August 3, 1720 -- Night
The Zen-Topple's barn was dark and crowded. Built to house the family's single cow, tools, and hay and fodder for the winter, it was bursting to the seems with fifty five people -- fourty-nine recently escaped slaves and their liberators -- plus the cow, and our heroes. A single rawhide lantern, lit by a single candle, stood flickering on a overturned bucket in the center of the barn.
The slaves, all women and children, were huddled and frightened. The party's last few hours together with them had shown that not one of them spoke English -- though some of their words sound English-ish. Hours of standing half-naked in the sun prior to the auction, followed by a couple hours of running had left most of them exhausted, and they now sat dozing in huddled piles on the ground, the loft, and atop hay bales.
A sharp knock on the door warned our heroes of the arrival of Jeremiah Pinkerton, who, in harsh whispers informed Tess that the riot in the town had been dealt with and that now the searchers -- the slavers, the militia, the constabulary, and even some of the plantation owners' own men -- were out in force searching for the remaining escaped slaves, and also for Amos and Thond, who were wanted for the murder of three guards.
While it was obvious they could not hide fifty people in the small barn for long, where to go was subject to much debate. Zibbler pointed out that many of the native tribes occasionally accepted strays -- both of African and European descent -- but that they also kept slaves themselves, and had treaties with the colony that might cause them to turn over (or sell back) escapees. The debate was conveniently ended for them, when Tess spotted the flicker of torches through the open loft window.
A quick peak outside showed ten armed men coming around the side of Zibbler's parents' house and heading for the barn. Amos said they should bar the barn door and run out through the back, but Zibbler reminded him that the barn was designed to lock animals in, not lock people out. A wagon wheel, some cast-off chains from the slaves, and some assistance from Tess soon had a jury-rigged lock in place. By the time the first inquisitive bang on the barn door was heard, the slaves had several boards pried off the back wall of the barn and were streaming out into the night lead by Liadan and Sara.
Tess tried to instruct everyone to stay quiet and stick to the shadows, but fifty people are hard to hide. They had barely gotten the last person out of the barn when a shout from the side indicated that they had been spotted. Ten men rounded the corner of the barn slowly, torches held high and squinting into the darkness. Needing no further encouragement, the slaves and their liberators dashed into the woods north of Zibbler's farm.
The warm August night was lit by a nearly full moon, only partly obscured by clouds, and the flashing of fireflies clinging to the shrubberies and the under-canopy of the trees. The slaves ran as fast as they could in the dim light, the older women herding the boys and girls ahead of them. The men pursued cautiously, their sight hampered as much by the glare from their torches as the slaves were by their absence, spreading out to form a long horizontal line and beating the bushes as they advanced into the wood.
As they ran, Zibbler, Liadan, and Tess urged the others on and dropped to the back of the pack. With a wave of his hands, Zibbler dropped a globe of darkness that neither moon nor torch could penetrate between themselves and their pursuers. At the same time, Tess conjured up a quartet of lights, flaring up light freshly lit lanterns, that went dancing off out of the side of the darkness, heading east as the slaves turned to the west, and accompanied by illusory sounds of running feet courtesy of Liadan. Nearly half of their pursuers veered off after the phantom lights.
Sara, now in the lead, saw a rise in the land and guessed it to be the swale of the creek that fed water to Zibbler's farm, and which ran directly into the Rapidan River west of them. Cresting the rise, she motioned vigorously for the fleeing slaves to duck into the swale and keep low. Thus partly concealed, they followed the creek, sticking to the shallow water to cover their tracks.
Catching up to Sara and the slaves, Zibbler and Tess stopped and made a quick trip-snare from a few young green trees across the path behind them.
Liadan, seeing an owl perched in a nearby tree, hooted at it to "defend it's nest from the interlopers". The owl, clearly seeing a pack of fifty-plus mammals rampaging through its hunting grounds, dived at the slaves, raking a boy with his claws. "No, no!" Liadan hooted back, "the ones with the lights. Over there..." The impassioned correction worked, and the owl turned around to begin dive-bombing the men chasing them.
The creek ended at the Rapidan, descending in a series of small waterfalls to the river. The river was nearly two hundred feet wide at this point, and running fairly fast. Zibbler pointed out that there were some rocks, a bit of a natural weir, about a hundred yards upstream of the creek, that he had used to cross the river when he was a young man. Leaving the creek, he lead the way south to the rocks.
As they left the creek-bed, one of their pursuers, who had been following the southern bank of the swale, spotted them. Zibbler attempted to cross, but slipped on the wet rocks and fell into the water. While the river was not particularly deep, it soon became clear that none of the party actually knew how to swim.
With their pursuers now bearing down on them, the slaves panicked and began to scatter. Tess, angered, stormed back towards the five men still chasing them, planted herself directly in their path, and read them the riot act about their mistreatment of women and children.
Chagrined, the man in charge of their pursuers, whom she recognized as one of her father's co-workers from the mines, and probably under indenture himself, blustered and sputtered for a bit before finally acquiescing. "Sigh. A'right. I'm more worried about that dwarf and the big negro that killed them guards than you and your runaways. You seen 'em?"
Tess and company glanced around, confirming that Amos and Thond had slipped off on their own before Tess replied flatly, "No." Liadan added that she had seen the fight, and that none of them here had been involved, and had, in fact, fled from the auction in the opposite direction of where Amos and Thond had been fighting with the guards.
There was some skeptical harrumphing, but the militia-men finally nodded their ascent. "A'right. We didn't see you. Take your niggers and get out of here while you can." Thus mollified, the men turned and trotted away.
With the immediate danger averted, they rounded up the slaves and began looking for a place to rest for the night. Obviously they could not go back to Zibbler's barn, or anywhere near Germanna, as it was unlikely that any other groups of searchers would be so sympathetic. Sara looked across the river and pointed out that the terrain in that direction was both hillier, and also forested, and would likely provide ample places to hide.
Zibbler lead them a mile further upstream to Germanna Ford. There, the river widened and slowed around a series of small islands, making it quite easy to cross. Once across, they turned back to the north and trekked for another hour or so before finding a secluded hollow between two hills. The mass of people started a few fires to dry off, then promptly passed out from exhaustion.
August 4, 1720
It was nearing noon when Liadan, Tess, Zibbler, and Sara awoke the next day. Amos and Thond had wandered in during the night, explaining that they had shaken their own pursuers and swam the river further downstream, then followed the smoke from their fires. The former-slaves appeared to be settling in, the boys gathering stout sticks and playing at fighting, while the girls and women were huddled around the fires, roasting what appeared to be chickens. In fact, their camp appeared to be overrun with chickens -- not wild game hens either, but the fat-breasted domestic variety.
"I'm the pied-piper of chickens," Liadan mused.
Unable to speak with the slaves, the unseelie maid struck up a conversation with one of the birds. It soon became clear, however, that their was some strange connection between the chickens and the slave-mothers, as the women appeared to pay undo attention to the strange, clucking conversation, and the birds (those not being eaten) seemed to mimic the posture and movements of the women.
Liadan translated what she could of the chicken conversation for the others. The slaves were both grateful for their liberation and also strangely comforted by Liadan's fae heritage. It seemed their home tribe, a people called the Temne, lived near the borders of Faerie, high in the mountains of their native Guinea and Sierra-Leone, and had close dealings with the Fae Lords. They were curious if their liberators had any real plan of what to do next, but were determined, one way or another, not to allow themselves or their children to be taken as slaves again.
Since they could not go back into the village, nor likely join the nearest native tribes, Liadan suggested that they head west, over the mountains, and found their own colony. The others bandied ideas about: Could they declare themselves a colony of the Fae Courts? Organize themselves as a clan and have Sara teach them the ways of the ninja to fight back against the slavers? Found their own sovereign state and refuge for other escaped slaves? Become trappers, live in caves, and sell pelts to the Swift Run trading post?
Eventually the discussion turned to more practical matters -- namely their lack of food and supplies for so many people. Zibbler still had a letter of credit from the auctioneers and proposed going into town and trying to cash it in to buy whatever food he could (without making it obvious that he was feeding a bevy of runaway slaves). Tess, likewise, said she would like to go into town and try to meet up with her father to ask for advice. Liadan said she'd stay behind to keep an eye on things, while Sara helped the boys craft strange weapons by connecting two lengths of wood with the chains from their manacles -- something she called 'noon-chuck-oo'.
Tess and Zibbler walked the five miles to the town together, then split at the walls. Confident that he would not be suspected of the "theft" of the slaves, Zibbler walked right in and headed for the square where the auction had taken place. The tables where the auction-clerks had taken his deed of trust the day before had been converted to a kind of war-room, with a map of the county spread out on it, and the Count, several of his knights, the auctioneers, and the heads of the militia and constabulary standing around discussing where to continue the search for the escapees.
Zibbler marched right up to David Deas, the auctioneer, and handed him the letter of credit he had been issued the day before, demanding that he be recompensed in cash. The auctioneer shrugged him off gruffly, complaining that he had just lost more than 600£ (12,000s) in merchandise. The auctioneer rifled through his bag and shoved the deed for "your shit little farm in the middle of no-where" back into Zibbler's hands. Zibbler, wisely, excused himself.
Zibbler had the deed to his farm back, but was left without resources to acquire the supplies the group needed. Heading back towards his home, he passed the large farm belonging to Sir John Fontaine, who was not only wealthy, but well known for never being home. Trying his luck, he walked up to the front door and was greeted by Sir John's valet and household manager, himself a slave.
They exchanged small-talk, and the valet expressed his condolences for the failing health of Zibbler's parents, then Zibbler got down to business, explaining that he had to make a long journey to find medicinal herbs for his parents and was hoping to sell off the farm to pay for the expedition. Given that Sir John was himself a traveler, and owned such a large estate so close to his own, he thought Sir John might be willing to buy it. After a bit of haggling, Sir John's valet agreed to trade the deed for one of their larger (but older) wagons, a pair of young steer they had been training to the yoke together, and basic provisions for both Zibbler and the animals. He asked surprisingly few questions.
Tess, meanwhile, had snuck into town and found her father at the very same table where Zibbler had confronted the auctioneers. Getting as close as she dared, she listened in to hear them discussing the searchers who had returned empty handed from Zibbler's farm and the western part of the county, though one group said they had chased the slaves east before losing them. The Count gave orders to concentrate their search to the east, and to send riders to the Nantaughtacund, Doeg, and Patawomeck indians, suspecting that the slaves might try to integrate themselves with one of the nearer tribes.
Though still wanting to speak with her father, his obligatory involvement in the search for her lead Tess to abandon that plan. She rushed back to the camp to inform the others that the slavers would be busy to the east, at least for a time, giving them more of a headstart if they stuck with the plan to head west. She passed Zibbler and his new wagon and team of oxen at the ford and the two proceeded to the camp together.
There, they quickly rounded up everyone else, broke camp, and were underway by nightfall, picking their way along game-trails towards the unexplored mountains to the west...
To be continued...