king was cackling with an insane terror as he fled. Behind the arch, the crowd of tourists had also shrunk back against itself and turned to bedlam.

As the first of the guards reached the apparent safety of the arch, there was a crack like the report of a cannon, and a flash of flame. In the monochrome headlight glare, a stumpy, gray-haired woman with an enormous pistol stepped from the shadows on the far side of the arch, scowling.

Ma Gnowker had been half-herded, half-carried by two of the K behind the king, and was not far from the arch when the bus came to life. She was perhaps three steps away from the arch when the prophetess stepped out. Seeing the gun, her captors hesitated. The prophetess raised her gun and fired. One of the K fell lifeless to the ground.

The other guard, recognizing that he had only an instant before the gun was cocked and raised again, lunged forward toward the prophetess, who was stepping backwards through the arch, away from him.

A number of things happened so quickly that they appeared simultaneous to the onlookers.

Another person, dressed in the midnight costume of the Kemizeze, burst from the shadow of the arch and caught Ma Gnowker by the shoulders in a flying tackle, dragging her out of the path of the bus. As they fell away to the side, Hivelgott — bobbing unsteadily in a petrified stagger — slipped, shrieked, and was crushed. The remaining K flung themselves clear of the path of the vehicle or dove through the arch to the relative safety of the other side. The prophetess fired again. And the bus slammed into the arch.

The sound of the collision ricocheted through Valeview and against the mountain slopes above the town, and for a moment, even the crowd was silent.

Then the pop of a small explosion, followed by a fast-moving cloud of manufactured smoke that stung the eyes and nose and throat. Automatic gunfire clattered in the haze, and the crowd set up a shriek. The bus lurched into reverse, paused, and then swung away in a long curve toward the parking meadow.
INSIDE of the bus, Harrison swayed over the wheel with the peculiar motion of a burning tree. The windshield had been crushed to uselessness; the world beyond its cracks and shards was a mess of orange flames and scurrying shadows, then, as they pulled away — a kaleidoscope of grass and mud and metal, lit by one remaining headlight.

Ma Gnowker was curled in the second seat, moaning softly with her hands around her head. The prophetess was kneeling in the aisle, one hand on Ma Gnowker’s head, the other clutching the pistol. Her eyes were set on Harrison.

Louisa was outside in the darkness, using the bus as cover, and flitting around the corners to rattle fusillades of bullets across the wreckage of the arch in hopes of stretching their head start, but as the bus accelerated to a grumbling, smoky trot, she was obliged to run along beside it, firing blindly over her shoulder. Between the speed of the bus, the shock of the ambush and the confusion of the smoke, they estimated they would have between thirty seconds and a minute in the carpark to locate Danny and Marigold, and escape, before their enemies caught up to them. Return fire clattered against the bus and pinged through the windows.

Harrison’s face was drawn, and pale. Dark currents of blood streamed from gashes in his scalp and cheek. He glanced back, into the eyes of the prophetess.

“Drive!” barked the old woman.

He looked back to the shattered windshield, cursing under his breath and dragging the wheel of the bus to maneuver to the lee side of the row of stabled buses. The bus wobbled, reeled and crashed over hillocks. Again, Harrison darted a glance at the prophetess. Again, eyes impassive as a cat’s, she was watching him, and again she roared at him to keep driving.

“You knew,” he said, hoarsely, and then he shouted, “YOU KNEW!” His fingers tightened on the wheel. The bus bounced on a mound and crashed against the yellow rope that served as a barrier between the bus and car lots, pulling it along. Bullets pinged against the bus. Louisa’s gun offered another pert response.

“Drive,” said the prophetess, again, in a flat voice, “or we’ll all be dead.”

They were rushing between rows of parked cars, now, and Louisa’s gun had gone silent as she sprinted to keep up. Harrison compressed his lips for a moment. He darted a glance across the rows of cars, and then twisted the wheel hard to the left. The long-suffering joints of the bus’s body gave a scream of eager mortality, and the whole of its hull wobbled like a ship caught broadside by the waves. A deluge of the tourists’ trinketry, daypacks and snacks, some shattered by bullets poured into the cabin from the overhead bins. The bus teetered on the crest of the wave, and with a sigh went toppling over.

Ma Gnowker and the prophetess were sent pinwheeling every which way, entangled with each other and the seats and the luggage. Glass geysered from windows and metal screeched.

The bus rolled over twice, and came to a grinding, shrieking halt on its side, crushing the hoods, trunks and hatches of a row of cars. Flames billowed up eagerly on the engine compartment to consume the fuselage.

The firearm-wielding parties still sorting themselves out in the smoke at the arch, some hundred-and-fifty yards away, paused in their random firing, unsure of what the crashing, grinding and bright light indicated.

As the bus crossed into the carpark, Harrison had accelerated hard, leaving Louisa falling further and further behind. The yellow rope had continued to drag behind the bus, uprooting fence-posts fashioned from rebar. Freed from the earth, but not the ties that bound them to the rope, the rebar bounced along murderously in the bus’s wake. Dodging through a field of unexpected spears, while trying to catch up to a runaway motor coach and keep her head low, Louisa tripped over the rope and sprawled in the grass.

As she lay winded in the cold, prickling grass staring up into a pristine field of stars, she saw the flash and heard the thunder of the wreck. She rolled back over, panting and gasping, and willed herself to her feet.

The bus was lying on its right side, with the door trapped against the row of parked cars, and the windshield resting in an elevated position on top of a car that had gone through an unfortunate process of compression. Louisa was obliged to climb up the unrecognizably squashed vehicle before she could get into the bus. Having mounted the ruins, she remarked that someone had already kicked through the glass of the windshield, from the inside. She noted the fact, and moved on into the interior.

Inside the coach, the fire had already claimed the rear three rows of seats. Scorching breezes whipped forward from the blaze, carrying smoke and the smell of burning oil and plastic. Harrison was gone. The prophetess and Ma Gnowker were lying in the aisle, pressed against the base of a seat, groaning and coughing. The prophetess’s staff was gone, but her head was raised, and she was pointing the revolver at Louisa.

In the distance, the K fired another hopeful salvo.

“It’s me,” Louisa told the prophetess, “let’s go.”

The prophetess gave a wordless, gurgling moan of agreement, and raised herself on her free arm against the sloping floor. Ma Gnowker remained in place, moaning.

Louisa bent down and pulled Ma Gnowker’s arm across her shoulder. She raised her back beneath the burden, and turned back to the windshield,

“Wait,” gurgled the prophetess, “got to — got to hold on to you, dammit.”

She reached up, found a fold in Louisa’s black disguise, and clutched it. “Okay,” she said, and coughed.

The party inched back through the windshield, then slipped and tumbled down the other side of the row of cars, away from wreckage and the fire. If their head start was thirty seconds, it was gone. If a minute, it was nearly past. Still, the bus wreck was an unexpected boon. More smoke and fire meant more uncertainty for the pursuers. Uncertainty expressed itself in plodding progress across the parking meadow. The voices of the K were echoing from the bus park, some eighty yards away.

Having made a precipitous and bruising descent from the bus, Louisa and the prophetess crawled on their bellies, still dragging a gradually awakening Ma Gnowker around the edge of the car. They inched past another four cars as the voices neared to forty yards, and then twenty.

When she estimated the K were only twenty yards away, Louisa tilted her head sideways, and the women took shelter between the cars. They huddled cross-legged, with their knees pulled tightly in, and their heads low beneath the windows.

Ma Gnowker had recovered enough to be staring at her companions in slack-jawed wonder. She looked first from the prophetess to Louisa, then back again. Finally, she settled on the prophetess and examined her face with an intensity that struck Louisa almost as simple-minded.

“Anida?” she asked, softly.

The prophetess, too, seemed to be recovering. She sighed, and her face grew less hard.

“At your service, as I always am, Lumi,” she whispered, and dipped her gray head.

“Thank you,” said Ma Gnowker, “thank you.”

“What next?” asked Louisa, her voice betraying a hint of tension for the first time.

“Right,” said the prophetess. She gathered up her face into a dense knot of skin as she considered the question. “We need to get to Danny and Marigold, before Harrison without dying.”

The fire was consuming the bus, and though the women were couched in shadow, the world around them was lit in a red glow, and all the frost was melting to steam.

“I know. But we’re out of time,” said Louisa, “and we can’t take them all on.”

“Too true,” said the prophetess. She looked back to Ma Gnowker, now dry-eyed and alert.

“Lumi,” she said, “you’re a goddess of this shrieking thing they go in for up here, yes?”

Ma Gnowker nodded.

“Okay,” said the prophetess, having carefully considered for roughly ten seconds, “this is what we’re going to do — I’m going to throw a bomb into that fire, and then you’re going to scream for Marigold and Danny, and we’re going to try to bust our way out of this mess.”

“Three,” said the prophetess, “two —” she slipped a small, dark object the size and shape of a pinecone out of the pocket of her pants.

Ma Gnowker drew in an enormous breath,

“One!” said the prophetess, and rising, flung the object back toward the fire.

There was a flat, thudding sound, and a concussive wave of air. All three women were thrown back violently. They struggled forward, hacking and wheezing. The prophetess gesticulated frantically at Ma Gnowker, who was struggling to breathe.

Ma Gnowker nodded, coughed, threw back her head and let loose a ragged scream. It was a far cry from her finest effort, and a poor substitute for her most polished and penetrating shrieks, but it was high and piercing, the sort of sound that left blisters on ears and vocal cords.

“DANNY!” she screeched. “MARIGOLD!”

On the far side of the ruined bus, the pursuing soldiers responded with an emphatic helping of gunfire, all of it scattering harmlessly into the night like drops of metal rain.

Away down the line of cars, near the end of the parking lot, headlights flipped on.

“Oh,” said Louisa, “here we go.”

The prophetess grunted.

The station wagon swung into the aisle and came bouncing and wheezing toward them.

“Damn, damn, damn,” said the prophetess. “Run!”

Run they did, through the dense cloud of smoke, and shrouded by a row of cars. It was impossible for their pursuers to achieve a successful bead on the car, but the guns did turn toward the obscured glow of headlights, and rain a liberal hail of bullets down around them. They reached the car out of breath and off-balance, scrabbling at the door handles.

“Get in, get in!” bellowed the prophetess, as she and Ma Gnowker toppled into the back seat.

“Gosh,” said Danny, shrinking back into his seat, as a bullet caught the upper corner of the windshield. Cracks spiraled in all directions across the glass.

“Drive, drive, drive, drive!” roared the prophetess, “get us out of here.”

In the passenger seat, Louisa wordlessly rolled down her window and leaned out of it with the submachine gun to return fire.

“Oh, heck,” said Danny. The car jerked into reverse, and lumbered rearward through the aisle of cars. Another sprinkling of bullets perforated the cars around them.

It appeared to make up Danny’s mind. He swung the station wagon, still in full motion, into a sharp turn. Louisa made a sudden whoofing sound as the motion of the car dragged her against the window. Scrabbling to stay inside, she dropped the machine gun into the outer darkness.

“Darn,” said Danny, “sorry.”

Louisa was not yet equal to a response. Danny turned the wheel again, launching the car forward, and she collapsed against her seat, sputtering and gasping.

“No, for real,” said Danny, straightening the car and roaring forward toward the yellow ropes that marked the back of the parking lot, “I’m so sorry.”

Louisa, leaning out of the window with her bruised midriff on the sill, gritted her teeth and cut the rope, and Danny swung the car left onto the dirt track that skirted the edges of the forest, running down into the valley. Bullets, their constant companions of the evening, made a papery whisper in the trees overhead.

They sped down the track, away from the parking meadow. When they came to a fork in the road, Danny turned right, into the forest, switched off the lights, and proceeded at a cautious crawl.

The prophetess, Louisa and Ma Gnowker were still breathing deep, ragged gasps of exhaustion and relief, but as they wound deeper into the forest, they subsided into silence. Danny, true to his level nature, forebore to interpose.

At last, when all sound but the wheeze of the engine and the rustle of the woods at night had died away, he said, “What is all this?”

After waiting in vain for a reply, he made a second attempt. “I’m glad that whatever danger you were in Ma, that you’re safe. But I’ve just spent an hour sitting alone in the car while all of Valeview went to pieces in explosions and gunshots and bus wrecks, and I want to know what’s going on.

“Also,” he went on, warming to the role of interrogator, “where’s Marigold?”

He broke off, suddenly, as though sensing the sudden deepening of the silence.

“My god,” said the prophetess. Her voice was hoarse as tree bark, and hopeless as the coming of winter.

To be continued

The Knowledge of the Queen Chapter Five

By Juan Ersatzman

The Knowledge of the Queen is a serial novel, debuting with chapter one in January 2016 and slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Chapter Five
Lumi Maltin’s dreams of cheerful destiny drawing her toward a happily-ever-after with the handsome young king were, indeed, naïveté. The trap that was laid, however, was not laid for her.

The king was a master of the arts of persuasion and suggestion, and his journal displays a deliberate, methodical undoing of the ingénue’s reluctance. He planned spectacles to dazzle her youth, showered her with attention that played to her vanity, carefully orchestrated moments of feigned kindness to servants and beggars and urgent matters to be ignored so he could be with her and inch-by-inch tugged her across the many boundaries her imperious father had set for her. In doing so, he wrote that “I feigned at all times an innocence and good-hearted ignorance equal to her own. I needed merely to make a show of teetering on the brink of some ghastly impropriety, then become overcome with shy embarrassment — too bashful to speak the thought, and allow her to wheedle it from me. Indeed, in time, poor kitten, she became utterly enamored of the belief that we two souls were carried upon rivers of passion, helplessly drawn past inhibitions — barriers erected only for the sake of lesser folk engaged in lesser loves.”

It was not long, then, before chance meetings at a debut ball and in the municipal gardens had become a torrid, but clandestine affair. Lumi Maltin’s diary from this period reflects mainly her enthrallment with the charms of the young king, and her amazement at the revelations of what she took to be true love. Only briefly does she seem to exhibit any doubts about her relationship, writing that “my soul is alive with the wonders of this infatuation, and yet — and yet! Father, dear, beloved, wise father has chosen — quite without sense, to my reckoning — to quarrel with the king, and Hiram thinks it best that we wait to reveal all until ‘the proper moment.’ Surely he knows best, but in the meantime, what is a girl to do? I go about all day, bursting with joy, unable — almost — to contain myself. He is mine, I am his, and every moment we part is an agony to me. If only Father and Hiram were to lay aside their silly quarrel … but. What do I know of these affairs? I will wait, and I will be patient, and soon enough! Ah, soon enough, all will be well.”

–From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave

Like all of Marigold’s involvement in the erstwhile revolution, the plan concocted at the lunchtime meeting struck her as improvised and ill-advised. By the time Almira surveyed the table and said “Okay. Is that — that’s it, then?” and received no response, Marigold’s mind was wilting under the weight of distress and doubt. She excused herself, and fled. The churning in her stomach had gotten down to business and turned to full-fledged nausea. Her skin felt cold, but her forehead was damp with sweat.

She’d hoped that a scheme for directly confronting her status as a possibly invented queen would ease the momentary anguish of her uncertainty. It had not.

After the gloom of the cave, the outdoors, drenched in clear September sun were painfully bright, and she shielded her eyes as she navigated through tents back toward the relative isolation of her own canvas hut.

She closed the door of the tent behind her with shaking hands, and then collapsed down on her bed. The bed was unyielding, and the blow stung. She was crying — she didn’t know why, and her breath was coming in gasps. It was hot in the tent. She rolled over and buried her face in the pillow to muffle the sound of her sobs. Even in her tent, she wasn’t alone. The canvas walls were thin.

Outside, a campload of criminals were busy ennobling themselves in the knowledge that they were soldiers in the army of the true queen. Smugglers and robbers become knights of the realm. Saved from a lifetime of fugitive futility because she was the queen.

Was she the queen? How could she be the queen? She was playing at queen. Ambushed in the square, ambushed in the warehouse. Scabs on her forehead, addled in the brain.

Meantime, in the city, she assumed her phone, internet and bank accounts had been broken open and inspected closely by the police. Phone calls and texts gone unanswered were cascading into an unfamiliar inbox where they would be analyzed in detail for codes and schemes and revolutionary sentiment. Worried friends advised by the police to … what? Probably to grieve. Maybe informed that she was now a criminal? Either way, they’d been told things to reassure them that it was okay to carry on without her. Her apartment was empty. Her healthy breakfasts were wasting away in the cupboard. Her coffee maker sat idle. Her glorious, soft, paid-for-with-wages bed was fixed in the state of disarray from when she’d clambered out of it two weeks ago. All because she was the queen.

Was she the queen? And if she was the queen, did she have to be? The amulet hadn’t asked what she preferred.

What did she prefer? An unassuming life in the city, surrounded by casual friends, constant comforts, and the stigma of her antecedents, or a grimy and uncomfortable life in the mountains, the queen of a band of criminal malcontents? She was surprised to find that no answer came to her.

She rolled onto her side. What if she wasn’t the queen? She supposed that the prophetess would snarl a bit, confess surprise, and wander away again to stir up trouble somewhere else. The criminals would go back to stealing, and Almira would go back to selling coffee and bearing children. This time, though, Marigold supposed, the children would be Harrison’s.

Her stomach knotted cold at the thought, and she cursed herself for thinking it. What did it matter to her, she asked herself, if Harrison and Almira were sharing a tent? What of it if they wanted to have children together? What did it matter if Harrison looked at Marigold first when he made jokes? What did it matter if he was irritable and unhappy when he was with Almira, and prattled like a little boy, hiking with Marigold, or sitting at the morning fire with Marigold? What did any of that matter when she might (or might not) be the queen, and he spent his nights with Almira?

Marigold gritted her teeth. Harrison and Almira were the least of her troubles, and — royalty aside — Marigold would never stoop so low. Even the thought was repugnant. And after all — that was the crux of it, wasn’t it? Character dictated her actions, and the choices were not hers to make. She was the queen or she wasn’t.

The choices had never been hers to make. Just a week ago, in the sun-drenched marketplace, that fool Hivelgott, sneering and handing her the amulet. Damned curiosity that drew her to him. Damned cityfolk buying his amulets. Damn, damn, damned amulets. Damn magic. Damn Hivelgott. Damn the amulet. The sole, unconvincing evidence of her royalty.

She was grateful to the prophetess for pointing out that before they could rally a revolution, they needed to prove their queen was the genuine article. It astonished her, in retrospect, that everyone but her had taken the amulet so seriously. And yet, she supposed it was serious. Still, it amused her in a melancholy way that Harrison, the skeptic who scoffed at prophecies and magic, had never questioned the royal sign, magic though it unquestionably was.

Why not? thought Marigold, why not?

And after all, the amulet had illuminated at her touch. That, at least, was unequivocal. She fumbled for the amulet. It was pressed against her sternum. She rolled onto her back and held it up. It glowed against her hand.

“Hold your head high,” it read.

Marigold breathed out. Yes. Whatever they might find, the amulet could not be denied. It might glow out juvenile platitudes, but it made the whole question of evidence tautological; the conclusion was provided, all that was necessary was securing evidence to arrive in the same room through a different door.

That was, she supposed, one way of looking at it. And so far, it seemed to be almost everyone’s perspective. What seemed inevitable, though, was that it was a door she was doomed to walk through.

That the rule of Queen Marigold was inevitable seemed to be everyone’s perspective except the mob that had chased her out of the market square. She had not forgotten them. Nor the little man with the mustache, nor the bald man with the pencil-thin flunkeys.

And maybe the mob was right. Would a queen spend the afternoon lying on her bed, staring at the roof of her tent? Doubtful. But on the other hand, if she ventured forth and offered her assistance, it would be declined. What was the proper role of a queen? The nausea stirred in her stomach. She felt guilty for not moving, and the guilt froze her in place on the hard bed, staring at the thin, yellow rod at the peak.

“Hold your head high.” The amulet was an optimist. A damnable obnoxious optimist.

On the other hand, she supposed that if the amulet was undeniable, and an optimist, that perhaps there was reason to hope, after all. Maybe it wasn’t so bad being a queen. She supposed that if a queen decided she wanted to spend the day in bed, she could.

Was she the queen? Did she want to be?

***

There was a knock through the canvas on the tent’s load-bearing post by the door. Marigold started. Had she been asleep? It was almost pitch dark inside the tent. Her mind was clogged with mud, and her lips crusty with drool.

“Coming,” she croaked.

Her skin and clothes were stifling. She tottered out of the bed and unsteadily to the door.

Almira was outside with the young plainswoman guard. Almira carried a flat wooden tray with a bowl and cup and slice of bread. The plainswoman carried a lantern, glowing yellow.

“Supper?” asked Almira.

“Yes, yeah, yes, thank you,” said Marigold, and stood blinking stupidly.

“We’ll come in,” said Almira.

Marigold nodded and turned back to sit on her bed, yawning and rubbing at her eyes. Almira and the plainswoman followed her, Almira moving heavily, hampered by the swollen bulk of her abdomen, and the plainswoman gliding.

Almira, as was her habit, did not speak. She handed the board to Marigold, and sat beside her, silently caressing her baby bump.

“Are you alright?” asked Marigold, realizing through the haze of her exhaustion that Almira was breathing heavily.

“I’m fine,” said Almira, coughing a little. “It’s never easy to bear a child.”

“No, I guess it isn’t,” said Marigold. As she had come to expect, the soup was waterier and the bread was thinner than the day before.

“Are you getting enough to eat?” she asked.

“We’re getting enough.”

“I’m glad ‘we’ are,” said Marigold, “But that isn’t what I asked. See to it that you are.” She ignored the pang of uncertainty this queenly pronouncement caused. She turned to the plainswoman, standing in the tent, still holding up the lantern.

“See that she does.”

“Yes, ma’am. I mean, yes, your highness.”

Marigold winced at the honorific, and devoted her attention to the bowl in fervent hopes that the rest of the meal could be passed in silence. She neither spoke, nor raised her head.

As they departed, she thanked them, and followed them to the door. The air was bracing and the stars burned clear, unsmudged by the pollution of street lights.

Hold your head high.

To her own surprise, stress and unintended nap aside, Marigold slept soundly, and when a muffled knock announced the morning, snapped awake, instantly alert.

She sped through the process of dressing in the dark, animated by anxiety and anticipation. Outfitted in the drabbest of the drab clothing she had, she hurried out to the cooking fire.

As she approached, she heard an uproar of sibilance, just below the crackle of the flames. The prophetess and Harrison, already bundled and packed, were whispering ferociously at Almira, who was whispering ferociously back at them. The plainswoman guard — also bundled, and also with a pack, was standing at a distance, staring fixedly into the fire.

“No!” said the prophetess.

“Unacceptable!” hissed Harrison.

“What’s going on?” asked Marigold.

The prophetess turned. “She wants us to take along that little stick of a girl.” She indicated the plainswoman.

Marigold turned to Almira. “Why?”

“She’s my representative,” said Almira.

“Then what am I?” asked Harrison. “I’m as much a member of this collective as she is.”

“Good god,” groaned the prophetess, now focusing her irritation on Harrison, her favorite target, “if you aren’t the pettiest revolutionary in the history of the world …”

“She’s my representative,” repeated Almira. “I can’t go, and I’m sending Louisa in my place — if it pleases the queen.”

All three looked at Marigold.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Because —” started Harrison,

“I’ll tell you why not,” interrupted the prophetess. “Because we don’t know her! We don’t know that we can trust her! She’s a simple soldier, and we’re headed into a situation of gravest concern with the utmost need for quick wits and trustworthy actions. She’s unproven.”

Almira nodded, pursed her lips, and said, “She’s proven to me. Significantly more so than you are, prophetess.” She finished the sentence with grim emphasis, and stared down the old woman.

The prophetess had no ready reply.

“It pleases me,” said Marigold again, “queen or not. Whatever I am, I’ll be glad to be accompanied by Louisa.”

Harrison shrugged in resignation. The prophetess rolled her eyes. Almira smiled.

Their plan, such as it was, was far from an ironclad solution, but at least it was simple. They would steal down the mountain to the Gnowker family farm and ask Ma Gnowker if she knew some way in which it made sense for her daughter to be the queen. They depended on the hope that Ma Gnowker might at least possess a hint that could lead them in the direction of verifiable proof of Marigold’s identity.

They descended the mountain by a route to the east of the camp. In the absence of a path, they followed a zig-zagging pattern of rocky walls and ragged slopes with patchy weeds that ran down the stone folds of the mountain toward the valley. There was no conversation as they slid and stumbled down the rocks, and scrambled through trees. The trunks of the black pines rose on either side like pillars in an endless church in which there was no place to hide, but in which shadowy threats were hidden. As they climbed lower, the slope eased and the ropey pines gave way to wider-set beech trees. As they passed beneath the twisted boughs, the sunrise set fire to the autumn leaves, forming crowns of fiery orange above the trees.

The prophetess cast an eye at this seemingly symbolic work of nature, and said, “Shit.”

They hurried on.

As they made their way down through the beech forest, Marigold felt herself breathing easier. She remembered these beech trees, and this forest, perched just above the outskirts of Valeview. She was close to home.

A hundred yards from the road, the prophetess — trundling along at the front — signaled a halt. Harrison, noticing her motion, also signaled a halt. Marigold glanced at Louisa, who was biting back a smile.

Past the edge of the trees, was a small field of ripened corn, and to the right of it, an orchard. It was a field she knew, and trees whose apples she’d eaten, and cider she’d drunk as a girl. She remembered clutching an apple, and running through the village in the evenings after market day, when the tourists were gone, and the village became one huge family. She could almost hear the sound of her mother’s unearthly shrieks emanating from the Municipal Music House. She shook herself, and drew in a deep breath. This was no time for nostalgia.

They moved west for another hour with Marigold leading, skirting the road and doing their best to stay out of the line of sight or smell of farm dogs. Many of the farms and pastures farther from the town on the northern edge of the village had stone walls around their pastures and fields, and the party moved with relative comfort. As they passed each farm, Marigold found herself thinking of the farmers who lived there, wondering what they were doing — what had become of their children. Were they struggling under the burden of taxation? How many of their children had been transplanted to the city?

She led them farther from the town as they passed through the woods where she and the prophetess had spent their first frigid night wrapped in overcoats, and she thought of her cellphone.

They combed their way between fields of corn, and bent low to scurry along stone walls, through melting frost. Despite herself, and despite the gravity of the mission, Marigold felt her heartbeat rising in the bucolic surroundings of her childhood, and as she gazed out upon the placid plains of her home, a thought bubbled at the back of her mind. She tried for a moment to draw it out, but to no avail. They passed beneath a familiar copse of trees, found a familiar fence, and hastened along, hunched below its spine until it was bisected by another, taller fence. They stopped in the shady corner of the fences.

“This is it,” whispered Marigold, “this is the farmyard fence.”

“Birthplace of the queen,” murmured Harrison.

“Good god,” muttered the prophetess and shook her head at him, then turning to Marigold, “Okay.”

The old woman leaned against the wall, and pressed her eyes shut, one hand raised to silence her companions.

When she gave the all-clear, they clambered over the wall and into the yard.

Marigold suddenly felt as though, even in her brief visits through the years of her exile, she’d never really examined the home of her childhood. It had simply been home. Now, though, the leaning barn and overflowing hay mow struck her as derelict and embarrassing. The peeling paint and mossy stones of the toolshed seemed like evidence of negligent character. The house itself, wood and stones and pinewood shingles, was stooping glumly; dilapidated and unpleasant.

“Bad coffee,” whispered Marigold, and bit her lip. But she raised her head, and led the way through the muddy, hay-strewn barnyard to the door. She knocked lightly.

There was no response.

Marigold knocked again, harder, and again the gloomy house made no reply.

And then she remembered. She turned,

“How … how many days has it been since … since everything with the amulet and the fire?”

The prophetess scrunched her face thoughtfully.

“Seven!” said Harrison.

“Yeah,” said the prophetess, “a week,”

“Oh,” said the prophetess.

“Yup,” said Marigold.

“What?” said Harrison. Louisa said nothing.

“It’s Saturday,” said Marigold, “it’s market day. Ma is at market.”

Cool breezes were playing with her hair and emphasizing the icy nature of the melted frost on her shoes and pants. Sunshine, potent and blinding, was beaming past the hunched-over barn. Somewhere, lost to her sight, her weekly train was making its way from the city to the bus depot.

“Oh,” said Harrison. He also leaned back, hands on hips, and drank in the morning.

“Oh,” he said again.

The prophetess kicked a rock and swore. Marigold stole a look at Louisa’s inscrutable expression, and felt the familiar sense of being always in the way, and always in the wrong; always to be pitied, always misjudged.

Before she could make sense of this muddle of emotions, the prophetess, whose emotions were always clear, took charge. She kicked another rock. This time, rather than swearing she made an angry gesture at the tumbling stone, and it burst apart into a pattering of sand.

“Well,” she said, turning back to Marigold, “I feel better. Now what?”

Marigold felt that there were a number of compelling reasons for being unable to answer.

“Damn,” said Louisa, “wish I could blow stuff up when I get pissed.”

“Practice,” said the prophetess. “Meantime, I don’t trust this.” She waved at the farm. “How do we know she’s at the market? How do we know she hasn’t been arrested?”

“We can find out,” said Marigold, and started for the barn.

“I’ll find out,” said Louisa. “I’m the soldier. What am I looking for?”

“The wagon,” said Marigold. “The wagon and the horses.”

The plainswoman nodded. Both the prophetess and Harrison started to speak, but she held up a hand.

“I’m a soldier,” she said again. “Begging your pardons, but you’re not.” She looked at the prophetess. “And you sensed that there’s no threat?”

“Um,” said the prophetess, “yes. Shouldn’t be — but walls can be problematic.”

“Got it,” said Louisa, and walked to the barn. She peered into the gaping maw of its doors.

“No wagon,” she called, “and no horses.”

Marigold let out a gust of breath, unaware that she’d been holding it.

“Okay,” she said, “We wait inside for nightfall. She’ll come home, and we’ll talk to her then.”

***
To Marigold’s surprise, the front door was unlocked. This unexpected evidence that Ma Gnowker had relaxed in her old age and widowhood, and that not even the events of the previous Saturday had shaken her, was relaxing. The back of Marigold’s mind busied itself with a whispered thought that perhaps it was all a lot of nothing. She wasn’t the queen, but none of this mess of hidden compounds and makeshift rebellions was really a big deal.

Louisa — analyzing the lay of the land and the number and nature of the exits — protested that the house was unsafe. The prophetess and Harrison dismissed it as paranoia, pointing out that any moderately competent hostile force would be just as likely to check the barn as the house, and that if they were going to be ambushed, they may as well be comfortable.

Louisa shrugged, and followed them inside.

As she entered, Marigold found the house more than familiar — it was the truest home she knew. The low ceiling of rough-cut oak beams, the pot-bellied stove, the clay-tile floor, all of it scrupulously scrubbed clean. The low table where her parents sat crying the first time she was taken.

There were two bedrooms on opposite sides of the hall — the low, drafty room on the left where she and her brother had slept, and where her parents hung a curtain for propriety when her brother turned thirteen, and the larger room to the right where her mother now spent nights alone in a double bed. The bathroom behind her parents’ bedroom, and a sitting room at the rear of the house with a bookcase, a slouching sofa with worn-out springs, two rocking chairs, another pot-bellied stove, and a small, flat-screen television. As in the kitchen, there were two small windows, framed in with white-painted pine-boards. In the right corner of the room was a small, plain door with a window, and a dirty woven mat.

In the comfortable surroundings of her mother’s home, Marigold felt the weight of adrenaline and the early morning hike settling down on her. She leaned her pack against the counter in the kitchen beside the prophetess’s curious leather bag, and, yawning, left the prophetess and Louisa bickering in the kitchen over who should take first guard duty, and shuffled back to her bed.

It was lower, and narrower, and lumpier than she remembered, and smelled of must and dust and age, but after a week spent sleeping on a bed made of pinewood and thatch, it was a revelation.

Her sleep was heavy and dreamless, an inky, comforting blackness. When she woke, she woke at a snail’s pace. The room was almost as dark as night, but from the doorway to the hall, she could see afternoon light. Her head was warm and her thoughts unclear. She grimaced and rolled her legs off the side of the bed. Her clothes were oppressively hot and rough against her sleep-swollen skin.

She eased to her feet, and lumbered out into the hall. She heard the distant sound of the television, and wandered into the sitting room. Louisa was there — slumped asleep on the couch, mouth open, arms folded on her chest. Marigold blinked and yawned, and in yawning discovered that her throat was parched to the point of cracking. She ambled to the kitchen in search of water, and found Harrison, perched in a chair, leaning back against the wall, facing the windows.

He smiled. “Hey, sleepy.”

She grunted, and moved to the cabinets above the sink.

He laughed.

It seemed that sometime in the eight years of her daughter’s absence, Ma Gnowker had seen fit to move the cups. Marigold frowned, and set to opening all of the doors in the kitchen.

She was embarrassed, as usual, to be sleep-dazed and irritable in front of him, but she was too sleep-dazed and irritable to restrain herself. She found a glass, poured herself water and sat down at the table.

“You sleep a lot,” said Harrison.

“Beauty sleep,” slurred Marigold, and wondered if she ought to have said it. She looked out the window, and willed herself to wake up.

He laughed again.

“It’s working.” The compliment was unexpected, and ought to have been unwelcome, but she was too fogged to push it back.

“Are you being sarcastic?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Come on, now. I’m a gentleman.”

Marigold said nothing, and Harrison chuckled.

“You’re in a good mood,” she said.

“You’re cute when you’re upset.”

Her heartbeat shifted. Her head was heavy. She tried to change the subject.

“Louisa’s asleep,” she said. “Where’s the prophetess?”

“Also asleep,” said Harrison, smirking. “Bad humor is exhausting, apparently.”

Marigold smiled, despite herself.

“It’s hot,” she said.

Harrison nodded. “Sit outside?”

They sat on the stone step, their backs to the door, looking up through the farmyard toward the wooded slopes of the mountain. The step was narrow, and they were pressed together at the hip. Marigold’s heartbeat lifted again, and she told herself that it was the bracing air, and the cold blue sky. Her pulse pounded in her temples. She was tired, she was bleary; she was a dam creaking against the power of a rising reservoir. The choice was not hers to make.

“You’re funny when you’re tired,” said Harrison, returning to the theme of her endless capacity for naps.

“Then I’m funny a lot,” said Marigold, hoping it was true.

“It makes sense,” said Harrison. “You’ve been burdened with a weight beyond the rest of us.” He turned and looked her full in the face. “It’s no small thing to be queen, and I’d rather you sleep than see you so threadbare and anxious.”

“It’s —” started Marigold, “— it’s not, it’s no more than —”

“Yes,” said Harrison, his deep brown eyes still locked on hers, and his hand fell lightly on her knee, “it is.”

As his hand settled on her leg, a crack appeared in the dam, and for a moment, she felt suddenly awake, suspended in the cold air, her heart racing and nerves rippling with expectation. She leaned forward.

The door swung sharply into her back, and both she and Harrison stumbled off of the step with strangled exclamations.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” said Louisa. “Something’s wrong with the prophetess.”

Marigold started to her feet, blushing and stammering. The suspended moment came unstuck and crashed down, shattering around her. Her ears were full of a rattling buzz, like an army of cicadas, who having survived into the autumn were glorying in their longevity.

The buzzing grew louder and louder as they followed Louisa into the house. Louisa spoke with a battlefield calm. “I found her like this, and she’s not responding.”

They hurried down the hall, the television scattering blue light through the sitting room. Lousia turned right and led them into the master bedroom.

In the light of the single window, the prophetess was standing rigidly at attention, eyes bulging open. The buzz was rattling out between her clenched teeth. Her hands were balled into white-knuckled fists.

As they entered the room, she relaxed.

“Oh, good. You came,” she said, “Listen —”

“What the hell?” asked Louisa, stepping forward. “What in the actual hell?”

“I’ve got a prophecy,” said the prophetess mildly, “and it’s incredibly important. I needed you to pay attention.”

“Why wouldn’t you say so?” asked Louisa, “’stead of scaring me to death?”

“People ignore me when I say so,” said the prophetess, “and we can’t afford to ignore me.”

Louisa shook her head like a disgusted mother sorrowing over a roomful of delinquent toddlers, but said nothing.

“What was the prophecy?” asked Marigold.

“Is,” the prophetess corrected her.

“Dammit, Anida, tell us the prophecy!” snapped Harrison.

The prophetess’s eyes widened, and in two leaping steps, she crossed the bedroom to Harrison. He stepped back, raising his hands in front of him.

Her voice was a guttural rasp. “What did you say?”

He shook his head, his curls bouncing. “No, no,” he stammered, “I —”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” roared the prophetess, leaning into his face. Marigold and Louisa gaped. The room was shaking with the prophetess’s voice. She seemed to have grown tall, staring down Harrison.

“I —” said Harrison, his voice quavering, his eyes rolling. “I said —”

“DON’T SAY IT AGAIN,” bellowed the prophetess, “DON’T YOU EVER SAY IT AGAIN!”

“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t,” said Harrison, still backing away, “I promise, I won’t.”

The prophetess laughed, without humor. “You promise, huh?” She stepped back from him and grimaced. “See that you don’t,” she said. “See that you don’t.”

She turned to Louisa and Marigold. “You heard nothing.”

“Nothing,” said Marigold, trembling a little herself.

“You got it,” said Louisa, “whatever you say.”

“Okay,” said the prophetess, “and now the prophecy.”

She placed a hand on Marigold’s shoulder. “Right now, in the marketplace, your mother is in terrible danger.”

“We need to go,” said Marigold.

No one moved.

“We need to go, now!” said Marigold, “Come on,” and turned to go.

She paused for an instant, waiting for Harrison or Louisa or the prophetess to object, but no objection came. She glanced back at them.

“We came to find out if you’re the queen,” said Louisa. “Can’t find that out without her.”

Marigold nodded.

“Alright,” she said. “Come on.”

“Hold on,” said the prophetess, “we need to think — we’ll never make it in time on foot. Does your mother have a car?”

“No,” said Marigold impatiently, “if she needs a ride, she calls my brother.”

“How?”

“What?”

“Does she have a cellphone, a landline — how does she call?”

“A mobile,” said Marigold, confused.

“Right, right, right,” said the prophetess, “of course.”

For a moment, they stood in the kitchen and looked around themselves in frustrated bewilderment. Marigold tapped her foot in frustration, staring at the jars, boxes and bags on her mother’s shelves.

“What’s your brother’s number?” asked the prophetess.

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe,” said the prophetess. She crossed the kitchen and rummaged in the smaller compartment of her massive leather bag.

“Aha!” she said, and produced a small cellular phone from inside the mysterious container.

“What?” asked Marigold, “You? You have a cellphone? You smashed mine!”

“Yeah,” said the prophetess, “I’m a huge hypocrite, and it’s saving your mother’s life, shut up.”

“I’m sorry —” started Marigold, and the prophetess waved a hand.

“Like I said, shut up.”

Marigold shut her mouth. The prophetess bent over the phone, eyes closed, muttering. She looked around the tiny kitchen, and glanced at Louisa and Harrison. Harrison met her gaze, and she looked away with her cheeks burning. In the corner, the prophetess went on muttering. And then her mutterings were accompanied by the featherlight sounds of buttons pressed on a cellphone, and then —

“Hello! Hello! Is this — are you Mr. Gnowker? Wonderful. You’ll have to tell me your first name sometime, but in the meantime, you need to get to your mother’s farm as quickly as possible without asking me any questions. Your sister and your mother depend on it.”

She listened for a moment.

“You ludicrous chump. I said no questions. Fine.” She motioned to Marigold. “Your majesty! Say hello to your paranoid excuse of a brother.”

“It’s me, Danny,” said Marigold, “and we need help.”

The prophetess listened, nodded, slapped the phone shut and looked up.

“He’s five minutes away.”

In silence, they slung on their packs. The prophetess paused to toss the phone back into her pack, and fished out the mammoth revolver. She spun the cartridge and raised her eyebrows. Louisa rummaged in hers, and took out one of the submachine guns the guards carried in the mountain compound. She glanced up at Harrison and Marigold in turn.

“Harrison,” she said, “you know how to work this?”

He nodded.

“Okay. You take it.” She held it out to him.

Harrison took it gingerly, almost hesitantly, and it struck Marigold as out of tune with the flame-throated rhetoric of his speeches.

Louisa turned back to her pack, and produced a blackwood club. She leaned it against the counter, put on her backpack, and then picked up the club and swung it lightly.

Marigold looked around the kitchen. The prophetess was fiddling with the revolver, Harrison was staring in bewilderment at the machine gun in his hands, and Louisa’s face had taken on a serene placidity, twirling the cudgel.

“Um,” said Marigold.

“Your majesty?” inquired the prophetess.

“You’re all armed,” said Marigold. “I, uh, I feel a little exposed.”

“We can’t risk you,” said Harrison. “Your job is staying safe.”

“Fine,” said Marigold, “but just in case I can’t —”

“Right, right,” said the prophetess. She eased out of the leather pack, and opened the lower, larger pocket. From its incalculable interior, she drew out the ornate staff she’d been holding when she first appeared a week before, in the dry-goods warehouse. She held it out to Marigold.

“It’s not much, but if you’re close enough to bop ’em, you can fetch ’em at least one good knock.”

Marigold took it, and felt, like Harrison, hesitant.

“Is … is it — powerful?” she asked, turning it over in her hands.

“Oh, goodness, no,” said the prophetess with a cackle. “I’m glad you think so, though. No, it’s just a prop. I like to make my enemies think I’m powerless without it.”

“Oh,” said Marigold.

“Huh,” said Louisa.

“I knew it,” said Harrison.

“Well, you certainly do now,” said the prophetess.

All armed, they turned to the windows, and waited.

To be continued

From the Editors: Ode to Autumn

There’s just something magical about fall, at least in the middle and northern United States. The changing of the seasons, the vivid colors of the falling leaves, the crisp chill of the morning air replacing the heat and humidity of summer.

But the best part of fall, now that we reflect on it, is the impending death of all those living things we waited for so eagerly in the spring for some reason. Perhaps several months of brutal winter had dulled our memories of the misery of spring and summer.

In the garden as the frost comes, there will be no more tomatoes and watermelons. But there will also be no more weeds, and that seems like more than a fair trade. And frankly, we don’t care if we never see another zucchini again.

With the lawn, the end is in sight. Not forever, oh Lord, will the heavy burden of mowing weigh down our weekly schedule. All that pestiferous grass (did someone PLANT that?) will die. Even so, come quickly, sweet frost.

And finally, most gloriously, we can say goodbye to all those bugs, the ones that ate our garden plants, crawled into our houses through any crack they could find, splatted on our windshields, and bit us enthusiastically. With equal enthusiasm, we’ll enjoy the thought of them dying miserable deaths in the biting cold. Now there’s a bite we can appreciate.

The end is in sight. It’s the sort of satisfaction we would have felt after Noah’s flood if we had been God. (Humanity can be grateful we aren’t God. In this election year, we’d be certainly regretting our rash promise not to flood the world again and trying to find a loophole.)

As fall approaches, the Sacred Cow has also reached the end of another year. If you’re hoping the winter kills us off, just remember that like the bugs, we’ll be back.

And after a few months, you’ll probably even be looking forward to it.

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Nine

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Sometime during the third night of the storm, Charles woke up to a strange sound. Or rather, to the lack of one — the rain had stopped pounding on the droopy little hut, and the eternal drips from the roof seemed to be meeting their end after all.

By morning, clouds still covered the sky, but all was quiet except for scattered droplets from the leaves when the dry breeze gusted out of the west.

All around the camp smugglers crawled out of their huts, stretching and grimacing. A number of them stripped off their clothes, wrung them out, and draped them over branches to dry. They would not have done this back home in mixed company, but in the woods, you did what you needed to, without making a fuss about the niceties.

The water in the stream flowed muddy and brisk, but it had already retreated far down the hillside, leaving behind a litter of muddy leaves, piles of sticks and boulders.

“Phew, now that was wet,” Dan said, slapping his hat on a log and then wringing it out. “I could live a long and happy life without ever being in a storm like that again.”

“Well you’re in the wrong business if you don’t want to get rained on,” Henry said. “A little rain never hurt anybody.”

“I’d of hurt somebody if I had to stay in that hut one more day,” Eileen said. “That was horrible. I’m wet right down to the inside of my skin.” She held out her arms and turned to let the breeze catch her from all sides.

“If I laid down in the sun right now,” James said, “I’d steam.”

“The sun!” Dan said. “I remember that. It was really nice. Wouldn’t mind seeing it again someday.”

George was eager to leave right away, but Warren convinced him to let the smugglers start a fire to warm up and dry out.

“Won’t take more than an hour, and you know what they say, ‘Happy smugglers hike farther.’”

“I never heard anybody say that,” George said.

“My old mother used to tell me that when …”

“Oh, shut up,” George said, but he grinned. “Start your damn fire if you want. But we’re not going to sit around here all morning, we’ve been sitting around for days and we’ve got to start making time if we want to get back to Easton before the snow starts.”

Despite his grumpiness about the fire, George stood as close to it as anyone else once they got it going. They all had to gather close, because the wood was soaking wet and James was the only one who could make the fire catch. Even then, it was mostly smoke and sputter.

It was funny, Charles thought. Like the stream, once the fire was back in its proper place it was their ally again and they all loved it. It was when you let it do whatever it wanted that it became an enemy.

Packed up and on the trail again, Charles had time to think, which meant time to worry. What would Warren say when he found out about George offering Charles a job? Being more intelligent than a fish, he would leap to the conclusion that Charles did not plan join the Builders. That would lead him to the unpleasant speculation that Charles no longer needed him, and from there, his suspicious mind might jump to the idea that Charles had told George who the traitor was, or was planning to soon.

Charles had to find Warren as soon as possible to try to explain things. If he did not, Warren might come to see him when Charles’ back was turned, or late at night, and cut the conversation short before it started.

Even if Charles did talk to him before Warren took unpleasant steps like that, it was going to take some fancy persuading to convince him that he had no reason to be suspicious. What made that persuasion more tricky was that Charles hadn’t truthfully decided he was going to turn down George’s offer.

What George proposed would bring security, whereas with Warren’s idea, security might or might not arrive after an unwelcome amount of hair-raising risk — either escaping the band and trying to survive in the wilderness alone, or staying with the band and pretending to be loyal, with the ever present possibility their companions would discover their double-crossing, tie them to a stake and torture them to death.

“Hey!”

Charles jumped. Warren had been sitting by the trail, apparently waiting for a chance to catch him alone. His eyes were wide and they darted up and down the trail, and sweat beaded on his forehead. Charles, who had marveled many times before at Warren’s unshakable calm, took a step back.

“Oh … hello,” he said.

“What’s this I hear?”

Charles willed himself to respond with confident ease. “I d-don’t know, ah, w-what do you hear?”

“You know damn well what,” Warren said, stepping closer. “I should probably be running for the woods right now to, instead of talking to you.” He kept his voice low, but it was a shout nonetheless, and he seemed barely able to keep the words coming out in the right order.

“I had to do it,” Charles said. “George had me cornered. I had to agree to it, but I’m just lying to him.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” Warren kicked a stone, then winced. “You’re just lying to him, of course you are. And why not? Adds to the fun. You know, you’re putting me in an impossible spot. If you weasel out of our deal, I’m a dead man. And if you’re not weaseling out of it, what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m telling you, I had to say that stuff,” Charles said, edging a little further away. Somebody was coming along behind them now, so Charles lowered his voice and started walking again, and Warren stamped along beside him. “What was I going to tell him?” Charles said. “‘No thanks for your generous offer, I’d rather beg in the street for my food?’ He’d really be suspicious then.”

“Fine,” Warren said. “Fine. Then you need to prove it.” He wiped the sweat off his face. “We need to leave right away. You shouldn’t have any problem with that if you’re telling the truth.”

“But … we can’t! It’s not safe!” Charles said, almost stopping and then remembering he had to walk along naturally. “It’s practically suicide to try to make it back to Easton through all that wilderness, just the two of us.” Also, there was that little matter of making up his mind on what to do.

“It’s sure not safe staying here,” Warren said. “They could figure things out any time. Frankly, I’ll take our odds with the wilderness.”

“We’re just as safe here as we were yesterday. Why won’t you trust me?” Charles said. Shame swirled in his stomach.

“I don’t have any reason to trust you, Charles. No, don’t go pretending to be all hurt, you know it’s true. I’ve just heard secondhand that you’re pulling deals behind my back, and you just want me to settle down and be calm. Well, I’m not going to settle down. You can either come with me, and prove you’re not bluffing, or I can leave without you. And you can forget ever being a Builder.”

“Yes, I will forget it, because you’ll be cat food and you’ll never get home,” Charles said.

“My odds are better with the cats than with George. And they’ll be even better if you come along.”

Maybe Warren was planning to just leave, then, not get rid of him. His respect for the man rose again.

“No, our chances are better here, with everyone else,” Charles said. “That’s just what I’m trying to say. And if you don’t trust me, why do you want me going along with you, anyway?” His tone switched to pleading. “Let’s please just stay with the group. I can’t just walk away into the woods, I can’t. Maybe you’re OK with getting chewed to bits, but I’m not.” He stopped, and swallowed. “Anyway, even if we do that, we need to plan a little first.”

There was a pause, filled only by Warren’s fast breathing.

“I was going to tell you about all this,” Charles said. “But when did I have the chance? You tell me that. And while you’re at it, you can tell me what you would’ve done in my shoes.”

Gravel ground under their feet as they splashed across a shallow stream. Up ahead, somebody laughed.

“I’ll think about it,” Warren finally said. “And get back to you. Soon.” He stopped holding himself to Charles’ pace then and sprang forward into a fast walk that bordered on a run. He was soon far ahead.

Well, if he didn’t want to trust Charles, that was his fault. He could just wander off into the woods by himself, see if Charles cared. He remembered then that a few minutes ago he’d been fearing Warren would slit his throat some dark night. He realized any of the other smugglers would have, in the same situation. Even Charles might have. Shame replaced indignation. He really couldn’t blame Warren for being upset.

Still, Warren had Charles in a tight spot, too, with his ultimatum about leaving. If he couldn’t talk Warren out of it, he’d be forced to make a decision he wasn’t ready for. It was like being a steer funneled into a corral, and Charles hated it. Soon the corral might be too tight to turn around in and any decision-making would be done for him.

He was not in the mood to talk to anyone after that, but after the band stopped for lunch, Gary and Marguerite caught up with him. Gary probed him with questions about his time with the Appalachies as if Charles had been on some kind of grand adventure and had brought back souvenirs he could show off.

Charles told them the same curated tale he’d told the leaders, but remembering the damaging conclusions the smugglers had drawn about Roger, Charles steered well around him in the story this time. Now that he thought about it, the question finding the traitor was still eating at everyone, Gary included, and he’d seize on any clues. He’d also revel in the glory of being the one to figure out the mystery. But it was tricky to leave Roger out of the story, since the man had been his translator and guard.

“But how did you know they said that?” Gary interrupted him once. “Did they teach you the language?”

“Uh … oh, no, those were the signs they were making,” Charles said. “I’m just telling you what I guessed.”

“Oh,” Gary said, nodding. “Right, of course.”

When Charles finished his tale, even though he’d made it as short and boring as he could, and left out key parts, Gary said, “That sounds like it was so exciting. What a great chance to prove yourself. You’re lucky. I kind of wish the Appalachies had kidnapped me instead.”

Charles glared at him. “Being kidnapped sounds fun to you, does it? They could’ve killed me.”

“But they didn’t!” Gary said. He stopped to heave himself up over a huge log that blocked the path. On the other side, he brushed bark and moss off his shirt. “Any of us could die, any time. That’s just the risk you take when you’re a smuggler. And besides, it’s the dumb ones who get themselves killed. People like you and me, we’re smart enough to survive. Usually.”

“Bull shit,” Charles said, dropping down from the log to land beside him. “It’s not about being smart or dumb. All it takes is a little bad luck at a bad time. I didn’t choose the smuggler’s life, the smuggler’s life chose me. And as soon as I can get away from it, I will.”

“It’s easy for you to say,” Marguerite said, sliding down from the log. “You’ve got your special deal.”

Gary looked blank. “What deal?”

Charles explained George’s offer to let Charles manage his estate once he was free.

“Ha,” Gary said. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Boring. Just sitting around at home all the time, counting money and making sure somebody plants the corn and pulls the weeds and washes the windows. I’d die of boredom. This, now,” he said, gesturing in an arc around them, “the woods, the great outdoors, this is the life.”

“For you!” Marguerite said, with vehemence. “Oh, it’s great for you. You’re a man. All you have to do is haul firewood and water. Yes, it’s a great life, isn’t it?”

“Well, what do you … how is it …” Gary trailed off. He and Charles glanced at each other.
Marguerite stormed away.

The slaves hiked together again the next day, as they often did, but mostly they kept an awkward silence.

In the late morning, the smugglers came upon neat rows of crumbling foundations among the trees, the bones of a dead city. It was enormous. They crossed street after street, enough house sites to accommodate 10,000 people at least, Charles figured, so it was bigger even than Easton. How had they supported so many people up here in the mountains? Where did they grow their crops?
Plastic and glass shards crackled under their feet as they made their way through the mossy rubble. Here and there, a whole brick wall was still standing, and holes filled with rainwater made unnaturally shaped pools.

Derelict plastic pipes poked through the walls in places. Those were probably for getting water inside the houses, Charles thought. Or taking sewage out.

Mysterious metal wires, some with cracked plastic clinging to them, crisscrossed the ruins. Ghost traps, the smugglers called them, because from time to time they tangled their feet in wires covered by leaves, as if the long-dead residents of the town had hidden them there to catch intruders.
Getting caught up in the wires could cause a nasty sprain, a possible death sentence in the wilderness, so the smugglers stepped gingerly.

Shards of a tar-like substance, with tiny gravel embedded in them, were scattered everywhere in the house sites. Warren had told Charles once that these were remnants of the shingles people had put on their roofs. Thinking about it afterward, Charles had wondered why anybody would want a mess of tar and gravel on their roof. No matter how you imagined it, the gritty black gunk melting in the heat of the sun must have looked horrendous.

He tried to picture the families who would have lived in these houses, and what the buildings must have looked like when they were standing. But the houses his mind built ended up looking pretty much like houses at home, except with gritty tar on top and wires coming out of them at odd places.

High over the smugglers’ heads, a long steel track ran through the trees, held up by towering metal pillars and an orderly crosswork of supporting beams. The smugglers often passed under these kinds of elevated structures in the wilderness. In civilized areas most of them were long gone, torn down and salvaged for the metal, with only the concrete bases marking where they had stood.

Here and there above them, the track seemed to run right through massive trees, whose bark bulged around it. In places, sections of supporting pillar had given way and the track sagged like a lizard with a broken back.

Scholars said people had traveled on these mysterious tracks in carts of some kind, conveniently high over the clogged streets of the towns and the fields of crops. The archeologists had found some of these vehicles, but so far their fierce debate over what made the carts go hadn’t produced any plausible explanation. A few secretive crackpots boasted of solutions, but got cagey when anyone asked for a demonstration.

Under the shadow of the track, the slaves paused at one house foundation to contemplate a collection of statues of short bearded men with pointy caps, grinning in a way Charles wasn’t sure he liked. Some were still standing, one pushing a wheelbarrow, but many were scattered around on the ground and some were in pieces.

“Those things are creepy,” Gary said. “I feel like they’re just waiting for me to turn my back.”

One of the strangest artifacts Charles had ever seen stood near the little grinning men. It was a short pillar, with a steel ball on top. Charles peered at it and a face only a little like his leered back at him, with a gigantic nose and tiny chin and forehead. He knocked on the globe. It seemed to be hollow. But why would anyone own such a thing? Was it an idol? Did it serve some mysterious scientific purpose? Maybe it foretold the weather, if you knew how to read it. All Charles could read from it was that Gary and Marguerite were looking over his shoulder.

He would have liked more time here to dig among these ruins and look for clues about who these people were and how they had lived.

A shard of brittle white plastic on the ground caught his eye, and Charles picked it up and examined it. He broke the piece of plastic between two fingers. It was hard to imagine something so fragile being of any use.

All the glass here seemed to be smashed. Once when he was younger, he’d gone along with his master’s children to one of the Builders’ museums, where ancient glass bottles lined a shelf. Some of them had elaborate designs on them, or some kind of script. Of course, glass blowers could make you a bottle now if you wanted one, but modern glass vessels were much simpler than these, and more functional. Why, for example, Charles had wondered, would you want so many glass bottles that couldn’t hold much liquid, but had tiny openings? How would you fill them again? He’d put this to the guide at the museum, who had seemed irritated by a question she couldn’t answer and had expounded at length about Middle Period china tea sets instead.

Partway through the ruins, the slaves came upon a massive foundation. Next to it, one pillar stood tall, and others lay toppled around. Among these fallen pillars a stone horse and rider stood. The rider wore tall boots, a shirt with two rows of buttons up the front, a pistol on his hip and some kind of decoration on his shoulder. His headless body faced the world defiantly as if such a handicap were only a flesh wound. The rider raised a sword in one hand, daring someone to come for the last standing pillar.

Charles wished he had time to look around in the rubble for the head. The face could tell him a little bit more about what kind of person this was, although perhaps not much. Faces in statues always looked so bland, as if they’d been carved in a moment when the subject was thinking about socks.

“It seems like such a shame,” Charles said. “All these people just wiped out. Although I guess maybe they were terrible people. Maybe it’s a good thing they’re gone.”

“They obviously were a great civilization,” Gary said. “I’d have loved to be alive then.” He wandered over for a closer look at the statue.

“I wonder if we’ll ever be able to get it all back?” Charles said, half to himself.

“Get what back?” Marguerite said.

“Ah, nothing. Just this. All this stuff they could do. So many people. Big cities. Machines to make life better.”
“Why would anybody want to?” Marguerite said.

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Well, obviously what they built didn’t work,” she said. “It was actually a pretty amazing failure. Why should we go to all that trouble to build it up so it can all fall apart again?”

“That’s a depressing way of looking at it,” Charles said. “Why not see if we can do it better this time? We could learn from their mistakes. Come up with new ways of doing things.”

“Could we?” she said.

“Well, sure.”

“Now that’s a rosy way of looking at it,” Marguerite said. “This time around, people will be different. They’re magically not stupid anymore, even though it just seems like they’re stupid most of the time.”

“Well I guess,” Charles said. “But it, well, should things just stay the way they are?”

“Why not?”

“Because things are awful,” he said. “People starve whenever there’s a famine. Nobody has much to look forward to except hard work and being hungry, and then in the end some kind of sickness will get them anyway. But it used to be so much better.”

She shrugged. “So they say. But like I said, look how it worked out for them. What do we have now? You live, and you die. You just get through as well as you can, and then you die.”

“That’s really grim.”

“What’s grim about it? Death’s not so bad,” she said. “No more troubles.”

A short, painful life, then the sweet embrace of death. Somehow Charles did not find this vision inspiring.

“What if the Builders get it all fixed, a wonderful world for everyone, with sky trains and nice little statues of bearded men in everybody’s yard?” Marguerite asked. “Then what? Will you be happy then?”

“Probably. I don’t know,” Charles said. “I guess I’ll be dead by then.”

Marguerite snorted. “A lot of good it will do you then, won’t it?”

“Well, I guess as much good as sitting around not caring,” he said. Marguerite’s cynicism chilled him. He wasn’t an optimistic ray of sunshine, but how did she get herself up in the morning, thinking like that?

“I don’t want to hear it from you,” Marguerite said. “Things are great for you. George is rich and he pays for everything you need. You’ve got it made. And after we get back, you’ll be George’s right hand man —”

“I’m not sure I want to do that.” He wasn’t sure why he’d said that. He was being honest, but it wasn’t the sort of opinion that was healthy to be spreading around. Maybe he was embarrassed by her envy, and wanted to somehow convince her he had his problems too.

She stared at him. “What’s that?”

“I mean, don’t tell anyone this, but, George is being very generous and all, and I said I’d do it of course, but … I’m just not that excited about it.”

She looked at him as if insects were crawling out of his nose. “You’re not that excited about it? An easy life like that?”

Now he really felt like an ass. “It’s not that working for George would be so horrible. But,” he dropped his voice, “he’s just getting rich by selling stuff to people so they can kill each other.”
Since when had he been bothered by the ethics of smuggling? Was this Warren’s fault?

“I guess I just want to do something with myself,” he said. “I mean, I’d like to have some kind of goal in life.”

“A goal?” she repeated. “How about living in a huge, magnificent house that somebody else pays for? How about having every summer with nobody to boss you around? How about having good food to eat every single day? Do you know what your problem is? You’re spoiled!”

He laughed, but without any humor. “I’m a slave.”

“I’d kill to be in your position, you ungrateful little shit,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.”

“So let me get this straight. You think my life is great.”

“Yes.” Her voice lost its stridence and she looked away.

He’d always thought of his life as a hard and bitter one. But now he seemed to be standing outside as if he were out in the snow peering in through a lighted window, looking in on himself, seeing the good food and the warm bed in the winter and the master with too much to do to bother his slave much. Shame prodded at him.

“Well, I guess it’s not as bad as it could be,” he said.

After an awkward silence, Charles decided to hike by himself that afternoon.

His thoughts jangled around his head and he tried to chase them down and have a good look at them. Something about what Marguerite had said nagged at him. Maybe he was a little ungrateful; there could be worse things than being a rich man’s slave. But there was something else. Her lack of purpose. She was just waiting to die. It was as if she were already dead.

It was a terrifying thought, that there might really be no point to life. He stood on the edge of that reality and looked over, down into a vast blank, a tumbling void with nowhere as up and nowhere as down. Smuggling, in that emptiness, would be as good as it got. Live the high life once in a while, answer to nobody (except George) and die before you got old and poor. Or, if you were especially ambitious, amass power, fight to keep it, and then die. He shrank away from the vision.

The village of Harper’s Ferry, a scattered collection of huts and a few trading posts, was not far away now. The tiny town was the last outpost of civilization. Beyond it to the west were no settlements, only wild mountains that few people explored. Most of them never came back. Those who did come back were usually on the edge of starvation, ribs showing and cheeks hollow, and some were slashed up by cats. And for their troubles, they could only tell of finding more mountains.

That didn’t stop anyone from giving a detailed answer if you asked if they knew what lay beyond the mountains. Unfettered by facts, the answers flourished and grew in vivid color.

Some would tell you the mountains never ended, they just went on and on forever, but they always got taller until they reached into the clouds. Up there was heaven, or the home of the gods, depending on the religion of the person explaining things. Others swore if you went far enough, the people there had wings and could fly. In some tales, the population expanded to include animals that could talk, gremlins, trolls, dwarves or elves. If you went very, very far, some said, there was a land of plenty where the people had never lost the old ways and lived in luxury and prosperity, in great numbers, hundreds of thousands of them.

If you asked the Builders what was out beyond Harper’s Ferry they would go into the library and bring out an old map, and show you a drawing of a huge continent with rivers and city sites and mountain ranges, ending in another sea. But the map didn’t show the sorts of things you would want to know before you traveled there. Did the winged humans bite? Were the talking animals short-tempered? And nobody could know for sure if the map the Builders had dug up was a real one, or if it had just been a drawing in a storybook.

The smugglers knew somebody lived out in the west, because much of their sulfur came from that direction. But from Harper’s Ferry, they mostly traveled north, not much to the west, and they were too preoccupied with getting the sulfur and getting out alive to ask a lot of questions about where it came from. They only knew the sulfur had changed hands many times by the time it got to Scranton, and what kind of hands it had gone through, nobody could say. Charles had asked George once, and he had just shrugged. “Somebody with sulfur who wants to trade it.”

From Harper’s Ferry, the smugglers were a few weeks out of the kingdom of Easton at most. They weren’t to safety yet, but the worst was behind them. The mountains shrank down to hills and then to flat land the closer they got to the Chesapeake Bay, so the hiking would only get easier.

The woods were far from safe, but fewer enemies prowled in its shadows. Appalachies stayed further north, up in the mountains. Only a handful of backwoods farmers and backward villagers lived between Harper’s Ferry and the metal mining region next to the bay, but they shot as many cats and other predators as they could to protect the game and their livestock. Unwary travelers could still end up eaten, but their odds were far better.

The vast forest would still have terrified a city dweller from Easton, but to the smugglers it was the beginning of civilization. A muddy road or two cut through the woods, including a road that ran along the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry into the mining region.

Civilization had its downsides for smugglers. Like most traffickers, this band avoided social interaction when they could help it, and so they usually stayed off the roads.

Nearing Harper’s Ferry and the beginning of the end of their journey, the leaders gathered to plan.
“I’d say it’s about 150 miles from here to Trappe,” John said. “Give or take, following the river. Of course the last few miles are the slowest, going through those swamps down in Dorchester to get around the navy.”

“Now I’ve always said,” Old Harry said, sticking a chaw of tobacco in his cheek, “that you could save days by just going right up the bay to the Choptank River. That navy is nothing, we all know that. A few ships here and there.”

“But they know we’re coming,” George said. “And they know about when we’ll be coming. And they definitely know where we’re going to be.”

“True,” James said, “but our navy friends keep them from looking for us too hard.”

“They try,” George said. “The problem with a system like we’ve got is it only takes one do-good navy captain who’s not in on it, and then all of us are hanging from our necks off the city wall at Easton. And they’re sure as hell not going to let us know ahead of time what they’re thinking. But I’m tired of arguing this out every time.”

“But if we’d just —“ Old Harry started.

“Nope,” George said. “You can try it by yourself if you want. You can even have one of the boats. I’ll pick it up later when it washes ashore.”

“Think we can make it to Trappe on the food we’ve got?” Warren asked.

“Eh, I don’t know,” George said. “Probably, but maybe not, and we’d get pretty hungry. And I really don’t want to take the time to stop and do any serious hunting again.”

“I agree,” Old Harry said around his mouthful of tobacco. He spat a brown splotch on the leaves. “Hunting as you go drags it out forever.” He wiped his mouth on his shirt.

“No problem,” George said. “We can get anything we need in town with our leftover tobacco if you guys quit smoking it. Or chewing it.”

Old Harry grinned, his teeth stained dark.

“I never like it, going into that town,” Warren said. “They’re a rough bunch. No loyalty to anybody. They’ll smile at you and sell you a beer and then stick a knife in your back and sell the beer to somebody else.”

Old Harry hooted. “We’ve still got more able bodied smugglers than they’ve got people in that little dump.”

“They can try something,” James said. “I’d like to see them try.”

“It is a risk,” George said. “Warren’s right, it’s best not to take unnecessary risks, but we can’t really do anything about this one. We have to have food. And they’re just a bunch of roughnecks, not soldiers.”

As Charles listened, he realized how he and Warren could get away from the band. It was simple, and nobody would notice they were gone for at least a day, giving them a valuable head start. He was surprised to realize that he was thinking as if he’d already decided to run away with Warren. Somehow since his talk with Marguerite he’d started to think that way without meaning to.

And yet, the money would be easy, working for George. It would be so peaceful at the estate, so familiar.

Well, as peaceful as it could get when there was the constant threat of the army swooping in, or some rival ambushing you. But George had secured himself as well as he could. He made sure that as many people as possible in the town of Trappe owed him something, and he also helped protect the town from marauders. If Easton tried to send the army into Trappe to get George, it could start a civil war. Easton would win the war, of course, but so far the capital city had refrained from that option.
But at the estate, Charles’ safety would depend on George. He would be safe as long as George thought he was useful.

He had no guarantees with Warren, either, if he wanted to be honest about it. What if the Builders decided you weren’t of use anymore? They sold you off as a slave. Or let you be sold off, anyway.
Charles snapped off a twig and scraped away part of the bark to reveal the light wood underneath. He was tired of waffling. He couldn’t seem to make up his mind, so he’d flip for it. If the twig landed light spot up, he’d take George’s job offer. If it landed spot down, he’d take Warren’s offer and run.
He flipped the twig into the air. It arced out, end over end, bounced on a rock, and landed, barkless spot pointing sideways, halfway between each decision.

But he already knew how he had wanted it to land.

To be continued

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Eight

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

A deer stumbled across the rocky streambed and tore up into the woods on the other side. A small dark animal, a raccoon, Charles thought, also ran across, then four more deer. Upstream and down, animals flowed across away from the fire. A wolf. A weasel. A bear. Two foxes and several squirrels raced each other across, side by side, ignoring each other.

“Look! Look at that!” Eileen said. But they already were. On the other side of the stream, only a few trees weren’t yet on fire, and a pack of cats leaped through the safe space, racing the flames toward the stream, jumping small pockets of burning grass. They reached the stream just ahead of the fire, ears flat against their heads and their tails bushed out. Heavy muscles rippled under their rich coats as they charged through the water without slowing down, spray cascading around them.

The smugglers grabbed for their bows and fumbled with pistols, but the cats ignored the them and smashed by into the forest. They had appeared and disappeared again in only a few seconds.

“This woods is filling up with predators,” Jake said. “And they’re gonna be hungry.”

Dan nodded. “Yeah, that fire might drive us a deer or two, but it’s driving the killers to eat the deer, too. Woods is going to get pretty crowded for a while.”

“At least they’ll have plenty of other meat,” Eileen suggested. “Besides us.”

“Maybe,” Dan said. “Or maybe the fire will drive ‘em crazy.”

They all reflected for a while on the idea of crazy cats. From the looks on their faces, it wasn’t a topic they enjoyed.

Jake looked the worst. He was sweating, his face white, and muttering.

“Hey, Jake, you OK?” James asked.

Jake didn’t respond, just kept up his soft dialogue with himself.

“He’s cracking up,” Eileen said. “Losing it. Doesn’t surprise me either. There’s a limit to what you can make people go through.” She looked at George.

John walked over to Jake and slapped him across the face. Several of the smugglers winced and others frowned. Jake shook his head slowly and stared at John.

“Get yourself together, man,” John said. “This is no place for scared children.”

An angry hum started among the group. But Jake only looked at John, his eyes wounded, but not really understanding. He was still shaking, but like a guilty dog, he turned and slunk away.

“That’s enough, John,” George said. “No need for that. And as for the rest of you, does anybody have something they’d like to complain about?” He rested his hand on his pistol. Nobody said anything. He walked over to the nearest, an unfortunate man named Tim. Putting his face inches away, George said quietly, “How about you Tim? I thought I heard you complaining just now.”

Tim complained all the time, but Charles hadn’t heard him say a word just then. Tim shook his head and shrank away.

“If you do have something against me, we can settle it right now,” George said. “Man to man.”

Tim shook his head again and stared at the ground. A burly man, he looked unusually small.

Eileen appeared to be grinding her teeth, and Charles wondered what would happen if George challenged her the same way. She might take him up on it. But the others looked sufficiently cowed, and George ignored Eileen. He went back to watching the fire.

Birds streamed out of the trees in all directions as the fire advanced. Charles wished he could fly, partly because he’d be safe from the fire even if it managed to jump the stream, and partly because he thought it must be an amazing sight, looking down from above on the flames fanning out into the wilderness.

Also, he reflected, if he could fly he could get home in a day or two.

The wind pushed the fire away from them, but it fought back to the edge of the stream, pawing at the water’s edge, roaring and howling and pacing the banks, looking for a place to jump over.
Bits of flaming brush and burning wildflowers dropped over the side, landing with a hiss in pools of water and smoldering on the dry rocks. Embers worked their way along roots embedded in the dry bank, gnawing the entire bank to ash. Snakes, driven out from the streamside vegetation, came writhing over the rocks.

That would teach the Appalachies to steal sulfur, Charles thought. This fire would burn hundreds of thousands of acres, toast uncountable animals, and kill every Appalachie for miles. If the wind shifted, it would crisp the smugglers too. A vivid lesson.

The south wind surged stronger, and the fire leapt skyward, roaring hundreds of feet overhead, its hot breath driving into the smugglers.

“All right, let’s get out of here,” George ordered. “Make it quick.” It was an unnecessary order. Many of the smugglers had decided to move along when they saw the snakes headed their way, and when the fire seemed ready to jump the stream the rest followed. The only exception was Jake, who stood as if deep in thought until someone grabbed his arm and pulled him along.

As they left, Charles imagined what the Appalachies must be seeing in their camp now. There would be a heavy cloud of gray smoke to the south. Animals would start fleeing past them, and birds would come streaming overhead. They’d shade their eyes, and then they’d realize what it must be. There would be panic in the village, children screaming, mothers and fathers shouting, everyone grabbing essential tools and running. And it wouldn’t be fast enough.

What would it be like to feel those flames storming through the trees behind you, faster than you could run, hot on your back?

Charles hoped he wouldn’t get the chance to find out.

More deer ran by as the band hurried through the gloomy woods. It pained the smugglers to see all that good meat just bounding away, but they didn’t have time to stop for butchering. All living things were in the same predicament, trying to get as far away from the fire as they could. They would worry later about re-establishing the food chain.

Eileen made an exception when a heavy cat came crashing through the underbrush only a few yards away, not seeming to see them. She unslung her bow, drew, and shot in a smooth motion, her arrow arcing into the cat’s ribs, a perfect running shot. The cat coughed, then veered away into the trees.

“You lost your arrow,” James said.

“That was worth losing an arrow,” Eileen said.

For a moment, Charles felt sorry for the cat. It hadn’t been bothering anybody. But he reminded himself that had they crossed paths at another time, it would have happily killed him.

The light faded fast. They walked until the twilight was deep, then they had to stop while they could still see to gather wood.

George insisted that the slaves make a water run, even though it was far too late in the evening to do it safely, especially with the woods crawling with predators. George sent an extra smuggler as a guard, but they would have needed eight or so extra guards to be safe. The hair prickled on Charles’ neck and arms as they trekked among the murky tree trunks. He made sure to rattle his armload of canteens together to make an intimidating racket, and the others followed his example. They moved down the hill with all the subtlety of a soldier in plate armor falling down a ladder.

They found a creek bed, but it was bone dry, and it didn’t get any damper under the slaves’ heated cursing. There was no time to check anywhere else, so they set off back up the hill in a foul mood. They all thought they felt something behind them in the gathering gloom, stalking. Once, a twig snapped nearby, and they all whirled to face it, but couldn’t see anything.

Gary sped up a little bit. Charles increased his pace to keep up, with just possibly a little extra for good measure.

“Come on, wait up,” Marguerite said, without much need, for she was passing Charles.

“For God’s sake, quit running,” the guard said. “It’s too dark for that.” His long strides carried him to the front of the pack.

“By the king’s moustache,” James said when they got back, “I could hear you banging around those canteens the whole time. Sounded like a runaway peddler’s wagon. And why are you breathing so hard?”

“Where’s the water?” Eileen snarled.

“Wasn’t any,” Charles said. He added a few phrases in his mind.

“What are we supposed to drink, you goddam little bastards?” Eileen said. “You weren’t supposed to just go on a walk.”

“Yeah,” others joined in. “What does ‘get water’ mean to you?”

“Thanks for going just out of sight and then running back.”

“Go back out there and find some!”

“Shut up,” James said. “Whining isn’t going to fill those canteens. It’s too dark now.”

The smugglers fell short of shutting up, but reduced their volume level to simulate compliance.

It seemed obscene, somehow, to build another fire, with miles of forest burning nearby. The roar and crackle were too close behind them. Charles had never seen anything like the enormous glow thrown up high into the night sky, dimming the stars.

The little campfire flickered wickedly in front of Charles, a vicious baby eying him hungrily. Domestic fires had always seemed warm and comforting, but now he had seen a wild one, and knew this little devil would kill them all if it could get away.

Smugglers lit other fires around the camp. They sat around them just a little further back than usual, without much talking.

The next morning, gray clouds covered the sky, driven north toward the fire by the gusting wind. The travelers couldn’t hear the noise from the flames anymore, but an enormous column of smoke rose to the north, melding into the low clouds to form a wall that looked like fog. The woods around them was silent except for the wind; no more animals ran past. Even the birds were gone.

The sky got darker throughout the day as they hiked, but no rain fell until it was almost dark. First a few sprinkles misted down in a torrential fog, but as the smugglers made camp big drops began lashing down in sheets. Everyone began to talk and laugh again.

At first the cold rain was a delight to Charles. It had been so long since he’d felt rain, and it was even good to feel chilly again after the long dusty summer. He relaxed as he pictured the fire withering behind him as the rain snuffed the hot coals, water filling the streams again and sogging all the leaves and trees between here and there.

That feeling lasted for a few minutes, but faded as he lay trying to fall asleep, his bedroll sopping up water. After several hours, the rain managed to drum most of the happiness out of him again and he began imagining the friendly heat of a nice warm fire. You’ve done a great job, he told the rain, now get out of here. The clammy bedroll stuck to his skin. He pulled it over his head but the water kept drumming on it, like someone relentlessly poking him awake, and the water dripped out of his hair and over his neck. But very deep down, he was happy to be miserable about a small thing like being wet.

He spent most of the night waiting for morning, as if somehow daylight would make the rain feel better. But when it got light, the rain was just as wet, and its cold fingers followed him wherever he went, touching and touching and touching him.

This was a real storm; it must have been a hurricane on the coast. The wind wasn’t knocking anything over in the mountains, but it whipped the trees and lashed the rain into their faces. The water fell in barrelfuls, tearing the fall leaves off the branches and bouncing off the ground in a mist that tried to rise but was beaten down again by the falling torrent. It seemed there wasn’t much air left in the air.

Behind them, barely visible through the storm, the smoke boiled up in an enormous white cloud, the last protest of the dying fire.

Charles tried to withdraw from the weather, to think about other things, to get lost in thinking about plans for the future. Water rolled down inside his shirt, and down his legs inside his pants. He daydreamed about finding a dry cave, or a partially fallen log with cozy leaves underneath. There would even be just enough dry twigs to start a very small, friendly and domesticated fire.

He found no such escape hatch.

They would have no problem finding water for their canteens tonight. The problem, they soon realized, would be finding enough ground to walk on. When they came to another stream, the muddy water foamed over the banks and washed branches and logs along.

“We could run a rope across,” Old Harry said.

George shook his head. “You go ahead and try it if you want to. I’m staying right here.”

“Spend the night here? We’ve only gotten a couple of miles.”

George shrugged. “Better slow than drowned. We can camp up away from the stream. I don’t like the look of this water at all. Let’s go back up to some higher ground.”

They were still slogging back uphill when Dan pointed upstream. “Look at that! Holy shit, look out!

A stack of water tumbled toward them, and it was in a hurry. The smugglers’ amble became a dash, and it was good they had already hiked a little way from the stream, or they wouldn’t have been fast enough. The water crashed through the valley, ripping up logs and boulders, and anything else that didn’t have deep roots. The new edge of the stream sloshed and foamed only a few feet from where they stood.

“Damn!” Henry said, rolling out the word slowly. Charles had never heard the camp tailor use profanity before. Henry did his illegal smuggling with punctilious uprightness, and he was generous with his disapproval for the careless habits and language of others. Disapproval was, in fact, about the only thing he was generous with.

“We’ll stay here for the night. Except further back, of course, on higher ground,” George said. “We’d better …”

The rest of the band turned their bug-eyed attention from the rushing water to a scream from behind them. Jake was running further up the hill, sobbing and shrieking.

“Jake! Come back here, you fool!” George shouted. Others joined in the shouting. They jogged up the hill after him, but Jake outpaced them, throwing off his pack. He tripped once, but picked himself up again, waving his arms as he ran as if he could pull himself along faster.

They ran after him, but it was halfhearted. Jake was out of sight quickly, and they had no wish to end up scattered and lost in the stormy woods.

They stood wiping rain out of their eyes and looking at each other.

“Dammit,” James said.

At a time like this, Charles always felt like somebody ought to say something, to sum things up and give them some kind of meaning, but all he could think of was the ridiculously obvious. Not wishing to say “That’s a real shame that Jake lost his mind and ran away to die alone in the storm, I really wish he hadn’t done that,” he kept quiet. Eileen and a few others looked like they had more pointed words than that, but they held their tongues.

For three miserable days, the disheartened band sat by the muddy river that had been a creek. The rain came down without slacking and the water tore through the tree trunks below them, piling up in white haystacks around the trunks, pushing small trees over into the current where their branches stretched and waved downstream.

The first night, they did their best to get out of the rain, cutting evergreen branches and lashing them together over frames to make huts. For further roofing, they slung bedrolls over the evergreens, creating dark, damp and leaky little huts. Crammed into these at about five or so to a hut, they sat watching the roofs sift the rain, slowing it down and collecting it in big drops. The water dripped in rhythms maddeningly close to regular, but not quite. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip … drip. The smugglers’ fingers turned pale and wrinkly. It was too wet even for the most skilled of them to start a fire, so all they could do was to sit, as the old children’s story went.

It was chilly, and not just because of the rain, Charles calculated. It must be September by now, although he had lost track of the exact date. Summer had lingered longer than usual, but now it was gone. If the smugglers dawdled much longer, the cold would get worse, and it would start to frost in the mornings.

Charles found himself sharing space with George, John, Old Harry, and Marguerite. He had no objection to Marguerite, but the other three were possibly the last he would have selected to share a makeshift shelter with during a downpour. He’d been helping build the huts and by the time he got around to picking one out, Most of them were full. Why couldn’t he have ended up in the same shelter as one of the good storytellers?

Old Harry’s stories were colorful and bawdy, but not good. George didn’t usually tell stories. John’s tales mostly embellished his adventures and accomplishments. Besides tell stories, the only thing other thing to do was watch the rain.

Or complain.

“This whole trip has been a disaster,” John said. “A damn disaster from start to finish.”

“We aren’t finished yet,” Old Harry said. He sneezed. “I think I’m coming down with something. Pneumonia, I’m guessing.”

“It is what it is. We lost a few more people than usual,” George said. “But that’s not all bad. We didn’t get a lot of sulfur, either. So if everybody was still alive, the shares would be pretty small. It’s best we don’t have to split it too many ways. Worst thing for me is, I’m going to have to do a lot more work to get enough people for next year. Usually I just have to find a few worthless bums to replace the worthless bums the cats ate.”

“Plenty of worthless bums around,” John said.

“Yeah, but I hate finding more people. You need a worthless bum who’s worth his pemmican. Preferably one who doesn’t like bragging to people about what he does in the summer. I guess I wasn’t careful enough last time. We picked up some kind of a spy or somebody with a big mouth.”

“Might not be just one bad apple,” Old Harry said. “Might be somebody back home trying to stir up trouble. You’ve got your enemies. We might have to clean out some rats’ nests when we get back.”

George grunted. “Maybe.”

It struck Charles that George now had him in a good spot to quiz him about everything that had happened during the kidnapping, now that they were on the topic of things that were going wrong. George hadn’t had a spare moment to do that since Charles had gotten back to the band.

But George didn’t know Charles had information he’d be interested in. Or did he know? When you tried not to look suspiciously guilty, you could feel guiltiness oozing out of your skin.

“Even with all the people we lost, we’ve got precious little sulfur,” Old Harry said. “I won’t be able to afford much of a vacation when we get back.”

“That’ll be better for you,” John said. “Less of a hangover. And didn’t you pick up a nasty bug in those brothels last year?”

Old Harry humphed. “Just a touch of flu, had to stay in bed for a while.”

“Flu, ha,” John said. “First time I ever saw flu do THAT to a man.”

“I’m going to get flu now if I can’t get a fire started,” Old Harry said. He scooped up some forlorn bits of soggy bark and tried to blow on them to dry them off. Then he got out his fire drill and started spinning it. After a long time a reluctant spark began to burn into the bark. Then a huge water drop landed dead center on it and blotted it out.

“Dammit!” Old Harry said. He threw the fire drill out into the rain.

They all stared outside at the murky woods. Charles felt naked without the protection of a fire. They were tiny and alone among the massive gloomy tree trunks, the only people for many miles. He watched for movement in the trees, and sometimes caught a flicker of something. But after he had stared long enough at it, the movement always turned out to be a swaying branch or a water drop on a leaf. Cats weren’t likely to be out hunting in a storm like this.

“By the way, I never asked you Charles,” George said, “did you find out anything useful when you were with those Appalachies? Anything about what in hell they were up to?”

Charles’ stomach flopped like a fish. He ran over what he should not say, and how he should not say it, and froze up.

“Charles?” George said, eying him.

“Ah, well, nothing much,” Charles said. No, that wasn’t good, that sounded evasive. He remembered there had been more Appalachie warriors than he expected. Yes, that was the tack to take. Lots of details about things that didn’t matter.

“Well, there were more of them than I thought. About thirty, so about as many fighters as we had. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“What were they after?” George asked. “Why all the attacks?”

“I guess they just wanted the sulfur. They said they were having some kind of war with other Appalachies.”

The leaders glanced at each other. “Don’t like the sound of that,” Old Harry said.

“Why not? They can kill each other off, suits me fine,” John said.

“I mean, I didn’t know there were enough of them to have a war,” Old Harry said. “And here we’ve been hiking right though with nary a care.”

“As long as you’ve got more than one person, you can have a war,” John said. “So why’d they pick you to kidnap, Charles?”

“Best I could tell, I was just the one they happened across that day. They were disappointed I was only a slave until they found out … well, that I was George’s slave.”

“So you gave them leverage,” Old Harry grumbled. “Way to go. If you’d kept your mouth shut we could have gotten you back for nothing.”

“They threatened to torture me if I didn’t tell them things,” he said. He was really coming across as a hero here.

George cleared his throat. He didn’t seem to enjoy the reminder of his giving in to the Appalachies’ demands for sulfur. That couldn’t have been a popular choice, Charles realized, to give up money from everyone’s share to buy an unpopular slave back. He tried to change the subject.

“I forgot to tell you,” he said. “There was somebody from Easton with them.”

“There was WHAT?” Old Harry said.

Charles explained what he knew about Roger.

“What did he look like?” Old Harry said.

“He’s a very big man,” Charles said. “Black hair.”

“Yes, that sounds like an Easton,” Old Harry said. “Probably had two eyes and two ears too, huh?”

Charles frowned, and tried to think of a better description. He was terrible at this kind of thing. “He was missing a front tooth … uh … he also had a coiled snake tattooed on his right arm.”

“Aha, now we’re getting somewhere,” Old Harry said. “I remember a guy like that from back home. Disappeared one day after the tax collector paid him a visit. Left his wife and kids and never came back. What was his name? Randy, Robert, something like that.”

“Roger,” Charles said.

“That’s it!” Old Harry said. “What a toad. Yeah, he lived in our village all right. Thought he was big stuff, Mr. Moral, the family man, always ready to tell you what you were doing wrong with your life. I’ve done some mean shit in my life but at least I’ve never run out on my wife.”

“You don’t have a wife,” John said.

“You know what I mean,” Old Harry said. “So he’s run out to the mountains and joined the Appalachies. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. No shame. That’s always the way with these high and mighty types.”

“Still,” George said, “now we’re getting somewhere. If he knew how to speak Easton, he might very well have been making contact with somebody in our group. Do you remember anything he said that might be a giveaway, Charles?”
No, no, no, Charles thought. Bringing up Roger had not been a good idea.

“No,” Charles said. And that was true. Roger hadn’t said anything about Warren, just flagrantly worn a gift from Warren.

George kept pumping him for him for information, so Charles gave him all kinds of useless details about Roger’s mannerisms, what he’d said about his life, the Appalachies’ houses, their weapons, their clothing, how their language sounded, anything to make it sound like he was being helpful.

Yet he had the uncomfortable feeling George knew he was not telling all he knew. And if that were true, he’d keep trying to get the information he wanted, and he would get it, too. The problem with George was that he could read people well, and the problem with Charles was that he was too easy to read.

“Well, the Appalachies won’t be bothering us anymore,” Old Harry said. “We cleaned all the rats out of the woods.”

“If a problem comes up,” George said, “deal with it thoroughly and you don’t have to deal with it again. That’s my motto. And in this case, we might have been solving a couple of problems at once.”

“What do you mean?” John asked.

“I’m not at all convinced those Appalachies didn’t have something to do with the ambush at Scranton,” George said. “If Roger knew how to speak Easton, then maybe somebody in our band was in cahoots with him. And if that’s true, that would explain how Scranton soldiers knew exactly where we were going to be. Somebody goes out hunting a few days before, meets Roger, tells him where we’re going to be, and the Appalachies pass it along to the soldiers.”

Charles groaned inside. There was Roger coming back to haunt him again. He was glad it was so overcast, so they couldn’t see his face very well. But nobody was looking at him anyway. The contempt they had for slaves was coming in handy now.

“Damn,” John said. “That makes a lot of sense. But why? What would their goal be?”

Old Harry snorted. “They’re just plain mean. They don’t need a goal. They’re bloodthirsty savages.”

“I meant the traitor,” John said.

“Seems pretty clear-cut to me,” George said. “The Appalachies get a cut of the sulfur, Scranton stops sulfur smuggling, and the traitor is obviously a plant from somebody trying to take over the market. There’s quite a few people who would like in on this, you know, but I’ve got my ways of discouraging the competition.”

Charles was paralyzed him with fright. The only thing George didn’t have was a name, and three feet away from him was the person who knew that name. If George asked him a question now, he probably wouldn’t even be able to speak. This was the end. They’d know he was hiding something. The nice thing was, it was raining too hard for them to do much torturing, so that was nice. They’d probably just kill him and Warren and throw them in the woods.

“It makes a lot of sense,” John said again. “It’s so simple. Like Old Harry said, those savages wouldn’t have any sophisticated plan.”

“No need to use such big words,” Old Harry said with irritation. “I never said anything like that.”

“I just mean they aren’t smart enough.”

“Oh,” Old Harry said. “Yeah, they’re dumb as rocks. Anyhow, it’s too late to ask them any questions now.” He laughed.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” George said. “And when I do, that traitor will wish he’d been in that fire with the Appalachies.” Charles studied something outside.

“Maybe you should just pick somebody from the band, make an example of them,” Old Harry said, lowering his voice.

“Not a bad idea,” John said, also speaking just loudly enough to be heard. “Make sure nobody else gets any smart ideas.”

“Hmm. That isn’t a bad idea,” George said, rubbing his chin, “but you’d still have the traitor around.”

“You could always kill him later too, if you find out who it is,” Old Harry said. He wrung out a blanket and pulled it up over his head.

“That is an idea,” George said, stroking his beard. “Hmm. If we make an example out of somebody the traitor might even decide to be decent and well behaved. ’Course I’d kill him if I ever found him out, but we at least wouldn’t have any more trouble in the meantime.”

“Anybody we can spare?” Old Harry asked.

John chuckled quietly. “Hardly a smuggler in that bunch worth anything. Bunch of lowlifes, dregs of the poorhouse. All of them would stab us if they thought they could get away with it.”

“There’s Dan,” Old Harry said, “he’s worth something. He’s been with us a while. He thinks he’s smarter than he is, but we’d get pretty hungry sometimes without him along. That man can hunt.”

“Yeah, there’s a couple of them we’d really miss,” George said. “The rest, not really. They’re drunk whenever they can be, and careless, and most of them will be dead in a year or two anyway. No harm in speeding up the process a little.”

“There’s Tim,” Old Harry said. “ He’s no use to anybody, and he eats too much. I saw him limping a little today, too. We could kill two birds with one stone.” He rocked back and forth with suppressed laughter, and slapped his thigh.

“Nobody’d believe Tim would do that, though,” George said. “He’s a harmless old galoot.”

“Eileen’s been giving us some trouble,” John said. “Thinks she can get pushy with her opinion. Wouldn’t surprise me if she was the traitor.”

“Nah,” George said. “She’s no traitor. Yet. But she is dangerous. She’s smart and she’s got ideals. I don’t think she approves of us.”

“Takes a share of the money and judges us at the same time,” John said. “The worst kind.”

“That’s the trouble in this business,” George said. “You don’t want ideals, but you don’t want worthless thieves who will stab you in the back, either.” He gave the virtuous sigh of a man who is resigned to bearing his burden for the good of all.

“Eileen’s got friends,” John said. “There are lots of people who are pretty loyal to her.”

“That’s just the trouble with her,” George said. “She can’t just let the leaders lead. We’ve got to remind everybody who’s in charge.”

John shrugged. “Eileen’s no friend of mine. If you think it’s not too late to weed her out, we should. You’re usually right about these things.”

George drummed his fingers on his knee and stared out at the rain for a while. “Might not be best to do it now,” he said finally. “Last thing we need is a civil war. I’ll wait until we get home.”

“Works for me,” Old Harry said, yawning. He began to grope at Marguerite, who shrank away. He grabbed her shirt, yanked her close, and began fondling her.

“God,” John said with distaste, “Not in here. Go find a quiet place by yourself.”

“C’mon,” Old Harry whined. “What else are we supposed to do in all this rain? I’ll share,” he said with a sly grin, and punched John’s shoulder.

“No,” George said. “Knock it off. This shelter’s too small to have you snorting and knocking around in here. Bad enough to be crammed in here so tight anyway.”

Old Harry sulked, but he let Marguerite go. She moved into the farthest corner of the hut and sat there holding her knees, her face empty. Her hands were in fists, and her knuckles were white. Charles caught her eye and then looked away. That girl would kill someone someday.

He didn’t know where to look, so he just went back to looking outside, where the wind was still blowing sprays of water off the trees. Please, please let it stop raining, he thought. I want to go home.

He tried to get to sleep, but even when he finally did drop off, it wasn’t much of an escape. He slid in and out of uneasy dreams all night, the drips bringing him back to consciousness over and over. His nose started running, and when he woke up in the morning his throat was swollen and sore. That was just what he needed, a cold on top of everything. Maybe this was Old Harry’s pneumonia.

That day the rain eased off, but kept falling steadily. The surrounding mountains gathered up the rain and fed it down through ravines and gullies into the torrent below them, which kept rising.

“Another day of this will kill me,” Old Harry said. “Got to do something.” He looked hard at Marguerite and then stared at George.

“Go back to sleep,” George said. “You can do whatever you want in your dreams.”

“Oh, I do,” Old Harry said, grinning. “And I get far better women than this wench, believe me. But I’ve got to have more than that to tide me over until we get home.”

One corner of Marguerite’s mouth twitched in a spasm, but that was all.

“Speaking of getting home, that reminds me Charles,” George said. Charles froze. “Hey, don’t look so worried,” George said, smiling at him. “I told you I’d let you go free after this trip. I treat my slaves well. I’m not like Old Harry here.”

Old Harry shrugged. “You can be soft if you want.”

“Charles has been a good slave,” George said. “He deserves his freedom.”

Back to the kind and generous master, Charles thought.

“I was wondering,” George said, “where you’re planning to go when you’re free. It’s a harsh world out there. You could end up starving on the street if you’re not careful.”

Charles shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”

He’d been having second thoughts about his agreement with Warren, even while worrying that Warren was doing the same thing. It was one of his dreams to be free to study history and the sciences, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a steady income. But a Builder … did he really care about building anything? What did he owe Easton? What did he owe the world? That question had been nagging at him.

The Builders had sold him off to be a slave, or rather, none of them had stopped it from happening. They could have. And his own hometown, the place he’d been kidnapped from as a boy, had never bothered to send anyone to come look for him. The smugglers just used him. They didn’t care what he did or where he went. Why should he work hard trying to make the world better for scumbags like them, or for power hungry people like the Builders? The world was the world. It was crummy. Lots of new inventions weren’t going to make people any less horrible. The thing for Charles to do was somehow to get rich, and live a comfortable life as long as he could, on his own. That was the tricky part.

George was still talking. “… and I assume you really don’t want to keep smuggling.”

“Not really,” Charles said, trying not to sound too emphatic.

George laughed. “Not really. You mean not at all. Well,” he clapped Charles on the shoulder, “what about being my estate manager? You already do that more or less. Now, I’ll start paying you wages, good wages. You can start putting money away, get your own estate someday. Hell, you can keep helping out with setting up these trips, and I can give you a cut of the sulfur money. Up to you. We’ll get rich together, and more important, I won’t have to worry so much about my estate when I’m gone. I can trust you, Charles.”

Below his surprise, Charles felt a small amount of shame. George really was being very generous.

“Uh, well … that sounds pretty good,” he said. And he meant it. But with rising anxiety, he realized he was trapped. If he agreed to the job, and it got back to Warren, Warren would assume that Charles was going back on their deal, and would probably try to kill him to keep him from squealing.

But if Charles did not agree to George’s plan, George would be suspicious. Why wouldn’t he want such a position? What better offers could he have, and, more damningly, who would have made him such offers?

Or, Charles could pretend to agree to George’s plan, and then run off with Warren at some point.

Part of him wanted to take George’s offer. But another small part of him found appeal in being a Builder, despite his bitterness. It could be satisfying to help with a project like that, a tiny voice told him. And besides, the tiny voice nagged, what was he becoming, if he worked for George? He’d be just another smuggler, living off sulfur money. Living off blood.

“So, you’re up for it?” George said.

Charles needed time to weigh the options, to think, but he didn’t have any time.

“Ah, well, I ah, I don’t know what to say,” he said.

George smiled. “Surprised? You shouldn’t be. You know how much I value your help.”

“Well, I’d love to,” he said. “Thanks. Thank you. I mean I hardly know what to say.”

Now he’d done it. He’d have to come up with a very convincing explanation for Warren.

“No thanks needed,” George said. “Just do a good job. I know you will.”

“If it ever stops raining,” Charles said.

“Look at him,” George said, “ready to charge on out of here. Just settle down, Charles, unless you’re better at swimming than I think you are.”

“Lucky kid,” John said. “George just changed your life.”

Charles happened to catch Marguerite’s eye and was startled by the venom in her glare.

To be continued

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Seven

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

As they stepped into the clearing, Charles shut his eyes. If Roger was going to shoot him in the head, he’d rather not know it was coming.

“Well, well,” Roger said. “Your smuggler friends came through for you.” He sounded relieved. “As long as it’s not some kind of trick.”

The blazing mid-morning sun in the meadow made Charles blink. Two packs leaned against each other in the middle of the meadow. Warren stood next to them.

“Hey now, don’t fall down on me,” Roger told Charles. “I still need you for a shield.”

Tears Charles had been holding back began to spill over. He fought them back. There must be a trick. Maybe the smugglers had filled the packs with leaves or rocks. Maybe they were hiding nearby waiting to shoot any Appalachies who showed their faces.

Warren’s lips were tight and he looked at Roger with a gaze that seemed calculated to knock him down.

“Here’s your sulfur,” Warren said, clearly detesting Roger for stooping low enough to want such a thing.

“And a good day to you,” Roger said. He kept the gun pressed against Charles’ head. “Well smuggler, I don’t see anybody hiding behind the trees. Yet. So far so good. Now take a stick and poke it down into that sulfur. I want to make sure there’s no garbage in there.”

“We don’t cheat,” Warren said.

“As much as I’m impressed by the honesty of smugglers, I’m still going to have to see for myself,” Roger said.

Warren didn’t move. Roger pulled the hammer back on the revolver.

After walking all those miles, Charles thought, he was going to get his head blown off anyway. Why hadn’t he made them carry him if they wanted him here so badly?

“I don’t have a stick,” Warren said.

“All right, just take off your gun belt then, and I’ll check it myself,” Roger said.

Warren hesitated, then took off the gun belt, put it down, and stepped away.

Roger walked over to the packs, keeping his gun pointed halfway between Charles and Warren, wavering from one to the other a little. Without looking away from the, Roger stuck his arm all the way to the bottom of each pack. After he pulled his arm out, he brushed every bit of sulfur he could back into the bags.

“Good,” he said. “All sulfur. And looks like good stuff, too.”

Roger untied Charles’ hands. “Looks like you’re free to go.”

Charles looked down at his wrists, the white marks from the rope slowly turning red.

“Oh, wait, just a second,” Roger said. He fished a handgun out of his waistband and held it out to Charles, butt first.

Charles stared at it. “What’s this?”

“This is your gun we took off you when we, ah, escorted you to our camp.” Roger bowed, and Charles took it. “A little gesture to make up for all you went through to help us out. Maybe it will help you remember savages aren’t all bad. Happy trails to you, little slave.”

Then he said, “You two outgun me now, but I’d recommend you don’t try anything. You kill me, you’ll be dead before I hit the ground.”

Warren scowled. “Our deal was for you to come alone.”

“And I am alone,” Roger said. “But I have a lot of friends a short way off. Like I said, we don’t trust smugglers. But maybe instead of arguing about fine points, you can just leave the sulfur here and head on back to your camp.”

Warren and Charles looked at each other, then walked together across the clearing. Charles’ legs trembled, and he tried to think what he should do now.

Warren might kill him if he got an inkling Charles knew anything about that personalized revolver. Charles found it ominous that Warren happened to be the one at the hostage swap. The traitor must be worried about what Charles might have found out among the Appalachies. Maybe Warren would shoot him to be on the safe side, and just claim the Appalachies did it.

At the end of the meadow, Charles turned and looked back. Roger and the sulfur were gone.

He decided he had two options. He could pretend he was still ignorant of Warren’s treachery, hope Warren bought it, and then turn him in as soon as they got back to the band. Or, he could confront Warren now, before Warren had a chance to shoot him. Both options were dangerous.

It would be his word against Warren’s, if Charles tried to turn him in. George would believe one of them, and the other would die. And Warren seemed to be a much more accomplished liar than Charles had realized.

And if Warren did suspect Charles had found clues about Warren’s collaboration with the Appalachies, Warren would have to kill him. Given that Warren had probably helped set up the ambush that had seen a third of them shot dead on the spot, it seemed he wasn’t opposed to smugglers dying.

And Charles didn’t see how Warren could help being suspicious that he knew something. Guilty people saw a noose when others just saw rope. Warren would have no trouble at all seeing the noose dangling in front of him.

“Are you all right Charles? We’ve been worried about you,” Warren said.

So that’s how he was going to play it. Concerned, caring Warren, until Charles turned his back.

Charles pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Warren.

“D-drop your gun,” he said.

“Your gun is shaking,” Warren said. Charles did not feel he was showing the proper concern.

“And it might go off,” he said, raising his voice. “Drop your gun right now. Slowly. Or I’ll shoot you.”

“I wonder if you would,” Warren said.

“This is the l-last time I’m telling you,” Charles said.

Warren slowly took off his gun belt and let it down on the ground.

“I’m getting tired of everybody telling me to take this off,” he said. “Are you going to explain what all this is about? You’d better have a really good reason for this. Pulling a gun on one of the leaders is a death sentence, you know.”

“You know what it’s about,” Charles said.

“Nope,” Warren said. “Suppose you clarify.”

Charles had somehow expected Warren to break down and confess, or turn white and try to lie his way out of it. But Warren’s calmness had him rattled. What if he had made a terrible mistake? What if Warren didn’t confess?

“I know you’re the traitor,” Charles said.

“You do, eh?” Warren said.

“The Appalachies told me.” Where had that come from? It wasn’t a bad idea, anyway.

Warren stroked his chin. “Those bastards,” he said.

Charles realized he did not have a plan for what to do now. If Warren wasn’t going to attack him, Charles didn’t think he had what it took to just murder him. But if he didn’t kill Warren, Charles would then have to march him into camp at gunpoint, where Warren could coolly deny the whole conversation.

“Why? Why did you do it?” Charles asked.

Warren didn’t say anything for a long time. Charles was about to demand a response when Warren finally said, “Well, Charles, I guess I may as well try to explain. Maybe honesty will have its reward.”

A little late for you to try honesty, Charles thought. “Go ahead,” he said.

“Charles, we’re on the wrong side, smuggling sulfur. You know that as well as I do. We sell it to everyone, even to Easton’s enemies. Now who’s the real traitor, me or this whole band?”

“Easton isn’t my problem,” Charles said. “I don’t owe Easton anything. Neither do any of the others.”

“You do owe your neighbors something,” Warren said. “Such as not selling highway robbers the ingredients for gunpowder. George knows that. But he wouldn’t care if they robbed his mother, as long as he was making a profit, Charles.”

“He’s not so bad. He gave the Appalachies that sulfur ransom so they wouldn’t kill me,” Charles said.

“Yes, and I was surprised about that,” Warren admitted. “But believe me, we had to do some convincing to get him to do it.”

Sure you did, Charles thought.

“I was worried about what you might have found out, Charles, but I helped convince him. Give me a little credit here.” For the first time his calm voice wavered almost imperceptibly toward pleading.

“Give you credit? You’ve been lying to all of us for months. Or is it years?”

Warren ignored the last question. “Well, you can believe me or not. But you know I’m right about George,” he said. “I know lots of smugglers have plenty of reason to complain about the way the king’s men have treated them. Fine. But that’s no excuse for making money by supporting violence and death like we do.”

“So you thought you’d make things better by getting a bunch of us killed. You could have gotten me killed.” Charles’ gun was shaking again.

“Well … I can’t justify that, not really, Charles. Except to say that sometimes to overthrow violence, you have to use violence. Those Scranton soldiers were enforcing the law. That might not make you feel any better, but I don’t see it as murder, enforcing the law like that. Still, it hurts, when you know the people who are breaking the law and you see them get punished.

“I didn’t want you dead,” Warren said. “You’re not here because you want to be, I know that. I didn’t want Big John dead. He was my friend. I’ve thought about it every day since it happened, and it still hurts. I am a loyal person; you have to believe that, Charles. I’m just not loyal to George.”

“So you’re working for Scranton,” Charles said. “But you’re from Easton. How’s that help out your neighbors back in Easton?”

“I’m working for Easton,” Warren said. “I’m a Builder, Charles.”

Charles’ mouth went slack and he let his gun down.

“No, you didn’t know all the Builders,” Warren said. “I remember seeing you around, though. Some of us are academics; some of us deal more with security. I didn’t quite make the cut for the university.”

Warren was one of the Builders’ secret enforcers now. This story was getting wilder, Charles thought.

“You killed your friends,” he said. “You killed Big John, your friend and one of the best leaders we had. It’s partly your fault, everyone the Appalachies have killed since the ambush, and you got me kidnapped. So forget the big moral argument. You’re my enemy.” Charles brought his gun back up.

Warren sighed. “I don’t seem to be explaining myself very well. Why don’t we sit down, and let me give you a little more of my side of this.” He glanced at the sun. “I think we have a little time before they’ll be expecting us back. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can shoot me. Fair?”

“Well … all right. You sit down first,” Charles said. Warren smiled, and stepped farther away from his gun, then sat with his back against a massive white pine tree. Charles settled down a few feet away.

“I’m never at my best with a gun pointed at me, but I’ll give this a shot,” Warren said. “For starters, the deal with the Appalachies was never about them trying to kill us and stealing sulfur. They were just the messengers to Scranton. That was the only deal I made with them. After that, I guess they got greedy.”

If Warren was pretending to be angry, he was a good actor. His face was flushed and he spoke rapidly. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with them and ask them what the hell they think they’re doing, but I never could. Then one day Roger shows up saying he’s got you, but he’ll give you back for sulfur. They’re the ones who double crossed me.”

“And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of the people who died in that ambush. But that’s part of war. And the Builders have declared war on the smugglers.”

“But why?” Charles asked. “Easton needs the smugglers to get them more sulfur. That’s why they’ve let George get away with it for so long. They won’t get enough sulfur just from their own trading. Scranton is stingy with it.”

“But George won’t stick to dealing just with us,” Warren said. “We tried to bring him around, believe me, and he won’t listen. If he’s going to arm the whole peninsula, he’s hurting us, not helping. If we had an all out war with plenty of gunpowder on both sides, we could wipe out almost all the people on the peninsula. And we need people.”

“So instead, you want the Builders to have all the gunpowder and all the power.”

“I believe in them, Charles. I believe in what they’re doing. You have to pick a side in life. They aren’t perfect, but you have to pick a side. The smugglers who died were criminals. They were my friends, and that made it the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I ever make it back to Easton, I’m done with this job. It’s not for me. I’m out. I’ll work security detail at the garbage dump if they want me to.

“Charles, this will be tough for you to hear, but the world would be better off without George in it. The goal of the ambush was to get him out of leadership — either get him killed, or get him kicked out and get somebody else in who would work with us.”

“Somebody like you,” Charles said.

Warren shrugged. “Would I be such a bad leader, Charles?”

You still betrayed us. I’m on a side, too. I’m on the smugglers’ side.”

“Are you?”

“Well …”

“I want to make a proposal,” Warren said. “I don’t really think you do like the smugglers all that much. And you’re smart. You’ve studied. I’ve seen what you can do. I think I could get you into the university, if you had time to get some tutoring to get you ready of course. If you can help me get back to Easton alive, I’ll do my best to get you in at the university, with special consideration for your service to the Builders. What you do from there would be up to you.”

Very shrewd, Charles thought. Warren knew his weak spots.

“You’re asking me to be a traitor,” he said.

“No. I’m asking you to leave a life you never chose in the first place, so you can work to make the world better, all while doing something that would be a dream for you. Isn’t that true?”

“A Builder sold me into slavery,” Charles said.

“A Builder’s family, if I’m not mistaken,” Warren corrected him. “I’d be lying to you if I said the Builders were all upright and moral. There are good ones and bad ones, like anywhere else. My question to you is, can you get on board with helping the good ones? Some of us are really trying to make the world like it was before. The whole world’s stuck in a pit of ignorance, and we’re trying to get them out. Now there’s a cause you can live for, not just trying to survive after you’re free, or God forbid, staying a smuggler for the rest of your life.”

Or, Charles thought, the option Warren hadn’t mentioned was that Charles could accept the deal and Warren could shoot him in the back whenever he let his guard down.

They sat in silence for a minute or two.

“Charles, all I can say is, I’m being honest with you. I’m making the best case I can. I’m doing what I’m doing for what I believe are the right reasons. George is doing what he’s doing to make himself rich, and damn everyone else.”

After a pause, Warren added, “If I can’t convince you, the least you can do is shoot me now instead of taking me back to George.”

What Warren was proposing would give Charles a purpose, a dream to live for. The chance to join the Builders was a chance of a lifetime. Yes, it was an opportunity to do good, but it was also a chance to make it, to be rich and powerful. Warren couldn’t promise he’d get into the university, of course, that wasn’t his decision, but Charles was sure he could make it in and sure he could thrive once he did.

Warren was too idealistic. But he also had some good points about the smugglers. The smugglers told their own self-justifying story, about how the state drove them to their life of crime through persecution and injustice. What they really wanted, though, was easy money.

At the same time, although he’d always told himself he wasn’t a smuggler, the idea of turning against them now felt like a betrayal. While they were on the trail, whether they liked each other or not, they were a team. They all protected each other.

There was too much to think about, all at once, and not enough time to make a decision this huge.

If he accepted the deal and George found out, Charles was a dead slave. Or would be dead, once the band could no longer keep him alive for their amusement.

There was also the chance Warren would simply shoot him in the back while they were walking back to camp. The man had lied before. Charles really didn’t think he would shoot him, though. Warren seemed sincere. He found he still believed in Warren’s morality, as foolhardy as that might be. The morals of a traitor.

A wind swept along the ridge from the south, bringing the smell of wood smoke from the smugglers’ camp and plucking more autumn leaves from the trees.

How did he end up in these wretched situations all the time? Either he had to kill Warren or join him in his double life. What he really wanted to do was just carry his pack and get in nobody’s way and get home safely.

“It’s risky,” he said finally.

“Yes, it is,” Warren said. “Usually if you’re going to do anything great, the price is risk.”

From where they were sitting, Charles could see through a gap in the trees out over the mountain range, stretching off in the distance toward home. He wished somebody else could tell him what to do. A religious saying his old master’s wife used to quote came to him: “I will lift my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from?” He couldn’t remember the end. She would have said her help came from God, not the hills, he guessed. He could use advice from above now.

All he could hear, though, was the wind.

“All right,” Charles said. He lowered the gun.

“All right what?”

“All right, I promise not to turn you in to George. But you have to swear to do your best to get me into the university.”

“I swear it,” Warren said.

“While you’re at it, swear you won’t shoot me as soon as my back is turned.”

Warren laughed. “That’s an easy one. I swear that too.”

“All right.” Charles stood up, and stuck his gun in his holster. He helped Warren up, and they shook hands. But Charles made sure his gun was loose in the holster, and watched Warren carefully as he put on his gun belt.

“I’m almost glad you found out,” Warren said. “It’s more risky this way, but it was terrible to be alone like that. It was good to be able to defend myself to somebody. And to get an ally.”

Charles nodded, though he wasn’t sure about all this friends and soul mates stuff. The man was certainly not who Charles had thought he was, sincere as he sounded now. He would need some time to get to know the new Warren.

But a deal was a deal.

“Well if it isn’t the runaway slave,” the first sentry said. This less-than-heartwarming greeting was as enthusiastic a welcome as he got from most of the smugglers. Charles supposed it was understandable. They had all lost money on him, giving up their share of the profits from the two packs of sulfur, for a slave they didn’t really like.

George and the other leaders failed to show a great deal of joy, either, but they were more polite than the rest of the band. Warren told everyone how brave Charles had been, and John and James shook hands and told him, “Welcome back, good to have you,” with small smiles.

“Glad you are back,” Old Harry said, with the abstract melancholy of a man who has just misplaced a large sum of money and wants to get back to thinking about it.

George shook his hand and said, “Glad we didn’t lose you,” but his unsmiling face could have fooled Charles.

So sorry to lose you your sulfur, Charles thought.

He nodded hello to Marguerite, who was standing nearby. If she felt any interest in his adventures, she hid it well. “Hi,” she said.

Gary was more enthusiastic. “What was it like? Were the Appalachies like real people, or more like ghosts? Did you —”

Warren glanced in their direction.

“Later,” Charles said. “I can’t talk about it right now.” He needed to go over his story and make sure there were no hints of Warren in it.

“Oh, sure, sure, sorry,” Gary said. “I know you need some time to recover from something like that.” He seemed a little awed.

Why couldn’t Gary have been kidnapped? Charles wondered. Gary certainly would have enjoyed it more than he had.

Keeping Warren’s secret made Charles feel like a small boy hiding a broken vase, but worse, because, unlike the small boy, he didn’t just have vague notions of doom; his notions of doom were precise and detailed. The rest of the trip stretched far out in front of him.

“I want to go lie down for a while,” he said.

“No time for that,” George said. “We’re heading out now. Let’s move it.”

“I don’t really think we have anything to worry about now from the Appalachies,” Warren said.

“Nah. I don’t trust those damn savages, but I’m not worried about them,” George said. “It’s them who should be worried about me. Now pack up!”

The smugglers, finally grasping that he meant pack up, sprang to it.

When Charles first got to camp he had noticed the strips of meat drying on racks, nicely cured and ready to be turned into pemmican. He’d assumed that would be his next chore, but the slaves now hurried to gather up the meat and stuff it in packs. They would have to make the pemmican later.

“Looks like Dan’s idea about finding animals at that water hole worked out, then,” Charles said to Gary.

“Yeah, enough to get us by,” Gary said. “They did get some deer, the day you disappeared. Actually, we were just waiting for the meat to dry before we headed out, because we thought you, we —” he stopped, embarrassed.

“Yeah, I figured,” Charles said.

“Yes … so anyway, then Warren comes into camp saying he’s just been held at gunpoint by an Appalachie, and they have you and …”

“Let’s go, let’s go!” George shouted. His own pack was loaded and on his back, bedroll neatly tied on top, and he started walking away through the trees.

There wasn’t much to gather up, but over their days at the campsite, they had spread their belongings all around, and the smugglers scrambled to gather them up and shove them into their packs. In only a few minutes, the campsite was empty except for the blackened rings of stones and the meat drying racks standing empty and useless; and the band was trailing after George, still tugging at straps and shifting packs around to get them balanced.

“What’s the hurry?” Gary muttered. “There’s hardly time left today to do any walking. We may as well just have stayed here overnight.”

Charles overheard hushed grumbling among the others too. George was running now after all his talk of staying and fighting … gets his favorite slave back … I’d have left a long time ago …

Charles was happy to see the camp go. It had been the last campsite for too many people. But his body was furious about setting out again without a rest, after his long days of hurried hiking. All he really wanted to do now was lie down and sleep, or maybe cry. His thoughts were scattered like marbles and he wanted time to try to track them down and gather them up.

They soon reached the end of the mountaintop they had camped on and the ground sloped downward ever steeper, finally easing into a broad valley. By the time evening had definitely replaced afternoon, the mountain was in the distance behind them and they stood on the edge of a wide stream.

Or it had been a wide stream, when they crossed it earlier in the year on their way to Scranton. It was now several tepid trickles of water, crisscrossing over a broad band of loose stones and solid bedrock. Water bugs swarmed over warm pools standing alone as islands from the rest of the stream.

On the way to Scranton, the band had been forced to string a long rope over the rushing current, so it wouldn’t sweep them off their feet and spoil their trade tobacco. Now their biggest risk was slipping on green algae-slicked rocks.

In twos and threes, the smugglers scrambled up the far bank of the stream.

“All right, now somebody start a fire, would you?” George said.

“Say what?” John said.

“A fire. You take a hand drill …”

“I know how to start a fire,” John said. “What do you want a fire for? We’ve hardly gone anywhere yet. I thought you were in a hurry.”

“You’ll see,” George said. “Gary, you get one started while we bring firewood.”

The thought struck Charles that fires could be used for purposes of encouraging confession, and he edged toward the outer part of the group, so as to be in good position to run if the need arose. He’d rather face the mercy of the cats in the deep shadow than the mercy of the smugglers.

Gary soon had a fire going, and once they had stacked wood on it and it had burned for a while, George said, “Charles.”

He jumped. “Yes?”

“You and Gary get those copper pots and get a nice scoop of coals.”

Gary and Charles looked at each other. Gary shrugged.

When they had done it, George said, “Now each of you go a ways along the stream, about a thousand steps will be about right I’d say. Go over to the other side, and dump the coals out in some nice dry brush or something.”

There was gasping and murmuring. John pumped his fist. “Yeah! That’ll fix those Appalachies!”

“Chief, you can’t be serious,” Warren said, looking ashen. “The fire will jump the stream. It’s suicide!”

“He’s right,” Old Harry said. “This is way too risky.”

“It won’t jump the stream,” George said. “It’s plenty wide enough. Even where there’s no water, it’s not going to burn the rocks. And haven’t you been watching the weather? Wind’s been out of the south all day, southeast. My money is there’s a storm behind it. Should be here by morning. Wind won’t change before that rain hits. But by the time the rain gets here …”

Talk broke out among the smugglers. Charles stood still, overwhelmed by horror. All the women and children in that village. Roger. Running Elk. They were enemies, yes, but not the kind of enemies he wanted to roast to death. And George was going to make him do it.

“Charles and Gary, are you going to get those coals?”

He should not do this thing. He hated George for delegating his murder to other people, to Charles. But surely, this wasn’t his sin. He couldn’t disobey a direct order. And if he did disobey, somebody else would do it.

He and Gary put sticks through the pot handles so they could carry them without the heat from the red coals singeing their knuckles. At the stream, Gary went left, and Charles went right. I’m just obeying orders, he told himself. This is on George’s head, not mine. One thousand steps.

He walked up the other side of the stream bank, crunched a little way into the dusty dry leaves and twigs. What he was doing did not seem real. It was momentous, but small. All he did was set the pot down, tip it over, and watched the coals spill over into the leaves. No longer red from the fire, they looked almost harmless.

For a moment, they just lay there, a bright glow crawling along the dark edges of the charred wood. You could step on it now, he told himself. Throw some dirt on it.

A black spot spread on one leaf, then the spot burst into a tongue of yellow flame.

Charles turned and sprinted for the stream, but stopped at the edge. The pot. He had left it behind.

He ran back and grabbed it. The fire was already the size of a campfire, shooting through the leaves and licking up a dead branch. One edge crackled into some brown grass, and gray smoke rolled out.

“Charles! Get away from there!” somebody shouted at him from the distance.

By the time he got back to the smugglers, Gary was already back too, and everyone was watching the fires. Two plumes of dark gray smoke rose from the forest on the other side of the stream.

“Now grab another bucket load and dump it right across the stream here,” George ordered. Gary and Charles did it.

Other smugglers grabbed partially burning branches and ran across the stream, hurling them into the trees, shouting and whooping.

Nobody could stop the fires now. Tinder dry leaves and grass puffed into yellow flame as the fire advanced, crackling and whooshing as it found new fuel. The fire, it seemed to Charles, was in as much of a hurry as George had been. The wind was blowing from the south, just as George had pointed out. It might be bringing rain, but it had no moisture yet. It leaped through the fire and showered sparks further into the woods, fanning the crackle into a roar.

The flames climbed the trees and blackened branches, which glowed and then fell in flaming chunks. The several fires raced toward each other to join into one.

“There’s no point running anywhere,” Warren said. “If it jumps that stream we’ll never outrun it.”

The whooping died down and the smugglers watched the fire in silence.

It flowed toward them, through the streamside grass, sizzled, and went out as it met the stones.

George stood, arms crossed, a smile on his face, and watched his creation rage.

Next chapter

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Gunpowder Trails Chapter Four

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Chapter Four

The meat was tough, seared outside and almost raw inside, but Charles chomped it as if it might still be thinking of running away. His stomach wavered a little at the rush of rich food, but Charles figured he would worry about the eating and let his stomach worry about its own troubles.

Those who had shot the animals got to pick their cut of meat, and then, by tradition, a couple of the leaders stood over the roasted wild boar and deer carving off chunks and doling them out. The smugglers gnawed the bones clean, and some even ate the liver and other parts of the guts raw. When they had eaten everything else, a few whacked the bones with rocks and licked out the marrow, or scraped fat off the hides.

Then the band heaped the leftover scraps on the bonfires so the smell of blood and meat would not draw bears, panthers or cats. Then they sat around the fire, licking fat and blood from their fingers and joking and laughing as they had not done for many days, although a few looked uneasy as their stomachs gurgled complaints.

“I’m still hungry,” Jake said, picking his teeth with a twig. “Would’ve been nice to have a little left over. Might have if James hadn’t shot a tiny little fawn.” Smugglers grinned.

“Better than the one you shot,” James said. “I didn’t see you bring it in – where are you stashing it?”

“I was waiting for one worth shooting. Hate to waste my time on five bites.”

“Wasn’t any problem for James to haul this one in,” Eileen chipped in. “He just threw it over his shoulder and walked back.”

“At least I didn’t waste a perfectly good arrow like Pete did,” James said. Pete sat roasting a squirrel on a stick. “Who’s still eating?” he said, waving them off.

“You should save that hide and get it tanned when we get home,” Dan told him.

Pete pretended not to listen to the laughter and attempted to look blissful while grinding at the rubbery meat with his teeth.

Charles would have been flustered and defensive if the smugglers mocked him like that. But it would be nice, he thought, if they cared enough to make fun of him. The last time he had gone hunting, he had shot his arrow three feet over the deer’s back. Jake had seen it happen but just shook his head and never said a word about it.

At least now everyone was in a better mood. If they went back to ignoring the slaves it would be better than open hostility. Nobody had complained when the slaves got an equal share of meat, so that was a good sign.

Tomorrow the work would begin, now that they all had food in their stomachs. If there was plenty of game and wild boars didn’t gore anybody and the hunters shot straight, they could replenish their packs in just a few days. If predators were on the prowl, or if the deer were scarce, it might take a couple of weeks to stock up. They might even have to try a new area further south.

They would figure that out later. For now, the smugglers had the afternoon to rest and recharge from the relentless pace they had kept up since Scranton. Deepening their relief was the knowledge that they were far out of range of any pursuing soldiers.

They lounged against packs and trees, napping and chatting. George even let those who had run out of their own tobacco, which was almost everyone, dip into the leftover trade supply for a celebratory smoke.

“There’s plenty of it,” he said. “May as well get rid of it – just more to carry, anyway.”

And you can score some easy points to help them forget the way you’ve been driving them, Charles thought.

Smoke curled upward into the leaves, and the pungent smell of tobacco wafted through camp. Without alcohol to fuel the mood, it stayed mellow.

“A story,” Jake said. “Time for a story. Who’s up?”

“Eliza,” James said, and others picked up the sentiment.

“Aww, I was just getting comfortable,” Eliza said, but she sat up. Most of the time Eliza preferred thinking to talking. She was not shy, but had light brown eyes that looked inside your head, which made people uneasy. But everyone listened when she made up her stories, or told the traditional tales, altering the angles and adding details that made them new. Her art had already done great service many times by distracting the smugglers from their misery after the weary days.

As she began to speak now, people gathered around and dug out fresh tobacco to chew or smoke.

Long ago (she said), in the darkest days of the Calamity, people fled from the cities, leaving behind even the bodies of their friends and family. They found little safety in the countryside, because everyone else fled there too. The farmers tried to protect their land, but in the chaos the crowds burned the farmhouses and stole the grain from the barns.

Hunger stalked them long before spring came. Most of those who made it to spring had no seed for crops, and wouldn’t have known how to plant it anyway. Disease had come with them from the cities, and the pestilence killed many before hunger could get them.

Whenever anybody started to get the hang of primitive life and got a nice village started, along would come more people would come fleeing from the cities who would wreck everything and steal their food, and so the fighting went on until the cities were empty and almost everyone in the countryside was dead too. The land finally grew quiet when only a few were left and their civilization was dead. Then like Noah and his family, they began to learn to hunt and live off the land and grow enough food to make up the difference.

The pestilence never would leave for good, but it came less often, and a few people always lived to carry on. They told stories to each other about the luxuries of the old world, the medicine that could cure any sickness, the markets full of food, and the marvelous machines that did your work for you. Nobody ever went back to the ruins of the cities, though, where death hung like a fog, and ghosts went abroad even in the daytime.

The people in the little villages scrounged in the dirt and poked through the woods for rusting metal scraps to make into good plows and nails and horseshoes and shovels. They also began to design metal weapons, some based on memory, some on trial and error.

But they soon used up all their metal scraps, and more children lived long enough to grow up, and everyone hoarded metal like jewels.

In one of our villages, some say it was in Easton, there lived a blacksmith named Paul. Easton was just a small village on the edge of the water then, not being any greater than any of the others. Paul’s grandfather had told him stories about the great cities, and the part about whole buildings made out of metal was what interested Paul the most.

Paul knew from his grandfather, and from travelers, that the cities were still populated, the ghosts of the residents drifting among the buildings. The ghosts were irritable, his grandfather said, because there was nothing to do in the cities anymore, and also they were angry at the descendants of the lucky few who still had any. The ghosts with living great-grandchildren were more cheerful, his grandfather said, and if you could find them, they would give you luck and protect you. But like as not they were resting in peace and nowhere to be found.

Paul was a skeptical man and he did not believe these ghost tales, except deep inside, in the small part of him that got worried on dark nights. But he kept thinking about the metal, and the riches and prosperity and ease it would bring him. He imagined how much food the village could grow if everyone had a steel plow. And how easy it would be to defeat their enemies if they fought wooden spears with steel swords, and could deflect arrows with their armor. Or if they had guns. Most of the guns left over from the old days were very rusty now and there was no ammunition for them, but the concept was pretty simple and he knew he could make a simple one that worked, if he could figure out how to make powder for it.

Paul thought about this for a couple of years while he worked at his blacksmith shop, until finally, finding he had almost no metal to work with, he decided to travel to the closest ghost city and see if he could spirit some away.

Nobody else would go with him, so Paul went alone, and arrived at the city as night was falling. Twisted leaning towers loomed up in the twilight. Towers made out of metal.

He camped a respectful distance away to wait until morning, however, because his skepticism about ghosts was waning again.

It did not help that a ghost came to his camp that night. Paul was having a little after-supper whiskey as he sat by his fire, when he heard footsteps coming through the leaves. Before he could jump to his feet or pull out a knife, a figure in a dark cloak stood at the edge of the firelight, its face hidden in the shadows of its hood. Paul sat with his flask of whiskey still halfway to his mouth, staring, and then, pulling himself together, decided he must say something stern. “Whaaa … whois … ahrgh! … he said.

The figure did not reply. Instead, it sat down on the other side of the fire, hands on its knees, and looked around the camp, which troubled Paul deeply, because there was no chair.

The figure’s voice, when it spoke, bothered Paul even more. It was a sort of moan, like the wind in the eaves on a stormy night, except this wind formed words. Paul listened carefully, as he did not want to interrupt and ask the figure to repeat itself.

“Nice fire,” the figure moaned. “I have not seen one of those for a long time. It makes me want to warm my hands.”

“Oh, by all means, certainly,” Paul said. “Here, I’ll add some wood.”

“Fool,” the figure said. “I cannot feel it. All is cold to me now.”

“What,” Paul said, “can I do for you, exactly, then?” although he was more preoccupied with what the ghost might decide to do.

“Nothing,” the figure said. “But you can do something for yourself. Stay out of the city. It is sacred ground. If you enter it, you will die.”

“How bad is dying?” Paul asked.

“Bad. Worse even than being alive.”

By this point, Paul was having trouble maintaining his lack of belief in ghosts. He had not yet drunk enough whiskey to be able to manufacture such a grouchy and cynical apparition as he was talking to now. He took another swig of his whiskey and rolled it around on his tongue experimentally, hoping it tasted different than usual. It did not. He took a couple more gulps anyway.

He eyed the ghost, if that is what it was. It did not seem to be overly hostile, although he reflected that reading body language in a disembodied being might be hit or miss. But he was a practical man, and although the hair was prickling at the back of his neck, he realized he did not know how to fight a ghost if it did decide to be hostile, and if he could keep it talking, maybe he could distract it from whatever ghosts did to you when they decided to get on with their evening. Plus, it occurred to him that, if ghosts could make threats, perhaps they could also be reasoned with.

“Now, thanks for the warning,” he said. “But it doesn’t really seem fair, you all hoarding all that nice metal you can’t even use, with us poor peasants scraping by on scraps.”

“Baloney,” the ghost said. “At least you’re scraping by. Look at us — dead as doornails. Didn’t even make it out of the city. You call that fair? We’re stuck here, so we’ll keep the metal. I’d call that even.”

“But what are you going to do with steel?”

“What are YOU going to do with it?” the ghost asked.

“Make plows and drainage pipes and woodstoves and handy stuff like that.”

“Anything else?”

Paul squirmed. “Well …”

“Like swords or arrowheads or guns, maybe?”

“Not me personally,” Paul said. “I’m a peaceful man myself. I mean,” he added, looking away from the ghost’s gaze and sipping on his whiskey, “maybe for hunting or self defense or something.”

“All that apocalypse and you all haven’t learned a darned thing,” the ghost said. “I ought to let you have the metal and let you ruin everything again, I really should. It’s not our job to babysit the living.”

“It will be different this time,” Paul insisted. “We’ve really learned our lesson.”

The ghost had a good laugh at that. “Tell you what,” it said. “I’ll have a talk with the others. Maybe we don’t care as much as we thought we did.”

Paul did not go into the city the next day, thinking it might be best to wait for permission before exploring. He didn’t know if the ghost could make good on its threat to kill him, but he wasn’t sure he cared to experiment. He felt silly though, feeding his fire in the broad daylight, and by the end of the day, he had about convinced himself he had been dreaming the night before. Then at twilight, the ghost came back.

“Bet you thought I was just a bad dream,” the ghost said.

“Oh no, not at all,” Paul said. “Been looking forward to seeing you again.”

“None of your sass,” the ghost said. “Listen, we’ve been talking, and we’ve decided to call your bluff. We don’t have the energy to patrol around here all the time trying to stop you from sneaking in and pilfering metal. We have regrets to stew on. You just take all the metal you want and put it to good, peaceful, harmonious agricultural purposes. Just don’t come in here at night when we’re trying to walk around haunting things, or we won’t answer for the consequences.”

So Paul promised again that he wouldn’t make any weapons, and the ghost left, laughing itself sick. And Paul (scrupulously working only in the daytime) gathered a large load of steel and aluminum, took it back to his shop and started selling metal tools and goods at a great profit.

When everyone else saw the riches he was building from his metal monopoly, they figured out where he was getting the metal. Seeing that he was able to go unhaunted into the cities and work, they rushed to get their own. Paul warned them to stay out of the cities at night, and to not use the metal to make weapons (which he only made for personal use). The warning about nighttime they heeded with care, but they did make weapons (for their own personal use and the use of their closest and richest friends).

“And they say,” Eliza concluded, “That during wartime, you can hear the ghosts laughing in the ruined cities.”

Twilight had fallen while she told her story. A few people got up to get more wood for the fire, while the rest sat staring into the flames.

“Thanks a lot, Eliza,” Dan said. “Such a cheerful story. Just the thing to relax on a fine evening.”

Eliza laughed. “I just have to remind you guys how rotten you are, once in a while.”

“It’s a good reminder,” Henry the tailor said, “especially of the perils of turning to science instead of God. The Calamity was God’s judgment on us for …”

Groans arose around the fire. “More stories!”

So at their insistence, Eliza moved on to lighter tales, starting with the one about the people long ago who flew to the moon, and what they did there.

But Charles rolled up in his bedroll and only half listened to the talking as he fell asleep. Tomorrow would bring a lot of work, and he was weary. He slept without the nightmares about food that never filled him, indeed, without any dreams at all.

 

The slaves and a few smugglers stayed behind from the hunting the next day to guard the sulfur. Most of the band were expert hunters, able to stalk silently through damp leaves and rustle through dry leaves like a harmless squirrel. They could feel twigs under their feet and pull away before the snap that would give them away. They knew the language of the forest sounds, and could hone in on the flicker of a deer’s ear or a hog turning its head. When the time came, they could put their arrow exactly where they wanted it. Even an animal with a running start could not always escape.

The animals that kept the band alive were mostly white-tailed deer and wild hogs, which were large enough to be worth the trouble of pursuing. They were also plentiful, especially the hogs. On rare occasions, the smugglers might get to feast on an elk. They ate black bear and turkey if they could get them.

They shot cats whenever they saw them, but only ate them if starvation was the only other option. They did keep the fur as a prized hunting trophy. John had an elaborate dress hat made of cat fur at home he liked to bring out on social occasions, and many of the band advertised their status as expert woodsmen by wearing catskin caps, with the tails hanging down at the back. Cat fur also made a good bow decoration. Each color had its uses — orange and white were popular for decoration, and tabby made good camouflage.

The slaves usually stayed back at the camp to dry the meat, pulverize it and mix it with fat to make pemmican. Properly made, this mash would last months, and aside from taste and texture, it was the perfect food.

For once, the slaves had the easiest job. The hunters had to wake up in the dark, stoke the fires, and eat a few mouthfuls of pemmican before crunching off into the gray morning woods. The slaves could stay in their warm bedrolls until the sun rose up into the trees.

They did have to get up in time to prepare in the event of a successful hunt. To begin, they chopped saplings with a hatchet, then hacked them into four-foot sections. Sharpening one end of these sections into points, they drove them into the ground and cut notches into the tops. Then they looked for smaller, straight branches to run between the stakes, making a drying rack to hang the meat from. Maple shoots, straight and supple, worked well for this.

The hunters brought in two small pigs by noon. They chopped off the haunch of one of these for their lunch, and turned the rest over to the slaves.

To get started, Charles and Gary roped the back feet of one of the pigs and hauled it up to hang from a tree branch. Then, slicing the skin away from the hocks, they gripped slippery handfuls of it and hauled down on it until it peeled away, making additional cuts as needed to encourage it away from the carcass.

Once the skin was off, they cut the red meat off the bone in large chunks and handed it to Marguerite, who sliced the meat with a steady hand. She was better than anyone else at slicing the neat strips that ensured the meat would dry as evenly as possible. She then hung the strips over the drying racks.

Gary was good at skinning the animals, but his heart wasn’t in it. He always looked disappointed when he wasn’t among the hunters. While Charles chafed at having to skin a hog when he would rather be safe at home tinkering or reading, Gary was irritated to be skinning a hog when he could be out pursuing one, being one of the gang, an expert woodsman and a hardened smuggler.

Charles doubted Gary would ever fulfill his dream of being a hardened smuggler. He was too soft-hearted, though he tried to hide it, and he cared too much what the others thought of him. The veteran smugglers were vain, of course, about their hunting skills and ability to handle the hardships of the trail, but they also didn’t need anyone to pat them on the back. They were good at what they did, and they knew it.

Gary had the powerful build to take care of himself on the trail, but his talent with weapons was marginal, and he didn’t come across as very intelligent. Charles thought this was because he tried too hard to look competent, and so he talked even when he really didn’t know what he was talking about. He also had thick eyebrows that gave him a brutish look and did nothing to dispel the idea that he was less than brilliant, and he had awkward large ears. But from working with him day after day, Charles knew Gary was as intelligent as any of the other smugglers, and could go far if he just quit trying so hard.

As they worked now, Gary broke the silence.

“I’ve been thinking a bunch about that ambush,” he said. “If we can figure it out, maybe we won’t have to worry about our own skins so much.”

“Huh,” Charles said, not really in the mood to talk.

“Now, the first thing you’d think of, of course, is maybe somebody in the band was a spy for the soldiers.”

“Ah.”

“Now, you ask, why would they do that? Money,” Gary said. “These smugglers are outlaws. Most of them are pretty loyal, but the thing they want most is money. That’s why they’re smugglers in the first place. Give them enough money, they’ll do anything.”

Thanks for explaining to me what smugglers are like, Charles thought. I’ve only been around them for seven years.

“How would the soldiers get in touch to offer their bribe?” Charles asked.

“There,” Gary said, “that’s just the thing I’ve been thinking about.” He stopped pulling on the pig skin and lowered his voice. “The traitor could have sold us out last trip. Made a deal — we’ll be at such and so a spot when we come back, wait there.”

Charles stared at him. “The only one who could make that happen would be a leader. I can’t think of any of them who would do that.”

“I can,” Marguerite said, although she had not appeared to be paying any attention.

They looked at her. She didn’t offer any more comment, just kept slicing meat.

“Or,” Gary said, glancing over at the nearest smuggler on guard over the sulfur, and navigating the conversation back to safer ground, “maybe someone from Easton paid a smuggler — anybody in the band — to tip off the soldiers. Could have been either side that did the bribing, if you think about it.”

Charles gritted his teeth. Once Gary got an idea in his head, he wouldn’t let it go. “Listen, you’ve still got the same problem. How would anybody except a leader know where to set the trap? And the other thing — nobody from Easton has any reason to try to stop us. They can’t get enough sulfur, trading on their own. That’s why they talk big about shutting us down but never do it.”

They started skinning the second hog. It slipped in the rope a little, and Charles heaved it back up and pulled the rope tight around its legs again.

“Well, all right, that’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Gary said. “There had to be a mole of some kind. Maybe it wasn’t one of us at all. Maybe that guy in Scranton — Jeff.”

“No way,” Charles said. He’d never do that. Besides, Jeff doesn’t know our plans. He just waits for us to knock.”

After a pause, Charles suggested, “What if there was a traitor in the band, who just sneaked out to tip off the soldiers and then hiked back?”

“Hey, there ya go,” Gary said. “Coming up with some ideas for once instead of just poking holes in everything.” He wiped his face with his arm, holding the knife away to keep from smearing blood on his clothes.

“I’ll poke holes in it,” Marguerite said, in a tone of voice suitable for explaining that it doesn’t snow in the summer. “Whoever it was would have had to hike a couple of days ahead and back again, without anyone noticing. Impossible.”

“Well,” Charles said, “maybe they sneaked out at night. Went to a farmhouse or something to pass the message along, then sneaked back before dawn.”

Marguerite sighed. “First, they would have had to sneak out of a camp without making enough noise to wake anybody up. And these are people who wake up easily. Then they’d have to walk far enough away to light a lantern, which by the way I don’t think we have, and walk all by themselves all night without getting eaten by a cat.”

Charles’ ears were burning. “All right, all right, fine, it’s a bad idea.”

“Then,” Marguerite went on, “they would have had to get back before morning after a night’s hike, sneak back in without anyone noticing, and not look horrible in the morning, and get up and hike, full of energy, all day. They’d have to do all that, of course …”

“FINE,” Charles said. “I get it.”

One of the smugglers on guard glanced over at them.

“Keep your voice down,” Gary said.

There was a sullen silence for a while. Done deboning the pork, Gary and Charles switched to helping Marguerite finish up the slicing work.

“Now here’s an idea,” Gary said. “Carrier pigeons. All the guy would have to do is just walk slow that day, signal a pigeon flying overhead, attach a message, and off it would go to the soldiers.”

“Signal a pigeon?” Charles said. “How many pigeons have you seen flying around in the mountains?”

“Well … none, but I’m not looking for them,” Gary said. “Anyway, maybe it would come out from the city and be trained to look for a certain color cloth or a kind of hat. Who wears the brightest hat? Any suspicious outfits?”

“Can pigeons even see color?”

“Why shouldn’t they?” Gary said. “Doesn’t everything see color?”

“No.”

“What are you, the eye expert?”

Charles, having had his ideas demolished, now was enjoying passing the favor along to somebody else. “What if the pigeon flies over at a bad time, and the traitor is sitting there eating supper and a pigeon with a message on its leg comes and sits on his head?”

Marguerite laughed, something Charles couldn’t remember hearing before. He was glad, though, that he had distracted her from remembering how bad his own idea had been.

“Come on, maybe it’s a hand signal or something,” Gary said.

And at this unsatisfactory juncture, they let the discussion drop, because they were done cutting up the meat. They saved the heads and livers for supper, and gathered up the rest of the entrails, hides and bones and burned them.

Not long afterward, the hunters started coming in for the evening. They did not bring any more animals with them, and Charles was grouchy to see them pull off strips of drying meat the slaves had just spent so much time preparing, to supplement their supper of heads and livers. He glanced at Marguerite to see how she was taking the destruction of her handiwork. She just sat eating the last of her pemmican, seeming not to care.

The next day, with no new meat to cure, the slaves gathered acorns instead. Acorns tasted good, kept well, and would keep you alive even if you had nothing else. The smugglers sometimes mixed them with pemmican, or ground them with stones to make a rough flour for biscuits or flat bread.

Acorns were bitter fresh, but repeated soaking in warm water rendered them edible. The slaves cracked the shells, pried out the nuts, then dropped them in small copper pots of water, where the bitterness turned the water dark as it seeped out. Then the slaves soaked them again, and again, until the water stayed clear. After that, they spread the nuts out to dry.

Some years there weren’t many acorns, but this year when they found stands of oak trees, the acorns were thick on the ground. The slaves gathered them into bags and by lunchtime, had a mound of them back at the camp. Picking out the ones with wormholes and throwing them away, they started cracking the rest and warming water in small copper pots.

As they worked, Gary went back to the conspiracy theories, apparently not overly discouraged by the squabble over pigeons.

“I had another idea about that ambush,” he said. “Maybe it was spies.” He paused as if waiting for Charles to break in. Hearing no rebuttal, he went on. “Maybe they were just patrolling around, and then when they saw us coming, they’d run off to report.”

“But they’d have to live out in the woods for weeks by themselves. They’d be cat lunch way before we came along,” Charles said.

“Aw, you’d risk it for enough money,” Gary said. “Anyway, maybe it was a group of them. They’d make a little camp, or patrol together.”

“What if we walked by on the other side of the mountain and they never saw us?” Charles asked.
“Maybe they got lucky.”

That seemed far-fetched to Charles. “Anyhow,” he said, “the whole bunch would have to wait until they saw us coming, then they’d have to not just beat us back but find the soldiers in time to have them be waiting at just the right spot. And we never saw any tracks or anything.”

Gary cracked acorns in silence.

Fine, Charles thought. Gary didn’t have to get all sulky when his ideas turned out to be stupid.

“There’s always that first option, that one neither of you wants to talk about,” Marguerite said. “The only one it could be.”

Charles frowned. “It doesn’t have to be that one.”

Gary peered from one to the other. “This one? That one? What one?”

“None of your other ideas made any sense at all,” Marguerite said to Charles.

“That one doesn’t make sense either,” Charles said.

“WHAT one?” Gary said.

“The one both of you are afraid to say,” Marguerite said. “That it was George. Or Warren. Or John. Or that old bastard …”

“Oh, that idea,” Gary said.

The only sound was the cracking of acorn shells between flat rocks and the plonk as Marguerite threw the nuts into the kettle. Gary and Charles had stopped working and were staring at her. Just thinking that kind of idea was dangerous, and here she had practically shouted it out. They glanced at the smuggler guards. She’d be dead if one of them overheard, but they did not seem to have noticed anything interesting.

“What are you going to do, tell on me? Go right ahead.”

She couldn’t really mean that, Charles thought. But she didn’t seem to be daring them to tell. She was simply letting them know that meeting a grisly end at the hands of the smugglers or cutting up a hog were about the same to her. It was the hopelessness he fought off at his worst moments, but she seemed to be past fighting it.

Aside from that, her treasonous theory didn’t seem plausible. “I know George better than that,” Charles said. Internally, he added, Well, I think I do. Aloud: “He’s no saint but he makes plenty of money. He wouldn’t need a payoff. Neither would the others.”

“All of them,” Gary said, “would take a payoff if it was big enough. But,” he added, “I’m not saying George would do that.”

“Maybe,” Marguerite said, “it’s somebody else who wants to run the band.”

Charles wondered if she were spilling a secret that she actually knew about Old Harry, or just conjecturing about the leaders in general. The idea of Old Harry whispering his dreams in her ear was ludicrous, both because he didn’t care for her emotionally in any way, and because he certainly knew that if he were so foolhardy as to confide in her, she would take the information straight to George and then sit back to enjoy “The Disembowelment of Old Harry” in its first and only performance.

 

The next day the slaves gathered acorns again, and nobody interrupted them by bringing meat. In the evening, the hunters returned with two deer, but they were not celebrating, because they also had one less smuggler and had spent the better part of the afternoon searching for him.

George stamped around camp with a deep scowl. Warren didn’t say anything, but sat and stared into the fire. Old Harry sharpened his knife to a fine point.

The next day, the hunters brought no deer, but had two fewer smugglers. This time, it was getting dark and they hadn’t noticed in time to do any searching.

The camp that evening bristled with angry smugglers, gesturing and denouncing. The usual rumble of tired talk was replaced by an agitated buzz like a rattlesnake den.

Pete sat across the fire from Charles, not joining in the discussion. He looked more numb than angry. Both the missing smugglers had been his close friends. They’d frequently hunted and hiked together, retold each other’s stories and laughed at each other’s jokes. Now he was here and they were out there in the darkness, either dead or in the process of becoming that way.

Pete poked the fire with a stick, his jaw working. This, Charles realized, was as close as he had come to seeing a smuggler cry.

“Hey, uh, I’m sorry about this, Pete,” Charles said. Pete didn’t look up or respond. Charles went on, “If there’s anything I can do …”

Pete looked up then, and his eyes drilled through Charles. He pointed the glowing end of his stick across the fire at him. “If I ever find out you slaves had anything to do with this,” he said, his voice quivering, “I will cut all your throats myself.”

 

The next night, the hunters returned grouchy, with only a small pig and a grouse that Pete had arrowed, but with the same amount of smugglers they had left with.

Pete impaled his grouse on a stick and came over to where Charles was standing to roast it. Pete stood silently for a few minutes, shifting the stick from one hand to the other. Charles ignored him.

“Ah, hey,” Pete said. “I … about what I said yesterday. I was pretty mad, and I didn’t mean it.” He glanced at Charles. “I, well, I know you guys were back here at camp and had nothing to do with anything that happened. I … well, I was a complete asshole. Sorry.”

Charles could not remember the last time a smuggler had apologized to him for anything. His hostility deflated.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Pete nodded. “Thanks.” He pulled the grouse away from the fire, poked at a couple of spots, and then thrust it back over the flames. “Want some grouse when this is done?”

Charles eyed the singed gangly bird, with its blackened stubble of feather quills. “I think I’ll stick with acorns tonight,” he said.
“Fine with me,” Pete said. “I need my energy because I’m on firewood duty.” He put on a smile but it left quickly.

 

As the evening cooled and the sun sank into the trees, Pete and a few others made a last firewood run, while the talk around Charles’ fire turned to what to do next.

“I really think Warren might be right,” James said. “I think it’s time to get out of here.”

John put down the venison bone he had been gnawing on and stared at him. “What are you talking about? I never ran away from a fight in my life and I’m not going to start now with a bunch of savages.”

“You ran all right from that ambush,” James said.

“A retreat in battle is not running,” John said, jabbing a finger at James. Both the twins had quick tempers, and though James was the more diplomatic of the two, he knew how to needle John when he wanted to.

“You’re an old fool,” he told John. “What’s there to stay and fight about? Ego, is that it?”

John stood up, his face flushing. “Maybe you’re a coward, but I’m not,” he shouted. “I’m not going to die with an arrow in my back!”

“I don’t plan on dying at all,” James said. “Especially over a miserable patch of woods with no deer or hogs in it. It’s not about running. It’s about strategic position.”

“What strategic position? There’s woods here, and woods farther along. You just want to run to Harper’s Ferry and get a room at an inn.”

People began leaving other fires and drifting over to listen. Nobody liked to interfere in the twins’ spats, but they were interesting to watch.

“I’ll tell you why it’s strategic, since you won’t use your own head,” James said. “We’re in the heart of Appalachie territory. There’s a lot less of them closer to the towns. The farther from here we get, the easier the hunting will get and we can quit having people get killed for no reason.”

“No reason? No reason? As soon as we let the Appalachies know we aren’t willing to fight, they’ll harass us every step, every trip,” John said. “We’ll be finished in this business.”

James shrugged. “Maybe we just underestimated them all along. Maybe the only reason we ever got through is they decided to leave us alone.”

Watching John, Charles wondered how far veins could expand without bursting.

“You can go back to tanning leather if you want then! Not me!”

“You can go to hell if you want,” James said.

John picked up a log and threw it down onto the fire, raising a shower of sparks in the gathering twilight. Then he stomped off to a different fire.

James just sat staring into the fire, jaw set.

Charles decided it would be more peaceful in bed, and proceeded to get out his bedroll. But before he finished unrolling it, Dan came over to the fire.

“Do you guys know where Pete is? I can’t find him.”

“He said he was on firewood duty,” Charles said.

Dan frowned. “Should be done by now. It’s getting dark.” He walked around to the other fires, questioning. People shook their heads.

Jake walked over to the edge of the firelight and shouted out into the gloom, “Pete! Hey Pete! Suppertime!”

The woods were silent.

They found him sitting with his back to a poplar tree. Five arrows pinned him to the tree. One of them had caught his hair just above his ear and held his head up, twisted slightly to one side, his empty eyes staring out over a gully at the rising moon. Pete’s battered hat sat on his head as always, and the firewood he had gathered was scattered over his lap. His bow sat beside him, all the arrows still in the quiver.

They pulled him loose from the tree with gentle hands and closed his eyes.

“You old bastard,” Dan said, his voice breaking. “What did you stop and take a break for? Always looking at the view.”

Then he straightened up and faced the direction the arrows had come from.

“Come out now and fight like men!”

“Like men,” his echo mocked back.

“We’ll kill you for this! Do you hear me? Do you hear me?”

Back at camp, James and John had forgotten their fight in their mutual anger at the Appalachies, and James abandoned any talk of leaving.

Warren said, “I still think —”

“No way,” George said. “What kind of coward are you?”

“I’m just —“

“We are not going to go running into Harper’s Ferry to get away from the Appalachies.”

“We ran from the soldiers, why not —”

“We were outgunned two to one!” George shouted. “We are not going to go running into town begging them to save us from a handful of wild mountain men. If we can’t fight them we may as well give it up now and go into politics. Maybe you’d like to.”

Warren stiffened. “You want to take that back?”

“All right, all right, stop,” James said, adopting the peacekeeper’s role with no apparent sense of irony. “No sense doing the Appalachies’ work for them.”

“We’re staying here,” George said. “Anyone who wants to stay and fight, can. Anyone else — he glared at Warren — is free to leave for Harper’s Ferry any time.”

Warren, no matter how much he disagreed, was not going to strike out through the wilderness alone, so they all focused on hunting again, this time for Appalachies. This was made more difficult because they still had to hunt for food. They stalked deer while keeping an eye out for Appalachies, and stalked Appalachies while listening for deer, and caught neither.

George set traps. One group of hunters would set out, and another group would trail them just out of sight. Any Appalachie trying to stalk the lead hunters was liable to be interrupted by an arrow. But none ventured into the trap.

George also sent out snipers to sit at strategic overlooks, but this took inefficiency to greater levels. At least two or three smugglers had to go to each spot, as nobody cared to get into a shootout with an entire band of Appalachies alone. And in a forest that stretched from the ocean in the east to nobody knew where in the west, the odds weren’t especially good that an Appalachie would happen to stroll by the exact place the snipers were sitting.

“How about a decoy?” Dan suggested once. “Not like we’ve been doing, a whole big group. An easy target, somebody hunting alone. We can have two or three people waiting behind them.”

“Who’s going to be the decoy?” James asked.

Nobody raised a hand.

“We could use a slave,” Old Harry said.

“Your slave?” John said.

“We don’t need to go to that extreme yet,” George said.

Not yet, very kind, Charles thought. He just doesn’t want to lose a valuable slave. But then, maybe he was being unfair. Why would George care about preserving him if he were going to set Charles free after the trip? Maybe he had no such plan. Or maybe he actually did care. George would make it easier if he would just behave either like a black-hearted smuggler or a normal human being.

 

Finally, after several days of poor hunting on all fronts, John swaggered back to camp swinging catskin hats and sporting shell jewelry. He and Dan had shot down two Appalachies and left their bodies for the other Appalachies to find. Charles guessed they had not taken care to leave the bodies in a respectful funerary state.

Dan kept no trophies. “That was for Pete,” he said. “Don’t want to even touch anything they’ve touched.”

The hunters clashed with the Appalachies again the next day. A small group of smugglers surprised a handful of the tribesmen as the Appalachies were sneaking through the woods, apparently absorbed in stalking smugglers. The two sides sent arrows at each other and pincushioned a few trees, but the Appalachies slipped away as soon as they could, leaving their arrows behind for the smugglers to pull out of the trees if they wanted them. Neither side left bodies on the battlefield, although one smuggler claimed he had arrowed an Appalachie in the leg.

The smugglers, despite their tough talk, could not afford many more casualties. They had lost a third of their strength in the ambush, and another seven so far during their hunt, including Pete and his steady veteran influence. They were down to only thirty-four total: thirty-one smugglers and three slaves.

Of that total, about ten or fifteen had to stay in camp every day and guard the sulfur, and the slaves of course had food storing duties. George had taken away Charles’ weapons when the band turned hostile toward the slaves, but he returned the weapons now, and John finally agreed to give Gary a gun as well.

“Don’t get used to it,” he warned Gary. “This is only for absolute emergencies.”

Old Harry sensibly declined to arm Marguerite, no matter how dire the situation.

The slaves helped keep an eye on the packs of sulfur, because they had little to do at the camp besides continue to gather acorns. Nobody had shot an animal for several days.

“It’s not just that we have to watch for savages,” Dan told George. “Thing is, they’re hunting the animals too. I figure most of the animals cleared out when they realized they were living in a war zone. But I found a great spot we can hunt tomorrow.”

At the end of that day’s hunt, he explained, the hunters had ranged farther than usual, and Dan had found a watering hole that, from the tracks and heavily worn trails, was drawing wildlife from miles around in the drought.

Dan planned to leave as early as possible in the morning and strike straight for that watering hole, without wasting any time hunting along the way. Once they got there, they could sit for the rest of the day at strategic spots around it to see what turned up. He was sure something would.

Dan’s excitement spread to the rest of the hunters. If they got enough meat, they could leave this death trap with dignity, not retreating but calling the mini-war a draw. They wanted revenge, but they also wanted to make it home alive.

They left only a handful behind to guard the sulfur in the morning, albeit with two loaded six-shooters apiece. Charles was disappointed when George put the slaves back on acorn duty. He could have contentedly gone a long time without seeing another acorn.

“We need as much food as we can get,” George said. “We’ll bring the meat, and you all get as many acorns as you can. Then we’ll have plenty when we leave.”

So the slaves once again began the routine: Fill the bag, haul it back to camp, dump it in a pile, repeat.

This could be the last day we have to do this, Charles told himself. One good hunt, and we can head toward home again. Please, let that happen, he asked someone for whom he did not have a name.

In times of need like this, Charles found himself without anyone to appeal to. He had been raised neither pagan nor Christian. Easton was a mishmash of religions, mostly varieties of Christianity that had become popular when people found they needed help and protection. But Charles’ owners in Easton had been more interested in knowledge and wealth than in faith, and though Charles sometimes wished for a powerful being to call on, he had little confidence that there was such a being and less desire to spend his life parsing religious texts to dictate his existence.

As they worked, neither Gary nor Marguerite showed any inclination to talk, and Charles enjoyed the quiet. Nothing moved in the woods, except a pileated woodpecker that flew over giving its petulant staccato call. The wind sighed high above in the high tops of the oak trees. The weather was cooler now, though still very dry, and the leaves were turning yellow and red. Charles was glad for his blanket at night and glad for the ending of summer’s heat.

He found a rich seam of acorns and followed it, his bag filling quickly. Hearing Gary’s footsteps behind him, he straightened up and turned to remark about how fast they’d be done with this many acorns.

Three Appalachies, their faces painted brown and black, stood only feet away, with their guns pointed at him. Charles opened his mouth to scream, but one of them shook his head and pulled the hammer back on his ancient rusty gun. Charles closed his mouth again.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three