The year 309, the fifth month. (The year 1864 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
The best place they could find to hide was in a glade within the patch of woods next to the crossroads. Here, Folly Quarter farm's road met the National Turnpike that led all the way west to Frederick, the largest town in Mip. Here, screened by the trees, they could watch the wagons and buggies travelling east to Ellicott's Mills, the nearest village.
Sometimes there were soldiers too; they always held their breaths when the soldiers passed by, but so far no battles had been held anywhere near Doughoregan Manor or any of its quarters. And sometimes a posse set out with the hounds, to hunt down the quarry. But whenever that happened, Sling seemed to be the only one who noticed.
"Pay attention," ordered Earle as Sling raised his head at the sound of the hunting horn. The two of them were lying stomach-down on the ground, side by side, close enough to touch, though Earle never did so, much to Sling's relief. Earle was turning the pages of the primer. "In the Old Calendar, a year is actually three years – 'sun-cycles,' they're called. So 1864 Barley, 1864 Clover, and 1864 Fallow will pass before there's a full year. We're in 1864 Fallow right now. But in the New Calendar, only one sun-cycle makes up a year. So this year is 309, and last year was 308, and the year before was 307. Do you understand?"
Sling thought about this a while as spring birds warbled nearby. Distantly he could hear the shouts from the overseer, directing the slaves in the nearest quarter. Finally he said, "So when I'm sixty, I'll only be twenty years old?"
Earle hooted, rolling over to expose his brown belly to the dappled sun-and-shadow pattern from the leaves of the great oak above them. "If you live that long," he said.
Then he stopped laughing abruptly and rolled back onto his stomach, gazing carefully at the book. Sling had begun to smile; he changed his mind. An awkward silence followed. What Earle had said would have been an acceptable joke between young masters. For a young master to say that to his father's young slave was cruel.
Unlike his father, Earle was never cruel, except by accident. He tugged down his shirt – fine linen, smothered with dirt – and turned the pages rapidly in search of something elusive. Eventually, he said, "A whole lot of Master Dorsey's slaves demanded wages. When Master Dorsey refused, half of them ran away. I heard they joined the Yclau army."
Sling nodded. It was happening all over the territory of Mip. Slaves, as well as some Yclau masters, sensing the prospect of freedom from their Vovimian overlords, were flocking to join the army that would free them. Victor's two older brothers had already become soldiers, though against the will of their father, who didn't hold with beating men into submission, even Vovimian overlords. Probably because of the father's disinterest in beatings, none of his slaves had fled either.
All of the slaves at Dougoregan Manor were still here. So far.
"Will you go?" With his eyes squinted against the afternoon sun, Earle continued to pretend he was reading the book.
Sling thought a while, not because he intended to give an honest answer, but because the question had been puzzling him for some time. If his mama and her husband, who were field-hands at Doughoregan, came to him and urged him to flee with them, he wasn't sure what he would say. He had barely seen his mama since he was picked out, at age three, as a suitable playmate for Earle. Perhaps the choice had been at random; perhaps not. Earle certainly didn't consider Sling interchangeable with the other slaves. That was why they were here, hidden from Earle's father.
But Sling and Earle were eight years old. In three years' time, Earle would go away to boarding school. During Earle's years at school, Sling would learn to be a valet, serving Earle when the young master finally left school. In theory, nothing need change between them. But in actuality – Sling knew from the tales of older slaves – everything would change then. His years of being a playmate, confidant, and pupil would be over.
He looked down at the primer again as he rubbed at the tattooed slave-mark on his wrist. Three years. Three sun-cycles. One year, by the Old Calendar, and his schooling would be over forever.
Feeling restless, he rose to his feet and walked over to the edge of the trees, where the creek beside the glade began to dip under the road. Beyond the screen of the bushes and trees, the National Turnpike was still, except for a breeze that raised dust from it. A group of flies hovered around horse droppings. On a telegraph pole at the crossroads, a sign flapped in the breeze.
One Hundred Dollars Reward
Ran away from the advertiser's plantation, a light-skinned boy named Phill, 16 or 17 years old, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, talks sharp and is very artful. I understand he has changed his name, and passes in Frederick Town as free; he calls his name Tom. Whoever will take up said slave, and bring him me, near Ellicott's Mills, shall receive the above award.
The sound of horses pulled Sling's attention away from the advertisement. He automatically ducked down behind the bushes, but it was only the posse, returning from its chase. Master Dorsey was at the head of it, triumphantly leading Phill's younger brother Mannie on a leash that was looped around a collar on his neck. Mannie, whose arms were tied, stumbled under the quick pace of the horses. He nearly fell and strangled himself in the collar; Master Dorsey reacted by yanking the leash tighter, forcing Mannie into a run.
"What is it?" whispered Earle.
Looking behind him, Sling saw that Earle was crouched down too, hiding the book with his body. "Master Dorsey's posse," he whispered back. "They found Mannie."
"Oh." Reassured, Earle began to sit up; then he froze, hearing the bushes rustle from the other direction.
Sling froze too. Earle had chosen this spot because it was far away from the manor and from the various quarters where the field-hands worked. They both hoped it would be far away from Earle's father too.
Master Murphy hadn't minded at first, when they began their school. Earle and Sling had only been four years old at the time; Earle didn't have any book-learning at that age. It was only play.
But when Earle began teaching Sling how to read and count, out of the books he brought home from his grammar school in Ellicott's Mills, that was another matter entirely. In the past winter alone, Master Murphy had caught them twice. Each time, he had given Sling over to the overseer for a beating; each time, he had deprived Earle of his supper.
Earle never seemed to care about the missed meals. But Master Murphy had warned them that, if he found Earle teaching his playmate again, he'd sell Sling to another master.
"Do you want to continue?" Earle had asked after that threat, which had surprised Sling. He hadn't thought his own wishes had anything to do with it. Earle enjoyed sharing his lessons with Sling, and he enjoyed secrets. That was the reason for their lessons – lessons which, both boys had gradually come to realize, were quite unlawful in the Kingdom of Vovim, including its territory of Mip.
But Earle had seemed genuinely concerned by the risk to Sling, and so Sling had given the matter thought. And had decided to continue. Not because of Earle's pleasure, but because the thought of giving up book-reading made something gnaw at Sling's innards.
He must be thoroughly corrupted by now, he supposed. No wonder Master Murphy wanted to sell him.
He looked over at Earle. The other boy's eyes were wide. Earle gestured to Sling, obviously urging him to hide himself. But there was nowhere to go. They were backed into the northwest-most corner of the manor grounds; behind them lay only the crossroads, where the posse was continuing to pass.
Then a figure emerged from the trees in front of them. Earle emitted a massive sigh. "You beast," he said. "You should have called out your name to us."
Victor leaned against a tree, playing with the stem of his pipe. He was already eleven years old and had been trying to decide for weeks whether to follow his older brothers' lead; the Yclau army took boys his age as drummers. The pipe had arrived in his hand around the time he began to talk about becoming a soldier. He hadn't yet reached the point of putting tobacco in the pipe.
Now he said, "Well, you didn't tell me where you were meeting, did you? I've been searching the entire woods for you. I'd begun to think you were helping Sling to escape."
He gestured without looking at Sling. Victor had given Sling his name – Sling could no longer remember his original name – by announcing contemptuously that Earle's new playmate couldn't sling a ball worth anything. Sling had spent a terrible couple of years figuring out the delicate balance between being good enough at games to satisfy Earle and being bad enough at games to satisfy Earle's closest friend. Then he had discovered that Victor cared not the least about book-learning. With relief, Sling had turned all his energy toward learning to read. Earle had given up throwing balls that Sling would invariably, carefully drop.
Now Victor pocketed the empty pipe, plopped down on the ground, and said, "You're hard to find. Give me water."
He gestured with his hand, not looking at Sling. Earle got to the hunters' flask before Sling could, handing it to Victor. Victor drained the flask and wiped his lips with his sleeve before saying, "You're always so protective of him. Why?"
Earle's gaze drifted down to the book. "He's family."
Victor shrugged. "That's how Papa talks about our slaves too. As though we're all one happy family. Frankly, I think—"
"He's family." Earle pushed the word hard.
Victor turned his eyes from his brown-skinned friend to the brown-skinned slave next to him. Slaves came in all colors, but in this part of Mip, most slaves had the cream-colored skin of the Yclau. Not Sling, though.
Victor said, "So you think of him as your brother?"
"He is my brother," Earle said sharply.
Victor stared at him. So did Sling. He had suspected that this might be part of the reason for the secret lessons, but never before had Earle spoken about this. Sling hadn't even been entirely sure Earle knew, though certainly the rest of the manor did. Sling's resemblance to Earle was too strong, and it was well known that Master Murphy, a widower, had an eye for a good-looking slave, whether male or female.
That was the custom, here in the borderland territory of Mip, though Sling had heard that no other Vovimian masters or Yclau masters would think of sullying themselves by bedding slaves or free-servants. In Mip, the ranks mixed rather more than in other parts of the Midcoast nations. Sometimes the slaves here benefitted from that; sometimes not.
"Half brother," Victor said finally, as though that distinction proved something.
Earle sighed. "Victor, what's wrong? You're white as a clam. A dead clam."
Victor reached down to give him a token punch. Their difference in skin color was a long-standing joke between them. Earle was pure-blooded Vovimian; Victor was pure-blooded Yclau. Victor's family was one of the Yclau aristocracy who had refused to leave Mip after Vovim conquered the territory a century ago. Earle's family was one of the Vovimian aristocracy who had refused to leave Mip after Yclau conquered the territory two centuries ago. Sling couldn't remember how many times Mip had changed hands between the two nations; their territory had been disputed since ancient times, not long after the New World was settled by various nations of the Old World.
"What's happened?" prodded Earle.
"Victory." Victor swallowed the rest of the water, tipping his head to get the final drops.
The sound of the posse – horse hooves, cheerful shouts among the masters, and sobs from Mannie – disappeared into the distance. In the trees, the birds tweeted in the setting sun. A possum waddled by, her babies peeking sleepily from her pouch.
"So you've won," said Earle quietly.
Victor shrugged. He seemed unconcerned by the news, though his family had been awaiting this moment for a century. Yclau's latest attempt to regain Mip had torn the territory apart, although most of the damage had occurred in the west. Here in the east, the fields continued to be plowed, while the telegraphs and trains and roads remained intact.
And now peace had come, and with it victory. Sling stared at Earle, trying to take in what had happened.
"That's not all," said Victor.
Sling's attention snapped over to him. To Sling's surprise, Victor was looking at him.
Sling jumped as something touched his back; but it was only Earle, placing his arm around his father's slave. Earle said fiercely, "If it affects Sling, tell me now. Tell me."
Victor shrugged, turning his gaze back to Earle. "You'd both hear soon enough. The news is all over the manors. Yclau has issued a proclamation of emancipation."
For a moment, Sling's vision darkened. He was vaguely aware that he was about to faint. Then he regained control over himself. He realized that Earle's arm had slid away. Sling turned his eyes.
Earle was staring at the book again. He said, without looking up, "Maybe you'll be able to go to a proper school now."
Victor snorted. "Not likely. Educating servants is illegal in Yclau too. Just because Sling is no longer a slave doesn't mean that he gets to act like a master. It just means he gets to choose who to work for."
Now Sling was staring at the book. Could he get a job with another master? Victor's father had a reputation as a good master to work for. Perhaps he would train Sling to be a house-servant, since Sling had been destined for indoor work.
Sling looked at Earle, who was biting his lip, waiting. Sling asked him, "Will your father pay me wages now?"
"He'd have to," said Victor before Earle could reply. "He'd be breaking the law if he didn't."
"Good." Sling picked up the book. "You've taught me about the calendar, Master Earle. I'd like to learn the multiplication table, if you don't mind."
Earle let out a great sigh. Victor snorted and left without a word. Earle took the book from Sling and said, "All right. We still have a little light left. . . ."
The year 314, the seventh month. (The year 1866 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
"Right," said Master Murphy. "You can have him for a thousand dollars."
"A thousand dollars!" Master Dorsey tossed away his cigar in scorn. It landed at the crossroads, burning bright, like a red eye. "You must think this is the old days. You can have five dollars for him."
"One hundred," said Master Murphy, but Sling could see that he was weakening. Sling tried again to free his arm, but Earle's father continued to hold him fast.
Master Dorsey laughed. "Clay, you've been a good friend, so I'll tell you: I'll give you twenty dollars for him. That's four times what he's worth these days, and you know it."
"Done," Master Murphy said, with such promptness that Sling knew he'd expected less. "I'll send you his papers tomorrow."
Sling tried once more to tug himself free. "Master, please!" he pleaded. "I'd rather work for you!"
Master Murphy simply ignored him. Master Dorsey snorted. "Trying to show your ingratitude for your new master already, boy? I don't have to take you. I could let you fend for yourself. And then where would you be? Thirteen-year-old boy, no skills, and it's not as though any other masters in the district will take you—"
"He's yours," said Master Murphy quickly, evidently fearing the loss of a bargain. "He needs to be apprenticed. His mother abandoned him."
"She didn't!" Sling cried. He remembered the night his mama had crept into the manor house to see him. It was the first time he'd seen her in years; Master Murphy didn't approve of field slaves talking to house slaves. But the Emancipation had come, and she and her husband were planning to emigrate to the northeastern nations, where servants were supposed to be treated better. Did her son want to come with her?
He'd explained about the books, and she'd left him, satisfied that he was getting an education. That had been five years ago. For the past two years, since Earle left for boarding school, Sling had wondered over and over whether he'd made the right choice.
But never had he imagined this horror: to be "apprenticed" to Master Dorsey. He knew what that meant. Master Dorsey's so-called apprentices were slaves in all but name. Master Dorsey took pride in breaking them so that, by the time they became adults, they would do his bidding so well that they'd never think of leaving him.
"She's long gone," Master Murphy assured Master Dorsey. "He's got no family. Nobody to care for him but me, and I can't take more than a handful of servants back to Vovim with me. I'll buy the rest when I get there." The words were bravely spoken.
Master Dorsey neither snorted nor laughed. Perhaps he did consider Master Murphy a friend. He said, "Your eldest boy is remaining in the district, I hear?"
"Yes. Earle and the girls will be coming with me."
"Well, I'll be sorry to see you leave, Clay. Can't blame you, though. Those blasted new overlords of Mip are determined to grind us to dust – freeing all the slaves, letting them run wild, against all the sacred laws." He spat in the dust. Master Dorsey was of Yclau descent, but his ancestors had left that queendom long ago, disagreeing with the Queen's decision to overturn the ancient institution of slavery. "I'm going to hold on, though. This can't last long. We'll win back our freedom."
"I wish you well in your fight." Master Murphy reached forward to grasp Master Dorsey's arm in farewell. In doing so, he had to let go of Sling. Sling thought of fleeing then, but where would he go? Master Dorsey was right. With a glut of freed servants, there were few jobs for house servants in this district, and Sling had no skills to be a field servant. If he tried to leave Mip, he'd starve long before he reached the northeastern nations. Oh, why hadn't he left with his mama and her husband when she invited him?
"Be good, boy," Master Murphy warned as he slipped Master Dorsey's twenty-dollar coin into his pocket.
"I don't want to be an apprentice." He must be mad, talking like this. He was hardly surprised when, in the next moment, Master Murphy hit him on the side of the head, so that he fell against the telegraph pole at the crossroads, with its sign on it. His eyes turned up toward the sign fluttering in the wind.
Twenty Dollars Reward
Ran away from the advertiser's plantation, an apprentice boy, about 11 years of age. Whoever takes up said runaway, and secures him in any jail so that his master may get him again, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges.
"Stubborn mule," Master Murphy said dispassionately as Sling clutched his head, which felt as though it had cracked open. "You've got to work, or you won't eat. What can you do besides work?"
It must have been the pain that made the word slip out. Master Dorsey laughed. Earle's father cuffed Sling's ear and said in disgust, "It's that school up near Ellicott's Mills that he's talking about. The one the servants started. I hear Starke gave them a schoolhouse and even wrote to the Freed Servants' Bureau on their behalf, asking the bureau to send them a teacher." He shook his head. "That's what we get for letting ourselves be ruled by idealists."
Master Dorsey chuckled. "The Duke told me he wants to start a college. No doubt he started the schoolhouse too because he plans to try to teach a thousand servants to read. If one or three of them succeed in learning the alphabet, he'll send them to college."
Master Murphy gave a wry smile but said, "Oh, I don't doubt their intelligence – just their morals. Remember those slaves of mine who tried to fight off the Queen's troops when the troops came to evict them from the manor grounds? The slaves were arguing that, because they planted the crops, they should own the land that had been handed down in my family for eight generations—"
He stopped abruptly. Master Dorsey busied himself in lighting another cigar. Taking a shaky breath, Master Murphy said, "Well, goodbye, friend. Enjoy your new slave— I mean 'apprentice,' of course. Don't forget me in your prayers."
"I won't, man." Master Dorsey clapped him on the back.
Master Dorsey waited for Master Murphy to mount his horse and ride off in the direction of the manor lane. Then he said, "All right, in the cart."
He didn't look at Sling as he spoke. Sling looked at the cart. From its appearance, it was usually used to carry manure. He didn't budge.
Master Dorsey sighed. "Want a taste of my cowhide already?" He raised his hand. The whip was in it.
A cold voice said, "Excuse me, sir. I believe that's my slave you're marring."
Sling, who had been trying to decide whether to cower, run, or simply get in the cart, swung around. Out of the trees – the trees that obscured the glade where Sling and Earle used to hold their lessons – stepped the Duke of Howard's youngest son.
He held himself in the easy manner of a young man who has been trained since childhood to take on power. There was no trace of uncertainty as he looked Master Dorsey in the eye.
"Lord Victor Starke." A mild note of surprise was the only response from Master Dorsey. "I understood from your father that you were at your school in Yclau's capital at this time of year."
"I came home to help my father with the sale." Victor slid a pipe out of his pocket but he did not fill it with tobacco, instead sliding it delicately between his fingers, as though stroking a lash. "You know that my father has bought the property?" He waved his hand in a proprietary manner east, south, west, north . . . The quarters of Doughoregan Manor were quite extensive.
"I knew," said Master Dorsey slowly. "All the land, I'd heard . . . but not the people on it."
"Oh, no," said Victor. "That would be against the law." He grinned, as though sharing a joke with Master Dorsey. "Poor Master Murphy is very hard up, you know. Couldn't afford to keep the estate going after three-quarters of his slaves left him."
Master Dorsey snorted. "He should have done what I did: sold them all before the Emancipation, when the prices were still high, and then waited for them to crawl back when they began to starve."
"True," said Victor, contemplating his pipe. "Only his didn't crawl back. Not quite as clever as you are at compelling servants to stay where they should, I suppose." He looked up, his eyes gleaming. "So he's desperate for money to pay his way home. He sold the apprentice to me yesterday."
It took Sling a moment to realize what Victor meant; then he felt the words like a punch in the stomach.
Master Dorsey raised his eyebrow. "Sold the boy twice? That's not like Murphy."
"A simple mistake." Victor pocketed the pipe. "They all look alike, you know. I only recognized this one because I've had my eye on him for a while." His hand re-emerged from his pocket, full of coins. "Here you are – as much as you paid Master Murphy, and a bit over. I'll settle the matter with Master Murphy myself."
Master Dorsey looked down at the coins, which were considerably more than "a bit over" what he had paid. Then he looked at Sling.
Sling's thoughts must have been reflected in his face, for Master Dorsey suddenly roared with laughter. He punched Victor in the arm, in an amiable manner. "I'd heard you'd developed an eye for a good-look lass," he said. "Yes, and a good-looking lad too, it seems." He fished the coins from Victor's hands. "Take him, then. There's plenty more where he comes from. I fancied someone young, to train up properly, but nearly all of Murphy's servants will be begging for jobs in a short time." Master Dorsey nodded a farewell as he leapt onto the seat of his cart, beside the driver who had been sitting there all this time, as stone-faced as all of Master Dorsey's servants. "Have fun with him . . . but watch out. He's a troublemaker."
"I like breaking troublemakers," said Victor in a casual manner. He had taken out the pipe again and was stroking its stem.
Sling's heart hammered hard as a cowhide. He waited. The sound of Master Dorsey's cart retreated.
Victor cocked his head, contemplating Sling. "You'll need a surname."
"Sir?" No, that was wrong. He'd have to call Victor "master" from now on. Or perhaps "lord"?
"If you're going to school. They call the school roll by last names." Victor opened his tobacco pouch and stuffed his pipe full.
It was not until Victor's pipe was fully lit that Sling felt equal to responding to him. Then he said, "Starke." It wasn't the name he had chosen for himself, during these past five years when he'd had time to contemplate what to call himself, if he were ever fully free. But it was the only thing he had to offer, in exchange for what Victor was contemplating giving him.
Victor seemed to choke on the smoke of his pipe. Then he said, "You don't need to take my surname. I just thought it would be handy, having a trained bookkeeper working for me." He shifted the pipe into his left hand and held out his right arm. "Five years' room and board, you study hard at school, and then you work for me. Agreed?"
Sling looked at his arm. Victor might as well have been offering gold in his hand. Five years in which Sling need do nothing except what he wanted most: to study hard.
But at the end of that five years . . . It wouldn't be slavery, Sling knew. But if he made this bargain, Sling would have as little choice to leave his master as any apprentice would.
He thought this all in a second, before Victor had time to grow angry. And then Victor's arm was falling, and both of them were turning in the direction of the horse thundering down the road, from the direction of Mip's unofficial capital, Frederick Town.
It was Earle. When he reached the crossroads, he pulled so hard on the reins that his horse reared. Earle flung himself off the horse. Sling steadied him; Victor caught hold of the reins.
"Has he sold you yet?" cried Earle. "Has he?"
"You're supposed to be in school." Imperturbable, Victor did his best to keep hold of the panicked horse. "What are you doing here?"
"Father wrote me that he was selling his property. I knew what that meant." Earle tossed the remark over his shoulder and then gripped Sling's arms hard. "Did he sell you?"
Earle gave a cry, harsher than a birthing mother in agony. Then, like a teacher remembering his duties, he took control of himself. "Sling, don't worry. I'll buy you back. Despite what my father wants, I'm staying in Mip – you won't have to go to Vovim or serve another master. You're family. You're mine."
His voice was fierce. Sling was taken aback. He had sometimes wondered, during these past two years while Earle was away, whether the playmate whom Sling remembered had disappeared entirely, replaced by a master who would give his valet little thought when he returned.
It had seemed almost certain. It had happened in every other case Sling knew of, when the master and slave who were playmates grew up.
But something – perhaps it was only the prospect of losing Sling – appeared to have torn Earle asunder from his expected role. He was hugging Sling tightly now, as though Sling really were a brother.
"Earle, come get this bloody horse of yours. I can't do a thing to calm her." Victor sounded exasperated.
Earle complied, releasing Sling to take the reins from Victor. The horse calmed immediately, like an unruly pupil under the eye of his schoolmaster. Earle patted the horse absentmindedly, saying, "Who bought you, Sling? It wasn't that beast Dorsey, was it?"
Sling's gaze drifted over to Victor. Victor grinned.
"Victor, no!" Earle's voice turned aghast. "You can't! Look, if you need a boy, I'll buy you time with a whore!"
It was many minutes before either Victor or Sling stopped laughing long enough to explain.
The year 319, the ninth month. (The year 1868 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
They got as far as the crossroads before he fell off.
It must have been sight of the flag of the Duchy of Howard that made him feel that he'd reached safety: the Duke's seal against the field of red, green, and blue, which were the spiritual colors of death, transformation, and rebirth. As they slowed near the telegraph pole at the crossroads where the National Turnpike met the road to Folly Quarter farm, his arms loosened their hold around Earle's torso, and he began to slide down from the back of the horse.
He would doubtless have fallen headfirst into the dirt if Earle hadn't grabbed hold from his position at the front of the horse. Sling was too far down by then to be pulled back up, so Earle, perilously poised in the saddle, eased him down onto the grass next to the road.
"Come on!" urged Earle. "It's only a few miles further!" He turned his head to look in the direction of Folly Quarter. Since the death of his elder brother – who had joined an unsuccessful rebellion to free Mip from its Vovimian overlords – Earle had run Folly Quarter farm alone, with the assistance of only a couple of hired field-hands, as well as hired help to tend the house. He was merely eighteen now, but the lines of responsibility in his face made him appear even graver than he had been as a young boy.
Unable to speak, Sling shook his head. He paused a moment to vomit in the dirt, and then he crawled through a bush, only vaguely aware of the twigs scraping his body, the stones slicing open his palms and knees. He sought shelter like a wounded animal seeking a place to die.
He found himself in their old school: the little glade where, at age eight, Earle had taught Sling how to keep time. Inch by painful inch, Sling managed to pull himself into a sitting position high enough that his back was propped up by a tree trunk.
Then he gave up, staring at the green leaves above, swaying in the breeze.
Nearby, Earle was tying the horse to a sapling next to the creek. The horse immediately plunged its mouth into the cool water and began gulping it down. The horse was lathered in sweat after its strenuous gallop.
Earle knelt beside Sling, looking helpless. "I don't know how to mend it."
Neither did Sling; medical training hadn't been part of his studies. He wished he had Old Granny, the slavewoman who had tended him during his boyhood, after his whippings. With each shallow breath, he felt as though a brutal lash were cutting into his side. Without looking, he knew that Earle's shirt, which Earle had hastily bound around Sling's torso five miles ago, must be soaked through with blood.
"I should have taken you to the healer at Ellicott's Mills." Earle's voice was taut as he leaned over Sling. He started to reach out, then pulled his hand back in an uncertain manner.
"Too close, sir. They'd have shot you, and the healer as well." Sling closed his eyes, wondering when he'd hear the posse on the road. Would the trees be enough to screen them?
Oblivious as always to such danger, Earle said, "I could leave you here and fetch help."
Sling considered this possibility as the late-summer cicadas whined. At least Earle would be safe. He was only eighteen. He was courting a girl. There was no reason he should die too.
Earle stiffened, raising his head. A moment later, Sling heard it too: hoofbeats on the road. Their eyes met. Without a word, Earle moved to stand between Sling and the posse.
It was a very small posse, Sling thought in a detached manner. An outrider on a fast horse. The horse screamed as it reached the crossroads; Earle's horse reacted by neighing a greeting.
Then the outrider charged on foot through the bushes, eyes wild, pistol in hand.
"Don't touch him!" cried Earle.
The outrider snorted, thrusting his pistol under his belt. "I'm not going to maul a servant who's been shot. Go still that blasted beast of mine before he alerts the entire duchy to our location."
As he spoke, Victor knelt in the dirt next to Sling. Earle dashed to the road. Victor spent a brief moment inspecting Sling before he cursed, took off his coat, and proceeded to tear up his shirt as a new bandage.
Earle returned, leading Victor's horse as he made soothing sounds to it. The stallion tossed his head but seemed contented to be led over to the creek. It nuzzled Earle's mare for a moment and then dipped its mouth in the creek.
Frowning as he stripped off Sling's older bandage, Victor said, "You're good with horses. You ought to give up those pathetic crops you keep trying to grow and hire yourself out as a hostler."
"As though that matters right now." Earle flung himself down on his knees. "Victor, I found Sling crawling on his hands and knees on the National Turnpike. A gang shot him—"
"I know. They burned the school."
Sling struggled to stand. "The children . . ."
"They're all safe." Victor pushed him back down. "They hid behind the outhouses, like you'd told them. As soon as my men dispersed the gang, I had them escort the pupils home."
Sling waited, but Victor said nothing more in Earle's presence. Sling closed his eyes. In his memory, he saw Victor wheeling his horse between Sling and the musket-wielding gang, giving Sling time to escape.
"You dispersed them?" Outrage filled Earle's voice to such a degree that Sling opened his eyes. Earle was glaring at his best friend. "You didn't arrest them?"
"Earle, I'm not a sheriff." Victor pulled Sling forward to wrap the new bandage around him. Sling's vision went momentarily dark; he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming.
"You're the Duke of Howard!" Earle slammed his palms onto the rough ground. "You rule this duchy, by the Queen's command! You can't let them escape justice for shooting Sling – he's ours!"
"If I order them arrested, this entire duchy will flame into warfare. The duchy is already like a powder keg surrounded by live coals. Anyway, Sling isn't ours." Victor's voice was bitter. He still hadn't forgiven Sling for choosing to become a teacher, rather than his bookkeeper. It was a bargain fairly kept: Sling had promised Victor only to serve the duchy in exchange for his room and board during his schoolboy years. The school that Victor Starke's father had founded before his death was officially run by the duchy, so Sling was now in service to the duchy. Victor, though, had expected Sling to be his bookkeeper.
Yet Victor had let Sling follow his chosen profession. And now he was kneeling in the dirt, bandaging Sling with his own shirt and risking that the posse would kill him too. Sling was aware of that, through the dark fury of the lash against his side.
"He's family," argued Earle. "You don't let family live in danger. Those blasted gangs that want to shut down all the servant schools . . . You know that this gang won't rest till Sling is dead. He's the best teacher the servants of your duchy have ever had."
Sling decided that, if he was going to die, he wasn't going to spend his final moments the way he had for the past decade: listening to Earle and Victor argue over his fate. He said, "They won't kill me."
There was a startled silence, as though the other two young men had forgotten he had a voice. Perhaps they had; he hadn't used it much in the past.
Now he looked Victor squarely in the eye, as though they were both masters. "I'm not going to die, because I won't be holding my classes in a schoolhouse again. I'll hold them in Doughoregan Manor's chapel. Your chaplain supports the servant school; he'll be glad to loan us your chapel on the weekdays. And even if the gang should dare to attack a chapel that's within Doughoregan Manor, you have enough tenants, and enough servants working your fields, that we could all drive the gang away, just as you did today."
He didn't give Victor time to reply. Turning his head toward Earle, he said, "Victor is right. You're not a farmer, like your father was. You need to give up farming and go to university. The only way we're going to stop these burnings and murders is if we have the law wholeheartedly on our side. That means we need men on our side with knowledge of the law."
Earle stared, his sweat-dampened hair glistening under the afternoon light. Victor's cheeks were mottled red. The duke said, "Who the bloody blades do you think you are, telling two masters what to—?"
"Victor, shut your mouth!" In an instant, Earle turned upon him in fury.
Somehow, through the fog of darkness and pain, Sling managed to get to his feet. With his last, lingering energy, he met Victor's eyes again. "Who am I? Well, I'm not family. My mama never asked to be forced by Earle's father. I don't consider myself to be Earle's brother. And I'm certainly not servant to you, Master Starke or Duke of Howard or whatever you wish to call yourself—"
He had only proceeded that far when Victor turned away. His shoulders began to heave.
"Victor?" During Sling's speech, Earle's expression had turned to shock, but his voice was quiet as he leaned forward on his knees, trying to see Victor's face.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this." Victor's words were barely perceptible through his sobs.
"'It'?" Earle looked over at Sling, as though he expected the servant to understand.
Sling said nothing. Victor continued, "Peace. It was supposed to be better after peace came. That's what Thaddeus wrote to me, the day that he and Cornelius were both killed in the final battle of the war. He said that, once we'd driven away our Vovimian overlords, Mip would be at peace, and we'd have freedom again. That's what my brothers fought for. But I spend half my days trying to keep Vovimian masters and Yclau masters from killing each other in this duchy, while the other half of my days are spent trying to keep masters and servants from killing each other. And you're poor, and Sling is wounded, and both of you hate me." The penultimate word was a sob.
There was a long silence after that. The only sound, besides the creek gurgling and the horses nickering and the cicadas singing, came from the flag on the telegraph pole, flapping in the wind.
Finally Earle said, "Sling is right. The law is the key. Vovimian law oppresses the Yclau in Mip and brutalizes the slaves. Yclau's law is no better – it oppresses the Vovimians in Mip and does precious little to help the servants. We've been going back and forth for centuries now between Vovimian rule and Yclau rule, and we're no better for it than if we were all slaves."
Victor turned. His face was still wet with tears as he asked, "What can we do? If I give up power, then the lawless gangs and rebels will tear apart the lands around Doughoregan Manor . . . and then the Queen will simply give this land over to another Yclau aristocrat."
"We don't need overlords," said Sling slowly. His vision continued to alternate between light and dark, but this conversation was too important to allow himself to faint; he clung to the other young men's words, like a lifeline. "We don't need anarchy either. We need freedom."
His legs were beginning to shake, but he looked from Victor to Earle, intent upon getting his point across. "Freedom for all. No overlords, no masters. No one forced into service either. Yclau and Vovim need to give Mip its freedom. Let us make our own destiny, and let that destiny be founded on equality between our citizens."
Earle looked at Victor. Victor looked back at him. Both young men were gaping. Earle said, "Out of the mouth of a servant . . ."
". . . shall come wisdom." Victor completed the ancient Yclau saying, recited in its worship services. Then he emitted a sharp laugh. "Freedom for Mip. That's what my brothers died for, and your brother as well. Only they didn't take the fight for freedom far enough. Sweet blood." He spoke the sacred words reverently. "If we could find others who think that way. . ."
"You'd be willing to help?" Earle's voice was eager.
"Help?" Victor sounded fierce now. "If there's any hope of bringing peace to Mip and its people, I'd be willing to die for that. Sling, how would you like to head the Committee for Freedom, Equality, and Justice for Mippites?"
Now it was Sling's turn to stare. Victor laughed. Earle said, "Elections. We'll have to hold elections, once we've won our freedom."
"We'll have to make sure that our new committee chairman doesn't die," suggested Victor. "Come on, Sling." He placed an arm around Sling's back, just in time to prevent Sling from sliding to the ground. "Let's get you back to the manor. Earle, if you'll fetch the healer—"
Earle was already running for his horse.
The year 354, the eleventh month. (The year 1879 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
They heard the horses first. Faintly, through the cries of the children in the glade.
Only seven of the children had come. A three-year-old – skin "white as a clam," as Earle would have expressed it – tried to chase his three dark-skinned older brothers, who were ignoring him during their game of tag. Two dark-skinned girls, aged six and eight, played hopscotch upon the stones in the creek. And standing aside from them all was a boy with pale skin, lordly in his knowledge of his higher age – eleven – and also in the fact that he was of a higher generation, being the son of one of the men watching, rather than a grandson.
There was one boy there who had greater claim than the rest to approach the young lord – a nephew, in fact. But so far, the young lord's parents and grandparents had succeeded in concealing that information from the boy.
Leaning back in his chair, Josiah Merrick Freeman – "Sling" to his friends – watched with pride and joy the determined toddling of his youngest grandson, Merrick. Merrick never gave up. No matter how rapidly his older brothers raced, no matter how many times they pushed him away, young Merrick persisted in his goal of joining the game. A determined boy. Like his grandfather.
Like both his grandfathers.
Autumn leaf shadows dappled Merrick's creamy skin brown as he raced around the grove. The two girls – Earle's granddaughters – paused to watch Merrick. One of them whispered to the other. The second girl nodded. Sling tried to tamp down his uneasiness. To his own eyes, the resemblance between Merrick and his grandfather was manifest. To other eyes . . . Sling had recently advised his eldest son to move to the countryside near Frederick Town, which planned to rename itself as Mip City during the coming year. It was less likely that anyone in Mip City would make a connection between a mid-class family named Freeman and a prominent aristocratic family named Starke. Sling's eldest son – a man made fast-tempered by the scandalous rumors that had plagued his childhood – had readily agreed that this was wise. He, his wife, her aging parents, and the children had made their plans. They were only waiting now.
Waiting for Sling to die. The inheritance that would come from selling Sling's house would pay for their move from the district.
He felt, like a familiar friend, the pain in his side. It had never entirely left during these thirty-five years, and now death was growing from it, spreading to other parts of his body. The healers thought it unlikely he would live out the year. He hoped he would live a bit longer than that. Officially, the Emancipation would not take place until the new year, though already, on this month when the news was announced, the inhabitants of Mip had risen up as one in celebration – a joyous culmination of their bloodless fight of over three decades. Scarcely any Mippites would remain at work today.
It was almost frightening how quickly the word had been adopted: Mippites. No longer Yclau folk or Vovimians, living in a disputed territory. During the past thirty-five years – slowly at first, then with growing momentum – the men and women who lived in the territory of Mip had demanded the right to rule themselves.
"Prescott, look alive! Your neph— Your neighbor needs help. . . . He's gone and tumbled himself again," the Duke of Howard added in a mutter. His tenants and servants still called him that, out of courtesy, though foreign titles had ceased to mean anything during the past year, as it became clear that the Emancipation would arrive soon. Victor was frowning, in exactly the same manner as Merrick, who had tried to follow his young cousins onto the stones but had tumbled into the creek. Wet and bruised, Merrick was refusing to cry as Earle's girls comforted him with pats. Victor's son Prescott moved forward to offer belated assistance in extracting Merrick from the water. Merrick's brothers, after a hurried conference of whispers, decided to join the group – not because Prescott was beckoning to them, it was clear, but because they had taken a vote on the matter.
Sling looked over at Earle and found that he was leaning on his cane, ready to meet Sling's gaze with a smile. The bond between the three of them – Sling, Earle, and Victor – had continued during the past thirty-five years, through much change: Sling's years away in a servants' college, Earle and Victor's awkward and highly unsuccessful attempt to be love-mates, Earle's marriage to the girl he'd courted, Victor's two marriages, and, most threatening of all, Victor's impregnation of his first wife's maid. That incident had caused shouts between Earle and Victor that had threatened to extend the war between Vovim and Yclau for another thousand years.
Sling had resolved the crisis by marrying the maid. She needed a husband; he needed to keep the peace between Earle and Victor and himself. Mip's future depended on their alliance.
Now he watched as the children gathered together to help Merrick out of the creek. Earle's granddaughters and Victor's son Prescott were descended from masters. Merrick's brothers were descended from servants. Not even Prescott seemed aware that, by the old rules, he and the girls should have stood aside, issuing orders to Merrick's brothers. The division between master and servant remained in Mip, but it no longer had the hard, inflexible quality it had possessed two generations before.
"Stupid boy," said Victor, trying to sound indifferent as his grandson Merrick picked himself up. "Where's his sister? She usually keeps him in line."
"She stayed behind with the women at Doughoregan Manor," Sling replied. "It takes many hands to prepare the feast for the marchers. Listen, they're coming."
Faint as a hunter's horn came the sound of the band, travelling east from the new capital, Mip City. It had been agreed that the march would terminate at Doughoregan Manor, the largest house in what was already being called the Seat of Howard, though elections for Mip's seven magisterial representatives would not take place until the new year.
"Better head for the road," said Victor, turning Sling's wheeled invalid chair. Earle was already rounding up the excited children, handing them little flags to wave.
By the time their group reached the crossroads, the marching band was abreast. All along the National Turnpike, farmers and their families were cheering the parade. The children waved their tri-colored flags and shouted at the marchers. Sling knew that the new flag of the Magisterial Republic of Mip had been designed by Phill Thomas, Master Dorsey's former slave, who had become an artisan in Frederick Town. Across a field of red and blue blazed the green words of Mip's motto . . .
Sling's thoughts were jerked back to the parade, for now came the men and women who had led the fight for freedom: two generations of rebels, as well as the youngest generation, who had been taught to think of themselves as Mippite citizens. As the onlookers cheered their throats hoarse, the erstwhile rebels passed, accompanied by a few smiling officials from Vovim and Yclau, who had signed the joint treaty pledging never again to lay claim upon Mip, provided that the nation ruled itself.
And as each row of marchers passed, the marchers turned their heads and saluted the three old men at the crossroads: the founding members of the Committee for Freedom, Equality, and Justice for Mippites.
"Sling," said Earle quietly as he waved a hand in greeting to his eldest son, who was marching arm-in-arm with Merrick's father. "Thirty-five years ago, you told Victor and me that we weren't your family and we weren't your masters. You never completed that sentence. What did you mean to say?
Sling noticed that Victor was listening intently, though he was busy preventing young Merrick from being trampled by a Vovimian horse as Merrick reached up in an attempt to snatch a soldier's sword.
Sling furrowed his brow. That episode had taken place so long ago, and he had been in great pain. He was not even sure he'd possessed the words to complete the sentence.
But with more than three decades behind him, it was easy for him to know how the sentence should end. He looked at his two allies, the duke and the lawyer, both watching him, the college man who had returned to this district to the work he loved best: teaching illiterate servants how to read and figure and tell time.
"You aren't my family," Sling said. "And you aren't my masters. But I'm proud to call you my friends."
Beside them, atop the flagpole, the tri-colored flag of Mip shouted the republic's motto to its new citizens: Freedom For All.
Chapter 5: Historical Note
Like my other stories in the Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle, "Emancipation" takes place in an alternative version of America that was settled by inhabitants of the Old World in ancient times. As a result, the New World retains certain classical customs, such as slavery.
"Emancipation" is not, and cannot be, a story of the emancipation of our world's African-American slaves. Slavery and free-service in Sling's world are determined by the rank to which one is born, not the color of one's skin. However, geography shapes the form of slavery, and American geography – with its wide spaces – helped bring about the rise of plantations. Like Roman plantations, America's plantations needed to be tended by a large amount of cheap labor, which in turn encouraged slavery.
Therefore, since the geography in this story echoes that of America, I've drawn as deeply as I could on memoirs by, and interviews with, African-Americans who served as plantation slaves around the time of the Civil War, later gaining their freedom.
The two advertisements that appear in the story are lightly adapted from actual advertisements for a runaway slave and a runaway apprentice, as compiled by Joseph Lee Boyle in "Sly and Artful Rogues": Maryland Runaways, 1775-1781.
None of the characters in this story are real, though the name Sling is borrowed from a Maryland slave mentioned in the Work Project Administration's 1930s interviews with former slaves. The places in the story, on the other hand, are all alternative versions of locations in the State of Maryland. (Mip, incidentally, consists of western and central Maryland; its eastern border adjoins the western border of Baltimore County.)
The Duchy of Howard is known in our world as Howard County, Maryland. It is located between Baltimore County (to the east) and Frederick County (to the west).
Ellicott's Mills (its true name) eventually became Ellicott City. The town was founded in 1772 by three Quaker brothers who encouraged the studies of a self-taught scientist who lived in their area. One of the brothers, Andrew Ellicott, later hired the scientist to help survey the boundaries of the new District of Columbia. Scientist Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American, went on to publish an almanac and eventually become Ellicott City's most famous inhabitant.
Founded in 1880, Ellicott City Colored School – unlike countless other schools for free African-Americans – was never a victim of arson, but it was later abandoned. A researcher of black history stumbled across the school building in 1989. The former school is now a museum.
The Freedmen's Bureau actually existed. So did the United States government's practice of driving slaves off the farmland they had been previously promised by the government. The U.S. government returned that property to the former slave-owners and encouraged the freedmen to work for their former slave-owners.
Doughoregan Manor was and is the home of the Carroll family, prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Maryland politics. The manor was built in 1727 by Charles Carroll, who was descended from an Irish king. His son Charles Carroll II became one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. The manor and its large plantation were tended by slaves.
Doughoregan Manor was inherited in 1832 by Charles Carroll IV, who, like his grandfather Charles Carroll II, believed that slavery was wrong but could not bring himself to free his slaves. In his 1862 will, Charles Carroll IV said, in a manner that revealed all too clearly his biases, "I have always regarded slavery as a great evil, producing injury and loss in grain-growing States, to the whites principally, – an evil for which we are not responsible who now hold slaves, considering that God in His wisdom, placed them here, or permitted them to be introduced. My experience and full convictions are, that as long as we have that class of labor among us, they are as a mass better cared for and happier, than if they were free and providing for themselves. I therefore give all my slaves to my children, with these positive injunctions: that none of them shall be sold except among themselves, and except for those crimes for which they would be purchased by the laws of the State, and for gross insubordination. I also direct that they shall continue to have the advantages of the religious instruction they now receive, and their morals and habits be watched over like those of children. It may hereafter be found advisable to move them to the South to cultivate cotton, where the climate is more congenial to their health, while it removes them from the pernicious influences of the low whites who now corrupt them. In this way they may be made profitable, and eventually a fund provided to establish them at some future day in Africa or the West Indies. It is my wish that my children shall not transmit them to any of my grandchildren."
Two years later, before Charles Carroll IV's will could be fully executed, all the slaves in Maryland were emancipated.