Isn’t That What Life is All About?

By CONNIE BEDGOOD MCWILLIAMS

The rain fell softly — just enough to water the bright green grass and keep the boys inside. They were playing a record, drumming and playing the guitar in accompaniment, creating a high-decibel din. Then — joy — the rain stopped, and they could go outside.
Solitude. I could get some work done.

Rounding up the boys’ missing mittens and heavy jackets took ten minutes. I refused to hunt for their rain boots. I ushered them out the back door to play with Isabel, our dog. Back to my word processing machine. Now, which story do I need to rewrite?

The back door opened. “We’re too hot with these mittens on, Mom,” the boys chorused as they threw the mittens in. Puff, our cat, pounced on the mittens like a flash, threw them in the air, and batted them around the den.

Books and magazines about writing called to me. Stories waited to be written.

The back door opened. Number-two’s voice pierced the air. “He hit me!”

Number-one son yelled, “He hit me first!” Out to the backyard to settle the spat.

Number-three son followed me in, wanting a drink. Five minutes later, out he went. An imitation smile adorned my face as I propelled him out the door.

I breathed a grateful sigh as I headed toward my word processing machine. Which story do I rewrite!

“Come on, remember what you learned from the correspondence course you just finished,” I said out loud to myself.

The back door opened again. “Can we have some candy Mom?” number-one son asked. I nearly shouted, “No!” Then a light went on in my head. If they eat, then they won’t bother me for at least ten minutes, I thought. “Take three Snickers,” I said. “No, take six — two for each of you.” Aha, a candy overdose. He viewed me with disbelief as I handed him all six candy bars.

I rushed to my word-processing machine with glee and gave it a hug as I sat down to write a story. If all went well, perhaps I could fold the laundry, start dinner, and salvage the day.
The back door opened. I sank my head into my hands and listened as six little feet patted toward me.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Mom, come practice football plays with us. You know, like we did in the den last week. We need more help on which way to run when the ball is snapped.” He took my hand and pulled me out of my chair.
The serious appeal in his eyes did the trick. I hit the off button on my word-processing machine to shut it down, put on my jacket, and went out the back door.

“What we need, Mom, is you to give the plays in the huddle, then watch us to see if we go the way we are supposed to. OK?”

I watched for a while, then of course, I was running plays with them, huffing and puffing. The next thing I knew, I was on the bottom of the pile, yelling, “Get off me you big brutes!” Mistake! They started tickling me, and I tickled them. We were rolling around and around on the wet grass, laughing so hard tears were running down our cheeks. There we all were, lying on our backs looking up at the sky.

I knew my body would ache that night.

My books lay unread, my word-processing machine unused. The laundry was still unfolded.

Inspiration

By ADREYO SEN

In the early seventies, Peter Gupta was in his third year of college — and hating it heartily. In the evenings, he would retire to the coffee house, being a fairly predictable intellectual of the Kafka-loving variety. There, he would gaze bitterly into cup after cup of coffee, before setting his constitution straight with a cutlet.

Peter Gupta was a literature student. A mediocre one, given too much to daydreaming. Bewildered by scansion and iambic pentameter, Peter Gupta longed to write, to feel the muse chew with fury at the already chewed-up end of his pen.

All that Peter Gupta had imbibed from the Dickens texts taught at Presidency was an appreciation for the immense scope of the novels, the huge and intricately populated canvas the irascible novelist had created from a vacuum. Peter Gupta, too, longed to imagine into reality a universe of his own, a Kolkata transformed into the playground of demons and gargoyles and precocious children with the faces of Egyptian gods.

In fact, he had expended many cheap notebooks on his attempts to flesh out his ideas. But he was held back by a hole in his imagination, a hole the approximate size and shape of Professor Banerjee’s posterior, a posterior which seemed to quiver with indignation when the good Banerjee fulminated against the values of the youth. The problem was this. Every story — and in this, Victorian sentimentality collided with Peter’s beloved Bollywood movies — needs a hero. Peter wanted his to be larger-than-life, to be the sort of person whose fair (Peter couldn’t imagine a dark-skinned hero) face radiated authority and goodness, whose virtue was imprinted into every lineament of his countenance. Peter couldn’t start his novel without fixing his hero with his mind’s eye.

Inspiration came to him via the muse so often found rubbing her seductive shoulders against Old Monk and Haywards 5000. Only, this time it took a circuitous route. Peter had been confiding his troubles to a bottle of rum, when his stomach sternly reminded him of the need for solid sustenance. He essayed forth in the direction of sinfully fried things.

“What’s all this?” said a stern voice, as he meandered down a street that seemed to dance up and down.
It was the voice of the Law. The officer grabbed our skinny protagonist by his polyester collar and hauled him to the Park Street police station.

“I suggest you cool your ardor,” said the desk sergeant, looking tiredly at him.

Peter sat on a wooden block, thankful that he hadn’t been thrown into one of the cells. He looked around. And then his eyes fell on the man sitting opposite him, a handsome man, a fair man, a man with laughing, wise eyes and a firm chin, the sort of man who could lead thousands into battle, or bully a smile back onto the lips of a child who had just dropped her ice cream. In short, the perfect man. His protagonist. His Superman, that is a Superman who owed less to Nietzsche than to two American malcontents.

“Everything all right, friend?” said the man, laughing. Peter nearly swooned at the warm friendliness of the voice.

The rest, of course, is history.

Peter Gupta didn’t eschew alcohol. If anything, he drank more frequently. But he was always sure to keep a goodly supply of chicken egg rolls nearby. More importantly, and more to the point, Peter Gupta finished his magnum opus a year later. His great first novel, about a savior who springs out of the litter of clay tea pots at a busy intersection to become the symbol of hope for a charcoal city hounded by desperate criminals and even more desperate apathy. It ran to over a thousand pages and was made into a trilogy starring an angry young actor with a powerful baritone.

Very soon, Peter Gupta acquired an expensive fountain pen. And then the first color television in his neighborhood. And then a wife with a fondness for gold jewelry. Sitting in the little terrace room in his new house in Ballygunge, Peter wrote novel after novel, reaching the productivity of the sidekick of a certain fictional detective. Each of the novels featured the same protagonist, modeled on the wonderful creature Peter had seen at the Park Street police station.

In one novel, this Alo foiled the dastardly attempts of a trio of desperate criminals to steal the smile of Mona Lisa, a luscious house maid. In a much more recent novel, Alo shattered the dark plot to adulterate the exotic and faintly ridiculous nature of a termagant firebrand with an infusion of a sensayuma, whatever that might be. In yet another, in the midst of a fabric crisis, Alo brought much comfort to a chapter of geriatric astronomers by flying to Sweden and returning with a year’s supply of diapers.
By 2014, Peter Gupta was rather tired. He had written over eighty novels, each of which had been roundly condemned by the British Guardian for facileness of plot and praised by India Today for freshness. He had been given a permanent seat at Flury’s and received daily visitations from floppy-haired young men who were absolutely convinced that he needed a secretary. His wife now resembled a chandelier. He was a rich man, but he didn’t like to travel. In fact, he’d never stepped out of Kolkata.

And he was especially tired of Alo. Dratted man! He wished he had never come up with him. Now, how to end him?

And this was when Peter Gupta envisaged the dark shadow that would emerge in the very last Alo novel, the shadow that would extinguish his tiresome protagonist. The Shadow. The most evil, vicious criminal there ever was. A depraved, vicious psychopath. Yes, much like the Joker. Peter was a fan of the Batman movies, the new ones that is, having reached them via his worship of the leggy Anne Hathaway.
Of course, Peter was a man of influence now. Which was how, on a Friday morning, the Commissioner of Police undertook to take him from his house to the same Park Street police station that had midwifed his literary success.

“An honor, sir,” wheezed the commissioner, “an honor.” “Yes,” said Peter absently, his eyes arrested by the man lolling vulgarly in rags on the bench opposite the duty desk, his filthy hands cuffed to the wall. Never had he seen a more disagreeable face, pitted and discolored, with a fierce scar bisected by a red and malevolent eye.

The lips seemed distorted permanently into the sort of terrible sneer with which Wodehousian aunts greeted the impecunious suitors of their invariably short daughters.

The man looked up and caught Peter’s eyes. He smiled. He spat, catching the tip of Peter’s shoes.

“What, friend?” he laughed. “Everything all right? Long time, no see.”

A few weeks later, Peter finished the manuscript for a children’s book featuring talking dolls and a discarded paper cup. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to prevent irony from seeping into the story. You could say he finally had the seepage problems that plagued most homeowners in his city. Even more unfortunately, his wife, infuriated at her husband’s vacillation, sent off his manuscript to his publisher. It fetched a good price and the book sold rather well, if to a niche audience comprised of sarcastic twenty-something women who slept with teddy bears and worshiped Tina Fey.

Peter, so long a writer, is unable to stop writing. He continues to write about the dolls and the cup and, now, a discarded chapstick. His new fans are rabid and very determined. He is afraid to step out of his house. Fortunately, he can play Pokemon Go on his phone.

Reveille

By KARL HARSHBARGER

At a little past four in the morning the American lieutenant opens the door of the German farmhouse where he rents a room and steps out onto the flat stones of the hof, or courtyard, and sees
the first glint of red edging along the horizon. From the kennel near the front of the hof next to a line of trees, the farmer’s dog begins to bark.

“Stop that,” says the lieutenant into the night.

Other animals, probably cows, have begun to move in the barn, making muffled, thudding sounds.
The lieutenant walks across the stones past the farmer’s two tractors, one large and one small, and out towards the line of trees where he can make out the low-slung outline of his car. From the barn, more thudding sounds.

The dog continues to bark. “Quiet!” says the lieutenant.

He is at his car. Beads of moisture point up the long, curved hood towards the two stubby windshields, then almost disappear along the darkness of the cockpit cover and reappear on the short shank of the trunk.

He takes out the rag which he brought with him and wipes the headlights dry, and then goes around behind the trunk and wipes the taillights dry. Then, the two windshields. They are not really windshields, or, at least, not like the windshields of ordinary cars, but two Plexiglas protrusions to deflect the wind at high speeds.

He reaches over between these windshields and pulls the zipper of the cockpit cover back towards the trunk, lifts his side of the cover away from the nubs along the dashboard and the molding around the steering wheel, and slides that half of the cover back behind the driver’s seat, leaving the cover on the passenger’s side intact.

As he lowers himself into the car he is aware the dog is still barking. But he is more aware of the feeling he now has, the same feeling he always has when he slides way down into the car, almost to the ground, not only low, but, as it were, swallowed by the car.

He inserts the key in the ignition, turns it, and hears the whir and click of the fuel pump. When the whirring and clicking stops, he pushes the starter button and the motor kicks over, coughs, and takes. He gives the pedal a little stab, a jerk up to three thousand revs, then lets the motor ease back to its idling speed. Then he waits, letting the oil warm up.

The dog keeps barking.

The lieutenant takes off his officer’s cap with its single golden bar, reaches under the cockpit cover on the passen- ger’s side, finds his baseball cap and goggles, and puts them on. He doesn’t put the goggles on over his eyes, but straps them over the bill of his cap.

To the east the band of red has intensified and to the south he can now just make out the silhouettes of the distant tops of the Alps.

He shifts into first, eases out the clutch and the car jerks forward.
The dog runs back and forth in the kennel barking ever more wildly.
The lieutenant still isn’t used to that — the jerk as the clutch engages. One instant he’s not moving and the next instant he is.

“Stop that!” he shouts one last time at the dog, and pulls out between the trees and onto the little farm lane.

Again, as every morning, he discovers the steering, how the car steadies to the slightest touch on the wheel. Also the hard ride, the headlights jarring and shifting in front of him. And, again, the way he sits down so close to the road, seem- ingly only inches above the ground.

He doesn’t speed. Not that he couldn’t, of course. This early in the morning there wouldn’t be any policemen around. And even if there were, they would never be out on a tiny country road like this. But he always starts out slowly. A sort of a self-imposed restraint. Even when he is late. As he is this morning. Again.

So he continues at a slow speed, the field smells in the air around him, the motor sputtering, the headlights jiggling up and down on the lane in front of him illuminating trees or hedges or even sometimes an open field, until he hears an- other dog barking and passes another farm and comes to the triangular yield sign for the main highway. He turns onto the highway, and since there aren’t any cars coming, stops on the pavement, reaches up and pulls the goggles down over his eyes, and rotates the baseball cap around so that the bill of the cap no longer faces towards the wind.

Then he redlines it. Up to five thousand. The motor snarling.

And jumps the clutch. The car weaves, rubber and smoke, he lets off on the gas, the tires catch, and finally there it is again, the power pushing him back into his seat. Each time he shifts the gears, a tiny respite from that pushing, until he flicks the button for overdrive and sees the speedometer climb to over one hundred miles per hour.

This is it, he thinks, home.

The wind rips and whistles past him, numbing his cheeks and ears. He sees the red taillights of a car in front of him and pulls out to the left and passes that car almost as if it were standing still. Ahead of him more of the sky reddens and the peaks of the Alps are now pink.

But the traffic signs begin to accumulate along the side of the road announcing the proximity of the Army base, most of the signs yellow and black and the words in German, but some of them black and white and in English, and off to the left he can see the lights of the little village, or dorf, where most of the other officers who work at the base make their home. So he slows his speed somewhat, the wind around him slackening, rotates the bill of his baseball cap back around and pulls the goggles up over the bill. Still, he manages a nice drift around the corner into the base.

Now that he is on the base, as it were, his own soil, all the signs are in English: “Slow Down,” “Drive Carefully,” “Military Police Gate Ahead,” “Be Prepared to Stop and Show Your Identification.” Ahead of him he sees the brilliant white lights illuminating the white concrete barricade of the military police post.

But for some reason this morning, out of all mornings, he doesn’t slow down. Or, at least, he doesn’t slow down enough. It is nothing he chooses, nothing he thinks about, it is just something that happens. The MP stepping out of the sentry box, white cap and white gloves, doesn’t even have time to salute.
A jab on the gas, again he doesn’t think about it, the bark of the motor as the speedometer climbs up to seventy, several more drifting turns, a sense from somewhere that what he has just done, is now doing, is crazy, even insane, when he sees all the low, squat battalion barracks, realizes he is going too fast to make the corner into the parade grounds, also realizes that somehow he has survived the corner, and brakes to a stop.

The dust rises around him and the soldiers cheer.

They are lined up by company and platoon, a sergeant out in front of each platoon, a master sergeant out in front of each of the four companies, and another master sergeant out in front of the whole rigmarole.

The soldiers are still cheering him, or more likely his car, or even more likely the way he negotiated that last corner, but the sergeants are shouting out the orders and bringing the soldiers to attention.
He walks out onto the parade field and stops before the master sergeant who salutes him. The lieutenant salutes back. To one side, a small military band, which, of course, has been waiting for his arrival, as has the whole battalion, plays a march, the drum louder than anything else. The sergeant doesn’t look at the lieutenant, and the lieutenant doesn’t look at the sergeant while the band plays. Rather the lieutenant looks across the flat parade ground and over rows of barracks and studies the sky which is growing redder, sees the even pinker tops of the Alps, but also sees in his mind the brilliant white light of the MP gate and the MP stepping out and not even having time to salute.

The band stops, one last heavy thud of the drum, and the sergeant salutes. “Sir, eight hundred forty-six men present, forty-six men on sick call and four men absent without leave.”

The sergeant hands a piece of paper over with this information written on it and salutes again.
The lieutenant salutes back, turns and walks towards his car, and when he gets there reaches up and discovers he is still wearing his baseball cap and goggles. Shit! He has been out there in front of the whole battalion in his baseball cap and goggles. Another kind of craziness!

He throws the baseball cap and goggles under the cockpit cover and snaps on his officer’s cap. Somehow he is feeling dizzy, as if he might fall, and steadies himself against the door of the car.
But the enlisted men have already gathered around, jostling for a better view, poking at each other.

“Morning, sir,” several of them say.

“Morning,” he says to them, opening the door of the car and sliding down into the seat, way down.

“Sir, is this here one of those Italian cars?” “British,” he replies.

“How fast she’ll go?”

But he has started the motor and lets out the clutch. The car jerks forward, several soldiers jumping out of the way, and he drives — slowly — past the sign, “A Company, 4th Battalion,” past the sign, “B Company, 4th Battalion,” past the sign, “C Company, 4th Battalion,” turns in at the sign marked “Duty Officer, Battalion Headquarters.” He stops in a small parking lot next to a low, barrack building that looks like all the other barracks lined up on the bare battalion streets. He gets out, zips the cockpit cover over the driver’s side, fastens it down over the nubs and walks over the gravel to the barrack.
Actually it is an old barrack soldiers used to sleep in but it has been converted to one of the battalion offices with desks set in double rows along the wooden floor. The duty officer’s desk is in the center way at the back. The lieutenant sits down at that desk and begins to fill out the five sets of forms for the morning’s reveille, eight hundred forty-six men present, forty-six men on sick call and four men absent without leave. As he writes these figures down he can hear the cough of artillery in the distance.

And again he sees the brilliant white light at the barricade and the MP with white gloves.
As he finishes writing the figures two soldiers wearing fatigues come through the door into the main room. One of the soldiers is large and a bit pudgy, the other small, wiry. The bigger one carries two pails of water and the wiry one carries two mops. The bigger one puts the pails of water down on the floor and the wiry one puts a mop in each pail, and they both wring out their mops and begin to work on the floor.

Again the lieutenant hears the cough of artillery in the distance.

“Sir!” the bigger of the two soldiers almost shouts.

The two soldiers have seen the lieutenant and come to attention, holding their mops at their sides as if they were rifles.

“It’s perfectly all right,” says the lieutenant. “Carry on.” “Sir!” says the larger and more pudgy of the two.

“Just carry on,” the lieutenant repeats.

The lieutenant props his feet up on the desk and watches them as they wring out their mops and begin again. From the way they work he can see their contrasting personalities. The first one, the bigger one, is the generalist. He makes wide sweeps with his mop, covering a lot of territory, but probably leaving small patches dry here and there. The smaller one, the wiry one, is the specialist. He works slowly and carefully, in and out of corners and hard-to-get-to places, leaving nothing undone.

And again the lieutenant sees the bright light illuminating the concrete barrier. A kind of craziness, certainly.

“Sir!”

It is the bigger of the two soldiers. He stands at attention, again holding his mop as if it were a rifle. The smaller one continues to work at the far end of the room.

The lieutenant pulls his legs off the desk. “Yes,” he says. “Permission to ask a question?”

“And?” says the lieutenant.

“Well, sir, that racing car out there in the parking lot?” The lieutenant nods.

“Sir, if you’ll allow me, that’s an Austin-Healey.” The lieutenant nods again.

“And it’s got hydraulic overdrive, right, sir? You don’t shift, if you know what I mean. There’s a button.”

“That’s right,” says the lieutenant.

“Yes, sir. You see, I know a little something about cars.”

“I see you do,” says the lieutenant standing up.

But somehow in standing up the he feels dizzy. He puts his hand down on the desk to steady himself. As he does so he hears the crunching sound of artillery in the distance.

“Sir …?” he hears the bigger of the two soldiers say.

Dizzy or not the lieutenant pushes himself away from the desk and walks down the aisle between the row of other desks past the smaller soldier who had stopped working and stands with mop in an upright position. The lieutenant walks all the way to the end of the barrack and steps outside into the early morning air.

To the east the sun has shown itself, and with no clouds in the sky it will turn into a hot one. Somehow, thinks the lieutenant, army bases always seem hotter than other places. Maybe it’s the lack of trees.

He looks down the battalion streets searching for the trees, but instead sees an olive-drab Army police car and two MPs standing next to his Austin-Healey. One of the MPs is writing something in a notebook and the other has reached over and is unzipping the cockpit cover.

The lieutenant strides out toward his car and when the MPs see him coming they turn toward him. When he is close enough they salute, but the lieutenant doesn’t salute back. “Good morning, sir,” the MPs say, still holding their salute. The lieutenant looks at his car seeing the long slank hood, the butt of the windshields, the flatness of the cockpit cover, and the short rump of the trunk curving back. He unzips the cockpit cover the rest of the way and slips down in. Again, home. Sitting so close to the ground, swallowed.

The two MPs have dropped their salutes.

“Sir,” says the one who had been writing something down in his notebook, “we’ve received reports about this car. I need to ask for your identification.”

From far down inside the car the lieutenant looks up into the morning sun and at the MPs. He sees there is the bigger one and a smaller one. Both wear white hats and white gloves and both carry clubs at their belts.

Maybe it is the brightness of the sun, but the lieutenant feels dizzy again, as if the world is coming apart around him. “Sir …?” he hears one of the MPs saying.

The lieutenant pulls himself back to where he has been and looks at the MPs.

“Don’t you ever put your hands on my car again.”

“Sir?”

The lieutenant has already started the engine, redlining it to five thousand, the muffler barking, and jumps the clutch. The car weaves, rubber and smoke, and, as he aims at the white edges of the Alps, he feels the rush of the wind against him.

Home.

The Knowledge of the Queen: Chapter Four

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

Even from the bird’s-eye view of history, it remains difficult to state with any confidence the nature of the King’s courtship of young lady Maltin. The evidence of conversations and thoughts recorded in letters and diaries does give considerable insight into her feelings. She was curious at first, and flattered, but she took care to scribble girlish clarifications in the margins of her journal that she neither expected nor wanted anything to come of the relationship.

Her disinterested curiosity was short-lived. After their conversation in the antechamber of the Koderzaught ball, they did not speak again for three weeks, at the end of which they met, seemingly by chance in the Embritton Municipal gardens.

Certainly, young lady Maltin took it to be by chance, and wrote in her diary, “He accompanied me and Nan [her personal attendant] throughout the gardens! pointing out flowers of particular interest! and amusing us with historical anecdotes about the gardens. Truthfully, I know the names and types of the flowers quite as well as he, if not better, but he took on the role of teacher and entertainer with such a flourish that it seemed quite out of the question to correct his misapprehension of my knowledge. Again, as in that serendipitous moment at the ball, the king was both chivalrous and charming throughout our encounter. Of course, he is very handsome, which did not lessen my pleasure in his attentions. Once, when he fancied that I could not see, he looked at me with such feeling that, in truth, I blushed. What depths there seem to be that lurk beneath his bluff demeanor. He is a dear, and I blush as I write, I feel that in our meeting twice so quickly after never having met before, there is a certain hint of cheerful destiny.”

In the years that followed, she came, all too well, to understand the submerged depths of the king, and to know that what seems the cheerful work of benevolent destiny might be just as easily the jaws of the snare, beginning to close.

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

She was the queen.

That fact had started as a fire in her mind that Marigold couldn’t put out. After nearly a week in the mountain camp, the flames had died away, and it was an ember. It shone, but not so brightly.

The first three days that Marigold spent in the ravine-shaped camp, she’d spent mainly asleep, and resting when she wasn’t. Every time she woke, Almira or the prophetess would be keeping vigil in her tent. Occasionally, Harrison was there, but never without the prophetess. Every time he attempted to engage her in conversation, the prophetess would scowl and snarl at him to leave her be, you twit. So Marigold passed those days, groggy at best, and mostly asleep.

On the fourth day, the makeshift doctor employed by the revolution allowed her up and out of bed. She wandered through the camp, a prickly city of olive canvas, boards and ropes — with a young plainswoman hovering nearby at all times — and washed herself in the waterfall that came crashing down near the eastern edge of the compound. She changed into a fresh set of the nondescript clothes that constituted the uniform of the rebellion and ate the evening meal together with the bulk of the group, sitting cross-legged around the cooking fire. The group, she realized, was not large. There were maybe thirty — at most fifty — people sitting and crouching around the ring.

It was mid-September (but Marigold had lost, and could not recover, any sense of the actual date) and all remaining traces of late summer were fading out into autumn. So as they ate, the slender sky visible past the cliff-wall and the trees deepened from crimson to violet to sable. Although there had been no obvious signs of surveillance or government search, the rebels were cautious, and let the fire die out with the daylight. They ate in the darkness.

The meal was bread and stew. The bread was warm, and the stew was hot. It was neither nearly so thick nor so rich as the stew Almira had made on the night of the warehouse fire. Marigold ate, and made perfunctory attempts to engage others in conversation. Mostly, she failed. The rebels seemed stuck in a place between awe and suspicion, and were stiff and awkward. Mostly, the rebels stole glances at her, and whispered or muttered among themselves. She was their queen, and consequently not one of them. Neither the prophetess, nor Almira, nor Harrison was present.

The next morning, the instant he heard the sounds of life proceeding from her tent, Harrison had appeared and whisked Marigold away to a quick, unpleasant breakfast of grain cereal, and then through a threadbare curtain seemingly made of retired bedsheet and into an artificial cave the rebels had hewn out of the mountain, and turned — seemingly — into a classroom. It was cramped, and the walls and ceiling were uneven. Still, a board floor had been laid, and two rows of long wooden desks lined the room on either side of center aisle. Daylight suffused through the bedsheet, and lanterns were hung along the center aisle.

Harrison had forced Marigold to sit down, and had launched into a rambling lecture (largely unsupplemented by texts or visual aids) that sketched out a complex portrait of socio-political wrongdoing on the part of the city-led democratic government. All of the important fabrics of the national culture of Trevenland (the social fabric, political, economic, moral, religious, etc.) were being torn apart by the misdeeds of the urbanites.

Marigold wondered whether she was a victim or a perpetrator in this narrative. She certainly had been stolen from the country, but having been stolen, had gone on to enjoy the many benefits of the city. Never enough to feel at home, but enough to kill any desire to return home permanently. Was it Stockholm Syndrome if you preferred the faces from home, but your captor’s house?

Harrison’s contentions, though lacking visual aid, were backed up by such a dense flow of statistics, facts, and theoretical constructs that Marigold normally retained only a rudimentary sense that the king’s abdication (actually a deposition) had led to short-sighted, selfish mob rule. It also led to a more robustly-held feeling that footnotes, statistics and facts, gatekeepers of credibility, are best as trees, and lose their purpose as a forest.

Harrison plunged on. He described how the people of the far-flung provinces, of villages and remote cities and the countryside, began to band together against the unending oppression of the capital. As she watched him describe it, Marigold felt a pang in her chest, and then a swelling sense of pride and defiance. This movement was scattered, and nascent, but energetic, and it would grow, and unify behind one banner now that every disenfranchised citizen could rally not behind the problem of the city government, but to a solution: a dispassionate, benevolent monarch. Marigold found herself wanting desperately to agree. Naturally! Too many cooks had spoiled the soup! And when democracy, that greatest idea of modern civilization, had stubbed its toe on the greed of the capital city and fallen apart, what was left? A problem. A solution was what they needed, and Hivelgott’s amulet had brought them one.

She was the queen. Marigold tumbled back to earth, back into scratchy clothes in a man-made cave with a bedsheet door, and hands that were pale and soft from city life, and trembled as they nervously caressed the tabletop.

The lesson lasted well into the afternoon. For much of the post-lunch portion, Marigold found it difficult to push her thoughts past the idea that she was somehow a central player in the drama Harrison was unfolding. It was disquieting. Equally disquieting was the realization that the rebellion she was being asked to lead was not in any way a fighting force capable of confronting the city. In point of fact, it was more like a loose network of gangs posturing under the banner of valor. Prior to Marigold’s abrupt and questionable coronation in the marketplace, the movement had been wholly a response to the excesses of the urban elites. The emergence of the queen had given a sudden stir to a stagnant pot of petty conflicts and underfunded rebellions. No one was ready for a queen.

On her sixth morning in the mountain camp, Marigold woke slowly, blinking and rolling onto her back on a bed made of fresh pine timber on top of which the rebels had laid a woven mat, a thick comforter, and a pillow smuggled in from a superstore on the outskirts of the city. There was a knot in one of the timbers, a knot that took every opportunity to reach through the mat and the blanket, and grind against her spine. The mat itself was an object of idle curiosity for Marigold, who had wondered, on all three nights in the camp, while she twisted in a tangled mass of sheets and limbs, whether the real problem was that the mat was too thin, or that it, like the boards, was too hard.

These reflections were traditionally followed by hasty regret. She reproached herself — the daughter of a mountain farmer — for having atrophied and eroded in the city to the point where a person could offer her a nice wooden bed with a nice woven mat, and all she thought about was the tiny knot in the boards underneath it all. Most people in the camp had a similar bed. Some slept on the ground. It also felt singularly ungrateful to mind the discomfort, given that she was the queen, and so the rebels had taken great care to arrange this new, specially constructed bed for her. She was confused by the nature of the special construction, but felt instinctively that it would be worse to bring up the fact that she led a far more luxurious life as a commoner in the city than as a queen in the mountains.

This thought had progressed directly in opposition to the question of queenship; a magical item had declared her the queen, and events had transpired that forced her — at the risk of her own life — to accept that that was the case, for now. But was it of any use to anybody, including herself, for Marigold to be the queen? She understood Harrison’s notion that a queen was a rallying pole for the discordant factions of anti-government rebellion, but the convenience of unity carried with it the immutable goal of her rule. A successful revolution meant Marigold becoming the queen in name and deed. Was that in any sense a worthwhile goal?

This was a question Marigold pondered privately, and most poignantly on the three occasions so far on which her spine and the pine knot had carried on nocturnal conversations about other matters. The camp as a whole was caught up in another conversation altogether: what next?

Marigold felt that the question of what use she was as queen ought to be answered first. What came next meant nothing without a goal to move toward.

This morning she had a clear goal: food. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, out from beneath the comforter, and sat with her feet dangling down. Even inside the tent, the air was brisk. She shivered, and gritted her teeth. Much like the bed, her tent was no match for her modest commoner’s apartment. On the other hand, the cramped canvas room with a shipping pallet floor was the greatest of the luxuries her royalty had afforded her: her tent was hers alone.

She yawned as she pulled on the thick military pants she was already growing accustomed to. She shivered as she pulled on a tank top and the flak jacket Almira insisted she wear, and shrugged into her coat. She pulled up her hair and dropped the royal amulet around her neck. She slipped her feet into high-top boots and laced them up, the currents of her thoughts eddying in the blank current of her consciousness. Finished with the boots, she stood up, and faced the zippered door. She took a deep breath and filled her lungs with frost. Marigold gasped a little, and unzipped the door.

Outside of the tent, the air was cold. The sky overhead was deep violet shot through with shreds of vivid color. A wall of sunlight was creeping down the slopes of the mountain, inching toward the camp, which remained encased in frost and shadow.

She walked to the fire, frost crackling underfoot, passing through clouds of her own breath. For all that she’d lost of her childhood, she had never lost her love of rising early, and walking through a waking world.

When she reached the fire, she found only the four guards who’d been awake at their posts through the night. They were sitting in silence, eating cold pieces of bread and staring at the flames. The morning guards — who built the fire — were already in position at the gate and along the barrier.

One of the eaters, an angular, white-skinned man named Douglas who had been introduced to Marigold as the “head of the guards,” nodded in acknowledgement, and mumbled “hail to the queen.” The others, noting her presence, nodded and mumbled, and scooted sideways on the logs around the fire to make room for her.

“No coffee?” she guessed, settling down onto a log, and looking around.

“Morningfolk drank theirs dry, I’d imagine,” said Douglas, pulling another piece of the thin, crusty bread from the plate resting on the ground, “and as you might imagine, we’re not big on coffee for breakfast. “

“No, I suppose not,” said Marigold, yawning. “How was the night-watch?”

As though prompted by hers, Douglas also yawned. He scratched the stubbly rectangle of his chin. “Boring as hell.”

“Thank God,” put in another of the guards, a plainswoman. She was short, slim, and had a rounded mass of tightly curled hair.

“Thank God,” agreed Douglas. “Bad enough staying up all night. Nothing much worse than staying up all night fighting.”

“Oh,” said Marigold, “it’s an incredible sacrifice. I’m sure we don’t know what it means.”

“Royal ‘we’?” asked the plainswoman, and took a large bite of the bread.

Douglas raised his eyebrows and gave the woman a look of disapproval. “Respect the queen.”

The plainswoman shook her head, and disentangled her mouth from the bread enough to say, “No, no. No disrespect.”

Marigold chuckled. “No,” she said. “Not royal; inclusive. You’re not protecting me; you’re protecting all of us, and our hopes for the future. And we are all in your debt.”

“Due respect, ma’am,” said Douglas, leaning forward, and resting his arms on his knees, “we’re protecting you. You are our hopes for the future.”
The other three muttered assent.

“Why is that?” asked Marigold. “What can there possibly be about me that gives you hope for the future?”

She looked up, beyond the fire and the guards to the golden light inching down the mountainside. The fire crackled merrily on, while her question hung unanswered.

“It’s a good question,” said Douglas, at last, “but the answer’s too long for the moment, and I’m too tired to give it. Sorry for that.”

“Verbose, he is,” another of the guards, a round-shouldered Valeview guardsman, informed Marigold without irony. “S’like this — the pot’s been nearing boil for a long bit, and hasn’t been nowhere for all that steam. The coast, the plains, the mountains — we’re all het up, and we have been, and you — you’re our path to something better.”

He looked around the circle, and addressed himself to his fellow guards with widened eyes in almost a whisper. “We’ve got a queen again, we have.”

Douglas raised his cup of water. “To the queen, and better days to come.”

The other guards raised their cups as well. “The queen and better days to come.”

This seemed to finish the conversation. The guards polished off the last crumbs of their meal and stumped away to nap, leaving the queen alone beside the fire.

Soon enough, light footsteps, and a hint of cologne announced Harrison’s presence.

He slid down beside the fire and crossed his legs. His hair was damp. He rubbed his hands together and held them toward the fire with a satisfied sigh.

Marigold looked over, caught his eye, and smiled.

“You’re a hard woman to find alone,” he said, returning the smile.

“Have you been trying hard?”

“Harder than I should have, probably.”

“I’m flattered. What reason would you have to be finding me alone?”

“Any number of reasons,” he said, still smiling. But then their eyes met, and he looked away, down into the fire.

“One of them,” he went on, his voice lower, “is that I’m impatient. We’re on the verge of wasting time. We need to think about when we’ll start to move.”

“Move?”

“We surely can’t stay up here planning and talking,” he said, gesturing at the compound. “Sometime, we’re going to have to go back down, and fight.”

“Gosh,” said Marigold, “I guess so. I just — to be honest, I don’t know how. I don’t know what.”

“I know. I know,” Harrison leaned back, “but we all trust that once you get caught up to speed, you will.”

“Why?” asked Marigold. Her stomach rumbled.

“You’re the queen,” he said matter-of-factly.

“That seems to matter a lot,” said Marigold, “enough that my judgment goes unquestioned.”

“Well,” said Harrison, “to a desperate nation hollowed out and divided by the best-intended policies of the ‘coming future,’ a young, beautiful queen with their best interests at heart is enough.”

Marigold felt a rising tide of irritated befuddlement, exacerbated by the ongoing lack of breakfast and coffee.

“Fine,” she said, “assume that we can say with any certainty that the nation is longing for something new, that everyone outside of the capital city is pining for a new system, and they’d accept without question a young queen who professes their best interest — assume that, and I’m still wondering why they’d accept that I am the queen, not just a silly pretender to the crown.”

She did not say so, but Marigold remembered vividly that, two weeks and one day before, on a hot afternoon in the early autumn, Hivelgott had had no trouble inciting a mob to pursue her, knowing full well the implication of the amulet. Nor, she thought, had the gunmen and Kemizeze at the warehouse seemed inclined to follow her just because the amulet said she was the queen.

She also remembered the half-empty box of whole-grain, health-promoting breakfast cereal, now going stale in the unattended cupboards of her apartment.

The fire crackled, on either side of them, Marigold could hear the intermittent rustle of the camp shaking itself and rising to the day.

“The people are longing for change,” said Harrison, “and besides, you’ve got the amulet.”

“I do,” said Marigold slowly, “but …”

She paused again. The rustle of awakening had become heavy footsteps. The heavy footfalls became the prophetess trundling up to the fire, wheezing. She let herself down between Harrison and Marigold in a cascade of creaks. Marigold bit her lip.

“I think,” said the prophetess in her customary pre-breakfast growl, “that her divine highness and her most enthusiastic of advisors are wandering and wondering indirectly toward a powerful point, which is that a substantial portion of the population of Trevenland, especially outside the cities, would require only the slightest proofs of authentic royalty to join the side of the queen. After all,” she went on, “why are the rest of us here?”

Harrison raised his eyebrows.

“Yes,” he asked, archly, “why are the rest of us here?”

“I don’t know,” said the prophetess and cleared her throat. “There’s a queen, but not breakfast or coffee.”

She grinned at Harrison, and he glared at her.

“That’s a wonderful summary,” put in Marigold, “and a good question.”

“It’s an obvious question,” crackled the prophetess, “and you know it’s not the real question.”

“What’s —” started Marigold, but she was interrupted by Harrison,

“The real question,” he said, with a sour glance at the prophetess, “is when we’ll put the sacrifice and the spirit of these loyalists to good use, when we’ll finally rise up, and take the fight to the capital! Our passion is nothing without action!”

“Right,” said Marigold, “right.”

“So let’s start!” said Harrison, “Let’s plan today, and start tomorrow! Enough with inaction! Enough with lethargy! Enough with inertia!”

As his voice rose to the crescendo, he slapped the ground.

The fire crackled.

“We’ll talk to Almira,” said the prophetess. Harrison looked at Marigold.

“We’ll talk to Almira,” she said, and the words were heavy on her tongue.

Her stomach churned.

***

In the absence of an organized revolution, decisions and counsel fell to Marigold, Almira, the prophetess, Harrison and Douglas. They convened at lunchtime, carrying bowls of stew from the cooking fire into the classroom cave. It had become an unseasonably warm and sunny day, and the cool interior of the cave should have been a welcome change. But Marigold’s fingers were cold, and her stomach was still filled with a cold ache. She felt powerless — tossing in the grip of a current that was driven by the amulet at her neck and the voices of the other four people in the room.

She set down her soup, and pulled the chair about so that it was facing the other chairs across the table.

As queen, she’d been served first, and so she was able to watch the rest of her “top committee” enter. Of this hastily convened council, only Harrison fit her notions of a revolutionary leader. He looked the part — tall, with cords of muscle flickering under his smooth brown skin. He was beautifully handsome, as well. As he set down his soup, light from the doorway outlined his strong, straight nose and the clarity of his jawline.

More than his magnetic appearance, he had the right spirit, thought Marigold. He was passionate, reckless and full of fury at injustice. He was here on compulsion — carried by deep currents of conviction and emotion that surged at the core of his being.

Meantime, what were the rest? The prophetess, stomping into the room with her soup jostling and spilling as she muttered to herself, was an ill-tempered enigma. What possible motive she could have for joining this fledgling rebellion was beyond Marigold’s perspicacity. As to leading a rebellion, she was far too erratic. No sane people would rally to a leader whose speech and conduct were an endless torrent of nonsense and selfishness, punctuated erratically with bravery, wisdom and apparent magic. Douglas was a henchman and royalist from birth. His motive and usefulness were stable, and limited.

Almira came last. The village coffee-girl. A widow. A mother. Even in the two weeks since the explosive events in the Valeview marketplace, grief and loss had continued to erode the blunt sexual magnetism of her youth into a magnetism that was more complex, but no less strong. Almira set down her bowl of soup, and eased down into a chair, maneuvering her pregnant belly into place. Everything in her carriage suggested dogged, unflinching strength. Then, seeming not to notice Marigold’s gaze, she glanced down the desk toward Harrison.

The glance was a flash, but it was a look of such piercing vulnerability that Marigold bit her lip, and looked down into her soup. Two days in the camp had sealed her belief that Harrison and Almira were sleeping together, and had been for some time. A week in their company had not unsealed to her why they preferred to keep it a secret.

Marigold bit her lip again, harder, and tried to focus her thoughts.

“Alright,” said Almira, breathlessly, interrupting the unpleasant buzzing in Marigold’s mind, “Alright, let’s … let’s talk.”

“Shouldn’t we kick off the council with some sort of … prayer or ritual, or something?” asked the Prophetess. “Just to properly establish the solemnity of the moment?”

They all peered at each other uncertainly.

“Also,” said the prophetess, who seemed to relish the opportunity to chew and chat simultaneously, “maybe we should grab a giant pinecone or something, and the person who’s speaking holds the pinecone, so nobody interrupts.”

She glanced at Harrison and raised her eyebrows, as though to indicate where she thought the interruptions might originate. Harrison gave her back a scornful glare.

“One way or another,” said Almira, “there will almost certainly be people who die because of this meeting. Probably innocent people. That’s as much solemnity as I need.”

“And with that on our minds,” she went on, having cowed Harrison and the prophetess to her satisfaction, “we’ll have our say when the queen asks it, and I wager we’ll be serious enough to keep calm without passing around a pinecone.”

She turned the blue sky of her eyes on Marigold. “Your highness?”

“Um,” said Marigold, confused by the sudden feeling that — with lives at stake — her feelings didn’t matter. “I guess I thought — I thought —”

“— We thought it might be a good time to talk about what comes next,” said Harrison, interrupting helpfully.

Almira took a spoonful of soup, and looked at Marigold.

“Is that what you were about to say?” she asked.

Marigold’s mouth was dry. Her ears buzzed.

“Harrison and the prophetess had an idea,” she said, “that they wanted to discuss.”

Almira nodded, and held Marigold’s gaze for a moment longer.

“Alright,” she said, “if you want to discuss their plan, let’s discuss their plan.”

There was silence. Marigold’s breath was coming in quick, short gasps.

“Your idea,” the prophetess reminded Harrison, then slurped a long, loud spoonful of soup.

“Right,” said Harrison, “well, over the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure what the logical next step is for us. How do we move beyond being a tiny enclave stuck in the mountains with winter approaching?”

Nods all around.

“And I was forced to ask why we’re here in the first place. It’s a very simple equation. We are all here, preparing to freeze or starve or be slaughtered on the slopes of the Trevenmal for two reasons. We’ve seen the horror of the urban center’s oligarchic grip on our verdant, fecund land, and we know that only dramatic change will save our nation. Second, we now know what form that change will appear in — we have a queen.”

He beamed.

“So you’re suggesting …?” asked Almira.

“That we leverage the widespread loyalty to the queen to gather the numbers and resources needed to overthrow the government.”

“How?”

“We —” Harrison paused.

“We don’t know what shape the revolution will take,” he said at last, “And we’ve lost time in inaction on the mountain. Where I find I must disagree with her highness is on the point of next steps. Why plan our next step after the people rally to our banner if we don’t know whether they will, and who will be among them. Better to rally, reassess and then to plan our next step.”

Almira looked from him to the prophetess.

“Eh,” said the prophetess. “Honestly, we’ll all probably be dead in six months, no matter what. May as well just jog down the mountain, call a television station and say ‘Here’s the queen!’”

“Why would the television station care?” asked Almira.

“The amulet,” said the prophetess, “that priceless piece of magic metal.”

“And why wouldn’t the government just shut down the station and bomb the marketplace?”

“‘They can’t do that on live television,” said the prophetess, “they won’t.”

“How are we going to get the amulet to them in the first place?” asked Marigold. “If the authorities hear anything at all about me and the amulet, they can get to us before the broadcast.”

“We meet in secret,” said Harrison.

“How?” asked Almira.

Harrison threw up his hands. “I don’t know!” he said. “But there’s a goal, isn’t there? Our goal is a secret meeting with a television station! Let’s figure it out.”

“The television station — if it’s a worthwhile station —” said the prophetess, “will want some sort of proof besides the amulet.”

Douglas and Harrison peered at her in confusion. Almira nodded in agreement. Marigold felt a rush of emotion she couldn’t name.

“So perhaps,” said the prophetess, “we start by finding proof that she’s the queen.”

She smirked at Harrison and Douglas’s astonishment.

“Oh, no, I know, I know — we’ve seen the amulet. But if we’re dealing with a city-sympathetic journalist, we’ll need to do more than waggle the amulet in her face. We’ll need explanations. Where did the amulet come from? What reason would it have to recognize Marigold? What does Marigold’s mother have to say?

“The amulet is nice,” she said, “but it might not be enough.”

In the overwhelming silence that fell across the table, Marigold felt her stomach lurching. She stole a glance around the table. Everyone was looking down. Her stomach was cold.

“We go to Valeview,” said Marigold, “and we find out if I’m the queen.”

To be continued

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Gunpowder Trails Chapter Ten

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

Chapter Ten

Maybe someone had forgotten to say the right prayers before they set out on this trip, Charles thought, because it was like someone was trying to stop them from getting to Harpers Ferry. Now that the storm had blown through and the floodwater had dropped, murky fog rolled through the valleys, thick as soup and making the stony ground treacherous and slick with beaded water.

The sun was gone, and so were familiar landmarks. Had the smugglers still been up in the higher mountains, where the ridge tops ran reliably southwest, they would have had little problem navigating. But they had crossed the Potomac River and were crossing rolling hills that wandered wherever they wanted to, so the leaders had to rely on their memories. Someone ought to come up with a little hand compass you could carry into the woods, Charles thought.

“We are definitely way off now,” John said, as they halted in front of a thorny wall of wild rose brambles and greenbriars.

“I don’t think so,” George said. “We came straight off the mountains at the place we always do, and crossed the river at about the right spot. We’ve been bearing east since then. I’d say the river is about a mile north of here.”

“I thought we were going more south than that,” John said. “We turned to go around that one ravine and never really angled back.”

“Yes, we did,” George said. “When we crossed that creek. The reason it looks different here is a wildfire came through, must have been last fall, and burned off some of the trees, and now there’s all this new brush growing up. You can see the charcoal here.” He pointed at a massive white pine trunk.

“That could have been ten years ago,” John said. “This has been growing for more than a year, for sure. We’re way south of where we should be. And we’re still heading south.”

They all looked up at the fog. Even the treetops were misty and dim.

“Nah,” George said. “We’re pretty much where we should be, and we’re going east. It’s just the fire has changed the way everything looks. See, there’s more charcoal there, and some more over there.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Old Harry said. “Last time we came through, I remember this place I think. It was a little thick, but a lot easier to get through then. Guess it grew up quite a bit in a year.”

“I don’t know,” Warren said. “I don’t think it had time to grow quite this much. Either way, we have to find a new way. We’ll never get through here. Why don’t we cut north and follow the river for a while?”

“Because that’s way out of our way,” Old Harry said. “The river goes all over the place. Let’s just get to Harpers Ferry. If we go around this mess it will add a half a day. I think if we push through this first little bit the brush will clear up some. Like it was last time.”

“No way,” John said. “I’ve been stuck in way too many of these little hell holes, and I’m not doing it again. We always say, ‘It probably clears up just ahead,’ and we always end up stuck in there for hours, and we have to cut our way through. Let’s go left. I say that’s east, and you say that’s north. Either option would be decent. But if we’re going south, we could end up in God knows what. We’ve never been down that way.”

They argued for some time, until George finally put an end to it. “Listen, Old Harry’s right. I think I can see it starting to get a little clearer up there. Let’s just try to get through here. We can always turn around if it gets too bad.”

Half an hour later brambles wrapped around their legs, pulled at their packs, dug into their sleeves and yanked off their hats as they crawled on hands and knees, grunting and cursing. New openings always turned out to be dead ends, little gaps in rocky spots even the briars didn’t like. Smugglers sawed and hacked at the briars, sucking the drops of blood on their fingers. They punctuated their cursing with slaps, because a big crowd of mosquitoes and gnats was partying around the smugglers’ heads.

“No point turning around now,” George said. “We’ve already come this far.”

“Over this way,” Old Harry said. “I think I see an opening.”

Four hours later, a squirrel rustling around for acorns on the floor of a young oak forest stopped and sat up on its back legs, straining its ears. An ominous crashing came from deep in the briar thicket, a place no large animals ever went. After listening for a minute, the squirrel dropped back down onto all fours and scrambled away up a tree trunk.

The crashing slowly grew louder, until a bearded man with scratches all over his face and a wild look in his eye came into view, slashing the last few brambles in a hurry and then pushing out into the open woods. He took off his hat and wiped his face, looked around at the open woods, and blew out a long breath like a man who had just finished a hard day in the salt factory. He dropped his pack on the ground and flopped down beside it.

One by one, the rest of the band came out at different spots, like sausage through a grinder and collapsed.

“See,” Old Harry said, “look at all the time we saved.”

The bodies littered around emitted an irritable buzz not unlike a grouchy beehive.

“We’ll make camp here and rest for the evening,” George said. “Start a fire and chase away these damn bugs. Then tomorrow, we’ll make a good push and camp near Harpers Ferry. And I’m sure they’ll sell us a keg of beer in town.”

Happier noises came from the scattered bodies, and some of them even raised their fists in the air.

A deep scratch ran across one of Charles’ hands, and he had several new holes in his shirt, but he was still glad they’d gone through the thicket. Amid all the crashing and cursing and general distraction, he’d been able to maneuver next to Warren and say a few quiet words explaining his plan to get away.

Warren had been delighted, at least, as delighted as anyone can be in the middle of an enormous briar patch, and agreed to the plan.

Charles had thought making a final decision to run away would bring a sense of relief. He was glad to not have to drag the burden of that struggle along with him anymore. But relief wasn’t quite the word for it. His stomach still twisted into knots as he kept picturing what might go wrong. He had plenty of vivid scenarios to imagine.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Old Harry said the next morning as dawn lit up the sky in the direction he had been regarding as north. “The sun’s a little out of place today.”

“I will repeat what I said before we went into that briar patch yesterday, and I quote: ‘I think we’re a little off track,’” John said. “Now, if we had gone east like I suggested …”

“Oh, we’re just a little more south than usual,” Old Harry said. “Settle down. We’ll get back on track. A few little scratches isn’t anything to whine so much about.”

“A few little scratches!” James said. “I left most of my skin in there. That was some of my favorite skin, too.”

“I’m tired of all this yakking about a little detour. You want nice easy living and a bath every month, stay home,” George said. “Anyway, all we have to do is go east from here, which I think we can all agree is that way, where the sun is coming up, and we’ll hit the river again where it takes a big turn south. From there, it will be pretty easy going to get to town.”

And he was right. By the middle of the afternoon, they had easy hiking through the gently rolling country, and soon could hear the rush of small streams pouring into the lazy Potomac.

With water nearby again, the smugglers, who had been subdued and irritable, started talking and joking again. Most of them had grown up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, with fathers who fished for snakeheads or striped bass to sell at market. They’d worked the long handles of oyster tongs to fill their skipjack boats, and tended crab traps, and dug for tuckahoe roots in the marshes. Though most of them had also spent a lot of time in the woods hunting, none of them really felt comfortable in the mountains, where shallow little streams were the only water for miles.

They could speak the language of the Potomac, read its marshes and ripples and see at a glance where best to drop a net for fish, knew its water birds and muddy smell. The river was going the same direction they were going, to the Chesapeake Bay, to home.

They still had a long hike ahead. Many of them would have preferred to get boats in Harpers Ferry and ride the river back. It suited them better than walking, and as a bonus, cats didn’t like water. But George wouldn’t do it. He said the river was too exposed, making them easy marks for robbers to ambush them and take their sulfur.

Instead, they always traveled by foot from Harpers Ferry, keeping close to the river until it came to the big ruined city where the metal miners worked. The miners were friendly with the kingdom of Easton and did a lot of trade business with it, so George didn’t trust them.

That was all ahead of them. For now, they were less than a day’s hike from Harpers Ferry.

“We’ll camp here,” George said, “and then we’ll decide whose turn it is to go down for supplies.”

“I don’t mind going,” Warren said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been the one to go into town. And just because I like to be cautious” — he glanced at John — “doesn’t mean I won’t take my share of the risks.”

“Works for me,” George said. “Let’s see, we’ll need two or three people to go with you.” He looked around the group, where everyone was suddenly busy setting up camp and not making eye contact with him.

“It’s really a pretty routine run,” Warren said. “I can just take the slaves this time. I’ll need two of them to help with the supplies, and one of them can carry the beer.”

“Sounds fine to me,” George said.

The busyness around the camp subsided and conversation picked up again. For those left behind, it would be a rare day to sit around camp smoking and playing dice, and swimming in the river.

Charles swallowed. He wiped the sweat off his palms, and had trouble undoing the lacing on his pack.

After breakfast the next morning, Warren and the slaves piled all the food and gear from their packs on the ground to make room for the supplies they would buy.

Charles noticed Warren’s fire drill was missing from his stack. Charles’ pile was short a few items too — a couple of flints, all his extra bullets and gunpowder for his pistol, some of his rope, and a little pemmican. Nobody seemed to be watching, but the piles of goods seemed obviously suspicious, calling attention to themselves as if they were glowing green. All it would take would be for George to notice something amiss and peer inside Charles’ pack, and he’d come to damaging conclusions without much effort.

Gary and Marguerite, while down at the mouth about being drafted for the trip, suffered no such fear. They unloaded everything from their packs except a little food for lunch.

The leaders, meanwhile, discussed how much tobacco the traders in Harpers Ferry would want, how much food they’d need for the rest of the trip, and whether it was wise to waste one of the slaves on a keg of beer.

“My own feeling is,” Old Harry said, “it’d be much more efficient to pick up a keg of whisky, since we’re going to have them carry it all that way anyhow. Same amount of liquid, but more punch, if you see what I mean. One slave can hardly carry enough beer to get everybody a decent drink. Now, with whiskey …”

“Not a chance,” George said. “I’m not crazy enough to let a keg of whiskey loose in this bunch, unless you are looking to start some kind of war with Harpers Ferry.”

“But as far as getting the most out of your money,” Old Harry said, “it’s hard to argue that —”

“Beer,” George said. “And I might change my mind about that.”

George never missed a stop at the pub when he went into a town, so this was a transparently idle threat.

“Well,” Warren said, “you all ready?” He swung his pack up on his shoulders.

Warren set off with a long stride into the woods toward Harpers Ferry, as relaxed as if he were heading down to the river for a little fishing, and the slaves trailed after him.

After a few dozen yards, Charles glanced back. Smoke rose from the breakfast fires and smugglers lounged around, chewing on handfuls of pemmican or dried acorns. It was hard to believe he would never see the camp, and all those familiar faces, again. And yet, he hoped fervently that he would never see them again.

He was no longer a slave. Now, he was a runaway slave, a man with a price on his head. The owner who would put that price on his head was settling down for a nap by the fire only a few feet away.

What they were doing was folly, setting out into the wilderness with so few people and so few weapons for self defense. The predators lurking in the woods would soon be joined in the hunt by a swarm of angry smugglers. For defense, Warren and Charles had two pistols between them, which weren’t all that accurate. They had a little bit of spare gunpowder and shot, but not much, and two unarmed companions who still didn’t know they were running away.

If the trading was poor in town, they might also be in trouble, since man cannot live on trade tobacco alone. They wouldn’t be able to do any hunting, either, because it was extremely probable they would be in a hurry for most of the rest of their trip. They’d also want to be as quiet as possible while they were on the run, which made the signal beacon of echoing gunshots out of the question.

What they needed was bows and a quiver or two full of stout arrows, a weapon that was quiet, deadly and accurate. But they couldn’t walk away for a trading trip to town loaded down with cumbersome weapons without raising questions.

If Warren was bothered by any of these worries, he didn’t show it. He chatted with Gary about the route ahead, and what price they might get for their tobacco in town, and where would be the best place to buy their beer, and whether light or dark would be best. Charles wondered when Warren was going to drop the pretense of the supply trip. It did seem like a good idea to put plenty of distance between them and the smuggler camp before floating any revolutionary ideas to the other slaves.

As they topped the last gentle rise and came to the settlement, the murmur of the current against the rocks near town met them. Ahead were the first farms they’d seen since Scranton, weedy and small, with tumbled down buildings, but human-made. After weeks in the monotony of the forest, fields and houses were a welcome sight for the travelers.

They wound their way along a narrow rutted dirt road, littered with animal dung, through patches of corn and occasional huts with thatched roofs. Goats clambered over piles of asphalt and scrap metal. Small naked children stopped what they were doing, stared at the trio, then ran inside the huts as they approached. Farmers gathering brown cornstalks into shocks straightened up to watch the travelers go by with sober faces. Warren lifted his hand to them, but they didn’t wave back.

These were the Harpers Ferry residents — poor, dirty, and, according to their reputation, greedy cheaters. This rumor gained easy traction among those who had dealt with Harpers Ferry’s fine merchants, who made a good part of their living on trading sub-par supplies at premium prices to travelers who had no other options. The merchants, when confronted with this charge, as they sometimes were, reacted indignantly, framing their trades as more an act of charity, parting with precious supplies to aid weary travelers. Thus all sides acquired a sense of wronged virtue out of the exchange.

As Warren led the way into the town proper, the farm fields grew more erratic, zigzagging around the ruins of the old city. The footpath followed the fields around piles of broken bricks and trees pushing up through walls and roofs. The streets were empty, except for stray dogs that watched them go past, ears pointed up, before scurrying away.

The founders of the new Harpers Ferry had founded their town within and atop the old one, using its bricks and stones and walls in their houses and stores. It was the only settlement Charles had ever been to where this was the case. Most towns had ruins somewhere nearby, buried in the woods or covered over with sea water, but always were built on new ground.

But Harpers Ferry ignored the possible wrath of the dead. This created the effect of refugees living in a pile of rubble, but it gave them a lot of handy building material and put them right at the strategic confluence of the two rivers. The river brought traders from the south and east, and occasionally a bold Appalachie trader from the west, to meet in Harpers Ferry, giving the town a meager living.

If anything, the city’s scoffing at the sacred helped with business, because visitors were jumpy and uneasy among the ruins and quicker to make deals so they could get out of town.

Warren and the slaves finally made it through the rubble to the motley collection houses and stores that made up the village.

Most of the merchant’s shops lined the bank where the Shenandoah River joined the Potomac. They traveled from one to the other, but most of their stops got them only a little moldy cornmeal or dubious pemmican.

“Sorry,” one of them told Warren in the trade language. “It is the best I can offer. There will not be very many people with anything to give for this tobacco until spring. We do not get much trade during the winter. And I must feed my family in the winter too.”

A couple of times, Warren had to pull out wampum beads to add to his offer. This helped even the most reluctant traders loosen their grip on their supplies, and even suddenly find more tucked away that they had forgotten about.

Was all that wampum Warren’s, Charles wondered, or had he lifted some from the band’s supply? Most of the smugglers didn’t have any wampum, but the leaders carried it for situations like this when traders were stingy, or for times they needed to ease misunderstandings with the authorities.

Would a principled person not only run out on his band, but steal them blind on the way out? Some people would also consider it theft for him to take the slaves along, Charles supposed, so stealing a little wampum could maybe be justified.

When Warren bought several fur-lined bedrolls, Gary turned to Charles and Marguerite with a puzzled frown.

“What do we need those for?” he whispered. Marguerite shrugged, but she was more alert than she’d been all day.

Charles looked away.

“What’s the matter with you?” Gary said.

“Nothing.”

Why hadn’t Warren told them what was going on yet? Maybe he didn’t trust them. But since Warren was going to give them the option of joining him and Charles in risking their lives running away, or else risking their lives hiking back to the smugglers virtually alone and unarmed, it didn’t seem fair to Gary and Marguerite to leave them ignorant like this. He’d be pretty angry if somebody else sprung a decision like that on him at the last minute.

After a few more merchant visits, Warren said, “Well, we’re about set. I just have to run down to the dock for a second about something; I’ll be right back.”

“But we hardly got enough food to make it worth coming to town,” Gary said. “And what about the beer?”

“We won’t need that,” Warren said. “Or all that food.”

“What? But — that’s what we came for.”

“Not exactly,” Warren said.

“What are you talking about?

“Well, the good news for you is, I think you’ll like the change in plans,” Warren said. “We’re not going back to the smugglers.”

Gary and Marguerite both gasped. His mouth hung open, and a smile lit up her eyes.

“What do you mean, we’re not going back to the smugglers? What are you suggesting?” Gary said.

This was a little slow on the uptake, even for Gary, Charles thought.

“Charles and I are running away,” Warren said. “You and Marguerite are most welcome to come with us.”

“Why?” Gary shouted. “You’re a leader. You can’t do this! This is treason!”

“Come on, Gary,” Charles said. “This is our chance to get away.”

“I agree,” Warren said. “I can see why you’d be surprised, but I have to admit I can’t see why you’d have any objection to it.”

“I don’t — I’m not — sure I’m a slave for now, but I’m a smuggler too. Besides, you can’t just walk off and leave everybody and steal food and slaves. Where’s your honor anyway?”

“Fuck honor,” Marguerite said.

Gary took a step toward her, his hands in fists. “Just because you hate Old Harry and everybody else doesn’t mean all the rest of us feel like that. You go ahead and run away. Nobody needs you anyway. I like being a smuggler. I’m not just going to run away because you’ve all decided you’re tired of it.”

He turned to Warren. “And you — what’s in it for you? Are you just going to sell them when you get back? If you get back?”

Marguerite looked at Warren.

“No,” Warren said.

“Oh, sure,” Gary said. “‘I just want to help out the poor slaves, there’s nothing in it for me,’ is that how it is? Bull shit.”

“Sure, there’s something in it for me,” Warren said.

“What?”

“Can’t tell you, unless you come with us.”

Gary spat. “No way! What kind of fool do you take me for?”

Marguerite composed her expression into a mask again, and scrutinized Warren.

“Listen, Gary,” Warren said. “You thought I’m the kind of person who likes smuggling. Well I’m not. It’s a bad business, young man, and I’m getting out of it. And I’d advise you to do the same.” His voice softened. “Come with us, Gary. I can get you a better life. Smuggling is dangerous. Smuggling is wrong. You’re not one of them.”

Gary stared at him, mouth slightly open. Then his face hardened. He turned, and ran back toward the smugglers’ camp, leaving his pack on the street.

They watched him go. Warren shook his head. “Well, it’s time for us to leave,” he said. “Marguerite, are you coming with us, or going with him?”

“I’ll come with you,” Marguerite said. “I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t really care. You’re going the same way I’m going, so I’ll come along.”

Warren nodded. “Alright,” he said, “good enough. Then we’ll need a boat. Or actually, we need a canoe.”

He turned and strode toward the river, setting a rapid pace but somehow not looking a bit panicked.

Only one person was down at the riverfront docks, a big man with a long graying beard. He looked at them without smiling.

“Hello there!” Warren said in the trade language. “We are looking for a canoe to buy; do you know anyone who has one?”

“No,” the man said.

“Really? I see a number of canoes here, surely there’s somebody around here who has an extra one.”

The man narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“Well, we’re trying to go downriver,” Warren said. “That’ll be easier if we have a canoe, don’t you think?”

The man still didn’t smile. “Not my problem.”

“Are any of these canoes yours?”

“Yes.”

“Well, which one?” Warren had lost some of his friendly tone.

The man jerked his thumb at one of the canoes. “Not for sale,” he said.

Warren pulled out a shiny strand of wampum and dangled it in front of him. “Not even for this?”

The man’s eyes widened, and he wavered. Warren dug out another strand, and the man’s eyes bugged out further. Then they narrowed. “Say, now, where did you get all that?”

Warren smiled. “I’m a trader. We come across these things from time to time.”

“If you’re an honest man and a trader, then why are you in such a hurry to get a boat?” the man said. “Why don’t you already have a boat? Like as not, as soon as you’re gone, the real owner of that wampum is going to turn up and I’ll have some awkward questions to answer, won’t I?”

“No, no, of course not,” Warren said, but his eyes flickered to the side just a tiny bit.

The man put his hands on his hips. “We don’t like thieves around here,” he said. He looked up the riverbank, and gestured to another man who was coming down toward the dock. He rattled off a quick sentence in the Harpers Ferry language, and the man hurried toward them.

Charles’ heart sank. He pictured Gary, likely on the other side of town by now, hustling toward the camp with the news that would have them all swarming here practically at a run, guns loaded.

Warren looked at the man hurrying toward them. Then he turned to the man with the gray beard, and punched him between the eyes. The man threw up his arms, flailed them in a circle trying to regain his balance, and then dropped off the dock like a duck tied to a stone.

“Go, go!” Warren said, shoving Charles and Marguerite, who, with the other Harpers Ferry man, were staring at the spot where the man with the gray beard had been standing. Warren threw their packs in the canoe, waited for Charles and Marguerite to climb aboard, then jumped in. He pulled out his knife, slashed the rope holding the canoe, and shoved off.

The man climbed out on the dock, water flowing down his beard into a puddle. He massaged his nose and hacked and coughed like he had swallowed a lizard. Then he pointed to the canoe and shouted to the other man, perhaps under the impression that he wasn’t up to speed on what was going on.

The two ran around the dock, looking for the other boats, which Warren had just cut loose and shoved out into the current. Then they tore off toward town.

Warren shoved a paddle at Charles. “Are you going to let me do all the work, or are you going to help paddle?”

Charles had always hated the water, and had never learned how to paddle a canoe. He dipped the paddle in like someone toying with a wad of cold porridge.

“Put some muscle in it!” Warren bellowed. “We’ve got to move!”

“Not like that!” he shouted a moment later. “You’re getting water all over me!”

“Give me that,” Marguerite said, snatching the paddle. She began knifing it into the water and the canoe surged forward.

“That’s more like it!” Warren said, beaming. “Watch her very carefully, Charles.”

Charles declined. Instead, he looked back toward the dock. The point of the town, where the two rivers ran together, slid slowly away.

The river was wide, but the water rippled around many rocks. Rows of boulders like teeth cut across the Potomac in a couple places, topped with tiny trees and brush. Charles realized they were ruins of some kind, probably the foundation of an old bridge. On the far bank, a rocky cliff rose above the river.

A crowd of people was running toward the dock now. Carrying canoes.

Warren grinned at him. “All we’ve got to do is out-paddle them until it gets dark, Charles. Don’t look so worried.” He actually seemed to be enjoying himself.

The river meandered ahead of them, broad and slow. The low hills along its shore were blanketed with forest just beginning to turn yellow with autumn against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky. A coolness in the air hinted at the end of summer.

Here and there through the trees, Charles could see a road running along the north riverbank.

“What if they ride along that road and catch up with us?” he asked Warren.

Warren considered this as he dug into the water with his paddle and steered around the spots where the water swirled against rocks. His answer came out in short bursts as he grabbed breath between strokes. “Well, they’ll have to — paddle over there and find some — farmer willing to loan — them his plow horse. And — that road is in terrible shape — I wouldn’t worry about it — too much. Worst case, we — can run off into the woods — on the other side.”

If that was the worst case he could think of, Charles didn’t think he had much imagination. He left Warren to paddle, and looked behind them again.

The sun flashed off the paddles of a crowd of pursuers in canoes.

Next chapter

Previous chapters:

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