by Jason Corley
25 Dollars Reward. Ran Away, about the middle of November, negro Renton, about 22 years of age, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high - He is a well set likely black fellow, and will probably change his name to pass as a free man - he has rather a down look, but speaks very politely when spoken to - his clothing not recollected. I will give 15 dollars if taken within the District, and secured so that I get him again, and the above reward if taken in the state or out of the District, with all reasonable charges if brought home to the subscriber, living near Port-Tobacco, Charles county, Florida.
Horatio M. Pemberly
P.S. I have reason to believe he is trying to get to some of the northern states - all masters of vessels and others are forewarned to harbor or employ said fellow at their peril.
--- Advertisement, Florida newspaper, December 22, 1838
PART ONE: 1839
Renton lay in the dark, sweating in the heat, the sunlight knifing through the slats of the shack, planning his next escape. The next time he would succeed. He felt it in his feet, felt it where the rough straw poultice pressed into the raw whipscars flayed across his back. He closed his eyes and knew that if he took the poultice and formed it into tiny strawmen of yellow and green, twined their arms around each other and placed them over the door, he could step through it as if it was air and touch his feet to the road again before sundown. Except that he had heard them place iron chains over the door, wrapped their bands around the tiny shack completely, not knowing what it would do to him, not knowing he felt he was choking and drowning in the dim light, a pain worse than the whip or the brand, constricting his throat with the fearful grey of inaction and inertia. They had known none of this, only thinking that they would keep this nigger to himself for a while and see how quick he runs next time.
He didn't know how much longer his true memory would last in this iron-bound place, so he took the time to plan how to reach the Road. He had been out for months last time, moving on foot, avoiding settlements. He had tried keeping to the rocks and the streambed this time, knowing the receding floodwaters would keep the hounds from the scent, but those same waters forced him to move on market day, and a passing wagonner had spied him moving through the trees like a ragged black ghost in grey and told the slave-hunters for when he arrived in town. They were on him by nightfall with their iron shackles and cocked pistols, lead balls nestled at the iron heart of the slim, graceful guns. But next time he trusted to the Road he would be more careful and respect her Way more closely. He almost thought "if there is a next time" but stopped himself at "if", hearing it toll in his mind like the chiming clock in the plantation house on Sundays. If. If. If.
When he opened his eyes, the hazy yellow sun-spears had become a diffuse red haze that made even the clean straw look like blood. He opened them because someone was near, nearer than the slow feet passing on their way back from the field. His fellow slaves were kept away from approaching his confinement and speaking a word of support by the foreman's watchful eye, so this sound could not be from them. It was a low shuddering shuffle of a footstep on the east side of the shack where it was already night, and a pair of long dessicated fingers thrust themselves through the tiny space left between two slats on that side.
"Who is there?" whispered Renton. "Speak thyself."
There was no answer, but there didn't need to be one, because the other fingers followed, a hand, then both hands, and then, with a sickening twist of wrist and flesh, frighteningly emaciated arms clad in black. They were followed by a skinny body and a ducked-back head, and the sluagh was there. His hair was extremely short, almost gone completely, and greasy with some horrid-smelling substance. He was dressed formally, his collar high and starched, swallowing his wormlike neck completely in a flowery oppression of stained-white ruffles and the fat knot of a cheap black cravat. His waistcoat was far too short and his chest and waist were far too thin. After standing all the way up, he bowed deferentially at the waist.
"Colonel Renton Pemberly." came the nearly silent voice. "I bring you tidings from the Baroness Madsen of the Elysian Fields. You may not know of her Barony - it is within the green pastures and quiet brooks of Brooklyn, New York."
Renton's breath came short, almost not daring to hope. "The road has told me of the Fields. But you have the advantage of me, sir, if you please."
"You need not adopt the obsequies of slave and master with me, Colonel Renton." murmured the sluagh with his empty eyes upon him, using his given first name instead of his master's last name. Renton found the awkward address somehow comforting. "I am your servant, not you mine, and the difference in our races lies far deeper than our skin and bones. My name is Plummer. Please listen carefully. The Baroness knows of His Grace Duke Beauharnais' desire to, at all costs to the Dreaming and Glamour, maintain the relations between Kithain slave and mortal master here. The Baroness believes this is repugnant, especially when the law is applied to treasured veterans of the wars against the nunnehi. Such as yourself. She wishes me to assist you to away to her Barony."
"And in return?" Renton swallowed.
"Nothing." said the sluagh, so softly it could almost not be heard. "Your debt will be paid by another."
The sluagh just let a the corners of his lips twitch upward slightly and said nothing.
Trapped within the iron chains surrounding the shack, Renton could not feel Road and could not depend on her guidance. Finally, he closed his eyes and said "I will gladly accept your aid, sir." as firmly as he could manage. He felt old and tired.
The sluagh bowed again. "Sleep early tonight. I shall wake you after midnight, and we shall have eighteen hours of unmolested travel before we must proceed to a safe place." He did not rise from his bow, but instead folded himself downwards into a cramped scuttling thing that made Renton's joints ache just to look at it. And then there was a scrabbling of dirt, and the sluagh was gone.
The Road and he traveled with the sluagh the next day, Plummer hunched over in a rat-chewed black cloak under the washed-out bleached-blue hot summer sky, unhealthy sweat with the smell of old ink pouring from him as he guided the bony grey mule and rattletrap cart along the backroads and through the tiny shack towns. With a white man at his side, Renton aroused no notice. The cart bumped over where railroad tracks would one day be and Renton felt the Road shudder with anticipation. Late that night, at about the time Renton believed the iron chains would be removed from the empty shack and his flight would be noticed, Plummer turned the cart from the beaten road to an overgrown track. Ahead, a black spire thrust against the setting sun's sky like a triumphant conqueror of the day. Plummer did not tie up the mule or the cart, and the mule did not run. Inside the spire, there was only a little light, grey and dusty and full of shadows deep and long. The entryway was tiny, only large enough for a coat-rack, where Plummer hung his cloak. The main room was broad and cluttered, occupying almost the entire base of the spire and then some, filled with broken chairs and shattered tables, the floor covered in nearly an inch of thick, hand-scrawled paper with words in languages Renton did not know and diagrams of things Renton had never seen.
Renton shuddered. "Where are we?" he whispered.
"Noplace." said Plummer, like that was the answer, pulling a bell-chain. Above, a small, tiny, single chime sang out like a trapped child. The door in the ceiling opened upwards, and another sluagh descended, this one taller than any man Renton had ever seen, putting him in mind of the legend that worms never stopped growing if fed, nearly eight feet tall, but horribly thin and dark-eyed, his skull-face sockets filled with lidless rimless emptiness like black holes punched savagely in thin paper or the backs of beetles nesting in snow.
"Colonel Pemberly, I have the honor of introducing you to Professor Valentine." said Plummer respectfully, and when Valentine took a tiny half-inch step forward, Plummer seemed to fade from Renton's view, only the hideous apparition of Valentine seeming to be visible in the dim light at all, every detail crystal-clear and sharp.
"It pleases me to meet you." whispered Valentine, his sibilant, flowing diction making the awkward words almost preternaturally smooth, soothing the ear.
"And I you," said Renton. "There were some that would have prevented our meeting. I thank the Road and the Dreaming that I was able to escape their banality."
Valentine smiled with his lips and not his face, as if controlled by a demoniac puppeteer whose mastery of the strings was not great. "But it is not Banality to hate, Colonel." A pause. "A pure hate is as true to the Dreaming as any other passion. Fortune may have delivered you from the hands of Master Pemberly, but the Dreaming? I fear not."
Renton nodded slightly. "I fear I do not have your wisdom, Professor." he said delicately, biting back a more argumentative remark. It congealed in his throat.
"You shall, if you watch the stars. Our future lies there." said Valentine, and then something seemed to pass out of him and he slumped horribly down into a chair whose cushions were torn, the stuffing protruding out like the intestines of a long-dead creature. But Valentine's voice still came. "You cannot be found here. You are Noplace. However, you naturally cannot remain long, for the same reason. The eshu cannot stay Noplace but must always travel on. The Underground Railroad's terminus is across the river and two days ride through the hills. Plummer knows not the way, and you shall have to go alone. Would this suit you?"
"I have no objection to the arrangement." said Renton.
"Then I suggest you leave tomorrow afternoon. You may sleep in the guest house behind the spire, if you like." whispered Valentine. "I have prepared for you a map." The paper he extended was yellowed and frayed at the edges. It was half-covered in alchemical symbols of the constellations, but the directions were clear enough. "Good luck, Colonel."
"Thank you, Professor." said Renton, and, sensing that he was dismissed, bowed politely and hurried out. Plummer and his mule were gone.
When he reached the smithy at the edge of the tiny town, whose name he did not know and did not see on the map, it was nightfall, the sun sneaking down along the treeline, beams of light pouring through the misty forest. "Miss Leonard," called out the man at the forge, who bore the glistening marks of prolonged enchantment. "One of ya niggers is here."
Miss Leonard was short, nearly bald, and her pointed ears protruded out around tufts of white hair, her hands scorched and sooty. "Well?" she said, spitting on the ground at Renton's feet.
Renton spoke quietly. "I was told...you could help me. I am Renton."
"Yeah, yeah, the redcoats up in Yankeeville told me you was comin'." She spit again. "Lot of big friends for such a little nigger."
Renton swallowed. "Can you help me?"
"I reckon so." she snarled. "Come on, then." She led them into the fresh forest around them, the trickling of a stream running past. There was no path, but she seemed to know the area well.
As they walked, she snorted in her hawklike nose and spit on the ground in front of them. "Damnation upon the nigger race and all the problems you black bastards have brought upon us." she cursed. "Is the underground steam engine the most celebrated means of transport of our age? Does the King bestow honors upon me for its design and operation? No, it is a cursed device for pludering nigger Changelings from their masters and little more. Even the mortals give the name more respect, attaching it to their pathetic smuggling rings. Hellfire and damnation both upon thee!" She spit again.
"I can assure you," said Renton defensively. "That if I had my way, I would not require smuggling."
She laughed cruelly, her mouth twisting up in an ugly smirk. "Well if that aten't the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me." She turned a corner and raised up her angular frame, pressing her dextrous hand into the fork of a cedar tree. There was a creak and a groan from under the ground and a steel and wood cage heaved itself up out of the ground, the dried summer leaves pouring down off it in cool, fluttering waves around them. "Get in, good-looking." she sneered, prodding him in the side with her awl. "Before the boiler cools down."
Renton complied, and the cage heaved itself back down into the blackness, the wide shaft lit at dim intervals by flickering torches. And he suddenly laughed because he felt Road free of obstruction between him and the Elysian Fields. There was nothing more between him and the fields there but distance, only distance. The laugh bubbled up out of the center of his chest before he quite knew it was coming, and it shook his shoulders and pushed his head back a little like a lover's hand bending his head for a kiss.
"Crazy niggers." she said in the dark, as he laughed, but then they passed a torch and saw her eyes glistening and her face turned away and he needed nothing more to know the full story of what she hid beneath her skin, why she cursed and spit and swore and carried the slaves she professed to hate one by one from silent hiding to laughing freedom. Beneath him an engine chugged at America's dark, secret heart.
PART TWO: 1841
Renton sweated in a wool suit as he sat to one side of the small knot of people who had gathered to watch the Knickerbockers play baseball on the Fields. In the distance a flock of sheep lounged under a tree, and, as the pitcher could not satisfy the batter, ball after ball had been thrown in one of the longest innings Renton could remember. It was a perfect summer afternoon, he reflected, perhaps the most perfect since time had begun, and yet he was unhappy.
Shade fell across him - the Baroness' parasol. She was smiling to him. "Hello, Colonel." she said easily.
The Baroness of Brooklyn was a casually lascivious young satyr whose plump, pleasing, well-rounded body was talked of wistfully, affectionately or both by almost every member of her small Barony. Her enemies found her capable and her friends found her accessible. He rose. "My lady." he said gracefully, and they sat together. "This is no place for a lady. Base is a rough game attended on by rough gentleman."
Her lips pursed into an easy smile and she leaned down slightly to scratch above a hoof and adjust the lace on her mortal shoe. "I am sure you will protect me, Colonel. And I am very surprised to hear you advocate the differentiation of the sexes when you have stated your case for equality of the races so strongly."
"I'd rather you call me Renton, even in public." he said easily. "If you don't mind, my lady."
"All right. Renton. It has come to my ears, pointed and goatish as they may be, that you are dissatisfied with your life here." said the Baroness. "Have you not enjoyed my attentions? Or have I paraded you too much, perhaps? I worry that I may have overdone your presentation...a hero of the nunnehi wars, brought from Duke Beauharnais' prison to live in liberty's light...I won't deny your story has been useful to me." A pained little smile crossed her face, a little ashamed.
"By no means, my lady." said Renton. "By no means. I...have felt used, but not ill-used, and my gratitude to you runs deep. And your attentions have, well. Shattered my very mind and spirit more than once."
She tossed her curly hair and laughed easily. "You shall ruin what little humility remains to me." Her eyes flashed, warm with a shared memory. "Then what is this talk of leaving the Fields?"
Renton sighed. "It is the Road, my lady. I must follow her call. But I fear I may have lost touch with the Road, lost it in the time I have spent in Brooklyn."
"It has only been a few brief months." she said concernedly, putting her hand on his when nobody was looking.
"Yes, my lady. That's very true. But when the call comes." He stopped, tilting his head up as the batter finally connected with the pitch and there was the thump of the sun-hardened cloth ball against the wooden bat.
She nodded slowly. "What a calling it must be...how wonderful it must feel when you answer in freedom instead of struggling in bondage." she said wistfully.
Renton shook his head. "But I fear. It calls me back South. Back to the Duchy of the Swaying Willows."
Her eyes widened and her round face went even paler white. "Oh, dear Lord in heaven." she murmured. "Oh, Renton. You can't. You'll be caught, hanged." He just looked at her. "You know all this." she said abashedly. "I'm sorry. Oh, god. When will you leave? You'll have my prayers...let me send a knight with you. A treasure from out the hold, perhaps. For protection. Please, I could not bear to think of you recaptured."
"Recapture would damage your reputation as much as freeing me helped it." he said drily.
She drew back from him and a coldness came over her face. "How dare you." she murmured. "How dare you question my motives after the risk I put my servants to?"
Renton was in the middle of a quiet apology when he stopped. "What price was paid?" he asked suddenly.
"What?" she said, freezing, a look of fear crossing her face.
"When Plummer came to me offering your aid, he said the price had already been paid. But he would not say what it was or to whom." Renton said. "If I have been bought and sold one last time, I think I at least have the right to know what price was put on me."
She blanched. "Do not ask me that question, please, Renton. Think what you will of my motives, but do not ask me that."
"Yet I do ask." he said, turning to face her now. The next batter struck the first pitch thrown, and her eyes followed the curve of the ball away into the pale blue clear sky over Brooklyn.
"Do you think the sidhe will ever return?" she asked quietly. "Do you think they are still there, in the clouds or the sky, somewhere, waiting for something, a signal or a portent? Or the right person to call out for them?"
"I don't know." Renton said quietly, curiosity blooming in his eyes.
"Nor I." said the Baroness, clasping her hands together quietly. "But we both know someone who does know, who I have no doubt knows. Perhaps it...he alone knows. Professor Valentine."
Renton just looked at her silently. She then turned her face back to him, "I trust his knowledge and his honesty, if not his motivations or his forthrightness. And he said the debt would be paid if I helped you to freedom. In full. By another. I sent Plummer to help you, then. So I do not know the answer to your question. I am sorry."
He let her sit and watch the game as he got to his feet and left Brooklyn without speaking another word to any man or woman.
At the Underground Railroad station, Miss Leonard was aghast to see him and too shocked to protest or even curse much when she carried him back. It was daytime when he came to Valentine's spire, but inside it was still, dark and quiet, eternally night. "I knew you would return." said Valentine, not looking away from the telescope. His bony fingers were tracing with a quill pen a complex, symbol-strewn sketch of dots and lines and curves.
"The Road led me here to Noplace this time, not Mr. Plummer." said Renton, still at the threshold and uncertain about entering.
"Matters have changed since you were last here. It is Someplace, now, and so some roads do come here." said Valentine. "Still safe to enter, but no longer safe to stay."
"Yes, Professor." said Renton.
"You're more confused this time." said Valentine. "You are not sure what you are moving towards."
"I am not sure I trust you to guide me there, either." Renton replied.
Valentine bowed his head and folded his long, spidery hands before him, lacing the bony fingers together as if praying to an unholy idol. "You do not need me to do so." He put aside his quill pen and sketchpad quietly.
"Will you tell me who paid the debt for my freedom?" said Renton, taking a step forward.
"I fear not." said Valentine, and from the folds of his tatterdemalion coat, threads and stitching hanging from his flaring sleeve, he drew a long, slender pistol with a brass casing and a perfectly fluted and carved wooden handle. Renton stopped his advance, looking into the dark circle of the flared muzzle.
Valentine, very carefully, laid the pistol down on the tiny, half-shattered and charred table before him. "Take it." he whispered.
Renton stared at it. "You will find it useful." hissed Valentine, as Renton imagined the serpent must have, in Eden. "If you do not, you may sell it upon your return to Brooklyn. It will fetch a good price."
Renton slowly wrapped his dark hand around the brown handle and lifted it. It was heavier than it looked. "It is loaded, very well." said Valentine. "It will not misfire nor will the ball fall short of its mark." And then, as if the subject was concluded, he asked, "Will you be staying here tonight?"
"No." said Renton.
Valentine nodded. "As you wish, Colonel. I have many comets to catalogue tonight."
"Comets?" Renton asked, putting the pistol carefully into his own coat pocket.
"Comets always signify the worst of luck." said Valentine. "The difficulty is determining whose luck they are indicating. Having retraced your steps so far, would you like me to summon Mr. Plummer, and have him escort you to the Pemberly plantation?"
"No." said Renton. "The road travels east, now. To the Ducal seat on the island."
Valentine didn't smile or frown or say anything further. Renton bowed slightly and was about to say goodbye when Valentine just shook his head - no. Wondering, Renton ducked his head again and left as fast as politeness would allow, silent except for his footsteps.
He travelled by night, swimming across the still lagoon from the sandy beach towards the guttering torches of the castle on the island, slipping in through the servants' entrance. He took some dry clothes from a closet and ducked his head and averted his eyes from any white face he saw, and he knew that he was invisible to them when he did. Then when the guards were gone he disappeared up the carpeted stairs and picked the lock on the Duke's suite, noiselessly crossing the floor, silent until his shadow crossed the Duke's desk.
The Duke rose from his desk and reached for the battle-ax but Renton had the pistol from his coat in a heartbeat and stood there breathing.
The Duke's voice was low and vicious, coming from deep in his thick blue chest. "I could raise my voice and have a dozen guards upon you before you could draw another breath, boy. Put up your weapon and surrender."
"I fear I would not hesitate, Your Grace, and you would perish before you could call out." said Renton, but his voice came slow and uncertain. He almost called him 'sir' and ducked his head.
"Then what?" said the Duke harshly. "Have you come to kill me unarmed and defenseless?"
Renton paused. Why was he here?
"Answer me. Boy." ordered the Duke, rising to his feet. He towered over Renton. "Why have you come?"
"I needed to ask you. Why?" Renton croaked, his throat suddenly dry.
"Why what?" snarled the Duke.
"Why did you keep me in chains? Forget for the moment my mortal brothers and cousins and friends kept in chains. Why did you keep me from escape? You know what it does to an eshu, you must know." hissed Renton, and then closed his mouth, hard, to keep back the flow of words. They pooled in his throat like he was swallowing blood.
The Duke scowled. "You dare question me? You ignorant Negroid. You kill a few dozen Indians and think it makes you a hero. Adopted by a Yankee whoremistress as her pet monkey, prancing before the lords for a few pennies."
"I dare." Renton snarled. "Answer me. Answer me why." Something made his other hand shake at his side, and clench. It rose up inside him like a creature he dare not name, not yet.
"I follow the old ways." the Duke says. "We must follow them, lest the world become too strange for the sidhe to return. I cannot help the color of your skin, but in your next life it may be different. As may mine. But when they left, Negro slavery was building this land and for them to return, it must be as it was in those days. I take my oath to preserve this land very seriously. Very seriously indeed, boy. So preserve it I shall. Perhaps in another life I shall be the slave and you shall be the master. But while I am in this skin, I will keep niggers like you where they ought to be, where they need to be if the sidhe shall ever return."
Renton cocked the pistol, trembling. The Duke's face drained of color and bravado, fear showing plainly in his craggy features. "Valentine sent you, didn't he? That pistol..."
"Silence." said Renton.
"I have seen it before. I should have know a nigger like you could never concoct such a scheme." the Duke said, hurrying and stumbling over the words. "You are being ill-used, boy. Valentine hates the memory of the sidhe and wants them never to return in glory. He concocts mad schemes of hunting them across the stars, dragging them to Earth to pay for imagined crimes. He craves these lands and holds for himself. Will you let yourself be that wight's catspaw?"
Renton practically whispered. "No."
"Then hand the weapon over to me," said the Duke, hopefully, words tumbling out. "And I shall arrange for your return to Brooklyn. Your death would not serve me any more than your escape did."
Renton felt himself smile. He named his feeling aloud: "I hate. I hate you for your crimes and hate you more for your pride in them."
"Wait." The Duke's voice was desperate, panicky. "He's mad, he wants to assault the stars and use these holds to do it, can't you see that? He's set you up, set the whole story up, and used your slavery as a motivation, he's enslaved you again with deception instead of chains, can't you see..."
"If he arranged my freedom, then I pay my own debt to him." Renton snarled, and shot the Duke through the heart.
He then left Cape Canaveral forever.